Tuesday, 30 October 2007
"The little-known ninth law of thermodynamics states that the more money a group receives from the taxpayer, the more it demands and the more it complains." Thus wrote Matt Ridley in 1994(1). He was discussing farm subsidies, but the same law applies to his chairmanship of Northern Rock. Before he resigned on Friday, the bank had borrowed £16 billion from the government and had refused to rule out asking for more. Ridley and the other bosses blamed everyone but themselves for this disaster.
I used to read Ridley's columns religiously. Published by the Telegraph in the 1990s, they were well-written, closely-argued and almost always wrong. He railed against all government intervention and mocked less enlightened beings for their failure to understand economics and finance. The right-wing press loved him because he appeared to provide a scientific justification for the deregulation of business.
Ridley's core argument, which he explains at greater length in his books, is that humans, being the products of natural selection, act only in their own interests. But our selfish instincts encourage us to behave in ways that appear altruistic. By cooperating and by being perceived as generous, we earn other people's trust. This allows us to advance our own interests more effectively than we could by cheating, stealing and fighting. To permit these beneficial genetic tendencies to flower, governments should withdraw from our lives and stop interfering in business and other human relations(2,3). Ridley produced a geneticist's version of the invisible hand of the market, recruiting humanity's selfish interests to dole out benefits to everyone.
Dr Ridley, who has a D Phil in zoology, is no stranger to good science, and his explorations of our evolutionary history, which are often fascinating and provoking, are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But whenever a conflict arose between his scientific training and the interests of business, he would discard the science. Ignoring hundreds of scientific papers which came to the opposite conclusion, and drawing instead on material presented by a business lobby group called the Institute of Economic Affairs, he argued that global temperatures have scarcely increased, so we should stop worrying about climate change(4). He suggested that elephants should be hunted for their ivory(5), planning laws should be scrapped(6), recycling should be stopped(7), bosses should be free to choose whether or not their workers contract repetitive strain injury(8) and companies, rather than governments, should be allowed to decide whether or not the food they sell is safe.(9) He raged against taxes, subsidies, bail-outs and government regulation. Bureaucracy, he argued, is "a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world … governments do not run countries, they parasitise them."(10)
I studied zoology in the same department, though a few years later. Like Dr Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. Ridley believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well-known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another).If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.
Dr Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether or not this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe that they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.
I can offer nothing more than speculation, but Ridley has had the opportunity to test his beliefs. He took up his post--which was previously held by his father, Viscount Ridley, in 2004. Under his chairmanship, the Economist notes, Northern Rock "pushed an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there"(11). It was allowed to do so because it was insufficiently regulated by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. When his libertarian business model failed, Dr Ridley had to go begging to the detested state. If the government and its parasitic bureaucrats had not been able to use tax-payers' money to clear up his mess, thousands of people would have lost their savings. Northern Rock would have collapsed and the resulting panic might have brought down the rest of the banking system.
The £16bn bail-out is not the end of the matter. Last week the Treasury granted Northern Rock's customers a new tax break(12). Now one of the north-east's leading businessmen, Sir Michael Darrington, is calling for the bank's full-scale nationalisation in order to prevent further crises(13). So much for the virtues of unregulated free enterprise.
Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons. Our genetic inheritance makes us smart enough to see that when the old society breaks down, we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves, and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies which once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.
The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.
I doubt that Dr Ridley would be able to sustain his beliefs in a place where the state has broken down. Unless tax-payers' money and public services are available to repair the destruction it causes, libertarianism destroys people's savings, wrecks their lives and trashes their environment. It is the belief system of the free-rider, who is perpetually subsidised by responsible citizens. As biologists we both know what this means. Self-serving as governments might be, the true social parasites are those who demand their dissolution.
Saturday, 27 October 2007
As the son of Punjabi immigrants, I was not surprised to read a report from the Financial Services Authority showing that among Britain’s major faith groups, Hindus and Sikhs are the best at making ends meet. Of course they are! They never go on holiday. They never eat out. And they haggle over everything: I spent my childhood being dragged around Wolverhampton as my mother bartered over everything from secondhand sofas to sultanas.
I kept the most excruciating of these memories suppressed until I read the results of another study this week, showing that most business negotiators are bad at bargaining. Researchers divided 266 Chicago MBA students into either buyers representing a motorcycle maker, or sales reps for a parts supplier. After three negotiations lasting 45 minutes each, they compared the deals that had been struck against the limits that the teams had decided in advance and found that each side had underestimated how much the other was willing to give away.
While these Chicago MBAs may have been bad at haggling, they at least tried, which is more than can be said for most British people. Apparently only two out of five British consumers ever try to barter and failing to haggle when buying a new car costs British consumers £512 million a year. Research has found that one of the reasons why women get paid less for doing the same jobs as men is that they are less likely to try to negotiate pay rises.
Are Brits simply too embarrassed to haggle? Or do they just not know how to do it? In case it is the latter, I thought I would provide a four-point Punjabi guide to haggling, the basic principles of which, I would argue, are applicable to negotiations everywhere, from the boardroom, to the corporate purchasing department, to your local branch of Greggs:
Ham it up. A typical negotiation should follow this basic pattern. Vendor: “That will be £20.” You: “How about £6?” Vendor: “Don’t mock me.” You: “Bye then.”
If the vendor has any nous, he will at this point produce an offer. But the key thing to remember through the procedure is to maximise the drama: avoid eye contact when entering the shop; try not to show too much initial interest in an item; express astonishment at the first price in the form of wild laughter and the slapping of thighs. And if the vendor starts to give you a sob story about how he is saving up for a liver transplant, respond in kind, perhaps with a story about how you are saving up for a set of wheelchairs for your three children.
Negotiate for as long as you can. Travel guide books and websites such as Howtohaggle.com will tell you that you should never barter at length “it only creates an angry mood”. But they are wrong. As any trade union will tell you, sheer persistence is an important part of deal-making. You can exhaust people into a bargain. And it helps if you are dressed slightly eccentrically as you go on and on. It’s amazing the deals people are prepared to offer simply to get a wildly gesticulating Sikh woman in a salwar kameez out of a store.
Do not pick your battles. Again, the guidebooks and websites will suggest otherwise, claiming that there is something undignified and cheap about trying to haggle over bus tickets. But as anyone who has been to the Asian subcontinent will know, this is not the Indian attitude at all: we would try to haggle down the price of a Big Mac, if consuming the Holy Cow was allowed. And anyone who thinks such behaviour is cheap should remember that researchers have found that high earners are far more likely to barter when shopping than modestly paid workers: more than half of those on salaries in excess of £100,000 say that they frequently quibble over store prices.
Use a child as an intermediary. In the case of my family, this was a necessity: my mother doesn’t speak English, so her kids were frequently called on to translate her unrealistic demands. But I was intrigued to read Michael Donaldson, an American entertainment lawyer, remark in a book called Fearless Negotiating that children make the best negotiators. “They state clearly what they need and want, speak with a genuine voice and they are persistent.” This is true, but in my case, standing in Dixons at the age of ten as my mother instructed me to find out the “real price” of a video recorder from a sales assistant, I think it was my visible mortification and the pity it inspired that led to better deals.
Of course, I realise that some of these tips may be difficult to apply in certain negotiating scenarios. Spending an entire afternoon haggling over a box of staples may be unrealistic. Conveying messages through a child during merger talks may be slightly eccentric. Suddenly appearing in a salwar kameez or a turban to ask for a pay rise may raise a few eyebrows. But the potential rewards are enormous and anyone doubting the power of haggling should take inspiration from the story of Mohammed Shafiq, an Asian off-licence owner, who, when faced a couple of years ago with a raider wielding a 12in knife and a demand for £500, remarked: “I can’t afford that; how about £10 and a drink?”
According to reports, the disoriented raider responded by saying he would accept £50 and as Mr Shafiq considered the figure, Mrs Shafiq sneaked up and whacked the robber with a rolling pin. Mr Shafiq then clubbed him over the head with a brass-handled walking stick before calling the police, the exchange having cost him not a single penny. That’s what I call a deal.
26 October, 2007
I have been writing political essays for a few years now. I do so as a reluctant enthusiast, not because I wanted to write on these themes; but because, it seemed to me, that professional journalists were not telling the whole story; that significant parts that would allow people to connect the dots and understand what is happening from a historical perspective, was being deliberately omitted from the official version of current events, and from history.
As propaganda, the elements that are deliberately left out of media are as important as those that are retained. It is propaganda by omission, as much as by content. What people are not told shapes their world view and influences their behavior, as surely as what they are told. Imposed ignorance and selective knowledge go hand in hand to forge public opinion and to shape cultural identity. These conditions set the stage for belligerent government and aggressive nationalism.
It is not coincidental that professional journalists, those who write
for profit in the mainstream media, are the least likely to tell us the
truth, the whole truth; whereas, free-lance writers, who operate under a different set of rules and out of the mainstream, are more likely to serve the public interest, and tell us what we need to know in order to be a free people, and good world citizens.
Professional journalists are beholden to a code of ethics and personal conduct that free-lance writers are not. Namely, they are part of a fraternity, a part of the cultural orthodoxy, with an incentive in maintaining the established order. The incentive is always financial and professional, and involves creating the acceptance and trust of those in power, which may, when properly executed, even result in the celebrity status of the journalist.
Journalists who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo or advancing their careers do not operate in the public interest. Their purpose is not to inform but to deceive.
When a major news anchor reports upon the invasion and occupation of sovereign nations, uncritically putting forth pentagon propaganda as justification for the attack, he or she is in essence acting in the manner of a celebrity athlete endorsing a product. The basketball star may endorse Nike sneakers, manufactured by indentured servants in foreign sweatshops; while the news anchor is endorsing war and disaster capitalism projected around the world by Lockheed Martin and the Carlyle Group. Both are prostitutes.
Mainstream corporate journalism is not about speaking truth to power, it is about selling products and perceptions. It is about creating a culture of ignorant consumers incapable of distinguishing between propaganda and news, fact and fiction.
This is marketing and perception management masquerading as unbiased, objecting reporting. I call it the big lie.
If the mainstream journalist wants to prosper, if they want to have
access to the inner circles of power, they must play the game according to the established rules. They must toe the corporate line, and provide cover for the corporate assault on human freedoms, and the conquest of nature, while keeping hidden agendas concealed from public view. Journalists must be able to sell widely objectionable concepts to the people, packaged in the garments of seductive—often patriotic language, in order to make them palatable.
How many soldiers, outside of those under the private contracts of firms like Blackwater, would voluntarily stake their lives for corporate profits, and the subjugation of a sovereign people, if they knew that is what they are really fighting for, rather than the more popular and desirable goal of freedom or democracy?
Freedom, liberation, and democracy have never been corporate objectives; nor can they ever be the objective of corporate governance. They are only selling points that conceal hidden corporate agendas; the attractive packaging for war, occupation, and privatization, obtained at pubic expense.
If news stories are not believable to the multitudes, if they fail to
garner popular support by masking corporate agendas behind deceptive language, the majority of governmental polices and private agendas could not be enacted. If the people knew what was being done in their name, and who is profiting from those policies, there might be widespread opposition and even social upheaval. It would be difficult to field a voluntary military that knows it is fighting for the bottom line of Halliburton, Bechtel, and Lockheed Martin, rather than for freedom and democracy, as they are told.
Thus those who would serve in the military as self-ordained patriots are sold a bill of goods. By invading and occupying Iraq, they are, in effect, undermining the very principles they claim to hold sacred, including those set forth in the Constitution and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, the average US citizen is sold a similar bill of goods in order to garner support for policies they would, presumably, never voluntarily sustain, if they understood them better.
That is the genius of modern capitalism and its impressive marketing apparatus. The results have been breathtaking.
Skillful perception management always precedes empire. Well presented propaganda allows history to be presented as a kind of fairy tale that ignores the horrible things the government has always done in our name, at the behest of corporate America and our wealthiest citizens, which should be too well known to bear reiteration here.
In our capitalist culture, journalism must not be thought of as a
reporting of facts, but as marketing propaganda—the selling of ideas that might not otherwise be embraced by those who must carry out hidden agendas, or the people on the receiving end of them. Seen in this way, the US soldier and the Iraqi citizen are both pawns in a rich man’s game: the former as the implementer of unjust war and occupation, the other as the unwilling recipient of them.
The end result for both soldier and Iraqi citizen is tragic: the soldier is told that he or she is protecting their country from foreign threats, something that is patently false; while the innocent Iraqi citizen, defending his or her home from foreign occupation, knows that she or he is not a terrorist, but is treated like one, nevertheless.
Both occupier and the occupied share a common foe, but it is not each other; it is the criminals, aided and abetted by the corporate media, who put them in formal opposition to one another for financial gain.
Our recent history would have been impossible without the consolidation of the media that occurred during the Clinton presidency, and has continued ever since. The entire spectra of mainstream media are now under the control of only four or five corporations. We no longer have reporting on local issues stemming from diverse perspectives rooted in local communities, but a monoculture of state and corporate propaganda that betrays the public trust in its pursuit of corporate profits.
Aided by the president and congress, the public owned airwaves were hijacked and are being used against the people by giant multinational corporations.
The result of this media monoculture, as purveyed by the likes of Judith Miller and Tom Brokaw, and countless others, is tragic. And they represent only the tip of the mainstream iceberg. Think of the horrible and shameless lies, the baseless fear and hate that are continuously voiced by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and the hateful broadcasts that emanate from Bob Jones University, masquerading as Christian theology.
Corporate media is the vanguard of empire and environmental destruction on a global scale.
Unlike its corporate counterpart, reporting truth requires people of
unassailable integrity. It requires a thirst for justice with the strength of character to oppose the powerful undertow of manufactured perception and conformity, and the seductive language created to execute the hidden agendas of corrupt governments. Uncovering truth requires commitment to the people, rather than to profit driven corporate agendas.
Only a handful of professional journalists have attained the kind of
stature that makes such reportage possible in the United States. Their names are not at all well known, with the possible exception of Seymour Hersch, Robert Fisk, Bill Moyers and Greg Palast.
More often than not, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of
independent journalists and unpaid free-lancers. The professional
journalist must answer to his/her boss, and portray the corporation that employs them in a favorable light, even if they are profiting from unprovoked war and occupation. In contrast, the free-lancer is bound only by the constraints of conscience, imagination, and ability.
Occasionally, an astonished responder to one of my more poignant essays will tell me that I should forward the piece to the New York Times: to NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, or even the BBC. I never have.
It would be hard for me to imagine any corporation undermining its own profitability by exposing its hidden agendas, and denouncing itself as a commissioner of murder and mayhem, motivated by insatiable greed and a lust for wealth and power that would astonish even the staunchest mafia don. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen! Snowballs in hell have a better chance.
Its not that free-lancers like me wouldn’t like to get paid for what we do; it’s that our views do not enhance the bottom line of corporate giants and, in many cases, actually undermine them. Thus it behooves the professional journalist and the corporate media to ignore or discredit us as purveyors of truth and seekers of justice.
Soon it will be an act of sedition to speak truth in this country. Yet,
truth will continue to exist, despite all attempts to destroy it.
Whether they admit it or not, virtually all of the best known
journalists in the US subscribe to the racist and sexist ideologies of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, and they go to great lengths to advance these ideas, by presenting them as something other than what they really are. Slight of hand is the rule of mainstream journalism, not the exception.
Conversely, by serving the people, free-lance journalists are, of
necessity, undermining the corporate agenda. Thus they are treated as enemies of the state, which has become indistinguishable from the corporation itself. We live in a culture where one cannot value truth and carry forth corporate agendas. Truth is the enemy of empire.
This might also explain why so many unembedded journalists have been deliberately killed in Iraq and the Gaza strip by US and Israeli snipers. The world must not know what the occupiers do, or the propaganda veneer may no longer have its intended effect on the consumers of media.
Speaking truth to power, especially corrupt power, is dangerous
business— particularly in war zones and fascist states, like the one evolving in the US.
Corporate media is the vanguard of colonialism and imperialist policy. It plays a key role in preparing the public mind for imperialist wars and occupations and their subsequent puppet governments; it also serves the emerging police state at home that erodes our freedoms, until there is nothing left of them.
Yet, occasionally, even in this artificially constructed myth loving
culture, truth wins out simply because someone cares enough to tell it like it is, without sugar coating. Truth matters; and that is—and always will be—of primal importance to some people. Let future historical records show that there was opposition to what was being done in our name, that there were people willing to speak truth to power, to stem the evil tide by standing up for justice, cost what it may.
Future historians of the dominant culture are likely to cast these
accounts into the memory hole and pretend that they never existed, carrying forth the myth that the people were always united behind the injustice and tyranny of our time. We saw this in Nazi Germany in the buildup to World War Two, and we are seeing it now in the US.
But a culture that does not value truth and justice is not worth
preserving. Such cultures will self destruct and implode upon
themselves; the world will eventually unite against them and bring them down. All of the military might in the world, all the subterfuge, is not powerful enough to overcome simple truth.
Any individual who values truth more than lies, who keeps truth alive in his or her heart, despite all efforts to dislodge it from its ethical moorings, is more powerful than even the most advanced weapons systems. Truth emerges unscathed from the rubble of fallen empire as immutable as an inviolable law of nature. Nothing can bring it down because it is real.
If we are to evolve into a justice loving people, truth must become our moral foundation, the basis of our existence as a people. Truth and justice are inseparable partners on the road to liberation from tyranny and fascism.
Concord’s greatest citizen, the poet-philosopher, Henry D. Thoreau, summed it up well: “The one great rule of composition…is to speak the truth. This first, this second, this third; pebbles in your mouth or not.” Perhaps more than anything, that simplistic ability to speak plain truth, and in all languages, is what I most admire about Thoreau. There is much to admire and respect in a man who spoke in those terms, and lived by that simple credo.
Truth is simple and uncomplicated, whereas lies and distortions are complex. Truth stands strong and unwavering without artificial support; lies and propaganda require elaborate schemes and constant propping up, the mask of deception.
More of us must learn the language of truth; we must be its faithful
guardians, if we are to be valuable citizens in this world, rather than the useful idiots of empire. By holding truth and justice in the highest regard, we demonstrate that another world is not only possible, but highly probable.
As voracious consumers of media, we must be as careful about what we admit into our minds, as the food we put into our bodies. Food can nourish and sustain us, or it can produce disease and decay. And so it is with media.
To date, we have not been very discriminate, and the result is that we have become a culture of the mentally obese, fed on junk media. Our minds, our souls, have been deliberately poisoned; our perceptions twisted and distorted, our humanity abandoned to the quest for profits and power.
We must purge our minds of junk media and replace it with something more nutritious, if we favor health over disease. Peace is not possible without two essential ingredients: truth and justice. Neither is possible in the absence of the other. We must live as if truth still matters.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer, and
community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of
geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at
The politics of hypocrisy
UK business interests in Burma are more important to this government than justice
Saturday October 27, 2007
Condoleezza Rice comes to mind. "The United States," she said, "is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place in Burma." What she is less keen to keep a focus on is that the huge American company, Chevron, on whose board of directors she sat, is part of a consortium with the junta and the French company, Total, that operates in Burma's offshore oilfields. The gas from these fields is exported through a pipeline that was built with forced labour and whose construction involved Halliburton, of which Vice-President Cheney was chief executive.
For many years, the Foreign Office in London promoted business as usual in Burma. When I interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi a decade ago I read her a Foreign Office press release that said, "Through commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles." She smiled sardonically and said, "Not a bit of it."
In Britain, the official PR line has changed; Burma is a favourite New Labour "cause"; Gordon Brown has written a platitudinous chapter in a book about his admiration of Suu Kyi. On Thursday, he wrote a letter to Pen, waffling about prisoners of conscience, no doubt part of his current empty theme of "returning liberty" when none can be returned without a fight. As for Burma, the essence of Britain's compliance and collusion has not changed. British tour firms - such as Orient Express and Asean Explorer - are able to make a handsome profit on the suffering of the Burmese people. Aquatic, a sort of mini-Halliburton, has its snout in the same trough, together with Rolls-Royce and others that use Burmese teak.
When did Brown or Blair ever use their platforms at the CBI and in the City of London to name and shame those British companies that make money on the back of the Burmese people? When did a British prime minister call for the EU to plug the loopholes of arms supply to Burma. The reason ought to be obvious. The British government is itself one of the world's leading arms suppliers. Next week, the dictator of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, whose tyranny gorges itself on British arms, will receive a state visit. On Thursday the Brown government approved Washington's latest fabricated prelude to a criminal attack on Iran - as if the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough for the "liberal" lionhearts in Downing Street and Whitehall.
And when did a British prime minister call on its ally and client, Israel, to end its long and sinister relationship with the Burmese junta? Or does Israel's immunity and impunity also cover its supply of weapons technology to Burma and its reported training of the junta's most feared internal security thugs? Of course, that is not unusual. The Australian government - so vocal lately in its condemnation of the junta - has not stopped the Australian Federal Police training Burma's internal security forces.
Those who care for freedom in Burma and Iraq and Iran and Saudi Arabia and beyond must not be distracted by the posturing and weasel pronouncements of our leaders, who themselves should be called to account as accomplices. We owe nothing less to Burma's bravest of the brave.
Play Movie Mash-up and win BIG prizes!
Published: 27 October 2007
The trouble is, no one can remember what the West Lothian Question is. You have to look it up on Wikipedia and then five minutes later, you have forgotten it again. Nobody genuinely thinks it matters very much if some MPs can or cannot vote on measures that affect different parts of the country. Recently, however, some clever people have changed the question. Some journalists on the Daily Mail and some Conservative MPs have started to ask about money.
So it is not called the West Lothian Question any more. It is called the Altrincham and Sale, West, Question. It was asked by Graham Brady, the Tory MP for that constituency, in the House of Commons on Wednesday. It went like this: "Why should my constituents pay more tax so that the Prime Minister's constituents pay no prescription charges?"
It is a stupid question, really, although it turns out to be quite clever in a different way. It is a question that English voters think they understand and do not like. It is a question that has been asked repeatedly by the Daily Mail in recent months, not least because some of its staff think it is a way of embarrassing Gordon Brown. This is odd, because Paul Dacre, the editor, and the Prime Minister are such good friends that Dacre has just been appointed by Mr Brown to review the official secrets rules.
What is so clever about the new question is that it implies that every time Scottish voters appear to gain something, the English taxpayer loses. So when the Scottish National Party abolishes prescription charges in Scotland, Tories and the Tory press conspire to pretend that this is an extra charge on the English.
The truth is, as Brown tried to tell the House of Commons this week, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament make decisions within their own budgets. "No more money goes to Scotland or Wales as a result of their decisions on prescriptions," he said. Or tuition fees, or "free" personal care, or bus passes. If the Scottish parliament abolishes charges, it has to find the money from somewhere else in its budget.
True, public spending is higher in Scotland than in England, but this is not a decision taken by the SNP or the Labour-Lib-Dem coalition that governed Edinburgh before. It was a decision taken by Joel Barnett, Labour chief secretary to the Treasury in the 1970s and maintained by the Tories throughout their 13 years in power.
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday
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Friday, 26 October 2007
By Vijay Prashad
24 October, 2007
On October 12, 2007, the Congress Party threw in the towel. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the United Progressive Alliance Sonia Gandhi told the press that they would step back from the US-India nuclear deal. "If the deal does not come through," Singh said plaintively, "that is not the end of life. In politics, we must survive short-term battles to address long-term concerns."
The short-term battle was won by the Communists, who led the opposition to the deal and winnowed regional parties away from the Congress and toward their position. The Communists' stance is that the nuclear deal (set in motion in 2005) is only one part of a wider embrace between the Indian and US governments, and between Indian and US-based corporations. Apart from nuclear cooperation, the alliance is geared toward partnership between India and the US in democracy promotion, the opening up of the Indian economy to unleashed turbo-capitalism, and a strategic military alliance. The US architects of this linkage saw the last point as the lever: US State Department official Christina Rocca said (in 2002), "Military-to-military cooperation is now producing tangible progress towards [the] objective [of] strategic, diplomatic and political cooperation as well as sound economic ties." Wal-Mart would follow the USS Nimitz into Chennai harbor. Seen in this way, the Communist challenge is not restricted to the nuclear deal, although its defeat gives momentum to wider struggles against the drawing in of India to the platform of US-led imperialism.
From 2005 onward, the Communists led a nation-wide fight to reveal the class basis of these deals. They are not without their benefit to a certain kind of India. Entrepreneurs would get quid pro quo tie-ins with US firms, and Indian arms dealers and nuclear businesses would benefit from the commerce. The fact of an alliance would give a cultural fillip to the growing Indian middle class, for whom its "arrival" on the world stage could be signaled by this deal. Faced with its defeat, the Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen spoke for the class that hoped it would come through, "I can understand [such a debate over the deal] immediately after [India's] independence. But sixty years after independence! I am really bothered that sixty years after independence they are so insecure that we have not grown up, this lack of confidence and lack of self-respect."
As the debate over the deal heated up in India, the navies of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the US) held a war game off the western coast of India. The Communists used this act to highlight the implications of the deal. One jatha (column) left Kolkata and the other left Chennai to converge on the port city of Vishakapatnam on September 8 for a massive rally. This was a contemporary version of Gandhi's Salt March. Back in Delhi a few days later, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s General Secretary, Prakash Karat, led a march to parliament and said, "we demand that the government not proceed with the deal unless it satisfies the people's objections." A month later, this is just what the Congress Party had to do.
If you land in Tbilisi, Georgia, the road that takes you into town from the airport is named the George W. Bush Avenue. It is not the only one. In Baghdad, the benighted throughway parallel to Haifa Street has the same name (a suicide bomber destroyed the MacDonald's on it in 2004). One of these roads, the latter, is a consequence of an imperial occupation. The US viceroy could as easily have named the street for George Bush's cat (named India, by the way). The other road, the one in Georgia, comes from the condition of satrapy: Georgia has troops in Iraq (guarding the Green Zone), and its current President Mikheil Saakashvili is eager to join NATO, the European Union, and to be in any way helpful to the US as possible.
India's elite desperately sought this kind of Georgian servility. From 1947 to 1991, the Indian elite and nascent middle class were constrained by a compact to fashion a national economy and strategic autonomy. In the 1980s, for a variety of reasons, the Indian elite and now a fairly confident middle class broke away from the shackles of the national compact and sought to assert itself both on the domestic and international stage. The patriotism of the bottom line predominated over that of the national imaginary. A crippled exchequer took the Indian government to the International Monetary Fund, which demanded a turn to the market and the cannibalization of a state structure geared (in some small measure) to provide some benefits across class.
The elite and middle class had, largely, relieved themselves from the past even if the institutions still held them back. This class was both born of and raised by the import-substitution industrialization policies of the earlier national compact. A highly educated group of people, they burned for upward mobility. The attachment of this class to the graded inequality of the global capitalist system is driven by its own aspirations to rise up the ladder. These interests coalesced with much more powerful forces: the ruling classes in places such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, the organized might of the Group of Seven, the various international financial conglomerates. This class has its annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland. Its mouthpiece is Thomas Friedman.
As the Indian psychologist Sudhir Kakar put it, "This class somehow has the ability to transmute a flame into a blaze." The biographer of this class, Pavan K. Varma, writes that although it "thinks out of the box," and is "a hugely entrepreneurial class," it "may be bent on cloning itself on the West." At the same time, in India there are now more people in extreme poverty than before 1991. In 1995, the World Health Organization reported that a single ailment "conspires with the most deadly and painful diseases to bring a wretched existence to all who suffer from it": this silent ailment is Z59.5, the WHO's code for "extreme poverty."
In a parliament of 545, the Communist bloc is only sixty. These parliamentarians come in the main from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the three areas where the Left has a very strong presence. Elsewhere in the country, the Left has pockets of influence (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra), but is unable to translate this in electoral terms (drawing in about 2% of the votes at most). The bulk of the parliament is divided between two blocs, the soft right Congress and its allies (217 seats) and the hard right BJP and its allies (185 seats). Regional parties that do not line up with these three major blocs hold the remaining 78 seats (among them, the largest is a party close to the Left, the Samajwadi or Socialist Party, with 36 seats; although it has long since jettisoned its socialism for a corrupt populism). The elite and middle class are split between the hard and soft right on such issues as their attitude toward what in India is called communalism (fundamentalism: the ideology of Hindutva). On issues of social and economic welfare, the two blocs are virtually indistinguishable, except that the Congress has within it an old Gandhian section that is yet to be extinguished and that enabled the otherwise party of free markets to be held to a Common Minimum Program with the Left on issues such as agrarian policy, this so that the Left would support the Congress government from the outside. The Left, therefore, was the only brake against the enthusiasm of the elite and middle class, both of whom wanted to drown themselves in Bush's spittle.
Dollars from Rupees.
In the early 1990s, the U. S. administration read the shift in India quite correctly. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen observed the middle-class of 60 million, the size of France, and salivated. For Bentsen, and for the Clinton administration, the existence of this class and its hitherto suffocated desires meant that there existed a market to help contain the crisis of over-accumulation to which "globalization" was to be the answer. A decline in the annual rate of growth of the global Gross Domestic Product from the 1960s (5.4%) to the 1980s (3%) offered evidence of the crisis, but nothing was as stark as the falling profit rate of the 500 U. S. transnational corporations (4.7% in the late 1950s to -5.3% in the 1980s). Walden Bello recites these figures and concludes, "Oversupply of commodities and inadequate demand are the principle corporate anomalies inhibiting performance in the global economy."
Bentsen's comments had a concrete purpose: the US administration hoped, in essence, that India's middle-class might absorb this oversupply. The Indian government began a long process to dismantle various kinds of social protections for both the national economy and for the dispossessed and exploited classes. This process did not come easily, since the newly confident dominant classes had yet to settle accounts with powerful institutions of the working class and peasantry (trade unions, political parties, socio-political organizations, peasant groups, and on). Nevertheless, by 1994, large sections of industrial production, the extraction sector, utilities, transportation, telecommunications and finance found themselves prey to private investors.
In Washington, DC, the US-India Business Council (USIBC) emerged from hibernation (it was formed in 1975) in the 1990s to lobby for US business interests in India. The USIBC is housed, conveniently, in the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, from where it pushes against the walls erected in India to protect the national economy from those who want to make dollars out of rupees. For the nuclear deal, the USIBC and the US Chamber of Commerce's Coalition for Partnership with India drew upon the lobbying expertise of Patton Boggs and Stonebridge International. They had a vested interest in the deal, because it would have allowed U.S. firms to gain contracts in the Indian nuclear sector. In March 2007, the USIBC hosted a 230-member business delegation to India, the Commercial Nuclear Executive Mission. Tim Richards of General Electric (GE) gingerly said of the trip, "We know India's need for nuclear power" (there is, in fact, no such need; nuclear power would only cover a maximum of seven percent of India's energy needs). Ron Somers, president of USIBC, said of the purported $60 billion boondoggle that would have come as a result of the deal, "The bounty is enormous."
As the deal fizzled out, the nuclear moneymen grieved. Russia and France had also already lined up to supply India, and both had begun to lobby the Nuclear Suppliers Group to give the deal a free pass. A few days after Singh told Bush their deal was in cold storage, seventy French delegates from twenty-nine nuclear firms met with three hundred Indian delegates in Mumbai for a discussion on a potential France-India nuclear deal. French Ambassador to India Jerome Bonnafont eagerly anticipated the restarting of nuclear cooperation between the two states, which would provide substantial contracts for the French nuclear industry. They want to make Francs out of Rupees.
India's ambassador to Washington, Ronen Sen, fretted about the US-India deal's failure. The Bush team has approved the deal, and so has the Indian cabinet, he carped (he seems to have forgotten his elementary civics: it is parliament that has authority over such deals, not the cabinet a distinction that does not operate so effectively in the US, for all its constitutional checks and balances). "So why do you have all this running around like headless chickens, looking for a comment here or a comment there, and these little storms in a tea-cup." The parliament has now demanded that Mr. Sen be recalled to India and face questions for his disrespect to the elected officials who opposed the deal.
On the same flight as him will be a delegation from the USINPAC, the face of the new "Indian Lobby" in Washington, who is eager to take lessons from and mimic the Israel Lobby. Robinder Sachdev, who founded the group, told the Press Trust of India, that the emerging opposition to the deal within the US Congress startles him. "It is like being penny wise and pound foolish," he said. "The US industry will benefit from the nuclear deal." This is an honesty descried by his friends in the nuclear commerce world. As GE India's chief executive officer T.P. Chopra told a Wharton periodical, "The last thing we want is to give ammunition to the Left-wing parties. They would love to project the U.S. as greedy capitalists selling the country for a few dollars more. Business will keep silent until it's signed, sealed and delivered."
In Mumbai, as the French-Indian delegations met, the Communists held a public rally where they condemned all talk of a nuclear deal. In terms of the US-India deal specifically, Karat of the CPI(M) said, "it is part of the strategic and military relations that the US wants to have with India." It would never be allowed. In Delhi, meanwhile, Prime Minister Singh said, "I have not given up hope yet." Hope is all that remains for the convenience seeking bourgeoisie: the spectacle of advanced capitalism beckons, even if the price is to be paid by the millions of people who suffer the trials of Z59.5.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thursday, 25 October 2007
Published: 25 October 2007
This is important because, of course, the United States has been relying on savings from the oil producers in the Middle East, along with Asian savings, to offset its current account deficit. One of the reasons why the dollar has been so weak in recent days has been the sense that the commitment of the international community to the US and to dollar assets has weakened. The US current account deficit has actually begun to narrow through the earlier part of this year, yet the dollar has become progressively weaker. Meanwhile, continuing rapid growth in China and the rest of the newly developing world has sustained demand for oil, pushing the price up and further boosting the balances of the oil exporters.
To put this into context have a look at the two graphs, which come from the latest World Economic Outlook, produced by the International Monetary Fund. As you can see in the first graph, the US current account deficit is more than 1.5 per cent of world GDP; yes, that is world GDP, not US GDP. On the other side of the balance sheet, the surplus of the oil producers is more than 1 per cent of world GDP. Thanks to the high oil price that surplus is at a sweet spot. It has shot up suddenly and the IMF thinks it will come down, at least as a share of world GDP. Elsewhere in the report the IMF predicts that the oil price will come slowly down, so it follows that if the present price levels are maintained it may be understating the size of the oil exporters' surpluses.
In the other graph you can see what these flows are doing to the stock of foreign assets. The net asset position of the US gets worse and worse not just in absolute numbers but as a percentage of world GDP, while the surpluses of the oil producers and to an even greater extent, the emerging Asian economies (actually, mostly China) keep on growing.
Now whenever you see a graph like that you have to ask whether it is credible. Is it really likely that the rest of the world will allow the US to accumulate net debts equivalent to 12 per cent of world GDP? Would the US itself be prepared to see itself become so indebted, particularly since so much of the debts will be to China and the Middle East? Surely not.
But if you don't believe this will happen you have to ask what sequence of evens might stop it. I happen to think that the US current account may correct rather more swiftly than the IMF expects. I also suspect that the investment community in China and the Middle East may seek to diversify their portfolios more swiftly, too. If the second happens faster than the first, the dollar becomes vulnerable. It does not need foreign investors to stop investing in dollar assets for the dollar to fall; it just needs them to build up dollar assets rather more slowly.
Pause for a moment. The US will remain a relatively attractive place for international investment funds for the foreseeable future. It is a huge and transparent market and at some level, dollar assets will always be attractive. So that is not going to change.
What is interesting, though, is the extent to which Middle Eastern investors are now interested in alternative assets classes. These include property, residential as well as commercial, various forms of infrastructure, and resources. The drying up of liquidity for venture capital and private equity investments, which seen from London or New York is a problem, from the perspective of the Gulf is an opportunity. The tighter the money markets, the more expensive it is to borrow, the greater the opportunities for Middle Eastern investors who are generating huge amounts of cash. That 1 per cent plus of world GDP has to find a home somewhere. India appears a particular beneficiary, more indeed than the rest of Asia. The point was made to me by a Qatari banker that India had many attractions for Gulf investors. It was close. There were strong cultural and personal links. And India needed investment in infrastructure as it had lagged behind China in that regard. It was a natural fit.
That must be right. We are also going to see much more Gulf money in Britain and Europe. You can see what has been happening to the euro as a result of this rebalancing of the flow of investment between dollar and euro assets, but Britain will also remain attractive because it remains extremely open to international investment.
That leads to what seems to me to be the biggest issue of all: how open will the US remain to foreign investors?
There is one particular area of current concern, which is the extent to which the so-called sovereign investment funds – funds accumulated by countries rather than private investors – are allowed to invest freely. The US in particular is concerned about such investment, particularly since some of the countries concerned are regarded as hostile to American interests.
There are quite legitimate reasons for concern. Foreign governments not only can mobilise funds on a huge scale; they can also have different objectives from private sector investors. But restrictions on sovereign funds can scare off private investors, too, particularly if they appear to be applied in a capricious manner. I don't think people in the US have any idea of the long-term damage done by the blocking last year by Congress of the bid for P&O by Dubai Ports, on the grounds that the former controlled a number of ports on the US East Coast.
From Dubai's perspective, these were not particularly important assets and they were duly excluded from the sale. But learning that you were not welcome by people you had assumed were your friends was a salutary experience for investors throughout the region.
The result will not be that Middle East investors shun the US. Rather it will be that investment in the US will carry a handicap. The US has the advantage of the size of its market and the general predictability of its legal system. These have enabled it to offer lower returns to international investors than would otherwise be the case. Now it is fairly clear that some of that advantage will be offset by this sense that foreign investment may be unwelcome. So the US will have to offer higher returns to attract international savings. A lot of the dollar's decline this year, in the face of an improving trade position, may be the result of this handicap. That will force a faster adjustment on the US than would otherwise be the case.
This may be no bad thing. It is not reasonable that the world's richest country should rely on the savings of other poorer countries to maintain its lifestyle. The decline in the dollar may force countries that have linked their currency to it to cut loose. That is gradually happening in China and it is a big issue, by the way, in the Gulf. But you don't want adjustment to be too sudden. It is in no one's interest that the dollar should fall in an uncontrolled way – and that danger will remain until the US becomes less reliant on savers in the rest of the world, including the Middle East.
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The rush to industrialise has left tribal people and 'untouchables' far behind
Randeep Ramesh in Palwal
Thursday October 25, 2007
On a hot, dusty highway some 40 miles (70km) from Delhi, a human column snakes its way towards the Indian capital carrying a unique message of defiance to the country's leaders: "Give us back our land." Some 25,000 of India's poorest people - tribal peoples, "untouchables" and landless labourers - have stopped traffic for nearly three weeks on the road that links Delhi and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Headed by a group of chanting Buddhist monks, the marchers say they aim to shame the government into keeping its promise to redistribute land.
The human train has been eating, living and washing by the road since early October and by the end of the week will arrive at the Indian parliament, vowing to remain a public embarrassment until the government relents. Last week three marchers were killed by a speeding lorry.
With fists and voices raised, the scene is a world away from Indian newspaper headlines about the country's new luxury goods market or its soaring stock markets. Nowhere is this process of concentrating wealth in a tiny segment of the population more visible than in the ground beneath Indians' feet.
India has one of most iniquitous systems of land ownership in the world - much worse than China. Last week India's biggest real estate baron made a paper fortune of £500m in a day. Government figures show that the average expenditure of countryside household India to be just 500 rupees a month or about 20p a day.
Most of the marchers say their dire condition is because they have no patta (deeds) to their land. Unable to grow produce on their ancestral land and with no patta to access state welfare services, the villagers are now fighting a losing war against poverty.
"I haven't got any rights on my land," said Prem Bai from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. "I have got four boys and can hardly manage the family with few days' work labouring on other's fields. If we go to forests then the forest department arrests us. Our life is very difficult."
Others say their land is being grabbed by local mafias and corrupt officials. Shikari Baiga, 25, says land his family was cultivating was grabbed by local officials to grow biofuels on. Hailing from the Baiga tribe, a people with a distinctive language and culture in India's Chhattisgarh state, progress - and land rights - have eluded his community for hundreds of years. "I was put in jail for one year for demanding our land back. Fourteen families lost 75 acres [30 hectares]. But they tell us: where are your [patta]?. We can do nothing. That is why we are going to Delhi to get justice."
The march is the brainchild of a veteran Gandhian, PV Rajagopal, who made his name by persuading bandits in central India to lay down their arms in the 1970s. He says the human caravan is a warning shot to the "establishment".
Mr Rajagopal says there is a rising tide of violence in the country as the poor "are being driven out of villages and slums in cities". In the country's rush to industrialise, he adds, "we've seen alarming examples of outsiders seizing land on vast scales while the local rural poor are denied land. The result will be bloodshed and violence on a massive scale unless the government acts".
The issue is increasingly an explosive one in India, where incomplete reforms have left much of the country in the hands of a few. Extreme leftwing groups have tapped the rising anger in rural areas to wage low-intensity guerrilla wars in 172 of India's 600 districts.
Riots and armed insurrection are now prominent features of attempts to industrialise much of India. Earlier this month four directors of a South Korean company - which was handed 1,600 hectares to build a £6bn steel plant in mineral-rich eastern India - were kidnapped by tribal people protesting over the loss of their historic homelands.
In March an attempt to hand over 9,000 hectares of farmland to big business ended in pitched battles and half a dozen villagers dead in Bengal.
Even India's most important development agency, the planning commission, is blunt about how little has been done to tackle the issue of land redistribution.
"Land reforms seem to have been relegated to the background in the mid-1990s. More recently, initiatives of state governments have related to liberalising of land laws in order to promote large-scale corporate farming," it stated in its 10th plan.
Mr Rajagopal met Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician and president of the ruling Congress party, earlier this month to press his case for immediate land reform for the poor.
He says the manifesto that saw Ms Gandhi elected pledged new land-ceiling laws, limiting the size of landlords' holdings, and tenancy rights, but none has arrived.
Some say that the problem lies in the Indian state's indifference to its poorest people - "tribals" and "untouchables".
"There are 120 million people who have no rights in this country," says Balkrishna Renake, chairman of India's national commission for denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. "They are still waiting in independent India for the right to vote, to have schools and teachers, and for their land."
He estimates that redistributing just 2.5% of India's total area would be enough to allow the country's poor to exist "with dignity".
"The question is not whether we have the land but whether the government has the moral courage."
Land is an important and sensitive issue in most developing countries and growing numbers of poor people are demanding reform of its ownership and use after centuries of inequitable distribution.
The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil has an estimated 1 .5 million members who have occupied and farmed many millions of acres of unproductive land in the past 20 years.
The MST is now mirrored across Latin America with growing peasant and indigenous groups in Ecuador and Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile taking back land. They are supported by powerful international peasant groups such as Via Campesina which now works in 87 countries where land reform is recognised as a major problem.
Land reform in Africa is led by the Landless People's Movement in South Africa which argues that the official redistribution process is not fast enough for landless rural people. As in Brazil, land reform in Africa is seen as critical in redressing centuries of dispossession.
Many land reform groups are now linked and an international political movement is emerging. Almost all landless movements lobby for the right to grow food for themselves and not for export, ecological agriculture and an end to GM farming.
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Monday, 22 October 2007
October 22, 2007
Anatole Kaletsky: Economic view
For the first time in 15 years, I am seriously worried about the outlook for the British economy, the housing market and sterling. For almost the whole of the period since 1992, when British economic policy was liberated on Black Wednesday, I have been at the optimistic extreme of economic opinion in Britain. Today, however, I find myself at the opposite end. Most economists are predicting nothing worse than a modest slowdown for the British economy next year and are laughing off the IMF’s suggestion that house prices here could fall more steeply than they have in America. But to me it appears that all the risks in the year ahead - to economic activity, employment, house prices and sterling – are now clearly on the downside. To explain why I have turned so bearish, let me borrow the technique of Donald Rumsfeld: I will start with the obvious risks, move on to the “known unknowns” and finally to the “unknown unknowns”.
Starting with the known problems, there are essentially three, corresponding with the three main driving forces of British economic growth in the past decade. These have been financial activity, public sector spending and housing. The first two forces clearly will be much weaker in the year ahead than they have been for most of the past decade. Public sector employment has already stopped growing and will be squeezed much more tightly in the next few years. Wholesale finance and business services, which are more important to Britain than to any other major economy, are bound to experience a serious setback after the recent credit crisis.
With public sector employment and financial incomes stagnating and the wholesale mortgage markets semi-paralysed, the property boom of the past two years must – surely – be over. The only question is whether the next phase of the housing cycle will be a long period of stable prices, which is what most British economists are still predicting, or whether the boom will be followed by a bust, like the one in America, as suggested in an IMF report published in Washington last week. The IMF report did not predict a crash in British housing, but merely pointed out a simple statistical fact often mentioned on this page: house prices in Britain, along with many other European countries, have risen much faster in the past decade than US house prices and the difference in house price inflation cannot be explained by relative movements in incomes, population or interest rates.
The fact that house prices in Britain and in several other European countries (see chart) have risen 40 per cent more than the IMF can explain on the basis of such fundamental factors does not mean that they are likely to fall by this amount. But the IMF figures do show that Britain (along with Ireland, Spain, France, Denmark and many other European countries) is potentially even more vulnerable than America to a property shakeout if the forces stimulating housing demand ever run out of steam. And that is what is happening now, as the simultaneous slowdown in financial and public sector employment combines with the sudden loss of liquidity in the mortgage markets and the vertiginous levels already reached by house prices and mortgage borrowing.
Until recently I would, nevertheless, have joined the moderate majority of commentators in suggesting that the British housing market could enjoy a relatively soft landing, because of the strong underlying demand for housing, especially in London. That demand was, in turn, due mainly to London’s position as the world’s financial capital. In the past few months, however, this calculation has abruptly changed and this is where we come to Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”.
Nobody knows how much the process of global financial liberalisation will suffer as a result of the summer credit crunch, but there is certain to be less growth in wholesale financial services than there was in the past two years. It is even harder to say whether the mismanagement of the Northern Rock crisis will damage London’s standing relative to other financial centres, but it is not going to help. Most unpredictable of all is the impact of Gordon Brown’s unexpected tax changes on London’s position as the unchallenged centre of global finance.
The post-Budget controversy over inheritance tax and capital gains tax reform, has overlooked the even more radical changes in the tax treatment of foreigners living in Britain. Anecdotally, there is already evidence of hedge funds, banks and international businesses moving some of their highly paid international staff out of London to Geneva, Monte Carlo and the Channel Islands. Of course, these tax havens will never replace London as the financial centre of Europe, but at the margin they are now likely to divert more of the international incomes and employment that would otherwise have come to Britain.
As a result, the London economy is likely to suffer much more than the rest of the British economy in the impending slowdown – and this will be particularly true of the top end of the London housing market, whereI foreigners have accounted for more than 50 per cent of the buyers in the past few years.
Indeed, the evidence of a sharp turnaround in the London property market has already started to appear in unofficial figures, such as the monthly surveys published by Primelocation.com, the high-end property website, which has reported two consecutive months of falling prices in London and an increase of 32 per cent in the number of properties for sale. To make matters worse, the preBudget change in capital gains tax could well encourage buy-to-let landlords to put their properties on the market from next April onwards to take advantage of the big tax reductions that many expect to be reversed in future budgets. This will put further downward pressure on property prices next year – another “known unknown”, suddenly introduced by an abrupt change in economic policy that nobody could have predicted even a few weeks ago.
Which brings me finally to the “unknown unknowns”, which have suddenly made the economic outlook for Britain even more uncertain, but also more alarming. All of the policy U-turns of the past few weeks, the random and uncoordinated tax reforms, the loss of confidence in the Bank of England resulting from the Northern Rock crisis and the signs of panic in the Government in response to Tory gains in the opinion polls raise serious questions about the sustainability of the economic framework that has kept Britain so prosperous and stable since 1997.
Suppose a panic-stricken Prime Minister appoints a political crony as governor of the Bank of England. Suppose that public sector unions, sensing the Government’s weakness, refuse to accept the cutbacks in public spending that the Treasury has planned. Suppose the recent tax reforms blow up in the Government’s face and end up yielding less revenue than expected.
After the events of the past few weeks, it is easy to imagine such “unknown unknowns” – and all of them spell bad news.
Saturday, 20 October 2007
Many developing countries would die for just a fraction of the foreign funds that are currently flowing into India. In India though, the surge of foreign money that is driving up the country's stock markets, along with its currency, has rattled policy makers who believe it may be doing more harm than good.
In a move that caught many off-guard, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has proposed policy measures that for the first time seek to restrict offshore derivative
instruments (ODI), also called participatory notes (PNs) - the financial instruments used by foreign investors to play and invest in the Indian stock markets.
In a note issued late on Tuesday, SEBI said that "following consultation with the government", it had decided to implement measures that will not allow "FIIs [foreign institutional investors] to issue/renew ODIs with immediate effect", and the FIIs "are required to wind up their current position (issued PNs) over 18 months, during which period SEBI will review the position from time to time".
These proposals, SEBI added, are open to discussion, but they will be considered as a directive by the SEBI board on October 25.
SEBI also proposed that there should be no further issue of PNs by sub-accounts of FIIs. Sub-accounts are corporate or special-purpose vehicles floated by FIIs in which they manage money on behalf of overseas clients. Significantly, even PNs issued to buy stocks (not derivatives) will be restricted.
The measures, according to SEBI and the Finance Ministry, are prompted by the recent surge of foreign funds into India and their quality. Regulatory agencies like SEBI, the Reserve Bank of India, and the government, are also concerned about the anonymity that these instruments provide the buyers.
The impact of such measures was immediately reflected by the stock market the following day (Wednesday), when the Sensex index fell a massive 1,700 points, or over 9%. However, after Finance Minister P Chidambaram issued a clarification on Wednesday, the market recovered handsomely.
"What was announced by SEBI yesterday is a part of the series of steps that it have been taken to moderate the capital inflows into India," Chidambaran said. Easing fears that the government is keen to ban PNs altogether, he added: "Investors through participatory notes are certainly welcome to invest in India; but for the present, it is important to moderate these capital flows. And therefore, SEBI has proposed a number of measures that will moderate these capital flows."
Since India emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world (just behind China), the country has been the focus of attention of all FIIs. According to Ruchir Sharma, managing director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, "India currently features as the top destination for FII investments even ahead of China, which is now considered overvalued."
Over the past 10 months, for instance, India saw an inflow of $17 billion in foreign investment, which is more than twice what the country saw in the whole of 2006 ($8 billion). The inflow became even more spectacular last month following the interest rate cut by the United States' Federal Reserve Board, leading to a sharp fall in the dollar and investors consequently seeking better returns in emerging markets. India was one of the biggest beneficiaries.
FIIs pumped close to $8 billion into India in the first two weeks of October alone, more than $5.5 billion of which went into the stock markets. The benchmark stock index, the BSE Sensex, has soared by more than 5,000 points in two months.
But what is a PN and why is it so hot? Since India limits international access to the Indian capital market only to SEBI-registered FIIs, foreign funds not registered in India have found a way to trade in the domestic market by creating participatory notes. These are derivative instruments issued against an underlying security (say a share or a debt instrument). Foreign investors who are not registered or otherwise eligible to trade on Indian stock markets buy PNs from FIIs registered in India, and those FIIs in turn use the funds to trade in India on behalf of the PN holders.
Although initially the PN was devised to enable unregistered foreign investors to test the Indian markets, eventually it evolved into a useful financial instrument for two reasons. One, the PN helps some foreign investors to save on transaction costs and record-keeping overheads. Two, since they are indirect investment instruments and are not subject to regulatory compliance (applicable to registered FIIs), PNs often help investors remain anonymous.
It is this second benefit that has made PNs an extremely popular instrument. Indian authorities believe that not only do most foreign hedge funds use PNs to play the Indian markets, but a host of Indian money launderers first transfer funds out of the country through the informal "hawala" system, and then bring it back using PNs.
The PN's popularity can be gauged from the fact that in the past three years close to $89 billion has been pumped into Indian stock markets through PNs.
Small wonder then that most FIIs consider SEBI's moves retrogressive. "PNs are a practical way of getting international capital into India and allowing international investors to manage volatility and to hedge their positions," said Adrian Mowat, chief Asian and emerging equity strategist at J P Morgan. "Restricting that is going to be negative for the Indian markets because it will make switching positions tough while new money will have to register afresh, a process that will take time."
FIIs add that while India wants the capital flows to be transparent, it also wants the money to remain there for the longer haul, "which is a good measure in the long term" since it impacts both investment stock and the future flow of investments in India. However, "It doesn't send a very positive message to the FII in the short run," said N Jayakumar, CEO of Prime Securities.
Not everyone agrees that the impact would only be short term. In a statement, CLSA, a leading FII in the Asia Pacific, said that if such "harsh measures" are implemented in their entirety, "there could also be an adverse impact in the longer term sentiments towards investing in India." CLSA cites the instance of Malaysia, which experienced indifferent stock market performance and a prolonged bout of depressed trading volumes following the country's imposition of capital controls after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
Nevertheless, these concerns do not seem to bother Indian policy makers much. "Market sentiment is not a function of capital flow, inflows alone," said Finance Minister Chidambaram. "The fundamentals of the Indian economy are still sound and what SEBI has announced to moderate capital inflows is a necessity step; a step in the interest of investors and in the interest of the capital market. I am sure investors will see the its positive sides soon."
Adds a SEBI official, "All SEBI wants is non-expansion for some PN with large positions. There is no proposal to ban PNs and SEBI is looking at simplifying FII registration norms so that if foreign investors wish to register in India as FIIs, they are most welcome."
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
Wednesday, 17 October 2007
16 October, 2007
Warning: this essay is chock full of politically incorrect musings.
Observing our relentless march toward war abroad against Iran and looming dictatorship at home, it’s obvious to me that our “leaders” are getting away with this agenda because Americans are so fearful. But why? What are they afraid of? Answering this question is important because I think this irrational fear is finding an outlet in anger, which is evident in the police brutality we see domestically and wars we launch abroad.
When did our slide into emasculating fear begin? I think it started to become palpable in the early 1980s, following the economically beleaguered 1970s, which closed with the sobering Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan’s “Morning in America” slogan was so successful during the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s because Americans, having experienced their first protracted taste of society-wide fear, longed for a safe haven, even if it was just an empty campaign slogan. Without being judgmental, merely making an observation, fear ratcheted up during the Reagan years (Sting’s song “Russians” is emblematic of the anxiety felt during the 1980s) and both Bush presidencies, but seemed to be suspended during the Clinton years. In fact, people seemed quite optimistic during the Clinton years, although it’s not clear why people were optimistic then, or if their optimism was real or just Prozac-induced. Recalling the widespread and irrational fear surrounding the overblown Y2K computer problem, I think perhaps people were just as fearful then as now, but their fear was tempered by the illusion of prosperity that prevailed during the latter 1990s.
What might be some possible explanations for our national epidemic of fear?
Financial security has declined sharply in the last three decades, thanks to globalization and the shift away from high paying, secure manufacturing jobs to lower paying, tenuous service jobs. In the last three decades we’ve experienced several powerful financial shocks: double digit inflation as we exited the 1970s and entered the 1980s, severe recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s, and bursting stock market and housing bubbles in the 2000s. These shocks left people feeling vulnerable and bewildered about how to protect their wealth and safeguard their future.
During the 1980s Americans felt economically threatened by the ascendancy of Japan; today they feel the same threat from China’s ascendancy. But why should Americans feel economically threatened by another country’s progress? Because by the 1980s Americans were no longer in control of their career destinies. By the 1980s much of the American labor market was controlled by multinational corporations that had no qualms about shipping formerly American jobs to other countries. In the 1980s the destination for these jobs was Japan; today it’s China. In earlier times, many Americans were self-employed or worked for small, local businesses and had a great deal more control over their destinies.
Perhaps the way to counter fear about financial security is for people to return to the earlier model when they were in control of their lives. Doing this will necessitate a drastic change in most of our lifestyles, in particular, to a much lower cost of living. Yet this is possible if people are willing to move back to depopulated rural areas, take labor intensive jobs in local agriculture and manufacturing, and grow food on their own property. Even if such people lack financial security in terms of dollars and cents, having an inexpensive roof over their heads, home grown food to eat, and a supportive network of family and friends will go a long way toward fostering a sense of real security. I have spent considerable time browsing the Internet looking at rural property for sale. Many houses, including enough land to grow a vegetable garden, can be purchased in rural areas for one or two year’s worth of rent in an urban area. My house is such a house. Reducing one’s cost of living in this manner doesn’t mean a reduction in one’s standard of living. In fact, the opposite is true: our quality of life will improve, and I can say that from personal experience. Of course, people who have been brainwashed by corporate advertising will be incredulous that one’s quality of life can improve by moving to the “sticks” and eschewing materialism.
Deification of Greed
The deification of greed (“Greed is good,” from the 1980s movie “Wall Street”) has made those who are not “successful” feel inadequate. Such people fear becoming social outcasts by “missing out” on the latest investment boom, whether it be in stocks or houses; or because they don’t drive the fanciest, most powerful car; or because they don’t wear the hippest clothes; or because they aren’t festooned with all the trendiest technological gadgets. The fear of looking like a “failure” in a material sense, which is all that seems to matter anymore, drives people to acquire those phony emblems of success using debt, which then causes financial insecurity, which fuels fear.
Although I appear to be talking more about materialism here than greed, materialism is the principal vehicle for satisfying greed. Grotesque displays of greed are not scorned today, but are lauded, aspired to. However, most of us are too poor to participate in ostentatious displays of greed, such as building a 50,000 square foot house or buying a 200 foot yacht, so we are relegated to mimicking the rich by stretching to acquire the materialistic trappings of “success” that we can afford, or pretend we can afford.
People need to relearn to be themselves. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Don’t succumb to peer pressure to acquire the latest and greatest doodad, unless you truly desire it and can afford it. Personal success or failure should be defined by each individual. I’m not rich, but I feel my life has been more or less successful. I know who I am and I like who I am. And I don’t need to use material things to reinforce my self esteem. I’ve never been embarrassed to drive a wreck of a car, and I’ve owned many such cars. I’m not embarrassed to wear shabby clothes or go unshaven if I’m more comfortable that way. If people are too shallow to accept me for who I am rather than what I possess, then I probably don’t want to be acquainted with them anyway.
Government and Media
The government and the media have, with seeming relish, sought to instill fear in Americans. The government does so to compel citizens to relinquish their rights, contrary to the prescient advice of Benjamin Franklin. The media enjoys instilling fear to raise their ratings (“If it bleeds, it leads”).
Of course, in a fascist system such as the United States has become, where the government and the corporate-owned media have developed a symbiotic relationship, it’s no longer surprising that the two speak with one tongue.
Virtually no field has been left un-sown with seeds of fear: terrorism, domestic and foreign; “other” races; unsafe food; diseases; unsafe children’s toys; chemicals; pollutants; drugs; guns; crime; religions; cults; identity theft; sex; and now climate change.
The government stokes these fears using “official” mechanisms, such as feel-good legislation that doesn’t really accomplish anything other than to heighten public awareness of, and anxiety about a potential danger; by parading manufactured villains before the public; or with cute devices such as color coded terrorism threat scales, or maps showing the residence locations of “sex offenders.”
The media feeds fear with TV shows such as “24,” “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted,” and that “news” program, the name of which escapes me, that seeks to entrap sexual predators, stoking fear while turning sick perversion into titillating entertainment.
While there are genuine potential dangers in some of these areas – NEWS FLASH: life is risky – the likelihood of any American being directly affected by one of these threats is grossly overblown by the government and the media. Yet it seems that Americans feel vulnerable to all of these threats, all the time! What a way to live.
I don’t know if the dumbing down of Americans is the result of a sinister conspiracy, of our ever declining educational standards, of apathy and intellectual laziness on the part of Americans, or of Americans simply working harder and harder to stay in place so that they don’t have any time or energy left to become engaged, so they rely on partisan sound bites for their information. Whatever the reason for Americans’ lack of insight about the real threats posed by these fertile fields of fear, it is that lack of insight that makes Americans vulnerable to manipulation by the government and the media.
What is especially sad is that Americans have been brainwashed into always believing their government, and more importantly, that questioning their government is unpatriotic. I don’t believe in patriotism, at least as it’s presented today, as blind allegiance to the government. Blind faith such as that deprives one of the opportunity to use their intellect to weigh the facts and draw their own conclusions. There are times when I will stand behind my government, and times when I will not. In any case, the government is not the nation, so it’s improper to equate allegiance to the government with patriotism, which is what the government has done for self-serving reasons.
Individual Americans should ask themselves what harm they’ve suffered recently and how does the frequency of the harm they’ve actually suffered correlate with the degree of threat hyped by the government and the media. I think people will discover that real life is far less dangerous than the propaganda would have us believe. We should make an extra effort to study the things that we fear. The best antidote to fear is knowledge. Knowing the reality of the dangers we face will inoculate us against manipulation of our fears. We must also study the causes of the threats we face. We must have the intellectual courage to honestly assess whether our behavior is increasing or decreasing particular dangers, such as the threat of terrorism.
We should also take everything the agenda-driven media reports with a big grain of salt. Aside from the obvious profit motives that taint its reporting, the mainstream media has allowed itself to become the propaganda mouthpiece of the government. Instead of passively absorbing the soothing, brainwashing emanations of the TV, we should make the effort to seek out, research, and cross check the news for ourselves. The Internet makes this quite easy, at least for now. The powers that be are clearly trying to reign in the freedom that the Internet offers today. That’s what this whole “net neutrality” debate is about.
Immigration has been a chronic cause of fear in America. According to some people the U.S. is apparently being flooded with Mexican immigrants who are bypassing the orderly legal immigration process – which is tacitly endorsed by the government and corporations, by the way – and supposedly taking jobs away from Americans. Whether Mexicans are actually taking jobs from Americans or not, the mere possibility of an American losing his or her job to an immigrant evokes fear. And of course, we innately xenophobic human beings are initially fearful of any people we perceive as “different.”
It seems that the most recent immigrants to America are always convenient scapegoats for any problems of the day. Today the scapegoat group is Mexican immigrants. In the 1970s and 1980s it was Vietnamese and Cuban immigrants. Before that it was Italian and Irish immigrants. Before that it was Chinese immigrants. This list of persecuted immigrant groups is merely illustrative, but by no means exhaustive.
When America was thriving economically there was plenty of wealth to go around, so after a time Americans grudgingly accepted each new group of immigrants. During the waves of immigration that began in the 1970s, however, it seems though the animosity toward immigrants has grown more intense, probably because our standard of living has been declining at the same time. More people sharing a shrinking pie does not make people happy.
Why should immigrants be a cause of fear? Is it because they are “different” from us? If so, then perhaps the way to quell fear is to get to know these immigrants. I’ve had occasion recently to talk with Mexican immigrants and have had no problem getting along with them or seeing them as little different from me. In fact, I’ve found them to be more open and friendly than many Americans. As always, fear of the unknown can be overcome by knowing.
Are illegal Mexican immigrants today really taking jobs from Americans? If so, then it’s probably occurring mostly in occupations that are controlled by corporations, such as in the service sector and large scale agriculture. Despite official condemnation of illegal immigration, illegal immigrants help keep the economic engine of corporate America humming. They are officially condemned, but unofficially welcomed. One solution is for Americans to create jobs for themselves that cannot be taken away. That is, become self-employed. Of course, even this is not a perfect solution if one’s chosen trade is also popular with illegal immigrants, such as construction or landscaping. Unfortunately, illegal immigrants are often willing to work for less money than Americans, but the main reason they can afford to do so is that they have a lower cost of living. The lesson, then, is that if Americans want to compete directly with illegal immigrants, they have to reduce their cost of living too. The alternative is to select a trade that’s not popular with illegal immigrants, or for which they are not qualified because they lack the necessary education or language skills. Attempting to stop the flow of illegal immigrants is probably futile, unless we repeal corporate-backed treaties such as NAFTA, which has severely harmed Mexico’s economy, or the new SPP, so it would be better to find a way to cope with illegal immigration.
Urbanization has undermined self-efficacy and made people overly dependent on others and too little dependent on themselves. I grew up as an urbanite, and I still love urban life. Yet a few years ago I moved to rural Kentucky, which I also love. One of the first things I discovered is that out here one has to be self-sufficient. One cannot simply open up the phone book and choose from a plethora of services for hire. So I’ve reluctantly become a roofer, electrician, landscaper, tree trimmer, exterminator, house framer, carpenter, floorer, plasterer, blind installer, plumber, painter, appliance installer, household mover, auto mechanic, bicycle mechanic, farmer, and furniture repairer. Many of my neighbors, including some who are pretty old, are equally self-sufficient. When I lived in cities I used to farm out all of these tasks. Now it’s easier to do them myself than try to find someone else to do them. While I don’t particularly enjoy many of these activities, I do appreciate the renewed feeling of self confidence that I’ve acquired as a result. During a phone conversation just the other day, my cousin told me that I sound more confident than I did before I moved to Kentucky.
By contrast, living in an urban environment, one becomes dependent on a good job to pay for the high cost of living; public transit and taxis to get around; police for protection; people available for hire to perform any kind of service; stores and restaurants and entertainment venues (I’ve returned to reading books for entertainment and enlightenment); a saturation of infrastructure, including high speed Internet access outside of one’s house and dependable mobile communications (my mobile phone doesn’t work on my property, so a few weeks ago when my land line went out I had to drive a mile to get close to a mobile phone tower to call the telephone company). I’ve grown accustomed to living without all these things that urbanites take for granted. It took some getting used to, but in the end, it’s really not much of a loss at all.
The high population density associated with urbanization also increases the likelihood of our being afflicted by frightening diseases or victimized by crime or terrorism. It’s one thing to read about the crime rate or a horrific disease in a far off city. It’s downright frightening to read about crimes or diseases in your own city, where perhaps you spend a lot of time in public places.
For the better part of a century there has been a migration from rural America to urban and then suburban locales. I believe a reversal of that trend, a re-population of rural America, would do much to restore our self-confidence and reduce our fearfulness. And where I live, I have no fear whatsoever of crime, disease, or terrorism.
Environmental Desecration and Destruction
Environmental desecration and destruction, real or imagined, has long been a source of fear for Americans. Surprisingly, the vast majority of Americans – perhaps 80% – favor protecting the environment, which probably explains why they seem easily threatened by environmental problems. In the 1970s the grave concern was pollution (recall the anti-littering TV commercials featuring the teary-eyed native American). Today it’s the scarier and more nebulous concept of climate change.
I am an environmentalist at heart. I do everything I can to minimize my impact on the environment, to leave as small a footprint as possible. Nevertheless, I don’t buy into the anthropogenic climate change hysteria, and I have nothing to gain by rejecting this mantra. First of all, the earth’s climate has been changing for 4.5 billion years. It would be astonishing if our climate were not changing today. We know the earth has undergone radical climate changes in the past, without human cause. We also know that the earth regularly cycles between climate episodes, such as ice ages and warm periods, dating back to before humans even existed. It’s amusing to recall that back in the 1970s there was a hysteria about global cooling that was to occur with the onset of an overdue ice age. Today it’s global warming – oops, sorry, climate change. Even if humans are somehow responsible for today’s climate changes, it’s the result of nearly two centuries of industrial activity. It stands to reason that it will take two more centuries to reverse the damage we’ve caused, during which time we will have to cease all industrial activity.
Governments around the world, and most recently the U.S. government, have discovered that people can be terrified by predictions of environmental devastation, and that this terror can be channeled into convincing people to give up their rights in order to avert this coming environmental apocalypse. Countless acts of legislation are being formulated around the world to exploit and fuel this fear of environmental devastation in order to tax and control people.
Why fear something that we cannot control? As I said, even if we are responsible for climate change, we will effect no evident improvement to the climate within our lifetimes. The best we can do is seek to minimize our individual impact on the environment and hope for the best. If we are not responsible for climate change, then there is also little we can do, except what I’ve already advised. So why be afraid? Why not instead recognize that humans are marvelously adaptable and trust that we will find a way to cope with whatever climate changes occur? For instance, where I live I would be quite happy with warmer winters and an extended crop growing season. I’m not making light of climate change. I realize that such changes bring negative consequences as well as positive ones. I’m simply pointing out that if the climate is going to change, we might as well find a way to work with it instead of cowering with irrational fear.
Unwholesome food probably plays a role in elevating Americans’ anxiety. When people lived in rural areas they ate wholesome, farm-fresh foods and drank well water. Now they eat fast food garbage oozing from the unsanitary orifices of food factories and drink water contaminated with chlorine and fluoride and god knows what else. It seems to me that this unhealthful diet has to affect peoples’ mood, behavior, and thinking ability. In addition to any physiological effects unwholesome food might have, thanks to the globalization of agriculture people are more anxious than ever about what’s in their food and where it came from.
Unfortunately, our declining standard of living, combined with misguided government subsidies to corporate agribusinesses have together pushed people away from wholesome foods toward this garbage we call food. Because more people in a household have to work longer hours, they are forced to eat highly processed, chemical-laden, microwaveable food or fast food. And because government subsidies encourage the production of junk food instead of wholesome food, junk food is cheaper.
Were people to move back to rural areas and eat fresh produce from their own yards or nearby farms, drink purer water, and eat home cooked meals, they’d probably be healthier, happier, less stressed, and have one less thing to fear: their food.
Modern medicine in America seems paradoxical to me. On the one hand, treatment of disease is far more profitable than prevention, so the former is emphasized and the latter is shunned. On the other hand, the medical system seems to encourage people to be afraid of so many things, so long as it can sell prophylactic medicines to “prevent” whatever it is that people are supposed to be afraid of. So the medical system simultaneously avoids preventing genuine, serious diseases while selling medicines to prevent dubious diseases, such as “restless leg syndrome.”
Why do people take so many medications today? It seems it’s out of fear of being afflicted by some disease or suffering the slightest discomfort. When I was a kid, hardly anybody took medications, at least chronically. Today it seems like many people, at least older people, are taking two or three medications, and some are taking quite a lot more. Some people are taking so many medications that some of their medications are to counteract the effect of others! Has the human species evolved so much in my lifetime that it can no longer survive without medicines? Are we living better, longer, because of those medicines?
Then there’s the explosion of antibacterial products: dish soaps, hand sanitizers, and household cleaning products. I recently read that there are more bacteria inside the human body than cells! And we’re worried about a little bacteria on our hands? It’s been my observation that the human mind and body thrive when exercised, and I believe that includes the immune system. It’s my hypothesis that mild exposure to pathogens exercises the body’s immune system, making it stronger. So at best, antibacterial products are probably counterproductive, if they even work at all. To me, the thing that stands out is the fear people have of exposure to a little bacteria, a fear promulgated by TV commercials.
Or look at flu vaccines. I recall with amusement the panic that ensued a couple of years ago when there was an insufficient supply of flu vaccine, and how people resorted to unscrupulous tactics to secure for themselves a shot of flu vaccine, as if it were a matter of life and death. It struck me at the time that people seemed more afraid of not getting a shot of flu vaccine than of getting the flu! Is a flu vaccine any more effective than just avoiding situations that might expose one to the flu and washing one’s hands regularly? Is there any need to panic just because one cannot obtain a shot of flu vaccine? Of course, the media loves to hype such shortages and drive people to panic, fearing they won’t get their lifesaving dose of flu vaccine. It’s a wonder that the human species managed to survive all these millennia without all these medications.
Or how about the emotional roller coaster of dietary recommendations from the “experts.” It seems as if every food has at one time or another been demonized and lauded. It seems that virtually everything causes cancer. Instead of allowing ourselves be terrorized by these scare tactics, maybe we should stop listening to these so-called experts and just use our own common sense and eat what we like in sensible proportions.
The human body is remarkably capable of taking care of itself. It can repair injuries and neutralize pathogens. Sometimes it needs a little assistance, but most of the time all the body needs is proper nutrition, exercise, and rest, three things that seem to be in short supply in modern America. If we take good care of ourselves we needn’t be so fearful of disease.
Political correctness has made Americans afraid of expressing an opinion. Not only do they fear social ostracism for thinking “differently” from the herd, but they fear the very real prospect of losing their jobs. It’s not just radio or TV hosts whose jobs are at risk for a politically incorrect slip of the tongue. Even a lowly airline employee who posts revealing photos of herself on the Internet, not involving her employer in any way, can be fired because her company fears her behavior may subject the company to charges of condoning politically incorrect behavior. Even an esteemed ex-President who dares to criticize Israel in the mildest fashion can be subjected to vicious attacks because it’s politically incorrect to criticize Israel.
What’s worse than embracing the notion of political correctness is our zero tolerance approach to dealing with offenders. Nobody is allowed to redress a mistake anymore. One mistake and the public ghoulishly bellows, “Off with his head.” People are prone to making mistakes, and unless they are given a chance to redress their mistakes and learn from them, they will probably just keep making the same mistakes. Instead of giving people a chance to use their mistakes to become better and wiser, punishing them will probably just reinforce their objectionable beliefs or at least make them bitter.
It seems to me everybody should be allowed to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it is. People hearing an objectionable opinion have three choices: they can stop listening, they can challenge the opinion, or they can make a mental note to apply more critical thinking to opinions that person expresses in the future. When people make a habit of expressing offensive or demonstrably wrong opinions, other people will eventually dismiss such people as nuts and their opinions will carry no weight (Ann Coulter comes to mind). There is a fourth choice too: punishing a person for expressing an “incorrect” opinion. That seems to be the option we as a society have zealously embraced.
Why are people so afraid of letting others express a divergent opinion? Surely if a popular belief is sound it can withstand being questioned and debated. If a belief is not sound then it should be debated, refuted, and abandoned. Maybe it’s like homosexuality. People seem to believe that gay and straight are on opposite sides of a sharp dividing line and that a single homosexual act tosses a straight person to the other side of that line. (I wonder, does a single heterosexual act make one straight again?) That’s why insecure straight men get so uptight about homoeroticism. They know that a single “transgression” will brand them “gay.” Similarly, I think people are afraid of having even one of their beliefs shown to be wrong, as if harboring a single demonstrably wrong belief makes all of their beliefs wrong. Maybe people are too insecure to accept that they can be wrong about some things while being right about others. So political correctness becomes a personal defense mechanism. If people just adopt the officially sanctioned beliefs they cannot be criticized and their beliefs cannot be challenged – political correctness sees to that. Since their beliefs cannot be challenged, their beliefs cannot be shown to be wrong, and the person’s mental temple remains unperturbed. It might also be that acknowledging upsetting truths will demand action, and people are basically lazy. For example, if Americans believed – and cared – that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians, paid for by the U.S., they might feel compelled to act, to demand a change in U.S. policy. Since today’s political correctness forbids criticism of Israel on any grounds, people are free to ignore what’s going on in Israel and console themselves that Israel is simply protecting its right to exist.
Surprisingly, universities, which once seemed to be sanctuaries of free thought are now prisons of thought conformity. Many of our politically correct notions seem to emanate from universities today. Why should that be? Judging from the uniformity of thought evident at many different universities, I think that government and perhaps corporate domination of universities is somehow responsible. Not only are many universities operated by state governments, but most universities, public and private, receive lucrative funding from the federal government. These two facts place the government in a prime position to dictate to the universities what constitutes acceptable thought. Although some politically correct thoughts, such as affirmative action, are openly codified, the government need not explicitly dictate all such thoughts. Politically correct thoughts can be nurtured, and politically incorrect thoughts extinguished through example. A professor seeking research funds for government approved realms of thought will get funding; a professor seeking funds for realms of thought the government disapproves of will not.
Eventually the administrators at the university get the message about what kind of thought is acceptable and what is not, and then they become the enforcers. Political correctness flows down from the administrators, to the professors, and suffuses throughout the student body. Students, interested in finding jobs after graduation, understand that they have to conform in order to get a job – implicitly a corporate or government job – so they suspend their “deviant” views, temporarily. But when people get in the habit of temporarily suspending their own beliefs, eventually it becomes ingrained. Behavior becomes Pavlovian. Witness the reaction of that Florida university student body to the tasering of one of their own – they applauded. Why” Because the student asked politically incorrect questions about the 2004 election, a topic that still demands vigorous investigation.
It’s not just universities that impose political correctness on their students. Elementary schools initiate the inculcation of political correctness and are actually even more oppressive. “Zero tolerance” is the favorite phrase in public schools anymore. I’ve read several stories about children as young as five years old being punished for drawing a gun in art class. Guns, of course, are one of the most politically incorrect symbols today. Is not “zero tolerance” the antithesis of civilization, which should instead promote tolerance? Aren’t Islamic countries, which Americans are so afraid of these days, infamous for their “zero tolerance” policies? It’s politically incorrect to practice zero tolerance toward gays in Iran, but acceptable to practice zero tolerance toward gun-drawing kindergarteners in America.
A specific example of political correctness run amok is California’s new law that imposes a fine of $100 for smoking in a car containing minors. It is not clear who gets fined if a non-driver is smoking. What if the only minor in the car is the one doing the smoking? What if the smoker opens a window to exhaust the smoke? That state is also exploring banning smoking in apartment complexes. It has banned smoking within 25 feet of a playground, and virtually all indoor, and many outdoor public places. What’s next? Banning smoking in one’s allegedly owned house when children are present? I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the next law to be passed. Why not ban smoking in one’s backyard when children are present? I don’t smoke, but this is getting ridiculous. Smokers must feel like they are under assault. You know, if I don’t want to be around smokers I just move away or politely ask them to refrain from smoking. The last time I picked up a hitchhiker I let him smoke in my car. I just had him crack his window and the smoke went right out without bothering me. There used to be a time when people were allowed to employ courtesy. Smokers are not even given the chance anymore to be courteous and smoke when and where they won’t bother anyone. They are simply crushed like a cigarette butt under the tyranny of laws imposed by the “moral” majority. Were I a smoker, I would be fearful of what anti-smoking law the majority was going to pass next. (Isn’t it interesting how the state is persecuting smokers – though not the corporations that manufacture cigarettes – yet it looks the other way concerning the diesel exhaust spewing from trucks. We mustn’t impose an undue burden on the poor corporate trucking industry.)
To many people smoking is a vile habit, so they feel no regret about the plight of smokers. But where does this kind of politically correct thinking stop? Many states require people to wear seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorcycles. New York city has barred people from eating a particular kind of fat. Many counties where I live are “dry,” meaning one cannot buy alcohol there, although consumption of alcohol acquired elsewhere is permitted. In Britain they’re talking about monitoring kids’ health and penalizing the parents if the kids are deemed “unhealthy.” The logical extension of such thinking is to monitor everyone’s health and punish anyone deemed by the government to be “unhealthy.” Do we want such a policy here? Wouldn’t such a policy cause tremendous anxiety in the population? I mean, in addition to all one’s other worries, under such a regimen people would also have to worry about conforming to capricious state guidelines regarding the most personal of matters: one’s health.
And what of McMansions and SUVs? I have neither, but I don’t begrudge others the right to have them. After all, the owners of such hated symbols are paying for them. They are paying higher prices to buy them, higher taxes to the government, and higher fuel costs (and fuel taxes) to run them. But, of course, it’s politically incorrect to defend such symbols.
Of all the causes of fear in America, political correctness is perhaps the most difficult to counter, if only because violating the rules of political correctness carries potentially serious consequences, such as the loss of a job. While it’s relatively easy for an individual to break the shackles that reign in his or her opinions, how does one force everyone else who hears those opinions to consider them thoughtfully and not dismiss them as politically incorrect? We cannot force others to open their minds. The best we can do is open our own minds and try to set an example for others. We spend far too much time worrying about what others are doing, and not enough time examining our own lives to ensure that we live up to the standards we would impose on others.
Sensitive topics can be broached diplomatically. One doesn’t have to bluntly state an opinion as it it’s a fact, closed to discussion. One can instead offer an opinion and invite discussion. I have done this with people where I live, gently challenging some of their views. Instead of being offended, some of these people have described me as a “breath of fresh air.”
Government brutality has long been employed in despotic countries to instill fear in the subject population; today it’s being used for that purpose here. The nationwide unleashing of police brutality and the unjustifiable, reflexive arrest of peaceful protesters almost seems coordinated from on high, as if it’s some kind of massive psychological operation intended to terrorize Americans into submitting to their government. Such a scheme would dovetail with all the recently passed laws and presidential executive orders apparently crafted to impose a police state in America with the throw of a switch.
One might assume that the government would seek to conceal its ugly activities regarding the torture of “enemy combatants,” the rendition of victims to foreign countries to be tortured, and the denial of constitutionally protected rights to American citizens. Yet exposure of these tactics instills fear in the American public. Slowly, Americans are starting to realize, even if only deep within the recesses of their subconscious, that they are not safe from their government. If the government wants to lock up any one of us and throw away the key, it can do so. If that doesn’t inspire fear in us, then we must be comatose. The English had their Tower of London; America has Guantanamo. Both are symbols of government power intended to fill the hearts of citizens with terror.
Observing the participation of the mercenary corps known as Blackwater in both Iraq and New Orleans, I believe that it is being exercised for future deployment here in America. Besides training the members of Blackwater in effective tactics and to be insensitive to the people they oppress, the government is fine tuning its tactics for deploying these mercenaries. When the police state here becomes overt, Blackwater may well become a new instrument for instilling fear in the American public. Currently such fears are only hypothetical and are harbored by a small minority of the population who recognize the potential dangers in utilizing such forces, which are free of any accountability.
A significant percentage of Americans now believe 9/11 was an “inside job.” For the first three years following 9/11 I accepted the official account. But following the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report I started to get suspicious. Not only was the report itself wanting, but one day it suddenly dawned on me how similar the events before, during, and after 9/11 were to those of the Oklahoma City bombing, which I had long ago concluded was perpetrated by the U.S. government for similar motivations, namely, to pass Clinton’s repressive legislation. The more I investigated 9/11, the more fishy the official story smelled. Today I am 99% convinced that the U.S. government was deeply involved in perpetrating 9/11, and I’m not alone. Many ordinary Americans and many highly educated experts in various fields of study harbor similar suspicions. All we mere citizens have to work with in the cases of Oklahoma City and 9/11 is circumstantial evidence because the government, in the name of “national security,” conceals from us all the physical evidence, but in both cases there are mountains of circumstantial evidence of government involvement. Frankly, the London and Madrid subway bombings smell of government involvement too.
There’s also no doubt that the war in Iraq was desired before 9/11. There’s increasing evidence that the Patriot Act was written before 9/11. And now there’s new evidence that warrantless spying on Americans began before 9/11. What the sought for war in Iraq and the Patriot Act needed to become reality was a justification, a “New Pearl Harbor,” which 9/11 conveniently provided.
What effect do such momentous conclusions have on one’s psyche? It should scare the hell out of most people to acknowledge that their own government could commit such horrific acts in order to justify repressive legislation at home and unjustified wars abroad. It has certainly had that effect on me. The significant numbers of Americans who believe the government was involved in 9/11 probably cope with that belief in different ways, including simply avoiding thinking about it. Nevertheless, the fears are still there, gnawing away in the back of one’s mind. People have pointed out that governments sometimes use shock treatment to pummel their subjects into submission. Well, 9/11 was one doozie of a shock. About the only thing that could surpass it in shock value would be a nuclear detonation in an American city ...
Some government brutality is psychological rather than physical. For instance, “airport security” is primarily intended to inculcate Americans to being corralled, herded, and humiliated by the government. How many “terrorists” has tightened airport security intercepted in the last six years? None. How many Americans have been terrorized, humiliated, and inconvenienced by tightened airport security in the last six years? Millions.
The various “watch lists” are tools for terrorizing Americans. I’ve read several comments recently by ordinary Americans who are genuinely fearful of being put on these watch lists. I admit, that I’m afraid of being put on these lists myself, and I fear essays like this one will expedite my inclusion on such lists. I’ve lost track of how many loyal Americans, including active duty military soldiers and officers, who have found themselves on these lists. Clearly, any list of potential terrorists that includes large numbers of loyal Americans, such as the government’s own soldiers, cannot be all that effective. So why do these lists exist? Because they give the government the power to deprive Americans of the freedom to travel. And, shrouded in secrecy, such lists are convenient tools for punishing Americans who criticize the government. These lists are nothing but tools of psychological brutality.
Another kind of psychological brutality is the government’s recruiting of us citizens to tattle on each other. I read an article recently about a child being interrogated by his doctor to inform on his parents’ lifestyle! Driving down the freeway in urban areas one sees signs reading, “Report drunk drivers.” In airports and subways one hears, “Report suspicious activity.” We have volunteer citizen patrols now that wander through our neighborhoods looking for suspicious activity. What qualifies as suspicious rather than simply nonconforming activity? I guess that’s up to the citizens doing the patrolling to decide. If you piss off you neighbor today you might yourself being reported to the “authorities.” Must we now fear our neighbors and our own children? It would seem so. This is so “1984.”
Voter disenfranchisement is another form of psychological brutality. Depriving people of the opportunity to vote increases their sense of helplessness. Some disenfranchisement techniques deliberately instill the fear of arrest in would-be voters should they attempt to exercise their right to vote.
In between physical and psychological brutality is economic brutality. Asset forfeiture, which started out targeting the mafia, has undergone steady mission creep, and now gobbles up the assets of drug dealers, drug users, people who hire prostitutes (and even people who decline the uninvited services of undercover cops posing as prostitutes), drunk drivers, terrorists, and law-abiding citizens carrying any amount of cash the government deems “excessive.” The government has an incentive to confiscate peoples’ assets as well because it gets to keep the cash proceeds from auctioning those assets. The government circumvents the Constitution by absurdly charging one’s assets, rather than the individual, with a crime. Assets are not guaranteed due process by the Constitution, although I still cannot see how asset forfeiture gets around the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. No doubt, the fear of having one’s assets confiscated instills fear in many Americans.
Similar to asset forfeiture are new executive orders “blocking” people’s property, whatever that Orwellian phrase means. In the last five years president Bush has issued fourteen executive orders “blocking” peoples’ property for various reasons. These orders mean that, among other things, one’s bank accounts are frozen. Imagine trying to survive in our modern society without access to your money. Most peoples’ lives in America would be quickly ruined if they could not access their money. In addition, these “blocking” orders extend to associates of “blocked” people, and then to associates of associates, and so on. Assuming the six degrees of separation theory is correct, a mere six iterations of this blocking process could “block” the property of all Americans.
One of the things that’s wrong with our whole system of government and business is that it lauds competition. Competition may be fine for genetic traits or animals, but humans, by virtue of their intellect, should be more sophisticated than that. It seems that the people best equipped to compete against other people are those without the burden of a conscience. In fact, the more of a sociopath one is, the higher they are likely to rise in government or business. That’s because decent people will not engage in the sort of behavior that sociopaths will, which gives the latter the advantage.
Ultimately, it seems that one has to essentially become a criminal to reach the top tiers of government or business. It’s no surprise, then, that a thuggish, criminal mentality trickles down through the ranks to the foot soldiers at the bottom, such as our increasingly brutal police. Making matters worse, the Army is issuing increasing numbers of “moral waivers” in order to admit genuine criminals into its ranks.
Perhaps one way to improve the caliber of people serving in the government is to replace voluntary service with mandatory service. Like we do with jury duty, we could issue people a summons to be a senator, congressman, or policeman for a single term of service. (I deliberately avoided proposing the application of this concept to soldiers – i.e. conscription – because I oppose maintaining a standing army.) Once a person served in a particular position, they could never do so again. Such an approach would recruit a much more representative cross section of society into government, and since they would serve only a single term, there would be a constant flow of fresh and contemporary ideas into government. This, I believe, was the original intent behind the House of Representatives. People might object to such a scheme on the grounds that the people serving would be amateurs. Not only do I view that as a plus, but how much worse a job could amateurs do than the ossified politicians who are entrenched in the government today? At the very least, this new approach would greatly reduce the number of authoritarian sociopaths in government.
The “Injustice System”
The “Injustice System” is, unfortunately, the best term for the legal system we have in America today. Or as I like to say, “Justice goes to the highest bidder.” Both criminal and civil law have become farcical, miscarriages of justice.
It’s routine now for prosecutors in criminal cases to pile on as many questionable charges as possible in order to elicit a guilty plea from a defendant and bypass a trial altogether. For example, if someone robs a bank today they are likely to face at least three charges, each with their own prison time: bank robbery, using a gun during the commission of a crime, and fleeing the scene of a crime. For good measure they might also be charged with possessing an unregistered firearm or carrying a concealed firearm. And if they had a buddy along, then they might also be charged with conspiracy. And if the two conspirators planned their crime via e-mail, they might also be charged with wire fraud or some such thing. As a result of all this charge stacking and plea bargaining, very few criminal cases go to trial anymore. But just because the process results in the incarceration of the criminal, is it a just process? Is it justice for the prosecutor to pile on charges and threaten maximum retribution if the defendant opts for a Constitutionally protected jury trial, just to elicit a guilty plea?
Until recently, the justice system punished people for what they did, not what they thought. Modern hate crime laws punish people for what they think. Is the hurt felt by the victim of a crime dependent on what the perpetrator thinks? And how can the thoughts of the perpetrator be ascertained reliably enough – i.e. “beyond a reasonable doubt” – to qualify as justice? Hate crime laws simply create more reasons for people to be fearful. It’s not enough anymore to fear merely being a victim of crime. No, now we have to fear being singled out to become a crime victim because we are gay, black, foreign, or whatever.
The logical extension of hate crime laws that punish people for what they think is laws that punish people for what they intend to do. Has anybody seen the movie “Minority Report”? That is today’s reality! Many individuals have been arrested in America because they intended to travel overseas to have sex with children. These people are arrested in a completely different country from where the crime is supposed to occur sometime in the future! Senator Larry Craig was arrested because he supposedly intended to arrange for sex in a public restroom. As I understand it, the Senator spoke no words and didn’t touch or even see his would-be partner until he was arrested. He certainly was not engaged in an act of public sex, which is generally illegal. What if the Senator had simply left the restroom? Or what if the would-be child molester changed his mind on the way to Thailand and upon arriving engaged in nothing more criminal than visiting tourist attractions? In these cases, no crimes would have occurred. Yet the would-be perpetrators were preemptively arrested anyway. How can any “justice” system punish people for crimes they have not yet committed?
Then there’s the war on drugs. Half of the more than two million people in prison in America – more prisoners than in any other nation on Earth – are there for drug offenses, in many cases mere possession of drugs for personal use. What is the justification? That these users are harming themselves? If so, then we need to make cigarettes, alcohol, and fast food illegal immediately. And how much harm does the incarceration inflict compared to the drug use? And why should some drugs be banned, when other, more damaging drugs are legal? I’m speaking, of course, of cigarettes and alcohol, which cause more harm and kill more people than all other drugs combined. Could it be that the corporations that manufacture alcohol and cigarettes are politically well connected? Is a system that gives preferential treatment to politically connected corporations really a system of “justice”? Or is it a system of “Justice goes to the highest bidder”?
And what of our wonderful death penalty? Between corrupt cops and prosecutors, incompetent public defenders, and apathetic judges, there’s no question that innocent people have been executed, and in the most cruel and degrading manner. The recent Duke non-rape case is a perfect example of this corruption in action. The depth of malfeasance that the police and the prosecutor were willing to stoop to in that case was simply astounding. Had the defendants been too poor to afford competent attorneys, they almost certainly would have been convicted and the prosecutor would still be in office. Unfortunately, many, many poor defendants have not been so lucky and have been wrongfully convicted and even executed. It’s not uncommon today for the government to resist examining DNA evidence, a tool it championed, if it might exonerate someone who’s already been convicted, even if that person is sitting on death row awaiting execution. This is justice?
The civil “justice” system is equally perverted. Today one can be sued for any reason, no matter how frivolous. In fact, it’s routine now for opportunistic people seeking to exploit a mishap to sue everybody even remotely connected with a case, hoping to get a big settlement from whichever defendant – it doesn’t matter which – has the deepest pockets. Just recently I read about a police officer who is suing the grandparents of a child who nearly drowned in a backyard swimming pool. The reason? The officer, performing her duties by responding to an emergency, slipped on a wet floor and broke her knee. Hello?! Isn’t there an implied risk associated with being a police officer? Doesn’t the city have insurance for on the job injuries? Obviously, this officer is exploiting the justice system to indulge in a little opportunism, at the expense of a family that has already suffered a horrendous loss, as the child is brain damaged as a result of the mishap. Sadly, the officer will probably prevail.
It pained me to ask some local boys not to skateboard off my elevated front porch out of my fear of legal liability. When I was a kid I did stuff like that all the time. Christ, I could have sued the pants off lots of people back then for all the injuries I suffered on their property. If only I had known ...
Lost in the myriad letters of the law is the notion of “justice.” People can try all they want to “do the right thing,” to have good intentions. It doesn’t matter. All it takes is for a clever lawyer to be able to show that they violated some letter of the law and they are screwed. Of course, considering how many laws are on the books, it’s pretty easy to find anyone in violation of some law these days. Purportedly, the IRS used to boast that it could convict anyone of tax evasion, thanks to the complex and contradictory tax code.
And what about the Christian notion of forgiveness? I thought America was a Christian nation, and that Christians are supposed to forgive even people who deliberately commit wrongs. Yet our “justice” system refuses to forgive even people who are merely declared negligent, even if unwittingly. Why does America pick and choose which Christian principles it’s going to abide by?
Then there’s eminent domain. Once reserved as a tool for improving the common good, it has now metastasized into a tool for corporations to acquire valuable real estate on the cheap. Not surprisingly, these corporations just happen to be politically well connected. Once again, “Justice goes to the highest bidder.”
I think all Americans understand, deep in their hearts, that unless one has a lot of money, the justice system is simply not going to serve them, whether as a plaintiff or a defendant. If that’s not proof of the system’s inherent injustice, I don’t know what is.
How can people not feel fear when their “justice” system is so capricious and so corrupted by money?
The ultimate injustice is when the government tells us that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for violating the law. It’s the best excuse! Nobody in the government is familiar with one-tenth of the laws on the books, so how can mere citizens be expected to be aware of all the laws?
I think all laws need to have a sunset clause so that they expire ten years after being enacted. In fact, that would be an excellent constitutional amendment. If a law is worthwhile, it will be easily renewed by the legislature. The effort involved in having to renew laws will ensure that very few laws, other than the most essential ones, will remain on the books. Such a whittling down of the laws, as well as the government power that ensues from enforcing the laws, will make America a much freer place.
We should seek to serve on a jury and judge both the defendant and the law. I admit that I have assiduously avoided jury duty my whole life because I’ve almost always been self employed and jury duty would have severely impacted my income. The last time I opted out of jury duty it was because it was scheduled right in the middle of my previously planned two month trip out of town. But now that I have such a low cost of living and can better afford to take time off work, I think I will serve on a jury if I’m asked again. Although most people, myself included, dread jury duty, it’s about the only place where a mere citizen can have any influence on the “injustice system.”
Religion in America has become increasingly partisan, absolutist, and public. Not only has religion in America crossed the line separating church and state by involving itself in politics, but the government is now attempting to employ religion for its own purposes. Recently it was disclosed that the Department of Homeland Security was quietly working to recruit religious leaders to help the government control citizens in the event martial law is imposed here. And the military is riddled with proselytizers promoting religion within its ranks, as well as influencing America’s agendas in other lands.
Religion, particularly Christianity, has long used fear to control people. In the old days, the church instilled fear in people by telling them they would go to hell. Nowadays people don’t really believe in heaven and hell, so the church has resorted to making people fearful of other religions, particularly Islam. The church also tries to convince its members that their religion is under assault from all sides by people hostile to religion. The irony is that religious freedom has flourished in the United States because of the separation of church and state. Look at countries where there is an official state religion. They don’t have anywhere near the religious freedom we have here. So fears that religion is under assault are simply unsupported by reality. The reason religious people succumb to the fear mongering that their religion is under assault is that the government has largely resisted endorsing their particular religion. It is true that Christians comprise the majority of religious people here. And it is true that the government has mostly resisted adopting Christianity as a governing principle for everyone else. That is hardly persecution. Nevertheless, the fear of persecution persists.
Religion has also been active in promoting fears about homosexuality and abortion, even though these, like religion itself, ought to be personal matters that are nobody else’s business.
In a supposedly free country like the United States, people should be free to practice whatever religion they wish, or none at all. And that includes not having their government impose religious beliefs on them under the guise of public policy. Ironically, some atheists – I’m an atheist – are so zealous in their desire to purge religion from society that they behave like religious fanatics. Atheism becomes, in effect, their religion. I find such people nonconstructive and intolerant.
Religious people need to recognize how much religion has flourished in this country and reject the notion that religion is under assault. It is not. Atheists must grant religious people the right to their own beliefs. We must recognize that other people are really no different from us. Do American Christians wake up each morning with a burning desire to conquer Islamic countries just because they practice a different religion? If not, then why do they believe that Islamic people have a single-minded desire to impose Islam on them? In all likelihood, people in Islamic countries wake up each morning, go to work, come home and have dinner with their families, worry about their children, worry about putting food on the table, and worry about paying the bills, just like their American counterparts.
I’ve cited a lengthy list of explanations for why Americans might be fearful. Some emanate from the government, some from corporations, and some from “society.” But what are governments, corporations, and society? They are us. And the reason they have become sources of fear is that we who serve in governments, corporations, and society are losing our humanity.
We’re forgetting what it means to be human, to have empathy, compassion, to care. We’re elevating money and power above life. We’re neglecting to see and appreciate the beauty of our world and its life forms. We’re no longer seeing each other as human, but as “the other,” a threat. We’re focusing on our differences rather than our more numerous similarities. Human beings living in a society that has lost its humanity cannot possibly feel truly secure.
Attacking another country, such as Iran, which has done us no harm, ought to be unconscionable. Yet it is openly discussed by the leading presidential candidates and is apparently acceptable to a majority of Americans. We cavalierly discuss the unjustified murder of men, women, and children – ordinary people who are just like ourselves. How would we like having a 30,000 pound bomb fall in the middle of our neighborhood while our children are playing outside? This is what we’re talking about visiting upon Iran. Why are so few Americans horrified by this prospect? What kind of people can be so cold hearted as to not be moved by such a prospect?
It’s up to each of us individuals to look for ways to restore our dwindling humanity. Look for opportunities to improve our society. For example, twice in the past week I’ve gone over to my neighbor’s house to help him with his computer. I really don’t enjoy helping people with their computers, but I did so because I like my neighbor and I recognize that helping him will strengthen the social fabric of our little community. Although I did not help him with the expectation of getting anything in return, in fact, I do get something in return: a more pleasant community in which to live.
It’s understandable that Americans, more harried than ever by their day to day struggle to survive, feel overwhelmed by their finances, by immigration, by environmental degradation, by the threat of terrorism. When one is overwhelmed with a particular emotion – depression, sadness, fear – it’s difficult to sit down and analyze why one is feeling that emotion, particularly if one is short on time. However, it’s extremely useful to do just that, to enumerate all the reasons why one feels depressed, sad, or fearful. Often times, this exercise will reveal that just a single factor is mostly responsible for the emotion one is feeling. At the very least, enumerating the causes of one’s emotion allows one to articulate, compartmentalize, examine, and constructively mitigate each cause.
Some of the factors I cited above frighten me, in particular, ever more oppressive government power. Just knowing what, specifically, frightens me is actually soothing, even if there’s little I can do to mitigate that fear. I don’t feel an inarticulable, debilitating fear; I know exactly what frightens me.
I realize that all Americans aren’t afraid of all the things I cited above, but I’ll bet all Americans are afraid of at least one of them. If we fail to analyze our fears and determine what, specifically, we are afraid of, then a generalized fear lurks in the back of our minds, unarticulated, and easily channeled for nefarious purposes. Clearly a significant percentage of Americans fall into this category, enough to lend support to the government’s efforts to exploit that fear. Americans are a thousand times as likely to die in a car crash (that happened just a month ago to someone I knew) as in a terrorist attack. Americans’ misplaced fear is simply irrational, perhaps the result of atrophied critical thinking skills, our dumbed down educational system, or our agenda-driven corporate-government media.
I suggested a number of times above that people would be better off living in rural communities than suburban or urban communities. Aside from improving our mental and physical well being, moving to a rural community has practical advantages, namely, a much lower cost of living. Young people living in expensive urban areas have few prospects for getting ahead. But rural areas are ripe with opportunity for enterprising young people with creative ideas and abundant energy.
There was a time when it made sense for Americans to migrate from rural areas to industrialized urban centers. Today, in light of our deindustrialization and declining standard of living, a reverse migration is appropriate, all the more so since peak oil will eventually render the current urban-suburban model unsustainable.