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(The following is a complete Facebook thread on DW’s Facebook page, omitting only a few casual initial comments, and adding in two new paragraphs -the third and fourth- inserted into my final comment, on the anti-intellectualism of oppressive movements, even those that were established on the basis of intellectual doctrines, and one long parenthetical on the meaning of “republic.” I post it, as usual, to highlight the contrast between the tone, tenor, and substance of the opposing positions.)   DW: “Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.” Thomas Jefferson.   Steve Harvey: I like the quote, but to transcend historical context I would amend it to read: “Timid men prefer the calm of false certainties to the tempestuous sea of true liberty.” What we normally mean by “despotism” is one kind of false certainty, but the broader reality of despotism is the despotism of blind ideologies over minds that cease to believe in their own capacity for freedom, the despotism of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.   BS: In the era of Obama “freedom” refers to the freedom to live off the labors of others, “anti-intellectualism and ignorance” is the refusal to believe in globull warming, and the insistence that embracing the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is a “false certainty.”   BS: The current Occupy Wall Street movement is the best illustration to date of what President Barack Obama’s America looks like. It is an America where the lawless, unaccomplished, ignorant and incompetent rule. It is an America where those who have sacrificed nothing pillage and destroy the lives of those who have sacrificed greatly.

It is an America where history is rewritten to honor dictators, murderers and thieves. It is an America where violence, racism, hatred, class warfare and murder are all promoted as acceptable means of overturning the American civil society.

It is an America where humans have been degraded to the level of animals: defecating in public, having sex in public, devoid of basic hygiene. It is an America where the basic tenets of a civil society, including faith, family, a free press and individual rights, have been rejected. It is an America where our founding documents have been shredded and, with them, every person’s guaranteed liberties.

It is an America where, ultimately, great suffering will come to the American people, but the rulers like Obama, Michelle Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, liberal college professors, union bosses and other loyal liberal/Communist Party members will live in opulent splendor.

It is the America that Obama and the Democratic Party have created with the willing assistance of the American media, Hollywood , unions, universities, the Communist Party of America, the Black Panthers and numerous anti-American foreign entities.

Barack Obama has brought more destruction upon this country in four years than any other event in the history of our nation, but it is just the beginning of what he and his comrades are capable of.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is just another step in their plan for the annihilation of America .

“Socialism, in general, has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”

–Thomas Sowell (born June 30, 1930) is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author. A National Humanities Medal winner, he advocates laissez-faire economics and writes from a libertarian perspective. He is currently a Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Steve Harvey: 1) “Living off the labors of others” exists in some form or another in all paradigms, including a radical libertarian one, in which investors still live off the labor of workers. The main difference is whether you are concerned that there is some semblance of equality of opportunity and a diminution of the effects of inequalities due to chances of birth. Certainly, the issue of avoiding perverse incentives, in which effort isn’t rewarded while non-effort is, is a vital consideration. But reducing that to some simple platitude which both ignores reality and rationalizes various forms of predation and exploitation is not the right way to address it.

2) Those who crow the loudest about their commitment to the Constitution are, ironically, those who are working the hardest to undermine it, by arbitrarily insisting that it supports only their own ideology in every instance, whether it does or doesn’t. In a previous discussion, when I pointed out the clauses that do not support your interpretation (e.g., the necessary and proper clause, the general welfare clause, the commerce clause, etc.), you insisted that your interpretation had to prevail, because otherwise the Constitution could be read to mean something other than what you want it to. That may be convenient for you, but it’s death to Constitutional Democracy. When the meaning of the Constitution becomes subject to ideological plebiscite, there is no constitution, but only ideological plebiscite.

3) The science supporting global warming, for example, is truly overwhelming. But you’re right that all questions should be subject to the discipline of scientific methodology, rather than the whims of those who wish to impose their own arbitrary truths on society at large, justifying actual tyranny with the ruse of claiming it to be the response to a fictional tyranny. It’s as old as the Inquisition, and smells exactly the same.

Steve Harvey: Buddy, I have my own issues with the “Occupy” movement, and especially with the argument that enforcement of laws is unconstitutional whenever someone claims that they are breaking it as an act of free speech, but are you suggesting that demonstrating is itself un-American? So, when Sam Adams led the Sons of Liberty on such lawless acts as The Boston Tea Party, he was emblematic of the America of Obama that you would rise above? No demonstrations, no lawlessness, but rather an America ruled by non-Ignorant people like yourself, people who have transcended ignorance by arbitrarily declaring themselves omniscient, whatever they believe or assert or advocate to be by definition the inviolable truth, and therefore all who disagree with them the weak and parasitic who must be extermina…, uh, let’s just say “reviled”?

You’re going to tell me that all “intellectuals” are incompetent and ignorant, while wise blind fanatics such as yourself have simply gotten it right? And how do we know that you got it right? Because you insist that it is so! No damned peer-review articles for you! Oh no! That’s the clever ruse of those idiot intellectuals, who think that you have to try to discipline knowledge by applying reason to evidence. The hell with that crap! Everyone knows what the one absolute truth is: Whatever Buddy Shipley says it is!

This is the fundamental, obvious flaw in all that you are saying: While those of us who realize that absolute truth is harder to determine than simply claiming that whatever the speaker believes it to be must be it, there are others who simply never take that step, and insist that the only truth that matters is the one they are already certain of. Might global warming be wrong? Absolutely. But not because people shout loudly enough that it is, but rather because careful application of scientific methodology bears the weight of evidence against it. And that is simply not the case at this moment in time. (All of the narrative used to claim that is just normal, human-cluttered science in action; always imperfect, and always better than arbitrary claims to knowledge forged without recourse to any, even imperfect, methodology at all).

I know that I don’t know, despite my decades of studying as diligently and broadly and intensively as I can. I’ve studied economics, but am less certain than you of the absolute economic truth, because I recognize complexity, I recognize uncertainty, I recognize the limitations of human comprehension. And without that, those who fail to take that step, are just a bunch of Jihadists trying to impose their own fanatical false certainty on a world that does not necessarily reduce to the caricature of their imaginations.

What we really need, what would really serve us as a nation and humanity as a whole, is to recognize our imperfections, to commit ourselves to some degree of humility and to reason and to goodwill, and to work together in that spirit to do the best we can. That’s the one absolute truth you can hang your hat on.

WS: It is very interesting that the people who say the most, actually say the least. Factual correction – the USA is a Republic, not a constitutional democracy.   Steve Harvey: I’m well aware of that semantic obsession, but the particular rigid label you’re relying on is relevant in the context only of one particular taxonomy, and not in the context of using words according to their generally applicable meanings. It is, in fact, perfectly correct to refer to the United States as a constitutional democracy, since it operates according to a combination of democratic and constitutional principles. It is also perfectly correct to refer to it as a republic, because it is by definition a republic within a taxonomy of political forms established in classical times. Either terminology is acceptable, and both are in widespread usage, including among political scientists and others who spend their lives studying precisely these issues.

(In a broad sense, “Democracy” and “Res Publica” are merely the Greek and Latin terms, respectively, for essentially the same thing: Government by the people. The classical meaning of “republic” is that of mixed government, incorporating elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, and that is the reason why America is “technically” a republic rather than a democracy. Ironically, the fact that it is technically a republic rather than a democracy disfavors rather than favors the ideology of those who insist on rigid adherence to this terminology: America was designed to balance democratic processes with a strong executive and a deliberative legislature rather than to reduce to government by plebiscite. The major distinction between a republic and a democracy is that a republic has a stronger central government.)

Secondly, it’s remarkable how frequently people who are unable to make a compelling substantive argument zero-in on form instead (such as harping on a shallow semantic obsession, or referring to the length or writing style of the argument they would like to debunk but can only flail against).

Third, the notion that more quantity automatically corresponds to less quality or substance is convincing to those who will grab hold of anything they can, but is absurd on the face of it. The Encyclopedia Britannica is rather lengthy, but says much, as would a library of all scientific literature, or any other comprehensive examination of any aspect of our existence or our surroundings. What I write may or may not be substantive; it may or may not be compelling; it may or may not be well-argued; but mere declarations in service to a desperate ideological preference, shored up by nothing other than an irrelevant observation about length or style, does nothing to inform anyone of whether it is or isn’t.

Steve Harvey: Now, I’d like to address the frequently invoked specter of anti-intellectualism that is so essential to your ideology. Intellectualism can indeed go astray: Marxism, for instance, was an intellectual doctrine that was disastrously wrong, both pragmatically and theoretically. The banner of intellectualism guarantees nothing. And all human endeavors, whether intellectual or not, are still human endeavors, contaminated by the messiness of all things that are pursued by mere talking animals.

But some disciplines, some procedures, some frameworks that humans create channel that messy on-going enterprise better than others. Scientific methodology, for instance, has proven itself to be much more robust in the reduction of error, and the production of insight, than any alternative approach to discerning the nature of our empirically observable context. Even though this is so, no scientific enterprise, no great discovery, no evolution of thought, was ever devoid of the human messiness that is inherent to all human enterprises. The effort to debunk science by pointing out instances of that human messiness is really just an effort to obscure the more reliable source of information in favor of less reliable sources of information.

Though some brutal and oppressive doctrines and movements have intellectual roots or supports (often, though not always, through misinterpretation of the theories they claim as their legitimation), it is also true that virtually all liberating and life-affirming doctrines and movements do as well. Furthermore, many oppressive doctrines and movements do not, relying instead on blind dogmas and fanaticisms without even a veneer of rational justification.

All oppressive or inhumane doctrines and movements eventually rely on anti-intellectualism to survive, because there is no bulwark against them as effective as the active engagement of the human mind, in service to humanity, and so no enemy against which they must more vigorously rally. (In fact, the presence of anti-intellectualism in a doctrine or movement is a fairly certain indicator that it is an oppressive or inhumane doctrine, for if it were not, it would not have to fortify itself against the glare of rational scrutiny.) No blind dogma, no rote deference to the often perverted and always interpreted doctrines of the past, no rigid enslavement of the human mind to any set of seemingly error-proof platitudes on which to rely, can or should free us of the responsibility to exercise our freedom as conscious and compassionate beings, applying the wisdom of the past to the challenges of the present and future.

We should all strive to be as rational, as imaginative, and as disciplined as we can be, and always apply that vital resource of human consciousness to the benefit of humanity to the best of our ability. We all implicitly agree with that. For instance, Buddy likes to post long strings of quotes by more or less revered thinkers of the past, as proof that his position is venerable and well-conceived. He is invoking intellectual authorities in service to his argument (such as it is). The problem is that you have to do it with a certain amount of integrity, based on testing tentative hypothesis in a context of skepticism and uncertainty, rather than doing it as an exercise in confirmation bias, cherry picking quotes to shore-up a presumed ideological certainty.

There is nothing undemocratic about using our brains. It does not undermine democracy to try to apply more rather than less living human genius to the challenges that face us as a nation and as humanity. We will do so more or less efficaciously, with better or worse results, bungling it sometimes, and achieving marvelous successes in others. But there is no better way to go, no preferable approach to confronting the challenges of self-governance and human existence.

Part of that methodology involves listening to and reading the diligent research and analysis of others, since no one of us has the time to contemplate and study and research all things all on our own. I can’t make a particle accelerator, or use one, or even interpret the data collected by using one, but I can benefit from the efforts of those who do. That is how human consciousness grows and is used to greatest effect.

We are in a shared enterprise, a complex and subtle and very significant one. We should treat it with the respect it deserves, and treat humanity with the compassion and commitment that we all deserve.

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In the comments to Tina Griego’s recent favorable column on the “Occupy Denver” movement (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19375895?source=bb), I noticed a cartoon showing how much more respectable the Tea Party participants are than the Occupy participants, various comments about how “sad” and otherwise disreputable the latter are, complaints about the “liberal media” and its fellow travelers dismissing the Tea Party as a radical fringe movement, and at least one completely gratuitous xenophobic rant blaming all of the woes of the “Occupy” participants on illegal immigrants (and illegal immigration on Tina Griego). Mere non-condemnational attention to those protesting Wall Street is enough to unleash a torrent of those simultaneously reviling them and rallying to their never-mentioned ideological counterpart. It’s clear that not only is our government caught in the gridlock of two opposing political ideologies (at least one of which is too uncompromising for any cooperative action to be achieved), but our nation and population are also caught in a tug-o-war between two diametrically opposed (but in many ways overlapping) movements.

Several commenters engaged in the remarkable contortion of simultaneously dismissing the participants of the “Occupy” movement as subhuman parasites, while bitterly complaining that liberals have dismissed the participants of the Tea Party movement in a similar fashion. This in itself almost completely captures the underlying essence of the ideology these folks are embracing (so lost in an in-group/out-group world view that identical actions are defensible when they commit them but reprehensible when their “enemy” does). But they do have a point: While their movement is almost completely saturated in this attitude, their opposition exhibits far too much of it as well. It is one thing to make unflattering but accurate observations; it is another to foam at the mouth while doing so.

So let’s transcend the debate about which movement is more irrational and belligerent, and contemplate the movements themselves. I have criticisms of both the Tea Party and the “occupy” movement, and see some legitimate points being made by each. For example, I think the “Occupy” movement errs by trying to claim that any otherwise illegal act is protected by the Constitutional right to free speech, and the Tea Party movement is correct that the exercise of power by government is problematic and difficult to control. But, taken on balance, I do indeed consider the “occupy” movement to be more on target than the Tea Party, not based on comparisons of how the respective members of the two groups dress or clean up after themselves or who is better employed or any other misdirectional irrelevancies, but rather because the content of the concerns of one is closer, in my assessment, to what is most economically and politically rational to be concerned about. In other words, my relative support of the two movements is based on their substance, not their form.

The basic divide is between those who see government as the primary threat to liberty, and those who see large corporations as the primary threat to liberty. An argument can be made for both, and both spheres of power are certainly problematic. Both are comprised of entities which exert formidable control over our lives, profoundly affecting us all in service to the welfare of some more than of others. Both also serve valuable purposes, either producing wealth or acting as a collective agent negotiating the challenges we face as a polity, respectively. Both are necessary, and both need to be subject to checks and balances such that we do our best to maximize their benefits to our welfare and minimize their costs to our welfare, all things considered.

But the emphasis on reducing the power of government is a strategy which reduces the one nexus of power which is at least somewhat controlled by a democratic process, in favor of the other major nexus of power which is not at all controlled by a democratic process. The result is to cede power to the more despotic and less democratic vehicle through which power is exercised, leading to more rather than less tyranny.

In the modern era, democratic, constitutional government is less the vehicle of tyranny than the bulwark against tyranny. It is still problematic; those who exercise power within it are still hard to rein in and control; the “agency problem” of ensuring that our agent (our government) acts in the interests of the principal (the people) rather than of the agent and its allies (the government officials themselves, and those who do the most to keep them in power) is an ever-present and very real challenge we must face. But, in the case of government, well established, long-standing, and relatively (if imperfectly) effective mechanisms exist for confronting that agency problem. In the case of corporations, only very weak and difficult to implement mechanisms (such as boycotts) exist to do so.

Government is the portal through which we, as a polity, have the opportunity to stand up to, tame, and channel the loci of power that inevitably exist, and that can serve broader or narrower interests depending on how well we continue to refine our social institutional arrangements. To relinquish that one opportunity in fear that we can’t control it after all is to relinquish our liberty completely, and surrender to power over which we have no effective control at all instead.

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(The following is a slightly extended version of my response to an op-ed by Vince Carroll,  Putting Fat Cats In Their Place, in today’s (10/30/11) Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19211159?source=bb.)

Vince Carroll is absolutely correct that we must consider not only the distribution of wealth, but also the absolute growth of wealth, when discussing issues of our economic well-being as a nation and a people. Certainly, if everyone is getting wealthier, then why should we worry if that is accomplished by means of a system in which the wealthiest get astronomically wealthier while the further down you go along the spectrum of income and wealth, the less robust the growth of wealth becomes (less robust even as a proportion of existing income and wealth, meaning a lower percentage of a lower base number)?

There are several reasons why:

1) The growth in household incomes that Carroll cites is due to an increase in two-worker families, and a decrease in stay-at-home moms. In reality, there has been a decrease in real individual average income in that same time period, an anomaly in the modern era of ever-expanding wealth which corresponds precisely with the rise of income-concentrating deregulation.

2) We have an economic system demonstrably less efficient than some others in existence (e.g., Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) at striking an optimal balance between absolute growth and distribution of the fruits of that growth, resulting in far greater levels of impoverishment, infant mortality, homelessness, violent crime, incarceration, mental health problems, and numerous related problems, than have been achieved by other nations that have struck a more sensible balance.

3) Extreme income inequality reduces economic vitality by constricting the breadth and depth of economic activity. The more concentrated wealth is, the less disposable income, in the hands of fewer people, is available to contribute to the consumer engine of our economic vitality.

4) Carroll disregards the role of deregulation (from the 1980s onward) in generating this economically debilitating concentration of wealth, how that deregulation has been implicated in every major economic crisis since its inception, how it has now undermined the consumer engine of our economy in dramatic and enduring ways, and how, as a result, our economy is in a period of stagnation following contraction, with a no-longer-growing pie still obscenely concentrated in far too few hands.

5) Carroll disregards the various costs not measured by traditional economic indicators, referred to in the economic literature as “externalities” (those costs and benefits of economic transactions that affect those who were not parties to the transaction, in either positive or negative ways), which, while helping to author the huge concentration of wealth in America over the past 30 years, also have helped to do so on the back of the population at large by reducing public health, safety, and welfare, and placing increasing burdens of accumulating and devastating negative externalities on future generations across the globe.

6) Extreme income inequality has many other socially destructive consequences, even aside from the ones listed above. It undermines national solidarity and cultivates inter-class resentments, creates subjective feelings of relative poverty, and undermines democracy by concentrating both the means of affecting public opinion (and thus determining the outcomes of elections) and the power to determine the economic well-being of the vast majority of the people of the nation into the hands of a small, corporation-beholden-and-embedded economic elite.

One must look not only at this “snapshot of reality,” but also at the trends revealed over time, and the consequences of such trends. Even if all of the present reasons for considering how equitably distributed wealth is did not exist, a trajectory of accelerating concentration of wealth is clearly untenable in the long run.

Today, 1% of the nation’s wealthiest command 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% command less than 15% of the nation’s wealth. In 2007 (see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html for an overview of 2007 income distribution figures), the top 1% commanded slightly less than 35% of the nation’s wealth (already considered an indicator of astronomical inequity). The current growth trend in capital concentration has been underway since 1980, coinciding precisely with the Reagan-coined “government is the enemy” paradigm of the right; in 1979, the top 1% commanded just over 20% of the nation’s wealth, having fluctuated since WWII between 20% and, in a rare outlier in 1965, 34%.

The last time the concentration in wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population exceeded 40% was in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression, when policies similar to those advocated by the Libertarian Right today had been successfully championed under the Hoover Administration.

If the challenge is to “get it right,” all things considered, then our grotesque and accelerating concentration of wealth in America, accompanied by the highest-among-developed-nations rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, incarceration, and other social ills, is indeed an indicator of having failed to do so.

Yes, we do not want to seek “equality” in a vacuum, engaging in the folly of imposing an equality of impoverishment. But we as a nation are not teetering on the edge of that particular folly; rather, we are over the edge of the opposite folly, which we insanely avoid addressing by pretending that it doesn’t exist.

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