Society Needs to Improve the Chances of Equality of Opportunity

As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual, that is, individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent, often makes it difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured. The dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance of success. However, systemic inequalities based on group membership, class, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that structure access to rewards and status determine who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and their talents. Neoliberals believe individual effort, responsibility and talent determine how life chances are socially structured. The fundamental dogmatism of this economic system of minimal government and regulation is codification of a political ideology defended by proxies. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education, and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality.

According to Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, rules, norms and practices evolve in a process of natural selection operating at the level of the group. Today the term “cultural evolution” refers to the evolution of a tradition of learnt rules, norms, ethical precepts, and practices, “especially those dealing with inherited property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy”. Hayek’s main argument on group selection is that by choosing rules individuals change their group and become a member of the group from which they adopt the rules. To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around individual freedom and minimal government in support of Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution.

In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit with the business model. With the discovery of epigenetics, this thinking has changed. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The reactive oxygen radicals can modify, or turn off and on, genes that effect events further downstream. This can cause chronic diseases within a few decades. The great recession has created a perfect storm for poor health. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. How we develop mentally and physically have a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options.

How does inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life? Laissez-faire supported by Hayek’s cultural evolution has no vision of the good society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Under the cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ welfare for the poor is cut and restructured to make welfare recipients more responsible for their economic status. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants. A consequence of this ideology is the reconfiguration of class relations in a society where the explosion of inequality and economic instability has profoundly dismantled the working class. Social inequality describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society. The privileged position of the middle class has steadily been eroded by growing inequalities of wealth and income.

Influenza vaccine is not a magic bullet, it only augments the efficiency of an individual’s immune system. During seasons when the flu vaccines are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the chance of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent. The best chances of not getting flu occurs in vaccinated individuals under age 65. People aged 65 and older have weaker immune responses and are at increased risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from influenza infection. Thus, a seventy-year-old gets the flu vaccine because in a typical influenza season, it reduces his or her chances of being hospitalized by one third and chances of dying by 50%. Similarly, older people getting the COVID vaccine won’t necessarily get 100% protection, but vaccination will reduce the severity of the disease, including significantly reducing the chance one would die.

The meaning of chance is supposed to be apparent only at a level of abstraction afforded by large sets of data to the cool eye of a scientific observer or the indifferent machinations of an algorithm. But markets, for Hayek are held to be the only social form that properly accounts for the chance or randomness that is by nature a part of the spontaneous development of order within complex – that is to say partly chaotic – systems. Klein observes that the neoliberal system of laissez-faire is the obscure, disavowed public face anonymous, implacable, inscrutable – of an authoritarian scheme to restrict chance to fate. In summary, they use a heady brew of chaos and market (dis)order to protect the largest and most powerful interests – the 1% – at any cost. Thus, neoliberalism seems to have it both ways: to both restrict the meaning of chance in advance, and to reproduce randomness, risk and disorder that is susceptible only of market “solutions.”1

Nietzsche claims, “No victor believes in chance.” Many of the individuals that Trump has pardoned do not leave things to chance: Michael Milliken rose to prominence the 1980s as the head of the high-yield bond department, also known as junk bonds, at the now defunct firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Milken was accused of taking part in an insider trading scheme and eventually pleaded guilty to several counts of securities violations. John Boultbee, Peter Atkinson and Conrad Black were convicted of fraud in connection to a scheme involving paying themselves bonuses from Hollinger International earnings, cheating shareholders and American and Canadian tax authorities. Former Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, is sentenced to 26 months in prison in insider trading case. “I am not upset that you lied to me. I am upset that from now on I can’t believe you,” concludes Nietzsche.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Power is all the more cunning because its basic forms can change in response to our efforts to free ourselves from its grip. The contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Recognizing that reason has been one of the disciplinary technologies of modern societies, Foucault repeats, reminds us that much of history cannot be explained by anything other than ‘the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance’ (quoted from Nietzsche’s Dawn). Foucault celebrated the role of chance in history because chance makes change easier to imagine. If we do not think of history as proceeding in some inevitable or predictable manner, then history is not so deterministic, and it is easier for us to imagine that things might be different in the future.

Epigenetic risk is not merely a medical risk, but implicates the fundamental principles of fairness and justice underlying the present social contract. The role of epigenetics provides high quality evidence supporting the importance of DNA in shaping people’s lives. While epigenetic changes can be passed on from parents to children, they can also be altered by stress, diet, environment and behavior. Early life stress alters how DNA is packaged, which makes cells function differently than their original mandate. These epigenetic switches are triggered by many factors such as our lifestyle, environment, diet, stress, emotional deprivation or hormones and our age, and as the development of a growing fetus in the womb is totally dependent on these signals, it can alter the function of its cells. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. Early studies show an association between epigenetic marks (in the human genome) and socio-economic status.

The emerging field of epigenetics provides a chain of connections between what used to be qualified as social and natural inequality, leading to a reformulation of these contested boundaries. This also leads to a rethinking of the time-frame and scope of equality of opportunity. Epigenetic risks explain how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. We now realize we can change gene expression by the way we think about our lives and ourselves – epigenetic marks are reversible. Controlling epigenetic harms, or environmental harms, is about treating an individual’s potential as a freedom. It is necessary to challenge the status quo of neoliberalism with its causal determinism, and create conditions where individuals can incorporate epigenetic risk into a new social contract. The relevant consequence of this approach should be a society that increases the chances or opportunities for individual fulfillment for all members of society.

1 Joshua Ramey (Dec 2015) Neoliberalism as a political theology of chance: the politics of divination https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201539

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People Continue to Profit Off the Spread of Conspiracy Theories

Climate change denial, laissez-faire economics, conspiracy theorizing – a study suggests that these rather diverse belief systems may lie on a continuum. That climate change denialists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming is a given, but are there other more general indicators of their belief system that include climate change denial as a subset? Endorsing conspiracy theories is a form of “motivated reasoning” – an effort to gather facts and construct frameworks that “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” Individuals engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort people experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to their comfort, happiness, and mental health. The conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and bringing order to random events, and provides them with a community of similarly disaffected thinkers who can validate one another’s anxieties and shared worldview.

Why do so many Americans deny anthropologic climate change? Of the many factors identified in a 2017 study, partisanship came out as the most consistent predictor. In general, Democrats accept scientific consensus and Republicans reject it. Party elite are largely responsible for this polarization.  Trust in the political system will tend to mitigate this effect; those with high levels of trust will be less prone to accept conspiracy theories. First, it’s pretty obvious that conservatives are less likely than liberals to trust the political system. It’s built into the ideology. What’s more, conservative anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment has become more and more virulent over the past several decades. But this result can be the consequence of deeper, longer-term social and demographic trends. Low-trust, high-knowledge conservatives are a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and more and more conservatives are low trust and high knowledge.

Conservative media, activists, and politicians have every reason to convince their most engaged supporters that the whole system is rotten and can’t be trusted – it makes it easier to fill their heads with nonsense about Sharia law, Agenda 21, and all the rest, which in turn increases their intensity and engagement. Conservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust. What the study found is the very modest but positive correlation between rejection of climate change and the presence of a general conspiratorial ideology. People who reject climate change don’t believe equally in all the conspiracy theories listed in the questionnaire, but the general trend seems to hold.

Psychologists found that climate change denialists seem to display two other characteristics; a belief in laissez-faire capitalism and more troublingly, a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. The correlation of climate change denial with free market capitalism was stronger and not completely unsurprising but the correlation with a conspiratorial mindset is more unexpected and intriguing. The results indicated that there is an inverse correlation between espousal of free markets and belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. This free market-dominated rejection of scientific evidence is consistent with denial of important environmental and public health concerns in the past, most notably the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the effects of acid rain on the environment. Once free-market ideologues make up their mind that complete government withdrawal from markets is the only way to ensure prosperity, then it’s not surprising to find them inclined to disbelieve even rigorous scientific evidence that would somehow point to more increased government regulation as a solution.

Rather it draws our attention to the fact that the psychology of climate change denial presents some features that are likely to be shared by conspiracy theorists. The rejection of established science because of its perceived failure to conform to preconceived beliefs is a classic case of motivated reasoning. This would be consistent with the incompatibility of an extreme free-market viewpoint with denial of climate change. Since free-market ideology also usually tracks well with conservative politics, it is not surprising to find most denials of climate change coming from the right. FreedomWorks is a conservative libertarian advocacy group that trains volunteers, assists in campaigns and encourages them to mobilize, interacting with both fellow citizens and their political representatives. In 2009 Mother Jones listed FreedomWorks as a significant climate denier. Ten years after, they are aligned with causes central to President Trump’s re-election, promoting the website behind Protect My Vote.

The Protect My Vote campaign shows how online outfits are at work creating the appearance of evidence for assertions of rampant fraud, promoting “mail balloting results in lost votes and lost rights.” This group purchased over 150 adds on their associated page on Facebook which was viewed over 100 thousand times in a month. They were designed to tap existing anxiety about the integrity of the voting system to convince voters in swing states where minority turnout could be decisive that mail in votes is not reliable amid the uncontained pandemic leading many Americans to alternative ways to be heard on Election Day. During the spring of 2020, mostly conservative activists held protests in at least a dozen states to protest ongoing state stay-at-home orders – FreedomWorks helped with promotion and logistics. While most of the protests have taken place in states with Republican governors, they highlighted only those in states with Democratic governors.

Lacking the language or institutional means to dismiss popular conspiracy theories for what they are, feckless US political and media elites are instead normalizing them, “defining deviancy down” as the old phrase goes. A patchwork of conservative groups funded efforts organized by groups in Facebook for demonstrations calling for a swift end to the government-imposed closures of regular business and for America to “open up.” FreedomWorks portrays itself as a “grassroots” organization that fights for small government and lower taxes. Since January 20, 2021 FreedomWorks started running four different ads on Hulu targeting Republicans and independents across America. Basically, the ads argue that mortality rates for COVID-19 infections is significantly lower for those under the age of 65 and without pre-existing conditions, issue a call to action for the young and healthy to push for a reopening. The message: “tell your Governor to liberate your state and reopen society.

The phrase, “stop the steal,” refers to the president’s baseless charges that the presidential election that he decisively lost was rigged. His supporters proclaimed Jan. 6 – the day Congress accepted the Electoral College votes – as the day to convene in Washington to “save America” and “stop the steal” of the election. In his speech before the riot, Trump praised supporters for showing up to “save our democracy.” He told supporters “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol … You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” On Jan. 6, pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol by force, smashing windows and forcing lawmakers into hiding in a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of five people, including a Capitol Hill police officer. In the aftermath of the violence, Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from the mob. Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election.

It’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories.  It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained. However, belief in one often serves as evidence for belief in others, and this quickly turns into a worldview, i.e., a lens through which we view the world, with new information about world events processed not according to the weight of the evidence but rather in terms of how consistent it is with one’s prior convictions. The spread of influential conspiracy propaganda can have serious societal consequences. For example, belief in some conspiracy theories has been associated with aggression, right-wing extremism, racist attitudes against minority groups (e.g., anti-Semitism) and even political violence. The serious societal consequences of conspiracy theories are on full display: the poor response to the coronavirus, and five deaths following the election of Joe Biden.

In 2021 we have ample proof conspiracy theory beliefs can be harmful. The far right has learned to use conspiracy theories effectively. Conspiracy narratives claim that powerful people or organizations cooperate in secret, to achieve sullen objectives by deceiving the public. Conspiracy theories are relevant for social interaction and democracy as they can induce anger, lead to low political participation, and to learned helplessness. Based on attitudinal variables, beliefs in conspiracy theories are positively related to such issues as feelings of powerlessness, to perceived lack of control, to mistrust of other people and authorities. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world, and incredible ability to recognize patterns. It’s not just social media that contributes to fearmongering and the spread of misinformation: Certain advocacy groups spread conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have other agendas.

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We Need to Ensure Political Accountability of Elected Officials

Machiavelli placed a large amount of emphasis on the fact that a prince must be seen to be a moral – but he is able act un-morally if it contributes to the good of the state or provides him with more power. He must be loved by the people and he must also be feared in order to maintain his role as a ruler of a state. Machiavelli argued that if a prince cannot be both loved and feared – it is better for him to be feared as more people would be scared to question him and afraid of the consequences that may follow. This results in more power and authority for the prince but at the same time it means that the prince is less accountable. Political accountability is when a politician makes choices on behalf of the people and the people have the ability to reward or sanction the politician through periodic elections in order to represent or act in their interest.

For the past 10,000 years or so, human society has been divided into antagonistic classes, and that has meant that morality has developed not as a general theory of human emancipation, but as a set of rules by which each class attempts to further its own interests. The most influential moral theories since the eighteenth century have tended to see morality as a necessary way of holding human impulses in check.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that ‘truth’ discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions, such as the church and the aristocracy, whose misguided traditional thinking had kept people subjected in ignorance and superstition. Immanuel Kant held that every rational being had both an innate right to freedom and a duty to enter into a civil condition governed by a social contract in order to realize and preserve that freedom. To Kant, combining free will and reason creates the capacity for free choice.

The idea that the mind plays an active role in structuring reality is called Kant’s Copernican revolution, because like Copernicus who turned astronomy inside-out by claiming the Earth moved around the sun (instead of the other way), Kant argues we must reformulate the way we think – theorizing that objective reality depends on the mind rather than the other way round (compared to Empiricists who held that all ideas, hence the entire mind comes from experience). Kant claims the structure of the mind shapes all sensory experience and thought. The mind has an active role in producing our conception of reality by acting as a filter, an organizer, an enhancer. A central component of Kant’s theory, for instance, is that morality has to control human desires in order to prevent social conflict. Underlying these views is the assumption that human beings are competitive individuals who seek their own self-interest and who will engage in a war of all against all if left to their own devices.

Kant observes that man’s capacity to reason was not his most important quality. Rather, it is the capacity of free choice which all men share, no matter how refined their reason. Kant’s democratic sensibility, however, is not based on the interests of the common man, but on the common man’s moral worth and moral dignity. Democracy can be defined as the free and equal right of every person to participate in a form of government. However, when it comes to actual choice there are a limited number of candidates, hence only certain choices. Karl Popper claims democracy is representative and not directly participatory. One’s only role is to judge and dismiss the government, a device to protect ourselves against the misuse of power. People never have any real power over politics. The best one can achieve is to determine which of a few candidates will exercise political rule over them. Democracy masks the true source of power in the hands of the few.

Nietzsche claims there are no moral facts, and there is nothing in nature that has value in itself. Rather, to speak of good or evil is to speak of human illusions, of lies according to which we find it necessary to live. He tells us “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” Knobe and Leiter take the unusual step of seeing to what degree recent experimental findings in psychology support either Nietzsche or Kant. They have little difficulty in showing that Nietzsche is largely vindicated. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards.

The elite manipulate overtly or covertly the political power. Donald Trump’s election is an illustration. Following Machiavellian formula of power, Pareto observes elites are able to manipulate and control the masses by resorting to two methods. First, elites adopt flexibility to environmental and situational exigencies. This group prefers materialistic to idealistic goals, but lack fidelity and principles, and use strategies that vary from emotional appeal to unadulterated fraud. The second method encompasses the conservative elite, bound by faith and ideology, who display group loyalty and class solidarity. Today’s Republican Party is an amalgamation of both methods of manipulation and control. Donald Trump knows how to use emotional panic to shut down the rational thinking part of our brains. In other words, when we are consumed by fear, we stop thinking. A populace that stops thinking for itself is a populace that is easily led, easily manipulated and easily controlled.

The Trump administration has engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of actions that violate laws, agency regulations, and ethical requirements, repeatedly putting its own interests before the public interest. Trump administration officials and their allies have lied to federal investigators, lied to Congress, and sought to obstruct federal investigations. These efforts constitute a direct and sustained attack on the rule of law that effectively creates two justice systems – one for the Trump administration and its allies and one for everyone else. As part of its attack on the rule of law, the administration has worked to subvert the very institutions that might hold it accountable – including the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), inspectors general, and Congress – to eliminate even the possibility of oversight. Moderate Republicans who are concerned about being outflanked by a challenger on the right may therefore fall in line with more outspoken and extreme Congress members to save their own skin.

Political accountability includes the accountability of the government, civil servants and politicians to the public and to legislative bodies such as a congress or a parliament. This is the heart of democracy, and without political accountability, the system may reduce to autocracy. The Lincoln Project is an American political action committee formed in late 2019 by a number of Republicans and former Republicans that aimed to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump, and defeat all Republicans in close races running for re-election in the United States Senate. Today the focus is on efforts to hold Trump’s enablers accountable and not allow them to pretend they were not involved. Post-Trump the Lincoln Project will likely focus on the rot at the core of the Republican Party short-term; while long-term, stake out a position as a fighting institution for the status quo, beating back the liberal left with one fist and right-wingers with the other.

The most important feature of the public sphere as it existed in the eighteenth century was the public use of reason in rational-critical debate. This checked domination by the state, or the illegitimate use of power. Rational-critical debate occurred within the bourgeois reading public, in response to literature, and in institutions such as salons and coffee-houses. The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner. Advertising and internet have invaded and corrupted the private sphere. The public sphere takes on a feudal aspect again, as politicians and organizations represent themselves before the voters. There had to be an option of last resort for holding a President who is off the rails accountable. The Founding Fathers placed that responsibility with the Senate. The Senate now has a moment where it can hold the President accountable and, in doing so, create accountability for presidencies beyond this one.

Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting efforts, at home and abroad, to undermine the right of Americans to free, fair, and fully informed self-government. Together, armed with the Constitution and the rule of law, they can renew democracy and protect it from those who would do it harm; have an ongoing role. The troubling growth in the dissemination of disinformation and hatred emanates from and exists within a digital sphere that has increasingly displaced the media systems of the past century, in which journalism organizations served as primary gatekeepers. Today, this mediation role has been largely filled by even more opaque algorithmic systems operated by global technology platform companies. There is a need to rebuild informational trust and integrity. There is a need for a special panel to examine disinformation, hate and free speech issues within the new digital public sphere to ensure political accountability.

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How Political Nihilism Affects Your Freedom

Political nihilism is the belief that no government is really needed, it believes that individuals can get by without any social institutions – consistent with a minimal government that never gets too bad – in that there is not much difference who wins or loses. It is a belief that one can just drop out and be an observer and be fine – like the way most of our youth are already doing this. For the political nihilist it didn’t matter whether Trump or Hillary wins because politics plays an insignificant role in his or her life, as fringe groups are always complaining and exaggerating. This thinking took an abrupt change in 2020. The COVID pandemic exposes the ugly underbelly of the political nihilism of the Trump administration. They possessed information that pointed to an impending crisis and chose to do nothing with respect to planning and communications – significantly increasing suffering and death across the country. Consequently, in the 2020 election more people than ever got involved and voted.

In the 1980s Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) started to consider and discuss the nature of reality and the effect of technology on social life. He claims political resistance is getting harder and harder. Citizens are shape-shifting into consumers and actively participating in their own marginalization. For postmoderns like Baudrillard, television and now social media immerse people in their own private realities. The constant battle for our attention means that we can experience whatever version of reality we prefer, whenever we prefer. Even worse, because media platforms are competing to win audiences, the incentives will always push them in the direction of catering to our worst impulses. After a while, we’re just awash in self-curated content. They could see how innovations in technology, capitalism, and media were distorting our shared sense of truth. And none of them – not even the most pessimistic – could’ve imagined the epistemic anarchy unleashed by Facebook or YouTube algorithms.

The nihilist wants to destroy the existing social order for no valid reason, and the narcissist strives to feed from others even if it destroys them. While these are not the same, there are some overlapping ego-centric ideologies. Trump is not a nihilist; he is a narcissist. The narcissist is infatuated with his own opinion, while the relative values of everyone else’s opinion approaches zero. At its greatest limit nihilism and extreme narcissism are equivalent. Where did people turn in 2020. For the first time in forty years, we heard the term “existential threat.” Existentialism – a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more defining qualities of one’s self or identity – is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness… to not succumb to nihilism, to not give up or avoid responsibility. Trump is associated with “existential threat” because many perceived his actions threaten American democratic values and believed America is being governed against their will.

Trump politics is one of nihilism. It is one of rejection of existing systems of meaning – things like political correctness, non-racism, cordiality, cooperation – and offers nothing but the absence of these structures in their place. Ordinary life would go on all around this cultural elite, proceeding much as before: an endless cycle of creation and destruction, violence, oppression and exploitation, as those who failed to keep their destructive urges under control unleashed their nihilism on the world. So even the ideal political arrangement designed to serve the interests of the cultural elite would essentially be an exercise in nihilism by all except the elite who would benefit from it. Essentially, the Trump administration encouraged increased polarization with both sides accusing the other side of destroying ‘the system’, while failing to offer a constructive positive alternative to the status quo – for over four years.

Behind postmodernism’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” is a belief – promoted by Michel Foucault and others – that the influence of the oligarchy is primarily connected with power and oppression. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation, and individualism. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. Neoliberals are part of a long, intellectual, (or anti-intellectual) tradition which seeks to deny the importance of meaning (or belonging that get in its way), and even destroy its relevance. Why would anyone want to do that? Because, as history shows, destroying meaning is the key to gaining, at least temporarily, power and control, whether it be over other human beings or natural processes in general. One of Jean Francois Lyotard’s primary concerns was how metanarratives are often used toward “the goal of legitimizing social and political institutions and practices, laws, ethics, ways of thinking.”

Nihilism’s impact on recent culture and values has been pervasive and profound. The seeds of identity politics were further sown in the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Pluckrose explains that, for Derrida, “the author of a test is not the authority on its meaning… the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.” Thus, if a speaker says something that a listener interprets as “offensive,” that “offensive” feeling is considered valid, even if it misconstrues what the speaker intended to communicate. For Derrida, modern men and women have a duty “to deconstruct the opposition… to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” One can find support for cancel culture and identity politics within such postmodern interpretations. Political nihilism has unleashed the menace of identity politics and placed race and identity at the center of the struggle for power.1

We are in the middle of a transition and transformation that will determine if we can move forward as a democratic society or slip into eventual dictatorship because of our unwillingness to become aware or awakened, act upon that awareness, adapt to a changing landscape, and successfully manage the challenges placed on our 21st century doorstep. The old systems are dead and dying, we now all know that to be true. But we must find something to put in their place. Without meaning, all things become justifiable, all thoughts and actions morally acceptable. Somehow, we need to find the next step. We need to begin creating a new meaning. We need to consider existentialism. Both existentialism and nihilism begin by suggesting that the world, and life, is inherently meaningless. For Nihilism, that’s where things end. There is no positive assertion as a result. Life is meaningless. Politics is meaningless. Ethics are meaningless. For Existentialism, there is an extra step. Life is meaningless, therefore we can and should create our own meaning.

Presently we exist in a hierarchical system in which elites are superior, have no empathy for the middle class, in fact, express distain for those who they consider inferior. For example, it is the middle class who were caught off guard with the 2008 economic crisis, and in fact, the plutocrats ensure they are blamed for the economic problems. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality. The answer must address the growing concentration of wealth, the costs of climate change, the concentration of important markets, the stagnation of income for the working class, and the changing patterns in social mobility. Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the human condition and its relation to the world around us.

Existentialism puts special emphasis on personal choices and on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. As a result, meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings, actions and interpretations. It is necessary to resist this regression into a petty, fragmented brand of polarized politics rooted in resentment and fear. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how political nihilism creates something that is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system.

Any ideological response to neoliberalism must not only advance institutional alternatives to bring us back from the brink of neoliberal nihilism, but basic decency. For Kierkegaard, the real problem of life was to discover one’s true talent, secret gift, authentic vocation. So, freedom acts as a universal value. People are striving for freedom, for only in it and through it can the creative human potential be realized. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. After four years of a populist president, more and more Americans realize the need for transparency, honesty, and the need to move towards achieving a more equitable balance between the interests of labor rights and economic competitiveness – to restore freedom.

1 Helen Pluckrose (27 May 2017) How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained. https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained

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Recognizing the Path to Happiness and Good Health

Happiness is not a destination; it is a choice we make. To find happiness with the life you have, and to achieve the goals important to you, you must confront the limitations of the system. “Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome”, says Nietzsche, and moral concepts are merely façades of the power elite, while happiness is a kind of control one has over their surroundings. In the 19th century Jeremy Bentham recognized the exploitive character of the capitalist relationship. Bentham is primarily known today for his moral philosophy, especially his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based upon their consequences. The relevant consequences, in particular, are the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action. For Bentham happiness was a daily experience. He believed the goal of public policy was increasing the contentment and happiness of the greatest number of individuals possible in a society.

Where Rousseau (1712-1778) claimed social equality was possible, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed social equality was not possible. At the turn of the 19th century, Bentham introduced the principle of utility – reflected in the statement “every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community.” Bentham believed that human behavior was motivated by the desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Utilitarianism taught that through the infliction and threat of pain people would be provided with motives to abstain from decisions associated with socially harmful behavior. Bentham claimed that it was possible to decide by scientific means what was morally justifiable by applying the principles of utility. He advocated that actions were right if they tended to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.’ In his day, the ‘people’ were individuals who could vote – workers at that time did not have the vote.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy reflects his psychological view that the primary motivators in human beings are pleasure and pain. Bentham is not referring to just to the usefulness of things or actions, but to the extent to which these things or actions promote the general happiness. Specifically then, what is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, happiness being determined by reference to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Bentham says that the principle of utility is something that can be ascertained and confirmed by simple observation, and that, if pleasure is good, then it is good irrespective of whose pleasure it is. Bentham suggests that individuals would generally seek the general happiness because the interests of others are inextricably bound up with their own. For Bentham, moral philosophy or ethics can be simply described as “the art of directing men’s action to the production of the greatest quantity of happiness, on the part of whose interest is in view.”

In parallel during the 19th century, laissez-faire ideology claimed it could deliver the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Free trade stimulated economic growth. Economic growth created more jobs. More jobs meant more opportunities for people to consume, which in turn meant new market opportunities for producers and traders. A virtuous circle was thereby created and ‘the greatest number’ duly benefited. In Britain the evidence of JP Kay, Edwin Chadwick and the other Victorian social commentators also demonstrated the fragility of this supposedly virtuous circle. Without state intervention, they argued, it was clear that the whole Victorian economic miracle might be undermined. The solution adopted was central government intervention to mitigate the most damaging effects of unrestrained industrial capitalism. The Factory Act of 1883 was meant to stop the mistreatment of children: Employment of very young children in textile factories was forbidden, and that of adolescents restricted. Employers had to provide at least two hours’ education a day for child employees.

Bentham claims that “liberty is the absence of restraint” and so, to the extent that one is not hindered by others one has liberty and is “free.” Given that pleasure and pain are fundamental to – indeed provide – the standard of value for Bentham, liberty is good (because it is ‘pleasant’) and the restriction of liberty is an evil (because it is painful). Law, which is by its very nature, is a restriction of liberty and painful to those whose freedom is restricted. He recognized that law is necessary for social order and good laws are clearly essential to good government. He saw the positive role to be played by law and government, particularly in achieving community well-being. Bentham rejected “natural rights” claiming ‘real rights’ are fundamentally legal rights, that exist in law. However, Bentham recognized that there are some services that are essential to the happiness of an individual and that cannot be left to others to fulfill as they see fit, and so these individuals must be compelled to fulfill them.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism argues that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to aid that pursuit. Laissez-faire capitalism, she argues, is the only system that truly protects individual rights. Capitalism, Rand claims, is not today’s system, with its mixture of freedom and government controls, but a social system in which the government is exclusively devoted to the protection of individual rights, including property rights – one in which there exists absolutely no government intervention in the economy. The power elite today promote laissez-faire that pushes individualism to the extreme, turning selfishness into a virtue, as Ayn Rand has done. It is a closed ontology since it does not admit the other, the stranger, into the circle of those towards whom we have a duty of responsibility and care. It thus completes capitalism as a zero-sum game of “winners and losers”.

Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self-interest. The core of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive – is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. A German study found that altruism not only correlates with happiness, but causes it. And should we be surprised? If you want to help yourself, help someone else. Turns out it’s true. And there is research to back it up. There is something inherently elevating about creating value for others. Not only does your own self-esteem get a collateral boost, but your sense of purpose – your perceived value of your own life – does, as well. Of course, Bentham and Rand had serious differences, altruism being the main one. Rand categorically rejects it, Bentham embraces it. Similarly, while Bentham believes people act selfishly, Rand advises that people should act selfishly in order to enhance social wellbeing.

Bentham criticized those in power for pursuing their own narrow, socially destructive goals, instead of pursuing happiness for all. His solution was to establish democratic rule by the whole society, rather than by a select class. For Bentham, the legitimate functions of government are social reform and the establishment of the conditions most conductive to promoting the greatest happiness, for the greatest number of people. In the case of happiness, we know that a person’s inborn temperament is important to their happiness. But there are also behaviors and choices people make that can influence their well-being. On the negative side, people can make themselves unhappy by becoming addicted to drugs, unnecessarily worrying all the time, or making other bad choices. On the positive side, people can be positive and supportive with others, have important long-term goals that lead to a meaningful life.1

Mental illnesses produce some of the most challenging health problems faced by society, accounting for vast numbers of hospitalizations, disabilities resulting in billions in lost productivity, and sharply elevated risks for suicide. Scientists have long known that these potentially devastating conditions arise from combinations of genes and environmental factors. Scientists define “environment” in the realm of mental illness broadly; suggest it encompasses everything that isn’t an inherited gene. A study by Gerdtham et al. (1997) found good health to have a significant positive effect on happiness. As health is a strong determinant of happiness then there is every reason for enhancement of health to be a policy priority of the state. Today the causal interaction between happiness and health is well documented. People who are happy enjoy a better health while unhappiness depletes the state of health reducing the immune resistance and developing psychosomatic disease that may lead to depression and suicide.

Some argue that people must make themselves happy because governments cannot do it and it is not the government’s responsibility. However, there actually are things the government can do to influence happiness. There is not one simple key to happiness. It comes from several directions. Greater attention to measures of happiness, can also uncover under-resourced or under-recognized areas for action. Indeed, the UK’s Commission on Wellbeing and Policy (2014) found that mental health is the most important driver of wellbeing, more important than physical illness, income, employment, or family status. Peoples’ happiness, their emotional wellbeing and mental health, affect their ability to meet their full potential: to stay in school, hold a decent job, and contribute to family and community life. The reverse is also true: wellbeing is often the result of expanding opportunities for people to go to school, work a decent job, and be active in their communities.2

1 Sherif Arafa. (5 April 2019) Why Governments Should Care More About Happiness https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_governments_should_care_more_about_happiness

2 Natalia Linou and Jon Hall. (18 March 2016) The Pursuit of Happiness: paying greater attention to Mental Health  http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/pursuit-happiness-paying-greater-attention-mental-health

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The Long-lasting Ramifications of the Politics of Resentment and Trumpism

Resentment as a cultural response to economic struggle has political consequences. More than half of US workers are unhappy with their jobs. The frustration you experience by not living the life you imagined is created by the resentment that the outcome of an event is less than you imagined it would be. Donald Trump himself is a cauldron of resentment, who has deeply internalized a life-time of deep resentments, and thus is able to tap into, articulate, and mobilize the resentments of his followers, in a way that Democrats and other professional politicians can. Trump appeals to resentment that ultimately rests on economic failure: working-class whites have been left behind by soaring inequality (but they mistakenly blame emigrants taking their jobs). Donald Trump – figured out how to harness their disillusionment and growing anger – is superior to the others in exploiting the narcissism of small differences to recruit the Republican base.

Claiming to be the victim of the political establishment has been key to Trump’s political persona and the basis of Trumpism. Donald Trump harnessed the resentment and sense of victimhood of the Republican Party. Trump came across unceasingly pained, injured and aggrieved: the primaries were unfair, the debates were unfair, the general election was unfair. He gave a voice to that part of America that also feels aggrieved. Trump claimed there was a conspiracy against him supported by ‘fake’ news. Today Trump’s paranoid White House continues to see ‘deep state’ enemies on all sides. He became the representative of the idea of the new whiny right: waning power of whiteness, privilege, patriarchy, access, and the cultured surety that accrues to those in possession of such. With respect to the 2020 loss, he spent months laying the groundwork for large swaths of voters to be receptive to his claim that it was wrongly taken from him.

Donald Trump was hugely successful in harnessing white identity politics and the politics of white resentment. Trump ran on a promise of restoration, a nostalgia for a time gone by, and the sense that America, particularly white America, is losing and has been losing for years. There is not one big reason Donald Trump won. His election promises represented an appeal to popular resentment, to so-called herd instincts. Trump appeals to resentment that ultimately rests on economic failure: working-class whites have been left behind by soaring inequality (but they mistakenly blame emigrants taking their jobs). He promises to bring back the kind of greatness that once existed, but has been taken over by the politically correct that is too focused on diversity to recognise and support the forgotten white man. Trump feasts on social divisions and has perfected harnessing the rage of the workers driven by the failure of neoliberal market fundamentalism.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English philosopher and economist, believed that society was evolving towards increasing freedom of individuals and held that government intervention ought to be minimal in political and social life. Spencer’s survival of the fittest concept was believed to be natural, hence morally correct. Spencer preferred the Lamarckian evolution of adapted characteristics in which he believed that societies like living organisms evolve from simple states into highly complex forms – equating evolution with progress. He saw evolutionary progress as an economic problem, worked out at the level of the individual. This supported the doctrine of social Darwinism promoted to justify laissez-faire economics, thought best to promote unfettered competition between individuals, and the gradual improvement of society through the survival of the fittest. Consistent with this thinking, most individuals in Trump’s cabinet and donor lists support a system, through which feelings of resentment, fear, anger, and loathing are enacted against the weak, who are considered a drain on the worthy.

Trump won the 2016 election through the promise to build a wall and the rhetoric of racist nationalism. Trickle-down economics destabilizes social order by promising and then ‘dashing’ hopes of individual liberation. Here nationalism plays the role of filling the gap that consumerism can never satisfy, providing placebo compensation for the uncertainty and instability of modern life, social cohesion beyond the fragmentation of the marketplace, and encouraging allegiance to the interests of one’s national ideology. But Trump’s nationalism is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other’; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon. Its political resurgence shows resentment – in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy.

We fear new because of the uncertainty it brings – we might lose what is associated with change. Our aversion to loss can even cause logic to fly out the window. In rural areas of the US there are many people who feel that neither party represents them, and many have a strong resentment toward the cities and urban elites. Many times, this resentment comes out as a feeling of, “I’m a deserving person, a hardworking American and the things I deserve are actually going to other people who are less deserving.” Donald Trump’s message really tapped into that sentiment. The message of Trumpism is: You are right, you are not getting your fair share, you should be angry, you are a deserving, hardworking American and what you deserve is going to people who don’t deserve it. In 2020 he turned to racist fears of Black people with emphasis on “defund the police” message of progressives along with the smoke and mirrors of increase in taxes of a Biden administration, so-called socialism.

Nietzsche argues “concepts are metaphors which do not correspond to reality.” Although all concepts are metaphors invented by humans (created to facilitate ease of communication), Nietzsche observes, humans forget this fact after inventing them, and come to believe they are ‘true’ although they do not correspond to reality. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. Nietzsche argued that one of the most powerful forces in society was “ressentiment [French for resentment].” According to their use, ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward an object that one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The resentment that grows in the weak turns eventually to be evil, deceitful and hateful.

Donald Trump won the election in 2016 largely because enough voters in three states, all in the Rustbelt, who had voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, switched their vote from Democratic to Republican. Economic dislocations played a crucial role in these swing states or Democratic strongholds to persuade many voters to take the dramatic step to vote for an anti-establishment candidate even if that meant a leap of faith into the unknown.  Protest and extreme-right voting which research has shown that racist resentment and anti-immigrant sentiments are an important voting motive, nearly worked in 2020, succeeded in getting Trump the second most votes of any candidate in the history of US elections. Donald Trump’s trickle-down economics approach will not be enough to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He is leaving an economic mess for Joe Biden to clean up.

At the 2011 White House Correspondence Dinner (WHCD) President Obama roasted Donald Trump. This created enough resentment to push Trump to enter the 2016 primaries for president. He wanted to stick it to the Washington elites who laughed at him that night. He believes the elite unfairly challenged the legitimacy of his 2016 election, so he merely reciprocates. Post-2020 election Donald Trump plays the resentment card that initially got him elected: Trump’s blizzard of misleading fundraising emails and his refusal to concede is bad for the country, but it’s raking in the money for Trump. This money is funding Trump’s farcical legal challenges of the election results. His ongoing anger is reflected in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, in order to discredit Biden’s legitimacy. This disinformation program is poisoning the soil making it more difficult for Biden to handle the current crises and start to heal the nation’s self-destructive divisions left by Trumpism.

Trump is a narcissist, and narcissists are liars. Narcissism and resentment go together. The usual explanation is that narcissists are resentful because the world doesn’t recognize their brilliance or meet their demands for special privileges. Narcissism is a disorder of the self – a self based on opportunism instead of values. For them life is a game and they play to win, and the lie becomes necessary for their own survival. When we’re involved with a narcissist, cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that keeps many clinging to a narcissistic person like Trump, who has succeeded in creating two camps. There is more to it than the profound effect he has had on the Republican party, but also the long-lasting damage he has inflicted. Like carriers of a virus, narcissistic leaders “infect” the very cultures of their organizations, leading to dramatically lower levels of collaboration and integrity at all levels – even after they are gone.1

1 Mickey Butts. (5 Oct 2020) How narcissistic leaders infect their organizations’ cultures. https://phys.org/news/2020-10-narcissistic-leaders-infect-cultures.html

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An Approach to Tap the Enthusiasm of Progressive Democrats

To drive change it is necessary to tap into into the energy of progressives and bring back convictions that governments have a role to solve social problems and challenge the oligarchies. The progressive movement focuses on many issues including environmental and social justice. These movements tend to be silos. Progressives need to control ideas in order to challenge the political philosophy of the power elite that drive the political debate in Washington. How you label things is more important than how you debate them. Whoever controls the language controls the debate. They must embrace the language of the social determinants of health. The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, that is, their whole life cycle, encompassing not only the social, but also economic, political, environmental, cultural and individual determinants. The social determinants of health concept can help make the links between government policy, the market, and the health and well-being of citizens to surmount the barriers to change.

Individual and community health are determined by a vast array of external conditions and factors that involve housing, education, transportation, social networks and income, to name a few. We now know that these social determinants of health explain why life expectancy and good health improve in some communities and fail to advance in others.  Their impact can even be greater than that of the health care system itself. The consequences of poverty on health are well established and include lower life expectancy, higher disease burden, and poorer overall health. Inequality and inequity are not interchangeable. Inequity is unfair, unavoidable, differences arising from poor governance, corruption, or cultural exclusion. It is the result of human failure giving rise to avoidable deaths and disease. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.

People who suffer from adverse social and material living conditions also experience high levels of physiological and psychological stress. Stressful experiences arise from coping with conditions of low income, poor quality housing, food insecurity, inadequate working conditions, insecure employment, and various forms of discrimination based on disability, gender, or race. Institutional discrimination occurs when resources such as housing, quality, schooling, jobs, criminal justice and other social determinants of health are differently allocated among groups, even when following the explicitly stated “rules of the game.” When this type of discrimination is perceived by the target, it is seen as a major stressful life experience. Whether or not it is perceived by the target, institutional discrimination may trigger additional stressful life experiences, such as unemployment, exposure to poor-quality housing, and environment or stagnated social mobility. The lack of supportive relationships, social isolation, and mistrust of others further increases stress.

What are the policy implications of stress? The focus must be on the source of problems rather than dealing with symptoms. Numerous studies demonstrate that low socio-economic status (SES) individuals have increased stress levels. In addition, it is well known that poverty increases one’s risk for chronic health problems, such as severe depression and other mental illnesses, which hinder success in academics or work. These disorders make it much more difficult for low SES individuals to improve their situation through any form of economic advancement. While it is possible to fulfill the “American dream” and make a better life for oneself, that is not the case for most low SES individuals, especially after they leave school and start supporting a family. Therefore, an effective way to reduce stress and improve health is by improving the living conditions people experience.

The economic elite demand a dressed-up sophisticated economic theory be applied to society regardless of the outcome which has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with power. We now live in a world where those who can afford to spend the most money to have their version of it advertised widely control the debate. There are expectations that Joe Biden, who belongs to the mainstream of the Democratic Party, deliver change. Biden plans to create a public option for health insurance, a New Deal type program to counter the effects of COVID pandemic, as well as raise the minimum wage and invest in green energy. In addition, he supports expansion of tuition-free colleges, and universal preschool access. These would be paid for using money gained back from withdrawing the Trump-era tax cuts. These plans cover a wide swath of issues.

There are soul searching questions why the Democrats lost seats in the House and struggled in the Senate races in the 2020 election. Moderates are blaming the progressives. The real problem, said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was that the party lacked “core competencies” to run campaigns, rather than, the ability of the republicans to create fear in the electorate over taking funds away from police departments and the “socialist” influence on policies by the progressives. Ocasio-Cortez has criticized the Democratic party for incompetence in a no-holds-barred, post-election interview with the New York Times, warning that if the Biden administration does not put progressives in top positions, the party would lose big in the 2022 midterm elections. She sees the need for ideas that keep young voters and minorities engaged in process towards change. The fact of the matter is Democrats need a process to control the level of fear that Republicans can create at election time.

Biden declares to the Black community, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” The impact of structural inequities follows individuals from womb to tomb.” For example, African American women are more likely to give birth to low-birth weight infants, and their newborns face higher infant death rates that are not associated with any biological differences, even for accounting for socio-economic factors. Although the science is still evolving, it is hypothesized that the chronic stress associated with being treated differently by society is responsible for these persistent differential birth outcomes. In elementary school there are persistent differences across racial and ethnic divisions in rates of discipline and levels of reading attainment, rates that are not associated with any difference in intelligence metrics. For many people, the challenges which structural inequities pose limit the scope of opportunities they have for reaching their full potential. It is important to consider how health of communities is dependent on the social determinants of health.

If groups want high-quality decisions with strong support for follow through, and they are willing to invest time to create a proposal or plan, they will benefit from consensus decision-making. Involving all group members in the discussion of issues and making decisions together is a powerful process. Biden needs a process to counter the power struggle between Democratic moderates and progressives. The best tool for him to develop cohesion is to apply the filter of the social determinants of health to structure the dialogue for input on proposals. Social determinants will include discussions on systemic racism, education opportunities, unemployment, and a comprehensive health care plan. Effective consensus building results in decisions that have been thoughtfully deliberated, incorporate diverse experience and views, and may produce the best possible decision given the configuration of interests that have come together for a given purpose.

By the end of the 20th century, individualism, happiness, and capitalism were part of the core values of Western culture. Individualism is the belief that one’s place in the societal hierarchy – their occupational class, income and wealth, and power and prestige as well as the placement such as health and disease status – comes through one’s own efforts, and the right to make free choices which feeds consumer capitalism. The philosophy of individualism promoted by the power elite provides the support within the general population that keeps this system of privilege in place. We need to ban making public policy decisions through the lens of individualism (which oversimplifies complex and multifaceted problems) and switch to filter social and economic policies through the lens of the social determinants of health before they are implemented to ensure they support actions that reduce inequities in the system.

Eating well and exercising are important, but the things that contribute most to our health are how much money we have and our status within our community. By adopting the social determinants of health inequities as the focus of change the Democrats will achieve three important benefits. The first is to take control the dialogue in Washington that is necessary to bring forward new ideas and legislation. The second is to have both the progressives and moderates sing from the same page of the hymn book with a standardized message format on the programs they want to introduce during the next session. This includes developing short term and long-term policies for key domestic issues such as addressing systemic discrimination, accessible health care for all, equitable employment and new green jobs. The third benefit is ongoing development of dialogue around proposals that describe long-term polices that will inform voters in the 2022 mid-term elections.

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Overview of Republican Political Philosophy in the 21st Century

The philosophy of Leo Strauss is known to influence the ideology of the Republican Party. Let’s look at two administrations: George W Bush, 43rd president of the United States (2001–09), led his country’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and initiated the Iraq War in 2003. The other is Donald Trump (2017-2021) whose populist nationalist campaign, which promised to “Make America Great Again”, opposed political correctness, illegal immigration. Both leaders relied on various levels of deception; had similar economic policies: Bush with a $1.3 trillion tax cut and Trump’s tax cut with a 10-year cost at $2.3 trillion. They left a conservative legacy in the courts: Bush nominated two conservative judges to the supreme court, while Trump has appointed three. George W Bush with a flaccid mind and Donald Trump having no moral values guiding him means both leaders were readily steered by neoconservative advisors. On analysis, the ideas of Leo Strauss appear to influence policies of these two presidents.

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a classical political philosopher who read Nietzsche and had considerable influence on the neocons. From 1949 to 1967 Strauss served as a professor in the University of Chicago political science department, and became the source of the inspiration of the neoconservative ideology of the Republican Party. He developed a political philosophy based on deception, the power of religion, and aggressive nationalism. This was a system in which the people are told no more than they need to know as deception is a norm in political life. He recommended the use of religion for the morals of the masses, but not applying to the leaders. If the masses really knew what was going on it would lead to nihilism. The void was to be filled with religious values. Also, Strauss proposed the use of aggressive foreign policy to unite the masses. Strauss admired Machiavelli. It was Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1513, that first laid bare the moral world of politics and the gulf between private conscience and the demands of public action.

The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was a neo-conservative think tank (1997 to 2006) established as a “a non-profit, educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership.” Of the twenty-five people who signed PNAC’s founding statement of principles, ten went on to serve in the administration of U.S. President George W Bush, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. PNAC is noteworthy for its focus on Iraq, a preoccupation that began before Bush became president and predates the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Two of the bureaucrats who put together the package of ‘evidence’ of WMD in Iraq were Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense and Abram Shulsky, Director of the Office of Special Plans – both students of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. This like thinking allowed a group to easily engineer a plan of deception of the American people about the need to invade Iraq.

Paul Wolfowitz out maneuvered the State Department and the CIA to get the Bush administration to set up the Special Plans unit because they were more effective in making their argument. Abram Shulsky (who had roomed with Wolfowitz at Cornell and Chicago) was appointed the Director of Special Plans. Under his direction Special Plans put together the case for weapons of mass destruction creating the need to invade Iraq. In late February 2002, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate reports that the African nation sold uranium to Iraq to reconstitute their nuclear program. He failed to find evidence of any activities related to the purchase of ‘yellowcake’ uranium from Niger by Iraq. President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address claimed that purchases of uranium by Iraq from Niger were immanent creating a public protest by Ambassador Wilson.

In 1995, the Fed began easing monetary policy in order to support the government bailout of the holders of Mexican bonds in response to the Mexican debt crisis. This money drove the Internet bubble of the 1990s. The US banking oligarchy ensured politicians who needed funds for re-election were supportive of activities such as allowing banks to assign their own risk level. Following the collapse of the Internet bubble, a long period of low interest rates was encouraged by the US government to support the ongoing expansion of housing as it became the main driver of the economy. The economic debacle of 2008 followed years of deregulation and manipulation of the banking system to maximize profits. When the economy slowed down the housing bubble burst. In all the countries affected by the Great Recession, recovery was slow and uneven, and the broader social consequences of the downturn saw historically high levels of student debt, and diminished job prospects among young adults.

In Strauss’s view perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them. At the core of the thinking of Straussian neocons is the idea of lying to achieve their goals. Donald Trump won the nomination as the candidate who lied the most, won the presidency as someone known to lie; has an unshakable base despite ongoing lies. Breitbart news beta tested anti-immigration messages that took down Eric Cantor. Breitbart eventually turned to Donald Trump – with Steve Bannon as CEO of Trump’s campaign and Steve Miller as speech writer – to develop the messages of fear that Trump delivered during the 2016 campaign. In 2017 the Mueller investigation examined the role of Breitbart News played in both amplifying stories from Russian media and being amplified by Russian bots in social media. Breitbart was master of the fake news.

Strauss’s critique of liberalism is understood through the crisis of modernity, more specifically he feared modern relativism would surface through America’s liberal traditions. What neoconservatism has inherited from Strauss was a fear of relativism. Strauss’s critique of modernity holds that liberal society fosters moral relativism which, in turn, destroys the moral fabric of society. In turn, neoconservatives viewed the permissive egalitarianism and cultural relativism of the counterculture as a disintegration of values. In turn, Strauss recommends religion to control the masses, but it was not necessary for the leaders. On September 29, 2016 Trump meets with religious right and makes promises that include: ending the contraception mandate of Obamacare, selecting only anti-choice judges, support prayer in school, keeping transgender people from using the “wrong” bathrooms and locker rooms – basically when it came to religious liberty, he would make sure that America was on the right side of God.

Strauss’s fear of relativism casts suspicions on liberalism and he calls for cultural elites to rule – supporting the concept of a ruling elite or new aristocracy.  Donald Trump’s cabinet is selected from the power elite:  Betsy DeVos (secretary of education, $2 billion), Wilbur Ross (commerce, $600 million) and Steven Mnuchin (treasury, $400 million) – who have all been around since February 2017 – make up 95% of that $3.2 billion total. Betsy DeVos (secretary of education, $2 billion), Wilbur Ross (commerce, $600 million) and Steven Mnuchin (treasury, $400 million) – who have all been around since February 2017 – makes up $3 billion in total. The Trump cabinet’s emphasis on tax cuts and deregulation echoes the Reagan era trickledown policies we saw in the 80s [that] hasn’t helped ordinary Americans. The appearance of a bevy of Wall Street insiders in the cabinet harps back to a Gilded Age.

Leo Strauss embraced Machiavelli’s ideas: There are only two types of people in the world –winners and losers. Winners rule, while losers are ruled, or worse yet, lose their lives. Winners possessing the qualities necessary to be a winner are to be emulated and applauded. Losers, characteristically those who believe in a tender-hearted or an idealistic conception of goodness, are plagued by delusions and despicable weakness. Trump sees the world as winners and losers. In 2014 Trumps claims, “What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.” Trump reflects America’s current obsession with “winners” and “losers” and the unfairness in how power is distributed. Most recently, President Trump is acting as if his refusal to accept election defeat is motivated by something deeper than his commitment to his self-manufactured image as a winner.

The fact that both Bush and Trump didn’t win the popular vote on their initial election; and the fact that the last year of their watch coincided with economic debacles could be attributed to happenchance. However, other events suggest that the philosophy of Leo Strauss inspired the policies of the Republican party during the last two decades. Strauss rejects all the elements of political morality we associate with liberal democracy as defended by modern philosophers like Locke or Kant. Strauss claimed: The elite must, in a word, lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them – arguably for their own good. These lies are necessary in order to keep the ignorant masses in line. The Straussian elite see themselves as “the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule.” A combination of lies and religion are used to control the people. Time magazine in 1996 called Strauss “one of the most influential men in American politics.”1

1 Catherine and Michael Zuckert. An Excerpt from: The Truth about Leo Strauss https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/993329.html

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Social Paradox of the Concept of Freedom in the West

Hayek’s view is human cooperation, social order, and economic prosperity are only possible where human freedom is maximized, subject to the constraints of a legal and moral code that demarcate the realms of mine and thine. Freedom of action within the law gives rise to market phenomena such as prices and profits, both of which make the private knowledge of actors socially accessible to others, which in turn generates economic coordination. Julius Evola (1898-1974) claims freedom and equality are tools of manipulation, and after the movement leaders get what they want, they’ll toss you aside. Evola explains, “Practically speaking, it is only a revolutionary weapon: freedom and equality are the catchwords certain social strata or groups employed in order to undermine other classes and to gain preeminence; having achieved this task, they were quickly set aside.” Today the economic elite claim, there is a threat to other freedoms with any reduction to economic freedom (i.e. regulations).

Simmel wisely observes that the concerns and rules around secrets often provide groups with their particular rules and forms, with an etiquette about language and behavior that marks them off from the unknowing. One effect of these secrets is an intensification of individual identity setting off those who know from those who do not know what is hidden. Philip Mirowski’s argument that under neoliberalism markets are understood to be an information processor superior to any human being “meta-information processors” which, partly based on randomness, produce correct “knowledge” about the social good in the form of prices. The paradox is the spread of neoliberalism required substantial state intervention to establish a global ‘free market’. Governments in the West implement a series of tax and financial policies to stimulate a consumer society, while undermining and weakening social safety nets. We have reached a stage in the development of capitalism underpinned by financialization.

William Blake wrote that secrecy is the human dress, and while he clearly meant no compliment, there is no question that secrecy is central to human affairs, at least if one takes the term to include all kinds of concealment. Taking this broad view of secrecy, one finds few sides of social life where things are not hidden. Georg Simmel begins what remains the most searching analysis of secrecy by observing that all social life is founded on exchanging information about what people are, about what we may expect from one another, and about how to manage things. Yet Simmel’s exegesis, first published in 1908, quickly moves from considering candor to considering artifice, from considering information to considering misinformation, and to the related issues of truthfulness and lying, simplicity and adornment, distortion or concealment, in order to gain communicative advantages over others.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) explains to his enthusiastic supporter Antony Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and the writers, with reasoned arguments. It will be their influence on society that will prevail and the politicians will follow.” To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around “the philosophy of freedom.” The conscious strategy of this global think-tank network was to take the idea of individual freedom and minimal government mainstream. Neoliberalism is an economic system that needs a strong state, even at the expense of constraining democracy – rebuffing challenges to austerity and minimal government – to maintain a system of thought and applied political strategy. The state is a central instrument for the advancement of the neoliberal agenda.

Neoliberals insist that they are agents of change. They aim to reform society by subordinating it to the market. Their goal is essentially to erase any distinctions among the state, society and the market. Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that the market delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

A major challenge of the neoliberals is how to maintain their pretense of freedom as non-coercion when, in practice, it seems unlikely that most people would freely choose the neoliberal version of the state. Their answer is to treat politics as if it were a market, and promote an economic theory of democracy while redefining the shape and functions of the state. One of the paradoxes of our age is that we are simultaneously living through a time of positive economic innovation and also a time of the painful erosion of the way of life of many middle-class families. More and more find themselves in an era of insecurity as the safe routines of their life have become undone. Excessive psychosocial stress is associated with the adoption of health threatening coping behaviors. Increased insecurity for low skilled workers is associated with rising mortality rates.

The neoliberal strategy achieves successful upward redistribution. The 1980s marked the start of the declining wage shares in developed countries. There occurred a paradox: real-wage productivity gap resulting in a previously unseen phenomena, the stagnating of the incomes of the middle class. At the same time, as a result of tax decreases inspired by the neoliberal project, the income of the top 10% started to increase dramatically in the UK and the US – the homeland of the neoliberal counter-revolution. The basic paradox is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent that it undermines that very wealth production it relied on. Another paradox is in how neoliberal capitalism creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability. Free market fundamentalists and neoliberals are in total denial of the paradox.

Supported by the proliferation of opaque financial products market, “shadow” institutions have emerged with heightened speculative behavior, and corporate and even household governance increasingly focuses on quick returns from speculation on financial assets, exchange rates, real estate, and mergers and acquisitions, often fueling asset price bubble. With its grip over both corporate governance and policy making, economic “success” has now become disconnected from the making, product investment, raising production, and creating jobs. Household debt boosts consumption and GDP growth in the short run, mostly within one year. In a series of recent papers, Schularick and Taylor (2012) and Jordà et al. demonstrate that high debt levels are not only a good predictor of financial crisis but also a key determinant of the intensity of the ensuing recession.1 The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the greatest bust (at that time) since the Great Depression, is an example of a crisis from debt driven consumption.

Being born in rich countries like Canada and the US with increasing GDP growth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness if it comes with more risk and uncertainty. Financialization creates profit through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production, enriches a select few at the majorities’ expense. Because of the way financial services are measured, GDP data does not measure changes in inequality. The consequence of such dogma: inequality continues to skyrocket ever since the pandemic. In the US, consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP. Real household disposable income, net cash transfers to households, real household consumption expenditure, consumer confidence, households’ savings rate, households’ indebtedness, financial net worth, and labor under-utilization rate are just a few of the indicators that can help provide a better picture of societal progress. Aggregate figures like GDP fails to sum up reality which overlooks the well-being and day-to-day lives of its citizens.

Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights: for the neoliberal it is about the freedom of the market and the elites who control those markets. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. An essential attribute of the good life is that people enjoy not just a range of personal freedoms, but an access to knowledge and a voice in public affairs. When asking searching questions of yourself, realize that freedom resides not in the brain, but in the traditions of critical thought and skeptical reason. Freedom is best exercised as a means to an end, but the end must be one that gives people the choice to make the best possible decisions to reach their full potential.

1 Marco Lombardi, Madhusudan Mohanty and Ilhyock Shim. (Jan 2017) The real effects of household debt in the short and long run https://www.bis.org/publ/work607.pdf

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Social Media Addiction and Its Implications for Your Well-being

Anything that produces pleasure in a person’s brain can lead to addiction. Due to the effect that it has on the brain, social media is addictive both physically and psychologically. According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations. When someone experiences something rewarding, or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement. Microtargeting and other online strategies designed to induce addictive behavior points towards a culture of manipulation in the online environment in which most individuals are unaware of how they are being used.

Since 1856 when cocaine had been isolated from the coca plant, the drug was widely used for its pain-killing properties. The drug found its way into such medicines as children’s tooth-ache remedies and was even prescribed to treat morning sickness. Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly literature’s most famous cocaine user. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes uses cocaine in order to stimulate his brain when he wasn’t applying it to a case. Although his habit was always condemned by Watson, in later stories Holmes himself referred to his hypodermic syringe as an ‘instrument of evil’. Similarly, the recreational use of cocaine fell off sharply at the end of the 19th century as its dangers became apparent. After the Harrison Narcotic Act that identified cocaine as a forbidden substance in 1914, cocaine abuse in America was a rather quiet phenomenon for several decades, with just a few exceptions.

American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton founded Coca-Cola in 1886 with a beverage concoction derived from coca leaves and African kola nuts. Coca-Cola – at first sold only at racially segregated soda fountains – became popular among the white middle-classes. It is advertised to alleviate exhaustion: “you will be surprised how easily it will restore the tired brain, sooth the rattled nerves and restore wasted energy to body and mind.” In 1899, Coca-Cola began selling its drink in bottles. The lower classes and minorities now had access to the cocaine-infused tonic. The company removed cocaine from its products in 1903, and two years later started adding caffeine. While caffeine produces a small rise in dopamine, it does not cause the large surge that unbalances the reward circuits in the brain that is necessary for an addiction. So even though the word “addiction” is often used casually, caffeine is not addictive (scientifically speaking).1

Crack cocaine – a crystallized form of cocaine – became popular in the 1980s. According to the U.S.  Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the price of illegal cocaine dropped by as much as 80 percent during the late 1970s as a glut of the white powder flooded the U.S. market. Dealers looking for new ways to sell their products turned to crack. The name “crack” is derived from the crackling sound this form of cocaine makes when burned. Crack could be produced by dissolving powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia and boiling it down until a solid formed. Broken into smaller chunks, or “rocks,” this solid form could be smoked. Crack has a modified chemical structure which allows it to reach the brain more quickly and produce a more intense high, allowing crack to have a greater potential for addiction.

When cocaine reappeared in the 1970s it was touted as the champagne of drugs because it was expensive, high status, and said to have no serious consequences. Crack cocaine was popularized because of its affordability, its immediate euphoric effect, and its high profitability. Crack usage began to surge in the 1980s. Around the same time, crime in some major cities spiked – political tensions erupted as the nation entered a so-called “crack epidemic.” This leads to the War on Drugs, with unintended consequences. For example, the same minimum penalty of five years was given for 1 gram of crack cocaine as for 100 grams of powdered cocaine. Where cocaine was expensive to purchase, crack could be bought at affordable prices and became prevalent in working class and poorer neighborhoods.  Opponents argued the law was racist, since crack users were more likely to be African American.

A study at Michigan State University found that people who report using social media a lot tend to struggle with decision-making. Because this type of deficit in decision-making skills often goes hand-in-hand with drug addiction as well as a gambling addiction, the researchers likened the results of excessive social media use to aspects of an addiction. Aside from the obvious anxiety and nervousness that being away from social media can cause some people, there are some other telltale signs that they may have an addiction to social media. These include everything from isolating themselves from others, losing interest in activities they once found enjoyable, and getting agitated, angry, or anxious when they are unable to check social media. According to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, social media can adapt to limit its addictive effects – unlike other habit-forming outlets. This comment suggests the way platforms present information to users may change to stave off addictive behaviors and encourage people to engage without fear of forming dependency.

The phenomena of social media addiction can largely be attributed to the dopamine-inducing social environments that social networking sites provide. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible. Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites have affected the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine. When an individual gets a notification, such as a like or mention, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways, causing him or her to feel pleasure. Social media provides an endless amount of immediate rewards in the form of attention from others for relatively minimal effort. Therefore, the brain rewires itself through this positive reinforcement, making people desire likes, retweets, and emotional reactions.2

Scientists have discovered that most people who use social media end up comparing themselves to the lives of everyone they know. Platforms like Facebook can have a negative effect on mood. Users report feeling like they’ve wasted time spending hours of socially scrolling. Updates from friends and influencers can also leave people feeling jealous and unfulfilled. These emotions are unhealthy, and they are something our newfound awareness of mental health has allowed us to identify. In an attempt to look after themselves, many people are now turning to the social or digital detox. A recent survey of social media users discovered 24.4% of individuals had deleted their social accounts. However, over 30% of respondents had removed social media applications without actually deleting their profiles. This 30% don’t want to remove themselves from the social scene totally. They are instead detoxing – in other words, taking a break.

Researchers have called for adaptive regulatory frameworks that can limit information extraction from and modulation of someone’s mind using experimental neurotechnologies. Social computing shows that you don’t necessarily have to read people’s brains to influence their choices. It is sufficient to collect and mine the data they regularly – and often unwittingly – share online. Therefore, we need to consider setting for the digital space a firm threshold for cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty highlights the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses. The EU data protection authority has underscored if recklessly applied to the electoral domain, these activities could even change or reduce “the space for debate and interchange of ideas,” a risk which “urgently requires a democratic debate on the use and exploitation of data for political campaign and decision-making.”3

The idea of the human mind as the domain of absolute protection from external intrusion has persisted for centuries, but is now under attack. Most of the current online ecosystem strategies are designed to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate. What is the response? On personal level social media is engineered to be addictive, but that doesn’t mean it makes you happy. Research shows it can actually make you feel sad, depressed, and isolated, so limiting your social media use can pay dividends in terms of mental health as well as improving productivity and relationships. However, the power elite still target users with customized digital ads and other manipulative information to purposively swing election campaigns around the world. It is necessary to protect our cognitive liberty from psychological manipulation – social influence that aims to change our behavior or perception through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics. Big data analytics needs to be managed and controlled similarly to drugs with harmful health effects.

1 History: The Origins of Coca https://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/coca/history.html

2 Jena Hilliard Social Media Addiction https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/

 3 Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena (30 Mar 2018) Cambridge Analytica and Online Manipulation. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/cambridge-analytica-and-online-manipulation/

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