Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Once again I've been inactive for longer than normal. This has been due to a recurrence of my dental health issues that were responsible for my last unintended hiatus. I am pursuing their resolution, but until they are entirely resolved I cannot promise regular updates at the same pace as before this problem began. I apologize for any inconvenience to anyone actually paying attention my need to bloviate and I appreciate the patience of those who haven't dropped the site from their links yet.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Skepticism: The Cornerstone of Democracy

That's right. The fundamental foundation of a successful democracy is an open-minded skepticism. Things like individual liberty and civil rights are not the building blocks of democracy. They exist in a successful democratic society because conditions in a successful democracy allow them to exist, but they are dependent on society continuing to create the necessary conditions.

John Locke, the recognized pioneer of classical liberal thought, was also the first of the British empiricists. Prior to the empiricists, philosophy and science were based on strict logical thought. It was assumed by many that logic was entirely reliable and that logical theory did not have to be challenged. While some of the flaws in the Socratic Method and Aristotleian Dialectic were already obvious and the Rennaissance had led to a flower of scientific experimentation and humanism.

All of this led to intense reaction from conservatives in many quarters. Martin Luther rejected the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but he also rejected the humanism of the Renaissance and preached a stricter morality and a philosophy based on faith rather than reason. John Calvin went even further, coming very close to rejecting reason as altogether worthless and leaving a legacy of anti-intellectualism that lingers to this day. The Reformation undid much of the progress of the Renaissance in many of the countries where it took root and the Counter-Reformation that followed entirely repudiated the Catholic humanism of the age of Da Vinci and Galileo. Thus those inclined toward piety tended away from intellectualism regardless of their religion. Those who did embrace intellectualism clung to the dialectics of Aristotle.

Locke, and the empirical thinkers who followed him, rejected the idea that a logical theory was a correct theory. They correctly understood the lesson of Galileo: logic does not equal truth and no theory can be considered sound unless it has been thoroughly tested and the actual results observed in the real world. That's the scientific method, philosophically stated.

There's a reason we call this era 'the Enlightenment.'

Thus, in order to prove that our ideas are true, we must doubt them. Absolute faith in our beliefs is dangerous. By allowing logic or religion to dictate a belief system and failing to test our own beliefs we set ourselves up for grievous intellectual error and the disillusion that accompanies it. It is even worse when we ignore the results of real world testing of our beliefs and insist that the logic behind them makes them true regardless of empiric experience. Skepticism and flexibility of thought, coupled with an ability to observe and accept the actual function of our ideas in the world, thus become the only surety of reliable knowledge.

A recurring theme among conservatives and libertarians is distrust of government. I don't believe that this, of itself, is a bad thing. I believe skepticism of government is very important. Absolute faith in the righteousness of one's government leads to experiences like the Japanese internment, the Red Scare of the '50s, the Vietnam War, and the scandals of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Forgetting these lessons led to the experiences of 8 years under George W. Bush and a Republican Party whose fundamental line of attack is to present their own blunders, corruption, and incompetence as absolute proof of their theses about government.

Of course we should not place blind, unearned trust in government.

Nor, however, should we be blindly and unthinkingly afraid of government and allow that fear to override the empirical facts. Reflexing, unthinking, and close-minded fear is not skepticism. It is paranoia. One of the fundamental truths of paranoia is that paranoids frequently manufacture their own nightmares so skillfully as to make them real through their attempts to resist or escape them. Like the man said, they find themselves living in lonely worlds they populate with enemies.

Skepticism requires that we able to see the facts as they are rather than as we want or fear them to be. We must accept empirical reality and work with it rather than attempt to reshape the world in the image of our own beliefs no matter how logical we are sure those beliefs may be.

I've noted in the past that I began my political life as a fiscally conservative Republican, slightly more socially conservative than my moderate-to-liberal parents. Time, experience, and observation have drastically changed my views and ideas. I have been noticing that recent events and debates have continued to have an effect on my views and ideas. Changes have occurred at an easily observable pace. No doubt this will moderate as conditions change, but I fully expect my views to continue to change as I continue to experience the world and see them tested.

This may be arrogance or elitism on my part, but I believe this self-awareness and skepticism is key to the democratic process. Empirical testing can be the only test of political theory and ideas that do not survive the test of the real world must change. Laissez faire has repeatedly failed empirical testing. It failed during the Gilded Age, when a handful of men amassed massive amounts of wealth while reducing their fellow man to poverty and economic peonage. It failed in the 1929 and in 2008, when economic disasters were directly caused by the corruption and speculation of investors entirely unfettered (from without or within) by common sense or enlightened self-interest. In 1929 this happened because a monied, capitalist aristocracy could not wrap their brains around the idea that nothing lasts forever. In 2008 it happened because the financial industry believed that credit was equal to infinite, free capital.

It is incumbent upon our society to learn from such mistakes and correct them rather than (as we have for many years now) repeat the same old mistakes in new forms. This requires government intervention in certain areas of the economy, as most of us have already learned and understand. Conservatives are correct to say that eventually we will have to pay the bill. That's the whole point. One always has to pay the bill in the end and forgetting that very fact is the fundamental economic mistake we have seen repeated ad nauseam throughout history. Yes, at some point in the future our taxes will go up. That's how life works. Tax cuts can't last forever either. Conditions change, and policies must change with them.

When we believe in something so absolutely that we do not even consider the alternative, we are writing our own doom on the walls ourselves. Experimentation, experience, and trial and error are the only way to be as sure as possible of our knowledge. Even then conditions may change.

This is only common sense. Unfortunately, in today's political climate, common sense is very radical indeed.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Society, the State, and the Government

'Nature abhors a vacuum.'

-- Francois Rabelais, 1494-1553

One of the most misused words in the English language is 'statism.'

Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning 'concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.' They date the word to 1919 and I am willing to accept their date and definition.

In recent years, much like the words 'Communism' and 'socialism' (which also have very specific dictionary meanings), self-proclaimed libertarians have used the word to mean 'anything the government does that I personally dislike.' It is certainly perfectly acceptable to dislike action taken by the government (something many conservatives forget when it comes to liberals, or when they themselves are in power.) It is simply not correct to use the word 'statism' to describe actions that fall outside its proper definition. Nor is it correct to use 'statism' to describe the belief that government should exist at all or should take effort to solve social problems. There are a lot more words for this, all dependent on context.

If one wishes to follow the correct dictionary definition of 'statism', then I don't believe there are many 'statists' in the United States of America at all. Nor, for that matter, do I believe there are many in most of the Western world. Even the most aggrieved socialists, most critical of capitalism, believe to some degree in capitalism and markets and do not believe the government should control or centrally plan the entire economy. Many of the most aggrieved socialists are philosophical anarchists who see the state and its sponsorship of corporate power as the problem.

I would like to be a philosophical anarchist. The problem is that government isn't going anywhere. It is inevitable and inescapable. If we successfully dismantled the United States government from top to bottom today then the governments of each of the fifty states would successfully Balkanize into fifty little countries. Some of them might combine to form larger associations on the pattern of the very government recently dis-established. If we dismantled the state governments from the ground up as well, we'd still have all that local government. Cities, counties, and townships would govern themselves as separate entities or federate into larger states on their own. The latter is highly likley, as that's the whole point: cities and fuedal counties discovered that they could better manage their affairs and protect their security by combining their interests under a central authority that could respond in emergencies.

I'll even go one further. Let's say we succeeded in completely dismantling local government on top of everything else. Everyone looks after themselves as best they can, gets together in community organizations to look after themselves collectively as best they can, or pays someone to provide them with protection. The former and latter system, which today is called anarcho-capitalism, has been tried before. During the Dark Ages they called it 'feudalism.' Everyone either protected themselves or paid someone else to protect them. Ultimately, the people providing protection became the government. They had the power to do so and there was no one with equal power to stop them. The middle option, community collectives in which freemen combined to defend themselves and each other against the feudal protection racket, is frequently lauded by anarcho-socialists. Ultimately, as the protection racket got bigger and stronger and more united, cities had to all with a bigger mobster, the king, to survive.

So modern government, in its first infantile throes, was born.

Break down everything libertarians and anarchists despise in modern government, dispose of the state entirely, and you simply create an environment for feudalism to make conditions so difficult that government becomes necessary all over again.

Of course, there is one notable difference between the Dark Ages and today. We have corporations with entrenched money and power. We complain about the government being in corporate pockets, with some degree of justification in many cases, but with no government at all we'd have the pleasure of watching corporations build the kind of government and society they wanted all around us with no recourse at all. Their government would be a lot less democratic and participatory than the one we have now, and a lot less responsive to the needs of society. It would be a 'one dollar, one vote' democracy. As bad as things are now, that would be much worse.

What society needs to do is take control of government. Government needs to cease to be a means of state control over society and become a means of societal control over the state. The state came into being in order to serve specific societal needs. These include (but are not limited to) public safety, general welfare, and (whether conservatives like it or not) the redistribution of wealth through the various strata of society in order to attempt to secure a basic standard for the quality of life. The only way this will happen is if people act. Responsible and informed voters must make responsible and informed decisions for the genuine public good, rather than base their decisions on personal prejudices against their neighbors or their desire to pay lower taxes. Democratic society must be an educated society. This does not mean everyone needs reams of paper proving their formal education. It means that everyone needs to be willing to take responsibility for educating themselves for their entire life regardless of their level of formal education.

It also means that society needs to reject ignorance as a badge of honor and embrace the fact that there are things we do not know... and seek to learn what we do not know. We should be proud of what we learn, not huddle in the dark and fear the sounds from outside. The only way this will happen is if we take control of our political environment. Government must become society's servant.

This is all very radical and extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, we've already gone through far too many years of the alternative.

Who's happy with what we've got now?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There Really IS An Explanation For Everything

Dr. Ron Chusid has speculated a lot, on his own blog, about the real beliefs of outspoken and controversial right wing 'pundits' like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

It appears that there may be more to Beck's particular apocalyptic visions than just the attention it gets him or the ratings.

He may so stridently predict the total economic and social implosion of the United States because he being paid to do so.

Brett Michael Dykes, writing for Yahoo! News, notes:

Yet another controversy appears to be brewing around Fox News host Glenn Beck. Some are accusing him of a blatant conflict of interest concerning his frequent on-air promotion of an investment sold by one of his main advertisers: Gold.

What are the accusations?

(If you'd like to see for yourself: and are the links in the above quoted text)

For a start, Beck is a compensated endorser for precious metals broker Goldline International. They sponsor his radio and tv shows, he frequently endorses them during live segments, he has had their CEO on his radio show as a guest in what amounts to free advertising, and their ads are all over his website. Now that's fine. Celebrity endorsement is nothing new and hardly a scandal.

Here comes the really big but...

When Glenn Beck tells his television audience to pull all their money out of the stock market and buy gold, he does not disclose that he is paid to endorse people who make money when the price of gold rises. This would be a violation of journalistic ethics if Beck were a journalist. It is a violation of Fox News's own policy about their hosts providing on air endorsements during their tv shows.

Even if Beck were not specifically telling his viewers to go out and buy gold, there is still a serious issue of conflicting interest. Beck has been talking the economy down hard since President Obama was elected. He has been predicting economic collapse and apocalyptic chaos. When people are afraid for their livelihood and personal safety, the price of gold goes up. They invest in portable assets they can take with them in an emergency. This means Beck is serving Goldline International's interests every time he forecasts that we'll be eating our neighbors in a few years. He creates a climate of insecurity that profits his sponsor. It raises fundamental questions about the integrity of Beck's show and its content.

Beck's response to criticism?

"So I shouldn't make money?"

The complete lack of compunction in this question is less disturbing than the fact that Glenn Beck doesn't even see the point the critics are making.

It's not about the money, Glenn. Every American has a right to earn their livelihood, as best they can, by means of their pursuit of happiness. We actually put that in writing somewhere.

It's about integrity. Like it or not, there are people in the country who trust Glenn Beck. When he panders to a narrow corporate interest because it profits him, he betrays the people who watch his show and take stock in his word. Personal integrity has value.

Glenn Beck's personal integrity is easy to put a price on.

Just check the price of gold.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Differing Views of Government

One of the reverberating themes on the right wing of the blogosphere these days is the notion that 'Liberals can't complain about Stupak-Pitts because they wanted the government in health care and that means giving the government the power to screw it up.'

In the words conservative feminist blogger Jenn Q Public:

Proponents of liberal health care reform deliberately lured a bloodthirsty vampire over their thresholds, and now they’re shocked – SHOCKED – to find they have fangs buried deep in their necks. I’m not one to blame the victim, but it sounds like they might be getting exactly what they were asking for.

This sums up the entire conservative response to liberal complaints about Stupak-Pitts in a nutshell. 'Stupid liberals wanted fascism and now they are complaining about it.'

This, of course, is not an argument at all. It's an ad hominem attack that allows the actual points of debate to be entirely ignored. I'm not entirely sure, however, whether this is premeditated or whether it is intended as a genuine argument.

The left and the right, after all, have fundamentally differing views of the proper definition of 'government.'

The conservative view of government is that it is an inherent entity of its own, with specific coercive and authoritarian traits that define it. Government cannot exist without those traits, goes the right wing argument, and is something else entirely without those traits. Hence the need for a small government with specific and strictly defined areas of authority.

The liberal view of government is that government is representative of the people who elect it and that it has an obligation to pursue, protect, and ensure their interests, opportunities, and rights. They believe that government should be able to do what needs doing, in the best interests of the people, as long as the rights of the people are protected.

The emphasis is important. Liberals do not believe in the 'unlimited' government that conservatives often claim they advocate nor in 'fascism' (not even the terribly misdefined 'fascism' of conservatives) or 'socialism.' Liberals believe in responsible, effective government as a necessary component of civil society.

There needs to be a balance between the power of the government to do what needs doing and the protections in place to prevent it from ignoring all responsibility and simply using coercive force to do its will. The irony is that it is conservatives who have continually advocated the use of coercive force by the government to do their own will both at home and overseas. Corporate conservatives want the US military to enforce their business interests. Neoconservatives want American empire. Religious conservatives wish their religious mores enforced as law. All of these require the expansion of government power, not its contraction, and all are far more dangerous to the rights of individual Americans than health care reform. Yet they crow over Stupak-Pitts as some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of government run amok. They rarely acknowledge the far greater danger of irresponsible demagogues advocating for real fascism from several directions at once.

While not precisely a 'liberal' myself (if anything, I am well to the left of most American liberals), I certainly support health care reform. Like liberals, I believe in responsible government rather than the unfettered government alternately feared and worshiped by conservatives. I certainly don't care for Stupak-Pitts and think it a horrible mistake, both politically and morally.

From the quoted article:

'When you invite the government to become more deeply involved in health care, you’re also inviting greater government interference in personal choice. Medical decisions become political decisions. That’s how it works, and it’s why philosophical opposition to the growth of government isn’t the crazy-eyed wingnuttery progressives make it out to be.'

Once again, rather than discuss the real issues at hand, we see an evasion of the topic with a statement about those stupid liberals who keep inviting the monster into the closet. The automatic assumption that responsible decision making and rational thought go out the window once one decides to create health care policy means that liberals have no right to complain about the policies that result from reform.

I can't speak for 'liberals', but I don't consider 'philosophical opposition to the growth of government' to be all that terrible. The government is one of several potential threats to individual freedoms. There are real risks to government expansion that must always be weighed carefully. I am no statist, I am a philosophical anarcho-socialist. What I consider 'wild-eyed wing-nuttery' is the belief that the private sector can take care of all of society's needs if civil society abdicates its own responsibility for its own needs. To reference a favorite phrase of the Anonymous Liberal, one cannot rely on the underpants gnomes to take care of the poor, elderly, and sick if we do not do so as a society. When one puts 'philosophical objection to the growth of government' over the economic and physical well-being of Americans, one has crossed the 'wing-nut' line. When one's personal concern for having to wait longer in the office for service prevents one from wanting others to have that same access to medical care then one has crossed an even darker line: one is no longer merely a wing-nut.

This brings us to the ultimate issue regarding Stupak-Pitts and health care reform at large. The government works for us. As conservatives are so fond of saying, American tax-payers pay a great deal of money to the government every year. If an automobile mechanic you were paying to provide proper maintenance and upkeep on your car deliberately used substandard parts and you were injured in an auto accident as a result, the depraved indifference law means that the auto mechanic is guilty of a felony.

Stupak-Pitts is a deliberate act of depraved indifference on the part of a bipartisan conservative coalition.

Everyone should complain about that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

American Children At Risk... from America?

The United States is a terribly dangerous country in which to be a child.

Lack of a proper welfare system or a genuine health care policy means that children or poor rural or inner city parents are frequently trapped in a world of poverty and crime from which there often appears to be no escape. The people who appear to get the most respect in the world in which these kids live are often drug dealers, pimps, and bookies. Crime appears to offer an easy escape from poverty and there are plenty of role models available. Speaking of his life in early 20th Century America, jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw once said:

"Coming from where I did, it was inevitable. I was going to pick up either a machine gun or an instrument. Fortunately for me, I found an instrument."

Though there have been ethnic changes among the youngest victims of urban poverty, the details are much the same now as they were in 1920. Drug Prohibition has neatly taken the place of the Volstead Act. The ethnic make-up of gangs and 'the mob' is no longer the same, but they still appear to be the quickest way to respect and economic freedom. There is one more temptation working against them, one their younger forebears never had to face.

I'm going to knock the media, but I'm not going to condemn violence on tv or the fictional glamorization of crime. These offer their own problems, but they are not new. Children's fiction has been tremendously violent since Cinderella's step-sisters cut off pieces of their feet to make the glass slipper fit. In many ways, kids were exposed to far more fictional violence in the past than they are today.

Rather, the media sends kids (and adults, but it is kids on whom I am focused now) a massive amount of information about how important it is to have money and buy things. What is more, American culture is extremely tolerant of criminal behavior from the wealthy and powerful. Every day corporations engage in activity that would be felonious if committed by an indidivual. The wealthy abuse drugs every bit as much as the poor, but where the poor go to prison the wealthy do not. Star athletes avoid serious prison time for killing other human beings. Political figures engage in corruption and repression of civil liberties and their political opponents are accused of 'vindictiveness' and corrupt motives for wishing to prosecute them for their crimes. Thus we send messages every day that in America, you can get away with anything.

Unfortunately, you can't if you are a kid. The United States processes more children through its criminal justice system (per capita, not just gross) than any other Western nation. Until 2005, the United States was the only country in the Western world to sentence children to death for crimes committed as children. The United States is still the only Western nation to sentence children to life in prisone, without the possibility of parole, for crimes committed as children.

It doesn't help that there are people who want more kids in prison, longer, just so they can make a buck.

Two cases currently before the Supreme Court seek to prevent the government from sending kids to prison for life and making it impossible for them to get out. The first arguments were heard early in November, and there are reasons to believe that both cases will be victories for the defense. Human rights advocates hope that this will lead to a complete ban on such sentences. Congressmen with their own law to ban such sentencing are waiting to see if the Supreme Court does it first, preferring not to pursue a legislative solution unless necessary.

The trouble is the very strong likelihood that, even if both defendants have their sentences overturned, no such declaration will be forthcoming.

The Supreme Court specifically chose to hear both cases separately because of very thinly, but distinctly, separate legal issues raised by each case. Chief Justice John Roberts has suggested that he believes juvenile offenders sentenced so harshly should be able to use their age when the crime was committed as grounds for appeal of sentence in individual cases, but that he does not support a complete ban.

So there is a chance that the Supreme Court will decide that some children can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole but others shouldn't be, and the best way to answer the question of who should or should not be is after the fact.

The trouble with such individual distinctions in an issue like this one should be pretty clear: in a criminal justice system rife with economic, ethnic, and social inequity we wish to decide which children need to be protected from such a system after the fact. Does anyone else see the grave weakness in this statement?

If childhood and emotional/intellectual maturity are to be criteria for the voiding of even one sentence, it is much safer for the rights of Americans to make certain that those criteria are applied across the board. It may cost 'American taxpayers' more to send an adult offender to prison for life without parole after a life of juvenile crime, but 'American taxpayers' have children too.

Let us suppose that the argument of judicial independence is made: suppose we believe the judge should have discretion to sentence each individual according to the particulars of the individual case. What then?

I happen to believe that, myself, very strongly. I believe judicial discretion is a component part of the criminal justice system, coupled with judicial review. If we truly intend to argue for judicial discretion, however, then arguing against a ban on the sentencing of minors is the wrong argument. Instead we should be arguing against mandatory minimum sentences that force a judge to deliver sentences harsher than he believes appropriate to the case. If we banned mandatory minimums, it would be easier to truly judge each case on its own merits.

In the absence of such a ban, the rights of individual citizens demand equal attention to the maximum sentences handled down and the circumstances of such sentencing. A ban on sentencing children to life in prison without parole is the least we can do in that area.

The very least, at the risk of sounding radical, there is a lot more reform necessary.