Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope's visit.

    Pope Francis is popular because, unlike his predecessors, he is not a hard-nosed reactionary. He remembers the political message of the Gospels that Christians must be just and that justice calls for equality. Christians should not put their own well-being ahead of everyone else's; they should, as the Gospels says, love their neighbor like themselves. They should even love their enemies.

    In one way or another Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, have preached this message in their churches weekly for close to two millennia. So have Imams in their mosques and rabbis in their temples.

    If we have learned anything in the last 2000 years, it is that preaching is, on the whole, a waste of time. There is no reason to think that the world has become any less dangerous or violent or bloody-minded in the last 2000 years in spite of all the homilies and sermons and addresses from the pulpit or the front of the sacred space. This is surely the lesson of the bloody 20th century.

    This Pope and all his predecessors have not learned that lesson. Francis goes blithely around telling people how to be good, and exhorting all of us to be good boys and girls. You may be edified at the moment but it is extremely unlikely that you will give up being a politician who tells lies day in and day out and makes deals with people they should not even be talking to. You will not suddenly discover that the people you have been catering to are not only greedy and selfish, but also live well at the expense of hard-working poor people. You will not suddenly raise taxes on the rich – as even Donald Trump recommends – in order to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

    But that is of course what Pope Francis is telling you to do.

    We have learned in the past so many thousand years that preaching to people does not make them act differently. But of course we have also learned how people can change. Members of cooperative communities learn how to cooperate. They learn how to love their neighbors because the culture of their community demands it and doing it every day it becomes a habit. Where neighborhoods organize themselves to solve their own problems, the neighbors learn to stand on their own two feet, they gain autonomy and self-respect because that is how they come to live every day. Religious communities that practice what the Pope preaches may well create peaceful and respectful citizens because they practice together how to banish violence from their lives and how to take the other as seriously as they take themselves.

We learn to be better persons by living in social conditions in which acting well is what everybody does habitually.

    If the church is trying to make this a better world by making us be more charitable towards our neighbors, the sort of social context the church creates for its members is much more important than the messages of the Sunday sermons. If you look at the organization of the church of which the Pope is the head, we do not see much Christian love. Instead there is a hierarchy reminiscent of an army. What is more, the hierarchy is mostly male. When it comes to the liberation of women, Pope Francis does not have a lot to say and the practices of the church are plainly medieval. Being a member of a strictly hierarchical organization does not promise to make you into a person who seeks equality for all. Practicing domination and being dominated every day is about to leave a very negative imprint.

    Humans improve by leading a good life in the company of other humans also living a good life.  The organization run by Pope Francis is not an example of what we need to do to create a more peaceful world. The changing-the-world-through-preaching project after all is based on the assumption that some of us know how to live right and others do not, and that those who know must tell the rest of us how to be good persons.

    There is no reason to think that following that strategywill make the world a better place.

    You may find Pope Francis edifying and likable. But salvation comes from local self organizations of groups of people, not from benevolent moral know-it-all's.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

             The Drug War Is a Drug

A fellow worker I met a social occasion recently told me about his childhood. His family regularly took in and cared for cousins whose family members were in jail. Why were they in jail? I asked. They were using or selling drugs.
I knew that his family had been poor. Was there a connection between drug use and poverty?
Many so-called experts believe that. There is the old narrative of the "culture of poverty," of families in which generations are poor, often addicted, and permanent wards of the state, dependent on what ever welfare and social service programs exist at the time. Poverty is a set of bad habits and disabilities which parents hand down to children and then to grandchildren.
In the background of the story always lingers the assumption that these poor people were or are persons of color.
There is a limited amount of truth to that in so far in the early years after World War II when hard drugs first became a problem in the United States, the majority of users were black ghetto inhabitants.
Today the majority of illegal drug users are white. A significant percentage of them are middle-class suburbanites. The common narrative about them is that they sustained a serious physical injury and their doctor prescribed large quantities of opioid painkillers. The patient is soon addicted but since the illegal painkillers are very expensive, and heroin cheaper, they end up injecting heroin, smoking, or snorting it.
The story about drug abuse as a disease of the black ghetto is false and most likely one element of the pervasive racist narratives circulating in white America.
But the government is actively perpetuating that myth. The war on drugs, fought primarily by police, is focusing on drug abuse that is visible. It is much harder to find people who get quietly high in their suburban home than to find the people who are "being a public nuisance" on the street or who are selling drugs openly. The war on drugs still focuses on poor neighborhoods, by no means only inhabited by African-Americans. ( My co-worker’s family is white). As far as the chiefs of staff of the war on drugs are concerned the battlefield is in the poorer parts of town. It calls for the biggest guns you have.
In recent years, efforts have begun to persuade doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers much more cautiously. Considerable pressure is being brought to bear on drug manufacturers to develop alternative pain medications that are not as seriously addictive as the painkillers the  drug companies are currently producing.
This is one approach to solving the growing crisis of drug abuse and with it of drug overdoses that by now are killing a significant number of Americans, most of them young.
Improving drug treatment, improving access to drug treatment is another approach.
But as far as the drug warriors are concerned descending an apartment in the ghetto with a SWAT team in their body armor and huge weapons is the only way. The violent war on drugs is it self addictive and our government agencies are hooked. They cannot conceive a world in which they cannot batter down doors, guns blazing and emerging with someone in handcuffs on his or her way to jail.
Being high feels good. That is why addiction is a threat. Being high feels good whether your addiction is chemical or ideological. As long as we perpetuate the myth that drug addiction is at home among the poor, we can blame them for their plight. By continuing the war on drugs in the ghetto the government is trying to demonstrate that it is not responsible for the suffering of the poor, that it is doing all it can to alleviate their pain. Pretending to be without guilt feels great.
But that is, of course, the delusion of an addict. We need a war-on-drugs-detox campaign.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What makes Donald Trump so popular?
 It is tempting to blame the voters for the tremendous uproar Donald Trump has been creating. He is a super sized celebrity. The newspapers and the radio cannot deal with him enough.  Every day brings a new episode of Donald being naughty and getting away with it. The voters, it seems, do not know the difference between a celebrity and the leader of the government.  Trump, it is clear, is not qualified to be president however entertaining he may be.  But voters nevertheless like him best in a large field of candidates.

In order to understand Trump’s popularity, however, you have to look at the other side of the political spectrum, at Bernie Sanders in the US and now Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.
Two days ago Jeremy Corbyn was selected the leader of the Labor Party. The conservatives, the Tories, are at the moment the majority party in parliament and the prime minister is a conservative. The Labor Party, the opposition, 10 years or so ago elected Tony Blair, who fell all over himself in his eagerness to join George Bush in the ill-considered war in Iraq. But now Labor  has  chosen a very different leader. Corbyn calls himself a socialist; he is a champion of the working people. One of his proposals is for having not only a minimum wage but also a maximum wage; he would put a cap on the obscene incomes of the very rich. Corbyn is committed to oppose the austerity measures that have mainly affected the poor. He has been, and continues to be, a firm opponent of war as a major foreign policy initiative. He opposed the Iraq war. He will not support British participation in the war in Syria.
Corbyn is unconventional. He travels by bike. He does not own a car but shamefacedly admits to owning two bikes.
Corbyn is critical of the lack of serious debate in the Britsh Parliament. Too much time, he thinks, is spent trying to look good, to appeal to specific constituencies. The business of governing is  neglected. Debates lack substance.
In the US, Bernie Sanders is our Jeremy Corbyn. He is primarily interested in saying what he believes needs to be said. He too declares himself a socialist; he is on the side of the poor. He speaks out continually against inequality and injustice. He does not hesitate to advocate higher taxes on the very rich.
There is an interesting contrast between Sanders ( and Corbyn ) and politicians in the mould of Hilary Clinton. Her first thought is not about what are good policies but about whether she is going to offend anyone by what she says. The effect on potential voters and, more importantly, important donors seems her main concern, not what is best for the country she wants to lead. Her first interest is in being liked by the electorate and the millionaires who finance elections. What she proposers as government policies must first pass the popularity test. Would you buy a used car or a used government from this woman?
There can be no doubt that voters at the moment are really disillusioned with the political style of the Hilary Clintons of this world. They do not want to be manipulated by politicians whose main concern is to say what voters want to hear. They are looking for politicians who are talking about the condition of the country and of the world and about remedies they propose.
Conservatives are in the same frame of mind. But they will not flock to Bernie Sanders. They have Donald Trump who does not hesitate to speak his mind, who refuses to weigh every word fearful that he might offend someone.
To be sure, Trump speaks out offensively on matters that have no bearing on the well-being of the nation. His speech disturbs not because he is principled and cares for his country, and for the world but because he is ill-tempered and compensates for massive insecurities by talking only about himself.
But Trump too wants be elected for who he is and for what he thinks, not for his carefully vetted speeches that aim at pleasing voters and misleading them. Trump will not be elected because, in the end, he is not serious and not qualified. But his supporters trust him to say what’s on his mind,not what he thinks his audience wants to hear.
Politicians have for a long time spoken in the deceptive tones of used car salesmen. What the voters are looking for in the candidates is a modicum of honesty. Sanders and Trump are frontrunners because they are not trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to anyone. That is hugely refreshing for many, even those who may not be fully persuaded by the candidates’ message.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

                    Labor day 2015

Propaganda is intended to mislead. Often it gives a rosy picture when reality is beset by problems. It deflects our opinions from the real world so that we do not even question the fantasy pictures we are being fed daily. Propaganda is powerful because it makes us gullible.

We are daily being told how the economy is getting stronger, how unemployment is receding and everyone is better off day by day. During the recent upeavals in the stock market, commentators regularly followed their reports of sharp drops in the stock market indices with emphatic claims that the economy itself was in good shape and there was not a thing to worry about.

Labor day with its ritualized celebration of American Labor is such an exercise in propaganda. Working people in America today are mostly suffering. Wages are insufficient for large numbers. Work itself is intermittent and unemployment is at high levels. If official unemployment numbers seem to be going down it is not because more people have full-time work but because more and more people are getting completely discouraged and stop looking for work. Our economy is not capable of providing a good job for everyone. The government is unable or unwilling to become the employer of last resort for those who cannot find work in the private sector.

According to the Guardian "Between 1979 and 2013, the hourly wages of middle-wage workers (those who earned more than half the workforce but less than the other half) rose just 6% – less than 0.2% per year. Low-wage workers fared even worse, with wages falling 5% over the same 34-year period." The wages of many workers have been essentially flat since the early 1970s. Critical sectors of the workforce have lost ground.

These statistics do not adequately represent another important change. The range of jobs available has shifted from well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs to jobs in hotels and restaurants where pay is notoriously low and the workers’ pay often depends on tips. Not only have wages remain stagnant or gone down but more and more working people have jobs that do not pay enough for them to live without food stamps, subsidized housing, and other government assistance.

In recent years, the majority of food stamp recipients have been people who have jobs. According to Fox News "Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among workers with some college training." Many jobs  do not pay a living wage. We may hear a great deal about the dignity of the American worker and similar drivel from people whose job it is to spread propaganda – prominent business people, politicians, ministers and college professors. But the decision makers in this society have no respect for their workers but, instead, take advantage of them in any way they can.

According to a recent study, there are 1.5 million households that have less than $2.00 cash income per person  per day. They survive with the help of family, soup kitchens, food pantries. They try to raise cash through prostitution, muggings, or donating blood frequently. Many of them survive because they end up in prison.

The 1996 Clinton era "welfare reform" tied welfare support to having a job. The original bill provided for government employment for welfare recipients who could not find work in the private sector. Later Republican revisions of welfare regulations eliminated the government provision of jobs. Welfare reform amounted to insisting that welfare recipients have a job in an economy in which there were not enough jobs for welfare recipients. When college graduates or workers with some college education cannot find work or have to work minimum-wage jobs, the job prospects for people with less education are grim. And just when the outlook is really bad for them because they lost her job or their hours had been cut, they are also no longer entitled to government assistance.

Let's talk some more about the dignity of American labor!

The latest indignity visited on low-wage workers is the employer's insistence that they be on call for cleaning, selling cups of coffee, filling fast food orders. If the local franchise hamburger joint is uncertain whether they will need an extra worker or not, they will tell one of their employees to be on call. If they need the person they will be called in. If they are not needed they don't get paid. But while they are on call they cannot go and work somewhere else and thus make some money. The employer insists that they possibly forgo a day’s wages as a condition of being called in some other time.

In an economy that does not provide jobs for everyone who is looking for one, that does not provide full-time work for everyone who wants to work full-time, and that does not provide jobs that pay enough for people to live comfortably with their families, providing welfare payments only to people who work is a cruel joke.

Estimates of America's expenditure on war vary considerably. The lowest estimate is more than $500 billion. Some estimates are twice that amount. If we spent less money killing people all over the world, we would be able to create jobs at home where a great deal of work is not being done because our military adventures are a bottomless pit. The resources for bridge maitenance or school renovations are, instead, given to the military.

Instead of tired propaganda about the American worker this would be a good time to advocate moving resources from war to providing living wage for working Americans.

Monday, August 31, 2015

More about free markets

I have written about the free market mythology before. I have pointed out that in the name of the free market, Congress has forbidden the government to bargain with drug companies over the price of medicines mostly bought by Medicare to be supplied to the elderly. But many of these medicines are sold by only one company that has a monopoly. The market rhetoric is in this case completely misplaced. There is no free market. Congressional legislation simply subsidizes the monopoly drug producer.

I have also pointed out that many of the devotees of the free market are adamant that we must close our borders to  immigrants. But that flies in the face of free market ideology where competition, in this case, for jobs should not be limited by government action. If we really believed in the free market we would open our borders to all comers even though that would seriously depress wages.

 One aspect of the free market mythology consists of the idea that private companies could do anything better than the government. Public services should therefore be privatized. As an example of that I have written about private prisons that provide inferior services to prisoners, allowing violence, rape of young men, and many forms of corruption in our prisons. The prison companies send their lobbyists into state legislatures to lobby for three strike rules and longer mandatory sentences regardless of whether those are good policies.. These companies are not interested in public policy. They are only interested in making more money. Privatizing government services is a very questionable practice.

But powerful myths die hard. It is worthwhile to point out the many contexts in which free markets, or what are thought to be free markets, are only damaging. I will continue to present examples of the failure of the free market myths when I run across them.

A recent conversation with a young man, recently graduated as a software engineer, provided a number of examples of the free market fallacy.
He pointed out that software companies often compete with each other on price. They must limit the amount of money they spend developing a piece of software in order to be able to undersell their competitors. In order to hold down the price of their product, companies limit the amount of time developers have available to perfect their product. The product may not be completely adequate but when time runs out the result of the development work will be sold to the public. The result is faulty software or software that does its job really badly. Market competition means inferior products for the consumer.
Some software companies have virtual monopolies. Microsoft is a prime example.

What do Windows users do when software does not work? According to the free market mythology they can go and buy a different product. But Windows has a monopoly. There is no free market in operating systems. If you don't like Windows you have to buy a whole new computer from Apple. The third option, Linux, is not a realistic choice for many computer users.

The free choice among competing products which is an essential part of a free market does not exist in many parts of our economy. It does not exist with respect to many pieces of software where one company is the only one who develops a program to solve a specific problem. It is often nonexistent in the field of medications where only one drug will address a specific illness and that drug is only produced by one company.

Even where a particular piece of software is produced by several competing software companies, free market mechanisms often do not work because the software is terribly expensive. A company that has invested in one example of the software may be very dissatisfied with the product they are using but they cannot afford to jettison it to buy a different one. Often, in addition, these very expensive and complex programs  are sold with a five year maintenance contract and so the buyer is not free to return to the market in order to buy a competing product, if what he bought before proves unsatisfactory.

Software companies sell their programs. When the market is saturated they could close shop but that's not really an acceptable option. They could produce a different product but that would require a serious investment in time and money. So what they do instead is to bring out a new version of an older program. Programs that at one point were perfectly adequate for the majority of users, become more and more complex which creates a real burden for users and opens up that many more opportunities for software malfunctions.

Market competition and the myth of the free market do a whole lot of damage to the users of computer software – all of us. Repeating the clich├ęs about the blessings of the free market are an apt way of shooting oneself in the foot. It is high time that we stopped allowing businesses to deceive us with their continued fairytales about the great benefits of the free market.

Monday, August 24, 2015

              Are we losing our soul?

I recently read an article about the current leadership in China. In passing the author mentioned that during the era of Mao, the Chinese people shared a socialist ideology. They were united, more or less, by common values and the commitment to see those values put in practice. Today, by contrast, the article continued, there are few shared values and projects among the Chinese people. In good capitalist fashion people want to get rich, they want to have a good place to live, and be able to procure a good education and good job for their child.

One cannot read that without asking oneself whether capitalism in our country, so far so much more successful than capitalism in China, has deprived us too of shared values and left each of us concerned only about family and children and getting rich. People may very well give different answers to that question. But asking it is really important. Are there common values that unite us, that many of us are committed to sufficiently to work to realize them or have we really, as so many people say, become mainly consumers, private individuals who care for family and children and not much else? Are we losing our soul?

Here are some thoughts about this. When the French aristocrat deTocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the lively participation of ordinary people in local affairs and projects and in politics, in general. Wherever he went there were meetings, people were arguing with each other. Everyone seemed to be participating. Today half of citizens do not vote in presidential elections. 80% stay home when only local candidates are to be chosen. 32% of Americans sign a petition or send a letter to a representative – activities that require three mouse clicks and about 20 seconds of your time. An additional 16% engage in four political actions. Only 13% are as active as our ancestors almost 200 years ago. A quarter of all citizens volunteer for some activity whether that be in soup kitchens, to help out in the public library, to tutor schoolchildren or immigrants who need to learn English, or to clean up trash on Earth Day once a year.

It certainly looks as if large numbers of Americans are quite passive with respect to politics, specifically, as well as with respect to community affairs. Their interests are turned inward on themselves and the family.

A few years ago I asked a class in an introductory philosophy course to write a page about what they thought the good life would be for them. I was struck by the fact that everyone gave pretty much the same answer: Everyone wanted a family, a house, two children – a boy and a girl – a job they enjoyed and a dog. ( No cat lovers in that class.) In the present context it is striking that no one was thinking about conditions outside the house and the family. There was no worry about schools, about safety. There was no thought about justice and fairness, about opportunities for the children. There was certainly no thought about the coming ecological crisis.

We live in a liberal democracy and that means that different sets of values are acceptable – obviously within limits. We are allowed to choose our religious affiliations and may reject all religion if that's what we want to do. Our society makes room for people who choose rather different lives – some are scholars, some ardent sports fans, some spend all their time enriching themselves. If they choose to be couch potatoes that is alright also.

We pride ourselves in being tolerant of fundamental differences. But often this tolerance takes the form of refusing to think about the important questions. As soon as, say, moral issues come up in conversation someone is sure to say "everyone has their own opinion."  Most often that means: Lets not talk about that. Values are not worth thinking or talking about.

From being private matters, values have been turned into a subject we will not think about. Instead we allow advertisers to tell us what we should want.
Most Americans are not interested in participating in their community, locally or nationally. If they think about their life at all, it is centered on individual and family. Neighborhood, community, collective are nonexistent or not valued. We allow everyone to have  his or her own set of values and, on the whole, we refuse to think about them. Our values are made for us by advertisers or perhaps by some minister or another.

Given these observations it is not unreasonable to fear that America too is losing its soul. We are no longer a nation but a large collection of individuals and families. There is not much we stand for, except a national chauvinist desire to remain the most powerful nation militarily speaking.

Could this be connected to the epidemic of drug addiction and of drug overdoses? According to government figures an average of 120 persons die of drug overdoses every day.  For them and for the many addicts still alive, life seems pretty pointless and really quite unbearable without constant drug use. According to the National Institute of Drug abuse an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) are in need of drug treatment. Young people are disproportionately represented in that group.

A significant number of Americans, especially young citizens, cannot stand the life that the country has to offer them. That is a frightening fact.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to change the world?

Change is, in part, what got Obama elected. Everyone talks about making the world a better place. People want "to give back," they want to foster kindness, they want to end bullying among children and war among adults.

The dream is an old one. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament looks forward to a time when "the lion will lie down with the lamb." The dream is still very much alive. In our Christmas cards we wish each other peace.

But world peace seems to be just pie in the sky. Very many people despair of making significant change in our world. Our political system is coercive through and through. It takes the form of constant coercion of the weaker by the strong, the poor by the rich, of black by white, women by men, children by adults. This pervasive violence is often thought to be the effect of “human nature.” We cannot help ourselves. So you hear, only too often, that “you cannot change anything.”

Change is imposed by force on the unwilling. If advocates of gay  marriage win victories in the courts, the court order is enforced by police. The opponents are coerced into acquiescence. If legislators vote for a law limiting union activities, the laws will be enforced by courts and police. Legislative decisions, decisions reached through voting always leave a minority of dissenters in a position of being forced to accept what they despise. When there are more than two parties in a debate, the winners may well be less than half of the participants. More than half of the voters are then forced to accept a distasteful decision.

What we call democracy is a competition between groups each of which is trying to impose its own interests and beliefs coercively. The victims of today’s coercion will seek to turn the tables and coerce todays dominant group tomorrow. As long as everyone is open to coercion, the peaceful society remains elusive.
But there exist peaceful ways for groups to make decisions and to better their conditions. By supporting those who practice these peaceful and non-coercive methods, you too can work for peace.

More than three hundred years ago, long before the development of our current electoral system, Quakers and other religious groups in England understood that very different ways for communities to make decisions would be needed in a truly peaceful society. They developed techniques of decision making known today as “consensus  decision making.” Groups come together to discuss issues facing them. The goal is not primarily to make decisions but to re-enforce the unity of the group. That unity does not so much consist in agreement among members but in strengthening their ability to reach decisions after careful, cooperative  reflection about  difficult problems facing the group.

In these proceedings, the first step is for everyone to understand precisely what is under consideration. A facilitator chosen by the group will provide all the necessary information or ask others, better qualified, to do that. The entire assembly ask questions and works towards perfect clarity of what is being discussed, what are possible alternatives, what information exists about possible pitfalls and disadvantages of different possible proposals. Only when the group feels well-informed can the facilitator raise the question about proposals for action. Different members of the group may make proposals, they will explain them as fully and lucidly as possible. They will provide supporting evidence. Compare this to existing democratic practice where deception is the rule when politicians present their proposals.

It is important to notice however that the proponents of a particular proposal are not there to convince anybody. There is no room for competition for having the most glossy, attractive, emotionally seductive proposal. The goal of the discussion is not to win. The goal is for the group to make the best choices that are in everyone's interest.

Different proposals will be discussed. If everyone agrees there is no problem. Some people may not be completely convinced but are willing to allow the group to follow what many desire with the understanding that everyone will carefully monitor future outcomes. At times some people may feel unable to join the majority because the proposal, they think, will do serious damage to the group. In that situation different groups have developed different techniques for dealing with fundamental disagreements. In some cases the whole project is shelved. In others the dissident minority is ignored. In other cases committees convene to work further on the serious disagreements and bring the proposal up at a future meeting.

The goal is never for one party to win. The goal is for the entire group to fortify its ability to make decisions particularly in very controversial and difficult situations.

During the upheavals of the 1960s secular groups discovered this alternative technique of decision making. The Occupy movement invented many interesting methods for peaceful, non-coercive group deliberation. It has been adopted by a wide range of groups such as cooperatives, enterprises owned and run by its workers. It is in widespread use in Japanese businesses; The Federal Bureau of Land Management encourages consensus decision making in negotiations among stakeholders. Many Courts in the US encourage parties to a civil lawsuit to try to resolve their conflict in a way acceptable to all the parties rather than having a judge imposing a solution coercively.

You can contribute to a peaceful society by supporting these efforts. If you need repairs made to your house, find out whether there are any local cooperatives or worker owned businesses that offer services you need. Buy your vegetables from a cooperative grower, if you can. If you have conflicts with your neighbors seek out mediation before you go before the judge.

Everyone can participate in making the world more peaceful. Don’t wait. Start today.