“I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [libertarians] in the United States that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
Sun Tzu in The Art of War declared that the most important thing for victory was knowledge: specifically, know your enemy. But perhaps an equally important thing is to realize that you’re in a war in the first place. Congress’ recent action in dabbling with the sequestered funds just enough to allow rich people to catch their flights without delay, but not offer poor people voucher 8 certificates to allow them to remain in homes speaks volumes about their priorities, and it should also serve as an indication that, yes, we in fact are in a war; a war that places the needs and desires of our wealthiest citizens over the needs and desires of everyone else. It’s a war whose enemy is usually invisible because, by preference, those who invest millions to buy (er, lobby) Congress don’t necessarily want their names known.
Included in that list should be Pete Peterson and his merry band of austerity hounds. Recent revelations thanks to the work of Thomas Henderson and others have debunked the economic case for austerity measures as a palliative for our economic woes. In fact, most economists (and by ‘most’ I mean economists with a reputation for serious academic work) believe that austerity measures at this precise moment are hurtful to all but the wealthiest individuals in the world—and soon, if things continue to trend South—it will be hurtful to them as well. But that has not deterred the austerity minded, because, one senses, there’s more to this austerity push than simply trying to fix the economy. There’s an ideological view that government is bad, that government cannot solve problems, that –in the infamous words of Ronald Reagan, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems government IS the problem.” Government, as Grover Norquist would have it, “needs to be drowned in a bathtub.” It’s a libertarian view that appeals to the individualist in the American culture, that stoic, do it alone, head off into the sunset myth of the Wild West. Ayn Rand’s claptrap lends a patina of philosophical authority to what is principally a poetic myth. But there are many, especially those in the top income brackets who hold to this myth in part because it is self-validating and in part because, at least temporarily, it serves their economic purposes.
What’s amazing however, are the folks on the lower end of the income scale, middle class and poor folks who also buy into the myth. So much so that at least half our national government is ruled by a party so obtuse and financially naïve they are willing to destroy our economy at the behest of millionaires and billionaires while leaving the vast majority of Americans to thrash about with little to no safety net. Their logic, like Larry Summers ideas of using third world countries as a dumping ground for first world toxic wastes, is both impeccable and insane. Which brings us to Ayn Rand whose unfortunate influence is now being felt nation wide.
I was introduced to Rand’s writing by a wildly energetic red-head with a passion for handguns. I considered it my first postmodern experience, like sipping a latte while watching a crack deal go sour on K and 14th. She carried a dog-eared copy of The Fountain Head and insisted that Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’, her so-called ‘objectivism’, was all a thinking person needed. This was not during the late 80s and 90s when any neo-conservative could grab a slice of airtime if they could string two sentences together. No, much to her credit, she was sparking off about Rand during the early 1970s when someone like David Horowitz might have been properly stoned. I didn’t think much of her fervor until Alan Greenspan made his remarkable admonition to the free world in 2002 and announced that greed was not all good. His exact phrasing denounced the infectious greed of the current crop of businessmen:
“Infectious greed [gripped] most of [the] business community. Our historical guardians of financial information were overwhelmed. Too many corporate executives sought ways to ‘harvest’ some of those stock market gains. As a result, the highly desirable spread of shareholding and options among business managers perversely created incentives to artificially inflate reported earnings in order to keep stock prices high and rising.”
What a weird idea, I thought. First, that you had to bother to denounce greed, rather like a priest having to mention that murder is bad. Second that you describe it as infectious, as though it were not one of the seven deadly sins, but rather an alien virus, following strange vectors of human behavior. Mr. Greenspan rightly diagnosed the problem, but declared it the disease itself, rather than a symptom of something far more systemic. To put this succinctly, greed is not an aberration, or bug of free market ideology, it is the core feature.
I image now if my red-head is reading this, her cheeks are flushing, her freckles are steaming and she is ready to shout with unalloyed Scot fury, advocating the free market is not an ideology! It is merely people doing what people do, taking personal responsibility and pursuing their own enlightened self-interest (as Ayn Rand might have it) in free trade. The mark of any first-rate ideology, of course, is to deny that it is an ideology at all. My dear Scottish lass would tell you unequivocally that taking personal responsibility and following your own enlightened self-interest was simply the natural order of things made manifest. Like what Adam Smith said, “invisible hand of the market” all of that.
Now let’s step back and think about this. In the context of our most recent unpleasantness who exactly was enlightened? Did homeowners know their mortgages would be repackaged into exotic financial parcels, backed by ‘insurance’ policies that could make money on either their success or failures? Did municipal investors know those triple A rated investments were a house of cards about which prominent Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan officials internally were quite frank in assessing the risks—but curiously quiet otherwise? Of course not. The fast majority of real investors—that is folks putting money into products, like, for example, their own homes, had no Earthly idea what was going on. Some may have been motivated by greed (excuse me, self-interest!), but most just liked the idea of getting a really big house at a great rate. The structural problems, the insanely risky game that was being played by hedge fund managers and loan institutions qua banks qua gambling casinos was consciously hidden from the unsuspecting public. Not only were they not enlightened—they would never have been enlightened had their various contrivances not failed so spectacularly, and that was entirely the point.
So the whole sublime libertarian concept of ‘enlightened self-interest’ about which my lovely red-head burned so passionately is pretty much a fraud—or at any rate, a game of three card Monte. The ‘invisible hand’ of the ‘free market’ was neither wholly invisible nor wholly free—enlightenment was impossible, self-interest, therefore moot, and whatever personal responsibility might have been in play was entirely misdirected. If Adam Smith knew half of the current shenanigans, he’d be pleading from the grave…“STOP!”
But this is not the whole of the libertarian poetic myth. No, the last holdout for the Libertarian, their very raison d’etre is a single, incantatory word ‘freedom’. What a great word! And who can be against freedom? Even granted all of the limitations of our government to enforce transparency, even allowing for the heartless drum beat of manipulating advertisements that would generate desire out of thin air and distort what would really be of individual benefit (that is, self-interest), we would certainly not trade these blemishes for a loss of that core value for all Americans, freedom. Right? And more freedom is always better, right?
But maybe we should ask, first, what do we talk about when we talk about freedom? I have an abstract freedom of speech, for example, and a practical one. My abstract freedom of speech tells me that I am free to say whatever I want to whomever I want given that it’s not libelous or on order of saying something like ‘fire’ in a crowded theater (which I can also do, but could be charged later should any damages occur). That’s the abstract freedom which I share with everyone else in this country. And that’s exactly the rub. My abstract ‘freedom to say whatever I want’ has little or no effect without some method of distribution. So my freedom of speech is just dandy for talking up the trees in my backyard, but in terms of everyday practical use is as limited as a roll of toilet paper. Now with the advent of the internet and certain technological innovations, my little freedom has actually a bit more of a chance, but in practical terms, is still dramatically limited compared to the ‘freedom’ politicians have or large-scale publishers of newsprint or broadcasters, etc… In particular my little freedom is as nothing against the colossus of a multinational corporation that may in fact own the means by which I wanted to express my little puny freedom in the first place. So my practical freedom is dramatically limited by my ability to amplify what I want to say so that others may hear it and discuss and if they agree we might affect practical change (presumably the whole point of all this freedom). Unfortunately, the SCOTUS decided that there really was no such distinction and granted corporations the same ‘abstract’ level of freedom I have as a walking talking human. But this, of course, is ridiculous. Not only can a corporate entity magnify their message infinitely compared to my own poor efforts, but a corporate entity will not suffer from certain human capacities and limitations—such as sympathy, love, disease and death—features that define us against abstraction in the first place.
So abstract freedom in every instance has a counter part that we can call practical freedom or walking around freedom. The freedom that counts to me in my waking, breathing life is the practical variety. Practical Freedom depends on things like how much money I have and how healthy I am.
Let’s take an example to make this more concrete. Raising the minimum wage, or even having a minimum wage. One suspects that a libertarians view of the minimum wage would be a forthright ‘no’. In principle it’s obviously an attempt to manipulate business into providing a baseline nanny state social net that artificially drives up the costs of the products involved and [they believe] is overall hurtful to the economy. But more importantly, it’s a constraint on the sacrosanct and brilliant workings of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market place. So I would suspect a clear and declamatory ‘no’ from the libertarians out there. This despite the fact that it would greatly increase the Practical Freedom of many of our fellow citizens–even, I would suspect, a few of our less noteworthy libertarians might benefit. And the economic argument –that it would result in fewer workers hired, because they would ‘costs’ more– has not been proven out in any study I’ve seen. But on principle I suspect most libertarians will say no because it will somehow pervert the workings of the ‘market’…. Yet, the market itself is a man-made construct built of rules that can hurt either the owner or the worker or consumer in any given situation. The rules that we currently maintain are heavily tilted toward the owners (maximizing profit for share-holders, for example, much of our tax law, especially with regard to capital gains). There’s nothing natural about it, and the perversion they fear is merely man-made manipulations working for the practical benefit of the individual on the ‘labor’ side of the ledger rather than the ‘owner’ side.
A libertarian might conversely argue that given sufficient Abstract Freedom, whatever goes wrong for you in the area of Practical Freedom is axiomatically your own fault, and therefore it would be morally wrong to do anything but leave you to your own devices. This is also known as the boot strap theory of existence (as in ‘pull up by’) and the basis for Ayn Rand’s sophomoric diatribe against altruism. Hobbes had a vision of what a society following such ‘rules’ might be: nasty, brutish and short. There are psychological reasons outside the scope of this discussion why our culture has often promoted an attitude of “blaming the victim”; of finding reasons why anyone who suffers misfortune must have somehow brought it on themselves.
Predictably, 5-6% of our population can never find work (and now that figure is closer to 10%-11%) and it’s not a failure of the individual but of the very ‘invisible hand’ whose magic somehow continuously fails. Yet, the free market acolytes, the libertarians and über capitalists rather than offer some type of reasonable social safety net for the losers (much less a livable wage) prefer to think of it as a system of moral justice, as well as efficient economics. But, of course, it’s neither moral nor economically efficient.
Take the case of folks in Louisiana price gauging during the Katrina Hurricane disaster. Morally, we must ask, was that right? It certainly follows all the ‘rules’ of supply and demand. But is it morally right? Shouldn’t there be laws against it? Would the absence of laws in such situations encourage more personal responsibility or enlightened self-interest? The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Furthermore, how does personal responsibility or enlightened self-interest take into account the behavior of those individuals who are certainly acting according to the market, but who, meanwhile, are destroying others who have been put in such a precarious position? We could ask the same questions of hedge fund managers, Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and the bevy of bailed out banks that have paid billions in bonuses to upper management while our infrastructure crumbles, our schools go without teachers and the chattering class decides to slash our only retirement system to make up revenue shortfalls—because arch conservatives and libertarians refuse to tax the wealthiest among us at reasonable rates. This is neither moral, nor economically efficient. There’s another word for it that Greenspan put his finger on back in 2002: greed.
Good ole, infectious greed.
I am put in mind of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous quote:
… “extreme capitalism”: the obsessive, uncritical penetration of the concept of the market into every aspect of American life, and the attempt to drive out every other institution, including law, art, culture, public education, Social Security, unions, community, you name it. It is the conflation of markets with populism, with democracy, with diversity, with liberty, and with choice—and so the denial of any form of choice that imposes limits on the market. More than that, it is the elimination of these separate concepts from our political discourse, so that we find ourselves looking to the stock market to fund retirement, college education, health care, and having forgotten that in other wealthy and developed societies these are rights, not the contingent outcomes of speculative games.”
That’s why libertarianism and its adjunct, extreme capitalism, and the ‘conservative movement’ in general doesn’t rise to the level of a philosophy—not even a consistent world view, really. They are more like one-dimensional cartoons, or mythologies of the market around which people orient themselves, much as they profess a faith in one God or another, or link arms with an ideology and move blindly forward, regardless of evidence suggesting their ideological system doesn’t so much describe reality, as wish for it. The libertarian is as deluded as your average millennialist constructing an imaginary landscape to be; a utopia on Earth, that might one day exist, if we all would only close our eyes, click our heels, and believe.
Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old economics graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, just used part of his spring semester to turn the Washington austerity consensus on its head. He’s getting tremendous press coverage for finding an Excel spreadsheet error in the root calculations that have driven the recent slash-the-budget mindset in DC. This ‘consensus’ promoted by, among others, congressman Paul Ryan and Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, is actually not the first time economic data has been skewed to support prevailing ideological winds. In fact, if you want to track the beginning of the Reagan revolution that called for reducing taxation on the wealthy to encourage ‘growth’ (another fallacy at the heart of neoliberal economic group think), you can find the supporting concept on the back of a cocktail napkin. I am not making this up.
The architect of the Laffer curve, economist Arthur Laffer, drew the infamous Laffer Curve on a cocktail napkin during a small dinner meeting at a Washington hotel attended by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In truth, he drew many variations of the curve before then, but this particular meeting was propitious. Although at first skeptical, when Laffer explained the gist of the curve, that increases in taxes could conceivably lead to a reduction in overall revenue, Cheney became intrigued. If increases in tax could reduce revenue, surely the reverse was also true! Decreasing the tax rate could conceivably increase revenue!
With great excitement, the Republican establishment latched onto this idea, arguing counter intuitively that decreases in tax rates would actually increase revenue because so called ‘wealth producers’ would be willing to create “more wealth” if it was not taken from them with taxation. In short order, the notorious concept of ‘Supply Side’ economics was born, with Arthur Laffer’s curve serving as its foundational principle.
But many economists have questioned the utility of the Laffer Curve in public discourse. According to Nobel prize laureate James Tobin, “the ‘Laffer Curve’ idea that tax cuts would actually increase revenues turned out to deserve the ridicule with which sober economists had greeted it in 1981.” It would only ‘increase wealth’ to a very limited degree and based on a fairly precise understanding of what level of taxation would actually deter economic growth, a fairly high rate, as it turned out.
It’s also a theory which has been widely discredited, both on a theoretical level and in practice. Because with the Laffer curve – perhaps unusually for economics – we have a historical instance of it being implemented by a direct proponent. Arthur Laffer, thanks to his cocktail napkin meeting with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, became an instant persona grata of the Reagan administration. On the conceptual promise of the Laffer curve, Reagan cut the marginal higher rate of personal income tax from 70% to 28%. A dramatic slash. The effect on the budget deficit was also striking. Reagan doubled it to $155 billion and tripled government debt to more than $2 trillion. His successor, Bush senior, was forced to raise taxes as the deficit doubled again.
Not all taxes were treated the same. Payroll taxes were increased. So taxes were cut for higher earners while workers paid more. Corporate and capital gains tax rates were also cut in an earlier outing for current “austerity” policies, the transfer of incomes from labor and the poor to capital and the rich.
The Laffer curve relies on the twin assumptions that the rich create the output in an economy and that they need incentives to choose idleness over work. But there is little evidence to support these hypotheses. On the contrary, economists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx have known that all value in an economy is created by labor. Those who labor are obliged to work in order to purchase the necessities of life.
Which brings us to that little big error Thomas Herndon recently revealed. According to the New York Times magazine Herndon first started looking into Reinhart and Rogoff’s work as part of an assignment for an econometrics course that involved replicating the data work behind a well-known study. Herndon chose Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” in part, because it has been one of the most politically influential economic papers of the last decade. It claims, among other things, that countries whose debt exceeds 90 percent of their annual GDP experience slower growth than countries with lower debt loads — a figure that has been cited by people like Paul Ryan and Tim Geithner to justify slashing government spending and implementing other austerity measures on struggling economies.
Herndon pulled up an Excel spreadsheet containing Reinhart’s data and quickly spotted something that looked odd.
“I clicked on cell L51, and saw that they had only averaged rows 30 through 44, instead of rows 30 through 49.”
What Herndon had discovered was that by making a sloppy computing error, Reinhart and Rogoff had forgotten to include a critical piece of data about countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios that would have affected their overall calculations. More importantly, they had consciously excluded data from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia — all countries that experienced solid growth during periods of high debt and would thus undercut their thesis that high debt forestalls growth.
The mistakes Herndon found were so big, in fact, that even Herndon’s professors didn’t believe him at first. As Reuters reported earlier:
“At first, I didn’t believe him. I thought, ‘OK he’s a student, he’s got to be wrong. These are eminent economists and he’s a graduate student,'” [UMass Amherst professor Robert] Pollin said. “So we pushed him and pushed him and pushed him, and after about a month of pushing him I said, ‘Goddamn it, he’s right.'”
According to the New York Times, “After consulting his professors, Herndon signed two of them — Pollin and department chair Michael Ash — on as co-authors, and the three of them quickly put together a paper outlining their findings. The paper cut to the core of a debate that has been dividing economists and politicians for decades. Fans of austerity believe that governments should cut spending in order to grow their economies, while anti-austerians believe that government spending in times of economic duress can create growth and reduce unemployment, even if it increases debt in the short term. What Herndon et al. were claiming, in essence, was that the pro-austerity movement was relying on bogus information.”
Now that the Laffer curve is pretty much a laughing matter, and whatever economic basis there was for an austerity push in the middle of a recession has been flushed down the toilet, surely Washington will see the light, rebuke the self-inflicted sequester, and start working to save the economy by funding real jobs programs rather than killing them, right?
Um, not so fast:
“With Reinhart and Rogoff’s once-authoritative work now under serious question, there’s no question that the austerity movement has been dealt a major blow. But Herndon’s finding won’t likely stop politicians from trying to reduce the deficit. The global march for austerity began before Reinhart and Rogoff’s work was published, and will continue as long as there are people who believe that governments can shrink their way to prosperity.”
Still, Herndon holds out hope. He calls austerity policies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere “counterproductive.”
“I have social motivations,” he told the New York Times magazine. “I care deeply about how policy affects people.”
So do we.
*Quick follow-up. Looks like the Harvard Professors who authored the buggy study that ended up supporting the worldwide austerity consensus–that is killing economies from Spain to the US– have direct social and financial ties to….(wait for it)….Pete Peterson. That same Pete Peterson who desperately wants to privatize Social Security, and who lionized the Simpson Bowles ‘Cat Food’ Commission. Small world.
Pete Peterson Linked Economists Caught in Austerity Error
Sometimes what’s most important in a debate isn’t the answer; it’s the question. The Senate’s recent failure to pass even the simplest type of background check yields a set of interesting questions, like:
As far back as 1999 who said that background checks were reasonable?
A) Wayne LaPierre
B) Michael Moore
C) A majority of NRA members
D) All of the above
If you guessed all of the above you would be correct. Surprisingly, support for background checks among individual members of the NRA is quite strong. Republican pollster Frank Lutz found that 87% of non-NRA gun owners, and 74% of NRA gun owners support requiring a criminal background check of anyone purchasing a gun. 80% of non-NRA gun owners and 71% of NRA gun owners support prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. But the real shock is that Wayne LaPierre, as recently as 1999, supported back ground checks calling them ‘reasonable’(Politifact). On May 27, 1999, shortly after the Columbine massacre, LaPierre testified before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, saying:
“We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” he said. “That means closing the Hinckley loophole so the records of those adjudicated mentally ill are in the system. This isn’t new, or a change of position, or a concession. I’ve been on record on this point consistently, from our national meeting in Denver, to paid national ads and position papers, to news interviews and press appearances.”
In fact, for a short while after Columbine, the NRA ran national ads saying, “We think it’s reasonable to provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops.”
So what happened? Well that brings us to another question which may get to the heart of the matter:
Are many board members for the NRA also gun manufacturers?
A) No, the board is made up principally of hunters and sportsmen.
B) No, the board is made up of retired actors and singers/circus clowns like Charleton Heston and Ted Nugent.
C) No, the board is made up of ex-military personnel and police officers who like to practice their marksmanship in a disciplined manner.
D) Yes, the board has multiple members who are gun manufacturers—many of whom produce assault style weapons and magazines that are their bread and butter.
Alas, D is the correct answer. NRA board member Pete Brownell owns Brownells Inc., which sells a wide-range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including the same capacity Glock magazine as the 33-round magazine used in the Arizona shooting that nearly killed Gabby Giffords.
Brenda Potterfield serves as vice-president of the NRA Foundation’s board of trustees and is co-owner of MidwayUSA, which sells a wide range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including 33-round magazines for Glock pistols.
NRA board member Ronnie Barrett owns Barrett, which manufactures an AR-15 style assault rifle which comes with two 30-round ammunition magazines. Ronnie Barrett is best known for the invention and civilian marketing of the 50 caliber sniper rifle: a military weapon used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that can penetrate armor-plating from a mile away and down airliners on take-off and landing, but under federal law is sold with no greater restrictions than a standard hunting rifle. Barrett also manufacturers and sells the REC7, an AR-15 style assault rifle that comes with two 30-round magazines.
Adolphus Busch, the IV, a conservative activist and former NRA member suggests that the NRA board of directors is dominated by gun or ammunition manufacturing interests. After yesterday’s failed vote on the background check he resigned his NRA membership saying:
“…One only has to ask why the NRA reversed its original position on background checks. Was it not the NRA position to support background checks when Mr. LaPierre himself stated in 1999 that NRA saw checks as ‘reasonable’?”
“…I fail to see how the NRA can disregard the overwhelming will of its members who see background checks as reasonable…” […]
“I am simply unable to comprehend how assault weapons and large capacity magazines have a role in your vision,” he said. “The NRA I see today has undermined the values upon which it was established. Your current strategic focus clearly places priority on the needs of gun and ammunition manufacturers while disregarding the opinions of your 4 million individual members.”
“One only has to look at the makeup of the 75-member board of directors, dominated by manufacturing interests, to confirm my point. The NRA appears to have evolved into the lobby for gun and ammunition manufacturers rather than gun owners.”
The sharp turn the NRA has taken against reasonable background checks has consequences, of course, leading to our next question:
How many gun deaths have there been in the U.S. since the Newtown massacre?
A) Almost no one knows because under pressure from the NRA Congress passed a law to defund the CDC in Atlanta should it track gun fatalities or injuries.
B) The question is worded wrongly because guns never kill people. The question should be how many people killed people with guns since Newtown. And because I am far right libertarian, in the clutches of a blind ideology, I don’t care to know the answer to that question.
C) Slate magazine has been keeping a tally, and according to their figures, culled from daily news reports across the country, the correct answer is 3,513.
D) All of the above.
The correct answer is D. The CDC has been threatened with defunding should it try to provide statistics on gun fatalities and injuries. Recently, President Obama issued an executive order to get them back on track again. Answer B is correct, generally, channeling most conversation threads with rabid libertarian types, in particular those spouting the NRA’s vapid slogan. And finally, Slate magazine took up the task of actually tracking gun fatalities after Newtown and came up with the 3,513 figure. The information provided by Slate is here.
Despite all of this information, the US Senate failed to vote on a simple background check measure, leading to one of the final questions.
What is the purpose of the U.S. Senate?
A) It’s a self-sustaining oligarchy of overfed and lionized guys and (some) gals who every 6 years go through a ritual exercise in lying and debasement in order to preserve their positions.
B) It’s a place of civilized discourse initially envisioned as a safeguard against the passion of the masses (i.e., The House) and potential democratic intent.
C) It’s there to represent the will of lobbyists, corporate citizens, and individuals of sufficient wealth and status to purchase allegiance.
D) It’s an elite gentleman’s club and/or fraternity (with some token ladies and minorities allowed), that follows the same rules of discretion and secret insider knowledge. Its cabal-like quality renders all outsiders impotent and sneer worthy.
E) All of the above.
If you guessed ‘All of the above’ you would be correct. Among other factors, Reid’s ridiculous support of the ‘silent’ filibuster has rendered the Senate a useless body for doing the one thing not on that list: passing laws the vast majority of Americans support.
Now then, given this, which brave senator who filibustered yesterday’s vote is willing to talk with the parents of a child killed by gun violence and is willing to explain their principled position?
A) Rand Paul who has become so seduced by Ayn Rand’s pot boiler, “The Fountain Head”, that he accepts at face value principles like ‘altruism is evil’, or worse, that cardboard characters like Howard Roark might actually live.
B) Mitch McConnell, because he spent the day after the vote gloating over his victory and mocking the Senate’s background check efforts (another silent filibuster win!—which is not surprising as Mitch McConnell once even managed to filibuster a bill he sponsored himself).
C) Max Baucus, because cowardice is a principle, too, isn’t it?
D) None of the above.
The answer is D, because despite the relative accuracy of the other answers, the naked truth is none of these folks would have the courage to face the full fury of their victims. That’s 3,513 gun deaths just since the Newtown Massacre and rising daily. That’s more than died in 9/11.
Gabby Gifford said it best in this New York Times piece, A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip:
“I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences. “
And that’s the answer to our last question: What do we do now?
About twelve years ago, shortly after 9/11, a series of writers ‘meditated’ on the event for a New York publication. Robert Stone, ex-beatnik and author of Dog Soldiers, a novel about Vietnam and heroin running, was one of them. In a work entitled “9/11: When Narratives Collide” he noted that narratives rule us—or, conversely— we allow ourselves to be ruled by narratives spawned by our culture. A novelist, Stone understood the impact of what happened through the lens of language, and language, as he noted can never separate itself from moral perspective because–tautology of tautologies – the imperatives of language are necessarily moral. Even something like humor is moral. To be sure, this is generational, but it’s also cultural. And if individuals raised in the same household can have such diverging tastes in matters of low importance like humor, imagine the disparity that moves across classes, cultures and generations when it comes to matters of religion and politics. The miracle really is that we don’t have more frequent events like 9/11—catastrophic as they are—not fewer.
One reason we have been lucky is a simple technical fact—the world is closer. Because of advances in technology we are more easily able to communicate, to bridge the gulf in narratives and cultures. I know now the phrase Allahu Ahkbar means ‘God is Great’…. I also know, thanks to friends who practice Islamic praying, that there are recitative prayers like the Al-Wird, portions of which are repeated over and over (100 times, for example). Just as Catholics might say a Holy Mary or Our Father on their rosary beads, so, too, those who practice the Al-Wird count their utterances and repeat them by a set standard. Thanks to modern technology (and friends) I know the sound of these prayers and find them haunting and refreshing in the same way Handel’s Messiah is evocative at Catholic Midnight Mass. They are meant as offerings to cleanse the heart so that one might come closer to God, Allah, etc.. and I suspect that for believers, they probably do.
Narratives haunt us, too. Sometimes, literally–especially if the belief is strong and culture wide. In Vietnam, the ghosts of ancestors who die violently continue to haunt the living until they are put to rest. Although treated with deep skepticism by many Westerners, there are clinical cases where young daughters or grandsons of lost relatives have been tormented by ghosts whose lives had been cut short by the decades long Vietnam war. The object of the ghost entreaties is to be re-united and properly buried by their family. Heonik Kwon, who has spent decades studying the war ghosts of Vietnam, tells this story:
A man saw his late wife and children in the early morning on his way to the paddy. This was in the spring of 1993, and by this time some villagers had begun to remove the remains of their relatives from improper shallow wartime graves to newly prepared family graveyards. The apparition was at the site of the man’s old house. The house was burned down during the tragic incident of a village massacre in early 1968, which destroyed his family. His wife, seated on a stone, greeted him somewhat scornfully. The three children were hidden behind her back, afraid that their parents might start quarreling.
The meaning of the apparition was immediately clear to the man: he must rebury the remains of his lost family without delay. If he had no means to do so, according to the local interpretation of the apparition, the spirits would help him find a way. The man decided to spend the small sum of money that he had saved in the past years from selling coconuts and negotiated to obtain a loan from a neighbor. At that moment, a wealthy businesswoman and a relative of his wife arrived from a distant city and offered to share the cost of reburial. On the day of the reburial, the woman told the visitors how the family of spirits had appeared to her in a dream and urged her to pay a visit to their home.
What’s interesting about this from a Western perspective is the ease with which the story of the ghosts are accepted. For us to really understand what this means in the context of contemporary Vietnam, you have to understand that the ghosts in a Vietnamese village are supposed to be attentive to the social affairs among their living neighbors, just as the villagers are interested in the existence of the ghosts—they are distinct and alien to each other just enough so that explanations are, in fact, necessary. In short—the ghosts want to explain themselves to the living as much as the living want and need to explain themselves to their dead ancestors.
One instance which surprised me was the story of an American soldier who had lost a leg in the same area where a North Vietnamese man had lost his life. He became haunted by the ghost of this dead Vietnamese soldier to the point of being possessed, at least nocturnally. He woke in the night, speaking in a high falsetto tongue. He was actually speaking a North Vietnamese dialect which he had never learned. His wife (a young Vietnamese girl) could barely cope with the strange possession and they sought the advice of a Shaman or spirit medium. The medium advised them to return to the place where the young soldier was wounded. Once there, they met with relatives of the man who had been killed in the area and his bones were finally re-interred near his family’s ancestral spot. The American soldier’s nightmare stopped almost immediately.
I say this all by way of emphasizing the point that Stone initially brought up: we live and die by our narratives, and the stories we tell ourselves as a culture are some of the most powerful forces on Earth.
Considering this, maybe the most important thing that happened twelve years ago wasn’t the disastrous attacks on the World Trade Center, the downed flight in Pennsylvania or the attack on the Pentagon, but the new narrative that was unleashed after the attack. There were at least two possible stories we could have told ourselves.
The first: we have been attacked and must unite to rescue the people we can and prosecute the individuals responsible. If possible we must find the reason for the attack and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
The second: we have been attacked and now we must attack in turn, not just the individuals directly responsible, but an entire country. And, if that should prove insufficient, we should attack more than one country, perhaps an entire culture needs to feel our pain. Ultimately, we must seek to remake and dominate any narrative but our own.
We chose the second narrative. We girded our loins, donned our armor and attacked two countries—one of which was innocent, the other guilty perhaps, but by proxy only. We changed our laws to make us less free, suspending Habeas Corpus, and allowing military confinement of citizens on US soil. We institutionalized torture. All of this we did to ensure ourselves some sense of security, seeking a kind of ruthless certainty in our narrative. Like a child watching a confusing television show, we had to know immediately who was the good guy and who was the bad.
Three days ago, another event, similar in purpose, if not in scale, blew through the Boston Marathon. No one knows yet who is responsible, but we do know that none of our wars stopped those explosions. None of our simplistic faith in good guys vs. bad guys helped. Our lost liberties didn’t keep us safe. Our starving prisoners in Guantanamo have brought us no peace. We still live with uncertainty and that ultimately is the nature of narratives. They are there to stand in for reality, explain it. At the end of the story they resolve and cease to move forward, either because they no longer have a purpose, or they dissolve into incoherence. They can only be propped up or vanquished with bullets or bombs for so long; eventually, they die from a lack of belief.
Today, twelve long years later, I suspect we have lost our faith in the narrative we chose on 9/11. I see signs of a different story forming, something like that first narrative: we have been attacked and must unite to rescue the people we can and prosecute the individuals responsible. A civilized reaction befitting a civilized country. Let’s hope so.
– by Jack Johnson
Part I (in which we learn that even ‘free’ water has a cost)
Richmond has a water problem. Despite being the ‘river’ city, with some of the finest urban white water in the country rolling through our metropolis, cheap water for its residents is hard to come by.
It’s not a question of scarcity: we have plenty of water for drinking, bathing and most household needs. During the dry, drought-prone summer months, conservation is called for, but unlike many Western communities our essential water supply, the James River, is doing okay. The way our system works, water from the James River goes to the Water Treatment Plant where it is settled, filtered, aerated and disinfected to improve the taste and kill bacteria. Then it leaves the treatment plant through a distribution system of pipes that carries the water to Richmond homes. This entire process, with the Richmond Water Treatment plant serving at its center, was put in place 89 years ago. And over those 89 years, the price for water remained relatively consistent, rising with the general rise of inflation, but certainly no faster.
But following a national trend, rates were increased significantly in 1999, and continued rising up through 2011, when city council set Richmond’s minimum water charge to $49.40, one of the highest in the country. They needed to raise revenue to repair aging infrastructure, the city council claimed, and so adjusted their books by raising the price of water. Worse, they didn’t tie the price to the actual consumption of water. That $49.40 is where a water utility bill begins, before you take your first sip. This makes for a deeply regressive charge. An average Richmond utility bill can hover around $80 to $100 dollars (or much more). You could live in Richmond, not drink a drop of water, never take a shower and not flush your toilet for a month and still be charged $50 bucks. That rolls up to nearly $600 per household per year before you take your first sip.
Scott Burger, director of Falls of the James Sierra Club and a member of the Better Government for Richmond watchdog group, was outraged when he heard of the rate hike last year. “It was despicable,” he said. The rates were especially hard-hitting for the elderly and those on fixed incomes. Further, he didn’t believe the argument presented by the Mayor and city council that the hike was necessary to pay for the infrastructure. He argued instead that the city used water and gas utilities as a “cash cow” whose profit was skimmed into the general fund rather than being used to renovate aging infrastructure or passing the savings on to customers.
According to city records, gas and water utilities together contributed about $22 million to the city’s general fund in the form of a “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, which represents what those utilities would pay in taxes if they were not city-owned. Among other things, the problem is that the ‘general fund’ money can easily be diverted into questionable projects, like the recent deal to bring the Redskins training camp to town.
Scott Burger is a big fellow with a great beard and a good strong voice, a cross between Edward Abbey and Grizzly Adams. Not the type of person to take such news sitting down. He developed an online petition with a ruling metaphor–water torture, as in Chinese water torture:
“drip…drip…drip…drip … That sound you hear is the water torture of Richmond’s water/sewer bill. Even if you use no water, residential customers will soon have to pay $49.40 in minimum monthly service charges. These minimum water/sewer service charges are the highest in the entire country.”
He posted the online petition, featuring a huge faucet, and started signing people up.
By September of 2012, he had over a thousand signatures and folks willing to carry signs and address city council on the matter.
“Other cities have old infrastructure, I’m just outraged at the city rates, and I know they could be brought down.”
“What most people are not aware is, if you don’t pay your water bill, it can put you out of your house,” said L. Shirley Harvey, who was protesting at Richmond City Hall.
“Everybody needs to have water so I think it needs to come from another source,” said Karen Andrew, who stood beside a sign that featured a cow—for ‘cash’ cow. “Those who are really struggling, you know, very low-income, it’s not fair to them.”
Finally, as the protests continued to boil, Mayor Jones issued a statement:
“I, too, want to see water and sewer rates lowered for our residents. We’ve taken steps to hopefully move us in the direction of adjusting rates, and I’m expecting recommendations from DPU (Department of Public Utilities) by the beginning of the year.… Our challenge is that we face a number of fixed costs that must be paid that are inseparable from the service of delivering quality water and wastewater services. We have an aging infrastructure and a combined sewer system and we have to maintain historic canals and water and wastewater treatment plants that were built-in the early to mid 1900’s. Even with these challenges, the City offers the lowest connection fees in the area. It has also been erroneously communicated that our minimum water rates and our minimum sewer rates are the highest in the country–that is not accurate.”
There was some truth to his statement. It’s certainly true that repairing aging infrastructure is costly. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimated in a recent report that aging water infrastructure across the United States could cost U.S. municipalities as much as one trillion dollars to upgrade, repair or replace. The question remains, does the money charged to Richmond citizens actually go toward a long-term upgrade solution for that infrastructure, or is ‘profit’ from the utility charges simply skimmed into a ‘general fund’ that can be used for many different needs—heedless of long-term repairs that will be necessary?
One other thing to keep in mind when comparing these numbers is population growth. Richmond has relatively static growth, so there’s limited income generated from new hookup fees—which Mayor Dwight Jones contends is some of the lowest in the country. Well, that might be true, but it’s beside the point. It’s low because there’s no money to be made in onetime hookup fees for a city population that’s in a steady state. But that’s where the outlying counties—growing at a remarkable clip– can make up their revenue and it’s one reason county utilities generally charge very large hookup fees — $13,000 or more in Hanover, for example — in turn this enables them to keep their base rate and volume metric rates for water usage relatively low.
Finally, even if you could find a few other cities in the country with a minimum service charge as high as $50 dollars, as Major Dwight Jones contends, Richmond’s $49.40 in monthly base charges for water and wastewater are definitely the highest in the immediate area.
Hanover County charges $14.17 before usage charges, compared with $17.10 in Henrico and $22.16 in Chesterfield (see the table at the end of the article for a list of comparably sized cities and their corresponding utility rates). In most instances, Richmond more than doubles them. And here’s the interesting part—Richmond is selling surrounding counties its own water from the James presumably at a lower rate than it sells the water to its own citizens. So you have to ask, if water can be sold more cheaply to outlying counties, why isn’t the price lowered for the local community? Furthermore, if a profit is being made off of these utility costs, shouldn’t that be used as a nest egg specifically earmarked for water infrastructure overhauls in the future? Rather than being skimmed off to the general fund?
Part II (in which The City backs down — sort of)
From the perspective of a city council person, it must have looked bad. You’re selling the city water to local counties at a cheaper rate than you’re selling it to your own citizens; an online petition has been signed by over a thousand residents linking your water rates to torture; and a few news pieces note that you’ve got some of the highest water rates in the country. It’s likely, if you’re a wise council member, or maybe just a council member with an eye toward the future, you’ll try to quell that fury. But in order to do that, you will need to make a decision. Do you actually lower rates or do you move the rates around a little. Reduce the one rate everyone is looking at … and then jack up all the rest? Good question.
Mayor Dwight Jones’ answered that question on March, 13, 2013 by way of an announcement on his city blog:
“Mayor Jones has called for a major change in the city’s water rate structure and particularly the base water and wastewater rates. The Mayor’s proposal calls for a substantial reduction in those base rates (from the current base rate total of $49.40 to $26.11) as well as a move to charging for volumetric usage. This means that residents and businesses will pay more for higher usages of water and wastewater.”
“Through this rate structure change, an estimated 50% of our residential households will see a decrease in their water and wastewater bills. This action responds to the numerous voices, including mine, requesting a review of our structure and way to reduce the base charges.”
The problem, as Scott Burger has pointed out, was that it wasn’t much of a reduction. Not really. When you add up the volume metric rate, the wastewater rate, the gas increase and the service rate, even with the 50% reduction, on average it still comes up as higher than your last year’s bill. To be precise, it comes to a net increase of 13.8%. Dollar for dollar, one activist compared his costs under the old rate schedule and calculated his bill under the new rate schedule: it came out to twelve dollars more.
Administrators of the non-profit Alliance for Progressive Values went through the proposed budget “papers” and crunched the numbers. As it stands, they noted that Richmonders pay more for water than almost any other city in the country. Breaking down the various papers for the budget they found increases in all volume charged rates; the wastewater volume rate increase was as high as 125%, effectively doubling that portion of the utility bill should the City budget pass in July. In addition, the recycling rate went up by 14.8%, gas fees by 3% and the standard water rate more than doubled (a complete breakdown of the numbers can be found at the end of this article.)
Scott Burger also pointed out that the DPU’s Payment-In-Lieu- Of-Taxes (PILOT) needed scrutiny because the base service charge could be reduced further if the DPU is not paying more than required into the general fund. And finally, “There still exists the glaring difference in residential water prices between the City and the surrounding counties, which may in effect be encouraging suburban sprawl.”
So last Monday, Scott Burger returned to City Hall. He brought out his signs again, and again he and a half-dozen other community activists stood outside the city council meeting denouncing the new proposed rates with cash cows and water faucets. Beneath their talk of excessive charges, there was a sense of betrayal.
“It’s no good,” said Rhonda Hening, vice-president of Alliance for Progressive Values. Scott Burger told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the cut in base charges were “laudable” but, holding a sign that he might have held a year ago demanding a change in the water rates, he used a familiar phrase to describe the new increase in volume charges: “despicable.”
And, he noted, the profit from those extra charges will still go straight into the general fund. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that the city’s utilities are expected to contribute $23.8 million to the general fund next year, up from more than $22.1 million this year.
City Council President Charles R. Samuels, a dapper young man who looks to be in his late thirties told a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch that he hoped “people are excited to know that their voices are heard” on the water fees. Apparently, there was no irony intended.
When asked about specifics in the budget, he said, “We’re all absorbing the budget and getting ready for our meetings,” sounding a little like a man who wished the whole thing would just go away.
But neither Scott Burger nor Rhonda Hening nor the other activists look like they’re going anywhere. Ideally, they would like to see a further reduction in the base rate, down to 19 dollars or less, and a more nuanced volume rate schedule, with those consuming the most water (larger households or industries, for example) receiving a higher charge per gallon, while those whose consumption is light receive a discounted fee for conservation purposes. Also, they want to ensure sufficient funds are set aside for long-term infrastructure repair. Last Monday evening, outside the city council meeting, they waved their signs at passing traffic and occasionally a horn sounded. Reporters from local television stations and newspapers stopped by to ask what was going on. The activists were more than happy to explain.
The city council is scheduled to vote on the revised budget Monday, May 13, so stay tuned. In the mean time, express yourself! Here’s a handy list of email links and phone numbers for your Richmond city council members.
Courtesy of Scott Burger, below are some comparable minimum water/sewer service charges for other localities:
Richmond: $49.40 [includes no water/sewer volume]
Washington DC: $3.86
Pittsburgh: $16.59 (includes first 1000 gallons)
Knoxville: $24.75 (includes first 1,500 gallons)
Louisville Ky: $21.27
Little Rock AR: $20.72
Oklahoma City: $13.03
Kansas City Mo: $22.30
Lincoln Ne: $4.92
Bismarck ND: $12.20
New York City: $12.90 (includes 4 Ccf)
New Orleans: $15.65
San Francisco: $7.90
Below is the APV statement on the proposed Richmond Water Rates:
“At present, we pay monthly service fees of $19.68 for drinking water (wastewater has a separate service charge of $29.72—leading to the total water service charge of $49.40) and a volume charge per Ccf of $1.63. If this paper passes, we will begin paying a monthly service fee of $11.56 and a volume charge of $3.21 per Ccf starting in July of this year. While we are pleased with the lower base fee, the difference will be more than made up for with the dramatic increase in the volume charges. Applying the new rates to existing bills, we found a net increase of 13.8%.
Paper 53-2013 raises gas fees 3%. Current charges include a monthly service fee of $11.05 and a volume charge per Ccf of .47. If passed, the rates will jump to a monthly service fee of $11.36 and a volume charge per Ccf of .483.
Paper 57-2013 raises the fees for recycling. Current recycling charges are $1.69. The proposed recycling charge to begin in July is $1.94. This seems like a fairly small amount, but in fact it is an increase of 14.8%.
Paper 62-2013 has the highest increases, with wastewater volume fees increasing nearly 125%. Today, the monthly service fee is $29.72 and the volume charge per Ccf is $2.586. If this paper passes, the new monthly service fee will drop to $14.55, but the volume charge per Ccf will rise to $5.82. In practical terms, this means that the wastewater portion of your utility bill will more than double come July.”
~by Jack Johnson
Sometimes there are news stories so over the top, so outrageous, that you double-check just to ensure you haven’t lost your mind. At times these stories involve incredibly weird acts with peanut butter jars and human orifices, other times, it’s North Carolina legislators trying to write laws.
According to the Huffington Post, a bill was filed Monday, April 1st, by two GOP lawmakers from Rowan County, NC and backed by nine other Republicans (including the Majority Leader) that would effectively allow the state of North Carolina to declare an ‘established’ religion. The April 1st date could be indicative of the joking nature of the thing, but they appear to be serious as a heart attack. They use proud state secessionist type speech that we really haven’t heard since those Halcyon days of the Civil War (that Recent Unpleasantness, by the way, left over half a million of our fellow citizens dead or about 620,000 …keep that figure in mind, we’ll be coming back to it).
Here are the two relevant sections from the bill:
SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
Even those of us who aren’t lawyers—much less state legislators– are passingly familiar with the First Amendment and what is commonly known as the Establishment Clause. This clause expressly prohibits Congress from passing laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America. The North Carolina GOP’s argument, in all its simplicity, appears to be that the Establishment Clause does not apply to the states. Well, the kindest thing you can say is that the argument is courageous; in the same way that sticking your tongue to a steel pole in sub-zero temperatures is courageous. It’s not something you cheer: you just have to wonder what’s going on with that person. And you hope they get better soon.
As recently as 1971, a similar effort was soundly repudiated in Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court established the three-pronged test—called “The Lemon Test”— for determining when a state has run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:
• The law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose.
• The principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
• The statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion.
The Lemon test, by the way, has been upheld as recently as 2005 –even under our extremely conservative SCOTUS in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union.
So passage of such a law in North Carolina has zero chance of surviving a constitutional challenge which apparently is beside the point. After all, this is the same state that continues to hold a provision in its State Constitution requiring that candidates for state office profess their belief in God. This despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) which held that such a law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. To wit:
“We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
North Carolina’s response? … Crickets. They have not modified their State Constitution an iota in order to accord themselves with the law of the land.
This is a problem. It’s the same kind of problem we see in Mississippi where there’s a proposal to establish a state board with the power to nullify federal laws; and with legislation recently introduced in North Carolina by state Representative Larry Pittman (R-Concord), touting a state constitutional amendment that would allow for carrying concealed weapons to fight federal “tyranny.” Our own state, Virginia, is currently refusing millions in federal aid (even as we slash necessary local programs) in a pyrrhic effort to evade Obamacare, as if refusing federal funds for sick and poor people were a great and noble cause (right up there with defending slavery). All of these efforts are generated in a cloud of rightwing paranoia of the U.N. black helicopter variety. If they were merely childish, albeit costly efforts that would simply wither on the vine, it would probably be safe to disregard them, but what years ago would have been casually ignored as the lunatic fringe has now become the Republican party’s base. At the state level, this kind of rhetoric is quickly becoming standard operating procedure.
Progressives like to believe in an arrow to history, a teleological end point; but in reality for every few steps forward there are usually two or three steps back. Progress tends to be more evolutionary—in Stephen Gould’s sense of the matter– with bad or useless things hanging around that really shouldn’t— kind of like our appendices. Most gains are compromises with something slightly disingenuous or dysfunctional (think of Obamacare’s deep entanglement with an expensive and nearly useless private insurance overlay). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine what can ameliorate the poisonous assumptions that are being made at the state level today. These are not compromise positions, but deeply atavistic nonnegotiables that aim to undermine the whole. They are symptoms of a malaise that surfaced nearly 150 years ago, at the cost of over half a million lives, and look to be trending once again. I suspect, unless roundly ridiculed, it might come back like Nietzsche’s eternal return, or worse, like Newt Gingrich (God help us).
We can only hope that, like the infamous Darwin awards, these Southern statesmen will do the human race a favor by self-selecting themselves out of our legal gene pools—through foolish acts, like sticking their tongues to freezing steel poles, or forgetting who won the Civil War.