May 26, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM



Goat Rope is once again pleased to present another learned commentary 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 WVU Entrepreneurship Center, although it feels a very strong affinity thereto.

By providing space for opposing viewpoints, we hope to reduce the climate of polarization and promote the values of civility, profound mutual respect, and deep listening.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Crudamazookie! This blog has got to be the stupidest compost heap on the web! That explains all the flies around here.

What's all this stuff about minimum wage anyway? You don't need to raise the minimum wage. What you need is rugged individualism. Just like me. Yeah, that's it. Exactly like me.

I've got it pretty good here and I didn't get it by getting anybody to raise the minimum wage. I did it all myself with no help from anybody.

Except like maybe the people who give me food and water. And built the chicken house. And then there's that thing they built to keep the weasels out. And then the hens they put here. But that's it.

Other than that, I did it all myself. That's the beauty of the market.

That's the truth. You bet your cloaca.

Now, where's that BIG hen?


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

ANOTHER STATE MOVES TO INCREASE ITS MINIMUM WAGE



Caption: Goat union leader Arcadia S. Venus is about to order a beer to celebrate.

One progressive movement that is doing well these days is the campaign to raise the minimum wage.

Yesterday, both houses of the North Carolina legislature approved bills that would raise the state minimum wage by $1 an hour to $6.15. The bills are slightly different and will have to be reconciled. According to the Charlotte Observer, "State officials estimate 139,000 workers would be affected."

This is the second state--and, significantly, the second southern state--to approve an increase its minimum since West Virginia did so (sort of) in March. The other was Arkansas. Each victory at the state level, particularly in the south, gives momentum to other state campaigns and ultimately to the effort to raise the federal minimum wage.

Earlier this month, Republican Congressman Phil English from Pennsylvania predicted that Congress would move on the issue this year. It's too soon to tell whether the current congressional leadership would accept a bill without provisions that would undermine other workplace protections, but they may be starting to feel the heat.

For more on state and national efforts to raise the minimum, check out the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

May 24, 2006

ONE NATION UNDER HOBBES



Caption: According to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life is "a war of each against all," particularly of boxers against toy monkeys.

The current rulers of the United States have turned their back on a largely benevolent political tradition going back from Jefferson and other founders of the Republic to Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke to classical antiquity. This tradition emphasizes checks and balances, and promotes liberty and human rights in theory if not always in practice.

They have replaced the ideals of civic republicanism with a justification of arbitrary power based on fear which was best articulated by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived from 1588 to 1679. For Hobbes, whose best known book is Leviathan, the natural state of humanity “is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

According to Hobbes, “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing of such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The only solution was to surrender all power to an absolute sovereign who would wield absolute power and enforce laws and agreements with the force, because “covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

There are several fatal flaws to Hobbes political theory. For one thing, in the mythical state of nature--which is always already social--while some people may go to war with other people from time to time under certain conditions, everyone doesn’t do it all the time to everyone else.

The main problem, though, is that the prescription is worse than the disease. Surrendering all power to a ruler in the name of security creates the conditions for the abuse of power much worse than would be the case if power were distributed more equitably. Ironically, it actually contributes to more insecurity.

In a sense, Hobbes didn’t go far enough. Assuming for the moment that his dark view of human nature is correct, there would be nothing to keep the sovereign from arbitrary rule over powerless subjects. As the mad poet William Blake put it in “The Proverbs of Hell,” “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

As the great Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it in his classic book on political theory The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, the problem here is one of moral naïveté which “fails to recognize that the nation is also an egocentric force in history, tempted on the one hand to claim a too unconditioned position in relation to the individuals and to the subordinate institutions in the national community; and on the other hand to become a source of moral anarchy in the larger community of nations.”

In addition, “it identifies the interests of the ruler or the ruling oligarchy of a community too simply with the interests of the community. Therefore it fails to provide checks against the inordinate impulses of power, to which all rulers are tempted.”

As the late great Bob Marley sang, “Who the cap fit, let them wear it.”

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

PRISON NATION



Caption: This chicken is doing hard time.

The population of prisons and jails in the US grew at a rate of more than 1,000 per week between 2004 and 2005. According to the Associated Press, "The total on June 30, 2005, was 56,428 more than at the same time in 2004, the government reported Sunday."

The biggest increase was in the jail population, which grew by 4.7 percent or 33,539 people. The total number of people behind bars in the nation was around 2.2 million or one out of every 136 US residents.

West Virginia has also experienced dramatic growth in its prison population. The costs of this increase has drained resources away from investing in education.

According to a 2005 report by the Appalachian Institute of Wheeling Jesuit University, the West Virginia Council of Churches, and Grassroots Leadership,

*Between 1994 and 2002, state spending for higher education adjusted for inflation went up by 21% while appropriations for prisons went up almost 119%.

*Despite the state's low crime rate (often the lowest in the nation), the prison population increased by 86% in the same period. By 2004, it had doubled. By contrast, full time enrollment in the state's public colleges and universities increased by only 9% in the same period.

Much of the growth was due to the incarceration of non-violent offenders. Currently, about 2 in 5 people incarcerated by the state Division of Corrections are in for non-violent offenses. While violent offenders have seen average sentences fall in recent years, sentences for property and drug crimes have increased.

In other words, we're spending lots of money that could be more productively invested elsewhere in a system that locks up more people--but not necessarily the right ones--without making us noticeably safer. It may make us less safe in the long run.

It has long been noted that prisons tend to reinforce some of the very problems they are intended to fight and that the lessons learned by inmates while incarcerated often tend to feed the problems rather than the solution. There is a strong tendency towards recidivism or repeat offenses and incarcerations for people once they've been in the system.

As the philosopher Nietzsche put it, "Generally speaking, punishment makes men hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation; its strengthens the power of resistance."

And while the growth of the prison-industrial complex was seen by many to be a kind of economic development,the results seem to show that using prisons for economic development is kind of like using meth as an energy supplement: the boost isn't worth the cost.

One positive sign in West Virginia at least is the move towards community corrections and alternative sentencing such as day reporting for non-violent offenders, an approach that makes sense both in human and financial terms.

One state corrections official noted that "for certain kinds of crimes, people who go through alternative programs are much less likely to repeat those crimes...We still have to lock up the hardcore cases, but incarceration is the least corrective and the least profitable in terms of human rehabilitation."

One state probation officer summed it up pretty well: "we need to lock up the people we're afraid of, but not everybody we're mad at."

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

May 23, 2006

GOAT ROPE OF THE WEEK: PAYING WAL-MART TWICE FOR THE SAME BAD DEAL



Caption: Ethel Fuzzy Chicken says, "Fight poverty: buy union or buy local."

The winner of this week’s prestigious Goat Rope of the Week Award is Wal-Mart. To be more exact, the winners are the governments that spend public resources to subsidize the retail giant and clean up its messes.

As an example of the latter, state and local governments often provide public benefits for the families of low wage workers. Some have suggested that Wal-Mart is contributing to poverty in other ways.

The St. Louis Business Journal recently reported on a study that “found that an estimated 20,000 families nationwide have fallen below the poverty line as a result of the chain’s expansion.”

The study was written by Stephen Goetz of Pennsylvania State University and Hema Swaminathan of the International Center for Research on Women and was published in the latest Social Science Quarterly.

According to the Journal, “During the last decade, dependence on the food stamp program nationwide increased by 8 percent, while in counties with Wal-Mart stores the increase was almost twice as large at 15.3 percent, according to the study.”

Not having read the academic journal article, El Cabrero is unsure where the 20,000 figure came from. One would think it would be higher. But more interesting is the interpretation of the damage done to small communities due to Wal-Mart penetration.

It’s long been known that Wal-Mart can drive local employers out of business, but the study’s authors also suggest that “by displacing local class of entrepreneurs, the Wal-Mart chain also destroys local leadership capacity.”

Further, the Journal reports that:
The demise of mom-and-pop stores leads to the closing of local businesses that supplied those stores, such as wholesalers, transporters, logistics providers, accountants, lawyers and others. Many of these are higher-paying jobs. The study concludes that it is likely that these more highly-educated individuals depart from the rural community in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere, contributing to the rural-to-urban exodus over the last decade, leaving behind those with fewer opportunities and raising the poverty rate by reducing the number of nonpoor households in the denominator.


Unfortunately, that’s just one side of the picture. Not only do taxpayers and state and local services have to deal with the consequences of poverty, but the public often subsidizes Wal-Mart for doing so.

A 2004 study by Good Jobs First titled "Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth" found that the company has received more than $1 billion from state and local governments in economic development subsidies.

Talk about welfare queens…There’s nothing like paying twice for the same bad deal.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

May 22, 2006

WEST VIRGINIA MAKES THE NEW YORK TIMES



Caption: Ferdinand is rushing out to buy a copy.

The Monday posting is usually devoted to the "Goat Rope of the Week" feature, but El Cabrero wishes to draw readers' attention to a good article by Ian Urbina in the May 21 New York Times titled For Many West Virginians, Leaving is the First Step Home. Urbina has done an excellent job of covering recent mine disasters in the the state and their aftermath.

The article provides a good description of the conflicts faced by many, particularly younger, people from this state: "For West Virginians, the tension between the economic push to leave and the emotional pull to return plays a central role in the state's cultural identity."

West Virginia's economic woes have their roots in a colonial economy based on exploitation of natural resources by outside corporate interests, a process that began in the late 1800s, continued with rapid industrialization in the early 20th century and equally rapid deindustrialization which began later in the century and has continued into the 21st.

Unfortunately, West Virginia's political leaders were often the willing servants of the external interests for most of this history.

The Appalachian diaspora began with the mechanization of coal mines after World War II and continues with plant closures and cutbacks in the wake of globalization and so-called free trade agreements and with the systematic destruction of large sections of the Appalachians due to mountaintop removal mining, a destructive process which requires fewer and fewer workers even as it consumes more land.

As Urbina notes, the theme of exile and return is a recurring theme in the popular culture.

The jury is still out on whether West Virginians will be able to create a sustainable economy on their own terms, although some of us are determined not to go down quietly.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED