Thursday, November 05, 2015


As President Obama recently said to Marilynne Robinson, there is a spike in fear within the US right now. There seems to be widespread disquiet even in our wealthy and sophisticated metropolises. Outside of them, disquiet seems to have turned into outright fear, as the articles about the early death of middle aged white men suggest. And fear seems to underlie the mysterious appeal of the many loony and mean-minded Republican Presidential candidates and governors. Such fearfulness, which paradoxically come at a time of nearly unprecedented peace and well being, causes people to turn ugly and behave exactly contrary to the moral codes of their religions. Fortunately, we are a diverse and democratic nation. Although vicious and greedy demagogues aim to profit by fanning fears and hatred, as in Houston, plenty of us do not let fear shape our behavior, and we have plenty of kind, decent, and admirable leaders in the Lincoln and FDR mode to inspire the better angels of our nature.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The "base" and democracy

Reading and hearing TV broadcasts about Republican "base" voters has been a distressing experience. It seems to me that the "base" consists of three types of voter: the ideologue, the fearful, and the selfish. We are not dealing here with simple ignorance. Ignorant people can learn. The "base" does not seem to have that ability, because each voter type starts with a fixed point of view.

The ideologue: typically, but not solely, an evangelical who responds to leaders claiming to have heard the word of God. If God spoke, then we of course must obey. There is no room for disagreement or alternative ideas; challengers to the word of God are evil, or to be charitable, just wrong. There seem to be many non-evangelicals who come to the political and public policy scene with equally firm, fixed, theoretical ideas. Once such an ideological world view exists, such people simply conform all information to the view. If, for example, one wishes to deny global warming, one simply insists that the scientists are corrupt or overlooking stuff, thereby producing false data. The denial comes first, shaping the apprehension of fact. Aspects of the ideological world view also characterize the fearful and the selfish.

The fearful: the historical evidence, as reported in Daniel Pinker's book, indicates that the world has steadily gotten safer from war and other forcible attacks, and other evidence shows that people have steadily gotten safer from natural disasters, disease, and starvation. Nevertheless, it seems that many Americans are more fearful than ever before, perhaps because of the global dragnet for news that now bombards every household. Fearful people act very cruelly and inconsiderately, because they believe their survival, or that of their loved ones, depends on killing or otherwise eliminating those who they see as threatening. They also seek strongmen, often dictators or demagogues, to lead the nation out of danger. As with the ideologues, their preset ideas about danger override all other considerations, including actual fact.

The selfish: perhaps few people are deeply selfish, but selfishness seems to characterize many of the billionaires and multi-millionaires who finance politics these days. These are people, like the Koch Brothers, who pursue their own immediate self interests without regard for the consequences to others. They may well adopt and believe in ideologies that justify or at least support the measures that seem in their self interest.

Perhaps the people I have described do not make up a majority of the eligible voters. But they certainly seem to constitute a very large segment of those among the eligible voters who actually vote. To be sure, there are many eligible voters who take more thoughtful positions. Unfortunately, there are also many eligible voters who take no position and rarely, if ever, actually vote, or if they do vote, base their votes on tribal identification.

The question this next Presidential election may decide is whether or not democracy, as wounded by the current Supreme Court, can survive these forces.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Giving up the vote

When people are oppressed and hopeless they may rise up in anger, as in the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. But it seems that if they are nonetheless fed and entertained, as are the modern victims of political discrimination in Europe and the US, they just give up. They don't expect voting to help, and so the Democrats flounder. Why? Because the Democrats look for support from those concerned about victimization, discrimination, and governmental policies that harm the public interest. Yet those they seek to protect don't vote! They especially don't vote in off-year elections when governors, state legislators, and US Representatives are elected. Because of their concerns and orientation, the Democrats should normally win the support of most Americans, and would if they all voted. But because something like 45 to 55% of registered voters don't bother to vote in off-year elections, and 40% don't even vote in Presidential election years, Democrats struggle to win half the votes of those who do go to the polls. And they are floundering in that struggle because they don't command the financial resources of the Republicans, they don't have the support of the most influential media, and they have proven themselves remarkably inept at communication.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why I Don't Contribute to the NY Public Library

Dear Ms. Butler,
I don’t know if I am writing to you, or a publicist for NYPL, or an underpaid staffer, but in any case I will tell you why, although I am most grateful to the library for its wonderful collection and the research I was able to do there, formerly donated substantially, and thanked the library in the preface to the resulting book (The Origins of Business, Money, and Market, 2011), I no longer give money. The reason is quite simple.

Serving as the titular head of the library is a great honor, extended only to those who have been financially successful—as they must be to raise the huge sums necessary for the library and as anyone can see by looking at who those people have been. So I fully expected that the wealthy people who received this honor, and who then sought contributions from the rest of us, would be taking a modest salary—not trivial, because that would be demeaning, but not extremely large: they don’t actually need it, and their plea for funds from the public is usually based on the library’s serious want of same. So when I discovered that the salary being paid to the head of the library was well over a million dollars a year, I realized that the thousand or so dollars I could contribute was actually being used to pay this person far more money than I thought made any sense. Accordingly, I have not contributed to the library for a number of years, and have no intention of doing so until I learn that, as for the great Mr. Gregorian in former days, the leader’s compensation has returned to saner levels.
Keith Roberts

Thursday, April 03, 2014

US Oligarchy

The news yesterday carried two unrelated articles that tell the current political story very clearly. One is about how corporate lobbyists have so thoroughly killed Republican Congressman Dave Camp's tax reform bill that the Congressman will not run again for his House seat, even though he holds the important position of chairing the tax writing committee. The second is about the Supreme Court's decision in a case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, that holds unconstitutional any limit on the total amount of money that a person can contribute to political candidates or entities.

In other words, we now live in an oligarchy of the wealthy, in which politics (and judges) are completely controlled by those who can and do provide unlimited funding. They will control, for their own benefit, decisions on all important public issues, from climate change to war. Citizens, even those who by normal standards would be regarded as wealthy, no longer have a realistic voice in their own political destiny.

The implications are not entirely terrible. After all, some of the most successful societies in history have been ruled in this way. Think ancient Athens, Republican Rome, and Great Britain between the Act of Settlement in 1701 and the 1st World War. 

More ominously, though, we now live in a world where the fortunes of these oligarchs are no longer tied to the conditions and destinies of the countries in which they live. If the US declines as its middle class shrinks, while certain other countries flourish, the American oligarchs will not be much affected. And if worse comes to worst and social revolution breaks out, they will--like the bin Laden family on September 12, 2001--simply flee to places abroad.  Basically, they don't have much stake in the national destiny.

This leaves the US in a position identical with traditional colonial possessions. The mother country could exploit the possession quite ruthlessly, because its authorities had little stake in the colony's well-being, and returned as little benefit as was absolutely necessary to the exploited territory. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Response to Timothy Egan's op ed 12/20/13

We liberals do no service by denying that many of those who need public assistance fail to help themselves and appear to be moochers. The self-righteous right, the smug who have enjoyed good luck all their lives, and many poor or lower middle class people who observe the homeless and the out of work up close, are responding to a highly visible reality. What is lacking, though, is an explanation. Why would homeless people spend their days onerously picking up tin cans, sitting in the cold or the heat to beg, living in proximity to psychopaths and other dangerous people, and subjecting themselves, their pets, and their children to filth, bureaucracy, public contempt, and deprivation? Calling them moochers (and worse) assumes that they are rational people who lack the moral fibre to act in their own interest, much less the community's. Yet as I understand it, many of the people on public assistance are either there temporarily due to misfortunes beyond their control, or because their minds lack the internal structures and capabilities necessary to function in our modern urban society. We act as if they stupidly and irrationally choose their misery. In reality, such people are the exception, not the rule.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Trolley Car Dilemma is False

I was reading a review in the recent NYRB of a book by the man who invented the "trolley problem," Joshua Greene, which shows that many people refuse to kill one man, even though it would save 5 people. A runaway trolley car containing 5 passengers can be diverted if you push a man off a bridge into its path. If you don't do that, the car will crash and kill the passengers. What do you do? 

The "trolley car" problem has become a widely used thought experiment in philosophy classes. For example, Michael Sandel starts his MOOC course on justice with it.    Greene talks about the psychological difference between active agency and passivity. But I think the setup is falsely rigged. The problem presents the deaths as a certainty, a "fact." But anyone in the position of the man who has to kill to save the 5 would not see it as a certainty, but just as a possibility. Consequently, the trolley problem poses a false dilemma.