“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A metaphysical education

When we had our parent-teacher conference last week, I was surprised by the fact that, on the sheet of paper that gives categories for “grading” our child, one of them was: “distinguishes self from others.”
Somehow, I had not thought to run into a major philosophy problem when conferencing about whether it is time to wean Adam from his pacifier. And yet there it puzzlingly was. He did not have a mark in the category, which, his teacher explained to us, was because, being the age he was, no mark could be given. We quickly passed on to other categories, but I remained puzzled. I never supposed, I never naively supposed, that education in America also looks to the metaphysical development of the pupil. Surely this is a little early to be imposing a lifelong task, that of distinguishing self from others, that I have never been able to perform to my own satisfaction, always stumbling over fuzzy boundaries and finding that those opinions and ideas that I thought were the self-born products of my idiosyncratic mind were actually cliches that everybody and their brother already knows all about. Of course, there is another explanation for what is being implied here: perhaps it is just that Adam doesn’t yet say I and only rarely says Adam. On the other hand, he gets straight As from me for his increasing employment of “mine”, which he applies to the whole world with the imperturbable greed of the 19th century British imperialists.
Still, if it were simply and simplistically a matter of linguistics, I think the question would not have been phrased so provacatively. It has larger implications. It is, I am pretty sure, a metaphysical nugget buried among a bunch of other questions about whether he can hold a crayon with his forefinger and thumb and make a mark with it, or whether he puts blocks and toys back in the box (no and yes, if you are curious).  Surely, too, a stranger would smile and say that this question could only have such a place at such a time in America, famous for its individualism. Now myself, I doubt that famous individualism, thinking that as with the rest of the world, people operate automatically and as though mesmerized in the larger current of what their fellows do. On the other hand, the ideological signature is not a pure fraud. It [points to a real thing. There is an American loneliness, just as there is an American habit of jumping from one thing to the other, and both are expressions of “individualism”. It is a marvel and a catastrophe: its monuments are midlife career changes, the rags to riches story, and the old folks home. We do spend a lot of time distinguishing self from others.
My sense is that the teacher is right that this category doesn’t even apply to Adam yet. The other day we were in the park. There was a nifty climbing thing plus slide that Adam was playing on. Near it, there was a boy and a girl, both around six. The girl had a plastic wand, which she said was a magic wand, and she was pointing it at her friend. For some reason, this interested Adam, so he waded into their circle of play saying no no no and several other things thatwere less parse-able, being a bit of English, a bit of French, and a bit of Adamese. The girl was taken aback, and told the boy, look at the baby! Then the two wandered over to the swings, and Adam tagged along behind the girl. I think he was going to give it another try. But I caught him, swung him up in my arms, and said it was time to leave the park. For the girl, Adam truly was a baby. Myself, I could see how much, how comparatively much, he wasn’t.  We are definitely approaching filling in the blank.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

don't believe the prosecutor: a comparison of Michael Brown's murder with Patricia Cook's

McCullach, the prosecutor in Ferguson, said, in his press conference, that it was almost impossible to convict a police officer with the laws as they are now. This was, of course, the most ragged of excuses to throw over his pantomime performance and he led the grand jury to the conclusion he wanted: no trial for Darren Wilson.  That he wanted not to prosecute Darren Wilson has become glaringly obvious from all we know about grand juries and his behavior at this one:
“It looks like he wanted to create the appearance that there had been a public trial when in fact there hadn’t been,” Noah Feldman, who teaches constitutional law at Harvard, said by telephone on Tuesday. The impression that was left, Mr. Feldman added, “was that the prosecutor didn’t want an indictment — and didn’t want to blamed for not getting one.”
However, his excuse has been picked up by various liberal commentors, who tell us, more in sorrow than anger, that the grand jury was never going to indict a police officer. Case in point is Jamelle Bouie, who cites the laws and the court decisions that give a wide latitude to police officers in their use of violence. And of course the FBI stats of 410 justifiable officer caused killings turn up (oddly, the much better statistics kept by the KilledbyPolice organization are never cited in the establishment media. Here the politics of Iraq is reversed – in the latter case, the lower death count that came with merely counting deaths from news items were used, rather than the higher death count derived by normal statistical methods used by a team that published in the Lancet – here, the media count is ignored and the FBI numbers are touted because the FBI numbers are lower).
However, going through the numbers, while an important exercise, shouldn’t lead us to conclude that police officers are never indicted by the grand jury. As a counter-example to Bouie’s thesis, look at a trial that happened just last year in Virginia.
Patricia Cook, 56, of Culpepper Virginia was a Sunday school teacher. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot of a church. This seemed suspicious to police officer Daniel Harmon-Wright. He claimed he approached her and she rolled down the window and he asked for her licence. When she didn't give it he grabbed her wallet, and she rolled up the window and started moving off, dragging him, so he shot her dead with seven shots. Or such was his story. But perhaps because she was a sunday school teacher, white, and Officer Harmon-Wright, because of a drinking problem, had enemies in the department, and perhaps because his mother, who was secretary to the chief, was caught trying to delete negative things from his file - for one reason or another, he was actually prosecuted properly. And although he claimed at his trial that he was just trying to defend the public security, other witnesses said that he never had his hand stuck in the car window and that he ran behind the car and fired his seven shots that way. The upshot was that he was put away for three years. See, it can be done. A, the victim must be a white sunday school teacher, and b., the cop must have enemies in the department. But it can be done.

So remember  Harmon-Wright’s story the next time you read some rightwinger tell you that Michael Brown threatened Darren Wilson’s life. Because in a real trial, that story would be subject to questioning  and, with a real prosecutor, could be largely discredited. Of course, in a real trial, the prosecutor would try to pick a jury that was not predisposed to acquit, as well. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

on ferguson: the culture of impunity for cops

According to the organization that runs the KilledbyPolice facebook page, At least 996 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2014. At least 1750 have been killed since May 1, 2013. Taking that 1,000 per year total, we have at least 13,000 Americans killed by the police since 2001. According to the US Military, 6,802 troops have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This means that roughly twice as many Americans have died by cop in the last thirteen years as have died by the hands of the Taliban or the insurgents in Iraq. Of course, if you throw in the contractors, the number of American deaths is higher – but nobody has really kept tabs on the number of American contractors killed. Even if it is as high as 6,000, we are still talking about a situation in which more Americans are killed by cop than by America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The KilledbyPolice organization operates by counting up stories about police-caused death that appear in the media. It depends, then, on not missing stories – so the number may be higher. But I do think it is of significance that your chance, as an American, of being killed by the cops is higher than your chance of being killed by the Taliban, much less the ISIS.
Of course, the stats go much higher on the killed by cop side if you are walking, driving, sleeping, at work, in a playground, or going down the stairs in an apartment and at the same time are black. If you are white, you are all right.
The disgraceful circus in Ferguson, where the Grand Jury heard a trial in which there was no prosecution, simply a prosecutor defending, as much as he could, a police officer who killed a black boy, is par for the course. So too is the white riot that broke out afterwards in comments sections on the Internet – like the Hutus, who were incited by Rwandan radio to kill Tutsis like “cockroaches”, white americans have listened for years to similarly racist appeals from a panoply of media sites, drilling the exterminationist philosophy into them. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

income inequality and the politics of raising taxes

I am ultra sympathetic to the liberal position that we can do something about inequality by raising taxes on the highest tax bracket, but ultimately, I think that it is a huge economic and political mistake to identify the entire inequality issue with the tax issue. I think, in particular, that this obscures and allows many of the structural changes that have accompanied the rise in inequality – and that, if not causing it, have provided the supportive context in which it happened. The 2008-2009 period is frustrating for a number of reasons, one of which was that the solution to the Great Recession in the US and elsewhere was, at best, a mitigated form of Keynesian demand management. It was not the spark to kick off the examination of the fundamental changes that occurred in the 70s and 80s that made the financial sector both immeasurably bigger and immeasurably more important to the “productive” parts of the economy.  That examination would mean redoing or undoing all the "reforms" enacted in the 70s and 80s, which  funneled money into the stock market and set off the explosion in the other financial instrument markets. It is important to see that these reforms weren’t just the result of conservative Reagan. It was ultra liberal Ted Kennedy who, in the 70s, began pushing a very robust de-regulatory program, starting first with the airlines. Yes, airline travel in the US was de-regulated by Ted Kennedy, architected by his aide, Alfred Kahn, as much as by anybody. This was a part of the great avalanche of de-regulatory legislation on finance that, among other things, established the 401(k) – and whichdefinitely had the Carter imprimatur. A recent story about the 401k – a leapforward in regressive taxation – was published in Bloomberg.
The promise of these years, which still crops up as the main rhetorical prop of what happened, was that it was all about “democratizing” finance – allowing you, lucky sovereign consumer, to chose. Now, this rhetoric is about as sensible as saying that everyone should be able to race cars on the Daytona 500. It takes the word choose, weaves around it a groovy ambiance of self-man-manhood, and goes on to promote one of the world historical ripoffs. After 40 years, the reality is that a miniscule proportion of the assets of the income bracket from 0 to 80 percent are in stocks, or bonds, or derivatives. The one thing that did happen, in the best spirit of Keynesian demand management, is that limits on credit and the regulation of credit were lifted or massaged so that these brackets have had greater credit access (for which they have paid) even as their productivity gains were absorbed by the top 1 percent. Although I would never, ever give it a messy, communistic name, this looks exactly like a form of increasing exploitation in the classical manner described by Marx.
It was one of Marx's insights, in fact, that capitalism abolishes private property for the masses, and when one looks at the ratio of debt to assets for the average American, one sees how right he was. This is from the Who Rules America page. The stats are out of date, but I think probably they have worsened:

Even liberal economists spend most of their time thinking about redistribution in terms of taxes, rather than what the structure of the economy is doing. It is as if, getting a higher tax rate on the wealthy allows us to keep the system in place. I think the system not only generates the kind of wealth asymmetry that naturally expresses itself in the power system (at an amazingly cheap rate - America's governing institutions are controlled at really bargain basement prices. If a billion dollars is poured into your average presidential election, the ROI is superdelicious) that makes this discussion about tax rates mostly academic. Both branches of Congress are now populated by mostly millionaires, according to recent research. This tells us much more about their politics than party composition.
One of the great things about Piketty's work is that he has pierced the veil of the taxcentric discourse about inequality, raising fundamental questions about the structure of late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. In the end, it is perhaps illuminating about our present politics that Piketty’s suggestions do not, however, go beyond – changing the tax system.
Which makes me want to end this with the immortal words of Lenny Bruce during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as reported by Don Delillo in Underworld: we are all gonna die!