Thursday, October 29, 2009


I guess if you look hard enough, there’s probably an upside to most situations. Every time the “news” people report on a political event or process, they are bound to inform us that, while the Democrats have to attempt to balance their initiatives so as to appease both the liberal and the not-so-liberal wings of the party, whilst the Repubs present a solid front—united in their nay-saying. They have “No” down to a fine art it would seem. So, what might the upside to such a situation be? Well it occurs to me that, if the Repubs have settled in as the official government nay-sayers, marching in lockstep to their very right wing drummers, then it no longer matters what the Dems actually do. It has been established through multiple attempts at “bipartisanship” that, it matters little what one promises the “loyal” opposition, they will, in the end, say No. But I regard that as a freeing signal. Now, it would seem, the Dems can do whatever they like. The Repubs will say no, but everyone already knows that.
So, on health care “reform” they should proceed with a public option in whatever form they can devise that will satisfy their own conservative wing. And on Afghanistan, the President is free to do what he believes to be in the best interest of the American people, and the world actually. And on government regulation of our various “too big to fail” commercial entities, regulate away.
Now, with every upside, there is always a potential downside—the yin and yang I guess. The downside is that, whatever they do, the Dems will own the solution, and the repubs will use any negative outcomes as ammunition during the election. So, it behooves the Dems to be sensible and to attempt to craft solutions that might actually work—i.e., produce the intended results without any awful unintended consequences. But any successes can also be claimed as “mono-partisan”, i.e., without regard to the “loyal” opposition.
And, Guys, lay off the Fox News shtick. They are not worth the time it takes to blow them to hell. So, forget about them. They’re an entertainment outlet, not a news outlet. Treat them accordingly. That means, you should laugh at them more often.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wandering in the Forest of Thoughts

This morning’s Charlotte Observer contained a column in the Living (Religious) section of the Saturday paper. The columnist was reporting on an interview he had with Richard Dawkins, and the responses he had received from his readership on that interview. The responses were entirely predictable here in Charlotte, where the only thing that exceeds the number of Wal-Marts is the number of churches.
Most people were adamant that Dawkins is unworthy of any space in the newspaper, and a few were equally adamant that Dawkins is of course, correct in his assertions that there is no God. Having read Richard Dawkins, I concluded that he was at his silliest when he reached his “conclusive proof” that there is no God. It made me wonder, though, why we even bother to publish such material, either in book form, or in the columns of local newspapers. To be fair, I have read Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris, to try to understand whether they had anything to share with me that might enlighten me on this troubling subject. Please note that I read such writers not because I imagine they can shed light on the fundamental issue of whether there is, or is not a God. I long ago concluded that, whether there is or is not a God, we will never understand the truth in any of our lifetimes. Instead, I read them to see whether they could shed light on the basic issues of religion, and why and how organized religion manages to hold onto the world’s population. Also, I always hope to understand why the world’s religions seem so firm in their conviction that science is their enemy (perhaps that is a Christian thing??). I assume that religion is always at risk when people become educated and begin entertaining doubt. But many people obtain education, while holding fast to this basic belief in an ultimate being. And that seems ok to me.
What is not ok is this notion that believers and non-believers should not occupy the same planet. That is why I keep hoping that some religious leaders will emerge somewhere, sometime in the future, who will be able to connect with the agnostics of the world in order to reach an accommodation that allows everyone to live in peace.
But maybe that is just another silly idea, like Republicans and Democrats sitting together at a table to work out solutions to the Nation’s many problems. Silly, I know . . ..

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bankers & Organized Crime

I received the other day in the mail a nice note from Chase, the banker of note on one of our two bank credit cards. It explained how much they cared and how they were driven to providing us with the highest possible service. And they just wanted us to know about this little issue of rates and how they might be changing. One of the rates was the base rate, I guess, for people who largely pay on time, but still revolve. That rate might be going up to, hmmm, I don't know, maybe 15%. And if we were naughty, or were experiencing some serious financial problems, you know, like losing a job, or something, and if we had some difficulties paying on time, the rate might be, umm, maybe 30%.
And so it set me to thinking. See, there's this Canadian crime program, called Intelligence, all about how Canadians fight organized crime. And in one episode, the bad guys (in this series it's a little hard to always tell the difference between the bad guys and good guys) decide they need a place to park their ill-gotten gains, after they have succeeded in washing it. So they basically buy a bank in the Bahamas. And then, see, I got the letter in the mail from Chase. So, I began wondering about bankers and organized crime. So, how would I know if our bank credit card company was being piloted by good guys or, you know, the bad guys. I mean, 15-30% interest? Doesn't that begin to sound like your friendly neighborhood loan shark? And what else does Chase have in mind here? Do they contract with guys like Blackwater, who will offer to kneecap you, if you fail to pay the 15-30% interest rates?
And these are the guys who are "too big to fail", and therefore deserving of a Federal bailout?? So, how much worse would Federally run banks really be?

And elsewhere, Glenn Beck has made his first bid to become the US Surgeon General under the next republican doofus administration. By telling his listeners not to get the flu shot, he has placed himself as the pseudo-physician of record in the republican camp. Way to go repubs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Governance vs. Electioneering

Governance turns out to be tough stuff and Obama must now be asking himself, "why in heaven's name did I do this to myself?" We all know that Congress avoids taking on governance at all costs. Their normal routine, when presented with evidence of a problem, is to pass some piece of legislation, preferably one involving the spending of public money, and then to move on, as in, "alright, we've solved the problem of poverty in America, what's next?"
Having worked within government for a few years, and studying it for several decades, one thing became clear. Congress has the attention span of a gnat. So, governance, or in their case, oversight, gets short shrift. Maybe, they just don't know enough; they're not, after all, the brightest lights on the planet. But they also seem incapable of focusing on big problems like war, poverty, health care, fiscal meltdowns, and even outright thievery by banking executives, for more than a few days at a time, before changing the subject.
But we expected a bit more from our President. He is, after all, a very smart man, and a highly principled one (also a foreign notion in Congress). He promised us the moon, and hasn't yet delivered, despite the Nobel award vote of confidence.
It is true that he received from President Doofus, a giant platter of dung--two wars, both of which bore more than a passing resemblance to Vietnam, and a wrecked economy, caused by Bush, Congress, Clinton, and criminal CEO's.
His promises on health care reform may have been just silly, given the health insurance industry's death grip on Congress. I mean, what could have been worse--trying to extract the guns from a bunch of cold dead republican hands???
It's just possible that he should have avoided mention of health care reform during his campaign. He probably could have won by simply not being Bush, given his opposition, the Bush-Lite and Barbarella Barbie team. Maybe the next time, a democrat even thinks about reforming the health care financing system in this country, he should adopt a stealth campaign. Build up his credentials by accomplishing a few things the public likes, then quietly introduce a law that "tweaks" the insurance system by introducing a single payer for Democrats only.
Try to get it passed during some twilight hour period, when republicans are too drunk or strung out on drugs to notice.
But now, instead of following through on his promise to Gays, and his promises to all of us to rid the Nation of corrupt banking system CEO's and their hired guns, he's picking a fight with Fox??? I know, I know. Fox is a nasty piece of business, and yes, they are an enemy of sorts. But they're not Al Qaida. They're not even Al Jazeera. It seems to me they are best left alone, even to simply ignoring them altogether. Glenn Beck is nuts, Rush is a fat dopehead, and the republicans deserve them. They are the perfect representation of what republicans stand for now. Leave them to their own devils. Let's get on with the governance thing, Barack.
And elsewhere, Bob Dole objected to having the Dems agree with him. He wants to go back to the folks what brung him--Rush, Glenn and the Christian Taliban. Have at it Bobby.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Yaaaay. Our President wins the Nobel Peace Prize!!
That’s good, no???
I mean, after eight years of a unilateralist, and essentially incomprehensibly ignorant foreign policy machine in Washington, we are regaining our position as a force for peace in the world. Yes, Obama has taken over the Presidency with two wars underway (has it really been eight years). And yes, it is to be acknowledged that he has a lot of time left in his term of office. But it’s a start. Someone recognizes that he is essentially a man of peace.
Now, I can’t wait for Fox News, to see Glenn Beck foaming at the mouth. I realize that he needs to be medicated, and probably should be warehoused in a state hospital, but he is the leading light and intellectual leader of the republican tea party. So, whatever Glenn Beck shrieks, will become the mantra for republicans. And I imagine George Will will weigh in with his usual pseudo-intellectual commentary, asserting perhaps that this award demonstrates the idiocy of the Nobel awards committee. George is never at a loss for words in such events.
But for at least some of us, sitting on the sidelines, and still hoping for good things to emerge out of this presidency, this is a hopeful sign, a recognition perhaps, that Obama was handed a giant dumpster of republican dung, and he is still trying to turn it into something meaningful. Maybe he will succeed, and maybe the nation’s conservatives will yet prevent him from accomplishing reasonable goals. We’ll see, and the world will see.
In the meantime, I rejoice at this modest recognition. He joins an august body of people. Thank you Nobel Committee.

Monday, October 5, 2009


The other day I was reading an article about a program in which students, middle-schoolers I think, were pitted against adults in an academic contest. One of the questions was “what is the grammatical term for the expression “jumbo shrimp”. The answer was “oxymoron”. And I found myself thinking, “well no, that’s not really an oxymoron at all. In that case “jumbo” is merely being used as a term of relative size, to denote a shrimp larger than other shrimps. I understand that jumbo shrimp is used commonly as an example of an oxymoron. But my mind immediately drifted off to other more serious forms, as “military intelligence”, or republican ethics”, both now fine examples of the form. And that got me to thinking about such terms.
Military intelligence—is that a reasonable interpretation of the military mind and it’s thinking potential? The more I think about that term, the more I am drawn to the notion that our military leaders are not so much lacking in intelligence, but rather that they narrow their focus to the tasks they understand and are committed to achieving. When military leaders committed their forces to the attack as in, say Gallipoli, they lost very large numbers of their troops in a vain attempt to capture the day. Similarly, the “Charge of the Light Brigade” is now a famous example of foolish leadership. But in Vietnam, we have a different kind of failure. There, the military did what they know how to do—kill as many of the enemy as they could identify, in an attempt to forge something called “victory”. Yet, lose we did, mainly though because of failures in our political leadership. Military intelligence had little to do with our eventual defeat there.
But the oxymoronic term, “republican ethics”, or perhaps more broadly, “conservative ethics” has more staying power these days. Is it true that republicans/conservatives are entirely unethical? Well, no, that would never be the case, any more than thinking that all Muslims want to kill innocents by committing suicide, or that all Christians want to bash Gays.
But conservatives really seem to have defined a territory of their own. That territory includes:
• All political battles are to be defined as zero-sum games, in which they can win only by forcing the other side to lose;
• All social issues are to be defended on the basis of the most conservative, narrowest interpretation of Christian tenets, regardless of their impact on society at large;
• All economic issues are to be argued on the basis of what is good for corporate America—generally following that old axiom, “what’s good for "GM" is good for America”, again without regard to the overall well-being of the American people;
• All advertising campaigns aimed at convincing Americans of their various causes are to include material that appeals to either greed, or fears, regardless of whether the required material includes patent lies. Lying works, so that makes it ok.
• Finally, the only thing that counts is power. Anything that will achieve or consolidate republican/conservative power is by definition good and acceptable. That is the principle that gave us an ok to employ torture as a routine interrogation approach.
So, I will continue to believe that conservative ethics will remain as the classic example of an oxymoron, until such time as responsible, thoughtful conservatives come out of their closets and re-engage in the battle for a healthy, ethical American Nation. I look forward to that day.

Friday, October 2, 2009


I have written a bit about religion and my lack of empathy for most religions, or their followers. Mainly, as I have noted, I find this disconnect between religion and God, so I find the whole subject to be a cynical exercise in power aggregation. Further, it is akin, I think to one of our more recent sad economic activities, namely Ponzi schemes. In the most egregious, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi. Bernie basically took money from friends and colleagues in exchange for promises of grand returns on their investment, returns no sensible person should have found believable. Yet believe him they did. See, they believed in Bernie, so they followed his dictates, regardless of how absurd his promises. But that’s what religions do. In exchange for your obedience, and often your money, the high priests promise you things they can’t deliver. You want what they are offering so badly that you gladly give up your intellectual freedom in exchange for their empty promises. In the case of Ponzi schemes, eventually the truth comes out, because nobody can keep a Ponzi going forever. Sooner or later, the Ponzi masters run out of fresh sources of money and they run out of their ability to keep the Ponzi going. The whole enterprise then comes crashing down, and everyone involved discovers the awful truth that they have been conned.
In religion, nobody ever literally discovers the fraud, because they die first. Nobody ever returns to rat out the Ponzi master—the high priests. So, the religious Ponzi continues.
But where does all this belief in the absurd originate? My theory is that it originates from tribes and tribalism. Man seems naturally drawn to tribes, for protection if no other reason. Early tribes must have been simply early man and his/her close relatives living within the same caves, and looking out for predators. Acting in concert would have been more effective than acting alone. As the tribes acquired more members, they increased in strength. So, larger tribes could intimidate smaller tribes, forcing them to move farther away.
Within the tribes, physical strength, and eventually skill in fighting or in weapons handling, when they became available, led to leaders, chiefs and subchiefs. Over time, the tribes organized rituals to ward off bad events, or to encourage good events, such as weather for their crops or animals. Periodically, odd events would occur, events for which the strong chiefs had no answer. Over time, some men would have stepped forward with explanations that satisfied the tribe. These men became the wise ones, men less physically able than their chiefs, but more glib. Surely, as rituals were invented by the strong ones, even more rituals would have been invented by the wise ones. All the rituals offered the promise of protection in the future—greater food stocks, health over time, victories over neighboring/warring tribes. The key is that, sometimes the rituals seemed to work—the food stocks increased because the weather cooperated, or the neighboring tribes were subdued. Probability laws figure here. So, what happened when the rituals seemed not to work?
Here is the true genius of religion, even in its earliest stages. The wise men always asserted that, when rituals failed to deliver, they had been carried out incorrectly. Someone, never the wise men, was flawed. Scapegoats could always be found, or virgins sacrificed. The priests always supervised. In early times, the priests actually carried out the sacrifices, but later, the priests withdrew from personal participation, so as to seem above the entire enterprise.
One could imagine that periodically, the strong men and the wise men would differ over policies. While it certainly would have been the case that the two fought, it is as surely the case that the two groups would have decided that working together produced the strongest hold over the larger population to be commanded. The chiefs could command the tribe’s warriors, and the priests could command the people’s fears. Together, they could rule without any fear of tribal revolution.
Over time, it seems clear that the two merged the belief systems, such that the chiefs were accorded even more mysterious and higher order powers—thereby enabling the notion of “divine right” to enter the systems of rule. Kings/chiefs were said to be endowed with their earthly authority by none other than God. Their children were accorded the same mystical authority, thereby eliminating challenges from other earthly sources (the people). Clashes between the two groups proved difficult, as in those cases where kings decided to operate against the wishes of the ruling priests. Such clashes were never easy to resolve, because they involved a clash between raw power—armies, and otherworldly power—threats of damnation and banishment to the burning fires of hell (after priests decided to invent the concept of everlasting punishment through fire, e.g., hell).
It is not difficult to envision the even larger clashes that were to come, between a population that was becoming educated, and that population’s ruling classes. As people become better educated, the people can themselves begin to ponder the questions of life, mortality, its aftermath, and the earthly powers granted to both chiefs/kings, and the priests of the world. Over time, as the population became increasingly educated, or increasing discontented with the privileges accorded the ruling classes, rebellion was inevitable. Thus, in France, the ruling classes were eliminated by the sword/guillotine. In places such as England, the ruling classes also acquired enough education to understand that ceding power to the people was the only way to stave off their almost certain elimination through harsher methods. It is interesting to observe the various ways divine authorities were overthrown. In France, the crowds of discontented—mobs—acquired power and killed the rulers, paving the way for initially rough forms of democratic power-sharing.. In England, wiser ruling heads decided to cede to the people, in the form of elected subrulers, much of the power they had enjoyed. In Russia, crowds prevailed, much as in France, but these crowds simply substituted their own forms of absolute rule, giving rise to the Soviet state, which killed millions of the people, in the name of saving the people from their monarchical rulers. In Iran, a modern version of substitution occurred, when, in 1979, the religious classes overthrew the monarchical classes, throwing out the king, and bringing in an even more absolute dictator, in the form of a high priest, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As tribes became nation-states, clashes between the tribes were inevitable, and wars became the way to resolve the conflicts. Humans have rarely conceived and implemented intellectual approaches to conflict resolution, when arms can be employed. Modern man seems curiously primitive when it comes to conflict resolution. Tribal preservation seems to represent the dominant motivation in these cases. People are taught to think of themselves as tribal members, as distinct from individuals with free will and a capacity to think. Tribal preservation becomes substituted for preservation of the individual as the “greater good.” People no longer think for themselves.
On average, I see an inverse relationship between education and people’s willingness to be led over the cliff, as in sheep/lemmings, by their leaders (who never by the way, actually lead their people over the cliff, instead, stepping to the side while urging on their followers). Where the relationship exists, it seems to have something important to do with the polar opposite notions of ambiguity--certainty. We must all be born, or acquire as we age/mature, with fear of the unknown—the dark, strangers, other cultures and rituals, and death and its aftermath.
As people acquire more education, they acquire an ability to define more colors in the world than black and white. We begin to see subtlety in the world. We begin to see that many other cultural rituals are just different, rather than inherently threatening. We begin to understand that the world is in fact a more interesting place if variation is preserved. Other tribes and other tribal customs need not be viewed as potentially hostile. Yet tribalism remains the dominant cultural fact of life today, seemingly as alive as it was hundreds of years ago, with all of its sinister implications. I keep wondering whether in a StarTrek fantasy world, hundreds of years in our future, mankind will have overcome this cultural device that divides us all, conquering our seemingly innate desire to look down upon people in other “tribes.” Perhaps in that world, Republicans and Democrats will be able to discuss problems rationally and reach solutions based on what is best for the people at large. Perhaps Christians will no longer seek to demonize Gays who wish to marry, and Muslims will no longer strap on dynamite vests so as to blow up innocents in a marketplace. What a wonderful world that would be.