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.

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.