Saturday, April 30, 2011

Supreme Court: No Right to Class Action

The gruel of law is getting ever thinner for poor consumers. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled on April 27, 2011, in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Conception et ux., that businesses (mostly corporations) can protect themselves from class action lawsuits and arbitration by simply including a clause to that effect in contracts they force consumers to sign.

Justices Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito voted for AT&T, while Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan sided with consumers on this issue (5 to 4 in favor of corporations v. real people).

What does this mean? It amounts to a license to steal, if by "steal" one means to take unjustly, rather than to take illegally.

Here's how it works. You want to buy a product or service, but Xample Corporation, like all corporations, requires you to sign a Supreme-Court approved contract to make the purchase. The contract says you cannot sue, you must arbitrate if you have a complaint, and you must arbitrate alone. You cannot join in a class action arbitration to spread the costs of an attorney over a large number of your fellow customers of the Xample Corporation.

Xample has your credit card, and you discover that Xample has charged it $30 more than you thought you were supposed to be charged. You complain to Xample, but they refuse to refund the $30. Your option under the gruel of law? You can call the police, but they will judge this a civil, contractual matter, because the criminals at Xample got incorporated before they over charged you.

You can fire bomb Xample corporate headquarters, but that seems extreme over $30, it does not get your money back, makes you a criminal (the police react differently when they get a call from Xample about trouble makers), and could get you killed.

You can report it to the Better Business Bureau, who will listen to you and then find Xample is in the right. When other people look up Xample at BBB, they will see that "all complaints have been resolved" and Xample gets their highest rating.

You can hire a lawyer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses later, you might get your $30 back. On the other hand, you might lose in court (after all, its the same court system headed by the Supremes), and be ordered to pay for Xample's army of lawyers, which almost certainly include former DA's who should have protected you in the first place.

Or you can eat it. 99.9% of consumers will eat it. A smallish local business that rips off 1000 customers this way will net $30,000. They might be held in check by the idea of 1000 local people angry at them.

But suppose you are a cellular telephone company and you did this to say, 10 million people during the course of a fiscal year (maybe tucking in $3 or so per monthly bill). That is a tidy $300 million in profits handed to you by Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. Send the boys a gift basket. Xample stockholders will be happy, and the CEO will get a $45 million bonus for his efforts.

What should be the rule of law is really the gruel of law, and it is getting thinner all the time.

So be careful what you buy, and what contracts you sign, and if you want the full protection of the Law, and something better than gruel to eat, be sure to be born into the ruling class of these United States of America.

See also:

Supreme Court Allows Contracts that Prohibit Class-Action Arbitration [by Adam Liptak, New York Times]

Saturday, April 23, 2011

U.S. Close to War with Pakistan

Recently the government of Pakistan asked the government of the United States of America to stop making remote-guided drone bombing attacks within Pakistan's borders. Friday, April 22, the U.S. defied the Pakistan government and launched an attack that killed 23 people in North Waziristan, including five women and four children. Thus in one stroke President Barack Obama and his administration committed war crimes by becoming (again) an aggressor nation and by targeting civilians.

Ostensibly Pakistan is still a U.S. client nation, but the region is in rapid flux, and likely a covert war between the U.S. and Pakistan has commenced. Neither side will want to declare war at first. The U.S. almost never declares war because it is almost always an aggressor and only Congress can declare war, where one or two Senators are likely to oppose a declaration, and give good reasons. For Pakistan to declare war first is to invite both the destruction of its economy by bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force, and possibly invasion by India. Neither nation will want to go to the United Nations (U.N.) either. The U.N. was set up to be an instrument of American (and originally, British) imperialism, but the U.S. would certainly get some sound criticism there.

Pakistan was carved out of the Indian subcontinent by the British when they could no longer maintain their empire. By setting up a primarily Islamic state in Pakistan and Hindu state in India, the British maintained a divide-and-conquer strategy. Since India set itself up as neutral but friendly to the old Soviet Union, the U.S. chose Pakistan for a client state. Also troubling was Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. The border, also established by the British, did not run along tribal lines, instead splitting several large tribes in two (tribes large enough that they would allowed to be nations if they were white Christian tribes in Europe). Throw in Kashmir, with its Islamic majority and Hindu overlords, and the whole area has always been what is euphemistically called geographically unstable.

Both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons, but India is a wealthier, more populous, more technologically advanced nation. India has drifted into the U.S. camp during the past 20 years, what with Russia turned capitalist and the vast and rapidly growing Indian-American business community. That has left Pakistan the odd man out, with poor choices all around. China has grown to be more of an ally, but it also is anti-Islamic, and is a dangerous business rival. Afghanistan would make a good ally, but it brings its own problems, including its American puppet government.

Internally Pakistan is in turmoil. In addition to its tribal and class divides, it is in a cultural crisis. It is close to being a modern, technologically (and academically) sophisticated nation, but it also has a majority of people who subscribe to various Islamic fundamentalist sects. Over time it might have undergone more cultural modernization, but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (and crimes against Palestine, and Iraq), and the association of the U.S. with Christianity (an even older and more absurd religion than Islam) have done much to revive religious fervor.

Pakistan has a democratic government, and that means you can have factions in power that are pro-Taliban, or pro-U.S., but almost everyone considers themselves a Pakistani nationalist. Given past patterns, the U.S. will now try a variety of tactics. The CIA will undermine, or even attack or assassinate, Pakistani politicians, soldiers, and cultural leaders who are seen as too pro-Taliban (or pro-Chinese). The U.S. will accidentally bomb some Pakistani Army regular soldiers, just to give the generals a taste of what a real war could be like. The U.S. may bribe India to initiate a few skirmishes at the border.

In turn, Pakistan will provide better support for the Taliban. They will let arms and money flow into Afghanistan, and perhaps provide even more advanced weapons. When those weapons hit U.S. troops, the Pakistan military will claim they were stolen. The U.S. will then upgrade bombing runs to include destroying Pakistani army military dumps anywhere near the Afghan border.

After that, everything depends on the political situations in each nation. My guess is that since Barack Obama has entirely alienated the peace voters in the U.S. since taking office, he'll choose to look tough going into the 2012 elections. He can't afford another quagmire in Pakistan, so he'll probably open up unrestricted bombing, just as the U.S. started bombing Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.

As primitive as the Pakistan military is compared to the U.S., it has proximity to its advantage and is several of cuts above the Taliban. The Pakistani Army could be in Kabul in two weeks (after sufficent preparation). Since they would be invited by and welcomed by the Afghani people, they would not be engaging in an act of aggression. Maybe that would be best for everyone, if the U.S. had the wisdom to mind its own business for a change.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, Socialism, and Acts 4

Even the heathen readers of my blog probably at least know that Good Friday is the day Christians around the world remember the death of their Lord Jesus of Bethlehem by crucifixion, the death penalty being carried out by Roman soldiers. According to the Christian Bible, two days later, on Sunday morning, this same Jesus rose from the dead.

Protestant Christian sects, once there were some that were not murdered by the Catholic Church, hold that the Bible is the best guide to Christianity. Fundamentalists hold that the Bible is literally true. Given all that, be sure to memorize the following passage. Feel free to recite it at Republican Party and Tea Party meetings, where Bible quoting is generally considered a good thing.

It is Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4, verses 31 to 37 (Acts 4:31-37). I quote from the Authorized King James Version, lest anyone accuse me of using some liberal translation of the Greek.

"32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold.

35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,

37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet."

If that is not socialism, it is communism. It certainly is not the free-market capitalism of the Christian Right. It looks like a welfare state to me. Those with property are taxed 100% and that money is used to take care of "every man according as he had need."

There have been a number of Protestant Christian sects that have tried to implement this Bible-mandated system, but apparently the Devil has whispered his free-market system in the ears of most Christian leaders. Political Christianity is nothing new. The Protestant movement was highly intertwined in the politics of the past. In the Middle Ages the economy was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church holdings and the landed Aristocracy. Starting in the 15th century Protestantism appealed to the merchants and manufacturers, who were growing in economic power and sought higher social recognition and political say.

In the struggle between those Protestants who wanted to re-create primitive Christianity, including Acts Chapter 3, and those who wanted to mold the Bible to support their own ambitions, the latter won out. Peasant rebellions (like that of 1381 in England) tended to focus on Acts Chapter 3, but peasants never gained social or economic power. Just as today Fundamentalism is obscured by the greed of those who want the literal Bible to not interfere with their hatred of immigrants and hopes of joining the billionaire boys club. (Speaking of which, read on to Acts Chapter 5).

Good Friday, too, has always been a problem for Christians. What kind of Dad has his son Crucified? Even the evil old Jehovah, tribal god of the Jews, did not make Abraham actually kill his own son Isaac. The sadomasochism of the Catholic Church, the tendency toward a homosexual priesthood, and the love of cruel punishments for heretics (especially female heretics) all. feed on the Crucifixion.

Perhaps the lesson of the Crucifixion is that Death is no big deal. For all its proclaimed Jewishness, the early Christian cult seems to have gathered more from pagan resurrection cults than from the Torah. Life and death were known to be part of a cycle. Living things must die so that other living things can eat. Life dies back in winter and returns in spring. To seek immortality is to wreck what Fate has ordained. And so Jesus is supposed to have risen from the dead, but then he vanished into thin air, like a ghost, but with the promise of returning in the spring like the daffodils.

Perhaps He never came back because Christians never took his communist social system to heart. Perhaps only when Acts 4 is instituted on a global scale will we see the true return of the god of Spring, and the establishment of the true Zion.

Me, I'll stick with the more modest democratic form of socialism. I like my liberty, but I'm willing to temper it to a reasonable degree for the general good. Maybe Jesus would not have liked that, but then while I might take his advice into consideration, I don't feel at all bound by it.

On the other hand, since the Bible demands that we hold medicine in common, I think a little preaching might turn the corner in favor of Universal Health Care.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Quacks, Priests and Politicians quote

Came across this in The University Encyclopedia (of 1902). Showing humans have not changed so much:

"Quack Doctors

... The sad part of the whole matter is that mankind never seems to learn by experience; no new methods of deception are introduced, no real originality or inventive enterprise is ever shown by quacks; they rely on exactly the same old artifices as their predecessors did, and generation after generation are duped by them just as surely."

Since 1902, while politicians and priests have changed little, there has been a series of innovations in medical quackery. When radioactivity was first discovered it was promoted as healthy, and people were burned or even killed by excessive doses. Even before 1902 electromagnetism was promoted as a cure-all; at least it was usually less harmful than radioactivity. Now we give people blood tests and set the parameters narrowly so there are always plenty of people with results outside the parameters, in need of prescription drugs.

The U.S. still has the same two lying, thieving major parties it had in 1902, the Democrats and the Republicans. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Conservative by Nature

I was thinking about a facebook post I saw that accused Department of Education Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings of advocating men forcing themselves sexually on boys. It was based on Fox Network false reporting as usual, but what concerned me was that someone, in fact probably a lot of people, were perpetuating this kind of lie on facebook. Kevin Jennings has spent his life advocating against the bullying of children who are or appear to be homosexuals. Fox and doubtless a coterie of pedophile priests and ministers are whipping up their anti-homosexual base. They can't be honest and say "but we are bullies, we think it is good to beat up on homo children." Instead they attack by making false claims about Jennings. And they congratulate themselves for being good Christian people. The sort who would throw stones at whores and homos, which I guess Jesus spent a good deal of the New Testament advocating for. [If you don't get the irony here, you might want to spend a few hours reading the Gospels]

But I have a problem with putting all conservatives in a bundle and tarring them with being hateful people. Fox gives conservatives a bad name, and encourages our worst behavior.

People really can't help but be conservative. The reality is there is almost nothing new under the sun, so aside from the latest tech gadget burning a hole where your pocketbook should be, it is just a matter of picking what sort of conservative you are.

Marxist used to think they were radicals. At best they are following a 160 year-old system of thought (actually, it goes back to the beginning of human society). Many of the splinter Protestant groups of the U.S. are far younger than that. Even if you accept their Bible-based claims to conservatism, the New Testament is still less than 2000 years old. Protestantism is a mere 600 years old. Is that radical or conservative?

Our genes, our DNA, are very, very conservative. We still have many genes that function the same as bacterial genes that are a billion years old (or 5000 years old if you believe God created all of Nature recently, and did the trick partly by using what programmers call object oriented, re-usable code).

Some members of every generation of young people try to break with the conservative mold. They reject their parents' and society's values and set themselves apart as a youth cult. The general term for that is bohemianism. Actually, it is a form of ultra-conservatism. It almost never drives culture forward. Youth rebellion usually seeks an even more conservative past when people were not so uptight and rule-bound. They pick a different flavor of conservative and call it "our generation."

To really be a religous conservative, you would have to become either a pagan or an atheist. Christianity is an innovation, and a poor one.

As to homosexuality, it appears to be as ancient as mankind. The radical new document called the Old Testament mentions it. The ancient Greeks, or some ancient Greeks, once things got urbanized and class-stratified, believed it was a superior form of love, above that of a man for his wife. It tends to be associated with cultures that make women inferior. Once you have declared women to be inferior (no females in the hierarchy of priests and ministers), and hang out mostly with men, homosexuality is only a kiss away.

As to myself, I believe in conserving as much of the natural world as possible. The mountain-top coal removers and the nuclear power plant builders, they are the radicals. They are the ones that need to be stopped.

Before homo sapiens split off from other apes on the tree of evolution, there were bullies. Now we have a wider variety of bullies: physical bullies, intellectual bullies, social bullies, cultural bullies, economic bullies. In a class-stratified society like ours much bullying is institutionalized. People don't even realize they are engaging in it. It is part of the upper classes protecting their privileges.

Still, it is good to try to minimize the bullying of children by adults, and of children by other children. Gay boys and girls should be treated with the same respect that all children should be treated with.

The difficult part of the equation is dealing with the adult bullies who don't see themselves as bullies. They see their actions as "helping" children. Helping them to obey all orders from authority figures, no matter who stupid. Helping them to conform to the gender roles of the adults' subculture. And the problem is deeper, because children do need help. They do need to pay attention in school; they really would benefit from doing their homework. So we need to be able to distinguish between arbitrary authority and good leadership.

And some children, maybe most children, will conform. But many will just harbor resentment and try to survive until the day they are adults and can get out from under their parents' authority, and maybe move to some place where there are more nice people around, like California.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Creationism and Free Markets

Religion and politics can make even stranger bedfellows than politics alone.

One of my favorites is the Free Market and Creationism combo of the Christian Right. But then wasn't it transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?" The inconsistencies between free market ideology and creationism are seldom examined, but require a very, big mind to have room to keep them separate.

The benefits of free markets were first described by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. He showed how men and women, each individually selfish, could compete with each other in producing (and consuming) goods in an unregulated market. The result would be an improvement in the overall good of the community, just as if the individuals had been acting out of community spirit. This non-obvious result, that selfish behavior could have a positive result for the whole community, was called the Invisible Hand.

Right wing Christians, or at least pundits who pretend to be Christian, love free markets. They love private wealth, and their basic Christian doctrine can be summarized as "every man for himself." Out of the random transactions of free markets is born capitalism, and from capitalism comes everything good in the lives of free market pundits, Christian and pagan alike. They hate central planning by governments. They hate the strong-arm five year plans of the old Communist regimes. They even hate the gentler planning by Democratic governments that seek to ameliorate some of the situations where the Invisible Hand has not worked out quite so well for a few ten millions of American citizens.

Not all right-wing economic commentators are Christian, or even Creationists, but plenty are or pretend to be. Creationism is the opposite of free market ideology. Its mildest form, Intelligent Design theory, states that complex things, like the earth and its creatures, must have been created by an Intelligence, i.e. God. It rejects the scientific observation that complex things can be created over time by natural processes, also known as the theory of evolution (by natural selection).

The more fundamental Christian belief is that the world was created exactly as described in the Old Testament of the Bible: a particular God (not Allah or Zeus, or even Gunputty, mind you) created the world and all of its creatures in seven days. Since this has no basis in science, or even in pragmatic observation, Intelligent Design theory was designed to offer an alternative to the theory of evolution in U.S. public school system biology classes.

The difficulty of applying the Creationist mindset (the need for a dictatorial controlling intelligence to get anything done) to the economic system of the United States of America is a blessing. Things seem to happen in the economy without God sticking his nose into our business.

Adolf Hitler did not like quantum physics, but he was okay with natural selection. Hitler was Roman Catholic, and he did like controlling Germany's economy. I think the mutual hatred of Catholic and Communist leaders in that era had much to do with their mutual desires to run command economies. All the Catholic dictators of Europe of the 1930s and 40s, Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, Philippe Petain, and Hitler ran command economies, just like Joseph Stalin did in the U.S.S.R., then the only communist nation.

Protestant Christianity, in its diversity, has a long historical association with the merchant class. The Catholic Church mostly sided with the aristocracy during the formative centuries of the modern epic. The merchant class does not like to be dictated to. Hence its ideology of individualistic interpretation of the Bible and support for republics or, if necessary, democracies.

The divide, then, is not so wide. Creationism is an assertion of Biblical authority. Protestantism is associated with the idea that the business of Christianity is business. Christian businesses (including preachers and pundits) need to appeal to their target market. So they promote Creationism to further their own self interest. Free markets also promote their self-interest because the people with the most money to give (buying advertisements to sell over-priced gold on radio shows, for instance) are still mostly from the merchant (business people) class. It is all about self interest. If there were gods, they would probably want nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Democracy with Imperialism: the British Empire

In 1500, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire and China were the world's greatest powers, before Spain had established its empire in the Americas and while the Portuguese were still pirating their way around Africa to Asia, the English were a backward and unimportant people. They had a king, Henry VII, who had come to power through violence. There were no pretensions to having a democratic government run for the sake of the people; holding Parliaments was an ancient but seldom-honored tradition.

What was the evilest empire in the history of the world? The Mongols? The Romans, the Ottomans, the Nazis? For my money it was the British Empire. Which did not exist in any meaningul sense in 1500.

We are not supposed to think that way in these United States of America. The British are supposed to be a good force of history, the main source of the American ruling class and culture, nice people who brought civilization to half the world.

Sure, that is how it must have gone. Hi, would you like to trade almost all of your land for some lessons in how to drink high tea? Welcome to English civilization.

The Brits were a brutal lot. For centuries they just fought each other or, after the Norman conquest, tried to conquer another lot of civilized brutes, the French. United, they conquered Wales, then Ireland. They fought with the Scots for centuries, too, before the two clans were united by royal marriage.

Even before the unity known as Great Britain (or United Kingdom) was formed, the English began mixing trade with piracy. Their royally sponsored pirates became national heroes and provided much of the capital for both colonialism and modern capitalism. The British Navy and Army, working with missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats, became a rather efficient imperial machine. They never did the grand invasion routine beloved by conquerors from Darius the Great to Napoleon. They used political and economic leverage quite effectively to eat the Indian subcontinent bite by bite. They would graciously accept a colony or two from bankrupt Eurotrash kings they had loaned some money or troops to for local wars, or who had lost to the tyrants backed by Britain.

It was a centuries-long process, but over time the people of the British empire murdered millions in war and in cold blood, stole half the world's real estate, and destroyed most of the native economies of their colonies. You might also ask the Irish about how civilized British rule has been.

Which brings us to the issue of democracy. During the development of the British Empire the "middle class" (here I use older, more accurate sense of the term, those above the working class but below the aristocracy) struggled for power with the kings (really Emperors) and their aristocratic inbred idiot relatives. Guess who won? Over the centuries Parliament became stronger, and the House of Commons came to prevail over the House of Lords. Eventually even ordinary, lower-class British men got the vote. Socialist parties and then, more successfully, the Labor Party came to play an important role in politics. By the 20th century, we are supposed to believe, democracy was triumphant in merry old England.

Look at World War I. We are taught in American schools that the U.S. was a democracy and fought with France, Italy, and Britain, collectively the Democracies, against Germany, Austria, and Turkey (still then the vast Ottoman Empire), the Monarchies. That is a load of swill.

Almost no one in the British Empire could vote to elect politicians to set its policies. Only those living in the British Isles could vote. Africans could not vote, nor could Indians or Burmese or the Chinese in Hong Kong. Even the Canadians and Australians could not vote for members of the British Parliament (as white neo-Brits they did have their own Parliaments).

Is that democracy? A billion or so people, and less than 100 million have a say in governance.

I think not. I somehow doubt the citizens of the Indian subcontinent would have voted to have themselves shot when they demanded independence or self-rule.

In Iran (then Persia) they still speak of the nefarious British. They have better memories than Americans, or perhaps less reason to forget what actually happened over the past five centuries.

Class room exercise questions:

Are there any parallels between the British Empire and some other benevolent empire closer to home?

If a minority like the Irish within a political empire vote for their independence, but are voted down by the English majority, is that democracy? Is majority rule the sole test of democratic governance?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Michele Bachmann's Bad Divorce

I had not paid any attention to Michele Bachmann, a Republican Congressperson, until I started seeing her mentioned as a potential nominee for President of the United States. Apparently that is because I don't watch TV. She has become quite a star for the Tea Party movement, although she began her political career long before the Tea Party was organized.

Turning to Wikipedia, I found that Congresswoman Bachmann is very close to me in age, just a little over a year younger, born April 6, 1956. I always wonder with ultra-conservative people in my age cohort how they missed the basic lessons of their childhood, of the 1960s, of peace, love, and understanding. What jumped out at me in her mini-biography is that her parents were divorced and her father moved to California; she stayed with her mother. My parents did not get divorced. Perhaps because they were Catholic and the Bachmann's were Lutheran.

Divorce is still controversial in some circles. It is another of life's double edged swords. For women, without divorce there can be the pain of being stuck in an unloving, perhaps even brutal, marriage. On the other side of the blade is that with divorce a man can make promises, have children, and then, on a whim, go off cavorting with another woman. Leaving a lonely, angry woman to raise children, and like as not trying to instill in those women a hatred for their fathers and anything to do with them. David Amble, Michele's father, moved to California (where I now live).

Michele grew up in tiny Anoka, Minnesota, essentially a suburb of Minneapolis. I grew up in the suburbs of a big, but much more conservative, city: Jacksonville, Florida. If geography means anything, I should have turned out conservative and she liberal.

Another reason for the different directions was that we were on a cusp. When we graduated from high school, I in 1972 and she in 1974, the sixties were over. Some of the energy of the sixties was still present in radical politics, in music, and in art. Feminism was really just starting to get going. I felt repressed by my parents and schools, so I wanted to taste the counterculture even if it was already in decline. By 1974, combined with hating her father and divorce, probably Michele was willing to take the opportunities now afforded women, but rejected the broader implications of ideals like freedom, equality, and mutual cooperation. After graduating from a state college she headed off to Oral Roberts University, where the miraculous is real and real problems are sins.

Finally, it would be foolish to neglect my struggles with the idea of being drafted in the U.S. military and being sent off to kill the good people of Vietnam. Michele did not have to worry about that.

Obviously Michele is smart, hard working, ambitious, and loving in her own way. On the other hand, how smart can you be and pretend that there is a God, he is male, he had only one son, he crucified his own son, and he has had writer's block since he finished penning out the New Testament? Of course, religion these days is just a fantasy-role playing game. Most people who aren't insane know that it is just make-believe.

It is too bad that the political principles of the right wing of the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party are not examined rationally, but instead are colored with religious emotionalism. Unlike my mostly lefty friends I agree about some of the economic symptoms. I see the causes differently, however. We, Americans, are in a post-imperialist decline, much like England between World War I and World War II. We benefited, from about 1938 to about 1970, from national prosperity based partly on hard work and creativity, but juiced by the super-profitability of imperialism. Our industries did great because we had the whole world for a market: every other industrial nation's factories had been extensively bombed in World War II. The economic pie was growing so fast that the rich did not fight all that hard to prevent the middle class, working class, and the poor to share in the feast.

Now we waste our money on the military aspects of imperialism, but it is an economic drag on the homeland. Our capitalists wanted and got Free Trade, which was not really about trade, but about moving American factories to Mexico and China and Central American dictatorships. Now American workers are global citizens, and they don't like it.

The pyramids of business have gotten taller. A business owner with 10 employees seldom can pay himself more than 10 times what he pays an individual employee. A global corporation with 100,000 employees can easily pay its top management 1000 times what it pays basic employees, and the stockholders can still pocket plenty of loot. For Americans in the global elite, Free Trade has been a shower of gold.

We could try, again, to divide up the pie more fairly. The easiest way to do that is to increase taxes on people with high incomes, and on capital gains and dividends. Then use that money for infrastructure (including education) that benefits everyone. It could even be used for infrastructure that would make building new factories in the United States attractive to the greed-heads who control international capital. But just dividing the pie more fairly is not going to be enough [pay attention, lazy socialist friends]. Even cutting back our military establishment 90% won't be enough. IF we are going to keep a pleasant standard of living for most Americans we need to be competitive with China and India, Brazil and Peru, Europe and Arab Emirates. That means we have to upgrade our work skills and habits, especially at the low end. The idea that the state can guarantee (what would be in the developing world) a middle-class lifestyle, is not going to be viable. With the trends coming down the road the state will be lucky if it can guarantee that if you don't work you won't starve or freeze.

I certainly think we can do better than Michele Bachmann for President. But whoever is elected, the trend lines won't change unless concerted efforts are made to change them. President Obama has increased military spending at a time it needed to be cut back by 90%. He approved an extension of the rich-ride-tax-free program of his predecessor. Except for rhetoric (aimed at voting bases) and fringe issues, I see little substantial difference between Bachman and Obama. I'm not excited about either. I hope some more exciting candidates enter the race.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Coffin Ships, Deregulation, and Al Gore

Samuel Plimsoll was born in Bristol, England, on February 10, 1824. He became a businessman, but of the sort who cared about his fellow humans. In his business, the coal trade, there was a dark secret. Ship owners found they could maximize their profits on their oldest vessels by stopping maintenance, overloading them with goods, using fewer sailors than was safe, and over-insuring them. A ship that made its voyage was profitable. A ship that sank was profitable too, because of the insurance payment. Never mind the dead sailors. Such ships were known as coffin or death ships. Plimsoll pleaded with the British Parliament to outlaw these practices. Parliament did nothing. Plimsoll ran for and was seated in Parliament in 1868. It took him until 1876 to get his Merchant Shipping Act passed. He is known to history as "the sailor's friend."

Regulation good, de-regulation bad? Democrats good, Republicans bad? Not so fast.

Regulations can be bad, often depending on your point of view. The devil is in the details, and the details, all too often in modern times, are written by corporate lawyers. Laws and regulations about business practices are yet more grist for the gruel of law.

Regulations can make people safer, but they can also kill beneficial industries by failing to take into account that a degree of danger is inherent when any human wakes up in the morning, and to some extent even when they sleep at night. Many regulations, however, are not about safety, but about some other government set goal. Regulating fishing, for instance, is (supposed to be) about preserving enough breeding fish each year so that fishing will be just as good next year, or ten years from now. Thus they should benefit business and workers alike.

Laws and regulations, like cholesterol, tend to accumulate and choke the life out of things at times, even if they are well-intentioned. As a public school board member in California I saw this effect. Over the decades whenever something went wrong at a public school the state legislature, or the office of education, or even the Federal government, wrote a law (usually added to the Education Code) in response. Often, to ensure compliance, some paperwork was added: an annual certification that the school complied with the regulation. Over the decades, to ensure compliance, which is necessary to get funding, the ratio of administrative support staff to teachers grew.

I have no problem with the idea of periodically purging unnecessary regulations. The problem is, who picks? Too often, business lobbyists choose to leave in regulations that help them fend off ruinous competition, while getting rid of regulations that protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

Which brings us to Al Gore, former Vice-president of the United States of America, now known as a flaming liberal because of his anti-global warming posturing. For no particular reason I started reading Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's Al Gore: A User's Manual, printed back in 2000. The section I am in is how Gore led the deregulators when he was vice-president. He pushed the Clinton administration for REGO, his reinventing government program. It would please any Tea Party activist or corporate Republican. It was sold to the public as a waste-eliminator, but in fact opened the doors of government to business predators, while gutting departments that did useful public service [pages 172-187]. Gore topped this with his attack on the federal welfare system [pages 188-209]. Gore's ability to completely alienate any Democratic Party politician or voter who still believed in the New Deal or Great Society was the reason he lost his campaign to become President in 2000.

But people have short memories. Particularly, apparently, do voters. And journalists. So raise a glass to Samuel Plimsoll, one of the rare good politicians.

Remember, too, the glory that was Imperialist America, but don't expect the paychecks to be as good during our post-imperial decline and fall.