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Sun Sep 28, 2008 at 08:57 AM PDT

The long shadow of racism

by El Cabrero

The issue of race has cast a long and often ugly shadow over American life. That's hardly news, but some serious economic research has found that the effects of race and racism extend farther that we might suspect.

Many observers have noticed that the capitalist economies of Western Europe tend to spend more public resources than the United States on social programs such as old age, disability and survivor's pensions; family and child benefits; and unemployment and labor market programs. These nations also have some form of universal health care, although they spend less of their gross domestic product (GDP) on this than we do.

Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College investigated this issue. In 2001, they published a paper titled "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Note: the term "welfare state" as used here doesn't refer simply to programs that attempt to assist the poorest families but rather a range of programs and benefits across the population.) They found that many things influenced these differences, such as different attitudes about inequality, different histories, economic and constitutional factors. But one of the biggest factors is the issue of race.

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In the last year, West Virginia has taken quite a few hits in the media. A journalist friend described it as a "target-rich environment."

The hits I'm thinking about now are images hurtling through the Web and airwaves portraying us as racist and xenophobic. Obviously, West Virginia, like other places, has its share of racists and bigots - and quite a few of them wound up talking to the press.

But I get upset when people paint the whole state and its history with that brush. West Virginia has a pretty interesting past in terms of race relations. Even before statehood, there were tensions between western mountaineers and the slaveholding elite that dominated Virginia politics.

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A few years ago, I joined our local volunteer fire department (at the Spousal Unit's suggestion). I might have done it sooner if I thought they'd actually let me in. Since stereotypes abound about volunteer firefighters, I want to set the record straight.

One is that we're boys with toys who like to ride fire trucks and play with our gear. OK, that one may be right, but we're not all boys anymore and the toys come in handy in emergencies.

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The reality-based community got a little boost recently with the announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics.

Three Americans, Eric Maskin, Roger Myerson and Leonid Hurwicz, shared the honor for their work in mechanism design theory, which studies under what conditions markets work well or don’t. Sneak preview: They do better with private than with public goods.

The very idea that markets are imperfect at some things may come as a shock - or even sacrilege -to true believers in the cult of the market god.

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Wed Sep 26, 2007 at 09:17 AM PDT

Jesus!

by El Cabrero

A while back, El Cabrero received a challenge from a fellow WV blogger to write about five things I most admire about Jesus.

It took me a long time to get around to that, mostly because I can't think of anything I don't like about Jesus. For the record, El Cabrero has no complaints about Jesus (however, I'm not sure that the converse is the case.)

It's also a little hard to answer that challenge because there have been so many different and conflicting images of and ideas about Jesus. As the English poet and mystic William Blake wrote,

THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy...
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

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Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 02:02 PM PDT

Who owns Adam Smith?

by El Cabrero

Adam Smith is widely regarded as the patron saint of capitalism. His 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is still widely and justly celebrated.

This wasn’t his only accomplishment. He was part of a larger intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment, along with such thinkers as David Hume and Frances Hutcheson. They were fascinated with questions that would later be taken up by the social sciences. Smith also wrote on the subject of jurisprudence and moral philosophy, or what we might call political science and psychology today.

His views on sympathy as the basis for morality, as developed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, actually hold up pretty well in the light of recent research in biology, psychology and brain functioning.

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The following statement on coal mine safety was issued today by the American Friends Service Committee:

PHILADELPHIA, [AUGUST 22] — The recent tragedy at the Murray Energy Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington, Utah, prompts a renewed call for the vigorous implementation and enforcement of proposed mining safety measures, urges the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization with a long history of supporting coal miners and communities.

"Congress should move swiftly to pass recently introduced legislation that, among other things, immediately requires mining companies to use systems that can track and communicate with miners," says Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee West Virginia Economic Justice Project. "The law would also require companies to upgrade to better communications systems as they become available."

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Note: this is the third part of four in a loosely related series on the politics of resentment and all the harm that has done the country over the last 25 years. Here are parts one and two.

Something good happened to this country between the end of World War II and the early 1970s. In that period, the US economy grew dramatically.

And, while there has always been great inequality in this country, the benefits of growth were shared among all sectors of the population.

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This is the second post in a loosely related series on the politics of blame and resentment and all the harm it's done over the last 25 years. Here's the first.

As the eminent Wobbly philosopher Utah Philips once said, a common political dynamic of our time is the fact that "the blame pattern has been manipulated."

That is to say that people take out the anger over very real social grievances not on the people who actually cause and profit by them—who tend to be wealthy and powerful—but rather on the people immediately below or slightly above them in social standing.

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A few weeks ago, I had to give a talk at a social work conference. It’s sort of an annual ritual and one that I have mixed feelings about.

There are a lot of good people and old friends there. It’s a great place to catch up with people I don’t get to see very often.

It’s a huge conference with all kinds of topics covered. Many who attend are not officially social workers but may be employed in various agencies or nonprofits.

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El Cabrero is feeling generous today. I'm going to divulge the hard won secrets of always organizing successful events for progressive causes.

This foolproof method was gleaned by laboring in the vineyards of economic justice in my beloved state of West Virginia.

See below...

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Fri Apr 27, 2007 at 04:19 AM PDT

Fun with Freud: the dark side

by El Cabrero

This is the fourth and final post in the Goat Rope Fun With Freud series. Here are parts one,  two, and three.

This series is about some of Sigmund's more interesting ideas, some of which hold up better than others.

As Freud got older, he became more pessimistic. This is understandable given the events of the time such as the First World War, the rise of totalitarian movements, and the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany and Austria. Here's a quick tour of some of his later works, some of which are speculative and even bizarre in nature.

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