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A Reflection on our Times

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Message Siegfried Othmer
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We have just witnessed a watershed event that will surely""finally""break through the web of fabricated reality that has been our nation's fate at the hands of its government in recent years. Nothing could so forcefully expose the disconnect between this government and its people as letting New Orleans' poor drown like rats in a barrel while we could only watch. Finally we have an event that breaks through the toxic effluvium that has been emanating from Washington for years. Let us not waste the opportunity. If this event does not lead to major upheavals in our governance, then the many hundreds will indeed have died in vain.

In the confines of this column, it is possible only to paint with a broad brush. What we have been witnessing goes deeper than mere incompetence in governmental institutions, from the "boy in the bubble" on the Republican side to the "uncertain trumpet" of John Kerry on the Democratic side. Our government has been systematically neutered in its role as a safety net, and it has been placed in the service of a power elite that can no longer be un-elected. It has both parties in its stranglehold, one only too willingly, and the other unwittingly. Moreover, this power elite has no necessary connection with the American public. The same elite that can jettison corporate and governmental retirement obligations without conscience can also ignore the needs of the American worker as nothing more than special pleadings. That is the inevitable logic of globalization.

We are witnessing the evolution of fascism in which the traditional subservience of industry to government in the European model has been reversed. It is now the financiers who are in charge, firstly because finance now transcends national boundaries, and secondly because government has been placed in the service of the economy, with other considerations secondary. This proposition is terribly Bolshevik: man is to be understood first of all as economic man. The financial elite recruits nationalism and patriotism in its service in the same manner that the political elite in turn recruits religion.

The social issues are the new opiate of the people by which they are distracted from the real agenda, the consolidation of economic power in the hands of the elite. While we are pumped up by flag-burning amendments, gay marriage, and abortion, the final agendas of government are to divest the elite from the burden of taxation and to cut the umbilical of expectations on the part of the underclass. This is accomplished by making the failure of government obvious to all. Perversely, the very failure of governmental institutions constitutes a success in this radical worldview. "Don't count on government" is the message to the underclass cruelly delivered through protracted non-response in the present crisis.

It is not possible to believe that our institutional failures were merely a matter of bureaucratic snafus. Even such a confirmed apostle of the present order as David Brooks was horrified by what he has witnessed. It was Marie Antoinette time on so many levels. Have they no cars with which to evacuate? Let them use chariots. Have they no water in the Superdome? They should have had cars"Said Barbara Bush: --so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." The elite was sending a message that its priorities are elsewhere, let there be no doubt about that. The rending of the safety net is a matter of deliberate policy. It is pure cynicism to blame things on God.

One of the chief advantages of the entrepreneurial system is that it does a better job than alternative arrangements with respect to allocation of resources. It has this in common with evolutionary mechanisms: microscopic changes are not favored unless they overtly contribute to species success and survival probability. Similarly, entrepreneurial ventures must at least promise a near-term reward. This advantage is also a key shortcoming, since the feedback loops are all short ones. Staff at a nursing home in New Orleans abandoned their patients to their fate in the rising waters, just as in China the new capitalist owner of a rogue mine fled when one hundred of his workers became trapped. Social obligations ceased along with the opportunity to make money.

The evolutionary strategy may be the best one that nature can devise, but it is not without its cataclysms. If we want to have a society without such major cataclysms, one must take into account the longer feedback loops. By making government subservient to capitalist rationalizations, long-term considerations are necessarily side-lined. This too has been exposed in the current disaster. Not only has the government failed to take any precautionary measures with regard to global warming, it has also postponed the long-term task of restoration of the sheltering wetlands. It has even neglected the near-term task of shoring up the levees, and of eliminating single-point failure modes in the city's defenses against water intrusion. Finally, it failed to plan for riding out the calamity that its own policies only rendered more likely. So on all relevant timescales of concern, government has failed on all levels, and it has done so for a long time. On all important decision points, the narrow interests of the economic overlords held sway over the public interest.

What holds true for natural disasters holds true for terrorist threats as well. There are too many issues to worry about, so we simply take our chances. The only reason our present airline safety regulations were not in place on 9/11 was opposition by the airlines themselves. It has been pointed out that some 1000 petrochemical sites exist in which a terror incident could affect at least 100,000 people in the surrounding neighborhoods. Again, nothing whatsoever has been done because of industry opposition. Each of these is a New Orleans waiting to happen. We do nothing because of the universal veto by the economic elites.

There is a thread of commonality here by virtue of our visceral response to these major events. My own reaction as I watched the rising waters was similar to what I felt during a two-hour documentary that tracked the timeline of the sinking of the Titanic. A sufficient number of compartments had been breached that the sinking was inevitable. Still, matters took a long time to unfold, and the incongruity of dance halls and champagne lounges sinking into the drink struck home. Invisible through it all were the multitudes stuck in steerage.

Then there was 9/11. After the first tower came down""the first such high-rise building ever to collapse""one could only anticipate that the other would go also. Once events like this are unleashed, there is an ineluctable, harrowing course of events, the only alternative to which is prevention. And finally there was the Columbia. There was no point in dwelling on the piece of foam that had hit the leading edge of the wing. After all, there was nothing to be done at that point. The only option was prevention. NASA had gambled and lost. This is all well known, but we have a society that is deliberately obtuse with respect to securing its long-term safety and future. In the mean time, the power brokers and decision-makers are already in their lifeboats. From a business perspective, it matters little whether New Orleans is maintained or has to be rebuilt. Halliburton wins either way.

The history of government in the United States has a cyclical quality. Some years ago Fred Harris was running for President, and I had a chance to talk to him at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. I urged him to balance his liberal, distributional message with the message that government should also see to enlarging the pie and making our economic life more efficient at all levels. The argument shouldn't all be about distribution of the resources. He could not comfortably go there. It was simply not his agenda. And eventually a conservative thrust took over this country. That would have been all right as long as the safety net was maintained. But eventually the beast grew to where it needed even the resources devoted to the poor.

The fear is understandable. I am reminded of our days after WWII in Goettingen where we made soup out of stinging nettle, garnished with snails, all of which we had gathered in the local forest. When I did not like the soup, my mother would ask modestly: "Humor me, and at least eat the bottom half." The elite is aware that the poor will always be with us, and always capable of eating the bottom half of the soup. Hence, their expectations of government must be lowered.

This implementation of radical social Darwinism found its support in another Austrian, the economist Friedrich Hayek. And it may be the recent death of Jude Wannisky that will mark the moment when the whole scheme ran afoul of its own internal contradictions. Grover Norquist saw the goal as shrinking government to the point where it could be drowned in a bathtub. It is more likely now that Grover Norquist will drown in his bathtub than that the government will be so dispatched. But the size of government is secondary to its subservience to the power elite.

A change is surely underway. Donald Trump's Ride of the Valkyries will be over. Alan Greenspan will run out of bubbles to blow up. Schwarzenegger is tanking in California as the flag-bearer for the Chamber of Commerce. Realities will reassert themselves. Government will once again be run as if people mattered. It is time to throw the money-changers out of the civic temples.

Siegfried Othmer
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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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