Pithy Polemics

1.  What Are the Clashing Civilizations?

It has become fashionable in some quarters to define current wars as a clash of civilizations, meaning a contest between the West and the Muslim world.  This is inaccurate.

The clash of civilizations is really between secular and religious civilizations, i.e., between those who do and those who don't want to impose a particular religion on everyone.

So defined, it will be recognized that these two civilizations exist within each society, on every continent, and that they are at war with one another, by violent or other means.  America's religious right, the Hindu and Buddhist nationalists, the Lord's Army and the Taliban have more of their values and outlook in common with one another than any of them has with the religion-neutral seculars (the live-and-let-live) in their own countries.


Those who want civil law to enforce their religion feel themselves on the defensive, so they lash out more violently in word and in deed than the live-and-let-live do. Consciously they fear, and subconsciously they feel, that the tide of history is running against them.  It is, and any victories they achieve will be temporary.

The eventual victory of religious neutrality in government will not bring justice, however, because wealthy families and businesses are just as willing to sacrifice human rights and even human life for their own ends as the religious fanatics are.

Perhaps, after the current clash is resolved, the time will again be ripe for a socioeconomic clash. The wealthy emerged victorious over the rest of us from the last one: as multi-billionaire Warren Buffett supposedly said, "There is class warfare, and my class is winning."  If humankind is fortunate, the future will eventually be different, and I am optimistic. The Occupy movement came early to the battlefield and sounded the call.  It has echoed, and people the world over are displaying dissatisfaction with their economic condition.


2.  The Wonder of Financial Success

“…if a man has made a fortune…they [the Erewhonians] exempt him from all taxation, considering him a work of art, and too precious to be meddled with…saying ‘How very much he must have done for society before society could have been prevailed upon to give him so much money.’”  (Samuel Butler, Erewhon, 1872)

Butler does not mention how the works of art regard themselves. Today, it is not only our ordinary Erewhonians but even more strongly those who have amassed (or even inherited) a fortune, even those who have only a large annual income, think of themselves as so precious that we ought to reward them.   However, the reward they think they are entitled to is not only exemption from taxation but the right to buy political influence without limit (see Citizens United.)


3.  Solidarity:  With Whom?

Angela Merkel told a Hamburg newspaper “There has already been voluntary debt forgiveness by private creditors, banks have already slashed billions from Greece’s debt.  I do not envisage fresh debt cancellation.”

Merkel of course knows that the Greek economy is staggering (it is about 25% smaller than it was four years ago) under the weight of the loans from German bankers, knows that Greek unemployment is at 28%, with an astonishing 61% of Greek’s under the age of 25 unemployed, knows the other human consequences of an economy in desperate straits.

But the bankers come first.  They have given so much already.

Solidarity forever!


4.  Something Old, Something New

Religious, social and economic reactionaries are fighting a rear-guard battle against the onward march of knowledge.  Their "truths" are based on ideas and customs which came out of a prior era and often a different place.  As new knowledge and experience are gained, they undermine and eventually supplant the old "truths".  This threatens both those individuals whose worldview is based on the old "truths" as well as those who exploit them for power and wealth.

Their resulting counter-attack is fierce because it is desperate.  It is also doomed to failure.  Throughout history, religious and secular dogmas and practices have been unable to resist change, and some have been utterly displaced by others which were more modern at that time, even though counter-attacking reactionaries used deception and force to thwart change.

Current history is rhyming with past history: the war between old and new continues, and reactionaries still rely on deception and force where possible.  Although the war will be long and pockmarked with setbacks, we progressives will eventually win, because knowledge is on our side (or because we are on its side), because humanity's store of knowledge keeps increasing despite the willful ignorance of some, and because new generations are disposed to accept new knowledge.

5.  Capitalism’s Ponzi Schemes

The capitalist model of unending growth is unsustainable, because our planet's resources are not infinite.  We humans cannot increase and multiply indefinitely.  We cannot consume ever more.  Yet capitalism depends on perpetual growth because the owners don't pay their employees enough to buy all of the goods and services which they produce.  This consumption gap is filled in 3 ways, all of which are Ponzi schemes:

1. Owners hire employees to modernize and/or increase capacity for production.  Since this capacity is not for sale to consumers, the employees who are paid to build it have money to buy the excess consumer goods and services being produced by other employees.  Modernizing capacity can continue indefinitely, but increasing capacity will come to an end when population and consumption eventually stop growing.  The onset of climate change is already bringing the end closer.  When that happens, the Ponzi-scheme element in this process will become clear, because modernizing alone will not increase consumers' pay and purchasing power enough to absorb production.  On the contrary, it will largely cause unemployment and thereby a reduction in purchasing.

2. Consumer debt enables consumers to buy more than they can afford.  Obviously they cannot continue to increase their debt indefinitely, so periodically there is a recession which bankrupts many and wipes out much of that debt.  Then the cycle resumes with a build-up of new debt.  This is a serial Ponzi scheme, which crashes and is resumed every few years.

3. Government deficit-spending also helps to fill the gap, at least if the central bank buys the government debt with newly-created money.  But debt no longer provides the stimulus it once did, and governments are running out of room to increase their debt and "print" new money, too.  This Ponzi scheme is of limited effect, because government debt and money-printing devalue the currency, which reduces the purchasing power of the money the government has created, thereby countering the desired effect.  And if the government increases its debt and the money supply enough to completely fill the consumption gap ongoing, the currency and the economy will collapse.  This Ponzi scheme is kept going only by inadequate payoffs.

The capitalist/growth model is running out of time.  A new economic model is needed.  Progressive economists should put their minds to designing it.


6. Transforming American Politics: Beware of the Inside Game

David Axelrod in his account of the Obama Presidency observes that Obama came into office hoping to transform American politics.   But Obama’s analysis of what needs to be changed and thus a clear idea of how to do that was quite mistaken.

It is not the gridlock in Congress that is the issue.  That problem exists of course, but it is a consequence of the genuine problem: the American people are genuinely and deeply divided.  They thus elect people to Congress who represent the divisions in the population and thus gridlock results in Washington.  

Consequently, unless the public is addressed and the differences in outlook made clear, the problem will not even be faced much less tackled.  No amount of insider dealing in Washington will work:  Obama tried that and failed very badly.

Only a President who will explain to the American people our situation and defend a vision of what we need and lay out a program for achieving that has a prayer of starting to cease the gridlock.  Only if that is done will enough voters be swung to support that set of values and the consequent program.

What was needed, and is still needed, to transform our politics is a President with a conception of the Presidency as a bully pulpit (TR) or who is willing to engage in some version of Fireside Chats (FDR).  Rather than reaching out to the American people, President Obama thought that compromise with other Washington hands

would change things.  It didn’t – and couldn’t.


7.  Re-organizing the States Ecologically

In the abstract, one might think that the two banks of a river have a great deal in common and that the people living on each side of the river might thereby share common interests.  If so, perhaps they should be grouped together in the same political unit.  That of course didn’t happen in the case of say Louisiana and Mississippi where the Mighty Mississippi separates the two states – or again where the Columbia separates Oregon and Washington.

Conversely, why should political map-makers be so enamored of straight lines that at the Four Corners the perfectly straight boundaries of the adjacent states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet?

Suppose ecological thinking had been in the saddle when the state boundaries of the United States were decided? The map of the U.S. would look very different today.

John Wesley Powell, the soldier, scientist and great explorer of the American west, thought that the proper way of organizing political units, bringing people with common interests together, was based on watersheds.  A state would be a watershed, “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logical demanded that they become part of a community.”  He developed a political map of the west based on that ecological principle.  That map can be found at http://communitybuilders.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Powell_Map.jpg

Even more fun is the extension to the entire United States of Powell’s principle.  Created by John Lavey this map even employs the actual names of states, re-organized to meet watershed requirements.


Are we likely to see a significant attempt to remodel the country to satisfy what would be the wisest plan ecologically?  Of course not:  the past has created too much to be overcome now.  There have been and will be minor attempts to re-establish some boundaries (for example southern Oregon and northern California recurrently think of declaring their independence from current states and merging to form a new one but it hasn’t happened and seems unlikely to do so.)  But perhaps the realization that watersheds have common interests will lead to more regional co-operation, new political structures.