Sunday, November 26, 2017

The New Feudalism

The news about the fashion for the ultra-rich to hide their assets in offshore tax-free havens, all exposed in The Paradise Papers (13.4 million documents about secret offshore investments leaked to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung), has given rise to numerous accounts of how this works, and what it implies. The most revealing one I’ve seen is a recent interview in Reader Supported News, on November 25, that Doug Henwood conducted with Brooke Harrington, the author of Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. What the interview revealed is both infuriating and alarming for modern ‘advanced’ societies, particularly ones that claim to be democracies. The idea is simply that the current accumulation of vast wealth in fewer and fewer individual hands and families seems to indicate a coming apocalypse that the very wealthy are already preparing for. Harrington cites a recent New Yorker article describing the “boom in business for luxury underground bunkers,” and the numbers of the super-rich obtaining passports for places like New Zealand to which they can flee in their private jets when the expected civil unrest starts.
     Harrington uses a phrase that I think best describes where we’re headed: neo-feudalism. Here is how she introduces it:
…what this concentration of capital in an increasingly small group of people’s hands means is that the economic system is ossifying. It’s going backwards towards feudalism, where wealth was tied up generation after generation among a very small group of families. That’s exactly what we see happening now.
In other words, as government control is placed increasingly in the hands of politicians willing to do the bidding of their wealthy donors (witness the current Republican “tax reform” that claims to be giving huge tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy so they can invest it in production that will raise the wages of middle-class workers; yeah, right) and, in fact, directly in the hands of the wealthy themselves (the cabinet appointees of Donald Trump, himself a billionaire, are the richest in U.S. history), the flight of money out of government programs and into private hands is accelerating at a breathless pace. And with the help of the cancellation of the estate tax in the current Republican bill, the concentration of wealth in these same families can only increase.
            The question that all this hiding of increasingly concentrated wealth raises is: why? Why are the wealthy, including Queen Elizabeth of England, spending so much time and effort to get their wealth into tax-free offshore havens? And the answer is simple, according to Harrington. The ultra-wealthy refuse to see their ‘hard-earned’ (i.e. mostly inherited) money being used to help the less fortunate.  Harrington places this in historical context (though in the U.S., the hatred for the high taxes to support things like Social Security began with Roosevelt’s New Deal):

The other thing was that in the seventies, a lot of countries began to develop extensive welfare states, so taxes rose. And a lot of wealthy people didn’t want to pay those taxes.

They were especially keen not to pay them as they saw that corporations had figured out how to use offshore financial centers to insulate their capital from taxes, and said “Ah ha. If corporations can use them, I can use them, too.” So, like the corporations, they began to hire professional wealth managers to figure out the best ways to hide their growing wealth in offshore havens like the Cayman Islands. They proved what Thomas Piketty in Capitalism has recently shown beyond any doubt: wealth multiplies itself and therefore concentrates itself beyond what anyone had previously thought. The wealthy spend a good deal of their time, that is, insulating their wealth, their capital, from what they see as the depradations of the ‘welfare state’ and the vast masses it is designed to help. No no, say the wealthy. Let them eat cake. Let them earn their own wealth, the way I did (by having a wealthy father). Let them take care of their own health care, their own aging parents, their own food problems, their own homes in areas prone to flooding and sea-level rise from global warming. Not my problem.
            And so, the money that is generated in the global economy is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the ultra-wealthy few. Harrington cites an Oxfam study comparing the wealth gap as recently as 2010 with the wealth gap today, and it is astonishing. In 2010, those whose combined wealth “exceeded that of the poorest 50% of humanity,” amounted to about three-hundred people—bad enough. But in January 2017, the wealth of half the people on the planet was exceeded by the combined wealth of a mere eight (8) people! That is an indication of how fast ultra wealth is increasing in our time. And the ultra-wealthy know it and are worried about it, fearing that something catastrophic is coming, must be coming, some uprising of those vast masses who must sooner rather than later wake up and realize that they have been callously abandoned by those best equipped to contribute to the general welfare. By those who simply refuse to contribute; feel it is an ‘unfair imposition.’ That is why they are hiding more and more of their wealth. That is why they are building luxury bunkers. That is why a family like the Pritzker family, major funders of the Democratic Party (Penny Pritzker was rewarded by President Obama with a cabinet post, Secretary of Commerce) has more than 2,500 offshore trusts. That is why many are making plans to flee to safe havens like New Zealand. They know, as Harrington puts it, that “we’ve essentially re-feudalized ourselves.” And that a global reckoning is coming.
            As for me, that reckoning, whatever form it takes, can’t come soon enough. For me, the wealth that greedy bastards like the Koch Brothers and Trump and his family and Wilbur Ross and all the rest have accumulated is nothing short of obscene, just on its own. When it is used to avoid the rest of humanity, to give the finger to the plight and suffering of the rest of humanity so they can pass its obscenity on to their heirs in perpetuity, it is beyond obscene. It is a crime against humanity, against the realization that all humanity is one humanity, that all humans are equally deserving of the basics, and that any society worthy of the name must recognize that no one, no matter how clever or lucky, rises or falls alone; that all of us rise or fall together. And that the masses in a society have the right, once they perceive that that is not the case, to take whatever steps are necessary to make it be so. And it can’t come soon enough for me.
Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


As I was channel surfing the other night, I came across a 20/20 piece on Stephen Paddock—the now-infamous Las Vegas gambler who rented a room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and, with the couple of dozen high-powered weapons he had brought there covertly, opened fire on a crowd of country music fans packing the Route 91 Harvest Festival nearby. He ended up killing 58 people and wounding more than 500 and probably would’ve massacred more had the police not interrupted him; when they did, he shot himself dead.
            Unfortunately, this is not an unusual occurrence in the land of the free. Just this Sunday, another shooter entered a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 Sunday parishioners, including an 18-month old child. And previously we’ve had Omar Mateen who gunned down 49 people in a Florida night club, Dylann Roof who killed 9 Black parishioners in a Baptist church in Charleston, SC, Adam Lanza who slaughtered 27 children in an elementary school in Newtown CT, and James Holmes who dispatched 12 in a movie theater in Aurora, CO (there are more, but who has time to list them all?). All were armed with legally-procured weapons, most of them automatic or semi-automatic assault rifles made for use in combat. And in each case, the United States Congress did exactly nothing to bring some rationality to the gun laws in the United States of America, where there are now more guns than people (over 300 million are possessed by the gun fanatics among us). With the possible exception of Dylann Roof, who was an avowed white supremacist, none of the other shootings made much sense. The climate of motiveless death-dealing in which Americans must now operate is simply taken for granted: it’s the price we pay for having a gun lobby that is more powerful than all the members of Congress combined, and insists—sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2008—that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry firearms to every individual American (not, as the Amendment clearly states, the right of a “well-regulated militia” to be armed).
            But let’s return to the situations we’ve witnessed recently. A man armed to the teeth—and it is usually, but not always, a white male—takes a position of command somewhere, and unloads his deadly, rapid-fire weapon on people he does not know from Adam. In the case of Stephen Paddock, he took his position on high, in a room on the 26th floor of his hotel, with a commanding view of the crowd enjoying the concert below him. Once he broke out the window, he had a God’s eye view, in short, and took advantage of it; while the crowd, unaware of what was happening, had no idea what the rapid popping noises were at first, until people began to fall bleeding, with the panicked crowd still having no idea where the shots were coming from, much less why. Paddock was in complete command for several minutes, and with his “bump stock” attachment to his assault rifles, he fired as if sitting in a machine gun nest into the helpless crowd below. Unarmed people fired upon in this way are sitting ducks, as the saying goes; without protection, without the ability to respond, without a prayer of surviving if a bullet finds them. It is like an act of God. And that, I believe, is key.
            Someone, usually a loser in life’s lottery, bears some sort of grudge. Sometimes the grudge is dimly related to the target he’s chosen: Devin Kelley, in the Air Force until he was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for abusing his wife and child, apparently had differences with his mother-in-law, a member of the southern Baptist church he targeted. It has also just been announced that one of his church victims was his grandmother-in-law, Lula White, also a member of the church. So the shooter had grudges, and decided to take them out on everyone even tangentially connected to his wife’s family by being present at the same church. He dressed himself in military black, including a black mask, and started firing at the outside of the church even before he entered and subsequently shot nearly everyone inside. Then, engaged by a neighbor who shot back at him, he raced away in his car, crashed by the side of the road, and apparently shot himself to death.
            What motivates these guys? Our amazingly perceptive *president says the shooting had nothing to do with guns, but was the fault of mental illness. The guy was crazy; end of story. But even mentally ill people have method to their madness. And the method, I suggest, has to do with equalism. I have coined this word to distinguish it from equality—though those who decide to kill probably believe they are using their guns as “great equalizers.” That is, those who think that killing people allows them to “get even” with whoever they see as the source of their losing the great American lottery, think the gun affords them the opportunity to even the odds. With a gun in hand, they are now equal. Even superior. Commanding the heights, as Stephen Paddock did, they are like God on high, deciding who lives and, more importantly, who dies. Their putative enemies are now in their hands, not God’s. This gives them the power they’ve been denied all their lives—by the law, by the authorities, by their families, by society, by regulations, by their bosses, by whoever is convenient to blame. The gun makes them equal in the most fundamental sense that they can understand: whoever holds the gun has the power and whoever has the power can dictate the terms of equality to suit themselves. Equalism.
            And of course, this doesn’t just come from nowhere; power and violence comprise the standard equalizing solutions to all problems in the American mythos (though, in fact, our modern mania for guns comes from a carefully-plotted campaign by gun manufacturers to enhance the emotional appeal of guns when they no longer made sense in 20th century urban America). The cowboy hero is always the one who has the fastest draw, and is therefore the best and quickest shot. He rids the mythic western town of the outlaw(s) who have been terrorizing innocent townspeople. And he always does it with a gun: the great equalizer. The same is true of war. The victor, America, is always the side that has the most powerful weapons and the bravest heroes able to use those weapons the most skillfully. Freedom depends on this. The entire nation depends on this. And when World War II was concluded, it was the United States which had been able to marshal the most planes and tanks and ships, and in the end, the biggest bomb of all to detonate Japan into submission. And then to make even bigger more powerful bombs, and missiles to deliver them, to threaten any nation that might challenge American hegemony. And the same ethic—using power to subdue even nature—pervades most of American life. If the coal in a mountain lies too deep to extract it by the usual means, simply blow the top off the mountain. If pests threaten to take too large a portion of the crops planted monoculturally, then bomb them with pesticide sprayed from planes. If cancer threatens larger and larger portions of the population, nevermind the causes, bomb it, radiate it, declare war on cancer. Declare war on drugs. Declare war on crime. Declare war on illegal immigrants. And make war on whatever country refuses to yield its resources. And if the resistors in a country like Vietnam take refuge in forests, why then simply drop pesticide bombs of Agent Orange to de-forest the entire country, robbing them of cover. If our enemies take refuge among the population in their homes, as ISIS does, why then drop bombs on the homes to “rubble-ize” whole cities, with the civilian dead as “collateral damage,” the unfortunate price of war. The important thing is to bomb, bomb, destroy without letup or mercy or consideration for anything but victory. Which is to say, killing more of “them” and destroying more of whatever shelters them than they can withstand.
            Why should we be surprised, then, when our dominant and dominating ethic comes home to haunt us, again and again and again? It’s in our DNA. A nation of equals. Who of course are not equal, are not allowed to be equal, ever, but no one pays attention to that. Because real equality would mean that the rich would be proportionally taxed and the poor would be allowed to earn a decent wage and even exercise some actual control over their lives. But that would constitute mob rule—at least as the founding fathers saw it. And so they built in controls, like the Senate where small states (i.e. slave states) would have the unequal power to halt any legislation that might threaten their “way of life.” And they built the electoral college so that direct democracy would never prevail, so that the electors, if it ever came to the majority actually prevailing and threatening the powerful, could intercede and make sure that a few votes in a few selected states could keep things under control (as they did in the last election, putting a certifiably malignant narcissist in the White House). No. It’s not real equality that the gun confers. It’s equalism: the illusion of equality. That’s what guns-for-all confers. ‘If I have a gun in my hand or my closet, I can elevate myself to equality with any big shot, no matter what. If I can tweet out my opinion, like any other American, well then I have equality with the media, with any pundit, with any government egghead, no matter what.’
            What the poor bastards who think this way never understand is that this is precisely what the power brokers want them to think. They want you to think that the vote makes you equal. They want you to think that tweeting out your opinion and voting for a moron like Trump makes you equal. They want you to think that having your gun, all your guns, including your bumpstock-enabled assault rifle, makes you equal. Because if the people are allowed to have their presumed “equalizers,” they are more easily pacified. They are easier to control. They are less likely to go looking for, or paying attention to, or believing in the real screwing they are getting from those in power. It’s the American version of “let them eat cake.” Let them have their guns. Their vote. Their twitter accounts. The better to screw them while they sleep.
            And if the price of all this is a nation of self-destructive morons and a *president who represents them, then so be it. It’s a small price to pay for power. A few mass shootings here and there—a small price to pay. We can counsel empathy; we can counsel prayer. We can counsel mental counseling. We can condemn the tendency of humanity to take out their mental frustrations with violence. And then continue on our merry way, getting our big contributions from the National Rifle Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, and the oligarchs in the banks and on Wall Street and J Street, and remain as we have always remained: firmly in control, and with utter contempt for the rubes who actually believe that equalism is the same as equality.
            So let us now take part in the customary national ritual: bow our heads and lament, once again, a mindless, motiveless shooting, and wonder sanctimoniously what a well-meaning nation, a nation devoted to freedom and equalism, could possibly do to stop those bad minds from abusing their American birthright—the noble everyman with a gun. And see if you can keep from puking.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, November 3, 2017

Fatally Flawed?

I keep thinking these days about the terrible facts that confront us as humans. We have, at the head of our so-called democracy, a man so obviously unfit for the office he holds that it would have beggared belief to imagine him lasting a year. And yet he has. How could this be? How could Trump have even won, which is to say, how could millions of adults have actually voted for such a boorish, vulgar, criminal fraud? And that is the question I’m really interested in here. We Americans are a putative democracy, but our people are not alone in displaying a preference for demagogues who promise to revive a narrow nationalism that will seal us off behind ridiculous walls to exclude the rising number of migrants flooding the world. Hungary has made the same kinds of moves against migrants. So has Germany. And there are even rumblings of discontent in those bastions of tolerance, Sweden and Denmark and Norway, with France, Italy and Spain following suit, and the nations from whom we expect such policies not disappointing in this regard either: India has a right-wing Hindu nationalist in Narendra Modi; Japan has one too; and even the Buddhists in Myanmar are implementing one of the most vicious campaigns of ethnic cleansing ever seen against the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. More than half a million of these Rohingya migrants have now decamped for refugee misery in a nation, Bangladesh, that can barely keep its own people alive. In fact, a recent article about authorities in Bangladesh considering a sterilization program for Rohingya refugees (“Bangladesh Eyes Sterilization” by Shafiqul Alam, Agence France Presse, reprinted on Reader Supported News) is an indication of how serious the problem is, how much, because Rohingya Muslims reject the idea of birth control and purposely have large families to ‘secure their survival,’ it is a harbinger of the future. And worse, for all the signs indicate that this massive global movement, sure to be exacerbated by global warming and its attendant disasters, has only just begun.
            With a world population of 7 billion threatening to increase to 9 billion (one of the Rohingya women interviewed admitted to having 19 children, for security), and 14 million additional migrants each year roaming the globe without a place to live and survive, what are we to imagine? (See the Lancet of October 31, 2017: “Lancet Study warns of Global Health Crisis and 1 Billion Climate Refugees by 2050,” reprinted in Reader Supported News.) With more and more nations closing their borders and shutting down their empathic responses to these desperate millions, and with ever greater signs that artificial intelligence and robotics will be decreasing rather than increasing jobs normally done by such workers, what are we to conclude?
            I have to tell you, I begin to wonder if humanity, if all life, isn’t somehow constructed amiss. This is no idle exercise of the imagination. A recent book I’ve been reading, Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, outlines a conflict that puts the burden on evolution itself. Very briefly, what Wright tries to emphasize (and many others agree) is that human behavior is driven by natural selection to perceive and behave in the way that best ensures the survival of its particular gene pool, regardless of its validity. In short, our brains have evolved feelings to drive us to find desirable that which best guarantees the procreation and survival of our genes, and, at the other end, to consider as hostile any outside entity that would appear to threaten the survival of ourselves and/or our progeny. Here is one of the ways he puts it:

Good and bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into, respectively, approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things; good feelings were assigned to things like eating and bad feelings to things like being eaten…Feelings tell us what to think about, and then after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do (Wright, p. 124).

In this way, we are emotionally driven to perceive eating, sex and the like as good, and to perceive those outside our group competing for such things as fearful and bad (actually, as Beau Lotto points out in a recent book, Deviate, our perception is even more solipsistic than that: “All perception is just your brain’s construction of past utility… our senses rely very little on the external world, but more on our internal world of interpretation” [p. 110]). It should also be noted that the neural system that rewards our desires, the dopaminergic system, rewards (with dopamine) our anticipation of a goal such as sex more robustly than its achievement. In this way, we are kept always slightly unsatisfied, and hence always hoping for the next hit. The corollary is that we are prone to cast our vote for demagogues who promise to a) expand our chances of thriving (make our businesses less regulated and more profitable, even if it means polluting the air we breathe and the soil we need to grow our food) and b) lessen the danger from predation or competition by outside “others” (even if that means risking nuclear holocaust for our enemies or ourselves or whole sections of the planet). For Robert Wright, this means that Buddhism represents the chance to objectively examine these feeling-driven impulse-perceptions and to see, eventually, that they are illusory. To see that there is mostly suffering (the Sanskrit word dukkha is also translated as “dissatisfaction”) and nothing substantial or essential at the heart of this protective reactionism; that the responses it initiates are often premature and unnecessary; and that, ultimately, there is no separate, enduring self to really protect, no separate “other” to revile or destroy. But I do not here intend to get into the details about whether such insights would “solve” the problems we are facing in our world. What I am interested in is the analysis of natural selection and its logical outcome with respect to homo sapiens in general.
            And homo sapiens is really the problem. For most other species, any over-development that results in its overwhelming domination of a given environment, and hence an explosion in its population, generally runs up against natural laws (as lemmings or locusts do). The population in question consumes too much of its prey, outruns its vegetal or animal resources, and sooner or later must retract or collapse for lack of food and habitat, or due to balancing outside pressures from expanding predators responding to its own expansion. For humans, however, the capacity our species has evolved to alter the environment itself to the point where it can overcome natural limits and the normal feedback threats, has led, as everyone knows, to a population explosion of alarming proportions. At the time of the Buddha in about 500 BCE, for example, there were an estimated 800,000 to 1 million humans on the entire planet. And that population, driven by early agriculture, was already a substantial increase over what had been able to survive previously; disease, starvation, and natural shocks, including the vulnerability of children starting with their birth, cooperated to keep the population of hunter-gatherers well below half a million for millennia. But in the years of our era, and especially in the years around 1750 beginning with fossil-fuel-driven machines and industrialization and modern medicine, the human population has expanded so rapidly as to cover even what had previously been uninhabitable parts of the globe. Human population, in short, has been doubling every few years, and that can only mean—even with advances in agricultural productivity, which, ironically, tend to increase population even more—more conflict over resources and habitat. Which is to say, increased use of what natural selection has equipped us with: emotion-driven desire for increase of our kind, and aversion to the increase of others. And, perhaps most important, a tendency to view these imperatives in the short term: it is always “good” to increase our gene pool, and to do whatever is necessary to decrease the gene pool of “others,” no matter what we are told or see in our rational moments about the dangers in the long run. The long run is always discounted. The long run always loses out to short-term survival. And that is why we choose a demagogic imbecile to lead us: he promises those irresistible short-term advantages (fewer regulations; more coal jobs; more oil jobs; more pesticides; more mining and fishing and tax breaks to benefit ‘our’ businesses) that natural selection predisposes us to feel as favorable to “us” and unfavorable to “them.” And there seems no help for it. The appeal to the “fast” parts of the brain that do most of the decision-making, such as the amygdala, simply overpowers (in sufficient numbers to make the difference) the inhibitions that under favorable circumstances can come from the pre-frontal cortex—those parts of the brain dubbed “slow” by Daniel Kahneman, parts which can carefully consider things from a more rational perspective (does it make sense to elect a lying racist? to further poison our air and water and soil?).
            To be sure, this is over-simplified. But the population figures, and the projections about the coming damage to planetary resources like oceans depleted of fish, and forests shrinking to make way for cattle or crops, and the fast-developing resistances of natural pests and bacteria to our best efforts to destroy them, leave us little room for doubt. Our stone-age brains have not had time to evolve more rational responses (we are, after all, only a few thousand years from hunter-gatherer ways and ethics). Short of an unexpected neuro-shift in huge portions of the population, our emotion-thoughts seem well on the way to driving us to irreversible disaster.
            This is not to say, of course, that the project of life on earth will fail. The planet will survive our best efforts to fuck it up as it has survived countless times in the past. Yes, the earth will survive until, several billion years hence, the dying sun expands to engulf it in a fiery end. Indeed, life itself will survive, having no particular need of a brainy ape to continue. And even the brainy ape will probably survive in some form or other, in some quantity or other—perhaps less driven by its short-term good/bad centers, perhaps more chastened with an expanded cortex that will be more adept at seeing long-term consequences. But the civilization that we have created in the last 10,000 years, and the industrial-electronic-agricultural complex we have forged in the last few centuries—that may well be doomed. And perhaps that is as it should be. We have come, like many civilizations in the past, to expect our inevitable progression as the “crown of creation” to continue forever. But we may soon discover that nothing is forever, not even so supremely-adapted a gaggle of primates as we think we are. One wonders, though, if there will be an aware one like Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, to provide our epitaph:
                        My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
                        Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
                        Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
                        Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
                        The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Lawrence DiStasi