Friday, October 17, 2008

30 years of the Republican Con Game” by Bill Honer, 2008

The Republican confidence game began with Ronald Reagan, whose disastrous administration redistributed the wealth in America in favor of the rich through the passage of three tax cuts that increased the wealth of the top 1% of Americans from 25% to 37% of the total wealth of the nation. 

Prior to his administration, the percentage of wealth controlled by the top 1% of the population had remained relatively constant since World War II.  However, by the time Reagan left office, the top 10% of Americans controlled more than 65% of the wealth, a higher level of inequality of wealth than in any advanced nation in the world. President Reagan retained the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour during his eight years in office. He then followed a policy of “borrow and spend” in order to pay for the costs of government rather than have his wealthy masters pay more of the current societal costs. As one observer noted about President Reagan, “he was bought and  never even knew it”.

When he left office, the federal deficit had ballooned to more than $200 billion. Similar large deficits occurred with George H. Bush and George W. Bush. In each case, the deficit at the time of their departure exceeded $200 billion. When the Democrat Bill Clinton left office, the treasury contained a surplus of $200 billion. That surplus was promptly squandered by President Bush through the 2001 tax cut of $1 trillion, of which $500 billion, or 50%, went to those with incomes in excess of $330,000 per year.

The rich had ample reason to vote for him, but their numbers have never been sizable enough to elect a president.  Reagan needed the votes of lower and middle income citizens. Given the fact that he was not prepared to offer them substantial benefits, how did he attract their vote? He did so by selling them on the deeply flawed idea that “Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.”, while ignoring the numerous benefits, such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, educational support, and housing assistance that had helped millions of Americans during the 20th century.

 

Indeed, post-World War II housing and education programs created wealth and educational opportunities for the middle class that were previously unavailable. In the face of this myriad of services and benefits, how could he sell the American people on such an absurd notion that government per se was a problem? Of course, improving government services and responsiveness is a perennial problem, but not the presence of government itself, which the Constitution states exists “to promote the general welfare”?

 

The answer lies in part in the American experience during the 19th century that resulted in traditions of 

anti-intellectualism and rugged individualism that have continued to the present-day. The popularity of Sarah Palin, who publicly disgraced herself with the lack of knowledge of current events and a tacit admission that she doesn’t read newspapers, is strong evidence that anti-intellectualism remains alive and well in America. Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist, has studied cross-cultural levels of individualism, the belief that citizens, not society, are primarily responsible for their well-being. He concluded that Americans demonstrated the highest level of individualism among the 70 nations studied.

 

Phrases that resonate with many lower and middle income American conservatives include “why should I send my money to Washington? or “why should I have to pay for someone else’s health care?”  In these questions, there is an implicit rejection by American conservatives of a shared society within America.

It is, by the standards of the advanced nations of the world, it is a rather crude and barbaric view of American Society. The Republican con game has continued to resonate with many Americans throughout subsequent administrations. Vice presidential candidate Palin has continued in this tradition in her campaign speeches.

 

 American conservatives are overwhelmingly white. Indeed the Republican Convention floor was  filled with so many white faces that one commentator noted it was a good place to play “Where’s Waldo?”, with Waldo being a person of color. However, the days of white domination of the electorate are clearly numbered.  According to the U.S. Census projections, 62% of Americans will be persons of color by 2042. Given the continued anti-intellectual and individualistic sensibilities of many white American conservatives, the Republican Party cannot survive without increased inclusiveness in its policies that extend beyond the colors of red, white and blue.

 

 

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Vision of Future Technology and its Implications for Humanity

By Bill Honer

Copyright 2007



Ray Kurzweil, in his book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”, describes how there is “a specific game plan for achieving human level intelligence in the machine: reverse engineer the parallel, chaotic, self organizing, and fractal methods used in the human brain and apply these methods to modern computational hardware.” If achieved, the implications for humanity are profound. Indeed, the definition of humanity may need revision.


The speculation shared by Kurzweil will not change the way we currently live. However, it has the capacity to profoundly change our vision of the world 30 years in the future. The informational power of machines is growing exponentially, yet the tendency of humans is to view growth in linear terms. In the course of evolution, species have evolved through biological changes. For the first time, the possibility (by no means a certainty) looms of a species (homo sapiens) consciously creating a non-biological entity with a computational power 3 million times that of the human brain, including the capacity to access the entire internet in seconds. Such a machine may, in turn, develop and design future machines in ways never conceived by man.


Kurzweil envisions the singularity as “the merger of the best knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge sharing ability of our technology”. Scientists at the University of Wales have already created a “robot scientist” capable of experimenting, analyzing results, and originating hypotheses. An algebraic conjecture was proved by an artificial intelligence system at Argonne National Laboratory. Some mathematicians referred to the proof developed by the computer as “creative”.


In discussing the singularity, Vernor Vinge, in his 1993 work entitled “the Technological Singularity” observed that “the best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work-the world access its own simulator in the case of natural selection. Humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a r├ęgime that is as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals. From the human point of view, this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control.” John Good refers to this moment as “an intelligence explosion” that would leave man far behind. “Thus”, observes Good, “the first ultra intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”


Kurzweil has offered 2045 as the estimated time of arrival of the singularity that will represent “a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—

The non-biological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”


One scientist has noted that there is no difference between magic and technological breakthroughs. Imagine a person born in the early part of the 19th-century waking up in the 20th century and watching the Concorde take off for a three-hour flight between New York and Europe. What are some of the “magical” technical breakthroughs envisioned by Kurweil to occur in less than thirty years?


Kurzweil believes that robots designed at the molecular level called nanobots will one day interact with biological neurons, thereby extending human experience through the creation of virtual reality within the nervous system. Software models emulating human intelligence will be available by 2025. He predicts that virtual reality will become competitive with real reality in terms of believability and resolution, noting that “our experiences will increasingly take place in virtual environments”.


Robert Freitas Jr. has suggested the net effect of nanotechnology on the human body “will be the continuing arrest of all biological aging—using annual checkups and cleanouts, and some occasional major repairs, your biological age could be restored once a year to the more or less constant physiological age that you select. You might still eventually die of accidental causes, but you’ll live at least 10 times longer than you do now.”


Some critics question whether information technology will continue to expand as rapidly as it has done in recent years. Problems could also occur in efforts to deconstruct the human brain.


However, even if we assume that only a small fraction of Kursweil’s predictions come to pass by 2045, it is nonetheless a breathtaking vision for the future that is at once exhilarating and unsettling. It appears inevitable that a few personal computers will surpass the collective work of a thousand scientists. Will non-biological intelligence systems create an ultra-intelligent machine, as Kurzweil believes? In such an event, we would be the creator of that evolutionary leap.


Future technological advances are hardly likely to result in an improved quality of life

shared equally among human beings, given the widespread inequities that exist on earth despite considerable technological progress during the last 50 years. In the United States, the Congress, Presidency and the Supreme Court continue to function, in the words of Gore Vidal, as a coordinating committee for the wealthy elite. Meanwhile, 45 million Americans lack health-insurance, while homelessness in its major cities is a national disgrace. In the recent past, leaders of the advanced nations of Western Europe have engaged in hand wringing and inaction while the world has witnessed millions of Africans dying of AIDS and genocide.


Will this dazzling exponential technological evolution result in even a modest advance

in human social advancement that results in an improved quality of life for millions of people on the planet? In the absence of such progress, the gross inequities among human beings that currently exist on our planet will continue to be justified with the conservative mantra “life isn’t fair”.













Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is the Death Penalty Finally Doomed?

While Europe, arguably the most socially advanced region on earth, has abolished the death penalty, California and other states continued to employ this barbaric practice against only a handful of murderers, the majority of whom are poor and who were represented by public defenders or court appointed attorneys with more limited resources. However, there are two events on the horizon that could hasten the elimination of the death penalty. 

The first is the likelihood that Barak Obama will become President. He is likely to nominate more progressive justices to the Supreme Court, thereby giving the anti-death penalty contingent on the bench a majority. Although Obama has called for an expansion of the death penalty to include  child rapists, it is likely that he will appoint progressive justices who may disagree with him on the death penalty. There is also the possibility that there will be pressure on Obama from within his Party to modify his position. How likely is an Obama victory?  The Las Vegas bookies currently require more than $2000 on  Obama to win $1000.  One need only wager $550 on John McCain to win $1000.  From the perspective of the Electoral College and the odds makers, the race is not quite as close as the popular vote. 

Only a handful of convicted murderers are sentenced to death. According to Amnesty International, 95% of the of convicted murderers on death row had the services of a public defender.  Defendants with the resources to hire a private attorney are often able to utilize private investigators to attack the prosecution's case. 

A Supreme Court reversal of the recent 5-4 decision on the death penalty in less than 15 years is one possible scenario for the demise of the death penalty. A second scenario for its potential demise is found in United States census projections. People of color will be the numerical majority in the United States by 2042.  Studies reveal that 60% of nonwhite respondents are opposed to the death penalty, compared to an approval rate of more than 60% by whites. According to the U.S. Census, people of color will be a majority by 2042, with whites constituting only 38% of the population. What will happen to the political will for killing convicts when the demographics change?  

It is difficult to see how those who support the implementation of the death penalty can reconcile their sense of fairness with the evidence that the death penalty is applied disproportionately to poor people. Amnesty International (a not unbiased source) argues that a defendant with only a public defender or court appointed attorney representing him, is more likely to be found guilty and executed than a defendant who has a private attorney.  They argue that this is the case for 95% of death row inmates. 

If you support the death penalty, then you must acknowledge that you approve of a criminal justice system based not upon the circumstances of the crime, but upon the defendant’s ability to pay for private counsel. Poor people do not have the resources to hire investigators who can identify weaknesses in the state's case or have high powered attorneys who can negotiate an advantageous plea bargain that excludes the death penalty. The advantage of wealth is true at all felony levels. However, should society extract the ultimate penalty of human life against those with limited resources? 

Is anyone more guilty of murder than O.J. Simpson? Yet he is a free man due to competent private legal representation that investigated and uncovered improprieties in the state’s case, paving the way for an acquital. Meanwhile, an appeals court in Texas affirmed the conviction and death sentence of a murder defendant whose public defender fell asleep during the trial. 

Texas has experienced more than 20,000 murders over the last 20 years with only 2000 defendants sentenced to death. The majority of murderers do not face the death penalty, even in Texas. Should it come as a surprise that most of them are poor? Even if we assume that poor people are over-represented among the ranks of those charged with murder, we can reasonably assume that wealthier persons charged with murder have a better chance of avoiding the death penalty due to increased legal and investigative resources. Many public defenders do tremendous work with more limited resources, but who can seriously argue that the playing field is level for lower and higher income defendants? For other crimes, that is simply a fact of life; for murder, it is a fact of death for the poor.  

  



Saturday, August 30, 2008

More Dreams at the Democratic Convention

In 1992, Bill Clinton was singing and holding hands on the stage with Maya Angelou and others, offering a promise of a better life in America . Three years later, he was signing a welfare reform bill that threatened millions of children with poverty. The gap between rich and poor increased during the Clinton administration. The current democratic convention is adhering to the usual script-the offering of dreams of a better future for Americans. Is there a Swedish dream or a Danish dream?

There are Swedish and Danish realities that do not include millions of people without health care, thousands subjected to the death penalty, one million of its citizens in prison, thousands of homeless persons, and squalor in its cities. Not only are these conditions found in the United States , but most were part of American life at the time of the 1992 Democratic convention. Republican politicians, ever eager to serve the needs of the top 10% of Americans who control roughly 70% of the wealth, rarely address these issues since they affect the 90% of- the American people who are not their true constituency..

According to the 2007/2008 United Nations development report the United States was not ranked among the top 10 nations in overall human development. Our nation needs positive social advances that can be discussed proudly at the next convention. Will a Democratic victory in November and a subsequent presidency create the reality a socially advanced nation, or will aspirations for a more civilized society remain merely dreams to be offered at the next convention? Bill Honer, Costa Rica

(Bill Honer is a co-author of "Adult Education for the Homeless" and former host of the Sacramento cable television program "Social Issues") . He currently lives in Costa Rica .)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

president obama is coming: liberals will need to lower expectations

President Barak Obama is coming: It is Time for Fellow Liberals to Reduce Expectations

By Bill Honer

Copyright 2008

American elections are defined in part by a sense of hope among Americans for a future less harsh than the current realities of American life.

The continued presence of the death penalty, 48 million Americans without healthcare coverage, and an unemployment rate of 50% among Black and Hispanic youth are examples of the continued crudeness and brutality of American society.

Campaign donations continue to corrupt the political process, leaving ordinary Americans with little more than the illusion of representative democracy. Barak Obama, the democratic presidential candidate, has promoted himself as the candidate for change. To the extent that his administration would be less criminal than the Bush presidency, he is correct. However there is ample evidence to support the position that he often represents prevailing American values rather than change. This is also the case with Hilary Clinton.

Senator Obama not only supports the death penalty, a barbaric relic of the past that has been rejected by the advanced nations of Western Europe, but also advocates expanding its use to execute child rapists. Studies have shown the death penalty has an adverse impact upon low income persons, with the majority of those executed having been represented by public defenders. The Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that the fact that the public defender fell asleep during the trial was not an impediment to finding the murder defendant guilty and putting him to death. The United States would be denied entrance into the European Community on the basis of the continued existence of the death penalty.

Tens of millions of persons in America continue to lack healthcare coverage. Barak Obama’s health care proposal would leave 20 million without health insurance.

If implemented, this would likely result in early deaths among the millions of uninsured who lack access to primary medical care for treatable conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

For decades, American politicians have appealed to voters through the traditional values of rugged individualism and hard work. Senator Obama is continuing in this tradition. When it comes to the 50% unemployment rate among Black and Hispanic youth, he has remained silent. According to the 2000 Census, the median incomes for Blacks and Hispanic families are considerably lower than the national average. Again Senator Obama has been silent on this issue.

Although Barak Obama initially stated that he supported public financing of presidential campaigns, he recently reversed his position when it became politically advantageous to do so. His recent rejection of public financing of political campaigns offers hope to the lobbyists who corrupt public policy on a daily basis that an Obama presidency will offer the prospect of “business as usual.”

The sociologist Geert Hofstede evaluated levels of individualism within 70 countries around the world; he ranked the United States first in this category. Americans, more than any other nation, believe that the individual, rather than society, must be responsible for himself. Studies also reveal that 75% of Americans surveyed attribute poverty to the personal and moral deficiencies of the poor, while 83% of Europeans surveyed attribute poverty to structural issues such as unemployment, low wages and discrimination. Barak Obama continues to emphasize these long-standing values while campaigning under the banner of “change”.

Senator Obama’s purchase of a house from a recently convicted felon hardly inspires confidence that he is not simply another “political player”. The felon, convicted of bribery and extortion after the purchase, was well-known in political circles in Illinois, Senator Obama’s home state The mere acquisition of property from a man subsequently convicted of bribery offers the appearance, if not the reality, of buying future political influence.

Some would suggest that, given the continued social retardation of the American people, Barak Obama has little choice but to promote traditional values that resonate with many Americans. However, how do such apologists then make the case that he is also the candidate for change? They would no doubt do so by noting that his policies would more quickly terminate the debacle in Iraq, increase access to health care for millions of Americans, and eliminate the inequitable tax cuts given the wealthiest 10% of American society by the Bush administration, and they would be correct.

There is every reason to believe that Senator Obama’s policies would reverse some of the unwholesome policies implemented by President Bush and his staff. However, his

proposed actions and positions fall far short of the changes needed to elevate the United States to the rank of a socially advanced nation. It would therefore be wise for Americans to lower their expectations of change within the coming Obama presidency.

(Bill Honer is a free-lance writer, social activist and co-author of the book “Adult Education for the Homeless” (Miller-Freeman 1999). He can be contacted at BillHoner9@gmail.com.)