Jeffrey Sachs has become ‘shrill’

I read the book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (2006) by Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, some time ago and much of it consisted of him jetting around the globe meeting with heads of state and helping them solve their economic problems. He put out the hopeful message that global poverty could be eradicated and as an establishment liberal working within the system, he was high profile and you would find articles by him and about him all over the place. Then a couple of years ago, he seemed to suddenly disappear from the op-ed pages of the major newspapers.

I think I now know why. Yesterday an opinion piece written by him appeared in the Huffington Post and reveals that he has come to the conclusion that the political system is inherently corrupt, with both parties serving the oligarchy (though he does not use that term) and guilty of swindling the public.

Here’s a sample:

The Democrats of the White House and much of Congress have been less crude, but no less insidious, in their duplicity. Obama’s campaign promise to “change Washington” looks like pure bait and switch. There has been no change, but rather more of the same: the Wall-Street-owned Democratic Party as we have come to know it. The idea that the Republicans are for the billionaires and the Democrats are for the common man is quaint but outdated. It’s more accurate to say that the Republicans are for Big Oil while the Democrats are for Big Banks. That has been the case since the modern Democratic Party was re-created by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin.

Thus, at every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class. He refused to tax the banks and hedge funds properly on their outlandish profits; he refused to limit in a serious way the bankers’ mega-bonuses even when the bonuses were financed by taxpayer bailouts; and he even refused to stand up against extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich last December, though 60 percent of the electorate repeatedly and consistently demanded that the Bush tax cuts at the top should be ended. It’s not hard to understand why. Obama and Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions the same way that the Republicans rely on oil and coal. In America today, only the rich have political power.

Who runs America today? The rich and the multinational corporations. Who runs the White House? David Plouffe, whose job it is to make sure that ever word, every action of the president is calculated for electoral gain rather than the country’s needs. Who runs the Congress, on both sides of the aisle? The lobbyists, who win in every negotiation. And who loses? The American people, who have said repeatedly that they want a budget that sharply cuts the military, ends the wars, raises taxes on the rich, protects the poor and the middle class, and invests in America’s future not just in Obama’s speeches but in fact.

That kind of view quickly gets you booted out of the mainstream media and government circles. Sachs now joins a growing number of former establishment intellectuals who are increasingly being described as ‘shrill’ because they express views outside that narrow slice of so-called respectable opinion that requires you to pretend as if the two parties represent widely divergent interests. They have seen through the charade of politics in the US and talk about where power really lies and that is simply not allowed.

Trying to make sense of the insane

In reading about the horrific tragedy in Norway, I was trying to think of how, even to a diseased mind, it would make sense to mow down a large number of trapped unarmed young people. How could you possibly think it would bring credit to your cause (whatever it is)?

I know I may be engaged in the futile pursuit of trying to make sense of the actions of someone who has to be crazy, but such people do not seem to be crazy in the sense of having no idea what they are doing. This guy was clearly a coldly calculating person, planning the murders with great precision.

So what is it that causes their calculations to go so awry in the one particular area of gauging the likely reactions of ordinary people to their actions? Why can’t they see that it will cause people to recoil in disgust?

How to talk like Deepak Chopra

It’s easy!


A commenter named marius at the Calamities of Nature site where I saw this had a go at using the template and came up with the following:

The mind is like a quark. In both cases, when tunneling occurs, the physical reality of the void becomes apparent. It is only due to the field that surrounds us all that we can participate in consciousness. From this we know that the grand theory of unity exists. Amazingly, nature is the perfect analog to this phenomenon. The deep connection is the result of the earth. It is revealing that there is a fundamental link between us and the higher plane of existence and that consciousness is always found in the dark energy surrounding the stars.

Pretty good, no? Actually, a lot of so-called sophisticated theology that tries to meld science with god is like this so I suspect that many modern theologians are working off the same template.

Prison chase

What comedian Benny Hill taught us is that footage of almost any chase can be made funny by speeding it up and adding the tune Yakety Sax as the sound track. Here the theory is applied to a chase within a prison as captured by the closed circuit surveillance cameras. (Via Boing Boing.)

I just love the tune Yakety Sax. It never fails to cheer me up and put me in a good mood.

Rebranding Christ

Via Pharyngula, I learn that Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelical organization, has decided to change its name. The new one? Cru. Yes, really. Apparently college affiliates had been referring to themselves this way for a while.

I don’t know about this. Cru sounds more like the stage name a rapper would adopt, as in ‘DJ Cru’. Furthermore, the university where I work at has the acronym CWRU that is spoken as ‘crew’ which sounds the same as ‘cru’. So the members of the campus affiliate of this organization will become known as the ‘CWRU Cru crew’, which when vocalized will sound like you are doing bird imitations.

The reason for the change is that apparently the words ‘Campus’ and ‘Crusade’ had negative connotations. More interestingly, they found that even ‘Christ’ was off-putting because people “might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name”. They seem to think that having a name that gave no hint of being Christian would enable their members to sneak their religious message into conversations with people who were unaware that they were targets of a proselytization effort.

This is of course the kind of sneaky tactics religious people use. But despite that, I took it to be a very encouraging sign that the brand ‘Christ’ is seen by even evangelical Christians as being tarnished.

Obama’s negotiating skills

As the debt-ceiling talks drag on, Democratic party supporters keep getting alarmed at getting regular reports that he seems to be willing to give away the store to the Republican crazies who are clearly losing the public relations battle, and keep wondering why he seems to be such a lousy negotiator.

It is important to bear I mind what I have said repeatedly. Obama and the Democratic party leadership are not trying to get the best deal from the Republicans. They and the Republicans agree on what they want to do (cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits and provide more tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations) because that is what their bosses, the oligarchy, want.

What Obama is trying to negotiate is a way to get all these things without completely alienating his party’s base. He will go as far as he can get away with. That is why all these trial balloons keep getting floated and then denied.

Religion and inequality

Jerry Coyne has a very interesting post discussing a new study by F. Solt, P. Habel, and J. T. Grant, J. T. titled Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity that appeared in the journal Social Science Quarterly, 92: 447–465 (2011), that finds that economic inequality is positively correlated with religious belief, and looks at theories that might account for this.

The most common theory is called “deprivation theory” which says that in economically unequal societies, poorer folks turn to religion for reassurance and comfort. The authors of the paper introduce something called “relative power theory” that says that “many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.”

Coyne summarizes the conclusions of the paper.

Their findings thus suggest that both the deprivation and relative power theories are needed to explain the data. In economically unequal societies, rich people promulgate religion to keep their own place in the hierarchy, and, rather than fighting for more equality, poor people accept religion as an easy form of solace.

The authors also note that the relative power theory explains why the U.S. is so religious despite the fact that its citizens are generally well off. It is, they say, because the U.S. shows considerably more economic inequality than other developed countries (and that is true).

The authors also did a time-study and found that “Increases in inequality in one year predict substantial gains in religiosity in the next,” while “past values of religiosity do not predict future values of inequality” clearly indicating that it is inequality that influences religiosity and not the other way around.

A heartening sign is the trend of declining religiosity in America over the last half century.


Of course, this predicts that the recent rise in inequality in the US will see an uptick in religiosity. But it seems that the overall tendency is for religion to decline.

Both the original paper and Coyne’s summary make for fascinating reading.

What appealed to me is the inference that the fights for economic justice and the elimination of religion are related, since those are two of my personal goals.

Film review: The Company Men

The film looks at the effect of the loss of jobs in the current economy, but from the point of view of the upper middle classes. It centers around the character played by Ben Affleck, a well-paid executive who suddenly loses his job as a result of his division in a conglomerate being shut down. The reasons for the shut down and layoffs are the usual: the top management of a manufacturing company shifts production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and tries to goose up its stock price (thus increasing their personal wealth via their stock options) by eliminating jobs to increase profits, especially laying off older workers who are paid more, all the while paying its chief executives high salaries and providing them with fancy offices, corporate jets, and other perks.

Also in the film are the always watchable veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as much older senior executives who also lose their jobs, the former because he tries to protest the lay-offs, especially of long-time employees like Cooper. The film looks at how they try to adjust to suddenly feeling useless, the shame they feel at their friends and neighbors and relatives knowing about their sudden drop in status, and the sting of not having calls returned and being rejected for job after job.

This is not a great film but it is worth seeing. Initially it is hard to feel any sympathy for the Affleck character who plays the role of a shallow yuppie jerk, living in a large suburban house, driving a Porsche, regularly playing golf at his country club, thinking that he is so good that the recession will not touch him and that he will be snapped up for a similar high-paying job immediately, and refusing to accept the fact that his new reduced circumstances may last a long time and require him to adjust to a much more modest lifestyle. He also looks down on his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is self-employed as a home-builder who does much of the work himself and hires one or two people to help him. But Affleck manages to humanize this character so that you do eventually start feeling sorry for him.

Since I do not move around in such corporate or social circles, it was hard for me to get a sense of how realistic the situations and portrayals were. The firings of even the very senior executives seemed too abrupt and secretive to me. It also seemed odd that people who had earned so much money over such a long period did not seem to have sufficient savings or other reserves to ride out not having an income for a few months, so much so that they cannot even pay their children’s college tuition. Do such people actually blow almost their entire incomes living high on the hog, thinking that they will never face any setbacks in life?

The US is notorious for having a very low savings rate. I wrote in an earlier post about how 50% of the population are economically fragile, in that they would find it hard to lay their hands on $2,000 in 30 days if a sudden emergency should require it. I thought that this would apply to mostly the middle class and poorer who had less disposable income but this film suggests that this may extend to the more wealthy upper-middle class too. Maybe these people try too hard to emulate to the lifestyles of the people profiled in David Sirota’s “Such it up and cope” article and feel that a fancy house, a Porsche, country club membership, and fancy vacations are essentials, not luxuries, and thus spend as much as they make, if not more.

One interesting side note in the film was seeing how the executive outplacement system, which is a benefit offered to executives to ease the sting of being fired, works. It seems to be much like working in an office in that you are given a desk, a computer, a phone in a shared cubicle (and maybe a private office if you are a fired senior executive), plus some coaching on how to find a job, except that it is for a limited time and your job is to find a job.

Here’s the trailer.

Dramatic horse rescue

In October 2006, more than one hundred horses got trapped in a small patch of dry land as a result of a sudden flood in the Netherlands in which 18 horses drowned. All rescue attempts failed and the horses seemed to be getting desperate until four women decided to try a different approach.

The episode has been set to music. Watch.

The deficit reduction plan of the so-called ‘Gang of Six’

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), issued a statement on the latest budget plan that Obama seems to be enthused about, although there is still some confusion about what the plan calls for since it is still in outline form. Baker’s statement is worth reading in full but here is his conclusion:

The budget plan produced by the Senate’s “Gang of Six” offers the promise of huge tax breaks for some of the wealthiest people in the country, while lowering Social Security benefits for retirees and the disabled.

It is striking that the Gang of Six chose to respond to the crisis created by the collapse of the housing bubble by developing a plan that will give even more money to top Wall Street executives and traders.

Obama seems to be actually proud that he is going along with the long-sought-after dream of the oligarchy to cut the safety net of older and poor people, saying that the plan is ‘broadly consistent’ with what he has been advocating, adding that “We have a Democratic President and administration that is prepared to sign a tough package that includes both spending cuts, modifications to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare that would strengthen those systems and allow them to move forward, and would include a revenue component.”

The wingnuts seem to be mobilizing against the plan too so it may not go anywhere.