November 18, 2011
The inside story of how the Republicans abandoned the poor and the middle class to pursue their relentless agenda of tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent
The nation is still recovering from a crushing recession that sent unemployment hovering above nine percent for two straight years. The president, mindful of soaring deficits, is pushing bold action to shore up the nation’s balance sheet. Cloaking himself in the language of class warfare, he calls on a hostile Congress to end wasteful tax breaks for the rich. “We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that allow some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share,” he thunders to a crowd in Georgia. Such tax loopholes, he adds, “sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary – and that’s crazy.”
Preacherlike, the president draws the crowd into a call-and-response. “Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more in taxes than the bus driver,” he demands, “or less?”
The crowd, sounding every bit like the protesters from Occupy Wall Street, roars back: “MORE!”
The year was 1985. The president was Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Today’s Republican Party may revere Reagan as the patron saint of low taxation. But the party of Reagan – which understood that higher taxes on the rich are sometimes required to cure ruinous deficits – is dead and gone. Instead, the modern GOP has undergone a radical transformation, reorganizing itself around a grotesque proposition: that the wealthy should grow wealthier still, whatever the consequences for the rest of us.
Modern-day Republicans have become, quite simply, the Party of the One Percent – the Party of the Rich.
“The Republican Party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy, which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility,” says David Stockman, who served as budget director under Reagan. “They’re on an anti-tax jihad – one that benefits the prosperous classes.”
The staggering economic inequality that has led Americans across the country to take to the streets in protest is no accident. It has been fueled to a large extent by the GOP’s all-out war on behalf of the rich. Since Republicans rededicated themselves to slashing taxes for the wealthy in 1997, the average annual income of the 400 richest Americans has more than tripled, to $345 million – while their share of the tax burden has plunged by 40 percent. Today, a billionaire in the top 400 pays less than 17 percent of his income in taxes – five percentage points less than a bus driver earning $26,000 a year. “Most Americans got none of the growth of the preceding dozen years,” says Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. “All the gains went to the top percentage points.”
The GOP campaign to aid the wealthy has left America unable to raise the money needed to pay its bills. “The Republican Party went on a tax-cutting rampage and a spending spree,” says Rhode Island governor and former GOP senator Lincoln Chafee, pointing to two deficit-financed wars and an unpaid-for prescription-drug entitlement. “It tanked the economy.” Tax receipts as a percent of the total economy have fallen to levels not seen since before the Korean War – nearly 20 percent below the historical average. “Taxes are ridiculously low!” says Bruce Bartlett, an architect of Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. “And yet the mantra of the Republican Party is ‘Tax cuts raise growth.’ So – where’s the fucking growth?”
Republicans talk about job creation, about preserving family farms and defending small businesses, and reforming Medicare and Social Security. But almost without exception, every proposal put forth by GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates is intended to preserve or expand tax privileges for the wealthiest Americans. And most of their plans, which are presented as common-sense measures that will aid all Americans, would actually result in higher taxes for middle-class taxpayers and the poor. With 14 million Americans out of work, and with one in seven families turning to food stamps simply to feed their children, Republicans have responded to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by slashing inheritance taxes, extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and endorsing a tax amnesty for big corporations that have hidden billions in profits in offshore tax havens. They also wrecked the nation’s credit rating by rejecting a debt-ceiling deal that would have slashed future deficits by $4 trillion – simply because one-quarter of the money would have come from closing tax loopholes on the rich…
November 18, 2011
Long before the New Atheists, believers – from Job to Heinrich Heine – were picking fights with the Almighty
Christian belief suffered a serious setback in the first half of the 19th century, when critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss suggested that the Bible was a story-book like any other – a multi-authored compilation of fact, fiction, folktale and fantasy, a fabrication on a par with the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Niebelungenlied.
In theory the Christians could have turned the challenge back on their assailants: they could have accepted that their holy books were works of myth-making, while affirming that they told the greatest stories in the world. In practice however the case was not so easy to make. You cannot spin much depth of character or narrative suspense from the conviction that Jesus saves and that all manner of things will be well. Even Charles Dickens was baffled. He was a supreme storyteller, and – though he was not much of a Christian – he wanted his children to know “something about the History of Jesus Christ”. In the late 1840s he wrote The Life of Our Lord and recited it to them at Christmas. “No one ever lived,” he began, “who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong.”
It was a clunky opening sentence by anyone’s standards; and matters only got worse as Dickens ploughed on. “He is now in heaven,” he continued, “where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead.” Chirpy good cheer in the face of death is not the stuff of great literature, and the author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield must have known that he had flopped. He gave the manuscript to his children on condition that they would not let anyone copy it or take it out of the house; and in the event it did not sneak into print for almost a hundred years.
If a character born with every perfection is a poor premise for a story, then a God who is almighty, omniscient and eternal is even worse. You can make a case that monotheism was a historical precondition for the rise of modern science, since the idea that the universe is created and controlled by a totally intelligent supreme leader implies a rational order behind the rough and tumble of everyday experience. But if monotheism is a gift for science, it is likely to be poison for the art of narrative. Genesis got off to a bad start, narratologically speaking, with God creating one good thing after another and seeing that each of them was good: the device has the makings of a bedtime soporific rather than a page-turner. God, it would seem, is the death of narrative, and narrative the death of God.
Polytheists are of course spared all these problems. Olympus and Valhalla have always been dens of iniquity, seething with lust, incest, wrangling, agony, rivalry, luxury, deceit, scandal, wrath, violence, torment, murder and despair. Interesting themes, in short: and the Christians – despite their official commitment to endless good cheer – have not always managed to resist them. The story of suffering Jesus would lose a lot of its power without Matthew’s report of the last words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Was the Messiah getting in touch with his inner Oedipus, one wonders, and imagining that he might have been better off with a different god as his father? On top of that, the doctrine of the Trinity has always looked like a lapse into polytheism, or at least a very serious flirtation.
In any case the God of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament, as Christians call it) liked to present himself not as the absolute monarch of the universe but as one divine warlord amongst others – Jehovah egging on the Hebrews in their turf wars with other tribal gangs, each led by a god of their own. There are dozens of passages where Jehovah goes into a sulk and rails at his people for deserting him for his rivals. (If you want chapter and verse, try Judges 10:6, where he accuses them of defecting to Baalim or Ashtaroth, or the gods of Syria, Zidon, Moab, Ammon and Philistia.) How can believers be expected to put all their faith in a God who is not a monotheist?
The paradoxes of monotheism may be of limited interest to non-believers, but that need not stop us approaching the literary riches of religious texts with covetous eyes, and perhaps with thieving fingers too. And if you suspect that after so many years there cannot be much more to be discovered, then Navid Kermani’s The Terror of God will make you think again. Kermani is a German historian, philosopher, journalist and theatre director. He was trained as an orientalist in the 1990s, and has published trenchant studies of Muslims in contemporary Germany and Iran, calling for big doses of humility and self-doubt amongst Muslims as well as their critics. He has also brought out a sheaf of essays criticising the idea that the modern West is the immaculate child of a so-called Renaissance and Enlightenment – as if it had a direct connection with ancient Greece and Rome, unsullied by the turbulent languages and cultures of the Middle East…
Biological Altruism: Are We Hard -Wired to Behave in a Socially Caring Manner or to Maximize Personal Gain?
November 18, 2011
There exists a current debate over whether behaving in a socially caring manner, or social altruism, is a learned behavior or whether human beings are hard wired, or genetically predisposed, to behave in such a way. There are surely rational arguments for each side. However, some studies indicate that altruism is indeed hard wired into the human brain as well as the brains of several other species. In essence, humans can’t help the urge to help.
Social altruism is a form of behavior in which an individual places the needs or benefit of another over the needs or benefit of the self. The individual must give something of himself such as money or time, in order to have fulfilled the requirements for altruism. Essentially, by losing something, time or money, another person, or persons, gain something. It can be argued that altruistic behavior occurs out of a sense of duty or out of some sort of inner compassion, and the answer is both. Scientists have uncovered evidence that animals may behave in an altruistic manner. Animals such as birds and insects such as bees and ants have been shown to care for the young of their groups at the expense of their own good, and sometimes even their own lives. However, this type of altruism is clearly instinctual.
Although human beings often behave in a way that places the needs of others before their own, scientists often call this pseudo-altruism because it mimics true or instinctual altruism. Human beings may also behave in a socially altruistic manner due to a connection between empathy and compassion. In other words, the human ability to imagine one’s self in the position of another (empathy) results in a feeling of mutual suffering (compassion). This form of compassionate social altruism is as close to instinctual altruism as humans can get, and is indeed hard wired.
This ability to act on behalf of someone else in a similar manner as one would act toward one’s self is not merely a duty bound process. If this were true, there would not be so many instances of an instinctual-type of altruism amongst any number of animals, including humans. Science has used the explanations of kin selection and reciprocal altruism to explain altruism. The theory of kin selection as relating to altruism indicates that altruism assists in the perpetuation of the species genes. Science argues that the extension of altruistic behavior in animals exists because certain altruistic actions ensure that the species survives and passes along its genes. Additionally, the closer two organisms are related, the more likely it is that altruism will be considered. In essence, as altruism is defined as a cost to the altruistic organism and a benefit to the recipient, the closer the relative the more the altruistic behavior is seen as a greater benefit to the recipient and a lesser cost to the giver. Kin selection indicates that an organism is less likely to act in an altruistic manner towards non-kin as such acts do not ensure the natural selection of one’s own genes.
Because evidence of kin selective altruistic behavior has been noted in animal species, science assumes that the behavior may be generalized to include human behavior as well. This theory however, does not however explain why, if humans are hardwired to behave in an altruistic manner only toward kin, humans will display altruistic behavior toward a spouse. In essence, if genetic strangers are at the bottom of the altruistic chain, then humans should display altruistic behavior toward a spouse no more often than they would a complete stranger. It is, however, interesting to note that proponents of kin selection also include everyone in a general area as being members of one’s kin. One can assume that kin selection favors how human society views itself as a social entity. Since one’s society could be assumed to consist of the whole of one’s kin, the theory would preclude that an individual’s altruistic behavior would extend to all members of the human society, i.e., the entire world. Kin-based systems require little thought and may be a stepping stone to other forms of altruistic behavior.
Reciprocal altruism, much like the evolutionary ideology of kin selection, also has its roots in an organism’s self interest. Reciprocal altruism assumes that an organism engages in an altruistic act because that organism will receive a similar consideration at some point in the future; a kind of quid pro quo. In this kind of altruism, the giving organism does so knowing that the balance of altruistic behavior will remain unequal until that organism’s altruistic behavior has been reciprocated. In other words, the theory of reciprocal altruism indicates that both the giver and the receiver realize that, over time, the benefits outweigh the costs of the altruistic acts so that, in the end, both the giver and the receiver realize a net gain. Although the giver will not realize any immediate benefits from his altruistic act, the understanding is that there will definitely be something in it for him, if not now or in his lifetime, then for his descendents or relatives.
Reciprocal altruism asserts that, for an altruistic act to be completely reciprocal, there must be some cost to the giver and some benefit to the recipient, the altruistic act must be performed contingent upon the presumption of receiving something in return, and there must be a separation between the individual’s altruistic act and the receiving back of a benefit. This type of altruism is marked by indirect benefits that are presumed to be received over a period of time and not immediately. Additionally, reciprocal altruism is a risky venture as the giver must trust that the recipient will indeed reciprocate and that, if the recipient fails to do so, that organism will be subject to any number of social sanctions. Unlike kin-based altruism, reciprocal altruism allows for a sort of altruism exchange or social surplus of altruism and assumes more than mere cooperation. In essence, reciprocal altruism indicates that human beings operate in a cooperative manner with each other because there is an equal likelihood that he or she may, throughout the span of a lifetime, be equally able to give and also in need. Using the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an example, if, for instance, one segment of a society, in this instance those affected by the hurricane find themselves in a situation where they are low on, or devoid of resources, then reciprocal altruism dictates that the segment of the society that posses resources, in this instance those not affected by the hurricane, will share the resources with those who need them regardless of the pinch in their own resources that may occur as a result, and with the understanding that the recipient, in this case the victims of the hurricane, will reciprocate in some way in the future…