Monday, November 29, 2010

Suppose it Were Different...

Professor Richard D. Wolff discusses how the economy would be different if workers controlled the means of production.

The Joys of Rain

Nothing better for a good night's sleep than a solid rain outside your bedroom window.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Development Dilemna

Terrance Heath has a very good article on the failures of austerity economics, looking at the case of the Republic of Ireland specifically. Once hailed as a neoliberal golden boy, the Celtic Tiger is in deep trouble today.  The European Union bailout is attached to a brutal four–year austerity program. Ireland is now effectively a vassal state of powerful interests and institutions beyond its shores. All of this in a nation long touted by the right-wing Heritage Foundation as one of the economically freest countries in the world. What is going on here?

Well, for one thing, Ireland is a revealing example of how a country should not try to develop. Ireland put on the neoliberal Golden Straightjacket and now is now being forced to wear the neoliberal sackcloth. By pegging their hopes on foreign investment and membership in the Eurozone as a route to development, the Irish effectively signed away their national sovereignty. The story is much the same in the Baltic Tiger nations like Latvia and Estonia, where foreign investors fled as fast as they ran in once the recession hit.

Historically, most of today’s rich countries developed through nationalistic economic policies that included tariffs to protect native “infant industries,” government subsidies to favored producers, and even state-owned enterprises. Some countries, such as Taiwan, engaged in sweeping land reforms. Indeed, the history of successful development is a history of the success of economic heterodoxy. Tariffs, state-owned enterprises, land reform, all these policies and others not mentioned are all considered violations of today’s prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy. Yet, most of today’s wealthy nations developed using some mixture of heterodox economics. 

Unfortunately, once development is achieved a nation runs into a host of new problems. Many of the development strategies used by developing nations in the past ended up creating a class of very powerful government and private elites. Corporations that once flourished behind tariff walls now seek to move production outside of the home nation in order to take advantage of cheap labor or weak environmental laws. The host nations in the Third World are then sent on a “race to the bottom,” competing with each other to offer up the most favorable business climate for foreign multinationals, whether this means keeping wages depressed, regulations lax, or taxes low.

Thus, the real trick for countries moving forward will be now to maintain sovereignty and democracy while also supporting a strong economy. Furthermore, how does a nation avoid some of the more corrosive effects of modernization, such as rampant consumerism and materialism? We might have to rethink some our basic assumptions about measuring economic growth, what constitutes development, how production is organized, and whole host of other issues.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blair vs. Hitchens

The always excellent Gregor at Deformable Mirror has a very insightful piece about the recent debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens over the role of religion in the world. Check it out.

Empire Style

Paul Krugman on Napoleon's refusal to bailout the Banque Récamier, here. Although, in defense of the interesting and attractive Juliette (Madame) Récamier, she must have been more fun to be around than the shallow trophy wives of today’s investment bankers and hedge fund managers. Plus, if we are to believe François Gérard, Madame Récamier certainly didn’t need all the plastic surgery that seems so popular among today’s rich women.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mrs. Thatcher and her Blue Children

Please check out this great article by the always excellent Neil Clark on the unfortunate legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Clark is always a very good read, but he is really in top form in this article, hitting on several important points about privatization and the negative impact of neoliberalism on moral values and culture.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

In Your Face

Looks like Facebook is close to trademarking the word "face." I guess this ruins my plans for a social networking site for lovers of open face sandwiches. By the way, isn't it odd that the word "face" is apparently an integral part of a business where there is no real face to face contact involved? One can even argue that Facebook discourages face to face contact in the real world.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Solidarity Culture

Matt Taibbi has a very interesting interview with Maria Armoudian on AlterNet. One answer from Taibbi in particular caught my attention. Taibbi writes in response to a question about the media's handling of the financial industry and its role in the current economic crisis:

"It’s funny, my father’s a journalist; I grew up around journalists. When I was a kid, there had been a culture change in our business. Way back in the day, I think journalists were mostly working-class guys. A lot of them didn’t go to college; they either worked hard as paper boys or at a printer or something like that. A classic example is a guy like Seymour Hirsch, who was a career newspaperman. That’s where he started. It was a trade, not a profession. I think after All the President’s Men, journalism became sexy. By the time I was on the campaign trail, most of the people who were on the plane following the candidates around were Ivy League people. And they mean well, but they’re mostly turned on by proximity to power, and they like to have this insider status. That notion of being outsiders who police people in power has disappeared from the profession in general. It’s a subtle thing, but it definitely showed up in this crisis where class was such an unspoken issue."

Taibbi's discussion of the changes in the culture of journalism can really be applied to the rest of America's institutions. Part of the problem in the United States is a lack of any clear populist consciousness outside of the self-defeating populism exemplified by the Tea Party. Most people seem resigned to simply accept the domination of neoliberalism while trying their best to succeed in the system as it is. It is no wonder that trends like the Gospel of Wealth, self-help books, positive thinking and other methodologies designed to help the striver reach the American Dream have had such a strong following. It is no wonder that young Americans are willing to engage in increasingly fierce competition and go deep into debt for a chance at entering one of the few lucrative professions left in America.

Unfortunately, for many Americans, the American Dream based on individual accomplishment is becoming much more difficult to obtain. Even well-educated workers are having a hard time obtaining the “good life” with only one spouse working full time. Contrast this to the Keynes-Beveridge economic model which called for one worker per household bringing home enough income to sustain a decent lifestyle for a family, even if the worker was not highly educated.

Now, what the old school journalists and their counterparts in other trades had in common was a kind of populist consciousness. They understood that working people could only successfully fend off plutocratic forces by standing together in a spirit of solidarity and by being critical of those same plutocratic forces, not giving in to the kind of language about “producers” and “job-creators” that seems to enthral so many conservatives. As Taibbi discusses in another part of the interview, the Tea Party functions to displace Middle American anger onto racial or ethnic minorities, or poor people generally, or liberal college professors, or some other easy target. Similar tactics helped damage populism in the South, as Southern Democrats and others used racial animosity to break up a populist alliance of poor blacks and poor whites.

Genuine populism can only exist in a culture that values conscious solidarity between people who refuse to be dominated by the plutocratic forces in society. As long as the American people cling to Randian fantasies of lone, rugged individuals conquering all that is before them, our politics won’t change and it will likely only get worse. We will continue to have a simulacrum of democracy hiding the reality of a political system awash in money, where voting is increasingly reduced to a meaningless ritual. And if things still don’t work out, at least we can perhaps get away from this increasingly nasty, grasping, rootless, cruel, and alienating culture of ours.

Billion Dollar Babies

Senator Bernie Sanders on the billionaires and their plans for the United States, here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Save Our Libraries

I recently had a very strange experience at the public library. Yes, the public library. I renewed my public library card, having come to the conclusion that books were too expensive and that in order to maintain my reading habit without breaking the bank, I would have to start using the public library again. Oddly enough, when I arrived at my local library, I suddenly felt a rush of nostalgia come over me. It reminded me of my school years when I utilized public and school libraries for projects.  A walk through the stacks revealed just how many great books were available, and all for free! No need to rack up credit card bills on Amazon, or hand out wads of cash at the chain bookstore.  Public libraries really are a treasure and this is especially true when hard economic times result in more people choosing to rent books, DVDs, CDs, and videos from the library instead of buying them. Many people also use libraries for computer and Internet access and to engage in job hunting.

Unfortunately, as demand for library services rises because of the recession, the recession also means more cuts in library budgets, which means branch closings, staff layoffs, no new material orders, etc.  Of course, there are plenty of libertarians that think libraries are a big waste of money anyway and they deserve to go the way of the dodo. This article by Philadelphia libertarian Aaron Proctor is a great example, complete with attacks on inner-city parents.

I hope conservatives will see the error in this kind of thinking, but unfortunately American conservatism is becoming increasingly deranged.  It seems like all you need to do is link this or that public institution to welfare recipients and conservatives will immediately agree to privatization, deregulation, or any other scheme that lines the pockets of businesses at the expense of the public. It is almost Pavlovian.  Part of this is, of course, based on racism and hatred of the poor, plain and simple. But there is also a growing anti-public sentiment that is very odd for conservatives to have. Conservatives often talk about wanting to restore an older American tradition of community, family values, etc., but the path they seem to want to take is one of allowing corporations to have complete control of the country. While I recognize the problems of an overbearing State, why should private institutions get a pass? Whatever the mistakes of some library administrators may be,  libraries are still an important part of our public life and they ought to be funded properly and protected from the serial privatizers.

Note: Please check out the great website Losing Libraries. The website contains helpful links and a map showing library cutbacks across the United States.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Deficit Delusion

Just read this disheartening story from the BBC about budget cuts for the Tyne and Wear Fire Brigade. The same thing is happening in many American localities as local governments are forced to cut back on essential services. Cuts by States and local governments are a kind of "stealth austerity." They tend to pass under the national radar which is largely concentrated on Washington.

What is interesting about all the talk about deficits and the need for austerity is the fact that not too many people see to care much about it, as Paul Krugman shows in this blog post.While the deficit is a long-term problem, the best way to deal with it is to grow out of the current deflationary slump, not make it worse by cutting more jobs which will only further dampen demand and prolong the suffering of millions of people.

Democracy vs. The Free Market

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the supposed polarization of the United States around increasingly extreme ideological positions. Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” was premised on ratcheting down the increasingly wacky dialogue on the Right and the Left in favor of constructive discussion and moderation.  Ted Koppel, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, discussed the growing prominence of ideological journalism exemplified by Fox News and MSNBC and how ideological news is marketed to conservatives and progressives as a commodity. Both Stewart and Koppel make important points. Koppel in particular does a great job explaining how consumerism has changed journalism and the way Americans view the news. But while Americans may appear to be more ideologically driven now than at any other time in recent history, it does not seem to be making much difference in Washington or even in state capitals. What is going on here?

The reality is that the political class has largely signed onto one consensus ideology, neoliberalism, and has declared neoliberalism to be the non-ideological “respectable center.” All deviations from the respectable center are declared the crazy fringe. In order to participate in the political system, candidates usually must show that they are good, respectable neoliberals.

None of this is terribly surprising given the history of liberalism. We hear a lot about how free markets will bring forth democracy and freedom, but the truth is that neither classical liberals nor neoliberals are particularly devoted to democracy.  Classical liberals largely opposed democracy because they were afraid that the majority of the population, being poor, would vote for policies such as nationalization and a progressive income tax that would benefit them but not benefit the rich. The neoliberals have a similar opposition to democracy, although they tend to be a bit more prudent about the way they frame the issues. For example, instead of simply calling the people the “Mob” and talking about how dangerous and stupid the Mob is, neoliberals fall back on slogans like “neutrality,” “independence,” or “expertise.” Usually the neoliberals will then propose to create some body independent of the political process (which could potentially be influenced by the Mob) to take care of economics matters. Privatization is probably the most extreme version of this philosophy, where whole government functions are taken out of public hands and given to private actors. The end result is a soft dictatorship of money and bureaucracy. The country ends up being run like a giant corporation by and for the directors and shareholders, that is, the very wealthy and their political retainers.

Now, a populist of course recognizes that this situation is unacceptable. The State should be responsive to the public, even if it means occasionally marching against market logic. After all, why would anybody, especially a social conservative, want to see their country run on market logic alone? We already saw the awful injustices of laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries and found them intolerable.  In today’s secular Western world, how can conservatives really make arguments against legalized prostitution, legalized abortion, easy divorce, or any other portions of the social libertine agenda when we are forced to accept the rule of the market and the elite classes who are often anything but conservative in their social outlook? And in any event, we know from history that the “free market” is often just a euphemism for protecting privilege; socialism for me but not for thee.

All the handwringing over the proliferation of ideology among the masses is thus largely misplaced. The real problem is the neoliberal ideological consensus among the elites.  In an era when moderation increasingly means supporting brutal austerity for working people in order to pay off the gambling debts of the global financial industry, perhaps moderation is not such a good thing. Maybe we need people like William Jennings Bryan, who were willing to be called crazy by the elite establishment and its lapdogs in the press, but who knew that they were fighting the good fight for the people.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Populism at the Crossroads

Peter Levine has an interesting article defending Obama against criticism by Paul Krugman. My first reaction was to defend Krugman. Krugman was probably correct about the need for a much larger stimulus early on, and he is also right about Obama having the biggest bully pulpit in town. Obama could have used his office to try to reframe the debate about economics and the role of the Federal government in the same way that Ronald Reagan and FDR did.

However, as Levine points out, there are many factors working against the return of New Deal politics in the United States. A few factors are particularly salient. First, the way Americans live, spread out in enclaves across a huge continent, is not terribly conducive to organized participation in politics. A second factor (which is related to the first) is the decline of grassroots organizations like labor unions and ethnic clubs. Finally, (and this is especially problematic for progressives) the growth of technocratic government itself has arguably replaced the popular organizations that once provided the backbone of the populist movement. Indeed, without organizations like labor unions, farmer’s groups, and third parties (like the original People’s Party), it is questionable whether the New Deal coalition could have been possible at all. Populist forces on the ground pushed the Democratic Party to the Left on economics.

What is disturbing about Levine’s article, however, is the extent to which it really seems like the United States has become ungovernable, outside of governance on behalf of the rich and powerful, with scraps being thrown to everybody else to prevent social chaos. Populists in the United States may need to come to the conclusion that there is little hope in the near future for the return of New Deal-style politics, let alone the transformation of the United States into a full-fledged social democracy. 

So what is to be done?  For one, American populists should change the way they talk about the Federal government. Spend more time talking about how the plutocracy relies on government policy to maintain their power. This places a spotlight on the reality that Big Government now largely serves the powerful. Think of it as Robin Hood in reverse. You might be able to convert some of your pals on the Right with this strategy.

Populists should also spend much less time on electoral politics and much more time on organizing. Labor unions ought to stop or at least curtail their futile attempts to compete with corporations when it comes to funding political campaigns. Instead, they should put all of their efforts into organizing and developing alternatives to the dying system of business unionism. The United Steelworkers have already reached out to Spain’s Mondragon Corporation, one of the world’s biggest federations of worker cooperatives. Besides labor unions, there are also plenty of other ways in which people can choose to develop their own self-help systems, even if it means just planting vegetable gardens with your neighbors.

Of course, I don’t want to totally dismiss politics. For better or for worse, the State is a powerful actor in our lives. But I am not so sure populists can bring about political change without first developing the kind of grassroots organizations that helped build an alternative to Gilded Age-style politics back in the 19th and 20th centuries.  And in any event, there are many reasons to be skeptical about the long-term viability of left-wing politics without a strong system of popular intermediary organizations. At its most extreme, we end up with the kind of corrupt technocracies that existed in the former communist states.

The current economic system is in trouble. While the political class wrestles over which policies will revive our moribund economy, why not take a step back, maybe have a beer or two or three and recognize that there are other ways to move forward. Think about it as Going Galt for the working class.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pac-Man Fever

Filipino boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao won a lopsided victory last night over the larger Antonio Margarito. As a boxing fan, I am quite happy about Pacquiao and the attention he is bringing to boxing. Boxing has always needed visible, charismatic champions to thrive, and Pacquiao has a fun, exciting style along with an attractive personality. Stylistically, he reminds me a bit of my personal favorite boxer, Fighting Harada, the only man to ever beat bantamweight great Eder Jofre, a feat Harada performed twice!

Harada and Pacquiao are often considered the two best Asian fighters ever.  I am a bit biased on this matter, but I think if Pacquiao defeats Floyd Mayweather, Jr., he will probably be considered the best Asian boxer of all time, if he isn’t already.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's the Plutonomy, Stupid

The always excellent John Médaille has a great article over at The Distributist Review about how the American economy was transformed into a “plutonomy” which is an economy by and for the rich. Professor Médaille does a great job bursting the John Galt myth that holds so many Americans in thrall. We are taught to view the wealthy as demigods, or at least a better breed of human. But the history of capitalism, from the enclosures and the destruction of the monasteries to today’s pro-corporate intellectual property laws that allow agribusinesses to patent seeds that peasants have been using for centuries, has always been replete with state action on behalf of the rich and powerful.

Pieces like Prof. Médaille’s are important because they help destroy the “naturalization” myth that says that capitalism is some kind of natural system with outcomes preordained by nature.  The naturalization argument is similar to the defenses of slavery or feudalism that called upon Nature or God to explain why those systems were structured as they were. There is no reason why the current plutocratic system needs to continue indefinitely, just like there was no real reason for slavery or feudalism to exist forever. Populists should be thinking of and working toward alternatives to the present plutocratic system. My earlier post on Toyohiko Kagawa’s theory of Brotherhood Economics is just one example of an interesting alternative with some real world application in the form of the cooperatives of Japan.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Globaloney Watch: Japan's Farmers in the Crosshairs

Japan's farmers are upset over plans to lower trade barriers to foreign agricultural goods. As usual, The New York Times tends to take the side of globalization, with the article subtly suggesting that Japan's farmers must get with the program and allow themselves to compete against foreign agribusiness, including American agribusiness. Isn't it interesting that it is always the little guy that has to change in order to survive? What would huge corporations like, say, the Walt Disney Company, do without ample intellectual property law protection? Heck, what would American agribusinesses do without their subsidies? The reality is that globalization is a system of managed corporate buccaneering. It is not some kind of natural process, like the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Presenting globalization as an unstoppable force of nature helps the peddlers of globaloney to characterize their opponents as sentimentalists and fools.

That being said, I can understand why some consumers and businessmen might be supportive of free trade. The prospect of cheaper food must be attractive to many Japanese consumers. But what about the family farmers? Are they worth fighting for? If the United States had a system similar to Japan's, perhaps freer trade might be warranted. But the U.S. is home to big agribusinesses that will likely use their state subsidies and other state-derived weapons to leverage economies of scale and scope against little producers like Atsushi Kono, our friend from Hokkaido mentioned in the article. Is this fair? Is it fair that the big players are allowed to use their state benefits to destroy their smaller rivals? Is it so wrong for the little fellows to ask for protection from the government when they face unfair competition? 

Populists ought to emphasize how globalization and "free" trade are rigged in favor of the powerful. Call the corporations out on their hypocrisy. If Atsushi Kono must give up his help from the state, then Monsanto should do the same. Markets work best when they are composed of many different players, roughly equal in strength. The current system of globalization is fast enslaving the world to a handful of super corporations, with their government toadies helping pave the way. The only way forward is to reject the current free trade orthodoxy and insist on an economic system that puts people ahead of profits.

No Escape

It looks like poverty is getting worse in America's suburbs. The suburbs no longer provide an escape from America's declining economy. Be sure that the great prosperity that allowed for the stereotypical '50s suburban lifestyle was largely based off of New Deal consensus policies that supported strong labor unions, tax breaks for homeowners, highway construction, full employment, and a strong commitment to public services. Now that labor unions are much weaker, our infrastructure is collapsing along with our public services, and the Federal government no longer supports full employment, is it any wonder that our suburbs are collapsing?

Happy Veterans Day

God bless all veterans everywhere, not just in the United States, but in all countries. Thank you for your service.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Toyohiko Kagawa and Brotherhood Economics

On the topic of cooperatives, one of my favorite cooperative pioneers has to be Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). A Japanese Christian, Kagawa truly lived his faith. Born into a wealthy family, Kagawa ended up losing his inheritance when his uncle learned of his conversion to Christianity and desire to become a clergyman. 

In 1909, Kagawa moved into the Shinkawa slum district of Kobe, one of the worst in Japan. After spending so much time ministering to the poorest of the poor, Kagawa became active in social justice work, participating in organizing unions for workers and farmers as well as acting as a pioneer of Japan's extensive network of cooperatives. Kagawa's activism even led him to the United States where he campaigned on behalf of his theory of "Brotherhood Economics," an economic system centered on cooperatives and small family-owned businesses, a system many modern distributists might find attractive. 

Kagawa saw Brotherhood Economics as a viable alternative to the extreme ideologies of his day, such as fascism and communism. Brotherhood Economics also serves as an alternative to capitalism as it has actually existed in the real world. Instead of a system with a small number of powerful owners and executives, Brotherhood Economics offers workers, consumers and students a greater share in ownership and decision making. Brotherhood Economics goes a long way toward fixing what G.K. Chesterton saw as a major problem of capitalism, that is, there are too few capitalists, not too many.  

Fed Up

Interesting article by Prof. Richard D. Wolff about the decision of the Federal Reserve to buy up $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds. Prof. Wolff is indeed a Marxist (or "Marxian"), but he is not a Soviet apologist. He is very critical of the central planning economies of the old communist regimes. Instead, Wolff advocates worker cooperatives as an answer to capitalism. In that sense, he is a socialist in the tradition of G.D.H. Cole and others. Wolff is also critical of both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, which puts him at odds with the mainstream Right and Left.

Cat Food Commission

Looks like the Debt Commission is going after Social Security and Medicare, making old folks pay for the gambling debts of Wall Street. How will the Tea Partiers respond? Many of them are elderly, so I would think they would be very angry about this.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reefer Madness

After what happened in California, you'd think the marijuana legalization folks would be a bit more cautious in their optimism.

Defending Dubya

Bush is out defending his record.   I hope he has better luck than I did. Back in my College Republican days, I found myself having more and more trouble defending President Bush. Regularly reading Pat Buchanan certainly didn't help. The Iraq War is what initially forced me to start questioning my loyalty to the GOP. Still, I admit that I voted for Bush in 2004, almost entirely on the social issues, hoping he would put pro-lifers and defenders of traditional marriage on the Supreme Court.

Welcome!

Hello everyone! I suppose I ought to introduce myself. My name is John and this is my blog. Topics covered here will likely range from economics, politics, art, history, religion and philosophy to lighter subjects such as entertainment and sports. The geographic focus will likely be on the United States, but I will try to keep things interesting and diverse.

Politically, I tend to have views that might be considered bizarre by many, but by and large I consider myself a populist, hence the name of my blog.

Comments are welcome, but will be moderated to eliminate spam and obnoxious or very rude comments. I reserve the right to do the above for the purposes of maintaining a modicum of civility.

Thank you.