“We Just Don’t Have the Money”

29 October 2011

Late in 2008 we entered the Great Recession.  By the millions, people were laid off from their jobs and evicted from their homes.  Four years later those people are still sitting idle, though the great majority of them would work if they could, and the homes in which they lived are still sitting vacant.

 

 

It is not as if there isn’t work that desperately needs to be done.  Police stations,  fire departments and schools are understaffed.  America’s highways and bridges are crumbling, if not literally crashing down.  Our water, sewage, natural gas and electrical power systems are old, obsolete and leaking. There are more than enough willing hands to get to work on these things, and plenty of material resouses available to use in doing so.  An alien visitor from another world who surveys the situation will have a difficult time understanding exactly what our problem is.  Why don’t we simply deploy the needed material and manpower and get to work?

 

 

The British philosopher Alan Watts talked about this very conundrum  back in the 1970s:

Remember the Great Depression of the Thirties? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up-and-up; and the next, unemployment, poverty and bread lines.  What happened?  The physical resources of the country – the brain, brawn, and raw materials – were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so-called financial slump. Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees.  But it was just as if someone had come to work on building a house and, on the morning of the depression, the boss had said, “Sorry, baby, but we can’t build today.  No inches. “Whaddya mean, no inches? We got wood, we got metal, we even got tape measures.”  “Yeah, but you don’t understand business.  We been using too many inches and there’s just no more to go around.” *

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The point Alan Watts makes is that money is not wealth.  You can’t eat it, you can’t build a house out of it and you can’t drive it to town.  A pair of overalls made from paper currency would be useless as a pair of overalls.  Money is a symbol of wealth – it represents wealth, but it is not wealth itself.  Dollars symbolize wealth in exactly the same way as inches symbolize the length of a board.  Real wealth is in resources and labor,  and in the ingenuity to deploy them effectively.  By that very real standard America is wealthy indeed. Our problem is that we have misunderstood the symbol as the reality.

 

 

Watts’ hilarious example brings our folly into sharp focus.  No carpenter who was fully supplied with all the building materials and willing help he needed ever complained that he couldn’t finish building the house because he was all out of inches.  And yet, that is precisely what we are doing as a society when we say we cannot return to full employment, fix our infrastructure, hire enough policemen, properly educate our children or explore outer space for the reason that we are all out of money.

 

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* Watts, Alan.   Does it Matter: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.  Novato CA:  New World Library, 1971. 3-4.

 

 

 

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Death, Certainty and Rick Perry

23 October 2011

It is a macabre record, but it doesn’t bother Texas Governor Rick Perry.  Perry was asked in a recent debate if he ever lost sleep worrying that any of the 234 people executed in Texas on his watch may have been innocent.  “No, sir,” he answered proudly, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.”

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How good would the criminal justice system have to be to  justify Perry’s absolute peace of mind?   To avoid any nagging doubt about the occurence of wrongful executions, it would have to be a very rare thing indeed – as rare as, say, being struck by a meteor.  If sentencing innocent people to die is that rare, it would be silly to lose sleep worrying about it.  Could the courts be that good?  If only one of the 234 people executed in Texas were innocent it would have an error rate of 0.4%.  In other words, if the courts get it right 99.6% of the time, odds are that one person was wrongfully executed in Texas during Perry’s governorship.

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A 2007 empirical study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology concluded that the courts are nowhere near that good.  Working with a sampling of capital convictions in the 1980s in which DNA was a factor and dividing by the number of exonerations, Seton Hall law professor Michael Risinger concluded that wrongful convictions in capitol murder cases occur 3.3% of the time.  If Texas suffers from a 3.3% error rate in death penalty cases, the statistical likelihood is  that eight innocent people were executed during Perry’s tenure.  As a matter of record, only one Texas death row prisoner was exonerated and released while Perry was governor.

 
One wonders how Governor Perry is so blissfully unconcerned.  Does he have a direct line to the Most High?

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The Invisible Hand of Whatever from High Atop the Thing

17 October 2011

Last month, a Baylor University study may have solved the age old puzzle of why many Christians resist government attempts to help the disadvantaged with programs intended to help Americans who are down on their luck. According to the study, “one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and advocates the free market as a matter of faith.” In other words, the invisible hand of the free market is actually the hand of God.

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It was Adam Smith who first used the term “invisible hand” to describe how the economy will correct itself if the government will only keep its interfering hand away. Prosperity and fairness for all come about when everyone acts in his or her own best interest without regard for the well-being of others. “By listening to the voice of self-interest and obeying the dictates of the free market,” Smith wrote, “we benefit the poor just as if the earth had been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.” For that reason, Smith was opposed to government regulation of business, and his ideas are regularly used and abused by factory owners and corporate executives to justify their mistreatment of both workers and the environment, and to condemn minimum wage laws and environmental regulations as offenses against their rights as owners.

 

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If Smith was a pious man who believed that a loving, invisible hand would tend to the needs of the poorest and neediest among us, those that came after him to implement his ideas were not. Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists did not want to help the poor, they wanted the poor to die as maladjusted errors in the natural evolution of society. This is too much for the conscience of a good Christian. If there is an invisible hand, a person of faith will have to see it as the hand of God who will see to the needs of all his children if the government will only get out of the way. And if there is economic suffering in the world, it is not because of any injustice of the market itself, but because of interference by government working against the will of God.

 

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This sets up a curious image:  Jesus seated at a computer console, looking into a bank of  monitors.  He tweaks here and adjusts there as needed to make the economy benefit everyone.  He implants in an Arab sheik’s mind the impulse to raise the price of oil, or he adds a bit of energy to inflationary forces to offset the evils of unemployment. All the while, His efforts are foiled by the unholy hand of government overriding His divine input, and poor Jesus can’t get a thing done because of those darn liberals.

It’s enough to drive a deity to drink.

 

 

 

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Political Theory Simplified

9 October 2011

What is your political theory?  It’s not a question about your party affiliation.  Parties exist to pursue specific policy strategies and objectives which may be shared by people with differing political theories.  Rather, the question concerns your basic beliefs about what the government should and shouldn’t do. Like the four cardinal directions of the compass, there are four political theories:  authoritarian, libertarian, liberal and conservative.  It is fair to say that most people don’t understand this political compass or to which of the four theories they hold.   To clear up the confusion, let’s oversimplify things just for the sake of clarity.

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Think of human activity in two dimensions: business and personal. You go to work and engage in some sort of productive activity (we hope), under the leadership of a boss.  That’s business.  Then you get off work and go home to do what you want.  That’s personal.  Which of these human activities, if any, should the government regulate?  Your answer to this question in the two categories of  business and personal determines your political theory.

Should the government regulate business?  Those in favor feel that laws are necessary to stop unethical business practices, to protect employees and consumers from abuses of economic power and to conserve resources and a clean environment.   Those opposed say that a successful business with a good strategy doesn’t need to be regulated.  Customers will punish businesses that provide bad services or bad products, or that make socially poor choices.

Should the government regulate personal behavior? Everyone agrees that the government should enforce laws that prevent people from infringing on the rights of others.  But beyond this, some feel there should be laws against bad, offensive or immoral behavior even if it causes no clear and immediate harm or danger to non-participants.  It may be felt that God demands a righteous society or that nature abhors certain bad behaviors.  But in either case, it would be the government’s proper role to instill moral values and enforce moral behavior in its people.

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How do you answer those two questions?  A glance at the figure below will show the position you occupy on the political compass.

 

 

Authoritarian (yes/yes)
With our American emphasis on liberty, it is difficult to find clear examples of the authoritarian theory.  Perhaps the temperance Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries comes closest.  The women of the Temperance Movement had a keen interest in social justice and would regulate business to achieve it.  At the same time, they were all for the use of government force to make people behave themselves.  Liberals agree with authoritarians that government should regulate business, but disagree when it comes to personal behavior. Conservatives agree that government should regulate personal behavior, but not business.  Libertarians and authoritarians agree on nothing.

Libertarian (no/no)
Ron Paul exemplifies libertarian theory.  Government should get off the backs of business and out of our personal lives.  Liberals think libertarians are half right, as do conservatives.  The old joke is that libertarians are conservatives who want to smoke pot and get laid.

Liberal (yes/no)
A liberal feels that human nature is basically good, and that people should be left alone when it comes to their personal choices.   The self-determination of the people, however, is often jeopardized by those in control of great economic power, and therefore a robust government is needed to keep business in check. To a liberal, authoritarians and libertarians are both half right, but conservatives are dead wrong.

Conservative (no/yes)
Conservatives see business as the most important part of the human experience, and business is best when it is governed only by its success or lack thereof.  What is most profitable is the best strategy.  Individual, personal life, however, is where governing is most needed.  Left to their own devices, people will run amok.  Conservatives think the libertarians and the authoritarians are half right, but they have nothing in common with liberals.

Still unsure? Look at it this way:  Should the government tell the overalls factory to pay its employees a decent wage and to avoid using toxic chemicals in its fabric?  Absolutely.  Should the government tell people that they’d better wear shirts under their overalls and cinch up those straps tight?  Of course not!

 

 

 

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1 October 2011

You may have heard about the strange goings on in New York City.  Two weeks ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg  predicted that unless we address joblessness riots mights break out in the streets.  Riots have not broken out, but there is a fuss in the streets.  On the day after Bloomberg’s warning  a peaceful sit-in began on Wall Street.  Over the past two weeks it has grown to a crowd of thousands.  Few of these folks are wearing overalls.  God bless ’em, but that isn’t the way for New Yorkers.  So who are these people, and what are they doing it for?

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Many who have made camp on Wall Street are recent university graduates who can’t find jobs.  More than any other recovery in history, this one has the slowest employment rebound. We’re in a “jobless recovery” –  jobless not because there isn’t any money to put people to work, but jobless because the corporations and the billionaires of America are sitting on an estimated $2 trillion they’ve taken out of circulation.  Many analysts say that today’s graduates who are limping into the job market will be handicapped for the rest of their lives.  They feel that the folks in the Wall Street highrises who are hoarding all the money are selling out the future for ordinary Americans.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement has no leaders, no manifesto and no list of negotiable demands.  They feel that things have gone beyond solutions involving Democrats versus Republicans or liberals versus conservatives, and they have no interest in Senate Bill this or House Resolution that. They support no political party and propose no legislation because politics has failed them utterly.  For as Wall Street wealth has refused to promote jobs, it has also bought American politics.  The Supreme Court has rendered the Federal Elections Commission powerless to limit the influence of big money in political campaigns, as seen in the exponential growth of campaign spending.

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With few exceptions, the corporate news media has ignored this unprecedented protest. Posts by the Koch Industries-paid “blog warriors” deride the protesters as lazy, parasitical, drugged-out and stupid bums who have no idea what they want. This sounds to me like what my parents said of the anti-war and pro-civil rights movement.  Have we turned into our parents?  Do we have such little regard for our sons and our daughters who, as Dylan said, have grown beyond our command?

Wall Street executives drank champagne in mockery from their balcony: http://www.addictinginfo.org/2011/09/30/wall-street-response-to-protests-a-champaign-toast-video/

Policeman Anthony Bologna sprayed mace into the faces of non-threatening girls among the protesters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ05rWx1pig

Ominously, Mayor Bloomberg threatened yesterday that the days of the Occupy Wall Street protest are numbered.  It may be that he fears it is the days of the Bloomberg Billionaires that are over.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

– Bob Dylan

 

 

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