Thursday, November 3, 2011

VOR’s Turn: We Have Great Resources Available To Us; But, Do We Know How To Use Them?

DAMN!! -- I THINK WE'RE F*%KED

Image by SS&SS via Flickr

When I argue that the American Business Model is fundamentally flawed, I don’t wish to imply that America does not possess incredible strengths. Instead, I’m arguing that a flawed business model means that we don’t know how to use them properly; and, above all, we don’t adequately respect our  greatest single resource which is the American people.

Hard to over-emphasize the importance of the next point: It concerns trust, the basis of all human co-operative activity. Few things are more important.

A major reason for this inability to make optimum use of the resources at our disposal is a pervasive lack of trust stemming from a long history of exploitation and greed run amuck. That, in turn, has led to excessive politicization which has the effect of being self-canceling at the expense of a vast amount of human effort. Way too many aspects of American life – like the judiciary and education – are politicized to no purpose. And, as a byproduct, are corrupt.

But assets are there nonetheless; so let me explore some of them.

1. We have a generally hard-working and resourceful population which is large enough to constitute an extraordinary internal market. Further, our demographics are favorable compared to many of our international competitors. Thanks to our immigration policies (imperfect though they are) our population is constantly being refreshed.

Unfortunately, we are poor at optimizing our human resources. Educational problems apart, whereas Europe mainly fosters cooperation between management and labor – and enshrines it into law - U.S. management remains authoritarian, and hostile to labor (which is one of the driving forces behind outsourcing); and the law is generally biased towards capital and management. The end result is a significant land pervasive lack of trust which has a profound effect on both productivity and quality of life. Our system also seems to actively encourage the expansion of an underclass as a way of beating down the price of labor, and, as a consequence – though there are other reasons as well - the diminishing of a well paid Middle Class. Meanwhile the Rich and Special Interests are grabbing all the marbles. That is not a sustainable situation.

2. Although our K-12 educational system leaves much to be desired, the basics are in place and are capable of vast improvement. Further, we already know how to make such improvements.

The above is true. Nonetheless, a combination of vested interests, politicization, ignorance, and inertia, seems to block substantive educational reform. An additional factor is that our consumer culture, heavily shaped by our media and commercial forces, is so dominant; and so effective at dumbing us down. The home apart, schools are not the only source of education. Culture has a major influence. Overall, our failure to optimize our human resources – both in educational terms and thereafter in work - represents our greatest strategic weakness as a nation.

3. Our best universities are the best in the world, and also have a formidable track record when it comes to fostering innovation. In addition., we have a college system which, at its best, is extremely effective.

There are several issues here. Firstly, although our best Third Level facilities are excellent, many others are not. Secondly, it is highly debatable whether launching most of our children with a major debt burden works to our best advantage – especially when jobs are in short supply. And, thirdly we seem to lack the kind of comprehensive training schemes in technical areas which produce the highly trained workers which make, for instance, the Germans and the Swiss so successful in international export markets. Further, we have a tendency to place far too much importance on credentialing at the expense of education. This is a form of qualification inflation which shuts many competent people out of jobs they could do easily; and which does not serve us well.

4. We have world class expertise in a large number of sectors; and dominate in many.

While this is a justifiable source of pride, the worrying fact is that we have been losing ground in sector after sector. A recent example is solar power, but there are many others including strategic areas like aircraft manufacture, aerospace and machine tools. There are a variety of reasons for this including the exporting of much of our manufacturing base (including vital technological expertise) by U.S. corporations; an excessive focus on short-term profits; a failure to invest adequately in research; and the rise of competitors such as China and India. Further, we continue to refuse to adopt any kind of national plan despite the fact that our competition have shown that such planning can work. Finally, we are faced with the fact that many of our largest corporations now consider themselves global entities, and do not have the National Interest at heart.  That has all kinds of implications we haven’t thought through adequately.

 5. We have marvelous natural resources such as coal, oil, natural gas, minerals, rare earths, and much more besides.

Yes, we do, but it is a regrettable fact that having natural resources can have several disadvantages as well. Firstly, extracting such resources can do terrible things to the environment; and often does. Secondly, there is a tendency to become complacent and not to invest in more environmentally friendly approaches. And thirdly, natural resources such as coal, oil, and gas in particular have a habit of fostering corruption. In contrast, it is noteworthy that many countries who have few natural resources – such as Japan or Switzerland or Israel – are forced to use their ingenuity, and do surprisingly well. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true that natural resources can be a mixed blessing; or worse.

6. We have a vast, beautiful, and bountiful land.

We are much blessed in this regard, but we have also managed to pollute just about every square inch of it (literally); and much of the the surrounding oceans into the bargain. And we have also degraded much of our top soil, and contaminated much of our drinking water. Beyond that, we have allowed far too much of it to fall into the hands of a few, as opposed to being available to most of us. Private property is a fine thing; but, like anything, it can be carried to excess.

7. We are the most powerful country, militarily, in the world.

The trouble with having the most powerful military is that there is a great temptation to use it unnecessarily – especially now that Congress has abdicated its sole constitutional authority to declare war. Further, such a situation has brought with it a vast – and deeply corrupt -Military Industrial Congressional Complex which is focused on driving up the amount we spend on defense even where it is militarily unnecessary. Currently, we have forces in most countries in the world, and are spending more on National Security that the rest of the world put together. That makes no sense. We need strong defense forces but National Security should not just be concerned with military matters. It relates to the general wellbeing  of Americans as well, and includes such things as health care and the prevention of poverty and hunger. Right now, we are spending way too much on the military, and not nearly enough on the American people, and re-building this country. Contrary to what many argue, we do have the resources, but our politicians are repeatedly making the wrong choices. And, as is normal these days, they are not consulting us.

 8. We have a highly sophisticated, globally dominant, financial sector.

The Financial Sector was touted for years as being a superior replacement for manufacturing as a source of wealth creation. Centralization of this sector was advocated as being essential in the interests of efficiency. The results - as we have switched from an investment approach to banking to speculation - have been disastrous. Meanwhile, we have run down our manufacturing base, and left our small business sector under-financed. A small number of people have made a great deal of money out of financialization, but the country, as a whole has been seriously damaged. Worse still, the financial sector has had to be bailed out – yet again – by the taxpayer; there has been no accountability; and Wall Street has not changed its ways. This means yet another financial crisis is virtually certain. A further problem is that centralized finance tends to mean centralized Big Business which also means de facto monopolies in most market sectors. A byproduct is that local innovation is suppressed and small business is under-funded. That, in turn, means fewer jobs. We are currently experiencing the results of such developments and they are not pleasant. Nor are our future prospects without significant change.

 9. We symbolize freedom to the rest of the world.

This is a profoundly American notion, but it is highly questionable as to whether it is as true as it once was in the immediate post-war years. Partly it has to do with the fact that we have invaded, or otherwise interfered with, other countries rather too often. Partly, it is because more and more people are becoming aware that freedom in the U.S. is excessively dependent on your bank balance; and is circumscribed in many other ways as well. Still, for all our faults, we have much to be proud of in this area.

 

Do we have have other things to be proud of? Of course we do – and it is a long list - but my key point is that though we have superb resources, we are careless with them; and if the U.S. is going to be changed the way many think it should be, we’ll have to do better in that regard.

We have to change. The status quo is failing far too many Americans. Most of us in fact.

 

 

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

VOR’s Turn: When I Say There Is A Crisis Of American Capitalism, This Is What I Mean

American cultural icons, apple pie, baseball, ...

Image via Wikipedia

My thesis is that the current American Business Model (ABM) is fundamentally flawed and needs to be re-thought.

We like to think of it as the very manifestation of American freedom – as American as apple pie – but the truth is that our current version isn’t just stale. It’s rotten. It has has become corrupted. To call it crony capitalism, while accurate enough, is to be charitable. It has become sleazy into the bargain, and where the financial sector is concerned – which produced a staggering 40 percent of corporate profits up until the Great Recession – “rampantly greedy and crooked into the bargain” might describe it better.

Good grief! The damage to this country has been incalculable; and it continues. As for bank profits, if one made the banks fully accountable, and subtracted the real costs of supporting them – which has not been done – I suspect we would find that that these profits were illusory.

Yes, I know that is fighting talk, but bear with me. I’m not saying that that there are not great strengths in the ABM (though one has to look, and pause, and think). However, I am saying that it contains systemic weaknesses which we need to do something about.

Think in terms of a well built boat which is sinking because it has holes in it. Given that it is full of people, the first thing you do is patch the holes. Later, you may decide to buy a new boat, but it will still be broadly similar but may be significantly different in detail; and, as always, the devil is in the detail.

In short, I’m not suggesting we give up capitalism and switch to sun worshipping or outright theft (A form of capitalism we made much use of where Native Americans are concerned). I am arguing that we should introduce some intelligence (and decency) into the system of capitalism we have now.

Others have, and it works for them. Why shouldn’t it work for us? Enter Intelligent Capitalism. What a novel concept! Let me list its requirements:

NOTE: ABM = American Business Model

1. The purpose of an economic system, such as the ABM, is to deliver an acceptable quality of life to the vast majority (and preferably all) of the population. At its core, a sound economic system is essentially a way of cooperating (believe it or not) to maximize resources; with rewards and competition providing the incentives, and regulations constituting the rules of the game. Here, we need a balance.

The ABM fails.

2. A viable economic system needs to be fair, and to be seen as fair. This is fundamental to human nature (flawed though it is). Lack of fairness invariable results in social unrest; or worse. Short of total oppression, there are really no exceptions to this principle. Massive income inequality is neither seen as fair, nor is it fair; and it has a disastrous effect on our well being in general.

The ABM fails.

3. A viable economic system needs to provide full employment at pay that allows for a reasonable lifestyle; and provided the economy with purchasing power. Lack of demand leads to unemployment.

The ABM fails.

4. A viable economic system should encourage, and achieve, productivity gains and steady growth.

The ABM fails.

5. A viable economic system should strike a healthy balance between work and one’s private life; and must include paid sick leave and several weeks of vacation. In short, people should be treated decently. They work better that way.

The ABM fails.

6. A viable economic system should provide both stability, and economic security. This requires a robust social safety net.

The ABM fails

7. A viable economic system should encourage both savings and investment.

The ABM fails

8. A viable economic system should fundamentally focus on the real economy, and not be overly focused on making money with money. It should add real value.

The ABM fails.

9. A viable economic system should not be overly centralized, but should function at local level as much as possible. This has numerous advantages ranging from the fact that most people prefer it, because it promotes personal relationships, to the fact that it foster small business, and thus unemployment. In addition, it promotes resilience.

The ABM fails.

10. A viable economic system should, more or less, be able to balance its budget and its trade. That means it must be internationally competitive, and be capable of producing goods people want.

The ABM fails.

11. A viable economic system should constantly be investing in the future, whether it be in infrastructure or capital equipment, or housing, or the public good in general. Lack of investment may go unnoticed in the short term, but has serious consequences.

The ABM fails.

12. A viable economic system be able to guarantee savers an adequate financial return, and, at the same time, be able to supply capital – particularly at local level – when needed.

The ABM fails.

13. A viable economic system needs to be able to cope with change in such a way that employees are paid until they find another job. and are retrained if necessary.

The ABM fails.

14. A viable economic system needs to encourage a well educated, well trained, healthy work force.

The ABM fails.

15. A viable economic system must be be environmentally aware, and not pollute, or otherwise degrade the environment.

The ABM fails.

16. A viable economic system should be based on the free market, and open competition, with monopolies and oligopolies being opposed.

The ABM fails.

17. A viable economic system should have a simple, fair, transparent tax system.

The ABM fails.

18. A viable economic system should encourage a wide variety of different enterprise structures and should not be overly dominated by corporations.

The ABM fails.

19. A viable economic system requires that capital and labor co-exist in reasonable harmony; and that there be a balance of power.

The ABM fails.

20. A viable economic system require a government which is responsive to the electorate as a whole, and not controlled near entirely by the Rich and Special Interests.

The ABM fails.

 

I don’t wish to cause you indigestion, but I would like to point out that the current American Business Model fails to meet any of the above criteria; none of which is unreasonable.

Worse still, the ABM isn’t proving to very effective. It is just not delivering what Americans need.

I submit the need for change is self evident, and have to wonder why President Obama has not articulated that fact.

I (temporarily) rest my case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Current Crisis Of American Capitalism Is More Serious Than The Attack On Pearl Harbor; And Should Be Treated As Such.

FILE--Three U.S. battleships are hit from the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Despite extensive (albeit flawed) media coverage of the Great Recession, its causes and significance, I still get the impression that far too many of us don’t adequately appreciate, or care to grapple with, the sheer scale of the corruption emanating from our financial sector.

It represents a crisis of American Capitalism; and you file that sort of thing under the heading of ‘Existential Threat.’ That means, in effect, a threat to our very existence. It is that serious.

It has already overtaken our political and legal processes, and continues to spread like an aggressive cancer throughout virtually every aspect of the American Way of Life. We already know that our politicians have been bought. Now everyone, and everything else, is being bought also.

This Crisis of American Capitalism (capitalism comes in many flavors – and some work well) is an issue with such catastrophic implications that it should dominate public discourse; yet, palpably it doesn’t. It’s almost as if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been relegated to the status of a regrettable event – perhaps akin to Katrina - which might require a few reforms, but which otherwise could be substantially ignored. Such a reaction, back in 1941, would, quite rightly, have generated total outrage throughout the land.

Fortunately, it was not required. FDR rose to the occasion, made a magnificent speech, unified all Americans to a common purpose, refocused the entire economy to achieve that purpose, and then won the war. The effort almost certainly cost him his life, but it was the very personification of leadership.

President Obama has shown no such leadership. There have been no major speeches focusing the nation on the threat emanating from the financial sector, and no major efforts initiated to defeat such a threat.

Instead, he has concentrated on shoring up the status quo, together with the very people who helped to cause this crisis, to the tune of over $16 trillion; and has made no effort at all to either break up the big banks, or prosecute those responsible. It is almost as if he is complicit; and perhaps he is.

The financial sector is still being propped up by the Fed. His supporters are having a hard time making sense of this; and this level of subsidy to the financial sector certainly does not match any form of capitalism yet invented except what is pejoratively called “crony capitalism.” The suspicion is that Obama is so dependent on Wall Street for financial support, for his reelection campaign, that his obligations as president come second. And one can add in the fact that he seems remarkably reluctant to articulate clear Democratic principles; or to stand and fight for his beliefs. But what are his beliefs? 

President Obama’s depressing behavior apart, let me explore some of the other reasons why public indignation is so muted:

Media Failure: Although media coverage has been extensive, taken as a whole, it hasn’t been nearly as clear and focused as it might have been. It’s as if we weren’t quite sure who had attacked Pearl Harbor. Perhaps it was the Japanese, but it could have been the Soviets. Perhaps a volcano had erupted or there had been a giant gas explosion. Bottom line: the issues have been blurred. Given who owns the media, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Big business can’t become big without being in bed with the financial sector; and our main media is owned by Big Business.

An Apathetic (and frequently ignorant) Public: I have no desire to be critical of the American public, but it is hard not to be concerned when one examines the data available. Let me quote a neighbor (a fireman) instead: “Thanks to TV, fast food and drugs – mainly legal – we’ve turned into a bunch of flaccid couch potatoes; and we deserve what we get.” Hmm! Not sure I would go that far, but about 30% seem to be totally deaf to any form of reasoned argument about any issue; and the thought that half of the rest are permanently drugged (legal drugs are still drugs – and not all are legal) is not reassuring. Also, many work for corporations who do not take kindly to political activism, and who have the power to fire people whose politics they disapprove of; which they use. The reality of freedom is way different from the propaganda.

The Extraordinary & Unrelenting Efforts of the Republicans To Blur the Issue: We should scarcely be surprised at this, given that the Republican Party is so clearly in the hands of the Rich and Corporate Interests these days, but one might have hoped that there would have been a few Republicans left who would have considered the Public Good, the National Interest or even the ethic of the situation. Clearly not; and to a disturbing extent, the Democrats have been complicit. So much for Congress.

The Equally Extraordinary & Unrelenting Efforts of the The Financial Sector (and Big Business in general) To Manipulate Public Opinion and Game The System: There is a tendency to refer to the Financial Sector – Wall Street or the Big Banks – as if they existed in isolation. Clearly they do not, but it is rather more important to be aware that the interests of the Financial Sector and Big Business in general are frequently one and the same. That represents an extraordinary nexus of resources compared to the ballot box. And the Rich and Corporate Interests have not hesitated to use such resources to the fullest extent necessary.

It says a great deal about the current state of this Great Nation that the only people who seem to be prepared to do the right thing are those involved in the Occupy Movement. And now winter is coming.

We all need to get involved. This used to be a pretty good country. Seems a pity to have it stolen away from us. Our own interests apart, much of the rest of the world needs us too; even likes us. And we need them.

Perhaps we need a different graphic.

‘A’ for ACTION comes to mind. By ‘U.S.’

Those were the days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday, October 31, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Irish Samurai

Despite being a WW II baby (May 23 1944) and thus brought up in a period when both Germany and Japan were not thought of with much affection, I have long been intrigued by Japan.

It was strange, really, because most of the books I read when I was growing up were ferociously anti-Japanese, I did not know any Japanese, and most of the movies I saw were equally unforgiving.

Beyond that, a much admired uncle, Joe Lentaigne, had fought the Japanese in WW II and had endured terrible privation while fighting with Orde Wingate’s Chindits. After Wingate had been killed, General ‘Fighting Joe’ Lentaigne had gone on to command the Chindits, and, as it happens, Wingate’s son, also called Orde, had been in my class at school.

The Chindits, by the way, were special forces who fought behind enemy lines and were supplied from  the air. It was a brilliant idea which ran ahead of the capabilities of the air forces of the time. The men achieved some military successes, but suffered horribly.

My anti-Japanese influences did not end there. When I was 19 – which would make it 1963 – I once had the privilege of spending an evening with the famous Australian author Russell Braddon, whose book, THE NAKED ISLAND, was as powerful an indictment of Japanese wartime cruelty as you are likely to read. Russell had experienced this first hand.

He had been a prisoner of the Japanese for four years, from 1942-45, in the notorious Changi prison in Singapore.

Russell was a delightful man (he died in 1995), and a talented writer, but suffice to say that, at that time, he still was not minded to forgive the Japanese. He had seen numerous friends die quite unnecessarily from malnutrition and disease in Changi, and he had also witnessed, and been the victim of, much brutality.

He had also witnessed a number of executions by decapitation. He was of the opinion that Japanese culture was fundamentally flawed and, in a word, hated them.

In my opinion, he had earned the right, but though I thought about his words a great deal – I was much impressed by him – my interest in Japan did not waver.

A further negative regarding Japan was that, in those days, anything cheaply, and frequently badly, manufactured, seemed to come from either Japan or Hong Kong.

Times have certainly changed.

So where did my interest in, and respect for, Japan come from? I don’t really know, but I suspect I read a couple of contrarian books – I have been reading 2-4 books a week for most of my life, and I know I was profoundly impressed by various features I read (and looked at) in the National Geographic. Their standard of photography has always been commendable.

My conclusion went roughly along these lines: Here is a culture which is certainly different, but which makes a great deal of sense within its own parameters, and which is impressively focused on the excellent, and the beautiful. As to its behavior in China, Korea and during WW II, one has to appreciate that Japan was still in the middle ages less than three generations earlier, and cultural confusion under such circumstances was scarcely surprising.

Eventually, in the Nineties, I made it to Japan to do research for my second book, RULES OF THE HUNT. It was a truly marvelous trip which pretty much confirmed my conclusions. I have always wanted to go back, but somehow that has never been possible. I regret it deeply. It’s a truly fascinating country, and culture. And I made some good friends there.

I was reminded of Japan when I watched THE LAST SAMURAI recently. It’s a stunningly beautiful movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Edward Zwick which somehow was not as well received as it might have been.

I enjoy it more every time I see it. It brings back many, many, marvelous memories.

As for the rest, it will be in my memoirs.

But, by the way, the original title for my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, was to have been: THE IRISH SAMURAI. I always saw my protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, that way (albeit without a master) and still do.

 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Threats To Our National Security That Stem From Within. #2: THE HIJACKING OF OUR DEMOCRACY BY THE RICH & CORPORATE INTERESTS

coup d'etat- back cover

Image by matt griffin via Flickr

We tend to associate the word “coup” with armed force and – not infrequently actual violence – but, almost certainly, the insidious power of money has even more coups to its credit.

It reduces the seizing of power to an investment decision. It is also administratively and logistically simple. No troops or tanks required; and those you need to over-power - will take plastic.

Where this country is concerned we have experienced an interesting variation on the traditional secretive coup. In our case, those who have bought power, have largely – though certainly not completely - operated in plain sight by perverting the Constitution. They have bribed their way into power; and intend to hold on to it in exactly the same way.

Politicians come cheap. Return on such invested capital is excellent; and there is a track record to prove it.

The Supreme Court has been complicit in this power grab in a whole series of pro-business judgments which first all ruled that corporations, from a legal point of view, had the same rights as people; and secondly that corporate money was the equivalent of free speech and must, therefore, go unchecked.

From then on, the decline of effective representative democracy was inevitable. Why should a politician listen to his constituency when he has been bought into office with corporate money; is maintained in office in the same way; and will similarly benefit when he or she retires? Research shows that he or she does not.

The system has now been so corrupted that even at a time of unparalleled income inequality and widespread unemployment – a consequence of a rigged taxation system and the lack of worker rights – the Republicans feel quite safe in blatantly advocating tax (and other) reforms, which will further aid the transfer of wealth to the Rich and Corporate Interests; and further advance social inequity.

Such behavior is shameless, reprehensible, and morally wrong, but the Republicans feel they can get away with it because they now control so many of the levers of power – and particularly of propaganda – that resistance will be futile; even if they fail to capture the presidency as such.

Their rationale is simple. The Rich and Corporate Interests have bought both parties (and have manipulated the Tea Party into the bargain). Bribery rocks! Well, that may be a slight exaggeration; but that it works, is certain.

Look no further than the continuing support of the financial sector by the Democrats for proof of this, plus the glaring absence of programs advancing social equity. In effect, the 99% have no representation.

Unfortunately, history shows that social inequity invariably results in social unrest and, not infrequently, violence. And where does violence lead? It has featured in our history before. The term we used to describe it was: “Revolution.”

The V for Vendetta mask may soon look less benevolent.

 

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Abraham Lincoln


Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred right - a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.
Abraham Lincoln

 

 

 

 

 

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Smorgasbord

Painting from my Work Ethic series: Ei and Sco...

Image by p0ps Harlow via Flickr

I’m taking a temporary respite from my rather somber pieces about Our Threats From Within.

Apart from any other reason, it is Saturday, my self-designated day of relaxation and utter idleness. I would have added “utter degeneracy” as well but one has to be cautious in this internet age. Besides, I’m older these days and content with “leisurely degeneracy.”

I don’t really become utterly idle, but the point is that I try and abandon the work ethic for the day, and make everything optional. In short, I delude my mindset into believing that I ‘m not working because I have to, but for the sheer pleasure of it – and entirely voluntarily at that.

It’s a surprisingly successful technique. There is a lot to be said for self-delusion when you know you are deluding yourself. Or is someone manipulating me to think just that?

I’m deluding myself into thinking: “Im-possible.”

The above cartoon has been borrowed from that amazing site THE BIG PICTURE. I said before that is was a positive cornucopia of good things. Let me now substitute: “Smorgasbord.”

The following came from the same source.

"My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity." -Amos Tversky, Stanford psychologist and a founding father of behavioral economics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday, October 28, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Threats To Our National Security That Stem From Within. #1: THE DETERIORATION OF OUR HEALTH & OUR FOOD CHAIN.

Vitruvian Man, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Image via Wikipedia

This is a much more serious issue than we seem to be willing to accept. 

It combines our basic ability to function as productive human beings, with vast economic and lifestyle penalties (if we cannot perform at least as well as our peers in other countries). 

This is not just about physical health – as generally considered – because it relates directly to our intellectual productivity as well. Where most of us are concerned, we need to be adequately fit and healthy to perform at our intellectual optimum.

The exact situation varies by the person, but if many Americans are in mediocre health, then the drag on our collective national performance can be imagined. We don’t think as well as we might; we don’t learn as fast as we could; we don’t innovate as effectively as we might; and our reasoning abilities are adversely affected. And to cap it all, our longevity is impacted.

An ever increasing body of evidence points to the fact that we don’t have to imagine such a subpar future. We’re already living it, and experiencing its consequences; and the trends are adverse.

The evidence would take a book to summarize, but let me give some examples:

  • The fact that our infant mortality rate is excessively high.
  • That fact that over 70 percent of young Americans of recruitment age are unfit for military service.
  • The obesity epidemic.
  • The fact that roughly half the adult population that has health insurance is on legal medication.
  • The fact that about a quarter of the adult population is on anti-depressants.
  • The fact that the evidence indicates that Americans, compared to other populations seem to be sicker as we get older.
  • The fact that our longevity is lower than that of most other developed nations.

Why does this situation exist? To answer that question one has to think about the problem holistically. Diet, smoking, lifestyle, pollution and working conditions are just some of the factors involved, as is our mediocre and excessively costly health care system combined with mass ignorance, plus a culture that believes that the solution to every ill is a pill rather than prevention.

It is noteworthy that most of the above factors involve corporate greed in some way. If we allow our corporations to do virtually anything (on the altar of unfettered capitalism), and accept the notion that a corporation’s only duty is to make money for its shareholders, then we should scarcely be surprised that our health will be sacrificed in the process. And that is exactly what is happening.

The threat of terrorism is as nothing compared to this ongoing, self inflicted, self-evident, national catastrophe. In terms of human suffering and lives lost, it is, indeed, another holocaust.

And the enemy is us. Yet, apart from tokenism, we seem near oblivious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

VOR’s Turn: We Are Sitting Under A Volcano, Yet None Are So Blind As The Greedy; And The Institutionally Conditioned

Pundits on talk shows like to refer to the 24/7 news cycle, and “The Age of the Internet,” and imply that we are all incredibly well informed these days.

I often wonder if this is true.

Polls continue to indicate a frighteningly high level of ignorance in the U.S.; and my impression about mankind in general is that is that not only is our capacity for rational analysis decidedly limited, but we are not particularly well equipped to handle large volumes of data.

We can’t remember most of it, we’re not particularly good at connecting the dots, we are delusional when it comes to multi-tasking (we think we can, but mostly we can’t) and we find too much data confusing.

After that, personal agendas and vested interests enter the picture, and they tend to trump facts again and again. And then comes ideology, the curse of the thinking classes. I tend to think of ideologies in terms of religion or politics; but they also exist in many other forms, and, in particular, can be induced by institutions, whether corporate, or government, or academic, or religious. Whatever be the form, the end result – if an ideology - equates to intellectual blindness. It is a common ailment.

I’m thinking this way, both because I normally do; and because I’m struck by the fact that trends and developments of significance so often go unnoticed.

For, instance, in the late Eighties and Nineties, when I was working on such books as GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, RULES OF THE HUNT, and THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT, it was blindingly clear to me that terrorism would be used against the U.S. in the near future; and I said as much repeatedly.

Subject to some notable exceptions such as the remarkable Vaughn Forrest and his Congressional Task Force On Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, I was substantially ignored. After all, terrorism in those days belonged in the box marked ENTERTAINMENT; and anyway what could an author of fiction know that the security services did not?

I could answer that last question in detail, but since I’m merely trying to illustrate the point that we are disconcertingly bad at recognizing trends and developments of significance, I’ll move on.

The next obvious example was the Great Recession. I forecast that in 2004. I thought it would start in early 2008, last for several years and that housing prices would fall by a third. I wasn’t the only person who forecast such doom and gloom, but certainly neither the mainstream media nor the  government seemed to be remotely concerned. As to why the Fed, with all their resources, ignored the obvious, one cannot but wonder.

As matters stand, though there are obvious threats like the Chinese, the U.S. is unlikely to be seriously threated by any external conventional enemy, using conventional weapons, but is eminently capable of destroying itself, or at least of inflicting the kind of damage on itself that will take decades to recover from.

If such is the case, and I believe it is, then we are misallocating our National Security resources. Further, I believe a threat from within is more immediate than any external threat.

Here, I had better explain that when I say “from within” I am not referring to infiltrated terrorists or enemy sleeper cells (though they exist). I am talking about this society’s capacity to self-destruct in some way. I am talking about structural flaws in the American Way of Life. As is becoming self-evident, they are many. This is not to bely our strengths, which are numerous, but to focus attention on matters we can do something about; if we want to. The latter is far from clear.

Bottom line: We are our own worst enemies.

Let me list the principal threats to our National Security that stem from within. – in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Could It Be That The Food We Need To Keep Us Alive, Is Killing Us? Yes!

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

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The comedian and talk show host, Bill Maher, regularly quips – and not in jest – that the regular American diet, is killing us.

I have collected an increasing amount of data that supports this conclusion.

It’s not that we are eating a hamburger, and dropping dead there and then; but more that our diet is causing a steady degradation of our health.

It shows up in all kinds of ways:

  • Our obesity epidemic.
  • The fact that we don’t live as long as those in other developed countries.
  • The fact that we tend to be sicker, as we get older, than those in other developed countries.
  • The fact that over 70 percent of young Americans are not fit enough for military service.
  • The fact that our largely factory-farm/intensive agriculturally produced food is neither wholesome nor healthy.
  • The fact that we are the most drugged nation (based upon legal medications alone) in the history of mankind.

In that context, I would urge you to read the following letter featured by the commendable Mark Bittman in the New York Times of October 25 2011. It was written by New York meat wholesaler, George Faison.

 

Hey Chefs:

This note explains my thinking about why I believe that you should be pursuing clean agricultural ingredients as standard practice in your restaurants.


Our food supply system is broken. Badly. 80 percent of the U.S. beef production is controlled by four industrially producing companies. Three of these companies also process 60 percent of the nation’s pork.[1] Too much chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to produce our crops. The variety of crops produced around the world has diminished dramatically in the last 60 years. There are now nearly 5,000,000 fewer American farmers since the 1930s.

Yes, this industrial structure has significantly lowered the monetary cost of the food we consume. But this is misleading. While the amount of money we spend on food has declined, the quality and nutrition supplied by this food has deteriorated. As a country, about one third of all adults are obese, and since 1980, the incidence of obesity has tripled among children ages 2-19.[2]

In 1960, we spent 18 percent of our take home pay on food and 5 percent on health care. Now we spend 9 percent of our take home pay on food and upwards of 17 percent on health care. According to Michael Pollan, during his Oprah interview in February, “We spend less of our money on food than any other people at any other time on this earth.” What’s wrong with this picture?

People have gotten used to eating cheap food and it is killing them. There is little flavor and little nutrition and we eat more and more, because so much of it has been engineered to trigger consumption (salt and sugar have been proven to be addictive, like nicotine in cigarettes).

Regarding meat and poultry, here is what drives me to promote naturally raised meats.

By clean I mean the following:

1. Antibiotic free: Over 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to the animals we eat. 70 percent! The practice is banned in Europe. The antibiotics are fed to animals housed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). They are so densely housed that they get sick. The producer gives them feed treated with antibiotics so they won’t get sick. Hogs are crammed into concrete and metal pens with grates that allow the excrement to fall through. Chickens are packed into closed houses where the lights are turned on four times each day to make them eat more often. Conditions like these would make any animal sick.

The key problem when antibiotics are overused is that it can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is a great threat to our country’s health. In fact, there is an antibiotic-resistant Staph bacteria called MRSA that is definitely impacting employees working on hog CAFOs. According to the CDC, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that in 2007, 18,650 people died of MRSA, whereas approximately 16,000 died of AIDS. Additionally, JAMA reported that MRSA was also responsible for upward of 94,000 life threatening illnesses.[3]

2. Hormone Free: Hormones are given to dairy cows to produce more milk and beef cattle to accelerate weight gain. The goal is obviously to maximize production in the shortest amount of time. Hormones are hell on dairy cows, causing them to lactate practically round the clock, which is abusive, and the quality impact on beef cattle is huge. Forty years ago, Prime grade made up 6 percent of all beef carcasses graded. Today, that percentage is 1.5!

According to the owner of a very large cattle processor who is well respected in the beef industry here in the U.S., the reason for the reduction in cattle quality is directly related to the use of hormones. The cattle grow quicker but they put on more water weight. The amount of time required for the muscle to develop and the fat to intersperse during grain feeding is shortened by 35-50 percent thanks to hormones. The result is cheaper cattle for the most part. But it is absolutely less flavorful. And there is less highly marbled Prime cattle rising to the top, resulting in dramatically higher prices for Prime beef over choice.

Commodity cattle that are fed hormones are moved to a feedlot after as little as 9 months. There, they are given antibiotic-laced feed to keep them healthy while they adjust to a largely grain diet (that’s like you moving from a salad-based diet to an all-cheese diet overnight). These cattle are intensely fed for 75-100 days. Very efficient. Very cheap.

Naturally raised cattle are on pasture for 16-20 months before transferring to a low density feedlot where they are fed a mixed diet (dried grass/grain for 200 days in a naturally raised, clean program; 400 days for a wagyu program). It takes a lot longer to raise clean, healthy cattle, and this is why they cost more. But they taste a lot better and they marble better. Our naturally raised, clean beef program typically grades over 20 percent Prime, and that’s a lot more than commodity at 1.5 percent.

But the impact of hormones in our food system is becoming increasingly controversial. The practice is banned in Europe. The use of hormones in our food supply has been linked to the earlier onset of menstruation in young women in western societies over the last 40 years. (These dates coincide with the introduction of hormones as an additive/growth stimulant in dairy and beef cattle.) The issue with earlier onset of menstruation is that it is associated with a vastly greater incidence of cancer in women, breast and cervical.[4] That is just one reason why many of our retail customers are ordering DeBragga’s grass fed or naturally raised beef.

So why does this matter to you? Maybe it doesn’t. But from where I sit, I see more and more of our chef/restaurateurs making the switch to naturally raised meats and poultry for the reasons I describe above, and more (like animal welfare, for example). We know that a greater and greater number of our clients, especially in New York City, are looking for these ingredients, even expecting us to be offering them. As an industry, restaurants are on the cutting edge. Not just in culinary technique and quality, or d├ęcor and service, but in the quality and production standards used to make the ingredients in our recipes.

Yes, naturally and humanely raised meats cost more. Maybe you can counter the higher monetary cost by offering smaller portions. Or expect chefs to charge more money for it.

I do not think the solution to our food supply problem is to use poorer quality ingredients because they cost less money. In the long run, the true cost of these meats is so much higher.

George

[1] Hendrickson, Mary and William Heffernan. “Concentration of Agricultural Markets.” Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri. April 2007.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[3] Journal of the American Medical Association, October 17, 2007.

[4] Sellman, Sherrill, “The problem with precocious puberty,” Nexus Magazine, Vol 11, 3, April – May 2004.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Vision Is A Wonderful Thing

Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona, USA.

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Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona, USA.

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Biosphere

Image by kurichan* via Flickr

Some years ago I went to see Biosphere 2 in Arizona and was completely blown away by it. Officially, it was closed, but I managed to sneak in; and I was just plain awed by it.

Apart from the fact that it was visually spectacular, to me it represented vision personified. Here were people trying to do something extraordinary. True, they were not entirely successful, but even their failures were inspiring.

I left feeling invigorated and inspired; and hugely impressed; and thinking people at their best are fantastic. That feeling has never left me. I know, with absolute certainty, that human potential remains substantially untapped. We are capable of doing so much; yet mostly we don’t.  But the thought that we can – and sometimes do - remains ever with me; and when I see something inspiring, I react with Pavlovian enthusiasm.

The above relates to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to establish a research facility on Roosevelt Island. Bloomberg, on behalf of New York, has offered the land and $100 million in infrastructure improvements in exchange for a world class science and engineering campus.

Response, so far has been impressive. It seems clear that New York will get its facility.

I love this kind of stuff!

 

 

 

 

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Monday, October 24, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Americans, Delightful Though, Of Course, We Are; Are Some Of The Most Brain-Washed People In The World.

Mind Control (Stephen Marley album)

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As you may gather, if you have read a number of these blogs, I am fascinated by how people think; or, in many (arguably most) cases, don’t think.

I tend towards the view that most of our big issue (Job Creation, Healthcare etc.) problems are solvable, and again and again am surprised – I really mean disappointed - that not only are these problems not dealt with, but readily available solutions aren’t even considered. Yes, I know the flaws innate to human nature are the primary reason, but I don’t think it is just that. I also think other factors are involved. Let me proffer some thoughts:

  • Conditioning. Americans, pleasant to meet though most are, are some of the most brain-washed people in the world. We don’t use Madrassas. Primarily, we use corporations. They are exceptionally well-equipped for the task. They have massive resources, and (subject to some notable exceptions) they are unconstrained by feelings of social concern, or decency, or values of any kind. They are focused solely on the pursuit of profit. Such motivation means that they are not only unrelenting in their self-promotion, but that their own cultures are about as conformist and authoritarian as can we achieved. As befits our culture of consumption and excess, we use total immersion from birth to death. It works. The combination of commercial, government, and social propaganda – much of it more myth than fact - imbues such a strong sense that the American Way of Life is superior, that any fresh thinking has a hard time getting accepted. That might not not matter if the American Way of Life really was superior, but, across a wide range of issues, palpably it is not. We should be out learning how other societies do things better, but mostly, we refuse to. In contrast, where other countries think they can learn from us, they do. They benefit from the best of both worlds; and, predictably, that gives them the advantage.
  • Ideology. Ideologies stem in many cases, though not all, from conditioning. They are dangerous because they involve shutting down one’s mind in favor of blind belief. Accordingly, it becomes culturally acceptable, for instances, to pay people so badly they need Food Stamps; or to cut back on Health Care (as Wal-Mart is doing now). Or to cut back on research in favor of short-term profits (as many U.S. corporations are doing right now). As for the effect of ideology on our politics, the current self-inflicted paralysis speaks for itself. As for the combination of ideology and religion in our politics; it is toxic.
  • Specialization. Specialization works best when it evolves from a broad base of experience and where one’s underlying philosophy is, and remains, holistic. In contrast, we have evolved a Third Level educational system which tends to teach more and more about less and less. The end result is the emergence of what I tend to think of as “professional illiterates” – professionally qualified people who tend to know remarkably little outside their own area of expertise; and who, not infrequently, don’t talk to each other. Look no further than the medical profession for examples where different specialists, treating the same patient, not only fail to communicates, but are not even coordinated. It is unconscionable.
  • Experience. There is just no substitute for broad experience of life if you want to use your mind to best advantage. That involves – as a minimum - travel, languages, reading, study, an appreciation of the arts, and the active cultivation of one’s critical faculties, together with a keen eye and an open mind. Add in a diversity of work experiences, and perhaps a little combat. There is nothing like being shot at to focus the mind. It really does get you out of your comfort zone. Throw in a period of poverty. Sprinkle with commercial successes and failures. There are few things more brain-deadening than success and riches alone. After all that lot, there is a reasonable chance that an interesting, thoughtful, compassionate, and creative human being will emerge.

The above thoughts have been prompted by reading an extract from WIRED’S publication, I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words

The following is the quote that got my attention:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." ~Wired, February, 1995

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Andrew N. Liveris Is A Brilliant Communicator. He Also Happens to Be The CEO of Dow Chemical.

View of Capitol Hill from the U.S. Supreme Court

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The U.S., at present, is not a democracy though it masquerades as one. Fundamentally, it is run by the Rich and Corporate Interests to their own advantage.

If they don’t benefit, it doesn’t happen. Since Congress is bought and paid for by those self same interests, they follow orders. Much the same situation exists at state and county level. Corporatism rules. It has no right to, but it does. It is an absolute violation of the Constitution.

If you doubt me, just look at unemployment. Currently we have 25 million people either unemployed, or underemployed, or who have dropped out of the job market, yet Congress refuses to do virtually anything. Much as Congress doesn’t do hunger and poverty, it doesn’t do unemployment. Yet, do you doubt for a second that if the tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists were agitating for action. and supporting their pressure with campaign donations, that disastrous situation would continue to exist. It would not. Corporatism really does rule. It also does not care about unemployment. Indeed, it likes it. High unemployment undercuts the ability of labor to bargain.

I’m against corporate control of our economy with ever fiber of my being. I’m well aware of the limitations of democracy, especially in a society where many of the potential voters are ignorant of the issues – as is the situation in this country - but still believe that it is a better system of government than the alternatives. I regret deeply that the U.S. has, in fact, if not in name, abandoned it.

For all that, I’m not against corporations as such. I think the notion that a corporation is legally a person is a corruption of the law, and a damming indictment of the integrity of the Supreme Court; and I would like to see corporate power diminished in a significant number of ways; but such qualifications apart, I wish them good fortune.

It is in that context that I draw your attention of Andrew N. Liveris. He is the CEO of Dow Chemical, a corporation with a dubious reputation, but he’s a superb communicator; who – based on what I have heard so far – speaks a great deal of sense. He is also an advocate for the revival of manufacturing in the U.S., and the author of MAKE IT IN AMERICA: The Case for Reinventing The Economy.

He argues for “smart manufacturing” and he makes a compelling case. As I keep on arguing, we don’t have to be in this ridiculous economic mess. The solutions are out there, and so are some extraordinarily talented people. But, there is a disconnect in how our society is structured so that it’s needs rarely seem to be met by the talented.

It wasn’t always thus.

 

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

VOR’s Turn: No Wonder I Turned To Eagle & Cuckoo.

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Eagle & Cuckoo haven’t had much of a look-in on this blog recently, and I’m feeling quite guilty about it.

Given that they are entirely fictional characters, that may seem something of a stretch , but the truth is that once I have created a character in reasonable depth, he or she becomes real – as far as I am concerned.

By that, I don’t mean totally real – as in I would invite one of them out to lunch. Instead, I mean that I think about them a great deal and am concerned, in an omniscient sort of way about their development. I want and expect them to evolve as people. I give thought to how they live in steadily increasing detail. How does Hugo Fitzduane, who lives in an old Norman keep on an island off the West of Ireland, feed himself? Does he cook, or if he doesn’t, who does? How and where does he shop? What does he do all day? Given the number of people he has killed (always in a worthy cause) is he suffering from PTSD?

That is not as crazy as it sounds because every character I have created actually has his or her roots in reality; so, in a way, when I’m plotting fiction, I’m also thinking about reality. I’m recalling people, places and situations, and then letting my subconscious take over. Fortunately, it is a subconscious with a work ethic which rarely lets me down.

We have a deal. If I supply it with plenty of material, it will deliver. By material, it doesn’t mean watching TV. It means having real life adventures and experiences which it can really do something with. And if I get shot or knifed in the process – and there are other hazards – why to serve the interests of literature is noble. We’ll ignore whether a thriller is literature or not. It is a good motivational quip. 

E&C rather broke the pattern. I haven’t spent much time socializing with eagles to date – I admire eagles, but am not overly fond of heights and my un-assisted flying capabilities are limited – but when I was searching for a way of discussing our current rather horrendous economic situation, in a slightly less in-your-face way, E&C just popped into my head. 

I guess Eagle’s origins are obvious enough – Eagle being the national bird – but Cuckoo is harder to pin down. Perhaps he stems from the fact that our current situation is cuckoo. We don’t need to be in this situation at all. There are solutions to all our problems, but the Republicans are so hell bent on making Obama a one term president that they seem quite content to wreck the country in the process. And for good measure, they seem to revel in a particular kind of spiteful intransigence which is remarkable reminiscent of the school bully. Again and again, their behavior could well be described as mean and nasty. 

I would mind less if they had rational alternative policies, but they don’t. Instead they pump out the same old propaganda about excessive regulations, and taxes being too high while ignoring any and all contrary evidence (of which there is a great deal). Further, they are so blatantly in the pockets of the Rich and Corporate interests that the chances of their advancing all our interests – as a government should – are zero. In short, they are deeply corrupt, both morally and financially, as is the system as whole. It has been rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many and the great wonder was that more people didn’t spot this earlier. Good grief, it is not a new development. The process started in the early Seventies and has been gathering momentum ever since.

So why weren’t the Democrats screaming about this decades ago. The data were available. Even if they couldn’t interpret the figures themselves, there is no shortage of socially concerned economists. Yet, somehow the enormity of the havoc being wreaked on the American Dream was missed. Could it be because the Democrats were equally corrupted by the Rich and Corporate interests? It seems highly likely. Correction: It is certain.

This raises serious questions about President Clinton’s conduct. True, he presided over a period of sustained economic prosperity, but he doesn’t seem to have been concerned that this growth was essentially debt fueled, and that the tilting of the economy in favor of the Rich and Corporate interests was continuing. Since, by all accounts, he is an extremely intelligent man, why did he not try to redress the situation? Instead, he chose to be silent on the subject. Power came ahead of principle.

What puzzles and distresses me about all this is the near complete absence of reasoned debate. The Republicans have in effect said: “We are the party of the privileged, and since we have enough economic power to buy control of the system, pretty much regardless of who is elected, why should we care about the wellbeing of most Americans? Our rice bowls are filled by the 1%. The rest of you, the 99%, are just not really our concern. Anyway, we have a strong enough propaganda machine to keep enough of you docile no matter how outrageously we behave. True, you might think the media would cut us to pieces, but they don’t because, to a very large extent, we own them, As for the balance, they have such a peculiar idea of balanced reporting that we can still get away with almost anything. In short, we are grabbing all the marbles because we can. And what has fairness got to do with rugged individualism. Rugged individuals grab what they can and to hell with the rest. That’s the American way.”

To be fair to the Republicans, at least that has the merit of being a coherent point of view. It is a philosophy of greed and thuggery. It is despicable. It is almost certainly Un-American. But at least it is clear.

What the Democrats stand for is very far from clear. Nominally, they are the party of the Working Class; but the Working Class doesn’t exist any more… It has, somewhat mysteriously, become ‘The Middle Class;” the class of most Americans. Of a regular guy doing a regular job who probably belongs to an union.

But wait: Government unions apart, the union movement is almost dead. And it is far from certain that the Democrats will give them the kiss of life. Why so? Well, modern Democrats get a significant amount of their funding from corporations – just like the Republicans. And corporations hate unions, particularly in the U.S., because unions are now the only force available to counteract corporate power. Clearly, they have to go.

I could write pages about the weakness of the Democrats (and I’m sorely tempted to) but let me show restraint, and merely state that the Democrats come across as a bunch of wimps with no clearly defined policies.

Do they want to rein in corporate power – which they clearly should? I have absolutely no idea.

Do they really want to improve working conditions and give Americans the same sort of rights that currently exist in Europe? I see no evidence to that effect.

Are they concerned about the fact that the earnings of the average American have not increased in forty years – and are now declining? I really don’t know. I suspect not.

Do they think the financial sector should be reformed from its gullet to its zatch? Not really, both because leading members of the party are in bed with the banks, and because they don’t really understand all that technical stuff…

Judas Priest! This is a case of the corrupt and ignorant bamboozling the wanting and ignorant. It’s not a debate. It’s a competition over which party can rape and pillage to best advantage.

No wonder I turned to Eagle & Cuckoo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday, October 21, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Illusion of Skill Is Deeply Ingrained In the Culture Of The Financial Sector.

Punch cartoon from 1843 depicting events inspi...

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I like to keep myself reasonably well informed, and to that end, spend a couple of hours each day checking out a wide variety of sources with as open a mind as I can muster.

The latter is not always easy, but I have found it helps if – as a minimum – one is aware of one’s prejudices; and is prepared to think holistically (to assess one’s findings in context, to look at both the big picture and the specific situation, and to join the dots).

Also, I’m blessed with friends, who don’t necessarily agree with me politically, so I’m constantly being forced to question my own judgment. Indeed, let me admit this confidentially (because it is decidedly un-American) I’m even prepared to do something truly shocking: To change my mind.

Quite why I don’t rely on watching TV in the evening for my news, like roughly three-quarters of the U.S. population is a good question, but I don’t. I guess I’m after vastly more perspective, depth, rigor, and subtlety of mind; and nobody could accuse TV news of boastings such virtues. Further, there are some truly marvelous alternatives  around if you are are prepared to dig, so I find my efforts, generally speaking, are well rewarded. And I try, where possible, to incorporate what I learn in my writing. Or so I like to believe .

Let me re-emphasize that there are some truly terrific thinkers, analysts, commentators and writers out there; and I have a suspicion that if our movers and shakers consulted them more, this Great Nation would be in vastly better shape. However, anti-intellectualism seems to be a regrettable, yet widespread feature of American life, and certainly the behavior of our politicians seems to illustrate that point. Would that it stopped there. It is rife in the business community, in the military, and in academia. Instead, the focus, all too often, is on preserving the status quo; on enhancing one’s own image; and, all too often, on blocking innovation.

It is a tragedy, because the answers to many of our problems are out there – frequently in plain sight – yet there seems to be a reluctance to look, let alone listen. Instead, energy is applied to the politics of the situation rather than searching for a solution. And ideology rather than reason dominates. Since ideology is another word for blind belief, and ignorance is a close relation, that is not an encouraging situation. As for facts, they seem to be held in scant regard. I get the feeling that soon they are likely to be regarded as un-American.

To appreciate the significance of what I am endeavoring to communicate, It might be helpful to examine how so many other countries have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while we have been preening ourselves, and muttering about American Exceptionalism, while the pay of most working Americans has stagnated for nearly 40 years.

A reasonable person, faced with such appalling evidence, might conclude that we should be out there in the streets, engaging in massive civil disobedience, and arguing for more enlightened policies. Instead, the vast majority of us are doing nothing while the buying power of both our earnings and our savings is eroded.

Are we dumb or delusional or both? Or just plain lazy.

PhotoThe good news is that where American talent shines, it can, indeed, be exceptional. One such example is Barry Ritholtz’s financially oriented blog THE BIG PICTURE, which, apart from being consistently witty, contains a veritable cornucopia of data, from charts to articles to quotes to Ritholtz’s own thoroughly entertaining writing.

I salute the man.  His URL is www.ritholz.com/blog/ or Google THE BIG PCTURE. Either way, have a look. His huge following speaks for himself. This guy is good.

The following is his QOTD of October 21st 2011

Our quote of the day comes from an article in this Sunday’s NYT magazine, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman:

“The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the [financial] industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.”

I find that, unfortunately, to be terribly true.

Daniel_KAHNEMAN[1]For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Kahneman, he is a professor at Princeton and Nobel laureate. He is notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, and behavioral economics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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