America’s Greece Is Hurting

51 Stars

US Flag With 51 Stars

This week, the governor of Puerto Rico declared that the island will not be able to pay its debt of over $70 billion, and urged the federal government to save it from default. Its bonds were downgraded to junk status and it’s being compared to Greece.

LR reports that Puerto Rico’s default could be avoided if an obsolete 1920’s law known as the Jones Act, which was created to ensure American monopoly over its national waters, is abolished. The law places an unfair and excessive burden on outlying territories and states (like Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands) by excessively taxing non-American ships passing through US ports. According to the LR report,

From 1970 through 2010, the Jones Act cost Puerto Rico $29 billion. Projected from 1920 up to the present, this cost becomes $75.8 billion.

Puerto_Rico_01

500-Year-Old District of Old San Juan

Much of this burden is passed on to consumers and tax-payers on the island, which still has the highest poverty rate in the nation in spite of decades of considerable growth. The Jones Act is a vestige of an era that is long gone, and the moral urgency to end it is increasing by the day. LR goes further and argues that, because the law is unfair, the federal government should retroactively pardon the past debt generated by the Jones Act, which would provide reparations that would, in the end, save Puerto Rico’s economy from the certainty of fiscal collapse.

But there are many difficulties with this. Puerto Rico operates, for all purposes, like a US state in all but name. It’s part of the US judicial system and its waters are protected by the US Coast Guard; its residents are US citizens and use a US passport when they travel, they send their bravest to fight US wars abroad, they send their mail through the US Post Office, and in general they act like the ghost of the medium-sized 51st state that they would be but they don’t constitute a state. If Puerto Rico was a state, it would have two senators and six representatives: it would have voice and vote at the federal level to assert its self-interest. But as a US Commonwealth–basically, a colony–it has no representatives in Congress, only one Commissioner with a voice but no vote. It’s just sitting there being governed by the American empire.

There are only two states that have a voice and self-interest in ending the Jones Act (Alaska and Hawaii, who are both also affected by it) but they’re only two out of fifty states, and not as invested in this as an emergency issue because they’re fiscally much stronger than Puerto Rico.
Old-San-Juan-Puerto-Rico

Add to that the general indifference, frequently tinged with racism, that we’ve historically seen in American politics, and the influence of bankers and of Wall Street in policy and in law. Many people say that the financial industry IS the government behind the government, and that debt is the modern version of slavery. It will take a huge moral outcry for the US government to even consider abolishing the Jones Act.

A broader conversation needs to happen concerning the nature of debt and the power dynamics that are tied to, and perpetuated by, debt. There are too many large corporate, outside interests who for decades have kept Puerto Rico from becoming self-sufficient, able to provide its own energy and other needs. Like vultures, they have hovered over a voiceless land that has been unable to defend itself (as it has no vote at the federal level and no sovereignty at the international level), dismantling its small businesses and building Walmarts–of which there are more per-capita in Puerto Rico than anywhere else–and other large department stores, which drive local merchants out of business, as they are unable to compete with prices of sweatshop-made goods.

Autarchy should have been the policy all along. Slowly and over the long-term, it will always have been better to be self-sufficient.

Spanish Fortress in San Juan

Posted in Economics, Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Uberization of the Economy

During my recent San Francisco trip, I had the pleasure of practicing the French language with a fellow traveler from France, who was discussing with me some of the changes that are taking place in the economy as a result of the internet and the horizontal entrepreneurial models that it’s brought into existence.

The Information Age has horizontalized communication and allows anyone to report the news, to be a journalist or blogger, and to produce narratives that make their way into the culture. But this is a whole other level of horizontalization: the democratization of entrepreneurial models is changing labor and productivity on a global scale.

My fellow traveler told me about l’uberisation de l’économie and how taxi drivers in France have tried to stop Uber’s inevitable takeover of their market. He said he understood their concerns, but at the same time people have always complained that taxi cabs are never around when needed. Isn’t this a case where monopoly is bad, and where competition is good because it forces companies to offer better quality of service? Does this argument stand when taxis can no longer compete?

First of all, I found the neologism interesting: uber means super, superior, exceeding in value or quality, and uberization–a word that appears to have been coined to have a bad connotation–actually means maximization, the process of becoming superior.

Uber (and its competitor Lyft) are not the only companies that reinvented business. Hotels are losing business to AirBnB, which allows home and property owners to rent out rooms, houses, or apartments. This article on l’uberisation says:

Ce qui est nouveau, et ça n’est possible que grâce à la révolution numérique, aux smartphones et aux applications, c’est la désintermédiation, plus besoin de passer par une société de taxi, plus besoin de passer par un hôtel. Entre le client et le service dont il a besoin,  il n’y a plus qu’un clic, et qui dit moins d’intermédiaires, dit aussi moins de coût et donc des tarifs attractifs.

(Translation: What is new, and is only possible thanks to the digital revolution, smartphones and applications is dis-intermediation, no need to go through a taxi company, no need to go through a hotel. There’s only one click between the client and the service he needs, fewer intermediaries, and also less cost and therefore attractive rates.)

These models allow anyone who owns a car or home to capitalize their property by renting it or providing a service with it that traditionally was not available to just about anyone as it is today. In light of the fiscal crisis and financial difficulties that millions of Americans have faced in recent years, for many homeowners and vehicle owners, these business models offer salvation or alleviation.

Because Uber and AirBnB treat their drivers and hosts as independent contractors–and this is not without controversy–these business models allow individuals to deduct expenses tied to how they earn their living when they file taxes just like any other business owners would.

While many complain that the independent contractor is really as a worker without the full rights or benefits associated with traditional labor, on the other hand these opportunities encourage individuals to research the entrepreneurial process and become more proficient at autarchy. Furthermore, many of the traditional companies who offer hospitality services, like the Hyatt, have in recent years gained notoriety for their anti-labor culture and for their hostility against their own workers, even going as far as taking away their health care benefits in spite of the fact that Hyatt is one of the most profitable hotel chains in the world, if not the most profitable.

Uberization, seen in this light, constitutes a chance for the disenfranchised workforce that has been stripped of its rights and benefits during the last four decades of persistent dismantling of worker unions by the corporatocracy and the government it has bought and paid for, to finally get its vengeance. It’s much easier to boycott a giant that bullies its workers when there are so many alternatives with more attractive offerings.

This French-language article by Le Monde also discusses the proliferation of self-publishing, and how independent authors can easily format and publish an e-book within less than thirty minutes; the availability of inexpensive legal services online and the effects this is having on the legal profession; and the offering of a Google Wallet, PayPal and other services which may evolve to replace traditional banking and financial products, as other examples of l’uberisation de l’économie. Perhaps the existence of the bitcoin and other virtual currencies could be added to the list.

If this is what uberization means, then by all means, bring it! We need innovation and competition! We need diversification of the economy and proliferation of small business!

Posted in Economics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Religion is Bad for Ataraxia

Among the many, ehem, curiosities that emerged from the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, I stumbled upon a crazy Christian lady who posted a hysterical yelling and crying video on facebook saying that Obama is a radical Islamist (because everyone knows radical Islam is soooo for gay marriage, right?) and calling on people to “take a stand for Jesus”.

I think the video is hilarious, and I would have posted this just for the fun of it.

However, I think the video–in addition to its comedic value–also demonstrates the dangers of superstition, and why it’s so important to heed the advice of the Epicurean Masters. She breaks many Epicurean taboos, and in doing this she shows the many ways in which religion can be degrading and evil:

  • Epicurus warned us against fear-based belief in general and fear of Gods in particular, and helped us to understand that gods do not intervene in our lives and do not send earthquakes and the like. In the video, we see this poor soul trembling in fear of her God, whom she imagines as a monstruous, grotesque sort of cosmic Saddam Hussein, a dis-embodied Cthulhu who is about to awaken and destroy or swallow us all. This produces a paranoid state of perpetual existential and imaginary emergency where no peace of mind is possible for herself, and probably for some of her loved ones.
  • Polystratus warned us that virtue without the study of nature degenerates into arrogance and superstition: she exhibits all the symptoms of what happens when people try to do good, or be good, without grounding their views on empirical evidence. We see how her virtue went to nothing, just as Polystratus said it would, because she neglected the scientific worldview in favor of “Adam and Eve” and replaced the study of nature with fables. Instead of tranquility, joy, cheer, and instead of being happy when others are happy, we see that she is sad because others can be happy, and it’s clear that she would be happy if gays were unhappy. We see irrational, baseless anger against imaginary enemies and problems.
  • Philodemus warned us that, if gods do exist, they are in a state of ataraxia, abiding in perfect imperturbable pleasure and bliss, and are unconcerned with mortals or with the government of the cosmos, and that they’re certainly not vindictive or evil as this would be an impious accusation and not in line with their nature. True virtuous piety is, therefore, not fear-based but based on a desire to imitate the perfect equanimity and bliss of the gods. The purpose of this piety is to cultivate a similar quality in the character: in the video we do not see equanimity, or pleasure, or bliss. We see how a devotee of a raging God becomes a raging, imbecile mortal, and we see that beliefs do have a real effect in one’s character and that we should “only have the purest beliefs”, as Epicurus taught.

Ataraxia requires that we protect our minds from these false beliefs, and it requires that we cultivate virtue and serenity while at the same time grounding all of our views in the study of nature. Supernatural claims may seem innocent at first, but they easily degenerate into the dispositions that led this woman to post her video. For everyone like her, there are thousands or probably millions of individuals who lead terrified lives of degradation because of religion, who may not be as outspoken as she is.

 Further Reading:

Westboro Founder’s Son Taunts Church Over Gay Marriage

Posted in Atheism, Christianity | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Tremor Reflex

During my recent visit to San Francisco, I met with a few friends I hadn’t seen in many years. One of them was telling me about a therapy that involved shaking off tension lodged in various parts of the body, and how much this therapy was helping her with long-term traumatic issues she’s dealt with for many years. I was initially skeptical, a result of my Epicurean worldview, but open to considering the evidence.

It reminded me of a book I read many years ago called Shaking Medicine, which linked the Pentecostal practice of shaking and quaking to a primitive Christian form of shamanic practice that in actuality traces its roots to our most primal origins. Osho also used a form of this therapy in his yoga teaching.

My immediate association was with my experiences years ago in Zen meditation, which allowed me to become aware of how different kinds of stress were allocated and affected different parts of my body. Intellectual activity affected the neck and forehead, and the muscles around the head, while emotional tension affected mostly the stomach. One can then tense and release these muscles.

Another reason why I resolved to keep an open mind is the Epicurean conception of the soul, the psyche, as being inseparable from the body and in constant rapport with it. It therefore makes sense that psychological phenomena affect different parts of the body and can be evaluated and treated there, since there is really no boundary between them.

In researching the possible empirical origins of shaking therapy, I came across what’s being called the “tremor reflex”: according to its proponents, it’s observed in many animals and in human infants that trembling helps to release fear, tension, and stress and may have some therapeutic value.

The tremor reflex may be similar, or related, to the shaking reflex that we exhibit when our bodies are cold, to keep our bodies above a certain temperature. Fever is also a symptom that our bodies are fighting an infection, and is frequently accompanied by tremor. Tremor and fever are both associated with the hypothalamus–which regulates body temperature to avoid hyperthermia and hypothermia–which initiates body temperature changes when triggered by pyrogens. However, the prevalence of fever as a symptom when our bodies are fighting an illness indicates that there may be other immune functions associated with the tremor reflex, in addition to avoiding overheating or cold. This is the aspect of tremors that has not been sufficiently researched, and it’s intriguing for yet another reason: Dan Gilbert, in his science of happiness discourse, proposes that we seem to have a psychological immune system, not just a bodily one. The wikipedia article on fever says:

There are studies using warm-blooded vertebrates and humans in vivo, with some suggesting that they recover more rapidly from infections or critical illness due to fever. Studies suggest reduced mortality in bacterial infections when fever was present.

In theory, fever can aid in host defense. There are certainly some important immunological reactions that are sped up by temperature, and some pathogens with strict temperature preferences could be hindered.

Research has demonstrated that fever assists the healing process in several important ways:

  • Increased mobility of leukocytes
  • Enhanced leukocyte phagocytosis
  • Endotoxin effects decreased
  • Increased proliferation of T cells

According to my friend, David Berceli wrote an e-book on his theories and continued research around his work is being carried out by the Berceli Foundation.

Further Reading:

How Somatic Therapy Can Help Patients Suffering from Psychological Trauma

Alexander Technique British Medical Journal Back Pain Study

Posted in Ataraxia, Naturalism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco 2015 Trip

Thanks to the kindness of an old friend–and to airbnb–I was able to travel to San Francisco and stay in the Castro district during the week of Pride this year. To be in such a historical place, only a few buildings away from where Harvey Milk had his shop, and at such a historical moment for the LGBT community, made me feel like life was offering me a surprising, auspicious gift. The trip was magical. I made my way to Dolores Park at least three times while there to sunbathe, to philosophize, and to chat with a fellow traveler. The mood there was playful.

dolorespark

During my time there, and right after the announcement was made that gay marriage would be recognized everywhere in the 50 United States and in all U.S. territories, the entire city of San Francisco became a huge celebration. At one point while walking in the neighborhood, I noticed that a random wedding was taking place in front of a building, and strangers on the street gathered around the event to take pictures.

wed

My last picture from San Francisco, which I took just before I left, is of the Harvey Milk painting looking out from the window where he lived and led the civil rights struggle decades ago. Now we stand on the shoulders of people like him. During this week the confederate flag went down, the rainbow flag rose high with LGBT full equality, and Donald Trump ran his mouth reminding us there is still work to do

hm

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Basic Income Experiments Begin in Europe

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income – from the Sarvodaya Blog

Posted in Economics, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reasonings on Community, Part V: Learning in Community

The book of Community includes practical ideas for helping a community work, like the itinerary, which requires the community members to comment on a blog. The purpose of the itinerary is to incite people to conversation, to blend their minds with each other and to stimulate a dynamic intellectual life in the community. This is in line with Adler’s assertion that conversation, dialogue is what creates community spirit.

According to the book, natural community has a core: “what we learn together”, over which it has sovereignty and which it shapes. Community can be understood as a series of projects of shared learning.

The Indias community makes use of contextopedias–the glossaries that blogs use to bring together a certain learning and use it to contribute new things–in order to facilitate this process. These are updated once in a while and evolve as they learn.

There is nothing more rebellious or against the grain than philosophizing.

Naturally, when a community has a robust intellectual life, there will emerge differences of opinion. Conversations, however, remain friendly and these differences are never an excuse to remove oneself from one’s friends.

We don’t enjoy our friends because they have made the same choices as us, but because we can enjoy them in everything that makes them different from us.

Also, in line with this, Indianos attack ideology as a bad source of social cohesion. Ideology is said to desubjectify the individuals that make up a community, that is, turns them into objects at the mercy of arbitrary ideas and takes away their individuality, agency, and identity, and ultimately their freedom.

“There is no true belonging in dogma or in competition between dogmas … there is inverse belonging: people “belong” to the truth, to the “common good”–a set of values and a way of doing things which is unique and supposedly accessible through reason, if we free ourselves of the bonds of private interest. That’s why the narrative of the “common good” is necessarily totalitarian. Enlightened universalist reason is nothing more than the penultimate copy of the monotheistic God.

The “common good”, if it exists, is not a self-evident truth, which is why it doesn’t work as reason for community. Quite the opposite, the universal “common good” is necessarily exclusive in the concrete and real world: if the reason for community is to lay the foundation for a new society that must be able to welcome all Humanity, then “the correct position”, the “right path” will be more important than the real peers with whom we debate. The universalism of the “common good” desubjectifies community, moving the focus from real people to the imaginings of “Reason”, and annuls pleasure and the utility of learning together.”

Further Reading:

The Book of Community: A practical guide to working and living in community

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Review | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments