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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

We’re Being Sold a Story

The Daily Escape:

Plague Fort (or Fort Alexander), St. Petersburg, RU. It was built between 1838 and 1845 on an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland. From 1899 to 1917, the fort housed a research lab focused on plague and other bacterial diseases. It was abandoned in 1983.

The Economist has an 8500-word interview with the documentary film maker, Adam Curtis. For 30 years, Curtis has produced documentaries on politics and society. Apparently, he has emerged as a cult-hero to the UK’s young thinkers trying to comprehend our chaotic world.

His latest film, “HyperNormalisation” (you can view the trailer here, or watch the entire 2+hour documentary here) argues that governments, financiers, and technological utopians have, since the 1970s, structured a simple “mostly fake world” for us, run by corporations, and kept stable by politicians.

Wrongo was attracted to this in part because Curtis takes the title of his documentary from work by a Russian historian, Alexei Yurchak, now a professor at Berkley. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006). Yurchak says that in the 1980s, everyone from the top to the bottom of Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working. They knew that it was corrupt. They knew that the bosses were looting the system. They knew that the politicians had no vision. And they knew that the Party bosses knew they knew that.

Everyone knew it was fake, and they just accepted the fakeness as normal. Yurchak coined the term “HyperNormalisation” to describe that feeling. When Wrongo was in Russia in October, he heard a few Russians express this exact idea about the end stages of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t stop them from despising Gorbachev, who ended the state economy and replaced it with a less-than-functioning market economy. They longed for the simpler state of affairs, with less to think about, and less to worry about. Where everyone knew that the system didn’t work, but they all had jobs, and there was food in the markets.

2018 America is far from being the Soviet Union, but this is exactly the way the US is today. In most ways, everything the government touches, like elections, environment, tax policy, and health policy, could be substantially better for all of our citizens.

We all know everyone is unhappy, but everyone just says, “It’s the system. We can’t change it.”

A quote from Curtis:

There is a sense of everything being slightly unreal; that you fight a war that seems to cost you nothing and it has no consequences at home; that money seems to grow on trees; that goods come from China and don’t seem to cost you anything; that phones make you feel liberated, but that maybe they’re manipulating you, but you’re not quite sure.

He talks about the concept of “risk”, and how it entered our discussion, migrating from finance to politics in the 1980s. Today, everything has become about risk analysis, and how to stop bad things happening in the future: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Politics gave up saying that it could change the world for the better and became a wing of management, saying instead that it could stop bad things from happening. The problem with that is that it invites all the politicians to imagine all the bad things that could possibly happen—at which point, you get into a nightmare world where people imagine terrible things, and say that you have to build a system to stop them.

Can the people take power back from corporations and their captured politicians? Maybe, maybe not. People like stability and they fear instability. We saw that with Gorbachev in Russia in the 1980s.

But if we are to move past the collusion of corporations and politicians trying to keep us accepting things we know are unacceptable, we need to have better politicians.

The job of a master persuader is to tell a story that says, “Yes this is risky, but it’s also thrilling, and it might lead to something extraordinary”. The persuader must say, “Yes, I understand your fears but look, what’s happening isn’t right. We can do better than this”.

People are asking, “What is our future? What is this existence for?

  • If you live in West Virginia surrounded by people taking opioids, you surely want to know what all that sorrow is for
  • If you are a recently laid-off GM worker, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’re a student with $75k in student debt, and a cog job, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’re a plumber with no health insurance and pancreatic cancer, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’ve worked hard to elect someone who just lost because of ballot-stuffing, you’re asking the same thing

These are the questions that our politicians should be answering.

Do you see someone who can bring people together behind a better vision?

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Tax Abatements Are Killing School Budgets

The Daily Escape:

Egmont National Park, NZ – photo by vicarious_NZ

A new report shows that US public schools in 28 states lost at least $1.8 billion in tax revenues last year as a result of tax incentives granted to corporations. The study analyzed the financial reports of 5,600 of the nation’s 13,500 independent public school districts.

Good Jobs First examined the first full year of reporting under a new accounting standard for school districts, adopted by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the body that sets accounting rules for all states and most localities. The new rule, GASB Statement No. 77 on Tax Abatement Disclosures, requires most state and local governments to report annually on the amount of revenue they’ve lost to corporate tax abatements.

This is extremely important, since most local schools are very dependent on revenue from property taxes, but they rarely have influence over corporate tax abatements granted by their towns, and/or the cities or counties where they are located.

And local voters have had no way to see how much they are forced to pay in additional taxes that were lost to enrich the pockets of corporate employers.

Good Jobs found that the 10 most affected states could have hired more than 28,000 new teachers if they were able to use the lost revenues. Or, they could have avoided higher home property taxes, or provided their teachers with better resources, or higher pay.

States and cities have long used abatements and other tax incentives to lure companies, or to keep them from leaving, and/or to encourage them to expand locally. Often, those companies make their choice of location based on the quality of local schools and colleges.

These abatement deals are made by local politicians and are meant to boost local economic development. Their proponents say the lost tax revenue is worth it, because they grow the local economy. But it is difficult to know whether the benefits outweigh the burdens.

And until GASB 77, it has been impossible to see just how much a school system may have lost because of a company’s tax break. The new rule is especially helpful in understanding local schools finances, because it requires the reporting of revenue losses even if they are suffered passively by the school system as the result of decisions made by another body of government.

Of the five districts that lost the most, three are in Louisiana. Together, they lost more than $158 million, or $2,500 for each student enrolled. The School District of Philadelphia, which only last year regained local control from the state after climbing out of a deep fiscal crisis, lost the second most revenue at $62 million.

Overall, nearly 250 school districts lost at least $1 million each, and in four districts, tax abatements reduced classroom resources by more than $50 million.

But most school districts have not yet complied with Rule 77, which was implemented in 2015. Good Jobs First estimates that another $500 million of subsidies and abatements are currently unreported.

Most of us believe that our governments are supposed to govern in the interests of the “general welfare,” that when voters put people in positions of power, based on the legitimacy of our electoral process, is the limit of our responsibility as voters.

We accept that somebody has to say what the rules are, and then enforce them.

But in our neoliberal economic times, voters have to remember that our governments often act as wholly owned subsidiaries of the 1%. It takes suspension of belief to accept that our republic, ruled as it is by an oligarchy, is working for the general welfare of all of our citizens.

Why do we think that, our “governments”, all of which are subject to capture and ownership by the few, are going to somehow provide decency, comity, or fairness to all of us?

We need to abandon the article of faith that the free market, one without government oversight, promotes the best economic outcome for all of us.

Today’s inequality says the opposite.

We need a new vision of the role of government. But it isn’t really a “new” vision. It is simply a return to insisting on the “promotion of the General Welfare for all” as the paramount object of government.

Here’s another thought from Gordon Wood, in his book, Creation of the American Republic:

In a republic each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body. For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance.

The last outcome that American revolutionaries wanted was to be ruled by oligarchs. But, here we are.

We need to reform our capitalism.

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Saturday Soother – December 1, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Yukon Grizzly before hibernation – 2014 photo by Paul Nicklen

Quite the week. We had barely digested Thanksgiving dinner when we heard about Russia seizing three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Azov Sea. We learned that Paul Manafort lied to Robert Mueller, and that his lawyer reported everything that occurred between Manafort and Mueller to the White House. Then, we heard that Trump’s former in-house lawyer, Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress, and is now cooperating with Mueller. Who knows what it all means?

But, the big story this week was that we learned that life expectancy in the US fell to 78.6 years, a 0.3 year decline from our peak. From CNN:

Overdose deaths reached a new high in 2017, topping 70,000, while the suicide rate increased by 3.7%, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports.

We are witnessing social decay in America. This is consistent with what Angus Deaton and Ann Case called “deaths of despair” in 2017. The WSJ has a detailed breakdown, and also points out how other countries are continuing to show progress:

Data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Thursday show life expectancy fell by one-tenth of a percent, to 78.6 years, pushed down by the sharpest annual increase in suicides in nearly a decade and a continued rise in deaths from powerful opioid drugs like fentanyl. Influenza, pneumonia and diabetes also factored into last year’s increase.

From Yves Smith:

Americans take antidepressants at a higher rate than any country in the world. The average job tenure is a mere 4.4 years. In my youth, if you changed jobs in less than seven or eight years, you were seen as an opportunist or probably poor performer. The near impossibility of getting a new job if you are over 40 and the fact that outside hot fields, young people can also find it hard to get work commensurate with their education and experience, means that those who do have jobs can be and are exploited by their employers.

The 2017 data paint a dark picture of health and well-being in the US, reflecting the effects of addiction and despair, particularly among young and middle-aged adults. In addition, diseases are plaguing people with limited access to health care.

In the late part of the last century, and the early years of this century, there was a steady decline in heart-disease deaths. That offset a rising number of deaths from drugs and suicide. Now, we’re not seeing those heart-related declines, while drug and suicide deaths occur earlier in life, accounting for more years of life lost.

The worst aspect is that it never had to be this way. These drug and suicide deaths are “collateral damage” caused by the social and economic changes in America since the 1970s.

And we made most of those changes by choice.

Wrongo is reminded that last month, he learned that something similar had happened in Russia under Gorbachev. Under Perestroika, millions of Russians lost jobs. The government’s budget deficits grew. The death rate exceeded the birth rate. Nearly 700,000 children were abandoned by parents who couldn’t afford to take care of them. The average lifespan of men dropped to 59 years.

Are we in a slow motion disaster that could be similar to what Russia went through back in the 1990s?

We’ve become hardened. These American deaths are largely anonymous. When AIDS was ravishing the gay community in the 1980s, people were able to appreciate the huge number of deaths by seeing, or adding to, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which eventually weighed more than 50 tons.

There is no equivalent recognition for these deaths of despair.

A traitorous American ruling class has sold out its middle and lower classes. If you doubt that, think about Wal-Mart. The Walton’s fortune was made by acting as an agent of Chinese manufacturers, in direct competition with US manufacturers. Doesn’t that seem like treason?

Relax, there’s nothing you can do about all of this today, the first day of December. Time to get what solace you can from a few minutes having a coffee, and a listen to a piece of soothing music.

Start by brewing a cup of Kona Mele Extra Fancy coffee from Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($64.94/lb.). It has an aroma of dark chocolate, fruit and flowers. And shipping is free.

Now settle back and listen to a few minutes of George Winston’s “December”. Here are Part 1: Snow, Part 2: Midnight, and Part 3: Minstrels:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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America’s Divided by Illegal Immigration

The Daily Escape:

Fall at Mount Assiniboine, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, BC, Canada – photo by Daniel Kodan

Happy Halloween! The spooky caravan of migrants heading northward to the US-Mexico border has sparked much debate. We’ve always heard that the US is “a nation of immigrants,” and that we’re a better country because of migrants who came here to chase the American Dream. But now, the country is divided about letting immigrants into the country.

On October 18th, the Kaiser Family Foundation published a survey that focused on the most important issues to voters. They found a significant difference between the parties on immigration:

Republicans rated immigration as their most important issue at 25% vs. 9% for Democrats, and Independents ranked it third at 15%. The sample included 396 Democrats, 309 Republicans and 399 Independents for a total of 91.8% of the overall respondents.

The differences were more pronounced in battleground states. Republicans in battleground states ranked immigration highest at 29% while Democrats rated it at 16% and fourth overall:

We say we are a nation of immigrants, but what that means is no longer clear. Trump and many Republicans running this fall have made the caravan seem like a powerful enemy army that we are at war with, albeit one that is unarmed, without funds and leaderless.

The Kaiser survey shows that this is working with Republicans in battleground districts/states. Whether it will prove helpful across the country will be determined on November 6th.

This anti-immigrant viewpoint has been with us for a very long time. After the Civil War, Congress realized that Blacks were going to be able to obtain citizenship just by being here, and then having children who would become citizens by birth. That ended when the 14th Amendment legitimized those children.

In the late 19th Century, there was another strong push to restrict immigration in order to maintain the whiteness of the country. It started with the restrictions against the Chinese and Japanese. Then it was extended even to those Europeans who were not considered to be white enough. People like the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Poles, had their immigration quotas drastically cut back from 1917 through the 1920s.

We have always expressed our anti-immigrant bias explicitly in racial terms, even making up races, like the Irish and Poles. And today, it’s the Mexicans and Central Americans.

Even the term “illegal alien”, or “illegal immigrant” that we apply to those crossing the southern border has almost replaced race. It’s no longer legitimate to openly discriminate on the basis of race, but we’ve allowed one political Party to replace race with legal status.

So now it is legitimate again to discriminate against people. They are illegals, not a racial category, like they were in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

Today’s Republicans play to our fears: These less-than-worthy illegals want in, so that they can take a shot at the American Dream. If they get in, they may take jobs away from poorly educated, low skilled Americans. Therefore, we must be vigilant, and insure we protect our economy and the citizens who are already here.

There is some truth to that view.

America’s economy is predominantly service-based, and immigrants are over-represented in low skill, low-paying service occupations. They are in elder care, food services, in fact, they are hugely involved in the farming, harvesting and processing of most of our food as well.

These low-end jobs are going to grow, and it is highly questionable if low-skilled Americans will be lining up to take them.

And nobody’s talking about population growth as a reason to implement more restrictive immigration policies. By 2050, the US is projected to have 400 million people. Now it’s about 320 million. That’s a 25% increase in 32 years.

We need to ask: where will the jobs come from for all these people?

The division needs to stop. It’s a toxic stew of nativist, xenophobic ideas that must be sent back underground, and we have to end the rhetoric about “birthright citizenship” once and for all.

Let’s start by granting the DACA people citizenship. Second, those who came into our country illegally, and have not committed serious criminal offenses, should be offered a rigorous path to citizenship, one that does not give them an advantage over those who have complied with the law and are waiting their turn. Third, employers who have knowingly hired and exploited undocumented immigrants should be prosecuted, and not simply fined.

Fourth, we need clearer immigration rules, and better methods of processing of asylum requests. And we need more border security.

And if Trump’s wall is included, (as repugnant as that may seem), so be it.

 

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Sending Troops to the Southern Border

The Daily Escape:

Fall at first light, Northern VT – 2018 photo by mattmacphersonphoto

The caravan, again. From the WaPo:

The Trump administration is expected to deploy additional US troops to assist in security operations at the southern border in response to a caravan of migrants traveling north on foot through Mexico, three US officials confirmed Thursday.

The Pentagon is sending 800 more troops, including some active-duty forces primarily from the Army. The new deployments would add to the estimated 2,100 National Guard troops already involved in border operations. Zandar says:

The party of separating refugee kids from their parents and keeping them in cages in detention camps seems to think that martial law on the southern border is going to be a political winner for them in a couple weeks.

But will really be a winner for the GOP? Although the GOP and Trump are continually trying to instill fear of undocumented immigrants, most of us haven’t been persuaded. In fact, according to a Chapman University Survey of American Fears, a larger share of the public is afraid of Trump (59%) than are afraid of illegal immigrants (41%):

Fear of illegal immigrants
59.3% are not afraid
19.3% are slightly afraid
12.2% are afraid
9.3% are very afraid

The Chapman study shows that the proportion of Americans expressing concern about immigrants is about one in 3. So, why are Republicans acting like we’re about to be invaded? Here’s one Congress critter who’s sounding the alarm:

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) suggested that President Donald Trump might have to declare martial law along the southern border of the United States to prevent a large group of Central American refugees and migrants from entering the country.

Gohmert was speaking on a Fox radio show. When asked what “martial law” would look like, the congressman responded that it would mean Federal troops at the border dealing with the mob invasion: (brackets by Wrongo)

This has got to be so massive, I mean, you might have to declare martial law along the border…And the Democrats have been too stupid to realize that [by] encouraging this caravan they may actually empower the president to do things they never wanted.

It got worse: (emphasis by Wrongo)

The military needs to have their weapons pointed towards Mexico and not toward the American people, but it may be that we have to have enough federal law enforcement, and maybe we have to have the National Guard if Jerry Brown is going to force the issue ― but I hope and pray he won’t be so stupid as to try to stop the US government from enforcing our border because then we’re talking treasonous-type acts.

Wow, we know that Gohmert isn’t the brightest bulb in the House, but, training guns on Jerry Brown? And what’s treasonous? It is perfectly legal for persons to request asylum at the border. That’s how it’s done.

Anyone else see a line between this, and bombs showing up at the homes and offices of some Democrats who criticize Donald Trump?

There may be decent reasons to add more military on the southern border, assuming that the volume of migrants asking for asylum is about to increase. The key is that there will be a surge of people seeking asylum if/when the caravan gets to the border, so additional resources will be useful.

The guardsmen already at the border are under orders from their respective state governors and remain under their governor’s control. Gen. Mattis issued a memo this year that prohibits them from interacting directly with “migrants or other persons detained,” and that directive is still in place, said a Pentagon spokesman.

Officials said Thursday that the additional forces will mostly include engineers to build new traffic barriers, aviation support, doctors and lawyers to provide legal representation.

That’s fine, but Trump, the GOP, and especially Rep. Gohmert, ought to read up on the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act which expressly prohibits the use of US military forces to perform the tasks of civilian law enforcement such as arrest, apprehension, interrogation, and detention inside the US, unless explicitly authorized by Congress.

Despite Trump’s tweets, there is no crisis at the border. And using the military as Gohmert suggests, violates the Act.

As the mid-term election fast approaches, we need to see that there are many in Congress who are willing to flaunt, or straight up violate laws in order to make a political point.

They have to be turned out of office next month.

This time, make the 2018 election have consequences for the other side.

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Monday Wake-Up Call – August 20, 2018

The Daily Escape:

East Byram River, Greenwich CT – August 2018 iPhone photo by Wrongo. With so much recent rainfall, CT waterfalls are working hard.

This Monday, we depart from our usual ranting about politics and economics, and turn to the subject of text-analytics. The Atlantic has an article by Frank Partnoy about it. Text-analytics scans unstructured text, and pulls usable data from it, using a variety of algorithms. The technology is used extensively in the finance industry. Investment banks and hedge funds scour public filings, corporate press releases, and statements by executives to find slight changes in language that might indicate whether a company’s stock price is likely to go up or down. From Partnoy:

Goldman Sachs calls this kind of natural-language processing “a critical tool for tomorrow’s investors.” Specialty-research firms use artificial-intelligence algorithms to derive insights from earnings-call transcripts, broker research, and news stories.

More from Partnoy:

In a recent paper, researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that a company’s stock price declines significantly in the months after the company subtly changes descriptions of certain risks. Computer algorithms can spot such changes quickly, even in lengthy filings, a feat that is beyond the capacity of most human investors.

Most of us use a form of the technology without knowing it, since it operates in background powering things like the spam filters on our email. Many companies also use text-analytics to monitor their reputation on social media, in online reviews, and to find wherever they are mentioned on the internet.

The technology has become so sophisticated that companies are now using it to scan employees’ emails to determine levels of employee engagement, employee stress, and morale. Many firms are sensitive about intruding on employee privacy, though courts have held that employees have virtually no expectation of privacy at work, particularly if they’ve been given notice that their correspondence may be monitored. But as language analytics improves, companies may have a hard time resisting the urge to mine employee information. Here is a blurb from one industry leader, KeenCorp:

KeenCorp’s revolutionary software uses proprietary artificial intelligence and psycholinguistic analysis. Its algorithm recognizes patterns and detects tension from regular e-mail and corporate messengers. It works unobtrusively in the background to provide automated and continuous reporting.

The software then assigns the analyzed messages a numerical index that purports to measure the level of employee engagement. When workers are feeling positive and engaged, the number is high; when they are disengaged or expressing negative emotions like tension, the number is low. This allows KeenCorp to create a “heat map” of employee engagement for company management.

KeenCorp says the heat maps have helped companies identify potential problems in the workplace, including audit-related concerns that accountants failed to flag. This can be a big issue in highly-regulated industries, like finance, health care, and pharmaceuticals.

The firm’s software can chart how employees react when a leader is hired or promoted. And one KeenCorp client investigated a branch office after its heat map suddenly started glowing and found that the head of the office had begun an affair with a subordinate.

Imagine, an office relationship threw off heat!

KeenCorp says that they don’t collect, store, or report any information at the individual level. They say all messages are “stripped and treated so that the privacy of individual employees is fully protected.”

But, it’s absolutely a short step to snooping on an individual employee. It is a simple extension of the technology to grab information about individuals, based on their heat map score. KeenCorp indicates that some potential clients want it.

If sufficient firms are seeking that information, that software enhancement will be developed by an outside firm, or by building an in-house data-mining system.

Another software, Vibe, searches through keywords and emoji in messages sent on Slack, a workplace-communication app. The algorithm reports in real time on whether a team is feeling disappointed, disapproving, happy, irritated, or stressed. While it isn’t a fully commercialized product, 500 companies have tried it.

At this point, text-analytics is an unproven technology. No data exist about how often such tools might suggest a false positive, a problem when none exists. Or even fail to reveal a problem at all.

A real issue is what will managements do if/when they are made aware of potential problems surfaced via text-analytics? HR departments survey morale all the time, and few have success in changing the paradigm.

Wrongo thinks that the ability to parse information closely is what separates really outstanding analysts from the mediocre. This software will help, not hinder great analysis.

OTOH, it is what all paranoids do with friends and family. It’s also important to note that not all wrongdoing will register on a heat map, no matter how finely tuned.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 29, 2018

They found water on Mars. It appears to be salt water. Maybe we’ll build a giant desalinization device, and a few survivors of this hell on earth can give a fresh start to humanity on Mars. Also, Russian scientists found nematodes in Siberia that have been frozen for nearly 42,000 years. With climate change, they were visible to scientists. A few came back to life in the lab:

After being defrosted, the nematodes showed signs of life, said a report today from Yakutia, the area where the worms were found. ‘They started moving and eating.’ One worm came from an ancient squirrel burrow in a permafrost wall of the Duvanny Yar outcrop in the lower reaches of the Kolyma River….Another was found in permafrost near Alazeya River in 2015, and is around 41,700 years old….They are both believed to be female.

Both of those news items are more believable than much of what we hear from Washington, DC these days. For example, Trump’s speech to the Veterans this week included his caution about believing the news media. That led to this cartoon by Darin Bell:

And consider the gloating about “historic growth” in GDP by Trump. John Harwood schools us on the data:

If you think that’s fake news, check out the data.

Trump went off on Iran. What could be behind President Rouhani’s provocations?

Michael Cohen stayed in the news again this week. He’s gonna get a TV series:

Tariffs are always a tax on consumers. Donny is here to collect:

Americans no longer have unlimited voting rights, or election security in the US. This is believable:

Establishment Democrats always react the same way:

Wrongo isn’t on board with the democratic socialism platform, but he believes that corporations should be subjected to tighter regulations. They should pay more in taxes. They should be forced to reimburse the people for the deleterious impacts of their activities, like cleaning up factory sites that have polluted the land.

And every American should have access to healthcare, childcare, and some form of employment. We could make the choice to provide a free education to every American if it were a higher priority than new bombers, or aircraft carriers. ICE should be reformed, not abolished.

Establishment Democrats are trying to scare voters away from candidates who support the democratic socialism agenda. They should relax, democratic socialism isn’t about taking everything what you have away, and making it government-owned.

When you consider the perils and benefits of democratic socialism, you should think about Europe. Five of the top 10 happiest nations in the world (according to the UN) are Scandinavian: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden. And they are all democracies.

Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset the 4th ranking House Democrat by running on a democratic socialist platform, Dems worry that what worked in the Bronx won’t work in Kansas. They’re right, it won’t work in Kansas. That’s why candidates need to run on issues that are important to their districts. A voter in Kansas is probably more concerned over the price of wheat than he is about gay marriage.

But, running on the economy and jobs works everywhere.

Ocasio-Cortez campaigned with Bernie Sanders in Kansas. James Thompson, a centrist Democrat running for Congress in Kansas, said she might as well come out, because the local Republicans were going to call him a socialist anyway.

Democrats were called socialists in 1992 when Bill Clinton won. They shouldn’t panic – they should own the accusation.

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White People’s Problems

The Daily Escape:

Point Lobos Reserve, CA – 2018 photo by HeroicTaquito

Today we have two linked stories about the often deminimus problems of white people, and how they can take generations to resolve. That’s older, upscale white people.

Wrongo and Ms. Right spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon at a venerable music venue in Falls Village, CT called Music Mountain. This unique facility has been around since 1929 as a performance space for classical music and jazz, with classical music performed on Sundays, and jazz on Saturdays.

This year, they are staging 16 consecutive Sundays of chamber music, including six by the Shanghai Quartet, in which the Quartet will perform all of the Beethoven string quartets. We saw them perform three, including his Opus 132. It was being performed at Music Mountain for the 23rd time. And it was a blissful experience.

The crowd was about 200 older, white-haired music lovers. We saw just one kid under the age of 15, and very few in their 20’s and 30’s, except those who were a part of the production crew. It isn’t a new question to ask if classical music as we know it today will survive in the next century. City orchestras around the world are financially stressed. The audience is aging, and is not being replaced by younger fans. In fact, even though Music Mountain has been around for 89 years, like most niche venues, they are constantly raising money.

A connected story is about Lime Rock Park (LRP), a track for sports car enthusiasts that is located a few miles away, in the town of Salisbury, CT. If you know about it, it’s probably because Paul Newman’s career as a race car driver started at Lime Rock.

The track has been in a fight with the town and with Music Mountain, since it opened in a reclaimed gravel mine in 1957. Lime Rock has always attracted an overwhelmingly upper-crust clientele. Simply put, the crowd isn’t your average NASCAR bunch. These people are predominantly wealthy country club types, the kind who have room in their garages for multiple (often antique) sports cars.

Salisbury itself isn’t demographically very different from the track’s clients: It is 95% white with a median family income of $69,152. Seven percent live in poverty. Meryl Streep lives here. It is the home of a renowned prep school, Hotchkiss.

Yet the town and the track have been at odds with each other since 1957. The major issue is loud noise from sports car engines. However, since 1959, LRP has been prohibited from hosting racing events on Sundays when the Litchfield Superior Court issued an injunction banning Sunday racing.

That injunction stood until recently, when the track obtained a court decision to allow racing on Sunday afternoons and unmufflered racing as well. The track owner’s argument was that the zoning regulation made the track uncompetitive with others in Connecticut, and the judge agreed.

You would think that the town’s and the track’s interests would align. Wealthy people visit Salisbury every summer to see and be seen, to crash their little cars and live to talk about it. But their interests do not work together. The track employs very few locals, and the taxes it pays don’t amount to much (~$90k).

So, a legal appeal is working its way up the food chain, starting in the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. And later on, probably going on to the state courts. Music Mountain, located close enough to hear the engines, now asks for donations for the costs of appeal, along with funds to underwrite their performance space. How deep can the pockets of classical music lovers be?

This is a fight by and among white people that has been ongoing since 1959. It’s a battle of property rights: The right to quiet enjoyment on the locals’ side, and the right to use your property as you see fit on the other. It’s the dominant culture in America at work, engaged in a decades-long pissing contest.

It doesn’t matter much in the global scheme of things: Putin isn’t involved, and kids aren’t being separated from their parents in this town. People aren’t marching for “Medicare for all”.

This is a high quality problem being fought by only the “best” people, a fight that is characterized as a threat to the American way.

Perspective, people, please!

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Why Say “Passed” or “Passed Away”, Instead of “Died”?

The Daily Escape:

Meditation Maze, Chartres Cathedral, France – photo via @archpics

So much talk about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Several news reports said one or the other of them had “passed”, not that they had died.

Wrongo finds either construction “passed” or “passed away”, jarring. People are born, they live, and then they die. They don’t pass away. Does this change in usage, which seems to be relatively modern, have something to do with how difficult we find it to handle death?  Many people on TV, and most people under 40, tend to favor saying “passed away”.

In Greek mythology, the river Styx was the boundary between life and death, so the dead were referred to as “passing over to the other side”. Styx was a feature in the afterworld, and the ferryman Charon often was described as having transported the souls of the newly dead across the river into the underworld. Christians, believing in an afterlife, use the term to indicate that the deceased has “passed” into the afterlife.

Its best use seems to be by people who do not believe death is final.

Today, many of us try to soften the blow, saying “passed away” to tell the bad news to someone who hasn’t yet heard about the death. Possibly, saying it is seen as a more gentle way of saying the person has died.

William Bradshaw, a Yale Divinity graduate, did an informal study of the usage:

During the first 50 years or so of my life, the term I always heard or read was “died.” But now, more often than not, I hear and read: so and so “passed” or “passed away.” Several questions come to mind: Exactly when did the change in terminology occur, what was the reason for the change, is it helpful for the family of the deceased, and what are the theological implications of using “passed away” or “passed” instead of “died”? I decided to explore the matter.

He interviewed funeral directors, and most of them said the usage had changed in the last 25 years. He also examined funeral notices over time:

The change was gradual, and did not occur at the same time among all funeral homes or newspapers. But by the early 1980s “passed away” was the norm for all obituaries used by funeral homes, while obituaries and stories in newspapers still tended to use “died”…

Bradshaw says that other terms used occasionally are “deceased,” “expired,” “departed this life,” and for children, “went to live with God” or “went to live with the angels.” “Passed” is heard primarily in conversations, and is seldom used in print, except occasionally in novels.

Bradshaw expands on “passed/passed away”:

I noted to myself that we never say, “Jesus passed away on the cross” or that “Jesus passed to save us from our sins.” Christian funeral services almost always include this famous saying of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Gospel of John 11:25-26) In any of the modern versions of the Bible that use updated English, I have never read: “I am the resurrection and the life: although he passed, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never pass away.”

But, if you have ever had someone close to you die, you know that feeling of disbelief, the hope that what has happened isn’t true. It is easy to understand the magical thinking, that if we just don’t give in to it, the death won’t be real.

And while Wrongo dislikes it, using “passed away” is eminently understandable on a personal level.

But, when you’re dead, you’re dead. Saying someone passed away really doesn’t help to soften the blow.

Another time, we’ll talk about when “killed” should be used instead of “died”.

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No Cake For You, No Democracy For Me

The Daily Escape:

Manhattan, NYC skyline viewed from Brooklyn – 2018 photo by Max Guilani

The gay wedding cake ruling was absurd. If a wedding photographer didn’t want to take photos at the wedding, it would be understandable, because then they’d be present at the ceremony, in some way, participating.

But a person baking and decorating a cake? The baker isn’t participating in the event, and the cake isn’t usually at the ceremony either. The cake can’t represent a religious belief unless it’s actually a religious cake.

There’s a difference between freedom “from” and freedom “to”. This case, and a few others, notably Hobby Lobby, have swung the pendulum in the direction of “freedom to”. That could be the freedom to refuse to serve a customer, to refuse to provide health coverage, to claim an infringement of your religious rights, to say that baking the cake causes undue harm to your right to believe as you do. Much of what the Right touts as freedoms fall under this category, like the freedom to bear arms.

But at the same time, will the court protect those groups who need freedom “from” something, like freedom from discrimination, or harassment?

So, here we are in 21st century America: Stuck, this time by the Supreme Court.

And most of the time, we are stuck by the House and Senate’s inability to move the country forward. The question is: How long will the majority of Americans consent to be governed by the minority?

This, from David Brooks:

Now the two-party system has rigidified and ossified. The two parties no longer bend to the center. They push to the extremes, where the donor bases and their media propaganda arms are. More and more people feel politically homeless, alienated from both parties and without any say in how the country is run.

Our system of democracy must evolve. Under our winner take all rules, the minority can control the country with say, 20 million votes, representing about 6% of the population.

Consider that every state has two senators. The 22 smallest states have a total population less than California.  If the Senate’s filibuster remains in effect, just 21 States can stop any presidential appointment, or any legislation. Even without the filibuster, it takes 26 states to stop legislation.

And the smallest 26 states have a population of about 57 million, less than the population of California and the New York metro area. And today, neither major political party commands more than 30% of the voters.

How long can the country sustain this lack of balance and democratic fairness? The competing interests that the framers tried to balance in 1789 have been overtaken by newer competing interests that they never envisioned.

Maybe it’s time to seriously rethink our electoral processes.

In a recent column in the NYT (quoted above), David Brooks recognizes the problem, and argues for multi-member House districts and for ranked-choice voting (RCV). Russell Berman explained how it works in The Atlantic:

Ranked-choice voting, which cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine, use to elect their mayors, has been likened to an “instant runoff”: Instead of selecting just one candidate, voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and whoever their voters chose as their second choice is added to the tally of the remaining contenders. That process continues until there are only two candidates left, and the one with the most votes wins.

Supporters say RCV ensures that candidates with the broadest coalitions of support will win, and that it allows voters to choose the candidate they prefer, without splitting the vote and handing the election to the other party. They also say RCV will inspire more positive campaigning, because candidates will aim to become voter’s second and third choices instead of targeting each other with negative advertisements. Further, they hope that RCV could create room for third-party candidates to succeed.

Wrongo thinks something needs to change. We can’t keep a system that allows the minority to run the country, especially if it is persistently a racist minority, a misogynist minority, a fundamentalist minority, and a cruel minority.

Wrongo grew up believing that having public education, public housing, public transportation (including roads) and human services paid for by the public in proportion to their income or wealth, was what created a civilized nation, an educated populace, a world-class work-force. Now, Wrongo really worries about our current political situation. He worries about his grandchildren. Unless there is political change, their future looks grim.

Herbert Stein said: “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”

We have to change our electoral process.

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