Friday, September 27, 2013

More Wealth Supremacy — the Divine Right of Billionaires

Paul Krugman has a nice essay today on sociopathy among America's wealthiest citizens. He begins:
"Robert Benmosche, the chief executive of the American International Group, said something stupid the other day. And we should be glad, because his comments help highlight an important but rarely discussed cost of extreme income inequality — namely, the rise of a small but powerful group of what can only be called sociopaths."
Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group (who through a $3 million birthday party for himself in 2007) said, "It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939." Krugman left out Lloyd Blankfein's "We are doing God's work".

Berkeley scientists published a 2012 paper: "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." Inequality promotes rule-breaking, indifference to others, etc., in those who are better off.

Is it any surprise that greater inequality causes greater immorality? In the course of their money-grubbing, the Benmosches and Schwarzmans and Blankfeins must realize that there is no real justification for anyone making billions while huge numbers struggle at minimum wage. People like Michael Bloomberg (whose wealth grew by about $4 billion in just one year) must either admit that they are leaches or they must invent some 'justification'.

Psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance". Orwell called it "doublethink".

In a different time, monarchs invoked a "divine right of kings". Blankfein, Benmosche, et al., think likewise, that they are divinely entitled. Right-wing economists like Gregory Mankiw appeal instead to innate superiority deriving from genetics. This is a familiar phenomenon in the US. Horrific American behavior in Iraq or Afghanistan is excusable because "Americans aren't really like that". Americans are "exceptional" — citizens of, as Christiane Amanpour put it, the world's "most moral country" or as Madeleine Albright said, "the world's only indispensable nation".

Whatever it's called, the outcome is the same — a wonderland in which gross misdeeds aren't simply justified, they're moral.

When American 'Moderates' Try to Sound Moderate

"[D]ecades of perceived humiliation by the West." Thus Roger Cohen characterizes Iran's many complaints against the US (and a handful of other nations, most notably Britain).

Inability to place blame where blame is due when doing so would undermine American jingoist mythology — an essential requirement for any American pundit.

Perceived humiliation?

The 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh. Years of of support for the brutal Shah. The 1988 attack on Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 (after which the Vincennes Capt. Rogers was rewarded). Years of increasingly brutal sanctions whose only substantive impact is on average Iranians. Overflights by American drones. Likely US support for military incursions into Iran (as reported by Seymour Hersh), which are acts of war under the international law the US demands Iran obey. The placement of US forces in nearly every country bordering Iran. The Stuxnet attack concocted by the US and Israel. A constant stream of invective and bigotry from Americans against Iranians and Islam. US support for and training of the MEK and blind eye turned toward express violations by prominent Americans (like Rudolf Giuliani) of US laws against support for terrorism.

And Mr. Cohen's most glaring omission: The slavish obedience of American politicians (and pundits) to Israel's Likudniks, including AIPAC.

What about this is just perceived? What about it would given any Iranian, even the most liberal, any reason to trust the US?

The real question is what humiliations remain unperceived, still secret.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Jay Rosen on "The Toobin Principle"

Jay Rosen of NYU has a nice essay on the inability of pundits like Jeffrey Toobin to tolerate support for Edward Snowden. Here are some of my thoughts:

Despite the appearance of contradiction (and while there is a tension), one can be consistent in thinking that the debate resulting from Snowden's leaks is good although Snowden's actions themselves are bad.

Jeffrey Toobin seems conservative to me. He certainly falls within the spectrum of standard American thinking where actions are justified instrumentally — by virtue of the good outcomes those actions produce. (The most dogmatically held example of this in the US is the conviction that enormous inequality is justified by the 'trickle down' effect.) So if the debate resulting from Snowden's actions is a good thing, Toobin must believe there is some overriding negative outcome that makes Snowden's actions bad. This could be a coherent argument, but neither Toobin nor others attacking Snowden make it because there is little real argument nor any wish for such in the mainstream about Snowden.

My suspicion regarding Toobin's (and others') distress over Snowden's leaks is threefold:

  1. Toobin and many journalists, scholars, observers like him (e.g., Matt Yglesias, Chris Hayes, David Gregory, etc.) deeply, personally identify with power, especially Washington ("This Town", as Mark Leibovich has described). They have powerful incentives to do so; their wellbeing as pilot fish depends on that of the sharks.
  2. They therefore see criticism of Obama or the US government as criticism of themselves.
  3. They are profoundly unable to conceive of the possibility that American leaders, in government or business, might be guilty of really awful wrongdoing. This is why years ago, for example, Toobin could casually attack OJ Simpson before the facts were in, but cannot criticize any American leader, like Obama, as a plausible candidate for war crimes charges.

Snowden or Wikileaks generate cognitive dissonance for the Toobins in America. They resolve the dissonance with just-so stories that exonerate American power. If they actually thought about it, they could construct a coherent argument. They are unaccustomed to doing so because the US culture is one that bitterly rejects challenges to power, fashion, wealth, fame.

"[D]emocracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security." What would be the response to: "Security here at home must be balanced against the requirements of democracy"? The notion that democracy brings demands seems to have been lost.

How would Obama or Sen. Feinstein or any of those who endlessly defend government abuses react if there were a broad, deep public demand for democracy, defense of rights, and an end to massive surveillance? If we have not already reached the point of no return, we are rapidly approaching one where a surge in public opposition would provoke a constitutional crisis worse than that seen in the Civil War. The crisis will likely never arise because the public is so misinformed, so deceived, and so dogmatic in its faithful attachment to American power that the demand will never be made.

Lest this seem like conspiracy theorizing or just handwaving, recall that in the Nixon years, calls by some within the administration for more troops in Vietnam were opposed because it was thought those troops might be needed in the US to quell domestic unrest. Recall also that both Bush and Obama made legal moves that would, in principle, undermine posse comitatus and allow use of US troops within the US.

Finally, despite racist hostility to Obama or malicious GOP opposition to anything Democratic, Americans are still overwhelmingly of the view that we owe obedience to political leaders. Americans identify the powerful in America with America itself. And they suffer under the delusion that they, any day now, will win the lottery and join the powerful.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Richard III Finally Wins

Skeletal remains found under a parking lot in the British city of Leicester have apparently been confirmed to be those of King Richard III, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Most who have any association at all with the expression "Richard III" will think of Shakespeare's play and the lines "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." Or "My kingdom for a horse!" My favorite has always been Richard's response to Lady Anne:
Lady Anne
... No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. 
Gloucester (Richard)
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
Charlotte Higgins, writing in the UK's Guardian newspaper, raises some doubts about the science and a far more important point about popular science.

Skepticism regarding the validity of the claim that the remains are indeed those of Richard III has nothing at all to do with the more important, genuine issue of what discoveries like this have to do with broader scientific efforts.

I couldn't help noticing that the de facto spokesperson among the scientists on this project just happens to be the most attractive female, Jo Appleby. This is a symptom of a poisonous trend in the sciences — that to be worthy of public support, they must be popular and 'relevant'. The New York Times and the BBC both have pet, pretty scientists who write or host pieces from time to time. What a coincidence that they are so photogenic. Stephen Hawking is also a creature of this phenomenon. How good a scientist he is has less to do with his popularity than the freak-show factor, which brings an audience.

The standard for science today is the American Standard. It must have the potential to drum up millions in funding. We expect private corporations to lust after money and nothing more (though once upon a time, many leading firms had great pure research arms, like Bell Labs decades ago).

The same standard is applied to the arts and more or less every other human effort where once non-profit meant non-profit. Thus we see the absurd success of (con-)artists like Damien Hirst. Or Marc Quinn's gold (22 pounds of gold) statue of Kate Moss first shown at the British Museum. Important museum shows take a back seat to yet another round of Impressionists who will pull in hordes of ticket buyers. University presses like Oxford's or Harvard's, once specializing in books that might no more than five thousand readers, increasingly demand that a book be able to sell at least tens of thousands of copies to be 'worth' publishing.

Everything must be 'monetized' because contemporary culture values money above all things, even money as the only thing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

More on Wealth Supremacism

Paul Krugman writes again today on the intellectual bubble conservatives continue to inhabit while trying to pretend otherwise to win votes. Not only do Republican politicians live in an intellectual bubble (joined by conservative and pseudo-moderate Democrats), so too do journalists and scholars who claim to find 'evidence' supporting right-wing GOP economic policies. Conservative politicians may be grossly ill-informed or just weak-minded. But what accounts for undeniably very-intelligent researchers like Gregory Mankiw or Glenn Hubbard? Economics is dominated by conservative thinking.

The question is not whether the intellectual bubble exists, but, firast, how it is kept inflated despite all the evidence that should burst it and, second, what cherished belief is at its center.

I think the answer is profoundly troubling. A significant body of conservatives and pseudo-moderates (e.g., Cass Sunstein) are wealth supremacists. They believe that the wealthy are naturally superior — even biologically so. Gregory Mankiw stated this explicitly in his blog in August, 2009. He asserted that children of the wealthy perform better in school because they've inherited their wealthy parents' superior genes.

Conservatives (and pseudo-moderates) aren't all so extreme. But American culture is thick with evidence that many people, perhaps most, view the wealthy or famous as simply better people. It is quite amazing and disturbing that Americans have effectively reinstituted a divine right of wealth that many would have said we abolished two centuries ago.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama Inaugurated for Second Term — Big, Fat, Hairy Deal

Economist and New York Times essayist Paul Krugman today suggests that progressives take a break from our "anxiety" and take some solace in the few, modest accomplishments of the Obama administration.


I'm unclear whether Paul Krugman thinks Obama's 'accomplishments' are a "Big (so what!) Deal" or a "Big (wow . . . almost) Deal." And "anxiety" is an interesting choice of words — just that little bit demeaning, disparaging. 

As for the substance of Krugman's claims:

Nobody disputes that inequality in the US will continue to grow (with Obama and most Democrats seeming to embrace that, modest palaver to the contrary notwithstanding), and social mobility will continue to decline. 

We'll see whether health care in the US improves. Massachusetts is more of a mixed story than Obama-supporters will admit. Insurers got everything they demanded from Obama. 

As for financial reform, Wall Street is just as petulant as the NRA — and more powerful. Ninety-nine percent of American revile Wall Street, yet the oligarchs still get most of what they demanded. But they are spoilt brats. Unless they get 110 percent of their demands they whine about how hard-done-to they are.

Unmentioned are any international issues. The world has learned that Obama is as bad or worse than Bush: drone strikes; assassinations (including of American citizens); uninterrupted funding for Israeli occupation; denial of due process for all accused to terrorism; a different and poorer standard of justice for Muslims and Arabs; vicious and unprecedented abuse of whistleblowers and activists for openness (most recently, Aaron Swartz). And nothing at all on climate change

Sorry, I'm not going to take a break. And it's not anxiety. It's fury.