No is not Enough: Democracy At Risk

Shock and disbelieve spread across the world late on the night of November 8, 2016. American democracy had been Trumped. Subsequent prognostications by the usual pundits attributed the statistical-political surprise to any of a number of causes. Social media and cable TV have fully exemplified Wednesday-morning quarterbacking, so I need not rehash them here. More important, what does the dethroning of the Democratic Party Establishment actually mean?

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Donald J. Trump, New York, 2016. Source: CNN

And, equally important, what does the election of a narcissistic, apparently sociopathic, surely unscrupulous businessman whose only value appears to be winning, who spouts racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and megalomaniacal promises, and has zero experience in government, mean for the future of American Politics, culture, and even survival? So-called “liberals” were shocked. The Democratic Party National Committee had picked its establishment candidate, despite the surge of popular support for party outsider, Bernie Sanders. Therein lies the rub. The Washington establishment does not like outsiders, rich or poor, popular or not – they can disrupt long-established relations of convenience and profit.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump came at their populisms from opposite directions. They responded in very different ways to the deep pain and anger that had become widespread among the American people. The appeal of populist ideas emerged in different ways for the white working class and isolated poor communities of color. Ultimately, anger trumped both ideology and democracy. I am convinced that Bernie would have won against “The Donald.” He not only responded to white working class anger with the Washington establishment, but offered concrete programs to reestablish the needs of the American people, including excluded ethnic groups, as the primary driver of public policy. His New Deal liberalism has a life-long consistent track record.

As we all know, and Trump so skillfully exploited, the dominant political feelings among regular people have focused resentment against government corruption and indifference to the people. Most people resent the pandering to “special interests,” particularly corporate and Wall Street financial interests, to the detriment of society as a whole, and to them in particular. Despite the continued existence of party loyalists who have consistently voted their party tickets, many democrats and republicans resent that their party elites largely represent the interests of the powerful, not the people.

Both Sanders and Trump responded to that resentment. The democrats nominated an establishment politician beleaguered by continued attacks from the right. The Republicans chose a sleazy celebrity businessman with a track record of shady business dealings and little taste for toeing the Republican party line. Yet he played to the racist elements of populist resentment on the right, and ruthlessly exploited the fears and anger of diverse anti-establishment demographics while ignoring or insulting diverse ethnic and gender groups. Trump made his appeal as a political outsider.

Hillary Clinton did not. She could not. Her public policy support for women and children is well established. But so is her close association with financial and political elites, the establishment targets of so much public disaffection. On matters related to Wall Street she waffled. On matters of the Washington Establishment, well, she embodies it. Hillary attempted to shift from her corporatist party right-centrism to adopt half-hearted watered down versions of some of Bernie’s proposals. For example, she proposed “debt free” college education for some, not tuition free higher education for all. Too many people saw her efforts, accurately, as campaign strategy, not personal commitment. The DNC, having lost all semblance of traditional liberalism except for ritual use of its lexicon, ruthlessly undercut Bernie’s primary campaign.[1] So did the corporate mass media.

Not only did the corporate mass media supply Trump with hundreds of hours of free media exposure – in response to his celebrity and attention-getting skill. The media assumed his unelectability, while pandering to his sensationalism. To the establishment “journalists,” he just as well could have been a Kardashian. The same media power elite virtually blacked out any exposure of Bernie Sanders to the American people, many of whom had never even heard of him. In spite of that, Sanders progressive brand of populism caught on. He was tapping into the same pain and anger as Trump, but with a big difference: he proposed policies and had a plan.

The corporate “journalists” of the major media identify with the technocratic Ivy League elite of the Washington establishment. They identify with the centers of power in Washington, D.C. They simply branded Bernie Sanders as illegitimate because he opposes the existing power structure with which all candidates are supposed to align themselves. Bernie bashing became a dominant theme for the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.[2]

Donald Trump won the election because there was no other anti-establishment choice. Republican gerrymandering and the anti-democratic Electoral College helped, of course. So did FBI Director, Comey. People were willing to overlook Trump’s otherwise monumental flaws simply because he skillfully presented himself as outside the establishment that has failed ordinary Americans for decades. The rules of the establishment game certainly did not fail Trump; he exploited them ruthlessly, enabling him to avoid paying income taxes for almost two decades. The surge of rural white disaffected voters and the slack turnout of educated white women also made a difference. The failure of the pundits and statisticians to predict Trump’s victory resulted from the failure to factor in the pain and anger of large segments of the American population, as well as the sense of betrayal felt by many progressive democrats. That pain and anger led to a level of resentment that allowed many to accept the Trumping of Democracy rather than put up with more of the same.

But NO is not enough. On numerous fronts, we are in for a very rough ride. We live in the most interesting, and dangerous, of times. The most disruptive of all trends, climate destabilization, will continue to amplify political, economic and social crises. The U.S. government is likely to ignore and deny it for four more years. That alone is enough to push us past the point of no return to climate stability, leading to further economic, social, and political chaos. Only a mass movement of global citizens can possibly make a difference now.

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[1] For an astute historical reading of the replacement of traditional liberalism with a hollow shell of rhetoric that now veils the Democratic Party’s obeisance to corporate interests to the detriment of society, see Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books, 2010).

[2] For an insightful assessment of the power-elite favoring partisanship of the major media outlets and the cooptation of journalism itself, see Thomas Frank, “SWAT TEAM: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders—and real reform” Harpers Magazine (November 2016) pp. 26-35.

What is Wrong with Economic Growth?

I read a report in Forbes Magazine on the sluggish character of the current recovery from the 2008 financial crash, which lamented its exceptionally weak economic growth. Apparently, we continue slogging along in the weakest recovery since 1949. Since the Great Recession technically ended in 2009, average GDP growth has averaged only 2.1%. In the September 13, 2016 issue, Forbes staff writer Rich Kalgaard reports that the current “expansion” is more constrained than any similar period since 1949. Why is this, and what is the meaning and importance of such a slow recovery?

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Kalgaard offers “three clues” as to why post-recession expansions have steadily gone downhill, if erratically, for over a half century. He blames the fact that “the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.” He claims that the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, is part of the problem. Finally, he offers that routine corporate allegation that “the explosion in federal regulation” has stifled economic growth. He is wrong on all three counts.

Such claims by any writer attached to Forbes should not surprise us. Explanations for economic woes from corporate utopian dreamers will always blame the federal government for poor performance of the economy. They will also project causes of slow growth onto some outside force – certainly never to corporate malfeasance or distortions of the “free markets” they worship. Never will the internal flawed logic of extractive capital or the phantom financialization of the economy come into question.

The Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi exquisitely explained the origins and the utopian illusion of free market capitalism in his book The Great Transformation. That great transformation of human societies was what we call the industrial revolution. He also forecast the inevitable damage to society caused by the inherent flaws in the unregulated market system no longer embedded in society. The logic of its economic theory, which emerged as the intellectual justification for today’s global political economy, was deeply flawed.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, diverse societies have attempted to protect themselves from the damage done by market liberalism (the theory that if left to their own devices, markets will “self-regulate” and somehow produce the best result for society). The classical economists of the eighteenth century, such as Adam Smith, believed in two ideas that just never panned out in real economies.

First, they assumed that all human behavior is “rational.” That is, people will always act in economically rational ways, seeking their own best economic advantage in all their behavior. In fact, many exigencies and values in everyday life influence behavior. Economic advantage is just not the only important thing in life.

Second, the classical economists believed that markets would “regulate” themselves if allowed to do so, resulting in the best outcome for all. Adam Smith’s metaphor, the “invisible hand,” captured the essence of that belief.  Economic elites have both exploited and distorted it ever since. Due to the economic and political power of corporate and financial elites, the academic field of economics has retained those theories under the guise of pseudo-scientific analytics. All the while, “free-market” economies have failed to live up the theories of economists. Yet those theories continue to dominate economic thinking.

Utopian Dreams and Corporate Control

The theories that have controlled economics throughout the industrial era have held to these failed assumptions for centuries now, despite the overwhelming evidence against them. We now call such theories “neo-classical” economics, “neo-liberal” economics, or just plain “mainstream” economics. Despite their failings, the propaganda of the corporate media continues to glorify them as the scientific answer to all our economic problems. Corporations today routinely fight for regulations that favor their growing power, all the while claiming to seek less regulation of the markets they try to control. They never consider the social control of markets, for the benefit of society rather than for that of economic elites, as an option.

The consequences of the great transformation that subordinated society to its economic elites, as Polanyi predicted, continue to plague us today. Only this time the economic crisis converges with the climate crisis leading to global destabilization of access to resources, disrupted production and distribution of food, and escalating conflicts worldwide, all amplified by climate destabilization.

The utopian dream of endless economic growth may be the world’s greatest social illusion. However, it is also an imaginary vision that sustained itself in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, despite repeatedly failing the test of time. Never have “free markets” operated without causing serious social damage. In each case, society has tried to protect itself from the excesses and destruction of speculative capital, with varying success.

Overcoming Illusion

In cases such as the poor laws in industrializing England or the New Deal responding to the economic and social collapse of the Great Depression, political responses protected the people from the damage caused by unregulated markets. In cases such as the communist revolutions in Russia and China, the abolishment of free markets led to their replacement by cumbersome command economies that ultimately resulted in a state capitalism unable to respond to the damage caused by its bureaucratic control of markets.

Corporatist attempts to explain the flaws of the market system, like Kalgaard’s, implicitly assume the success of a failure. Their blaming of government and outside forces disrupts any attempt to protect society from the failures of a market system in desperate need of overhaul. Promoters of the corporate economic status quo like Kalgaard demonize as “wasteful spending” or simply “socialism,” any political attempt to require the economy to serve human society rather than only itself. They are mere corollaries to the failed neo-liberal economic utopianism promoted by global power elites for their own shortsighted gain. Some serious re-thinking is in order.

Community: Some Fragments Remain

Little old airports near small towns have a story to tell. I have been flying since 1976. For most of that time, I flew mostly in the Southern California area, to and from small and medium sized airports surrounded near or in cities. In 2010, I flew from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the annual airshow and fly in put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association. It is one of the biggest air meets in the world. My wife and I had decided to camp right on the airfield, where airplane camping was available in designated areas.

I took the back seats out of the Glasair Sportsman II, which I had built in 2008, and loaded it with all our camping gear. We flew from Santa Fe to Oshkosh, Wisconsin – well, almost to Oshkosh – in two legs with a stopover in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As it turned out, many of the aircraft parking areas as well as the camping areas at Oshkosh were flooded. A year’s worth of rain fell in the four or five weeks before the air show. Only about fifty miles out, I picked up the information on the radio, that they had closed the camping areas. I diverted to the nearest small airport, Dodge County, where I found that many other small aircraft had landed, diverted from Oshkosh. There I learned that airplane camping was available at Fond du Lac airport, about twenty miles from Oshkosh. We took off immediately and landed at Fond du Lac, and got one of the last available camping spots at the edge of a taxiway. The air show organizers had arranged a shuttle bus to get campers to Oshkosh each day. That camping experience is a whole other story.

On the flights between New Mexico and Wisconsin, I did my flight planning in part based on my intention to stop at small airports for refueling. I was aware that fuel prices are lower at small rural airports where rents and other costs are cheaper. I had never flown an airplane in the Midwest. When I needed fuel, I landed at more remote airports. I knew that many such small airfields were scattered among the towns and fields of “the nation’s breadbasket.” The main users of these small airfields are farmers and crop-dusters. On the way home, a storm system chased me further southeast, over Missouri, so we stayed in Springfield the first night. On that trip across the rolling green fields of the Midwest at the end of July, I noticed some distinct differences from the urban and suburban airports where I had normally landed for thirty years in California.

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Major Samuel B Cornelius Field Airport, Spearman, Texas.

First, almost no security was evident at these little airports. Even when nobody was around, the little airport office would be open along with the restrooms. At small rural airports, a “courtesy car” is often available on the airport in case a pilot and passengers want to run into town for lunch or for any other reason. It doesn’t matter. The car key is hanging in an obvious spot in the office. An unwritten rule expects guests to top off the gas tank full for the next user. The key code for the gate is always a number that would be obvious to a pilot who had landed there.

Once, at a small airport at Spearman, Texas, to be exact, access to the fuel pumps required a local credit card unless the attendant was present. As I unsuccessfully attempted to use the pump, finally figuring out the problem, a man drove up in his pickup truck and offered the use of his card if the attendant did not return by the time we got back from our lunch in town. “Here’s my business card; just call me if you need it.” It was just the neighborly thing to do. He was a farm implements dealer.

Stepping out into the parking lot at the front door of the “Cowboy Grill,” we saw a massive black cloud formation, a virtual wall, moving in from the East. We did not want to have to stay at the only motel in town that night, a dingy cinder-block structure. So, we rushed back to the airport and took off in a very strong crosswind, heading west. We outran that storm and still had plenty of fuel to reach another town ahead.

We landed at the Dalhart, Texas airport. Dalhart is a larger farming community, and the airport has an FBO (fixed base operator) supplying fuel and aircraft services. Dusk was fast approaching, so we concluded that we had had enough flying for the day. A man came out of the office to greet us and offered us space in a hangar to shelter our aircraft from the approaching storm. We accepted. He then drove us and another couple of people to the motel he recommended in town, and picked us up the next morning when we said we’d be ready to take on the next leg of our flight. He owned the aviation service business on the airport, where we re-fueled for the final leg of our journey.

On our recent aborted camping trip to a small grass-and-gravel airstrip in the middle of the Gila National Forest, we diverted from our planned flight path near our remote destination because I was getting a wildly erratic fuel pressure reading. While I believed that the problem was due to a faulty sensor, we did not want to risk a fiery crash in the trees. We landed at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to try to resolve a fuel-pressure problem. “T or C”, as the locals refer to it, has one of those small airports where it is more about people and flying than about economics. When Steve, the gentleman in the airport office, learned of our problem, he offered us the use of the airport courtesy car. “Well, we don’t usually give it to people overnight, but since you’re stranded until you can get your plane fixed, go ahead, that’s what it’s for.”

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Truth or Consequences Airport, New Mexico.

We had the car free of charge, for five nights while we waited for a part to be delivered to the mechanic we had tracked down on the Friday of our arrival, another interesting character with his own story. Steve called me three days into our “inadvertent adventure” to see how we were doing. I expected him to demand the car back. He never mentioned it. I thanked him profusely for its use. He simply said, “that’s what it’s for,” without reference to when we might bring it back. We had to wait until Monday to order the fuel-pressure sensor, known as a “sender,” for overnight shipment.

Overnight took two days; we got to know the community, which had the same small-town America traits we appreciated in those rural airfields and towns in the Midwest. The loss of community is one of the important effects of the endless-growth corporate economy that is destroying all that is good (other than consumer goods, of course) in communities and ecologies around the world.

Dumbing Down America Degrades the Nation and More

An article in Psychology Today, posted by Ray Williams on July 7, 2014, delineated a long list of indicators of the decline and fall of culture and education in the U.S. in recent decades. Diverse measures of that decline led the author to conclude that, as I would rather put it, “American Exceptionalism” is in fact a particularly degraded concept describing the downwardly spiraling status of our culture.

The loss of respect for education, teachers, science, and intellect, contrasts sharply with the cultures of Japan and Europe, for just two examples, where these cultural features are highly valued. Ridicule of intellectual accomplishment is quite popular. This has led to the fall of the U.S. in its ranking on various measures of competence in science and the humanities. Even more important, the anti-intellectualism and anti-science mentality that accompanies the insecurities of ignorance, can have a disastrous effect on our chances for survival as a species. No small problem.

Training for Exclusion

For many decades now, the education of Americans has been transformed into the training of potential workers for the degrading dull jobs with little creativity that remain available. At the same time, the outsourcing of well paid jobs to poor nations with extremely low wages, has forced many middle class workers into the ranks of the poor. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity and anger, especially among the formerly privileged class of white male workers.

A few bright software engineers and developers create products with increasingly meaningless connection to actual life in the modern world. It is all about distraction and disorientation to life with any intellectual content. The young are taught to respond impulsively to images and emotions in the online game culture and social media. Who now reads books and contemplates their meaning?

Among the many implications of the turn away from intellect and toward impulsive response to images and associated emotions, the reality of politics has detached itself from the reality of life in the nation and on the planet. Shocking percentages of the population hold beliefs that contravene massive evidence that they either fail on the facts or simply have no particular connection to reality. This cultural situation is ripe for demagogic exploitation.

Political Degradation

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False Front

Despite the flaws of Hillary Clinton, the attraction to the demagoguery of the certifiable megalomaniacal sociopathic business cheat that is Donald Trump boggles the imagination of any modestly informed citizen. The man maintains a vast store of ignorance of most matters related to national security and domestic government, with the possible exception of how to work the income tax system. His international entanglements and personal nature of his business and political connections with disreputable characters in Russia and elsewhere, make the concept of putting his financial interests in a blind trust (administered by Ivanka!) something less than laughable.

It is difficult to grasp the extent of ignorance out there. Nor is it easy to understand the widespread indifference to information in favor of impulse and emontion. No point in going on about all that; either you are paying attention to basic verifiable facts or you are a victim of confirmation bias — the common defense mechanism where any evidence that contradicts prior beliefs is simply ignored in preference to self-delusion consistent with beliefs held closely.

Ignorance or Survival

More importantly, the fate of the nation, and possibly the planet, hinges on the necessity of immediate and comprehensive actions to stave off the very worst impacts of climate destabilization. Things are so bad that not even the feigned climate-action promises of Hillary Clinton could make a significant difference in responding to this global crisis.

Species Extinction and Human Population_USGS_1451324_650954518277931_1616731734_nWhich ever U.S. presidential candidate “wins” the election in November, little hope for the kind of change we must have seems to be in the offing. The probability of adequate societal response to the emerging crises of global financial collapse and global climate collapse is very low indeed. Something very different from conventional politics or its current deranged deviations must arise in some form of broad social mobilization demanding the actions not even conceivable by our distorted, corrupt, “politics as usual.”

Republican Honor and Trump’s Tropes

Republican honor is on the line. The honor, such as it is, of a political party always depends on the character of the candidates it nominates. Donald Trump is an ASS. Everyone with the slightest sensibility knows that. Well, more accurately, he is a certifiable Narcissistic Sociopath, unfit for any pubic responsibility, no less that of the presidency.[1]

Trump.Huff.Post“According to DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most (at least five) or all of the symptoms listed below (generally without commensurate qualities or accomplishments).

1 Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment by others.

2 Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.

3 Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions.

4 Needing constant admiration from others.

5 Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others.

6 Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain.

7 Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs.

8 Intensely jealous of others and the belief that others are equally jealous of them.

9 Pompous and arrogant demeanor.”

(Nigel Barber “Does Trump have Narcissistic Personality Disorder?” Psychology Today, August 10, 2016)

Trump’s business practices have long demonstrated his complete lack of a moral center. As an investigative reporter, David Kay Johnson covered Trump for nearly thirty years and has documented his biographical trail of nefarious business practices.[2] By pandering to the worst bigoted impulses of the so-called “Republican base,” he skillfully captured the presidential nomination. Because of his dexterity at manipulating the fears and incipient hatreds of socially and economically displaced white Americans, some consider him the most skilled politician on the national scene today. That is a problem for the Republican Party.

Pseudo-patriotic Perversity

One of the key characteristics of a sociopath is complete lack of empathy for other human beings. At the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Khizr Khan righteously scolded Donald Trump’s racist tropes denigrating Khan’s warrior son, whose heroism sacrificed his own life in defense of his comrades in arms. Khan’s articulate speech was eloquent in its passion and pain, something of an order entirely beyond the grasp of the Billionaire Bimbo, whose only experience with the military was to avoid service.

Trump’s reaction, as expected, expressed not a scintilla of empathy for a hero’s sacrifice or his parents’ pain. He has no sense whatsoever of the deep sacrifices that our troops have made in the wars of choice prosecuted by the U.S.  Corporate State.  Trump’s reaction to Mr. Khan’s eloquent critique of the perverse Republican candidate’s insults was to attack Mrs. Ghazala Khan for her silence as she stood with her husband. He projected onto Mrs. Khan more of Trump’s Tropes of ethnic derision. Fortunately, Mrs. Khan later spoke strongly and shot back a statement that she had been too upset to speak at the Democratic convention. How dare he attempt to trivialize this gold-star mother’s pain with his ethnic slurs?

Wrong War, Right Heroes

While many would consider it old news by now, the disrespect Trump showed to America’s fallen warriors and their families remains somewhere on the far side of disgusting. It is entirely consistent with the numerous tropes of Trump’s tragic pandering to the lowest hateful impulses of American political culture. Despite my opposition to such wars of choice, the cavalier treatment of our troops outrages me, including the common disrespect shown troops who may be Muslim, gay, transgender, or whatever.

These are gallant victims of unnecessary wars. Regardless of the legitimacy of the wars, these heroes stood tall and performed as the warriors they were. Many died; others suffered severe trauma, both physical and mental. Trump’s self-indulgent juvenile whining is just beyond tolerance. His self-aggrandizing B.S. should offend every American, whatever her/his political position on anything.

One of my biggest worries is why such a narcissistic sociopath could possibly garner enough support from voters to become a candidate at all, no less mount a serious campaign in a general election for president. However, the machine of electoral politics knows no moral compass. At the same time, too many Americans respond to the hateful rhetoric of jingoistic xenophobia that is encouraged by the propaganda of the war profiteers. Where is the Republican honor in all this? AWOL ~ Absent With Out Leave.

I remember the days when I strongly protested the U.S. war on Viet Nam. Having already served in the military, I knew something about how the system works and how enlisted men, are treated and required to perform. The military must serve the purposes of the politicians, who, in all instances since World War II, have not had the guts to declare the wars they prosecute.

The role of the airman, marine, soldier, or sailor can be easy or hard, boring or terrifying. But it is always subordinate to the formal commands and personal whims of one’s commanders and their political ambitions. This I was able to observe without ever having seen combat. War fighters often know little of the geo-politics of warfare; their loyalty and performance has more to do with commitments to their brothers in arms. In that, they excel.

Psychopathology of Pretenders to Authority

In the opposition to the Viet Nam war, too many protesters projected their anger upon the troops. Draftees and recruits were victims of the military adventurism of the politicians of both parties, who formulated the terrible policies that killed so many. Elites in this world prosecute wars; the troop are usually victims as well as directed killers. Elites always find plenty of scapegoats onto whom to project all the evil they create. Without a scintilla of military experience, Donald Trump is a master of denial and projection in his war against everyone.

The misogynist megalomaniacal charlatan, who pretends to be prepared to take on the mantle of Commander in Chief (!), better fits the cloak of Traitor (need I mention his affinity for Putin?). His only defense would be mental illness – the insanity he daily displays – but that would be terribly difficult for a narcissist sociopath to admit. He has no legitimate standing in either business (where he is a cheat), politics (a fraud), economics (multiple bankruptcy as business model), or patriotism (a pure demagogue). Anyone who thinks otherwise is just watching too much of the Fox ideologues who trash anyone who actually thinks of issues rather than jerk their knees in response to the xenophobic demonizations so fully infused into Trump’s Tropes.

Party loyalty is a difficult matter. Real conservatives find themselves in a difficult position, put there by the Republican Party failure to manage its own nomination process. (The Democratic Party managed their nomination process by making it anti-democratic to protect the party elite from a popular candidate.) Trump’s demagoguery pandered to the resentments of the Tea-Party base of the Republican Party, a shrewd tactic to capture the nomination. The party elite could muster no viable response. The corporate interests, who support both Republican and Democratic politicians who toe the corporate line, just did not know what to do with the unpredictable neo-fascist.

Real conservatives will have nothing to do with this perverse pretender to political authority. Honorable Republicans, whatever we may think of their position on issues, have refused to participate in the fiasco that may yet result in the end of the Republican Party.

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[1] Just check the Psychology Today website for some professional diagnoses. Psychologists are normally reticent about making comments on the mental conditions of public figures. However, in the case of Trump, some seem willing to make an exception. Diagnoses from afar may be problematic, but in this case the symptoms are as public as the person.

[2] David Kay Johnson, The Making of Donald Trump (Brooklyn, New York: Melville House Books, 2016).

Olympic Teamwork and the Ugly American

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I have never been much for ceremony. Neither Michael Phelps leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Stadium nor the pomp and circumstance of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics interested me. I marveled at both the individual and team efforts, especially those of the Brazilian and the U.S. teams. As always, Olympic performances do not fail to impress.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team was particularly astonishing, and not only for their individual talent and skills. Gymnastics seems to represent pure generic physical talent and skill. Yet there is a very important mental factor. I grew up near the beaches of Southern California and played volleyball there myself as a teenager. Naturally, the beach volleyball competition drew my attention. Each team has only two players; the indoor variety involved plays by the larger teams that are more complex.

I was amazed when I heard a commentator describe Michael Phelps’ unique physical characteristics. Wingspan wider than his body height, lung capacity several times larger than the average person, huge hands, a long torso and double-jointed limbs, all contributed to the success of his drive to win. His superior performance became less surprising. Yet, there is much more to Olympic performance than physicality.

A Special Kind of Olympic Teamwork

Something very special about the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team drew my attention. The “Final Five” were a team in the truest sense of the word. Gymnastics is an individual sport. Whether on the uneven parallel bars, floor exercises, etc., it is all about the perfection of individual performance. The team called themselves the Final Five because their world-famous team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, was to retire after the 2016 Olympics, making them her last of many Olympic successes. Their “team spirit” was exceptional. Simone Biles talent reigned supreme. Yet her teammate Aly Raisman performed her role as team captain as superbly as her own spectacular comeback performance.

The mutual aid and support of the five young women who work so well together reminded me of the total commitment and training of the Navy Blue Angels or the Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic teams, whose individual performances and mutual coordination constitute life-or-death challenges every time they fly. I saw a documentary once depicting the level of precision piloting, interpersonal coordination, rigorous physical training, and individual discipline required for the Thunderbirds’ achievements in formation flying. They have to do extreme physical training in the gym in order to handle the extreme g-forces their maneuvers entail. The level of individual commitment and mutual trust is almost inconceivable to a non-pilot or even an ordinary pilot. But it is not about the flying itself; it is about the almost unbelievable level of coordination and self-control needed to accomplish their mission. Very similar qualities were quite evident in Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and their teammates.

The Ugly American Exposed

Enter Ryan Lochte and friends. As one commentator put it, his performance represented the worst stereotype of the “Ugly American” during his night on the town with his teammates in Rio de Janeiro. It reflected the unfortunate reality of, as the commentator said, the attitude that, “Anything goes south of the equator” for white wealth and privilege. It is not just that some athletes partied most of the night in town after the high stress of competition. That would not be unusual or outrageous in itself.

After urinating in public and vandalizing property at a gas station in Rio, Lochte and his white-privileged friends figuratively urinated on the brown people of Brazil. Exercising their sense of self-importance and privilege, he and his teammates lied about their vandalism. A security guard at the gas station had confronted them demanding that they pay for the damage they had done. Exercising their sense of privilege, they denied their own culpability and projected it onto the security guard. They falsely claimed to police that someone impersonating a police officer had robbed them.

Later, on reflection, Lochte exacerbated his culpability in response to Matt Lauer’s softball questions in a televised interview after his return to the U.S. He gave pathetic partial excuses, claiming he had “over-exaggerated” what had happened. Say what? His “apology” did not really extend beyond excusing his behavior by reference to his drunkenness. The Ugly American plunders the world, then blames his victims and claims he did not really mean to do any harm. The U.S. media meanwhile ponders the financial cost of his losses of corporate product endorsements. Give me a break.

Camaraderie of a Higher Order

It is hard to imagine Lochte’s and his fellow swimmers’ behavior in the home of their hosts having been much sleazier. The contrast with the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team could not be greater. Its members represent not just the best of athletic performance, but also the best human values of self-discipline and mutual aid.

Simone and AlyThe positive energy and mutual support of the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team were a remarkable sight. In a sense, they represent far more than a superb athletic achievement. Even more important, they symbolize what humans are capable of when they put their minds, bodies, talent, and skills to the test. These women stepped up, took the challenge before them, and did what they had to do to meet that challenge together.

These are exactly the qualities that we need most to pull off the Next Great Transformation of human economy from environmental plunder to ecological harmony. Too much in the behavior of the Lochte gang reflect the widespread U.S. culture of corporate greed, self-righteousness, and individual self-aggrandizement. Lochte’s false contrition reflected a total lack of compassion. Simone, Aly, and their teammates have shown a higher order of respect and camaraderie, capable of great things, capable of achievements greater than we could have imagined.

Today, as a society we face challenges that require social changes so deep they too are hard to imagine. As a nation and as a species we face the necessity of making changes that go far beyond what might seem to be the limits of our capabilities. Just as on the gymnastics floor, no guarantees assure success. Far too many of us are complacent or indifferent to the damage we have done to our home – the planet.

In thinking of what lies ahead and the level of social mobilization needed to deal with the climate crisis, I often think of the economic and social transformation U.S. society accomplished through collective effort in order to fight and win World War II. The level of effort and social mobilization necessary to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid catastrophic consequences will be far greater. In that effort, we will all need to behave like a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman.

Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

co2_Ice-core.and.Manaloa_to.403ppm_Scripts.Inst.800k_zoom-768x461

CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.