Thursday, December 30, 2010

Supermac Is Back

In the news, at least, in this interesting story by the BBC detailing Harold Macmillan’s attempt to convince Margaret Thatcher to drop her neoliberal policies and return to the post-war consensus championed by Old Labour and One Nation Tories like Macmillan himself. This story was both uplifting and depressing. The story was uplifting because it reveals that there was once a time when major politicians actually had a social conscience. On the other hand, it is rather depressing to realize that Thatcher and her ilk eventually won the day, bringing us the awful neoliberal consensus. I am sure if Harold Macmillan and other One Nation Tories were transported to our time, the neoliberal establishment, including many self-proclaimed “progressives,” would consider them to be “loony leftists” and thus not worth listening to.

Indeed, the really sad thing about all of this is not that Thatcherite conservatives would oppose a revival of One Nation Toryism. No, the really sad thing is that the “Left” has come to be defined by social liberals more concerned with attacking religion than with supporting populist economic policy. The anti-family policies favored by these trendy lefties have made life much worse for working people while the affluent liberals themselves can still retreat into their gated communities and ignore all the damage caused by their support for “freedom” in the economic and social spheres. We need a return to the kind of conservatism that denies the fundamentalism of free markets and free love and recognizes that there can be no real freedom without protecting the larger society known as “the community” and the smaller society known as “the family.”

(Note: Hat tip to the incomparable David Lindsay for his excellent description of the family and the nation as forms of society, against Margaret Thatcher’s contention that “there is no such thing as society." Also, hat tip to the equally incomparable Neil Clark for his many articles on the One Nation Tories as well). 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Smokin' Me Out

So, it looks like Spain just passed a tough new smoking ban. I have mixed feelings about smoking bans. On the one hand, smoking has certainly been proven to be bad for one's health. I am glad most of the smokers in my family have quit. On the other hand, I feel these smoking bans are potentially destructive of social life, which is already woefully lacking nowadays when so many people (myself included) spend so much time indoors in front of a television or computer screen. Additionally, I have noticed that it is the working-class establishments that are the heaviest with smokers. Could these smoking bans be an example of middle-class snobbery and prejudice against the "dirty" habits of the working-class? Finally, I often wonder if the current battles against tobacco, fatty foods, and other unhealthy things represent the emergence of a kind of hygienic morality, where being physically healthy is more important than one's character. Combined with the capitalist spirit and emerging biological technology, could we see the "health and wealth" ideology transform into a kind of pay-to-play eugenics? I realize I am probably going overboard here and that reasonable people can disagree (I am sure many bar and restaurant workers understandably support these smoking bans), but smoking bans still bother me for some reason.

Hard Currencies, Soft Heads

Paul Krugman tackles the hard currency crowd, here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Conflation Nation

The always excellent David Lindsay defends the orthodox understanding of the Virgin Birth of Christ against all comers. Mr. Lindsay's point about Mormonism is especially important for conservative American Christians. Do they really want the Mormon Glenn Beck as the public face of politically active Christianity when he belongs to a religion that is completely at odds with the Christian understanding of the nature of Christ, among many, many other things? While I don't have a problem with Christians allying with non-Christians on various political issues, it is important to recognize that when there is such a combination of politics and religion, as occurs on the American Religious Right, it can be tempting to get sloppy when it comes to the real differences between faiths. It is the same reason I avoid using the term "Judeo-Christian," as I feel it conflates two very different faiths, to the detriment of the uniqueness of both Judaism and Christianity.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Saving Monsignor Ryan

Over at New Deal 2.0, Frank L. Cocozzelli defends the legacy of the "Right Reverend New Dealer" Monsignor John A. Ryan against the Catholic neoconservatives.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Italian Social Catholics

Italian politics is in the news again, this time over the Italian parliament’s confidence vote in favor of the embattled Silvio Berlusconi and the accompanying protests. Italian politics is often the subject of ridicule by Italians themselves and by people outside the country. From lecherous and greedy politicians to shadowy connections with the criminal world, Italy is often portrayed as a nation with one foot in modernity and the other in a culture that is still beset by old woes. However, there was a time when Italy produced an energetic and important strain of Catholic social thought, combining the traditional religiosity of the country with a concern for the problems posed by modernity. Not satisfied with the idea that Christianity could just lock itself away from the problems of the modern world, the Italian Social Catholics were instrumental in developing ideas that helped to influence the post-war settlement in Italy through their involvement with the powerful Christian Democratic Party.

Arguably the most famous Social Catholics of the post-war period where the “Little Professors,” centered on Giuseppe Dossetti and including Amintore Fanfani, Giorgio La Pira, and Giuseppe Lazzati. Other politicians, such as Aldo Moro, could also be included within the Christian Democratic “Left.” While there were important differences between these men, in general they shared a commitment to Christian thought as a potent antidote to atheist Marxism as well as to the injustices of capitalism that often led people to embrace anti-Christian ideologies.

While they arguably failed to achieve the just Christian society they sought to create, the Italian Social Catholics are important because they understood that if religion was simply reduced to a personal eccentricity as opposed to an active force in the world there would be little hope of it succeeding in a modern world increasingly dominated by materialist ideologies. With the end of the Cold War and the ascendancy of neoliberalism, the message of the Italian Social Catholics is as important as ever. Over time, I will try my best to write about the various Italian Social Catholics, their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, and what they can teach us today.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fusionism vs. Christianity

Lisa Miller writes for Newsweek on the conflict between the Religious Right and the Obama Administration. As Miller notes, what is interesting about this particular battle between the Religious Right and a Democratic president is that the focus seems to be largely on economic matters and not the traditional social conservative causes like marriage and abortion. While the ailing economy is certainly a major factor working here, I wonder if there is something else afoot. Recently released statistics showing the decline of marriage and family life among less affluent Americans also reveal a decline in church attendance among those same working-class people who used to be the backbone of American Christianity. Not surprisingly, the decline of marriage, family life, and church attendance all seem to have begun in the 1970s, right around the time most Americans saw their real wages begin to stagnate or decline. It was the beginning of the era of neoliberalism.

American Christianity is in danger of becoming a rich man’s religion, complete with a preferential option for the affluent. On the other hand, the social issues that used to fire up working-class Christians are now being pushed to the side. I believe we are witnessing the ultimate poisoned fruit of Fusionism, the largely failed attempt to combine right-libertarian economics with social traditionalism. Fusionism is destroying American Christianity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The China Syndrome

In the December 07, 2010 edition of The New York Times, the Grey Lady ran an article about superb standardized test scores from Shanghai, China, outperforming American students by a wide margin. Right on cue, the reaction from many Americans was a mixture of awe and fear, with a healthy dollop of disdain towards America’s educational system. While the Chinese performance was impressive, and there are indeed many flaws in the American educational system, I am afraid most Americans, whether conservative or progressive, will take the wrong lessons from this story.

First, it is largely incorrect to attribute China’s recent economic growth to educational excellence. As Michael Lind has noted, China’s recent economic success has largely been due to the deliberate mercantilist policies of the Chinese government. Currency manipulation, cheap labor, anti-union policies, lack of environmental regulations, and deals with multinational corporations have all driven Chinese economic growth much more than educational prowess. Improvements in education often accompany development, but it is usually other factors like industrial policy that actually spearhead development in the first place.

Second, success in education does not always translate into guaranteed economic success. The Japanese had a famously intense educational system, but that did not prevent the Japanese economy from entering into a recession in the early 1990s after the Japanese asset price bubble burst, followed by a “Lost Decade” of disappointing economic performance. The Soviet Union is a much more dramatic example. Despite having achieved near universal literacy and impressive successes in math and science, these accomplishments could not resolve the underlying systemic problems of the communist system which eventually helped cause the fall of the Soviet Union.  Furthermore, as Steven Hill wrote back in September, 2010, there are already many reasons to doubt the current narrative of China itself as an unstoppable economic juggernaut.

Third, the impressive educational systems of China and other East Asian countries have not come without a price. China’s young adults are plagued by depression and other mental health problems and intense competition has increased stress, especially among China’s student population. The situation seems to be similar in other rapidly developing or newly developed East Asian countries, such as South Korea, which has seen a huge increase in its suicide rate since the early 1990s. For those of us who think economics must ultimately serve human ends and not just material ones, this is troubling information.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fetishizing of education among America’s elite, especially its progressive elite, has led to a situation where more and more people are pushed into going to college when they might be better served by choosing a different path. Again, Michael Lind is perhaps the best critic of this brand of technocratic/meritocratic progressivism. In an August 03, 2010 article, Lind argued that the old American Left was a populist one, anchored on labor unions and other populist organizations. Today, the American Left is largely defined by the tastes and opinions of affluent professionals and others who have succeeded within America’s educational system. Their preferred policy is to make the United States a meritocratic state with education as the key to upward mobility. Lind does a good job tackling this ideology and why it has been so disastrous for millions of young Americans who are either deemed to be hopeless cases because they did not go to college, or who do go on to obtain a higher education and find themselves underemployed and deep in debt. Instead of the meritocratic state, Lind proposes a return to the New Deal system of high wages and robust social insurance. 

It is important to note that much like the current swooning over Germany, the swooning over China is displayed as a morality play, with disciplined Germans and Chinese pitted against their lazy counterparts in the United States and the Mediterranean nations. These kinds of cultural arguments are important weapons in the arsenal of neoliberals who desperately want to defend the current economic orthodoxies from any real critique. But as Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang notes in his excellent book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, the cultural arguments for why some economies do well while others do poorly offer a way to avoid asking bothersome questions involving policy or systemic structure. Chang discusses this tendency in the context of development economics and shows how some cultural traditions, like Confucianism, for example, have gone from being considered bad for an economy to now being considered a source of success for Asian states. The same thinking applies to supposed "national characteristics." Chang notes that the Japanese and Germans were once considered lazy by observers from countries such as Great Britain and France which had already begun to industrialize. Indeed, the modern work ethic is really a product of the Industrial Revolution. Pre-industrial work was often characterized by a great deal of self-direction on the part of peasants and artisans. In order to get the now landless peasants or ruined craftsmen to accept the toil of the factory, capitalists had to institute systems of discipline unknown to most free workers in traditional societies, complete with long hours and military-like regimentation. 

While I don’t want to discount the great importance of culture, I think it is important that populists are able to see through certain kinds of arguments that are designed to avoid a more thorough discussion of economic systems as a whole While I do think there are significant problems with the American system of education, I don’t think the Chinese system embodies the answers we need.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Casting Light on “The Moment of Truth”

Economist James K. Galbraith takes on the Deficit Commission, here.

Snowplow Socialism

The always excellent David Lindsay on Great Britain's winters and the need for infrastructure investment. For all the right-wingers that hate government spending but always complain about the lack of snowplows, the ruined roads, the lack of alternatives to automobile transportation, and price gouging by private utility companies, all I have to say is you get what you pay for. You can't have the benefits of a modern, advanced country and not want to pay for it. The result of this sort of thinking is the current deficit.

In the United States, Ronald Reagan was the man who started the "have your cake and eat it too" philosophy that has been so attractive to American conservative voters. Americans need to realize that if we want to have good public infrastructure (as opposed to private infrastructure owned by private price gougers) they need to pay for it with taxes.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Of Deadbeats and Deutschland

Pat Buchanan has an interesting piece on Europe’s current problems. Unfortunately, like many current commentators on Europe, Buchanan characterizes countries like Greece and Portugal as “deadbeat nations” in need of bailouts from the disciplined Germans. However, as Marshall Auerback wrote back in early November, Germany has actually benefitted from the profligacy of its neighbors whose supposed drunken sailor ways have allowed Germany to maintain its export-driven economy. Auerback even goes so far as to argue that the European Monetary Union “…locked Germany’s main export competitors into the monetary union at hopelessly uncompetitive exchange rates, thereby entrenching Germany’s export dominance, and its selfish, mercantilist model.”  Clearly, Germany is no fair-haired angel in this mess either.

It is unfortunate that so many paleoconservatives like Buchanan can’t shake their antipathy to social democracy. Social democracy isn’t a perfect system, but compared to neoliberalism, it is certainly the superior option, even from a conservative standpoint. Social democracy meant high-wage jobs that often allowed even factory workers to raise a family in comfortable circumstances on one income. Social democracy meant strong local economies not ravaged by globalization, which meant that there was less need to be become a rootless nomad in search of work.  Social democracy meant more access to high culture for working-class people. All of these things are conservative in the real sense of wanting to preserve and nurture the best aspects of human civilization.

Neoliberalism, on the other hand, has placed families on an economic treadmill of debt and long working hours in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. This in turn means less time at home for all family members, more stress as both working parents bring home the misery of wage slavery which has increasingly invaded the home thought the spread of cell phones, e-mail, and other methods by which employers keep their employees tied to the workplace. Less employment security has led to more rootlessness as people search all over the country, sometimes all over the globe, for jobs. Finally, the decline of free time and real income has meant more working-class people have sunk into the mire of junk pop culture as exhausted bodies flop in front of the television to seek escapism in the latest celebrity follies or violent and lascivious television programs or movies that do nothing but serve as the bread and circuses of modern capitalism.

While the issue of bloated welfare states may be valid, it is important not to fall for the morality plays that are being used to convince working people to accept austerity to pay for a crisis that is not really of their making. A systemic critique of the structure of modern neoliberal capitalism is long overdue.