Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Prison Health Care

Lynne Stewart, the "political prisoner" described in an earlier post, is ill. She has metastatic breast cancer, and while I'm not much of a doctor, I don't think the prognosis for that is very good. This really is too bad, because while I don't support her legal case, I respect her as a human being and don't wish that on anybody.

Socialist Action (SA) has an article on her case here, accompanied by a letter from Ms. Stewart herself. The facts, as I understand them from the article (it's a bit unclear), is that Ms. Stewart was operated on for breast cancer in New York (Sloan-Kettering) prior to going to prison. She was given a clean bill of health at that time. However, last October it was discovered (in prison) that the cancer has returned, and has now spread to both lungs, and possibly elsewhere.

Jeff Mackler, author of the SA article, argues that health care in prison is generally unsatisfactory. Further, Carswell prison (where Ms. Stewart is incarcerated) has a compassionate release policy that in principle would allow her to return to Sloan-Kettering for continued treatment. According to Mackler, "...officials insist that Lynne’s status as a well-known personality insures that she will receive adequate treatment, if not 'preferential treatment,' in prison."

Mackler condemns the prison for hypocrisy for giving Ms. Stewart special treatment because she is well known, but at the same time insists on special treatment for her by way of release to Sloan-Kettering. This argument doesn't make much sense--either she's due special treatment or not. The hypocrisy charge, if any, should be leveled against her defense committee--how many other prisoners have a defense committee?

Now I suspect that Mr. Mackler is correct in thinking that healthcare in prison is unsatisfactory. And I'm rather on his side there. Prisoners are wards of the state, and taxpayers have a moral obligation to tend to them properly. I'm much more sympathetic to the health needs of prisoners than I am to, say, the working poor. The latter are free people who can and should be expected to take major responsibility for themselves.

Indeed, on criminal justice issues I'm probably a Liberal. Some years ago heard a Bloggingheads dialogue with Mark Kleiman (I can't find the episode) that changed my thinking on these issues. Mr. Kleiman proposes a criminal justice system that seems to protect society, save money, and be compassionate all at the same time. On everything else I disagree with him--he's a Left-wing Democrat and I'm a Tea Party Republican--but here we're of one mind.

Ms. Stewart, in her letter, acquits herself well. She praises her "young woman oncologist." She is happy that a treatment plan is finally in the works, though she gently complains that it has taken a very long time. While she is tired of being escorted to doctor's visits in leg irons and chains, she is grateful for her guards' kindness. In a word, Ms. Stewart is much more generous in spirit than Mr. Mackler is. Not only is this the honorable thing to do, but it will earn her better treatment in the long run than if she is loudly critical of everything (as, e.g., Mumia abu-Jamal). Her defense committee may actually not be serving her very well.

While I do not support Ms. Stewart's legal case, and I do not consider her a "political prisoner," I do think everybody would be better served if she could be held in a less restrictive environment. It would save money and it would be gentler on her.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Marxism and EvoPsych

The ever-energetic Louis Proyect has three- recent- posts on Napoleon Chagnon's newest book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. Now he's way ahead of me--I haven't even read that book yet, much less all the reviews that Mr. Proyect covers. Nevertheless, I think Mr. Proyect's condemnation of evolutionary psychology (EvoPsych) is just wrong.

Mr. Proyect cites three major arguments. The first is his claim that EvoPsych is descendant from Social Darwinism in the 19th Century, and thus represents the reappearance of Nazi ideology in modern science. He says, for example,
Though academics are trained to explain away practically anything, I was shocked to see this article described by Chagnon supporters as having nothing to do with the racist theories so in vogue in early 20thcentury America and Nazi Germany.
Mr. Proyect asserts a syllogism:
Social Darwinism is bad.
All bad things are false.
EvoPsych is like Social Darwinism.
Therefore EvoPsych is false.
Only the first premise of the argument is true. Unfortunately, not all bad things are false, and the facile association of EvoPsych to Social Darwinism is also wrong.

EvoPsych and Social Darwinism agree on only one thing--namely that our brains are a product of our evolutionary heritage just as any other body organ is. Unless you're a religious fanatic this seems obviously true. But Social Darwinism went much further and said that Englishmen (to pick an example) were more "evolved" than, say, the Inuit. EvoPsych rejects that categorically. Given that we are all alive today and we have all had equal time to "evolve," there is no case to be made that  "primitive" people are less evolved than anybody else.

Indeed, EvoPsych makes precisely the opposite case--not only are we all equally evolved, but under the hood we are all very much the same. EvoPsych frequently talks about our "stone-age brains," i.e., despite our civilizational veneer we're human animals underneath.. Unlike Social Darwinism, EvoPsych does not study primitive tribes to learn about how we are different, but rather to learn about how we are all the same.

Mr. Proyect's comparison between Social Darwinism and EvoPsych is, I think, a slander, and can only be made by willfully ignoring the big differences.

Second, Mr. Proyect mocks Napoleon Chagnon's apparent fixation on sex. "I am surprised that Chagnon did not report that the shaman told him, “Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads!”. His impact on the tribes was, after all, quite broad." Not having yet read Chagnon's book, I can't judge whether or not he overstates the role of sex in their warfare, but one doesn't need to rely on Mr. Chagnon to see that sex is an important motivator for battle. Here are just a few salient examples:
  • Combatants are overwhelmingly male, and only rarely female. This appears to be human instinct, and strongly suggests a sexual motivation for fighting.
  • War and rape are inextricably linked. Go back and read Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul for some excellent examples. Or, failing that, consider the Yugoslav "rape camps," the horrific rapes in the Congo, the "rape of Nanking," or the 72 virgins promised to Jihadi martyrs, along with the occasional command from their officers to take Christian and Jewish women captive and turn them into concubines. Only for the most disciplined, modern armed forces (e.g., the US Marine Corps) is rape not a significant battle reward, but even there it happens.
  • Women are attracted to brave warriors. They are also attracted to athletes, who engage in a simulacrum of battle.
  • Military and political leaders, from Julius Caesar through Genghis Khan and Mao Tse-Tung have had hundreds or even thousands of concubines. Indeed, it is likely that everybody alive today is descended from Julius Caesar.
So is Mr. Proyect really going to insist that sex and warfare are unrelated phenomena? Mr. Chagnon's goal was to establish this link in our evolutionary past--not because the Yanomamo were "unevolved," but because they were relatively untainted. In other words, insofar as they were like us, they represent our common genetic heritage.

Finally, Mr. Proyect doesn't like Napoleon Chagnon. He thinks he's a bad guy. And here I tend to agree with him--Mr. Chagnon isn't a person I’d want to lend money to. (Tyler Cowen suggests that part of Mr. Chagnon's problem is his name: Napoleon. Nobody nice could have that name.) But again, this is arguing by flawed syllogism:

Bad people are always wrong. 
Napoleon Chagnon is a bad man. 
Therefore Napoleon is wrong.

I think EvoPsych is indisputably true on some level. Surely the brain is an evolved organ, and as such our behavior is also evolved. Like all other animals, we have instincts. Behaviors that all or most human cultures have in common are likely instinctive. So the goal is to discover what is common to the human animal, and what depends on culture or the environment. This is the motivation behind Chagnon's research--it was an attempt to uncover our common humanity. I don't know how successful Mr. Chagnon's project was, but Mr. Proyect's argument by slander is not convincing or helpful.

I'll end with some thoughts about the Marxist alternative to EvoPsych. First, like Social Darwinism, but unlike EvoPsych, Marxism is a political point of view. It aspires not just to interpret the world, but to change it. EvoPsych has no such ambition--it merely tries to understand the human animal better. Thus evolutionists are all over the map politically. Steven Pinker and Robert Wright are very much on the Left side of the aisle. I don't know Richard Dawkins' politics, but his radical atheism allies him with the Left. On the other hand, there are many Rightists who will categorically reject EvoPsych. Obviously some religious fundamentalists fall into that category, but so will well-known scholars such as Harvey Mansfield or Paul Johnson.

A key factor in scientific thinking is to separate scientific results from moral conclusions. Social Darwinism wasn't science because it made moral claims. EvoPsych makes no moral claims--it simply tries to describe who we are and how we got that way. Marxism has a long history of mixing moral outcomes with scientific results, egregiously with Lysenkoism. In his rejection of EvoPsych, this is precisely the error that Mr. Proyect has fallen into.

Marxism will have us believe that human evolution somehow stopped when human society separated into classes, and has played an unimportant role since then. This statement is clearly not true--human evolution has continued unto the present day--and likely even accelerated. This is an indisputable empirical fact. Similarly, that our brain is an evolved, biological organ is simply a fact--it cannot be wished away by saying that culture or economic class consciousness trumps all.

At best, Napoleon Chagnon's life's work contributes a rich source of data toward our understanding of human nature. I tend toward that view, but not having yet read his book I really don't have a strong opinion. But the laws of evolution predate Mr. Chagnon by at least a century, and the evidence in favor of EvoPsych in some form is overwhelming, even if Mr. Chagnon turns out to be a complete fraud.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

63rd & Halsted

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party, back in the early 70s, we used to go on Saturday morning Militant sales to the neighborhood shopping center at 63rd & Halsted, the heart of the Englewood neighborhood. Some of you may remember Pearl Chertoff--she accompanied me on many of those outings. We did this year round, but I remember it being very cold and windy, as if it were always January.

Many 20-year-olds have done stupider things than sell Militants at 63rd & Halsted, but few have done anything sillier. Folks must've thought I just stepped out of a Monty Python skit. I cringe at the memory, and have not told my wife or children about it. I was a lousy newspaper salesman. I think in two hours I'd sell three or four papers at 25 cents each--hardly enough to cover gas or car fare, even in those days.

In my old age I'm a bit more tolerant of my former self. However silly the reason, and unlike my children, I at least have spent some time in a poor, Black neighborhood. I know more than they do about poor places. So in that spirit, let me tell you briefly about what happened to me in Englewood.

  • Nobody called me "honky," or any other nasty name.
  • Nobody called me a "dirty Commie," even though I was both.
  • Nobody robbed me, or tried to rob me.
  • Nobody hassled me or threatened me.
  • Nobody slashed my tires.
  • Nobody tried to sell me drugs.
  • Nobody joined the Stupid Socialist Workers Party.
In short, my time at 63rd and Halsted was boring. The people were invariably polite and friendly. I think the few who actually bought a paper did so more out of charity than anything else. For they were a big-hearted people with friendly smiles, who were much more generous toward me than I was toward them.

I drove by the corner a few years later--must have been mid-80s--and found that all the stores were abandoned and boarded up. I haven't been back since, but I doubt it's gotten better. Englewood has earned a new status as the murder capital of America. This is really sad.

What brings this to mind is the Paul McKinley for Congress campaign. In his intro video, Mr. McKinley says "I believe in prosperity." Well, I can just hear his critics scoff. Doesn't everybody believe in prosperity? they ask. How trite can you get.

No, everybody does not believe in prosperity. In fact, among the political class ("The Machine" in Mr. McKinley's Chicago-style formulation) few people believe in prosperity.
  • Those numskulls who fought for a 9% sales tax certainly don't believe in prosperity. No wonder all those stores closed.
  • The folks who think schools exist for the benefit of their patronage employees instead of for children don't believe in prosperity.
  • The people who spent 30 years fighting Walmart definitely don't believe in prosperity. I hear Walmart finally opened up at 87th & the Dan Ryan. I certainly hope that's true. They certainly got no help from the patronage-driven, anti-prosperity crowd.
  • The Sinaloa drug gangs, who decided they'd rather fight it out in the streets of Chicago than in Juarez. Where ever they fight, they don't believe in prosperity.
  • Mayor Emanuel, who at very least is too much of a coward to take on the gangster/patronage interests who don't believe in prosperity. I guess they don't call him "The Godfather" for nothing.
So Mr. McKinley is unique among Chicago pols, which is why this webpage endorses him enthusiastically. Still, Mr. McKinley, you need to show us you believe in prosperity. I'll give you a couple of years after you take office, but then I'm going back to 63rd & Halsted, and I'm bringing my family with me. This is what I want to find:
  •  A grocery store.
  • A discount store, like the Dollar General that's in my neighborhood.
  • A good place for lunch. And if they serve good fried chicken I'll be back in Englewood every chance I get.
  • A local gift shop. For my immigrant wife, and even for my kids, a neighborhood like Englewood will be exotic. My wife will want to buy some souvenirs and local handcrafts, talk to some locals, and learn something.
  • Kids on the street. I don't mean gangster kids. I mean little kids playing, or walking home from school.
  • A cop on the corner.
  • If you really want to put on the Ritz for us, put in a store like TJMaxx or something. There used to be a Goldblatt's there, so this isn't really impossible.
As I say, I'm bringing my wife and kids. I'm a big tipper, and my wife loves to shop. We'll spend money. But here's one better. The primary election is Tuesday a week from today. If you contribute to the McKinley for Congress campaign right now, then lunch is on me. Just take the Englewood train to the end of the line and I'll meet you at the station.

We believe in prosperity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Media: Socialist Action's Second Best Friend

This is Part 2 of a series on Trotskyism and the New Media. Part 1 is here.

I have some up-close and personal experience with Socialist Action's web page. Some years back--don't recall quite when--I noticed they allowed comments on their site. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought. I can communicate with my old colleagues, engage in political conversation, and who knows, maybe even enlighten a comrade or two.

So I started commenting on the site, and worked hard to be a good citizen. It is from this experience that the rules for Trotsky's Children have evolved: be polite and respectful, take my interlocutors seriously, avoid ad hominem attacks, and stay away from meaningless, fighting words such as fascist or racist. I aspired--then and now--to be a friendly critic.

Did I always follow my rules? No--I confess I didn't. There was one post in particular--a comment on a report of their convention--that was so full of sarcastic snark that one couldn't have seen it as friendly. (Really--Marxists can so easily descend into self-parody that it's impossible to resist.) Still, by and large I stuck with the program.

My very first comment--on North Korea--garnered precisely the response I'd hoped for. One comrade simply wrote "F*** North Korea," which are my sentiments precisely. But after that initial success, I never received any feedback. Not that I'm surprised--the Party asked comrades not to honor me with a response, and they complied. The Socialist Workers Party in my day would have done exactly the same thing.

They let me comment more or less freely for the first couple of years, deleting only a few remarks. But then I guess I pushed one hot button too many and more of my posts got deleted. Eventually they instituted comment moderation and most of my remarks were never published. Accordingly, I stopped writing them and started this blog instead.

The latest incarnation of their website--now a few months old--doesn't allow comments at all. This, in my view, is a big mistake.

Indeed, when I first started posting and discovered that my comments weren't immediately deleted, I foolishly assumed that they welcomed my attention. I guess I'd been out of the Movement for too long and have read too much about how controversy drives web traffic. But Socialist Action has not gotten that message. I think this is symptomatic of a fatal flaw in the Leninist concept of a Vanguard Party.

The web devalues Grand Poobahs. In the old days you needed access to a printing press in order to be read. The New York Times editorial board, for example, had great power--they were the gatekeepers to an expensive resource. In the old days, when I was in the Party, we used to say we were unknown because we didn't have the resources of the bourgeois media. There was some truth to that then, but none at all now.

Now the problem a budding Vanguard Party has is, while it is not now a Grand Poobah, it aspires to become one. That is, Socialist Action (along with The Militant) doesn't just want to abolish the New York Times, but rather to replace it. Thus as the Internet corrodes the New York Times, it also destroys the ambitions of a Vanguard Party.

As we showed in Part 1, The Militant has essentially abandoned any such ambition. It has put its head in the sand and is just a weekly newspaper, a copy of which can also be found on the web. The Militant makes no effort to go web-native.

Not so with Socialist Action. They are trying very hard to use the Internet effectively. I can't recall when Socialist Action last had a print subscription drive. Indeed, the print edition looks more like a fund raiser than a way to get the word out. The real action takes place on the web. Here are some of the creditable things they are doing:

  • The web page is regularly updated--at least every couple of days. The fact that the print edition only comes out monthly no longer determines the schedule.
  • The site looks like a political site. It has headers that include "Donate," "Join," and "Contact Us." Perhaps revealingly, it lacks a "Get Involved" tab.
  • The page has icons for Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and Youtube. In other words, they want to be part of the conversation.
  • They advertise events. They really do want their readers involved with what they do.
So why don't they allow comments? Surely, if you want to be a center for political discourse, such as the Daily Kos, or RedState, or the Huffington Post, you have to give comments a big slice of the pie. Those sites are political organizing tools because they get their readers involved and talking to each other. By forbidding comments altogether, Socialist Action undoes everything it is trying to accomplish elsewhere on its site.

Of course, despite my best efforts at a friendly tone, Socialist Action will never regard me as a friend--we're on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I understand that--and deep down, they're not my friend, either. But they still should have been very happy when I started commenting on their website. And there is nothing wrong if comrades answer me back. After all, if they can't deal with me, how do they plan to lead a world revolution?

I am, in fact, their second-best friend. I read what they write, I take it seriously, and I spend time engaging them in conversation. That cannot hurt their cause. It doesn't hurt my cause either--I will be more widely read if comrades argue back. Controversy drives traffic. Traffic is what makes a web page important. Comments distinguish a successful web page from a dead-tree newspaper.

It's a little harder for them now that I have my own blog. I've attracted my own readers from the Right side of the aisle, along with Leftists from outside Socialist Action. Still, when somebody (anybody) reads your paper, takes it seriously, and drives traffic to your site, simply ignoring him is just dumb. They can't let their entire organization be turned into an anti-Dan King blog, but an occasional comment or article from them will do both of us good.

It used to be that a group of people--say in a Vanguard Party--could multiply their effectiveness by banding together and speaking with one voice. That's just not true anymore. Now, one voice is just one voice--regardless of how many people it represents. The web encourages multiple voices, even if they coalesce around certain ideas, such as socialism. By rigidly forbidding comrades from commenting on my site, or from having their own blogs that express their individual opinions (perhaps not always the Party Line), Socialist Action hugely reduces its effectiveness.

A blog roll is one important thing that's missing from the Socialist Action web page (the short list of links notwithstanding). Not only do they not like their second-best friends, they don't even like their first friends. They can't read anybody's opinion besides their own. In true Vanguard Party style, they act just like a Grand Poohbah wannabe.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Campaign Contributions

I'm jinxed when it comes to campaign contributions. In 2008 I donated money to Rudy Guiliani--a couple weeks later he dropped out of the race. In 2012 I gave money to Herman Cain--and look what happened to him. I refused to contribute to the Romney campaign, partly because he was so uninspiring, but mostly because I wanted him to win.

Anyway, I'm trying it one last time--I just contributed to a Republican running for Jesse Jackson Jr's seat in Chicago. His chances of winning are about zero, and I'm probably not helping any. But I can't resist. I'm a sucker for courageous people who struggle against long odds and try to do good in the world. After my recent post about Mumia Abu Jamal, this guy is just a breath of fresh air. Anyway--here's his Youtube introduction.

If you can send him a dollar or two you can't go too far wrong. And if by some fluke you live on Chicago's south side (I used to live in Hyde Park), then please get out the vote. His politics (which I totally agree with) are described more fully on his webpage,

Update: h/t LegalInsurrection

Update 2: Here's an even better video:

Update 3: A follow-up post is here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Expletive Deleted

A recent post entitled Eric Alterman: What an (expletive deleted) is authored by an otherwise knowledgeable and talented writer that I've frequently linked to in the past. He'll remain nameless here so as not to engender unfortunate associations from search engines. In a word, I am shocked that he requires scatological profanity to make his point. Why?

I associate written profanity with stupid people possessed of small vocabularies. That description definitely does not suit Mr. P. So there is something else going on here--I don't really know what it is. Does Mr. P have some sort of mild mental disorder that causes needless use of profanity, some pale version of Tourette's syndrome? If that were true we could just ignore it--it's a very minor problem. But unfortunately he's not unique.

I think profanity is common on the Left side of the blogosphere. Even some of the best writers in the business (I'm thinking of Violet Socks over at Reclusive Leftist) can't seem to resist the meaningless expletive. And then there's the famous case of Amanda Marcotte--clearly a very talented young woman--who was picked to assist John Edward's presidential campaign. The job offer foundered on her compulsive use of utterly vile language, to the point of being pornographic. And then comments on The Daily Kos, or even, are absurdly vicious.

This feature seems to distinguish the Left-o-sphere from the Right-o-sphere. Now there's enough snark and stupidity to go around on both sides--the world's not running out of any of that. But profanity is highly concentrated on the Left. Again, I don't really know why. Is it supposed to be shocking? Well--it is. I continue to be shocked that otherwise intelligent people degrade themselves with gutter talk.

I learned my polemical skills from the Socialist Workers Party, and they did me a good turn. I have been reading The Militant for nigh 44 years now (unbelievable!), and never once do I recall them ever using the f-bomb. Or refer to feces. Or call a woman a c**t or a man a d**k. Nor are people they disagree with associated with a piece of toilet paper. The people who run The Militant are civilized people.

I hate to quote Abraham Lincoln on rules for blogging. He certainly had something much more consequential in mind for his second inaugural. But these words pithily express the preconditions for civilized discourse:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book Review: Here's The Deal

David Leonhardt's book Here's the Deal is well worth reading. For the $1.99 Kindle price you can't go wrong. It is a short, informative introduction to the federal budget deficit, along with some suggestions about how to fix it. Most of what he says is correct--it's what he doesn't say that is greatly mistaken. Mr. Leonhardt is the Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Times.

As Mr. Leonhardt amply demonstrates, the budget deficit in and of itself is not a big deal. It amounts to about 5% of GDP, a tractable if painful sum in our current economy, and an easy hurdle in circumstances of strong, economic growth. The book ultimately agrees with Mr. Obama and argues that some combination of tax increases and entitlement cuts is the solution.

He faults both Democrats and Republicans for political cowardice. Neither party levels with the American people and tells them that some long-term sacrifice will be necessary to solve this problem. The Democrats simply over-promise, touting a political program that in this blog we mock as "free unicorns for all." The Republicans--who come off worse in Mr. Leonhardt's account--are guilty of a tax fetish, and unreasonably claim that any increase in taxes starts us down the slippery slope toward catastrophe.

Within the purely fiscal argument that Mr. Leonhardt makes, his criticism of the Republican position is correct. There is no way that increasing tax rates from 35% to 38% is going to ruin the economy. And he makes an argument (that I don't know enough to disagree with) that taxes as a percent of GDP are now at record low and that we can afford to raise them slightly.

But his argument ignores the primary reason why Republicans (or at least us Tea Party types) oppose higher taxes. That is, we believe in limited government as a matter of principle, and that the federal government has no constitutional right to be in the entitlement business at all--independent of economic arguments. Now he'll accuse us of being "constitutional fetishists" rather than anti-tax fanatics, and note that the world has surely changed since 1789. Fair enough--most notably life expectancy is now around 80 instead of 35 (or whatever it was), making social security and (probably) Medicare necessities. And those are faits accompli--no serious political thinker believes those programs should be abolished.

But apart from life expectancy, the world has not changed that much. Basic political morality certainly has not changed. Government tyranny--even the well-intentioned tyranny imposed by forced income redistribution--is as immoral today as it was 224 years ago. It is instructive that Mr. Leonhardt hardly mentions Obamacare. I don't blame him--it is still not possible to calculate the damage it will do to federal and state budgets, not to mention our constitutional rights.

Mr. Leonhardt argues that there is no fiscal crisis. In his view, covering 5% of GDP over the next couple decades is a tractable problem. Maybe he's right. But if so, then why is the Federal Reserve printing $1.2 trillion annually? Why is it so important to keep interest rates at or near zero? Would Mr. Leonhardt be as sanguine about the federal deficit if interest rates were to spike to 6%, or 8%? By viewing the federal deficit as a long-term problem, Mr. Leonhardt misstates the issue. He is correct--long term it is tractable. But the problem is short term. The issue is that debtors are very much at the mercy of who is lending them money, and if the creditors change their minds and call in their loans, then all hell breaks loose. And that's the problem.

The federal government depends on low interest rates, but this greatly distorts the economy. It is arguably responsible for the real estate bubble, it is probably leading to a bubble in asset prices right now, and it is totally screwing anybody who is trying to save for their own retirement. In a word, it results in a huge misallocation of resources--people investing in things that simply don't make any sense. Student loans come to mind--what a phenomenal disaster that is. It will literally ruin the financial lives of millions of young people and their parents because the money is priced arbitrarily cheaply. Free unicorns for all.

Mr. Leonhardt discusses education and medical care in some detail. His argument is that our investment in education from 1950 through the 1980s was extraordinarily successful (no disagreement there), and therefore we need to keep investing money. That latter clause is completely wrong, and as a college professor and former college administrator this is something I know something about. Mr. Leonhardt has apparently never heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Regards higher education, not only are the returns diminishing, they are completely non-existent.

The key task confronting higher education today is to lower the cost to students and taxpayers without lowering the quality of education. This is possible both because of new technology, and also because of large reservoirs of accumulated waste. College education is too long, involves too many mediocre faculty, way too many college administrators, and no longer meets the needs of the modern world. Briefly, it's an example of massive resource misallocation. Mr. Leonhardt, by advocating that we spend even more money on this Rube Goldberg contraption is simply enabling waste. Higher ed will employ far fewer people in the near future, require less time and money from students, and be much more effective.

I'm much less knowledgeable about the medical industry, and can't cite line and verse like I can with higher education. But I suggest that the only way to lower medical costs is to lower medical costs. That is, to sharply reduce employment in that industry by taking advantage of technology and eliminating accumulated waste.

In summary, Here's The Deal is a very good, short introduction to the federal deficit, and is well worth reading. On narrow fiscal issues I think it is correct (as far as I know). But broaden the picture just a little bit and Mr. Leonhardt's proposed solutions fall apart.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Trotskyism & New Media

This is Part 1 of a series. Subsequent posts will look at Socialist Action and Socialist Viewpoint.

Update: Part 2 is here.

Ever since 1900 when Lenin founded the newspaper Iskra, Marxist parties have put great emphasis on the revolutionary press. Indeed, in those days when print media were expensive and rare, the concept of democratic centralism made sense. The Party press should print only the point of view of the entire organization, and not serve as a forum for internal discussion. These principles crystallized in the popular imagination with newspapers such as Pravda and The People’s Daily, often dubbed “Party organs,” or “government mouthpieces.”

The founding Trotskyist group in America, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) published The Militant with the same purpose--to represent the unified voice of the Party. Similarly that was the mission behind Pathfinder Press, even now the leading publisher of Trotskyist literature.

In 1998 Mary-Alice wrote

One thing that impressed them [Cubans] the most was something I did not expect. One person asked, "Do you have your own print shop?" When we answered, "Yes," her response was, "Well, that explains a lot. It would be hard to do this without your own shop." Many publishers in Cuba share the same presses. When acute paper shortages and equipment breakdowns are added to the equation, they have to make many painful decisions on who gets priority press time for which titles.

In the interim, the Party has dismantled the print shop and sold off the building. The Militant is now posted on-line, with digital issues available back to 1995. And no longer are “acute paper shortages and equipment breakdowns” responsible for painful decisions about what gets published, certainly not in the US. Anybody can publish anything, essentially for free.

And that’s the problem. Even the bourgeois press, such as the New York Times (NYT), no longer has a meaningful business model. Publication is now so cheap and so available that talented individuals can outdo the circulation of august institutions such as the NYT--witness Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington. The money to be made in news publication is dropping to zero. While The Militant is not motivated by money, it confronts the same problem.

The Militant suffers from the Internet in three significant ways. First, it devalues their brand. In print, The Militant has a product far better than anything somebody like me could produce--I am not willing to invest in my own print shop. But on the web, The Militant becomes just another website--in no way distinct from my website. We are both essentially competing for eyeballs, and the fact that The Militant has an 85 year history behind it is just irrelevant. If I can generate content that successfully attracts Militant readers, then I win. That’s how Drudge & Huffington are putting the NYT out of business.

Second, it disaggregates their content. I still read The Militant (even though I haven’t seen a print copy in many years) by starting on their homepage and checking the articles that interest me. I don’t read the NYT that way--instead I come across NYT articles from outside. I click on them from the DrudgeReport or from RealClearPolitics. Because I’m not willing to pay for an NYT subscription, I no longer have access to the wisdom of the NYT editorial board. I read their articles in a disaggregated way. That may be the way you read The Militant. Instead of going to their homepage, you may only read the articles to which I provide links. In other words, I become your editor--The Militant’s editors are out of the loop.

And finally, the web is intrinsically interactive. A recent column by Tom Friedman has 267 comments. The NYT advertises “follow us on Twitter.” A measure of success of any web page is how many comments they get, or how many Twitter followers they have. A successful web page (not yet this one) has an extensive blogroll--a call-out for dialogue with other people. The Militant doesn’t allow comments. Indeed, its web edition is just a copy of the print edition--there is no effort to make it web native.

So how has The Militant responded to this changed set of circumstances? Not well--they display head-in-the-sand obtuseness. If there is one single, catalyzing event causing the decline of the SWP, it is that they have been unable to find a way to deal with new media. To see just how spectacularly the Party has failed in that regard, go back and read Mary-Alice’s article linked above.

I think the new media puts the whole concept of democratic centralism into question. A web site is ultimately a discussion forum, not a place to expostulate from on high. One can’t host a discussion if you insist that everybody has to agree with you in advance. The Militant can’t tolerate any disagreement--none at all--so conversation with them is impossible. Accordingly, almost nobody reads or links to their web site. And The Militant rarely links to anybody else’s website, either--they live in a self-contained universe.

Extrapolate this to social media. What are Comrades supposed to do with something like Twitter? Simply retweet the Party Line? How boring (and counterproductive) can you get. A Comrade who erroneously tweets a falsehood about our position on pre-war Croatia might get away with it. But what about the post that starts “The Party position is...,” which might imply that the tweeter doesn’t totally agree with the Party. Should they be promptly expelled? This is never going to work. Predictably, The Militant has no presence on social media web sites at all.

Instead, the Party concentrates on selling subscriptions to the print edition! To be sure, this is totally safe, but otherwise just nuts. It renders the Party completely irrelevant to anybody under age 40--people who came of age in a twitter/facebook world. It turns the Party into an apolitical organization that exists primarily for the psychological comfort of its own Comrades.

Back in the day, when staffing literature tables, we were frequently asked what was the purpose of the revolutionary party. “We know how to run the mimeograph machines” was often part of the answer. That is, the Party collected expertise necessary to organize and guide a mass movement, both politically and practically. And I’m certain that today’s Comrades--mostly sixty-plus--still know how to run mimeograph machines. The problem is they haven’t learned any new tricks.

This was all brought home to me in 2006. Recall the mass demonstrations (hundreds of thousands of people) by Mexican immigrants for less stringent immigration enforcement. Large numbers of high school students simply left their schools to participate. This was all organized by cell phone--today we would call it a flash mob, though that term had not been invented yet. Nobody ran any mimeograph machines. The Militant knew nothing about this demonstration until after it was over--they were completely out of the loop. What kind of vanguard Party is that? This is what happens when you cut yourself off from dialogue and discussion--nobody pays any attention to you.

Except me.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


There are two so-called "political prisoners" that all the Trotskyist grouplets I follow champion: Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Lynne Stewart. My primary sources of information about both these cases come from Socialist Viewpoint, Socialist Action, and The Militant, in approximately that order of importance.

Mumia, a long-time Black activist involved earlier with the Black Panther Party, was convicted of the 1981 murder of policeman Daniel Faulkner. He spent 30 years on death row until the sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. His case is now finally settled--he has few if any avenues of appeal left open. The original trial apparently was something of a circus. Mumia started by defending himself, but being obviously incompetent as a lawyer he was assigned an attorney. Subsequently he claimed (perhaps with justification) that the judge was racist and that the jury was all white. Multiple levels of appeal have not found cause to overturn the conviction--the only real matter of dispute was whether the death penalty should stand.

Lynne Stewart was a progressive civil rights lawyer--somebody who in the old days would have at very least been known as a "fellow traveler." She defended the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman in his trial on charges related to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Mr. Abdel-Rahman was convicted, and because of his terrorist connections was placed under "Special Administrative Measures," designed to restrict his communication with conspirators outside. Ms. Stewart was arrested on assisting Mr. Abdel-Rahman in violating those measures, and eventually convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Both of these figures proclaim their innocence. Mumia just flat-out says that he's innocent, without in anyway seeking to rebut the evidence against him. Ms. Stewart maintains that she simply acted as a good defense attorney, and that in any case the Special Administrative Measures are an unconstitutional infringement on her rights of free speech and freedom of association.

Now there are innocent people in jail. Indeed, there is a worthy organization known as the Innocence Project that is dedicated to freeing as many of them as possible. (Neither Mumia nor Ms. Stewart are on their list of clients.) Most innocent prisoners are victims of busy prosecutors, lazy cops, vengeful witnesses, tired  jurors, and overworked, incompetent public defenders. Sammy Jones and Johnny Smith are not convicted after due process, but more likely they just fell through the cracks of a creaking and overworked criminal justice system.

How different this is from the cases of Mumia & Stewart. While Mumia turned his own trial into a farce, the case has been thoroughly reviewed in the subsequent thirty years of appeals. Likewise, Ms. Stewart (who clearly had competent counsel) has had multiple reviews of her case, and has lost every appeal. Unlike the clients of the Innocence Project, this pair has due process coming out the wazoo. I suppose there is some mathematical chance that they're innocent, but I think the odds of that are vanishingly small.

So what is it that makes these political prisoners? Both of these people claim that they, uniquely, are targets of government repression--somebody is out to get them. Mumia talks about the "Mumia exception to the constitution." Unlike the pedestrian injustice cataloged by the Innocence Project, this (according to their defenders) is a purposeful, conscious rigging of the system to "railroad" brave people to jail. In a word, it's a conspiracy theory.

For thirty years, Mumia has loudly and consistently proclaimed his innocence. I think he actually believes he's innocent, but then I think he's a psychopath. Now I've never met the man, nor am I a clinical psychologist, but he certainly shares some characteristics common with psychopaths. First, psychopaths always think they're innocent--by definition they have no conscience and thus are incapable of feeling guilt the way normal people do. Mumia's claim of innocence is not that he didn't commit the murder, but rather that there was nothing wrong about murdering the guy, and he shouldn't be in jail for it.

Second, psychopaths tend to be superficially charming and charismatic. Mumia definitely fits this category--supporters and do-gooders who visit him come away charmed (see here, for example). And there is no doubt that he is a talented man. Early in his criminal career he was introduced as a poet, as if poets couldn't be guilty of murder. He clearly knows how to write, and has acquired a considerable education. But I hazard that people who know him better--guards and other prisoners--have learned not to trust him at all.

Finally, Mumia has never shown any remorse. He has never reached out to the family of the victim, nor ever asked what he could do to make amends. Truly innocent people are frequently very remorseful, and try very hard to convince the victim's family that they really are innocent. Mumia has done nothing of the sort.

Ms. Stewart, certainly not a psychopath, thinks she's above the law. Now it may be that the Special Administrative Measures are unconstitutional, or that our government is asserting too much power in the fight against terrorism. But Ms. Stewart's status as a defense attorney does not give her the right to simply ignore these laws. The state depends on competent defense attorneys, and Ms. Stewart is to be commended for her full-throated defense of Mr. Abdel-Rahman. She made the difference between a real trial and a kangaroo court. Nobody has any interest in "railroading" her to jail for defending her client. But it's one thing to defend accused bank robbers in a courtroom; it's quite another to help them rob banks. It's the latter that she is convicted of doing, and for this she deserves to be in jail.

A political prisoner, properly understood, is somebody jailed because of their opposition to the regime. By this measure, neither Mumia Abu-Jamal nor Lynne Stewart are political prisoners. They should not be defended as such.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Where The Customer Always Comes Last

This article is about the so-called "wildcat" strike described by Laura Gottesdiener in the current issue of Socialist Viewpoint. The immigrant (Mexican) staff won union representation at a New York City bakery called Hot & Crusty.

The villains include a venture capital firm (worth $700 million, but no context given), and the managing partner, a white South African (must be a really evil guy) who lived around the corner from the shop. Then there's a part for the restaurant's landlord.

The hero is an illegal Mexican immigrant by the name of Mahoma Lopez (photo here). Mr. Lopez reports that the workers were regularly mistreated--wages withheld, subjected to verbal abuse, and in general not employed in compliance with labor laws. Given that the employees were mostly illegal immigrants, this may very well be true.

So Mr. Lopez organized a campaign for higher wages and working conditions, with help from the National Labor Relations Board. The employees won back pay, but the response of the owners was simply to shut the store down. The workers staged a sit-in and gave away free food. At this point the landlord got involved--the owners hadn't paid the rent, and the workers hadn't vacated the premises.

The landlord had another tenant in the wings--a non-union firm unacceptable to the workers. And at this point things get murky. Some new investor materializes, recognizes the union and grants the workers much higher wages, sick pay, and grievance and arbitration procedures. More, there is now a union hiring hall--the union gets to decide who gets hired--not management.

So apparently Hot & Crusty is back in business in the same location under new rules: free unicorns for everybody. Everybody, that is, except for the customers, who presumably have to pay considerably more for their pastries, to be served by people hired by the union. This clearly isn't going to work long term.

So one wonders what persuaded management to go along with this scheme? The article doesn't say, and I have no other information. But somehow I suspect gangland style threats made against the landlord--the employees in the picture are burly guys instead of the dainty ladies in most fast-food establishments. There may be other explanations, but I can't think of one.

This is particularly ironic since Gottesdiener's article first appeared on a website called Waging Nonviolence. I have to think that the folks who run that website, along with my friends at Socialist Viewpoint, are useful idiots.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Socialist Action on Virginity!

I have to weigh in on Socialist Action's recent post about virginity, of all things. The article (by Dawn Rose) is a review of Jessica Valenti's 2009 book entitled The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. I have not read that book, but I'll assume that Rose's description is accurate.

The book is in response to a supposed effort by conservatives and "anti-feminists" to roll back women's rights. According to Valenti (per Rose), we right-wingers want women who are docile, passive, and obedient, and focus on traditional motherhood. In a word, we want "a return to traditional gender roles (marriage and motherhood), and focusing on purity is the vehicle toward that end.”

Now I have no doubt that there are conservative religious groups focused on virginity, and for just the reasons Rose describes. But their battle is lost. They will never persuade more than an insignificant minority of women to follow their lead. So this whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. Or rather, it was an effort to create a bogeyman--a fictitious enemy designed to scare the living daylights out of single women. That somewhat dishonest end seems to be Valenti's purpose in writing the book, and the Obama 2012 election campaign used the mostly mythical Republican threat to abortion and birth control as part of its successful GOTV effort.

But let's ignore the dubious motives and consider only the arguments made in Rose's review. She states "[t]he virginity movement’s ideal woman is passive, docile, and relegated to the home." Now this doesn't make any sense, for I can't see how self-discipline leads to passive docility. Self-discipline in almost anything generally leads to success of some sort. Students who study hard get good grades. Those who don't eat too much keep their weight down. People who save money are generally richer in retirement, and so forth.

Ascetic self-discipline has a long history in human affairs, and demonstrates success for both individuals and social groups. Among individuals, the odd example that comes immediately to mind is Malcolm X. He, a libertine in his youth, upon conversion to (the weird form of) Islam gave up womanizing, alcohol, and general carousing. Would his political career have been successful absent that self-discipline? Certainly not. Other political examples include Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Contrast them with Bill Clinton, successful to be sure, but not heroic nor in any way a figure for the ages. Future generations will not be celebrating Bill Clinton's birthday.

So I dispute the notion that virginity will result in docility or passivity. Are nuns passive and docile? I don't think so.

Rose writes
If women are the moral gatekeepers of sex, Valenti claims, then the behaviors of men are excusable; rape, sexual assault and violence against women are natural male responses to biological urges. We see this manifested often through victim blaming. The media reporting around sexual violence is often centered on women’s behavior—what she was wearing, what she was drinking, or where she was walking—rather than on the actions of the actual perpetrators.
Let's leave out the word "moral," and ask who are the gatekeepers of sex? For very obvious biological reasons (that only socialists can deny), women are. Women take by far the biggest risk from any sexual encounter. Unlike men, women are not generally interested in casual sex, and absent some financial or other tangible reward won't do that.

Since women are the gatekeepers, rape and sexual assault are crimes men commit against women, and rarely the other way round. This is not some cultural oddity of American society (as the article seems to imply), but is a worldwide phenomenon rooted in human biology. But it doesn't mean such behavior is excusable. All societies punish rape, often very severely and unjustly.

The last claim--that the press reports what rape victims wore--is surely laughable. How politically incorrect could you possibly get? I have never, in my entire life, read a news article that contained anything like "she was raped because she wore a mini-skirt." Still, dress and drink are relevant. Rape is a crime no matter what, but gatekeepers do need to guard the gate. Camille Paglia has interesting things to say about that.

I think whether or not a woman remains a virgin until marriage is a personal decision, and not a political one. I have no objection to either religious conservatives or Jessica Valenti offering free advice. I do object to words like "reactionary" used to describe a woman who chooses to remain virgin. It may very well be a good option for her.

Why are so many on the Left against traditional morality? I doubt it is political. Instead, I think it is envy. Among the groups that gets the Leftist goat are the Mormons. Now I don't much care for them either, but there is no gainsaying their success. By holding to a tight moral code, they preserve and expand social and physical capital. They have among the highest fertility rates in the nation. They're successful in business, and increasingly successful in politics. Success inspires envy and hatred.

Other groups--some evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, Amish, some Muslim groups--are similarly able to both reproduce and preserve social capital. This feat is mostly impossible for single mothers, who usually only have one or two children, and for whom capital appreciation is a lost cause. A subgroup amongst this population are socialists and academic feminists, who then blame their plight on a so-called "virginity movement."

I feel sorry for them.