Institutions are as Good as the People Running Them

Most of us most of the time envision public institutions as fixed objects, occupied by people who manage and perform their functions for the benefit of the people. When those who the people have entrusted with the authority to lead institutions to achieve their mission, believe in the institutions they oversee, such assumptions pretty much hold true.

However, most institutions function effectively mostly because of the commitment of their directors to honestly implement their mandated operations.

Authoritarian Demagoguery and Corruption of the “Rule of Law”

The so-called “rule of law” exists only to the extent that people believe in the value of institutions operating as prescribed in law. Legislation specifies the mandate and basic operational principles by which an institution is supposed to conduct its business. The institution promulgates rules and regulations as the operational means of carrying out the mandate.

In “normal times,” all this works out, at least in terms of maintaining the legitimacy of the institutions and its actions, more or less effectively, whether we happen to like a particular policy or not.

However, the actions of authoritarians demonstrate the fragile nature of democratic institutions. If the chief executive, i.e., POTUS in the case of the U.S.A., has no commitment to democratic values or the rule of law and happens to be a narcissistic sociopath then the “rule of law” tends to break down.

When the highest executive authority in the land routinely lies and violates the law and ethics, and roles back institutional regulations to further his power-seeking agenda above all else, then all sorts of things we have taken for granted tend to crumble before our eyes. That is what corruption looks like.

The authoritarian demagogue speaks with a forked tongue; his speech has little to do with his actions, intentionally fomenting as much ambiguity as possible. The goal of wannabe dictators is to upset normal expectations, leaving others unable to operate in normal ways. The “new normal” is the abnormality of a personality disorder.

Chaos, Democracy, and Enforcement of Law

When the culture suffers from a weakening of democratic values and deep-seated resentment of the failure of the government to represent the interests of the people, authoritarians can take illegitimate control by manipulating public opinion. They repeat big lies claiming all manner of accomplishments that do not exist. The tyrant defines a free press as “the enemy of the people.” Under such circumstances, corruption has a free reign.

A wealth of self-indulgence clutters the culture, amplified by social media. Core values are clouded in a haze of greed and fear turned skillfully into hatred, distracting people from the corruption of high office. Democratic values take a back seat and, as in our case, the mass (corporate) media promote implications that the “authority” of the would-be autocrat in the highest office, is absolute and exempt from legal or moral constraint. Mandated to execute the laws of the land, he is somehow “above the law” and shielded from prosecution for violating the law. Too many believe he is excused from scrutiny by the one body – Congress – authorized by the Constitution to execute “oversight” over the executive.

Who enforces the law when the highest authority appoints an attorney general to protect his personal power, not the rule of law, thereby avoiding any kind of accountability for violating the law? The danger to the survival of democratic institutions is very real and growing daily.

Internet Freedom the Co-op Way

I pay $35.00 per month for unlimited Internet service. I get about the same speed as most of the corporate Internet Service Providers offer, for about half the price they charge. All the customers/members of our co-op get the same service for the same price, with no restrictions whatsoever on content because our ‘provider’ is a cooperative owned by its members. Its sole purpose is to provide ourselves with high-speed internet access. All ‘profits’ go to the members in the form of better service and price. For a small increase in the monthly fee, we can upgrading to a higher bandwidth.

We are all encouraged to contribute work in upgrading the equipment of the co-op as well as help set up new members’ receivers, etc. The La Canada Wireless Internet Co-op buys access to large high-speed optical transmission lines. It then transmits all Internet content equally to its members via its installations atop hills in the Santa Fe area. Members install their own transmission/receiving equipment on their rooftops. Usually, more technically knowledgeable members help them.

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Ethernet Cable

We members collectively own our own “pipeline” to the World Wide Web and all the information and communication that entails. We are, in effect, shareholders. Because we are our own Internet Service Provider, we do not have any interest in restricting speed and/or content in order to squeeze greater profit from customers – we are not customers, we are member/owners. Unlike Comcast, Time-Warner, or any of the few communications and entertainment giants, we have no conflict of interest between providing the “pipelines” of the Internet and trying to generate profits from particular “content” by giving preferential access to content we own.

When the same media giants control content and transmission, censorship is inevitable, if only a means to greater profit. But remember, political censorship follows directly from economic interest and power. We cannot achieve the democracy of Net Neutrality until Internet content and transmission functions are economically independent of one another.

It is no different from the public officials switching the source of water for Flint, Michigan to save money and poisoning the children of Flint in the process. The supposed beneficiaries of the service become its victims because they are subservient to the institution and have no control over its policies. Those in control had little or no interest in the wellbeing of the citizens/customers or their children, who as a result continue to suffer from lead poisoning. The managers of Flint acted in their own narrow economic/political interests instead of in the public interest. At least with the giant media corporations, the damage is merely cultural, not genetic.

One of the biggest problems with modern societies is that the most powerful economic institutions rule the society instead of the society managing the economy in the interests of the citizenry. That is why some call it the “corporate state.” If you think you need to “take back our country,” then you should forget about the minorities the demagogues encourage you to hate – as a distraction from their theft of our democracy. Instead, start by taking back control of the economy from those giant corporations that run it not in the public interest, but solely in the interests of the economic greed of the financial corporate elites that dominate politics and society alike.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: II

A while ago, I read a post by Richard Heinberg on resilience.com titled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” after the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Resilience.com is an excellent source for all sorts of analyses and opinion on the climate crisis, sustainability, and strategies for global-warming mitigation and adaptation.

Heinberg is an economist who has written a strong argument for The End of Economic Growth in his book of that name (New Society Publishers, 2011). He is one of a small group of economists who recognize the fatal flaws of neoclassical economics.

These “deviant” economists have criticized the dominant economic ideology of our time: endless economic growth (the Empire of Globalization) as the engine of human progress. Heinberg’s point in the resilience.com article is twofold.

First, most people know that something is terribly wrong with the economy, the climate, and our national and international political processes. Second, most who are aware, including most environmentalists, implicitly deny the depth and urgency of the problem.

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Unprecedented California Wildfires  ~  Wired.com

As we move toward a New Great Transformation of society forced by global economic growth, rife with unknowns, it is more difficult to “handle the truth,” than to figure out what the truth is. David Wallace-Wells’ article, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us,” in the New York Times, got it right. The crisis is now and we have much to fear.

The Decline and Fall of Electoral Politics

The preference for “none of the above” was widespread in the 2016 electoral season. I characterized it as a fight between “The Charlatan and the Huckster.” Clinton was widely perceived as dishonest, not trustworthy, and beholden to Wall Street. While it is hard to imagine that she does not understand it, her interest in the climate crisis seemed weak and obligatory.

Clinton’s attitude exuded disinterest born of corporate affiliation. An interventionist Democrat, insufficiently interested in consequences of political or military action, she too often looked for clues as to “Who Should we invade next?” Her State Department was too quick to support the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zolaya of Honduras. But her greatest weakness was the portrait the extreme right painted of her as dishonest.

Trump, the certified narcissistic sociopath who deployed his demagoguery very effectively, played on the fears and resentment of many Americans in a time when many had lost ground in seeking the American Dream. Michael Moore predicted he would win because Moore knew the attitudes of the American working class. Trump’s Tropes pandered to white working-class resentment of economic and social power-loss by focusing on hate, bombast, Hillary bating, and climate denial.

You Can’t Build a Wall to Keep Out Climate Chaos

The narcissistic sociopath continues his demagogic climate denial while he diverts attention from ubiquitous corruption in his administration by fear mongering demands to “build the wall” on our southern border. His “M.O.” is to double down on whatever inanity he last spoke. At least with Hillary, we would have had a relatively stable (in the very short run) period of business as usual as the climate crisis built.

Now, after two years, corruption prevails and Trump’s henchmen continue dismantling any federal program that either protects the environment in some small ways or protects the people from damage by the corporate state and its empire of globalization. The crisis deepens from the failure of national and international action to counter the destructive forces of deregulation, extreme inequality, and climate chaos. What’s a citizen to do?

As Bruno Latour puts it in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Polity Press, 2018), we desperately need to rethink the role of humans on planet Earth and learn new ways to inhabit the Earth. The alternative is societal collapse.

Departments of Insecurity and Dysfunction

I remember when most Americans most of the time lived in a world of predictable events, stable relationships, and reasonable expectations for the future. Well, our worlds are mostly not so stable anymore. That, after all, is what much of the current political turbulence is all about. Everyone seeks the novelty of interesting things, but not if they interfere with the stability of our everyday lives.

In 2016, fed-up with the self-serving political stagnation and corruption, voters decided to try an “outsider.” Had the Democratic Party nomination process been democratic, they might have chosen an independent predictably moral grandfather figure. But an inveterate real estate huckster effectively conned them into picking the brash disrupter over a corporate insider.

Never mind the fact that she won the popular vote; never mind the voter suppression, never mind gerrymandering; never mind Russian trolls. Resentment of stagnation and corruption of the political process drove many angry voters, as Michael Moore put it, to throw a political “Molotov cocktail” into the arena.

Even in these turbulent times, when the lives of so many have destabilized, we tend to see the institutional world out there as a given. Well, not so much. What we thought was certain, what we thought we could count on, has been “kicked under the bus.”

Constitutional Chaos

We tend to see American society as a stable institutional structure, ordained by the Constitution. We may see politics as an unfortunate if necessary disturbance of the normal process of constitutional government. Even in these times of administrative disruption of numerous departments and agencies, we believe that the institutions of the nation are rock-solid entities beyond the range of any threat to their existence. We remain placidly comfortable in the Constitution and the institutions it supports as if nothing could change what the founding fathers wrote in it. We see villains pecking at the perimeter, but no real threat.

Whether we are strict constructionists or interpretive relativists, we see the Constitution as a sacred and solid guide to the conduct of government and of citizens. Well, actually, no institution is any stronger than the beliefs and actions of the people who sustain it. The ties that bind an institution together are only as strong as the commitment of the people charged with overseeing its operations. What interests do they have in holding it together as required by the Constitution? What if a president appoints political hacks to cabinet posts or as directors of core federal agencies, who are diametrically opposed to the very mission of those institutions? Well, here we are.

Destructive Deconstruction

We now have plenty of evidence for what happens when a leader intends to “deconstruct” a department or agency. Typically, the appointed leader is “in bed with” the entities that legislation mandates the institution to regulate or prosecute. If so, s/he can do a lot of damage to the mission and morale of its members. Such “leadership” can divert and stifle normal operations and drive dedicated public servants away in despair.

Institutions do not stand alone. They stand only in the values of leaders who believe in them and support employees in carrying out their mandate. Yes, people come and go as members and leaders over the years. Yet in normal times, the structure and purpose remain stable and clear. That is because leaders of variable competence and commitment either drive the institution to greater achievement or do not much get in the way of effective performance.

However, if a president appoints a “leader” to administer an agency or department with the explicit intent to eliminate its function in society by budget constraints, executive orders, or censoring reports, all hell breaks loose. Employees committed to the mandate of their organization will retreat into obscurity to keep their jobs or they will resign on principle. The organization and its mission suffer severely and the destroyers claim victory.

Plunder and Plutocracy Propagate Profusely

Today, a presumptuous president produces an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. His executive appointees are hell-bent on reducing and eliminating any function or operation that does not serve his and his cronies’ economic interests. The plutocratic class of super-rich corporate and financial elites have already benefitted immensely, both financially and politically. They wallow in new freedoms from social and environmental responsibility and from windfall tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The appointment of Supreme Court justices that favor corporations and the ultra-wealthy over the people and the public interest, assures the continued future strength of the plutocrats. Hence, continued climate denial in the face of overwhelming catastrophic facts. No wonder the Republicans, who are more heavily bribed by the wealthiest of the wealthy than the poorly organized corporate Democrats, faun over the political pretender they initially despised. No wonder they are now so “loyal” to the would-be dictator. Their greed matches his.

Rob Riemen warns us in his brief book, To Fight Against this Age, of the dangers of the new rise of fascism. Timothy Snyder urges us to practice citizenship as argued in his small book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, to avoid falling under the spell of a would-be fascist dictator. These two scholars, one Dutch and one American, sum up the clear lessons of history on how to retain democracy and freedom. We must learn them or lose both.

The New Normal and the Boisterously Silent Coup

Is the rise of Trumplandia the reflection of a “new normal” in American politics? Or, does it rise, as Rebecca Solnit suggests in a remarkable new piece on the Literary Hub website, to the level of a de facto coup that has already occurred? Has the Trump gang already, if not so skillfully, moved to clandestinely transform our constitutionally framed effort at representative democracy into a de facto authoritarian regime? After all, this sitting president is now directly interfering with the independent investigations of the nation’s highest law enforcement institutions that may well lead to his own downfall.

The Coup

Solnit asserts that, “Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal.” She summarizes the vast array of diverse forms and sources of evidence that have surfaced since Trump began his initial Fake-Run [i] for the presidency. In addition to the myriad personal scandals, an international complex of illicit deal making adds up to a partnership of plunder between the Putin bossed Russian mob of oligarchs, the American pretender to Mob-Boss status and his gang of thugs and fixers of questionable competence and unbounded hutzpah, and just about any unscrupulous politician, here or abroad, who will pay to play.

As Solnit puts it:

Acts that would have been shocking if committed by previous administrations are overshadowed and crowded by equally transgressive acts that pile up into something that would like us to forget that this is not normal.

Solnit argues persuasively that the coup has already happened and that the only question now is what we are going to do about it. Given the damage already done to institutions, climate action, public health and safety, international relations, and above all the already precarious U.S. political culture, it seems that little time and a narrowing range of options remain.

Decades in the Making

One commenter argued that the coup began decades ago, listing a series of political actions by every administration and congress since, supporting the position that the coup was a long slow process of destroying democracy while elevating an increasingly open kleptocratic authoritarian corporate state. He argued that with Johnson’s resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 the authoritarian right realized that electoral politics must be undermined to achieve their autocratic goals. Another asserted that the coup began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In any case, several scholars have documented the efforts of powerful business interests to suppress democratic control of government and the economy since the imposition of controls on the financial elite under the New Deal.

Unfortunately, as is so common in such venues, much of the commentary devolved into typical political bickering over which politician held more guilt, bad faith and evil. The usual dose of ad hominem admonitions and rigid either/or ill-logic circulated around the claimed offenses of Bernie versus Hillary, entirely missing the point of the article in service to internal partisan anger among Democrats.

The Republican Party has devolved into a state where its only principle is to win elections by pandering the alt-right base so effectively exploited by Trumpery. Genuine conservatives have nowhere to turn. The Democratic Party national apparatus, the DNC, remains unwilling to free itself from the corporate and financial elites it serves while hypocritically mouthing old liberal rhetoric. Its disingenuous cultural liberalism and avoidance of the deep issues of rising global and national crises have turned main street Democrats and independents away from the party. Electoral politics seems a long shot, in both substance and time. The convergence of catastrophic crises of ecosystem destruction and climate chaos, as well as global economic and political instability, is well underway. The crisis of American democracy is now. What is a citizen to do?

Precarious Prospects

Solnit finds herself distraught with the prospects, as well anyone who looks at the facts should. However, her recommendations offer little hope:

We still have an enormous capacity to resist the administration, not least by mass civil disobedience and other forms of noncooperation. Sweeping the November elections wouldn’t hurt either, if that results in candidates we hold accountable afterward. Or both.

Solnit seems to believe that we can rescue American democracy and respond effectively to the converging crises of climate chaos, ecological destruction, impending global financial failure, and imminent societal collapse by protests in the streets or by the so-called “centrist” democrats capturing the mid-term elections. Making such assumptions shows little sense of timing or even a deep understanding of the nature of the coup that has suppressed democratic institutions for decades.

The answer is nearly as difficult, but at least possible. Mass mobilization at the local level for resistance in place by turning away from the “inverted totalitarian” regime and its new “strong man” is extremely difficult to achieve. It would require forming new democratic institutions where we live that would become diffused forms of resistance by their very existence. Widespread resistance by withdrawal and replacement could not be stopped by troops in the streets or by bluster from the man who is “the empty clown suit.”

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[i] Mark Danner, “The Magic of Donald Trump,” New York Review of Books 63:4(May 26, 2016) quotes Stephanie Cegielski, Trump’s “Top Strategist-Turned-Defector,” to the effect that initially there had been “no thought of actually winning.” Rather, the goal was to bolster Trump’s celebrity prominence. That, of course, is consistent with Trump’s history of seeking celebrity attention and adulation above all else, aside from money of course. Winning the actual election bolstered his celebrity and profits beyond even the narcissist’s unbounded imagination.

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Why Trump Does Not Matter, and Why He Does

It is so easy to ridicule a buffoon. I have done so more than once in various blog posts on this site. I referred to Trump as an empty clown suit because of the vacuous nature of his essentially false and tragically comic-book persona. He could easily pass for Batman’s “The Joker.”

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The Joker in Chief

But really, isn’t the focus on the peculiar personalities of politicians a large part of what is wrong with American politics? We tend to focus on personality and image rather than issues. The Republicans are better at that, using as they do, core patriotic imagery and buzzwords to frame their position in debates and win support for their corrupt exploitation of the commonwealth.

In that regard, the Democrats always seem to be tag-along copycats. The analytics and lofty yet detached liberal rhetoric is to most voters just boring and hollow. The allegiance of the Democratic ‘leadership’ to corporate and financial elites is clear despite being not quite as strong as that of the Republicans. Their lofty ideas rarely lead to action.

Then, along came Bernie with his old-style New Deal social-democrat ideals and specific proposals that suddenly caught the imagination of old and young alike. It was clear that Bernie simply is what he is. Not perfect, but real, the unabashed ethical Grandpa, corny humor, caring and all. Well, that certainly clashed with the goals of the DNC and the corporate Democrats who run the party.

From Russia with (Laundered) Cash

Of course, Trump, the false outsider, a caricature of McScrooge, is nothing if not unreal. I could go on indefinitely about that. Many have. But to what end? Does it matter that Trump is the epitome of the politics of dishonesty and a hollow persona of personal greed, reflecting a deep narcissism and sociopathy? Do the fact-checking counts of the endless lies and distortions really matter? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, Trump really is a buffoon open to endless ridicule for his complete lack of presidential demeanor and his gross life-long personal corruption. On the other hand, however disgusting or embarrassing, that is not the deeper problem he represents. That problem runs even deeper than his possibly traitorous but certainly corrupt dealings with Russian oligarchs so close to the Kremlin.

Internationally, he is clearly an embarrassment to our nation. Domestically, he could not act with much less civility or inspire much more racist, neo-fascist, or misogynist reaction to the world as it is. The damage he sows to national unity is real.

However, the press obsession with whether and to what extent his climate denial is real or just posturing for his “alt-right” violence-prone base, like his other disgraceful behaviors, diverts media attention from the real and growing crises we cannot avoid no matter who resides in the oval office. It is his appointments of barbaric executioners to kill all protectors of the public interest in health, safety, and security for the people, who cause the deeper destruction and pose the greatest danger to the nation and the world.

The Nation Is as Trumpery Does

The rise of Trumpery is, in fact, the extreme expression of the underlying problem of a nation’s elite destabilizing the society it dominates, along with most ecosystems and the global climate, in order to gain even more power in the short term. It is not only a matter of Trump’s dance with the devil. Trumpery is a death-dance to which we are all invited.

We will soon reach the tipping point leading to unstoppable climate chaos, ecosystems collapse, and global financial bedlam. Are you worried about population growth? No need to. Under rapidly deteriorating global conditions, population decline is inevitable and will not be pretty.

The processes of destabilization and destruction were well in place before the political rise of Trumpery, which continues to accelerate the rush to societal as well as ecological and climate collapse. We desperately needed a great turnaround. We got just the opposite. What matters about Trump is that he may have prolonged and accelerated the downward slide of the nation and planet into such deep chaos that the living Earth systems upon which humanity depends will disintegrate beyond hope.