Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Big fish

The President talks tough to a weak industry comprised of blue collar workers. But he cannot talk tough to a powerful industry comprised of white collar workers. In either case, the market approves.

Liberals may point to this as wrong. It's bad policy that rewards the wrong people.

But this ignores our springtime constellation of power. Looking forward, Obama must secure Wall Street's money, not autoworker's votes. It's not like union families are going to vote Republican, after all.

Meanwhile, the men of best quality fret that their bets in Washington might turn out as badly as their bets on Wall Street. To be sure, Barack Obama has been a gamble: he said a lot of crazy things to get elected, and hasn't talked his way out of them since. Will he lend his talents to the dark side, or must the Emperor end his scene?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Ask your conscience if anarchism is right for you

When I was growing up, anarchism was a poorly rendered capital "A" above the elementary school toilet. In this context, it did not capture my imagination. I understood it to mean "anarchy" -- chaos -- and presumed it to be about as well conceived as the myriad of sexual proposals my gradeschool brethren produced alongside it. Sure, life might be bad, I would explain to them mid-pee, but reverting back to romper room was not the answer.

Throughout high school and college, the "anarchists" continued to make no impression. If anarchism meant a lack of structure, what possible use could come of it in the real world? Drop out if you want -- from meat, from paying taxes, from showering; do you expect that anyone will miss you? Conditions that go on without organized resistance go on unopposed, I would say. Government is here: do you want it to work for you or kick you in the shins? Dressing like a Mexican peasant in a hoodie and stewing in your own subculture might make good theatre, but it stands rather shabby as a threat.

-- -- --

It was much too late in my life before I discovered the intellectual tradition that underpins contemporary anarchism, and which disabused me of prior impressions. The main thrust of it was the notion that all authority requires the consent of those it affects. Without consent, authority has no legitimacy, by default.

There are exceptions to this rule, but where there are exceptions, there are justifications. For example, adult authority does not always enjoy the consent of a child during childhood, but that does not mean such authority is always illegitimate. It just means such authority must demonstrate why it is legitimate.

This orientation toward power informs our understanding of every exercise of authority in life. For this reason, anarchism does not prescribe specific behavior as much as it describes the natural human preference for making one's own choices; or, conversely, the human resistance against being told by others what to do.

One needn't call this "anarchism"; in fact, most people would not consciously think about it all. But insofar as the anarchist tradition strives to illuminate this innate tendency and defend its practice, it stands as a useful resource for anyone wanting to develop their own capacities further.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Servitude, and the responsibilities of freedom

One of the best mechanisms for controlling people is to deny them economic security. People who do not enjoy a basic "right" to well-being inevitably spend much of life in outward appeal to those that do.

Inwardly, the creative impulse of the individual is rerouted from personal to external need. The gradual process of "giving up our dreams" for the sake of career, dramatically amending them, or in other ways altering them to be compatible with the "realities of life" -- i.e., employer preferences -- is regarded as an inevitable mark of maturity and sober responsibility, in light of the obvious alternative, which is to burden those who are fending as best they can for themselves. But this ignores the general disenfranchisement of most of humanity by default.

Under such conditions of disenfranchisement, "individual liberty" becomes the sensation of an empty stomach and the anxiety of ever-mounting bills. "Freedom of choice" becomes the freedom to choose whatever course of action will best impress employers that we might prove useful to their purpose, even if this betrays our personal values in some way. It is a job: for want of economic security, people are socialized to get the most of it, regardless of what this means in the big picture.

The more money we want to make, the more we submit to the requirements of those who supply it. Historically, this has not been a very good thing for the world.

The conditions imposed on securing a reasonable livelihood should not be allowed to compromise human health, personal freedom, the viability of the planet, or other universally shared concerns. To the extent that conditions of employment violate these terms, they must be challenged and modified. It is everyone's responsibility not to solicit the promise of personal security as a bribe to look the other way on issues that affect everyone, and which we know in our hearts to be right. We can no longer afford this as the prevailing standard of success.
Israeli housekeeping

New York Times:
“When we entered houses, we actually cleaned up the place,” said Yishai Goldflam, 32, a religiously observant film student in Jerusalem whose open letter to the Palestinian owners of the house he occupied for some days was published in the newspaper Maariv.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The things worth saving

Financial Times:

Ordinary citizens do not comprehend obvious elite truths such as the financial crisis was a systemic failure, not a personal one, that Wall Street wizards need to be paid as much to unwind the mess as they earned creating it, and that saving the system as a whole is a more worthy and urgent task than punishing individual miscreants.

I suspect what ordinary citizens comprehend is that the system does not work for them.

When times are "good," the ordinary citizen is placed on a treadmill and asked to run faster and faster, making little if any progress personally, while the owning classes absorb the gains. Profits are skewed towards owners, and "obligations" -- for one's welfare, health, and retirement -- are hung on the average American, who lives indebted just to scrape by.

When times are "bad," the ordinary citizen is taxed in order to preserve this relationship.

I have a feeling the ordinary citizen would be open to ending this relationship altogether if a more equitable arrangement was proposed. There is scarcely anything left to lose in working towards it -- and quite a lot to be gained for our grandchildren in succeeding.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


The strategic question is not so much left or right as it is up or down.
A healthy dialogue

Wall Street Journal:

The health-insurance industry said it would be willing to stop charging sick people more for coverage if all Americans were required to buy insurance.

In response, Americans said they would be willing to accept better health outcomes at half the cost by abandoning the "health-insurance industry"-model of for-profit care altogether.
Choosers, beggars

It's a good thing executives call the shots at work. Otherwise employees might demand explanations for how they are treated.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Investing for the long term

Financial Times:

The stock price performance, though, perhaps reflects FedEx being more sensitive to shareholder pressure, taking on debt and expanding aggressively in the boom, including the unwise acquisition of Kinko’s, a retail printing chain, for $2bn in 2004. Since the economy began to falter in 2007, however, UPS shares have fared far better. Perhaps there is some truth to the argument that managers with unionised workforces tend not to succumb to short-term solutions to boost growth, but are forced to innovate and invest for the long term.

Power is safest when diffused, in this case on the job.

That UPS executives are constrained by their employees, whose welfare is partially secured through labor contracts, directly contributes to the long-term efficiency of the organization, because the free hand required to pursue "short-term gain into the flames" has been checked.

Just one example of the many useful things ordinary people do for society in defense of shared interests.
Corporate personhood

Democracy Now!:

It is a democracy crisis. The question we started asking as our lawsuit [against Exxon] went on and on and on, and we didn’t get paid, was how did corporations get this big, where they can manipulate the legal system, the political system? What happened here? And I thought that was a really good question, so I went to answer it. And that became the final chapter of Not One Drop.

And I learned from other people’s work that there’s actually two ways to amend the Constitution. One is formally, through people-made law, which we’ve done twenty-seven times. And one is informally, through what Thomas Jefferson called the engine of consolidation, the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court.

And in 1886, the Supreme Court made sort of a seminal decision, where it granted a railroad corporation equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, which is, of course, a civil rights amendment for due process and equal protection for African American men. For the first forty years after that passed, there were 307 lawsuits brought, nineteen by African American men, the rest by corporations.

And at that point, when the Fourteenth Amendment passed to corporations, this thing called a corporate person arose. And that corporate person, in the eyes of the law, is able to access our rights, human rights, the Bill of Rights, constitutional protections. This is wrong. The word “corporation” never appears in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. This is how we’ve lost freedom of speech. We still—we, as people, still have the First Amendment, but so do corporations. Free speech equals money. Those with more money have more speech. Pretty simple. So I began to understand that the legal system is broken. The election process is broken, all because of the same reason, this corporate personhood.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It might not be all right on the nightshift

Financial Times:

A review of recent studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that night work disrupted the body’s circadian rhythms, inhibiting the production of melatonin, a hormone important in fighting cancer. “Shift work that involves circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans,” it concluded, putting the risk at the same level as chemicals containing lead, anabolic steroids, creosote, diesel exhaust and sun lamps.

...Up to a fifth of employees in Europe and the US work shifts including nights. More than 30 per cent work at night in healthcare, manufacturing, mining, transport, communication and the leisure and hospitality sectors.

Speaking for myself, my spouse, and many of the people I know working two or three jobs: if we can't work at night because it is going to kill us, how can we afford to live through the day?

I know cancer sucks, but have you ever tried not paying your bills? Cancer at least has an end point.

Ah, the choices we are asked to make on behalf of investors. If only they were the poor: the producing class would be counted among the world's greatest philanthropists.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Towards a democratic banking system

Labor Notes:

We need banks. But we don’t need private bankers. It’s like health care: we need nurses, doctors, hospitals, and clinics, but we don’t need insurance companies.
Al Jazeera: Israeli T-shirts mock Gaza killings

Economic miracles

Dean Baker:

Suppose Timothy Geithner announced a new program that would tax every family $10,000 dollars and give the money to Wall Street banks and hedge funds. (Any resemblance between this hypothetical program and real world programs is purely coincidental.)

We would expect the stock of Wall Street banks and other financial sector firms to rally based on the anticipation of higher profits. Is this good for the economy? It's not in any obvious way. After all, we can always tax people more to raise profits for Wall Street, but that doesn't help the economy.

It's always worth remembering that losses and gains are distributed throughout societies. What is "good for America" depends on who is defining the terms, and what their interests are.

Similarly, "the economy" or "the market" are often just terms used to describe the dominant players within them. When the "economy is doing great," the rich are doing great, and so on.

Or as the Brazilian dictator once observed of his country's privatization reforms: "The economy is doing great, it's just the people who aren't."

When we obligate ourselves toward each other, not the arbitrary demands of power, our differences become the basis for movement, not borders beyond which we fear to tread.

It is the difference between walking amongst people, being known to them as a friend, and spending one's life trying to climb a ladder in order to get over their heads.

Power dedicates itself to soliciting servants, and it does this by portraying the wealth of human diversity as a perpetual threat. Nationalism conjures fear of monsters outside our borders, in service to the State. Racism continues the notion of a criminal class based on color, in service to various industries, including weapons manufacturers and what is called the "legal justice system" (two-thirds correct insofar as it is both "legal" and a "system.") Sexism makes of women the ever-ready servant to men. Terrorism, remarkably, has made of entire cultures a caricature that justifies the kidnapping, torture, and murder of their members -- the kidnapping and murder which continue unreservedly today -- in the service of international trade and finance, the current practice of which the world's people, in various ways, resist.

In every case a ladder is offered as though there were no way to remain on the ground, and the reward offered by power is to stand over the heads of others, with whatever privileges this brings.

It's important to emphasize that one of the rewards of removing oneself from the larger concerns of the human family is material security in the form of a respectable livelihood. This is not to say that anyone with a respectable livelihood has achieved it through this means. But because the promise of a respectable livelihood has always been a useful tool for recruiting people into the service of power, rulers of every age have sought to monopolize it: people who lack an independent means of survival inevitably turn, at great disadvantage, to those who do.

Consider this in light of the kind of work you spend your life engaged in, versus the kind of work you might prefer to be doing, the conditions under which you are expected to perform, etc.; or, if your work is agreeable, the degree to which it serves some purpose that is aligned with power. Because there is never much money to be made keeping company with people who are themselves purposefully denied a livelihood -- namely, us -- the world goes on looking the bloody mess it always has: our obligations don't extend horizontally toward each other, but vertically toward power, the very thing, in Foucault's words, "that dominates and exploits us."

Of course, it is a trap. My idea of what waits at the top of any ladder is more material wealth than one could ever make useful, with no where to take it -- but plenty of takers all around. It is a lonely, well-stocked tomb, situated in a politically untenable position. It is the big house in the gated community requiring full-time security to keep it from being sacked -- that is, if you can trust the underpaid security service. It is the middle-class dream of world travel, which amounts to dodging one poverty-stricken vista after another, where the wealthy Westerner is viewed as a target -- whether for cash or something else -- not a "friend."

This is the price of separation from the concerns of most people; and trying to reconcile this separation after the fact -- for example, by "giving back" -- does not return us to our family in a natural way, but rather pimps us out as some lofty, distant benefactor who holds the keys to a tolerable life, and subsequently demands celebration. The ascent to power has divorced us from humankind all along.

Freedom of movement happens alongside people, not apart from them. This requires obligating ourselves toward their concerns, educating ourselves about shared interests (which presupposes that we understand our own), and conditioning ourselves not to respect the boundaries proposed by power, demarcated as "differences." This means aligning oneself with one's neighbor, not one's ruler -- even if your neighbor is your political or religious opposite, and your ruler holds your "values." There is no atheist or Church-goer, Republican or revolutionary, Arab or Jew who cannot be talked to merely on the basis of these distinctions. Do the creationists need to feed their families? Do their daughters need health care? Then there is a broad space in which to stand, and move, amongst them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Corporate wrongdoing, and exercising your "right" to quit

Jack Welch, former CEO at General Electric, writes a management column with his wife and/or daughter(?), Suzy, in every installment of BusinessWeek.

A recent piece entitled, "An Employee Bill of Rights," deals with the "expectations" employees can "reasonably" hold vis-a-vis their employers, as divined by the "Welchway."

Because corporate culture frequently adopts progressive, democratic language to mask the powerlessness of its human material, real "rights" never enter into the equation. Employees do not have "rights" except to accept or reject a contract of employment, as laid out on the employer's terms. Simply put, this is the situation that arises when one group owns what everyone else requires for survival: people sell themselves to others for a wage.

Whatever rights employees otherwise enjoy are rights that have been imposed on employers by force, through the coordinated activity of employees in their own self-interest, in either the political or economic sphere, as with laws and unions.

But where the law cannot reach, or sleeps unenforced; and where the cooperative spirit of self-interest has been gradually whittled down over time to reveal the easy target of self-promotionalism, the employee is asked to pay the highest price -- to family, leisure, education, art, and other free pursuits -- for advancement, respectable compensation, or even just to keep a job.

Under the terms of any dictatorship, no human value is sacred. Jack and Suzy raise, for example, the issue of "integrity" -- timely, one might suppose, in light of the kinds of corporate fraud which have precipitated the collapse of the world economy. Here is their program for advancing "integrity" in the workplace as a "right" of employees:

[I]t's reasonable to expect a boss who demonstrates integrity. It's awful to go to work each day wondering if your boss is shading the truth, adding spin to his real beliefs, or violating company values. So hold tight to this expectation. And if you feel it ebbing, you may need to ask yourself if it's time to move on.

Clearly, this is something the world could use a lot more of: people who recognize what's wrong in their organizations, but never bother to say, or do, anything about it. Integrity is best served by preserving one's deference to power -- and changing your life around if you fear you're not up to it.

Take away their land with conglomerate farming;

take away their tools with the assembly line;

take away the family business by flooding the market;

take away their art by owning all venues;

take away their homes through indebtedness;

take away their health by denying them care;

take away their government by writing its laws;

take away their sanity by rewarding compliance;

you are left with a country that is free for the taking.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Excerpts from the wars we pay for

According to the squad leader: "The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them.

"I don't think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to ... I don't know how to describe it .... The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way," he said.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nation of laws

What do union workers and Wall St. traders have in common?

Not much when it comes to honoring contracts.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Say no to Mexican drug gangs

American cities deserve American drug gangs.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Appeal to heaven

If science and faith seem to be at war, it's worth taking a step back before joining the fray. Trace the fault line and one is likely to find political motivations at the core.

If science aims at organizing what we know about our universe, and faith aims at asking deeper questions of it, then the two occupy different roles in human affairs. All things being equal, there is nothing about these roles that should prevent them from being complementary.

Globally, most of what is portrayed as a conflict between secularism and religion is a political question about integrating people into the world economy. If you practice a faith in which usury -- lending and borrowing -- is proscribed, then you are not going to make a very good "entrepreneur," or consumer.

The traditional approach of contemporary "globalization" has been to beat with a club those who do not avail themselves of these modern "freedoms." Unsurprisingly, this breeds resentment and militancy among those under the club. In the Middle East, for example, the club is often wielded by Arab governments at the behest of Western strategic and commercial interests. In other cases, Western forces assume this role directly.

Closer to home, the bumper sticker battles between Darwin and the Jesus fish are a sad testament to the ability of the political class to enlist beleaguered citizens in an ongoing feud between contending rulers. This is called "culture war," and it has been ordained by elite groups as legitimate terrain on which to capture hearts and minds. Since neither side gains from raising issues for which there is an established consensus -- defense spending or private sector health care, for example -- these subjects are excluded from public debate.

The Republican Party, whose only goal is to transfer maximum power to economic monopoly via the bottomless purse of the state, makes common cause with any social trend that further alienates citizens from their government, if only to inoculate them against economic obstructionism. Demanding that schools give equal time to creationism is fine because it imposes no burden on business either way. Neither do a number of other pointless initiatives -- amending the constitution to prevent flag burning or gay marriage, for example -- which have no practical relevance to advocates except to make the nation that less free for everyone else.

In light of such depravity, the Democratic Party is happy to assume the mantel of enlightened statecraft for professional, managerial, and urban constituencies. Democratic standing has been harmed considerably among the rural working class, who no longer have the benefit of an entrenched labor movement from which to frame their hardships in economic, rather than cultural, terms; and who, for too long, have been left to right-wing radio personalities uncontested. The conservative caricature of liberals as "elitist" is accurate to the degree that the Democratic Party is dominated by the same class interests as Republicans; only the Democrats are made more vulnerable to the charge insofar as they do not refute what they share culturally with the educated professionals who manage most American institutions, lending "substance" to the claim that "liberal elites" run the country, oppressing the average American at every turn. In fact, the Republican Party has merely found political advantage in distancing itself from its own institutions on strictly cultural terms, because its only practical consideration is the bottom line.

Insofar as one party identifies with "science," the other with "faith," it's worth taking the purported "war" between the two with a large grain of salt. The war is for political supremacy, and supremacy requires ratification from the population. Science and faith are merely two positions reeled out as bait for any willing takers, and they conceal a consensus between parties which comprises what neither have in common with anyone.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


This New York Times columnist has some choice words for the man who stole billions, primarily from the rich and well-connected, in no small part thanks to his seductive reputation for consistent, if unexplained returns:

Is there a Hell painful enough for him? A place where, say, he can listen to Bush economic theorists espouse the joys of toothless regulation while looking at pictures of the Holocaust survivors who are among Madoff’s victims?

The writer goes on to highlight the decency of other wealthy individuals, who do not sin against their peers, and whose enterprising brings them such fortune that they are left no relevant social role but to retire into philanthropic activity in their twilight years. For this, they are celebrated as exemplars of the community by their class, their works championed as a model for addressing the world's problems: if only we had more emperors of wealth to benignly rule over the health and well being of most of humanity.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Democrats and Republicans

It's notable that the Republican Party opts to wield state power under the guise of opposing "big government." Indeed, this is their entire shtick: appealing to people who distrust governmental authority so strongly that they are willing to endorse a political party -- the purest expression of the pursuit of governmental power -- to show it.

Whether "conservative" or "libertarian," it should go without saying that anyone who genuinely distrusts the state is not going to spend 100% of their time trying to monopolize it. This is probably why practicing libertarians, who are most commonly known as "anarchists," devote 100% of their time to building their own self-managed institutions -- cooperatives, unions, mutual banks, etc. -- which exist independent of the state altogether, rather than making a lifetime career out of the very "big government" they pretend to oppose.

For its part, the Democratic Party does not feign any principled opposition to big government. It merely pretends that the state can be harnessed for the good of all through a kind of scientific managerialism, as practiced by qualified elites. Hence Barack Obama's call for "a government that works" -- which just means big government that is more equitable in its distribution of benefits, though, importantly, no less vulnerable to interference from large economic actors.

Traditionally, the effect of contemporary Democratic rule has been materially superior for the majority of Americans as compared with its Republican analog, which always seems to redirect wealth from public to private concerns. (It should be said that for people of other nations, Democratic administrations can prove equally murderous, but that deserves a separate discussion.)

But this is still distinct and separate from self-management and democracy, which should be the goal toward which anyone with an instinct for freedom would keep a view. People make good and bad decisions in all circumstances of life, but there is far less danger in having these choices administered from below, where their scope is limited to the people who make them. Surrendering to them to a centralized authority just means imposing them by force on everybody.
Madoff on trial

We are all wealthy investors who expected 10 percent returns through a shadowy, no-questions-asked patronage scheme now!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Despots of a lesser god

"So what are we going to do about capitalism, anyway?"

The visionaries at the helm wring their hands.

"Maybe it's not enough to produce for the sake of production; maybe economic growth shouldn't trump all other concerns."

"We need a less selfish capitalism; we need to think about others -- not least of all our children, our world."

All I want to know is whether our leadership caste -- whatever the ideology -- is ready to surrender their coercive advantages -- the state which confiscates your freedom; the employer who denies your livelihood -- and, by doing so, enter into an equal relationship with those they claim to lead.

It is only democracy that can diffuse such power. Let's talk about that, dude: not all the wonderful things you have in store for humanity, if only we should remain under your tutelage.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"The people who own the country ought to govern it"*


Business is marshaling its forces. The target is the aggressive domestic agenda laid out in President Barack Obama's first budget.

You might remember this as the aggressive domestic agenda that President Barack Obama hinted at when he was still Senator Barack Obama.

We've had an election in the time since, but, for the high priests of industry, that was just a formality.

John Jay, President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Monday, March 09, 2009

Obama confirms support for unionization bill

The Wall Street Journal:

Many companies have said the [Employee Free Choice Act], likely to be introduced in coming weeks by congressional Democrats, would add to their costs while hurting their ability to boost productivity and keep their work forces flexible enough to respond to changing markets. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said it will spend at least $10 million this year fighting it.

Yeah, it's a funny thing about productivity. It's gone up substantially since the 1970's. And yet wages have remained what is called "stagnant" -- they have stayed the same, adjusted for inflation -- or in some cases even declined.

What this means is that while companies produce more, grow more, and earn more over time, employees do not share in these gains: they are stuck at 1970's-era purchasing power. This doesn't stop people from living their lives; it just makes them more dependent on various forms of credit to do so. We take out bigger and bigger loans to own a home or go to college; increasingly we rely on credit cards to pay for medical, food, and other basic expenses.

The grim irony of the situation is that, having denied the American working class any sensible, non-speculative means to support itself (for example, taking home a livable wage vs. playing the stock market and investing in real estate bubbles), the captains of industry and finance who engineered this swindle now find themselves for want of able consumers! Hence the grand economic kablooey in which we presently reside -- to paraphrase the great IOZ.

True to form, what cannot be gleaned from the wallet of the cash-poor American is put upon government to extract from cash-poor Americans as a whole. This means cutting "entitlement" spending like Social Security and Medicare, not to mention basic public services, as well as borrowing heavily against the national debt -- all in order to preserve a tax scheme favored by the rich.

President Obama seems to comprehend the offending dynamic -- to a degree that he is even willing to risk "political World War III" with business to confront it. This is significant: presidents are only supposed to make campaign promises, not live up to them. This is provoking considerable anxiety on behalf of the thieving classes, who daily wish upon a shining star that Obama's fealty for them be made true. However, if Obama is committed to seeing working people take greater control of their own lives -- in the workplace and elsewhere -- then there promises to be a slow reshuffling of Wall Street's affections for him.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Lifting millions of readers out of reality

I'm constantly reading accounts of corporate globalization that extrapolate from a single anecdote a metaphor for entire nations.

Take, for example, this:

Tucked away behind a busy street in south Mumbai stands a smart, clean, and modern apartment block.

In it, lives the Vas family. Austine, 40, and his wife, Philomena, 35. They are typical of India's burgeoning middle class - a group which has exploded in size over the past fifteen years and is responsible for driving what economists call the 'new India'.

I've never read any of Tom Friedman's books, but I'm willing to bet that shit like this comprises 95% of them -- prompting a reviewer of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" to chide its author that "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'"

Nonetheless, the approach may be the best on offer for the business press, which has some stake in selling the "social benefits" attached to making money hand over fist in desperate societies. After all, nobody wants to believe they are motivated solely for that reason!

Still, every once in a while some numbers slip through the cracks that make your head spin:

Since economic reforms kicked off in 1991, the share of Indians employed in the informal sector — where they are not covered by stringent, socialist-era labor laws from the time of the cold war — has grown steadily to more than 90 percent, according to a recent government-commissioned report.

Among them, the report found, nearly three-fourths lived on less than 20 cents a day and had virtually no safety net.

Now, I don't know what a "stringent, socialist-era labor law" entails, but if it includes "virtually" some safety net, then it is probably the kind of policy that the other 90% of the Indian workforce would like to have; as opposed to the Empty Stomach Program, which helps drive what economists call the "new India."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

25 random things that don't concern me; # 12. Worrying about the French

Roger Cohen:

Still, the $3.6 trillion Obama budget made me a little queasy. There is a touch of France in its “├ętatisme” — the state as all-embracing solution rather than problem — and there’s more than a touch of France in the bash-the-rich righteousness with which the new president cast his plans as “a threat to the status quo in Washington.”

I always take note when any part of the US aristocracy goads me into wholesale prejudice against the customs of another people, or the practices of their ruling class.

Yes, let's worry about the French, who actually have a health care system.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The quash heard round the world

The Economist:

Or perhaps, the yakuza—Japan’s organised-crime groups that date from the 17th century—are getting squeezed. For most of the post-war period they operated openly: tolerated by the public, used by politicians and protected by police. Crime will happen anyway, went the argument, so better to know whom to call when it crosses the line. In the 1950s ministers and industrialists relied on the mobsters and nationalist groups to quash unions and socialists. The gangs upheld classic Japanese virtues of manliness and loyalty—and paid for mistakes by slicing off one of their fingers in atonement.

Quashing unions and socialists seems to be a favored pastime in much of modern history. When the Nazis first took power, they quashed unions and socialists. This earned Hitler the reputation of a "moderate," at least around the US Department of State: he kept the unions and socialists, and their fellow travelers, in line. After Hitler was defeated, partly with the help of unions and socialists, the first order of business for the US was to beat them back -- notably, with the assistance of former Nazi officers, who knew a thing or two on the subject. This carried into civil war in Greece, and was exported to Latin America, where government sponsored violence against labor organizations continues to this day. McCarthyism was our domestic contribution to this trend.

In fact, quashing unions and socialists is a necessary part of every healthy industrial oligarchy. When the Bolsheviks first took power, they quashed unions and socialists. This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that the Russian communists did this in the name of "socialism": The Party which took control of the Russian government claimed to "speak on behalf" of the Russian working class; therefore, to oppose government policy was to oppose the workers -- even if it was the workers who comprised the opposition. Quash!

So even in Japan, the preference at the top is for organized crime over organized labor. Perhaps this reveals something about the history of American unions as well.

I submit there is something very basic and universal about the threat posed by ordinary people who presume to organize their work lives in ways that suit them, not their bosses, best.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-syndicalism; 1938:

[T]he point of attack in the political struggle lies, not in the legislative bodies, but in the people. Political rights do not originate in parliaments, they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security.

Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labour as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers' organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like, have long existed governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by judicial hair-splitting.

Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution. One compels respect from others when he knows how to defend his dignity as a human being. This is not only true in private life, it has always been the same in political life as well.

Monday, March 02, 2009

My first captive audience meeting

Last week I attended what is referred to as a "captive audience meeting" -- when your employer gives you the benefit of their views on unions. What I took from the experience is that my employer's views on this subject are not favorable.

The meeting was run by our store manager, and held in a conference room with fewer than ten employees in attendance. It began with a history lesson about how in the days when the bosses did not treat their subjects nicely, unions played some useful role in protecting workers. Today, employers -- for example, ours! -- treat people very well, and, besides, "there are laws" which protect employees on the job. So unions have outlived their purpose, now that employers and the government have taken up their cause.

A graph was presented showing the rate of union decline since 1983, and a figure was cited about only 7% of the US workforce being unionized, versus 93%. Clearly, "most Americans don't choose unions."

This declining unionization rate, so the story goes, has prompted American labor unions -- "for-profit businesses," we were told -- to push the Employee Free Choice Act as a way for their "salespeople" to break back into the market. I would say the portrayal of union organizers as conspiratorial, self-interested outsiders made a definite impression on the audience, leading as it did to a discussion of the extent to which employees might be deputized by management to oust any potential offenders from store property.

It is hard to gauge the persuasiveness of the event on the group as a whole, for one thing because there is no incentive to challenge one's employer openly in such instances. To all appearances, framing the issue as one which pits the work community as a whole against meddlesome outsiders who make empty promises in order to lock in dues money seems effective. It would seem that a science has evolved out of the business of union-busting, and it is being implemented to good effect by employers across the country.