On Disconnection and Isolation

Last week, at 11:17 PM on Tuesday night, our front door bell rang. For most people, this would result in a slight apprehension before answering the door to find out what neighbor is locked out of their house. But if you harbor some anxiety about the neighborhood you live in, justified or not, a rung doorbell at any hour outside of a 12 hour window between 10 AM and 10 PM can have a definitely different reaction. There have been stories lately in our neighborhood of people ringing doorbells to find out if people are home before breaking in or stealing their cars. We have a neighbor directly behind us who have who had their front door kicked in in broad daylight and all electronics stolen. We’ve had a home invasion on our cul de sac in the 18 months we’ve lived there. And so, instead of making a logical decision (it didn’t help that we were long since asleep and not particularly rational when the door rang), I immediately started thinking the worst and worried for the safety of family and home.

By the time I had actually woken up and made it into the living room, handgun in hand, I saw a black truck drive away from the house and turn the corner. We have renters next to us who have been, if not outright unfriendly, then at least aloof and one neighbor behind us has seen people from that house come down and take pictures of our cars. All of these things come to mind at 11:30 at night when the doorbell rings. After making the rounds of the house and seeing nothing outside out of the ordinary and setting the alarm, I climbed back into bed. Immediately the phone rang with a unrecognized numbers. “Weirder and weirder,” I said to Mara but didn’t answer it. Only when I got the voicemail from our friendly neighbor behind the house about our garage door being wide open, did I start to feel exceptionally foolish. Of course it’s a neighbor. That’s what neighbors do. But fears of crime and a general feeling of anxiety turned a neighborly act into a stressful situation. Once upon a time, in a different era, people were more likely to be connected to their neighborhood (though of course we know this is a generalization about a false nostalgia but I don’t think anyone would argue that the neighborhoods of today are more connected than those of 30 years ago when kids played safely on the street and walked safely home from school). A doorbell after 10 might cause concern but not fear. Yet today, in areas like south Dallas, it’s difficult to manage those fears, especially when there is a constant, torrential inflow of information regarding bad things happening to people.

And we’re some of the lucky ones. Many people have no idea who their neighbors are. We have the phone numbers of several around us. We talk to them regularly in the street. Still, in certain circumstances, fear is the easier emotion to muster when something happens. A strong crime-free neighborhood can be thought of as a kind of cultural safety net. When something happens, people are there for you. However, as a society, we are more disconnected from each other than ever before. In a world when you can Skype with people in Russia, there is less and less meaningful human connection, more and more isolation as we have to drive farther and farther to get to our jobs and more and more inventions designed to keep our face glued to a tiny screen in front of us instead of lifting up our heads to see the world. This disconnectedness, this isolation, makes it easy to prey on our fears whether the hunters are politicians, marketers or media talking heads. And because we are evolutionarily wired to be alert for danger and react to it (far better to run like hell from a shadow that could be a lion but turns out to be a bush than to “make sure” and be dead), this disconnectedness is a self fulfilling circle. It is not easy to get out of our natural state and try to see things in a different light.

David Foster Wallace wrote a commencement speech for Kenyon College in 2005 called “This is water”. I watch it once or twice a year to remind myself of its lesson which is this: our default setting is almost always self centered and revolves around how poorly we are treated or what bad luck we have. When someone cuts us off, we yell in rage in our confined little cars never once thinking that maybe that person is trying to get to the hospital to see his child born. When the grocery store only has one checkout station open, we mentally fume about how our time is being misused never thinking what it must be like to be that one single clerk servicing all these angry people. It takes a great deal of effort, perhaps more than most people can bear, to step outside this default and assume the best of everything. Because it’s much easier to assume the worst, we fall into traps constantly about what is causing the problems that we have. Now, 70 years after a generation of Americans saved the world from incomprehensible evil, we have a society and a culture that in almost every way is designed to pander to our default setting of selfishness. Yet, we are a social species so we find communities within this selfishness that oftentimes become echo chambers and further the self-fulfillment of “It’s someone else’s fault.” We have at least one full generation who has grown up totally on the Internet where saying things you would never say to anyone’s face is de rigueur. More and more we have created places in our lives where it’s acceptable to do perfectly inhumane things. And while most of our bad behavior is limited to the confines of our car or Facebook or whatever, our politicians have become living caricatures of that behavior.

We have a leading Republican candidate who wants to build a wall between us and Mexico because it’s the illegals who are making it difficult to get a job, not because long ago we allowed our corporations and manufacturers to send perfectly good middle class jobs overseas. We have an entire Republican field who seem to strongly believe the sitting President of the United States should not nominate a Supreme Court justice after Justice Scalia passed away last week. We have a Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State who found it perfectly reasonable to have a private email server for official United States business. We have become disconnected not just from those we disagree with but also from a sense of common decency. Gone are the days of cross-aisle negotiations to get key legislature passed, ala Lyndon Johnson. Our centrist common sense politicians are being replaced through big money and big lobbying with meme spouting rich loud mouths. Our politicians vilify opposing view points as if they were truly evil and not human beings coming to different conclusions regarding certain facts.

But our politicians are and always have been real life caricatures of ourselves. Walk anywhere today and you see people totally disconnected from the world around them, heads buried in their phones or tablets, headphones on to drown out the sounds and distractions of the world they only partially inhabit. People share tiny sound bites on social media that are extremist representations of the political and cultural memes they believe, beliefs that are almost always handed down to them through their families with little thought of how the other side might operate. Other people in their own echo chamber share and promote this extremism. We live our technological lives in mediums that are designed to grab attention as quickly and cheaply as possible. The words “socialism” or “immigration” or “taxes” and a million other talking points encompass entire gray universes of complex issues that we increasingly refuse to accept. And then we are shocked (shocked I tell you!) when our very own extremism and disconnectedness come full circle and are personified in our political candidates. The mediums we choose for communication today drive our inability to discuss and grasp the subtle and sublime in life and in politics.

We don’t do this out of malice. In fact, our technical interaction is largely done for the same reasons and through the same mechanisms as today’s click bait advertising. We want to see the little red circle with a large number of likes or comments in it. And the easiest way to do that is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A picture of a cat with a cucumber will get more response than a 5000 word essay and slowly our ability to deeply understand and discuss our world fades away. Our relationships become shallower and shallower. In return for our own abandonment of the connectedness of social interaction, we receive politicians who are incapable of consensus building. They can only yell like children that they have been wronged which is exactly what we do every day. It is our default setting and without struggle and effort and vigilance against the forces in our technologically connected but socially disconnected world, we fall farther and farther into that default setting until we are unable to experience someone who disagrees with us as anything but an enemy to be defeated. When that happens, we are lost because there are always enemies enough in life without creating make believe ones ourselves.

Here’s just on example of how this works, how we get caught in our own personal echo chambers driven by social media. Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was buried. President Obama attended the visitation Friday to pay his respects but did not attend the funeral. This morning in my Facebook feed was a post from the Chicago Tribune faulting Obama for not attending the funeral saying it was what “Chicago guys do”. I read it and immediately thought of the time an aunt died in my family. I wasn’t close with that part of our family but I took off work to drive to Oklahoma City to go to the funeral. I did this because she had been important to the continuation of our family reunion. But I also did it out of sense of duty, a sense of “that’s just what you do”. So as I read this article about Obama not attending Scalia’s funeral, I did so in the light of my own bias, my own belief system and by the time I was done, I was convinced this was a mistake if for no other reason than the political enemies of President Obama could now use this as fodder for retribution around the entire empty Supreme Court seat. I expected to add this story here as an example of disconnectedness. A moment of reflection and a quick Google search led me to another conclusion. There are perfectly other, perfectly plausible reasons why a President might not attend the funeral of a sitting Supreme Court Justice who died. For one, a Catholic funeral is not an event of state. Having a President attend with all the related logistics would have added significantly to the planning and execution of the funeral. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable he made contact with the family and they expressed a desire to not have him there for the very same reasons. There are myriad other reasons why he might choose not to attend. Yet, as I sat drinking coffee reading one viewpoint that happened to exactly fit my personal biases. I convinced myself this was a major error in decorum. This is a very personal decision made by the President of the United States possibly in conjunction with the family of Justice Scalia but I made it into a political issue because of social media and my default setting and bias. It’s worth noting that this particular bias is actually a good one and is directly related to maintaining a sense of connectedness with those who are important to us. But I managed to briefly turn it into a way to be disconnected because social media and the ever present stream of information it feeds us makes it very easy to do so.

What does all this mean for our society? Our choices of communication enable us to superficially remain connected to more and more people while losing many of the aspects of deep connection. We live two lives, the one on social media where it is easy to isolate and promote sound bites that fit our personal biases, the other in real life in our interactions with our family, friends and the world in general. As we begin to spend more and more time on social media in an echo chamber of our own making, the actions on social media, being easier to accept, believe and promote, will continue to bleed into real life until we have effectively lost the ability to empathize and understand those with whom we disagree. We will have built a society around shallowness lacking civility that is incapable of emotions other than anger and disagreement. When I look at the politicians of today, I fear we may already be a long way down that road.

On Populism

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. – John F. Kennedy

Recently, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump dominated the New Hampshire primaries. Sanders won over 60% of the vote while The Donald pulled in 35% in a much more crowded Republican field. Both were 20% points more popular than their nearest rivals. In their respective parties, these two represent a brand of populism in American politics that hasn’t been this strongly in the public consciousness since Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. If you believe things on the Internet (and at least some things are occasionally true there), the entrenched establishments of both parties are starting to get twitchy from the thought of America electing either of these two rather extremist candidates. Clinton has begun to launch more and more negative ads aimed not at spreading truth but instead hypocritical lies about Sanders. Time’s Joe Klein has taken to calling Trump’s supporters “A threat to the country“. These are just a couple of more prominent examples.

What does all this mean? There seems to be a seismic shift in the tectonic political plates playing out in this year’s political cycle. For so long, the status quo has been a very centrist undifferentiated political stance from either party. There is very little difference between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There is less difference between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They are all mainstream, middle of the road candidates who track slightly towards each extreme in the political party during the primaries and then run back to the middle during the campaign. This political regression to the mean compounds over time until we have candidates at all levels who are career politicians expert in saying soothing things while delivering more and more of the nation’s income and wealth to the powered elite who make their campaigns possible. And those of us on Main Street have gotten used to this average, this general centrism even as many of us suffer from lower wages or menial work or overwhelming debt. That is, until we start to notice that some of our politicians (and maybe most of the establishment front runners) are largely paid by financial firms. Hillary Clinton made close to $10 million dollars from speeches in 2013 with a large chunk of that coming from firms like Goldman Sachs. Based on the amount still sitting on Jeb Bush’s super PAC, I doubt it’s much different on that side of the aisle. Can anyone believe that these candidates are unaffected by these donors and fees when it comes to regulations that they support? Not with a straight face. For decades, political power came directly from financial power which came directly from donations, not from Mom and Pop, but from the continued growth of corporatism in American politics which finally became enshrined as doctrine when five misguided individuals on the Supreme Court told us all that “Corporations are people too dammit!” In his dissent, Justice Stevens said the Court’s decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.”. Prescient. And for so long, the money has followed the main stream candidates because they won’t shake up the status quo leaving those who are actually in power, the Goldman Sachs, the military industrial complex, still pulling the marionette’s strings.

But they didn’t count on a sheep-like populace suddenly growing some fangs when more and more of the wealth and income in the country rose to the top. The “recovery” from 2008-2009 has left large swaths of the American people totally behind. 7 million men from the ages of 25 to 54 aren’t in the workforce and aren’t even looking. They aren’t counted in the unemployment stats because of this. In 1954, 98% of the men in this age range were employed. Now it’s 88%. The labor force participation rate is at the lowest its been in 38 years. This “recovery” we’ve had is a mirage and the establishment hopes we don’t notice it while we stare at our cheap Chinese crap that supposedly increases our quality of life.

We elected Obama in 2008 on a platform of change. What we got was zero bank officials paraded out into the public eye and legally tarred and feathered, an Affordable Health Care act that is anything but, higher and higher bank executive pay, the lowest labor participation rate in 38 years, an increase in jobs in the service industry which are historically low paying and poor, etc, etc, etc. So we have arrived at the election cycle of 2016, eight years after we demanded change and got more of the same. It shouldn’t be surprising that two political radicals are doing so well in the early going. Each man (Sanders and Trump) plays to a particular section of American populism that has been under threat for the last 40 years. Sanders is an economic radical, promising a larger share of the wealth to the middle and lower classes through redistribution and government intervention. Trump is a cultural radical, promising to build a wall around our border, throw out the illegals, stop Muslims from entering the country and (maybe) reducing the military-industrial complex by getting out of places like South Korea and Japan.

The vested political interests in each party are starting to fight back. It looks like the Democratic establishment will try to use a very undemocratic mechanism of their selection process to ensure Clinton is the nominee, largely through fear mongering in the public since the idea of Superdelegates throwing the election to Clinton against the will of the popular vote would likely destroy the Democratic party as we know it. The Republican establishment will probably try to find equally shady but effective tactics to fight an eventual Trump or even a Cruz nomination. The Establishment of both parties are in danger to some degree, the Republicans less so I imagine since every candidate on that side promises to cut the highest tax rates from 39.6 to anywhere from 35% (Rubio though he makes up for that paltry crumb by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends, the province of the rich) to 25% (Trump). We’ll ignore Cruz’s 10% flat since the chance of America ever having a flat tax is effectively zero. But there is no doubt that Trump and Cruz are not your run of the mill Republican candidates of the past few years. Trump’s cultural populism is less of a threat to the political elites on the Republican side but one has to assume they are afraid of his ranking on the loose cannon scale, somewhere slightly below Howard Stern but way, way above Jeb Bush. If he’ll repeat a comment about a political rival in which someone calls that rival a pussy , what will he start calling the leaders of foreign countries? There is no filter on Trump which is why he draws support from a certain filterless subsection of the populace who long for the good old days where America paraded around like an 800 lb gorilla.

One common theme in populist rhetoric is the scapegoating of other groups as catalysts for the populist’s problems. That clearly is true in the candidacies of these two men. Trump tends to blame our troubles on the Mexicans or the Muslims or the North Koreans. Most of our modern day liberal sensibilities flare up around such rhetoric because it doesn’t take much to jump from one racial or demographic population to another when the frying pan gets hot. But Sanders isn’t that far off in his moral outrage towards the corporations and Wall Street bankers. Populism becomes quite dangerous in this regard as eventually there is little left to scapegoat and the beasts turn on each other. Our inability to look critically and carefully at our own roles in the off-shoring of jobs or Muslim extremists hatred of America or the increasing flow of America’s wealth to the financial elite causes us to ignore the complexity of these situations in favor of the ease of blaming other parties. Because of this, candidates that espouse the same blame can garner great support as we are seeing with Trump and Sanders.

Throughout American history, local people have risen up against corrupt governments, actual and imagined, typically in violent conflicts. We have recently seen this in places like Baltimore and Ferguson where violent protests have broken out. But what we are seeing in the political process of 2016 is a more generalized revolt, a democratic middle finger lifted to those in power by those who have lost the most in our continued march towards oligarchy. People who wonder why Trump and Sanders are so popular in my anecdotal experience are those who haven’t had to feel most of the pain from 2 major crashes in our economy in the last 15 years. To them (and I certainly sympathize to some degree), it makes no sense that we might elect a self-proclaimed socialist or a loose cannon that would make George W. Bush look like Gene Autry. But the alternatives to rapid change in our leadership is likely to be some form of revolution. That seems almost unthinkable to those of us who have lived in relative domestic peace our entire lives. But history tells us that the peaceful times are regularly punctuated with bouts of turmoil and violence when the populace has had enough. The popularity of Sanders and Trump may be a last civilized signal from the American people in their desire for real change.

Some Initial Thoughts On Corporate Personhood

The Supreme Court heard arguments today on a case brought by the owners of Hobby Lobby related to that business having to provide family planning contraceptives to its 13,000 employees. On its face, this seems like a “religious freedom” versus “government protection of the individual” issue and that’s what many of the commentators are talking about. However the real issue at hand, one that is largely missed in the media commentary is a far more core principle to our democracy and where it’s headed. That is the continued personification of corporate entities in America. In large part, that started after the Citizens United where the Court in its infinite wisdom ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations. This idea that corporations deserve the protections of the Constitution surely would have been ludicrous to our Founding Fathers.

Now, with the Hobby Lobby case, the Court is being asked to further increase the personification of corporations by allowing the owners of Hobby Lobby to dictate what parts of the ACA they will follow and what parts they will not. The owners of Hobby Lobby are free to not provide insurance to their employees but they know this would be a huge mistake. Instead, they hope to appeal to the Supreme Court that their religious freedoms are being infringed. However, their freedoms are not the ones at stake here. They are still free to stand against the contraceptives they apparently so abhor. But it is not their freedoms being infringed because they contract with a third party, namely an insurance company, to provide insurance to Hobby Lobby employees. Nothing in the passage of the ACA infringes on their own ability to stand against and/or not use these contraceptives. That is the core issue. By confounding the religious freedoms of the owners of Hobby Lobby with protections that will be conferred on the corporation Hobby Lobby we go farther down the path of empowering corporations which undermines the democracy our government relies on.

I have no real hunch on how this will play out but we are already rapidly becoming an oligarchy run by the financial elite on Wall Street. Money plays a huge part in politics and the Citizens United case only upped the ante. To grant Hobby Lobby the right to circumvent pieces of a Congressionally created law is a further removal of rights from the people. The continual transferal of those rights to the rich and the powerful will cause problems we can’t possibly expect.

On The Caloric Content of a Snickers

We recently returned from four days in Savannah, GA, a trip largely defined by extended stops at places of refreshment and gastronomy lightly interspersed with medium length strolls through the city. It wasn’t intentionally a gastronomical vacation but the food choices in the the town were certainly one of the highlights. This morning was the first time I was actually hungry in probably five days and I had to skip dinner last night to even make that possible. We ate shrimp and grits, pizza, kabobs, quiches, steaks, lobster stuffed raviolis, scallop fettuccines, fried chicken, barbecued pork, macaroni and cheese, mashed-fried and scalloped potatoes, famous ice cream, fried peach bread pudding, crawfish beignets with Tabasco syrup, shrimp po’boys and who knows what else that can’t be remembered right now. I drank my weight in Sweetwater 420 and assorted other large, hoppy beers. The total caloric value of the trip would feed a small developing nation for a week.

The good news is we didn’t eat out of a vending machine once which is fortunate since apparently the fact that vending machines don’t inform the consumer of the caloric content of a Hershey’s bar is a critical factor in the rising obesity epidemic as far as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) authors are concerned. You see, a little known tidbit in the ACA is a new rule that mandates all vending machine companies that operate more than 20 machines display the calorie information of the snacks being dispensed the idea being that if we could only get obese people to reduce their weekly caloric intake by 100 calories, the initial cost of $24 million to said companies would be netted out by $26 million in health care savings.

Essentially what the Obama administration has decided is that since we can’t seem to get people to make reasonable decisions about how many calories they take in on their own, we will need to find ways to consciously or subconsciously affect their choices at the expense of a niche market of very small business owners who can’t possibly be politically powerful. Seventy five percent of these companies have three or fewer employees. I don’t know what the profit margin is on Snickers bars from a vending machine but intuitively I doubt anyone is getting rich on their 20 vending machines. To arbitrarily single out a niche market like this is one of the worst things a government can do (and the easiest given the guaranteed political powerlessness that small companies have).

Let’s do a little math based on the known figures surrounding this new rule. The government estimates that if .02 percent of the obese adults in the country consumed 100 calories fewer each week, the reduced strain on the health care system would be monetarily greater than $24 million (the estimated costs of the changes dictated by the new vending machine law). There are 316 million citizens in the US of which approximately 237 million are adults. The obesity rate in the U.S. is 35.7% so there are 84 million obese adults in the U.S. The law is then hoping that 16,800 of them will walk up to a vending machine once a week, see that a PayDay has 135 calories in it and either buy something else with 35 calories in it (which based on my experience with vending machine contents would have to be a roll of LifeSavers) or skip the candy bar entirely. Who thinks this is a good idea? Who sits around in a committee meeting and says “let’s put the caloric intake of each item in a vending machine on the machine somehow which will certainly cause people to not eat out of a vending machine”?

This is the problem with all governments eventually. The current one is just a step farther down the road of paternalistic nanny state than the last one and the last one before that. Little decisions are made by career politicians who forget that every single regulation and law they put on the books actually has effects, both the ones they intend (though really, in this case, I have a hard time believing this regulation is going to result in $26 million in health care savings) and the ones they never seem to even consider in their insular little idealistic bubble. We need more people who are willing to run vending machine businesses despite long odds and fewer people who think vending machines are the cause of any particular health problem. Sadly the former will soon be legislated and sin taxed out of business and we’ll all still be fat, unhappy and without Twinkies.

On Consequence

Webster defines consequence as “something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions”, e.g. the economic consequences of war. We often think of consequences as a direct reaction to some action, positive or negative. My dog knows there are consequences when he decides to have a snack out of the litter box, namely I yell “WRONG! BAD DOG!” a couple of times, open the door, and he gets to spend some time outside thinking about what he’s done. However, there are times (and I know this because I clean the litter box and there is never enough proof that two cats live in this house) when he’s home alone and gets to snack sans consequence. That’s because the consequence of my yelling at him and tossing him outside resulting from his action of eating cat poop is largely an artifact of whether I find out about his actions.

Typically, the severity of consequences that result from an action are dependent on the action. Drive home drunk from a bar and there is a chance that you will suffer the consequence of being arrested and charged with DWI. Drive home drunk from a bar the wrong way down the highway and kill three people and you WILL be charged with manslaughter at least. Consequence is a probability function based on both the action being discovered and the severity of the action. When my dog gets to stay at home alone and snack on cat poop at his leisure with no consequence, this is a bad thing as it relates to his good behavior because dogs don’t have the ability to rationalize past events with current or future consequences. For a dog, the consequence needs to be delivered in close proximity to the action. If I come home and find the cat box clear of all poop and yell at my dog, it does exactly zero good because he has no idea why I’m yelling at him.

If I want the canine behavior of eating kitty poop to cease, I have to take two steps. First, I have to prevent said behavior from happening when I’m not around to deliver consequences or I need to set up some sort of consequence delivery method for the times I’m not around. For example, if every time my dog sticks his head in the litter box, an RFID transmitter sets off an electric collar around his neck and gave him a little jolt, it would not be long before he ceased sticking his head in the litter box. This is how retrievers are taught to avoid snakes and it’s pretty effective. Alternatively, I could close the door to the room with the litter box when I’m not home eliminating the behavior entirely. Of course, that action has the consequence of having Rocky the cat take a dump in my shoe and thus instead of enforcing a desired canine behavior, my actions get negatively reinforced. I digress.

Second, I need to consistently and forcefully administer the same negative consequence every time the dog gets an inappropriate snack. If one time I congratulate him and give him a Milkbone and another time kick him viciously, he won’t connect the consequence with the action no matter how immediately the consequence is delivered. Negative behaviors must be reinforced with negative consequences and positive behaviors must be reinforced with positive consequences. If B.F. Skinner taught us anything, it is this.

With no consequences, behavior can run rampant. In the case of my dog, the behavior isn’t really that bad. Eating cat poop doesn’t seem to negatively affect his digestive tract, only my Puritan sensibilities. He doesn’t have any evil intentions when he does it. It’s just his poop eating nature. But when humans and corporations discover they can avoid all but the most minor of consequences, especially if the actions were malicious to begin with, then intentions can quickly become pointedly evil.

Last week, Halliburton the company pled guilty to a single criminal charge in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. The company admitted to destroying evidence related to computer simulations of the number of collars used to keep the pipe centered in the well. Halliburton recommended twenty one collars but BP installed only six on the Deepwater Horizon. The computer simulations showed there was little difference between the two scenarios. Upon completion of the simulations, “unidentified individuals” directed employees to destroy the simulations in what must have been an attempted act of self-preservation.

For their crime, Halliburton was fined $200,000 and placed on three years of probation. The probation was probably from dying of laughter at a $200,000 fine, a sum smaller than many employees’ bonuses I would imagine. In contrast, BP agreed to pay $4 billion in its settlement with the Justice Department in regards to Deepwater. Transocean, the builder of the rig, paid a fine of $400 million. And yet Halliburton, a company that is pleading guilty to destroying evidence in what is one of the worst environmental disasters in our country’s history, paid a fine of $200,000. For some perspective, in the second quarter of 2013, Halliburton recorded a profit of $679 million on revenues of $7.32 billion (with a big capital B).

This is but the most recent example in a long line of sordid and sad examples of our government, sworn to protect the people, dealing out consequences to a corporation that couldn’t possibly incent the behavior we’d prefer. No one was fired. No one was even paraded up the courthouse steps. The company, not people, was fined and placed on probation. In what way could this possibly send a message the next time a decision has to be made on keeping evidence around that is damning to Halliburton? “Unnamed individuals” who direct employees to destroy evidence should be hung up by their toenails in the public square, not quietly allowed to remain anonymous. Without consequence, only anarchy reigns. To change society as it currently stands, we must actively police those who would take advantage of an era of no consequences and we must impart swift and meaningful consequences on those who break the rules. Without the accompanying shock of punishment, those amongst us who are immoral and power hungry will continue to run amok.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, we have found ourselves increasingly immersed in a culture of moral hazard driven by the financiers of Wall Street and implicitly aided by the weak and ineffectual government we have created. The costs of these disasters are foisted upon the public at large and rarely find a roost with those who conceived and implemented the plots. The large banks are back to raking in billions of dollars while the people of America are left to struggle. Halliburton pays a laughable fine and continues with business as normal while the people of the coast suffer the consequences of Halliburton’s actions.

Until the destructive actions of these responsible parties are met with swift and vengeful consequences, we will continue to limp along barely existing while the rich and the powerful continue to feast on the spoils of the system.

Punishing the Many To Capture The Few

Imagine if you will a society where the following is possible. You take your hard earned dollars to a bank. You deposit your checks, write checks to your creditors, pay your electric bill, maybe even have a savings account or two. Hundreds of other people in your community do the same. The bank is profitable and popular. It serves the purpose of being a bank to many citizens. However, unbeknownst to you and the fine upstanding community members who use the bank, there are a few people who use the bank to launder money. They sell drugs or run prostitution rings or whatever, then deposit the money in the bank. They use the money to buy other non-illegal items like real estate or whatever the hot new item is that money launderers use this year for their dirty money.

The Feds get wind of this situation. They embark on a 2 year investigation into the money launderers, tracking their movements, their actions, their dirty money laundering. After 2 years, they have enough evidence to know who these people are and decide the time is right to take action. They swoop in but instead of arresting the people who are laundering money, they shut down the bank, confiscate all the accounts and money in the bank, arrest 8 of the executives and then flip the middle finger to everyone involved. The money launderers decide it’s high time to retire to Antigua for a few years and hop on the next plane out of town. Meanwhile, you can’t get any of your money. Your electric gets cut off, a big hairy dude with a Dirty Harry revolver comes and repos your car and the sheriff shows up to kick you out of your house because you haven’t paid your mortgage.

That doesn’t sound like a very sound way to go about chasing down money launderers does it? If we lived in a society like that, you’d think shit had really hit the fan and that maybe we were fundamentally broken in a way that worked hard to punish as many people as possible regardless of innocence or guilt, just to get at money launderers, who in the grand scheme of things, aren’t really that dangerous. Sure, they’re breaking the law and should be punished but it would take a real fascist to justify the collateral damage involved in shutting down a bank, just to get money launderers.

Sadly, that’s the society we live in now as it relates to online piracy of movies and music. Yesterday, the Feds shut down a site called MegaUpload which without a doubt contributed to online piracy in some way but which also served a much larger and more benign purpose: sharing files. Today, all the people who used MegaUpload as a file sharing format in good faith have exactly ZERO access to their files. We are living in an increasingly connected and centralized world where the powers of a fascist government can have far reaching effects on innocent victims all in the name of solving a problem not that many people are interested in solving. And in fact, the only reason we are trying to solve it is because the people who ARE interested in the problem are extremely powerful and rich, a dangerous combination in a political system run by the rich and powerful and power hungry.

The Feds didn’t need SOPA or PIPA or anything else to shut down MegaUpload. The Internet isn’t free today, regardless of the SOPA protest worldwide on Wednesday. Our government can, at will, freely inflict a great deal of pain on large populations of innocent people in the name of tracking down online pirates. The heavy handedness is astounding.

Justice is founded on many principles but one of its pillars is the idea that it is more important not to convict a single innocent person than it is to let all the guilty in the world go free. As rational, just, decent creatures, it should be far more pressing to ensure no innocents are ever convicted even if it means letting some guilty parties go free. No just system can be based on anything else. And yet, our government no longer seems to be a just system of governance. From the benefits and collusion of those on Wall Street with those at the highest levels of governance to this latest episode of shutting down a site that happens to facilitate online piracy occasionally, we are seeing that justice seems to be rarely served at all and when it is, it’s almost always off the mark.

I wrote an essay earlier today about trying to avoid the urge to blow things up and start over. I truly believe that’s the best way to solve things. But a government that ignores the need to be just will foment anger and hatred among the governed, anger and hatred that very well may boil over into the streets. It seems like hyperbole to think that the shutting down of MegaUpload will cause civil unrest but eventually, there will be a straw too heavy for the camel to continue. I hope we can come to some alternate conclusion before that happens.

Some People Are Just Baby Tossers

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand portrayed a society where the best and the brightest people essentially picked up their proverbial basketball and went home, leaving the rest of us struggling, mediocre morons to fend for ourselves as said society broke down (she also seemed to favor situations where women got raped, possibly a window into her extremism). It was an exceptionally popular book when it was written and to this day holds a certain appeal among young adolescent males (I know, I thought for sure I was an Objectivist for most of my 20s). It details an appealing view, a utopia where only the best and the brightest can live and survive, always making rational decisions that further the utopia in its quest for rational perfection. It’s attractive because who amongst us haven’t looked at some situation, whether it’s the political process, the financial industry or the screaming three year old who refuses to take a poop anywhere but in his pants and thought “Screw it, I’m throwing in the towel, consequences be damned, and starting over. It’s just not worth it to fix it.”

The desire to start over is strong. It’s the appeal of the blank slate, the chance to make all the right decisions this time, to explore new boundaries without the constraints of previous mistakes and silly ideas like the law. It’s the dirty little hope we have when we wish for people to get what they deserve because doing what’s required to fix the system is harder work than we’d like to bother with. It’s the preparation of the survivalists who assuming the shit ever hits the fan hard enough all think they are going to blend off into the woods, leaving the rest of us to suffer as civilization breaks down.

It’s nice to fantasize about people getting what they deserve for being bumbling, ill-advised inactive blobs of protoplasm and uselessness. However, here in the real world, not only is that not feasible, it is typically counter productive, more likely to lead to chaos than it is to improvement. When you hope SOPA passes “because that’s exactly what we need to wake up from this slumbering, do-nothing, “occupy everything,” stagnant, non-action slump we Americans are in”, you’re essentially saying “you people deserve to be punished because you can’t find the time to stand up and fix things, I hope you rot in hell” (you’re also saying you fundamentally misunderstand the Occupy movements but maybe we’ll discuss that at a later point).

Does the author really think SOPA passing is going to be the eye opener when the financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t? Does he think internet censorship will make things completely different when the President assassinating US citizens didn’t? Does he think utopia will be established after SOPA passes and we see the light when Fed expanding its balance sheet by trillions of dollars enabling banking executives to continue to reap lavish bonuses while the rest of us slogged along in 1% interest land didn’t?

It’s fun to get your panties in a wad about SOPA (if you don’t know what SOPA is, it’s Congress’ latest heavy handed tactic to fellate the movie and recording industry by trying to shut down piracy. Read more about it here) and go off on a tangent about the lazy, complacent Americans who can’t bother to stand up and change things. But the reality of the situation is that lots and lots of Americans have been standing up over the past several years and actually implementing change. And that change is happening, albeit at likely too slow a pace to please the folks like the author linked above who would prefer some sort of punctuated equilibrium to occur in the political process. The Tea Party rose out of the financial crisis and lots of those folks are working hard behind the scenes to get people elected in an attempt to change the politics of the nation. Occupy Wall Street rose out a desire in a large group of people to protest what they saw as an unfair playing field, one that enabled the cheaters and manipulators to succeed while normal people continued to suffer. The protests of SOPA actually convinced several Congresscritters to remove their support for the bill including one who actually co-sponsored it.

The complaint comes up that these things will happen again, that Congress will try to shill for the recording lobby again and that defeating SOPA is just treating the symptom instead of the cause of the disease.

My problem with this huge online protest against SOPA, and the reason I rarely take part in such protests, is because it doesn’t address any problems, only the symptom. The problem isn’t this shitty bill, it’s the people who sponsored it. So we protest this bill today, bang enough pots and pans to shame a few backers into not letting this bill pass, then what? Those same dipshits who wrote this legislation still have jobs. They’re going to try again, and again, and again until some mutation of this legislation passes. They’ll sneak it into an appropriation bill while nobody’s looking during recess, because there’s too much lobbyist money at stake for them not to. We defeat SOPA today, only to face it again tomorrow. It’s like trying to stop a cold by blowing your nose. It’s time we go after the virus.

The problem with that analogy is that once you have a virus, you’ve just got the virus. There’s no going after it, not in the sense he means. You can only do things to mitigate the effects of the virus. Of course, you can develop a vaccine for a virus that prevents people from getting it but let’s face it, the virus of politics probably doesn’t lend itself to vaccination. People don’t go into politics to fix the world, they go into politics because they are power hungry individuals who love to listen to themselves talk (except Ron Paul. Well, maybe even Ron Paul but the jury is still out). Instead, you treat a virus by always being vigilant and aware, watching for outbreaks and squashing them at the fastest rate you can.

That’s the better analogy for what’s going on in American politics today. We have become infected by a political virus that thrived for decades on ignorance, continued prosperity of the middle class and the growing complexity in regulation of the US Government. But over the past few years, the people of America (in admittedly slow and sometimes odd ways) have decided that enough is enough. We aren’t to a boiling point yet, where we have millions of people marching on Washington or civil unrest (none of which is out of the question or even that unlikely I’m afraid) but things ARE changing. The blowback on SOPA shows that.

Life will never be rational and clean like so many of the “blow it all up and start over” folks want it to be. Fixing the system from within is hard, long, tedious work, work that may not ever be finished. But throwing up our hands and saying “I hope SOPA passes because that’s what we deserve” is like saying telling a lung cancer patient “I hope the radiation and chemo fail because that’s what you deserve”. Regardless of how we got here, regardless of what ignorance we accepted and encouraged, regardless of the criticality of the disease (and trust me, I think this patient is insanely sick, possibly terminally), we have to treat the patient in the best way we know how until he’s better or dies. Throwing up our hands and declaring premature defeat is a sure way to a disastrous end that serves no one but the parasites best interests. The very fact that practically the entire internet rose up Wednesday and said “enough is enough” in response to SOPA should be not a cause for despair, but a slight ray of hope in a long, arduous treatment of chemotherapy that our political process must go through to make the patient whole again.

Baby Steps

This week, President Obama proposed regulatory changes that would limit big banks, implicitly those that received the guarantee of a government backstop during the crash last year, from investing for profits using their own hedge-funds or proprietary trading desks. This would be an excellent first step in reining in the power that the JP Morgans and Goldman Sachs of the world wield over our economy and political landscape. It is unfortunate that Obama waited 12 months before listening to Paul Volcker, losing precious political capital in the process. 12 months ago, the banks were beholden to the President and the American people. We essentially owned them and should have taken steps then to limit their power.

Instead, we let them pay back TARP and gain monstrously atrocious profits this year, making money by sucking cash from the tit of the Federal Reserve and refusing to then lend it out to the people who actually needed it. The banks are now emboldened to go right back to business as usual as they came through 2008 learning only the lesson that the government will make sure they do not fail no matter what the consequence. They have not been punished, not even reprimanded for behavior that sucked the life out of the American and global economy.

“While the financial system is far stronger today than it was one year ago, it is still operating under the exact same rules that led to its near collapse,” Mr. Obama said. “My resolve to reform the system is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see record profits at some of the very firms claiming that they cannot lend more to small business, cannot keep credit card rates low, and cannot refund taxpayers for the bailout.”

This is exactly right, something that is a direct result of not reining in the banks 12 months ago. Now, the regulation has little chance of emerging from Congress with any teeth. It will die a death of 536 pricks, bled to death on the floor of the institution created to represent the people.

Of course, proprietary trading wasn’t the cause of the financial collapse, at least not the root one and that is a point many on the right are making now. But this isn’t designed to fix the problem, it’s a first step down the road of reforming the entities that currently have all the power in the American economy. There are those on the right who will moan about frightening the stock market but the market needs to be frightened because it is currently nothing more than a Ponzi game played with our money. Rising from the depths of last year inside of 12 months during the worst economic collapse since 1929 is silly. The stock market gains are largely smoke and mirrors using money that the Federal Reserve has created out of thin air. It cannot continue and the longer it goes on, the worse the responding fall will be.

This regulation will be difficult to implement as Yves at Naked Capitalism details. But it would be a much needed baby step down the road of reform and true recovery. As long as the big banks can find comfort in explicit government backing while remaining unpunished for poor decisions and risky behavior, they will continue to act in exactly the same way they have been acting for 10 years. We cannot have true recovery until the Goldman Sachs of the world, parasites on true creation of wealth, have been reined in.

More reading: Jesse
Perhaps there is some hope