Monday, May 31, 2010

A short note for progressives on the internet

Glenn Greenwald, Inc.:

It hardly seemed possible for Israel -- after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade -- to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes.

I don't particularly care what Glenn Greenwald has to say about this. There are people who are invested in fate of the Palestinians, and most of them are Palestinian, not professional commentators whose authority comes from unrelated associations (as with, a "law degree," or an ability to communicate well).

If Glenn Greenwald wants to be a go-to authority on everything topical because he is already in a position to do so, I don't necessarily blame him, but I don't particularly care what he has to say about issues that are beyond the realm of his own experience. No Palestinian in the world would ever make the statement that "it hardly seemed possible for Israel to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes" when that has been the status quo for over half a century!

What this indicates to me is that reading Glenn Greenwald on the Palestinian question is, to a certain extent, a waste of my time; I could just as easily be reading the Lebanese writer, As'ad AbuKhalil, who surely has more stake in this than someone who is writing just to be relevant, pursuant to his career as a commentator. If I was really serious about the Palestinian question, I would find the English-language Palestinian writers who are actual authorities on these questions; I would not take "the scoop" from Glenn Greewald, or people like him, because what they have to say about it is meaningless absent other perspectives.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film reviews: Whip It; Sex and the City 2

These are good movies. They are driven by strong female characters who are smart and have shit to say. Frequently, what they say is very funny; other times what they have to say is relevant. They speak from their own situations.

I can't help the fact that they are white and upper class, for example (as in the case of the entire Sex and the City series), or that their concerns are not my own. I have my own concerns. However, I have always appreciated the opportunity to see things from other perspectives; particularly perspectives that are so far removed from me that I would likely never encounter them otherwise. I have never been to a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, or had any concept of what they are like (even if the representations in S&TC are to some extent always caricatures); I find New York fashion fascinating, even if it is completely alien to me.

I won't say much about Whip It, because I think the film speaks for itself. Sex and the City is always where the controversy erupts.

A friend explained to me yesterday that Sex and the City is Die Hard for women. I think this is the best description I have heard. Nobody carps about Die Hard being unrealistic, or about Bruce Willis being too old. No, this gets saved up for the outlandish romps of women, which incidentally are not occupied with violence, but much more appealing pastimes, like hanging out with your friends and getting boffed. I have no objection to either of these things.

To the extent that Sex and the City swims in the ocean of commodities, well, so does everyone else in the developed world. That should be reason enough for self-reflection. It is hard to tell a story about anything without it being a story about consumption. Does it glorify it? No, we glorify it, and then we put it in our movies. I haven't put my finger on it, but something about Sex and the City bothers me less in this regard than most of the films which play at seriousness.

A final note for Sex and the City fans. This sequel is much better than the original, which seemed to suffer in its transition from television to the big screen. It works to its own logic much better, like the best of the HBO episodes.

Considering crises of consumerism

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

Everything is a commodity.  My glasses are a commodity, cigarettes are commodities, tea is a commodity, the gramophone is a commodity, the tape recorder is a commodity -- everything is a commodity.  The important thing that I want you to remember in your study of Capital is Marx's insistence that the particular commodity that is important in the study of capital is the labor-power of the individual.  In all societies that are in any way developed, there is commodity production.   But that the man sells his labor, his labor-power -- a commodity -- to the capitalist, Marx says, once you begin there, the whole of capitalist society grows from that; that the labor-power of the human individual is sold as a commodity.

Like every culture, consumerism has its own language, and every time it speaks, it speaks of capital.

The language of consumerism is the language of commodities. Everything is a commodity.

For example, education is a commodity. "An education" is something you need! -- not because it opens up your understanding of the world, but because without it, it is much harder to access other commodities. "A good job" is a commodity -- one of the most important commodities -- because it increases our power in the marketplace. Everything that is real is realized in the market! And that is because the market is the realm of commodities; if we are a consumer society, then this is the first language that we speak.

Why is everything is a commodity? Why does everything aspire to become commodities?

This answer comes back to capital -- that process in which money is converted into more money through an exchange of commodities: the more commodities there are to exchange, the wider the reach of capital; the more opportunities present themselves for capital to be realized.

What you get out of any system in which an ever-increasing accumulation of wealth is premised on the exchange of commodities is a society that produces a lot of shit. Or, if you like, an abundance of crap. And you can see that very clearly, for example, if you ever walk along a harbor at sunset and observe the ducks swimming in people's trash. It brings the point home quite nicely.

Consumerism is the idea that, if you can produce something at one value, and you've got the marketing budget to convince people to buy it at some greater value, then you produce the living shit out of that thing, whatever it is -- it could be poison, or just a pointless waste of resources -- because that's how you're going to get rich. And being rich means being successful, because now you have power in the market; finally, you can buy whatever you want.

Consumerism is ironic in its own way, because the consumer is basically an afterthought. What the consumer wants isn't important; what is important is what you can convince the consumer they need. And that's something you figure out after you've got some process to produce things cheaply; you just throw money at the problem, by hiring a marketing firm.

More to come...

Friday, May 28, 2010

What is capital?

Karl Marx, Capital:

The circulation of commodities is the starting-point of capital.

Capital is not so much a thing, money, as it is a process in which money is converted into more money through an exchange of commodities. So "capitalism" is a system of capital accumulation that is based on widespread commodity production and exchange.

A commodity, for our purposes here, is any commercial product.

One can imagine a circumstance in which a person buys a commodity in order to sell it at a greater value to somebody else; this was the beginning of capitalism as it was practiced by the merchant class.

But capitalism would eventually evolve into a system that favored not merchants, who had to purchase commodities from somebody else, but the direct producers themselves.  And this happened when capital was applied to the production process itself.

Industrial capital is really what Marx concerned himself with, because it had the effect of transforming the way things are made altogether.  Prior economists speculated about the source of industrial profit, but Marx determined that the advantage to industrialists came from the fact that they circulated their money through a very special kind of commodity: what Marx calls "human labor power." 

Industrialists bought this commodity in the "labor market" only to get their money back, plus more, by applying it for so many hours to factory-style production.  Factory owners had to pay people enough so they could live from day to day, and they were constrained by other biological requirements, like the need for sleep; but to the degree that these "expenses" could be kept to a minimum, greater profit was the industrialist's reward.  And this was not a mere matter of preference, as would apply in the case of "greed," but rather a matter of necessity as one industrialist competed against all others for survival.  (Always remember that!)

It's worth noting that this is still the way profits are made in every traditional "industry," whether or not the workplace is a traditional factory -- in most cases, our workplaces are just "factories" of a different sort!

Industrial capital accumulation, which forms the basis for measuring "the real economy" in terms of "economic growth," can be distinguished from financial capital, which Marx explains is just "money into money" -- using money to create more money, by loaning it or making bets on it, and so on. 

This is another important form of capital -- in fact, really the ascendant one now that greater profits can be achieved through finance than traditional industry.  It explains a lot about why the United States doesn't "make anything" anymore; but this is really beyond the scope of our purpose here, which is to understand capital as a process in which human qualities are exchanged as commodities for the purpose of profit.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Crime doesn't pay -- but writing legislation does!

Wall Street Journal:

"Hi, I have access to Disney's (DIS) quarterly earnings report before its release on 05/03/10," the March 5 letter began. "I am willing to share this information for a fee that we can determine later."

Luckily, when it comes to ensuring an even playing field for large investors, the United States still has the regulatory wherewithal to intercept all manner of criminal intrigue.

We bring good things to strife

Financial Times:

Whatever their merits or shortcomings, these [Cannes festival] films tend to confirm Hollywood’s and the industry’s traditional anti-big business bias. There is, of course, a huge paradox in all this given that filmmakers and their stars rely on just the same uncultivated producers, financiers and sponsors they mock on the big screen.

Yes, just like there is a "huge paradox" in the fact that my grandmother resents accepting the terms of a cable contract over which she exerts zero control. She should really be thanking the cable companies, because without them, "cable" wouldn't exist!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crises of consumerism


[T]he fiscal crisis in Greece has shown the price that governments pay when they lose credibility in the markets.

Like every culture, consumerism has its own language, and every time it speaks, it speaks of capital.

Consumerism, having discarded its conspicuous pose, is capital in its populist form. Subsequently, consumption became life, and work its sustenance. Everything that is real is realized through the market.

The democratization of capital was the inevitable outcome of that threat posed to capital by democracy, which was met in the crucible of 20th century politics.

In the great contest between cultures, a power culture emerged which consolidated capital between two populist forms: a socialism, and a consumerism. Where socialism played to certain needs, consumerism invented them.

The totalizing impulse of capital broke free from the state, and an unfettered consumerism marked "the end of history."

History begins anew with each autonomous culture met by capital; it records no greater threat in its past.


In every society where a culture of consumerism prevails, the whole of life succumbs to that class of investors enlisted to further the aims of capital.

In the United States, the accumulation of capital through the health care system created a commodity so expensive that the government assumed the cost of purchasing it for everyone. This price paid to investors contributed directly to the very deficit now cited as justification for cuts to those portions of the health system not yet paying dividends. Such "entitlements," consumerism asserts, are really just commodities that the public have mistaken for rights; after all, no one is "entitled" to commodities.

The ballooning federal deficit expands upward from a landscape cratered by capital. "National security" at every level is cleared through Wall St. -- which is precisely why there is no price too great to pay for it: "freedom," after all, "isn't free"! The kind of labor arbitrage accomplished through the free mobility of capital makes tax revenue the luxury of whatever developing dictatorship can guarantee growth at 15 percent, while every other government depends on loans from the very investor class they go deeper into debt to enrich.

The same force that was once conspicuous in its consumption has since recruited us to its cause, having defeated its cultural rivals. But history begins anew with each effort at an autonomous culture.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lost and found

I've only just discovered it, but I really like The Blog Of A Sane Person.

It's the end of the world as we know it, but we feel fine

Gerald F. Seib, Wall Street Journal:

Amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, the country moved sharply to the left politically, then stayed there.

Amid the Deep Recession of 2008, the country zigged to the left, but now seems to be zagging back to the right.

Why the difference?

"Left" and "right" in US politics describe a range of governmental approaches meant to foster economic growth, the principal concern of those groups which constitute "the economy" and subsequently dominate the government.

The right believes in limited government, which means government must be limited to what business wants; the left believes in an expanded government which can better meet business needs. In other words, they pursue the same objectives, while appealing to the electorate on different grounds.

"Shifts" between left and right typically reflect the degree of success business has in forging alliances with the public. When business is successful, governmental policy shifts right; when business is less successful, policy shifts to the left. Shifts to the right indicate that business is getting what it wants on economic policy; shifts to the left indicate a conflict between business and the public which must be mediated by the government on behalf of business.

Shifts to the left often yield benefits for the public, for the simple reason that the government can meet public needs in a way that for-profit organizations can't, pursuant to their mandate for profit. Throughout US history, groups that concerned themselves with social justice emerged from the "left" anytime the profit-motive proved itself unable to deliver.

"Amid the Great Depression of the 1930s," socialists comprised a highly organized portion of the left which sought to expand the public needs met by the government, that were otherwise not being met at all. This shift was sustained by the commitment of activists and the success of socialist initiatives, like Social Security.

Today the public is organized as consumers, not activists, and so we have seen a slow shift back to the pure prerogatives of business over several decades -- a shift back to the "right." This is what Seib means when he writes that the US is "a nation that stands center-right ideologically": the ideology of the nation is now, appropriately, back in harmony with that of its owners.

In spite of numerous, obvious, conflicts between big business and "the common good," consumerism has transposed itself onto the political arena in such a way that people don't know what to do but to occasionally vote and in the meantime orient their lives toward buying more stuff.

This is a fundamental problem that didn't exist in the 1930's, when failure in the political arena imposed unmistakable costs on people's lives. Today, those costs are obscured by the delight of buying cheap junk forever, and an abundance of 20-second amusements. Meanwhile, the world proceeds with its death pangs, and demands an appropriate response.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The truth about our food

A Tiny Revolution:

I just watched Food, Inc..

That's funny because I just watched Food, Inc..

What I want to say about it is this: The apparent diversity of food in our supermarkets is actually nothing more than a few, heavily subsidized ingredients scientifically engineered into a multitude of forms.

Most of the meat we eat comes from sick animals, whose sickness stems from fact that we force feed them the same heavily subsidized staple crops that are used to make everything else.

US agribusiness advertises job opportunities in Mexican news markets, and relies on workers who lack citizenship rights to keep their mouths shut about the conditions in which our food is produced. They also have an informal agreement with the INS to deport so many workers on a rotating basis, keeping their workforce "fresh."

Corporate food companies contract with farmers, keeping proprietary control over the entire process.

The truth about most of our food is that if you saw how it was made, you wouldn't want to eat it.

Nell at ATR writes: "[F]or people whose main concern is the health of the planet, the well-being of the animals they do consume, and the healthfulness of same: no need to give up meat entirely. Cut down, pay attention to the source, support humane and sustainable livestock raisers."

In praise of populism

Paul Krugman, New York Times:

The mood on the right may be populist, but it’s a kind of populism that’s remarkably sympathetic to big corporations.

Fair enough -- but at least it's populist, which means taking the concerns of ordinary people as your starting point, and reconciling them to whatever political program you want. That is fundamentally different than making high-minded appeals to capital in the hope of electoral gain, only to engage the recalcitrant through the force of the state.

It's worth reminding ourselves that, if "neither capital nor the state," populism is an objective. This means we have to be better at populism than those elements that are succeeding at it now -- unless, of course, we like the picture that is emerging!

The only alternative to populism is the continued state administration of social life on capital's behalf. This is what Krugman argues for, absent any political force that can displace capital -- i.e., populism -- even if he argues for it on his terms.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

All about anarchism

Wall Street Journal:

Greece's anarchists are the modern incarnation of a rebel tradition, dating back to mountain brigands who fought the Ottoman Empire and World War II, when Greece had one of the biggest guerrilla movements in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Anarchists believe a free society requires abolishing the state, and they rebel against all authority and ruling power. In Greece, the leaderless network includes classical anarchists who read Russian radical thinkers such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, libertarians influenced by American counterculture, anti-authoritarians, squatters, autonomists, situationists, insurrectionists, and more. Few are pacifists. But in the past, violence was "not blind," says Panagiotis, with actions targeted at state and corporate buildings rather than innocent workers.

Anarchism is a technique that deserves to be in everybody's "skill set," because it is a great way of evaluating the relationships we observe or enter into during our sojourn here on planet Earth.

Though anarchism often comes bundled with numerous cultural preconceptions, anarchism doesn't require any particular way of dress, or propensity for "violence," or strict adherence to whatever it is other "anarchists" are preoccupied with at any given moment. Stripped of its arbitrary associations, anarchism just means skepticism toward authority.

In the same way that science may be called skepticism in the absence of evidence, anarchism is skepticism (as toward authority) in the absence of justification. In any relationship where one party claims authority over the affairs of another, anarchism merely requires that there be some justification for the claim. If there is no justification, or the justification is insufficient (in the eyes of those affected), anarchism regards the claim as illegitimate, and actively rejects it.

The motivating premise behind a skepticism toward authority is that the less people assume some position of telling other people what to do, the more people will make choices for themselves. This is important because people assume authority over each other all the time, in all kinds of ways, and in every kind of relationship. So anarchism is always concerned with the legitimacy of these relations, and it opposes them when they fail to meet whatever burden of proof establishes that they are necessary.

Every political philosophy amounts to a subset of what anarchism implies. When I write about Marxism, I am concerning myself with the authority that a system of capital accumulation imposes on everybody else; when I write about feminism I am interested in whatever forms of authority seek to impose themselves on women. I can specialize in these areas because, as a white man, I am subordinated to the authority of capital directly, while at the same time I am enjoined to participate in the kinds of authority that impose themselves on women; but I have an intimacy with women in my daily life that is immediate, whereas my reflections on other issues (like race or sexual orientation) are drawn more indirectly, and subsequently what I can "see" on these questions is more generic, and less personal. So, as a function of my own positional awareness of the world, I write with greater frequency about what I experience most, and defer to others on those things that they experience more.

Anarchism is the element which binds the urgency of divergent experiences in their confrontation with authority. When conservative relatives complain to me about the awful government, I am happy to talk to them about the awful government. There is plenty that is awful about the government, and it is a very good thing to have people concerned about it! But if what is awful about the government usually comes back to questions of industrial and financial policy, then conservatives should be invited to broaden their focus to areas that are ultimately more relevant to their concerns. Anarchism, unconstrained by arbitrary assumptions, is able to do this in a way that even US-style "libertarianism" cannot, because there is no relationship that it is afraid to question.

You will take your skepticism toward authority and apply it to those relationships that are most relevant in your life, and you will come up with your own insights and strategies on how best to pursue your own interests. Within the anarchist tradition, you will find a community of people who have always struggled to do the same, and you will find that they are not such bad company to keep after all.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Freedom fries: A portrait of innovation

Council on Foreign Relations:

QUESTIONER: I'm Gary Rosen from Commentary magazine. I'm not a French socialist, but if I were, licking my wounds this morning, I would say, "Well, we have our bureaucratic capitalism and we have 35-hour work weeks. We have all these lovely little cafes that, when you get rid of the rule about a small firm being 15 people or fewer, will be replaced by Starbucks. I have a generous pension. Why is it that I want your entrepreneurial capitalism? Why is my form of capitalism bad capitalism?

[CARL J.] SCHRAMM: Well, I was just there. And they were really nice to my children, and the food was great.

I think the answer is, you know, that is a cultural issue. That what you have described is a situation of satisfying. We're satisfied. But the externalities of what you pay for that are pretty extraordinary. Unemployment at 10 percent. That means people do live on the government.
How much security is the state going to provide you to prevent you from becoming creative?

If the price we must pay for a 35-hour work week, generous pensions, and a nation of small businesses is that employers may not adequately capture our "creativity" by tethering our whole existence to work, let me be the first to accept on their behalf.

Absence makes the heart grow stupider

Financial Times:

The key issue is whether it matters that women are under-represented on the boards of financial institutions.

Does it matter whether women are included in human activity? What kind of rot have people succumbed to when they can "take or leave" the participation of women? What principle have they put in its place? I'm waiting to be very impressed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fourier, Kropotkin

Considering the European debt crisis


Europe's problem is that many of Greece's creditors are themselves debtors on a massive scale. If the value of their assets declines, the only way they can stay solvent is by reducing their debt, and the only way they can pay down the debt is by selling assets, which pushes their price down even further, exacerbating the problem and spreading it to other securities. It's revealing that the ultimate beneficiaries of Europe's rescue are the big banks, not the Greeks, who will barely touch any rescue money before it goes out the window to their lenders.

If you want a thumbnail sketch of what today's global economic system looks like, consider the following: Governments are in debt because investors would rather loan governments money (by purchasing bonds) than ever pay taxes on any enterprise by which they profit.

At the governmental level, this is called "staying competitive," "creating a business friendly environment"; or else it conforms to some "anti-taxes/pro-jobs" theme: it means deferring to business on whatever business wants, or else business will leave, taking "the economy" with it. And what business wants -- what business always wants -- is to maximize profit and market share for investors.

The profit drive, in turn, leads investors to take on debt in order to invest more. That is what BusinessWeek means when it says that "Greece's creditors are debtors on a massive scale." The article explains that "the big global investment banks" have increasingly used "repo financing" which "[gives] the best terms on overnight loans because there's less risk the collateral will lose value." If the banks can't fulfill the terms of the loans, they sell their assets, which, as the European example has shown, include government bonds.

As bonds lose value, governments can increase their attractiveness by promising to pay higher interest rates to investors. If investors still won't be moved, the government will lack financing to pay off debts and meet operating costs, inducing a crisis.

What's significant about the European example is that the bailout isn't aimed at Greece, which has been saddled with even greater debt, but at the class of investors who sold Greek assets in order to recover from bad bets. The bailout merely puts them in a position to return to their previous activity, with European governments being further disciplined to meet their needs -- by redirecting public money toward bigger bond yields, for example.

What this says about our global economic system is that we are all dependent on the good fortune of whimsical, unaccountable gamblers, who must at all times be enabled to make ever-increasing sums of money, lest national governments, having lost the taste for taxation, find themselves without any revenue but that which can be confiscated from the public, all productive enterprise having been consolidated beyond the reach of their will.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The oldest profession

Clive Crook, Financial Times:

The financial unravelling of the past three years has cast doubt on some certainties of orthodox economics. Central-bank independence is one. Before 2008, the idea that central banks should be shielded from politics, given an anti-inflation mandate, then left to run monetary policy as they saw fit was little doubted -- by economists, anyway. In 2010 this looks neither desirable nor even possible. Governments and central banks would rather avoid a proper discussion of this sensitive subject. But in the light of all that has happened, whether central banks should be above politics is a question that needs a fundamental rethink.

As I like to say, reality demands nothing less. But that has never stopped economists before.

Sovereign banks

Financial Times:

Thousands of Romanian trade unionists and pensioners took to the streets to protest against public sector wage and benefit cuts on Wednesday in a test of Bucharest’s resolve to pass austerity measures required by international lenders.

And here I thought the protest was a test of Bucharest's resolve to pass measures required by Romanians!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Political economy

Nouriel Roubini, BusinessWeek:

[I]nterest rates in all of the advanced economies are near zero. In the U.K., Europe, Japan, everybody can borrow at zero rates. And because of that, it's back to business as usual on Wall Street. Most financial institutions are making huge amounts of profits in proprietary trading -- borrowing at zero rates and making investments. It was just announced that in the first quarter, Goldman Sachs did not have a single day in which it lost money on trading. I worry that zero interest rates are leading to an asset bubble globally. I don't think it's going to burst for the time being, but give it two or three years.

Just one of the irrational features of our privately managed economy: we go without schools and infrastructure so that "financial institutions can make huge amounts of profits borrowing at zero rates and making investments" that bear no relation to our needs.

Wouldn't it be cool if your community could borrow from its government at zero percent and "make investments" in itself? Why is that something that only those who contribute to global asset bubbles are allowed to do?

The short answer comes from an acknowledgment of where power lies in the society: with the capacity to produce things people need. This prerogative, being private, explains the insistence of the Federal Reserve on its "independence" from "politics"; bankers run the economy.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Behind every successful woman

Wall Street Journal:

Why the lack of resources? Again, women must accept part of the responsibility. Research shows that women tend to view debt as a "bad thing" to be avoided. For expansion capital, most turn to business earnings, which usually limits growth potential. Research supports the idea that one of women's strengths is relationship building, yet women seldom focus on building relationships with bankers. Lack of relationships with bankers and limited knowledge about financial products and services explain to a great degree why more women don't seek more sophisticated forms of financial products and services.

If only I was a man of means, I could counsel women on the importance of "building relationships" with me!

Film review: It might get loud

Three wankers wank. Meanwhile, the world dies.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Democracy in America

Financial Times:

[P]rofit-seeking entities have a tendency to test the limits of their legal environments.

This one is really worth committing to memory: it will always explain a significant portion of why liberal democracies -- democracies where private control of the economy is considered a "right," aka "economic freedom" -- fail in their responsibilities as democracies. And that's because economic decisions aren't made democratically, but are happening within a "legal environment" that is itself shaped in large part by economic considerations. In any realm where "profit-seeking entities" haven't drafted the laws themselves, they wage an unremitting campaign to undermine or evade them. Meanwhile, the rest of us are at work, or are recuperating from its effects; we "participate" in public life once every couple of years.

This is not news to anyone who has ever distanced themselves sufficiently from capitalism to regard it as an object of inquiry. Socialists have understood this since the 19th century -- one of the reasons why socialism gained such prominence in the 20th, even if as a state project it failed in its responsibilities for different reasons. Nevertheless, what it understood about capitalism remains salient today, as we can see in the succession of regulatory failures and crises of capitalism that regularly confront us. There is no amount of technocratic tweaking or liberal appeals to fairness that will ever resolve the contradiction which exists when one group claims to run society in its own interests and everyone else's at the same time.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A short note about God

I don't take any particular position on God, but I do believe there is a unifying reality, or truth, that we all experience in different ways. Meaning is positional -- it depends on where you stand -- but ultimately we are looking at the same thing, even if we perceive only a small part of it.

Human belief systems develop through this combination of an "experience of the real" and positional understanding. Because people occupy a range of perspectives, we get a rich diversity of "claims to truth." Often times, such claims are legitimate when taken from a particular vantage point; and, in fact, many conflicts between belief systems stem from an inability on the part of adherents to appreciate "what is true" from any other perspective than their own.

One of the more interesting aspects of the kind of belief system that comes out of something like the Gospel message of Jesus is the association of "worldly power" with evil, developed as it was into a personification represented by the devil. As an aside, it is surely a positional bias of modern audiences that commercial secularism affords us something like "The Lord of the Rings," in fact developed out of Biblical themes, but denies the ancient world the right to do the same with the technology available to them in their day, and the creative approach this inspired, because it "isn't true" -- though truth can be found in either.

The devil operates in a sophisticated way, not by being in "opposition to truth," but by playing to our positional understanding what the truth is, and reinforcing it to the exclusion of other people's perspectives. What it always tells us is that we are right, and they are wrong. This is how evil acts to separate people from each other, and lays the foundations for "kingdoms of man" -- those realms where we worship "false idols," or, one part of the truth to the exclusion of the whole. Hierarchical power is built on relationships that, walled off from horizontal expansion, expand vertically.

Now what is interesting in the case of someone like Jesus, and most of the other prophets as well, is how the liberating experience of "God," or, ultimate truth, is something that can only happen through the synthesis of positional truth into a broader understanding of what truth is. This can only happen through our relationships with other people, because it is other people who see truth from a different perspective. The devil effectively tells us we don't need other people -- we can have things; the Gospel message is that we do need people, because without them we become prisoners to a reality that can't be shared with others.

Institutionalized, belief systems are very dangerous, and this is what people mean when they, almost invariably, say they are opposed to "organized religion." But this should always signal something to us, when people feel free to renounce a particular system of belief, because the likelihood is that this system is no longer the predominant one, on which people depend for their livelihoods, or for which spirited criticism carries real costs. Something else has taken its place, and our relationship to it deserves scrutiny.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

But there's no patriarchy without a father!

Financial Times:

[G]overnment officials came to ask the villagers in Lohandiguda in Chhattisgarh state, who are mainly illiterate farmers from the Gond tribe, to relinquish their fields for the promise of cash, jobs and a better future.

For Banga Ram, the 65-year-old patriarch of a large family, the request was absurd. “What will we do with the money?” he asked. “We have to do agriculture to feed these children.” But local officials were not taking “No” for an answer.

Banga Ram was arrested. After he spent 13 days in jail, he says his sons signed away the land and accepted compensation.

Lifted out of poverty! Another success story.

And just as soon as Banga Ram ships his daughters to the far-distant urban workhouses, New York Times columnists will sing songs about their positive impact on the traditions of patriarchy in rural India. Thirteen-year-old girls like their independence, and cosmopolitan lifestyle.


Financial Times:

Immigrant workers in the US have started sending more money back to their home countries after cutting back sharply last year, yet another sign that the global economy is showing resilience.

You see, when the economy is good, immigrants send money back to their home countries. When the economy is bad, they can't. But in neither case can immigrants afford to live in their home countries, nor could these economies persist without remittances. This tells us something about "the global economy," and what it does for humanity.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Signing the declaration of dependence

Carl J. Schramm, Foreign Affairs:

Strictly speaking, economies do not grow. It is individual firms within these economies that grow -- or shrink. The collective fate of these firms is the fate of the economy.

In any discussion of "the economy," we always have to ask ourselves what our relationship is to those "individual firms" of which it is comprised. If we aren't equal partners within these organizations, and if our work isn't contributing toward shared goals, then whether or not the economy does well isn't particularly meaningful, because it doesn't reflect our concerns in the first place.

The fact that we identify our own fate so closely with that of "the economy" owes specifically to the kind of relationship we have with its constituent parts, our employers -- that of dependency.

It is significant that a country which makes so much of its independence from an 18th century monarchy today finds the great mass of its populace signing a "declaration of dependence" on a boss who lords over them for the better part of their waking hours, and for whom the sidelining of every other obligation is required for this privilege. Such is the drawback of retaining only those notions of "freedom" that pertain to 18th century aristocrats, while abandoning any adaptation of Enlightenment principles to Shit That Actually Matters Today.

This note brought to you by Philadelphia Pale Ale.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Serviced with a smile


Investors ... are not in a generous mood. Portugal's economy has grown less than 1 percent a year on average for the last decade. Its main advantage, cheap labor, gradually disappeared when it joined the pricey euro zone and wages kept rising. "We have seen a lot of multinational activity move away, and we have not been able to compensate," says Miguel Athayde Marques, chairman of Euronext Lisbon, the country's bourse.
Before adopting the euro, Portugal could devalue its currency to boost competitiveness. That option no longer exists. Instead, it has to restructure its debt, says Stuart Thomson, who helps oversee $100 billion at Ignis Asset Management in Glasgow. Debt restructuring, explains Thomson, "is the new currency devaluation in the euro zone."

Debt restructuring is the new currency devaluation in the euro zone! As the Greek example has shown, this doesn't mean rescheduling the debt or reducing the principal on the debt, or in any other way making the debt more manageable: it means servicing the debt in ways that business likes, by pushing developed nations into a "developing" model of rapid growth through popular impoverishment.

Any population with no alternative but to "just feel lucky they have a job" is a pliable, obedient one; as Americans, we already feel the impact of this model as it is applied here at home. With a variety of options available for unwinding the fallout of a Wall Street-inspired housing bubble, it has somehow become the obligation of ordinary Americans to sacrifice their libraries and school systems, among other pillars of the "commonwealth," to buy back the assets investors no longer desire!

The US may still be in a position to devalue its currency, but that doesn't make debt restructuring -- in this case, transferring debt from investors to communities -- any less the order of the day, least of all when the orders are coming from Wall Street.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The nation

Financial Times:

Consider the prerequisites for a successful [IMF] programme. First, Greeks must acquiesce in the sharp decline in living standards over the next three years. Second, after three years of the programme, Greek debt will be much greater than today’s 115 per cent of GDP. At that point, markets will have to think it plausible that Greece is on a path toward reasonable debt levels because it is able to grow fast enough and maintain the fiscal belt-tightening for some considerable time. Doubts on the part of markets on any of these scores will lead to higher costs of borrowing for Greece and put it back into the viciously self-sustaining fiscal debt dynamic in which it has found itself recently, except that the starting point in terms of debt levels will only be worse. This might well prove to be the (unlucky) 13th labour of Hercules.

If you want certain people to make sacrifices and not others, you appeal to everyone equally, knowing that only certain people ever will.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Nothing new under the sun that never sets

Carl J. Schramm, Foreign Affairs:

A doctrine of expeditionary economics, with practical guidelines for economic expansion, must begin with a clear notion of what works. Whenever the United States sends troops overseas, military planners must consider the effort in three phases: invasion, stabilization or pacification, and economic reconstruction. These are so strongly linked that the U.S. government should not engage in any significant military action until it has thought through and anticipated the requirements for stabilization or pacification and economic development.

Nor should economic development be seen as a separate task that can wait until after the others have been achieved. Although the various steps involved may compete for attention, there are also ways in which they can inform and reinforce one another. Counterinsurgency campaigns, for example, can facilitate economic growth by helping identify the entrepreneurial aspirations of certain individuals.

Expeditionary economics. And to think I've called it "foreign policy" all this time!

The drone is in the editor's chair

Cholene Espinoza, New York Times:

The new generation of drones have their merits. But flying robots, no matter how advanced, can’t measure up to the courage and commitment of a pilot who is risking her life for the sake of the mission.

Published in the city that no more than a week ago was nearly bombed in gratitude.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Why we hate them

Financial Times:

[Attempted NYC bombing suspect Faisal] Shahzad claimed he was driven to seek revenge for missile attacks by US drones that have targeted Pakistan’s border region.

Luckily for future attacks, racism casts serious doubt on this claim.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Virtual government


Stephen Lewis [Monument Securities] says investors will be reassured by a decisive win for the conservatives. They have pledged to start cutting Britain's massive budget deficit immediately. Lewis says investors could be spooked by any other result. That could hit the pound and make it harder for the government to borrow. Some analysts say Britain could then become a Greek-style target for speculators.

"[F]ree capital flow creates what's sometimes called a 'virtual parliament' of global capital, which can exercise veto power over government policies that it considers irrational. That means things like labor rights, or educational programs, or health, or efforts to stimulate the economy or, in fact anything that might help people and not profits (and therefore is irrational in the technical sense)."

Noam Chomsky

Thanks to Montag

Life begins on schedule

Wall Street Journal:

[S]everal factors, including doctors' fear of litigation, a growing demand among patients for elective caesareans that aren't medically necessary and more induced labors have contributed to the growing rates of c-sections. "People will come into my office and say, 'you're not going to let me go past my due date,'" Dr. Meyer says. He says induced pregnancies are more likely to end up with a c-section than if the woman goes into labor on her own.

This omits my favorite reason why women are having more c-sections: because vaginal birth increases the risk of a doctor canceling his dinner plans!

Central bank independence

Wall Street Journal:

Sen. Bernie Sanders can seem like a character from another era with his rumpled suits and oratory about economic justice. But as anger at bankers and Wall Street runs high, Congress's only self-declared socialist is moving to center stage.

An amendment sponsored by the independent senator from Vermont to require Federal Reserve audits is gaining momentum, powered by a coalition of activists on the left and right who are taking aim at the financial establishment for its role in the economic collapse.

Mr. Sanders's amendment, which is likely to be voted on within days, is worrying White House officials, who say it would violate the central bank's independence and cripple its ability to protect the economy.
One of Mr. Sanders's partners in his assault on the Fed is Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), who led a successful charge in the House to adopt a similar provision last year.

"Yes, we have disagreements, but we both despise fascism," Mr. Paul said, half-jokingly. When governments are primarily used to serve the interests of big corporations, "that's unfair and we don't like it," he said.

The White House is correct that if Congress knew what the Federal Reserve was doing, this would violate the central bank's independence from "politics" -- which in this case means Congress.

This is "worrying" to the extent that Congress, unlike the Fed, is never fully "independent" of democracy, but slides toward it with sufficient public pressure.

Preserving central bank independence, then, only enhances its "ability to protect the economy," as the transfer of public wealth into private hands is always a deed best done behind closed doors!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Understanding the division of labor

Karl Marx, Capital:

[E]ven with regard to material production, self-sufficiency, as opposed to the division of labor, remained [the Athenian] ideal, "For with the latter there is well-being, but with the former there is independence" (Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, Bk 1, para. 141).

Marx was not opposed to some kind of division of labor -- organizing work in a cooperative way between people to make it more efficient. But he was very concerned about what gets "divided."

For instance: It is one thing to cooperate with someone in order to accomplish something that can't be done alone; it is another thing entirely to "cooperate" with one person in charge and another taking orders. Either example may improve efficiency -- and our friend, the economist, loves to talk about efficiency! -- but efficiency, measured strictly in terms of output, tells us nothing of the relations which may exist between the people who contribute toward it.

Marx shared Adam Smith's reservations about a division of labor that separated people from creative control over their work, quoting him at length:

"The understandings of the greater part of men," says Adam Smith, "are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations ... has no occasion to exert his understanding ... he generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become." After describing the stupidity of the specialized worker, [Smith] goes on: "The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind ... it corrupts even the activity of his body and renders him incapable of exerting his strength and vigor and perseverance in any other employments than that to which he has been bred."

For Marx, any economic system premised on capital accumulation presupposes a division of labor not amenable to other ends:

The possibility of an intelligent direction of production expands in one direction, because it vanishes in many others. What is lost by the specialized workers is concentrated in the capital which confronts them. It is a result of the division of labor in manufacture that the worker is brought face to face with the intellectual potentialities of the material process of production as the property of another and as a power which rules over him.

It is worth considering the ways in which, as employees, we come "face to face" with the "potentialities" of our work as the property of another and as a power which rules over us. We can work as hard as we want and never produce less pollution, less poverty, or less war; at least, not as long as our work's potential is the property of another, directed toward their needs. This is why none of the great social goods have ever come from people working harder for their employers; they come from people working harder independent of their employers, often in opposition to their employers. And this will remain the case as long as "the workplace" remains private property, dividing creators from the outcome of their work.

Monday, May 03, 2010


Wall Street Journal:

"The recent shooting of the deputy sheriff underscores the growing problem of violence and mayhem spilling over from the Mexican side of the border," he says. "That event, in addition to the murder of the rancher Robert Krentz about a month ago and countless other killings and violence crimes before that, serves as a constant reminder to Arizonans that their very way of life is being threatened."

Meanwhile, not having enough to eat serves as a constant reminder to Mexicans that their very way of life no longer exists for them in that country.

The guys who succeed are too big to fail

William D. Cohan, New York Times:

“The guys who succeed in this industry are the guys who say, ‘I care about the reputation of the firm,” [the former partner] continued. “I care about my reputation. I care about doing the right thing. I care about having a great firm. I care about attracting and retaining the best people. If I do all of these things and do good business, eventually I’ll be fine.’ But in this top five, there is nothing about making money. The guys for whom making money is in the top three almost always get themselves into trouble. And this is the essence of how Goldman has changed.”

Dear buddy: In your industry, each and every one of your "top five" is synonymous with "making money."

The "guys who succeed" are the ones who deploy the same extra-legal advantages as everyone else; but they succeed so well that they aren't allowed to fail -- that's what municipalities are for!