Off Balance

NOTE:  This proposal was written before the Democratic victories in November, 2006.  It needs to be updated to reflect that event, which may have been the watershed moment in showing that Abraham Lincoln was right in saying that you can't fool all of the people all of the time.  But I'm not going to spend any more time on this project until I get some funding for it. - 7/31/07, Carolyn Kay


Americans have been had.

A few rich families have mounted a 30-year propaganda campaign to convince us that selfishness is good and that laissez-faire capitalism is the best economic system for all.  As a consequence, too many Americans have been convinced to vote against their own self-interest and in favor of the self-interest of the richest and most powerful among us, again and again and again.  Many billions of dollars have been spent to put Republicans in control of the White House, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the media.  More Americans than ever identify themselves as political conservatives, even as they continue to express their preference for policies traditionally considered liberal or progressive.

The ship of state now tilts so far to the right that to put it back on an even keel, we must tip it in the other direction, toward what is now considered the left.

One underpinning of the greed-is-good campaign is that selfishness is a built-in trait, so why fight the urge?  While it is true that human beings have intrinsic selfish tendencies, the latest studies show that we also have intrinsic altruistic tendencies, which means we are born with a built-in conflict.  And how we resolve that conflict is a reflection of our maturity, both as individuals and as societies.

The other main underpinning of the drive to justify greed is the assertion that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, proved that selfishness is good.  In fact, Smith showed that there are restraining forces to greed.  To him, the most important moderating factor was what he called the “invisible hand” of competition.  But today’s crony capitalists have shown us how easy it is for powerful people to tie up that invisible hand.  It is for that reason that business has to be regulated, as even many business-friendly commentators are now willing to acknowledge.

Off Balance discusses the methods of persuasion used to convince Americans to deny their own self-interest in favor of the best interests of the very privileged, and investigates why those methods are working.   It explores some of the consequences of the greed campaign’s success.  Finally, the book proposes that it is time for someone, Democrats perhaps, to learn to counter the advocates of greed by appealing to the other, some might say better, part of human nature.

The result could be a happier, healthier, and even safer society.

Brain Matter

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
 – Oscar Wilde

Selfishness is good.  Adam Smith proved it.  Ayn Rand confirmed it.  Case closed.

At least, that is what the greed apologists would have us think.  Businesses pay their employees the least amount and give them the fewest benefits possible, and top corporate officers do not feel at all responsible for those who cannot live on what they are paid.  Government has been turned into the protector and enabler of the rich, neglecter of the poor.  The notion that self-interest is what makes the world go ’round is so pervasive in America today that even some Christian ministers preach right from the pulpit about the pleasures of accumulating wealth, rather than the joys of giving it away, as Jesus taught.

The proponents of selfishness tell us that even if we want to go against self-interest we can not.  We are slaves, they would have us believe, to the most ancient part of our brain, that part designed to ensure the survival of the individual.  It is often called the reptilian brain, since it has survived in us from our reptilian ancestors.  But the reptilian brain is not the whole brain, and the instinct for self preservation is only part of what motivates us human beings.

The Triune Brain

Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.
 – Ambrose Bierce

The third of Americans who believe evolution is the force that has made us the way we are[1] will have no difficulty understanding that evolution favors the survival of a species over the survival of any of its individuals.[2]  And because living in groups has played such a large part in our success as a species, one might think we would have a mechanism to motivate us toward helping the group survive, as a counter to our natural selfishness.

Now we know that there is such a mechanism.  According to a Reuters article published in July of 2002,

New research reveals why people often cooperate with each other, even when it is not necessarily to their advantage to do so.

A group of researchers based at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found that when a woman is involved in a situation where she is cooperating with someone else, she experiences activation in brain areas that are also activated by “rewards” such as food, money and drugs…

This indicates that our bodies may have been somehow programmed to “tag cooperation as rewarding,” study author Dr. Gregory S. Berns told Reuters Health.

“Which is good, because it probably keeps the social fabric of society together,” he added.[3]

Or, as the authors of the study stated in their paper, “We propose that activation of this neural network positively reinforces reciprocal altruism, thereby motivating subjects to resist the temptation to selfishly accept but not reciprocate favors.”[4]

The pleasure center of the brain is the limbic system, the source of all our emotions, located in the second-oldest part of the brain, called the old mammalian.  According to D.S. Levine, at the University of Texas,

Paul MacLean’s theory of the triune brain (reptilian, old mammalian, and new mammalian) has been used as a metaphor and a model of the interplay between instinct, emotion, and rationality in humans. A book by Gerald Cory (Plenum, 1999) has applied the triune brain to economic and political structures. In Cory’s schema, the reptilian brain mediates the claims of self-interest whereas the old mammalian brain mediates the claims of empathy.[5]

When our species lived only in hunter/gatherer tribes, banishment from the tribe was the equivalent of a death sentence.  Therefore, individuals who survived to pass on their genes apparently were those who developed the ability to find pleasure in getting along in the group.  Even in our most distant history, then, individual freedom must have been constrained by this conflicting need.

A Built-In Conflict

The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.
 – Garth Brooks

People who live in tribes do not have a “greed is good” mentality.  In a tribal environment selfishness is discouraged, while generosity is admired and rewarded.  One did not become a chief simply by being the strongest.  An aspirant for chiefdom had to build coalitions of supporters, be willing to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and respect the natural world.  He was most likely to become and remain chief if he was known as a brave hunter and warrior, but also as a fair and generous person.[6]

Living in groups actually predates our species, if we can assume that the common ancestors of humans, apes, and monkeys lived in the same kinds of troops our simian relatives live in to this day.  Evolutionary biologists are finding that social skills, including altruism, honor, and even a sense of fairness and justice are tendencies found in the apes, our closest relatives.  (See Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, and Frans de Waal.)  Perhaps we can also assume, then, that these are traits we and the apes have inherited from a common ancestor.

If these scientists are correct, we humans are born with a built-in conflict.  As even the earliest philosophers understood, we are torn between our self-interest and our desire to help others.  Plato called it the animal-human and the human-divine.  Which of us has not felt the internal struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other?  But the struggle need not be destructive.  As psychoanalyst Rollo May has said, “The dialectical poles of self-caring and love for the other fructify and strengthen each other.  Fortunately, this paradox can neither be escaped nor solved, but must be lived with.”[7]

Those who say that giving in to selfishness is part of the natural order sound very much like those who tried to justify the enslavement of Africans and the repression of women using the same excuse.  I want to make it very clear here that scientists believe we humans have tendencies toward certain behaviors, but we do not have instincts that rule our behavior, as do our relatives in the animal kingdom.[8]  Call it free will, call it whatever you like, but we humans can decide how we will and will not behave.  We can train ourselves to go against the impulses nature has provided us.

The true natural order is that we are both selfish and altruistic, and we must acknowledge both parts of our nature, or pay the price.  Further quoting Levine,

If selfish interests are denied for too long, there is discontent due to a feeling of being unjustly treated; if empathic interests are denied for too long, there is discontent due to guilt. In either case, the executive function of prefrontal cortex [located in the new mammalian brain and] (mediator between all “three brains”) is required to restore balance, generating the reciprocity required for effective social and economic structures.[9]

Since we cannot for long deny either side of our nature, then it follows at the societal level that neither communism nor laissez-faire capitalism can serve us well in the long term.  Communism, which in its ideal form is pure altruism, does not work because it ignores self-interest and encourages freeloading.  Laissez-faire capitalism, which in its essence is pure individual self-interest, does not work because it promotes feelings of guilt in those who accumulate wealth—and even more important, it goes against the self-interest of the many by encouraging a dog-eat-dog world where only the unscrupulous get to the top.

Human greed can, and often does, go too far by treading on the needs and rights of others.  In addition, the human need for security and the illusion of certainty tends to encourage the leaders of businesses to collude to set prices, carve up markets, and combine forces by merging their companies.  Totally unfettered, the end result of capitalism would be one big company that made and sold everything everywhere, and that kept competitive businesses from existing—by force, if necessary.  If you were to want something not made by this master conglomerate, named something like MicroMax, perhaps, you would not be able to get it.

How, then, did so many Americans come to believe that unfettered selfishness, at least in the economic realm, is good for all of us?

The Campaign To Justify Selfishness

Sure, winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.
 – Harry Sanders, in Sports Illustrated, December 26, 1955

How did we arrive at the stage where we are today, with selfishness extolled as though it were a virtue?  When did the Golden Rule become “he who has the gold rules?”  When did “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” become “Do unto others, but do it first”?  How did winning become the only thing?

Over the last almost six years, in my daily research to update my website,[10] I began to piece together some of the history of how we arrived at a place where so many Americans consistently vote against their own self-interest.  What I discovered is that starting in the early 1970s, a few wealthy families with right-wing political views began funding organizations and media outlets to promote their beliefs.  These efforts have been enormously successful.  Not only does the right wing now have its own powerful multi-media echo chamber, it has attracted foot soldiers to Mau-Mau the mainstream media into bending over backward to avoid saying anything good about any liberal, or anything bad, even if true, about any conservative.

Throughout the 2000 presidential campaign, the mainstream media repeated verbatim, and over and over and over again, all lies, smears, and innuendo propagated by the Bush machine’s “opposition research” to denigrate Al Gore.  Martin Lewis, writing in Time, revealed that Tim Russert of NBC called the Bush team frequently, looking for dirt on Al Gore.[11]

For the last fifteen years or more, in the right-wing press and commentariat, nothing any non-conservative ever did, said, or thought was acknowledged as having any merit.  At the same time, no conservative person ever did, said, or thought anything wrong.  Or if the conservative did do something wrong, the person who reported it has something wrong in his or her background, or reported on the conservative for partisan reasons.  Or the timing of the revelation was partisan.  Or the conservative only did these things in his wild and crazy youth, but now has reformed and, most likely, has found Jesus.  Anyone who is not conservative, however, is vilified, decried, hung from the highest yardarm for every perceived transgression, whether there is any evidence or not.  For many years, up until very recently, the mainstream media consistently parroted this propaganda.

In such an environment, where the Speaker of the House of Representatives felt free to claim in 2004 that the election of a Democrat as President of the United States would allow terrorists to operate with more comfort,[12] where liberals are openly called sinful and evil on America's airwaves, where Americans who sincerely disagree with the policies of this president and this administration are called hateful and anti-American, and where not-so-subtle suggestions are made in open forums that liberals should be killed for their political beliefs,[13] it is past time to take concerted action.

The upshot of my research on how this situation came about is this:  Right-wing rich people made it lucrative to do research, write, and speak for their point of view.  Meanwhile, too many of those who speak for the other side must do it simply for the love of the cause.  Therefore, there are fewer researchers, writers, and speakers promoting liberal values.  And those few find it difficult to get paid for their work.  Consequently, despite continued assurances that Americans agree with liberals on so many important issues,[14] Democrats are losing the battle for their votes.

We cannot really call it a conspiracy, because it is right out in the open.

[T]here is a unified network of interconnected organizations that work together to influence public policy… NCRP found that 23 of the people in its database of conservative foundation and grantee board and staff members "are leaders of three or more foundations and/or nonprofits, with 19 of those individuals serving on the board or staff of at least one foundation and of at least one nonprofit. Notably, the leading family members who direct foundations also serve on the boards of various nonprofits to which their foundations often provide grants," implying a well-connected and like-minded group of people who share a single agenda and the resources to shape public policy in its political direction.[15]

As a reaction to the resounding Goldwater defeat in 1964 and to the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, these wealthy families began this campaign to convince Americans that greed is good.  Most scholars believe that the campaign started in earnest with a 1971 memorandum from Lewis Powell, later a Supreme Court Justice, to the United States Chamber of Commerce.  In his memo, Powell expressed the fear that if steps were not taken, capitalism in this country would be destroyed.[16]

The Bradley, Coors, Koch, Olin, Richardson, and Scaife families, among others, took Powell up on his challenge, and their efforts over the last thirty years have given us a brave new world where selfishness is justified, even lauded.  These families spent billions of dollars to create hundreds of think tanks and media outlets, and to develop and fund thousands of researchers, writers, and speakers who expound, day in and day out, on the religion of selfishness.[17]  The writers and speakers use the most sophisticated techniques of communication and persuasion to convince Americans to support the privileges of the wealthy and their corporations, even to those Americans’ own personal detriment.

The right-wing elites, we might call them the funding families, have succeeded, surely beyond even their wildest dreams, in winning what they saw as the war to save capitalism.  Their employees have managed to convince many millions of Americans to vote, since the early 1980s, time after time, against their own self-interest and in favor of the self-interest of the richest and most privileged among us.

As a result, corporate interests now control both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the media.  They hold all appointive positions in federal administrative agencies, and will continue to do so at least through the end of George W. Bush’s second term.  Through executive fiat and reinterpretation of legislation, these appointees are eviscerating the agencies meant to protect Americans from those very corporate interests.[18]  Corporatists are in the process of taking over the entire federal judiciary.[19]  They are working to drive liberals off the college campuses, or at least make them afraid to espouse any views that deviate from the corporatist line,[20] even if backed by scientific evidence.  Corporate interests have beaten down labor unions until those organizations are shadows of their former selves.[21]

At this point, we can truthfully call the United States a corporatocracy—which should worry any of us concerned about the union of corporate power with government power.  Because such a combination is the very definition of fascism.

Henry Wallace’s 1944 warning is still valid today.

The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.[22]

Adam Smith’s Mistake

Freedom is owning things.
George W. Bush

Selfishness is not the root of all good, as some have been conditioned to think.

The primary basis of the right-wing elites’ selfishness justification campaign is the notion that the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, proved that indulging one’s self-interest to the exclusion of all else is a good thing.  The allegation is based on one sentence in Smith’s most widely read book, Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[23]  In other words, merchants will not give us the components of our dinner unless we pay them.

But even Smith did not believe that receiving money for their wares is merchants’ only motivation.  Looking at the famous sentence in the context of the paragraph in which it appears sheds some light on what Smith may have actually meant, as opposed to what he is presumed today to have meant.

[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.[24] [Emphasis added.]

So Smith himself was aware that some force must limit self-interest, at least in business dealings.  After all, as clinical psychologist Kenneth Lux pointed out in Adam Smith’s Mistake, pure self-interest should lead butchers, brewers, and bakers to cheat us if they can, to put their thumbs on the scale when weighing their contributions to our dinner, making us pay more than we actually owe them.  As Lux says, “It is not self-interest that prevents someone from cheating.  Self-interest only dictates that they not get caught.”[25]

In the vast majority of our business dealings, people do not cheat us.  What, then, is the correcting mechanism?  Lux goes on to discuss Smith’s idea of what the countervailing force must be.

Smith's forthright talk of businessmen cheating and oppressing the public seems to stand in direct contradiction to his advocacy of self-interest as the sole principle necessary for the achievement of the public good.  The saving grace was supposed to be the “invisible hand” of competition.  It was competition that would keep these instincts and “expensive vanities” of the merchants, dealers, and landlords in line.[26]

Homo economicus, or economic man, was born. He is a concept of human beings as perfectly rational buyers.  Economic man makes all his economic decisions based on his “utility function,” a measure of the pleasure he gains from buying things.  He is completely amoral.[27]  As developed through more than two centuries, Homo economicus exists only as a consumer.  He is completely free to do as he wishes, as long as he can pay his way, and he need not concern himself with how his economic decisions affect others.

The culmination of the selfishness-is-good way of thinking may well be Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, developed in the 1940s through the 1960s.  As she described it,

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.[28]

But as Lux observes, self-interest also strongly encourages people in business to “tie up” the invisible hand.  Today’s crony capitalists have given us countless examples of how easily competition can be thwarted.  They carve up markets, fix prices, and drive competitors out of business using unfair, even ruthless tactics.  It is for these reasons that every country in the world puts restrictions on businesses, limitations meant in many cases to prevent collusion and to promote honesty and competition.

Christopher Farrell, writing in Business Week, quotes Martin Fridson, chief high-yield strategist at Merrill Lynch and a market historian, from a 2002 talk before the Financial Management Association International,

[Adam Smith's famous image of the Invisible Hand is a] "very convenient cover story for people who are actually trying to stack the deck in their favor," [Fridson] says. America's business and finance elite preached the virtues of competitive capitalism while practicing the crony variety. The elites took no risks, and pocketed outsized rewards, by gaming the system with deceptive accounting practices and backroom compensation deals.[29]

Government is the only institution we have that can be powerful enough to keep the corporate elites from gaming the system.  As even conservative columnist George F. Will said, not long after the Enron implosion,

[A] mature capitalist economy is a government project. A properly functioning free market system does not spring spontaneously from society's soil as dandelions spring from suburban lawns. Rather, it is a complex creation of laws and mores that guarantee, among much else, transparency, meaning a sufficient stream -- torrent, really -- of reliable information about the condition and conduct of corporations.[30]

Financial commentator James Cramer told David Brancaccio, when interviewed about New York state’s crusading Attorney General Eliot Spitzer on PBS’s NOW, that a proper role for government is to reduce dishonesty in business by punishing it.

CRAMER: [F]or the most part people want to be good, but whole cultures have flourished where the people who are honest don't do as well as the people who are dishonest. I think that Eliot is changing the calculus back to where the honesty is rewarded and the dishonest is out of favor again. Most people want to be honest.

BRANCACCIO: So this is an okay role for government?

CRAMER: I think it's a great role. It's a great role. We de-regulated to the point in this country where thrown bids are commonplace, where corrupt research is accepted, and where a lot of people, where you'll be in the room and everyone will say, "Look, so what? So the client doesn't know."[31]

Even the conservative British publication The Economist has come to recognize that “self-interest does not necessarily mean selfish.”[32]  And mathematician John Nash, subject of the book and movie, A Beautiful Mind, showed mathematically that Adam Smith had to have been wrong in his implication that unmitigated selfishness leads to good for all.  “Adam Smith's theory is incomplete. Self-interest alone can lead to disaster for all, Nash demonstrated mathematically. Self-interest coupled with concern for the good of the group is most likely to benefit everyone.”[33]

What many right-wing leaders call freedom is really the freedom to dominate others. It is the freedom of the selfish to seek subjective satisfactions, even when other human beings are damaged by their actions.

And Americans have learned well from the funding families’ propaganda campaign.  According to Harvard professor of sociology Orlando Patterson,

In the 20th century two versions of freedom emerged in America. The modern liberal version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice…

But most ordinary Americans view freedom in quite different terms. In their minds, freedom has been radically privatized… Freedom, in this conception, means doing what one wants and getting one's way. It is measured in terms of one's independence and autonomy, on the one hand, and one's influence and power, on the other.[34]

Adam Smith was trained as a minister.  His first book, Theory of Moral Sentiments, is about sympathy, or altruism, as a primary human motivator.  Maybe Smith meant someday to write a book about balance between the two prime motivators that so concerned him, but never had a chance.

Synopses of Proposed Chapters

(Most of the research and much of the writing have been done for these chapters.)

The Pursuit of Happiness

If the result of corporatist power had been to make Americans happier, there might not be a need to question its authority.  But we are not happy.  Even our richest citizens are no happier than members of the primitive Maasai tribe in Africa.

Competition can promote the desire to succeed and improve performance, but too much competition can be destructive.  It can create psychological insecurity.  When faced with too-heavy competition, human beings tend to forget about the “nor sacrificing others to himself” part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  In a viciously competitive environment, most people will try to reduce their stress levels by breaking the rules to make the game less competitive, as discussed in the previous section, or to opt out of the system.  We have the highest incarceration rate and the highest mental illness rate in the world.

It is quite interesting to note that so many people who say they do not believe in evolution seem to believe in a sort of economic Darwinism.  If you can not survive in the economy given to you by the elites, you should just die.  The Bush administration has been touting an “ownership society”, but based on the available evidence, we could also call it a “lonership society”.  They criticize liberals for wanting a “nanny state”, but what they espouse would leave us as a state consisting completely of orphans.  Human beings have simply not evolved to this level of independence.  At least, most of us have not.

Perhaps the campaign to justify selfishness has led us to pursue things that will not make us happy, instead of the things that will.  But if materialism does not make us happy, why are we such a materialistic society?  Basically, it is because we have been sold a bill of goods.

The Art of Persuasion

If all Americans bought only what we need in order to sustain life—basic food, minimal clothing, and simple housing, the entire U.S. economy would collapse.  That is not likely to happen, however, because most of us have more money than we need for bare subsistence, and we spend the excess on things that we think we need, or that we think will make us happy.

There is a multibillion dollar industry geared to persuading us into thinking we need the products they shill for, or that those products will make us happy.  Almost every aspect of our daily lives has become saturated with advertising and promotion of products competing for our excess cash.  Everywhere we look, someone is trying to sell us something.  Even our schools have been invaded by advertising, in return for funds that communities will not provide for their own children’s education.

It is possible to sell poison, as long as people enjoy the process of being sold, or as long as the sales technique assuages some fear or reduces feelings of inadequacy, no matter how fake is the balm.  Snake oil?  Yes, of course.  But it is what keeps the economic engine revved, and that justifies its use in the minds of many.

A number of techniques to manipulate us into buying more than we need are discussed, especially the techniques that cause people to vote against their economic self interest.

The Conservative World View

Traditionally, American conservatives have been concerned with government fiscal restraint and, somewhat, with preserving social mores. 

Many of today’s right wingers are not traditional conservatives.  They are reactionaries.  They believe that government should provide defense only.  All else is socialism.  They ignore the “provide for the common welfare” phrase in the Preamble to the Constitution.  They want to bring us back to before Teddy Roosevelt (Karl Rove compares himself and Bush to Hanna and McKinley)—or before the Revolution?

Julian Borger, “Study of Bush's psyche touches a nerve”, The Guardian, August 13, 2003

A study funded by the US government has concluded that conservatism can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in "fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity".

Professor George Lakoff has studied the family life of conservatives.  According to his research,

[T]he strict-father family model assumes that evil and danger will always lurk in the world, that life is difficult, that there will always be winners and losers and that children are born bad--they want to do what feels good, not what's right--and have to be made good. A strict father is needed to protect and support the family and to teach his kids right from wrong.[35]

Conservatives, in other words, tend to be Old Testament folks.  Those who are religious tend to be afraid of hell, and even believe that no one can lead a moral life without such fear.

There is a discussion of dogmatism and where it can lead—to Collapse, according to Jared Diamond.

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

The neocon faction of the right wing are followers of University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, an advocate of rule by elites.  In Strauss’ view, freedom causes people to question everything, including mores and values, and that in the end people will follow their selfish instincts, which corrupts society.  The controlling elites should create myths, which need not be true, using patriotism and religion to unite people behind a common purpose.  The elites must simplify the world into a struggle of good vs. evil in order to accomplish this uniting of the people.

There is some discussion of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the number of warnings the administration received before the attacks.  Why were those warnings ignored?  Who benefited from ignoring them?  The Project for the New American Century has said that Americans would never wake up to the dangers facing them without a “new Pearl Harbor”.  September 11 provided just such a catastrophe.

There is a discussion of the BBC documentary series, The Power of Nightmares, where I learned for the first time that the people who exaggerated the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are the very same people who exaggerated the capabilities of the Soviet Union and its desire to harm our country and democracy.  In both cases, these people used fear to control the public and to convince Americans to keep Republicans in power—the same Republicans who allowed the September 11 attacks.

Meanwhile, we are told not to worry our heads about many serious issues that need attention, the most important of which is global warming.

Truth or Consequences

The rational, pragmatic approach, especially the use of the scientific method, is responsible for all the technological progress we humans have ever made.  Many American political fundamentalists want to destroy this kind of reasoning, the kind that brings progress, though they do not appear to want to give up the technologies that resulted. The consequence of denial of reality is the denial of scientific findings, which could spell an end to American pre-eminence in many fields of endeavor.

Politics is about finding solutions to problems that benefit the greatest number of people, as far as possible without harming anyone.  It is not possible do that if objective methods are not used to evaluate potential solutions.

Dan Simpson ,  “For American pre-eminence, the end is near,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 19, 2005

What should we be spending our money on, instead of a big, expensive military, spiralling medical care costs and unnecessary energy costs?

In my view, America's strength lies in its intellectual capital, in the intelligence of its people, coupled with their indefatigable energy and willingness to work. The answer is education, which seems always to get hind teat when we are allocating resources…

We haven't had it yet; we will only be over the hill if we don't dump fear as the dominant element in our approach and take these problems by the horns.

I do not have children, and never will have.  But I have never resented paying taxes to support education.  Why?  Because making sure that our educational system makes it possible for those with talent to rise to the top, so that we can take advantage of their talents, is very important to me.  The problem is that the right-wing elites do not want that to happen.  They want to destroy the public education system altogether.

They would rather have children home schooled or going to religious schools, where they are kept ignorant of science and never learn to reason to conclusions based on the available facts.  That is really bad for this country long term, because we will not be able to compete with the educated masses in China, South America, India, and elsewhere that education is valued.

So why do the elites pursue this self-defeating strategy?  Perhaps they think it is good for the Republican Party to have obedient automatons who are afraid to be anything other than cogs in their industrial machines, instead of thinking, autonomous people.

Dogmatists think they already know everything, but the fallacy is that you cannot learn anything if you already know everything.

The Liberal World View

Liberals tend to be more optimistic about the future than conservatives, and so are less afraid of change.  They are New Testament folks, more concerned with mercy than with punishment.  They believe people can be moral because it is what makes them feel good.  Therefore, they do not need the fear of hell or the promise of heaven to behave ethically and morally.

I do not know if there is an afterlife, but I do know that what gives me peace of mind in this life is the same behavior that religious people believe will help them avoid eternal punishment and attain eternal bliss after death.  There is one thing that is for certain, and it is that we live on in the memories of those we leave behind when we die.  Sometimes I wonder, if there is an afterlife, whether our reward or punishment consists of knowing what people remember about us.  Those who have treated their friends, family, and neighbors with kindness and fairness would be remembered with fondness, which could be heaven.  Those who have been selfish and hateful would be remembered with anger, which could be hell.

Liberals tend to trust ordinary people, and are willing to believe people can make the decisions on who is best to govern, which is the essence of democracy.  It is liberal values that have made every advance since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, health insurance, workplace safety, Social Security, women’s right to vote, and so on.  Many of these advances have been made possible by labor unions.

There is some discussion of Professor Lakoff’s findings about liberals.

Being compassionate with others allows us to be compassionate with ourselves.

Furthermore, says Myers,

People who are happy perceive the world as safer, make decisions more easily, rate job applicants more favorably, are more cooperative, and live healthier and more energized and satisfied lives…

Moreover—and this is one of psychology's most consistent findings—when we feel happy we are more willing to help others. In study after study, a mood-boosting experience (finding money, succeeding on a challenging task, recalling a happy event) made people more likely to give money, pick up someone's dropped papers, volunteer time, and so forth. Psychologists call it the feel-good, do-good phenomenon (Salovey, 1990). Happiness doesn't just feel good, it does good.[36]

Conversely, twelve-step programs teach that doing good can help us feel good.  The Emory University study mentioned in the first chapter tells us why that is.

A Campaign for Balance

The United States is off balance politically.  We have swung too far to the right, and the imbalance must be corrected for the good of the vast majority of citizens.  Biological processes have built-in correcting mechanisms to keep them in equilibrium, but the only correcting mechanism for societies is us, “we the people.”  A hundred years ago robber barons ran the country.  By the mid-20th century, America had swung to the left.  Today, like déjà vu all over again, we are back to the gilded age of the 1890s, with our own crop of robber barons.

I am not sure why we tend to swing back and forth between polar opposites, but I am convinced that we can be in the middle of the continuum most of the time, if we choose to do so.

Most of us do not want to return to the turmoil of the 1960s, when some left-wing militants were willing to commit murder to further their aims.  But most of us do not want to be mere cogs in industrial machines that make others rich, either.  So we must put the ship of state on an even keel, not tip it to the other side.  We want the middle ground, the “radical middle,” as author and radio talk show host Thom Hartmann calls it, because the country has moved so far to the right.  And what is the middle ground?  By definition, it should be what most Americans want.  Yet what most Americans want is now labeled leftist.

The right wing has convinced far too many people that government is always bad and business is always good.  We must have a healthy skepticism about both government and business, and to be effective in protecting our interests, government must be at least as powerful as the most powerful combination of corporations.  We do not have to be cynical, just cautious—as cautious as we are in other aspects of our lives, as when an insurance salesman or a stockbroker calls and says he has a great deal for us.   Right winger Grover Norquist has said he wants to reduce the size of government until it is so small he “can drown it in the bathtub.”[37]  But we can afford to reduce the power of government only as far as we reduce corporate power, or we have no protection from corporate bosses.  Do we also want to drown corporations in the bathtub?

And we must balance the powers of government, as the founders intended.  Right wingers have been content to grant extraordinary powers to George W. Bush, but they have not thought of the consequences.  We must always remember that whatever powers we grant to someone in office that we trust, will also be available to those who come after, people we may not trust as much.

We must begin to think of government not as the solution to all our problems, and not as an institution that can never solve a problem, but as a tool we can use to solve what the majority agrees are our common problems.  The government belongs to us, it is us, and it can only be kept from us if we allow it.  We the people do not want top-down governance from either the left or the right.  When we are paying attention to the issues and not allowing ourselves to be swayed by demagogues, we know what is best for us, and we vote for those who agree to implement the best policies.  We must demand that our government represent all of us.

Most Americans understand that if not for government, ten year old children would still be working ten hours a day, for ten cents an hour in dirty and dangerous conditions.  If not for government, there would be no wilderness areas left in this country.  If not for government there would be no safety net for people who get sick, lose their jobs, or are victims of other misfortunes beyond their control.  If not for government we would all breathe the same air that the unfortunate Houstonians breathe every day, air laced with visible “voluntary compliance.” 

If not for government there would be even more carcinogens in our water and our food.  Our food would be filled with dangerous bacteria and viruses.  Many corporations behave responsibly, but some do not.  It is not enough to hold corporations accountable after they have hurt us, an ability that the right wing also wants to take away from us, we need regulations and enforcement to keep irresponsible corporations from harming, even killing us.  The only organization that can be powerful enough to force companies to behave responsibly is a strong federal government.

There is a long discussion of tactics that can be used in the campaign to restore balance.  Since I am not an expert in political strategy, I borrow heavily from the successes of the right wing.  Those of their techniques—those few—that are legal, moral, and ethical, we would be more than foolish not to use.


There is a Native American story about a grandfather, talking to his young grandson. He tells the boy that he has two wolves inside him that are struggling with each other. One is the wolf of peace, love and kindness. The other is the wolf of fear, greed and hatred. "Which wolf will win grandfather?" asks the boy. "Whichever one I feed" came the reply.[38]

We have been feeding the vengeful, angry wolf in America for much too long.  It is well past time to start feeding the loving, compassionate wolf.

Last updated: August 12, 2006


[1] Frank Newport , “Third of Americans Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin's Evolution Theory,” The Gallup Organization, November 19, 2004.

[2] Boyce Rensberger, “Microbes Are Immortal, So Why Aren't Humans?”, Washington Post, June 10, 1998

[3] Alison McCook, “Brain scans show why we love cooperating,” Reuters, July 17, 2002

[4] James K. Rilling, et al., “A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation,” Neuron, 18 July 2002

[5] D.S. Levine, “The Triune Brain, Selfishness, Empathy, and Reciprocity” (scroll down), Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Arlington, date unknown

[6]NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE,” U.S. Army Signal Center,  Fort Gordon.  See also Crazy Horse and Custer : The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen E. Ambrose.

[7] Rollo May, Freedom and Destiny (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1981), p. 147


[9] Levine, op. cit.


[11] Martin Lewis, “Unleash Hell On Al,” Time, November 05, 2000

[12]Hastert's al Qaeda comment draws fire”, CNN, September 20, 2004

[13] “Myths Debunked: Liberals Should Be NICE to Conservatives”,

[14]Beyond Red vs. Blue”, The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, May 10, 2005

[15] Eric Alterman and Paul McLeary, “Think Again: ‘Ideas Have Consequences: So Does Money’”, Center for American Progress, October 14, 2004

[16] Lewis F. Powell, Jr., “ATTACK OF AMERICAN FREE ENTERPRISE SYSTEM,” Confidential Memorandum to the United States Chamber of Commerce, August 23, 1971

[17] Alterman and McLeary, op. cit..  See also The Republican Noise Machine by David Brock.

[18]Foxes in the Henhouse”, OMB Watch, not dated

[19] Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, “Business Lobby to Get Behind Judicial Bids,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2005

[20] Jerry L. Martin and Anne D. Neal, “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It,” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, February 2002

[21] Tim Wardner, “Decline of Labor Unions Linked to Rise of Globalization”, Voice of America, June 2, 2005.  Globalization, though, is only one of the reasons for the decline of labor unions.  See also David S. Broder, “The Price Of Labor's Decline”, Washington Post, September 9, 2004

[22] Henry A. Wallace , “The Danger of American Fascism”, The New York Times, April 9, 1944, posted at  From Henry A. Wallace, Democracy Reborn (New York, 1944), edited by Russell Lord, p. 259

[23] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations (at, originally published 1776) Book I Chapter 2

[24] Ibid.

[25] Kenneth Lux, Adam Smith's Mistake:  How a Moral Philosopher Invented Economics and Ended Morality (Boston:  Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1990), p. 83

[26] Ibid.

[27]Homo economicus,” Wikipedia

[28] Ayn Rand, “short description of Objectivism”, 1962

[29] Christopher Farrell, “Biting the Invisible Hand,” Business Week, November 27, 2002

[30] George F. Will, “. . . Especially From Republicans”, Washington Post, January 15, 2002

[31] NOW Transcript 12.03.04, PBS NOW with Bill Moyers

[32]Altruism,” Economics A-Z, The Economist

[33] Marjorie Kelly, “Waving goodbye to the invisible hand: How the Enron mess grew and grew,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 24, 2002

[34] Orlando Patterson, “The Speech Misheard Round the World,” The New York Times, January 22, 2005

[35] George Lakoff, “Our Moral Values”, The Nation, November 18, 2004

[36] Myers, op. cit.

[37]  “Grover Norquist”, Wikipedia

[38]Indigenous peoples - who are they?”, The Onaway Trust, undated