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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Cut the Conspiracies


Another 9/11, and like clockwork we have another round of conspiracy theories about it being an "inside job" or "deep state action." I cannot begin to tell you how much this bullshit pisses me off. I worked on the rebuilding of Ground Zero. I was in New York working on the plans for rebuilding when the pits were still burning with the fires of Hell itself. I saw that same Hell in the eyes of the people I was working with, listening to their stories, stories that even now, I can’t repeat without coming apart myself.

I was in New York to see the walls of posters desperately pleading for someone, anyone to have news of the missing.  Every day, I walked past the makeshift shrines and candles lit as prayers and beacons of hope.  I saw the despair, and I saw the love, the love of survivors gathering together, holding on to what little pieces of hope they could grasp.

And it is because of the people I knew, especially the original project engineer, that I came to understand why the buildings fell the way they did.  Of course the collapses looked like an implosion, because, if you were going to implode them, you would blow the same members that melted in the fire.  Members, which by the way were nothing more than standard open web joists, that were not designed to be exposed to flame the way they were on 9/11.

Further, as a person who was there in the immediate aftermath, the statements of the buildings “falling straight down” are laughable, as the giant gashes in the sides of surrounding buildings show.  The zone of total destruction in New York City was as large as most cities entire Downtown.  Of course there were odd survivors in the cityscape.  Just like the devastation caused by a hurricane, some buildings are almost unscathed when others are obliterated.

These so called “facts” that prove it was an inside job piss me off.  Not only because of how ridiculous they are, but for how much pain they inflict on the survivors and those who lost loved ones.  Spreading the 9/11 conspiracies inflicts exactly as much harm and chaos on them as the conspiracies on Sandy Hook cause agony in the parents of the dead children.  There are real people being hurt every day by this crap.  

But most of all, the conspiracy theories piss me off because they suck all the oxygen out of the room for the REAL scandals and REAL evils that happened both before and during the events of that tragic day.

Evils like the fact that EVERY SINGLE PERSON who breathed the air in Lower Manhattan that day literally was inhaling steel shards and pulverized concrete. That was not smoke or even a benign dust that people were breathing, it was a toxic soup of lung shredding fibers of a collapsed building. Forget the asbestos, most of those who were caught in the toxic cloud will die from silicosis and emphysema long before the mesothelioma will get them.  And worse, no one on the news, or in city government warned any of New Yorkers about this.  They let them continue to breathe in this debris for days without protection.  There was no evacuation of people downwind, no general distribution of gas masks.  Nothing.  They just let them breathe unprotected.

Evils like the fact that that SEVENTY PERCENT of first responders from 9/11 have some sort of illness, that can be directly tied to the events of 9/11.  Even if the city didn’t warn the citizens, you would think they would want to protect the people in their direct employment.  But they didn’t, they let them stand unprotected in billowing clouds of some of the most deadly particulates ever inhaled by humans.

Evils like the fact that our Congress COULDN’T EVEN AGREE on an aid package to help those who sacrificed their health to save a small handful of lives.  It literally took almost 10 years to pass a bill that provided lifetime care for those who were on scene working to save lives.  And in that 10 years, many of the emergency personnel died or went bankrupt while waiting for the government to finally do the right thing.  Even then, it took Jon Stewart, a comedian, to finally shame the Congress into acting.

Evils like the fact the Rudy Giuliani DELIBERATELY GROUNDED the rescue helicopters on 9/11 because he was more concerned about how much they might cost to replace if they were damaged than the lives of the over 2000 people he doomed with that decision.  When the buildings were designed, evacuation above a fire was supposed to occur from the rooftop assisted by special rescue helicopters owned by the city.  That’s why there were helipads up there.  But Giuliani’s decision prevented the evacuation of thousands, all because he was more worried about the replacement costs of helicopters than human life.

Evils like the fact that the World Trade Center, being a government project, was LARGELY EXEMPTED from building code.  The stairs were narrow, few in number, and sheathed in nothing but drywall.  This meant that when the planes hit, the lifeline of every person above the fire was instantly severed.  Even though many people on the upper floors were not hurt in the attack, they were still doomed because there was no way out.

Evils like the fact that in World Trade Center 7, so many safety measures were SCALED BACK or eliminated that the building collapsed after only 8 hours of being on fire.  Yes, it suffered severe damage from the collapse of WTC 1 and 2, but it shouldn’t have fallen, except that the fireproofing was “too costly” and less expensive solutions needed to be found.  Those less expensive solutions depended heavily on a wet fire suppression system that got severed along with all of the water lines in the area when the towers came down.  As a point of fact, 90 West Street, built just after the turn of the 20th century, and grossly over-engineered, because they were new at high rise construction, burned for 2 full days without any structural failure.  In fact, the floors that didn’t catch fire from the flaming debris falling off the Twin Towers were virtually undamaged.  This doesn’t prove conspiracy to destroy WTC 7, it shows how much more we value money than life.

Evils like the fact that Larry Silverstein fought tooth and nail to BLOCK ANY memorial on the World Trade Center Site because of the amount of revenue it would take out of his pockets.  He said repeatedly that, in his opinion, the greatest memorial that could ever exist for 9/11 would be rebuilding the towers exactly as they were before, and not “wasting space for people to go cry.”  He said that at a conference I attended on the reconstruction.  He followed that up with saying, “people can cry in the cemetery or in their homes, they don’t need to do it on my property.”  As a side note, he held a long term lease on the World Trade Center, but the property belongs to the citizens of New York and New Jersey. 

There is no reason to go around talking about fictional evils when the REAL ones are so horrifying and heartbreaking. If there is a conspiracy, it is to spread fake conspiracies so that no one pays attention to the actual evil, and no one tries to do anything to correct the actual wrongs.  It is to keep people from suing the former mayor for his rapacious decision to not risk his helicopters, to keep people from demanding tall buildings have extreme safety measures to protect the inhabitants, to force the government to actually pay for the health care needed by probably a million or more people exposed to toxic clouds.  The conspiracies keep people focused of fake evil so that they won’t demand real, and expensive, solutions to actual evil.

If you are so concerned about 9/11, stop spreading false narratives and start demanding that people actually DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING to help those who still, 16 years later, suffer daily from the attack. Tell you Congressional delegation to approve help for ALL those who were caught in the debris.  Tell the building departments that we must have REAL safety for tall buildings, not just in case of attack, but for any disaster, natural or manmade, that might occur.  Demand that PEOPL start to be valued above profit for shareholders.  Demand REAL change.

Stop tearing out the hearts of those who lost people by telling them their own government killed their loved ones.  Stop spreading a narrative that gives a pass to the real evil in the world.  Do something that will make a difference.  It’s been almost a generation since 9/11, but we can still use it as a catalyst to make the world better, more human, more loving.  

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Open Letter to Trump Snowflakes


I have had many people bitch me out because I say I don't respect Donald Trump. They say things like "we endured 8 years of Obama, suck it up buttercup." My response to that. FUCK YOU. Period. This man-child in the White House does not deserve my respect, and he will never get it. This is not a normal president. We have a proto-dictator in the White House, and those of us who see it CANNOT remain silent. Just a short list of his high crimes and misdemeanors"

He colluded with Russia, whether he was successful or not does not matter. He may very well have failed at that jut like he fails at every single thing he does. That does not matter, intent to betray is as much a crime as success in the act. He actively worked with a known adversary of the United States to try to swing an election, asking Russia, on primetime TV to hack his opponent and spread information.

Since then, he has ripped into our traditional allies and NATO, while embracing Putin. He has waffled on mutual defense agreements that date back 70 years. He has turned his back on the countries that have stood by us for decades, and even centuries for some. I was raised in a military family, I have had generation after generation, all the way back to the American Revolution, fight, and sometimes die, for this country. This action is no less than treason, a treason for which he should be hung by the neck until dead, as American Law dictates. I'm surprised Ronald Reagan hasn't risen from the grave over this one.

But that isn't it. He treats women like the only asset they have is beauty. He publicly degrades women, insults them openly. Thanks to his behavior, sexual discrimination against women has risen dramatically. He has publicly tried to shame women with the most vile insults I have ever seen, literally suggesting the reason one anchor was hard on him was because she was on her period, and claiming another was "bleeding badly from a face lift." This sort of behavior is revolting in any context, let alone coming from our supposed president.

He is openly racist. He calls Hispanics "Rapists." He calls for complete bans on Muslims. (Except for ones in countries that he does business in, those are OK, even if they did actually fund terrorism, unlike the countries affected by the travel ban.) He has created an environment in this country where little children are TERRIFIED of their government, and terrified that at any moment their parents could be taken away from them. Hate crimes in this country are exploding. White supremacists are openly marching, and claiming that their day has finally arrived. Blacks are being told by elected leaders to "go back to Africa."

But even the naked racism, sexism and treason isn't enough. He trashes the Constitution, a document which, by that way, one of my ancestors SIGNED. He runs roughshod over checks and balances, referring to the Judiciary as "so called judges." He tells the Senate to end the Filibuster, which is an essential tool to help preserve the rights of the minority against the will of the majority. (And remember, not that long ago, the Republicans WERE that minority being protected.)

But worse, he is treating this country like his own personal wealth machine. He has refused to divest from his companies, refused to distance himself from the day to day running of his companies, refused to stop promoting the "Trump Brand." He is treating the presidency as a money making opportunity, and inspiring others in the government to do much the same. This violation of the Emoluments Clause will complete the transition of our country to a kleptocracy.

He has eviscerated government, handing vast power to his children, people who we didn't elect or confirm through the Senate. Almost all functions of the State Department are now being handled by his children, which is what occurs in banana republics. He has shut down the war crimes office, which sends a signal that the United States is no longer interested in prosecuting those crimes on the world stage. I find it funny that just a decade ago, we started a war in the Middle East because of supposed war crimes, but now can't even be bothered to have an office to investigate them.

He has eliminated the FBI investigation department tasked with looking at Right Wing Terrorists, a group which, according to the FBI itself, has had far more success in attacking Americans than Muslim Terror Groups collectively, and which have killed, in the last 50 years, more people than died on 9/11.

In six short months, he has taken a wrecking ball to this country. Every day, the news is more and more like a reality TV show. Every day, he becomes more and more unhinged, attacking any organization or any person that doesn't kowtow to him. He treats his administration like it is some sort of ratings game. He has even had the audacity to suggest he should be put on Mount Rushmore. I will blow the fucking mountain up myself before allowing that atrocity to happen.

So no, I am not going to treat him with respect. And if you don't like that, you can go fuck yourself. Just like Trump is fucking the country I love.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Caesar of American Democracy Recast as Kitty Genovese


Democracy in the United States is either dead or very close to it, bleeding out in a gutter outside the stage door.  That is an inflammatory statement that I’m sure will send many of you sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming “LA LA LA,” probably because of the Cassandra effect.  No one wants to hear this sort of thing, because we are so certain the American system will protect us.

Unfortunately, that is a dangerous denialism, and one that is contributing to our inevitable doom.

And before I get started, I want to clear the air, this is not specifically an anti-Trump piece; Trump is a symptom, not the direct cause.  At best he will simply, as Morris Berman puts it, greatly hasten our end.  The forces at play are significantly larger than one man.  That said, because Trump is so overtly autocratic and dictatorial, these forces that have been hiding beneath the surface of the swamp are now rising like methane gas on a hot summer day.

First, let’s start with the background.  The beginnings of end of democracy in America can be traced back to the tenure of Ronald Reagan, and especially the economic policies he put into operation.  Reagan presided over the first of the great upward wealth redistributions through regressive taxation policy. 

Regressive taxation is defined as taxes that more heavily impact the poor than the wealthy.  A good example of this sort of taxation is the sales tax where a $7.00 tax on a $100.00 purchase is much harder on a poor person than on someone who is wealthy.  The opposite policy, progressive taxation, is exemplified by Income Tax, which increases its rate as the income brackets go up. 

Ronald Reagan slashed the upper tax brackets tax percentage, which under Eisenhower actually approached 90% at the highest levels, while leaving the lower tax rates substantially unchanged.  This meant the Reagan Tax Cut was heavily skewed towards helping the rich, and it can be argued, by hurting the poor.  This single act started tilting the balance of power in America towards the wealthy, and also started us down the road of the massive disparity in net worth at the ends of the spectrum. 

But, it wasn’t the only thing that set the stage.  Reagan eviscerated Unions, which provided a strong counterbalance to management.  He demonized the poor, through the new myth of the “Welfare Queen,” which he used to roll back civil rights, reversing some, but not all, of the gains of the 60s.  More importantly, he solidified the Republican Party into a majority White and Christian party, which set the stage for one party to consistently oppose any real social progress.  And, as we will see later, he reenergized the power of the shadow side of the government that came close to extinction during Watergate.  Iran/Contra was a full fledged rebirth of the so called “deep state,” which most presidents since have nurtured and grown.

The Democrats, however, are not blameless in this subversion of democracy.  In fact, after Reagan, Bill Clinton is the person most responsible for the decline of the American Concept.  Clinton, not Reagan, deregulated the banks and set the stage for the bubble/burst cycle of Shock Economics that left the middle class barely hanging on for dear life.   He finished off, for all intents and purposes, the social safety net that had been established in the 30’s, “ending welfare as we know it.”  He cut the deficit, which is arguably a good thing, but he did it by cutting programs that help people rather than by cutting a bloated and at point, largely unnecessary, Defense Department.

However, these things, at least on the surface, do not demonstrate the end of Democracy.   They show warped priorities, bad ideas, and poor policy decisions.  But if you look behind the curtain you begin to see the actual stabbing of democracy, the Ides of March of the American Ideal, because the murder didn’t occur in the public forum, it happened off stage, and people only have hinted that it even happened at all.

But every murderer leaves behind traces of what they have done, and in this case, the visible knife is the 2016 election.  And don’t misunderstand, the victim probably wouldn’t be any less dead had Hillary won, we simply wouldn’t be seeing the blood dripping off of her hands like we do Trump’s.

In this case, the indicator of the murder can be found in coalitions.

Political science defines the coalition size as one of the markers between “democracies” (including republics and parliamentary systems with a constitutional monarch) and “autocracies” (including oligarchies, dictatorships and theocracies)

In a democracy, the rulers keep power by giving benefits to large segments of the population.  In fact this is a necessity of any government; you need to “reward” your supporters with gifts.  However, to be elected, you need at least a plurality of votes, if not an outright majority.  This means that the giveaways cannot be personally benefiting to the voters, at least not directly.  You need to reward your coalition with policies that please them, be it social programs, stronger militaries, or heavy infrastructure investment.  Usually, the winning coalition is promised a mix of rewards in all three arenas. 

Additionally, it is critical to deliver broad prosperity to your country to remain in power.   The best rewards are meaningless in democracies if they are not paired with a general sense of well-being, or at least an idea that there is hope of things getting better.  This is the message that swept Obama into office in 2008, the idea that he could “fix things.”  Even though things still weren’t great in 2012, he still could offer the promise that things were actually getting better.  In short, he won and remained in office because of the power of a large coalition.

On the other hand, autocracies do not depend on a large coalition, they depend on a small group of the “elect” who help them maintain their power.  Because this group is small, the rewards are much more personal, and generally are in the form of financial remuneration for support.  The larger population is meaningless, at least in terms of maintaining power, as they have no actual say in the government.  In an autocracy, the masses are either distracted through forms of the Roman “bread and circuses” or though such profound oppression that they dare not speak out.  And in a successful autocracy, it is usually a combination of distraction and oppression that mitigate the threat the masses might otherwise pose to the regime.

Putin is a perfect example of this.  The Russian oligarchs have become fabulously rich in his regime, while the masses have been marginalized.  But Putin, unlike Stalin, mixes circuses in with outright threats.  He makes sure the masses are relatively comfortable and well fed, with many of the trappings that they didn’t have during the Soviet rule.  But he also jails (or often kills) opponents with enough regularity that people understand that opposing his rule is a quick way to end up in a modern gulag or dead.

And this sets us up to examine the rapidly expiring body of American Democracy.

While we do not have overt oligarchs (yet) or obvious small coalition policies, if you look at the legislative agenda of the Republican Party, you can see that the large coalition (most of us) being sacrificed for the sake of the small coalition.  Every major piece of Republican legislation benefits a very small group of Americans, generally at the expense of the masses.

First, lets examine the attempt to repeal Obamacare.  While this law did not have majority support until recently, it was a good example of “large coalition” policy.  Although it could have actually gone further, and had fewer rewards for large national corporations, it was audacious in its attempt to provide affordable health care to the majority of Americans.  This is the type of thing a “democratic” leader needs to do to remain in power, give rewards to large swaths of the population.

However, “Trumpcare” does the exact opposite.  Despite the spin that the Republican Party is trying to spread, the ACHA bill does not help large segments of the population.  In fact, according to the CBO, it will cause 24 million people to lose access to insurance.  That is not smart “large coalition” policy, because all of the spin in the world will not matter when stories start to circulate about people dying or going bankrupt from illnesses that Obamacare would have treated.

However, the ACHA does profoundly benefit one group of people, the wealthy, especially the extremely wealthy; basically the people who compose approximately one percent of our population.  That certainly looks like “small coalition” politics.  When Grandma dies despite an early diagnosis of breast cancer or the baby bankrupts his parents because of his childhood leukemia, people are going to get angry.  And as the 24 million people who are going to be hurt the most live in “red states” this SHOULD be electoral suicide for them, and should make most of them run screaming from the bill

But it’s not and they are not.  This is because the large coalition no longer figures into their calculus. 

And all the policies are this way.  The EPA, school lunches, Medicare, Climate Change, National Parks, bank regulation and many other things targeted by the Trump Administration have deep support across the country, and ending them should be completely off the table in a large coalition situation.

However, there is one group that is generally against all of these things, the neo-oligarchs who form the new coalition.  These billionaires throw gouts of money into elections, facilitate the spread of outright lies, and manipulate the rules through gerrymandering and other nefarious techniques to circumvent the will of the people.

And they write articles like this one, which is in the “Liberal” Huffington Post, which claims democracy is not necessarily the best form of government. 

And through these examples, we can see how democracy is being killed.  The large coalition that drove American politics for the last century is rapidly being replaced by the small.

However, it is not entirely hopeless, and there is still a chance that massive blood transfusions can still save the patient.  We were in much the same position at the end of the Gilded Age, when J.P. Morgan felt that he could personally call the shots in this country.  Teddy Roosevelt showed him the truth, that a powerful president, with a broad base of support across the country, could reign in the small coalition that had become convinced that the United States was their personal playground.  A lesson that his nephew, Franklin, also taught to Morgan’s ideological successors, ushering in the largest coalition democracy the world had ever seen via his “New Deal.”

But absent the large coalition of Americans, from both parties, uniting against the real enemy of the neo-oligarchs, democracy, in this country and likely most of the world, is bleeding to death unseen behind the forum.  And at this point, people are watching, and possibly recording the death on their phones, but not actually trying to save her. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Don’t Fear the Tax Man, Unless He Only Comes For Thee


In my last blog, I examined how Democrats work their payouts to their supporters, so that they can retain, and hopefully expand, their winning collation.  As I explained in that post, Social Safety Net programs like Social Security and Medicare, are specifically designed to help large swaths of the population in the hope that people who need those programs will support the party that created them, in other words, prompt them to vote for the Democrats.

And the Republicans, to combat this, must engage in a strategy to make people believe these programs are not sustainable, and then they must offer an alternative carrot to the voters.  The one that they have fixated on is “Lower Taxes.”  Their point behind this is that if taxes were lower, people could put money aside for their own old age.  It stresses personal responsibility over shared burdens.  And honestly, like all public policies, it has both a good side and a bad side, some truths, some lies.  But at the end, it is simply an alternate vision, designed to woo voters to their side.

Or, I should say, it was, until the administration of George W. Bush.

Now it is a harbringer of a sea change in American politics, one that can be read to show that democracy is no longer really needed or desired.  Until “W,” tax cuts were either targeted to the poor, as in the Earned Income Credit (a Gerald Ford policy) or an across the board tax rate reduction, as in the Regan Tax Cuts.  These tax policies benefited a wide swath of voters, and could be viewed as a way for the Republicans to combat the social programs of the Left and draw in voters.  This actually worked for Reagan, who won re-election by an astounding margin.

But, with the Bush II tax cuts, something seemed to change.  Although taxes were still cut across the board, the bulk of the tax cuts were targeted to the super wealthy.  In fact, the richer the person, the better they did with the Bush Tax Cut.  Since 2008, the Republicans across the country have doubled down on this policy, and the bulk of the tax cuts have benefited multi-millionaires, basically the 1% Club.  Although crumbs are still thrown at the Middle Classes, many, and sometimes most, people actually see their taxes go up under current Republican policies.  The only uniform beneficiaries are at the top end of the tax rates.

At the moment, people are still accepting this, because the story has been sold, and bought, that the rich pay far more than their fair share.  Even though this is true on a certain level, progressive tax policy recognizes that Bill Gates can afford a 5 million dollar annual tax bill far better than a minimum wage earner can afford a 500 dollar one.  I should note here, progressive in this usage does not refer to the political left, it simply refers to the idea that taxes increase the more money you make, and go down the less you earn.  Regressive taxes are the opposite, and hit poor people harder than the rich.  Sales Tax, which is uniform, regardless of your income, is an example of a regressive tax.

However, the tax changes currently under consideration by Trump bring regressive taxation to the fore.  Two policies especially are extremely regressive; removal of the child deduction and elimination of the mortgage deduction.  These two policies are among the most progressive tax exemptions, as poor and middle class people spend a lot more of their income, percentage wise, on children and interest.

It’s almost like Trump could care less about using tax policy to win voters.

In fact, this becomes very similar to the payouts that you see in dictatorships and monarchies.  This is because this payout affects only a tiny percentage of the voters, and screws over the rest.  In fact, from a political standpoint, this would be very, very stupid, as the last thing you want to do in a democracy is piss off a sizable percentage of the population.

Unless you no longer care about democracy.

And this is where these policies begin to terrify me.  If Trump was concerned about winning elections in the standard method, i.e. winning the popular vote, he would want to make sure his agenda benefited the widest swath of people.  But what if he didn’t care about that?  What if he, and the Republicans in general, were no longer interested in paying off a large segment of the population?  What if they were only worried about gaining the support of a small, but very powerful, segment of the population?

In that case, their policies would look a lot like these; screw the bulk of the voters and further enrich the already rich and powerful.  That is not the pattern of behavior in a democracy, where you have to please wide swaths of the population, that is the behavior of a party unconcerned about democracy.

In a democracy, you have to get 51 percent of the people, or at least the voters, to vote for you.  This doesn’t matter in a non-democratic country, where the leaders are selected through some other method.  And here, I would like to point out, despite a earning 3 million vote margin, Hillary Clinton is not the president.  So the finger of inequity is already on the scales.

So, tax cuts that are specifically targeted to the richest segment of society are casting light on a real problem, one that may grow, unless we do something about it.  Up until recently, these massive tax cuts for the rich have gained widespread approval because of the aspirational nature of American Society.  We all expect to be rich someday.  In fact, most people consider themselves to just be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” to quote John Steinbeck.

However, income inequality is beginning to raise its head, as many, maybe even most, people begin to recognize their children will do no better in life than they did.  Worse, many people have to face the fact that their children will not do as well.  The aspirations are more and more becoming obvious pipe dreams. This very well grounded concern is what actually pushed Trump into the White House, at least if post election surveys are to be believed.

However, the actual policies being enacted don’t follow from addressing the concerns of the constituents.  The actual policies are very much those of an oligarchy, where the “peasants” have no voice.  Why would this be?

Perhaps it is because they know that they can ride this wave for a couple of elections, get their policies enshrined in such a way that they will be hard to undo.  Possibly they think that they can say that the opposition to helping the poor was “too great,” and use that to fuel outrage to gain even larger margins.  Perhaps this is simply a bait and switch operation, where they feel that they can con the voters into voting against their self interest for years to come.

Or it could be a much darker reality.

Perhaps they have decided that we are moving down a new path, one that doesn’t need millions of voters.  Possibly they no longer care if people are happy, now that they have the majority.  Maybe they think that democracy is a bad idea, and they want to shift to something new, something that will pay off fabulously for them at the expense of the rest of us.  It is possible they believe the democratic experiment has run its course.

If this is the case, the rest of us need to show them just how wrong they actually are.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Carrot and the Stick


There is a reason why Republicans have to insist that the country, and especially the Social Safety Net Programs are “bankrupt.”  (And I refuse to use the Right’s framing of these programs as “Entitelements.”  That pejorative term automatically frames these programs in an extremely negative way.)  I would love to say that this is just an aspect of their slavish devotion to “personal responsibility” but unfortunately, I cannot.  I would even like to say that it is because they want to prove to people that government is always the cause, not the solution, of life’s problems.  The truth, I fear, is much darker.  After reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” a much more devious reason for this attack presented itself.

They need to convince Democrats that their support for their party will not net them anything, because the Democrats will not be able to deliver.

To explain this, I need to give some background.  All rulers, be they monarchs, tyrants or presidents, need to basically bribe their supporters with payouts.  I recognize that this sounds deeply cynical, mainly because it is.  However, this is the fact of how all governments function.  In a Monarchy or Dictatorship, the number of people who need to receive payment for their support is relatively small.  A group of people including the leaders of the military, wealthy patrons, and other strategically placed individuals are sufficient to keep the ruler in power.  And because the number is small, the payments can be quite lavish. 

For examples of this, reflect on the personal wealth of the men who supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or King Salman of Saudi Arabia.  Or for that matter, although Russia is not strictly a Dictatorship, Vladimir Putin.  The people who surround these leaders are immensely wealthy, and much of their riches stem from their support of the leader.  In Saudi Arabia, as most of the powerful men in the country are also related to the King, there is also an aspect of Dynastic Wealth.  For the others though, there are no blood ties to the leaders, only financial ties.  But these financial ties bind the support of the inner circle.  If the payments are cut off, as with Mubarak, the key supporters will quickly turn on the person in charge.

However, in a democracy, there is not the ability to enrich a select group to guarantee remaining in power.  Also, in a democracy like the United States, there are term limits that keep a person from staying in the Presidency for more than 8 years.  This means that if there was a small group running a democracy, they would run the risk of losing their gravy train with each election, and the democracy would quickly turn dictatorial simply so the money would keep flowing into their pockets.

This means, both structurally (a large number of voters must elect the leader) and effectively (no single person can enrich themselves) that democracies must function differently.  Democracies must deliver a flow of benefits to a very specific group of voters in the country, and that requires large scale programs.

In the United States, this means the Democrats create social safety net programs that benefit large groups of people, and Republicans advocate tax cuts that similarly benefit a wide group in the population.  I will deal with the Republican strategy in my next blog, as there are some worrying signs in tax policy that need to be discussed.

But basically, the Democratic strategy has always been to deliver things to a wide segment of the population in the forms of things like Social Security, Unemployment, Medicare, low cost education, etc, etc.  This is an excellent strategy, because most people will need one or more of these programs in their lives, and people will often vote their own self interest.  In fact, the creation of these programs created Democratic dominance on the national level for close to 50 years.  In fact, there were only 16 years of Republicans holding the Presidency between 1932 and 1980, and the two Republicans elected in that time had no interest in eliminating any of the social programs that had been instituted by the other party.

However, that all changed with Ronald Reagan. 

Reagan delivered two simultaneous killing blows to the Democrats, tax cuts and the deficit.  Until Reagan, deficits were not something that were particularly concerning, both because they were small compared to GDP and government bonds were a strong and positive method of saving money.  But Reagan changed this; he slashed taxes and because of this raised the deficit to astronomical, for the time, levels.  This allowed him to spin the story that the government was going “bankrupt” because of the social safety net.

And that statement deeply damaged the Democratic Party, because of the need to reward the base.  Suddenly, the programs that people voted Democratic to support seemed to be on the verge of evaporating.  It became a real fear, for example, that you might pay into Social Security your whole life only to find the trust fund empty when you were ready to draw benefits.  And then he raided the Social Security Trust Fund to make that possibility seem even more likely.  This dramatically eroded support for the Democrats among White Americans, support that, by and large has never returned, because Social Security is one of only two programs that almost all Americans know that they will be able to participate in.  The other is Medicare.

All of the other Social Safety net programs have the appearance of supporting the “unworthy” which is code for minorities and poor people.  It is no surprise that minority support for the Democrats has remained solid, because they know that they may need some of these other programs.  White people need them as well, but there is such a stigma about the benefits at this point that taking them is a point of shame, so there is little support for them, even as whites use them far more than minorities, both in terms of percentage and raw numbers.

So suddenly, Reagan took away the “Reagan Democrats” and won a second term by one of the largest victories since Washington.  He didn’t just win on his message, he won because he convinced a nation that these programs were going bankrupt and the Democrats would never be able to pay off their supporters.

At the same time, he offered another benefit that seemed perfectly targeted to the people, tax cuts.  This meant that voters would have more money in their pockets, and thereby offset the loss of Social Security.  And this was a winning strategy, and violating it, as Bush Sr. did, cost him the election.  Bill Clinton offered at least the possibility of having social programs maintained, while voters knew that Bush had violated HIS promise of “no new taxes.”  One offered the possibility of a payout, while the other had a reality of eliminating one.  Consequently Bush lost the election.

And this has been the pattern to this day.  Obama offered a great benefit, universal health care, and won by large margins.  Those margins would probably been even higher if he’d actually gotten something like Medicare for All, a low cost, high benefit plan.  However, what he created wound up not seeming like a really great benefit to a wide swath of Middle America and because of this, many “Blue” states voted for Trump.  But, as Obamacare was a huge benefit to Millennials, women and minorities, they maintained strong support for the Democrats, because they got the most benefit from the administration.  Groups that got less resumed the pattern of voting for tax cuts that they felt would be an immediate benefit.

So basically, in order to win on National, State, or even Local levels, each party much present a package of goodies that can win voters.  This election, the Democrats didn’t do a great job of selling their package, while Trump, with simplistic language, grabbed the package and promoted it.

I know this seems very base, and crass, but this ultimately is how government in a Democracy works.  You have to promise to reward a large group of people with something you can deliver on.  And then you have to do it.  If Trump succeeds in delivering his promises, he will easily win a second term.  If he does not, either through Democratic opposition, or simply the workings of reality, he will be booted from the White House.  And given his baggage, he might even be booted before 4 years are up.  He made huge promises, and, if he wants to keep his position, he’d better deliver.

The American People are very unforgiving of failure to perform.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Postcards from the Mountains of Madness


Two days ago, a Connecticut Republican was arrested for grabbing a woman’s genitals.  Prior to his arrest, he allegedly exclaimed “I love this new world, I no longer have to be politically correct.”  In related news, a week ago, Jeff Sessions, said, regarding pussy grabbing “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault… I think that’s a stretch.”

Seriously, and I mean this, WHAT THE FUCK????  What warped world have we entered?

To begin, I have written several blogs on the idea of nostalgia, and how it is a desire to return to a past that never was, one that we imagine to be better than the present, and definitely better than the future.  At its base, it is pure revisionism that glosses over all of the terrible things of the past to present an idealized vision of things.  Nostalgia gives us “Gone With the Wind” and its visions of happy and comfortable slaves.  Nostalgia presents us the happy housewife.  Nostalgia creates images of smiling children that are seen but never heard.

In short, nostalgia warps our ideas of the past into a bizarre parody of actual life.  It removes all of the bad things, and elevates the good in a horribly distorted manner.  And on the surface, Trumpism would seem to be a nostalgic return to the 1950’s when the races were segregated; miscegenation was a felony; when women were completely subservient to men; and being a white male, regardless of social class, was the best thing in the world.  It would seem that Trump is trying to turn back the clock to a vision of how America would have been without Civil Rights, without Women’s Rights, and without Religious Freedom

The Trump World is not nostalgia, instead, it is a vision of the past through a dark and twisted filter; it is a desire to bring back, not the good things of the 50’s, but the evil.  It is a desire for darkness that, in all honesty, can be called Satanic.

First, let’s look at what real Nostalgia for the 50’s encompasses, and remember the fact that there is a significant amount of truth at its core.  The 50’s were a very prosperous time.  A man, even without a college education, could be the sole breadwinner, bringing home a comfortable middle class life to his family.  His wife would meet him at the door, with a drink in her hand for him and a nice dinner on the table.  Blacks and whites were “separate but equal,” and there was no racial animus. (Remember this is the nostalgic view of the 50’s)  College students were uniformly crew-cut young Republicans that would follow their fathers into business, and in due time settle down in their own white picket fenced heaven.

Of course, this is a false vision wrapped around a core or truth, but it is a powerful and penetrating encapsulation of what remains, even largely to this day. as the American Dream. 

But even if it looks like it on the surface, and even if the claims are that is the world that they want to bring back, Trumpism is hellishly dystopian vision of this dream. In the Trump vision, the man is head of the household, not through respect, but because it is his goddamned right, and woe unto any woman who dares challenge that.  The woman is not the happy homemaker, she is an ornament, a thing of beauty, to be discarded when the first inevitable lines crease her face.  And I will add, those lines will show up much too early because of the pain and grief poured on top of her by the husband who thinks of her in much the same manner as he thinks of his automobile.  And, like the car, she can easily be traded by the Trump Man for a newer and more exciting model.  No sedan wives in this new world.

The black man is not “separate but equal,” he is separate because of the bars on the cell he was thrown into at about the age of 14.  A cell he was cast into because all Black men are born criminals, and if one dies at liberty, they do so only because they have to good fortune to have done so before committing the murder that their genes demand.  (And acknowledgement to Adolph Loos for giving me this turn of phrase, although he referred to the tattooed, not to minorities, but it still applies here.)

And more, Trumpism advocates for literal concentration camps for Muslims (a group so small in the 50’s that they warranted no consideration, unless it was for the CIA to overthrow a government to install their chosen leader)  The Trump vision is also to load several million immigrants onto trains and ship them back to where they came from, on trains that would run day and night, week after week, year after year, to purge the country of the taint of immigration.  At this point, even the Germans are suspect.  Only the Russians seem to be worthy of consideration for entry into this country.

And finally, College students, like children, need to sit down, shut up, and accept the fact that they will take on a mountain of debt while being indoctrinated into the Republican Party, because all college faculty will have to pass tests of ideological purity to show that they are patriotic Americans who worship at the altar of Adam Smith, God and prosperous Jesus.  And after graduation, their compliance is assured, because they are literally slaves to a debt that they will never, in their entire working life, be able to discharge.  Welcome to Slavery 2.0, where the Masters pull their slaves strings through a combination of threats of debtor’s prison and the dangling fruit of the job that pays in experience, not wages.

George Orwell could not create a world more terrifying than Trumptopia, and H.P. Lovecraft could not envision a monster more amoral and soulless than The Donald.

And the news shows how quickly we can fall into this abyss.  A quick perusal of the headlines of the last few weeks, the race based attacks, the rapes, the hate that pours like sweat off of the brows of the men who now hold our fates in their greasy palms, tells us how far fallen a creature man is, in this time, in this place.

I’d quote Joseph Welch, and ask “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  But this is just beginning.  This is only the start.  And we have 3 days before the inauguration.  If people can feel free to throw away 50 years of societal growth in 12 weeks, what more will happen in 4 years?  How many more atrocities will we endure before we rise up and scream, “NO MORE, THIS FAR AND NO MORE.”  But I fear that there is much more, and this is only the prologue to a play of such cruelty and depravity that even deSade must turn his head.  This time coming up will teach each and every one of us Artaud’s ultimate truth:

“We are not free, and the sky can still fall on our heads.”

I hope to write a blog full of hope and talk about what can be done to stave off the darkness that engulfs us.  But not tonight, not now.  Right now, I need to take a shower, and weep for this brave new world that has such people in it.