Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Rhetoric of Dependency


It is a key element of conservative faith that those who receive government subsidies are "dependent on government." They complain of a debilitating "culture of dependency" that they say is produced by government programs from welfare to Medicare to Social Security to student loans. I will discuss three problems with this, all interrelated in a net of conservative bad thinking. The first concerns the hypocrisy of conservative complaints about unfairness of programs for the poor while accepting subsidies for the wealthy and big business. Next, I will argue that public programs do not disempower people but empower and elevate them. Lastly, I will argue that the real problem is not dependence on government, but that we are dependent on corporations and their wealthy chiefs for jobs, production, and prosperity, which dependence allows them to control our politics through the extortion of capital flight. 
First, to the conservative way of thinking welfare is inherently immoral and unfair, not because it takes money from the public treasury, but because it gives it to those who are perceived to be undeserving. This is not just an argument that taxes take money from some people and give it to others: no matter how much they whine about taxes and welfare, most conservatives are fine in practice with massive transfers of public money, as long as those transfers are to favored constituencies: large corporations, military contractors, private prisons, religious charitable groups, and private charter schools. This hypocrisy is explained away by distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving, that is, between those who work hard and those who don’t. The hard-working, thrifty, and talented, will, if they receive public money, put it to good use by creating jobs or protecting the country. The shiftless, dissolute, lazy bums will simply waste whatever welfare they receive -- and they will become even more wasteful as they grow dependent on welfare. To this way of thinking, government programs punish success and reward failure, and they create a cycle of dependency to boot. 
However, the idea that businesses that devour massive benefits from the public trough are merely being rewarded for success is almost self-refuting: it never occurs to most conservatives that the more subsidies, tax cuts, and government contracts a business gets, the more successful it will be, simply because of those subsidies, tax cuts, and contracts, and not because it “deserves” it. This is a failure to recognize massive corruption and a redistribution of money upwards in society to the already-rich, who least need the help. Furthermore, the idea that the poor waste public money is mostly bunk: while there are always a few cases of "welfare fraud," there is minor waste and cheating in any system, no matter how corruption-free. On the whole, people use public programs the way they are supposed to: when times are tough, they go on food stamps for a while to get through; or they use student aid to go to college and become productive members of society; or when they retire they draw their earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, to which they've long contributed from their paychecks. We long ago put time limits on public assistance and turned welfare into workfare, mitigating any disincentives that might exist. Conservatives have always overestimated welfare fraud with scare propaganda about "welfare queens." The distinction between deserving and undeserving groups in America has always had strong racist undertones, in addition to pretending to be a principle of high morality rather than a justification for greed and rapaciousness.
Second, conservative claims that welfare debilitates people by inducing them to laziness depends on a cognitive trick that excludes the largest government transfers programs we have. Most “big government” programs are middle-class welfare programs: mainly Social Security and Medicare, which are huge budget items, but also free primary and secondary schooling, college aid, subsidies and tax credits for home owners, and the like. But somehow when most people think of “welfare” they think only of aid to the impoverished, not of middle -class welfare. All of these programs, however, are non-market ways of distributing resources; all of them are administrative, government ways of distributing resources. With so many subsides and tax benefits and dispersals of money at all levels of society, from the richest corporations to the poorest homeless people, you can’t just single out aid to the poor for accusations of “dependency.” We are all, in fact, interdependent, and society needs government, not markets alone, to guide the distribution of resources so that the economy fulfills its purpose: improve the well-being of all. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thought of the Day: Being Judgmental vs. Good Judgment


The exercise of good judgement has become much rarer than being judgmental in our political culture, afflicted as it is with anti-intellectualism, a sound-bite news cycle, and a virulent conservatism that cannot win on its record or on the merits of its arguments.  By “being judgmental” I mean condemning and dismissing the ideas and people felt to be “other” in angry, fearful, simplistic terms.  It is an impulsive use of thought.  By “good judgment” I mean giving unfamiliar proposals a fair hearing, carefully weighing and balancing options, putting ideas into historical context, taking the long view, and looking to the good of the whole when making decisions.  It is a deliberative use of thought.  The former is now more valued and rewarded than the latter, and yes, the right is more guilty of it than the left. Restore the primacy of good judgment is necessary to quell our inflamed factionalism and restore good governance. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Too Big to Fail Has an Obvious Solution: Break Up the Banks


The recent JP Morgan mess illustrates one of the major dysfunctions of our corrupt political age: an inability to translate obvious solutions into policy. It is often the case, though not always, that there are clear and good solutions to what seem like intractable problems. These solutions could be implemented if they had enough support, but many mental and structural barriers intervene. The mental barriers include obfuscation by interested parties, pundit cynicism, the Left's characteristic diffidence, and other factors. The structural barriers include the wads of corporate cash political campaigns and in the legislative lobbying system, which ensures that only solutions good for monied interests win, or are even heard.
JP Morgan under the leadership of CEO Jamie Dimon made a huge error that cost it some $2-3 billion dollars and has cast doubt on its viability as a financial institution. Since no organization run by we flawed human beings is error-free, the causes of that loss are pretty much beside the point; the magnitude of the loss is not. Will JP Morgan collapse, as Bear Stearns would have in 2008 - if it hadn’t been bought out by JP Morgan Chase? Will JP Morgan’s potential failure require public bailout? That JP Morgan is so huge that it’s failure would be devastating to an already weak economy is a reminder of how dependent our economy is on these huge banking institutions. Their size, and consequently our dependency, has only increased since 2008. Yet no effective regulation of finance has been put into place to prevent another meltdown.
In short: be afraid. Be very afraid. Why?Because there are no rules for the bankers.
Our financial system is quite clearly an oligopoly. A monopoly, I'm sure you know, is when a single company effectively controls an entire industry, therefore killing the "free market" by eliminating competition. Monopoly leads to all sorts of negative consequences, including stagnant innovation, poor customer service, bad product quality, high prices, and the accumulation of superprofits, which are then corruptly fed back into the political system to protect the monopoly. A monopoly is a concentration of power, both economic and political. Communism is not the only enemy of markets and liberal democracy, for monopoly is too, something conservatives always seem to forget. 
Oligopoly is just like monopoly except that instead of one colossal firm controlling the entire market, several slightly smaller but still giant ones do. Therefore there is still a modicum of competition, although with only a few firms in the market that competition is much less than in a market with many small businesses. All the negatives of monopoly exist also under oligopoly, albeit to a somewhat less odious degree: stagnant innovation, poor customer service, bad product quality, high prices, and the accumulation of superprofits, which are then corruptly fed back into the political system to protect the oligopoly. Oligopoly is a concentration of power, both economic and political. Communism is not the only enemy of markets and liberal democracy, for oligopoly is too, something conservatives always seem to forget. indeed, oligopoly in the economy leads directly to oligarchy in the polity. That we have allowed giant firms to exist in such a key sector as banking, which channels society's money supply, holds people's life savings in storage, and steer's society's capital investment, is a danger to us all.
There is a traditional and obvious solution to monopoly and oligopoly that is accepted across the political spectrum, from libertarian conservatives to progressive liberals: anti-trust. Break up the banks that are too big to fail. Isn't that as clear as the light of day? If the banks are too big to be allowed to fail, then make them smaller! Break the banks, mutual funds, stock brokerages, etc. into very small businesses. That way the competitive pressures that businesses do put on each other will cause them to check and balance each other, smaller size will limit the damage that any bank failure can cause, and the ability to accumulate profits with which to poison the political system will be limited.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Technology Alone Does Not Solve Social Problems


This article asks the question, “Is 3D printing the key to utopia?”, and the answer is almost certainly a resounding “No.” The 1950s gave us the idea that consumer capitalism’s domestic machines like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners were “labor saving” devices, and the common pop culture image of the 1960s and 1970s was that by the 21st century we would all have flying cars and eat our dinners in pill form.  Indeed, throughout the 20th century technology was promoted as the road to a utopia free of toil and full of leisure.
But that’s not how it works. Imagine that you work in a common office job, doing data entry on a computer. You work a regular eight hour day and enter X amount of data into your company’s systems. Then it is decided that a new computer program will be installed that allows data entry at twice the previous rate. So you show up to work the next day, and you enter the same X amount of data by noon that it took you an entire day to enter before. So what happens then? Do you get to go home at lunch, done with your daily duties?
No. You still have to work an eight-hour day. Except that during those eight hours, you will now be entering twice as much data as before. You will be getting paid the same amount for accomplishing twice as much,of course. The company will use the increased efficiency provided by the technology to increase the volume of work done, and thereby the profit it makes, not to improve the human condition by being satisfied with the same profit as before while giving its workers more free time. New technological inventions are not “labor saving devices,” they are “productivity enhancing devices,” as long as what is done with them is decided by capitalists seeking to maximize profit.
Oh, I'm sure that 3D printing will improve manufacturing processes and open up new possibilities. But even if someday it becomes as good as the replication machines of science fiction, manufacturing tea and dinner and any other good from scratch right in your own home, it still won’t help; don’t you know that capitalists would find a way to monopolize and patent the replicator patterns so they control who gets to replicate what, only allowing some patterns to those who pay the appropriate fee? 
3D printing will improve productivity, but that only means that capitalism will use it to exploit us for profit. A scientistic faith in technology is misguided. Only a re-arrangement of the social organization of the economy, not technology, will create conditions where most people have more leisure to  lead balanced lives lives of human development and flourishing. As long as we retain capitalism, technology will mainly be used to make more money for the rich elite. It's the social system that has to change; no technology in the current socio-econoic context will lead to utopia. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thought of the Day: Finance is a Form of Infrastructure


I ran into this older New Yorker article (from late 2010) in which the economist Paul Woolley, founder of the Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality at the London School of Economics, makes a great point: “Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it’s just a utility, like sewage or gas?”
He’s right: financial investment is merely infrastructure, a social means of facilitating the provision of actual physical goods and services that people need and want, just as a road or bridge is a means to transport those goods, or electricity is a means to their production. Banks and other investment institutions, therefore,  should be run like publicly-owned utilities, with explicit social responsibilities. Furthermore, members of the banking and investment professions should be made into publicly responsible professionals like doctors, professors, or lawyers: think "accountant" in it most unadorned sense -- staid, quiet, and conscientious. However, there are a thousand layers of myth, propaganda, and illusion that elevate finance into the profession with the highest pay, prestige, and power -- its practitioners believe that they are courageous risk-managment aristocrats deserving of obscene wealth, and they have the money to get enough of the public to buy into this illusion. While Adam Smith had great praise for local manufacturers who improved their communities, he saw absentee owners and men of finance as mere administrators, more akin to civil servants than to princelings. Boring accounting -- that is what finance really is underneath the layers of illusion, and that is how we should make it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Condition of the Working Class in Academia


Over the last 30 years, academia has become one of our more exploitative economic sectors, with egregious overwork and underpayment of graduate assistants and temporary faculty. This article in the Chronicle of Higher education describes how bad it has gotten since 2007: the number of people with master's and doctoral degrees on public assistance has tripled. Think about that: PhDs on food stamps. Isn’t that just absurd, and reflective of America’s deep-seated anti-intellectualism that it happens at all? 
None of this is to say that academia is the most exploitative sector in the world -- overseas factory workers and immigrant laborers are by far much worse off, as are many service-sector employees here in the US. But exploitation in higher education is deep and real, especially for a profession that is still imagined by most people outside of the academy to be performed by those with comfortable lifestyles. Scholars work 60-70 hours a week for the better part of a decade to earn a PhD, sacrificing family time and a more lucrative career in order to advance human knowledge. Anyone with the intelligence and dedication to earn a doctoral degree fairly, thereby certifying they are qualified to teach and do research in their field, deserves a comfortable, secure income. They have earned it. And I don't care if the doctorate is in electronics engineering or something supposedly “impractical” like medieval languages: the advance of knowledge has to proceed in all fields lest it become intellectually and morally unbalanced, and we never know where the next great discovery is going to come from. Not only are the conditions in academia a human tragedy, they are a waste of human capital and therefore bad for the wider economy -- something that all can be said about any form of unemployment.
Academia has been financially decimated, its ranks of intellectuals increasingly reduced from middle-class professionals to outright proletarians. The common image of the comfortably well-off professor pontificating from a tenured, recession-proof academic chair does not accurately describe academic laborers anymore:  70% of college professors are temporary faculty.  When I was an adjunct instructor a few years ago I was only able to make about $16,000 a year without health insurance, pension, or 401K. I know adjunct instructors who work a double course load -- meaning 80 hours a week -- just to make ends meet for their families. The Chronicle article notes that now many PhDs are getting paid less than custodial, administrative, and support staff -- which is not to say that those workers should have a lower status, but to put the lie to the idea that skill, education, and professionalization lead to financial rewards. Most older faculty have been able to protect their economic positions, but younger generations have faced increasing insecurity. Now that i think about it, it is the same as the Ryan plan to privatize Medicare by forcing everyone under 55 into a voucher system.  
That this is occurring in an era when business school hacks keep increasing their Wall Street bonuses only shows how nepotism, not merit, has become the route to success. The reason that we have impoverished professors is because our colleges and universities are trying to do higher education on the cheap, by exploiting low-paid temporary and graduate-student faculty. It is a failure by society to budget enough for intellectual work, not a failure or flaw on the part of the thousands of unemployed people with advanced degrees. Given continuing high demand for college education, there should be enough permanent professorships created to go around for all the people willing and qualified to teach. Institutions of higher learning, however, have undergone severe budget cuts and become ever-more dependent for funding on business foundations and other wealthy donors. All of which has made tenure less of a protection and funneled research efforts into narrower channels, when it should follow the lead of expert inquiry.
Business types have always had a great contempt for intellectuals, as exemplified by the statement "those who can't do, teach." America's anti-intellectualism is strong and deep, and now a cruel and exploitative system is in place to keep academic labor under the power and direction of the wealthy elite. Wisdom and knowledge are critical to good human living, and any functioning society listens to its most knowledgeable members. One wonders how a civilization can avoid sliding into barbarism when it instead oppresses its best and brightest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It’s Not a Conspiracy Theory, It’s a Collusion Theory


Sometimes, when conservatives are tired of using doublespeak to dismiss criticisms of our corporate plutocracy as “class warfare,” they try to dismiss them by saying they are “conspiracy theories.” Marx, or anybody on the Left today that criticizes globalization or says that corporations have too much power and wield it to the detriment of everybody else thus get lumped into the same category as JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, UFO watchers, and Holocaust deniers. Except that misses the point that it power and exploitation don’t have to be the work of an actual cabal or back-room plotters to involve the cooperation of members of the upper class. The overall result is, in effect, class collusion; I don’t mean the technical legal definition of collusion here, but a bias against, and tendency to exclude, those not already in the club of the wealthy. 
In this excellent article, Gary Younge makes the point that family, connections, friendships, and mutual interest in maintaining privilege are ossifying class differences and entrenching the wealthy in their elevated positions. Family still matter tremendously in the concentration of wealth, especially in the United States, where social mobility is stagnating. And wealthy people tend to go to the same schools, attend the same clubs and conferences, go to the same cocktail parties, and most importantly inhabit the same corporate boardrooms. This is all that’s needed for de facto collusion to occur -- sometimes it’s not even intended, it’s just that the major decision-makers end up with the same outlook and mindset, or set out to protect their own, or do (what seems to them to be) reasonable favors for friends and acquaintances. 
Class privilege, and the power it confers, is often conveniently misunderstood by its beneficiaries as the product of their own genius rather than generations of advantage, stoutly defended and faithfully bequeathed. Evidence of such advantages is not freely available. It is not in the powerful's interest for the rest of us to know how their influence is attained or exercised. But every now and then a dam bursts and the facts come flooding forth.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cracks in the Austerity Agenda


With the victory of anti-austerity forces in both France and Greece yesterday signs are emerging that the tide is beginning to turn against the cruelty and economic insanity of the budget-cutting, belt-tightening neoliberal program. Much work remains, of course: France’s new President François Hollande must resist austerian pressures from Germany’s Angela Merkel and the European Central bank, while Greece has to determine whether it can even stay in the Eurozone, given the criminally callous demands that are being asked of its citizens. Paul Krugman today observed that this is a real advance, because the "Merkozy" austrity alliance between France and Germany is broken, removing one massive roadblock to Keynesianism. His prescriptive recommendation is also sound; while Krugman has always been partial to breaking up the Eurozone as a solution to the crises in its various countries, neglecting the negative long-term effects that would have on the critical project of European integration, he now that those negative consequences would be too great and offers an alternative: Germany and the ECB have to stop focusing on inflation and accept the need for stimulative expansionary monetary policy. That would be a good thing. 
The elections in France and Greece illustrated why European integration is so important: rabid nationalism is still a strong undercurrent in Europe and needs to be contained by the larger regional institutions. The elections both showed the dark underside of several years of economic crisis and failed austerity approaches: anti-immigrant, bigoted right wing parties had strong showings in both countries. The US is not immune from this, even through some American commenters like to hector Europe for its racism (always such a laugh coming from an America with its history of racist slavery, Jim Crow, and continued racial exclusion of blacks!). Further austerity will not only continue to fail as economic policy, it will threaten another round of ultra-nationalism. But note how Norway has, en masse, rejected the terror of it's own racist fringe in the resounding denunciation of Anders Behring Breivik. I will assert that there is an obvious connection between the Scandinavian model, which gives people economic security, and the rejection of racism; people are less subject to demagogic blaming of minority scapegoats when their lives are secure and prosperous. 
During the Cold War there was a group of French radicals who argued that we are faced with a choice between democratic socialism or barbarism: if the advanced nations do not all adopt the Scandanavian model, and push past it to start building real alternatives to competitive, exploitative, alienating capitalism, then we will ultimately descend, perhaps gradually but perhaps rapidly, deeper into savagery. People want to live good, meaningful, secure lives, and they want to contribute to making the rules by which they will live. That entails economic democracy, not our current oligarchy (which is democratic in name only).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Climate Change: Seeing It With Your Own Eyes


The scientific consensus that the climate is warming due to humanity’s activities has long been settled, and were it not for the conservative disinformation and propaganda campaign otherwise most people would concur with that consensus. It is, after all, based on the same scientific method that makes people’s TVs and cell phones and that gives them the blessings of modern surgery. But the changes in the climate are so gradual and the effects of our actions now occur so far down the road that this is an issue very vulnerable to ideological distortion. I’ve believed for many years that people will only start waking up to the reality of climate change, and be motivated to do something about it, when they can directly perceive the threat with their own senses and can see that it potentially threatens them and their loved ones. The outstanding environmentalist Bill McKibben notes here, while announcing a day of climate action this weekend, that the evidence is becoming too obvious to ignore: 
New data released last month by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities show that a lot of Americans are growing far more concerned about climate change, precisely because they’re drawing the links between freaky weather, a climate kicked off-kilter by a fossil-fuel guzzling civilization and their own lives. After a year with a record number of multi-billion dollar weather disasters, seven in ten Americans now believe that “global warming is affecting the weather.” No less striking, 35 percent of the respondents reported that extreme weather had affected them personally in 2011.  As Yale’s Anthony Laiserowitz told the New York Times, “People are starting to connect the dots.”
Whenever I point out to science-minded friends that we’ll get political action on climate change only when people personally experience it, they invariably say something off-balance like, “anecdotes are not evidence.” I find such responses to be really obtuse, frankly: we’re not trying to prove climate change any more, the data and numbers are all in and it’s real; we’re trying to convince people of the fact. And if it takes the evidence of their own senses to do that, how does that go against science, which claims the mantle of empiricism?"  
We have a common prejudice against rhetoric that goes back to Plato, who thought that reason was the only legitimate form of inquiry and that rhetoric was mere sophistry, consisting of lies and illusions. But Plato’s pupil Aristotle had a better take on it, I think: he argued that most people are not persuaded by reason alone, but that reason needs the help of rhetoric to make the truth real in the minds of the majority of people. Aristotle argued that, once you had proven something through reason, it was entirely legitimate and proper to use the tools of rhetoric, metaphor, poetics, and so on to persuade people of those already-established truths. Indeed, it wasn’t just legitimate to do so, it was morally obligatory to do so, to realize good more fully in the world.
I think that everyone who wants to heal our environment has a duty, in every conversation about climate change, to ask their audience, “Do you not see it with your own eyes? Do you not experience it in your own lives? The weather is weird; we have mild winters and early springs and more destructive hurricanes and tornados and floods. These are all the early signs of the climate disaster scientists have been predicting; if you don’t trust them, trust your own experience. It will tell you something is wrong.” That sort of approach appears to be the most effective, and if you care about the environment, it think it is a moral imperative that you use it. We don’t have much time left to make the changes needed to head off long-term catastrophe.