Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Truth is clearly overrated among our kind (1)

Orcs hate Elves with a passion.
(from Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien)

“Home home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has killed, through gassing, poisoning and strangulation by snare, 27 million native animals since 1996, including more than 1 million in 2014. The animals have included prairie dogs, gray wolves, mountain lions, black bears, foxes, coyotes and even bald eagles, and possibly a few domestic cats.

The mission of the USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) Wildlife Services “is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.” The WS is a government agency, its programs paid for by the taxpayers and supposedly answerable to all the citizens.

Yet most people, including the politicians responsible for oversight, have little understanding of the seemingly secret activities of this agency. What are the causes for each killing? Why is there a large variation from one year to the next? Is it merely a perception of a threat offered up by a farmer or rancher that causes the WS to kill wildlife? What role does corporate agriculture in general have in setting the “killing” priorities ... or, is it merely part of something much more corrupt and ultimately harmful to all of us?

Piling up the cow manure

In 1885 William A.J. Sparks, commissioner of the General Land Office, in his report to Congress, said
that “unscrupulous speculation resulted in the worst forms of land monopoly … throughout regions dominated by cattle-raising interests.” It has been said often enough that it's more than likely that land in the western states was acquired originally by assorted types of fraud.

The swindle, updated for the 21st century and more efficient, is still a swindle, with the possible consequences far worse today and affecting those that have never seen a real cow.

When a character like Cliven Bundy and his fellow travelers, the very essence of “welfare parasites,” state they will not pay a grazing fee for their cattle, keep in mind that the taxpayers of the United States are providing millions of dollars in indirect subsidies for private land ranchers. The actual federal grazing fee is approximately $1.35 a month per cow-calf pair in 2015, but the market rate on private land averages around $12.00.

One of the more colorful quotations comes from Brian Ertz, chairperson of Sierra Club's National Grazing Team, who said in 2014 in reference to an area on the Idaho-Nevada border: “One of the most cattle-fucked landscapes you'll ever see.”

Actual climate science tells us that one of the main contributors of greenhouse gases comes from meat production. It's also in the realm of possibility that the butchering of wildlife brought to you by the Wildlife Services has been decided by the livestock industry.

Today, desertification, pollution of water, destruction of cover for birds and mammals, mono-culturing of grasslands, deforestation and the destruction of native plants comes to us through poorly regulated grazing. In 1934 in congressional testimony the Forest Service referred to “ cancer-like growth” because of unregulated grazing. More than 70 years later we're still dealing with cancer-like growth and it's not because we don't understand the science today.

In 1946 The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created, a merger between Grazing Service and the General Land Office. Today it administers more than 247 million acres of public lands, mostly located in the western states. The BLM has sometimes been referred to, with a touch of bitterness, as the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. The question of course is who exactly does the BLM really work for. TO BE CONTINUED

Friday, January 22, 2016

10,000 biological generations

It is not that nature lacks intelligence but our own concepts do
(Jeremy Narby, anthropologist )

I saw the movie The Revenant this past week and it was good, not because of the acting and cinematography, which was excellent, but because of how the story was told. It's loosely based on the life of an actual fur trader Hugh Glass, who was supposedly almost killed by a grizzly bear in 1823. It is ostensibly a tale of human survival, but to the credit of the director, it reveals more than a man-vs-nature adventure film.

Seeing ourselves

Depredation, race, class, predatory capitalism are certainly revealed in the film but we also see human relationships with what can be called the natural world, as well as respect and understanding of the “other,” both human and non-human But I did find myself at times during the movie thinking about the criminal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by our modern day white terrorists grifters.

For those who have not seen the 2013 talk by Jeremy Narby, Intelligence in Nature, the following video is outstanding. He poses the question: How can we [humans] transform ourselves into intelligent predators?

The title of this article, “10,000 biological generations” refers to the fact that Homo-sapien-sapiens—us-- have only been around some 200,000 years, a drop in the evolutionary bucket. Whether or not we humans in our present form will be around 200 years from now is, in my opinion, questionable at best. But we have survived by the “skin of our teeth” in the past....

Our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee (See “Remembering uncle Sah” ) likely lived in what is now the country of Chad in Africa. Approximately 7 million years ago we went our separate ways. Now, the more than 7 billion(!) of us in the 21st century need to somehow radically change just who and what we are.

Malheur Refuge once again

Land use policy in the United States is worthy of serious discussion and debate at the local, state and national level, but the feverish, narcissistic fantasy of a segment of America to hand over all our national sanctuaries to the “private property” crowd because they think it's some sort of right they have acquired is on par with the old, nonsensical “divine right of kings.”

What is at stake, as humans, is changing the “concepts” about the world we live in and our place in it. In the meantime, in one small corner of Oregon, all of us collectively need to confront the idiocy of white entitlement accompanied by the usual threats of violence. Get out. Yeah, it's non-negotiable. We need to get on with solving genuine problems in the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The problem with America is....

Once again it's “Deja vu all over again.” Never ending white entitlement, delusional history and the usual threats of violence are now playing out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, one of the more important bird and wildlife sanctuaries in the country and located in an isolated corner of Oregon.

Malheur is being occupied by a handful of white (Christian?) terrorists with the apparent and enthusiastic support of ISIS no less. The Refuge, however, happens to belong to all the people of the United States.

But like a shopworn morality play our wild-wild-West has a familiar ring to it, going back to when the Europeans claimed ownership of those “empty” spaces following the American Civil War. The through-line or theme, nevertheless, has remained the same right up to the present time.

As early as 1805 two different creation stories appeared in an attempt to explain the founding of the United States. One was, later to be called the “Jeffersonian interpretation,” and the other known as the “natural” outcome of the Revolution of 1776. These versions of America's creation have been swirling around, re-imagined, and debated and argued about for more than 200 years.

It's all ours

At the end of the Civil War European-American turned their gaze toward our western frontier. It was now time for our pent up ambitions to be fulfilled—our (white) Manifest Destiny.

Coincidentally, the philosophy of Social Darwinism first appeared in Great Britain in the 1870s, which had little to do with evolution or Darwin, but did provide a justification and underpinning for white supremacy across the globe. It was adopted enthusiastically by America's elite, but for the average white American it merely confirmed what had been felt, culturally and socially, from the very start of the Republic.

The final piece in the “occupation” of the West was the railroad, the cutting edge technology of the 19th century. By the end of the century the railroad had helped make America a global trading partner, and by the end of World War I in 1918 the United States had become the premier economic power in the world. The start, however, was quite different from the fairy tales found in the average history book or the backs of cereal boxes.

“....the triumph of the unfit...”

For a fascinating and detailed history of the transcontinental railroad it's worth reading Richard White's book Railroaded. You'd recognize the Bernie Madoffs of the 19th century, the assorted speculators and those that created the 19th century equivalent of sub-prime loans and credit default swaps.

But the making of the West had little to do with the fanciful rugged individual or some 19th century libertarian John Gault wearing chaps and armed to the teeth. It had much more to do with large corporation colluding with the government, for private gains at public expense. It is a remarkable story of greed, incompetence and welfare capitalism at its supreme worst. Abraham Lincoln in 1864 said that, “Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.” He was most certainly right.

Unfortunately, along with the laughable business “tycoon” and corrupt government official and politician, there was a very dark side. It is a dismal story of genocide, racism, environmental destruction and overall depravity, which even by 19th century standards was simply barbaric.

Last but certainly not least is the iconic oil painting of cattle and cowboys adorning the boardroom walls of cattlemen associations, offices of western politicians—and the pages of comic strips.

Like the railroads, large cattle corporations were created, frequently by people that knew absolutely nothing about cows, cowboys and ranching. It was a kind of learning by doing, the ends of course justifying any means. Cattle corporations just like the railroads were often accused of violating anti-monopoly laws. There were numerous examples of unlawful enclosure of public lands, fraudulent attempts at controlling water resources, overgrazing and the cruelty of mass starvation of cattle.

Very much like the railroad corporations the cattle industry lived by financial illusion, where the numbers had virtually nothing to do with reality. As Richard White has said, in reference to the cattle business, “These land grabs were attempts by a classic nineteenth-century monopoly to claim a public resource for a privileged few.”

The cowboy himself was largely a myth even after the short-lived cattle drives ended. More often than not the average cowboy was underpaid, exploited, illiterate and old or dead by the time he was thirty-five.

Land belongs to (some of) us because we're the people

The short version is that the land around the current Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had originally belonged to the Northern Paiute Indian tribe, who had probably lived in the area for hundreds of years. They of course were eventually “removed” from the land by European-Americans in the 1870s.

President Theodore Roosevelt ( himself part of white American mythology) in 1908 created the Malheur refuge, one of the first sanctuaries in the United States, which was at that time unclaimed government lands, which consists today of more than 187,700 acres, including 120,000 acres of wetlands. The reason Roosevelt created this national wildlife refuge is because photographers in the 1880s discovered that plume hunters had decimated many North American birds. Feathers for ladies hats were popular at the time. Just your average American entrepreneur meeting a demand.

Not to worry, plenty of everything

B.J. Soper, a resident of the county where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located, while not a supporter of the illegal occupation of the refuge, nevertheless probably expressed the view of many westerners when he said to a journalist that, “What people in Western States are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life.” Fair enough, but whose way of life? Should we go back to the 1950s, the 1890s or possibly before any white person had set foot on what is now called the United States?

It must have seemed bountiful beyond belief when the first white people started moving west, All this “free” stuff as far as the eye could see and all for the taking. Capitalism globally since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the past 220 years or so, never really took into account what actual costs were. Such things as grass, water, the degradation of grasslands, pollution of the air, the overuse of toxic chemicals, the slaughter of wildlife never entered any balance sheet. It's still resisted today, even though the rhetoric has been updated.

The Bundy crowd and their camp followers are nothing new. Some 30 years ago a conservative land-use doctrine called Wise Use emerged, a successor if you will to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, which goes back even farther to to the anti-national park movement, which goes back ultimately to Plymouth Rock and the European understanding of what was “developed land” in the early 17th century.

The Wise Use doctrine claims that moral primacy in the West belongs to ranching families, logging and all natural resource companies. The goal is to eliminate such things as most of our environmental regulations, get rid of the Endangered Species Act, promise unrestricted use of off-road vehicles and privatize virtually everything. What a grand vision!

Above all else the true believers will tell anyone that listens that they are far better stewards of the land than any government entity. Needless to say the timber industry, the mining and oil industry, among others, while not necessarily in support of armed bandits with automatic weapons, tell us that these poor souls are victims of government overreach. Of course they are.

Death eaters, dead-enders and the profitable business of victimhood

In a perfect world Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, would willingly pay the extremely modest grazing fee ( now up to some $1 million ) as a functioning citizen of the United States, in order to keep his cattle on my property—or--he would be living out his days in a federal prison and his cows sold on the open market.

Ammon Bundy, the oldest son of Cliven and the self-proclaimed leader of the white terrorist militia at Malheur, is a recipient of a small business government loan, courtesy of my tax dollars. He is not even a rancher but an owner of a trucking business in Arizona.

It is not that we can not find any ranchers in the West today who understand modern land ecology, different ways of raising cattle, the importance of large natural sanctuaries, the value of predators in a healthy ecosystem, climate change, as well as ultimately preserving a future legacy for all Americans; it's that we still have, hovering over everything, a thuggish history of human plundering, a disrespect for nature and above all the decaying ideology of white entitlement and self-serving victimhood.

Most likely the majority of people that are sympathetic to these various white militia groups do not want to go to prison or get shot, but it's pretty clear there is a core group of deadenders that long for a cowbilly Valhalla. We as a society must get on with the 21st century if we want to preserve anything worthwhile.

We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could any one expec t less. Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties.
(General Philip Henry Sheridan, Commanding Army General in Army Report of 1878)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I can't find my bootstraps to pull up

Clinton's welfare reform was the logical conclusion of Ronald Reagan's pernicious use of the 'welfare queen' myth in the 1980s.
(Amy B. Dean, fellow, Century Foundation)

The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind—it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.
(Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister, Nazi Germany)

Nature and nurture

“Good wombs have born bad sons,” as Shakespeare says in The Tempest. The nature versus nurture debate goes back to at least the time of Plato. But perhaps over the past fifteen or twenty years we have acquired a remarkable pool of knowledge regarding human behavior in general, be it the mapping of the human genome, neuroscience discoveries, behavioral psychology or even the controversial field of genopolitics. As individuals we are a complex mixture of genetic and environmental factors. But who are we in assorted groups or various interests or particular markets?

Behavioral economics it seems to me has a great deal to offer, for example, the 2016 presidential election in the United States, which promises to be once again less than enlightening, informative and honest.

Behavioral economics may also have a lot to say about how we look at poverty in the U.S. and throughout the world. Poverty in America has come out of the shadows, for the moment at least, in part because of the issue of racism, a central piece in understanding this country.

Where once behavioral economics was an outlier in the field, it has now become an influential element in understanding economic decision making. Even the World Bank in its 2015 annual report devoted most of the document to behavioral decision making. Ultimately, to be truly successful, it has to influence policymakers to think in a different way. This, however, is hardly ever easy; we humans are reluctant to let facts get in the way of our strongly held beliefs. Call it nature vs nurture.

My cortisol hormone just doesn't feel right

Researchers are familiar with what's called a hormone-receptor complex. There are steroid hormones, which include cortisol, estrogen and testosterone. Cortisol, for example, is released under stress, the proverbial threat, but it can also occur by merely thinking about unpleasant things. High levels of cortisol over long periods may cause such illnesses as depression, heart disease and overall suppression of the immune system.

Stress and prolonged complex tasks can cause glucose levels in the region of the brain associated with attention and planning to drop. Physical capabilities can decrease but mental acuity can be affected as well.

Neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine being two, are related to stress and motivation. Levels of serotonin in an individual can affect the sense of well being and confidence. These individual variations might cause different reactions and possibly have a bearing on how we think about and react to real world issues, such as violence, gay marriage and poverty.

The point of all this is that we know a good deal more about genetic and environmental factors when it comes to human behavior. This connects to behavioral economists and how they have looked at the field of psychology and the discoveries in neuroscience and have adapted and applied many of the ideas to economics. Some have referred to behavioral economics as the “hybrid offspring” of economics and psychology.

You've been framed

Frank Luntz, a political operative in the early George W. Bush presidency, told the administration that it was important to always refer to global warming as “climate change.” This phrase, it was believed, was less unsettling and more controllable, thus more easily ignored. The fossil fuel industry could rest easily.

More than 30 years ago two psychologists published a paper questioning the standard assumptions regarding decision making, which ultimately had a significant impact on traditional economic theory. See Prospect Theory: An Analysis ofDecision Under Risk.

The long standing belief had been that the “Economic Man” was rational and by in large made self-interested decisions. Intentionally or otherwise, this idea benefited the status quo and provided a justification for what has been thought to be the “inherent” wisdom of what is universally referred to as the free-market, which is hardly “free” in any sense of the word.

What was being suggested is that the reality was actually more about how alternatives were framed and not about their “relative value.” It became all too often a zero-sum game. The framing was what strongly influenced the decisions that people made.

Now, some thirty years later, the word “framing” is familiar to a great many people, and certainly it's part of the strategy for both marketeers and political operatives among others. Of course, who would want to pay a “death” tax. Outrageous! But what about a small percentage of the rich paying a very moderate estate tax upon their departure from the living, considering how they benefited from America's political and economic system? Andrew Carnegie, one of the founding fathers of the Gilded Age, did not believe that the children of the rich ought to be handed a pot of gold. This was the United States and we of course did not want to create a parasitic aristocracy. You've been framed.

Now, behavioral economists are looking at how people actually act in making economic decisions, which could influence the kinds of programs that might be developed, not only in dealing with poverty but improving upon the choices we all make—unlike what the traditional economic model claims we have been doing all along. It has been to a large degree a lovely fairy tale. Go ahead, treat yourself and pull out that credit card. You deserve it.

The problem with those people

It seems that so many of the tired, moth-eaten cliches have never gone away and have a life of their own: character flaw, lazy, lack of self-discipline and so forth have been the constant refrain. In my part of the country you only have to follow the state legislatures in Missouri and Kansas to know that obliviousness and general obtuseness have been raised to the level of sacred text.

It's not that an individual might be deemed unambitious, but that an entire class of people or group of individuals have been summarily dismissed as, well, “flawed.”

What makes behavioral economics so compelling is the many studies that have been undertaken and the quantifiable data gathered. It refutes so many of the standard, mythical economic beliefs beloved by the status quo—most obviously the comfortable and the privileged.

In the now well studied Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944, as the allies advanced across Europe, the Nazis let the people of Holland starve. This affected the fetuses of pregnant women, especially those fetuses in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. The fetuses took the cue from their mother's low nutrient intake, but even when the war ended and there was plenty of food, in many cases the “thrifty” metabolism couldn't stop storing calories away. In a number of instances health problems like diabetes developed later on for these children.

We learned that physical deterioration was clearly obvious, but we also observed the mental effects of starvation. Food became the central thought, above anything else. Fast forward more than 60 years later and behavioral economists want to know how mental states along with social and physical environments affect economic activity on a very specific level … realizing that one size (program) does not fit all.

While behavioral economists, like any group of people, can have varied points of view, some basic ideas seem to stand out, oftentimes contrary to the prevailing views. Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at Harvard has said that, “To put it crudely, poverty—no matter who you are—can make you dumber.”--anywhere in the world, among any economic class of people.

The gnawing away of cognitive competence, counter-productive decisions, the inability to consider the long-term best interest are all related to what economists refer to as scarcity. While the standard belief is generally that those poor people are poor because they make bad decisions, the behavioral economists believe that people make bad decisions because they are poor, perhaps obvious to some people, but observing (in the U.S.) the Congress, many state legislatures and numerous politicians pontificating on poverty and the poor, you would be hard pressed to locate cognitive competence among these “decision makers.”

This is a complex subject, and while behavioral economics is a central part of economic theory today, for many, it goes against deeply ingrained beliefs and vested interests. Framing is going to matter a lot.

For those who want additional information on the subject the following may be of interest:




Friday, May 15, 2015

By by ice shelf

Larsen B, Antarctic

Nature is always changing. You environmentalists and your scare tactics. Don't worry, be happy. We'll study it when we have time.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Friday, May 01, 2015

Climate change once again, and again--and again

When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do, sir?
(John Maynard Keynes)

A perpetual motion machine for sale

Snake oil salesmen

A number of years ago I was at a global climate change conference in Washington, D.C. One day was devoted to visiting the offices of various senators and representatives. I ran into a cigarette lobbyist, a former congressman from North Carolina, who was visiting the representative from his old district who was a personal friend. We had a pleasant chat before he was ushered into the office of his friend. While we chatted, I wondered what he might have said if I'd told him he was working for a criminal enterprise. Needless to say, back then, I didn't. Probably today I would have.

The fossil fuel industry has run a similar campaign to what the cigarette manufacturers once did. It has worked for a very long time. It's about denial, deception and a belief that the public in general is easily manipulated and by in large not well informed.

How the good guys win

Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right 
(George Orwell)