Free knowledge

No, I’m not talking about my blogs. Rather, you, too, can download Dean Baker’s latest book, The End of Lower Liberals: Making Markets Progressive. No charge.

Even if you don’t agree with his prescriptions, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, Baker provides a concise, easy-to-read summary of how we got into our current mess and who’s to blame. It’s not The Rest of Us, by the way.

Paul Krugman told me to read this

So I did, and glad of it; although I’m not feeling any better. What I read, here, a column by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. He writes, and Krugman has the same quote:

Mr Obama wishes to be president of a country that does not exist. In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony. In fact, he faces an opposition that would prefer their country to fail than their president to succeed.

Such an indictment—of both Obama and the GOP. But how true.

Wolf provides a quick synopsis of how we got into the mess, emphasizes that we’re not in a recovery, and recommends “bold” policies. He’ll share his ideas in a followup column. Stay tuned.

My neighbor Steve Jobs

Okay, not my neighbor, but Lisen Stromberg’s. A very nice, personal note on Steve Jobs, a friendly family man. She writes:

From then on, when I saw him holding his executive meetings in our neighborhood, I didn’t hesitate to smile and say hi. Steve always returned the favor, proving he may be a genius, but he is also a good neighbor.

In time, things changed. The walks were less frequent, the gait slower, the smile not so ready. Earlier this year, when I saw Steve and his wife walking down our street holding hands, I knew something was different. Now, so does the rest of the world.

While Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal and CNET continue to drone on about the impact of the Steve Jobs era, I won’t be pondering the MacBook Air I write on or the iPhone I talk on. I will think of the day I saw him at his son’s high school graduation. There Steve stood, tears streaming down his cheeks, his smile wide and proud, as his son received his diploma and walked on into his own bright future, leaving behind a good man and a good father who can be sure of the rightness of this, perhaps his most important legacy of all.

I do have a nagging curiosity. Steve is a very wealthy guy. How much are reporters being paid these days?

Skin in the game

A very rich stockbroker, let’s say one who was bailed out by Washington, happens upon a homeless man begging for whatever. The rich man says, “You, too, should have some skin in the game. So give me a dollar that I can send to the IRS.”

Well, it’s almost that bad. The New York Times‘ editors weigh in. They write:

Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and several senators have made similar arguments, variations of the idea expressed earlier by Senator Dan Coats of Indiana that “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.”

This is factually wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong. First, the facts: a vast majority of Americans have skin in the tax game. Even if they earn too little to qualify for the income tax, they pay payroll taxes (which Republicans want to raise), gasoline excise taxes and state and local taxes. Only 14 percent of households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institution. The poorest fifth paid an average of 16.3 percent of income in taxes in 2010.

Don’t you just love America?

Drive til you qualify

Did you know the highest foreclosure rates coincide with car ownership? Snohomish County, whose growth industry has been housing developments, reigns supreme in the metropolitan region.

Well, we shouldn’t really be surprised by this. The whole of the county, even here in downtown Everett where I live, is remarkable for its extremely low population densities. Everyone, then, needs a car. And those cars emerge from garages or alleys each morning to join the commuting goo that clogs I-5.

Mark Hinshaw, who used to be the architectural critic for the Seattle Times, has a piece in Crosscut. He writes:

Up in Snohomish County, a far more insidious and damaging series of events was unfolding. Dozens of developers — from bonafide to bottom-feeders — were beating down the doors of the county administration building to demand more and faster permits to clear the landscape and build single family houses. It was a home buying mania.

The County Council obliged—big time—by relaxing regulations, streamlining the permitting process, and creating a whopper of an oxymoron: “rural cluster subdivisions.” As Hinshaw tells it,

The eager builders managed to persuade Snohomish County to adopt laws that allowed wholesale removal of trees, clearing of land, and rapid approvals. Standard development practices that had been used to good effect in other Western Washington cities for years were rebuffed. Since then, county standards have been beefed up, but too late to head off the most recent wave of havoc on the landscape.

It’s been said that pavement lasts forever. Once the farms and trees were demolished to make way for American dreams, they’re gone—never to return? And what’s to become of the suburbs? Hinshaw:

One long-standing observer of the American development industry, Christopher Leinberger, wrote a provocative piece in the Atlantic last year entitled “The Next Slum,” about the end of suburbs as we know them.. Leinberger predicted that in the coming decades there will be fewer and fewer buyers wanting the American dream so popular over the past 50 years. Most younger people are instead preferring cities or close-in suburbs for their higher paying jobs, choices in culture, and a more diverse social setting — often within walking distance.

I say let’s raze the suburbs, encourage farms, and grow some trees. Meanwhile, introduce developers and builders to the wonders of well-designed, high-density, mixed-use, and sustainable urban development. Oh, and just forget all about that silly American Dream. It was bogus to begin with, and caused far more harm than good.

Drive less. Walk more. Pass it on.

By all means, let’s lower your taxes

Americans are the least taxed people in the western industrial world. Yet all we hear from one political party is that taxes are too high, so high that businesses just can’t create the jobs we’re craving.

Comes now this report from the Institute for Policy Studies. The conclusion: several large corporations pay their chief executives more than they give to Uncle Sam; and last time I checked, the U.S. could use some more revenues. The New York Times covers the story here.

As I was saying…

With each passing day I feel abused, but have only myself to blame. Like many of you, I had presumed that Barack Obama was a bit different from the usual politician. Sure, there is the obvious physical difference, but that’s not what I mean. No, Obama, the one who brought tears to Oprah’s face in Chicago following his 2008 presidential victory, promised much—enough to earn my vote and those of millions. As president, however, Obama is Mr. Slime and Mr. Slither. In other words, the same old stuff.

Mark Bittman, who blogs for the New York Times, posted this critique of Obama today. He’s rightly mad at Obama for decisions that place profits before the environment. He writes:

I wasn’t surprised when the administration of George W. Bush sacrificed the environment for corporate profits. But when the same thing happens under a Democratic administration, it’s depressing. With little or no public input, policies that benefit corporations regardless of the consequences continue to be enacted.

FDR famously dared to invite the hatred of corporations. Obama licks their boots. FDR delivered the New Deal. Obama takes another vacation.

Life is full of surprises, and perhaps Obama is one of them. But there was another this morning on the pages of the Everett Herald. John Burbank invoked Joe Hill’s ghost: don’t mourn, organize. Burbank writes:

Whether it is coddling Boeing while it breaks federal labor laws, or figuring out how to take away Medicare and Social Security benefits, or bailing out the big banks while leaving homeowners under water, our political leaders have failed us. They are presiding over the demise of unions and our middle class quality of life, and the enthronement of global corporations.

Who can turn this around? The answer is as American as apple pie. It is workers organized into unions, to give ordinary Americans a voice and a lever to make a new New Deal. It will be unemployed workers organizing, minimum wage workers organizing, baristas and tellers organizing, along with machinists, teachers, engineers and grocery store clerks. Only a new labor movement can enable Americans to make a new New Deal.

Wow! In the Herald? Now let’s hear something from the Oval Office. I’m listening, Mr. President. Do you have anything to say?

Could it happen here?

“Tax us more, say wealthy Europeans,” ran a headline in today’s Guardian.

Will more rich Americans join Warren Buffet to protest being “coddled”? Not likely, but pass it around.

In particular, I liked this sensible quote from the article:

 “We’re a broad church – teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs. Most of our wealth is inherited. But we have more money than we need.”

Imagine that. People actually admitting that they don’t need all their money. And a wealthy German group has apparently co-written a manifesto. They think the growing gap between themselves and everyone else is downright unhealthy.

What will Fox News have to say about this development? They’ll probably come up with a new term: Rich Socialism. Of course, it’s the “socialism” part that causes the wrath. They love “rich.”

The smell test

Philosophers have long struggled with morality: what is right or wrong and why? It’s the why-question that presents so much difficulty. After all, if I can’t come up with a satisfactory theory of universal application, then I am guilty of being a moral relativist and therefore unconvincing.

Peter Singer argues, from utilitarian principles, that it is wrong to eat meat. Nevertheless, hundreds of millions of people do, evidently feeling no moral pangs. He also sanctions not only abortion but the killing of viable infants, should their quality of life be essentially negative owing to a horribly debilitating defect. Hospital boards now employ ethicists to advise them on life-or-death medical decisions. Thou shall not kill, says the Bible—except…Fill in the conditions. The Catholic Church preaches a just-war doctrine. A strict pacifist believes that all killing, even in self-defense, is wrong.

Identifying acts that are wrong or right usually emanate from moral theories, whether or not religious. But if you tell me that my doing x is wrong because, say, your pastor says as much, then since I do not attend your church, know your pastor, or am even an atheist, I feel free to ignore your admonition.

We can imagine, then, a matrix, with a list of possible acts in one column and rows across denoting moral theories and religions. Then enter ‘R’ for ‘right’ and ‘W’ for ‘wrong.’ A hodgepodge, I’m sure.

Yet, we’re not about to embrace moral nihilism if we can’t produce at least a few moral absolutes. How could we possibly interact in civil fashion if anything goes?

As it happens, there is at least one philosopher who claims to have escaped moralism, after a professional career dedicated to determining right from wrong and the basis for doing so.

Joel Marks offered his opinions on morality in a recent post published by the New York Times. He wrestled with moral relativism.

For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.

But then he had an “anti-epiphany.” He writes:

The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

So where did Marks eventually land?

I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is.

It seems to me that Marks now relies on a personal “smell test” to decide the correctness of actions. He recoils at the thought of animals being slaughtered then butchered. If he sees you eating a steak, he might stop by your table to tell you a lot of facts and figures regarding industrial agriculture and perhaps even show you a picture of a beef rendering plant. Should you resume your chewing, Marks will assume that you have different “preferences,” then move on to the next meat-eating diner.

Well, I find this a bit squishy, even if, as he claims, he’s just as effective reciting cause and effect as he is inflicting moral platitudes. Moreover, how does this process, however pragmatic, not lead in the end to moral nihilism? I may derive perverse pleasure from torturing others, while the rest of us find such behavior abhorrent. If that’s your preference…?

In a previous post I found myself arriving at one moral absolute, which is very pragmatic: obey the laws. Yep, I know that there are problems with this, and I am hardly convinced of this position.

The Führer commands me to gas live Jews, and I happen to think that’s wrong. The Nuremberg Principles later say that I cannot simply follow orders, if I believe the act is wrong. But if I don’t obey, I, too, am killed. David Thoreau argued that if my conscience determined that a law was unjust, then I had a duty to engage in civil disobedience. Indeed, he believed that governments were more harmful than helpful, being essentially corrupt enterprises.

Philosophy makes me tired. It’s hard with no clear end in sight. Maybe just do your own thing, as long as no one else is bothered by it.