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The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Now Reading

Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country

T. Harry Williams, Huey Long

Seyyed Hossien Nasr, The Heart of Islam

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Friday
Mar282014

The Real Politics of Envy

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a March 24 piece, makes the argument that America is slipping into an oligarchy. I would argue that he uses the wrong word; oligarchy means "rule of the few." A better word would be plutocracy, or "rule of the wealthy."

It is nonetheless an interesting article, and I largely agree with him that America is moving towards being controlled by a rich elite. But I think he is a little too harsh and simplistic in setting up the rich vs. poor contest in America as a power struggle the rich is winning.

The truth is, in the United States the public could shatter the political power of the wealthy in one election. If every American who wasn't rich refused to vote for a candidate who was, or for any candidate who supports policies that favor the top 1%, the rule of the wealthy would be over in one day. Theoretically, there is nothing preventing it.

So why doesn't it happen? Why doesn't the middle class simply vote its interests, instead of, election after election, voting the interests of the elite? Krugman argues that it is because the rich control the media and the organs of government, but I don't think that is the whole story. As I said, if it was, the whole thing would end on Election Day.

America is an aspirational culture. There is an old saying in business: Don't dress like your job, dress like your aspirations. And many sayings like it, all amounting to the belief that if you want something badly enough and work hard enough for it, you will achieve it. The Horatio Alger ethic, if anyone remembers who Horatio Alger was. Even though his book series is long forgotten, the ethics embodied in it are still with us: Work hard and you will succeed (which usually means get rich).

The reason the middle class and poor won't vote their interests is because too many of them want to be rich. And they fear, in that odd calculus that human beings have when it comes to emotional thinking, that if they stop wishing to get rich, they never can be. So they vote like the rich because they want to believe that voting rich will make them rich one day. They support elimination of the estate tax because they dream of leaving a fortune to their heirs. They frown on luxury taxes, anticipating the day that they will once live in luxury. They support capital gains tax cuts, without really understanding what capital gains are, because they dream of one day having capital.

And they somehow think, in their heart of hearts, that if they oppose such things God will deny them an estate, yachts to be taxed, or capital to gain.

Consider for a moment that in America's most prosperous time, right after World War II and up to the early 70s, Americans aspired to be middle class, and that was enough for them. People didn't think it was necessary to back an agenda that supported wealth accumulation, mainly because they didn't necessarily think wealth was the only thing worth aspiring to. And America did quite well at that time, thank you.

Liberals are accused of engaging in "politics of envy" when they pursue plans to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. But this is hardly envy; no liberal plan has as its goal making the rich poor and making the poor rich. The goal is to make the poor less destitute and the middle class more self-sufficient. Expanding the middle class is not politics of envy. It is politics of self-sufficiency.

The real politics of envy is allowing the poor and middle class to give up more of what they have because they aspire to be rich. It is starving our schools for the sake of low taxes. It is refusing to address the problems of hourly wage earners because it would take investment opportunities from Wall Street. It is using the envy the poor have for the rich as a weapon against them, by making them feel guilty for having the gall to vote their own interests instead of for the interests of the wealthy.

Envy is not turning our country to socialism. It is turning our country into a plutocracy.

Monday
Mar172014

St. Patrick's Day

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick of Ireland, one of the several Catholic holidays recognized by secular society as much, if not more, than by the Catholic Church itself.

St. Patrick was by birthright a Roman citizen, born to Roman parents in Scotland. As a teenager, he was kidnapped by raiders and taken back to Ireland, where he was enslaved, forced to tend sheep. During his years of slavery, he found solace from loneliness and suffering in bondage through meditation and prayer. He also learned the language and customs of the Irish people. He later said he escaped from slavery when God told him to flee to the coast in a dream, and when he awoke and did so, he found a group of sailors there willing to take him home.

Back in Scotland, he studied for the priesthood, and after ordination returned to Ireland to aid and to preach to the very people who had enslaved him. He felt God was calling him to go back to Ireland and bring faith to the pagan tribes that lived there. His efforts were successful, and over his career he, along with a lesser known bishop named Palladius (who probably performed some of the acts now traditionally attributed to St. Patrick) converted Ireland to the Catholic faith, and in the process, brought it into the European orbit. He died on March 17, 461, having spent 40 years of his life ministering to the Irish.

A man who, as a member of a conquering race, abandoned his own home and society and returned to minister to people who had enslaved him? Sounds like someone we ought to be honoring, even 1600 years later.

Monday
Mar032014

Court for the Rich

The February 28 op-ed story in the New York Times about sealed court hearings in Delaware is one of the more concerning news stories I've seen in quite some time. If you subscribe (as I do) to the Bill Moyers school of political thought, which says that America is being taken over by corporate interests, this is a story which confirms all of your worst suspicions.

The story details a Delaware law that allows corporations or individuals to pay an extra fee to have "arbitration hearings" before a state judge sealed instead of appearing in the public record. The law states that if litigants have $1 million at stake, for a fee of $12,000 and $6000 a day after, "they [can] use Delaware's Chancery judges and court rooms for what [is] called an 'arbitration' that produces enforceable legal judgments."

In other words, in the state of Delaware, if you don't want your legal proceedings to be a matter of public record, you can pay extra money to have a judge decide your case in secret.

Why is this a big problem? Because it allows private businesses and wealthy individuals to use the force of law to conduct operations without public knowledge. The government, including regulatory departments, police, and other legal authorities will enforce court decisions without the public ever knowing what they are or how the decision was arrived at. Public policy would be decided in secret.

Unfortunately, since this practice has not yet gotten started, it is difficult to know what kind of corporate behaviors might be affected by this new policy. But for once it is worth invoking the cliché that conservatives love to brandish against privacy advocates: If you don't have anything to hide, what are you worried about? Why, after all, was this law passed unless there was a demand by private corporations to conduct their lawsuits out of public view, with the goal of hiding certain business practices from the public?

Think of all the personal and private information that businesses have about us. Think about all the licensing agreements you are forced to sign, such as credit card agreements, software licensing, and cable contracts, and of the information releases you sign for your health insurance company to review your medical records. You sign all those agreements without reading them because, after all, who can afford a lawyer to get a cell phone or an operation?

Now imagine one of these companies forced terms on you that you couldn't accept. So you sue them, and they respond by paying money to a court to make the case secret so when your case goes to trial, no one can ever know what evidence you put in, what your lawyer argued, what evidence they used, or even what the judgment was. Then later, if someone else is in a similar situation and like you, choses to sue, he or she would have no knowledge of your suit and how it was settled. Each new case would be blind, the lawyers re-inventing the wheel each time. Advantage then goes to the rich corporation who knows what happened at the previous trials and knows all the arguments, evidence, and judgments.

One of the ways one can identify a plutocracy is by following the lines of accountability. If rich people are not accountable in the same way that poor people are for illegal activity, that is strong evidence of a plutocracy. The Delaware law says it all: you have to have $1 million to be eligible for this law, and have to be able to afford $12,000 just to take advantage of it. That makes this a law which applies only to wealthy people. How can this not be evidence that our democracy is turning into a plutocracy?

The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on this issue fairly soon. This is just my personal prejudice, but in light of recent Supreme Court decisions I am not confident that the Supreme Court is going to throw this law out. If the law remains in place, there will be a rush by corporations to establish themselves in Delaware to take advantage of it. As has been the case in the past, I would expect that other states would then move to match Delaware's extremely business friendly practice to keep businesses from relocating from their states. So, the law in Delaware would very rapidly become the law in many other places.

One of the things that is lost in arguments about how businesses need to be unfettered by government is that many businesses, if not all businesses, depend on the government to provide their basic operating framework. For example, how many media corporations would exist if there was no such thing as copyright protection? How many manufacturing corporations would exist if there was no such thing as a patent? And Wall Street would fairly rapidly cease to exist if there was no such thing as contract law. After all, stocks, bonds, loans, and derivatives are nothing more than contract agreements.If you couldn't get Uncle Sam to back up your claim that owning a share of a company guaranteed you certain rights, it's doubtful that you would ever invest money in the stock market.

Despite what many conservative politicians argue, businesses depend on government regulation and protection at least as much as poor people and the working class do. The problem is, businesses only want regulation that is favorable to them, and unfortunately, as of late, they seem to have the power to arrange it that way.

However, the court system — your court system — belongs to the people of the United States. It may be of benefit to the rich, but it does not belong exclusively to the rich. It is extremely important that the court system be independent of wealth and of business interests. If we can't expect the courts to treat wealthy citizens the same way that it treats middle class and lower class citizens, then American democracy is in trouble.

Saturday
Feb152014

January's Temperatures and Global Warming

For the entire month of January we heard it -- the exceptionally cold temperatures in the Northeast and South proved that global warming is a hoax.

My answer (see previous post below) and every good scientist's answer to that nonsense was the same: Wait for the data. What you see outside your window is one data point for one day. Wait until the end of the month and year and see if the impressions bear out.

The facts are in now, and they show clearly that there was no significant drop in temperatures in the U.S. over the month of January. In fact, even in some cities that thought they were unseasonably cold, it turns out that the temperatures were near normal. The national average temperature was only 0.1℉ below normal, 30.3℉ instead of the normal 30.4℉. In fact, the more significant statistic is that January's rainfall was .9 inches below average, making it the fifth driest January on record -- an observation that goes along with climate change models, rather than against them.

Say what? That can't be possible, you may say. Don't you remember the blizzards, the ice storms, the closed airports? Impossible!

No, possible -- and the truth. Because while the East Coast and South endured unseasonably low temperatures and some increase in precipitation, in the West the temperatures were above normal and very, very dry. The above normal temperatures in the West made up for the Eastern lows, and what we got was a very slight (0.1 degree) drop below historic averages.

The data is in. And it says there was no record cooling in the U.S. last month. Sorry, naysayers.

Remember what an average is. An average takes into account all measurements, not just the ones outside our windows. And this is crucial to understanding climate change, because climatologists are not saying the temperature of the planet will rise every single day, every single place. What they are saying is that the average temperature will rise. January's observations are consistent with that prediction.

It is worth going into this a little more deeply. In general, an average, or more precisely, a statistical mean is the number that is in the middle of any set of measurements. (Technically the middle number in a set of data is called the median, but in most randomly distributed systems the mean and the median turn out to be close to the same thing, so we can be a little loose in our talk and say "the average" when we mean "the statistical median." Ok, enough shop talk.) 

For example, if a basketball player has an average score of 15 points per game, that means half the time he will score above 15 points, and half the time he will score below 15. In the same way, if the climate is warming, we expect the average global temperature to gradually rise over time, but that still means monthly averages should fall below the historic mean fairly often, and probably close to half the time. (Unlike with the basketball player, however, it will be slightly less than half the time. In order for the average temperature to rise, new temperatures must hit above the average more times than not.)

Thus, months like January should happen sometimes, and are expected under the climate change model.

Friday
Jan312014

The Endless, Nonsensical, Argument for the Keystone Pipeline

Today from the New York Times, we have yet another argument for the Keystone XL pipeline that makes no sense:

The long-awaited environmental impact statement on the [Keystone] project concludes that approval or denial of the pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, is unlikely to prompt oil companies to change the rate of their extraction of carbon-heavy tar sands oil, a State Department official said. Either way, the tar sands oil, which produces significantly more planet-warming carbon pollution than standard methods of drilling, is coming out of the ground, the report says.

 

The article goes on to say that Obama will likely approve the pipeline because it meets his stated standard of having no impact on carbon emissions. Not that the extracted oil is not environmentally harmful. No, of course it is, but the harmful oil will be extacted anyway, so we might as well get a cut.

Really? This passes for logic these days? This is the same as saying we should stay in Afganistan and keep killing Afghans because, after all, if we don't kill them someone else will.

Arguments don't get any more ridiculous than that. The only way carbon emissions are controlled is if someone, anyone, shows leadership in the matter. That means one of the major economic powers in the world has to say no to oil, even at personal financial cost, to demonstrate a commitment. More than likely that nation will have to be the United States.

Look at it this way. As the world's largest economy, and the largest gross emitter of carbon, the U.S. lends an easy excuse to any nation that wants to do something about climate change. What is the point, Japan or Germany or China or India or Italy might ask, in spending money to reduce emissions if the U.S. continues to pollute?

Good question. One with no answer.

This is an easy one. The Keystone pipeline would only provide for a fraction of America's energy needs. Most of the money to be made will go to Canada, who is selling the oil in the first place. There isn't a lot of sacrifice here. But saying no to Big Oil would mean much.