The motivations of a killer

They were actually expecting Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged gunman in the shooting Saturday morning that killed six people (though Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) may well survive), to be coherent. Juan Cole, who is usually a bit more level-headed, for instance, opened his column writing that Loughner “was clearly mentally unstable,”[1] as if that should be a surprise.

As I noted yesterday, “a lot of people think [the shooting] was politically-motivated.”[2] Yet for many that seems to have implied that Loughner would be rational. And indeed it turns out he is not. Jeff Kaye, a psychologist, writes that

his videos do display a garbled mixture of political concerns, and there is a great deal about conscience (“conscience dreams”), about not doing wrong, about the definition of “terrorist”, about “grammar” and “currency”, about “brainwashing” and “mind control”. At times, appears as if he’s grappling with something struggling inside himself. . . .

I would caution against implying any politics to someone who appears so disturbed, as his interpretation of political symbols and phrases are interpreted in a highly idiosyncratic and irrational way. However, if he were susceptible to violence, then the targets available by the given society, i.e., the rhetoric out there in the society, would have pointed him towards liberals, leftists, Muslims, or other minorities, and that kind of rhetoric has mainly been from the right-wing, as has been copiously commented upon.[3]

In an addendum, Kaye notes that an extract of Loughner’s statements in a video are “not the ramblings of a right-wing crackpot, which some have claimed Loughner to be, but gibberish.”[4]

I was trying to be cautious yesterday in any assessment of Loughner’s motivations. And I certainly don’t fully agree with Cole here:

And among the concerns that came to dominate him as he moved to the Right was the illegitimacy of the “Second Constitution” (the 14th Amendment, which bestows citizenship on all those born in the US, a provision right-wingers in Arizona are trying to overturn at the state level). Loughner also thought that Federal funding for his own community college was unconstitutional, and he was thrown out for becoming violent over the issue. He obviously shared with the Arizona Right a fascination with firearms, and it is telling that a disturbed young man who had had brushes with the law was able to come by an automatic pistol. He is said to have used marijuana, which would be consistent with a form of anti-government, right-wing Libertarianism.[5]

Earth to Cole: most people who use marijuana are pretty mellow folks. You would have done better to have discounted that bit of evidence just as you did his reading list.

And Cole does not persuade me when he claims that “Loughner was acting politically even if he is not all there.”[6] To say so is meaningless—we could as easily attribute political action to the weather at the event. But Loughner apparently knew whom he was shooting. According to Cole, “He is said to have called out the names of his victims, such as Roll and Gifford, as he fired.”[7] And Cole’s comment that, “As usual, when white people do these things, the mass media doesn’t call it terrorism”[8] is certainly correct but best reserved for a more expansive treatment of the whole use of the term terrorism (where I think Cole and I would find a lot of common ground).

Cole’s larger point, however is that

Those right-wing bloggers who want to dismiss Loughner as merely disturbed are being hypocritical, since they won’t similarly dismiss obviously unstable Muslims who, like the so-called “Patriots” of the McVeigh stripe, sometimes turn violent. . . .

But where members of Congress encourage extreme rhetoric, and where Rupert Murdoch’s stable of demagogues use code to whip up racial hatred and violence, those [First Amendment] rights can be withdrawn by vigilante and mob violence. Not the letter of the Constitution can protect us, but only its spirit, and then only when implemented in our daily lives.[9]

I wasn’t completely clear yesterday when I used a metaphor of climate change—which produces a greater number of extreme weather events—to suggest that a political climate change was producing a greater number of extreme political events. What political climate change was I talking about? (If I were doing this for a living, I might have an editor to throw stuff like this back in my face.)

Certainly there has, particularly since an enhanced evangelical Protestant influence in politics that beginning in the late 1970s combined with a corporate backlash that created the powerful business lobby that now effectively owns Washington, D.C.,[10] been a rise in right wing fanaticism, a fanaticism, however, that is far from unprecedented.[11] As I look at history, I would in fact trace this at least to the end of the Civil War, when we forced people who believed in the righteousness of slavery to submit; when we amended the constitution to 1) abolish slavery, 2) guarantee equal protection of the law to all persons (men anyway—the personhood of women is apparently still in doubt), and 3) grant universal male citizen suffrage (intentionally including blacks); when a second great wave of immigration brought more darker-skinned non-native speakers of English from southeast Europe to the United States; when increased mobility in the Industrial Revolution meant that young men left young women in the lurch a lot more often; when industrialization meant an increased discrepancy in economic power between rich and poor; when middle- and upper-class white women started exercising greater control over their own fertility, leading nativists to shriek that whites would be outnumbered (and lose political hegemony); and when the evangelical movement as we understand it today got its start.

I would say in fact that the Civil War continues to reverberate in the social and political polarization that has become prominent beginning in the late 1970s but is arguably a continuation of a story that includes the counterculture and Civil Rights movements, lynchings, and the death penalty.

I’m not as sanguine as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson about the balance they say the authors of the U.S. Constitution sought between economic power and political democracy.[12] I’ve been thinking again about Federalist No. 10:

The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property, is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet, there is perhaps no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party, to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they over-burden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets. . . .

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government on the other hand enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest, both the public good and the rights of other citizens. . . .[13]

Here we see that James Madison, who wrote Federalist No. 10, fears that democracy would deprive the rich of their property. It is his most specific example in his argument for a republican form of government:

The effect of the first difference [between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest] is, on one hand to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.[14]

Madison doesn’t just think a republican system is more practical than a democracy; he trusts those who are elected. And who are such people? On the one hand, he admits that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”[15] and he expects that by finding an appropriate ratio of representation to population “it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried”[16]—acknowledging that elections are far from perfect. This is about an elite class of men (women were chattel at this point in history) who can appeal to a wide electorate and, Madison thinks, will be able to set aside their own interests to govern according to Madison’s concept of “wisdom.” In other words, they are so filthy stinking rich that they really don’t care about the effects of legislation on their own lives. They will “wisely” govern those Madison seemingly sees as a mob who in a democracy might tax away the property of the rich.

Howard Zinn’s approach to Federalist No. 10 turns on Madison’s main argument that a republic can better manage factions:

So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was offered by the Constitution, to have “an extensive republic,” that is, a large nation ranging over thirteen states, for then “it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. . . . The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”

Madison’s argument can be seen as a sensible argument for having a government which can maintain peace and avoid continuous disorder. But is it the aim of government simply to maintain order, as a referee, between two equally matched fighters? Or is it that government has some special interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, a certain distribution of power and wealth, a distribution in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants? In that case, the disorder they might worry about is the disorder of popular rebellion against those monopolizing the society’s wealth. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the economic interests, the social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution.[17]

Zinn’s history is largely about the tension between the working class and the wealthy that persists in U.S. history and periodically erupts, compelling the wealthy to concede just enough to just enough people to avoid a full-blown revolution. And here Zinn sees Madison as reposing trust in his own well-to-do class. “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause,”[18] Madison writes, but he presumes it is the poor who have a “cause” (to deprive the rich of their property) and not the rich. Indeed Chomsky writes,

After the American revolution, rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught by force that the ideals expressed in the pamphlets of 1776 were not to be taken seriously. The common people were not to be represented by countrymen like themselves, that know the people’s sores, but by gentry, merchants, lawyers, and others who hold or serve private power. Jefferson and Madison believed that power should be in the hands of the “natural aristocracy,” Edmund Morgan comments, “men like themselves” who would defend property rights against Hamilton’s “paper aristocracy” and from the poor; they “regarded slaves, paupers, and destitute laborers as an ever-present danger to liberty as well as property.” The reigning doctrine, expressed by the Founding Fathers, is that “the people who own the country ought to govern it” (John Jay). The rise of corporations in the 19th century, and the legal structures devised to grant them dominance over private and public life, established the victory of the Federalist opponents of popular democracy in a new and powerful form.[19]

Even if one assigns more charitable motives to the Founding Fathers than I, Madison’s reliance on the vastness of the country to limit what Madison would see as factional mischief would surely be undermined in a globalized world or even in a country where the Taft-Hartley Act allows businesses “to shift their operations to right-to-work states, where unions were barred from making union membership a condition of employment in a firm or industry,”[20] and in which as Hacker and Pierson note, capital is far more mobile than labor. And the determination to protect a particular socioeconomic hierarchy by entrenching it in political power inevitably weights the scales in favor of the rich, who in the late 1970s organized and invested vast amounts of money in lobbying organizations that now effectively rule, and who certainly by the time of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 had allied themselves with evangelical Protestants.[21]

It is this increasing power of the rich—despite occasional setbacks—that I mean when I refer to political climate change. I’ll quote here from what I wrote in EarthWiki[22]:

As Charles Reich describes it,

Every step the New Deal took encountered massive, bitter opposition of Consciousness I [individualist, laissez-faire] people. They found their world changing beyond recognition and instead of blaming the primary forces behind that change, they blamed the efforts at solving the problems. They totally lacked the sophistication necessary to see that a measure such as the Wagner Act might be redressing an existing oppression rather than creating oppression. The businessmen who were the most vocal in their opposition had a pathological hatred of the New Deal, a hatred so intense and person as to defy analysis. Why this hatred, when the New Deal, in retrospect, seems to have saved the capitalist system? Perhaps because the New Deal intruded irrevocably upon their make-believe problem-free world in which the pursuit of business gain and self-interest was imagined to be automatically beneficial to all of mankind, requiring of them no additional responsibility whatever. In any event, there was a large and politically powerful number of Americans who never accepted the New Deal even when it benefited them, and used their power whenever they could to cut it back.[23]

Where in the New Deal, there was the beginning of a recognition of social responsibility even among elites, Gore Vidal has said “the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.”[24] Noam Chomsky writes that “there is essentially one political party, the business party, with two factions. Shifting coalitions of investors account for a large part of political history.”[25] And Chris Hedges writes,

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal. During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement. But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless. It offers nothing but empty rhetoric. It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant. It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass. And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule. The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.[26]

This political climate change does not happen overnight. As with meteorological climate change, it is a gradual, continuing process, marked by an increasing frequency of extreme events, like Hurricane Katrina, like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

Experts said of Katrina that it was impossible to assign climate change as the cause, but that warmer sea temperatures make such storms increasingly probable. Likewise with the Giffords shooting, we probably cannot know that that an extreme socioeconomic disparity or its political implications are the cause.

But we can wonder if a country that hadn’t so deeply cut services to its own population might have intervened and gotten Jared Loughner the help he apparently so desperately needs.

  1. [1] Juan Cole, “White Terrorism,” Informed Comment, January 9, 2011,…
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Political Climate Change and Extreme Political Events,”, January 8, 2011,
  3. [3]Jeff Kaye, “Jared Loughner’s Possible Mental Illness,” Firedoglake, January 8, 2011,…
  4. [4]Kaye, “Jared Loughner’s Possible Mental Illness.”
  5. [5]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  6. [6]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  7. [7]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  8. [8]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  9. [9]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  10. [10] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  11. [11]goinsouth, “Right Wing Violence Is An American Tradition,” Daily Kos, March 21, 2010,
  12. [12]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics.
  13. [13]James Madison, “The Federalist No. 10,” in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, Garry Wills, ed. (New York: Bantam, 2003), pp. 53, 54.
  14. [14]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 55.
  15. [15]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 54.
  16. [16] Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 56.
  17. [17]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), p. 97).
  18. [18]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 53.
  19. [19]Noam Chomsky, “Force and Opinion,” Z Magazine, July-August 1991. Retrieved from–.htm
  20. [20]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, p. 128.
  21. [21] Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics.
  22. [22]EarthWiki, “United States – Internal Relationships with Humans – Polarization,”…
  23. [23]Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970), pp. 56-57.
  24. [24]Gore Vidal, interview by David Barsamian, “Gore Vidal Interview,” Progressive, August 2006,
  25. [25]Noam Chomsky, “Containing the Threat of Democracy,” in Barry Pateman (Ed.), Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, ed., (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2005), p. 157.
  26. [26]Chris Hedges, “The World Liberal Opportunists Made,” Truthdig], October 25, 2010. Retrieved from… Archived at

“Violence has no place in a democracy”

Since the Giffords shooting yesterday, all of a sudden I’m being reminded that “violence has no place in a democracy.” By a number of people.

The hypocrisy here is rich.

Setting aside the critical distinction made crystal clear in James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 between a democracy and a republic (we have the latter, not the former),[1] we are, by far, the most war-like country on the planet:

So given all this, just how does the U.S. stack up as a supposedly peace loving country? It is actually not a simple matter to find out all the wars the the nation has been involved in. And a large number of the wars overlap. But Roger Lee has a list, which I plugged into a spreadsheet. And when I put the data through some manipulations, I came up with a grand total of 16 calendar years in which the United States was not at war with someone, somewhere, somehow. The longest of these periods was eight years. We have been at war the entire rest of the time.[2]

And to claim that we can fight all these wars in other places (though the shooting war on indigenous people in the western hemisphere has been going on for over 500 years) without bringing some of that violence back home is to ignore more than I can even begin to list here. There are other kinds of violence too:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[3]

Perhaps that sounds abstract, an unavoidable consequence of capitalism, a system which claims justification as the least awful means of distributing “scarce” resources:

Certainly, environmental or other circumstances can lead to real scarcities. But artificial scarcities are constantly created by dominator politics and economics through overconsumption, wastefulness, exploitation, war or preparation for war, environmental despoliation, and failure to invest in high-quality human capital by not giving value to caring and caregiving.

Overconsumption and wastefulness by those on top is a perennial feature of dominator cultures. Whether it’s the opulent Roman feasts or the million-dollar parties of today’s super-rich, the grandiose palaces of kings, emperors, and dictators or the extravagant mansions of Enron and WorldCom CEOs, Imelda Marcos’s thousands of shoes, or the immense bank accounts of the Sukarno and Suharto families, it comes to the same. Those on top waste resources and those on the bottom scramble for the scraps.

Competition for scraps often takes on racial, religious and ethnic overtones. Smoldering prejudice is easily fanned into flames of hate and often violence.[4]

The collateral damage of capitalism shows up in violence against the poor. I’ve previously pointed out that

according to the King’s College of London International Centre for Prison Statistics, the U.S. as a country, both in terms of the total number of inmates and as a proportion of population, locks up more than any other country. The U.S. incarcerates more people than countries vastly larger in population. Ranked by proportion of population, the U.S. locks up more than such bastions of freedom as Russia, ranked 3rd with 628 prisoners per 100,000 population; Cuba, ranked 5th, with an estimated 531 per 100,000; Iran, ranked 58th with 222; Libya, ranked 59th with 209; Saudi Arabia, ranked 69th with 178; Zimbabwe, ranked 100th with 136; China, ranked 115th with 119; Vietnam, 125th with 107; Egypt, 147th with 85; and Syria, 183rd with 58. You might think the U.S. government and its subsidiaries might be the greatest threat to your freedom.

Of course, that depends on who you are. If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably heard that Black men make up a disproportionately large share of U.S. prison populations. For every 100,000 black males in the U.S. population, 4,777 of them are in prison. They are over six times as likely as their white brothers to be in prison, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, and four times as likely as their “other” brothers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recognizes only three races: white, Black, and Hispanics. Individuals are either Hispanic or they are not. To combine with Census Bureau statistics, I added numbers for non-Hispanic “American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Asians, “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” and “Two or more races.” In truth, there are probably no purebred humans anywhere on the planet. But Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, who arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for “disorderly conduct,” should take note: This is a system of criminal injustice.

Black men are over six times more likely to be in prison than their white brothers, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, four times as likely as their “other” brothers, 51 times as likely as their white sisters, nearly 14 times as likely as their Black sisters, over 32 times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and–get this–936 times as likely as their “other” sisters. The numbers for Hispanic men and “other” men aren’t quite so outrageous, but even an “other” man is over 231 times more likely to be behind bars as is “other” sister. “Other” women are, by far, the least likely to be found in prison. Given that white males make up a majority of judges, prosecutors, and police, I can’t help but think of common white male fantasies involving “exotic,” “mysterious” Asian women.

Men in general are over ten times more likely to be in prison than their sisters. White men are nearly eight times as likely to be in prison as their white sisters, twice as likely as their black sisters, five times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and over 142 times as likely as their “other” sisters. I’m supposed to believe these are cultural differences but, believe it or not, some of these people have lived in this country for a long time. By the time you get to the third generation, people generally do not speak the language of their ancestors; they are “Americanized.”[5]

Philip Zimbardo had to abort the notorious Stanford Prison experiment, which had been planned to last two weeks, after only six days, because an experiment structured to avoid physical abuse on the prisoners nonetheless resulted in severe degradation.[7] Angela Davis has said,

Prisons create the assumption that those who are a threat to our safety and security are behind bars, but in actuality, the techniques of violence, the techniques of terror that are most dangerous, are the ones used within the system itself. . . .

And the violence of slavery, which we assume was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment and afterwards, is very much at work within US prison institutions. And because the prison has been marketed on the global capitalist circuit, we discover these prisons, the US-style prisons now, all over the world, in the Global North as well as the Global South.[8]

But after all of this, we act as if Tea Party rhetoric is to blame.

The fact is that the United States loves violence, revels in violence, celebrates violence. From the fireworks at the 4th of July (commemorating exploding rockets in war) to the Star-Spangled Banner to the Boy Scouts and their salutes (as indoctrination for military service) to its “law and order” system of criminal injustice to its attitude that damns the poor to its action-adventure movies to the television sets that its people spend so much time in front of, this country is all about violence. I don’t think this country even knows how not to be violent.

  1. [1]James Madison, "The Federalist No. 10: Madison," November 22, 1787, in The Federalist Papers, Garry Wills, ed. (New York: Bantam, 2003).
  2. [2]David Benfell, "A Peace Loving Nation," October 18, 2009.
  3. [3]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), p. 7.
  4. [4]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007), p. 130.
  5. [6]
  6. [5]David Benfell, "Thinking about prisoners and institutionalized bigotry," August 5, 2009,

    Prisons inherently commit violence against prisoners. According to EarthWiki,[6]EarthWiki, "United States – Internal Relationships with Humans – Criminal Injustice," dead link.

  7. [7]“Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect (New York: Random House, 2008).
  8. [8]Democracy Now!, “Angela Davis on the Prison Abolishment Movement, Frederick Douglass, the 40th Anniversary of Her Arrest and President Obama’s First Two Years,” October 19, 2010,

The Tea Party is a Liberal Creation

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

Those of you who read more fiction than I are probably used to this. You’re reading along, convinced—absolutely convinced—you know where the plot is leading, what’s going to happen next. But the plot twists, and all of a sudden, you’re someplace you didn’t expect to be.

I’m reading Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.1 They begin by showing just how skewed income distribution is in the United States, not so much between rich and poor but between the extremely rich—as in the top 0.1 percent or top 0.01 percent of the population—and everyone else. Suffice it here to say that this is obscene.

But these two authors are political scientists, not economists. Their real agenda is looking at how this came to happen. I’m not alone in interpreting particularly Federalist No. 10 to mean that this is how the government was designed, that as I have written previously, it was designed to protect the minority interests not of any disadvantaged or stigmatized group, but the property interests of wealthy white male property-owners.2

Hacker and Pierson argue at length that the political system was actually intended to balance political democracy against a tendency for the wealthy to concentrate power. And as they make their argument, I became convinced that they were heading to a point I saw in Joseph Stiglitz’ book, Making Globalization Work, that poorly managed economic globalization undermines political democracy by allowing multinational corporations to pit countries against each other in a race to the bottom for the least labor and environmental regulation and the lowest labor costs.3

Hacker and Pierson might still be headed there. The notion of multinational corporation as free agent might be expected to destabilize the precarious balance that they attribute to the founders’ intent in the U.S. Constitution. But here’s the twist. To set the context, here’s a passage I’ve previously quoted from Scott Sernau:

At the same time [the 1970s], the loss of industrial jobs and declining incomes for the working class created new fears of competition and struggles between workers. Working-class whites felt abandoned by the loss of the progressive New Deal agenda. In particular, they directed their anger and frustration at welfare programs, which they believed rewarded people for not working, and at affirmative action programs, which they feared would limit their own opportunities (Faludi 1991).4

Hacker and Pierson shift the timeline to the end of the 1970s. As they describe the period of time between 1968 and 1977:

In fact, the surge of government activism actually accelerated under Nixon—exactly the opposite of what the conventional story would lead you to expect. Nixon, not Johnson, oversaw the most rapid increase in domestic spending since the New Deal. He signed on to a huge expansion of Social Security, as well as to the creation of a national food stamps program. Nixon also approved the transformation of Old Age Assistance into a much larger and fully national Supplemental Security Income program.

Nixon, not Johnson, signed into law the huge extensions of national regulator policy that marked this period, creating the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), the National Traffic Safety Commission (1970), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1972) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (1973). And while Nixon had been forced out of office by the time that the massive Employee Retirement Income Security Act (1974) made it through Congress, his successor, Gerald Ford, signed the bill, which transformed the entire system of employer-provided benefits for workers.5

We don’t get to blame Richard Nixon. Or, for that matter, Gerald Ford. This happened on Jimmy Carter’s watch. As Hacker and Pierson put it, “So cocky were Democrats that they rejected Nixon’s (and later Ford’s) overtures for compromises on a range of issues like welfare reform and health care, anticipating that they would be in a stronger position in 1977.”6

By 1978, at a time of unified Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House, the precursors of the Reagan revolution were already visible. Congress passed a tax bill whose signature provision was a deep cut in the capital gains tax—a change that would largely benefit the wealthy. This followed hard on the heels of a decision to sharply raise payroll taxes, the most regressive federal levy.7

What Nixon did do was to split the New Deal coalition. “Even as he moved to challenge Democrats from the right on matters of race, culture, and crime, he was convinced that competing for the center required a strong dose of economic populism and a willingness to use government to manage or moderate markets.”8 Hacker and Pierson credit Kevin Phillips for explaining that

it was liberals who had repudiated the New Deal by moving “beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many (the New Deal) to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few (the Great Society).” The main obstacles to Republican inroads among northern blue-collar workers were “[f]ears that a Republican administration would undermine Social Security, Medicare, collective bargaining and aid to education.” If a Nixon administration could “dispel these apprehensions,” it would gain the political loyalties of the white working class.9

And indeed, judging at least from the howling, it is under a Democratic administration that we see the most credible threat to Social Security yet.10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Political Climate Change and Extreme Political Events

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

At this writing, it is too early to say whether the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, in Tuscon was politically-motivated. Marty Kaplan perhaps put it best,

I’m not saying that putting a bullseye on Arizona Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional race – as Sarah Palin did – was an explicit or intentional invitation to violence. Nor am I saying that the “Get on Target for Victory” events held by the guy Giffords beat – “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly” – was the reason her assassin went after her.1

But a lot of people think it was politically-motivated. The New York Times story notes that she was “an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law,” that “after the final approval of the Democrats’ health care law, which Ms. Giffords supported, the windows of her office in Tucson were broken or shot out in an act of vandalism”2 (which a Mother Jones story suggests may have been at the instigation of Mike Vanderboegh, a former 1990s militia leader from Alabama3), that “a protester who showed up to meet Ms. Giffords at a supermarket event similar to Saturday’s was removed by the police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell and bounced on the floor,” and that Giffords’ district was among those on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs map”4 (which has now been hastily removed5). Paul Krugman, better known for his economic prognostications than his criminal investigation prognostications, wrote:

We don’t have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was. She’s been the target of violence before. And for those wondering why a Blue Dog Democrat, the kind Republicans might be able to work with, might be a target, the answer is that she’s a Democrat who survived what was otherwise a GOP sweep in Arizona, precisely because the Republicans nominated a Tea Party activist. (Her father says that “the whole Tea Party” was her enemy.) And yes, she was on Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs” list.

What I’m going to say is it doesn’t matter whether this shooting was political. Any more than it matters whether any particular storm, drought, flood, or whatever is the result of climate change. Because just as meteorological climate change increases the incidence of extreme weather events, political climate change is likely to increase the incidence of extreme political events.

One of my professors, arguing for a notion of social creativity, points to a “lone hero” archetype (which he debunks). He sees it in the context of a strong individualist bias in our society that devalues group efforts including anything collaborative or cooperative.6 This is a very destructive thing for society, particularly when some deranged someone gets it into his or her head to be a “hero,” to individually take on and destroy a figurehead of the federal government—as might be what happened in the Giffords shooting.

Kaplan criticizes how the “macho athletic lexicon” has “has helped dumb down democracy, making a serious national discussion about anything important too wonky for words.” He writes,

The “second amendment solution,” though, does something worse than make politics a branch of entertainment. It makes it a blood sport. I know politics ain’t beanbag. But words have consequences, rhetoric shapes reality, and much as we like to believe that we are creatures of reason, there is something about our species’ limbic system and lizard brainstems that makes us susceptible to irrational fantasies.7

We’ve been traveling down this road for a while now. What we should all be concerned about is a question of whether the Giffords shooting is a single event or part of an increasingly violent trend that seems to have intensified with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. And “goinsouth” at the Daily Kos has a long list of right wing attacks over the last 100 years.8 These are very dangerous, unhinged people.

And those who insist that this country should remain united, that we should attempt through political means to impose our will upon them, should be counting the cost in blood.

No WPA today, but I got some pictures

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I have to say, I’m in awe. Of course a bunch of photographers who I assume are all dead now deserve some credit. As do Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti. The new site is beautiful, even if I do say so myself.

I have (mostly) changed the color scheme in the Danland theme and rather than use the theme’s supplied photographs, I went prowling through the Library of Congress (see the article on EarthWiki and click on the photographs for more information) for photographs of people who, unlike a certain Speaker of the House, had reason to cry.

I should let Howard Zinn tell this part:

The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States, came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it. But as John Galbraith says in his study of that event (The Great Crash), behind that speculation was the fact that “the economy was fundamentally unsound.” He points to very unhealthy corporate and banking structures, an unsound foreign trade, much economic misinformation, and the “bad distribution of income” (the highest 5 percent of the population received about one-third of all personal income.

A socialist critic would go further and say that the capitalist system was by its nature unsound: a system driven by the one overriding motive of corporate profit and therefore unstable, unpredictable, and blind to human needs. The result of all that: permanent depression for many of its people, and periodic crises for almost everybody. Capitalism, despite its attempts at self-reform, its organization for better control, was still in 1929 a sick and undependable system.

After the crash, the economy was stunned, barely moving. Over five thousand banks closed and huge numbers of businesses, unable to get money, closed too. Those that continued laid off employees and cut the wages of those who remained, again and again. Industrial production fell by 50 percent, and by 1933 perhaps 15 million (no one knew exactly)—one-fourth or one-third of the labor force—were out of work.1

It sounds a lot like today. I haven’t really been able to track this down, but I keep hearing that if the Bureau of Labor Statistics was measuring unemployment as it was a few decades ago, the unemployment rate would be more like 25 percent. Shadow Government Statistics puts it somewhere between 20 and 25 percent (precisely where is hard to tell without an expensive subscription).2 Gallup puts what it calls “underemployment” at 19.2 percent.3 That makes my own calculation of 13.15 percent seem rather conservative (which it is intended to be).4

But there is a difference between now and the Great Depression. Then, the United States government recognized that something had to be done, that unfettered capitalism had gotten out of hand, that the situation was a bit more serious than as George W. Bush put it,

“There’s no question about it. Wall Street got drunk — that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras — it got drunk and now it’s got a hangover,” Bush said at a private fundraiser for Republican congressional candidate Pete Olson. “The question is: How long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments?”5

And of course, the answer to Bush’s question was that it wasn’t very long at all before Wall Street was back to roaring profits employing many of the same practices that had caused the problems in the first place. And meanwhile, what no one on Wall Street or within the Beltway apparently cares about is Main Street.

There’s no Works Progress Administration—under whose auspices the photographs that grace this site‘s front page were taken—in sight for today’s unemployed. As much as it is needed.6 7 8 9 Instead, as Zinn put it,

Clearly, those responsible for organizing the economy did not know what had happened, were baffled by it, refused to recognize it, and found reasons other than the failure of the system. Herbert Hoover had said, not long before the crash: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis was here because the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. there is plenty of work to do if people would do it.” A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers.10

It’s hard to tell much difference between Ford’s remarks in 1931 and Diane Feinstein’s comment in 2010 that,

“We have 99 weeks of unemployment insurance,” Feinstein said. “The question comes, how long do you continue before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?”11

People keep trying to tell me that Feinstein isn’t a “real Democrat.” But the hard cold fact of the matter is that this former mayor of San Francisco—the same city that now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi represents—may be conservative by San Francisco standards but is well within the mainstream of her party.

A few days ago, I wrote of the hubris of “progressives who assumed they could make progress within a thoroughly corrupt political system.”12 Those of us who cling to delusions that this political system can be redeemed are perhaps even more a part of the problem than the Tea Partiers on the right.

We don’t have WPA-sponsored photographers prowling the country recording people’s suffering today. And you won’t find the conglomerate television and cable network news camera crews doing in-depth interviews with those the bankers hung out to dry. But their suffering is nonetheless real. And the divide now is between those who recognize reality and work towards a solution and those who continue to play establishment games.

This site is here for those who want to be part of the solution.

More lies, damned lies, and statistics

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

Put in proper context, the widely reported drop in unemployment from November to December is much less spectacular.

A significant chunk of the story appears to be a drop of 260,000 in the number of people included in the labor force and an increase of 434,000 in the number of people excluded from the labor force. The increase in the number excluded mostly accounts for the decrease of 556,000 in the number the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as unemployed. Reductions in labor market size are one way the BLS manipulates the most widely reported measure of unemployment.

So while the BLS headline unemployment number drops from 9.77 percent to 9.42 percent, Admiral Janeway’s variant shows a much smaller drop from 13.27 percent to 13.15 percent. On behalf of my cat, Admiral Janeway, I assume that given stagnant or deteriorating economic conditions for the vast majority of people, the relative proportion of people who would be working or actively seeking work if they perceived a reasonable labor market should increase but never decrease.1 As always, it should be assumed that the United States Government has an interest in minimizing reported unemployment which undermines the reliability of the numbers I rely upon in producing these statistics.

The Hubris of the Left

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

It actually is not tempting to write further on the hubris of the United States effort in Afghanistan. Tom Engelhardt does it so well.1

But there is another sort of hubris I want to focus on. It is the hubris of “hope,” “change,” and “we did it” that brought Barack Obama into the presidency. It is the hubris of Joseph Stiglitz, in Making Globalization Work, defending a long laundry list of things needed to make globalization work:

But a question I have repeated been asked is why I am optimistic that there will be any significant reforms—at least in the right direction. Friendly critics say that I have pointed out clearly the failures in globalization and the political forces which have given rise to those problems. Why, they ask, would a lecture—or a book—change anything. . . . But there are changes at play in the global economy—the increasing global imbalances, the mounting evidence on global warming, the continuing stalemate in the development round trade talks, the growing dissatisfaction with the World Bank, the rising awareness of the dangers of unilateralism, the WTO decision that America’s cotton subsidies are “illegal”—which, inevitably, will change the way globalization is managed.2

It was hubris that after decades of increasingly conservative policymaking, progressives’ moment had come, that with a Democrat in the White House, and with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, the tide had turned. In 2011, in the wake of an election that I think will actually change very little, many progressives who invested their hopes in the Democratic faction feel betrayed by a president, they say, who compromised as an opening position in negotiations with the opposition and who has harshly criticized his own base while pandering to that opposition and watering down policies to avoid challenging corporate interests.

Just as Engelhardt criticizes the surge mentality that improved intelligence and special operations will suffice in a war that has spilled over into Pakistan, some progressive Democrats think campaign finance reform will suffice in leveling the political playing field. But what we have seen, and why I think Stiglitz’ optimism is misplaced, is that in a policymaking process that continues to rely on ideology rather than fact, it is conservatives—most especially the Tea Partiers—who supply the ideology.

And when progressives challenge that ideology, no one listens. We have not got the mainstream media, long ago bought out by corporate conglomerates. We have not got the politicians, long ago sold out to multinational corporations. And we could never hope to have the economic or the military elites, whose respective delusions Stiglitz and Engelhardt so ably illuminate.

The right may be bat shit crazy. But the press hangs on Sarah Palin’s every tweet. Hundreds of thousands can turn out for antiwar demonstrations and journalists will hardly notice.

It is a dynamic that even seems to be undoing Julian Assange’s assertion that “geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases”3 as journalists lap up threats ranging from rape accusations to espionage charges to treason charges to death threats against him even as the WikiLeaks continues to supply fodder for stories that disappear into the mundane.

Forces that should support a recognition of reality, an accounting for criminal conduct, a serious response to climate change, and greater social justice do, instead, just the opposite. At best, we are treated to an occasional article on the suffering of an unemployed individual who is forgotten as soon as the reader turns the page, or in this Internet-driven age of attention deficit disorder, clicks on another link.

We seem inordinately fond of applying “Darwinism” in social and economic relationships, though such a use of Darwin’s theory has been repeatedly discredited and was in fact rejected by Darwin himself. We aren’t noticing that any species which fails to adapt to its surroundings is doomed. It’s hubris again—humans are exceptional, just as U.S residents overwhelmingly say of the United States,4 and just like progressives who assumed they could make progress within a thoroughly corrupt political system.