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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Are we heading towards war?

I am working on the issue I raised in my last blog on poverty and believe I have a proposal to make that should engage the next revolution. But before I do, Cousin Vinnie asked me if I think a war is coming. I think the question very much relates with what I have been thinking regarding poverty. Here is my response.

The conclusion of my own study (and here I agree with Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky who are strong critics of Democratic and Republican foreign policy) is that the American economy (and now the global economy under US hegemony), the way it is now constructed beginning with the industrial revolution into the information revolution, requires that there be an underclass and oligarchs.  And it requires a perpetual war on something (Fascism, Communism, Poverty, Drugs,Terrorism, Islam, God) to keep people in line. War is also a tremendous opportunity to make weapons, technology, jobs, and a lot of wealth for those who control those things. War is built into our history because it is built into our economy.

Since our political parties need mass appeal in a society that uses popular vote and polls to be elected, they need large amounts of money to use the mass media to influence the vote. When you need money you go to those who have it and that is largely the rich and their institutions (the corporations), whether liberal or conservative, which now, through very well-paid and legally trained lobbyists, make sure that legislation goes their ways. You also encourage fear of the other guy--e.g. the liberal or conservative--to mask what and who are really driving things. Therefore many politicians only see things from the point of view of their rich patrons (not unlike Italy under the Medici's and getting close to Italy under Nero). Because of this, I no longer believe we are living in a democratic republic with liberty and justice for all. We are more a plutocracy and fast becoming an oligarchy--not just in America but worldwide.

We have transitioned to a society, in an overpopulated world, that thanks to technology and robotics does not need as many workers. War, especially for the winners, can really solve lots of economic and popular problems. Throw in some machismo, some tribal religion, and an over-extended empire that thinks it is exceptional and of course right in all they do, and yes, we have the prescription for war. If not now--then when the seas rise and some disasters hit. 

So yes, I agree with you.  In all three dimensions of our personal and collective existence, economics, politics, and culture, we are on a course towards war. 

(In fact that war is now going on. We have just been distracted by our gadgets.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Poverty--The Big Question

Can programs end poverty?

Last week I participated in an all day Atlantic Magazine Forum on the War on Poverty-50 years later. Today, I just finished reading Nina Munk's The Idealist, the story of Jeffrey Sach's Millennial Village experiment to achieve The End of Poverty (the name of his book) in Africa.  A few weeks ago I attended an excellent conference in Denver in which hundreds of public-private programs in sustainable development promoting equity were showcased. Poverty and programs to end it are on my mind. 

At the Atlantic Forum, it was commonly agreed that "safety-net" programs certainly helped those who are suffering the consequences of poverty at a particular time (like now) and often give individuals and families some time and space to get education and a job and maybe even some equity. Just because the percentage of poor has not dropped that much, we have to remember that they aren't the same people. There were lots of stories even by presenters of their brush with poverty and their gratitude for food stamps, housing subsidies, headstart, welfare payments until they could get on their feet.

Most everyone urged that we try more "structural" solutions to poverty, e.g. job creation, education, desegregation through mixed income housing, minimum wage and earned income tax credit. A bit higher level of analysis was offered by Richard Rothstein who identified the "de jure" segregation of races and classes through government supported financing in housing development and by Cory Booker who identified the New Jim Crow (a book by Michelle Alexander which I am just starting) that creates a special class of mass incarcerated among people of color.

Do programs end poverty? No, not really.

And that leads me to the big question. I asked it of Paul Krugman at the Forum; but he did not, perhaps could not, answer it. I also asked it of Rothstein by letter and we may see what his response will be.

Is it the way that our economy is constructed and run that makes it desirable or even necessary for an underclass along with oligarchs? Is exploitation built into the national and now, thanks to US hegemony, global economy?

The Atlantic forum generally dealt with 1) focusing on the poor we have now, whatever the cause, by maintaining or expanding safety net services and 2) looking at some of the structural solutions like making jobs and educating people for jobs from early childhood on. 

Place based examples were cited. But I keep asking the question that Michael Harrington asked in my generation. Is there a need for a more basic transformation? And what are steps towards that?

I don’t mean to ask this as a way to undermine safety net, fair housing, CRA, and jobs programs—the way Tea Partiers do (focusing again the angry white low income workers on the wrong targets), but more to practice them in a way that chips away at more fundamental patterns of our present political economy.

In any case I want to pursue this question in the weeks ahead: 1) by considering the dimensions of our US/global political economy, 2) considering if exploitation and therefore a lower class is inevitable in this kind of economy, 3) identify non-exploitative economies or what a non-exploitative economy might look like, 4) (using all the buzzwords) explore possibilities for a sustainable and equitable economy of scale, and finally 5) decide what this means for my action. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

A great extinction is an event in which 70% or so of existing species are wiped out in a relatively short period of time as recorded in fossil remains in rock layers and analysis of DNA from bones and other biological material. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is a series of stories of the author who with other scientists (geologists, archeologists, and biologists) discover evidence for the five great extinctions and many more minor ones. They do this through archeological digs, analysis of rock layers, and review of evolutionary data, and hikes through tropical forests. The last well-know one was the Crustacean extinction when the great lizards were wiped out and mammals began their ascendency.

More, she with her colleagues are collecting evidence of a sixth great extinction in which we are already participating and that could well include our own species.

I'm not competent to review her work as a scientist. In any case she includes most of the diverse theories for the how and when of the past extinction events and also the diverse theories about the one we are now in which, following many of her colleagues, she calls the Anthropocene extinction. But as a participant of the current event, I have the following four reflections:

1. Time. In considering the geological clock, I am struck again by what a short time our species has existed. That gives me both a sense of wonder as well as great humility. The universe and the earth got along fine without us for eons and yet in such a short time we are having such a great affect--probably more than the great asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs.

2. Anthropocene Age. Some want to mark its beginning with the turn from hunting and gathering to agriculture when lands became possessions to be stripped for growing or mined for extracting. Some want to mark its beginning with the industrial revolution when we began dumping tons of CO2 in the air and acid in the ocean. But in any case, human kind has radically changed the earth. Earth warming and its effects seemed to have been part of earth cycles since its birth, but the rapidity of the current warming and its resulting climate change means that large numbers of species do not have time to adapt and therefore survive--perhaps including our own.  See the films on Welcome to the Anthropocene.

3. The Symbolic capacity. Now this is something I've studied and written about for fifty years. It's at the root of my own philosophy, ethics, and politics. What is unique about homo sapiens is that we both discover and create reality through symbols, including metaphors and other figures of speech, images, models, formulas, manufactured forms by which we organize our world and bring meaning within the chaos of experience. A dimension of this capacity is self-awareness or consciousness. While this capacity has given us tremendous advantage in our evolutionary advance, Kolbert indicates "With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens is also the capacity to destroy it." As a constructivist in epistemology, I would go further in saying that our very capacity to know the world is identical with our capacity to change it. For better or for worse.

4. Crisis. Crisis simply means choice. We choose between a constructive or destructive path. But what often appears constructive becomes destructive and vice versa.  Or perhaps all our choices have a constructive and destructive side.  All problem-solving creates further problems. In he Smithsonian article linked above, Andrew Rivkin was quoted: "Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on earth. But they didn't know it. We're the first species that's become a planet scale influence and is aware of that ability. That's what distinguishes us. We can reflect and weigh probabilities, predict possible future, and make choices that can be more constructive than destructive. Perhaps. But it does mean thinking, accepting evidence, and a willingness to change, getting over denial of reality to safeguard beliefs. And in a timely way.

When I consider other public health issues that had the capacity to wipe out our species, I realize that all insights into the causes of illness were met with denial, especially by those who had an interest in the status quo: e.g. the need to wash hands of bacteria before surgery, the need to purify water in which waste was being dumped, putting scrubbers on chimneys, smoking cigarettes, vaccinations, and now dumping CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This last one is far more dangerous. Yet there are substantial interests, rationalized by quasi-religious beliefs, to deny that climate change is being accelerated by human activity. These deniers will reject the total scientific consensus and grasp a singular experience, e.g. increased cold in the East (which is really an evidence in support of the consensus) in order to deny it.  They see it as a vast "liberal conspiracy" for what I am not sure. They are similar to, but much more dangerous than, the people who deny the moon shot, the round earth, or the existence of bacteria.

Since they seem to have the ability to block quick and resolute public policy (the kind that banned chlorofluorocarbons from widening the hole in the ozone layer), the time for adaptation, much less prevention, is shortening. Wisdom, Socrates said, is knowing that you do not know for sure. That's commendable and shows a willingness to keep asking questions of oneself. But willful ignorance for material interest or political correctness, especially if you think that you do know for sure, is downright evil. It is the cardinal or mortal sin.