Monday, September 24, 2012

The Homeless

September 24, 2012

The Homeless

Today I drove to Santa Maria to pick up some class materials and to get a parking sticker for my car. While there, I got gas at one of those huge discount stations. At the exit toward the main street, a very tanned man with a straggly beard and unkempt hair stood. His clothes were blue, a pullover blue shirt, somewhat dirty, and a pair of blue denim pants, also dirty. He held a sign saying "Homeless, please help."

I don't know anything about this man, his problems, or how he got to his present station in life. But I do know that he was a beggar, yes, a beggar. Previous to my return to the U.S. in 2006, I had seen beggars only in India, an overpopulated, poor country. But here in the U.S., the richest country in the world by far, we now have a class of beggars. Is this someone's fault? Can they be helped? If so, how?

I thought back and the first time I saw beggars was in Portland, OR, in 1986, during the Reagan administration. At that time the government closed halfway houses and other care facilities for the mildly disturbed forcing them into the streets. Turning a corner my car was intercepted by one of these and he beat on it, mouthing obscenities.

It's gotten worse since then.

U.S.A. and Iran

September 24, 2012
U.S.A. and Iran

Pankaj Mishra, author of "From the Ruins of Empire: "The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia", wrote in the September 24th edition of the New York Times:

"There is little doubt that years of disorder lie ahead in the Middle East as different factions try to gain control. The murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya, the one American success story of the Arab Spring, is an early sign of the chaos to come; it also points to the unpredictable consequences likely to follow any Western intervention in Syria — or Iran.
As in Southeast Asia in 1975, the limits of both American firepower and diplomacy have been exposed. Financial leverage, or baksheesh, can work only up to a point with leaders struggling to control the bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies unleashed by the Arab Spring.
Although it’s politically unpalatable to mention it during an election campaign, the case for a strategic American retreat from the Middle East and Afghanistan has rarely been more compelling. It’s especially strong as growing energy independence reduces America’s burden for policing the region, and its supposed ally, Israel, shows alarming signs of turning into a loose cannon. "

In the last 35 years American foreign policy in the Middle East seems to have revolved around two poles: stability, to keep the oil flowing unhindered; support for Israel, no matter what. But the Arab spring swept away or severely crippled the dictatorial regimes through which the Americans worked. Political change came in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, and, yes, Iraq. The political climate was especially affected by events in Egypt, long an American ally, and the cultural leader in the Arab world - most Arab movies, for example, are made in Egypt. Thus the sudden upheaval throughout the region has threatened the first pole: stability. Simply put, if democracy as such comes to the Middle East, it will mean war with Israel, whom the Arab masses hate and despise, mainly because it is viewed as a colonial power.

The second pillar of American Middle East policy, unswerving support of Israel, is undergoing transformation, if only because Netanyahu is clearly trying to influence an American presidentlal election. It must be stated here that the foreign policy goals of the United States and Israel are not, and never can be, congruent. It is not in the interest of the United States to fight in Iran. Not only would this be more destablization, but it would starkly reveal Israeli influence on U.S. actions. Basically, Netanyahu has said "Let's you and him fight." Israel does not want another nuclear power in the Middle East (It possesses an estimated 50 atomic weapons and 3 thermonuclear devices). Of course, Israeli claims that these devices would only be used in defense. But this is the precise argument that Iran makes too. And it must be noted that the U.S. does not attack opponents armed with nuclear weapons - another reason that Iran quietly cites for its pursuit of A bombs.

As Mr. Mishra states, years of disorder lie ahead in the Middle East. Keeping the peace and satisfying legitimate Arab demands for equality and justice will try the U.S. foreign policy establishment as never before.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Historical Note: the Republican Right and Its Ideas

September 19, 2012

Historical Note: the Republican Right and Its Ideas

In the NY Times of September 19, 2012, Maureen Dowd wrote:

"[Mitt Romney] seemed to have bought into the warped canard that some conservatives inside and outside of Congress have pushed: that the president and Nancy Pelosi were nefariously hooking people on unemployment benefits so they’d get addicted and vote Democratic to keep the unemployment bucks flowing like crack."

Whew! It's hard to know where to begin. But the notions above give the well-off in our society a victimhood, a narrative that can justify their meanness, their enforcement of public virtue, their sense of "us (=good)-them (=bad)", their continuance of tax privilege, their fear of dealing with equals. This attitude is but another iteration of right-wing fears. In 1935 a Republican slogan insulted President Roosevelt, his wife, black people and Jews, i.e. "You kiss the niggers, and I'll kiss the Jews, and we'll be in the White House as long as we choose." What is the above but another tired repetition of these ideas?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Social Security

September 17, 2012

Social Security

The Social Security system has changed a lot since its inception in 1935. It was originally intended to give people at 65, the age of retirement, some money to help with retirement expenses. No longer would old people be forced either to work far beyond 65 or forced into destitution. However, in the 77 years the program has changed to a catch-all social welfare system which now sends money to survivors, i.e. widows and minor children, and pays those who have suffered some permanent injury or disability that prevents them from working. The eligibility and size of the disability benefit is determined by the amount of Social Security benefits the worker has accrued. Social Security also includes Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for non-workers and children who have a permanent disability, i.e. blindness, mental problems, paralysis. SSI is means-tested, thus someone with a major disability and low income might receive the maximum benefit for the rest of their lives.

All this is funded by a tax on workers and employers based on the total wages of the worker. It is about 4%, which is shared paid equally by the worker and the employer.

Thus, this system supports a very large social welfare program, from which all society benefits, that is, our society does not have the lame, the halt and the blind begging on street corners, as was the case in the late nineteenth century. For a look at the ravages of sickness, accident, and unemployment wrought on nineteenth century socity, take a look at Wisconsin Death Trip, a compilation of newspaper clippings from Wisconsin newspapers from 1880 to 1900. It is stark and riveting.

However, the amount beyond which an individual does not have to pay FICA has been fixed at $110,100 (2012). Thus the very wealthy do not pay for the programs mentioned above; this burden is left on those below that income level. It's a very nice perk for the wealthy. They have the benefit of a functioning society that takes care of the sick and the disabled without paying for it.

Shouldn't we abolish this income requirement and tax the wealth above $110,100 to keep these program solvent?

Lastly, by a Supreme Court decision of 1879 corporations are deemed to be deathless legal persons who thus are completely protected by the Bill of Rights and all other laws pertaining to individual responsibility. They can be sued, pay fines, and sue others as any other individual. Therefore, shouldn't they have to pay Social Security taxes like anyone else?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Science and Scientific Objectivity

Our ideas about science and what it can prove or disprove have changed a lot in the last fifty years.  It is no longer that solid diamond of truth, uncovered by a nearly endless series of questions, experiments, hypotheses, comparisons and variations.  The much-vaunted scientific objectivity (cf. Max Weber) may not even exist.   The realities of nature, our mental constructs, are a great deal stranger than we have thought, or perhaps can even imagine.

“Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and Bohr's Principle of Complementarity suggested a subtler model of truth than classical physics and Cartesian philosophy put forward. The scientific method had been premised on the clear separation of the true and the false, the observer and the observed. In these concepts, they began to blur. They suggested a model of the world in which what is seen to contingent upon where you look from, the objectivity of the spectator is undermined, observation becomes a form of involvement, and no position is detached.”
“[Heisenberg] went on to say that science is not a description of nature, but of the interaction between scientists and nature, “nature as exposed by our method of questioning.” In other words, science was a conversation whose answers depended on the questions, and the narrative, the account of the conversation, had to include the questioner. The pigeonholes which had been so central to ideals of scientific method could not encompass such a narrative.”      
Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams, pp. 140-141

Zen Proverb

Zen proverb

Possessing much knowledge is like having a thousand foot fishing line with a hook, but the fish is always an inch beyond the hook.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kurt Eichenwald's article


September 14, 2012

Last Monday I read a short article in the New York Times by Kurt Eichwald, author of "500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars." In it he says that President Bush was amply warned of the attack of September 11th. The administration, cynically I think, only released one briefing paper, that of August 6, 2001, which stated the Bin Laden was determined to strike the United States. This was the only presidential briefing that was declassified and released. The Bush administration later claimed that it had no other information about the attack except this vague warning on August 6th, no date, no time, no place. However, that is the nature of surprise attacks: they come at a time and place no one suspected.

Eichenwald, however, cites information drawn from classified briefs and other documents: the CIA began warning the president about a surprise attack by Bin Laden in the spring of 2001. These warnings continued and continued to be ignored, despite increasing evidence that an attack was planned.. But neocons withing the administration (is he talking about Cheney?) claimed that the CIA had been fooled, that the reports were a canard planted to distract attention from Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Let it be noted that in the spring of 2001 Iraq was already on the neocon radar.

On July 24, 2001, the CIA warned that the attack had been postponed but was still on.

As we know, all these warnings were ignored.

Now it can be argued, and has been argued, that the administration was new to office and as such was deluged with plans, projections, projects, all the bureaucratic chatter that exists in large organizations. This can be overwhelming. President Bush himself was not a particulary skilled politician; his previous experience had been as governor of Texas, not a singularly difficult job. Then too, the administration was absolutely determined to "do things differently", to show the American people that great change had occurred in Washington, the hated and ineffectual Clinton years were over. The new administration was determined to go in new directions.

All of the above, in my opinion, are excuses.

Our elected leaders were put there to protect us from harm, that is their job, that is what they were elected to do. All other considerations, political or otherwise, are secondary. Bush was put there to deal with just this sort of problem.

He failed, and failed spectacularly.

Monday, September 10, 2012

I started this blog on Monday, September 10, 2012.  I just want a forum to air my opinions about contemporary affairs.  You can send brickbats and praises to