June 30, 2007


For first time readers, it is the policy of this blog to deal with fairly serious topics during the week. The weekends are reserved for special guest commentators by various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are pleased to feature another commentary by Madame Ouspenskaya, a fortune teller well versed in the occult arts.

(Note: any resemblance between Madame Ouspenskaya and Goat Rope's canine film critic is purely coincidental.)

(Disclaimer: the staff of Goat Rope assume no responsibility for the consequences of any reader who acts upon the advice of any of these commentators.)

Thanks to a massive upgrade by the Goat Rope tech crew, we have raised the bar in blogospheric history by developing what we believe is the first online animal fortune teller.

If you haven't tried it before, here's how the system works. First, hold your palm to your computer screen. Then, scroll down to access Madame Ouspenskaya's reading.

Hey! You're not supposed to scroll down until you've held your hand to the screen.

And Yes! This means you.

OK, fine--be that way, but don't blame us if it messes up your reading.


Your palm tells me much of that which has been and that which is yet to be. It speaks to me of your soul.

You are a person of complexity yet simplicity. You enjoy moments of happiness and dislike moments of misery. When you are hungry you desire food. When you are tired you crave for rest.

When your squeaky toy is stuck way under the couch where you cannot reach, you feel great frustration. Especially when it is the purple one.

Sometimes you have accidents.

You have a spot which, when properly scratched, causes your legs to jump up and down maniacally.

Now for your fortune: when moments of hardship come, as come they must, you will enjoy these somewhat less than moments of non-hardship. Yet you will experience great happiness in your moments of utmost joy. In moments of loneliness, you will experience a sense of isolation.

For your life's work to be successful, here is one word of advice: make lots of popcorn with plenty of butter and give it to a dog. A boxer to be exact...


June 28, 2007


This is a very bad crowd.

As noted in yesterday's post, crowds have a generally bad reputation--one that is not altogether undeserved. But two fairly recent books talk about the good side of groups.

Let's start with the most recent. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, recently came out with Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

Her main thesis is that for most of human history, until the lamentable rise of the Protestant work ethic (from which El Cabrero is striving manfully to free himself) and the subsequent bureaucratization and commodification of the world, people used to get together and get down in group celebrations that often strike modern observers as "savage."

Relics of this tradition still survive in some sports situations, in carnival (as in Mardi Gras) celebrations, and occasionally in other settings. She argues that "we need much more of this on our crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration."

Our old friend Nietzsche, Goat Rope's mascot of the week, pointed out long ago the two poles of human existence and culture: the Apollonian, based on individuation, reason, and moderation (named for the Greek god of music, prophecy, and measure); and the Dionysian (named for the god of the vine), in which people loose their sense of separateness through group revelry.

(While totally appreciative of the gift of the vine, I lean towards the Apollonian.)

The other book on the good side of group behavior is a little older: James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations, which came out in 2004.

Surowiecki writes the financial column for the "New Yorker" and this book deserves the same wide circulation as those of his fellow writer Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote Blink and The Tipping Point.

I was shocked by the title, since "wisdom" and "crowd" are two words that I rarely associate. His main thesis is that large groups of people--including people who aren't necessarily the "smartest guys in the room"--often arrive at better decisions than experts:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to "make decisions affecting matters of general interest," that group's decisions will, over time, be "intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual," no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

And again:

The argument of this book is that chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which of course, includes geniuses as well as everyone else)instead. Chances are it knows.

But there's a catch: it doesn't work in herds. It seems to work better if you have a diverse group of people (by almost any measure) who arrive at their decisions independently, with the results compiled and aggregated. I'd say that' s aggregated Apollonianism (with no disrespect for Dionysus). There's lots of interesting data from experiments and experience in the book that make it worth a look.

SUSPICIOUS MIDDLE EASTERN CHARACTERS. I'm talking, of course, about cats. This from the NY Times:

Some 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Near East, an audacious wildcat crept into one of the crude villages of early human settlers, the first to domesticate wheat and barley. There she felt safe from her many predators in the region, such as hyenas and larger cats.

The rodents that infested the settlers’ homes and granaries were sufficient prey. Seeing that she was earning her keep, the settlers tolerated her, and their children greeted her kittens with delight.

That's just how it starts, however. After a few thousand years, they start horfing up hairballs on your rug and waking you up in the middle of the night. It's a conspiracy....

(If you check the picture of the Middle Eastern cat on the link and check the gratuitous animal picture in yesterday's post, you will notice a strong similarity between that cat and Goat Rope Farm's Seamus McGoogle. I'm gonna call Homeland Security...)

WHY IS IT that I'm writing more about animals than economic justice issues these days? I don't even like them all that much. I'm kind of tired of them--they're a pain in the @$$. Maybe it's because justice is elusive but animals are inescapable...at least around here.

MSHA CITES ITS OWN SHORTCOMINGS. This from Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette:

Federal inspectors and their supervisors displayed an "unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight" prior to three major coal-mining accidents last year, the nation's top mine safety regulator said Thursday.

Inspectors missed or ignored obvious violations, agency managers failed to ensure inspectors did their jobs, and repeated safety problems were not hit with escalating enforcement actions, according to three lengthy internal reviews issued Thursday by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, said such oversights will "not be tolerated" and announced an improvement plan the agency said "ushers in [a] new era of accountability."

Comment: fair is fair. Lots of people, including myself, criticized Stickler when he was nominated for this post by the Bush administration. I apologize: he seems to take safety very seriously and is a welcome change from the past.

Question: do you believe that things like coal mine safety should be left to the "market" or the whim of corporations? Some people do...


June 27, 2007


Caption: This is a bad crowd.

Large groups of people have a pretty bad reputation in many circles.

The Christian existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said "The crowd is untruth."

In 1841, Charles Mackay wrote the popular Extradordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, wherein he said,

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Our old pal Nietzsche said that "Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule."

Freud, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, saw in any crowd a potential mob, noting that

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.

Gustave Le Bon, an earlier writer who influenced Freud, said "In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated."

Erich Fromm, in Escape from Freedom described the ways people sometimes seek to evade anxiety by seeking submersion in a larger group.

The dangers of the egotism and imperialism of groups was the theme of the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's classic Moral Man and Immoral Society (although Niebuhr had some doubts about the morality of individuals as well).

Earlier series and posts in this blog looked at the problems caused by obedience to authority and conformity.

Some interesting things have been written recently, however, that talk about the good side of groups. But that will keep until tomorrow. As Scarlett said, "Tomorrow is another day."

THIS COULD GET INTERESTING. West Virginia native and country music star Kathy Mattea is starting to speak out about mountaintop removal mining and climate change, as Ken Ward reports in today's Charleston Gazette. She is currently working on a project of coal-related music.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT PENGUINS. This is not a burning issue of our time, but scientists have discovered a 5 foot tall penguin that lived 36 million years ago in Peru. This baby had bigger jaw muscles than the current crop and a foot long beak.


June 26, 2007


Caption: Backward priorities aren't going to get us where we want to go.

More than a year ago, writer Holly Sklar wrote a strong op-ed with the title "Wanted: A High Road Economy." The immediate context of the piece was the now successful campaign to raise the long stagnant minimum wage.

But she also raises some serious issues about the choices that continue to confront us as we try to meet the economic challenges of the 21st century, both in the U.S. as a whole and in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

Again, it comes down to the low road or the high road:

Waving the banner of "global competitiveness," corporate and government policymakers are running the U.S. economy into the ground. We are becoming a nation of Scrooge-Marts and outsourcers—with an increasingly low-wage workforce instead of a growing middle class.

She cites an all too familiar list of current trends: record numbers of Americans without health care; stunning trade deficits and debt to other countries; declining public investments in infrastructure and R&D; growing inequality and personal debt; etc.

She notes:

We will not prosper in the 21st century global economy by relying on 1920s corporate greed, 1950s tax revenues, downwardly mobile wages and global-warming energy policies. We will not prosper relying on disinvestment in place of reinvestment. We can't succeed that way any more than farmers can "compete" by eating their seed corn.

The low road doesn't even make good business sense. One of the sources cited by Sklar is the book How We Compete: What Companies Around the World Are Doing To Make It In Today's Global Economy by Suzanne Berger. In discussing the results of a study by the MIT Industrial Performance Center of more than 500 international companies, Berger says:

Contrary to the widely held belief of many managers, we conclude that solutions that depend on driving down costs by reducing wages and social benefits—in advanced countries or in emerging economies—are always dead ends. . .

Strategies based on exploiting low-wage labor end up in competitive jungles, where victories are vanishingly thin and each day brings a new competitor. . . As low-end firms that compete on price move from one overcrowded segment of the market to the next, there is virtually no chance of gaining any durable advantage. The activities that succeed over time are, in contrast, those that build on continuous learning and innovation.

In an interview from MIT's openDOOR in 2006, Berger makes it plain:

Globalization can continue to produce great benefits for our society--on the condition that we strengthen the infrastructure of education and research. We also need to recognize that openness has costs, and that the costs and benefits are not evenly distributed. Many who lose jobs because of the relocation of production or trade will not get new ones that pay as well. So if we are going to maintain broad public support for an economy open to international flows of goods and services and capital, we need to be sure that losing a job does not mean losing a family's access to basic necessities, like health care, provision in old age, and education.

That is talking sense.

EFCA HELD HOSTAGE IN SENATE. The U.S. Senate voted 51-48 for cloture on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) yesterday. Sixty votes were needed to move the measure to a floor vote. Supporters are planning on keeping up the campaign as long as it takes. Even yesterday's vote represents a victory of sorts--it's the first time in ages that a majority of senators voted to reform labor laws.

YOUNG AMERICANS in a new New York Times/CBS/MTV poll seem to be moving to the left of their elders on some issues. Details here.



Caption: These guys don't worry too much about the horror or absurdity of existence.

Yesterday's post was about how art made life more livable. Here's another little odd tidbit on the subject from Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.

First a little preface. There is no denying that nasty things happen all the time to pretty good people and that nobody gets out of here alive. And, from a certain perspective, the human saga sometimes resembles hamsters running on treadmills.

It's just that healthy minded people usually ignore that kind of thinking. Nietzsche was not one of them...He was one of those who at times see "everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence." But he believed there was a cure the ancient Greeks found that could break that spell and encourage people to say "yes" to life in spite of all its hardships:

Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or the absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.

In other words, art, either as comedy or tragedy, makes life more bearable.

That's pretty extreme for most people, but it does, along with other things, help.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the arts and creativity could also hold the key to a better future for places like El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia. According to CreateWV.com, a project of A Vision Shared and allies, "culture, creativity and innovation" are the keys to moving WV into the new economy.

To get there, though, we need several things, including talent, technology, tolerance for the new and the different, and the kind of quality of life that draws talented, creative people from elsewhere to come here and encourages our own talented and creative people to stay here and make a difference. This means public investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development.

This would be the high road to economic development and a better future for all. The alternative, such as it is, is a low road, which would slash investments in education, health care and infrastructure, reduce labor standards, and promote a race to the bottom.

Given the choice, I'd prefer the high road.

FOR MORE EXAMPLES of a high road approach, click here.


June 24, 2007


Caption: For Seamus McGoogle, life is only made bearable by art. And killing little creatures. And sleeping. And eating. And demanding attention. Otherwise, though, it's mostly the art.

El Cabrero was recently thumbing through Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and came upon this startling nugget buried between parentheses:

...it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.

In other words, he was saying that only art and beauty make life bearable.

That statement probably says more about Nietzsche than about existence and the world. Throughout his life, he struggled with ill physical and mental health, loneliness, and romantic frustrations. He looked for ways of saying "yes" to life in spite of all its evils and sufferings and admired the ancient Greeks because he believed they found a way to do this through art and particularly through tragedy.

Most people would probably say that beauty and art are important but there are other things that matter more, such as human relationships. In his case, he probably meant it. At another point, he said "Without music life would be a mistake."

I'm not a very artsy type--I'm not sure Scotch Irish hillbillies can be--but he does have a point. One thing that is pretty much a cultural universal among people at all times and places is that they find ways of adorning their world (and often their persons) with art, craft, song, theater, story, music, dance, etc. It really must make things more bearable.

And it's something that even hundreds of years of the Protestant ethic and toxic puritanism haven't been able to beat out of our systems...

WITHOUT SOLIDARITY, LIFE WOULD BE A MISTAKE. We have frequently heard opponents of the labor movement bash unions as a curb on productivity. According the the Economic Policy Institute,the evidence doesn't bear this out.

In a recent snapshot report, EPI notes that union membership in the US has declined from around 27 percent of the workforce in the late 1970s to around 12 percent now, a change that "has had substantial adverse effects on inequality, the wages of typical workers, and pension and health benefit coverage."

In Europe, by contrast, unionization rates are much higher, ranging from 68 percent in Germany to 90 percent in Belgium, France, and Sweden.

If getting rid of unions was the key to "unleashing" productivity, one would expect the US to far surpass countries with greater union density. In fact, average productivity growth for seven European countries with over 60 percent of their workforce represented by unions from 1979-2005 was a little over 1.7 percent--about the same as that for the U.S.


A broad study of the economics literature found "a positive association [of unions on productivity] is established for the United States in general and for U.S. manufacturing" in particular.


international comparisons suggest that high productivity and very high union density are entirely compatible.

France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, for example, have greater output per hour than the U.S. even though over 80 percent of their workers are union members.

Here's the punchline:

If Congress is concerned about protecting middle-class incomes, it should pass measures to facilitate union organizing and collective bargaining coverage, including the Employee Free Choice Act. There is no reason to fear that higher rates of unionization will impede efficiency or labor productivity.

A NEST EGG FOR THE FUTURE. This op-ed by Ted Boettner from yesterday's Gazette suggest a system of universal voluntary accounts as a way to help workers build assets for retirement. There may soon be a campaign to establish these in WV.