Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thought of the Day: Relativism Isn’t the Problem, Absolutism Is

Too many people, even those who should know better, buy into the prejudice that without moral truth, or at least without seeking it, all things are permitted and chaos will result. Yet it is not those who are skeptical of such truth-claims that commit heinous acts, nor even those who question the concept of “truth” itself (which has, after all, meant so many different things to different people). Rather, history is full of people convinced that their truth justifies using any means to realize it in the world. That ends-justifies-the-means thinking is the source of most crimes and atrocities, not the view that moral codes are human inventions and thus, while of some use, are also inherently flawed and dubious. More on relativism to come. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Wisconsin!

This interview with The Nation Washington editor and Wisconsin native John Nichols is a must read for anyone who wants more effective Left-wing politics -- not because he describes how last year's protests started in our home state, but because he describes how last year's protests were the first effective ones since the 1960s:
"[Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker] did implement parts of his [anti-union] agenda, but two days after he signed the bill, 180,000 people came to the square in Madison. What they understood, that our media and our political class has yet to catch up with, is that once you’ve begun to assemble to petition for the redress of grievances, you don’t stop just because they don’t say yes the first time. That is so powerful.
And I would argue that that is a renewal of an American protest tradition that I think really faded after the ‘60s. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t stop with one march. The anti-war movement didn’t. And the women’s movement, in its early days, really had continual action. You have to keep coming back and you have to combine the street, the assembly, with the electoral. The electoral can never exist anymore in isolation. If all that progressive politics is about is electing “the right person,” it’s doomed.
But if you combine the street with the electoral, fascinating things happen. When hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites assembled, Democratic state senators looked out the window and said, we can either be cogs in the machine or we can respond to this demand. The assembly and petition for the redress of grievances worked. You got one of the major political parties to become what it’s supposed to be, a pro-labor party. There’s still a lot of work to do there, but boy, that’s dramatic."
Nichols' point is that left-leaning legislators need the help of popular demands in order to protect the people from oligarchic abuse, and he's right. I would add, however, that the reverse is also true. Protests need the help of electoral action and principled leadership by elected officials in order to be effective: in the greatest act of political fortitude of 2011 those Wisconsin lawmakers fled the state under threat of coercion to ram the anti-union bill through, which further inspired the protestors. And since then the protests have been combined with an electoral recall drive that bloodied Walker's political nose and now threatens to unseat him. It’s that electoral threat, and not merely the protests themselves, that have Walker and cronies on the defensive in Wisconsin.
As I have said before, demonstrations must be combined with electoral and legislative action to create real transformation. The lesson at the national level ought to be that Occupy protests alone won't work: either President Obama and his party have to lead, or they should be replaced. I’m not unrealistic: that obviously isn't going to happen in this election. But the point is that it means that we shouldn't expect real change at the federal level for several more years. Only when the Left wakes up and starts voting in a principled way will change begin.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Climate Capitulation

Peter Gleick, the scientist who exposed the Heartland Institute's attempt to deceive the public about global warming, has apologized, even though the documents he exposed showed deception that included a conscious effort to "dissuade teachers from teaching science."  Digby gets it right when she points out that his tactic -- once someone had inadvertently e-mailed him an incriminating document he used a false name to get more -- was no different than the use of false identities by journalists to expose corporate and government malfeasance, as when Upton Sinclair went undercover for seven weeks to do research for The Jungle. Digby is also right to call Gleick’s apology “foolish.” 
It's extraordinarily ridiculous that an organization engaged in such massive, systematic deception about the most important issue of the day has been able to successfully attack Gleick with charges of deception. It would be like, 40 years ago, calling deceptive a scientist who went undercover after being mailed incriminating tobacco industry documents to expose that industry’s lies. But Heartland has successfully shifted the debate away from their climate change lies to Gleick’s undercover actions. That is their tactic: accuse their accusers, and it works because too many on the Left go along with it.
I don’t know why Gleick decided to backtrack -- perhaps he’s worried about Heartland’s weak litigation threats or has other personal or professional reasons -- but this is NOT political fortitude. It only feeds their cycle of bullying. He ought to be proud of what he did in exposing Heartland's destructive and cynical climate denial, he put the climate deniers on the defensive for doing so, and he should NEVER have apologized. Apologizing only legitimizes their strategy, which is to make themselves out to be the victims, and it puts all the other climate protectors back on defense. And for that he ought to be ashamed.
Liberals, dammit, make this your iron rule of political debate: NEVER APOLOGIZE IN AN ARGUMENT WITH THE RIGHT. EVER. Not even when you are actually wrong - which, when compared to them, is rare. They will show you no mercy, you should show them none. They will exploit any opening you give to the limit, so give them none. Gleick won on the merits, and began to change the debate, and then he reversed the momentum by being a simpering milquetoast. That capitulation harms all the rest of us.

Update (2/23/11 21:45): My argument here is not to say that one should succumb to an arrogant, unquestioning faith in one’s beliefs. It is good to admit error with those who discourse with you in good faith. My argument here is entirely strategic: because conservatives generally don't argue in good faith, but exploit any opening to their advantage (and to the detriment of the world since they are not reality-based thinkers), you can't give them that opening at all. Hubris is not the Left's problem right now, diffidence is. I'd rather have us, when arguing with the right, be wrong a few times and not admit it than be right and yet continually apologizing for it, as we do now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thought of the Day: Pragmatism is a Kind of Shortsightedness

And thus a form of foolishness, because a long-term view is always wise. As you drive down a busy highway it’s obviously important to keep your eyes on the road immediately ahead of you, lest a crash result.  But  if your eyes are always focused right in front of your hood ornament, you will be constantly swerving back and forth, alternatively slamming on the gas and the brakes, as you react willy-nilly to the immediate actions of other cars around you. But if you also look three to five cars ahead, you begin to anticipate what other vehicles are doing, you get a feel for traffic dynamics, and you can initiate some maneuvers of your choice.  And if you occasionally look a mile or more ahead, you will find that you can identify bigger patterns in the traffic as a whole: you can see if traffic is clogging up, which lanes are stopped and which are flowing, which lane the big semi-truck doing 40 miles and hours is in, where a construction zone begins, where the next exits and turnoffs are, and so on.  Then you can really start controlling your own fate, because your range of anticipation has extended; by taking a long view you no longer have to react willy-nilly to the cars immediately around you, but you take the initiative and plot a course that gets you through traffic as effectively as circumstances allow.  
Being pragmatic means sacrificing gains in the future because of present concerns, which while sometimes unavoidable also keeps you shortsighted and reactive; it keeps government policy ineffective, and it keeps the Left’s political strategy self-defeating and frustrating.  Always add direction to your pragmatism by keeping the long run in view.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Corporate Idiocy

This article by Robert Cruickshank, a Californian political activist, is a great discussion of corporate narcissistic pathology: Apple constructs its products in mass sweatshops in China and elsewhere, rather than in the United States, under working conditions are so horrible that workers have threatened to commit mass suicide -- despite the fact that they would make a huge profits otherwise. “[P]aying American wages would add up to $65 to each iPhone’s expense. Since Apple’s profits are often hundreds of dollars per phone, building domestically, in theory, would still give the company a healthy reward.” (Cruickshank discloses, as do I, that we use Apple products to compute because they are reliable, but that since we are moral beings we nonetheless want better working conditions in the production process.)

Why would a company like Apple do this?
“Apple builds in China in large part because they have a narrow focus on their products and their profits, and disdain wider concerns for the good of society. When an unnamed Apple executive was asked about their role in addressing America’s economic problems, their response was revealing:
“‘We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,’ a current Apple executive said. ‘We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.’”
Wrong. The ancient Greeks, inventors of democracy, had a word for people who ignored their public responsibilities. That word was idiote -- and while it meant something more like “useless person” rather than “stupid person,” both meanings apply to selfish people and organizations. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does Globalization Have To Impose Its Race To the Bottom?

David Sirota observes that manufacturing jobs previously offshored are starting to return to the United States:
"But now at least a few manufacturing jobs are suddenly coming back to America, and the same CEOs, economists and politicians who have tried to squelch any honest discussion of exploitation are inadvertently admitting that exploitation has always been the manufacturing economy’s invisible hand. They are admitting it when they concede that jobs are returning primarily because American wages are precipitously dropping at the same time Chinese minimum wages have slightly risen–from awful (in some places, $100 month) to a mere terrible (still just a $240 a month).
This is not some fringe theory. It’s a widely acknowledged fact.
President Barack Obama admitted it when in his State of the Union address he said jobs are returning because “it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China.” Economists at the Boston Consulting Group underscored it when in August they said employment growth is happening because rising Chinese wages are “eroding China’s cost advantages” while the United States “is becoming a lower-cost country” as American wages decline. And GE Consumer & Industrial CEO James Campbell reiterated it when he recently told The New York Times that “making things in America is as viable as making things any place” because domestic labor costs are now “significantly less with the competitive wages”–read: far lower wages–now accepted by American workers.
Now that this consensus is finally out in the open, the real question for America is simple: Do we accept an economic competition that asks us to emulate China?"
The answer to that is "no." The solution to offshoring isn't to lower wages and benefits to third world levels so our workers are "competitive" in a global economy. Nor is it to insist that workers get greater training in an attempt to maintain a competitive edge. The solution to offshoring is democratic socialism -- democratizing corporations so that workers run the company and elect their own management. After all, who's going to vote to send their own job overseas? 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thought of the Day: Vision Begins with Imagination

A vivid imagination is key to healthy mental activity, and therefore key to freedom in general.  The qualities of wisdom that people call "foresight" and "vision" are, in fact, mainly the ability to imagine the world differently than it is, to see in the imagination a path to a better future.  To become conformists people must learn to curb their imaginations, which most learn to do effectively in their youth -- too effectively.  Shutting down the imagination nearly always begins with a variation of the idea, "that is impractical," a thought that when habitual slowly destroys creativity.  This vision-destroying habit makes people think that our current society is the best of all possible worlds and that we can never truly improve upon it.  And those  beliefs stop us from confronting the dangers we face and building a just world.
Creativity, adaptability, flexibility, an experimental approach to life -- and freedom.  All are one and the same, and all begin in the imagination.  So let yours run free today.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Military Oversight

According to the New York Times, the head of US Special Forces Command -- the military combatant command that led the Osama bin Laden raid -- wants to secure greater autonomy for special forces (SOF) to “expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers” and to “position his forces and their war-fighting equipment where intelligence and global events indicate they are most needed.”  Despite whatever military advantages might accrue, from the standpoint of democratic self-governance this is a capital-letters Bad Idea: our military already has too much power and is already too independent from Congressional and other public oversight.  We need to keep the principle of civilian control over the military vital, primary, and effective at all times.  I say this as an Army veteran who served in Iraq, and who respects and honors public service, especially those who serve the public at great risk.
History shows that a professional military is a long-term danger to any sort of self-government, classically expressed as a distrust of "standing armies."  Ever since World War II maintaining a large military apparatus has resulted in increasing militarization of American politics and culture.  We can see its effects in how the military-industrial complex became such a large part of the economy, in the expansion of the security surveillance state, and in when, where, and how we go to war (too often, in too many places, and without enough deliberation and foresight).  Maintaining a large standing military was a precondition for the catastrophic misadventures of Vietnam and Iraq, and ultimately for the shift, for all intents and purposes, of the Constitutional war-making power from Congress to the Presidency.
Militarization, and military professionalization, only increased after 9/11.  Special Forces are very highly trained people who’s only purpose in life is to train and exercise the use of force against other people in order to coerce or kill them.  There may be valid arguments that such professionals are necessary.  However, greater autonomy for special forces is highly imprudent: do we really want a highly trained force of professional soldiers with the latest equipment running around autonomously?  Especially now that the war on terror has led to the executive branch claiming the power to kill US citizens, anywhere in the world and without due process, that it believes to be terrorists?  Shouldn’t they, rather, be on a very short leash?
There is no sign that the state, with its military and police forces, is withering away anytime in the foreseeable future, and most people wouldn’t want, upon deliberation, to be totally free of security forces.  A classic solution is apt for the age-old tension between democracy and the standing military: if we are then to have a military, then we ought to go back to a conscripted military, along with a much greater reliance on the National Guard and Reserves -- the classic well-regulated "militia" with strong roots in the common people suitable to defense of a democratic republic but with limited power-projection capability.  (Analogous solutions are apt for espionage agencies and the police, too).  Until such time as world peace breaks out, that is the only way to have a people-based military compatible with any degree of democracy, representative or otherwise.  With technology now demanding a highly skilled force the days of an army based on the common rifleman are probably gone.  But if complex military technology demands some degree of professionalization, we'd probably construct a mixed military of regulars working side-by-side with lots of militia.  Greater autonomy for exclusive special forces ought to be completely off the table(and also police and espionage agencies.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Legitimation Crisis

I’ve gotten worried that some on the progressive Left have become too disillusioned by our corrupt, broken political system that they have lost sight of the value of political action – by which I mean action in the electoral and legislative spheres aimed at changing government policy.  I am worried that some are beginning to see the political system as so thoroughly corrupt that it is hopeless and not worth the effort to change, with some proposing to focus mainly on work in the civil society sphere in an attempt to change the culture.  I don’t think that we’ve gotten to the point yet where people have totally given up – but it’s worth reminding ourselves why political action is worthwhile.
Such a reaction is entirely understandable.  Older progressives have seen decade after decade of metastasizing right-wing reaction and the consequent governance failure – the last great liberal political victories came almost fifty years ago with the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s.  And young progressives had their optimism and trust cynically manipulated and shattered by the transformation of the candidacy of hope and change into the presidency of mostly-more-of-the-same.
Giving up on politics is a bad thing, strategically and morally.  It is actually the worst thing to do, because if you cede the political sphere without fighting, the would-be authoritarians win.  That’s what they’ve wanted you to do all along.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thought of the Day: Neoliberalism Is Just Another Ideology

Neoliberalism is a term used in political and economic theory to refer to the economic outlook that privileges the private sector, free markets, free trade, and globalization; it generally resists all but a minimal safety net and it abhors the idea of controls on international trade to make it fair or uphold labor standards or quality of life. It is the standard economic philosophy of the right but also of many in the establishment center-left. Neoliberalism is a mutation of the liberal tradition. Its values, in practice, are not liberty, equality, and fraternity, but property, exploitation, extraction, and estrangement. It only uses the traditional liberal values in theory to justify its abuses, and its ideologists are as committed to their distortions to the same degree as Soviet communists or Mussolini’s fascists once were to theirs. And just as those ideologies disappeared, so will this one. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thought of the Day: Statism vs. Socialism

One of the reasons conservatives fear socialism is that they confuse it with statism.  Socialism means that the productive resources of the economy are used for the benefit of all the people in society, while statism, a fundamentally fascist idea, is that the state itself is a good institution, even the apex of human existence, and all should be run for and by the state.  They are not the same thing.  Socialism can mean, in a given historical period, large and beneficial government programs like public pensions or health care; but it also means workers cooperatives, community enterprises, and pareconomic councils.  It necessarily entails democratic control of economic organizations, large and small.  It does not mean that state controls everything with a central bureaucracy.  It means that regular people do, with a variety of institutions and organizations.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Recommended Reading on Political Vision and Political Courage

The kind of political strength that I believe the Left needs is mainly a matter of intellectual confidence, verbal assertiveness, and interpersonal courage.  All those capacities are easier to develop and exert when a positive vision, and not merely negative critique, is in place to inspire people to action.  Salon, in cooperation with the Roosevelt Institute, has begun a new series to explore how progressives can shape such a vision for the economy.  
Meanwhile, George Monbiot at the Guardian, one of the more uncompromising and clear-eyed green writers on the web (with the exception of his endorsement of nuclear power), discusses how timid politeness on the Left enables the flourishing of conservative misinformation, paranoia, and disconnection from reality (i.e. insanity), all to the detriment of the United states and the world.   

Thought of the Day: Capitalism Elevates Mere Life Over the Good Life

Aristotle distinguished between mere life, activity with the purpose of meeting basic needs for survival and sustenance, and the good life, when those needs are met so one can focus on higher, more purposive intellectual, artistic, and social pursuits.
Capitalism elevates mere life over the good life.  It turns the making and consuming of material possessions into the purpose of nearly all a society’s activity.  It transforms the need for goods like a home or set of clothing -- which can still be beautiful and elegant even when honest, simple, and sufficient -- into a destructive drive for status-seeking and wasteful indulgence through ornament and ostentation. 
Capitalism elevates mere life over the good life.  Hence it's philistinism and anti-intellectualism, its elevation of commercial values over all other values, and its cancerous colonization of intellectual and artistic life. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Freedom is Greater When There Are Rational Rules

One common idea of freedom is that it is the absence of restrictions by rules and constraints. This is an incomplete definition, for freedom actually isn't possible without rules.  They are yin and yang.  The question is whether the rules are rational or not: rational rules make freedom possible, while arbitrary, exploitative, irrational rules hinder or crush it.  Conceptions of liberty that focus entirely on the absence of restraints implicitly assume a background of law, social norms, and other rules that create the conditions for autonomous human action anyway.
Modern conservatives, and especially libertarians, look at freedom almost entirely this way, as is evident in their complaints against even the most mild and rational of economic regulations, like rules to as keep arsenic out of water or children out of factories.  This opposition shows an immature and selfish neglect of interconnection with others, which when pushed to extremes becomes socio- and even psycho-pathology.  Even merely insisting that businessmen must following basic laws and rules, equally just like everyone else in society, is absurdly framed as government "interference" that puts society on the road to totalitarian serfdom, and also causes them to go into tizzy-fits of self-victimization.  Any such narrow view that declares freedom to merely be the privilege of ignoring rational rules is adolescent, anti-social, selfishly individualist, and forgets the background of social rules that makes society worth living in.
Enough has been written about the differences between positive and negative freedom over the decades that I will only briefly touch on their definitions.  Negative freedom I understand to mean freedom from rules and restraints, which is in fact often part of what freedom is (for as we shall see freedom does involve freedom from irrational rules and restraints, although not rational ones).  We recognize this when we say something like "George has served his jail sentence, paid his debt to society, and is now free again to live his life as he sees fit, provided he lives within the law."  Positive freedom, on the other hand, I understand as empowerment: to be free, you must not only be unhindered by irrational negative restraints, you must also have the positive power, capacities, and abilities to achieve your goals and life-plan.  Without those positive powers, being free from rules and constraints is pointless: you still can't achieve the aims for which you wanted to be free in the first place.  We recognize this when we say something like, "Mitt has received a large inheritance and can retire from earning his daily bread; he is now free to live his life as he sees fit."  Here the freedom being referred to is a positive one: Mitt has money, which gives him powers and abilities, including leisure time, to achieve his goals.
Here's another example: one person is confined to a chair with handcuffs, while another is confined to a chair because she is paralyzed.  Neither can escape the chair, and in both cases it is an acceptable use of the English language to say that neither is free from the chair, or conversely that both are confined to the chair.  Yet one is confined there by physical restraints, and the other is confined there by a lack of power of the body.  That is a significant difference, and that difference helps understand the differences between the Right and Left on freedom

Friday, February 3, 2012

Political Backbone Awards: Dean Baker and Chris Hedges

1) The Center For Economic and Policy Research is a great resource for economic views that counter the mainstream dogma - Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot are both talented, insightful economists who have no patience for the neoliberal economic doctrine of uncontrolled markets and austerity-until-you-burst. Baker is a solid Keynesian, and in a sane world would lead some future President’s Council of Economic Advisors.
Baker makes an argument in his column “Do Progressives Have To Be Loser Liberals?” that the Left should have been constantly making for decades, and should start making constantly now: the conservative view that government “redistribution” takes away from those who have fairly earned wealth and gives it to the undeserving poor is a bunch of bull, because government policy is a primary determinant of the initial distribution in the first place -- and that giant corporations are the main beneficiaries. When the government “redistributes” wealth it is only correcting for its own flawed initial distribution, which is already a redistribution of wealth upwards from regular workers and consumers to corporate oligarchs:
“Anyone trying to understand the role of the government in the economy should know that whatever it does or does not do by way of redistribution is trivial compared with the actions it takes to determine the initial distribution. Rich people don’t get rich exclusively by virtue of their talents and hard work; they get rich because the government made rules to allow them to get rich.
“To take an obvious example, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services we spend close to $300 billion a year on prescription drugs. If drugs were sold in a free market, without government-granted patent monopolies, we would spend around $30 billion a year.
“The difference of $270 billion a year is more than five times as much money as is at stake with extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. By making us pay far more for drugs, the government’s patent policy is redistributing a huge amount of money from ordinary people to the shareholders and top executives of the drug companies.”

Small Victories Will Eventually Lead to Larger Ones

Note what pressure from the Left has done regarding the Komen
Foundation Planned Parenthood funding dust-up: they reversed their
decision, and will continue funding for breast cancer examinations.
This is a victory! Also note how the pressure from the Left in the
form of the Occupy movement brought equality back into our public debate again. And the Wisconsin recall of Scott Walker has him knocked back and on the defensive.
Will the Left finally friggin' learn from these victories and stand up
for its principles?