Thursday, May 18, 2017

North Korea

Image result for north korea from space

North Korea appears as a black expanse of sea between neighbouring China (left) and South Korea (right) NASA/Reuters (The Independent, 2015)
The A-bombs—the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—were soon supplanted by hydrogen or H-bombs, whose destructive power was 5000 times greater. Scientists at that time warned that 10 such bombs dropped in key urban areas across the U.S. could obliterate much of the U.S, population, while reducing the country to an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare.
So writes Jeff Mackler in a Socialist Action (SA) article entitled Nuclear insanity: US threatens North Korea. Odd then that he's not bothered by North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

But he's not. Instead the nuclear villain is the United States.
Yet this insanity is routinely contemplated by U.S. imperialism’s chief representatives, whether they be Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump—none of whom has declared that the use of these doomsday weapons is unthinkable. To the contrary, President Obama authorized the development and production of a “modernized” nuclear weapons program at a cost of $1 trillion over the course of the next 30 years.
Nowhere does Mr. Mackler even mention North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program, which are obviously intended as offensive weapons. The US is certainly not going to reduce its own cities to "an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare." But Kim Jong-un has explicitly threatened that outcome on numerous occasions. For the moment he lacks the capability, but he is certainly working on fast acquiring it.

The Norks already have the power to reduce metropolitan Seoul (24 million people) to rubble. One supposes Mr. Mackler thinks that's a good thing.

He devotes only one paragraph to describing North Korea.
North Korea is once again in U.S. gunsights, including endless caricatures of the “boy dictator” head of state, Kim Jong-un, not to mention the never-denied U.S. cyberwar directed at North Korean military installations. (North Korea is ruled by a repressive Stalinist regime that oversees a fundamentally capitalist economy with the military bureaucracy at its center, but it is the task of the Korean people, not the United States, to overthrow it.)
The parenthetical comment is bizarre, to say the least. By what strange definition is North Korea a "fundamentally capitalist economy?" And were that true then why is Mr. Mackler and his ilk so strongly rising to its defense? However weird, that one sentence is the sole place in the entire piece remotely critical of the Kim regime.

Most of the article is a litany of American sins, beginning with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We're apparently exclusively responsible for ("Princeton educated") Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first postwar dictator, along with whatever massacres he committed. Then the Korean War was entirely our fault.
The insightful Washington, D.C. journalist I.F. Stone authored a valuable book, “The Hidden History of the Korean War 1950-51,” that refutes the U.S. McCarthy-era pretext that the Korean War began only with the invasion of 50,000 North Korean troops. Actually, the attempt by Northern forces to re-unify the country had great popular support in the South.
Of course the South Korean masses wanted nothing more than to be ruled by a bunch of psychopathic dictators. Only the USA prevented that utopian outcome from occurring.

The litany continues, with evil US imperialism spreading darkness over India, Guatemala, Philippines, Syria, and (of course) "the racist, colonial settler state of Zionist Israel." Nothing like a little antisemitism to spice up an article about Korea.

The Militant (published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) ) takes a very similar position on North Korea (albeit minus the antisemitism). Mary Martin, SWP candidate for mayor of Seattle (which position undoubtedly includes a North Korea portfolio) states the case plainly in the lede paragraph of her campaign statement.
The Socialist Workers Party calls for an immediate end to Washington’s economic and financial sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We demand that the U.S. government withdraw its more than 28,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula, and U.S. planes and ships from Korea’s skies and waters. We stand in solidarity with the more than 70-year-long struggle to reunify Korea, ripped apart by U.S. imperialism at the end of World War II, as well as the Korean people’s aspirations for a nuclear free Korean Peninsula and Pacific.
Then follows a brief recount of the litany described above, which concludes with this paragraph.
Washington’s campaign that North Korea get rid of nuclear weapons, and insistence that Tehran renounce them, is both cynical and hypocritical, to say the least. But the development of nuclear arms and delivery systems by these governments weakens the defense of the Korean and Iranian people against Washington. It saps the fighting capacities of the toilers in face of imperialism’s dictates, depriving them of the political and moral high ground in the eyes of working people worldwide. The leadership of 
Cuba’s socialist revolution provides an example to emulate.
Unlike SA's piece, this at least mentions the Nork's weapons program, and critically, too. Still, in any showdown between the US and North Korea it is pretty clear where the SWP will stand: Pyongyang.

Steve Clark wrote a 3-part series on Korean history originally published in 2013, and reprinted here. Unlike Mr. Mackler, he at least provides some source references for his conclusions, which means one can have a civilized discussion. But the litany is much the same--the US is singlehandedly and unequivocally at fault for any bad things that ever happened in Korean history since 1945. In his view the true history of the Korean peninsula has been kept carefully under wraps by the bourgeoisie and is only gradually coming to light. Indeed...
Aside from the pages of the Militant, one of the few places factual information could be found in those years, much of the truth about what had happened in Korea only began to come out under the impact of the fight for national reunification by the Vietnamese people in the 1960s and 1970s, and the worldwide movement against the U.S. war there.
Of course all this history is irrelevant. Most of it ends by 1960, with only a few riots and murders extending in the 1980s. But my Trotskyist friends are strong believers in by any means necessary, also known as the end justifies the means. By this measure we only need to look at what exists now, namely the picture at the top of this article.

Can any of my Trotskyist friends look at that picture and say, with a straight face, that the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea represents a path to human happiness and well-being?

Of course not! So that begs the question--why do they keep claiming that when it's so impossible to believe?

I think it's a very weird form of virtue-signalling. Both the SA and SWP proclaim themselves as radicals, and radicals necessarily must take radical positions. Their positions have nothing to do with happiness for the Korean people, but are entirely about reinforcing their self-image as bad-assed revolutionaries.

And as long as Kim Jong-un remains a remote figure in a hermit kingdom far away, they can get away with that. But if--may heaven forbid--there really is a war between the US and North Korea, and Seoul or even an American city is reduced to "an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare," then the political calculus becomes much different.

After all, nuclear destruction falls on the just and unjust alike--both bourgeois and proletarian.

I don't think the American people will look very favorably on grouplets that advocate mass murder of American citizens and the wholesale destruction of American cities.

Further Reading:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Louis Proyect and the Pro-Poverty Girl

In one of the small incongruities of our age Louis Proyect used to work for Goldman-Sachs, though unsurprisingly only for a short time. Nevertheless, he's on CEO Lloyd Blankfein's mailing list, receiving the annual missive to shareholders. To which Mr. Proyect responds with an open letter.

Goldman-Sachs is in the financial services industry. A brief account of what they do is presented on their webpage here. It is highly specialized. Just as the science literature is mostly opaque to people outside of the discipline, much of what Goldman-Sachs does is unintelligible to the layman. As Adam Smith pointed out over two centuries ago, specialization is a good thing. It creates more different kinds of jobs and more opportunities for trade. Indeed, specialization is the mark of rich societies--people working in large, deep, complex markets will be wealthier than those living in simple, subsistence-level economies.

Still, opacity leads to paranoia, and especially on the Left (but also on the Right), Goldman-Sachs has come to represent surreptitious villainy and corruption. That the firm's alumni populate the Trump administration is apparently proof-positive the fix is in. Without in any way excusing actual corruption  (which undoubtedly exists), I simply don't believe it is the major problem with our government, and I think these fears are way over-wrought.

Mr. Proyect objects that Goldman alumni Gary Cohn and Steve Bannon now hold high positions in the Trump administration. He just assumes that these gentlemen's ambition is solely to make the world right for Goldman-Sachs. In particular, he condemns them for supporting the repeal of Dodd-Frank.

I don't understand Dodd-Frank--it's a very complicated bill regulating an industry that is to me opaque. I don't think Mr. Proyect understands it either. But I have it on authority from people I trust that it is a highly intrusive, expensive, and vague set of rules that if completely followed would destroy most financial institutions. It is not followed, and is substantially unfollowable. It's purpose is to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis in 2008. Unfortunately, the world's next financial crisis will not remotely resemble 2008, and hence won't be prevented at all. So the primary effect of Dodd-Frank is simply to inhibit business and make people poorer.

Either way, men from Goldman-Sachs know more about Dodd-Frank than either me or Mr. Proyect. And they are no more in favor of a financial crisis than anybody else. So I'm generally inclined to defer to their judgment. Plus I distrust regulations--they hardly ever work as intended.

Then comes the quote that Mr. Proyect reports as being the takeaway:
(Mr. Proyect quoting Mr. Blankfein) Putting aside one’s individual politics, the outcome of the U.S. election raises the possibility of more stimulative tax and regulatory policies, as well as plans for more infrastructure spending. This represents a substantial change in direction for the U.S., and offers many investors and companies a reason for optimism.
So what is it that makes Mr. Blankfein optimistic? Obviously more money for Goldman-Sachs, but not only that. It also means more investment (in capital goods and equipment), more employees, more consumer products, and even more infrastructure. Why is this bad? Mr. Proyect give us a really silly reason:
A reason for optimism? My god, are you are out of your mind, Mr. Blankfein? Scientists have concluded that climate change is threatening a sixth extinction. You really need to read Naomi Klein or even watch Al Gore’s documentary. By seeing everything through the cash nexus, you are losing the thread.
We all know that Mr. Proyect loses sleep because of the apocalypse du jour. Yesterday's hypothetical disasters have conveniently been forgotten: an asteroid hitting the earth, a new ice-age, peak oil, nuclear war, a global pandemic, or perhaps a population explosion. Scientists, who have and will warn us about lots and lots of things that have never happened, are no better at predicting the future than common undergraduates. Mr. Blankfein--long familiar with failed financial forecasts--rightly dismisses such Luddite fever dreams.

(Mr. Proyect could have cited a truer criticism. If all the good things Mr. Blankfein lists are bought from borrowed money, then it probably is bad. For however much it helps us now, we'll have to pay it back in the future.)

But Mr. Proyect is not alone in his criticism. He has a powerful new ally: a little girl. Or at least the statue of a little girl who stands athwart the ambitions of Wall Street's bull in Lower Manhattan.
Image result for little girl statue wall street             Image result for little girl statue wall street

There she stands--in tailored dress and bespoke shoes--steadfast against wealth and prosperity. Odd, because she's as much a beneficiary as Mr. Proyect.

Perhaps these are her shoes, available from Zappos for $60.
Timberland Kids Ramble Wild Canvas Lace Chukka (Little Kid)
Or maybe she's a more petty bourgeois consumer--akin to Mr. Proyect--and shops at Saks Fifth Avenue, where these can be had for around $400.

I couldn't find her dress on-line (maybe I just don't know where to look), but it's obviously store-bought and fits perfectly. If it cost more than $100 I'd be astonished.

Little Miss Statue lives very well at low prices because of the miracle of modern capitalism. Facilitated in part by the people at Goldman-Sachs.

She is no more inclined to live off the land on an eco-friendly subsistence farm than Mr. Proyect is. The odd thing about her statue is that she doesn't have a cell phone. How many well-dressed little girls in Lower Manhattan do you see who don't own a cell phone? Even Mr. Proyect owns a cell phone! Personally I think she's just trying to fake poverty.

So here she is--she and Mr. Proyect--standing firm for poverty for everybody else besides themselves. Not on purpose, but just because they don't understand that a modern economy needs capital to be efficiently allocated. And such allocation is non-trivial--it requires many very specialized employees doing complicated jobs. What the little girl doesn't comprehend is that her shoes and her dress and her cell phone, along with the electricity at her house and the subway that brought her to Wall Street, all depend on finance (among many other things).

On second thought, maybe I give her too much credit. Maybe she knows all to well that her efforts will make the world poorer. Perhaps she's envious, or evil, or selfish, or stupid. I don't know. Whatever the case, there she is, standing fearlessly in front of the bull demanding her welfare check.

The bull knows what's going on. He's raging for a reason. He doesn't see a little girl. What he sees is the poverty devil in disguise.

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading: