Monday, March 30, 2015

Senate Budget Votes

Last week the US Senate voted on S Con Res 11, the Republican drafted budget for fiscal years
2016-2025, plus a number of amendments to that bill.  Of course, this is not the final budget for those years, as it would need House review and Presidential agreement, but it certainly reflects the current thinking of those elected to this Senate, specifically the Republicans who drafted the bill.

The main bill which passed 52-46 (I guess no need for 60 votes for this kind of bill), included the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, increased military spending, decreased spending on entitlements and domestic programs, a prohibition on tax increases, converting Medicaid and food stamps to state-run block-grant programs, and required an unspecified reform of the tax code.   Not sure why they think the American public still supports spending more money on overseas conflicts and less on our crumbling infrastructure, poverty among working class Americans, and the stagnation of the income and buying power of the middle class, but perhaps the Fox media propaganda machine's ability to inflate the threat of whatever foreign evil they pick for that week actually works in Washington.

One interesting amendment would have enabled the 30-40 million students with interest rates in the 6-7% range to refinance to a more reasonable rate.  While I am sure that most Senators would have liked to pass that amendment, it was to be paid for by a tax on those with at least $1 million in income from salaries and/or investments.  I imagine that the 53 Senators who voted against this, felt that the newest generation of college graduates earning $20-100K per year didn't need the break as much as those earning $20-100K per week.

Another interesting vote adopted an amendment ensuring that all legally married same sex spouses would have access to spousal social security and VA benefits, even if their state of residence did not recognize same sex unions.  Not sure why the 43 Senators who voted against thought that the most loved people of the elderly and men and women who risked their lives for our country didn't deserve such consideration, but I assume their religious beliefs had something to do with it, although I imagine those beliefs do not include the lessons involving "do unto others..".

No surprise that the Senate voted to give the Republican approved budget the authority to prohibit federal taxation of carbon emissions.  I imagine the 58 Senators who voted for that believe that it is OK for the coal and fossil fuel industries to pollute our environment as long as they provide jobs that eventually kill the employees, and contribute large quantities of funds for said Senators election campaigns.

One slightly surprising vote concerned road repairs.  A Democratic amendment sought to allocate $478 billion over the 10 years to road and bridge repairs.  Frankly, I haven't heard anyone, Democratic or Republican, that hasn't admitted that our infrastructure needs major league attention, and fast.  Ah, but how to pay for it?  The defeated amendment, 52-45, would have offset the increased spending by eliminating certain corporate taxes.  Perhaps, since so many of those big corporations have headquarters and offices overseas, they managed to convince those 52 public servants who voted against the plan that they don't use the roads and bridges of America so they don't need to participate in the repair and maintenance. 

In essence, it appears that the current edition of the US Senate, continues to absolve the fossil fuel industry from its involvement in the changing climate and its responsibility to participate in the solution to this problem, values the profits of corporations over the standard if living of the middle class, thinks there religion grants them an excuse for discrimination, and prefers spending obscene amounts of money fighting the devil du jour rather than improving the financial and physical states of the everyday Americans they were elected to serve.

Sadly, the good news is that the Senate budget and votes seem sane compared to the lunacy passed in the House where a 10-year plan that seeks a balanced budget that not only rules out tax increases, but offers additional tax decreases along with massive spending cuts, details of which will be decided in the various House committees and involve literally trillions of dollars.  Yea, like that is a good, solid, specifics laden plan.  The really maddening, craziness of this "plan" is that the House Republicans probably applauded themselves after passing it, as if they actually did something useful.  


Sunday, March 29, 2015

More on Swindle and Fraud

A few more thoughts as I read the spring edition of Laphams.

An essay from PT Barnum's Humbugs of the World, addressed the topic of the wide variety and seemingly endless supply of humbugs, Barnum's word for all those schemes and deceits that have been perpetuated on men by their fellow men.  From religion to medicine, business to literature, he cites example after example of ways in which men gain power, money and fame through trickery.  But, at the end, his final example, the biggest humbug of all, he saves for the "man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs." 

It is his opinion that while certainly there are schemers, plotters, and tricksters among us, and that some of the more successful of humans are those who have schemed, plotted and tricked better than most, it is the utmost fool who sees and expects the worst in everyone, sees wolves behind every tree, and casts doubt upon every plan and invention put forth by his fellow man. 

And this from a man who made his fame by rounding up all manner of the odd shaped, then embellished those unusual characteristics to create a circus of the macabre, all the while collecting money from those who preferred to believe the exaggerations.  It is as if he looked in the mirror, recognized the fake for who he was, but also believed that without the goodness of men, those like him would have no platform upon which to succeed.

What also strikes me about this essay, is that Barnum calls himself out, but also separates himself from those who pretend to believe in the evil of men, and those who actually believe.  I fear the former more than the latter, as the former know the truth but use the continuation of the lie to further his agenda, while latter may some day learn the truth and perhaps alter his perceptions.  Sorry to point a finger here, but it reminds me of the so successful Fox propaganda machine that is controlled by people who are certainly smarter than the fiction disguised as news that they propagate, but purposefully hire those who do actually believe some of the nonsense, mixed with those that know the power of the lies and choose to perpetuate them for their own benefit. 

Another interesting thought came to me from an excerpt from The Secrets of the Great City, by James Dabney McCabe in which is described (2) methods of robbery employed by street walkers and an associate.  In the first, a girl brings a john to an apartment which has a fake wall with a sliding panel.  The pigeon's clothes are placed on a chair near the wall, and while the man is otherwise occupied, the associate slides open the panel and rifles his clothes for valuables.  The second method involves the street walker asking for the money up front, but before the act can be begun, her "husband" arrives home unexpectedly.  The poor girl begs the john to leave by a side exit promising to fulfill her side of the transaction the next night.  Of course, that meeting never happens. 

Each has their advantages.  The second scheme saves the girl some energy, but she must now avoid that victim in the future so it limits her opportunity for standard business going forward.  The first plan allows for future transactions, but probably not a future robbery.

Expanding that analogy, I imagine that the real experts at fooling mankind, have multiple level plans to address the various level of fools that they must victimize.  Those that can be fooled only once, must be approached differently than those who can be fooled over and over again.  When I see the same phrase used by various pundits to describe the same false perception, I wonder if they are addressing the first type or second.  Is it enough to repeat a lie over and over again to make it be true, or do you need a willing ear to believe it as well?  And, can you prime that ear enough, give it just enough small truths so that when the big lie is stated, it is unrecognized by that trained (or untrained) ear?

Ah, yes, indoctrination.

The process by which we are all trained to accept myths and half truths as facts.  Trained by our parents, our religion, our country.  Trained for our own good, trained to protect us, trained to keep us on the path that will lead to our happiness.

But this excerpt from "Secrets.." also inspired this thought.  While reporting on violence, mayhem and wrongdoing seem the basis for so much of our news, the reality is that crime has decreased in America.  Especially violent crime.  Of course, this could be a blip, and could be attributed statistically to any number of causes, but (as I have said before) I believe it is due to the continuing evolution of mankind's spiritual nature.   But what if crime is down because people who historically had to turn to crime, the poor, the homeless, the shunned, now have a modicum of security through the various social nets that have been created in the last 60 years?

Social security, medicare, welfare, unemployment, disability income, etc, are frequently portrayed as examples of the nanny state where people are no longer required to fend for themselves.  Cradle to grave security which suppresses creativity, persistence, self reliance.  Is that the yin and yang of those programs?  Less crime, less violence, less desperate acts, to the detriment of strength of character, self motivation, independence?

Survival of the fittest sounds good, makes a great sound bite, but what about those that are less fit?  And do we all not experience states of less fit multiple times throughout our lives?  Infancy?  Sickness?  Accident?  Old Age?  It is easy to scoff at death when one is 24 with perfect abs and a clean colon, but that time is fleeting.      

When I first saw the title Swindle and Fraud, on this edition of Laphams' Quarterly, I thought it was a strange choice.  Now that I am reading it, I find it one on the most interesting and thought provoking topics yet chosen.     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fraud, Swindle and Truth

Last week I found myself out of reading material.  I had finished the March editions of National Geographic and Smithsonian, and mentioned in a previous post that I had completed the Winter 2014 Laphams quarterly.  And, of course, I had finally published An Atheist for Christ, which was the project I had hoped to complete via my built up vacation days from work.  Fortunately, the Lapham spring 2015 edition arrived in the mail.  Good timing, good topic; Swindle and Fraud.

About 30 pages in, I encountered The Importance of Being Deceptive, taken from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.  I would imagine that most people have heard of Machiavelli although he is probably also one of those writers that many people think they "know", but have not actually read.  I include myself in that statement, as I do not recall ever reading The Prince, but have described various people and/or policies as Machiavellian.  So, spent a few minutes on Wikipedia reading about the man; for those also curious, here is a link.

I imagine that most people, were they to be asked if Machiavelli was a good person or bad person, might assume the worst based on their understandings of, and the connotations associated with, the term based on his last name.  It may surprise many people then, when they read that he was an historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher and humanist.  That he is considered one of the founders of modern political science, more specifically political ethics.  And, that he also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry.  In short, he was an accomplished, erudite thinker, and exerted much influence in early 16th century Florentine, which means therefore, he was an important figure during the Renaissance.  

That his greatest work, which includes his views on the importance of a strong ruler who is not afraid to be harsh with his subjects and enemies and less truthful than wise, may be more a result of his living during the time of strong but warring Italian city-states which were vulnerable to the other unified nation states, particularly France.

In other words, his philosophy was as much influenced by his place in time as his personal beliefs.

So far, I have only read about a quarter of Laphams Swindle and Fraud edition but I am beginning to see a pattern.  Regardless of the time, 1200 BC Troy or Rome, 16th century Florentine or London, or 20th century Nuremburg or New York, there have always been those who use fraud and deception to gain power, fame and riches, for, as it was so notably quoted, "there has never been a shortage of sheep to be fleeced".

(Note here.  If indeed, there have always been a subset of men who spend their days looking for pigeons, always finding them with ease, doesn't that mean that most men therefore are honest?  And isn't that a good thing?)

Today as I was walking the dog, I wondered what Machiavelli might think of the United States of America today.  Would he nod approvingly? 

Is not our entire advertisement industry based on deceit?   What product or service is not touted as the best?  And the pharmaceutical industry has created a whole new category of advertisement deceit in which they invent a disease, create a pill, then, via small print or an overdubbed voice tell you that their product might kill you.  All the while showing happy people who have been cured.

Politics?  Just today I saw a 2016 presidential candidate announce that he will be shopping for his health care insurance via the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the day after he proclaimed that if elected president he would repeal every single aspect of said act.  He is not above taking part when it suits him, nor is he troubled by castigating it when talking to his base.

Perception is the most important thing, substance a distant second, if that.  Obama is a socialist whose policies will wreck the American economy.  You can hear someone saying it on Fox and in many American homes every day.  Yet, since the peak of the recession, say around 2010, the US economy has not only rebounded, but it may be argued is as strong as any, in the world.  Unemployment is under 6%.  The stock market flirts at record highs every other week.  Corporation war chests are bursting with cash.  And, even better (or most likely even worse), the 1% have continued to realize a bigger portion of the pie than ever. 

The rich people club of America could not have written a better script; paint the president as anti-business, label equal pay for equal work, and higher minimum wage proposals as socialist, weaken unions, and allow jobs and assets to be sent offshore where lower wages, and taxes can double and triple profits.  And, oh yes, encourage the GOP to continue tossing out losing presidential tickets and far right candidates with limited agendas and intelligence, so that the rich can continue to feed the lie that big government is the enemy. 

At this point, one has to wonder if truth is even possible.  Would we buy a product that advertises that it is as good as the rest?  Or that it is cheaper because it is not quite as good?  Would we vote for a candidate that tells us that we can't be the world's policeman, without expecting blowback from those that we kill and displace?  Or a candidate that tells us that we can't pay for the benefits we expect without paying our fair share of taxes? 

Is the truth, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

If so, then Machiavelli it is!!




Sunday, March 1, 2015


Past readers of my blog know that I began the Winter edition of Lapham's Quarterly, entitled Foreigners, about a month ago.  Today I finished reading it.  In light of the fuss over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I thought it relevant to post about immigration and our current perception of "foreigners".

First, as I have said so often, the Lapham's quarterlies offer a wonderful collection of essays and perspective on a given topic.  In this edition, comments about foreigners from the vantage point of encounters, customs and hostilities were presented.  Additionally, as history is so often written by the victors, Lapham's attempts to bring light to those whose side did not win the day.  An essay from the perspective of an Indian during the century of their losing their birthright, thoughts from a woman on trial for daring to vote, or the point of view of any of the countless (and usually nameless) victims of the various land, resource, and power grabs that occurred over the centuries by those who conquered  "new" lands to the detriment of those who already lived there. 

Second, compilations like Laphams reminds us that we are all descended from immigrants, and that the majority of those outraged by the influx of immigrants today, are the progeny of immigrants similarly degraded and spat upon yesterday, who themselves were considered as foreigners by those who resided in the land when they first arrived.  Unfortunately, rather than treating those that migrate today as we would have liked to be treated, we tend to view them with suspicion and fear.

And, as understanding promotes tolerance and acceptance, fear promotes intolerance and rejection.

So it appears that despite the great strides mankind has made in our perception of those different from us, we experience situations like that which transpired in the United States Congress this past week.
On one side is a party who feeds the fear and biases of its base who have been told over and over again about the evils of those from a different country, or who believe in a different religion.  A party which is supported by a media outlet that blithely declares we are involved in a religious war.  A mindset that labels everything they disagree with as unpatriotic or anti-American, even when an opinion contrary to theirs is presented by other Americans, especially when that American is a president that they despise. 

"How can we face those who voted for us in November", began a current US Senator, "those who voted for us to fight the recent executive decisions on immigration by the president, when we have failed to overturn those decisions".  Perhaps the honorable Senator from Pennsylvania should have explained to his constituents, those whose fears he chose to inflame rather than calm, that actually removing the 10 million or more illegal immigrants from our country is not only not possible but will require huge sums of money to even attempt.  That the president's decision to act unilaterally was necessary precisely because Congress prefers to ignore the facts of the situation, preferring instead to get elected by pandering to an electorate that loves to rail against an overreaching government but fails to see that it would take an even more intrusive government to root out and find the 3% of our population that is here without documentation.  That the best way to make Americans out of those without validity, is to include them in the benefits of America, not exclude them simply because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary national border.

But I digress.

What is truly funny (in a sad way) is that in the battle for funding for DHS, the fear of ISIS was stronger that the fear of illegal immigrants, so republicans were forced to backtrack from their plan to allow funding to expire unless Obama's executive decisions were overturned.  It makes one wonder if those at Fox who have elevated ISIS to the level of a global threat to our very existence, realize how that hype contributed to the failure of the republicans to overturn the president's executive orders.  It also makes one wonder when the next "most evil" group will be presented to us by Fox so that ISIS can be dropped down a notch or two.

Who knows, maybe Fox will turn its spotlight of righteousness onto the employers who hire all the illegals, thereby giving them a reason to cross the border, and, just coincidentally, allowing those employers to save on labor expenses and avoid paying certain taxes.

In the end, let us hope that intelligent compilations like that which I have just read, attempts to bring sanity to the topic of foreigners, immigrants, and those different from us, will lead us to realize that being a native or a foreigner is all a matter of geography.  And that if we would want to be treated with respect when we find ourselves out of country or out of our element, perhaps we should do the same for those who enter our own domain.