Archive for June, 2013

1 Morning, 3 Conversations, 1 Conclusion

June 30th, 2013
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My friend and I had planned to take a train together to the south Peninsula where we both worked. He texted me as I waited at the train station: “I had to drive, because I was afraid walking I might miss the train.” He was a few minutes late because he’d had trouble getting up that morning, and we drove in his car rather than waiting for the next train, because he was afraid of being late to work.

As I rode with Friend 1, I had the following text exchange with a mutual friend:
Friend 2: “I’m so sleepy! How r u”
Me: “hey. head hurts so much. left home at 7 to head to mtv.”

By 8:15 am, we were all at work, and another friend was texting me from her med school class:
Friend 3: “just spilled my snack on the floor. i am so sleepy. in class. so sleepy.”
Me: “my head hurts too…”
F3: “i can’t conco;kkkkk”
F3: “ooops i cant concentrate”
M: “ouch”
F3: “i know”
“i am going to sleep alot tonight”
M: “sounds good”
“i am going to take a bath tonight
and then sleeeeeep”

This longer conversation elaborates on what is actually going on in each of the other brief interactions: people are not sleeping enough. Not sleeping enough has dire consequences: lowered intelligence, long-term memory loss, poor reflexes, irritability and lack of patience in human interactions, lack of energy for family and community, susceptibility to indoctrination, and the list goes on. In a 2006 paper, the Institute of Medicine claim that sleep loss is associated with a range of health problems including: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.[1] As one example of the impact on our society: “Almost 20% of serious car crash injuries in the general population are associated with driver sleepiness.” Or as you see in the above conversation, you lose the ability to text accurately, the ability to use your fingers to move snacks from a bag to your mouth, and the ability to concentrate.

So was this just a coincidental morning, or is there a pattern? If so, why are people not sleeping enough? What can we do to correct the situation?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m writing specifically to answer those questions.

1) This was no coincidence. I am tired at least 9 days out of 10. I would say that among 20-40 year old housemates that I have had in the last couple years, that rate would be about 8/10 or more. I can only think of one person (who did not have a job or go to school), who was not consistently tired. Think of the people you know well and interact with on a daily basis– what percentage of them seem tired? If this was the one time that Friend 3 or I had felt tired, would we be talking about plans to sleep with all the anticipation of seeing your favorite band live for the first time? No.
Think of how much coffee is drunk in the U.S. (the 1/3 of Americans who drink coffee average over 3 cups per day[2] ). Think of how common “energy” drinks have become.[3] Think of the assumptions made in the “5-hour Energy” commercials[4] : that everyone is so tired that they can not make it through their day without a chemical boost of some kind. This is a pervasive problem: our health, sanity, intelligence, and more are at risk because of sleep deprivation. A CDC survey of adults in 12 states had the following self-reported results: 35% sleep less than 7 hours per night, 38% had unintentionally fallen asleep during the day within the preceding month, and 5% had fallen asleep while driving within that same 30 days.[5]

2) Why don’t people sleep enough? You know before I even say it: they’re out partying. The common folk are just too intent on socializing and having a nice easy time of it to get around to sleeping. No wait– that’s right, it’s WORK. There are a couple reasons Americans work too hard.
First, the demands placed on American workers have been escalating the last few decades. 27% work more than forty hours/week; on top of which we average 51 minutes commuting to and from work, and hours of work-related tasks from home; 5% work two jobs.[6] Think again about those 5-hour energy commercials– why are the subjects so tired? Because they are stuck at work endlessly. The one person I know well who doesn’t suffer from chronic sleep deprivation? A man without a job. As people are squeezed to a lower and lower standard of living, they become ever more desperate for a job. Which means that on the one hand they will work for lower pay or on the other hand they will do *more* work for the same pay.
Companies like 5-hour Energy, which claim to be helping you get through that work day, are actually cynically and knowingly forcing you to work longer days. By creating a new standard of how hard people can work, they force everyone to work longer in order to compete with the first people who start taking these drugs. Is there someone out there who is willing to do your job all year without taking a vacation? Then you’d better not take a vacation if you want to keep that job.
Generalizing, there is a power dynamic between workers and employers (corporations, generally). As the balance of power shifts ever further in favor of corporations, they are in a position to ask ever more of workers, while workers are in a position to acquiesce to ever more. This is the primary underlying cause of ever greater sleep problems: the increasing power of corporations.
The second reason, less important since it primarily affects the small middle class, is ambition. These self-motivated individuals want to attend a ‘highly ranked’ school, work at a ‘highly ranked’ firm, get a promotion sooner, etc. There are often professional hurdles to get where you want, such as 3 years of 90-hour/week slave labor as a resident if you want to be a doctor. Many of these people would not self-identify as ambitious; they have just been following a prescribed path laid before them at a young age. But the behavior they exhibit is goal-oriented, fatalistic, and elitist: they *must* reach some elite position. And the tiering of positions along with the hard work of these over-achievers is used to chasten others for not working hard enough, and to move the blame from the employers to the employees when their job does not treat them well.

3) Once you’ve asked the right questions, and analyzed a situation, the answers have a way of emerging. There are a few things we can do to unravel this problem. First, we can foster a better culture, valuing thoughtfulness and devaluing the trappings of elitism; placing importance on what we do, and less importance on where we get.
The two most crucial possible remedies are similar and mutually reinforcing, so it’s hard to say in which order they should be pursued. We need to work less, and we need to reduce the power of corporations. Each of these would lead naturally to the other: if we all worked less, corporations would control less and less of our lives, extract less profit from us, and be forced to treat us better, since we were no longer agreeing to as horrible terms of exploitation. Thus their power would be decreased. On the other hand, if we lowered the power of corporations (e.g. by breaking them into smaller pieces, or by having actual labor laws (40 hour work week?), or by convicting them and punishing them for their crimes), they would not be able to force people to work as long, and thus people would find time to sleep more.
Another easy thing we can all do is pass on the stimulants like caffeine; whatever extra they allow us to do is almost surely less valuable than sleeping. When we feel fatigue or pain or a headache, this is an important message from our body, which we should heed.

I hope you understood this; if not, one of us needs to sleeeeeep a lot tonight :-)

Footnotes

  1. Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006. []
  2. CoffeeResearch.Org []
  3. 400 Million gallons in USA in 2010; 1.2 gallons/person []
  4. here’s one if you haven’t seen them []
  5. CDC. Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Epidemic []
  6. US Census []

An Analysis of Where We Are

June 26th, 2013
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On the nature of the current American economic crisis

According to basic observations, the American economy is currently– and has been for some time– in a state of absolute crisis. And this despite all the natural resources the U.S. has been burning through, and a constantly growing stock of technologies. Here are a few data points that give a good sense of our current situation:

– 13% of American households have a net worth (assets minus liabilities) below 0.[1]
– Only about 20% of American households live in a home they own.[2]
– well over 20% of American households had incomes below the poverty line in 2010.[3]
– 1% of Americans experience homelessness in a given year.[4]
– 16% of Americans do not have health insurance.[5]
– 47.8 Million Americans (~15%) are enrolled in food stamps.[6] (and there are also many non-governmental food programs)
– Over 2/3 of American college students graduate with student loans, totaling over 1 trillion dollars (greater than total credit card debt, surpassed only by total mortgages).[7][8]
– over 1 million Americans filed bankruptcy in each of the last 5 years.[9]

These data show the utter impoverishment of the people, and their lack of access to the most essential services.
The most popular explanation for the economic problems of the 00’s is that there was a “bubble” (=overvaluation) in the housing market, which then had repercussions in the financial industry (since properties, mortgages, “packaged” mortgages, etc. are traded as financial “instruments,” and then the deals involving them are further insured). Blame is apportioned in varying degrees either to greedy bankers (“a few bad apples”) or to poor people choosing to live beyond their means. The solution then marketed to us is some mix of
– take a few bad people out of the banks;
– restrict a few banking practices;
– create stricter guidelines on who can get a mortgage.

But if you have payed attention so far, you’ve surely noticed that over-easy access to housing is certainly not one of this nation’s greatest problems. In fact, in general, this is a very shallow analysis that leads to no solution at all. We must ask ourselves questions like:
1) Why is housing so prohibitively expensive? (the median sale price in Feb 2013 was 246,800,[10] compared with a median household income of 52,762[11]) Why do prices not fall to an affordable level in the face of abundance (nationwide, 19 out of 130 Million housing units are unoccupied[12]) and decreased purchasing power?
2) Why are we as a society not taking dramatic action to ensure that our housing, food, health, and educational resources reach those in need?
3) Why are highly-educated people, suffering no privations, making so many socially hurtful selfish decisions? Why are these particular people in a position to make such important decisions?

Try to answer all these questions for yourself– I don’t want to overwhelm you, nor to make this essay too long.

Let us return to my general explanation for the crisis:
There has been an “over-accumulation of capital”– meaning rich entities (be they people, corporations, university endowment funds…) have extracted so many assets (money, land, intellectual property, machinery, debts, resources…) and concentrated it in so few hands, that they have nothing to do with it. Not only could they never consume billions of dollars, but they can not find good places to stick that money so that it grows at an acceptable rate for them (investments).

Not only do investments need to make a profit under capitalism, but they need to make an increasing profit year over year. But the number of good investments is more limited even as the concentration of wealth is greater: for less and less people have money to be squeezed out of them– theoretically the only true goal of most American corporations.

Yet this accumulated money must go somewhere, and it insists on finding a profit. Thus one major possibility is to bid up the value on various assets. Since other people also have to invest their money, you may buy a $100,000 house (or piece of jewelery, artwork, etc.) for $600,000, and a month later find someone willing to pay you $700,000 for it. (Incidentally, treating food, fuel, land, shelter, etc. as investments pushes up their price in a way that makes them unattainable for consumers). The value of an investment will appear to increase as long as others continue to buy into it. But throughout this process, no new value is being created. Eventually, more and more investors will begin to doubt in the value of what they are buying. As it becomes all just a game of false values, the opportunity and even necessity for fraud increases, and a series of collapses are inevitable.

These collapses also present the opportunity for one final way to wring some money out of the nearly-dry common woman. With various financial interests collapsing, there is a choice to either admit that the profits have been lost, or to take money from basic social service programs to make good on the money the financiers wanted. In the public discourse, this choice is presented as between “total collapse of the economy” or “austerity.” (Think how different this sounds than a choice between the “elimination of useless economic parasites” or the “looting of the national treasury”). Total collapse sounds like no choice at all– and anyway, the decision-makers have already been payed by the financiers– and so the already-thin public services are cut: insane people are released from unfunded institutions, medical benefits are decreased leaving people to die, schools are closed and teachers fired thus stuffing students into fewer classrooms with fewer teachers, and retirees’ pensions disappear leaving their families to scramble for ways to care for them.

Evidently, there are limits to how far this can be pushed– at some point the people will be too dry to wring any further. Historically, there has only been one example of a similar crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression. And the only way capitalism “got out of it” was via World War 2: destroying things, and then investing (and making money) in rebuilding. Luckily, we can imagine a better and more lasting escape!

If you are left baffled as to who could be making such poor decisions, and how they could have wound up in the position to be making them, please look forward to my forthcoming essay on that topic.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.epi.org/blog/inequality-exhibit-wal-mart-wealth-american/ []
  2. 67% of Americans “own” the house or apartment they live in ( http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0992.pdf ; http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html ); as of 2009, only 32% of those “owning” their homes actually owned them without a mortgage (http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0998.pdf). .67x .32 = .21. []
  3. http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/bulletin/2012/pdf/scf12.pdf, page 8 []
  4. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/How_Many.html []
  5. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/hlthins/data/incpovhlth/2010/highlights.html []
  6. http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/datastatistics/Keydata%20December%202012%20%283-8-2013%29_0.pdf []
  7. http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/classof2008.pdf []
  8. http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/testimony/vermilyea20130625a.htm []
  9. http://www.uscourts.gov/Statistics/BankruptcyStatistics.aspx ; http://www.abiworld.org/AM/AMTemplate.cfm?Section=Home&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=66471 []
  10. http://www.census.gov/construction/nrs/pdf/newressales.pdf []
  11. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html []
  12. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0982.pdf []

Syria, pt 2

June 16th, 2013
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US aid, can only come along with bombings, foreign fighters, etc. In general, if there were a home-grown movement capable of ousting Assad, it would not benefit from US aid. For example, in the case of Afghanistan, it is clear that any association with foreigners who bomb wedding parties and patrol the skies with drones is harmful to aspirations for political power. [As a note, according to Stanford and NYU researchers, 1 out of every 50 death’s caused by a drone is a “terrorist” ,(the other 49 being civilians]

Even if making this Faustian pact some how works out, you have given up more than you gained. The real control of any movement lies with those who control the material functioning of the movement — if US arms are the key to the success of any rebels, and those arms are accepted and relied on, then in the end, those rebels do not have any real control of their movement. Even with arms already surreptitiously supplied, the rebels were incapable of victory, and hence the foreign fundamentalist fighters have been introduced as well. Even worse.

While the movement is too weak, the only choices in open conflict are defeat or usurpation and corruption by Imperial interests. Better not to fight directly at that time.

It was already a symptom of astroturfing that the Syrian “Arab Spring” turned into a civil war at all. US, Turkish, and Israeli intelligence must have had a hand in the choice to fight. See for example statements by former French Foreign Minister Dumas where he indicates something was in the works for a long time.

Thus the movement was forced to fight before it was ready, before everyday Syrians had a hope of winning power on their own, in their own name. This will set them back a long time.

I do not support the Assad regime. The Assad regime would murder me if I lived there and has certainly murdered numerous of my co-thinkers. My allegiance is to the exploited of Syria. It is only their own action which can lead to their liberation — as Marx said. At this point, they have gone for Assad, because they see what sort of a demon has been taken in to their house. Even NATO admits 70% of Syrians support Assad with 20% neutral and 10% supporting the rebels. In other words, at this point, according to NATO, Assad supporters outnumber rebel supporters 7:1.