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The Moral Wrongs of Obamacare. Part 1. Entrenching the Medical-Industrial Compex

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I believe it is important to set down, in as methodical and systematic way as possible, the ways in which Obamacare is not only risky or potentially harmful, but actually something morally wrong.  Several times I’ve begun to write an article that does this, and each time had to quit as the task became simply overwhelming in scope.  It is a big issue, a huge one.  We’re talking about something that may constitute, both in what it is and what it may lead to, a fundamental restructuring of the system of American government and the nature of our society.  Yet, as many times as I give up and put the project aside, I feel dissatisfied for having done so and return to it again.

In part, what I face is what every person faces when, in a debate, they encounter the big lie.  The big lie is the tactic by which a party presents a falsehood so enormous, so outrageous, so utterly beyond the realm of plausibility, that it literally overwhelms the ability of the other party to refute it.  The opponent is simply flummoxed, bewildered by the sheer audacity.  The big lie changes the ground rules of a debate, transforming what should be an earnest attempt by two agents of good-will to find the truth, into something of bad-will.  The big lie is a power play, a trick, which seeks to win  by deceit and  subterfuge.

The big lie tactic therefore, is not used, or should not be, by decent people, either in debates between two people, or between groups of individuals in a social or political context.  However in the present case we are not debating an individual, nor groups of individuals.  We are ‘debating’ – in a broad sense of that term – a vast system, something intrinsically amoral.  It is a system like or analogous to the military-industrial complex, but something much greater; a system that includes our government, our political parties, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and our news and entertainment media.  Moreover, each of us is, to varying extents, consciously or unconsciously, part of this system.  Anyone who has a mutual fund or retirement plan with dividends linked to Wall Street profits, is, to some extent, part of this system.  This system is our opponent.  That it resorts to the big lie to sway public opinion is the least of our problems.

One reason the big lie tactic is so effective is that an opponent faced with the prospect of refuting it envisions how hard a task it will be, and simply gives up before trying.  Much as I might like to do that, I simply don’t see it at as an option.  The only alternative, therefore, is to try to make this daunting task more manageable by breaking into several smaller ones.  The present, then, will be the first of several installments dedicated to this.

Preliminary Remarks

Some preliminary remarks are in order.  First I wish the reader to know that I am most certainly committed to the principle of social justice – both in general, and in the particular matter of health care.  I *am* a health professional, and I chose that profession not to make money, but because helping people with health and psychological problems is in my nature.  It is my vocation (or, at least, one of my vocations).  In fact, it is precisely *because* I care about people’s health that I am opposed to Obamacare, which I see as ultimately harmful to public health. I have major political and economic concerns, also; but, frankly, I would be willing to overlook these were it not for the disastrous effects on public health.

Second, I should make clear that it is not Obamacare in particular that I am concerned about, but rather any attempt to place the healthcare system further under the management and direction of the federal government.  If a plan of universal health care administered at the level of local or county governments could be developed, I would have much less reason to object.  In any case, it is certainly not because the new plan is associated with President Obama that I object.  For me that is simply a term.

Third, I wish to clarify what I mean by “moral wrong.”  I mean this in the strictly technical sense of moral philosophy.  That is by “moral wrong” I mean (1) what is opposite or opposed to moral good; and (2) that which we therefore have a moral responsibility to prevent, change, or oppose.

Finally, it should be pointed out that I am not writing this out of any need or wish on my part to merely complain or criticize.  There is already too much emotionalism, antagonism, and partisan strife in society today.  I know better than to be part of that.  I am writing because I should.  I have many years’ experience in diverse facets of the health field, an insider’s perspective (including positions at
Duke University, Wake Forest University, and the RAND Corporation) and, it could honestly be said, a uniquely informed one.  Much as I might like to evade it, I have a civic responsibility to write about this.

These clarifications made, let’s proceed to the analysis.

Reason 1.  Industrial Medicine

The first and greatest reason why I see Obamacare as morally wrong is that it will consolidate and entrench the paradigm of modern industrial medicine in our society.

By consolidate I mean it will strengthen and make more prominent the model of industrial medicine, and those organizations and institutions that promote it, and it will drive out competing, non-industrial health paradigms.  By entrench I mean that, once consolidated, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible, at least for many years, to change that paradigm.  We will watch in anger and disgust as public health and healthcare deteriorate, and be powerless to change it.

By modern industrial medicine I mean the prevailing system by which medicine is practiced today, which emphasizes (1) domination of healthcare and policy by large corporations, (2) treatment rather than prevention; and (3) expensive rather than moderately or low-priced alternatives.

The modern paradigm of industrial medicine is inextricably linked with profit motivation.  The innovations in healthcare, the new products that emerge, are those which deliver the most profit to corporations.  The nature of the system is that there is every incentive to develop expensive, invasive interventions, and virtually none to produce less expensive and less invasive treatments.  The paradoxical nature of “health for profit” can be illustrated with a hypothetical example: if we had the technology to develop a pill that cured the common cold that cost .1 cent per dose, we wouldn’t do so.  There’d be no profit in it.  But if the same pill could be sold for $10, companies would be fighting tooth and nail to develop and market it.

Similarly, it is well within our technological ability to wipe out a global scourge like malaria; but this receives comparatively little attention, because it isn’t seen as profitable.  I don’t know the actual statistics, but wouldn’t surprise me if more money is spent in the US developing new versions of Viagra and Cialis than goes into anti-malaria research.

Malaria doesn’t affect public health in the US, but obesity does.  So do the effects of alcohol and tobacco use.  The effects of this deadly trio alone probably account for at least half of all hospital admissions in the US.  We have virtually an unlimited ability to prevent these problems.  Anybody can stop smoking.  Most obesity can be prevented by intervening in childhood.  But, again, it’s much more profitable to treat the outcomes of these problems than to concentrate on prevention.

This problem affects the very foundation of medicine, the culture of it.  It affects how physicians, nurses, and medical researchers are trained.  It affects undergraduate education.  By the time someone gets an MD or a research PhD, they are fully indoctrinated in this model.  It becomes difficult to think of health in any other terms.

As long as the federal government stays out of healthcare there is some hope for change.  We always have the potential for new ideas and innovators to arise at the grass-roots level, to demonstrate new paradigms, which catch on and influence others.  But the danger of Obamacare is that, in centralizing healthcare delivery, planning, and policy to an unprecedented degree, and laying the foundation for still further centralization, we make it much harder for the grass-roots kind of innovation to occur.  Instead, will have a massively top-down model of dissemination of technology and practice.  Centralized boards will review and approve only certain medical procedures, and will pressure all players to use these methods.  Further, it is the large corporations who will have the most influence in choosing these methods and designing policies.  Naturally these policies will lean towards  practices and a basic philosophy of medicine that produces the most profits.

It is not just the actual dangers outlined above that concern me.  Beyond these is the fact that we will be placing literally our lives under the control of a vast, amoral, non-human system.  We have already seen, over the last 50 or 60 years, what happens when we place national defense in the hands of such a system: instead of peace, which is the natural desire of every human being, we have perpetual war.  Our collective policy becomes utterly dehumanized, and inimical to each individual.  I do not see how we can expect anything different when we hand over control of our health to the federal government and profit-driven corporate system.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture to get high.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.

The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3. Here that means both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
‘Obamacare’
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed

If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.

Post-script

Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal‘.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘Game Theory and the American Two-Party Racket’.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)’.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘Why Vote Third-Party?’.

Theodore Parker – ‘Only a hand-rail of difference between the two parties’

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This continues a series of posts intended to demonstrate the ideological relevance of New England Transcendentalism to the Occupy Movement and to direct readers to this invaluable resource.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was one of the greatest orators among the New England Transcendentalists. In the excerpt below, Parker explains that, in the perennial struggle between Idealism and materialism, the US has become dominated by the latter.  The two great political parties – the one of the rich and the other of the poor – are alike in that their values and policies are dominated by desire for wealth. It is all too painfully clear how closely the Whigs and Democrats of his era correspond to the Republican and Democratic parties of ours.

Source: Theodore Parker, ‘The Nebraska Question’, in Additional Speeches, Addresses, and Occasional Sermons, Vol. 1, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1855, pp. 328-338.

* * * *

From 1620 to 1788 there was a rapid development of ideas. But since that time the outward pressure has been withdrawn. The nation is no longer called to protest against a foreign foe; no despot forces us to fall back on the great principles of human nature, and declare great universal truths. Even the Anglo-Saxon people are always metaphysical in revolution. We have ceased to be such, and have become material. We have let the programme of political principles and purposes slip out of the nations consciousness, and have betaken ourselves, body and soul to the creation of riches. Wealth is the great object of American desire. Covetousness is the American passion. This is so — nationally in the political affairs of the country; ecclesiastically, socially, domestically, individually. Our national character, political institutions, geographic situation,— all favor the accumulation of riches.

No country was ever so rich before, nor got rich so fast; in none had wealth ever such power, or was so esteemed. It is counted as the end of life, not as the material basis to higher forms thereof. It has no conventional check in the institutions of the land, and only two natural checks in the heart of the people. One is the talent and genius — intellectual, moral, affectional, and religious—that is born in rare men; and the other is the desire, the caprice, the opinion, of the great majority of men, who oppose {p. 329} their collective human will against the material glitter of mere accumulated money. But money can buy intellectual talent and intellectual genius; at least it can buy American talent and American genius. Money, and the men of cultivated minds whom it buys, can deceive the people, so that the majority shall follow the dollar wherever it rolls. The clink of the dollar, — that is the reveille, the morning drum-beat, for the American people. In America, money is inaugurated as a power to control all other powers. It has itself become an “Institution” — master of all the rest.

Three of those bad institutions … whereof our fathers brought the traditions from the old world, have mainly perished. The mediaeval Theocracy has gone out from the Protestant Church; Monarchy has wholly faded from the consciousness of the people; Aristocracy, sitting unmovable on her cradle, has had her heart pierced through and through by the gigantic spear of American Industry horsed on a steam-engine. Money has taken the place of all three. It has got inaugurated into the Church, — it is a Church of commerce; in the State — it is a State of commerce; in the Community not less, — it is a society of commerce; and money wields the triple power of those three old masters, Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy. It is the Almighty Dollar.

In the American Church, money is God. The {p. 330} peculiar sins of money, and of the rich, they are never preached against; it is a Church of commerce, wealth its heaven and the millionaire its saint; its ministers should be ordained, not “by the imposition of hands,” but of bank-bills — of small denomination. In the American State, money is the Constitution: officers ought to be sworn on the federal currency; they should make the sign of the dollar, ($) as their official symbolic cross; it is a State of commerce. In the community, money is Nobility; it is transmissible social power; it is Aristocracy, it makes a man who has got it a vulgar “gentleman;” it is a Society of commerce….

{p. 331} Money having taken the place of these three institutions, it must be politically represented in the nation by a party; for a party is the provisional organization of a tendency. So there is a party organized about the Dollar as its central nucleus and idea. The dollar is the germinal dot of the Whig party; its motive is pecuniary; its motto should be, to state it in Latin, pecunia pecuniata, money moneyed, money made. It sneers at the poor; at the many; has a contempt for the people. It legislates against the poor, and for the rich; that is, for men pecuniarily strong; the few who are born with the desire, the talent, and the conventional position to become rich. “Take care of the rich, and they will take care of the poor,” is its secret maxim. [Note 1] Every thing must yield to money: that is to have universal right of way. Down with Mankind! the Dollar is coming! The great domestic object of Government, said the greatest Expounder of this party, “is the protection of property;” —that is to say, the protection of money {p. 332} moneyed, money got. With this party there is no Absolute Right, no Absolute Wrong. Instead thereof, there is Expediency and Inexpediency. There is no law higher than the power to wield money just as you will. Accordingly a millionaire is reckoned by this party as the highest production of society. He is the Whig ideal; he alone has attained “the measure of the stature of a perfect man.”

…But man is man, can a dollar stop him? For ever? The instinct of development is as inextinguishable in man as the instinct of perpetuation in blackbirds and thrushes, who build their procreant nests under all administrations, theocratic or democratic. So there is another party which represents the Majority of the people; that majority who have not money which is coveted, only the covetous desire thereof…. This is the Democratic party. It loves money as well as the Whig party, but has got less of it….

{p. 333} To the Whig party belong the rich, the educated, the decorous; the established, — those who look back, and count the money got. To the other party belong the young, the poor, the bold, the adventurous, everybody that is in want, everybody that is in debt everybody who complains. The audacious are its rulers [Note 2]; — often men destitute of lofty character, of great ideas, of Justice, of Love, of Religion — bold, smart, saucy men. This party sneers at the rich, and hates them; of course it envies them, and lusts for their gold.

The Democratic party appeals to the brute will of the majority, right or wrong; it knows no Higher Law. Its statesmanship is the power to enact into permanent institutions the transient will of the majority: that is the ultimate standard. Popular and unpopular, take the place of right and wrong—vox populi, vox Dei [Note 3]; the vote settles what is true, what right. It regards money made and hoarded as the foe of human progress, and so is hostile to the millionaire. The Whig calls on his lord, “Money, help us!” To get money, the Democrat can do all things through the majority strengthening him….

{p. 334} … The Whig party worships money: it is the body of the Whig God; there is no Higher Law above it. The Democratic party worships the opinion of the majority: it is the voice of the Democrat’s God: there is no Higher Law. To the Whig party, — no matter how the money is got, by smuggling opium or selling slaves, — it is pecunia pecuniata, — money moneyed. To the Democratic party it is of no consequence what the majority wishes, or whom it chooses … If the majority wants to violate the Constitution of America and the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the Universe and the Declaration of God, why! the cry is — “there is no higher law!” {p. 335} “the greatest good of the greatest number!” — What shall become of the greatest good of the smaller number?

There is, therefore, no vital difference between the Whig party and the Democratic party; no difference in moral principle. The Whig inaugurates the Money got; the Democrat inaugurates the Desire to get the money. That is all the odds. So in the times that try the passions, which are the souls of these parties, the Democrat and the Whig meet on the same …  platform. One is not higher and the other lower; they are just alike. There is only a hand rail between the two, which breaks down if you lean on it, and the parties mix.  In common times, it becomes plain that a Democrat is but a Whig on time; a Whig is a Democrat arrived at maturity; his time has come. A Democrat is a young Whig who will legislate for money as soon as he has got it; the Whig is an old Democrat who once hurrahed for the majority — “Down with money! that is a despot! and up with the desire for it!”

{p. 336} I once knew a crafty family which had two sons; both men of ability, and of remarkable unity of “principle.” The family invested one in each party, and as it had a head on either side of the political penny thrown into the air, the family was sure to win. A New England Family, wise in its generation! [Note 4]

Now, I do not mean to say that all Democrats or all Whigs are of this way of thinking. Quite the contrary. There is not a Whig or Democrat who would confess it. The majority, so far as they have convictions, are very different from this; but the Whig would say in his convention, that I told the truth of the Democratic party; the Democrat, in his convention, would say, I told, the truth of the Whigs. These ideas, — they reside in the two parties [Note 5], … as chemistry in the water, as in the drop the gravitation which brings it to the ground: not a conviction, but a fact. Each of these parties has great good to accomplish. Both seem indispensable. Money must be looked after. It is a valuable thing; the human race could not do without property. It is the ladder whereby we scale the heavens of manhood. But property alone is good for nothing. The will of the majority must be respected.  I honor the ideas of the Democratic {p. 337} party, and of the Whig party, so far as they are just. But man is not made merely for money; the majority are the standard of power, not of Right. There is a law of God which directs the chink of every dollar; it cannot roll except by the laws of the Eternal Father of Earth and Heaven. What if the majority enact iniquity into a statute! Can millions make Wrong right? Justice is the greatest good of all.

With little geographical check or interference from other nations, we are going on solving our problem of “manifest destiny.” Since the establishment of Independence, America has made a rapid development. Her population has increased with unexampled rapidity; her territory has enlarged to receive her ever greatening family; riches have been multiplied faster even than their possessors. But some of the least lovely qualities of the Anglo-Saxon tribe have become dreadfully apparent. We have exterminated the Indians; we keep no treaties made with the red men; they keep all. The national materialism and indifference to great universal principles of Right shows itself clearer and clearer. Submission to Money or the Majority is the one idea that pervades the nation….

{p. 338} … There is a contradiction in the consciousness of the nation. In our industrial civilization, under the stimulus of love of wealth, and its consequent social and political power, we have made such a rapid advance in population and riches as no nation ever made. The lower powers of the understanding have also had a great development. We can plan, organize, and administer material means for material ends, as no nation has ever done. But it is not to be supposed that any people could pass all at once from the military civilization, with its fourfold despotism, to an industrial civilization with democracy in its Church, State, Community, and Family. How slowly we learn; with what mistakes do we come to the true Idea [Note 6], and how painfully enact it into a deed!

Notes

1. E.g., the so-called trickle-down theory of ‘Reaganomics’.

2. Cf. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006).

3. Latin for ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God.’

4.  A prime tactic of special interests today.

5. Today we might express this by saying that, although many elected officials have principles and are decent men and women, the structural forces of the political system inevitably result in compromise of these principles and their sacrifice to the party agenda.

6. i.e., the ‘great principles of human nature’ (p. 328), or the Platonic Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Justice, etc.

The Iraq War Ten Years Later: What are the Lessons?

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To mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, we should consider what the lessons are:

1. The US government will lie to any degree necessary to start a war.

2. A war will last at least 10 times as long and cost at least 10 times as much as initially announced.

3. Once the war drums beat, most Americans will step in line unconditionally.

4. There is a single ‘war party’ comprised of the Republican and Democratic parties.

5. Once commenced, no politician will question a war; no reivews will be made of the prudence of continuing it.

6. Foreign-imposed regime changes lead to prolonged, bloody, internal fighting.

7. Those who protested the US invasion of Iraq were neither unpatriotic nor wrong.

8.  News and entertainment media promote and glorify war.

9. The Christian churches of America, who stood by doing nothing then and still refuse to denounce US militarism, are abrogating their moral authority, discrediting Christianity, and — though God alone knows for certain but we must dare suggest — grieving the Holy Spirit.

10. The US government will betray its veterans whenever that saves money.

These are the lessons that should be learned.  Whether they will be learned is another matter entirely.

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

Taxing the Rich: What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens

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The ancient city-state of Athens employed means of ‘taxing the rich’, the principles of which modern Americans might well consider.

One of these was a special tax called the eisphora.  It was levied on rich Athenians in wartime.  In effect, a wealthy person might be required to provide and equip a warship for the Athenian navy.  In modern terms, it would be like the US government requiring wealthy citizens to pay for an Apache helicopter ($15 million) or Predator drone ($4 million); someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might have to pay for a destroyer ($1.5 billion).

One advantage of such a system today is that it would supply a powerful incentive for the wealthy to lobby against war.  Rather than pay the eisphora tax, the Koch brothers might prefer to subsidize an anti-war Super-PAC or a world peace think-tank!

Ancient Athenians also required the wealthiest citizens to underwrite religious and cultural events.  For example, the famous tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written for performance at an Athenian religious festival called the Dionysia.  Each year several rich Athenians were selected and matched with a playwright.  The rich person paid for the cost of producing the writer’s plays (each writer produced four plays).

Under this scheme a rich person was taxed, yet in compensation they received public recognition and praise.  It’s a fair trade, don’t you think?  At present, our attitude is more, “you pay money, because we demand it.”  But then the attitude was, “Let’s make a deal.  You pay a lot of your money for civic benefit, but in return we hail you as a benefactor.”  This is a marvelous custom — virtually a win-win scenario.  Instead of encouraging mutual resentment between rich and non-rich, it fosters good-will all the way around.

Again in modern terms this would be like, instead of simply taxing billionaires and placing the money in an anonymous coffer where it indiscriminately pays for all manner of government programs (many of which, it must be admitted, do little to improve the quality of life of Americans),  they would be asked to pay for museums, parks, civic beautification programs, etc.  Have Bill Gates build a new museum of art in Seattle.  Then write on the entrance, “Dedicated to the People of Seattle by Bill Gates”, and put a statue of him in front.

Everybody’s happy.  You tax the rich, while at the same time promote love and harmony.

The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)

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Long ago in olden times, the human beings were oppressed by a tribe of lions.  The people fought back bravely; they made spears and learned how to keep the lions at bay and to protect their village and children.  Then the lions got together to reconsider their plans. “I have an idea”, said one crafty lion.  “Let us divide ourselves into two bands, calling one the ‘lions’ and the other the ‘tigers’.  Each group will then approach the humans saying, ‘Those evil tigers/lions are a terrible threat to you.  We propose to protect you from them. Naturally you would need to pay for our protection;  but whereas without our protection the other cats would eat 10 of your children each year, we would only ask that you feed us one or two a year in payment.'”  This plan met with great approval among the lions, and they decided to pursue it.

And so each of the newly formed bands of ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ alternately approached groups of villagers, offering protection against the other band of cats. The villagers surprised the cats by agreeing rather readily; being basically lazy, the humans much preferred relegating their protection to someone else.

And so the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each struck a bargain with roughly half the villagers, and this arrangement continued for some time. Periodically, representatives from each group would visit their sponsoring villagers, reminding them of how evil the other cats were, and how necessary it was for the protection to continue.

As the villagers began to feel completely dependent on this protection, the cats raised the ante.  “Our work is so difficult,” they said, “and the lions/tigers we protect you from are more dangerous than ever!  We must therefore ask for more compensation.  We now request you sacrifice 5 children a year to us.”   And the villagers complied with scarcely a complaint.  And this continued until eventually the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each demanded 10 children a year — twice in total what the cats had originally taken.

At any time the villagers could have ended this tragedy, if only they had once again taken their up spears and confronted the animals directly.  But by now they had become completely dependent on their external ‘protection’, and had even forgotten how to make or use spears.  Much worse, they also forgot how to act together.  The ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ had poisoned their minds completely, turning one group of villagers (the ‘lions protect us from tigers’, or LPT party) against the other (the ‘tigers protect us from lions’ party, or TPL).  The entire political attention of the people revolved around disputes between these two parties.  Each party printed a newspaper to keep its members well informed of all the evils perpetrated by the opposing party.  Eventually nobody paid any attention at all to the lions and the tigers, or the many children they ate each year.  The only thing people cared about was expressing hatred and contempt of the members of the opposing party.

Eventually the village ceased to exist, though precisely what happened is not clear.  Some say they were conquered by a neighboring tribe; others say they died in a famine or some environmental catastrophe.  All we know for certain is that this once strong and happy people vanished from the face of the earth.

Now every fable must have a moral, and the moral here is this:  never place your protection in the hands of lions.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm

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