Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bad News From Britain


Bill Mitchell has a sobering blog entry on the disastrous impact of fiscal austerity in the United Kingdom. An important read.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Remembering Charles I


David Lindsay and Matthew Franklin Cooper have written two excellent blog posts on this, the anniversary of the martyrdom of King Charles I of England. To many people this might seem like a rather unimportant day, just another footnote in European history. However, when one looks at the execution of Charles I as an important step in the West's movement from an imperfect Christendom to the bleak world of liberal capitalism, it is pretty clear why we should remember this day as a grim one.

The Education Myth

David Sirota does an excellent job demolishing the myth that America is losing manufacturing jobs to other countries because the United States does not produce enough math and science graduates. An absolute must read.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Right And Wrong

Michael Lind has a fantastic article over at Salon discussing how the American Right's propaganda machine has created a conservative movement that is now almost totally divorced from reality. A must read.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The New Malthusians

Economist Michael Hudson on the World Bank's population control policy as a direct attack on the nations and peoples of the Third World, here. A must read.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Conservatism And The Accordion Family

Salon has an interesting interview with Katherine Newman, a sociologist at John Hopkins University, regarding the phenomenon of “accordion families,” that is, families where young adults continue to live with their parents. This situation has provided a good deal of fodder both for comedies and for American conservatives seeking to place the blame for high youth unemployment and underemployment on a generation of supposedly lazy Peter Pans.
However, Alice Karekezi’s interview with Newman reveals some interesting problems with the “laziest generation” meme and in doing so destroys many of the arguments coming from conservatives regarding the actual nature of the problems facing families today. I found several of Newman’s insights particularly intriguing.
First, Newman points out that the bad economy has helped to fuel an increase in young people returning home to live with their parents. This is in stark contrast to the more prosperous post-war period, which is the reference point for most baby boomers.
Second, the period of post-war affluence was historically unusual. Poorer families have always been more likely to live together in order to pool resources and many middle-class people in the pre-World War II period also lived  in accordion families. 
Third, the post-war period of affluence was marked by many government programs, such as the G.I. Bill, that heavily aided in independent family formation. I would also add that high rates of unionization (which peaked at over a quarter of the private sector workforce in the United States during the 1950s) and increased direct hiring by all levels of government also likely made it easier to start a family earlier.
Fourth, the developed countries with the smallest number of accordion families might be located in Scandinavia and this situation is likely due to strong state intervention in the economy, including a robust welfare state. Interestingly, Newman also points out that a potential downside to increased independence may be more loneliness and a feeling of familial detachment, as evidenced in some of the responses by Nordic people who see Mediterranean families (notorious for raising Mama’s Boys) as closer and more affectionate.
After reading the interview, I came away with the impression that if conservatives really wanted to see more people becoming independent and forming families earlier and living with their parents for shorter periods of time, they would adopt left-wing economic policies of the kind that helped young people become independent in the United States during the post-war era and which still apparently do the same trick in Scandinavia today.  
Unfortunately, as Newman discussed in her interview, many people forget the role that governments and labor unions played in bringing mass affluence to Americans and others in the post-war period. To some degree this is the product of the understandable tendency to see all of one’s accomplishments in terms of individual initiative alone, as if humans lived in a kind of vacuum. But it is interesting that while conservatives dream of a return to the time of Leave It To Beaver, they fail to recognize that the post-war era was not a very good period for the partisans of laissez-faire capitalism.
Furthermore, it should be noted that American conservatism is itself an odd beast. You would think that folks who always go on about the evils of statism would be happy to see families working together to deal with hard times instead of seeking support from the government.  Barring the real instances of lazy, irresponsible children, accordion families can be seen as models of private self-help. However, as Christopher Lasch noted in a powerful 1987 article in Tikkun, American conservatism is really an intense form of individualism. Lasch writes:
“Not only do conservatives have no understanding of modern capitalism, they have a distorted understanding of the “traditional values” they claim to defend. The virtues they want to revive are the pioneer virtues: rugged individualism, boosterism, rapacity, a sentimental deference to women, and a willingness to resort to force. These values are “traditional” only in the sense that they are celebrated in the traditional myth of the Wild West and embodied in the Western hero, the prototypical American lurking in the background, often in the very foreground, of conservative ideology. In their implications and inner meaning, these individualist values are themselves profoundly anti-traditional. They are the values of the man on the make, in flight from his ancestors, from the family claim, from everything that ties him down and limits his freedom of movement.  What is traditional about the rejection of tradition, continuity, and rootedness?  A conservatism that sides with the forces of restless mobility is a false conservatism.”
I would add that a conservatism that does not believe in the existence of society is never going to be able to craft a sensible family policy. It does not matter whether one thinks the Swedes or the Italians or some other people have the right idea about family life. Rugged individualism melts away all normal concepts of family life, which is perhaps why American conservatism has such a rabid, mean-spirited edge. It rejects both the familial solidarity of the Latin model and the social democratic paternalism of the Nordic countries. Instead, American conservatism often views Man as a kind of a solitary beast, roaming about the Earth in a grim war for survival.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching

William Oddie's article on Rick Santorum and David Lindsay's excellent commentary on same brings up a very sticky subject: is Catholicism compatible with the ethic of capitalism? In the United States, many Catholics have become rather right-wing when it comes to economics. This can only be partially explained by the upward mobility of some sectors of the Catholic population, as many Catholic conservatives are blue-collar workers, the famous "Reagan Democrats," or their children. Furthermore, the importance of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage cannot completely explain the attractiveness of fusionism (the mixture of social conservatism and economic libertarianism), as nobody is forced to intellectually accept both wings of the fusionist platform, even if one might begrudgingly vote for Republicans based on the argument that the Republican Party is "pro-life" (I would argue that the GOP is at best only nominally pro-life, but that is a story for another day).

Fusionism has actually benefited from both ignorance and the misrepresentation of Catholic Social Teaching. Take for example the principle of subsidiarity, which is often used by Catholic libertarians to declare State intervention to be antithetical to Catholic values. But as Dr. Charles M.A. Clark, an economics professor at St. John's University, notes:
"A major thrust of subsidiarity is the contention that if a task can be equally carried out by small or large organizations, the smaller one is preferable. It does not assert that larger organizations, such as the state, have no role to play; just that the state should only carry out activities that are beyond the capabilities of smaller organizations."
Now it may be that in an advanced industrial economy certain activities, such as health care, can only be dealt with adequately on a larger scale. If analyzed in the context of history, an institution such as the United Kingdom's NHS may not violate the principle of subsidiarity. Additionally, the principle of subsidiarity can also be applied to the private sector (although, curiously, among Catholic libertarians this line of analysis does not seem to be as common as attacks on the public sector). Do we really need Home Depot when we can  have many small hardware stores instead?

Of course, as with the public sector, the application of the principle of subsidiarity to the private sector must take into consideration the capability of smaller organizations to actually carry out activities given current historical conditions. We wouldn't demand that the the local mechanic also mass-produce automobiles, so why should we demand that the sick rely on local fundraisers to pay for gigantic medical bills?

On an even deeper level, however, there is a clear problem with the concept that the Church supports a minimal "night watchman" government. The Church has always supported the State or other institutions intervening in the economy. As Amintore Fanfani wrote in his landmark book Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism:
"In the Middle Ages, by supporting the intervention of public bodies in economic life as a check to individual activity and to defend the interests of society as a whole; in our own time [in Fanfani's case, the 20th century], by calling for State intervention for the same reasons, the Church has remained faithful to her anti-capitalistic ethics. Both during the predominance of the medieval guild system, and during that of capitalism, the Church, and those Catholics that listened to her voice, set or sought to set bounds not lawfully to be overstepped to the course of economic life - even at the cost of a sacrifice of mechanical and technical progress, which, in the Catholic conception of society, has never been identical with civilization."
From prohibitions on working during religious holidays to more modern demands for family wages and safe working conditions for laborers, the Church has always supported public intervention in economic life. Thus, the recent attempt to combine Catholicism with Austrian School Economics is arguably as bizarre as the campaign by some left-wing Catholics to merge Marxism with Catholicism. While it is of course possible to gain insights into economics from the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Marx, there are certain aspects of both Austrianism and Marxism that make them rather incompatible with Catholicism.

Indeed, given current realities, it may be "libertarian theology" that is the more dangerous tendency, given the collapse of the more virulent strains of liberation theology and the growth of well-heeled libertarian organizations such as the Acton Institute. The Acton Institute and similar organizations are in the vanguard of a campaign to transform Christianity into the attack dog of capitalism, the ultimate goal being a state of affairs where any critique of capitalism on the basis of Christian thought leads to a questioning of one's orthodoxy.

Social Catholics and socially-conscious Christians in general, however, have a long and impressive history, and there is no reason to give ground to politicians like Rick Santorum on issues of faith and morality. Indeed, opposition to abortion and support for family values can only be enhanced by a greater emphasis on social justice.