Category Archives: Politics

And if there isn’t a democratic solution…?

On my bicycle commute today I stopped along a trail for a moment – okay, it was to step behind some trees to pee – and I’d been listening to the haunting Radiolab podcast Dark Side of the Earth. I had just heard David Wolf’s account of spacewalking outside the Mir spacecraft with fellow astronaut Anatoly Solovyev, a moment during which they floated in their suits and stared away from Earth into the depths of the universe, with Solovyev telling Wolf to just relax – “расслабься.”

I had to pause the podcast and take out my earbuds to remove my neckwarmer, and I was suddenly in this stirring spring moment, beside a river, with songbirds all around, the sky a crisp blue. It was one of those abruptly sublime moments that take you by surprise and leave you dumbstruck, floating in a moment unencumbered by thought.

After a minute or so, as usually happens, the experience became polluted by exterior concerns, among them: I should take a video of this, I’m late for work, I need to blog about this…but these thoughts were followed by the most disturbing of all – that all this, all the wonder of this world, right now, right this minute, is in peril. The beauty of the instant both bolstered and destroyed by the tenuousness of it.

I experienced a moment of recognition that the planet’s prospects are extremely dire if we do not aggressively pursue significant change.

It brought to me thoughts of the recent defeat of stricter gun law legislation in the United States senate, this landmark moment that illustrates how our society is actually governed, not with the intent of preserving and enhancing the things that are good for us – our safety, health, and environment – but rather to support the means and ends of one tiny group of unbelievably selfish entities – the multinational corporations, and the ultra-wealthy people who run them. Everything of human agency, everything political, is now catered almost exclusively to a few thousand wealthy psychopaths, whose only concern is to maintain and augment their wealth regardless of the cost to life, to the natural world, and to the welfare of the rest of us. Make no mistake: the NRA-influenced Senate buyoff is simply an overt representation of how democracies now function, that is, with politicians acting almost entirely for the interests of their financial backers – those that contribute significantly to their election campaigns.

This is state-sanctioned bribery at the highest level, and it can only be changed by those in power, i.e., incumbent politicians. The problem of course is that politicians who vote to fix the system risk defeat in the next election cycle when their backers find compliant candidates who will legislate their will. Newcomers who oppose the bribery system stand no chance of being elected without funding from players in the bribery system.

So if there’s no chance of a democratic solution, what’s left? I hate to say it, but logic dictates that if there is no democratic solution, we must either endure the system as it stands (at least until the consequences of the status quo come to bear, which they will – I’m thinking here of climate change), or bring about transformation through non-democratic means. It’s the reason I feel so compelled by this new feature film, The East – in concept it represents a radical course of action for a world that has lost its ability to create policies for anyone but the rich.

I guarantee this film will make more than a few corporate executives uncomfortable.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating for violent change. I abhor violence – in fact, violence, as seen in the empire-building efforts of the Bush II White House, is simply another tool of the wealthy to spread their influence. But I do believe it is the course that will be taken by individuals and groups if the political situation does not soon change. People are becoming desperate – from poverty, injustice, climate change – and these are only going to get worse. Desperate people are dangerous. The wealthy are desperate themselves, desperate to maintain control, desperate to increase their obscene wealth. This is their psychosis.

The alternative is that the natural world will bite back. We cannot destroy the world. But we can damage it enough that it will ruin civilization. This is the path we’re on. I have children, I wish I was wrong. I can find little evidence that I am not.

Think of it this way: wouldn’t you love to watch a nature program or IMAX film about some startling species or gorgeous ecosystem without the inevitable warning from the narrator about the multiple threats to its existence? But you always see it coming, despite the grace of the whales or the vitality of the African savannah – the big “but” in the program, when we are told of dwindling numbers or the encroachment of oil companies.

I want to experience the world not as something threatened, and probably doomed, but as a place both beautiful and perpetual. A lot of political change has to happen before we get there. And if that change doesn’t come democratically, it will come violently. With violence from the planet. And violence from the people, either independently, or in association with disruptions of climate.

In other words – either we end the influence of wealth on our political system so we can pursue what’s right for the people and the planet, or we suffer violent consequences. I’d rather do it on our own terms, before it’s too late. Is there a way?

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The Austerity Myth

Harper's cover Oct 2012

“The problem is that although austerity may work for individuals, it seldom works for economies. To the contrary, frequently it makes matters worse. If all individuals tighten their belts, demand for goods and services will fall, workers will be fired, and demand will fall even more. Business won’t invest without growing sales: this was Keynes’s message in a nutshell. He argued that government had to supply the spending for goods and services that would restore incentives to invest, while simultaneously lowering interest rates. Rather than adjusting down, unemployment could stay high indefinitely.”
~Jeff Madrick, “The Austerity Myth,” Harper’s Magazine: October 2012

Note that it’s rich people telling everyone else they need to tighten their belts. Let the rich tighten their own goddamn belts.

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Cons Say: “Liberals Are Selfish”

You may be poor, but not as poor as the uncalibrated picture on the left.

This morning I listened to This American Life’s episode #478: Red State Blue State about rifts in families and friendships caused by clashing politics. On it, we heard from a Republican woman who cannot fathom her friend’s Democratic views because, to paraphrase, “she’s not selfish, but liberals are selfish.”

This is standard rightwing fodder, the idea that liberals want “free handouts,” etc. I recall when I used to dog conservatives on forums for right-leaning news sites (where the cons were relentless at responding – I always had to get back to my job, don’t they have jobs?), and whenever I supported some liberal policy I’d invariably be accused of being a welfare recipient (which I’ve never been, btw). The idea here is clear: that I had to be defending liberal policies because I was benefiting from them, i.e., only someone on welfare would support welfare.

And I had an epiphany. Conservatives cannot conceive of the idea that someone would support policies that aren’t of direct benefit to themselves, because conservatives only support policies that are of direct benefit to themselves. The idea that I want systems in place to help the poor because I care about the poor can’t even enter their consciousness. It causes a short circuit in their thinking, because they themselves are incapable of thinking in this way. Help other people? How exactly does that work?

The TAL episode fascinated me because a conservative relative of mine and I have clashed in email (he usually sends me some spurious anecdote “all in fun,” which I subsequently attack with logic “all in fun,” and then his wife emails and tells me to stop upsetting him), and ultimately his arguments can be boiled down to how he doesn’t want his taxes to support liberal schemes. In other words, he wants to keep more cash for himself, to spend on things like a $400 specialized calibration of his plasma TV (true story).

So answer me this question, ye conservatives: what is more selfish, to agree to spread one’s own wealth to improve the lives of all people and society in general, or to keep one’s money to get a prettier TV picture?

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Voting, or, Pushing a Whale

whale rescue

from Barotrauma, © Capt. David Williams

A recent Freakonomics podcast explained that economists do not vote, because, according to Steve Levitt, “there never has been, and there never will be, a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive.”

He’s wrong. Think of voting like “pushing a whale.” A whale* washes up on a beach. The townspeople collect, and determine that the whale can be saved if she is pushed back into the sea. And collectively they push, they shove, they haul. More people join, and eventually, there are enough hands pushing, and the whale is successfully returned to the water, where she swims off with a departing, appreciative flap of her flukes.

No single person was decisive in saving the whale. But the whale could not have been saved without the effort of the minimum number of pushers required to move that whale.

When you vote, you are part of the group, working together to achieve a goal. Each person who joins in strengthens the effort. You are being decisive.

The difference between the whale and the election: while it’s clear when your collective is big enough to push the whale (it moves, or it doesn’t), you don’t know whether your single vote is necessary to bring victory to your candidate. Win or lose, you’ll never know**. But does that mean you should sit there on a beach chair like Steve Levitt, eating chicken wings, watching everyone else do the work? Absolutely not. In fact, not knowing if your effort is needed makes your vote even more important.

So head on down to that whale, and push, dammit! Vote!

*For you conservatives who don’t give a shit about the whale, try replacing “whale” with something you love, e.g., “oil tanker.”

**Disregard polls. They only predict the outcome insomuch as they make people enact it.

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9-11 Revenge

According to the Costs of War project, which continues to assess the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, the death toll attributable to direct violence from these wars currently stands at 300,000. The death toll from the 9-11 attacks was approximately 3000. This would put the “revenge ratio” at 100-to-1.

While the Nazis were known to protect their soldiers in occupied areas by enforcing a policy of disproportionate revenge killing of civilians, the Kragujevac massacre of 1941 is notable as an example because it was enacted with a 100-to-1 revenge ratio. This ratio was considered by the Nazis who organized it as “particularly harsh.”

While I abhor what happened on 9-11, I cannot believe that any victim of this atrocity would rest in peace knowing that for her or his own death, 100 people – that vast majority of them entirely innocent, and many of them children – would be violently murdered in a multi-year campaign of revenge.

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