Sunday, March 22, 2009

Socio-economic Rationality

President Obama has recently said, "I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. What I want to do, though is to channel our anger in a constructive way."

The president, it seems, is trying to segue governance from emotion to rationality. I'm all for that, so let's take a look at what's needed. Our prevailing culture and our present institutions have betrayed the American people, fleecing them literally of trillions of dollars and subjecting them to serious economic dislocations as well.


Who are the villains of this catastrophe? It seems they are everyone from shameless white collar criminals to the wealthiest, best educated members of the corporate leadership, and their partners in crime, many of the politicians. Obviously, reining in such a powerful class will be a labor of Hercules but it is not impossible.

We are a nation of laws, so we must depend upon laws for a remedy. Clearly, cultural change could be of significant help but we cannot do a makeover of the human psyche overnight so we must depend upon laws. What are these laws to accomplish? I can think of several worthy objectives.

In the present economic crisis, the nation is being held hostage by a small number of financial corporations that are allegedly too big to fail. These are insurance companies, banks, investment banks and hedge funds. The solution to this is simple. Limit them each to only one of these activities and limit the size of all of them so that true competition can prevail: divestiture and size limits in terms of market share. There is nothing essentially new in these regulations - they have simply been abandoned under the influence of corporate lobbyists. We must renew them and, this time, make it stick.

The second important objective is to reduce the influence of corporate money and corporate lobbyists. The corporations, some of whom are the engines of prosperity, must have a place in our political life and their voices must be heard but they cannot be allowed to have a stranglehold upon the politicians' careers by means of financial favors. Strict regulation of these favors and of the revolving door between lobbying and government are needed. Publicly financed campaigns would be a big plus and, all things considered, would be a much better bargain than the present system.

Third, it would be very helpful to limit executive compensation. I am not speaking of the capital gains resulting from entrepreneurial activity but of compensation for work done in corporate management. Why is this important? Because you can't expect the
executives to determine their own earnings, as they now do through cronyism on their various interlocking boards of directors, without getting super-greedy about it. That is already an observable fact. OK, but why is that important? Because we need our young people to want to make the most of their talents, some of whom would contribute more of value as scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. Now, they are excessively motivated to swarm into business schools in the hope of living like oriental potentates and being REALLY respected for their wealth. No first rate nation can sustain itself for long with such a distorted value system.

I believe in you

Those are my modest suggestions for rationality. They do not diverge very significantly from Obama's rhetoric. I shall cry "foul" if he does not follow through.

Some may indulge in mock horror of "socialism" when exposed to these ideas but that is unsupportable. These are the ideas which can make entrepreneurial capitalism work in the national interest.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Some consider justice to be a form of vengeance against evildoers. Others consider it to be a means of compensating the victims of antisocial behavior. Still others consider that punishing evildoers is primarily a way of discouraging additional crimes.

Being no saint, I like all of the above. In this, I seem to be in agreement with Maureen Dowd whose op-ed in today's NY Times criticizes Obama's apparent low level of anger at some executives of the AIG company - who appear to have negotiated and received huge bonuses as a reward for staying and containing the consequences of the ruin of their own company and their country's economy. Her op-ed is also culturally instructive. It offers one of her father's favorite Gaelic sayings, "never bolt the door with a boiled carrot."

To digress briefly, I am also fond of pithy proverbs. The Greeks have a saying, "a fish starts rotting from the head," and the Japanese have a beaut in, "the nail that stands up will be hammered down." The English language seems not too well endowed with such. Despite this, the early days of computer science added a bit of spice by using a language translation program to translate English sayings into Chinese and then back into English. Putting "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" through this process was reported to yield, "the liquor is good but the meat is rotten" and "out of sight out of mind" came back as "invisible idiot."

To get back to the case of the of the retention bonuses, some harsh measures seem to be called for. Consequently, some harsh authorities will be needed. There are some of these in the Congress who at least talk a good game. Except for Rahm Emanuel, I haven't noticed enough of those in the White House and I am unaware of any that may be in the Treasury Department. I have a modest suggestion. Rehabilitate Elliot Spitzer and put him in charge of AIG and the insolvent banks. It would be good for him and good for America.

Unpleasant, perhaps, but a fitting riposte to the massive economic destruction we have experienced. Alas, politically impossible.

According to the testimony of Mr. Edward Liddy to the Congress today, the guilty parties have been removed from AIG. If this is true, we are faced with the concept of collective guilt. When a nation is at war, innocent people normally pay a heavy price for it and even more so if they have lost. Perhaps that should be true of great corporations. Millions of innocent people have been injured by this financial disaster. Maybe the collective guilt of the AIG employees is not perfect justice but it may be a deterrent.

Justice is a hard row to hoe.


Islamic Justice

The Islamic teacher in the latter video observes that freedom of conscience entails freedom of heresy. I concur.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Musical Interpetations of Love

Being associated with powerful emotions, love has long been a playground for poets, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, and the composers of operas. The stories are sometimes appalling. I'll let a few of the musical examples (links to YouTube) speak for themselves.

First, a few humorous specimens. If you are a Really Serious Person you may want to skip these.

Frankie and Johnny

Frank Mills

Always True to You

Good Golly Miss Molly

Opera consists of a frequently tragic libretto infused with some serious music and vocal arias. Given the nature of the librettos, the music can be extremely passionate. Puccini is one of the great masters of this type of composition. Here we see the joy of new love.

O Suave Fanciulla

More Puccini, the hopeless devotion of Madama Butterfly:

Un Bel Di Vedremo

There is a classic representation of love betrayed in I Pagliacci.

Vesti la Giubba

Occasionally, things work out well for the lovers.

Sephardic wedding song

Black is the Color

Here is a Celtic version of the song.

More Black

A loving goodbye.

Goodbye Old Girl

Another two happy songs.

Blue Moon

The Way You Look Tonight

I wish Billie's life had been like that but it wasn't. It seems that there are far too many ways for things to go sour. Here are three examples of sad songs. Billie is famous for her unique vocal style and the musicians accompanying her are superb.

I can't get started

Billie's Blues

Travelin' Light

There are many other songs of bad luck or heartbreak. Here's a traditional song that came to America and met Bluegrass.

Fair and Tender Ladies

Here's a lovely celtic song.

Chi M'in Geamhradh

Now hear a formerly popular latino bolero.


We've got a Cajun classic also.

Jolie Blon

Harry Belafonte has a complaint for us.

Waly Waly

I consider "She Moved Through the Fair" to be an exceptional representation of love and bereavement. It gains its poetic affect through understatement. Love is portrayed by ordinary things, for example, "Fondly I watched her move here and move there," and there is an explicit mention of her death in only some versions. Seeing his love in a dream is the code for it in others. The sense of profound loss is amplified by the beautiful, haunting melody and by the singer's interpretation. I have included performances in three distinct voices and in drums with one piper.

He Moved Through the Fair

She Moved Through the Fair

She Moves Through the Fair

She Moves Through the Fair

There are many songs of love and courtship. Here are a few.

Eriskay Love Lilt

Cucurucucu Paloma

Besame Mucho

Is This Love?

O Sole Mio

My selection of examples has been very sparse but it is sufficient to hint at the considerable role played by language and music in our cultures. What, now is the bottom line?

Something very interesting has happened during the past very few million years. Our proto-human ancestors developed language and then songs. This represented a profound evolutionary change. They not only felt specific emotions that were triggered by events, they were then able to talk about them and to sing about them. More than that, we are now able to evoke strong emotions without the normal triggering events, we need only sing an appropriate song. This can clearly be seen in the arts, in commerce, in religions and in other public affairs. Songs can be used in selling products and in conducting wars.

We are emotional animals and songs can play upon our emotions. We also have, in varying degree, the capacity for rational problem solving. It will be helpful for us to know whether emotion or rationality is in control at any given time and to make it the appropriate one. Unfortunately, consciousness knows very little about what goes on in the brain and science cannot yet tell us adequately what we are. This above all, remember that nature is unforgiving and that you are frequently on your own.

Have some fun.



Monday, March 9, 2009

Sophistry and the Straw Man

"If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one present, does it make a sound? Scientifically, the answer is yes. Sound is basically the vibration of air. Philosophically speaking however, the answer is no. The concept of sound is meaningless without an audience. Using this extrapolation, Agnostics have cleverly crafted an ideology which boldly claims that because of our incapacity to detect or prove God, then one is not rationally inclined to believe in God. However, I think my agnostic friends have confused two essentially unrelated ideas. Ignorance is only proof of ignorance, not proof of non-existence. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. But that’s not the only thing amiss in this peculiar flavour of atheism."

Well, if God is perfect, so is his world.

The Best of all Possible Worlds

One of the tools of sophistry (false reasoning) is the creation of a straw man just in order to demolish it as representing something else. In this bit of sophistry, Xenocrates suggests that agnosticism is a flavor of atheism, which it is not. If religionists and atheists want to quarrel forever about something they cannot know, that is their privilege and much good may it do them. Let them leave honest agnostics out of their fruitless quarrel.

Agnosticism is merely the admission of those who do not know God that they do not, in fact, know God and that they make no claim concerning his existence, his non-existence or his attributes. A stronger claim would be that God is unknowable and that those who claim to know of his existence or nonexistence or attributes or wishes are either delusional or charlatans. I am personally inclined to this view but I do not claim to know that it is true - nor do I claim that delusions cannot be useful to some people at certain times.

Because of certain limitations of the human mind, sophistry is a formidable foe.

Medical Ethics?

Medical ethics is not an oxymoron but it is fair to say that it has been neglected and requires constant vigilance when your life is at stake. Why? Because doctors are human beings, just like politicians, lawyers, bankers, and corporate executives. The good old revenue stream is highly valued by most of us.

values revisited

In saying this, I am not indulging a grudge. I really like my family doctor and I have also encountered a cardiologist and a bone surgeon whom I respect. However, I am trying to be objective about this vitally important subject. There are a number of areas in which I have noticed that medical ethics seem to be distressed.

PHARMACEUTICALS. The great pharma companies spend more on marketing than on research and marketing means a lot more than distributing valid information to doctors. In particular, it means contributing to the incomes of doctors directly through sponsorship of meetings, lectures, and directed research. Recently, it has been reported that about 279 professors and lecturers at the Harvard medical school have received income from Pfizer or Merck. All of us are also targeted by direct TV advertising to the public. This type of public relations is not noted for its scientific objectivity. While some prescription drugs are life savers, there is the danger of widespread over prescription and over use.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE. This is a complex subject because even the best of doctors can make mistakes. However, the best of doctors make many fewer mistakes than the worst of doctors and the policing of the doctors' ranks is not very well thought out. Hospitals also make mistakes, which is to say that their medical staff members make mistakes. The number of deaths and injuries in US hospitals caused by medical mistakes has been variously estimated at roughly 100,000 per year. Remarkably, the opponents of universal health care in the USA have placed an ad in which medical mistakes in countries which do have universal health care are pointed out. What callous indifference to fact!

DELIBERATE WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION. Sometimes doctors, particularly surgeons, will not advise a patient that his condition can be better treated at another place, where the skills, experience, and facilities are better. This is likely to be true in difficult cases, such as rectal cancers, in which unnecessary colostomies may be performed.

BILLING. This is a jungle because of the confused and sometimes chaotic condition of the US medical care delivery system. Medicare beneficiaries are the lucky ones because of federal oversight. The rest of the paying population is vulnerable to being fleeced. Consider a surgery patient in the intensive care unit of a US hospital. He is unable to communicate because of sedation and a tracheal tube. He is temporarily under the care of an "intensivist" who is in charge of the ICU, and whom he has probably never met. Nevertheless, the hospital permits the intensivist to bill him as an individual client. If he is uninsured, the bill will be vastly more then an insured patient's bill. If he is insured, the doctor may claim to not be a "participant" in that particular insurance carrier's plan, even if the hospital does participate - or, there may be a disagreement between the doctor and the plan as to his participation. The hospital may disclaim any responsibility for the billing practices of its physicians. The hospital's own charges will also be vastly inflated for uninsured patients. Some of this overcharge is allegedly caused by the obligation to care for the needy. It is not clear why, if there is such a social obligation, the cost of it must be born by the uninsured patients rather than by the public treasury. Agricultural subsidies, for example, are paid for by the public treasury and not by agribusiness. It may be just a matter of political muscle, because even states with smaller than average populations have two senators each.

Information on these subjects may easily be googled with the right key words.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Rush Limbaugh is a far right entertainer. There are a number of these with radio talk shows and he is the most famous and influential.

I have never followed the emanations of Rush or his like because I had never been struck by the
accuracy or wisdom of anything I had heard from them, which seemed mostly to be adverse to the common good of the American people. However, there was one member of a now defunct NY Times forum who alleged that "Rush is a genius", so I have been conscious of the need to occasionally look for the evidence. I am still looking.

The most recent proclamation from Mr. Limbaugh is that conservatives ought to hope and to work for the failure of the Obama administration by getting their legislators to oppose that administration by all means available. When they lack the votes to defeat a bill, he advised using parliamentary procedures to obstruct and delay its passage.

It seems to me (as well as to at least one Republican governor) that the administration's failure would unavoidably entail America's failure as well. That puts the Limbaugh policy in the category of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

I fervently hope for America's success but that is not the point. I would like to understand this effluvium of spite. Shakespeare said that "all the world's a stage" and Limbaugh is a political entertainer but is the whole thing just theatrically inspired? We all know that people, even small children, can be vengeful and spiteful. Perhaps that is an intrinsic part of our genetic inheritance. If so, Limbaugh and the other extremist radio gurus have a ready made audience.

Pirate Jenny

Can spite trump hope?