“Darth Vader Money”

Congress is finally perfecting a complete inversion of the popular idea of “Charity.” Billionaires and their huge corporations “donate” millions to our elected representatives. Like your $25 donation to your favorite charity, these millions are tax-exempt, meaning, of course, they’re taxpayer-subsidized.

But these donated millions don’t go to the injured and displaced, survivors of natural disaster, and the poor and needy. They go into legislators’ secret slush funds in a process still colloquially known as “bribery.”

The resulting legislation effects a return of billions in completely legal and fully protected profits to the “donors,” a thousandfold return on investment (ROI).

But this is surely just exaggerated hype, right? From Bill Moyers, this morning, in turn quoting Paul Blumenthal at The Huffington Post:

“Republicans in Congress are trying to decrease the already scant amount of disclosure for politically-active nonprofits — known as dark money groups. The legislative effort is unsurprisingly supported by the main political arm of the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.”

“Dark Money?” Like “Non-profit.” there we rediscover another grave euphemism. Taxpayers subsidize small investments in legislation, in the process best known as “graft,” which returns huge profits, which in turn are often sheltered under special tax sweetheart deals. In effect, we are paying corporations to corrupt the system for a profit. It’s become “Darth Vader” Money.

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The GOP: the Sea Change Older Than You Think

A distressed friend posted a Facebook comment that the GOP changed around 2014, perhaps the last straw for her. After some reflection, I posted the following thoughts of my own …

April 6, 2016
Although 2014 was a signature year that will long be remembered for disgracing the Republican Party, I sniffed the sea change as early as twenty years ago – with the rise of Georgia Representative and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. With his ominous “Contract With America” and the longest government shutdown in our history, he signaled a new era of strident, intractable GOP politics which attracted, not the brightest and the best, but the opposite among both leaders and followers.
Trump and Cruz were not the GOP sea change, they were its inevitable culmination. There were several factors leading to this unveiling of the very worst side of crony capitalism and hate politics, and Gingrich was hardly alone in leading the way down the hole. He bestowed traction and status to the worst elements in the party, and we can strongly associate the Gingrich Era with the instigation of most of the unsavory changes in the party, of which I’d been a supporter for decades.
I was in somewhat a state of denial [about this] myself. I watched the swarm of little horribles crawling out of the hole, and I thought, “the GOP won’t stand for this; they’ll squash this once and for all soon enough.” But they encouraged it, they pandered to it, they invented new justifications for fanning and perpetrating the mentality of nastiness (to put it politely.) No need to be ashamed, Robbie. We’ve all seen families where one member embraces addiction and crime and blames the others. Loyalty is understandable until a turning point comes where we’re finally forced to see there’s no hope left. The person or party we tried to support is no longer heading in the wrong direction, but has arrived. We have to chalk up our losses and say, “I no longer know you.”

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Robert Reich and The Establishment

The 2016 Presidential campaign has captured public involvement and commentary more so than any previous election year I can remember, possibly excepting the Goldwater vs. Johnson election year of 1964.

Election Fever has spread to Facebook too, of course. A friend “Shared” an editorial essay by UC Berkeley political economist Robert Reich, which I’d say is recommended reading regardless of your preferred political party. I’d go further: our vote is often ignored and in some cases actually goes to the candidate your vote was meant to keep out, and it’s entirely legal. The system is rigged.

A link to the Reich article is provided at the bottom of this post.

After reading the article and pondering its implications, my thoughts over the past few weeks began to gel. I posted the following comment. Its intent is not in criticism of Reich but as expansion on one of Reich’s observations. I focused on our two-party apparatus as it has evolved in recent decades.

=====

A friend said they hope more folks read this. Very good summary and analysis. I’d go farther than labeling both parties as entrenched within the structure of the Establishment. Our parties have too much power. They’ve had it for a LONG time. I believe most of us were raised to view political parties as a means to allow us to organize effectively according to our political philosophies.
The whole idea of “pre-committed super-delegates” is a slap in the face to the entire electoral process. So is the idea of “winner-take-all” states. We have the right to vote, but we don’t have the right to vote to cast out others’ ballots, and our elected representatives most certainly don’t either.
Our parties insulate the electorate from the process with a firewall of lobbyists, corporate donations and interests, secret slush funds and an unwritten agenda of “business as usual.” Instead of the parties and elected partisan representatives being directly accountable to the electorate, the people are expected to fall into line with one or the other of the major parties’ rigged picks. Another sad case of the tail wagging the dog.

READING: The End of the Establishment? by Robert Reich

 

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How Long Do Dictators Last?

I was watching the news as the Taliban sweeps fledgling state Iraq, so recently “liberated” from the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. Are they again to become a failed state due to their own religious factionalism, enslaved yet again by new opportunistic warlords?

“Worst case scenario,” I thought, “they’ll fall to a new dictatorship. But, how long do dictatorships really last? Since ancient Greece, Rome and Persia, I can’t remember a real dictatorship that made it to a hundred years.”

I soon realized, there IS a hair-splitting difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian regime. Regimes, under a succession of dictators, such as the USSR, last under a century in modern times. And then we have “authoritarian regimes” in which some freedom is tolerated but rigidly monitored, all the way down to “benevolent dictatorships” and kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, where the king is still head of state and nominally the final authority.

China, once one of the bloodiest dictatorships after millennia of emperors and the indignity of the British Opium Wars, seems at the time to be a special case. North Korea, with its three generations of hereditary Kim Jongs, is almost universally held to be one of the most brutal and detestable regimes, with each generation of “Dear Leader” being crazier than its predecessor.

And finally, we have that resurgent scourge of Huns, the terrorist armies, who, having seen territory they want, simply take them and execute the opposition.

How long do dictatorships last, on an average?

My guess for maximum longevity in recent times was about right. I did some research and analysis.

To make much sense of the conclusions of this piece, you really should first quickly peruse this list at Conservapedia.com “List of Dictators.”

Their website states “The following is a list of national leaders (heads of state and/or heads of government) commonly regarded as modern dictators.” The list is mind-boggling. Look at it. You can see some patterns that dovetail with what we remember of of history, but they don’t lend themselves to easy statistical analysis.

What I liked was that their list included dates dictators were in power. I wanted durations of their reigns over time.

What is their average, high and low reign as absolute ruler? Are there any patterns over time? Would it be fair to say dictatorships are today on the decline world-wide?

I exported their web table to an Excel spreadsheet, calculated each dictatorship’s term in power, and I tried to do some simple analysis. I graphed the most significant result: dictatorships are almost always short-lived aberrations, though frequently followed by new aberrations. I could see no particular evidence they are on the wane; what changes is where and when they sprout, like poison mushrooms after a rain.

I think you could make a case that chaos and authoritarian regimes flourish after an occupying power vacates, or is forced out of, a geographical area. But this is tough to prove. Given the scholarly difficulty of tracking down the history of every individual shifting country on the list, I didn’t try to quantify my conclusion.

I’d have liked to see graphed breakouts by region, and more by century or historical period, but in most cases it is easy enough to see those patterns in the Conservapedia listing.

I compiled my chart by counting the number of occurrences of 0 years, 1 year, 2 years and so on, all the way up to a 47 year maximum duration of power. There were 230 entries total. There were a few multiple entries representing multiple terms by the same despot. My graph only answers my original question, “How long do dictatorships last, on an average?”

No modern dictatorship ever lasted 100 years. I see no clear trend showing dictatorships are dwindling world-wide. The new hotspots are Africa and the Middle East. I found 220 distinct “modern dictators.”

You’ll find a graph of my “how long do they last?” results below.

Dictator

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The New Economic Colonialism

Urban renewal, or economic imperialism? In Corsica, some residents resorted to dynamiting empty mansions to intimidate the wealthy from taking over their neighborhoods and homes. In San Francisco, we see increasing unrest among the poor and middle classes, for it is no longer a city where the poor and middle classes are permitted to live, let alone welcome…

FRANCE: STRIFE WITH SPECULATORS – Real estate prices on the Mediterranean island of Corsica are extortionate. A little cottage can set you back 400,000 euros. The Corsican authorities have passed a law requiring anyone who wants to buy a house there to have lived on the island for at least 5 years. The move is a response to people from mainland France and abroad buying up properties as holiday homes, causing prices to spiral. As a result, many Corsicans can no longer afford to buy property there. But now a few communities are fighting back, and threatening to enforce pre-emption rights – including the village of Cuttoli near Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon.


SAN FRANCISCO TENDERLOIN PROTESTERS RALLY AGAINST TENANT EVICTIONS
: The Tenderloin is the seediest, highest-crime district in The City. Arrests do little to curb assaults, robbery and drug trafficking. Yet a 1 bedroom studio, a 475 square feet apartment, lists for $2295 monthly. Residents protest being evicted and displaced as wealthy yuppies renovate whole districts at bargain prices.

In the Middle Ages, when wealthy power elite wanted a piece of property, they simply used armies to take it.

Today, they use “perfectly legal” economic strong-arm tactics to force existing residents out. Landlords, police and sheriffs handle all that messy, unseemly business of serving eviction notices, warrants and arrests. In the end, the wealthy get what they want, and displaced residents are forced to try to find someplace else to live, else join the growing ranks of homeless.

I don’t have the answers. But we are going to have to find them. It seems obvious that improving a neighborhood and simply taking it over are two different things. Increasingly, this problem is going to become a problem of good government – and governance. We’re being pushed back closer and closer to the feudal economy.

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The Breaking VA Scandal

We’ve all read today that retired four-star General Eric Shinseki just resigned as head of the Veterans Administration. As reported by the New York Times:

In a speech Friday morning to a veterans group, Mr. Shinseki apologized and described the V.A. he led as having “a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity.” He vowed to fix what he called a “breach of integrity” and said he had already initiated the firing of top managers at the Phoenix medical center, where allegations of mismanagement first surfaced.
But his contrition and promises of action came too late to save his job.

It is too soon to gauge the extent to which Mr. Shinseki can really bear responsibility for those decades-long failures of the VA to professionally care for our nation’s military veterans. Budget cuts and unethical medical practices both do a great disservice to both our veterans, and to the thousands of highly competent, dedicated doctors and medical assistants who struggle to provide care in a dysfunctional and understaffed system.

In my opinion, and the opinion of many, Shinseki’s most visible failure was in not acknowledging and addressing these deficiencies more visibly and proactively. But with his departure, we now face the prospect that our do-nothing Congress can now say the problem has been fixed, and move on to what it does best.

My own personal VA story is trivial by comparison, but I see it as a tiny snapshot of a small part of a much bigger picture. I’m a Vietnam veteran (1963-1964), but VA ineptitude caused my application to be denied in 2009, 2010 and 2013. I’m still waiting. My honorable discharge documentation is in order. For the military time period in which my documentation was issued, it’s accurate to say it has always been in order. The VA told me they “believed” me, but they could find no evidence that I was in fact a Vietnam veteran … Continue reading

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Jimmy Wales and His Wikipedia Revolution

Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.

Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:

Editing of Information
by sylivin

Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.

Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?

A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.

The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.

WHAT’S THIS REALLY ABOUT?

The Old Way

300px-Brockhaus_Lexikon

In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.

There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.

That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.

The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.

In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970’s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.

It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.

The New Way

The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.

Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.

When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.

Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.

If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.

That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.

Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.

The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.

The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.

There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.

The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general,  we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.

Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.

The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.

In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.

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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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Church vs. State: Religious Freedom vs. Freedom of Speech

Just when we thought the HHS “Contraceptive Kerfuffle” was resolved! So-called “social conservatives” from the religious right are attempting to hijack the issue from the Catholic Bishops to put a two-pronged political and religious spin on it.

  1. The President ordered a change to the HHS ruling so that health insurers automatically provide the coverage at no additional charge to any insuring employer.
  2. Brooks and Shields agree that the Administration pulled us back from the brink of “religious war.”
  3. The Catholic Church, ACLU, women’s groups and Planned Parenthood all seem mollified.
  4. GOP candidate Romney finally announces “that attacks religious liberty and freedom of speech.”
  5. Brooks shows how the Administration’s original ham-fisted proposal for universal access to birth control, and the recent California court overturn of the ban on gay marriage, have emboldened the religious right.
  6. The religious right will step up its long-standing assault on personal choice it opposes.

Well, Catholics having been somewhat mollified, we should have been able to predict this would only prompt the religious right “social conservatives” to step in where Bishops care not to tread. Brooks explained the religious right would be opposed to any aspect of the HHS bill anyway, since the original proposal concretized their claim that the whole “Obamacare” program is an unwarranted government intrusion upon their religious freedom, not to mention the untouchable private sector.

As we’d expect from any religion-driven political movement, this is partly political and partly because in the view of the religious right, reproductive preventative services of any kind are a violation of the word of the Creator who blessed only their interpretation of our founding state papers. We only need a Supreme Court to rubber-stamp doctrinaire edicts from the great pulpit on high. The constitutional separation of church and state is being broken down, piece by piece.

In other words, in the “social conservative” view, religious freedom must trump personal freedom of choice every time. In that view, religious freedom requires an imperative to impose upon others sharia, i.e. religious law, by force of political legislation. Never mind that this is unconstitutional in the United States.

Do you want fries with that? Did you know that the very organization which aggressively defames gays and lesbians has its own anti-defamation league? The irony is that we find freedom of speech and religion being used here as a tool to silence personal liberty. See:

1. DefendChristians.org
2. Right Wing Watch
3. Christian Anti-Defamation Commission

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