Category Archives: U.S.

Faith and Credit

or: Do We Believe in Magic…

or: One Coin to Rule Them All…

or: I guess I’d better post this before midnight tonight

or: Looks like there’s a deal so what you’re about to read is pointless. Read it anyway.

So it’s been a while (again) but I’ve been urged via the ol’ social network site to post something about the shutdown. But I’d rather not. The shutdown is no more than what it was when Clinton was in office – a temper tantrum thrown by grown men and women who haven’t gotten their way. (Though let’s face it; it’s mostly men – this is the Republican party we’re talking about.) What I’m saying is, temper tantrums don’t phase me – I’ve got a toddler. What does have my wheels turnin’ these days is the possibility (likelihood?) of default. Not so much because it’s going to send the global financial system into a tailspin (though there’s that too) but because it brings into focus my favorite thing about money: it’s worthless. Yep. Worthless. All of it. The euro, the franc, the pound, the dollar bill and even gold are all worthless.

Well… worthless with one rather large caveat.

If we agree something has value then it has value. But until then it’s just a piece of paper or some shiny metal. Big deal. Now, I’d go so far as to say the whole notion of value is a farce but I’m not a sociopath. Value exists in and emerges from human interaction – be it with each other or the material world. Trust bears value by strengthening bonds between people. Creativity bears value when it consoles and inspires the creator and consumer of art. And while value does not exist inherently in any material object, it does begin to take on a life of its own once embodied in our legal and cultural infrastructure. Money of course is the most tangible and universally accepted expression of the intangible life of value. And I suspect somewhere in its bodiless nature is the real reason we can’t just mint the damn coin.

Once a certain value has been assumed for long enough it takes on a very – for lack of a better term – real realness. And we believe in it much the same way that religious believers hold true to religious tenets. That is, our behavior reflects our assumptions about the value of currency the same way believers’ behavior reflects the assumptions built in to their faith. It’s weird to say but when thought of in this way, the entire global financial system rests on faith. Sure, that faith rests upon a particular Treasury bill that can of course be backed up by the world’s largest economy and and most powerful military. (The same can be said of the Catholic Church seven or eight-hundred years ago). But if everyone stopped believing in it, you can imagine the financial shitstorm that would follow.

Or would it?

Thanks to the current make up of the House of Representatives we might find out sooner than later. But again, that’s not what I want to talk about.

So back to the coin… err… I mean The Coin.

The Treasury has the legal authority to mint a platinum gold coin for whatever value it chooses. So legally(?) the treasury could mint a trillion dollar coin, deposit it with the Federal Reserve, and fund the government. This would allow the US to meet its financial obligations and render the House’s authority over the debt ceiling moot. But it would also state rather clearly that currency of any sort is only worth what those with the power to do so determine. And while we already know to be the case, like many other cultural fictions, the idea that paper given a certain color and made of particular fiber holds some inherent value is pervasive and not easily dismissed – which is part of its strength as currency. It’s value is simply assumed. Markets ebb and flow and sometimes inflate and crash. We go to the grocery store and buy what we need. And then we check our accounts. Sometimes we’re up. Sometimes we’re down. And while the value of a certain currency may go up or down relative to other currencies, we never question that it holds value of some sort.

But to say that a belief is pervasive is not the same as saying it is essential. So I guess what I’m asking is, “Can the global economy still function if backed up by one magic coin versus a deluge of magic treasury bills?”. Would we be able to believe in the “full faith and credit of the United States” if it rests on a single piece of shiny metal?

Sure, the trillion dollar coin seems like a slight of hand but, then again, isn’t all currency? And if we all come to terms with the idea that money is little more than a tangible abstraction of real value, why wouldn’t we continue to act in good faith (pun intended) on the debts of exchange in which we’ve already engaged? Sure, as demonstrated by the GOP over the last few years (decades?) some of us would not act in good faith. Could be that they’re simply not capable. But let me draw a parallel between the high priests of finance and the high priest of… well, I guess he’s just the high priest. It might be be a bit of a stretch but that’s what I do here at the ol’ JobSite Liberal blog.

Not too long ago Pope Francis gave an interview in which he called into question the idea of absolute truth saying, “I would not speak, not even for a believer, of ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense of absolute as disconnected, lacking any relationship”. In the same interview, he stated that following one’s conscience is of greater import than belonging to a particular faith, even if doing so leads a person towards atheism or agnosticism. Pretty sophisticated thinking for the Catholic Church I’d say. What he’s essentially saying is that he trusts people to act in good faith in relation to one another without the Church’s guidance. But he’s also saying your beliefs don’t determine what happens. Now suppose that this line of thinking about absolutes is applied to the almighty dolla dolla bill instead of uh, the Almighty.

Regardless of our ability to believe that a value of a trillion dollars can be summed up in one platinum coin, if there is a legal framework for it, and more importantly, if there are a variety of institutions able to continue the circulation of capital, then POOF, the global economy is held up by one magic coin. Yes, the coin is symbolic. But the legal and cultural infrastructure that support it are not. If only the masters of the economic universe were as savvy and sophisticated as the leader of the Catholic Church.

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I’m Baaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaack…

or: Trains = Hitler!!!

or: Driving is dumb. Seriously, driving is dumb.

A Friday or so ago, I found myself bellied up talking family, politics, and work woes with my old buddy Discomustachio. When our mutually lapsed blogs came up I said there comes a point when screaming into the abyss feels like pissing in the wind and we immediately knew how I would start my next post. I went on, “The catharsis that comes with thinking aloud in the nameless, faceless void of cyberspace begins to lose its appeal when time to do so becomes less and less and thoughts can’t be fully thought because for the first time in seven+ years you’re no longer on a job accessible via public transit…” – I went on some more – “…so instead of blogging you’re channeling your creative energy into reasoning why you shouldn’t punch yourself in the face which would clearly be more pleasurable than being stuck in traffic behind three buses on Western Ave because school just got out or being gridlocked on the Kennedy because, well, it’s the fucking Kennedy or driving 15.6 miles out of your way to get home in seventy minutes instead of seventy-five on a good day”. (I’m aware that makes for quite the run-on sentence, but like I said, we were bellied up and I’m embellishing a bit.)

But to be perfectly honest, I can’t blame my absence from the JobsiteLiberal solely on being stuck in traffic two-and-half to three hours a day (much that I would like to). At least some of my absence from blogging can be blamed on something entirely different but equally petty. Plain and simple, I didn’t want to be on record with all three of my regular readers saying something dumb in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Sure that may seem contradictory to some – after all, what would a blog be that didn’t at least occasionally venture into the Realm of the Dumb? I guess I just felt there was a enough collective Dumb swirling around the social and “news” networks that I didn’t need to make my contribution to the pile. And what a steaming pile it was. But now that I’m back on a job accessible via public trans I’ve decided – at the risk of saying something dumb – that it’s time to fire up the JobsiteLiberal again – even if the only noticeable result is a urine soaked collection of denim.

So what to write about in my much anticipated return? One of the many scandal-less scandals* in the news lately?

Nah – I think Colbert‘s got that covered.

How about Boston now that I’ve had time to gather my thoughts?

Nope – not that either. Still feels like tragedy porn and I’m not yet recovered from the bombing’s ensuing barrage of Facebook idiocy or, for that matter, the it’s myriad conspiracy theories – Jesus Christ the fucking conspiracy theories. (On a related note, why oh why do so many people confuse conspiracy theorizing with critical thinking?)

Ok – so maybe the factory explosion on West, Texas from the same week? Seems ripe with potential extrapolations for a blog called JobsiteLiberal.

Maybe next post.

Alright, I think I’m onto something – how about, to mark my humble return to the glories of the CTA, public transportation? Seems safe enough. Boring, even, and definitely not a post that might cause a rift between friends. Sounds like a nice way to ease back in this assumed virtual identity. (After all, I don’t want to soak my jeans after just one post.)

Well that settles it – public trans it is.

Let me start by saying I love the CTA – buses and rail alike. Metra too. Pretty much any method of transit that allows me to focus on something other than getting somewhere for the entire time I’m getting there is fine by me. The Metro, the MARTA, the MTA, the CTA, the RTA, I love ’em all. The Orange Line to MDW, the Blue Line to ORD, the ‘A’ Train to JFK (now up and running again), the South Line to ATL – all good stuff. Anytime a blue collar worker such as myself can have the effective luxury of ‘a driver‘ or at bare minimum be relieved of the cost of parking or the hassle of finding a spot, I’m in.

“But wouldn’t you prefer to be on your own schedule?” you ask.

But aren’t I? It’s not our mode of transit that determines our schedules, it’s work and other obligations that determine our schedules.

“But… but… Freedom!” you insist.

Freedom indeed. I can’t imagine many behaviors more slavish (2nd definition) than subjecting myself to the unnecessary abuse of traffic jams and gas price volatility when with a little hustle and ingenuity I could be reading what I want (sci-fi as of late), browsing the web, reading the paper, digging into my RSS, zoning out entirely, or catching up on some much needed sleep all while getting where I need to go. Now what are my options when I’m driving? They’re pretty much limited to listening to the radio. But as long as I brought my walkman/discman/mp3 player/smartphone, I can do that on the train as well. What else can I do whilst driving? Punch myself in the face? Maybe. But again, I can do that on the train too though I can’t imagine I would feel the need with so many other options. And if that is my preferred extracurricular activity I’m pretty sure I could do it with that much more ferocity when I needn’t see the road before me.

Here’s my point – I’ve gone on ad nauseaum about the importance of institutions promoting the condition of freedom but let’s face it, freedom rooted in our collective institutions is slow to develop and quick to rigor. Freedom built into the space around us on the other hand is immediate and can act as a baseline for the more complicated and harder-to-quantify (try as some may) freedom that depends on a tenuous relationship of increasingly disparate institutions. And ya know, “Yay bikes!” and all that but our national infrastructure is a far cry from one that facilitates our individual agency and thus promotes freedom. Instead, a sprawling, poorly maintained highway system alongside a public transit system perpetually plagued by funding shortages limit too many of us to lead car-centric lives.

Now this may seem petty, especially with the “revelations” regarding our privacy last week. But if our concern is freedom, we shouldn’t restrain ourselves to the cyclopsian** view that the relationship between freedom and government action is a zero sum equation. We should also be asking ourselves what actions our government can take to promote freedom and individual agency. One answer that I can offer is a massive infrastructure project based in the expansion of public transportation. Stay with me here. It may feel like I’m about to go off of the proverbial tracks but, as always, I’m going somewhere – I promise.

The NBER working paper Subways, Strikes, and Slowdowns suggests that not only does public transit promote freedom by providing people with more ways of going hither and yon; it also promotes freedom by reducing the amount of time people without access to public transit spend getting themselves where the have to go. My man Paul Krugman sums up nicely: “[M]ass transit has a significant impact in reducing traffic congestion, even when it carries only a small fraction of commuters. Why? Because commuters who take mass transit are, very disproportionately, people who would otherwise be driving on the most congested routes. So even the small number of people taken off the roads has a surprisingly large effect in reducing travel delays.” In other words, when people choose public transit over private autos, not only are they free to do as they please on the train/bus/carriage but they de facto provide others with more time that they don’t have to be stuck in traffic on the fucking Kennedy in their godforsaken cars. Sounds like more freedom for all if you ask me.

Ezra Klein gets to a larger point about our national infrastructure in general which basically amounts to “Now! Now! Now!”. “Delaying either [infrastructure investment or reducing the deficit] means saddling the future with debts we declined to pay off in the present. But this is a particularly good time to invest in infrastructure and a particularly bad time to cut deep into the deficit”. Let me explain: it’s a good time to invest because, when you account for inflation, interest rates are so low that the U.S. government can borrow at negative interest rates – even with inflation as low as it has been and is projected to be. It’s a bad time to cut because the amount of money circulating through the economy is well below what it could be and taking any more out just slows things down further. So let’s borrow and spend the money now and put people back to work. As Klein also points out, “Putting them to work today would be a huge boon to the economy in a way it won’t be in, say, 10 years, when they’ll (hopefully) have work.” And let’s put ’em back to work on public transit projects where we’ll get the most bang for our buck – or freedom for our, er, finances? You get the point.

Anyway, that’s that. A little bolierplate liberal thinking on public transportation to get the wheels turnin’ again. Not as pointed as I like but at least my jeans are still mostly dry – so I got that goin’ for me. I’ll be back later this week or early next.

* I started this post before the big NSA data mining revelations last week so cut me some slack if I don’t seem to be freaking out over it. Though if you want to know where I stand, I’m probably with Andrew Sullivan who for the time being seems to have the least knee jerk reaction to the whole deal. #underwhelmed

** Cyclopsia – the tendency to apply the same intellectual framework to a variety of social and political phenomena. Individual cases yield the cognitive bias known as ‘illusory correlation’. It is contagious and is generally spread via Internet. These collective, more extreme cases which have become more common since the Iraq war are at the root of most conspiracy theories. Sufferers tend to make a point of confusing said conspiracy theories with critical thinking. More on this later.

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Who we are…

I’ve said before how this president’s words are, well, better than anything I might come up with. That’s particularly true in the face of tragedy.

“We also know this — the American people refuse to be terrorized. Because what the world saw yesterday in the aftermath of the explosions were stories of heroism and kindness, and generosity and love: Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood, and those who stayed to tend to the wounded, some tearing off their own clothes to make tourniquets. The first responders who ran into the chaos to save lives. The men and women who are still treating the wounded at some of the best hospitals in the world, and the medical students who hurried to help, saying ‘When we heard, we all came in.’ The priests who opened their churches and ministered to the hurt and the fearful. And the good people of Boston who opened their homes to the victims of this attack and those shaken by it.

“So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”

– Barack Obama
04/16/2013

A quick note to the government-is-the-root-of-all-evil conspiracy theorists…

Dear anti-government conspiracy theorists,

I know I’m beating a dead horse here but seriously, the “government” is not at the root of all the world’s ills. It really, really isn’t.

When I started seeing this

receive competition from this

I wanted to punch myself in the face.

Repeatedly.

Because, frankly, it’d be less painful and way less annoying than trying to explain everything that was wrong with this notion. But before I could ball my hand into a fist and let the pummeling begin, I saw this

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And I thought it was awesome.

Not just because it brings into focus what’s at stake in the fight for marriage equality but it reminds us that our words and ideas are mere parts in a greater sum. When we talk about marriage, we refer to publicly expressed love and lifelong commitment. But in the fight for marriage equality we speak specifically of the legal recognition of these things between people of the same sex, too. And that matters.

Government is not “in charge” of marriage in any other way than by denying gay men and women the right to marry. Outside of that, government is the institution through which we mediate marriage’s intrinsic entanglements with other institutions – like, for instance, insurance companies. And, ya know, parenthood. And, hey, what about that American-as-cherry-pie institution known as divorce? Yes, yes, if you didn’t get married in the first place you wouldn’t have to get divorced. But if that’s the line of argument that you’re taking, then there should be no legal recognition of marriage at all. And if we go a little further down that rabbit hole then we find ourselves saying that there should be no government at all and then I start punching myself in the face.

Repeatedly.

Now I can understand if you would like to watch me punch myself. Sometimes I’m a dick and I probably deserve it. But if you don’t want government “in charge” of marriage, you would do yourself well in recognizing the difference between denying and facilitating rights as well as broadening your understanding of our relationship with our institutions. Drop the de-institutionalization nonsense of our parents’ generation and do or say something constructive rather than tout some contradictory Paulist idiocy that does little more than humor your friends’ struggle. Because when you say something like, “Real equality would be government that is not in charge of marriage,” you’re effectively saying, “You’re fight for marriage equality is pointless and silly, I don’t understand why you would want to get married anyway.” That, or, you’re just trying to sound smart…

…and failing.

Miserably.

Regards,

JSL

The Return of Discomustachio…

Occasionally I venture into areas of debate that are slightly out of my realm of expertise. This was certainly the case when I started drawing comparisons between the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” in this post. (My BA after all is in religious studies, not US history.) Lucky for me, I had just the guy to turn to for help in fleshing out my thoughts: my old buddy Discomustachio. He used to host a blog with a political bent similar to JSL called “Whydontyourelax”. It was funny and always informative and able to deliver a harsh reality in a matter-of-fact and digestible manner. About a year or so ago, he and I were out bar-hopping our way through Bridgeport and I was schooled (in the most welcome way) on the manner by which political remnants of the cold war still play a role in international policy. So clearly, when I started thinking about parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror, I knew I had the guy to talk to. But rather than talking it out and regurgitating his thoughts, I asked him to write a guest post for me.  So here it is:

The Return of Discomustachio…

The Jobsite Liberal asked me some time ago to address the question of how our rights as citizens and our government’s ability to infringe on those rights have differed from the Cold War to the modern era. Due to the endless distractions that life throws at you I never really had any time to really devote to this. And then at work one day I got a fresh cup of coffee, decided to take a break (from working), and decided to have a “one-off” with this topic. So here’s a 20 minute ramble on a word doc…

In comparing the relationship of US citizens to their government and how it compares to different periods of our history deemed “crucial” or “special” it’s important to remember that, historically, this current period is like any other time in our history. The rights that we are allowed by our government and their willingness to infringe on those rights may differ depending on the threat but they will always try to balance the need to protect the nation with staying in keeping with the moral foundation of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice. But ensuring the continuation of the system is always the mission – even if it means a certain percentage of citizens are rightfully or wrongfully denied their rights. Publicly the government may drone on about individual liberty and the rights of citizens. But in the end, as Dick Chenney once said, “Moral principle is meaningless if you lose,” (which may well be the only thing he’s ever said that I agree with).

So consider for a moment the threats we have faced over, say, the last 50 years. People in today’s world often forget that in the Cold War years the threat to the nation was complete. It was irreversible if realized. It was all encompassing and it was systemic. A nuclear war with the Soviets was something that could not be tolerated.  So, helping them was seen as the true measure of violating your relationship to your country if you were a citizen. From the government’s stand point, simply helping the Soviets could tip the balance of power, encourage them to choose general nuclear war if they felt they had a true first strike advantage, and render all principles the US supposedly adhered to meaningless as it crumbled under the weight of nuclear destruction. The need to curtail citizens’ rights were premised on preventing this eventuality; the balance needing to be struck between allowing citizens the power of constructive dissent all while ensuring the republic survives – primarily by keeping the global balance of power in place. Of course it was easy to misuse this understanding in order to further different agendas that may run counter to the spirit of allowing citizens their freedom. Consider the endless accusations by Segregationists in the American south calling MLK a Communist and arguing that his prevention from participating in public life was actually good for social order.  Back then the aim of Southern White Supremacists was to prevent Black Liberation.  Sure, it was ludicrous to infer that the Civil Rights movement actually aimed to make Alabama Kazakhstan – but the endless accusations that activists like MLK were “Communists” played all too well into the prejudices of those who were against Black Liberation in the first place. Tying Black Liberation with Communism played into the public at larges’ understanding over the world they lived in, the space that they inhabited, and the threats the world posed to them as citizens.  No one rightfully though that MLK or the Black Panthers would aid the Soviets in anything.  But the simple subconscious association with pairing the two ideologies helped opponents of Black rights continue to disrupt Black progress wherever they could.

Fast forward to today and the relationship between security and rights needs to be more intrusive and focused because the nature of the threat is entirely different. Now that the US is the only dominant power in the world – the modern day Rome – it’s entirely true to argue that destabilizing the international system is the real threat. We are the reserve currency. We are the military stabilization force for Global Corporatism. Our position on the globe just in terms of shear geography provide us with an advantage that no other nation can dream of. At the same time, the threat to that system is much more diffuse and doesn’t require our nations complete destruction to alter the balance of power. Consider the aim of Al-Qaida, which is primarily to weaken the United States enough to force it to retreat from the world, which would then, in their best case scenario, allow Muslim nations a much larger say in global affairs as they would be united under some sort of modern day Caliphate. In order make that reality possible one need not saturate North America with nuclear missiles. Our complete geographic destruction doesn’t play into it. Instead, the application of hostile force to our systemic weak points is what drives Islamic militant strategy. So, because an American born cleric who’s publicly declared war on his nation of birth (as Alwaki did before getting his ass blown in half by a predator drone) can post YouTube videos encouraging other Muslim born Americans to conduct attacks on the United States, he becomes a threat because the level of what the system can tolerate and still function has been greatly reduced in a world run by the US. In the Cold War days someone getting on YouTube (had there been one) and advocating for the Soviet Union to launch a premeditated nuclear strike against NATO, or any hostile military move, would have been deemed nuts and would have hardly been considered a threat because unless he worked in the military his ability to aid that attack was nil. He wasn’t even a pawn in that great game. But in a world in which 3 or 4 Islamist fanatics, or right wing Christian fanatics, or left wing anarchist fanatics, can launch a cyber attack that would cripple the power grid indefinitely and cause a complete destabilization of the United States and the global system along with it, “protecting the rights of citizens” has to be measured against the ability of one single solitary citizens ability to destroy our system of government, making US moral principles meaningless as we all shoot each other trying to get the last can of soup from the Jewel Osco everyone has raided in the ensuing chaos.

Of course, misusing the understanding of these threats continues today just as it did in any other “pivotal” era of this nation’s history.  Think of all of the times someone on Fox News screamed that liberals “wanted the terrorists to win” for simply questioning the rationale for invading Iraq, to say nothing of the evidence.  Think of every time MSNBC screamed that George W Bush was a “dictator” despite his never actually infringing on anyone’s rights en masse.  Sure, some folks got whisked off to Gitmo.  Some folks had the NSA listen to their phone calls to relatives in Yemen.  But those were not the actions of a dictator, just as killing American citizens who are actively aiding the terrorist enemy in Yemen via Predator drones is not dictatorial either (I’m talking to you, Rand “I love the sound of my own voice” Paul).

In the end, every individual citizen needs to figure out for themselves where they stand on issues regarding the rights of citizens vs. the need to protect the nation from those who wish for our destruction. To the individual citizen, the choice is clear. You want your rights protected and that’s the end.  Depending on your understanding of “freedom” you will rationalize what you feel is acceptable.  But that’s where the problem comes in doesn’t it?  You may feel that you should have the freedom to stockpile massive amounts of automatic weapons in some sort of need to satiate your fear of some unspecified apocalypse.  But, since you can take those weapons and give them to others who might want to conduct a mass casualty operation, like the Hutaree Militia in Michigan in 2010, are you not a threat to the system at that point?  Are you not equipped to strike at the very same weak points that groups like Al-Qaida might target?  The point is that whether or not you are some Christian Nationalist, or some hacker, or a US born Islamist, or just some guy, you have to reconcile the idea that we can’t live in a nation that protects the individual liberty of its citizenry in its entirety.  You simply can’t protect the system by protecting every single solitary citizen’s rights.  Those who are hostile to the system will take advantage of their rights in order to destabilize the system.  What one must accept is that we can either live in our imperfect society that is filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s, or we can exist in anarchy in a world filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s.  The difference between the two is simply that what the Haves and Have Not’s value in each system is drastically different.  You can either choose to bitch and moan on your computer in air conditioning or fight for that last can of soup at the Jewel-Osco.

Of porta-johns, welfare, and capitalism…

Type “drug test” in the search box in the upper right hand corner of your screen.

Seriously. I’ll wait.

What’s the third or fourth auto-complete option that Google provides for you?

If you gathered I’m asking a rhetorical question and that I already knew the answer was “drug test for welfare” you’d be right. Sure, It’s a pretty crude use of Google’s data analysis but I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that outside of a generic drug test search and people looking for ways around urine and hair tests, the most common Google “drug test” search revolves around the idea that our civil liberties are somehow contingent upon our status of employment. (Yes, yes, many of us that are ineligible for welfare benefits must submit to drug tests either as a pre-req for employment or as a means of maintaining employment via random urine tests but that’s besides that point. I know a number of people don’t believe that’s besides the point but, I promise you, it is. I’ll tell you why later.) Outside Google’s predictive algorithms, there was a meme/survey asking whether welfare recipients should submit to a drug test in order to receive their benefits on the ol’ Facebook not too long ago. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

If information technology and social networking sites don’t strike you as indicative of broader social sentiments, how about the bills proposed by our political representatives? Among those that believe the clean-pee-for-money swap legitimate are Rick Scott (R) of Florida, Steve Fincher (R) of Tennessee, Jeff Farrington (R) of Michigan. Nevermind the fact that Scott’s program ended up costing the state more than it saved (not just by a little) or that it was put on hold four months after it was enacted because it lacked constitutional muster or that it’s based on the racist(?), classist(?), and just plain dumb assumption that if you’ve hit hard times your drug habit is probably to blame. Where does this pro-active distrust come from? I mean, it’s a pretty ripe form of hate when you feel the need to legislate kicking someone that’s down – especially when there are other, much more fruitful paths down which one could venture.

I give you exhibit A:

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.

No, no, no, this isn’t the stall that welfare recipients are supposed to use when they pee in cup. It’s the stall that anyone that’s ever worked on a highrise or any other large scale job in the city of Chicago has become accustomed to using throughout the workday. Now you’re probably wondering, “Besides urine and it’s accompanying odor, what’s this poor excuse of a porta-john got to do with drug tests?”.

Let me paint a picture for you.

While my pants are at my ankles and I’m pinching off last night’s sloppy joe’s, there’s about a 60% chance (give or take) that another tradesman will walk up to the back of the open-air ‘facility’ that I’m occupying and empty their bladder into the trough immediately behind me. I exaggerate when I describe the experience as someone pissing down my back, but only a little. Now I want you to take that dynamic and apply it to this whole clean-urine-for-cash thing. You’ve got one member of society that’s obviously having a rough go of it. It’s cold out. Their movement is restricted by the limited space within which they’re provided to do their business not to mention the short distance between their belt hoops and their work boots.  They obviously had to go because who the hell wouldn’t put off evacuating their bowels until they got home if this was their only option? They’re also wondering whether they checked for TP before they sat down. Put simply, they’re exposed and vulnerable. But instead of co-workers relieving themselves in such demoralizingly close proximity because it’s the only sanctioned and available place to do so, they’ve got their elected representatives and a majority of the population clamoring for the chance even though they could do there business elsewhere.

But let’s face it, in both cases, the money’s too good to pass up. The company that supplies the johnny-half-a-john sees the trough-to-toilet arrangement as efficient both in regards to cost and shipping. The construction management company thinks they’re getting two bathroom options for the price of one. It’s a win/win. Except for the laborer, of course, but if he’s takin’ a crap on company time, he deserves it, right? So then there’s the added bonus of a demoralized workforce which, when you think about it, has no one to blame but itself. I mean, it’s not as though there’s a rule against waiting for the guy (there are generally separate, fully enclosed porta-johns for women on the job) ahead of you to finish. But you know as well as I that when times are as tough as they’ve been for the last five years, the only time you’d better be caught with your dick in you hands is when you’re doing something with it – and even then, it’d better be during your break. As for the whole “anyone who receives any form of the wide range of welfare benefits is either lazy or on drugs” bit, it’s an expression of the same tendency of the working and middle class to turn on itself when taxes and money are invoked by manipulative, divisive, and coercive pundits and politicians. From Atwater’s “Ya can’t just say ‘nigger, nigger, nigger‘ so say state rights and forced busing instead” to Boehner’s relentless claim that “Washington’s got a spending problem” to the unkillable idea that people that have come on hard times should be forced to submit to a urine test – it all acts to ensure that distributions of power and wealth remain unchanged – that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s classic Machiavellian divide and rule and it’s all done by invoking race, age, class, sexual preference, citizenship, and employment status. As long as we keep pissing down each others’ backs we won’t take the time to ask, “Who designed this fuckin’ thing and what can we do to change it?”.

But of course this doesn’t speak to the more insidious issue at hand. The lines of division and distrust that are struck wouldn’t ring with nearly as much dissonance if they didn’t speak to broader cultural fears and themes. And it’s not as if those fears are without warrant. Most of us know in our gut that inequality is a feature of capitalism and that as a highly adaptive economic system, it can survive no matter how broad the gap between the haves and the have-nots – or, if you prefer, the makers and the takers – grows. As described in this paper, the global capitalist economy is not a simple mechanical system with inputs and outputs but a complex and adaptive social structure that I’ll add not only addresses financial markets and means of exchange but provides us with symbolic resources from which we derive our ideas of meaning, security, and freedom. It managed just fine throughout the twentieth century with nation states as the primary arbiter of power and unions and regulations within them. But as those fade, a capitalism that embodies corporate military power and little to no citizen or laborer representation doesn’t seem too far a stretch of the imagination if a tad dystopic. We are all too often all too willing to absorb and embody the means of personal and social valuation provided to us by our economic order which is indeed one of the reasons why capitalism has proven so adaptive. But as my favorite economist likes to say, “Economics is not a morality play”. It would do us all well to ask ourselves where we derive our sense of personal value and human worth – which brings me to my reasoning for saying that the legality of drug testing for employment is irrelevant to the merit of drug testing for welfare:

Shouldn’t our rights as citizens – or better – our rights as humans lay the groundwork for our rights as workers rather than be subject to them?

Of freedom, fiction, and rights…

…or: Ruminations of a godless, freedom-hating, government loving liberal…

…or: Freedom was so two centuries ago…

This got me thinking.

I don’t believe in god. And I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. But by the same token, I don’t believe there’s anything right with that either. You could say that I don’t believe the first sentence of this post means much at all. For one, belief in god constitutes such an infinitesimally small portion of religion that I’m often baffled that its even a line of distinction. What’s more is that whether or not god (in whatever form and of whatever expression you prefer) exists, belief in god – like any other belief – is a construction of symbols and language. It’s a cognitive shortcut and a grand fiction. The same can be said of fictions political. Take for instance the related constructions of freedom, liberty, and individual rights. As currently understood – or better – mythologized, freedom is thought of in two similar but contradictory ways. It is (1) the original human condition and (2) a condition made possible only by recent social developments (i.e participatory government and the widespread belief in individual agency). The duality between innate and extrinsic conceptions of freedom presents a classic case of ‘which came first’ and lays bare the tension between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the architecture of the Constitution: the unalienable rights that are held as self-evident truths in the Declaration and the framework of countervailing institutions and individual liberty set forth in the Bill of Rights are simultaneously dependent upon each other and mutually reinforcing. Without one the other cannot be realized and as one changes so does the other. The relationship leaves us with an uncomfortable conclusion: freedom is conditional and it’s qualities will change over time.

Philosopher John Gray believes the idea of freedom as our original and natural state to be distinctly troublesome. In an interview with The Spectator he says, “The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.” When I think of this fiction as it relates to the second amendment, I’m inclined to agree. It’s not a lone, singular right that second amendment constitutionalists believe their favorite twenty-seven words defend but our natural human state. But implicit in the second amendment, more so than any other, is the idea that freedom is dependent on external factors and as such is not innate. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” By drawing a correlation between an explicit right and it’s implied purpose the second amendment hints that we can be closer to or further from freedom depending on how that right is exercised. No doubt this too plays a role in manifesting the fervor with which gun rights advocates defend the right to bear arms. But the founders didn’t say that the right to bear arms was essential to the security of a free state. Instead, they charged state militia with that role and simply assumed that enough citizens would choose to exercise their unalienable right in order to make up an effective militia. Would we be less free if everyone chose not to exercise their right to bear arms? I’m inclined to think not. Is the relationship between a militia and security of freedom even legitimate? Again, I’m inclined to think not. For now, however, I’m concerned with thinking of freedom as the second amendment implies – arising from the interdependence of unalienable rights and the institutions within which they are expressed.

In the same interview, Gray elaborates saying that freedom is “not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one… when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand… the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom… tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs.” Certainly we’ve seen this dynamic play out since September 11, 2001. And again since December 14, 2012.

I guess the question then is, “How do we ensure that our other impulses and needs do not preclude our desire and ability to be free?”. I’m not sure I have an answer for that question. It might, as Gray suggests, help to release ourselves of the fiction that we are by nature free. It might help to recognize that freedom ebbs and flows and that perceived threats to our rights don’t indicate an inevitable slide toward tyranny. (I say this to first and second amendment constitutionalists alike.) It might help to recognize that the very notion of a “free State” is a fiction, a myth rooted in religious cosmological thought and that there is no such thing as freedom without qualifications with which to measure it. But to some, many even, I’m sure that sounds like giving up on the idea of freedom altogether – just like to some, declaring oneself an atheist sounds like giving up on the idea of god altogether. But I beg to differ (as does this guy). One need not believe that freedom is intrinsic or ‘natural’ in order to promote and engage it. Nor does accepting the idea that freedom is inherently qualified imply that one is blind to the ever-present threat to freedom, liberty, and rights. It is however indicative of what one views that threat to be.

For some, that threat is government. For others, it’s religion. But whenever I hear either being dismissed outright or being held responsible for the world’s ills, I think of the SNL bit with Phil Hartman playing Frankenstein’s monster. Just put positive and negative terminals on either side of Christopher Hitchens’ or Wayne La Pierre’s neck and you’ve got the same skit. ReligionBADgovernmentBAAADDfireBAAAAAAAAAADDD

For me, the threat is not our institutions. It’s not our religion. It’s not our government. It’ not any of our externalized impulses. For me, the threat is us. It’s you, me, your best man, our parents, our co-workers, and our friends. Eventually, the threat to freedom and liberty will be our kids because our impulses – be they the need for safety and community, or the drive toward equality or recognition, or the desire to be free and creative or secure and protected – are many and complex. But what sets freedom apart from our other impulses is that once it manifests institutionally, it must somehow engender these other impulses while at the same time account for (and inhibit?) the possibility of their excess. Take for instance, my favorite whipping boy, the second amendment. When viewed at the level of the individual citizen, the right to bear arms is merely an extension of the right to defend oneself. But when taken collectively, especially given our lack of gun regulation, the individual’s right to bear arms is a public health hazard. And until someone can show me that the gun lockbox industry is doing as well as the gun makers are, there isn’t much that will make me believe otherwise. As I’ve written elsewhere, the extreme to which the right to bear arms has been taken is as equal a threat to my sense of security and freedom as the threat of illegally obtained guns are to “responsible” gun owners. But how do we manifest the type of freedom described above among citizens as dissimilar yet interdependent as we are in societies as large and complex as ours? I’ve been trying – under the assumption that doing so is easier said than done – to answer that question for over a week*. But as it turns out, it’s not very easily written or blogged about either.

When we speak of the fictions of freedom, liberty, and rights we are telling each other that our lives, our surroundings, and the relationships we establish within them have value – or better – that our lives, our surroundings, and the relationships we establish within them are invaluable. And in order to honor our own and each others’ invaluableness, we attempt to ensure it’s realization through imperfect means. A role in participatory government, a sense of individual agency, financial resources and opportunities to at least be above the poverty line, an education that engenders the ability to enact that sense of agency – all play vital roles in establishing freedom, liberty, and individual rights as the grand fictions of a society that honors it’s citizens’ invaluableness. Are we successful? Not by a long shot. The obstacles to each of the listed are daunting to say the least. And given the current arrangement our institutions, there is no doubt that most of us are less ‘free’ than others (yes, even in America). Add the growing threat of perpetual war and the staggering increase in so-called patriot groups and state militia alongside an equally staggering increase of government surveillance, and I have difficulty believing that when we speak of freedom we are speaking of freedom at all (though no doubt it provides an effective front for anyone who chooses to use it as such). Which brings me to my point.

(I know, “Finally”.)

If we are to look to our institutions for the answer to which of our impulses is being expressed most prevailingly, freedom has taken a backseat to security. Still, we couch it in the language of freedom. This is a major shift away from the twentieth century during which the complimentary impulses of freedom and equality broadened our understanding of each. While we continue to see this trend today, especially in regards to marriage equality, our personal and national resources are now directed toward securing freedom in stasis rather than constantly re-establishing it in expansion. We thus reduce the idea of freedom to something assumed and unchanging – or as John Gray says, “natural”. And when we operate under the fiction that freedom is innate rather than arising from the relationships of our social institutions, we absolve ourselves of both honoring each other’s invaluableness and ensuring the realization of each other’s rights. 

* two and a half weeks by the time I actually finish