Another open letter to my senator, Mitch McConnell

I’ve tried repeatedly to phone my senator, but his phone never answers and his voicemail box is conveniently full.  I’ve also tried the contact form on his web page, but his responses fail the Turning Test.  I’ve been told that physical letters have more impact, so I’m mailing this tomorrow.  I am not, alas, overly optimistic that it will actually be read either.  So that maybe another human being will read some of this and give me a rational comment in response, I’m posting it here.  Besides, this blog needs more recent content!

Senator Mitch McConnell

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

 

Dear Senator:

I’ll try to state the main points quickly, since I doubt any human being is going to bother reading this anyway. Your answers to my previous calls and e-mails have been so off-target that I know no one bothers to read past the subject line. But I’m told that physical letters get a bit more attention, so I’ll try again.

I’ll give the conclusion first, and then the proofs leading up to it. This tax cut is a scam. It will raise my taxes, perhaps not this year but certainly in ten. However, tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires, like you, your donors and Trump, are made permanent. You promised and still promise to give the middle-class and poor people a “big, beautiful tax cut,” and even say that you’re raising taxes on the rich. That is a lie, but you can make it the truth. Make the tax cuts for corporations and for the super-rich temporary, as you propose to do for the middle-class. Make the tax cuts for the middle class and poor permanent. The numbers that you have deigned to release suggest that you could do this easily, since the amounts you wish to raise from the middle class by abolishing their tax cuts match the money you wish to give away to the super-rich. You say that you need the ability to take the cuts back from the middle class if giving huge breaks to the rich doesn’t jump-start the economy. That’s insane. Instead, you should make the rich prove that having these big, beautiful tax cuts will encourage them to create jobs. If the economy tanks, they’ll have shown they don’t deserve or need tax cuts to stimulate the economy since it grew for over eight years without the cuts, but they’re still rich so they have enough money and to spare. This would go a long way towards convincing people that the GOP cares about its voters, and not only its donors.

Now for some backing for this suggestion. After eight years of hypocritical whining about how terrible it was that President Obama and the Democrats had passed a health-care bill without any Republican votes (though incorporating Republican ideas and soliciting Republican input throughout the process), your party rammed through a tax reform plan with less popular support, not even a pretense of seeking bipartisan input, and with so little discussion that few if any of the people who voted for it had any idea what it said. You said the ACA was rushed, but it was discussed in committees and debated publicly for nearly a year. Your tax plan was rushed through in about two months. During this time, the government has moved closer to a shutdown; but rather than deal with that first and work on tax reform for a year, you chose to ram through an ill-conceived tax cut for the wealthy. The CHIP program was allowed to expire; but rather than deal with insurance for sick children, some of whom may die, you felt it was more urgent to cut taxes on corporations so they could create jobs when we have extremely low unemployment rates already. I suppose some of the nurses who get laid off due to the loss of funding for children’s health can get jobs as gravediggers. Economists tell us that ending DACA could cost the U.S. economy $280 billion dollars (see http://fortune.com/2017/09/05/daca-donald-trump-economic-impact/), but you thought it was more urgent that we cut taxes to corporations when the CEOs tell us bluntly that most likely they will not invest the money in job growth, but use it for stock buybacks, dividends and executive bonuses. You are relying on economic theories and predictive models used by Gov. Brownback in his disastrous experiment with the Kansas state economy, which led to reduced economic growth and massive deficits. Kansas can survive because it is part of a United States that is generally doing better economically; in particular, New York and California pay in far more to the Federal government than do most “red states” like Mississippi, Alabama or our own home state, Kentucky (see https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/). If you do to the nation what your party did to Kansas, the nation might not survive. In fact, it seems unlikely that the world economy could survive.

I understand that conservatives want to reduce taxation on general principle. I am in favor of sound, frugal economic policy. What the GOP is proposing is not that. You say this is a middle-class tax cut, but anyone who can read knows this is another of your “alternative facts.” In the real world, this is a middle-class tax hike, giving people like me a few dollars now only to yank it away just as I will be needing to retire. It is a major tax cut for the wealthy and for corporations. That is why the tax cuts for the poor and middle class, if they get them at all, will disappear in a few years, while tax cuts for the super-wealthy and for corporations are permanent no matter how badly the economy does in the future.

Rather than simply be negative, please let me offer the following suggestion: Reverse your priorities. Make the tax cuts for corporations temporary, tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires temporary, and the tax cuts for the middle class permanent. Instead of eliminating deductions that middle-class and poor people need, like the tax deduction for medical expenses, keep them, and cut tax deductions for private jets, for golf courses and other things that only benefit Donald Trump and other billionaires. Right now, you are proposing cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest sliver of the American population by shifting more of those expenses onto the poor and the middle-class. You say that doesn’t matter, because we’ll have so much economic growth that we’ll be able to renew the tax cuts for the middle-class when they are set to expire. If that is true, then why not just reverse that reasoning? If, as Republican economic theorists claim, the economy grows in ten years, we could renew the tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy at that time; so schedule those cuts to end in ten years. Let the tax cuts for working people be the ones that are permanent. Show that you care about voters, not just donors.

Also, you claim we need tax reform because you want to simplify the process of paying taxes by reducing the number of brackets. That is absurd. If you really want to make it easier for us to pay our taxes, let the IRS send out a bill (see https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/16/technology/personaltech/turbotax-or-irs-as-tax-preparer-intuit-has-a-favorite.html). The government has our tax information already. The only reason the task of calculating our taxes is thrust upon us is because lobbyists for the finance industry have paid you and your colleagues to keep both the taxpayer and the IRS doing the same job of computing our taxes, so we’ll have to keep paying Intuit, H&R Block and others to help us with our taxes. If the government handled our taxes the way most other nations do theirs, we could reduce fraud as well as anxiety for millions of people. Right now, paying taxes is like trying to pay for a meal at a restaurant without seeing the bill, and getting punished if our numbers don’t match what the waiter says we ordered. I suggest instead that you, the waiter, hand us the bill, and if we need to dispute part of it we can deal with that.

When I was in college, Republicans were the party of hope, of international engagement, of moral principles, of sound, clear-eyed economic realism, and above all of patriotism. I didn’t always agree with Republican positions, but most of my best friends were Republicans or Libertarian. The conservatives I knew were able and willing to discuss evidence and to debate rationally. That Republican party is dead, and you, sir, are one of its murderers. As Bobby Jindal famously said, the Republicans have become “the Stupid Party.” My Libertarian friend once debated an avowed Communist who claimed Marxism was the only “fair” system. He replied simple, “But Robert, it doesn’t work.” Kansas is just one of several Republican states, as well as some nations, that have tried to apply the theories of Laffer and Ayn Rand. Those policies have failed, and hurt a lot of people, although the rich like you may not have noticed (see https://qz.com/895785/laffer-curve-everything-trump-and-republicans-get-wrong-about-trickle-down-economics-and-reaganomics/ and https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously). Instead of being the realistic party facing down dewy-eyed, empty-headed idealists, you continue to push policies that have brought corporations, states and even nations to the edge of ruin. You are the party of dewy-eyed, suicidally-devout fanatics The party of Reagan would not do this. Regan worked for years on tax reform, talking across the aisle, allowing Congressional committees to do their work, and so on. And when the policies didn’t work and deficits ballooned, despite the reassurances of the Hayek-Laffer school, he backed off instead of doubling down. I say to you what the Libertarian said to the Marxist: What you propose doesn’t work, so try something else.

 

Yours truly,

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16 Responses to “Another open letter to my senator, Mitch McConnell”

  1. Nemo Says:

    I said before that I’m very much apolitical, so my comment won’t be of any consolation to you. But it seems to me you need a sounding board, so here I am.

    your party rammed through a tax reform plan with less popular support, not even a pretense of seeking bipartisan input

    Even an apolitical person like myself can see that the “tax reform” is nothing but a money grab for the rich and powerful. I suppose we should have seen it coming when Trump became president.

    However, I’m more concerned with the democratic process. If people like you need to resort to unanswered emails and phone-calls to make your complaints known, there must be a breakdown somewhere in the democratic process/machinery. How did it happen that such an unpopular bill got passed so quickly? Who is not doing their job in the government?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Good to hear from you again! I hope the year treated you well.

      I guess the short version of the “breakdown” would go back to Plato’s

        Republic

      , Book VIII, and John Locke’s

        Second Treatise on Civil Government

      , Chapter XIX. The two theories are not really compatible, since Plato thought democracy was one of the worst forms of government and Locke thought it the only legitimate government; but on tyranny they are pretty close. Plato’s theory is that the fundamental flaw of a democracy is that the people who vote on the policies are the ones who directly benefit, but also generally aren’t particularly wise or well-informed; so they tend to choose short-term, selfish plans. He was thinking of Athens, which never went more than two years without voting to go to war with someone in the hopes of quick plunder to finance itself rather than raise taxes on its own citizens. By contrast, his own ideal republic denied the ruling class both glory and material comforts, so their only motivation would be the health of the society as a whole; the majority, the workers and producers, would be allowed more freedom to indulge their appetites but would be denied political power.

      Plato says that in a democracy, the people will vote themselves low taxes with high expenses, will spend on luxuries first and necessities later, will neglect sound education or rigorous discipline in pursuit of quick profits, and be constantly competing against each other for the most wealth and status rather than pulling together as a team. Eventually, all this ambition and greed will allow one person, the most greedy, ambitious, deceitful short-term thinker among them, to come to power by promising his own loyal supporters free money and power over other citizens. And arguably, that is what Trump has done. He has formed a coalition between poorly-educated white males, whose own public words reveal them to be motivated by xenophobia and envy, and a portion of the richest businessmen. Those with money are promised the chance to make more and to pay less in taxes, with fewer regulations to prevent them from externalizing their expenses (i.e. from dumping toxins in drinking water rather than spending their own money to clean up their messes). Those without money are told that those nasty “others”— Mexicans, Jews, liberals, city-dwellers, blacks, etc.— are taking their money and should be robbed in turn. Thus they too are promised free money and power over others. In Athens, this led ultimately to a revolution against the democracy with resultant political trials and death squads, followed by a counter-revolution with still more killing, including Socrates himself. You know all this but perhaps our readers do not.

      Locke’s model tyrant wasn’t an Athenian demagogue, but King Charles I. He thought that people joined together to form a government in order to safeguard themselves and the fruits of their own labors. He advocated for three separate branches of government, roughly corresponding to our own division of executive, legislative and judicial; this isn’t surprising because our government was founded by people who studied and admired Locke. This division of labor provides checks and balances within the political system and allows each part to do its own job most effectively. Locke expected the legislative branch to be elected by the people and to make legislation according to the will of the majority; if they did not they’d be voted out. The judicial branch would decide legal conflicts without prejudice, acting as neutral arbiters between citizens to resolve both what we would call “civil” and “criminal” conflicts. He expected the federal or executive to be an hereditary monarch, but with limited powers, only enforcing the laws made by the elected parliament. However, he predicted that this executive, having so much power concentrated into one hand, would be tempted to try to subvert the other branches of government and to rule by fiat. That would be tyranny, and would justify the violent overthrow of the king, if necessary. Our declaration of independence reflects this thinking, listing royal interference with the judiciary as well as imposing taxes which the colonists had not voted on as reasons for revolt.

      In Locke’s system, people who don’t vote are essentially giving their freedom away and voluntarily accepting servitude and slavery. Trump was elected with a minority of those voting, and with an even smaller minority of the total population. Most Americans simply decided it was too difficult to get informed, too upsetting to pay attention to the threats and lies coming from Trump, tuned out politics and used their ability to vote to choose their next American Idol or top dancer. Most of Trump’s support came from rural areas, where most people have never met a Muslim and know few if any immigrants, but they do know they have been struggling economically; he told them that they could drive those strange people out, get the jobs they hold, and have a society with prosperity and without all those scary foreigners. Throw in some Prosperity-Gospel magical thinking, and it was easy to activate their xenophobia and ressentiment to get them out to vote.

      The other side of the coalition, the businessmen who make up the GOP donor class, have made out really, really well. They have gotten payoff with the abolition of net neutrality, slashing inheritance taxes and other perks that will give 62% of the tax cuts to the wealthiest 5% of the population, greater rights to turn public land into their private property, fewer regulations requiring them to see to the public welfare, etc. It’s a good deal for them.

      I think the rise of right-wing white Evangelicalism has had a lot to do with it, too. Through the economic boom of the 1950s up until the stagnation of the 1970s, the dominant religion of this nation was denominational Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, so-called “mainline” religion. That meant an educated clergy that understood at least some of the economic, political and scientific thinking of the wider culture. That has been replaced by magical thinking and scapegoating. The theology I studied in seminary was mostly written by people like Barth and Bonehoffer and Tillich, who had watched the rise of Hitler and Stalin and sought to understand how Western Christendom could have gone so wrong. The theology of today more closely resembles the religion that enabled the Nazis in the first place. The Prosperity Gospel is pure magic: if you just believe hard enough, you will get rich. If you are not rich, you don’t believe enough, so it’s your fault and you deserve your poverty. The Religious Right turned the “servant Church” into the conquering, controlling Church Triumphant; instead of looking for those in need to help and looking at our own sins to repent, we look at those in need to punish and scold them for their sins, which are always things that make them different from us: homosexuality, feminism (i.e. being a woman with a brain), having a different language or skin tone and not feeling inferior about it, etc. So today, a large portion of the population seeks to solve political, social, economic and intellectual problems with anti-intellectual magical thinking. Trump believes, and tells his base, that if you just think well enough about yourself and punish the bad people who criticize you, you will be successful, wealthy, happy, powerful and healthy. If a large portion of the electorate had not already decided that all the world’s problems could be solved just by blaming and punishing others, that message would have been laughed off the world stage. But it found a receptive audience. I think that the Religious Right matches up pretty closely with Plato’s vision of tyranny: a small group that wants to dominate the political and economic life of the State, choosing one strong person to lead them to victory over the others, and turning on the thinkers and moralists who would upset their self-satisfaction as “enemies of the People.”

      Who is not doing “their job”? The GOP politicians see themselves as working for the donor class, and they are doing their job too damned well. My experience in college student politics, observing the PoliSci majors in action, convinced me that the politician wannabes who grew up to be politicians in fact rarely saw themselves as “public” servants; they thought they were smarter and better than the rest of us, and saw their job simply as “get elected, get power, do what I know should be done despite the interference of voters.” They didn’t read Plato or Locke: they read Machiavelli. We need politicians to do the political work, but we should never trust them, of any party, to do their job unsupervised. We need to watch them more closely than any kindergarten teacher watches his or her students, to keep them on task and playing nice. We took our eyes off, let the inmates take over the asylum, and now are surprised that they are passing crazy rules.

      As Pogo used to say, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

      • Nemo Says:

        Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be one of the check-and-balances? Did it implode and become totally ineffective?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Short answer: No. and Yes.

        No, the Democratic Party is not part of the Constitutional system of checks and balances. The Constitution was not written with political parties specifically in mind, and Washington for one famously hoped that we would never have political parties at all. “Checks and Balances” refers to different power centers built into the government itself by the Constitution. The President heads the Executive branch, Congress is the legislative, and the courts are the judicial. Congress can make laws and controls the money; the courts interpret the law but don’t make it, so in theory they are more referees while the other branches are playing the game; and the executive branch has to actually carry out the laws passed by Congress, as well as controlling the military and carrying out other functions necessary for the nation to function as a single entity instead of fifty independent nation-states. No branch can function without the other two, so they check one another, preventing any from exercising too much power.

        As to the ineffectiveness of the Democrats, that really took off in 2010 when lots of people who voted for Obama and the Democrats didn’t vote, allowing the Republicans to take over not only Congress but also a lot of state governments. Every ten years we have a national census and the states rewrite their voting districts to adjust their congressional representation in response to changes in population. Since the Republicans were basically handed so many state governments, they were able to write the voting districts to favor themselves. States like Pennsylvania had about 51% vote Republican, but after they redrew the districts they wound up with about 75% of the state legislature seats. That’s what “gerrymandering” does: the dominant party attempts to lock in and exaggerate its advantage by drawing safe districts for its candidates while creating difficult districts for the other side. Austin, TX is one of the most liberal cities around, but it has no liberal state or congressional representatives because the Texas state government split Austin between five districts, each one with a large portion of conservative rural lands attached to a smaller city population so the city dwellers are always outvoted by the surrounding conservatives. Effectively, the state legislature has blocked Austin from having any official voice in the state or national government. This pattern is repeated all over the nation. So even though there are far more registered Democrats and polls show that Democratic policies are more popular (particularly if the people asked don’t know if the policies are Democratic or Republican, so they only have the policies themselves to judge), it is far easier in most states to get elected if you’re a Republican. Add to that the voter ID laws, which do much the same thing; Republican-dominated state governments have worked to study which sorts of identification non-whites, younger voters and immigrants are more likely to have, and disallowed them as proof of citizenship whenever possible; and they chose ID that Republicans are more likely to have and made those the forms that you need to register to vote. In Texas, for example, the state government decided that you could use a gun license to register to vote, but couldn’t use a student ID. From the end of segregation until the end of the 20th century, both parties sought to encourage people to vote for the health of the democracy; but increasingly, the Republicans have successfully blocked likely Democratic voters (non-whites, young, urban etc.) from registering to vote, or shut down polling places where Democratic voting was generally higher etc.

        So yeah, the Democratic party did implode. It has a lot less power than its numbers would suggest, and it can’t win elections even though most people favor the policies Democrats back. In the last national election, the Democrats lost control of both branches of Congress and the Presidency. They may use parliamentary maneuvers to slow things down sometimes, but basically they can’t do anything unless they become the majority in at least one house of Congress. It is up to Republican congressmen and women to decide whether to offer any check on the power of the Republican president, and vice versa; and since the President appoints national judges and the Senate approves them, the Republicans can appoint pretty much anyone they want to be a judge for life. Even with this, however, the president has recently nominated several would-be judges who were so incompetent (had never even been in a courtroom before even as attorneys) that even Republican senators opposed them, and joined with the Democrats to push the guys to withdraw before they could be kicked out. So currently there is some minimal check on the President, and he complains bitterly about it; but only if at least some Republicans choose to oppose the President can the Democrats do anything other than complain, denounce and plan for the next election. So, not totally ineffective, but pretty close. TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        The Constitution provides a structural framework for checks and balances, i.e., separation of powers, whereas the two-party system a functional framework, so to speak.

        I’ve read somewhere that the founders were influenced by the ancient Greek historian Polybius, who attributed the dominion and success of ancient Rome to its Constitution. There are striking similarities between the constitutions of Rome and the US. Rome has a consul, a senate and a tribune, each with powers that check-and-balance the others. More importantly, the senate and the tribune are composed of two different sections of the population, i.e., the aristocrats and the common people. This balanced representation is the functional separation of powers. Interestingly enough, the aristocrats of Rome also attempted the equivalent of “gerrymandering” — they added weights to the votes, so that the votes of the aristocrats would always come out on top.

        When the Presidency, the Senate and the House are all controlled by one party, there is no longer any functional separation of powers, although the structure is still there.I think that is a serious threat to the democratic process.

        P.S., I became interested in the Constitution mainly because of the late Justice Scalia, who almost single-handedly got me interested in judicial philosophy and the Federalist Papers. But judging by your political stance, I suspect you are not a big fan of Scalia.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I think he was sincere and capable, which is more than I would say about anyone nominated by the current regime. I also respect his attention to the original meaning of the Constitution. However, I think it is also possible to carry that too far; modern circumstances and consequences of rulings do matter. I think the Citizens United ruling, which he joined, is an example of that. The majority seemed to me, as Sen. McCain has said, to have been unaware or to have deliberately ignored electoral realities of the 20th century, and thus overturned a useful, bipartisan law which had limited the ability of a literal handful of billionaires to buy elections, and politicians. In a world where a single private citizen, with little reason to either listen to the wisdom of others or to have any great commitment to any native land (the “jet set”) can control more money than many nations, democracy will not survive unless there are firm institutions and legislation in place to ensure that truth is heard, partisan fictions and spin clearly labeled, and the voice of individual citizens given some weight. We need limits on campaign contributions, rather than a simple equation of money with “free speech” and the legal fiction of corporate personhood as equivalent to the moral personhood of actual people. True, the Court did leave open one remedy: Congress could pass a law making political donations public, so that we could all see immediately who is financing a particular “documentary” or conspiracy theorist and weigh the evidence accordingly. However, any Representative or Senator could have told them that such a law would never be passed unless the Court had built it into their ruling somehow, so what Scalia, Kennedy and the other three gave us was an electoral system where someone can go to a senator, say “I’m going to spend five million dollars to defeat you unless you open up such-and-such public land for mining,” or, “unless you pass legislation to limit competition with my business,” and we the people will never even know the money was spent because it is all done through anonymous SuperPACs. The potential for corruption is much greater at the state level, where an out-of-state donor can simply decide to oppose or support legislation because it fits his ideology without regard for the desires of local residents. This has happened repeatedly, where a billionaire can come in, buy up lots of advertising to push distorted truths or fictions, persuade people to vote for policies that the billionaire supports because the other side in the debate has been effectively drowned out by all the money thrown into local television commercials, and then when the election is over the local people have to work out the results while the rich donor lives a thousand miles away, unconcerned with whatever harm his policies do to the community he’s never seen. So in that case, Scalia did damage, which we still have not figured out how to repair, and perhaps will ultimately secure this nation’s transition from representative democracy to a permanent oligarchy. But at least Scalia knew the law, and could think, and could talk to other judges without contempt and without eliciting contempt from his fellow justices. #Dolt45 nominates Federal judges who have never even argued a case in any court whatsoever, merely because The Federalist Society gave him a list of names of its members and said that anyone on the list would support him. And that was also one of the unintended, but predictable consequences of broken electoral system, where senators care more about a half-dozen rich donors than they care about providing effective “advice and consent” to a political neophyte who desperately needs advice, whether he wants it or not. Ultimately, Scalia’s vote on Citizens United contributes to the corruption of the Senate, which in turn leads to the confirmation of unqualified judges, which ultimately insures that we will never have another Antonin Scalia. The kakistocracy he helped create would never tolerate that much competence.

      • Nemo Says:

        We’re getting into topics that are beyond my competence and interest, but just for the sake of dialogue. 🙂

        Scalia’s judicial opinions are well-reasoned and historically grounded. One of his rationales for the decision on Citizens United vs. SEC is that associations and corporations are necessary, especially for people with limited means, to concentrate their resources and make their voices heard. There are many historical precendents for this. It is not “legal fiction”.

        I would think it is inherent in capitalism that the rich necessary have more power to influence and to corrupt. It has nothing to do with the Constitution. It is the responsibility of legislators to minimize corruption in the democratic process, and the responsibility of educators to inform the public. Controlling communication is not the answer.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Corporations, for the most part, do not make the voices of those with limited means heard. They take the money of many investors, pool it, and it is then spent largely by one person or a small Board of Directors at best, with little input from the perhaps thousands or millions of investors. I’m not a legal scholar either, but when people who know more than I do tell me that the nature of a “corporation” has changed dramatically since the days of the Founding Fathers and that strict adherence to their words may actually lead us away from their original intent, I believe it.

        Later, I may post James Comey’s thesis on this blog, but for now I’ll just steal one of the concepts he discusses. Reinhold Niebuhr argued that “justice” is often a matter of setting boundaries to protect the weak from domination by the strong. In economics, we have anti-monopoly laws to check the power of unbridled capitalism; otherwise strong companies would swallow up smaller competitors, driving them out of business as they arose, and we would end up with one provider for each good. Competition, one of the essential forces of free market capitalism, would vanish. Election law is much the same; in both cases, we believe that channelled competition ultimately will bring out the best result. But if a single person can put out one point of view and exclude all others, and if there is no downside for that person even to lie or slander (which the courts have said is politically protected speech in most cases), then there is no chance for the mere individual to have a voice. He or she will be lucky even to find the truth in all this noise, let along have a chance to share it with others. Perhaps the solution is to mute the monied class so that their voice is not so loud that it drowns out all others; or perhaps the solution is to amplify the voice of the less wealthy, say by providing robust public funding for political candidates. “Controlling communication” sounds evil, but in Great Britain they strictly limit the campaign season and somehow democracy survives despite the controls on communication.

        The paradox is that both our economic system and our political system depend on conflict, and peaceful, productive ways to channel that conflict; but they die if that conflict ever ends in victory for one party. Capitalism needs competition and room for new businesses to spring up and grow; and democracy needs checks and balances to prevent dictatorship, which means different people with different agendas need to be in control of the levers of power. It is not in the nature of politicians to share power easily; politicians tend to be self-assured, ambitious (not necessarily in an evil way), and rather clannish, from what I have seen, particularly party politicians. So they tend to seek to grab and concentrate power. Western society seems to be built on the idea of preserving creative tension, trying to avoid either chaos or a stultifying permanent peace.

        The observation that it is capitalism that threatens to corrupt government is an interesting one in the light of Plato’s Republic book VIII and also the Laws. By and large, the corrupting power of money is his greatest concern. He admires Sparta because the ruling class is forbidden any private property. When the leaders start to engage in business and to compete with each other for wealth, the society starts to decay. Oligarchy, in his view, is when a few powerful individuals both rule the state and seek to profit; democracy is when everyone becomes a businessman and competes for wealth and the social status it brings, putting their economic competition with other citizens ahead of the good of the State; and tyranny is essentially when one particularly successful, particularly ruthless businessman takes over the State and runs it for his own profit and pleasure.

      • Nemo Says:

        I understand the point you’re making, but there are still some points of disagreement, naturally. 🙂

        Justice is “having and doing what is a man’s own”, according to Plato. I have not seen a better definition.

        I said it is inherent in capitalism that the rich necessarily have more power, for better or worse. It would be unjust to deny them the powers they have gained legitimately, including the power to broadcast their views to the masses. They’ve earned it fair and square. Their voices do not and cannot drown out others, for others are also provided the means necessary to make their own voices heard. With the advent of the internet, mass communication has become cheaper and easier than ever.

        What is lacking in our society is not competition of voices, but discernment, and that’s not something money can provide or deprive.

        In your comments, you twice contrasted “corporations” with “individuals”, as if these are somehow mutually exclusive. It is perhaps a reflection of our individualistic cultures. But I think Scalia’s judicial opinion on the case is especially noteworthy. In order to have an impact on society, individuals need to be organized into one cohesive body, to combine material and human resources, to act in concert for a common goal, again, for better or worse. I suspect one of the reasons the Democrats lost the election is because they vastly underestimated the power of small people acting in bodies.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        When you say “corporations,” you seem to be thinking of a PAC of like-minded citizens organizing at the grassroots level to express themselves. I am referring to the much more common, more powerful and anti-democratic business corporations, such as Verizon, Time-Warner, Phillip-Morris International, Wells Fargo, etc. The Sierra Club or Young Republicans don’t go to political parties and offer/threaten to spend a billion dollars influencing the next election. Koch Industries does that. The local Chamber of Commerce or citizen’s lobby doesn’t provide the President’s financial team; Goldman-Sachs does. Americans for Prosperity aren’t fundamentally a bunch of rag-tag rebels against Big Government; they are a well-organized PR program for Koch Inc. funded my billionaires, advocating for policies that will help billionaires, and using a sophisticated and well-financed ad campaign to sell their policies as “good for the middle class” in the same way that large corporations use advertising to sell Sugar Frosted Flakes as “part of this nutritious breakfast.” As the son of a doctor, growing up in the 1960s, I watched for years as big corporations used their influence and their big money to tell people that cigarettes were healthy, sexy, and sophisticated, all while my father and other doctors were trying to tell them that they killed people. They succeeded for decades in selling what they knew were lies, deadly lies, just to make some money, and politicians sold themselves for the campaign contributions and for the jobs in the tobacco fields, heedless of the far greater financial costs to the nation of dealing with the health problems caused by smoking. Today, much more powerful commercial forces promote policies that could kill not just millions of Americans, civilization itself. Legislators don’t even pretend anymore to make laws; lobbyists simply walk into state legislators offices with bills ready-written and offer to pay the politician to put his or her name on it.

        And don’t start with the internet. With a Verizon stooge running the FCC and the Republicans dutifully voting to abolish net neutrality, a small number of ISPs will soon have the ability to throttle any web site promoting a message they don’t like. Of course, as the Russians have shown with their “managed democracy,” it isn’t even necessary to throttle dissent completely; merely filling the internet with state-sponsored lies is enough to sow confusion and leave opposition effectively neutralized.

        The Democrats did not lose because they vastly underestimated the power of small people acting in bodies. They won the popular vote. They lost because they underestimated the power of large business corporations and Russian disinformation to target and persuade people in areas where a minority of voters could have an oversized impact on the electoral college. And, since there’s been no DHS audit of the election and we know for a fact that the voting machines in much of the nation are easily hacked and leave no paper trail, we can’t really be sure of that; while massive hacking would have been noticed, a little here and a little there in a relatively few rural districts in swing states could have added up to a fraudulent victory. While it’s true that Jill Stein’s efforts at a recount found no solid evidence, she didn’t have the resources the government would have; and news reports indicate that the Federal government’s investigation of foreign hacking to influence our elections is hamstrung by our insecure, narcissistic President who prefers to think every American intelligence agency is involved in a conspiracy against him rather than admit that he benefitted from Russian help. Until there’s a thorough and unbiased investigation that’s supported by the White House rather than opposed and sabotaged by it, there will always be doubt that even Trump’s razor-thin victory was legitimate.

        One thing we do agree on is that the problem is primarily a failure of discernment and critical thinking. In this regard, apparently I am a mutant. Most people, psychologists say, respond favorably to emotional appeals. When you’re angry, or frightened, or even happy, your right hemisphere of your brain is activated; when you’re listening to a logically-structured argument, the left side activates. But judgement and discernment are primarily focused in the left; so when you’re listening to a logical argument you are more likely to argue against it internally and try to pick it apart, whereas when you listen to an emotional appeal you are more likely to get swept up and to overlook inconsistencies or even outright falsehoods. That’s why con artists rely on emotional appeals and try to keep their victims from having time to calmly think. Most people innately trust an emotional orator like Don Trump. I personally am turned off by emotional appeals; I always suspect that someone is trying to bamboozle me when I hear vague but inflated promises, or notice a lot of emotionally charged language. I try to avoid listening to celebrities who are famous for being actors or TV stars, whether they are Don Trump or Sue Sarandon. And two million years of human evolution has given our species an instinct to defer to and organize around the most visible, and visibly successful individuals, so we tend to fall in line behind the wealthy and high-status; but I am suspicious of the rich and know that even the more intelligent among them are often less brilliant than they think they are, because they are constantly surrounded by flatterers. Humans, as social animals, are inclined to react favorably to loud, brash, wealthy, famous people. Even our instinct to defer to the tall plays into this; celebrities appear on large TVs and movie screens and are literally “larger than life.” Discernment means a sense for recognizing when one is in the throes of conformist instinct, and judging it. When I listened to Don Trump, I heard a salesman, and I don’t like being given a sales pitch. When I watched FOX News in the early 2000s, I saw a combination of sex and emotion, including a lot of live-broadcast car chases mixed with good news about the Iraq war or whatever that was comforting, but often proved wrong later. I recognized the techniques of a marketer rather than a journalist, and decided that I would be better off listening to NPR or watching PBS, who seem almost intentionally boring, rather than a cute blonde in a miniskirt sitting on a couch with a TV camera shooting up her dress flanked by two smarmy guys. But judging from the ratings of FOX & Friends vs. PBS Newshour, I am a distinct minority.

        Kierkegaard’s theory of the spheres of existence may say something here. Most people live in the aesthetic sphere, operating on a pain-pleasure polarity, avoiding self-reflection since it would unsettle them. Reflection, he says in Either/Or, starts with the ethical, or perhaps it is better to say reflection starts the ethical. That is why the story of Don Juan had to be told in music, the language of immediacy; once it was put into prose, it became subject to reflection and ethical categories, and Don Juan begins to look much less romantic (see “The Immediate Stages of the Erotic”). Only a minority are likely to want to reflect. But that doesn’t mean that those who can reflect shouldn’t try to establish laws that will make reflection more probable, whether through campaign finance laws to allow all voices a more equal hearing or by rejecting the growing acceptance of anti-information, anti-intellectual and anti-representative tendency of many of today’s politicians (particularly conservatives).

        That, incidentally, was my motivation for writing my series on whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. Plato would say “no,” and there’s some reason for that; but at the same time, Locke would point out that all people are equal and have natural inalienable rights, and to deny someone the vote because you think he or she is too emotional is essentially to enslave that person. And I would add, in the end, we’re all stupid people; in a large, complex society, no one knows everything. I hope to get back to exploring this idea and how we can cope with our simultaneous need to have a voice in government, while always lacking important information and having thus to trust others to tell us the truth. TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        Speaking of emotional appeal, I often sense that your political posts and comments are emotionally charged, although not as strongly as many on the internet. I don’t blame you for being invested in these important issues, but it does make me think twice before commenting. 🙂

        There is no doubt that big business corporations are powerful. They have great power both for good and for evil. Again, that is an inevitable product of capitalism. Corporations are run by people, who can be held legally (if not morally) accountable for their actions. Plato stresses the importance of moral and legal education for all citizens from a very young age, for good reason.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I try not to rely on emotional manipulation, and I don’t think I’m very good at it anyway. But Hume got one thing right: emotion and motivation are linked. If you care enough to do something, you have some sort of emotional energy.

        I agree with the importance of moral education, and unfortunately our institutions that should be doing this have been sort of following down on the job for the last several decades. In the first century CE, philosophers competed with each other to teach morality; the Christian style of preaching was originally based on Cynic diatribes. Prophetic Judaism and early Christianity also taught social and personal ethics, although most religions avoided morality and just stuck to sacrifices and teaching the myths. Today, colleges largely avoid morality, and business majors in particular study “ethics” largely in terms of “here’s what you do to avoid being sued” rather than “here’s how a civilized human being ought to live.” And Christianity in the U.S. has been dominated by Prosperity Gospel and Christian Dominionism; the one teaches that God loves the rich and that’s why they’re rich, and the other teaches that God loves the powerful and that’s why they are powerful, and both agree that the weak are weak because they are bad people. (Of course, when I was born the churches in my state were mostly segregated, so maybe they actually are improving.)

        Unfortunately, corporations largely are not run by anyone who can be held responsible. It takes a hell of a lot before anyone goes to jail, even if people die as a result of corporate actions. More often, someone gets fired and walks away with a few million dollars severance pay. A real problem in business ethics is “diffusion of responsibility:” the corporation does something, but no one feels responsible and often no one can really even be shown to have made the decision in a morally responsible sense. And the institutions that are supposed to prevent fraud, or poisoning citizens, or political corruption are being systematically weakened and defunded, and even being run by people who have publicly stated that the agencies they run should be shut down. But if we were basically moral people, we would probably not have elected people who would do this, or attended churches that taught that poverty and weakness were sins, or created an educational system that was more interested in producing good office clerks than in producing good citizens; so I’m not sure if the breakdown of our civilizing institutions is a symptom or a cause of moral rot, or if perhaps it’s a feedback loop.

      • Nemo Says:

        P.S. I think that, by questioning the legitimacy of the election, you are really saying that people on the other side had no legitimate concerns and reasons for their political choices, that they would not have garnered enough support to win the election without hacking/cheating. Frankly, I don’t think that is fair at all, nor does it help to heal the already divided nation.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, if the political elite was as smart and capable as they think they are, there wouldn’t have been so many disenchanted voters in the rural counties or at least they wouldn’t have been caught off guard by them. So yes, there had to be some discontent for Russians to have any impact. But without more effort to investigate and defend against foreign efforts to corrupt our electoral process, there will be legitimate doubt. Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House is incapable of dealing with this problem, because he takes every mention of Russia as a personal attack. Every American intelligence agency has said the Russians ran a multifaceted and sophisticated campaign to promote Trump as president, and we even have e-mails to prove it, yet there has been no Cabinet-level discussion of the problem or how to prevent it from happening again. Simply joining in ignoring this will not ease the national divisions; after all, the Russians were aiming to create divisions, so they aren’t going to stop if they don’t have to. We need to admit there are legitimate concerns about the last election, investigate them, and show the majority of people that their government is willing to face uncomfortable truths to defend the nation. I’m sure there will be some who will still think what they want, on both sides, but most people are willing to examine evidence and try to draw reasonable conclusions. Think about the birther theory. It was a racially motivated, paranoid slander; having grown up in the South as segregation was ending, I think I know racism when I see it. But if Obama had become defensive and nervous and angry and started shouting “Fake News” all the time, people would have begun to wonder if he had something to hide, even if he didn’t and was simply thin-skinned. Trump acts like someone who has something to hide, mostly because he is so hypersensitive about anything that would suggest his victory was not super-great (again, he’s a child of the Prosperity Gospel and a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Wharton and Forham, so not a lot of rigorous moral reflection). Even if we didn’t have the e-mails where his family and campaign staff were meeting with Russian agents about how Russia could help Trump win the election, even without the sort of smoking gun the Watergate investigators had to wait years for, just the general demeanor of the guy would make at least half the nation suspicious that he was hiding something. The only balm is to admit that both sides have a point: Trump supporters do have concerns and problems and interests that weren’t being addressed, and Trump detractors have concerns and problems and interests that are not being addressed now.

      • Nemo Says:

        I’ll grant you that there might be legitimate doubt — I don’t really care either way. But, there is a season for everything. If I could channel the political wisdom of Cicero, I would argue that now is not the time to impeach the President.

        Firstly, given the anemic state of the Democratic Party, even if Trump is removed from office, I doubt his replacement would be much better for the nation.

        Secondly, the Russian investigation has become a red-herring, that diverts attention, resources and manpower away from the more important and pressing problems, such as negotiating a tax reform that would benefit the working class and the poor.

        Thirdly, you commented on my blog that you’re pushing as hard as you can against the “most dangerous and least helpful” ideologies. I think the best, and probably the most difficult, way to fight the negatives is to establish the positives, which have been largely missing in American politics.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I see the rise of white supremacy and fascist ideologies as requiring active countermeasures. A positive alternative is necessary as well. So far, the closest I’ve heard of from the Bernie Sanders wing, but I’d like to see more substance.

        We got the tax form that was inevitable with this government. First, the Republican Party has had one mission since the late 1930s: to undo FDR’s New Deal. Repealing Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social service programs, or neutering and bankrupting them without verbally disavowing them, has been the guiding principle of the so-called budget hawks, even when there was evidence that some of this spending was actually good for the economy. This is at least partly driven by the Christian Reconstructionist wing of the GOP, that wants to force people to turn to the Christian Church for all social services, from medical care to food to education.

        Trump was fond of saying that he was self-financing so he wouldn’t owe anybody anything when he was elected. That was not really a lie, I think, but it was wrong. First, it ignored the deep hole in his heart that is only filled by constant praise and gratitude. Just as a “traditional politician” dances to the tune of whomever will fill his or her empty coffers, Trump dances with whomever fills his need for admiration. Second, more serious and more covert, he has no ideas of his own. His own ideological bank is empty. A poor person has no principal to invest in his campaign, so he (or she) must go begging for contributions to finance a campaign for office; a rich man who has no principles can finance a campaign, but must beg for values. The white nationalists were happy to give his campaign what it needed: a vision. It’s a terrible, flawed, and ultimately self-destructive vision, but delivered with the right emotional intensity it sells. On taxes, he again had no ideas, so the economic elitist, anti-worker wing of the party was always able to come in and tell him what he had to do to be loved: give a tax cut, and give most of the money to the rich so they would create jobs (you know, like they did in Kansas under Gov. Brownback). If he had a genuine commitment to the stuff he said about no cuts to Social Security, let’s rebuild infrastructure etc. he’d have done that first and then done tax reform in a way that would pay for it; instead, the Ayn Rand wing, that thinks all government spending is evil, set the agenda, and now it will be impossible to pay for his other promises. Already Social Security cuts are being planned, and the idea that infrastructure is going to be taken on by the private sector is a joke (again, look at Brownback’s failed Kansas experiment). Today I hear that he’s hoping states will raise the money to engage in public-private partnerships to rebuild infrastructure, after passing a new tax code that seriously limits how much state tax individuals can deduct from their federal taxes; so states that want to rebuild infrastructure will be less able to afford it, states like South Carolina (which won’t build dams because that would cost state money) can simply continue to act surprised every time a disaster reveals shoddy infrastructure, and ask the federal government (i.e. money taken from more responsibly run states) to help them rebuild.

        As to whether this is the time to impeach, I think I need more time to consider and discuss in my blog.

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