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. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Koch Brothers and Debt Crisis

I am responsible for managing a substantial investment portfolio, and consequently have been watching the government shutdown/debt ceiling discussions with considerable care. As early as late June I was turning some of that portfolio into cash (prematurely, as it happened), out of fear that the Republican radicals would shut down the government and cause a default on the debt, with virtually incalculably bad consequences for the country and the world, as well as the markets.

Noting that the stock market did not seem to share my concern I kept wondering why, and exploring all the possible reasons. The most plausible was that Bernanke's warning of the end of stimulus had caused bonds to drop in value, sending a lot of cash into the stock market seeking returns, while during the summer there were no significant new threats looming, China's slowdown seemed to have halted, and the European economy was gradually improving.

Last week John Boehner stated unequivocally that he would not allow a debt default to happen. I regarded this as a major turning point, because I thought Boehner could not say this without having some reason to believe that the crisis was in the process of resolution. I therefore put some of my cash back into the market. But over the weekend he seemed to reverse course, putting forward a new series of demands, and Eric Cantor voiced confidence that the Republican demands would be met. This made me think that Boehner is not as disciplined in his comments as one might expect of someone in his position.

Over the weekend there was another development, at least for me. A NY Times report detailed the long planning for this "crisis" on the part of the Koch brothers and similarly loony Republican billionaires. I had long thought that discussions of the Tea Party positions were deficient in leaving the money out of the equation and focusing only on the ideology of the radicals, since it was the money that gave them their teeth, convincing saner Republicans that they would lose their jobs if they did not hew the radical line. This article not only confirmed that view, but explained some of the more mystifying sideshows, such as the recently surfaced demand that to lift the debt ceiling Obama had to approve the Keystone pipeline, which the article said was 20% owned by Koch Industries.

My bottom line conclusion for the moment, therefore, is that the billionaires are running the show for the radicals, and dictating Boehner's positions. If so, then I return to a more optimistic view because despite their vicious and repellent views, these people are not actually crazy. They are excellent bluffers, and I believe they are running out a strong bluff here. Then they'll fold, because defaulting on the debt will be ruinous for them and they know it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Recent NYT Comments

The Republican case against immigration reform rests, I think, on an unstated but very tenable premise: that as in the days of Jim Crow, voter suppression works, and will keep whites a majority of the voting population indefinitely. Voter ID laws are just the start of it. The nullification of rights is an old right wing game, as the abortion battles show they are terrific at it, and it works.
--7/11 2:39 pm in response to op ed by Ross Douthat, "Rubio-Schumer and the Republican Future"

In describing Justice Ginsberg as clear-eyed and realistic, Greenhouse puts her finger on the Court majority's current modus operandi: to elevate form over reality. The very clever Chief Justice (no relation) has neatly turned our Constitutional rights to equal protection and due process into safe harbors for the nullification of those rights in actual practice. The practice of Republican-controlled states is to demolish minority voting rights with laws framed as equal, but aimed at particular targets, like Anatole France's observation that a law equally prohibited both rich and poor from sleeping under the bridges of Paris. Roberts has ratified those practices. The law once prohibited corporate campaign contributions. But Roberts found this an unjustifiable impingement on the "equal" free speech rights of corporations and other organizations. Now we have corrupted elections at every turn. And so forth. Never in human history has a court wreaked so much damage on a successful political system as has the Supreme Court left to us by the Bush family.
--7/11 4:29 pm in response to op ed by Linda Greenhouse, "The Cost of Compromise"


Egypt, like Pakistan, most of Africa, and many Middle Eastern and Asian countries is mired in an eternal succession of thieving elites. As long as the elites see less to gain from creating an economically and socially viable state than from using power to line their family pockets and destroy opponents, the turnover will continue. Moreover, they have perfected the art of fleecing the Americans, who now provide most of the assets that they steal. The only thing we can do to end this misery is to support those who are actually honest, have some concept of the public good, and seem competent. Absent such people, we should do as little as possible. 
--7/8 4:36 pm in response to op ed by Ed Husain, "How Not to Become the Next Pakistan."


As a lawyer I am less interested in who wins or loses a Supreme Court case than in the reasoning and law that leads to the decision. People commonly ascribe results to the personal views of the justices, but the results should be the outcome of an honest process of legal reasoning, not preordained by judges' personal preferences. When the latter happens, lawyers regard the process as intellectually corrupt.
    In the decisions of the last two days, we have seen examples of both genuine legal reasoning, and intellectual corruption. A pattern has now become clear. Normally, the court's decisions are based on legal reasoning, but when it comes to cases that involve the fundamental structure of our democracy the conservative majority seems to privilege personal preference. We have seen that in Bush v. Gore, in Citizens United, and now in the Voting Rights case. In all these cases, the court has departed from usual practice and precedent in pursuit of decisions pleasing to the conservative majority. In doing so, it has sanctioned the free use of chicanery and money to restructure the Constitution's representative democracy into something that may soon approach an oligarchy. It is that corrupt process, and those devastating results that we must mourn.

--6/26 12:46 pm in response to "Supreme Court Bolsters Gay Marriage with Two Major Rulings"

The collection of big data by the NSA is not yet a Star Chamber. We need this information for security in the modern world, and until it leads to the punishment of people without according them the full range of constitutional protections, I cannot see the actual harm of it. I think that both Snowden and the security apparatus have behaved reprehensibly. Snowden broke the law, violated his promises, and cozied up to our fiercest rivals, but at least he has launched a valuable debate and exposed the overly compliant FISA court, which has apparently never turning down a security request. The security people, on the other hand, have gone over the top in claiming that the disclosures injure US safety (not clear how), and their fear of daylight reminds one of George Orwell.
--6/28 2:46 pm in response to Roger Cohen, "The Service of Snowden"