Saturday, December 29, 2012

It's Not The End Of The World

Whether by rapture, nature, or computer there have been countless predictions of the end of the world over the past three millennia. These harbingers of doom have had many sources, from scripture to soothsayers, but all have been shown to be nothing but conjecture as the world has continued to revolve, the sun to shine and man to (de)evolve. Unless you've been living under a rock, don't get out to see movies nor have a Facebook wall to tell you, you probably heard something about the Maya calendar ending on December 21, 2012 augering the end of the world. Meanwhile, after a temporary break to obsess about the fact that they like to own a lot of guns so they can kill each other and anyone else they feel like, America's propaganda machine will go back to heralding the financial end of the world, the fiscal cliff. Like all good myths, both harbingers of doom freely mix fact and fiction to produce a potent brew believable enough to intoxicate the masses while ensuring the real moral of the story and a chunk of change will be lost in the panic to the propagandists.

Many Romans believed 634 BCE would bring the end based on a story in which twelve eagles, each representing ten years, revealed the lifespan of Rome to Romulus. Most religions have their own eschatological doctrines but it's the crazy Christians who have the longest list of false prophets. Harold Camping was simply the latest in a long line Christards to predict the end such as Paul the Apostle, Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours. Perhaps tired of just killing infidel Muslims in the Crusades, even Pope Innocent III got into the act by adding 666 to the year Islam was founded to determine the world would end in 1284. Theology and astronomy have always been a toxic mix, but when Johannes Stoeffler used them to predict a worldwide flood he convinced many to move to higher ground and invest in boats before February 1, 1524. As many as 100,000 'Millerites' were moved enough by William Miller's preaching of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 to sell all their belongings. Like Camping, when the world woke up the next day to normality, Miller just moved his date back; his followers were so fervent they went on to form the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

Sowing panic in the markets has always been an easy way to make a mint for some and to steer economic policy for others. Stories of the so-called fiscal cliff are another textbook example. Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s riders and messengers were able to get news of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a full day in advance of the government’s own news carriers. As the story goes, Nathan convinced the rubes he had knowledge of Napoleon's victory by selling heavily on the English stock market. When panic ensued, Rothschild had his agents snap up stocks for pennies on the pound, entrenching the family banking dynasty. Many claim the Panic of 1907, the United States' first modern financial crisis, was engineered by JP Morgan to implement certain financial regulations and ultimately the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Newspaper reports of the days ahead of the panic seem almost comical in their propagandizing prose describing the health of the financial market only to be proven completely wrong when the crash led to a drop of 21% in commodity prices, a 47% spike in bankruptcies and a rise in unemployment from 2.8 to 8%. Lucky these things could never happen today!

A simple connection can be made between today's supposed harbingers of apocalypse, the end of the Maya Calendar and the US fiscal cliff: both are completely made up and being used for gain by the mythology makers of our day. The Maya understand 17 different calendars, some of them accurately charting time over more than ten million years. The one causing all the hub-bub is the Long Count which is an astronomical calendar based on the cycle of Pleiades used to track longer periods of time. Just as with other calendars, the end of the old signals the start of the next. Americans on the other hand created the fictitious fiscal cliff just last summer when the federal debt level was about to hit the imaginary debt ceiling. Imaginary in that a limit that can be extended is not a limit but a gimick which in this case proved a useful opportunity for fearmongers. As a deal couldn't be struck, an agreement was reached for automatic spending cuts to kick in come the end of 2012 thus the name fiscal cliff was coined to scare the people into believing cuts need to be made to avert financial disaster in the new year. However, just as we can go out and buy a new calendar, the US government has the power to simply go out and 'buy' more dollars whenever they need to.

The reason it's so important for the elite to sow fear among the infotariat is that both imaginary apocalypse makers are in fact opportunities to reshape the world we live in. The current Long Count cycle finished December 21st when it reached the end of the 13th b'ak'tun which themselves are made up of 20 k'atun cycles composed of 20 tun each of which last for 18 winal cycles that are about a year long. The end of the Long Count has nothing to do with death but everything to do with rebirth. The true meaning is transformation not conflagration. According to the correlation between the Long Count and Western calendars accepted by the great majority of Maya researchers, the starting-point of the just ended Long Count cycle is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE. This date marks the creation of the world of human beings according to the Maya, the last great transition.

Coincidentally, we are told by textbooks that civilization began around 3,000 BCE in Mesopotamia as the Sumerians simultaneously developed all the traits of high civilization: the wheel, metallurgy, astrology, astronomy, calendars, taxation, bookkeeping, an organized priesthood and of course written texts. Ancient Egypt as we know it came into being with the union of Upper and Lower Egypt and the start of the First Dynasty under Menes somewhere around 3100 B.C. Should we go on about the significance of that time? Stonehenge has been dated to around 3000 B.C. It was also around 3100 B.C that stone circle building and other types of megalithic structures were being built throughout Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. Newgrange, the large passage-grave in Ireland, is generally dated to about 3200 B.C. More? Civilization is said to have begun in China around 3000 B.C. with the emergence of the Yang-Shao culture. All very important, but not as big as what it all brought about. Yep, the whole system of modern slavery. Debt.

Even before there was money, there was debt. The arrival of civilization, agriculture and all its benefits also brought the plague of credit. The ancients learned to control it through systems such as the Jubilee, but in modern times we have forgotten the lessons of the past and let it become the system for the powerful to control wealth and therefore society. Nowhere has done a better job than America where the debt figures boggle the mind. Credit card debt has lagged since the financial crisis and sits a bit under a trillion but student loan debt has more than made up for the slack, powering past the trillion mark last year helping push consumer debt to $2.7 trillion. Total household debt is over $13 trillion, just a couple of trillion shy of total yearly economic output. But we better be sure not to mix these figures with the 'real' problem facing America, the federal debt. 

Yes, like the rogue planet Nibiru predicted by the Mayans, serious people are warning us the federal debt will obliterate us all. Wait? What's that? The Mayans never said anything about Nibiru? It was just dreamed up in 1976 by Zecharia Sitchin in his book "The Twelfth Planet" using his own unique translation of Sumerian cuneiform to identify a planet, Nibiru, orbiting the sun every 3,600 years? Then several years later, Nancy Lieder, a self-described psychic, announced that the aliens she claimed to channel had warned her this planet would collide with Earth in 2003? After a collision-free year, the date was moved back to 2012, where it was linked to the close of the Mayan long-count period? So, it's just a mixture of science fiction and psychics? Wait. Science fiction and psychics sounds suspiciously close to the definition of economics to me. 

Even though they agree on about 99% of things, Democrats and Republicans still manage to come to loggerheads often enough to make for good kabuki theater. Last year's debt ceiling fiasco not only cost the US it's AAA credit rating but also set the cuts and tax increases to go off around the end of the year. The name 'fiscal cliff' is an inapt metaphor for many reasons, but the $500 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts represent about 4% of the US economy and would probably push the US into recession. It's a hodgepodge of policy decisions that Congress has made, or better said, not made, over the past two years, piled onto a single deadline. It's not a cliff but self-induced austerity crisis, theater designed to pressure policy makers into a deal such as the grand bargain whose ultimate goal is to dismantle social security and medicare while continuing at least a portion of the tax cuts for the rich. Despite the many other problems that exist, the added bonus of this approaching apocalypse has been that it has completely paralyzed the lame duck Congress and the status quo usually benefits one group, the plutocrats.

The simplest option is to do nothing and go over the 'cliff' but this is unlikely to happen as not only does it harm everyone but it hits the rich, the military and corporations disproportionately. While it would cut defense spending and allow taxes on the rich to return to Clinton era levels, it also would see benefits cut and taxes for all others rise as well. Additionally, with the debt ceiling fast approaching again, some kind of deal will avert the next crisis. However, the tax hikes and spending cuts are spread over two years so there isn't really any urgency. Another possible scenario is to just kick the can further down the road by simply extending the deadline by a year or two. This is what policy makers usually do from climate change to war related troop draw-downs, so don't be surprised. Finally, some kind of deal may be reached, ranging from some kind of small deal in which some tax cuts are allowed to expire along with some spending cuts to the plutocrat preferred 'grand bargain'. The media is undoubtedly pushing this as their overlords will be better able to disguise the savage cuts to the social safety net among all the other hoopla of a deal within the framework of the Simpson-Bowles plan, or the Domenici-Rivlin plan.

A healthy democracy would use this moment to its advantage by diagnosing the disease and taking its medicine. A rotten one will use it to make things worse for most while benefiting the few. Sequestration will see a range of spending cuts across the board (ie. defense and non-defense) in discretionary spending as mandated by the debt ceiling compromise, the Budget Control Act of 2011. Cutting doctors pay and unemployment insurance at a time of record low employment don't sound too bright but slicing a portion of the $300 million a day to fight an unwinnable war in Afghanistan sounds pretty good, but unfortunately war costs are exempt. Speaking of the unemployed, maybe increasing taxes on the 'job-creators' isn't such a bad idea. The secret is the rich aren't creating jobs at all but stealing them. Only 3.6% of the top 0.1% income earners are entrepreneurs, the majority rely on extracting rents from the rest of us. Their tax rates have fallen while the working class are paying more via payroll taxes. The other supposed engine of job creation, corporations, have done a pretty good job of avoiding paying their fair share as well. Just as the top 1% of breathing people have taken 93% of income growth since 2008, corporate non-breathing people saw their profits quickly rebound following the downturn to the point where their profits are at a record level when compared to the whole economy. Charts? You want graphs? Well, here's a few:

The Real Cliff - Employment has fallen and can't get up!
Surprisingly, cutting top marginal tax rates increases the income share of the rich!
The slow shift in tax burden from non-breathing 'people' to working class people
You might say the crisis was pretty good for corporations
The term 'fiscal cliff' was coined by none other than Ben Bernanke. You may remember him from such heists as the 2008 bank bailouts (TARP) when he helped Hank Paulsen bully Congress into handing over $700 billion to the banksters. That $700 billion sure is a familiar sounding number, isn't it? Well it should be seeing as it the amount of 'forced' austerity being brought about by bailing out banks, something that research shows predictably happens. An IMF paper showed bailouts lead to austerity. That IMF paper examined 42 banking crises between 1970 and 2007 but there's evidence all around us today from the UK to Spain and Greece. It's all so sickeningly predictable. Whatever you want to call them, the elite, oligarchs, plutocrats, Bilderbergs, they behave just like the borg from Star Trek TNG, methodically extracting all the wealth they can before moving on to the next source. The last forty-odd years were spent laying the groundwork for the biggest transfer of wealth from the bottom up the world has ever seen; the tax burden has been shifted away from the rich and corporations onto the backs of the working class, 'think tanks', 'research centers' and Faux News were created to tell the people this is normal, unions were devastated, consumerism as self-actualization became the mantra, corporations were turned into people and rewarded for shipping jobs overseas to the lowest wage countries they could find. Uh, I could go on but I already have.

Sadly, much like the end of the Long Count Mayan cycle, the fiscal cliff is being sold as disaster instead of an opportunity. The cult leaders aren't named Jones, Hubbard, Koresh, or Jouret nor were they dressed in flowing robes but garbed instead in suits and named Rand, Greenspan, Friedman and Hayek. Worse, their preachings aren't responsible for the deaths of tens or hundreds but thousands, millions and possibly eventually billions. We get to see their converts every day in our classrooms, on the streets and most often, on the TV where a parade of hucksters trying to convince us the debt was caused by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and needs fixing before anything else. The propaganda becomes transparent when you consider a group such as Fix the Debt, which is the loudest of the fearmongers, is composed of CEOs with ties to 43 companies with over $43 billion in defense contracts. They're strangely silent about the fact that the debt is largely due to the recession, the two Bush tax cuts while paying for two wars which have caused defense spending to double since 2001 putting US military spending equivalent to the next 26 nations combined.

It's telling that as the 21st of December neared more effort was expended dispelling the Mayan apocalypse myths than extolling the possibilities that a new era of peace and unity could bring. Bolivian president Evo Morales marked the winter solstace and auspicious calendar date by extending an open invitation to the world to celebrate "the end of the Macha and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood, it is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism." Similarly, as we near the so-called fiscal cliff, more energy is being expended to convince us the end is near if we don't make fixes which will exacerbate the problems rather than solve them. Every challenge we've faced this millennium has been made worse: 9/11 led us into a never ending global war on terror, climate change has brought an endless parade of broken promises and conferences, financial crisis a perpetual bailout for the perpetrators and sellout of the people. No, just as December 21st wasn't the end of the world, the fiscal cliff won't bring about the apocalypse but the majority of us would be better off if we turn off the current disastrous path.
Update Jan.22 -

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Audacity of Dope

There's a million and one reasons Willard Mitt 'Mittens' Romney shouldn't be elected the 45th President of the United States November 6th, but only one reason he won't when looking at the presidencies of the past 20 years. Unfortunately, being a flip-flopping liar who will shapeshift into anything the polls say will help curry favor with a few voters won't hinder him as Obama has proven. Being a plutocrat whose success was solely predicated on winning the genetic lottery thus helping dispel the illusion of the American Dream of social mobility won't hurt him either as the silver spoon he was born with in his mouth was only slightly shinier than Dubya's. Nor will his business record of buying up companies with borrowed money, loading them with debt in order to siphon off as much cash as possible before breaking them up to sell off the pieces and ship the jobs overseas disqualify him as an entire economy based on this kind of short term financial gain for the few at the cost of long term wealth creation for the many is exactly what Clinton created during his time in the White House. Not even belonging to a crazy cult that believes wearing magic underwear marks them off from other mere mortals will make a difference in the land of religious fanaticism. No, being a man around fifty years old with an Ivy League degree and having been a governor or senator, Mitt near perfectly fits the job description to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet Mittens won't win as he hasn't broken one federal law that all three of his predecessors did; he's never smoked a joint.

Who's to say if it was the stoner vote that put Clinton, Dubya and Obomber over the top, but it's as likely as anything else to have swayed the few votes that actually matter in the undemocratic electoral college system of selecting the US president. Bill Clinton may have claimed he didn't inhale, but he did enjoy pot brownies. Dubya never denied it, saying, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible" meaning he did plus lots more. Obama came right out and said, "When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point." In fact judging by the legendary exploits of Dubya and the fact that Obomber and his buddies smoked so much ganga they nicknamed themselves the Choom Gang, the next president in 2016 is probably going to be chronic.

Of course Americans have a lot of practice dealing with the cognitive dissonance involved in having a president who has broken the same law that sees about 750,000 people arrested every year. War is peace thanks to such mental gymnastics as preemptive, preventive or preventative war, freedom is slavery thanks to the debt servitude necessary to propel an economic system dependent on financialization and ignorance is strength thanks in large part to the informational overload of the technological revolution. Thanks to the primacy of obedience and the related reverence for authority drilled into them at a young age they don't mind casting their vote while blindfolded to the other choices whose beliefs most likely better align with theirs thus turning their election into a quadrennial Pepsi Challenge where choosing Coke or Pepsi doesn't matter as either way you're still going to get diabetes and die.

Sure, much of the US election circus is nothing but a choreographed carnival to coronate an Obomney or Robama, where only a handful of votes in a thimbleful of states will matter, but Americans in many states do have direct democracy: ballot initiatives and referendum. This November 6th there are ballot measures in seven states to either legalize the sale of medical marijuana or legalize it altogether if you're over 21, taxing and regulating it as they do with alcohol. This is an issue where representative democracy is clearly failing the American people, but fortunately direct democracy takes the power out of the hands of vested interests and returns it to the people. Washington (Initiative 502), Colorado (Amendment 64), and Oregon (Measure 80) will decide whether to legalize the drug's production and sale for recreational use. Massachusetts and Arkansas (first in the south) will vote to catch up with the previous trio and the 14 other states where medical marijuana use is already legal. Meanwhile, in Montana they will be voting to reinstate the 2004 citizen-approved medical marijuana law the state legislature recently repealed. Legalization just missed getting on the ballot in Michigan so the City Commissioners in Kalamazoo voted unanimously to decriminalize weed, saying the new ordinance will help police respond to serious crimes even faster than before based on how it has gone so far in Chicago. Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids will also ask their citizens whether they'd like to decriminalize possession

How did we get to this wacky world? Constructing elaborate Rube-Goldberg machines to destroy our planet or Nobel Peace Prize winners composing kill lists and remotely killing American citizens, innocent women, children, wedding guests and their rescuers with drones in faraway lands without any declaration of war are less controversial than letting people smoke weed to improve the quality of their lives or just for fun. Even when laws have been passed to legalize medical marijuana and with a president we believed to be progressive sitting in the Oval Office, medical dispensaries and training schools are raided by the feds while state troopers stand by and wave good day to the staff, clients and students. Despite Obomber's 2008 promise "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws [on medical marijuana]" his Attorney General, Eric Holder has been doing just that. It was the same Eric Holder who may have helped sink California's Prop 19 to legalize marijuana when he vowed to "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws and warned that the government would not look the other way and allow a state marijuana market to emerge a month before the 2010 election. In a rational world we'd design laws that improved our society, finances and health but far too often, and especially in the case of cannabis, it seems these ideals are trumped by politics, emotions and special interests.

"Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could."
- William F. Buckley Jr

While hard numbers are hard to come by, the drug war costs well over 6,000 lives a year in the US while in Mexico drug cartels have killed more than 55,000 people in the past six years. Prohibition not only raises prices thus increasing incentives to capture market share, it renders contracts unenforceable and makes it impossible for competitors to use the courts or the police to challenge intimidation or settle disputes; the war on drugs has given us decapitated corpses hung from bridges while the cola wars has simply given us all diabetes. Worse are the number of lives lost to the prison system as half of the 2.5 million behind bars in the US are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, nonviolent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations - 80% of them for possession. Even worse, it has become a new form of Jim Crow as though blacks use and sell drugs at the same rates as whites, thirteen of them go to jail for every white person who does. It seems obvious but many still don't get that sending potheads to jail destroys lives and families and creates hardened criminals who get turned by the prison culture. Members of the now militarized police force see the senselessness close-up which is why Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national organization of cops and criminal justice experts dedicated to “speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies” have become legalization advocates.

Costing this war is as slippery as those waged in Iraq and Afghanistan but it is every bit as expensive. According to Harvard drug economist Jeffrey Miron: "Legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government." Yet according to The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society, last published by the Department of Justice in 2011, enforcing illegal drug laws imposes an annual cost on the American criminal justice system of $56 billion; while incarceration of drug offenders imposes an annual cost of $48 billion for a total of over $100 billion. Back to Harvard's Miron who claims drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion, annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs." Whatever the exact figures, in these times of austerity in which California spends more on its prison system than all higher education this is a huge burden. So big in fact that many states are turning to privatization of prisons which will guarantee occupancy rates, forcing states to maintain or toughen drug and immigration laws in order to keep the beds filled.

Here's what we know about marijuana's impact on our health. Not much thanks to prohibition. In fact we were more aware of its benefits over a century ago. Sure there seems to be a few negatives, heavy use in your teens may shave a few points off your IQ, smoking has been tied to testicular cancer and 9% of those who try marijuana eventually fit a diagnosis of cannabis dependence. But few would advocate teens smoking a few joints a day, cannabis compounds have been shown to stop metastasis in aggressive cancers and the corresponding dependency rates for alcohol and nicotine are 15 and 32%. The "gateway" drug argument claims use leads to more dangerous substances as most people who use other illicit drugs had used marijuana first. Not to bore you with the old causation is not correlation trope but the illegality of weed forces people to come into contact with harder drugs in their illegal dealings and don't forget people often smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol before they latch on to marijuana. Meanwhile, marijuana has significant upsides for individuals with certain illnesses. In glaucoma patients, it can reduce the dangerously high eye pressure that can lead to vision loss. In addition, pot can provide relief from chronic pain, reduce nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, and limit the severe weight loss that results from AIDS and other diseases. Alcohol abuse kills 75,000 people a year. Legal prescription drugs kill 100,000 people a year. Marijuana kills zero. The statistics for violent crime and accidental death follow the same pattern.

"Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country."
- Thomas Jefferson

The path from being a simple plant mandatory to grow in 1619 Jamestown colony law to Samuel Caldwell and Moses Baca becoming the first Americans busted for pot just over 75 years ago, Oct 2, 1937, is as hazy as the air at a Dylan show in 1966. In between, hemp was the principal crop at George Washington's Mount Vernon, secondary at Jefferson's Monticello, used as part of medicinal preparations beginning in 1839 and "fashionable narcotic" by 1853. Control came slowly over the next 80 years, culminating in prohibition with the passage of the federal Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. First came poison laws in an attempt to regulate pharmaceuticals through labeling to indicate harmful effects of the drugs or prohibiting sale outside of licensed pharmacies and without a prescription. Basically, trying to combat this type of snake oil salesmen.

At the turn of the 20th century, between 2% and 5% of the US population were drug addicts, more than today, the majority hooked on morphine, a legacy of the Civil War and bored housewives duped by door-to-door con artists. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 did more than any subsequent law to fight addiction. In addition to creating the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) it also said certain drugs could only be sold by prescription and habit forming drugs had to be labeled. As Congress did not possess the power to create general criminal laws, a plan was devised to masquerade the regulation and persecution as a tax, leading to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. It created the template for using criminal sanctions to deal with the non-medical use of drugs but only applied to opium, morphine and its various derivatives, and the derivatives of the coca leaf like cocaine; there was no mention anywhere of amphetamines, barbiturates, marijuana, hashish, or hallucinogenic drugs of any kind. More importantly, it did nothing to outlaw possession but set such a high tax on non-medical exchange of the drugs that it made it defacto illegal to have certain drugs.

Control was tightened ad hoc, state by state to restrict all narcotics, including cannabis, as poisons and limit their sale to pharmacies requiring doctor's prescriptions. From 1915 to 1937, some 27 states passed criminal laws against the use of marijuana driven by three factors. Racism, fear of substitution and religious fanaticism. Out west, the influx of Mexican immigrants made them easy prey for populist politicians. Overheard on the floor of the Texas Senate, "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy." Proponent of Montana's first marijuana law said, "[g]ive one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona." In the northeast of the country, the fear was marijuana would be taken up by those who could no longer drink or do morphine. And of course the religious fanatics were in Utah, where the Mormon Church's opposition to euphoriants of any kind was codified by the state legislature as the first criminal law in the US against the use of marijuana in October of 1915. On what should be known as international drug cartel day, the turning point came February 19, 1925, when the International Opium Convention was revised to include among other things, Indian hemp, while leaving the low-THC European hemp uncontrolled.

"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."
 - Harry Anslinger; US Drug Czar

The mythology surrounding marijuana prohibition has only grown with time. Who hasn't run into a conspiracy theorist blaming it all on William Hearst's use of Yellow Journalism to protect his lumber interests (hemp can also be used to make paper) or a hippie happy to harangue Dupont and the cotton industry for their role in demonizing the hemp plant (yes, makes pretty good clothes, too). The fact is marijuana's current status in America and the world has more to do with one man than all else combined. Harry J. Anslinger was the drug czar under five presidents becoming the first the first Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) on August 12, 1930 and serving until May 1962. By 1936, Anslinger was convinced that America was under assault by a reefer invasion and therefore launched a two-pronged counterattack: a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control alongside a media campaign to turn a near-harmless, potentially life saving plant into loco weed. His gore file was filled with stories of mild-mannered youths being turned into axe-wielding mass murderers, white female students into sex slaves, and of course Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers seeking the company of those innocent white girls after a single puff of the stuff. The culmination of this propaganda was of course the now infamous film, Reefer Madness.

His legislative assault led to a hearing on national marijuana prohibition in 1937 in which three bodies of testimony were given; Anslinger himself representing the government as head of the FBN, spokesmen from industries that would be affected by a ban on hemp, and representatives from the medical profession. Anslinger's testimony is easily summed up with "Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death." There were three industrial spokesmen, from the rope, paint and varnish, and birdseed people. The first testimonial irony came from the rope people who told of the cheap supply from the Far East making homegrown uneconomical. Of course shortage of rope to supply warships less than five years later required the government to become the biggest growers in history. The paint and varnish folks said "we can use something else" while only the birdseed people balked and gave us irony number two. When asked "Couldn't you use some other seed?" the birdseen man said, "No, Congressman, we couldn't. We have never found another seed that makes a bird's coat so lustrous or makes them sing so much." For this reason, birds, not people, have been able to enjoy some of the benefits of the plant under the name "denatured seeds".

The two pieces of  medical testimony prove the most puzzling, one from a pharmacologist, the other, a doctor/lawyer representing the AMA (American Medical Association). The former claimed to have had three dogs die after he injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 canines. Unfortunately, the active component, THC,  wasn't isolated until 1964, so who knows what he shot into their craniums. When asked by a Congressman, "Doctor, did you choose dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?", the pharmacologist replied, "I wouldn't know, I'm not a dog psychologist." The latter medical testimony, from Dr. William C. Woodward was short, sweet and succinct, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug." To understand why the two Congressmen then told him, "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we are trying to do, why don't you go home?" and "Doctor, if you haven't got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you", one must remember the political situation of the time. Both Congressmen were Democrats who held a grudge against the AMA as they had opposed every piece of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation introduced from 1932 through 1937.

It was August 20th at 5:45pm in the pre-air-conditioning world of Washington, DC when the debate on national marijuana prohibition took place in Congress. No one was there. Well, a few Republicans, one of whom from upstate New York stood up before the bill was passed on "tellers", "Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?" To which speaker Rayburn replied, "I don't know. It has something to do with a thing called marihuana. I think it's a narcotic of some kind." To which the New Yorker, a Republican as much on the side of the AMA for the last 5 years as the Democrats were against, followed up, "Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?". At which point a committee member jumped up and said, "Their Doctor Wentworth [remember it was Woodward] came down here. They support this bill 100%." Good enough for the Republicans. Good enough for America as the bill then passed on and when the bill passed the Senate without debate or recorded vote and President Roosevelt signed it, the US had national prohibition with the federal Marihuana Tax Act.

More irony? Well, the La Guardia Report (yeah, the mayor of NYC La Guardia), the first in depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana came out just seven years later, it systematically contradicted claims made by the U.S. Treasury Department that smoking marijuana results in insanity, and determined that "the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word." The next big surge in this war came with Nixon who not only upped the ante on the war in Vietnam but more egregiously committed the country to wage "total war against public enemy number one in the United States, the problem of dangerous drugs" regardless of the cost, in dollars or lives. Not only did he oversee the implementation of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, he also ensured the war would be well funded and armed with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973. Republicans continued to bask in the law and order glory under Reagan, when Nancy was handed the skillet in the Just say no, This is your brain on drugs campaign. The same story continues to this day with millions of lives lost or destroyed simply to uphold an outdated, falsely propogated belief that profits the wicked, just as any war. Despite all the propaganda, a record-high 50% of Americans said last year the use of marijuana should be made legal, up from 46% the year before.
Marijuana prohibition keeps police officers busy on the beat, courts jammed with marijuana offenders, and jails packed with prisoners convicted of violating marijuana laws. Unquestionably, these laws have helped make America great, nay, the greatest in the world... at penning people in cages. Not only does America lead in sheer number of prisoners, it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, too. The prison-industrial-complex that has grown to catch, judge and accommodate the millions behind bars along with the tobacco, pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, have a lot of profit incentive to keep things the way they are. It should come as no surprise that the biggest financial contributor to Smart Colorado, the supposedly family-friendly group leading the fight against the marijuana legalizing Proposition 64, is Save Our Society from Drugs, a Florida-based nonprofit founded by Mel and Betty Sembler who once led drug rehab centers shut down over wide-ranging child abuse scandals. With the coming votes in the western trifecta of states comes the hope of a domino effect and an end to a system that destroys lives to fill up treatment centers and pad private prison profits.
Alcohol offers a good parallel with weed though its trajectory from legal euphoriant to not and back again was much steeper. Though the US didn't go completely dry until the 18th Amendment came into force at midnight, January 16, 1920, after being ratified by 36 states, about 65% of the country had already banned alcohol. Just as alcohol can lead to strange bedfellows, so did the prohibition movement: xenophobes, industrialists, women's rights activists and religious zealots. Anti-German wartime sentiment tied in with the push to use grain to make bread for soldiers instead of beer turned Milwaukee's brewers into "the worst of all our German enemies," and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed their beer "Kaiser brew." Henry Ford described prohibition as "the greatest force for the comfort and prosperity of the U.S." while John D. Rockefeller saw it as a way of strengthening the monopoly of his Standard Oil by eliminating the alternative of ethyl alcohol to power cars. Alcohol's obvious link to wife beating and child abuse drove the development of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union

Of course history has shown that turning temperance into prohibition was a big mistake as thirteen long violent years followed in yet another sad parallel with modern drug policy. While most of the gangland style violence and overt corruption spread by bootleggers of the prohibition era played out at home, most of it that has resulted from drug laws takes place south of the border, out of sight of middle America. Perhaps this explains why the anti-prohibition forces only took thirteen years to win while the perverse drug laws have been around almost a century. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) formed in 1919 even before prohibition and was so successful that by the time the 21st Amendment ending national alcohol prohibition went into effect December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out. This same slow creep is hopefully being emulated by the marijuana legalization movement. A final parallel: the spark for the repeal movement was the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Could the not-so-great depression do the same? "Beer For Prosperity" became the anti-Prohibition battle cry as few could deny the obvious truth that legalizing beer would create thousands of new jobs virtually over night. At the same time, desperately-needed new government revenue would be generated in the form of beer taxes. Sounds kind of familiar doesn't it?

If legalization comes to the US, they won't be the first. Everyone knows about the Netherlands being a drug haven but few speak about the annual prevalence of marijuana use for people age 15-64 being just 5.4% there compared to 13.7% in the US. The contrasts in figures are even starker for heroin, cocaine and opiates. Even fewer talk about the success of decriminalization in Portugal. Quietest of all is the revolution being seen in Central and South America, where most of the loss of life in this war has occurred. It's not just the leftist governments either; Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a 30-year military veteran whose campaign slogan was "Iron fist, head and heart", angered Washington in September by proposing drug legalization at the UN General Assembly. This came on the heels of a dozen Latin American leaders avoiding using the term legalization by calling to reduce demand for drugs by exploring "regulatory or market oriented options", an act of linguistic prestidigitation favored by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to avoid pissing off Uncle Sam. Even President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, which has received almost $9 billion in aid from the US to fight the cartels, has said he's open to legalization. However, the race to sanity seems set to be won by Uruguay where a bill has been introduced to legalize the production and sale of marijuana under a state monopoly thanks to its flower-farming former leftist guerilla president, Jose "Pepe" Mujica.
So while the world watches the presidential returns November 6th to see who will be sleeping in the White House for the next four years, the people of Colorado, Oregon and Washington will be choosing whether to not only make their lives better but also those in Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa, the three Mexican states where drug cartels will be most harmed by legalization, losing up to 30% of their earnings from traffic to the US. There's a few other interesting citizens' initiatives to keep an eye on, particularly California's Proposition 37 which would require products containing GMOs to be labeled. Opponents, Monsanto that is, are spending millions to argue that giving people information would scare them into buying non-GMO products. Well, um, yeah, I guess that's the point. Maine, Maryland and Washington will be having up-or-down votes on legalizing same-sex marriage while Minnesotans face a measure to constitutionally take away gay couples rights as 30 states have already done. And don't forget Florida and Maine choose whether to tighten control over women's uteruses (uteri?). 

"When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter - to quit paradise for earth - heaven for hell! Taste the hashish, guest of mine - taste the hashish!"  
 - Alexander Dumas

Polls show Washingtonians and Coloradans likely to vote yes while Oregonians might not be ready to make the leap. What will it mean if these states legalize marijuana? The Obama administration has already showed its disdain for the will of the people by raiding medical dispensaries all over the west, so one can imagine an even stronger reaction to people smoking pot for recreational purposes and given his religious zealotry, Romney has predictably made it clear he'll fight weed tooth and nail. While parroting the same old refuted marijuana myths,  former drug warriors predict a constitutional showdown between the states and feds. With so many powerful forces profiting from prohibition, yes votes in any or all three states will only be a victory in one battle with many more to come. Hopefully the anti-prohibition movement will continue down the same successful path as the last 70 years ago when Beer Day parades saw 100,000 turn out in NYC and 40,000 in Detroit to cheer the legalization of beer, Obama will magically turn into the progressive we believed him to be four years ago and the media will turn from demonization to pressing for legalization. Just as scientists are now restarting research into LSD, MDMA and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) after a 40 year federally imposed hiatus and discovering new benefits, new medical uses for marijuana will also help the push. Regardless of the vote, it'll be a cat and mouse game for the foreseeable future in which the cats have the guns but the mice have the reason...


Monday, October 1, 2012

Dictatorship of the Infotariat

Editor's note: The writer understands the irony of writing this, and of your reading some but not all of it, thanks to the technology he is ranting about. Oh, and you can follow him on Twitter, like or share the post and enjoy listening to him read it by clicking just below to the left thanks to all these marvelous machines as well.

"Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
 - T.S. Eliot Burnt Norton

While 2011 saw a lot of action predominantly driven by a questioning of authority which manifested itself in self-immolation driven revolution, regime alteration facilitated by NATO-aided assassination, behind the scene Troika machinations and we are the 99% occupations, 2012 has been about regime legitimization through media manipulation of minimization and demonization, draconian legislation, leadership transitions and elections, and of course panis et circenses lobotomization. Somehow this all goes down while we have more access than ever before to all the information in the world and therein lies the paradox - we have never known less while thinking that we know more. Look around you, zombies have made the jump from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the big screen to the small screen to real life, as the hordes sit, walk, study, eat, play, sleep and even shower with their eyes glued to a glowing screen under the control of spin doctors instead of witch doctors. This is the infotariat, much like Marx's proletariat in that they make up the bulk of humanity; however, somewhat unlike Marx's prophesied majority as their distinguishing feature is not that they are the working class but the mis/dis/uninformed class.

"Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." - Karl Marx

If Marx were alive today he wouldn't recognize the need for revolution. After all, he lived in the time of Oliver Twist and we live in a wired wonderland where our every desire is within the reach of our fingertips. We have access to more information than ever but no more time as we've surrendered our natural rhythms to the immediacy of our networks, always needing more information, a faster connection, a newer gadget. We've become info-addicts in a world where satisfying our craving for the dopamine rush of our information seeking behaviour is as accessible as that of a cocaine fiend's at a Pablo Escobar dinner party or a diabetic fat kid in a candy store. In all three cases we become sensitized to the craving cycle of the particular reward and thus obsessively driven to seek the rush, even as the hit itself packs progressively less punch and as our dopamine system does not have satiety built into it, leads us to irrational wants, excessive desires we’d be better off without. How else do you explain all those downcast faces basked in an eerie glow as they walk in front of buses, the car, truck and train drivers texting or checking their fantasy football scores, interlocutors cutting off a conversation mid-sentence to answer their modern day vibrators, the one in five people who reach for their phone as a 21st century replacement for the post-coital cigarette, or the tap, tap, tap sounds of two-thumbed texting emanating from students playing with something between their legs instead of the expected fap, fap, fap of one-handed clapping?

Welcome to the world mass-produced for the pleasure of the infotariat and the gain of the plutocrats. Whereas Marx foresaw that the proletariat would be an increasingly centralized and organized force thanks to the conditions created by capitalism, the infotariat are becoming increasingly fragmented and contradictory thanks to the lethal combination of the information anti-idyll and the present economic model, financial corporatism. Our Twitooglebook universe is an amazing machine, churning out information to constantly bombard our senses with facts, stats, stories and pictures of cute kittens from which we can pick and choose. Choice is a great thing, until it's not, as we invariably fall victim to confirmation bias, favoring information that confirms our previous beliefs in our struggle to reconcile competing viewpoints.

What is more, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions, increases with the intensity of the information bombardment until it reaches a breaking point and falls off as if a circuit breaker has been tripped. We start making bad choices and stupid mistakes causing frustration and anxiety to soar; "With too much information, people’s decisions make less and less sense." The time we spend online can also lead to depression, or not, and anyone who has spent time on comment threads knows our online anonymity can lead to toxic disinhibition which encourages aggressiveness and anger. Additionally, instead of remem­ber­ing the infor­ma­tion itself, we just remem­ber where to find it, easing the burden on our brains but lowering our innovative potential as we subconsciously choose to conform our opinion to the first couple of hits on Google. This danger is exacerbated by the machine itself as our anything but evil search engine learns to predict our preferences and feeds us a narrower and narrower set of results to better fit our preexisting worldview.

"[T]his discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." - Plato; Phaedrus

Information technology was supposed to open up a world of unlimited knowledge but instead it has trapped us in a cage and turned us into sheep, sheeple, cattle, mouth-breathers, zombies, what have you. Yet, hasn't it always been this way? After all, Plato wasn't quoting Socrates' thoughts on the internet but that oldest of information technologies, writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful." And because they would be able to "receive a quantity of information without proper instruction," they would "be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant." They would be "filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom." Sounds familiar, don't it?

This is the main argument of the Ever-Waser: there has always been distractions and gullible people who  think they're smart because they picked up a nugget of knowledge while picking them out of their nose. And of course they're right; we survived Gutenberg's moveable type bible builder despite warnings such as "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire", Marconi's War of the Worlds hysteria maker "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value, who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" and Baird's couch potato producer (the printing press, radio and TV) as well as newspapers, H(B)ollywood and the mass media that built up around all of it. All were at one point going to turn our brains to mush and be the end of civilization. The fact that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others is what makes this a modern moment, as it ever was.

"Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life, it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts, and of sciences." - Freeman Dyson

The Never-Better is most likely an Apple fanboy whose relationship with a corporation can only be compared to religion, refers to his phone as smart and thinks we're on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic and news will be made from the bottom up. Not only does more information empower us but technology has also allowed us to clear out our musty bookcases and photo albums and freed up creative space in our white and grey matter by transferring our knowledge and memories to the circuitry of our hard drives and the cloud. A single click now accomplishes what once required days in a research library. Facebook and Twitter made the Arab Spring possible, Wikipedia is the greatest collaborative knowledge project ever and our devices have made us more productive than ever. Just as Gutenberg's printing press helped usher in the Scientific Revolution, thanks to modern information technology the Singularity is near.

Wait. Sure, the printing press produced the Reformation, which brought on the Scientific Revolution, which ushered in the Enlightenment but one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther’s newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what immediately followed the Reformation wasn’t the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge but actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means to spread ideas about what dickheads the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare. More than two centuries later, Voltaire was still writing in a book about the horrors of those other books that urged burning men alive in auto-da-fé. If this somehow feels familiar, it should (if not, think of the present western war on Islam or the flip side, jihad against the west, or the persecution of those who set the information free, such as Pirate Bay and the war on whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks), and if it gives you pause, then maybe you, like me, have been fitted for your tinfoil hat and are part of the final group, the Better-Nevers.

Ever since Ned Ludd led his followers in a violent protest against the machines being introduced to replace them, the pejorative term Luddite has usually been used to describe us Better-Nevers. In 1812 they sought to smash the power looms that were transforming the hand of the workers into mere appendages of the machine in an age when the speed of life was dictated by the pace of the steam engine. In 2012, the speed of life is dictated by the ever increasing speed of information transfer facilitated by the descendents of the Turing machine. The Luddites were hunted down and hanged for the heresy of hindering the progress they saw robbing the value of their labor; the Better-Nevers are simply ridiculed for warning of the inherent risks in a world where the production and ownership of knowledge is the main source of value. The proletariat fought against the power of capital to displace their labor whereas the infotariat welcome their overlords, exhalting those who camp out to be the first to put themselves in an information box while vilifying those who do the same to call into question a system which assigns human rights to soulless, profit-driven corporations.

Google's autonomous car seems pretty cool but it shouldn't if you're a truck or taxi driver, machine language translation a convenience unless your a translator and algorithms can already out-write most journalists. Ever more powerful algorithms are part of an arms race on Wall Street rendering human investors irrelevant and manufacturing risk while siphoning money and talent that growth-producing sectors of the economy need. Replacing armies with robots may save a couple of lives in the short term but look at how Watson outwitted his human opponents at Jeopardy, think about the trajectory of Moore's Law (PDF) and remember the dystopian future shown to us in Terminator. Robots will also be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine and handling your lawsuits. A single click may now accomplish what once required days in a research library but while print took over the once-human task of knowing, cyberspace is assuming the task of both knowing where to get what we seek and providing the content; librarian and author. Constant distraction has made it more likely to miscalculate, both risks and rewards, as 98% of us see a decline in productivity as we multi-task and temporarily lose an average of 10 points of IQ while thinking our devices do the opposite.

In the past our assessment of the risk of being blown up by a terrorist, or of getting swine flu, or a child being snatched by a pedophile on the way to school, was calculated from the steady input of information received mainly from our small local group, those we spoke to or heard from. What the Internet does, and what mass communication does more generally is to sample those inputs from the seven billion people on Earth. But our brains still consider that the inputs arose from my local community, because that is the environment its assessment circuits were built for. Millions of years of evolution created our orientation, but in the last 500 we've been given a new map and the last 100 an ever increasing speed to calculate where we're heading. Our brain assumes a smaller denominator than we need with the result that the answer to the question of how likely something is to happen is too big. So, when we hear every day of children being abducted our brain gives me the wrong answer to the question of risk: it has divided a big number (the children snatched all over the world) by a small number (the tribe). This 'Madeleine McCann' effect can also be seen in (most of) our irrational fear of terrorism as well.

Our risk/reward assessments face a problem of both scale and agency. Our brains are biased by the wiring that evolved over millions of years of evolution that kept our ancestors alive when the dangers were predators not pollutants and now must make calculations in a world of seven billion strangers instead of 30-50 kinfolk. On the flip side we are inundated with stories of staggering wealth, celebrities famous for being, well, famous and superhuman sporting achievement to such an extent that we not only celebrate their achievements but subconsciously come to believe we are part of the success or can attain it ourselves. Whitewashing by corporate sponsors at the Olympics absolves Coke and McDonald's of brainwashing us and imprinting their logos on the pleasure center of children's brains and making us all fat, heck, even Atos, the company charged with knocking disabled people off the benefit roles that made it possible for may to compete can sponsor the paralympics to make everything okay. When figuring the odds of being blown up by terrorists or winning the next MegaMillions Jackpot lottery we overestimate while we underestimate the chances of dying from heart disease or dying in a car accident on the way to Dairy Queen. The media, politicians and corporations are continuously vying for our attention while seeking to take advantage of our biases in order to drum up ratings (or clicks or views), votes and profit.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government" - Thomas Jefferson

Same as it ever was the Ever-Waser would claim while the Never-Better would prove life's better by crowdsourcing a survey on Twitooglebook. And they'd be right up until of course they were wrong. Can anyone remember a time when the Middle East wasn't in turmoil? Has there ever been a year in which we haven't helped push some tin pot dictator onto his sword? When haven't the rich and powerful been pulling the strings despite the protests of a few marionettes? The world is a better place without Sadam Hussein and Moamar Ghadaffi. Occupy Wall Street focused attention on the growing gap between the rich and poor and bankster immunity from paying for the crime of crashing the economy. We are free to choose who to vote for on election day, Robama or Obom(b)ney. Both views, however, miss the point. It's convincing enough people to call the different groups freedom fighters or terrorists, job creators or plutocrats, activists or moochers; government benefits entitlements or aid if for people, subsidies or corporate hand outs for corporations; death taxes or estate taxes, death panels or advanced care planning consultations, that makes all the difference. Emma Goldman may have died in 1940 but they've yet to make voting illegal so we know it still doesn't change anything. Choosing between evil and slightly less evil isn't a choice as the winner is still evil. Our new media world hasn't set the information free; if anything it has helped speed its consolidation, with the pipes being owned by the content providers, robbing us of our imagination in much the same way as we are being stripped of our civil rights.

Use Google to search for information? Facebook to keep up with friends? Twitter to check out what's happening? Read the newspaper (the bits of dead tree or bits and bytes kind) while eating breakfast? Listen to the radio in the car? Maybe you even still watch TV to unwind on the couch after a long day at work. If so, hope you're enjoying your stay in your own personal information bubble. Sure, they're all amazing platforms but just as night follows day, every ying has its yang and Anakin Skywalker grew up to be Darth Vader, they all have their dark side. Thanks to the loss of informational commons resultant from the amazing range of choice we have today, we are likely more closed-minded, less intellectually adventurous, and more vulnerable to propaganda and manipulation than ever before.

Even if you're not logged into your Gmail account, in addition to serving as the copyright police, Google personalizes your search results according to 57 (and growing) different signals. Based on your previous choices from past searches, Google provides you with results to 'better' serve your preferences. Your Facebook wall offers you a mere slice of your friends' activity based on who you've messaged, clicked or poked in the past while Twitter allows you to pick and choose whose voices to hear. Our choice of newspapers or internet portals may seem arbitrary, but I'm willing to wager someone reading the Wall Street Journal, listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News is more like Ayn Rand while the Karl Marx's will be logged into, listening to NPR and watching MSNBC. The result is epistemic closure, a reality in which the only trustworthy sources of information are those of your team, on a grander scale than ever before, resulting in opposing sides practically speaking different languages leaving compromise an impossibility.

This helps explain why many of the world's problems seem to be stuck in a perpetual loop from war to finance to the environment. Those Muslims are crazy, getting so carried away just because of a movie! Cue the nonstop coverage of demonstrations, Newsweek 'Muslim Rage' cover and incessant whining question of 'Why do they hate us?'. Rarely are we given the space for the time and reflection needed to get to the root of the problem, instead, we attack. Heck, forget the western powers fault in drawing arbitrary lines on the map, support of totalitarian toadies from Shahs named Pahlevi to religious wackos called Wahabi, and financial/military/moral support for Israel. Just since launching the war on terror, the US and its allies have attacked and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq to take out regimes they had one time supported; bombed Libya; killed thousands in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; imposed devastating sanctions; backed Israel's occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians to the hilt; carried out large-scale torture, kidnapping and internment without trial; maintained multiple bases to protect client dictatorships throughout the region; and now threaten Iran with another act of illegal war. The blowback from creating Noriegas, Bin Ladens and Husseins is all the harder to detect thanks to the backfire effect.

"Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid." - Voltaire

The paradox of choice helps turn the best of all possible worlds in which the ability to pick and choose from a multitude of options can drive social change into the illusion of choice. Sure, it's nice to know that if you're searching for a new coffee maker you'll get results from your location but it's disconcerting to learn that if you're trying to find information on an election, environmental catastrophe or a holiday that the deeper-pocketed candidate will ensure a search of his/her opponent is littered with negative stories, that BP paid to be the first result for "oil spill" or that companies can purchase keywords containing competitor's names. Yes, in most cases we can turn the customization off or choose to read or listen to an alternative viewpoint but the fact is most of us are lazy and we love being fed the sugar we crave no matter how bad we know it is for us. Sadly, the truth doesn't always win out, a fact known by advertisers and politicians and borne out by scientific investigations. Much like an underpowered antibiotic, facts can actually make misinformation stronger. As people are loath to admit their wrong, "this backfire effect is a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance".

So we're left in a world where rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we choose to accept, causing us to twist facts so they better fit into our preconceived notions. As we uncritically accept bad information that reinforces our beliefs, it increases our confidence that we are right and makes us less likely to listen to any new information. Those more confident they are right are not only more likely to be wrong but less likely to change their minds when presented with the facts, which explains why political campaigns are no longer concerned with facts or fact checking but only staying on message. As long as the lies conform with someone's worldview, they will not only accept but also defend them. The perfect example comes from the buildup to the war in Iraq which saw the media drum the idea of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) into the public's consciousness (using weapons of mass distraction).

In a 2005 experiment, participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). A clear, direct correction was inserted after each piece of misinformation, and then the study participants were measured to see if the correction took. For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With the first two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic, a factor known as salience, the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

Like a science experiment gone awry, the Internet has created an electronic petri dish to culture conspiracy theories, gathering geographically diffuse crazies to feed off each others fears and beliefs. These range from the harmless, even oddly comforting old-school tales of aliens in our midst and fake moon landings to the somewhat disconcerting the Bilderbergs/Masons/Illuminati/Jews are controlling the world, chem trails and 9/11 Truthers to the downright terrifying groups who don't vaccinate their children thanks to the belief it causes autism thus exposing the rest of us to an epidemic and the hate groups who seem to believe any evil is possible if your not straight, white and Christian. We shouldn't be surprised by any asininity in a world where 46% of the most powerful nation's population believe in creationism, and one in five can't find their own country on a map, don't know who their nation declared independence from, think Dubya was a great president, believe witches are real, and the sun revolves around the Earth. Before the release of Obama's long form birth certificate, 30% of Republicans believed he was born in the US. Immediately after the release, that figure increased to 47% but the fact effect wore off and in fact slightly backfired, in nine months  only 27% believed it.

"The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt" - Bertrand RussellMarriage and Morals

How is it that nearly everyone thinks they're a better than average driver? The same way that only 2% of high school seniors believe that their leadership skills are below average, that 25% of people believe they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others and that 94% of professors report doing above-average work. We're all from Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. Not only are these positive illusions ridiculous, they can be deadly as people engage in risky behaviors believing that they are at lower risk than peers for heart attacks, cancer, and even food-related illnesses like salmonella. We are also prone to thinking that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives: when a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with our beliefs, the belief commonly prevails. And this goes for you, too. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.

Seeing as a vaccine against zombieism has yet to be developed, education would seem to be the best immunization we have. We're not gonna get into how our modern devices are encouraging lazy habits and atrocious grammar and spelling or possibly even rewiring our brain, fundamentally changing how we read, write and learn. However, it is in this area every bit as much as militarism that Obama and the Democratic party prove that there really is no electoral choice. The recent Chicago teachers' strike was a battle between teachers and Chicago mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel not over pay but corporate-style school reform. Obama's Race to the Top program rewards school districts based on how many teachers they fire and replace with temps, how many teachers are subjected to evaluation on test scores and how many public schools are replaced with charters. The result being teachers teaching to a test to keep their job and schools forced to hire consultants from the very same people who wrote the rules - Surprise! Billionaire plutocrats.

Higher education? Forget about it. Unless your rich or willing to take on a debt burden to weigh you down for life, most can no longer afford it and if they do, instead of choosing to use their education to build things, the best and brightest of tomorrow choose to blow thing up, financially at least, by heading to Wall Street. That's the way the market works and why a university education has simply become an indoctrination program that removes critical thinking and installs efficient market propaganda in its place. In contrast to the hoopla surrounding the impact of using new technology as an educational tool, well, let's just say the results are mixed. Just as plopping a baby in front of a TV screen, with or without 'educational' videos, impairs their development, children's internet habits are robbing them of the skills needed to thrive. Deep thinking, the ability to differentiate fact from fiction, creativity, self-regulation (not corporate self-regulation), empathy and self-reflection aren't learned in front of any screen, they are learned through face-to-face communication, hands-on exploration of the world, opportunities for silence and time to dream.

It all adds up to make it easier to manipulate the infotariat, inevitably by the plutocracy in order to maintain the status quo. The secret of their success isn't much of a secret: boatloads of cash plus a public that wants things to stay the same. Climate change? Anyone who believes it might be a green Trojan horse with a bellyful of red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine is easily convinced it is by a few hacked emails strategically released before a climate conference. Evidence, shmevidence. In 2007, 71% of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51%. In June 2011 the number of Americans who agreed was down to 44%. Whereas 70-75% of Democrats believe, as few as 20% of Republicans accept the science in some regions. Income inequality? Again, half a century of anti-communist propaganda is more than enough to outweigh the evidence that historic inequality was a main driver of the financial crisis, is literally killing people or that the American Dream has become nothing more than a myth. Yet we're only presented with two sides of the debate: stay the course or make matters worse. Try to imagine an alternative and well, this is how you might be portrayed:

If you're still reading this piece you were most likely able to spot the propaganda in the clip above as it pretty much hits all seven techniques. The rightwingnut, however, will nod knowingly that the violence against a group of protesters is completely justified in order to protect his/her freedoms. Meanwhile, free speech has been shrunk to fit into free speech zones; the cost of incarcerating more people (now more than were in Stalin's gulags!) than any other country combined with crisis induced austerity is forcing states to privatize prisons in exchange for guaranteed occupancy rates; US federal agencies lodged at least 1.3 million requests last year to cell-phone carriers for subscribers' personal information, including for text messages, and caller locations; the land of the free's Press Freedom ranking fell 27 places (thanks largely to the suppression of Occupy reporting) to 47th (somewhere between Botswana and Moldova); and the leader of the free world took advantage of our champagne induced blissfulness to sign the NDAA into law, giving him power to detain anyone (including Americans), anywhere, anytime without any rights or any time limits. Similarly to the rightwingnut's defense of his beliefs, the Obamanot libtart will unthinkingly defend his president's right to take away his/her rights.

Fed with a steady diet of their type of 'news' it's easy to imagine how someone could come to believe that teachers caused the financial crisis, Afghani women and children deserve to die, and that soon enough the rapture will save the chosen few, no matter how many times it's promised. In an environment in which 60% of us distrust the media and even more have lost faith in democracy itself as only 8% think their elected officials are doing a good job, it's little wonder that most simply retreat into the world of cute kitten memes and naked British royals in France and Las Vegas while letting technocrats and corporations become their rulers as reconciling belief with reality becomes more and more challenging. Even when something good is done, from announcing the closing Guantanamo Bay to attempting to reign in the worst excesses of Wall Street to agreeing to do something about climate change, we're paying so little attention that we don't even notice the pledges being ignored, walked back or abandoned altogether.

It's more comforting to be lulled into a false sense of security by Orwellian terms like collateral damage, surgical 'signature' strikes, quantitative easing and expansionary fiscal contraction than to confront the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a pseudo-capitalist (corporatist) economy does just the opposite. John Steinbeck pointed out many years ago that "the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires" while the rich find it much more comforting to believe they attained their wealth on their own than credit the education, inheritance, family networks, contacts and introductions, educated workforce's labor, infrastructure and security that helped them get where they are. Electing a corporate brand to office doesn't bring about hope or change when it can just ignore the past and dispense platitudes about needing to look forward. Refusing to prosecute past war crimes just makes them more acceptable and easier to become a war criminal yourself, or maybe some kind of space alien named Kang.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" or perhaps "When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?" - John Maynard Keynes

Facts themselves have a half-life that varies depending on the field of knowledge (smoking has gone from doctor-recommended to deadly, Earth was demoted from the centre of the universe to just another planet, how many glasses of water are we supposed to drink a day anyway?) while information on the net decays even quicker, disappearing completely or archived by providers who charge for access within a few years. When combined with the exaltation of experts (larks), tittering of think tanks (magpies) and troop of trolls (like baboons, get it?) paid to sow doubt by massaging the numbers, skewing the stats, parroting talking points or to just flat out come up with believable lies, it's easy to feel unsettled by the seeming randomness of it all. Yet, I can't help but get the feeling it's not all that random. Perpetual war isn't killing old, rich white guys and is pretty good for defense contractors' bottom lines; financial crises have a nasty habit of hitting the poor and helping the rich; privatization, another product of crisis as governments scrounge for cash, was not a Thatcher patent but originates from the German word Reprivatisierung and was first used in English in 1936 in reference to Nazi economic policy; melting the Arctic will be a bonanza for Shell, BP and Exxon, who don't care if positive feedback will kill us all; Angry Birds doesn't just seem addictive, it was designed to be that way, not to entertain.

When Apple claims "The iPad is a magical window where nothing comes between you and what you love.” when trying to sell you the third incarnation of their tablet, they know they're pushing the same cognitive buttons as that religion with the old guy holding commandments etched on the orginal tablets. Just as those followers have created a bubble of ignorance to inhabit in order to maintain their delusion of a promised paradise so too has the cult of technology. Maybe all those Foxconn employees who build the new idols being exposed to n-hexane poisoning, committing suicide and rioting due to working conditions will someday obtain martyr status: how else could you build a phone for $200 to sell for $650 (without contract)? The most successful corporation of all time has also been taking notes on how to limit our creativity in the name of progress by suing to stifle competition despite the words of the messiah (I wonder if he could cure the blindness his products seem to cause?). Despite both of their creation myths, Christianity was born of Judaism while Apple fell from the tree of Xerox, this is how innovation and progress work, everything is a remix.

We got a peek at the plan on a much grander scale last year and paradoxically at the solution as well when the US tried to push through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) to protect Hollywood and punish anyone who "enables, or facilitates" copyright infringement and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) aimed at websites who would "harm" US copyright holders. Public protest led to them both being returned to the drawing board and also seemed to mobilize Europeans to protest the Mothership, the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, already signed by the United States, Canada, Mexico, the entirety of the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Morocco, South Korea, and Singapore. Public protests put the brakes on ratification and on July 4th, 2012, the European Parliament rejected the agreement as "[t]he intended benefits of this international agreement are far outweighed by the potential threats to civil liberties". This success offers a tiny glimpse at the potential the 30 billion watts of electricity needed to power these intertubes offers. The machine never rests though as secretive, opaque negotiations towards implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive proposed free-trade zone spanning the Pacific Ocean and all four hemispheres, move forward aiming to empower corporations to the detriment of workers, the environment, and sovereignty throughout the region. 90% of that 30 billion watts is wasted, sitting idle as backup, we have to stop wasting so much of ours sharing pictures of cute cats.

But living in Zombieland means that all too often the same people who cause problems and crises are put in charge of 'fixing' them. Decisions about our future are slowly being taken over by unelected technocrats as they are making choices that no elected official could survive. Italy had a Goldman Sachs executive installed as its leader while Greece suffered the same indignity temporarily before being given the chance to vote a couple of times until they got it 'right'. Spain elected a clown to keep the electoral blame ping pong game going but not his promises. Not only do the Tony Blairs of the world get to retire from office to the speaking circuit, they also get to become peace envoys in regions where they helped start wars in order to mingle with rich emirs and sign private consultation contracts. Their underlings get to enjoy the same revolving door ride, from K-Street to Wall Street to Capitol Hill and back again, helping make investing in lobbyists more profitable than stocks, bond, gold or real estate, paying a 22,000% return. It's pretty profitable for the riders as well.

As in Goethe's Faust, printing unlimited amounts of paper money seems to work great for awhile but it always leads to bankruptcy and that's just the path that's been chosen for us, courtesy of the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank (unlimited and sterilized!) and more. Psychopaths (or worse) should be locked away as they did in Iceland so they can't harm the public. Instead, the complication of keeping a quadrillion dollar ponzi scheme cooking means we need the Robert Rubins of the world, those who concocted it, despite their conflicts of interest to gamble with our pensions, homes and our ability to afford to put gas in our cars and food on our plates. War criminals become counterterrorism advisers with the power to decide who lives or dies from secret kill lists compiled by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Because it's Obama and not Dubya, it's somehow okay to use drones to remotely kill innocent people in a far away country your not at war with and adopt the terrorist double-tap technique of targeting rescuers and funerals. You wanna talk about blowback, how do you feel about Iranian drones? We keep pumping water we'll need to survive into the ground with poison to extract gas to burn to heat the planet and melt the ice which will allow us to get at more gas thanks to a vice president inserting the Haliburton loophole for both their profit. Sucking all of both nature's and the classes' wealth from the bottom up.

Most of the infotariat should now also be called the precariat as they live a precarious existence, lacking predictability or security which affects their material and psychological welfare. Once upon a time, they lived in the periphery of society but no more; in the US, this now covers over 2/3 of the population. More than 46 million Americans rely on food stamps just to have enough to eat; unsurprisingly, a couple of million more don't have access to medical help short of visiting an emergency room, just one of the reasons America has the most expensive health care system in the world which delivers worse results than most advanced nations . Household that made less than $40,000 last year spent more than they earned while those in the lowest quintile who on average earned $10,074 in after tax income, spent on average more than double that, $22,001 as 87% of their income was needed to simply put a roof over their head. When you have so little you become even more afraid to lose even that little you have, so you become afraid to stick your head out. Europe may be faring worse as the troika has usurped national sovereignty: Portugal, the erstwhile poster child of the austerity program, is proving it doesn't work when implemented, Greece is proving it doesn't work when avoided as violent demonstrations have become a mainstay of 'look what could happen to you' debt fear mongering, while in Spain the same cycle of austerity and unemployment has led to an alarming rise in the numbers relying on dumpster diving to meet their dietary requirements, the pharmacies literally running out of medicine and the country on the verge of breaking up.

Perhaps one day enough zombies will lift their heads from the screen to turn the rapidly rising tide of technocracy and corpocracy. It best happen sooner than later as we seem to be spinning around the death spiral ever faster as we approach the eye of the vortex, the inevitable result of a society built around the concept of exponential growth on a finite planet; we have an economy that steals from the future, sells it to the present and calls it GDP. We forget what we could have learned before we've had a chance to learn the lesson as we flit from one screen to the next, at home, work, school, in the park, the mall, the car and bed. Then again, maybe it's always been this way, maybe that's why history always repeats itself. E. M. Forster wrote "The Machine Stops" in 1909, in which he warned of the terrible consequences of a similar assault on our memory by what Czeslaw Milosz described as a "fantastic proliferation of mass media" calling it a "process that defies definition, characterized by a refusal to remember" in his 1980 Nobel prize acceptance speech; inconvenient facts simply disappeared down the memory hole in Orwell's "1984"; Huxley's blond native, John, hangs himself instead of dealing with the madness of modernity in "Brave New World". I'm betting on more of a "Super Sad True Love Story" dystopia mixed with the reality of Monsanto controlling our food supply: Zombies eating each other with their eyes glued to their äppärät screens as the most powerful man in the world, the head of the Chinese central bank, visits New York in the midst of a disastrous American military adventure too far.

I shall set my face toward the infernal regions,
I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the living,
I will make the dead outnumber the living! 

 - The Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the oldest written story we have, coincidence?)

And the LORD will send a plague on all the nations that fought against Jerusalem. Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. 
 - Zechariah 14:12 (yeah, the bible, the old testament, the torah baby!)