Saturday, June 29, 2013

Democratic Centralism

Summer is the season for Trotskyist conventions. More accurately, I should say "national gatherings" since conventions are usually only held every other year. In the off years something like a Socialist Education Conference is held. Today it's called an Active Workers Conference.

The granddaddy of these events are the Oberlin Conferences that takes place annually at the eponymous campus. I attended my first Oberlin Conference in 1970, and they'd been going on for awhile before that. Over the years I probably spent more than a month on that campus, attending talks, classes, and fund raising events. I was living in Portland in the early 70s, and we all drove out to Oberlin--it took four or five days. One comrade didn't ride with us--he drove his own VW Microbus (remember those?), which was always breaking down. Fortunately he was an ace mechanic and could fix it roadside himself.

Those were the days--I have fond memories of my time at Oberlin. Today's Active Workers Conference is scheduled for only two days, July 19-20--hardly worth the drive from the West Coast. Of course it's now cheaper to fly, and even my friend wouldn't be able to fix a modern car roadside even if he wanted to. But you're invited, or at least you are if you're thinking about joining the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The SWP always took democratic centralism seriously, and in this they differ from their Stalinist counterparts. The centralism part said that after the convention the Party should speak with one voice. Comrades were under discipline to reflect the Party line in public, even if they personally disagreed. There was also a rule against taking disagreements home with you. Outside of the convention discussion, factions were not permitted.

The democratic part insisted on a free flow of ideas during the convention and for several months prior. During this time ideological factions were allowed and given a forum to present their ideas. And thus arose the uniquely Trotskyist institution--the pre-convention discussion bulletins. The discussion was kicked off by a series of resolutions from the Political Committee, the central leadership of the Party. Any comrade could reply to these documents by submitting a contribution to the discussion bulletin. Indeed, comrades could write counter documents proposing a completely different policy. These documents were printed up and distributed to the membership as a whole. After continued discussion on the convention floor, the various resolutions would be voted on. Once the majority had decided on the Party program, centralism took hold, the factions were supposed to dissolve, and everybody was expected to fall into line. The winning resolutions would then be published in The Militant, or as a book or pamphlet.

I once owned a whole library of discussion bulletins. In some move or another I decided to toss them--a decision I deeply regret today. It's not that they were great literature or anything, but this is one aspect of my youth that I wouldn't mind reliving.

There were some very undemocratic aspects to this procedure. First, the convention was delegated. Branches elected delegates who got to vote for the resolutions. The vote was never open to the membership as a whole. The branch leadership usually decided who the delegates were, which inhibited a full airing of minority view points.

The Party's leadership was chosen in a similar way. The convention delegates chose the National Committee (the governing body between conventions), who in turn elected the Political Committee (the governing body between meetings of the National Committee), who in turn elected the Executive Committee (the governing body all the rest of the time). While formally democratic, at every step there was an informal thumb on the scale that pretty much allowed the leadership to select itself. That's how Jack Barnes gets to be National Secretary for forty years.

So good intentions notwithstanding, democracy in the Trotskyist movement is flawed. And centralism makes no sense at all. The idea is that by speaking with one voice the Party can multiply its influence. In today's media environment it has the opposite effect--it just makes them look silly. I've posted about that here and here.

So it is refreshing that a grouplet called Solidarity is revisiting the concept. They are holding their convention July 26-28 in Chicago. Unlike the SWP or Socialist Action, they have clearly given up on centralism--there appears to be a wide variety of viewpoints within their movement. And accordingly, democracy is alive and well. Unlike the SWP, the discussion bulletins are (partially) public and are posted online.

Openness has advantages. I recall SWP discussions as being turgid--often unreadable. The Solidarity documents are well-written and cogently argued, though you need to suspend disbelief in Marxism to make any sense of them. The political document cites a litany of unhappiness: workers are getting poorer, education and social security are being cut back, fewer people have jobs, and things are just terrible, awful, no-good all around. (My response to this kind of argument is posted here.)

It sounds like in the revolutionary future they want people to be better off than they are today. But wait--in Programmatic Challenges to Ecosocialism, the authors are very clear about their true ambition:
The fact is that ecosocialism simply does not need everyone to have her/his own private automobile (we do not, in fact, need for anyone to have a private automobile) nor a big screen TV in every room of the house, private swimming pools, meat three times a day, and much else. All or most socialists who begin to take an interest in questions of ecology today no doubt understand this truth, especially when it is stated in such an exaggerated way. But there is a need to do more than understand. We must actively inscribe this approach at the top of our banner as we attempt to revolutionize society. We should place it in the forefront of our consciousness, and of everyone’s consciousness if we can. Consumerism does not actually satisfy the emotional needs of those who possess so much stuff, and a genuinely fulfilling human life style will be more easily achieved without it. What we need instead is an expansion of collective educational, artistic, and recreational possibilities which can be fully developed even while we drastically reduce the production of material goods.
So the truth is out of the bag--these people really are pro-poverty. I think all socialists (and most Democrats) meet that description, but Solidarity is at least up front and honest about it.

Elsewhere, they are explicitly Luddite, saying
The current forces of production (with the partial exception of energy sources which will have to be significantly developed during a transitional period) are more than sufficient to create a human society which takes from each according to her abilities and provides for each according to her needs. We no longer view a further expansion of the productive forces (taken as whole) as a necessary task, an essential part of the socialist transition.
So Solidarity is less Marxist and more Malthusian. Their reason for limiting human ingenuity is a supposed "ecological crisis"--the sky is falling and the world is about to end.  But there is no ecological crisis. There are ecological problems, to be sure, but nothing of the civilization-destroying magnitude that our friends at Solidarity suggest.

Here's their real proposal: instead of waiting for global warming or some other catastrophe to end civilization as we know it, Solidarity thinks we should preemptively end civilization as we know it right now.

What do we want? Poverty. When do we want it? Now.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thomas Jefferson & Political Correctness

On our recent vacation, Mrs. Trotsky and I spent a day in Charlottesville, VA, touring Thomas Jefferson sites. We visited the University of Virginia, and his home, Monticello.

As an aside, there are some campuses that are just jaw-droppingly beautiful--Cornell University and Indiana University come immediately to mind. I anticipated that from the University of Virginia. But Mr. Jefferson was not a great architect. The Rotunda is a nice building, but absent Mr. Jefferson's fame it would probably not have been rebuilt after the 1895 fire. The other Jefferson-designed campus buildings are undistinguished and would have long since been demolished. Likewise, Monticello is a fine house, but hardly an architectural gem. On the whole, the trip was an aesthetic disappointment.

Trotskyists may very well have invented the concept of political correctness. The premise of the movement is that a vanguard Party with the correct, political program is necessary to lead the world revolution. When I was in the Party in the early 70s, everybody was very conscious of non-sexist, non-racist language. This language discipline is so deeply ingrained in me that even to this day I cannot use the masculine pronoun without cringing.

Whether or not Trotskyists actually initiated political correctness, the cause was soon taken up by English departments, newly staffed with baby-boomer, feminist-minded faculty. Language was power, so they claimed, and since language was the only tool they possessed, they wielded it aggressively. Hence the gender-neutral circumlocutions and ungrammatical formulations with which we are now afflicted.

So I feared for Mr. Jefferson's legacy. We took two tours during our visit--one of the Rotunda, and the other of Monticello. Our tour guide at the Rotunda was a young man majoring in history and government at the University of Virginia. At Monticello our escort was young woman--no longer a student--who gave a very practiced account, and knew the answer to every question.

I am pleased to report that I was unable to determine the political affiliations of either tour guide, or of the people who wrote their scripts. This is excellent news, and it means that the Communist/feminist project to hijack our Founding Fathers has so far not succeeded. Especially at the University, it requires intestinal fortitude to resist the incessant clamor from various crackpots on the faculty. Kudos.

There is one place where perhaps the mask slipped a bit. Both guides referred to Jefferson's slave ownership as "the great contradiction." He was further brought to task for not freeing his slaves in his will, apart from a few. Rather than an error of political correctness, maybe it represents more an oversimplification of history. The issue interests me because it's mostly about economics.

I'll make two points: 1) it is a mistake to hold Jefferson personally accountable to our modern standards of morality. His personal culpability has to be judged in the context of his own time. 2) A consideration of basic economics mitigates Mr. Jefferson's "guilt," even by modern sensibilities. Thus I don't like the phrase, "great contradiction." I don't think Mr. Jefferson saw it as a contradiction at all. Instead, he simply did not have the tools necessary to solve the problem. He didn't free his slaves for the same reason he never built an automobile.

The popular conceit is that Mr. Jefferson was a rich man living on the backs of his slaves. This cannot be entirely true. First, Jefferson was very talented and earned a good living without relying on slaves. He was a farmer by choice, not by necessity. Second, he was never wealthy. At his death his estate was deeply in debt, and Monticello had to be sold by his heirs. It isn't true to say that his slaveholding was hugely profitable.

To the contrary, I think the output from the farm mainly fed and supported the slaves. The productivity of the farm was abysmally low. For example, I learned about a nail manufacturing operation using slave (child) labor. It made a profit during the War of 1812, when America was under British blockade. But after the war it was unprofitable. Even with zero wages, slaves could not produce enough to support themselves. I suggest that most of the farm was like that--it was a charity operation run primarily to feed the slaves.

That puts a different light on Mr. Jefferson's moral culpability. Instead of a being an evil slave profiteer, he's instead running a homeless shelter.

I am particularly offended by the charge that Jefferson was hypocritical in not freeing his slaves. By coincidence, just after my visit I learned that several hundred senior employees at IBM had been laid off. Somehow I doubt that these wage slaves sang free at last, thank God almighty free at last as they left their cubicles for the last time. And likewise for Mr. Jefferson's real slaves, they had no way to earn a living off the estate. Freedom--however good in theory--was disastrous economically and would mean ruinous poverty.

Jefferson did free several slaves in his will. His estate included a master carpenter who built most of Monticello. Jefferson willed him his freedom, along with the tools of his trade. He did likewise for other slaves who had a skilled trade and could earn a living on their own. But the mass emancipation of his slaves would have meant starvation and homelessness, especially since the estate had to be sold after his death.

What I say here renders the characterization "great contradiction" completely misleading. But it does not excuse slavery. Even if you accept my hypothesis in its most favorable light, a whole class of people were still forced to live in degrading poverty at the whim of another's charity. The problem, ultimately, was low productivity. Even following emancipation fifty years later, most former slaves could only become sharecroppers. It took more than a century of capitalism to increase productivity and wealth sufficiently before slaves' descendants could begin to live the American dream.

Thomas Jefferson understood all of this. He deplored slavery, but also recognized that nothing he could do would alter the situation. He did the best he could with the tools at his disposal.

David Gelernter wrote a book entitled Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. It rings true to me--it is undoubtedly my religion. And that's what irks me most about the facile connection between Jefferson and slavery. It's not that Jefferson didn't own slaves. It's just that that fact is not important. There were thousands of slaveholders in the American South during the first decades of the 19th Century, of whom Thomas Jefferson numbered among the least successful. If Jefferson's accomplishments were solely slaveholding and architecture, nobody would have heard of him today.

Instead, he wrote the creed that eventually freed all slaves. It's a creed supported by hundreds of millions of Americans--and not just Americans--of all races and religions. It is the creed that inspires bus loads of people to travel to Charlottesville every day to see mediocre architecture surrounded by ruins of slave shacks. Sadly, it is a creed opposed by Trotskyists, Communists, and many academics.

These are Holy words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Further Reading:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Corporate Takeover Of Higher Education

This post is in response to an article published by Socialist Viewpoint (SV) entitled The Corporate Takeover Of Education, by Luma Nichol. SV reprints the article from the Freedom Socialist Party--the very name is an oxymoron, reflecting the general incoherence of the enterprise.

Still, the article resonates. The faculty union on my campus often rails against the "corporate takeover of higher education," and Nichol's article reflects that sentiment fairly well. Many of my colleagues will agree with most of what she says.

Nichol's first order of business is to discredit the motives of anybody who disagrees with her. She explicitly targets three foundations: the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. The Gates Foundation aspires "to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value." The Lumina Foundation has a goal "to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials to 60% by 2025." The Walton Foundation is not involved in higher education.

Now one can disagree with what these organizations do. Indeed, I take issue with Lumina's purpose--I think their emphasis on credentials is not helpful. Likewise, were I managing the Gates Foundation I'd probably allocate resources differently. But Nichol does more than disagree--she accuses them all of rank dishonesty and corruption. Indeed, she claims they're funded through the student loan program (Sallie Mae), creating an intrinsic conflict of interest. (This is news to me--I think it's very unlikely to be true.)

In Nichol's world, these organizations are just stalking horses for big business. The goal is to privatize education and reap huge profits as a result. Accordingly, students, faculty, unions, and communities are going to get screwed over. Corporations are intrinsically evil, and this is just another example of how.

But it doesn't add up.
Shrinking class offerings feed a rising industry of schools for profit, distance learning, and Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCS), which are free web courses financed by entrepreneurs who decide the curriculum.
So entrepreneurs are creating courses that are free to students. How will this result in huge profits? Indeed, the primary goal of entrepreneurs is to lower the cost of education. The Gates Foundation has aggressively championed free or cheap education, e.g., funding the Khan Academy, a non-profit organization offering free classes to anybody in the world.

Here's the truth. Since 1980, the cost of a college education has increased by four or five times the rate of inflation. Costs have gone up for both students and taxpayers. The problem facing higher ed right now is that it's just too darn expensive. English, history, and philosophy, for example, are very valuable disciplines, but when the cost to taxpayer and student for a BA sums to more than $70,000 (the bill at my relatively cheap state school), the value proposition is just not there. To cover that price you really have to major in either computer science or engineering.

So the key task confronting higher ed right now is to lower the cost. And that's precisely what these foundations and entrepreneurs are doing--free classes through MOOCs are a whole lot cheaper than classrooms, and in many cases they're also better.

So why has the cost risen so much? It's because colleges are joined in a cartel enforced through accreditation. Cartels charge monopoly rents, and the college cartel has done even better by conning the taxpayer into paying half of the bill. But prices simply cannot keep going up. Indeed, because governments are broke, household incomes are stagnating or declining, and especially because of increasingly effective competition from outside the cartel, prices are starting to go down.

I predict that college tuition prices will crash in the near future, perhaps even by 90%. This is excellent news for students--even for minority students. It's good news for almost everybody--except people who benefit from the cartel.

The people who put the cartel together in the first place were faculty, who have always seen themselves as a guild. More egregiously, the faculty have attracted a large cohort of hangers-on: administrators, directors, affirmative action officers, advisers, football coaches, deans, and other assorted parasites. The faculty, themselves ill-suited for the modern world, and the parasites together produce little of social value. The net result is this highly paid cloud of useless employees is about to implode. Most of them will be laid off. And good riddance, I say.

Obviously faculty unions oppose this turn of events, and are doing everything in their power to stop it. They won't succeed, and their efforts will probably result in a worse crash when it finally comes. But leave it to Ms. Nichol to rise to their defense.

  • She's a Luddite. She is against any technological change that might displace a faculty employee.
  • She equates faculty interests with student interests. Lower prices are bad for faculty, therefore she claims they must be bad for students. Of course this isn't true.
  • She plays the race card. She says that minorities will suffer more when tuition goes down. This defies logic.
  • She thinks only faculty believe in a quality education--that students, entrepreneurs, and the community, are too stupid to make any curricular decisions on their own outside of the cartel.
  • She maintains that faculty and faculty alone are pure of heart and acting in the best interests of "the people," while anybody else represents an evil, dishonest, and greedy special interest.
If this is the best argument that faculty unions can make, they're sunk.

Further Reading:


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Getting Richer While Feeling Poorer

GDP growth is below par, and unemployment is too high. Most pundits think we're at best just struggling to get a recovery started. They're wrong. Instead we're already into the greatest economic boom this country has ever seen.

The misperception derives from the fact that this recovery is different from anything that has happened in the past, and the traditional measures of economic well-being are no longer very helpful. To see the bigger picture we have to back up and consider some very basic facts. As Milton Friedman eloquently pointed out more than 50 years ago, the measure of any economy is how well the consumer does. If the consumer thrives, we're all richer than we were before. And contrary, if the consumer suffers, we're poorer.

The economy is not about workers or employment. Adding workers and paying them more raises the cost to consumers and lowers our standard of living. Consumers are best served when workers work efficiently for market rates. Nor is the economy about capital. Prices are cheapest when interest rates are zero and capital is freely abundant. Ideally, profit margins go to zero.

Marxists certainly don't understand this. They think the economy exists to benefit workers--the goal is to raise wages, featherbed work sites, and constrain efficiency. While this might make small groups of workers better off, it hurts everybody else. Because--and this is the point they miss--everybody is just another name for the consumer. All people, from the richest capitalist to the lowliest bum, is a consumer, and will be better off if prices are low.

So how's the consumer doing these days? I'm typing this on my new computer, which I purchased for $249. By a good margin it's the best computer I've ever owned. It weighs 2.4 pounds, has a six hour battery life, comes with wireless and Bluetooth, along with a built-in, hi-res color monitor. The first computer I purchased (back in 1987 or so) was an IBM-XT, and if memory serves it cost about $2,000, which adjusted for inflation comes out to $4,000 today. It weighed about 50 lbs, including the monitor, wasn't connected to anything (it'd never heard of the Internet), and didn't even have a battery. Unless you consider fluorescent green to be a color, it didn't have a color monitor.

So this consumer is doing fine. But--answer the naysayers--that's only true for the IT industry. Once you get away from computers and software, prices have not fallen that much. And worse, wages have been static since the 1970s. They say I've cherry picked the example to make my case. And a few years ago they'd have been right, but not anymore. For just as it took a generation before electricity actually changed the economy, and just as the automobile (mass produced already in the 1920s) didn't beget the interstates until the 1950s, so also computers have spent a generation as a separate phenomenon, having rather little influence on the larger economy.

But that's changing fast. We see it already in the law business. The legal workforce is being drastically reduced as more and more services are automated and computerized. Wages for new lawyers are falling fast, assuming they can find a job at all. Applications to law schools are declining, and inevitably some of them will close. This is good news--not for lawyers, and certainly not for those who bet wrong and just graduated from law school--but for consumers. Less money is spent on legal services than before, and our standard of living is commensurately higher.

Education, especially higher education, is being automated, and as a result prices are beginning to fall dramatically. Georgia Tech now offers an on-line, masters degree in computer science for under $7,000. Soon enough, most lecture classes will be delivered on-line, significantly improving the quality of the student's experience. Grading homework sets in college science classes is already completely automated. The result is the ranks of college professors will decline substantially, and the job they do will be very different from what they do today. Students (i.e., consumers) will get a better education at greatly reduced prices. The same trends are happening in K-12 education as well.

The driverless car is on the cusp of mass adoption. The primary hurdles are legal, not technical, but they are already legal in three states (Nevada, California, and Florida). Initially they will probably aid  the handicapped--blind people will be more mobile with a car that drives itself. But soon enough it goes mainstream--taxicabs won't need drivers, and the cost of a cab ride will decline by 50% or more. Indeed, in the future riding cabs may be cheaper and more convenient than owning your own car. Trucks will also go driverless--the cost of moving freight will shrink accordingly. Millions of cab drivers and truck drivers will be unemployed, along with traffic cops and parking enforcers. But the consumer (again--everybody) gets better service at cheaper prices.

There are many more examples: manufacturing, retail, medicine--all of these and more will be automated and their work forces laid off. It's terrible for workers, and long term not all that good for capital, either. But it's fantastic for the consumer, and that's the bottom line.

So today I got a new computer at a fraction of its historical price, and tomorrow the whole vast array of consumer goods will be similarly cheaper. My children and grandchildren will have a much higher standard of living than I have today. As I say, we're in the early stages of the greatest economic boom ever.

So what's with the pundits and the statistics? Why can't they see the obvious changes described above? The problem is they're looking at the wrong thing. For there are two ways to raise our standard of living, i.e., make consumers richer. One is you can employ them as workers, pay them higher wages, and watch their standard of living go up. This is the pattern that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, and it's the pattern that the pundits expect to repeat today.

But there's another way consumers can get rich. Instead of giving them more money, let's instead just lower prices. Today my computer cost $249. Ten years from now I'll be buying better computers at the Dollar Store for $4.99. A college education for my grandchildren might cost $100,000, $20,000, $7,000, $699, and maybe less if they shop around. (Needless to say, I don't think those savings plans for college tuition are a very good investment.)

The historic measures of economic health are GDP growth and total employment. Neither of these have recovered as much as hoped, from which pundits infer that the economy is still struggling. But they're looking at the wrong data, and drawing the wrong conclusions.

The Fed has been printing money at a rate of over $1 trillion annually. Many folks, especially over at Zerohedge, warn that inflation--maybe even hyperinflation--is just around the corner, or has even started now. But they're wrong. If anything, the Fed is just barely keeping the deflationary wolf from the door. Because of automation, the marginal cost of production has gotten so low that prices have nowhere to go but down--despite the Fed's heroic efforts to the contrary.

Non-physical services are heading toward free. Wikipedia and Google Search are free. Education--the repackaging of public-domain information--will trend toward free. Medical care--another information-intensive business--will see prices drop toward zero. With 3D printing even traditional metal-banging industries will be able to cut costs dramatically. Look for much cheaper and better cars and airplanes in the near future.

So real prices are going down, and absent the Fed's mega-printing, nominal prices would be going down as well. GDP is a measure of all product purchased by consumers--but consumers are paying less. Therefore, GDP has to go down, and would do so dramatically except for the Fed's levitation. But this is not bad news--it just means we're getting richer faster than the economy can keep up.

Likewise, productivity is measured as output per hour worked. Historically, the initial benefits of increased productivity have accrued to capital--hence the value to the capitalist of what The Militant calls "speed-up." But no more. Today the benefits go straight to the consumer. Amazon is an excellent example--not only is it a big, automated company, it is also a zero-profit company. They are betting the store on future profitability, and in the meantime passing all the advantages of automation on to the consumer. If the value of output declines (because of lower prices), and the number of worker hours also declines (because of automation), then productivity will stagnate. Observers conflate that with recession, which it isn't.

There are some things that are unlikely to get cheaper. Food and lodging are two. Absent another great, green revolution that dramatically increases world agricultural productivity, food will continue to be expensive. Likewise, land and housing are fixed commodities for which prices cannot go down by much. Fuel will also cost approximately the same per btu, but new technology will greatly reduce the btu's needed, so the overall fuel expense will decline.

But this has a perverse effect on statistics. One common measure of well-being is the fraction of income spent on food. In a rich country (the USA) it is a low 6%. In poor Kenya people spend an average of 45% of their income on food. This is taken as proof that the US is richer than Kenya, which it is. But since food, housing and (to a lesser extent) fuel cannot decline in price as fast as everything else, then in the new normal we will spend a larger fraction of our incomes on food than before. You can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth--oh see how poverty is increasing, they will claim. But it's not true. Food costs relatively more not because we're getting poorer, but because everything else is getting cheaper.

Still, the naysayers will claim, you've got millions of unemployed people--all those drivers, teachers, doctors, lawyers. And in the short and medium term that's true. The typical college graduate is now ill-prepared for the marketplace. But long run, if you give consumers extra money--either by paying them more or lowering prices--they'll figure out a way to spend it. People are like that. And since gizmos will be cheap or even free, the money will get spent on personal services, i.e., things that only people can do.

People will do much less mechanical and mental work than they do today. Computers and machines can do that better and cheaper. Instead people will do emotional work--work that makes you (the consumer) feel better, flatters your ego, inspires you, makes you happy. The smiling waitress, the solicitous bellboy, the charming prostitute, the marvelous writer, the amazing juggler, the awesome musician, the skillful masseuse, the personal trainer, the charismatic teacher, the wise pastor--these are the jobs of the future.

Dog-walking and waitressing are not high-paying jobs--not the sort of work your newly minted Princeton graduate aspires to. Though we can count on smart, creative people to find ways to add value to emotional work jobs. Still, the naysayers will moan about how many people are "falling out of the middle class." The economy "can't create enough quality jobs for new graduates." Well, horsefeathers, I say. Just suck it up and enjoy the wealth.

On a typical day twenty years from now, waitress Jane buys a new computer for under $5, visits a (virtual) neurologist for $15, pays her son's monthly tuition bill for $19, and picks up a bag of groceries for $55, along with an additional $2 for the cab fare. Can she live on a minimum wage job? Hell yes!

So we'll be working harder in less fulfilling jobs at (slightly) lower pay. Yes, there will be some geeks and skilled laborers and even a few professors who beat the odds, but the majority of labor will be the emotional sort. We won't be happy as workers, though we'll get much more enjoyment as consumers. Prices will go down faster than wages, and quality will improve. Perhaps we won't enjoy as much as we should, but we will gradually, slowly, relentlessly, irreversibly be getting richer and richer and richer.

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Further Reading:

Friday, June 7, 2013


The sneering contempt for which Trotskyists view Liberals has stuck with me all these years. Indeed, I'm still proud of saying that I've never voted for a Democrat (even though that's not strictly true). It's odd that I should bear that animosity. My extended family are all loyal Democrats. My mother (who grew up during the Depression) thought FDR was a saint, and loved Eleanor even more. My wife usually votes for the donkeys (I vote, and she un-votes), as do my kids. In their defense, I'll note that they're all low-information voters--i.e., the sort that typically vote Democratic.

So my dalliance with anti-Democrat Trotskyism could be seen as simply adolescent rebelliousness--except that it's not. Indeed, there is a history of ex-Trotskyists becoming Conservatives, most famously James Burnham. Burnham, one of the founders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) split from the organization in response to the Stalin-Hitler pact. He later went on to receive a Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan (my kind of guy!).

There are continuing stories about how neoconservatism is descended from Trotskyism. The beef is that the neocons, like Trotskyists, believe that political power can effect nation-building, social change, as in the Iraq war. I will confess that I was a strong supporter of the Iraq war at the time, a position which I've since had cause to reconsider. Still, I think the connection is pretty far-fetched. Despite some superficial similarities, I think the Trotsky-neocon thing is mostly romantic myth.

Hatred of the Democratic Party is something that Trotskyists don't share with the Stalinist, Communist Party tradition. The Communist Party allied itself with the "progressive" wing of the Democrats, campaigning actively for Democratic politicians. Thus they successfully insinuated themselves into real positions of power. The SWP called this class collaboration and viewed it as a betrayal of the working class. Accordingly, Trotskyists--always principled--never had any real influence on anybody. As it turned out, the Communist Party didn't accomplish very much either.

But this is a real difference. Ex-Communists can simply gravitate to the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and live happily ever after. Ex-Trotskyists don't have that option--at least not as easily. Thus my sense is that there are a lot more Conservative ex-Trotskyists than there are Conservative ex-Communists, at least per capita.

To get further we need to make a semantic distinction between conservative and Conservative. The two words are really very different. Conservative is a political movement, exemplified for my generation by William F. Buckley. It holds that the human character is intrinsically flawed, that government will always tend toward evil, and that the social engineering schemes so beloved by Democrats, Communists & Trotskyists alike are bound to fail. Unlike Libertarians, Conservatives put great stock in mediating institutions, i.e., institutions they see as protecting the individual from government, including Church, family, law, and civic life. Conservatives tend to be more religious, more law-abiding, more family oriented, and more civically engaged than most citizens. Mormons are Conservative.

On the other hand, conservative is a psychological trait, such as exhibited by a conservative investor. A conservative wants to preserve the status quo above all else. conservatives are not really a political force, but they have a great and deleterious influence on politics. Any public policy attracts a constituency which lobbies for the preservation of that policy--biofuels is an excellent example. It doesn't matter if the project is initiated by Democrats or Republicans, but once begun conservatives will rise to its defense en masse. The Amish are conservative, as are Hasidic Jews.

So it is possible to be both Conservative and conservative, such as Pat Buchanan. Even Buckley tended that way, with his famous quote that Conservatives should "stand athwart history yelling stop!" But the real conservative Party in America today isn't the Republican--instead it is the Democratic Party. The Dems are now in the uncomfortable position of having to defend all the failing social engineering programs from the New Deal and the Great Society. Some are a travesty, not just the aforementioned biofuels subsidy, but also indefensible policies like affirmative action and Title IX.

More seriously, the great entitlement programs are falling apart. The nation is now so in hock for pensions, benefits, medical care, social security, etc., that there isn't enough money in the entire universe to make good on the promises. Look for some bodacious financial haircuts, and soon. Democratic conservatives--think Jerry Brown or Michael Bloomberg--are scrambling against all odds to preserve the status quo.

No institution is more conservative and more Democratic than academia. My colleagues (pathetic losers) are tying themselves up in knots trying to rationalize the existing educational model. Here's an example of a very conservative (vaguely incoherent) effort to defend the professoriate. The problem with conservatism is it will inevitably lose. Technology conspires against it, and at the end of the day people will choose a freer, richer life over the rule-bound, rent-enabling, impoverishing conservative regime.

So now I can tell you why Trotskyists hate Democrats. Democrats, not Conservative, but very conservative, are all-in standing athwart history. Trotskyists are also not Conservative, but nor are they conservative. Trotskyists always described themselves as radicals. And this is a very good description--they were (and are) honestly, sincerely, and consciously against the status quo. Upper case or lower, Trotskyists are anti-conservative.

In this they differ from the Communist Party. The Stalinists at very least had to defend the Soviet Union, and all that went with it, including detente, and whatever the latest foreign policy wheeze was. Further, by participating in government--however surreptitiously--they acquired a vested interest in defending it. The Communist Party further tied it's hands by getting involved in internal, Democratic Party politics, which intrinsically made them conservative.

Trotskyists had no such conflict. By remaining powerless and pure of heart, they are passionately anti-conservative. That's why they appealed to adolescents, and beyond that, that's why they appealed to me. For I still share that anti-conservatism--it's moderated slightly with old age, but I detest the Democratic Party precisely because they're conservative. Likewise, I hate academia for the same reason.

So I've gone from being a Trotskyist to being a Conservative, but the personality trait--anti-conservatism--remains constant.

To the barricades, Comrades! Down with the Academy!

Further Reading:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Writer's Computer

Note: I am working on a longer piece that's not cooked yet. Rather than rushing it through, I'm posting this admittedly off-topic item instead. I hope it entertains.

I wanted to buy the writer's computer. Unfortunately no product goes by that name, and so I had to choose something else. Like most people, I'm cheap, lazy, and picky. What I bought was the Samsung Chromebook.

The best computer for you depends on what you're going to use it for. In my younger days I earned a living as a Fortran programmer. I used to love DEC VAX computers--does anybody else remember those machines?

Today, however, instead of programming I use a computer for writing. As a science professor coming up through the ranks, MSWord was the software of choice. In it's heyday it was really good. The equation editor (which I needed a lot) was excellent. I had to write assignments for my students, and also scientific papers for publication. MSWord did both tasks wonderfully.

Today, however, MSWord is no longer optimal. First, the program has just gotten too big. The menus are too complicated, and no longer very intuitive. Second, it no longer works very well. We had to put together a book-length document for an accreditation visit, and the pagination, table of contents, and indexing features are buggy and, frankly, almost unusable.

Finally, MSWord was designed for an era when words were intended to be printed out on a physical page. The great virtue of the program is you can design the page appearance precisely and easily. Things like margins, font type and size, indentation, etc., can be tweaked to perfection. For the hard copy MSWord can't be beat, even today. I still use it for exams and printed homework assignments.

But mostly I don't write for the printed page anymore. My current writing consists of two projects. First, I'm writing this blog. Second, I am writing a freshman level science text book. The latter is not the heavy tome you remember from college--instead it is intended exclusively as an e-book. It is full of hyperlinks, and I am purposely omitting pagination from the draft. The TOC has to be the hyperlink variety--page numbers do not exist.

I quickly found that MSWord was not the appropriate tool for the job. So I started using Google Docs (gDocs). This has pros and cons. The big pro was that the software is web-native. It is easy to put in internal and external links, and the program will let you completely banish page numbers if that's what you want to do. Unlike MSWord, the TOC generates hyperlinks just fine. Further, with the push of a button you can turn the whole thing into a web page. That format (while it still looks like crap) has all the functionality that I want the end product to have. It's the way I proofread the book. And finally, gDocs is free.

There are three disadvantages. First, the equation editor is hard to use and not very flexible. Similarly, Google's drawing program is primitive, and I greatly prefer Microsoft's Excel to any of its competitors.

The second issue is that gDocs is not made for big documents. My textbook is already 150,000 words long, and contains many equations, drawings, and pictures. It takes gDocs five minutes or more to load it all. Obviously, I'm using it outside its design specs. I experimented using MSWord, but that simply doesn't work. It doesn't give me output that looks anything like what I want to see. So I've put up with gDocs' shortcomings.

The third issue is related to the second. That is, even after loading it was extremely slow. I couldn't type faster than about 10 wpm--the software wasn't able to handle the data speed. Especially when I was away from home--e.g., at Starbucks--the whole thing became unusably slow. So I was stuck--going back to MSWord or equivalent seemed wrong, and using gDocs was impossible.

The computer I'd been using when on the road was a little ASUS netbook that I bought back in 2010 or so, running Windows 7. As a longtime XT user, I loved Windows 7--it was fast, intuitive and flexible. It's the operating system I have on my home laptop and at work. Using gDocs on my laptop (which never travels) didn't have the throughput problem, but I assumed that was simply because I've got fast internet at home.

Anyway, in a last ditch effort to rescue my book in its current format, I splurged on a Samsung Chromebook. It cost me $249 plus tax--shipping was free. I figured if gDocs can't work properly on a "native" computer, then the software is totally flawed and I'd need to start over anyway.

I love the device, and over the past couple of weeks it's become my main machine.

The Chromebook is about a pound lighter than the ASUS--a difference that I think must be mostly battery weight. The ASUS has a longer battery life (at least 8 hours), while I have to recharge the Chromebook every night. But the battery is good enough to last me for three hours at Starbucks, and I don't want to sit there any longer than that, anyway.

The Chromebook has a much nicer keyboard than the ASUS. With the latter I always had the problem that the cursor would instantly move to some arbitrary place, sometimes highlighting paragraphs of text that would then be deleted. Thank God for the crtl-Z key. That still happens sometimes with the Chromebook--I think it's a feature of the trackpad--but much less frequently. The Chromebook is larger, which means the keys are more widely spaced and it's easier to type.

The Chromebook starts up instantly. It goes to sleep just by shutting the lid. If I didn't have it password protected, it would wake up in about a second. Even from a shutdown start it's running in under 15 seconds. By comparison, Windows 7 now seems excruciatingly slow--that seems to take close to a minute to wake up. My computer at work requires up to five minutes to boot because The Man loads in a lot of network connections.

The main advantage is that my gDocs problems have mostly disappeared. I can type full speed at Starbucks, or anyplace else, and it works just fine. It still takes three or four minutes for my book to load into memory--I guess there's no solving that problem. I can live with that.

I do have some issues. It doesn't yet support Dropbox--I really need that. I miss not being able to use Excel. Google's photo viewer is unacceptably inferior to the Windows version. So I am not able to use the Chromebook exclusively. If I could only take one computer with me to a (wifi-equipped) desert island, it would have to be the Windows 7 laptop. But I find that the Chromebook is the instrument of choice for the vast majority of my computing.

Further Reading About Writers:

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Bangladesh Factory Disasters Are Good For Capitalism!

Louis Proyect posts an article revisiting Marx's contention that the rate of profit will inevitably fall. Apparently this thesis is questioned by Michael Heinrich (whose turgid style exceeds that of Marx himself), Michael Roberts, and the somewhat clearer Chris Harman.

The principal thesis is presented in a quote from Chris Harman:
Marx’s basic line of argument was simple enough. Each individual capitalist can increase his (or occasionally her) own competitiveness through increasing the productivity of his workers. ... As a consequence, there will be a downward pressure on the ratio of profit to investment – the rate of profit.
Then follows a couple thousand words of very dense argument before we finally arrive at Mr. Proyect's conclusion:
Heinrich is correct, I suppose, to point to deficiencies in this approach but does not do enough to acknowledge that Marx understood how the system could continue going forward mercilessly and relentlessly to maintain profits. A look at the recent fires in Bangladesh should be sufficient to make that case.
So somehow, we start with an assertion about the declining rate of profit, and end up with fires in Bangladesh  maintaining or improving profits for global capitalism! In between is a rabbinical exegesis on ancient texts, beginning with Marx's Kapital, and including many commentaries thereon. Methinks these gentlemen have gotten so involved in their argument that they've lost contact with reality.

Indeed, the only reference to any actual data in the article are the Bangladeshi disasters. More than 1,100 people were killed in the factory collapse on April 24th. It is a pity for the global economy that the death toll didn't exceed 2,000--or even 10,000! For that matter, if the recession goes on much longer, we should probably just nuke Dhaka--millions of Bengali casualties should send the Dow over 30,000.

Mr. Proyect will surely accuse me of taking him out of context, and I'll plead guilty. I honestly do not understand the logic that connects the initial premise with the conclusion, but even absent my exaggeration the conclusion is just absurd. Poverty is not good for capitalism.

Part of the argument appears to claim that capitalists make more money by trading with poor countries than trading with rich ones. This is given a technical term--unequal exchange--and supposedly underlies the phenomenon of imperialism. The argument claims (as best I can determine) that the poorer the country, the more lucrative the trade. By this measure, trading with Bangladesh or Paraguay will be more profitable than commerce with, say, Canada or Japan. Then why, oh Marxist sages, is Canada our largest trading partner?

Marxists generally believe that wanton destruction spurs economic growth. There is a fascinating (and completely wrong) article by Bruce Pardoll in this month's Socialist Action (SA). Pardoll writes
To begin with, World War II never touched American shores. War production eliminated the Great Depression and spurred the greatest decade of U.S. economic growth (5.9%) of the 20th century. By the end of the war average white workers, almost 30% of whom were unionized, saved fully 25% of their gross wages. The U.S. was now by far the #1 economy in the world! Except for the neutral nations, Europe lay in ruins. The stage was set for the U.S. to dominate the world economy.
Flattening Europe and killing millions of people resulted in the prosperity of the 1950s--that's what I learned when I was in the Socialist Workers Party. But Pardoll's assertion that "war spending" got us out of the Great Depression is absurd. Quite the contrary--war spending led to rationing of many essential consumer goods, and impoverished much of American society. Building bombs adds no economic value and doesn't make anybody richer. Construction of the Interstate Highway System, mostly designed and ready to go by 1938, didn't get built until 1954 because of the war. Many non-Marxists think that, had it not been for the war, the 1950s boom would have happened in the 1940s.

Unlike Michael Heinrich, Mr. Pardoll takes the declining rate of profit as good coin. He cites the following data:
Gross profit rates in the U.S. were 20.8% between 1959-69; 17.9% from 1969-79; 15% from 1979-90; 11% from 1991-2000 (during the ballyhooed Clinton years); and 8.3% in 2001. After-tax profit rates were 6% in 2000, 5% in 2005, an upward spike to 6.75% in 2007 (due in large part to rapidly growing real estate and derivative sales profits in the first half of the year), and then back down again to 5.9% in 2008. 
It sounds dire, awful, no-good, terrible--doesn't it? Fortunately for the world economy, these figures are mostly irrelevant, and then mostly good news. What I believe Pardoll refers to as declining rates of profit are more commonly called operating margins (he cites no source for his data, so I don't know what it refers to). And I think there is a general consensus that operating margins are going down--that just means that we're all getting richer. Companies like Walmart and Amazon actively work to reduce their operating margins to a minimum. For them, small margins result in lower prices, large sales volumes, and significant profits. What's there not to like?

I think Mr. Pardoll (and probably also Mr. Harman and Mr. Proyect) is confusing operating margins with return on investment. Now this is an easy mistake for Marxists to make because they don't consider capital to be a factor of production. Marxists arbitrarily ascribe all value to labor. They claim that capital is just stored labor. Well--maybe. But then an egg is just a stored chicken, and one can argue indefinitely which came first. However capital first arose, it now generates value on it's own.

So capitalists earn money by extracting value from capital--not from labor. And this value, usually known as profit, is also called the return on investment. Other measures include the price/earnings ratio, or yield. There is no direct connection between operating margins and profit. There is no long term trend indicating declining returns on investment--nor can there be since the value of capital will decline in proportion to the profitability. The true measure of the health of the world economy is when profits are high. Pardoll, Proyect, and the Heinrich controversy mostly just miss the boat.

So Marxists bamboozle themselves into believing absolutely impossible things. Unlike, say, Milton Friedman, Marxist economics is the enemy of clarity. They depend on convoluted, complex texts to hide the obvious. At some level Mr. Proyect (who, unlike his correspondents, is a competent writer) understands this. He expresses justified reluctance getting involved in the whole debate, saying
For me, wading into the Michael Heinrich controversy is a little like eating my spinach—it is good for me in the sense that it forces me to engage with an important aspect of Marxology.
Unfortunately, I think Mr. Proyect is wasting his time--from my brief perusal, Mr. Heinrich writes nonsense and is not worth the investment.

Further Reading: