Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why No New Progressive Movement in the Second Gilded Age

During the First Gilded Age of the 1890s-1920s, vast economic inequalities in America spawned two robust mass movements, the urban Progressive Movement and the farmer/laborer Populist movement--both dedicated to leveling the playing field by combating monopolistic business practices and ensuring that consumers, workers and the most vulnerable people in society have basic rights and protections against abuses of powerful corporations. 

Out of this period came the great Progressivist (Republican!) trust-buster, US President Teddy Roosevelt, who, decrying the “malefactors of great wealth,” established the Departments of Labor and Commerce to rein in big business, set about breaking up trusts in oil (namely, Standard Oil--the Microsoft of the day), railroads, and steel, and pushed through regulations of the meat and drug industries.  He was also a conservationist who declared huge tracts of lands protected from mining, logging or manufacturing interests.

After a brief return to the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1920s, the Progressive Era returned in full force in the 1930s as a result of public outcry due to the mass deprivations caused by the Great Depression.  This paved the way for the New Deal and a host of other government programs/acts that are still in effect today, including the all-important Social Security and FDIC.

With economic inequalities again approaching historic highs, the post-1980s era has been dubbed the Second Gilded Age, where corporations largely drive public policy while the public interest is excluded from political negotiations.

Les Leopold at Alternet recently published a fantastic (and quite horrible) list economic calamities over the past year, namely: the net worth of the median income family has declined by 35 percent, going from around 100K in 2010 to 66K just two years later.  Meanwhile, the top Fortune 400 has increased their collective wealth by 200 billion USD.  4.7 million Americans have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, and 21 percent of children live under the poverty line. 

With so much wrong and becoming worse, many are left scratching their heads over why there has been no mass political reaction or viable movement comparable to the reaction spawned by the First Gilded Age.  The weak and relatively short-lived Occupy movement notwithstanding, the biggest populist upsurge has been the Tea Party movement—aimed (incredibly) at improving the already ample corporate bottom-line at the expense of the public purse.  More for corporations and the rich and powerful, less for the common man—Tea Partiers have indeed “gone Galt.” Or something…
At a recent seminar on economic inequality, Economic Historian Brad Delong was asked this very question (why no New Progressive movement has sprung up to counter the Second Gilded Age); here is his (greatly abridged!) response:

“…And here I'm simply going to throw up my hands and say that I don’t know why…It’s in [sic] a great mystery to me.”
With all due respect to Professor Delong, I think we owe it to ourselves to try and answer this question—because it is at the core of what is wrong with American politics today.
The answer, I believe, lies in the culture of consumerism and the mainstream media. 
Decades ago, Chomsky explained that the mainstream media have the effect of distracting our attention from most important political and economic questions, focusing on relatively minor differences of opinion that draw attention away from the most pressing problems in our lives.  The media also delude the public into believing that there is a limited range of acceptable solutions to public policy problems.  With the “sphere of legitimate dissent” artificially restricted, social and economic issues are defined as trivially as possible so that the underlying power structure remains unquestioned. 
"You don’t have any other society where the educated classes are so effectively indoctrinated that controlled by a subtle propaganda system—a private system including media, intellectual opinion forming magazines and the participation of the most highly educated sections of the population.  Such people ought to be referred to as “Commissars”—for that is what their essential function is—to set up and maintain a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent a proper understanding and analysis of national and global institutions, issues, and policies."
Chomsky has observed that American politics is all theatre, designed to lull the public into believing that they really are in control of public policy and governance in America:
"In the US, there is basically one party—the business party.  It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies.  By and large, I am opposed to these policies.  As is most of the population."

Could anything be more true?
Just think of the stories that have dominated the news headlines over the past several weeks.  Benghazi/Susan Rice, school shooting in CT, War on Christmas, and now: FISCAL CLIFF FISCAL CLIFF FISCAL CLIFF!  Most major political debates in the mainstream media amount to the narcissism of petty tribal differences—gun control/rights, prayer in school, and the like.  This is not to say that these debates are of no consequence, only that they are of marginal importance when compared to the most urgent problems of our day. 
To illustrate, Google’s top 10 trending news stories of 2012 are (in order of popularity):
1.Hurricane Sandy
2. Kate Middleton pictures released
3 Olympics 2012
4. SOPA debate
5. Costa Concordia crash
6. Presidential Debate
7. Stratosphere jump
8. Penn State scandal
9. Trayvon Marton shooting
10.  Pussy Riot
With the exception of the Trayvon Marton shooting and the SOPA debate, these “stories” are nearly all irrelevant to the larger questions concerning our collective economic, social and political welfare.
By the way, this is what Chomsky has to say about sports:
"[Sports] offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]."
The second (related) piece of the puzzle of political apathy is mass consumerism.  Ernest Dichter argued that “the strategy of desire” was crucial for creating a stable modern society.  Thus, a common identity is forged within a national population that is built upon the products they consume.  He writes:
"To understand a stable citizen, you have to know that modern man quite often tries to work off his frustrations by spending on self-sought gratification.  Modern man is internally ready to fulfill his self-image, by purchasing products which compliment it.”
The Century of Self, the superlative documentary by celebrated film-maker Adam Curtis, “is the story of the rise of an idea that has come to dominate our society: it is the belief that the satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority…this rise of the self was fostered and promoted by business.”  The film explains that advertisers have “used the ideas of Sigmund Freud to develop techniques to read the inner desires of individuals and then fulfill then with products.”
Thus, the modern society (no more so than in America) is built upon the commodification of human desires--turning wants into needs, which are satisfied by pre-given choices made by the corporations that make up the edifice of the modern consumer society.  People derive their private and public identities from products that in turn give them a sense of individuation and thus atomization from others in society.  With everyone seeking identity fulfillment through product purchases, there is no room for recognition, much less activation, of collective interests--even in the face of outrageous economic and social injustice.
Given these twin threats to democracy, how could any effective mass movement emerge?  So many more pressing issues demand our attention…such as whether Mischa's new BB cream really delivers on its multi-purpose promise to serve as an all-in-one tinted moisturizer/suncreen/pore-minimizer. (Yes, please!) 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why Commonsense Gun Reform is Doomed in Today's Political Climate

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 26 people (including 20 small children) were gunned down with an assault rifle in a Connecticut elementary school, some believed America had reached a turning point in its tolerance for gun violence.  Senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia (all pro-gun enthusiasts) each spoke out in favor of tightening gun regulations.  Encouragingly, the National Rifle Association (the biggest gun lobby in the States) remained silent in the days following the massacre, breaking form with its previous M.O. following mass killings.  The NRA then announced it would be making an important statement in a press conference at the end of the week, provoking speculation that the organization would finally concede the need for some modest gun control.

On Friday, NRA Spokesperson Wayne LaPierre reminded us what country we were living in and what the NRA was all about--protecting guns, not people.  Rather than strike a conciliatory tone, LaPierre spent the entire press conference blaming everything but guns for the violence, concluding that we needed a "national active database" not of gun owners, but of "the mentally ill." He further proposed that the nation put armed guards in schools, as "the only thing that stops a bad guy is a good guy with a gun." 

It is a well-known fact (at least outside America's borders) that the U.S. has a gun problem.  Among rich industrialized countries, America has far and away the highest number of gun deaths per year, with 32,000 dead last year alone--that is nearly eleven 9/11s every single year; gun homicides were 8775 in 2010, compared with 58 gun homicides in the UK (290 when adjusting for population size).  Gun deaths in the U.S. are expected to surpass traffic fatalities by 2015. Worldwide, America's gun violence is right up there with South Africa, the Philippines and Mexico.  Max Fisher from Washington Post published the following chart, noting that the U.S. has 20 times the average rate of gun murders of all other OECD countries.

How to account for America's off-the-charts gun violence?  Opponents of gun control are desperate to blame it on a whole slew of factors, claiming that the problem is that the U.S. has too many (1) immigrants, (2) ethnic and religious fractions, (3) mentally ill people, and (4) violent video games and movies.  

These hypotheses are mostly weak and easily refuted.  Most OECD countries have as high or higher percentages of foreign-born residents and as significant ethnic, religious, and social divisions.  Japan is awash in violent media, but has a negligible homicide rate (guns or otherwise).  Apart from mental illness (which is higher in the U.S., but not by orders of magnitude), the U.S. is well within the norm on all of the above factors.  Where the U.S. is way outside of the norm (for OECD countries) is in terms of gun ownership.  Max Fisher of the Washington Post published the following chart, noting there are almost as many guns in America (270 million) as there are people.

The sociological research has demonstrated a definitive link between lax gun laws and deaths due to guns.  You would think a school child would understand that more guns increases (rather than decreases) the chances of death from firearms.  Even within the U.S., gun violence correlates very strongly with the per capita gun ownership by state.


Matthew Herper at Forbes has a great list of links to a number of excellent studies on the relationship between guns and rates of gun deaths, writing:

“The Harvard School of Public Health  has a long list of publications on guns and homicide and suicide. Most make the argument that reducing the number of guns would decrease the rate of both suicide and homicide, so it is worth reading them with that in mind.”

Interestingly, although there has been an uptick of mass shootings, gun deaths overall have dropped significantly since the early 1990s, coinciding with the federal ban on automatic weapons a well as state bans on these weapons.  With the federal assault weapons ban now lapsed, gun deaths have again been creeping up.   Particularly interesting is the fact that gun ownership overall has gone down since the early 1990s (particularly among Democrats).  Obviously, correlation is not causation, but the data are strongly suggestive of such a relationship. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that loose gun laws are a public safety hazard, restrictive laws in this political climate are highly unlikely, mainly because the conservative right have lost their collective minds over this issue and are already convinced that Obama is taking away (or wants to take away) their weapons, despite the fact that he has not once called for more gun restrictions.

To wit:

This kind of git-yer-stickin-government-paws-off-my-gins hysteria has been circulated the interwebs since the very day of the massacre.  Some have made the contorted argument that gun-restricted zones make kids less safe because they are "magnets for mass shooters" who deliberately target undefended schools.  Extending this logic, others have made the rather insane suggestion that teachers should be packing heat, which should make their pupils safe from armed madmen (those people have clearly never met my tenth grade math teacher, who suffered from Vietnam-related flashbacks).

I have also heard the ridiculous argument that there would be just as many suicides with as without guns, because deprived of guns people will simply kill themselves with knives (because obviously suicidal people are just as likely to painfully mutilate themselves with sharp objects as they would be to put a gun to the head).  And also that one could stab and kill a whole mass of people if they don’t have guns, so apparently kitchen knives are just as dangerous as military assault rifles.  One wonders how an intelligent person could buy into (much less dream up) some goofiness, until you realize that these same people also believe that global warming is a hoax and that the best economic policy (always and ever) is cutting taxes and de-regulation.  But I digress…

Some (notably liberal Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus) believe that gun control is a no-win proposition for Democrats, as America's gun culture is in our Scots-Irish DNA—you can pry their guns out of our “cold dead hands,” as the NRA slogan goes.  However, American views on gun control have shifted dramatically, with a record low percentage of Americans now favoring gun restrictions.  As with anything else, it turns out that public opinion is highly plastic.

No, the real problem (as with every other pernicious myth that a large segment of Americans buy into) is that there are strong business interests in making it as easy as possible for people to buy guns.  After all, ex-felons, the mentally ill, and the criminal are also good customers.

 It is in this context that the NRA's statements against gun control and gun violence make sense.  Once a truly grass roots organization aimed at promoting gun safety, the formidable lobby group has long since been taken over by the gun industry.  Well over half of its 200+ million dollar annual revenue comes from corporate sponsors and advertising rather than program fees or membership dues.  Of its corporate sponsors, 74 percent are in the firearms industry, including "Arsenal, Inc.; Benelli;  Beretta USA Corporation; Browning; Charles Daly (now out of business); DPMS Panther Arms; Doug Turnbull Restoration, Inc.; FNH USA; Glock, Inc.; H&R 1871, LLC; Investment Arms; Krieghoff International Inc.; Marlin Firearms; McMillan Group International; Nosler; ParaUSA;  Remington Arms Co., Inc.; John Rigby & Co.; SIGARMS, Inc.; Smith & Wesson Corporation; Springfield Armory; and, Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc."

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the NRA lobbies against any and all firearm restrictions, including registration of guns, criminal background checks on gun purchases, and banning the most lethal firearms?  (It is worth noting that LaPierre, their chief lobbyist, receives almost one million dollars a year in salary.  His services are highly beneficial to the gun industry bottom line.)

The NRA mantra, "More guns = more safety," makes about as much sense as "peace through war" or "Arbeit Macht Frei."  But more guns = more $$ for gun manufacturers, which are, sorry to say, the bread and butter of the NRA.  In its "corporate partners" brochureNRA Executive Vice
President Wayne LaPierre promises that the “National Rifle Association’s newly expanded Corporate Partners Program is an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA....This program is geared toward your company’s corporate interests.” 

Just like defense contractors, the gun lobby (and their paid hacks in the right-wing media) has learned to short-circuit the frontal lobe and reach right into the reptilian Republican mind--feeding the fear centers of right-wing insurgent leaders and their base.  

There are major corporate interests at stake in the gun control debate, which is why military spending is off the table (even with the economy-endangering "fiscal cliff"); this is also why sensible gun reforms are pretty well doomed at least for now, public safety be damned.