About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Mercy Seat


For many years now, I have been staunchly opposed to the death penalty, and after the shootings in Aurora, I am even more adamant about the issue.    

I did not always hold that view, in fact, when I was an undergrad, I was fully in support of capital punishment.  Not only did I support it, I favored expanding it to child abusers, pedophiles and rapists.  I felt, and still do in fact, that we don't need people like that on the planet.  It was probably my only real flirtation with conservative beliefs.

My shift to being against the death penalty was not an instant conversion, but a slow evolution.  I started questioning it when I began to realize that proof is a moving target.  Eye witnesses can be wrong and circumstantial evidence can mislead.  In short, I began to become concerned that the things being asserted in the courtroom as absolute, incontrovertible fact, were often not.  This fear was borne out in the number of completely innocent death row inmates being exonerated by DNA evidence. 

Also contributing to this shift was the realization of the racial inequality of the application of capital punishment.  Far more black men are sentenced to die than white men.  When you look at serial killers, who are mostly white, and even though this is the group that most certainly would deserve the death penalty, a very small number of them are actually sentenced to die.  On the other hand, black gang members, who's guilt I should note is often less certain than serial killers, are more likely to face execution.  If you look at the statistics of men currently sitting on death row, you will find that minorities far exceed whites, even though, by definition, they are a significantly smaller demographic group.  And I should note, statistically they no more likely than whites to commit murder.  Because of this, there should logically be many more whites on death row if there was not a racial component.

Additionally, I became concerned about the application of the death penalty to people who were mentally incapable of understanding what was going on.  This includes both the intellectually disabled as well as people who were legally children at the time of the commission of the crime.  Most appalling was the case of George Stinney who was executed at the age of 14 for a crime that almost certainly he did not commit.  Executing the incompetent and minors is in itself almost criminal

But my growing concerns went past the unequal and problematic application of the death penalty.  In researching this issue, I learned some disturbing facts.  First, there is no proof that executing criminals acts as a deterrent for anyone other than the specific person killed.  Certainly, someone put to death will commit no more crimes, but it does not impact the crime rate in any other way.  In fact, the only way that it would impact crime rates would be to begin to apply it to all crimes.  Essentially, if we killed all criminals, rather than paroling them, then we would actually affect crime rates.  But short of that horrifying and barbaric application, the death penalty does not really lower the amount of crime.  And even then, across the board life imprisonment would accomplish the same goal without resorting to state sanctioned murder.

Second, the United States is one of only two industrialized, modern countries that still perform executions; Japan is the other one.  Our company in executions includes such human rights paragons as China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.  In fact, other than Mother Russia, most of the former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine have completely outlawed it.  The rest have essentially a de facto ban on the practice.  For a country that prizes it's record on human rights, in this particular case, we seem to be hanging around with the wrong crowd.

Third, the death penalty is extremely expensive.  This seems a bit counter-intuitive, because once a person is dead and buried, there is no more expense, while housing someone for the rest of their natural life is an open-ended cost.  However, to work through the full slate of appeals, clemency hearings and other legal maneuvers necessary before an execution, decades can elapse.  A number of people on death row have actually died naturally before their executions.  Also, when you factor in the costs for all of those legal proceedings, the cost greatly exceeds incarceration. 

California publishes statistics on this cost.  The capital punishment system costs the state an average of $137 million dollars per year, and would cost $232 million annually if the system were made genuinely fair.  On the other hand, the cost of a life without parole sentence for the same group would run about $11 million per year.  In short, abandoning the death penalty would save that nearly bankrupt state somewhere between $126 and $221 million per year.

All of these factors, the possibility of executing an innocent person, the discrimination, the lack of actual deterrence, the types of countries that still execute and the incredible cost of the entire process have combined to turn me into an opponent of the death penalty.

And before I proceed, I want to point out an informal fallacy that many people throw at me about my beliefs, since I do support abortion rights.  They ask how I can reconcile my acceptance of "killing babies" with my opposition to executing criminals.  I actually had to work through that one, because I had always felt that, even though I disagreed with the Catholic Church on their positions, at least they were logically consistent in opposing both abortion and capital punishment.

However, I have since realized that this is a false equivocation.  Even though they seem similar on the surface, specifically both terminate life, they are actually quite different and cannot be equated.  The circumstances  surrounding the two result in an inability to compare them: for example, one is the government making the decision to end a life; the other is a woman having the right to control her own body.  You are not inconsistent to be Pro-Choice and anti-death penalty.  Similarly, you can be for Capital Punishment and Anti-Abortion.  The two are excusive situations and cannot be conflated.

That said, I want to return to why the massacre at the Century 16 makes me even more opposed to the Death Penalty, since that does not seem to be a logical outcome from those horrifying events.  Because James Holmes is obviously guilty, very likely sane, and the perpetrator of the worst mass shooting in American history, you would think if anyone deserved the death penalty, he would.  Even a staunch opponent to executions can see that this is a quantitatively different scenario than most death penalty cases.

And to that I would say, yes, he does deserve to die for what he has done, but sometimes we don't and can't get what we deserve.  And sometimes, we have to forego one satisfaction for a more significant, but less obvious one.

James Holmes should not face the death penalty because it will play into his hands of exactly what he wants.  I'm not saying he wants to die, in fact, I doubt he actually does.  What I do know he wants is publicity.  The fact that he did what he did, in the manner he did it in, and with his fixation with the Joker tells me that he is seeking the limelight.  He wants to be a villain on the order of the fictional Joker, and I do not want to see him get that satisfaction.

If he faces the death penalty, the trial will stretch on for a very long time, probably in televised hearings and trials, allowing him to put out his story and have his face plastered across every media outlet in this country and possibly the rest of the world.  Then, once the trial is concluded, and he is sentenced to die, we will have the mandatory appeals process, the Supreme Court review, the requests for clemency, the sanity hearings, and the rest of the circus that revolves around a death penalty case.  All of these things will keep him front and center in the news cycles.  His story will get told over and over.  And, given what I have seen so far, that's exactly what he wants.  He isn't spitting on guards to show his contempt, he's doing it to get another story in the paper.

His crime is narcissistic and evil.

And the best punishment for such a criminal is to sink into obscurity.  Let him become a nearly impossible trivia question for "Geeks who Drink."  Remove him from out national consciousness.  Don't hate him, because he will thrive on that hatred.

Forget him; it is the worst punishment we can inflict.  

"In Heaven His throne is made of gold
The ark of his Testament is stowed
A throne from which I'm told
All history does unfold.
Down here it's made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away. 
Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile"
                 Nick Cave - "The Mercy Seat"

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Spectre at the Feast


Let the acrimony and recriminations begin; let us point fingers and begin the most important task in these sorrowful times - assigning blame.  We need to figure out who is responsible for this horrible deed, because obviously there are accomplices who need to be rooted out and punished.

Every time there is a national tragedy, we engage in this blame game  We seek out or create villains in order to be able to dump the nightmare at their feet.  Tragedy becomes a political football, perfect for scoring points against all opponents. 

"This is proof of the war against Judeo-Christianity," said Congressman Gohmert.  "It is the sign of a broken mental health system," according to a HuffPo columnist.  "It happened because we have too much gun control," cries the NRA.  "No, it is because we don't have enough," claims Senator Lautenberg. "It is because we have lost the Christian rudder that steers the country," as countless letter writers to the Denver Post feel.

We search frantically, desperately to find some reason to explain this mass murder, and all such events.  There has to be a reason, some hook to explain the evil that men do.  There have to be collaborators and facilitators, who create an environment to allow them to do it in.  There have to be some motivational factors that spurred the actions.

All of this is wrong.

Sometimes people are evil just because they are evil.  To quote Barbara Hambly, "The question is always the answer if you need one badly enough."  Sometimes there are just evil people in the world who do evil things.

This is a very hard concept to stomach.  It implies that things can be senseless, unpreventable and unpredictable.   It means that we can't always keep bad things from happening, and it means that when they do happen, sometimes we will never understand why.

These thoughts throw our well ordered world into chaos, which is what Christopher Nolan's rendering of the Joker represents.  He is the agent of Chaos.

And by adopting that persona, James Holmes also became the agent of chaos.

I am not saying that he didn't have his reasons for his violent attack on innocent movie patrons, maybe he is insane, maybe he was on drugs, maybe he was acting out some sort of sick fantasy, maybe he was just trying to get revenge for some imagined slight.  However, just like we never learn why the fictional Joker rampaged through Gotham City, we may never learn why the man who claimed to be the Joker went on a real rampage in an Aurora movie theatre.  Maybe there is no rational explanation for why James Holmes viciously shot 71 people in cold blood. 

And this reality makes it that much more terrifying. 

A few years ago, I watched an episode of the BBC series "Torchwood," which normally revolved around finding and stopping alien attacks on humans, sort of a dark and twisted "X-Files" meets "Men in Black."  In the episode "Countrycide," the team investigates a series of disappearances, murders and cannibalistic acts that are so gruesome and evil that they assume that only an alien could be responsible; they were just too inhuman.  In the end though, the monster was a human family, and the instigator was the father.  He was the most vicious monster in any episode of the entire series.  When he was asked why he did it, his chilling response was, "It made me happy."

That was it, no further explanation or examination, no deeper message.  He did it simply because it gave him pleasure.  His simple statement still gives me chills, because it is at once both absolutely inhuman and utterly human.  The cold, calculating evil revealed resides in the human race, and we see it over and over again, and yet we cannot bear to look at it, because we see ourselves reflected in the face of evil.

So we have to explain it away, because otherwise it becomes a mirror of our own souls.  We all have the capacity for unlimited grace and absolute evil, but this is not something we can admit to ourselves and so we have to come up with other rationalizations.  This process leads us into completely unhelpful dialogs that distract us from the evil men do.

In order to show how these are distractions, I'll quickly poke holes in the top arguments that I laid down earlier.  To do that, I'll run though some counter arguments. 

"This is proof of the war against Judeo-Christianity."  I'm not actually going to even dignify this one, simply because it is a straw man.  As such, it is not worthy of comment.

"It is the sign of a broken mental health system."  How do we know he was insane?  One of his former professors said he was the "top of the top."  Yes, he was antisocial and a loner, but unless social disconnection becomes a mental illness in it's own right, this does not prove he was unhinged.  The incredible exactness of his plan and execution of it does not indicate a disordered mind.  We do need better mental health care in this country, but this massacre is not a foundation for why we need to make the system better.

"It happened because we have too much gun control."  No, not at all.  My father was an army major, and a strong advocate of gun control.  His reasoning, which I have not heard enough from the politicians, was very simple.  Soldiers and police officers go through intense training to know how to use their weapon in a high pressure situation, which is very different than hunting or being on the gun range.  Even with all of their training, you still get a lot of friendly fire accidents and collateral damage.  Imagine several armed people shooting in a fear situation in a darkened theatre.  There would be a lot more than twelve casualties.  Adding more guns into the mix would have resulted in more, not fewer, deaths.

"It is because we don't have enough gun control."  Also, a true concept in some ways, but utterly inapplicable in this situation for two reasons.  First, James Holmes never did anything in his life that would put him on the radar as someone who shouldn't be able to buy a gun: he didn't have a criminal record; he had never been treated for mental health issues; and he had never indicated that he was a threat to anyone.  Second, even with the best gun control in the world, a truly determined person will be able to get his hands on some sort of weapon.  If he hadn't been able to get a semi-automatic, he probably would have used more bombs, and made them deadly.  He obviously had the skills to do so.  The means might have differed, but the end would have been the same.

"It is because we have lost the Christian rudder that steers the country."  Christianity is not the only moral compass, all religious systems try to impart a rigid system of ethics and morality.  Also all religions have their murderous nutcases, just look at David Koresh or Osama Bin Laden.  Both of them were extremely fundamentalist and devout in their religious beliefs, and yet they caused more deaths that James Holmes.  Besides, this country was never founded in Christianity.  Remember, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights was a Deist, not a Christian.

So all of these frames that we try to construct to explain the crime are probably not accurate, they are only a means to advance a political agenda, and as such not worthy of further discussion.  We can justifiably look at a culture of violence or the motivations of the killer, but even these don't necessarily explain anything.  

Until or unless we get a statement from the criminal himself, we will never know his motivation.  Also remember, if he is setting himself as the Joker, anything that comes out of his mouth cannot be assumed to be true or valid.  Similarly, any explanation we give it is our own projections on his psyche, which also has no authenticity.

Therefore, we are left with the spectre at the feast, he did it because he wanted to, and because he was evil, amoral and twisted.  It is not a demonic evil, it is a human evil.  It is an evil that we can all understand, although most of us will never dance with it.  And no matter what we do, that evil will still exist in some of us, you will never stop it.

And because of that, we have to face an even more unpleasant truth than the fact that people are capable of real evil, and we will never know why.  We have to accept, no matter what we do, bad things will happen, people will be killed and villains will walk the earth.

All we can hope for is that most of the times the monsters will be stopped before people die.  All we can if they are not is band together and support each other.  Pointing fingers and laying blame does not heal us.  Bad things will happen, no matter where the blame lies. There is nothing we can do about it except stop blaming and start supporting those who are hurting.  Our accusations don't make their recovery any easier.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Immediacy of Tragedy


As you are probably aware of by now, there was a horrific mass shooting in Colorado last night, possibly one of the worst mass murders in American history.  I am not going to explore the rationale behind this senseless act nor am I going to explore societal dysfunctions that led to this nightmare.

I cannot even begin to explain it, nor can I even begin to comprehend it.  Perhaps later I will be able to look at it, examine it and process it, but for now, I cannot.  The horror is too fresh.

What I am going to explore is my reaction to the shootings, and try to understand why I reacted this way, and using my reaction as a vehicle, try to understand why we, as Coloradoans react to tragedy in the way we do.

My first thought, when I heard about the shootings, was to wonder if my friend Johnny was OK.  Why was that my first thought?  The Century 16 is the closest movie theatre to his house, he is the sort of person who goes to midnight showings of movies, and the Dark Night Rises is the sort of movie he likes.  Hence my concern that he might have been there.  He wasn't, nor was anyone else I know, but I had to call to find out.

But still, why did I even begin to mentally place a friend of mine in the heart of the unfolding tragedy?

Was is pessimism?  A bleak world view?  Some deep seated fear mechanism?

Not really, but I didn't begin to figure out what was going on until I told my roommate that Johnny was OK and he wasn't at the theatre.  (My roommate had met him last New Year's eve, although that was his only interaction with him.)  He responded that he wouldn't have even assumed that he was there, or worried about it, unless he had known positively that someone he knew was actually going to be there.

So what was going on here?  This isn't the first time this has happened to me; calling someone in a disaster or tragedy to make sure that they were alright.  Why do I make that assumption?

And as I began to examine it, I began to understand, I have a small town mentality.  Whenever anything bad happens, and someone I care about is near that place, I worry that they might be involved.  In a small town, where you literally know everyone in the town, whenever anything bad happens, you know someone involved in it.  The tornado ripping though town destroys the houses of people you know, the woman who dies from cancer babysat you as a child, the car accident on the edge of town will have injured a friend.

In a small town, everything is personal, because all tragedy is immediate.

But then I asked myself, "Why do I have this mindset?"  It's not like Denver is a small town; with 3 million people, it is the 17th largest metropolitan area in the country, and between East Texas and the Pacific Coast, only Phoenix is larger.

Examining this deeper, I realized that my mindset comes from how the West developed, and how it still is structured today.  The Intermountain West is one of the most empty areas of the country.  There are only five major cities in the entire region, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.  Beyond that, there are only two other places that qualify as metro areas, Tucson and Colorado Springs.  The rest of the land, which is roughly half of the landmass of the continental United States, is made up of small, widely spaced towns.  Even Grand Junction, which is a center of activity has less than 50,000 residents, most places have less than ten thousand.

The West is a land of small, tightly knit communities.  Out here, with all of the hardships of living in a place where you have to have community to survive, people are irreplaceable.  It's not that we value life more than in other places, in fact, perhaps more than most, we recognize how fleeting it is.  Instead, it is the fact that without others, life is impossible.  The idea of the rugged, individualist mountain man is something of a myth.  Of course they existed, but they were the exception, not the rule.

The reality of it is, to survive out here, you need people.  We do have a wide streak of independence, so the proper etiquette in this part of the world is to offer help, not to ask for it.  And because we have to work together this has led to a distinctly different character than is found in other parts of the country.  In the West, a person is respected for their deeds not for their position; we are far more casual and egalitarian in all of our relationships; we are somewhat more nosy in order to be able offer help when needed, since we do not ask for it; and ultimately because of these things, we generally don't put a lot of stock in what the rest of the country thinks of us, because they rarely do.

This mindset means that people are extremely important.  We worry about hurting someone's feelings, because hurt feelings can cause problems in the tight knit community fabric.  We are concerned about the welfare of those around us, because we want them to be concerned about ours.  In short, the traditional Western character lives and dies by the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you should wish they do unto you."  And because of this, the bonds that tie us together become extremely strong.

So when tragedy strikes, the community is diminished, we are diminished, damaged in a way that people who did not grow up in this culture cannot understand.

For comparison, I would like to look at two national tragedies, and how the communities dealt with them.

I was amazed and awed by the strength and resilience of the people of New York City in the months after 9/11.  The ground was literally still smoking when I began working there in January 2002 on the rebuilding process.  Life was returning to the city and people were trying to move past the horror.  In fact, they were doing better on the whole, than anyone else in the country at that point.  They still thought about what had happened, and they still grieved intensely, but they also got on with their lives.

I contrast this with Columbine here in Denver.  At roughly the same point in the aftermath, people in Denver still put their collective grief before normalcy.  There were many people in this city who needed therapy after Columbine, even though they did not know anyone involved, nor did the event directly impact them in any way.

Even though this seems like self flagellation, and the height of being a city of drama queens, it had nothing to do with it.  Columbine hit us so hard because "We are all Columbine."  The bumper sticker, rather than being an inane catchphrase, really summed up the collective experience of the shootings.  The tragedy was immediate to our beings.

We are not martyrs to events that don't have anything to do with us, because in the Western mindset, what happens to the community, happens to all of it's members.  I should note here, one of my closest friends was a Columbine student, he was in the computer lab.  His brother, who was in the cafeteria, saw several people die.  For me, the tragedy is even more immediate than it is for some, although I did not know anyone who died or was injured.

But to return to the point, we grieve even for people we didn't know because we cannot escape the rural, community focused, backdrop that frames our lives.  Even though the reality is that we will never likely know anyone directly impacted  by this morning's shooting, we are all still affected.  The horror of the victims becomes the horror of the community and ultimately it becomes our own horror, because it is something we share intensely.

We were all Columbine, and we will all be Century 16.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What If We're Not Actually All In This Together?


The news media today is making a fundamental assumption that I'm not sure is still valid.  Specifically, they assume that, no matter which party is putting forth their ideas, both sides of the political spectrum are working to make the United States stronger and better.  They frame all discussion based on the long standing tradition that only the vision of how to improve the country differs, but the end goal is a shared one, that we always try to leave the next generation with a better country than we inherited

But what if that assumption is fundamentally flawed?

What if one side is not actually trying to make the country better and stronger?  What if one side is no longer working for the interests of America, but for the interests of themselves?  What if, in some people's minds, we are not still all in this together?

This is a dangerous assertion; many people would view this as an accusation of treason.  A few years ago, I would have felt the same, and would have believed that it was unthinkable that some of our political leaders are not working towards a better America.  

It also means that all of the media analysis is incorrect.  Budgets are not brave solutions to the countries problems, politicians are not sticking their necks out for the country, and most importantly, both sides will not lead to the same place of a stronger country.  When the media assumes that both sides have our best interests at heart, they create a dangerous implication that no matter who wins, they will try to rebuild the nation and the economy.

But what if one side is not out to strengthen these things?

This is an accusation that gets leveled frequently at President Obama, that he is trying to destroy the United States from within.  He is accused of everything, up to and including being an agent of Satan.  People on the right think he is a Muslim out to convert the country through some sort of jihad, that he is a socialist, bent on nationalizing all industry, and that he is a tyrant, determined to shred the constitution and use it as confetti at the party celebration the death of the United States.

However, in reality, the actual villains that I am describing are some of the leaders of the Republican Party.  It is a very common scenario in psychology to transfer your wrongdoing onto someone else.  If you are a liar, you accuse someone else of lying, if you are a thief, you see theft all around you,  if you are a sociopath, you expect everyone else to engage in sociopathic behaviors.  In short, when you engage in inappropriate behaviors, you see those behaviors all around you because you expect everyone to behave as you do.  You also begin to accuse others of those behaviors to draw attention away from your own misdeeds.  The easiest way to see this behavior in action is when a child does something wrong, and then accuses a sibling of something even worse to evade notice or punishment.  This behavior pattern is discussed extensively in Lakoff's book, "The Political Mind."

This is what I see happening at some of the highest levels of the Republican Party.  They accuse Democrats of wrecking this country, when they are the ones with the blood on their hands.

I do want to note here, I am not saying that all Republicans want to destroy the country, I'm not even saying most do.  There are many on the Right that care passionately for America, and would be justifiably horrified at the accusation that they do not.  I would even include most of the social conservatives in this group.  I would never want to live in a country modeled after Rick Santorum's vision, but I am certain that he genuinely believes that his rigid view of religiosity would make America a better country in the future. I also think that most of the rank and file Republicans believe that they are working for an stronger tomorrow.

No, my accusation is not leveled at the majority of Republicans, it is aimed squarely at billionaire inner circle: Mitt Romney, the Koch Brothers, Karl Rove, Sheldon Addleston and the others at the very top who profit from America's failure.  I would also place some other people in this circle, both in punditry, such as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and some in political office, such as Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Why do I think these people want America to fail, or at least not to thrive?  As I said, it is a serious accusation.  What is my line of reasoning to make this charge?

It is derived from Morris Berman's book "Dark Ages America."  I have referenced this book in the past, because I find it to be one of the scariest and most astute critiques of 21st century America.  In the book, Berman diagrams the fall of every great empire and compares it with the current conditions in this country.  The parallels are frightening.

One hallmark of the "End of Empire" is a deliberate decision by those in power to "rape out the system."  In other words, in a declining empire, the rich and powerful take as much out of the economic structure as they can, in order to move that money into the places that they feel have high likelihood of  becoming the new financial juggernaut.  They are on the hunt to invest in the "New Empire."

Any investment in the dying system is seen by these titans as a waste of money that is better used somewhere else.  You can see this attitude in the outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia, while at the same time refusing to shore up any infrastructure in the United States.  Roads, Schools, Utility Grids, and all other public works are literally crumbling around us, and yet, the Republican hierarchy refuses to consider any spending on these necessary repairs.

Improving infrastructure would require raising taxes, the bulk of which would fall on the wealthy, at least under our current progressive taxation model.  This would, of course, limit to some extent the money that they could move to offshore tax havens.  And, I should note, it isn't even just Republicans guilty of this move.  A former darling of the Clinton administration, Denise Rich, recently gave up her U.S. citizenship strictly to avoid taxes.  In this offshoring paradigm, it is rich vs. poor, not right vs. left.

But refusal to replace a decaying infrastructure isn't the end of this move to dismantle everything that makes our country great.  We are selling off national assets such as public parks and other amenities.  Benton Harbor in Michigan was recently forced to sell off a public park that had been willed to the city by a former resident.  The governor appointed fiscal manager is requiring a beloved amenity be sold to a developer who has been trying for years to get his hands on the property.  Never mind the fact that the will explicitly stated that the park was to be public and free for all time.  A few years ago, a mayoral candidate even proposed selling New York's Central Park.  I can't find the name of that candidate, because all Google searches lead me to sites selling multi-million dollar Co Ops overlooking the park.  There are proposals to allow gas and oil exploration in the National Parks, the national forests are being auctioned off for timber companies, and countless other national assets are on the chopping block.

And then we have the refusal to fund the social safety net, and to fundamentally dismantle it where possible.  We want to privatize Social Security, giving that money over to Wall Street.  Similarly, Medicare would be handed off through vouchers to the private insurance companies.  These are just moves to get that money out of the government's hands and into the hands of private business.  After the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, we know how this story ends; the rich get richer, and the rest of us just get soaked.

And this is why I think that the certain people in the Republican hierarchy are not on the side of the United States.  All of the assets, all of the social programs and all of the melting pot attitudes of this country are sacrificed on the altar of profits.  We are being torn apart, both financially and emotionally, to make the gutting easier.  In some cases, we are even dancing towards the gallows where we will be hung.  You see this in the Tea Party fanaticism.  

And this makes no sense if you want a strong America on the other side of the Great Recession.  Our economy, rightly or wrongly, is built on a foundation of consumer spending.  In fact, our absolute need to shop is all that kept the economy going for most of the last decade; we have built the country on malls and services.  Since we have eliminated most of our manufacturing base, all we have left is shopping to move the economy.  Because of this, the only way it will get better is to get people to start spending again. 

Understand, I'm not advocating this economic system, I'm just pointing out the reality of it.  Also, I recognize that changing how the system works, even though it would be healthy in the long term, is not feasible in the short.  Trying to fundamentally alter the system while the ship is foundering would likely sink it as thoroughly as current Republican policies will.  We need to stabilize the economy before performing massive surgery on it.  After we are back to a healthy position, we can examine the wisdom of our system.

So to return to the point, we need to shore up the economic drivers in this country, and the best way, as we learned in the Great Depression, is Keynesian Economics.  Even the hero of Laissez Faire Economics, Milton Friedman, advocated strong economic intervention and stimulus in a severe downturn.  We know that it works, even though it took the massive spending of a World War to finally shake off the doldrums.  

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, has written a book to this effect called "End This Depression Now."  If you get people back to work, even if it is with government jobs of social services, they will have money in their pockets.  And when they have money, they will spend it, especially in the middle classes.  That spending, in turn, drives more employment, which facilities more spending.  It is a positive version of a viscous cycle, each turn of the wheel builds momentum.

So, if we know how to get the economy running smoothly again, why are we not doing it?  I know the story for public consumption is deficits and the burden that the place on the country, but if that was the case, why did we authorize two wars paid for with a credit card?  And why, for the first time in American history, did we not raise taxes during those wars?  Why, if we are concerned about deficits, are we arguing to keep the Bush tax cuts in place?  If we let them expire, we could plug a huge hole in the deficit, without impacting services.  Time after time, we have enacted policies that seem designed to create deficits and devastate the financial security of the government. 

None of it makes sense, if you just view it through the filters that we are told to look at it through.  Why are the poor and middle class having to pay heavy costs, both in regressive taxation and loss of the social safety net, while the wealthy continue to stick money in offshore accounts and build factories in China?

The answer, I fear, is that the rich just want more money in their pockets, and damn the consequences in the long term.  They are willing to sacrifice America, just to have more profit.

And that is not how America succeeds.  It is however, how the vultures thrive.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Socialism Cuts Both Ways


In modern America, there is no organization more demonized than the Labor Union.  To hear people talk, Unions are the root of all evil, the unholy spawn of Satan, the demonic "Reason America is Failing."  They have even eclipsed the Free Masons as the most hated and feared organizations in the country.  The Right paints a picture that nothing good can ever grow from the poisoned seeds that are Unions.

No good, except perhaps: safe workplaces, the end of child labor, living wages, the 40 hour work week, the idea of weekends and vacations, sick leave, pensions, medical benefits, the blue collar middle class.  By extension of these ideas, they also brought us: home ownership, the house with the white picket fence, healthy grandparents, good school systems, civic pride, and most importantly, an America that was the world's largest and most powerful economy.

The Golden Age of Unions, which was the 1950's, was also the Golden Age of the United States economy.

And the reason was, there were two powerful but equal groups looking out for both the country and the individual.  Sure labor agreements never made either side happy, but also they never screwed either side.  Both sides knew that the other side was their equal partner.  If a company tried to screw the workers, they knew that there was the high probability of a damaging strike.  If the Union tried to burn the management, they faced a real chance of the factory being shuttered, and the employees laid off.  Both sides had to work together, because their survival and prosperity depended on a relationship, that if mismanaged, could easily end in mutually assured destruction.

In short, both sides needed each other.

And the beauty of it was that the delicate balance that they maintained was a purely free market solution.  Certainly, you needed labor laws to protect the worker as a last line of defense, and you also needed restrictions on Unions to keep them from the utterly unreasonable, but in all, the Management / Union balance was a product of pure Capitalism.  It was a shining example of the "Invisible Hand of the Free Market."

In the eighties, when the "Culture of Greed" took over the United States, this delicate dance began to break down: corporations began to value the profit margin more than the overall health of the company; and unions began to demand more and more extensive benefits as compensation for the wage increases that they were no longer getting.  And both sides failed to see the scathing critique of the movie "Wall Street," and instead wholeheartedly embraced Gordon Gekko's mantra "greed is good."

The highly theatrical union/management battles of the 1950's allowed both sides to go to their constituent groups and say we got the best deal we could, in the 70's and 80's the battles became real.  The cold war had become hot, and now one side or the other had to lose.  And given the ultimate power of moving overseas that exists on the side of the corporations, it is no surprise that unions lost the war.  Today, the only unions that still are strong are in those sectors of the economy that can't be outsourced, like service workers in the S.E.I.U., or won't, like teachers in the N.E.A.  And I should note, on-line teaching and charter schools may be the first step to breaking the teacher's union.

Outside of these parameters, unions are essentially toast, because the corporations will no longer hesitate to close down a factory and move it to China if the union demands what they consider to be too much.  Wal-mart goes even further by closing down any store that they think is even beginning to talk about unionizing.  To them, Unions are a contagion that must be contained at the first signs of an outbreak.

To make the situation worse, Republican led State Assemblies and even the U.S. Congress are passing laws to limit the power of Unions, and trying to wipe them out through legislation.  They paint Unions as the reason that America is no longer great, and that characterization helps them drive organized labor from the economic landscape.

And in doing so, they are actually turning the country Socialist.

The thing is, Socialism, as currently defined, does not necessarily protect the worker  Additionally, it is not automatically a downward distribution of wealth, and it is not by definition the gateway economic drug for communism.  Not that it ever was, but this is still how it is painted.  But now, Right Wing Socialism protects the corporations at the expense of average worker. 

Socialism, as defined in the modern era, merely involves government interference in the free market.  I would like to note that this is not the classical economic definition of socialism, which is defined as "the government controls the major means of production."  However, since the Right in this country has decided to expand the definition to include ANY government regulation of business, I will use their own definition of Socialism against them.

And this is how the Right is turning America Socialist, by their own definition of socialism.  Further, by any definition of Capitalism, these policies are absolutely anti-Capitalist.  Even if you don't accept my redefinition, you must accept the fact that Republican policies are not Capitalist in any way, shape or form.

To explain this type of Socialism, I am going to step off topic for a second, because this argument will be initially clearer in a different realm.  There are many free market advocates who oppose governmental regulation of the food industry.  They say that people will not buy products that are making people sick, which is true.  They also state that it is the consumer's responsibility to do the research to determine which products are safe and healthy; according to them, it is not the government's job to regulate food safety, it is up to the individual to make sure that they are buying safe food.

For a minute ignore just how many people have to die from salmonella and E. Coli before we find out that a food is contaminated, also, ignore how overwhelming that task would be given how many thousands of things we buy every year.  It is possible that consumers, if they had all of the information available to them, would drive unsafe products off of the market.  You can even see this in the number of people who refuse to buy certain foods after a safety scandal; my mom will likely never buy Rocky Ford Melons again because of their problems.  In all, this is a free market solution, even if it is fairly horrific in individual costs.

So, if you take as a given that we don't need regulation, just information, why are Republicans fighting against the dissemination of knowledge about consumer goods.  Not food, specifically, but in general they are trying to limit access to information about products, essentially crippling the ability of the individual to do the very due diligence that they claim is superior to regulations. 

A perfect example is an aspect of financial reform; the new consumer financial protection agency will publish bank complaints on-line, so that everyone has access to this information.  It is a free market solution in that it allows customers to select a bank based on how the bank handles and resolves complaints.  There is no direct governmental regulation on how banks have to resolve them, just information on how they did.  And yet, even though this is a perfect example of the market forces at work, Republicans have been trying desperately to keep the information from being published.

So by limiting the ability of the "Invisible Hand" to work, they are advocating a Socialist policy, at least as they have defined socialism.

So, to return to the original topic of this blog, Labor Unions are a capitalist counterbalance to the power of corporations.  They advocate for the employee against the far more powerful business interests, and by organizing them, give each person a much larger voice than they would have individually.  And all of this happens outside of governmental regulation, with the exception that law requires both sides to play fair.  Again, it is a Free Market solution.

And yet, Republicans are trying to break unions, not just in individual companies, but across the board.  They advocate laws banning collective bargaining, which is one of the primary reasons to belong to a union.  They also promote "Right to Work" laws, which are better termed "Right to Work for less" laws, because they eliminate the ability of unions to ask everyone in the company to belong.  Basically, this breaks the back of the union because only a small segment of the company belongs, and they can be easily fired.  You move from having to shut the entire business down to eliminate the union to just having to fire a few individuals.  And you can fire them on the grounds that they are disrupting the workplace.

So ultimately, by eliminating unions, you are advocating government interference in the Free Market.  You skew the playing field to favor corporations rather than individuals.  If regulation is bad when it hurts corporations, as they claim it does with food safety laws, then regulation must also be bad, even if it helps those same companies, like it does when you bust the unions.  You don't get to pick and choose what regulations you like when you claim all regulation is bad.

Of course, I should not expect anyone to be ideologically consistent, not even myself unfortunately.

Also, the Republican Corporate Socialism leads to a wonderful irony, it forces the government to adopt positions that are classically Socialist; minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination laws, worker's rights laws, Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Also, it increases participation in other "Socialist" programs that people have to sign up for when they can no longer make ends meet, such as Food Stamps, Medicaid and Welfare.  When the companies no longer have a check on their power in the form of Unions, the government has to step in to protect workers.

Unless we wish to actually return to a form of Industrial Feudalism, which would also not be a Capitalist economy, either the Unions or the Government must step in to protect the worker.  Because, in the end, employees who make a good living wage, with good benefits and good job security, are at the heart of a functioning Capitalist model. 

Despite lip service to the contrary, the Republicans show that they no longer believe this.  They live by the other side of the Socialist sword, and ultimately they will die by it as well.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Put Down That M.B.A. Before you Actually Hurt Someone With It


For a political party that markets itself as being the side with the expertise on economic issues, the Republicans are exhibiting a shocking ignorance on how the market sets prices.

Case in point, Republican governors across the country are retuning to the concept of Nullification in regards to the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act.  They are flat out refusing to participate the law, claiming that they are not going to expand health care for their poorest citizens.  This not only deprives literally millions of people adequate health care it becomes a de facto tax on the rest of us.

On a side note, the concept of Nullification was used by many of these same states to try to continue Jim Crowe era segregation.  A policy that was once used to block African-Americans from sharing in basic American rights, like voting for a president, is now being threatened against this country's first black President to eviscerate his greatest policy achievement.  I guess things never actually change.

But to return to the point, not participating in this aspect of health care reform displays either complete ignorance or utter disregard that is so amoral that we might as well term it evil.  I would hope that it is the first, but I fear that it is the second.

Let me explain.

Medicaid, like Medicare and private insurance covers the cost of health care, both preventative and incident related.  In fact, since many health care plans prior to the A.C.A did not cover preventive care under their private plans, Medicaid had some advantages of regular insurance.  In short, it means that people who are sick can get treatment early in their illness, before a minor incident becomes a medical crisis.  It also means that people can get regular care that might prevent a serious medical condition from developing or progressing.

Without health care coverage, this is what happens: simple illnesses become severe; medical conditions that could be dealt with by lifestyle changes or simple treatments become debilitating crises.  The cost in this lost productivity is staggering.  A person who, through illness can no longer continue in their job creates costs that ripple through the business.  Similarly, a person who continues to work sick is less productive, and if the illness is contagious, spreads that illness to coworkers and customers, causing a ripple of lost productivity.

From a simple cost/benefit ratio, health care is the far cheaper solution.

Some of you may say, Medicaid is for indigent people, and if they just got a job, they could afford health care.  I have heard many Republican Congressional members say that it's their own fault that they don't have health care, and if they took personal responsibility for their lives, they wouldn't need to depend on the system.  Basically, if they don't have health care, it's their own fault and it's all on them.

And this is another aspect of failure to understand economic reality.  Due to a couple of chronic, but not life threatening, medical conditions, I am what is considered a high risk individual when it comes to health insurance.  As a result, my insurance runs close to $12,000.00  per year, and I'm glad to have it, because many people in my position don't have the ability to purchase insurance at any price, because of those pre-existing conditions.  And so you know, this cost is just for me, no one else is insured by my plan. 

What this means is, if I had a minimum wage job, almost my entire paycheck would go to health insurance, taxes and F.I.C.A.  I would only have about $3,000.00 per year to cover everything else; namely rent and food.  I challenge anyone in this country to live on $250.00 a month for all of their expenses.  Fortunately, I have a mother who is willing to pay for my health insurance, otherwise, I wouldn't have it. 

Some of this hopefully will change under ObamaCare, but for now, this is my reality; I am a 40 year old man, who makes a good living, and still has to get financial help from my mother because of the cost of insurance.

The Medicaid provision covers this gap, by opening up the program to all people under 65 who have incomes of less than 133% of the federal poverty line.  There are many people across the country working in minimum wage jobs, and without this government program, they will have no access to health care at all.

But this is not even where the worst failures to understand economics lie for the Republicans. 

For that, we have to go back to the idea of how profit works in a market economy.  In business, income must exceed expenditures. In other words, you need to bring in more money than you spend on things like your building, the cost of the wages of your employees, utilities, supplies and anything else that costs you money.  When outflow exceeds income, you are either going to go bankrupt, or you are suddenly a charity, whether or not that was your intent.  This should be something that most people understand.

Now, when people come in and take your services without paying, they add to your overhead, instead of adding to your profit, they help move you to bankruptcy.  You can also make a case that they are stealing from you, as many Republicans and health care C.E.O.'s have decided to do.  Because they view sick people who happen to also been poor as criminals, they are now stationing debt collectorsin Emergency Rooms to make sure that incoming patients show them the money first.  If they can't, they are sent elsewhere or they literally get dumped on the street corner.

However patient dumping, even though it is done by many hospitals, is actually illegal.  This means that most emergency medical care facilities treat even people who cannot pay.  Publicly funded hospitals, like Denver Health, who have to treat anyone who walks through the Emergency Room door become the medical provider of last resort.  Since most of the working poor cannot afford health insurance, and prior to the A.C.A., they did not qualify for Medicaid, they only way they could get medical treatment was in the emergency room.  Typically, because of this, they were far sicker, and far more expensive to treat, than they would have been with access to preventative and maintenance health care.

This is where the worst failure of the Republican understanding of economics comes into play.

The poor people, for whom the E.R. is their primary care provider, cost a lot of money to treat.  Far more, typically, that it would cost in a regular doctor's office, and for medical conditions that are better suited to the office than the hospital.  This is because a trained E.R. staff, and the facility itself are vastly more expensive than a traditional primary care doctor's office.

To understand how much an E.R. visit costs, just for a simple routine emergency, a few years ago, I cut the tip of my nose open on a car door at 11:30 at night.  Since it was deep, and I knew I needed stitches, I had to go to the hospital.  Five stitches, two hours and three thousand dollars later, my nose was back in one piece.  If I had not had insurance, I would have had to come up with all that money, instead of the $250.00 deductible.  If I could not, the hospital would have had to eat it, since, unlike my nose, you can't get blood from a turnip.

And this is where the problem comes from.  When poor people use the E.R., that costs the hospital a lot of money.  (I will agree the costs are inflated, but that is not what I'm addressing here)  Since they are poor, and cannot pay the thousands of dollars the hospital visit costs them, ultimately the bill never gets paid, and the hospital is out that money.  Sure they might pursue debt collection, but the poor person really has nothing to lose, and declares bankruptcy, and so, the debt remains unpaid.

But not really, because, unlike thirty years ago, most hospitals are no longer charities, they are for profit companies.  Even the charitable ones are expected to break even; long gone are the days when the church collection plate funded the local hospital.  This means that the money to cover the unpaid bill has to come from somewhere.

And guess where that is.

Right, your hospital bill and mine.  Everyone with insurance who goes to the hospital subsidizes the unpaid medical care that the poor receive.  In fact, the uninsured add approximately $1000.00 to every insured family's premium according to Families USA.  Since this sort of thing was judged a tax by the Supreme Court, I guess that you could say every insured person pays a $1000.00 tax through their insurance premium to cover the medical bills of the uninsured.

 Therefore, the people who can afford to be, and actually are responsible subsidize those who cannot afford medical insurance through a privatized taxation scheme, and the rest of the people get off scot free.

On another side note, this is the reason for the mandate; it limits the people who are trying to game the system by not buying health insurance when they can afford to.  If you want to talk about freeloaders, those are the real ones.  The poor are not the slackers here.

So how does this demonstrate that the Republicans are either incompetent or evil?

By not expanding Medicaid as set forth in the A.C.A., the Republicans are shifting the cost of medical care for the poor from the government to private citizens through the de facto tax of inflated medical costs.  And yes, I do realize that Medicaid is funded through a genuine tax.  However, that share of income tax that funds Medicaid averages out to about $85.00 per person per year, which is significantly less than the $1,000.00 per year people pay in increased insurance premiums due to the uninsured poor.  Admittedly, this is the average tax burden increase for the middle class, the rich pay much more, sometimes a few thousand dollars per person at the high end of the income scale.  That is what progressive taxation means, the more you make, the larger your share of the tax burden, because those tax rates impose far less on impact on the wealthy.

Since the Medicaid expansion is almost entirely subsidized by the federal government, and will be funded at least 90% even once everything is in place, these states are sacrificing the poor on the altar of conservative ideology that in no way reflects how the market really works. 

So either the Republicans do not realize that it is actually better for the overall economic health of the middle class and of the country to fund medical care for the poor through the Medicaid system, or they are deliberately making medical care more expensive for a middle class already stretched too thin. 

It's up to you to decide which is the correct interpretation.