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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why so little reaction to the new Gilded Age? Because we're back in Reconstruction

by John MacBeath Watkins

Brad DeLong brings up this very important question here. I posted the following in the comments section, but it's not showing up there, so maybe I did it wrong or maybe his system for moderating comments is as slow as mine.

Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. / from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor., 1866

It strikes me that since the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the following year, we've been in a slow-motion re-litigation of Reconstruction. Those Acts violated the conservative sense of propriety about the positional status of racial groups. We now have a Republican Party that is based in the South and relies in presidential races on whites for almost 90% of it's votes.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

That's from a 1981 interview with Lee Attwater. When you consider some of the racial symbolism on the signs at Tea Party rallies, you can see that the alleged economic agenda of the party is really an outgrowth of the ethnic panic some whites are experiencing in a nation soon to be majority non-white, a panic Attwater would have understood easily and exploited masterfully.

In short, for many, the people losing ground in the last 30 years have had a ready scapegoat in those than whom they used to automatically have greater status. The very rich who are politically active have shown themselves adept in dividing different groups of the 99% and exploiting their anxieties. They develop agnotology as a science to create exactly the right kind of ignorance.

The result is a kind of politics waged as war by other means, in which even a zero-sum gain is often out of reach, with one side willing to take a loss if it hurts the other side more.

In addition, of course, we've tried out many of the solutions to inequity that were proposed in the Gilded Age. Marxism and Fabian socialism proved to be a bust. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Social Security have made economic busts more tolerable.

But changing demographics mean that the coalition that has brought Republicans so much success over the past 40 years or so is unlikely to be as successful in the future, which makes me wonder if inequity is waiting in the wings as our next obsession on the national agenda.

Friday, December 28, 2012

If beggars were horses, wishes could fly

File:Pyle pirate marooned.jpg
Howard Pyle, Marooned
If beggars were horses, wishes could fly
by John McBeath Watkins

"Yes, there he sat, on the back of the winged horse!”
See them in patches, see them in rags
see our dreams flapping like desolate flags

I'll be alone every night
caught in dreams of your arms,
dreams of freedom and flight

See them in patches all up in the sky
If beggars were horses, wishes could fly

I'll be alone for the rest of my life
caught in dreams of your arms,
dreams of freedom and flight

See their rags flapping up there in the sky
If beggars were horses, wishes could fly.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Game theory, the fiscal cliff, and the continuation of war by other means

by John MacBeath Watkins

Wonkblog has an excellent piece by Dylan Matthews on the negotiating style President Obama learned at Harvard.

The president studied a system developed by Harvard's Roger Fisher called  “principled negotiation.” The name should give you some clue as to why it's difficult to apply to congress.

Fisher expounded on this system in an important and popular book on negotiation called Getting to Yes. The broadest principle of this book is that negotiations need not be zero-sum. Often, you can make the pie bigger if you don't focus excessively on the distribution of the spoils. Wikipedia has a useful outline of the ideas Fisher said could achieve those goals.
  • "Separate the people from the problem."
  • "Focus on interests, not positions."
  • "Invent options for mutual gain."
  • "Insist on using objective criteria."
  • "Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)"
Now, there's a historic reason that won't work, and it goes back a couple generations, to a time when the very nature of the Republican Party was being reshaped by one of our most reviled former presidents.

Richard Nixon, Lee Attwater and others remade the Republican party with a Southern strategy designed to take away whites disaffected from the Democrats because of the civil rights legislation pushed through by Lyndon Johnson, and a wider tendency for Democrats to back the civil rights movement.

In fact, one of the methods Pat Buchanan proposed in a memo to Nixon for splitting the Democratic Party was to start rumors that they'd have a black man on the ticket. Well, the Democrats themselves have now made that dream come true twice, with results the Republicans haven't cared for.

So you can forget about item one, "Separate the people from the problem." To a surprisingly great extent, Republicans see the president as the problem, and defeating and humiliating him is perhaps their most important goal entering the negotiations.

Item two, "Focus on interests, not positions." President Obama has shown time and time again that he's willing to show flexibility on his positions. In the negotiation about health care, he tried to separate himself from the problem by letting legislators do the negotiation, and shifted the Democrats' position to almost exactly what the Republicans' position had been during health care negotiations in the Clinton Administration.

The idea here, clearly, was to make a bigger pie. The Republicans could claim a victory for their ideas, while Democrats could get more equitable disribution of health care.

But the interest of the Republicans was not in ideology. Nor was it in taking partial credit for making America a better place to live. As Mitch McConnell clearly stated at the beginning of Obama's term, their chief interest was in making Obama a one-term president.

While Obama engaged in the most self-effacing negotiations possible for his goal, in keeping with item one on Fisher's list, Republicans did their best to make negotiations about Obama. They used this strategy successfully in fighting what they called "Hillarycare," so it should be no surprise that they trotted it out again for what they dubbed "Obamacare."

Solving the nation's problems with market-bases solutions may have been their publicly expressed interest, but in the fight over the legislation they showed this was not the case. They proved far more interested in issues of power than in what an academic might dub issues of substance.

This is because what we are looking at is not a business negotiation. In business, you go for deals that you gain by, and if the other fellow gains by them as well, so much the better, because that business will remember, and want to deal with you again. Businesses working together this way create value, which is much better than a zero-sum game.

We are looking at something more akin to warfare. In war, especially a war of attrition, you engage the enemy even knowing you will pay a price for doing so, provided you can cause more damage to the enemy.

And why is it a war? Because it is, for so many on the right, about positional status. Carl von Clausewitz, in his book On War, said:


We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.

American politics might be described as the continuation of war by other means. I've posted these two maps repearedly:

One way to look at the Civil War is to say it was about states' rights, specifically the right to treat some people as property. Another is to say it was about slavery, pure and simple.

Yet another, perhaps more applicable to our present situation, is to say that it was about the positional status of different groups of people. We could say the same about segregation, the Jim Crow laws, and mechanisms intended to keep black people from voting. You could also say this about the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, the womens' rights movement and the gay rights movement.

One thing about positional status, it is a zero-sum game, and it is the game of power (a game of thrones?) Perhaps it is ironic that in terms of negotiation, liberals are inclined to treat the nation's business as a business, while conservatives, who profess great admiration for business, have treated it as warfare.

Specifically, it is tribal warfare. In the 2012 presidential election, 72% of the voters were non-Hispanic whites. Among those voting for Mitt Romney, almost 90% were white. In Mississippi, about 90% of whites voted for Romney. Through most of those areas that are green in the pre-Civil War map above Obama either carried the white vote or came close.

From the 1968 presidential campaign on, Republicans have waged a quiet war based on ethnic identity. It gave them a long string of victories, but now they are in retreat. You can expect them to shout defiance from their gerrymandered congressional redoubts and safe senate seats in the old South. You can expect ethnic panic to help them turn out the troops when liberals are distracted.

And you can expect them to make decisions that seem foolish to experts who fail to understand how politics are framed in the conservative mind.

There is one glimmer of hope. It appears Barack Obama,  having tried Fisher's advice, may be realizing the mindset of those he's dealing with.

Consider Fisher's advice in item three, "Invent options for mutual gain."

Obama has seen his opponents use the opposite strategy.  When they created the debt ceiling crisis, they knew that America had no trouble borrowing money, and I doubt anyone actually believes there would have been Republican opposition to raising the ceiling if there had been a Republican in the White House. No doubt they also realized it would harm the public's view of the Republican majority in the House, but you see, they thought it would hurt President Obama more.

And consider the folly of trying to get the modern-day Republican Party to agree to this:

"Insist on using objective criteria."

About what? Global warming? Budget projections? The observed effects of tax cuts since 1980? Evolution? Pregnancy resulting from rape?

The truth is, modern-day Republicans  take a view toward truth that is very like one I first ran into in dealing with Marxists (although I've since learned that fascists held similar views in the 1930s, I suspect Young Republicans learned it from campus Marxists.)

It is the view that there is no objective truth, that even science reflects the power structure. Deconstructionists won't even tell you their method, because, you see, having a method for finding truth means you've become part of the power structure.

But if there is no objective truth, there can only be polemics advocating for one side or the other. If there is no objective truth, the only question that remains is, which side are you on?

Which leaves us with this final advice:

"Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)"

Because that's where you may end up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guns, power, and responsibility: Ending the killing

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've resisted writing about the Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting, partly because the subject turns my stomach, partly because so much has been said to so little effect after past massacres. But there are some points that are getting too little attention, so I'll do what I can.

Adam Lanza committed his crime with guns designed to kill people. These were not guns well suited to the spots of target shooting or hunting. I'm fine with both of those sports. Killing people, not so much.

Adam got those guns from home. They belonged to his mother. The justification for selling guns to private individuals is that they serve the purpose of home defense. But why did Adam's mom need so many?

Nancy Lanza, it turns out, was a doomsday prepper, which is why so many of her guns were designed to kill people. The .223 ammunition her son fired into the bodies of primary school children were designed to get around the Geneva Convention's ban on dum-dum bullets, nowadays more commonly called hollow points. Hollow point bullets would mushroom or fragment in the body, leaving a huge exit wound, which under the laws of war was considered inhuman (so they are now used by police and private individuals.). The .223 was designed to get around this in spite of having a full metal jacket, by tumbling in the flesh. That's the kind of gun she kept at home.

Nancy Lanza feared that civilization would collapse, and she would need guns to fight off looters who would presumably be trying to steal her stuff.

Now, in a misspent part of my life many years ago, I covered the police beat for a daily paper. I covered a lot of burglaries, and soon noticed that one of the main possessions criminals targeted was guns.

So if you own a lot of guns to protect yourself, this will make you a target of crime. And fencing some antique muzzle loader is a daunting task well beyond the limited capabilities of the average criminal. They'd much rather steal a gun the can sell to the end user, someone who wants a gun to commit crimes. That's a market that calls for guns designed to kill people, which is why gangsta rap talks about Glocks and AK47s, not Kentucky squirrel rifles.

Now, you could do what Australia did, and buy back as many semi-automatic weapons as possible while banning the sale of new ones. I doubt that would work in America. There are too many guns out there and too many people that think they have a right to own whatever type of gun they want. I think we're just lucky we outlawed machine guns before the NRA reached its current level of power. In my opinion, however much good you may think such a program would do, you may as well forget about it and concentrate on something that can be done.

One idea is to arm teachers and train them to defend their students. However, the first victim in the Sandy Hook incident was a teacher well versed in gun use and owning several of them. Granted, she didn't bring her guns to school, her son did, and shot her first. Arming teachers is likely to be rejected by teachers, and for good reason; it ensures that there will be guns in schools.

In homes where there are guns, people are three times as likely to be murdered as in homes without guns. Do we have any real assurance that the same would not be true of schools?

Another idea is to have police in the schools. To my knowledge, no school with a police presence has had a mass killing incident. However, this is an expensive solution to a very rare problem.

Of course,  there's also the suggestion that the victims should fight back, even if the don't have guns. In a now infamous article, Megan McArdle offers this suggestion:
My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips. 
Oddly enough, in the same article she offers this argument against banning the large ammunition magazines spree killers seem to favor:
Reducing the magazine sizes seems modestly more promising, but only modestly. It takes a few minutes of practicing to learn how to change a magazine in a few seconds.  Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as Lanza did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need.  In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would Lanza really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload? 
The problem, then, is not whether a valiant charge by 7-year-olds would be effective, it is whether they can be trained to attack. Perhaps McArdel could recruit some organization with experience in training children for combat, like the Lord's Resistance Army.

(A note to the editors of The Daily Beast:  I am sure you are aware of what this poor woman is writing, and I must question your motives in employing her. It is a cruelty akin to selling tickets to Bedlam to expose her mad ramblings to a jeering public. Surely she should be in a place of refuge, where a kind, caring, and above all understanding staff can protect her from the ridicule her behavior naturally attracts. Not that I intend to stop jeering.)

This, of course, brings us to the question of mental health.

Some years ago, it came to the attention of well-meaning people that our mental health system was not working well. The 1961 Joint Commission on Mental Health recommended that community clinics take on the burden of early intervention and prevention of mental illness. Funding for the program appeared sufficient at first, but was not increased with inflation even in the1970s, when inflation ran high. It soon became evident that the community programs were not adequately funded, which became even more important when a 1975 case found that the Florida State Hospital had kept Kenneth Donaldson confined for 15 years against his will although he was not a threat to himself or others.

Now, it's hard to get help for those who don't want it. Walt Stawicki, whose 41-year-old son Ian killed five people at Cafe Racer coffee shop in Seattle this past May 30, said he could not get his well-armed son committed for his mental health problems without lying.

Even when the will and the resources are there, it isn't easy

While financing for mental health care is a  low priority, defense spending has steadily increased. Perhaps if we could convince the military the mentally ill were in some way useful to them, we could get the funding. In the meantime. our cities have an increasingly medieval feel to them, with beggars, madmen, strolling players, all contributing to a feeling that society has lost control in some way. The mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

But pause a moment. Gun deaths are common, and gun violence is even more common. The annual number of homicides has fallen despite an increase in the number of shootings because of advances in treating them. Killing sprees like the one at Sandy Hook focus our attention, but shootings involving one or two people account for most of the deaths. Yes, we could focus on the large-capacity magazines that figure in so many of these sprees, but shouldn't we act in ways that will help with the larger and broader problem?

The shootings in Sandy Hook and in Aurora, Colorado, involved guns taken from the collections of family members. Can't we ask that those gun owners control their weapons better?

Trigger locks vary in quality, and many are easy to get around. Cable locks that go through the magazine and the breach prevent the gun from being loaded or fired, but can not be used on all guns and can be removed with bolt cutters. Gun safes also vary in quality, but if I felt a need to own a gun, a good safe is about the first thing I'd buy.

These all come down to safe storage. They might not keep a determined criminal from using the weapons, but they might keep a moody kid from taking the weapons and doing something rash.

People wouldn't dream of owning a car you didn't need a key to start and use. We have steering wheel locks to prevent thieves who hotwire cars from driving them. But too many people leave a loaded gun in an unlocked bedside drawer, or leave an entire case of prized rifles in a glass-fronted case.

I understand the glass case. Guns are cool, they symbolize power, they often relate to interesting history. Once, they were essential for survival on the frontier, and Americans don't want to let go of the frontier.

But this is a matter of life and death. Personal responsibility for who uses your firearms doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Gun culture has changed. It wasn't so long ago that for most of the people who owned them, they were tools. My grandpa Howard used his to put meat on the table, and it was a tool he used like the shovel he used to dig clams, the family's other main source of protein.

Now, fewer and fewer people own more and more guns. The number owning guns has declined:

 ...while the number of guns purchased has not:

Thing is, I understand why my friends like guns. I like their efficient, functional and ergonomic design. I think they are an area where Americans still lead the world. If their function was to take pictures or drill holes, I'd see the point of owning one. But of course, it's the fact that they are intended to kill things that makes them a symbol of power, which is the real allure for most people. Their usefulness has declined, and their symbolism has become more important.

They are a symbol of power for those who feel threatened. Whether you feel threatened by burglars, people who might attack you on the street, a government that seems bent on changing the patterns of privilege in your country or, like Nancy Lanza, the collapse of civilization, they give the gun owner a feeling that they have personal power in answer to their fears.

But as Spiderman has taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Whether you live on Kodiak Island and need that power because you have a quite justified fear of bears or live in the suburbs and have a more nebulous fear of  the collapse of civilization, or you just own a gun because you like it, you have a duty to make sure your guns are not used to commit crimes.

If we need to pass laws to make people take responsibility for keeping their weapons from being used for criminal purposes, let's pass them.

If you're a private individual who wants to sell your weapon, why shouldn't you be required to do a background check? Sure, it's inconvenient for you and the buyer, especially if the buyer can't pass the check, but getting shot by some gang banger is immeasurably worse for the victim if the gun gets into the wrong hands, and I'm sure local law enforcement would be happy to provide the service for a nominal fee.

Yes, it's inconvenient to take a trigger lock off the .357 magnum if you think a burglar is trying to break in, but you've got to keep in mind how much more likely it is that a loaded weapon in your home will hurt the wrong person.

Here are some statistics from close to home (I live in King County):
Kellermann tabulated gunshot deaths occurring in King County, Washington, from 1978 to 1983. Table 1 below is taken from Kellermann's paper (Table 3 on p. 1559).
Table 1. Classification of 398 Gunshot Deaths involving a Firearm Kept in the Home

Type of Death No.
Unintentional deaths 12
Criminal homicide 41
Suicide 333
Unknown 3

Total 389
Self-protection homicide 9
As we see from Table 1, a ratio of 389 violent deaths to 9 justifiable homicides gives us the famous 43 to 1 ratio.
This is an example of the difference between usefulness and power. In nine of these cases the gun proved useful for the purpose claimed (I say claimed because when there was a five-day waiting period for buying a gun, suicides among seniors dropped. I'm sure they gave the reason for the purchase as home defense, knowing that no one would sell the gun for the purpose of suicide.)

Of course, we don't know if in those nine cases some other alternative, like calling the cops and not confronting an intruder, might have worked. Confrontation is part of the fantasy of power.

But whether it's the power to feed your family, to defend your home, or to deal with the collapse of civilization, those who hold the power hold the responsibility for how it is used. We must insist that they take that responsibility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A brief history of Christmas and its most famous book

by Jamie Lutton

Christmas is a very old holiday.

It dates back to 601 ad,when Pope Gregory instructed a local (English) missionary, St. Austin, to help convert the local pagan Anglo-Saxons, to celebrate the local winter feast into as a Christan holiday. This new holiday was a fusion of the Roman Saternala and the local pagan holidays grew to 12 days of feasting, from Christmas eve to Epiphany. This holiday was celebrated with pageants, dancing and 'masques'. As late as the era of Henry Vlll and Ben Johnson, special plays were written just for the season (this king himself performed in them in his court).
All this changed under Cromwell, the Puritan usurper who had King Charles the first executed and made himself Lord Protector. The Puritans did their very best to stamp out Christmas, viewing it as pagan superstition.  There were a few places where the old customs hung on, mostly in the countryside, but the great days of Christmas celebration was nearly wiped out. The Restoration decades later did not completely revive Christmas, as the new aristocracy did not support the lavish celebrations for their servants and the general countryside.
With the Industrial Revolution there was further repression of the simple pleasures of the season. Employers in the new factories and businesses did not give their workers the day off to celebrate Christmas Day.

So when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carrol in 1842, the holiday was nearly dead in the new, "modern' England, celebrated by the rural and poor people, but frowned upon by the employers.  It took an American, Washington Irving, to praise Christmas the highest, mourning the loss of the great traditions in this new modern age, in his writings about England.
Dickens admired Irving. In earlier writing, such as Sketches by Boz, Dickens made much of the 'strain of goodwill and cheerfulness' and that this holiday did more to spread good will among neighbors than any preaching or homilies.
Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol when he was at a low ebb. His last book was not popular, and he was struggling with his writing. He was working on nonfiction pamphlets about the horrendous working conditions of children in Manchester.  What inspired him was the vision of Ignorance and Want that he saw in the faces of the starved, overworked and ragged children, the children that the Spirit of Christmas Present showed Scrooge. He worked backward from that scene to compose the whole tale.
He 'laughed and wept and laughed again' when he composed the tale, as he walked 15 to 20 miles a day in the streets of London, composing the tale in his head, then locking himself away from friends, and his family, for the weeks of its composition.
It was an immediate hit. Instantly plagiarized onstage within month, and sold in bootleg editions, this story made the author little money in the fancy first printing. But it made him famous. When he died decades later a little girl was heard to say 'Mr Dickens is dead? Is Father Christmas dead, as well?"   This little story also invented the Christmas Tale, which many authors besides Dickens to this day have composed.
What makes this the best of all Christmas tales is that Winter, the time of Christmas, is according to Dickens ' when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices'.
So now Christmas is a holiday intrenched in our culture. it is more elaborate now than it was even 75 years ago.  All of us as noticed 'holiday creep' where the mention of Christmas, holiday decorations, ads on TV, and Christmas items turn up in stores as early as November first.

The merchants, instead of not giving their employees the day off, now urge them to go and bankrupt themselves buying things.
This is the effect of it's "commercial"appeal, the chance for retailers to persuade us to buy presents for each other, cook elaborate meals, travel to see relatives, etc.

George Bernard Shaw, who had a role like Oscar Wilde as not only an important playwright in the late 19th century, but also acrid commentator on social folly wrote this.
I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas... It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous, and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.
So, the soul of Christmas is often forgotten, in the haste to run about and buy things, throw parties, and generally spend money.
There is the social pressure to 'conform' even if gift giving has become a onerous duty, instead of a joyous thing to do.
The 'good man of business', Mr. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens is Dicken's caricature of a 'a good businessman', who has a cold and indifferent heart, and has little contact with the world he lives in. He turns his face away from ordinary charity and warmth, preferring to think about money and making money.
The thesis in all A Christmas Carol is to stop and think about your life. To live life in a thoughtful fashion, filled with compassion.
That to have hope, and to love your fellow man, and that 'Christmas day' is just the focus of this spirit.
Which story is the most important is A Christmas Carol,.  Some historians believe that this story and this story alone is responsible for us still celebrating Christmas. It revived the very old customs on the verge of dying out.
But there is a urgent subtext that drives this tale.
It is the thesis in the mouth of Scrooge that 'the poor should die out, and relieve us of the surplus population' is put in the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge when he talks to a group of businessmen who came to him for a donation for the poor.
When this story was written, and for decades before and after that, the influence of Malthus, a late 18tth century influential and pernicious science essayist, was that 'poor people' were a social burden to all, and should all die. That they were 'surplus population'
This is why so many Irish died in the Irish Potato Famine, a few years after this tale was written. The English government, which had controlled and occupied Ireland for centuries,  took the position that these poor and starving people were surplus, and were a burden.  Millions of Irish died by inches of starvation, even as that country was exporting food. Charitable organizations in England were stopped by their government from helping the Irish.
This story was Charles's Dickens rebuke of this kind of thinking, by showing the reader the Cratchet family.  Remember Bob Cratchet had six, seven kids...and one was dying by inches, Tiny Tim, because he did not get enough food or medical attention.  Even now, some of the more heartless among   us would sneer at such a family, blaming the parents for 'having too many children'.

Charles Dickens had been poor himself. When he was 12, his dad had to leave him at a factory to work as he had no money to feed him.  This was a terrible experience, working 14 hours a day, six days a week,  among other children in horrible hopeless conditions. He also saw two of his siblings die young from malnourishment. Dickens never forgot these experiences.
When The Spirit of Christmas present said to Scrooge that 'who knew who was truly 'surplus'' Dickens was speaking to the reader, the middle class reader, about the real spirit of Christmas.  A poor carpenter who went from town to town 2000 years ago, talking about love and compassion  was crucified for preaching without a license by the Roman Government. .
We often forget what Christmas is about. The gifts we give each other stand in for gifts to baby Jesus in the  New Testament, who was born in a manger, who came to save us all from our own folly. Even an confirmed agnostic like me can see a value in that old story.
Myth or not, this 'made up' holiday  remembering that a poor child born in a manger shook the world with his message of love, and that it is good to honor his ideals.
Christianity is a touchy subject nowadays. Christ and Christianity has been used as a weapon at our community to tell some of us that we are evil people per sae. This is one of the great social wars of our time..  This has gone on for centuries by unscrupulous religious leaders, with different groups being the target in different times.
This is very curious and unhappy, as the carpenter 2,000 years ago was not patient with haters, or the powerful in general.

Let us be compassionate with each other, see past the blinding and thick commercial haze that covers this holiday, and celebrate our affection for each other; open our hearts to all.

Wishing you a  Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Borg Who Walk Among Us

by John MacBeath Watkins

Apparently, the Borg lifestyle comes at several levels of fashion. Here's my new look:

The new cast on my wrist restricts movement more, and has reduced pain. I figure that's got to help the wrist fracture heal.

They took out the sutures from my forearm and gave me a new brace which allows me more movement in my arm. I'm practicing straightening my arm as much as possible and straightening out my fingers. Hurts, but I'm sure it will be worth while since I've got to do that to get my range of motion back. I had to step up the painkillers a little when I started practicing straightening the arm, but I've started to cut back on them again.

Maybe 6 months to get back to boat building. Maybe just a couple to get back to teaching sailing.

And one day, only the metal detectors will be able to identify me as one of the Borg Who Walk Among Us. The evidence of my post-human nature is here:

Update: I now have had my cast removed, and can shower! Still can't use the hand much, lots of healing to do.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Which classic superheroes were gay? The ones with a secret identity?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was the sort of nerdy kid who read a lot of science fiction and comic books. Specifically, I was a Marvel Comics kid.

I was also not particularly socially aware. Not being gay, homosexual characters didn't particularly register with me. I read The Last of the Wine and thought, huh, things were kind of different in ancient Greece, and went on to read The Bull from the Sea, which had a hero I found easier to identify with.

So when Stan Lee, author of so many great Marvel comic books, said in a 2002 interview that one of the characters in Nick Fury's Howling Commandos was gay, I wasn't at all surprised that I'd missed it. And the character was named Percival "Pinky" Pinkerton. A blatant clue, that.

But of course, Stan Lee wrote that character in the mid 1960s, when homosexuality was still The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name, so writers had to be a bit circumspect. Now that homosexuality has become The Love That Just Can't Stop Talking About Itself (or, more rudely, The Love That Will Not Shut Its Trap,) comic books need to keep up with the times. Green Lantern has come out of the closet. Marvel Comics, as usual the edgier franchise, is having one of its characters (Northstar, who I guess is Marvel's version of The Flash) marrying his long-time companion.

Pinky Pinkerton raises another issue, however. How many of these characters were gay all along, and we never guessed?

Is there any hope for Lois Lane?
I'm thinking it's the ones that clearly spent a lot of time in the gym, wore colorful, tight-fitting outfits, and spent their time  hanging out with similarly buff, colorfully-attired companions, and had to conceal this, the most satisfying part of their identity by pretending to be normal and ordinary.

Let's face it, people with extraordinary physical gifts don't typically make a secret of it. The ability to run faster or jump higher than other people, or to beat large opponents into a state of deep unconsciousness, are actually of minimal value in fighting crime. They can, however, bring you fame and fortune on the open market.

Bruce Wayne had to start out rich. Michael Jordan used his physical gifts to get rich. And he got to let everyone know who he was and how great he was.

It's pretty obvious why superheroes appeal to wimpy introverts like the 12-year-old version of me. We are the secret identity that no one would expect to learn was powerful and heroic, a facade we can easily maintain because we are not, in actual fact, powerful or heroic. Coming up with excuses for the powerful and heroic to pretend to be us, to be normal and ordinary, is more difficult.

Now, however, it occurs to me that our ordinariness and normality were our super power to those who were neither. The tragedy of the secret identity, for those who actually needed one, was that it represented a power they aspired to, the power of social acceptance.

Some kids wanted to be Superman. Some just wanted to pass for Clark Kent.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers (Rethinking Liberalism Part 10)

by John MacBeath Watkins

It is curious how confused people become about liberalism and the economic systems that can be associated with it.

As we've seen, liberalism was born when the old sources of government legitimacy, faith and tradition backed by force, were failing. Thomas Hobbes brought a fresh source of legitimacy in from the marketplace -- the sovereign deserves his job because he performs for you the valuable function of imposing order and thereby preserving you from violent death.

So, we might suppose capitalism is the natural economic system for liberal political systems. The trouble is, although markets have become entangled with capitalism in our minds, markets are much older. The terms capitalism, liberalism, and socialism are all 19th century inventions (use of the word 'capitalism' with its modern meaning dates from about 1850.)

Prior to that, people had markets, fought over trade routes, paid taxes and made arrangements for the common defense, for the construction of roads and bridges and ports and canals, in complete innocence of the possibility of a science of economics and of ideological battles that would one day be fought over what the best economic system is.

The United States was founded near the end of this period  of ideological innocence. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, as we discussed in part 5 of this series, was published in 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence. His ideas were not immediately and universally adopted. In fact, the Virginia planter class that gave us presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was influenced more by the French physiocrats. From Vernon L. Parrington's Main Currents of American Thought:
The conception that agriculture is the single productive form of labor, that from it alone becomes the produit net or ultimate net labor increment, and that bankers, manufacturers and middlemen belong to the class of sterile workers, profoundly impressed the Virginia mind, bred up in a plantation economy and concerned for the welfare and dignity of agriculture.
Franklin had first given currency to the Physiocratic theory in America a generation earlier, but it was Jefferson who spread it widely among the Virginia planters. He did more: he provided the new agrarianism with politics and a sociology. From the wealth of French writers he formulated a complete libertarian philosophy. His receptive mind was saturated with romantic idealism which assumed native, congenial form in precipitation. From Rousseau, Godwin and Paine, as well as from Quesnay and Condorcet, came the idea of political justice and the conception of a minimized political state, assuming slightly different forms from filtering through different minds. The early doctrine of laissez faire, laissez passer-a phrase given currency by Cournay, the godfather of the Physiocratic school-proved to be curiously fruitful in the field of political speculation, as in economics. From it issued a sanction for natural rights, the theory of progress, the law of justice, and the principle of freedom. The right of coercion was restricted by it to the narrowest limits, and the political state was shorn of all arbitrary power. "Authority," the Physiocratic thinkers concluded, "should only employ the force of the community to compel madmen and depraved men to make their conduct conform to the principles of justice."
But of course, while the physiocrats favored laissez faire, minimal regulation of the economy, they also considered agriculture the only producer of value. Alexander Hamilton was our first Secretary of the Treasury and is said to have been influenced by Smith. Hamilton was distinctly not a believer in laissez faire. He favored high tariffs to protect fledgeling American industry, a national bank, and public credit (the Sinking Fund Act of 1790 bailed out states in debt from the revolutionary war, established federal taxes to pay off those debts and in the process created a market for securities that would become an engine for economic growth.)

Hamilton's Report on the Subject of Manufactures, presented to congress in 1791, recommended means to stimulate the economy and ensure the nation's continued independence. It recommended policies similar to those of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, a pioneer mercantilist. Hamilton's report would become the basis for the American Way, sometimes called the American System, though it had little to do with the American System as the term applied to manufacturing with interchangeable parts. This interventionist approach to economic development was, however, associated with industrialization, and became associated with abolitionism. Both were in the Republican platform under Abraham Lincoln.

In short, the founding fathers were split between the physiocrats, who favored laissez faire policies but saw little value in industry, and the mercantilists, who saw value in manufacturing, banking, and commerce as well as in agriculture, but were interventionist in their policies.

Once you realize that the United States was founded by people who were not, in the modern ideological sense, capitalists, certain things start to make more sense. It's easy to see how Southern planters would take to the physiocrats' notion of all real value coming from the land, and a philosophy of laissez faire, laissez passer had a certain unsubtle appeal for owners of slaves at a time when much of the country was already questioning the validity of the institution of slavery.

Theirs was the losing side in the Civil War. It was the mercantilist side that won, the side that was more inclined to build railroads and the rolling stock that traveled them, to build ships and their steam engines, not the side where a few people lived like feudal lords and ladies, supported by the slave labor of people who were not even allowed to own themselves.

But even up to the Civil War, the modern style of individualist capitalism as a theoretical construct was not fully developed. Economists tended to talk about how classes of people would act, much as Marxists still do, rather than about how individuals make economic decisions.

It all sounded very erudite, but it did not explain why water, which we all need, is worth less than diamonds, which really aren't that useful.

A decade after the Civil War, the marginal revolution changed that. The theory of diminishing marginal utility gave economists who studied markets an actual, working theory of value, one that explained why diamonds cost more than water and a great deal else. Karl Marx, then reading everything he could in the British Museum and using what he learned to write Kapital, never formulated a response to it, nor did his own theory of value ever show itself as useful.

The Wikipedia explanation is pretty good, so I'll use that:
The “paradox of water and diamonds”, most commonly associated with Adam Smith[16] (though recognized by earlier thinkers).[17] is the apparent contradiction that water possesses a value far lower than diamonds, even though water is far more vital to a human being. Marginalists explained that it is the marginal usefulness of any given quantity that determines its price, rather than the usefulness of a class or of a totality. For most people, water was sufficiently abundant that the loss or gain of a gallon would withdraw or add only some very minor use if any; whereas diamonds were in much more restricted supply, so that the lost or gained use would be much greater.

That is not to say that the price of any good or service is simply a function of the marginal utility that it has for any one individual nor for some ostensibly typical individual. Rather, individuals are willing to trade based upon the respective marginal utilities of the goods that they have or desire (with these marginal utilities being distinct for each potential trader), and prices thus develop constrained by these marginal utilities.
Now capitalism had an explanation for how it worked, and it didn't need to talk about classes of people. It could even take its explanation down to the level of the individual. The marginalist's model of human nature is what we now think of when we think of capitalism having a concept of how the world works. It was sometimes called the "psychological" school of economics, and it gave economists a powerful tool for understanding the workings of markets and society that was not matched by Marxist thought.

Mercantilism could be evaluated with this new tool, and has not entirely died out. Modern Chinese economic policy resembles it more than just a little. The physiocrats, however, now look so far off track that they were not even wrong. They are simply irrelevant.

Yet the cultural legacy of those French thinkers and the Southern planters they influenced lives on. When conservative politicians rally voters against big-city values and ways of doing things, when they treat rural voters as the only "real Americans," part of that, it seems to me, echoes those old claims that only the soil produces anything of value. Of course, it also ties in with the more chilling doctrine of blood and soil, but we can't blame the physiocrats for everyone who admires rural values.

William Aiken Walker, who painted this, also served in the Confederate Army.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How tranformative is Obama?

by John MacBeath Watkins

There is no doubt in my mind that history will see President Barak Obama as a transformative figure in American politics, but in what ways?

He is something I've waited a long time for, the truly post-1960s president. The Vietnam war and the decade it defined broke down the old New Deal coalition, tore our country apart, and remade our politics. We have been fighting the culture wars since then in every election. Every presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has been defined by the battles of the 1960s. In 2004, one of the major issues (and a decisive one for my late father, a veteran of WW II, Korea, and Vietnam) was John Kerry's war record and anti-war activities.

The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act broke the alliance between the South, the unions, and northern liberals, and while Johnson was easily able in 1964 to best Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds, the transformation of the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Strom Thurmond had begun.

Humphrey, too close to Johnson for the taste of the left, saw his convention engulfed in the chaos of the Chicago riots, which helped Nixon, who ran as the unlikely peace candidate, with a secrete plan to get us out of war (cut and run close enough to the next election that Saigon would not fall until he was safely back in office. Well, he did indicate there would be problems implementing the plan if people knew what it was.)

Nixon rebuilt the Republican coalition around resentment -- of Northern liberals, un-American war protesters, blacks, feminists, etc. The coalition of people who resent those groups has given the Republican Party a string of victories that span from 1968 to 2010, and may have some life in it yet.

Here's a sample (from George Packer's wonderful The Fall of Conservatism, published in The New Yorker) of what we're leaving behind:

Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
 In short, the Republican coalition Nixon forged was based on the sort of people who did not approve of the sort of marriage that produced Barak Obama, people who feared and hated all that he is and all he represents. And that coalition has now lost to him twice, even though he was exactly the sort of candidate Buchanan once hoped for to recruit the sort of people who now belong to the Tea Party.

 Now, consider this fairly standard exchange from an internet forum:

[QUOTE=S.V. Airlie;3615278]Meli.. Nice thought but you are nuts to think the dems won't hold this sword over everyone who DIDN'T vote for HIM for four years.[/QUOTE]
 [QUOTE=elf;3615281]And it's about time too, Jamie.

In case you can't see it, this is how the Republicans look to the rest of us:[/QUOTE]
[QUOTE=S.V. Airlie;3615284]I'm glad you idolize him elf. Most assuredly, he considers him a deity as well as you. Too bad I don't trust him at all.[/QUOTE]
I was tempted to simply quote the last of these and not reveal that 'elf' refers to Emily's initials or that Arlie is Jamie's schooner, (he's no relation, by the way, to the Jamie who posts on this blog) and ask which Tolkien knockoff the readers thought the quote came from.

The bit about idolization and deity appears as a non-sequitur. It's even more curious when you know that this particular Jamie supported George W. Bush, a man who claimed God had chosen him to lead the country through a difficult time (thanks a lot, George, way to undermine the kids' faith in God's judgement and benevolence.)

But this insistence that anyone who approves of the president of the United States must mindlessly worship him speaks of a deep fear that Obama might actually be transformative, not because he is The Chosen, but because in choosing to vote for him, the American people have rejected the coalition Nixon forged from resentment, hatred, and greed.

Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, argued that prejudice and tradition are the distilled wisdom of a civilization. This is the best light I can see to put American conservatism in. But the American Revolution was not based on this. It was based on the values of the Enlightenment, the notion that sweet reason could lead us to a better way of living. The cultural battle over Barak Obama is a battle for America's soul, and in light of Burke's views, we should not be surprised that it is fought between appeals to reason on the one hand and the sort of appeals to...well, let Lee Attwater tell us (vid not safe for work)

As Attwater pointed out, things that don't even sound like they are about race can, in a political context, be about race.

And the Republican Party is more about race now than ever before. When George W. Bush first ran for president, he got about 70% of the non-black Muslim vote. Mitt  Romney got 4%. Bush got 40% of the Latino vote and sought to turn them more in favor of his party by pushing for immigration reform. His own party rebelled against the idea, and Romney got only 27% of the Latino vote.

Pat Buchanan once thought a black Democratic presidential candidate would scare white voters into the Republican Party. Now, a black candidate makes the Republican Party act so scary, they push all non-white groups out of the Republican Party.

And the demographics of the country have changed enough that diverse America and whites comfortable with diverse America can form a majority in some, if not most, elections.

That's transformative, not in the way that S/V Airlie ridicules, but in the way he apparently fears. It is transformative because a politics not built on fear and resentment will more likely be able to focus on solving problems, rather than focusing on who gets the spoils.

I've thought in the past that one thing that held back the South after the Civil War was its focus on denying opportunity, education, and political representation to blacks. It represented a deliberate waste of human capital. Just as more freedom and opportunity have benefited the South in recent years, they can benefit society as a whole.

A transformation from a country dominated by the sort of coalition Nixon and Lee Attwater concocted to one dominated by a coalition that looks like America can only produce a broader sense of community, and if Republicans are forced to find a strategy other than Buchanan's of cutting the country in half, hoping for the bigger half, the country will be richer for it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

We are Borg: I am now post human

by John MacBeath Watkins

There are philosophers of our post-human future who say that we became cyborgs as soon as we donned spectacles. For me, that would be age 14, but I didn't buy the notion that I became part machine at that point,

But now, I've definitely been assimilated by the Borg. While delivering books Tuesday to the new location for the bookstore in Ballard (2001 Market, which may be why I'm thinking of this in sci-fi terms) I fell into the hole where the new side entry will be (the silly thing had no railings or markers.) The hole was about a meter deep, cushioned only with nice, dry concrete, and I landed on my elbow and wrist, which both fractured. The wrist is really no problem, but the elbow part of the ulna broke clean off, so that my muscles were attached to a bit of free-floating bone. Any movement created indescribable pain.

My business partner, Jaimie, was there to help me out of the hole (even then, without a ladder we'd have called 911,) and we walked all of a block to the nearest emergency room, where a grim-faced Dr. Brown told me surgery would be required, and would need to take place within a week.

Group Health got me into surgery yesterday, installed a titanium butt joint, and I am now in an entirely different state of agony as I recover from the surgery. Pain pills can only do so much.

The crew at Group Health were wonderful. Thanks to Dr. Adelman and all those others whose names I can't recall (sorry, I wasn't at my best.) Jean Cocteau said that healing is like a slow wound in reverse, and that is certainly how it felt until they got the right pain meds for me. No I'm trying to remain as still as possible for as long as possible to minimize pain and maximize healing.

Updates here:

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Higher Tide on Vashon

by John MacBeath Watkins

Now, here's a funny thing. A few days ago, high tide left the park in front of the old homestead looking like a scene from Spirited Away.

The parking lot was about 20% under water, and the park bench was all at sea.

Not at all the way it looks normally.

Which set me to wondering, how much has the sea level risen since whites settled Vashon Island (the first land claim was in 1864, but not much happened until the 1880s.)

The NOAA shows about eight inches of sea level rise since then.

Which, over 130 years, happened so slowly you'd hardly notice it. How much change does it take, and how fast does it have to happen, to get peoples' attention?

In The City of Falling Angles, published in 2006, there's an account of a man building a replica of Casanova's gondola, and finding that it would not fit under bridges Casanova reported clearing with ease.
"It was a dramatic demonstration of how much the water level in Venice has risen over the past 250 years," he said.
(By the way, if you are so unfortunate as to have never seen Spirited Away, get it from Netflix, buy the DVD, or whatever you have to do to watch it.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The translation game, now with approved borogroves

by John MacBeath Watkins

In a somewhat obscure Philip K. Dick book, The Galactic Pot Healer, the futility of the hero's life is revealed by a hobby he shares with similarly lonely and directionless souls, sending well-known phrases through a series of translations, then challenging the other players to guess the original text.

Robert Frost defined poetry as "that which is lost in translation," so I decided to try it with a well-known poem. I don't think you'll have too much trouble guessing the original text, but this is how it looked after being translated into Hindi, Arabic, Maltese and back to English, with possibly some other languages I've forgotten.

Say what!?

(not as written by) Lewis Carroll

`Twas brillig and slithy Tove.
       WABE ring and Gimble.
All approved borogoves.
       Mome raths asshole.

"Beware the Jabberwock my son!
       Jose, claws that catch the dust!
Jubjub Birds stay away.
       Frumious Bandersnatch! ".

Grab Vorpal sword in his hand.
       To his enemies Manxome -.
Then placed Tumtum tree.
       It was intended for a period of time.

Uffish and thinks he is.
       Jyoti Eye with Jabberwock.
Whiffling Tulgey wood.
       burbled as it is!

One, two! One, two! By scoring.
       Light vorpal blade dazed!
Leave dead, and with its president.
       Went galumphing.

       Lady, Beamish my boy!
S frabjous today! Callooh Callay! ".
       He delighted chortled.

`Twas brillig and slithy Tove.
       What is the area and Wabe Gimble;
All approved borogoves.
       Mome raths asshole.

Apparently, Frost was right.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Red Shift: Any resemblance to actual elections...

by John MacBeath Watkins

Liberals seem not to like conspiracy theories the way conservatives do. This may be why notions that elections can be -- and may have been -- stolen by people manipulating electronic voting machine totals are not popular. I ran across this on a blog post:
In 1871 William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed said: "As long as I get to count the votes, what are you going to do about it?" Paperless DRE machines ensure that only the company that built them gets to count the votes, and that no one else can ever recount them. 
And, of course, someone makes and sells the machines. They must be people of impeccable reputation, because the Help America Vote Act passed under the second Bush administration subsidized local voting authorities buying their machines.

Or not. From an article in Harper's Magazine:
In 2001, for example, a grand jury indicted Philip Foster, Sequoia’s southern regional sales manager, for malfeasance and conspiring to launder money. During the previous decade, he had facilitated a kickback scheme that funneled payments to a Louisiana elections official, who purchased Sequoia equipment while winking at millions of dollars in overcharges. The scheme, which also involved Foster’s brother-in-law and fellow Sequoia employee David Philpot, was hardly an advertisement for the company. Yet Foster, who gained immunity for his testimony against the elections official, not only avoided jail time but was promoted to vice president of sales administration and strategies at Sequoia.

One high achiever actually got his start in prison. Jeffrey Dean’s vote-by-mail software—developed while Dean was serving a sentence for twenty-three counts of embezzlement—came to dominate the U.S. absentee-voting market. Once out of prison, Dean launched his own ballot-printing company with narcotics trafficker John Elder. They later sold it to Global Election Systems, where, readers will recall, Bob Urosevich served as president and COO, before the company was sold to Diebold.
But while criminals might, by definition, be more easily corrupted than most people, this does not mean they favor one side over the other.

But not all the people involved are simply greedy. From the same Harper's piece:

Election Day is now dominated by a handful of secretive corporations with interlocking ownership, strong partisan ties to the far right, and executives who revolve among them like beans in a shell game.

Bob and Todd Urosevich are hardly household names. Yet the two brothers have succeeded in monopolizing American election technology for decades through a pair of supposedly competing corporations: the Ohio-based Diebold and the Nebraska-based ES&S. The latter was founded by the Urosevich brothers in 1979 and is headquartered in Omaha, where it has an Ayn Rand–flavored corporate address on John Galt Boulevard. It is also, let us recall, the same company that may have won Chuck Hagel his Senate seat.

Diebold became the most infamous name in the industry in 2003, when its CEO, Walden O’Dell, a top fund-raiser for George W. Bush, made a jaw-dropping public promise to “deliver” Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush. The following year, California banned Diebold’s touchscreen system, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley blasted the company as “fraudulent,” “despicable,” and “deceitful.” O’Dell stepped down in 2005, right before the filing of a class-action suit that accused Diebold of fraud, insider trading, and slipshod quality control.

Concerned about its tarnished brand, the company removed its label from the front of voting machines. Then Diebold went one step further and changed the name of its voting-machine division to Premier Election Solutions.
This is all very suspicious, but it doesn't prove anything, does it? Even coincidences like this don't:
Late on Election Day, John Kerry showed an insurmountable lead in exit polling, and many considered his victory all but certified. Yet the final vote tallies in thirty states deviated widely from exit polls, with discrepancies favoring George W. Bush in all but nine. The greatest disparities were concentrated in battleground states—particularly Ohio. In one Ohio precinct, exit polls indicated that Kerry should have received 67 percent of the vote, but the certified tally gave him only 38 percent. The odds of such an unexpected outcome occurring only as a result of sampling error are 1 in 867,205,553. To quote Lou Harris, who has long been regarded as the father of modern political polling: “Ohio was as dirty an election as America has ever seen.”
Still no smoking gun, and the witness who was supposed to blow that whole thing wide open died in a private plane accident that his family regarded as suspicious (information about that is on the same page as the quote above,) so we'll probably never know what happened.

But it's a great scenario for a work of fiction, perhaps even a film from the notorious left wingers in Hollywood.

Red Shift
by John MacBeath Watkins

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons or elections is purely coincidental.

Kyle Roe knew where the bodies were buried. It was his job, after all, to order the hits and consign the incidents to sleep with the fishes, or the worms, as may be.

He knew that the craggy-faced John Fairy, Democratic challenger to his old boss, President Geordie Thicket (a weak man but a useful tool and a genial face for his masters) would have won the last election but one had Roe not taken the precaution of arranging for a large number of votes to be flipped from Fairy to Thicket somewhere in the counting of ones and zeroes late on a cold Ohio night.

(Go to a flashback. Oh, hell, I feel lazy, this part can just be written with a search/replace program from coverages of the 2004 election.)

Late on Election Day, John Kerry John Fairy showed an insurmountable lead in exit polling, and many considered his victory all but certified. Yet the final vote tallies in thirty states deviated widely from exit polls, with discrepancies favoring George W. Bush Geordie Thicket in all but nine. The greatest disparities were concentrated in battleground states—particularly Ohio. In one Ohio precinct, exit polls indicated that Kerry Fairy should have received 67 percent of the vote, but the certified tally gave him only 38 percent. The odds of such an unexpected outcome occurring only as a result of sampling error are 1 in 867,205,553.

(With luck, I've changed that paragraph so much that will never figure out that it's plagiarized.)

Roe is tense on the night of the 2012 election, but he knows the fix is in. For four years, the nation has been ruled by a man Roe considers alien, a Vulcan, Zaphrod O'Bannon. Roe's candidate to replace him, Mech Omnibot, has been functioning badly, showing poor awareness of his audiences, saying things publicly that he is only supposed to say to his owners about how contemptuous they are of voters.

Mech is projecting confidence, knowing that his fellow machines will swing the election to him. He's been programed to prepare the public for his victory by claiming that his polls show that the turnout among robots will be higher than expected, and he will win fair and square.

Then, disaster strikes.

Roe is on television with his captive propaganda network, Faux News, when someone goes off the script.

The whole election is supposed to hinge on the outcome in a few counties in Ohio, making it dead easy to fix, but well before the numbers are "healed" to stop the bleeding in Omnibot's vote totals, Kegan Melly announces that Faux News is calling Ohio for O'Bannon.

Roe hits the roof. He starts protesting that only 75% of the vote is counted, claiming implausibly that there are enough Robot districts to bring it home for Mech Omnibot. The actual problem is that if even the Faux network calls it for O'Bannon, fixing the vote will cause suspicion.

The Omnibot campaign is frantically calling the Faux newsroom telling them not to call Ohio yet, but not everyone is in on the plan. Melly walks though the Faux News building to talk to the wonks at the decision desk, and the harried statisticians assure her that they know what they're doing.

Worse news is coming from the western and southern quadrants. States are flipping that shouldn't be, and the election is slipping out of control as voters in areas not controlled by Robot Party companies plump for the Vulcan party, making what Roe can accomplish with his carefully structured system moot.

Roe knows that his backers will be out for blood, and needs to make sure it isn't his. He cancels the maintenance contract for Mech Omnibot, and lets the corrupted programs that were causing problems late in the election do the rest. Soon, they are all out for Mech Omnibot's blood, and Roe's role in future elections is secure.