Two Songs From Tom Lehrer

Tom LehrerLast year’s birthday post was, In Which the Birthdays Suck. That was unkind. There were a number of interesting people: Carl Perkins, Jim Fowler, and Steve Gadd. But I rightly noted that Hugh Hefner was a very creepy guy. I implied it about Nathaniel Branden. And I noted that Joe Scarborough was an idiot. But I totally missed a truly great man.

Tom Lehrer is 86 years old today. He is probably the most famous mathematician in the world. Strangely, he never managed to complete his PhD work, most likely because he was to distracted by his other passion: music. And not just any music. He’s quite an accomplished light opera pianist, singer, and most of all, songwriter. But we really only know of him because of recordings. He hasn’t done anything in music for over four decades. In his entire career, he performed publicly only 109 times and wrote only 37 songs. But what performances and songs they were!

Here are two of his songs: “National Brotherhood Week” and “When You Are Old And Gray.” Enjoy:

Happy birthday Tom Lehrer!

Let’s Be Kind to the Poor and Weak

Mental Illness Is Not ContagiousI know that we Americans love stories about people who do stupid things. It apparently makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s sad though. The popularity of shows like Cops do indicate that America is filled with a lot of stupid people, but they are mostly sitting in front of the TV. So it is with this context that I present to you the easily mocked Evelyn Hamilton, “A Texas woman who complained to police that a drug dealer sold her a bad batch of marijuana.”

I guess in a winner-take-all society like our own, the prols have to feel good about something and so they are left with, “At least I know not to get the police involved in my drug deals!” But this gets to the very heart of what is wrong with the underground economy. Undocumented workers can’t complain about employer mistreatment. Prostitutes can’t complain about being brutalized by pimps and johns. And drug users can’t complain about being ripped off by dealers.

Having policies that create these underground economies takes the weakest members of our society and steals even more power away from them. Look at Hamilton. The very next day, the police arrested her again for public intoxication. She was allegedly in the street shouting. Given that she doesn’t seem to know that cannabis purchase is illegal and she shouts at no one in particular in the streets, I think we can conclude that this woman has some problems. My guess: minor schizophrenia.

But do we help her? No. We’ve already closed down most mental health facilities because giving billion dollar tax cuts to oil companies is more important than taking care of our poor and sick. So we just throw her in jail when she has a bad day. And then we mock her in the press, because our callous disregard isn’t fulfilling enough.

If you want to know why the United States keeps more people in cages than any other country in the history of the world, this story tells most of what you need to know. First, we vigorously criminalize all kinds of behavior that is voluntary. In the case of undocumented work, it’s particularly bad because we actively promote it at the same time that we actively prosecute it. It’s the absolute best possible system for the elites. But drug users and prostitutes are arguably abused even more. The second part of our prison problem is that we do very little to help people. Even apart from drug users (who I think we abuse as much with medicalization as we do with criminal justice), our prisons are overflowing with people who are simply the troublesome mentally ill.

I don’t see this changing anytime soon. It’s not an issue that affects the power elite so in a political sense, it isn’t even an issue. But the least that we, the non-power non-elites, could do is take pity on the likes of Evelyn Hamilton. Quite literally, because of the vagaries of genetics and environment, any of us could have been her.


H/T: FARK (who I love but who are also one of the worst offenders)

Bad Samaritans

Bad SamaritansI just read Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent Bad Samaritans for the second time. It is an attack on neo-liberal policies that claim that the best thing developing economies can do is open themselves up to globalization and all will be well. As Chang shows, this results in undeveloped countries remaining undeveloped. He points out countless examples, but one will suffice. Japan protected their auto industry for decades while it struggled. Today, of course, cars are the first thing that Americans think of with respect to Japan. But had Japan simply embraced free trade, Toyota would today be at best a subsidiary of GM. And more likely, it would just be a long bankrupt company.

But the book is at its best when it is talking about American history, where it notes we were “the most protectionist country in the world throughout the 19th century and right up to the 1920s.” The Antebellum era is particularly telling. In addition to the issue of slavery, there was another big divide between north and south: protectionism. The north was trying to industrialize and get its manufacturing economy to fulfill its potential. So it was in favor of high tariffs, especially against England. The south, however, wanted to keep tariffs low so that they could cheaply sell their cotton to England. As Chang writes, “Many Americans call Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president (1861-5), the Great Emancipator—of the American slaves. But he might equally be labelled the Great Protector—of American manufacturing.”

It’s curious, because in as much as there is any difference of opinion about globalization between the two parties, it is now the Republicans who are the free trade warriors. Of course, the situation has changed. Then America was developing technologically. Now, we are an advanced country and we should have relatively free trade. Our domestic employment problems are due to income inequality and the over-valued dollar, not free trade. Of course, what is now presented as free trade are mostly just agreements to push our excessive patent and copyright systems onto other countries.

This gets to the core of the book, which is about how powerful countries harm weaker countries. They do this by forcing them to make neo-liberal changes to their economies. These changes are supposed to spur growth, but they don’t. Chang notes:

The poor growth record of neo-liberal globalization since the 1980s is particularly embarrassing. Accelerating growth—if necessary at the cost of increasing inequality and possibly some increase in poverty—was the proclaimed goal of neo-liberal reform. We have been repeatedly told that we first have to “create more wealth” before we can distribute it more widely and that neo-liberalism was the way to do that. As a result of neo-liberal policies, income inequality has increased in most countries as predicted, but growth has actually slowed down significantly.

Chang focuses on how historically countries that got ahead economically would “kick away the ladder” so that other countries couldn’t follow in their footsteps. And that is what neo-liberal policy is in the modern world. But this is much like the racist underpinnings of conservative policy. It could be that the advanced countries are really doing this to keep the weaker countries down or it could be just that they really think these are the right policies. As with the racist charge, it doesn’t really matter to me. The policy is bad and should thus be changed.

Don’t Involve NASA in Ukraine Situation

NASALast week, Sci-Tech Today reported, NASA Cuts Ties with Russia Except on Space Station. The reason that we aren’t cutting ties on the space station is that thanks to budget cuts, we have no way to get to and from the space station. It’s a pathetic situation, but then, so is this business of trying to punish Russia for the Ukraine situation by cutting off scientific relations.

This ban involves going to Russia, but there’s more. “They’re also barred from emailing or holding teleconferences with their Russian counterparts.” I really don’t see any point to this. It is a symbolic move that will have no practical effect. And the space station exception just highlights the fact that we are now more dependent upon Russia than they are on us. It makes us look weak, as indeed we are. This is what happens to great countries when they sacrifice advances in new technologies to support the rich owners of old technologies like fossil fuel drilling.

But more than this, NASA’s move is part of a larger American pathology. We are the country that looks askance at other nations and wags a finger. That would be bad enough if we were some lily white country that managed to even come close to its own ideals. We are the most interventionist country in the world. True, most of the time we don’t actually invade. But we stage coups and generally abuse countries until they elect leaders who we (And our corporations!) like. And sometimes, we do invade for no real reason as we did in Iraq.

I’m not in favor of Russia taking over Crimea. But it is not a senseless act perpetrated by a rouge nation. So I’m more than happy to allow the diplomats to work this out. This is not a prelude to World War III. Countries often do things other countries don’t like. And Americans especially don’t like the fact that Russia is powerful enough that we have to treat it with respect. But the situation in Ukraine is very much like the 2008 situation in Georgia. And we ought to treat it like that.

There is no reason to politicize the situation any further. I understand that NASA is and always has been part of the American empire. But starting a little scientific cold war is a really bad idea. It pushes back relations to the pre-Nixon era. And as long as we don’t have a way to get to the space stations, it just makes us look pathetic.