Posts Tagged 'wealth disparity'

Larger Questions

Americans would do well to recall a caution from the great philosopher of democracy, Aristotle, that it is much easier to establish a Democracy than it is to preserve it. We are presently at a crossroads in our life as a democratic society, as a civilization, as a future. Our social contract, in place essentially since the Great Depression, is under attack by an over-reaching security apparatus, the very wealthy, politicians, and right-wing television networks. The plutocrats, as plutocrats are wont to do, act in service to their own wealth. Plutocrats serve themselves, politicians serve the plutocrats, and we, the American public, serve them all. The public in all of its disarray and confusion is managed and manipulated into smaller and smaller competing factions.

Separating people from a sense of community and identity with each other breaks the bonds of a civil society. It is clearly a barbaric and classic “divide and conquer” strategy for taking down a polity. This was a vision promoted by Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971, Powell Memo, a game plan commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic social ideals are clearly under attack.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do. They have done so since the dawn of civilization and for much the same reasons. Recall, for instance, the Romans, Mayans, and Chacoans — large, complex societies, in business for hundreds of years. Gone! Disappeared. Judging from the torrents of political writing these days it is reasonable  to ask why so many writers and thinkers sense an impending collapse. To more than a few thoughtful observers the collapse of American society is an open question. As the collapse phenomenon has been historically frequent and persistent, calling out the concern contemporaneously isn’t exactly “Henny-Penny” panic. Is the sky falling now? Maybe – maybe not, but then, “See it – Say it” seems an appropriate and thoughtful response.

When 97% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population it is not a “rich” society as we are often told the US is. That is propaganda. And when the 1% isn’t satisfied with 97% of the wealth but actively engage in acquiring more the problem is even worse, it is no longer merely a matter of perception. It isn’t just that the 1% has so much of the wealth — it’s what they are doing with their wealth that is dangerous. Greed has never been recognized as conducive to a healthy social contract. It doesn’t matter if greed is for material wealth, public attention, notoriety, or power, it hoards the goods of a society away from the commons to a few.

While greed was’t invented last week it certainly seems to exist on an outlandish scale these days in a dangerous game of extractive overreach. Unless greed is a virtue, and it certainly is not, Capitalism has no recognizable moral order and I challenge any Nobel laureate economist to refute that. Capitalism and Democracy are not interchangeable terms. Something else is needed – populism perhaps?

Social corrosion is more than joblessness although that is significant enough. The taxonomy of greed extends to voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits, and public education to mention a few. An even more egregious example was the bailout in billions of dollars of the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and who, after causing financial ruin for millions, walked away richer than they were previously. Not one of the villains has been charged with a crime. If anything the miscreants have been lionized.

Meanwhile, on Main Street millions of Americans cannot find jobs to support themselves much less families. Many have dropped out of the workforce and out of the statistical reckoning of employment thus distorting unemployment statistics. Congressmen have added further injury by terminating extended unemployment benefits.

A larger question, I propose, is what became of the millions of jobs that have disappeared? The good paying jobs are not coming back because they have gone overseas. Unless Americans are willing to work for poverty wages such as those paid by McDonalds and WalMart or for what people in the Bangladesh sweat shops are paid there is no work. In another bit of irony, the government subsidizes McDonalds and WalMart providing corporate welfare in the form of food stamps and so forth for their underpaid employees.

So  here is a bottom line question: What kind of country do people like the Kochs, Steve Forbes, the Walton family, and others like them and their mouthpieces, Fox television commentators, and politicians like Ryan, Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell want to see? Is their fantasy something out of the 1930s with soup kitchens and families lined up for a hot meal?  Would they be amused perhaps to watch people of the lower classes fighting amongst themselves in some version of Hunger Games? There is little doubt we are at a defining moment in the history of this country, this society, and the egalitarian political philosophy it was founded on. Can it be preserved? I quote Alasdair MacIntyre: “ … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Low-Effort Thinking

A study published in the journal Personality and Social Science Bulletin last year showed that those who score low on intelligence tests eventually gravitate towards “socially conservative political views.” The study concluded that “low-effort thinking” promotes political conservatism and acceptance of hierarchy. Who’da thunk it?

In the military blaming a subordinate for a mistake or failure made on your watch could result, at minimum, in a reprimand, or at worst being brought up on charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer. In New Mexico we are witnessing a scandal brought about by a Republican State Representative, Cathrynn Brown, blaming a bill drafter for making errors in a bill she requested, subsequently reviewed, signed and introduced to the Chamber. I fully understand that charges of “conduct unbecoming a politician” would be a conundrum of challenging proportions, but they should certainly be pursued, if only by the rational voters in her district. The legislation proposed was most certainly antisocial and demonstrated a lack of conscience and empathy. It is / was a piece of sociopathic legislation designed to punish women who have been raped for not carrying the child to term. Denials of responsibility followed public disclosure of the bill.

This was religious zealotry and low-effort thinking attempting to become law plain and simple. What you have here when you shovel your way through the “don’t-blame-me” propaganda is a bill that makes criminals of rape victims who don’t want to carry the rapist’s child. What’s next on this agenda? Perhaps witch burning such as took place in Papua New Guinea this past week. A 20-year-old mother was burned alive there in front of hundreds of witnesses (taking photographs no less), she having been accused of sorcery. It was, along with photographs, front-page news in the biggest newspaper in the country. Irrational, dogmatic religious zealotry takes its toll on a society; it makes mockery of claims of being civilized.

In New Mexico we have Cathrynn Brown, and in Missouri they have Todd Akin, a former US Representative who claims there is “legitimate rape” and that women’s bodies have a built-in mechanism for “shutting down” so pregnancy from rape won’t occur. Next we have Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, an MD, who claims that evolution, embryology, and the “Big Bang Theory” are “… lies straight from the pit of Hell.” I would be remiss if I forgot to mention Terry England, a Georgia legislator who wanted to pass a bill requiring women to carry still-born fetuses to term. His rationale? Cows and pigs do. I should also include Richard Murdock, the Republican state treasurer of Indiana who opined: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” There you have it, ladies, Grin and Bear It – God “intended” that you should be raped.

In Mississippi recently a five-year-old child was taken home from kindergarten in a police car “to teach him and his mother a lesson.” What was the crime? The school requires all students to wear black shoes, and this kid’s family was too poor to buy him black shoes. Mom, being resourceful, colored over his red and white sneakers with black marker. Unfortunately she missed a few places and so had to be “taught a lesson” in low-effort thinking by school officials.

Every example of low-effort thinking throughout history that failed to embrace and maintain common compassion, justice, equal economic opportunity, and respect for individuals did so as their social contract ceased to be viable. As in 14th-century Venice, people do not long subscribe to a social contract they perceive as being unfair and delimiting. The United States has the fifth-highest wealth disparity among 150 countries. It has happened before and it could be happening again. Even the Greek-born Roman essayist Plutarch recognized that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” It is not simply the disparity of wealth that matters, so much as the disparity of opportunity that in itself is the measure of a nation, of a society.

The most serious question certainly is: What does this low-effort thinking in the simultaneous trends of zealotry and material greed portend for the American social contract? The recent election and its aftermath have shown how conservatives such as moderate Republicans and Tea Party activists cannot connect with each other even to win an election. Tea Party zealots have now vowed to run candidates against moderate Republicans in future elections. Like everything else involving people, low-effort thinking is a spectrum across which people and ideas are spread, ranging from virulent to somewhat reasonable. Every form of sociopathy has its destructive consequences.

It isn’t a joking matter that scores of people in states across the South and in the West have signed petitions demanding their state secede from the United States. When thoughtful engagement is required to sustain a society, low-effort thinking is the kiss of death.  The wisdom of Shelley’s Ozymandias rings true to this day:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
What better example of low-effort thinking need there be? Perhaps the Texas GOP has the solution: Do not teach “critical thinking” in public schools.


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