Sunday, December 9, 2012

Randian Objectivism: Justification For Selfishness At All Costs Or Legitimate Philosophy?

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with Russian-born author and Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982), or at the very least her two most famous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, respectively. The former was turned into a two-part movie series recently, but did not fare very well at the box office. Both are very well known, and very criticized, pieces of literature dealing with man's primary nature as being of self-interest that are frequently stifled and stymied by government regulation and "interference." I will not go chapter and verse into Objectivism itself herein, mostly because I trust you as the reader to educate yourself and I do not want to be accused of putting my own slant on the definition. Go ahead, read up for yourself here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand)

To Ayn Rand enthusiasts, the phrase "Who is John Galt?"carries a certain significance and conveys, as Rand did, a certain frustration with meddlesome government regulations, with supposed intrusions into people's lives by the welfare state, or something similar. The notion, postulated by Rand, is that creators create, and that government regulations are naturally directly opposed to such efforts, and seek only to capture them and exploit them to feed the machine of collectivism and statism. A man's invention is not his to sell, market or profit from; nay, it belongs to society itself and will be managed by the government for the enrichment of everyone. The notion that gave birth to the plot of Atlas Shrugged was fairly simple: Rand thought, what if all these "prime movers," the wealthy businessmen, the inventors of widgets, the creative folks of the world that just want profit from their ideas, all "went on strike" and held back their talents from the rest of us? What kind of world would result from this? The novel itself seeks to explore and answer this question. Its dystopian, Depression Era-like setting and Gilded Age robber baron type characters seem to convey a certain bloodlessness on both sides of society's spectrum are all meant to convey Rand's central notion: leave the creators and inventors of products alone to profit from their creation with impunity, lest society itself crumble.

Obviously, especially today in light of a new financial collapse and a predictable era of austerity, "fiscal cliffs," and ballooning debt in America and Europe, notions like Rand's are once again front and center as the debate over government's role in our lives rages on. Those who seek to simply slash the debt correctly point out that the US federal government is simply doing too much and has become a Leviathan that simply takes in large amounts of revenue and debt, and pushes out a disproportionate amount of that same money in public programs, bureaucracy and defense spending, among others. They say this is a reason to slash and burn, although some have left defense spending off the table. The other side is just as predictable, calling for higher taxes and less deductions. Feed the beast, as it were.

You know what I think though? The debate, as it is being framed in the US Congress and the media, is a complete and total crock of shit that misses what I see as the central problem entirely. The central problem is that, in light of most wealth in the country being controlled by a smaller and smaller minority of the country's population, what we're seeing is the super-rich interests and fiefdoms, with their lobbyist cronies that by and large are former members of the government who have jumped over to the private sector leading the charge, concentrating their power and making sure that government, above all, is there to let them continue accumulating wealth and power with impunity. Why are we discussing slashing social programs with a record number of people starving or in poverty in the US, when the government still sends out billions in subsidies to big agriculture consortiums like Monsanto, or billions to oil and natural gas companies that are already rolling around in record profits, or billions more to big defense contractors or big pharma? Have you noticed that neitherside seems particularly interested in slashing defense all that much, or even cancelling gigantic wastes of money like the F-35 program that has missed so many deadlines and cost ceilings that it passed "boondoggle" status over a decade ago? Why is it that subsidies to giant corporate interests are never on the table when talk of slashing budgets comes up? Ask yourself that and then ask yourself why five or six large corporations control all of the media we consume in this country. One question begs another and so on.

What does this have to do with Randian philosophy, you ask? The truth is, the sort of world Rand envisioned is very contextual and it would behoove people who espouse her philosophies today to remember the sort of world that existed at the time she wrote her novels and came up with her philosophies of Objectivism. The facts of today are simple: people do not need to contribute anything unique to "society" or create something useful to become stupidly rich and powerful. Being rich and powerful, today, does not mean the person in question is smart, unique, clever or innovative in any way. With the proliferation of internet-based day trading and the evolution of the modern Wall Street Casino, people can now simply exploit a simple mathematic algorithm and make millions with a few clicks of a mouse. The collapse of 2008 should show us without a doubt that fake wealth created by mathematic wonks who know how to exploit a bloated profit machine holds no inherent value, and just because some of these jerks knew when to bail out before the house of cards collapsed does not make them modern-day "John Galts." The point is, there are so manyrich people these days, people that were simply lucky to have gotten into and then out of an upward economic trend at the right times, that the very notion of rich=smart or rich=innovative is as antiquated as hand-cranked record players or the Pony Express. Simply put, our world of today is not the world Rand knew, and in my opinion that should change many of her notions when they are applied to modern society.

Objectivism, in my view, is primarily a "fuck you, got mine" philosophy that completely ignores things like economic inequalities, racism and oppression of minorities, biased law enforcement and prison policy, and unequal access to education. It relies on a "just world fallacy" that simply assumes that each person, regardless of race or economic class, is born into this world with an exact equal chance at success, with an equal upbringing with the same exact access to all the tools a successful person might use to become successful. It, in my opinion, ignores many key questions, some of which were discussed in a recent Malcom Gladwell book called Outliers. Ask yourself this: would Bill Gates have been the richest man in America if he were not born and raised in Seattle? What if he never went to the Lakeside private school, or what if he had not been able to get so many programming hours under his belt at the exact right time to apply them to his later innovations? The book explores many of these questions, and how "luck of the draw" had just as much to do with a certain person's success as skills, talent and hard work did. Can one exist without the other? Rand says yes. Gladwell, for one, says no.  Simply put, the opportunity to be successful, in some people's cases, was placed right in front of them, ready for the taking.  Does it make them smart that they took the chances they were given or does it simply make them lucky, or both?  These are the central questions behind the notion of "You didn't build that."

Let us also look at the issue of race and success. "But Joe," you might say, "plenty of African Americans are successful and for Christ's sake, the President is black!" True. But these are the lucky few and are not indicative of an overall trend. The numbers do not lie and the numbers say that African Americans and Latinos, to name two groups, are marginalized, segregated, disproportionately imprisoned, disproportionately policed, and basically locked into a cycle of poverty and crime that is nearly impossible to escape. The schools that serve these groups are broken and are intentionally left to rot, and in many cases are simply turned into "school to prison pipelines" that feed the private prison industry. No, seriously, it'strue. Is it simply the fault of someone raised under such circumstances when they do not somehow become rich and successful as adults later in life? Did they simply not work hard enough? Or were they simply products of their environment, just as children of rich and successful people are products of theirs? Ask yourself: how did Tagg Romney, for one, establish his own successful investment firm? Could it be his massive trust fund and his super-rich father staking him at the beginning? Maybe.

In closing, I just want to point out that while I am obviously not a Randian, I am also not a complete Communist either. I do believe in people working hard, on people earning their own living if they are physically able to and have the means to, and I do not believe in a government that does much more than it absolutely has to. However, for me that "has to" list includes giving everyone in this country tax-funded healthcare at no direct cost to all citizens of this country per the French model, includes giving aid to those physically or mentally unable to care for themselves, includes helping those who are demonstrably and chronically poor better their situation and care for themselves, etc. It includes programs to ensure no child goes hungry in this country. It includes a military that can defend against aggressors but not one so large it makes the US look like an empire across the globe for the sole purpose of enriching Raytheon and Halliburton as it does now. It includes funding education in a way that is equal and gives kids the tools they need to succeed. It even includes a healthy and vibrant space program that helps the cause of education along by giving kids something to aspire to and work towards. It would not include giant subsidies to big agriculture, big pharma, big oil or big anything else. You believe in the free market? Stop sending your lobbyists to Washington to have them pick winners and losers.

We have problems, but having a government that does nothing, to me, does nothing to solve any of these problems. Rand had it all wrong, and acknowledging that humans have a predisposition towards selfish hedonism does not mean we need to encourage such behaviors in society at large. We should want to do better.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Election 2012: Waterloo For Old, Rich White Dudes

As the results poured in on election night, it became more and more clear that the delusional dream world the Republican Party, and their various spokespeople and pundits, had created for themselves has been set on fire and completely destroyed in an avalanche of votes from Latinos, African Americans, women and college educated white men.  Their Golden Boy Mitt Romney, despite his chameleon-like dash to the center that went ignored by those who expected him to lean more to the right, had lost by the exact same margin that his aides had thought Obama would lose to him by.  The polls literally were the opposite of what was predicted by the Romney camp and his surrogates.  But what had happened?

The first explanation is really simple: no one on the Republican side, from pundits like Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter and others, paid attention to any polls that mattered and preferred simply to believe Rasmussen and Gallup when it predicted a Romney lead right up until the last second, even though it was obvious both before and after election night that these were outlier polls, and they did not reflect the actual polling data, notably from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight Blog, showing a very likely Obama victory in nearly all battleground states.  All scenarios discussed before election night by these jokers simply assumed Romney could, by throwing money at states like Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania late and criss-crossing those states barnstorm style in the waning days of the campaign, secure a path to victory that did not require Ohio to win.  They were wrong, and the election returns in the aforementioned states made crystal clear that Romney had no chance in any of them and that the pundits were simply dreaming up these winning scenarios.

The second  explanation is even simpler: the so-called "experts" on the Republican side, specifically Dick Morris and Romney's own aides, simply misread the electorate and grossly miscalculated the potential turnout of women, Latinos and African Americans.  Obama won amongst all of these groups by double digits, as well as with voters under 30, college-educated whites and Asian Americans.  The main two demographic groups Obama lost with?  White voters (overall) and voters over 65.  No, really, it's all right here.    Dick Morris, for one, has since tried to explain all of his wrong information with a mixture of mea culpa and Sandy culpa, blaming the hurricane that Obama had to respond to in the closing days of the campaign and the praise he received from erstwhile Tea Party Golden Boy Chris Christie for Romney's defeat.  But what excuse does Romney's campaign staff have for so grossly miscalculating their chances for victory to the point that Romney himself was "shell-shocked" by the news of his defeat?  Their own internal polls were predicting 337 electoral votes for Romney and a decisive win, including a one point advantage in Ohio and a tie in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.  Obama won all three states, along with other so-called battleground states New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia and Nevada, many by 3% or better.

The fallout, predictably, has been sweet Schadenfreude for anyone who was betting against these Fox news types being correct.  The reactions of those on the right have been fairly predictable, from Karl Rove refusing to concede Ohio to Bill O'Reilly declaring "the white establishment is now the minority" and that "fifty percent of the electorate wants....stuff" to pretty much everything Rush Limbaugh said on his show last week.  All of them are dancing around the obvious, which to my mind was indicated more in the fact that Washington and Colorado just legalized recreational marijuana, and the fact that gay marriage is now legal in Maine, Maryland and Washington, along with voters in Minnesota rejecting a ban on same-sex marriage.  The new reality is that this country is getting more tolerant of alternative lifestyles, not less.  This country is getting more tolerant of minorities and women holding positions of power, not less, which is reflected by the Senate now containing the first openly gay Senator, the first Asian American Senator and more women serving than ever before.  What is it the Fox types are trying to say, but cannot?  That you don't only need a majority of whites and seniors to get elected anymore.  The "traditional America" they speak of, the one where whites are the majority and women, minorities and homosexuals don't count?  That's gone.  And the defeat of Romney, along with all of the other results nationwide, speaks this simple truth loud and clear.

Predictably, this is a distressing development on the right.  They have been struggling to define themselves post-Bush and, apart from taking the House in 2010, in what might be known as the old white people's Waterloo, they have had little electoral success on their road to relevance.  To understand this struggle, try to answer the following question: what exactly is the Republican Party today?  Is it the far-right fundamentalist party of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who believe the government's place is in a woman's uterus and that rape children are "gifts from God?"  Is it the party of rich businessmen like Romney who favor slashing taxes for the rich and entitlements for the not-rich?  Is it the party of Ron Paul with a progressive social policy of "live and let live" along with a strict conservative fiscal policy of "audit/end the Fed" and international non-interventionism?  I think most would agree after this election that the Republican Party of this exact moment is most clearly defined by Clint Eastwood arguing with an empty chair at the convention.  I can think of no better image for today's Republican Party than an old man arguing with an imaginary person.  The simple reality is that minorities and women are not going away, and the current Republican electorate is dying off.  The exit polls bear this out.  Dick Morris predicted that voter turnout amongst minorities and women in 2008 was "a fluke."  He was wrong.

No matter how you define Republicans right now, it is likely that the party itself will be unrecognizable by the election of 2016.  It's entirely possible that it won't even be recognizable in 2014.  As much as George W. Bush was said to have left the party in a shambles after his disastrous two terms in office, I would argue that the nomination and defeat of Mitt Romney, who contradicted himself so many times it made most logical people's heads spin, has done far more damage.  Even with him as the present de facto leader of the party, it is completely up in the air what Republicans stand for, and who will carry that message forward from this point on.  It is likely that the infighting that has already begun will continue and will probably result in the party splitting over ideological fractures, with each of the splinter groups I mentioned fighting for the right to dominate the party's message and image going forward, and the next strongest faction splitting off to possibly form their own party when they lose the fight.

Above all, it is clear the United States is a starkly different place in 2012.  Obama won but faces many challenges with a looming fiscal cliff, and challenges to federal authority all over when you include the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage, along with the nullification of Obama Care.  It is increasingly becoming clear that both parties, Republican and Democrat, will ignore the will of the people at their peril.  All through the election of 2012 we were all afraid the proliferation of huge Super-PACs funded by a handful of rich businessmen would squelch the voice of the people.  Now, in the light of day, with the likes of Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers being on the losing side even after all the millions, and really billions, of dollars that were spent, one wonders how important all this spending is when you focus on the bigger picture.  Either way, the future promises some interesting days ahead.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Southwest Airlines' Big Fat Problem

Southwest Airlines has a problem, and it is not related to scheduling snags or lost luggage.  No, their problem is closely related to America's ever-expanding waistline, and how they handle the increasingly more frequent "passenger of size" conflicts that come up.  You may recall hearing about Kevin Smith being kicked off a Southwest flight a couple of years ago, but you may not have heard about the dozen or so other incidents involving not-so-famous people linked here in an article detailing the Smith incident.  But this post is not only about Kevin Smith, for he is far from the only one to have such problems.

The debate about this has raged for some time, especially in an era when airplane seats seem to get smaller and smaller, and an era in which there are fewer flights, less planes, and way more people on each flight.  Let me state just once for the record: I support these policies in principle.  I understand that if someone just does not fit in one seat, that if they are significantly encroaching on another seat or the aisle, there is a legitimate safety and comfort issue there, not only for the overweight passenger but other passengers and the crew.  I understand that larger travelers need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.  But let me shed a bit of light on this from the other side of the issue.

So alright, in the interest of full disclosure I will say this much: I am what you would call a large gentleman.  I was well aware, at a certain point, that I had reached a "borderline" size and was reminded of this often from 2008 to 2010 because I travelled often, all on Southwest Airlines.  I never had a problem and was never required to buy two seats during this period, but I was "profiled" once during a work day trip by a gate agent in San Diego.  She was discreet and sat right next to me to ask if I wanted to pre-board to "make sure" I could fit in one seat.  I was flying a half dozen times or more a month during this time so I knew I'd be fine, but I took the pre-board offer anyway, and indeed everything was fine.  I did, however, familiarize myself with the Southwest "Customers Of Size" policy after this flight.

Things for me came to a crossroads last fall, October 2011, when I knew I was probably too far over the borderline to not be "too fat to fly" in only one seat.  A friend of mine who lived in Massachusetts passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, and to put it mildly the last minute purchase meant I could only afford one seat to make it out for the memorial service.  And so, I simply bought a ticket for one seat and hoped for empty flights.  I had no problem flying out, but the flight back was tougher because the flight was completely full, and I got a late B boarding number and as a result, had no seat I could "hide" in once I got on the plane, like a window seat in the middle of the plane, where there's more width between the seat and the window to squish over into.  I ended up in the very last row in the most pinched seats on the plane inconveniencing two ladies who were travelling from England.  The flight was delayed about 15 minutes over this as Southwest flight attendants agreed to let me fly despite my size and offered the ladies refunds on their tickets.  I was very apologetic and indeed I did accept full blame for all of this, as I did know my size was an issue but was hoping I could skate so I could be able to fly last minute.  I thought this would be the most embarrassed I would ever be on a flight, but I was sorely mistaken.

A couple of months ago I booked a trip to Virginia, with a brief swing up to Boston to visit my now passed-away friend's family on the occasion of my friend's birthday.  Now, obviously after my last experience, I know I am a customer in need of "special treatment" unless and until I go on a radical diet or pay for a lap band, so in an effort to prevent any further embarrassing mishaps, I scheduled my somewhat-tricky itinerary by phone and called back a week after booking my flight to confirm everything was in order.  I arranged to fly back from Boston first class on another airline, mostly because I was able to get a deal on that leg of the trip, and that leg ended up cheaper than buying two seats from Southwest and you cannot beat first class.  But for most of my trip, I was on Southwest's good graces.

So I want to stress again: by the time I got up to the gate an hour before my flight was due to start boarding, I had been told by no less than three people (the two agents I spoke with on the phone and the ticketing agent at check-in) that I was set and had two seats booked for both legs: from San Diego to Virginia and from Virginia to Boston.  But, just to quadruple check, I still went straight to the gate agent (who later told me her name was "Sigi" but would not give her last name) and handed her both of my boarding passes to inform her of my "special needs" and give her advance notice in case I needed to pre-board or something similar.

For some reason, this is where things went insane.  Five minutes of her furrowing her brow at her computer monitor and furiously typing and clicking turned into fifteen, then thirty, and soon enough forty-five.  After asking her several times what the problem was, I heard her vaguely say there was a problem with my Virginia to Boston leg but she never once spoke to me about this in complete sentences and did not indicate there was a problem with the reservation itself or the quantity of seats as purchased, merely the ticket type and how it was entered originally.

So, as I stood at the counter still waiting on "Sigi" to finish her work, my flight starts lining up to board.  I show my mother, who was travelling with me to Virginia, where to stand and then go back to see what is going on.  It was at this point I was informed that I needed to purchase a second seat for my second trip, which was not happening for nine more days.  I was required to do this before I would be allowed to board a flight I, and they, agreed I had paid for in full.  As my protestations caused the gate agent to turn the situation from a minor disagreement into a full-on hostage taking once everyone started boarding the flight I was due to leave on, a fracas that did make me the center of attention for twenty feet around, a snide and discourteous supervisor named Rich Koeing entered the scene to inform me I was an idiot who "booked my trip wrong" and that I had to pay $225 or I would not be allowed to board my airplane. 

By this point my mother was on the plane saving two seats all by herself, seats I had paid for in full, while I tried to ask an unreceptive prick why I should be required to change a trip I was not due to take for nearly nine days when the flight we all agreed I had paid for in full was sitting on the tarmac waiting for me to board?  I was never given an answer to any of these questions, and throughout the whole ordeal I was talked down to, condescended to and basically held against my will.  I finally threw a credit card at the supervisor and cursed him while he proceeded to take his ransom money.  I made sure to take his name and the gate agent's name, promising consequences would follow.  His reply was, "I enjoy your threats very much, sir," which he said with a smug smile of satisfaction.  Oh, he had gotten what he wanted.  But I wasn't through.

I did lodge a complaint when I finally got to my destination, after finally getting on my plane and finding my seats.  In fact, I lodged several, and stressed each time how I was singled out by these two employees and basically made the center of attention because I was a "customer of size" who is admittedly and obviously fat, but also did their level best to make themselves known and accommodate their situation, efforts that of course were all for naught in the end.  This should come as no surprise because as I point out above, Southwest Airlines has a long and sordid history of discrimination of the large.  It is quite obvious they see the large as an annoyance, and a group to be called attention to and inconvenienced, out of pure spite if for no other reason.

In the end, I was refunded the extra seat I had purchased on both of my flights and was told the two employees I named would be "re-trained and reprimanded" but I am not through yet, not by a long shot.  It may take me a bit of time, but I will be pursuing my legal options concerning this and Southwest, if I am able to bring enough attention to this, will be embarrassed once again for treating human beings as garbage.

Southwest Airlines, on the off chance any of your employees are reading this, know the following: your airline hires and harbors a bunch of bigots that make it their personal mission to single out and humiliate large customers for their own personal amusement.  You deserve to be sued into oblivion each and every time this happens to another person, and I, along with Kevin Smith, Kenlie Tiggeman and many others you have humiliated, will devote our energies into making you pay for it by embarrassing you for your lack of sensitivity and discretion.  I, for one, will never fly your airline again for any price, no matter how cheap, and I used to be an A-list frequent flyer.  Your pathetic "refund" was not enough to settle this for me, but nice try anyway.

I may be fat as hell, but I'm still deserving of basic human dignity, at the very least.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why You Should Care About Kelly Thomas

You may have seen this on the news lately and you may not.  That is the video of two Fullerton police officers that have been ordered to stand trial for the beating death of a homeless man, which you can see by clicking that link.  I need to warn you that many people who have viewed that video have been shaken to their core in disbelief, and while I cannot claim the same because police abuse of power and law enforcement overreach is something I research actively and pay close attention to, what amazed me about that video is its brutality and naked brazenness.  These two, and later six, individuals committed a murder last July, period.  And hopefully they will pay for their crimes.

People may wonder: what happens when one of our homeless, mentally disturbed citizens has an encounter with our boys in blue?  The aforementioned link might give you an idea.  Now, of course mileage may vary, but in my opinion based on the things I read, awareness of the mentally disturbed and the training to be able to deal with them are both sorely lacking amongst the rank and file of the police, and I dare anyone who watches that video to tell me that is not painfully obvious, at least in the case of the Fullerton Police Department.  I will not accept any less than the dishonorable firing of all officers involved, some significant jail time for the two officers who primarily instigated this incident, and some heavy fines, probation and community service and perhaps some jail time of their own for the other officers who arrived later and not only did nothing to calm the situation, they continued to escalate things until Kelly Thomas was in a coma.  He died five days later after being taken off life support.  I am told many large police departments have officers on staff trained to deal with the mentally ill.  These people have degrees in psychology and/or social work and are able to restrain and neutralize threatening mentally ill folks without injuring or killing them.  It begs the question: does the Fullerton Police Department not have such people on staff, or did these meatheads simply choose to not call them?

What was Kelly Thomas' crime, you may ask?  The one he paid for with his life?  Well, someone saw him being homeless in a public place (a bus depot) and thought perhaps, maybe, possibly, he was vandalizing and/or stealing cars.  It turns out he was doing nothing of the sort, and no proof has surfaced that he did.  He was a very well-known homeless presence in the area and nothing has surfaced about any sort of criminal record.  His father is a former Orange County Sherriff's Deputy.  He had no weapons on his person and was not directly threatening anyone.  He was not even threatening the officers; he simply lacked the mental awareness to comply with their instructions.  For that, he died.

People need to pay attention to the Kelly Thomases of the world.  Kelly Thomas could have been anyone, really.  The police overstep their bounds all the time and have since time in memoriam.  It is only now, with the rise of social media and the proliferation of recording devices, that the people have a weapon with which to fight back.  Maybe next time someone will think twice when a police officer asks them to do something.  Maybe they'll hit the "record" button on a camera first.  And maybe they should.

Be sure to check out a new episode of the Edge of Chaos podcast (linked on the right) in which we discuss this issue, and other issues concerning overreach of law enforcement.