Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 2014 Punditalia Political Platform

Punditalia has published its platform for American politics in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Although 95% or more of our suggestions have not yet been taken, we believe they remain valid.

It may be too late to contemplate realistic political improvement in the United States since the country has sunk into passive acceptance of fascist oligarchy, from which escape will be difficult. Nevertheless, hope is always the last to die and hey, things can always get worse if nobody does anything.  

The current state of affairs in the US is well described in an interview by Chris Hedges of John Ralston Saul and Sheldon Wolin.  Wolin defines it as "inverted totalitarianism".

There is one dim but ongoing ray of light in the continuing, if futile thus far, efforts to undo the Supreme Court's legalization of bribery in its landmark Citizens United decision. The most grotesque travesty of justice since the Dred Scott decision, Citizens United effectively ruled that corporations are people and money is speech. For those of you who may not remember the Dred Scott decision, in 1857 the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that African-Americans, whether free or not, could never be citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in court. It went on to hold that slaves taken by their owners to states where slavery had been abolished, did not become free.

The Dred Scott Decision, coming at a time when slavery was being challenged, attempted to solidify its legal basis and insure that the rights of slave owners would be secured. Citizens United, like Dred Scott earlier, went far beyond what the Court was asked to decide, in a similar attempt to promote property rights over human rights.

Even Antonin Scalia, no slouch himself at tarnishing the image of the Court, has written that the Dred Scott decision tarnished the reputation of Justice Taney and aggravated the tensions that led to the Civil War. John Roberts will bear that burden for Citizens United. It remains to be seen if it will take an insurrection, another civil war, or just a Constitutional Amendment to rid the country of this aberration.

While the threat to democracy posed by the Citizens United decision is obvious to anyone who gives it a thought, new so-called “Trade Agreements”, most notably the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are currently being negotiated in relative secrecy, would effectively establish rules barring the exercise of democracy, not only in the US but throughout the countries joined by those treaties. While the negotiations are closed to members of Congress and the public at large, these provisions are being written by trade associations and corporations seeking power and unlimited profits. The concept is that any government, local, state, provincial or national, which enacts legislation which might limit or reduce profits of a corporation, could be sued for damages in a special court, set up by the corporations and responsible to no elected body.

While we may hold a minority view here, the enactment or proposal of any such trade agreement would meet our standards for treason. Although these negotiations are being conducted by a theoretically Democratic administration, make no mistake, the only hope of stopping these diabolical “agreements” is to make sure that both houses of Congress have Democratic majorities. Many Democrats have sold out to the big corporations too but the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the US Chamber of Commerce and allied subversive groups. If you're eligible to vote, we urge you to do so but please, make sure that anyone you vote for is committed to opposing TPP.

For those of you who are not US citizens, we hope you've read this far. TPP is not just a threat to Americans or to American democracy. It is a very real threat first to the member countries, but if this goes through, its effects will spread. Your phone calls and emails are already being monitored by the NSA. Perhaps that doesn't bother you. You have nothing to hide. But things can get worse. You may wake up one day to find that you're forced to eat foods that meet US Government standards. For those of you living in Italy, on Sunday night, October 19th, at 10 or 10:30 PM, RAI 3 TV will have a program dealing with TPP. Forget Ebola, forget ISIS, but be very, very afraid. TPP is worse than both of them. Get out and let your politicians hear about it.

Many other issues need to be addressed, from climate change and ending the permanent state of war to dismantling the surveillance state and demilitarizing the society but if Citizens United isn't overcome and TPP canceled, we're cooked.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Jobs Nobody Wants

We usually hear this phrase in conjunction with immigration policy. Should we allow more Central Americans into the US to pick our grapes, tend our gardens or process our meat products? Here in Italy, people arrive crossing the Mediterranean rather than the Rio Grande, or else they trek in from Eastern Europe. The pizza makers and tomato pickers are mostly from Africa. People from Eastern Europe do practically everything, with a heavy concentration of them looking after the old and the infirm. It would seem that in both the USA and in Europe there are many jobs that nobody wants to do, despite unusually high levels of unemployment. US Speaker of the House John Boehner recently said that “a rising number of people would rather sit around”. He was partly right. He should have said that most people would rather sit around. That's what drives investment Johnny!   Most rational people would prefer to sit around and get money from their investments rather than being paid to work. The problem is that some don't have anything to invest. They started life on the wrong foot or rather, in the wrong womb.

What are these jobs that nobody wants? Cleaners of houses, streets, offices and porta-potties, hamburger flippers, coal miners, steel workers, soldiers and pesticide sprayers come freely to mind. Some unloved jobs get done by importing or finding people so desperately poor that they'll do anything. Other unpleasant tasks such as embalming the dead or pouring molten steel get done by paying the workers handsomely. We've managed to eliminate many of those nasty jobs. The steel mills have been exported to cheap labor countries. Undertakers appear to be secure for the near future but no doubt some entrepreneur is already devising a scheme to freeze dry bodies for low cost embalming and cosmetic treatment in Honduras. Once upon a time coal miners were paid enough to make a decent living despite the dangers and the hardships of the work. After years of only partially successful union busting, coal companies have invested heavily in gaining approvals for the cheaper and more efficient technique of mountain-top removal to get at the coal. It's a bit hard on the local environment but with the jobs gone, there's not much reason to live in those places any more anyway.

Soldiering has an up and down history of desirability. While defending one's country may be a noble endeavor, and in remote centuries kings demonstrated their valor by leading their armies in battle, few of us really want to spend our lives as paid killers. The draft was used to overcome the reluctance of the masses to devoting themselves to this line of work but when too many people objected to killing people they had no quarrel with, the draft was eliminated in the US and an all volunteer military was instituted. Salaries were increased to the point where they represented the best economic opportunity for people from the poorer outposts of the society. The better money was combined with promises of free college later and useful training while in service. Many of these promises turned out to be hoaxes but then, that's been the nature of all sorts of recruitment throughout history.

As the American state of permanent war goes well into its second decade, those sorts of enticements have worn thin. Now, besides the good money and the deceptive promises, hero status has been bestowed. At every major sporting event in the US, uniform wearing veterans are called upon to receive our praise and gratitude, or to sing the national anthem as fighter planes do awesome flyovers. Not all veterans are happy with being anointed as heroes but it apparently stimulates the recruitment needed to keep the military industrial complex's lower echelons fully staffed.

Ironically, some of the jobs nobody wants aren't so terrible in and of themselves. Picking fruit may be strictly for cheap imported labor but last year a lawyer friend of ours flew in from Santa Monica to help pick his sister's olives for four days. He loved it. More and more of our neighbors are having friends visit from Ireland, Holland and even Bermuda to help with their olive harvest. I'm unconvinced about the inherent joys of olive picking but intrigued by the Tom Sawyer aspect of this phenomenon. We have more olive trees outside our door than I'll ever want to pick myself so if any of you want to share in the joy of the harvest, you're welcome to come and help. Free wine and bruschetta for the pickers, though you'll have to find your own accommodations and travel arrangements.

Gardening is another of those unwanted jobs that many of us spend a godawful amount of time and money on without any financial return. We do occasionally get some help from the most sought after resident of our village, an extraordinarily hard working fellow from Albania. If he could be cloned, there would be work for five of him.

What is a job that people really want to do? What makes people do the job that they do? Back in history a century or so, and still today in some parts of the world, people seemed to give less thought to this than they do now. If their father was a butcher, they'd be butchers. If their father was a farmer, chances were even better that they'd be farmers too.

Growing up the the American suburbs, that pattern was broken for me. I had no idea what work was or what adults did. Female adults cooked and shopped. Male adults put on a suit, walked to the train and reappeared, briefcase in hand, in the evening. Now, thanks to the popular TV show Mad Men, we've learned that they spent their days smoking, drinking, scheming how to outfox their colleagues and having illicit sex.

My brother and I were sent to a testing service in New York to determine what, if anything, we were fit to do and what we might enjoy doing. His childhood talent for burying ants in tar using only a magnifying glass proved to be a precursor of a successful career in weapons systems, a scientific orientation that the testing service recognized and encouraged. In my case the testers found a propensity for argument even stronger than the desire to draw, leading them to urge a career in law. Alas, my argumentative nature was so strong that when a neighbor, who was both a lawyer and a judge, advised me that the quality of my law school performance would be far less important to my career than the number of local civic and political organizations I managed to join, rather than acknowledging the generosity and wisdom of his words, I scuttled the entire project to follow the advice of a brilliant but naive professor of American art and architecture who claimed that America needed architects more than it needed lawyers.

Lawyers, architects, doctors, dentists, businessmen, professors. They're all thought to be desirable positions. Why? The obvious answer is money. All the people emigrating from scenic, unspoiled places to industrial wastelands do so because they need money to live. That's simple enough but once you have enough money to live, what makes a job something you want to do? Money is always in the list of motivators and for some people it comprises the entire list, but two other major factors, pleasure and mission, seem to play a part.

The mission of the doctor is to heal people; the architect wants to create a better built environment, the lawyer hopes to bring justice to the society; the journalist wants to reveal the truth; the teacher intends to impart a richer and more rewarding life to people growing up; the priest wants to save souls. The mission always sounds good; the actual tasks involved are often less appealing. 

Medicine has been the best paid major profession* for as long as I can remember, conferring prestige as well as high income, although those formerly distinct rewards have tended to become synonymous. Since we all fear for our lives and for our health, and medicine requires years of study and preparation, the high level of compensation seems justified. Yet how many of us would want to do what they do? Specialization brings greater income but who would want to spend their days, weeks and years probing one unhealthy rectum after another, or examining a steady stream of oozing skin rashes?
Surgery can be as bloody as working in a butcher shop but your bad cuts may end up as litigation rather than sausage. (*among major professions I exclude pro sports figures, hedge fund managers, bank CEOs, heads of Mafia families, politicians, and oligarchs, who combine to make up a numerically insignificant privileged class)

Architecture has been romanticized to the point where architects don't get paid, since the pleasure of the work is compensation enough. The public is unaware that in major architectural offices the people dreaming up exciting new buildings are vastly outnumbered by those writing reports, meeting minutes, peer reviews or specifications and by those preparing door schedules and foundation details.

I can assume that many young lawyers who want to see justice done spend an inordinate amount of time writing wills or devising schemes to keep wealthy clients from paying taxes or employees. Teachers who want to create a better informed generation may spend most of their time maintaining order and assuring that no crimes are committed on their watch. Soldiers who want to defend their country, which hasn't been under attack since before their parents were born, may find that their political superiors send them out to invade places they'd never even heard of. Conceivably, some politicians have have started their careers thinking they might help their country, only to discover that raising campaign funding to secure their reelection is a full-time job in its own right, one which entails soliciting bribes from deep pocketed contributors in return for making those contributors their only constituents who matter.

Money and mission are important but surely the pleasure experienced in doing something must play an important part of making a job desirable. Pursuing a career in the arts is an extreme case of people driven by the love of an activity itself, regardless of the economic sacrifices it entails, but many lines of work, from being a chef to being a scientist, pilot or explorer have some of this aspect.

As I recall, boys at the age of career decisions enjoy playing sports more than almost anything else. The ultimate dream is to be able to play games into middle age and get paid vast amounts of money to do so. The only activity they'd rather engage in is sex, but opportunities are always inadequate. They may resort to dreams to fulfill their desires but few would dare dream of making a career out sex work. Chances of becoming a shortstop for the Yankees or even making it onto an NFL practice squad may be slim, but the odds of making that much money in sex are slimmer still.

For years, feminists have lamented that women's opportunities in professional sports are limited, and they're right, but nature provides a degree of symmetry. Women may have a harder time breaking into professional sports than men but they have opportunities in sex work that men would die for. Girls are raised differently than boys, or were until recently, but based on the inherent pleasure involved and despite the lingering stigma attached, I'd have thought that the oldest profession would also be the most sought after career option. There are signs that, just as the best and brightest young men are abandoning the traditional professions to seek their fortunes as hedge fund managers, increasing numbers of their female counterparts have taken to prostitution to work their way out of student debt.

Playing games into adulthood can pay extremely well but only for a very select few in this most competitive of worlds. For the vast majority seeking such careers, the rewards are meager for such gruelling work. That may also be true for prostitutes but success doesn't get their faces on Wheaties boxes so neither we nor the IRS can know where their career opportunities top out.

While many military people may object at being called heroes, perhaps we could give a boost to some more needed occupations with this strategy. There are other occupations outside the military which are also statistically risky. Besides steel workers and coal miners, there are garbage collectors, loggers, fishermen, farmers, roofers, police and fire fighters, heroes all. Let's start calling our electricians, plumbers, teachers, nurses and septic tank cleaners heroes. For that matter, if we held up our sporting matches five minutes for a patriotic musical tribute to our fruit and vegetable pickers, maybe enough Americans would enter the trade so that the US could end its border controversies.