The Casual Blog

Tag: Bernie Sanders

Sally revives her orchids, and the new panic about Bernie and socialism

 

Sally’s three orchids are blooming!  They lost their flowers at different times last year and looked about as dead as house plants could look.  But she nursed the sad little remnants lovingly and hopefully, and a few weeks ago, they all decided to revive.  Together, as though they had planned it!   

This week the last bud burst into flower, and they spent some time modeling for me.    For each of these images, I made focus stacks with 20 shots, which I then stitched together with Helicon Focus software.

We watched the beginning of the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate on Tuesday, but neither of us could make it to the end.  What a mess! It was disappointing that the moderators didn’t ask questions about our true emergency issues, like the peril of nuclear holocaust and disastrous man-made climate change, and made the candidates look like quarrelsome children when they couldn’t keep order.  

It seemed to me plain the debating contenders were all smart and reasonably honorable people, and for this alone any would be a huge improvement over Trump.  I’m best aligned on policy issues and temperament with Elizabeth Warren, so I’ll be voting for her, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is not looking like her moment.

The Democratic establishment seems unhappy and uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders, and I can understand why.  His mannerisms can be grating. More important, he seems serious about shaking up the status quo, which they are part of.  The conventional establishment wisdom has it that as a self-declared democratic socialist, mainstream America won’t vote for him, but I’m not convinced that the socialist label is a serious impediment.  

There’s never been a purely capitalist system in the US.  Government subsidies for business are as American as apple pie.  The free market system has at times brought great material progress, and at times political, social, and economic disaster.  Idealizing capitalism as a perfect system is just silly, as is demonizing socialism.

I just finished rereading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which is a brisk and spicey history of humankind.  It begins with the early hominoids of a couple of million years ago, on through the first homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, to their departure from Africa about 70,000 years ago, and the first agricultural civilizations of 12,000 years ago.  He has a bit to say about a lot of big developments, including the industrial revolution.  

Harari views capitalism (as well as communism and other isms), as equivalent to religions, inasmuch as they’re all shared systems of ideas that are only real insofar as groups of people adopt and share them.  He points out that capitalism has been effective at producing wealth for elites, but it is essentially amoral. In its raw form, its only concern is profit.  

To serve the profit objective, early capitalism developed the African slave trade and imperialism, and the misery and death entailed were of no concern.  Only the looniest devotee of Ayn Rand views this raw form as an ideal. The rest of us think markets will not solve every problem, and that other values, like fairness and compassion, are at least as important as profit.  

A lot of our climate crisis is related to unconstrained capitalism.  The highly subsidized fossil fuel industry accounts for a good part of our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the disinformation campaign that supports climate change denialism.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise when Larry Fink, the chairman of Black Rock, recently issued a call to arms regarding climate change.  Fink, who may be the world’s largest investor, issues an annual letter that the captains of industry read carefully and take seriously. This year he focused on sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  He presented this as a matter of preserving profitability, which will likely eventually go down if humans destroy more of the natural world. But of course, stopping global warming would have some other benefits, like saving millions and millions of lives.

In the letter, Fink also talked about the importance of “embracing purpose,” which he contrasted with simple concern for short-term profitability.  He seemed to be saying that companies need to do more than make as much money as possible for investors, and should take account of the interests of other stakeholders.  In other words, unalloyed capitalism needs to be alloyed with other values. 

When I was a lad, part of our national religion, along with veneration of capitalism,  was hatred and fear of communism. We were taught it was an evil force that would take over the world, unless we worked tirelessly to stop it.  This fear turned out to be exaggerated, though we wasted many thousands of lives and millions of dollars before we understood that.  

The upside of this sad history:  it’s harder now to get people panicked about considering socialist policy choices.  Bernie’s detractors will try the old time red scare tactics, but they probably won’t work.  Of the possible reasons for opposing Bernie, moral panic about socialism is the weakest.

 

Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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Spinning, credit card fraud problems, and the tax system for the super rich

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On Saturday morning I had a particularly good spinning outing led by Heather at Flywheel. The previous week was a disappointing one, when I tried hard to reach 300 but finished with a total score of 286.  It made me wonder if I’d finally started that long slide down to the bottom. But this week I finished first in the class with 341! My average heart rate for the 45 minutes was 157 — a record.  There was one guy who stayed close on my tail the whole way, and was just two points behind when the music stopped. Whew!

That afternoon, I had my monthly deep tissue massage session with Ken Katchuk (K2). Ken is really generous with his skills and time, and we set a new personal best: two hours and twenty minutes on the table. It was challenging at times, but we had a good talk about sports, movies, politics, and dogs, and I felt great afterwards.

One of the greatest of modern conveniences has got to be the credit card, which has greatly shrunk the time and distance between a wish and its fulfillment. How amazing to have a need or want, have an online merchant, have a credit card, and very quickly have that object of desire. At the end of this week, though, I had my Visa card declined, first at Happy and Hale (for a lovely salad), then at Hayes Barton Pharmacy, then at Fandango (movie tickets).

I called Capital One, and a cheery fellow in the fraud department read out several charges from Ft. Worth, Texas that were definitely not mine. He said someone had made a counterfeit version of my card. Anyhow, that account is now history. I’m happy Capital One detected the fraud promptly, and happy I won’t be responsible for the fraudulent charges. Still, it’s a bit of a pain, since I’ve got to get a new card and remember to pass then new number to various providers of goods and services.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever prevent all fraud, and we may even be headed in the opposite direction. There’s little doubt that our electronic transaction system is a point of vulnerability. There are highly skilled, ethically challenged people in front of computer screens all around the globe searching for ways to take our money. Thus I’ve gradually converted to non-obvious passwords. You do what you can.

Tiller7Bug 1-2Speaking of systems and fraud, the Times had a significant piece recently about the corruption just below the surface of the US tax system. Here’s a bit from the beginning:

With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.

Operating largely out of public view — in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service — the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government’s ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans.”

The article gives various examples, and explains that the very wealthiest and their tax experts are continually devising sophisticated new schemes. These same people are also the biggest contributors to political campaigns. Could these facts not be related? Once you begin to get you head around this, you might (unless you’re in the one-thousandth percentile) start to get mad. It’s not fair.

So why is this not a huge political issue? I see two main reasons. 1. The existing candidates for the most part are complicit in the status quo. 2. It’s too complicated. That’s part of the point: the tax dodges are designed by experts to defy understanding. Just comprehending a single tax scheme (there are many such) is beyond the mental capacity of most of us, including the IRS, and we’ve got other demands on our time and brain power.

I should note that there’s one major exception among the presidential candidates, who is very focused on the unfairness of favoring the super rich in the tax system: Bernie Sanders. He’s put the issue of addressing inequality and eliminating their special tax breaks  front and center. And against all odds, he’s still in the hunt for the democratic nomination. I have trouble picturing him in the oval office, but I’m very glad he’s getting fundamental issues like this one onto the discussion agenda.

Could Bernie Sanders be for real?

At Crabtree Swamp, July 11, 2015

At Crabtree Swamp, July 11, 2015

I’m starting to like Bernie Sanders. If you haven’t heard, he’s running for president, and the pundits agree that he has no chance. He’s a Senator from Vermont, a self-described socialist, 73 years old, and not faintly glamorous. When I first heard his story, I thought he must be crazy, or at least quixotic. But he’s been rising in the polls and in the early primary states he’s drawing enthusiastic crowds. I like his issues: fighting global warming, reducing income inequality, halting ill-conceived foreign military adventures, improving our health care system, reining in mass surveillance, reforming campaign finance, and others. This interview gives a sample.

This week I sent him a modest contribution. The pundits are probably right about his chances, but I’m supporting him because he’s already doing something important: broadening the dialog about our social problems and the possible solutions. Societal change is really difficult, but if it happens, it begins with a conversation to reset the agenda and take a fresh look at the possibilities.

There is certainly a diversity of views on offer this election cycle. Like everyone I know, I’m still shaking my head over Donald Trump’s astonishing pronouncement that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists. And I’m shaking my head harder that this buffoonish blowhard has vaulted to the front of the Republican pack. I don’t really believe there’s any way a majority goes for his know-nothingism. But this would be an interesting matchup: Trump v. Sanders. I say Sanders wins.