Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thought of the Day: Conservatives Think They Believe in Diversity

Diversity to conservatives means diversity of skin color or other unchangeable natural characteristics; the only ideas they think are racist are actual, explicit doctrines that preach one race is superior to another.   But their diversity doesn't mean diversity of values, cultures, or ways of life.  But some version of the rugged individualist, free market faith is still demanded of all who would advance in society. Just look at the financial press; there are plenty of minority and women stock brokers and financial analysts.  But there are few, regardless of the traditions and values with which they were raised, who don't adhere to a version protestant work ethic, worship entrepreneurs, or think that freedom = markets.  Very few believe, for example, that work ought to be creative, autonomous, and fulfilling, or that advanced, wealthy nations have a duty to elevate impoverished ones.  You just aren't allowed into the club without conforming to the dominant market values, even if it’s now acceptable to have variation in superficial characteristics like skin pigmentation.  But that’s not deep diversity in values.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Democracy Isn’t Government "Coercion"

Conservatism assumes that government is inherently coercive, a claim that makes conservatives and libertarians favor either “limited” or minimal government, respectively (at least in rhetoric, if not for, say, imperial or banking adventurism).  It’s what makes them think taxation is theft, and that the market should run as much of society as possible.  This premise underlies conservative thinking about what "liberty" is.  And this is a widely accepted view: indeed, the sociologist Max Weber more than a century ago defined government as that institution in society which claims a monopoly on the use of legitimate, organized force, a definition that has had quite a bit of staying power. 

There are counter-arguments that most people, most of the time, follow the authority of the law willingly and do not have to be coerced to do so because they recognize the value of a well-ordered society.  But aside from that, I will claim that the more that government is truly democratic the more that any coerciveness is reduced.  I have a classical republican view of such matters -- and unlike some other political theorists, I understand classical republicanism, which aims at the good of the public, to be a kind of government that is dominated by common working people, since they make up 99% of the public whose good is in question.  

We have to have rules, and those rules have to be binding so that no one can exempt themselves in order to take advantage of everyone else.  Provided that government responsiveness to the people is genuine and not an ideological cover for elite rule, when everyone in society has an equal share in making common rules and everyone is obligated to follow them, government isn’t coercive, morally speaking, because each individual has had an equal voice in making the rules by which all will live together.  And if anyone disagrees with a law, they have the equal opportunity to convince everyone and to change it.  The laws may be obligatory, but that doesn’t make them coercive, because there’s no arbitrary force used against someone without their consent: enforcing rules, once democratically decided, is legitimate, because without that there would be no rule of law at all; but you’ve already consented to be governed by the law when you attempted to make it in your favor.  You then have to live with it if everyone else disagrees and makes it differently.  That is the best we can do in a society where we have to live side-by-side and rub shoulders together; every individual can’t have it their own way. 
The problem now is that the laws aren’t made democratically, but by the corporate plutocracy which is exempting themselves in order to take advantage -- which leads over time to something that truly is coercive and authoritarian, despite hypocritical conservative claims.  That, however, is a topic for another day -- as are related issues, such as how do you keep a government democratic once you’ve established it in the first place, which are substantial problems of governance and constitutional design.  Today I'm just arguing for a general principle. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

“Stand Your Ground” Laws: Racial Paranoia + Preemptive Violence = Death

 The unjust and tragic murder of Trayvon Martin reflects in microcosm many of the worst aspects of American society during this brutal, backward conservative era we inhabit. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in effect allows bourgeois whites, and those who have adopted their values, to indulge their worst fear-fantasies about blacks: since at least the 1970s, for many people the metonym/imago of young black men is that of the figure of a gang-banger ready to steal, kill, and rape. It is of course a vicious and false stereotype: it does not accurately describe the vast majority of black men, nor does it account for the fact that whites and other ethnic groups are members of gangs and can be violent too. Nonetheless, in our culture this threatening image is psychologically projected onto a whole race of people, fueling continued discrimination, paranoia, and authoritarian tendencies in law enforcement and the penal system, as well as the vigilante violence meted out by George Zimmerman upon Trayvon Martin. I suppose it ultimately goes back to antebellum Southern plantation owners’ secret terror of a slave uprising, in which they imagined oppressed black people would rise up and exact justice upon their white masters – a justice that the slave-owners believed would be swift, chaotic, and terrible because, to the white people’s minds, blacks were only slightly above animals and once free of white control would be let their violent passions run rampant. Stand Your Ground laws, which allow you to preemptively kill anyone when you just feel threatened, are, I think, psychologically based on, and reinforce, that irrational racist fear of out-of-control minorities. Of course, just to be clear, this is in fact irrational and paranoid, and not based on anything real, for black people are no more or less rational or irrational than anyone else.  The predictable result of giving paranoid people the ability to shoot and kill anyone they are afraid of is tragedy -- both at the personal level, in the case of Treyvon Martin and his family, and at the social level, in the persistent marginalization and stereotyping of blacks. 

Consider Geraldo Rivera's comments that Trayvon's clothing choice was to blame: 

"But I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies,” Rivera insisted. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”

When asked to clarify his remarks, Rivera said that he cautioned his own son against wearing hoodies. He explained, "When you, when you see a kid walking — Juliet — when you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles. Take that hood off, people look at you and they — what do they think? What’s the instant identification, what’s the instant association?"

There is an association, and it's a racist one, the paranoid image of the dark-skinned gang-banger. This clothing association with gangsterism is entirely arbitrary. I am a white male professional in my early 40's, a veteran and a community leader; I wear a suit to work. I have never been in a gang. And I also wear hoodies just like Trayvon - every time I go to the gym. I see white people wearing them all the time. It’s just a stupid stereotype; as Martin Luther King said, we should judge people by the content of their character. Rivera, and anyone else who cringes and thinks "Gangster! Danger!" when they see a dark-skinned person in a hoodie, are impulsively letting their thoughts run away with them. Rivera is letting himself be ruled by an arbitrary association, a racist stereotype which drives a paranoid emotional response. He should instead pause to check his impulsive thoughts, examine his evidence-free first impressions, and philosophically adjust them the way that a rational grown adult should. And that – impulsive, evidence-free mental associations – is really the heart of the conservative way of thinking in America today. 
Conclusion: Stand Your Ground laws are based on irrational fear of dark-skinned people, and ought to be repealed nationwide. Note what a Stand Your Ground laws allow: preemptively attacking someone you fear and feel threatens you. Sound familiar? They are not our only such laws; some based on the same racist impulses have even bigger and more tragic effects, like the Patriot Act and Authorization for Use of Military Force, which allowed for pre-emptive war in Iraq against dark-skinned people. These should be repealed too. And we should also repeal the image of the minority gangster that fuels so much repressive paranoia in our society.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Teachers Are Not Personal Assistants

I am not someone who subscribes to a “tough love” (such a ridiculous phrase!) theory of child-rearing. Humans, adults and children alike, seem to do best in circumstances of moderate challenge in purposeful pursuits. Most people generally need to regularly work at a moderate pace towards a purpose that is larger than themselves, facing moderate obstacles that challenge but do not overwhelm them. For most of us, overwork is more of a debilitating problem than over-leisure. But the young of the wealthy learn that the latter is their natural right. Naomi Wolf here criticizes elite schools that are overindulging the children of wealthy parents by removing all obstacles for them in order to satisfy their parent’s desire to keep their kids from having unpleasant experiences at school. 
This is strongly related to the norms of consumerism that emerge in our commodified and inegalitarian market society. Wolf writes:
Many educators in these schools complain that parents' – and, increasingly, students' – attitude to educators is that they are consuming a costly luxury product, and that the teachers work for them; rather than serving as authority figures to the kids, educators at such schools complain that wealthy US parents increasingly expect "service" and "deliverables" from teachers, so won't brook a poor grade or evaluation, or a difficult experience for their child. This attitude then carries over into colleges that serve wealthy populations. And it does not stop there: the consumerist ethos has trickled down, destructively, into the public school system, too.
"How many times has a kid said to me,'You work for me; I am your employer,'" sighed one such administrator to me, recently.
My experience teaching at a state university full of suburban middle- and upper-middle class kids was similar in that I often felt that students saw me as providing them with just another service. But education is not a consumer good, it is a practice that forms character itself; the relationship between teacher and student is not that between diner and waiter, or shopper and salesman, nor should it be, at any socio-economic level. Education should be demanding but not overwhelming or degrading so as to foster growth. The entirely pampered rich-kid educational experience that Wolf describes creates narcissists who think that educators, with decades of experience and the highest degrees in their fields, are simply a kind of domestic servant. They never learn to respect legitimate expertise or authority, and do not understand that people with more knowledge than them should be respected and listened to as guides.
Just as there is crude anti-intellectual strain at the bottom of the Right in the form of ignorant tea baggers, so there is anti-intellectualism at the top. There always has been in America; Sinclair Lewis characterized it well in "Babbitt," his early twentieth century story of a philistine businessman whosaw himself as superior to those snooty artists and intellectuals, who believed that making money made him a better person, when in fact it only made him richer. Babbittry continues today. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is not seen as the most import thing you can do with your brain, but is reduced to a pleasant consumer experience. Thus people learn as children to instrumentalize knowledge so that, later in life, it is not seen as something to pursue for its own sake, but as something only useful for, and subordinate to, consumption, profit, war, or other matters of state.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Being Right Too Soon

Joan Walsh gets it right when she says that Paul Ryan’s small-government, middle-class-busting austerity budget, with its massive cuts to beloved programs like Pell Grants and Medicare, is a major political gift -- but only if Democrats give up their capitulation habit and courageously and proudly oppose it. “Democrats need to stop sabotaging themselves and undermining their party’s signature accomplishments, including Medicare... I think the president learned that the hard way [during last summer’s budget fight], and I trust he’ll remember the lesson.” She’s 100% right about the first part; I’m not so sure about the second.
Much surprise has emerged about Jonathan Chait’s piece criticizing Obama’s appeasement strategy during that budget debate, given his previous unwarrented condescension towards progressives for criticizing Obama. I am reminded of Paul Krugman’s observation that among Washington’s myopic press and party elite, you get excluded if you are right too soon. That is, people get marginalized when they have the foresight, vision, and judgment to be more successful at prediction than the shallow DC dilettantes, who feign statesmanship while failing miserably at it. Being right to soon on a regular basis ought to be praiseworthy that qualifies one for high office, but sadly, the wisdom of those who are right too soon is never heard by the larger public until it is too late, to the detriment of all. Furthermore, going back to conservatism’s ascendancy in the 1980s, the voices that are “right to soon” have mostly been progressive ones: they were right about Iraq, they were right about Afghanistan, they were right about racism and sexism, they’ve been right about inequality, and they’re right on economics, climate change, secularism, and a host of other contemporary issues. And, despite the tendency of the Washington press corps to think of Paul Ryan as an amazing economic genius, progressives are right about how bad his budget is.
My prescription has always been clear: all liberals need to do to start winning is to repeatedly and persistently stand up for themselves and their policies! There is more public support for them than they think. Doing so might cause temporary criticism from the knuckledhead nexus of the brainless right and the lightweight media elite, but in the long run truth wins out -- but only when it is supported and promoted by its defenders.  The truth is that the left has better policies.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thought of the Day: Neoliberalism is a Cancer

I said here that “Neoliberalism is a mutation of the liberal tradition. Its values, in practice, are not liberty, equality, and fraternity, but property, exploitation, extraction, and estrangement.” Not only is neoliberalism a mutation of liberalism, it is also a cancer -- after distorting liberal values it spreads those values without limit, just as cancer cells are mutated cells that grow past their normal bodily limits. Neoliberalism takes the traditional liberal values and oversimplifies them, presenting only one facet of them as the whole -- and that partial facet is always the commercial, mercantile side. Freedom, for example, is oversimplified and reduced into the freedom to own property, to buy and sell freely; rather than being, say, a fuller conception of freedom as the empowerment to develop your human abilities, to follow a rational life plan, to create according to your talents, or to work with others to contribute to the public good. 
Neoliberalism’s cancerous growth occurs as its mutated values are spread beyond their original sphere by various means, including privatization and advertising, so that market values, commodification, and corporatization come to dominate other fields of human endeavor -- universities today are a prime example. This cancer even comes to dominate language itself, making the commercial point of view the default point of view. That means that almost any other point of view is a useful counterpoint: putting yourself into the mindset of a people from ancient history, or a of a still pre-modern tribe, or even imagining a different, non-capitalist future gives you lenses of values other than the dominant ones through which to see the world.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Austerity Agenda and The Body Politic III: Family Budget as Alternative Metaphor

So, to briefly recap where we've been, I’ve argued that the Austerity Agenda is so convincing as an argument, despite austerity’s repeated failure, because it appears to accord so well with people's personal experience. That is, individual experiences with personal debt, which involve cutting back expenses, are metaphorically transfered onto people's thinking about government budgets and debt as well. This occurs despite the fact that there are major differences between personal and government budgeting, primarily that governments can issue sovereign debt and they do not die, so they can borrow now, invest, and pay later when that investment has grown the economy and made the debt a smaller percentage of it. Really, all that government does when it takes on debt is to shift some of the society’s financial resources around, transferring some from the private sector into the public sphere, but the society itself doesn’t “go into debt.” The individual wallet metaphor misleads people into the conclusion that budgets deficits are always a problem, and always one that must be solved by cutting expenses, just like responsible individuals do. But the reality is just too different from the metaphor to permit clear thinking about economics.
So the question naturally arises: If the personal wallet metaphor for government budgeting is so off the mark, what new metaphor could we use? Metaphoric conceptual change can occur in many different ways, with two of the most common being the replacement of one metaphor by another, and the alteration of an existing metaphor to refine it. As one of the most prominent contemporary metaphor scholars, George Lakoff, observed, once metaphors enter a culture they rarely, if ever, simply drop out; instead they are either transformed or displaced by the introduction of a new metaphor. As we look for a new metaphor for government budgeting, I think we should choose one that does a couple different things: 1) It should be convincing, not too far afield or unbelievable, something that people can readily relate to from their personal lives. New metaphors that are too far “out there” don’t stick. It also shouldn’t be too complicated. 2) Unlike the individual wallet metaphor, the new metaphor should depict something that we all contribute to, something we all draw from, and something that illustrates individuals as members of an entity larger than themselves, just as all these things apply to government. Ideally it should show the social interconnections between the multiple people cooperating to improve their quality of life, since that is what an economy is for, and it should show how financial resources can be shifted around for various investment and consumption purposes, as with a government budget. As always, it's important to keep in mind that this is also just a metaphor, and not an attempt to literally describe government budgeting.
If one must use an example of personal finance to understand public finance, then let me suggest an alternative: a better metaphor than the budget of an isolated individual would be the budget of a family in which each spouse has his or her own income and takes care of many of their own individual expenses, but they also have a common family bank account to which they both contribute for common expenses. So shared expenses like food, rent, electricity, diapers, doctor bills, school expenses, the internet, transportation, savings, and other necessary bills are paid from the common account, but each partner pays from an individual account for expenses related to their personal interests -- tennis coaching for one, a gym membership for the others, restaurant outings and other entertainment with individual friends, and so on. I have known actual families that use a similar way of budgeting, and I think it’s probably fairly common. The analogy here is that the common household account is like the government budget, while the spouses' personal accounts are like the individual budgets of private citizens. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thought of the Day: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: You Cannot Win if You Do Not Try

I often face the objection to my policy arguments that they are “not politically possible,” even from Left-wing allies who agree with me on the merits. For example, last year Stanford published a study showing that it is possible, in terms of technology, engineering, and practices, to power the world with renewable energy within a single generation. But whenever I raise this, people say “That’s not politically possible.” Well, make it politically possible by advocating for it! The more people that advocate for rational laws and policies, the more likely we are to get them! The argument that something is not within the bounds of political possibility is a self-defeating self-fulfilling prophecy. You cannot win if you do not try. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Where They Want To Take Us

Henry Giroux does a nice job laying out the four factors that define contemporary, reactionary conservatism: market and religious fundamentalism, militarism, and a privileging of ignorance. I would add that it has the money, propaganda machine, and elite support to keep pushing the the predominant public ideology in its preferred direction, even when it loses elections. So we must then fully face where, exactly, they are pushing us: if current trends continue, conservatives will undermine the remaining shreds of representative democracy in America and establish a theocratic oligarchy propped up by a military dictatorship (or a civilian analog). 
They would, if they could, establish a one-party state that eschews multiculturalism and freedom and basic human decency and attempts to impose their value system and religion on all, with coercion if they must. And in the end, like all such tyrannies, the attempt would fail and democracy would re-emerge. But it would take several decades of murder and misery, and they would permanently weaken the country in the process -- meanwhile leaving humanity’s real problems like overpopulation and climate change unaddressed. 
And that is why political courage and fortitude are so important: this can be stopped, as all such bullying, political or otherwise, can be; but the bullies have to be stood up to directly and confronted eye-to-eye and told “NO” with a   set jaw and a clenched, ready fist. And while that’s not enough to build a decent world, it’s at least usually enough to stop a bully.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Austerity Agenda and The Body Politic II: Personal and Government Budgeting Are Not the Same

The metaphor of the body politic is often a very good one, for both terms of the metaphor share some similarities: both bodies and governments are very complex entities with many interconnected, interdependent parts; failure or damage to one part of a body or a government can ripple throughout the whole and affect distant parts; both bodies and governments can be actors; both individuals and governments take actions such as growing, fighting, deciding, consuming, sickening, dying, and so on. The metaphor of the political body has endured for thousands of years as an apt and useful framework for conceiving politics because both of its terms are characterized by complex interdependency.
Yet it is essential to keep in mind that organic political metaphors are only metaphors, and that there are significant differences between individuals and states too. Bodies politic are immortal while bodies individual are not; bodies politic are of a scale millions or billions times larger than any single individual; bodies politic can draw upon the collective effort, intelligence, property, and moneys of millions or billions of people; the internal organization of a government is much different from organic anatomy and, unlike an of an actual body, is changeable; bureaucratic parts can be moved around whereas organic parts cannot. Yet we are supposed to believe that the finances of a government are just like the wallet of an individual? We are supposed to believe that the finances for a massive organization, with of all of society as its members and with a massive bureaucracy with multiple agencies and legislatures, is subject precisely to the same financial constraints as Joe Sixpack? Isn’t that absurd on its face? It’s like saying that the military has the same limitations, with its jets, missiles, divisions, tanks, and ships, as an individual has with the limited power to throw a spear with their biological arm.
I'm not saying that government isn't subject to some financial laws of nature, nor am I saying that government should be free from all financial rules. What I am saying is that, because of government's different structure, size, and characteristics, the financial rules it follows are necessarily somewhat different from the rules that you and I must follow as individual, private citizens. But the metaphor of personal finance for government budgeting misleads us into thinking otherwise. To keep thinking that the government "credit card" has run out, or that the government has a “pocketbook” or “checkbook,” or that government debt works like personal loans, or that the solution to the national deficit is just like personal debt -- cut back on expenses -- is actually rather silly, given the differences involved.

Thought of the Day: Distract and Conquer

Anybody else notice how, after Occupy managed to shift public discussion to matters of economic equality, the Right has successfully managed to shift it back to the culture war with attacks on women's reproductive rights? At the moment few people, even on the Left, are paying significant attention to economic issues. Distraction mission accomplished, conservatives; I tip my political strategy hat to you, and I wish the Left would wake up to this tactic.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Austerity Agenda and The Body Politic I

I would like to pose the question: Why do so many people believe in the Austerity Agenda? As Paul Krugman, David Atkins, Dean Baker, and others continually point out, austerity doesn’t work: bare-bones public budgets fail to make the necessary investments in education, infrastructure, and other public goods that societies need to for a decent quality of life -- especially during recessions when the small government model lacks counter-cyclical capability. History shows that Keynesianism leads to better economic outcomes. Furthermore, large welfare states attend not only elevate the poor but the middle class too, securing their security and social mobility. Since the lower and middle classes benefit most from big-government social democracy, one would expect a majority coalition to support it.
But budget-cutting austerity is all the rage. Now one might say that despite the actual record, austerity economics is widely believed because the right promotes it with their massive media machine, and that’s true. But why do so many people buy into the austerity argument itself? Why is it such a zombie idea when it is so self-defeating for most people? Why do they accept in the first place the argument that government spending must be cut during a recession (rather than, say, raising upper income taxes), and that they must just accept reduced income, benefits, security, quality of life, and power? Why is the neoliberal dogma of austerity so tenaciously enforced by the IMF around the world, despite its historical track record of economic failure?
I will argue that many people accept the austerity agenda so readily because their thinking is guided by a mistaken metaphor, a variation on the ancient analogy between the state and a person. People have a tendency to think that the budget of a government is the same as the budget of an individual, and this is reinforced by their own daily experience of having to live within their means. That logic tends to drive deep thinking about budgeting, too often even for those who intellectually know that there are differences between personal and governmental finance. The point for today is that our experiences of our personal finances metaphorically shapes how we think about government finances; we carry over the logic of our wallets into our conclusions about the national treasury, when they are in reality quite different.