The Casual Blog

Tag: New Yorker

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

Losing things, and joining a protest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Protest march in downtown Raleigh, February 11, 2017

It’s been almost 3 hours since I last lost something, which is a slightly sad thing to be pleased about.  Lately my little things — car keys, access cards, reading glasses, my tablet device, my phone — have gone missing more than usual.  I find them eventually, but the interval between losing and finding is tense and uncomfortable.  It could be early onset Alzheimer’s, but I suspect the cause is Trump.  With his non-stop boasting and lying, his cluelessness on every vital issue, his shameful targeting of minorities,  and his general shamelessness, he’s got me spinning and oscillating with amazement, laughter, and fear.  That could be what’s impairing my brain.  

It may be no coincidence that I’m seeing more references to losing things.  I’ve heard multiple citations recently to the famous Elizabeth Bishop poem One Art (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”), which is worth rereading.  And there’s a beautiful, lively, and touching piece by Kathryn Schultz in the current New Yorker entitled Losing Streak.   She writes of her personal losses of little things (wallets, bike locks), and big ones (her car, her father).  Schultz comes up with some fun facts: the average person misplaces up to 9 objects per day, and in a lifetime will spend 6 months looking for lost things.  She identifies some of the possible causes — your spouse, aliens, wormholes.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The only disappointment was  that she didn’t zero in on Trump.  But a new piece by David Frum in the Atlantic tends to confirm his potential for making us all losers, wondering what became of our democracy.  Frum points up a critical difference between previous varieties of fascism and Trumpism: Trump doesn’t need to stop holding elections, shut down the press, and murder political opponents to achieve his primary objective:  enriching himself.    Modern kleptocracies grow by fostering cynicism and apathy.  Corruption could become ordinary and expected here, as is already has in many countries.  A possible future is the end of the rule of law.

Frum ends on a hopeful note by encouraging us to all get in touch with our Congressmen and Senators and support good laws.  He seems to be of the view that resistance is not futile.  That’s where I am, too.  Even if it is futile, the alternative is worse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Apropos, on Saturday morning I went to a protest in downtown Raleigh– the HKonJ and Moral March organized by the NAACP with some 200 other groups.  Fayetteville Street was packed for several blocks with many thousands of people.

Being in big noisy crowds is not comfortable for me, but that said, it was a cheery noise, and a truly diverse crowd.  There were signs for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, gun control, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, living wages, health care rights, civil rights, and animal rights, among many others.  There were signs against The Wall, the immigration ban, HB2, voter suppression, Tweeting, and intolerance, among many others.  There are so many things that need resisting that it’s hard to stay determined and focused, but we’ve got to get started.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Getting a new floor, Ethiopian food, beautiful bugs, helping refugees, and our gun problem

Tiller7Bug 1
We’re living in a hotel in Cary while the floor of our condo is being removed and replaced. While I’m grateful we have the means to remedy our defective flooring, this has been a major project – like moving (lots of planning, arranging, sorting, boxing, and hauling), but without the ultimate gratification of a move. Flooring is one of those things I don’t usually think much about, and I will be glad to be finished with it.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

It’s unsettling to be uprooted. Our hotel is fine, with amenities including a gym, pool, free wi-fi, breakfasts included, and best and most unusual of all, they take doggies. At first our Stuart was discombobulated by the new situation, uninterested in his food (most unlike him), listless and particularly in need of affection.

Tiller7Bug 1-7
We all consoled each other, and we humans, though unsettled, did not lose our interest in food. On Friday evening we tried a new-to-us Ethiopian place called Awaze. Our servers were warm and friendly, and happy to give us coaching on the traditional forkless method of eating. You tear off a piece of injera, a spongy sort of bread that comes rolled up, pick up some of your main dish with it, then insert in mouth. We tried the vegetarian platter, a combo of most of their veggie entrees. Every bite was exotically spiced and delicious.

Tiller7Bug 1-6

On Saturday morning I visited Raulston Arboretum, as I often do. One thing you discover when you regularly visit a garden: it’s never the same twice. There are major changes every week. This week it was lush and green, with lots of insect activity, including some gorgeous butterflies. The closer you look, the more beauty there is to see.
Tiller7Bug 1-2

This week I read the latest UN Report on Refugees. Did you know that we currently share the planet with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in history – 65.3 million? That’s up from 59.5 million a year earlier. Children make up more than half of the total. The largest source countries are Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. This short UN film (scroll down to Global Trends) highlights the human dimensions of this catastrophe.

Inasmuch as these fellow human beings are in dire straits, and particularly in consideration of our partial responsibility from our destructive decades-long war in the Middle East, it would seem we should be working hard to help. For many, though, the primary concern seems to be that there could among these unfortunates uprooted by war and terrorism be terrorists. Based on this disproportionate fear, we’re doing almost nothing, and let the devil take the hindmost. This is an ethical failure of huge proportions. Consider a gift to the International Rescue Committee or another reputable charity serving refugees.
Tiller7Bug 1-5

There are occasional shining sparks of humanity. The New Yorker this week had a harrowing/inspiring piece by Ben Taub about the work of Doctors Without Borders and others providing medical care to displaced persons in Syria. The Assad government has denied health care to millions of civilians by systematically killing hundreds of health care workers and destroying hospitals. You might think this would drive out the surviving doctors, but there are still some who will not quit, and continue to save lives under unimaginably harsh conditions. Human kindness and courage still exist!
Tiller7Bug 1-8

Speaking of moxy, House Democrats showed some backbone this week in staging a sit in in support of gun control. The NRA’s bought-and-paid-for veto power over gun legislation is an extreme example of the corruption of our political system, and although it’s grotesque, we’ve come to accept it as unchangeable.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, as dozens of Democrats disrupted House business demanding a vote on a gun control bill, it felt bracingly close to real change. The bill at issue was underwhelming – as the gun wingnuts correctly pointed out, the no-fly list is not a reliable source for identifying bad people – but the larger point was clear and important: we can no longer treat this corruption preventing sane gun laws as business as usual.
Tiller7Bug 1-3

The New Yorker noted this week that more Americans were killed by firearms in the past decade than in all of WWII. What is the root cause of the American obsession with guns and allergy to reasonable gun control? A lot of it surely involves high levels of irrational fear. What if we tried to help people find better ways to deal with their fears, and helped them see that in general guns make them less safe, not more?

Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Call out fearmongering by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. Give away free copies of local crime statistics showing downward crime trends. Teach stress reduction techniques. Promote visits to the local arboretum.
Tiller7Bug 1-9

A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

_DSC8060_edited-1
It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.
_DSC8033-1_edited-1

We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.
_DSC8016-1_edited-1

The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.
_DSC8025-1_edited-1

As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.
_DSC7995-1_edited-1

The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

Sweet success at the Dawn Face, and a worrying new chapter in the war on terror

I was thrilled this week that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed their epic climb of El Capitan at Yosemite. It was widely agreed that this ascent of the Dawn Face, a 3,000 foot granite wall, was an almost impossible, transcendent athletic achievement. It took years of planning and preparation to complete this climb, and I’m sure they were not well-paid years. These guys were not motivated by desire for lucre or worldly success. It’s inspiring to see people with such passion and intensity. Hats off to them.

It’s good to cherish such heroic moments. They balance the difficult and depressing stories. It’s almost overwhelming to think about our enormous social and environmental risks and tragedies, but we’ve got to try. Part of the trick, at least for me, is making it a point to pay attention to the beauty around us.

The big depressing story this week was the aftermath of the shocking massacre at the French satirical magazine by religious extremists. This was a horrible crime, and it is inevitable that we feel shaken and confused by it. We want to have a narrative to make it make sense. But the emerging dominant narrative, organized around the idea that militant Islam poses a serious threat to the world order, could do far more harm than the Charlie Hebdo murderers.

It was only hours after the massacre that French politicians were declaring war on terror. I wanted to say, hey, wait, we tried that, and it was a disaster. America has so far spent thirteen years warring against terrorism – the longest war in American history – and there’s no clear light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve spent at least $1.5 trillion dollars and sacrificed the lives of many thousands of our soldiers while killing tens of thousands of enemy soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians. The net is that the small group of radical crazies that existed at the start of the “war on terror” is now a larger, more widespread group of radical crazies.

James Fallows wrote a piece in this months’s Atlantic about America’s puzzling worship of the military. As he notes, it is certainly true that individual soldiers commit acts of great bravery and make enormous personal sacrifices, and for these they should be honored. But as an institution, our military is enormously wasteful, seldom successful, and almost never accountable.

And the cost is staggering from any perspective. Fallows summarizes as follows:

The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up, with little political resistance and barely any public discussion. By the fullest accounting, which is different from usual budget figures, the United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national security this year. That includes about $580 billion for the Pentagon’s baseline budget plus “overseas contingency” funds, $20 billion in the Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons, nearly $200 billion for military pensions and Department of Veterans Affairs costs, and other expenses. But it doesn’t count more than $80 billion a year of interest on the military-related share of the national debt. After adjustments for inflation, the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War. It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations combined—three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count, and seven to nine times as much as Russia. The world as a whole spends about 2 percent of its total income on its militaries; the United States, about 4 percent.

Got that? We’re spending more now on defense than in the Cold War, when we had an actual imposing enemy, and more than the next ten most armed nations combined. The sums involved are literally mind boggling. What has all this money got us? As noted, years and years of death and destruction. That’s about it.

The French are also debating whether they should beef up their security apparatus to allow more widespread spying on citizens. Again, there are some things they could learn from our experience. Our panic after the horrible killing in 2001 of almost three thousand of our citizens led us to create an enormous security apparatus that now surrounds us. Privacy is becoming a thing of the past. Our culture and political life are impaired, as we’re now conscious that our speech may be constantly monitored. We’ve repeatedly tortured prisoners. We’ve sacrificed some of our most fundamental constitutional principles and most sacred ideals.

How much terrorism does our massive security apparatus prevent? It’s impossible to know, though I suspect not much, in part because I don’t think there’s all that much terrorist violence that would happen anyway.

Although there are clearly some homicidal maniacs in the world, it doesn’t seem likely that the world is suddenly filled with homicidal maniacs, or that a large number of those are focussing their mania on you and me. We need to understand a lot more about militant Islam, which, to be sure, has a complement of maniacs that hate the West. But viewing militant Islam as primarily devoted to killing westerners is surely a mistake. Poor and ignorant Islamists have a lot of other things to worry about, like opposing ruling tyrants.

In the New Yorker this week, there’s a piece by Patrick Radden Keefe on corruption. It focuses in part on Afghanistan, where the regime installed by the US has been prodigious in looting the country. At last check, the CIA was continuing its deliveries to President Karzai of cash in paper bags amounting to tens of millions of dollars.

This systematic high level corruption is an outrage at many levels, but one that I hadn’t previously considered is the reaction of ordinary Afghans. According to research by Sarah Chayes, the leading reason that captured Taliban prisoners gave for joining the insurgency was the perception that the Afghan government was “irrevocably corrupt.” How ironic that our war on terror led to this.

It is, for us, hard to conceive of religious militancy as a rational response to extreme circumstances, but it’s worth thinking about. It seems more likely that the extremist movement is fueled more by such a combination of idealism, ignorance, and outrage at oppressive/criminal governments than it is by fury over women’s revealing clothing and comics about the Prophet. Anyhow, it’s a question to which we should find out the answer.

Seriously, let’s get the best possible research on why these people are fighting, what they really want, and what are possible responses before we continue for another decade, spending more trillions of dollars and sacrificing additional hundreds of thousands of lives.

My budget solution: end the wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs)

Yesterday the newspapers reported that the last U.S. soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of this year. When the U.S. invaded Iraq eight years ago, I thought it was a terrible mistake, and everything I’ve learned about it since has strengthened that conviction, as thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, and as we increased our exposure to financial collapse by spending more than 800 billion borrowed dollars.

It’s good news that it’s over, and I wish I could feel happier about it. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc in Iraq, and now we’re stopping. Have we learned anything? That’s doubtful. As a society, we’ve hardly thought about it at all.

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had a concentration in political theory. I read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adams, Marx, Nietzche, Bentham, Mill, Arendt, Rawls, and a lot of other interesting and challenging thinkers. For a long time, though, I had my doubts as to whether I’d learned anything at all useful.

Eventually, I came to the view that I learned one very useful thing: critical thinking. Engaging with lots of powerful ideas that were all, at least to some degree, wrong or unworkable helped develop a mental toolbox. This toolbox is useful in recognizing the weak points in arguments, discarding unfounded assumptions, and sometimes in making better decisions.

War is powerfully attractive at certain times and places. I am not immune to that attraction. Like lots of kids, I’m fascinated by weaponry (especially tanks and fighter jets), and I find military history interesting. But something in my moral education left me with the settled view that killing sentient beings is deeply tragic, and in most cases morally wrong.

Add this ethical orientation to a skeptical turn of mind, and maybe I can see through the attractions of war to the underlying horror more easily than most. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. In any case, I have a high degree of confidence on the right way to go on this. While we’re wrapping things up in Iraq, let’s also quit sending our kids to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. There is no good reason for that war, either. We’ve spent more than $450 billion on it. Let’s stop the physical and financial bleeding.

Ditto on the war on drugs. This week’s (Oct. 17) New Yorker has a piece on the subject by Michael Specter. (Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs are available without charge online.) It starts with a discussion of Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drugs ten years ago and treating addiction as a medical problem. “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

Specter gives a balanced account of Portugal’s experience, and including quotes from critics of the change. Their criticisms seem mostly based on their belief that drugs are evil. Fine. But in Portugal lots of law enforcement and political leaders have given up on the idea that treating drug use as a crime can possibly succeed.

There was another good anti-drug-war piece this week by Doug Bandow, a fellow at the conservative a Cato Institute published in Forbes and republished by the Huffington Post.
According to Bandow,

Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial. Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments. At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”

This cost is appalling, and it doesn’t even count such costs as ever expanding prison systems, corruption of law enforcement and government, breeding organized crime, and of course the human costs of broken families and lives.

But I see a little ray of hope. The national debt problem has come to be viewed as both serious and impossible to solve. However true that may be, it has created a sense of desperation in Washington. It’s just possible that drug war diehards could come to accept drug legalization as a necessary revenue-generating measure. This was part of what led to the repeal of Prohibition — the realists won the argument that we needed the tax revenues from liquor. Legalization, combined with a sensible regulation and taxation system, could make a significant dint in our budget shortfalls. Add that to ending unnecessary wars, controlling excessive military costs, cutting farm subsidies, getting health care costs under control, and voila!

Processed and unprocessed food

This week's Mid-Chatham CSA box

We’ve been eating lots of fresh organic local produce recently. Sally subscribed us to the Mid-Chatham Farmers’ Alliance CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which furnishes a box filled with fresh produce once a week through the local growing season. The food has been amazing! There’s so much taste! Even some vegetables that I’ve long avoided, based on bitter early encounters, like beets and turnips, have been remarkable. With the various greens, I’ve made some fantastic green smoothies.

I was momentarily cheered when Red Hat served veggie hot dogs at a gathering this week. I appreciated some recognition of plant-food eaters, but when the crucial moment came, I couldn’t get myself to try one. I’ve gotten used to eating very little processed food, and now the idea of snacking on man-made chemicals is sort of disturbing. As it happened, I wasn’t very hungry anyway.

There was an interesting New Yorker article titled Snacks for a Fat Planet: PepsiCo takes stock of the obesity epidemic by John Brooks a couple of weeks back. Did you know that PepsiCo is the largest food company in the US, with $60 billion in annual revenues? Its Frito-Lay division is by itself enormous, and other brands include Tropicana and Quaker Oats. Its CEO, Indra Nooyi, is the first female, first Hindu, and first vegetarian to lead the company, and she sounds like a brilliant and dynamic leader. She also seems genuinely concerned about the health problems that are associated with some of the highly processed sugary or salty foods that have made PepsiCo vast quantities of money.

I don’t envy her, for she’s taken on an impossible job. It’s nice to work on making the fatty snacks on which PepsiCo has thrived less unhealthy. But the whole business of not only engineering snacks but also programming people to eat more and more processed junk is wrong. It contributes to vast numbers of premature deaths.

Our junk food culture is like the smoking culture, but before the Surgeon General’s report in 1964. We’re done something (though not enough) to address the health risks of tobacco, and we need to do at least as much to address the deadly culture of junk food. I realize this message is kind of depressing, and junk food purports to be, and is accepted as being, innocent fun. But that’s, in part anyway, the problem.