Friday, March 29, 2013

You Can't Eat A Hipster

This post is inspired by the Kotkin - Florida debate about the extent to which the Creative Class contributes to urban welfare.

Back in the day, when I was a Trotskyist in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), there was an effort to get comrades involved in union fractions. A fraction is a group of comrades who participate as a collective in a union (or on campus) to advocate a for revolutionary socialist perspective. The model for this work was the famous union fractions of yore--communist involvement in the UAW sit-down strikes and the Minneapolis Teamsters' strike in the 1930s. The latter is engagingly recounted in Farrell Dobbs' classic book, Teamster Rebellion.

In the 1930s unions really could shut the economy down. By the late 1970s that ability was much more limited, but that didn't stop us from trying. It is that distinction--disrupting the entire economy versus a labor action against a small-time capitalist--that roughly divides basic industry from the less important stuff. Thus comrades tried to get jobs in basic industry, organized by the UAW, the United Steel Workers, the United Mine Workers, etc. They were (in those days) less interested in AFSCME or the teachers' unions.

I am reminded of this because of Joel Kotkin's emphasis on the material boys. These are the guys who drill for oil, build new manufacturing plants, or are farmers. While likely unaware of his neo-Trotskyist sympathies, Kotkin nicely echos our efforts in basic industry. Like Trotskyists, he believes value is created by the hewers of wood, the diggers of coal, and the molders of steel. Hence thriving cities are places like Dallas and Houston, Charlotte and Nashville, and Indianapolis and Oklahoma City.

Contrast this with the neo-Schumpeterian Richard Florida, who has long touted the Creative Class. These are the artists, the counter-cultural youth, gays, immigrants, eggheads, denizens of Starbucks. Creative class folks are always looking for the Next Big Thing, the idea that'll just knock your socks off. Forget those old, fuddy-duddy material boys--creative destruction is our future. Down with fracking; up with Google. In Florida's vision, the successful cities are New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and perhaps Portland or even Pittsburgh.

Left off of either list are the old rust-belt cities: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo. Kotkin's remedy for these towns is more manufacturing. Meanwhile, Dr. Florida prescribes cool bars, nice restaurants, and walkable streets.

I guess I'm still enough of a Trotskyist to side with Mr. Kotkin on this, but not without reservations. His basic point is certainly correct: wealth comes from creating something that people want to buy, and at the core this includes food, energy, housing, clothing, transportation. The hipsters produces none of those things directly. The world will always depend on the material boys.

Trotskyists dismiss the creative class as petty bourgeois parasites, and unfortunately I sense the same tendency in Mr. Kotkin. The truth is that given real products that people want to buy, then the creative class adds substantial value on top of that. For example, the material boys grow wheat, but the creative class financial wizards create futures options and financing opportunities that ultimately make wheat much cheaper for the consumer. Trotskyists treat Wall Street as if it were a casino, but it's not--it is essential to the modern marketplace.

Likewise, one can't eat Google, but Google has made foodstuffs cheaper and more readily available. Advertising, logistics, financing, packaging and R&D are all ways that the creative class adds value. But the material boys have to be there first.

And this Mr. Florida doesn't seem to understand. His view that cities need to welcome the creative class and then everything else will follow is precisely backwards. He is absolutely correct that the creative class adds substantial value, and he is also correct that creative folks thrive in densely populated, diverse, interesting cities. But he's got the cause and effect arrow backwards. It's the material boys who create the cities which the creative class can then move in to. Without the material boys, the hipsters have nothing to work with--they're artists without a canvas.

So I think Mr. Florida's plan--for cities such as Cleveland or Detroit to build gentrified, bohemian neighborhoods in hopes the creative folks might move in--is the wrong way round. If the material boys are already there, then the hipsters will construct their own neighborhoods. Arguably that's what's happened in Portland--first came Weyerhauser, and then came the silicon forest, and after that the Pearl District turned into Florida's dream. Portland's economy has always depended on real products that people want to buy.

Similarly, no amount of artsy-fartsy decorating is going to revive the city of Detroit. Absent something like automobile manufacturing, the city is toast. Formula One races are nice, as is Greektown and the monorail, but those are at the top of the economic pyramid, not the foundation. To revive Detroit, somebody needs to start an industry building something that people want to buy. There's no other way around it.

In some respects, both Mr. Kotkin and Mr. Florida are wrong, and the error exists also in what I've said above. My Trotskyist heritage leads me to segregate the material boys from the hipsters into distinct classes. Kotkin and Florida make the same mistake. In fact, the two groups will increasingly be the same people. Additive manufacturing (3D printing), for example, will involve both kinds of skills, in a manner similar to the traditional craftsman where both design and woodworking are embodied in the same individual.

Second, manufacturing will never employ very many people, and thus cannot support big city populations. The size of the creative class is also limited by opportunities to create value--there aren't that many of them. Most people will work in the service sector, from which they will earn some share of the return from manufacturing.

And finally, it is possible for a few cities to beat the odds. New York and San Francisco both have successful hipster economies, despite no manufacturing of note. New York thrives on finance (and will continue to do so, new financial centers notwithstanding), fashion, art, and retailing. I have posted elsewhere about what I think is New York's golden opportunity for additive manufacturing, but we can all dream. It probably won't happen. Still, New York is not dying in the way Mr. Kotkin seems to indicate. Likewise, the Bay Area survives on software. Boston and Pittsburgh live on eds and meds.

But this model doesn't scale. There simply isn't a big enough market for two dozen eds & meds cities, nor can the country support more than a handful of financial centers. For everybody else but the lucky few, the material boys come first, followed by the creative class.

So it is true--you can't eat a hipster. But it is also true: Man cannot live by bread alone.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Socialist Viewpoint's Killer App

Socialist Viewpoint is published by the Socialist Workers Organization. They describe themselves here:
After being expelled from Socialist Action in 1999, we formed Socialist Workers Organization in an attempt to carry on the project of building a nucleus of a revolutionary party true to the historic teachings and program of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
What we have found is that our numbers are insufficient for this crucial project of party building. This problem is not ours alone; it is a problem flowing from the division and fragmentation that has plagued the revolutionary movement in capitalist America and the world since the 1980s.
In other words, they're a vanguard proto-party. The fact that they don't claim vanguard status makes their paper more eclectic, honest, and open than either Socialist Action or The Militant.

The paper is mostly an effort of the Weinstein family, along with a few of their closer friends and comrades. The patriarch is Nat Weinstein, who must be in his late 80s by now. His wife, Sylvia, sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 75. The torch has been passed to daughter Bonnie. I have never met any of the Weinsteins, but there are other members of the collective that I know from my time in Chicago.

The reasons for the split from Socialist Action are trivial and are recounted here. (The corresponding article from Socialist Action is no longer available on the web.) My own view is the split occurred because Nat and family wanted to run their own newspaper. There's nothing wrong with that, and if Socialist Action were smart they would have let him do it under the Socialist Action umbrella. But Trotskyists are not strong on individual initiative or creativity.

The paper appears every two months. I suppose a print edition is distributed around the Bay Area (where the Weinsteins live), but you can get it for free on the web. The current edition is typical. It has a lead article from a member of the editorial staff (traditionally Nat himself), and then articles from all over the Left. In other words, it's an edited anthology, not a newspaper in the sense of The Militant or Socialist Action. Accordingly, Socialist Viewpoint is where I first encountered Gregg Shotwell, learned much about Mumia abu-Jamal, and read about Hot & Crusty. Nat and his comrades are ace editors, and that's what makes the paper successful.

I never much cared for Nat's writing--he's long winded, discursive, and ultimately boring. I rarely got through an entire article. Bonnie, on the other hand, is a very good writer, and hence I'm pleased that she authors this issue's headliner, The Last Dime On Earth. Her goal is to make the best case she can against capitalism. And she does it cogently and entertainingly, but at the end it is a very weak case.

The title comes from the lede sentence: "The commanders of capital, by the very nature of the system of capitalism that they command, will fight to the death the last person on Earth for the last dime on Earth." This is a concise statement of the core, Marxist myth, namely that wealth is a fixed quantity which capitalists obtain by stealing from the workers. Of course that's completely wrong. There is no such thing as "the last dime on earth." Capitalism is always inventing new wealth and raising everybody's standard of living.

Ms. Weinstein admits as much: 
Meanwhile, in the real world of those who create, invent, explore, research, dig, weld, chop, farm, teach, cook, clean, saw, hammer, sand and paint—for all of us that do the work—we’re advancing by leaps and bounds. We’ve thought of, designed and manufactured robots that can do our work for us. We’ve made instant communication across the globe an everyday reality. We can exchange any information and have any books or films—anything electronically available—at our fingertips in a matter of seconds.
The pronoun, "we," is interesting. If by "we" she means the human race, then of course she's quite right. Human civilization has been advancing by "leaps and bounds," especially since the advent of capitalism. And we're all part of civilization--all inventions depend on the larger culture and not just on the inventor.

But she doesn't mean the human race--instead she refers to everybody except the inventor. Exchanging information, for example, depends crucially on the achievements of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the inventors of Google. They're billionaires, money which Ms. Weinstein believes has been "stolen" from autoworkers and the like. That is not true--far from stealing the last dime, Google has added trillions to the wealth of the world economy, from which the Google guys have extracted some small payment for themselves. Geez--80% of everything Google makes is free (including the platform I use to host this blog)! How can they possibly be stealing from us?

Ms. Weinstein describes three examples which she claims "illustrate how the capitalist profit motive—because it comes before human needs—stands in the way of human progress." Her examples are very poorly chosen, and illustrate just the opposite. The first example is that, because of criminals, "fake and poorly made antibiotics are being used to treat tuberculosis." This works only if she thinks capitalists gain from overtly criminal activity. Counterfeiting drugs is just like counterfeiting money, and neither benefits the capitalist. Besides, crooks exist in all societies, including especially socialist ones, which are notoriously corrupt. So this is not an argument against capitalism.

The second example points to poorly contained radioactive waste at the Hanford site in Washington state. Hanford, of course, is maintained by the government, and is a point the Tea Party can cite against big government. It's hard to see how this is an argument against capitalism.

The final example is most on point, and cites a farmer that wanted to plant genetically modified seeds saved from a previous harvest, but was prevented from doing so by Monsanto, claiming patent infringement. Now patent protection is a dicey deal, contentious since the early days of capitalism. On the one hand, society benefits from the free distribution of inventions, but on the other there will be no inventions if the inventor cannot prosper. Some form of limited patent protection is thus warranted. But the law is a blunt instrument and there are many cases where the protection seems unjust and cruel, as with AIDS pharmaceuticals, for example. But it costs a billion dollars to develop a new drug these days, and somebody has to pay for that. That somebody is the consumer while the drug (or plant) is still under patent. I take Lipitor--it recently went off patent and the price went down from over one hundred dollars to under fifteen. The R&D cost has been amortized.

One can always argue the details of patent and copyright law. Those discussions are on-going and often very heated. But this does not make a case against capitalism.

If Ms. Weinstein's article is supposed to be Socialist Viewpoint's killer app against capitalism, it fails. Capitalism will be around for a good while to come.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Late To Hugo's Funeral

I know I'm a bit late in offering thoughts on the death of Hugo Chavez. It's just that I was so overwhelmed by grief--no, just kidding. In reality, the role of this blog is to respond to the Trotskyist press. Now that the April 1st issue of The Militant is out, I think I've waited long enough. The jury is in, and the The Militant and Socialist Action have said--nothing! (Socialist Viewpoint has a two month publication schedule, and I'm not willing to wait that long. The corpse will stink by then.)

I'm not surprised. I didn't expect them to say anything. You would think that an event of some geopolitical importance at least deserves mention.

More surprising is that over the years neither of the publications has said very much about Mr. Chavez at all. The Militant reports on the International Book Fairs, held annually in Caracas. (What is it about Communists and book fairs?) But these articles offer no larger insight into Mr. Chavez's regime.

Socialist Action has a bit more to say, but most of it is pretty old, dating from 2008 and before. I have not read through all of that, but some representative articles are here, here, and here. The most recent substantive mention of Mr. Chavez that I could find appeared in a 2011 article about Libya, and states
Unfortunately, much of the left fell for his [Qaddafi] rhetoric, as they had—and still do—for other bourgeois populists in neocolonial countries.
Particularly disappointing is the role of Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, and Fidel Castro in their one-sided, if correct, denunciation of imperialism’s interests and intentions in this affair, while denying or ignoring Qaddafi’s repression and murders. Chavez even offered to mediate the dispute—an offer immediately rejected by the resistance. Numerous Latin American revolutionaries reacted with horror to the stances of these three leaders, worrying that the potential for solidarity between the masses of the Arab world and Latin America was being destroyed.
In 2010, in an article about Honduras, we read
But we also raise the alarm: reformist leaders will leave workers unprepared and vulnerable when the right-wing attack comes. Their perspective neither takes the threat of the capitalist class seriously enough nor prepares for defense against and victory over that class.
Even President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a man that many revolutionaries around the world regard as a comrade, has faults in this area. While it is true that Chavez has armed workers in his country to an extent, something that no other leader we have mentioned did, the weaknesses of his political perspective are evident.
For example, when speaking this year to 35,000 assembled members of the civilian militia on the anniversary of the 2002 failed coup against him, Chavez said that in the event of his assassination the militia should “know what [they] would have to do. Simply take all power in Venezuela, absolutely all, sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces, deepen the revolution.” This revolutionary program should be Chavez’ program for today, not the contingency plan for his death.
This is damning with faint praise.

As I understand it, Trotskyists view Mr. Chavez as a reformist, petty bourgeois populist. That's a leader that wants to co-opt the working class with radical sounding rhetoric (and occasional action) but nevertheless refuses to actually arm the working class and disappropriate the oligarchs. In other words, he's a false prophet, revolutionary in mouth, but not in deed. Boiled down, they condemn Mr. Chavez because he's not a card-carrying Trotskyist. So no wonder they're silent about his death.

My non-Trotskyist correspondent, Louis Proyect, quotes a fun and funny article here. At the end Mr. Proyect appends his own comment:
I’ve always thought that a good way to test the sincerity of anyone who claims to be on the Left is to find out their attitude to Hugo Chávez. Those who try to disavow him tend to be, in general, useless: they want a pure, ideal socialism, not socialism as a real material movement. Chávez wasn’t perfect. In some areas he went too far; in many he didn’t go nearly far enough. Nonetheless the immense good his Bolivarian Revolution has done for the people of Venezuela – and for people across Latin America and the world – is undeniable. What must be remembered, though, is that Hugo Chávez didn’t do any of this alone. His achievements were those of every doctor, teacher, worker, farmer and organiser who worked to improve the lives of those around them. The social movements he helped build and connect will long survive him. Descanse en paz. La lucha sigue.
This is certainly a fair criticism of Trotskyist sectarianism. My visceral reaction is to reject his claim that the "Bolivarian revolution" (whatever the hell that is) has done much for the people of Venezuela. But on further reading I discover that Mr. Proyect is correct, at least in the narrowest sense of the word.

The best obituary for Mr. Chavez was written by Megan McArdle, and I can't do better than link to that. Her lede is "it's no good doing redistribution if you don't have anything to distribute in the first place." She gives Chavez the benefit of the doubt for good intentions, and acknowledges that there has been some improvement in the lot of the poor. But in the effort to improve the lives of the "working class," he stole from the productive parts of society. In particular, he cannibalized the oil industry, deferring maintenance beyond the point of no repair. She documents that Venezuela's oil revenue is decreasing while world oil prices have been relentlessly rising over the past several years.

In other words, and possibly apart from good intentions, Mr. Chavez has borrowed from Zimbabwe and dismantled productive assets for short-term benefits. Mr. Mugabe disappropriated "white" farms for his political cronies (destroying Zimbabwean agriculture), while Mr. Chavez has done the same with Venezuela's oil industry.

I predict that Venezuela will continue to follow Zimbabwe with sharply declining living standards and mass immiseration of the population. Mr. Proyect, The Militant, and Socialist Action will all come to regret their support for Mr. Chavez, however tepid it might have been.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Luddites Against Fracking

I have a dream.

I have a dream that someday soon--from the Midtown skyscrapers to the Rockaway bungalows, from the brownstones to the bodegas, from the Brooklyn walk-ups to the Bronx projects--I have a dream that electricity in New York City will cost three cents per kilowatt-hour.

At 3 cents Google starts moving server farms from Washington State to Queens. Indeed, Google moves it's entire operation to Manhattan.

At 3 cents, New York City becomes the hub for additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D-printing. The cost of entry is cheap--just think about all the entrepreneurial energy that clever, well-connected New Yorkers can bring to that task.

At 3 cents, electric cars become viable, at least for niche applications. I'm thinking taxicabs and city buses can run off electricity--clean, quiet, cheap. Of course with Google right next door, the dawn of fully automated taxicabs is nigh. Cab fares will become much cheaper.

Mix cheap cabs, cheap electricity, cheap lighting, a fully-employed population, and just imagine what happens to Times Square. You think it's bright and cheerful now? Just you wait. Those poor folks in Las Vegas won't know what hit them. New York will again become the entertainment capital of the world.

So how do we get from today's 13 cents/kwh to 3 cents? You need three things: 1) cheap, clean fuel; 2) cold water; 3) a smart grid and infrastructure. Dallas might have cheap fuel, but it doesn't have cold water. Seattle has cold water, but it lacks fuel. Anchorage has both fuel and cold water, but it's too isolated to have a smart infrastructure. Los Angeles doesn't have squat.

New York City has it all.

The cheap fuel comes from natural gas--shale gas from Pennsylvania and (eventually) New York. Unlike coal, gas can be piped to where it's needed--no noisy, dirty, diesel trucks required.

New York has lots of cold water--it's on islands surrounded by the sea. Cold water is needed as a heat sink--thermodynamics says that the energy you get from any power plant depends on the temperature difference between the boiler and the cold temperature reservoir. A boiler by itself will not generate electricity.

The smart infrastructure is necessary to engage the highly creative, well educated, totally connected population. But more than that, it is cheapest to generate electricity near where it is used--a lot of power is lost in transmission. I foresee several dozen small power plants along New York's extensive waterfront, each connected by pipelines to a fuel source, and informed by a smart grid to dial out just the right amount of power. Today New York gets power from Quebec and Niagara, necessitating long, ugly, wasteful and expensive high tension wires over long distances. This will not be necessary in a 3 cent/kwh world.

So how do we get to my dream (or something like it) from our current reality? I admit, it will take a lot of really smart engineers working overtime to get the price down to 3 cents/kwh, but that's not the hard part. What we really need is a new crew of politicians. The so-called "public servants" we're now stuck with are all card-carrying members of the pro-poverty crowd. I'm looking at you, Mr. Obama, Mr. Cuomo, and Mr. Bloomberg.

  • They think poor people are better for the environment than rich people. They're wrong.
  • They prefer to tax electricity and use it to pay welfare benefits, rather than dispensing with the necessity for welfare by making electricity cheap.
  • They worry more about long-term, hypothetical problems (like global warming), about which they can do nothing except purely symbolic and very expensive stuff.
  • They're afraid somebody besides them might actually have some good ideas.
This blog's beat is to cover papers like The Militant and Socialist Action (SA). This post is inspired by an article in SA. It's one of those that I've read so that you don't have to, but if you're a masochist and want to follow along, here it is. I'd like to say that the ravings of a radical socialist grouplet are irrelevant to political discourse, but sadly that's not true. The points made in the SA article are only slightly more extreme than those expressed by the pro-poverty politicians.

SA has never met an environmental horror story that it doesn't believe. Fracking, per SA, pollutes well water, turns tap water into a flammable substance, creates a "chemical cocktail of radioactivity," causes something called "vibro-acoustic disease," is responsible for subsidence, which in turn leads to volatile organic compounds, and it requires sand quarrying, which leads to tailings and water pollution. Etc. That's not to mention the earthquakes. Oh, and it kills songbirds.

Much of this list is just plain nonsense, and all of it grossly exaggerates reality. Fracking is a $200 billion business today, and growing fast. We've been doing it for 20+ years. People know how to do it right. Everything in life is a tradeoff, and fracking is no exception. There are hazards, but containing and minimizing those hazards is just not that hard or expensive. Properly constructing the wellhead will minimize leaks into the ground water. Correct preparation of the fracking fluid will save money and preserve the environment. And so forth. Fracking is less dangerous or destructive than most other mining activities.. SA hopes to win the argument by making utterly incredible claims that no knowledgeable person can believe. This tactic won't be successful.

But here is the real problem: while SA hugely exaggerates the cost of fracking, they all but ignore any of the benefits. From the article, the ONLY benefit of fracking is to enrich the oil and gas companies. And apparently not even that: "Much of the investment is only on paper, with one-quarter of the reserve growth coming through mergers and acquisitions and massive share repurchases by the majors, giving the illusion of profitability. In other words, the industry is thriving on fake growth, much like the financial markets." How can something in which no real money is being invested be so disruptive of the environment? And are the gas companies really so dumb to put money down a rat hole, for no reason other than to make the Greenies mad? No--it's silly all the way round.

Of course the main beneficiaries are not the gas companies. The main beneficiaries--if I get my way--will be the eight million people living in New York City. All of those people will have cheaper electricity, better jobs, and a higher standard of living because of fracking.

Let my people go and get rich. Down with poverty.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Petty Bourgeois

A comment on Louis Proyect's blog reads like this:
No shame in being attracted to the hallowed halls of bourgeois academia Louis, since those are your origins. Be a proud petty bourgeois dilettante! It helps worker-militants avoid the trap of middle class reformism wrapped in a red flag and should encourage them to become trolls like me living in their parents’ basement, masturbating with Playboy pin-up pictures when they aren’t playing keyboard proletarian revolutionaries.
Leave aside the gratuitous, adolescent attempt at humor (arguably more typical from Leftists), and consider only the beef against Mr. Proyect. He is a dilettante, a reformist, and a keyboard revolutionary, doomed to his fate because of "his origins." Mr. Proyect, unlike his semi-literate correspondent, is not a "worker-militant," but instead a member of the dreaded petty bourgeoisie. Horrors!

In the Marxist pantheon, the petty bourgeoisie are the lowest scum of humanity. Unlike the proletariat, they don't consistently contribute their labor, and unlike the true bourgeoisie, they possess no large amount of capital. Instead, they are to one degree or another declassed, i.e., not part of the productive economy except on the margin. The ultimate petty bougeois losers are the misnamed lumpen proletariat, otherwise known as bums. They are people who contribute nothing, and hence lack proletarian sensibilities like showing up for work on time. Likewise, students, who may rejoin the proletariat after graduation, in college are not "worker-militants," but instead are petty bourgeois wannabes who think they can improve their lot by studying hard. What fools!

The archetypal petty bourgeois is the small businessman--restaurateur, storekeeper, doctor, lawyer--who provides some small amount of capital and his own labor, and so excludes himself from the class struggle. The petty bourgeoisie don't work for The Man.

Neither Mr. Proyect nor I fit into any of those categories. I'm a college professor, which means I live off a paycheck. And Mr. Proyect--whatever his academic rank--has also been a salaried employee, despite leading a very scholarly and professorial life. We both work for The Man. Yet not only will Mr. Proyect's ignorant friend accuse him of being petty bourgeois, so will comrades in both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action. What gives?

Marxists consider only two factors of production--capital and labor. The former is provided by the capitalist, and the latter is contributed by the worker. Apart from the supposedly few in number petty bourgeoisie, never the twain shall meet. Proletarian attitudes are formed as a supplier of labor, and the worker who realizes that all he provides is labor is a worker possessed of class consciousness. The problem is that most people are not class conscious--that is, they believe that some virtue in their personality--skill, intelligence, diligence, good looks--renders them more qualified for a job than just any old shlub.

College professors are particularly prone to this disease. After all, by definition a professor must be expert in a scholarly discipline, and therefore must have made some investment in his future. Likewise, Marxists acknowledge the existence of a so-called "professional class"--engineers, accountants, etc.--who clearly have their jobs because of some acquired skill. These people have petty bourgeois tendencies. In other words, their positions really do depend on something they bring to the table, and not just their labor.

That "something" is, in fact, a form of capital. In the case of professors it would be called educational capital, and even Marxists have to acknowledge that educational capital is important. But I'd like to broaden the category--let's use the name social capital to refer to any form of non-financial investment. Almost everybody accumulates some social capital. It includes simple things like common courtesy and an ability to show up for work on time. Being attractive and well-groomed is social capital.

The biggest capital investment is having children and then leaving them with some marketable benefit. My parents paid for my college education. I paid it forward by doing the same for my daughter. Married couples are better at accumulating social capital than are single mothers. Similarly, tight-knit ethnic communities generally preserve capital. Mormons, Amish, Chinese, and orthodox Jews are good examples. Libertines are generally not good at retaining and passing along assets; ascetics are much better.

Marxists discount the whole notion of social capital, allowing only a slight exception for certain skilled trades. The Marxist dogma is that individual solutions to the capitalist crisis are impossible, and that efforts to secure and preserve resources is doomed to failure. To be truly proletarian is to forswear any effort at self-investment. True proletarian jobs are the mindless assembly line workers in factories. Of course these jobs are disappearing if only because machines can do them better than any person.

No real person wants to be a proletarian. Everybody wants to be able to invest in themselves, their families, and in their future. Most people do so successfully--some are not capable of doing that. The latter are the homeless bums, the non-immigrant day-laborers (immigrants are investing in their families), the single mothers in low-paying jobs, or (so it seems to me) members of various "vanguard" Parties. The latter use their status as comrades as an excuse for failure.

And so people like Mr. Proyect inspire envy. Mr. Proyect's Bard College pedigree shows he inherited something from his family, but he's substantially built on top of that as well. His lifelong dedication to scholarship and leadership is apparent. The continued existence of Marxmail is an accomplishment. He has taught himself how to read critically and to write well. His silly critic accuses him of being a "keyboard revolutionary." I can't vouch for Mr. Proyect's revolutionary credentials--that's above my pay grade--but I can say that his influence far surpasses that of his critics. I'm proof of that: I spend as much time commenting on his articles as I do on those I'm tasked to remark upon, in The Militant and Socialist Action. That's because Mr. Proyect actually has something to say.

There are people who are forced to be proletarians. I've linked to this picture of Cuban delegates before, but it is relevant here. These are a bunch of bored proletarians, forced to vote unanimously for political correctness. No independent thought here. No new ideas. No investment in anything. I accuse Marxists of being pro-poverty. That's certainly true, but it's worse than that. Marxism impoverishes the spirit.

I could never fit in with such a crowd. And neither could Mr. Proyect.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Marxist Pope?

I don't know any more about Jorge Bergoglio--now Pope Francis I--than you do. The name hadn't crossed my radar screen until today. The Church believes it is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. I sure hope they're right because in purely human terms the selection is a disaster.

A few days ago, I told my wife that I thought the pope would be from Latin America. I was correct, but he's as close to an Italian as you can get without being from Italy. Further, he is 76 years old. So he's too old and too Italian to be a significant change agent in the Church. This is a very conservative (in the bad sense of the word) choice that will not serve the Church well.

He's conservative in the theological sense as well. He's opposed to abortion and birth control, and also opposed to gay marriage (and even gay sex). This affirms longstanding Catholic dogma, totally consistent with their world view. For Catholics, life and personhood are sacred, and anything that compromises an individual's integrity is morally wrong.  To complain about the pope's opinions on those subjects is to argue that the pope shouldn't be Catholic. It's silly.

You can call me a fake Catholic if you want. I accompany my wife to Mass on most Sundays--she's the one who's devout--and I don't mind doing so. I even take communion. But I don't really believe it. I can't buy the life-after-death stuff, which renders the rest of the story rather irrelevant. For all that, I am not anti-Catholic.  I think the Church is mostly a force for good in the world, and I really do wish it well.

Which is why I'm disappointed they've made such a poor choice for pope.

While there is no arguing with his stands on faith and morals, one can dispute his economics. Though he's a Jesuit, he has chosen the name of Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th Century founder of the eponymous order. For those of you who are unchurched, St. Francis was heir to a very wealthy family. He took his inheritance and gave it all away to the poor. The Franciscan rule is no friar can possess anything more than what they need to survive for that day. Anything in excess must be given away. Franciscan priests take strict vows of poverty to this very day.

The church I attend is run by Franciscan priests--they dress in the trademark brown robes and sandals, and live simply and modestly in the church rectory. I doubt their cash income exceeds $10K annually. But they're not poor, at least not in the sense that St. Francis was poor. Unlike St. Francis, they don't have to beg for their daily meal. They get medical care, and they can count on support in retirement (the oldest priest is well into his 80s). The rectory has electricity, hot and cold running water, along with flush toilets. Collectively they own a car. They are all very well educated. I even occasionally see our parish priest at Starbucks buying a cup of coffee.

Now I'm not accusing them of hypocrisy--if anybody is a hypocrite it's me. Far from it--few people will voluntarily give up family, marriage, and career to earn $10K per year in a job that offers few or no opportunities for advancement. There's a reason why so few people go into the priesthood. I simply point out that in 21st Century America it is completely impossible to live like a 13th Century monk. In our society, nobody--I mean nobody--not even the most derelict homeless bum, is as poor as St. Francis.

So we read about Father Bergoglio, who moved out of the archbishop's mansion into a small apartment. And instead of being driven to work, rode the bus. Despite being a Jesuit, he voluntarily followed the Franciscan path of poverty. One reads that he was a voice for the poor, or a supporter of the poor, or endorsed the cause of the poor.

Between the lines, I read that he's pro-poverty. And that is precisely the problem.

I think St. Francis was the ur-Marxist. He believed that the cure for poverty is simply for rich people to give all their money away. That may have made a little bit of sense in 13th Century Italy, but it makes absolutely no sense today. In modern capitalism, rich people and poor people are simply not in competition with each other. Rich people (at least those outside of government, and excepting crony capitalists like Solyndra or Goldman-Sachs) get rich because they produce goods and services that improve the standard of living for everybody. Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many more, all made stuff the improved our lives. It is simply ridiculous to think they got wealthy at the expense of the poor. Quite the contrary, they got wealthy because they made the poor richer.

So I fear Pope Francis' economic views will perpetuate the same, evil fiction that Marxists propagate--that rich people are rich because they stole the money. It is just nonsense on stilts. And it is destructive nonsense--it enables the whole pro-poverty crowd, from the relatively benign Cristina Kirchner, to the masterful crook Fidel Castro, to the truly psychopathic Che Guevara, to the evil demagogue Hugo Chavez. These are people who dedicated their lives to impoverishing their nations and peoples, and the Church should have nothing to do with them.

Of course proto-Marxists exist on other continents besides Latin America, but Latin America seems especially prone to the disease. This is why I am disappointed that the Church chose a pope from that continent. It is a Really Bad Idea. 

I sure hope the Holy Spirit is paying attention.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Trouble in the Faculty Lounge

This post is in response to an article in Socialist Action (SA) entitled SF City College threatened by privatization. The article isn't really very informative. For a better account of the troubles at SF City College (CCSF) see this piece at InsideHigherEd (IHE).

Academia has long subscribed to a principle known as shared governance. The idea is that the faculty and the administration share the task of managing the university. The faculty make their contribution through a series of committees collectively known as faculty governance. While the details of faculty governance vary from institution to institution, the practice is nearly universal in American higher ed, and certainly has existed at all institutions to which I have been affiliated.

Lest those of you outside the ivory tower think this is just another undeserved perk awarded to spoiled professors, please think again. As both a faculty member and as a one-time college administrator, I have strongly supported shared governance, and for very practical reasons. One hires the faculty because of their expertise--e.g., math professors are hired because they know something about mathematics. The math faculty have to design and implement the curriculum, along with the degree requirements, the prerequisite chain, and so forth. No administrator can do that for them. Thus all things curricular ultimately start with the faculty, percolate up through the faculty governance bureaucracy, and finally land on the desk of the administration. This is the very reasonable premise for shared governance.

However reasonable, shared governance presents problems. Let me point out two big ones (among several others). First, even acknowledging that most faculty are hard-working, conscientious, and honest, there is a small, persistent, built-in bias in their judgement. They tend to confuse what they want to teach with what is important to teach. I had a math colleague who joked about having a PhD in "abstract nonsense." Now his expertise wasn't really in "nonsense," but instead in a specialized, esoteric field of mathematics. He realized how inappropriate it was for the undergraduate curriculum, and changed his teaching mission accordingly. Unfortunately, most other math faculty lack that wisdom--inspired as they are by "abstract nonsense," they orient their teaching around precisely the esoterica to which they've dedicated their scholarly lives. And so the curriculum goes off the rails.

The second problem is financing. Faculty do not have enough distance to make the cost/benefit choices that budgeting requires. Professors always think they're understaffed. Their solution to student performance issues is frequently to insert another class into the curriculum--at additional expense--rather than modifying the existing classes. The result is a proliferation of new classes--if you leave it up to faculty, the ideal class size is about three. Similarly, they will tend to hire people like themselves, i.e., a department that specializes in "abstract nonsense" will hire more people with the same expertise.

So the reason governance is shared is precisely to counterbalance these persistent biases. Ideally, students would be the ones to push back, but by definition they don't know enough about the discipline to be able to represent their own interests. Likewise, taxpayers are in no position to argue with the faculty. Thus the administration is left with the thankless task of keeping the faculty on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, administrators are rarely up to the challenge, especially since many are themselves promoted from the faculty ranks. The result is a large amount of waste, bloat, and inefficiency on college campuses.

So now we come to CCSF, a community college with about 85,000 students, down from 90,000. It is about to lose its accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which would force the college to close.

The problems at CCSF are a perfect storm of dysfunction, resulting from the confluence of three separate problems. First and perhaps most egregiously, the shared governance model completely broke down. While you'll get somewhat different answers depending on who you talk to, my sense from the IHE article is that the faculty essentially had veto power over any administrative action. Curricular authority had morphed into budgetary and staffing decisions, leading to gross overstaffing and a huge budget deficit. These are the complaints of the ACCJC. 

Second, whatever the problems of unshared governance, the administration clearly didn't act competently. IHE remarks that a former chancellor was indicted, and another resigned because of health difficulties. They report that the small number of administrators on a campus so large was bound to lead to oversight problems (though I think ineffective administrators are a worse problem). In short, the administration largely abdicated its responsibility.

The third culprit was California's legendary budget deficits, leading to a $26 million deficit. Neither of the articles says what the total budget for the institution is, but given that many students it likely approaches $300 million--so this represents a 10% cut.

The SA article is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. As you might expect with Trotskyist newspapers, much of the content is produced by volunteers, and is thus all over the map in terms of quality (I've read some excellent articles in The Militant). This article comes in near the bottom--it is poorly written and uninformative. If you knew nothing about the CCSF situation before, you won't be much the wiser after reading this article.

They're against any private efforts to improve education. They object to $500 billion in private investment. Their view is that all efforts must be mediated through some government bureaucracy. I guess you'd expect that from a socialist newspaper--but it still isn't very sensible.

They uncritically support the unionized faculty, and equate the interests of faculty with students. Of course this isn't true--faculty and student interests overlap, but are quite distinct and often opposed.

After pro forma slander against Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and the Lumina Foundation, etc., their primary ire is directed at the accrediting agency! This is bizarre--accreditors are voluntary associations of colleges and universities designed to prevent competition from "unaccredited" institutions. As such, accrediting agencies preserve the rights of faculty. Indeed, they are strong supporters of shared governance, and have frequently come down hard on administrators who violate the principle in the other direction. The fact that the ACCJC now criticizes the faculty shows just how untenable the situation has become.

SA argues that the faculty are supporters of "democratic procedures" to administer the campus. Indeed, they blame the accreditor of being "privately run and undemocratic." But this is a very strange form of democracy, where only unionized faculty have any vote. Certainly students are disenfranchised--they're just supposed to pay tuition and shut-up. Indeed, anybody who pays any bills is not part of the conversation. In SA's model, the faculty are allowed to commandeer resources from anybody in society to pay for whatever they deem necessary for "education." How far this is from the original conception of democracy, which includes the idea no taxation without representation.

If this is what higher education has become, then really, it does deserve to be shut down.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Women's Work

In my recent post, Marxism & EvoPsych, I took issue with Louis Proyect's comments about evolutionary psychology (EvoPsych). In particular, I dinged him for this:
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.
I argued that the facile association of EvoPsych with Social Darwinism is wildly off the mark
--to the point of slander. Still, it was unfair to discount Mr. Proyect's comments out of hand. He represents an opinion shared by Marxists of all denominations (including Trotskyists), by many mainstream social scientists, and of course by feminists. So let's inquire further.

Imagine the kindly country doctor of a century ago. This good man, if asked about a role for women in medicine, might have said "women simply don't have the constitution to be doctors. They are too emotional and too frail.They lack the intelligence of men." He certainly would not have meant any ill by his comments--they reflected mainstream thinking. It is unfair of feminists to accuse him of male chauvinism--that wasn't his intention at all.

Still, one hundred years on we can say categorically that he was wrong. Not only are there many women doctors, perhaps even the majority of current medical students are women.

Now let's put our doctor of yore on steroids and equip him with the language of EvoPsych. "Women lack the instinct to be doctors. They have different goals and aspirations, and so probably don't want to be doctors anyway. There may be a few women who will want to do it, but most simply won't. The male brain and the female brain have evolved for different purposes."

It is still all wrong. Unfortunately it is wrong in a way that is the real slander against EvoPsych--namely taking the terminology and spitting it out as pseudo-scientific garbage. So Mr. Proyect's paranoia is not unjustified. The language of EvoPsych is frequently misused, with people making all kinds of completely specious claims.

EvoPsych does maintain that male and female brains have evolved for different purposes, and therefore differ significantly. Further, a Norwegian man differs genetically more from his sister than he does from his Zimbabwean comrade. Accordingly, evolutionists regard sexual differences as more likely to be evolved than racial differences, for the latter are very small.

Another premise of EvoPsych is that evolution takes a long time, and that most human behaviors date from our stone age existence. The period is occasionally referred to as the Era of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), denoting the time period when the modern human mind was formed. There were no neurosurgeons in stone age times, or for that matter even during most of civilization. So on it's face it seems unlikely that there is any significant evolutionary advantage for men becoming neurosurgeons. Now some argue that men have evolved superior mathematical and spatial abilities because they were hunters during the EEA, but this is speculation. It is also at best a second or third order effect.

So most modern professions are probably equally available to men and women, at least as far as evolution is concerned. But there are some significant exceptions. The most obvious is warrior. A male warrior who survives has many more chances at copulation than a non-warrior or a dead warrior. At significant risk, he greatly enhances his chances at reproduction. A woman warrior takes the same risk but gets none of the benefit--her reproductive advantages are unchanged. Predictably enough, almost all the world's warriors are men, and very few are women. (The modern military is a bit different. EvoPsych can't really predict a gender difference in an ability to push a button firing a cruise missile, or to fly a drone. Thus allowing women into "combat" roles may not be that much of a stretch. On the other hand, house to house combat in Fallujah remains a man's job.)

Another example is rich man. After all, how much money do you need, any way? If you're a woman you need enough to support yourself and your children--$75,000 annually will serve quite well in today's America. The incentive for women to earn more than that diminishes rapidly--why bother? For a man, on the other hand, wealth is a great aphrodisiac. How much does a trophy wife cost? There is no such thing as too much money for a man--every dollar enhances his status just that much more. Accordingly, self-made billionaires are almost entirely male (female billionaires are usually heiresses).

These fairly obvious facts about human nature are the sorts of things that EvoPsych can explain very well. Our good doctor, on the other hand, is extending EvoPsych to where it doesn't belong, or at least to where it has no evidence. It is indeed human nature (dare I say instinct) to conflate what one wants to be true with what is true. That's what our imaginary doctor is doing, and frankly, I think that's what most critics of EvoPsych are doing. They're wedded to a cultural cause for everything, and that impedes their vision.

So now I'll do a bit of speculation myself. As stated, I don't believe there is much to differentiate men from women regards most career choices. But there is this: in almost all human societies there is a gender division of labor. The very words hunter-gatherer illustrate that this goes way back to the EEA. Men were hunters, and women were gatherers--at least mostly. No man wants to do woman's work, and conversely (latter day feminists notwithstanding) most women don't want to be perceived as masculine. I suggest this is instinct, i.e., part of human nature.

Thus professions will automatically segregate themselves into women's jobs or men's jobs, with few being gender neutral. Which job is which is historical and cultural accident, but the division will always be there. I see this every day as a college professor. I teach a general education science class to art students, and 80% are female. Indeed, at liberal arts colleges such as where I teach, about 2/3rds of the entire student body is female. Sixty years ago the ratio was reversed. There is nothing about college that is intrinsically male or female. But when it was a man's world, men went to college. Now that it's become a woman's world, men increasingly won't go near the place.

The feminist/Trotskyist/academic dream of a 50% gender distribution in all professions is just that--a dream. It is a dream that violates human nature and will never happen.

Blogging has been a bit light lately. It's midterms and I've been busy. Sorry.