Posts Tagged 'wealth'

Herding Turtles

The phrase originates from a conversation that occurred directly after a scientist’s speech in which he described how the earth revolves around the sun.

At the end of the speech an elderly lady stood up and said,

“What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist then asked, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

This anecdote was cited by Stephen Hawking, in his book “A Brief History of Time.”

A belief system is turtles all the way down. Why talk about “Belief Systems and the Social Contract”? Because, before we are anything else we are a species of believing social animals. Beliefs are demonstrably more powerful and durable than knowledge. History is a litany of beliefs triumphing over facts. It is a failing of intellect that has led to wars, depredation, and widespread social discontent throughout human history.  Once past survival, we are at root, meaning-seeking organisms and we go to great lengths to rationalize whatever beliefs we can adduce to reinforce those meanings.

It can be said that beliefs are the actual substance of the social contract; to not believe is to not participate. Beliefs inform the social contract – they saturate it with ideas, fantasies, and ideals that often do not necessarily reflect reality or, for that matter, possibility. There is hay to be made in this by politicians and others seeking to influence the least capable members of a society to achieve approval for policies that are not of ultimate benefit to them.

A belief system is a set of mutually supportive notions, a psychological state which holds the beliefs to be true even in the face of contradiction. The beliefs of such systems can be religious, philosophical, ideological. The philosopher Jonathan Glover says beliefs are always a combination of these and that such systems are difficult to revise. Glover suggests that beliefs have to be considered holistically in that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer – beliefs are social and psychological in nature. It can also be said that beliefs are often an existential black hole into which go facts never to be heard from again. Facts quite often are regarded as irrelevant if they do not accord with beliefs – racial stereotypes being an example of this phenomenon. Truth becomes, at bottom, a belief system you either believe in or not.

Two of the most influential thinkers on the subject, Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, differed on what underlies belief systems. Adler’s social/psychological theories stood against Freud’s. Whereas Freud claimed sexuality lay at the base of personality, Adler said power was the real aphrodisiac. Actually they were both right. Power attracts sex as a magnet does iron but it does something else as well – it creates fear and, too often, submission. There is the belief system called Capitalism which would destroy any social contract standing in the way of accumulating wealth. Perhaps to the disappointment of Freud, the contemporary Oedipus fantasy is wealth beyond the dreams of avarice with requisite social control.

In the case of those seeking power and influence, such as politicians running for office, the more believable is going to prevail. It’s marketing exercise with a certain quantity of shuck and jive telling people what they want to hear. May the best man win comes down to making the best sounding case, plucking the right strings, addressing fears and aspirations with the best sounding rhetorical spiel. It comes down to who can create the most believable fantasy addressed to either end of the political spectrum. Who can best tell the public what they want to hear. It has little or nothing to do with truth.

An example of fantasy social contract “rights” are gun laws that permit people to carry loaded weapons into public places on the premise that gun owners have the right to do so, ignoring the right of other people to be safe. Anyone who has ever fired a sidearm even at a shooting range knows most people don’t have a clue as to where their bullets are headed. It is a certainty that innocent people are likely to be wounded fatally or otherwise if some paranoid would-be gunslinger decides to open fire in a crowded public space.  Another example involving public safety is where people speeding along on a crowded freeway believe that all the cars in front of them have functioning brake lights.

What is belief after all but a handy acceptance of what is presented, thought, experienced, or felt as real and true without the necessity of objective proof? In spite of the efforts we make as organized societies to make it possible for diverse people to coexist peacefully and productively, beliefs intervene at nearly every level – our socially destructive race relations being a perfect example infecting the American social contract for centuries. Ironically we must organize social contracts which, in spite of conflicting beliefs, which will allow us  to live together in some state of harmony. Thus we add yet another belief system to the stack – the notion that we can all get along which holds until other beliefs conflict. It’s a stack of beliefs inextricable one from the others. They are all too clever by half, those turtles.

Crossroads – The Consequences of Inequality

May 6, 2013

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 air is 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” mindset 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 baldfaced 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 if 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.


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