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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Laughter and the soul: Proof from the rat tickling experiment

by John MacBeath Watkins

Aristotle thought the soul entered a baby when it first laughed, which he estimated happened about 40 days after birth (recent research indicates it's more like 90 days for most kids, but Aristotle may have been truly hilarious by baby standards.).

And that's important, because the age of ensoulment is generally considered the age at which the baby
Was Aristotle available
for children's parties?
is human. St. Augustine thought ensoulment happened at the quickening, that is, when the mother could feel a baby kick. As long as this was Catholic doctrine, abortion was permitted until the quickening.

But what interests me here is the question of why Aristotle would choose, among all baby vocalizations, laughter.

What does laughter mean? It doesn't always occur when someone has made a joke. In fact, it seems to mean, "we're just playing." And play, as Karl Groos noted in his 1898 book, The Play of Animals, is important because it is how young mammals of all species learn. In fact, he said that it is not so much that animals play because they are young, it is more like they have a period when they are most inclined to play so that they may learn.

Aristotle was the sort of polymath who had theories about everything. He even wrote a natural history book, the title of which is usually translated History of Animals, in which he attempted to sum up what was known about zoology. He also wrote a book on comedy, of which unfortunately there are no extant copies.

It was in The Parts of Animals (De Partibus Animalium), a book on anatomy, that he speculated warm air most easily reaches the soul through laughter. Barry Sanders, author of Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History, says that Aristotle thought only humans laughed, and only laughter could animate the soul, which is why he thought laughter separated humans from animals, and called us animal ridens, the beast who laughs.

However, scientists have determined by tickling rats that they laugh. In fact, it seems to be a behavior common to all the mammals they have managed to tickle.

In short, animal ridens is not a mere genus, it is an entire class of animals, the class of animals who play. Aristotle, however, thought laughter was connected to a sense of superiority, which makes me wonder about his sense of humor. He said people laugh at an ugly mask during a play because they can feel superior without causing pain. Perhaps he was fond of slapstick, of seeing people do silly things.

But I do think he was on to something with his theory about the importance of laughter. Perhaps laughter signals that the baby is ready to move beyond instinct, to engage in the sort of play that will enable it to learn behaviors that are invented rather than instinctive. The longer childhood lasts, the longer an animal is supposed to engage in play, which may tell us how much of a species' behavior is passed on through teaching rather than through genes, although there are probably adjustments for size (nerve impulses move the length of a shrew more quickly than they move the length of a whale, so they may be living and learning quicker.)

So what was Aristotle seeing that made him think a baby was ensouled when it first laughed? Well, in its first days, a baby is a creature of inarticulate appetites. It cries because its wet diaper is uncomfortable, because its belly is empty, because it is too cold or too hot. It learns to smile in the first month, but the first vocalization that says, "I am playing, therefore I am learning," is laughter.

Aristotle was a teacher, which may be why he noted the insolent laughter of youth. Unlike his fellow teacher, the more dour Plato, he approved of laughter in moderation. Perhaps he noticed that people who laughed together liked each other more. Perhaps he even noticed that students who were laughing were learning.

But he did not notice that rats laugh when you tickle them, and therefore, by his standards, have souls.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Islamophobia and endless war

by John MacBeath Watkins

This could change as more of them are identified, of course, but so far all of the terrorists in the Paris attack that have been identified were European nationals.

One had what appeared to be a Syrian passport, but that turned out to be fake. And why carry a fake Syrian passport? Because one of the motivations for the attack is to create a backlash against the refugees fleeing the war zone where Islamic State is fighting.

And it's working. All the propaganda tropes Islamic State is using seem to be working, including naming themselves Islamic State, when they are neither a true state, nor do they represent most of Islam.

Right-wing political correctness dictates that we call the terrorists "Islamic extremists." This ties in with the right's desire to blame the Muslim religion for the actions of the terrorists, because they really want this to be a clash between their version of Islam and Christianity. Islamic State is attacking the religiously tolerant west to destroy religious toleration, to polarize the world into one defined by extremists on both sides.

Which is what Christian extremists want as well.

We can't let extremists define either group. That way lies endless war, a war of annihilation between faiths, as long as there are believers fanatical enough to pursue it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Religious extremists and their fear of liberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two of the most important works of liberalism, were written by men (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) in exile from their native country, and both men had reason to fear for their lives based on what they had written. If they were writing today, they would find that there are still parts of the world where expressing their ideas of the rational, free, and secular state can get you killed -- which is why so many of the surviving Bengali bloggers live in exile. Those still in Bangladesh risk being hacked to death for expressing secularist views.

People with views similar to those who hacked Bengali bloggers to death flew jetliners into the World Trade Center in Sept. 11, 2001 and blew themselves up after murdering random people in Paris in November 2015. In these cases, it is not what individuals have said, it is an attempt by fanatics to provoke the enemy they desire: Liberal democracies.

The reason they want liberal democracies to act as their enemies, and resort to such extreme measures to get them to act like enemies, is that in the natural course of things, such societies tolerate Muslims' faith without much difficulty. That creates a sort of gray zone, where Islam exists without dictating how people live.

In a statement after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2014, the Islamic State argued that terrorism in European countries would "compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens."*

Marxists used do something similar called heightening the contradictions in capitalism, which was supposed to make things better eventually by making them worse right now.

In either the case of an attack on an individual or an attack on a society, people who want religion to rule see liberal democracy as the enemy. And this has been the case, as long as the idea of a government whose legitimacy did not rely on religion has been involved in politics.

It used to be that pretty much all governments claimed to serve God or the Gods. The idea that the government should serve, instead, the people it governs, is a threat to those who arrogate to themselves the power to decide how God wants people ruled. And threats of death against those who proposed secular sources of legitimacy for governments have been a feature of public life since at least the 1640s, when Thomas Hobbes fled his former allies among monarchists in fear that they would kill him.

For centuries, it has served the purpose of those in power to make it seem that liberal democracies are a normal, ordinary, logical way of governance, and to obscure how radical its ideas were and are. But liberal democracy represents a clean break from most of human history, a new way of thinking about the legitimacy of governments. For most of human history, we have been ruled by faith, force, and custom.

Force is easy enough to understand. The man on horseback in the expensive armor, helped by his knights, could physically compel commoners into doing his will (and for most of history, it was men who held this role, especially in young dynasties where someone had to establish dominance.)

Faith is more complicated. Religion concerns itself with the greater questions about why we exist and how we should live our lives. It is also concerned with our concept of virtue more intimately than most institutions.

The question of virtue is the question of who is acting rightly. This is a position of great power, determining who shall be stoned to death in the public square and who shall be heaped with praise and rewards. Virtue addresses the question of who may act legitimately and how, and who, if they act, will be acting illegitimately.

It takes a lot less force to rule a willing people, so if the holder of force can get the arbiters of virtue to approve their rule as legitimate, the ruler will have greater stability and require less expenditure on force.

So, when someone comes along and questions the legitimacy of the Gods themselves, that person is a threat to both church and state in such a society. When Athens tried Socrates and executed him, the charges were impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth, because he questioned the accepted notions of justice, which were supposed to be passed down by the Gods.

I find it revealing that this happened during a period of Athenian decline, when they were being defeated in the Peloponnesian wars. It is when a society most needs a major rethink that those who have led it into decline are most eager to suppress those who would question their wisdom. Perhaps that is why we so often see this behavior in places where people fear they are weak, such as Germany during the Depression or the Islamic State, which considers Islam under siege from the encroachment of western civilization.

Part of the problem was that Socrates did not live in a secular society, and with no separation of church and state, there was every incentive for those who could use the force of the state to kill him to do so on behalf of those who were the arbiters of virtue. Socrates was a threat to religious authority not just because he questioned their judgment, but also because of the way he did it. He started from a position of doubt, and tried to determine the truth through reason.

Reason is not always a friend to power, and it has not been the dominant means of organizing society for most of human existence.

For most of the time there have been humans on this earth, living with their strange, symbolic world of language and culture, the world has been explained in terms of myth and metaphor. These things deal with truth in a very different way than reason does.

Consider the evolution of culture. Does culture need to be rational or even explicable in order to work? In theory, you could have the people of a culture believing things that are neither rational nor, in any logical or empirical sense, true, and those beliefs could get people to act in ways that produced an orderly, productive society that is able to perpetuate itself and produce generation after generation that hold those same beliefs.

Such a society might not be terribly adaptable or able to deal with a rapidly changing world, but as long as things are stable, this might be the best way for a society to function. For example, little changed in the 1,500 years of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt. In such a society, kings were gods and priests were servants of God, and things went smoothly, all great and good fun until someone invents iron.

The Golden Age of Greece followed the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a dark age in which populations fell and knowledge was lost. The old ways stopped working, the new technology of iron was creating new winners in the world and the old Gods were falling. Doubt set in, and new thoughts flourished. When the old ways didn’t work, people had to find new ways of thinking. Until, or course, the vibrant new civilization started to get old, and to fear the questioning of its arbiters of virtue.

But it turned out the Greeks were real pikers when it came to fearing those who questioned the arbiters of virtue. Later Europeans made a regular practice of killing people who questioned the arbiters of virtue, and gained great power by this tactic. And great power led to corruption, and rebellion against corruption, and reformation. One of the things involved was a 30-year long war that killed off so many people that parts of Europe – Germany in particular – that they had a third fewer people at the end of it than at the beginning.

But does questioning the wisdom of an established religion cause violence? John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that this is not the cause of violence, it is the attempt to prevent people from holding non-sanctioned views that begets violence. But that points to a society where religion does not dominate the state, and the state itself is not the ultimate enforcer of religious orthodoxy (such as when a judge in Scotland ordered Thomas Aikenhead to be hanged for making atheist statements in 1697, and an executioner employed by the government did so.

Locke's insight still holds. If Islamic State hopes that a few terrorists can change the way the liberal democracies treat Muslims, and they hope this will make the very regime some of them are fleeing seem more attractive to them. Only if they can spread intolerance will they have a chance of being proved right.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The irony of the surveillance state

by John MacBeath Watkins

Video cameras seem to be everywhere. If you'd told civil libertarians that 50 years ago, they would
have assumed that this would restrict the freedom of ordinary people.

In fact, the message that the technology of ubiquitous video would lead to a police state was essential to the plots of 1984 and THX1138, as well as many other works of fiction such as Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

But instead, it seems to be working against authority figures. Consider this:

On Nov. 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann, 25, of the Cleveland Police department shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child who had been playing with a toy gun. Loemann and his partner, then 46-year-old Frank Garmback told a story that seemed to justify the shooting.

They said that Rice was at a table with other people.

They said as they pulled up, Rice grabbed a gun and put it in his waistband.

They said they got out of the car and told Rice three times to raise his hands, but he refused.

They said Rice pulled the pistol and Loehman responded by shooting him.

Those four statements, if they were true, would get Loehmann off the hook. But what the officers did not know at the time they made those statements was that a surveillance camera  captured the entire incident.

There were no other people.

Rice already had the toy gun in his waistband.

Loehmann fired within 2 seconds of arriving, too quickly for him to have told Rice three times to put his hands up, and too quickly for Rice to have complied if he had.

Rice never removed the toy from his waistband.

The officers got their story straight, and told a tale that would have justified Loehman's action. 20 years ago, that would have been the end of it. But the ubiquity of video tripped them up, and although they have since had independent reviews rule that they were justified in shooting, this is not going to look good when the wrongful death suit goes to court. Nor is the four minutes they spent doing nothing in the way of first aid for Rice, who died the next day. All they did was throw his sister to the ground when she arrived, distraught.

And additional footage, this time with audio, has surfaced. In it the girl can be heard wailing "you shot my baby brother." This is important, because one defense of the officers' actions was that they had no way of telling that she was the sister of the boy Loemann had just shot.

This sort of thing keeps happening. Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer didn't think he was being taped when he shot a man named Walter Scott, who was attempting to run away from him. Slager had pulled Scott over for a broken tail light. Scott fled, Slager chased, they tussled, Scott fled again, and Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times. They he want back to where they tussled, picked something up, and went back and dropped it by the body.

Shooting a fleeing, unarmed man is illegal. The only way it's legal to shoot a fleeing suspect is if he might be a threat to others, the shooting could be justified. Therefore, in the review of the shooting, it would matter a great deal whether he was armed.

Slager didn't know a bystander was shooting a video of the last part of the incident. Slager claimed Scott had taken his Taser, and he therefore feared for his life. Had Feidin Santana, who shot the video, simply been a witness to this alleged deception, the authorities would simply have preferred to take the officer's word for what happened. The prevalence of video made it impossible to paper over what had happened.

In 2013, a complaint stated that Slager had Tasered a man without cause. Slager was cleared, even though the alleged victim and witnesses to the incident said they had not been interviewed.

Santana had considered erasing the video and leaving town, because he feared retaliation if the video came out. It is clear that police do not like being filmed. Police have on many occasions ordered people to stop filming, or even seized telephones and deleted footage. A bill in Texas would have made it illegal to video the police, but was withdrawn amid public backlash.

Why didn't ubiquitous surveillance turn out as 1984 or THX1138 foreshadowed?

Simple. The state did not manage to get a monopoly on surveillance. The police in the Tamir Rice case were caught on security cameras, which are common at businesses, non-profits, and public buildings. The policeman in the Walter Scott case was caught on smartphone video.

The democratic distribution of technology has proven to be as important as the technology itself. What we must guard against, then, is the state restricting the recording and distribution of recordings of its representatives.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

More on the allure of the authoritarian

by John MacBeath Watkins

The reactions to Enlightenment ideas in traditional societies can be violent. To many people,
Sayyid Qutb
tribalism and religion are their identity, and they feel the secular state is a threat to that. Both al Qaeda and Islamic State are examples of this. Both are anti-democratic because they see democracy as fundamentally wrong, and freedom of conscience as fundamentally wrong. If you don't believe what you are supposed to believe, you are wrong, and deserved to die. Certain things can, in the view of Islamic State, make a Muslim an apostate, and one of them is voting in elections. Another is simply being a Shiite Muslim.

All of this fits with what Theodore Adorno, who fled Germany in the 1930s and returned after World War II, referred to in his 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality. From that authoritative book:

The most crucial result of the present study, as it seems to the authors, is the demonstration of close correspondence in the type of approach and outlook a subject is likely to have in a great variety of areas, ranging from the most intimate features of family and sex adjustment through relationships to other people in general, to religion and to social and political philosophy. Thus a basically hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent -child relationship is apt to carry over into a power- oriented, exploitively dependent attitude toward one's sex partner and one's God and may well culminate in a political philosophy and social outlook which has no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong and a disdainful rejection of whatever is relegated to the bottom. The inherent dramatization likewise extends from the parent-child dichotomy to the dichotomous conception of sex roles and of moral values, as well as to a dichotomous handling of social relations as manifested especially in the formation of stereotypes and of ingroup -outgroup cleavages. Conventionality, rigidity, repressive denial, and the ensuing break -through of one's weakness, fear and dependency are but other aspects of the same fundamental personality pattern, and they can be observed in personal life as well as in attitudes toward religion and social issues.
On the other hand, there is a pattern characterized chiefly by affectionate, basically equalitarian, and permissive interpersonal relationships. This pattern encompasses attitudes within the family and toward the opposite sex, as well as an internalization of religious and social values. Greater flexibility and the potentiality for more genuine satisfactions appear as results of this basic attitude.
Looking at a few lists of the characteristics of authoritarian personalities, I'd boil it down to this:

--Rigid conventionalism and a tendency to think in rigid categories.
--Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

--Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

--Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

--Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

--A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

--Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

--A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.

There is some question in my mind whether any of this is innate. There is no question in my mind that society can choose to be ruled by the authoritarian among them or by the more flexible alternative that Adorno described. 

It strikes me that as civilization has developed, we have gone from the small band, to the tribe, to the village, to the nation, and at each stage our definition of who is “one of us” has become broader. And the greater our inclusiveness, the greater the size of our cohort. Acceptance of the “other” into the cohort increases the power of the cohort, so in the end, those who are suspicious of outsiders are less likely to increase the power of their society than those willing to include them. The bluster of the nativist is a defensive posture based on fear. Every new group of immigrants to the U.S. has been opposed by them, before being accepted and considered an asset. Those who demonize outsiders are exposing their weakness, not displaying their strength.

Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to fire and brimstone preachers and "citizens for decency." Many will be attracted to conservative causes, because of the conventionalism of the type, but that also depends on the conventions they are raised with. It is also quite common for people who have generally conservative views to be kind, empathetic, and accepting. How conservative or liberal you are depends more on your upbringing than your temperament, but how authoritarian you are depends more on your temperament.

Consider the following passage, from Sayyid Qutb's The America I have Seen:

“...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and the expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs – and she shows all this and does not hide it.”
In this brief passage we have on display lust, disgust, condemnation, envy, and a concern with the sexuality of others. It seems safe to say that Qutb, an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood, was an authoritarian. He reacted to the open society with revulsion. Qutb was one of the founding figures in the jihad movement, an advocate of religious law over secular law, and wanted women to know their place (and everyone else, as well.)

What Qutb wanted was a return to the old system of governance by force, faith, and custom. He would be more comfortable if everyone knew their place, instead of trying to shape their own lives. If Allah is the ultimate source of truth and good, why would you rely upon the judgment of people, who after all might be seduced by the licentious freedom of the West?

Culturally, this was happening around him. Egypt's last king was an obese playboy given to pleasures of the flesh (Farouk I died at the ages of 45 and the weight of 300 lb, collapsing after a heavy meal. In his defense, he may have been poisoned, though it is not necessary to suppose this is the case, and no one bothered with an autopsy.) Its dictators were secular. The Muslim Brotherhood was having none of this. They believed God's law was above man's law, and wanted a society where God's law overruled man's law. This is only a problem if you don't happen to belong to the same church as Qutb and his brethren. If, for example, you happen to be a Coptic Christian, under the rule of religious fanatics of a different faith, it sucks to be you.

Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I think of the Christians in our own civilization who want religion to overrule secular law. The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.
Count me among the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I find that more and more, I live among the delighted. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views. I only ask that they use persuasion rather than force when they attempt to get people to follow their older ways.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Death with dignity and the death penalty, a drug story

by John MacBeath Watkins

On Nov. 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard took drugs prescribed by her doctor, and died peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones. She had moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state's death with dignity law, choosing her time to die rather than suffering a lingering death from brain cancer.

On July 23 of the same year in Arizona, Joseph Rudolf Wood III died, apparently after nearly two hours of agony following a supposedly lethal injection. Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer was there as a witness.

"Suddenly he opened his mouth," Kiefer says. "His mouth sort of made this funny round shape, and you could see this expulsion of air, and we all jumped. This was something different."

Kiefer started making hash marks every time Wood struggled for a breath. He'd made 640 hash marks by the time Wood succumbed to a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone amounting to 15 times the dose that had been deemed lethal prior to the execution.

Why are we able to humanely end the life of people using the death with dignity laws, but not people being executed by the states?

Well, for one thing, drug companies are not eager to sell drugs for the purpose of executing people. It's bad for business. Perhaps this is why the state of Arizona was using an opiate on a man with a history of substance abuse, who might be expected to have a higher tolerance for opiates than most people.

Some experts had warned that the drug cocktail proposed for this execution might not be effective. In the end, it took 15 shots of the supposedly lethal dose to execute Wood.

On Jan. 9, 2014, Michael Lee Wilson, being executed by Oklahoma, gave us these last words:

"I feel my whole body burning."

European drug companies will not sell the barbiturates used in death with dignity cases to states to use in executions. States are turning to untested drug cocktails and drugs to which convicts are likely to have a high tolerance.

There is a long and unpleasant history to executions. There was a time when people were publicly beheaded, or even drawn and quartered. Here's the Wikipedia version of what was involved:

Convicts were fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered(chopped into four pieces). Their remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

While the American constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, traditionally public cruelty was a major part of what punishment was.

And that's one important conflict with the death penalty. It is a barbaric holdover from an earlier time, when the notion of kind and usual punishment would have seemed self-contradictory. It is an act of vengeance carried out by the state. Proponents argue that it acts as a deterrent on others considering capital crimes, but this is not borne out by research. In any case, in earlier times, it was thought that executions should be public to deter others, not held in a quiet chamber where only a select few witnessed the execution.

We no longer display heads on pikes, and I think we are better for the change.

So why do we use lethal injection? Well, when it works, it is a quiet death that leaves no easily seen disfigurement of the body. The methods of execution we have abandoned are those that met the earlier standard of execution -- they disfigured the prisoner in a way that it was assumed would discourage others from committing similar crimes.

But executions are no longer a public spectacle; we hide them away, with just a few witnesses to assure ourselves that it isn't because we're ashamed of state-sanctioned killing.

And now the drug companies think it isn't good business to sell the substances that will allow this charade to go on. It isn't a rare instance of pharmaceutical companies taking a moral stand, it is fear of consumer backlash. This is because public attitudes are changing toward the death penalty.

The number of people favoring the death penalty peaked in 1994 at 80%. The number opposing it reached its nadir in 1995 at 13 percent. Since then, the number in favor has dropped to 61% and those opposed has climbed to 37%. (All figures are from Gallup, here.)

In 1966, only 42% favored the death penalty and 47% opposed it. By the late 1960s, virtually no people -- and in some years, actually no people -- were executed.

It seems as people got further from actual executions, the popularity of executions rose. As the number of executions increased, support for executions declined.

It is all very well to support execution in theory, but supporting it when actual people, no matter how bad, are dying, is harder to do. And investigators such as the Innocence Project have uncovered evidence that people on Death Row were not guilty of the crimes for which they were scheduled to be killed. Usually, after a person is executed, the evidence is destroyed (in most states, evidence is retained only until the period of incarceration ends, such as when a person is executed.) The cost of storing such evidence, compared to the cost of convicting a prisoner and carrying through all the appeals that tend to accompany such convictions, is minimal. Illinois, which saw the death penalty suspended in 2000 for fear the innocent were being executed, has a law requiring permanent retention of evidence in death penalty cases, and at about the same time abolished the death penalty. Occasionally, a legislator tried to bring the death penalty back. There will always be those who want revenge.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan had seen Anthony Porter come within 50 hours of execution before his innocence was established. That put a human face on the failings of the justice system, but it was the fact that so many cases were overturned that really ended the death penalty in the state.

When people think about the death penalty in the abstract, they don't have to think about how any human institution actually functions, or doesn't. It is when the system has been in place for a time, and the failures become evident, that the flaws become evident.

Why is death with dignity not a threat to the profits of the drug companies? Because it applies for people who have chosen to die. The problem of unjust killing under color of law does not arise.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


by John MacBeath Watkins

Like some uncharted evening
at some unbalanced ball,
the dancers are all leaving
changing colors as they fall
and trees bare limbs are reaching
for anything at all.

Hibernating bears are grieving
for the departure of our sol,
old men's knees are creaking
as they struggle through cold halls
and the migrant birds are seeking
asylum from the fall.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Natural rights and the corporate person

by John MacBeath Watkins

What is a person, and who has natural rights, such as free speech?

In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions cannot be prevented from spending money on "electioneering communication." They did so based on the idea that neither citizens nor associations of citizens may be prevented from the exercise of free speech.

The majority ruling was that the first amendment to the constitution protects free speech regardless of the identity of the speaker, and therefore rules could not make distinctions between, say, for-profit companies and other kinds of associations.

The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that the form of the corporation has certain inherent dangers to the political system. He quoted the Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce case in which the court noted that corporations have' "special advantages-such as limited liability, perpetual life, and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets," 494 U. S., at 658–659-that allow them to spend prodigious general treasury sums on campaign messages that have "little or no correlation" with the beliefs held by actual persons...'

He argued that these legal entities were not the "people" for whom the constitution was written, and for whom such rights were preserved.

There is a great deal more to the argument on both sides, but I'm not a legal scholar, and what really interests me here is the question in political theory of whether a corporation is a person who can exercise free speech.

First, while there is some dispute about John Locke's influence on the people who wrote the constitution , to my way of thinking, it was decisive. So it's worth looking at his version of natural law and inalienable rights.

Inalienable rights are those that cannot be sold, or alienated, and assigned to someone else. The computer I'm writing this on does not have inalienable rights. I can own it, sell it, and it will never raise an objection, because it has no use for rights. If someone were to claim to own me and sell me, and use me in ways I do not like, I could not help but have feelings about it. That's why my right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are inalienable, and why it is immoral to treat people like things that can be bought and sold.

From Locke's Second Treatise of Government:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.

In Locke's view, all of nature was created by God, and the sort of people who had natural rights were natural people. Such people, he wrote, are born owning themselves, and the rights they possess as their own master are inalienable: They cannot be assigned to another.

The two sides in Citizens United argued very different things. The majority argued that corporations have freedom of speech as associations of people. The dissent argued that corporations do not have free speech rights as people.

Stevens' view is the easier to argue. Corporations are not their own masters. They must do as their board of directors decides, and have no opinion of how they are used. The can be bought, sold, merged or dissolved and the corporation itself has no feelings about any of these things, because it is a legal entity, not a natural person.

The majority view is harder. Certainly there are legal entities that are allowed to be political actors. Political parties are the most obvious case. But does that mean that all associations should be political actors?

Political parties are voluntary associations for the purpose of political action. So are political action committees. You do not have to belong to them for any purpose other than to act politically, so the legitimacy of any political action they might take seems unambiguous.

But what about, say, ExxonMobil? First of all, its nature as a person is somewhat contested. Shareholders don't own it in the way that partners do, in that they cannot demand their share of the assets and force the company to sell assets to pay them. Sometimes they manage to get the company to sell assets in order to finance a dividend, but the process is nothing like what happens when a partner wants to sell out its share. Shareholders own a claim on the company's future earnings, but they do not directly own a share of its assets. They are stakeholders, as are bondholders, banks that have loaned the corporation money, employees, and customers.

None of these stakeholders have associated with ExxonMobil for the purpose of political action. Some of the shareholders are pension funds, some are mutual funds. To claim that the corporation's political speech represents a sort of speech the people who have associated in the corporation want to express requires a vast leap of faith.

One of the major political issues ExxonMobil is involved in is climate change, and there is turmoil among its shareholders on the issue.

Jane Dale Owen, the granddaughter of a founder of Humble Oil (which became Exxon's largest domestic asset) contributed to the solicitation packet. "I believe that ExxonMobil's recalcitrant position on global warming, held in the face of widely accepted scientific facts and growing acceptance by the rest of the industrial sector, now casts serious doubt on the integrity of the company and its leadership," said Owen. "As a long-term shareholder, I would like for ExxonMobil to take account of these issues, both by reflecting the [global warming] liability risks in shareholder reports and accounting, and by taking immediate action to redirect the company to minimize these liabilities."
Yet the company continues to donate money to politicians who deny the danger of climate change. At a minimum, we can say with some certainty that ExxonMobil's political speech does not represent all of its shareholders. And many of the people whose money is invested by pension funds and mutual funds don't even know their money owns shares in a company that is a major political actor, let alone have any influence over how it spends its money. While the law considers shareholders only one of the stakeholders in a corporation, even if we only consider shareholders, the corporation is not competent to engage in political speech on their behalf.

For one thing, the corporation may not be revealing all it knows to the shareholders. Owen mentions that ExxonMobil has not included liability assessments in reports. But the problem is bigger than that. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Exxon's own scientists were telling it about the problem. From Newsweek:

“Present thinking,” wrote Exxon senior scientist James Black in 1978, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” And in 1982, Edward David, Exxon’s head of research, echoed that sentiment, saying “few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation.”
In short, the company had pretty good data on climate change, but instead of using this in a way that might benefit those whose pensions were invested in the company by pioneering a move away from fossil fuels, it chose to invest in another direction: Political action to prevent any move away from fossil fuels.

As a for-profit company, its incentives were clear. However, they conflicted with the political interests of many of the people who either directly or indirectly held the shares. They were not allowed to know that the company had researched climate change and discovered it was real long before the public became aware of that fact, until Inside Climate News did a series of reports on the topic.

This is why we cannot take for-profit companies formed for non-political purposes as representing the collective political will of those who associated with them. In part, this might be described as an owner/agent problem. The interests of the managers of the company may be to gain a short-term advantage in their careers that conflicts with the interests of long-term shareholders, such as the generations of shareholders represented by Owen.

Now, it may be that a non-profit like Citizens United is sufficiently closely held that its representation of  its associates' views is not a problem. We then must deal with the fact that an artificial "person" has been granted natural rights.

It seems to me that any corporation may publish a book with a political point of view, as long as there is a natural person to take responsibility for its content. Michael Moore, for example, directed a propaganda film aimed at George W. Bush. But Moore was there to take responsibility for his views. Citizens United was attempting to air a film about Hillary Clinton. I think as long as the prime mover of the film was clearly identified and that natural person was personally liable for the content of the film, that should be allowed. Citizens United planned to show the film on a pay-per-view basis, so it is not as if it insisted that its shareholders contribute out of their pockets.

I don't think we have to overturn corporate "personhood" or money = speech to fix the problems posed by Citizens United. I do think if a corporation engages in political speech, it should be clear that it does in fact represent the views of those associated in it, and it should be clear that a natural person takes responsibility for that speech.  The corporate person itself should not be able to make political contributions larger than a natural person is allowed. After all, the persons associated in the corporate person are all capable of acting on their own behalf, why allow the corporation to out-shout them?

A corporate person is incapable of action without actions taken by natural persons. They make the speeches, write the checks, push the buttons, and write the algorithms. Should we shield these people too much from the actions they take while working for a corporations, the responsibilities of citizenship disappear.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The allure of the authoritarian leader

by John MacBeath Watkins

Whenever Vladimir Putin acts in an aggressive and authoritarian way, some percentage of our political pundits seem to swoon.

For example, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz in a Sept. 28, 2015 interview, told Newsmax TV that Putin was playing chess while President Barack Obama was playing checkers.

"We're playing checkers against the people who invented chess, and they're beating us at every move," he said.

Chess is believed by historians to have been invented in eastern India about 300 CE, spread to Southern Europe via Muslim traders, and assumed its current form in Europe between 1000 and 1200 CE. So don't look to Dershowitz for accurate history, he's a law professor.

But he was just riffing on a common theme. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in March 2014 that "Putin is playing chess and we're playing marbles."

Bill O'Reilly asked the question, "Is Putin dominating Obama?" (Hint: O'Reilly does not like Obama.)

The right's admiration for authoritarian leaders is nothing new. About 30 years ago, Jean-Fran├žois Revel wrote How Democracies Perish, which neoconservatives quickly adopted. In it, he asserted that:

“Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt, Soviet leaders' consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.”

The timid, soft democracies of the West could not stand up to them, he asserted in 1983. 

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, and most of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe quickly aligned themselves with the West. The Soviets could not afford to feed their people once the price of oil plunged and they had to borrow money from the West, on terms that made the continuation of empire impossible.

Yet people persist in admiring the strong leader, the man on horseback (with no shirt.) Given how often authoritarian leaders have crashed and burned, and crashed their countries with them, it might seem curious that anyone would still wish to follow them.

But there is something very comforting in handing your fate over to the Fearless Leader. Part of the attraction is that everyone will know their place, and all those who should not be above you might be put down. Part of the attraction is that the leader seems so strong, you feel protected.

There is a whole vision of the world that goes with this outlook. Theodore Adorno described this as the authoritarian personality. The elements of this can be boiled down as follows:

Rigid conventionalism

Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

A tendency to think in rigid categories.

A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.

You can see elements of this in Revel's insistence that the West was too soft, in the rhetoric of those who accuse President Obama of "leading from behind," in the Bush Administration's quick resort to tactics such as torture, in the name of being "tough" even though skilled interrogators knew better methods.

For people who view the world this way, a cerebral, patient politician like President Obama does not project sufficient toughness, therefore must be a loser, regardless of the results he gets, or the disaster created by a more "tough" administration prior to his. Results are not paramount, perception is. Reverence for the leader is not a calculus, it is an emotional commitment.

Putin, for example, leads a country with an economy smaller than Italy's, and shrinking. The price of his military adventures has been high, and his corrupt administration at home has not provided the secure property rights or rule of law generally needed to attract foreign investment.

The situation in the Ukraine also revealed his weakness. Putin attempted to essentially threaten and bribe the administration of Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych to align himself with Russia rather than the European Union, having Russian customs stop all goods coming from Ukraine and offered, if Ukraine aligned itself with Russia, loans and lower natural gas prices. The Ukrainian people rebelled in the Euromaidan movement. Yanukovych ended up fleeing to Russia. Interpol has listed him as wanted for embezzling millions from his nation.

Having failed to win an ally by soft power, Putin sent troops into Crimea and seized it by force, and supported Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons and probably soldiers. Subsequent sanctions are only part of the problem with the Russian economy.

He is a leader without willing allies, whose use of force has impoverished his country. But the American right admires him for his macho posturing and his willingness to use force. It cannot be his results they gauge him by, it must be his style.

And part of that style is rabid nationalism supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nor is it an accident that this goes with suppression of sexual minorities, with Russia's infamous anti-gay laws. All of these things appeal to the authoritarian personality.

More here:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cat People, dog people, and the character the choice reveals

by John MacBeath Watkins

"One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants,
cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand....Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."  
--The Tiger in the House, Carl Van Vechten, 1922

We usually think of dogs as the pets of choice for the macho, huntin' and fishin' type of manly man, but Ernest Hemingway was a huge cat lover, calling them "purr factories and love sponges," according to the Hemingway Museum.

Surveys of dog lovers and cat lovers have shown that cat lovers are more likely to be introverted, and on average are more intelligent than dog lovers. Not bad characteristics for someone like Hemingway, who made his living by sitting alone for long periods of time writing.

A ship captain gave Hemingway a polydactyl cat named Snowball, and soon Hemingway had more than a dozen of Snowball's six-toed descendants around at a time.

Cats, left on their own, tend to live in social groups without a strict hierarchy. There is often an alpha cat, usually female, but the rest of the group isn't ranked one above the other. There's a dog-training trick where you make sure your dog knows it doesn't eat until after you, so it understands that it is lower in the hierarchy. This technique is meaningless to cats. If you try this on a cat, I assume they just think you're a thoughtless jerk who's stuffing your face while the cat waits for you to remember to put some food in pussy's bowl.

People who want to rule the world tend to prefer dogs. Albert Speer reported that Adolf Hitler told him in 1945, "I am surrounded on all sides only by traitors and betrayals. Only my bad luck is loyal to me -- my bad luck and Blondi, my German shepherd."

Blondi met her end a day before Hitler. He used her to test the efficacy of the cyanide pills he used to kill himself.

Not that this reflects badly on dogs or dog people. Surveys show that they tend to be more extroverted than cat people, and more warm and social. It is therefore not surprising that they are more likely to be married and have children in the house. Cat people are more likely to live alone, but are also more open to experience. Cats tend to live longer than dogs, so perhaps they are more inclined to long-term commitments, but the day to day commitment of owning a dog is much more stringent. Dogs need to be walked, and I've seen dogs develop separation anxiety only a few feet from their masters.

Dogs look up to you, and are obsessively dependent on their people. Cats think you are a big, warm member of the pride, neither above nor below them, but useful for providing a warm lap and having a real talent for operating a can opener.

The cat sees you as an equal, the dog sees you as a god.

Both are creatures that have, for most of their relationship with humans, had a choice of staying with humans or living on their own. Most have chosen to live with people, although there are far more colonies of feral cats in this country than feral dogs. This is because cats pursue smaller prey, and are therefore less of a nuisance than feral dogs, who tend to get picked up by the dog catcher.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How rising inequality interferes with national greatness

by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems odd to me that we keep hearing about national greatness (this year in the form of Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats) from people who support policies that make America poorer and weaker.

The political movement to create inequality has a lot to answer for. It has prevented the majority of Americans from participating in the increases in wealth driven by their own increasing productivity. It has created economic elites who seem to care more for their class than their country. And it has created an environment where we can't seem to have a good economy without risking asset bubbles.

Dr. Englebert Stockhammer of Kingston University in London, in the inimitable style of an academic, puts it this way in a 2012 paper titled Rising Inequality as a Cause of the Current Crisis:

First, rising inequality creates a downward pressure on aggregate demand, since it is poorer income groups that have high marginal propensities to consume. Second, international financial deregulation has allowed countries to run larger current account deficits and for longer time periods. Thus, in reaction to potentially stagnant demand, two growth models have emerged; a debt led model and an export led model. Third, (in the debt led growth models) higher inequality has led to higher household debt, as working class families have tried to keep up with social consumption norms despite stagnating or falling real wages. Fourth, rising inequality has increased the propensity to speculate as richer households tend hold riskier financial assets than other groups. The ris of hedge funds and of subprime derivatives in particular has been linked to rise of the superrich.

Essentially, this means that people trying to continue as members of the middle class are having to borrow more, and the very rich have plenty of money to throw at risky investments.

In fact, it looks like we have too many investment dollars looking for places to invest in the private sector and make money, and too little money in the hands of consumers to create the needed investment opportunities.

China, which has even worse inequality than the United States, is trying to transition from an export-led economy to a consumption-led economy. It is difficult to see how they can make that transition until they are able to put more money in the hands of consumers rather than investors. With no social insurance worth the name, Chinese workers are well advised to save their income for their old age rather than spend it, and with most of the money going to a small percentage of the people, even the most spendthrift among the wealthy can't consume enough to provide a healthy basis for the transition.

In the U.S., unlike China, public investment has been starved as well, leaving us with a aging bridges, roads, and water systems, while private investment produces a series of asset bubbles.

We have long been told that letting the rich keep more of their money would cause them to invest it, making us all richer. Now we see why that is not true. According to a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, "...the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years."

Their report further states:

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficient backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. The challenge for federal, state, and local governments is to increase bridge investments by $8 billion annually to address the identified $76 billion in needs for deficient bridges across the United States.

Instead, we're keeping taxes low so that investors can keep money they use to chase whatever the most recent fad is and bid up the price of that asset.

This is not a formula for national greatness. Worse, it appears the trend reinforces the inequality that causes it.

Justin Fox,at the time the economics columnist for Time magazine, wrote in an April 15, 2009 column:

The rise in income inequality over the past 30 years has to a significant extent been the product of a series of asset-price bubbles. Whenever the market (be it the market in stocks, junk bonds, real estate, whatever) booms, the share of income going to those at the very top increases. When the boom goes bust, that share drops somewhat, but then it comes roaring back even higher with the next asset bubble. It’s not the same people raking it in every time—there’s lots of turnover in the top 400—but skimming the top off of asset bubbles appears to have become the leading way to get rich in these United States in the past three decades.

Fox is, as of this writing, the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group.

The consequences of inequality are an unhealthy private investment market, infrastructure starved for investment, and a middle class that isn't participating in the economic gains made by the nation. Inequality produces more financial shocks that slow growth. We are a less wealthy and less stable country because of it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Language, freedom, and oppression

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the most insightful aspects of George Orwell's 1984 was the attempt to control what people could think by changing the language from "oldspeak" -- current English -- to "newspeak," in which the number of words is limited in order to limit what people can think.

One of the key concepts of Newspeak is doublethink, the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time, which helps with reality control. One does not want to commit crimethought, that is, thinking things that the Party says are not true. It helps if one has mastered blackwhite, that is, the ability to believe black is white and white is black of that is the policy of the party.

Words give us the categories with which we think. They provide a structure of symbols that we can put together in whatever manner suits our needs, We can embellish the structure by inventing new words or new meanings for existing words. In many ways, we experience our freedom of thought through language.

Orwell perceived that control of language was control of thought.

Now, natural language is not like computer language. It is less logical, its meanings are less clear, and those meanings are constantly being renegotiated. We who speak languages are not dictionaries that, once printed, never change. We have, in fact, a dual nature, part animal and physical, part symbolic, and symbolic thought is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human society. Language is essential for the very existence of this part of human nature.

Natural language is a social construct. The meanings are not the sounds we make to communicate the meanings, those sounds or symbols are arbitrary. It does not matter if I use the English word, water, or the French word, eau, as long as both the speaker and the person the speaker wishes to communicate with know that the word signifies stuff we like so well we have it piped right into the house. For both to know what meaning the sound of a word communicates, there must be social agreement on this meaning.

And every act of communication is a social act. One person speaks to another, or a group of others, hoping to influence them in some way. They may use language to enlighten, persuade, or deceive. In so doing, they may use words in new and unfamiliar ways, changing the meaning and connotations of the word. The connotations of a word, that is, the feelings or associated ideas it evokes, are as important sometimes as the literal meaning of the word.

Every generation encounters language anew, every new person finds a place in the strange, symbolic world of human society. We have our place in our animal nature, our mates and offspring, but we are so much more than that. Much of what we are is tied to symbolic thought. Our possessions are ruled by a structure of customs and rules that we call property, our contributions to society are often manipulations of symbols such as our writings, drawings, or made objects. We worry about what we represent. Presidents worry about their legacy, but so do parents and businessmen. Even those who do not physically reproduce live on in their accomplishments, their influence, how they have touched the lives of other people.

Which is why the first item in the Bill of Rights concerns the freedom of speech and of conscience. If we are not free think and speak, and do so in a way that influences other people, we lack the power to shape our lives.

Orwell was writing after a stint at the British Broadcasting System during World War II. In wartime, propaganda is one of the weapons deployed, and he was very aware of this. But even in peacetime, language is used as a political tool.

Consider the issue of political correctness. At its best, it is an attempt to shame those who use language to hurt others. It is now more socially acceptable to say "fuck" than to say "nigger," because our society now is more sensitive to the harm of racism than to any perceived need to conceal the existence of sex.

At its worst, political correctness can seem like annoying nagging about ordinary words. Political correctness is for some reason mainly associated with the left in the United States, but try saying "happy holidays" to a conservative at Christmas and you'll quickly learn that there is political correctness on both sides of the aisle.

Lies, concealment, and shading the truth all happen. There is an entire book titled On Bullshit, (by philosophy professor Harry Frankfort) which explores the political world in which the truth is treated as irrelevant. For example, in a 2004 debate, President George W. Bush was asked for a rational for the Iraq war: He responded, "we had to fight, we were attacked."

He said this as if we had been attacked by Iraq, which was not the case. Every word in that sentence could be true, but the message communicated was false. No true part of that statement justified attacking Iraq.

Truth had been under attack for decades by then, though. Agnotology. the science of creating ignorance, was first perfected by the tobacco companies.

These companies had reason both to affect public policy and to persuade their customers to keep smoking. They deployed polices such as advertising with the healthy, outdoorsy, Marlborough man, hiring scientists to show that substances other than tobacco can cause cancer, and generally sowing doubt about the veracity and the certainty of science.

Further, in the political sphere, language gets tested on focus groups. Political consultant Frank Luntz, using this method, discovered that "death tax" got a far more negative response than "inheritance tax," and the word went out that those wishing to end the inheritance tax should call it the death tax instead.

While acting as a pollster for Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s, Lutz urged Republicans to refer to their Democratic opponents using words such as "devour," "corrupt," "sick," "greedy," "liberal," and "traitor."

This project succeeded in devaluing the word "liberal" to the point where few people identify themselves with it today. Liberals now routinely call themselves "progressive."

Clearly, the part of human nature that belongs to the world of symbolic thought fights its battles on the ground of speech. So why is the basic theory behind the structure of our society so thoroughly tied up with property?

I think it is because the power was not fully understood in the 17th century when the foundations of liberalism were laid.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The rights and wrongs of the wars on drugs and terror

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the great disasters of the American experiment was the prohibition of selling alcohol. Making alcohol illegal simply made large numbers of people into criminals, and gave career criminals a steady source of income. Al Capone would have been a criminal without prohibition, but he would not have been as rich or as powerful.

In the Pacific Northwest, rum running was controlled by a former policeman named Roy Olmstead. Unlike Capone, Olmstead never allowed his men to carry guns. It was much better for business to have his rivals arrested by the police on his orders than to have them attract a lot of attention by killing his rivals.

Olmstead had so many politicians and police in his pocket he thought he was untouchable. He was brought down, in the end, by the then-new technology of wiretapping. Olmstead got a four-year sentence and an $8,000 fine, but he spent a substantial portion of his ill-gotten gains fighting for the principle that it was unconstitutional to wiretap without a warrant. In 1928, the supreme court ruled against him. The decision was overturned the year after his 1966 death, so that now, a warrant is required. But this was the beginning of the intrusive enforcement of the drug wars.

Alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, but it was only part of a larger effort to make all recreational drugs illegal. Many states made marijuana and other drugs illegal between 1900 and the end of Prohibition, and the United States led an international effort to make all opium, coco, and cannabis cultivation, production, transport and sale illegal. By 1937, the effort had largely succeeded.

Alcohol was the favorite drug of most Americans at the time. Germans felt particularly oppressed by prohibition, because beer was such an important part of their culture. Cannabis is commonly referred to by its Spanish name, marijuana. It was a drug favored by American Hispanics. Opium and cocaine were favored, for the most part, by lower-class people who found they could become euphoric at a lower cost with these drugs.

The German immigrants thought Prohibition was in some was an effort to make their culture (big on beer) illegal. Prohibition of other drugs that appealed to other subgroups was, to some extent, defining those groups as outsiders. And so, when those drugs were made illegal and the same sort of intrusive policing was applied to these groups, it did not worry most Americans, because they did not apply to them. Only after marijuana became widely used by middle-class whites did we see a movement to make marijuana legal.

From a practical standpoint, the war on drugs has been a disaster. It has been costly, it has ruined lives, and it has enriched criminals. It has also changed the way the nation is policed.

When there is a great deal of money in doing something illegal, people will take that risk. But illegal activities are not policed the way legal commerce is. I once knew a former smuggler who said he dropped out of the trade when everyone started carrying guns. I also met he former skipper, before and after that individual did time for getting caught with 2,500 lb of marijuana on his boat (he was caught before I met him.)

When an illegal trade turns violent, this increases the risk of enforcing the law. The result has been a more militarized police force, more likely to break down doors and throw stun grenades.

It has also led to some bad laws. For example, civil forfeiture, a process where police can seize vehicles or cash on the mere assumption that they were involved in the drug trade, which has resulted in some fairly questionable practices that have enriched police budgets. Funds from the seizures can be used for salaries, retirement funds, overtime, and a variety of other police spending priorities. Because it is a civil proceeding, no criminal conviction is required in most states, nor even a criminal charge against the person the property is seized from. In fact, in civil forfeiture, the agency seizing the property takes action against the inanimate object being seized.

Once they have alleged the inanimate object has taken part in a crime, prosecutors file a claim with a title such as The People vs. $10,000, and institute a civil action that lacks many of the protections of a criminal case. In the case of criminal forfeiture, the prosecutor would have to prove that the property being seized was the fruit of a criminal act or acts. In civil forfeiture, the burden is on the person whose property was seized, and in some cases if they challenge a forfeiture and lose, they must also pay the state's costs for defending the case.

For most of the history of the United States, civil forfeitures were rare, and used primarily when it was impossible to arrest the owner of the property. Use of civil forfeiture exploded during the 1980s as government at all levels ramped up its war on drugs. Even when the owner is present and could easily be prosecuted if there were proof of a crime, civil forfeiture is used to gain funds for police departments.

Seized property was worth $2.5 billion in 2010.

This has effectively become a back door for circumventing the Bill of Rights, in particular the 4th Amendment, which reads.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

There are jurisdictions in this country where people cannot be secure in their effects, because a traffic stop can result in the seizure of their car and their cash. No evidence of criminal behavior need be present, only property that is sufficiently tempting, such as plenty of cash. Stops in many jurisdictions tend to disproportionately target African Americans and Hispanics.

It's pretty obvious that civil forfeiture provides incentives for police to seize property regardless of the likelihood it was the fruit of a crime. But this is only one of the corrupting influences on police departments from the war on drugs. Any quick on-line search will find fairly recent instances of police being indicted for stealing from drug dealers, because who are they going to call to report the crime?

I've seen the damage drugs can do. I'm not an advocate of their use. But we didn't get rid of prohibition because we thought alcohol did no harm, we did so because prohibition did more harm, eroding our liberties, enriching criminals, and corrupting our legal system. Now we deal with much of the harm alcohol does as a public health problem, and some of it in connection with specific harmful behaviors such as drunk driving.

How we are to deal with the problems created by drug use is not the purpose of this essay; I am more concerned here with how the drug war erodes our liberty. And it certainly is not the only threat. The war on terrorism has had a similar effect. And both are tied to cultural outsiders. We made illegal the drugs mainly used by minorities while re-legalizing alcohol, which was the drug of choice for most whites.

Terror again touched the tribal nerve. Conservatives who were in the forefront of advocating a war on terror that would target Muslim militants were outraged in 2009 when the Homeland Security Department issued a report on the threat of domestic terrorism by right-wing militants. The report said the threat was not restricted to hate groups, but said, “It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration,”

Nothing shocking there. After all, Eric Rudolph, an anti-abortion activist, confessed to four bombings, including the one at the Atlanta Olympics that killed a bystander and wounded 111 people. But the very notion that people on the right who set off bombs and killed people who were white, Christian, and conservative could be classed with Muslim militants because of the similarity of their acts was offensive to those on the right.

This reveals the tribalist element of their emotional reactions. After all, it is often those who worry most about Shariah law that insist the America is a Christian nation, and that its laws are based on Christianity. For such people, it is not merely the behavior, but the identity as well that matters in defining the enemy.

War, in general, is the enemy of freedom, because it causes frightened people to accept extreme measures. And war, all too often, brings out our tribalism and our prejudice against the groups we fight against. It is therefore terrible policy to have a “war” that cannot be won. Drugs will continue to exist and be abused no matter how we make war on it, because who is going to surrender? The drugs? Terrorism is a tactic, not a person, group, or government. It, too, lacks the capacity to surrender.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How money is born -- it's time we had The Talk

by John MacBeath Watkins

It has come to my attention that many people don't know where money comes from, so I think it's time we had The Talk.

You see, gentle reader, when a central bank loves a commercial bank very much, it has tender feelings and follows an instinct millions of years old, and slips a loan in that bank's portfolio.

I believe a bird is somehow involved, something that begins with "P", probably a penguin.

So, that loan is new money. It didn't exist before the bank had it, but it exists now. And when that penguin drops the new-born money into the loving arms of J.P. Morgan, he immediately farms it out to work for someone else. Even at a tender age, money can be found working in textile mills, in mines, in steel mills, and on construction sites. The more risky the work, the greater the profit, and who keeps the profit? J.P. Effin' Morgan.

Now, as it happens, only about 3% of money is created by government. Most of it is created by banks, taking deposits and loaning the money from the deposit to someone else. The theory here is that not everyone will want their money back at once, so you can pay the depositor a small interest, and then loan out their money at a higher interest. The money thus gained is one of the ways banks make profits. But in the process, they make money, in the sense that the depositor and the borrower now have an amount of money equal to the amount deposited and the amount loaned. That's nearly twice as much money, or at least it is until everyone wants their money back at once, which is called a bank run.

The life of money can be long, or it can be short. Many people believe in paying back money, but are unaware that when money is paid back, money is destroyed.

This is why depressions are so depressing. A depression tends to happen when everyone tries to pay back their money at once, thereby destroying the money they pay back. Picture a bunch of blips on a computer screen quietly dying into darkness as dollar after dollar is paid back and goes to its rest, being paid back and not loaned out again because everyone is afraid to take on the responsibility of bringing new money into such a world.

And not everyone can pay back their loans. Loans that are not paid back are called non-performing. If there are enough of them, banks develop loan performance anxiety, and this creates a slump. With loan performance anxiety causing a slump, banks cannot provide borrowers with the liquidity they so ardently desire. As a result, less money is born.

And a country depopulated of money is a poorer one. If only there were someone who could have the confidence to bring new money into the economy existed, you might be able to do something about the situation. But that would have to be someone who could create money even in the worst circumstances, when most lenders have lost their ability to insert loans into new borrowers, because they are afraid. They are anxious that their next loan may fail to perform.

The reader will have noticed that the commercial bank is acting in both male and female roles, like an earthworm. The central bank puts loans into it, and it puts loans into borrowers. So even when the commercial bank's performance anxiety about its loans leaves its new loan portfolio flaccid, it can still act as a recipient of loans.

If a country has its own currency, its central bank never runs out of money, because it can create an infinite amount. The central bank, seeing its commercial bank compatriot unhappy, will try to restore its ability to loan by creating more money with it. Ah, you say, but if the bank creates lots of new money, won't there be that overpopulation of money that we call inflation?

Well, no, because the reason the central bank is trying to make lending more attractive (think mood lighting, soft music) is because it sees all the money being destroyed as it is paid back, and wants to make sure the economy is not devastated for want of money.

It's a bit like when our soldiers came back from World War II, having seen terrible destruction and loss of life, and created more than enough people to replace the ones they had kill in what we now call the baby boom.

Now, usually, when we talk about money, we think of bills and coins. But those are used to signify money. Money itself can exist with other kinds of signifiers, such as an entry on a ledger or a memory in a computer.

I'm glad we had this talk. If you have any more questions, don't be afraid to ask, it's better to do that than to create unwanted money or destroy money. I admit I'm not an expert, you can always try and get hold of Dr.. Yellen, who has brought more money into existence than you or I will ever have.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Liberalism and capitalism, freedom and markets

by John MacBeath Watkins

Successful industrialization require capitalism, not democracy. F.A. Hayek said in The Road to Serfdom that “...the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves.”

And yet, business interests supported the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The German mittelstadt, the medium-sized companies that form the backbone of German industry, continued to flourish in this environment. Capitalism has managed to thrive in a number of nations that have been ruled by dictators. Capitalism no more guarantees liberal freedoms than any other market-oriented economic system has throughout history.
But liberalism has provided a more welcoming environment to the creative energies that can be released by capitalism than dictatorships, and in any case, dictatorships tend to produce rent-seeking by officials whose power cannot be questioned. The resulting corruption interferes with commerce, as those with power siphon off wealth.

Hayek had it backwards. Property is not a guarantor of freedom, but freedom is a guarantor of just property claims, because to have freedom, you must have the rule of law, rather than will. That was the point of social contract theory; you could not exercise your freedom during the war of each against all. After all, as Hobbes observed:

 “ ...wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Rousseau defined freedom as being subject to a law of your own making, that is, a socially agreed upon set of rules in which those subject to the law have a say in the law.

Totalitarian states do not consider the state to be serving the individual citizen. They consider themselves, instead, to be serving groups. In the case of Marxist states, the state is meant to represent the victory of the working class, therefore the imposition of a classless society. In the case of fascist states, the individual is considered weak unless a member of the state. Consider the flag of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, Mussolini's national Fascist party. It is a black field with on it a fasci, a bundle of sticks with an ax head sticking out, the metaphor being that the individual rods are weak, but together they are strong.

This represents the unity of the people. Mussolini believed that nationalism had replaced class as the cause that really mattered to the common man. And because the nation was what mattered, individual rights did not. And fascist sates had some support from convention, because their biological determinism caused them to think that people should remain in the status they were born to. If your father was a laborer, you were genetically fit to be a laborer. Some were born to lead, some were born to follow. At each level, the leader demanded complete obedience from those below, and gave complete obedience to those above. The people were at one with the state, which was led by one born to lead. There was no need to consult the individual, because the individual was nothing except as part of the state.

Consider this:
Fascism is for the only liberty which can be a serious thing, the liberty of the state and of the individual in the state. Therefore for the fascist, everything is in the state, and no human or spiritual thing exists, or has any sort of value, outside the state. In this sense fascism is totalitarian, and the fascist state which is the synthesis and unity of every value, interprets, develops and strengthens the entire life of the people.
                                        —Benito Mussolini, Giovanni Gentile, Doctrine of Fascism (1932)
Totalitarian states were not democratic because they did not value democracy. They could accommodate capitalism if, as with the fascists, their ideology did not have a problem with private property and markets.

But the fascists failed for the same reason Napoleon did. They depended for their legitimacy on nationalism, and stirring up the people against the nation's neighbors. This in the end called for war, and if you keep fighting long enough, you will eventually lose.

Marxism, by contrast, claimed to represent the worker against the oppressive capitalist. One problem with Marxism was that Marx himself was rather vague about how the withering away of the state would happen. In fact, once you have removed religion and property as institutions, what remains must take on their functions, and that's what the state did. Another problem was that Marx did not produce a workable system of value. It is all very well to say that labor creates value, but how do we know that a person is doing labor of value? Liberalism's subjective version of value tells us that it is dependent on the need and judgment of another. Marx did not show how society would reward labor on what needed doing in contrast to labor doing something no one cared about or even doing something destructive.

As a result, it produced the Trabant, a car produced in East Germany before the fall of Communism, which was a value-subtracted product. That is, the metal, plastic, rubber, labor, etc. that went into the product was worth more than the product itself.

From Transition, a newsletter  of the World Bank, Number 5-6, May-June 1996, page 15:

"With a view to corporate takeover, Volkswagen AG sent a Herr Heuss to Zwickau to find out how the Trabants (relatively cheap East German cars) were made there. He emerged shocked from the huge plant, babbling “My God. The Trabant operation was value-subtracting: valuable material, labor, and capital inputs went in at one end; shabby Trabies came out at the other, their bodies made from compacted trash. The final output was worth less than the sum of the inputs. What was not fully understood at the time was that East Germany’s whole economy was value-subtracting and cost-unconscious.”

Communism produced somewhat more stable governments than fascism, but worse economic results. And both produced atrocities, from the German Holocaust to the killing fields of Cambodia.

Liberalism, because it is democratic, is more flexible. Leaders who fail can be cast aside without violence. If the system is not producing just outcomes, the system can be changed.

There seems to be confusion on the right as to the difference between social democracy and socialism. Social Democrats are a group of liberals who believe in private property and markets, but want a strong social insurance program to soften the consequences of capitalism. Communism is a kind of socialism that regards it as important that society, usually in the form of the state, should own the means of production. (Marx proposed eliminating property entirely, but since property is the rules, obligations, and rights about how people use objects, this is impossible, as long as people use objects. This basic failure to understand the nature of property is part of the reason for the failure of Marxism.)

Social Democrats, then, are those who wish to preserve capitalism through forms of social insurance that make the system sufficiently just in its outcomes to avoid social unrest. Both fascists and Communists considered them enemies, and suppressed them, in part because they try to achieve their aims by democratic means.

Fabian socialists tried a different approach, trying to institute the social ownership of the means of production by democratic means over a long period of time. When state-owned industries in Britain proved economically unworkable, their project was ended by democratic means.

Some will say that laissez faire capitalism is an alternative, but I doubt this has ever really been tried. We were still in a mercantilist system when the Grange movement started advocating for anti-trust laws, so we went from the state supporting industry under mercantilism to regulated business without a real laissez faire moment between. In fact, industry still depends upon state aid in matters of credit and infrastructure. The closest we came to laissez faire capitalism was the Gilded Age of the 1880 and 1890s, which produced enough unrest to produce the labor movement and the Grange movement.

Laissez faire capitalism is close to the ideal of libertarianism, but there was substantial government interference in contracts between labor and industry, if favor of industry. Like Marxism, the purist ideal of libertarianism would be the withering away of the state, and this is no more practical than than the Marxist ideal of communism without a state. Even most libertarians understand that the state is needed to guarantee property rights.

The problem they face is that markets are as much a human invention as governments, and it's difficult to see why, therefore, markets should be privileged.over other institutions.