On Billionaires and Charity

One of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of billionaires is the “but they give so much to charity” argument. I have a lot of problems with this, and in this video, Anand Giridharadas and Hasan Minhaj go through most of them.

When I talk to people who oppose universal healthcare, they often talk about how terrible the taxes are. My counter, generally, is to reframe health insurance premiums, and medical bills at the point of service as taxes. On the surface, there’s the similarity of coercion. If you don’t pay, you’ll be made to suffer. In the case of health care, not paying means you can’t get care you need, or you go into massive debt just to stay alive.

There’s a flip side to it as well, though, as the video mentions. The money we pay to private insurers, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies doesn’t just vanish. It gets concentrated into the hands of a pretty small number of people, who then use it as they see fit. With the amount of wealth concentration, we now have people and corporations wielding the financial power – which can VERY easily translate to political power – of small countries, or of governmental departments. And unlike with the government, we don’t even have the pretense of the people having a say in how billionaires spend their money.

Unfettered wealth hoarding leads to various forms of feudalism. Even if you take the misguided view that a universal healthcare system gives more power to the government, what it’s actually doing is taking power from feudal lords against whom we have no recourse, and giving it to a body over which we have at least some influence.

Even ignoring the shifts in economic power that come from that change, that’s an increase in power for the everyday person.

The government of the U.S.A. continues to suffer from GOP sabotage campaign

Anyone who pays attention to the interaction of politics and science knows that most members of Congress have roughly the same understanding of science as an average 12 year old. That level of ignorance is understandable, in a child, and and even in those areas of employment that require expertise outside of the scientific realm, but when it comes to legislators, whose job it is to deal with issues like climate change, medicine, and science education, it’s a serious problem. That said, it has never been possible for any legislator to be an expert in all areas on which they legislate, and the degree to which that is true has increased at the same rapid pace as has our understanding of the universe, over the last couple hundred years. It would seem to be an insurmountable problem – the sheer breadth of knowledge required to govern any country responsibly dwarfs the ability of any single person to learn.

The solution we’ve come up with is layers of delegation. To begin with, each legislator has a staff who help them with research and writing. Beyond that, there are agencies, at both state and federal levels, tasked with carrying out the application of laws, and with collecting relevant data to make that task easier, and to inform changes to those laws. In its ideal form, this setup allows for a legislator to pass a fairly general law, stating that, for example, grain storage has to meet certain standards for safety – testing for mold and bacterial contamination, and storage containers made of materials that won’t end up poisoning the person eating the food made from those grains. As time passes, and we learn more about the relevant biology and chemistry, our understanding of how best to manage those concerns will change. Rather than having a bunch of generalist lawmakers who’re dealing with a thousand other problems on top of the question of safe grain storage, the USDA has been tasked with managing the issue to meet the end goal – safe grain at reasonable prices for the American people, and the people of other countries to whom we export food. The USDA, in turn, is sub-divided so that the people working on grain storage don’t need to be experts in the storage of meat, or milk, or fruit – they can focus all of their efforts on getting the grain issue right. That means doing research. It means inspecting farms, silos, and shipping facilities. It means checking the research done by industry and by third parties. It means funding research into unanswered questions, or funding research to confirm earlier results.

While “bureaucracy” has become a dirty word in some circles, this sort of thing is a great example of how all of this “red tape”, and these thousands of workers actually improve both the function of government, and the overall wellbeing of the population. They also make it harder for corporations to increase profits through “externalizing” the expenses and dangers in question by cutting corners, and putting lives at risk. This, of course, is the origin of right-wing “pro-business” propaganda. For people who value money over human life, a well-informed agency that has the manpower, resources, and authority to make sure they’re not keeping mold at bay by spraying the grain with anti-fungal treatments that also make humans sick, represents a serious problem.

The GOP has long been the political arm of the Cult of Cash, and their fight against all forms of oversight has been tireless, and lethally effective. Now, under Trump, they’re taking their dirty tactics to new levels, and are forcing out huge numbers of agency workers. The loss of  knowledge, experience, and expertise could take decades to replace, even if the Left manages to take and hold power for the next 50 years.

From Trump didn’t just move our agencies. His administration gutted us, published in the Washington Post:

This office, once full of life, sits nearly empty because Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue decided that two of USDA’s research agencies would be moved out of Washington on only three months’ notice. My agency, the Economic Research Service, is an institution that publishes data and research about U.S. agriculture, some of it politically inconvenient. If an agency starts to publish data that is unflattering to the administration, you can’t close the agency or slash its funding because members of Congress from both parties count on its scientific analysis. You can’t fire federal workers for doing their jobs. So you transfer them, on short notice, 1,000 miles away, and they all leave the government in droves. That’s exactly what Perdue did, costing taxpayers as much as $215 million dollars of lost research.

During one of many farewell parties for departing staff, people shared stories of how they came to work for USDA. One woman tearfully recalled how, as an Army veteran living in the heartland, she was rebounding from a series of setbacks and got the news that the federal government needed her specialized skills in Washington. She found a second family and a new beginning at ERS. Another woman, hailing from Ohio, recounted her story of how she answered an ad in Jet magazine for entry-level federal work in Washington. She was regularly promoted, joining the ranks of dedicated civil servants who keep federal offices functioning, in service of the American people.

For these women and many of their colleagues, the move is shattering. One former employee with multiple sclerosis was forced to relocate, leaving behind their network of doctors. New parents juggled caring for an infant with an unplanned move. The community that supported others, including me, through medical hardships and other struggles, has been fragmented by the abrupt transition.

We were told to uproot our entire lives, allegedly so we could “be closer to farmers.” But there are plenty of farmers here in the D.C. area. One ERS economist was forced to liquidate a working farm in Maryland, an entire life’s work, as a result of this move. The public transportation network in Washington allows workers to take commuter trains in daily from the rural areas that define the landscapes of Virginia and Maryland.

Washington attracts workers from all over the United States, allowing rural America a seat at the table. We are the people of rural America, residing in and around Washington.

USDA brags about the Economic Research Service being a crown jewel of the department and a world-class research organization. But ERS is nothing without its people. Of all the highly qualified scientists, researchers and support staff with specialized jobs working at the top of their field, Perdue told 200 of them that they could move to Kansas City immediately or lose their jobs.

On Sept. 30, the report date ordered by Perdue, only 16 people from ERS relocated to Kansas City. As for the rest, most didn’t quit being civil servants — they simply took new federal jobs. Around 80 found jobs elsewhere in government, in places such as the State Department, the Pentagon, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs — places that value the kind of talent that the USDA spent decades nurturing. Of my remaining colleagues, nine took jobs in academia, and nine were lost to the private sector. More than 50 of those who would have been required to move were instead forced into early retirement.

Perdue did not move the Economic Research Service to Kansas City. He gutted it. ERS leadership remains in Washington, as do the employees handling congressionally mandated reports, including myself. Three quarters of the workforce were told to uproot and go to Kansas City so swiftly that there was no time for an orderly transfer of missions and research. There are stacks of reports and research completed with no staff left to publish the results. Data sets are abandoned, and a generation of scientific expertise extinguished.

The ERS isn’t gone, but its ability to serve the American people has been heavily – and deliberately – damaged.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been allowing workers to do their jobs without coming into the office for several years now, but under the Trump administration, that’s ending. The claimed reasoning is that this will improve the SSA’s ability to serve the people, but as an American Federation of Government Employees official points out, the problems this is supposed to solve don’t come from SSA workers not being physically in the office, and they may not even have space for all of the workers now being ordered to change how they do their work:

“The problem is that the agency is not staffed properly, and that’s something that comes from the top,” Jackson said.

In the meantime, AFGE said the change in telework policy will have a negative impact on employee morale, productivity and their well-being. And it’s concerned the agency may not have the office to space to accommodate all SSA employees at all times.

“When offices are remodeled… they were planned according to the staff number and according to the people who were in the telework program,” Jackson said. “If you have 20 people in an office and 10 of them telework, they’ve only built out offices or workspaces for 10 people. If you cancel this in a week, you have to put all these people into a space that’s really built for 15 or 10. Where are you going to put them?”

The amount of time for the transition was extended, but questions remain about why this change is happening, and what considerations were made in deciding on it – questions that are now being asked by Democrats in the House of Representatives:

“While the SSA Operations Telework Pilot has existed for nearly six years, SSA apparently did not adequately evaluate the pilot and has not articulated its future plans for telework,” the lawmakers wrote. “Management’s failure to properly evaluate telework performance metrics while it was in a pilot phase should not be the rationale for suspending telework in its entirety.”

Democrats instructed Social Security to provide the rationale for ending the program, as well as what the agency has done to address the concerns of employees affected by the change. They also asked the agency how it plans to measure the impact of ending telework on productivity and customer service.

This is all of a piece with the perverse Republican habit of appointing people to committees and positions who are openly hostile to the missions of those entities. It also fits with their long-standing strategy of making the government work as badly as possible, to bolster their political efforts to destroy parts of it that cause problems for them, or for their donors. Rick Perry, famous for incompetently promising to dismantle the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy, was put in charge of the Dept. of Energy, at which point it became obvious even to him that he hadn’t a clue what that department actually did.

There are many aspects of most governments that I’m not fond of, but I think the appropriate response to that is to work to improve things, to make the government better serve the people it supposedly represents, and to use it as a tool to empower those people. The Republican vision, conversely, seems to be that the government’s primary role is to create, empower, and support an aristocracy, and to serve their whims, no matter what facts must be ignored in the process, and no matter the harm done to everyone else.

Climate defeatism: propaganda against a better world

A few years back I came to the realization that avoiding some level of runaway greenhouse effect was no longer possible. First, there’s a fair amount of warming already in the pipeline, that’s going to happen whether or not we cut emissions. Second, there are powerful propaganda and corruption campaigns working in opposition to all efforts to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions. Third, there are the feedbacks like melting permafrost, decreasing albedo, and the effects of higher temperatures and associated drought on CO2 uptake by plants, all of which are already contributing to the warming. It seems pretty clear, taking all these factors into account, that avoiding a hotter world is no longer an option. Barring some way to pull CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate higher than we’ve been putting it there, the climate is going to keep warming for at least a few more centuries at this point.

This is one reason why I’m generally less than thrilled by the “end of the world if we don’t do something now” rhetoric – setting a deadline like that causes two problems. The first is that it creates an easy propaganda victory for the individuals and corporations fighting to stop action on climate change. It lets them point to past deadline warnings, and say “the world didn’t end then, so we shouldn’t listen!” This isn’t a valid argument, because we have taken SOME action, which may have pushed back the deadline a bit, and also because we really have passed the deadline to prevent 2°C warming, it’s just that it was always going to take time for it to get there. Validity, however, isn’t really relevant to whether it makes for convincing propaganda. The second problem is that it lets them say “if they’re right, it’s already too late, so why bother making big changes, since it won’t matter anyway?

This message is a lie. In reality, the proposed deadlines have always been about avoiding the need for big changes. Sure, changing where we get our energy and how we use it both count as “big changes”, but they’re nothing compared to the changes needed to maintain a high standard of living and increase global justice in a world that’s getting hotter with every decade. We’ve missed that chance. Personally, I think there should be punishment for those who used their power to put us in this situation, but that’s less important than the work before us now.

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Ben Shapiro, Fascist Rhetoric, and Singular “They”

In Ollie Thorn’s excellent video The Philosophy of Antifa, he spends some time discussing the nature of fascist propaganda, how it works, and how liberals tend to miss the point, and unwittingly help with the facsists in their scramble to debunk the vile, stupid views being discussed.

It doesn’t matter to a committed white nationalist how many times you sit down and debunk the ridiculous white nationalist conspiracy theory that the world is secretly being taken over by Jews; because when they say that, they’re not really saying it’s true. What they’re saying is: they want to persecute Jewish people.

This was a difficult concept for me to grasp because, from my point of view, persecution being the goal in itself doesn’t make sense. There must be a reason why they want to persecute Jewish people, right? And they’re saying it’s because they think Jewish people are trying to take over the world, right? I’m sure that some of them do really believe it, but as we’ve seen with so many other groups who deny reality, trying to “debunk” their bullshit doesn’t really make a dent. It doesn’t seem to be about the stated reasons so much as it’s about the circumstances in which they’re able to carry out their desired persecution. It’s about wanting to have the power to do it, and a worldview that revolves around an obsession with power and dominance. That’s also why fascism never stops with just one group – it’s an ideology that uses the persecution and destruction of targeted groups to fuel its rise to power. It’s a system of governance that relies on persecution as a unifying activity, hence the obsession with some level of “purity”. You can’t achieve a made-up level of purity, which means there will always be “impure” people to feed into the fire, to maintain power. The important part isn’t the validity of the story they tell to justify their actions, it’s the story itself. It’s more like a ritual than any serious claim about reality.

That brings me to Ben Shapiro, and his campaign against language. On September 17th, 2019, Merriam Webster added over 530 new words or definitions to their lexicon, including an additional definition for the singular use of the pronoun “they”. For those with a passing familiarity with the English language and its history, the first reaction might be to think, “hey – singular “they” has been around for way longer than that, right?” Right. The update is just recognizing the use of that pronoun for nonbinary people. Shapiro, unsurprisingly, objects.

He made a video ranting about how this “noun” has always been plural, and must always remain plural, and how “wokescolds” are ruining the English language with their made-up words. The knee-jerk reaction to this is to point out that (a) singular “they” has been around for centuries, and (b) “wokescold” is even MORE of a made-up word. And I think it’s important to make that point at least once or twice. If we don’t call people like this on their obvious bullshit, at the very least to get a correction on the record, then we could find ourselves in a situation where people accept their lies simply for lack of a rebuttal being available. That rebuttal, however, probably shouldn’t be where the bulk of our effort lies.

Thoughtslime made a video explaining in a way that helped me understand the white supremacist obsession with Judaism. I’ll summarize the point below, but I recommend watching the video if you can, because Thoughtslime, as usual, does an excellent job explaining what’s going on:

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Climate change, population growth, and social justice

At the recent climate change town hall series put on by CNN, Bernie Sanders got asked a question about overpopulation and climate change. His answer focused on reproductive rights, and on expanding the right to birth control and other family planning options not just to American women, but to women all over the world. This includes ending bans on foreign aid going to organizations that do things like providing abortion and other family planning services around the world:

This take is a good one, in my view, because it shows a commitment to improving the world for everyone that is often sorely lacking in discussions around overpopulation and limited resources. It’s one of those issues where a lot of people talk about how important it is to find a solution of some sort, but the conversation often doesn’t go farther. Most of the solutions that are readily available in popular culture seem to be… Bad. Also generally authoritarian.

If you have the time, I strongly recommend Peter Coffin’s video on the subject, as he does a great job of going into the history of concern over the problem, as well as some of the proposed solutions: [Read more…]

The climate models were accurate.

It should come as no surprise to most readers that the science denial crowd have been lying about climate models. We’ve known this all along, but it’s always worth checking for the thousandth time. As Gavin Schmidt says:

“Uncertainty is important to understand because we know that in the real world we don’t know everything perfectly. All science is based on knowing the limitations of the numbers that you come up with, and those uncertainties can determine whether what you’re seeing is a shift or a change that is actually important.”

Image is map of the Earth, colored to show temperature difference from 2008-2012. With blue being a drop in temperature, and red being an increase in temperature, the entire map is shades of red and orange, with blue areas in the Pacific, and in Antarctica. The darkest red - showing the most warming - is in the arctic

Most of the time when scientists run computer models on something, they run them with a variety of inputs, to test a variety of scenarios. What happens to the climate if we accelerate emissions? What happens if we slow them down? What happens if we have an unusual amount of volcanic activity? What happens if fires increase? Every time climate models are published, they show multiple scenarios, just as hurricane forecasts show multiple possible paths.

When science deniers talk about models, they generally take one of two approaches. The less common one is to focus on the best-case scenarios, to say that there’s nothing to worry about. The more common one is to focus on the worst-case scenarios, attack them as catastrophism, and then crow about scientific dishonesty when the climate follows the “most likely” paths instead.

It’s a useful rhetorical trick when your audience, quite understandably, doesn’t have the time or resources to read and understand every paper that’s published, and it has been effective in swaying public opinion and understanding.

Universe Today covers a recent report from NASA on how current global temperatures compare to what past models predicted:

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Hasan Minhaj: why your public transportation sucks

Transportation has always been one of the most public-facing pieces in the climate change puzzle, through emissions, through the health effects of air pollution, and through the politics of moving people around. Ground-based mass transit has always been one of the obvious “first steps” available to us to solve all of those problems. Modern trains are far more efficient per ton moved, whether it’s people or freight. They also create far less air pollution than road traffic, and they make travelling, for work or for pleasure, considerably more affordable.

And so, of course, the Koch empire opposes it. Many thanks to Hasan Minhaj for covering this:

When Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General of the United States, his vision of the postal service was as a great force for unification. Its mandate, to deliver mail to every corner of the nation, served to tie the us together, by allowing an affordable flow of data, ideas, and other information, available to every person living in the land.

A nation-wide rail network – particularly a modern, well-maintained one – serves much the same purpose. It means that you don’t need the expenses and dangers of car travel to see any part of the nation – you can just pack a bag and get on the train. If you can’t find a job where you are, you can commute to locations farther away, even if you can’t afford a personal vehicle. If that doesn’t work, you can pack all of your belongings onto a train and move to any other part of the country. It’s available to everyone, and if it were to be operated – like the USPS – as a public service, rather than an engine for private profit, it would be affordable for everyone too.

Mass transit gives power to the people. The power to leave an area ravaged by corporate greed. The power to move to a place with better opportunities. The power to travel without paying tribute to those who want to use your money to rule the world. That’s why oligarchic thugs like the Koch brothers have always fought against it, and why we have everything to gain by fighting back.

Reforestation in Ethiopia: This way lies hope.

Despite our rapidly advancing technology, and the years of research into carbon capture, photosynthesis still seems to be our best option for pulling large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is why global deforestation has been such a big problem. It has not only been releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, it has also been destroying many of the systems we have in place that act as a carbon sink, further amplifying the effects of the hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 that we’ve already released into the atmosphere. We’ve known for decades that reforestation, among other strategies rooted in the use of plants for photosynthesis, was a readily available, effective means of slowing the warming of the planet, though insufficient to stop it alone. As with so many other available actions, we have yet to make a concerted effort to do this, as a species.

Ethiopia has been no exception to the global deforestation trend, but they have recently taken steps showing what that collective action could look like. It’s a way that a government can use its resources, with the help of the people, to make a real difference:

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The endless fight for the future of humanity

For the last year or two, every time I sit down to write about climate change, I keep running into the same wall: Without a radical change to how the entire global economy functions, and who it serves, humanity has no future.

There are endless arguments to be had about to what degree renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, what role nuclear power should play, how much efficiency we can wring out of our technology, how we can make food production sustainable, and so on, but none of that really deals with the central, driving force that has destabilized our climate and pushed us into a hellish future of accelerating global warming. The global economy is designed to maintain and concentrate the wealth and power of those who are already wealthy and powerful, at the expense of everyone else. The fires in Brazil demonstrate this pretty well – The neo-fascist regime headed by known terrorist Jair Bolsonaro, and the conservatives who support him in places like the United States, have gone beyond being willing to burn the world to rule the ashes. Now, it seems, they prefer the ashes to any other option.

In fact, the conservative movement in general seems pretty hostile to most of the planet, and most of the people on it, so maybe it shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize that they don’t have much incentive to act. They might not like the smell, or the annoying ash fall, but in general, they seem to think that if most of humanity burns, the world will be better off for it. Their oddly karma-like view of poverty – that it shows a moral failing on the part of the poor – means that no matter how much blood and misery the future brings, it’s either a good thing, or it’s all just an “unfortunate necessity”. We don’t have enough money to house the homeless, despite the millions of homes standing empty. Not everybody can have safe drinking water, despite more and more of the world’s fresh water being turned into private property to be sold for profit. No matter what we’re talking about, there’s always a reason why it’s… not “OK”, exactly, but a necessary reality that most of humanity cannot have the resources needed for a good life.

And in the background, a handful of people profit off of the artificial scarcity. The reason we have so many homes standing empty is that housing the homeless doesn’t generate profit, and having a limited number of adequate homes allows landlords to charge more for the homes people are allowed to live in. While people around the world get sick from drinking water contaminated with industrial waste and bacteria, companies like Nestle are declaring the world’s fresh water sources to be their property, so that they can force people to pay higher prices for bottled water.

It may be that there really aren’t enough resources for everyone to have access to clean water, sufficient food, and adequate housing, but that’s not a claim we’ve ever really tested. We’ve started from the default assumption that there’s not, and therefore it’s OK that those problems are made worse and worse as a tiny number of people hoard more and more money. As long as access to the planet’s resources is governed by assumptions like that, we will never be able to deal with problems like climate change. We can’t feed everyone, so we shouldn’t try. We can’t house everyone, so we shouldn’t try. In fact, anyone who does try is evil for doing so.

Mark Fisher proposed that for a lot of people, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. For a lot of people, that seems to be less a matter of acceptance than it is one of preference – the end of the world would be better than the end of capitalism.

For Bolsonaro and those who support him, this has gotten to the point of actively playing chicken with the extinction of humanity, and unless they are stopped, no progress we manage to scrape around the edges will be enough. The effort that I’ve put into reducing my personal carbon footprint is meaningless in the face of the methane released through natural gas production, or more recently the burning of the Amazon rain forest. Individual action was never a viable solution for a problem this scale.

So it’s hard to know what to write about. For a time my approach was to focus on obvious first steps, like generating power from sewage, but so long as we have billionaires hoarding access to the resources we need, every tiny bit of progress requires far, far more effort than we have time for. We’re on a different planet now – one that was once hospitable to human civilization, but is becoming less so with each passing year. We’ve entered an age of endless recovery, in which we stagger from one climate-fueled crisis to the next. Never again will there be a time when those who value money over life cannot make the case that there’s simply too much going on for us to afford what’s needed. They would rather see billions die than give up their power.

The only path forward that I can see is to take away their power, just as they’ve taken away our entire world. The conservatives say that if we raise taxes on the money hoarders, they’ll take their hoards and go somewhere else. Fine. We’ll take over the resources they leave behind, put them to use, and then follow them to their new lairs to do it again. Maybe, in time, they’ll all get on one of Elon Musk’s rockets and go to eat their money on Mars.

Even if that does happen, though, there will never be a time when that struggle is over. There will always be people who can’t tell when they’ve had enough, and who think the rest of humanity exists to feed their bottomless appetites. No matter the society we build, we will always have to be on guard. That means empowering the powerless. That means breaking down barriers of prejudice and bigotry. If people have to fight for basic rights and equality, that’s energy they can’t spend fighting for humanity as a whole. That means fighting until everyone has access to food, and healthcare, and shelter, and education, and leisure time, so that they have time and energy to hold the line, to live lives they find fulfilling, and to fight for an even better world.

What does it mean to care about the wellbeing of sex workers?

Once again, Oliver Thorne has created an important, informative video on an issue laden with controversy and bad intentions.

 

For those who can’t see, at the beginning and end, Ollie is in a dressing room applying makeup. During the portions where he talks about gambling, and magic, he illustrates his points with card tricks, combined with a gambling scenario in which he plays the role of the House, in a three-piece suit and a leather armchair, casually demonstrating how he holds all the cards, and the sex worker, presented as the viewer (Based on camera angles) isn’t even allowed to keep hold the cards in their hand, having them replaced with jokers as the various entrapping rules are described.