Category Archives: Informed Comment

The Vanity of the Billionaires: Circuses and no Bread

Juan Cole | October 16 2016 | Informed Comment

Rome was a republic until between 40 and 27 BCE, when the generals overthrew it. Military dictator Gaius Octavius put the nail in the coffin when he made himself Augustus Caesar on the latter date. The later satirist Juvenal, to whom we owe the phrase ‘bread and circuses,’ is clear that it was the transition away from the republic that required the bribing of the plebeian class in this way. He says it used to be they were bribed for their votes, but with the coming of dictatorship they had to be provided bread to keep them from rioting and cruel public spectacles to divert their attention from the reigning tyranny.

The US government offers a little bread in the form of welfare, but not much and much less than it used to. Most working people haven’t recovered from 2008. Mostly nowadays we are being offered circuses by the billionaires who now rule us.

Whereas in the old days it was the gladiators who were torn limb from limb to satisfy the bloodlust of the masses, in today’s America other sorts of diversions are on offer.

The pressing issues facing what’s left of the republic (I guess we are in year 41 — you have to count backward in this analogy) are these:

1. Our tax code is allowing 3 million mega-rich to take home 20% of the country’s yearly income (since the 3 million include children, it is probably actually 1 million adults that get the one-fifth of everything Americans earn annually). Tax policy could be used to redistribute that wealth over time, but it has been so blunted that it is useless. So if we have a hundred people in a circle, and we distribute a thousand bananas in this unequal way, Person Number One, let us say, the Billionaire, will get 200 bananas out of the 1,000. That should leave 8 apiece for the other 99, but Person Number Two, the multimillionaire, gets another 100. Some of the other 98 will only get 1 banana. A lot of the rest of the people will only get that black part at the bottom of the skin. And if you do it that way every year the Billionaire, will end up with piles of bananas and the people with the black pieces at the bottom never will get even one banana.

Continue reading The Vanity of the Billionaires: Circuses and no Bread

30 Americans die worldwide from Terrorism annually, while 130,000 die by accident

Informed Comment | March 26, 2016

The right wing is carping that President Obama is “downplaying” the dangers of Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks on soft targets. But whipping up hysteria about the threat of terrorism is a racket that mainly benefits security firms and arms manufacturers. No one will deny that such attacks are horrible affairs that kill dozens of innocents and everything humanly possible should be done to combat them. But it is also just the case that the attacks are intended to provoke fear, terror, hatred and polarization, so such sentiments should be avoided. And these assaults on soft targets should be seen in some sort of perspective. So let us just consider the leading causes of death in the US (2014), a country of some 318 million, in the context of terrorism (defined as non-state actors using violence against civilians to accomplish a political goal).

1. Heart disease: 611,105

2. Cancer: 584,881

3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205

4. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557

5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978

6. Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767

7. Diabetes: 75,578

8. Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979

9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112

10. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

From 2005 to 2015,

71 Americans were killed on US soil by extremists, of whom

24 were killed by Muslim extremists (white supremacists etc. were more deadly than Muslims).

That is an average of a little over 7 per year.

Continue reading 30 Americans die worldwide from Terrorism annually, while 130,000 die by accident

Undertaxed: Top 62 Billionaires doubled wealth to $1.76 Trillion since 2010

by Sam Pizzigati, published February 06, 2016 at Informed Comment

Our world’s billionaires don’t merit either their billions, the Oxfam economist Didier Jacobs suggests, or the right to claim we’re all living in a ‘meritocracy.’

Defenders of our deeply unequal global economic order had to put in a bit of overtime last month. They had to explain away the latest evidence — from the global charity Oxfam — on how concentrated our world’s wealth has become. A challenging task.

Debunk the meritocracy defense of extreme inequality on its own terms, says Oxfam economist Didier Jacobs, and the flacks for grand fortune will have nothing left that the American public finds appealing.
Debunk the meritocracy defense of extreme inequality on its own terms, says Oxfam economist Didier Jacobs, and the flacks for grand fortune will have nothing left that the American public finds appealing.

Back in 2010, Oxfam’s new stats show, the world’s 62 richest billionaires collectively held $1.1 trillion in wealth, far less than the $2.6 trillion that then belonged to humanity’s least affluent half.

Now the numbers have reversed. The world’s top 62 billionaires last year held $1.76 trillion in wealth, the bottom half of the world only $1.75 trillion.

“Far from trickling down,” Oxfam concludes, “income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate.”

Flacks for grand fortune have a justification for this top-heavy state of affairs. We live, they assure us, in a meritocracy. Those with great wealth have made great contributions. They merit their “success.” If we want to encourage talent and hard work, we simply have to accept the inequality that meritocracy will inevitably produce.

Continue reading Undertaxed: Top 62 Billionaires doubled wealth to $1.76 Trillion since 2010

Americans more likely to get hit by Lightning than Terrorism, but 51% Fear It

by Juan Cole, published January 16, 2016

By Peter Certo | (Foreign Policy In Focus) | – –

One in 3.5 million: That’s your annual risk of dying from a terrorist attack in the United States, at least according to Cato analyst John Mueller. Rounded generously, that comes out to roughly 3 one-hundred thousandths of a percentage point, or 0.00003 percent.

And this, according to a recent Gallup poll cited by The New York Times, is the percentage of Americans “worried that they or someone in their family would be a victim of terrorism”: 51.

So that’s 51 percent of Americans who think a terrorist attack against themselves is sufficiently likely to warrant their personal concern, versus a 0.00003 percent chance it might actually happen. If you’ll forgive my amateur number crunching, that means Americans are overestimating their personal exposure to terrorism by a factor of approximately 1.7 million.

It’s no wonder people play the lottery.

A public mood that overestimates the risk of terrorism by upwards of 2 million times, you might imagine, is a pretty significant headwind for a presidential administration that — with a few notable exceptions, like the surge in Afghanistan and the free-ranging drone war — has generally sought to wind down the full-blown militarized response its predecessor took to terrorism.

But more militarization, particularly in the Middle East, is exactly what this insanely distorted threat perception would seem to demand. With Americans more fearful of terrorism than at any time since 9/11, it’s no wonder Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz can call for bona fide war crimes like “carpet-bombing” Syria — and then revel in applause rather opprobrium.

In a more rational world, it would be easy to explain away the problem by arguing that the risk of terrorism in the U.S. is actually quite small, while the human costs of yet another ill-considered military intervention in the Middle East could be enormous. But the politics of terrorism are anything but. “As a society we’re irrational about it,” said a former administration security official quoted by the Times. “But government has to accept that irrationality rather than fight it.”

Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan drew a less charitable conclusion from those comments: “The public is too dumb to hear the truth about terrorism.” Continue reading Americans more likely to get hit by Lightning than Terrorism, but 51% Fear It

A Letter from Norway on our Epidemic of Mass Shootings

by John L Hanson, published January 6, 2016 at Informed Comment

Why is it easier to buy a gun than to board a Plane?
Why doesn’t America change their weapon law?
What is your view on the Gunlaw in the USA?

I am teaching in Norwegian Upper Secondary schools this academic year as a Fulbright Scholar in American Studies, on leave from my job in an American high school. One way I engage reticent Norwegian teens is to let them write a question they have about America on a Post-it style note and and confidentially stick it to a designated space in the classroom for me to address at the end of the lesson. The above are samples of earnest questions posted about gun violence in America by Norwegian teens.

The questions are not abstract for them. US gun laws affect other countries. Norway prohibits the sale of clips for hunting rifles that hold more than three bullets. So mass murderer Anders Breivik just ordered clips from the United States.

My privilege is to travel the whole of Norway and engage students and teachers in topics about American history and culture. Whether I like it or not, I am seen as an ambassador for America and someone who has to answer the most pressing issues in our society. Too often I cannot give an answer. Responses I can offer, but answers have been few.

These are old questions from young minds. I have struggled for an answer that I could live with and is achievable, I finally have an answer: The Second Amendment may have guaranteed a right to bear arms. But it states no right to mass killing.

Continue reading A Letter from Norway on our Epidemic of Mass Shootings

Game of Groans: How focus on Trump Taunts hides GOP war on Middle Class, Workers

by Juan Cole, published August 10, 2015

The condition of late capitalism produces a press discourse strangely devoid of any mention of class. Last Thursday we had 10 rich white males on a debate stage seeking to represent the billionaire class (some 536 individuals in US, who have more wealth than the bottom half of the US population).

US billionaires are getting richer at a time when wages for working and middle class people have not kept pace with increases in productivity.  Working and middle class Americans, unlike the stock market (80% of which is owned by the top 20% of the population), have never recovered from the bust of 2008. And no, it was not caused by ordinary people trying to live above their means. It was caused by bankers who were venal and corrupt and stole enormous sums from the public.

So what did the would-be representatives of the super-wealthy want? They wanted to take away health care from tens of millions of Americans. Why would you want to do that? Having to contribute to health care for the US public is an inconvenience to the business classes, many of whom don’t want Obamacare.

They want to take away your medicaid and social security. Again, this step is in the interest of the super-wealthy who don’t want the government to run such large entitlement programs for fear that Washington will end up taxing them for the operation. (In fact, social security would be healthier if the wealthy had to pay into it according to full income; at the moment, there is a cut-off for payments, which saves the billionaires a lot of money.)

Continue reading Game of Groans: How focus on Trump Taunts hides GOP war on Middle Class, Workers

Top 5 Ways Obama’s ‘All of the Above’ Politics led to Sanders & Trump

By Juan Cole – (Informed Comment

It is said that one of the things President Obama wanted to talk to comedian Jon Stewart about was his occasional cynicism. “Obama scolded him for turning young Americans cynical.”

But the approach to politics taken by Obama until recently — of promising genuine change but governing as a Republican Lite — did more to spur cynicism than any of Stewart’s cartoony double-takes at Washington hypocrisy. Obama has some accomplishments, but in key areas he was so willing to compromise that he lost sight of his mandate for change.

trump-swiftboats-mccain-the-way

The feeling that Obama’s administration was in many ways a continuation of rather than a break with Bush is one of the things impelling voters on both sides of the aisle to support mavericks. I do not mean to compare Bernie Sanders in any way to Donald Trump. Sen. Sanders is a thoughtful man with real gravitas. But the discontents into which he has tapped come in part from a feeling in portions of the electorate that Establishment candidates will not serve them.

Continue reading Top 5 Ways Obama’s ‘All of the Above’ Politics led to Sanders & Trump