Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to Restore Political Fortitude I: The Center-Left Elite

Are you a liberal or preogressive leader or activist? Remember how you went into politics to change the world for the better? I know you did, because that’s why any liberal or progressive goes into politics. Guess what? You need courage and vision to change the world! So courageously follow your principles and you will change the world!

The centrist capitulation machine that dominates DC needs to become stronger, more confident, and more courageous in its politics; it needs to become an unstoppable train engine of progress. If its main figures will not, then they need to be replaced as leaders. It is imperative to establish an inviolate norm that our politicians and pundits will successfully promote our principles, or they will be replaced by those who will. It may take a few years and may involve some short-term losses to get that message through, but it must be done, even if it that means accepting that more members of the GOP will be in office temporarily. They are always in power de facto anyway, so in reality that is not as big an objection as people often fear. We must have confidence and faith that the right side will win out in the long run, if its advocates fight for it. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Who Is the Economy For?

There is never a bad time to ask basic questions and examine fundamental assumptions. One of the most basic economic questions is this: “what is the purpose of an economy, and for whom does it operate?” This is occasionally asked by political theorists with an economic bent or by historians of economic thought, but is rarely asked by economists themselves,* and as far as I can tell is never asked in standard political discourse.
“What is an economy for?” An economy exists to improve life for everyone. Humans cooperate economically because we are social animals that increase our survival rates, enhance our quality of life, and develop our capacities by working together. We cooperate to improve things, whether making raw materials into useful objects or making ourselves into better examples of human beings. 
That implies a certain principle of fairness. The economy is made for all of us to partake in, and it should operate for all of us. This is not a matter of taking back according to what you give: almost everyone does make some productive contribution to the economy, but children, the elderly, and the infirm all should receive the benefits of our economic cooperation, merely because a better economy allows us to be more humane and generous. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Myth of the Entrepreneur

Paul Krugman made some extremely good points about inequality in his Thursday column “We are the 99.9%, saying that it’s the .01% that are the real trouble.  A handful at the top who have taken the lion’s share of the gains, and those pushing for more tax breaks for them are economically irrational, despite cries of “class warfare” whenever their class assault on everyone else is exposed
Krugman is one of our best economists, one who doesn’t buy into conservative woo about the magic of markets. He seems to understand that markets are limited social institutions, tools that might have uses for some purposes and not others, and their functioning depends on a context of public policy. But I would like to add to what he says.
Just as markets aren’t sacred, entrepreneurs aren’t gods. Krugman rightly criticizes the argument that massive salaries are the just due of so-called corporate “entrepreneurs,” who, the claim goes, are so innovative and creative that they personally add millions or billions to the economy. Even many liberal economists buy into this assumption, but it’s bullshit. Krugman is right to point out that most of the top .01% aren’t the entrepreneurs of right-wing myth :

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why You Should Not Vote “Rationally”

I argued in an earlier post that directionless pragmatism is one reason the Left is missing strength: too many of our political leaders and activists follow a cult of pragmatism unguided by final principles, and this limits their horizons to the “politically possible” and prevents a vision of how those possibilities can be expanded. Meanwhile the Right, driven by its principles as false as they are, sets the terms of debate and the boundaries of what is “politically possible,” pushing them ever rightward. In those circumstances, “rational” pragmatic political calculation leads only to self-defeating compromise and capitulation, never to true political victory. 
Directionless pragmatism not only misleads the elite, but also rank-and-file liberal voters, who in nearly every election now find themselves having to choose the lesser of two evils, rather than to vote as a positive affirmation of their party’s and candidate’s principles. Pragmatism is deeply ingrained in American individualist culture, and we even define rationality in terms of practicality: a rational choice is a cost-benefit or strategic calculation that advances your goals, taking the constraints that you face as given. But in politics this “rational” pragmatism leads people into self-defeating calculations when they vote. I will speak more about this at length in the future, but in a nutshell, if you’re acting like your vote is going to determine the choice of our next president, you’re doin’ it wrong. If you’re voting strategically, weighing and balancing different candidates, assessing who is electable and comparing that with who has desirable policies, you’re doin’ it wrong. It’s not the right framework for understanding the voting decision, because your individual vote has little strategic power; only many votes cast in unision have power, and that unity of action is achievable not by pragmatism but only through commitment to shared principles.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Inside or Outside the System? Both.

There are few political commentators that combine the clarity, intelligence, integrity, and intellectual courage of Glenn Greenwald. He argues here that Occupy is wise to remain non-partisan and not endorse any specific legislation, because our current legislative system and both parties in it are thoroughly corrupt, so therefore few new laws could have any real effect and staying within the realm of civil society helps keep OWS from being co-opted and corrupted itself. Glenn correctly points out that truly mass-based movements have positive effects on the culture that ultimately, in turn, also bring about positive change to the political system. This is a very solid point, and one I agree with, as far as it goes: the civil rights, feminist, and GLBT movements obviously have had strong non-partisan elements that worked to change the culture precisely this way. 
Yet there is more to the story. All these movements have operated within civil society, but they all also eventually combined that with partisan and legislative political activity, for in the end that is a necessary part of social change: you have to change the basic laws of the land in order to achieve a social movement’s aims. The civil rights movement produced the landmark 1960s civil rights laws that brought African-Americans into the political system for the first time -- and paved the way for an African American president. Feminism brought changes to rape, harassment, domestic violence, workplace equality, and abortion rights laws, and almost resulted in the Equal Rights Amendment. The GLBT movement brought an end to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, has won equal marriage laws in some places, and continues its aim of achieving legal changes that guarantee equality regardless of orientation.

Political Backbone Awards

Award for Political Bravery: For recall election organizers in Wisconsin, my home state. The governor, Scott Walker, pushed through anti-union legislation after massive protests earlier this year, and now faces a very serious recall threat -- only two governors have ever been recalled is US history. Meanwhile, those organizing the recall drive are facing threats too -- to be killed, along with their families. They deserve protection and our respect for taking on the task despite the threats and the difficulties involved.
Award for Frank Speech: to Paul Krugman, who over the weekend said that Newt Gingrich was “a stupid man's idea of what a smart man sounds like.” Gingrich's latest regurgitation fits the bill: he is calling for an end to child labor laws. This from a man who back in the 1990s Gingrich called for a restoration of orphanages.  Gingrich said he wants to change the "culture of poverty" in America -- note that he doesn’t want to end poverty, but just change the culture of those suffering from it, so they will work harder as children while enduring it.  A stupid man’s idea of a smart man indeed.
On children: Gingrich’s personal life demonstrates a man who has little respect for families: most people have heard of the hospital bedside divorce, but we should also remember that he was having an affair while helping to lead the investigation of Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Yet he is always trying to convince us conservatism is the ideology of family values. Such hypocritical moralizing is the tiresome hot air of a self-serving narcissist. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude III: "Taking the High Road"

Sometimes a moral argument is proffered to excuse liberal weakness: we’re better than our opponents, so we should take the high road. We shouldn’t stoop to their level by responding in kind to their affronts, deceit, insults, and even threats; we should follow the principle of being nice to our enemies, turning the other cheek even when they hate us. That’s a fine sentiment, and may be worth pursuing in some circumstances. But it ignores the tremendous moral cost that capitulation imposes in our current circumstances. I cannot stress this point enough. Nearly 20,000 people in the United States die each year because they cannot get adequate health care. Millions of people in this country live in poverty because we do not have an adequate safety net. Tens of millions endure drudgery, toil, financial desperation, and a host of anxiety- and stress-related ailments because we do not have adequate workplace protections or social insurance. Billions of human beings around the globe endure utter misery for their entire lives because of our free trade policies. The biosphere and all the living beings in it are stressed and imperiled because of our lack of a rational environmental program -- in some scenarios, at current levels of consumption and emissions, life itself will perish on Earth within two or three centuries as the planet undergoes a runaway greenhouse effect. These are the moral costs of our current policies, and those policies have not changed despite a generation of the moral high road and “working with” conservatives. It surely must be clear by now that those attempts, while noble in sentiment and perhaps originally worth trying, have proven in the doing to have failed. Compromise with an opposition this irrational and zealous is not "Taking the High Road", but is appeasement and capitulation. We can no longer afford it.

Don’t Tell Me Today’s Kids Are No Good

A couple of points on the UC-Davis pepper spray incident, which has gone viral; if you haven’t already, make sure to watch the whole video below, not just the part at the beginning where the cop sprays the kids:
First, this is a prime example of political strength, stamina, and unity. The students show great courage taking a point-blank blast of sustained chemical weapon right to their faces, heads and bodies (and yes, pepper spray and mace are chemical weapons, even if not usually lethal ones). The also show continued courage in uniting together to shame the police through chanting in unison “Shame On you!” and “You Can Go!” and then confronting them and using the united power of their presence and determination to slowly press the cops backwards until they had walked them out of the area. Their courage also shows in their discipline in keeping it peaceful, but yet confident and assertive, throughout the confrontation. As Joan Walsh points out, the students won this confrontation, and they didn’t do it by appeal to the center or coming to as right-wing a compromise as possible. They did it by not only standing their ground, but by shaming and compelling the forces of elitism out.
Second, the attitude displayed by the man -- I won’t honor him by calling him a policeman -- who sprays the students is disgraceful, dishonorable, and beneath any officer of the law. The students are protesting, obviously, and thus causing some inconvenience as they occupy a public place, as is their right under the freedom of assembly. They are simply sitting there peacefully, harming no one and damaging no property. And this rather portly mustachioed man, in police helmet and armed with an array of weaponry, first displays his large-size can of pepper spray to the crowd (compensating for?), and then proceeds to indiscriminately use his chemical weapon on people who are harming no one. He sprays them directly in the face from a few feet away. His attitude is arrogant and authoritarian, and his behavior brutal and cruel, all the marks of a cowardly bully. If he had any real honor he would quit his job as a policeman and go into a job where he would do no real harm to anyone, while he pursues therapy in anger management. I feel sorry for him, he is pathetic. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Admit You Are a Liberal!

The fundamental political dynamic of our time is that most Americans are liberal but hate liberalism. By liberal here I mean the standard definition on the American political compass*: someone who believes in a mixed economy that balances private markets with government action, providing a strong safety net for tough times and social programs that support a middle class quality of life for most. Time and again we see that while people dislike the word "liberal" and don't subjectively identify as such, majorities support a liberal political platform.
Probably the best thing you can personally do to change this dynamic is to proudly and publicly declare that you are a liberal as often as possible. If there is anything the GLBT movement has taught us, it is that coming out of the closet and declaring yourself to the world only builds strength and confidence, over time. There is no need to be embarrassed to be a left-winger, we have the better tradition.

Two Reminders

If you are a progressive, here are two things to remember:
One: We can have a full progressive agenda immediately: public regulation of banks and corporations, public health care, better education, rational energy and environmental policies, deliberative democracy, and the rest. There are many good progressive policy proposals out there, and it’s not as if there are physical laws of the universe out there to prevent good governance -- only entrenched interests. We only lack the political will to overcome them. Have the strength, courage, and unity to create that will, and we could have a full-scale liberal polity in short order.
Two: if you support that policy agenda, or any sort of economic fairness, then you support the Occupy movement, whatever the polls say about its current public image and popularity.
I've been sick for a few days and haven't been posting, but I'll try to catch up this week. Here's a couple items that I read that were worthwhile:
Bernie Sanders sure has the right attitude:
“The American people are very clear. They do not want Democrats to reach another 'grand bargain' with representatives of the rich and powerful that eviscerates the most successful and popular social programs in the history of this country. They want Democrats to stand up for the 99 percent, not the 1 percent.
If the president and Democrats on the super committee go along with cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the three pillars of the New Deal and the Great Society, and permanently extend the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent, the American people will shake their heads in disbelief. They will arrive at the reasonably valid conclusion that there are no significant differences between the two parties controlled by corporate interests…
If Democrats stand with ordinary Americans and make it clear that they are prepared to take on the wealthy and the powerful, they could win both houses of Congress. They could give Obama a fresh infusion of boldness as he enters a second term in the White House.”
The political calculus is very clear: the way to win more votes is to enact a progressive economic agenda that benefits the majority of the people. That’s good for regular people generally, and it really isn't  hard to see that it's also in the interest of politicians seeking re-election. Even from a purely self-interested standpoint the political calculus simply screams populism -- and that’s the way it’s supposed to be: elections are there to align the interests of the people and their representatives. Some political science types might object that politicians still need campaign cash, so it's still in their interest to be subservient to the moneyed elite. Except that campaign funding isn’t good for it’s own sake, it is only an instrumental good useful for winning votes, usually by spending for large advertising campaigns empty of content and big on symbolism. But if you can win even more votes with policies that actually ensure the prosperity of the people, then you don’t need as much campaign cash -- to paraphrase Hamilton, good governance will win them over. And then you can dispense with being a servant of corporate donors.
Robert Reich lays out a rational agenda to deal with the budget here. The budget “crisis” is really a false one ginned up to advance the conservative agenda of cutting government for everyone but the wealthy, but if you want to make some cuts Reich identified where the best place to start is:
“Cut the budget where the real bloat is. Military spending and corporate welfare. End weapons systems that don't work and stop wars we shouldn't be fighting to begin with, and we save over $300 billion a year. Cut corporate welfare -- subsidies and special tax breaks going to big agribusiness, big oil, big pharma, and big insurance -- and we save another $100 billion.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude II: Misplaced Conflict Aversion

Aside from directionless pragmatism, I think there has also been a paucity of political fortitude on the Left because it goes against our side’s “natural” aversion to conflict. There are many reasons for this, and I’m sure I can’t catalog them all. Some on the center-Left naively believe that if we are just decent to the fanatical Right and try to get along, then they will join us in mutual understanding and we can happily solve all our problems. Others seem conflict-averse as a matter of temperament. Still others come out of the peace movement with its ethic of non-violent civil disobedience, or are informed by a pacifist outlook. And many so-called centrist pundits, activists, and lobbyists (who are nowhere near America’s center) make avoiding confrontation a professional occupation. Many will not want to hear that conflict aversion is an unhealthy disfunction, or that learning how to "do" conflict and confrontation in a healthy way is a positive thing and a skill that all grown-up adults should have. 

Civility and decency are fine values to aspire to, and fine values to want to build into society. But our political culture is currently not governed by them, and it will take decades to restore them. The Right has, since McCarthy in the 1950s, uncivilly and indecently portrayed their political opponents as traitors, aliens, and enemies of all that is good in America. By the 1990s daily doses of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News were spreading hatred and lies destructive enough to lead to the impeachment of a president over a trumped-up sexual scandal. Then, after 9/11, criticism of liberals too often turned into the violent rhetoric of liberal eliminationism. In short, the Right thinks of the Left as the enemy, not as political opponents. Civility and decency have to be mutual in order to work, and when one side never follows those values, then norms of decency are not operative in our political culture. One side cannot be decent alone. If it is not reciprocal, decency doesn’t exist, only capitulation. Indeed, it is part of this dynamic that the Right will always take advantage of the Left’s naive faith in civility to win political battles.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street is Not Over

Last night’s crackdown at Zuccotti Park and today’s ruling has hardly ended the Occupation, and despite the turn to directly authoritarian tactics the legal wrangling has now commenced -- itself indicating that we still have some remnants of the rule of law. One point to understand with complete clarity is that, while Zuccotti park was cleared out temporarily, this is not a defeat for the movement as a whole -- there are too many protests in too many places. OWS went viral. And I think these demonstrations are a continuation of the new, confrontational sentiment that we saw in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere earlier this year: even if every Occupy protest goes on hiatus during the winter, demonstrations to create a more democratic economy would spring up again until the current economic conditions change.
The Occupy demonstrators have shown, and continue to show, inspirational courage, both physical and moral, which has been an indispensable factor in their already considerable achievements. As late as August, the campaign against public sector employees still had momentum, deficit scare-mongering dominated the public debate, and the president was even signaling that Social Security was on the cutting table. Already then sentiment was growing for a shift in tax policy (suggesting that the public is no longer wedded to trickle-down doctrine). 
Now, public debate has shifted from the culture war to economic fairness and equality, as last week’s elections seem to have shown, with the defeat of a radical anti-abortion measure in Mississippi and a radical anti-immigrant candidate in Arizona. Majorities not only want to raise taxes on the rich, they oppose our expensive wars, and we just saw an extremely destructive tar sand oil pipeline put on hold due to persistent public demonstrations
Most importantly, there is now much greater unity between the 99% who make up the middle class and the poor, and greater awareness of their mutual economic deprivations at the hands of the 1%. The Occupy demonstrations have, well, demonstrated to lots of people that they are not alone in their grievances -- and that’s one of the best ways for the Left to gain further strength, confidence, and unity. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Henry Giroux on Neoliberal Academia

Henry Giroux makes the case meticulously that higher education is being de-linked ever further from academic ideals and standards and increasingly colonized by the profit-making centers of society. Academia has long been moving in this direction, but the economic crisis has sped up its transformation from a forum where power can be criticized into a combination corporate indoctrination camp and instrumentalized technical research center. Academia has never been perfect -- what institution is? -- but at least it previously resisted the impositions of power, whether economic or military, and traditionally tried to maintain space for non-commercial values. As Giroux says:  
“Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical exchange have been increasingly commercialized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to expanding profit margins. For example, higher education is increasingly defined as another core element of corporate power and culture. Public spaces such as libraries are detached from the language of public discourse and viewed increasingly as a waste of taxpayers’ money. No longer vibrant political spheres and ethical sites, public spaces are reduced to dead spaces in which it becomes almost impossible to construct those modes of knowledge, communication, agency, and meaningful interventions necessary for an aspiring democracy. What has become clear is that the neoliberal attack on the social state, workers, and unions is now being matched by a full-fledged assault on higher education.”
A university, as Giroux reminds us, ought to be a place where complex ideas are debated openly, where education in history enables putting the claims of the powerful into context, and where the humanities, philosophy, and art are learned so that young minds may develop their full capacities. Instead, the protection that tenure provides for new or controversial ideas has shrunk and weakened, the privatization and defunding of public higher education are making universities dependent on private capital, and disciplines that grow the whole person get shrunk or eliminated while business, technical, and applied fields get the lion’s share of the budget. Only what is useful for capitalism is allowed to prosper, and certainly nothing critical of it. This will ultimately make American higher education into a laughing stock, except in a few technical fields.  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Adaptability, Not Conservatism

As the crises and changes that are becoming manifest around the globe proceed, from climate change to peak oil to technology’s advance to continued global integration, humanity is going to need to strengthen its innate abilities of anticipation, flexibility, nimbleness, and adaptation. Even if we manage to keep global warming to a minimum there will be large movements of populations that, if handled poorly, could bring down our civilization as migrations brought down the Romans’, and even positive developments, such as further rapid advances computing and in medicine, call on us to rapidly change how we think and perceive both the world and ourselves.
We are already behind in bringing our moral outlook up to date with our technology, having moved into a global information age without even figuring out moral arrangement appropriate for the industrial age. The industrialized nations should have decades ago all adopted mixed economies with stronger government programs and democratized corporations in order to raise the quality of life for all; it’s just the moral thing for a society with such high productivity to do. Instead, over the last generation America regressed backwards towards the nineteenth century laissez-faire model, and even Western European countries shrunk their social democracies starting in the 1980s. And don't get me started on the moral atrocity that is the world's current “free trade” exploitation system; humanity should have figured out development and brought the global poor up to acceptable living standards a couple decades ago. Now, as we face the crises that we have brought upon ourselves we are going to need to adopt new ways of thinking, indeed a whole new way of life, instead of continuing on autopilot with consumer capitalism. We need to make adaptability a virtue, adaptability both of mind and of social institutions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude I: Directionless Pragmatism

Before we can figure out how to restore the Left’s political fortitude, it is necessary to discuss why it is lacking. The sources of the problem are many, but the main two, I think, are what I will call “directionless” pragmatism and a conflict-averse culture. I’ll address the first here and the second in a later post.
By “directionless” pragmatism I mean pragmatism unguided by final principles, and I mean “directionless” in a pejorative way. Many people, especially among the DC centrist- and center-left elite, are committed to the idea that pragmatism is a good thing, and that it means that political leaders have to stay within the limits of what is “politically possible” and/or always calculate where the “political middle” is and craft one’s political positions to please it. Do I think acting pragmatically is entirely wrong-headed? I certainly don’t reject being practical, but I think that, to be effective, pragmatism has to be guided by deeper principles that limit and constrain what practical actions are permissible. Pragmatism must be steered by a vision: you can’t get things done without being practical, but you also can’t get things done without a principled direction -- if you try you end up spinning your wheels or going in circles.  You need a destination to march towards.  In addition to direction, commitment to a vision generates strength, steadiness, motivation, and determination, all of which are needed to break the constraints on public debate imposed by the Right. The politicians, pollsters, and pundits on our side long ago elevated pragmatism over principle in a vain quest to pander to perceived center, and in so doing lost their direction and political strength. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Capital Flight as Political Power

Capital flight, along with financing campaigns, is a main source of corporate power used to rig the political system. It allows corporations to successfully leverage legislatures to privatize public infrastructure and programs, reduce public social programs from Social Security to education, and demand special favors, from tax breaks to subsidized facilities and infrastructure. Capital flight enables corporations to browbeat labor unions into submission under the threat of removing employment altogether. Capital flight is the main means by which corporations have shrunk our public sphere, broken our unions, colonized our legislatures, outsourced our jobs overseas, squeezed the middle class, destroyed the safety net, increased financial insecurity for millions and poverty for millions more.
Why is capital flight so important at this juncture in history? The sheer size of companies is a major reason: large domestic companies can move jobs from city to city and state to state, and multinationals can move them anywhere around the globe. This is a power that smaller firms simply do not have, and calls into question just how “competitive” markets actually are. Absentee ownership is another factor that promotes capital flight: most stockholders a just want a large return on their investment and have no connection or loyalty to the workers, their communities, or their well-being. Finance plays a major role in this, too, by monetizing the production surplus, making those skimmed profits liquid, and providing channels to move money to locales with “favorable business climates.” Laws and public policies also play a major role: Congress is willing to allow corporations to shift jobs around the country without oversight, and rather than having international standards for capital investment, over the last two decades we have enacted Free Trade Agreements whose whole point is to strengthen the ability of multinationals to capital move capital to where it is most advantageous to them. 
So how does the Left deal with the problem of capital flight? 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Political Fortitude Can Do: Ohio

Political Fortitude turns back the tide: today’s defeat of the anti-union bill in Ohio by popular referendum is a great example of what persistent, patient, joint political action can do: Ohio, like Wisconsin, was the site this summer of major protests against a campaign to break public-sector unions, the last remaining stronghold of collective bargaining in America. Like the Occupy protests, this victory should give hope and confidence to the Left; it will help maintain a good standard of living for some people and can be used to build momentum for future victories.
Two other links I’d like to point out:
Political courage is physical courage: Watch this to see what it’s like to get shot at a protest: someone filming Occupy Oakland -- not protesting, just filming -- gets shot with a rubber bullet or bean bag projectile, both of which can be lethal. He even asks permission to film, repeatedly -- although he shouldn’t have to, because this is protected, IMHO, by the First Amendment right of freedom of the press. Why are police shooting anything at all at someone peacefully filming what is obviously a major news event?
Political Courage is moral courage: Here is a useful guide for protestors -- or anyone, really -- if an encounter with police looks like it will become tense: don’t be confrontational, but do assert your rights, and do say, “I do not consent to be searched”:
“You have to own these things,” [political organizer Chino] Hardin explained. “You can’t just [be meek] about it. Police do know when you start asserting your rights. What you want to say is, ‘Am I being detained, or am I free to go?’ Once they say you’re being detained, which means you’re not free to go, then they must have reasonable suspicion to detain you. At that point you can say, ‘What is the reasonable suspicion that you have to detain me?’ Then they will have to articulate it.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Mass Extortion of Capital Flight

The key economic weapon of the elite that the Left must defeat at this juncture in history is capital flight -- but before we can deal with it, we have to recognize what it is and realize how crucial a problem it is. Capital flight, sometimes also called capital strike, is the refusal by a company to productively invest unless its demands for special privileges are met, either by relocating capital or by hoarding it. When a corporation “offshores” its factories, offices, and operations (or threatens to do so) unless a "favorable business climate" is created, that is capital flight. It need not involve moving jobs and operations overseas, because corporations play different cities and states against one another within countries too. Corporations demand lower tax breaks, subsidies, loans, grants, and reductions in workplace safety and environmental regulations -- whatever maximizes profit -- or they will pick up and move elsewhere. One high-profile type is when a city’s beloved sports team threatens to move unless it gets a shiny new stadium, probably with subsides for operating costs. But also manufacturing in the United States and, to a lesser degree in Europe, has suffered devastating losses since the 1980s as multinationals moved their operations to nations in Asia and elsewhere without unions, labor protections, or living wages, and has time has passed many whote-collar jobs have felt the effects of it too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Brief History of Political Fortitude II

Historically, political fortitude or courage was an essential civic virtue in two ways. First, fortitude meant traditional military bravery to defend the republic from external domination, thus preserving its liberty. But second, and more importantly, it was and still is, the courage to defend the republic from internal domination by would-be oligarchs, demagogues, and tyrants. This is a courage that is both physical and moral, because before it is needed on the revolutionary guerilla battlefield once the oligarchs take over, it is needed in the public forum to prevent or delay that takeover in the first place. It is the kind of moral and physical courage and stamina that the Occupy protesters are showing right now. Those who would steal liberties are, when pressed, willing to resort to all forms of domination, including propaganda, demagoguery, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, cheating the political rules, and even military coup de état. Exercising fortitude to prevent domination is obviously best, but vigilance, strength, and determination can be exercised against tyranny anywhere in the process.
Some might wonder what role fortitude has to play in the realm of public debate. What use is courage in public speaking? The answer seems obvious, since most of us get nervous when addressing a crowd and need to summon up the courage to do it. But strength and determination are important for another reason. A democracy only works well when all sides have the courage to present their honest, authentic views to one another, because democracy is based on deliberation about different ideas. The ancient Greeks called this parhesia -- “frank speech.” One has to have what used to be called the “courage of your convictions” and speak up for principles that you believe are good for the country, basing your arguments not on political calculus but on genuine, principled, well-considered judgments about the matters at hand. Your fellow citizens have a right to know your sincere view regarding the question “What is in the public interest?” and to know clearly that your answer is free of political calculus. You need to have the fortitude to stand up for what is right regardless of whether you are the lonely voice in the room, whether you fear being ridiculed or shot down, or whether you estimate that a principled proposal won’t be “politically possible” or “serious” enough for the pompous pundits.  Of course, success in implementing a progressive agenda will take much more than this, including organizing, money, and smarts, but all that will be fruitless without the political fortitude to advance liberal and progressive principles. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chomsky on Occupy

If Noam Chomsky, who in fact is your father's progressive, thinks that these protests are unprecedented, then we should really be hopeful that the wheel has turned and real change is possible: 
“I've never seen anything quite like the Occupy movement in scale and character, here and worldwide. The Occupy outposts are trying to create cooperative communities that just might be the basis for the kinds of lasting organizations necessary to overcome the barriers ahead and the backlash that's already coming.”
Note that Chomsky is no rosy-eyed utopian: he knows the road ahead will be a rough one. But the kind cooperation that we are witnessing at the Occupy protests is a sound foundation for building mutual strength and confidence to walk that road together. And that’s all we can really ask of life, is it not?

Nested Interconnectedness

The contemporary world is incredibly complex, multi-layered, and interconnected, and people are parts of multiple circles of social and political interaction. One valuable way to think about this (and this is hardly original) is to see individuals as embedded in these circles in a nested way, members of close circles of family and friends; then of wider circles of acquaintances, voluntary associations, and professional and business relationships; then of wider circles still of community and society and/or country; and then of the widest circle that encompasses all humanity. There is also a growing consciousness of how people are part of, and dependent on, the living, breathing biosphere of the Earth, cohabitants with all the life that lives upon it, so I say that we should also think of ourselves as being members in the circle of life itself. 

Of course, in complex modern societies there is much diversity and overlap of these social spheres, and the circles are not always strictly concentric, but are sometimes juxtaposed or overlapping. And while for many people the nation remains the primary locus of social identity, there is no necessary reason to give this particular circle priority over the rest – that patriotic identity current rests in one’s country rather than, say, with a city-state, a continental grouping like the European Union, or the globe itself, is an accident of history.
Although I have put the individual at the center of these circles, there is little evidence to support the old Enlightenment idea of a rationalist self that exists as a consciousness prior to and independent of its social context. Rather, these circles of social embeddedness create the self, giving it identity and even consciousness, self-awareness, and memory, all of which increasingly appear to be products of language and social interaction, according to psychologists, cognitive scientists, linguists, and other researchers. We owe who we are to the people, institutions, and culture that surround us and that we spend our entire lives within.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Brief History of Political Fortitude I

The lessons of history are the collective experience of humanity, and to ignore them is like an individual who willingly undergoes amnesia. I am also by training an intellectual historian, so I will occasionally offer up a historical essay.  And while the ideal of political participation by all, including women, minorities, and the poor, is a modern invention, leading some to be averse to drawing lessons abut government from pre-modern societies, the experience of ancient republics and democracies about the citizenship of common people is nonetheless valuable, at least in regard to issue of class.

Citizens of past republics developed and exercised many positive qualities of character or virtues to defend self-government from would-be oligarchs and tyrants. Political fortitude, sometimes called courage or sternness, was primary among these civic virtues, alongside the complementary virtues of justice, wisdom, and moderation that traditionally get more attention. I think it is often forgotten that political courage was absolutely critical to preventing tyranny, for without it self-government withers and ultimately fails under the assaults of the politically ambitious. It should be clear by now that I believe it to be the most important of the virtues in today’s circumstances.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What Comes Out of Your Paycheck

Elizabeth’s Warren’s recent comment about corporate taxation and society was an excellent example of the kind of strong, principled argument that the rest of the Left should be making:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you!
But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.
But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
In contrast to conservative or libertarian arguments that taxation is theft, Warren’s statement is morally superior, for it accurately takes into account the fact that, as part of the same society, we are all interconnected and interdependent, and the money made by a single person can never be solely attributed to individual effort alone. The statement is also concise, to the point, firm, and persuasive, avoiding wonkish jargon and centrist waffling. It provoked agitated responses from commentators on the Right, who were forced to argue on Warren’s agenda-setting terms, and, like George Will, could only counter with either/or, straw-man arguments. It is a powerful argument, the kind that the Left should be making all the time, and I think it is an exemplar of how to argue with political fortitude and backbone. It makes me wish Warren would challenge Obama in the primaries, just to redirect the public debate. 
I want to try to make another argument for left-wing principles along those same lines. What follows is an argument that I think the Left should be making all the time, and if they did, and followed it up with the right actions, it could so change people’s mindsets that significant political and economic change would follow. 
Here’s the set-up: I have a friend, a blue collar guy I grew up with, also a veteran like me, who is pretty open-minded and non-partisan about politics but who leans to the Right; like many people, he is for responsible government in that he wouldn’t mind paying taxes if he didn’t think they were all wasted, but instead did some good for society. He’s been convinced otherwise, however, by years of conservative claims that government is inherently bad and inefficient. I told him that I understood being frustrated about taxes, because some of it does get wasted, yet nothing is perfect and there is waste in any process. I then pointed out many of the good things his tax dollars do - paying for FAA airport towers, paying soldiers, paying at least something to inspect the food, paying to make sure nuclear plants don't blow up, etc. Then I made the following argument (this is an edited version):
What about profits? They come out of your check also. See, people go to work and create a certain amount of monetary value on the job, whether someone makes trucks or fries burgers or does accounting or whatever. Out of the value added by the worker comes 1) overhead to pay for the company's investments/depreciation in machines, buildings, the power and phone bill, administrative costs, etc. 2) Then we pay taxes. What then? Out of the value you create then comes 3) your pay and benefits, and then 4) the salaries for the executives and the profits for shareholders. But why should they get a huge chunk? They didn't do the real work: a CEO is just an administrator, basically, and there's no CEO in America who personally creates enough value to justify a salary in the tens or hundreds of millions. If you promoted people from within the company and paid them modest salaries to act as executives they could easily do the job, and not at the cost of millions; so the workers could keep all those millions and divide them amongst themselves, making life better for them and their families. Some might say, "Well, investors paid to invest in the company so it could have equipment and facilities," but we've already covered those costs in 1). So the top people are just skimming off the value that the working people create. And then they call themselves "job creators!" But it robs you of more of your potential income than taxes do.
Any basic economic textbook will point out that most of the value created in a production process is a product of the cooperation of people working together, rather than of individual effort: where one person can make ten happy meals in an hour, two people can make 25 - more than simply doubling the individual gains. Three people could make 40, and five people 70, and so on (until you reach a point of diminishing returns when the kitchen is too crowded). This is due to the division of labor and the gains of cooperation: people can divide up tasks and focus on them exclusively, learning how to do something well and working out efficient chains of production. The same holds for nearly all human activities, with the exception of some creative processes like philosophy and art - but even these rely on the wider social division of labor. Here’s the key point for liberals and progressives: because you can’t attribute the extra surplus to any individual, but only to the fact that they’ve cooperated, the only rational way to divide it, the only just and fair way, is by equal shares for everyone.  But in our current system, CEOs have rigged the game through the control of stockholder boards, through networking, and by successfully lobbying to reduce or eliminate government oversight. Then they skim most of that surplus and keep it for themselves, while doing very little of the real work that created it. It’s like the shift manager at the burger hut bullying, intimidating, and propagandizing the other workers so that he can keep the social surplus. It’s not fair, and when it comes to society’s rightful wealth, it causes untold misery, threatens democracy, and is destroying the natural environment.
This is, I believe, a potentially persuasive idea among the hard-working 99%, and my friend was very impressed with the argument and felt validated that I had actually took the time and effort to make it to him. He said that he understood my rationale better for being on the Left. If liberals and progressives started making this argument regularly it would ring true with a lot of the people they are trying to win over. And consider how it could shift the debate on taxes: people are keenly aware of what the government deducts in taxes from their paychecks to pay for social services, because they see it on their paystubs on a regular basis. What if we passed a law that required companies to list the value that a worker creates (including their equal share of the cooperative surplus), then their pay, then what is deducted as profit for executives and shareholders, and then taxes? Would that not be a way to make people very highly aware of class difference, exploitation, the basic unfairness of inequality, and what’s being constantly taken from them? Imagine the consequences of such a simple accounting change. The companies wouldn't like it and would oppose it full fore, but even the public debate that would arise over the proposal would be eye-opening for most.

(Edited for typos and to add the link to Geaorge Will's column, 9:35 EST November 1, 2011)