Friday, February 25, 2011

Heat in the depth of winter

What is going on in Wisconsin? The media are compressing the reasons for this conflict into an anti-union tinged fight to bring the much-reviled public employees to heel, and that is the view that the conservative right would like us to have.

But the conflict is actually a much wider one and fits the Republican ever present agenda of privatizing and, yes, union-busting. I have still to see any evidence that private enterprise is any more efficient or mindful of the public good than public bureaucracies. Corruption and inefficiency are evenly spread over human enterprise.

Under the noisy conflict of the Wisconsin governor and his employees, the disputed budget bill, 144 pages long, contains language that allows privatization of any public utility, and declares any such decision to be automatically labelled as “in the public good.” To reassure us, the Koch Brothers, lately so much in the limelight, have announced that they are not interested in acquiring any of those utilities. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Privatization of public property benefits private interests. We have seen how Russia’s oligarchs rooted their huge fortunes in the deals that denationalized all of the State’s properties. At the very least such privatization can lead to cronyism and corruption on a grand scale.

And the one obstacle on this road are the few public employees that are exercising their legal rights to collective action to oppose this law. Which contains also language to delegitimize…...collective action. Under the cloak of freedom corporations are promoting the idea that each worker negotiate on her or his own, standing alone, confronting the corporate lawyers and human resource professionals. Each employee, ignorant of what his or her colleagues’ position is, will stand naked in the howling winds of corporatism.

Mind you that I am not against the corporate entities looking for their own profit and best interests. But I believe that, for the sake of a level playing field, the individual worker or employee, that is all and any of us, should be able to have access to shared resources to establish his or her best interests. That is what unionization is all about. And it must have worked, or how can we otherwise explain the unrelenting and ferocious attacks of the corporate right on them.

There is a space for groups of people banding together to profitably produce goods or services under the banner of corporations, and there is a similar space for the common man, the citizen, to band together and defend her or his rights as an individual.

The corporate world rightfully exists to promote the creation of wealth that did not exist before, within the laws democratically adopted in a representative democracy that delimit and define the proper territory of their activity. The government has a duty to preserve the balanced and equitable distribution of the common wealth among all citizens. But, as David Brooks points out in today’s New York Times, in this country this debate has yet to take place.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A referendum in Saratoga Springs?

Last Tuesday’s City Council meeting brought us a long-awaited unsurprising declaration by His Honor Scott Johnson, that the City was filing a notice of appeal with Judge Nolan’s Court.

The rationale for such a move was very much in tune with Republican thinking: to keep the pitchforks at bay.

The Mayor proclaimed himself the citizen’s Defender, not only of the city of Saratoga Springs (where pitchforks are a boutique item anyway), but of all the municipalities of the state of New York, and even nationally. What would happen, he said, if this people’s initiative to change the form of government were left unchecked, and other groups at another time would request revisions again and again and again.?

The City’s Charter of 2001 explicitly endorses periodic revisions; as John Maynard Keynes famously replied when challenged: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”.

Even more to the point, New York State’s municipal law allows referendums as a manner of improving or changing a municipality’s form of constitution. When a group of citizens perceives a way to ameliorate the conventional wisdom the weapon of choice is the citizen’s initiative of a referendum. Unlike elections, a citizen’s initiative is usually bipartisan or non-partisan, interesting all citizens without labeling them.

Mayor Johnson’s opinion is very much in line with the explicit policy of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives of consolidating the oligarchical hold of the well-to-do on the political system of this Republic. Why the less affluent would support measures that are clearly against their own self-interest is probably best explained by the New Yorker’s caption on a cartoon: “As a potential lottery winner I support tax cuts for the wealthy.”

In today's Huffington Post:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Man versus machine

Tonight I watched Jeopardy. Why am I even saying that? Jeopardy, the popular and very durable classic of game shows, was surely watched by many, and some did so with a deep-seated feeling of guilt, as a secret, unmentionable addiction.

But today was different. The venue was in New York state, on an IBM campus; the players were two old veterans, the highest prize winners of Jeopardy’s history. The third participant was an IBM computer, a huge array of servers, programmed by a team of artificial intelligence engineers over the last three years. They fed the computer with encyclopedias, treatises, even the Bible, and a battery of algorithms to bring together all the interrelationships of known facts that are considered the basis of human intelligence. We all have tried to shout at the screen the frequently quirky questions responding to the answers offered as clues. Puns, rhyming slang, literary allusions, lists, sports statistics and pop-song lyrics are the common fare of this game, that tests not only factual knowledge, but also worldliness and with-it-ness.

The purpose of the experiment, according to the IBMers involved, was, not to create a murderous HAL of 2001: a space odyssey fame, but a true thinking machine that could take over many of the human’s tasks, unburdened by human emotions and sentimentality.

It is all the stuff of movies, and many films have presented sinister outcomes to the doings of similar machines. The reasons why there is such a sustained interest in this kind of lucubration are obvious: we are persuaded that humans are at the apex of creation, but taken aback by the imperfections and aberrant behavior that humans frequently exhibit. Also we are profoundly disturbed by our incapacity of defining what makes us human, distinct from other animal species, and why we deserve the exalted position that we have assigned to ourselves. We are hoping that by creating machines that exhibit our brilliance, and are devoid of our faults, we will be able to get to a perfect world. Our perfect offspring, albeit mechanical, would also conquer our destiny: aging and death.

The IBM computer competitor is named Watson, not after Conan Doyle’s character, but the company’s founding family. In this first confrontation, the simple Jeopardy first level, Watson did quite well, ending in a draw with one of the human contestants. The next two days will see Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy. Definitely worth watching on ABC at 7 pm.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

After Egypt, what about us?

Finally, somebody said it. I do not feel alone any more:

"While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance."

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