Life’s a Lap

I’m no longer posting on KSC; but I’m blathering on about theology and politics at Life’s a Lap.

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Teaching Boys; or, “I’m Glad It’s Thursday Afternoon.”

A slight exaggeration.

This past week has, undoubtedly, been the most exhausting, most infuriating week teaching in Korea. The students have been extraordinarily rowdy, disrespectful, and refuse to listen, even to the Korean teachers when they speak Korean. We’ve had fights, kids crying, teachers yelling daily–the works. It hasn’t been pretty.

Why we’ve had such a bad week is, of course, a complex question, because people are complex. Why are these students so undisciplined? Are they always like this? Of course, I only see them for a few days, so I really can’t speak with any authority on their personal behavior. But I can compare it to the behavior of other groups, and two things stand out:

First, although we normally have 48 boys and 48 girls in each group, this time around we had twice as many boys as girls. Boys tend to develop slower than girls, hitting their stride in  high school, and so tend to lag in middle school. So they are more likely to be bored, which can lead to all sorts of problematic behavior. Boys at this age are also at the cusp of puberty, and as I think we can all remember, that’s a tumultuous time. They’re likely to feel a need to express themselves, challenge authority, and generally act like a bunch of giant asses.

This is compounded by the fact that though normally we only have two to four students from any given school, this week all of our students came from just three schools, and more than half came from just one school. So many of the students know each other. So they brought all of their pre-established relationships with them into our center. They have reputations to keep, interpersonal politics to quibble over. And those things are certainly more important to them than pleasing some foreign teacher they’ll only know for five days. Normally, our students come relatively alone to a new place, with new teachers. They’re on new ground, both literally and figuratively, and that works to our advantage. They’re likely to listen closely and try to please all the teachers, at least in the first day or so. And if we can win their trust and admiration in those opening days, we’re in pretty good shape.

We didn’t really get that chance this time around, though. And that, combined with the prevalence of male students, has resulted in a messy week. Apparently we’re getting a similar mix of boys & girls and a similar concentration of students from single schools next week. So I’ll be bracing for it next Monday. Also, sorry for the lack of any citations. I normally like to provide some links when I make sweeping claims like “boys develop slower than girls.” But a quick google search yielded only tangentially related articles, and I’m too tired to dig into serious research right now. If any of you know more about child development, please feel free to fill in on the topic, correct my claims, leave links, etc. I’m far from an expert on all of this. Just a front-lines guy right now.

Posted in Amateur Korean Sociology | Leave a comment

On Futurism & (Less Than) Scientific Trend-iness

Yesterday, a friend of mine linked me an article on the Civil War over at Time.com. It was good–really good. And I have to admit I was surprised. For whatever reason, I assumed that Time was a wishy-washy magazine full of puff pieces. So I snooped around the site a bit more, hoping to find more journalistic gold. And I definitely found some interesting articles. And while I have to admit they were worth reading, I also found some mushy thinking and scrambled reporting. I feel like the problems I ran across are worth discussing. (Hopefully you’ll agree, if not, sorry for the boring post!)

First up, I ran across an article on futurism, or, more specifically, on what some futurists call “the Singularity” (which is a bit confusing as this term has a number of other meanings). Essentially, this entrepreneur/computer engineer/futurist by the name of Raymond Kurzweil, among others, believes that in the coming decades, computers will achieve, and then surpass, human-level intelligence and come to dominate and/or fuse with us. He bases this belief on the well-known Moore’s Law, which points out the long term trend that “transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.” He has also developed his own interpretations of various trends, essentially showing that the processing power of computers has been increasingly at a similarly exponential rate.

And that trend is undeniable. We can look back at the processing speeds of computers over the last 50 years, and Moore’s Law holds up very well. And that progress has continued up to the present day. However, here’s where I think Kurzweil and others start to make problematic claims. I want to state clearly that I’m not saying that he, and other Singularitarians (the name they use to describe themselves) are wrong. Who knows whether their predictions will pan out? No one–and that’s the point. Assuming that, because a trend has persisted over some past period, it must continue along the same trajectory on into the future, forever, is fallacious.

Again, that doesn’t mean that the trend won’t continue, it just means we can’t assume that it necessarily will. This is easily demonstrable with all sorts of trends. For example, dinosaurs dominated the earth for about 150 million years. That’s a really, really, really long time. They had evolved some pretty impressive and unique traits that led to their dominance–their hips joined to their bodies in a different way than other reptiles, making them faster and more maneuverable. Many of them had the largest brain-to-body-size ratio of any animal at the time. Some may even have been warm-blooded, allowing them to out-compete other species. And in the late Cretaceous, dinosaurs were only honing these advantages. Any observer 65 million years ago would have assumed that this dominance would have continued for millions of years into the future.

Of course, we know that it didn’t. An asteroid strike (probably) struck the Earth at that time, and in short order, all dinosaur species were extinct. This is pretty common knowledge now, but it’s worthwhile to stop and think about this for a second. So there was a huge asteroid strike, ok–why should this result in the complete extinction of all dinosaurs? We might assume that top predators and the huge herbivores would have died out. They needed vast amounts of food every day, and in a darkened, volcanic world, it would have been difficult for them to survive? But why should the small, possibly omnivorous dinosaurs have died out? They were, arguably, some of the most “advanced” organisms of their time. I think most intelligent observers would have predicted their continued survival.

Now, I know very little about paleontology and dinosaur biology. So I’m certainly not going to hazard any guesses as to the ecological/metabolic/biological reasons for why dinosaurs indeed died out (and of course, some of them may actually have survived and evolved into dinosaurs, though the exact timing and causality of bird evolution is still a matter of great debate). But the point is simply this: there was a long and well-developed trend of dinosaur dominance, adaptation, and refining that ended abruptly. If we graphed the number of individual dinosaurs, dinosaur species, and the centrality of dinosaurs in the ecosystem, beginning with the first dinosaurs in the Jurassic period, we would see a steeply climbing line, which abruptly ended 65 million years ago. Trends do not have to continue. And for those who object by saying that the asteroid strike was a rare event, a sort of fluke–well, unlikely events occur. Their rarity, from a human perspective, isn’t terribly significant. When we make predictions about the entire future of the universe, our theories better be robust enough to deal with unlikely events–especially considering that we know full well that major catastrophes aren’t really unlikely, on a universal scale of reference.

Of course, you  might argue that the dinosaur trend is so different in kind from the computer processor trend as to have no bearing on this debate. So let’s talk about something a bit closer to home: oil. If you graphed the amount of oil pumped out of the Earth, beginning in the middle of the 19th century until today, you would see an incredibly steep line heading up. At times the growth was certainly exponential. But not even the most optimistic oil investor thinks that line can continue forever. There is a finite amount of oil in the ground. We can debate how finite the supply is, but we really can’t debate whether it’s finite. The trend of a vastly expanding supply of oil absolutely will end, possibly in the next few decades. So as impressive as the exponential rise in the supply was, it would be completely foolish to think that expansion must necessarily continue indefinitely.

Now, computer processing power isn’t a finite resource lying in the ground. But computer circuits can only be so small. And their size is one of the most important factors in determining their speed. Computers can also be made faster by combining many processors on one circuit, so that they can share the processing load. Dual-core processors, quickly becoming standard today, are an example of this. But dual processing (or triple, quadruple, etc.) cannot yield infinite increases in speed either. Dual processing works best when there are a number of discrete tasks to do, so that some tasks can be given over to one processor and other to the second. But some processing tasks aren’t as conducive to this setup. Furthermore, there are necessarily inefficiencies in transmitting data between multiple processors. So while it seems likely we will continue to see huge increases in processor speed and power, the trend cannot possibly continue infinitely–there will be real limits.

Of course, just where those limits are is totally unknown. Perhaps we are very close to the limits and computers may not advance much beyond their capacities today; on the other hand, perhaps computers will continue to advance in speed and we will see supercomputers that are many times more intelligent than any human. We really don’t know, and as I said at the beginning of this piece, I’m certainly not saying that the futurist Singularitarians are wrong, but rather that their predictions are based on shoddy methodology. They’re manipulating statistics and ignoring fundamental tenets of the philosophy of science.

That said, they may end up being right anyway. And many most all of them are certainly far, far more knowledgeable than I am about computer engineering and the other related fields salient to this discussion. But we’re not talking about matters they can have true expertise on, we’re talking about completely unknown possibilities many decades into the future. And I think that their approach is fundamentally unscientific–it seems to me their movement is carried forward more by a geekish love of technology (totally understandable) as well as, perhaps, a fear of death (also totally understandable). And I think the ideas they are advancing are interesting and very much worth talking about. I just wish the discussion could be carried with less adolescent enthusiasm and more respect for what science demands of our thoughts. I think all too often that futurists fail to keep any boundary between their desires and what could responsibly be called predictions. They are not the same.

I sort of wanted to end the post there, but another aspect of the whole discussion occurred to me while I was writing, and I think it’s worth adding: futurists/Singularitarians don’t seem to talk much about the environmental impacts/constraints of their vision for the future. Will there even be enough of electricity for massive computer programs in 50 years? If the prices of oil and coal sky-rocket, and societies have to choose between eating and moving around and funding energy-intensive projects like those the futurists envision, which do we think societies would choose? And which would the futurists advocate for?

Posted in Egregious Existential Musings, Inadvisable Philosophizing | 2 Comments

English as a Developing Lingua Franca

I’m currently employed as an English teacher. My main job is simply to speak in my native tongue, to accustom my students to spoken English. I make lesson plans, but they’re relatively simple. I don’t grade papers or give out homework. I don’t have to prepare students for standardized tests. Student discipline is largely the responsibility of my Korean co-teachers. I don’t have to tangle with the bureaucracy (much). In short, as far as teaching goes, I have a cushy job. And I have the job not because I’m an amazing public speaker or I have some incredible teaching method (though my resume might soon claim both) but simply because I a) grew up speaking English and b) have a college degree.

My salary isn’t amazing, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either, especially considering that I don’t pay rent. I, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of other native-speaking foreign English teachers around the world are in a unique position: due simply to our place of birth and the privilege of having access to a college education, we have special jobs just carved out for us. There are sacrifices to make in pursuit of those positions, but they’re very limited sacrifices, especially when one considers what many people go through in this world just to make a few measly dollars. I have a pretty easy job–and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Globalization is a really complex thing, and I have no desire to try and tackle all the thorny issues here, so I’ll summarize extremely briefly: for the most part, I’m not a fan. Globalization poses many problems. It’s not all bad, for sure, but I think the dangers and costs largely outweigh the possible (and realized) benefits. But as a teacher of English in Korea, am I not an agent of Globalization? Am I engaged in some sort of unethical act simply by teaching English as a second (or third…) language?

I don’t have any immediate and conclusive answer to that question, but I would like to explore some of the further questions it raises. What I’ve come to realize is that English is not just a tool of cultural, political, and economic hegemony by the US, UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries. It does provide those nations with unique advantages, but I think the proliferation of English-speaking around the world is less a cause and more an effect of the already extant dominance of those countries politically, culturally, and economically. English certainly provides a vector for American cultural products, for example–but it’s a two-way street, and it also provides access to American markets and minds for Japanese anime, music, and fashion as well. And I think that sort of reciprocal transfer is only becoming more and more common.

Furthermore, I think English is becoming a true lingua franca–it’s not just a language that Koreans, or Japanese, or anyone else, use to speak to Americans and Brits. It’s a language that Koreans and Japanese use to talk to each other. It’s a language that Chinese people use to talk to Russians, and French people use to talk to Greeks. In otherwords, English’s value as a language far exceeds its utitlity as a way to access American cultural products and economic activities–it’s becoming a global langauge that is increasingly used by non-native speakers to communicate with other non-native speakers. Much like koine Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, Latin in Western Europe, or Arabic throughout south-western Asia and northern Africa, English is now functioning as an increasingly universal tongue.

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that the use of English as a lingua franca is without negative consequences–but I also don’t think we can pretend that people around the world won’t respond to that reality by accessing English-language education. The American and British governments certainly aren’t marching around the globe demanding that other nations teach their students English (although of course that sort of thing occurred not too long ago in colonial possessions…) Koreans, and others all over the world, are quite willing to invest huge amounts of money and time in learning English, and there absolutely must be some really compelling reason they’re doing so.

Stepping more into purely speculative territory, I’m curious what this will mean for the future of English as a language. If the trend continues, and English becomes a near-universal common tongue, how will it evolve and change? Koine Greek, for example, was actually more a of a pidgin than a full language. English has something like one million words in its full vocabulary–that’s far too large a number for most non-native speakers to bother learning. Will an abridged English become the standard form? Will English continue to loan words to other languages, or will it begin to borrow more than it loans? Will Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Arabic words colonize English? Especially as we see the eclipsing of US power, and the rise of both China and India (not to mention Brazil and some nations in Africa, especially Nigeria), it’s easy to imagine English becoming increasingly untethered from its native-speakers. That even raises the possibility of “global” English eventually splitting off and becoming its own language, with more “traditional” forms remaining only in native-speaking regions like the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Obviously I have no idea how accurate any of those speculations will be. But speculating is fun, and incredibly easy! The short term reality, though, is that English is now quite commodified. Knowing English is an asset that one can transfer, rather directly, into income. This commodification is both rather obvious and rather odd, at least from a personal perspective. One doesn’t really expect simply knowing how to talk in one’s mother tongue to be something of rather considerable economic value, and of course for most people who grew up speaking a language other than English, it isn’t (though this too is changing, especially for native-Mandarin speakers). In any event, any other nerds want to weigh in on any of this? I think I’ve rambled on long enough now.

Posted in Amateur Korean Sociology, Language | 3 Comments

Pictures of a Night Scene

Broadcasting the Good Word directly?

I’ve mentioned the unique architecture of steeples here in Korea, but I haven’t talked yet about what happens with the steeples at night. Most Protestant churches are outfitted with bright red neon lights that outline the crosses atop their steeples, making them more visible, for sure, but also rather ominous-looking. My interest in this phenomenon definitely intersects with my curiosity about the rapid expansion of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in the second half of the 20th Century. Lit-up crosses are not a traditional aspect of Christianity in the West, and if they were, it seems that red would not be the first color of choice. So what exactly is going on here?

My first instinct was and is to say this is linked to what I perceive as Christianity’s being tied-up with commercial capitalism to an extensive degree here. What looks gaudy and tacky to a–or at least to this–Western viewer, is likely seen only as effective advertising to Koreans. Or is this analysis totally off? Google searches along the lines of “Korea steeple night light” don’t yield a lot, though I did find a book that mentions it. It looks like I can read the whole text online, and I’m going to delve into it this weekend and see what I can find out.

In the meantime, I wanted to post some pictures I’ve taken of steeples here in Chungju. I’m especially interested in contrasting the same church from the same angle, both at night and during the day. Here’s a giant Methodist church near the center of town:

It’s truly massive; cathedral-scale. The main structure is probably 5 storeys tall; the steeple an additional two storeys easily. The cross atop the steeple is huge, and visible from many blocks away. What does the red light lend to it? I feel like it sort of undermines the grandeur of the church itself. Sure, it’s really visible, and impressive on its own right. But I’m not a big fan of gaudiness, especially in religious architecture, which I feel should impart feelings of sublimity, grace, and penitence, not power or financial muscle. Of course, this is hardly the first church to step over that line, but I feel like the red-light crosses step over it in a new and odd way.

Here’s one about a block from my house:

I actually had no idea this church existed until I saw a huge banner over the door showing Jesus and some sheep. The steeple is basically just bolted on to a multi-purpose building (there’s a bakery and a restaurant on the bottom floor), and I presume the church just rents out one of the units upstairs. These radio-tower steeples are actually quite common, and I don’t know if it’s because they actually double as cell-phone towers (this isn’t unheard of, even in the US) or just because the steel lattice approach is a cheap way of elevating your cross higher in a city riddled with high-rises. The glowing red cross actually adds to the “radio tower” feel, I think, sort of like a giant on-air sign.

In the foreground, a large Catholic church, unilluminated. In the distance, a very brightly lit up Protestant steeple.

These glowing crosses are absolutely ubiquitous, though the Catholic and Anglican churches I’ve investigated don’t seem to ever have illuminated steeples. I’m tempted to drag Hegel and his “Protestant Work Ethic” into my analysis–Protestant churches, I think, tend to be much more comfortable with overt commercialization. This is well exhibited in the mega-church phenomenon, which began in the US but is (regrettably) spreading all over the globe. Now Pastors aren’t just spiritual leaders and scholars, they are entrepreneurs, CEOs. Instead of questioning the influence of money and power, they’re peddling that influence themselves. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the Catholic Church has had clean hands on this account. Corruption is rife within any powerful organization. But it is interesting that so many Protestant churches don’t even feel the need to try and hide or obscure their commercialization. The Catholic Church, for all its faults, continues to at least pay lip service to simplicity and advocacy for the poor. And at the very least, that broadens the political and social context within which Catholics operate. Is the absence of red-lit crosses on Korean Catholic (and Anglican) churches a sign of this ideological divide? Or am I just connecting any dots I come across?

This last pair of photos captures the aforementioned entanglement pretty well, I think:

I apologize for the less-than stellar day shot. I thought I had a better one. But I think you can still see how this large, very modern-looking church is jammed into this commercial block–and fits right in, especially in the night shot. It’s an odd, but at the same time, appropriate juxtaposition, I think (did I really just use that word!?)  I wanted to end this post with a video of Pretty Girls Make Graves’ “Pictures of a Night Scene, but it won’t play embedded. You can check it out here, though. The video is fan-made and not that great, but the song is wonderful.

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Language Acquisition, A Response to “Ask A Korean”

It's all too true, as you'll see below...

It’s probably a bit early to be posting responses to other blogs, seeing as I’ve been posting here for about 10 days, but my thoughts on “Ask A Korean”s post on learning a foreign language have been stewing for a while, so here goes. First off, if you haven’t read the post, go read it now!

Have you read it? Good. Now a few comments. First off, I’d like to say that I’ve read dozens of A Korean’s posts, I think he’s a great writer and really enjoy his blog. It’s a great source of information for foreigners moving to Korea, people with Korean friends, or people who are just curious about Korean culture. I think his posts are insightful and well-thought out.

Ok, of course you can tell with all this diplomatic lead-in that I intend to disagree with the aforementioned post–but I really do mean everything I said in that last paragraph! Nonetheless, I did find a lot of questionable conclusions in his post on language acquisition, and feel a need to engage in a bit of constructive criticism. So here goes. I’m going to assume you’ve read the article, so seriously, if you haven’t, do so now. I’ll summarize his ideas but I’m not going to be giving a full-fledged review here.

A Korean begins with a quick personal introduction, explaining how he came over to the US as a teenager with only limited English education–but nonetheless, by the age of 18, was fully fluent in English, even being capable of gaining entrance into prestigious US universities. And let me say, this is no easy achievement. I’ve met plenty of Americans here in Korea who’ve lived here for years and can’t speak one full sentence in Korean. He definitely has my respect for gaining fluency so fast.

But he goes on to claim that the best, perhaps even the only way to really learn a language, is through rote memorization:

English had to be learned. I tackled this problem like a good Korean student – rote memorization. It seemed obvious to me that without knowing words, my English would go nowhere. I decided that I should memorize every single word in my sight that I did not know. I bought many boxes of empty flashcards and wrote the words I did not know on one side, and the definition on the other side.

Ok, so far, so good. You definitely have to memorize words to learn a language. I’ve been memorizing about 10 Korean words a day here, and I can already see dividends, identifying pharmacies and bookstores by their signs, and I was even able to ask some basic questions today when buying shoes. Anyone claiming that you can learn a language (as an adult) without studying is someone you shouldn’t be getting language acquisition advice from. However, A Korean goes on:

The second factor that set the Korean apart was this – not for one second did he buy into the myth of “fun, immersive language learning.” Instead, the Korean structured his language learning entirely around rote memorization and repetition – the methods that are often renounced by many language teachers and students.

Here’s where A Korean’s claims begin to run off the rails. He argues that language can be claimed “entirely [by] rote memorization”, and claims that immersive learning, where a language learner acquires language through direct exposure to it, is completely unimportant. He states that his (truly) impressively rapid acquisition of English was due completely to his committed study through rote memorization. He ends the article by completely bashing any other approach to learning a language and exhorting those wishing to learn a second language to get out those flash cards.

Now, again, I’m not debating the usefulness of memorization, so let me be clear–you can’t learn a language as an adult without studying hard and memorizing new words every day. Period. He’s absolutely right about this. However, you can’t actually learn a language only through memorization either. And this is where I began to get frustrated with his account. He clearly states that he went to an English-only high school, had English-speaking friends, and even watched American TV for 3 hours a day–and yet he claims that immersion is totally unimportant to learning a language! It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his memorization succeeded only in the context of intense immersion. And this seems to me to be a glaring oversight in his account.

Now, his own view of his experience really isn’t any of my business. I don’t know him, and I have no right to post some 1,000 word post on the internet just railing against someone who views his past through memorization-tinted glasses. But, considering how many readers he has, I’m concerned that many who read his blog will be misled by his program, as it were, for language acquisition. Of course, considering how many (read: few) people read my blog, it’s unlikely that this post will have any effect on his readers. But hey, I’m trying, ok?

So I would just ask that those who read his post consider how much immersion A Korean had while he was learning English. He lived in an English-speaking country, with English-speaking friends, English-speaking teachers, English-speaking TV, radio, newspapers, and books available everywhere, and an incredibly strong need to learn English due to all of the above. One cannot assess his memorization outside of that context. His claims that immersion and fluency-centered approaches are totally ineffectual flies in the face of more than 100 years of research and teacher experience. And it’s totally unsupported by his own experience.

I told you so. I took this picture in Chungju. It's the window of a Hagwon here exhorting students to study all night instead of sleeping.

When considering the best approach to language learning, we need to move past false binaries. The choice isn’t between memorization on the one hand and “fun immersive learning” on the other. It’s bringing both approaches together, building an education structure that rests firmly on the advantages of each. There are thousands of Koreans who studied English intently here in Korea but who can’t actually speak the language to anyone. They know the grammar rules, they have a solid vocabulary, they can write and read the Latin alphabet. But they can’t produce the language to express their ideas nor understand others when they express themselves in English. Memorization is crucial–but it’s not sufficient.

I’d like to end this post with just another reminder that I have deep respect for A Korean, both for his blog and for his achievement in learning English. I can only hope that in two years I’m as fluent in Korean as he became in English. But I do believe he should rethink his language acquisition, and reflect on the advice he’s giving to others on the subject.

Posted in Language | 2 Comments

From Korea to Wisconsin (With Love)

Madison Capitol Occupied by Union Activists. Huzzah! All Power to the Unions!

Of course I leave for South Korea right before things start to get interesting in my home country. A broad consensus seems to be developing among working- and middle-class folks in Wisconsin that busting unions isn’t the way to solve the state’s budget crisis, and they’re willing to stand up and fight–thousands, maybe tens of thousands, have already engaged in occupations in the capitol and elsewhere. And people from other states are beginning to flood in to assist in the protest actions. Solidarity protests are also being held in most other states.

This is all really good news, because what’s happening in Wisconsin is a taste of what’s to come from the Republican Party, and until the contest in Madison, the Democrats seemed totally unwilling to actually support their constituents. Right now it’s just the unions who have stepped up to challenge the Republicans offensive. I’ve seen and heard precious little from the White House, and this is just another example of Obama’s complete unwillingness to stand up for all the things he was so outspoken about when he was just a candidate. So the Republicans are trying to crush the working-class, and the Democrats can’t really seem to find the will to say, much less do, anything about it. Granted, at least the Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state to try and prevent the vote, but this falls into the category of “the least they could do” and not “bold leadership”–and anyway, it didn’t work! The Republicans voted anyway!

This fight is about a lot more than just the rights of public-sector workers–though that’s no trite topic. I was completely stunned that FOX News commentators were complaining that teachers in Wisconsin make 51,000 a year. As if that’s some astronomical figure! How much do FOX News commentators make? 51,000 a week? It’s absolutely ridiculous that people who are pulling down 6 or 7 figures are lambasting teachers just because they want to keep making as much money as they made last year. Oh–and the teachers have the gall to insist on having health insurance!

I doubt many people reading this will need any reminders of the complete bat-shit-insanity of FOX News, but there’s a broader narrative here. And FOX News’ bat-shit-insanity is,  I think, clearly an act, a smokescreen to keep people from talking about the real issues. And the real issue here is that, yes, there is a budget crisis in the US–but taking money from working people isn’t the only solution to this problem! Why isn’t raising taxes on the rich being proposed? Because “raising taxes” has become synonymous with “destroying the economy (you commie bastards!)” even though there’s precious little evidence that high taxes actually cause any serious economic constriction. From that article at the Baseline Scenario:

It is true that tax increases would have a modest first-order negative impact on economic growth. But that impact will be small (per dollar of net fiscal impact) for exactly the same reasons that tax cuts are a poor stimulus. The multiplier for tax cuts is far lower than the multipliers for virtually every other type of government spending, especially aid to state and local governments. In particular, the economic impact of tax increases is smaller when they go to the rich rather than the middle class, because the rich consume a smaller portion of their marginal income. In addition, letting the tax cuts expire would have positive second-order effects because it would improve the government’s fiscal balance, which is widely (though perhaps incorrectly) perceived as a source of risk to the economy.

It’s also worth pointing out that the tax rate on wealthy Americans was much higher in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s–precisely the period of greatest economic growth in the US. But conservatives know that by claiming that policies that help the rich actually help everyone, they can vilify any criticisms of those policies. And Democrats have aided and abetted them by refusing to actually debate the core issue: who has a right to the fruits of our economy? Those with power and privilege, or those who actually produce the goods and services? The Democrats’ failure, or refusal, to take up this central issue (which is not ignored in most other developed countries’ political debates) is central proof that the Democrats aren’t a left-wing party at all, but rather a center-right or centrist party at best.

Income distribution in the US, 2007

The real question now is: do we balance the budget on the backs of working people, or do we finally start demanding that the rich pay something closer to their fair share of taxes? Now, conservatives love to point out that the richest people pay a huge share of taxes already. However, they neglect to mention that the richest one percent of Americans receive 1/3 of all income in the US! Stop and think about that for a second.

No, seriously, stop and think about that. 1% of the country receives 33% of the income generated in the country. Does anyone actually think they do 33% of the work in this country? That they contribute that much more than the rest of us? Especially in light of the behavior of many of those folks in the 2007 financial collapse, do we think these people are generally adding value to the economy? Or are they spending their time warping the system to generate profit while destroying our actual productive capacity? And then consider that the bottom half of the country only earns 2.5% of the income. Again! Think! About! This! Half of our country is getting by on about 1/50th of all income generated. And it’s these very folks whom Republicans are calling on to sacrifice! Why not ask the richest 1% to sacrifice a bit, for a change? And lest anyone think I’ve pulled these numbers from some Marxist site, it’s called Business Insider. And if you google “income distribution US” or “income inequality US” you’ll find comparable numbers. And that one article has 16 other graphs and charts discussing the falling real wages American workers face, among other things. Go check it out.

So we have, broadly, two choices. Try to squeeze blood from a turnip, demanding that working people give up their already tiny incomes to balance state budgets. Or, we raise taxes on the richest Americans, whose income has been increasing at astounding rates over the last two decades. The choice cuts deep: do we want to live in highly stratified banana republic? Or do we actually believe in democracy as something other than an excuse to fight wars? If you choose that second option (and I sure hope you do!) just remember that the Democrats aren’t going to back you up. You’re going to have to get out there and fight the thugs yourselves. In Madison, in Washington, in New York, in Richmond. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, sitting here in South Korea. Rest assured I’ll be sending money to folks who need it for travel expenses and even bail money, if it comes to that. The reality is, we fight this now or we’re sunk.

(YouTube won’t let this song embed, as it’s copyrighted by Sony, so just click the video to watch it directly at YouTube.)

 

Update 1: A short but well-linked discussion over at The Nation of the growing momentum for a general strike in Madison or even across Wisconsin is well worth reading

 

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