Civic Duty in the World of Social Media

My parents didn’t but most men went to the pub every evening and most women went to the Women’s Institute everye day seventy years ago in the farming village in England where I was a kid.

They went to talk about the news.  Much of it was local gossip but there was also a lot of national and international news on the radio that provoked debate.

Most people just enjoyed the entertainment but some of them very much wanted their neighbors to see sense.  The same sense they saw, of course…

That was how opinions about current events were formed.

Then came TV and the start of a new culture where men and women no longer so rigidly segregated themselves socially.

And then came social media.  Now we can have neighbors we never see but with whom we can chat or just listen to every day.

One way I’m different from my parents is I can’t stop myself from trying to get everyone, myself included, to see sense.  Social media gives me that opportunity and it also offers a fascinating challenge.

We all learn, with varying success, how to persuade others face to face and how to recognize when we’re the one who is mistaken.  But how to do that when we’re not face to face?

This is my first post in many months.  While renovating the house and surroundings of our new home outside Gettysburg, PA over the past year and moving our stuff from Maine I had no time for carefully researched posts.  Instead, I began posting links to the work of others on Facebook.

Now, I’ve dealt with the huge backlog of comments here (10,188 of them spam from bots) and I’m working on a piece about my current understanding of reality.

I have more building and yard work still to do but it’s less urgent so I’m starting to aim now for a new balance between that work along with my ongoing attempt to make sense of events, creating original content here about domestic and foreign policy here, and curating the work of others on Facebook.

But because I have to think about things before I speak, I won’t be on Twitter.

The State of Our Warfare Industry

Wars used to be fought for control of land, resources and people.  Some went on a long time, but they all ended.  Now, however, war is for the USA an industry.  Its goal is not peace and stability, but ever-growing war and instability.

Media bloviating about protecting the homeland, supporting allies, and spreading democracy is a well functioning distraction.  Industry leaders are expected to deliver growth, so warfare industry leaders are promoting terror.

Over the past decade the Middle East warfare market has been well penetrated to become a base for expansion throughout the area encircled by the “Functioning Core”:

Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew [Compatibility Mode]

The GlobalFirePower project, which tracks defense spending around the world and shows our spending ($577B) to be four times higher than our closest competitor, China, and almost ten times higher than our former arch-rival, Russia, headlines its website: “Going to war is never a decision to be taken lightly, especially when considering the overall cost of such ventures.”

So how did it happen that we no longer consider the cost of wars, and why is it that we no longer decide whether to undertake them, only where we will make wars?

As these Federal Budget charts illustrate, we categorize military spending ($598B) as “discretionary” unlike Social Security and Medicare which are funded via dedicated taxes.  Discretionary means not mandatory, but no politician proposing big cuts in military spending is electable.

I’ve written before about Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program (“One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals”) and I’ve written about our arms export industry whose collapsing market after the Cold War was rejuvenated by President Bush’s War on Terror.

International Transfers of Major Weapons

It was only in President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, when he would never again seek election, that he warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Two years later, in 1963, President Kennedy tried again.  Condemning the demonization of Soviet leaders, he warned against the Pax Americana we still seek to enforce today:

“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … let us not be blind to our differences – but let us direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved.”

President Kennedy was soon assassinated, his successor, President Johnson, led us into the Vietnam nightmare, in the next decades we greatly increased our military spending while fighting only small wars, and then President Bush hoodwinked us into a War on Terror that can by definition never end.

Now, when President Obama endorses spending $1,000B+ over the next three decades to enhance our ability to fight nuclear war using weapons with more flexible targeting and a range of yields even down to that of large conventional weapons, Ike is not among Obama’s potential successors.

Ike, Trump and Cruz

Let’s take stock.  How is Pax Americana going?

Late last month Iraqi forces retook the provincial capital, Ramadi, from the Islamic State.  That was possible primarily due to US airstrikes which, as a side-effect, destroyed over 80% of the city.  Victories like that destroy peoples’ means of existence.

As I wrote here when I began researching the Middle East:  “We have come to believe it is not only right but good to send our children to kill, and we revel in the destruction our media presents.”

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali are already failing or failed states, we will drop another 23,000 bombs on them and others this year, and our drones will go on creating “collateral damage” there, in Pakistan and beyond.

Back when I was a Senior Vice President of a large global enterprise, I sometimes imagined my colleagues’ decisions that would have bad results to be stupid.  They were not.  I was the stupid one, not recognizing those results were desired.  Now, our warfare industry leaders and I want different results.

The War on Terror will continue to grow our market.  The state of our warfare industry is strong.

Islam in the USA

Around 200,000 Africans had been brought to the US, some of them Muslims, when 55 delegates gathered at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.  Among them, 51 were Christian.  Some said Islam threatens Christianity, but those in favor of religious liberty prevailed.

John Adams had written a decade earlier in Thoughts on Government that Muhammad was a “sober inquirer after truth” along with Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and others, and as President in 1797 he declared that the US has no “enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims).”

But Islam was not much thought about after that until the late 19th century since most owners made slaves attend Christian churches.  It was only when immigrants began arriving from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent that Muslims began to be noticeable.  Now the pace has greatly accelerated — two in five Muslim immigrants have come since 1990.

Around 3.3 million or 1% of the US population is Muslim today.  About 40% are white, 30% African-American and 30% Asian.   About half the native-born US Muslims are African-American, many of them converts, and 16% belong to what used to be the Nation of Islam aka the Black Muslims.

Muslim American Demographics

The first US mosque was founded in 1915, the first built specifically as a mosque in 1934.   Of 2,000+ mosques in the U.S. now, almost 90% were founded in the last three decades.  Around 400 are associated with The American Society of Muslims, the successor to the Nation of Islam.

During the first half of the 20th century, a small number of African Americans had established groups based on Islamic teachings.  Then in 1930 the Nation of Islam (NOI) was created.  Christianity, its founder declared, was the white man’s religion, forced on African Americans during the slave experience.  He said Islam was their identity.

The message resonated even though most slaves had come from West Central Africa where there were relatively few Muslims.  Slavery had been outlawed since 1865 but seventy years later in the 1930s, African Americans were still oppressed.  It felt long past time to bring that to an end.

In the 1950s Malcolm X, whose house was burned by Ku Klux Klan terrorists when he was a child, became the charismatic face of the NOI advocating complete separation of blacks and whites.

That Islam was brought to the US by relatively recent immigrants and embraced by black separatists colors our attitudes today.  And there is a much longer and broader history that labels Westerners and Muslims in each others eyes.

Pew Research studied traits each sees in the other in a cross-section of Western and Middle East and Asian Muslim nations.  No surprise; Westerners and Muslims see each other as violent and fanatical.

Westerners consider Muslims to be above all fanatical and lacking respect for women.  Muslims consider Westerners to be above all selfish and not generous.

Muslims also see Westerners as violent, greedy, immoral, arrogant, fanatical, neither honest nor tolerant, and not very respectful of women.

But perhaps surprisingly, although Westerners see Muslims as violent and intolerant, they also see them as honest, quite generous, and not selfish, immoral or greedy.

Muslim vs Western Perceived Characteristics

The perception Muslims have of Westerners was formed centuries ago in the Crusades, confirmed by Britain and France’s more recent colonial domination, and compounded by US-led regime change and warfare in the Middle East now as well as Islamophobia whipped up by our politicians and media.

Westerners and Muslims have a long history of prejudice and violence toward each other, but that can change.  It is encouraging that, along with the negatives, Pew Research found Westerners attributing positive traits to Muslims, especially in Europe where there are many more Muslims .

The more we interact the more accepting of differences most of us will become and the safer we all will be.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations

The term “pathetic fallacy” comes from Ruskin’s 19th century campaign against false emotion in poetry.   Pathetic then meant emotional, fallacy falseness.

A pathetic fallacy is based on personifying what is not a person.  If we say clouds are sullen or leaves dance, we mask their reality with an idea.  We do not see them as they are and we respond in ways that do not result from their reality.  Pathetic fallacies trigger false emotions from false perceptions.

We make this mistake today when we think of corporations as people.  We admire Apple, vilify Monsanto, and so on.

We also think of nations as if they have an existence separate from their people.  And politicians speak of Islam as if it was an entity.  I will explore those pathetic fallacies in future posts.

This post is about corporations viewed as people, a delusion that got a powerful boost in 2010 from the US Supreme Court.

In Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which relied on an earlier decision that associations of individuals have First Amendment free speech rights, the Court ruled that corporations are associations of individuals and therefore also have those rights.

Justice Stevens pointed out the failure of logic.  Since legal entities are not “We the People” for whom the Constitution was established, they have no Constitutional rights of any kind.

It is the members of a corporation or any other association who have Constitutional rights, said Justice Stevens.  Corporations do not have an additional set.

Because Justice Stevens was in the minority, corporations, which are not individuals with a vote, now significantly influence voting.

We the People can try individually to persuade others to vote like us and if we are wealthy enough, we can buy media advertisements to amplify our voice.   To balance that power, associations of individuals who are less wealthy can pool their resources.

But spending from corporate treasuries is now amplifying spending by wealthy individuals.

And our delusion that personifies corporations leads us to imagine they decide what politicians to promote.  But corporations do not make decisions — their executives do.

Let me personalize that.  The core business of Dun & Bradstreet where I was a Senior Vice President assumes that payment history is the best indicator of credit worthiness.  That was true in 1841 when almost every US business was a sole proprietorship — but note the fallacy.

It is the proprietor who decides when a sole proprietorship pays its suppliers and that is true for every business enterprise, which means the best indicator of the credit worthiness of a business is the honesty of its executives.

There were no personal credit reports in 1841 but there are now, so the trustworthiness of any business can be judged by the presence or absence of negative financial behavior by its executives.

That must be the case because it is not businesses but the people who manage them that decide when and whether to pay bills.

Although the fallacy of imagining that corporations behave as entities separate from their executives is not significant for the future of D&B’s business, it is very important for the future of our democracy.

The newly authorized corporate spending to promote political candidates on top of the existing spending on lobbying to influence legislation now impacts who gets elected in the first place.

That matters because legislation by politicians whose campaigns are largely funded by wealthy individuals and the corporate treasuries they control inevitably favors those wealthy individuals.

That was not what the framers of our Constitution intended.  Their goal was for legislation to “promote the general Welfare.”


Let’s Stop Being Terrorized

A year ago we were exhorted to close our borders against Ebola.  Some State Governors went ahead and did so, taking action, they said, when President Obama would not.

Then a friend posted this appalling and spurious image.  What we should really fear, she thought, is Islam.  One in three conservative Republicans already believed President Obama to be a Muslim.

Although fear trumps facts, that particular lie did not have legs.  Islam does not allow such behavior and Ayatollah Khomeini, who died a quarter of a century ago, is not the “current leader of Iran.”

Fear is a helpful survival instinct — we’re safer taking automatic fight-or-flight action with intellect engaging only later.  But there’s a downside.  Because it closes our mind, instilling fear is a powerful way to control us.

Knowing that, politicians are now instilling fear of a much more potent terror, ISIS.  They say it is the true face of a religion that commands its followers to kill all others.  And some Americans think they know exactly what to do about that nightmare.

Mainstream media eagerly participates in the fear-mongering.  Ten days after the recent San Bernardino massacre, the New York Times claimed one of the attackers had years ago publicly committed to terrorism.

The allegation is false, said FBI Director Comey, and the Times provided no evidence, but presidential candidates claimed it as a catastrophic Obama administration failure.

Voters want someone to blame for their struggles, politicians want us to have an enemy because they will get more power if we are fearful, and mainstream media amplifies our fears so we will consume more.  Our emotions are being manipulated.  We are being misdirected.

As I wrote a year ago, while we cannot eliminate infectious disease, a health care system that encourages all with symptoms to get treatment right away would minimize the spread of disease.

And while San Bernardino was horrific and likely was inspired by ISIS publicity, the odds of being killed by terrorists in America are extremely small. Depending on how you define them, there have been 40 mass shootings since 9/11/2001 but only a few were terrorist attacks.

Mass Shootings Map

We cannot anticipate all future mass shootings or other kinds of massacres.  We could not have anticipated Timothy McVeigh killing 168 people with a homemade bomb in Oklahama City twenty years ago, or the drivers who mass murder pedestrians.

We could eliminate many mass shootings, however, including San Bernardino and the massacre in my home town, by removing assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society.

And we could go further.  We could start eliminating the future equivalent of this year’s 355 shootings  in which four or more were injured or killed, and this year’s 33,000 individual deaths and 80,000 hospitalizations from gunshots.

Police work will not end hatred of blacks, Muslims, our government, fellow workers, shooters’ families or others, desire for fame, other people’s money or ending one’s own life, or just plain foolishness.

But we could start eliminating the easy way to kill by removing not only assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society, but all hand guns.  We could even restrict rifles and shotguns.

I do not expect our society will make that choice.  I expect our freedom to own a wide range of weapons will continue to outweigh its costs.  We will choose to continue having mass shootings.

Perhaps we will get a universal health care system one day because our present approach costs far too much.  But our freedom to own guns does not seem something about which we can make conscious choices.

Beset by all these nightmares and more, is there anything we can do as individuals?  As this wise Christian leader wrote when we faced immediate nuclear extinction, we can pull ourselves together and meet our fate doing sensible and human things.

Let’s stop being terrorized by politicians and media people.  Let’s summon the courage to live in the happily generous American way.

Things we do out of fearfulness with which we’ve been infected frustrate and sadden people like this Muslim family that we would not allow to come on holiday and enrage those in other countries like our own “Overpasses for America” people.  That rage is why some want to kill us.

So let’s each of us do the deeply human thing.  Let’s learn how to help each other overcome fear.

Beyond the Media Hype: Arms Exports

Most of us think beheading is barbaric and are horrified by 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for a website advocating free speech.  We abhor child marriages and are appalled that women anywhere should need permission from a male guardian even to travel.

Sweden’s foreign minister recently denounced those policies and acts by Saudi Arabia as extreme violations of human decency.

She went on to say it would be wrong for Sweden to continue military cooperation with such a regime.  European Union countries had after all in 2008 established a Common Position on arms exports making “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition.

The Saudi regime’s response was to withdrew its ambassador and stop issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.  Its allies condemned Sweden’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’  The United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassador, too.

How would the Swedish government respond?  Sweden sold more than half a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014 and the Saudi regime is expected to buy 52% more arms this year than last.  Would Sweden give up such a huge opportunity?

And the impact could be much broader than Sweden’s arms exporters alone.  Denmark was hit with a major international boycott when a Danish newspaper published Muhammed cartoons in 2005.

Lobbying by Sweden’s business leaders began immediately.  Thirty chief executives signed an open letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.’

Sweden’s king called the foreign minister to his palace and told her to back off.  The Constitution grants him no power, but…

And the Saudi regime positioned the minister’s denunciation of their human rights abuses as anti-Muslim hatred.

It looked like business priorities would trump human decency.  But, after no doubt agonized debate, the Swedish government announced the cancellation of its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And a couple of weeks later Saudi Arabian media published a fabricated apology by Sweden along with the news that its ambassador would return.

This is a heartening story for anyone who thinks beheading and so forth is barbaric.  But it was little reported in Europe and almost not at all here.  So we must also note a couple of other things.

First, our US government supports the Saudi regime not just because we want their oil but because since we destroyed Iraq, it alone balances Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Middle East Map

Americans fear Iran.  We do not remember overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 and replacing it with the Shah’s dictatorship.  All we remember is the theocratic regime that overthrew our friend the Shah holding our Embassy staff hostage.  We imagine an Iran that we have always treated well but which is our mortal enemy for religious reasons.  And our ally Israel considers Iran an existential threat because it supports its Shia fellows, Hezbollah and Hamas, working for the Palestinian State that Israel’s newly re-elected leader declared he will resist to the end.

Second, Sweden’s admirable decision removes a competitor for Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases.

Arms Exporters

This March 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report notes that we delivered major weapons to at least 94 countries in 2010-14.

The world’s largest importer, India, increased its purchases by 140% from 2005-2009, chiefly from Russia.  The second largest, Saudi Arabia, increased its purchases  by 400%, supplied chiefly by the UK (36%) and the USA (35%).Arms ImportersWe delivered $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and their Iran-facing neighbor United Arab Emirates last year, up from $6 billion the previous year.

A growing share of big fast-growing markets is what every business leader wants.

The Swedish government decided human rights trump what arms business leaders want.  My government is sticking with the opposite decision.

Beyond the Media Hype: Fear and Loathing

It is traditional to express a wish around this time of year.  Mine is that all of us will come to feel this truth more — we are all the same.

It is also traditional to make a personal resolution.  Mine is to continue diligently training myself to act on this truth.  If all of us did, we would “save the world” — we would end suffering.

All the sameThat’s what motivated all these posts I originally titled “Fear and Loathing of…”  Someone I love said, “I wish you’d stop with the fear and loathing” and I knew it was a distressing title but it highlighted what is so dangerous, the fear and loathing our media stimulates.  On reflection, I think it amplifies the emotion so now I’ve renamed them “Beyond the Media Hype…”

Progressives fume about Fox News.  They’re right because 60% of Fox’s statements are mostly or completely false, less than 10% are true and less than 20% are even mostly true.  But it’s not just Fox News.

Politifact Fox

Conservatives fulminate about MSNBC.  They’re also right.  Almost half (44%) of statements there are mostly or completely false, again less than 10% are true, and although the percentage is better than with Fox News, less than 30% are mostly true.

Fox News and MSNBC give us stories to feed our hatred.  Better to watch CNN because fewer than 20% of their statements are mostly or completely false and 60% are true or mostly true.

Politifact MSNBC

But nonetheless, 18% of the statements on CNN are mostly or completely false.  We must not believe everything there.

Politifact CNN

Democracy cannot work when 3 of every 5 statements on Fox News are mostly or completely false, more than 2 of 5 statements on MSNBC are mostly or completely false, and even on CNN, only 3 of 5 statements are true or mostly true.

This is not a theoretical issue.  Falsehoods in the media persuade us that we have enemies, people who are fundamentally different from us, people we must destroy.

We are so easily led  to imagine those who seem different from us in some way are our enemies.  That’s why I originally titled these posts “Fear and Loathing Of/In …”

We fear being swept aside by immigrants, especially Muslims, we fear who knows what violence from Iran, Saudis are beset by conflict with each other that exacerbates our mutual suspicion, and so on and so on and so on.

I will continue to explore Middle Eastern nations and the ethnic, religious and other rivalries that transcend their arbitrarily imposed borders to set the context for a deeper exploration of what is really going on.

But please don’t wait.  We really are all the same — we all want to be more happy.  We all will be more happy if we become more kind, and we will grow more kind as we become more happy.

Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program

A news article this week brought to mind something British politician Tony Benn said, “I remember setting sail to South Africa for training [as a WW2 RAF pilot] and being part of a war aims meeting.  It was the most brilliant political meeting I ever attended.  One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals.”

The article is about a $643M contract with Bath Iron Works (BIW) for which Maine Senators Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent, got funding.  They say it will “allow the Navy to send another DDG-51 to sea when the Navy’s fleet needs to preserve important combat capabilities in support of our national defense.”  Democratic Representative Pingree said, “this is excellent news for the families who earn their living at BIW.”  A shop steward who represents BIW workers said, “the contract brings more stability to the company, which employs about 5,400 people.”

So, my representatives in Washington, the BIW workers and their families, local business owners, everyone around here is happy we’re going to build more of these ships that were “originally designed to defend against Soviet aircraft, cruise missiles and nuclear attack submarines.”

What struck me is, although we don’t think of Defense that way, it has grown into an enormous jobs program.  What’s more it’s a program whose rationale and scope we do not question.

President Reagan’s budget director David Stockman has points to make, however.  In The Ukraine, The War Party and the Pentagon’s Swamp of Waste he writes, “the $625 billion allocated to DOD this year amounts to a colossal destruction of economic resources for no benefit whatsoever to the safety and security of the American people.”

Stockman is angry, perhaps because “About three decades ago I called the Pentagon a “swamp of waste” during an off-the-record interview that ended-up on the evening news. Presently I ended-up in President Reagan’s woodshed–explaining that, well, yes, I did say that because it was in fact true.”   His article is excellent background reading.

I don’t feel emotional about this but I am equally determined to do what I can so we do question how we want to spend that $625B of tax revenue.  The current program does have some benefit — it provides a lot of jobs — but as Tony Benn realized, some of them could be different jobs.  Some could be jobs without the risk of being killed or maimed.

Defense spending has huge support.  There was a bi-partisan agreement to cut (sequester) federal spending this year.  Stockman notes that “Had every dime of the $55 billion sequester been implemented, this year’s DOD budget would have been roughly $600 billion … in 1989, the DOD budget was about $475 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars.”   Even though DOD spending would have been up 25% from 25 years earlier, when the time came to make the cuts, Congressman Paul Ryan and others said making them would be tantamount to surrender.  So the cuts were not made.

What provoked Stockman’s article is, “Contrary to the bombast, jingoism, and shrill moralizing flowing from Washington and the mainstream media, America has no interest in the current spat between Putin and the mobs of Kiev.”

Echoing President Eisenhower’s famous warning when he left office sixty years ago, he says,  “The source of the current calamity-howling about Russia is the Warfare State–that is, the existence of vast machinery of military, diplomatic and economic maneuver that is ever on the prowl for missions and mandates and that can mobilize a massive propaganda campaign on the slightest excitement.”

Stockman is outraged that we believe the propaganda and by our hypocrisy: “We have invaded every country to our South–from the Dominican Republic to Guatemala and Panama and assassinated or overthrown dozens of  their leaders–all within the 60 year span since Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to his minions in Kiev. So precisely which nearby borders are so sacrosanct and exactly who has done the more egregious violating?”

I’ve written before about our defense spending and military strategy over which “we the people” have no control.  President Reagan greatly accelerated spending on what was in fact a spurious rationale, it dropped and stabilized in the next decade, then it was driven to extraordinary new heights by President Bush based on a new spurious rationale.  The numbers below show our total defense spending, not just what is presented in the US budget defense line item but also the spending on “overseas contingency operations” i.e., the wars President Bush started in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trends in US Military Spending

We might be encouraged by Congress’ refusal to approve President Obama’s recent desire to take military action in Syria except that (A) Congress is currently of a mind to refuse everything he proposes and (B) everyone in Congress always wants more military spending in their district.

Important as it is to make rational changes to our defense spending and decide what kind and size jobs program we want to fund, however, we first need a government that functions, one that could debate such questions, arrive at decisions and take action.

I’m still absorbing research about how we could get such a government and, following a break where I’m hoping for sun and heat, I will report back next month.

Surprised by the Antichrist

If you’re ever on I-84 near where it meets the Mass Pike, stop in at the Traveler Restaurant, be served a good diner-style meal by friendly waitresses and choose three free books.  I’ve been going there every chance I get since 1985.

What I found there most recently is Kevin Phillips’ 2006 American Theocracy.  In his 1967 book The Emerging Republican Majority Phillips showed how gaining Southern voters could propel the Republican Party’s revival.  He is now horrified by the result.

American Theocracy has three sections.  Phillips starts by reviewing how our dependence on oil led to our foreign policy and wars in the Middle East and ends by showing how our financial and business leaders got the Republican Party’s traditional principles of sound finance abandoned.  What surprised me is the middle section.  There he examines the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and apocalyptic expectations and shows how they shape our policies.

Phillips cites the statistics on Americans with a religious preference.  From 17% in 1776 it rose to 34% in 1850, 45% in 1890, 56% in 1926, 62% in 1980 and 63% in 2000.  We were established as a secular republic when fewer than one in five Americans had any religious preference.  More than three in five of us now has a religious belief.

Almost half (46%) of Americans now identify themselves as “born again” Christians.  And more than half (55%) in a 2004 Newsweek poll believe the Bible is literally accurate.

In the 2000 elections 87% of the “frequent-attending white religious right” voted for George W. Bush (GWB).  Only 27% of secular voters favored him.  I had no idea religious belief had such an impact.  I did recognize that when GWB characterized his invasion of Iraq as a “crusade”, that really was his view.  I should have realized, too, that a significant percentage of those who supported him also imagine we are now engaged in a holy war in the Abrahamic end time.

But I was entirely unprepared for this on page 260 “Some 40 percent of Americans believe that the antichrist is alive and already on the earth” even though I knew that under GWB, Saddam Hussein was identified as the antichrist.   Who, I wondered, is the antichrist now Saddam Hussein is no more?

In this 2013 Public Policy Poll Report I discovered that 13% of voters in the 2012 election believed President Obama is the antichrist and a further 13% was “not sure.”  Among voters for Romney 22% believed Obama is the antichrist while fewer than 3 in 5 believed he is not.  It may be yet more alarming that 5% of voters for Obama believed him to be the antichrist.

In that report we also see 58% of Republican voters believed “global warming is a hoax”, 33% believed “Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11”  and 73% did not believe “Bush misled on Iraq WMDs.”

What to make of all this?  My assumption about the widespread lack of respect for facts and skeptical inquiry in America was mistaken.  The great problem is not the mechanics of our educational system but the purpose many want it to serve – certainty in the literal truth of the Bible.

I’ve written before about fundamentalism.  Our media tells us it’s a problem among Muslims, especially in the Middle East, where terrorists hope to kill us all.  But some American fundamentalists are also eager for war, perhaps because they fear our nation is in decline.

Fundamentalism results from fear when social, economic or political trends look like a threat to existence.  The desire for certainty in a way out grows overwhelming.  Everyone else must then embrace the same faith because belief in something that cannot be proved is a lot easier to maintain if nobody is expressing doubts.

But we will inevitably do harm if we imagine we are fundamentally different and have mortal enemies.  Only misery can result.

What to do?  We must calm and clear away the fears.

Everything we do, say and think boosts or shrinks fear in the world.  A butterfly could alter the path of a hurricane or prevent its occurrence — the flapping of wings is one of so many tiny forces on the atmosphere.  It’s the same with human moments of love or hate.

Campaign Finance and Corrupt Politicians

How did money become so important in our political system?  How does it corrupt politicians?  What can we do?

I’m considering the comment, “because money has become so important in our political system far too many politicians, at all levels of government, are corrupt” on the first post in this series.

State resources seem first to have been traded in an organized way by President Andrew Jackson.  Appointees after his 1828 election had to contribute part of their pay to his political machine.  By the 1850s political operatives were getting donations by threatening corporations with hostile legislation.  In the 1860s, parties were getting donations from very wealthy individuals like the Astors as well as mandatory contributions of part of the pay of federal employees.

The first federal campaign finance law was the 1867 Naval Appropriations Bill which prohibited soliciting contributions from Navy yard workers.

After political appointments were largely replaced by a permanent civil service in 1883 and the parties lost that important source of funding, they relied more on corporate and individual donations.  Vote buying became common and some donations were big enough to imply great rewards.  One Ulysses S. Grant supporter contributed a quarter of his entire campaign expenses in 1872.

Fund-raising was systematized for the 1896 election of President McKinley.  Banks were assessed by his campaign at 0.25% of their capital, corporations on profitability.  Business owners were happy to contribute to defeat McKinley’s populist rival, William Jennings Bryan.

Public outcry prompted McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt, to oppose corporate influence but he was suspected in his 1904 campaign of promising an ambassadorial nomination to a large contributor.  He then proposed, “contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law” but with no restriction on contributions from owners of corporations.

The 1907 Tilman Act prohibited corporations and interstate banks from making direct financial contributions to federal candidates but it was not enforced.  Disclosure and spending rules for House and Senate candidates in 1910, contribution limits in the 1925 Federal Corrupt Practices Act, an annual ceiling of $3M for political party spending and $5K for contributions in the 1939 Hatch Act, and extension of the Tilman rules to unions by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act were all easily circumvented.

The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act required broad disclosure of campaign finance and 1974 amendments established a central enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission, as well as limits on contributions and spending but a 1976 Supreme Court decision struck down limits on spending as violations of free speech.

Further legislation was defeated until 2002 when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act sought to limit spending by large enterprises and wealthy individuals.  An Act proposed in 2010 to prohibit foreign agents and government contractors from election spending and require the sponsor of all political advertising to be disclosed was defeated.

The constitutionality of limits on election financing continues to be contested.  The US Supreme court ruled in 2010 that corporations and unions can not be prohibited from promoting the election of a candidate, which a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 80% of Americans oppose (Democrats 85%, Republicans 76%, independents 81%).

Should we expect a Constitutional amendment about campaign finance since four of five Americans oppose the Supreme Court ruling?  That depends on whether big spenders have enough control over who gets elected to defeat such an amendment.

Do big spenders have enough control?  How much money are we talking about?  Total spending on the 2008 federal election was $5.3B, of which $2.4B was on the presidential race alone.  Obama spent $730M and McCain $333M.  Obama’s top contributors included Goldman-Sachs $1,034K, JPMorgan Chase $848K, Citigroup $755K and Morgan Stanley $528K.

Spending on the 2010 midterm federal election totaled $3.6B with the average winner of a seat in the House spending $1.4M and in the Senate $9.8M.

Where does the money come from?  In 2010 roughly half came from large individual contributors.  Senate Republicans got only 42% from that contingent but were 20% self-financed.  The total from candidates’ own resources and large individual contributors ranged from 50% for House Democrats and 60% House Republicans, to 65% Senate Democrats and 62% Senate Republicans.

Small Individual Contributors Large Individual Contributors Political Action Committees Self-Financing Other
House Democrats 9% 47% 38% 3% 3%
House Republicans 14% 48% 24% 12% 3%
Senate Democrats 12% 53% 15% 12% 8%
Senate Republicans 18% 42% 12% 20% 8%

That makes campaign finance regulations extremely hard to change — half to two thirds of contributions are from very wealthy individuals and the cost to get elected is so great that those contributions are essential.

But is this corruption?  Politicians no longer directly pay for votes.  They pay for advertizing which, to be successful, depends on branding.  That means positioning a candidate as the only one with a solution to issues that represent voters’ every distress.

Since branding is largely impervious to facts it encourages ignorance, which is why people may vote for candidates opposed to their interests, but disturbing as that is, the great corruption is more subtle.

President Obama’s campaign was given very large contributions by Goldman Sachs and other “too-big-to-fail” banks.  Faced by our financial system’s meltdown, he would of course listen to executives of those banks.  We need not imagine he felt any obligation nor that they recognized their counsel to be self-serving.  Their experience led to their diagnosis and recommended solution.

All whose opinions were available to Obama came from essentially the same world, the world of finance.  All therefore saw the overwhelming need to save the TBTF banks.  As a side-effect, not necessarily something front of mind, that would also happen to restore their own wealth.

Of course, some politicians are corrupt.  Moral degeneracy may not be more common among politicians than in other fields, but politicians are immersed in temptation.  They are subject to constant, insidious and great pressure from the very wealthy.

So what should those who are not wealthy do?   This is not like working to enfranchise those who could not vote because of gender, ethnicity or lack of property.  There will be no end to the excessive impact of wealth at the center because power is inherently at the center, power is the source of wealth and wealth therefore inevitably flows toward the center.

Corruption can not be ended once and for all like not having the vote.   Working to get representatives for all of society is more like breathing, something we cannot stop if we want to remain alive.