Thursday, February 26, 2015

Beneath The Event Horizon

As I have watched the unfolding events in Greece over the last several weeks, I've had a strong sense of deja vu.  Consider the trajectory of Syriza: in a country where the majority of citizens are oppressed by the current ruling regime, and where the majority of citizens are sick of the current regime, a party of "outsiders" and "mavericks" comes to national attention.  What brings them to national attention is their very outspoken criticism of the current ruling regime, combined with boasts of how they will change things to relieve the oppressed masses.

Once they reach a critical mass of popularity, however, these "outsiders" and "mavericks" begin to become more "nuanced" in their confrontation of the existing regime and the systems created and managed by the existing regime.  The fight for ostensible political power between the outsiders and the entrenched regime becomes quite colorful and emotional, yet a day comes when the dust settles and the "outsiders" find themselves in power.  This event is heralded with great celebrations of "hope" for "change," and many self-styled spokespersons for the oppressed masses write letters or blog posts addressed to the new regime, outlining their desires to see their hopes fulfilled.  However, during the fight and afterward, the "outsiders"-turned-rulers become so nuanced that eventually they become indistinguishable from the entrenched regime they replaced.

Sound familiar?  The political career of the current President of the United States has followed just such a trajectory, as foreseen in a long-winded post I wrote a while back.  But this phenomenon is not limited to Obama.  The entire Democratic Party is guilty, as we have seen with Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and with John Kerry, who ran against George W. Bush in 2004 on a platform of vacuous and vague promises of "change" that was remarkably similar to the platform on which Barack Obama ran for the Presidency in 2008.

I'd like to suggest that Syriza's capitulation shows that not just in the United States, but throughout the West, participation in the official political process has become a complete waste of time for ordinary people.  How could it be otherwise, when the wealth of the world is concentrated in the hands of such a small number of people?  The political process is no longer of any value precisely because, once wealth concentration exceeds a certain percentage of the total wealth available to a society, it is economic power that trumps all other forms of power.  How can ordinary Americans - no matter how numerous - influence the trajectory of government when most of the wealth in America is held in the hands of a few?  And how can the ordinary citizens of any country in the West take charge of the governance of their own countries when most of those countries are beholden to the world's richest banks?  (By the way, according to the list of banks I linked, if the size or assets of a bank are computed according to "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" as is done in the United States, then JP Morgan and Bank of America are the #1 and #2 banks in the world.  Citigroup is #5.  These are all American banks.  The list of top investment banks is even more interesting.)

We therefore find ourselves - most of us - in a situation where we no longer have any real control over where we are headed as a nation or as a world. It's like being sucked beneath the event horizon of a black hole; once you go under, there's only one direction left to go. Therefore, in 2016, why look for a supposed "outsider" or "maverick" to vote for? If they're famous enough to be voted for, they're already bought and paid for. Why not rather look for non-political avenues for carving out a meaningful life for yourself? If you must vote, vote for one of your pets - at least they won't lie to you. Кошка за президент!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Libertarian Lifeboat

I'm a bit tied up with an ongoing research project, so here's another repost from way back.  I think it's particularly relevant in light of some of the essays and comments I've seen circulating the blogosphere recently.  As I wrote in a recent post, American society has been unstable from the start, due to the emphasis by the Founding Fathers on "liberty" (as in the right to do whatever one pleases) without a counterbalancing emphasis laid on our duty to each other as members of a civil society.  Yet there are still credulous people pushing "libertarian" ideals and champions such as Lew Rockwell and Ron and Rand Paul.  I'd like to say to such people, "So...we got into our present fix because some people found out how to get filthy rich at the expense of all the rest of us by dirty, yet legal tricks.  Now they are making us all suffer.  And your solution is to keep promoting a supposed right to the very selfishness that got us into this mess.  Hmm...what's that saying about insanity consisting of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?"

I'd like to take a break from considering alternatives to our present breaking corporatist economic and societal systems, in order to tell a couple of stories that need to be told. Also, I have taken a number of pictures of people over the last several weeks, promising those whom I photographed that I would post their pictures on future installments of The Well Run Dry. So, God willing, the next two posts will tell needful stories, and the following post will have pictures relating to bicycle transportation.

The story I am about to tell you is one I heard a few years ago. It is a very strange illustration of the potential for bizarre human behavior. It took place several years back, aboard a double-bottomed, Handy-sized sea-going bulk cargo ship whose name escapes me at the moment. The ship was old, and had seen many voyages, some through very severe weather, both in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its crew was a volatile mix of quirky, memorable types and experienced, wise, level-headed men. One of the strangest and most quirky characters was the boatswain (or bos'un for the nautical initiates), a big-boned, burly, sandy-haired, square-jawed man of indeterminate age.

The bo'sun was a fearsome sight to the deck crew whom he supervised as he directed sharp glances all around, swiveling his large head on his bull neck while barking commands, muscular biceps flexed as he rested his large hands on his hips. Those who crossed him usually did it only once, as the punishment he dealt was swift and severe. Aside from giving orders, he almost never talked to any other shipmates. This was unusual, since the three licensed officers on board were quite friendly with all the crew, figuring that pleasant voyages contributed to crew effectiveness.

The bo'sun tended to keep to himself when not on duty or at meals, preferring to remain in his quarters rather than mix with the crew. Almost no one ever saw the inside of his quarters, but the one or two crewmen who were able to get a glimpse said that on one wall was a Confederate Rebel flag, and that there was a bookcase underneath containing books such as The Politician by Robert W. Welch; The Way Things Ought To Be and See, I Told You So, by Rush Limbaugh; and Robert Lewis Dabney: The Prophet Speaks by Doug Phillips, along with several copies of The New American, a magazine published by the John Birch Society. He also had a life-sized poster of Rush next to an old VCR with which he frequently played a battered copy of Birth of a Nation. (At times while on watch, other crew members could hear him muttering scenes of the movie from memory.) Somehow amid all the clutter, he had also managed to stash 250 pounds of cast iron free weights, a couple of dumbbell bars and a barbell bar, all of which he used religiously.

His physical training served him well on the particular voyage we are now considering – a voyage that took the ship from the tropics up into the North Pacific during the height of typhoon season. The ship was carrying a load of some grain – rice, I think – and its course carried it right into the path of a tropical depression that was also moving north. The loading of the rice had been supervised by a junior officer without much experience, and as a result, the cargo settled, then began to shift as the ship ran into increasingly rough weather. The depression strengthened into a storm that grew into a typhoon, and began to produce dangerous rogue waves. Most of the crew had experienced typhoons before, and they were therefore not terribly worried, until two rogue waves hit the ship within five minutes of each other and caused her to heel hard to port. This caused the cargo to shift dangerously, making the vessel list. Then a third rogue wave hit and downflooded the engine room, causing the ship to go dead in the water.

The vessel's situation was now serious. Yet even at this point she might have been saved if the engineer had been able to restore power quickly. But by this time the ship, which was old as has been mentioned before, began to suffer the effects of corrosion and metal fatigue as the pounding of the storm proved to be too much for her. Within thirty minutes of losing power the front hold began to flood, and the flooding quickly spread to hold number two. By the time the crew realized their peril it was too late for many to escape. Only one lifeboat could be launched in the minutes before the ship sank, and those who were lucky enough to be nearby piled into it in whatever condition they found themselves, with whatever possessions they happened to be carrying. It was night when she sank.

The dawn revealed that seven men had survived out of a crew of twenty-four. Amid somewhat calmer weather, they looked at each other with mostly frightened eyes. There were two able seamen, the second officer, an oiler, the steward's assistant, an ordinary seaman, and the bo'sun. The steward's assistant shivered in the wind and rain, as he hadn't had time even to put his clothes on before the sinking. One of the able seamen had been able to don a survival suit, as had the bo'sun. The second officer had a fractured leg. The ordinary seaman had suffered a concussion. All were badly shaken – except for the bo'sun.

He had managed to grab several items before getting into the lifeboat. His stash consisted of a number of blankets, some tins of meat, water and hardtack, several Army-style can openers, a solar still, an emergency fishing rod, a knife and a first aid kit. In all he must have carried over a hundred pounds of supplies with him into that boat. Of course, this was in addition to the supplies with which the lifeboat was normally stocked. The other survivors cheered up greatly when they saw the bo'sun's stash in addition to the lifeboat's regular supplies. But their cheer was short-lived.

The steward's assistant spoke first. “Hey there, bo'sun,” he said, “could you pass me one of those blankets? I was in bed when the ship started to sink.” One of the able seamen said, “Say, bo'sun, the second officer's in bad shape. Is there any Advil we could give him?” The oiler chimed in and said, “Oh, no! The launch of the lifeboat caused us to lose all of the can openers in the boat's survival kit. Hey, bo'sun, could you spare an extra?”

Their requests died away into silence as the bo'sun merely stared at them for several seconds. Then he spoke. “You're not expecting a handout, are you? That's socialism!” He spat derisively over the side of the boat. “I earned what I have by my own effort,” he continued. “I won't give handouts, but I will let you earn the privelege to use what I have. That's what our Founding Fathers believed in.”

Now the rest of the survivors were silent in their turn, staring with shocked faces at the bo'sun. Finally, the able seaman who had asked about the Advil spoke again. “But that's totally wacked out, bo'sun!” he shouted. “Look at the second officer! He's in no shape to earn anything! Why are you being a jerk?” An instant later, the bo'sun's fist crashed into his jaw and he crumpled to the bottom of the lifeboat.

“Now hear this,” said the bo'sun in a low, dangerous voice. “I don't give free rides to anybody. If you don't pull your own weight, you get nothing from me. Why, next you'll want me to socialize medical care! Ain't gonna happen. If the second officer is motivated enough, he'll do what it takes to get medicine. You who want the extra blanket!” he shouted, pointing at the steward's assistant. “If you want a blanket, get over here and grab this fishing rod. You gotta catch thirty pounds of fish. That's my price.”

Thus began the miserable journey of the survivors as ocean currents pushed them slowly northward. Needless to say, the second officer died within three days, and the others dumped his body overboard on the bo'sun's orders. The only epitaph the bo'sun spoke was to mutter about “freeloaders on society getting what they deserved.” He also muttered frequently that it was his manifest destiny to be the boss of that lifeboat.

Afterward, all the survivors were kept busy from sunup to sundown catching fish, cleaning fish, sun-drying fish and operating the solar still. In return for their labors they were allowed to eat just enough to stay alive. But the bo'sun ate his fill every day, and his stocky build began to grow chubby. By this time almost everyone in the boat was shirtless, since the weather had entirely cleared and had grown quite warm as the boat drifted out of the tropic zone into Northern Hemisphere summer conditions. The other survivors took notice of two large tattoos across the bo'sun's chest, one of which was an artist's rendition of Ayn Rand's face, and another which was a picture of a gnarled hand with the name “ADAM SMITH” written below.

The bo'sun himself noticed his increasing chubbiness, and began a two-hour regimen of calisthenics and body-weight strength-building exercises every day (although he never used his strength to do any actual work). Meanwhile the other survivors grew weaker and weaker, and one more man died. By now it was late July or early August, and though the boat had drifted north of the 35th parallel of latitude, it was still quite hot. The bo'sun was bothered by the heat, especially because it made him sweat a lot and grow thirsty during his workouts. But the solar still was slow in producing fresh water and the canned water was by now used up.

One day the bo'sun had a brilliant idea. “We're gonna do things a little different,” he said to the others. “We're all each gonna get his own space on this boat. However much space you get depends on how much you can fight for, and since I'm the strongest guy on this boat, I get the biggest space. Stay outta my space,” he said. Later that morning, he took most of the remaining blankets and made a shade covering over his newly created “space.” But still, he felt hot. Frustrated, he racked his brain for a solution. Then he smiled broadly as a new idea occurred to him. He found a hand drill and some large wood drill bits from the stash he had brought on board, and began to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat under his “space.”

The other survivors looked at him aghast. “Hey man, what are you doing??!” they all shouted at once. “I'm making a little fountain for my space, to cool my feet,” the bo'sun replied. “What's wrong, are you jealous?” “Dude,” they all shouted back, “you'll sink this boat and kill us all!” “What I do isn't gonna kill us or ruin this boat,” he growled, “and besides, what I do in my space is my business, so lay off!”

At this, the man telling the story broke off, overcome by emotion. “That dirty, selfish...” he finally said, then began coughing uncontrollably. The cough turned into a gag as our chief steward turned the man's body to the side and held a bucket up to his mouth. He retched up a last bit of swallowed seawater, then lay back on the steward's bunk, gasping. The steward noticed that the man was still shivering, ten hours after being pulled from the sea.  As the steward readjusted the man's blankets, we briefly glimpsed the sunburns and multiple salt water sores that covered his bony, emaciated body.  Under the blankets he was naked, for shortly after pulling him from the water, we had disposed of the tattered rags that had served as his clothing during his long months as a castaway.  At least he was no longer cyanotic.  Had we not spotted him at just the right moment, things would have turned out much worse for him. The ship's doctor gave the man an injection, told the cook to bring more hot water bottles, and told the rest of us to let the man have some rest.

P.S.: The story I have just told is entirely false. Anyone who has actually worked on a ship can probably tell that I haven't. But I told this story in order to prevent it from coming true, if you get my drift. As a very influential Man once said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

P.P.S.: The Bo'sun in this story is a caricature of a particular ideology. Yet there are many ideologies of selfishness in the world today, and they must all be guarded against if our society is to successfully navigate the downside of Hubbert's Peak.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Homeschooling As An Exit Strategy

 Here's a repost of an essay I wrote back in 2010.  It's just as relevant today, in my opinion.  The educational choices described therein are now being adopted by families belonging to other ethnic minorities, as reported here, here, and here.  In the near future, I hope to begin a series of posts about reaching the poor in our communities.  As I wrote in "A Clinic at the Meeting Place of Nations," the American urban poor now come from a great diversity of backgrounds, including those who through various circumstances are now finding themselves disenfranchised from former places of privilege.  Many of the poor, regardless of background, are running wounded.  Whoever wants to help these people in the project of soul repair and culture repair wants to do something truly worthwhile.  The project of culture repair does not, however, begin by lashing out at these people and calling them "overfed clowns," etc.  You won't get anywhere with that approach.  For those of us who have been targeted by privileged pontificators who blame our wounded-ness on us rather than on those who did the wounding, this repost can serve as a can of gadfly-repellent. 

In my posts, “The Polyculture of Resilient Neighborhoods,” and “My (Somewhat) Walkable, (Somewhat) Russian Neighborhood,”I described people, families and communities whose choices have positioned them for maximum survivability in this present time of resource depletion and economic collapse. I described the cultural motivations for the choices these people have made. In today's post, I'd like to describe a segment of the native-born U.S. population, and how many of its members are finding a way of escape from a culture deliberately designed to destroy them.

Upon liberation from de facto slavery, the Black American population found that there was still a strong campaign throughout the broader society to keep us weak and subjugated. One of the tools of that campaign was the creation of “separate but equal” schooling. History abundantly shows how unequal that separate education actually was. (See “Brown versus Board of Education” from the Brown Foundation website and “Early Civil Rights Struggles: Brown v. Board of Education” from African American History.)

This unequal, sociopathically administered child education supposedly ended with the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. What really happened, however, is that where schools were forced to integrate, these schools were turned into a weapon against minority children. Jonathan Kozol, a well-known school teacher, activist and author, described how this process worked out in his 1967 book, Death At An Early Age. (You can read excerpts here and here.) I believe the process really kicked into high gear from the presidency of Ronald Reagan onward. Mr. Kozol documents this ongoing process in later books such as Savage Inequalities: Children In America's Schools and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, which was published in 2005.

The transformation of the nation's public school system into a weapon of mass destruction against minorities (especially black boys) has led to an environment in which minority children are negatively labeled, treated to disproportionately harsh discipline, ignored by incompetent teachers and administrators who refuse to push their students or expect anything of them, and who instead tell their students that they will never amount to anything. Consider the following fact: Black American boys are far likelier to be targeted by teachers for special education classes, medication or expulsion than non-minority boys who display similar behavior. In the United States, special education was a $60 billion industry in 2009. (Additional sources: “Institutional Practices and the African American Boy,” “Lorraine Forte: Suspensions in Chicago Schools Target Black Boys,” and “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes.”) Entrance into college is becoming increasingly difficult for those Black youth who go through the public school system: more and more high school guidance counselors are deliberately trying to steer minority youth away from college, either by giving bogus advice or by withholding information about options for college entrance and tuition support. (Sources: “More Than Gatekeepers,” “Study finds segregation in universities.”)

The hostile degeneracy of the public school system is one factor that has helped to foster a dysfunctional culture in minority communities. But a growing segment of the Black American population is finding a way of escape – via homeschooling.

Homeschooling is a phenomenon that is sweeping up an increasing number of Americans of every cultural background. In 2009, there were about 2 million home-educated students in the United States, and the homeschool population is continuing to grow at an estimated rate of 5 to 12 percent per year, according to this study. Another source suggests that the actual rate of growth may be fifteen percent per year.

About fifteen percent of these homeschooled students are nonwhite. The fastest growing segment of home-schoolers are from the African-American population. These homeschooling families cite many reasons, both religious and secular, for their choice; yet a recurrent theme is the recognition that the public school system is a predator that is deliberately trying to destroy their children. Consider these stories:

A 2009 survey of 24 African-American homeschooling families found that nineteen of these families cited discrimination in their public schools as a prime motivation for choosing to homeschool.

A 2005 article in USA Today describes choices two young Black families made to homeschool their children after experiencing disappointment with the public school system.

In an article titled, “On Being an African American Homeschooler,” the author states that “Our people fought and many died for the right to be educated alongside everyone else, in integrated schools. It is an insult to turn your back on it. As far as I can see, however, what we fought for no longer exists.”

Homeschooling is not nearly the exclusive province of the rich; according to a recent USA Today article, around 40 percent of homeschool families earned less than $50,000 per year in 2009. (But for a rather different take on the data behind the USA Today article, read this.) In 1996, the number was over 60 percent. According to blogger Valerie Delp, “The school system spends on average $5,700 per pupil while the average homeschooing family spends only around $600 per pupil. Despite the monetary gap...homeschooled students outperform their public school counterparts significantly.”The desire to homeschool among economically challenged and single parent heads of households is also leading to innovative solutions. In fact, the Black community is producing many centers of excellence and repositories of best practices for homeschooling. Thus a new, valuable, homegrown culture – of dignity, self-respect and, above all, competence – is emerging in at least one minority population.

The abandonment of the public education system by many members of the Black community has led to attempts by some in the school system to persuade us to “hang in there and try to reform the system” for which we all fought so hard to gain access. (I wonder if some of this attempted persuasion is motivated by the fact that school districts lose money when they lose students?) Also, many public school districts, threatened with a loss of funding due to the withdrawal of students, are now trying to woo these students back with “magnet” schools and virtual “charter schools” whose curriculum is provided and administered by private, for-profit corporations.

But attempts to woo or badger Black homeschoolers back into the public school fold are falling on increasingly deaf ears. Black American parents are increasingly unwilling to force their children to suffer the onslaught of a broken educational system while pleading with the system to reform itself. I am reminded of something I heard during a recent C-Realm Podcast interview of Dmitry Orlov, author of the book Reinventing Collapse. Among the things he said concerning the American criminal justice system was this:

“I think that people who think there's something to be gained by writing more laws or changing laws or anything like that are basically helping legitimize a system that shouldn't have any legitimacy at this point. There are a lot of examples, but it's sort of like, if you rape a girl a few times and then ask for her hand in marriage, should you get it? Is that a good thing to do? So this is what you have to look at as the system slowly unwinds – should we really shore it up? Should we forgive it? Should we approach it with an outstretched hand, saying, 'Oh – you can be better...we can reform you' as opposed to 'Let's watch you die'?...If you look at what the criminal justice [system] in this country has done, it has committed a series of crimes for which no apology would be acceptable.”

That is how many Black Americans now feel about American public education: rather than saying, “Let's try to reform you,” we are saying, “Let's watch you die.”

On every hand there are signs that the system is indeed dying, due to the ongoing economic collapse of the United States, as the notional “wealth” of many sons and daughters of privilege evaporates and the best public schools suddenly discover that they are underfunded. (For examples, see “School Budget Cuts: No End In Sight,” “Survey: School budget cuts even worse next year,” “School budget cuts threaten gains,” and “ACLU suit: 6 OC school districts charge illegal fees” – an article describing the travails of some unfortunate formerly trendy schools in formerly affluent Orange County, California.) A deflationary depression can become a great equalizer.

The system is dying even as it has begun to destroy its own sons and daughters of privilege. How many uneducated, incompetent graduates of high school “advanced placement” and “honors” programs are there? (See “Most High School Kids Cheat -- and Don't Think There's Anything Wrong With That,” “Academic cheating, aided by cellphones or Web, shown to be common,” “75% of High School Students Cheat Their Way into College,” and “"Graduating" from Graduating From College.”)

Yes, the system is dying. As it dies and leaves a vacuum in its wake, that vacuum can be filled by a network of home educators, armed with adequate resources, sharing best practices. Homeschool networks can contribute to the rise of resilient neighborhoods, and the reversal of negative culture in neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, we must be on our guard against continued dysfunctional moves on the part of the system in its continued attempts to destroy those who are escaping from the system.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Long Spoons In Hell


Both the professional and personal literature on clinical narcissism mention the propensity of narcissists to project – that is, assign their own dark and evil qualities to the people they choose as scapegoats. For instance, if a narcissist is lazy, violent, thieving, murderous, addicted to mind-altering substances, and prone to petty crime, he is likely to find a scapegoat whom he can blame for being all the things he himself is – but in spades. Thus he soothes his conscience so that he can live with himself. Narcissistic projection is behind much of the present-day hatred and persecution by some white Americans of everyone who does not look like them or act like them.

An interesting question arises in the study of a narcissistic social unit, whether it be a family, a workplace, a school, or a nation's culture. The question is, what happens to a bunch of narcissists when they are deprived of their usual and customary scapegoats/dumping grounds/projection targets? History provides clues to the answer. I stumbled on one such clue last weekend as I was reading the comments to one of the excellent posts on ClubOrlov. A commenter with the handle “Larkin” mentioned a movie titled, “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.” The movie documents the attempts of a collection of German expats to establish a tropical Eden on the uninhabited island of Floreana in the South Pacific.

According to a New York Times review of the movie, the expats were a very “special” bunch. They were also all “upper class.” The two who first arrived – a physician and his younger lover – were both married to others when they decided to travel to Floreana. The female half of this adulterous couple was infirm in body, but the male half was a hard taskmaster who was frustrated that living off the land left him too little time to write the philosophy books he wanted to author. This couple was joined by another couple who were legitimately married and expecting a child when they arrived, but who almost lost their baby when the physician refused to help them in the pregnancy. Three others joined them: a married woman and her two gigolos. This woman proclaimed herself the empress of the island shortly after her arrival. Needless to say, there was not enough room on the island for seven grandiose egos, and their utopian experiment did not end well. They disbanded after two droughts and (quite possibly) two murders.

From these people we can take three lessons. First, we see that a society whose most powerful, privileged and spoiled members scapegoat convenient targets will turn on itself once those targets are exhausted. Second, we see the outworkings of damnation which I wrote about in an earlier post, the consequences people reap in this life for choosing to be a certain kind of people. Third, we see the outcome of attempts of spoiled, self-identified “elites” to create a “utopian” society. They may think they'll end up with an Ayn Rand “Atlas Shrugged” ideal, but it's far more likely that they will end up as characters on the business end of a Flannery O'Connor novel. I expect a similar story to be played out in the U.S. as this nation's stock of unearned and undeserved privilege dwindles - starting from the top downward.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pogo's Mirror

This past week, a co-worker and I were discussing the sorry state of world affairs. He had mentioned to me the fact that members of wealthy school districts in our town were attempting to forbid inter-district transfers of students, thus limiting the ability of poorer students to attend better-funded schools. That got me talking about clinical narcissism as a useful lens by which to examine the behavior of the wealthy in the United States – especially regarding the tendency of the wealthy elites, to project their own pathology onto the poor, and especially people of color among the poor.

His responses were agreeable for the most part, but one thing caught my notice, namely, the names he mentioned when he began to name who he thought these elites were. Names like the Bilderbergs and the Rothschilds were mentioned. As I listened to him, I thought (but did not say), “Why don't you also mention the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission?” As I thought about the names he mentioned, I thought about the tendency which is common among many Americans to blame their increasing miseries on some extremely secret cabal of anonymous elites who want to establish some sort of anti-capitalist, anti-free market, anti-“Christian”, anti-American “New World Order.”

A few days later, I found some studies published in 2014 by Oxfam (here and here) which describe the ongoing, drastic, and unrestrained concentration of the world's wealth into a rapidly shrinking number of hands. One of the most striking conclusions of these statements is that the world's 85 richest people now own the wealth of half of the world's population. And according to a 2014 Guardian article (, “the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world...” Indeed, the world's richest 1 percent will own more than all the rest of the world by next year, 2016. The Oxfam studies also state that “Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy...”

What does “ownership” mean in this context? I believe it means possession of control of most of the economic flows of the global economy – possession which is backed up by a combination of private and government power. As an example, if you need software to enable a computer to perform certain tasks, and if that software can be had from only one vendor, and if that vendor allows you access to the software only under the terms of a legally enforceable rental agreement which prevents you from owning the software outright, then that vendor's claim on you counts as an element of the vendor's “wealth.” To put it another way, if the only way you can have food is by growing the food on land that is enforceably claimed by another, and if in order to grow your food, you must pay rent or become a slave to this other, then the claim this other person has on you counts as an element of his “wealth.” Now let's say that this “other” wants to own all the land on Earth, and you can get some idea of the predicament that the “non-owners” find themselves facing. Of course, you can decide that you are too poor to enjoy the luxury of computing, in which case the software vendor “loses money.” But it's kind of hard to voluntarily decide that you're too poor to eat.

Now, these uber-“owners” – are they some secret, secretive, anonymous, unidentifiable cabal? Not hardly. The researchers who produced the Oxfam studies I have cited used data from the Forbes Magazine's annual list of the world's richest 500 people. Here is the 2014 list, if anyone is interested.  Do you want to know who benefited from (and most likely paid for) the Citizens United verdict handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court? Do you want to know who bought and paid for the current crop of U.S. representatives and senators, along with state governors and legislators, judges (both Federal, State, county and municipal), news outlets and other media, school boards, and other instruments of power? Do you want to know who is responsible for the hard turn toward fascism now occurring in the United States and its English-speaking vassals, and in Europe?  Or who is now pushing the governments of the U.S. and Europe to ratify the TTIP?  According to Oxfam and Forbes Magazine, you don't have to look for secret handshakes, occult signs or mumbled passwords. The responsible parties are hiding in plain sight.

Why then can't most of us see them? Why do we go looking for secret cabals instead? As far as those of us in the English-speaking world, I think the answer is twofold. First, most of us are taught from birth to admire these people. Second, we are taught to emulate them. The teaching is oft subtle, oft blatant, and ever-present. And it has a definite effect. I am thinking just now of the book Every Man's Battle by Stephen Arterburn, et al., in which the authors spoke of how much American media are saturated by sexual content (because sex $ell$!), and how constant exposure to sexually saturated media destabilizes American morality. Arterburn is an author who writes for the American evangelical market. But Arterburn and company probably haven't thought too much about how much more American media are saturated with appeals to our lust for money and material possessions, nor has he thought about how much money-lust has penetrated the mainstream American evangelical church. Consider charlatans like Dave Ramsey and his “Financial Peace University” (“Live like nobody else now, so you can live like nobody else later!”), or the Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, whose book is a case of one of the few times the American evangelical church started a fad that went secular instead of becoming swept up in fads that started secular and went religious.

But it gets even better, as we look beyond American evangelicalism to see how secular America teaches us to want to get rich. Think of the impact of game shows on the American psyche. Those who are old enough to remember will probably say that Let's Make A Deal was one of the finest examples of selling greed to hapless children parked in front of a TV screen. Consider all the rags-to-riches stories to which we are exposed in this country. Consider all the gossip magazines next to the checkout stands of most supermarkets. Consider the pervasiveness of state lotteries. The lotteries are especially interesting, in that they are the most blatant example of a zero-sum game (namely, if one person wins, everybody else loses). And the large numbers of people who buy lottery tickets show that many of us are not much better than drowning rats in a laboratory psychology experiment, who, when we see one rat being rescued out of a vat full of thousands of rats, will each struggle to make sure that we are the next rat to be rescued by the experimenters, rather than making other arrangements for our own rescue to the extent that we can.

In short, we are taught to be greedy, and to look at the world's richest people, not as the rotten people they actually are, but as people who have “made it” – people who inhabit a place we'd like to arrive at some day. They become for us the embodiment of the “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” which have been instilled in us. Rather than being revolted by these people or their methods, we have become like them – in kind, though not in degree. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Living On The Right Half of the Plane



I'll begin this post with yet another metaphor.

The behavior of nearly all physical systems can be modeled by systems of differential equations. Solving these equations as a function of some independent system variable allows for prediction of how the physical system responds to variations in a particular system input. One problem with differential equations is that all but the simplest of them are quite hard to solve. Therefore a system modeler is always on the lookout for tricks and tools to simplify the solution of differential equations.

One such tool is the Laplace transform, by which linear differential equations can be turned into algebraic equations. These algebraic equations can be easily manipulated to determine those functions which are solutions of the original differential equations describing the physical system in question. These algebraic equations can, in fact, be combined into a transfer function which describes the behavior of the physical system. This transfer function is usually written as a factored polynomial expression with a polynomial numerator and a polynomial denominator, like this:



The numbers z1, z2, etc. are called the zeros of the transfer function, and the numbers p1, p2, etc. are called the poles of the transfer function. The poles and zeros are complex numbers of the form a+jb, where j equals the square root of -1. For any pole or zero, the number b can be equal to zero, in which the pole or zero is entirely real. If the number a equals zero, then the pole or zero has no real part, and the physical system is marginally stable. If the number a is positive, the system is unstable – that is, in response to a finite change in a system input, the system output grows without bound until the system destroys itself. When any of the poles of the system transfer function have a positive real part, we say that these poles are on the right half of the control plane, signifying that the system is unstable. One way to make an unstable system stable is to add a negative feedback loop which counteracts the tendency of the system output to grow without bound.

Many social systems behave in the same way as physical systems modeled by differential equations, in that there is some element of instability for which we must compensate by adding a feedback loop to prevent the system from destroying itself. From whence the instability? From the people who make up the social system – “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied; and a man's eyes are never satisfied.” (Proverbs 27:20) The cravings of each of us require checks and balances, lest by the unrestrained exercise of those cravings we destroy both ourselves and the social systems of which we are a part.

This realization has guided the formation of enduring social structures, including societies, communities and cultures that last over the long run. The members of such social units realize that the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the collective are linked, and that they must be balanced in a healthy way. Therefore, the members of such communities recognize that there must be necessary curbs on the pursuit of individual happiness. A good summary term to describe this connectedness is the Bantu word ubuntu, the meaning of which has been summarized as follows: “I am because we are.

Looking at social systems in this way enables us to see that the United States was an unstable social experiment from the very start. The American revolution, financed and led by wealthy and wealth-loving upper-class colonists, was an affirmation of “...inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness...” The underpinnings of this affirmation were, among other things, the writings of John Locke, who believed that the role of the government should be limited solely to protection of private “property”, defined as a person's “life, liberty and estate.” To put it another way, “...all are entitled to lead a free life in the pursuit of happiness, but how they get there is up to them. The pursuit is that of an individual, not of a larger force.” (Cogan, Clio's Psyche, June 2011).

Wealthy people – especially those with a Western mindset – can be quite selfish; thus the emphasis on an individual pursuit in the society created by the wealthy former colonists, a society which was dominated by what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “crass individualism” and narrow self-interest: “...[I see] an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.” (de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840).

That quote is from a portion of de Tocqueville's work where he describes how democracy might slide into despotism. I think there were some things which de Tocqueville might not have anticipated (such as how such a society might slide into narcissism); yet I submit that his quote describes the logical outgrowth of a society built on the individual pursuit of happiness without regard for how each person's pursuit might affect the larger collective. In the United States, therefore, the necessary feedback loop of being forced to consider the consequences of one's individual pursuits on the health and welfare of others was greatly weakened from the start.

This has led to a society which, after only a few generations, produced a number of holders of great concentrations of economic power, people whose actions therefore had a strongly disproportionate and frequently negative effect on the health of the entire community. On multiple occasions, the holders of such wealth and power successfully fought off the efforts of the community to rein in that power by appealing to “the free market ideal,” and the rights granted to men by “natural law,” the chief right being the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet the unrestrained actions of these people led to frequent system crashes and painful reboots where the ability of individuals to amass large concentrations of economic power was temporarily curtailed. The social system called the U.S.A. was able to recover after each crash because this country still had a large economically exploitable base of natural resources.

Now we are facing what may possibly be the mother of all crashes, and instead of rediscovering our connectedness to each other, many in the U.S. are addicted to right-wing demagogues who want to remove all community restraints on the exercise of individual “rights.” Some of these people are favorites of some members of the “peak oil/collapse” scene. I am thinking of those who agree that our government has become a corrupt oligarchy, those who decry the capture of the government by big business, and who put forward people like Pat Buchanan and Ron and Rand Paul as potential saviors. They even quote Ron Paul publicly wringing his hands over the power big business has at all levels of government. What these people are not sharp enough to realize is that the solution proposed by Buchanan and the Pauls and people like them is to remove all government restraint over the individual pursuit of whatever makes each of us happy.

Such a removal is sold as a means to guarantee that each of us has a crack at becoming a self-made Horatio Alger story millionaire or billionaire. Yet the truth is that the world's dwindling store of remaining wealth has been concentrated in so few hands that in the aftermath of the removal of all government restraint, the free-for-all competition for what's left will be a zero-sum game in which those who were already the fattest predators win and most of the rest of us get gobbled up.  Afterward, we will find ourselves being ruled solely by naked corporate power.  (Imagine, for instance, your children daily pledging allegiance to the flag of Microsoft.)  And then the system will crash, because its owners did not recognize the limits to growth, the consequences of ruining the environment, or the outcome of devouring their own fellow human beings.

So to return to my original metaphor, I feel like a hostage passenger on a bus careening down a mountain dirt road. Someone has drained all the damping fluid out of the shock absorbers, thus removing all the negative feedback which would keep the bus from bouncing off the road as it hits bumps and ruts at a rate which coincides diabolically with the resonant frequency of the bus-shock absorber-tire system. Some of us are about to get car-sick (or is it bus-sick?), some of us are saying our prayers, and too many of us are trying to help the bus to crash by dancing in the aisle. And the bus driver has his pedal to the metal, and whoever gets to drive the bus after 2016 isn't likely to be any better.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Syriza's Day

Today, the Syriza party won nearly half of the seats in the Greek Parliament.  This will likely set Greece on the path to an exit from the European Union, and on a path to a drastic reorganization of its internal economy toward a more equitable arrangement for its people.

The experience of Greece (and of Portugal, Italy, Spain and the Baltic states) in the European Union shows that it's not just the British and Americans who can play the game of "hierarchy of white privilege."  The EU has arranged itself so that flows of economic wealth enrich a few nations at the expense of many others.  Thus the enjoyment of the benefits of "European privilege" have been reserved for a few while the costs of that privilege have been borne by the many who are overwhelmingly non-Germanic, non-English, non-Scandinavian, and historically less industrialized.  Today that arrangement is in danger of coming apart.

The recent history of Greece has some interesting similarities to recent history in the United States, including neoliberal takeovers of political and economic processes and riots over police shootings of unarmed teenagers.  It will be interesting to see how the holders of privilege in the United States react to Syriza's victory.  A successful political revolt such as Syriza's has become less likely in the United States, due to the dismantling of the American political process.  (See this and this.)  Yet there are other ways for a healthy periphery to go "No Contact" with a pathological political center.