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Booksellers versus Bestsellers

  • The toilet papers: Proving you are legally allowed to use the men's room

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The man in a dark suit stopped me outside the restroom door.

    :"Excuse me, but do you intend to use the men's room?" he asked.

    "Yes, and I'm in a bit of an urgent state," I replied.

    "This will only take a moment, I just need to see a notarized copy of your birth certificate."

    "Look, I'm about to drop a load in my drawers, I don't have time for this."

    He gave me a superior smile.

    "I'm sorry, sir, but you must provide proof of your gender at birth, sir...if that's really your gender."

    "What? Who the hell are you, anyway?"

    He flashed a badge.

    "Bathroom gender enforcement, sir. I'm afraid I can't let you in without proof of gender at birth."

    "Who the hell carries their birth certificate around all the time?"

    "People who desire to use a bathroom of appropriate gender, sir."

    "Look, if you're worried about my gender, I suppose you could have a gander at my genitals."

    He smiled thinly.

    "I'm afraid that just won't do, sir. Your, ah, equipment could have been altered at any time by a competent surgeon and augmented by ingesting hormones."

    "Look, I'm desperate here, Can't you let me use the men's just this once without ID? I promise I'll have a copy of my birth certificate next time."

    "Next time is just not good enough, sir. We require proof, and no exceptions."

    "Oh, God! My bowels just let go!"

    "No need to announce it, sir, my olfactory organs are in full working order."

    "Now I need to get in so I can clean up."

    "Nice try," he scoffed. "We've seen this act before. You are not getting into the men's by doing this."

    "But I'm not acting! Haven't you humiliated me enough? I've got to go back to work, and how will I explain this?"

    "That is not within my remit. You may offer any explanation you wish."

    "Dammit, I'm going in!" I yelled, trying to push past him. He put me in a hammer lock, then handcuffed me to the doorknob.

    "I've got a Number Two here, a bathroom resistor," he said into a microphone on his lapel, "better send the wagon."

    Just then, a woman walked up.

    "Do you wish to use the women's room?" the bathroom monitor asked her.

    "No, I need the men's," she replied. She pulled out a birth certificate.

    He briefly inspected her papers, then said, "You may proceed." Then he left to intercept an elderly woman with a walker who was trying to get into the women's room.

    As she passed by me, the woman who had showed her toilet papers leaned close and whispered, "It's a forgery! I'm really a woman," Then smiled and passed through the men's room door.

  • The long-fingered Vulcan and the short-fingered vulgarian

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Donald Trump claims he has long fingers. Spy Magazine famously called him a "short-fingered vulgarian." But the real question is, how does he match up with our current president?

    Our first Vulcan president clearly has a grip on things with his elegant, long fingers.

    And how does the short-fingered vulgarian stack up against the long-fingered Vulcan?

    Trump's fingers are so short, one wonders whether he has difficulty masturbating. No, don't tell us, The Donald, that's all right, we really don't want to know.
  • Islamic State, Christian Nation: Toleration as the solution

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The "caliphate" of Islamic State appears, at this writing, to be collapsing. At the same time, there are people in the United States insisting that America is a Christian nation.

    There are reasons that the founding fathers chose to write a constitution that bans any religious test for holding office, and in 1797 unanimously passed the Treaty of Tripoli, which states in article 11 that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

    First, they had been ruled by Britain, which had a state religion, and decreed that only members of the
    One result of an established church, the Guernsey MartyrsChurch of England could be officers in the military or hold public office. Many of those who settled this nation did so to practice religion as they saw fit, not as the government saw fit.

    Second, the constitution and the Bill of Rights were written by men who admired John Locke, the most influential of the liberal theorists.

    Locke is most famous for the Second Treatise of Government, which laid out his theory of the social contract. But another work laid out his thoughts on the relationship between church and state.
    This was A Letter Concerning Toleration written originally in Latin to a Dutch intellectual named Philipp van Limborch, who thought so highly of it that he had it published. He did did so without Locke's knowledge or permission, embroiling Locke in a dispute with High Church members of the Anglican clergy.

    They argued that the state has a right to force dissenters to reflect on the Anglican Church as the one true religion.

    But wars were fought over which was the One True Faith. The 30-Years War depopulated parts of Europe as effectively as the Black Death had three centuries earlier.

    Which is why, in his letter to Philipp van Limborch, Locke argued that:
    It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided), but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted), that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion.Further, he argued for separation of church and state. The argument rests, in part, on his definition of the role of civil authorities:

    The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.
    Locke was not inclined to write briefly, and the argument has many parts, but the most important aspects were:

    A) Religious wars are caused not by people believing different things, but by trying to make them all believe the same thing, and

    B) You can compel people to act as if they believe in your religion, but you cannot compel them to actually believe, therefore they do not have faith that will save them, even if the state picks the right religion, and

    C) When there is a state religion, the state intervenes in religion, and religion intervenes in the state. 

    On the matter of religion intervening in the state:
    What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy.

    On the state intervening in the church:
    But, to speak the truth, we must acknowledge that the Church (if a convention of clergymen, making canons, must be called by that name) is for the most part more apt to be influenced by the Court than the Court by the Church. How the Church was under the vicissitude of orthodox and Arian emperors is very well known. Or if those things be too remote, our modern English history affords us fresh examples in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, how easily and smoothly the clergy changed their decrees, their articles of faith, their form of worship, everything according to the inclination of those kings and queens. Yet were those kings and queens of such different minds in point of religion, and enjoined thereupon such different things, that no man in his wits (I had almost said none but an atheist) will presume to say that any sincere and upright worshipper of God could, with a safe conscience, obey their several decrees.
    The framers of the Constitution were, for the most part, admirers of Locke. They understood that to practice your own religion freely, you must be free of other peoples' religions. This is why the first amendment to the constitution reads:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    The boldfaced part is called the establishment clause. It means that the government cannot establish a religion, that is, make one religion the state religion. That is why a senate comprised of people who had been alive during the Revolutionary War and in many cases fought for America's freedom were happy to unanimously pass the Treaty of Tripoli, which as mentioned above, stated that  "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

    What they knew, and many people apparently do not know now, is that one of the things that made America revolutionary was that the state did not dictate what religion would be approved and in some ways dictated by the state to the people. This meant that you could practice any religion you liked.

    Events like the Marian Persecutions were still well known at that time, whereas most people no longer know about them.

    Queen Mary I was Catholic, and came into power after the deaths of Henry VIII, who had founded the Church of England and seized the property of the Catholic Church, and his son, Edward VI, who had established the Protestant church. Mary made Catholicism the established church of England again, and started burning Protestants at the stake for heresy.

    Mary had 283 people burned at the stake, ranging from Church of England Bishops, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to working-class men and women who confessed to beliefs in conflict with Catholic doctrine.

    For example Guillemine Gilbert and Perotine Massey, sisters living on the island of Guernsey, were arrested on suspicion of stealing a golden goblet. While they were found innocent of the theft, under interrogation, they admitted to beliefs that, while common among Protestants, were contrary to Catholic doctrine.

    The women were sentenced to death for heresy. John Foxe (author of a book now usually called The Book of Christian Martyrs) recorded that Perotine Massey was "great with child," and that when she was burned at the stake,  "the belly of the woman burst asunder by the vehemence of the flame, the infant, being a fair man-child, fell into the fire"

    Foxe was not there, and I do wonder if perhaps the baby was born in a more usual manner by a mother who must have been writhing in pain, but that's what the eyewitnesses said. They also said the child was rescued from the flame, but the bailiff had it thrown back into the fire. The Guernsey Martyrs had a great deal to do with the rise of Calvinism in the Channel Islands, and the diminishment of Catholicism in the same place.

    Given that this could be the face of establishment of religion, the founders of the American nation wanted none of it. The problem is, once you say that yours is a "Christian nation," or for that matter, an "Islamic state." the apparatus of state force can be used to enforce someone's notion of what that religion consists of.  This is why Islamic State is killing people for being Shia Muslim rather than Sunni Muslim, and killing Yazidi men and enslaving Yazidi women for not being Muslim at all.

    The logic is the same as applied to Bloody Mary's actions. The state does not serve the people, it and they serve God. Therefore, once you have a state-accepted religion, it is the duty of the state to punish unbelievers. No elections are needed, because the state serves God, and his earthly representatives can tell the people who God has appointed to rule them.

    This also means that it is imperative for rulers to either be on good terms with God's representatives, or choose those representatives themselves. In killing the upper ranks of the Church of England, Mary I was choosing which of God's representatives should rule on her own legitimacy, and sending an unmistakable message to those who replaced them.

    The people who founded America had no use for a system that could produce anything like the Guernsey Martyrs, or the many indignities short of that. They took Locke's advice and separated the state from religion, allowing the peaceful coexistence of different sorts of believers. There had, in colonial times, been individual colonies with established religions, sometimes leading followers of an entire faith to be disenfranchised. In 1718 Maryland, which had been founded by a Roman Catholic, passed a law depriving Catholics of the right to vote, reflecting in-migration of protestants, who had become a majority. Catholics did not regain the right to vote until 1776.

    A Letter Concerning Toleration is not much studied today, but it should be. It contains the solution to religious strife, and the logic of the secular state, which are inseparable.

  • Trump as "This is Spinal Tap"

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Donald J.Trump's name was on the podium, and a pre-teen dance troupe dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms was dancing around it, singing a song based on some of Trump's lines. That's when I realized that his campaign is the reality television version of a political This is Spinal Tap.

    The mockumentary satirized the pretensions and wild behavior of the fictional band Spinal Tap, the dialogue largely ad-libbed by the actors. It also satirized the pretensions of rock documentaries.

    Viewed in this light we can see Trump as a caricature of the narcissism common among politicians, even his hair a caricature of the efforts politicians expend to make themselves desirable to the voters. His act is so over the top, it is nearly impossible for those not seduced by it to take it seriously. And you want wild behavior? How about a candidate who encourages people at his rallies to beat up protesters?

    This is Spinal Tap was wonderfully funny, and I suppose the comical policy proposals and preoccupation with the size of his hands would all seem hilarious if Trump was not an actual danger to the country and the fact that he's close to securing the nomination of a major party were not so frightening to our allies.

    I suppose we can only wish this was a mocumentary, but in fact, it is beyond a joke.

  • Trumpery and the Republican Civil War: Dog whistles and megaphones

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Republicans are speaking in apocalyptic terms about the possibility that if Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination, it will be the end of the Republican Party. And we are now witnessing the unnerving spectacle of the party establishment doing everything it can to sabotage the frontrunner in its own primaries.

    "The future of the GOP as we know it is in question," an article in the December issue of The National Review online states. The same article claims that the modern conservative movement started with the founding of The National Review in 1955.

    The nature of Donald Trump's appeal was well expressed about 2,500 years ago by Plato in The Republic:
    The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. . . . This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. . . . having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; . . . he brings them into court and murders them . . . at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands. . . . After a while he is driven out, but comes back, in spite of his enemies, a tyrant full grown.Not, mind you, that we can expect Trump to shed the blood of his kinsmen. He has adopted the more harmless practice of dismissing them as losers, even including the party's last president and its last two nominees. Assassinating their reputations seems to be enough for him.

    But he does present himself as the champion for America's Everyman. He tells his followers that they have been played for fools by the elites who have promised much and delivered little, that only he can make them great again.

    But why is the Republican Party so certain he is a threat to the future of the Republican party? After all, they've been presenting themselves as the champions of working-class whites since at least 1968, when Republicans began pursuing the votes of hardhats who wanted to beat up hippies.

    I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that Trumpery is behind the times -- opposition to immigration is about half what it was 20 years ago, and after the 2012 election, Republican insiders produced an "autopsy" that said Republicans need to do better among Hispanics if they hope to have a future.

    There's some history that might bear on this. In 1994, California Republicans got behind Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to close off illegal aliens from using non-emergency health care, public schools, and other state services. Gov. Pete Wilson was a major champion of the initiative. Eventually, it was ruled unconstitutional in federal court, but not before it had caused an upsurge in Hispanic voter participation and a major reduction in the number of them supporting Republicans.

    It seems that many Hispanics who are citizens, including many who were born here, not only knew people impacted by the law, but found themselves having to prove their citizenship while their white neighbors did not. The message that Republicans were associating themselves with prejudice against Hispanics was clear enough to prevent the party from capturing any statewide office in the last few elections. After all, many Hispanic voters remembered that they had been discriminated against in housing, education, and employment in California. Mendez v. Westminster School District, a 1947 California desegregation case, pioneered the reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal case in ending school segregation nation wide.

    There's thinking in Republican circles that Trump's comments about Hispanics, such as claiming Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to our country, could lead to a defeat of historic proportions, including enough down-ballot races to even put the Republican hold on the House of Representatives in doubt.

    But there is more to it than that. The National Review is a major organ (possibly the spleen) of the Republican Party. It is a guardian of the purity of conservative ideas, which is why it produced an entire issue of essays under the general title of "Against Trump."

    You see, the Republican Party is a coalition of people with different interests. Racists recruited by Richard Nixon's Southern strategy are aligned with Catholics who oppose abortion, Evangelical Christian churches which did not oppose abortion in the 1960s now oppose it as they have become aligned with conservative Catholics in the culture wars, and rich people who want lower taxes and fewer unions finance the candidates they all want to see in office.

    Trump is jettisoning some of the policies revered by the political donor class, such as attacking Social Security and Medicare. Those programs are used by, and needed by, the people who supply the votes.

    And while the Republican establishment has been trying to move the party in a direction that will get them a larger share of Hispanic votes, Trump is moving them in something more like the Prop. 187 direction.

    Republicans have been appealing to racial resentment since the 1960s. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, "I've lost the South for a generation." He was wrong, it's been a couple generation and the South is still lost. But about that time, Southern Democrats started switching to the Republican Party, a process that accelerated with Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968.

    At this point, the Dixiecrat defections have depleted the Democratic Party in the South and fundamentally changed the character of the Republican Party, making it heavily dependent on the South.

    Republicans usually appeal to racial resentment with "dog whistles" -- phrases that communicate to racists that you are on their side, while not being heard that way by others. "States rights," for example, has been such a phrase since before the Civil War. In the 1850s, it meant the right to continue to hold slaves. When George Wallace used the phrase in his run for the presidency in 1968, it meant the right to continue the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks.

    When Ronald Reagan claimed allegiance to the concept of states' rights during the speech kicking off his 1980 campaign for president, context was everything. He gave the speech at the Neshoba County Fair grounds, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. The message was unmistakable.

    But Trump has abandoned the dog whistle for a megaphone. This puts the dirty little secret of the Republican Party out where everyone can see it. He is appealing far more directly to the prejudice of the voters, and that puts the party in danger of putting off the people who were not hearing the dog whistles.

    When asked to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, and the KKK in general, he equivocated. Here are a couple lines from his interview with Jake Tapper:

    Tapper, Feb. 28: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage. Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don't want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election? Trump: Well, just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke. OK? I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don't know.
    And on the subject of the KKK, he said if Tapper would give him a list of groups, he would review them, but he didn't want to condemn a group without knowing more about it.

    Perhaps Trump was forgetting that people can easily find comments he's made in the past. He knew who Duke was in 2000, when he condemned him. And it beggars belief that he didn't know anything about the white supremacist groups like the KKK.

    Eventually he did condemn them, making excuses about a bad earpiece even though he clearly spoke Duke's name in response to the question. But where he violated the Republican playbook is, he appealed to racists without having plausible deniability about it.

    It appears that one of the things the Republican Party finds distasteful about Trump is his transparency about exploiting racial animus.

    He exploits racial divisions and xenophobia, just like the rest of the GOP field, but he does it crudely. His policy proposals are not credible, but neither are those of the other candidates for the Republican nomination. His sin there is that he has talked as if he were an economic populist (though is tax plan is just another giveaway to the rich.) In so doing, he's driving a wedge between the Republican donor class, who have supplied the money to power the GOP, and the white working class that has provided the votes.

    The fact is, for a couple generations, the GOP has used the culture wars and racial animus to get working-class whites to provide the votes, while the donor class has set the economic agenda and reaped the economic benefits. The Republican establishment has hoped that could go on forever, but it won't.

    Donald Trump is just a symptom of that.

  • "Human" rights and the corporate person

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    There is a peculiar conflict in the way society regards corporations. It appears they have the inalienable rights of a person, but they can be owned like an object.

    In the Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a right of free speech, expressed in money. Yet we keep hearing that publicly traded corporations are owned by the shareholders.

    The inalienable (that is, not sellable) rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence belong to people because, according to John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, people are born owning themselves, and cannot be owned by another.

    After all, if I sell a chair, it cannot care who sits in it, or even if it is broken up for firewood. But as long as I remain in my body, I will care how I am used. That is why slavery is incompatible with our ideals of freedom.

    But a corporation can be bought and sold, merged or dissolved, without feeling a thing. It may be a person in that it can make contracts and own property, but is it, itself, property? Many corporations belong to one person, existing as a tax category that saves the owner money compared with operating as a sole proprietor. Those can, without question, be bought and sold.

    The situation with publicly traded corporations is a little more ambiguous. Shareholders do not own a corporation in the way a partner could own part of a business. They own, in theory, a share of any dividend the company distributes, and the sum of all shares is market capitalization, not ownership per se. The traditional theory of corporations was that the corporation was a person, its board functioned as sort of its brain, and management as its nervous system.

    But in the 1970s, a group of economists (the most notable being Milton Friedman) began to argue that shareholders own a corporation, and if the corporation fails to maximize shareholder value, this is an example of the old owner/agent problem, and the agent (the board and management) are operating the corporation in their own interests rather than in the interest of the owners.

    Legally, this is hogwash. The argument is usually supported by reference to Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., a 1919 case about what was then a closely held corporation rather than a publicly traded one, which is at odds with a body of subsequent case law.

    But the fact is, that's how public corporations are managed these days. It may not be law, but it is custom. And the fact that public corporations can be taken private and then bought and sold makes it clear that we do not extend to them inalienable rights. They are not conscious beings, so they cannot care how they are used, so this makes a great deal of sense.

    Yet we have this anomalous case, Citizens United, in which the highest court has ruled that they do have the inalienable right of free speech. This is, after all, a human right.

    "Human rights" is a concept developed from the same idea of natural law that was the basis for the Declaration of Independence. The term came into use mainly after World War II and the disaster of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948.

    Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...
    -- 1st sentence of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human RightsCompare this to the language of the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
    -- United States Declaration of Independence, 1776We do not give corporations the rights of life or liberty, and current practice is that they pursue, not happiness, which they in any case cannot feel, but shareholder value. Do we consider them to be members of the human family? I think not.

    I don't mind people getting together to lobby, or issue statements, but Citizens United applies to corporations that were not formed for this purpose. For example, some shareholders are quite upset that ExxonMobile spent its money trying to conceal what it knew about climate change and convince policy makers that it was all a hoax. The mendacity of the corporation was not the reason they bought shares and became associated with its statements.

    Citizens United is not about human rights. It is about inhuman rights.

  • Conspiracy theories, Antonin Scalia, and myth

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    An overweight, 79-year-old man dies in his sleep. Nothing unusual about that, except that he was Antonin Scalia, a conservative Supreme Court justice who was instrumental in remaking federal law and overturning numerous precedents.

    Soon, people begin claiming he was murdered. Some were the usual suspects, such as Alex Jones, a radio personality who traffics in conspiracy theories, who claimed Scalia might have been killed by the Illuminati (a secretive group founded in Bavaria in the 1770s and generally considered to have ceased to exist by 1790.) Jones also claimed that there was a plot to eliminate the Bill of Rights and constitution, that there is a "foreign offshore coup" in America, so his claim that the Illuminati are still in business and killing people is perhaps unsurprising.

    A day later, Feb. 15, presidential candidate Donald Trump went on Michael Savage's radio show and hopped on the conspiracy bandwagon, taking seriously the question of whether Scalia was murdered and claiming that the jurist had been found with a pillow on his face, a claim that was based on an eyewitness who had said the pillow was on Scalia's head, but not on his face.

    These sorts of conspiracy theories have been common since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Figures ranging from Lyndon Johnson to Fidel Castro have been blamed for Kennedy's death, and yes, there are people who theorize that the Illuminati killed JFK.

    Why do these conspiracy theories arise?

    My theory is that when we are faced with momentous occurrences, the banal, realistic explanation fails to give us a sense of control. It is so lacking in any sort of plan or teleology, that such an important person should die at a critical time, after all. Surely there must be an explanation that fits a pattern of meaning, rather than this being a random death of a man who was merely mortal.

    We are, after all, creatures who make meaning and see patterns in the universe. It is comforting to think that someone is in control, or even that there are competing forces of good and evil vying for control, rather than to think that old men do die, and seldom choose the time or place.

    Justice Scalia lived a good life and a significant one. That will be a comfort for those who loved him, but it is not enough for those who see the world changing and want to hold someone responsible.

    We understand our world by telling stories about it. We must decide what makes a satisfactory story. Disciplines from physics to history have developed standards for what is a convincing story, but not everyone buys into the expertise of these specialists.

    What makes a satisfying story for some people is one with an element of magic to it, a story with a majesty that feels compatible with the importance of events.

    We are not so far from the days of myth and omen, and we still have a yearning to know what really happened, as opposed to the bald narrative of a death certificate. For some groups of people, conspiracy theories are myths that weave the world into something they can understand and accept.

    They are too far from faith to accept that it is the will of God, to far from academic disciplines to believe in the standards of truth a judge or a historian would accept. They think, oh, he died just then, what a coincidence, which is a statement I would sincerely accept, but they mean it to be ironic, because they want to be wised up, to know the things others do not.

    Wake up sheeple! they cry, and present their lovely fantasy to a world that, for the most part, won't accept it.

    But they know, they know. The world cannot be the ordinary place where a death has no meaning, and is completely unplanned. It is a significant death, so there must be a web of meaning around it other than the obvious.

    And every proof that they are wrong is part of the cover-up, confirming their belief in the narrative they've chosen, because why would there be such a concerted effort to deny it if there were not secret, subterranean forces at work in a wold of ghostly shadow empires?

    I picture our ancestors watching a volcano destroy a nearby island, and inventing causes with a majesty to match the explosion of a mountain. We aren't new at myth making, we know it and we love it.

    And still, when a significant event occurs, we invent a myth to explain it.

  • How inequality suppresses national wealth

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    It is a curious thing, but the American economy, like those of other developed nations, does not appear to be managed to maximize national wealth.

    Rather, it is managed to maximize profits, and to steer the distribution of wealth toward the already wealthy.

    How does this work? For one thing, the most profitable situation for many companies is to have just enough slack in the labor market to suppress wages. The nation as a whole might be richer if wages were higher, leading to higher demand, but if more money goes to people working for wages, the people at the top benefit less.

    From the 1940s through the 1960s, this was not in their control. That has changed.

    An example is the decision by the Federal Reserve Bank to increase the federal funds rate by 25 basis points in December. The Fed is supposedly shooting for an inflation rate of 2%, yet with the core Consumer Price Index running at 1/10 of that, .2%, they decided to raise interest rates, something the Fed usually does to tamp down inflation.

    The reasoning was that with unemployment down to 5%, inflation lurked on the horizon. But wages were increasing at a rate of 2.3%, making up some ground lost during the recession.

    And wages have a special place in the Fed's deliberations. Since Milton Friedman proposed it in the 1970s, the Fed has considered the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) as part of their deliberations. Since they accepted the idea, median wages have barely increased in real terms, while productivity has increased vastly.

    There's a lot more to the phenomenon than the NAIRU, but the other elements are part of the same mindset. There is, for example, no real economic justification for the inflation target being 2% rather than, say, 3%, and considerable evidence that it leaves the economy perilously close to the zero lower bound (it's pretty hard, although not impossible, for interest rates to go below zero.) This can tie a central bank's hands when monetary stimulus is needed.

    There has also been a major shift in how public corporations are managed. Shareholders used to be regarded as stakeholders in a corporation, much like bondholders, employees, and customers. In the 1970s and '80s, there was a major shift toward managing companies to maximize shareholder value.

    This was based on the idea, advanced by Friedman, among others, that shareholders are owners, and a failure to maximize shareholder value was an owner/agent problem -- that is, the shareholders were owners, and management might operate the company in their own interest, rather than in the interest of shareholders. I went into some depth about why this is the wrong way to think about the problem in this post. I also recommend Lynn Stout's excellent book, The Shareholder Value Myth.

    The NAIRU also accompanied a concerted effort to reduce employee leverage in wage negotiations by undercutting unions, for example, by passing "right to work" legislation state by state, which basically makes it impossible to have a union shop.

    Now, there is a way to restore employee leverage over wages -- allow the unemployment rate to fall below NAIRU. After all, "non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment" translated into plain English is "the rate of unemployment at which real wages do not rise."

    The result of such a policy, in retrospect, is that the additional wealth produced by increase productivity does not go to the increasingly productive workers, but to people who do not work for hourly wages. That would be top management and shareholders. As Stan Sorscher notes in the Huffington Post article the above chart comes from, if wages had continued to track productivity, inflation adjusted wages would be about twice what they were in the early 1970s.

    Imagine how much more wealth this country would have if this were the case. More money would be in the hands of people inclined to spend it, and the increased demand would cause industry to expand to fill it. Concentrating wealth in the hands of the top .1% leads to a lot of money looking for profitable investments that aren't there because of a lack of demand, resulting in bubbles. But that doubling of wages hasn't happened, because the economic elites have rigged the system to increase their positional status at the cost of making the country as a whole poorer.

    What happens when unemployment falls below the NAIRU? What we saw in the late 1990s was that the labor participation rate increased, as people who had been out of the labor force discovered they could get jobs, and real wages started to rise.

    Now, one would think that would be a shining example of what can be accomplished, and one to be followed.

    But instead, we keep suppressing real wages, while demagogues work up anger among the white working class against immigrants and others they compete with for a piece of a pie that isn't growing.

    If the average wage were twice what it is now, I submit that this would not be possible. Right now, people who work for wages see top managers getting richer while they don't, meaning their positional status is declining.

    In addition, white male wages peaked in 1973. Women's wages have increased since then, so there is a loss of positional status here, as well. If the wages of both genders were growing, I doubt it would make much difference that women's wages are growing faster, but when you keep the size of the pie the same size and give more to someone, you set up a conflict.

    Not only are wages falling for white males, but labor participation if falling, so fewer are working for wages. While the male labor force participation rate has been falling since the mid 1950s, the female labor force participation rate was climbing until 2000. I strongly suspect we could create a lot more jobs without seeing much decline in the unemployment rate, because more people would come off the sidelines if they could.

    The result is a world where it is easy to set one group against the other, and this is a handy way to distract people from the issue of who is actually getting the money that isn't going to working men.

    When you've rigged the system, it's nice to have someone else to blame.

  • Free speech, but whose voice? Media ownership and democracy

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Thomas Jefferson famously said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

    He considered a vigorous press essential for a nation to have an informed citizenry. So perhaps it should distress us that there are now about 33,000 journalists in America's newsrooms, down from a peak of about 57,000 in 1990. While the number of citizens to be informed has grown, the number of journalists to inform them has fallen by about 42%. So, we're well on our way to government without newspapers.

    This is mainly because of disruptions in the news business. There was a time when many cities had multiple newspapers, then there was a time when most towns had a newspaper, some radio stations, and some television stations. The broadcast media depended heavily on the newspaper to ferret out news stories that they could then cover.

    Newspapers, during the period when most cities had only one, endeavored to deliver a product that was viewed as impartial by their readers. In practice, this meant that newspapers reflected the politics of the populations they served. You could count on a New York paper being more liberal than one in some small town in Idaho, for example.

    National broadcast news for a time consisted of three channels. Again, the incentive was to appear impartial, in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Attacks on the impartiality of the news media were effective in part because of this.

    The thing is, it was the limited number of news sources that made an attempt at impartiality necessary. When there were several newspapers in each major city, the incentive was to capture a large share of the audience, by making the paper interesting to a large group, sometimes in opposition to other groups. You might have a blue-collar paper, and one that appealed more to professionals and business people.

    But once the industry settled down to a series of local monopolies, the incentive was to appear impartial so as not to tempt anyone to start a competing paper. In the 1950s through the present,, most newspapers attempted impartiality to include as much of their potential audience as possible, and national news networks tried to be as inclusive as possible to avoid alienating parts of their audience.

    But one thing about news is, if you tell people what is really happening, you will sometimes end up telling them things they don't want to hear. The mess of the Vietnam War and the big cultural shifts that started happening in the 1960s were replete with stories about things people did not want to have happen, and did not like being told about.

    The objective of impartiality became problematic in part because of the forces tearing the country apart. Impartiality consists of telling stories that are full, fair, and accurate. Two of the three standards there are subjective, and I doubt Noam Chomsky and Dick Cheney could even agree on whether a news story was accurate.

    Fox News recognized this as an opportunity, rather late in the day, I'd say, when they launched in 1995. CNN had shown that a cable-based news network could be viable, and it occurred to Rupert Murdoch that there was an under-served audience of conservatives who did not like being told that the country was changing in ways they didn't like. He got Roger Ailes, a former Republican Party media consultant who had also been an NBC executive, to run his new network, which was designed to appeal to conservative viewers. The formula has been very successful, but now faces a demographic crisis because the average age of its viewers in 68.

    At about the same time, the internet, which had been non-commercial in the late 1980s, became fully commercialized. Soon, the cost of starting a news organization fell, and the cost of distribution fell to almost nothing. However, actually getting paid for news on the internet was practically impossible. Many news organizations started putting their stories on line for free, and news aggregators soon began to skim off what little money there was in internet news.

    So most internet "news" sites didn't hire a lot of reporters to get their stories. They became free riders on the reporting done by the declining news industry, and put their own spin on it. In fact, while the newspapers' stock in trade had been accurate reporting and attempted impartiality, the internet news sources' stock in trade is their bias. Appealing to a small part of the potential audience might limit their reach, but it guarantees them at least part of the audience.

    This is what happens when you have a lot of voices: More shouting. The economics of the news industry is the key to whether it attempts to be impartial or to give its readers red meat for their existing bias.

    What I hear from people still working in the newspaper industry is that the staffs are still shrinking. Positions go dark and stay dark, or a command comes down from on high that the budget must be cut by approximately the salary of a staffer. Newspapers, once cash cows, are being starved for resources. Fewer reporters means less actual news, and more competing outlets means more bias.

    What would Jefferson think? Probably that it was a lot like the newspapers of his time, that labeled him the "negro president." The press in his day could be vicious, and often carried their political bias right on the masthead.

  • A statement in favor of the Indiana Pi bill

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Indiana legislature which would have had the effect of changing the value of Pi to 3.2, which would have made it possible to square the circle.

    Sadly, it did not pass at that time, but in the current age, people are entertaining equally logical policies, so why not revive the effort? The following is written as a speech for anyone who cares to advocate the policy again.

    Wake up, silly sheeple!
    I've something to tell you deluded people.
    The number Pi is an irrational factor
    and yet, we allow this unstable actor
    to help design our ships and planes
    smokestacks for factories, wheels on trains,
    circumference of our rocket ships
    and of the bowls we use for dips.
    Can we not reform this insane number,
    drug it to a harmless slumber,
    and while it dreams of circles true
    pass a law that makes it 3.2?

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