No warrant other than power

Only 72 pages into U.K. professor Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, I already have much I’d like to write about it. Instead, given current time constraints, I’ll share a couple short quotes for you to ponder along with me.

Government debt … can be thought of as a means for upward redistribution of income, from ordinary taxpayers to rich bondholders. Instead of taxing rich people, governments borrow from them, and pay them interest for the privilege.

The above quote was excerpted from Doug Henwood’s Wall Street: How It Works, and for Whom. The below quote is direct from Sayer, and sums up neoliberalism just about as succinctly as I’ve seen:

The rich would rather lend to the rest at interest and enlarge their unearned income than have to pay taxes to support them. Neoliberal governments obligingly cut the taxes of the rich, sell off public assets to them and replace government spending on education with loans to students that will yield interest. Governments then have to borrow more from the private sector to fund the public sector, thereby increasing the power of the rich and their ability to dictate policy.

For a little more context, Sayer distinguishes between earned and unearned income: “While earned income depends on providing goods or services, unearned income does not.” He breaks unearned income into two forms, “transfers” (entitlements) and “extracted unearned income,” concluding:

whereas earned income is work based and depends on producing use-values, transfers (or donated unearned income) are warranted on the grounds of needs, while unearned income based on control of assets has no warrant other than power.

Behind Charlottesville, economic violence

Earlier this morning, I wrote a little about my least favorite Rebecca Solnit essay. Now, having had time to reflect while driving to and from the grocery store, I’d like to write about one of my favorites. Though the essay is about the violence of climate change, it has much to do with what went down in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday.

Solnit begins “Climate Change is Violence” with the below:

If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it–by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car. 

But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers–the United States and Russia–still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on earth.

In the page margin next to this, I wrote, “I spent hours this morning thinking these same things, less eloquently!” I’d specifically been thinking how much I now loathe the saying, “hurt people hurt people.” The kind of hurt it sets forth is a very narrow, limited kind of hurt compared to that wrought by a handful of people with enormous political and economic power. The people who say it are focused on violence at an individual versus social/structural level, thus concealing (from self and others) the kinds of hurt they passively participate in wreaking on people worldwide. They move violence to a micro scale that captures only a fraction of the macro scale hurt perpetrated today.

Further on in the essay, Solnit writes:

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us.

In the next sentence, she sums up the problem so succinctly it still strikes me breathless:

We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

What does this have to do with Charlottesville, exactly? My answer borne of a year’s worth of reading is similar to Solnit’s here:  Continue reading “Behind Charlottesville, economic violence”

Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn

Condemning curiosity 

About a year ago, I took a one-day course on continuous improvement. Part of our discussion that day involved examples of people wasting huge amounts of effort (and money!) to keep not-fixing problems. They’d tackle individual symptoms and then move on as if all were well. Sometimes that was enough; other times, it just led to greater total resource drain.

I offered up an example. I described a situation where folks in one region of China were having some pretty extreme health problems. Some Western medics came in with vaccines against what seemed to be a variant of another virus. Someone else cautioned against vaccinating without further root cause exploration, so they explored. They discovered soil extremely low in selenium, and so gave those ailing selenium supplements. That took care of the problem, whereas vaccinating against it could have yielded even worse problems from selenium deficiency.

I couldn’t remember where I’d read about this, a puzzle I just solved.

A couple years back, I bought Dr. Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own. I read up through the section cautioning against unquestioning praise of vaccines, and then set the book aside. “Man, is this lady paranoid!” I told myself.

Recently, though, I’ve had a hard time getting back to my previous healthy ways. I still eat mostly Paleo and walk a bunch, but I’m “supplementing” my Paleo with beer and not dedicating nearly enough time to quiet, restorative time necessary for stress management. My husband asked what he could do to help me get back on track; I replied candidly that I needed to dive back into my old readings and get in the right frame of mind, so that I want to do the right-for-me thing instead of just trying to force myself into it based on dusty old recollections.

So I picked up this book, and it’s cracking me up to remember how I felt about all this then. What seemed totally paranoid before I read dozens of books on politics seems perfectly reasonable now.

Most things mandated by the U.S. government these days aren’t mandated for the sake of citizens, whom legislators commonly refer to as “consumers.” They benefit transnational companies who long ago captured the government, enabling transfer of huge amounts of government funds to corporations.

Technology and epinephrine in schools, for example? Sure, there are arguably good things that come from that, but those are distractions from the core purpose: profit by engaging far, far more lucrative customers (governments) than any individual human. If individual consumers crushed by neoliberal policies can no longer increase consumption to improve profits, well, what then? Get that profit on a grander scale!

If any of this were really about human well being, my country’s government would not tolerate tens of millions of citizens–many of them children–starving, unsafe, and living (often dying) on the streets. It would not station millions of military personnel (and, increasingly, contractors–because profit!!!) at hundreds of bases around the world at great detriment to local peoples. It would not be the world’s most massive arm dealer, or itself kill so many millions of people overseas in pursuit “strategic” objectives.

Does this mean I think vaccines are bad? No. It means I know enough to understand that I should look deeper than this ridiculous good/bad dichotomy to explore the deeper context. Are vaccines as they exist now, mandated by the government for some corporations’ immense profit, really an unmitigated good? Who is regulating these vaccines, exploring their peripheral ingredients to ensure those aren’t detrimental in isolation and, especially, in combination? How much funding is given to such exploration? Is there independent oversight? If so, who oversees the overseers? Who responds to reports of adverse reactions, when, and with what urgency? My list of questions now is endless.

In another world, one where my government didn’t so often and flagrantly show its disregard for human life, I might be more unquestioningly accepting of vaccines … as I was when I set aside this book a couple years ago.

Now, I know enough to be wary and to always, always ask, for answer not by my government but by myself, cui bono?

Where most everyone around me kicks, knee-jerk, at the suggestion questions should be asked, I take that as virtual confirmation of a highly successful campaign of indoctrination. Why ought mere curiosity inspire such condemnation?!

The devil is, as always, in the details.

The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

fifth shelf.png

As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”

The Language of Politics

Have you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered, “What are you even saying?” or “Why are you even talking, since you’re not actually communicating anything?” I have, and often. In fact, there’s an almost 100% overlap between my hearing a politician talk and asking myself these questions.

Until now, I’ve assumed this as a universal, historical given. Reading Geoffrey Wagner’s essay “The Language of Politics” in Language in America (1969), I was astonished to see laid bare the chasm between what is (ambiguous nonsense presented with gusto) and what could be (practical, clear statements of intention and planned action).

Now, in the rare case where I DO bother listening to American politicians speak (generally a waste of time; see first paragraph), I’ll listen carefully for answers to questions like:

  • When you say you’re “bringing democracy,” what exactly do you mean by “democracy”?
  • What are the specific actions you’re planning on taking?
  • What are the estimated dates for these actions?
  • Do you have the consent of a majority of those who’ll be most impacted by these actions?
  • What specific assessments went into establishing these?
  • What does the best case scenario look like?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Unless any politician answers questions with specifics and then routinely (1) publicly follows up with specific facts capable of independent verification and (2) commits to being held accountable for deviant outcomes, they’re not worth the time of listening. They’re speaking with the intent of avoiding accountability.

American politicians’ track record stretching at least decades back is far too abysmal to trust without verification. Most have routinely, tactically used language to create illusions of trustworthiness via language ambiguous enough to be interpreted many ways. Indeed, it “is because political utterances about democracy and so forth demands to be translated that politicians choose wooly language, on a high level of abstraction, behind which they may maneuver.”


  • “Orwell condensed this well: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.’”
  • “The word peace is totally fractured when it is forced to contain within itself children and old people horribly burned and maimed.”
  • “The nicety of being anointed with incendigel rather than napalm must seem to an Asiatic peasant the luxury of a very rich society, indeed. He has still been burnt raw by gelled gasoline fluid.”
  • “Pentagonese is an insulating attempt to create another form of language” (its euphemisms protect its agents, and no one else)
  • “Used as they have been in the past decade, words like democracy and freedomend up as no more or less significant than so many street cries, or the sounds of engines.”

This 4/9/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/15/17

Austerity the Dangerous

I recently shared a short conversation with my husband. That exchange revolved around the book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

I’ve finished the book, which was a more challenging read for me than most of my political reads so far. I’m glad to have read it, however slowly I did so!

While austerity might sound like a pretty dry topic, it’s far from that. As a policy, it’s already destroyed countless lives and livelihoods, but continues to be touted as a necessity by the same folks who reap tangible rewards from others believing it:

That austerity simply doesn’t work is the first reason it’s a dangerous idea. But it is also a dangerous idea because the way austerity is being represented by both politicians and the media–as the payback for something called the “sovereign debt crisis”–is a quite fundamental misrepresentation of the facts. These problems, including the crisis in the bond markets, started with the banks and will end with the banks …

The cost of bailing, recapitalizing, and otherwise saving the global banking system has been, depending on, as we shall see later, how you count it, between 3 and 13 trillion dollars. Most of that has ended up on the balance sheets of governments as they absorb the costs of the bust, which is why we mistakenly call this a sovereign debt crisis when in fact it is a transmuted and well-camouflaged banking crisis.

Blyth explores the political history of this oft-refuted, still-touted dangerous idea. He explains how the few purported austerity success stories weren’t especially successful, and how many have required huge distortions of fact to even present illusions of success.

Some of the minutiae were hard for non-economist yours-truly to understand deeply and integrate with existing understandings. Even so, I understood the broad strokes, as well as austerity’s profound dangers for most of the Earth’s population. I also understood the grave injustice of governments passing on bankers’ exorbitant failures’ fees to folks least able to afford them. Perhaps, Blyth concludes (emphasis mine),

we should have let the banks fail. Yes, systemic risk says otherwise. But if the alternative produces nothing but a decade or more of austerity, then we really need to rethink whether the costs of systemic risk going bad are any worse than austerity we have already, and continue to, put ourselves through.

Bailing led to debt. Debt led to crisis. Crisis led to austerity. Perhaps we could have avoided this sequence–as this book has shown, there were moments of choice. There was nothing inevitable about austerity–even if its root cause is a too big to bail banking system stuck inside a modern gold standard/monetary doomsday device that seems to have limited the options to “add central bank liquidity, squeeze the budget, and pray.”  

As an added bonus, Blyth made me laugh probably fifteen or twenty times while reading this book. He’s such an engaging, hilarious speaker, I should have expected this. Since I didn’t, it was a treat to find the same wry wit in his written words.

If you’re not inclined to read a whole book on austerity, I suggest looking up Blyth and giving him a listen!