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    • The Democratic Ethics Of Brexit
      The bottom line here is that there was a referendum, and “leave” won. All my life I have eaten election and referendum results I hated. I have done so because of democratic legitimacy: the people, even if I or anyone else think they are wrong, are the source of legitimate rule. There was a referendum. […]
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Shadows of the Past, Reflections of the future

In his speech of 57 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower made the following prediction:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are [a] few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

– President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 11/8/54

And voile, what do we get from Rick Perry, politician from oil rich Texas?

Dwight was wrong about the negligible part (I’ll get to that in a second) but he sure nailed the stupid down to the last Texas drawl.  I have no doubt that there are millions of Glenn Beck fans who are ready to sell all they’ve got to buy their share of some underground survival shelter who feel that they will not be needing their Social Security because once the dust settles after 2012, they’ll be busily creating an earthly paradise free from us worldly suckers.  (No, I’m not talking *down* to the delusional malignant Christians who in spite of biblical admonitions are practicing numerology of an ancient Mayan, and therefore, pagan, culture.  I’m completely dismissing them as people with whom I wish to have a conversation about religion because it is pointless trying to get through to them until January 2013.)

Anyway, Perry is not only stupid, he’s wrong about Social Security.  While it’s true that you’ll never get rich on Social Security, it has worked extraordinarily well during the nearly 80 years it has been in existence.  The Ponzi scheme is the 401K system that requires workers who participate in it to tie up their money and pay steep penalties to remove it when they might spend it better on paying off their mortgages, and then sit back and watch as the biggest demographic in American history, who were promised all the gold they could eat by their investment fund managers, retires on all that trapped money.  It’s almost like when Enron was going down and all the big wigs were cashing in and the rank and file little workers were locked out of their accounts until the stock had been plundered and toppled from a nosebleed high to the dirt beneath their feet?  ( And if you really want to know how a Ponzi Scheme works, check out Josh and Chuck’s podcast How Ponzi Schemes Work at How Stuff Works.)  That’s not what we have in Social Security.  We paid into the system for decades, some lucky workers in the tail end of the baby boom paying extra, so that we would be able to recover our deferred wages when we were ready to retire.  Those funds were invested in US Treasury bonds, not some Bernie Madoff character’s initial investors, and, *we*, are creditors to the US, not the other way around.  Our Social Security trust fund does not add any debt to the deficit.  In fact, it was running a substantial surplus, which we lend to the government, presumably so we can fund states like Alabama and Montana.  So, pay up Perry.

I guess you could make Americans less dependent on Social Security so that someday, down the road, middle class people could check off a box on their income tax statement that says something like “Your pension and other retirement investments put your family at 200% over the average income for a 67 year old.  Would you like to contribute a portion of your social security benefits to another needy senior?”, and if I had the extra money, I might just do that.  But for that to happen, you’re going to have to get the tail end baby boomers back to work, contributing their revenue to the bottom line and re-establishing realistic pensions for their years of hard work.  But that’s not the Republican way, is it, Mr. Perry?

To see what the Republican party really has in store for us, read Goodbye to All That, Reflections of an Operative who left the Cult by former Republican congressional staffer, Mike Lofgren.  This post has been circulating the blogosphere for the past couple of days and if you haven’t read it yet, please do so now.  This piece might be seen as a one off curiosity, ripe for Republican scorn, if it weren’t followed by similar missives to James Fallows from other staffers that reinforce Lofgren’s confession. As we have long suspected here on The Confluence, the Republicans’ overriding goal is to undermine government and cause people to lose faith in it.  The public will be forced to turn to private institutions to take over the functions of government and then those same private companies will have us by the short hairs.  This is what anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist refers to Starving the Beast and making government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub.  Oh, you newcomers have never heard those terms before?  They’re not new but you can look them up if you don’t believe me.  Nevermind that it doesn’t work to create jobs or reduce taxes or, even more naively, stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit (check out the 2nd hour of Virtually Speaking from last Tuesday where Jay has a conversation with a Republican)?  Have any of the chipper fiscal conservatives ever tried a one man drug discovery operation in their office park headquarters?  80% of those ventures fail according to the American Chemical Society meeting at Rutgers University in May 2011.  Starting a new company on your severance checks and borrowed money from your less than flush family members and then gambling it all on a venture that has an 80% failure rate is something people are forced into.  It’s not something they do by choice.  And when they fail, they’re going to need Social Security.

But nevermind all that.  Republicans are just spouting that entrepreneur stuff because they have to put a good spin on their policies, which until we have more data, appear to be grounded in pure, unadulterated greed and selfishness.  I’m going to give them the benefit of a doubt and assume they have a beneficent goal in mind because we can’t rule it out.  But let’s just say this theory is like evolution.  The preponderance of evidence points unambiguously to natural selection but there’s always the teensy, tiny, soupçon of a chance that it was all zapped into being in 6000 years ago by a patriarchal, capricious, vengeful and jealous God just like the Old Testament says.  Since we do not know the first cause of the creation of the universe we can ignore all that facty wacty stuff.

As I have intimated before, the Republicans are in their endgame now.  Between now and next November, they’ve got nothing to lose if they put the pedal to the metal and bully the Democrats into getting everything they ever wanted in their adolescent wet dreams.  If they succeed, they will be richly rewarded by their wealthy benefactors whether they are re-elected or not.  If they fail, well, it’s only one more 2 year election cycle where the can gum up the works.  The public will not be any wiser because if it was, it would vote the Republicans back into oblivion like they did in 1964.  It turns out it was the only way to get Medicare past these obstructionist confederates who are still saving their Dixie Cups (A couple of people just laughed and instantly aged themselves).  All that’s standing in their way is Brave Brave Brave Barack Obama.  He was not at all afraid to veto bills in nasty ways.

Oh, wait. Scratch that.

So, there’s nothing that stands between the Republican juggernaut and their goal.

Which leads me to this article in Harvard Business Review (HT Susie Madrak) about how Karl Marx might have been right afterall.  Let’s not confuse communism as being the right prescription but Marx certainly identified the illness.  Read the whole thing to understand that what Karl Marx witnessed was not unique in human history.  But here’s the thing that makes it so damn maddening for us.  As Americans, we should have been smart enough to avoid all of this misery.  Unfortunately, we are trapped in consensus reality as Marx might have described it, here are two particular features of the American landscape that trouble me greatly [comments in brackets are mine]:

Alienation. As workers were divorced from the output of their labor, Marx claimed, their sense of self-determination dwindled, alienating them from a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. How’s Marx doing on this score? I’d say quite well: even the most self-proclaimed humane modern workplaces, for all their creature comforts, are bastions of bone-crushing tedium and soul-sucking mediocrity, filled with dreary meetings, dismal tasks, and pointless objectives that are well, just a little bit alienating. If sweating over the font in a PowerPoint deck for the mega-leveraged buyout of a line of designer diapers is the portrait of modern “work,” then call me — and I’d bet most of you — alienated: disengaged, demoralized, unmotivated, uninspired, and about as fulfilled as a stoic Zen Master forced to watch an endless loop of Cowboys and Aliens.

False consciousness. According to Marx, one of the most pernicious aspects of industrial age capitalism was that the proles wouldn’t even know they were being exploited — and might even celebrate the very factors behind their exploitation, [you mean like trying not to piss off the omnipotent ‘job creators’?] in a kind of ideological Stockholm Syndrome that concealed and misrepresented the relations of power between classes. How’s Marx doing on this score? You tell me. I’ll merely point out: America’s largest private employer is Walmart. America’s second largest employer is McDonald’s.

One of the things I remember studying about the American Revolution was not that we were so adamantly opposed to paying a tax on stamps and tea but *why* we were so opposed to it.  If I recall correctly from one of those giant non-fiction tomes we all passed around during Christmas break several years ago, American political thinkers were particularly alarmed by the prospect of becoming just another Ireland to the British.  Just one big Plantation where the fruits of our labor would be siphoned off to some other place and we would be forced to pay a hefty price to get them back.  It would be a place where we wouldn’t really own anything of our own and be in subjection to the British and their militias forever.  Always poor, always dependent.  Always on the brink of starvation.

Could it happen here?  Sure it could.  There is nothing special about human beings who refuse to look at the misery of the past and do not guard themselves against it in the future.  In the 1840’s, many of our ancestors fled Ireland in coffin ships, away from a devastating famine.  The famine was entirely preventable except that Irish farmers were already desperately poor and dependent primarily on one crop for sustenance as well as the British government.  But it wasn’t the blight that killed the Irish.  It was the reaction to it from the governments, the landlords and the haughty, better off public.  From The History Place, we get these shadows of the past that look uncomfortably familiar in the present:

Ireland was not the only country with serious money problems. In the fall of 1847, Great Britain experienced a crash due to bad investments by English speculators and the resulting impact on London’s banks. Wheat and corn prices had skyrocketed in 1846 throughout Europe only to tumble by the middle of 1847 when supply far exceeded demand. British investors that speculated took huge losses.

At the same time, investors speculating in the topsy-turvy British railway industry were ruined as railway shares collapsed. Money became very tight as British banks refused further credit. Eleven banks failed outright. Over a hundred established business firms went bankrupt. Stock prices and commodities tumbled.

The British financial crisis meant there would be no money available to help Ireland during its greatest time of need. British officials, greatly preoccupied with their own domestic troubles, would now pay little attention to Ireland. However, there was one exception. Charles Trevelyan remained deeply interested in relief operations in Ireland and quite determined to enforce the Poor Law Extension Act.

The British wanted to make the idea of getting a free handout as unattractive as possible to able-bodied Irishmen, fearing they would overwhelm the inadequate relief system, especially in the hard-pressed areas of southwest Ireland. The new Poor Law thus designated workhouses as the only places where able-bodied men could obtain relief, but only after surrendering all other means of support.

Anyone holding over a quarter-acre of land was required to forfeit their land before seeking relief. As a result, countless farm families with small holdings were forced into a life-and-death decision over whether to stay on their land and possibly starve or to give up their farm, surrender their dignity, and head for the workhouse as destitute paupers.  

Workhouses were sparse in remote areas of Ireland and those that existed there were already occupied by widows, children, and the elderly. Trevelyan’s idea was for these people to be ejected from the workhouses to make way for the men. But many local officials in Ireland were unwilling to do this.

To organize relief in Ireland, the British had divided the country into 130 separate areas (unions) with several parishes combined together to form a union. Each union was run by a Board of Guardians consisting of Irishmen responsible for setting local tax rates and collecting the revenue needed to provide aid to the people living within the union. But the plan encountered problems from the start due to the sheer size of most of the unions (100,000 or more acres) combined with the ever-increasing shortage of property owners financially able to pay taxes, especially in the hardest hit rural districts.

Wherever they were most needed, workhouses quickly slid into debt, ran short of supplies and turned people away in droves. Families in desolate areas resorted to living in small hovels cut out of the bog or dirt holes dug along the hillside. In Donegal Union, ten thousand persons were found living “in a state of degradation and filth which it is difficult to believe the most barbarous nations ever exceeded,” according to the Quaker, William Forster. His organization, the Society of Friends, had refused to work in cooperation with the new Poor Law.

Would the government let the landlords turn us out?  Are you kidding me?

Here’s the ting, no one loves you better than you love yourself.  Don’t expect the Republicans to grow a heart in the next 13 months.  Don’t expect the Democrats to grow a spine either.  We as a country have already been through one Great Depression and paid dearly in order to put the country back on its feet.  Now we have Rick Perry, a Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and the craven media and the well connected and clueless pundits who are ready any second now to turn us all into the peapicker’s wife and her children.  Would they care if you die because you have no health insurance, food, a roof over your head or money to live on when you’re old?  Heck, they don’t know you personally.  If you’re not making a couple million at bonus time, you’re just a parasite to them.  Better to die and decrease the surplus population.  Or go fricasee a tot.  Get with the program.  This is the Republican’s vision of the future covered in a sickly sweet oleaginous whipped cream over American apple pie and motherhood.

Onwards to the future.

Speaking of the future, the Freedom Tower is rising over the remains of the World Trade Center.  Can I just say that I really despise the name “Freedom Tower”?  Everytime I hear it, I think of George Bush, My Pet Goat in hand and “deer in the headlights” look on his face, swaggering onto The Pile a few days later acting like he’s a hero and throwing that precious word around carelessly as his VP sections off oil fields on a map of Iraq in the Situation Room.

Can we call it Memorial Tower?  Or Remembrance Tower?  Or Port Authority Tower?  Something like that?  Why do we have to continue to engage in hucksterism and propaganda?  What freedom did we get from 9/11?  The freedom to take off our shoes and have our modest adolescent children scanned naked in an airport?  The freedom to have our phones tapped indiscriminantly?  The freedom to live in a police state with our children shut up behind locked security doors at school and video monitors tracing our every move?  The freedom to be held as an enemy combatant indefinitely and without habeas corpus merely on the word of some unknown accuser?  We reacted with anaphylaxis to a horrific event.  We adapted poorly.  It’s just a building and I’m glad it’s going up to fill the gaping hole in the sky.  But let’s not forget what it really stands for.  It was a very bad day that lead to a very bad decade.  How about Havewelearnedanything Tower?

Here’s a time lapse of the new tower, whatever it’s name is:

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Saturday: Chutzpah, pyramids and connections

Man, islands and all that rot.

I’m baaaaack!  It’s been a very busy week here in the surburban jungle of New Jersey as well as being snowy and gloomy and cold.  But next week, I’m in Sandy Eggo for a conference.  The extended forecast looks good.  Temps in the 60’s seem positively balmy.  I might even ditch my jacket.

But first, I wanted to go over a little something I read in The Atlantic article on The Rise of the Global Elite.  These guys have chutzpah.  Now, before we go any further, there’s nothing wrong with striking it rich.  If you have a good idea and you can make oodles of money off of it, go for it.  But if you do it here in America, you need to remember that Americans made it possible.  All of those people who pay taxes to make sure that there are standards and infrastructure and a well-educated workforce and a “classless” society that means you don’t have to kiss some poobah’s ass or spend the rest of your life as a downstairs maid even if you have the secret to the next killer app, made it relatively easy for you.

So, I was particularly apalled to read this:

The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”

Really?  What planet is this guy on anyway?  Does he know that when the typical American starts working, he/she gets a measly 2 weeks of vacation- prorated?  Two frickin’ weeks.  You have to work 5 years before you get that measly third week.  I work for an international company and even though our European cousins work differently and are always on task when they are at work, I have slowly come to the realization that they are not more productive than Americans.  But for some reason, Mr. Taiwanese Born Rich Guy isn’t picking on them and their 2 months of vacation a year and nice life affirming salaries or the fact that many European workers are covered by unions that make it nearly impossible to lay them off, even if the work goes elsewhere and there’s nothing for them to do.  They still get paid and no one is asking them to give up their middle class lifestyles.  Only Americans are.  If anything, Mr. Taiwanese Born Global Elite’s comment says more about Americans’ vulnerability to Reaganesque ‘rugged individualism’ messaging and failure to protect themselves.

Personally, I think workers need a bit of stress in their environments to keep them pushing forward and to prevent them from sliding into inertia.  But the stress levels of the American worker “goes up to 11” these days.  We are very, very busy.  Eight hour days are a thing of the past.  There are fewer of us doing the work of more people.  If we could be there 24/7, which the middle level MBA beancounters seem to want these days, maybe we could catch up.  So, just how much *MORE* work would be acceptable to these people?  10X harder is physically and mentally impossible.  That’s not to say that there aren’t slackers who always seem to evade the lay off ax (and if anyone wants names…), but my experience, and those of my friends and former colleagues is that you can be extremely good at what you do and work your skinny little ass off and *still* get laid off.  The MBAs who make these decisions rarely look further than the next quarterly earnings.  Meanwhile, the outsourcing scheme doesn’t always work out so well and adds to the work of the people left behind in the states.

The problem is not that Americans don’t work hard enough or get paid too much.  If anything, wages have been pretty much stagnant since the 70’s, when adjusted for inflation.  Anyone who doubts that should see Elizabeth Warren’s youtube lecture on the collapse of the middle class where the result of the clamp down on wages is displayed in all of its miserly, stingy, mean spirited glory.  Many of us are one paycheck from insolvency, even with both parents working.  How much more of our paychecks should we sacrifice to make Mr Taiwanese Born Global Elite happy?  The problem is that our global overlords have no appreciation for the work that is done.  Or that in the case of those who have made money from technology, the body of knowledge is added to painstakingly over time by thousands of people until some young nerdy asshole comes along, reads the right papers or documentation, and makes some breakthrough discovery.  Maybe they need to sit down for an afternoon of James Burke’s Connections.

The point is, these people are sitting on top of pyramids, not just economically but in every other sense as well.  Under them are millions and millions of people both present and past who have made it possible for the global elite to have a Eureka! moment and cash in big.  That flash of insight could happen to any of us but it *won’t* happen nearly as frequently in the future if the global elite forget from whence they came.  It takes infrastructure, open and flatter societies, and communication with people who have crucial information.  That last part is something different that what Julian Assange envisions.  Innovation is much harder to do when information is locked down by entities protecting their data.  Information is power but proprietary information can be constipating.  So, what I’m getting from The Atlantic article is not that the global elite are critical of how much Americans are producing.  It’s that they are too wrapped up in themselves to understand that they are killing the global goose by cornering the market for themselves.  If they were really concerned that Americans were not producing enough, they might be more diligent about making sure that we have the broadband speed of Korea and not Romania.

But that would mean paying more in taxes and being accountable to their country and acting like citizens and we have seen that they are not willing to do any of those things.  So, we must conclude that they aren’t really serious about what they perceive to be Americans parasitical attachment to eating three squares a day and keeping a roof over their heads.  They just want it all for themselves.  Where’s that Malthusian catastrophe when you need one?

Moving on:

Also in The Atlantic, James Fallows is still concerned with the optics of Juan Williams firing from NPR.  For the record, I’m not at all concerned.  I was a long time listener to NPR, which *used* to have a very high reputation for quality journalism.  When Juan came on board, I noticed a distinct turn to more of the “he said/she said, we must present all sides of the story equally” type of journalism that I loathed in other media outlets.  I got so sick of listening to it that I stopped listening altogether and don’t donate anymore.  Yep, there probably are PC police at NPR whose minds are so wide open their brains have fallen out but, oddly enough, Ellen Weiss had retained enough gray matter to do the right thing in Juan’s case.  Williams has totally shown his colors.  He fits right in at Fox where pandering for profit is de rigeur.  Fallows can stop wringing his hands.  Maybe The Atlantic readers were sympathetic to Williams but there were a lot of former NPR listeners around here who were more than happy to see him go.  Fallows needs to get out and mingle more with people with higher standards.

In medicine, those of you parents out there who have decided not to vaccinate your children against measles, mumps and rubella can stop worrying unnecessarily. The whole scare was an elaborate fraud perpetrated by an unethical doctor in England who was being paid by a lawfirm to drum up business.

A 1998 study, that linked the MMR vaccine to autism, has been found to be false.

The investigation published in the British Medical Journal by Brian Deer lays out in detail, how the paper published in 1998 by British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism was a deliberate fraud.

According to the investigation, a law firm that hoped to sue the vaccine manufacturers hired Wakefield. The law firm wanted Wakefield to provide scientific evidence that vaccines caused autism. Wakefield received roughly $750,000 for his efforts.

[…]

The analysis found that despite the claim in Wakefield’s paper that the 12 children studied were normal until they had the MMR shot, that in fact, the children’s medical records show that some clearly had symptoms of developmental problems long before getting their shots, BMJ says. Several had no autism diagnosis at all.

I read the BMJ articles (you may need a subscription) and the whole scam is a doozy.  Nothing but lies and falsified documents from the very beginning.  Some of the children profiled had development issues noticed months before the vaccination and at least one had a genetic defect that caused facial deformities that were recorded by pediatricians shortly after birth.

(For those of you who still cling to the notion that vaccinating your children is inherently dangerous, give it up already.  There’s not one single argument against innoculation that isn’t full of holes, from the autism link to the thimerosol thing to the “vaccine makers are trying to make money”.)

But, hey, where there’s money to be made, it’s OK to panic the developed world’s parents to stop innoculating their kids, put other kids at risk and break down herd immunity exposing adults to chicken pox, mumps and whooping cough.  It wasn’t personal.  It was only business. Way to go.

Do it yourself cremation-do not try this at home or buying a dilapidated chateau in France will make you crazy:

The village mayor, Pierre Sourdain, a farmer, says he liked Robert and Joanne Hall very much. All the villagers say the same: they were impressive, charming, self-possessed. (Saying that, the people in the village speak no English and Robert Hall – despite living here for 10 years – never learned French.) For years the Halls had been trying to get an ambitious golf project off the ground. They wanted to turn the chateau into an 18-hole golf resort with holiday cottages. That’s presumably what the file resting on the chair was all about, Mayor Sourdain says.

“It would have happened, too,” he says. “They would have made it happen. That’s the kind of man Robert Hall was.” He pauses and says, wistfully, “It would have been so good for the region.” There’s a short silence. Then he says, less confidently, “I’m sure it would have happened.”

On the evening of 4 September, Sourdain got a call from the gendarmes – something had happened at the château. It is a French custom for the gendarmes to call the mayor, as the representative of the people, to the scene of a crime or a terrible accident. He arrived to see the oldest son, Christopher, 22, with the gendarmes as they stood in protective suits breaking up a big block of concrete. Robert Hall was inside the house, crying.

[…]

Robert Hall had told the gendarmes that 24 hours earlier he’d had a drunken argument with Joanne during which she accidently fell, hit her head, and died. Then, during the hours that followed, he set her body on fire, put her remains into a builder’s bag, poured in concrete and hauled it on to the back of a lorry. All this happened behind the house, near the back gate, next to a row of half-built holiday cottages.

[…]

Catherine Denis, from the prosecutor’s office in Rennes, told a press conference later that week that when the gendarmes asked Robert why he burned Joanne’s body and encased her remains in concrete, he explained that she’d always said she wanted to be cremated and laid to rest in a mausoleum and he was simply respecting her wishes, albeit in a somewhat informal way.

The BFF is siding with the husband and says he was only carrying out his wife’s wishes, er, should she ever fall and die accidentally.  Something to think about when you write that prenup.

Just posted on Twitter, video of a girl arrested at a Metro station.  It’s hard to tell what it is that she did that provoked this kind of response.  It looks like she had an argument with a cop, he told her to leave, she said something rude as she turned around to go and he tackled her.  I gotta say that it looks very bad when a big strong guy is pinning a girl to the ground and her dress is hiked up above her pants and she’s struggling in vain to cover her butt and all the asshole dude can say is “Stop resisting”.  It is apparently now a crime to try to preserve your modesty.

And now for something completely different:

Bohemian Rhapsody for Four Violins.  (The global elite dudes would probably argue that the chinese can do this with half a violinist)