Why eat meat?

The New York Times as assembled its “murderer’s row” of judges who will consider entries on the topic: Why eat meat? The paper is interested only in serious essays, and will summarily reject offerings from those who say, “I like meat.” No, you must don your philosopher’s hat or poke a pipe into your mouth to provide an ethical basis for being a carnivore.

On the panel is Peter Singer, who came to veganism via a moral argument. He presumable liked the taste of meat, but then banished it from his diet, succumbing to utilitarian logic, I suppose. He’s been studying and writing about ethics for most of his adult life, and has authored several books, much of them dealing with why we should be moral beings. He, alone, presents a formidable challenge for those who submit their reasoned opinions.

Also anxious to review entries is Michel Pollan, who is not a vegetarian but pushes for organic food. He teaches at Berkeley and wrote the popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Rounding out the panel is another philosopher, a New York Times columnist, and a novelist who also wrote a non-fiction piece Eating Animals (he’s now a vegetarian, according to Wikipedia).

By the way, I have struggled with the issue of eating meat. My mother always served mostly red meat at nearly every meal, except for Fridays. My dad insisted on hamburger or bacon or beef roasts. I can’t say that it’s in my DNA to eat beef, but it’s definitely part of my upbringing.

At any rate, I shall not be submitting an essay. I have no good reasons for eating meat. The best I could say was that I like it, which immediately gets me disqualified. On the other hand, my entry would be far below the 600-word limit. Just three words, really.

 

The god conundrum

Well, not for me, since I don’t think I seriously believed in a creator, despite having been baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. Later, having moved to the “dysfunctional burg” otherwise known as Marysville, Wash., I somehow got involved with St. Mary’s. And I really got involved, from being liturgical and choir director to establishing a social justice committee to serving on the parish council. Yet, I really didn’t believe in god. I was a fraud. So I eventually left for good, after receiving a verbal lashing by the priest who said that the parish had room for only one pastor. Yet, I don’t recall anyone confusing me with the clergy. Oh, well, and good riddance.

I’m in the minority, with a majority of Americans believing in a god, mostly of the Christian variety. I doubt that anyone aspiring to be president could be an atheist or even an agnostic. You’ve got to believe if you want to get into the White House.

These words were prompted by Gary Gutting’s essay in today’s New York Times. Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, asks if it matters whether or not god exists. Does religious belief, for example, require theism?

Gutting quotes British philosopher John Gray, who used to be politically conservative but has switched way over to the other side.

The philosopher John Gray, however, has recently been arguing that belief in God should have little or nothing to do with religion. He points out that in many cases — for instance, “polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions” — belief is of little or no importance. Rather, “practice — ritual, meditation, a way of life — is what counts.” He goes on to say that “it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” and that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

I suppose that for the time I was so engaged at St. Mary’s I was “practicing” religion, in the sense that I was involved in ritual, certainly, and also part of a community. Indeed, we parishioners were a very social bunch, having no compunction about getting falling-down drunk at a parish center event.

At one point I tried to answer this question: What is the common element in being a “practicing” Catholic? (By practicing, I mean those who actually go to church.) There is certainly no consensus on politics in the Church, which has been home to William F. Buckley and now Rick Santorum, but also counted among its faithful Dorothy Day and Gary Wills, both decidedly liberal in their politics.

I eventually came to this answer. What we had in common was our shared experience of the mass. One should not infer from this that I believed that everyone who sat in the pews attending mass had the same observations, priorities, or takeaways. These were all different because each of us is a unique perceiving agent, if only to the extent of where we happen to sit in a particular physical relationship to others and to the altar. Were someone to conduct a survey after mass of those exiting the church, he or she would quickly discover a wide range of attitudes and reports about any aspect of the mass or their beliefs.

Notice that in my answer I’ve said nothing about believing in god or even whether or not the person in the pew adhered to the Church’s teachings. No, my threshold had to be quite low and simple, so that it even included me, an agnostic. Moving beyond the shared experience of the mass immediately takes one to differences rather than commonality.

As for why I didn’t believe in god, there are the usual suspects. Gutting touches on the problem of evil. How can an allegedly all-good and all-powerful god permit evil? How could there be a Holocaust or world wars or famine or pestilence? By definition, having perfect power and perfect goodness negates evil. There is just no room for it under this definition of god, notwithstanding what I think are feeble rationalizations by Gutting. (The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote of a “progressive” or “emerging” god who was getting better all the time. I could find no evidence of this, however.)

Thus, there is an inconsistent triad, which means that one of the elements must be jettisoned. Since almost all of us acknowledge that people suffer, sometimes in horrible ways, we’re not likely to toss out evil, however denoted. That leaves either perfect power or perfect good. Take your pick. God may be able to do anything, but he may not be the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. Or, if you cling to perfect goodness, you’ll have to conclude that god is too weak to prevent evil.

Gutting mentions St. Anselm’s ontological argument, that god is that being than which no greater can be conceived. Since existence trumps its opposite, god must exist. If at first or even second glance you think this silly, arguing through logic for the existence of a divine being, far better minds than ours have continued to wrestle with the argument. I even have a book somewhere filled with philosophers debating its merits.

At any rate, I’m uncomfortable with letting mere words determine the existence of god. That said, whether or not god exists seems to me to be an empirical question. That is, it’s possible that we could wake up tomorrow to the sound of a booming voice from the heavens telling us that this was all a really big joke, and that henceforth the entire human population—past, present, and future—and perhaps the planet’s other species would live in paradise.

I doubt this will happen. What about you?

If you’re anxious to find out how Gutting ends his essay, look no further:

We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we need to find a better response to the problem of evil than an appeal to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to reconsider John Gray’s idea of religion with little or no belief.

But these fundamentalists scare the hell out of me. They may even be gunning for Gutting now.

A bit more on the output gap

Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, helps us understand the need for further fiscal stimulus, although it is somewhat technical. I have previously discussed the output gap, the overall topic of Thoma’s post, and concluded that we’ve “lost” roughly $16 trillion since the start of the Great Recession.

The shaded triangle represents the difference from the previous long-term trend in economic output and the actual output—in real dollars. We can represent the gap like this, similar to what Thoma does:

Thoma is concerned that policymakers may believe either that the economy may not return to its historical long-term trend or that further fiscal stimulus will be inflationary. Here is his chart showing the first possibility.

Thoma argues that there will be a recovery and that economic output will return to its historical trend. However, the longer it takes, the greater the misery.

This recession is the result of lower aggregate demand. Moreover, we’re in a liquidity trap: investors are loath to risk negative returns; they prefer safe assets like U.S. treasuries. Thus, the government’s spending does not crowd out private sector spending, since the private sector isn’t spending all that much. Nor does government spending inflate prices. (The spike at the pump has nothing to do with monetary expansion.)

If not private firms, who? Keynes reasoned that the only entity that can come to the rescue under these conditions is the federal government. It can inject more money into the economy, which the Federal Reserve has done, or it can spend money, preferably on tangible assets. Krugman and others believe that the simplest and most effective strategy in the short term is to give money to budget-constrained states, which are cutting feverishly, thus further depressing the economy or prolonging the eventual recovery.

As Thoma puts it, ” Aggressive policy is still the best course of action.” And he doesn’t mean austerity measures, which have proven disastrous for nearly all of Europe.

Policy matters

A much-needed criticism of reporting comes by way of Matthew Yglesias in this post.

I was reading some righteous indignation from Dave Roberts yesterday who was making the point that the media tends to portray defeats of climate-related legislation as a blow “to environmentalists” rather than a blow to, say, villagers in flood-prone lowlands or drought-stricken Texas farmers. Once you start paying attention, you see this kind of thing in coverage of all sorts of issues.

The austerity measures adopted by the Eurozone have definitely dealt a blow to the labor markets, especially those on the periphery. The tighten-you-belt policy does have consequences, none good. But, as Yglesias argues:

…”the policy of economic austerity” is not a living breathing human being with feelings and interests and values.

It’s always the Rest of Us who take it in the shorts, not the policies or their authors.

Crazy. What else to call them?

Both Paul Krugman and Timothy Egan take on Republican officials in their respective columns this morning. First Krugman:

Stop, hey, what’s that sound? Actually, it’s the noise a great political party makes when it loses what’s left of its mind. And it happened — where else? — on Fox News on Sunday, when Mitt Romney bought fully into the claim that gas prices are high thanks to an Obama administration plot.

This claim isn’t just nuts; it’s a sort of craziness triple play — a lie wrapped in an absurdity swaddled in paranoia. It’s the sort of thing you used to hear only from people who also believed that fluoridated water was a Communist plot. But now the gas-price conspiracy theory has been formally endorsed by the likely Republican presidential nominee.

Apropos of my post on railroads and brains, Krugman reminds us of conservative pundit George F. Will’s comment: “…the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” My argument reverses the causal order. I suggested that widespread use of trains won’t happen in America unless we jettison our individualism in favor of collectivism, understanding that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

Egan focuses on our state next door, Idaho.

Let’s take a tour of the church lady state to date. Our nation may soon turn its lonely eyes to Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter could have the final say on a bill that would order women to undergo a medically unnecessary and invasive procedure before deciding to end a pregnancy.

This is the latest version of the mandatory ultrasound law, recently enacted by Virginia and Texas. But the Idaho bill, which passed the State Senate on Monday in a one-party Republican state, goes much further, and would subject many women to invasive, trans-vaginal inspections.

Notice how the GOP reflexively wrap themselves in the American flag while proclaiming “freedom.” Yet when it comes to women, especially, the party deigns to function as a police state, forever following you into the bedroom and the bathroom. Yuck.

Good theater. But downright scary politics, with real implications.

Yes, we’re unequal, now what?

The Boston Review‘s latest issue devotes its “new democracy forum” to the problem of inequality, and, more to the point, what to do about it. I should point out, however, that one of the respondents to the principal essay denies that inequality is a problem. As one might guess, she sits on the right of the political spectrum, in her case as a policy analyst with the Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank (if that’s not an oxymoron).

The Rest of Us, of course, know about inequality and that the U.S. is near the top in that category, and among industrial democracies, number one. In these pages I have written about what I call “the Great Divergence.” Beginning in the mid-70s those at the top of the income scale saw their wealth skyrocket while everyone else’s either stagnated or even declined—in real dollars. (Source for below chart is Emmanuel Saez, UC Berkeley)

The initial essay is written by David Grusky, a sociology professor at Stanford. He suggests that taxes should be increased on the wealthy, but that the main focus should be on reducing “rents,” both educational and corporate. There are supply “bottlenecks” for college education—too few slots for present demand. If more of us had bachelor’s degrees, more of us could achieve higher incomes while lowering excessive incomes of the rich.

But why has this college premium endured, indeed, expanded? To understand the puzzle, let’s imagine that we live in a perfectly competitive economy. In that economy, information about the high returns of a college education would gradually diffuse, workers in pursuit of those returns would invest in college, and the resulting influx of college-educated workers would drive down the premium. The high returns generated by a shortage of educated labor would therefore disappear.

As for corporations, Grusky here is concerned about rising CEO pay.

Why are CEOs paid so well? Under current pay-setting practices, an opportunity for rent arises because board members, often sitting at the behest of the CEO, effectively set the CEO’s pay. (Although shareholders of publicly owned companies can, in theory, vote against management-sponsored compensation proposals, they rarely do.) If board members are rational, they will favor ample compensation packages because their own interests, such as remaining on the board, are served by keeping the CEO happy. It’s rather like asking a professor’s students to decide on her pay in advance of receiving their grades.

I’ll get straight to the conservative naysayer. Shikha Dalmia argues, “Grusky’s claims about rising income inequality are seriously overblown.” She believes that it’s wrong to use household incomes when measuring inequality. Rather, incomes go to individuals. From this she suggests that individual inequality has declined but that household inequality has written. Why? Because, for example, rich people marry other rich people, combing their salaries to boost household wealth. Moreover, she concludes, inequality is a “red herring,” distracting us from the more significant problem of education cartels. In this she agrees with Grusky.

Where Dalmia gets it wrong, spectacularly so, is in her assertions that, one, America’s poor aren’t all that poor, and, two, poverty is only “a stage of life, not a way of life. There is no permanent underclass here.” According to researcher Richard Wilkinson, relative poverty is bad for our health. Even Adam Smith recognized the importance of having a “linen” shirt to wear in public, and he suggested that a man have enough income to buy at least one, and linen was expensive at the time he wrote the Wealth of Nations. (It may still be expensive, but I don’t have a linen shirt, so I wouldn’t know.)

As for social mobility, she has her facts wrong. While she concurs with Grusky on the education rent proposition, she ignores research on the reproduction of privilege, according to Thomas Edsall writing for the New York Times. He writes:

Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification, with a huge majority of the 24 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 currently holding a bachelor’s degree coming from families with earnings above the median income.

As for alleged social mobility and the fiction of an underclass, Dalmia again ignores the evidence. Poor Americans tend to stay poor, as rich Americans tend to stay wealthy.

Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland) takes exception to Grusky’s emphasis on achieving a college degree. He writes:

Meet, gentle readers, Nate Grant, a high school honors student from New Jersey who graduated recently from Ithaca College with $90,000 in student debt. Profiled in The Los Angeles Times last October in an article covering Occupiers worried about “whether their diplomas may be worth less than their cardboard signs,” Grant did what society—and his working-class father—told him to do: attend the best private college he could get into. Now he can’t find a job, is living with his parents, and is thinking about joining the military. Strikingly, he expresses jealousy toward his older brother, an uncolleged UPS driver: “He is married and debt free except for his mortgage, and here I am with $90,000 [in debt] and a piece of paper. . . . I guess I’m proud of my degree. I just don’t see where it gets me.”

Imagine that. After obtaining a college degree he’s now envying his brother, who drives a UPS truck. Nate Grant did what Pres. Obama wanted. He received his diploma. But at what cost?

Mike Konczal concurs with me (and John Kenneth Galbraith).

An alternative view is that strong unions increase the freedom of workers, and that upgrading them would do more to temper corporate abuses than would limiting CEO salary. The inequality between workers and CEOs—the 99 percent and the 1 percent—is about who has power and freedom, and who exercises control over democracy and markets.

Both Ruy Texeira and Emmanuel Saez (and his co-contributors) argue that Grusky gives insufficient effect to raising taxes on the rich. It’s the latter’s comment that provides some interesting insight.

We’ve long heard the argument that taxing the rich (or anyone else I suppose) deters productivity. Why should I put in more effort or invest more capital if the government is going to take more of my income? You’re reducing my incentive to work. For the most part, that’s not so.

We found that in a purely supply-side model, the revenue-maximizing top tax rate would be 57 percent. This implies that the United States still has some leeway to increase taxes on the rich, but that the upper limit has already been reached in many European countries.

The current marginal tax rate is only 35 percent. The tax on capital gains, the source of most income by the very wealthy (e.g., Mitt Romney), is taxed at the ridiculously low rate of 15 percent. Saez, Pitketty, and Stefanie Stantcheva believe that the marginal tax rate could be as high as 57 percent without reducing the incentive to work.

Texeira wants higher taxes on the rich. Period. Moreover, he says, there’s strong public support for doing so. He writes:

Start with taxing the rich. While it is not adequate on its own—the widening gap between rich and poor, as Grusky points out, has been driven by the rise in pre-tax inequality—it is certainly part of the solution. It would not only make a dent in post-tax inequality but would also raise vitally needed revenue. Especially in today’s political-economic climate, we need that revenue even to think about investing in programs that might lessen pre-tax inequality.

I won’t go into what the other commenters said. You can read their words if you want by clicking on the initial link above. I’ll just offer a few observations.

One from the Cato Institute pushes for private charter schools. He thinks the government shouldn’t have a monopoly on educating children, despite little if any evidence that charter schools work better than their public counterparts. Besides, spending money on private institutions siphons dollars away from public schools, creating a vicious circle. In the end, only the very poor would be taught by public educators.

Economist Glenn Loury writes:

It doesn’t make much sense to think about rents and market failures when inequality is mainly a product of our impoverished ideas about autonomy, community, and solidarity. The failures here are political, not economic, and they are likely to be remedied only by a politics of cross-class and cross-race solidarity—the kind of politics about which I heard far too little at the Occupy Wall Street rallies I attended.

 Amen, brother.

Clarity reveals fuzziness

I have been using the new iPad for a bit over a week now, having received it on the 16th. These are initial impressions.

First off, I have not experienced excessive warming, about which others have complained. Yes, the charging module, or whatever it’s called, gets warm. But so far, not the iPad itself.

The new iPad is a bit heftier and slightly thicker than its predecessor, though nothing to quibble about. Save for these minor differences, the newest version is identical in outside appearance to the iPad 2, which I’ve bestowed on my wife, who deserves everything.

I don’t use FaceTime or take pictures with the iPad, so its better camera is of no moment to me. Besides, I can hardly stand to see myself in the mirror, so I’d prefer to spare family and friends from my aging visage. If I need to take a picture, I use my iPhone.

The device is quicker than the iPad 2. Gestures are more responsive, no doubt owing to greater RAM and a quad-core graphics processor.

The screen, of course, is absolutely gorgeous. And therein lies a problem.

I subscribe to Vanity Fair and the The New Yorker, both Condé Nast products. I preferred reading these magazines on my iPad. But the “retina display” reveals fuzzy text. I link you to this post that has more to say on the problem. The author, Jamie Billet, writes:

One of the limitations of The New Yorker app for iOS becomes even more apparent while reading on the new iPad’s high resolution retina display.

I’ve noticed in the past that the first few articles (Talk of the Town, etc.) in each issue are text selectable and therefore able to be copied, words can be defined using a built in dictionary, and these pieces can be emailed and tweeted. The rest of the magazine is like a tiff or jpeg — everything is baked into page and there is nothing you can do with the text.

This has always been annoying and I suspect is part of the reason each issue weighs in at hundreds of megabytes (a magazine of mostly text mind you). But now on the new iPad this becomes visually apparent. The first few text selectable articles look great and fully take advantage of the retina screen. The words are as clear as on a printed page. This is the same as on web pages or in iBooks or other apps with text. But the rest of the magazine looks completely low res. The letters are badly aliased. It looks worse than on the first two iPads. For some reason they don’t use rendered text for their main articles as they do for their first few shorter articles. And the baked in files, whatever they are, aren’t high res enough for the retina screen. And what’s terrible is that if they fix this, the file sizes of each issue will get even bigger. Perhaps twice as big.

John Gruber, who publishes Daring Fireball, evidently blames the poor text imaging on the use of Adobe tools. He calls The New Yorker on the new iPad “ass.” (Check out his “talk show,” at roughly 26 mins. into the conversation.) He believes that Condé Nast folks must be “morons” for not anticipating the retina display for the iPad, as it was clear that Apple would produce it following the release of the iPhone 4 in June 2010—with its retina display. Yet, here we are with the retina display iPad in people’s hands and a poorly done product (Condé Nast’s magazines).

We may remember that Steve Jobs contemptuously dismissed Adobe as “lazy.” This is during that period when Apple was being criticized by some for not allowing Adobe’s Flash content on iOS devices. It seems that the company’s presumed laziness extends to its digital developer software, as well.

I haven’t written code since Basic Assembly Language back in 1969, unless you count some Basic and Excel. So I have no idea, really, what better tools are available, although I have to wonder why Condé Nast and other publishers don’t avail themselves of Apple’s free iBooks Author, which is designed for all Apple devices, including those with retina displays.

I should also mention that only ABC issues high-definition quality video content. Netflix still uses standard definition as does just about any other content provider. However, you can purchase or rent HD content from iTunes to play on the iPad. “MLB.com at bat” promises HD-quality video of baseball games. I’ve renewed my subscription, so I will find out soon enough about the quality for the new iPad.

I’ll conclude by saying that content designed with the new iPad in mind looks marvelous. Next stop, the iPhone 5 and LTE. (I bought the Verizon version of the new iPad. I’m getting speeds of over 20 mbs using LTE!)

More trains requires more brains

There was an article in yesterday’s Everett Herald about the Sounder train that runs between Everett and Seattle. It’s not cheap. A former planner estimates that each rider costs $57, though the fare is only $7.50. Now catch this:

One of the biggest expenses for the system is $258 million the agency paid up front to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad for the permanent right to use the rail lines between Seattle and Everett.

I took the Sounder once. It’s a pleasant enough ride, taking one along Puget Sound and providing spectacular views of the water and the mountains. Yet, the route reflects our collective stupidity.

There aren’t very many people who live next to the railroad track on the shoreline. We taxpayers shelled out $258 million to lease private tracks that mostly serve commercial purposes. The Sounder can run only four times in the morning to Seattle and four times coming back, because the railroad company needs the rails to haul freight.

I’ve never been to Europe. Heck I rarely travel outside my downtown apartment. On occasion, though, I catch Rick Steves’s programs. There are trains all over the continent moving millions from town to village to city and from country to country—along dedicated tracks.

Before he died, Tony Judt railed against the threats to rails.

In continental Europe, despite some closures and reductions in services, a culture of public provision and a slower rate of automobile growth preserved most of the railway infrastructure. In most of the rest of the world, poverty and backwardness helped preserve the train as the only practicable form of mass communication.

America desperately needs public rails, and I’d run them with electricity generated by renewable resources like hydro. It’s dumb to take a plane from Seattle to Portland, and almost as dumb to drive your car. But how nice and convenient it would be to hop a train when you wanted to transport yourself those 300 174 miles.

How crucial timing is. We paved over paradise, ripping out rails in the process. How expensive it is now to run trains where we need them—between population clusters. Yet, it was okay to build a freeway right through the middle of Seattle, displacing thousands and destroying neighborhoods, my wife’s family’s included. But we love cars, right? Such freedom. We can drive anywhere at any time. This worked okay for a while, until too many humans wanting to do the same thing made driving a curse rather than a pleasure.

We’re paying four bucks for a gallon of gas these days. Lets’ say that you average 20 miles per gallon. A trip of 100 miles will consume five gallons and cost you $20. If you commute 30 miles to your job, by the end of the week you will have put 300 miles on your car. That’s $60.

You’re not alone, though. You’re joined by thousands of other commuters who transform the freeway into a barely moving parking lot. Let’s suppose there are 10,000 people driving to Seattle along I-5 each morning and evening and they average 30 miles each way. In total they will travel in a typical work week three million miles (60 miles x 5 days x 10,000). At 20 mpg, they will have spent in the aggregate $600,000. Their combined monthly bill for gasoline alone is $2.4 million. Over 12 months they will have paid $28.8 million just for gas.

Can you imagine what kind of rail system you could buy for $28.8 million a year? If you were to invest that amount each year at five percent interest over three decades you’d have over $2 billion.

Actually, there are more than 250,000 cars that pass each day by milepost 169, which is downtown Seattle. So we could multiply the above numbers by 25, and we’d get $720 million. Now we’re up to $50 billion. That could buy a pretty nice rail system paralleling the I-5 corridor.

But we don’t think this way—collectively, I mean. We are decided individualists, so we take into account only our particular costs of transportation. We buy a car. We purchased gas for it. We pay the maintenance costs, and so on. Few of us bother to consider the aggregate costs of all of us. Fewer still think about what we could collectively do differently with all that money.

Instead, if a politician said that she wanted to build a splendid rail system and it would cost $50 billion, we’d tell her to go to hell. That’s too much money. Period.

Well, Californians voted to spend about $10 billion, or a fifth of the above amount, on a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. If, and it’s a big if, the project is completed and its total costs are even double the bond issue, the collective value would exceed the sum of all the individual costs of those traveling by car to and from those major cities.

Americans, for all our strutting nationalism, can’t build things any more, even when we could actually reduce our societal costs. Building railroads is just one example. We don’t like planning. We don’t like government. We don’t like big ideas, period. Unless our leaders call for war. Then no expenditure is excessive, even if total spending soars into the trillions of dollars.

I have a hunch that keeping us divided, confined to our own individual, impoverished lives, allows us to be conquered by you know who. As the Rest of Us eat our own, making choices in our own perceived best interest while ignoring the sum of our costs, the One-percenters steal us blind.

To overcome this, in my humble opinion, requires us to get smarter. And we get smarter by thinking collectively, communally, and not as individual agents in a huge scheme designed and operated by just a thin slice of the population, those making millions and billions siphoned from the Rest of Us.

Or, you can continue pursuing the myth of free agency, believing that you are master of your own destiny. The One-pecenters prefer things that way.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan and more stupidity

It’s easy to forget about Afghanistan, so far away and seemingly endless in duration. No one is openly protesting. We’re just in business-as-usual mode, save for the occasional mad acts.

But of course, war is all about mad acts. Mad in purpose. Mad in execution. Mad in justification. Mad in outcome. Yet, the killing continues, costs escalate, and we worry about other things.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd breaks through the willful ignorance with a piece entitled “Heart of Darkness.” She writes:

Congressman Jones directly confronted General Allen on the most salient point: “What is the metric?” How do you know when it’s time to go?

“When does the Congress have the testimony that someone will say, we have done all we can do?” he asked. “Bin Laden is dead. There are hundreds of tribes in Afghanistan and everyone has their own mission.”

This gets old, doesn’t it. When do we see the light at the end of the tunnel? When do we declare victory and just go home?

The website costofwar.com runs a counter. Right now spending on prosecuting the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is above $512 billion. The counter ticks quickly.

As for our objectives there, Dowd continues:

But most of the politicians seemed resigned to the fact that President Obama is resigned to settling for a very small footprint and enough troops to keep terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S. or our allies.

The White House seems ready to forget eliminating the poppy trade and expanding education for girls. We’re not going to turn our desolate protectorate into a modern Athens and there’s not going to be any victory strut on an aircraft carrier.

When you’re buried alive in the Graveyard of Empires, all you can do is claw your way out.

It’s salutary, I think, to revisit the costs of war, both in dollars and blood. Consider:

  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.

I’ve hardly been shy about expressing my belief that this country is, well, fucked up. I don’t know if this condition is chronic, embedded in our collective DNA, or the product of deliberate efforts by elites to suck everything out of the global economy, leaving the Rest of Us with shit.

Did we ever have our act together? Were we ever on the verge of building a more just society, one that didn’t leave so many struggling while a few are so rich that they wipe their butts with $100 bills?

In 1945 Harry Truman pushed for universal care, somewhat like the British have. The federal government would insure everyone. Congress even tried to craft a law to effect Truman’s wish. So what happened?

As usual, monied interests successfully preyed on Americans’ ignorance and fear. Hell, we had just won the Great War, and the Soviet Union was our ally in that effort. Nevertheless, the American Medical Association condemned the proposal as a Communist plot. How goddam stupid are we? Quite a bit it seems, because the measure was repulsed. So now we have rich doctors and over 50 million Americans without health insurance, or one out of six.

Okay, I’ll stop there. My next post is on railroads for public transport. We have few, and they’re mostly lousy. Yet we don’t mind collectively paying millions of dollars a year for the freedom of driving ourselves to work each day. As I said, we’re pretty stupid, when you think about it.

Lessons from Ohio

Last year the Ohio legislature narrowly approved Senate Bill 5, which essentially repealed public workers’ collective bargaining rights. Governor Kasich promptly signed it into law. Then the fun started, leading to a dramatic victory for Labor, as Ohioans overturned the legislation by a remarkable margin, 61 to 39 percent.

Last night I joined my wife at a rally held at Glacier Peak high school near the Cathcart landfill. Teachers, administrators, classified workers, and their friends and family filled one side of the huge gymnasium. They proudly wore red. Organizers of the event had invited all of the Olympia legislators representing the school districts in attendance. Only “real” Democrats showed up, including Hans Dunshee, Mike Sells, Nick Harper, John McCoy, Rosemary McAuliffe, Marco Liias, Derek Stanford, and Luis Moscoso. There were no Republicans or Road Kill Democrats.

After introducing the attending legislators, the moderator drew attention to the absence of Steve Hobbs, a “nominal” Democrat and member of the Road Kill caucus. But wait. Someone found him lurking in the corridors. Out came a life-size, cardboard cutout of the offensive legislator. This brought howls from all present.

Why the collective animus toward Sen. Hobbs? He is the principal sponsor of SB 6442, which would eliminate collective bargaining for health insurance by each school district’s employees. Thus the rally.

Ohio provides two lessons. For Labor, the lesson is that victories can be achieved through mass organizing and solidarity. For those who oppose unions, the lesson is to destroy Labor by a thousand cuts; bold, comprehensive reforms will ignite the populace, as they did in Ohio and Wisconsin.

We were treated to this mini-documentary. Good stuff. People can make a difference. In the case of Ohio, the narrowness of SB 5′s approval in Columbus suggests that keeping Republicans out of the legislature and governors’ mansions is paramount. Otherwise, Labor and Democrats are faced with a series of tough battles that could have been avoided.

In Olympia the Road Kill Democrats have teamed with the Republicans to push passage of SB 6442. This troublesome combination operating in the Senate also wants a different budget with these components:

  • Hungry kids would be even hungrier with the loss of an entire food assistance program for 14,000 families. The State Food Assistance Program provides an efficient safety net for low income legal immigrants, many of whom were invited to America to escape toxic conditions caused by the U.S. government in their homeland.
  • The children of 4,000 working parents would lose their slots in child care, preschool, and after-school programs. This assistance has been a road out of poverty for hard working moms and dads.
  • Kids would also shoulder the burden of drastic cuts to public health, family planning, and basic needs assistance to the poorest families in the state. This means fewer immunizations, more unplanned pregnancies, and more kids growing up in homeless shelters.

The Olympia Report noted these features of the Senate’s budget:

…minority Republicans and the three “road-kill”  Democrats took control of the state Senate late Friday afternoon and passed a version of the budget that includes real cuts, including reductions to social services programs, K-12 and higher education.

The budget would also delay payments to some state pension funds.

There is much that is wrong in Washington state and the country as a whole. The rich have become much richer. Republicans, who control the majority of the state houses and the House of Representatives are eager to make life even more miserable for the poor and hungry as they seek to abolish Labor, if not in one swell swoop then by a cut here and a cut there.

One of the biggest reasons for our growing inequality is the decline in the union participation rate, as this chart demonstrates (OECD data):

Unions, as John K. Galbraith opined, provide a necessary counterforce to unbridled Capital. Without Labor’s constraints, we get the rise of the One-percenters. But look at what’s happened to unions. (Source)

Meanwhile, the Great Divergence:

Yet, it seems that Americans have turned sour on unions. Labor’s “favorability rating” has fallen, according to Pew Research. Ironically, perhaps, the decline is most pronounced in households earning less than $30,000, those who might benefit the most from union membership.

Following the voters’ approval of Initiative 134 in 1992, our state’s statutes require that those belonging to unions have to “affirmatively” authorize the use of their dues for electoral purposes. This is a problem, especially among public school teachers. WEA-PAC receives funds only from those who explicitly designate additional dues for the committee’s political objectives. Unfortunately, as young adults become teachers, the percentage of those who join WEA-PAC has fallen. While the WEA still has clout, its influence has waned. We see this manifested in the massive spending cuts in public education at all levels, from kindergarten through graduate school.

I don’t see a simple solution to our problems. Clearly things started going south in the 70s, leading to the Great Divergence and further declines in union density rates. That coincidence matters, in my judgment.

We may not like union. But we need them now more than ever.