April 15, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON FREE MARKET COMPETITION



Goat Rope is once again pleased to share another learned discourse from bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center, which is not yet directly affiliated with the WVU Entrepreneurship Center, though it views the latter with the warmest regard.

This feature is part of our continued efforts to provide fair and balanced coverage of the issues of the day, encourage the courteous expression of opposing viewpoints, and promote civil discourse.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Man, you got a bunch of cheese brains writing for this thing during the week. OK. Listen to what I've got to tell you. This is important. It's about free market competition, got it?

First, check the pictures. The dark handsome guy is me. Check out what's beside me. That's what I'm talking about. That is one BIG hen. Yeah man. Well, see, this is what happened this week--another rooster shows up in my coop! Do you believe that? There's a picture of him. Mr. Speckle Boy.

Well, here's the beauty of the market. Speckle Boy needed to learn that there's only one sheriff in this town. He's bigger than me, see? But you know what? You know what? Huh? Huh? I'll tell you what. It took me about five minutes to show him exactly who the man is.

He doesn't call me Dr. Dimwit. He doesn't call me Denny Dimwit. He calls me Daddy Dimwit.
Yeah man. And that BIG hen? Yowza! She's with me--got it? That's the beauty of the market.

That's the truth. You bet your cloaca.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 14, 2006

GOOD FRIDAY AND SOME GOOD NEWS FOR WIDOWS

Note: in observance of Good Friday, Goat Rope will post no gratuitous animal pictures today.

GOOD FRIDAY. El Cabrero is not sure at what point in church history the observation of the crucifixion of Jesus acquired the name "Good Friday." It pretty terrible to the people involved. It's hard in our day and age to understand how terrible or commonplace crucifixion was to people in the ancient world. The early church would have been horrified at the use of crosses as ornaments; they did not become standard features of Christian art until around the 4th century, after the practice was largely abandoned.

According to Martin Hengel, author of Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, "among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least in Judea. The chief reason for its use was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly..."

The practice was in part a spectacle of power and degradation. Hengel continues, "By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place--at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime--crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it. " Often the crucified were denied burial and simply left on the cross, which for many in the ancient world was worse than the death itself.

Historians and believers agree that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem during Passover week shortly after he caused a disturbance at the Temple. Passover was more than a religious holiday to the Jews in Roman controlled Judea: it was a subversive celebration of freedom. The Roman occupiers would have been on high alert for the slightest disturbance at such politically charged times.

The Romans were right about one thing: the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed and enacted was and is a threat to all systems of violence, hierarchy, exploitation, oppression and degradation. To that extent--and to his honor--Jesus was guilty. In the best sense of the word.

GOOD NEWS FOR WIDOWS: On a cheerier note, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin announced yesterday that he will restore Workers Compensation benefits to widows and widowers of workers killed on the job.

Manchin was quoted in the Charleston Gazette as saying, "The state of West Virginia will keep its commitment. It is without a doubt the right and honorable thing to do."

The system had begun denying benefits to widows and widowers until death or remarriage in 2004, in apparent violation of state law. The change will affect 142 current survivors.

Speaking of the Gazette, major credit for this victory for this win goes to Gazette staff writer Paul Nyden, who has extensively covered this issue. For backstory and more information, check out the Goat Rope archives for February). The WV AFL-CIO also worked extensively on this issue.

Here's the link to the story:
http://www.wvgazette.com/section/News/2006041323

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 13, 2006

THE SCIENCE OF EVIL, PART II: ROOTS AND BRANCHES

Photo: Whoever said there is no rest for the wicked may want to reconsider in light of the photographic evidence. It's probably a good thing that even devils get tired sometimes.


This is the second of two posts on the theory of evil as developed by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

Yesterday's post talked about how the "myth of pure evil" not only keeps us from understanding how evil works but also feeds the beast. Today's will deal with the main types of evil identified by Baumeister and how they seem to start and grow.

SADISM. Contrary to the myth of pure evil, deliberate sadism which inflicts cruelty for the fun of it is probably the rarest form of human evil, accounting for perhaps 5 to 6 percent. Most people do not at least initially enjoy inflicting harm on others, although it gets easier with repetition. It appears to be an acquired taste with some of the same mechanisms of addiction.

INSTRUMENTAL EVIL. A far more common type of evil is instrumental, i.e. doing harm to gain such ends as money or power. What makes this kind evil not the goal as such but the means used to achieve it. Examples include killing someone for money, governments using torture to maintain power, invading other countries to gain access to wealth and resources (good thing that doesn't happen any more, huh?).

According to Baumeister, violent means are chosen because the individual or group "does not think that more legitimate means will be successful. Violent and evil means often do furnish short-term, limited success, but in the long run they do not reliably furnish the material benefits they were intended to bring. At best, violence seems to be an effective tool for creating and sustaining power relationships."

EGOTISM AND REVENGE. Baumeister's work challenges the idea that evil is caused by low self esteem. On the contrary, many violent individuals, groups, and countries have inflated but fragile self esteem and lash out violently whenever this is challenged.

As he puts it,"The people (or groups or countries) most prone to violence are the ones who are most susceptible to ego threats, especially those who have inflated, exalted opinions of themselves or whose normally high self-esteem does occasionally take a nosedive."

Does that sound familiar to anyone? I didn't think so.

Wounded egotism usually seeks a revenge that is all out of proportion to the original offence.

IDEALISM. As Bob Dylan said, "you don't count the dead when God's on your side." When people think they are on the side of good and their enemies are evil, they feel morally justified in using extreme violence and cruelty. This is the old "end justifies the means" approach.

"Human nature inclines people to align themselves in groups that square off against each other, each group seeing itself as good and the other as bad. Group competition can evolve into brutal conflict in which each side sincerely sees itself as the good guys who need to take strong measures to defeat the forces of evil that oppose them."

No need for mercy when you're on the side of the angels.

Does that sound familiar to anybody? I didn't think so either. Lucky for us that never happens.

HOW IT STARTS. Unlike the Greek goddess Athena, evil doesn't appear full grown in the world. It starts with a loss of self- or social control. "Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into even greater levels of violence."

For example, the Ku Klux Klan began with a group of bored young mean seeking amusement by mischief and practical jokes. The Nazi holocaust came at the end of a long progression of gradually escalating abuses. Often, Nazi leaders would pause at each stage to gauge world reaction before escalating violence.

GROUPS. People taken one at a time are fairly harmless, but aggregation into groups multiplies the potentially for evil exponentially. "The crowd is untruth," according to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

For Freud, any group was a potential herd or mob: "when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification."

Baumeister doesn't go quite that far but affirms that "In groups, especially, evil escalates as the members bring out one another's worst impulses, lose track of individual responsibility, and reinforce one another's wavering faith in the broad justifications for what they are doing."

There's no magic bullet to make evil go away, but understanding it is a good first step and Baumeister's work is a good place to start. Self control, and helping people learn to achieve it, is obviously important. Maybe it's more important to remember that a good society is one where different individuals, groups, and systems limit the amount of harm the others can do. Call it checks and balances or countervailing power or anything you want, but we always need it.

It's not that people are inherently evil: in our imperfection, we can't even achieve that. But the potential for evil is always there--and not just in the Other.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 12, 2006

THE SCIENCE OF EVIL


Photo: The face of evil. This man has gone over to the Dark Side. There's no hope for him. He's all bad. He's a devil now.

To return to a theme from one of last week's postings, it's hard to get a handle on evil (see April 6 "Prisoners of Zarathustra"). Sometimes we don't take it seriously enough. More often, we oversimplify it by seeing ourselves or our side as all good and the Other as all evil.

One of the best efforts to make sense of it is found in social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister's 1997 study, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

According to Baumeister, "Evil requires the deliberate actions of one person, the suffering of another, and the perception or judgment of either the second person or an observer. Very few people see their own actions as evil..."

Since evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, victims and perpetrators have vastly different perspectives on the acts in question. For the latter, it's usually "not that big a deal," while to the victim it is a very big deal. Baumeister calls this difference in perspective the "magnitude gap," and it is one reason why acts of revenge are often out of proportion to the original offence.

One thing that keeps us from understanding evil and dealing with it is what he calls "the myth of pure evil," which most of us pick up from sources such as myths, comic books, action movies, etc.

According to the myth, evil involves the intentional infliction of harm for the pleasure of doing it. Victims are all innocent and good and perpetrators are all evil. Evil is always "the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group." It has always been around and always will be; it is the enemy of order, peace and stability.

One problem with seeing the world in this way is that in any given war or serious conflict, both sides see each other in terms of the myth. Perpetrators usually see themselves as victims.

Although the book was written before 9/11, it helps shed light on subsequent events. "Even terrorists, who would seem to be the most obvious example of a group that attacks and kills innocent people, conform to this pattern. Terrorists see themselves as victims. One scholar observed how striking it is that despite the great diversity of causes that terrorists represent, their rhetoric has broad similarities. They all tend to speak as if they were engaged in a battle against the forces of evil, who have somehow amassed great power and numbers on their side."

Similarly, the torturers of the Inquisition and the witch burners were convinced that they were defending the faith and protecting society from people who were totally evil. And so on. People are really good at justifying their own injustice and groups are much better at it than individuals.


According to Baumeister, "the myth of pure evil conceals the reciprocal causality of violence. By doing so, it probably increases the violence. The myth of pure evil depicts innocent victims fighting against gratuitously wicked, sadistic enemies. The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it...belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good."

This is pretty good theology too. As the First Epistle of John put it, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 11, 2006

INEQUALITY GROWS, GOATS URGE REBELLION



Caption: Goat union leader Cornelius Agrippa urges US workers to organize. “Are you guys sheep or what?”

These are great times to be a CEO but not so great times to be an American worker. That’s the short version of a special report on executive pay in the Sunday New York Times called “Off to the Races Again, Leaving Many Behind.”

According to the report, “New technology and low-cost labor in places like
China and India have put downward pressure on the wages and benefits of the average American worker. Executive pay, meanwhile, continues to rise at an astonishing rate.”

To be exact, that rate increased by 27 percent last year to a level of $11.3 million, based on a survey of 200 large companies. Median CEO income was a little lower at a modest $8.4 million, up by 10.3 percent.

Here’s the flipside: “By contrast, the average wage-earner took home $43,480 in 2004, according to Commerce Department data. And recent wage data from the Labor Department suggest that workers’ weekly pay, up 2.9 percent in 2005, failed to keep pace with inflation of 3.3 percent.”

The estimates of the ratio of CEO to average worker pay vary, but there is general agreement that the gap is growing. The Times cites a study which finds the average CEO of a major company “earns” more than 170 times the earnings of an average worker.

United for a Fair Economy estimates that the ratio among the largest companies is 431:1.

For medium sized corporations, the ratio between CEO and manufacturing worker pay is 44:1, much higher than similar ratios from other developed nations.

Once upon a time, worker and CEO pay grew at about the same rate. Beginning in the 1980s, however, executive pay hit a huge growth spurt while wages increased at a much slower rate. CEO pay even grew much faster than corporate earnings. This means the idea that CEO pay reflects better corporate performance doesn't hold water.

This has raised lots of eyebrows even in the business world. John C. Bogle Sr., founder and former chair of the Vanguard Group mutual fund company, was quoted in the Times as saying that CEOs “aren’t creating any exceptional value, so you would think that the average compensation of the C.E.O. would grow at the rate of the average worker. When you look at it in that way, it is a real problem.”

And here’s a real eye-opener. According to Holly Sklar, author of A Just Minimum Wage, in 1980, the average CEO made as much as 97 minimum wage workers, while in 2004, CEOs made as much as 952 minimum wage workers.

These trends are not the will of the market god. They are the result of serious imbalances in power that can and must be challenged.

(link to Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/business/businessspecial/09pay.html?ex=1144900800&en=86ca2f445a1ea4a7&ei=5087)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 10, 2006

GOAT ROPE OF THE WEEK: PART D



(Photo: Frustrations over the Part D drug plan have led to an epidemic of assaults on toy monkeys nationwide by ordinarily peaceful creatures.)

The last few years have provided some interesting lessons in government and public policy. The inept response to Hurricane Katrina showed what happens when government is controlled by people who don't believe that government can competently do anything. The Part D prescription drug mess shows what happens when you let industry lobbyists write laws.

There are three main aspects to this week's goat rope. The first, Operation Confuse Senior Citizens, the baffling process potential beneficiaries have to go through to apply for this program, is already well known.

The second is the "donut hole," a gap in the plan that provides no coverage for costs between $2,250 and $5,000.

The third, less well known, is the enormous cost of this program to citizens, beneficiaries and taxpayers due to waste, inefficiency, and excessive profits for insurance and drug companies. The problem is not that Part D is a wasteful government program. Rather, it is another case of privatization run rampant or socialism for the rich.

Unlike the traditional Medicare program, Part D is administered through a host of private plans. The law actually forbids the government from using its clout to negotiate fair prices from drug companies. According to the Institute for America's Future, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the marketing and profits of the insurance industry would add $38 billion to the cost of the program over the first eight years of the program. That's a lot of money, but it's nothing compared to excess drug costs.

"Virtually every other country in the industrialized world imposes some constraint on drug prices, either through formal price controls or government negotiated prices. As a result, people in other countries pay much lower prices than do people in the United States," says a report by the Institute (see link below).

Not taking this obvious step will cost billions of dollars. "If Medicare was allowed to use its bargaining power to negotiate prices on behalf of beneficiaries, it could almost certainly obtain discounts that are at least as large as the highest discounts obtained in other countries, since it would be by far the largest drug purchaser in the world. If Medicare could negotiate the same schedule of prices as Australia (the current lowest cost country), the savings over the first eight years of the drug benefit would be almost $560 billion nationally and $4.7 billion in West Virginia." (see:http://ourfuture.org/issues_and_campaigns/medicare/partd_reports.cfm)

The solution would be to have Part D administered directly by Medicare rather than private plans and to require Medicare to negotiate lower prices from the industry. This would also eliminate vast confusion and save more than enough money to close the gaps in coverage.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED