Later On

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Archive for the ‘Daily life’ Category

Two NY Times columns worth reading—and one is by David Brooks!

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Paul Krugman points out the intense efforts by the GOP to prevent people from voting—focused, of course, on those groups likely to vote democratic—reflects the general feeling of the wealthy that poor people should have no say in the government. (Originally, as he points out, people had to own property (land) to vote in the US.) It’s a good column that ends with this:

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.

And David Brooks seems to recognize the bad trends multiplying in the US. From his column:

If you get outside the partisan boxes, there’s a completely obvious agenda to create more middle-class, satisfying jobs. The federal government should borrow money at current interest rates to build infrastructure, including better bus networks so workers can get to distant jobs. The fact that the federal government has not passed major infrastructure legislation is mind-boggling, considering how much support there is from both parties.

That’s a surprising statement from Brooks, I would say.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2014 at 4:46 pm

The Zombie System: How Capitalism Has Gone Off the Rails

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Many of our social problems seem to stem from the hypercapitalistic meme of focusing solely on profits.  Michael Sauga takes a look at the situation in Der Spiegel:

A new buzzword is circulating in the world’s convention centers and auditoriums. It can be heard at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund. Bankers sprinkle it into the presentations; politicians use it leave an impression on discussion panels.

The buzzword is “inclusion” and it refers to a trait that Western industrialized nations seem to be on the verge of losing: the ability to allow as many layers of society as possible to benefit from economic advancement and participate in political life.

The term is now even being used at meetings of a more exclusive character, as was the case in London in May. Some 250 wealthy and extremely wealthy individuals, from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to Unilever CEO Paul Polman, gathered in a venerable castle on the Thames River to lament the fact that in today’s capitalism, there is too little left over for the lower income classes. Former US President Bill Clinton found fault with the “uneven distribution of opportunity,” while IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde was critical of the numerous financial scandals. The hostess of the meeting, investor and bank heir Lynn Forester de Rothschild, said she was concerned about social cohesion, noting that citizens had “lost confidence in their governments.”

It isn’t necessary, of course, to attend the London conference on “inclusive capitalism” to realize that industrialized countries have a problem. When the Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago, the West’s liberal economic and social order seemed on the verge of an unstoppable march of triumph. Communism had failed, politicians worldwide were singing the praises of deregulated markets and US political scientist Francis Fukuyama was invoking the “end of history.”

Today, no one talks anymore about the beneficial effects of unimpeded capital movement. Today’s issue is “secular stagnation,” as former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers puts it. The American economy isn’t growing even half as quickly as did in the 1990s. Japan has become the sick man of Asia. And Europe is sinking into a recession that has begun to slow down the German export machine and threaten prosperity.

Capitalism in the 21st century is a capitalism of uncertainty, as became evident once again last week. All it took were a few disappointing US trade figures and suddenly markets plunged worldwide, from the American bond market to crude oil trading. It seemed only fitting that the turbulence also affected the bonds of the country that has long been seen as an indicator of jitters: Greece. The financial papers called it a “flash crash.”

Running Out of Ammunition

Politicians and business leaders everywhere are now calling for new growth initiatives, but the governments’ arsenals are empty. The billions spent on economic stimulus packages following the financial crisis have created mountains of debt in most industrialized countries and they now lack funds for new spending programs.

Central banks are also running out of ammunition. They have pushed interest rates close to zero and have spent hundreds of billions to buy government bonds. Yet the vast amounts of money they are pumping into the financial sector isn’t making its way into the economy.

Be it in Japan, Europe or the United States, companies are hardly investing in new machinery or factories anymore. Instead, prices are exploding on the global stock, real estate and bond markets, a dangerous boom driven by cheap money, not by sustainable growth. Experts with the Bank for International Settlements have already identified “worrisome signs” of an impending crash in many areas. In addition to creating new risks, the West’s crisis policy is also exacerbating conflicts in the industrialized nations themselves. While workers’ wages are stagnating and traditional savings accounts are yielding almost nothing, the wealthier classes — those that derive most of their income by allowing their money to work for them — are profiting handsomely.

According to the latest Global Wealth Report by the Boston Consulting Group, worldwide private wealth grew by about 15 percent last year, almost twice as fast as in the 12 months previous.

The data expose a dangerous malfunction in capitalism’s engine room. Banks, mutual funds and investment firms used to ensure that citizens’ savings were transformed into technical advances, growth and new jobs. Today they organize the redistribution of social wealth from the bottom to the top. The middle class has also been negatively affected: For years, many average earners have seen their prosperity shrinking instead of growing.

Harvard economist Larry Katz rails that US society has come to resemble a deformed and unstable apartment building: The penthouse at the top is getting bigger and bigger, the lower levels are overcrowded, the middle levels are full of empty apartments and the elevator has stopped working.

‘Wider and Wider’

It’s no wonder, then, that people can no longer get much out of the system. . .

Continue reading.

Given the incredibly low interest rates on government bonds, one obvious step is to spend heavily on (say) public infrastructure projects, particularly given (a) the rotten shape of US infrastructure, (b) the benefit to the economy of employing many workers to do the job, and (c) the overall economic benefit that good infrastructure delivers. This is not a time to worry about debt—when the economy improves—and when we raise the top marginal tax rate to 90%—we can pay the debt down.

As Paul Krugman, Nobel-prize-winning economist, frequently points out, for the government to cut spending in a time of reduced demand, thus further reducing demand, tumbles us right into recession. Germany doesn’t understand that.

But read the rest of the article—it goes to interesting places.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2014 at 12:19 pm

Campaigns of malicious falsehoods

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We know that “I read it on the Internet” is not the most convincing way to substantiate a fact: many postings may contain errors, show ignorance of facts, and so on. But one also must contend with deliberate malicious deception not just of individual posts or message, but of coordinated serious efforts to deceive and destroy. I already mentioned the fake-news site that tries to create fear and, I suppose, panic (if they can).

Now I found one that’s even worse: a hate group (identified as such by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tara Culp-Ressler describes it at ThinkProgress:

A misogynist group is attempting to co-opt a well-known international campaign against domestic violence, setting up a fake website intended to confuse visitors who may be trying to donate to the cause.

The new website is attempting to divert supporters looking for the White Ribbon Campaign, a nonprofit group in Canada that engages men in the effort to stop intimate partner violence. It was founded in 1989 in response to the “Montreal Massacre,” in which a 25-year-old gunman shouted “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” before opening fire and killing 14 female students. Since then, the White Ribbon movement has spread to other countries like Scotland and Australia. It also has a relatively popular Facebook page.

The real sites have international URLs, like http://www.whiteribbon.ca. The fake campaign, however, is hosted on http://www.whiteribbon.org — something that may trick Americans into thinking it’s the United States’ official chapter. There’s a fake Facebook account to go along with it.

The fake site urges people to be wary of “false White Ribbon initiatives” dedicated to addressing “violence against women,” telling them to donate to its group instead.

“There are numerous attempts by other entities to corrupt the message of the White Ribbon Initiative by inserting dishonest and sexist messages into this movement,”claims a post on the fake White Ribbon site. “Hopefully this message, and the other content on this website (which is provided to you by the world’s foremost experts on family violence), will help you see through the corruption and dishonesty being furthered by other programs.”

But the dishonesty is actually being furthered by http://www.whiteribbon.org itself. As reported by We Hunted The Mammoth, a blog dedicated to tracking anti-feminist online groups, the fake site was set up by A Voice For Men — an infamously misogynist forum dedicated to “men’s rights activists.” Indeed, when you click on the “One-Time Paypal Donation” button on the fake White Ribbon site, it leads to a donation page for A Voice For Men.

The men’s rights movement believes that feminism harms men, and is primarily fueled by resentment over the women’s rights movement. That’s why MRAs take issue with the real White Ribbon Campaign, which seeks to challenge “harmful ideas of manhood that lead to violence against women.” A Voice For Men’s fake site makes it clear that this framing is offensive to them, writing that “family violence is a serious problem that knows no gender” and “we cannot address this complicated, critical problem by pointing the finger at one sex as the default perpetrator and at another sex as the default victim.”

But the members of A Voice For Men — which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — aren’t simply interested in a conversation about how violence affects both men and women. They have a well-documented history of manipulating facts, accusing feminists of encouraging domestic violence to make money, and even making violent threats against women. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 2:28 pm

The psychology of bribery and corruption

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A very interesting article in Pacific Standard by Lauren Kirchner explores what drives and protects bribery and corruption. The article describes in some detail the two incompetent conspirators (one an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence) and how they worked, but it also looks at the general picture.  From that article:

. . . The very particular set of thinking and expectations involved in bribery and corruption has been an occasional topic of research for economists and psychologists throughout the years—on the overall cultural, organizational, and personal levels.

Researchers have measured and studied corruption on the global scale, for instance. The World Bank has estimated that $1 trillion gets paid every year in bribes, worldwide. There’s corruption in every government in the world, but what varies is how extreme, how visible, and how tolerated it is. Researchers at the University of Toronto have made a connection between the cultural “collectivism” of a country’s population and its acceptance of bribery (as opposed to its “individualism”). It might sound counter-intuitive, but the results of their study suggest that “collectivism promotes bribery through lower perceived responsibility for one’s actions.”

Likewise, researchers writing in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Sciencehave found a correlation between the “seemingly unrelated behaviors” of voluntary tipping and bribery. Namely, “countries that had higher rates of tipping behavior tended to have higher rates of corruption”—even after they control for GDP and income inequality. The context surrounding those two acts may be different, but the expectation of a quid-pro-quo for good service rendered seems to be the same.

A duo of psychologists in Germany struggled to identify the particulars of “a corrupt organizational culture in terms of its underlying assumptions, values, and norms.” But, writing in the Journal of Business Ethics this year, they found generally that “corrupt organizations perceive themselves to fight in a war, which leads to their taken-for-granted assumption that ‘the end justifies the means.’” Wartime attitudes degrade the traditional values of the members of the group, and they start to develop rationalizations and something the authors call “ethical blindness.” Corrupt organizations also tend to protect the “social cocoon” they’ve built up by harshly punishing those members of the group who aren’t willing to join in the rule-breaking.

It seems that the structure of the organization itself can have a subconscious effect on its members, as well. When asked about kickbacks and bribes in the U.S. military, a spokesperson for the government watchdog group Project on Government Oversightsaid that the strict, top-down structure of the military means that commanders must work even harder to set an ethical example for their subordinates. Otherwise, corruption trickles down. . .

Here’s the abstract of the article the duo of psychologists in Germany:

Although theory refers to organizational culture as an important variable in corrupt organizations, only little empirical research has addressed the characteristics of a corrupt organizational culture. Besides some characteristics that go hand in hand with unethical behavior and other features of corrupt organizations, we are still not able to describe a corrupt organizational culture in terms of its underlying assumptions, values, and norms. With a qualitative approach, we studied similarities of organizational culture across different corrupt organizations. In this study, we performed content analysis on interviews of 14 independent experts about their experience with corrupt organizations. With this approach, we gained insights about different corrupt organizations spanning different branches (e.g., government, foreign trade, pharmacy, sports, building industry). We found that corrupt organizations perceive themselves to fight in a war, which leads to their taken-for-granted assumption that “the end justifies the means”. This assumption inspires many values and norms of the organizational culture. An important value in a corrupt organization is “security”, and an important norm is punishment of deviant (i.e., non-corrupt) behavior. Furthermore, managers and employees differ in their perception of organizational culture. While the management endorses values, such as success, results, and performance, and implements these values in their norms of goal setting, employees make use of rationalization strategies and endorse values of security and team spirit.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 1:35 pm

Posted in Science, Daily life, Law

Cool street art: Trompe l’oeil and (separately) tiny figures

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subtle-street-art-little-people-1

Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 10:14 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

Doesn’t this count as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

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And given that exception, shut down the site and fine the owners substantial sums.

UPDATE: This post must have been quite confusing: I used the wrong link in the original post (the link that’s still there). I’m leaving that link in place because Big Chrono’s comment is relevant to the matter at that link (which is a story about how the NYPD has set its own course and is ignoring the Mayor’s direction).

This is the link that should have been used, and the reference in the title refers to circumstances under which the First Amendment right to free speech does not apply. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., noted: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2014 at 4:54 pm

Two videos showing lack of control and accountability for prosecutors

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Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

The first is from Anthony Fischer at Reason.tv. It includes just about every drug war excess imaginable, including a militarized police raid for a nonviolent crime, vaguely written drug laws, prosecutorial misconduct, the coercive use of bond, abuse of conspiracy charges, abuse of the plea bargain and the intimidation of media and witnesses to duck transparency.

The second video is from the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime. It’s about prosecutorial discretion and the criminalization of environmental law. The couple in the video were forbidden from building on a parcel of land they had purchased when, after they had purchased it, it was designated a “wetland,” apparently because a backed-up drainage system had caused some standing water . . .

Continue reading.

You know, regarding the first video, I’ve seen police aggression exactly like this in movies, but generally it’s Cold War East German movies, or Soviet-spy thrillers set in Moscow: such police actions and tactics were viewed as a sign of a bad government, a government that was starting to oppress its citizens. It’s a pretty familiar pattern, and I’m sorry to see it underway in the US.

Another example, from a NY Times article by Jim Dwyer today:

. . . When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor last year, he noted that marijuana arrests, which fall most heavily on black and Latino males, “have disastrous consequences,” and pledged to curtail the practice of ratcheting up what should be a minor violation of the law into a misdemeanor.

This week, a report showed that such arrests were continuing at about the same pace as last year; the de Blasio mayoralty had not appreciably changed the number of such cases. The Legal Aid Society has a roster of clients across the city who face misdemeanor charges for possession of minuscule amounts of pot because, it was charged, they were “openly displaying” it. About 75 percent of those charged had no prior criminal convictions, and more than 80 percent were black or Latino, according to the report, from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and the Drug Policy Alliance. . .

Think about it: the NYPD no longer heeds the mayor. The NYPD is an independent entity with no controlling authority—well, no authority that can in fact exert control.

Police departments in this country are starting to seem like military emplacements to control the citizenry—at least in places (cf. Ferguson MO).

And the above raid was done with the support and participation of Federal law enforcement. It’s a little too Kristallnachtish for my taste. If you say, “Well, that’s only one case” (or three, depending on how you count), I would point out that each case is only one case—and moreover, don’t we want to take vigorous action to nip this kind of police work in the bud?

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2014 at 2:46 pm

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