Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking into the New Year

Note: Google is making it extremely difficult for me to log into this blog. It appears that Google allows a person to have only one account, which means that I would have to reveal my identity. I have resisted doing so. If you find nothing new posted here in 2014, you might need to use a search engine to find out where Republican Climate has gone.

My postings on this blog have been sporadic, but I want to let you know it is not dead. I have, during the past year, lost some of my initial enthusiasm. I am no less alarmed by what the Republicans are doing. But I have little faith that what the Democrats are doing will help us out of the crisis. The choice, it seems to me, is between evil Republicans and inept Democrats. This will be as true in 2014 as it was in 2013.

Usually, when we humans attempt to predict what will happen in the coming year, we try to understand the past year. But if we have learned anything from the past year, it is that our future will follow a largely arbitrary trajectory. Was there any progress on rebuilding our economy or on preventing global warming or on enhancing science literacy? It doesn’t matter, because for any reason or for no reason the Republican-led House of Representatives, and the Senate over which Republicans wield the constant threat of filibuster, can simply decide to cause our economy to collapse. The Republicans actually started the process in October, taking us a few hours into government default, just to prove to us that they could. They want us to remember that they have the knife to our throats. Therefore, to use just this example, default is not something that might occur as a result of deficit spending or of depleted resources or of not taking care of long-term environmental problems, but something that Republican extremists in Congress can impose arbitrarily. How can one possibly plan ahead for that?

Therefore, many people look ahead into 2014 with a numb astigmatism. We know that some emergency will come along, but we cannot guess what it will be. We must remain tensely vigilant, ready for anything, and as far as we know, we have to remain under these stressful conditions forever. We will not be able to see the emergency until it arrives. It was bad enough to have nearly insurmountable long-term problems, and to be prepared for the actions of crazy dictators and extremists, but now we also have to consider our own unpredictable government.

All you have to do to see this vision of a future filled with unpredictable emergencies is to go to the movies. My family and I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The main thing that happened in this movie was that the good people (humans, elves, and dwarves) slashed and impaled orcs. The orcs looked like half-decomposed monsters. The special effects were good, but after about the six hundredth orc was killed, I was pretty much satiated, even though the movie was only half over.

I believe that The Hobbit, as well as several 2014 movies whose previews we saw, reflect the kind of conflict that many people anticipate for the immediate future. After all, studios do not make expensive movies unless market research shows that millions of people will be attracted to them. And not necessarily to enjoy them. People sometimes go to movies to deal with the demons inside their minds. Specifically, in these movies:

·        The conflicts consist of totally unpredictable attacks. Gandalf could sense that something evil was emerging from under the earth, but no further prediction was possible. You cannot anticipate these conflicts.
·        The foes are incomprehensibly evil. They seem motivated primarily by their love for evil, which makes them even more unpredictable. And they are all alike. The orcs all look nearly alike and have the same voice and the same feelings. You cannot negotiate with them collectively nor can you find even one of them who is not totally evil and with whom you might be able to reason.
·        The governments are totally dysfunctional. The elves cared only about their walled kingdom, and the humans dwelling beside the lake had an inept and hedonistic king. The only possibility of salvation was from little militia groups (in this case, a little band of dwarves) taking matters into their own hands.
·        The response can be only to slash the evil foes early, often, and perhaps forever. There is no time to negotiate or understand; if you hesitate for even a moment before slashing, you will be dead.

It occurred to me that this is the kind of future that the moviegoers anticipated for 2014. Our government will not deal with or perhaps even admit any predictable long-term issues such as global warming or gun violence or immigration, and are likely to create new and unpredictable conflicts; we cannot trust our government to deal with any emergencies that come along, even those that they themselves create; and the only possible response is to remain stressed-out, ready to instantly respond to emergencies by extreme and perhaps violent measures, on our own. We know we have to get and keep our own personal finances in shape, because we cannot individually succeed if we do not; but we cannot know whether personal financial wisdom will keep us alive in a chaotic economy. Over the long term, many people actually expect a dystopia, a grim future in which there is no altruistic society but in which each individual, or each little band of people, has to look out for himself or itself. If our popular entertainment is any guide, a lot of people actually expect to descend into a future of chaos.

Few people will openly admit this. Financial and policy prognosticators make it sound like we know where we are going and how to get there. That’s their job. And both parties in Congress wants us to think that they have suddenly become good people. They want us to think that the budget deal worked out by Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray is the beginning of a Congressional lovefest during which Republicans and Democrats will become comrades. But, as indicated by the kinds of movies we will be seeing in 2014, deep down we anticipate that the future is an incoherent mass of emergencies for which we cannot prepare.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Have We Evolved Beyond Racism?


First, consider the biological reason. The brain physiology underlying our minds has not evolved appreciably since the stone age. Not only every race but every tribe considered itself chosen by God to kill the others. There has not been enough time for our brains to have undergone significant biological evolution. We have their stone age brains.

Second, the cultural reason. Surely we have evolved beyond ancient mindsets by cultural evolution? I am afraid that the answer here, also, is no. Certainly, we have made progress in the past 150 years. But we have not left racism behind. Instead we have just pushed it into our subconscious minds. It still calls the shots in many cases, and often determines what we do, but we may not be aware of it.

The major example of which we Americans, and observers from around the world, are aware is the utter determination of the Republican Party (which is disproportionately white compared to the American population) to destroy Barack Obama. They were confident that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 election. When Obama won re-election, the Republicans went to Plan B: destroy Obama. I consider their subconscious motivation to be racism. Here’s why.

Obama is a lame duck. There is no political need to destroy Obama; if Republicans succeed, they will have President Joe Biden. (Similarly, Democrats held back from impeaching George W. Bush, not wishing to have President Dick Cheney.) If there is no political reason to destroy him, then there must be a personal reason.

How do we know that the Republican attacks on Obama are not merely politically motivated? We know this because we can scientifically test this hypothesis: If the Republican hatred of Barack Obama were politically motivated, then they would hate him less than they hated Bill Clinton. But, as it turns out, they hate him much much more.

And the evidence for this? There are, as I see it, three differences between Bill Clinton (while he was president) and Barack Obama. They are as follows.

First, Barack Obama has high ethical standards than Bill Clinton did as president. Instead of having a Monica Lewinsky hanging around him, Obama is a morally upright husband and father. The Obama family is the picture-perfect American family. (In this way Obama also compares favorably to John F. Kennedy.) This should be a reason that Republicans, who claim to be God’s representatives of purity and morality upon the face of this sordid planet, would like Obama better than Clinton. Therefore the ethical difference between Clinton and Obama cannot be the reason for Republican hatred of Obama.

Second, Barack Obama is more politically and fiscally conservative than Clinton. Republicans decry Obamacare as socialist, but it is much, much less socialist, and incorporates more market forces, than did the ill-fated 1993 health care plan proposed by Bill Clinton. Republicans reacted strongly against the Clinton plan, but not with the ferocity of their attack on Obama. Obama’s comparative fiscal conservativeness should be a reason that Republicans would like Obama better than they liked Clinton. Therefore the political difference between Clinton and Obama cannot be the reason for Republican hatred of Obama.

A third difference is race. Clinton is white and Obama is black (actually, biracial, but he identifies with his black heritage). This is the only reason that I can think of that would make Republicans hate Obama worse than they hated Clinton. And it is clearly a personal, intense hatred.

Of course, Republicans forced a government shutdown during the first Clinton Administration also. The federal government shut down all but emergency services twice: from November 14 through November 19, 1995 and from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996, a total of 28 days. As of tomorrow, the 2013 government shutdown will have reached the same number of days as the first shutdown, in November of 1995. Republicans appear resolved to continue the shutdown even if it means defaulting on contractual funds on October 17. And this time, we have all seen evidence of the extreme antipathy that Republicans have showed toward Obama. They have shown him the kind of disdain that slavery advocates—from the Union states, the confederate states having seceded—showed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

As further evidence that Republican antipathy is not merely political, consider that the Republicans could achieve their aims in a constitutional manner. They could pass a bill repealing Obamacare in both the house and senate, and have the president sign it. He won’t, because he won re-election in 2012 largely on the issue of Obamacare. The constitutional way for Republicans to have their way would have been to win the 2012 election. Instead, they pass laws creating programs then refuse to fund those same programs.

I believe that in the long run American history will evaluate Obama the same way as it depicts Lincoln. At the time, many strong voices attacked Lincoln as a dictator who wanted to ruin the United States by giving black people the rights of citizenship. Today, those voices are buried in the dustbin of history under a patina of disgust. Similarly, I believe, the Republican voices of our day will be derided in the same way as are the 1865 voices in support of slavery. The party of angry old white men, and a few angry young white men, and a very very small number of angry Latinos and blacks, will dwindle into an insignificance from which their stockpiles of guns cannot resurrect them.

There are other ways in which Republican positions have racist effects. Global warming is caused by carbon emissions from human activity, for which white industrial nations are largely responsible. But most of the burden of famine and disease will be borne by nations dominated by people of color, especially in Africa. Republicans, I assume, do not hold their global warming denialism with racist intent. But subconsciously they might be thinking, who cares about a bunch of Africans?

Of course, Republicans will claim they are not racists. And they may honestly believe they are not. But I conclude for the above reasons that racism is operating in their subconscious minds. We are all cavemen in modern clothes, some of us more than others.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Republican Religion

Republicans like to associate themselves with the Christian religion. But this is not really their religion. Their religion is the Republican Party. The dividing line between the saved and the damned is membership in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Of course, they will not actually say this. But consider what they do, and whom they choose to represent them.

For awhile, many “Christian” Republicans were strong supporters of Newt Gingrich. When he pulled out of the race, Rick Perry endorsed Gingrich. Gingrich has been an unabashed womanizer, going against all the ethics and morals that Republicans claim to believe in. Yet his conservative Republican beliefs are enough to release him from the consequences of what would be, for a Democrat, sinful behavior.

And now former governor Mark Sanford has been elected to the House of Representatives. Not that it makes any difference; the House Republicans do nothing except proclaim the holiness of the Republican Party, which they would do whether Sanford is a member or not. But while governor Mark Sanford not only committed a very extreme act of adultery, but he lied about it publicly, and he is also guilty of dereliction of duty: he told nobody in the state government where he was (in case of emergency) while he was off hiking the Appalachian Trail along his mistress’s geography. Not only adultery but also lying and dereliction of duty do not matter, so long as he follows the Republican Party line.

Although I do not proclaim any particular doctrine, I have always been an admirer of Jesus. It really bothers me when someone, or even an entire political party, insults Jesus by claiming themselves to represent Him while they openly and brazenly commit what would be, for a Democrat, immoral behavior, and behavior that would disqualify any Democrat from public service. Had I only the self-proclaimed Republican Christians as evidence, I would be forced to consider that Jesus was evil, a thought that fills me with revulsion.

Republicans worship their own party. That’s pretty much a summary of the whole situation. They wave their Bibles in the air but I doubt that they ever read them. To the Republican climate of hypocrisy one can add blasphemy as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Word about Bias

We all have bias. We all love bias. We all hate bias. We all love to hate bias. We all hate to love bias. But we do not all have the same amount of it. This is because, while we all begin with the same germ of bias, this germ proliferates in some people and some situations more than in others. This blog has a bias, in case you haven’t noticed.

We all want to believe that the ideas to which we have devoted our lives are true. I will use myself as an example. I am a scientist, and I want to believe that the scientific method reveals truth. But suppose that I am wrong. Suppose that it is not, in fact, possible to figure out the truth by observing and measuring the physical world. Suppose that everything we see in the universe really is a delusion created by an evil god who enjoys watching us suffer. There is no evidence for this idea, so I reject it. But suppose there was evidence for it. Suppose that unexpectedly, as unexpectedly as that asteroid came by a few weeks ago, this evil god appeared in the sky and told us that everything in our lives and that we thought we knew about the universe was a trick he was playing on us. I would reject this observation, assuming myself to be deluded for having seen this god in the sky. It would take a lot of evidence to make me change my mind.

We also want to believe that the sources of our money are good. I work in higher education. I want to believe that a college education improves the lives of graduates in almost every way, not the least of which is employability. But suppose that it turns out that college education is worthless—that we Americans would be just as well off working in unskilled jobs for companies owned by China or Singapore or Germany as we would be in creating our own innovations. Of course, there is no evidence for this. But suppose there was. It would take a long time before I would admit it.

Bias, therefore, proliferates where there is money. A professor with a doctoral degree at a small university, earning just a little more than the national median, is less likely to be biased than a petroleum engineer with less education but earning twice as much, when it comes to issues such as global warming. Certainly such a professor is less likely to be biased on this subject than oil company executives or the conservative politicians to whom they give uncounted millions of dollars. The money-stoked intensity of bias in conservative politicians blinds them to even the most obvious truths.

So, if you want to know whom to believe on any particular issue, ask not only what the evidence is, but also follow the money.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Republican Climate of Economic Oppression, Part One. Going Back to Slavery?

Despite Joe Biden’s outlandish statements last summer, it is almost impossible to return to the old days of black slavery. To do this, white masters would have to truly believe their black slaves are subhuman. Even most white conservatives know that black people are fully human, and many have black friends. So if slavery comes back, it will not be racially based.

But slavery could come back. Here’s how.

Right now, banks have almost unlimited freedom to treat debtors as they like. Recent Democratic legislation has limited this ability, but a future Republican administration might very well sweep these limitations and regulations away.  If you owe money to one or more banks, and if regulations were swept away, they could raise your interest rates or lower your credit limit singlehandedly for any reason or no reason. Bank of America lowered my credit limit even though I always paid more than the minimum, without exception. Okay, I got a payment in two days late back in 2003. But otherwise, my record is perfect. They lowered my credit limit (which I wasn’t going to actually use anyway) for no reason connected with me. But this did cause my credit score to go down—for no reason connected with me. Without regulation, banks can also invent new fees. For example, some banks suggested a minimum-balance fee for those of us who have paid down our debts; if you have less than $1500 balance, you may have to pay a fee. Only federal regulation now prevents this.

Banks could therefore, in the absence of regulation, manipulate people into a permanent state of debt. How can you ever pay them back? Before about 200 years ago, one way to do this was for the debtor to be sold into indentured servitude. That is, they would work for the creditor until the debt was paid off. However, the creditors manipulated the fees such that the debt could never actually be repaid. The indentured servant thus became a lifelong slave. The first black slaves were actually indentured servants, and by a process similar to what I have described, they turned into slaves. It could happen again, unless federal regulation prevents it. This time, the slaves would be a multiracial group of poor people, virtually (not legally) owned by a multiracial group of rich people. Black people would be disproportionately but not exclusively in the slave category.

There are even more recent historical precedents. You remember the song Sixteen Tons? It is about coal miners who work all day but can never repay their debts to the coal mining company. “You load sixteen tons, whaddaya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t ya call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” Just substitute bank for mining company and you have a situation that could virtually (not legally) enslave millions of Americans.

And don’t think debtors would be offended by this. Many debtors really, really want a job; and if the creditor required them to work off their debts, this would be the equivalent of being given a job. Many of them would jump at the chance. When the alternative is economic ruin, indentured servitude might look pretty good. Right now, Mexicans risk death to cross the border into the USA mainly for economic reasons. Compared to the travail of the undocumented Mexicans, indentured servitude—even if it turns into a lifelong commitment—looks pretty easy. Requiring indentured servitude might also be a way of reducing or even eliminating welfare, something that conservative Republicans will stop at nothing to do.

Lincoln said that a nation cannot survive half slave and half free. He was wrong, I suspect. I suspect the USA may survive as a nation 90 percent indentured and 10 percent free.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Yes, Wayne, Absolutes Do Exist, But This is Not One of Them

According to a January 23 news release, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told a Weatherby Foundation awards ceremony that the Second Amendment gives Americans the unfettered right to own firearms. “Absolutes do exist, words do have specific meaning in language and in law,” he said. “No government gave them to us and no government can take them away.”

It is not clear from the news release what LaPierre was referring to when he said no government gave “them” to us. Did he mean that government did not give us the right to own firearms? If so, LaPierre is utterly and frighteningly wrong.

Absolutes do exist. The speed of light. The charge of the electron. In fact, a whole list of physical constants. But the right to own firearms is not an absolute. The federal government has, in fact, given us this right in the Second Amendment. But the Constitution provided a mechanism for amending the Constitution. Therefore the Constitution, and the Second Amendment thereto, are not absolutes.

Furthermore, there is no absolutely clear definition in the Second Amendment of what these “arms” are supposed to be. It is illegal to own nuclear weapons or missiles. Are these arms? It is illegal to use, and in most cases to own, machine guns. Even the NRA has not dared to call for the legalization of private ownership of machine guns and nuclear weapons. The right to bear arms is therefore limited, not absolute, even if you were to interpret the Second Amendment as an absolute commandment from God.

One could interpret arms, within the Second Amendment context, as whatever is necessary to maintain a militia. But we don’t have militias anymore. There are groups of people who think that the government is restricting their rights, for example, to polygamy. Does the Second Amendment give them the right to have arms to resist the federal government from enforcing laws against polygamy? Could not Warren Jeffs claim that the Second Amendment gives his followers the right to armed resistance? Would this be an example of a militia? And, if so, his followers could most certainly use machine guns and cannons and nuclear weapons to defend their compounds, since the Second Amendment does not prohibit them from doing so. I am sure this is not LaPierre’s interpretation. But he has told us that it is not a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of absolute truth.

LaPierre, and many NRA extremists (a term LaPierre rejects), are using absolutist terminology that is usually associated with religion. Conservative religious leaders consider all of their beliefs to be absolute, and that God has given them the right to enforce their religious beliefs on others. This is why religion has been such a successful component of human evolution (this blog is about evolution, remember): it is an adaptation (genetic and memetic) that allows some people to subdue others and to gain evolutionary fitness at their expense. The NRA is promoting a new religion: the absolute right to bear arms, as absolute as God Himself. The absolute right to bear arms is not found in the Bible, by the way. Jesus said, “Put away your sword, Peter; for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But the NRA is promoting a new religion in place of Christianity. And, like many other religions, the NRA religion sways people to adhere to its claims with visceral emotion rather than with facts. I am not saying that gun-rights advocates have no facts; I am just saying that whatever facts they may have are irrelevant when LaPierre talks about “absolutes.”

The talk of “absolutes” has made reasonable dialogue impossible. From the NRA viewpoint, there are only two choices: unrestricted ownership of weapons vs. total helplessness. The NRA has not permitted any discussion of intermediate possibilities. For example, what about stun guns? Could those be used as an intermediate form of school protection? I know that stun guns have a very limited range. But at least they provide some protection without actually killing people. At close range, a teacher’s stun gun could incapacitate a school shooter and allow his gun to be confiscated and for him to be subdued. What would be the strengths and weaknesses of a school stun gun policy? I would be interested in hearing this. But there can be no such discussion so long as the NRA divides the issue into helplessness vs. a full armor of assault weapons. I might want to hear a discussion of some intermediate possibilities regarding gun ownership and restriction; but I do not believe I shall ever hear such a discussion.

This is exactly the same approach used by creationists. They claim that if you do not accept a young Earth then you are an atheist. The NRA says you either accept unrestricted availability of weapons or else total defenselessness. Nothing in between. They have insisted on absolutes: an absolute dividing line between darkness and light, as between sun and shadow on the Moon. But this is Earth, with twilights and dawns.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

How Not to be an Alpha Male (or Female)

 As several recent books have shown, humans have behavior patterns similar to those of other apes, although we dress it up and use the power and complexity of language to perpetuate them. These patterns can be good (as described in de Waal’s Age of Empathy) or bad (see parts of Conniff’s Ape in the Corner Office). There are two ways in which alpha males get to the top of their societies, and in nearly all cases the alpha males use a combination of the two. The first is sheer bluster and violence. The second is altruism (in this case, acquiring the friendship of supporters). Gorillas use more of the former, chimps more of the latter. Different human societies throughout history have used more of one or more of the other. The spread of freedom and democracy supposedly entails the growth of the latter and diminishment of the former.

Democracy is the formalized requirement that leaders attain power by the consent of the governed. This would make it appear that our leaders would want to do things that would make us support, or at least approve of, them. Why is it, then, that our leaders do things that make themselves objects of ridicule? In sociobiological terms, the behavior of America’s leaders is dysfunctional.

So it is not surprising that Congress has, as of this past week, an approval rating of 9 percent. This is the first time that Congress has had a single-digit rating since approval ratings began to be monitored decades ago. UPI listed ten things that have been more popular than Congress now is:

·         President Obama has a 46% approval rating.
·         The Internal Revenue Service has a 40% approval rating.
·         Lawyers have a 29% approval rating.
·         The airline industry has a 29% approval rating.
·         At the nadir of his scandals, Richard Nixon still had a 24% approval rating.
·         Banks, even at the worst of the financial scandals, had a 23% approval rating.
·         The oil and gas industry has a 20% approval rating.
·         Even during the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP had a 16% approval rating.
·         Paris Hilton has a 15% approval rating.
·         Even the idea that America should become a communist nation has an 11% approval rating.

Other sources report that colonoscopies have a higher approval rating than Congress, although gonorrhea is still less popular. That is, the antics of Congress (which columnist Jack Anderson used to call the Washington Merry-Go-Round) are obliterating the one and only thing from which they can obtain their social power: the goodwill of the citizens.

As a progressive, I attribute most of this to the Repuglicans. They could defend a truly conservative viewpoint, but instead they are just the Party of No. They will oppose anything Democrats want. The worst example of this was when Senator McConnell filibustered his own bill. It was the Repuglicans who took us not just up to but over the fiscal cliff. And now they promise to do so again, with the debt ceiling argument scheduled for a few weeks hence. They took the federal government to the brink of default before, in the summer of 2011, by refusing to allow payment for projects they had already approved. This is the exact equivalent of refusing to pay bills for items you have already purchased and used. To do this would cause the credit rating of the federal government to decline, perhaps causing the government to have to pay millions of dollars more on debt interest. It is principally because of the Repuglicans that America sneers its own Congress.

But the solution is not to give our allegiance to the Dismal-crats. For it is from their Treasury Department that a breathtakingly stupid idea has come. Or, it would be stupid if they actually intended to do it. But if they think it is a funny joke, they might want to reconsider. I refer to the idea of the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Apparently it is entirely legal for the Treasury Department to mint a commemorative coin of whatever denomination they choose. They would then deposit such a coin (or two of them) and use that “money” to pay bills, even if Congress votes to authorize no payment on programs they have already approved.

Inside the Beltway is a world that is total fantasy, as far as most Americans are concerned. They do not have the power to force us to be their friends, as an alpha male gorilla might, nor have they any inclination to earn our approval, as an alpha chimp might. Even Genghis Khan tried to gain some measure of approval among his victims. He allowed a measure of autonomous rule and religious and cultural freedom to conquered territories, so long as they paid their ransom. If our romper-room Congrass (oops) is the flower of democracy, then what faith can we have in the future? There is no species of animal that has this kind of social leadership. And if there ever was such a species, it is now extinct.

This essay is also posted on my evolution blog.