Jamie Dimon shoots feet

At an investor’s conference, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said, “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.” He went on to say that a few bad apples don’t ruin the whole bunch. It is wrong to generalize, you see. Does he really think OWS protestors hate success? Does he not understand why the banks are targeted while other industries are not? Either he is genuinely clueless or her is trying to deflect attention from himself.

A November 12 Huffington Post article by Janet Tavakoli claims that Dimon dismissed the assertion that JPMorgan Chase was involved in foreclosure fraud. He said, Chase should carry on with foreclosures, even if it had to pay some penalties. Tavalokoli says, “JPMorgan’s role in alleged foreclosure fraud had already been made public when Dimon made these ill-considered statements.”

Tavakoli quotes from Annie Lowrey of the Washington Independent: “But the financial statement itself proved the lie. The bank said it was carefully checking 115,000 mortgage affidavits. It set aside a whopping $1.3 billion for legal costs. And it put an extra $1 billion into a now $3 billion fund for buying back bunk mortgages and mortgage products.” OWS protestors are not against success; they might just want people to succeed through hard work, creativity, intelligence, and honest business practices. They might also expect a little humility.

But not only that, Irving Picard, a trustee in the Bernie Madoff scandal, accuses JPMorgan Chase of making a half a billion dollars off Madoff’s victims and is responsible for $5.4 billion in damages. It could be a case of just taking advantage of a bad situation, but what of further investigations against JP Morgan Chase?

Earlier this year the SEC fined JP Morgan Chase $228 million for a bid-rigging scheme involving municipal bonds. Matt Taibbi compared this to mafia-style bid rigging and said, “But if the defendants are a bunch of Ivy-League educated bankers from Wall Street, what we end up getting is a negligible fine (officials will brag about this $228 million, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the banks make scamming communities and governments) and, as always, no admission of guilt.”

Taibbi ends his blog post by declaring, “It’s not going to stop until people start doing hard time for these crimes, and it looks like we’re still a very long way from that.” It is just a little hard to believe that Jamie Dimon really thinks people are angry because he is successful, is it not?

Will technology destroy heroism?

While heroism is a concept without rigid definitions, I will loosely define it as putting one’s own life at great risk for the benefit of others. We may say that someone who developed lifesaving technology is a hero, but his or her laudable actions may or may not fit the description of heroism I’m trying to describe. For example, developing a life-saving vaccine is a laudable achievement for anyone, but some people have developed such vaccines by their willingness to first try inoculating themselves, knowing that their inoculations could kill them.  Similarly, those who may fly test aircraft they designed put their own lives at risk in order to benefit others.

In the past, technology created a heroic elite of sorts. Not many people had an opportunity to be the first person in space. Also, not many people had the education or experience to dream of how to inoculate someone against smallpox. People with the most advanced training would put their lives on the line to test new technology, leading to even greater advances in both knowledge and skill. These people saved lives, won wars, and opened the wonders of the universe to us all. They used technology to expand their opportunities to demonstrate their courage and commitment to human advancement.

It seems to me that something has changed, though. Unmanned spacecraft are now going deeper and deeper into space to return information we only dreamed of before, but the risk to humans has now been minimized. The space explorer now sits comfortably on earth as a machine takes all the risks of space travel. Unmanned drones now conduct what would have been extremely dangerous operations only a few years ago. We still need humans to fly and take great risks, but we can now imagine a time when all flight operations may be automated. The fighter pilot and astronaut may both become obsolete.  In medicine as well, new developments are frequently mechanized with risk to humans greatly reduced.

It is hard to find a reason to complain about this development. I would much prefer to have a robot disarm a powerful explosive than to have a human risk being blown to bits. Technological advances that reduce risk are welcome, and they will never eliminate heroism. What they do, though, is shift an emphasis from the elite heroes of the recent past to the more mundane heroes known throughout history. People will always risk their lives for others without the benefit of advanced aircraft, space travel, or obscure scientific knowledge.

People will continue to rescue others from fire and drowning. Foot soldiers will continue to fight battles on the ground, often in primitive forms of combat our ancient ancestors would recognize. People with brilliant but controversial ideas will continue to express them in the face of public hostility and aggression. And people will continue to put their lives on the line to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity.

The high cost of low taxes

No one likes paying taxes, and I’m no exception. I’m far from being in the top one percent of earners, but I’ve also had to pay federal, state, and local taxes all my life.

Anyway, I’d prefer to keep my money and spend it on other things. Some costs, however, are best to be borne by the public rather than by individuals. The move to lower taxes is not about reducing what we pay for services. Rather, it is about a shift from public payments to privatization. When the government does not fund basic services, the services are then provided by businesses for profit. This means the burden of payment for necessary services shift to the less wealthy while control and profits shift to the wealthy.

For example, roads benefit all of us. The alternative to having the government spend money on roads is to let private firms build the roads and charge whatever costs the public can bear. I do not happen to think this is the best way to build a modern, efficient, and functioning society. Our country needs a mobile workforce. Denying citizens this mobility is to deny what I view as a basic human freedom: the ability to move and seek better opportunities and living conditions. While I agree that people who build roads should be paid for the effort, I do not believe the construction and maintenance of roads should be driven purely by considerations for profit. When we don’t pay for roads through taxes, we pay for them through tolls.

Nor do I think education should be operated for this reason. As school funding is cut, schools must turn to corporations for sponsorship. School lunches are provided by the big food industry, and the logos of major industrial players abound in the school lunchroom.  When asked to provide more healthful alternatives, the industry lobbies our government to circumvent regulations by declaring that the tomato sauce on a pizza is a vegetable. Further, education materials, from textbooks to video lessons, are prepared by corporations and include advertising and other forms of blatant indoctrination.

And when universities lose government funding, they also seek corporate sponsorship for their research, faculty positions, and buildings. Rather than providing a forum for intellectual discovery and exchange, universities become the mechanism for generating increased profits. This means scientific research is aimed only at supporting industry and basic research is stifled. Fields that are not seen as contributing to “the economy” are constantly under attack. The arts and humanities must constantly fight to survive and themselves must rely on corporate donors to stay afloat.

A vibrant and thriving society, however, needs free intellectual and artistic expression. Relying on corporate donors suppresses dissent or even basic disagreement. This impedes intellectual progress and, more importantly, moral progress.  Of course, the higher tuition fees that result also limit educational opportunity for most of us. Higher tuition and reduced financial aid mean more students graduate heavily in debt.

It is appropriate that some health care be provided for profit and that only those willing and able to pay for it should receive it, and this is the situation even in countries that have “socialized medicine.” A health care system that is entirely privatized however creates two contradictory and unworkable conditions: 1. Health care providers make the most profit by providing unnecessary tests and treatments. 2. Insurance companies make the most profit by denying access to as much care, necessary or not, as possible. Basic health care does the most to improve life quality for a society, but it is the least profitable care to provide. Public funding for access to basic healthcare ensures that everyone has a better chance to live and be productive.

Prisons are necessary in any civil society, but prisons are increasingly built and operated by for-profit companies. Some people need to be removed from society, but it is best that no one profit by increasing the number of people incarcerated. Incarcerating people should be something we do only when no other alternative is available, and it should create a burden for all, not an opportunity for profit.

When taxes are lowered, and public spending is reduced, these basic services do not become free. On the contrary, we pay more for them (unless you are a person who makes enormous profits from them). For most of us, lowering taxes too much limits our freedom and increases our financial burden for obtaining basic services. Certainly, wasteful government spending should be eliminated and taxes should be reduced when appropriate, but public funding for basic services is essential. The United States is currently experiencing a massive move toward privatization, which is hurting our mobility, education, and health. It is also resulting in a growing prison population that is inconsistent with a just society.

The limits of client autonomy in psychotherapy

In the movie, Analyze This, a psychiatrist has to deal with treating a criminal whose anxiety interferes with his ability to do his job, which includes killing people. The movie is a preposterous and rather horrifying scenario, but it doesn’t challenge accepted ethical guidelines on client autonomy—clients do not have a right to request treatment to enable them to harm others. Such demands are well outside of the scope of client autonomy.

While no one (all right, so I can’t promise there is not some sick exception out there) thinks clients should have unlimited autonomy, maximizing autonomy has been particular focus of bioethics since its inception in the 1970s. This, combined with movements in psychotherapy and feminism to empower both clients generally and women in particular, gives way to some perplexing situations. This is particularly true, to my mind, in cases of so-called “internalized oppression.”

In the 1980s, feminist philosopher Dale Spender rejected the idea of singular truths as being too oppressive, claiming instead, “Only within a multidimensional framework is it possible for the analysis and explanation of everyone to avoid the pitfalls of being rejected, of being classified as wrong.” Spender was specifically advocating a multidimensional view of reality as a way of empowering women.

Similarly, collaborative therapy intends to empower clients by rejecting preconceived notions of truth and meaning, or even of therapeutic goals. In her 1997 book, Conversation, Language, and Abilities, Harlene Anderson writes, “A therapist is not a detective who discovers the truth, or what is true or truer, false or falser.” She goes on to say, “A therapist does not control the conversation, for instance, by setting its agenda or moving it in a particular direction of content or outcome. The goal is not to take charge or intervene.”

So, what is to be done with a client who embraces and fails to question a system that is oppressive, hierarchical, and one-dimensional? If a client has embraced a system that devalues the worth of the client, it would seem honorable and right for the therapist to guide the client to question a system that is degrading and demoralizing, rather than helping the client explore ways to function more effectively within that system. Of course, a therapist may simply open a conversation and hope the client with find liberation on his or her own, but this is a disingenuous respect for multiple truths.

Commenting on the goals of multidimensional feminism, Jean Grismshaw said, “The fact that one group has power over and exploits another, cannot be reduced to anyone’s belief that this is so; nor does the fact that someone does not understand their own experience in terms of oppression or exploitation necessarily mean that they are not oppressed or exploited.”

A belief in moral progress entails a conviction that some truths are better than others. We must believe that changing what we believe can make the world better. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the philosopher who has become enlightened will not want to return to improve the affairs of men, but it is a duty to do so. If those who are in chains do not realize they are in chains, those who are free must help them.

William James, who I believe is one of the greatest psychological theorists of all time, also rejected the certainty of truth, but he noted that when we give up certainty, we “do not thereby give up the quest for truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up our experiences and think.” James also believed in progress—epistemic progress and social progress. A commitment to truth does not demand that we discount the knowledge or experience of others, but it does demand that we constantly seek what is better in our lives.

While we may not pass judgment on someone who does not share our values, the values we hold most deeply must remain important to us. If our own values mean nothing to us, our lives have no meaning. The postmodern therapist has values and wants others to share them; otherwise there is no point in seeking healing. If we don’t seek more valuable lives, there is no point in living.

Corporate funding of research.

Many of us are suspicious of health and safety claims based on research funded by corporations that get rich off public confidence in the health and safety of their products. I don’t really trust manufacturers of drugs or genetically modified foods to tell me that they are safe. I also would feel better hearing that an oil spill is no threat to life or environment from someone other than the company that spilled the oil. (Many people seem to have made one inexplicable exception to this rule, which I will mention in the postscript.)

Further, when corporations fund research projects or labs, they gain control over what information is published. The scientists involved may have enough integrity to conduct rigorous research, but unwanted results are likely to be suppressed, especially if they will hurt the bottom line. This may be justified by claiming that only “useful” data need be published, but negative data can also be useful and can avoid wasted money and energy. If one researcher finds that something doesn’t work, publishing that data can help others avoid the same mistakes. Of course, researchers do share data, but some studies are also suppressed. Publication of misleading data and suppression of useful data are two possible hazards of corporations funding research that will affect their bottom line.

On the other hand, if corporations are the ones to benefit from research, it seems they should bear the cost of supporting labs, scientists, and related endeavors. Of course, some research is in the public interest, and I believe the public should fund it, which may be the topic of another blog. To avoid obvious conflicts of interest in research, companies should not be permitted to hire and promote researchers directly. Funding should go in to a pool and be dispersed anonymously to research labs, scientists, and universities. For profit labs could still exist, but researchers should not be beholden to a specific entity. It was not that long ago that much university research was conducted in this manner. In that sense my proposal is regressive, not progressive.

Postscript: When people get sick, many of them demand the latest drug available, even if it hasn’t been tested thoroughly. They seem to feel that their suffering from the disease is always going to be worse than the effects of the drug. I recently had a student (not a medical student) argue vehemently with me that no one had ever died during a drug trial. For those who know anything about drug trials, this over confidence is baffling, but I fear many share his optimism regarding the safety and effectiveness of experimental drugs. If you don’t know this already, let me tell you that drug testing is there for a reason; not every drug tested turns out to be safe and effective.