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.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Recipe for Revolution


Right now, the far Right Wing of the Republican party is sowing the seeds for a revolution in the United States.  It is not, however, going to be the revolution they think, nor want.  They want a revolution to eliminate the Federal Government, roll back civil rights, equal rights and gay rights, define Christianity as the national religion, and completely unfetter the financial markets.  But in short, they want a revolution that puts old white rich men inextricably in charge of this country. 

That is not the revolution they will get.

They might get it in the short term; the game might be rigged enough by 2016 to elect a President Cruz.  Riding high on his election, and the probable control of both houses of congress that electing him would bring, they will unwind all of the social safety net programs that they hate, disenfranchise millions so they can't protest, and try to set up a permanent hegemony in the governmental apparatus.

Even if they don't get the big prize of the presidency, they can work toward their revolution piecemeal, creating government shutdowns and debt ceiling threats so regularly that the Democrats eventually acquiesce to some of their demands, just because they are worn down from the fight.  And if you think this isn't on the horizon, Ted Cruz spoke in Iowa and claimed that his path was the path to victory.  This movement is not going to be derailed by real facts.  The Ministry of Truth will continue to feed the true believers delusions.

But this is were actual reality rears it's ugly head.  If they actually get their revolution, they will likely spawn a real insurrection.  History is our guide on this.  When people are utterly without recourse, they rise up against the government and attempt to overthrow it.  Most recently, this happened in Egypt and Libya, and is still moving along in Syria.

But before I talk about how this might happen here, I would like to take a moment to explore the policies of the Right that will lead us to the cliff.  (I am going to refer to them as the Right, not the Republicans, because not all Republicans are on the bus that the Right is driving off the cliff.)

First, they want to drastically cut, or in their wildest hopes, eliminate food stamps.  The problem is, a majority of people on food assistance are not the unemployed, they are actually working.  In short, they are not working for wages high enough to feed themselves, and still take care of the other necessities like shelter and clothing.

The minimum wage across most of this country forces people to make choices in their day to day life.  But the unfortunate reality is, those choices typically are things like, do I eat, or pay my rent?  The minimum wage is no longer a living wage, and people earning it must turn to government subsidies to survive.  Without food stamps, there would be a lot of employed, but still hungry, people in this country.

Which leads to the second thing that the Right wants to eliminate, the minimum wage.  Michelle Bachman, with her perfect grasp of economics, called for the elimination of the Federal Minimum Wage.  She claimed, in a bizarrely correct way, if we eliminated the minimum wage, we would drastically cut unemployment.  This is true in the sense that companies would be willing to hire massive numbers of people if they didn't have to actually pay them. 

The core idea of the minimum wage is that slavery is outlawed; people have to be paid for work.  Without it, do you really think companies are going to pay their employees well?  You will see places like Wal-Mart drop employee pay to pennies, because that will cut their overhead and raise their profits.  And then Wall Street will reward them for increasing profits by ballooning their stock prices, which will incite another round of pay cuts, that will be rewarded in turn.  Eventually, wages will bottom out at Chinese levels of compensation, which will be just a few dollars a day for most employees.

The third thing that the Right wants to eliminate is the Health Care Act.  While I disagree with the ACA because I don't think it went far enough because there is no public option, it is our only hope currently to try to get a handle on health care in this country.  Having Emergency Rooms be the primary care provider for a good chunk of the people in this country is very bad for the economy.  Yet the Right sees no problem with the Emergency Room handling the majority of health care.

But people need health care, or they will die, even from easily treatable things like infections or the flu or a broken leg.  Like food, heath care becomes an unaffordable luxury for millions of low paid people in this country.  The ACA helps get people medical treatment.

Finally, the Right is attacking pensions, not just Social Security, but actual Defined Benefit Plans earned through long term employment in a single place of employment.  (And in this one, even some on the Democratic side are complicit, for example Gina Raimondo, the Treasurer of Rhode Island) The primary target are those who are drawing government pensions, but the entire system is under attack.  Even social security, that once unassailable bulwark of the social safety net is being assaulted with things like the chained CPI and means testing.

The largest group of people in this country living in poverty are not minorities or single mothers, it is the elderly.  And unlike the other groups in poverty, these people are literally unable to work, even if there were jobs available.  A person with advanced Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease is not going to be able to hold down a job, so pensions and social security are there to take care of them at a point in their lives when they desperately need care.

To sum this up, if you make people be hungry, even when they are employed, cut the ability to work for a wage that might make ends meet, increase the number of people who die from easily treatable conditions and cause the elderly to live in squalor, you set the stage for massive unrest.  And to make matters worse, you are doing this to widen the profit margins for billionaires, a group that already is not one that people inherently  feel sympathy towards.

This sets the stage for rebellion.

Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  Even more, the arc of humaity bends towards fairness.  And it isn't fair when people see starvation in their lives, while the rich get richer; when people can't afford even the basics of life; when they watch their children die from simple health issues, while the wealthy get extraordinary treatment; then they watch their parents be unable to care for themselves, while the wealthy live in luxury.

I'm not here to give a moral debate on this, I am simply stating the facts, whether you think it is right or wrong, when people perceive this sort of inequality and unfairness, they become enraged.  And the worse the disparity, the worse the rage.  Both Roosevelts saw this and as a result, Teddy broke the Trusts and brought down the Barons, and FDR instituted the broadest social compact that we had seen in this country.

They didn't do it because they were Communists or even Socialists, they did it because they were pragmatists.  Not to say they didn't believe strongly in their actions, they did, but they also knew that action was necessary.  They both knew that if something was not done to change the course of the country, eventually, the disparity would lead to despair, and the despair would lead to revolt.  This is history's lesson that we have forgotten.

In the blind hatred of entitlements, we have ignored that, at the end of the day, it is far better for a government to be loved than feared. 

The reason that totalitarian societies fall is that the government is feared.  But fear cannot be maintained indefinitely, it may take decades, but eventually fear turns to anger and anger turns to hate.  Once people hate their government, it's all over.  They WILL rise up.  And this is another piece the Right does not get, they are stoking hatred of the Federal Government to get what they want, but once they have achieved their ends, they will have a country full of people who hate the government.  This will not end well.

Governments, by their very nature, do a lot of things that people don't like.  We generally don't like laws or restrictions or regulations, unless we see personal benefit in them  We all like laws against murder, but laws against Marijuana?  That is harder for a lot of people to see.  You have to step outside of your personal system to see a societal benefit in order to see good in a lot of the laws even a "good" a government passes.

So to keep people working together, and have a strong country, you have to get them to love their government, or at least like it.  In order to be viable, a government needs to produce tangible benefits for their citizens; they need to provide a service.  Otherwise, they have no reason to be supported.

The inherent nature of the human race tends also toward anarchy.  For the most part, we only work together well in small groups, because that is what our genetic programming designed us to do.  We function in larger groups because we have to, and we see the reasons to, not because we exactly want to.  We see the benefit of a State Level society, but many of us yearn towards a simpler life, with less interaction with large apparatuses of control.

So for a government to work, the benefits of it's existence have to outweigh the burdens.  And in America, that has always meant a government that stands up for the little guy, that protects the helpless, and provides actual help to people in need.  It builds roads and schools, keeps the peace, and provides for the helpless.  Without that, most people don't see any real reason to have one.

And this is where the Right has led us to a precipice.  They have gotten most of America to hate the government, for their own selfish ends.  What they don't realize is history's lesson.  When people hate their government, they don't make government go away, as the Right hopes, they replace it.  They may replace it with something bad, or they may replace it with something better, but they will force a change.  

This is what happened in Eastern Europe, and what is going on right now in the Middle East.  People hated their government, saw the government as a destructive force in their lives, and they overthrew it.  Simple citizens, often even unarmed, can do a lot of damage to the system when they put their minds to it.  If the system is extremely well armed, the conflict will drag on for years, as we are seeing in Syria.  But eventually, if people are determined enough, they will eventually win.

The reason that Egypt fell so quickly was not arms or even that the military abandoned Mubarak; it was because of the sheer size of the population that rose against the government.  In a country of 80 million people, the military cannot enforce the system for any length of time.  It would be even worse in a country of almost 400 million.  Short of carpet bombing our own citizens, there is no way any sort of martial law would stop a revolution in this country.

Wise leaders like the Roosevelts knew this, and made government a force for good in people's lives.  That is enlightened leadership, and for two centuries, it was the guiding force in this country: how can we make life better for people?

Once government stops doing this, the stage for revolution is set.  And the ultimate irony is, the Right is dismantling government to increase profit margins, but the worst thing for profit is revolution. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dead Man Walking


John Boehner is in an absolutely no win scenario; no matter what happens in the coming weeks, he WILL lose his Speakership.  Let me examine the possible scenarios and look at why this is going to happen.  The Tea Party, and the magical thinking crowd are driving the bus, and they want no compromise.   For his part, Boehner thinks that going along with them will preserve his station as Speaker of the House,  so he is refusing to buck them. 

Of course, this entire post is predicated on Boehner's pride, and desire to retain his Speakership.   There are other possibilities: his family is being held hostage, and he has been informed that if he refuses to play along, they will be killed; he has a REALLY nasty skeleton in his closet that they are using to blackmail him with; or they have some sort of equally horrendous thing that they are holding over his head to get him to do what they want.  There is another possibility, that he is actually crazy himself, but I tend to discount this, because, as bad as he is at his job, he has still seemed fairly rational, and not ridiculously hyper-partisan.

So to look at how this could all play out:

Scenario 1: They blow up the Debt Ceiling and it is as bad or worse than the experts believe it will be.  At the moment, this is unfortunately the most likely scenario to happen.  (And I hate to say that, but the rhetoric on the Right seems to really want this to happen)

In this case, there are two further possibilities.  First, we are plunged into a world wide Great Depression that will make the one in '29 look mild.  In this case, everyone in leadership will be expelled from Congress in the next election.  We might even have recalls for the senators not up next election, and maybe even an impeachment.  (Not that I think it would be Obama's fault, I'm just saying how we would likely react to this.)  In this case, Boehner is out in '14.

The second possibility here is even worse, that the Debt Ceiling Breach actually spurs a revolution, rebellion or national breakup.  This could happen quite easily as well, because if the country can't pay the military forces, we are headed to implosion.  We saw this happen in the Soviet Union, (albeit for a somewhat different reason) and there is no reason it can't happen here as well.  In this case, no one is Speaker, but most notably, John Boehner isn't.

Scenario #2: We breach the Debt Ceiling, and it isn't the end of the world.  Although this is highly unlikely, if we patch it fast enough, perhaps we wouldn't spark another Depression.  Still, the breach would, regardless, spur high interest rates, and likely high inflation as well, because the value of the dollar would fall.

This is a scenario we have seen in the past, during the 70's with Stagflation.  In that case, President Carter, and a lot of other Democrats, paid the price for the country's financial woes.  This time, the blame would be placed firmly at Boehner's feet, and trust me, the discredited Republican Party would throw him under the bus to save themselves.  They would claim it was all Boehner's idea, and he is at fault for the mess.  Again, Boehner is no longer Speaker, and he also get Tarred and Feathered by his (former) compatriots.

Scenario #3: Boehner capitulates and allows for a clean debt ceiling vote.  This is also a possibility, although one that I put at less than 50% right now.

In this case, Boehner is excoriated by the Far Right and the Rightwing media as a traitor to the cause and country.  He will be primaried by a Tea Party candidate who will likely win the primary, and then possibly lose the General.  We have seen this happen time and again.  Although the Tea Party can motivate enough people to win a Primary, they tend to do poorly in a general election, unless the district or state is an utter conservative stronghold like Utah.  The mainstream Republicans are not likely to vote for crazy, especially after going through this shutdown.  They will very likely quietly vote for the Democrat, and move on with their lives. 

This scenario will likely ripple across the country, destroying any moderate, or sane conservative Republican who votes on a clean CR and Debt Limit.  This actually will lead to an additionally difficult problem, because most of the Republicans who will be left in Congress after this are likely to be as crazy as Yoho and Cruz, so we will have one functioning party, and a group of people howling in the wilderness.

And as before, Boehner does not return to the House.  And further, Nancy Pelosi likely returns to the Speaker's chair.

Scenario #4: Obama and the Democrats capitulate and give in to Republican demands.  Unfortunately, this is also a high likelihood, given the past performance of the Democrats. 

This scenario would seem to be a win for Boehner, and the way to preserve his job, but that is doubtful, because several other things would play out in this scenario.

First, it would galvanize the Republicans, who would be seen by both their constituents, and the media, as being at the height of their power.  Second it would demoralize the Democrats, who might even sit out the next election.  Regardless, it would greatly strengthen the hand of the Republicans going into the next election, and they would see it as vindication of their agenda.

This means they would probably run more Tea Party candidates, because the Far Right would be empowered.  Even if the Democrats were pushed to fight to win back the house, the media narrative would be against them, just as it was in 2010.  In this scenario, Boehner might be Primaried, but he would certainly be challenged for the Speakership by a Tea Party type, because they were at the seeming apex of their power.  And given that Boehner is not popular, even in his own party, he would likely lose to his challenger.

So no matter what, Boehner is highly unlikely to keep his position, therefore, out of love of country, he should let it come to a vote.

The problem with this entire situation is, when you hold the government hostage, like the Republicans are doing, and then the other side capitulates, like Obama might, you set the stage for this to become common practice.  This time, Obama gives in on the ACA, next time, what will it be, a complete ban on abortion?  An end to Welfare? Defunding of the Department of Education?  Once you open the door to these types of threats, there is no closing it.  And it won't matter who the party in the driver's seat is.  You could have a Republican President and Senate, and a Democratic House blowing it up unless they put into place a single payer health care system.

And even worse, once the bullet is in the chamber, it will eventually be fired.  If not this time, then in the future.  The demands become ever more extreme, and sooner or later, the bomb will be dropped.

We saw this with the hijackings of the '70's.  As much as it pains me to say this, if they had attacked the first hijacked plane, and risked the lives of everyone to end the hostage situation, it is unlikely that there would have been any more hijackings, because the technique would not have been viable.

The same thing here, if this hijacking of democracy succeeds, expect it to become a regular occurrence.  If it fails, it is unlikely that we will see it again.

If Boehner actually cares about democracy more than he care about a position that he will not hold on to in any case, he needs to allow a vote.

Unless, of course, they actually are holding his family hostage.  Then at least his behavior might make sense.  Otherwise, it doesn't.