Saturday, November 21, 2015


It is true, as I understand it, that the modest amount of progressivity left in the Federal tax code means that most income taxes are paid by people who are at least moderately well off. It is also true that Federal income taxes, proper, are only a part of the overall tax burden, and when you factor in other taxes (FICA, sales taxes, gas tax, state income tax, real estate taxes) the overall tax structure in this country becomes regressive (poorer people pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, overall, than rich people, and MUCH lower than the super-rich. That is a reason activists often give in explaining why having rich people pay more in income taxes is fair.

But there's another reason I think is even more important. Wealth, ALL wealth, ultimately derives from profits - i.e., from something like a rent for the use of your property - and not from labor. This is true even if a high income is disguised as salary. NOBODY's labor is "worth" more than 200 times the median. Ultra-high CEO salaries come from their ability to control property (their own, and that of shareholders).

And profit is essentially a privatized tax - a tax that we pay on every good and most services that we consume, but that goes strictly to the benefit of a small class of individuals. (Small in percentage population terms; rather large in absolute numbers.) Profit represents the owning class blackmailing us by threatening to withhold the means of production, which would mean that we could not, with our labor, produce anything at all. And the more that wealth becomes concentrated, the stronger the stranglehold that property has on us, and the more they are able to squeeze out.

What progressive tax rates do, in a capitalist society that refuses to simply expropriate private owners, is to reclaim part of that private tax, for the public benefit. More progressive tax rates actually represent a LOWERING of the private tax that is capitalist profit.

And that is why progressive taxes are fair.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


As far as practicable, I would like to have no unexamined assumptions. Of course, there are practical limits. How do I know I'm not a brain in a vat? I don't. It is the nature of brain-in-a-vat arguments that you do not know they are false, ex hypothesis. All you can really say is, "I don't care. I am going to go forward, developing my ideas, ignoring that 'possibility.'' If it turned out that I was just a brain in a vat, and not a real-live boy, that would be sad, but then, ultimately, not much sadder than being an epiphenomenal consciousness arising in a meat-sack, pursuing my self-conceived goals for a brief period of time before dissolving into a stinking pile of mush. So be that as it may. In the mean time, I've got things to do...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Presidency, democracy and stuff

I have just finished reading three big books on the U.S. System of government:  Michael Glennon's "National Security and Double Government", Arthur Schlesinger's "The Imperial Presidency", and Andrew Rudalevige's "The New Imperial Presidency".  It struck me that not one of the three authors EVER mentioned anything that could be construed as class politics.  Class issues did not cross one of their minds, apparently, even once, in the writing of these three works.

Nor did any of them seriously question whether there were any alternatives for democratic governance to the model the modern world mostly uses, involving relatively small deliberative/legislative assemblies, elected periodically by an otherwise largely passive electorate.  All three did devote some discussion of the question of whether a democratic government needs a strong executive, with all three ultimately concluding that it does.  Only Schlessinger devoted any pages to the question of whether the executive should be fully independent of the legislative branch, as in the U.S. system, or nominally answerable to it, as in the British system.  He ended up concluding that the U.S. system is better, because the British system ends up placing more  de facto power in the hands of the executive, not less.

The only writer on politics that I can recall discussing the larger structural question, besides anarchists and radicals rooted in the New Left, is Robert Dahl, in "Democracy and Its Critics", who terms the system we use "polyarchy" ("rule by many"), and, after discussion of its limitations from the standpoint of democratic ideals, decides that while not a perfect democracy, it is the best democracy we can get.

One important distinction between the three books I just read was that both Schlesinger and Rudalevige focus is on what might be called the constitutional structure of government; they assume the powers of the branches, as defined in the Constitution are the things that matter, for instance, that the President really is in charge of the powers of the executive branch.  Only Glennon's book addressed what might be called the shadow government, the fact that institutions take on a life of their own and may possess a power structure functionally much independent of the nominal hierarchy, especially when those institutions are under a secrecy regime such as pertains to our national "security" infrastructure.  The only other reference I can recall reading to this sort of effect is in Richard Parker's biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.  Parker reported Galbraith's impression that, during the Kennedy administration, the military establishment, if they didn't like a Kennedy directive regarding Vietnam, would simply ignore it.  According to Galbraith, Kennedy frequently complained of his inability to get things done.

The whole premise of a democracy is that the people, in some way, shape and fashion, somehow govern themselves.  All of these books I mention show aspects of the complicated problem of government that, in our current, alienating systems, most such nominally self-governing people, never, ever think about.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mattering lives

Black lives matter.  It needs to be said.  It shouldn’t, but it needs to be said.  Brown lives matter, too.  Of course.  Indigenous lives matter.  LGBTQ lives matter.  Of course.  It’s not a competition.   When someone says “Black lives matter,” and someone else responds with “All lives matter,” in theory, the counter-response should be, “Exactly!  That’s the point.”  But, really, they are missing the point, aren’t they?  And if someone responds with “White lives matter,” or “Police lives matter,” then they’re REALLY missing the point.  Not because the melanin-deficient or officers of the law DON’T have lives that matter, but because nobody is SAYING we don’t.  At least outside of the paranoid fantasies of white racists afraid of losing privilege.  Certainly, there are not massive governmental, economic and cultural institutions acting consistently and forcefully as if they don’t. The same is not true of the other categories I listed.  Police are not acting collectively as if they could casually shoot any random white person (let alone each other), and expect no serious consequences to follow.

If, when you hear someone say “Black Lives Matter,” a person from some other oppressed group responds “so do ours,” that is at least understandable.  When this reaction comes from a member of a privileged group, this is a classic “What about me?” response.  “What about me”-ism happens when an oppressed person speaks about their oppression, and a relatively privileged person feels compelled to respond with some version of, "Well, we have problems too..."  What has effectively happened is that the oppressed person has been silenced. Again. It's a way we privileged people have of telling less privileged people that only OUR voices count.

On the specific issue of murder rates, it does seem that “Black lives matter” needs special elaboration, above and beyond all the others.  I haven’t seen data on Native Americans as homicide victims, but one study I read showed that black Americans are killed at about 12 times the rate of whites.  Latinos are killed slightly more frequently (as a percentage of their numbers) than whites, but the difference is relatively small.  Still, it all depends on time and place, doesn’t it?  We’ve seen mass graves in Texas.  Massacres of immigrants in border states, by vigilantes – maybe  by Border Patrol? – are hidden in the dark of the night, and not tracked by statistics.  Even one murder inspired by racism and mindless hatred is too many.

But the mattering of lives is not just about life and death.  It is about our hopes and aspirations, the things we strive for in our short span between birth and dying, and our dreams for our posterity.  Those of us with white-skin privilege, especially if we also have some share of class, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege, easily form and sustain many expectations in these areas.  We may not achieve our dreams, but those governmental, economic, cultural institutions have not been organized to dampen our hopes.  I’m not saying nothing ever stands in our way.  That would be stupid.  But what privilege is all about is that things stand in our way less often*.  We get more encouragement, less discouragement.  We get a lot more helps along the way.  What “Black lives matter” is about is black people saying, “We want that, too.  Our dreams matter as much as yours.  We want as much chance to form them, and see them to fruition as you do.”  Until EVERYBODY, black, brown, women, LGBTQ, WHATEVER has exactly the same chance at these things as white, cis-gendered, straight men**, then BLACK LIVES MATTER.  It needs to be said.

Footnotes and afterthoughts

*Some people will object to this, because they’ve bought into the “reverse racism” bullshit, and they think the Great Society social programs actually succeeded in eliminating discrimination, have maybe even gone too far.  I won’t go into detail on that, except to say, if that is you, study the actual data, not the sound bites.  Listen to the actual life experiences of black people.  If you believe racism and discrimination have effectively ended, you’re wrong.

**I don’t explicitly include class issues in this list, because wealth disparities simply need to be eliminated.  There is no way to equalize the power distribution between rich and poor other than by eliminating poverty and wealth.

Another aside:  Not a single thought in the above is unique to me.  And I hope I don’t come off as “white-splaining”.  I’m certainly not trying to teach people of color any of the above.  But I encounter, continually, enough confusion and uncertainty about these ideas from other white people, that I thought it would be worth throwing my 2-cents-worth into the mix.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Free will

Well, these are old thoughts – I wrote this out at length on 6/22/13 – but I keep coming back to them. Some people say we lack free will, because everything we do is a determinate function of who we are and the circumstances we find ourselves in, and, further, who we are is a function of  our history, including the chance formulation of our genetic makeup.

First, I question the word “determinate”.  At the very least, I challenge the speaker to show me how to make the term operational. (Cf. Laplace’s demon 11/22/09)

But even granting, for argument, that our choices are determined, in some sense, by these things, all you are really saying is that I have a mechanism by which I make choices, and I will make the choice that the mechanism produces.  How could it be otherwise?  What would it mean to make a choice other than by some mechanism?  Some physical/chemical apparatus, presumably, but even if I believed in a divine spark, doesn’t the spark have some sort of nature?  Some process? 

If choosing, based on the dictates of my own nature, how best to respond to the circumstances I find myself in is being “unfree”, exactly who or what is it that is not free?  Am I seeking the freedom to choose something other than I want to choose?  Well, I could – if I wanted to.  (Oops…)

I  conclude that the choices are accepting what we have as free will, or accepting that the question of free will is an undefinable pseudo-question.  But this is a matter of semantics, not metaphysics.  The conclusion “we lack free will” is not one of the alternatives.

Monday, January 12, 2015


Until maybe the middle of the 19th Century, most of the world thought that it was sometimes just for one person to own another.  In any given instance, whether one person owned another was a matter for legislatures to legislate, and courts to decide (and, of course, for the individual conscience of the property owner).  Now, we no longer feel that way.  Slavery is considered to violate a fundamental human right, and therefore to be beyond the limits of what a legislature may impose, or a court enforce.  On the other hand, we (most of us) hold that that it is sometimes (often!) just and meet for one person to own the means another person requires to live, and to hold that property, and profit by it, even if that means the other person goes homeless, or starves, or sickens and dies.  How much of the means of life one person owns, and another does not, is a matter for legislatures to legislate, and courts to decide (and, of course for the individual conscience of the property holder).  And for determination by the sacred market.

But there is no inherent reason why one property “right” is more obvious, just and eternal than the other.  The right to own slaves was completely obvious to an ancient Roman, or a medieval Turk, or an antebellum Southerner, and to almost everybody else in their eras, and in between.  The right of private individuals to own capital seems obvious to most of us.  Maybe someday that will change.