George Mason professor tries to tell us that the Uber is good for workers

If there’s a false argument to be made in support of corporate interests, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University is sure to make it. Cowen specializes in spinning dispassionate sounding short articles that sell economic nonsense in the better mainstream media, such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs.

A year ago, Professor Cowen was embarrassing himself with a series of articles that purported to disprove the findings of Thomas Piketty in his Capital in the 21st Century. Cowen’s argument tended to follow the pattern of staring at the trees so you won’t see the forest, which in this case means believing that the fact that individual families gain and lose wealth through generations proves that over time more wealth does not tend to accumulate into fewer hands. By focusing on the trees—individual wealthy people, Cowen ignores the forest—the class of the wealthy—who have accumulated more and more of the wealth of the world and the United States over the past 35 years.

Cowen now uses the same trick of ignoring the group to perform another feat of corporate justification in a New York Times article titled “In an Uber World, Fortune Favors the Freelancer.” Cowen asserts that some workers—those who hustle, i.e., “are willing and able to turn their spare time to productive uses,”—will do very well in the freelance economy created by sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb.

The good professor creates hypothetical situations to assert that workers who are more educated will be more likely to take advantage of the opportunities to freelance as a driver, dog-watcher, private tutor or whatever, and therefore make a lot of money. He never proves this point, but he does make a clear implication that some individuals will thrive in the sharing economy.

Of course, Cowen never defines what thriving means—will these successful freelancers make $150,000 a year, or will they just do a little better than average for the driving, delivery, baby-sitting and other semi-skilled, low-wage labor that constitutes a large part of the sharing economy. Surely Cowen isn’t talking about freelance attorneys or accountants, who tend to make less than their peers with real jobs.

The hidden premise behind Cowen’s argument—one that right-wing economists and social thinkers never tire of making—is that those who thrive will deserve to do so, while those who don’t will deserve their fate.  This argument is an important foundation stone of our free market system, because it justifies the obscene wealth that a few possess—they earned it and they deserve it, just as much as that young go-getter who is delivering your package to the airport for $5.00 an hour.

Now maybe some of the trees in the forest of the shared economy will grow to the clouds, but what about the rest of the forest, which in this case comprises most people trying to scrape a living together on freelance and part-time jobs.  Cowen neglects to tell us what’s going to happen to the group of workers who don’t thrive in an entrepreneurial environment. They will make less money and will always be in competition with fellow workers for every little job.  Their work world, always brutal, becomes more so in an apps-driven world.

That the Times accepted Cowen’s article should disappoint anyone who believes in high journalistic standards. In making his case, Cowen cites two studies, one sponsored by Uber and partially written by an Uber executive and the other paid for by Airbnb. When I was a journalist, we tried not to depend on research paid by parties who had a vested interest in the research results. For a scholar to accept such non peer reviewed research is surprising, unless Cowen is feeding at the same corporate trough as those who took Uber and Airbnb’s money. For the New York Times not to ask Cowen to remove the research from his article is equally as disconcerting. Don’t the editors remember all the bogus research that the tobacco industry generated for decades?

As with all labor and wage challenges, Cowen finds the answer to the dilemma of some workers not thriving is to give them greater education and training.  He avers that the educated shared economy worker will provide better service and get higher ratings, and thereby get more jobs and make more money. As usual, Cowen never considers the conundrum of what happens when every worker is better educated. Interestingly enough, Cowen manages to get a tiny plug into the article for for-profit education when he proposes that in the future going through an Uber training program might serve as a legitimate educational credential on par with “those of some lower-tier colleges and universities.”

Cowen hides the brutal fact that the sharing economy hurts workers in several ways. It either replaces the stable income and benefits of full-time work with a precarious freelance existence or it floods labor markets with people who may or may not be qualified, thus driving down rates. It creates dangerous situations, such as the apartment that’s really a sub-standard hotel or the unsafe driver. It takes profit out of the hands of those who do the actual work. It makes it much harder for workers to organize into unions.

But none of that matters to Cowen, who prefers to force a smile and focus on those who will succeed in the sharing economy. If he looked at the whole forest, he would see that the wage-suppressing nature of the sharing economy creates a major economic challenge for the country, as more and more workers fall into permanent economic insecurity.

Supreme Court gives conservatives exactly what they want: two dead horses they can keep flogging

Conservative Republicans must privately be rejoicing that the U.S. Supreme Court 1) affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry and 2) declared it constitutional for the federal government to subsidize poor individuals and families who buy health insurance on the federal exchange because the state in which they live doesn’t have an exchange.

Let’s take these decisions one at a time:

By upholding the centerpiece of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Supremes, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, have given the conservatives a punching bag for several elections to come. They can continue to tell lies about it and to demonize it. They can hit the Democrats over the head with false assertions that it costs too much, takes away freedom, leads to death panels and is rife with inefficiencies. These lies began almost immediately, as every one of the Republican candidates for president tweeted his objection to the Supreme Court decision within hours of the announcement, many calling for repeal of the law and the development of a better alternative. Of course, the Republicans have no alternative, save some pious homilies about letting the free market work and giving consumers more choice, which ends up meaning very little in the realm of health care.

The Republicans understand that they can keep the issue alive through lies and invectives, and thereby keep their Tea Party base engaged and writing checks.

But if the Supreme Court had invalidated the ACA, it would have presented Republicans with major problems. For one thing, it would have thrown tens of millions of Americans off the health insurance rolls, because they wouldn’t be able to get government subsidies. These people would no longer have any protection against high medical costs.

Those who could keep their coverage would have also gotten screwed if the Supremes had voted thumbs down on Obamacare, because the health insurance system would have suffered the loss of enormous sums of money when those who lost coverage left the system. Insurance companies would have had to raise rates precipitously to pay for the medical expenses of those remaining in the system.

The Republicans would have suffered the wrath of the American people if the Supreme Court had ruled against the ACA. They would have been blamed when millions lost their health insurance and everyone else saw their costs zoom.  In truth, Obamacare has been a success. Many more people are covered than before and healthcare inflation has moderated. People may say they don’t like the ACA, but they seem to like how it helps them. And they sure wouldn’t like it if they lost all the benefits that the ACA gave them.

The set-up is now perfect for the Republicans. They continue to hammer at Obamacare with no fear that anything will come of it. Kind of like the old Abbot & Costello bit in which Abbot is about to get into a fist fight and he shouts, “Hold me back, hold me back.” When Costello doesn’t make a move, Abbot pleads, “Please hold me back, you don’t want this guy to hit me, do you,” or some similar chicken-hawk statement.

Gay marriage is the same song, verse two. Besides ending discrimination against a large number of Americans, it’s a great victory for personal freedom in the United States, plus an affirmation that we live in a secular, not a Christian society.

A majority of Americans now support gay marriage and each new poll shows those numbers growing larger all the time. The Supreme Court is neither pulling nor pushing society, but reacting to it.

For years, Republicans have used social issues such as gay marriage and abortion to entice the religious right to vote for them. For decades, the Republicans have asked these “values” voters to vote against their own economic best interest to make certain that their religious views prevailed. But if gay marriage had remained a state-by-state issue, the GOP would have been playing a losing hand, as more and more people became offended by anti-gay rights rhetoric.

Just like after the Obamacare decision, the Republican candidates for president are lining up against the gay marriage decision in statements and tweets. They will continue to bemoan the decision well into the future, but there’s one thing they won’t have to do—support or oppose legislation, court decisions and ballot initiatives related to gay marriage. Supporting laws that attempt to protect the right of businesses to decline to provide goods and services for gay weddings is a much more comfortable position for Republicans who don’t want to alienate the mainstream of American voters, who now favor gay marriage. Instead of opposing gay marriage, Republicans can now support religious rights, something in which every American believes, even if we define it in a variety of ways. Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham have already made deft pivots to supporting religious rights in their comments about the 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

In short, these two Supreme Court decisions, both so important for the well-being of the United States, also take Republicans off the hook as far as real action is concerned. Instead, they can wallow in their imaginary world of rhetoric, mixing lies with glorious statements about freedom, tradition and free markets.

Just keep in mind that it’s not merely posturing, but a smoke screen of phony issues that the GOP continues to use to distract Americans from real issues such as global warming, income and wealth inequality and institutional racism.

We’ll all feel good about pulling down Confederate flags while guns kill more innocents

Don’t get me wrong. I have been opposed to the flying of the Confederate flag for decades. I immediately become disgusted, make that physically revulsed, when I see the blue X with white stars across a field of red—the central motif of the flag of the American slave republic—branding belt buckles, tee-shirts, banners, jackets, bandstands, caps or state flags.

Despite protestations to the contrary through the years, the Confederate flag is an inherently racist symbol.  I can’t possibly imagine anyone displaying Confederate iconography except for racists, those who want to get the votes of racists or those who want to do business with racists using racism as a common affinity between seller and buyer.

There is no doubt that flying the Confederate flag on government or public property is and has always been an act of treason, since the establishment of the Confederacy was an act of treason. And there is no doubt that the United States is a better place when the flag of the American slave state is marginalized: when candidates don’t wrap themselves with it pretending it’s a symbol of states’ rights; when it is not readily available for purchase in large national chains; when the consensus opinion is that people who display the Confederate flag are as anti-social as those who revel in Nazi iconography. While I think brandishing the Confederate flag is protected speech under the First Amendment, I am glad to see that we as a nation are finally saying that it is an anti-social and explicitly racist act.

But the swiftly spreading collective movement to end the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country is a bit disconcerting, because it’s another example of the United States addressing the wrong problem in a crisis. Just as we attached Iraq instead of going after Al Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, so are we trying to curtail flying of the Confederate flag as a means to stop single-shooter mass murders. It’s an example of an entire society exhibiting what psychiatrists sometimes call displacement, which occurs when the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt to be dangerous or unacceptable. We have displaced what should be a concern for gun control with a concern for one of many symbols of the force that motivated this particular mass murderer. 

Let’s be clear about what has happened: The shooting of nine innocent people during a Bible study session at an old-line black church by a lunatic who was also a racist has had an earthshaking impact on the country—our people, our leaders, our news media. Most of us are horrified and crying out to do something in a way that’s reminiscent of the country’s reaction after the first Selma March or the killing of students by National Guard soldiers at anti-war demonstrations at Jackson State and Kent State universities.

But where have our politicians and the news media pushed us? To attack one of many manifestations that Dylann Roof hated African-Americans. If Roof had not fetishized the Confederate flag, he would still have displayed virulent racism: He still would have subscribed to the ideas of the white supremacist group, Council of Conservative Citizens. He still would have frequently used racial invectives when speaking with friends. He still would have written his sick manifesto.

The Confederacy wasn’t even the only racist country whose flag Roof incorporated into his self-expression. He also displayed parts of the Rhodesian and the Apartheid-era South African flags on his clothing.

To be sure, Dylann Roof reminds us what an embarrassment it is to the United States that the flag of enemies of freedom, defenders of slavery and traitors to the United States still flies on public property. But taking it down will have at the most a very minor impact on the rate of mass murders in the United States. At best, racism will become somewhat less socially acceptable, which may lead to several mentally ill people having one less reason to pick up a gun and hunt the innocent.

But far from every case of mass murder has had to do with race. Spurned love, mommy issues, peer rejection and social isolation have all compelled wackos to kill. But virtually all mass murderer in recent years (as opposed to terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and the Al Qaida operatives) have had two things in common: 1) They’ve been mentally ill; 2) They’ve gotten hold of one or more guns.

Clearly we have to do something about the ease at which mentally ill people can legally obtain arms and the type of high-grade military arms available for purchase by the public. We have to expand gun registries, increase the waiting time for gun sales, toughen laws regarding keeping guns in households where mentally ill people live, end the sales of automatic weapons, and ban all firearms in schools, universities, government buildings, restaurants, theatres, libraries, arenas, stadiums and any place where the legal occupancy is more than 10 people.

But we’re not considering any of it, not even talking about it. Instead of going after the major tool that psychopaths use to commit mass murder, we’re going after one of the many symbols employed by one mass murderer to express the reason that motivated his horrific action.

Ending all mainstream glorification of the Confederate flag is a great thing, even though extreme racists will continue to revel in its symbolism. But it has nothing to do with preventing more tragedies like the Emanuel AME Church massacre. If we want to end mass shootings, we have to take the view of private ownership of guns shared by the rest of the world and toughen gun laws.

Rand Paul’s flat tax proposal sounds as dubious as the flat earth theory

Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul wants to create a flat tax of 14.5% that he says will reduce government revenues by trillions of dollars, but magically lead to greater tax revenues in the future fueled by economic growth.

His plan, which he outlined in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that has been reprinted on many other news websites, is based on the old Laffer Curve myth that proposes that lowering tax rates always leads to economic growth, which then always produces greater tax revenues.  Laffer Curve theory has been around for ages but is associated with right-wing economist Arthur Laffer who supposedly drew it on a paper cocktail napkin for some government luminaries during the 1970’s.  When I interviewed Laffer in 1981 for a television news report, he denied the myth.

Now Paul does not mention the Laffer Curve by name, but he is proposing the same twisted reasoning—lowering tax rates will lead to economic growth which will lead to higher tax revenues.

Paul’s premise comes up short in the reality department. Since the birth of the industrial revolution, our economy has thrived most when tax rates have been relatively high, such as after World War II and during the Clinton years (when compared to the eras immediately before and after Clinton).

Paul’s program consists of two changes to the current tax code: 1) Establish a flat tax of 14.5% that’s the same for every tax-paying entity (personal or business) and every kind of income (earned or investment); note that included are payments for Social Security and Medicare, which fulfills the conservative dream of comingling Social Security funds with the general budget, the first step in making major benefit cuts. 2) End all deductions, except for mortgages and charities.

The first idea ignores decades of data to build its case on the disproved notion that if you cut taxes on the wealthy, they will invest more in the economy, thereby creating more jobs. In a sense, it’s an operation of the false theory of supply-side economics, which essentially says that if you make it and put it up for sale, they will buy it. But the experience since the turn of the century has been that the wealthy and corporations have been afraid to invest (create more supply) because the market isn’t there. The low tax regime has therefore led to the wealthy piling up more wealth and to a precipitous increase in the values of assets that the wealthy tend to own such as luxury goods, real estate and fine art. Supply side economics never works because the so-called job creators who should create the additional supply believe at heart in investing based on predicted demand.

Now if we had not lowered tax rates on the wealthy during the Reagan years and under Bush II, the money that rich folk gleaned from tax cuts would instead be in the government coffers. One thing the government likes to do is spend money, and that helps the economy. Government outlays create demand, whether it’s for new government employees, from companies and individuals to perform services from the government or from payments to the poor and middle class, which they then mostly spend (as opposed to the rich, who mostly save after a certain point).

So much then for Paul’s argument that the flat tax will unleash economic activity. More than likely, it will lead to a cut in government services, which will lead to a shrinking of the economy.

The mechanism of the progressive tax, by which people are taxed at higher rates for income earned above certain thresholds, is a prime tool for increasing income and wealth equality because the wealthy don’t just pay more, they pay a higher percentage of their additional income in taxes. That higher percentage also reflects the fact that the wealthy derive more protection and services from government than the poor and middle class do. They have more property under government protection. The regulation and protection of markets benefits their interests more than the interests of the poor. The roads government builds conveys the cars of both the rich and poor, but it also conveys everyone’s cars to stores and businesses, all owned by the rich either directly or through financial instruments. The rich are far more likely to enjoy the luxury boxes in ballparks built with taxpayer money. Thus the progressive income tax makes the best tax system both for public policy reasons and to finance the many things that 21st century government does, Instead of establishing a flat tax, we need to raise marginal tax rates on the wealthy.

In theory the second Paul idea—to end deductions—is a good one because it simplifies paying taxes, but it may not work in practice. Here’s why: For the most part, tax breaks serve as incentives for people to act in certain ways—buy houses, invest in new businesses, install solar equipment, send their children to college. Each of these tax breaks also helps one part of the economy. For decades, for example, the oil depletion allowance has helped the fossil fuels industry, while the mortgage deduction has artificially boosted the residential real estate industry. Tax policy can also discourage actions, such as our high taxes on cigarettes. Notice that I don’t include gas as a high-tax item because our taxes on gasoline are very low compared to other industrialized nations.

If we give up tax incentives and disincentives, we lose the possibility to implement social and economic policy through taxes, eventually leading to more extensive regulation as the only other means to manage the economy and guide private activity.  So while the idea of making the tax system less complicated sounds great in theory, in practice it wouldn’t work because we need tax policy to help manage a sophisticated economy and complex society.

Paul is right that our tax system has to change, but those changes should lead to higher rates of taxation on the wealthy and greater immediate revenues:

  • We should increase the tax rates on incremental income (income above certain amounts).
  • We should take the cap off the maximum salary subject to the Social Security tax.
  • We should end the special treatment of capital gains taxes, or failing that, redefine capital gains to include only direct investments that benefit a business, which means no stock or bond bought or sold on a secondary market.
  • We should end the carried-interest loophole that enables hedge fund manages to shield billions of dollars of income from taxes each year.
  • We should take from the French and add a small annual tax on wealth above a certain level, maybe $5 million for an individual.
  • Finally, we should assess a very stiff tax on all inheritances above a certain amount, again, say $5 million.

In other words, instead of lowering taxes on the wealthy, as Paul wants to do, we should raise them back to the level before the Reagan years. That’s a program that will lead to an economic growth spurt.

Racism or guns in Charleston Church shooting: which played a bigger role?

Politicians, primarily Democrats, and cable news commentators have tried to look beyond the individual pathology of Dylann Roof to explore root social causes for his monstrous gunning down of nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Some say a lack of gun control laws is the culprit, others say racism, while still others assign equal blame to both these American plagues.

Evidence is piling up that Roof is a virulent racist. Friends said Roof would routinely spew racial invectives. He is reported to have exclaimed that he killed the nine people at the Church solely because they were black. There can be no doubt that his rabid racial anger found encouragement in the distorted view of African-Americans visible in American police dramas; the racial coding in the comments of Republican politicians; the self-justifying aspects of our system of mass incarceration; the prevalence of the Confederate flag and other symbols of slavery in his home state; and the several white power and other hate groups in operation (although the police have yet to find any connection between Roof and any of these groups).

There can be no doubt that Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME confident that he was morally right in the actions he was about to take, and that his moral fortitude fed not just on his own extreme racism, but also on the acceptance and promotion of racism, both explicitly and implicitly, in our society.

But let’s ask ourselves this question: Could he have faced those nine people alone and killed them without a gun? Could he have killed them if he weren’t a racist?

The answers, of course, are “no, he could not have done it alone without a gun” and “yes, there are many reasons people kill.”

No matter how much we decry Dylann Roof’s disgusting beliefs and no matter how much we do to eradicate racism in American society and institutions, we will not reduce future mass murders and other gun killings until we make it harder for people to obtain guns and carry them in public.

Look at Roof’s history, so similar in some ways to Adam Lanza, Craig Hicks and other mass murderers: Roof is an anti-social loner who repeated 9th grade.  He had previously been arrested for trespassing and drug charges. His situation had deteriorated recently and he was living out of his car at least on a part-time basis.

How did this wacko get a gun?

Some newspapers report his father gave him a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday, while others are saying he bought one with the money his parents gave him for his birthday. Either way, it’s a disturbing indictment of the ease at which people can purchase weapons in most of the country.

The current line from the gun lobby and their elected factotums is that when people carry guns, they scare some criminals and can defend themselves from others. Their former glib homily “When we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” has evolved into an assertion that owning and carrying guns reduce crime.

The facts do not support this outrageous assertion. Not many studies are done in the United States of the impact of guns because Congress passed a law forbidding government support of such research. But the research that does exist is clear: Increased gun ownership does not reduce crime. For example, the recent What Caused the Crime Decline? by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate over the past 30 years and finds that the radical loosening of guns laws over the same time frame has had zero impact on lowering crime rates.  Other research tells us that throughout the world and across the United States, the more guns are in private ownership in a country or area, the higher the total rate of injuries and deaths from guns will be.

During this period of public mourning for the slaughtered innocents at Emanuel AME it is right and proper for all clear-thinking Americans to contemplate the severe damage that racism has wrecked on individuals, communities and the very fabric of American society. We should rededicate ourselves to ending racism and that rededication should include specific acts, such as working to end the system of mass incarceration, ending Draconian voting laws meant to keep minorities from voting and the flying of the Confederate in any public or government area. We should work to end racism because it’s the moral and legal thing to do.

But we can’t forget that the primary—perhaps only–reason that Dylann Roof killed nine people in a house of worship was not because he hated African-Americans, but because he carried and used a gun. If we want to end mass murders, we have to instill greater gun controls.

Rachel Dolezal can never really be an African-American, but a man who undergoes sex-change procedures has really become a woman

As a Jew, I come to the current controversies over what is a woman and what is an African-American or black with a special perspective. The definition of what is a Jew has haunted the Jewish religion, culture, race and/or nation for millennia. Internally, Jewish courts have long enforced the concept that religious identification comes through the mother, probably because before DNA-testing, we could never be 100% sure of the father’s identity. This basic definition through birth attempts to cut through all the arguments regarding what it means to be Jewish, that is to say, is the essence of Jewishness as a culture, religion, nation and/or race. But since the industrial revolution, this strict adherence to the matrilineal has become problematic, especially to the literally millions of Jewish men who marry outside the faith/culture/nation/race.

Externally, defining who is Jewish has been a necessary process for all organized anti-Semitism, and one of the first steps towards a final solution for the Third Reich. Defining who was black for the purposes of discrimination was also an essential part of American jurisprudence for centuries. These identification systems for both Jews and blacks have always depended on identifying ancestors.

Another external issue involves the problems of cross identification that derive from the fact that the definition of Jewishness usually involves religion or culture, and for some people (not me!) nationality and/or race as well: Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American? Are you a Jew if you don’t practice the customs and rituals? And if you do practice but as an atheist, are you a Jew?

Of course, someone can always convert to Judaism, a purposely arduous process. One can also apostate, which may not protect a former Jew from the dangers of an anti-Semitic roundup.

That the definition of Jewishness has always presented these ambiguities can be a stickler for those who need everything to be cut-and-dried, black and white with no gray area. Yet these ambiguities are central to any discussion of Jewishness, especially in an age when the intermarriage rate for American Jews is about 58%.

By contrast, the ambiguities regarding the nature of manhood and womanhood raised by the transgendered and the nature of “blackness” raised by Rachel Dolezal exist at the margins and are not central to an understanding of womanhood or blackness.

By saying that the issues of womanhood as it relates to Caitlyn Jenner or of blackness as it related to Rachel Dolezal are marginal, I do not in any way mean to demean these people or others in their situation. What I mean is that the numbers of transgendered/ transsexual individuals and of whites passing as black are so small as to be statistically insignificant in considering how we define womanhood or an African-American.

There is, of course, absolutely no implications to accepting Kaitlyn Jenner as a woman (once she has her final surgery) or Chaz Bono as a man.  Having a sex change operation and undergoing hormone treatment pretty much completes the transformation from one sex to another. In no way has the definition of womanhood undergone alteration, nor do we have to consider the issue of what constituent’s a woman’s mentality.

The problems arise in defining those who believe they are one sex trapped in the body of another sex; if those who identified by others as men but self-identify as women are considered women, then the presence of a vagina no longer defines womanhood.

The Rachel Dolezal controversy reduces to a similar dilemma: Dolezal self-identifies as African-American and has made superficial changes in her appearance to look more African-American. She passes, although in the opposite direction of most “passing” in American history. Dolezal believes she’s African-American in the same way that a transgendered individual believes she/he is really the opposite sex. We accept and respect the transgendered person’s perceptions and actions. Why then does Dolezal get fired from her job and accused of lying?

There is also the uncomfortable idea of mentality. If we accept the argument that Dolezal has an African-American mentality that makes her African-American, the next step is to define that African-American mentality as innately inferior to a European mentality.  The Charles Murrays and Richard Herrnsteins of the world must be salivating at the thought of using the concept of mentality to build another disgustingly false case for white superiority.

Genetics is not going to help us out of any definitional conundrum, since all of our ancestors came from Africa and everyone has DNA that traces back to our African origins. There are about 7 billion people in the world, all with absolutely unique genetic codes, so I’m extremely confident in saying that there are people who have black ancestors going back four generations with fewer African genetic markers than Dolezal has. But that still doesn’t make her black. Or does it?

A non-Jew can convert to Judaism after undergoing a lengthy intellectual boot camp and someone identifying with a different sex can take hormones and undergo surgery. But there is no such process or operation that turns one African-American, French, Italian or Chinese, and let’s hope there never is. For the most part, race and nationality are artificial constructs, as artificial and mutable as culture itself.

Dolezal is free to live in an African-American neighborhood, hang out only with African-American people, eat only foods traditionally associated with African-American culture and engage only in cultural events identified as African-American. In fact, she is even free to pass. She just can’t lie and say she’s black on a job application, census forms or to get a scholarship. She can live black, but she just can’t be black.

Which would also describe the situation of a man who identifies as a woman and practices a transvestite lifestyle even in public. Such a person may identify as a woman, but heshe better use the men’s room and better not try out for the girls’ basketball team.

At the end of the day, these definitional problems don’t matter once we begin to consider individuals on their own merit and make certain that all individuals get the same opportunities. It will take more than ending discrimination against all minorities. It will also take making sure that every child has the same educational and cultural opportunities and the same access to healthcare, nutrition and personal technologies. If we marginalize minorities economically, the fact that they have full civil rights doesn’t matter. Racism and discrimination against sexual minorities is only half the problem. The other half is the growing inequality of opportunity, income and wealth.

“New Jim Crow” has recreated the legal racism that existed before Civil Rights movement

As Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow, her 2010 seminal study of the criminal justice system, the systematic mass incarceration of African-American men and other minorities since 1980 encompasses three discrete stages: 1) Targeting minorities for minor drug offenses; 2) Giving them onerous sentences for victimless crimes; 3) Stripping them of their civil rights and isolating them economically, even after they have served their time.

Alexander calls mass incarceration the “New Jim Crow,” comparing it to the system of laws and customs in the post-Reconstruction South and North that legally discriminated against freed African-American slaves. She draws a number of amazing parallels between the U.S. between the 1880s and the Civil Rights movement and today, revealing the extent that institutional racism, supposedly eradicated by Brown v. Board of Education and LBJ’s Civil Rights laws, was recreated by federal and state lawmakers of both major parties after 1980.

Here are the similarities Alexander finds between the original and the new Jim Crow:

  • Both had their roots in the desire among wealthy whites to use the resentments and racial biases of poor and working class whites to install a legally-enforced racial caste system.
  • Both legalized discrimination. Jim Crow discriminated against blacks in matters of housing, education, employment, voting and public accommodations. The New Jim Crow strips voting and employment rights from ex-cons, after jailing them for minor drug offenses, which the authorities enforce only in minority neighborhoods.
  • Both involve political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, racial discrimination and separate treatment in the criminal justice system.
  • Both define the meaning and significance of race in the United States. The original Jim Crow defined blacks as second-class citizens. The New Jim Crow defines black men as criminals. In the original Jim Crow, the mass media and popular myths conflated blackness with inferiority. The New Jim Crow conflates blackness with crime.

These parallels make us realize that whatever the original intent of the developers of the Draconian laws and discriminatory police practices that define mass incarceration, we have created a system that legally defines a caste of humans with lesser rights based on their color.

Alexander also details a few differences between the original and the new Jim Crow:

  • The New Jim Crow displays an absence of racial hostility, except at the margins, e.g., rogue police officers. The laws and policies express no overt hatred of blacks.
  • Whites are also victims of the laws, although Alexander does make clear that the criminal justice system nationwide has stopped, arrested, charged and convicted many more blacks than whites and has given more jail time than whites received. None the less, because the laws and policies do not expressly single out blacks by race, whites also fall victim to the mass incarceration system.
  • Many blacks have supported the “get tough” policies that formed the rationale for all the activity of the mass incarceration system, from stop-and-frisk programs to three-strike-you’re-out laws.

Many forces are converging at the current moment to end the system of American mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow. Some fiscal conservatives have realized that operating prisons costs state and federal governments a lot of cash. Industrialists such as the union-hating Koch brothers, may be anticipating the upcoming labor shortage as millions of Baby Boomer retire and look to empty the prisons to keep the price of labor down. Alexander and others have been talking about mass incarceration long enough that the message that there’s a big problem is finally getting through to the mainstream. Many see the causal connection between creating a caste denied basic rights and the growing inequality of income and wealth.

That leaves only those whom the authorities have scared into thinking we are in a permanent wave of violent crime and the rabid racists to oppose ending the laws that define mass incarceration. And, oh yes, the gun lobby, which makes many hundreds of millions of dollars each year selling more and more weapons to the paranoid and the frightened.

Tell President Obama not to send more troops and resources to Iraq

The Obama Administration is floating the idea of sending troops and adding military bases to Iraq. According to the unnamed White House officials who told the New York Times about the possibility of dedicating more troops and money to piecing back together the country we destroyed, Iraqis would run the new bases and Americans would not participate in ground combat. When have we heard that before?

Administrations float ideas in the news media all the time. If these thought balloons get shot down by the public, Congress or the big money, the idea goes nowhere. If no one seems to care, or if the proposal picks up support, the Administration pursues the idea.  As usual with balloon floaters, the chatty White House officials made a great effort to distance President Obama from the idea being floated: “White House officials stressed that no proposal has been presented to Mr. Obama and added they anticipated no decision in the next few weeks.

Philologists should use that sentence to exemplify the definition of “disingenuous.” It’s clear that Obama knows already and the plans are already developed in detail, even if only as a contingency.

I urge everyone to contact President Obama, your senators and Congressional representative and tell all of them not to add troops or bases to Iraq.

In fact, we should be demanding a complete and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops, advisors, mercenaries, outsourced contractors and equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan, plus a removal of all military support to all parties at war in all Middle Eastern countries. Let’s let the parties involved in the conflict work things out.

As long as we stay involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan, we will be a magnet for forces opposed to our presence, our bullying and our cultural imperialism. None of these countries will attain stability as long as we serve as a destabilizing element.

It goes without saying that we may not like the stability that develops after we withdraw military support in the Middle East, especially if ISIS gains permanent control of some part of Syria or Iraq. But any kind of stability will be an improvement over the current situation.

In withdrawing from the many quagmires in the Middle East, I propose that we offer to pay reparations to any government or group that agrees to a cease fire. I call these payments reparations because we have been so instrumental in causing so many Middle Eastern conflicts. The reparations would come in the form of aid that could never be converted to military uses, things like schools, textbooks, hospital facilities, grain, agronomists and agricultural and manufacturing equipment. We should use our money not to destroy and kill, but to help countries advance economically and overcome sectarian differences.

Just as we are now friends with England, France, Germany, Japan and other former enemies, I don’t see why we can’t one day be friends with Iran and even ISIS, especially if we deliver a good dose of real economic and social aid. Those who shudder at the thought of an alliance with ISIS beheaders should compare the ISIS death count to that of Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and the conquest of Native Americans.

Another condition I would place on accepting American non-military aid is the recognition of Israel in the context of a two-state solution. Quite simply, to receive American aid, a country must accept the existence of both the Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state. I would apply this condition to Israel, too. If Israel wants to continue to receive U.S. support, it should begin to withdraw settlements from the occupied territory and enter serious negotiations about establishing a permanent Palestinian government. We’ve put up with their stiff-necked foot-dragging and mistreatment of the Palestinians long enough.

It’s time we admitted that while not the entire problem, U.S. military involvement creates enough complications that it makes settlement of civil and regional wars in the Middle East impossible until we leave the region.

Don’t let sensitivity to transsexuals’ cause lead to a redefinition of what it means to be a woman

All the time, I encounter companies that run into language problems trying to describe themselves. A company that produces 95% of its revenues from metal fabrication will broaden their mission statement to encompass business lines that might produce negligible revenue. When common sense suggests the corporation just say, “we fabricate metal parts,” an attorney or board member will protest, “but that leaves out that little software company we own that hasn’t turned a profit yet”; a short mission statement thus grows to several paragraphs. The most extreme example was when a wishy-washy Westinghouse wrote some 30 years ago that its mission was to create value for shareholders, which pretty much could apply to any public company.

It seems as if some of the thought police are now stuck in the same tarry mess—trying to redefine a large group to accommodate the traits of a very small part of it. I’m talking about certain supporters of those who feel that their true sex is not the one manifested by their physical sexual characteristics.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Elinor Burkett, a journalist and former professor of women’s studies, gave several examples of language police becoming upset when someone implied that you have to be a vagina to be a woman:

  • The wonderful actress Martha Plimpton was flamed on the Internet and by Michelle Goldberg in Nation for sending out a Tweet about a Texas benefit to raise money for abortions that was called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” People objected that Plimpton implied that the only way to be a woman is to have a vagina, which was “exclusionary and hurtful” to transsexual women.
  • Mount Holyoke College recently cancelled a performance of the groundbreaking “Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.”

Wait a minute! I’ve seen a variety of estimates on what percentage of the population is transsexual. The numbers are across the board, and the newer the study, the higher the final estimate seems to be. But I have seen no study that estimates the transsexual part of the population as more than .3% of the population, and I’ve seen other estimates that those assigned the male sex who think they are female total a miniscule .027% of the population, which computes to just one in every 3,639 assigned males who believes she is really a woman. This total, by the way, includes all the transsexuals who have had what they call “bottom surgery” and now have a vagina. The number of transsexuals without vaginas is smaller still, in fact, statistically insignificant.

It doesn’t make sense to change the definition of womanhood to accommodate such a small group of outliers. I don’t see that either the “Vagina Monologues” or cleverly stating that only vaginas can undergo an abortion shows disrespect to transsexuals. Whether one says the “Vagina Monologues” is about women or about women with vaginas is the most moot of points since it would not be such a popular play if it did not speak directly to the human experience of all of us, regardless of sexual predilection or orientation.

Transsexuals who have taken the meds and had the operations are women—and they have vaginas. Those who haven’t taken the leap are transsexuals. As transsexuals, they deserve all the rights and respect that we should give all minority groups and individuals in the United States. I support their efforts to lower society’s prejudice against transsexuals, to educate the public and to encourage those who are confronting the possibility that they are not the sex assigned to them. But an insistence on twisting basic definitions that we have accepted for millennia not only irritates the centrists whose natural conservatism sometimes impedes their ability to accept social change. It also upsets long-term feminists and other natural allies of transsexuals. There is nothing about saying that a woman has a vagina that should upset anyone or make anyone feel less of whatever sex they identify with.

The more insidious aspect of the current problem of defining “womanhood” is the idea that someone who has secondary male sexual traits is a woman because she thinks she’s a woman. It is not a false leap in logic from “she thinks she’s a woman” to “she thinks like a woman.” In fact, if we don’t make that leap, we invalidate the person assigned the wrong sex.

Defining a woman by how she thinks, however, gives considerable fire power to those who believe that women do not have the emotional or intellectual capacity for certain positions, such as president of the United States, because it admits that there are differences in how men and women think. Feminists find that they have to make the argument that those traits that distinguish males from females have nothing to do with what it takes to lead a country or corporation or conduct scientific research; those intellectual traits are shared equally by men and women. This approach invites a careful or careless trepanning of the mind into a series of thought processes, categorizing these thought processes as “shared” or “unshared,” and then analyzing each of these processes to determine if they help or hurt one’s ability to succeed as a professional. Of course, point of view will determine the results of the analysis, as some might find a greater willingness to negotiate fundamentally sound or a sign of weakness, depending on the perspective.

It quickly gets pretty messy. The complexity of the final argument is likely to confuse or distract people from the main idea, which is that women are equal to men in capabilities and should have equal opportunities and success in society and in the workplace. But with the question of male-female differences in thinking seemingly validated by the presence of one fraction of a percent of the population, the best argument against the idea that women are inferior intellectually may still remain the record of men botching up things whenever they have been in charge.

Predicting our future cultural vocabulary

There is no way to predict the content of our cultural vocabulary in a thousand years, although I imagine that a hundred years from now, the traditional part of it—Moses, Don Quixote, Abraham Lincoln, biblical and Shakespearean aphorisms—will mostly be intact. The more recently a cultural reference has entered our cultural vocabulary, however, the more likely it will disappear. It is likely we will remain loyal to Abraham and Faust, but perhaps not to J. R. Ewing and Stephen Hawking.

It’s also safe to predict that for the foreseeable future, cultural ephemera will appear and disappear at an in ever-increasing rate. There are just so many inputs to our cultural vocabulary nowadays, including advertisements, television shows, movies, pop music, celebrity culture and political scandals, in addition to works of high culture like serious drama, classical music, literary novels and scientific advances. The mixing of cultures adds to the inputs: African, Latin, Indian, Chinese and Japanese and other cultural references seep into any western culture much more readily and easily than during medieval times.

Beyond predicting the probable sources of change in our cultural vocabulary, we can’t say much about the future. For one thing, it’s possible that government and large organizations will exercise more social control in the future and freeze the development of our cultural vocabulary. Or perhaps somewhere today lives a woman or man destined to found a new religion and thus join Moses, Buddha, Mohhamad and Confucius as important religious figures with whom virtually every adult has familiarity. No one could have guessed in 600 CE that most people around the world would know something about Mohammad. Julius Caesar in 60 BCE was merely another scurrilous politician and the richest man in Rome, not the embodiment of empire and imperialism.

We can identify the processes by which our cultural vocabulary will evolve, but it’s impossible to predict what its actual contents will be in the future. In a thousand years, will audiences smile knowingly on hearing the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Will Odysseus still serve as a symbol of the clever and Isaac as a symbol of the pious? Will people still look at “Guernica” and say, “Yes, Picasso.

And what about Mean Joe Greene, Joe Isuzu and Mrs. Olsen? Will they still make people think of soda pop, automobiles and coffee in a thousand years? Will they have been reduced to their emotional essence and symbolize friendship, oily rascality and neighborliness? Or will they be as forgotten as Queen Blanche, Bertha of the Big Foot and the other ladies of times past whom the 16th century French poet Francois Villon compared to the snows of yesteryear?