Foreign Affairs writer compares today’s Islamic wars to 17th century wars between Catholics & Protestants

In the latest Foreign Affairs, political scientist John M. Owen IV starts to make the case that we can compare the current state of unrest in Islamic territories to the European wars of religion of about 450 years ago, in an article titled “From Calvin to the Caliphate.”  It’s a point that I’ve wanted to write about for some time now, but haven’t gotten around to yet. Reza Aslam has made a similar observation in the past.

Too bad Owen IV misconstrues what’s taking place today and so makes the wrong comparison and draws the wrong conclusions. Owen characterizes today’s wars in the Islamic world as a battle between secularism and Islamism, the idea that the original religious laws as laid down by Mohamed in the Koran should guide society and government. He compares this battle to the more than 100 years of almost constant warfare between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th century. The comparison, as we will see, is very apt, but the terms of comparison are incorrect. The contemporary element in the comparison is not a war between secularism and Islamism, but between two forms of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. In several nations we see a struggle between the secular and religious, just as in United States and Israel, but the major wars and the larger battle today are between two kinds of Islam.

The comparison between two eras of warfare in which the antagonists represent two forms of the same religion resonates in many ways: Both the Reformation era wars and the current ones between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen came about 1,500 years after the original establishment of the religion. In both cases, the religious wars begin a short time after the war zone, once unified under a religious autocrat, broke apart; the Reformation Wars came a hundred or so years after the emergence of nation-states from the ruins of a Christian Europe led by the Papacy; today’s wars in Islamic territories come about a hundred years after the breakup of the Islam-based Ottoman Empire. In both cases, the major battles are in transitional territories in which neither form of the religion predominates: in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, it was the German territories; today, the worst battles are in a transitional zone between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. In both cases, an influx of new military technology developed in another part of the world exacerbated the conflicts, making them more brutal and deadly: during the Reformation it was gunpowder, imported from China; today it’s primarily American military technology.

By asserting that the important battle today is between secularism and religion, Owen views the current state of unrest in the Islamic world completely from a Western perspective. Westerners of course identify with the secular over the religious, at least when applied to other cultures. Today’s secular world culture is, for better or worse, the American consumerist culture, and whenever new countries embrace our model, we are bound to make a lot of money out of it.

The opposition of the secular to Islamism enables Owen to imply a good and a bad side to the war, but in doing so, Owen insults the Moslem religion. Owen clearly prefers secularism, and subtly treats Islamism as inferior. He doesn’t take sides, however, when it comes to discussing the 17th century wars.

The illustrations that accompany the article visually communicate that while both sides of the Reformation Wars had their reasons, Islamists are nothing more than barbaric thugs. On the left side of the page we see a bearded white man dressed in Renaissance garb, clutching a large white cross to his side in one hand and raising his other hand as if to make a point. On the opposing page we see the Islamic soldier also with one hand pointing up, but the other hand contains an automatic weapon, and except for white sneakers, he is clothed entirely in an ominous one-piece black outfit that covers all of his face except his eyes. The look in the Christian’s eyes is one of fear. The look in the Moslem’s eyes is menacing and dangerous. This conflation of a pious scholar with a terrorist goon drains the blood from the extremely bloody Reformation wars, while subtly delegitimizing Islamism by reducing it to violence. Incidents of war-related barbarism were common in both the 17th century and today, but the imagery suggests that only Islamic wars have driven men to despicably inhumane acts.

Owen’s article is a piece of a propaganda machine that spews out justifications for American actions in the Middle East almost on a weekly basis. Framing Middle Eastern unrest in terms of the secular versus the religious provides our leaders and our country with the ideological rationale to intervene. It also allows us to take a side with which we are sympathetic, the forces of western modernity. By contrast, focusing on the fight between two forms of a religion which has few adherents in the United States might strike most as not our business.

The real reasons we are fighting a series of disastrous wars and actions in Islamic territories are economic and political: controlling sources of oil, developing markets for our weapons industry, supporting our Saudi and Israeli allies (who themselves are at odds), and the still unknown real reason the Bush Administration decided to take down Saddam Hussein and destabilize a country sewn together after World War I from three distinct regions and cultures.

Concealing political and economic motives behind idealism also characterized the Reformation wars, in which religion stood as a proxy for the various economic interests of the German principalities, France, Spain, Sweden and other countries. Behind the fight between Sunnis and Shiites stands the geopolitical elbowing of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and probably of Egypt and Turkey as well.

Owen ignores these points of comparison, which would help make the case for pulling out our troops and drones. His intent in “From Calvin to the Caliphate” is not to learn from the past, but to use a misreading of history to provide further justification for American imperialism.

Anyone interested in ideological foundation of contemporary culture should read R. Williams’ Keywords

In 1976, British cultural philosopher and novelist Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which analyzed the origins and uses of 110 words that are important to the way we organize concepts about society and politics. Forgotten now by most, Williams was once a key theoretician of the New Left. A random sampling of the words he analyzed suggests how deeply Williams dug into the thought structures that form how we look at a broad range of human phenomena: unemployment, revolution, underprivileged, consumer, alienation, technology, family, genetic, experience capitalism and cover the full range of human experience, including politics, economics, society, culture, the arts, science and religion. Williams focuses on British word uses, but also covers this side of the Atlantic.

Oxford University Press has now republished the updated edition of Keywords that came out in 1983, and it is a treasure for anyone interested in the ideological basis of contemporary culture. While Hip-Hop culture, blockbuster movies, text messaging, social media and digital technology have all contributed copious words and phrases to our cultural vocabulary since the mid-1980s, little has changed in the basic concepts by which we understand society and formulate actions. Far from obsolete, Keywords still lives and breathes the assumptions of capitalism and the consumer society.

Here are a few of the many insights I have culled from reading Keywords:

  • Many words with positive associations, like interesting and improve have their origin in financial matters. Interesting derives first from having an interest in land or a business operation and then getting interest on an investment; improve and improvement first applied to land and economics before people started using it generally to denote making something better. As Williams writes, about interesting: “It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based on money relationships.” The language certainly underscores my theory that contemporary society reduces all human relations and experiences to buying and selling.
  • Consume and consumer originally had a negative connotation, meaning “to take up completely, devour, waste, spend.” A disease of the lungs was even named consumption. American advertising has now transformed consumer into a positive trait. Consumer still focuses on using up something, i.e., what manufacturers produce. We use it positively, as in consumer choice and negatively, as in consumer society. But—to quote Williams, “the predominance of the capitalist model ensured its widespread and often overwhelming extension to such fields as politics, education and health.” For the most part, to consume is now a very good and admirable thing.
  • Our current confusion about matters of class reflects the confused origins of the words we use to describe the various classes. Lower class originally referred to the lowest ranking in a hierarchical society in which those above were inherently better humans. Middle class, on the other hand, referred from the beginning of its usage only to economic matters and described those in society with middling incomes—not the wealthy and not the poor. Building on the original meaning of the lower classes as inferior beings, the rightwing constantly uses language that delegitimizes the poor, making them seem undeserving of aid and at fault for their condition. This constant undercutting of the claims for social and economic justice for the lower class helps to form a wedge between the middle and lower classes, and influences many in the middle class to align with the wealthy, who have been picking their pockets for centuries, and certainly during the past 35 years. As Williams shows, the centuries-old strategy of the ruling elite to divide and conquer is baked into the language.

Unfortunately, Keywords has gotten the kind of play in the news media reserved for academic studies that prove that public schools do a better job of educating students than private schools do or provide precise details on how wind energy could provide all of our energy needs. In other words, Williams’ masterpiece has been virtually ignored by the mainstream news media. I routinely read book reviews in the following publications: New York Review of Books, Nation, New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The only one of these periodicals to review Keywords, and the only reason I know about the book, is Nation magazine. A Google News search revealed that Philosophy Now, The Guardian and Purple Revolver also reviewed Keywords, a paltry number compared to the hundreds of reviews of David McCullough’s latest inspirational biography (of the Wright Brothers) and of David Brooks’ right-wing sociology, The Road to Character to be found online.

Our mass media—controlled by a handful of companies which represent the ruling elite (another word Williams covers)—naturally censor thought that does not jibe with the beliefs of their owners. The mass media allows some dissent, but not much. The media does a lot to keep false notions such as creationism, low-tax policies and deregulation alive in everyone’s minds. Meanwhile, embedded in the structure of the language are the ideological assumptions that keep the ultra-wealthy in control. Keywords is an essential book for understanding the underlying or hidden ideology that dominates the English language and therefore our thought processes.

Implementing progressive agenda would do a lot to end inequality & grow the economy

My thanks go out to Rich Kelley, a marketing consultant for Jewish Currents, who has shown me where to find the 13-point progressive plan for America that New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio was promoting in Washington.

He sent me links to two places: 1) C-SPAN’s rebroadcast of the speech, at the end of which you can see a scroll down of a chart on core board with all 13 points; and 2) the Progressive Agenda website, which proposes 14 points and includes an online petition to sign. De Blasio’s speech was definitely related to the website, as both used the same headline and logo to introduce the agenda. Moreover, the 13 points De Blasio makes are all on the Progressive Agenda list.

As I pointed out the day after De Blasio’s speech in Washington, D.C., the mainstream news media covered only extraneous aspects of the very good Mayor’s proposals: Did it piss off people in NYC who would prefer he stayed at home? Would it affect his relationship with Hillary Clinton? Was he stealing the center of attention from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Not one media outlet followed by Google News published the 13 points.

That doesn’t exonerate De Blasio and the organizers of the Progressive Agenda website for not placing a news release with all 13 points on a website somewhere and for not connecting De Blasio’s speech with the broader initiative on the website. Not having the same number of points is sloppy, to be sure, but worse yet, it shows uncoordinated activity and thus diminishes a broad-based movement into a series of disparate actors and actions. Let’s hope, however, that mere sloppiness led to the fact that we learn nothing about the organizers or major funders of the Progressive Agenda anywhere on the website. Just because recent court decisions makes it legal to hide contributions, doesn’t mean it’s right. Progressives must not only proffer a program to help the 99% that 35 years of economic and taxation policies has left behind. We must make certain the progressive program also be based on facts and presented with the openness that facilitates democracy.

Those quibbles aside, I heartily endorse the Progressive Agenda, and urge OpEdge readers to sign its online petition.

Whoever created the agenda divides it into three sections, as follows:

Lift the Floor for Working People

1. Raise the federal minimum wage, so that it reaches $15/hour, while indexing it to inflation.

2. Reform the National Labor Relations Act, to enhance workers’ right to organize and rebuild the middle class.

3. Pass comprehensive immigration reform to grow the economy and protect against exploitation of low-wage workers.

4. Oppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment.

5. Invest in schools, not jails — and give a second chance to those coming home from prison. This point is the one not on De Blasio’s list.

Support Working Families

6. Pass national paid sick leave.

7. Pass national paid family leave.

8. Make Pre-K, after-school programs and childcare

9. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and protect and expand Social Security.

10. Allow students to refinance student loan debt to take advantage of lower interest rates, and support debt-free college.

Tax Fairness

11. Close the carried interest loophole.

12. End tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

13. Implement the “Buffett Rule” so millionaires pay their fair share.

14. Close the CEO tax loophole that allows corporations to take advantage of “performance pay” write-offs.

The agenda is a good start, but it’s missing a few items:

  • Remove the ceiling on income assessed for the Social Security tax and make all income and bonuses subject to the tax.
  • Increase direct support of public schools and universities to decrease class size in elementary schools, increase resources for middle and senior high schools and lower the cost to attend college.
  • Expand cheap and free public vocational training.
  • Close down all charter schools that do not pay their teachers the same salary as the prevailing public school wage and whose employees are not represented by the same union representing the teachers in the public school.
  • Place a tariff on all goods and services from other countries equal to the difference in the cost of labor and environmental and safety costs between the United States and the exporter.
  • Fund a massive infrastructure program that repairs our existing roads, bridges and inter-city trains and expands mass transit within and between cities using the latest advances in alternative fuel technologies.

The organizers could also add a section on actions that would make our political system more small-d democratic and inclusive, including rolling back all the restrictive voting laws recently passed whenever Republicans have controlled both houses of a state legislature; passing laws that would lessen the importance of money and mitigate the impact of the Citizens United decision; and limiting the number of media outlets any company can own in any region and in total and making companies divest themselves of media properties to meet the new restriction.

But that doesn’t mean the Progressive Agenda is not a good plan. It’s a very good plan that we should all support by signing the petition and telling all candidates in writing that we won’t vote for them unless they support the Progressive Agenda.

Jewish Currents article explores whether morality and religion are hardwired into humans

The Latest issue of Jewish Currents has an essay of mine titled “Morality Without Religion, Religion Without God,” which reviews some of the latest findings of anthropologists and primatologists which provide strong evidence that morality—and perhaps religion—are innate to humans, as opposed to being imposed by a society or a deity standing outside the forces of natural selection. I excerpted parts of the article below, but you can read the entire article on the Jewish Currents website. The best idea of all, though, is to take a subscription to this always interesting magazine and read the article in hard copy.

Here are excerpts:

Imagine a Passover Hagode based on the 21st-century situation of many American Jews. Instead of a “wicked son,” Jewish parents would have to answer the question of an intellectually curious, university-educated, atheist child: “What does this religion and what do these rituals mean to me, who does not believe a god exists? Why should I have a Jewish wedding, circumcise my male children, send my children to Hebrew school, have them undergo bar/bat mitsve, celebrate the Passover seder, and fast on Yom Kippur?”

Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians face their own versions of this dilemma of enlightenment: the educated child who falls away from religion and, in doing so, also stops performing the rituals that define not only belief but cultural identity

One traditional response to the atheist child has been to declare that without religion there is no morality. We need religion — an organized commitment or devotion to a god or gods and a system of beliefs — to guide our actions if we are to avoid falling into Babel-like relativism, in which any powerful individual or group can enforce its own definitions of right and wrong. Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, the Jewish existentialist Lev Shestov, and the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis by no means exhaust the list of western thinkers over the past four hundred years who have made versions of the argument that there can be no morality without religion.

The problem with citing morality as the reason to hug the faith, however, is that the educated atheist child has likely read the latest findings of anthropology, which suggest that we share morality with other apes, especially bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest relatives. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, for example, Frans de Waal details many moral behaviors scientists have observed in other primates. Female chimpanzees drag reluctant males towards each other to reconcile after an altercation; high-ranking chimpanzees serve as impartial arbiters in the disputes of others; a chimpanzee risks her own life to save from drowning another chimp unknown to her; for days an adolescent chimpanzee carries around an unrelated baby for an injured mother who is part of his colony; apes open doors so other apes can gain access to food even though it means they’ll get less to eat; capuchin monkeys pick tokens that give food to the whole group over tokens that just reward themselves; primates are happy to receive cucumber slices until researchers “unfairly” give preferred grapes to others; primates take care of the handicapped. The thousands of acts of morality among primates cited by de Waal, Jane Goodall, and other primatologists give strong evidence that the development of morality preceded the development of human religions.

In the first part of The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes further than de Waal in exploring the idea that morality is hardwired into humans. Haidt combines studies of animals and primitives with experiments on groups of humans to postulate that there exist five distinct foundations to morality and moral thought inherent in humans, all of which are in evidence to some degree among primates and other mammals. In the early chapters of the book, Haidt expresses each of the five as a dichotomy of good and bad behavior:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

Haidt shows how each of these foundations of morality evolved in response to an adaptive challenge, e.g., care/harm revolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for the vulnerable young.

De Waal suggests that humanity and our predecessors may have taken moral evolution into our own hands. He borrows the argument of anthropologist Chris Boehm, who postulates that over time, groups of humans may have eliminated many of those most prone to rape, murder, cheat and commit other anti-social behavior by imprisoning, executing, or banishing them, all of which impede procreation. What we’re talking about is not any millennium-long program of eugenics, but the adaptive superiority of civilized behavior once humans formed large groups. While blackguards still exist, there are fewer of them. A decades-long experiment that involved mating the tamest of every successive generation of wolf in a forest reserve reinforces the possibility of humanity controlling the evolution of morality: within fifty to sixty years, the wolves began to resemble dogs.

Once science extricates morality from religion, the atheist child can readily reject a traditional religion such as Judaism for its legacy of discrimination against women and gays, its harsh, sanctioning god, its hundreds of rules restricting daily life, and its “chosen people” brand of tribalism.

But what science takes away, it may also give back. The need for religion may, in fact, also be hardwired in humans.

In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal reviews the possible origins of religion and finds traces of all of them in the behavior of other mammals:

  • The fear of death: The reaction of apes to death resembles that of humans. Mother apes have been seen trying to reanimate their dead offspring. All apes attend to the dead much as humans do, with touching, washing, anointing, and grooming. Elephants pass the bones of a dead herd member from trunk to trunk and return to the spot where a relative died for years after.
  • Attempts to control nature: Anthropologists have observed chimps doing rain dances to make the rain stop and then performing the same kind of dance when they encounter a waterfall. Jane Goodall wonders if these behaviors could through repetition become ritual and then religion, while de Waal speculates that apes think they can affect nature through the dance.
  • Superstition: Science provides us with many examples of animals manifesting what we can interpret as superstitious behavior; for example, cats that scratch the couch and dogs that turn in circles because they think that the action will get them fed.
  • Visions appearing during states of intoxication: University of California-Berkeley anthropologist Robert Dudley and others have observed that monkeys in the wild enjoy getting intoxicated on fermented liquids found in overripe fruit.

Keep in mind that virtually every human culture in recorded history has had a religion, further suggesting that the need for religion is hardwired into humans. But whereas we have enough evidence to demonstrate that primates feel or understand morality, at this point we cannot yet say the same thing about religion with absolute certainty.

There is, however, enough evidence about proto-religious activity in animals to start a conversation with the atheist child. I would begin my amicus brief in favor of retaining religious traditions by detailing some of what we know about religious or pre-religious behavior in other mammals, and invite a dialogue as to what the adaptive advantages of religion might be.

I would start by pointing out that many people need a religion to face death or to give structure to their lives. For example, a rabbi of a synagogue to which I once belonged was also a professor of mathematics at a local university. He told me that he loved the Torah and the many rabbinical interpretations because all the laws and customs contained therein told him exactly what to do. He didn’t have to think about any action. I imagine Pascal finding such joyful freedom from decision-making after he had his night of revelation and left science for a very restrictive form of Catholicism.

While agreeing with your atheist child that atheism may be a more rational approach to life than belief in a deity, I would offer the possibility that since religion is likely hardwired in humans, his or her children may turn out to be people whose lives will gain meaning from religion.

The second adaptive feature of religion I would cite is that it gives people a reason to identify with each other and join together to form cooperative groups. Both the beliefs and traditions of a religion create continuity between generations.

Your atheist child may accurately note that through the millennia, groups have used religion to justify wars, enslavement and other forms of violence against other humans. In the 21st century, however, religion’s organizing principle often works to counter the pernicious effects of nationalism by presenting a broader, more ecumenical view that leads to political and social engagement for both progressive and rightwing causes. Nation states — another of the great organizers of individuals into groups — use nationalism as the rationale for wars that typically only serve the interests of a narrow ruling elite. Religious faith, by contrast, motivates many civil rights, environmental, social justice, anti-poverty, anti-hunger and anti-war activists, even as many opponents to the rights of women and sexual minorities also invoke religion to justify their oppressive views.

The practice of religion — as opposed to its belief system — consists of not just rituals, but narratives, too. These narratives, myths to the nonbeliever, often organize the religion’s view of world history, and can thus mislead. But writers, visual artists, dancers, and musicians have built an enormous and growing oeuvre of great art by retelling, renewing and referencing religious stories and images. Religion helps to organize the cultural language and therefore enrich and deepen the insights of both mass entertainment and high art.

Another adaptive feature of religions — that is, another mechanism by which religion helps our species survive and thrive — is that it organizes and gives meaning to the passage of time. The beginning of planting, the end of the harvest, the coldest point in winter, the rise and fall of the moon — religion imbues meaning into all of these naturally reoccurring phenomena by which humans count their lives. Life also consists of a series of one-time events, such as birth, attainment of adulthood, selection of a mate and death, which religion also imbues with meaning and organizes through ritual.

The final adaptive feature I find in religion is as an enforcer of morality, but it is the weakest argument to be made for the evolutionary advantages of religion for the very reason that we have found many more signs of morality in other mammals than we have of religion. We don’t need religion to live in a moral world.

But we don’t need morality to make the case for religion. As an organizer of groups of humans, of human cultural experience, and of the passage of time, and as a raison d’être for many if not most people, religion offers numerous advantages to the species and to the individuals who practice one or another of the world’s religions.

I would close my case for religion by admitting that while a belief in god may not resonate with us — meaning myself and my educated atheist child — we can still benefit from religion. For many of those we love, it offers a reason to live and a guide for actions. For all of us, including the atheist, it organizes our world and our lives, and helps to make life interesting, even if it can never control us. It brings together our families, our peoples and the family of man. It exhorts us to accept our responsibility to care for the real world and all the creatures in it. It reminds us that wherever our scientific investigations take us, we remain human beings.

By killing Boston Marathon bomber, we stoop to his level of barbarism & depravity

The jury that sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death had a choice. They could have imprisoned Tsarnaev for life. But these 12 supposedly civilized men and women choice to do unto the Boston Marathon bomber what he had done unto others.

I wonder whether any of the 12 have ever killed another human being before—from a plane, at sniper’s distance, or up close. I wonder whether they would have all voted to put Tsarnaev to death if they had to pull the trigger or push the button that ends his life.

It’s so much easier to vote “yes,” almost as easy as pulling the toggle that kills a dozen enemy soldiers in a video game.

Killing is killing, no matter what.

Even if the death penalty served as a deterrent, it would still be wrong on moral and ethical grounds. But most studies conclude that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent. It seems that at the moment of pulling the trigger, planting the bomb, applying the poison, lighting the fire, pushing the accelerator to the floor or someone off the roof—at the moment of committing a capital crime, perpetrators don’t consider or discount the possible consequence.

This essay is not the place to discuss the morality of war, but I think we can all agree that lots of soldiers come home from battle with deep psychological wounds that heal slowly and leave ugly scars. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but we could just as well call it the “killing” disease, because having to kill another person disgusts and shames normal people so much that it makes them ill. Psychopaths and sociopaths are different. Maybe killing other human beings is necessary in war, and maybe not, but it is never necessary in peace, which makes it always wrong.

It makes me wonder whether members of a jury that brings in a death sentence suffer the same cold night sweats, panic attacks, inability to concentrate, sudden rages and other symptoms of the soldier returned from the killing fields.

Killing is killing, no matter what.

Most other nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, 140 according to Amnesty International. The United States is one of a mere 22 countries that held executions in 2013. But then again, we also incarcerate one quarter of the Earth’s prisoners, making us the world’s largest jailor, and perhaps it’s bloodiest, too. Both the left and right are making noise about ending the system of “mass incarceration” that has made America the land of the jailed. Part of this movement to make the criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and less costly should be ending capital punishment once and for all. It’s time we returned to the circle of civilized nations.

Meanwhile, we should understand that one death is almost as bad as six, or 60. Like all juries that vote unanimously to kill a fellow human being—even one as reprehensible as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the Boston marathon bomber jury has broken no law. In fact, it has enforced one. But it doing so, these 12 citizens have brought shame to the United States and all Americans.

Warren & De Blasio tell us how to improve economy & society, while Christie offers plan for ultra-wealthy

We’ve seen two agendas for America’s future released within a 24-hour period: the new contract for America by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (in order of size of population represented), which they presented in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s plan to grow the economy and raise incomes, which he sketched in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

These two plans could not be more different in tone, underlying assumptions, recommendations or targeted constituencies. They also differ in terms of the underlying factual basis of their proposals.

In Christie’s case, there is almost no factual basis to believe what he wants to do will kick-start economic growth and raise incomes. Basically he advocates more of what has choked the country for 35 years. Christie wants to reduce taxes on the wealthy and on corporations; simplify taxes in a revenue neutral way (which is Republican speak for wanting to continue to starve the government of needed funds); reduce government regulation; and base our national energy policy on exploration of fossil fuels.

Christie must have a super-tiny, itsy-bitsy, skinny-as-a-rail attention span, because what he’s proposing is the basic playbook that has led to the greatest transfer of wealth and income in world history: the flow of money from the poor and middle class to the wealthy in the United States since 1980.

Christie proffers the reality-defying idea that with lower taxes, businesses will invest more in growth and conduct more research & development. It hasn’t happened yet, and once more, it never happens. When government programs take money from the middle class and the poor and give it to the wealthy, all that happens is that the wealthy get richer and the overall economy weakens. That’s what has happened during the past three decades and it’s what happened during the Gilded Age in 19th century America, in the 17th century French ancien regime and in 16th century Spain under Phillip II.

Christie does have one half of a good idea, which is to eliminate the payroll tax for employees under 21 and over 62, as a means to encourage employers to hire new workers and those near retirement to keep working. I call it half a good idea, because payroll taxes include both Social Security and Medicare. I would propose eliminating only the Social Security portion of the payroll tax for these age groups and only eliminating the employee’s side for those over 62, so the employer would keep paying for the experienced worker. Furthermore, to fund the loss of revenues to the Social Security Trust Fund, I would remove the cap on income assessed by the Social Security tax.

Other than this one pint-sized, skinny idea, Christie’s proposals help but one constituency, the ultra-wealthy, whose bank accounts are already bulging from federal and state government actions of the past three decades.

I would love to write that, unlike Good King Christie of Crony Capitalism, Warren and De Blasio are true patriots whose recommendations are based on facts and who don’t deal in the devious obfuscation like Christie and the other factotums of the ultrawealthy do. But I can’t say for sure since not one news media outlet—not one—printed the entire 13 points of De Blasio and Warren’s “Progressive Agenda,” preferring to focus on the absurdly irrelevant question: Is it appropriate for the Mayor to be travelling around the country instead of working at his job? (A question never asked of the globe-trotting Michael Bloomberg.)

Unfortunately, as of this writing, no progressive organization has yet put the plan online either, so we can’t completely blame the news media for not being able to find all 13 points. If De Blasio, Warren and other progressive are serious about pushing their program, they are going to have to reach out directly to people and not depend on a rightward looking mainstream media that prefers to reduce issues to personalities, faux pas and horse races. I’ll keep looking for a formal 13-point proposal and present an analysis if and when I find it.

What we do know about the “Progressive Agenda” sounds like it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the U.S. economy:

  • Close the “carried interest” loophole in the tax code that enables hedge fund managers to avoid paying taxes on most of their income.
  • The “Buffett Rule,” named after America’s favorite billionaire, which would assess a minimum of 30% in federal income taxes on anyone who makes at least a million a year, about .3% of tax payers.
  • Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexing it to inflation.
  • Instituting universal pre-kindergarten.
  • Requiring employers to provide mandatory paid sick leave.

Taken as a whole, these plans take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor and the middle class, which reverses the trend since 1980. Let’s hope that the other eight proposals fronted by De Blasio and Warren also redistribute income downward, because that’s what this country needs.

I admire the political savvy exercised by De Blasio, Warren and Bernie Sanders to aggressively push the progressive agenda at this time. The earlier they get started, the more leftward they will be able to move Hillary Clinton. Just as important by moving her left early, the Democratic primaries will not become a divisive blood bath.

If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, progressives would be fools not to vote for her in November

The past few days, I have been sharing excerpts from my lengthy Vox Populi article on Hillary Clinton’s probable positions on most of the issues likely to form the basis of the 2016 presidential campaign. Here is one final excerpt:

We can sum up Hillary Clinton’s probable platform in a few words: On social and domestic issues not involving unions, she will follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead, which should make progressives happy. On homeland security, foreign policy, military policy and trade policy, she will continue Obama’s initiatives in virtually every way, which is not such good news for the left. Taken as a unity, these stands make Hillary Clinton a centrist looking left, a contemporary version of Washington State’s long-time Senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

It’s quite possible that a majority of Democratic voters are more progressive than Hillary, but Pew, Gallup and other polls suggest that a large majority of Democrats and independents taken together pretty much agree with Hillary on most things. Additionally, on domestic matters the gap between Hillary and the most left-leaning of the 2016 crew of Republican stalwarts is far greater than the difference between Hillary and the progressive edge of the Democratic Party, which I define as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I’m sure that Hillary Clinton will say many things that piss off progressives. She will particularly disappoint the left on issues related to unions, defense, national security and homeland security. But everything that every Republican running for president will say will piss off progressives—and frighten us, too.

I didn’t write it in my Vox Populi article, but I feel strongly that it would be foolish for progressives to stay home in November or select a write-in candidate because of some antipathy to Hillary Clinton. The contrast between her views on Social Security, government programs for the poor, immigration, investment in infrastructure, taxation, gay marriage and abortion from those of every Republican is too vast for us to put our country at danger by not throwing our support behind Hillary, or just about any other Democratic candidate for that matter.

Hillary Clinton’s stand on issues makes her a centrist looking left

As I mentioned yesterday, the progressive website Vox Populi has published four articles about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including my analysis of her position on issues.

In this excerpt from my Vox Populi article, I dig into her recent statements to erect what her platform will look like. I based most of this analysis on comments she has made since 2014 or comments she has made so many times that she would be hard-pressed to move very far from her past position. I depended to a large degree but not entirely on the very thorough and accurate nonpartisan website,, which breaks down how all the potential candidates for either major party’s nomination stand on a large number of issues.

Before presenting the detail, let me sum up what we can say about Hillary Clinton’s probable platform: on social and domestic issues not involving unions, she will follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead, which should make progressives happy. On homeland security, foreign policy, military policy and trade policy, she will continue Obama’s initiatives in virtually every way, which is not such good news for the left.

Now for the detail:

Economic Issues

  • Income/wealth inequality: She has commented numerous times on the need to recut the wealth and income pies so that less goes to the ultra-wealthy and more goes to everyone else, but she has suggested little that specifically addresses that issue.
  • Minimum Wage: Through the years, she has consistently been vociferous in her support of raising the minimum wage, but how high remains unclear since her last comment was in 2007.
  • Labor unions: She has no recent comments on whether she supports unions, but her stands on charter schools and trade agreements suggest she’s no lover of labor.
  • Taxation: She is on record many times of saying she believes that the wealthy are not paying their fair share in taxes.
  • Trade: Hillary is one of the most aggressive advocates for TPP and for lowering barriers for corporations to do business abroad.


Hillary is a long-time supporter of charter schools and has said she wants to link teachers’ pay to performance, but do it by school and not by individual teacher. These sound like anti-union moves that do nothing to address the real problems facing public education: resource shortages and large class sizes.


She is both for limiting emissions worldwide and for investment by wealthier nations to mitigate the effects of global warming on the most vulnerable nations.

Foreign Policy

Hillary will probably be a little quicker to send in troops and bombs than Obama was, but will have essentially the same policy. She tends to be hawkish on specific issues:

  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict: She is very concerned about the security of Israel, and doesn’t seem to put any priority on addressing the mistreatment of Palestinians or Palestinian rights.
  • Iran: Hillary was involved in arranging secret talks with Iran in 2012 and 2013, and has come out in favor of a negotiated agreement with Iran regarding its development of nuclear weapons.
  • Hillary pretty much agreed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the way the war was prosecuted thereafter, except for the torture, which she vehemently opposed.
  • Syria: She wanted to arm Syrian rebels.
  • Russia: One of her goals as Secretary of State was to achieve a permanent thaw in relations with Russia, but since the invasion of the Crimea, she has been as tough-talking as any mainstream American politician against Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
  • China: Hillary was influential in implementing the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which has as its goals projection of American power in Asia and containment of China by the United States and its allies. Nothing that she has said or written lately suggests that she has changed her mind about continuing Obama’s hard line on China.
  • Military Technology: In her book, Hard Choices, Hillary defends the use of drones by the Obama Administration.

Gun Control

Hillary has been an outspoken supporter of expansion of the national firearms registry and on placing more controls on gun sales and who can buy and carry a gun.


We know she has long been in favor of universal coverage. We can expect that she will want to maintain and perhaps extend the Affordable Care Act.


She supports immigration reform that helps immigrants, by which I think we can assume illegal immigrants, judging from her comments.

Safety Net

Hillary has always supported maintaining and extending aid to the poor and the elderly. Her stands are particularly significant in light of the frequent calls of all the potential Republican candidates for cutting benefits to the poor.

Security State

Her past positions do not bode well for civil libertarians. Hillary voted for the misbegotten Patriot Act and its renewal and disapproved of Edward Snowden’s actions.

Social Security

She opposes privatization and is in favor of raising the cap on how much earnings are taxed for Social Security purposes, which places her left of President Obama. She also stands in stark contrast to every Republican candidate, all of whom want to privatize Social Security and cut benefits.

Values Issues

She supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body, which again, contrasts with every Republican candidate. She wants to see how marijuana legalization works in Washington and Colorado and is skeptical of the relative lack of research on medical uses.

News media would still focus on irrelevant even if Hillary had issued a complete platform

The progressive website Vox Populi asked me to write a complete analysis of Hillary Clinton’s positions on the entire range of issues which will—or should—dominate the presidential campaign.  You can find my complete article and three other articles about Hillary’s campaign at Vox Populi.

I wanted to share a few excerpts from this lengthy analysis on the OpEdge blog. Today’s excerpts speculate on why Hillary’s early campaign has largely avoided talking about the issues:

Hillary Clinton has herself to blame at least in part for the news media covering extraneous issues in the early stages of her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. She has said hardly a word about her positions on the issues. There is nothing about her platform on either or her two campaign websites, and, or on her Facebook page. In speeches, we get brief tidbits, but nothing substantive.

In a sense, Hillary is saying, “You know who I am and what my capabilities are,” and there is a certain logic to this approach. Let’s start with the reality of the situation: a number of serious constraints have always prevented presidents from veering from the basic direction in which the country is headed—the courts, the legislature and the continuing federal government that goes about its job of running things no matter who is the boss.

Thus, our presidential candidates can be—and usually are—evaluated not just in terms of their political and social stances, but also on their ability to manage the processes of government. And when it comes to the criteria that define an effective chief executive, there are few candidates in American history as qualified as Hillary, at least on paper:

  • High intelligence: How can anyone deny that Hillary is both highly gifted intellectually and a lifetime learner?
  • Past experience: Only the rabid right would call her time in the Senate and as Secretary of State anything other than successful.
  • Lack of hypocrisy: Hillary has never said one thing and then hypocritically did something else, for example, rail against the Affordable Care Act and then sign up for Obamacare, as Ted Cruz has done, or advocate against gays all the while trolling public bathrooms for same sex quickies, as Republican Senator Larry Craig did.
  • She has a cross-cultural understanding of social cues, which means that she won’t embarrass herself by saying or doing the wrong thing, as Mitt Romney constantly did during the 2012 presidential campaign, e.g., when he publicly revealed a secret briefing that many had undergone over the decades but that everyone else who received it had the good sense to keep confidential; or when Romney broke the cardinal sin of retired Chief Executive Officers, which is not to criticize the new administration unless involved in a hostile takeover; Mitt criticized the London Olympics (unfairly, too, as it turned out), even though he was a past CEO of the Olympic games. Far from making these “bull in a china shop” mistakes, Hillary seems to enjoy tremendous respect among the people of the world and world leaders.
  • She is competent running an organization: Despite the increasingly incredulous claims of Republicans, Hillary seemed to have done a good job of running the State Department, even in the Benghazi disaster. There were media reports that her 2008 campaign was a mess, but I wonder if that was just exaggeration to win eyeballs and sell papers.
  • Science-based decision-making: Hillary has never said or written anything that tried to deny science. Contrast with the Republican candidates, announced and unannounced: all of them deny science in one way or another, regarding a wide variety of issues, including global warming, science teaching, women’s fertility issues and economics. I’m not saying Hillary is always right, but that she always reasons from the facts, and not from what she wants the facts to be.

By focusing on Hillary the person, I believe the campaign wants to communicate that Hillary is the most competent presidential candidate around, regardless of one’s political positions. They want us to encapsulate all the positive personality traits and management skills a president needs into one brand name, Hillary!

The subtext of focusing on Hillary the person (read: the celebrity) is the assumption that we all know what the former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady stands for.

Not immediately presenting a complete platform thus postpones the inevitable intra-party clashes, e.g., between those who favor the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, such as Hillary herself, and those who worry that it gives corporations the right to sue countries; and between those who embrace charter schools, again like Hillary, and those who see them as subtle attempts to destroy public unions. Moreover, there can be little doubt that even if Hillary had opened with a full program, Republicans and the rightwing media would still be wallowing in a mud bath of hysterical accusations and bold-faced lies about her. The frenzied and rabid opposition to the Clintons consists primarily of accusations regarding their character flaws. Perhaps to battle this constant character assassination explains why the early campaign message is that Hillary is competent, ethical, caring, effective, flexible and…Well, you know…She’s Hillary!

We should take savings from ending mass incarceration laws & spend it on education & social welfare programs

In some ways, the term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer. The term immediately conjures images of rounding up large numbers of people at one time, most of them innocent of a crime, much as the Nazis rounded up Jews during the Holocaust or Stalin prosecuted his purges.

What an increasingly great number of people on both the left and the right are calling “mass incarceration” doesn’t quite fit that image. In the United States, people are usually picked off—that is, arrested—one by one, for individual acts. More importantly, virtually all of the people, mostly African-American males, incarcerated because of the overly strict sentencing laws laid down in the 1980’s and 1990’s committed a real crime.

What people are rightfully questioning now are whether what those arrested and convicted did should have been crimes and whether the sentences for those crimes were too long.

The numbers are truly shameful. A mere 5% of the world’s population resides in the United States, and yet we curate 25% of all the Earth’s prisoners. An inordinate number of our prisoners are African-American males.

Extreme rightwingers such as the Koch brothers are joining progressives to demand an end to the laws that led to American mass incarceration, such as three-strikes-you’re-out laws. The primary motivation stated by most conservatives for wanting to end mass incarceration is fiscal. They are sick and tired of spending gobs of money to house prisoners who did nothing more than sell a little weed.

Among liberals, the fiscal concerns resonate less than basic humanitarianism: these people did not deserve to go to prison for these victimless crimes. We have ruined the lives of a two generations of African-American men and their families. Wouldn’t we have been better off if the money spent on warehousing human beings had been funneled into educating them? That’s basically the argument of progressives, and I agree with it.

It’s ironic that right and left unite on the issue of ending mass incarceration, because from the late 1960’s onwards, the cry for higher sentencing laws came from the near left (AKA mainstream Democrats) as much as from conservatives, if not more so, as Radley Balko points out in The Rise of the Warrior Cop.

It may befuddle many at first as to why the Koch brothers would divert their attention from killing unions, suppressing the minimum wage and fighting needed safety and environmental regulations to take on prison reform. But consider this: A goodly share of the Koch political spending focuses on initiatives which suppress the price of labor. Because the Baby Boomers who are retiring are followed by the baby-busting Generation X, many labor economists are predicting labor shortages for a while. Injecting relatively unproductive prison labor into the labor pool will serve to hold down wages.

By supporting the end of laws that have produced the mass incarceration phenomenon, the Kochs are abandoning their natural ally, the prison privatization industry, who, of course, oppose lowering sentences. Remember that prison privatization money helped to fuel the lobbying that led to these ridiculous laws. What I would like to know is who was it—the lobbyists, the think tank wonks, Congress, some organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the staffs of successive state and federal executives—who dreamed up laws that so nicely tend to throw more blacks than whites in jail?

The prison privatization industry and others who want to maintain these Draconian sentencing practices offer the same defense as do police departments all over the country for such absurd practices as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies: it has dramatically lowered the crime rate. FYI, the gun industry uses the same argument in backing the many new laws that make it easier for people to carry guns in public and legally shoot other people.

It is true the crimes of all types are down dramatically since the early 1990’s all over the country, everywhere, that is, but on television and in the movies. A simpleton might conclude that some combination of expanded sentences that discriminate against one group and enactment of right-to-carry laws were the reason crime declined so much.

But the simpleton would be wrong.

The latest repudiation of the mass incarceration movement comes from Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, whose recent What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate.

Available online for free, What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes virtually all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Roeder, Eisen and Bowling divide the recent past into two parts, 1990-1999 and 2000-2013. Different factors were important factors in the decline of crime in each of these eras. For example, the aging population was an important reason crime declined between 1990 and 1999, but not afterwards. Decreased alcohol consumption was important in both periods. The growth in the number of police on the beat helped reduce crimes between 1990 and 1999, whereas afterwards it was the introduction of new computer programs that identify crime patterns.

Increased incarceration was a minor factor before 2000, reducing crime a mere 6%. After 2000, it has not been a factor at all.  FYI, neither enactment of looser gun laws nor the use of the death penalty have any effect on crime rates.

We should note that historical studies have tended to agree that throughout recorded history the main factor determining the crime rate has been the population of males between the ages of 16-49. By that consistent rule of thumb, the crime rate should have nudged up after the turn of the century. What we really are arguing about is not why the crime rate is so low, but why it has remained down.

The big question is: was it worth billions of dollars and those millions of ruined lives of prisoners and their families to achieve what may have been an additional 6% reduction in crime. If crime were 6% higher than it is today, but still well below the level of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, would anyone even notice? Let’s assume that we decriminalize the petty drug offences and other victimless crimes that put so many people in prison.  Wouldn’t the increase in the rate of crime by ending mass incarceration be even less, since actions we now consider crimes would no longer be?

Warning to those who think emptying the prisons will enable us to reduce government expenses: some of the money now spent on prisons will need to be used rehabilitate and train the victims of mass incarceration on how to live in the modern world. Instead of returning the rest of the savings to the wealthy in the form of lower taxes, it should be used to improve public education, provide job training, make the court system more accessible, train police in community policing techniques and make other improvements to the criminal justice system and social network. Jobs as prison guards will be lost, but there will be an increases demand for social workers and teachers, so the economy won’t suffer. Perhaps the inhumane private prison industry will go the way of slavery and the horse-and-buggy.

We haven’t been able to overcome the fear-mongers and reduce military budgets, end domestic spying or pass adequate gun control laws. So just because liberals have entered into an unholy alliance with the Kochs does not mean that mass incarceration laws are ending anytime soon.  And thus continues the mortal stain of racism which has poisoned this country since before its inception.