Thursday, December 30, 2010


Before the Senate passed the new START treaty with Russia, a number of senators threatened to vote against the treaty for no other reason than that they did not want Obama to have another political victory. In the end they relented but this sort of partisan politics has become excessively familiar in the last years. Members of both parties seem more intent on winning small victories for their party than voting in the interest of the country as a whole.

When the US Constitution was being considered by different states for ratification, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of articles--now known to us as the Federalist Papers--in praise of the new Constitution. In article number 10, Madison describes narrowminded party politics:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, . . . have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. ”

Madison believed that representative democracy is the cure for this kind of partisan politics. If people select representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” A representative democracy allows the election of the wisest representatives who have the common good at heart and place it above partisan interests.

But now we have a representative system and the party bickering and maneuvering is as bad as what Madison described. What went wrong?

Our world is very different from that of the late 18th century. We think and act differently. Madison expected representative democracy to select patriotic representatives with a love of justice who were willing to put the “true interest of their country” ahead of partisan considerations.

For the founders of our country the word “virtue” was very important. For the new Republic to thrive, they thought, citizens needed to value morality above all, they needed to love justice, and care for the well-being of the country as a whole. They needed to be, above all, public spirited persons of impeccable integrity. 
Our motto today is the famous saying of Calvin Coolidge “America’s business is business” or “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Hence the bailout of the rich and the advice to the unemployed to go out and find a job and not depend on government handouts. Aare you sense of justice or caring for their common good are no longer honored. Selfishness has become the supreme virtue and partisan politics in Congress is simply one example of that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bah, humbug!

It is Christmas. Once again we celebrate the birth of Jesus who, born into utter poverty, spent his life exhorting us to take care of the poor, to love our neighbor as much as ourselves, and to treat them as we would like to be treated.

Care of the unfortunate is part of our Christmas ritual. The Marines are collecting toys for children; newspapers carry daily photographs from different churches collecting food for the poor.

We should not allow this annual burst of benevolence to deceive us as to the reality of our practices during the remainder of the year. Pres. Obama signed the recent tax cut law with great fanfare because it is said to restore benefits for many. But this extension of benefits leaves out hundreds of thousands of Americans, unfortunate enough to have had no work for more than two years. They will not be helped by this bill. No one can get more than two years' worth of unemployment insurance even in a depression where almost 10% of workers cannot find a job. No one will help after two years. Instead the long term unemployed hear, once again the story trotted out regularly by conservatives, that we should not help the unemployed because it would make them dependent on government services. Unable to find a job, they are also getting blamed for their misfortune. (No one refused to bail out Goldman Sachs, the Bank of America or General Motors for fear that they would become dependent on public money.)

That’s hardly an example of loving your neighbor like yourself. 
The head of Goldman, Sachs will receive a $9 million Christmas bonus. At the same time, one in five American children lives in poverty. There have been no reports that the people at Goldman Sachs, who will receive many millions of dollars as a Christmas present, will donate their earnings to alleviate the suffering of American children. They do not love their neighbor likes themselves.

This gross inequality and complete contempt for the suffering of the poor is, of course, our fault. We adore money and bow down before its owners. Bill Gates, perhaps the richest man in the world, has recently discovered his expertise in matters of education. He has been going around blaming the teachers. And we respond by saying “Yes Mr. Gates, no Mr. Gates, Sir.” We don’t point out to Bill Gates that he knows nothing about education. He does not know, for instance, that poor children are most likely to be poor learners. We don’t tell Bill Gates to stay out of education, which he knows nothing about, and to use some of his money to alleviate child poverty. We respect money too much to do that.

Last year Exxon Mobil earned $19 billion. It paid no taxes on those $19 billion. Instead it received a tax refund from the IRS for $156 millions. Where are the congressmen and senators who called for an investigation of this complete outrage? Pres. Obama talks about reforming the tax code, but he did not call for immediate repeal of all the tax loopholes that allow Exxon Mobil to get a refund on taxes they never paid.

The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars reached 14.7 percent in March. There are 107,000 homeless veterans on the streets of America on any given night and over twice that many experience homelessness over the course of a year. The suicide rate of veterans is more than twice that of non-vets. 
Many vets suffer brain damages from explosions. But the government insurance scheme for health care for veterans refuses to pay for rehabilitative therapy which has proven effective in a significant number of cases. It's too expensive!

Congress can't find the money to create jobs for veterans or for efforts to prevent their suicides. It cannot pay for rehabilitation and therapy for gravely injured soldiers. But legislators had no trouble last week seriously cutting the taxes of people making more than $ 250,000. a year. That will cost us $ 690 billion for the next ten years. Whom does Congress and the Administration love better, the vets suffering from their service experiences or the super rich?

We Americans don’t love our poor neighbors the way we love ourselves or the super rich. Instead we blame them for their poverty and bow down respectfully to the likes of Bill Gates. We are good capitalists. We respect of the people most who make more money than anyone else.

We overlook the fact that being good capitalists makes us really bad Christians (or, equally, bad Jews or Muslims.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Beware of the private profit motive

Everybody loves an entrepreneur! While the news from Afghanistan is uniformly bad, a number of recent news reports see a glimmer of hope in the rise of Afghanistan entrepreneurs.

It is surprising that Americans still have not learned to be suspicious of the entrepreneur. People who look for a tidy profit are clearly the enemies of ordinary citizens. After three years of depression and unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness that should not need repeating. But after two centuries of capitalist propaganda the faith in the private profit motive dies slowly.

So let’s assemble a few reminders about the damage done by the pursuit of private profit.

The current crisis was caused by banks and investment houses taking excessive risks in the hope of super profits. This was not only true of American banks; it was equally true of banks in Ireland and elsewhere. Blinded by the promise of super profits, bankers, formerly, the epitome of conservatism and caution, made series of bad loans and needed trillions of dollars of government money to bail them out.

In pursuit of greater profit, US companies outsourced American jobs to Asia. They became “lean and mean,” replacing human workers by machines and cutting wages. Walmart, for instance, is trying to cut the extra dollar an hour they have so far been paying workers who staff their stores on Sundays.

The current crisis has produced a rash of illegalities. The US government reports initiating close to 200 prosecutions for financial fraud since August of this year. Desperate for profits, investors set out to defraud the public.

Everywhere, food banks report major increases in the number of people needing their help to feed their families.

States are in serious financial troubles. Even after cutting school budgets or programs to help needy children, states face major deficits and the only remedy is to cut back further on services to the public.

In the meantime, the banks and investment companies who started this disastrous depression are making money again. The head of Goldman, Sachs can expect more than $ 20million as a year-end bonus. (Don't hold your breath to hear that he is giving those $20 million away to the unemployed.) Contrary to what we are being told, that wealth is not trickling down. Unemployment is as bad as ever.

The next time somebody tells you about the blessings of the private profit motive, remember what is happening in the real world. However, you dress it up, selfishness is not a virtue.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Chilling Addendum to “Punishment without End”--my previous blog.

I am simply reprinting an article from the Washington Post. It is self-explanatory.

Sex offender law challenge rejected

By The Associated Press
A law allowing the indefinite confinement of "sexually dangerous" federal inmates after their prison terms end does not violate their due process rights, an appeals court has ruled.
The unanimous ruling Monday by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision striking down the civil commitment provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
The appeals court previously upheld the lower court's ruling that Congress overstepped its authority in passing the law, but that decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in May. The justices sent the case back to the 4th Circuit to consider the due process issue.
Five inmates at the Federal Correctional Institute in Butner, N.C., who were held for treatment after their prison terms ended challenged the law, which authorizes civil commitment if a court finds by "clear and convincing evidence" that a person committed or tried to commit a sex offense and remains sexually dangerous.
The inmates claimed the government should have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt -- the same stringent standard imposed in criminal cases -- before being allowed to hold them indefinitely. Failure to do so violates the due process clause of the Constitution, they said.
The appeals court disagreed, citing a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a Texas civil commitment law. In that case, the justices said that civil commitment "does not require the criminal law burden of proof," appeals court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote.
The appeals court noted that the law requires the discharge of the committed person as soon as he or she is no longer a danger to others. Also, the person's lawyer or guardian can petition for a discharge and renew the request every 180 days.
"These post-commitment procedures make for a striking contrast with the finality of criminal sentences," Motz wrote.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice Department and the federal public defender's office in Raleigh, N.C., which represented the inmates, declined to comment on the ruling.
President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which is named after the son of "America's Most Wanted" television host John Walsh. Along with the civil commitment provision, the law establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishment for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Punishment without end.

A homeless man recently froze to death in Grand Rapids, MI. He was a sex offender who had served his time in prison. Grand Rapids had passed an ordinance forbidding sex offenders to sleep within 1000 feet of a school. The city fathers and mothers who passed that ordinance apparently did not notice (or did not care) that both homeless shelters in their town were very close to the Catholic High School. When this homeless man came to the shelter on a bitter cold night, he was refused entry because he was a registered sex offender. He was found frozen to death the next morning.

In most states sex offenders have to register. In many places, the police are obligated to inform the neighbors of such registered ex-felons. In other places, such as Grand Rapids, sex offenders are prohibited from living in many areas. In some localities the effect of these ordinances is to make it impossible for sex offenders to live in the town.

For a sex offenders, it is not possible to ever end their punishment. Long after they leave prison – usually having served for many years – they find it difficult to secure a job, to find housing, to the integrate into society. Their pictures and addresses appears on a government website. They have no privacy; they are not allowed quietly to rebuild their lives. A sex offender in our society serves a life sentence. They can never come to the end of paying their debt to society.

This draconian treatment is often justified by claiming that all sex offenders will reoffend. But that assertion, often advanced by politicians pandering to popular fears, is clearly false. Yes, some sex offenders reoffend. But their rate of reoffense is lower than that in other categories of crimes. Rates of reoffense  among drug users or burglars are higher. Even murderers are more likely to commit another murder.

Hysteria about sex offenders has deprived them of the right to become productive citizens once more. It ignores a large body of scientific information about the different kinds of sex offenses, the likelihood that different offenders commit another crime, the possibilities and success of treatments of sex offenders.

This refusal to consider the information we have commits terrible injustices. 

The death of Thomas Pauli in Grand Rapids Michigan is simply an especially deplorable example of that.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Too smart for our own good?

Larry Summers has resigned as head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers to return to Harvard as a Professor of Economics. This ends another phase in a very distinguished career that includes being Chief Economist at the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, and President of Harvard University. This career confirms what people, who know him personally say of him, that he is unquestionably brilliant. He knows more than many professional colleagues, he has more facts at his disposal, is more articulate, more persuasive in arguing for his view and a more devastating critic of the views he disagrees with.

But this brilliant man had a significant hand in producing the current economic crisis. He argued for deregulation in the financial sector, for changing the laws that limited mergers between banks and investment houses, he successfully fought efforts to regulate derivative trading. Summers vastly expanded the scope of financial speculation that is a major source of the current crisis. Summers paved the way for investment firms like Goldman, Sachs to make enormous profits. He himself became a millionaire many times over.

How was this possible? How could brilliant people like Summers, like many of the high-flying financiers produce the economic collapse of 2007/2008 from which we are still suffering? How is it possible that Summers and those like him still hold positions of power, of enormous influence and prestige?

It is tempting to think that Summers, and people like him, are brilliant but somehow morally defective. Here, after all, are Goldman Sachs and other investment houses, Bank of America and many other big banks once again making obscene amounts of money while ordinary Americans are out of work and threatened by hunger. It is difficult to resist the idea that these smart investors just don’t care about the damage they do to other Americans as long as they themselves are making plenty of money.

But if we think back a few years, we realize that all these large institutions took unreasonable risks which came extremely close to bankrupting their own businesses had the government not made huge sums of cash--several trillions of dollars--available to investment banks and other institutions to tide them over a critical period.

So we must ask our question again: how could people that are so smart take these completely unreasonable risks. Today it looks as if those risks just affected the working people of this country but a few years ago those risks came very close to destroying the investment houses and big banks themselves. These bright people now, all of the sudden, don’t look quite so smart because they almost ruined their own businesses.

One must look at the business culture represented by Summers and people like him to understand this. They all believe that there is no better economic system than ours, whether we call it “capitalism,” or “the free market,” or whatever else. Everyone also believes that it is competition that makes the system so fabulously productive. Entrepreneurs are spurred on to greater effort and greater ingenuity by competition with other entrepreneurs.

Few people, however, are willing to admit that competition often is profoundly damaging. The current economic failures are a case in point. In the early years of this century investment houses and banks discovered new ways of making money, for instance by selling mortgages to people who could not really afford to keep up with the payments. Then came another idea of bundling these mortgages and selling them to other investors. Everyone made lots of money with risky investments. But the competition for greater profits inevitably pushes investors into more marginal and more high-risk undertakings. In order to compete successfully you need to take greater risks. If you refuse to do so your profits will decline as compared to your competitors and your stockholders will ask you why your profits are lower than those of some of the other banks or investment houses. They will start grumbling about maybe replacing you. So you take greater risks

Competition spurs entrepreneurs to greater efforts and often into greater risks. Sooner or later somebody goes simply too far and we have another bubble bursting, businesses going bankrupt, borrowers being unable to pay their debts, lenders being short of cash. Before you know it the economy is in a recession or maybe worse. Capitalism is a permanent game of chicken that repeatedly pushes some players over the edge and those players pull up others along with them. Some government restrictions on private risk-taking would be good for everyone. But the Summerses of this world are too arrogant; they think that they will never be the ones who go over the edge. Given past history that confidence is not justified.

Even brilliant people can blind themselves to realities if they are sufficiently greedy. They may be too smart for our own good.

Friday, December 3, 2010

This Sunday's newspaper ran two long articles about social scientists discovering that many persons, bullied as children, carry those wounds into adulthood. Do those results surprise you? I thought not.

I suppose it is useful to provide some scientific evidence for what most most of us knew all along.
             But two much more interesting questions still remain to be addressed:
             1. We know what happens to children bullied. But what happens to the bullies when they grow up? There are a lot of opinions about that. Many people believe that bullies end up as crimnals. Others believe firmly that the authoritarian boss at work--man or woman--was a bully when they were school kids. But little carefully checked information about this is available.
             We clearly need to know much more about what roles adults play who, as children, were capable of exceptional cruelty to other kids: Does the society suffer when bullies grow up to be school teachers, coaches, or politicians? What kinds of parents do former bullies make?
              2. Why is our society so tolerant of bullies and bullying? Four hundred years of oppressing persons of color may well have made us callous to the pain we inflict on others. Our children are paying the price for the hypocrisy of their parents and grandparents who said that their black cook was “ a member of the family” but ate in the kitchen.
                 No doubt, our tolerance of bullies is also the fruit of 450 years of fighting against the native inhabitants of this Continent. Our histories record at least 37 major “Indian Wars” between 1622 and 1900. Not included are smaller skirmishes. In those slightly less than three centuries, we were at war more often than at peace with indigenous Americans.
                 We have become careporting the discovery by llous in a capitalist society where almost every transaction is a competition and we are constantly taking what others want. We have learned not to care about the pain we inflict on the losers when we win competitions. At the same time we have become resentful and angry from all the competitions we lost.
                Women still earn significantly less than men. Women are regularly victims of rape, and murder, and physical abuse. America still treasures the image of the “real man” who proves his manhood by callousness toward women, by dominating through physical violence. In relation to women, the image of the “real man” is that of a bully.
                Bullying, you may say, is not limited to our society. Similar or greater cruelty is manifested by citizens of other countries. That is, of course, true. But that does not imply that bullying, cruelty and heartlessness are unalterable elements of “human nature” as many people conclude from cruelty's ubiquity. Different cultures learn to be cruel in different ways in their separate histories. However common, bullying is learned behavior.
                 What we learn we can also unlearn.