Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

It is Thanksgiving day. After preparing some of the food to be cooked this afternoon, we took our dogs for a long walk in the words to the west of here. The woods are crisscrossed by stone walls; 100 or even 50 years ago what is now dense forest must have been open farmland. It connects us to the rural past that we remember on Thanksgiving Day when we are grateful for ample harvests and granaries filled for the coming wint

 We also remember the proud self-government our farmer ancestors imposed on themselves. They were free to run their farms as they thought best and together with their neighbors they took care of roads and schools and sent their representatives off to the state capital and to Washington DC to speak for them.

This is a gentle day. The few people we meet in the words wish us a happy Thanksgiving and peace and we answer with the same wishes. The world is content and strangers smiled at each other.

But overnight everything changes. On the next day the contentment is replaced by greedy needs and desires. We need more things; we need to buy them as cheaply as possible. From being glad with what we have accomplished and what we have, we are now dissatisfied, greedy for more possessions, for new technologies. Where yesterday our hearts were calm and content, today we are dissatisfied, satisfaction is not within reach and we need to incur serious debts in order to fill the gaping holes in our hearts. We have returned from the slightly nostalgic reaching back to our farming past. Today we are city people, rushed, dissatisfied, envious, competitive as we push ahead of others in the line to be first to spend our hard-earned money.

We usually describe such orgies of buying as symptoms of American consumerism. Individuals are being blamed for being avid consumers. If they just chose to stay home on black Friday everything would be okay. But that is a shallow way of considering the change that happens from Thursday to Friday.

The fantastic change we undergo overnight reminds us of the different kinds of people we Americans are. We are anchored in the virtues of country life and self-determination for a century or more (as well as in the racist and sexist vices of that older America). But we live today in a world that is very different, that makes a virtue of being dissatisfied. Everyone and everything must grow. No business is ever big enough. No rich person is ever rich enough. No powerful person can abide contented with their power; they must get more.

Growth, improvement, winning competitions, being the best, the most powerful, the loudest, the best-known are now compelling goals. Persons content with their lot, who are not striving to improve their condition, to find a better job, to buy a bigger house – such persons are lacking in ambition. It is no longer clear that they are good Americans.

Can we regain some of that earlier calm. Can we once again be content with what we have instead of needing more, more, more all the time?

This a very large question. The answers we have are only partial. Here is just one among many:

The imperative for business growth encourages companies to make their employees more and more productive. When you do the same thing over and over, you become very good at it and can work very fast and be very productive. But your job is not challenging, instead, it becomes really boring.

Seeking growth in every way possible, our employers make work really unpleasant. There is, then, some solace in buying new things when workdays are repetitive and tedious. Working in hierarchical and authoritarian settings, choosing what new things to buy can feel like an assertion of autonomy and freedom. The orgies of consumption become more attractive to people whose work life is unhappy and repetitive.

The tremendous technical ingenuity of many of our businesses should
not be devoted to making more money for stockholders but for automating tedious work and making work creative and challenging. Their job should leave people satisfied at the end of the day instead of leaving them feeling empty.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Democracy in the US


    In my last blog I pointed out that our government regularly lies to us. It does not matter whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether Congress has more members of one party or another. Our government again and again acts in secrecy not from some foreign power but from American citizens. Our government again and again misrepresents what it does and conceals some of its activities.

    The point of repeating these familiar facts was to argue that we do not live in a democracy as it is usually defined for us, namely as a government that is  "of, for, and by the people." It is definitely not by the people because they don't even know what the government is doing. It is not government for the people because the secret acts often do not benefit the people. The war in Iraq is one example of that. It is not government of the people because they are being lied to by a ruling group of politicians and business people who hold the rest of us in sufficient contempt to lie to us without shame.

    That is an important lesson that many Americans have not yet learned. They are confused by other aspects of our electoral system, by other aspects of our media which have more freedom than media have in many other countries, and by our judicial system which provides fair hearings to a significant number of citizens.

    All of those, are of course important. In electoral campaigns and in various more or less official media – from the New York Times and Washington Post to random blogs and tweets, citizens express their views on many things and sometimes those views make a difference. There has been – to begin with a negative example – a vigorous opposition to the Iraq war from the very beginning but neither President Bush nor Pres. Obama was very much moved by that. The opposition to the Vietnam war, on the other hand, was so massive that the government could not ignore it. Support for gay marriage has made a difference in courts and in legislative bodies. Support for legalizing marijuana has also affected government policy and the opinion of legislators.

    In our country, what people think sometimes makes a difference. But that is of course true in every country. The Germans did not advertise or talk publicly about their killing Jews, or homosexuals, or communists. They knew better than to stimulate opposition by letting people know what was going on. The secrecy of the Stalinist regime teaches us the same lesson: even brutal dictators care about what people know about them. All governments are vulnerable to public opinion.

    But it may well be true that ours is more vulnerable than a firmly entrenched dictatorship. The free speech we have, which is not unqualified by any means, does allow us to speak out in ways which other countries would not allow. My blog would quickly end me in hot water in no time at all in China, in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia and many other places. Being able to speak out is a real advantage and I am the last person to deny that. I enjoy the leeway that I have  been given.

    As a white person which some resources I am not afraid of the police and I would be confident to receive fair treatment in the courts if that came up. There are many other Americans who cannot be that confident, but some of us can and that, too, is very good.

    But all of these privileges, however valuable they are, do not yield a government "of, for, and by the people." That does not exist in the United States of America.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

When the government lies

A newspaper recently revealed that the Pentagon has been spending $7 million or more to pay for patriotic displays before major league athletic games. Our government is willing to pay to make us be more patriotic. I suppose they want to inspire young people to enlist and their parents to welcome such a choice. But the payments had, of course, been secret.

This story seems silly. One small example of the government's inclination to lie to us, to conceal its actions, to try to deceive us about its goals and its plans. We are by now used to being lied to. Think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that Pres. Johnson faked in order to get Congress to approve of escalating the Vietnam war. Think of the Iran Contra scandal when Pres. Reagan waged a secret war in Nicaragua. When the Chilean people elected a socialist President, our government instigated a military coup to impose a brutal dictatorship on Chileans for many years. Need I mention the weapons of mass destruction that got us into the Iraq war? Or take the Asian trade treaty now before Congress that was negotiated in secret. In this case the government quite openly deceived the public. We were told that what the trade policy of the United States was to be was none of our business. How much more openly contemptuous of citizens can a government be?

What else is new? You might ask. That is the way the world goes.

But when I recently read an issue of The Veteran, the paper of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, with its stories of Vietnam vets suffering gravely for many years after their return from Vietnam, I realized that government lies are much more serious and should not be passed over by us as being just one more thing that's wrong with the world.

The Vietnam war, begun secretly and expanded under false pretenses, killed 58,000 American soldiers and left larger numbers than that homeless, divorced, addicted, fighting for their life every day, many of the ridden by terrible guilt for their actions during the war. It cost the lives of 4 million Vietnamese, has left the country full of unexploded bombs and shells. Children in Vietnam continue to be born crippled and deformed by agent orange. The Iraq war, begun under false pretenses, has left that country in ruins and many of our young men and women, who survived, seriously troubled, if not the victims of suicide.

You cannot escape the profound sense of contempt for ordinary citizens that motivated the governments that began and continued these wars. As young men, the architects of the Iraq war deliberately escaped military service. But they did not hesitate to send other young men and women to their deaths in Iraq. Clearly the privileged members of our government have no respect for the citizens over whom they rule.

The ideals we proclaim and which we often want to impose forcibly on other nations – freedom, equality, democracy – are unavailable to a people not respected by its government, or to a people whose government regularly deceives it without so much as a moment’s hesitation.

We believe ourselves to be free in so far as the government does not interfere with choices we make, as long as they're not illegal. But if the government lies to you, they need not block your choices; the choices you make will always fail to some extent because they are choices  in a world that does not exist. A lying government prevents you from making realistic choices appropriate to the world in which you live. Your choices are doomed to fail.

Take this one example: We are told by the powerful people who are in and out of government that in America everyone can reach the goals they set for themselves, if only they work hard enough. Hilary Clinton reiterated that recently in a message to Wellesley College alumnae. But that is of course false. Where you are born in the social hierarchy pretty much determines where you end up and that is, for most people, pretty close to where they started.

But you believe what you are told and although your parents did not finish high school and are in spite of hard work, always out of money, you set yourself a goal of becoming a shaper of American foreign policy in the State Department. You go to Community College and then to a state college and graduate, owing a, for you, serious amount of money. You apply to the State Department and get a job as a file clerk. Will you rise up to be an advisor to the Secretary of State? What do you think?

No one prevents you from working for the goals you set yourself. But you are misled about the world in which you live. You are prevented from making free choices because you are misinformed about what would be reasonable choices for you. They do not control your life by sending police to your house. They control you by misinformation. You are not free.

Clearly a world in which some can lie to others and get away with it again and again is not a world in which we are all equals. There are the people in position to lie and there are those who believe those lies and those who do not. Clearly in such a world democracy is a charade. How can you and I, to whom the government lies quite regularly, think that we control that government through our votes?

A country like ours where governments --both leaning right and leaning left--do not scruple to lie to citizens has no freedom, no equality and no democracy. Anyone who tells you different is a liar.

We live in an oligarchy where the few disrespect the many and manipulate them by lies and misinformation.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Debate over the Role of Government

One serious difference between progressives and conservatives is their estimate of the value of government interventions. In conservative theory, government has only one function and that is to secure the liberties given to us in the Constitution. Any other government action is illegitimate and should be ended.
The view of the role of government at the other end of the political spectrum is much more generous. Progressives tend to look to the government to equalize life chances in our society. Its role includes passing legislation to promote equality of opportunity and to guarantee, as far as possible, a productive and happy life to all citizens .

But in pursuit of equality of opportunity, the government often gets involved in programs that do not benefit the intended beneficiaries and instead puts money in the pocket of shady operators.

A recent example of that is a government program that provides significant financial support for persons who want to study law. The government is prepared to give substantial loans to law students. The goal of this program is obviously to enable people with limited financial resources to train for and enter a lucrative and respected profession, the law.

Unfortunately this program didnot meet its goals but instead saddled many people with very large debts without opening a legal career to them. Here is what happened. Once the loan fund was available many law schools, especially for-profit law schools but not they alone, raised their tuition. Thus people who attend law school with the help of the government loan fund may end up owing more than $150,000.

The schools not only raised their fee but also lowered their admissions criteria in order to take in more tuition money. As a consequence the supply of lawyers increased while the demand for lawyers remained the same. At the same time there were more lawyers who lacked the ability to pass the rather demanding examinations one needs to pass in order to be allowed to practice law. More and more law students, saddled with a large debt, failed their bar exams and thus could not practice law. The money they spent on tuition, not to mention the interest on their loans, was wasted.

This attempt to to equalize the opportunity for entering the legal profession is a complete failure. It damaged the lives of those it hoped to help and instead put money into the pockets of unscrupulous law schools.

Cases like this one bolster the conservative outlook. In attacking government activities designed to increase equality of opportunity – affirmative action in education and hiring are the most notorious examples of that – conservatives point to cases like the law school tuition loan program to prove that such programs do not work but, instead, do tremendous damage.

It is not difficult to find many other cases where government, especially the federal government, has tried to improve life for American citizens but has failed. The "No Child Left Behind" Act is one well-known example of that. The constant testing of students has not been nearly as beneficial as originally expected.

But it is important to remember that not all government programs fail. One of the earliest government moves to reduce racial injustices was made by Pres. Truman in 1946 with the integration of the armed forces. Separate military units for whites and for African-American were abolished. Soldiers,  regardless of their origins or the color of their skin, now served together. In the 1950s began the efforts to integrate schools, a program that encountered many difficulties and failures but has made a significant difference. So has government insistence that citizenship rights, such as voting or holding public office, are owed to all Americans not only to whites.

There are much more established government functions which are usually overlooked in these the debates. Since medieval times governments have tried to make sure that coinage and money were trustworthy. They have supervised scales and measures to make sure that consumers were not cheated by unscrupulous grocers or butchers. Consumer protection has been a government function that everyone, except some business people, have supported wholeheartedly. We have always believed that the government, that is local government, should be in charge of the education of our children. Private schools are understood to be tools for stratifying our society by promoting inequality.

    We seem to be caught between two alternatives neither of which is fully satisfactory. We can devise government programs to to help our fellow citizens who are suffering. The price we pay for that are other government programs that do more harm than good. Or we can resist all government programs and leave the poor or those challenged by undeserved adversity to their own, inadequate devices.

    But these are, of course, not our only options. In many, not in all, situations the choice is not between having government programs and not having them. There is always the third possibility of communities rallying and providing assistance by their own efforts to those who need it.

    One familiar example of that are schools. In some communities citizens do not merely hand over their tax money to the school board and then let them do whatever seems best to them. Instead citizens remain actively involved in running the schools to provide the education they want for their children. Active citizen supervision makes the schools better along the lines desired by citizens.

    Many observers see a dilemma between an activist government that often fails and a conservative government that fails its needy citizens. But that dilemma exists only as long as we are unwilling to be active citizens in our own communities and help provide the services that we want for everyone. Schools are one example. So are food banks, clothing depositories, shelters for the homeless, refuges for battered women, and rape crisis centers. These are often provided by local efforts, largely financed by local contributions and staff, in part, by local volunteers.

    Citizens who are willing to give of their own time and share their own resources can do much to provide good services that a community needs without relying on the work of often inept government bureaucrats.

    Activist citizens may improve government services by supervising particular programs and raising questions about ineffective or damaging ones. The questions about the law school tuition loan programs, for instance, were  raised in an editorial in the New York Times (

    Citizen prepared to be active either in their communities or in keeping a close eye on government programs  are essential to a proper functioning of our social-political system. Both the endless complaints about government inefficiency or the kneejerk call for more government programs to solve new problems come from citizens unwilling to play their proper role as activists in their community and in the nation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lies that Kill

     Osama bin Laden at one time lived in Kandahar, Afghanistan. When he moved to Pakistan he left behind a collection of 1500 audiotapes which by a circuitous route came into the hands of CNN.

    Among these tapes was the entire speech from which American journalists extracted what has come to be known as the "Declaration of War against the United States" speech. A journalist by the name of Flagg Miller, who speaks Arabic, has listened to the entire speech and in his judgment calling it a declaration of war against the United States is a complete misrepresentation. According to Miller the main targets of criticism in that speech are authoritarian Muslim regimes. (https://news.vice. com/article/what-i-learned-about-al-qaeda-from-analyzing-the-bin-laden-tapes)

    Obviously that puts the conflict in the Middle East in a very different light. What has been presented to us an enemy of the US, Al Qaeda was, at least originally, a much more complex and disunited movement. We have spent the last 15 years making sure that we would become the main enemy of dissident Muslim movements like Al Qaeda.

    This reminds us once again that the political system we live under has ceased being a democracy. In a democracy the citizens at large have, at least, an important voice in setting government policy. But if the opinions and judgments of citizens are manipulated by making them believe, for instance, that they are in danger, when in fact they are not, they no longer are the independent rulers of their country but are no more than pawns in a high-level power game that few understand.

    Many Americans believed that Al Qaeda was dedicated to only one goal, the destruction of America. That seemed to justify the expense in life and in money we suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now it turns out those stories were made up. The situation is and was much more complex as were the conflicts in which, at first, we were at the margins and the enemies were Muslim dictatorships.

    Al Qaeda was not the threat we were told it was. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. Our country has spent excessive amount of money which was needed at home, on killing and destroying in faraway places. The decision to do that was not made by well-informed citizens but by voters manipulated by journalists and politicians, for reasons of their own – reasons that are often still opaque.

    The attack of 9/11 and its aftermath of manipulating public opinion into two wars which we lost, have indeed dimmed the reputation of the United States.. But the authors of this loss were not primarily Arab conspirators but manipulators of the news in the United States itself.

    It is really alarming to realize that. Our enemies are not overseas. They are not the youngsters at the margins of American society who dream of glory fighting with ISIS. Our main enemies are the manipulators of news, the manipulators of congressional actions, the public relations experts who misrepresent to us the world in which we live.

    These hidden enemies are assisted, often unwittingly, by local politicians, by high school history teachers, by notables who give commencement addresses, and others who pass on the misrepresentations foisted on us by the media and the people who own and run them.

    The upcoming generation grows up misinformed about their, and our, world. When young people talk about the 1960s, they know about the "hippies" but know little about the antiwar movement. They know about Martin Luther King but do not know the cruel and, at the same time, inspiring history of centuries of black resistance. The relative changes in the position of African-American is presented to them as the action of benign government that passed civil-rights legislation after Dr. King addressed a large crowd on the Mall in Washington

    Anyone who suggests that there is a group of people manipulating government policy by manipulating the information voters get, is likely to get accused of being paranoid, i.e. crazy.

    Were I to say that there was a secret cabal of powerful people who run everything, that accusation might be deserved. But of course the situation is much more complex. We were manipulated into two devastating wars – devastating for us, and even more devastating for the people in the Middle East – by a group of warmongers, with macho fantasies about US military power and glory, with an important side interest in controlling Middle East oil.
 The mythology about capitalism and the free market system is obviously perpetrated by a different group consisting of businesses large and small that receive government subsidies but want to resist regulation. These myths have tended, at times, to produce a workforce that will,  without complaint, accept layoffs in the interest of stockholder dividends. They have tended, at times, to produce a working class that does not get rewarded appropriately for its efforts but accepts that by blaming itself for not having more education.

    The mythology that global warming is the invention of scientists greedy for research grants is pushed by different groups again.

    The perpetuation of racism must be blamed, in part, on media who sell more copy "if it bleeds." Stories about addiction, drug dealing, gangs are preferred. Stories about decrepit schools, unjust treatment by social workers and police, of being taken advantage of by landlords – those stories are not heard very often.   

      If the people are fed many mythologies about their own country, they are not in a position to rule. What we call democracy is no more than an elaborate charade. The strings are being pulled by those who manufactured the information that most people get. The misrepresentation of Osama bin Laden’s "Declaration of War against the United States" is just one horrifying example of that.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Participatory budgeting

With the presidential campaign front and center and money flowing like manna from heaven the, question of democracy – what it is and whether we can still claim to live in a democratic country – is coming to the fore again.

In these discussions about democracy, descriptions of alternative mechanisms for ordinary citizens to express their thoughts and desires allows considerable interest.

One of the favorite examples of alternative institutions that have made a genuine political difference is the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here neighborhoods – especially poor neighborhoods--  come together to discuss their needs, to decide what everyone would like to have financed in the coming year. These groups then choose representatives who will meet with representatives from other neighborhoods to determine portions of the coming year's city budget. Once the neighborhood representatives have agreed on a plan, they need to persuade city administrators to adopt the budget as they have formulated it.

Serious issues are decided by the neighborhoods and significant amounts of investment funds are involved. For instance, in one year some people wanted to establish a neighborhood health clinic because at the present time healthcare was only available at a fair distance and not easily accessible to pregnant women, or women with several small children. But there was an alternative project to build a pedestrian overpass at a very busy intersection where four people have been killed in traffic during the previous year. After a good deal of discussion, the representative groups decided that the health clinic was more important and apportionment investment funds to establish it.

Instead of the bureaucrats and technicians in City Hall deciding what the neighborhood needed, citizens of the neighborhood itself determine what fourth most important to them.

It is easy to see that this participatory budgeting project does add a new dimension to the previously existing electoral democracy. The question of what people need in a particular part of town is not decided by representatives chosen to represent citizens with respect to all topics, but is decided by people chosen specifically to advocate for a definite, clearly specified project. The decision of what to build in the next year is made by the people who live in the area not in some centralized city government office.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has become well-known and is widely regarded as an important model for democratic procedures, at least among liberals and progressives. There are also a number of cities in the United States that practice something they call "participatory budgeting."

One example is participatory budgeting in New York City. The city has a budget of $77 billion. Of those, $30 million are assigned to community decision-making about the budget. That comes to roughly 1/3 of 1% of the total budget "'New York City's participatory budgeting process is a model for empowered, community-based decision-making across the country and around the world, and the City Council is proud to do its part to strengthen and innovate democracy' said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito."

Is that an accurate assessment of New York City's participatory budgeting, or is it propaganda?

In Porto Alegre, citizens in a specific neighborhood choose a favorite project. They then elect a representative whose job it is to consult with representatives from other neighborhoods to select what seems to all the best project. Together these representatives decide what the chief projects should be for that year and go to City Hall to persuade the City Council to adopt their priority. The extent to which neighborhoods have a real voice in budgeting depends on the Mayor and the City Council. Participatory budgeting exists due to a group of voters deliberating together and the officials in the city government respecting those decisions.

In New York City, the process is firmly controlled by the City Counselors. They solicit suggestions and once a list of proposal has been established, citizens vote on the list and choose the proposal to be funded. What is called "participatory budgeting" is more like soliciting suggestions from citizens about very specific and narrowly circumscribed questions that always rather peripheral, limited to schools, libraries, parks.

The project involves such items as carts on which to store computers in schools, or and upgrading of the security system in the public library.

There are two ways of considering these North American projects. One can applaud them because they add another mechanism for democratic control of government by ordinary citizens. But one might also take a more negative view according to which this is a deceptive undertaking which does not, as claimed, "empower" citizens because the traditional distribution of power is unchanged except for one third of 1% of the total budget of the City of New York. Compared to the problems New York City faces in its schools and neighborhoods with poverty, addiction, crimes committed by citizens and by police, the decision to buy computer carts for the local school does not seem to me to empower citizens to participate in running their city.

The language of "participatory budgeting" and "citizen empowerment" is being misused to deceive citizens about the poverty of their democracy.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reasonable concern about domestic security? Islamophobia?

The comment by a presidential candidate that he would not allow a Muslim to run for president, has raised an interesting controversy. Shall we say that this candidate has reasonable concerns about our domestic security and the maintenance of our Constitution and political system? Or shall we say that his statement was a clear example of  Islamophobia? Or, to speak plainly, a clear example of racism?

Those who agree with the presidential candidate point to what they see as the unwillingness of Muslims in the US to assimilate. Many Muslims maintain their native language, many Muslim women cover their heads, among Muslims gender roles are different from what they are in other parts of America.

But none of those differentiates Muslims in America from other groups. Most immigrants hold on to their native languages, sometimes because their English is not so good and sometimes because their language of origin is dear and beloved. Religious Jews will cover their heads but are not, for that reason, accused of unwillingness to assimilate. Women hailing from India often wear saris but no one thinks that politicians, whose families immigrated from India, are therefore not qualified for holding public office. Bobby Jindal, governor of Lousiana, is actually at the moment running for president.

Distrust of Muslims is also often justified by saying that they want to impose sharia law on everyone in the United States. But again, think of all the others groups, that we regard as good Americans, whose religion imposes on them specific rules that are quite different from those of mainstream America. Think, for instance, of the dietary laws followed by orthodox Jews. Think about the rules promulgated by the Catholic Church about families, divorce, reproduction, the role of women in the family.

Here we have two examples of reasons given to justify special treatment of Muslims. But these reasons would also demand that other religious groups such as Jews and Catholics should be excluded from being candidates for political office. But the same reasons are not used to exclude Jews and Catholics.

It is currently customary to call these prejudiced attitudes “Islamophobia.” That has a clean, clinical sound to it like “acrophobia” (fear of heights) or “agoraphobia” (fear of open spaces). Such fears may be irrational but should be treated more like a disease than a moral failure.

But it is clear that excluding Muslims from our democracy is not merely irrational, but is utterly reprehensible like any other example of racism.