The Mentality of the Rich

As socioeconomic and political inequality continues to rise in this country, it seems that our society is increasingly being split along two very different realities. Indeed, the rich and poor seem to live on different worlds – literally.

Aside from life experiences that are poles apart, America’s various economic classes are less and less exposed to one another personally (a worrying trend I’ve discussed before). All this manifests through the pervasive psychological and ideological divide that we see across the public sphere, from our media to our political discourse.

It’s also apparent in the arguments made by the very wealthy, and their supporters, in defense of their fortunes and the widening income gap. Critics of inequality, as well as the lower classes as a whole, are accused of not working hard enough themselves, being too envious of other’s success, or even displaying ingratitude for the contributions of upper class.

In fact, anyone who has a problem with the current socioeconomic status quo is considered, implicitly or otherwise, “un-American” (a malleable pejorative if there ever was one).

It’s un-American to worry about inequality or demand a fairer economic system because such concerns defy this nation’s deeply-held values of hard work, individual accountability, and economic liberty. The non-wealthy simply aren’t not tapping into the equalizing opportunities afforded by our presumably free-market. Rather, they want to impose a European-style welfare state, yet another affront to our superior – nay, exceptional – way of doing things.

To be fair, there are plenty of nuances on both sides of this debate. Lest anyone think I’m oversimplifying things or being unfair, let me make it clear that I’m merely focusing on a particular segment of society – obviously, not all wealthy people think this way, nor are all their critics sensible advocates of social justice. So for any rich folks reading this, rest assured, I don’t think you’re a monster by virtue of being financially fortunate, and I’m not rallying an angry mob to take your property.

In any case, I’m wrapping up this post earlier than expected due to a lack of time and energy. I will, however, leave you with a wonderful article from, of all places, Cracked.com (which I’ve recommended before as a pretty good source for knowledge, despite its humorous tone and appearance).

The piece, titled “Six Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying” by David Wong, pretty much analyzes and rebuts some of the prevailing arguments I alluded to earlier. I think the writer makes some valid points, as it even gets into the often overlooked psychological dimension of this whole issue. Please share your own views on this, whatever your socioeconomic class.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part II

In my previous installment – which you could find here - I gave an introduction to Poland’s performance at the start of the World War II, particularly by dispelling some pervasive myths about their martial ability. This section will explore what happened once the Poles fell. It’s unfortunate that occupied countries are treated as having passively absorbed in the Nazi empire, even though many continued the fight as intensively as any independent nation – with Poland at the forefront.

Protecting the Jews
Jews have a long and rich history in Poland, which until World War II probably hosted the largest Jewish population in the world, at 3 million. While anti-Semitism existed among the Polish people, as it did nearly everywhere, it wasn’t as bad as elsewhere in the world (indeed, throughout history the Poles were markedly tolerant by European standards, which are why their Jewish population was so large to begin with). But in any case, the Holocaust became a grim test of Polish attitudes towards its Jewry.

Numerous Poles risked their lives to save their Jewry. This was despite the fact that Germany imposed uniquely harsh laws against granting any sort of aid to any Jew: an entire family would be killed if just one member was caught doing so much as giving bread or water to a Jew on the street. It’s believed that tens of thousands of Poles lost their lives for this reason.

Indeed, Poland was unique among occupied countries in that it established a formal organization specifically aimed to help the Jewish people: Żegota, or “Council for Aid to Jews.” The group was politically and financially supported by the Government-in-Exile, and among its many activities, it provided shelter, food, medicine, money, and false documents for Jews across the country. The most well-known example is that of Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children with the help of Polish families.

Individual Poles also did their part, and there are innumerable stories of their bravery and sacrifice. In fact, most Polish Jews were saved by people unconnected to any formal organization like Zegota; the number of those saved could range from 40,000 to 120,000. Of all those recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations (an award given by the State of Israel to Gentiles who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust), Poles made up the largest number by a considerable margin: so far, 6,266 Polish men and women have been given the award, representing 25% of all recipients (the number is still high even when adjusting for population).

The Polish Resistance
We have a tendency to see wars as ending the moment a country capitulates or is occupied. Despite centuries of military history giving lie to this seemingly intuitive assumption, it remains a misconception to this day (consider the recent examples of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars).

But many wars are arguably decided by the response of “defeated” states, which often chip away at the manpower, supplies, and political will of their victorious occupiers. Many a successful ruler has swept through nation after nation, only to see their subsequent empire fall apart shortly after. Nazi Germany was no exception.

Most Americans know only of the French Resistance, which has become an iconic example of insurgency against Nazi forces. However, every occupied state had a resistance movement of some kind, and many of the largest and most effective– not only Poland’s, but also Yugoslavia’s and the Soviet Union’s – are forgotten about.

As I discussed before, the Polish Resistance Movement was probably the largest and most sophisticated of it’s time, helped by the fact that it was often led (albeit nonexclusively) by a well-organized underground state. It also included a full-fledged army, the Armia Krajowa (abbreviated AK), which numbered some 400,000 soldiers at its peak, not including many more sympathizers and irregulars. The AK functioned like any military force, AK coordinating its operations with the Polish Government in Exile.

Originally, its main focus was on sabotage, tactical diversion, and intelligence gathering. Even during this time, however, it carried out thousands of raids and bombings, initiated spying rings, and clashed with German police and military. Close to 7,000 supply trains were damaged, over 4,000 army vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of military equipment being built by Polish laborers were purposefully constructed with defects. In also provided intelligence and advance warning to the Soviets ahead of the Nazi invasion of 1941.

In 1943, it AK lead a nationwide uprising known as Operation Tempest, which included the famous Warsaw Uprising I discussed before. Though it was viciously quelled, the fighting continued until the very end of the war: German losses to the AK and other Polish partisans began to average 850 to 1,750 every month, and even early on the resistance would claim a few hundred occupiers per month.

As a result, the Third Reich had to devote a substantial part of its military forces to keep Poland under control, draining its resources from elsewhere (which was part of the Polish resistance’s objectives). Even at its lowest point, during the first month of occupation, the Nazis maintained a total of 630,000 soldiers, police officers, and SS units in the country; towards the end of the war, this force had grown to over 1 million.

The Global Decline in Crime

Good news is hard to come by these days, especially on the socioeconomic front. Declining education standards, growing inequality, increasing political apathy and cynicism – it seems everything is going wrong in our society, except for at least one auspiciously absent source of dismay: criminality.

A widespread sentiment in this modern age is that crime is worse than ever and morality is in steep decline (to which I’d ask, when hasn’t that been true?). In any case, this could only be expected to worsen in light of the worst recession in seventy years. With all the other social dysfunctions taken into account, delinquency and criminality should be at an all time.

But all the relevant data surprisingly suggests otherwise. Foreign Policy reports:

For all the grim news about the economy and jobs over the last few years, one indicator of the quality of life in the United States has stubbornly continued to improve. The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggests crime rates went on falling through the first half of 2011, recession be damned. In 1991, the overall national violent crime rate reported by the FBI was 758 cases per 100,000 inhabitants; by 2010, that had dropped to 404 per 100,000. The murder and “non-negligent homicide” rate dropped by more than half over the same period. You wouldn’t know it from watching television — beyond the continuing conviction that “if it bleeds it leads” on local news, the number of violent acts on prime-time TV shows climbs ever-upward. But that rise in fake violence may have played some role in the real-life trend heading squarely the other way.

But what about the rest of the world, much of which is impoverished and politically unstable?

The United States isn’t alone in a trend towards people just getting along better — it’s a global phenomenon. In 2001, homicide killed more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (an estimated 557,000 people versus total war deaths of around 208,000). But just as in the United States, violent crime rates have been falling across a large part of the planet. The data is patchy, but in 2002, about 332,000 homicides from 94 countries around the globe were reported to the United Nations. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. And between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26.

Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. (Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that — a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.)

The global picture of the last few years, along with the historical picture covering the West over the last 800 years, both suggest that there isn’t just a constant proportion of bad people out there who will commit a crime unless you lock them up before they do it. And there’s a lot more evidence that whatever is behind declining violence it isn’t the number behind bars — or, indeed, the length of sentencing or the number of cops on the street.

Of course, you have to wonder how many crimes actually get reported in the first place. And even then, it’s important to consider whether the reporting standards of some countries are up to par. In many parts of the world, the police aren’t seen as trustworthy or competent enough to contact in the event of a crime.

Still, this data is all we have to go by, and if we can safely assume that crime is indeed going down (especially in those countries with trustworthy data), then what’s the cause? How is it that all these social, economic, and political problems haven’t eroded human behavior?

It is true that a Pew Center report suggests that as U.S. crime rates were declining, the national prison population increased from 585,000 to 1.6 million between 1987 and 2007. But the rest of the world hasn’t followed the United States down the path towards mass incarceration, and yet has still seen declining violence. The U.N. crime trends survey suggests that homicides fell in Britain by 29 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone, for example. And yet the incarceration rate in Britain was one-fifth as high as the United States, according to the Pew report. Again, within the United States, one of the places with the most dramatic drops in violent crime is New York City — the homicide rate is 80 percent down from 1990. But while the rest of the country was locking up ever more people, New York City’s incarceration rate fell by 28 percent over the last two decades.

What about harsh punishment? Statistics from MIT psychologist Stephen Pinker’s new book on global trends in violence show the United States used to execute more than 100 times the amount of people in the 1600s as it does today — and yet violence rates then were far higher than today. Think Clint Eastwood’s western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Despite all of the authorized hangings, there was still a lot of unofficial shooting. More broadly, the number of countries using the death penalty has declined worldwide — along with violent crime rates.

In a survey asking “What Do Economists Know About Crime” for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Angela Dills, Jeffrey Miron, and Garrett Summers conclude “economists know little.” They suggest that it isn’t just incarceration or the death penalty — any link between lower crime and the number of police, higher arrest rates, and the stock of guns (whether more or less of them) is weak. Studies from Latin America have echoed that longer sentences are not linked to lower crime rates — although a higher probability of being caught may be related to less violence in the region.

At the same time, for those convinced that crime is a product of poverty and inequality, the recent trends for New York and the nation as a whole also pose a challenge: For all the growing estates of the plutocrats in Wall Street, neither growing inequality nor rising unemployment has reversed the downward path of crime. Similarly, Latin American evidence suggests that while rising inequality might be linked to increased violence in the region, average incomes are not — richer countries are no safer than poorer ones, all else equal.

What about drugs, then? Interestingly, the NBER survey notes that drug enforcement might increase crime. The authors suggest that “If government forces a market underground, participants substitute violence for other dispute-resolution mechanisms,” — i.e., if they can’t go to court to settle their dispute over who gets which street corner, rival drug gangs will shoot each other instead.

As counterintuitive as it seems neither harsher punishment nor strong law enforcement necessarily reduces crime. Not even the death penalty or the availability of guns has any appreciable influence. At best these factors will have no effect, and at worst they will only make things worse. This is especially true of the war on drugs, which is a major contributor to our high incarceration rate:

New York’s experience suggests that it is possible to reduce the violence associated with drugs by taking those disputes off of the street. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that one important factor behind the decline in homicide in New York was shutting down open-air drug markets. It didn’t slow sales, but it did eliminate 90 percent of drug-related killings over turf conflicts. Echoing the recent pattern in New York City, Eisner suggests that the long-term historical decline in Western homicide rates as a whole is associated with “a drop in male-to-male conflicts in public space.”

Given that decades of hardening our stance against crime has accomplished little, we could certainly use more innovative approaches like the one highlighted above. But even then, crime has been reduced across a variety of cities and regions that haven’t taken these effective approaches. So what gives? What’s ultimately causing crime to go down?

Over the sweep of centuries, Eisner suggests that cultural change — from “knightly warrior societies” to “pacified court societies” — is an important factor. So are we just getting more civilized, then? Indeed, the decline in violence coincides with global evidence of converging attitudes towards greater toleration. For example, the proportion of people worldwide who say they wouldn’t want to have a neighbor of a different religion dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s. Turn on the television and you’d be sure to think that political dialogue is getting more rancid by day. And it might be, but people’s attitudes are actually becoming more pacific and tolerant.

Most socio-cultural trends are relative – yes intolerance and bigotry remain problematic, especially in some parts of the world. But it’s not as bad as it once was, nor does it lead to as much violence (if at all). Politics will always be dirty, but there’s no comparing the progressiveness of today’s average government and legal system with historical predecessors. On the whole, people are better educated, better governed, and more prosperous they their ancestors (even if improvements in these areas seem to be stagnating or declining).

But its gets more interesting:

Cultural factors are important, then. But before you rush to deride the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court for their lackadaisical attitude to violence on television, note that the trend towards more — and more graphic — violence on TV doesn’t quite sync with the pattern of crime rates. A culture of violence and violence in popular culture are two very different things. In fact, one more element of cultural change that may behind declining violence is the substitution of fantasy violence for the real thing. French historian Robert Muchembeld argues in his book, History of Violence, that crime fiction and novels about war have given young men a way to indulge in violent fantasies without actually going out and stabbing someone. Or, over the last few years, they could stab someone playing Grand Theft Auto rather than stab someone while actually committing grand theft auto. This is the blood-and-gore version of the argument that more pornography leads to lower sexual violence.

There might be something to it. While exposing kids to the latest cadaver on CSI – or to Jack Bauer’s lessons in successful torture on 24 – is probably a bad idea, watching an action movie might in fact reduce violence among adults. A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that violent crime rates actually dropped when a blood-splattered blockbuster was in the cinema in the United States. The authors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna looked at data from 1995 to 2004 and concluded that violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend in the United States.

Perhaps humanity will never completely abandon its lust for blood. But it appears that lust can in fact be sated using fake blood wielded by Hollywood special-effects technicians. And outside the theater, people respond to behavioral cues — if their friends don’t stab people to win an argument, they are less likely to do it themselves. They also respond to institutional cues — if they can use the courts to settle a dispute or address a wrong, they’re less likely to resort to blood feuds. All of which suggests the hope that, in years to come, there will be a lot more deaths on TV and movie screens than in the real world.

So there you have it. Our culture, from its values to its entertainment, has had mitigating effect on delinquency and immorality. Of course it’s more nuanced than that: our society also encourages a lot of consumerism and greed, while the public sphere is increasingly dominated by vitriol and partisanship. But again, it’s all relative, and today’s sociopolitical milieu is nowhere near as bad as it once was.

This doesn’t mean we should be complacent, given that cultures and society can always worsen or regress. But we should acknowledge that for all the problems we face, we’re improving in a lot of areas. We need to keep cultivating these sorts of principles so that more generations across the world can be positively influenced.

There’s also one grim fact to keep in mind: while global homicide rates have been decreasing precipitously, the number of suicides has climbed – more people kill themselves then are killed by others. And keep in mind that suicide tends to go underreported for religious and cultural reasons, so the margin between self-inflicted and interpersonal death may be even higher.

So as our societies move away from external conflicts with one another, we seem to be facing internalized struggles in their place. As I said, progress is always a nuanced thing.

Olivia Prenpaze

I recently saw one of the saddest and most impactful videos in some time: a young woman named Olivia Prenpaze made a courageous confession about a very difficult secret: multiple suicide attempts due to a myriad of personal and psychological problems, ranging from bullying and depression, to psychosis and anorexia. She also tried to reassure others that they can fight through their own demons and that they must never bully or harm another person.

Unfortunately, she ended up taking her own life not long after the video was posted a couple of months ago.

It pains me to imagine that such a brave and wonderful person is forever gone from this world. I would have liked to have known her, and maybe to have at least tried to help her. I wish so badly that I could save people like this. It saddens me that there are millions of people like her who die and suffer every year, even as I write this, for reasons beyond their control – reasons they did not deserve.

She didn’t ask to be born with a cruel range of mental illnesses that took their toll on her wellbeing. She was a victim of random chance, of a mind whose innate suffering was made worse by the negligence and outright cruelty of the society around her. I can’t imagine being born into a life where I must struggle against my own mind on a daily basis, to say nothing of external forces.

It was a testament to her strength that she pulled through for as long as she did, all the while maintaining an impenetrable façade of happiness. Even the most beautiful and happy people can be suffering immensely underneath.

If anyone reading this ever needs help, I’m here. I don’t care who you are or what the problem is, don’t hesitate to message me. I’ll do everything I can to help you. I wish I could make all this tragedy stop, but I’ll be satisfied if I can save at least one life. That’s as precious as they come.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Based on this metric, the drug war is clearly insane, as this Foreign Policy article notes:

As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portionof the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine — that’s about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense — that’s more than ten times the figure in 1980.

As a result, the United States is spending about $40 billion per year on the war on drugs — with three quarters of that expenditure on apprehending and punishing dealers and users. All of those police out there slapping cuffs on folks found with a baggie of Purple Kush aren’t watching for drunk drivers or burglars. And drug enforcement is more closely linked with violent crime than drug use. Meanwhile, the cost of lost productivity from jailed citizens is around $39 billion per year. Such sums are considerably higher than the costs of ill-health associated with drug use, suggesting in strict economic terms at least that it isn’t drugs — but drug control policy — that is the problem. Add in the social effects of mass incarceration (from rape to split families to unemployment to poverty) and the uncertain benefits of the war on drugs become dwarfed by the known costs.

Harsh enforcement hasn’t failed as a policy only in the United States, of course. Across countries, analysis by World Bank economists Philip Keefer, Norman Loayaza, and Rodrigo Soares suggests that drug prosecution rates or the number of police in a country has no effect on drug prices.

Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs — programs that include needle exchange programs and medication — see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.

Obviously, no policy is perfect. But decriminalization or even outright legalization appears to be the lesser of two evils, but a considerable margin.

Meanwhile, popular attitudes towards drug policy in the United States are finally shifting. For the first time since Gallup started asking the question, the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legal. And the country already has what might be called a more nuanced approach to other addictive drugs. The U.S. government is happy to conclude trade agreements that actuallyencourage smoking around the world, for example. And the United States is willing to bear the domestic health costs of tobacco and alcohol use that kill 30 times as many people a year as do illegal drugs. Yes, policies towards cocaine or heroin should be far more constraining than those towards cigarettes or beer, but the rationale for such a completely different approach to one set of substances than the other is threadbare.

Nobody should underestimate the appalling toll of drug addiction — it ends many lives and ruins many more. Of the 250 million drug users worldwide, the United Nations estimates around 25 million are dependent. The question is, does the current approach towards drug policy work to reduce that toll? And what are the spillover effects of America and Europe’s hard line on drugs to other countries? The evidence suggests the policy has failed and that the spillover effects are considerable.

Indeed, given the horrific costs we’ve suffered for the past 40 years, to no avail, isn’t it about time we change things up a bit? We literally can’t afford not to – and I say that as someone who’s never really touched alcohol or tobacco, let alone drugs (nothing personal, I just don’t care for any of the stuff).

Iceland’s People Snub Bankers and Politicians

Since the global financial crisis began, it seems that average people across the world have been disproportionately left to deal with the consequences. We must foot the bill for the recklessness and greed of financiers and bankers, who’ve faced little justice or accountability thanks to the incompetence or outright collusion of public officials (whose corruptible nature allowed this mess to transpire in the first place).

To add insult to injury, international financial institutions and foreign investors are pressuring governments, especially in Europe, to impose a form austerity that’s only added more pain while at the same time counter-productively weakening their economies (it’s hard to grow economically if people are paying higher taxes and struggling with cuts in services and wages).

All in all, it seems we’re powerless in resisting the suffering that is being placed upon us due to the actions of a few individuals. But one little country that rarely merits much international attention is bucking the trend in a remarkable way: the people of Iceland have rejected these pressures of forces far larger than themselves. From the truthdig.com article “Why Iceland Should Be in the News, But is Not”:

Five years of a pure neo-liberal regime had made Iceland, (population 320 thousand, no army), one of the richest countries in the world. In 2003 all the country’s banks were privatized, and in an effort to attract foreign investors, they offered on-line banking whose minimal costs allowed them to offer relatively high rates of return. The accounts, called IceSave, attracted many English and Dutch small investors.  But as investments grew, so did the banks’ foreign debt.  In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in 2007, it was 900 percent.  The 2008 world financial crisis was the coup de grace. The three main Icelandic banks, Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir, went belly up and were nationalized, while the Kroner lost 85% of its value with respect to the Euro.  At the end of the year Iceland declared bankruptcy.

Indeed, Iceland was one of the countries that was most affected by the global recession. Given their country’s tiny size and lack of international political clout, it seemed unlikely that Icelanders could do much about the hand that was dealt to them.

Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister of a Social Democratic coalition government, negotiated a two million one hundred thousand dollar loan, to which the Nordic countries added another two and a half million. But the foreign financial community pressured Iceland to impose drastic measures.  The FMI and the European Union wanted to take over its debt, claiming this was the only way for the country to pay back Holland and Great Britain, who had promised to reimburse their citizens.

Protests and riots continued, eventually forcing the government to resign. Elections were brought forward to April 2009, resulting in a left-wing coalition which condemned the neoliberal economic system, but immediately gave in to its demands that Iceland pay off a total of three and a half million Euros. This required each Icelandic citizen to pay 100 Euros a month (or about $130) for fifteen years, at 5.5% interest, to pay off a debt incurred by private parties vis a vis other private parties. It was the straw that broke the reindeer’s back.

Sound familiar? The people fuss, demonstrate, and vote out those responsible, but little else changes. The masses subsequently become more cynical and everything remains business as usual, as people go about their lives and accept their fate. But the people of Iceland wouldn’t be so complacent.

What happened next was extraordinary. The belief that citizens had to pay for the mistakes of a financial monopoly, that an entire nation must be taxed to pay off private debts was shattered, transforming the relationship between citizens and their political institutions and eventually driving Iceland’s leaders to the side of their constituents. The Head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to ratify the law that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for its bankers’ debts, and accepted calls for a referendum.

Of course the international community only increased the pressure on Iceland. Great Britain and Holland threatened dire reprisals that would isolate the country.  As Icelanders went to vote, foreign bankers threatened to block any aid from the IMF.  The British government threatened to freeze Icelander savings and checking accounts. As Grimsson said: “We were told that if we refused the international community’s conditions, we would become the Cuba of the North.  But if we had accepted, we would have become the Haiti of the North.” (How many times have I written that when Cubans see the dire state of their neighbor, Haiti, they count themselves lucky.)

In the March 2010 referendum, 93% voted against repayment of the debt.  The IMF immediately froze its loan.  But the revolution (though not televised in the United States), would not be intimidated. With the support of a furious citizenry, the government launched civil and penal investigations into those responsible for the financial crisis.  Interpol put out an international arrest warrant for the ex-president of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, as the other bankers implicated in the crash fled the country.

But Icelanders weren’t content with just snubbing these demands. They knew that they’d have to change the system to ensure that this sort of thing would never happen again. A good crisis should never go to waste: when a systemic problem like this occurs, it won’t suffice to merely address it and go back to how things were. You have change the underlying structures that lead to it in the first place. So that end…

…they decided to draft a new constitution that would free the country from the exaggerated power of international finance and virtual money. (The one in use had been written when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark, in 1918, the only difference with the Danish constitution being that the word ‘president’ replaced the word ‘king’.)

To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that eventually emerges from this participatory democratic process will be submitted to parliament for approval after the next elections.

The article I’ve linked to is a bit old, as the elections already occurred, with far little change or fanfare as might be expected (you can read about it onSingularity Hub). Pretty admirable stuff. Who wouldn’t want a resolution like this? Of course, no system is perfect, and this solution is hardly without flaws. But as the SH article rightly points out:

The lessons we are to learn from Iceland’s new constitution, then, are a mixed bag. It’s absolutely amazing that an entire structure of government was made with help from social media and in total view of the world. Anyone from Reykjavík to Rio de Janeiro could watch and even give input to how Iceland should be governed. But that didn’t guarantee widespread public support nor even success. The new constitution is 700+ pages of ideals that may or may not be ratified come October, and whose ultimate benefit to Iceland is uncertain. Crowd-sourcing a constitution was a remarkably ballsy move, but it will take years before we know if it was a smart one.

1000 points to Iceland for being progressive, daring, and crazy enough to undergo this revolutionary approach to government formation. 1,000,000,000 points to whoever can find a way to learn from this example and successfully leverage the power of social media to truly make the world a better place to live.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Obviously, Iceland is very different from the US, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take some lessons from it. It’s a shame, though not surprising, that this has received so little attention amidst all the doom, goom, and injustice of the continuing economic crisis.

Color Ink on Water

The following are high-Speed photographs of color ink on water, by Alberto Emiliano Seveso.

There is so much beauty in this world, even in the most mundane things. Who would imagine that some ink blots in water could be this awe-inspiring? We just have to know where to look.

One of the Best Feelings in the World

That moment when you discover something new and enriching to your life: beautiful music, a delicious flavor, new sights, a companion. Arguably, life is all about experience: our existence is just a compilation of all the things we’ve seen, done, and learned. The fragile and finite nature of time on Earth means we should savor everything while we can. Curiosity is one of our greatest gifts. Embrace the world. Make the most of it. Do what you can, while you ca

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part I

It’s a shame that Poland gets such short thrift in most studies of World War II. It is chiefly remembered as the first country to fall to Nazi Germany, thereafter remaining a footnote in history, except maybe for some references to the main death camps being based there (including the infamous Auschwitz and Treblinka).Poland was just another conquered state, one whose subsequent defeat, like France’s, has often led to jokes about Polish military prowess.

Not only is this ignorance unfortunate in its own right, but it’s all the more tragic considering that few people were as instrumental and courageous in the fight against the Nazis than the Poles, who consequently suffered the most of almost any other nation. Despite being the first to go down, they managed to keep the fight going for the remainder of the war, remaining a constant and vital drain on Nazi forces. And for all this, they’re given little attention or credit.

I’ve tried to raise awareness of this issue before, such as in my previous post about the Warsaw Uprising. While I’ll be overlapping a little bit with that one, my focus will encompass all ofPoland’s contributions, from their remarkable fighting prowess as the Free Polish Forces, to their exceptional assistance to their Jewish population. I hope I can do justice to the Poles and make at least a few people aware of their untold sacrifice. I’ll begin with the first of four posts:

The Invasion of Poland: Myths and Misconceptions
This event is remembered only for having kicked off World War II. After only a month of fighting,Poland was defeated, and attention immediately shifts toFrance, theUK, and the westward expansion of the Third Reich. Any analysis of this battle or the Polish response thereafter, is pretty much mute.

Yet closer inspection of the campaign revealed that Poles hardly went down easy. They put up a valiant fight, which was all the more remarkable considering that they were only an independent state for two decades. Unfortunately, what little anyone knows about this battle is rife with misconceptions, many of them downright offensive. Here are the most prevalent ones that I’ll debunk:

The famous Blitzkrieg strategy was first used in Poland.
This is the most widespread myth, with almost every introduction to the Battle of Poland claiming the German blitzkrieg tactics are what won the conflict so quickly. As it turns out, though, the Germans were using an older and less innovative strategy throughout the Polish campaign, known as the Vernichtungsgedanke. This doctrine originated in Prussia under Frederick the Great, and was used no differently than in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 or World War I. Tanks, planes, and other armored vehicles were not used to maximum effect, and overall did not partake in the sort of shock and speed maneuvers that are commonly claimed (if anything, it was actually the underestimated German artillery that used to great effect).

The Polish Army fought German tanks with horse-mounted cavalry wielding lances and swords.
I remember actually being taught cruel myth in my high school European History course (needless to say, the entire class thought that the Poles were pretty foolish; no wonder they lost!). Now, it is true that 10% of the Polish army was made up of cavalry units (though many would think it was higher, given the stereotypes). However, other armies at the time, including those ofGermanyand theSoviet Union, also fielded and utilized horse-mounted units. They usually served as mobile infantry and reconnaissance, and charged only in very rare situations against foot soldiers: Polish cavalry never charged German tanks, artillery, or fortified infantry. They were equipped with anti-tank rifles and artillery guns, and were actually more effective than mechanized vehicles when traveling in some forms of terrain (indeed, the Soviets used them to great effect against the Germans when they were invaded; the post-winter slush had bogged down tanks and trucks, while the horses traversed just fine).

The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war.
The Polish Air Force was actually somewhat decent for it’s time, and Polandhad developed some pretty advanced fighters. Shortly before the war, most planes were moved to small, camouflaged airfields that kept most of them safe; only a few trainer and auxiliary aircraft destroyed on the ground. Though significantly outnumbered and outmatched by more advanced aircraft of the Luftwaff. The air force was active until halfway into the conflict, managing to inflict significant damage its German counterpart: the enemy directly lost 285 aircraft (with an additional 279 damaged beyond repair), compared to Polish losses of 333 – hardly an overwhelming victory.

Poland offered little resistance and surrendered quickly.
This is perhaps the most regrettable misconception, one that isn’t helped by the fact that the fighting last “only” one month. However,Germanyhad actually sustained very heavy losses initially, including an entire armored division, thousands of soldiers, and 25% of its air strength. By the battle’s end, German losses included around 16,000 killed, 28,000 wounded, and 30% of their armored vehicles lost. Polish casualties were heavier, at around 66,000 dead and 694,000 captured, but it should be noted that their forces were technologically and numerically inferior.

Furthermore, most people forget that poor Polandwas faced with a two front war: Stalin and Hitler had signed a signed a pact just one week before the war, which included a secret provision to divide the defeated territory between themselves. When the Nazis invaded from the west, so did the Soviets two weeks later, from the east. The Poles obviously didn’t anticipate this, and they had to cancel plans that would’ve called for a more effective defensive maneuver against the Germans to prolong the fight.  Who knows what would have happened if the accord with Hitler hadn’t been signed. Though the Soviets came to be instrumental in our victory against the Axis, they ironically started off as near-allies to the Nazis, helping to facilitate the rise of the Third Reich.

As for the presumably short duration of the Polish Campaign, note that it lasted only about one week less than the Battle of France a year later, even though French forces, along with the British ones that joined them, were much more equivalent to the German invaders in terms of numbers and technology.

Also, Poland never offered an official or general surrender to the Germans. In fact, not only was it one of the few defeated states never to sign surrender terms, it never formed a collaborationist government either: afterPoland had been overrun, a government-in-exile was established inLondon, along with full-fledged armed forces and an intelligence service (more on those later). These remained the representatives of the Polish people throughout the war. That is whyPoland was, uniquely, administered directly by the Germans – there weren’t enough people willing to work with them.

Moreover, under German occupation, Polandformed the Polish Underground State, which not only fielded one of the three largest resistance forces in the war, but was a rare example of a functioning, underground government, something that didn’t occur in other occupied states. The Polish army continued to fight throughout the war as the Armia Krajowa (“Home Army”) and the Leśni (“forest partisans”). The Polish resistance movement in World War II, which included both these forces and numerous other insurgent groups, was one of the largest and most successful resistance movements in all of occupied Europe (more on them later as well).

Stay tuned for my next two (or three) installments in this series, where we’ll explore the nature of the Polish resistances, and the contributions of Poland’s “Free Forces” on both the western and eastern fronts.

Salyut 1

On this day in 1971, Soviet Russia launched the world’s first space station, the Salyut 1. Unfortunately, it was followed shortly after by one of space exploration’s worst tragedies: the three cosmonauts pictured above died during re-entry, after having completed the first successful space docking. Salyut I was scrapped shortly after, though it would be followed by many others.

Read more about it here. I would’ve put a picture of the station, but there weren’t any good ones worth posting.