Tuesday, June 24, 2014

                     Hunger Games

        A recent movie, Hunger Games, portrays an imaginary country in the future where one lives luxuriously in the country’s capital while the farmers and miners in the remote provinces are literally starving to support the high style of the central city.

        This unequal system is maintained by public spectacles, the so-called Hunger Games included. In these annual games young persons selected by lot from every part of the country are let loose in dark forests with plenty of weapons but little else. The victor is the person who emerges alive after killing all the competitors.

        A recent story about seating on airplanes echoes the future society of the Hunger Games. Many airplanes have seating in the cabin, in business class, and in first-class. First-class passengers are likely to pay 10 times the price of passengers in the cabin class. There the airlines keep shrinking the space allotted to each passenger. In first-class, on the contrary, seats will now convert to flat beds for a comfortable night's sleep. Passengers are fed by renowned chefs and tranquilized with expensive champagnes.

        I have no problem with people who pay 10 times what I paid for my flight being pampered in ways barely imaginable to me. But then I start thinking where the money comes from to pay for these luxurious seats. A large portion of these fancy Dan seats are paid for by businesses. It is not only the 1% that pays for such excessive luxury but the treasuries of large corporations who pamper their CEOs and other chief employees.

        How can the corporations afford this? Are they not supposed to be "lean and mean"? What happens in the airplane, happens at work. This CEO gets a seat that costs 10 times what the employee in cabin class pays. The CEO flies in luxury; the employee sits in a cramped seat. At work the employee gets paid as little as possible. Their benefits continue to be reduced. Their job security continues to be diminished. The CEOs paycheck gets fatter.

        As a consequence, the Corporation makes money hand over fist and can pay for luxury seating on the airplane for the CEO. It's Hunger Games all over. The luxury in the capital is made possible by starvation in the countryside. Here the luxury in first-class is made possible by the real discomfort in cabin class and the Corporation can pay for excessively expensive seats for the CEO by continuing to squeeze their workers. (Those squeezed the most travel by bus; they do not even get on the  airplane.)

        Hunger Games is not about the future. It is about our world today.
What keeps us going are not fights unto death on television but the increasingly bitter struggle for any work at all, let alone for decent work. A significant number of college graduates are doing minimum-wage work. The unemployment rate is going down because more and more people stopped looking for work. Business interests are putting up a major fight against raising the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour. A living wage is not even under consideration.
As in the world of the Hunger Games the majority in ours is made to lead starkly difficult lives for the sake of luxury for the few.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

One Nation Indivisible……

Do you remember the images from the end of World War II? The enormous crowds in  New York City’s Times Square. Sailors and random women kissing. Everyone jubilant because the War was finally over.

Do you remember the end of the war in Iraq? Probably not. On December 8, 2011 the last US soldiers left Iraq. The then Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, declared in Baghdad that the freedom of Iraq was well worth the lives of many American and Iraqi soldiers as if an American bureaucrat were God himself able to weigh the worth of human lives. But today that freedom is once again in acute peril.

More importantly, for America at large, the end of the war in Iraq passed without notice. When World War II ended, America celebrated because that war was waged by everyone. The war in Iraq, on the contrary, was a private experience for, on the one hand, powerful politicians, like VP Cheney and Secretary of Defense Ashcroft and, on the other, the soldiers and their families. For the rest of America the war in Iraq was clearly secondary to much else that happened.

(There is no reason to think that the war in Afghanistan and its end later this year will be any different.)

The Pledge Of Allegiance speaks of our country as "one nation indivisible" but that has stopped being true a long time ago. Yes, brief blossomings of national unity occur such as after 9/11 but they don't last. Soon everybody crawls back into their partisan and narcissistic corners unconcerned about what happens to everyone else.

There is a widespread belief that the war in Iraq has been fought by the poor of this country. African Americans and young men and women from rural areas are overrepresented among enlistees after 9/11 . (The Heritage Foundation has waged a spirited war against this widely held opinion.) Regardless of who is right in this controversy,  no doubt exists that the Iraq war was very much the concern of a very small percentage of the American citizenry. For the rest of us it mattered only in its early years. But as the war dragged on, most Americans lost interest.

A nation united has common goals. It's citizens participate in common efforts. Everyone is animated to participate in projects considered supportive of the common good. Wars are one of those shared projects. They are entered in with widespread popular support. They are conducted by everyone, each doing their job to contribute to what they chose to undertake. Behind these common projects stands a nation united in support of striving for common goals.
Where a nation works in unison, democracy is strong. It does not just consist of occasional balloting but is renewed every day as each citizen makes their contribution to the common undertaking.

But for us there are no more common projects. Democracy has degenerated into partisan bickering for individual advantage.

When the end of a war slips by without much public notice, we see only too clearly the decay of the nation.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ready for robots?

A Japanese billionaire unveiled a robot called Pepper who supposedly reacts to human emotions. The robot not only perceives that someone is sad or happy or troubled but also responds appropriately. The robot has been developed in cooperation with a French firm, Aldebaran. Similar efforts are underway in the United States. They will sell you a robot to babysit your children for $300.
A 2012 movie “Robot and Frank” anticipates these technological innovations but with a humorous twist. A one time burglar, now old and at times forgetful, is given a robot to attend to him. The old man trains the robot to be a splendidly competent cat burglar. Could Pepper do that?
Not surprisingly reactions to these developments vary a good deal. Some people are appalled. Others see a large number of opportunities where emotional robots – mechanical creatures that perceive human emotions and react appropriately – could do a great deal of good. They could be babysitters, they might mind children in study hall. If your child is sick, you don't need to stay home from work. Get the robot to sit with your feverish child. After you retire and, like Frank you are becoming forgetful, and you are lonely and depressed, no problem. Bring in the empathetic robot to make appropriate clucking noises when you sit in your chair with tears rolling down your cheeks as you think of good times long ago.
Personally, the project gives me the creeps. It reminds me of a movie George Lucas made when he was still a student, called THX 1138. It is a science fiction film depicting a future dictatorship where human beings, heavily drugged, do work and not much else. Their sexual impulses are suppressed by drugs. Love between human beings does not exist. At the end of the day, the workers may stop off at a therapy booth, which looks suspiciously like an old phone booth. One can go in and talk about what troubles one and a sympathetic voice will respond with "tell me more" or "that must feel really bad." The camera moves back so that you do not merely see the worker but also the back of the booth. A tape player is attached. The sympathetic murmurings are random messages from a tape machine.
The therapy booth is a machine. It produces sounds that seem appropriate but it does not in any sense respond to emotions. Today's robot is a great deal more sophisticated. The technology is in many ways very impressive. But the robot is not human.
The robot lacks an inner life of its own. There is a great deal of difference between responding appropriately to someone else's emotions and having emotions of one's own. Human beings, unlike these robots, do not always respond appropriately. We get tired of whiny children. We feel that all the children want from us is more affection but they are not giving very much back and we ourselves also feel isolated and underappreciated. It is not always possible to respond sympathetically to your demented parents about whom you have harbored ambivalent feelings for much of your life. Some days they just make you very angry and you yell at them.
The sympathetic robot does not do that. It is quite saintly. As programmed it will be sympathetic when you are sad.
It is however not human sympathy.
That is what makes all this so creepy. Caretaking and caretakers are in short supply in our society because it is very difficult to make money off taking care of children and the elderly. What does not make money tends to be neglected in our society because making money is our main occupation.
A mechanical babysitter that costs $300 soon pays for itself. The economic outlook for robots, currently priced at less than $2000, is quite brilliant for taking care of mom or dad when they get really old.
It promises to be one more area of life where we sacrifice our humanity for the sake of making money.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What Is to Be Done?

            In my last blog I pointed out that Memorial Day is an annual opportunity for misrepresenting our history. We regularly claim that the very many wars we have fought during our 225 years that the United States existed were intended to defend our freedom. In reality our wars were fought to enhance our power in the world.
Pres. Obama made this very clear when he said in his recent graduation address at West Point that “America must always lead on the world stage.”
While I was writing that, an inner voice criticized: 'all you ever do is complain. Don't you have any ideas of what we should be doing?' That criticism stung because it has some truth to it.
Here is a proposal.
Instead of desperately trying to maintain our position as the most powerful nation on earth, we should put our own house in order.
Recently Congress appropriated $600 billion for the military. That was actually more money than the Pentagon had asked for. The motive behind this generosity for the military was not only a dedication to America's military greatness but also a concern for jobs. A good deal of our economy depends on our saber rattling, our wars, our going around the world as the big bully, arming a series of reprehensible dictators.
If we want to forswear playing that role, we should cut the military budget in half. The $300 million saved would have to be spent putting the people to work who lost their jobs making weapons or giving support in various ways to our bloated military.
Fortunately there is plenty of work to be done. There are roads and bridges to be repaired before they collapse. There are schools to be rebuilt, teachers to be trained and put to work to improve our schools. We need more social workers to keep track of children who live in troubled families. There is a crying need for detox programs for drug addicts. A recent report states that 40,000 houses in Detroit are dilapidated and need to be torn down. Someone needs to do that, and do it soon. The list of pressing domestic needs goes on and on.
How will we pay for that? Well we just happen to have $300 billion saved from military appropriations. That money should go a long way towards creating jobs – decent jobs – for all the people no longer employed in war industries. We should hope that some of that money will also serve to put people to work who have been unable to find employment since the 2008 economic collapse.
In addition that money will not be blown up in ammunition to bring death to people in foreign countries, but it will be used to make a better life better for many people here at home.
Once we give up the bizarre notion that we need to keep going to war in order to keep the peace, we may be able to make ours a better country by making life better for many Americans.
Here is one proposal to satisfy my inner voice.