Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Structure Of Cults

                                                                                              written 16 February 2020
                                                                                          published 23 February 2020

            In 1965, the Peoples Temple moved to Redwood Valley. Jim Jones, the charismatic leader, had a following of thousands, inspired by his ideals of equality and social justice, and he was welcomed into the social and political structure of Mendocino County and the Bay area. 
            However, by the early 70's, exposes and public defections began to cast doubt on the integrity of the Temple.  Jones employed internal security for protection from his "enemies", and in 1974, Peoples Temple established Jonestown, in Guyana, South America.  Citing persecution, Jones moved there in 1977, urging others to follow him.  By late 1978, over 900 people lived there, isolated from the rest of the world.  
            On November 17, 1978, a Congressman, three journalists, and a defector were killed by Temple security.  The group had come to Guyana to investigate the welfare of Temple residents.  That evening the residents of Jonestown drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid.  Everyone died as a disastrous memorial to the ego of an insane leader.
            Peoples Temple is one of many cults in history. The qualities that define a cult include the actions of the leader and the structure imposed on the followers.
            The Guardian, in May 27th, 2009, published an article by Rick Ross, defining the signs of cult leader, paraphrased here.  "No meaningful financial disclosure of budget or expenses.  Absolute authoritarianism without accountability.  Unreasonable fear directed toward the outside world, such as conspiracies and persecution. The leader has exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation and no other process of discovery is acceptable or credible.  The leader is always right; there is no tolerance for questions or inquiry.  Followers are wrong to leave, and considered negative or even evil.  There are often records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group leader. "
            President Trump fits every one of these descriptions.
            A checklist presented by Janja Lalich and Michael Longone catalogs the following elements of a cult group structure.  "The group displays excessive zeal and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and regards his belief system as the Truth.  Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.  The group is elitist, claiming exalted status for its leader, who is on a special mission to save humanity.  The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality. The leader is not accountable to any authorities.  The leadership induces feelings of shame or guilt in order to influence and control members.  Members often fear reprisals to themselves if they leave the group.  The group teaches that its exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group."
            The Republican party under Trump fits these descriptions.   
            A core principle of the Republicans used to be the Rule of Law, the foundation of a democratic society, based on trust in the equal application of the law.  Judicial manipulation to support "friends" and punish "enemies", is a trait of corrupt, autocratic systems, but Attorney General Barr has injected himself into specific cases to insure leniency for Trump's associates.  
            The sentencing recommendation was changed in the Michael Flynn case, and the State of New York has been pressured to drop cases investigating Trump's tax returns.  Roger Stone was tried by a jury and found guilty of seven felony counts.  Before the sentence was delivered, Trump tweeted that he wanted a change.  A new recommendation for leniency was submitted and four lawyers quit in protest, bringing the issue to public scrutiny.  Trump then mounted a tweet attack demonizing those lawyers and the judge hearing the case.  This illegal political obstruction of justice is the act of a tyrant, not a president.
            The Grand Old Party is now the Cult Of Trump.  Republican Senators had a chance to save us and are now tarnished by Trump's actions, "participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group".  If "justice" is now crony capitalism, what country will trust America to be a steadfast ally?  We run a huge deficit, but who will risk investing in a corrupt system?
            Will Republicans with integrity speak up, or will America have to drink the Kool-Aid as a monument to this insane leader?


Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Need For Socialism

                                                                                              written 9 February 2020
                                                                                        published 16 February 2020

            Since Bernie Sanders made a good showing in Iowa (and probably New Hampshire by now), we will see more assaults on socialism, a word capitalists have demonized for decades.  But knee-jerk dogma must be transcended if we are to adequately deal with the issues of our time.
            Italian dictator Mussolini defined fascism as "state power used for corporate profits".  While it is true that totalitarian fascists are a form of capitalism, it is NOT true that all capitalists are fascists.  Similarly, while it is true that totalitarian communism is a form of socialism, it is NOT true that all socialists are communists, despite current Republican propaganda.  
            At a recent Mendocino county supervisorial candidate forum, Jon Kennedy (district 1), made the remark that business focuses on profits, but government must focus on services.  He spoke from a position of having been both a businessman and a former supervisor.  This distinction speaks to the heart of why it is a bad idea to run a government like a business: the goals are fundamentally different.  
            Until recently, business dogma taught that the sole purpose of a corporation was maximum fiscal return to shareholders: nobody else.  We are experiencing the financial failures of this narrow, exclusive gain, economic model, such that even the capitalist Business Roundtable recently expanded the beneficiaries of corporate policy.  
            Ralph Nader once said "capitalism works because socialism is always there to back it up".  The FDIC is socialist government insurance, protecting depositors against bad capitalist bank management.  The financial crash of 2007 resulted from high profit, high risk loan activity, which made billions for a few capitalists, but almost crashed the entire global economy when the risks turned bad.  Like a spendthrift kid running home to daddy, the banks demanded the government bail them out, which was done in order to save the economy of the country.  Being a capitalist economy, only the bankers were rescued, abandoning millions of homeowners, which contributed, in part, to the homeless crisis we experience today.
            By contrast, good government must be inclusive, serving the needs of the whole community in order to function.  Public sanitation is a perfect example.  Untreated sewage is a health risk to the entire population, so sewage treatment must service everyone in the community, no matter their relative financial prosperity.  As a result, there is little or no profit in dealing with this "waste", so business is the wrong model.  
            The first fire departments were operated on a capitalist insurance model.  Your fire would be extinguished only if you paid in advance.  This model failed because fires spread easily.  If a fire isn't stopped early, even in an uninsured building, it can become impossible to stop by the time it gets to an insured building.  Today, fire departments work for the entire community, as a critical, publically funded, socialist service.
            California was once on the cutting edge of providing mental health facilities, but it began privatizing mental health decades ago, a long term capitalist goal, and closed state owned facilities to reduce taxes. Since the mentally ill are often poor, this created inadequate and substandard service, which also contributes to today's homeless problem. 
            Socialist economics hold true for water treatment and delivery, police protection, and roads.  The quality of life in a community is better when these essential social services are addressed, as they form the infrastructure foundation for a healthy capitalist business economy.
            Here in Ukiah, we have a socialist, publically owned electric system, which provides reliable power for less money per kilowatt hour than the bankrupt investor owned utility that serves the rest of the county.  During the power outage in October, the socialist, publically owned sewer and water systems, continued to operate because of planning foresight.  Throughout the country, the entire capitalist economic system depends on socialist, federal, state, and locally owned road systems.  Our society would strangle if every road, street and bridge demanded a toll each time it was used.
            Capitalism and socialism are like yin and yang, two essential aspect of life.  One focuses on individual advantage and the other focuses on collective advantage. They each have their strength and limitation, and when applied in considered balance, as in democratic socialism, they can create a thriving community.  Either extreme devolves toward tyranny.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

At Peace Despite Politics

                                                                                              written 2 February 2020
                                                                                          published 9 February 2020

            The last day of January, we drove over to the Colusa Wildlife Refuge, celebrating Lynn's birthday by watching migrating birds roosting in the wetlands.  The entire day was a lovely immersion in "being", watching thousands of birds existing in cooperative harmony. We arrived home before dark, after a soul satisfying day.
            And then we watched the news of the day. 
            The day before, I foolishly hoped the Senate might really investigate the president.  Last summer Republican Senators had questioned the Ukrainian aid hold up, and it was possible a few would vote to hear from witnesses.  But Senate leader McConnell, with control of mega-donor campaign funds, allowed no deviation, insisting party was more important than country, truth, or even the rule of law.  "Might makes right", and "Those that have the gold, rule".  
            Trump's defense team kept shifting their narrative, originally denying the process was valid, then denying that anything happened.  They finally acknowledged the charges were real, but proclaimed there was no crime.  Trump’s attorney Alan Dershowitz, argued that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment”.
            Trump has proclaimed that he is the only person who can solve the problems of our nation, so his reelection is, by definition, of public interest.  Therefore, soliciting foreign involvement in our elections, and withholding Congressionally approved funds, both a violation of the law, are fine since the president thinks it will help his reelection.  
            My mind churned.  
            Emboldened by his "acquittal" in the non-trial, what else might mad King Trump try?  If Republican voter suppression and Russian election meddling aren't enough and he appears to be losing the election, will he cancel the vote?  America did that in Vietnam in 1955 to avoid an unwelcome outcome, why not here?  If the Democrats in the House get too worked up, why not just suspend Congress?  Who would stop him, Barr's Justice Department?  
            As you can see, I dove deep into the black pit of despair that is always lurking deep within; not my favorite place.  I went to bed Friday night and slept fitfully.  A few hours later, I was wide awake, and decided get up and to sit meditation.  I recommend meditation to everyone.  It really does help, especially in these chaotic times.  I was able to step back from attachment to day to day drama and rest in a larger context.
            Trump and his Republican followers are just playing out the traditional pattern of dominance that has disrupted the world for millennium.  They are not the problem, just visible symptoms of the fiction that we are not all connected.  But that fantasy is bankrupt, coming to its natural conclusion. A pattern is unfolding of a New Earth, an evolution of human consciousness which knows and experiences the connection of all life.  This unity reality is unaffected by the insane fiction of domination of one part over the rest, but endures until the fiction exhausts itself.  We are experiencing that exhaustion as economic inequity, homelessness, plagues, species extinction, and massive refugee movements driven by climate collapse.  We are entering a new era.  
            In addition to getting calm, I got clear on how I will vote this election.  I supported Bernie in 2016, and have his bumper sticker on my car this time.  But in 2016, he was a lone voice for an alternative to the status quo, while this time his message generates prime time discussion, and some of his "radical" perspectives are now voiced by most of the democratic flock.  Speculation on "who can beat Trump?" dominates the discussion.  But the Senate vote showed me I must express my deepest yearning in the face of apparent tyranny, undistracted by electoral calculations.  Bernie is not perfect, but for decades, he has consistently spoken to the necessity for inclusive solutions, the very antithesis of the current paradigm, which is why he threatens corporate Democrats. 
            As relatively conscious individuals, our obligation in each and every moment, is to hold our own awareness of that connected unity, which is powered by love and gratitude.  This is the tipping point, and we are alive today to help make it so. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Capitalism Slowly Grows Up

                                                                                              written 26 January 2020
                                                                                          published 2 February 2020

            Logical conclusions are only as good as the assumptions upon which they are based.  With flawed assumptions, the best logic will give garbage conclusions.  As I have stated before, the core erroneous assumption of our species is the belief in absolute separation within a unity reality.  This degrades our entire society.  In capitalism, this error manifests in two significant ways; the assumption of exclusive gain, and the assumption of disposable debt.
            The concept of exclusive gain is deeply rooted in capitalism, beginning with the definition that all people are greedy, and only operate from extreme self-interest.  While this initially seemed scientifically validated by Darwin's focus of competition, further investigation showed that cooperation is at least as powerful a force throughout the natural world.  Humans are wired for compassion, which shows up at a very early age.  The arc of civilization is the growth of cooperative social forms.  
            Despite this, business orthodoxy has defined the sole purpose of a corporation to be maximum return to shareholder investors, producing today's extreme economic inequity which threatens social stability.  But the unity of reality, expressed as cooperation, is beginning to change even capitalist thinking.  Last August, Jamie Dimon, Chairman of Business Roundtable, announced that henceforth, a Corporation shall benefit all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities, as well as shareholders, because the American dream is alive, but fraying." A small step, but significant.
            The disposable debt concept assumes that when I sell a problem asset, it will no longer affect me, ignoring the fundamental connection underlying the economy.  The housing meltdown of 2007 showed the flaw in this assumption.  Mortgage brokers made bad loans that would default within months, but quickly sold them off to other fiscal entities.  This was so "profitable" that trillions in bad debt was created.  These toxic loans were bundled together with good loans, then broken into pieces which were defined as new assets with various risk ratings.  These were then sold to unsuspecting banks and investors.  When the defaults started to mount, nobody could trust the worth of any particular investment, because each one consisted of parts of thousands of individual loans, an unknown number of which were worthless.  The entire financial system came close to seizing up over one weekend.
            Climate change presents a similar problem.  The illusion of disposable debt lets capitalism use the environment as a limitless garbage dump, assuming no consequences, since no charges show up on the books.  Yet atmospheric carbon pollution, a degradation of the commons, is changing the temperature of the planet.  The problem continues to grow, despite decades of warnings, and the economic costs are beginning to register.  
            The National Centers for Environmental Information’s annual climate report said the number of billion dollar climate and weather related disasters in the United States more than doubled in the last decade, to over $800 billion.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported US weather related disasters in 2019 cost $306 billion, about 1.3% of the GDP for the US, which only grew 2% last year.  As the climate gets more erratic, the cost of weather disasters will increase.  
            The World Economic Forum in Davos included climate discussions this year, but not as a primary concern, because business leaders focus short term.  That is why Enron was the darling of Wall Street until it collapsed in bankruptcy. But bankers and investment fund managers have to think long term, so their climate concern is more acute.  This week the Bank of International Settlements stated "climate change poses unprecedented challenges to human societies. Central banks cannot consider themselves immune to the risks ahead."  Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock investment fund, which manages over $7 trillion, recently announced they are putting climate change and sustainability at the center of their investment approach.  "Climate change has become a defining factor in companies' long-term prospects. We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance."
            It has always been a false argument that we must choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.  Without an environment suitable for humans, and stable enough for long term investments, there can be no economy.  Capitalism is growing up and beginning to shed false illusions, but with the fate of humanity at risk, the pace needs to quicken.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Inspired By Science Fiction

                                                                                              written 19 January 2020
                                                                                          published 26 January 2020

            Shortly after Christmas, I came down with a touch of the flu.  By good fortune, I was able to stay in bed, drink lots of water, sleep as often as I wished, and read as much light fiction as I desired.  Always a treat!  On this occasion, I reread one of my favorite science fiction classics, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy", including the two prequels and two sequels.
            The core trilogy describes a time when the human Galactic Empire is failing after 10,000 years, due to the triple diseases of despotism, maldistribution of goods, and inertia.  As I read, the Trump impeachment was unfolding against the economic inequity of capitalism, with the global climate crashing due to entrenched inaction.  
            Asimov wrote many science fiction books and defined the Laws of Robotics for the protection of humanity.  First, a robot may not injure a human, or allow a human to come to harm.  Second, a robot must obey the orders given it by a human. Third, a robot must protect its own existence.  As his robot series evolved, a more fundamental "Zeroth Law" was defined, a robot must not injure humanity or allow humanity to come to harm.
            It struck me that action guided by the Zeroth Law would be very ethical, much like the Buddhist concept of bodhisattva. From Wikipedia: "In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind for the benefit of all sentient beings."  This is similar to the Golden Rule, treating all others with the same regard as myself, an expression of compassion and empathy.
            The evolution of life on Earth includes two jumps from individuals to organized collectives.  The first was the rise of nucleated cells, building blocks of all higher organisms.  Collections of autonomous simple cells merged within one large cell, sharing critical functions for mutual benefit and increased efficiency.  The second jump was the rise of multi-celled organisms, of which humans are an example. The human body is organized to nourish every part, and draws strength from the unique capacities of every part. A healthy body operates from the Zeroth Law, avoiding deliberate injury to the body or, through inaction, allowing the body to come to harm.  A healthy body operates from the Golden Rule, with love and regard for every part.
            In the Foundation series, Asimov initially presents two solutions for reorganizing the Empire.  The first creates structure through technological and commercial domination, and the second creates structure through philosophical and psychological domination.  These are both shown to be unstable, and a third alternative is introduced, Gaia: organization through planetary self-consciousness. This eventually expanded to the concept of galactic self-consciousness. 
            Asimov's describes Gaia arising as the awakened self-consciousness associated with a human expanding to include every living being on the planet, even to the slow consciousness of all the matter of the planet.  This reflects a currently emerging quantum mechanical understanding that every speck of manifested matter is the consequence of focused consciousness redistributing the vacuum energy underlying material reality. Aboriginal cultures around the world know there is living awareness within even the most basic material forms.
            "Spontaneous Evolution", by Lipton and Bhaerman, describes the arc of life on Earth as a series of evolutionary jumps in response to extinction threats.  Their book concludes with the suggestion that our current extinction threat may be demanding a jump to planetary consciousness, similar to Asimov's fictional Gaia, with humans eventually serving as the neo-cortex for the planet.
            But this is all just concept, much like the Golden Rule.  The real trick is to experience the deep connection, not live by rules.  We don't "try" to keep our body safe. Our actions are guided by the direct experience of immediate pain when we fail. Joanna Macy suggests that we already experience the grief of our dying planet.  With practice, we can consciously experience the pain of others and the planet, due to our capacity for empathy and compassion, and the biology of mirror neurons, despite thousands of years of culture teaching us to fear and hate the other.  
            I like this hopeful vision better than thinking humans are just a disease on the planet, killing our host out of ignorance and short-sighted greed.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Rising Tide

                                                                                            written 12 January 2020
                                                                                        published 19 January 2020

            Trump and his Republican chorus keep pointing out that the economy is strong, the stock market is high, and unemployment low; proof that everything is fine.  "A rising tide floats all boats".  This comforting old capitalist aphorism suggests that economic growth is a benefit for everyone, assuming you own a seaworthy boat.  However, increase is not always good.  If your weight increases every year, you eventually experience morbid obesity, with diabetes and other health risks, and shortened life expectancy.  
            Metrics like the stock index are easy to quantify, but being broad averages, they smooth out important details, and are of little help in illuminating the condition of our society.  What does it mean that the stock market is at a record high?   Has real value increased, or is the dollar worth less each year, requiring more dollars to buy the same thing?  We bought our house 8 years ago and the "value" has increased by 50%.  We are grateful to live here, but nothing real has changed about the house, except that we couldn't afford to buy it today.  What is the social benefit of this value increase?
            Another smoothing metric is the unemployment rate, which ignores the social, or economic, value of the job a person holds.  In 1962, my widowed mother, a new teacher in San Diego with a starting salary of $8K, was able to buy a modest home for $15K.  A starting teacher today earns more than $45K, but the median home costs over $500K.  The fact of employment says nothing about the quality of life that employment can support. A significant portion of the homeless are employed.
            In the last two decades, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has more than doubled from $10T to $22T, but the national debt has quadrupled, from $5.6T to $24T, now more than the GDP.  This debt fueled growth bailed out a fraudulent banking industry and funded the endless wars in the middle east and Afghanistan, all of dubious social value.  It is easy to look flush running up debt, but it is ultimately unsustainable.
            In the last decade, massive investment in the fracking industry made America a global leader in oil production for the first time since 1972. This looks great on paper, and seems to indicate that America is energy independent.  But like much else in this economy, the process is not sustainable. Fracking is a desperation extraction technology, used only when other forms of recovery have failed.  It is extremely energy and material intensive, going after very thinly distributed oil reserves.  From an energy perspective, it returns about 4 barrels of oil for every barrel of oil expended in the recovery.  That is less energy efficient that burning firewood, and much less than the minimum energy return of 10:1 needed for a modern industrial economy. The result has been an economic loss of more than $250B since 2010.  Investors have been sinking money into the ground on the promise of good returns, but the best fields have already been developed and are declining, with no profitable payout on the horizon.  When economic reality finally hits, America will once again be at the mercy of foreign oil suppliers, many of whom we have infuriated with our incompetent operations in the middle east.
            Another way to make a sick economy look good is to defer costs and critical maintenance.  The fire situation in California is a glaring example of deferred maintenance eventually destroying parts of the entire society.  The health and environmental costs of inadequate waste disposal in the agribusiness, mining, and power industries keep increasing, while the corporate bottom line tries to look good.  In another case of denial of reality for short term economic gain, the Trump administration is now eliminating consideration of climate change in future economic development, despite the fires in Australia, or Pentagon concerns that climate issues threaten national security.  This is like designing a building while pretending that gravity doesn't apply; resulting in inevitable collapse.
            "A rising tide floods all homes" is the new aphorism coming from Florida.   But even that image implies only gradual change.  The real image of downside risk of capitalist collapse comes from Super Storm Sandy; "a storm surge destroys all homes".

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Rogue Nation

                                                                                              written 5 January 2020
                                                                                        published 12 January 2020

            The dictionary defines "rogue" as "a dishonest or unprincipled man".  A "rogue nation" is a state that does not respect other states in its international actions.
            Last week, President Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani, a very popular Iranian military leader.  This attack was done within the sovereign nation of Iraq, without their permission or notification.  Typical of Trump's decisions, he gave no notice to Congressional leaders.  Despite possible consequences, he made no plans for protecting the 45,000 American troops and untold American contractors in the region, or the citizens of our supposed allies.  
            Without a doubt, Soleimani was an enemy of the US, and responsible for the death of many Americans over the years, but the wisdom of this execution is suspect.  President Bush had an opportunity to kill Soleimani in 2007, but the decision at that time was it was more damaging to national security to make him a martyr, than to let him live.  This kind of complex assessment, involving consideration of impact on the future, the entire region, and geopolitics, seems beyond President Trump.  He acts impulsively, without forethought, and then blames everyone else for the consequences.  
            Trump may have ordered the assassination because Soleimani antagonized Trump on social media, or Trump needs a distraction from the ongoing morass of impeachment and criminal investigations.  Trump proclaims he made the call to "stop a war", despite all indications the situation is now more precarious.  The Republican hawks are puffed with pride about how tough their man is.  This is the same insanity we saw the last time Republicans ran things and we invaded Iraq in 2003, costing money and lives to this day, with nothing to show for it. A war with Iran will be an even bigger deal, with the possible disruption of the global oil economy.  We have already moved thousands more troops into the region, and called for civilians to leave.  The stock market reacted down, and the price of oil reacted up, and that is before any actual response for Iran.
            This reckless rogue behavior is typical.  During the last three years, Trump has unilaterally destabilized the middle east by; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and imposing crippling economic sanctions; pardoning U.S. soldiers and military contractors convicted of war crimes in the area; supplying arms to Saudi Arabia so that the kingdom can bombard Yemen; changing the Israeli-Palestinian situation in Israel's favor.  He abruptly betrayed of our Kurdish allies in Syria, which cost American prestige and respect in the region, to the benefit of Russia.  He ridicules foreign democratic leaders and fawns over dictators.  He has casually disclosed sensitive intelligence information and assets, compromising coordination with allies and weakening NATO.  He has started trade disputes with both allies and adversaries, depressing the global economy.  He unilaterally withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement, despite mounting evidence that the crisis is real and increasing, demanding unified global response.
            An October, 2019 article in the Huffpost, titled "What If The World Treated The U.S. Like A Rogue State?" considers the problem, and what leverage could be brought to bear.  "Under Trump, America is in the business of actively creating or deepening threats to the world.  For a while, it looked as if Trump might attack North Korea, and recent events may lead to war with Iran.  Along the way, his administration has trashed so many diplomatic rules and norms that the entire edifice of postwar stability is at risk." Where America was once a trusted leader of the free world, we are now an object of concern and ridicule.
            America has a huge economic advantage because the dollar is the primary reserve currency, with most global trade passing through our banking system, even if the goods do not.  This postwar advantage couldn't be challenged until recently.  The Euro and the Chinese Yuan are beginning to be used in international transactions, particularly in oil trade, as the rest of the world looks for an alternative the dollar thuggery.  It would be costly to sanction America, and disengage from the dollar, but as Trump flaunts his rogue nature, the incentive grows.  
            Even if Trump resigned tomorrow, the damage is done.  It is hard to build a reputation for integrity, but easy to lose it.