This is a struggle for power.

“[D]espite their misgivings, conservatives have reconciled themselves to capitalism because the expansion of the market has also meant the growth of the private sphere of domination and control. . . . [C]onservatism is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others, which capitalist inequality and hierarchy make possible.”
Peter Kolozi

The United States is a plutocracy. But ultimately that means oligarchy. The reason that the wealthy rule is because wealth is power. I would clarify a point, though. Wealth isn’t limited to direct power over the masses for it also allows the wealthy to control all aspects of society, even those not directly related to wealth.

The plutocrats aren’t powerful merely because of wealth. It is that they are part of a ruling elite that works together to shut out everyone else, to exclude the majority not just from wealth but more importantly from power. This means maintaining their control of privileges and resources, by controlling the system of politics, economics, media, and education.

This is why the United States is such a brutally oppressive society. Much of what the ruling elite does comes at great costs to themselves, although at even greater costs to everyone else, which is the point in always ensuring others are harmed more. First and foremost, the purpose is social control. Wealth is a means to that end, but there are many other means to that end: military imperialism, police-intelligence state, mass incarceration, media propaganda, and much else.

It’s not so much class war, in the simple sense. “This is a struggle for power,” as Caitlin Johnstone makes clear in the piece below. And at present most Americans are losing the fight. This isn’t a metaphor. Millions of Americans are victims — locked away or otherwise trapped in the legal system, struggling in poverty and homelessness, sick and dying because lack of healthcare. Millions more are barely getting by and, out of fear, kept in their place as slaves to the system. The power and its consequences are concretely and viscerally real.

It is a war with growing numbers of casualties. But if the American public could realize the power that exists in numbers, it could instead become a revolution.

On a related note, thoughts along these lines lead straight to issues of inequality. As with oligarchy, inequality isn’t only about who has most of the wealth. As a divide in wealth indicates a divide in power, what this means is a divide in political membership and representation. It becomes harder for most Americans to participate in politics, partly because they don’t have the time or money to participate.

It requires ever larger amounts of wealth and resources, not to mention crony connections, to engage a successful campaign. And for those who do get elected, they do so either by belonging to the oligarchy or by becoming indebted to the oligarchy. This is why, as Johnstone points out, studies have shown that politicians mostly do whatever the rich want them to do.

As the rich gain greater power, they gain greater leverage to take even more power. It’s a cycle that has only one end point, total authoritarianism. That is, unless we the public stop it.

Some ask why does it matter that an elite has more money than everyone else. What an unbelievably naive question that is. To anyone who is confused on the issue, I’d suggest that they simply open their eyes.

* * *

The Real Reason The Elites Keep Killing Single-Payer
by Caitlin Johnstone

The word “oligarchy” gets thrown around a lot in progressive discourse, usually to highlight the problem of money in politics, but not many people seem to really settle in and grapple with the hefty implications of what that word actually means. If you say that America is an oligarchy (and it certainly is, which we’ll get to in a second), you’re not merely saying that there is too much money in US politics or that the wealthy have an unfair amount of power in America. Per definition, you are saying that a small class of elites rule over you and your nation, like a king rules over his kingdom.

You’ve studied history, in school if nowhere else. How often have you read about kings voluntarily relinquishing their thrones and handing power to their subjects out of the goodness of their hearts? Once someone makes it to the very top of a society, how often have you known them to eagerly step down from that power position in order to give the people self-rule?

This isn’t about money, this is about power. The wealthiest of the wealthy in America haven’t been doing everything they can to stave off universal healthcare and economic justice in order to save a few million dollars. They haven’t been fighting to keep you poor because they are money hoarders and they can’t bare to part with a single penny from their trove. It’s so much more sinister than that: the goal isn’t to keep you from making the plutocrats a little less wealthy, the goal is to keep you from having any wealth of your own.

Power is intrinsically relative: it only exists in relation to the amount of power that other people have or don’t have. If we all have the same amount of government power, then none of us has any power over the other. If, however, I can figure out a way to manipulate the system into giving me 25 percent more governmental power than anyone else, power has now entered into the equation, and I have an edge over everyone else that I can use to my advantage. But that edge only exists due to the fact that you’re all 25 percent less powerful than I am. If you all become five percent more powerful, my power is instantly diminished by that much, in the same way a schoolyard bully would no longer enjoy the same amount of dominance if everyone at school suddenly grew five percent bigger and stronger.

Here’s where I’m going with all this: the ruling elites have set up a system where wealth equals power. In order for them to rule, in order for them to enjoy the power of kings, they necessarily need to keep the general public from wealth. Not so that they can have a little more money for themselves in case they want to buy a few extra private jets or whatever, but because their power is built upon your lack of power. By keeping you from having a few thousand extra dollars of spending money throughout the year, they guarantee that you and your fellow citizens won’t pool that extra money toward challenging their power in the wealth-equals-power paradigm that they’ve set up for themselves. […]

You can see, then, why the oligarchs must resist socialism and populism tooth and claw. You can see why their media propaganda outlets are so ferociously dedicated to tearing down any sincere attempt to fight the Walmart economy or allow an inch of ground to be gained in bringing any economic power to ordinary Americans. By asking for economic justice, you may think that you are simply asking for a small slice of the enormous pie the billionaire class could never hope to eat in a single lifetime, but what you are actually doing is asking for their crown, their throne and their scepter. You are making yourself a direct existential threat to their dynasty.

This is why they fought so hard to stomp out the Sanders movement. It wasn’t that Sanders himself was a threat to them, it’s that a large group of the unwashed masses was pooling their wealth together and leaping over seemingly insurmountable obstacles using nothing but tiny $27 donations as fuel. Imagine if Americans had more disposable income to invest in a better future for their kids by pointing it at changing America’s political landscape? Imagine a populist movement where Americans pushing for economic justice can suddenly all afford to pool a bunch of $270 donations to support a beloved candidate or agenda? Or $2,700? Under the current money-equals-power paradigm, the will of the people would become unstoppable, and the US power establishment would be forced to reshape itself in a way that benefits the people instead of benefitting a few billionaires.

* * *

Basalat Raja, Jun 24

This is why you will find them behaving in ways that are opposite to their “direct interests” — if you assume that their “direct interests” are making more money. A prosperous middle class will make the rich even richer, because more of us will be able to buy the products from the companies that they own large amounts of shares in, leading to more profits for those companies, and obviously, lifting share prices, making them richer.

But that means less control, since economically contented people are harder to herd. If you have a decent job and a decent house, it’s harder to tell you that Mexicans/Muslims/Russians/gays/etc. have stolen your job, etc.

Conservatives Pretending to Care About Economic Problems

Here is how a recent Wall Street Journal article begins (The Partisan Tax Policy Center):

For centuries discussions of tax policy centered on the collection of government revenues. As Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, famously wrote: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” This was the received wisdom until Adam Smith pointed out in 1776 that the wealth of nations—not the wealth of governments—is what really matters. The debate about the proper ends and means of taxes has raged ever since.

The authors, Marc Sumerlin and Noah Williams, invoke Adam Smith. They are relying upon the ignorance of their readership in not knowing what he actually wrote.

Smith was a strong critic of economic inequality. He didn’t think a free market and a free society was possible when inequality was allowed to grow. It corrupts the moral sentiments and destroys the social fabric, as he explained in great detail.

For this reason, Smith thought the upper classes should be taxed at a higher rate than the lower classes (i.e., progressive taxation). He also supported other progressive ideas such as public education to counter the negative consequences of industrial labor, and of course that public education would be paid for with progressive taxation.

It is either ignorant or dishonest of the authors to not mention any of this. I understand it’s an opinion piece, but that is not an excuse for disinforming the public. It is the job of journalists to know what they’re talking about. These two writers are acting as experts about the topic, and so they should hold themselves to a higher standard.

They then go on with stating that,

This year’s presidential election is no different. High marginal personal income-tax rates provide a disincentive for work, and the tax system heavily penalizes saving. American corporations face the highest statutory tax rate in the developed world. The disincentives to invest lead to slower growth, fewer jobs, lower wages and a less vibrant economy; and the fundamental purpose of tax reform should be to achieve broad prosperity.

This is further dishonesty. I’m not even going to pretend it might be mere ignorance at this point.

No one could honestly say that US corporations have the highest actual tax rate in the developed world. They are being misleading in what they say. There are so many loopholes and offshore accounts that many corporations avoid a lot of taxes.

Plus, corporate profits are higher than they’ve ever been, even after taxation. If there is a lack of investment, it isn’t because of a lack of money to invest. Part of the problem is some corporations spend more money on advertising, lobbying, astroturf, etc than they do in research and development.

What creates disincentive for work is the fact that there are more people than jobs. Also, there are more people who would like to start a business than can afford to start a business or can get a loan to do so. There is a reason the black market is one of the biggest sectors of the economy. People are willing to work, but when they can’t find legal work they look for illegal work. This has the sad side effect of landing many people in prison, which then further economically devastates these communities of high unemployment. Between offshoring and mechanization, the old good jobs are unlikely to come back.

These authors attack the Tax Policy Center. They do so not because they actually believe the data is wrong. It just doesn’t fit their ideological agenda and political narrative. They see it as an extension of the Democratic Party, as if the TPC simply speaks for the campaigns, which isn’t even accurate considering Sanders’ criticisms. Their attack on the TPC is simply a partisan tactic—the authors just dismiss the political left:

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more focused on redistribution of income and have proposed higher taxes on capital gains and on high-income earners.

That goes back to my point about Smith. Redistribution has been a part of capitalism from its beginning. It was considered a necessary part of creating and maintaining a free market.

Neither Clinton nor Sanders is against capitalism. Clinton is a full on capitalist, to the point of being a globalist, corporatist neoliberal. As for Sanders, I just heard him make a strong defense of corporations in a debate, when discussing gun manufacturers. His ‘socialism’ is of an extremely capitalist-friendly variety… some might not even call it socialism. Sanders’s view is basically a moderate form of New Deal politics.

Many older conservatives who fear Sanders have themselves benefited earlier in their lives from redistributionist programs and funding, from cheap housing to cheap education. The older generations grew up at a time of the highest rate in US history for taxes on the rich and corporations. That was what paid for all the opportunities they had and helped so many of them get into the middle class. So, now they want to pull up the ladder behind them, really?

Like Smith, Sanders points to inequality as a central concern (and then Clinton parrots Sanders rhetoric). It turns out that Smith was right about inequality, and hence so is Sanders. I’ve previously pointed to a ton of data that shows that many social problems are directly correlated to inequality, and that for this reason decreasing inequality ends up benefiting the poor as well as the rich. Free markets function better to the degree inequality is decreased, as that guarantees economic mobility, grows the middle class, and incentivizes hard work—all of which most American conservatives and libertarians claim to value.

If one hates redistribution, then one should really hate inequality. In Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth, an interesting point was made by the authors (Ostry, Berg, & Tsangarides). After looking at a cross-country dataset, they concluded with three points:

First, more unequal societies tend to redistribute more. It is thus important in understanding the growth-inequality relationship to distinguish between market and net inequality.

Second, lower net inequality is robustly correlated with faster and more durable growth, for a given level of redistribution. These results are highly supportive of our earlier work.

And third, redistribution appears generally benign in terms of its impact on growth; only in extreme cases is there some evidence that it may have direct negative effects on growth. Thus the combined direct and indirect effects of redistribution—including the growth effects of the resulting lower inequality—are on average pro-growth.

The first point is most important. It is in an unequal society that redistribution is the most needed. This is why the US states with the highest inequality are the same states that receive more federal funding than they give in federal taxes. Partly, this is because these are the states with the highest per capita of welfare recipients. But also inequality exacerbates all of the related problems of poverty, such as health conditions which also need government funding to deal with. The US states with lower inequality tend to better solve their own problems in the first place and so are less dependent on federal redistribution.

Another paper titled The China Syndrome by Autor, Dorn and Hanson has related findings:

“Rising imports cause higher unemployment, lower labor force participation, and reduced wages in local labor markets, … [and] contemporaneous aggregate decline in U.S. manufacturing employment. Transfer benefits payments for unemployment, disability, retirement, and healthcare also rise sharply in more trade-exposed labor markets. … Reductions in both employment and wage levels lead to a steep drop in the average earnings of households. These changes contribute to rising transfer payments through multiple federal and state programs, revealing an important margin of adjustment to trade that the literature has largely overlooked. … The largest transfer increases are for federal disability, retirement and in-kind medical payments. Unemployment insurance and income assistance play a significant but secondary role.”

About inequality, there is another WSJ article by Lawrence B. Lindsey, How Progressives Drive Income Inequality. It’s more the same:

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are promising all types of programs to make America a more equal country. That’s no surprise. But when you look at performance and not rhetoric, the administrations of political progressives have made the distribution of income more unequal than their adversaries, who supposedly favor the wealthy.

It’s endless ignorance and ideological rhetoric. Timothy Noah, in an MSNBC article (Has income inequality lessened under Obama?), points out that,

The Tax Policy Center data show that the top 1% would get 6.5% more in income if Bush administration tax policies were still in place, while the bottom 20% would get 1.2% less. Relative to an imaginary Republican president, Obama has reduced income inequality. That’s something to be grateful for.

Only a complete ignoramus would blame Obama for inheriting the greatest economic problems since the Great Depression. It takes years for a presidents’ policies to take effect. If you want to know what the real impact is of Obama’s presidency, you’d want to look in the first few years of the next presidency who will likewise inherit the results of the prior administration. I’m no fan of Obama, but let’s do an honest appraisal.

It really pisses me off that these kinds of asshole conservatives even pretend to give a fuck about inequality. They’ve endlessly denied that it even matters. Now they have the audacity to say it matters after all, constantly backpedaling (just like with their denialist climate change arguments). They go so far as to say that inequality grew faster under Clinton than Reagan, when it was Reagan who created the permanent debt that all following presidents were forced to deal with. Can’t these people be honest for even moment?

Inequality, like the permanent debt, just keeps growing exponentially. The more it grows the faster it grows, worse leading to worse still. It’s a problem that has immense momentum for it isn’t just inequality of wealth but also of real world opportunities and political power. It just goes on and on, until something is done to stop the original cause and undo the harm done. But it is relevant that this growth slows down under Democratic administrations, as the data shows.

It is true that this slowing down doesn’t stop it, though—a valid point. Still, only a worthless piece of shit would try to blame this on ‘progressives’. The main blame recent Democrats must accept is that of embracing neoliberal voodoo economics. Clinton took up the policies of Reagan: welfare reform, deregulation, tough on crime, etc. Clinton may not have been a crazy right-winger like George W. Bush, but he certainly wasn’t much of a progressive, if we are to be honest. Both parties are corporatist at this point. Even so, the data shows there is a difference (see the work of James Gilligan, as quoted below).

I don’t get the point of these ideological games. Let me repeat one thing. I despise the two party system. They are part of the same problem. Nonetheless, the two parties aren’t exactly the same. We should acknowledge this simple fact, if we want to make any headway with these problems. It might be useful to know why rates of inequality, unemployment, homicides, suicides, etc get better or at least get less worse when Democrats win the presidency. It’s such a consistent pattern over more than a century.

Just imagine if we had an actual left-wing party, rather than just a slightly more moderate form of corporatism. If progressivism supposedly fails, then why do so many progressive countries and US states do so well? Why do Nordic social democrats do so well? Or how about social democracy in Canada, a country that by some measures has even greater diversity than the US? And what about one of the most successful local governments in US history, the Milwaukee sewer socialists?

Conservative response: *crickets chirping*

* * *

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others
By James Gilligan
Kindle Locations 801-830

Why has unemployment increased and then lasted longer, and why have recessions occurred so much more frequently and then lasted longer, during Republican administrations than during Democratic ones? And why have declines in unemployment and growth of the economy been so much greater when there was a Democratic president rather than a Republican in the White House? Is this simply a matter of bad luck for the Republicans and good luck for the Democrats? Is it a function of the “business cycle” that operates independently of human political choices, like a force of nature or an act of God that just happens to coincide with times when Republicans are presidents? A misfortune , to be sure, but not their fault?

As opposed to that supposition , many experts on the relationship between the political parties and the functioning of the economy have concluded that the latter is very much a function of the difference between the economic policies of the two parties. This has been shown, for example, with respect to why economic inequality increases under Republicans and decreases under Democrats. Writing in 2007, the Princeton political economist Larry Bartels 8 concluded that:

“The most important single influence on the changing US income distribution over the past half-century [has been] the contrasting policy choices of Democratic and Republican presidents. Under Republican administrations, real income growth for the lower- and middle-income classes has consistently lagged well behind the income growth rate for the rich – and well behind the income growth rate for the lower and middle classes themselves under Democratic administrations.”

Furthermore, Bartels observes that “these substantial partisan disparities in income growth … are quite unlikely to have occurred by chance.… Rather, they reflect consistent differences in policies and priorities between Democratic and Republican administrations.”

Bartels also points out that one measure of inequality, “the 80/ 20 income ratio, increased under each of the six Republican presidents in this [post-World War II] period.… In contrast, four of five Democratic presidents – all except Jimmy Carter – presided over declines in income inequality. If this is a coincidence, it is a very powerful one .” 9 He then goes on to show reasons why it “seems hard to attribute this to a mere coincidence in the timing of Democratic and Republican administrations.”

To extend the argument, the political economist Douglas Hibbs 10 points out that “Democratic adminis-trations are more likely than Republican ones to run the risk of higher inflation rates in order to pursue expansive policies designed to yield lower unemployment and extra growth.” Hibbs notes that “six of the seven recessions experienced since [1951] … occurred during Republican administrations. Every one of these contractions was either intentionally created or passively accepted … in order to fight inflation.” The cruelest irony of all, in this regard, is that from 1948 through 2005 the inflation rate during Republican administrations has been virtually indistinguishable from that achieved under Democratic ones (3.76 percent vs. 3.97 percent), while the degree of overall prosperity (real per capita GNP growth per year) has been 70 percent higher under Democrats than under Republicans (2.78 percent vs. 1.64 percent), as Bartels 11 has documented. So, while the Republicans have pursued economic policies that have increased unemployment, recessions, and inequality, all ostensibly in order to prevent inflation, they have not in fact succeeded in preventing inflation noticeably better than the Democrats have.”

Kindle Locations 850-853

Referring to a more recent period, Daniel Hojman and Felipe Kast14 have shown that during the 1990s (the decade when Clinton was president), significantly fewer people entered poverty and more escaped it than during the 1980s, the Reagan– Bush years.

Kindle Locations 927-95

The greatest increases in the concentration of wealth in the twentieth century occurred during the Republican administrations of the 1920s, which led to the Great Depression, and during those from the late 1960s into the 1990s (especially during the 1980s, the Reagan years). The polarization of wealth attained by the Republicans during the “Roaring Twenties” was reversed by the New Deal Consensus from 1933 to the late 1960s. This was accomplished by introducing income supplements for the needy (social security, unemployment benefits, etc.) that had not existed before, reducing unemployment, and creating not only a “minimum wage” but also what was in principle a “maximum wage,” by raising the highest marginal income tax rates above 90 percent. The result of these and other policies was what some economic historians have called the “Great Compression” in incomes and wealth that occurred during the most prosperous – and also the most economically equal, and the most non-violent – period in American history (at least with respect to domestic or intranational violence), from roughly 1940 to 1970. Once the Republicans returned to power in 1969, however, that period ended, and inequalities in wealth and income once again reached the same – or nearly the same – levels under Reagan as they had in the 1920s (as did the rates of lethal violence). The rate at which inequality was growing slowed down during the Clinton administration in the 1990s to only about a third of the rate at which it had been growing under his Republican predecessors. This may have been because he succeeded in reducing both the rate and the duration of unemployment, and increasing the highest marginal income tax rates, the Earned Income Tax Credit (the negative income tax which gives money to those who are poor despite having a job), the median and minimum wages, and applying other policies whose effect was to redistribute at least a bit of the national collective income and wealth from the rich to the poor. However, the momentum of the forces producing inequity was still so strong that by 1998 the wealthiest 1 percent of US citizens still owned 38 percent of the total household wealth of the country and 47 percent of the total financial wealth. In other words, the richest 1 percent owned nearly 40 percent of the country’s real estate and almost half of its money and other liquid assets (stocks, bonds, etc.).

Although we do not have comparable data yet for rates of lethal violence during the last year of the second Bush administration or the first two years of Obama’s presidency, we do know something about their economic policies, and their results. First of all, the current “Great Recession”—as it has been called, in acknowledgment of the fact that it is the worst economic failure the US (and perhaps the world has suffered since the “Great Depression” of the 1930s (a description that would also describe recessions that occurred during the prior Republican administrations of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr., although this one is even worse)—occurred right on schedule—after one of the most conservative Republican presidents in US history had been in office for seven years. we also know that when Obama cut a deal with Congressional Republicans to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, and to renew ax cuts for middle-class and poor families, he spoke of those groups as being taken hostage by the Republicans, who would not agree to help the unemployed and the two lower classes unless the Democrats would agree to continue the comparatively enormous income tax cuts that the Bush administration had given to the extremely rich, and to give an even larger cuts in the inheritance taxes that would primarily be of benefit only to the wealthiest 1 to 1/10 of 1 percent of the American population.

Kindle Locations 2130-2139

But even when looking only at domestic actions, I have to admit that, yes, it is true that Democrats often do the will of their corporate masters—how else could they persuade them to donate to the campaign funds without which they could not win any elections? For example, under Clinton, economic inequality continued to increase, which it had been doing since – and only since – the Republicans ended the 37– year period of Democratic hegemony that had lasted from 1933 until Nixon took office in 1969. But this inequality was increasing only about a third as fast under Clinton as it had been under Reagan and Bush Sr. 4 And there were many other indices of economic equality, which I have mentioned before, that did improve during Clinton’s terms in office. But most importantly, for the purposes of this book, lethal violence rates during Democratic administrations going back to the beginning of the twentieth century had fallen, not risen (as they had done under the Republicans). In that respect, the two parties were not merely different, they were opposite to each other! The same applies to the rates and duration of unemployment, both of which have, like the rates of suicide and homicide, also increased during Republican [administrations]

* * *

Conservatism, Murders & Suicides
Republicans: Party of Despair
Rate And Duration of Despair
Poor & Rich Better Off With Democrats
Unequal Democracy, Parties, and Class
‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland
Problems of Income Inequality

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place
Not Funny At All

Mean Bosses & Inequality
The United States of Inequality
Economic Inequality: A Book List

Wealth, Power, and Addiction

I live and work in downtown Iowa City. I regularly walk through and spend time in the downtown area. Having lived here (with a few years spent elsewhere) since the 1980s, I’m always trying to get perspective about this city and where it is heading.

As I was meandering to work today, I went through the pedestrian mall and my mind was naturally drawn to the numerous bars. I’ve had a theory for a while about what drove out so many of the stores I used to like, the stores that the average person would want to shop at and could afford to shop at. There is a general gentrification going on that is being promoted and funded by TIFs (among I’m sure other causes), but there is more than just that going on. I’ve considered that maybe the bars have been so profitable that they’ve driven up the rental costs in the downtown, driven them too high for the average small business owner.

This is problematic. Few things can compete with alcohol. All that has been able to compete are mostly high end restaraunts, art galleries, gift shops, jewelry stores, etc.

I was thinking about what this means. Why is it that it is so hard to compete with bars? The first thing that came to mind is that alcohol is an addictive substance. For a large number of people, the more alcohol they drink the more they want to drink. It guarantees repeat customers who are willing to pay high costs for their preferred drug. There is a reason the only mom and pop grocery story left in town is a major retailer of alcohol, and of course it is downtown.

I’m not for prohibition of addictive substances. But we have to get serious about the externalized costs, whether from legal or illegal markets. I’m in favor of making most addictive substances legal, but putting high sin taxes on them and providing the highest quality rehab centers (along with whatever else is beneficial). The sin taxes should go to deal with all the externalized costs, from rehab centers to homeless shelters… also to deal with the problems developing in the downtown and other impacted areas.

There is something telling about how gentrification and the sale of addictive substances act as twin forces in utterly transforming this town. I’m far from convinced that these changes are positive.

* * * *

What is the relationship between gentrification, crony capitalism, and bars? Or to put it another way: What is the relationship between wealth, power, and addiction?

I wouldn’t be the first person to associate addiction with the consumerism of a capitalist society. Nor would I be the first to associate addiction to power relationships. I know William S. Burroughts had many interesting thoughts on the matter. Is it simply about social control? If so, to what end? Or is it as Burroughs suggests, just power serving power, like a disease?

I’m specifically thinking of the city I live in, but all of this applies more broadly. Also, the issue of alchol should be widened to all addictions and everything related to it: drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Part of my context here is the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari. That author sees addiction as a social failure, rather than a mere personal issue. It isnt just the addict who is addicted, but the entire society addicted to the system. The alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, the bar owners are addicted to the profit they can make, and the local government is addicted to the tax money that is brought in.

The difference with alcohol, though is that it is a socially acceptable addiction. The entire identity of a small college town like Iowa City is tied up with alcoholism. The UI is famous for being a party school. The town was well known as a drinking town going back for more than a century. Generations of people have traveled from far away just to get drunk in this town.

What is at the heart of this? What is the driving force behind it all?

* * * *

I originally posted these thoughts on Facebook.

It was on my mind for some reason. Several people commented and it led to a detailed discussion, but my mind was no more clear afterwards. I still don’t quite know what to make of this line of thought.

It’s complicated, as I’m always repeating. There is a much larger context involved (German immigration, Prohibition, TIFs, etc). No changes come out of nowhere. There are always underlying causes that go much deeper, often to historical roots.

Here are a few other things I’ve written before about related issues. Also, along with them, I’ll throw in some articles about the local area.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/tifs-gentrification-and-plutocracy/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/generational-change-and-conflict-immigration-media-tech-etc/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/the-fight-for-freedom-is-the-fight-to-exist-independence-and-interdependence/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/centerville-ia-meeting-point-of-diversity-conflict/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/generations-at-the-age-of-twelve/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/ku-klux-klan-and-the-lost-generation/

http://thegazette.com/subject/life/beer-riots-of-1884-brought-violence-and-bloodshed-to-iowa-city-20140810

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-hops-original-gangsters-the-iowa-city-beer-riots-of-1884/

https://books.google.com/books?id=WaRjYoBZO3sC&pg=PA56&lpg=PA56&dq=%22iowa+city%22+AND+englert+AND+prohibition&source=bl&ots=_tc1dCXj3S&sig=sMsBOrtOH8vUdVSPXiSkMW4EHjE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HO_fVJjgA9OwyASv_oK4CQ&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22iowa%20city%22%20AND%20englert%20AND%20prohibition&f=false

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/geiger.html

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/englert.html

https://stateinnovation.org/uploads/asset/asset_file/1529/Tax_Increment_Financing_A_Case_Study_of_Johnson_County.pdf

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-truth-about-tifs/

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2014/06/23/Metro/38106.html

http://www.iowahouserepublicans.com/government-oversight-coralville-use-of-tif-funds

http://thegazette.com/2012/04/12/coralvilles-bond-ratings-take-hit-on-hotel-costs-tif-reliance

https://www.moodys.com/research/MOODYS-DOWNGRADES-CITY-OF-CORALVILLES-IA-ANNUAL-APPROPRIATION-URBAN-RENEWAL–PR_243553

http://www.limitedgovernment.org/brief19-5.html

http://patch.com/iowa/iowacity/iowa-city-city-council-sidesteps-petition-on-tif-vote6cce46a1fd

http://www.northlibertyleader.com/content/coralville-ailing-finances-or-healthy-debt

To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black

Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong
by Matt O’Brien, The Washington Post

Poor Grads, Rich Dropouts

Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.

What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

White High School Drop-Outs Are As Likely To Land Jobs As Black College Students
by Susan Adams, Forbes

African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school. So says a new report from a non-profit called Young Invincibles, which analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census and examined the effect race and education levels have on unemployment. “We were startled to see just how much more education young African-Americans must get in order to have the same chance at landing a job as their white peers,” said Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of Young Invincibles, in a statement.

RACE, CRIMINAL BACKGROUND, AND EMPLOYMENT
by Gwen Sharp, PhD, The Society Pages

Pager

joblessness prison

Group Membership

Life Event

 

 

 

Consumerism, Poverty, and Economic Mobility

There is an article from the New York Times that points to a distinction made before. It is “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off, but Far Behind” by Annie Lowrey. The author also includes a nifty graph that starkly portrays the data, which should definitely check out.

She begins with an observation that many on the right have brought up to question that poverty is a real issue.

“Is a family with a car in the driveway, a flat-screen television and a computer with an Internet connection poor?

“Americans — even many of the poorest — enjoy a level of material abundance unthinkable just a generation or two ago. That indisputable economic fact has become a subject of bitter political debate this year, half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty.”

In a consumerist society, wealth is defined as access to consumer products. Is that actual wealth in any meaningful sense?

“Indeed, despite improved living standards, the poor have fallen further behind the middle class and the affluent in both income and consumption. The same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.”

From the perspective of the poor, consumer products don’t likely make them feel all that wealthy. The poor are struggling today, just as they did in the past.

“For many working poor families, the most apt description of their finances and lifestyle might be fragile. Even with a steady paycheck, keeping the bills paid becomes a high-wire act and saving an impossibility.”

Not just struggling, but living on the edge. They aren’t faced with mere poverty. They also have to fear life getting much worse, such as losing their homes and not being able to keep food on the table.

“Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.”

More federal programs to make being poor relatively less desperate and uncomfortable. And more access to cheap consumer crap from Walmart.

“Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared. Ms. Hagen-Noey, for instance, does not treat her hepatitis and other medical problems, as she does not qualify for Medicaid and cannot pay for her own insurance or care.

“Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

““The average annual cost for infant care in the U.S. is $6,000 or $7,000 a year,” said Professor Ziliak of the University of Kentucky. “When you look at the average income of many single mothers, that is going to end up being a quarter of it. That’s huge. That is just out of reach for many folks.””

What isn’t available to the poor is opportunity to be anything other than poor. Economic mobility has decreased these past decades. Poor people in the past were worse off in many ways, but they also had more opportunities in many ways for economic mobility (cheap housing and college education, high paying jobs with good benefits, etc). Most poor people don’t want to be poor, don’t want to rely on federal programs, and don’t want cheap consumer crap from Walmart as the only appeasement for a life of misery and desperation.

“And many poor families barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. For evidence, economists point to the fact that children living in families with food stamps eat more calories at the beginning of the month than the end of it.

“Economists pointed out that many low-income families struggled to use even the assets they had: keeping gas in the car, paying for cable and keeping the electricity on. Many families rely on expensive credit. And even if those families sold their assets, often it would only provide them with a small buffer, too. “

Owning a car was once a luxury. Now a car is a necessity and a burden. Traveling further distances to work and shopping has become more common, for the small local factory and corner store have become rare. Meanwhile, public transportation hasn’t grown with the need for it. Poor people need vehicles, even when they can barely afford to pay for gas and repairs.

Sometimes the forced choice is between a tank of gas and buying groceries. But if there isn’t a tank of gas, a person can’t get to work and might lose their job. So, basic necessities such as food get sacrificed. Skipping meals isn’t healthy, but it won’t kill you right away. People can survive on very few calories, when they have to, although most people would like more than mere survival.

“In the end, many mainstream economists argue, the lives of the poor must be looked at in light of the nation’s overall wealth and economic advancement.

““If you handpick services and goods where there has been dramatic technological progress, then the fact that poor people can consume these items in 2014 and even rich people couldn’t consume them in 1954 is hardly a meaningful distinction,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “That’s not telling you who is rich and who is poor, not in the way that Adam Smith and most everyone else since him thinks about poverty.””

There is the rub.

Many things have become cheaper. But the most important things have become more expensive, specifically the very things that help people get out of poverty. It costs more to not be poor than it once did.

Rich Liberals Vs Conservatives w/ Author David Callahan

In this interview, David Callahan’s view intrigues me.

He is arguing that the liberal rich has been smaller in recent decades than the conservative rich. However, supposedly with the growing technology industry and the knowledge economy, there has been a growing liberal rich. These wealthy liberals are highly educated and got their wealth through entrepreneurship. It’s an interesting argument. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be liberal whereas old money and established corporations are likely to be conservative.

Over the last half century or so, the conservative rich created a massive infrastructure of conservative media, think tanks, lobbyist groups, and astro-turf movements. Liberals, on the other hand, have been very lacking in organization. But this apparently has been changing this last decade. I’d probably say it’s the internet that has been a boon for liberals because the internet makes it easier to do grassroots bottom-up organization which is where liberals excel. The argument, however, is that the internet has boomed along with the wealth of the liberals who started businesses in this sector. So, there was the introduction of tools for grassroots organization at the same time new money was funding liberal organizations and media.

It still seems liberals aren’t quite organized in a lock-step way as is seen among conservatives, but definitely a shift has happened.

The shift the author sees is in that the upper class is shifting away from the Republican party. “The upper class is becoming more educated, more secular, more based in urban America (particularly on the coasts). And the Republican party is becoming more religious, more based in small town America, and becoming less educated.” This argument seems supported by the evidence showing the average IQ of Republicans has decreased since a high point during Reagan’s administration.

Mean Bosses & Inequality

The following video shows one of the many dangers of wealth disparity.

I’ve posted about wealth disparity in the past and I was recently reading the book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (here is the official website: The Equality Trust). Here is a video by the authors:

The data shows the correlation between wealth disparity and a wide variety of health and social problems. Some have argued against this apparent correlation being causally related (or, to the extent there is a causal relation, that the results are necessarily negative… arguing, for example, that wealth disparity is inevitable for economic growth), but the research mentioned in the first video further strengthens this correlation (and the negative conditions that result) by putting it in context of the psychology of human behavior. As Cenk Uygur points out, we all have this predisposition to misuse power (whether we meritoriously gained that power or were merely given it), but this predisposition is just a potential that we can guard against.

As a liberal, I’d argue that if you remove the temptation by decreasing the wealth disparity, then you don’t have to worry about people struggling to resist the corrupting influence of too much power. Anyways, as the data shows, societies with high wealth disparities are bad even for the wealthy in that they too suffer greater problems than the wealthy in societies with low wealth disparities. So, it does no one any good… no matter what conservatives may claim about some hypothetical meritocracy.

Even if they were correct that the economy grows quicker with greater inequality, that is hardly a moral argument for inequality (What good is growth merely for the sake of growth?). As the US data shows, even though the economy is growing, this only directly benefits the upper class. This growing economy isn’t increasing the living wage or employment rates of the lower classes.

If you’re wondering about criticisms of the data and correlations from The Spirit Level, here are some relevant links:

http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/07/debunking-the-rights-attacks-on-the-spirit-level/

http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/328517/Kate-Pickett-and-Richard-Wilkinson-Responses-to-All-Critics.pdf

http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/saunders-response

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/09/spirit-level-policy-exchange

The next video is a debate the authors of The Spirit Level had with one of their critics:

Here are some further videos:

Status Anxiety

Here is a fairly nice documentary. 

Many great points are brought up about the ideal of a meritocratic society.  One point made that I highly agree with is that if the rich deserve to be rich, then the poor deserve to be poor.

Where I think this documentary missed out is on the details.  The narrator states that American meritocracy doesn’t assert that all are equal but that all are given equal opportunity.  The problem I had is he didn’t analyze this in any great detail (environment, pollution, health, nutrition, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.).  The inequality between people is so vast in the world that any theoretical equal opportunity is just a joke.  It’s quite easy to criticize the very notion of equal opportunity on any number of grounds.

A very small minority hold most of the world’s wealth and power, and the vast majority of this wealth and power is passed down from generation to generation within a very small set of families and bloodlines.  A teacher that was interviewed stated that meritocracy was an eternal goal which implies it’s a goal that never is actualized in the real world.  So, it’s a pleasant fantasy to keep the masses contented.

Furthermore, the wealth and power of the developed industrialized nations is built on the very poverty and disempowerment of the rest of the world.  Does the slave-wage worker in a sweatshop deserve his lot?  Do Americans deserve the cheap products the get through the suffering of the poor?  Do Middle Easterners deserve all the conflict that the West bestows upon them simply because we think we deserve their oil?  Does South and Central America deserve all of the political unrest caused by the CIA and the American War on Drugs?

For further information on how to be included among the elite who deserve all of their power and wealth, see the following:

How to be Successful

Also, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s view presented in her book Bright-sided.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113758696

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/books/10ehrenreich.html

http://www.statesman.com/life/content/life/stories/books/2009/11/01/1101ehrenreich.html

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer.  She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer.  It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular.  She was diagnosed with cancer.  She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking.  My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away.  She died of cancer.  She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her.  I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before.  It’s not just alternative types.  Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection.  She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term.  She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture.  She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians.  If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking.  She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture.  She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Faux Righteousness

There is one issue that is a hot button for me.  The issue is righteousness.  Actually, I don’t know if it’s just righteousness, but that is definitely a major part.

Like many people, I have tendencies towards righteousness.  I don’t like righteousness in myself any more than I like it in others.  I feel a visceral repulsion towards righteousness.  What makes me feel more righteous than anything is righteousness itself.  Which is a bit depressing as righteousness about righteousness doesn’t in any way negate or decrease righteousness.  But it isn’t a rational response.

When feeling defensive, it’s easy to feel righteous about one’s righteousness.  People often become polarized and feel more certain about their position than when they started.  For some people, this can become a permanent state… and I’d like to avoid such a horrible fate for myself.  I don’t want to spend my time looking for things to be righteous about, but admittedly there is plenty to feel righteous about without even looking for it.  The daily news, for example, usually offers any number of affronts to reason and morality.

In particular, American culture seems overly righteous.  Maybe this just goes along with the imperialistic patriotism found in any large and powerful country.  Whatever the reason, many Americans believe America is right about almost everything because many Americans think we’re on the winning side of history.  But Americans quite often turn this righteousness against other Americans.  And it goes beyond simply deciding who is the most American.  There is just a general atmosphere of conflict and attack, ridicule and criticism.  This tendency in American culture has become magnified as media has begun to dominate our lives.  We now have constant news reporting and commentary (with more emphasis on the latter) which feeds (and feeds off of) the constant internet buzz.  A popular form of entertainment right now is the verbal fights between the representatives of different tv news networks.  And then there are some silly pundits who think that constantly berating those in power somehow proves that they’re independent thinkers.

There are even those (whether preacher or pundit) who see themselves as prophets of moral righteousness.  They just have an inner sense of knowing they’re right.  They see themselves on a mission (possibly a divine mission) to save humanity and guide the righteous to the light of Truth.  This type of person seems rather arrogant to me.  This is the most extreme form of righteousness which can be used to incite extreme behaviors such as violence or else just incite general hatred and mistrust.  Righteous fear-mongering is particularly distasteful to me.  Somehow expressing either fear by itself or righteousness by itself doesn’t seem so bad as expressing fear and righteousness together… especially when further combined with populist anger.  I severely doubt anything good can come of it. 

Righteousness is opposite to so many truly beneficial values (humility, acceptance, sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, love, etc.) which are values I idealize even though I rarely live up to them.  Also, I see righteousness as opposed to knowledge and truth which are personal ideals I feel a bit more capable of living up to.  A very important aspect of humility is intellectual humility, knowing one’s limits and knowing one doesn’t have everything figured out.  Righteousness sometimes feels like false confidence, a bullying strength that hides an inner weakness.  When taken to extremes, there can be something cruel and hard-hearted about it.

I should point out that I’m not arguing for a relativist belief that there is no right or wrong.  A righteous person could be right (or they could be wrong), but my sense is that the correlation between being righteous and being right is often accidental.  Even if a person is absolutely right and can prove it beyond any doubt, is there any point in being righteous?  Perhaps it might be justified or at least it could be understandable.  But it seems most likely to me that the more righteous someone behaves the less likely they are to be correct.  The reason for this is that critical thinking is impaired to the degree intellectual humility is lacking.

I know that when I feel righteous I want to believe I’m right, and I want to believe that my hypothetical rightness somehow is important and somehow justifies my righteousness.  But I also know that when in a righteous state of mind I’m not being very impartial.  For certain, my critical thinking skills are impaired at such moments.  Because I value critical thinking, I try to counter my righteousness by determining to what extent I’m actually right or wrong.  The problem is that, even if I do (or think I do) determine that I’m right about something, it doesn’t make me feel all that better… nor anyone else for that matter.

Although I’m clearly not fond of righteousness as a general way of being in the world and of relating to others, it isn’t necessarily righteousness by itself that annoys me.  If a drunk or mentally ill person was righteously ranting nonsense on a sidewalk, I wouldn’t really care.  First, no one is going to mistake such ranting as intelligent commentary.  Secondly, this person doesn’t have much of an audience and if he has any influence at all it is very limited.  Or if someone just feels righteously angry about life in general,  I wouldn’t really care.  As long as they’re not trying to scapegoat some person or group for the world’s problems, there is nothing wrong with expressing one’s genuine feelings… but I wouldn’t consider righteousness to be a genuine (or not a genuinely worthy) feeling when an anger-fueled superior attitude is being used to cover up other feelings such as a sense of impotence or guilt.

Anyways, good or bad, isn’t it part and parcel of the American democratic sensibility to loudly declare what one believes to be right?  It’s definitely a part of the American mythos.  Take for example the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  It’s about the conflict of a truly righteous man trying to overcome false righteousness being used for devious ends, and it’s also about how easily the general public is manipulated by false righteousness.  There are any other number of stories (both true and fictional) like this which are about a person (often alone or with few allies) righteously struggling to get their voice heard.  On the other hand, false righteousness seems more common as it’s such an effective tool for those in power and for those who want to gain power.  But most people would like to believe their righteousness is genuine.  And there is usually a way to rationalize righteousness, a way to frame the issue so that one feels like the good guy fighting the good fight. 

It’s easy to deceive oneself when the stakes are high or whenever one is emotionally invested.  But how do you know when you’re seeing the world through a self-enclosed rationalization?  There are several ways.  First, if you have developed critical thinking skills, these can be helpful… but I don’t think that is enough by itself.  So, secondly, I would emphasize even more so the value of self-awareness (which correlates with awareness of the other).  If you are self-aware enough or have someone in your life to point out your blind spots (which to some degree requires sympathetic understanding of other perspectives), you’re more likely to be able to step back from your rationalizations.  Maybe it’s only when self-awareness starts to break in that you can then use critical thinking skills to come to understanding.  However one gets to this point of self-questioning, there has to be a desire to self-question in the first place.  Questioning the world has to be balanced by questioning turned inward (and if there must be an imblance I think it’s best to have too much emphasis on the self-questioning).  A person can only be genuinely righteous to the extent they question their own righteousness.

I guess that is the rub.  Righteousness is almost always turned towards someone else.  It’s hard to imagine the vocally critical type of righteous person being equally critical of themselves and being equally open in voicing those self-criticisms.  I can think of a number of political pundits and social commentators who are examples of extreme criticism of others.  Some of them may occasionally point out minor flaws of their own, but it is a small part of what they say and these meager confessions usually get lost in their larger message.  Maybe this comes down to entertainment value.  Watching someone attack other people is entertaining.  Watching someone morally contemplate their own weaknesses and failings would be boring… unless they were a particularly funny stand-up comedian.

My sense of aggravation towards righteousness is very much about the personal.  My own righteousness is constrained for the reason I don’t generally feel to be in a morally superior position.  I have no grand accomplishments and often I feel like a failure (or that I don’t live up to my “God-given” potential).  Yet, I do feel something like pride for what I’ve managed to accomplish (in that I’ve read and researched widely and have tried to gain some understanding on a fairly diverse set of subjects), but that which I’m proud of isn’t overly valued by society.  So, I do sometimes feel righteous when I meet people online who either are willfully ignorant (especially certain apologists) or else simply some combination of uninformed and misinformed (which everyone is to varying degrees).  But I know that doesn’t justify my projecting on to such people all of my frustrations and anger (and general unhappiness).  As a depressed person, I’m easily irritated and it isn’t anyone else’s fault.

The righteousness I feel comes from my sense of being an underdog.  Let me try to explain.  According to the social standards of success and respectability, I’m not all the way at the bottom with the outright losers and scum of the earth, but I’m no where near the top.  I’m not homeless and I’m not unemployed, and so I have that going for me.  But I am a bachelor who lives alone and I’ll probably remain a bachelor to the end of my days.  Despite having above average intelligence and some other natural abilities, I’ve always worked entry-level jobs and I just earn enough to get by (with little prospects for anything better in the future).  I haven’t had much in the way of external obstructions to moving up in the world.  I was raised with plenty of advantages and opportunities as a middle class white male in a developed country.  Still, I’ve struggled for “internal” reasons (some combination of psychological issues and genetics) and this just makes me feel all the more sympathetic towards those who didn’t have the advantages and opportunities I grew up with.  Life can be tough no matter where you begin, but it’s particularly tough for those who have so much going against them right from the start.

Plus, I have this basic sense of the precariousness of life.  Life can seem perfect one moment and hell on earth the next.  I may not be on the bottom, but it wouldn’t be hard for me to end up on the bottom.  People living in shelters and under bridges usually don’t start off life that way.  The majority of the homeless are mentally ill or traumatized veterans, but most of them once were normal people with jobs and houses, with families and friends.  The homeless aren’t a mutant sub-class of humans entirely isolated from normal (i.e., respectable) people.  Anyone can become mentally ill, get addicted to painkillers, get diagnosed with a costly illness, lose their job and house, go bankrupt, etc.  If you don’t have very strong social support (which fewer people have these days), it’s very easy to fall through the cracks and get lost there.

On the other hand, there are those who have lives that more or less work out as planned and they somehow avoid major catastrophes for most or all of their lives (death being the final catastrophe that finds us all).  They have a sense of being in control of their own life.  They feel they deserve what they have, that they’re entitled.  But I think most of this is just a matter of fortunate circumstances.  I understand why the illusion of control is so attractive.  What I don’t like is the sense of superiority that almost inevitably goes along with it.  If the rich person deserves being rich, then the poor person also deserves being poor.  If Americans deserve their power and luxurious lifestyle, then those in third world countries deserve to be stuck in slave labor jobs while their environment is destroyed and their natural resources stolen.  The unemployed and homeless deserve to live miserable lives.  Those without large savings and health insurance deserve to die of easily treated diseases.

Growing up a middle-class white American (and living for years in a very above average middle class town) has given me a bit of perspective.  I have some insight about what it means to have privilege and to take it as a given.  The issue I have with righteousness is that those who should feel righteous too often feel powerless and unheard… all the while the politicians, political pundits, and televangelists who act all righteous are usually those who grew up with privilege.  But it’s all relative.  One can almost always point to someone who had more privilege than oneself.  If you go by the words of the righteous people who get heard in the media, it’s not unusual for them to claim to be underdogs or to represent the underdog… which in most cases doesn’t seem authentic.

The facts are that most of the wealth and power in the world (including in democracies) is passed down according to relationships of family and class.  More money gets inherited by the next generation of the wealthy than is produced by means of capitalism.  A large percentage of politicians (including in democracies) are familialy related and of royal lineage.  Even today, research shows that a white male has massive opportunities beyond minorities and females.  Research shows that people born rich tend to remain rich and those born poor tend to remain poor.  Also, poor areas tend to be where there is heavy pollution which leads to low IQ and high rates of illness, and these areas are so polluted because of the industries run by the rich who don’t have to live in these areas.  IQ, in particular, has high correlation to economic success.  So, the game is rigged before a person is born.

Yes, occasionally someone through various factors (strength of will being the least of these factors) manages to escape their situation.  But, for every one person that escapes, there are millions or hundreds of millions of people equally worthy and equally determined who were crushed by circumstances.  The exception proves the rule.

As I see it, there is so much suffering and injustice in the world.  And despite Enlightenment ideals, the West has it’s fair share of underprivileged, impoverished and disenfranchised.  Where are the righteous voices to defend those who can’t defend themselves?  In the news, we constantly hear about what the rich and powerful are doing, but why do we rarely hear about the struggles of the vast majority?  Why aren’t there regular interviews with the poor and homeless?  Why aren’t there popular reality shows that follow the lives of people in war-torn countries?  Why aren’t there tv series based on families who live sick and hungry in refugee camps?  Why do tv commentators spend most of their time reporting on the same small set of topics and events all the while almost entirely excluding the everyday lives and experiences of the average and below average?

What are people who feel justly righteous to do in response to all of this?  Organize?

As an example, consider the peace protests against the invasion of Iraq.  They were the largest and fastest growing of any anti-war movement in American history, and the most widespread and most well-organized in world history.   That is a truly righteous populist movement if one ever existed, and it was ignored and dismissed by the faux righteousness of politicians (and the patriotic submission of the media in parroting that faux righteousness).  The justifications of the war were dubious, but it’s impossible to stop even an unnecessary war when it’s backed by political power and financial gain (which includes the revolving door between big government and big business and more specifically the corporate interest in media coverage). 

Consider how much worse it is when you are someone in the minority, someone with no ability to influence, someone with no ability to start large protest movements, someone with no ability to force the media to at least recognize you exist.

Part of my issue about righteousness is that public opinion has become something for those in power to manipulate.  There is a general mood that the news media isn’t doing a good job of informing the public.  Going by commentary I’ve read and my own observations, very little news seems to be based on investigative journalism or even basic fact-checking.  News reporters seem to rely too heavily on media releases by corporations and the government.  The media basically tells us what we should be righteous about… and the general public seems rather compliant.

I would be less irritated if I felt there was something worthy to be righteous about.  I’d love to live in a culture that was righteous about truth, where people weren’t just out for their own ideological interest.  Or why can’t people be righteous about compassion?  Why can’t we take all the money spent on the military and instead have a war on homelessness, poverty and hunger?

I feel demoralized by what I see in the world and I feel disenfranchised from what seems like a fraudulent political system.  I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  There are many people who rightly feel the system doesn’t benefit them, but the problem is that when people feel insecure they most often react emotionally rather than rationally.  And when people are in this state, they’re easily manipulated and easily riled up.  This collective sense of dissatisfaction is rarely ever directed towards any morally righteous end.