Saturday, June 4, 2016

California: do the right thing

image: California covered in fog; Wikimedia commons (link).

Most students who study the Odyssey at virtually any level, whether before college or in college, will be told that one of the themes running through the epic is the theme of the host and the guest, and that it contains many different examples of good hosts and bad hosts, good guests and bad guests -- which, of course, it does.

At the opening of the entire poem, we see a vivid example of guests who are devouring the household of their "host," who never actually invited them in the first place: the suitors who have taken up within the household of the absent Odysseus, slaughtering his livestock for their feasts, drinking down his wine, abusing the faithful men who still tend to the animals and the estate, sleeping with the maidservants, and angling for the hand of Penelope in hopes that they can marry her, while plotting to kill the son of Odysseus and Penelope, the young Telemachus -- who has now reached an age where he is beginning to realize that he has to do something about his unruly "guests." 

Realizing that he himself cannot hope to dislodge the more than one hundred suitors who are gulping down the food and drink without giving anything in return, Telemachus calls for an assembly of all the kings and warriors on Ithaca, many of whom are the fathers of the suitors, in order to present his case  to the public and get them to do something about it. 

The proceedings of this assembly are recorded in Book Two of the Odyssey. Telemachus asks the community if he thinks it is right for the suitors "to destroy with impunity" the livelihood of another, to consume possessions that are not theirs and lay someone else's house to waste, basically eating free lunches (not to mention breakfasts and dinners) until all is devoured. If the suitors and the rest of the community think this is proper, Telemachus declares, then he will appeal to the immortal gods, and to the power of the divine Zeus himself to put a stop to the injustice (Odyssey Book 2, lines 130 - 154).

As noted in this previous post, the suitors respond angrily to the accusations of Telemachus, basically blaming him and his mother Penelope, as if Telemachus and Penelope deserve to have the suitors violently occupying their house and devouring their livelihood, and as if Telemachus and Penelope are in the wrong, and not the overbearing suitors!

Then, old Mentor speaks up -- a companion in the old days of Odysseus, who appointed Mentor to raise Telemachus in his absence when he (reluctantly) went off to the Trojan War. Addressing the other citizens of Ithaca, Mentor says: 
But in truth I do not admire that the haughty suitors should do violent deeds by the evil contrivances of their mind; for laying together their heads, they eat up forcibly the house of Odysseus, and say that he never again will return. But now I am angry with the rest of the people, in what manner ye all sit silent, but do not at all reproaching in words restrain the suitors who are few, though you are many. Odyssey Book 2, lines 235 - 241.
In this passage from the ancient wisdom entrusted to humanity, Mentor is saying that the community (who are many, and greatly outnumber the suitors) are in the wrong if they do not use their moral suasion to restrain the violent and conniving suitors, who "eat up forcibly" that which they have basically invaded. 

Mentor knows that if the entire island would express outrage at the actions of the suitors, who are few in number by comparison, the suitors would not be able to stand against all the others (many of whom, besides, are the suitors' own fathers, uncles, or kin).

Mentor expresses his anger because the people, who could put a stop to the depredations of the suitors, instead "all sit silent." 

As with so many other aspects of the situations we find unfolding in our lives in the present day, here again the ancient wisdom of the sacred myth seems to be speaking directly to our most pressing crises. 

Indeed, a violent gang of "suitors" have moved in, devouring with impunity and "plotting violent deeds by the evil contrivances of their mind," in the words of Mentor as preserved in the ancient epic. They have moved in to Greece, for sure, and have nearly brought it to ruin in spite of the protestations of the people there, but also to more far-flung regions including Europe and the present-day United States, as explained by economist Michael Hudson in his many interviews and in his numerous published books and articles -- most recently his book entitled (appropriately enough) Killing the Host

Dr. Hudson uses the term "host" as the word is used when describing the organism invaded by a biological parasite in nature -- a parasite being a particularly graphic illustration of the kind of "bad guest relationship" we have been discussing above. 

He explains that the classical economists (including Adam Smith) believed that the best way to order society was to free it from the kind of activity typified by the levying of rents, which act as "tollbooths" set up all over the economy. But because those who want to act like the suitors in the household of Telemachus and devour the livelihood of others are powerful (too powerful for Telemachus and his household to withstand, no matter how brave he is), the entire community is required in order to stand up to them (in the form of elected governments and legislatures). 

However, over the course of the past one hundred years, Dr. Hudson explains, this idea has actually been turned on its head by those who say that "free markets" really means the removal of the ability of the community to "restrain the suitors," instead of what economists such as Adam Smith intended it to mean. The classical economists intended to create an economy that basically strove to achieve "freedom from the suitors" or those who "eat up forcibly" the households of others -- or the bodies of others, in the case of a parasite -- but today there is a whole host of voices arguing for freedom from the ability to restrain such forcible devouring! 

The various representatives of the suitors in the Odyssey Book Two offer a defense for their behavior, basically arguing that they are the ones who are acting in accordance with what is best for society, and actually blaming their victims (Penelope and Telemachus) as the ones who are in the wrong. Intriguingly, Michael Hudson points out that most parasites in nature actually possess mechanisms to numb the host as they are feeding from it, and many of the most invasive parasites even possess enzymes which they release into the host which go to the brain and affect its thinking, causing the host to believe that the parasite is part of the host, part of the natural order of things, part of the body to be defended and protected and nourished!

To hear Dr. Hudson discussing this concept, you can listen to any one of the many podcasts available on the web in which various interviewers explore this issue from varying angles -- this one contains some good discussion (the part of the show with Dr. Hudson begins at about the 58:00 minute mark of that two-hour podcast and double-interview; he is the guest for the second hour of the show). 

The above arguments do not mean that everyone who starts a restaurant should have to submit the proposed menu (or any other decision about how to run the business) to a public vote every few hours: Dr. Hudson's arguments, and those of the classical economists, appear to be primarily concerned with natural monopolies, such as public infrastructure, including utilities such as power and water and roads (in fact, the reforms he and the classical economists envision would tend to unburden "non-tollbooth" types of economic activity, such as starting a restaurant or hiring workers, from the massive number of taxes and fees that have been pushed onto them, and shift the tax burden instead to the beneficiaries of monopoly-style or tollbooth-type activity). Instead of allowing landlords to set up tollbooths every twenty miles on the interstate freeway system, for example, the United States uses taxes to maintain its comprehensive system of interstate freeways, which lowers the cost of doing business for everyone, whether big businesses or small businesses, or even individuals or families out on the road for vacation or any other purpose. 

The same principle, Dr. Hudson and the classical economists would argue, can be applied to other aspects of the infrastructure, including power and water and even medical care and education -- the goal being to provide these things as inexpensively as possible in order to reduce the cost of doing business or supporting oneself or a family (just like the interstate freeway system), rather than allowing various "extractors" to put up tollbooths all over these infrastructure-type functions (which tend to be natural monopolies).

While the vast majority of people in the United States see the open road and the magnificent interstate freeway system as a tremendous benefit for everyone, many of the very same people have a visceral reaction against applying the same thinking to other aspects of the public infrastructure, such as public education (even though the "public universities" and state schools were basically founded on this same concept, with the goal of providing easily affordable but high-quality undergraduate and graduate education: these have largely been turned into gigantic clusters of tollbooths within tollbooths). 

In other words, even while they enjoy the benefits of the non-privatized interstate freeway system (which benefits everyone in so many ways that are completely taken for granted), they say that anyone proposing the same thing for utilities such as electricity or water, or for educations at state universities, is going to "destroy the free market."

It is now becoming more common to hear people arguing that even city water systems should be privatized, and that water is not actually a human right. The same people would probably balk at the idea of having the roads that they take when going on a trip privatized, and of selling off every ten miles of the freeway system to different corporations or groups of individuals pooling their funds, who could then put up tollbooths charging whatever they thought was best from those desiring the privilege of driving over that stretch of freeway (and perhaps offering loans at varying rates of interest to "help" those who could not afford to pay the tolls by stretching out the toll-payment over varying periods of time going on for years into the future, with interest).

Some extreme "libertarians" or even "thoughtful anarchists" do in fact argue that there should be no public infrastructure at all, and that having roads run by corporations would be a much better arrangement (they usually indicate that insurance companies would be natural candidates for owning and running different sections of roads). But a moment's reflection should cause us to realize that such arrangements are ripe for the kind of behavior demonstrated by the suitors, whose motto seems to be to feast off of whatever wealth they can find -- and that the more the economy is burdened with such "toll-collecting" activity, the more expensive it will be to do anything in that economy, whether traveling on vacation or moving goods and services for a business endeavor, and that the cost of goods produced in such a toll-burdened economy will naturally be higher than similar goods produced in an economy free from such "lounging suitors" erecting tollbooths everywhere.

The "hard libertarian" or "anarchist" position does in fact appear elsewhere in the Odyssey: it can be seen to be the position pursued by Polyphemus the Cyclops, and his fellows. They live solitary lives, build no ships and grow no crops, and reject the laws of gods or men. 

Unfortunately, because governments which were originally designed to escape from the kind of "toll-collecting" systems that dominated Europe in the medieval period have basically been infiltrated by violent suitors, many in the "alternative" world see the libertarian or anarchist position as the only solution, or the moral solution -- but that position actually rejects the kind of moral action by the community that Mentor is calling for. Mentor knows that if the combined voices of the rest of the citizens of Ithaca turned against the suitors and expressed their outrage and disgust at the behavior of the suitors, the suitors would have to give way. This sort of council is exactly what government accountable to the people is supposed to be. But the anarchist or hard libertarian position argues against having any such government -- and thus would leave the suitors to have free rein over the house of Telemachus and Penelope.

Of course, libertarians and even many anarchists will say that they do support rule of law, and that they would in fact support the restraint of violence (such as the murder plot hatched by the suitors). But while they may support community restraint of outright physical violence, they don't support community restraint of toll-extracting: those at the hard libertarian extreme would usually argue that there should be no law against having "this section of Highway 5 brought to you by ____ corporation," and "this entrance to Yosemite National Park brought to you by ____ corporation," and "this brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division brought to you by _____ corporation" (fill in the blanks with your favorite corporation in each case). They would not generally support the position that using taxes to provide public infrastructure (including schools, utilities, communication infrastructure, healthcare, social security or even in some extreme cases the interstate highway system) makes business less expensive, economies more efficient, exports more competitive, the cost of hiring new employees lower, and living standards higher -- and that removing tollbooths (and lounging, feasting, scheming "suitors") from those natural monopolies is actually a promotion of free markets, not a restriction of free markets. 

Unfortunately, because of the equivalent of the enzyme that Dr. Hudson is talking about (the one that makes the "host" believe that the "bad guests" who are eating the host out of house and home are actually "part of the body"), many citizens in the United States are complacent in the face of the very same kind of outrageous behavior that Telemachus and his allies warn will bring down the wrath of the gods, whose laws are being spurned (during the same community meeting, the "old hero Halistherses," who excels all others at reading the flights and songs and signs of birds, warns the community that the signs he is seeing indicate quite clearly that the behavior they are tolerating will end in calamitous disaster).

In the body politic of the United States, the republican party long ago adopted a quasi-religious devotion to the more recent (and counter-classical) view of "free markets" that protects and even encourages the kind of extractive behavior that the classical economists wanted to free the markets from, while the democrat party is presently engaged in a closely-contested battle between a candidate who has proven at every turn to be the best friend of the "suitors" and a candidate who is not afraid to reproach the same suitors with words of moral outrage, and who promises to ask the legislature to take steps to restrain them.

Because that same democrat-party candidate who (along with her husband) has consistently proven to be the best friend of the suitors is also (not coincidentally) an outspoken promoter of the use of aggressive violent military force against other nations around the world, and has explicitly promised military action against Iran and has also publicly compared a current leader of Russia to Hitler (indicating a strong proclivity for initiating violent military action against that nation as well), the election of that candidate to the office of president could have absolutely disastrous and calamitous consequences not only for the United States but for the entire human race (as could the election of the apparent republican candidate, obviously). 

As it happens, because of the convoluted mechanisms of the candidate selection process, the upcoming primary in the state of California will have an enormous bearing on the selection of the candidate for the democrat party in the upcoming presidential election. Any legal resident in the state of California who is presently  registered as a democrat, or registered "NPP" (for "no party preference") may cast a vote in the democrat primary for California this Tuesday, June 7. Those registered in the republican party, or for another specific party other than democrat or "NPP" cannot cast a vote for the democrat primary.

If you are a California resident who is registered "NPP" (rather than "democrat") and you wish to vote in the democrat primary on June 7 (this Tuesday), you can do so.

To participate in the democrat primary, you can either go to the polls physically and ask the polling personnel for the democrat ballot for the primary, or you can take your "NPP" ballot which should have been mailed to you to the primary. There are also other options, including voting early, either by mail or even "early in person." A full set of instructions covering various options and situations for voters registered either "democrat" or "NPP" who wish to participate in the democrat party primary for California is available here or at other places on the web.

I have listened to many different analysts and researchers who argue that "registering" for anything constitutes "consent" with oppressive systems, as well as people offering countless variations on the same type of argument, from either an "anarchist" or "voluntarist" or "sovereign" or "libertarian" perspective, and I have considered those arguments carefully over the years. I presently am of the opinion, after long and careful consideration, that those arguments are badly mistaken, and that they are actually (whether those who promote them realize it or not) arguments against the restraint (by properly elected governments) of dangerous, community-destroying behavior such as that exhibited by the suitors in one of the central conflicts running through the Odyssey. 

Such tolerated behavior may in fact be in the form of "legal tollbooths" all over the place, and not necessarily violent murder-plots such as the suitors exhibit -- but it is a similar type of freeloading as that displayed by the suitors, and it can drag the economy and the majority of the people in that economy down in a "death from a thousand cuts," and it is also unfortunately true that the "suitor" free-lunch-seeking mentality does seem to veer predictably towards actual physical violence and military invasions (just as the Odyssey warns us, with its inspired wisdom).

The suitors don't want the community to restrain them, and if possible they would tell Telemachus that reaching out to the community is either futile, or foolish, or morally compromising to him in some way -- and tell him not to call a council together, or go to the council to have his voice heard, or in any other way oppose their "freedom" to plunder his home. 

Therefore, if you or someone you know resides in California who has the opportunity to vote in the upcoming primary on June 7, but who has been enticed or bullied or deceived into "sitting in silence" instead of voting (as Mentor puts it, when he is addressing his fellow citizens of Ithaca at the council depicted in Book Two of the Odyssey), I would strongly but respectfully urge you (or them) to carefully reconsider those arguments, in light of some of the discussion offered above.