Category Archives: Capitalism

Elementary Justice

When you spend almost 4 months living in the USA as I did this winter  you get to hear some pretty weird stuff. This was one of those occassions.

Al Franken is a former Senator and now a stand-up comedian again. He has returned to his roots. I head  him guest hosting the Daily Show,

According to Al Franken, “the combination of stone age technology and understaffing has created a very weird situation.”


As Jesse Eisinger, a Propublica Senior reporter said, “You are more likely to be audited in the United State if you make $20,000 than if you make $500,000 a year.” Is this because Republicans think ordinary people should pay more  taxes than wealthy Americans?  Is it because this a very perverse form of trickle-down economics where many Americans believe that if you give money to rich people this is the best way to help poor people because that money will flow down to poor people? Or is it because the Republicans want to give their wealthy donors and cronies what they are begging for?

The reason is that the poor tax payers are low lying fruit. The less money you have the less likely it is that you can hire fancy accountants or tax lawyers to defeat the IRS claims!  So why should tax auditors waste their time going after the rich when they can go after the poor! Only in America!


As one commentator said,

“The IRS does not have enough money to go head to head with the wealthy. Ultimately it is easier for them to audit low income people because it is cheap and can be done by mail and does not take a lot of time.”


Or as Franken said,


“The IRS is so understaffed that they audit poor people more than the wealthy because they just don’t have the experts to handle the most complex returns. They are going after poor people because its easier! …So how much money are we talking about in lost taxes here? According to the former head of the IRS it could be as much as $1trillion a year! The solution is a bargain. Comparatively speaking, just adequately funding the IRS so it can improve its enforcement capabilities so it can collect that extra trillion dollars…”


And of course a lot of good things could be done with an extra trillion dollars. It could be applied to the national debt. Or it could pay for universal health care. Or subsidize child care as they do in every other civilized nation. Or as Franken suggested, a trillion dollars could

“eliminate taxes completely for the bottom 90% of American households!… Or we could fund an entirely new Iraq war. And why are we the only f…..g country in the world that doesn’t have universal health care? The point is that polling shows that 93% of Americans think that it is everybody’s civic duty to pay taxes and I think you can guess who the other 7% are. So let’s make sure that we give the IRS enough resources for it to make sure that everybody does what we all should do for the right to live in this great country and make it even better if we do the rational thing and collect the taxes that people actually owe.”


Everyone should note that this is not pie-in-the-sky rosy socialism. It’s not communism. It’s not evil. It’s not even wrong. It’s just a small attempt to get people to actually pay the taxes that are lawfully owing to the government so it can pay for the things that are important to us. Like social security. Like schools. Or the armed forces. Or police. Or fire fighters. Or health inspectors. A lot of the things we get from the government are good and important. Everyone who can afford to pay taxes should be required to pay their fair share. Even the rich! Even Republican cronies! Not just the poor suckers who have no one fighting for them. This is just elementary justice.

The Left Conservatism of John Dutton

Someone using the house we rented in Arizona had recorded some episodes of the latest season of Yellowstone.  They were interesting. I could not watch the entire series because it is no longer offered on our TV. Unlike some of my friends, I am not a huge fan of the TV series Yellowstone, but I do like parts of the shows. It has some diverse and interesting characters.

In Arizona I think most people identify with the patriarch of the Dutton family, John Dutton. He is very conservative and around here that is a very popular ideology. I don’t agree with all of his philosophy either, but I have some sympathy for some of his philosophy which I have called left conservatism, after the philosophy of the novelist Norman Mailer.

At the end of Season 4 of the series Yellowstone, John Dutton decided to run for Governor in Montana and got elected.  His opening statement to the people was interesting and revealed his essential conservatism that is very different from the conservatism of most of the current American right: “I am the opposite of progress. I am the wall it bashes against, and I will not be the one who breaks.

This is much more closely aligned to what Norman Mailer called “Left Conservatism” than modern Republicanism. Mailer said he wanted to “think in the style of Marx to achieve the values of Burke.” That was the essence of his philosophy.  Burke was the leading conservative thinker in England during the time of the French Revolution. I remember first hearing that expression from Mailer 50 years ago and always thought it was a remarkable political philosophy. I found much attractive in it then, and I still find much attractive in it today.

In season 5 of Yellowstone, in his victory speech, Dutton told his supporters,

“We have a lot of work to do, and a lot to undo.  The question we all have to ask ourselves and one that I will look to everyday, is what will Montana look like in 100 years? Much of that is dictated by the way the world sees us today. Right now, we are seen as the rich man’s playground. We are New York’s novelty and California’s toy. Not anymore. You have elected me to be a steward of the state, and the land, and its people, and that is exactly what I will do. You know environmentalists just love to debate what’s Montana’s most valuable resource. Is it the water? Is it the wolves? Is it the trees? The answer is actually pretty simple.  It’s you! The farmers and the ranchers who live with the land not on it. When protecting you now is how Montana still looks like Montana when none of us here tonight are here to see it.”


That’s a real conservative attitude, but no one with which I entirely agree. He wants to protect the land and the people as they are now. He wants to conserve that. That is what conservatism is all about. But we must remember that we don’t just conserve what rich men like. The rich are happy and contented. With their wealth they can buy privileges. They can buy the government that acts in their interests and not in the interests of ordinary people who can’t afford to buy their political leaders. That should not be preserved.

 In the TV series Dutton wanted to conserve the largest ranch in the state. It was worth millions. It was his ranch. Who would not want to conserve that?  But how does that help the single mom on social assistance? How does that help the Uber driver? Or the bar tender at the local bar? Ordinary people are important too. Most conservatives don’t understand that at all. They just think soon they will be one of the rich people.

For a man like Donald Trump the only people that count are his rich buddies and the people who support him in power and then only as long as they continue to support him no matter what he does?  He appreciates only absolute loyalty to himself. Many conservatives are exactly like that. Those  are not my kind of conservatives.

Conservatives also claim to stand for freedom. At least for the freedom to do as they please. They are not as concerned about the freedom of working-class people to get the health care they need. Or schools. Somehow often that does not count. John Dutton said freedom was important to him. This is what he said:

“Freedom. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. The word. What it means. The dictionary thinks that it means “the right or power to think, act or speak as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” As governor of the state, I’m sworn to protect that right. Building a city in the middle of the most pristine wilderness strips you of that freedom. It eliminates your freedom to breath clean air and drink clear water. It strains this ability. It strains the ability of our hospitals and our schools and our police. It requires an increase in our taxes which in turn strains our families, forcing you to decide if you can afford to live in a place that you call home. That’s no progress in my mind. It’s an invasion. And today the invasion is over. Today I’m signing an executive order that ceases funding for the paradise Valley development and the Paradise Valley Ski resort.”


John Dutton’s philosophy of what I would call left conservatism is far from perfect. It contains in my view many grave inconsistencies, but it does contain some important insights into things that are worth preserving. Like freedom for everyone not just freedom for the wealthy to do whatever they choose whether that is good for most people or not. Left conservatism is an anti-dote to the shallow modernism of so much contemporary thinking. That sort of “freedom” is not worth preserving.

My Buddy David Boyd knows the score


A few years ago, I listened to a lecture by David Boyd at the University of Manitoba Law School’s Robson Hall.  Boyd is the writer of some excellent books on environmental law and policy.  After that lecture I was talking to him and he mentioned he needed a ride to his hotel so I offered him a ride. We had an interesting chat on . I mentioned to him how much I enjoyed his books. So, I call him “my buddy” even though we only met once.

Recently he has been appointed special rapporteur on human rights and the environment by the UN. According to the Guardian, as part of his new job he has warned of the creation of pollution “sacrifice zones across the world where tens of millions of people are suffering needlessly from strokes, cancers, respiratory problems, and heart disease as a result of toxic contamination of the environment.  Nature is fighting back to the onslaughts inflicted upon us by humans.  There is a war against nature which humans seem to be winning, but I am reminded as the saying goes, that “nature always bats last.” As The Guardian said,  “Nature can strike back at repetitive injuries foisted upon it.”

Boyd also mentioned physical health issues, including cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, strokes, and reproductive health problems as well as “incredible mental health problems associated with living in these places because people feel exploited, they feel stigmatized.”

Boyd pointed the finger at modern businesses in particular as culprits in this nasty war. He called them “the main culprit, with most willing to overlook social and environmental costs in favour of their bottom line.”

This compliments my claims that capitalism, in many respects is predatory. In fact, I would say, capitalism, or the modern economic system really, is a serial predator. At least is it is left unharnessed.


There is a better Way


I want to end this series on the paranoid elites trying to hunker down in a missile silo on a happier note. It is not all doom.

In the 60s and 70s Stewart Brand, now a Silicon Valley sage, owned the “Whole Earth Catalog.” It attracted a large and loyal cult following as it blended hippie-dippy advice with the technical. I loved their motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”. Brand experimented with survivalism but abandoned it.  Ultimately, he found it did not make sense. Things based on unreasonable fears seldom make sense. Evan Osnos described him in his current situation this way,

“At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, how do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”


As it has so often in the past, America is being pushed and pulled at the same time particularly by the extremes of left and right.  On the one  hand there are people like survivalists, neo-liberals, and their political puppets who have shredded all of their fellow feeling in order to fill their bags with as much money as possible. On the other hand,  are some genuine whackos on the left as well.  Yet there are the kinder gentler souls who see a better way, but seem to be increasingly crushed by the more vocal and bellicose camps. I don’t know who will win this battle, but I care. I hope that America (and with Canada dragging along behind) comes to its senses and abandons this philosophy of fear. Fear is all right but it must be managed. Don’t let it get unreasonable. When it gives way to panic we have to realize that smart decisions will no longer be made. We must abandon panic; we must embrace critical thinking and fellow feeling. If we can do that then we will survive. If we are unable to do that, we will sink into the mire, or worse. And we will deserve it.

We must remember: there is a better way. We may need to meander to find it, but its there.


Gilded Dispair


A symbol of decline?

Every year a group of scientists, many of whom are Nobel laureates, set a big clock as a symbol of our dire straits. At the time when the Cold War was ending they set it at its lowest (safest) point ever at 17 minutes to midnight.


Sadly, since then the clock has been moving back up closer to midnight. In January 2016, after tensions rose between Russia and NATO and after the warmest year on record for the world, they set it at 3 minutes to midnight. After Trump got elected and bellicose relations continued between the US and North Korea it was set at 2 & ½ minutes to midnight.  That was the highest since 1953 when the US first tested the atom bomb. it is even higher now.

There is no doubt that all of this is being driven by fear. Fear of disaster can be a useful thing. When the world realized that a hole was being punched in the Ozone layer because of chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFSs’) in the atmosphere they got together and adopted the Montreal Protocol to do something about it. They phased them out. This was a rational response to fear. That action has been a remarkable success story.

But this is not happening  in Kansas at the missile silos bought by wealthy fearful people. Instead, it is another case of the super wealthy doing nothing to  solve the problem they helped to create. Instead of doing something helpful,  they are using their money to buy an escape. It is illusory, but that is what these rich people want to do with their money. Instead of using it to help solve the problem, they are trying to run away from it.  As Evan Osnos said,

“Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal… Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair. As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them.


Some of the super-rich have a perverted sense of risk.  One of them, a hedge fund manager of course, said this to Osnos “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, said to Osnos, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ” Even though he had supported Trump he wanted an escape hatch in case he had made a mistake.

Another super-wealthy CEO had a much better approach. This is what he said,

 “There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”


Osnos understands this well. The panicky approach of rich people trying to escape reality is just plain dumb. It is dumb and counter-productive as it is likely to make the problem worse, not better. Super-rich people are purchasing their own doom with these mad schemes.  Osnos understands that the CEO who believes the political union in America is stronger than the survivalists think is in the end, an article of faith—a conviction that even degraded political institutions are the best instruments of common will, the tools for fashioning and sustaining our fragile consensus. Believing that is a choice.”

Yes there really is a better way.

Facilities of Doom


Evan Osnos had the benefit of a tour of the Kansas facility. I wish I could have seen it, It had many amenities. $20 million buys a lot of amenities. It has a 75- foot- long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of computers, a gym, a movie theatre and a library. According to Osnos “It felt compact but not claustrophobic.”


Osnos also described the armory and related facilities:

“We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.”


The facility also contained a hospital bed, operating table, dentist’s chair and food storage area. 2 doctors will be residents and 1 dentist. I guess they are wealthy enough.

Many Americans don’t think Kansas is isolated enough. Many of them are choosing a New Zealand option instead. One American told Osnos this,

“I think, in the back of people’s minds, frankly, is that, if the world really goes to shit, New Zealand is a First World country, completely self-sufficient, if necessary—energy, water, food. Life would deteriorate, but it would not collapse.” As someone who views American politics from a distance, he said, “The difference between New Zealand and the U.S., to a large extent, is that people who disagree with each other can still talk to each other about it here. It’s a tiny little place, and there’s no anonymity. People have to actually have a degree of civility.


There they don’t need bunkers. They are thousands of miles from Australia. They think they will be safe there. Amazingly some of them like New Zealand because it is mountainous and remote. They think there they can avoid rising sea levels. So these rich Americans who likely publicly supported all government inaction on the issue of climate change are actually privately worried about climate change. Worried enough to buy property in New Zealand.

Even people who claim not to believe in climate change actually fear the consequences of climate change!


Doom Boom


Fear was not invented recently in America. Long before people bought condos in missile silos, fear was a profitable business. It has always been there. It always has been profitable.  There were ample fears earlier in the United States too. The Cold War was brimming with fear.  Many thought there were communists under every bed. Many feared nuclear annihilation. Of course, as always, politicians ensured that the most important people had the most protection. That meant, of course, they were protected. As Evan Osnos said,


“During the Cold War, Armageddon became a matter for government policymakers. The Federal Civil Defense Administration, created by Harry Truman, issued crisp instructions for surviving a nuclear strike, including “Jump in any handy ditch or gutter” and “Never lose your head.” In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower broke ground on Project Greek Island, a secret shelter, in the mountains of West Virginia, large enough for every member of Congress. Hidden beneath the Greenbrier Resort, in White Sulphur Springs, for more than thirty years, it maintained separate chambers-in-waiting for the House and the Senate. (Congress now plans to shelter at undisclosed locations.) There was also a secret plan to whisk away the Gettysburg Address, from the Library of Congress, and the Declaration of Independence, from the National Archives.”


Frankly, I would have felt better if the political leaders were the last to be put into bunkers, so that their conduct would not be overly reckless. In 1961 John F. Kennedy encouraged “every citizen” to help build fall-out shelters.  Thousands of Americans complied. Back home I knew someone a block away who had one in his house. Now that seems crazy.  Few people would have survived a nuclear attack in those shelters. But this advice played on American and Canadian fears. Many people felt better doing something.

This was part of a cherished American tradition of fear mongering–one of the most popular sports in America. Right next to NASCAR racing, wrestling, and NFL football.

Osnos described the American fear movement this way,

 “In 1976, tapping into fear of inflation and the Arab oil embargo, a far-right publisher named Kurt Saxon launched The Survivor, an influential newsletter that celebrated forgotten pioneer skills. (Saxon claimed to have coined the term “survivalist.”) The growing literature on decline and self-protection included “How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years,” a 1979 best-seller, which advised collecting gold in the form of South African Krugerrands. The “doom boom,” as it became known, expanded under Ronald Reagan. The sociologist Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, who spent twelve years studying survivalism, said, “During the Reagan era, we heard, for the first time in my life, and I’m seventy-four years old, from the highest authorities in the land that government has failed you, the collective institutional ways of solving problems and understanding society are no good. People said, ‘O.K., it’s flawed. What do I do now?’ ”


I doubt that anyone ever lost money overestimating American fears.  Doom is always booming.



Strange Fears


All unreasonable fears are strange, but some are stranger than others. Some fear environmental collapse. Not such a strange fear at all.

Some of the people who put down $3 million to purchase a condo in a former missile silo in Kansas have strange fears. In the land of conspiracy theories that should not surprise. Maybe they all do. Evan Osnos interviewed Tyler Allen a real estate developer in Florida who bought a unit in the Kansas silo. He worries about future “social conflict” in America. That really is not so strange a fear.  Allen also thinks that the government will deceive the public, as it has done in the past. He even believes that Ebola was allowed into the country “in order to weaken the population.” Unsurprisingly, he is transfused with fear and conspiracy theories. But I am not putting down $3million. Of course, I can’t put down $3 million, but if I did, I would think that there must be a better way.

Allen claimed that when he started suggesting ideas like this people thought he was crazy, but they don’t anymore. He said, “my credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.”

Of course, how will people get to their bunkers? The buyers don’t live next door. Tyler lived in Florida. That is a long way from Kansas. Tyler thought he would have 48 hours to make it to Kansas. Most people he believed, when the crisis came, would head to the bars while he headed towards Kansas. I guess they would be watching from “Sports bars.” Of course, if a nuclear bomb hit American, such driving would be difficult. Did you see the images of the highways around New Orleans when the people there were told to evacuate because of impending Hurricane Katrina? We would not want to be in the line-up. Pretty messy!

As I have said, all of this is driven by fears–in particular fears of the very rich. Osnos does not disagree,

“Why do our dystopian urges emerge at certain moments and not others? Doomsday—as a prophecy, a literary genre, and a business opportunity—is never static; it evolves with our anxieties. The earliest Puritan settlers saw in the awe-inspiring bounty of the American wilderness the prospect of both apocalypse and paradise. When, in May of 1780, sudden darkness settled on New England, farmers perceived it as a cataclysm heralding the return of Christ. (In fact, the darkness was caused by enormous wildfires in Ontario.) D. H. Lawrence diagnosed a specific strain of American dread. “Doom! Doom! Doom!” he wrote in 1923. “Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.


Do these doomsday fears not tell us something important about the über rich? This is what they are bringing about! They have no one to blame but themselves. Can’t they do better? Their own actions are creating these fears. Their own actions could forestall them.

There must be a better way and its not being brought in by forest fires from Ontario.

Worry OK; Panic not so Much


A friend of mine challenged what I have been saying about the super elites buying condos in a former missile silo in Kansas by suggesting it is not reasonable  to suggest that one crazy idiot buying a condo in a missile  silo does not mean we are doomed.


Of course, one rich guy does not establish that we are doomed. In fact, no single act establishes that.  Even 15 crazy rich guys who have bought condos in a missile silo don’t establish that. But the accumulating actions of many people, including those “idiots,” are increasingly suggesting that western society is in a serious state of decline and perhaps even on the edge of collapse. I don’t know about you, but I am getting increasingly more pessimistic. And I am increasingly doubtful that our leaders know the way out.


There are also many other indices of this decline. I will be posting about some of them soon.  I know I have been going on interminably about these nuts who bought concrete condos in the former missile silo in Kansas, but I think it is interesting and significant.  These were business leaders. They were people who earned a great deal of wealth and respect. Many of them were in the financial sector or the tech sector who made fortunes.  Interestingly, it is precisely these people who panicked and starting selling their investments in the recent Silicon Valley Bank fiasco when there was no need to do so. These are the people who have now brought our financial system to the edge of collapse as a result of their unjustified fears!  All of this shows that panic is seldom a valuable tool to deal with serious problems whether it comes to buying silos or selling investments. Fear is sometimes justified; panic is never helpful.

In the US in particular, business leaders are nearly worshipped. Look at Donald Trump. I don’t know how many Americans I have met in the past 2 &1/2 months in this country who hail him as a business leader who can make the country great again. I consider him neither a great business leader nor great political leader, but many here think otherwise. Business leaders get automatic respect in America and Canada for that matter. When a group of 15 of them go so far off the mark as the condo buyers did in Kansas, it bears consideration. What is up with that?

To my mind, there are signs of the decline of western civilization all around us, but yet I admit there are also positive signs.

I am particularly encouraged by the improvement in the fortunes of the LGBTQ community in an astonishingly short time. Though I hasten to add they had to overcome the battalions of opposition from Conservatives each step of that way. Why is that? In fact, now the American conservatives seem determined to make war on transgender people who are among the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the country. They like to pick on minorities. The weaker the better.  In fact, as soon as they are not in minorities the conservatives tend to give up quickly.  I will post more on this later.

So, I don’t know whether decline or improvement will win out. We are in the midst of gigantic political changes so it is hard to predict what will happen. We will just have to wait and see, but I am worried. Not panicking, but concerned.

Things are not likely to be perfect in a Silo


How can you live in a former missile silo?

One problem is how to get away with the absence of windows. Can you imagine it? According to Osnos,

“The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.”


To me this sounds like virtual reality–with an emphasis on virtual. Will this be life behind these walls?  Hall has given some thought to how people will live there, but I wonder if he has given enough thought. It is ironic that these vistas are all part of the commons. I thought that was what they wanted to get away from. These are things the super-rich should have helped sustain, but many preferred to enhance their own private wealth instead. Now they want them?

According to Osnos,

“Hall [the developer of the missile silo] said the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground.”

Frankly I would not be satisfied with simulated life. Would you?  Or is even death preferable? This is particularly poignant when you consider that most (all?) life might outside the bunkers might perish.

Some survivalists have mocked Hall’s plan. They say they won’t pay. They will just attack when the time comes. Hall claimed that he and his “guards” could repel all forces. And if necessary, the guards would return fire. What will Hall to secure the loyalty of the guards. After the apocalypse won’t things start over? What will money be worth? Why won’t the guards switch sides? Who would persuade the hired armed guards to stick with supporting the rich people hunkered down?  Why would they stick with the rich? How long could people survive a siege?

Things are not likely to be perfect in a former missile silo. I know I am deeply skeptical.