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Saturday, January 30, 2016

How inequality suppresses national wealth

by John MacBeath Watkins

It is a curious thing, but the American economy, like those of other developed nations, does not appear to be managed to maximize national wealth.

Rather, it is managed to maximize profits, and to steer the distribution of wealth toward the already wealthy.

How does this work? For one thing, the most profitable situation for many companies is to have just enough slack in the labor market to suppress wages. The nation as a whole might be richer if wages were higher, leading to higher demand, but if more money goes to people working for wages, the people at the top benefit less.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, this was not in their control. That has changed.

An example is the decision by the Federal Reserve Bank to increase the federal funds rate by 25 basis points in December. The Fed is supposedly shooting for an inflation rate of 2%, yet with the core Consumer Price Index running at 1/10 of that, .2%, they decided to raise interest rates, something the Fed usually does to tamp down inflation.

The reasoning was that with unemployment down to 5%, inflation lurked on the horizon. But wages were increasing at a rate of 2.3%, making up some ground lost during the recession.

And wages have a special place in the Fed's deliberations. Since Milton Friedman proposed it in the 1970s, the Fed has considered the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) as part of their deliberations. Since they accepted the idea, median wages have barely increased in real terms, while productivity has increased vastly.

There's a lot more to the phenomenon than the NAIRU, but the other elements are part of the same mindset. There is, for example, no real economic justification for the inflation target being 2% rather than, say, 3%, and considerable evidence that it leaves the economy perilously close to the zero lower bound (it's pretty hard, although not impossible, for interest rates to go below zero.) This can tie a central bank's hands when monetary stimulus is needed.

There has also been a major shift in how public corporations are managed. Shareholders used to be regarded as stakeholders in a corporation, much like bondholders, employees, and customers. In the 1970s and '80s, there was a major shift toward managing companies to maximize shareholder value.

This was based on the idea, advanced by Friedman, among others, that shareholders are owners, and a failure to maximize shareholder value was an owner/agent problem -- that is, the shareholders were owners, and management might operate the company in their own interest, rather than in the interest of shareholders. I went into some depth about why this is the wrong way to think about the problem in this post. I also recommend Lynn Stout's excellent book, The Shareholder Value Myth.

The NAIRU also accompanied a concerted effort to reduce employee leverage in wage negotiations by undercutting unions, for example, by passing "right to work" legislation state by state, which basically makes it impossible to have a union shop.

Now, there is a way to restore employee leverage over wages -- allow the unemployment rate to fall below NAIRU. After all, "non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment" translated into plain English is "the rate of unemployment at which real wages do not rise."

The result of such a policy, in retrospect, is that the additional wealth produced by increase productivity does not go to the increasingly productive workers, but to people who do not work for hourly wages. That would be top management and shareholders. As Stan Sorscher notes in the Huffington Post article the above chart comes from, if wages had continued to track productivity, inflation adjusted wages would be about twice what they were in the early 1970s.

Imagine how much more wealth this country would have if this were the case. More money would be in the hands of people inclined to spend it, and the increased demand would cause industry to expand to fill it. Concentrating wealth in the hands of the top .1% leads to a lot of money looking for profitable investments that aren't there because of a lack of demand, resulting in bubbles. But that doubling of wages hasn't happened, because the economic elites have rigged the system to increase their positional status at the cost of making the country as a whole poorer.

What happens when unemployment falls below the NAIRU? What we saw in the late 1990s was that the labor participation rate increased, as people who had been out of the labor force discovered they could get jobs, and real wages started to rise.

Now, one would think that would be a shining example of what can be accomplished, and one to be followed.

But instead, we keep suppressing real wages, while demagogues work up anger among the white working class against immigrants and others they compete with for a piece of a pie that isn't growing.

If the average wage were twice what it is now, I submit that this would not be possible. Right now, people who work for wages see top managers getting richer while they don't, meaning their positional status is declining.

In addition, white male wages peaked in 1973. Women's wages have increased since then, so there is a loss of positional status here, as well. If the wages of both genders were growing, I doubt it would make much difference that women's wages are growing faster, but when you keep the size of the pie the same size and give more to someone, you set up a conflict.

Not only are wages falling for white males, but labor participation if falling, so fewer are working for wages. While the male labor force participation rate has been falling since the mid 1950s, the female labor force participation rate was climbing until 2000. I strongly suspect we could create a lot more jobs without seeing much decline in the unemployment rate, because more people would come off the sidelines if they could.

The result is a world where it is easy to set one group against the other, and this is a handy way to distract people from the issue of who is actually getting the money that isn't going to working men.

When you've rigged the system, it's nice to have someone else to blame.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Free speech, but whose voice? Media ownership and democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thomas Jefferson famously said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

He considered a vigorous press essential for a nation to have an informed citizenry. So perhaps it should distress us that there are now about 33,000 journalists in America's newsrooms, down from a peak of about 57,000 in 1990. While the number of citizens to be informed has grown, the number of journalists to inform them has fallen by about 42%. So, we're well on our way to government without newspapers.

This is mainly because of disruptions in the news business. There was a time when many cities had multiple newspapers, then there was a time when most towns had a newspaper, some radio stations, and some television stations. The broadcast media depended heavily on the newspaper to ferret out news stories that they could then cover.

Newspapers, during the period when most cities had only one, endeavored to deliver a product that was viewed as impartial by their readers. In practice, this meant that newspapers reflected the politics of the populations they served. You could count on a New York paper being more liberal than one in some small town in Idaho, for example.

National broadcast news for a time consisted of three channels. Again, the incentive was to appear impartial, in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Attacks on the impartiality of the news media were effective in part because of this.

The thing is, it was the limited number of news sources that made an attempt at impartiality necessary. When there were several newspapers in each major city, the incentive was to capture a large share of the audience, by making the paper interesting to a large group, sometimes in opposition to other groups. You might have a blue-collar paper, and one that appealed more to professionals and business people.

But once the industry settled down to a series of local monopolies, the incentive was to appear impartial so as not to tempt anyone to start a competing paper. In the 1950s through the present,, most newspapers attempted impartiality to include as much of their potential audience as possible, and national news networks tried to be as inclusive as possible to avoid alienating parts of their audience.

But one thing about news is, if you tell people what is really happening, you will sometimes end up telling them things they don't want to hear. The mess of the Vietnam War and the big cultural shifts that started happening in the 1960s were replete with stories about things people did not want to have happen, and did not like being told about.

The objective of impartiality became problematic in part because of the forces tearing the country apart. Impartiality consists of telling stories that are full, fair, and accurate. Two of the three standards there are subjective, and I doubt Noam Chomsky and Dick Cheney could even agree on whether a news story was accurate.

Fox News recognized this as an opportunity, rather late in the day, I'd say, when they launched in 1995. CNN had shown that a cable-based news network could be viable, and it occurred to Rupert Murdoch that there was an under-served audience of conservatives who did not like being told that the country was changing in ways they didn't like. He got Roger Ailes, a former Republican Party media consultant who had also been an NBC executive, to run his new network, which was designed to appeal to conservative viewers. The formula has been very successful, but now faces a demographic crisis because the average age of its viewers in 68.

At about the same time, the internet, which had been non-commercial in the late 1980s, became fully commercialized. Soon, the cost of starting a news organization fell, and the cost of distribution fell to almost nothing. However, actually getting paid for news on the internet was practically impossible. Many news organizations started putting their stories on line for free, and news aggregators soon began to skim off what little money there was in internet news.

So most internet "news" sites didn't hire a lot of reporters to get their stories. They became free riders on the reporting done by the declining news industry, and put their own spin on it. In fact, while the newspapers' stock in trade had been accurate reporting and attempted impartiality, the internet news sources' stock in trade is their bias. Appealing to a small part of the potential audience might limit their reach, but it guarantees them at least part of the audience.

This is what happens when you have a lot of voices: More shouting. The economics of the news industry is the key to whether it attempts to be impartial or to give its readers red meat for their existing bias.

What I hear from people still working in the newspaper industry is that the staffs are still shrinking. Positions go dark and stay dark, or a command comes down from on high that the budget must be cut by approximately the salary of a staffer. Newspapers, once cash cows, are being starved for resources. Fewer reporters means less actual news, and more competing outlets means more bias.

What would Jefferson think? Probably that it was a lot like the newspapers of his time, that labeled him the "negro president." The press in his day could be vicious, and often carried their political bias right on the masthead.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A statement in favor of the Indiana Pi bill

by John MacBeath Watkins

In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Indiana legislature which would have had the effect of changing the value of Pi to 3.2, which would have made it possible to square the circle.

Sadly, it did not pass at that time, but in the current age, people are entertaining equally logical policies, so why not revive the effort? The following is written as a speech for anyone who cares to advocate the policy again.

Wake up, silly sheeple!
I've something to tell you deluded people.
The number Pi is an irrational factor
and yet, we allow this unstable actor
to help design our ships and planes
smokestacks for factories, wheels on trains,
circumference of our rocket ships
and of the bowls we use for dips.
Can we not reform this insane number,
drug it to a harmless slumber,
and while it dreams of circles true
pass a law that makes it 3.2?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A cartopper for cold climates

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Sunfish is about the ideal cartopper for warm waters. When I was living on Okinawa, I sailed quite a bit on its ancestor, the Sailfish, and found it quite pleasant in warm water.

However, that's a boat you'd sail in a dry suit in Puget Sound if you wanted to avoid hypothermia. I like the rig, and the fact that you can raise it or drop it while out on the water, and besides, Intensity Sails can provide a Sunfish "practice sail" for about $140. That's a major reduction in the cost of a boat, compared to the Snipe mainsail I bought a few years back for $800, which has only a little more sail area.

So, what's needed is a boat that can throw less spray and have higher freeboard to keep the crew dry.

Here's what I propose:

Compared to the Sunfish, the bow is designed to cut through the chop rather than rise and slam down. The wide transom will help keep the boat in that mode. With an overall beam of four feet and a waterline beam of three feet, it should be a little faster in light winds, such as those that prevail in the Pacific Northwest. She might not plane in quite such light winds as the Sunfish, but I think on balance, she'd be about the same speed and drier.

Here are the lines, nothing special, just panels that develop very well and a shape that won't confuse the water:

I think a sufficiently skilled person could build this boat in a long weekend, perhaps with a little help, with a materials cost under $600, if you stuck with wooden spars. Build it in 4 mm okume plywood, it should come in at about 100 lb. unless you go with a lot more deck than I've shown. And you might want to, if you prefer a self-rescuing boat to one that relies on buoyancy bags and needs to be bailed after a capsize. The hull itself you could build with three sheets of plywood, but with deck, daggerboard case, daggerboard, and rudder, you're going to need a bit more lumber than that.

With a low center of effort and easily driven hull, this should be a pleasant daysailer for one or two people, and manageable for carrying on a car with a roof rack. With a boat that you might launch off a beach, you either need a kick-up rudder and centerboard, or a rig you can raise or lower with the board and rudder already down. I've gone with the latter approach, since it seems simpler and results in a lighter boat. It should also paddle or row without too much effort.

Friday, December 18, 2015

War as a bar fight: Why democracies win

by John MacBeath Watkins

Part of the allure of the authoritarian leader is that they won't be namby-pamby about pursuing their nation's interest, right?

But that perception is puzzling in light of the evidence that democracies win a lot more of their wars than autocracies do. If you're interested in results rather than bravado, the stongman who leads his country into battle isn't the best choice.

Benjamin A. T. Graham, Erik Gartzk, and Christopher J. Faris,  have written a paper that explains this in terms of a bar fight.

In The Bar Fight Theory of International Conflict: Regime Type, Coalition Size, and Victory, (The European Political Science Association, 2015) they raise the question, who wins a bar fight? The answer is, usually the person with the most friends in the bar.Think of how many more allies Britain had than Germany during World War II. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. led coalition had 32 members aligned against him.

One reason that was possible was that other countries knew that unlike Hussein, we did not intend to keep Kuwait. Standing up for the little guy, it turns out, is more popular than taking his lunch money and his oil fields.

And consider the web of alliances in which America is a prominent member. NATO, SEATO, and other alliances are certainly better than the paltry alliances our old opponent, Russia, has managed to muster. Those who admire Putin for taking decisive action in seizing Crimea should remember, Russia's whole conflict with the Ukraine goes back to the fact that when it came time to choose between getting closer to Russia or the democratic West, the people of Ukraine made it clear they wanted it to be the West. Putin took action because he was losing to the soft power of the democratic nations of western Europe, and his "decisive" action was made necessary by his weakness, not his strength.

Graham and the other researchers write:
The biggest martial asset of democracies may well be that they are better at making friends, not that they are better at vanquishing their enemies.
Not that vanquishing your enemies is anything to be sniffed at. In general, wealthier countries beat poorer countries. But why are they wealthier?

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James A Robinson, and Pascual Restrepo, in the 2014 study Democracy Does Cause Growth, (NBER Working Paper No. 20004
Issued in March 2014) argue that--well, the title says it all, doesn't it?

Here's a graph illustrating their point:

In an introduction to the study, they state the following:
When we disentangle what components of democracy matter the most for growth, we find that civil liberties are what seem to be the most important. We also find positive effects of democracy on economic reforms, private investment, the size and capacity of government, and a reduction in social conflict. Clearly all of these are channels by which democracy can increase economic growth, and a great deal of further research is needed.
So, it isn't voting that matters, it's freedom. Not that you are likely to keep civil liberties if the rest of the institutions of democracy, such as rule of law and rule by the consent of the governed, disappear. You need those institutions to ensure that you can keep civil liberties, but the freedom to think and say what you want is, according to Acemoglu and his co-authors, the real spur to economic growth.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, the strength of democracy is not in executing policy, it is in deciding what policy is worth pursuing. And if the example of the Soviet Union showed us anything, it is that the ability to produce the most steel is not as important as being able to decide what to produce. Consider American capitalism without the input of the Wall Street Journal and other commentators on the economic scene. Without them, who would embarrass inept executives, or question company policy? And if you say, well, dissident shareholders, well, they need freedom of speech as well. Consider that the youth of the Soviet Union wanted Levi jeans, not Soviet work pants. Free speech gives you fashion magazines and other means of deciding what to wear, therefore what is worth making.

But freedom of speech is not the only civil liberty. Being secure in your property is not a feature of many authoritarian regimes, who seize the property of anyone they deem an opponent. If you can't be secure in your property, why invest in it?

And as for the reduction in social conflict, that the study cites, that has a lot to do with John Locke's insight in A Letter Concerning Toleration:that it is not people believing different things that causes social upheaval, it is trying to get them to believe the same thing. Given freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, a great deal that used to cause violence ends up just causing arguments.
Arguments may not seem productive, but they are at least not as destructive as kristallnacht or other ethnic conflicts that result in the destruction of the businesses, homes or temples of the targeted groups.

Twice Sold Tales in Ballard Endures! An update

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, so far, it looks like we can stay at out location at 2001 NW Market St., at least for a while. The landlord says that he isn't in control of the space, the owner of the coffee shop is, and as a sublessor, my deal is with him.

Several people have inquired about opening a new coffee shop in the Bauhaus space, but it seems the landlord can't negotiate with them until he's in control of the space. And that's tied up in a bankruptcy, or will be, is my understanding.

So, for now, I'm in purgatory. I've talked to the real estate agent who called me in on the project, and he says that everyone who looked at the space found the part I occupy surplus to their requirements, which is why it was a good deal to bring me in. This gives me some hope that I can stay where I am with a new landlord when things get sorted, if I can be there with a rent I can live with.

I'm pretty stressed about the whole thing, but for now, I'm still doing business in the same place. I'm still looking at places to move to in case things don't work out.

So, come on down, our stock is as good as ever and we are still here from noon to seven every day, unless I find the foot traffic pattern is different with no coffee shop and have to change the hours.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bauhaus coffee is closing, Twice Sold Tales Ballard needs a new space

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today the employees at Bauhaus Coffee, which I sublease from, told me the coffee shop is closing. It looks like all the Bauhaus Coffee shops are closing. I'm trying to contact Joel Radin, the owner, because my lease is with him.

So, I'll have to move. And this comes right during Christmas season, when I'd hoped to make a little money. Instead, I'll be looking for a new space. If you come by the store during our regular hours and we're not open, don't think we're closing down, it will just mean I'm out looking at possible locations.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fed up with the Fed: The politics of interest rates

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Federal Reserve Bank is supposed to be an apolitical, technocratic organization that does things like attempting to control the money supply and keeping inflation in check. But that's not what the public statements from the agency sound like right now. They sound like politics.

At the center of central banking right now is the notion that the best way to conduct monetary policy is with inflation targets. The current inflation target is 2%. That target is supposed to be symmetrical, that is, undershooting is supposed to be as bad as overshooting. You can bet if inflation were running 10 times that, there would be a huge panic and the Fed would go to any lengths to set things right.

But with inflation running .2%, or one tenth of the target, the Fed is indicating that it will raise interest rates this month.

Think about that. Inflation is running two-tenths of one percent, according to the core Consumer Price Index, yet central bankers are giving every indication that they plan to raise rates.

This affects peoples' lives. Unemployment is running at 5% currently, but labor force participation is about 62.5%. As recently as 2007, the labor force participation rate was above 66 percent for most of the year. That would seem to indicate a csome slack in the labor market.

But the CPI isn't the only inflation indicator. They are also concerned with the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU. And the assumption is, with a lot of people getting jobs, wage inflation will need watching. After all, inflation targeting replaced full employment targeting because of the wage-price spiral of the early 1970s.

And there is a small spike in wages, which are increasing at an annual rate of 2.3 percent.

So, price inflation is running at two-tenths of one percent, and wage inflation is running at roughly eleven times that. Should we worry?

I'm not an economist, but as an outsider, my reaction is, of course not! Yes, wages are increasing at a rate of more than the magic 2% number, but there is no wage-price spiral. Price inflation is almost non-existent.

Furthermore, wages have a lot of catching up to do. Consider what has happened since the Fed started worrying about the NAIRU:

Productivity and wage growth

The inflation-adjusted value of hourly wages has remained flat or declined slightly since the NAIRU concept gained wide acceptance. Meanwhile, productivity has roughly doubled. If wages had increased as rapidly as productivity, American hourly workers would be making about twice as much money. The NAIRU is obviously not the whole story here, but it is one component of a political movement to increase inequality, which I explored here.

Consider the despair that has led to a decline in the life spans of non-college-educated middle-aged whites in this country. While everyone else has been living longer, they have been facing shorter lives. This is a symptom of despair. Here's a Washington Post chart that shows just how anomalous this is:

That chart is from a study conducted by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case.

"Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause,” said Deaton,

These are symptoms of despair. Average male wages, in inflation-adjusted terms, peaked in 1973:

But why should they feel hard done by? Aren't they making nearly as much as their fathers?

Well, look at this:

Chart 4. Wages and Salaries of Private Sector Employees as a Percent of GDP

Nonsupervisory employees, by definition, have a boss. And compared to the boss, they seem to be doing worse every year, no matter how hard they work. 

This is a major decline in positional status. People can't help comparing themselves to those around them, and compared to their bosses, working-class people are going down, down, down.

Their power in the workplace keeps declining as union membership declines, and more states are adopting legislation hostile to unions, such as "right to work" laws. At this point, the only way to restore that power would be to have a tight labor market.

So, do we have that?

Not with a labor force participation rate of 62.5%. So, why is the Fed raising rates, when the inflation rate is close to zero?

Well, banks are begging for an increase, because they make very little money in a low-interest environment. So are people who earn a substantial amount of money from interest, which would be people with a very large amount of savings, that is, the rich.

These are powerful interest groups, but I don't think that's a complete explanation. I think the logic that gave rise to inflation targeting and the NAIRU has permeated central banking to the point where we've had what amounts to agency capture by, not just the banks, but the 1%, that is, the banks and the people with a lot to invest.

That's what I explained in my earlier post on the political movement to increase inequality, here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The uses of terror and the end of the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some people called him Timur the Lame. Some called him Tamerlane. He was a Mongol chieftain who, in 1398, built a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads before the walls of Delhi, to let the inhabitants know what would happen to them if they did not surrender. They did not, and after the sack of the city and the annihilation of its inhabitants, it was a century before the city could rebuild.

The uses of terror in war have a long history. Sometimes it works, as it often did for the Mongols, sometimes it fails, as it did in the terror bombing of London in World War II.

One of the things terror is used for is to eliminate the gray zones, the areas where compromise might occur. No one in Delhi after Timur's ghastly pyramid rose was saying, "I'm sure this Timur is a reasonable chap we can talk with, make a few compromises, and conclude a peace at a reasonable cost."

Terror draws a firm line between combatants. If you are Islamic State, and most Muslims are fleeing your state rather than flocking to it, eliminating the gray zones will eliminate the zones into which they are fleeing.

In fact, Islamic State sponsored violence in Europe is explicitly aimed at making Europeans view as the enemy refugees fleeing the violence of IS and other warring factions in Syria. Their propaganda magazine, Dabiq, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, published an editorial that said such attacks  “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] 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.”

The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has said that all of the attackers in the November, 2015 Paris attacks were believed to be European residents, not refugees. All those who have been identified were. One who has yet to be identified carried a forged Syrian passport, which had been used to pass through Greece. Perhaps he was on a watch list in Europe, and was using the refugees as a way to get past border patrols, but if that were the case, why not a forged Belgian passport?

It seems quite likely that the unidentified terrorist carried a forged Syrian passport because the aim of the attacks was to eliminate what Islamic State sees as a threat -- cooperation between Europeans and those Muslim refugees who have fled IS.

Where terror is effective, it either terrifies the enemy into surrender, as was the intent of Timur's pyramid of heads or the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, or it is intended to get the enemy to over-respond in a way that makes more people join the terrorists.

That's a motive that fits very well with giving a terrorist a fake Syrian passport and sending the agent through the refugee route to Europe. The attacks have had the desired effect, at least on all the serious Republican candidates for president (that is, those with a serious chance at the nomination, regardless of the seriousness or silliness of their rhetoric.)

It may seem that getting a powerful country like France as an enemy would be suicidal for a tiny protostate like Islamic State's "caliphate." But we must keep in mind that Islamic State is an apocalyptic cult which not only believes these are the end times, but strives to bring about the end times. As Graham Wood noted in his much-cited Atlantic article about Islamic State, this is not so different from the theology of the Branch Davidians, but instead of a compound with a few people in it, they control a territory with 8 million people.

The frightening thing to me is that some of our politicians most eager to confront Islamic State, and to define the conflict as being between Islam and Christianity, are those with ties to American religious groups who believe we are living in the end times. About three quarters of Evangelical Christians believe this. I remember talking to a small-town businessman in the Puget Sound area who was telling me about a real estate investment, then paused to say, well, I suppose it seems kind of silly to think that far out, when the Rapture may happen at any time.

Fortunately, he made the investment, which by now should have paid off.

But that's the thing. Islamic State is Sunni Muslim. There are Shi'a Muslim who also believe we are living in the end times, and Christians, and Jews. It is possible that at some point, all the major actors in the Middle East will be led by people who believe the end of the world is coming, and that this would be a good thing.

There are many different versions of the end times; Islamic State contends that the "Romans"(Christians, or perhaps the Turks) led by the anti-messiah Dajjal, will push them near annihilation, until there are only 5,000 fighters left cornered at Jerusalem, then Jesus, the second most revered prophet in the Bible, will come to lead them and they will push back and eventually gain victory.

But wait, isn't that the plot of the Left Behind series of books based on Christian eschatology? Well, pretty much, just a little difference about who the good guys are.

The prophesy is in the source material for all the religions in the Abrahamic tradition. There are different versions of what that source material means. Some Christians, for example, think the end times have already happened.(the Preterist view, which says Revalations describes the events of about 70 A.D.) Others of all the faiths with this source material are sufficiently humble not to claim they know when the world will end.

One problem with groups which hold these views is that they may not have any path to peace that is consistent with their beliefs other than the apocalypse. Another is that people will do far worse things in the name of making the world a better place than they will out of mere greed.

Those who believe they are bringing an end to injustice can easily justify acts of terror involving the deaths of innocent in order to bring about more deaths, more terror, and a final, dramatic end to all that is evil in the world.

The terror in Paris was intended to sharpen the lines of conflict. The ideal outcome for those who committed these atrocities would be to empower people who believe, as they do, that we are living in the end times, and who want to bring about the apocalypse. The strategy is to have terror beget terror, to bring about a final conflict that will end the world.

The term self-fulfilling prophesy comes to mind. Let's hope it doesn't come to pass.

Here's a list of the Paris, Nov. 2015, terrorists so far identified (seven of the eight attackers)

Bilal Hadfi, 20 - French (living in Belgium)
Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, 29 - French
Samy Amimour, 28 - French
Ibrahim Abdeslam, 31 - French (living in Belgium)
Salah Abdeslam, 26 - French (living in Belgium)
Hamza Attou, 21 - Belgian

Mohamed Amri, 27 - Belgian (born in Morocco)

The eight attacker was the one with the fake Syrian passport.

Monday, November 30, 2015

NSA ends telephone data collection, now no one cares who I call

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today is the first day in a long time the National Security Agency is, according to it, no longer engaged in gathering telephone metadata. This is a tragedy my future biographers will lament.

Now, no one cares who I call, and the record of customers calling to ask if I have a copy of some obscure tome is no longer being kept. The NSA'a metadata -- who calls me and who I call and when -- is just going to disappear into the ether. Future generations will never be able to go into the eventually declassified metadata and chronicle my long, twilight struggle to disconnect from Comcast, or determine whether I have drunk-dialed my ex-girlfriends.

I know the project was not intended primarily to provide a resource for those who might, one day, want to chronicle the life of someone who has had no perceptible effect on the history of the world, who has never starred in a movie, recorded a hit song, or assassinated a world leader. But consider that the NSA was keeping one of the very few records of my life in existence.

Yes, my friends and relatives will remember me for the rest of their lives, or until dementia erases all memory of me, but they will fade, like me, into unrecorded history. Only a few records in an NSA database will persist, in the manner of secret files no one cares about. It will be too much trouble to decide what is important in those databanks, to much trouble to actually determine that my data need not be preserved, so I expect those few records to remain on whatever media the NSA deems most archival.

But tragically, all record of my calls ends yesterday, unless some rogue agent is secretly keeping the record of my existence alive.

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. Hobbes concluded that governments gain their legitimacy from the service they do for those they govern, rather than from God, and Locke realized that religious strife happens not because people believe different things, but because people try to make them all believe the same thing.

Both insights lead to a more secular state then has generally existed in human history.

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.