Micro-rants::political

 
| From time to time, certain topics come up that call for a rant.  They ought to have a full page about them, like some of the others in paulkienitz.net.  Yet no rant page is written, because it takes too much time or too much research.  So I'm left with an opinion to state, and no rantage to back it up with.  This page's purpose is to act as a dump repository for these miscellaneous opinionated ideas.  Your job is to assume that somewhere in virtual quantum phase space, there exists a rant that could, in some way, back up each of these statements.  That nascent rant might be studded with useful hyperlinks.  Sadly, almost none of the infant rantlets that are actually here have any useful links at all.

New material will be added to this page aperiodically at the top... sort of like a blog, only less exciting.  Once in a while, one of the items will expand to become a real rant page.  For example, my California electricity crisis page, which eventually became the regular feature Enron & Friends, started out as a lowly micro-rant.

Eventually I split the micro-rants into pages by topic categories.  The other pages are:

  • Energy (topics such as nuclear power plants and electric cars -- the first to be split off from the other micro-rants)
  • Arts & Entertainment (modern composers, Gozilla movies, etc)
  • Miscellaneous (everything else)
| evil mastermind

The Topics:


(6/22/03)

I just came to a possibly important realization about the perpetual ideological battle between proponents of capitalism and socialism.  It was brought on by seeing a piece of an old PBS series about the history of this conflict.  First it talked about how Keynesianism swept the world during the nineteen thirties and forties, and showed terrific success in dealing with the Great Depression.  Then it talked about how the counter-movement in favor of free markets showed terrific success against those who made an experiment of state-run economies, with publicly owned industries and bureaucratically managed wages and prices.  Each was very successful in its own sphere.  But everyone arguing over economic policy, both then and now, tried to combine the two issues into one question and get everyone to choose one side or the other, on both questions at once.  None of the ideologues were content to let one answer serve for one question, and a different answer for the other!  And then the question of the "welfare state" became part of it too, where once again nobody was content to let the question stand separately from the other two.

Because, you see, on each question there was one side which was labeled "socialism", and another that was labeled "free market".  Both socialists and free-marketists demanded that the choice be all or nothing: either stick to the free market answer for every question, or reject free markets.  Neither would admit that free markets were the more successful answer to some particular questions, and the less successful answer to others.

Once we free ourselves from this artificial need to conflate these different questions into one big ideological battle of good and evil (label whichever side you like as "good"), the answers to the individual sub-questions are actually rather easy to see in the historical record.

Question the first:  should the state intervene in macroeconomics, working to boost things up in bad times and maybe damp things down a bit in good times?  Should the state try to create jobs when unemployment rises?  Should it try to manage macro-trends like overall growth, overall distribution of wealth, the rate of inflation, and so on?  The general answer is yes, the experiment of letting the state intervene in such matters has been resoundingly successful and has, where applied reasonably well, dramatically lessened many of the most dreadful manifestations of unchecked capitalism seen before the nineteen thirties.  In particular, America after Keynesianism has prospered in a way that America before Keynesianism saw only as a distant dream; only in the after period did we experience the full benefits of having a truly large, stable middle class.  The story in Europe is not too much different.

Question the second:  should the state try to run industry, or individual industries, itself instead of leaving them to entrepreneurs?  Or should the state, if not running things directly, assume direct control over wages and prices?  The general answer is no, such experiments have broadly failed relative to more free-market approaches.  Economic growth tended to fail under such regimes, and the goods people required often became scarce for no good reason.

Question the third:  should the state provide a social safety net?  Should it provide things like protection from poverty, free health care, and so on?  The answer from the historical record is you can if you wish to.  The fears expressed about the welfare state by proponents of the free market -- that it would lead to totalitarianism, that it would create a populace unwilling to work, that it would destroy prosperity through crushing taxes, etc -- have proven baseless, for none of these things have taken place.  Totalitarianism has often emerged from anarchy, chaos, and despair, but a case where it has emerged from creeping bureaucracy has yet to occur.  And many of the countries with the strongest welfare states, before they decided they would rather scale them back, remained throughout that time among the richest in the world, with standards of living sometimes at the very top of the ranking, ahead of more purely capitalistic nations.

There are some areas where the first two questions seem to intersect.  The issue of "deregulation", for one, often seems to be a case of question 1 to some and a case of question 2 to others.  So does the historical record provide any clear answers to the question of whether the state should constrict industries with regulations?  The answer it provides here is less clear-cut... or rather, it says clearly it depends on the individual case.  There are plenty of examples of cases where removing regulations made an industry more productive and a greater benefit to the economy it participated in.  There are plenty of others, less well publicized, where intervention did more good than harm.  For instance, many of the countries that show the most successful records of economic growth in modern times, like Japan and Singapore and South Korea, all had state intervention to assist young growing industries as a key component of that successful growth strategy.  (A new book by George Monbiot analyzes these questions and finds that the supposedly free-market principles being pushed on much of the developing world by institutions like the IMF and World Bank are, in fact, the opposite of how the currently wealthy countries -- including the USA -- became wealthy, and it is the countries that have defied these rules, like China and the three named above, that have prospered best in modern times.  Meanwhile, I note that those that actually put themselves under IMF rule tend to share the fate of Argentina.)  There are also many examples of industries that have benefited from a kind of government intervention that smoothes out boom-and-bust cycles, the greatest probably being American agriculture.  For government to try to set prices artificially high or artificially low does not generally help, but for government to help hold prices to a stable average instead of swinging wildly high and low sometimes helps a great deal.  The volatility of the industry in question is one of the most important factors determining whether regulatory intervention is likely to be harmful or helpful.

So overall, the historical record tells us that pure capitalism is not the answer that has succeeded best, and neither is overall socialism.  I think most average people who aren't committed to some ideology will accept that this is self-evident.  Why is that so hard for some people to accept?

One final question we can ask is about the sanctity of private property, and particularly about the respect of that sanctity by the state: what about taxes?  Should the state redistribute wealth so that nobody keeps what they earn?  The answer is clearly no, this approach fails horribly.  The cases where it has come closest to being applied, such as the regime of the Khmer Rouge, were systems of institutionalized mass murder.  Should, on the other hand, the state take no property at all?  Again the answer is no; no society has ever managed to organize itself in such a way, it has only existed in conditions of lawless anarchy in which nobody is safe.  If we look at what forms of society have prospered best, the answer is found in the middle: states with moderate and progressive taxation have flourished.


(3/1/02)

When Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr. was governor of California, he seemed pretty cool to me.  He had a remarkably progressive and future-oriented vision, he frequently decided his position on grounds of conscience instead of political expediency, he never neglected the environmental consequences of policy changes, and reporters always noted how little he resembled a normal smarmy politician.  He wasn't afraid of doing things that got him made fun of by those who want politicians to act normal -- that is, to keep telling us exactly what we like to hear.  Toward the end he started turning more into a politician, trying to make a national name for himself by making a presidential run.  In the late eighties, after being out of office for a while, he started to describe himself as a "recovering politician", apparently regretting how he'd started getting caught up in politics for politics' sake.

During President Clinton's first term, he set up a local radio talk show with an uncompromising liberal outsider perspective, saying things like (of Clinton): "They've bought him, they own him, and now they want something for their money."  Yet... whenever I listened to the show, something felt wrong.  In some way I couldn't put my finger on, it seemed phony.

He was living in Oakland, and by 1996 or so he'd set up a local "grassroots" organization to make change in the city.  But its mission seemed rather... nonspecific.  In 1998 he decided to be mayor of Oakland and carry out this program himself.  He ran for election and easily brushed aside all opposing candidates, also running an initiative to strengthen the powers of the mayor's office.  Yet when it came to saying what he would do, there seemed to be not much there.  A lot of exciting goals and milestones he planned to reach -- this many new jobs, that many new downtown apartments -- yet little about methods of getting there.

I ended up voting for the other guy, who had a more concrete plan and the expertise to be as well qualified as anyone in the world to implement it.

Jerry then spent four years being mayor.  None of those stated goals or milestones has been reached.  Whenever you read about the doings of the mayor, it's rarely about constructive action to benefit the city, and usually about the backroom politics of the various factions in city hall.  You see, what I had started to sense back then but couldn't yet see overtly is that Jerry Brown has discovered who he really wants to be, and the real Jerry Brown is one hundred percent politician.

(He still doesn't have the manner of one in many ways, though.  I once saw him campaigning on a street corner as I drove by, and when he saw me looking, he gave me a big wave, only instead of a politician grin he had this sober and rather grim expression on his face... he looked like a robot trying to mimic an arm wave.)

He comes from a political family, and for him, politics is as much about blood and privilege as it is for a Kennedy or a Bush.  And now, when people speak about his accomplishments as mayor, they say things like "We locals thought we knew how to play politics, then Jerry came along and showed us how it's done."  Everything is about whether you're in the camp of trusted Brown followers or aligned with the Don Perata machine or are independent of both.

Now Wilson Riles Jr. is running against Brown, with little expectation of winning.  (This is Riles' third mayoral run.)  But he's running solidly on issues while Brown is continuing the same nebulous positive expectations.

What has Brown actually done for our city?  I wouldn't say he's done nothing.  What he's done has been to give us a more glamorous image, with a white face.  And sadly, I suspect this genuinely helps.

Oakland took its modern form during WWII, when huge numbers of black southerners moved here for war jobs.  When the war ended, they naturally didn't want to go back to the south.  Oakland became the only city of any size in the northwestern part of the country with a black majority.  But black politicians did not come to prominence until the nineteen eighties.  Until then the city was controlled by white businessmen representing the largest local corporations.

Lionel Wilson may have been rather disgusting, and rather more white than most real white people, but he did take power away from that old cabal and herald the entry of local black leaders into all levels of city politics.  Unfortunately, the city had already been in a downward spiral for a decade or more.  The vicious cycle was:  poverty -> crime -> bad city reputation -> jobs go elsewhere -> more poverty.  If the city had been white, the cycle probably could have been broken by the attraction of a low wage labor pool, but when leeriness about high crime was combined with lingering racial discomfort, employers just felt safer staying away.  The high cost of living in the surrounding area certainly didn't help.

Lionel Wilson struggled constantly to reverse the spiral by selling the city to business -- and maybe his whole fake white act made sense in those terms -- but he did it by going into denial about the city's problems.  He didn't manage to sell the city successfully, and he neglected the rest of his job.  When the mayoral election was moved out of low-turnout odd-numbered years, he was finished.  His successor was former assemblyman Elihu Harris, a sharp and engaged leader who took care of business at home while continuing the attempt at selling the city, without much success except that conditions improved generally in the nineties, making things easier for Oakland.

After Brown's election in 1998, it seemed at first as if things were working great, and everything he'd promised was coming true.  But what was really happening was that the dot-com boom was flooding money into the south bay and San Francisco, and prices there spiraled up so fast that suddenly Oakland looked very good as a convenient and affordable location to live and work.  There was a rapid wave of gentrification, and unemployment dropped drastically.  Then in 2000, the dot-com bubble popped, and the money flooding into the bay area flooded right back out again.  And Oakland was back in the same grind, and the mayor was back in the role of having to sell the city to business.

Jerry Brown's one accomplishment is that he's more successful as a salesman.  He's better than previous mayors at creating an exciting and optimistic image for the city.  That's what he got elected on, in fact.  The imagery sometimes attracts valuable investment.  But his successes aren't all that much better than before, and like Lionel Wilson, he ain't doing much for us domestically.  He isn't balancing the desires of business against the needs of citizens.  He won't, for instance, support a just-cause eviction law.  He's trying to bring us institutions we'd be better off without, like a military school and a gambling casino.  A couple of his prominent appointments have turned out to be grandstanding wackos.  And when someone does good work elsewhere in local government, like Dennis Chaconas pulling the beleaguered school district back from the brink, Brown often ends up undercutting them instead of helping them. At home, his administration is far better known for infighting than for innovation.

Brown's election, along with the one two years before it, broke up the black-dominated political establishment of the eighties and nineties, sweeping in several new faces and eliminating some of the more dysfunctional incumbents, like Sylvester Hodges of "Ebonics" fame.  But amongst all the back-room backstabbing -- a game that Brown is nowadays on the losing end of, since voters tend not to elect his hand-picked candidates for council and school board seats -- something positive seems to be coming out of this: we're finally reaching a point where race isn't a big issue.  The old-style political creatures who want it to be the big issue are losing their audience.  Voters aren't voting on racial lines anymore, and it doesn't matter so much what color the mayor is, at least for the non-sales part of his job.

So anyway, I'm voting against him again.

UPDATE:  Jerry was re-elected with 63% of the vote.

FURTHER UPDATE:  In the November election, he ran a proposition to abort the sunset clause on the "strong mayor" provision, two years before it was supposed to be reviewed.  How politician-like can you get?


(2/26/02)

The 1996 welfare reform bill is up for review.  The right wing is saying that it's been wonderfully successful... according to a measure of success that consists solely of fewer people getting welfare checks, not whether more people have a real livelihood.  Their rhetoric is that welfare should be reduced because it maintains poverty, and they're against poverty just like everybody else... but when you look at what results they endorse as a success, they disregard the amount of poverty and treat reduction of welfare payments as an end in itself, with consequences being irrelevant.

President Bush says the law has done good, and what we should do is take it further.  For instance, the existing requirement is that somebody has to get a 30 hour a week job.  He wants to enforce 40 as a minimum.  Why on Earth should someone who has a job be told by the government that it has to be 40 hours instead of 30?!  Do you know what kind of jobs people being pushed off welfare are forced to take?  It's like this: the welfare recipient is in a poor town, a menial job exists in a non-poor town quite a few miles away, and the case worker tells the recipient to take the job or else... having no car, the former welfare recipient often has to ride the bus two hours or more each way to commute to work.  A 40 hour job takes up 60 hours of their time!  What the hell is wrong with permitting 30 hour jobs under such conditions?  Not to mention that the bus fare plus the child care bill can sometimes eat over half of their pay.

Now everyone knows that there is a lot of gut-level hostility in certain circles toward anyone getting handouts instead of working.  I have a friend who theorizes that it is an extension of an animal instinct to support only those children who carry your genes.  I suspect that another factor in many cases is deflected resentment that some people feel for anyone appearing to escape the dehumanizing economic pressure that they live under themselves, which could be summed up by the observation that having a job is considered to be both a privilege you must earn, and at the same time a mandatory obligation.  But though these resentments may explain much of the general popularity of anti-welfare sentiment, it doesn't explain this punitive 40 hour requirement that the White House wants.

One possible explanation does occur to me: America's workforce clearly needs more flexibility in terms of length of work week, but corporate America seems to want to give everyone a choice between too much and not enough.  When fewer workers do the same amount of work, it keeps unemployment higher and pushes the cost of labor -- your pay, that is -- down.  That is what Bush's backers want to preserve.

This proposal to make welfare requirements for the needy even more stringent comes from an administration that has been more generous with corporate welfare than any I can remember.  Dick "Big Heart" Cheney just announced more giveaways to revive the high tech industry, and Shrub just posed in front of some fuel-efficient hybrid cars to urge Congress to pass their energy bill, which contains plenty of profitable "incentives" for energy producers.  (They're trying to make the bill sound shiny and new and futuristic, but it's the same Enron-designed stinker that they unveiled last spring.)  Their previous "economic stimulus" bill, now thankfully dead, was designed to especially stimulate companies like Enron and Kmart (both now bankrupt) by giving them huge retroactive tax refunds.  Their measure to preserve the airline industry after September 11 also consisted mainly of a big pile of unearned free money for the company's stockholders, with nothing to reduce layoffs of workers or help them out with their own losses.  (Think about that for a minute.  If one or two airlines had gone belly up, what would really have been lost to the nation?  The same planes and the same workers would still be there when air traffic picked up again, just under a different name.  The measure didn't preserve jobs, or restore tourism revenue, or protect our air travel infrastructure -- all it did was shelter stockholders from the risks of free enterprise.)  Bush has been as free-spending as any Democrat could be accused of being, to the point that our budget surplus is long gone and a deficit is rising, and some of the biggest new expense items, after the War on Terror, are corporate welfare checks.

They're telling us that corporations work harder and produce more only when you give them extra unearned money, while the poor only become more productive when you take money away.
 

UPDATE:  This micro-rant has also been published by Democratic Underground, under the title "Two Kinds of Welfare".


(1/3/02)

The Turner Diaries is a novel of great inspiration to America's white supremacists, and to many anti-government "patriots".  It tells of a future in which a patriotic minority saves America from a foolish government of liberal do-gooders who are steering it to destruction.  They accomplish this salvation by killing all the blacks and jews.  In one chilling scene, they have a mass hanging of thousands of white women who married or lived with non-white or jewish men.

This book is what inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.  It gives explicit technical instructions for many acts of destruction and sabotage, including how to make a fuel-fertilizer bomb out of a truck.  The book has also inspired more than one violent outlaw organization of white supremacists; the one called The Order (which, among other crimes, murdered radio host Alan Berg) took its name from this novel.  It was written by William Pierce Ph.D under the pen name of Andrew Macdonald.  He now heads a neo-Nazi organization called the National Alliance, described by the Anti-Defamation League as currently the largest and most active white supremacist organization in the USA.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is a novel of great inspiration to many of America's libertarians and capitalist-anarchists.  It tells of a future in which a patriotic minority saves America from a foolish government of liberal do-gooders who are steering it to destruction.  They accomplish this salvation by convincing all of the intelligent and creative industrial leaders to disappear and go on strike, thereby bringing about the collapse of the industrial economy, without regard to the millions of lives dependent on it for sustenance.

Atlas Shrugged differs greatly from The Turner Diaries in its length, tone, sophistication, and philosophical scope.  It attempts to teach not techniques of attack (though Rand had a strong wannabe-technical streak), but an entire absolutist philosophy which Rand believed was the only correct way for human beings to live: a philosophy based on the absolute rejection of all altruism and collectivism.  Yet at bottom, the two novels are telling the same story -- indulging in the same fantasy of how the world could be made a paradise by eliminating all the people who are incompatible with the author.

The Turner Diaries is considered a seditious and dangerous piece of hate literature.  Atlas Shrugged is considered an important contribution to public discourse and maybe to basic philosophical debate.

Kind of reminds me of the observation about how to tell the difference between a "church" and a "cult":  it's a cult if you have 1,000 members, and a church if you have 10,000,000.


(10/19/01)

Check out this alleged anti-terrorism expert.  He says that the terrorists warned of their intentions by registering a bunch of domain names up to fifteen months before the attack, with names like "attackontwintowers.com" and "pearlharborinnewyork.com".  He then gripes about the restrictive privacy rules that prevented Network Solutions and other registrars from bringing these names to the attention of the FBI.  (As if any human being would even read through the whole list of new names and notice anything.)  He says he was tipped to this list of names by an industry insider.  Too bad God didn't tip him with some brains, because when you look these names up, all the obviously suspicious sounding ones are dated after September 11.  This guy is an idiot.  And if the news service that wrote this report had done any basic fact checking, there would have been no story.  But here it is.

This is all too typical of the kind of stuff that happens after any big frightening story.  People try to contribute some little piece of knowledge or understanding, and often come up with something quite irrational.  And certain kinds of irrationality catch people's imagination and are easy to believe and spread.  One form of irrational response that is very popular is anything that claims there was a prediction warning of the catastrophe before it happened.  Nostradamus and others like him remain enduringly popular because someone can usually find an interpretation of how his prophecies predicted a calamity, after the calamity has happened.  Of course, nobody gets any useful warnings before the fact, the interpretation is only construed afterwards.  That also explains the publication of this bizarre bit of pseudoscience.

The need to somehow see the unexpected as having been predictable makes no sense to me personally, but it is clearly a strong drive for many people.  Psychologists tell us that one effect people (especially young folks) can have after a traumatic experience is a distortion of the time sequence of memories:  events that happened after a catastrophic event will be misremembered as having happened before it, so they appear as forewarnings instead of reactions.  Some people have very little capacity to face things that happen unpredictably or accidentally.  They will cope with random accidents by looking for a way to find some person responsible.  This scapegoating response, when highly developed, will take hold even when the calamity is of human origin.  This is the kind of person who will find a way to tell a person who got robbed or raped or hit by a drunk driver that it was their own fault (or alternatively, will assume there is a plot against that person rather than figuring they were just unlucky to be there at the time).  The most visible example of this scapegoating reaction in response to the terrorist attack was Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreeing that God let the terrorists attack us because of our tolerance of gays, feminists, and the ACLU.  Don't assume that these two are alone in such thinking.

Besides pseudoprediction and scapegoating, another irrational reaction that people use to cope with catastrophe is to invent theories that tie up every loose end so nothing remains unexplained.  Many people desire that if something is not predictable, it is at least entirely explainable.  Since straightforward explanations based on the obvious always leave some loose ends, attempts to come up with an explanation that covers everything often wander into speculations that maybe the real explanation is nothing like what we've been told, and that there are secrets being kept to hide the truth.  This is where paranoid conspiracy theories originate.  Some little details of the visible story don't quite fit in someone's mind, and it's easier to invent a far-reaching new theory than to just admit that sometimes we'll never know the whole explanation.  I am reminded of the old Army demolition specialist who argued that the truck bomb which destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City couldn't have done all the damage by itself, and that it must have been helped out by special charges strapped to the building's front pillars -- where they would have been plainly visible to passersby.  He couldn't accept a small discrepancy between the actual damage and his guess of what the damage should have been.

One common source of unexplained loose ends is confused mis-reporting in the early stages of a crisis.  A lot of false alarms or erroneous stories get out into the media in the immediate aftermath of any frightening catastrophe, and then get corrected later.  A mind inclined to paranoid theorizing will try to use the false reports as well as the true ones, and often conclude that somebody suppressed the real news.  This happened after the Oklahoma City bombing -- false reports of unexploded car bombs elsewhere in the city were later woven into theories about how a larger story was kept secret.  This drive combines readily with looking for someone to blame, so we get things like claims that Princess Diana's car crash was a planned assassination.

We haven't heard too much yet about hidden plots from unexpected directions behind the September 11 attack, or dark secrets being covered up in the rubble of the crash sites, but rest assured, it's coming.  When it does, let's not take it too seriously.

It doesn't help that the major media are mostly speaking with one voice, leaving a lot of relevant sides of the story undiscussed.  As Molly Ivins has pointed out, those who get their information from varied sources such as the internet are discussing the current war in very different terms from the way those who just watch TV are talking about it.  Such "patriotism" on the part of the media creates a more fertile ground for paranoia.


(10/10/01)

The award for lamest anti-terrorist security measure goes to the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which has decided that in order to protect BART riders from possible terrorist threats, they need to close all the public restrooms in their train stations.

A friend of mine figures that they actually have wanted an excuse for years to not have to provide restrooms.  That's about the most plausible explanation we've got for this peculiar decision, as far as I can tell.  Of course, if you want to object to this decision, the method of civil disobedience is obvious...

The runner-up is George W. Bush getting the major media networks to agree not to broadcast any statements from Osama bin Laden or his Al Qaeda group without first reviewing and editing them.  What is this supposed to accomplish, beyond keeping the public ignorant?  No one who actually wants to know what he said will be stopped.  The idea that they're stopping him from giving coded orders to his followers is a pathetic justification.

I think what Dubya is afraid of is that some of the things that bin Laden says are true, and might make people think stuff over.  Like, that the USA has shown a double standard when it comes to inflicting terror.  But our major media have lined up right behind the White House.  And in our newspapers, when bin Laden says that the United States will not know peace until his people and the Palestinians know peace, they give us a banner quote that edits his statement down to just "I swear to God that the United States will never know peace".  Enough of that and people are rarely going to know any better than to believe the administration's claims that the only reason they attack us is because they just "hate freedom".  We're never going to end terrorism if we willfully blind ourselves to the reasons we've made so many enemies.

Dubya also tried to pressure the Al Jazeera news network based in Qatar (some call it the Arab CNN) to not broadcast any more bin Laden statements, through the Emir of Qatar.  The Emir told Bush to go sit on it and swivel counterclockwise.

The bronze medal goes to Dubya's massive giveaway of taxpayer money to the airline companies, with the laid off airline employees getting nothing.  (Even after some congressional democrats made a stink about it, Dubya and his allies blocked the attempt to include them.)  This goes beyond just giving them billions to tide them over the lean times; he's also promising them that almost every new anti-terrorism measure will be paid for by taxpayers instead of by the airlines' passengers or stockholders.

I'm now starting to see claims that Dubya's gift to the airlines amounts to about four times the money they actually lost -- and they still aren't doing squat to use any of that money to better protect passengers' lives, let alone to help out any of the people they laid off.  Some people are starting to call for a boycott of thanksgiving air travel, feeling that the airlines are too greedy and corrupt to be trusted.

UPDATE:  As a bookend to the giveaway of billions of tax dollars to the airlines in exchange for nothing, Dubya is now rejecting the pleas by the Postal Service for $5 billion to help them cover the new expenses and lost business from the anthrax-by-mail attacks.  Now the postal service is a responsibility of the government, mentioned in the constitution.  What is the logic of treating private companies as if they were the government's responsibility to support, and treating a government agency as if it were a private company that's supposed to sink or swim on its own?  That is not any kind of conservatism or liberalism, that is simply corruption.

The administration is also dropping the Department of Justice's antitrust suit against Microsoft for some reason allegedly having to do with the need to fight the War on Terrorism... even though Microsoft has already been found guilty and has failed to change that verdict on appeal.

For irresponsibility in the face of this crisis, though, the Bush white house has been nothing compared to the House of Representatives.  They have authored law enforcement bills reeking of constitutionally questionable authoritarian powers, authored economic stimulus bills that grant immense favors to the wealthy and throw the treasury back into debt, and generally used this as an opportunity to promote the agenda of the rightmost wing of the Republican party, at a time when the Democrats were being loyally nonpartisan.

Addendum:  I just ran across an old news story from August... it says that the mail is taking longer to deliver in Western states because the airline companies just don't feel like delivering it any more.  The postal trucks would deliver it as agreed to the airport, and the airlines would leave it sitting on the ground instead of sticking it in the plane.  So the Postal Service had to start using trucks.  They appealed to Congress some years ago for money to buy planes of their own, and were turned down.

Meanwhile the President of the United States appears in ads for the Travel Industry Association of America, telling us to fly more, even though most of the new security measures aren't implemented yet.  Somebody's conception of the responsibilities of government is seriously skewed.


(8/4/01)

How many deaths per day are caused by drug patent laws?

The answer isn't clear, but the necessity of some change of international patent enforcement is clear enough, because thousands of people a day are dying of treatable diseases for which the medications are not available, simply because they are being sold at exorbitantly expensive monopoly prices.  For instance, Bayer's anti-dysentery drug ciprofloxacin is being sold at a price of almost $2.50 per tablet, but the same drug manufactured by companies in India, where there are no laws protecting Bayer's patent, sells for seven cents a tablet.  In poor countries that have laws like India's, dysentery is easily treatable.  But in those which bow to US trade pressure and respect the patents, people die of it daily.  The same story is repeated with other diseases, like malaria and sleeping sickness and tuberculosis and so on -- diseases which, between them, claim somewhere around ten thousand lives a day.

The major pharmaceutical companies claim they have to protect their patents in order to fund the development of new drugs.  Indian companies like Cipla, after all, do no R&D; they simply copy drugs developed by other companies.  But first, only ten or fifteen percent of this profit ever comes from poor countries; second, these companies have some of the highest overall profits of any industry; and third, they tend to invest damn little of this profit in diseases of poor countries anyway.  Drug-resistant tuberculosis kills far more people than asthma, yet the R&D budgets for asthma are dozens of times bigger, because asthma sufferers have more money.  Potential TB treatments languish untested because the companies that own them won't budget the development.  Add this up and there is very little justification for charging third world countries extortionary prices for medications.

Some "big pharma" companies have recently made well-publicized concessions, such as agreeing to sell AIDS drugs at a deep discount in African countries.  Yet the discount prices, though only a tenth of what they charge in rich countries, are still three times what patent-breaking generic drug makers charge.  And behind the scenes, they are quietly moving to stifle the competition from generic drugmakers.  In 2005, if they have their way, any company anywhere that doesn't respect their patents will bring heavy trade sanctions onto its home country.  And they have the backing of the current US government.  The European Union wants to create a "global tiered pricing system" so that poor countries can afford to get medicines.  The US is rejecting the idea absolutely.  This disagreement was one of the issues debated at the recent G8 meeting in Genoa.

The clear solution is that patents should grant rights to royalties, not rights to a monopoly.  Even in places like the G8 and the World Trade Organization, the general consensus is that in such circumstances, companies should have the right to go ahead and copy someone else's drug if they pay royalties.  In fact, such a rule is in place now.  But any country that has tried to use it -- like Thailand or the Dominican Republic -- immediately got the squeeze put on them by US trade representatives.  Thailand backed down, in spite of the cost to their population; the Dominican Republic did not.  We will see what happens.  Inconsistently, the US recently backed away from using this kind of pressure to keep Brazil from getting a supply of AIDS drugs.

The American backers of this patent protection like to talk about free markets.  While defending an anticompetitive monopoly, they talk about how the companies, free of government coercion, will bring us products at the lowest possible price.  Let's face it: the likes of Dubya and his backers are not actually interested in the principle of free trade.  They are interested in gaining more profits for those who already have the most profits, whether it's consistent with free capitalism or not.

The US and the pharma companies would much prefer that medications for third world countries were provided by nonprofit aid agencies like the UN Global Health Fund, which essentially amounts to getting suckers, or taxpayers, to help the poor countries pay rich country prices.  And this ended up being what the G8 agreed to in Genoa: that they should pledge some taxpayer money to pay the drug companies full price to help out the third world.  The amount actually pledged is, of course, far below the target.  Likewise, the Global Health Fund is not getting funded; it has only about a tenth of its target contribution level.  No number of aid agencies can change the overall picture... as Oxfam puts it in this article, the US drains seven dollars out of countries like Bangladesh through confiscatory trade rules for every dollar it sends in as aid.

UPDATE:  In the wake of the October 2001 anthrax scare, suddenly the drug patent laws are looking a bit shaky.  Guess what country's government just put in an order for truckloads of generic ciprofloxacin made in violation of Bayer's patent:  Canada!

FURTHER UPDATE Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson threatened to violate Bayer's patent on Cipro if they didn't give us a price break!  After four deaths from anthrax.  The parts of the world that have four thousand deaths from dysentery must find this a rather interesting double standard.

[For more about the increasing weirdness going on in Tommy Thompson's office, you can look through my corruption notes on my Enron page.]

YET ANOTHER UPDATE:  Chiron, the biotech company just a few miles away from me in Emeryville, has picked up further development of one of the most promising new tuberculosis drugs -- a drug that was lying around unused before they acquired it.  It's working name is PA-824.  Chiron is partnering with a nonprofit called the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, which gets some of its money from Bill Gates.  (As little as I like the way Microsoft is run, I have to admit that among wealthy philanthropists, Gates is becoming a class act.)

With people like Bush around, we're going to need more philanthropists, because he's still vocally supporting the idea that third world medicines should be bought by rich countries using their tax money to buy drugs at fully inflated first world monopoly prices, as a form of foreign aid.  The need, of course, is far greater than the supply of either philanthropists or public willingness to be taxed for the purpose, as long as monopoly pricing persists.


(3/16/01)

One of the most common frustrations for liberals, in dealing with conservatives, is the tendency to see everyone on the left as some form of socialist, advocating either Marxism or some diluted partial form of Marxism.  They then imagine they can shoot down all leftist arguments by pointing out that Marxism is discredited. Trying to explain the differences between separate schools of progressive thought can be difficult, especially if they aren't interested in listening.  I have a proposal that may help: it consists of a gross simplification which might be easy enough for the right to understand, but useful enough that they'd understand the left better with it.

The simplification is:  There are two basic types of leftism, which we can call Red and Green.  Red thought, which includes Marxism as a subset, is founded on economic issues.  Green thought is founded on ecological issues.  Red is the old approach to leftism, green is the newer.  The red approach focuses on controlling privilege and ownership, whereas the green approach worries more about responsible use of resources than about who is using them.

Redness is incompatible with libertarianism.  Greenness can actually be libertarian: it just uses a more stringent definition of what constitutes doing harm to someone else without their consent than most libertarians are used to.

Most liberals, of course, are not just Red or Green: they are various mixed shades of orange or yellow or chartreuse, or dull pastels mixed with the neutral gray of the center.  And of course there are some oddballs that don't fit a red/green spectrum at all.

Okay, obviously this is not quite true... but is it true enough to use?  Will using it as a teaching illustration do more good than harm in promoting understanding?  I think it might.  It might even be useful among liberals, for clarifying our own positions among ourselves.

It's tempting to stretch the color-wheel analogy further...  If conservatives are opposite of yellow (the mix of red and green), then they must be blue.  On the thin fringe where Red meets Blue, you have fascism, which would be purple.  On the other edge, where the color is teal or aqua as opposed to the indigo of pure conservatism... what?  I guess this must be where the libertarians live, the more capitalist ones being the more bluish.  However, I'm afraid the metaphor breaks down when you consider left-anarchists... there's no place to fit them in.  But we haven't brought the luminosity axis into use yet... I suppose somebody could do a lot with this classification system, if they were dumb enough to take it seriously.

(By the way, if you're wondering which hue my sympathies lie with, the background color of this page is a hint.)

Here's a quote about the distance between Marxists and other liberals which you may find interesting:  "The fact that many of them go along with those of us who are liberal means nothing, because they are only hitching a ride as far as we can go, hoping that they can use us as a vehicle for their own program."  That was written in 1946 by Ronald Reagan, back when he was an FDR democrat.  (At the same time, by the way, he very presciently saw race prejudice as one of the big upcoming challenges that America would have to soon face.)  And it exactly sums up the way I came to feel about Marxists when I encountered them myself forty years later.  Their number one trick was essentially to find a big crowd on the move, and run out in front of it and act like they were leading.

Addendum:  This red vs. green distinction in politics relates to an anecdote you might possibly find amusing.  Last xmas, my company decided to throw a talent show, because it didn't cost any money.  Nobody actually wanted to get up in front of everybody and be talented, but what the hell.  For my talent act, I did a magic trick.

Somebody had bought one of those rather annoying singing xmas trees and set it up in the lunchroom.  A twenty inch tall plastic tree which, when you provoke its motion sensor, would suddenly pop open buggy eyes and a red mouth and sing out, "Hi, I'm Douglas Fir!  Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, etc."  I took a look at it and discovered that it had an input jack for external audio.  So I got up in front of everyone, arranged the PA mike in front of the tree, plugged my walkman into it, and announced:  "I will now do a magic trick.  I will change the color of this tree from green to red."  Then I hit Play on the walkman, and with eyes goggling and mouth flapping, the tree recited:

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.  There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.  Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system."

(For those who don't recognize it, that's from the Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World.  Strictly speaking the Wobblies are not exactly communists, but I guess they're close enough.  On the tape I used, it was recited by Utah Phillips.)

Hey, that reminds me, I loaned that tape out last spring and the damn pinko I loaned it to never gave it back!

[They later bought me a replacement copy, but it's a CD so I can't repeat the trick, not having a CD walkman.]


(2/13/01)

"Globalizers everywhere take note.  The last time the world dismantled trade barriers and bowed before the god of free trade, it coincided with an epidemic of famines from China to Ethiopia, India to Brazil....  Guess what the [British] Empire blamed for those famines, in which upwards of 50 million people died?  Climate...  It was, says Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts, as phony an excuse then as blaming famine on the weather is today."

That's from a review of Davis's above-mentioned book in New Scientist.  It is not, of course, new information that imposing global capitalism on people who have not previously lived by it can have disastrously destructive consequences.  Even in rich countries it can, when unbuffered by law and decency, be painfully disruptive.  What then of countries which suddenly have to live by a uniform global price of commodities like farm products, coupled with an extremely nonuniform price of human labor?  Essentially, we end up manufacturing poverty.  "We weren't poor before the Americans / Europeans came" is an observation you can encounter from the Himalayas to the Amazon if you are willing to hear it.

We need realistic alternatives to unfettered pure capitalism.  A totally "free" market is one that many of us can't live with.  Yet there is so much reluctance to go against capitalism that even when we look for ways to correct its worst errors, there's a great reluctance to even admit that this is what we are doing.  We pretend to be pure capitalists even when we are no longer willing to stomach the results of pure capitalism.

Another quote, this time from Garrison Keillor: "When... Mrs. Hallberg wrote to the White House and asked for an essay from the President on small town life, she got one, two paragraphs that extolled Lake Wobegon as a model of free enterprise and individualism, which was displayed in the library under glass, although the truth is that Lake Wobegon survives to the extent that it does on a form of voluntary socialism with elements of Deism, fatalism, and nepotism."

There are many who cheer and gloat at the demise of Marxism, and crow that this proves the rightness of capitalism.  This faction has sold to the rest of us the idea that capitalists is what we are.  But the truth is that if we examine our lives, that label does not accurately define us.  We have to question those who promote capitalism as a pseudo-religious faith, step outside of those externally imposed assumptions about what is right, and articulate what we really understand is right.  Then we will have the beginnings, at least, of alternatives to the kind of corporate globalism that makes people its servants instead of serving them.


One of the strongest, yet least discussed, forms of prejudice in our current society is hate and fear of feminists.  In fact, one researcher who measured the clinical responses of bigots to various stimuli showed that anti-feminism provokes a stronger phobic reaction (irrational visceral fear) than most common prejudices do.  (I am trying to find this guy's book; reportedly his experiments show that homophobia produces the strongest phobic reactions.)  I have been more widely attacked and denigrated for supporting feminism than for any other political view.  We don't have a name that distinguishes this from common sexism, and I suspect we could use one.

A bit of public debate on this topic would be a good thing, since people tend to think more rationally about subjects once there's a dialog about them.  A good starting point might be, "What's so awful about Hillary Clinton?"


Generally speaking, society is not going to hell in a handbasket.  The outlook is actually very positive in lots of ways, and I fully expect the future to be a better place to live than the past was.  Isn't it weird that this seems to be a minority opinion?  The one major exception is the environment -- on that front, things look discouraging.