Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Taste of Ash

The economist Joseph Schumpeter said that the "essential fact about capitalism" is that it depends on a force that he called creative destruction.  It manifests as a constant restructuring and reallocation, as mergers and spin-offs, and these create and destroy production arrangements.  Sometimes what looks like a decision -- an abrupt clearing the chess board of all the remaining pieces and starting a new game -- is no decision at all.  Instead it was only the spasm of an ongoing slow-moving process of destruction.  

It is called creative destruction but it destroys far more than it creates.  It throws hard-working people out of their jobs.  It sows fear and constant anxiety among people who'd once had settled and predictable lives.  It tears down landmarks and builds up strip-malls in their place.

According to economist Ricardo Caballero, over 10% of existing jobs are destroyed each year, and about the same number are created in the following year.  People clear out their belongings, go home, sob and fret and sell their belongings.  They swallow their pride, learn new skills, and start again from the beginning.

I suspect that what ultimately doomed the Democratic Party was its refusal to so much as acknowledge the existence of a Second Great Depression.  (Former Fed Chairman Bernanke agrees with this assessment, source).  If the American people had been told, "you are not to blame for your suffering" then there would be less shame in poverty.  And if there had been less shame there would have been less anger.

We, the American people, have created a system based on ungoverned, rapacious capitalism.  This anarchic force has displayed some creative destruction today.  We may expect to see change in the months to come, and they will be unpleasant, but at the same time nothing has changed.  We have chosen -- through our complacency and inaction -- a form of government which is like a fire burning out of control.  It offers little by way of warmth or light, but is astoundingly efficient at producing smoke and ruin.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What Happened to the Party of Lincoln? Can We Get it Back?

The short answer is no.

And although I will be looking at what I see as a “bright spot” in his political message, let me be clear in stating up front that Mr. Trump is a thoroughly despicable, untrustworthy, and psychologically unhinged individual.

The Two Party System is almost certainly the two faces shown to the public by a single oligarchy.  The oligarchy benefits from providing the public with an illusion of choice.  The precedent for this is found in the former Soviet Union, where voters could choose between candidates but all of the candidates hewed to the same party line.  Evidence that the two parties share a single pro-oligarch agenda is ample, but some of the more salient examples are (1) the complete absence of political effort to overturn Citizen’s United, (2) the continuing favorable tax treatment of corporations, (3) policies which subsidize the replacement of American jobs with low-paid foreign labor, either through foreign outsourcing or “insourcing” immigrant labor to replace Americans, and (4) an unforgivably laggardly performance with respect to raising the minimum wage. 

Nonetheless, it is worth thinking about the possibility – however fanciful -- that, even within the constraints offered by the Two Party System, the will of the people might find expression.  The occasion for this musing is that question posed up front, “what happened to the Party of Lincoln?”
As even the casual student of history knows, the Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented was the anti-slavery party.  Lincoln’s adversaries were pro-slavery Democrats.  A series of unfortunate political events ensued.  In time, leaders of the Republican Party latched onto a “Southern Strategy” which relied on overt and covert race-baiting and racial antagonism to win the loyalty of White Southern voters.  The Democratic Party started to champion the aims of the Civil Rights Movement and leaders such as FDR, JFK and LBJ took concrete steps to address racial inequality, facing staunch resistance by Republicans. 

The Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented was also the party of Protectionism.  One of the more fascinating developments of the 2016 election cycle is the emergence of popular support for changes in policy to better protect American labor from the predations of low-cost foreign labor.  We saw this emerge among Bernie Sanders’ supporters and among Trump supporters.  We have also seen the political establishment rise up with startling ferocity to quash both of these candidates.  The Democratic Party turned against one of its own.  The Republican Party turned against one of its own. 
And yet, millions of Americans seem to have awaken to the fact that Protectionism is a good idea.  These same Americans are undoubtedly the Americans who have been most severely and most directly affected by the closure of American factories or by the resulting decline in the revenue of cities and states that have lost large numbers of jobs.

Sure, many learned academics have told us the Protectionism is folly.  They used to tell us that so-called “free trade” policies will ultimately benefit the American economy.  Nowadays, they are a little less willing to make that assertion, but they will say instead that “there is no alternative.”  If the United States is not on board with “free trade” and globalization, it will fall behind.  

The lie revealed: Globalization has not benefited U.S. GDP.

The big surprise of the 2016 election cycle has been the waking up of millions of Republican voters to the reality that “free trade” policies have harmed them.  Rank-and-file Republicans have the reputation of being staunch defenders of business interests and staunch defenders of the holy principle of “free market economics.”  They still are.  But they’ve clearly caught wise to the fact that “free trade” belongs in scare quotes.  It is a misleading label for U.S. trade practices.  It is a way of disguising the fact that trade agreements are earmarks for a small group of large, multinational corporations.  These large, multinational corporations are anathema to free markets because they are very simply the modern expression of Gilded Era trusts and monopolies.  Heads of said corporations also contribute lavish sums to certain effective, influential, and acquiescent politicians.  And so, mirabile dictu, it is on conservative-friendly sites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart that one sees expressions such as “crony capitalism.”  That’s the sort of turn-of-phrase that belongs in the mouths of persons who have studied Karl Marx and are smart enough to recognize that, for all the rubbish he said, Marx made some valid points.  

Rank-and-file Republicans appear to have evolved intellectually.  It’s sad to say that many Democrats – specifically, supporters of Hillary Clinton – have not shown a similar evolution in thinking.  Some of her supporters might have qualms about trade agreements but are content to believe Secretary Clinton when she tells voters reassuring things about her positions on foreign trade.  They’re more concerned with what they see as more pressing issues such as which bathrooms transsexuals are allowed to use.  Others among her supporters believe what the learned academics have been saying about the benefits of globalization.  They’re the ones who were shocked and appalled by the results of the Brexit vote (by the way, the powers in Great Britain are busily engaged in devising a strategy for overriding the will of the British voters who chose the Brexit source).  

The sticking point is race.  The ugly truth is that many Trump supporters are unabashed virulent Confederate flag-waving racists.  As long as the racists put a face on the Republican Party, the party that was once the party of Lincoln is doomed to failure.  The demographic reality is such that non-whites are becoming an increasingly large constituency and white, economically disadvantaged blue-collar Republicans will less and less of an impact on future elections.  As one republican leader pointed out with unusual candor, “The demographics race we're losing badly,” according to senator Lindsey Graham. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

The Republican Party of today is not a party that African Americans could ever embrace.  And maybe that’s for the best.  Today’s rank-and-file Republicans haven’t completely figured out crony capitalism, after all.  

Republicans came out strongly in support of projects such as Keystone XL based on the false idea that the oil flowing through that pipeline would have benefited Americans (in fact, that oil was intended for export to China).  Support for Keystone XL has a lot to do with the fact that many Red States are also states which benefit economically from the onshore oil extraction industry.  Just as blithe “keep the oil in the ground” sloganeering comes from blue states which do not benefit economically from the onshore oil extraction industry (there’s a lot to be said for keeping the oil in the ground, but that argument would probably be more effective if blue-staters acknowledged the fact that there are Americans whose livelihoods depend on oil extraction, and were prepared to discuss what to do about people whose livelihoods depend on that industry and who aren’t trained to do anything else).

A couple of pleasant surprises, but also more of the same-old.

Republicans also continue to adhere to the specious “small government is better” argument.  Now, to the extent that government is in the thrall of bankers and multinationals, I can’t be entirely unsympathetic to the idea of reining in government.  And yet, that Reagan-era slogan doesn’t hold water anymore.  Even the most basic and essential and uncontroversial of public services, such as clean drinking water and infrastructure maintenance, are imperiled because cities and states invested public money with Big Banks and are now impoverished by the usurious interest payments imposed by the likes of Goldman Sachs.  And because good-paying jobs are being systematically taken away from Americans, the old way of Republican thinking, “get a job and pay your own way” has lost its currency.  We need good schools now more than ever. 

Pardon my digressions.  The point is that the Democratic Party, of the two major parties, is in a very strong position to court and retain African American voters.  Moreover, there are millions of white voters who are passionately concerned about race relations and abhor the racism that is all-too-characteristic of the Republican Party.  

The tragic irony is that the Democratic Party answer to racial inequality is not all that effective.  African-American scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Sheryll Cashin have provided compelling arguments to the effect that affirmative action only benefits a relatively few African Americans – specifically, the handful who are (1) unaffected by neighborhood racial inequality (for example, the affluent African Americans who benefit from affirmative action for no good reason) or (2) somehow manage to overcome the adverse effects of neighborhood racial inequality and apply for college or apply for good-paying jobs, only to find themselves unprepared for success.  Nor can one seriously argue that fronting an African American candidate for president has ameliorated the problem of racial inequality in America.  But such is the desperation of the African American community that its members will respond with enthusiasm to even the emptiest of gestures on their behalf.

So, to answer my own question, the Party of Lincoln won’t come back until we as a people rediscover the courage of our Founders.  When the Founders were faced by oppression, they did not respond the way people usually respond to fear and anxiety.  They did not close their eyes.  They did not stop using their brains.  They did not bury their heads in mindless entertainments.  They stood up.  They took the measure of their oppressor.  They acted. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Annual Commemoration on the 15th Anniversary of the Events of 9/11.

“O Lord, give each person his own personal death.
A thing that moves out of the same life he lived,
In which he had love, and intelligence, and trouble.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke

This essay is meant as a commemoration on the anniversary of the tragedy which the world knows simply as “9/11.”  And the word “commemorate” comes from the Latin commemorationem, or “reminding.”  Perhaps it is strange of me to suggest that there is a need for reminding, in connection with an event that has become so thoroughly ingrained in our collective consciousness and our collective unconsciousness.  But not so strange if you came upon the news story of a San Antonio mattress store which, in a 9/11 themed television ad, showed two employees falling backwards into twin towers of mattresses.  No tragedy, no matter how grave and no matter how sacred, is safe against becoming kitsch.  And this is only one step away from forgetting. 

Above, I’ve shared Rilke’s prayer for death.  Rilke was a profoundly religious man, and saw death as a passage through which we reach our final audience with God.  Why did he mourn the loss of death?  Writing with the industrial revolution in mind, Rilke anticipated a mass-produced extinction taking the place of death. 

The social critic Theodor Adorno took up this theme.  He wrote, “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people.  Rilke's prayer … is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out.”  Adorno wrote of this in connection with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the harnessing of industrial efficiency to the aim of ending lives.  

An amateur artist named Willie Gardner created this about 10 years before 9/11/2001.

The spiritually-inclined among us, those who see value in all human life, regret that the events of 9/11 ushered in the so-called Global War on Terror, which, conducted by the United States, has been snuffing out lives for 15 years straight.  In many countries around the globe, this snuffing out occurs without the recipients receiving a fair trial or a right to appeal.  Government officials have admitted that some of these ended lives belonged to “civilians” or “bystanders.”  They won’t give the American people honest numbers on how many of the dead fall into this category. 

Those of us who are not so spiritually-minded have little sympathy to spare for the victims of the Global War on Terror.  News sources remind us every day that American drones stalk their prey in areas that are overrun by brutally violent psychopathic terrorists. 

It might be too difficult for us to push past the pain and rage that come to mind when we recall the Americans who were killed on 9/11.  It might be too difficult to separate the lurid image of the terrorist from the images of blameless children and wedding guests whose time on earth is ended by American armaments.  We may simply be unable to experience the weight of responsibility that comes with the robotized destruction of lives that has occurred over these last 15 years. 

We may be forced to concede that these sentiments require more of us than we are able to give.  Even so, it is still our responsibility to the victims of 9/11 to accept that we are witnesses to an era that has, through the miracle of technology, advanced beyond death.  And as a direct result, we have lost the right to claim that every human life is irreplaceable and invaluable.

Friday, June 10, 2016

George Orwell Commemorative Essay, 2016

In his 1943 essay “Who are the War Criminals?” George Orwell, a Briton, observed that members of Parliament clamored to put Benito Mussolini on trial for war crimes.  What made this peculiar to Orwell was the fact that the politicians who clamored the loudest had been, before the war began, lavish in their praise of Il Duce.      

Orwell quotes Winston Churchill, who in 1927 said to Mussolini: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism... [Italy] has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison.  Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against the cancerous growth of Bolshevism.”  

Mussolini in Libya
A second political leader in Great Britain, a man by the name of Lord Rothermere, also extolled Mussolini's efforts against international socialism.  Rothermere said, “In his own country [Mussolini] was the antidote to a deadly poison.  For the rest of Europe he has been a tonic which has done to all incalculable good.  I can claim with sincere satisfaction to have been the first man in a position of public influence to put Mussolini's splendid achievement in its right light ... He is the greatest figure of our age.”

Other political leaders feted Mussolini as well.  Lady Chamberlain, sister-in-law of the Prime Minister, was credited by some for her outspokenness in support of closer ties between Great Britain and fascist Italy.  She was joined by Neville and Austen Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, and other national figures whose names are no longer remembered.   

Years before Mussolini allied himself with Adolph Hitler, he’d displayed to the world what it meant to be a fascist.  When he invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), it was a clandestine act in defiance of the League of Nations.  His forces committed war crimes by using banned chemical weapons, throwing prisoners from aircraft, crushing prisoners beneath tank treads, and indiscriminately hoarding civilians into concentration camps.  

Mussolini’s concentration camps appeared in places such as Danane, Nocra and Benghazi.  “The prisoners were generally men suspected of resisting the Italian occupation army or women and children who lived in villages suspected of sympathizing with the resistance (source).”  For the most part, it was Arabs who were placed behind the barbed wire fences, fed starvation rations, and allowed to die from the infectious diseases that thrive in crowded, unsanitary spaces.  

The leaders in Great Britain knew these things but supported Mussolini all the same.  Orwell discerned that, for the moneyed few, nothing was as terrifying as the specter of Bolshevism.  In the minds of the oligarchs, if fascists did battle with communism they deserved support.  Orwell wrote, “The lords of property had decided that Fascism was on their side and they were willing to swallow the most stinking evils so long as their property remained secure. In their clumsy way they were playing the game of Machiavelli, of ‘political realism’ …”  
Orwell believed that “political realism” was both stupid and immoral.  It was stupid because, as events would soon show, British leaders could not rely on the loyalty or gratitude of a man like Mussolini.  For all the support they’d given him, Mussolini still chose to side with Hitler in a war of aggression against Europe.  

Chamberlain helped empower Mussolini
Speaking to the immorality of realpolitik, Orwell said, “the inability of the moneyed class to see anything wrong whatever in concentration camps, ghettos, massacres and undeclared wars” was a sign that the oligarchs had succumbed to “moral decadence.”  In this, Orwell’s views align with those of numberless Classical Republicans who have warned us since time immemorial of the corruption that arises when vast wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few.  A possessor of unearned wealth becomes too attached to the lifestyle that this affords, but cannot escape the nagging worry that the same societal quirks that arbitrarily assigned him this wealth could also take it away.

But for the British oligarchs, the warmth they felt for Mussolini wasn’t solely because he was enemy of their enemy.  The admired Mussolini as a man of action.  In Italy, he had crushed labor unions and peasant collectives.  His invasion of Abyssinia was an act of empire-building, something that British leaders could appreciate and something that they could hardly condemn.  

Mussolini was one of the early technocratic political leaders.  He had the values of a businessman.  As he once said, “The working of the State services must be made really efficient, whether it be by removing the bureaucratic management or by industrialization,” adding that the privatization of “postal, telephone and railway services” would be instrumental to achieving this aim.  He made the trains run on time.

From a certain point of view, even the draconian steps of building concentration camps and singling out broad swaths of the population for internment maybe seen as the bold moves of a man who is neither afraid of controversy nor hindered by delicately-tuned scruples. 

Even though his political aims benefited the moneyed elite, Mussolini was popular among ordinary working Italians.  He’d earned the reputation of being a straight-talker.  He attributed his own popularity to “telling upon every occasion and in every place the plain truth,” adding, “the more this truth is unpalatable the greater the need to speak it out.”  Members of the public yearn to be told unpleasant truths, once they've arrived at the point where they no longer trust the official pronouncements of establishment politicians and suspect that what is being kept from them is an honest discussion of the economic hardship they are already experiencing.

He was a nationalist, and for Italians wracked by poverty, his message was sorely welcome.  “We deny … internationalism, because it is a luxury which only the upper classes can afford; the working people are hopelessly bound to their native shores.”  

Another key to Mussolini’s popularity was his shrewd insight into the nature of politics.  He was not interested in developing policy positions or offering government programs.  In his own words, “Our program is simple: we wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs but there are already too many.  It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power.”  Mussolini did not offer the electorate an agenda but instead an attitude.  He derided “cowardly politicians.”  He opined that it is, “better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”  He praised the Italian people for the simple reason that they were Italian.  He bared his muscled chest before the people.  He married, and had affairs with, young and beautiful women.  He declared, “We do not argue with those who disagree with us, we destroy them.”  Ordinary Italians wished to live vicariously through him, and resolve the rage they felt after years of humiliating poverty. 

When the Tories were openly embracing Mussolini before the war, where were the liberals?  They spoke out with moral indignation, and reminded the public of Mussolini’s atrocities.  But their critique was half-hearted and received as an obligatory fault-finding with the views held by the opposing party.  The liberal view did not prevail until Italian bombs starting falling on British ships. 
Where did the conventional wisdom stand?  To address this point, it bears noting that Lord Rothermere, who openly consorted with Hitler and Mussolini, controlled the editorial content of the Daily Mail.  

Coverage of the Mussolini’s rise by the British press was mixed, ranging from a complete lack of recognition to mild disapproval. The Daily Telegraph’s December 30, 1922 yearly review of important world events did not even mention the Italian fascist coup.  The Times (London) of November 18, 1922 declared Mussolini a “masterful man,” whose, “programme bears the stamp of his strong character,” reflecting the Conservative view that Mussolini’s takeover marked the welcome end to Italy’s previous corrupt liberal government, and was on the whole a positive resolution to Italy’s dire political situation (source).
Although particularly venomous in his criticism of the Tories’ embrace of Mussolini, Orwell did not spare the liberals.  Just as the conservatives forgave Mussolini his crimes, many liberals forgave or chose to overlook Stalin’s crimes.  The Left, Orwell observed, “have been too easily satisfied with themselves.”  Their condemnation of the Tories was accurate, but their capacity for self-criticism was markedly deficient.  

Mussolini's thugs were known as "blackshirts."

“The attitude of the Left towards the Russian régime has been distinctly similar to the attitude of the Tories towards Fascism,” Orwell wrote.  “There has been the same tendency to excuse almost anything ‘because they're on our side’. It is all very well to talk about Lady Chamberlain photographed shaking hands with Mussolini; the photograph of Stalin shaking hands with [Nazi foreign minister] Ribbentrop is much more recent.”  In another essay Orwell observed that the “liberal intelligentsia is lacking.  Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion, and such truisms as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a ‘good’ man is squeezing the trigger ... have turned into heresies which it is actually becoming dangerous to utter.” 
He said, “If there is a way out of the moral pigsty we are living in, the first step towards it is probably to grasp that [political] ‘realism’ does not pay.”  

If we follow Mr. Orwell's logic, we may conclude that we never see the lies we believe.  So if we are leading blinkered lives, and we are unwitting adherent to a cult of bully-worship, what are the signs?  If our political leaders ally with tyrants and admire technocratic efficiency, if they've given up on moral suasion and diplomacy in favor of bombs and guns, these are our warning signs.  When these conditions exist, it is likely that our political leaders have become the agents of a small cadre of individuals who possess vast wealth and property, and are pursuing the aims of securing more wealth for these few individuals and defending their position of wealth and privilege against all threats.  Bully worship will only thrive when the will of the few is being imposed forcibly on the many.  It will wither away when the will of the people is respected.