Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The End of Empire

Various observers, including myself, have been speculating for years on the resemblance of America in the 21st century to the Rome described by Gibbon in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Especially after George W. led the country into a useless and illegal war in Iraq, all of it on America’s already overdrawn credit card, and the madness emanating from the fundamentalist revival of recent years, the comparison has become all but inevitable, if always couched in the future tense. Now, however, the IMF has dropped what Brett Arends has called a “bombshell.” Its latest economic forecast of economic activity has predicted that “China’s economy will surpass that of America in real terms in 2016—just five years from now” (Brett Arends, “IMF Bombshell: Age of America Nears End,” Yahoo Finance, April 26, 2011, online). That’s five (5) years from now, folks. The figures are based on something called “purchasing power parities,” a figure Arends calls the true figure for comparison because it “compares what people earn and spend in real terms in their domestic economies.” As Arends explains the figures, by 2016, China’s economy is predicted to expand from $11.2 trillion this year to “$19 trillion in 2016.” The U.S economy will also rise, but at a slower rate: from “$15.2 trillion this year to $18.8 trillion” in 2016. America’s share of world output would thus shrink to 17.7% while China’s will rise to 18% and beyond. For a comparison, Arends startles us with this: 10 years ago the U.S. economy was three times the size of China’s.
Now there are lots of ramifications to this prediction, but one cited by Arends has great relevance to our current mess. He quotes Ralph Gomory, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, comparing China’s “state-guided capitalism,” with our “free” one:
What we have seen, he [Gomory] said, is “a massive shift in capability from the U.S. to China. What we have done is traded jobs for profit. The jobs have moved to China. The capability erodes in the U.S. and grows in China. That's very destructive. That is a big reason why the U.S. is becoming more and more polarized between a small, very rich class and an eroding middle class. The people who get the profits are very different from the people who lost the wages.” (Emphasis mine.)
I think that tells us a lot of what we need to know. Apparently, Chinese businessmen are not allowed to sell their own country down the river; quite the opposite, in fact. Chinese policy has emphasized “national expansion and power,” while the U.S. has allowed its corporate giants and speculating Wall Steeters to outsource the world’s premier production enterprise along with the American jobs that once went with it—enriching themselves, of course, via lower costs, but bankrupting the nation.

Again, the ramifications for what Arends calls a “paradigm shift” are massive, not just regarding who becomes the world’s military hegemon (we can hardly afford the wars we’re already stuck in, not to mention the 700 or so military bases we maintain), but especially with respect to the value of the dollar, because when it is replaced as the world’s reserve currency, no one can predict what will happen. It’s a fair bet, though, that it won’t be good—which is probably why gold has been shooting up in value recently.

For the average American, though, this is going to be strange. Most of us have had the “good” fortune to grow up in an America that essentially ruled the world. Its way of life and opportunities for average people were said to be the standard by which the world measured such things. Indeed, it was only a short time ago that the Bushies were prating on about our responsibilities, military and didactic, as the “only remaining Superpower.” To suddenly be living in a nation which has lost its mojo (the U.S. credit rating has already been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s) and has to ask or petition rather than command is going to feel like a brave new world, indeed. Oh there will still be cheerleaders and politicians who will insist it ain’t so, or who will blame it on the poor. But the odor of change is already blowin’ in the wind and it won’t be the kind Bob Dylan was singing about.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Conservative Morality

We have seen in grim detail recently just what the Republican program for “solving” our deficit problem is going to entail when Representative Paul Ryan (now Chair of the House Budget Committee) presented his plan for cutting nearly $6 trillion from the deficit. It involved big cuts in spending for social programs—especially Medicare and Medicaid—and NO raising of taxes, especially on the rich. The bitter pill prescribed by the Republicans, in brief, puts the onus of sacrifice on the poorest, most helpless of our citizens in order that the wealthiest, most powerful can avoid sacrifice altogether and continue to thrive beyond all imagining. The House passed this plan April 15 on a strictly party-line vote, nearly all Republicans voting for it, and all Democrats opposing it.
What we have come to in this country, then, is a situation where a major party makes little attempt to hide its callousness toward the poor and weak and its devotion to the strong and rich. Oh, Republicans prate on about the “great crisis” of growing deficits, but their emphasis is on the unsustainability of the “social handouts” instituted by Democrats: Social Security, Medicare, and other attempts to mitigate the suffering of the least among us.

What I keep wondering is what kind of people could adopt programs and policies of this kind. Who could be so heartless as to essentially thumb their noses at the vast majority of human beings on this planet (see also Republican-led House vote April 7 to kill EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and the science they’re based on)? A recent book by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) may offer a few answers. It is not that Harris’ book proposes any kind of socially conscious program. It is that in reviewing neuroscientific and psychological research on the possible cognitive bases for morality, Harris cites studies that are quite revealing indeed about such subjects as psychopathology, religion, belief, and the human capacity for empathy.

Begin with a series of studies by the psychologist Paul Slovic, especially concerning our capacity to reason morally about suffering. What Slovic has found is that humans seem to have an innate mechanism that predisposes most of us to show concern when a single, identifiable human life is threatened, but to decrease our concern almost to indifference when more lives are involved. In other words, there is a “psychic numbing” that sets in as the number of victims of any kind of disaster rises. Instead of being MORE concerned the more people are affected by an earthquake, say, our concern grows progressively less as the death toll rises. This is revealed in donations: people give generously when they are shown a single child suffering; but with two children, the donations drop, while, as more children are shown suffering, the donations (and compassion) grow progressively less. There’s even a name for this: the “identifiable victim effect.” What I wonder is if Republicans/conservatives operate in a more exaggerated way than others in this regard. They pride themselves on being very compassionate to their own. But when it’s thousands or millions of inner city kids who are starving, or millions of homeless who have fallen on hard times, or many millions of seniors who depend on the pittance they derive from social security or medicare, Republican compassion disappears. Let them eat cake.

Such focus on the concern (or lack of it) for the suffering of others brings to the fore another area of research, the study of psychopathology. Psychopaths (and we seem to have had some great examples in high office recently) are characterized by able intelligence and even “sanity” (they understand the difference between right and wrong), but a kind of deficit in their ability to feel compassion for the pain or suffering of others. Many violent criminals are categorized as psychopaths: they simply seem unable to feel anything for their victims. Neuroimaging work now suggests that psychopathy is

…a product of pathological arousal and reward. People scoring high on the psychopathic personality inventory show abnormally high activity in the reward regions of their brain (in particular, the nucleus accumbens) in response to amphetamine and while anticipating monetary gains. (p. 98)

Researchers speculate that since psychopaths respond excessively to anticipated rewards (I’m gonna get rich!), their ability to learn from the negative emotions of others is correspondingly reduced or blocked. In fact, in tests asking psychopaths to identify the mental states of other people from photographs, psychopaths do as well as others except in one area: they seem “unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others.” This failure in emotional learning (a human trait crucial to socialization that is shared even by our primate relatives) seems to be one key to psychopathy: neuroscientists believe that impairments in the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex are associated with the emotional failure. Thus blind to the suffering he causes, the psychopath keeps reinforcing his callousness and cruelty, and simply never learns to care about others. While no one would say that all Republicans or conservatives are psychopaths, surely we can see that their apparent failure in empathy (or perhaps their reduced “circle of empathy”—i.e. limited to only those with whom they have close relations) resembles in alarming ways the indifference to human suffering exhibited by the psychopathic personality.

Finally, we see that Republicans/conservatives often tend to be those who demand open, public fealty to religious belief, more specifically, belief in the literal Christian dictates of the Bible (“57% of Americans think one must believe in God to have good values and to be moral, and 69% want a president guided by strong religious belief”). Their demands to end abortion (Rick Santorum recently made a speech in which he attributed the allegedly failing Social Security system to a high abortion rate—so many children not born means too few contributing to Social Security income!), and to make religion more prominent in public forums, schools, and social legislation, are but a few examples of this mania. Harris is very hard on the effects this has for American public life and for morality in general. For if, as Harris maintains, morality can be understood as fostering the well-being of the highest number in any population (rather than with how many profess belief in God), the United States falls far short of other developed nations. Though the U.S. scores extremely high on the religiosity scale, it scores far lower than many allegedly atheistic nations on the well-being/equality scale. As Harris writes, “In addition to being the most religious of developed nations, the United States also has the greatest economic inequality.” By contrast, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, among the most atheistic societies on the planet, all do better on measures of well-being like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, education, political stability, charity to poorer nations, and so on. As the capper to this critique, Harris cites a 2010 study (Hall, Matz, and Wood, “Why don’t we practice what we preach?” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1) indicating that American religious commitment is “highly correlated with racism” (146). If this isn’t strong enough, Harris also cites a recent Baltimore court case in which a small Christian group (One Mind Ministries) was accused of murdering an 18-month-old infant, Javon Thompson. His sin: he stopped saying “Amen” before breakfast, an act considered rebellious by the group’s leader, Queen Antoinette. His punishment: being deprived of all food and water for days. The mother agreed to help the prosecution indict the others on condition that all charges against them would be dropped if her dead child was resurrected. Though the group carried the corpse with them for some time, the resurrection has yet to take place. (Dan Morse, “Plea deal includes resurrection clause,” Washington Post, March 31, 2009.)

Harris does not contend that religious training and/or belief trains people in murder or racism. He does suggest that ignorance and such beliefs go hand in hand, as indicated by these statistics: “42% of Americans believe that life has existed in its present form since the beginning of the world” (149). This is tantamount to saying that evolution, as confirmed by virtually all scientists, simply does not exist. Another 78% believe that the Bible is actually the word of God, while 79% of Christians believe that Jesus will “physically return to the earth.” The point is clear: If so many Americans believe in such “truths,” how can anyone expect them to be able to discern truth from falsehood, or right from wrong in any arena whatever? How can they be expected to understand or exhibit compassion towards all the “unbelievers” out there—including the billions who will be most affected by global warming? How can anyone expect them to care in the least for those homeless “sinners” on our streets who have “failed” to provide for themselves?

When I contemplate the fact that much of this nation has fallen into the hands of such fanatics and incipient psychopaths, I have to tell you, it is very hard not to despair.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, April 18, 2011

Moral Wrecktitude

I mean the best for you, my friend
But your style of life must end
Surely I am heaven sent
To remind you to repent
From your ways of death and sin
So your new life may begin
Accept your meager wages
And read the Good Book’s pages
Look up to us, the chosen
Whose hearts are neatly frozen

Given the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and even on some labor unions, I am once again reminded of an interview I conducted with a young Hungarian refugee in January 1957. After I listened to him for more than an hour, he suddenly looked at me very seriously and simply said: “You have never had to steal to eat.” I was a West Point cadet, a plebe, at the time and I chronicled the interview for The Pointer magazine. It was clear that his experience was different from mine with one similarity. I had experienced hunger and had gone from 147 pounds to much less than 120 pounds as a motivated cadet living with the discipline of plebe year. Involuntary withdrawal from food was common punishment. So, we both had felt hunger. But there were some significant differences as well. I wanted to be at West Point and food was not a motivator for me. Hungarians were made to ship their food to Russia and had no choice as to where they lived. Hungarians were walled-in by the Russians. When I did get food, it was clean and wholesome. His food was usually stolen from garbage cans and dumps. He watched the inequity of the distribution of food where Communist Party members were able to eat well and avoid the harsh pain felt by the masses. I watched upperclassmen eat full and satisfying meals and wanted to survive long enough to become an upperclassman. Hope was not only in my heart, but tangible because I saw a goal and did things to put it in reach. Upperclassmen had gone through similar plebe years while Communist Party leaders were exempt from privation. Today, we invoke the Christian admonition not to complain about our station in life (slave or free, remember) and urge the poor to be patient. Indeed, patience is a virtue fitting the poor. And had God favored them, they would be wealthy. In both cases the ideology sets the tone and the wage. It is not by accident. The pious politicians that screamed for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood knew or should have known that the Hyde Amendment (appropriately named for the Republican politician who long kept mistresses into his “youthful” 40s including the highly visible Cherie Snodgrass), denies federal funding for any abortion.
Moral superiority has been with us for millennia. The smugness of a Pharisee is noted in the New Testament: (Luke 18:11) “Thank you, Lord that I am not like everyone else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially like that tax collector. I fast twice a week, and tithe everything I posses.” If you fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th century, the American equivalent was the Mugwump. Mugwumps were wealthy and gentrified Christians who were simply appalled at the lower classes, especially immigrants. They became politically active and tried to take away rights, especially to vote, from those citizens without property. Just as Henry Hyde saw no problem with keeping a mistress in a Springfield, IL apartment, he saw no problem with leading the House charge against Clinton for having sex with an intern or, more directly, he saw no problem with not supporting family planning to avoid the likelihood of abortions. In his investigation of Planned Parenthood, the following exchange between Hyde and Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood Is documented:
"Ms. Feldt, does it trouble you that there are so many abortions?"
"Mr. Hyde, if it troubles you," I went off script to reply, "why have you never once voted for family planning services?" Moral superiority does not worry about trifles like doing something to reduce an evil. The morally superior merely need to point it out for the morally inferior to execute.

John Kyl on the Senate floor: “Well over ninety per cent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions.” Followed by an explanation but not an apology (and not on the Senate floor): “It was not intended to be a factual statement.” (explanation via Lemon on CNN). Planned Parenthood indeed performs abortions along with myriad health support, especially for women. Abortions account for 3% of its activity and it sequesters its funding so that federal money is not used for abortions. Birth control and STD testing as well as general healthcare including breast exams and pap smear tests are made available to poor women. Ugh! Poor women. They are morally inferior to Senator Kyl, and it is not his job to actually reduce abortions. He is responsible to teach the greedy needy about morals. Maybe some of them have to steal to eat. Shame on them again. If they were good Christian women, they would be more patient and surely more submissive to their moral superiors.

Lest we think that this concept of moral superiority is restricted to controlling economically deprived women, consider the following excerpt from Bloomberg in December, 2010 that outlines the business dealings of a major American firm in Nigeria:
“Nigeria alleges the companies, which were part of group known as TSKJ, paid bribes totaling $180 million to Nigerian officials between 1994 and 2004 to win a $6 billion liquefied natural gas plant contract. KBR and Halliburton agreed to pay $579 million to U.S. authorities in February 2009 for bribery payments in Nigeria.” Dick Cheney was head of Halliburton/KBR when the bribery took place and he soon became Vice President of the US. Maybe that was a necessary business expense and if Halliburton paid taxes, surely it also used the $579 Million it paid to our government as a tax write-off. This illegal activity aided profiteering by Cheney, of course, but it also took opportunity from firms that were unwilling to bribe and from impoverished Nigerians who had no say or benefit in the distribution of their nation’s resources.
More recently, the Swedish Ikea Corporation has located a furniture factory in Danville, VA. State and local officials there gave Ikea free land and tax breaks to locate in the Right to Work for Less Commonwealth of Virginia. The starting salaries in Virginia are $8/hour without benefits, while the identical jobs in Sweden pay $19/hour with 3 weeks vacation and full medical benefits. While the cost of living may be lower in Danville, surely the cost of medical benefits is higher than zero. Be patient my Christians and don’t talk with the evil unions who surely will lead you to sin. Be patient, your time will come at the Last Judgment and remember that the Meek will inherit the earth. Therefore, be Meek and you shall inherit the earth (or what is left after the polluters are done). The lesson: Moral superiority means that I get my share now and you can wait until earth freezes over or trickle down works, whichever comes first. Does it matter that the moral superiority is imported or homegrown? Not really, since the Swedes could not have done this without American help.

The more I study our current situation and the Paul Ryan plan to have the poor finance the tax breaks for the wealthy the more I understand the logic of trickle down economics. By changing Medicare to voucher roulette for the poor who cannot afford supplemental insurance, two things happen; first, it is a windfall for healthcare insurance companies to enrich those that will still ration care (only now for paying for expenses like advertising and an unnecessary layer of administration) and, a perfect way to keep millions of Americans in poverty and ill health since a $15,000 annual voucher does nothing to reduce healthcare costs per se, but only reduce to the government budget. The tax breaks for the rich will help them pay for increasing medical expenses and the poor will die sooner thereby becoming eligible for inheriting the earth years earlier. You must look up to the morally superior. They certainly know their scripture and they are willing to give up inheritance of the earth as long as they don’t pay inheritance or any other taxes in this life. Just what is it that trickles down? I think that it is the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor, along with a little of their urine down their pants while they strain to await their inheritance coming in the next life. I guess that atheists will have to develop another theory of morality, justice and trickle down. I call this Moral Wrecktitude where misplaced morality wrecks the lives of the poor and the incredibly shrinking middle class and chills the hearts of the rich (along with their gin).

George Giacoppe
18 April 2011

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Education Fraud

Are the pages turning
And is the children learning
As we argue the merit
Of the price of fine claret
Instead of the cost
Of a childhood lost
And the fairness of doctrine
That measures by testing
Our children like bovine
Re-chewing cud while festing

Education is the name and fraud is the game. I recently wrote of the scandalous action of the US Supreme Court in declaring child labor laws unconstitutional both in 1918 and again in 1935 to allow children “more freedom.” This Dickens era approach has recently been expanded by at least three of our states. Maine, Missouri and Utah have legislation pending to strip away the effectiveness of the federal law. The connection of child labor to education is a long and sometimes puzzling one. Horace Mann, way back in the 1840s, persuaded Massachusetts and a few other states to make public schooling mandatory and free to age 16. His theory was that schooling could develop citizens of knowledge and understanding so that they might provide more for themselves and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He felt that by combining the youth of different classes into the same classrooms that society as a whole would benefit and that it would not harm industry. He also wanted to keep kids off the streets where they might be incarcerated instead of educated. Mann traveled to Prussia on his own money to observe their public school system and selected that model for Massachusetts, so there was also a call for discipline and substance in schools. He also established “Normal Schools” that had the mission of educating teachers so that coherent and quality instruction was integral with the school system.

Contrast that with today’s schools that are becoming aimless footballs that bounce along at the whim of politicians trying to create social and economic engineering by toying with basic educational purposes and encouraging a concept of “individual responsibility” in education instead of “commonwealth,” or the common good of the state. That new political emphasis has taken schools from the hands of communities and placed them in state and federal hands. Funding has changed so that states and the federal government have created grants and rules for governance that are unrelated to quality. Foremost is the unfunded federal mandate for “No Child Left Behind.” That law has created an orgy of standardized testing beginning early in the K-12 system with an apparent purpose of grading teachers instead of measuring student progress. Measurement is not inherently evil, but using measurement as a club to punish teachers is counterproductive. Punishment has also generated cheating in most districts in order to avoid the punishment of systems and teachers by closing schools and removing federal monies.

I can recall conducting monthly audits of regional offices in a property casualty insurance company. The office being inspected would take a day or two to prepare for the audit; a day or two to undergo the audit and a day or two to document deficiencies and planned corrective actions. Usually, this resulted in 20 to 25% of available time being spent either in preparation, conduct or review of the audits. That is a waste of time when real work needs to be done and practically guarantees failure the following month. Similarly in our schools, in addition to outright cheating, “NCLB” has spawned a plethora of repetitious testing so that teachers and districts can avoid punitive measures. Like an overuse of audits, it is a waste of time. No real learning gets done. Educational returns diminish rapidly and students may understand that the testing itself is the purpose of school. Some politicians love it because they can then propose closing some schools and rewarding others that have not been caught cheating. More to the point, they can justify reducing budgets and promoting a voucher system where private and religious schools are compensated instead of fixing the problem in our public systems. This is equivalent to official government sabotage and it is often promoted by those who claim “government is the problem.” The concept of initiating official competition to “improve” schools assumes that schools are like opposing athletic teams instead of institutions designed to create a better commonwealth where we, as a nation, can compete using better prepared citizens who will create the future for our nation. It is a faulty assumption and it directly destroys learning instead of creating the climate for learning. It is also a form of class warfare where the wealthy can pay for better education and the poor are captive to an unwieldy system that is being sabotaged in the name of “freedom of choice.” Education becomes an expense instead of an investment. The results are both evident and catastrophic.

Ironically, we now have Charter Schools, school vouchers and repetitive testing that adds cost without benefit to our common good. Instead of focusing our resources on providing targeted assessment and education, we squander resources on vouchers and charter school experiments, wasteful testing that now needs auditing to protect us from cheating, and attacks on teachers including layoffs and their removal from collective bargaining. None of this attacks the problem of developing effective working citizens. Instead, it concentrates budgets further and further from the sources of solving the problems and it creates a workforce of minimum wage workers who must compete with imported labor and exported jobs. Budgets must be closer to the schools. Immediate cities and towns may need to be supplemented from state and federal funds, but the further government is from the problem, the less likely that local differences and needs will be understood. With this as a trend, then education will be only for the wealthy and the poor will be unprepared to compete for meaningful work. Indeed, it is in concert with Maine, Michigan and Utah moving to re-introduce child labor. Since 1980, when many families could live on a single income, the majority of families now require two or more incomes to survive. The total average wage gain in the last 30 years has been only $300 per person while productivity has soared and CEOs have multiplied their salaries and corporate profits have reached record levels. As G W Bush famously asked: “Is the children learning?” Perhaps that conservative’s question provides its own answer. Maybe we should put kids to work to compete with their parents for diminishing wages. The minimum wage can be lowered to solve the education problem. What a concept. No schools, no budget problems, no social movement and no threat from thinking people. Conservative Utopia.

George Giacoppe
03 April 2011