Monday, August 31, 2009

Marxist Mondays


[T]he idea that there is a "free market" in health care for consumers is nonsense. A free market assumes that participants are knowledgeable and understand the choices they're being asked to make. That's not the case with health care, as anyone who has tried to analyze Medicare-supplement plans or pick among insurance options offered by his employer can tell you. Should you find yourself in a rural area far from home with a mysterious and troubling pain, you're not exactly in a position to bargain with the local walk-in clinic or hospital emergency room.

If a market is a place of exchange, calling it "free" doesn't tell us very much about its social meaning. Just because two or more parties agree to a transaction doesn't say anything about the balance of bargaining power, or the external pressures that may bring people to that market in the first place.

Anyone in a position of desperation or dependency will engage the world at a disadvantage; for Marx, this was the premise on which modern markets worked: Inequality, the engine of wealth.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Wall Street Journal:

... Mr. Broad is not waiting around for Washington to solve the education crisis. In 2002 the foundation launched the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month management training program to prepare people from business, nonprofits, the military and government backgrounds to take leadership positions in urban public education. The theory is that people with experience in efficiently managing large organizations are the best ones to put in charge of unruly public school districts.

Give me a wealthy douchebag with a "theory," and I will show you a "venture philanthropist" who doesn't "wait around" for a second opinion.
Perfect attendance

Financial Times:

Younger workers are more likely to take sick leave than their older colleagues, and those in their 60s have the best attendance levels.

Mike Emmott, policy adviser at the [Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development], said that, in spite of them entering the workforce with high expectations, something seems to go wrong with this younger age group.

“They can be quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they start work,” he said. “But that enthusiasm rapidly falls off a cliff after a year or two.”

Mr Emmott speculated that younger workers either had unrealistic expectations of the workplace, or were losing faith in their employers when they did not deliver on promises made when they were hired.

Younger workers take sick leave; older workers take antidepressants!
A tall order


It is hardly one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but according to Unicef almost half of Guatemala’s children are chronically malnourished — the sixth-worst performance in the world. In parts of rural Guatemala, where the population is overwhelmingly of Mayan descent, the incidence of child malnutrition reaches 80%.

Well! It almost makes you wonder why rural Guatemalans aren't eating! What exactly are they growing in that country, if not children?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American anarchism

The easiest way to challenge American political power at an individual level is to engage people with their own principles and ask them to be consistent in a way that political parties, inevitably, are not.

If a person is liberal, surely they must agree to be liberal toward every individual, and unafraid of any particular view; after all, this is the very foundation of freedom of speech. A consistent liberalism acknowledges this; it defends the right of free expression to every individual, including those with unpopular views. This is quite in contrast with the liberalism of the Democratic Party, which distinguishes itself by attacking the rural poor as too stupid to understand their own affairs in the event they are swayed by conservative appeals pointing out this fact!

Conversely, a conservative who is skeptical only in the face of governmental power, and happily ignores every other variety, is no conservative at all. Conservatism must be a skepticism toward all power, otherwise it is not a principle; anyone who argues that government is the only "coercive" authority under the sun should be invited to planet Earth for a stay, where examples abound. Similarly, arguments that "social order must be preserved," are easily undone by a principled conservatism which preferences certain social orders over others; few would argue that all things are justified simply because they exist.

Liberalism toward the individual, conservatism towards power; by another name, anarchism -- but nobody understands it by this name, and I find it a strong argument to say that most Americans never will. The relevant question for anyone engaged in social action is whether they want to speak persuasively to a clique of overeducated converts or to whomever they encounter in whatever context, usually on their terms.

Many popular principles can be broadened to their libertarian conclusions, obviating endless tutorials on "What is Libertarian Socialism?" -- which amounts to proselytizing the uninitiated with one hand, while sponsoring a kind of intolerance for those who "don't get it" with the other. It is too great a handicap to begin a course of social action anywhere most people are not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Workplace safety

Put in some hours at the old parcel plantation today. A supervisor forbids me from maintaining a comfortable posture while loading volume into the belly of a 767. Normally, this would not be an issue, but the supervisor is part of a "safety committee" tasked to ensure my employer is not liable in the event of injury. To this end, we sign endless amounts of paperwork governing our every method and memorize reams of seemingly arbitrary "safety slogans" and other asinine catchphrases by rote. I would say a very small portion of this can be parlayed into any practical advantage on the job. But the advantage is always meant to be the company's; ours is simply to injure ourselves by some preapproved means.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Interview with Malcom Gladwell


IOZ: Malcolm [Gladwell], what is your new book about?

MG: Well, IOZ, it's about how when you call across a room, street, or open outdoor area to someone who hasn't previously noticed you, they will hear you and become aware of your presence. This is really a remarkable phenomenon, but much of the newest research has yet to be written about for a general audience. I got the idea one day when I was in Manhattan. I was on Bleeker, and suddenly someone called, "Hey!" Before that, I hadn't known he was there. Afterward, I did. So I started to ask myself, what goes on in that moment. What is the real story there? In a broader sense, it is a book about what it means to be human.

I have to admit: I've never heard of Malcom Gladwell. And yet, by listening to NPR, I know him well!
Marxist Mondays

New York Times:

Among [Adam Smith's] more radical observations was that legislators tended to defer to those “masters” of industry, even when their aims would hurt the citizenry.

"Radical" is the observation that is not socially useful for the ruling class, Marx might say.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

19th century insights

New York Times:

What unites communities with historically high rates of discrimination against girls is a rigid patriarchal culture that makes having a son a financial and social necessity.

The New York Times prefers a fluid patriarchal culture with high rates of violence and discrimination against women as increased profit and market share remain a financial and social necessity.

But as Marx noted 150 years ago, "That sucks, too!"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Reconsidering the end of poverty

Wall Street Journal:

The lack of growth is hurting the nation's poor. A recent World Bank report estimated that the crisis will push an additional four million Mexicans below the poverty line this year alone.

In a purely quantitative sense, "the poverty line" is a popular concept. If you earn above X amount of income in a sweatshop, you have been lifted out of poverty. Congratulations!

On the other hand, if you grow your own food and trade this with others for the things you need, you may not earn any income at all. Or maybe you earn a little income on the side, as needed. Still, your income is smaller than most, because many of your needs are already met. This is a travesty, and the developed world is doing everything in its power to stop it.

In Mexico, this was called NAFTA. Under this trade agreement, Mexicans now had the luxury of buying their most important staples, like corn, from large industrial growers in the United States. Corn from the United States suddenly became much cheaper than corn sold by small farmers in Mexico, in large part because US taxpayers subsidize it.

This made being a small farmer in Mexico very, very hard. It no doubt contributed to many family members ending up in urban sweatshops and/or somewhere in the Arizona desert in the hopes of sending money back home. It also pushed people into the drug, human trafficking, and other lucrative trades.

All of this contributed handily to economic growth, as intended. After all, there's lots of money to be made off the backs of desperate children. Many have since been featured prominently in the New York Times and elsewhere, detailing how they like the newfound freedom and independence that comes with working for a wage, buying consumer products, and being the heroes of the new global economy.

Such opportunities have contracted in the advent of the financial crisis, which means plenty of poverty to go around, especially now that traditional rural farming is impossible. Still, around the globe, many children are returning home, for lack of any other option. At least they will get to see their families again!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Waxing moral in polite company

Financial Times:

Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of the microcredit pioneering Grameen Bank, has called for an overhaul of the global financial system to make services available to the very poor.

Problems such as poverty and food security could be tackled using a non-profit business model, the Bangladeshi economist told an audience in Bangkok.

Well, sure. But problems such as poverty and food security could also be tackled using policies which undercut "backward" local farming and "empower" people into sweatshops, where they can enjoy depending on someone else -- whatever this entails -- rather than providing for themselves. This process is called "lifting millions of people out of poverty" by anyone hoping to make money from it.

It should also be noted that problems such as poverty and food security could be tackled using policies which the affected groups endorse, or even administer themselves. (I shouldn't say this too loud, but sometimes people expect their own government to bear some responsibility for what they want!) Yeah, good luck with that, dude!

New York Times:

Strange as it may seem, sweatshops in Asia had the effect of empowering women.

You know what they say: the only thing worse than a hungry girl working in a sweatshop is a hungry girl not working in a sweatshop!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Philip Stephens, Financial Times:

Beneath the transatlantic waves lies an awkward truth; one that politicians of all shapes and sizes – conservative and progressive, European and American – would prefer not to discuss. Healthcare is rationed everywhere.

Some countries, of course, choose to spend more on health than others, just as they set different priorities for education or defence .... But all the models, the American included, share one characteristic. They ration access, while pretending otherwise. In Britain, the state imposes the limits; in the US the market does much the same job. What separates them are questions of efficiency and equity.

"Rationing" appears as a pejorative in the US health debate only as it relates to rich people not getting what they want instantly because they can pay for it. Perhaps they will have to "wait in line," and so on; a grievous infringement of their liberty, etc.

Of course, in any system where large numbers of people go without care altogether, this is a special use of the term. That it is the dominant usage tells us something about who speaks loudest in an unequal society.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"I am not a Marxist" Mondays

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital:

His sympathy with peoples rather than governments also leads him naturally into positions of sympathetic understanding for popular struggles, including those waged in the name of anti-imperialism. It is understandable that someone who proclaims the virtues of historical materialism and class analysis, and who takes strongly anti-imperialist positions, should be viewed by many as a Marxist. That he prefers the label of "radical conservative" also makes sense. But then did not Marx also say, "I am not a Marxist"? Perhaps a shot of the sort of "radical conservatism" that [Mongolia specialist Owen] Lattimore espouses is what Marxism needs from time to time to preserve it from its more dogmatic predilections. Certainly, Lattimore's perpetual concern to keep as close to the people he sought to understand has a most healthy ring to it.

It's worth recalling that "conservatism" was at one time a philosophy concerned with the dangers of power as exercised by the prevailing institutions of its day, namely church and state. In other words, you could be conservative to the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality and so on, and against abuses of concentrated power.

Private property, conceived as a right for every person, was seen as a hedge against power; it at least granted people a means of self-sufficiency, rightly regarded as a prerequisite for any meaningful liberty. This is why Thomas Jefferson conceived of an American democracy as practiced by family farmers and community artisans, and objected to concentrated power in the hands of priests, bankers, and bureaucrats.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The arc of history is long but it bends toward bankruptcy

Financial Times:

Opponents of Barack Obama’s healthcare proposals are using the tactics of Saul Alinksy, the legendary leftwing activist who helped inspire the US president when he was a young community organiser, says Dick Armey, head of Freedom Works, a group fighting against universal healthcare.

Opponents have also tapped the moral conviction of Martin Luther King, Jr. and channeled the spirit of Sojourner Truth into a popular tract entitled, "Ain't I a Woman Who'd Rather Leave It to the Market?"
Women at harms

Finally! A tale of feminism destined to warm the cockles of the overseas investor's heart: these brave ladies are just dying to defend emerging markets!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Poor Republicans

Financial Times:

“I have worked for 35 years to get my healthcare coverage and I don’t want the government meddling with it,” says Geri Pollick, a retiree in a floppy summer hat holding aloft a banner telling President Obama to keep his hands off Medicare, a government programme for those over 65.

Ms Pollick is among hundreds denied access to the small community centre in spite of having arrived hours before the meeting. “They want to turn us into Canada when thousands are coming over here from Canada just to survive,” she added.

When it was pointed out that Canadians have a significantly higher life expectancy than Americans, Ms Pollick replied: “That can’t be true. That’s not what I’ve heard.”

Almost every progressively-minded person I know takes such ignorance as a by-product of the conservative temperament, as though voting Republican in rural areas can only be explained by some genetic predisposition for stupidity.

And yet, when an analogous ignorance is displayed in some way by say, an African-American in North Philadelphia, no one of progressive inclination will ever be found saying that this is due to some fixed quality unique to people in that area!

Any community which suffers a lack of resources will invariably exhibit the effects of wanting resources; this is well enough understood in cases that excite our political sympathies.

But it is important not to be led into illusion by political actors who solicit our allegiance against other disenfranchised communities solely on the grounds that they do not yield politically useful outcomes! The political party is never a friend to the dispossessed; its only recourse is to lie about the impoverishment of the other side and attribute it to treason.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Without class analysis, without a solution

Paul Krugman, New York Times:

What, then, should Mr. Obama do? It would certainly help if he gave clearer and more concise explanations of his health care plan. To be fair, he’s gotten much better at that over the past couple of weeks.

It's safe to say that Paul Krugman can be counted among the crown jewels of American liberalism. In the same spirit that critics of socialism will say, "Well, it's nice in theory, but it doesn't work in practice," I can only refer people back to what already exists, and ask if the solutions put forward by liberalism's finest minds are in the least way persuasive.

The problems are understood well enough. With regard to health care, a popular administration with a mandate for "change" has ventured too far into the established turf of private commercial concerns. This has rallied much of the business community around the core principle on which it stands: that government exists to advance their concerns, not anybody else's. Subsequently, the right of investors to capture ever increasing profit has once again been unfurled from our Constitutional masthead as America's most sacred principle, on which a government acting for any other purpose necessarily tramples.

As usual, the fight is not fair, power consolidated as it is in the private sector. The Republican Party's well-established infrastructure of irrationality produces far more than its own weight in disinformation and lies, in large part because its corporate sponsors see no need to challenge them in more respectable news forums. Again, ownership has its privileges; among these, the constitutional right to say whatever you want -- all day, every day -- in whatever media market you control.

The inadequacy of mere liberalism to confront these problems, or even to frame them properly (the political system just reflects the balance of power in the broader society, after all; narratives about Democrats and Republicans wholly miss the point) should be evident from the pitiful solutions it floats, as above. No, the answer is not that President Obama needs to do a better job talking, somehow penetrating the morass of unmitigated horseshit -- Obama's Hitler health care will kill your grandmother! -- which freely flows 24/7 with the occasional press conference and civic appeal. Liberalism has installed Obama and the Democrats to get the job done for the rest of us, never realizing that their power does not create itself spontaneously through the strength of their convictions, but in conjunction with the rest of society. Whatever portion of society is best organized writes the laws.

This is a class war. There is no amount of Democratic spine or presidential ingenuity that can compete with the organized power of the owners of America. They understand the importance of government, and so invest themselves in controlling it, while working to ensure that nobody feels a similar inclination, lest it dawn on them that their government could work for them, making life that much less of a struggle, and redistributing the burdens of social responsibility to include those groups which have always profited most.

The responsibility for delivering a decent life to Americans in the face of an organized opposition cannot be relegated to political saviors, but instead must be the product of a comparably organized popular response. That means anyone and everyone who gives a damn about such things must do something to address them in ways that are coordinated with others so as to magnify their effect. It is never sufficient to leave the task of running one's life to anybody else.
The unexamined life

If it's hard to respect someone for staying in an abusive relationship, is it surprising that we feel so conflicted about ourselves at work?

Thursday, August 13, 2009


via South/South:

She has a direct message for Obama: ‘In my area, 150 people were blown up by US troops in one incident this year. If your family had been there, would you send even more troops and even more bombs? Your government is spending $18m to make another Guantanamo jail in Bagram. If your daughter might be detained there, would you be building it? Change course, or otherwise tomorrow people will call you another Bush.’

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Strategies for success

Wall Street Journal:

The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict....

The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is costing American taxpayers about $4 billion a month.

Can't we just pay in one lump sum and lose definitively?
Cool things that happen

Financial Times:

Whether by choice or necessity, more and more older workers are staying on at work or taking up new jobs. Now comes news that the hamburger chain McDonald’s, often the provider of an unforgettable first job experience to students and others, is benefiting from an influx of some very grown-up employees.

Whether by choice or by necessity, my ass lifts itself out of bed each day for unforgettable experiences which, whether by chance or by design, benefit anonymous investors and cool executives who, in close examination of the numbers, deliberate whether my ass should benefit from a new influx of experiences under their tutelage, in their interests, whether by chance or by design.
Private power

Financial Times:

Mr Obama, whose more polite conservative opponents are branding him a “socialist” – the word Nazi is also being thrown around on talk radio – has had very limited success so far in his attempts to recapture the terms of the debate.

If only "the most powerful man in the world" owned some portion of the information system, he might get a word in edgewise!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009



To combat what it views as rapid government growth and attacks on business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching a multiyear campaign to remind Americans of the virtues of a free market and free trade. But don't expect the campaign, which could cost as much as $100 million, to praise "capitalism"....

It's not that the Chamber, which represents 3 million organizations, has gone squishy on its core values. The group just wants its message to resonate with the public.

Seriously. In a democracy, it can take years to remind people why they like their economic system so much!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Marxist Mondays

Another cool thing Marx emphasized is how power plays into the classical liberal notion of "rights." For example, one can attain "equal rights" formally, but without a corresponding equality of power, such equality of rights will often amount to very different outcomes, with vast advantages accruing to the powerful.

If you've ever been an American, you are probably aware of the endless lip service that is accorded to our rights and freedoms. And it's true: nobody is going to stop you from influencing your representative by contributing millions of dollars to their campaign, by whatever means advised by your lawyer.

But such freedom isn't relevant to the circumstances of most Americans; its meaningfulness is derived from that which most people don't possess. How many legal claims have been abandoned by the flesh and blood citizen even though she enjoys the same "rights" under the law as her corporate defendant?

Marx noted the magnanimity of liberal democracy in bestowing "equal rights" as long as economic power was sufficiently unequal between classes. This gets at the redistributionist character of socialism, since capitalist distribution empowers, well, capitalists; while socialism aims at empowering people.
Cash for crunkers

To my mind, an important program, as I could not retrieve monies from the ATM for two whole days, having jettisoned all memory of my PIN.

In other news, I watched FOX this weekend and heard a man say that fuel efficiency is bad for the environment because it makes people drive more. Now please tell me which substance is worst to abuse.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Manufacturers are abandoning global supply chains for regional ones in a big shift brought about by the financial crisis and climate change concerns, according to executives and analysts.

Not to worry, folks. Tom Friedman always lands on his feet!

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Do our relationships put us at an advantage or a disadvantage? This is all anarchism means.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Can we really afford women in the middle of a recession?

Financial Times:

Having more women in the boardroom can hurt the financial performance of well-governed companies, according to research that is likely to be seized upon by opponents of diversity initiatives.

Somewhere deep in the heart of the free-enterprise system, somebody thought to themselves: "Let's contrast women with financial performance. That should work out well for humanity!"

But may I suggest that any social system which labors to reconcile its very definition of success with over half its population is no social system at all?

I am reminded of an aphorism which I attribute to Trotsky but, in any event, paraphrase; it animates my evangelism when I'd no doubt be better served by some premium doobage and Call of Duty 4000: You may not be interested in politics, but politics is very interested in you!

Thursday, August 06, 2009


Wall Street Journal:

"Not everyone's going to vote," said Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, after a trip to the region last week.

Holbrooke said the vote will still be credible. "It's an extraordinary thing to hold an election in the middle of a war," he told reporters in Washington.

Personally, I've always thought it was an extraordinary thing to hold an election in the middle of somebody else's country!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The invisible handjob

Financial Times:

[T]he era of economic theocracy, in which unelected experts ran the global economy, is over. But politicians’ lust for control is no guarantee of better economic management.

So goes the corporatist argument against a representative democracy in which the public is occasionally represented, as opposed to not at all. Politicians are at least subject to public influence; "unelected experts," less so. As for guarantees: retirement and health care, please!

That the Federal Reserve must "preserve its independence" from lusting politicians is a droll notion, indeed; especially in light of the "unwelcome advances" taken by bankers!
Free, a name I call myself

Financial Times:

[D]efenders of the administration point out that Mr Obama has dropped the more protectionist elements of his campaign rhetoric, notably the promise to renegotiate the labour and environmental clauses in Nafta. They also point out that the politics of free trade would be particularly difficult during a recession.

"Free trade" is what those of us with a preponderance of influence in international markets call our own behavior. "Protectionism" applies to everyone else.

Put differently, if workers of the world and critters of every kind were in a position set the terms of debate, trade agreements which benefit them might be called "furry fucking fantastic trade," while those that ignore the welfare of the world and its inhabitants might be called "shitty."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

This is your brain on PhRMA

The Wall Street Journal attributes public sentiment toward health reform to the "American pysche," but I like to attribute public sentiment toward health reform to the American psyche as it experiences a PR blitzkrieg in real time, paid for by those who can pay for such things.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Anarchism and conservatism

All power finds its expression in relationships. Anytime power is not held equally by participants in a relationship, anarchism, with its bias toward freedom, always begins by asking why. In this respect, anarchism is principally concerned with authority rather than any particular relationship per se.

Most political philosophies thrive by focusing on particular relationships to the exclusion of others. American conservatism, for example, is woefully preoccupied with defending the economic privileges of a ridiculous minority against the rest of the country, who, contrary to conservative dogma, wouldn't mind having public money directed toward public purposes every once in a while.

Yet conservatism is artful in framing every legitimate, popular use of government as an expansionist takeover in violation of constitutional principles, as though entertaining a democratic impulse would drive a stake through the heart of the Republic, and prompt the Founding Fathers to cry out from their graves. This is not to say that there hasn't always been an argument to be made against "big government;" unfortunately for conservatives, it has always been that the government does far too much of what the public doesn't want, far too little of the reverse, and usually on behalf of the powerful minorities which sponsor "conservative" concerns.

Naturally, conservatives will assert that the relationship between "private liberty" and the interventionist state should be the preeminent concern for all Americans, which is probably why they repeatedly scream "socialism" at a mostly bewildered electorate. Indeed, conservatism has succeeded in attracting a large, mostly white, male audience in its overtures to the higher order of wisdom emanating from the white, male leadership of the American past, with whom they secretly share a "truer" understanding of the proper role of government; certainly in comparison to the populist rabble, with their disregard for conservative "values."

While anarchism shares with conservatism a natural antagonism toward government power, conservatism as it is practiced by the Republican Party is little more than the defense of an enormous power grab in the private sphere, where it tries to conflate the small-scale ownership of the past with multinational corporations which own the resource wealth of entire communities, and then argue that the communities have no right to infringe on private liberty, because a piece of paper, whether law or contract, says so! 99% of the time, anarchists challenge government on the grounds that it goes along with this (as in global justice campaigns, aka "anti-globalization") or similarly anti-democratic policies.

Of course, as with every political consideration, one cannot look to a single relationship for guidance in a world that is enmeshed with innumerable others. In circumstances in which wealth and property are already monopolized by a possessing minority, "private property rights" are not a call to liberty but a reaffirmation of the disenfranchisement of most of humanity from the basic rights of survival, dependent as they are in their relationship with the few.