Monday, June 6, 2016

"Are We Doomed? Donald Trump's 'Conservatism' Without Ideology Is Dangerous!", 6/5/16

Sweet melodies of the Imagination: On Political Leadership

While some pundits compare Trump’s style and political swagger and outright racism to fascist leaders from Stalin to Mussolini and Hitler, a more apt comparison is to what American political leadership looked like during the Cold War.

The glory days of WWII were over, and one of the great sociologists of the time, C. Wright Mills (1916-62), concluded his landmark book, The Power Elite (1956), with this to say: “America—a conservative country without any conservative ideology—appears now before the world a naked and arbitrary power, as, in the name of realism, its men of decision enforce their often crackpot definitions upon world reality.”

Though referring to the leadership of the 1950s, the notion of “crackpot definitions” seem appropriate in the current political climate, where our yesteryear enemies are now our friends in the Middle-East and vice versa, and where the embargo on arms-sales to Vietnam has been lifted.

Mills continues to say that “the second-rate mind is in command of the ponderously platitude.” This assessment could be levelled against the presumptive presidential nominees of both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as any of the foreign policy wonks in Washington or those offering their informed opinion on television networks.

But if the scathing critique of the non-ideological conservative tenor of Republican politics makes some liberals smile with self-confidence, beware of what comes next: “In the liberal rhetoric, vagueness, and in the conservative mood, irrationality, are raised to principle.” What was true in the 1950s is still true today, some sixty years later. Have we learned nothing from hallow expressions and rhetoric of liberals and conservatives alike? Have both 
parties done nothing to get beyond their respective platitudes?

For Mills, echoing Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex, an unholy alliance has evolved in the 20th century between “privately incorporated economy”—or what we call today the privatization of public institutions, “the military ascendancy”—or what we perceive today as the sacred cows of the military budget, and “the political vacuum of modern America”—or what is claimed today in the name of outsiders challenging the political establishment.

The “political vacuum,” as any scientist will readily testify about vacuum in general, is bound to be filled at some point. For us, this is the empty verbiage of Trump’s announcements coupled with the idle promises of Sanders and Clinton. It’s a vacuum because no real and substantive political debate is afoot: no candidate is digging deeper into the soul of American politics with its checkered past and manifest destiny. Ideology isn’t a rant against this or that target, but a sustained examination and of the logic of ideas that inform our political economy. No political leader is engaging the public at this level of public discourse.

American political leadership then and now is saddled with moral insensitivity and even irresponsibility, forgetting who is being represented and led and who requires protection and support. If the same logic of the 1950s that saw the confluence of power in the hands of economic, military, and political elites remains intact today, we are in trouble. Trump’s and Sanders’ ascendancy is merely a symptom of a deeper illness. That illness in American political discourse is infested by media and commercial distractions that collapse celebrity fascination with real life.

If the only models of success in America remain wealthy celebrities—whether entertainers, world-class athletes, or billionaires who determine policy priorities as if they were elected officials—we are indeed doomed. To where has the decent American disappeared? What about hard-working Americans sustaining a modicum of integrity in the face of financial hardships? What about the celebrated American ingenuity that already made America great for decades?

This is no plea for nostalgia, since the historical record of American slavery and slaughter of Native Americans remains a stain on our national past. But it is part of the fabric of myths we have weaved over two centuries so as to inspire future generations. What we need today is neither false nostalgia of a happier past nor empty promises of a rosy future; instead, we need to work on the conditions under which every American is in fact an integral part of the American landscape.

If this means rethinking economic relations, let us redesign our marketplaces; if this means reallocating some of the defense budget to health care, we can easily manage to do it; and if this means invigorating our political imagination, then we must embrace it.

If political candidates can inspire our economic and political imagination, then they are doing us all a great service. But when they do so while villainizing segments of the population, we are in the danger zone of past fascist regimes. Fear mongering and venting pent-up anger and frustrations are not the only means by which to inspire people. The sweet melodies of the imagination are much more powerful.

Friday, June 3, 2016

“Deciding between legality and morality,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, June 3-9, 2016, p. 22.

It’s Legal, but is it Moral?

The Panama Papers, which disclosed numerous off-shore bank accounts of the rich a famous, haven’t made much of a splash here compared to the ongoing media adulation or disgust with Donald Trump.

In addition to an amazing feat of secrecy held together across national boundaries, these papers revealed a systematic sheltering of capital in a country that offers tax haven for those refusing to pay taxes on the interest generated by their fortunes. 

The names of Russia’s President, Iceland’s Prime Minister, and the British Prime Minister were exposed; some demurred, some resigned because of public outcry. Not much public respond in the US.

Why is there no outrage in the US? Why has there been no pressure on the likes of Apple who have been stashing the profits they have made in the US in countries like Ireland? Is American tolerance of corporate maleficence entrenched?

Perhaps the answer is in the complicated relations between moral norms, social conventions, and the legal systems they engender.

Academics have portrayed this complex relationship in a linear model: first come moral norms, the ones found in religious texts like the Bible with its Ten Commandments, next come social conventions based on them, whether tribal or eventually within civil society, and finally there are rules and laws that make up the legal system of nation-states.

The trajectory from moral norms to the legal system is reassuring so that we can always trace our laws—however confusing—to some moral foundation, some deep principles, like equality (all humans ought to be treated equally as ends and never as means) or liberty (humans should be able to do anything they want so long as they don’t hurt others’ ability to do the same).

This trajectory doesn’t always obey a linear progression. For example, by the time women’s liberation took hold in the case of Roe v Wade in 1973 and was nationally implemented, the 1980s came along and a whole new conservative sensibility emerged.

Examples like this don’t simply challenge the linear trajectory assumed by academics, but also explains the incessant debates about abortion and other hot-button social issues we hear about in the media: the law follows too slowly social changes.

There is also another critique of the linear model (morality-->social conventions-->law): not all moral principles or social norms ought to be part of the legal system altogether.
For example, we may find prostitution immoral or anti-social behavior, but should we attempt to legislate its demise? Can we? The same goes for modesty and marriage: should there be laws about them? Why not leave such matters to one’s conscience or religious commitments?

What becomes obvious is that some relations shouldn’t be a matter of law, but a matter of civic decency. Being courteous to your clients and vendors should be obvious to you, if you want to develop lasting relations with them.

Likewise, business cheating or even theft should be self-policed out of existence rather than because you worry about being caught. Besides, there aren’t enough laws on the books to account for all potential business mischief. Would anyone want more laws?

Domino’s Pizza was recently sued by the New York Attorney General (USA Today 5/24/16) because of exploitation; workers cleaned and prepped their stations without clocking their time-cards. This violation of common decency and fairness should never have happened. Will only a lawsuit stop such practice?

Is the business world only focused on profits at all costs? Recent economic models, such as the Knockoff Economy or the Sharing Economy, suggest that hybrid market models are much more effective in the long-run. There is a limit to how much profits can be squeezed out of any business model and there is much to gain from peer-to-peer exchanges, even remixing others’ ideas.

It is a sad state-of-affairs if the only moral boundaries we recognize are those of the law. Our daily behavior should be centered on our moral and social convictions, on the religious ideals of charity and generosity, caring for the community as a whole. As members of our own community, its overall well-being is our business, too.

Especially for those who want limited government or no government regulation at all, the Panama Papers and Domino’s Pizza remind us that it’s not about the law but about greed. When greed is packaged as freedom, when selfishness is couched in a principled manner, one wonders what moral principles one knows; they are definitely not those found in the Bible or Secular Humanism.

As the sociologist C. Wright Mills intoned, “Laws without supporting moral conventions invite crime, but much more importantly, they spur the growth of an expedient, amoral attitude.” (1956)

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at See previous articles at

Friday, April 1, 2016

“Apple’s poisonous business practices,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, March 18-24, 2016, p. 27.

Beware of the Apple, It’s Poisonous

As the latest debate over Apple’s stance on privacy and its refusal to help federal investigators access the iPhone of the San Bernardino attackers, we should recall an earlier stance that seemed principled at the time, but was not.

For those who may have forgotten, Apple appealed a 2014 settlement that found it guilty of antitrust violation in relation to e-books. The settlement amount was $450 million. Its appeal to the Supreme Court was just denied, so the original settlement is binding.

In that case, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, made a passionate argument on behalf of “free enterprise” and the right of Apple to conspire with publishers to artificially inflate the price of e-books. At the time,, which had its own disputes with publishers, was setting the benchmark price for e-books.

Apple may argue about its monopoly-like right to set prices in the marketplace as much as it wants; it even can try to present itself as a martyr for free enterprise; but the truth is that it was hurting consumers to enrich itself, called profiteering.

One wonders if today’s debate about privacy isn’t a similar case where the veneer of an ideal ends up being just that, a veneer. The real point is a marketing ploy to convince present and future customers of its protective corporate culture. Fighting “the government,” as many presidential candidates are finding out, is quite popular!

Apple’s hypocrisy need not be measured exclusively by the yardstick of its entanglements with the government, as these two cases illustrate. Instead, it seems that Apple is unabashedly pursuing maximal profits, pure and simple.

To begin with, let’s examine what has set Apple on its path to American iconography. It is outrageously successful, valued at more than $750 billion (biggest in the world), profits of over $53 billion (October 2015), and over $180 billion in cash. Its legendary leader, Steve Jobs, has been lionized as a design guru and creative genius (despite some less than flattering books and documentaries).

Apple came out of IBM’s and Microsoft’s shadows to capture our imagination and pocketbooks; we are so enamored by its products that we stand in line for hours to pay premium prices for the latest revision of its latest gadgets. But there is something dark about Apple, so dark that good publicity, as the one now enjoyed by Apple, is needed to distract our attention from its fundamentals.

First, Apple produces its gadgets overseas, primarily by Foxconn in China. This outsourcing has become ubiquitous, but it sheds light on the awful working conditions of Apple’s sub-contractors’ employees (nets have been set in workers’ dorms so they won’t jump to their death). As president Obama beseeched Steve Jobs to bring jobs back to America during the Great Recession, Jobs scoffed at him and said it’ll never happen.

Second, as Mariana Mazzucato argues in her The Entrepreneurial State (2011), Apple has licensed most if not all of its patents and intellectual property from government sources. Apple doesn’t “invent” as many new technologies or processes as one might believe, but uses others’ inventions for its own designs. It’s R&D budget in 2015 came close to $8 billion, pittance as percentage of its sales of $234 billion (just over 3%). By comparison, Microsoft spent over $12 billion on R&D out of $93 billion in sales (close to 13%).

Third, there are some who are wondering about Apple’s legal behavior both domestically and globally, as it continues to be embroiled in patent disputes with its rivals (Samsung), overseas antitrust allegations, and class-action suits at home. Some have speculated that Apple spends more money on legal fees and fines annually than on R&D. If true, how “entrepreneurial” is it?

Fourth, if you have missed it, Apple has been under scrutiny for its tax-evasion tactics, most of which are perfectly legal, yet fly in the face of it being a good corporate citizen. It’s not that Apple doesn’t pay taxes at all, as it does ($8 billion as Cook told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes”). Yet, between channeling some sales through offshore distribution networks and keeping over $180 billion in offshore accounts it avoids paying much more. Shouldn’t it contribute to the infrastructure that guarantees its sales?

As we piece the narrative about Apple’s corporate behavior, what may seem a principled stand against government intrusion into citizens’ privacy turns out to be a smokescreen. Is there really no technological way to accommodate federal investigators? We see instead a legal machine with exuberant profits enjoying the American framework of markets without contributing its fare share to ensure its operation. Just like those who came for dinner and never quite contributed their fair share. Perhaps legal, but is it right?

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at See previous articles at