Friday, April 30, 2010


Timothy Geithner and Bill Gates, Wall Street Journal:

Today, the United States, Canada, Spain, South Korea and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are making a commitment to fight the threat of global food insecurity. Together we are launching the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a new fund to help the world's poorest farmers grow more food and earn more than they do now so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.

"Lifting millions of people out of poverty" is a popular way of saying that people denied their traditional livelihoods -- growing grain, for example -- should "grow more food and earn more than they do now" by producing something like coffee for export to affluent markets, with "private-investment" (read: agribusiness) playing the part of "benevolent" intermediary.     

Patented, high-yielding, pest-resistant, genetically-modified seeds! are just one of the mantras of this initiative, since the more poor people produce, the greater their fraction of the profits will be; the further they will be "lifted out of poverty" -- with cash on hand to purchase the very staples, now imported, that they used to produce themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the R&D and logistical expenses of these projects are to be borne by public bodies, including local governments "that are already using their own resources to invest in the most effective ways to boost crop production," with multinationals responsible for "visionary leadership" and collecting the returns.

It is worth recalling a time on this planet when communities produced their own food, suited to their own needs and "in partnership" with the local ecology.  That's not what Bill Gates is talking about.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Succeeding away from ourselves

Anne Mulcahy, BusinessWeek:

I loved every minute of being CEO. The biggest surprise is how hard it is to give it up. I would have thought I'd be running out the door once the place was in shape. I almost understand why so many successions go badly. It's really hard to give up power. You get up with a bounce in your step every day because you know you can make a difference.

I went from being "I just want to be a CEO" to understanding that I have to be an advocate for women. There's a responsibility that comes with the position. If you don't speak about the need to focus on the progress of women, who will? Maybe we've reached a degree of parity at the entry level, but we clearly don't have that in the executive ranks—or in government, for that matter.
I don't know yet what the word retirement means. I've always said I wouldn't be head of another public company, and I'll stick to that. I'm a one-trick pony. I've got other things I want to do. I'm chair of the board of Save the Children. I'm not looking to make any more money.

Hobbies? I have none. I used to make them up when people would put together those lists, just so I could sound more interesting. My life has been invested in this job. It's bittersweet, but I feel really fortunate.

Here is an example of today's "successful woman," whose "life has been invested" in her job. She has no hobbies -- she made them up so she could sound interesting! -- but she has other things she wants to do; for instance, charitable work, now that she's "not looking to make any more money." She feels fortunate -- but the fortune is bittersweet.

What kind of success comes to women by putting institutional preferences ahead of their own?

For liberal feminism, the question is whether women are unduly discouraged from doing so! A woman's total talents must be subsumed by her occupation, with no reserve left for herself, or she will be seen as less than a man. Women should gain equal reward in their role as servants -- but not servants to their own needs; this is the lesson that liberalism, with its "equality under the law," inevitably leaves us when laws are not written by women.

We can play at feminism by insisting on "equal rights" in the workplace, or we can make the workplace an outcome of the people who work within it. Any authentic feminism would not settle for putting women on equal terms with men in circumstances that are broadly dismissive of both, with consistently worse outcomes for women.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing well with others isn't work

Wall Street Journal:

We have all worked with at least one office pain in the neck, someone whose irritating and unfathomable behavior annoys co-workers and wrecks teamwork. These foibles often persist beyond reason because they are so deep-rooted, having been learned in the families of people's childhoods. Amid a growing focus on workplace quality, some managers and coaches are now using new techniques to identify the childhood origins of harmful behavior at work and then rout out those patterns through training or outright bans on bad behavior.

Rather than "identifying the childhood origins of harmful behavior" in others, I would like to propose a "new technique" of interpersonal awesomeness called "voluntary association." The way it would work is, I would grow some food in my garden and, insofar as you qualify in my mind as "a dick," I would bring it to someone else's party.

Scent of a liberal

Robert Reich, Financial Times:

If Washington knew what was good for it and the nation, it would sever its financial connections with Wall Street.

Yes: And if I knew what was good for me and my family, I would sever financial connections to my boss, who in no way reciprocates the kind of consideration we show him on a daily basis.

Why this is not a realistic course of action is best explained by the nature of the relationship, not any question of knowing what is good for us.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gold Guns Girls

A plan for all seasons

Foreign Affairs:

Is is ironic, of course, that Walmart is embracing women's empowerment in emerging markets even as it fights the largest class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history.


Monday, April 26, 2010


Glass half-Full:

Idealistic systems for engineering a classless society are pipe dreams. Get real. Marx and Mao, though they had a few accurate analyses, have been disproven as a source for societal construction. Find something good to do and get to work so you can contribute to the commonwealth instead of sponging from it.

I think the point Marx would make is that "finding something good to do" so that you might "get to work and contribute to the commonwealth" is something that a system dedicated to capital accumulation inevitably precludes, since the purpose of production is to produce capital, not "commonwealth."

Americans are heartsick for want of purposeful work; most would jump at the chance just to pay their bills. That these opportunities are not forthcoming, however, does not owe to any dearth in American ingenuity, ambition, education, or will; but to the simple fact that the boss has denied them. Such opportunities are not for the idle American to "create," since this is a power too great but for that monopoly class of employers whose contribution to the "economy" is never less than a tautological contribution to themselves, with incidental effects for everyone else.

It happens that Marx was centrally interested in these questions, seeing in the need for creative, purposeful work a fundamental human trait. The obstacles which confront us in the full realization of this trait exist not within ourselves, but in our relationship to that class which has assumed this role for itself. For Marx, a "classless society" would mean one in which the possibilities for purposeful work would be denied to no one.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Love in the time of Somoza

Uriel Molina, OFM; Wobblies & Zapatistas:

We ourselves may not be the ones to discover our role but others may point us to it. For example, during the time of the insurrection against Somoza, we felt that we might lose, we might all be killed. One day I was talking with a man who never came to church but was a very dedicated person. I said, "Things are looking very bad. Maybe we better pull out because it looks like it is all over and we are all going to be wiped out." And the young man, William, said, "If you do that then the whole community will lose their hope, because your presence here is during the day like an open door and at night, a light."

In the time of the New Testament, Christians were called atheists. They rejected the gods of the empire and the standard religious beliefs, so they were called atheists. Now there is a new need for a kind of atheist vision where the idols need to be knocked over and the true God is to be found, because the old conception of God doesn't speak to people today. It may be time for becoming atheists with regard to ideas about God, and discovering the true God.

Let us consider for a moment our priest with the healthy instincts. The priest tells us we must become atheists about God, because God has become a lie produced by power.

God is always a lie produced by the powerful, just as "the will of God" has always concealed the material interests of that holy minority presuming to speak on its behalf. Whatever the alternative, this God is always on the scene; and it is instructive that today's Christian God finds its roots in that body given up in opposition to the God of its day, while bodies are offered in sacrifice to its modern incarnation.

Surely a priest knows his prospects when he opposes the God of power, which under Somoza meant the alliance between a military regime and his employer. For a priest to say, "Let us become atheists about God" is to risk losing the good will of both.

And so he finds himself in a place where he is likely to get killed -- standing beside his neighbors, who have begun to fight back. But now, absent the God of power, the priest perceives his role, which is to be "an open door during the day, and at night, a light." It's not something the priest needed to explain to his parish, but what his parish had to reveal to him.

This doesn't need to be a religious story in a strict sense. "God" may be important to some people, but power will find its way to the top of every value system, whether those values are "secular" or "religious." Power conceals itself within the whole, and insists on its legitimacy.

Depending on our preferences, some of us may need to be atheists about God; but others may need to be atheists about Atheism, or democrats about Democracy, feminists about Feminism, and so on. In other words, we want to be loosely acquainted with our identity as we understand it, not so strongly attached that it permits a lasting foothold for power. The temptation of power is always to impose; what we want is to begin to listen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Full-time stupervisors

Chucklehead Ned said: "Oogah boogah boogah! You go do -- go do-gah!"

The call of the wild-eyed manager.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A long, loving look at the real

It's easy to get depressed if we're honest about what happens in the world.

And while cynicism is much better than ignorance, cynicism can signal a kind of ignorance; an inability to see good in the same moment we are honest.

Taken together, it may not be true that some things are good and other things are bad, but that everything is good; and what is bad grows out of this assumption, but not in harmony with it.

For example, the fact that our culture cannot accommodate the idea of death, and consequently fears and marginalizes its elders, who only offer themselves as the present face of our future selves, is a fine example of the good that is lost when we are too afraid to love what is real.

I see an awful lot of elderly people who are incredibly lonesome, even though many have lived incredible lives; but their kids are too busy in their obligations to others; and young people are unimpressed by any information source that lacks a touch screen. So a friend of mine who escaped the Holocaust has no audience, in spite of being very generous with her experience.

Another example might be to take the worldwide plague of rape and violence against women, which, insofar as men respected their mothers -- and respected them all the time, without betrayal -- might prove difficult to sustain. There is a natural relation which is absent in every instance of these acts by men; acts which do not reciprocate the things given to them by their mothers. Something else has intervened, but it is happening within life's framework; it does not displace it.

What I would like to get out of this is a point of encouragement. Yesterday I sat across from someone I love and had a conversation. In spite of everything else that was wrong with the world, it was enough.

Impoverished ideas

Ladypoverty says less @ Twitter.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Gideon Rachman, Financial Times:

Wealth and privilege has made babies of us all. Of course I should be able to get anywhere in the world in 24 hours! There is always a flight out. There is no logistical problem that cannot be solved with a mixture of ingenuity and money. Yet the volcano seemed strangely indifferent to the fact that I have a large credit limit on my Visa card. Its effects are surprisingly democratic.

Recall the anxiety that was produced in the course of our nation's "health care debate," when it was suggested that people might have to "wait in line" as the government "rationed" care. It is an established principle in American life that money shortens every line; but even the poorest citizen can take pride in it while they wait!

The requirements of human survival can impose a burden on "wealth and privilege" in ways not unlike a volcano at its disruptive best. The only difference is that the volcano enjoys greater consideration.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Letters to the editor

Wall Street Journal:

I've read some discompassionate pieces in my time but your editorial "Incentives Not to Work" (April 13) tops all. There are so many of us who are deserving of a good-paying job and have worked hard to gain real qualifications, but there aren't any jobs. I didn't put myself through college (while working in various manufacturing positions) in order to be a clerk at the convenience store or a greeter at Wal-Mart. With or without that unemployment check I'm still unemployed.

Just wait and see what happens when these benefits for us are all gone and our leaders have failed to "grow jobs." Maybe they should understand that they should have grown employers -- because they could not grow jobs. Why not just send all of us indolent slackers to labor camps? We aren't even close to being the drag on the economy that plenty of half-baked programs have been. Hope it doesn't happen to you.

Craig M. Kallenbach
Rockford, Ill.

I'm not a college grad and thus have not been a high-wage earner, but there are very few jobs available in my area that pay more than $8 to $10 an hour. I have two kids still at home and another that is unemployed. I make about $10 an hour in unemployment with no taxes taken out, and am barely making ends meet. Do you really think I should just jump for that $10-an-hour job and then wind up taking home less after taxes and travel? And then, because I'll have a history of earning lower wages, my unemployment benefit will be even less should I become unemployed again. To me this sounds like a recipe for giving my house back to the bank. I don't want to be permanently unemployed. I just want to earn a decent living, and if benefits can be extended a little longer, maybe I can get back into the work force at a wage comparable to what I was earning before losing my job. I think that most of the unemployed feel the same way.

Dan Hoffman
West Branch, Iowa

Your article quotes Lawrence Summers's explanation that unemployment insurance and other social insurance programs raise the reservation wage. Were it not for these programs, desperate workers would lower their reservation wage, and this would lead them to find employment faster. As a professor of economics, I taught this to my students for years. But for the past year, having found myself unemployed, I have learned that the logic of that statement is not always correct.

When I offered my services at a lower wage to prospective employers, I was told time and again that they were not interested. They said if they paid me less than I was worth, I would be unhappy, and therefore I would be unproductive. Moreover, they were concerned that I would leave their employ as soon as a better opportunity presented itself. This shows that employers do not necessarily react to lowered reservation wages. The implication that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed for not having lowered their reservation wage is wrong.

Joelle Saad-Lessler
Brooklyn, N.Y.

While conducting a job search made difficult by factors like my age (50) and lack of experience in other industries, I have been attending college at night and taking science classes that are required for a bachelor's degree in nursing and will apply for several, one-year accelerated programs that start in early 2011. My ultimate goal is to become a self-employed nurse practitioner.

Unfortunately, in fields like the one I was in, there will be very few opportunities over the next five years. However, to say that we have no incentive to find work is hardly accurate. I made close to three times what I am receiving in unemployment benefits. You think I wouldn't take a job where I could earn twice what I am receiving in unemployment benefits? I have a mortgage payment, bills and a retirement I'd like to save for. I'd take such a job in a heartbeat.

But the jobs are not out there like they once were, and I have to re-tool. For me, unemployment benefits have made the difference between barely staying afloat and filing for bankruptcy.

Scott Matthew Smith
Lakewood, Colo.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Remembering our foolish past, anticipating a foolish future

Wall Street Journal:

The piece de resistance is a breathtaking domed chamber used as the meeting place for the [French Communist Party's] Central Committee. The cupola, looking like something out of a James Bond film, is hung with thousands of white aluminum panels that mute extraneous sound and spread light uniformly throughout. With this womb-like space, Mr. Niemeyer achieved one of the most spectacular auditoriums in all of Europe. The doors leading into the chamber are set at an angle and are pneumatically controlled.
The Marxist architect, awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963 in part because of his ideology and the Pritzker Prize in 1988 despite it, deemed his building "not merely a good example of architecture, but a sign of the socialist society that is already being imposed with the force of historical necessity."

Lend enough power to any idea, what you end up with is stupidity.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Marxism vs. identity anarchism

Staughton Lynd, Wobblies & Zapatistas:

There is one other aspect to my insistence that anarchists need Marxism.  I think we need to take seriously the fact that most of humanity is in a different situation than footloose students and intellectuals, and is necessarily preoccupied with economic survival.

This was brought home to me as a graduate student in history when I took a long look at tenant farmers and artisans during the period of the American Revolution.  Most of my Left colleagues who sought to view history "from the bottom up" focused attention on the ideology of such groups.  I found otherwise.  Whether a tenant farmer was for or against the Revolution in the Hudson Valley of New York depended on the politics of his landlord: whatever the landlord supported, the tenant opposed, in the hope that if the landlord's political party was defeated the tenant might come to own his farm.  Similarly, artisans before and after the Revolutionary War favored whatever political party most effectively opposed the import of British manufactures: this meant the Sons of Liberty in 1763-1776 and Federalists including Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a national government with a strong tariff, in 1787-1788.

There was nothing ignoble about wanting to own the farm on which a tenant labored, or to preserve an artisan's livelihood in making shoes, or hats, or nails, or sails, or rope, or barrels.  But it is necessary to recognize the concern for economic survival that drove these lower class protagonists.  And Marxism appeared to do this more understandingly than does anarchism.

It's worth remembering that, for many of our tea-swilling, nativist friends, a time existed when a white, blue-collar man (and even a few unionized men of color) could raise a family on his income alone thanks to the patriarchal compact that existed between men in the factory, men in the executive suites, and men in government; all in the name of "industrial peace."

The "angry white man" that has surfaced since announced the betrayal of this compact, which has lowered the living standards of these men and their families, in their view, to a level commensurate with those at the lowest economic tier. They compete for jobs at 7-11 with Mexicans when they should be preparing to retire, as opposed to carrying on the middle-class tradition of their fathers and grandfathers, in other words. Unsurprisingly they want to "take back their country," which one can interpret as regaining their rightful place in the national hierarchy, characterized as it is by this economic component.

To simply point out that people in this situation have the wrong politics yields no insight into what might be done, and this is what Lynd hits at with his advocacy of Marxism. Anarchism, as Poumista writes, now being ascendant, is to my view increasingly an elaborate declaration of principles which seem to stand in the place of strategy, as if declaring that one is "anti-Leninist" is sufficient and all we have to do is find enough like-minded consumers of anarchist culture to hang out with to change the world.

Now, I say this because I do believe anarchism is ascendant, and the dark side of this is that it will become unreflective, in much the same way Marxism was in its day. After all, it believes in no hierarchy -- the solution is found! And yet a real world exists beyond the bounds of our beliefs and identities, and requires that we engage with it.

Dispatch from the paradise of consumption

Might people who think differently share anything in common?

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, Infoshop News:

[M]any of us did have deep and engaging conversations with Tea Partiers (they were confused. How could we be against capitalism and against the state? It didn't make any sense in their overly simplified perspective of the world, probably attained from FOX news)...

Probably so! Surely the anarchist's task is to "counter" this phenomenon, taking for granted that this is not an easy thing to do with limited resources.

In my view, this would entail not so much "counterdemonstrations" of the sort that are incomprehensible to anyone but the "anarcho"-nerd -- "I'm wearing a red & black ninja suit! Remember Catalonia!" -- but appealing to people on some basis other than shouting them down.

In an American context, this might mean dropping the "hardcore anarchist" pretense in favor of actually behaving like one in this country. It would mean constructive engagement wherever possible, not preemptive sectarianism.

The short life of art in the United States

Michele Barrett, Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis:

It is immediately clear that the conditions under which men and women produce literature are materially different.  This important question has been curiously neglected by recent feminist work, and the most systematic exploration of this issue is still, fifty years after its publication, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  Naive as this essay undoubtedly is in some respects, it nonetheless provides us with a very useful starting point.   Woolf bases her arguments in this book and in related essays on materialist propositions.  Writing, she argues, is not "spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures": it is based on material things (health, money, the houses we live in).  These material conditions must govern the writer's "angle of vision," his or her perception of society.  They must influence the art-form chosen, the genre chosen with the form, the style, the tone, the implied reader, the representation of character.

Woolf argues that a crucial difference between men and women has lain historically in the restricted access of the latter to the means of literary production.  Their education was frequently sacrificed to that of their brothers; they lacked access to publishers and the distribution of their work; they could not earn a living by writing as men did, since (before the Married Women's Property Acts [GB]) they could not even retain their earnings if they were married.  Relative poverty and lack of access to an artistic training meant that the bourgeois woman encountered specific constraints on her creative work: Woolf suggests that one reason why women have been so prolific in literary production and almost absent from forms such as musical composition and visual art is that the latter requires greater financial resources than "the scratching of a pen" ("For ten and sixpence one can buy enough paper to write all the plays of Shakespeare...").  Less plausibly and more controversially, she argues that even the choice of literary form was affected by women's social position: they opted for the new form of the novel rather than for poetry or drama, since it required less concentration and was therefore more compatible with the inevitable interruptions of household obligations.

Consider the pressure an artist feels as she matures to abandon her art in favor of more practical pursuits. Consumerism makes consumption easy, and production not worth its while unless it generates income. This is why people are forever looking for that "angle" by which an artist can transform the "use value" of her work into an "exchange value" -- otherwise she is discouraged from pursuing her talent at all!

If she cannot sell her work, then her first obligation must be to her employer (formerly, her husband), to develop the sorts of creative abilities that he wants: making it to work on time; anticipating his needs in advance; completing "team" goals set by him; and, what must surely be the greatest creative responsibility ever bestowed upon our working girl by respectable hands, the freedom to "think outside the box" -- to innovate for his benefit.

Because the normal obligation to one's family is mediated through employment, a sense of obligation to one's self and one's interests, particularly for women, is cast as a kind of selfishness, a failure to meet one's "responsibilities," which in her dependency on employment is never anything less than a duty to her boss.

In the United States, the boss spells the death of art and creation for so many; and you might even hear people say they have no regrets. But I suspect you will hear it said with less confidence when it is said by a woman.

What The Heart is a Lonely Hunter told of her, it says about us all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Smearing the wealth uptown

Arthur C. Brooks, Wall Street Journal:

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world's most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

What is interesting about this statement is that "our system" is not the envy of the world when it is applied in other nations. Our country, for various reasons owing to how it developed, happens to be extremely wealthy, and it's no secret that people like to envy anybody who is extremely wealthy. But when you apply the "free market" principle of total dependence on one's employer for one's health and well-being, with no basic rights outside this relationship, then "the world" will be the first to tell you how much this sucks, particularly when you don't enjoy the sort of extreme wealth that might let you subsist for a while on the crumbs. In other countries, you just starve, or sell members of your family into some kind of slavery. This is why the rest of the world avoids "our system" like the plague whenever they aren't compelled to accept it by force, and subsequently enjoy "government redistribution" in the form of basic services, like health care, that the average citizen would not be able to purchase on their own.  The thing to remember about a person like Arthur C. Brooks, however, is that he is not an average citizen, and what scares him most is that he would ever be expected to contribute to the welfare of anyone who was.

More scuds for Hezbollah

Wall Street Journal:

Syria has transferred long-range Scud missiles to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Israeli and U.S. officials alleged, in a move that threatens to alter the Middle East's military balance and sets back a major diplomatic outreach effort to Damascus by the Obama administration.

First of all, there isn't a sane observer in the world who would argue against an "alteration of the Middle East's military balance," which routinely expresses itself in a casualty ratio of roughly 100:1 Arab to Israeli casualties. Getting that to a more even ratio, by enhancing the ability of one side to defend itself, is what I like to call a "sure-fire" recipe for peace! Otherwise, what history shows is that you can go on killing people for a long time before you'll ever see any benefit in negotiating with them!

Secondly, it's worth reviewing why there is a Lebanese Shiite militant group named Hezbollah in the first place. The short answer is that no such group appeared until the Israeli military appeared in Lebanon.

The point, as it relates to Holden Caulfield and Karl Marx

Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and Its Aspirations:

More than anyone, Karl Marx grasped the essential character of what would become a hegemonic social structure -- articulated most compellingly in his Capital (1867) as well as the earlier Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.  More than "simply" a form of economic exploitation dividing the world into a few haves and many have-nots ... capitalism's inherent grow-or-die logic would reconstitute the whole of life in its image.  It "naturalized" values like competition and the domination of humans over other humans, as if they were normal conditions of life, like breathing, and made such values increasingly hegemonic.

This logic unfolds dialectically, as Marx shows, from the commodity, or "cell-form," of capitalism: an object no longer defined by how useful it is (use value), but by its exchangeability (exchange value).  Rather than things having inherent worth in themselves, all of life becomes instrumentalized within a capitalist system.   Capitalism is necessarily compelled to commodify more and more things, material and immaterial, affective and ecological -- the whole world, if possible.  "Value" is determined by how much one has to exchange and accumulate: money, property, or especially power over others.  This buy-sell relation, as Marx explained it, ultimately becomes masked in the commodity itself.  Things-as-commodities -- from goods and human labor, to value systems and social structures -- seem to be ever-more independent of human creation.  In this way, people become alienated, estranged, or seemingly removed from a world that is actually of their own making, and that could be remade in alternate, humane ways.  As the Situationist International would later add, people become spectators rather than actors in their own lives -- lives that are increasingly controlled and deadening, if not deadly, regardless of whether one is "at work" or not.

I've often thought the point about "things not having value in themselves" was most ably mourned by your friend and mine, Holden Caulfield, when he remarked that, were he to play piano, he would play it in the goddam closet. "I wouldn't even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things." In other words, perhaps there is value in doing something for its own sake, not always as a means to something else.

For Marx, capitalism is a system of profit production through the mass manufacture and exchange of commodities. The purpose is to produce more capital, not necessarily more of any particular product. As you may have noticed, capitalism is happy to produce every sort of consumable garbage just as much as it will gladly discontinue genuinely useful items from a prior era.

Whether the commodity is an appliance, a vehicle, or some cultural product like a television show, the "use value" of a product is always a secondary consideration, subordinated to whatever production/exchange process will be most profitable. So refrigerators that last a lifetime are "updated" by models that last for several years, and reality TV shows displace almost every other kind of programming on television. Mostly disposable products from China, desired or not, flood the market because a very special commodity, human labor power, can be bought more cheaply under a populous, authoritarian regime than it can in any of these United States.

The point, again, as it relates to Holden Caulfield and Karl Marx, is that there may be value in producing a thing for its usefulness, not merely as a means to something else.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An end to the end of poverty, again

New York Times:

[Muhammad] Yunus says [microfinance] interest rates should be 10 to 15 percent above the cost of raising the money, with anything beyond a “red zone” of loan sharking. “We need to draw a line between genuine and abuse,” he said. “You will never see the situation of poor people if you look at it through the glasses of profit-making.”

In that case, one option might be to extend loans to poor people through institutions they can control, like their government. When people control something, they needn't rely on the iron law of Muhammad Yunus's recommendations. But because poor people aren't permitted to control their governments, they are invariably robbed by every salvation scheme conceived in the private sector.

Dependency theories

Wall Street Journal:

[D]o these Senators really think it's compassionate to give people an additional incentive to stay out of the job market, losing crucial skills and contacts? And how politically smart is it for Democrats to embrace policies that keep the jobless rate higher than it would otherwise be? How many Democrats share Mr. Harkin's apparent desire to defend a jobless rate near 9% (today it is 9.7%) in the fall election campaign.

What capital calls an "incentive not to work" is what is more commonly known as "unemployment insurance." Quite apart from what "these Senators think is compassionate," there is reason to believe that Americans would prefer to have some income when they are unemployed vs. none. Senators are merely hip to this; they have "compassion" for their careers.

This illustrates a fundamental hang-up which conservatives encounter anytime they try to convince people who would otherwise starve that government is the problem. No, fuckface, not having any income is the problem. Everybody knows how bad it is to be "dependent" on their government; but anybody who has ever worked knows full-well how much worse it is to be dependent on their employer.

A note about Marx and Foucault

One of the reasons I like to emphasize Marx is that most Americans already know what a horrible person he was. So, as a point of interest, he benefits from the fact that people have heard of him, and furthermore enjoy terrific preconceptions as to what he was all about. As a close relation confessed to me recently: "If somebody gets an A on the test, and somebody else gets an F, you give everybody a C!"

The corollary to this is that Americans often find Marx fascinating when they contrast this vaguely awful person with some of his basic observations, which relate, for example, to the length and intensity of the working day, among other everyday "challenges" which most of us take for granted. Once we stop taking the details of our lives for granted, we can begin to ask ourselves who those details are likely to serve. Insofar as this is something Marx brings out of us, we can get very wrapped up in wanting to see more of the world through this lens.

The point I would like to make about Foucault is that he came out of a background that was overburdened with Marx. You see, in much of the world, there are significant parts of society that think Marx is fantastic, and these groups have had varying degrees of success in displacing their political rivals. For Foucault, the French Marxists were mostly morons who clung to Marx in the hope that they might assume a position of authority in a socialist-led France, in much the same way that the American economist can make a fine living spouting nonsense nobody understands.

For all its merits, Marxism lends itself to the kind of complicated interpretations that those fluent in a language can always lord over everyone else. In any event, Foucault had a mind of his own and wanted to look at things independently of what various French Marxists insisted was in style. Subsequently he got pegged as "post-structuralist" where the Marxists were "structuralist," and "post-modern" where Marx was "modern."

Personally, I've never felt that "post-modernism" announced anything more than a break with the assumptions of "modernism." This may be significant for people who were steeped in those assumptions, like professionals, many of whom only began to examine them critically once the "break" was ordained. But I'm skeptical that it has much significance for anyone else, since much of what post-modernism poses as unique to its contribution -- "deconstructing" our "social constructs," etc. -- is no different from what the critical mind has been doing for all of human history.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Marx and Foucault

"Now what is interesting here is to reflect on the way that somebody like Foucault, for example, talks about the disciplinary apparatuses that came into being in the 17th, 18th centuries in particular, as part and parcel of creating a self-discipline, in ourselves, which made governmentality so much easier for the bourgeois state. And what Foucault does, in many ways it seems to me, [is to] extend this whole idea here, through books like Madness and Civilization, through the Birth of the Clinic; and, particularly, through Discipline and Punish.

Now, there's a very interesting kind of way in which Foucault is often viewed as somehow or another being 'anti-Marxist.' Well, he was anti- the Maoists, and anti- the Trotskyists, and he was anti- the Communist Party; but it's very clear, when you read this and you read that literature, that this is his starting point. And all of those French intellectuals really started from a good understanding of [Marx] ... and I have to say when I first read all that literature by Foucault, I didn't see it in any way antagonistic to Marx at all; I saw it as an extension; it was an elaboration, and with some transformation involved too; but that this was a wonderful way in which to start to think about the sorts of issues that Marx is talking about [in Capital: Chapter 10: The Working Day]."

-- David Harvey, Reading Marx's Capital (61:25)

Intelligent designs

Roger Lowenstein, BusinessWeek:

The government's backstopping of Fannie and Freddie, along with the federal agenda of promoting homeownership, was yet another cause of the bust. Yet for all of Washington's miscues, the direct agents of the bubble were private ones. It was the market that financed unsound mortgages and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that spread their contagion globally; the Fed permitted, but the market acted. The banks that failed were private; the investors who financed them were doing the glorious work of Adam Smith.

There is a basic point about capitalism which I like to reiterate. If something is designed to work a certain way, you can't get upset when it works that way.

Just as the abuse of disproportionate, unchecked power always "comes as no surprise," so too will profit maximization by a possessing minority inevitably end in tears for the society at large.

Capital's political religion teaches that if the profit impulse of the self-interested does not yield its public good, then, by definition, this noble impulse has not been realized correctly.

Those of the conservative denomination swear that whatever has gone wrong, the government has done it; meanwhile, our liberal men of the cloth proclaim that the government has not done it well enough!

The truth is that what the government does, or does not do well enough, reflects a balance of power within the society. Capitalism has never existed without its state, and the state has never acted "in the public interest" wholly independent of capital.

Yet, as with so many religious beliefs, our politics stay relevant just so long as they reflect on those problems yet to be resolved.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pro-choice economics

Wall Street Journal:

Cornell University economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn found that after adjusting for factors such as education, experience, occupation and industry, the remaining, "unexplained" gender gap in 1998 was nine percentage points. Women also are likely to interrupt their careers, often to start a family, and such breaks can derail promotions and raises.

"When you first see the numbers, you would say there is a glass ceiling," says Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin. "And yet when you scrutinize the data, you find lots of evidence of people making rational choices."

In an economic system which penalizes one gender for the reproduction of the species, it is not discriminatory insofar as women make "rational choices" when negotiating between kids and employers.

Friday, April 09, 2010

MoUist corridor

Financial Times:

Arundhati Roy, author and a Naxalite sympathiser, takes issue with the widespread description of the tribal forest lands as a Maoist Corridor. They should instead be called a MoUist Corridor, she says, a play on the memoranda of understanding (MoUs) that have been concluded with mining companies drawn by the belt’s rich deposits of iron ore, bauxite and other precious minerals. “There’s an MoU on every mountain, river and forest glade,” she writes in an article in Outlook magazine, in which she links the government’s assault on tribal lands with mining interests.

"I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy -- who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative” -- should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach?"

-- Arundhati Roy

Thanks to almostinfamous

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Base and superstructure

"Given Soutine's almost archetypal background of suffering and deprivation -- born to poverty in a Lithuanian village, thrashed as a boy for his 'un-Jewish' interest in image making, then living penniless for years in Paris before his paintings sold -- we might consider these Ceret paintings metaphors for his hard-won life as an artist. In any case, he was never, after achieving financial stability (the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes bought 100 of the Ceret works), to paint in quite this way again."

-- New York Times

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Reporters with borders

Financial Times:

For years, the Bush administration whittled away the rules regulating the broadband industry in the belief that booming demand for fast internet service would create a flurry of competition among wireless and cable companies to provide broadband services.
The competition the Bush administration believed would flourish under deregulation failed to materialise.

This might prompt a professional journalist to question whether what the Bush administration "believed" was in fact identical to what the Bush administration said it believed, since other explanations -- that the Bush administration was acting on behalf of particular firms within the industry, for example -- are also plausible.

In fairness to journalists, they aren't the only ones duty-bound to dodge the truth, from time to time, in pursuit of successful careers.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Wants and needs

So, sure. Obama continues to blow up women his daughters' age in order to get at the guys who keep them from going to school -- and that's because detaining a homie might require some kind of evidence down the line.

But, dude, you gotta remember: We are at war.

What dreams may come

Wall Street Journal:

The Labor Department is encouraging low-wage and immigrant workers to turn in employers who are shortchanging their pay, as part of an expanding effort to enforce wage and hour rules.
Business groups and management-side lawyers say they are concerned the campaign will result in more litigation toward employers, some of it frivolous.

Lest we forget the other side of that coin: some of the litigation promises to be awesome.

Just the idea that people might be compensated for the work they do should be proof enough of change we can believe in.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Richard Rohr, Simplicity:

Pyramids are always pyramids of sacrifice. Whether it is the hundreds of thousands of slaves creating monuments to Egyptian kings, the sacrificial victims offering their hearts to Aztec gods, or the underpaid maids and janitors in the tourist hotels of the world, someone always has to give his or her life so that someone else can be "special." When that specialness is idealized and protected instead of avoided and made unnecessary, as Jesus taught, we have the destructive and dark side of power. Jesus struck at the nerve center of such power when he empowered honest human relationships instead of degrees of religious worthiness. Jesus built circles instead of pyramids. What they could not forgive him for, even on the cross, was that he announced the necessary destruction of the holy temple. "Not a stone will stand on a stone. Everything will be destroyed" (Mark 13:2).

There's something very portable about the truth, isn't there? It finds its translation into every language.

Friday, April 02, 2010


It's hard to think of a context in which liberals would make fun of poor people on the basis that they can't spell. But god forbid that poor person is also ignorant!

Command and control

Land and People:

Syria was able to build a low debt, high foreign reserve economy under a "command-type" economy, which mitigated the impacts of the financial crash. But now, they have to introduce neo-liberal economy in order for the new plutocracy to empty the coffers and to destroy the productive sectors, agriculture and industry.

China, on the other hand, wants to develop the productive sectors of its economy while retaining some measure of control. This forms the centerpiece complaint of US capital in its ongoing trade dispute with China, as reported in a feature article by BusinessWeek:

A Jan. 26 letter to the White House from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Software Alliance, and more than a dozen other groups representing hundreds of multinationals such as Microsoft, Boeing, Motorola, Caterpillar, and United Technologies, warned of "systematic efforts by China to develop policies that build their domestic enterprises at the expense of U.S. firms."

Or yesterday's Financial Times:

[M]any US industries complain that they face significant non-tariff barriers to trade”, the report said. “These barriers include, for example, regulations that set high thresholds for entry into service sectors such as banking, insurance and telecommunications . . . and the use of questionable sanitary and phytosanitary measures to control import volumes.”

As an aside, it's worth noting that the World Trade Organization defines "sanitary and phytosanitary measures" as "ensuring that your country’s consumers are being supplied with food that is safe to eat" -- which from the perspective of US exporters is doubtless used against them, since few such standards apply here.

Stripped of its technical language, the US-China trade dispute is a power struggle between US capital and a foreign government not yet subordinated to its needs. Daniel Ikenson of the Cato Institute, writing in today's Wall Street Journal, underscores the point that "trade" is a misnomer which describes the overseas operations of US companies, so that a tariff on "Chinese imports" would in fact penalize US firms:

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would sell; how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution and sales would support; how much lower Apple's profits and research and development expenditures would be; how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be; and how many fewer jobs those industries would support. Multiply that by the hundreds of other devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and other products designed in the U.S. and assembled in China from components made in the U.S. and elsewhere.

As the US-China trade debate heats up, it's worth keeping some of these considerations in mind. Moreover, it's instructive to consider how little ordinary Americans or Chinese factor into the overall equation, except as political afterthoughts.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The most affordable benefits are no benefits at all

Wall Street Journal:

The rise in public-sector benefits has attracted the ire of citizens like Paul Nelson, a semi-retired investor in Upper Saddle River, N.J. Mr. Nelson, 59 years old, has a son at Northern Highlands Regional High School, where the principal says the school may have to cut teachers and increase class size. "Most public employees have retirement and health-care plans that private-sector employees can only dream of," says Mr. Nelson.

This is true insofar as "having retirement and health-care plans" implies anticipating future needs and, in fact, meeting them. Admittedly, this costs money -- just like any benefit plan which delivers "benefits" to participants, rather than reneging under one pretense or another.

Perhaps private-sector employees "can only dream of" knowing, more or less, where they will stand when they retire -- or, as recent history would have it, whether they will retire at all. But that is hardly a standard worth emulating.