Saturday, January 31, 2009
The question I would like to ask every Republican who argues that government meddling in the economy precipitated the end of prosperity as they knew it is: On whose behalf was the government meddling, anyway?
It's worth recalling that the many "poor people who couldn't afford to buy a home" only earned this title after Wall Street discovered that housing prices do not, in fact, go up forever. As long as they were, the "poor people who couldn't afford to buy a home" were affectionately known as "structured investment vehicles," and getting the government to facilitate their creation was very big business.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
There is an industrial precedent, occasionally observed, in which a company will pay top-rates to employees in order to undercut their economic incentive for unionization. Because the company knows that the price of unionization typically includes yielding some control of the workplace to employees, they prefer to bear the economic cost. It might be said that the wealthy and the powerful will sometimes part with their wealth if it best ensures the preservation their power.
-- -- --
Many of the world's great social challenges derive from the fact that people are forcibly deprived of a means to address them, and this is because power -- both political and economic -- is monopolized in the hands of minority classes which governments are erected to defend.
It has long been argued by the socialist tradition that the productive wealth on which every modern society relies -- industry and resources -- should come under the democratic discretion of their populations, and not be the exclusive possession of specialized classes who manage them "free" of public input (thus "free-enterprise") for narrow self-gain.
On some level, this is generally recognized by the average person, and goes far in explaining the lasting appeal of socialist ideals, particularly among social movements, but also, and paradoxically, among the many national governments which seek to either contain, or draw legitimacy from, their significance. These ideals remain significant because capitalism is incapable of meeting the basic human needs, physical and emotional, of considerable portions of humanity, whatever wonders it may generate for the well-positioned few.
Because the practical application of socialism, or, the democratic management of economic life, cannot be reconciled with monopolization in the same realm, governmental force is inevitably summoned on behalf of the owners of productive wealth to "protect individual property rights" -- which is to say, protect the right of certain individuals to derive property benefits against everyone else -- when such "rights" are jeopardized. The wealthy and the powerful have no intention to surrender their wealth or their power. This inevitably leads to conflict everywhere monopoly and human beings attempt to coexist, with famine and calamity awaiting in the cases where human beings are afforded the least means of self-defense.
-- -- --
The monopolization of the world and its resources, with its impressive gains for the few, subsequently becomes the template by which every problem it has created is presumed to be solved. In short, we have reached a point in which the aching needs of humanity are not so easily ignored; in many cases, they even disrupt the business of profit-making. Governments, being forever in the service of their owners, prove ineffectual in uprooting hunger, famine and disease, because these are not their mandates.
So it is that the beneficiaries of world suffering come to address the world with their solutions to end suffering, having already made their money. Bill Gates had nowhere else to go, and little more to conquer in the technology field, so, like a Jordan retiring from one sport to master another, Gates, like so many social frauds before him, embellishes his power by giving away some portion of his wealth, and at a volume which ensures no one will miss the significance. He will likely save many thousands of lives -- maybe many more -- under the banner of what he calls "creative capitalism," whereby the robbers of public wealth parlay their theft into a self-aggrandizing campaign to save the same wretched souls they have swindled.
Micolending and microfinance fall into a similar category: potentially lifesaving in waters where the practice of swimming has been prohibited.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The story goes that Obama told "feminists" that he is a feminist, but my question is: did he tell anyone else? The man ran as a chalkboard, as I recall.
The real offense is that there are people -- men and women -- who are much more deserving, frankly. Obama may sign the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law, but that's only because many others laid the groundwork.
According to the Financial Times, "[t]he Arab world responded positively ... to Barack Obama’s surprise interview with an Arabic language television channel..."
The is undeniably true, especially when the "Arab world" is comprised of:
- "a senior Arab official"
- "a state department spokesman"
- the editor of a Saudi Arabian newspaper
- no Predator drones were available for comment
Every American likes to say to himself or herself, "I've got my rights." It's natural to suppose that our constitutional rights travel with us wherever we go.-- Labor Law for the Rank & Filer, by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross
But this answer is, unfortunately, wrong. The Constitution protects us only from actions by the state, that is, the government. It does not protect us from private employers. If you work for a government, city, state, or federal, you can claim constitutional rights to freedom of speech, to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, to due process, to equality before the law. However, in the private sector the employer had no legal obligation to respect your constitutional rights....
One source of rights in the private sector is the union and the collective bargaining agreement. At this writing, only 7.5% of private sector workers are in a unionized workplace. If you are one of them, it's a good idea to know your contract backward and forward, and to carry a copy on your person at all times....
A second source of rights in the private sector is federal law. These rights were created by struggle. For instance, the struggle for the eight-hour day gained national prominence in 1886, when a sizable portion of the entire labor movement took part in a political strike on its behalf. The international labor holiday, May Day, was one result. Time and a half pay for more than 40 hours of labor in a week was finally recognized by Congress more than fifty years later in the Fair Labor Standards Act (the Wages and Hours Act) of 1938.
Obama explains to the Muslim world that he "cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians," while rocketing their villages because of "suspected" criminal activity.
So our first black president observes a conventional policy toward people of color who are suspected of a crime.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
One of the reasons why I do not admire heads of state is that their job inevitably entails harming those groups which have the least amount of influence over them. In the case of an American president who happens to be black, this will mean harming the black community because it is weaker, comparatively, to the historically-favored groups which monopolize political and economic power.
While it is true that this class has changed "colors" over the years -- most recently by sponsoring an African-American for president -- their operational aims, as expressed by the policies they advance, have not. The gains that African-Americans have made throughout American history -- including their gradual admittance to elite institutions -- were never achieved from the top-down; they were accomplished through large-scale organized resistance around specific goals that created kind of pressure on government necessary to influence it.
The Obama presidency may spring from these accomplishments, but that does not mean it will advance or even sustain them. This will depend entirely on which groups wield the greatest domestic power. For example, this week another multi-billion dollar government give-away will be negotiated. Wall Street is at the table, having heavily bankrolled the Obama administration's electoral campaign and inaugural bonanza. They also staff his economic team. Where does the "African-American" community factor into this, given their obvious economic need, particularly when it comes to jobs, health-care and education? Are they even at the table? Do they register any input at the cabinet level? What about working people generally? It should not be difficult to see how those who are excluded from a process are less likely to benefit from its finished product.
Any group dedicated to change needs to vote everyday. Business groups and other influential lobbies understand this, which is why they have people working full-time on Capitol Hill and in the White House, while the rest of us are working full-time (usually for them, incidentally) just to live from week-to-week. It is the winning formula which makes the electoral process largely irrelevant: elect whoever you want; policy will remain a day-to-day affair from which the public is mostly excluded. This only changes when the public organizes around its concerns in ways that can compete with other organized lobbies.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
There is a habit I practice in the Teamsters union whenever I hear the word "unity." If it comes from the people I work with, I grant it a positive spin, because it has no real utility for us except in confrontation with management. If a manager decides on a stupid rule which makes the operation less safe, less efficient, or both, the best kind of response is collective; what individual workers lack in authority, they make up for in numbers.
However, whenever I hear the word "unity" coming from the mouth of union "leadership," I take it with a substantial grain of salt: 9 times out of 10, it is little more than a call for obedience. Because Teamster members are largely excluded from the national decisions that affect them, to be "united" around Jimmy Hoffa, Jr.'s agenda means that he makes up an agenda, and we follow it -- period. In other words, the union hierarchy appropriates the normally positive concept of "unity" for its own purposes, deploying the term in a way that is very different from the association lent to it by average members, in order to manipulate them.
Well, holy bjeezus: If the same phenomenon wasn't in highest-gear over the past several days at the federal level.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
As I like to say, one of the advantages to keeping a large-enough beard is that you will never be mistaken for an investment banker.
Wall Street has taken a pummeling in the court of public opinion as of late, firstly by bursting its economic marbles all over the altar of the free market, and secondly by making sure nobody is passed over in the blood-letting required to have them returned. Even the hyper-wealthy have been burned, which speaks to the urgency of the crisis; after all, capitalism requires its defenders.
Perhaps it was an act of contrition, then, that found American bankers throwing their -- shall we say, "our"? -- money behind the candidate of change in such large quantities. According to Public Citizen, Barack Obama's inaugural march to Mecca cost $35.3 million, about 80% of it paid for by some of your best friends and mine, including:
• Louis Susman, vice chairman of Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking and managing director, vice chairman of investment banking, Citigroup ($300,000);
• Mark Gilbert, senior executive, Lehman Brothers ($185,000);
• Robert Wolf, chairman and CEO, UBS Americas ($100,000);
• Jennifer Scully, vice president, private wealth management, Goldman Sachs ($100,000);
• Bruce Heyman, managing director of the Private Wealth Management Group, Midwest region, Goldman Sachs ($50,000);
• Kobi Brinson, senior vice president and assistant general counsel, Wachovia ($35,000)
On the other hand, it's possible that when the stakes get too high, throwing a big party while keeping a white-knuckled grip on "togetherness" is the only way to keep the poor from strangling the rich. Don't get me wrong: We're all Americans. Some of us are just more likely to be stimulated by our government than others.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
When a beleaguered and defenseless people receives supplies and weapons, it is called smuggling, and when a terrorist conquering state receives massive WMDs, it is called "military aid."
-- As'ad AbuKhalil
Somebody recently told me that they were "cool" with the war in Afghanistan, and that they "had no problem" with the first Gulf War either. I suggested that this is true of many American liberals, because it does not affect them: It is easy to be "cool" with things when you are insulated from their costs.
Somebody recently told me about veterinarian research she was doing which involved putting sheep in an agitator, shaking vigorously, and then measuring bone density over time. I asked: "And the sheep are cool with this?"
-- -- --
In business, decision-making that negatively affects others is sometimes called "making the hard choices." Managers who make the hard choices are held in high-esteem by those who benefit from the costs imposed on others. A good manager is someone who keeps the cost of paying people to do productive work low enough that investors and executive managers can derive the maximum value out of work that they do not perform. The people who do the necessary work make enough money to live, if they are lucky; however, in the world's wealthiest nation they aren't that lucky: most working people live indebted to other businesses in order to pay their bills, which can include food, fuel and medical costs -- to say nothing of education or anything else. The advantage to business is that most of the population has no other means to survive except to "rent" themselves to employers who absorb most of the value of their work.
Naturally, nobody is "cool" with this arrangement except those who either inherit its advantages, or who, by one means or another, manage to erect a long enough ladder between themselves and the lowest classes that they no longer bear the primary costs of the exchange -- namely, the economic costs. At this point one may be "okay" with things, because there is refuge to be taken in the small comforts of say, home ownership, and one can parlay some modicum of respectability from this. In fact, this is referred to as the "American dream" -- "working hard" so as to become useful enough to the bosses that they grant you the means to rent a home from the banks they own so that you can one day pay property taxes to the government they run. There is no higher calling for the average American.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Egyptian doctors report being overwhelmed with Palestinian children arriving into their care with bullet wounds to the head.
The official Israeli position is that any Gazan casualities are the fault of Hamas because they operate in the territory, thus rendering everyone a "human shield."
-- -- --
Considering the minimal casualties sustained by Israeli ground forces, it would appear Israel has used its "blame Hamas" approach to justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians in order to best protect its own forces -- an important part of sustaining domestic support for the operation. It has also maintained a ban on all foreign news reporting from within the Gaza strip.
The Council on Foreign Relations hosted a "media conference call" on Gaza which, after an hour of blab about high-level Israel/Obama administration considerations, finally got to a question about the motivations of Hamas.
The answer was revealing in that it was at first incoherent:
Daniel Senor:Look, there's the sort of stated objectives, or the short-term objectives that Hamas has -- or officials within Hamas have talked about, which include loosening the ease of entry from Gaza into Israel and back and forth, and ease within movement within the territories broadly, and there are a number of these various issues.
Presumably what Senor is trying to say is that Hamas would like an end to the economic blockade which has prevented food, fuel and medical supplies from entering Gaza for months. I would dare say this "irks" them. You see, because it is difficult for human beings to remain alive without such things, it is reasonable that they would factor into the "objectives" of Hamas, whether stated, short-term, "official" or whatever. Yet, this seems difficult for an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies to accept at face value.
At this point Senor shifts gears and attributes what is an Israeli preoccupation with "deterrence" to Israel's adversaries in the region. Personally, I have only ever heard the Israeli government speak at length on the topic of "deterrence" -- or the idea that Israel must remain so scary to everybody that no one would ever dare to challenge it.
It's worth noting that the track record on this is not so good. Israel routinely kills large numbers of people, assassinates resistance leaders and their families, kidnaps random people and detains them indefinitely -- and yet these groups never tire of needling Israel! It's almost as if people just aren't happy unless they enjoy the same rights of representation and self-determination as everyone else! They don't like being accepted at foreign universities only to the be prohibited from attending because somebody else's government won't let them leave! They prefer eating food to starvation, etc. You know, normal human stuff. But again, not so easy to understand for experts who have close ties to state policy in the US.
-- -- --
Common sense must be one of the first casualties of subscribing to a "war on terror" narrative when looking at the world. Anybody whose career is premised on a steady diet of government-sanctioned falsehoods is going to look uncomprehendingly at ordinary people, whose motivations are much less complex. Hamas is not a difficult organization to understand, insofar as you are not receiving a paycheck to analyze them on behalf of the United States or Israeli government. Under such conditions, the truth is rarely useful, except in hindsight.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Gaza is a case where the numbers really tell the whole story: 1,138 people dead in order to defend against a threat which killed less than 10 (4 Israelis died as a result of friendly fire). If that seems "necessary," then human beings have very little value -- or, rather, some have exponentially more value than others.
But to frame the issue this way is misleading. Israel's actions in Gaza have increased the threat to vulnerable populations everywhere -- in particular Jewish communities in Europe -- who are now the likely targets of those aggrieved by the Jewish state's attack on defenseless, trapped civilians. Israel may be able to claim military success against the region's weakest population, but it will also be claiming a victory for anti-Semitism in the years to come.
All modern governments exist to insulate privileged minority interests against the preferences their general populations. Israel is no exception. Israeli policy is not designed to benefit "Jews" or even average Israeli citizens; were this the case, the internationally prescribed solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict could have been implemented decades ago, and the granting of basic human rights to Palestinians -- which is really the heart of the story -- would have obviated radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. But the benefits derived from maintaining a conflict against a far weaker enemy portrayed as the second-coming of Hitler has a political utility that conforms nicely to the nation-state model: A population that is afraid is much easier to control and looks to its governors for protection.
The United States has helped maintain Israel's illegal occupation by providing the kind of military support which renders international law irrelevant. Israel and the US may be international criminals, but there is no one available to bring them to justice. The arrangement has given American defense manufacturers a bottomless market in supplying a country that is perpetually at war -- paid for by the generosity of the American taxpayer, as all defense projects inevitably are. It has also given the US a foothold in a resource-rich, politically unstable part of the world, though policy hawks have increasingly come to question how useful Israel really is to American "interests" given how much trouble it causes, and how little utility it extends.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Somebody identified as the "secretary of labor" authored a piece in the Wall Street Journal today which aptly summarizes the legislative and policy goals of the US Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies for the next four years.
The writer argues forcefully against "special-interest groups that purport to have worker's interests at heart," because these groups do not share the business goal of making US workers "more competitive in the world-wide economy."
On the other hand, if the "special-interest groups that purport to have worker's interests at heart" can persuade you to accept the going rate for Chinese peasants living under political dictatorship, then maybe they really do have your interests at heart: If every American would imbibe the twin-elixir of poverty and repression, the US might become the next China, and we'd finally be able to steal jobs from everybody else. Cool, man!
Also of note are past achievements of what is described as the "Labor Department": the reclassification of cheeseburger assembly as "manufacturing" work (giving a much needed boost to a lagging industrial sector); and the fact that "[t]oday we have record-low workplace injury, illness and fatality rates."
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Monday, January 12, 2009
With the death toll in Gaza quickly approaching the 1000 mark, and Israeli casualties hovering around 13, the necessity of Israel's latest campaign is becoming clearer by the day: They really want Hamas to gain control of the West Bank and Gaza. Then the peace plan can be scrapped for the beginning of an Obama administration, because Obama knows better than to negotiate with terrorists.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Sanjay Gupta for Surgeon General.
Consider his 2003 TIME piece where he asked the hard question: Since Prozac is so great, why aren't we all taking it?
Gupta makes a strong argument in favor of Prozac -- after all, even veterinarians have made it "the number one choice for dogs with the blues."
Of course, nothing's perfect. Some doctors may hesitate to mandate Prozac, in spite of its potential to make everyone feel "better than well." For instance, it might create disincentives for confronting life's challenges -- or it might hurt kids. But in the end, nobody really knows. It's so much speculation.
What we do know is how great Prozac works for millions of Americans. Maybe you shouldn't use a prescription drug to solve all of your problems -- but don't let this discourage you from taking prescription drugs to solve some of your problems!
Yes, this is just a small sample of the kind of hard-hitting medical journalism offered up by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Israel's assault on Gaza seems like one of the least complicated conflicts in recent memory. A government is bombarding people in a confined space because they exhibit the kinds of anti-social tendencies which come from being condemned to a confined space.
In the narrative of the strong, the burden falls, predictably, on the weak. The strong claim they have no choice but to massacre the weak, because just look at how the weak behave! Rather than make good use of their confinement, they commit crime! They preach hatred, they hide weapons, they lash out at whatever is in their reach! Would you tolerate someone putting your children in harm's way? Of course, you would not. The behavior cannot be tolerated!
It must be a law of history, however, that what the powerful can tolerate is inversely proportional to what the powerful want to tolerate. This is illustrated splendidly by the manner of idiocy which says a small amount of death must be confronted with a massive escalation of death. In fact, small amounts of death -- even large amounts of death -- are tolerated by governments all the time in situations where there is a cost assigned to addressing them. That is to say, a political or economic cost. But human costs are not prohibitive alone: if the Israeli government was in the business of protecting Israeli lives, would it confront the deaths of 15 Israelis in 8 years time (the cost of tolerating Hamas rockets) by starting a war that would likely produce just as many casualties if not more in the space of several weeks? No: it would it negotiate terms that would reduce rocket fire -- just as it has under other circumstances in the past. But that would incur a cost for the Israeli political class -- and costs are meant to be borne by ordinary citizens, not their leaders. Lest we forget the meaning of patriotism.
Monday, January 05, 2009
Obama has Tzipi Livni to say about 500+ dead in Gaza. This does not make him a bad guy. It just makes him the incoming President of the United States.
American politicians do not speak out in defense of Palestinians because there is no powerful, organized Palestinian constituency which might provide some incentive for doing so. On the other hand, the American Jewish community is large, wealthy, and influential. My impression is that they also tend to be rather reactionary when it comes to Israeli policy: you do not criticize it. You do not criticize it because of the Holocaust, but you also don't criticize it because you "aren't there" and therefore have no right. This must have been a piece of social engineering dreamed up by the Israeli state, and passed on to American Jews via intermediaries based here. It's my only explanation for how these American Jewish groups -- and I don't know if they are the majority, but they seem like it -- are so willing to back Israeli policy so uncritically. There is far more diversity of thought in Israel on these subjects than there is in the US.
Anyway, this is why I do not care about politicians, even black presidents of the United States. They are important to me to the degree that they are important to ordinary people -- but that only speaks to how impressed I am by ordinary people. They have no intrinsic value otherwise; as I say, they are mere barometers of what is happening within their societies. US politicians love Israel because they love winning elections, and they are not going to do that by antagonizing the groups best positioned to assist them. They are never free to do what is right except by coincidence.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Israel invades Gaza and the US blocks diplomacy at the UN. The powerful do not need to make concessions to the weak: they have a free hand to impose their political preferences, whatever the human costs.
There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, says Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni -- which is interesting considering the "humanitarian crisis" which existed before Israel started bombing the population. Perhaps the crisis is being addressed through the gradual depopulation of the territories. I eagerly await Elie Wiesel's parachuting on to the scene to remind us all of the lessons of the Holocaust. If I recall correctly, one of them relates to organized state violence against defenseless populations, and, like, "speaking out" against this, or something. Maybe I completely misunderstood the moral of Night, or a significant part of why "remembering the Holocaust" is important, but one might think these lessons applicable in other contexts -- even one in which a Jewish state is pursuing its politics at the cost of an entire community.
Friday, January 02, 2009
There are a few things that seem to characterize Israel's wars of late.
The first is that Israel describes its operations as defensive. In the summer of 2006, Israel responded to the kidnapping of two soldiers by bombing all of Lebanon. The ensuing conflict would claim the lives of over 1000 innocent Lebanese, and 43 Israelis. A popular slogan at the time, "Israel cannot afford to lose a single war" was offered up in response to international calls for a ceasefire. It was also claimed that Hezbollah's offensive arsenal (mostly Chinese-made, World War II-style Katyusha rockets) posed an "existential threat" to Israel, and could not be tolerated. Rather than negotiate with Hezbollah on a prisoner exchange, Israel decided to "defend" itself against this "existential threat" by opting for open warfare, thus ensuring that it would be on the receiving end of a barrage of Katyusha attacks.
A second element which characterizes recent Israeli military campaigns is that the official aims seem transparently implausible. Just as it was difficult to see how Israel would ever "defeat" Hezbollah without blowing up everyone in Lebanon, it is hard to understand how Israeli war planners expect to topple Hamas without killing most residents of Gaza in the process. To this end they are already enjoying success: in several days of bombardment, Israel has killed over 400 Palestinians; in constrast, 4 Israelis have died. But again, this has neither weakened Hamas nor slowed the rate of rocket fire into Israel -- in this case comprised of the rudimentary Qassam rocket. (Ending rocket fire into Israel is another stated goal of the offensive, though that is about as likely as banishing rock-throwing or the thinking of bad thoughts about Israel: as long as people have access to basic materials -- sugar propels the Qassam, for example -- and believe themselves to be in intolerable conditions, they will find means to attack Israel.)
For these reasons, it might be said that an additional feature of Israel's recent wars has been their tendency to undermine the credibility of official Israeli claims. It is hard to argue on behalf of a "defensive" war when one's capacity to inflict casualties is 100 times greater than that of one's adversary. It is also hard to make defensive claims when you are initiating open-ended warfare, and maintaining it single-handedly; in other words, when your preference is for military conflict, versus other alternatives. Also, one's ability to make sound evaluations on matters of "existence" must be called into question when "existence" is claimed to be threatened, the "threat" goes unaddressed, and one continues to "exist" with no greater difficulty than before.
My private view is that nothing is being accomplished in Israel's recent military campaigns, unless you consider the deaths of large numbers of people an "accomplishment." That is clearly the most significant achievement of Israel's methods thus far. In addition to this, the ruling Kadima party is enjoying a boost in the polls prior to election day.
In the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel killed and wounded thousands of Lebanese; it strengthened Hezbollah within the society; it left Hezbollah's rocket-launching capacity intact; and it ultimately agreed to negotiate a prisoner swap -- something it could have done from day one, precluding everything else that came after.
In the present case, Israel has attacked a much weaker, mostly defenseless, population. It will likely kill large numbers of people, a big percentage of these children -- normal when bombing urban areas. It is not likely to dislodge Hamas.
Because of the vulnerability of the people in Gaza, reaction in the Arab world promises to be acute. This has the potential of destabilizing corrupt Arab regimes allied with the West. In any event, it will doubtless supply the motivation for future attacks on Israel and allies of Israel. It will increase the attractiveness of radical Islam for many, at least to the degree that this is perceived as a viable way of attacking Israeli and other western targets.
A basic commitment to human life requires opposition to policies which put it at risk. In this case, pressuring Israel to end its campaign would reduce casualties in this conflict by 99%. That gives some indication of where the focus should be.