Tuesday, March 27, 2012

American Individualism: That Dangerous Delusion

I begin this post with two discussions. First a discussion between a group of mothers who don't vaccinate their children and a Public Health official (watch it from 45 seconds to 3:56) :

The assumption that these mother's make is that whether or not they choose to vaccinate their children is their decision alone. The possible health risks to unvaccinated, at risk groups are irrelevant - in their minds - to that decision. They either refuse to believe that there are such risks, or refuse to believe that they have a responsibility to take these risks into account. Thinking in terms of the individual apart from the community, these mothers insist that their responsibility is to themselves and their children alone; others are, presumably, responsible solely for themselves in the same manner.

The Public health official protests that when we affect the community, we cannot help but affect ourselves. If we introduce illness into our society, our own risk of illness increases as well. If we don't help take care of each other, we cannot even take care of ourselves.

The second discussion I heard today on NPR. The Supreme court is currently discussing the Constitutionality of "Obamacare." Specifically, the court is hearing arguments to rule on whether the individual mandate - which requires Americans to buy insurance or pay a fee - is permissible according to the Constitution. Whatever the fate of that particular position, some of the arguments against it put forward by the conservative Justices have a particular flavor. Listen to the following:

NPR: Health Care Mandate before Supreme Court

And this:

NPR: For and Against the Health Care Mandate

Just as the mothers did in the first clip, the Justices appeal to the individual first and foremost. The claim is that we cannot require this or that individual to "bear the costs" of other individuals, and that to do so eliminates (or at least greatly diminishes) their freedom of choice.

The opposition to these Justices argues in much the same vein as the Public Health Official in the Vaccine discussion did. Health care decisions never affect me solely as an individual, what happens to me directly affects what happens to others. If I don't get health insurance, and I am rushed to the ER for a heart attack, the hospital must treat me. When I can't pay, they must raise prices, insurance responds by raising premiums, and State Governments by raising taxes. To think of health insurance as nothing but an individual choice without any communal impact is not only naive, but entirely fails to consider the facts.

Behind the reaction of both the Justices and the mothers is the myth of the self-made individual. The myth holds, in spite of common sense, that whatever happens to me in life is the result primarily (perhaps even solely) of my own effort and achievement. If I get sick, that's my fault. If I'm not rich, I did not work hard enough. If I lose my home, can't afford chemotherapy, or find myself buried in debt, then I have no one to blame but me. Even worse, this myth seems clearly to advocate the position that the responsibility I have to others is negative; that is, I must not steal from them, murder them, or physically assault them, but I owe them nothing more than that.

The myth of the self-made individual is sheer nonsense.

We all owe a great debt to others for who we are and what we have achieved. We were taught to walk, talk, and even use the toilet by parents (or some caretaker). We were taught to read, write, and do arithmetic by teachers. Our character, personality, loves, likes, hates, preferences, values, and even our talents, are shaped to large degree by coaches, employers, coworkers, teammates, friends, lovers, and even casual acquaintanceships.

We are who we are because we are related to and interconnected with other people, other members of our communities.

But it's more than that. We are not little islands roving about an vast expanse of sea. What we do affects our society, and that society affects us. If we support policies that cut funding to education, cut aid to those living in poverty, dump people into prison for non-violent crimes, and fail to acknowledge the divisions of race and class that rip our society asunder, then we will be hurt by living in a less content, more violent, and less cooperative society. What we do or fail to do for our society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

In economics the myth of the self-made individual is all too well known. Many of the super rich and their supporters argue that they must not be taxed at higher rates than the rest of us. They claim that to do so is nothing short of stealing what they rightly own.

Behind this idea is the assumption that wealthy people are solely responsible for their wealth. The help and assistance that they have received from others is marginal and negligible. They see themselves as "self-made" heroes whose hard work and intelligence has earned them their success.

The fact that many of these so-called "self-made" individuals were born wealthy, received government loans, grants, and other funding, use public roads, rely on employees who are publicly educated, depend on consumer protection laws, police, fire fighters, and other public services is not taken into account.

Furthermore, that how much money one earns depends on arbitrary factors - like being born with certain natural talents rather than others, being born in a time period in which one's talents pay off, and having one's talents, somewhat randomly favored by society - is never recognized by these self-professed heroes and their allies.

That a professional athlete, or a hedge fund manager, is paid so much more than an elementary school teacher, or a nurse, is simply a matter of the way society structures its economy; not a result of how hard these individuals work, or the result of some moral worth or inherent greatness that they posses.

We have to start thinking of ourselves as related to others, not merely encountering them like passing ships in the night. We are a community, not a collection of atomistic egos. What we do or fail to do for the broader society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin

This Picture of me in a hoodie is my expression of Solidarity with the family of tragically slain teen Trayvon Martin. Many of us in America support justice for this poor kid and our hearts go out to his family. All too often young black men are killed because of "mistaken identity" or just plain racism, and it is shamefully common for their killers to escape any punishment for their crimes.

If you don't yet know much about the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, Here is the tragic tale as reported by Mother Jones Magazine (if you click on the link you can see updates, comments, video and audio):
On the evening of February 26, Trayvon Martin—an unarmed 17-year-old African American student—was confronted, shot, and killed near his home by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime. Since Martin's death and the revelation of more details, the case has drawn national outcry and sparked hot debate over racial tensions, vigilantism, police practices, and gun laws.

What happened to Trayvon?

Martin, a Miami native, was visiting his father in Sanford and watching the NBA All-Star game at a house in a gated Sanford community, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. At halftime, Martin walked out to the nearby 7-Eleven [1] to get some Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. On his return trip, he drew the attention of Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in a sport-utility vehicle and called 911 to report "a real suspicious guy."

After discussing his location with the dispatcher, Zimmerman exclaimed, "Shit he's running," and the following sounds suggest he left his vehicle to run after Martin."This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. "It's raining, and he's just walking around looking about." The man tried to explain where he was. "Now he's coming towards me. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male...Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is...These assholes, they always get away."

"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asked. Zimmerman replied: "Yep."

"Okay, we don't need you to do that," the dispatcher warned.

Several minutes later, according to other callers to 911 in the neighborhood, Zimmerman and Martin got into a wrestling match on the ground. One of the pair could be heard screaming for help. Then a single shot rang out, and Martin lay dead.

Are the 911 recordings available to the public?

Yes. After public pressure, the city of Sanford played the tapes for Martin's family, then released the audio recordings. Here are some excerpts. You can also read a full transcript of George Zimmerman's initial police call here, along with an examination of whether he used a racial epithet, as some listeners have suggested.

What happened to the shooter?

So far, not much. Zimmerman told police he'd acted in self-defense. ABC News reports [8] that he had wanted to be a police officer, and Sanford police didn't test him for drugs or alcohol after the shooting (such tests are standard practice in homicide investigations). He was licensed to carry his gun, and police initially told Martin's father [9] that they hadn't pressed charges because Zimmerman was a criminal justice student with a "squeaky clean" record.

That wasn't entirely true, however; in 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for "resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer"; those charges were dropped. Media investigations and Martin family attorneys suggest [1] that Zimmerman was a vigilante with "a false sense of authority" in search of young black men in his neighborhood. Police records show Zimmerman had called 911 a total of 46 times [1] between Jan. 1 and the day he shot Martin. (Florida guidelines for licensed gun owners [10] state: "A license to carry a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman.")

How are Florida's self-defense and "stand your ground" laws key to this case?

Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida's concealed-carry provision into law, which "liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits," according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting "shall-issue [11]" statute triggered a wave [12] of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time [13] that Florida would become "Dodge City.") Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period [14] on handgun purchases.

Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel[15] found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law [16] permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers' wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill [17] after his close friend's daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.

Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad "stand your ground [18]" law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have "a duty to retreat" before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said [19]: "Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property."

As Melissa Harris-Perry has noted this kind of tragic killing of young black men is all too common. And sadly, it is almost equally as common that their killers go unpunished. This is simply intolerable. We have to take a stand and stop this. Let's make the world a more just place, let's fight to end tragedies like that of Trayvon Martion

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sign the Petition to Forgive Student Loan Debt

The Following email explains it all and tells you where to sign the petition. This is a crucial issue. Student loan debt is unfair and crippling. Something must be done to protect education as a public good!
Since 1980, average tuition for a 4-year college education has increased an astounding 827%. Since 1999, average student loan debt has increased by a shameful 511%.

In 2010, total outstanding student loan debt exceeded total outstanding credit card debt in America for the first time ever. In 2012, total outstanding student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 Trillion.

In short, student loan debt has become the latest financial crisis in America and, if we do absolutely nothing, the entire economy will eventually come crashing down again, just as it did when the housing bubble popped. Reasonable minds can disagree as to the solutions, they cannot, however, disagree on the existence of this ever-growing crisis, as well as the unsustainable course we're on towards financial oblivion.

As a result of more than 30 years of treating higher education as an individual commodity, rather than a public good and an investment in our collective future, those burie d under the weight of their student loan debt are not buying homes or cars, not starting businesses or families, and they're not investing, inventing, innovating or otherwise engaged in any of the economically stimulative activities that we need all Americans to be engaged in if we're ever to dig ourselves out of the giant hole created by the greed of those at the very top.

Now for the good news: there's finally hope on the horizon! Representative Hansen Clarke of Michigan has just introduced H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, in the House of Representatives - legislation designed to lend a helping hand to those struggling under massive amounts of student loan debt.

For a brief summary of H.R. 4170's main provisions, please copy & paste this URL into your browser: http://tinyurl.com/7akydbk

To read the full version of the actual bill itself, please go here: http://tinyurl.com/6txure8

To read answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, please go here: http://tinyurl.com/8xh4csd

Student loan debt has an undeniable and significant suppressive effect on economic growth. The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 directly addresses this enormous boot on the neck of the middle class and represents a glimmer of hope for millions of Americans who, with each passing day, find that the American Dream is more and more out of reach.

Therefore, we, the undersigned, respectfully request that Congress bring H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, up for consideration and commit to holding a straight, up-or-down vote on it this year. Thereafter, we, the undersigned, respectfully request that President Obama sign this legislation into law.

That's why I signed a petition to Rep. John Kline (MN-2), The United States House of Representatives, The United States Senate, and President Barack Obama, which says:

"Total outstanding student loan debt in America is expected to exceed $1 TRILLION this year. Millions of hardworking, taxpaying, educated Americans are being crushed under the weight of their educational debts, while the economy continues to sputter. Support a REAL economic stimulus and jobs plan. Support the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 (H.R. 4170)."

Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:



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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Morals, Taxes, and the Welfare State

There are two primary types of arguments offered to support the Right-Wing agenda of deregulation, cuts to social welfare programs, and tax cuts for the wealthy. The first type of argument is consequentialist. Advocates of this approach claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy, deregulating markets, and slashing social welfare programs are better for everyone. These moves will, they argue, make us all wealthier.

This is line of argument is absolutely false. The empirical data is unequivocal: the Right-Wing economic agenda benefits the very wealthy only. Wealth never trickles down, deregulation never helps main street, cuts to social welfare programs never help the unemployed and working poor. These policies have been implemented since the late 1970s, and all that has happened is that poverty has increased, middle class and working people have seen no rise in income, but have lost their pensions, their health insurance, and become buried in debt. Fewer and fewer people can own a home, send their kids to college, or pay their medical bills.

The consequentialist arguments are demonstrably, empirically, and indubitably wrong.

The second kind of argument is a moral one. The following video clip of Fox News' Stuart Varney provides a good example:

According to Varney and those who think like him, it is immoral to take more from the rich. They are entitled to what they have earned, and they are better off than the rest of us because they "worked harder" and "made themselves."

There are several problems with this type of argument:

1) The wealthy have not, as a class, worked harder than anyone else. That's just plain false. Working class people often work themselves to exhaustion and even death, and wealthy people sometimes can go years without breaking a sweat. No economic class, as a group, is divided from others on the basis of how hard they have worked.

2) There are no self-made individuals. In point of fact, there is a great deal of empirical evidence that persuasively demonstrates that, in nearly every case, the very wealthy have become so with the help of (a) being born and raised with wealth and privilege and (b) the assistance of government services and subsidies - usually more so than the rest of us. Or, as Elizabeth Warren nicely sums up in the following video:

Finally, 3), as John Rawls persuasively argues, to claim that one morally deserves X one must demonstrate that one has earned X chiefly through one's own moral or individual efforts. But this is simply not possible in the case of wealth. How much personal wealth one accrues depends on a number of arbitrary factors. First, and most importantly, wealth is often a mere accident of birth, some of us are born more or less fortunate than others. Second, often our income level is determined by our natural talents. But, although we can develop these, we cannot create them. If I do not have a talent that can earn me a great deal of money, then I will not earn a great deal of money. Third, which talents pay best is based on the arbitrary preferences of society. In our society talk show hosts and professional athletes make millions, whereas school teachers make, on average, 43,000 a year. Does a talk show host, say Oprah Winfrey, deserve to be extremely wealthy in some moral sense that a teacher does not? Hardly. The difference between her wealth and theirs depends on the arbitrary whim of society. It is, therefore, not reasonable to claim that the wealthy are morally wronged if they are taxed at higher rates than those who earn less.

The moral arguments for the Right-Wing agenda fail, just as the consequentialist arguments did.

Now turning from the Right-Wing agenda to the Progressive one, can a good case be made for the Progressive agenda of high taxes on the wealthy, strong social safety nets, and powerful government spending on the public good? Yes they can.

On consequentialist grounds the Progressive agenda is clearly a good idea. Imagine the reduction in crime if far fewer Americans lived in poverty, were well-educated, had good jobs, nice retirement plans, and access to affordable quality health care! Imagine how much better the United States would compete in the world if our schools were properly funded - not to mention the moral satisfaction in being sure that our society provides for those who are suffering, who are down and out.

Furthermore, the most prosperous time in our nation's history was the period after WWII into the mid to late 70s. During that time our income inequality was at it's lowest, unions were at their strongest, regulations at their most intense, and taxes on the wealthiest 1% of income earners was never below 70%. Coincidence? If so, then explain the fact that this boom did not exist before these policies, and failed to exist afterward. Explain the occurrence of the same trends in Europe.

More importantly, however, is the moral case for a strong welfare state. As a society we need food stamps and unemployment insurance for those who are poor, health care for all, good public schools, good public roads, parks, libraries, and community centers. We need all of these because our society is a healthier, happier, safer, and much better place when we have them in all their strength. Even those who are wealthy enough to get by with their private schools, gated communities, and personal Islands, are safer and more secure in a society where those around them benefit from good social services and programs.

Consider an analogy: Vaccines prevent deadly diseases. Not everyone, however, can be vaccinated for every disease. The elderly, the very young, some people with chronic illness or disabilities, cannot take certain vaccines. In a population where the vast majority of people are vaccinated, this is not a problem. Those who cannot be vaccinated are protected by what is known as herd immunity. Because so many people are vaccinated, the feared disease cannot enter the population and the unvaccinated persons are safe. Having myself or my child vaccinated, in other words, is not merely of benefit to me and my child, but is a public good, from which we all benefit. A community without measles or polio is much better off than a community with these dangers.

Unfortunately an increasing number of parents refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents fear that vaccines are dangerous and may even cause autism. Science has conclusively refuted these fears. Many parents, however, refuse to believe the scientific community and don't vaccinate any way. The result is that diseases like whooping cough and measles have returned. The unvaccinated have suffered because of this, often even dying as a result.

The Right-Wing agenda for economics is as irrational and as dangerous as parents who won't vaccinate their children. Because an increasing number of Americans have come to believe over the last 35 years or so - in spite of the empirical facts! - that the wealthy both morally deserve all their wealth and will benefit the rest of us by keeping it (and getting more), we have seen our social welfare programs slashed, our public services eviscerated, our social contract torn to shreds.

The result is a less educated, less secure, less healthy, more impoverished, and increasingly divided society. This is a recipe for total disaster that can, in the end, finish only with widespread rebellion, despair, and disaster.

We must now either wake up to the failure of the Right-Wing economic agenda, or watch things get much worse.

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