Thursday, December 31, 2009


For it is written:

When your planes blow up their people, their people blow up your planes. Peace!

Dreaming of Mars

New York Times:

The incident raises the immediate question of whether this country and others should now buy and widely deploy so-called whole body imagers, which can detect the presence of nonmetallic objects, including lethal chemicals, plastic explosives and ceramic knives.

I thought the incident raised the immediate question of why people are so desirous to make Americans explode! As an American, that is a much more interesting question for me personally than whether or not we should aspire to the same security infrastructure as Total Recall.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The listening station

Religious practice, as a social activity not wholly subordinated to commercial exchange, defies simple characterization in the political sense. It is well known for its authoritarian examples -- but these are never exhaustive; counter trends exist. The fact that we don't know about them can't be surprising under conditions of social estrangement: we don't know much about most things when it comes other people.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is Christmas Christian?

by Richard Rohr, Order of Friars Minor
Center for Action and Contemplation

As a Franciscan priest, I think I have the right to ask that question. Frankly, it is much easier to ask in a non-Christian owned magazine! We from the Catholic tradition too easily presume that because the title is right, the train following it is on the right track. We are not often open to asking if the train has anything to do with the direction of the original engine. In this case, the birth and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

We all know that the date of December 25 is not derived from Christian tradition. It instead traces back to the third-century Roman feast of the Rebirth of the Sun -- normally celebrated as soon as they could observe the same, sometime after the Winter Solstice. Right away, that tells us that the first few centuries of the Common Era had no interest in knowing when Jesus was born or even celebrating it. That came with calendars and the demarcating of precise time.

Frankly, we must confess that it was likely our founder, St. Francis (1182-1226), who began to make Christmas the sentimental celebration that it has become, although his intention was never at all in the direction it has taken. He was the great lover of poverty and simplicity, and would be aghast at the consumer- and group-defining feast that Christmas has become. He merely replicated the drama of the stable with live animals and music.

For Francis and the early Franciscans, "incarnation was already redemption" and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever -- and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us "as Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).

But groups need and create their identity symbols, and the celebration of Christmas became the big one for Christian Europe, just as Jewish people need Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Muslims need Ramadan and pilgrimage. The trouble is that the meaning became group-defining instead of life-transforming. As we say today, it got "off message"! It was no longer God's choice of the whole, but God's choice of us! (In fairness, most religions make the same mistake at lower levels of transformation).

At those lower levels of civil religion or any religion as a "belonging system" the original meaning is always lost and often even morphs into its exact opposite. Strange and sad, isn't it? In this case, the self-emptying of God into humble and poor humanity (Philippians 2:7) became an excuse for us to fill, consume, dominate, use, and spend at staggering levels for ourselves. In fact, the days leading up to December 25 are the economic engine around which the entire business economy measures itself in Christian-influenced countries. One might think that the fasting of Ramadan and Yom Kippur might have been a much clearer act of solidarity with the actual mystery celebrated.

Well, this year we might be forced under duress to celebrate the feast of Jesus' humble birth with honesty! Our economic meltdown is showing for all to see what our real gods have been. It is not the Lord of Israel or his Son that we love, nearly as much as we do our limitless growth, our right to empire, our actual obligation to consume, and our sense of entitlement to this clearly limited planet.

In Christian circles, when I call these false gods into question, I am invariably criticized on other grounds of heresy and church protocols, almost so we do not have to look at what our real loyalties have been and are. "Let's keep talking about Biblical interpretation or papal infallibility so we never have to look at our lifestyle." For far too many of us, our final loyalties have been to the system of America, to the free market, to the protecting of the top and not the bottom where Jesus was, and to what Pope John Paul II called "rigid capitalism." He said in several of his encyclical letters that capitalism had to be critiqued and regulated just as much as socialist communism (e.g., Loborem Exercens). Strange that most western Catholics never quoted him on that theme!

So, come, let us celebrate the feast anew! May we who have consumed the mystery of Jesus now consume his whole meal, and may it free us from needing to consume so much of everything else. If you really have the One, you should not need more and more of the other. Maybe our humble Jesus is stealing our idols from us, and inviting us back into his Bethlehem stable.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Health, profit, and power

Financial Times:

[Barack Obama] is set next month to sign into law a bill that, while dramatically expanding health insurance coverage, will largely leave insurance in the hands of private companies.

This would be cool if private companies were in the business of covering people's health care expenses, rather than dodging them as a rule. Given the choice between shelving the legislative goal of affordable health care for all and nationalizing the market of the very industry that precludes it, one marvels at the pointlessness of our "representative" form of governance altogether. With success like this, who needs Democrats anyway?

Monday, December 21, 2009

What will you do with your degree?

Witold Walczak; Legal Director, ACLU PA; Jurist:

In the eeriest parallel to my experiences in martial law Poland, on two consecutive evenings the police inexplicably deemed assemblies of people peacefully gathered in a large, grassy University of Pittsburgh plaza to be “unlawful” and ordered everyone to disperse immediately. Police used an “LRAD” (first-ever civilian use of a military sonic weapon that can cause permanent hearing loss), shot pepper spray into dormitory stairwells, and fired rubber bullets and beanbags at fleeing students and curiosity seekers.

When those assembled tried to follow dispersal orders, many ran into the nearly 1000 riot police that encircled the group. The 100-plus arrestees included many curious, non-participating Pitt students and a few journalists. In this police state, apparently, government-sanctioned assemblies are allowed, but spontaneous demonstrations or gatherings, even peaceful ones, are not.

Well, at least somebody's getting an education!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The "Get Shanked!" Redemption

David Graeber, Direct Action:

In Philadelphia, [2000 Republican National Convention] activists were constantly being threatened with being distributed among the "general population," regular inmates who, guards explained in often graphic terms, would terrorize and brutalize and rape them. When the authorities, at one point, made good on their threats, the ploy completely backfired. The general population proved quite sympathetic, and above all, extremely interested in learning activist tactics. Ordinary prisoners rapidly began giving each other action names, refusing cooperation, and coordinating collective demands -- so quickly, in fact, that within twenty-four hours the activists had been taken out and segregated once again. Almost all of the arrestees, however, came out with long stories of inmates they had met among the "general population" who had been picked up for minor or harmless nonviolent offenses (marijuana possession, trespassing for taking a short-cut through a deserted lot) and, like them, subjected to continual violence and brutality. For that moment, anyway, there was the recognition of an analogous situation: the fact that the laws operate entirely differently for certain categories of people, whether these be poor African Americans, or (at least during an action) political idealists who dare to take to the streets.

I recently attended a benefit for Palestinian unions where I encountered someone who had formerly been active with Marxist groups in pre-revolutionary Iran. One of the points he made was that the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East were very careful to separate "political" prisoners from the "general population," precisely for this reason.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

You're my favorite book

Jimmy T. Hand, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction:

One thing I've been thinking about recently is fiction and ... not really anarchism, but about living your life fully. ... I still read fantasy books, sci-fi books, but I don't do it with the same sense of longing that I used to. Do you know what I mean? I used to read books like the MYTH Inc. series [by Robert Asprin], or even Lord of the Rings [by J.R.R. Tolkien]. Or the Borderlands books by Will Shetterly. I used to read those books and feel like I would give anything to live that way, to have some kind of motivation, to live in a time of fantasy and mystique. But then, when I ran away from home, I discovered that fantastic world, and it was the real world.

Intuitively, I must have always felt that school was a piss-poor way of acquiring an education about the real world. That is why I was much happier working in a menial capacity: as a course of study, it spoke to my interests. Schooling was ultimately oriented toward career, and career became an end in itself; it had nothing to say about anybody else. You paid a lot of money for the opportunity to impress people you frequently didn't like or had no respect for, because their values were not your own, but rather what you were advised to make your own. You went into debt for the benefit of your own alienation!

Like school, work could also seem like a prison sentence. But the conflict between the inmate and the institution was much less obscured. In school, one is free to believe whatever they want, because they are paying through the nose for it: You will have a respectable degree, social status, and meaningful work which conforms to your values, because you have done everything humanly possible to achieve it. The reality is very few people have work which conforms to their values, interests, and talents -- and they are acknowledged as being very lucky if they do. Generally speaking, work fails people in this regard, and that is why so many people are unhappy with it.

There is a lot at stake in the real world -- just as much, probably more, than in many of the most exciting fictional accounts. The conflicts inform our everyday experiences. To the degree that we understand them, we can play the role we would hope to see a protagonist play in our favorite narratives. One might say this is the very process of self-realization that is our purpose altogether. But that means looking everywhere and at every thing, including the places where we aren't supposed to see battles of enormous importance.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Horizons of the anarchist


Anarchism, as a system based on cooperation, addresses the weaknesses in both liberal and conservative philosophies.

Like conservatives, anarchists think we should be taking personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities. But where conservatives want to put up a wall, beyond which their responsibilities don’t go, anarchists have always understood that resolving our problems requires taking responsibility on a worldwide scale.

Like liberals, anarchists are concerned with the vast majority of people who struggle to have even the basic necessities of life. But anarchists don’t want to install themselves in positions of power where they can met out drips and drabs of whatever liberals have been willing to give up. Anarchists want to work side by side with people, questioning the hierarchies and privileges that cause those inequities. We are not creating dependency, we are recognizing interdependency.

Looked at in this way, anarchism is nothing less than the ability to extend oneself in fellowship to others, regardless of their "political" views. It celebrates what is liberating about every perspective, and condemns everything that is not.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Words < actions

Wall Street Journal:

Chief executives of the largest U.S. banks acknowledged Monday the "disconnect" between their expressed support for re-regulating financial markets and the work of their lobbyists to weaken any new rules.

It's funny the kinds of things you can be honest about when being honest about them makes no difference whatsoever!

Their system

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What makes work meaningful is rebellion

Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith, BusinessWeek:

Since work and home are very different environments, our experience of happiness and meaning in life appears to have more to do with who we are than where we are. Rather than blaming our jobs, our managers, and our customers ... for our negative worklife experience, we might be better served by looking in the mirror.
What can companies do differently? They might stop asking, "What can the company do to increase employees' experience of happiness and meaning at work?" which encourages dependency. Instead, managers can encourage employees to ask themselves, "What can I do to increase my experience of happiness and meaning at work?" This strategy may produce a higher return in employee commitment -- and do so at a lower cost.

Companies can conform to the needs and expectations of their employees and the communities they serve. Failing this basic test of legitimacy does not put one in an ideal position to preach introspection to the aggrieved. Asking employees what they can do to increase their "experience of happiness and meaning" at the same time they are being asked to fall on their swords for institutions that have no feeling for them beyond the bottom line is not a "strategy" likely to "produce a higher return" in anything other than an "employee commitment" to open revolt. It is the stupidity of corporate thinking that this should go wholly unconsidered, assuming as it does that what is imposed on others is also what they will inevitably accept.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading the words of professional authors: An internet exclusive

6th or 7th:

When I first started ... I wasn't sure I would be able to take it, because of the very high level of corporate behavioral indoctrination involved in the training -- videos of inspirational speakers managing to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., next to B.C. Forbes, on the importance of not aspiring to anything above your shitty station, before launching into descriptions of horrible methods of "going above and beyond" (for no additional pay, of course), inspired by the actions of quite frankly a creepily over-involved mailman....

Perhaps the bulliest, the shittiest, of all the bullshit was the book whose title might be rendered QBQ!: The Question Behind the Quesion®: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life: What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining, and Procrastinating, written by professional white asshole John G. Miller. This 115 page, 39 chapter (work out that impressive average if you dare!) wonder is a marvel of idiocy honestly unrivaled in my experience by anything short of The Barenaked Ladies.

Needless to say, there's a lot more where that came from! As part of an ongoing series, your host at 6th or 7th will read from John G. Miller's motivational bestseller, rendering the professional Author/Speaker's insights into a language that everyone can understand.

Seen but not heard

Wall Street Journal:

Sometimes even the best training can't keep Santa from being caught off guard. Mike Smith, who works as Santa at the Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio, says a 5-year-old girl wearing a Dora the Explorer sweat shirt last month hopped in his lap and asked, "Can you turn my daddy into an elf?" "Why?" he asked.

"Because my daddy's out of work, and we're about to lose our house," she said.

The girl's mother, standing by her little brother's stroller, burst into tears. A stunned Mr. Smith asked the girl if her father was good with a hammer, and the girl said yes. "I didn't know what to say after that, so we just took the picture," he says with regret.

Well, sure: but what can a 5-year-old tell you about export growth? They think the whole world revolves around them!

Only in America!

David Hale, Financial Times:

Other countries have not enjoyed the US’s success in sustaining productivity. Germany has restrained unemployment with subsidies for part-time workers. The subsidies protected jobs, but caused productivity to fall 7 per cent after six years in which Germany dramatically boosted productivity in order to regain competitiveness lost from the creation of the euro. Japanese unemployment has increased to only 5.1 per cent, as companies tend to fire only part-time workers, not permanent employees. As a result of restraint on firing, labour’s share of value-added in manufacturing has skyrocketed to 78.6 per cent from 58.9 per cent a year ago. Japanese corporate profits fell nearly 80 per cent.

Have you enjoyed the benefits of high unemployment lately?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Burning bright

If only Americans could stop worrying so much about other people's lives, and take solace from the task of running other people's countries!

Friday, December 11, 2009


C.L.R. James, You Don't Play With Revolution:

All right my friends, there we are. I wanted to get something clear: in your studies of Capital, as you read, never lose sight of the worker in the process of production. Alfie, you never lose sight of him. If you lose sight of that, you are losing sight of Marxism. Now Marx wrote a lot about the selling of this and pricing and all that, but that is where he began and that is where he stayed all through. He went into various aspects of production, commodity exchanges, prices, the level of prices, ownership, and so forth -- he went into all of this, but he never lost sight of what is happening to the worker. The increase of capitalist production meant the greater suppression of the worker, and Marx says you cannot keep doing that to human beings.

Many of the people I know don't sleep on a daily basis. They sleep on a weekly basis. They work two or three jobs, with several-hour breaks in between. No single employer will overwork them because no single employer wants to court health insurance or overtime. So they underwork everybody, rotating the bodies 24/7.

Being "underworked" means squeezing the maximum out of a person in an abbreviated block of time, while denying them the "hours" needed to live. Such hours must be accumulated elsewhere, often by employers similarly predisposed. This produces remarkable incongruities within any single operation: for example, as concerns the alertness of those operating heavy machinery around aircraft. One might think this important! Instead, it is merely the cost of doing business in a competitive way.

It's pretty clear what this does to people, insofar as people deserve consideration -- which in contemporary economics they do not. People are inputs, and they serve a purpose exterior to themselves. What happens to them matters only insofar as the law says it matters; otherwise, what happens to people is just another part of "how things are."

Insisting that what happens to people matters regardless of what the law says, is to take a step toward the kind of perspective that Marx embodied. It is instructive to consider the ways in which we are daily discouraged from doing so, and to ask ourselves who benefits.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Marx and alienation

James Generic, The Wooden Shoe:

[I]t sometimes enormously angers me how far off the regular workplace functions vs. how organizations I'm involved in work. Basically, at the job, what the boss says goes, damn your opinion or what you think. While in [the Wooden Shoe] collective or [Jobs with Justice], what you think actually matters and I end up being a whole lot more productive in those groups because I'm not trying to get away with shit like I do in my regular job. My loyalty is to those who offer mutual respect and do simple things like help me through tough times, because I'll do the same for them when they're in trouble. As well as having a common fuel that there's something really wrong with the world and you want to change it (or give it a black eye).

I know I'm 27 and I should know that this is simply the way the world works especially in a capitalist economy by now. But damn does it make me angry on a daily basis.  Blatant disrespect and me being wrong no matter what just because I'm not management. Or that all the time everyday someone's trying to get a one-up on ya. It really makes me mad when people play the politics game, sucking up or ambushing you in a meeting with something they could of easily talked to you about one-on-one, but its more advantageous to publicly embarrass you in front of other people.

I know I don't have it that bad. I make $25k a year which is way more than I ever made before and don't have any kids or anything like that. I think one of my biggest pet peeves though, is people assuming I'm stupid, which seems to be built into the boss-worker relationship. So maybe I'm not really meant to live in this world. Its frustrating.

It's useful to consider Marx's notion of alienation. In capitalism, alienation is not so much impoverishment or oppression per se, but rather a kind of impoverishment and oppression which relates to the experience of work. Mr. Generic hits the high notes -- and it would be hard to find a person alive today who is not in some way familiar with them.

For Marx, alienation is the real story behind capitalism, not poverty or repression. Capitalism is obviously capable of generating great wealth, and the coercive force of the state is not deployed in every instance. White collar workers in the West don't have the same problems as sweatshop workers in Asia, for example. But for Marx, alienation is the common thread that binds them all, and which strikes so fundamentally at the potential for human fulfillment in each case.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The way we were

Wall Street Journal:

These books were clearly conceived in better times, when choosing a fulfilling job or opting out to pursue full-time motherhood was the luxury of a booming economy.

When times were better, women had fulfilling jobs and the luxury of pursuing full-time parenthood, all thanks to the booming economy!  Personally, I remember this well, having always enjoyed these perquisites on account of my being a man.

American labor's PR problem

Your voice, their choice

David Graeber, Direct Action:

Democracy, one constantly hears, means that people get to make choices. They choose between different parties or candidates. They might even choose to vote yes or no on a referendum. Almost always, though, they themselves have played little or no part in shaping the things between which this choice is made. It's this ideology of choice...which makes it possible to see democracy and the market as equivalents: consumer choice, as well, means selecting from a range of options designed by somebody else.

...[T]he conception of "opinion" -- personal opinions, public opinion -- also follows from the absence of any real experience in participatory decision-making. In American schools, children are always being asked to express their opinions. ... The problem is that these opinions generally have no effect. ... This continues throughout life. This is, I think, what tends to give so many "personal opinions" one hears voiced in America their oddly free-floating quality, their frequent tone of arbitrariness, self-enclosure, intolerance -- the very qualities that make many assume that participatory democracy would not really be possible. The phrase "everyone's entitled to their opinion" is generally used as a brush-off. They are entitled to their opinions because opinions don't matter. Those in power do not have opinions. They make policy.

In the first case, what I like to tell people on the subject of national politics is that Wall Street chooses the candidates, and the public elects the winners. Policy just follows the dollars. This dispenses with arguments about parties and platforms, and seems to resonate with people whatever their personal leanings. (As for "democracy at the point of consumption," see Stump Lane.)

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the second point as it relates to the United States (a country where speech is free, unless paid for). Divorced from any creative application, rational thought yields no particular benefit. And if opinions make no particular difference in one's life, then it makes no particular difference what those opinions are, as there is no disincentive for being wrong, only for departing from the social norm. To my mind, such concerns are to a large extent what animates the skepticism of analysts as perceptive as IOZ toward any social project; but it nevertheless strikes me as problem that can be resolved, whether or not it will.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Automatic for the people

Tony Jackson, Financial Times:

When times are good, the bosses get more than the workers, and when they are bad, they settle for the same.

The stomach has a long memory, and mine registers a query: When are times good? I have worked for Fortune 500 companies all of my adult life; and in the meantime aspired to something more in personal affairs than to exercise my individuality via the savvy consumer purchase.  

But it takes resources to make an investment; and what is undertaken on behalf of survival does not contribute to the project of living, as long as the boss stands in between.  Nietzche writes:

No one can finally spend more than he has.  That holds good for individuals; it holds good for peoples.  If one spends oneself for power, for high politics, for husbandry, for commerce, Parliamentarism, military interests -- if one gives away that amount of reason, earnestness, will, self-mastery, which constitutes his real self, for the one thing, he will not have it for the other.

What we give away must conform to our values. "Paying da bills" is not a value -- it is a necessity. It follows, then, that if there is to be scope for what "constitutes our real selves," it can't exist in conflict with the task of basic survival. But because we surrender that potential to the boss in exchange for "a living," we hope to anesthetize the spiritual agony which ensues with material accumulation in excess.

This is the compact of a consumer society. When times are good, many are invited along the single path which makes it work. When times are bad, fewer are admitted. But in neither case can one hope to make that investment in one's real self without, on some level, rejecting its terms.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Vote every day

"The anarchy that I've followed and practiced all of that time came to me through Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, through Ammon Hennacy, the great Catholic anarchist and pacifist. Ammond taught me, as he did, to treat his body like a ballot. My body is my ballot. And he said, 'Cast that body ballot on behalf of the people around you every day of your life, every day. And don't let anybody ever tell you you haven't voted.' You just didn't assign responsibility to other people to do things. You accept responsibility and see to it that something gets done. That's the way he lived and that's the way the past forty, going on fifty, years that I have lived. It's a way to vote without caving in to the civil authority I'm committed to dissolving." -- Utah Phillips

Thursday, December 03, 2009

SEPTA strike commentary

Walt Weber, Industrial Worker:

To make the strike more effective, the union should have taken the resources that it dedicated to the 2008 presidential election and gone door to door across the city to educate the community about their issues and try to gain the community's support.  This should have been followed with community meetings, joint meetings with other unions, resolutions at churches, community groups, and the central labor council, just as a start.

What we saw instead was a union preparing to go it alone, into a strike that is probably only one notch more popular than a garbage strike.  Without a proper inoculation campaign in the community, the union was successfully demonized as a bunch of greedy thugs who would defend their fiefdom with force, despite all logic and reason.
The true problem, however, is that this strike was organized by a trade union, and not along industrial lines. Under [the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority], there are currently several different divisions, all working under different contracts and with different unions.  While the SEPTA strike was on in the City Division, all of the other divisions continued to work, under different unions, with different contracts and a similar no-strike clause.
[A]n industrial union would never let workers at the same company be divided.  One Big Union means just that: all SEPTA workers, no matter what division, in the city, suburbs, or running regional rail trains hundreds of miles away, all united.  When there is a problem in one division, everything stops.

Unions do well to take their lead from communities, highlighting workplace concerns alongside other issues relating to local industry, because it is ultimately from communities that unions secure the kind of legitimacy which always prefigures their power.

The American labor movement made a compact with employers in the mid-20th century to forgo the social legitimacy of communities in exchange for the political legitimacy of the state. This left a new class of labor bureaucrats with just as much power as the courts, the legislature, and the executive saw fit. In a democracy where capital always casts the largest vote, labor leaders have spent more and more of their members' dues to attend fewer and fewer important dinners ever since! Their candidates have won Congress and the presidency -- and their agenda is dead!

Labor has no claim to legitimacy within a state beholden to capital. Legitimacy only comes from the threat that working people will finally fold their arms, and advance their concerns without lifting a finger.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Work is the curse of the drinking classes

Wall Street Journal:

In late 2007, he took a job at Lowe's while working at a series of fast-food jobs on the side, as well as a stint at Pathmark supermarket. He still works at Lowe's, earning $15.96 an hour selling lawnmowers, outdoor furniture and Christmas ornaments. At night, he pumps gas at a Quick Check for $13.70 an hour.

Typically, he works between 61 and 63 hours per week. It wouldn't be so bad, he says, if the hours were consecutive. But with the gap between jobs, he can only sleep a few hours a night now -- sometimes just an hour. Last week, he managed to clock 87 hours and barely saw his son.

"That's all I do -- every day -- I just keep working," he says. "I've got to. I'm not going to lose everything I have."

Speaking for myself: my part-time, unionized job has excellent benefits, but no hours.  Shifts tend to run 3-4 hours, unless you don't have the driver's license required to operate equipment.  Typically, this means you are a person from Philadelphia who can claim higher levels of melanin in your skin.  Your shift will be 2 hours of modern day field work in the back of a tractor trailer or sorting station: parcels will rain on you at maximum capacity -- then you will be asked if you want your contractually guaranteed third hour doing something even worse.  After three hours you are off the clock. 

My part-time, non-unionized gig is comprised of eight hour blocks at night, various days of the week.  This means breaking down pallets of Pellegrino and bulk dog food when my body would prefer to be shutting down for the night.  Instead, your brain shuts down.  What is interesting, however, is that one's body can continue working for a long time afterward, provided it only calls upon basic motor skills.  Why did I take the four cases of marshmallows to the back instead of leaving them for the morning supervisor to make his holiday marshmallow mountain display, he wants to know.  Because the brain doesn't work like that, fuck face!  But alas: three write ups and I am out of a job -- so I do my best to determine whether the constant over-ordering of product should be interpreted as "new display" or just incompetence which deserves to be tidied up on my end.

Theoretically, these jobs are meant to be the stepping stones to something -- anything -- else.  But in a system premised on the idea that employers aren't obligated to their employees' long-term welfare, every job carries the prospect of becoming a stepping stone to nowhere.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What women can do for your country

New Yorker:

In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, declaring that it “would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing” and undermine “the family-centered approach.”

If the Comprehensive Child Development Act was alive today, would it be dead by now? No sooner than the ink hits paper do the rights won today become the entitlements "reformed" tomorrow -- unless the very social unrest which won them in the first place is perennially renewed.

Today we are as far from affordable child-care for all as we are from employers ponying up the compensation necessary to sustain the single-income, "family-centered approach." After the second world war, unions brought the country closest to the latter; in the 70's, women brought us nearest to the former.  In neither case has the movement been sustained; in both have victories yielded under incessant attack.

The outcome, predictably, has been bad.  Two wage-earners raising a child on television is not a viable scheme, to say nothing of the parent who goes it alone. Whether the solution is "communal" or "family-centered," those groups currently subsidized by the breakdown of family life deserve to be put on notice. Much like the success of the labor and women's movements, this promises to be as "divisive" as it ever was -- by today's standards, even if it is done half as well.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Wall Street Journal:

As traders and investment bankers near the finish line of what looks like a boom year for pay, some are spending money like the financial crisis never happened. From $15,000-a-week Caribbean getaways to art auctions to $200,000 platinum wristwatches that automatically adjust for leap years, signs of the good life are returning.

In fairness to traders and investment bankers: What other industry had the ambition to run the economy into the ground, or the wherewithal to make of it an opportunity?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Economists think long-term

Al Gore, David Blood; Financial Times:

Why do investors and business leaders continue to focus on the short-term and ignore the fact that businesses that think long-term end up more competitive and profitable? Behavioural economists believe they have the answer: our brains are hard-wired to think short-term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors. Their survival ensured our existence – but predisposed us to the same kind of short-term thinking. As a result, even though our world is very different from theirs, long-term decision-making remains the exception, not the rule.

Anyone who is interested in discovering why "investors and business leaders" behave a certain way would probably do well to begin their inquiry with a close examination of "investors and business leaders," not  humankind as a whole.  After all, investors and business leaders are distinguishable from other social groups, and can be compared in relation to them.  The fact that liberal economics -- "behavioral" or otherwise -- routinely ignores these distinctions in favor of categorical assumptions about "human nature," suggests an unwillingness to scrutinize particular groups in a socially meaningful way. 

Why are economists inclined to shift the focus from groups they are presumably tasked to understand to open-ended speculation about human evolution?  One might say it is in their "long-term interest" to do so!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A freedom to end all freedoms

Maurice Saatchi, Financial Times:

After 100 years of competition, the record seems to show that Marx was right – the end result of competition is the end of competition. Marx foresaw constant internecine warfare among capitalists, resulting in fewer and fewer controlling vaster and vaster empires. Any current description of the financial services sector can validate that.

If sporting events were structured in a way that allowed winning teams to claim the resources and personnel of the losers, and this process was carried on in perpetuity, fans would likely regard the outcome as unacceptable.

Of course, in matters that relate to our daily lives, this happens all the time -- and it goes by the name of "freedom!"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Concerning those who don't give a damn about their bad reputation

New York Times:

Franz Paasche, a reputations specialist at Communications Consulting Worldwide in New York, argues that a bad reputation can also harm a company’s ability to fight for what it wants in Washington.
“Reputation has value and strong reputations create permissions to grow and prosper,” he said. As Wall Street banks’ reputations sink, “they are losing the more active seat at the table in discussions about policy.”

Spoken like a man who makes his living as a reputations specialist at Communications Consulting Worldwide in New York!

"Reputation has value."  Yes: especially when you are "reputed" to hold a proprietary claim on the financial life of the nation!  Imagine what would happen if Americans got a bad feeling about the banks who turned their money into a record year.  Why, they could stick it to Wall Street by never making a large purchase, saving for retirement, or requiring employment ever again!

On the other hand

Financial Times:

Although many governments and activist groups say landmines should be scrapped, to avoid endangering innocent people and children, the Pentagon has long argued that such a policy would tie US hands.

Yeah! How many landmine victims can relate to that?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Smells like syndicalist spirit

David Graeber, Direct Action:

[C]ertain strikes are better examples of direct action than others. [A] favorite example is a strike by transit workers in Melbourne in the 1980s in which, rather than walking off their jobs, bus drivers and train conductors stayed on, but stopped collecting fares -- effectively making mass transportation free until the action was over. Imagine...what would happen if, for just one day, workers in every branch of industry and service trade did the same. This alone could be a major step in showing how a capitalist economy could be transformed into an economy of freedom.

Isn't making life easier for everyone a small price to pay in the fight to make life easier for everyone?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Curious judgment

Michael Fullilove, Financial Times:

Both women have demonstrated curious judgment in the way they conduct themselves in public. If you were Ms Prejean, and knew an ex-boyfriend was lurking somewhere with a tape, would you publish a book advocating traditional values? If you were Ms Palin, nurturing presidential ambitions, would you give up your gubernatorial office and its political advantages before completing a single term?

Yes: and if I knew an ex-girlfriend was lurking somewhere with "a tape," would I publish a book advocating my values? What man wouldn't agonize over social repercussions of that?

The Feminine Mistake


Politics isn’t only that which has no immediate application to reality.  “Immediate concerns” like being able to feed your family are political.  It isn’t that women aren’t interested in politics.  It is that some people define politics so narrowly that it only applies to pseudo philosophers.

Sadly, it's always the men with the most fascinating penises who never understand why women don't share their interests.

Undo it yourself

Wall Street Journal:

Some lawmakers briefed Tuesday on the Fort Hood shooting said the suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was most likely a self-radicalized extremist.

Have you seen tuition rates for extremist school lately?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big government thinks small

New York Times:

But the [Government Accountability Office] report cited several academic studies that found that [the Occupational Health and Safety Administration] data failed to include up to two-thirds of all workplace injuries and illnesses.

The report noted that because of OSHA's “sole reliance on employer-reported injury and illness data” in one of its major surveys, “some academic studies have reported that the survey may undercount the total number of workplace injuries and illnesses.”

Yeah, it pretty much never pays to take somebody's word for something they have a financial incentive to conceal -- unless, of course, it pays.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Toward a fairer distribution of the crumbs

Clive Crook, Financial Times:

The US social contract needs to be revised, so that the elderly, many of whom are comparatively well off, receive less so that the poor can get more.

Now here is a fine example of why we we need an economic civil rights movement, as well as the class consciousness which informs it: because diverting resources from people on fixed incomes, "so that the poor can get more," only makes sense if you want to preserve outlays for everything else.

Notably, this includes paying the Taliban to protect the US supply routes used for fighting the Taliban.  One could argue this is a poor use of taxpayer money -- to say nothing of meddling in the Middle East immediately after being attacked for meddling in the Middle East!

But insofar as defense expenditures have proven the most patriotic means of separating Americans from their tax money in the least transparent of ways, our desire for "national security" has grown accordingly -- and in tandem with our deficits!  No amount of debt is too great for securing "the homeland," but see if you can convince anyone at the Washington Post that the "homies" who live there deserve security in their daily lives -- or that this actually makes good economic sense.

Times have changed, and we're living in a completely different, post-feminist world.

The Existence Machine:

If the preponderance of women report that things are a certain way, then it would behoove men to fucking listen.

Or stop fucking, and listen, depending on the "conversation!"

This reminds me of talks I've had with people about reparations for slavery. Generally speaking, African-Americans are receptive to the idea, while others tend to be comically uninformed yet outspokenly opposed!

Richard at TEM does a nice job getting at the analogous tendency between men and women, even excavating the priceless "anti-male feminism" from an educated audience in the process.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pop culture

Jessica Valenti, New York Times:

The rape jokes on ‘‘Family Guy’’ make me nauseous. About three years ago, Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote this great piece called ‘‘Men Growing Up to Be Boys.’’ It’s about how the new model of masculinity is perpetual adolescence.

Every Family Guy episode I've seen featured male characters punching female characters. I understand it's a popular show!

A pro-retirement guide to retirement

Wall Street Journal:

Amid the tumult of the past year, financial advisers are telling us that the Great Recession has produced one invaluable benefit: an education.

We now know, for instance, that our nest eggs can lose almost half their value in a matter of months; that "diversifying" our holdings doesn't necessarily safeguard those holdings; and that our homes -- our one investment for later life that was supposed to be foolproof -- can make us look like, well, fools.

Here's something to keep in mind when it comes to retirement: unless you have a guarantee, you don't have a guarantee.

A guarantee might look like Social Security and Medicare, only better funded to ensure genuine "security" in old age.  If you spend your life working productively, then you should be able to retire without worrying about medical and other basic living expenses.

No one will contest the fairness of this -- but they sure will argue at length about how money managers are best suited to deliver it!  Unfortunately, I have eyes in my head, and what I see does not inspire confidence in any other option than a government-backed pension.  But that's only because I actually want to retire, so perhaps I am biased.

Of course, getting there will likely require another civil rights movement; but besides bad TV and junk purchases, what else do we have planned for the next 30-40 years?  It would be a cool gift for our kids and grandkids, too.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What you can do

People sometimes ask, "What can I do?" in response to weighty social problems. But I think the first questions should be: What are you already doing? What do you enjoy? What are you good at? Once we identify our interests and capabilities, orienting them toward a social purpose needn't require any great leaps. It can be as gradual as one likes, with confidence gained from even the smallest successes, often building toward bigger things.

Jumping headfirst into some stereotype of social activity -- whether it is soup kitchens or civil disobedience -- is rarely a prescription for long-term engagement. Often this ignores possibilities already present in our lives, and attempts to supplement what we are already doing with "something meaningful." But adding another all-consuming activity to the menagerie of obligations attending work and home life is unlikely to be sustained in the longer term -- with that which earns one's livelihood prevailing in the end.

Identifying the opportunities for social advocacy within "the matrix of the mundane," as I like to call it, has been in my experience the most fruitful. This means examining one's life and identifying those elements which conform to one's values, while segregating those that do not. And with this understanding, taking whatever steps needed to aid the former while undermining the latter. In the context of the workplace, for example, this might entail the conscious pursuit of that which is just in contrast to the prescribed pursuit of that which will earn one a promotion. Obviously, this implies a cost; and part of the benefit of doing things gradually is to prepare oneself to take risks in ways that can be sustained.

These are opportunities that daily go unanswered, but require little more than an understanding of one's skills and an eye for the vulnerabilities inherent in every unjust system.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Understanding poverty

"We, in civilized societies, are rich.  Why then are the many poor?  Why this painful drudgery for the masses?  Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all in return for a few hours of daily toil?

The Socialists have said it and repeated it unwearyingly.   Daily they reiterate it, demonstrating it by arguments taken from all the sciences.  It is because all that is necessary for production -- the land, the mines, the highways, machinery, food, shelter, education, knowledge -- all have been seized by the few in the course of that long story of robbery, enforced migration or wars, of ignorance and oppression, which has been the life of the human race before it had learned to subdue the forces of Nature.  It is because, taking advantage of alleged rights acquired in the past, these few appropriate today two-thirds of the products of human labor, and then squander them in the most stupid and shameful way.  It is because, having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month, or even for a week in advance, the few only allow the many to work on condition of themselves receiving the lion's share.  It is because these few prevent the remainder of men from producing the things they need, and force them to produce, not the necessaries of life for all, but whatever offers the greatest profits to the monopolists.  In this is the substance of all Socialism." -- Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread; 1892

Class war in Honduras


Although Mr Micheletti is hardly an Augusto Pinochet or a Fidel Castro, his government has occasionally been heavy-handed. At least three people have been killed by the security forces.

Honduras recently had its elected administration overthrown by the military in collusion with the country's propertied interests, who objected to an increase in the minimum wage, among other popular initiatives.

An raise in the minimum wage would have encroached on the profit margins of Honduran exporters, or possibly increased the cost of Honduran products in US markets -- where Americans always have the option to buy cheaper undies from a more repressive regime -- thus undermining the "health" of the Honduran economy.

But besides this, the new government has only "occasionally been heavy-handed," and is therefore backed by the US in a power-sharing proposal with the deposed leadership.  After all, it is only fair that in the conflict between democratic and corporate preferences, diplomacy should prevail!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No war but the class war

Dirk Bezemer, Financial Times:

In the 1980-2007 era of cheap credit and deregulation, banks had every incentive to move from real-economy projects, yielding a profit, towards lending against rising asset prices, yielding a capital gain. In the 1990s and 2000s, loan volumes rose to unprecedented levels, supporting global assets booms in property, derivatives and the carry trade. The share of lending by US banks to the US financial sector – instead of to the real economy – went from 60 per cent of the outstanding loan stock in 1980 (up from 50 per cent in the 1950s) to more than 80 per cent in 2007.

This underscores the idea that if we want banks to make loans for productive, rather than destructive purposes, the public will have to assert greater authority over the industry; and, in doing so, compel them to serve social needs.

A democratic scenario would likely see significant lending to community enterprise, "green" infrastructure development,  home mortgage refinancing -- all of which enjoy popular support in a way that our Rube Goldberg system of public debt-for-executive bonuses does not.

But insofar as these initiatives are merely "supported" while those of industry are imposed, we are in no more of a position to trace the outlines of New Deal regulation than we are to devise our own.  The public must be organized to understand its interests, and to defend them in a manner at least becoming of citizens, if not free individuals altogether.  

This presupposes a course of education that can only come from the now discredited practice of acting for oneself for the purpose of addressing shared concerns.  Whatever is discredited exacts a cost -- and to this must be added the price of daily living.  More than anything else, this is the disincentive which keeps enough of us from ever testing the limits of power, and puts off the project of confronting shared problems for which there are no commercial solutions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top of the pops

Wall Street Journal:

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's most prominent dissident blogger, was walking along a Havana street last Friday along with two other bloggers and a friend when two men she says were Cuban agents in civilian clothes forced her inside an unmarked black car and beat her, telling her to stop criticizing the government.

Yoani recently had a write up in The New York Times. Apparently, this is her police state's best attempt to keep her in the headlines! Let's grant their wish, and start paying a lot more attention to Yoani.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's the frequency, Kravchenko?

Slavoj Zizek, New York Times:

This brings to mind the life and death of Victor Kravchenko, the Soviet engineer who, in 1944, defected during a trade mission to Washington and then wrote a best-selling memoir, "I Chose Freedom." His first-person report on the horrors of Stalinism included a detailed account of the mass hunger in early-1930s Ukraine, where Kravchenko -- then still a true believer in the system -- helped enforce collectivization.
Kravchenko also became more and more obsessed with the inequalities of the Western world, and wrote a sequel to "I Chose Freedom" that was titled, significantly, "I Chose Justice." He devoted himself to finding less exploitative forms of collectivization and wound up in Bolivia, where he squandered all his money trying to organize poor farmers. Crushed by this failure, he withdrew into private life and shot himself in 1966 at his home in New York.

"I Chose Freedom" is one of my favorite memoirs.   It's the story of a Soviet industrial manager during Stalinism.  It reads like an insider's guide to corporate America -- except with gulags.  Which is basically the Russian equivalent of a business meeting, only more meaningful and for shorter durations.

My edition was published by a right-wing outfit called The Library of Conservative of Thought.  By their account, "There exists no conservative counterpart of Das Kapital, because conservatism is not a bundle of theories and exhortations got up by a closet philosopher."  That's right: conservatives get paid, and rarely is it for anything approaching "philosophy."  They don't bundle theories, they bundle debt -- the theory is that liberty is served just so long as their arrest warrants are not.  So it's a lot like Communism, except it collapses more frequently.

I never read Kravchenko's "I Chose Justice."  I'm sorry to hear it didn't work out for him.  He was a bright guy and an effective writer, even in translation; but suffice it to say, justice is hard to come by.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Choose your own adventure

Wall Street Journal:

First the bad news: The economy is weak. And now the good news: The economy is weak.

...[A]n ailing economy requires the Federal Reserve to keep its short-term interest-rate targets near zero and continue pumping billions of dollars into the financial system.

That is great for stocks because much of that money eventually finds its way into financial markets, and because cheap money keeps financing costs low and pushes corporate profits higher.

Which do you prefer?

[1] Your money>government>public services

[2] Your money>government>Wall St.>speculation>bonuses>asset bubbles>collapse>the bill>repeat

Lazy fare

Financial Times:

Unemployment in management and professional occupations is less than 5 per cent, about a third of the level in production jobs and a quarter of that in the construction sector. Those disparities, as well as record levels of long-term unemployment, leave scope for structural hangovers in the labour market even as a cyclical rebound takes hold. After all, the new world is familiar to some. The broadest measure of US unemployment, including those wanting work but not searching recently and those forced to work part-time, passed the 10 per cent mark 16 months ago.

The "broadest measure" of US unemployment is flawed, however, insofar as it accounts for popular, not political, preferences. For this reason, economists reject it in favor of a purely scientific approach.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Name that tune

Personal responsibility.

Tear down this Wall St.

"When brave citizens peacefully appeal for their rights, we must encourage them to endure. When they are seized and thrown in prison, we must call and work for their release. And when they face violence and intimidation, we must condemn it and remind the perpetrators that their crimes will not be forgotten."  -- John McCain, Financial Times

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Vexation without representation

Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times:

Democratic strategists say the president needs to be more energetic in pursuing his agenda – particularly his healthcare plan. But “special interests” are no longer the big obstacle here, if ever they were. The obstacle is that the public now disapproves of it. Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist, wrote in defence of the president: “What many progressives (including me) sometimes see as Obama’s temporising on issues ... might be sensible politics.” Mr Robinson mentioned public health funding and gays in the military. It is a wise insight. But it differs little from what Mr Obama’s harshest detractors say: that the president’s real political programme is something he dare not avow in public. If that is right, we can expect his support to erode further.

It seems to me Obama was elected so that he might "pursue his agenda," and his popularity has fallen to the degree that he hasn't.  If the public doesn't like his health care plan, that is probably because they didn't expect the health insurance industry to write it.   In many other ways, the CEO conception of executive power -- that the right person gets the job done -- has been scuttled on the proprietary shoals that lie always beneath its surface.  But because commercial claims to the White House "are no longer the big obstacle here, if ever they were," the question rests squarely on Obama's shoulders as to what kind of CEO he will become.

Much breath is wasted in these debates, so popular amongst enthusiasts of the state.  In fact, the only thing Mr. Obama needs to do is figure out how to exercise power on behalf of his constituency without too much revealing to his supporters that they are not it.  Politics is the art of remaining popular when you have no business being so.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Team member happiness


Employers may not fully grasp what it takes to retain good people. In its latest biannual survey, released in October, temp firm Spherion Staffing Solutions asked about 300 employers and about 2,500 workers to name the top "drivers of retention." As they did in 2007 and 2005, the bosses listed soft stuff: "management climate" and "supervisor relationship," for instance. Employees' top two in all three surveys? Benefits and compensation.

In my career, the sentiment was most poetically rendered above the urinal in the verse "Fuck you, pay me."

A brief guide to persuasion in the workplace

Michael Barone, Wall Street Journal:

[T]he union leaders have been frustrated on their No. 1 goal, the card check bill that would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections. A couple of bulky guys in varsity jackets visit your home and, um, persuade you to sign a card, and later the union -- with the help of a mandatory arbitration clause -- impose contracts on employees and rake in the dues money.

You see, the best way for any organization to thrive that is dependent on you for its existence is to bully and intimidate its way to your consent.  As Jehovah's Witnesses and college environmental campaigners have repeatedly shown, this approach always works.

On the other hand, any organization which knows you are dependent on it for your livelihood will work tirelessly to earn your approval, often through reasoning and persuasive argumentation, and only after a thorough fielding of one's concerns.  This is why "bosses" are universally admired.

This summarizes the important differences between unions and employers when it comes to soliciting support from members and employees.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Notes on the Philly transit strike

Willie Brown, President, Transport Workers Union Local 234 via Reuters:

SEPTA's board is demanding that TWU members pay for a greater share of their pension to make up for their mismanagement of the plan. Meanwhile SEPTA is increasing pension benefits for managers who make lower contributions -- which we find completely unfair.

Something I like to do when any workforce decides to strike is to familiarize myself with their concerns.  Because so many people in this category are already living paycheck to paycheck, it's usually safe to assume that whatever the sticking points of the negotiations, they are serious enough that those of limited means would forfeit income and stability in the hopes of arriving at an optimal resolution.

I seek out the perspectives of working people because, by and large, they do not have public relations departments; nor are their organizations integrated commercially with the regional media outlets that make such routine use of them.  Groups that have these things, or that otherwise enjoy vast resource advantages, generally get their point across.  Those that don't get slandered -- as weaker parties are always wont do.

What I often find in the case of local labor negotiations is a total lack of awareness of the union's position, out of which every variety of prejudicial nonsense subsequently takes flight.  Today I heard from a person who would do very well to have a city job that "Anybody who earns 50k a year just to drive a bus doesn't have a right to complain in today's economy."™  This is a perennial crowd pleaser, bemoaning as it does that the sort of soul to be found driving buses would ever presume to defend a job which, by some undisclosed formula of compensation, affords the means to a near-middle class existence for one's family!

Of course, in circumstances as pitiful as these, even claims made from the union side -- see above -- will present themselves to the average observer as something akin to a revelation, inasmuch as they are comprehended at all.  A simple trip to the local union's homepage will unearth concepts heretofore unimagined in the public arena, and transcend all investigative reporting on Channels 2-13.  Invariably, this elicits the response: "I hadn't heard that."  Of course, you didn't; as that is the entire point.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Top talent

Wall Street Journal:

Reaching a milestone birthday also can enhance an executive's pension. Altria Group Inc. CEO Michael E. Szymanczyk's pension rose when he turned 60 last year, triggering a subsidy built into the pension formula, boosting its total value to $23.5 million.

In all fairness to Altria Group Inc., if companies didn't implement policies like these, it would be very hard to attract other top performers who observe birthday anniversaries.


Andrew Hill, Financial Times:

Critics will say that businesses’ focus on ethical values is self-serving, superficial and likely to be shortlived. But self-interest can be a powerful agent of change, too. As the [Confederation of British Industry's] Richard Lambert pointed out last month: “If business is regarded as a pariah by the public and the politicians . . . there will be a price to be paid – probably in the form of regulation, higher taxes, or a combination of the two.” Morality: welcome back.

I'm fond of noting how businesses’ focus on ethical values is self-serving, superficial and likely to be shortlived.  But self-interest can be a powerful agent of change, too!  If business is regarded as a pariah by the public and the politicians there will be a price to be paid -- probably in the form of increased campaign and public relations spending!  Who does it best, if not the class with the cash?  Morality: get thee behind me!

Monday, November 02, 2009


Ken Costa, Financial Times:

That moral spirit is distilled in the simple principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The wording is biblical but the precept is echoed across religions, cultures and time. Its practical power is evident: if the purveyors of sometimes dishonest sub-prime mortgages had followed this golden rule a lot of misery would have been avoided.

Unfortunately they did not follow the golden rule. We are suffering the consequences, even though everyone in financial markets knew the rule and few would dispute it. The failure to act on a universally-recognised principle is not just down to the strong attraction of short-term gains, seductive as they are. A more profound reason is that we lack a way of embedding the rule in everyday actions.

Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen: Without morality, short-term gains are an empty achievement.  But as empty achievements go, they are among the best!

What feels good

Wall Street Journal:

... Mr. Eisenberg does eventually stumble onto the overarching argument inherent in his title: Shopping, in modern America, is fundamentally an optimistic activity. While our shopping habits are easily manipulated, they are not quite as irrational as critics like to believe. For most of us shopping, when done right, really does make us feel better. We buy because it "confers instant membership in a community."

"This worker, suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organization and supervision of production, finds himself every day, outside of production and in the guise of a consumer, seemingly treated as an adult, with zealous politeness."

-- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle; "43"

Special thanks to Montag, who introduced me to this text.

On a personal note, a younger colleague once confessed that he didn't like having time off from work because it made him "want to spend money."  While he resented many aspects of "work," he was more distressed by the prospect of having nothing to do in the event he did not separate himself from his money in the course of his "free" time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Poop in the water

The Economist:

In April Mr Obama named Craig Becker, a law professor and lawyer for the Service Employees International Union, to one of three vacancies on the five-member National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), whose decisions weigh heavily on the balance of power between unions and management. Business groups are furious. In a joint letter sent to Congress on October 20th, they protested that Mr Becker’s views are “well outside the mainstream and would disrupt years of established precedent and the delicate balance in current labour law.”
Mr Bush’s appointees to the NLRB systematically voted against labour.

This is a lot like saying the intent to uphold existing environmental regulation is "well outside the mainstream and would disrupt years of established precedent and the delicate balance in current environmental law."  It's only true to the degree that not enforcing the law can be ever be called a "precedent."

Friday, October 30, 2009

Feminism and pornography

Madison Young, Making Waves in Feminism One [Sexually Explicit!] Scene at a Time:

I feel like I read a lot of so called feminist articles on the evils of porn that are most likely written by people who don't even watch a lot of porn. Porn can be feminist. Porn can be educational, inspire couples, save sex lives, undo some of the sexual repression and body image issues that women grow up with, document our sexual culture, capture chemistry, create visibility for alternative sexual beings, create connection and dialogue around sex between partners, create connection and reduce isolation around fetishes.

It's fair to say that our culture has some real issues around the subject of women having sex. And yet we sure devote a lot of resources to the prospect that they will! The ubiquity of the sexualized female portrayal in all media, not just pornography, suggests we might do best not to feign silence on a subject in which nearly everyone participates!

For these reasons, it's difficult to make an argument that pornography is not important. In whatever ways it has proven destructive to relationships or imposed male expectations on female sexuality, these trends deserve to be challenged. But one cannot boycott the world's premier industry -- or proscribe specific activity as "anti-feminist" -- and expect its essential character to be changed. Instead, feminism must be reconciled with sexuality in whatever ways women choose. In some cases, this will be pornographic. Women deserve support in instances that the choice is actively theirs, defense in the instances that it is not; and advocacy in general!

Sinking hearts

Karl Marx, Capital:

Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.

Personally, I have known many talented people who have produced remarkable work out of the "activation of their own nature." But insofar as their writings or their music or their crafts never adequately "produced" on behalf of an appropriating sponsor, all were subsequently encouraged to view themselves as failures. This is because "productive" work is, in the capitalist estimation, only that work which contributes to capital accumulation; anything else has no "productive" value whatsoever.

This narrow definition of productivity is worth bearing in mind in periods of high unemployment, as individuals and their families wait for that Goldilocks occasion when they can once again contribute "productively" for the benefit of employers. This in spite of the fact that many American communities are in shambles, in desperate need of repair; and that so many people have all their creative capacity to give, yet no viable outlets to do so. It is a surely a mark of distinction that ours is a system incapable of bringing these needs together in a socially productive way.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Civil rights in the workplace


In the greatest surprise of all, the researchers discovered that the people who had been laid off often were happier than those left behind. Many had new jobs, even if they didn't always pay as well. Over and over, Moore says, average depression scores were nearly twice as great for those who stayed with Boeing vs. those who left. The laid-off were less likely to binge drink, often slept better, and had fewer chronic health problems.

The researchers say that thanks to the unceasing uncertainty inside Boeing, those who left felt as though they had escaped a bad marriage. At the time one Boeing employee told researchers: "You feel better when someone takes their foot off your neck."

Someday we may approach a conception of "civil rights" in the workplace, as there is no reason to tolerate in one sphere human relations that which is deemed intolerable in others. This might include the right to participate in decisions which bear significantly on one's life and livelihood, just as it would in instances when such choices are deliberated by the state, the family, or any other relation which aspires to a minimum of human decency.

For now, the rights of property supersede the rights of individuals employed by property; and, moreover, the rights of the communities from which they come. A free society will either reconcile the "rights of property" with the rights of individuals, or it be will be "free" only for particular individuals, not all individuals, in keeping with the social dimensions of its propertied class.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Feast and famine

New York Times:

“The way we manage the global agriculture and food security system doesn’t work,” said Kostas G. Stamoulis, a senior economist at the organization. “There is this paradox of increasing global food production, even in developing countries, yet there is hunger.”

The apparent "paradox" might be explained by the fact that many communities don't control their own food. This makes them dependent on wages to purchase it. Communities that either lack adequate employment or who cannot afford global food prices will go without.

Given the chance, people will produce what they need to survive; but being divorced from the land and dependent on wages, they must produce on someone else's behalf before they can consider their own.

While much hand-wringing goes on concerning these, the most extreme inequalities of condition, few observers challenge the inequality of power on which they inevitably rest, and which is always the root of an evil. But it is only because inequality of condition is approached from a premise of unequal power that so little is ever achieved on this front, as the benefits of ending starvation must always be weighed against the overarching prerogative of power. For this, a lasting solution to hunger imposes an intolerable cost: the cost of surrendering power.


Financial Times:

State-sponsored short-time working schemes – in which people work fewer hours while the government tops up their pay – plus employment protection laws and cultural factors mean that some of the largest European economies have curbed the social costs of the severe recession. And by shoring up domestic demand they have arguably helped their own economies recover as well as contribute to global stabilisation. In so doing, they have also raised the question of whether systems that provide a generous cushion at times of crisis and preserve productive capacity, which had come to be seen as sluggish and inefficient, are really so bad.

Suffice it to say, we know better in the United States, where curbing social costs and shoring up domestic demand is known as "bankrupting the nation," while occupying others militarily is called "defending" it.

Dispatches from the nanny state

Financial Times:

Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate special committee on ageing, was on Wednesday set to go one step further and propose a law that would discourage people from dipping into their 401(k)s before they retire, which can seriously reduce the pot of money they have to live off in old age.

Do you know what else can seriously reduce the pot of money you have to live off in old age?  Not living until old age!

I suppose it's human nature to preference one over the other when the need arises.   Admittedly, this is less often for senators, who don't face medical bankruptcy, for example.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Con air

Wall Street Journal:

The flight's saga -- during which controllers worried the jetliner might have been hijacked -- appears to offer examples of two of the biggest safety hazards in commercial aviation: lax cockpit discipline and pilot complacency.
Investigators say the pilots recounted that they became engrossed in a heated discussion about a newly designed work-schedule system -- a controversial topic among pilots since Northwest was merged with Delta Air Lines Inc. Both pilots retrieved their laptops, and the first officer demonstrated to the captain how the new scheduling system worked.

It would be interesting to learn more about this "newly designed, controversial work-schedule system" which elicited "heated discussion" from the pilots -- especially after revelations of low pay and pilot fatigue surfaced in the Buffalo, NY crash.

Working conditions are the sort of thing you'd want to rule out only after arriving at complete confidence they played no significant role in pilot error; they kind of have implications for countless airline passengers and crew!

But when you operate from the assumption that anyone dissatisfied with a career in aviation is "free" to start their own airline, it is hard to accept that working conditions should ever be accounted for at all.  So this becomes a story about "laptops."

The rights of property

Financial Times:

The Palestinian water shortage is further exacerbated by the generous allocation of fresh water to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, some of which boast swimming pools, lawns and – in one case – even a fish farm. “The 450,000 Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3m,” the [Amnesty International] report states.

Isn't there an argument to be made that a fish farm makes more productive use of a scarce resource than the Palestinian circulatory system? After all, the fish are likely to live longer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things that sound great in theory

David Weidner, Wall Street Journal:

For many of us, our love for capitalism is real, and for us, love isn't too strong of a word. But like every relationship, it's complicated. It's easy to be infatuated by theories. Who didn't feel a rush of power when they were handed their first paycheck from a summer job? Who isn't awed by the beautiful efficiency of free markets, how they reward ingenuity and keep balance between buyers and sellers?

I'm awed by the beautiful efficiency of eating a sandwich.  I don't know if that figures prominently capitalist theory, but I'd love to see everyone try it in practice!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The boy scout grotto

John Gapper, Financial Times:

[I]f Goldman Sachs took on more risk when its equity was held by outsiders than with its partners’ own money, what can we expect now that the government implicitly accepts that it is “too big to fail”?

"The Hope'n'Change Express has left the station! Save yourselves!"

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Riddle me this, bankman! (cont.)

David Wessel, Wall Street Journal:

"Just as in war, there are unintended victims so, too, in economic rescues, there are unintended beneficiaries," [presidential economic adviser Lawrence] Summers said last week.

Isn't it hard to make a case for "unintended beneficiaries" when the very thing being rescued is entitled "capitalism"?


Drawing literary inspiration from workaday hard times, my colleagues at the old parcel plantation have resolved that Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the "C".

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The best care money can buy

Wall Street Journal:

During the health-care debate, one damning statistic keeps popping up in newspaper columns and letters, on cable television and in politicians' statements: The U.S. ranks 37th in the world in health care.

The trouble is, the ranking is dated and flawed, and has contributed to misconceptions about the quality of the U.S. medical system.

Lest we contribute to misconceptions about the quality of the U.S. medical system, let it be said that ours is the highest quality system that nobody can afford.

The more things strain, the more they remain the bane

via The Angry Arab News Service:

The practice of paying women less for doing the same jobs as men was not only accepted but routine; a wife’s credit card was issued in her husband’s name; and women had trouble securing bank loans to buy a house or even a car. The National Press Club was off limits to women until 1971. No one much questioned these regulations and customs — the dress codes requiring women to wear skirts instead of pants, the firing of airline stewardesses who gained too much weight — nor was there vocal opposition to the sort of prohibitions that we decry when they appear in dispatches from some benighted emirate or sheikdom.

I can't wait for the sequel, when Gail Collins tackles contemporary trends -- like how the practice of paying women less for doing the same jobs as men is not only accepted but routine.

Speaking of dress codes, keep in mind: this is how we celebrate our most talented female icons! Yes, we've come a long way since Rosie the Riveter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Amity Shlaes, Bloomberg:

Just when you think they couldn’t possibly grab any more, they do. Senior citizens, that is, now that President Barack Obama has proposed sending each retiree a $250 check some time soon.

I'd only like to note that this person has a career in commentary. Draw your own conclusions.