Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.