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.

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.