Posts Tagged 'inequality'

The Social Consequences of Injustice

 

Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, “Tragedy of the Commons” inspired a stream of writing by all manner of scholars particularly economists. The essence of Hardin’s thesis is actually a common sense observation that limited resources can tragically be depleted or destroyed when thoughtless unlimited use is made of them. When people disregard the consequences of their use and abuse of limited resources those actions invariably affect others who need or use those same goods. In other words, when people behave selfishly it is essentially anti-social.

 

Selfish behavior is a moral issue contrary to what two well known University of Chicago economists, S.D. Levitt and S.J. Dunbar claim. Their blunt appraisal is, “.. economics simply doesn’t traffic in morality.”; in their opinion it seems, any resulting inequality from over use of the commons has no moral dimension, an attitude which, in one form or another, seems to have become pervasive in our society and around the world. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Nestle, the largest food producing and water bottling company in the world, recently stated: “Human beings have no right to water.” If people want water they must buy it – preferably from him, of course. I suppose it is only fair to ask if is air next? We are living, it seems, in a time of unprecedented venality, an era of social behavior separated from moral consideration and consequence.

 

I believe the commons and the social contract are interchangeable. In a just society there is a relationship between the equitable distribution of wealth, justice, and economic opportunity as essential goods of the commons. Truthfulness and belief are also vital parts of that equation. A healthy functioning social contract cannot be a Potemkin Village of lies, injustice, and public relations flack. The two most corrosive recent Supreme Court decisions, the 2000 coronation of George W. Bush and granting corporations human status in 2010 were poisonous to the commons, to the social contract. As a result of the latter we have a Congress controlled by business lobbyists and not by any measure a Congress of the people. A society in which the wealth of six people in one family is equal to the entire bottom 30% of Americans is not a healthy society. A “Let them eat cake.” mind set didn’t work for Marie Antoinette; ultimately it isn’t going to work for today’s 1% either. Something is going to have to give either as a result of increased political consciousness or other less civil means. If the history of civilization is any guide, a tipping point will be reached sooner or later.

 

What demagogues of all stripes fail to remember is that there has always been a price to be paid when a critical mass of disbelief and inequality is reached. Lies have lasting effect and are inevitably found out either by disclosure or by turn of events. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently stated that voting rights are “entitlements”. Either he is ignorant of the Constitution, he doesn’t grasp the Constitution, or he is a bald face liar. There are no further possibilities and lying seems the most likely based on his presumption of stupidity on the part of the rest of us, or, in other words, his obvious arrogance. “The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs.” is how Harry G. Frankfurt puts it in his charming and insightful book, “On Truth”. Lies from the Supreme Court bench indisputably distort the “real state of affairs”.

 

What is the “real” state of affairs in this case? Here is the definitive statement of voting rights which Scalia and John Roberts want us to believe they don’t get:

15TH AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION

[Ratified February 3, 1870]

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

The Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, in response to Roberts’ assertion during the trial that Massachusetts had the worst white to black voter ratio turnout in the U.S. gets to the heart of this discussion: “I’m disturbed, first of all, that he is distorting information. You would expect better conduct from the chief justice of the United States. I’m a lawyer, he’s a lawyer, lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.”

 

Of course you would have to be new to the planet of you thought lawyers have a universal commitment to the truth. You might notice in a court proceeding that everyone must take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Everyone that is except the lawyers. I once questioned an officer of the Lawyers Disciplinary Board, a group that is charged with overseeing the conduct of lawyers, about this anomaly. I was told that lawyers may “interpret” in their speech to a jury. This assertion flies in the face of what is called the “Duty of Candor Before the Tribunal” to which all lawyers are required to adhere. Nowhere in the literature of the American Bar Association will you find an exception to this duty. In practice however lying is sanctioned in a Kafka-worthy “interpretation” by regulators. If truth is not the absolute coin of the realm in court where could it ever be? How could there be justice?

 

I agree with the social philosopher, Philippa Foot, who said, “… it makes sense to speak of those who are lovers of justice – as of those who are lovers of truth.” we must then conclude that the lawyering business has a questionable relationship with both truth and justice if their standard for truth is a moveable feast, fabrication in the guise of “interpretation” to suit their needs. As Mr. Galvin cast it, “… lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.” I once conducted a simple survey of lawyers asking the question: “Is your duty before the court to seek justice or to win?” I never did get a straight answer. If the motto is “winning is everything” the corollary must inevitably be, “Society and Justice be damned.” It follows from this that not all people are equal before the law but rather it depends upon who has the lawyer most willing to “interpret” the “facts” in a manner favorable to the client.

 

A society cannot long exist without truth which is the bedrock of justice, it cannot long live a lie. In the final analysis the Social Contract is both a perception and a belief. When the substance of life in a society as it is lived is perceived to fail our natural expectations of truth and justice, our belief in the social contract is betrayed and cynicism follows; with that the commitment to the commons is destroyed. When there is no social contract it becomes everyone for themselves with all which that entails.

 

 

 

Tipping Point?

“The long and the short of it is, there is no important idea that stupidity does not know how to make use of, for it can move in all directions and is able to wear all the garments of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has only one garden and one road and is always at a disadvantage.” (The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil)

In the course of human events, the evolving and relentless curriculum of all societies, countries, indeed every form of human organization there inevitably comes to pass what can be called a tipping point. A moment in time when previous understandings no longer apply, are no longer valid or abided by. Things change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. This  dynamic exists in all relationships without exception. Relationships are constantly being made and broken, alliances formed, reformed, or destroyed, joined and separated – conjunto today separado tomorrow. This has always been the normal state of human affairs. We understand that relationships are at times defined by convenience, mutual needs under particular circumstances which, when those circumstances change, so too the relationships.

Social contracts defining political relationships such as democracy are based on trust that the foundational definitions will hold over time and circumstances and for all members equally. When beliefs fail to reflect  experience trust is inevitably displaced by disillusionment and disappointment which inevitably segues into resentment and anger. No amount of rhetoric or sermonizing can assuage the indignity of inequality – social, economic, or political. When the foundational conditions defining a society, country, or international agreement fail, become inconsistent, or are regularly violated the required trust, the “glue” dissolves taking the contract with it. The social history of the United States speaks to this truth since its inception failing to deliver its promises of social equality never mind economic.

An analysis  of federal policy initiatives dating from 1981 to 2002 by researchers at Princeton concluded, “ … economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The denial and destruction of a government of, by, and for the people, is the antithesis of a democratic society paving a path to disillusionment, disengagement, and ultimately – dissolution. There are all manner of inequalities some of which society can redress and some we cannot. It is inarguable that civilized humane people must correct those inequalities that can be, to provide the economic and social capital to equalize the inequalities of opportunity and access.  It is not that society lacks the means and methods but rather it lacks the will and motivation but, there is more to it than that even. It’s a failure to believe in or to understand what it means to live in a democracy.

More and more people in the US realize they don’t live in a participatory democracy as they were led to believe and where this realization will take us is unknowable. Obviously the many Texans, supported by elected officials, who were convinced the federal government was preparing to “take over” that state, impose martial law, and confine them in disused Walmart stores have reached some kind of tipping point. For these delusory Texans the only remaining question is will there be greeters in blue vests.

    The ability to live at high levels of cognitive dissonance such as to believe the US government is plotting to lock you up in an empty Walmart store illustrates the problem – no contradiction of evidence, values, or beliefs is to great to ignore; no reassurance to the contrary matters accompanied by pandering politicians exploiting the hysteria.The consistent thread is dispensing with the idea of truth. Where there is no social or economic opportunity, and no justice there is no believable truth.  If black people can be shot or beaten by police with impunity on any pretext no amount of political suasion will protect a belief in truth or justice in that community. Where there is no justice there is no possibility of a coherent social contract. Nowhere in such a desperate belief system can truth live comfortably and securely. The denial and negation of truth has many expressions including social and economic inequality, mysogny, racism, and eventually the reality of a diminished, if not extinguished, democracy.

Economic justice is constrained by neoliberal capitalism, an amoral economic system become a quasi-religious belief system not to be questioned. One can fairly ask as now one must, how is it possible for a polity to maintain a non-democratic economic system approaching religious status conflated with a barely functioning social contract? This is the stuff of cognitive dissonance.

But, what is all this about, really?  It’s about indignity; not simply expressed as inequality of material things but the inequality of shared human experience which underlies racism, mysogny, greed, and every other social aberration that objectifies others. It is about a growing lack of simple compassion as illustrated by thirty-three cities across the US which have either already banned or are considering banning giving food to homeless people going so far as to threaten jail time for doing so. If every person of color were to disappear from the United States by tomorrow morning a new replacement group would be found by nightfall. It’s a curse on society and that, my friends, is the sad truth and how far can it go without some serious course corrections is more in question than the inevitability of that necessity. We don’t know where the tipping point is – but, there is one, there always is.

American Agonistes?

Is it ironic that in the second decade of the 21st century we are still debating equality in a country where all are supposed to be political equals? In the 18th century, the equality debate concerned the rights of colonists. In the 19th century the debate erupted into civil war over slavery, followed in the 20th over suffrage, and in the 21st the battlefield is economic equality, a societal battle over the rights of money over the rights of citizens as embodied in the destructive sophistry of the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Earlier equality debates have not been resolved either as there is always someone with a new twist seeking to undermine what should be settled law. Racism, sexual orientation, religion, bigotry, and mysogny are unrelenting, persistent, and tragically reinvented daily. It’s a curse, this agon, this quest for equality. Not so long ago Southern European immigrants were persecuted presently it’s Muslims and migrants fleeing economic and political oppression. It has always been blacks; next week it will be someone else. Truth is, if every person of color were to disappear tomorrow morning a new target group would be found by nightfall. While discrimination on the basis of wealth isn’t new on the list of divisive social issues it has now become critical when so many are unemployed, underemployed, or simply dropped out including college graduates laden with debt who cannot find employment.

Hedge fund managers making $24 million annually are taxed at 15% while truck drivers who earn $43 thousand a year are taxed at 28% the tax burden thus falls to working class people. In Kansas budget shortfalls will be made up with increased sales taxes and fees paid mainly by the working middle class and poor. A non-partisan policy group says the poorest 20 percent of the state will now pay 1.5 percent more in taxes than they did in 2012. or an average of $197 a year. The Governor, Sam Brownback, in a classic Orwellian trope, told the press this isn’t an increase but a tax cut.  I think we’re in Wonderland, Aunti Em.

  When wealth is gained at the expense of the majority of the members of a society, social viability becomes the paramount question. Historically such has  been the prelude to one sort of revolution or another and some think we may be on the precipice of a foundational evolutionary social reformation. Sentiments go well beyond the numerous books recently published about economic inequality and Capitalism. Petitions are being circulated calling for a constitutional amendment to nullify the obviously biased Citizens United decision. The presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and others are also speaking to larger more fundamental deeply felt issues.

The realities of a diminished, if not extinguished, democracy are denial and negation of truth. Neither propaganda nor appeals to patriotism can make this go away because there is no alternative to inequality but equality. There is no livable alternate reality when 33 American cities already have or are planning to make feeding hungry people illegal. The casual abandonment of moral consideration is truly remarkable.

In an analysis  of federal policy initiatives dating from 1981 to 2002 researchers at Princeton concluded, “ economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The denial and destruction of a government of, by, and for the people, is the antithesis of a democratic society paving an inevitable path to disengagement, and ultimately – dissolution. We can fairly ask as we must, how is it possible for a society to maintain a non-democratic economic system, qua religion, conflated with a barely functioning social contract? It is inarguable that a civilized society must correct those inequalities which can be corrected to provide the economic and social capital necessary to minimize inequalities of economic opportunity and political access.

Democracy as a political and social system requires equity, sharing, and engagement. Democracy is an expression of distribution and inclusion – capitalism is accumulation and exclusion. Capitalism is fundamentally a winner take all zero sum game, it has no ethic or morality other than to take it all is opposed to the sharing ethic required for a viable democratic civil society. Capitalism being finite and material has a natural end point – democracy being politically and socially aspirational does not, its horizon is indeterminate. In the absence of equal economic justice there is no possibility of a viable democratic social contract. As Adam Smith cautioned in his 1776 classic, The Wealth Of Nations: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.

The United States has been engaged in one war or another for 222 out of the past 239 years. Since 1776 we have also been at war with ourselves. Is this then the ongoing American agon? We must decide.

The “O’s”

It has been a good long time – 70 plus years since my last encounter with the NYPD. My name-sake Grandfather had his grocery store on West 46th between 9th and 10th. I spent my summers and school vacations with him opening the store at 6 AM after stopping first at the Fulton Street markets. Home was in Brooklyn and the daily drive over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan remains a vivid memory. At the market we’d load up with fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheese. Each vendor would offer a slice or a piece of whatever they were selling – it was the original walking breakfast. We’d next drive through the streets just awakening with activity, to the store. My first job was to sweep the sawdust from the floor and replace it with fresh. Then into the front window to sweep up bread crumbs and put fresh white butcher paper before the bread man arrived. Next began the parade of eponymous truck drivers whose names were Mr. Ballantine, Mr. Borden, Mr. Schlitz, and so on.

One of the morning tasks was to create the display of fruits and vegetables in front of the store’s window. Grandpa did this with care and a bit of artistic flair – it was my Grandfather’s art actually and he was quite proud of it.  I remember people stopping by to chat especially the old Sicilian ladies in black, of course, squeezing everything for freshness including me. West 46th was a neighborhood teeming with interesting characters most of whom stopped to exchange greetings and a few words. At noon the store would fill with dock-workers in for their hero “sangwitches” to be washed down with a quart of beer. It was a wonderful world of characters and personalities for me to have grown up in, these are all my fondest memories which I treasure to this day.

Sadly it wasn’t all thus. Every day, into our world would swagger the beat cop twirling his night-stick walking usually from East to West on our side of the street. Invariably the cop would stop in front of the fruit display, select a gem of an apple, peach, or pear, toss it up, catch it, and walk off without a word. Notice I didn’t include pay for it. In those days most cops’ names began with an “O” as in ’OToole, O’Reilly, O’Neil and so on. I was puzzled, why doesn’t this guy have to pay like everyone else? Grandpa wouldn’t say a word but would make a silent gesture drawing his fingers under his chin. You get the picture. We were the “other” then and silence was the safest response. There have always been “others” in every era and every culture treated dismissively and with scarce if any respect. In the US blacks have been treated as others since long before the so-called “Revolution” of white landowners and businessmen against their king. The Civil War “revolution” of Southern whites to preserve slavery didn’t resolve the matter either nor did two world wars in which black Americans served equally and with valor but came home to the same racism they had left. Yes, the overt legal issues have mostly been resolved but not the essential and foundational social, emotional, or moral ones. Racism was and continues to be deeply embedded in the society as are prejudices against Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, foreigners of any kind – in short “others”. And, one has to ask, why does it have to be this way?

So now I’m in New Mexico reading the news on the internet when I see the cop who choked Eric Garner was named Pantaleo and what struck me immediately was that his name ends in “O”. Back in the day the racist names began with “O”. Is this progress? Does Pantaleo know how Italians were treated 70 years ago? Have we not progressed as a society since the 1940s or are we just better at pretending we have? The 1948 Kerner Commission report unequivocally stated that racism was then pervasive and as American as apple pie and now, 66 years later it’s clear not much has changed except a few more minorities have been added to the “other” list.  The newly elected Republican majority in Congress seems full bent on harassing and embarrassing our black President to the extent of openly discussing denying him a Congressional venue for his State of the Union address. Armed militias are stationing themselves along the US Mexican border posing for group photos holding all manner of firearms; they are there to prevent children from entering the country. Isn’t this depravity?

Inequality and racism have been the evil twins hovering above every civilization seeking its humanity. Time and again people have struggled to address this reality  – “Liberté, egalité, fraternité” – people seeking truth, justice, equality, freedom, and dignity. These are the qualities of life that define what we wish humanity and thus our societies to consist of. Racism is simply another face of inequality, another facet of injustice, a denial of liberty that chains both racists and their victims to incivility, hatred, and dysfunctional society. In the absence of truth none of the problems of inequality, injustice, or racism can ever be resolved. So it is that the truth must be told, inequality exposed, and racism condemned.

We must not accept that racism or inequality are facts of existence with no resolution. Nothing is gained  by pretending have a race neutral or egalitarian society regardless of John Bohner’s claims otherwise, we are not having truthful discourse about the matter. Truth number one: racial problems are not legal they are moral. We have applied legalistic solutions for years and haven’t come close to approaching the underlying moral issues. I’ll submit that casting and discussing inequality and racism or even better “other-ism” as a moral question will take us further towards the truth. We need to begin now while there is still time. Racism and inequality are by far the most deadly enemies of American society. We cannot continue to impoverish entire classes of citizens while cutting taxes for the most wealthy. We cannot continue criminalizing feeding the poor and homelessness; these are truths – moral truths. Adam Smith long ago clearly spelled it out: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Not even the fantasy of “American Exceptionalism” will save us from the inevitable – it didn’t save Ozymandias and it won’t save us.

“ … comes the Revolution.”

The Economist recently published an essay asking, “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”. Why has Democracy run into trouble and what can be done to “revive” it. What’s “wrong” with Democracy is not limited to economics. American Democracy, such as it is, is long overdue for scrutiny. When a state supreme court chief justice claims the 1st Amendment only protects Christians and the US Supreme Court declares corporations are entitled life forms, more is wrong than a just few aberrations. It’s a movement and not a good one for Democracy.

Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies – they are, in fact, antithetical. Democracy is about human beings, Capitalism about money. Democracy is about equality, Capitalism is about inequality. The former asks for cooperation the latter demands competition. There are consequences to this dichotomy; one economist called it the “Great Gatsby curve” where upward social mobility is thwarted by inequality. It’s telling that the criticism of Piketty’s, Capital in the 21st Century, has been feeble at best.

Democracy is a political belief system while Capitalism is an economic belief system posing as a religion. As John Foster Dulles once remarked, “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” Capitalism and Democracy are antagonistic. This isn’t complicated. Capitalistic success eliminates equality, establishes market hegemony, while redefining venality and greed as virtues. Democracy, on the other hand, binds a population into a sense of common good antithetical to the “whatever it takes” ethos of Capitalism.

Economist piece does not address the right-wing oligarchy’s attack on American Democracy lead by business-centric organizations such as ALEC, funded by wealthy underwriters such as the Koch boys and assisted by venal rent-seeking politicians. High on the ALEC agenda is curtailing voting rights. What better way to strangle democracy? As Nobel economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz pointed out, “in a system of one person one vote 100% of the people are supposed to count.” The right to vote can be and is being extinguished with gerrymandering and new voter ID laws at the state level. The voice of Democracy will be silenced when big money has its way.

A social contract is the essence of a society, which is to say it provides the generative syntax, the grammar of social conduct. All social contracts rest on foundations of social beliefs which, unlike religious beliefs, are tangible, provable, life as it is experienced on a daily basis. Traffic lights turn red and everyone is expected to stop. When the lights turn green we go. We believe others will respect the meaning of the lights because that is a covenant of the social contract. If drivers generally ignored this contractual requirement mayhem would result. Corporations shipping profits overseas to evade their fair share of taxes is clearly a violation of the “common good” social contract.

The goods of democratic social life lie in the commons. Greedy plundering of those commons is depredation and the core values of democracy – equality and cooperation – are destroyed. When this has happened historically people rebel, those in control become fearful, the social contract morphs into social control, and the soul of a society is stilled. Why is the US DOD funding Project Minerva, a large academic study, according to its summary documents, of “domestic situations … in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order”? Is the recent militarization of police forces across the country an anticipation of social disorder?

The social contract in any society is large and messy. In spite of being riddled with contradictions and conflicts social contracts do manage somehow work. But when contradictions accumulate, disenfranchisement and inequality erode social bonds. Elected officials now take to television to chastise people who want to see a higher minimum wage – people who work 40 hours a week but can’t feed themselves let alone a family. Candidate for Senate Karen Handel of Georgia believes minimum wage laws should not even exist. The United States is a country where a basketball player earns $30 million a year against $43,000 a year for a firefighter who risks his life to save lives and protect property. Which service does the society value most? How does anyone morally justify $26.7 billion in bonuses for financiers who oversaw the destructive financial collapse that caused incalculable losses to pensioners and small savers across the country who have no recourse and no way to recover?

There is social contract theory and there are social contracts as they are lived. Contradictions add up they accrete, they harden attitudes and perceptions of social and economic injustice. Ultimately there are no longer shared perceptions or shared interests to bind the contract. Modern Dickensian squalor consists of people being forced out of their homes because of financial circumstances they have no control over or, as in the case of Detroit, the water supply is cut off to people’s homes because they can’t pay their utility bill.

Bernie Sanders points out, “There are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our nation’s history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the world.” Relegating large numbers of people to the “poor door” slides society towards incivility and rebellion. When the middle class is reduced to poverty and their vested interest in an orderly society is no longer viable, they will revolt. They always have. What has gone wrong with Democracy is that it has been conflated with Capitalism. The notion of American exceptionalism has been rendered false. We are, after all these years, still struggling to meet the challenge of our Constitution –  “to form a more perfect union.” The outcome is yet uncertain. As an old friend of mine used to say, “comes the Revolution!”


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