License and Insure the Shooter, Tax the Firearms

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License and Insure the Shooter, Tax the Firearms,

and Do It Through State and Local Governments.

© Allen D. Blume, 2017

During the 2016 political campaign season, virtually any discussion of ending endemic gun violence in the United States was tantamount to touching a subway “third rail;” with the promise of immediate political death to anyone seeking a solution to the problem. In the wake of the militant takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; the rapidly escalating firearms attacks in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Madison Township, Ohio, and Glendale, Arizona; domestic terrorist assaults on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and county government workers in San Bernardino, California by “self-actualized” lone wolves, there were more demands to restrict Americans’ access to virtually all types of firearms. As with the slaughter of school children in Connecticut in 2012, Democrats in general, and to a lesser extent, the investment community, questioned the ready availability of such “weapons of mass destruction,” and, predictably called for restricting entire classes of firearms and limiting the availability of large capacity magazines. As expected, too, the Republican Party mouthed prayerful platitudes and offered nothing in the way of solutions to halt the rising body counts in every part of the United States.

Now, twelve months into 2017, following the particularly murderous assaults in Las Vegas, Nevada, with 59 dead and 441 injured; and Sutherland Springs, Texas, with 27 dead and 25 injured, the body counts continue to climb, the intensity of gun attacks are more savage, and the places of their occurrence appear even more randomly dispersed. The high-profile shootings that leave tens of people dead and hundreds more injured are signifiers of our increasing reliance on firearms to “settle scores” real or perceived. The data on places like Las Vegas or Sutherland or the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, obscure other shootings that should be high profile – but are now simply the background noises of a society in turmoil.

Date

Location Killed

Injured

Jan. 16, 2017

Miami, FL 0 8

Jan. 27

Brownsville, TN 0

10

Feb. 12

Caruthersville, MO 1

6

Mar. 26

Cleveland, OH 2

15

Apr. 16

Columbus, OH 0

9

Apr. 30

San Diego, CA 2

6

May 7

Chicago, IL 2

8

May 20

Philadelphia, PA 10

0

May 27

Washington, DC 1

7

May 28

Phenix City, AL 0

12

June 5

Orlando, FL 6

0

June 9

Fort Worth, TX 2 5

June 30

Little Rock, AR 0

25

June 30 The Bronx, NYC 2

6

July 9

Cincinnati, OH 1 8

Aug. 4

Lodge Grass, MT 3

2

Sep. 10 Plano, TX 9

1

Sep. 24

Antioch, TN 1 8
Oct. 22 Lanett, AL 2

7

Nov. 14 Corning, CA 6

12

(Source: Gun Violence Archive, Mass shootings, November 2017) [1]

The increasingly deep and wrathful divisions between those who favor an outright ban on firearms of any sort, and the barely checked threat of violence emanating from extremists in thrall to the National Rifle Association (NRA) guarantees deadlock and stalemate in addressing runaway gun violence in our society.

In the main, social justice liberals seek to address gun violence by mandating federal “one-size-fits-all” solutions that would create enormous and expensive databases on firearms, ammunition, magazines, and the piece-parts of firearms technology; while notably encroaching on the rights of individuals, states and/or communities to police themselves. Clearly, an increased emphasis on background checks is warranted, as evidenced in President Obama’s Executive Order, and increased attention from the Trump White House, requiring that individuals selling firearms at gun shows be licensed dealers and run background checks before selling a firearm to another person. However, the move is, at best, a tentative one and will certainly be tested by gun owner advocacy groups. Further, by seeking to reinstate semiautomatic weapons and magazine bans, Washington will again chase the minutiae of our violence problem to the exclusion of other and more effective solutions.

A careful reading of the Supreme Court decisions in Washington, DC v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) offers a more direct and manageable solution: Mandate licensure and liability insurance for shooters at state and/or local government levels, and levy appropriate taxes on firearms, magazines, ammunition, and other adjunctive technologies.

Just as states regulate driver’s licensing, they can as readily use their existing infrastructure to manage firearms, even to the extent of using the same departments of motor vehicles to provide for licensure and examination. Set by state statute and/or multi-state compacts, controls can be put in place to provide for categories of gun ownership and use that are comparable with existing automobile, motorcycle, or commercial vehicle licensing, and that do not violate constitutional standards for possession and use of firearms. While there would be some initial state and/or local government outlay to set up certified training and testing gun ranges or contract for their services, this approach would obviate the need for expanding the federal bureaucracy on a fool’s errand to track down and enumerate every Picatinny rail, large capacity magazine, or MilSpec round.

Much is made of the so-called abuse of the regulatory power of the state, but taken at its most fundamental, such actions are a legitimate exercise of the policing powers inherent in every social compact. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ often cited prohibition against crying “Fire” in a crowded theater is an example of the state asserting authority over the exercise of our First Amendment rights; and just as it is in the people’s and government’s interest to regulate explosives and hazardous materials, physicians and health care providers, pet and animal welfare, and restaurants and food vendors, state and local government licensure of shooters is well within the purview of that lawful exercise of regulatory authority.

By licensing the gunner instead of the gun, a more direct accountability can be established between the state and the individual, thereby requiring standards of competence and levels of certification that can be subject to periodic review and testing. An added advantage comes in requiring gunners of any level of competency to have insurance consistent with the same legal standard that requires a driver to have motor vehicle insurance. Again, there is no need to create an elaborate infrastructure, as it would be in the financial interests of insurance underwriters to offer policies for shooters that would include indemnification, risk management, and competency testing (i.e., mental health as well as weapons proficiency); and to avoid overlap and bureaucratization as noted earlier, state and local governments can make use of their existing agencies to manage the licensure process. Finally, and particularly for financially strapped governments, the taxes generated can be directed to mental health and violence reduction activities; or their general fund.

The upshot is that while there is a presumption, constitutionally derived, of an individual’s “natural right” to keep, carry, and use weapons in self-defense, it is not a right that comes without expressly stated costs. In short, for an individual to fail to exert prudent control over his or her firearms, the cost could range from insurance premium hikes to outright policy cancellation. An unlawful act by a licensed shooter could nullify the insurance policy and make the perpetrator subject to material and criminal damages, and failure to have insurance would be fundamental grounds to prohibit a gun sale. Further, an unlicensed person in possession of a firearm would be presumptively in violation of state or local law and subject to such fines and penalties as legislatures might impose. Finally, there will be an open policy consideration in whether a state or other jurisdiction can or will “grandfather” firearms owners or provide for incremental imposition of these proposed standards. Imperatively it is time to move the focus of the divisive gun rights/gun control debate off the center stage of national politics, and vest its solutions in the so-called “laboratory of the states.”

Such a process will not eliminate the role of the federal government to oversee regulation of fully automatic and/or exclusively military weapons and explosives, monitoring and enforcing laws against illegal trading in stolen firearms, and maintaining national registers of felons and others not permitted to own or possess guns.

This approach will not completely stop traffic in illegal firearms, nor will it absolutely keep firearms out of the hands of criminals or emotionally unstable individuals; but it will provide a matrix whereby law-abiding citizens are presumptively determined to be acting within the law in the exercise of their Second Amendment rights. An additional benefit can be realized by working through organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the National Governors Association (NGA), the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), et al, to develop model legislation that provides for the specifics of any given gun-owning state or community; and acts presumptively in favor of firearms owners who might otherwise be in violation of a federal law because they own a firearm or other item subject to national regulatory controls. By licensing and insuring the gunner, a singularly more powerful means of controlling and compelling lawful behavior can be accomplished at a level well below those federally-based laws that would have to be, in the main, confiscatory.

Predictably, more extreme gun owners will claim government overreach and intrusion into their Second Amendment and/or unstated rights of privacy. The immediate and most absurd comparisons will be made to Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin’s totalitarian gun laws, while conveniently overlooking that during the Vietnam War, virtually every person above a certain age in Communist North Vietnam was armed and instructed to shoot down American aircraft. Far more absurdly will be the argument that by making up lists of licensed shooters, the government will then easily be able to round up licensees. (In a nation of roughly 350 million people, a full third of the population are gun owners, and according to the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, the leading source of international public information about firearms, the United States has “the best armed civilian population in the world,” with an estimated 270 to 315 million total guns. That’s an average of 89 firearms for every 100 residents. Information courtesy of the Statistic Brain and the Gallup Poll, 2015; and The Blaze, and Cleveland State University, 2013.) The point, of course, is that the likelihood of any such “roundup” borders on the absurd.

Notwithstanding the absurdist attacks from extremists on the right and left of the American political spectrum, by indemnifying lawful gun owners at the closest appropriate level of governance, the effect will strengthen their fundamental rights while concurrently mandating standards of behavior, performance, and competency, and provide a significantly different means to attenuate the frequency and extremity of gun violence in the United States.

-/-

[1] Ed. Note: The table is not scientifically selected or weighted, save only to show relatively large incidents. NO state is missing from the data in the source cited.

Can We Nooksack the Inupiaq?

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While celebrating Columbus (https://www.thenation.com/article/the-invention-of-christopher-columbus-american-hero/) is as ludicrous as basing jurisprudence on Story’s Commentaries (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/inventing-a-christian-america-9780190230975), jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire is perhaps just as silly. Pushing tribal politics until we all look like Nooksackis (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/magazine/who-decides-who-counts-as-native-american.html) is perhaps a quantum too far.

One has to ask, who exactly are Alaska’s second peoples? There is some discussion as to whether Inupiaq (and their cousins to the East) are Alaska’s second or third peoples coming as they did rather later – some 20000 years after the first descendants of the Altaians made it from Asia (see for a general discussion http://www.pnas.org./content/113/23/6380.full), and of course, as there was no Alaska at the time, a broadening of the target brings to mind that there is evidence that Europeans made it to North America at least by 1500 ya – why not before the Inupiaq? And, of course, the purported lack of archeological evidence of humans in the Americas prior to 30000 ya is NOT evidence that there were NOT peoples here at the time. Lions and tigers and bears – don’t tell me we may have to drop someone’s cap N!?!?!?!?!

Every attempt at argument over who was there first ends up in finger-pointing and blood-letting and is, at its core, a version of “me, mine, and more”. We came down out of the trees just several hundred thousand years ago, and have been torturing each other since. We appear to have all come from what we now call Africa. The time that has passed since then is just the blink of an eye.

The Thin Men

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I think attenuated may be the right word. Disconnected seems too binary, and it’s not so much an on and off thing. It’s more like fading out. That’s what old people do, you know; they kind of fade out, and pretty quick, they’re gone.
I have been trying to find the right words, on and off, for some time. It is a slippery slope there. I suppose one could even suggest treacherous, at the risk of being melodramatic.
I am struck (stuck?) with attenuated. It conveys the very real sense that one’s connection is narrowing, thinning to an impossible dimension that is not sustainable.
There is, of course, the sense that one’s impact on the rest of the world is gone. No one seems to listen; no one seems to hear. You seem always in someone’s way as if you are indeed invisible.
But there is also the feeling of becoming further and further removed. Fading away is as close as I can describe it. Things become less meaningful, unimportant, trivial even. You can easily see events without you. You don’t seem to be involved, and frankly that doesn’t seem a big deal.
Unfortunately or otherwise, those prone to depression are likely to react poorly to these perceptions and may start feeling an accelerated pull. The tension of the attenuation becoming just too great, there is a rising urge to just let go.
Imagine that you are bungie jumping, and at some point it occurs to you that the cord no longer has the capacity to return.

Opportunities for Inclusive Growth in Central Asia

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Qamchiq Tunnel in Uzbekistan

Central Asia presents a unique set of challenges to ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner. The region contains numerous disparate geographical features, authoritarian leaning regimes with restricted civil societies, and repressive policies governing individual economic and political participation. Central Asia is also fortuitously located in the center of large international trade routes both historical and current. Recent focus from China highlights the importance of the region in tying large economies together. This presents a unique opportunity to lift the region out of poverty and provide more egalitarian access to prosperity through the reestablishment of the region as a major trade route.

With the issues facing the region, it is important to effectively analyze the complex nexus of economic and security interests in the region in an effort to provide contextual understanding to strategies targeted at bettering the lives of individuals in the region. Analyzing and leveraging foreign investment in the region to benefit the populations of the countries of Central Asia rather than the leadership of these countries is a path to alleviating poverty in Central Asia. Security issues, while important and certainly influential, are not the primary obstacle to inclusive economic growth in Central Asia. The region is more stable than the rhetoric of international and regional leaders would suggest.

Instead, corruption and other institutional obstacles preventing individuals not connected to leadership from engaging with foreign investment sap growth that would potentially have a large impact on boosting shared prosperity in the region. The leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan use the specter of security issues such as Islamic extremism and potential instability to legitimize their abrogation of civil and economic rights for their populations. The absence of these rights preempts institutional options for individuals to seek greater economic opportunities presented through foreign investment. This absence removes a much-needed path for aggregating the interests of private individuals in society. Strategies targeted at opening civil space for individuals to participate in economic development initiatives is a direct route to inclusive economic growth in the region. Similarly, influencing the focus of larger projects to serve the long term needs of local business development would encourage small business growth that otherwise may be neglected by national leaders in their pursuit of maximizing personal profit.

The World Bank is uniquely positioned to engage in such strategies. Tying financial incentives to domestic policy changes to reduce corruption and increase transparency is a strong method to encourage inclusive economic growth and alleviate poverty. Increasing financial assistance for the development of smaller infrastructure projects to tie agricultural producers to better transportation and irrigation infrastructure would also foster greater productivity for the rural population. In addition to this, tying funding to focus on the local impact of infrastructure would strengthen long term inclusive economic growth by connecting local population centers with local businesses and international trade routes.

Specifically, supplementing Chinese investment under their Belt and Road Initiative has promising potential. Offering loan packages to supplement infrastructure projects with stipulations regarding primary and secondary routes to tie rural population centers to urban education and business centers is one method to influence negotiations for infrastructure development to achieve multiple goals. Such stipulations on additional funding would encourage national leaders in Central Asia to negotiate for infrastructure projects that would serve not only to transport goods through the region to increase commerce, but also develop transit corridors to serve as economic multipliers in business centers.

Tying rural areas to urban areas would also encourage the development of a more robust tourism industry in Central Asia. At this point, adequate and reliable transportation remains one of the largest barriers to the development of adventure tourism in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The impetus of Chinese investment in infrastructure in the region provides an opportunity to provide a foundation for the development of this industry that otherwise may go overlooked.

Taking advantage of foreign infrastructure development can also be channeled to further develop the education sector in Central Asia. The expansion of current academic facilities to focus on preparing the workforce for running and maintaining the transportation networks envisioned by foreign investors provides an avenue for long term inclusive economic growth in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been two of the top remittance receiving countries as a percentage of their GDP. Developing local jobs and preparing the workforce for the jobs created by infrastructure development in these countries would provide an avenue for repatriation of their workforces and locally focused, long term, inclusive economic growth.

In addition to the benefits of growth, taking advantage of the growing focus on infrastructure development in Central Asia would lay the foundation for more resilient societies in the region. Better infrastructure would make it easier for emergency services and aid to respond quickly and flexibly to migration, environmental disasters, and health crises caused by climate change. Seasonal flooding, mudslides, and earthquakes remain a constant threat in Central Asia, especially in the mountainous regions. Developing multiple transportation routes in these regions would make emergency response more efficient and reduce the economic disruption posed by these events.

The myriad challenges present in Central Asia require nuanced and contextual understanding to become the opportunities that they are. The potential impact of World Bank policy is boosted by the focus of international leaders to develop infrastructure in the region. With the right incentives, such investment can focus not only on large scale economic growth, but also on alleviating extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity sustainably through inclusive economic growth.

A Very American Tradition

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Perhaps the oldest and most time-honored American political tradition is the laying on of propaganda, a very catholic (spreading truth, as it were) endeavor (Harper) for a democratic republic with a “wall”. The term “propaganda”  was not employed to describe the practices of 18th century America, which saw the broad use (or more appropriately, abuse) of the  pamphlet and the newspaper (Parkinson), which between them likely moved more manure than any hundred colonial farmers.

While it is seen as “good fun” on the “Left” to ridicule the “Right”‘s delusional love affair with a past that never existed (from Washington’s fledgling theocratic state to the libertarian utopia captured by Norman Rockwell), those doing the fiercest poking seem also to hearken back to an halcyon era of gentle discourse, where rational discussion charted the future of a free people. But, such daydreams are as fatuous as the revisionist histories of America’s culture warriors.

Our very own “Declaration” of independence is little more than a propagandistic screed (Hansen; Armitage; Jefferson) while the great art of “Common Sense” (Paine) is the rhetoric that so skillfully manipulates the reader.  The truth is that nothing was too low for the political strategists of our past. At the turn of the 18th century dueling over reputation was still to be seen (though largely illegal) while, based on the perceived reception of English common law, truth was no defense in suit for libel or slander (Kluft). Tar the man and kill the policy was the order of the day. Weinberg, in reviewing Burns’ “Infamous Scribblers”, gives us pause to ponder the fact that modern media warfare is not far removed from the rough and tumble of our brutal beginnings.

The U.S. has always been the very embodiment of the Hobbesian dilemma: affluence and stability come with moderation of individual freedoms. Yet our media has been telling us we can have our cake and eat it too for so long that the very idea has percolated into our poor excuse for beer: “Tastes great, less filling” (Miller). The predominant science of the 20th century is not physics, medicine, chemistry, or economics; it’s social psychology, the key to effective “advertising”, advertising being the methods by which attitudes of any population can be manipulated.

Our most staid organic political repartee, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, were composed anonymously. But this was not your kid’s Anonymous. By employing the allusion that was inherent in the use of a pseudonym (taken, itself, from an almost universal educational canon) the propounding pops  placed the discourse about our second attempt at sovereignty in a larger context (Richard 39), offering a sense of gravitas, or not (Klarman).

It may have been this sense of erudition that eventually gave rise to the extension of the Jeffersonian educational ideal to the unwashed (Notes on the State of Virginia 268-275); train the hoi polloi in “the canon”, and they too could be responsible participants in the republic! Et voilá, the great divide between those capable of ruling and those in need of rule is closed.

Many, like myself, are still enamored of the prospects of “education”. Even the kid with his finger in the dyke made some contribution, after all. But it is a losing battle where, the lower the socio-economic class the greater the spawning, and teachers (nominally, let alone good teachers) can’t compete with family and media when it comes to drama, comedy, time allotted, impact, etc. Indeed, we have moved rather aggressively to the point where the academy has been purchased by ideologues (Mayer 172).

The other two great divides are: a) the epistemological application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (there is either truth or process), and, b) the Gordian Knot of Sophism (Rhetoric and Dialectic deconstructed). The first, shorthand for the grand battle of the absolute versus the relative, Plato versus Aristotle, is what plays out all over our country between the religious right and everyone else (once the “truth” is grasped, very little persuasion is necessary). The latter is the essence of the interactions between the “inner chimp” and the Homo sapiens forebrain and likely should have been the real focus of this essay.

It belongs to Rhetoric to discover the real and apparent means of persuasion, just as it belongs to Dialectic to discover the real and apparent syllogism. For what makes the sophist is not the faculty but the moral purpose. But there is a difference: in Rhetoric, one who acts in accordance with sound argument, and one who acts in accordance with moral purpose, are both called rhetoricians; but in Dialectic it is the moral purpose that makes the sophist, the dialectician being one whose arguments rest, not on moral purpose but on the faculty (Aristotle). Your English teacher would have started off this essay with Aristotle’s remarks, but then, you didn’t listen to your English teacher back then either, did you?

Of course, any time one begins considering social upheaval (as in an attempted change in social structure via the rise of a lower caste or class) historically it is cotemporal with mob violence. Whether you wish to talk about Spartacus or Luther, the attack on authority results in general conflagration. We have moved, in an era of truthiness (Colbert) and alternative facts (Todd), to a place where all authority is “equal”, so all versions of “reality” are legitimate.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, nor a common sense of what is authoritative.

We are, in a  real sense, faced with the thr”E” alternatives to the Existing Quandary Underlying Angst Tortured Existentialists: Education (Where do you want to go today), Exclusion (Just Us), or Exhortation (MadAve).  We have seen that Education is not up to the challenge…   Exclusion (the tribal primal directive) works just fine until all the oligarchs become bombastic bullies (it’s what happens when the elite defining “philosopher kings” are disparu, as can be seen in the current Administration).  What we are left with, and what many on “the left” are now arguing, is the adoption of the sound bite magical libertarian mystery show; time to sell the “progressive” brand using the same kind of MadAve tools that the Scaifs and Kochs successfully used in the past, and were employed most recently to make the Maroon Tide believe that Donald Trump is Their Savior.

To put that in blunter terms, the question is put, “Shall we murder to stem the flow of murderers?” Perhaps the first and maybe least fortunate response to such a poser would be that in as much as 997 of any 1000 people likely would not be worth saving one way or the other,  if you are not going to put them down at birth, don’t waste the money to feed them. But let’s delicately back away from that moment of honesty and search for an historical example of a successful upstart taking on hegemony without becoming same. Stickier and stickier…

Nor is, “They will seize what’s yours”, a real barn-burner because the truth is, nothing I have is really mine. Yeah, we do a great deal of pretending about PROPERTY in this country, but is there really anyone who does not realize that it is largely a delusion (well, THEY are included in that 997). Thank you, for thinking of US, but no thanks. Yes, let the Maroon Tide dissolve my bones on the wretched strand, but playing the Devil’s fiddle, as Faust well knew, comes at a price I am not interested in paying.

No, without a common frame of reference, the task is to simply make noise, as no real communication will take place…  The message, as it were, is the rumble… and rumble we must for a better world, because until the fundie right decamps their separate universe, or education turns a corner it has yet to even espy, the best we can do is let people know we are alive and well.


Armitage, David. “The Declaration of Independence and International Law.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2002, pp. 39–64. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3491637.

Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. PublicAffairs, 2007.

Colbert, Stephen. The Word – Truthiness. 2005. www.cc.com, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness.

Hansen, Ali. “The Declaration as Propaganda.” Digication, 12 Mar. 2017, https://bu.digication.com/ahansen/The_Declaration_as_Propaganda.

Harper, Douglas. “Propaganda.” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=propaganda. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. University of Virginia Library, Virgo, 710304, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:710304. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.

—. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. 1776.

Klarman, Michael J. The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kluft, David. “The Death Of Alexander Hamilton And The Birth Of The American Free Press.” Trademark and Copyright Law, 1 July 2016, http://www.trademarkandcopyrightlawblog.com/2016/07/the-death-of-alexander-hamilton-and-the-birth-of-the-american-free-press/.

Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017.

Miller, Carl. “Beer and Television: Perfectly Tuned In.” Beer History, 2002, http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/beer_commercials.shtml.

Nizkor. “Fallacy: Appeal to Authority.” Nizkor Project, 2012, http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html.

Paine, Thomas. “Common Sense.” Project Gutenberg, 14 Feb. 1776, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm.

Parkinson, Robert G. Print, the Press, and the American Revolution. Aug. 2015. americanhistory.oxfordre.com, http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-9.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Todd, Chuck. “Conway: Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts.’” Meet The Press, NBC News, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/conway-press-secretary-gave-alternative-facts-860142147643.

Weinberg, Steve. “Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns.” Houston Chronicle, 19 Mar. 2006, http://www.chron.com/entertainment/books/article/Infamous-Scribblers-by-Eric-Burns-1870445.php.

 

When is Insurance for Dependents a Bad Idea?

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In a recent social media discussion about the adoption of Alaska HB23, “Creating a fund in the Department of Public Safety; providing for payment of certain medical insurance premiums for surviving dependents of certain peace officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty; relating to contributions from permanent fund dividends to the peace officer and firefighter survivors’ fund; and providing for an effective date”, Andy Holman (past Anchorage Education Association President and presently Anchorage School Board Member) stated, “Way too long coming.” While I am typically a fan of Representative Andrew Josephson (the bill’s primary sponsor), this bill was and will continue to prove to be, a mistake.

The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s “Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries” tells us that there are as many job related teacher deaths as there are job related fire department deaths [OK, I will come clean about the appropriate consideration of the BLS data below]. Does that mean that Andrew will soon be fast-tracking a similar bill for teachers? Somehow I think not.

One can dramatize the situation as much as one wishes, but where there are as many occupational fatalities among teachers as among firefighters, the actuarial impact on their families is THE SAME. In fact, in many schools teachers DO walk towards the fire, as it were, but I don’t think we should be ensuring health care coverage because of the nature of the job someone is doing (even if we misperceive the dangers inherent in that job because we are emotionally involved), but because it is the right thing to do.

But we should back up a bit and ask first why this was necessary, or more importantly, whether there was some way to avoid the unforeseen consequences presented by the bill, while still providing health care for the families of deceased firefighters and cops. And that means answering the question, “Why is it that legislators supposed that firefighters could not provide for medical insurance premiums for an eligible surviving spouse or dependent child through an IRA, life insurance, or related instrument?” And if such options were available (and they were), instead of carving exceptions into state law, wouldn’t it have made more sense to transition state medical care to health trusts, and allow the health trust to provide such services until the covered parties are otherwise eligible?

All persons covered under this bill would already be entitled to COBRA  (which, at a cost no more than 105% of the existing premium, provides for continuation of coverage on the occurrence of a qualifying event, like death of the policyholder).  All employees through whom coverage would be realized through this bill are also provided or offered life insurance. The longest that COBRA (or alternative program) would have to be paid for would be 18 years, the time it would take an infant to reach majority (26 if we want to look at current insurance “standards” for parental coverage). A rational response to this situation might well be to provide adequate life insurance or similar instrument that would cover COBRA (technically COBRA today only runs 18 or 36 months) or alternative.  The cost for such insurance would be about $50/month. Yes, I said $50/mo.

The demonstration above gives rise to the possibility that some are seeking to “double-dip” based on milking an emotive response. How is it “double-dipping”? The covered employee class already negotiates for a salary and benefits based on their “heroic” status (walking towards the fire, as it is argued). Stripped bear of the chest beating, we are really talking about a way to avoid asking the employer for an additional $50/month, or more to the point, moving part of the employment cost away from the employer directly (but as we might expect, this will have an indirect effect on dollars available for other purposes, and the current situation, where the Senate Majority is unwilling to adequately fund education in the State, is just one example). So the fireman gets paid on the basis of his heroism, and then we also provide additional remuneration (off the books, as it were, on the same basis), while denying that benefit to every other public employee.

The fact of the matter is that whatever the reason for the loss of the employee’s life, it will result in the loss of medical benefits for their dependents, and that will present a family crisis to a family already in crisis. No responsible family member would leave his or her family in such a precarious position, so we really have to assume that all such persons are already implementing a solution such as described above. The issue, then, is not really providing the tools for coverage, but providing additional benefits to one occupation, not provided to another occupation on the basis of something other than risk of occupational fatality for that occupation. That, to be blunt, is an emotional response that carves exceptions with unforeseen consequences and promotes making non-data driven decisions.

An emotive response should have nothing to do with the need to make sure that the families of anyone who dies on the job retain their health insurance until otherwise covered. By emotive response I am referencing the perception that someone deserves something “extra” because of the perceived nature of the risk, despite whatever the stats might reveal about the actual risk, the actual risk being determine actuarially. As noted, public safety personnel negotiate compensation on the basis of the risk they experience (one of the reasons people argue about the fact that the job is less risky than people like you believe) – and we should not promote this “double dipping”  while the employee could provide for family coverage on the employee’s death.

But teachers? Look, if you want to reward public safety personnel for being “heroes”  that is fine (though remember, you are also doing that when they negotiate for pay), but I (and thousands of others) think that teachers are heroes too. If you really want to extend benefits based on heroism, your policy should be based on actual risk, and the actual risk is far from your perceptions of the risk.

When comparing US schools to Finnish, the difference, again and again, comes back to Disrespect that the population holds for teachers, and the ramification of that disrespect eventually “blossoms”. In addressing teacher victimization, the American Psychological Association states:

According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 2011-12 , approximately:

  • 20% of public school teachers reported being verbally abused.
  • 10% reported being physically threatened.
  • 5% reported being physically attacked in schools.

From 1997-2001 1.3 million nonfatal crimes (including 473,000 violent crimes) were committed against America’s teachers.

Yes,  the fatal injury rate is actually some 5 times greater for firefighters than for teachers (the rate for firefighters is 4 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) but the rate for firefighters is still a third of that for bus drivers! The point I am trying to make is that actuarially the fatal injury rate for firemen is actually lower than many other possible public employee sectors, so to single out a sector with a lower rate for extra benefits is emotional and not data driven, and as such would also arguably inappropriate public policy.  It would make more sense, I suppose, to use the occupational fatality rate as a multiplier to address public subsidy for COBRA or some such.

I think instead of this law, which is a mistake, the families should have clearly identified the cost of life insurance necessary for COBRA for 18 (or 26) years and negotiated for that. In the alternative, the legislature should have made the coverage available to everyone, which is to say, instead of me, me, we should be talking about us us 😉 And, of course, instead of trying to kill the health trusts functioning so well in this State, the State should be promoting the expansion and networking of such trusts. At that point we have coherent policy that meets the long range needs of Alaska residents. What we have now is a poor knee-jerk emotional response to what is really a non-problem, and legislation that really does need to be adopted as been sidelined instead.

 

MOC’d ACCOMODATIONS

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In our post-abusive all-inclusive society, it appears that we may have neglected to address the needs of a specific demographic that is now crying out in need.  Yes, I am talking about the MOC’d, the Morbidly Obese Challenged. You see these people every day. They are the ones who have no trouble sitting in chairs, manage to walk through doors (even two at a time in some cases), and have clothes not covered with crumbs. Yes, you may have stopped your snickering, and you may have ceased talking about these people behind their backs, but do you really know how they suffer.

It is high time we had a frank discussion of some of the typical accommodations that are necessary to make the MOC’d feel part of the group, and to get the ball rolling I am going to talk about the three “ph”s: Food, Fat, and Physicality.

Go to any corporate training program anywhere in the country and you will find, of course, a table laden with the carbohydrates most of us need to stay bulked up (let’s face it, it’s not easy to keep yourself morbidly obese if you have to manage that without the help of biological assistance).  While we are accustomed to the constant movement of our compatriots back and forth to the table, and to the constant chomping, crunching, grinding and general snorfling that accompany this tide of bodies, the MOC’s are seriously disturbed by the sound and fury of our social mandate.  What to do? I really think this can be addressed through technology! Assistive devices can provide audio filtering, as well as narrow visual focus and directional cues for when the MOC person is tempted to look away from the presenter.

We all know, of course, that fat (we call it blubber in our marine cousins) provides an effective thermal barrier to environmental temperatures, and that we require constant cooling to address the insulating layers we proudly bear. Unfortunately, our MOC’d colleagues become agitated when asked to deal with a 5 knot breeze in the conference room, or with 55F temperatures.  Here again, I see no great challenge as the problem is quickly solved with a few extra articles of clothing, and as a side benefit, the parka offers lots of pockets! I almost wish I could wear one!

More problematic is that MOC’d persons take offense at the perceived intrusions into their “personal space” they claim by the rest of us. They get all purple in the face if our butts bump them, go pale if our boobs hit them, and start screaming if their materials are nudged on to the floor because they were not adequately anchored. Many would simply argue that the best thing to do is find the little snowflakes a “safe place” at the back of the class where they can stay. We know, however, that such arrangements are inappropriate – separate but equal is no longer the law! But I believe there IS a solution.  Some of you may have heard about Bubble Football!

That’s the key! All we need to do is provide the MOC with a bubble suit! In fact, we could laminate the bubble with solar panel material and use that to power the audio and video accommodations. Additional, the bubble would also likely alleviate the need for additional clothing, so it would become an all-in-one wholly self-contained accommodation.

Yes, this IS a Brave New World, and thankfully, we are really well equipped to deal with it.

THE DRIVE TO THE RIGHT

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Like a competent driver, the sensible person must be aware of their surroundings and the events occurring therein in order to avoid catastrophe. The same applies when observing developments across the political spectrum. The speed of those events is a variable beyond the control of the driver. But from the perspective of the astute observer it’s possible to ascertain what has occurred, what is occurring and what will likely occur as a result of past and current trends.

One of the more interesting developments in recent times and certainly the most colourful is the growing influence of the far-right in mainstream politics. Through a combination of brand advertising, sloganizing, boorish behaviour and corporate sponsorship the Extreme Right is making its presence felt across the world. Some on the so-called “Alt-Right” have claimed that their brand of conservatism represents the new counter-culture. Indeed, charlatans such as the White Supremacist Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos have made in-roads into popular culture by tapping into the grievances of disenchanted millennials (see Victimhood Part 1.

It would be simplistic to declaim such unpleasant individuals and their followers as stupid or misguided but it would be equally unwise to credit either Spencer or Yiannopoulos with wisdom or intelligence. Though posing as leaders in the Alt-Right, neither of these men nor their ideas are the driving force behind the movement. The financial sponsors of the movement are wealthy interest groups including the Mercer family. Rather than being leaders, Spencer and Yiannopoulos are mere hand-servants.

The Extreme Right has always existed and its virulence in North America is owed to a combination of geography and religious and philosophical leanings at the core of Western colonization on the continent. Since World War II the Extreme Right’s move towards the mainstream of politics is the logical result of nearly fifty years of corporatist maneuvering. There is and was no central conspiracy at work to shift the political Centre to the Right. Instead various interest groups each armed with a shared sense of socioeconomic determinism hijacked the moderate political parties in most jurisdictions.

The first political grouping in North America to succumb to these political parasites was the traditional conservative movement. Whereas traditional conservatives stressed the importance of limited government, separation of church and state and fiscal prudence, traditional conservatism quickly fell under the sway of both Christian conservatives and neo-conservatives. The former Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (ironically much feted today by neo-conservatives) warned:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Christian Conservatives were only one force that would transform North American conservatism. Christian conservatism is not a monolithic force and is far more complex than it appears. Like the political spectrum, Christian Conservatism has many aspects. Many right-wing libertarians also adhere to fundamentalist Christian teachings. During the Obama Administration, these and other groups coalesced around the Tea Party.

However, even within American Christian fundamentalism, there exists ideological difference between evangelicals, Catholics and Dominionists. All these groups share to varying degrees a sense of determinism on a range of issues varying from social and foreign policy to economic determinism. Of these, the Dominionists are arguably the most extreme in their views and as a result have generated greater links to the Racist Right. Those links are also complex.

For example, the Cosmotheist Church founded by William Luther Pierce derived its membership from evangelical White Supremacists. Pierce was the author of The Turner Diaries, considered to be a “bible” for the racist right. Pierce described Cosmotheism’s core principle as:

“…the purpose of mankind and the purpose of every other part of creation, is the creator’s purpose, that this purpose is the never-ending ascent of the path of creation, the path of life symbolized by our life rune, that you understand that this path leads ever upward toward the creator’s self-realization, and that the destiny of those who follow this path is godhood.”

Key to realising this godhood was advancing the white race to a position of “superhuman” status, a position that could not be achieved through the mixing of races. By the time Pierce founded the Cosmotheist Church he had already preached his racist vision of social Darwinism in his novel The Turner Diaries. In that distasteful book he envisaged a future race war in which fifty million white survivors would inherit the Earth. Pierce also promoted a strain of Edmund Spencer’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” Competition between individuals and races was, in Pierce’s view key to the betterment of mankind.

Dominionist Christian thinking, itself a branch of Christian Reconstructionism shares much in common with Pierce’s vision but with less overt emphasis on a race war. Dominionist theology argues that the world should be brought under Christian dominion and that all other faiths should be subordinated or destroyed. Reconstructionists occupied high ranking posts during the Administration of George W Bush. They included the Defence Department’s Inspector General Joseph Schmitz. Schmitz maintains close ties with Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince. During the Second Iraq War, Schmitz described Blackwater mercenaries as his “Von Steubens (after the Prussian officer and founder of the Continental Army)” bringing Christianity to the Middle East.

A vision of apocalyptic destiny also sits at the heart of Dispensationalist Christian belief. Dispensationalists believe that the Messiah will vanquish the Anti-Christ at Armageddon in the state of Israel. Afterwards, according to Dispensationalist prophecy, the world will begin anew, clean of pollution and evil and life will abound.

Such mystical thinking isn’t far removed from the racist fantasies of White Supremacists such as Pierce. Furthermore on social policy, Christian Conservatism as a whole leans heavily towards a social Darwinist perspective of competition. At the same time that William Luther Pierce was promoting his intolerant, tax-dodging religious sect, the Christian Reconstructionist David Harold Chilton was arguing against social welfare programmes, culminating in his influential 1981 book Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider.

But Christian Conservatives weren’t the only force hijacking traditional conservativism. The neo-conservative movement gained influence at the start of the 1970’s through the Chicago School of Economics. Lack of adherence to Christianity is no barrier for neo-conservative thinking. Many of its most ardent promoters included the money grubbing former Assistant Secretary of Defence Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, both whom are of Jewish descent. William Kristol, the editor of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard remains an intellectual force behind the promotion of neo-conservatism.

But what is neo-conservativism and why does it have such a cozy relationship with the Christian Right?

The practical and philosophical underpinnings are coinciding (if not for identical reasons) interests in maintaining the state of Israel, armaments spending and the desire for competition in the society at large. The Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul sees parallels between neo-conservatives and Marxists:

“It is not unreasonable to place them among the last true Marxists, since they believe in the inevitability of class warfare, which they are certain they can win by provoking it while they have power.”

Bizarrely, it is White Supremacists who have in turn accused historic figures such as Abraham Lincoln of being Marxist for freeing the slaves. Also on an ironic note, Pierce, Perle and the Christian Reconstructionist David Harold Chilton professed strong opposition to Communism throughout their careers. Pierce was a member of the John Birch Society prior to joining George Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. Yet each of these men encouraged ideological, class and racial conflict.

It is yet another irony that White Supremacy itself is less concerned with conflict and more about stability, control and subjugation. By far the most astute analysis of the underpinnings of White Supremacist philosophy can be found in the sociological school of Socialist Feminist theory. James W Messerschmidt, one of the principle thinkers behind the theory posited the argument that White Supremacy is not merely concerned with race but with gender roles. The desired social structure of the white supremacist is one where white men dominate the community and where white women are subordinate to white men. White Supremacist thought adheres to a notion that women are unable to control their sexuality and that is a moral imperative of white men to ensure that women do not engage in sexual congress with anyone outside the white race.

Similarly, according to Messerschmidt’s analysis, black men and women are equally incapable of controlling their sexuality and therefore the segregation of the races is in part motivated by a need to control the sexuality of white women and black men as a moral imperative.

It may seem like a far cry between the racist and sexist views of White Supremacists and contemporary social conservatism until we recall the ongoing debate over abortion and healthcare in the United States, and in particular conservative attacks on Planned Parenthood in the US and public health care in Canada. In the kind of capitalist free market society promoted by modern day conservatives, women are therefore good for nothing but breeding.

Small wonder then, that Donald Trump’s comments about “grabbing her by the pussy” were not a liability among his supporters, nor too, the equally idiotic comments of former House of Representatives member Todd Akin when he described the female body as an “incubator.”

Dehumanizing people being a specialty of modern conservative thought, it is small wonder that many libertarians and conservatives are also techno-utopians. Peter Thiel, the libertarian founder of PayPal and who sat on Trump’s transition team is among many right-wing thinkers who believe that technology should be allowed to advance without regard to human interference. Thiel and others like him have apparently forgotten what World War II was fought over. While most tend to see World War II as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism it was also a war against the dictatorship of technology versus the rights of the individual. Hence in popular entertainment Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from the Great Dictator:

“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

And:

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!”

Or consider Charles De Gaulle’s 1941 lecture at Oxford where he discussed the threat of technology to the individual:

{The only way out is for]”…society to preserve liberty, security and the dignity of man. There is no other way to assure the victory of spirit over matter.”

As with the Herbert Walker Bush and Brown Brothers Harriman during World War II, Thiel appears to be on the side of the Nazis when it comes to technological determinism.

Thus weighing all the above, it is easy to see how disparate elements of the Right could coalesce around a phony heroic and intolerant figure such as Donald Trump. Individual bravado may have played a role in putting Trump in the White House. However Trump’s presidency is a culmination of decades of disparate efforts by White Nationalists, Christian Conservatives and neo-conservatives to shape society into an ideological, social and racial warzone.

By and large, their efforts have not been in vain. Their opponents in the centre and on the left have fallen into several pitfalls. First, the centre has over recent decades parroted many neo-conservative talking points about “free” markets and competition. In turn liberal governments under Clinton, Tony Blair and Jean Chretien have embraced the twin mantras of demonizing the poor and privatizing public resources.

The Left has in turn moved to the centre-right. The Socialist Party in France held the same anti-LBGTQ stance as the Gaullists for decades. Francois Hollande proved to be no friend of the working class during his time in office, using State of Emergency legislation to crack down on unions and organised labour.

Canada’s NDP in a bid to appear more “palatable” to the electorate i.e. donors, has also moved to the centre. At both a federal and provincial level, NDP policy does not differ radically from that of the Liberal Party of Canada.

On the far left, both the anarchists and socialists have increasingly engaged in petty bickering. Rather than providing a sensible counterweight to the ideological insanity of the far Right, the Left is parroting similar calls by Steve Bannon: that the system must be destroyed. Leaving aside the legitimate concern about how dysfunctional North America’s constitutional systems have become, what the left plans to replace that system with is unclear.

Consequently it is not difficult for the astute observer to see that the prevailing political mess may only be addressed after some kind of cataclysmic event. During the early part of the twentieth century, two world wars were required to defeat the socioeconomic crisis that abstract authoritarian ideology had inflicted on the world. That ideology has returned, the lessons conveniently forgotten by the body politic.

War may not be the only event that triggers a radical rethink of the current malaise. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the Bush Administration’s failure to address the crisis contributed to his party’s decimation in 2008. Contrast that with Federal assistance in 2012 under Obama to New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and conservative opposition to sending such aid.

In the words of the Canadian singer and poet Gordon Downie “An accident is sometimes the only way to work our way back from bad decisions.”

Another solution may be unfolding in the wake of Trump’s reactionary policies. Countering his decision to pull out of the Paris Accords, many American cities and states are pledging to uphold the Accords in spite of the Federal Government. With enough grassroots involvement, Trump’s lunatic presidency might end up leading to a true democracy for the first time in the history of the United States. A democracy without the hindrance of the Electoral College or gerrymandering.

However that same movement could also easily fall into a trap of competition between communities and in turn lead to civil strife and human suffering.

If that were to occur, it would prove a final victory of the neo-conservative movement.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING:

BLACKWATER: THE RISE OF THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL MERCENARY ARMY BY JEREMY SCAHILL

THE DOUBTER’S COMPANION: A DICTIONARY OF AGGRESSIVE COMMONSENSE BY JOHN RALSTON SAUL

CRIME AS STRUCTURED ACTION; DOING MASCULINITY, RACE, CLASS, SEXUALITY AND CRIME BY JAMES W MESSERSCHMIDT

THE TURNER DIARIES BY WILLIAM LUTHER PIERCE

PRODUCTIVE CHRISTIANS IN AN AGE OF GUILT MANIPULATORS: A RESPONSE TO RONALD J SNIDER BY DAVID HAROLD CHILTON

THE MANY-HEADED HYDRA: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE REVOLUTIONARY ATLANTIC BY PETER LINEBAUGH AND MARCUS REDIKER

MALTHUS AND TODAY

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***This essay and others also found at The Intellectual Plane

“It is an acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment. Yet so much friction, and so many minute circumstances occur in practice, which it is next to impossible for the most enlarged and penetrating mind to foresee, that on few subjects can any theory be pronounced just, till all the arguments against it have been maturely weighed and clearly and consistently refuted.”
– Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

As with all great thinkers the work of the economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) has been the subject of both praise and criticism. Both in life and long after his death Malthus’s ideas on political economy have been dismissed by both free-market ideologues on the Right and partisans on the Left as either unrealistically pessimistic or even inordinately optimistic.

Much like the work of Adam Smith, Malthus’s ideas on political economy have either been vilified or celebrated. As with Smith, ideologues have cherry-picked his arguments for their own purposes. Malthus has been decried by ideological publications like the Economist magazine as a “false prophet”. With typical corporatist rhetoric the Economist often argues that technological improvements pertaining to the status quo of agriculture and manufacturing will offset the negative externalities caused by corporate capitalism, thus rendering Malthus wrong on all points.

Ironically left wing thinkers like Friedrich Engels shared a similar technocratic contempt for Malthus. Engels, who spent much of his life working in a Manchester cotton mill saw the beneficial possibilities of technology as labour saving devices when combined with socialist practice and argued for sharing the gains of technology across the wider society.

Yet the reality of technological advances over the past three hundred years is that said advances have been largely directionless or employed against the majority of society. Undirected technology has and continues to displace workers and impact the natural environment.

Worse, the gains of technology – in terms of labour saving and wealth creation- have been creamed off by individuals and corporations at the expense of human dignity and environmental destruction.

An honest appraisal of Malthus (or anyone for that matter), his works and his critics must occur by also considering both the context of his time and ours and and to do so in a holistic manner. Also the wider historical realities that occurred after Malthus’s death must be weighed against the abstract thinking employed by both his admirers and detractors.

But first a little about the man himself.

A PHILOSOPHICAL CLERIC

Thomas Malthus was born in 1766 in Surrey in southern England. He was a prize student at Cambridge University and was later ordained into the Church of England.

Malthus had a deep interest in human society and in population growth in particular. His 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population argued that the growth in human population was subject to resource limits. In times of plenty, human populations would expand until shortages of food and other resources limited that growth or in many cases reduced the population through starvation, disease or war. He declared that there were two categories of checks on population: positive checks which increased the death rate (hunger) among the population and preventative checks that decreased the birthrate (birth control, celibacy).

At the heart of Malthus’s argument was the belief that the use of positive checks on population would create socioeconomic volatility and misery for the population. He was a staunch critic of the Poor Laws, arguing that they promoted inflation and undermined the purchasing power of the poorest sections of the society.

Malthus was sceptical of the idea that agricultural improvements could expand production without reference to the physical limits of environment. In many cases history would prove him correct.

From a modern sociological perspective Malthus can be criticized for his belief that populations will expand only in times of plenty. In the case of some Third World societies where there is a dearth of social safety nets such as social welfare, pensions and affordable medical care, poor families will have more children in order to ensure more income earners and future care for elderly family members.

Yet Malthus must be viewed in a historical context and in a period of rapid industrialisation and cartel behaviour by English landowners. His was the era of the Corn Laws and the Enclosure Acts. Technological advances in agriculture and industry had forced thousands of agrarian labourers into urban areas and slum housing. He was right to be pessimistic – as we should be today.

A CENTURY OF FAMINE

“A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted. For few persons will leave their families, connections, friends, and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages in the place to which they are going.”
-Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

Malthus died in 1834 but just over ten years later, the commercialisation of agriculture and laissez-faire economic thought led to the single greatest catastrophe ever to befall modern Ireland. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland lost a quarter of its population due to famine and displacement. The response of the British government and business was largely indifferent. Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant most directly responsible for organising what limited relief efforts were provided by Westminster and Lord Fitzwilliam were among many in government who bastardized Malthus’s idea of positive checks on population control by suggesting that Ireland’s problems were the result of “surplus people.”

The uncompromising, abstract economic model employed in Ireland left the population vulnerable to the harsh realities of the world’s climate. Ireland experienced a series of warmer, wetter summers in the years leading up to and during the Famine. The conditions were ideal for a bloom in Potato blight that wiped out the principle staple crop for most of the population. Despite that, the warmer weather actually led to bumper crops of Irish grain and other foodstuffs, but since these were reserved for the export market, much of the population was left to starve. It is hard to imagine that Malthus, the moral churchmen who held only a lukewarm belief in free trade would have approved of the economic barbarism being meted out in Ireland. Small wonder then, that Engels upon realising the dangerous misuse of Malthus’s ideas would condemn Malthus himself

The British employed the same cruel, moralistic indifference in their other colonies. The Madras Famine of 1877 was responsible for the deaths of between five and ten million people, despite record exports of Indian grains to the world market. Like Trevelyan in Ireland the British Viceroy Lord Lytton and his subordinate Richard Temple held the opinion that relief efforts would lead to moral “dependency”, a view still held by many prominent conservative thinkers today when issues like food stamps and social welfare are considered.

The root causes of the 1877 Madras Famine were environmental and economic. The years 1876 to 1878 were El Nino years and the monsoons in India failed. The economic and moral causes of the Madras Famine were laissez-faire trade and racist indifference towards the Indian population.

There were other famines in the nineteenth century. The same El Nino cycle combined with inadequate maintenance of traditional irrigation systems and colonial “free” trade in Northern China was responsible for the deaths of twenty million Chinese.

Brazil also suffered appalling loss of life in the Sertão and over a hundred years later the region still suffers the ravages of the El Nino cycle.

The famines that tortured the Russian countryside throughout the 1880’s were also the result of climactic events aggravated by harsh Tsarist policies. The long term result of the famines in Russia was the 1905 Russian Revolution that led to an even more violent upheaval in 1917.

TECHNOLOGY AS A FALSE REMEDY

The modern corporatist economist and free-market ideologue still clings to the misguided notion that these events were aberrations and that today’s technology can prevent such tragedies.

Yet the application of agricultural and industrial technology not only exacerbated problems, but ensured environmental catastrophe.

The expansion of railways in India served two purposes. The first was military. The second was economic. Railways were the means for moving massive quantities of grain and other food-stuffs out of famine stricken areas in southern India.

The steam ship enabled the rapid exporting of these goods.

The spread of steam powered tractors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to deeper ploughing and the disruption of fragile soils in both the Russian black soils and the American Great Plains.

That the fossil record indicates that these regions are vulnerable to prolonged periods of drought was never considered by the farmers ploughing up the prairies in Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico – the epicentre of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

Instead in the United States, technology and an irrational, religious optimism pervaded the development of the Southern Plains. Quoting the Bible, many religious agriculturalists in places like the Oklahoma panhandle declared with no scientific basis, that where the plough went, the rains would follow.

When El Nino brought drought to the west of the 100th Meridian in the 1930’s the result was the most significant environmental disaster in the history of the United States. One hundred million acres of farmland was devastated as high winds carried top-soils from Kansas and other southern plains states into the atmosphere before dumping their contents onto neighbouring states and distant countries alike. Recent tests performed in the Himalayas found traces of plains dust on Mount Everest. In some areas up to seventy five percent of the top-soil was blown away.

The Southern Plains was hit by another Dust Bowl in the 1970’s that was an unfortunate side effect of geopolitics. During the Détente between the US and the former Soviet Union, the Carter Administration agreed to supply the Soviet Union with grain in exchange for security guarantees for Western Europe. The result was a boom in US wheat production and exports and the further degradation of the Southern Plains.

Today, technological advances in irrigation wells have been posited as solutions to future Dust Bowls. Yet these wells are reliant on ever decreasing quantities of aquifer, which in turn are dependent on rain for replenishment. Droughts on the Southern Plains can last for decades.

THE RELEVANCE OF MALTHUS TODAY

Therefore from a historical context, Malthus was in many ways correct to be pessimistic about the ability of the human population to grow exponentially without limit or environmental intervention.

While critics of Malthus may deride him for suggesting that 19th century Britain would be unable to feed itself a more cynical analyst might point out that Britain’s population growth and food supply in the same period was secured by the deaths of millions in Ireland, India and China.

Similarly the remarkable growth of the United States was predicated on the environmental degradation and destruction of the centre of the North American continent.

A further lesson, identified by Malthus and proved by historic events is the failure of technology alone to ameliorate the condition of society or to safeguard it from food scarcity.

Despite the proliferation of tractors, combines, improved irrigation and ploughing techniques, the underlying soils are vulnerable and require increasing amounts of oil-based fertilizers to produce the food we need.

Neither soil conditions nor crude oil are infinite resources, nor is the amount of available arable land. In fact in parts of the Middle East water shortages have led to a decrease in the amount of arable land available for agricultural production. Rising food prices were a catalyst for the Syrian Civil War that began in 2014 and continues at the time of writing.

Rather than accept that humans are limited by physical reality, the Trump Administration has, in recent days opted to deny reality by choosing to leave the Paris Accords. Like George W Bush with the Kyoto Protocol, Trump and his cabinet of reactionaries are unwilling to accept or adhere to a fundamental humane principle of Malthus:

“I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one.”
– Thomas Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population

Sensible people today would do well not just to comprehend and challenge Malthus, but also to question the assumptions of our technocracy and the irrational optimism that it peddles. Furthermore instead of operating under the assumption that infinite economic and population growth without reference to physical limits is either possible or desirable, we might choose a more sensible socioeconomic order based on reasonable, compassionate stability.

The fate of our population, indeed of our planet depends on it.

Select Bibliography:

Thomas Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

One of the most biased articles in mainstream publication against Malthus in recent years can be found in The Economist – “Malthus, the false prophet” May 17th 2008

On Friedrich Engel’s criticism of Malthus see Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” (1844)

On the Irish Famine and Lord Fitzwilliam see Surplus People: From Wicklow to Canada by Jim Rees (2014) and This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52 by Christine Kineally (1994)

On 19th century famines in India, Brazil and China see Mike Davis Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2002)

On the Dust Bowl see Donald Worster Dust Bowl : the southern plains in the 1930s (2004)

US/Soviet relations, detente and the Carter Administrations agreement to sell wheat to the the Soviet Union are described ibid and in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy (1988) and Richards Rhodes Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007)

On the Russian Revolution and the impact of the populists in addressing the famines in the 1880’s see Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924(1997)

ON HEROES

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I gave up on ideological belief years ago and not out of any sense of disillusionment or abandoning of core ideals. It was simply the result of my realising that the world is a far more complicated place than ideologues or ideologies would have us believe. Moreover as a student of history, I became acutely aware of the hypocrisies exhibited by ideological movements especially on the Left and Right.

To me, humanism is the best way to approach the world. I don’t consider myself to be a radical. If anything my politics fall to the left of centre on the political spectrum. I favour universal single payer healthcare, strong labour laws and sensible regulation over the market-place. When it comes to markets I am, to paraphrase the late James Goldsmith, in favour or free markets but not at the expense of society.

Though I don’t believe that we should have heroes, there are political and social leaders that I admire and most fall on different aspects of the political spectrum.

First on the list is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th century Italian nationalist leader and activist. Garibaldi was a complex figure and he had his fair share of contradictions. Nevertheless he was a champion of many human rights causes and was willing, when necessary to employ violence in defense of those causes.

During the 1840’s he was active in Latin America helping guerilla armies take on tyrannical dictatorships. During the 1850’s and 1860’s he campaigned in Italy, unifying the peninsula with widespread local support.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 he led the Army of the Vosges in defense of France’s Third Republic who were resisting the occupying German army. His brigade was one of the last to surrender to the Germans at the war’s end.

Not all of his methods employed violence. He lent his support to the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, appearing and speaking at rallies in support of granting women the right to vote.

After each campaign he returned to his farm on the island of Caprera and lived a quiet life. Garibaldi’s critics might point to his many contradictions: despite his support for women’s rights he was himself a womaniser and a poor husband. Yet, such criticism ignores the basic humanity of the man and the wider reality that nobody – man or woman – can ever serve as a perfect life model.

Next on the list is the Norwegian politician Haakon Lie, secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party from 1945 to 1969.

Lie was both a realist and an idealist. His political career began as a union activist. During World War II he was a leading voice of Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation. Though his principles were leftist, he was a staunch anti-Communist seeing Soviet-style communism as a threat to peace and democracy. His vision for Norway was of a “Third Way” between the tyrannies of unchecked capitalism and Stalinism. A market economy could benefit society Lie argued so long as the needs of everyone in the society were met.

That meant that each citizen should have universal healthcare, public education and affordable housing. Norway has benefited enormously from these policies and has the highest GDP per capita in the Western world as well as one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

Lie’s critics might argue that despite his determination to save Norwegian democracy, he himself was a dictatorial figure and a bully. Yet in the context of the post-War Period, strong, sensible leadership was required to alleviate human misery and to restore order to a shattered Europe – and Lie and his Party succeeded brilliantly in achieving those goals in Norway.

Finally, though readers of the Intellectual Plane may be shocked by this author’s admission of Charles De Gaulle to the list.

True, De Gaulle had many faults. His treatment of Vietnam and his handling of the Algeria Crisis were often amoral and inhumane. In the case of the latter he connived with unsavoury figures such as Jacques Massu to ensure a favourable French settlement in Algeria.

He was also a dictatorial figure, contemptuous of politicians and of parliamentary politics. De Gaulle hailed from a family of French royalists and his views were socially conservative. Despite these attitudes he employed common sense and idealism in his politics. His policies therefore were almost in contradiction to his background.

Yet he also lived at a time when social conservatism in France was a force that transcended both the Left and Right. Regarding women’s rights and suffrage both France’s Leftist and Rightist political parties proved equally misogynist and opposed granting equality and voting rights to women: the Left due to the fear that women were pro-clerical and the Right out of religious convictions.

Flying in the face of those attitudes De Gaulle’s provisional government granted women the right to vote in 1944, a measure that strengthened overall French democracy.

De Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic further strengthened that democracy, ironically through centralising the powers of the French President. From a constitutional perspective the French President is the most powerful democratically elected figure in the world, next to the Mayor of London.

Thus De Gaulle was able to break through the parliamentary deadlock that wracked the Third and Fourth Republics and institute meaningful reforms. Through a mix of common sense and idealism, De Gaulle implemented economic and social reforms that benefitted the whole of French society and restored prosperity before he left office in 1969.

Like Lie and Garibaldi, De Gaulle wasn’t perfect and there were times when his policies did damage to human life and dignity as was the case in Vietnam. But it must be remembered that like Garibaldi and Lie, De Gaulle was not operating in isolation. At any one time individuals, organisations and nations only have limited resources and knowledge available. De Gaulle was neither omnipotent nor all-knowing.

Nor do we have to be perfect. The goal of the humanist approach is balance and though we may never be completely in harmony at all times, the very effort of striving for balanced perspective is noble in itself.

The problem with heroes is that they never entirely measure up to expectations. Better to approach them and everyone else as human beings and not as divine creations.