Thursday, January 29, 2009


William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. president, served for the shortest period of time, 32 days. Like me, he caught a bad cold on inauguration day.

Harrison was sworn in on March 4, 1841, facing an extremely cold and wet day. without an overcoat or hat. He also delivered the longest inaugural address in American history: it lasted two hours. In an era without penicillin, he died by April 4.

Now you know why I have been silent. I think I will live to blog again.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jesse Jackson Encounters Change

As President-elect Barack Obama was probably going over his speech in his head while having his morning coffee with then-President Bush, I found myself entangled in an exchange about egalitarianism with none other than the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who showed me that not much had changed yet.

The scene was 1st and D Streets Northwest, Washington, D.C., about 9 am or so, on Jan. 20, 2009. This was the second presidential inauguration I have attended.

The first was the swearing in of John F. Kennedy in 1961, when I was a child of privilege whose diplomatic father snagged tickets to a historic, if cold, perch. Fast-forward 48 years and there I was in a crowd accompanied by two very close friends, one of whom long ago was also a child of privilege with Kennedy inauguration seats.

This time, we were all just plain citizens, without strings to pull. Well, not entirely.

My friend had worked very hard to elect a new congresswoman, who had given us tickets such as the one shown here. If you knew my friend, however, you'd now that she's as regular citizen as they come.

In fact, just to prove it, let me relate that later in the day, when my friend befriended her 1,000th stranger, we had to drive this unknown woman to a very fancy mansion in the upper Northwest so she would not miss an inaugural ball. Next morning my friend confessed that her first thought upon leaving the mansion-dweller was why she was not taking her household staff to the ball.

That's the kind of egalitarianism that came into question on Tuesday at 1st and D, when a bunch of burly cops began to push and shove their way through a standing-room-only crowd. We were all waiting patiently to be admitted to the standing area facing the Capitol.

What was the purpose of this fascistoid human bulldozer? To allow the His Excellency Grand Poobah Jesse Jackson to make his way to some better spot.

"This is the ultimate in elitism," I shouted at Jackson the minute he neared where I was.

To me it was outrageous that -- precisely on a day set aside to enshrine the equality of all in the eyes of the law, through the swearing-in of the first black president -- this supposed standard-bearer of the banner of equality should make use of police power to push his way through a crowd.

Jackson turned to me and saw my anger. I like to think that for a moment the awkwardness of the moment struck him. He said, "Hey, I'm working here."

I said it was still elitist what he was doing. So he put his hand on my left shoulder and said, "It's OK, it's our day."

His voice seemed to be attempting to reach me. My friends say they felt moved.

I'll admit that Jackson was clever. He temporarily pacified me with a phrase that was deliciously ambiguous in its meaning and was delivered in the practiced tone of a preacher expressing sympathy to a bereaved family.

I still feel that Jesse Jackson did not quite get it.

Yes, January 20 was "our day." Yet, to paraphrase George Orwell, it was more "ours" to those who had phalanxes of policemen at their command, than it was the day of the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let's Make the Next 8 Years about Now

Let's put an end to the political clichè that education is the panacea for all that ails our society. It's mistaken: education can leverage the human resources student bring to school, but educators can't reverse inequalities and injustices.

Eliminating poverty in the still-richest country in the world can't be pushed forward to the fabled day in which schools make the current generation of slum kids into self-made entrepreneurs of the future.

That's the trick all politicians play during electoral campaigns -- Obama played it, too. The game gets repeated every four years in four easy moves:

1. Campaigns are occasionally made to face up to social problems, profound radical socioeconomic inequality, hell, the ongoing class war (which is waged by the rich on the rest of us, not by selected interest groups the GOP picks on).

2. The press interrupts the circus around nonissues governments have no business in and no real power over, such as sexual morality, and tosses a cream-puff economic question.

3. The politicians respond in wise-sounding tones that what we need are schools that will help raise up every child, no matter his or her background.

4. The elected politicians proceed to forget no. 3 and leave education, training and public aid programs that support work as underfunded as before -- at least after the first year, when the TV twinkies have turned their attention to the pressing issue of Britney's weight.

So everything stays the same. After all, politicians are bought and kept bought for the purpose of keeping things the same.

In reality, although funding schools instead of torture "contractors" would be a better use of our tax money, what really needs to happen is to throw money at the parents of the children who go to school.

Make sure every parent has the skills and work support to get, keep and advance in jobs that pay family sustaining wages. Inspire more parents to read to their children, to enjoy learning for its own sake.

Throw money at family food baskets so every parent and child is well fed,  at nutrition programs that teach what food to buy, at rent and home buying.

Throw money at adult literacy and job skills training for adults.

Throw money around so that no child ends up coming to school from a home run by uncles and grandparents, where food and clothes and good, clean fun are scarce and books and reading even scarcer. Throw money around so all children will feel safe in the homes of well-paid, secure working parents.

Then the children will be able to learn, yes, in well stocked schools that have roof leaks repaired and heating or air-conditioning working and windows pristine and clean, with teachers motivated by real leaders, not educationese speakers, to inspire learning.

But that costs money, political will and commitment to see change through. Now, not when the kids grow up.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Partisan or Critic?

Barack Obama's presidency will undoubtedly change the way current events feel to me -- perhaps to all of us --introducing to my analyses the perennial problem of objectivity. Obama is a bright, appealing man who has yet to disappoint, whereas I mistakenly took Bush for a wrongheaded fool before I realized that, for reasons unknown, he is a skilled and malevolent dissembler.

This blog is not an exercise in journalism, as I have said. I already do that at work.

Yet even as a philo sophos 1-- Greek for "lover of truth" -- who is epistemologically agnostic, I am perfectly able to see a difference between partisanship and criticism.

Political parties being what they are in the United States -- largely capitalist cheerleaders who are either centrist to mildly reformist (Democratic) or center-rightist to economically darwinian (Republican) -- partisanship takes the form of dogmatic sycophancy. Everything the party leaders, especially if it includes a president, say or do is defended; everything the other side says or does, especially their president, is attacked.

That, at least, is what the political attack dogs and spinners do. Inside the no longer smoke-filled rooms where real decisions are made, there is a great deal of winking and nodding among accomplices in the conspiracy to keep things as they are for the benefit of those who profit most. They call it the art of "compromise."

A true critic (from the Greek kritikos, or "one who is able to make judgments") renders a truer, or at least less partial, version of events and policies. The origin of kritikos, after all, is the verb krinein, "to separate" or decide.

Besides, I have never been able to be a lockstep member of any political or religious organization. My partisanship, if any, runs further to the left than most of the Democratic Party, toward a peaceable and mild anarchism that questions the very foundations of human association -- much as we humans need social links to survive.

This is a long way to warn everyone that the gloves are off insofar as Obama and the incoming administration and the Democratic blowhards in Congress. Yes, potentially Obama represents change; but the present social and economic status quo has swallowed changers whole before.

1 I'd like to call attention to the fact that in categorizing posts, I draw on a pseudo-Aristotelian typology of ideas. Thus "philosophy" is the search for ultimate truths, "ethics" the moral branch of philosophy (with "decalogue" a particular subset of my own). This is why I have separated "politics" meaning political theory or political philosophy, from "current events" meaning comments on the headlines and "political economy" meaning, with what I deem charming anachronism, analyses of the social and economic relations within nation-states. And, yes, if you have read this far, you spend way too much time on the 'net.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Geithner Should 'Fess Up

So Timothy Geithner knows where the bodies are buried in the sham "rescue" of banks, brokerages and insurance companies -- that's obviously why Barack Obama picked him for secretary of the treasury. That still does not excuse Democrats and Republicans in Congress bending over as if for a prostate exam in the face of the fact that the guy knowingly failed to pay taxes for several years.

Tax Cheating?

And he didn't discover the "error" himself. He even tried to get away with it until the IRS audited him.

I had a summer job at the IMF eons ago. Without his level of expertise, every U.S. citizen I knew who worked for the IMF knew full well they had to take care of their own taxes because the IMF is an international organization and is exempt from U.S. tax laws as they affect employers.

In fact, the Senate Finance Committee released this week a piece of paper Geithner signed at the time, acknowledging that he knew his obligations. Moreover, after the IRS audited him on three years in 2006, the Obama Transition Team found in December 2008 the same irregularities in the previous two years that the IRS had not found.

It was then that Geithner "voluntarily amended his tax returns," as the release states.

Tell Us All Where the Bodies Are

But there's another reason Geithner should withdraw: he knows where the bodies are buried and he's not ratting out who put them there.

The fact of the matter is that we're on the verge of seeing yet another banking debacle -- if it hasn't broken by the time I finish this -- and there are many months of debacles to come. The truly knowledgeable people have predicted a much, much lower Dow by the time it's all revealed to the public and a number of officials have been hinting at one coming up.

They knew. Some guys in Congress know. Probably Bush knows. Geithner surely knows this in full orchestration and four-part harmony. We the public are the only ones who don't know.

It's just like during the Cold War when the CIA and the KGB knew exactly what each other's government was doing, but they let "surprises" pop up so they could justify their existence and go on asking for ever bigger budgets for themselves and the purveyors of the arms race. We were the dupes.

Geithner has been an accomplice in the conspiracy of silence of the Bush Administration concerning the culprits and the size of the financial swindle.

He's been one of the guys who allowed, nay, made possible the use of $350 billion -- just think of the schools and food assistance and social security stability we could have bought for all that! -- for dividends to stockholders and bonuses to executives and business as usual for the 1 percent that has sucked up most of the gains and profits produced by 90 percent of all Americans.

Appoint him? Even after there's egregious evidence on tax cheating? He should be punished.

If, because he knows where the bodies are and can guide the hapless Democrats to them, he needs to be kept in the tent, he ought to apologize and profusely. He ought to be made to stand up in front of all of us and 'fess up -- and I don't mean just about the tax cheating.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Missing in the Stimulus Talk

Absent from almost all the discussion about stimulating the economy is any mention of the poorest Americans and the unemployed, even though the stimulus bang for the buck is highest for food stamps (aka SNAP) and unemployment compensation and the lowest for tax cuts.

Take today's discussion on NBC's Meet the Press. Only former congressman David Bonior (D-Mich) brought up the notion that the essential problem of the American economy is the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us.

Bonior mentioned something I have come across at least once a week for the past few years: that 90 percent of all the income gains since the last recession went to the top 10 percent of all income earners. I've mentioned this disparity before (see here).

Yet everyone else was worried about the debt, the deficit, whether infrastructure projects would happen fast enough and whether there were enough tax cuts.

Yet the most effective way to get money circulating out there is to put federal dollars into food aid and unemployment checks. Why? Because the folks who get that aid aren't going to bank the money, they'll spend it right away on necessities. That spending will get consumption back up, build confidence and generate jobs.

The infrastructure projects are great for the skilled middle class, which is fine -- we need a robust middle class. But it's slower and most low-skill, low-wage workers won't benefit.

Tax cuts don't help at all. To owe taxes you have to have income, remember? If you have income, at a time like this you'll likely bank any more money you get. That's right: it will sit in the vaults of the same banks that aren't lending to anyone any more.

See an excellent explanation of how this works here.

Yet instead of the important things that ought to be discussed, Meet the Press host David Gregory did not ask a single question about disparity or about suffering, as if the whole world was composed of comfortable Washington policy gnats like himself and his guests.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thinking from the Gut

In the plethora of responses, on-blog and off, concerning Israel and Gaza, I keep coming across instances of visceral, rather than cerebral, thinking. To some people, anything having to do with that troubled area of the world is so tied up with who they are that anything "their side" does must necessarily be defended and anything the "other side" does must be attacked.

Bystanders who are neither Arab nor Jewish are regarded as either neo-Nazis or neo-colonialists if they dare question the moral and political infallibility of either the government of Israel or the various movements and governments of the Arab world. Yet -- in actual fact -- the Israeli government, as well as Hamas and the many others on the other side, are both composed of quite fallible human beings.

As a Gentile in the West, I am most exposed to Jews who take personal offense at any criticism of Israel. (I am sure, and in different occasions I have experienced it, pro-Palestinian Arabs can be just as obdurate.)

Yet I am an American who criticizes the U.S. government often and hard, a former Catholic who has put the Catholic philosophical system through the shredder and excoriated the leadership of the Catholic Church, a Democrat who thinks Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are ineffectual wimps, a man who believes in the rights of women and the wrongs of many men, including myself, and so forth.

We will never make progress as human beings until we can all step back and look at our own pet ideas, nations, cultures or groups with detachment. At least when we engage in discourse.

Monday, January 05, 2009

On Equality

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts prompted by a discussion I've been having on the subject of equality. Defining equality, its source, whether it is desirable or achievable is a little harder at first blush than it might seem.

There is, of course, the possibility that the expenditure of effort attempting to achieve equality is wasted.

Equality, after all, cannot be a state in which there are no differences between human beings. Such a state is not possible, at least at the observable level from the perspective of human beings.

Seen from the more distant perspective of the grand scheme of things -- the "God's-eye view," if you will -- the differences we see among ourselves are not operationally significant to the cosmos. Yet from our perspective, which is the only one we can possibly hold with some degree of plausibility, there are differences and they are significant to our existence.

We are different in the principal dimensions, height, length, volume, space and time -- let alone skin color, sex or nationality. No single human being is equal to any other in an algebraic, a-equals-a sense -- except conceptually.

It's the abstract concept of a human being, of which we are individual instances, that gives rise to the idea of equality before the law and material equality.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges evoked some of the problems that such abstract conceptions entail in his 1942 short story Funes, the Memorious. Long one of my favorites, the story is about a ranch hand who hits is head and acquires a memory so prodigious that "he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)."

We are different, indeed, from ourselves. Which "me" has a right to equality: the "me" in pre-school, the "me" in university or the "me" nearing death? Am I less or more equal as a child, an active adult or a senescent man?

In any case, is theoretical legal and material equality of all human beings -- assuming that it is possible -- desirable?

Legal equality means that the same principles should apply to all. Yet in legal systems that attempt a rough kind of equality, such as the case of most Western systems, the principles often have to be twisted in knots to establish "equality" between vastly disparate individuals. Is it really equality if we have to redefine the terms so that they can apply?

Something similar might be asked of material equality. There might be no contest that all human beings should be able to satisfy basic survival needs (although we might argue about what those are), but if one man has a mansion, should everyone have a mansion?

Finally, we come to the cause of inequality, which is twofold: nature and nurture. Some of us are born female, some rich. One is a natural happenstance, the other an entirely human construct.

Dr. King was fully cognizant of the philosophical problems. He merely asked that we use a logic of the heart in our behavior toward one another.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Zionism and the Diaspora

The Israeli lobby has learned to play the Jewish diaspora in the West with a virtuosity rivaling Isaac Stern on the violin. The phenomenon is reminiscent of the way the Republican Party successfully snowed Catholics and the evangelical right on the issue of abortion.

An instance of unthinking, knee-jerk support for Israel was on display in comments posted on my blog this week by individuals I know to be Jewish. It reminds me of the pro-lifers who chose to vote for right-wing politicians who show contempt for life outside the womb..

The issue is not whether Israel should exist or whether abortion should be legal.

The question is whether it makes sense to support a politician or a country unconditionally -- no matter what they do -- simply because they claim to represent a single position or identity about which one feels strongly.

There's a slippery slope once one goes down that route. For reasons of common identity Italian-Americans would be duty bound to support the Mafia and non-smoker Adolf Hitler would be a suitable poster boy for anti-cigarette campaigns.

One need not be anti-Israel or anti-Semitic to conclude that the present government of Israel is engaging in a transparent ploy to look tough to its electorate just as the hard-line Likud Party is making gains in the polls.

Israel is plainly in the wrong in its military adventure in Gaza on any number of counts and stands to lose -- once again in a very short time -- in the court of world public opinion. That's not just me speaking: you can read a similar assessment from Shmuel Rosner in the Jerusalem Post.

Yet the diaspora -- meaning the Jewish communities outside the traditional Jewish homeland -- embraces unquestioning, unstinting, uncritical support for Israel no matter what. Go to the Anti-Defamation League's website and you'll find one link after another pointing to the wrongdoing of others and to the support that Israel supposedly deserves.

That kind of blind support, especially when it involves killing by the hundreds, is unconscionable and reprehensible.

There's a difference between the Israeli cabinet and any random spiritual descendant of Abraham. Folly -- or worse -- on the part of the former should not command blind, goosestepping loyalty from the other.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


"What is a sin in your decalogue?" asks a regular reader of this blog, "Something that makes me unhappy?"

In outlining the ethics of survival I have never mentioned "sin," a religious term for deeds, words or even thoughts that violate a moral code. My purpose was to concentrate on what one ought to do, rather than on what one ought not to do, assuming in that Kantian, categorical imperative way that good is worth doing for its own self.

It is true, however, that most historical moral codes have been linked to what I'd call the Santa-Claus threat: he's checking his list to see who's been naughty or nice. Heaven, Nirvana, 70 Virgins, toys or whatever for the nice; hell, samsara, coal in stockings or whatever for the naughty.

That never did much for me.

Even when I was a believer, doing good for the reward seemed cheap. In Catholic morality there was always the distinction between imperfect contrition (being sorry you sinned because you deserved punishment) and perfect contrition (sorrow for sin out of regret for having offended one's loving and dear God). I always thought the reverse would hold as well: you could be good, literally for goodness' sake.

In the grand philosophical edifice of the ethics of survival, a distinctly godless set of propositions, there's an additional issue. The whole raison d'être of these ethics is the universal esteem in which survival is held, coupled with the logic that since ethics are about human behavior an essential requisite of any ethical system would have to be that there be humans alive to behave.

In this light, there are only wrongdoings, not "sin," and the punishment comes in the form of inexorable consequences. Violating these ethics is wrong because it imperils one's survival.

Of course, this is where the survival system diverges from religious systems of ethical compulsion: there is no no possible "pardon" nor "remission of sins." You live or you die.

You pollute, you cause conflict, you bomb, you start wars, you steal from the poor and you get the present mess humanity finds itself in. Will we survive? Individually, as John Maynard Keynes quipped, "we're all dead in the long term."

How about collectively? The jury is out on that one, but at the outset of 2009 I am not uproariously optimistic.

Reality "pardons" to the extent that we are, mercifully, quite resilient and, in cosmic terms, insignificant. Smoking cigarettes is not an automatic ticket to the oncology ward and despite our depredations the planet continues to sustain us.

The law of the jungle is never as absolute and fierce as we think. Jungle species have ample resources to survive.

Sure, these ethics assume that we are, at best, intelligent animals with material needs. Our first concern is our own survival. We are a bit wild, still.

We have the capacity to destroy ourselves and our kin. We ought to avoid that.