The Banality of Vile: The Jeff Cogen Story

429px-Cruikshank_-_The_Radical's_Arms

Jeff Cogen succumbed to depraved urges that stalked him. But maybe the best lesson here is not one pertaining to Cogen at all, but one regarding ourselves and the systems of power we create.

Cogen was chairman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners until September 16th 2013. Cogen resigned after allegations of an affair with Sonia Manhas, a policy advisor for the Multnomah County Health Department. Subsequent revelations have created a furore of indignation. Has Cogen been using drugs other than alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or proscribed pharmaceuticals? Were public funds misappropriated? Were positions allocated for nepotistic reasons? Local media has veraciously devoured this sultry story with all the lurid pizzazz more often the purview of national outlets.

Cogen has stepped down from his position, and the Oregon Attorney General has dismissed the possibility of criminal charges for substance abuse, nepotism and misappropriation of funds on the grounds that the evidence is inconclusive. The entire event remains a morass of speculation. It is therefore spurious and difficult to comment. But that has never stopped the media

We live in a ‘freeish’ society, thus whenever the actions of the media are held up for critique it is essential to ask the question, what is ‘the media’? Our media companies are private organisations that generally aim at turning a profit for disgorging information. The media, in aggregate, must be viewed as the market manifestation of general social demands regarding information. Turns out, sex sells, even when the product is supposed to be news.

This is not an epiphany. It is rather one more example of something annoying. The same goes for outrage concerning the allegations.

Even if all the alleged crimes are taken as true, when looked at specifically in a greater context, they are trite. The contention that Cogen consumed marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy seem trivial. My views may be excessively liberal, but most of our politicians get drunk on the weekend. Interpersonal relationships always matter in gaining employment. And the allegations regarding misappropriation of funds are slight, at best. Cogen supposedly charged taxpayers $150 to transfer his hotel-room away from other committee members in order to facilitate meeting Manhas during a business trip. The more substantial allegation that $75,000 was allocated to the Multnomah County Food Initiative in a shady manner has been outright dispelled by budget inquests.

This is not to imply that I approve of the actions taken by Cogen, or disapprove of his forced resignation. I, rather, disprove of the voyeuristic and sensational social reaction to the events. This can best be discussed through the most sensational, yet least important part of this story: the affair. I am always mad when politicians cheat on their partners, but this is because it renders them incapable of achieving anything else. It becomes the story. It renders policy mute. I do not condone infidelity because I do not condone breaching trust in important interpersonal relationships. It does not bode well for the character of the person concerned. But there are mitigating factors to consider.

A study of 1,561 professionals, done by the Association of Physiological Science, shows a high (gender neutral) correlation between infidelity and power.[1] The conclusion forwarded is that humans desire monogamy, but also struggle with a compulsion towards infidelity. Power increases confidence and eases the attraction of possible partners. We should not be surprised that our politicians have affairs. Many of those outraged might very well do the same if put in a similar position.

Ultimately, sexual promiscuity on behalf of the powerful is simply one more piece of evidence suggesting that power corrupts. That individual actions and individual morality are rooted in context: most are capable of abhorrent behaviour if placed in the appropriate surroundings.

This is the lesson. We must construct our systems with the foreknowledge that those administering these systems will be corrupted by the power they hold. In this instance the infrastructure of accountability worked. Cogen is gone. But maybe we should hold our politicians that authorise extra-judicial assassinations, secretive spy programs, illegal wars and unsustainable financial practices to a similar standard to which we hold adulterers. Maybe we should leave Cogen alone and remember that he did some good things during his time as County Commissioner. To name a few, he oversaw the creation of a county farm for the Oregon Food Bank, the opening of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services, a liberalisation of policy for immigration holds in Multnomah County jails and the creation of a Mental Health Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center. But fundamentally, maybe we should move on with our lives, stop reading news that simply titillates and get angry about something real.

[1] http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/PDF/Lammers.Stoker.Jordan.Pollmann.Stapel.2011.pdf

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Poppies, Poppies, Poppies:

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November is here and the poppies have begun their grinding and ubiquitous arrival.

‘Where is your poppy? Do you not support soldiers? Those men [sic] died for your freedom!’

Even being a mundane and menial pedestrian, I am confronted by these questions and statements at least a handful of times during November. I can only imagine the pressure experienced by recognised faces. I have stopped wondering why almost no talking-head on television is ever without their protective poppy.

I have a hard time responding to these statements because the answer is nuanced. It isn’t ‘no, no I don’t support the troops.’ I don’t even feel that way about contemporary soldiers, much less those who fought in significantly more justified conflicts in an historical context where the overt patriotism that leads one to join an army was much more excusable. It is more that everything about the Poppy Appeal rubs me the wrong way.

It is too popular. It is too solitary in its cherished position. It drips with nauseating patriotism. It appears vacant to the problems and reality of our times: an anachronism of the world destroyed by the war that created it. The mythos of the soldier, the romance of sacrifice for the nation, the indivisibility of the nation and the unwavering righteousness of national action are inescapably imparted by the ubiquity of the poppies. I want nothing to do with this.

In the best possible light, I view the modern soldier as misguided. An individual who believes they are undertaking a noble task. Someone who simply does not share my views on the institutions and systems for which they fight, or the nature of the enemy they strive to kill. This does not mean I hate them, or wish them to suffer. They should certainly receive care.

But there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. There is a lot of pain and suffering on the streets of London. Pain arrived at for less self-incurred reasons than the pain experienced by soldiers. In my personal opinion, if you pick up a gun and go off to a foreign country and start shooting people, maybe you shouldn’t be so surprised if someone blows off your leg. I am not advocating a dismissal of our social responsibility to provide for those we send to war. But that is why we pay taxes. I do not appreciate being guilt tripped by society to help pay extra for the ramifications of a conflict I did not want to occur just because the MoD doesn’t have sufficient funds to pay for the soldiers it unnecessarily maimed. And I especially do not wish to place a symbol on my chest of my complacency to a portion of the system I despise: the pervasive power of the military industrial complex and an irrational fear of terrorism.

It is a shame that the sacrifices of the past, of those who fought against truly existential threats, are caught up in the politics of modernity. But so it goes. I didn’t choose for our states to sully their reputation. I didn’t choose where the money given to the British Legion goes. And regardless, I believe that to pay homage to those who died in the World Wars through a sectarian, militaristic and patriotic symbol is to entirely miss the point that their deaths should serve to prove. It displays a failure to learn from the past and a superficial understanding of the conflicts the action seeks to memorialize.

There are more deserving charities to which I would give money, charities that more greatly deserve annual national attention. And the popularity of the Poppies, their omnipresent autumnal stare, simply solidifies my resolve. It makes them eerie. An ominous reminder of the power of group-think. Of the narrow breadth of social empathy. Of the nationalistic fervour that still stalks our streets. A solemn testament to why we may always have soldiers for whom we must mourn, for whose shattered bodies we must care. A reminder of the sectarian World in which we live.

Discourses on Voting, Revolution and Russell Brand:

Russell Brand’s appearance, and ensuing diatribe, on Jeremy Paxman’s BBC Newsnight was uncomfortable. Both men came off as self-absorbed twits: a microcosmic display of why the Progressive movement so often falls on its face.

I have few feelings towards Paxman. Coming from an American background, his ability to ask minimal follow up questions has always mildly impressed me. He seems to have palatable political leanings to my taste. But he has never struck me as a veracious and capable champion of media or social reform. His performance last night was no exception. He clearly underestimated Brand, and the propensity of many to dismiss Brand’s intellect on the basis of his status as a performer and novel nature of his attire stinks of pompous pretention.

Truly, I appreciate much of what Brand has to say on politics. He is clearly smart and often proposes worthy and unique ideas. On the whole, his force as a social presence has done more good than harm. Helping to further the perception that smart is cool. I generally approve of his ascendance to guest Editor at the New Statesmen. He was very correct to state at the end of the Paxman interview that it is not naive to work for change, that he does not need approval to take the right to change society.

But where Brand does come across as naive, where his lexical verbosity does not protect him from being derided as a fool, where he should be rejected as a counter-productive extremist disgorging nuance deprived nonsense, is on the two points of action he advocated to Paxman: revolution and a disengagement from the existing political infrastructure.

This is why that interview was so frustrating. Brand was right about many of his complaints. Paxman even agreed with much of what Brand had to say. But then Brand continued on with self-righteous and inane blather, at which Paxman merely sneered. Paxman came off as a square tool of the establishment while Brand appeared platitudinous, a ‘mananarchist’ lacking perspective or tangible goals.

It is important to address why Brand’s ambitions deserve sneers, rather than simply to disengage from them in a similar manner to which Brand advocates disengaging from the existing political reality. Both are damaging.

Personally, I do not think the Revolution is coming. Maybe I am just projecting; maybe I am the only one who is selfish. But I look at humans and I see a species that comes with a highly insular, shortsighted, pleasure addicted and self-absorbed operating system. Despite watching the interview three times, I cannot decide if Brand is advocating a ‘Western’ revolution for the sake of the World, or for the sake of itself. But one is only slightly more absurd than the other.

To my knowledge, the World has a resource problem. Many of the destitute in the First World still constitute a section of the global elite. Even Occupy protesters still wandered around with their iPads constructed with the souls of Chinese orphans.

It seems laughable to think that huge numbers of humans will put their own lives in peril in a bid to lower their own standards of living simply to improve the conditions experienced by individuals half-way around the World. Sad, but laughable. It is hard enough to imagine a localized revolution aimed at actively improving the lives of those participating. The general population is too concerned with scraping by and keeping up with the Kardashians.

But aside from my erroneous and pessimistic thoughts on human nature, I am not particularly distressed by the unlikely probability of revolution. Revolutions, particularly poorly fomented and ambiguously aimed revolutions, are dangerous.

Metaphorically, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a masterpiece of articulation concerning the fears we should all have in this regard. Power vacuums are always filled and power corrupts. To quote The Who: ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

If a revolution is to succeed, it has to be well planned and perpetrated by a highly informed populous capable of throwing off its own leaders once power is obtained. The historical event of which Animal Farm is a satire, the Russian Revolution, provides the corpses of millions as a testament to why this should never be forgotten.

Brand is correct in stating he is not obligated to provide specific delineations regarding the future he wishes to create. And I would wholeheartedly agree that haranguing him on this point, as Paxman did, would be a Red Herring were Brand simply critiquing the status-quo. But he was not. He was advocating specific action: disengagement from the existing political infrastructure in favour of revolution.

Revolution under the uniting pretence of ambiguous hatred for the establishment, rather than particular goals, is even more destined for failure than simply a poorly fomented revolutionary cause.

Egypt is the most contemporary example of such a failure. Mubarak’s government was overthrown by a population united by general contempt for the system, but little else. A religious theocracy took control through the subsequent elections, alarming the huge segments of the population that had envisioned a different future. Protests continued, further fractures engulfed the population and the result was a military coup. The corrupting influence of power didn’t even have time to wrought destruction upon an ideological leadership. The ambiguity of the cause fractured the revolutionaries as soon as power was ceased. The only probable outcome other than military dictatorship was protracted civil war.

But honestly, why do we need revolution? Revolutions can only really change the reigning political infrastructure. And the political infrastructure we have is pretty good, it simply is not working for us. Whinging about our voiceless exploitation at the hands of our governments is an insult to the billions who languish under truly tyrannical regimes. To those who have no say, and no possible outlet through which to channel political dissent. To those that do not live in democracies.

This is not to say that our systems function properly. Or that they are not stacked against those wishing for change, particularly those wishing to change society to be more equitable. But this brings me to the other point on which Brand is wrong: the importance of voting and engaging with the political system.

First, although Brand brings up the United States, it should not be forgotten that he is speaking in a British context. A context thoroughly deprived of anything resembling the insanity of the Republican Party. Britain’s Conservatives much resemble American Democrats on policy, and simply lack some of the populist rhetoric.

I feel greatly betrayed by the Democrats, jaded even, by their incompetence and centrism. But to suggest they are not superior to the Republicans, or at least different, defies logic. Beyond the fact that Republicans now seem intent on dismantling all existing social programs, the Democrats have made improvements since taking the Executive Office. Although ObamaCare is not a paragon of Progressivism, it has expanded insurance coverage to over 32 million Americans, and increased the level of coverage received all-around while reducing cost.[1] Something that would never have happened had Romney or McCain won either election. The Democrats may endorse corporatist policy regarding much of the economy, and possess a significantly neo-conservative outlook on foreign affairs and defence, but things could be a lot worse.

Although it would be naive to assume that the Democrats will fix all of our problems on a Federal level, voting for them is a means to temporarily slow our slide towards ever greater dystopia. And breaking the system is not the way to fix our society. The infrastructure already exists to make the government representative of the population, to bypass the Federal Government and force campaign regulations on our legally-bribed Legislatures: a Constitutional Convention. Groups such as Wolf-PAC are currently working towards gaining the grassroots and state level support to force such an event. If they were as popular as not voting, we would live in a different world.

But Brand is wrong about Britain as well. Although there is huge similarity between the current mainstream British Parties, it is foolish to despair at the British system for the same reason they are free from the Republican scourge: comparatively restrictive campaign finance regulations. Admittedly, the candidates for office are often cut from similar cloth, but maybe that is because only 1% of the British electorate is a registered member of a political party and can therefore vote in Party primaries.[2]

Even if greater awareness of inner-Party politics couldn’t change the system, creating a new party has been shown to have noticeable effects on the system as a whole. UKIP has successfully done that. Although they are not in contention to take the government, they have somewhat surpassed the Liberal Democrats as the ‘Third Party’ and their rise has correlated with a rightward shift in the immigration policies of both Labour and the Tories.

The dialectic can be shifted from within the system. It has been. It has just often been in the wrong direction. New Labour and corporatist Democrats showed up in the UK and the US following the right-wing landslides of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The American Tea-Party movement has huge corporate donors and benefits from gerrymandering, but is a genuine grassroots movement shifting the American political dialog.

This is why what Brand is advocating is so obnoxious and dangerous. The Left, and those advocating social equity, are already at a disadvantage to those on the right: our grassroots movements do not help the rich. But the imposition of xenophobic fears regarding immigrants on establishment politics shows that things out of sync with business interests can be inserted into the system.

Yet, if the Left is hampered by romantics and loons, those wishing for the impossible, we will simply fight each other and fail to gain support among moderates. The self-righteously disengaged are of no help to the pragmatic Left’s real attempts to better the world. They are sitting in the clouds like the drug addled hippies of the ‘60s, apathetically allowing the Reaganites to shit on us all.

The only bastion of refuge for those calling for revolution is to claim that it is too late for gradual change. Maybe, but it is our only hope. To advocate revolution in our present state is to ignore the past, it is to ignore our present failures.

If the population was informed and motivated enough to pull off a revolution without succumbing to subsequent tyranny, the Revolution would not be necessary. The infrastructure already exists for such a populous to impose its will upon the political hierarchy. We simply fail to do so. Perhaps this failure is an indication that our culture is dying, that we are doomed. But even so, revolution and disengagement is not the way forward. Such actions would only hasten our demise while muting our chance at victory.

[1] http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/health-reform-implementation/215795-cbo-health-law-to-cost-less-cover-fewer-people-than-first-thought

http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43076

http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/113xx/doc11379/amendreconprop.pdf

[2] http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05125

Human: The Agony There of, and the Stupidity of Scotland

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Humans want to be special. Humans wish to be important. Unfortunately neither are generally true. And plainly, except the odd aberration [the Newton’s, the Einstein’s], neither are ever true. ‘You are one in a million’… maybe, but even then you would still exist in a world with approximately seven-thousand doppelgangers.

Admittedly that is only an annoying axiom, but the sentiment holds. You are but a drop in the human sea. And on a cosmic level, all of us humans are insignificant.

But who cares? I don’t, not really. Everyone plays the lead role in their own movie until the day they die. Yet many humans loathe the nihilism of cosmic and social insignificance with such a passion it leads them to unfortunate conclusions.

A theistic God is one of them. But God bores me; of more interest is regionalism, sectarianism and ethnic joy.

Clearly these thoughts, these proclivities, more effectively combat social insignificance, but many simply ignore the cosmos and most believe in God anyway. Regionalism also often interplays with religious orientations, but nevertheless all are rooted in an irrational and counter-productive claim to importance.

I fear that statement needs further explanation.

It is an irrational claim to importance because it is a claim to importance through vicarious action. Most ‘groups’ of people, at some point, have done something that can be construed as ‘important’. If one views their own life as insignificant, this may seem less crushing if they hide behind the achievements of the group.

The irrationality of this claim is further borne out in the fact that it is terribly temporally arbitrary.

Even if one ignores the fact that knowledge and achievement are not passed through blood –they are learned and earned– and that no ‘group’ is immune to miscegenation and outside cultural influence, the idea that an ethnicity exists is thwarted by the question ‘well, what about the previous generation? Do they count?’ This line of questioning inevitably ends up in East Africa 100-200 thousand years ago, and the question changes to if those in question are human or hominid.

The entire idea of ‘ethnicity’ rests on the premise that it is appropriate to make an arbitrary line in the past. To say ‘us’ and ‘them’. To make yourself, your kind, separate from humanity. To make them important through making them special. But this is a lie. A lie the weak tell themselves because they are afraid.

It is also a divisive and limiting lie. Regionalism is tantamount to declaring you only care about what certain segments of humanity have created: limiting your cultural perspective. But since only the most extreme actually attempt to abstain from the globalized culture, and most simply pretend they are culturally ‘different’, the divisive nature of regionalism is much more damaging. This is not to suggest that there are not real cultural differences on a global level. But simply that they are often exaggerated and that emotional regionalism allows groups of people, that when viewed from the wider context are very similar, to view themselves as very different.

This brings me to Scotland, the SNP and Alex Salmond.

Being a monoglot, self-centred, First-Worlder, hypocrite, the problems of the Anglo-sphere dominate my thoughts. I vaguely know this diatribe could bring itself into the real world through looking at Kashmir, the Yoruba of Nigeria, or Catalonia. But that would require research I haven’t already done only to talk about a conflict almost no one in the UK or US knows exists.

I always knew Salmond was a liar when it came to the EU, but to my glee this was recently revealed as indisputably true. Salmond has long claimed the Scottish Government had sought independent legal advice confirming that an independent Scotland would obtain automatic EU entry, evading the possibility of having the Euro forced upon them and allowing Scotland to retain the Pound Sterling. After Salmond flushed twenty-thousand Pounds of taxpayer money in an attempt to fight an inquest by the Scottish Information Commission, we now know no such advice was ever sought.[1]

I suspect this will make little impact on the debate and/or referendum because the little talked about currency question is absurd on all levels.

Emotional regionalism aside, the true grit of Scottish independence rests on Scottish hatred for the Tories and an inane English propensity to elect Tories. I am very sympathetic towards this complaint. But Scotland experiences a high degree of devolved independence within the UK already. Despite Tory grumbling, prescriptions are free in Scotland, University costs less than a quarter than it does in England, and over the last decade approximately one-thousand more government Pounds have been allocated to each Scot per-year as compared to their Southern neighbours.[2]

It should also never be forgotten that much of Scotland’s current economic contribution to the UK tax fund comes from a dwindling North Sea oil supply.[3] Depending on how the territorial waters are delineated Scotland is either a slightly more than self-subsisting section of the UK, or an under-contributing leech.[4] Either way, that oil will be gone eventually. And the Scots should hold their tongues because they get more money spent per-person anyway. Plus, since when did we start dividing our countries by economic contribution per square kilometre? That sounds very Tory, and would lead all cities to immediately eject their surrounding ruralities in a spiteful move to stop anyone from getting more than they contribute. Of course, this might lead the inhabitants of major metropolitan centers to starve to death. But, no matter.

The true point is currency. If an independent Scotland retained the Pound Sterling as the lying Salmond has proclaimed as his goal, Scotland would still find itself tethered to the monetary policy of Westminster. A Westminster all the more likely to be Tory-controlled sans the several million Labour votes from Scotland. Sure, an independent Scotland would go from having partial control to having full control of its fiscal policy. But the lack of monetary control would both be a blatant violation of the concept of ‘sovereignty’, and would continue to partially place the Scottish at the behest of austere, anti-Keynesian, English bankers: mooting much of the anti-Tory rationale for the departure.

Salmond is a liar, but he is also a fool, or at the very least he thinks SNP voters are fools. His lies advocate for a future independence that undermines the one pragmatic reason to achieve independence.

But the foolishness runs even deeper. If you have Left-wing political leanings and fear the growing power of corporations and the rich, separatism is not the way forward. Governments are like Unions, or at least should be. They advocate for the poor in a Capitalist world otherwise dominated by the rich. The Tories may not feel this way, and this is a major problem, but frustration with Tory policy does not change the fact that a Government’s power to lobby for its population is proportional to the size of the market it speaks for when compared to the global market. This ‘market’ is the only leverage over multi-national corporations a government possesses. Unions that only represent a tiny fraction of an industry’s work force, essentially have no power. The same goes for small nations.

Scotland’s departure from the UK would remove it from the World’s sixth or seventh largest economy and place it somewhere around fortieth, with the likes of Nigeria, the Czech Republic and Pakistan. And like Nigeria, an independent Scotland’s GDP would be greatly and temporarily inflated by oil revenue. Countries that small cannot set policy, they simply drift with the winds determined by the global players. In addition to diminished international negotiating power all around, Scotland would no longer be represented in the G8, would lose representation in the UN Security Council and would have to renegotiate with NATO and the EU.

Fighting the power of the rich requires international efforts. Separatism is tantamount to hiding your head in the sand. It is pragmatically foolish from a Left-wing perspective, and the emotional regionalism behind any claim is poorly thought out and selfish. From an American perspective, to despair and think the British political system is inherently and irreparably rigged towards the Right-wing and the most powerful in society seems childish. Fix the power bloc you are a part of and don’t run from your problems. Existing British campaign finance restrictions make this more than a solvable issue.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/10/snp-eu-legal-advice_n_4075966.html

[2] http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-who-loses-if-scotland-goes-it-alone/6524

[3] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-20/north-sea-output-may-slide-22-this-year-because-of-maintenance.html

[4] http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-who-loses-if-scotland-goes-it-alone/6524

America: The Bravely Incompetent

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Crisis averted, sort of. But sort of seems to be the best we can do these days. The fact the Government only ever pass Continuing Resolutions now, rather than real Budgets, is only one of many examples.

But the true ‘sort of’ of the deal passed Wednesday night regards the question: is governance through crisis the new norm?

Although the attentive portions of the World may have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the House’s acquiescence to reality, the stage is set for a repeat in January. The CR passed only extends Government operations until 15 January and the debt-ceiling will need to be re-negotiated on 7 February.

Ted Cruz ominously pronounced on ABC News following the agreement that ‘[He] would do anything, and [he] will continue to do anything [he] can to stop the train wreck that is ObamaCare.’

The one kernel of hope is that, unlike the previous debt ceiling debates, the Democrats did not cave. The Republicans were not whole-heartedly rewarded for their actions. ObamaCare lives.

But this perception of utter failure is not entirely true because despite obviously losing the present battle, the Republicans may still be winning the war, and terroristic obstanancy is still their most powerful weapon. The Senate CR finally passed by the House is $37 billion lower than the draconian 2011 Paul Ryan [R-WI] Budget.[1]The budget delineations are not strictly uniform with Ryan’s proposal  –welfare and domestic spending took less of a hit, and more came out of Defense– but in many ways the Republicans have managed to achieve their budget goals even though they lost the Presidency.

Yet they still ask for more, Ryan’s 2014 proposal is $19 billion lower than the Senate Bill, making it $56 billion lower than his wish-list from 2011.

The situation may resolve itself if this latest debacle causes enough lasting popular anger to lose the Republicans control of the House in 2014, even in the currently gerrymandered condition most Congressional Districts languidly reside.

But this may be a fantasy. Historically, the Party that controls the Presidency loses House seats in midterm elections. Democratic voters also have a poor track record of turning out for non-Presidential elections, which are often dominated by those of the political extremes, which can only help the Tea Party.[2] Further, according to a YouGov/HuffPost poll, although Ted Cruz’s unfavourability among Republicans almost doubled to 17% during the shutdown, his favourability rating stayed virtually unchanged at 60%.[3] Meanwhile, according to the same poll, both Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio)  and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have lower favourability ratings, and higher unfavourability ratings than Cruz among Republicans. But fundamentally, midterm elections are more than a year away, and anger can fade.

Regardless of any hope of a totally Democrat controlled Government in 2014, one still cannot help but feel we have been duped. That we exist in a good-cop/bad-cop single party state tricking us into swallowing corporatist policy.

Things probably aren’t that contrived, they almost never are. But it still seems that we live in a Single Party state, or at least two separate Single Party states. We no longer have political choice. In the political bubble-worlds that have arrived, either you think the Democrats are crazy, or the Republicans are crazy. And no matter in which world you reside, you are offered no choice over viable candidates for office.

The arrival of this reality seems to have accompanied a Rightward shift in American political dialog. This is probably not the only contributing factor. My pet guess is that the continuing degrading of campaign finance regulations is leading to greater and greater influence by the inherently Right-leaning group of people, due to their operating codes, known as corporations. Helping fuel the new-Right-American political reality.

But lack of viable political choice would logically seem to exacerbate the issue. The politically active have less ability to influence political dialog through their vote if they are automatically placed into two classes, there is muted outlet to voice political descent.

And a Rightward shift is undeniable. That ObamaCare has become the epitome of Liberalism and that the Democrats are now writing and endorsing budgets that would have been hard-line Republican proposals three years ago, are but the most recent examples of this phenomenon. To cite another example, the beloved Ronald Regan, placed in the contemporary Republican Party would both fail to win a Primary election and be derided as a Socialist overlord if elected as a Democrat. Reagan raised taxes eleven times, including the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 –the largest peacetime tax increase in American history– he supported amnesty for immigrants and was the head of a labour union: the Screen Actors Guild.[4]

This shift seems only to be worsening, with the moderate Republicans losing standing the Tea Party seems to be coming to speak ever more readily for the GOP and the Democrats are simply scrambling to implement Republican policies from twenty years ago.

This is highly distressing to someone of my political leanings. But regardless of this, the dysfunction and obstinacy of the new-American politics is the true terror. Even the recent actions, which saw the worst possible scenario averted, were estimated by Standard and Poor’s to have cost the US economy $24 billion, leading them to slash their growth forecast for the US by 0.6%.[5] The tentative nature of the resolution is warned to have further negative consequences on consumer confidence, with people’s fear of a repeat leading them to save rather than participate in consumer capitalism.[6] Like Standard and Poor’s, Fitch has only scathing remarks for our actions, placing the US on a ‘rating watch negative’ in preparation for a possible credit downgrade on the basis that ‘political brinkmanship and reduced financial flexibility could increase the risk of US default’ –i.e. for being self-absorbed incompetents.[7]

China has been similarly scornful of the debacle. Although these statements must be taken in the propaganda fueled context in which they were released, the following excerpt from the Chinese state controlled News agency Xinhua sheds some light on how the World’s second largest economy views our actions.

‘It is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world… a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas…Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place.’[8]

But the real fear is that if the Government is forced to apprehensively grasp at retaining its existence and preventing a default, no positive movement towards addressing any of the major issues facing the Nation and the World can be made. We are rendered incompetent by the breadth of divide in American political culture, by the exacerbating tendencies of gerrymandering and campaign finance deregulation, by the obstinacy of the new-Right.

– My personal reaction to this has been an ever greater detachment from reality. I felt it exaggerate during the run up to the potential debt ceiling breach. An attempt to dull the horror I felt as every day ticked by. An attempt to pretend that what was occurring in American politics was a fictional satire, a television show contrived for my amusement. This is a disturbingly recurrent disassociation.

I have long felt that News-junkies suffer from a form of masochism. And although I am not sure I would find it so fascinating if we were not so submerged in the solidly dystopian world that the twenty-first century has become, attentively tracking our probable slide towards self-immolation certainly chews at the soul I probably don’t have: I can never truly forget it is real. Maybe I don’t even like it. Maybe I just have the personality of someone who should be obsessed with Reality TV. But because I already decided Reality TV is for the stupid, for those helping to perpetuate the problem, I’m stuck with the News. I’m stuck with paying attention.  

But for dedicated followers of News, things have reached a new high. This has been creeping up upon us since Obama took office. For Conservatives, the election of a secret Muslim, immigrant, anti-Christ as President was clearly a traumatic event. For Liberals, the cage of jaded depression has been slowly closing all along. If a black man from Chicago, running on a platform of ‘Change’, turned out to be a proponent of the status quo, how can we ever trust a mainstream politician again? I can’t. The Democrats are dead to me. I might still vote for them, but I will never again be excited by their campaign promises. Fool me once ass-holes.  

Fuck it, all hail King Kardashian. Too bad I’m too lazy to learn Mandarin.      

[1] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/budget/news/2013/09/30/76026/the-senate-continuing-resolution-is-already-a-compromise/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/17/shutdown-ends-heres-whats-next_n_4117386.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/19/ted-cruz-ratings_n_4124957.html

[4] http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/06/15/Why-Ronald-Reagan-Would-Not-Lead-Todays-GOP.aspx#page1

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/16/government-shutdown-cost_n_4110818.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/fitch-us-credit-rating_n_4102262.html

[8] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/china-wants-to-de-americanize-the-world-2013-10-14

Dancing Dumb: The American Tea Party Movement and Historical Hysteria

cruz and palin

Dancing Mania was a perplexing social phenomenon that intermittently griped widespread sections of the European mainland between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. It often began with single individuals and spread to dozens or even thousands of men, women and children who proceeded to uncontrollably dance for days, or even months, often until many collapsed and sometimes died from exhaustion, heart attacks and strokes.[1]

One well documented occurrence in Strasbourg –The Dancing Plague of 1518– began in July when Frau Troffea took to the street in fervent dance. Within a month, some four-hundred had joined her. As the dancing consumed more and more of the populous, concerned nobles sought advice of local physicians who decided the plague was caused by ‘hot blood’. Although we now know that this conclusion is humoral nonsense, the authorities ignored this cutting-edge diagnosis and instead of prescribing bleeding, encouraged more dancing, even opening two guildhalls, a grain market and constructing a stage for the afflicted, believing continuous dancing would cause an end to the episode. The specific number is unknown, but through the course of the summer and autumn of 1518, dozens danced themselves to death.[2]

The exact cause of Dancing Mania still escapes modern Historians. Ergot, a psychedelic mould that grows on damp rye has been proposed as a contributing factor. But it is a point of contention, and social forces are generally assumed to have played a role. It has also been noted that outbreaks often coincided with times of natural disaster and economic hardship. Moreover, source documents note that observers who refused to join in were treated violently by the dancers and although some who partook reached apparent euphoric states, many were gripped with looks of desperation and fear as they danced.[3] Despite disparate attempts to make sense of these events, multiple Historians concur that fear of reprisal was a general contributing factor to the participation of at least some dancers.[4] Thus, regardless of the initial source, its social penetration radiated beyond direct causal proportion due to its force as a social presence: individuals engaged in the eccentric behavior to, ironically, blend in.

Dancing Mania has not returned. But I find parallels to the contemporary American Tea Party movement and current debt ceiling, government shutdown and ‘Obamacare’ debates to be inescapable.

The House Republicans seem to live in a world of their own. Poll numbers show that the current strategy to hold government funding hostage as a means to prevent enacting health-care legislation passed three years ago is highly unpopular. 72% of Americans, and 49% of Republicans disapprove of this action, and by a margin of 10%, Americans blame the GOP as the main entity responsible for the shutdown.[5] The strategy has led Republican approval ratings to drop from 38% to 28% since the shutdown began, and this derision is even reflected within the Party: 27% of registered Republicans now view their own party unfavourably. [6] Numbers for the Tea Party faction are even lower, with only 21% of Americans expressing a positive view, and 70% saying the Republicans are putting politics ahead of the country.[7] While, at the same time, approval for Obama and the ACA have risen to 47% and 38% respectively.[8]

Yet all the while some Republicans still scream they are speaking for the majority of Americans, only 5% of whom now approve of the job being done by Congress as a whole.[9] And this claim to speak for America is all the more absurd given the Republicans lost the House in popular figures by 1.4 million votes, only taking the House through gerrymandering antics.[10]

The question is becoming, why are Republicans embarking on such a seemingly suicidal mission in regards to their future electability? This is a point so obvious it has even been taken up by some Conservative pundits and politicians.

Bernie Goldberg, a man who has made a career appearing on the O’Reilly Factor and complaining about Liberals, penned ‘it would be great if [Ted Cruz] could succeed, but he can’t… Standing up for your principles is one thing. Committing political suicide is something else altogether.’[11]

Last week Republican Senators met with Cruz to discuss his end-game plans for the government-shutdown he spearheaded. When allowed to talk with anonymity during a post-conference closed-door meeting with the press, the general tone came off scathing.

One Republican Senator is quoted as saying, ‘It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy – he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was.’

Another Senator went on to say ‘I think he’s done our country a major disservice. I think he’s done Republicans a major disservice.’[12]

Yet when speaking publically, most continue to march in line. But this is indisputably bad for the GOP. Beyond poll numbers, corporate America is decidedly against this action. Prior to the shutdown, the Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congressional lawmakers signed by hundreds of businesses stating ‘We respectfully urge Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner’.[13] This is coming from an organization that last November put its full funding force behind attempting to unseat President Obama.[14]

What is going on? Most likely, it seems, the Republicans fear Primary elections. The country is against them and much of their party is against them, but there is a sizable minority of fervent believers shifting the Republican dialogue. The grassroots Tea Party movement cannot swing general elections, but is a force to be reckoned with during Republican Primary season. This dialectic was observable in the shift in rhetoric by Mitt Romney after he won the Republican Primary in 2012.

It is not unreasonable to assume many Republicans fear appearing moderate could lead them to be usurped by more radical Republicans in the Primaries, leading many to commit actions that will doom them in the general election out of desperation to make it to the general election. It seems un-coincidental that almost half of those Republicans who have pledged to vote for a clean Continuing Resolution [CR], would it come to the House floor, occupy the most vulnerable Republican Congressional districts.[15]

John McCain [R-AZ] summed up the issue with disturbing clarity on CNN, stating ‘We started this on a fool’s errand, convincing so many millions of Americans and our supporters that we could defund Obamacare, which obviously wouldn’t happen until we have sixty-seven Republican Senators to override a Presidential veto’[16]

Republicans are dancing to their doom out of fear. Some believe, sure. But it seems inconceivable that the two-hundred-and-seven House Republicans who are uncommitted to passing a clean CR truly think preventing Obamacare is worth defunding the Government and allowing America to default.

And this is what is most perplexing to Progressives about this issue. Obamacare is not what we wanted. It is not single payer, it is not socialized medicine. Its origins are with the Republicans, Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health-care proposals in 1993.[17] And when the specifics of the law are looked at, this is not surprising. It is market based and does not cut out insurance companies. It is simply an attempt to solve the issue with the reigning American health-care policy of allowing the poor and irresponsibly uninsured to use the Emergency-Room as their sole source of health-care, without resorting to European style socialized medicine. We already had socialized medicine, it was simply socialized emergency medicine that often bankrupted those who received it, but nevertheless passed those costs onto the population at large and raised overall health-care expenditure because people were prevented from accessing preventative care.[18] Some Republicans might be so ill-informed as to think Obamacare represents a Liberal apocalypse worth anything to prevent, but it is hard to imagine all are so naive.

This point is driven even further home when looking at Republican complaints over Government finances in general, and specifically the claim that Democrats refuse to negotiate over the budget. The CR passed by the Senate that is currently being held up in the House is $133 billion lower than the 2014 Obama budget. And even more strikingly it is $37 billion lower than the 2011 Paul Ryan [R-WI] budget, which was, at the time, derided as draconian and unreasonable.[19] The specific funding delineations of the Democrat budgets are not uniform to the Ryan proposal, but it is absurd to suggest the Democrats have not compromised.

Through budget compromises and caving on the previous debt ceiling standoffs, the Democrats have acted like the concerned nobles of 1518, they opened the guildhalls to allow the insane to dance in hopes that they would eventually come to their senses. And like in 1518, the numbers of deranged appear inflated because of all those who have joined in out of fear. But in addition of dancing themselves to death, they are going to dance the entire global economy off a cliff. We can only watch and hope those whose dancing is contrived avert course in the next few days.

[1] Sirois, F., ‘Perspectives on Epidemic Hysteria’, In M. J. Colligan, J. W. (eds.), Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis, (New Jersey: Pennebaker, & L. R. Murphy, 1982), (pp. 217-236).

[2] http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[3]Bartholomew, Robert E., Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001) pp. 132, 139; http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[4] Waller, John (July 2009). “Looking Back: Dancing plagues and mass hysteria” (PDF). The Psychologist (UK: British Psychological Society) 22 (7): 644–7

[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57605822/poll-americans-not-happy-about-shutdown-more-blame-gop/

[6] http://www.gallup.com/poll/165317/republican-party-favorability-sinks-record-low.aspx

[7] http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/10/10/gop-plummets-obamacare-soars-in-shutdown-standoff/

[8] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/10/11/boomerang-poll-reveals-gops-government-shutdown-bolstered-obamacare-popularity-by-20/

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/09/congress-approval-rating_n_4069899.html

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[11] http://www.bernardgoldberg.com/real-conservatives-on-a-suicide-mission/

[12] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQcMLrz0Kxo

[13] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/10/02/think-budget-impasse-is-bad-wait-until-debt-ceiling-battle/

[14] http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/10/obama-business-time-start-worrying-about-government/70135/

[15] http://www.ontheissues.org/Vulnerable.htm#Republicans; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics-live/liveblog/live-updates-the-shutdown-4/?id=207dd6e1-30d1-42fb-9457-466a9bfa96e2

[16] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0lDcT9aQdA

[17] Wilkerson, John, Smith, David, Stramp, Nick, ‘Tracing the Flow of Policy Ideas in Legislation: A Tet Reuse Approach’, (New Directions in Text as Data Workshop, London School of Economics, 2013) p.2. http://www.kenbenoit.net/pdfs/NDATAD2013/PolicyIdeas2013TextasData.pdf

If academic articles aren’t good enough for you, FOX News even backs up this point: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/03/28/5-reasons-obamacare-is-already-good-for/

[18] OECD Health Division (October 29, 2012). “OECD Health Data 2012 – Frequently Requested Data”. Paris: OECD.

[19] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/budget/news/2013/09/30/76026/the-senate-continuing-resolution-is-already-a-compromise/

American Self-Harm:

1607-35_Pesttafel_Augsburg_anagoria

The ongoing fight over ‘Obamacare’, aka the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, blatantly highlights that America has chosen a path of self-harm by means of boggling confusion.

Take the most recent Republican talking-point regarding the probable entwining of the debt ceiling negotiations with the resolution of the partial shutdown of the Federal Government and the ‘Obamacare’ squabble. These comments have splattered the news but are perhaps most succinctly summed up by Senator Tom Coburn [R-Okla] who stated on CBS This Morning ‘There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling… I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that… if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt — we won’t.’[1]

This balks common sense, the Treasury Department and historical precedent. It is possible for the United States to default on loans. The US defaulted on approximately $122 million worth of Treasury Bills in 1979 due to unanticipated demand and a computer glitch. This quickly rectified accident led to a drop in confidence and a rise of 0.6 in national borrowing costs in an era when America played an indisputably larger role in global affairs.[2]

When more nuance and explanation is added, the claim is even contradicted by those who support the notion. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) justified his denial of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s warning of pending default through stating ‘the federal government still has about 85 percent of the revenues that we spend coming in, and all they have to do is prioritize that we’re going to pay debt service first.’

Since when is 85 percent 100 percent? And without credit, where does the Government get the funding for the remaining government services even if debt service payments are prioritized? Nor would prioritization protect the full faith and credit of the United States. It might soften the impact to the bond market, but the nation would still be defaulting on assigned financial obligations.

And even if this was not true, what is supposed to go? Non-military Discretionary spending only makes up 17 percent of the budget, almost all of that would have to be cut to meet the deficiencies caused by this plan.[3]

But the Republicans seem to miss the fundamental point entirely. The October 17th date is the estimated time at which we run out of money. It is not an arbitrary date. We have already spent the money, most of it is gone, and October 17th is when the Treasury Department predicts that it will all be gone. To continue funding our governmental obligations, as of that date, including debt service payments, the debt ceiling must be raised.[4]

Regardless of the validity of any of this, the markets speak for themselves. The Dow Jones, NASDAQ, and Standard and Poor’s 500 Index all closed Monday at the lowest levels in a month.[5] It is ironic that the ‘Party of Capitalism’ seems to have forgotten that the economic reaction to a debt ceiling breach is fundamentally not up to the Government. It depends on how businesses will react to viewing our moronic Legislatures playing with fire. And as it seems, even the prospect of a debt ceiling breach is having negative market consequences.

Yet what is most confusing about this crazy-speak is it seems to undermine the Tea Party’s plan. If the debt ceiling is meaningless, why should the Administration negotiate with the GOP in order to secure its increase? I thought the plan was to hold the entire global economy hostage in order to strong-arm out of existence the centre-right legislation known as ‘Obamacare’. The Republicans are conjuring a way to blame the Administration for the catastrophe they are creating, but through doing so are undermining the leverage they need to avoid the catastrophe and get their way.

Perhaps this represents a psychotic break from reality. An attempt to feel better about the irreparable harm they intend to inflict on the global economy by way of a temper tantrum over the fact the Democrats have taken credit for a Republican health care plan.[6]

The other option is that the GOP thinks their constituents are dumb, and that everyone who is smart enough to see through this already opposes them, and maybe they are right about that. But the insanity must end. America is giving democracy a bad name. No wonder the Chinese are still fake Communists.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/tom-coburn-debt_n_4056976.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/debt-ceiling-breach-1979_n_4058492.html

[3] http://cbo.gov/publication/43904

[4] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-25/business/42373223_1_debt-limit-treasury-secretary-jack-lew-house-republicans

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/stock-market-default_n_4059585.html

[6] Wilkerson, John, Smith, David, Stramp, Nick, ‘Tracing the Flow of Policy Ideas in Legislation: A Tet Reuse Approach’, (New Directions in Text as Data Workshop, London School of Economics, 2013) http://www.kenbenoit.net/pdfs/NDATAD2013/PolicyIdeas2013TextasData.pdf