Monday, December 31, 2012

Two Videos that Inspired Me This Year

Not really a political post today, but I just wanted to capture a couple of videos that I found to be inspiring this year.  Not in the sense of getting you fired up to go run a marathon or something, but just a couple of videos that motivated my behavior.  They helped me recognize what's important in my personal life and also inspired me to pursue a goal that I've aspired to accomplish but never have.

The first is from a guy that lives as an extreme minimalist.  I found the whole concept that we don't really need much stuff liberating.  Also that the things we really value are things money can't buy.  It tells me that it can make sense to work for others (like a corporation) in order to meet my own basic needs, but beyond that I should focus on myself.  So I don't want to work like a mad man so I can have money to buy a bigger house that I wouldn't care about.  Doing that deprives me of time I could spend doing things that are actually valuable to me, like cultivating relationships with friends and family, or developing an interesting skill.

I think this guy doesn't have children, so he has different options than I do, but this doesn't change the underlying point.  The main thing that will keep me working for a while is that my kids will probably want to go to college and I want to help them with that, but after that I could see myself exiting the corporate world, assuming I've managed to save enough to meet my own basic needs.  Living simply makes that feasible.

The next is from a guy that simply convinced me that if you've long aspired to learn a foreign language and have failed it's not because you have some personal inability to do it.  Anyone of normal mental capacity can do it.  This kind of reinforces the above video.  The things that I really would value are not posessions, but things that are within me.  If I possess a skill, that would matter a lot more to me than a fancy car.  I've always been impressed with others that can speak multiple languages, so I guess I also aspire to have that skill as well.  This guy convinced me that I can, so I'm trying.

Almost arbitrarily I picked Mandarin.  I just happened to be at the library and saw some materials.  Also I work with people from China and also in China regularly, so I figured I'd have plenty of people I could talk to and ask questions.  It's been fun so far.  What I didn't realize though when I started is I've picked a language that's pretty tough for native English speakers.  I assumed it would be tougher, but according to the FSI it's more tough than I realized.  If I could go back in time I might instead go with Spanish.  But I'm having fun anyway, and I think it will feel all the more rewarding if I can achieve it.  And I can certainly learn Spanish later, which I actually plan to do.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Due Process Nearly Dead

The US government is now making efforts to undo about 800 years of legal precedent, going back to the Magna Carta, that says a person accused of a crime has a right to know what he's been charged with and make an effort to refute the charge.  That's enshrined in the 5th amendment of our Constitution.  Both houses of Congress passed similar measures, which are now being reconciled in committee.  There was a provision in the legislation that protected 5th amendment rights for citizens.  That's bad enough.  Non-citizens are not animals.  They deserve a chance to rebut charges against them.  But the committee has apparently stripped that provision from the reconciled law.  If this passes US citizens likewise can be detained indefinitely without charge.

The Constitution is the document that restrains the government.  It was an effort to prevent tyranny.  You don't just throw people in jail forever without giving them the opportunity to prove their innocence.  What does it say about a government that now wants to have all constraints on it's power to imprison and punish people removed?  Troubling times ahead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Obama: The More Effective Evil

I blogged about it previously here.  Glenn Greenwald warned of it immediately after the election here.  And here it comes.  Obama is apparently putting cuts to Social Security on the table as part of a deal that resolves the so called fiscal cliff.

Social Security is one of those clear cut government success stories.  Hasn't contributed a single penny to the debt.  In fact it has run a surplus.  And probably nothing has done more to reduce elderly hunger and homelessness in the US.  But the rich don't like it.  Chomsky has commented that the issue is more than just more profits for the financial industry.  He thinks it's even deeper than that.  Social Security is based on the principle that we care for others and want to alleviate their suffering.  The widow down the street may not be someone we know personally, but we want to contrive a system that means she doesn't starve.  This is the problem on capitalism.  You're not supposed to care.  You're supposed to think "You didn't prepare.  Screw you."  That's very unnatural so it has to be driven home.  Social Security has a way of reinforcing this notion that we care about others, and that is why it faces so much hostility.  That is why it is placed on the chopping block even though it is not the source of the problem.  A roughly $700 billion defense industry protecting us from non-existent threats?  In fact it largely enhances the threats.  Scaling that back isn't even part of the discussion.  That's because we do not have democracy.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Worthy and Unworthy Victims

President Obama has shed tears for the victims in Connecticut, and frankly I find it kind of hard to take.  Search around at this website and you'll find that Obama has killed nearly 200 children in Pakistan.  I have a friend from Pakistan.  He has a son that I met years back when he was smaller.  I can't help but think of all the children that look like this boy that have had their lives snuffed out in our drone war when I see Obama.  Obama obviously knows what he's doing in Pakistan.  It's not like he's unfamiliar with the killing of children.  But now he's ready to come out and show some tears.  Why now only?  Is it a different sort of animal that is dying in Pakistan?  Yeah, they were born to parents that happened to live on a different side of a border line from us.  So their death isn't also worthy of sympathy?

The American people generally can be forgiven for reacting only to victims in Connecticut and not Pakistan.  They don't really know about Pakistan.  This is not the kind of thing that is discussed in the mainstream media.  The media is of course going to talk about Connecticut, and any normal healthy person will feel sadness for the victims.  But our President is not in the dark about Pakistan.  This is not the first time in his presidency that a report of child victims has come across his desk.  This time he's moved to tears in public, but not before.  Did something change?  Child victims are suddenly tragic.  Why now and not earlier?  This is what we need to ask ourselves.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff Sham

Economist Dean Baker deconstructs some of the myths here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pathological Consumption

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smartphone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make "personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets". Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot. No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food, or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It's grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.
 Read the rest here.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Friday, December 7, 2012

Record Profits Are Not a Good Sign

Is the reduction in profit brought about through unionization a bad thing?  Are today's record profits a good thing?

Companies generate revenue and that revenue is divided between the owners and the workers.  The job of the union is to just strengthen the bargaining position of the workers so that they can grab a larger share.  What's left over after this happens is a smaller share goes to the stock holders.  "Profits" are down.  But so what?  Profits are the share that goes to the non-working owners, but this doesn't change the total amount of money that the company made.  Only the way it was distributed.  A more equal distribution of the money earned by a company does a lot of good for the economy overall, and that's what a union helps bring about.  This is why the period in US history that saw the strongest overall economic growth was the period for which unions were strong.  Stock prices didn't go up that much.  Being an owner wasn't quite as lucrative.  Still amazing and better than anybody else, but being a worker was a good life too.  Everyone was getting a piece of the pie.

So when profits are up in a lot of cases (and I think this is largely the case today with the record profits being seen that are going along with wage stagnation/decline) what this is really saying is bad things are happening.  It's not that companies are making more money.  They are just distributing that money in a more unequal way, with more going to the top and less going to the bottom.  Higher profits should be expected to stall economic growth.  The rich spend a smaller share of the money they make and the poor spend more, which does more to spur the economy.

In Michigan they are trying to ram through a right to work provision during this lame duck session.  Profits would probably go up if they succeed.  Not that we'll make more things and provide more innovation.  We'll just let workers keep a smaller share of the pie.  So the profits are telling us that the economy is doing poorly and the future will be worse.

Here's what ML King Jr said about "right to work" laws in 1961.
“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.
Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Capitalist Confusion

All things being equal taking from people that work hard and produce and giving to those that refuse to work is unjust.  I think everyone recognizes that when one man goes into the field and works 12 hours per day cultivating a garden he is entitled to the fruits of his labor.  Supposing his neighbor just doesn't want to do this kind of work and goofs off all summer.  Winter comes and he has nothing.  There's a basic sense of justness and fairness that says you made your bed, so lie in it.  Assume the slacker slacked with his eyes open.  He knew that if he didn't work he would be hungry come winter.  Everybody understands this dynamic.

And we can take it a step further.  Let's suppose the hard working man is elderly and has children.  Let's suppose in the fall he dies before eating his food.  Who gets this food?  His children.  Not the neighbor's children.  We may take pity on them and give them food in the form of charity, but they are not entitled to the food.  There's nothing wrong with the hard working man passing on this inheritance.

Now, if you are reading this as a conservative and you are thinking to yourself "Yeah, that's right, and this is why liberals are wrong" then there's something very important you need to recognize.  You do not understand the disagreement between liberals and conservatives.  You are not addressing the fundamental question.

It's just a basic fact that the ones that do the work on capitalism are not the ones that are paid the most.  Perhaps you've heard of the 112 Bangladeshi garment workers burned up while sewing clothes together for Wal-Mart.  They were making 18 cents/hour.  They work extremely hard and produce a valuable product.  They don't get a very large portion of the value they create.  Who does?  The Walton family heirs.  People that not only aren't working in dangerous conditions, they aren't working at all.

Remember, the Walton family is not simply drawing from the monies left to them by their father.  If that were true then eventually their money would run out and they would have to work like most people.  They are being paid the largest share of the revenue that is today being created.  Who is creating that value?  Cashiers at the stores.  Managers.  Stock boys.  Garment workers.  The Walton family heirs probably do the least amount of work.  Basically none.  They get most of the money.  Now, you can think that condition is for the best.  You can make arguments for why it is just.  I'm not addressing those arguments here.  I'm simply saying that one argument for capitalism starts with the assumption that the hard working should be permitted to retain the value they create.  Not only is this not denied on the left, it's quite the opposite of what capitalism produces.

The left doesn't have a problem with people being rich.  So professional baseball players, movie stars, entrepreneurs.  Sometimes CEO's and other managers.  The problem is that capitalism clearly produces conditions where some of the people that get the most do the least amount of work.  That is what the left is criticizing.  Again, if you are OK with people like the Walton's who do the least amount of work getting most of the money that's fine.  Just don't defend it saying that people that work hard should get to keep their money.  That's exactly what is not happening in their case.