Thursday, January 28, 2016

Prisoner Brutality: US Capitalists Surpass Japanese War Criminals

The Burma Railway was built by the Japanese in 1943 to support their war effort.  It travelled 258 miles between Thailand and Burma.  The effort became infamous as reports of the brutality inflicted on laborers enslaved for the effort from the pools of natives and prisoners of war.  Perhaps the most familiar depiction occurred in the movie The Bridge over the River Kwai.  More recently, the building of the railway was described in the film The Railway Man, and in the award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

From Wikipedia we derive this information:

“Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, estimates of Romusha deaths are little more than guesses, but probably about 90,000 died. 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.”

“After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway, with 32 of these sentenced to death.”

There seems to be precise data on the mortality rate for prisoners of war.  The brutality leading to a mortality level of 21% was deemed so extreme that 32 people were executed as war criminals for their actions.

Given that background, it was rather startling to encounter this statement by Steve Fraser in his book The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death  of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.

“Some didn’t survive the ordeal, having been worked to death: 44 percent of the 285 convicts building the South Carolina Greenwood and Augusta Railroad died.  The mortality rate among convict laborers in Alabama was 45 percent.”

The United States had railroad construction projects in late nineteenth century where the death rate was twice that on the infamous Burma Railway, where the treatment of the prisoner laborers was considered a crime against humanity?

Fraser was referring to the system of convict leasing that became common in states of the South in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The South had the will and the power to re-enslave the recently freed black slaves.

“Making sure the supply of coerced workers was ample became a function of the region’s policing and judicial systems.  wholesale arrests among black men in Georgia and throughout the South for disobeying a boss, being impudent, gambling, partying, talking to a white woman, having lascivious sex, riding freight cars without a ticket, vagrancy, or even for just being out of work produced a robust supply of convict labor at harvest time or when railroad track needed to be laid or phosphate mined.”

“In the South, convict leases provided workers for cotton plantation, mining, lumbering, and turpentine camps as well as for quarries, dockyards, and road-building projects;  Alabama derived 73 percent of its state revenue from leasing convicts.  Nor was this flow of unfree labor restricted to regional industries and agribusinesses.  Large, northern-headquartered banks and corporations were complicit.”

More information on this disgraceful practice can be found in Wikipedia.

“Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations….The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners.”

“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

This cruel system was allowed to continue for several generations.

“U.S. Steel is among American companies who have acknowledged using African-American leased convict labor.  The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle's ‘Circular 3591’ of December 12, 1941.”

Fraser was providing examples of what he referred to as “primitive accumulation” of capital.  That term is usually reserved for the initial accumulation of capital/wealth in a capitalist system, but it is possible to conclude that “primitive accumulation” is an ongoing process and “primitive” does not merely refer to an original trend but rather to a fundamental process.  In Fraser’s view, “primitive accumulation” is accumulation of capital/wealth by taking wealth from someone else—a never ending process.

The most obvious example of “accumulation by dispossession” is slavery where people are deprived of their freedom in order to gain access to their unlimited labor.  It is rather disconcerting to realize that forms of legalized “slavery” existed in our country until well into the twentieth century.

Yes, we are an exceptional nation!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Memory: Recognition, Recollection, and Justice

The way in which our memories work is poorly understood.  Some people still believe that our brains are capable of recording every image we view in great detail, but personal experience and scientific evidence renders that hypothesis absurd.  Scientists believe that our brains use our periods of sleep to sort through experiences and decide which events to record more permanently and which to let slip away.  We can clearly affect that process by repetition and assigning a sense of emotional priority to certain things, but there is no guarantee that the brain will respond the way we wish.  Memory records events, but it also alters them, lets them dissipate over time, and even can create records of events that never occurred.  It works subconsciously according to rules evolved over millions of years of natural selection, and we know little of those processes and have even less control over them.

Given this state of affairs, it is somewhat unsettling to consider that our legal system depends critically on memory as a factor in deciding innocence or guilt—and in some cases, life or death.  A recent article in The New Yorker, Recognition, by Paul Kix reminds us that depending on memory is fraught with uncertainty and can produce tragic consequences.

Kix describes the experiences of Michelle Murray who was a college student in Texas in 1985.  At that time she was approached by a black man as she was seated in her car on campus near her dorm.  The man forced his way into the car, drove her to a remote location, and raped her.  Murray came to the police with the information that the man smoked, wore blue jeans and a yellow shirt, and that she had tried her best to remember the man’s face so that she would recognize him in the future. 

There had been similar instances where a black man had approached a white woman in or near her car and raped her.  The police decided to make a suspect of a black man named Timothy Cole who had been seen driving in the area in which the Murray had been parked when the assailant approached her.  Cole stopped and talked to a white woman and drove away.  This aroused suspicion.  The police obtained a picture of Cole and showed it to Murray along with pictures of five other men.  The five men were viewed in standard mug shots, while Cole’s was in a different format.  The details of this process are important.  From Kix:

“Five of the six photos were standard mug shots: men in police custody, holding up placards and gazing away from the camera. Murray’s eyes were immediately drawn to the Polaroid shot of Cole, in front of wood panelling, looking directly at the lens.”

“Murray deliberated for a few seconds. Then she pointed to Cole and said, ‘I think that’s him’.”

“‘Are you positive?’ Nevarez asked. He seemed pleased with her choice.”

Murray decided she was positive.  Cole was found to have a ring and a yellow shirt in his apartment along with an empty pack of cigarettes of the same brand as the rapist smoked in his car.  He was brought before Murray in a lineup.

“Murray entered the dark room and noticed the man she’d identified in the photo spread the day before. She was suddenly certain that he had raped her; she pinpointed him immediately after stepping into the room. As the officers around her celebrated, she signed an affidavit that read, in part, ‘I am positive of my identification of this man and there is no doubt in my mind’.”

It turned out that the yellow shirt and the ring found in Cole’s apartment had nothing to do with Murray’s assault, and Cole was asthmatic and unlikely to be smoking.  It was claimed that the empty cigarette pack belonged to a friend of Cole’s brother.

Prosecutors understand, if they have any professional standards at all, that eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable, yet they continue to prosecute cases and get convictions based upon it.

“In a dissenting opinion in 1981, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote that ‘eyewitness identification evidence is notoriously unreliable.’ Dozens of scientific studies support this claim. Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony continues to be used widely, and many criminal cases hinge on it almost exclusively. Since 1989, two hundred and eighty people have been exonerated of sexual-assault charges in the U.S. Nearly three-quarters of those wrongful convictions relied, in whole or in part, on a mistaken identification by an eyewitness.”

Eyewitness identification when the witness and the accused are of different races is particularly inaccurate.  There is something called the “cross-race effect.”  From Wikipedia:

“A study was made which examined 271 real court cases. The results from this study showed that witnesses correctly identified 65% of the defendants who were of the same race as them. On the other hand, 45% of the defendants were identified who belonged to a different race than the witnesses.”

The prosecutor offered Cole an incredible plea deal.  If he acknowledged guilt, he would be given “five years of probation, with no prison time.”  Remember, this is Texas, ground zero for judicial executions.  Cole refused the bargain as he continued to profess his innocence.

The jury ignored all other evidence and convicted Cole based on the adamant assertion by Murray that Cole was her assailant.  He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. 

In 1999, Cole, while still claiming his innocence, suffered an asthma attack and died in prison.  Meanwhile, Murray had moved on with her life.  She was certain that she had acted properly, and her main concern was that Cole would be released from prison and seek revenge.

In 2008 Murray, now going by her married name of Mallin, received a phone call from George White, one of the investigators in her case.  Someone else had admitted to raping her and his confession had been corroborated by DNA analysis.

“On the phone, White told her that Tim Cole had died nine years earlier. She was relieved, but also confused. ‘Why are you telling me this now?’ she said”
“’Tim Cole did not rape you,’ White said. Mallin was stunned into silence. ‘You shouldn’t feel bad about this,’ he went on. ‘He let himself be in that lineup’.”

Mallin went from someone who had been congratulated for asserting her confidence in her memory, to one who was being blamed for making a tragic mistake.  How do well-intentioned people like Mallin make mistakes?

Alison Winter provides an excellent study of the various changes in beliefs about memory and how it works in her book Memory:Fragments of a Modern History.  She tells us that two contending views of memory have battled for supremacy over the years.  One view has it that memory is a faithful recording device and with the right assistance all memories can be recalled with veracity maintained.  The alternate view holds that memory is an uncertain source of information and it is subject to change by conscious or subconscious processes. Significantly, it is also easily influenced by the suggestions of others.  Courtrooms have often been the battlegrounds for these competing views.  Legal decisions and many studies have supported the view that it is risky to base legal decisions solely on the memory of a witness.

Two studies described by Winter are relevant here. 

The first is an experiment performed in 1974 by Robert Buckhout a professor studying memory.  He staged a scene on a television show where viewers were provided with a scene where a man was situated off to the side of a corridor waiting for a woman to come by so he could snatch her purse.  When she arrived, he grabbed her purse and ran straight towards the camera.  Viewers were provided with six images of men and invited to call in and identify the thief or claim it was none of the six.

The result was that few of the viewers made the correct identification.  The results were essentially consistent with the viewers making random guesses.

So, startled viewers subject to an unexpected event have trouble recalling what they actually saw, but what about someone like Murray/Mallin who had time to burn an image into her memory during a traumatic event?  Winter claimed that for a long time people believed that events with high emotional content would be stored in a different mode than others—they would be more accurately recalled.  Memory and photographic recording have always been conflated (usually improperly).  Consequently, these hypothetical types of memory were referred to as “flashbulb memories.”

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986 it produced a significant emotional impact on viewers of the event.  Researchers moved in within days to survey recollections of the event from a group of people.

“They asked detailed questions about respondents’ memories, then repeated the questions nine months later to see how memories might have changed over time.  They found over time that memories became less detailed, and sometimes inaccurate, and that claims were introduced that had not been there in the original narratives.  Their conclusion was that although people were unusually confident in these memories, they were not more reliable than ordinary memories.  There was no special mechanism at work.”

It is the power of suggestion that is most insidious in altering, elaborating, or falsely confirming a given recollection.  The first legal case provided by Winter involving memory and legal proceedings involved a man who was a suspect in a murder in 1906.  Under police questioning he confessed to the crime and signed a statement to that effect.  Several weeks later he recanted claiming the police had somehow “hypnotized” him while in custody.  The man also had eleven people who provided him an alibi that proved he could not have committed the crime.  Little was known about human memory then and the concept of an innocent man making a false confession was incredible to the jury.  The man was convicted based that confession.  We now know that false confessions are common.  About a quarter of those who are released from prison based on DNA evidence have been convicted based on a false confession.  Some are coerced into confessing through plea bargaining, but others were merely confused at the time of confessing.

Isolating a person and surrounding him with authoritative people who can fabricate a scenario in which the man commits a crime, and then claim to have evidence that the man committed the crime, will lead some people to doubt their own memories.  It works, and police have been taught how to confuse people and take advantage of this process.

Let us go back and consider Murray/Fallin’s experience now with the influence that suggestion can exert in view.  First of all, she was presented images of six suspects with Cole’s image in a different format than the others.  The other five were typical mug shots.  It was a clear suggestion that something was special about Cole and the others might have been pulled randomly from police files.  Her initial response was “I think that’s him.”  She expressed certainty only after the officer expressed pleasure with her selection.  When she identified Cole in lineup the officers “celebrated.”  It might take little more than the suggestion that Murray/Fallin had “done a good job” to convert uncertainty into certainty.

Kix brings in Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University to explain how police should seek an identification and thus eliminate a lot of false identifications.

“In 1998, Wells was the principal author of a paper suggesting a few simple reforms. Lineups should be ‘blind,’ a standard borrowed from scientific experiments: the officer administering the lineup should know nothing about the case, so as to avoid unconsciously influencing the proceedings. In photographic lineups, images should be presented sequentially rather than simultaneously, allowing witnesses to compare each image against their memory instead of choosing from among a group. And witnesses should be instructed that a lineup might not include the perpetrator. In 1999, Wells was part of a federal panel that published a report elaborating on these findings. The report was non-binding, but a few jurisdictions—New Jersey, Tucson, Minneapolis—took up its recommendations.”

Kix then provides some specific data related to Texas.

“In 2001, Texas passed a law allowing inmates to request DNA testing of evidence relevant to their convictions. Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas, was cautious about criminal-justice reform, but he signed the bill. Since 2001, DNA testing in Texas has led to more than forty exonerations, a greater number than in any other state. Misleading or inaccurate eyewitness identification was a factor in a vast majority of overturned convictions in those cases.”

The ultimate purpose of Kix’s article was to demonstrate that a bit of good can emerge from a tragic mistake.  Lessons can be learned.  

Mallin was devastated by her mistake.  It was suggested that she make contact with Cole’s family who had long been trying to exonerate him.  She did, and was surprised to discover that they welcomed her as a fellow victim.  She became close with the family and assisted them and others in promoting legal reforms and negotiating a pardon for Tim Cole.  They helped accomplish quite a bit.

“While Tim Cole’s family was trying to clear his name, twenty-nine state legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, had joined forces as the authors of three related bills: House Bill 498, which would establish the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on the prevention of wrongful convictions; Senate Bill 117, which would require state police to be trained in more advanced lineup practices; and the Tim Cole Act, which would increase the amount of money the state owed to exonerated ex-convicts. Texas’s policy was to pay fifty thousand dollars for each year of wrongful incarceration—already one of the highest rates in the country. The bill would increase the amount to eighty thousand dollars per year spent behind bars, plus funds for college tuition.”

Eventually all bills were passed and Tim Cole was granted a posthumous pardon, the first in Texas history.

“Research carried out in Austin between 2008 and 2011 shows that the use of sequential lineups substantially ‘reduces mistaken identifications with little or no reduction in accurate identifications’.”

This led one expert to conclude:

 “In terms of conducting eyewitness identification, Texas is doing better than any state in the Union.”

Now that Texas has learned how uncertain the legal justice system is and how many innocent people get convicted, perhaps they could consider eliminating the death penalty.  Why kill a person when you know the probabilities suggest he might be innocent?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wolves, Dogs, and Humans: Who Domesticated Who?

We, as humans, tend to assume that we are the standard against which all things must be compared.  When it comes to animal species, we judge levels of intelligence and emotional response according to the degree that human behaviors can be observed.  That point of view tends to support the notion that intelligence and emotional responses are uniquely human characteristics.  Carl Safina blows up that self-aggrandizing concept in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

Safina uses many anecdotal reports of animal behavior to support his belief that humans are surrounded by intelligent life—not out in our galaxy—but right here on earth.  He also delves deeply into the lives of elephants, wolves, and killer whales to demonstrate in detail how they live lives driven by many of the same considerations that drive ours.  He insists that we must begin to think of members of many other animal species not as an “it” but as a being possessing friends, family, emotional attachments, desires, and external constraints that must be dealt with—in other words a “who” similar to ourselves.

“’Who’ animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are.  They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries.  They aspire to higher rank and wait for their chance to challenge the existing order.  Their status affects their offspring’s prospects.  Their life follows the arc of a career.  Personal relationships define them.  Sound familiar?  Of course.  ‘They’ includes us.  But a vivid, familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.”

Safina’s description of the lives of wolves is perhaps the most intriguing, because, as it turns out, wolves and humans have had a much closer relationship than we might realize.  An elaboration of that joint history will be the subject here.

Wolves had essentially vanished from the lower forty-eight states until it was decided to reintroduce them and provide them a safe haven in Yellowstone National Park.  It was believed necessary to reintroduce the predator to keep the elk population at a sustainable level.  Wolves were trapped in Canada and eventually set free in Yellowstone.  In the process many were fitted with tracking devices and observed from afar to learn how they fared in the new environment, and also to learn as much as possible about wolves’ lives.

Safina provides much of what was learned in the process, but he also dropped several intriguing background details.  Wolves have apparently decided which animals are food and tend to leave others alone.  Humans, for whatever reason, are apparently in the nonfood category.  In contrast, humans will gladly take advantage of their power over other animals and kill for the joy of killing rather than a need for food.

“It is deeply unexpected that even when other animals retain the advantage, they sometimes seem more able to consider us than we are of considering them.  For instance, people have come ‘face-to-face with wolves in the backcountry while out alone….Yet it appears that no human has ever been attacked by a wolf in the lower forty-eight U.S. states.  North American wolves virtually always flee humans immediately and don’t view humans as potential prey.  (In the 1940s, two Alaskans were bitten by rabid wolves.)  Free-living wolves are known to have killed only two people in North America, one in Saskatchewan in 2005, the other in Alaska in 2010….Surely, wolf packs often do detect vulnerable hikers.  And yet, the calculated shyness or forbearance of so well endowed a pack of predators is a bit puzzling.  One wonders what they are thinking.”

It could be that humanity’s relationship with wolves is longer and more complex than most of us have imagined.  Many of us now cohabit with members of the wolf species.  At one time those who worry about such things thought that dogs made up a separate species.  Subsequently they were forced to reconsider and conclude that dogs and wolves are members of the same species.  All our beloved dog pets are domesticated versions of the gray wolf.

One might wonder how a single species could evolve into so many dissimilar varieties.  One should recall that domestication involves inducing genetic changes by controlling the characteristics desired and thus altering the natural selection process.  A studyof silver foxes conducted in the 1950s illustrates how powerful selective breeding can be in crafting animal characteristics.  The foxes were divided into a control group that was allowed to breed naturally, while a separate group was bred to inhibit aggressiveness.  Within a few generations, the desired temperament was attained, but the selection process also produced distinct physical differences.

From Safina:

“But what really surprised the scientists—and everyone else—was that from generation to generation, the line of friendlier foxes started to look different.  Researchers were getting foxes with droopy ears; splotchy coats of differing textures; curling, wagging tails; shorter legs; smaller heads and smaller brains; and shorter faces with smaller teeth.  And in addition to having kinky hair, some had kinky ideas, showing out-of-season and non reproductive sexual behaviors (hold that thought).   As adults, the friendly foxes continued to behave like juveniles, by acting submissive, whining, and giving higher-pitched barks.  Foxes, in other words, more like dogs.”

Curiously, over time, human heads and brains have also grown smaller.  Could natural selection be operating on us as our changing environment has selected different characteristics as being more important for successful breeding than others?  Could we have become domesticated ourselves?

Safina suggests that our relationship with dogs caused a bit of co-evolution. First consider that the time at which evidence suggests dogs began to appear as variances from the main wolf line varies from between 12,000 years ago and 130,000 years ago.  That is plenty of time for natural selection to do its thing.

Some once thought dogs arose from wolf pups captured and raised as pets or for some other purpose.  However, people who have tried such things discovered that it was a difficult task, one not likely to be undertaken by humans struggling for their own survival.  The conventional wisdom is now that humans and wolves, at some point in time, began to form mutually advantageous partnerships.  Safina explains:

“….as best we know now, the origin of dogs instead goes like this: wolves hung around human camps and caves, scrounging cast-off bones and the remains of butchered carcasses.  The less-skittish wolves came closer and got more.  Wolves with fuller bellies raised more pups, more of which were born carrying those successful genes for less skittishness.  Those slightly changed pups grew up around humans, prompting more and friendlier interactions.”

“These wolves’ tendency to alert at the approach of strangers and predators would have been valuable.  The humans would have encouraged such guards to hang around by providing more scraps.  The extra scraps would have boosted the survival of more people-friendly wolf pups.”

Safina suggests that what we know as dogs began to appear by 15,000 years ago.  Therefore, this mutually beneficial relationship between dogs and humans has been going on for a very long time.  Safina also prefers to think of the process described above as dogs self-domesticating themselves.  In addition, while the dogs evolved as this relationship deepened, humans would have been affected as well.

“Humans became dog-reliant, perhaps even dog-dependent.  Dogs were trackers and hunting partners, dogs were alarm systems and well-armed guards; dogs defended and played with human children.  Dogs cleaned up.  Dogs were hot-water bottles.  Humans provided dogs with food, and dogs served as security personnel and guides.  And helped secure food as well.”

“Once we had them, they had us; we could not do without them.”

One can only guess at how this human-dog dependency affected the evolution of humans, but an effect there must have been.

If one takes the longer time scale estimates for dog emergence, then there is a much longer time period for coexistence.  The first human-wolf interactions might have been between Neanderthals and wolves.  Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michael D. Shalter ponder over what such a long period of co-evolution might imply in Co-evolution of Humans andCanids.  They begin with this startling observation.

“The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus.  This is especially odd in view of the bad reputation wolves have in our folklore.”

“Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for any one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, baby sitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies.”

Is this a cosmic coincidence, or did one species learn from the other?  These authors suggest that wolf behavior was determined long before the sociality of humans evolved; therefore, it is more likely that it was the humans who learned from the wolves.

 “In addition, similar forms of cooperation are observed in two other closely related canids, the African Cape hunting dog and the Asian dhole. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that canid sociality and cooperativeness are old traits in terms of evolution, predating human sociality and cooperativeness by millions of years.”

That reasoning leads to the issuance of the “lupification” hypothesis of “human behavior, habits, and even ethics.”

“This shift in our attitude toward wolves opens a new vista as to the origin of dogs. Instead of perpetuating our traditional attitude that our ‘domesticated animals’ are intentional creations of human ingenuity, we propose that initial contacts between wolves and humans were truly mutual, and that various subsequent changes in both wolves and humans must be considered as a process of co-evolution. The impact of wolves’ ethics on our own may well equal or even exceed that of our effect on wolves’ changes in their becoming dogs in terms of their general appearance or specific behavioral traits.”


It would be surprising if the methods and capability of wolves went unrecognized and weren’t, to some extent, copied.

“Wolves ability to hunt as packs, to share risk fairly among pack members, and to cooperate, unsurpassed by any of the big cats, moved them to the top of the food pyramid on the Eurasian plains.”

Show some respect to your canine pet.  He/she was once the most efficient predator on the planet.  And if he/she does goofy things and has trouble obeying your commands, remember there may have been a time when his/her predecessors shook their heads in amazement at the clumsiness and the futility of human activities.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Philanthrocapitalism: The Good and the Bad

The term philanthrocapitalism has been created to describe the tendency for individuals who have accumulated vast wealth in the business community to put a fraction of their wealth to use in pursuit of some “good cause.” Discussion of this phenomenon soared with the recent announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife that they will give 99% of their Facebook shares to an organization devoted to producing a better world for future generations.  An article in The Economist titled I’ll give it my way provides details.

“On December 1st Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, followed in the tradition he helped create, when he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the birth of their daughter on the social-networking site, along with news that they will give away the majority of their fortune during their lifetimes. Around 99% of the shares they own in Facebook, which today are worth around $45 billion, will go into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Their aim, they wrote, is to improve the world for their daughter and future generations.”

Zuckerberg will retain control over those shares, and thus control over Facebook, and he will transfer funds to CZI on a schedule that he deems appropriate.  CZI will not be a simple charity devoted to some selected goals; it will be an activist organization focused on attaining whatever Zuckerberg determines to be the path towards making the world a better place.

“Mr Zuckerberg is far from the first tech titan to pledge billions to philanthropic activities, but he is following a slightly different path to Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder. Whereas the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a registered charity, the Zuckerbergs’ CZI will be a limited liability company (LLC). Although charitable status comes with alluring tax breaks, strings are attached. Unlike charities, LLCs can lobby without restriction; the Zuckerbergs have said that CZI will get involved in policy debates.”

In other words, the Zuckerbergs are going to use their many billions to define the path the nation and the world are to follow.   Given that money produces power, what does it say about modern democracies that a single individual could conceivably exert more influence on his nation than the other 300 million citizens? 

James Surowiecki took up this issue in a note in The New Yorker: In Defense of Philanthrocapitalism

“….Zuckerberg’s move comes at a time of anxiety about the rise of so-called philanthrocapitalism. Foundations have great influence over social policy but are independent of democratic control. Why should unelected billionaires get to exercise their neo-missionary impulses across the globe?”

Surowiecki decides that the good that philanthropic billionaires can do is greater than the harm that would ensue if the billionaires’ wealth was not available for philanthropic giving.  He believes that extremely wealthy individuals are more capable than governments in politically-driven environments of focusing on long-term projects that might be controversial.

“In an ideal world, big foundations might be superfluous. But in the real world they are vital, because they are adept at targeting problems that both the private sector and the government often neglect. The classic mission of nonprofits is investing in what economists call public goods—things that have benefits for everyone, even people who haven’t paid for them. Public health is a prime example: we would all benefit from the eradication of malaria and tuberculosis (diseases that Bill Gates’s foundation has spent billions fighting). But, since the benefits of public goods are widely enjoyed, it’s hard to get anyone in particular to foot the bill.”

“Philanthropies, by contrast, have far-reaching time horizons and almost no one they have to please. This can lead them to pour money into controversial causes, as Zuckerberg has with education reform. But it also enables them to make big bets on global public goods. There is a long history of this: the Rockefeller Foundation funded the research that produced a vaccine for yellow fever. The Gates Foundation, since its founding, in 2000, has put billions of dollars into global health programs, and now spends more on health issues than the W.H.O [World Health Organization].”

Surowiecki’s reasoning would seem to suggest that somehow the world would become a better place if we had more billionaires and thus more people contributing their fortunes to the benefit of humanity.  He ignores the fact that we do have many billionaires involved in spending money with the goal of making the world a better place, but they are rarely mentioned in a sentence that contains a reference to the Gates foundation.  The Koch brothers, and others, seem to believe a better world is one in which government is unable to compete with private money in influencing the world, and they have used their fortunes to make sure it stays that way.

There is an organization called Inside Philanthropy that attempts to track all the attempts by the wealthy to use their wealth to influence society.  It was founded and edited by David Callahan who provided a comment on the Zuckerberg initiative: Why that Huge Zuckerberg/Chan Pledge Is Scary As Hell.

Callahan gives Zuckerberg and his wife credit for having good intentions as they proclaim a need to counter such things as growing economic inequality, but sees this commitment as yet another example of the wealthy taking control of public society.

“Whatever the high-minded ideals of Zuckerberg and Chan, we’re still talking about a huge amount of power in the hands of two private individuals, and at a time when wealthy elites already have enormous power. In our second Gilded Age, the rich gained huge influence over our electoral system, hired armies of lobbyists to swarm our public officials, and now rule a corporate world that has become so consolidated that it reminds many of the great trusts of the last Gilded Age. Meanwhile, poll after poll shows that ordinary citizens feel increasingly alienated from civic life and distrustful of all institutions.”

A plutocracy created with the best of intentions is still a plutocracy.

“Now, with the rise of Big Philanthropy, we’re seeing the logical next act in this age of inequality—the conversion of all those big piles of money into influence that extends into every last corner of U.S. society, not to mention into remote villages in Africa and Asia. Today’s economic inequality may be nothing compared to tomorrow’s civic inequality as more activist mega-donors emerge with big money and big ambitions—at a time, I should add, when government will be spiralling down into fiscal paralysis due to soaring entitlement costs as the boomers retire. If the 20th century was the era of Big Government, the 21st Century is shaping up as the age of Big Philanthropy. This power shift is one of the most important stories of our time.”

Callahan leaves us with these thoughts over which to ponder.

“At the end of the day, though, we’re still facing a future in which rich people increasingly decide which voices get elevated and which problems get solved. And even if there is a wide diversity of wealthy donors making these choices, as is increasingly the case, research tells us that the upper class, overall, has different views and priorities than ordinary Americans on many issues, particularly when it comes to economics, fiscal policy, trade, and America’s role in the world.”

“Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that yesterday it was the Koch brothers who had pledged to use their entire fortune (of $85 billion) to shape the direction of U.S. society. The picture would look a bit different, right?”

Michael Massing has produced a pair of articles for the New York Review of Books addressing the issue of philanthrocapitalism: Reimagining Journalism: The Story of the One Percent and How to Cover the One Percent.  He argues that a website such as Inside Philanthropy, try though it may, just does not have the resources to track the activities of wealthy at the level required.  Massing believes the major media players must assume a much greater role.

“Even amid the outpouring of coverage of rising income inequality, however, the richest Americans have remained largely hidden from view. On all sides, billionaires are shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes, polishing their images—and carefully shielding themselves from scrutiny. Journalists have largely let them get away with it. News organizations need to find new ways to lift the veil off the superrich and lay bare their power and influence.”

What hides under the mantle of philanthropy often has nothing to do with charity or the common good.  There are often blatant attempts to impose personal views and preferences on society.

“….much of today’s philanthropy is aimed at “intellectual capture”—at winning the public over to a particular ideology or viewpoint. In addition to foundations, the ultrarich are working through advocacy groups, research institutes, paid spokesmen, and—perhaps most significant of all—think tanks. These once-staid organizations have become pivotal battlegrounds in the war of ideas, and moneyed interests are increasingly trying to shape their research….”

Massing provides education as one area in which the wealthy have managed to take control of public policy.  There is an enormous amount of money involved in educating our children.  Most of it is spent on public institutions.  One must necessarily become suspicious when so many billionaires suddenly take an interest in policies that would wrench funding of education from public institutions and place it in the hands of corporate entities.

“The enthusiasm with which so many hedge fund managers and other Wall Street executives have embraced charter schools remains something of a mystery. Even if one accepts the premise that America’s public schools are often broken and that many teachers are not up to the job, why have so many billionaires concluded that charter schools are the best way to fix the system? And what are the implications of having such a small group with so little expertise in the field of education exercising such influence in it?”

“The nation’s K–12 policy has been strongly shaped by three foundations. One is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, with assets of more than $40 billion, is by far the largest philanthropic institution in the world. Over the last fifteen years, it has given billions to promote standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, charter schools, the Common Core, and other elements of the education reform movement. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has concentrated on training superintendents and administrators who subscribe to the principles of that movement and seek to carry them out on the ground. And the Walton Family Foundation (endowed with Walmart money) has since 2000 given more than $1 billion to charter schools as well as to organizations like Teach for America and Families for Excellent Schools, an aggressive advocacy group with close ties to Eva Moskowitz, the controversial head of Success Academy charter schools, whose board includes many Wall Street executives.”

Massing provides this summary of the state of affairs in education today’

“The policy implications of all this were nicely summed up in an interview I found on YouTube with Stanley Katz, a professor of public affairs at Princeton and a longtime student of nonprofits. These megafoundations, he said, ‘have been able to leverage their resources in such a way that their policies have been adopted by state boards of education, local boards of education, and the federal Department of Education.’ The result is that ‘the K–12 policy of these megafoundations is pretty much the K–12 policy of the United States of America.’ It’s an illustration, Katz said, of how in today’s America private money can buy public policy.”

Where does all this lead?  The multibillionaires cannot be reduced to multimillionaires, although that might be a good idea.  The Supreme Court has placed freedom of speech above all other considerations, so the ultra rich cannot be muzzled.  One is left with, perhaps, only one solution: the reemergence of democracy.  The wealthy exert their influence in the absence of an involved citizenry.  Let the wealthy do their good deeds, but let the voters retake control of their own society.

Elections can still have consequences.  The wealthy have long exerted their influence through the Republican Party, even though Republican voters were not generally in favor of the agenda of the Party’s elite.  In the current electoral cycle, a large segment of the republican voters seem to be telling the wealthy elite to go to hell.  On the democratic side, there is an avowed socialist who seems to be generating a reawakening of the liberal left and dragging the Democratic Party’s elite farther to the left and farther from the agenda of the ultra wealthy.

Stay tuned.  Revolutions occasionally do happen.

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