Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dream 50 Years On

Note: School has started, and the publication schedule for this blog has to change. Expect new posts on Thursday and Sunday for the Fall Semester.

Yesterday President Obama gave an interview to the PBS Newshour, and among the topics was the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March On Washington. While I don't agree with Mr. Obama on very much, he's clearly a very smart man. If you accept his premises and his values, then most of what he says makes sense. It's internally consistent.

Two remarks grated. First, he indirectly slandered Republicans. In an answer to a question as to why people oppose his policies, Mr. Obama cited a list. The first item is a criticism, which while I disagree with it, is an arguable point. The second item, on the other hand, impugns the motives of the people who disagree with him, presumably Republicans.
And I think the second element to that argument that has been made, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, is that government has hurt middle-class families or hurt white working-class families, because, you know, pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington are just trying to help out minorities or trying to give them something free.
I think this seriously misrepresents the Republican point of view, and Mr. Obama should know better.

The second grating item is when he was asked how he felt about being on the podium during the 50th Anniversary commemoration.
Well, there were a couple of things I was thinking. Certainly leading up to the speech, I was thinking that you generally should not try to follow one of the two greatest speeches in American history – (chuckles) – because it puts a little pressure on you.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but the man clearly thinks very highly of himself. It sounded like he thought he'd just given the third most important speech in American history. Much better is Lincoln's modesty, "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Like Lincoln, Obama should have put himself to the side.

So the second half of the Newshour was about yesterday's commemoration, including Obama's oratory. I turned it off, went upstairs, and instead watched the original I Have A Dream clip on Youtube.

It is a magnificent speech, and it still brings tears to my eyes even after all these years. I was 11 years old at the time, though interested in politics even at that tender age. But my parents thought television was the devil's own, so I don't think I actually watched the speech until months or even years later. So the full power and import of MLK's words escaped me at the time. The speech is beautifully written, and delivered with flawless skill. The man definitely knew his way around a pulpit.

He draws on two sacred texts--the Declaration Of Independence, and the Old Testament. The first is the foundation of my political faith, as it is for millions of Americans. And regardless of one's religion, it is hard not to be moved by the verse (Amos 5:24) "but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

Fifty years on, it's not just the power of King's words that move. It is also his great courage, both moral and physical. Martin Luther King wasn't just an orator, but also a hero.

There is another story of heroism from that time that also moves me to tears whenever I think about it. Some years ago, on business, I spent a day on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college in Greensboro. On that campus is a statue of four young men--they were freshmen in 1960--18 years old.

Those young men did not grow up in Hawaii, nor did they attend an elite, private high school. No--they were from the wrong side of the tracks--poorly educated, unread, untraveled, unpossessed of critical thinking skills. In those days polite people would have called them colored boys. Today we might call them ghetto kids.

So here's what those 18-year-old guys did not do. They didn't take a brick and heave it through the window of the local Woolworth's store. That would've been pretty satisfying and it surely is what most ghetto punks would've done. Indeed, that's more or less what my middle-class generation--ten years later--did in protest against the Vietnam war.

No, what they did instead was a miracle. They walked into Woolworth's, sat down at the lunch counter and each ordered a cup of coffee. They weren't allowed to be served at the Whites Only counter, so they sat there peacefully until the store closed, and then they left. Their act of courage was subsequently imitated across the South.

Imagine, instead, if they'd thrown the brick. Think of what would've followed--the riots, the pogroms, the relentless search for "terrorists." We wouldn't be commemorating MLK's speech today--we'd still be fighting that war. That dire outcome was prevented by the uncanny wisdom, stunning self-discipline, and enormous moral courage of four ghetto kids.

These four young men are heroes of highest order. America can be very proud, and very, very grateful. They deserve their statues, and much more besides.

The Greensboro 4 have gone on to lead honorable but undistinguished lives. One heroic act is enough for a lifetime--it's more than most of us can muster. I was a Trotskyist when I was 18--no heroism there. Like most of us, President Obama has never been a hero. Compared to Joe McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain and David Richmond, Mr. Obama is a moral pipsqueak. That's why I refused to listen to his speech.

Leftists accuse the Tea Party of hypocrisy when we claim Martin Luther King and the Greensboro boys as our own. But why? Like MLK, we draw inspiration from Thomas Jefferson's immortal words. Both MLK and the Greensboro boys demanded the right to be served at lunch counters, and in hotels and motels--in other words, the right to be consumers like the rest of us. If there is a more important free market principle, I certainly don't know what it is. This is a 100% Tea Party program.

But unlike MLK, or at least his latter-day heirs, the Tea Party also reads the second half of the Declaration of Independence. That's the boring part, containing the long litany of grievances against the Crown. While the emotional impact of that list has faded with time, the resolve to prevent tyranny on this continent is forever enshrined in the Constitution. Jim Crow was not so much an act of a racism (though it was that, too), but rather an act of unconstitutional government tyranny.

Of all people, Blacks should honor the Constitutional guarantees of individual rights and the protection of minorities. Many, like Herman Cain and Paul McKinley have gotten the message. The natural political home for Black people is, in fact, the Tea Party.

Please join us.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What's Wrong With College?

Nobody likes President Obama's latest plan for higher education. That's probably a good thing.

Professors don't like it because it disrupts their cozy guild. The president signs off on such (non) revolutionary ideas like MOOCs and competency-based credentials--two things that potentially put faculty out of business. Further, Obama wants to hold them accountable for outcomes, e.g., employment, future salaries, etc. Academics believe that these workaday issues are beneath their dignity.

Republicans (including me) don't like it because we see it as the federal government meddling in things it really knows nothing about. Our view is that the feds should gradually disinvest in higher education, and leave the issue to the states, or better yet, to the marketplace.

So politically the thing is a turkey--it's not going anywhere. Still, the debate is important, and the fact that it now includes the president indicates that issues in higher education are coming to a head. Big changes are afoot, and none too soon.

Succinctly stated, the problem with college is this: Higher education costs too much and delivers too little. President Obama understands the first clause, but misses the second.

Costs too much is apparent from the 4x increase in costs (after inflation) since 1970. Now this can be disputed-- the difference in sticker price vs. what students actually pay may reduce the ratio slightly. On the other hand, including the large tax subsidies would increase the ratio. So take it as approximately true. This rate of increase clearly cannot continue--and isn't continuing. A major price war is breaking out between colleges, and technology is now being used to dramatically cut costs. This is excellent news for students.

Delivers too little is not as obvious. The modern college curriculum evolved after World War II with the GI bill. It enabled the mass education of a much larger fraction of the population. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s it was spectacularly successful--the alumni list from the City College of New York is proof of that. But by the 1980s the bloom was off the rose--the low-hanging fruit had already been picked. And beginning in the 1990s technological changes began to render the college degree less relevant.

Today I think that far from creating value, academia consumes it. It has become anti-productive. Colleges increasingly advertise themselves as a consumer good--promising resort-quality living arrangements, personal fulfillment and an exciting social life. Only as an afterthought do they mention career preparation, and that is delivered via meaningless buzzwords, such as "critical thinking" and "diversity."

My colleagues in our chemistry department are mostly against any kind of specific career training. Instead they favor the liberal arts, or educating the whole person, or encouraging group interactions and deep learning. In their view a well-educated person doesn't actually know how to do anything.

Now I'm not against a liberal arts education. I went through a Great Books program myself and have found it useful. The Grand Synthesis, the Big Idea and the Comprehensive Perspective are all good things to have. Indeed, as I read through my old blog posts, I see that I err toward abstraction. Perhaps I can't blame my professors--Trotskyism inevitably sees deeper meanings and great significance in almost every event. It is human nature to want to tell stories about stuff, and that's what colleges teach you to do.

But this is not the currency for the modern economy. However fulfilling and inspiring a liberal arts education may be, it will not help much in earning a living. Today's economy depends not on grand eternal schemes, but instead on very specific, practical knowledge. A lot of this is tacit knowledge--how to make a good cup of coffee, how to sell as many books as possible to customers, how to maximize production of grape juice at the lowest possible cost without sacrificing quality.

College (or high school) needs to teach basic skills--how to write a good memo; how to do arithmetic in your head, and then how to use a spreadsheet; accounting principles; basic science; how to read for meaning, etc. But beyond that students need to learn skills. A few of those come from a classroom--e.g., engineering education--but most of them come from experience--the school of hard knocks.

So here's my advice to colleges:

  • The curriculum needs to be shorter--two, or at most three years.
  • It needs to move to a hybrid format (partially in a classroom, and partially on-line). There are advantages to both formats and there's no reason to choose one or the other.
  • It needs to disaggregate. Colleges should get out of the housing, food, and athletics businesses. These things are important, but let specialists handle them separate from education.
  • In the spirit of disaggregation, the research enterprise needs to be (mostly) separated from teaching.
  • Colleges need to specialize. My campus, for example, has 40 departments teaching everything from anthropology to zoology. Nobody can do everything well. We need to narrow our focus down to five or ten things, and then be the best in the world at what we do.
  • There is nothing wrong with the liberal arts. But a liberal arts education by itself is not worth very much--students also need to prepare for a career. Indeed, I think the liberal arts will be best served if much of it is moved to continuing education, i.e., offered as a life-long opportunity to people interested in Great Books.
So what do faculty talk about? Very little on my list. Instead they debate whether or not tenure should be retained. This is an easy question to answer. Most colleges that retain tenure will go bankrupt. It's that simple--get over it.

And then you have the people completely disconnected from the real world--I refer of course to the academic feminists. They're really so easy to make fun of that it's not much of a sport, but consider this quote:
Re-reading one of the pieces in collection, “Toward a Woman-Centered University,” [Adrienne] Rich eloquently critiques the “male-created,” “male-dominated” structures of the university, asking whether patriarchal structures are “really capable of serving the humanism and freedom it (the university) professes.” She draws on a long feminist tradition of such critique, dating back to Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a damning critique of fascism and war, connecting both with the patriarchal exclusion of women from power.
Some authors (such as Dr. Helen) take this kind of gibberish seriously. I don't.

By contrast, consider this young lady (make sure you listen to the audio) who is decidedly not majoring in Whining & Self Pity. She's chosen a very practical subject. And I predict that later in life she will spend many a Vermont winter evening reading and learning about Great Books.

This young woman represents the future of college.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jack Barnes' Next Book

A fun parlor game is to predict the title of Jack Barnes' next book.

Approximately every other year Mr. Barnes, National Secretary (CEO) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) authors a book summarizing the Party's political position. These works are well-written, sentimental, and often completely detached from reality. An example is his 1998 opus US Imperialism Has Lost The Cold War.

The books typically evolve out of the annual Oberlin conferences. Every other year is a Party convention, and that easily turns into a book. In the off years, such as 2013, there is an educational confab--less likely to result in a tome.

The Active Workers Conference, held July 18-20 in Oberlin, Ohio, was a short three days. So the most probable outcome is that no book appears this year. Better to wait until after next year's convention. On the other hand, his last book came out in 2010, entitled Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power

The books all have some things in common:
  • They put great weight on history. Every event is deeply meaningful and subject to dialectical, Marxist interpretation. This makes the books important.
  • They are very sentimental, invariably referring to something that happened back when comrades were young (e.g., Malcolm X). So the books are inspiring.
  • They make some odd-ball claim that sets the Party apart. For example, nobody else on the Left (or even the world) believes that the US lost the cold war. Thus the books inspire group solidarity.
So we can try to parse John Studer's report of the proceedings and see what best fits these three criteria. He devotes a paragraph to the Cuban Five, "five Cuban revolutionaries framed up and imprisoned in the United States for working to defend the revolution from paramilitary attacks organized from U.S. soil." This case (which I have not followed) will certainly be a focus for Party activity, so it's important, but it fails the inspiring and group solidarity tests.

Another aim of the conference was "to better prepare workers participating to carry out this course, grounded in a weekly rhythm of propaganda activity in workers’ neighborhoods." This means selling Militants and petitioning to get candidates on the ballot. This, also, is an activity, but not a theme for a book. Likewise, the Jacob Perasso burglary gets a mention, but I think it fails on all three counts.

Finally we get to the main theme of the conference--something really important.
While the capitalist ruling class and its government say there’s an economic recovery, Barnes said in his opening talk, there’s no relief for workers from high unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere in the capitalist world. Many bosses are replacing fulltime with part-time and temporary workers.
And then at the end of the article we strike gold (emphasis mine):
During the conference summaries, Steve Clark described a debate over a statement he made in a class presentation that the unions today aren’t weak; they’re hamstrung by decades of class collaboration by the labor officialdom. There are millions of workers in the unions. The officials’ lament that the unions are “weak,” Clark said, is a rationalization for their refusal to organize workers into the labor movement and use union power — instead of subordinating workers and our unions to the bosses, their government, and the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties. 
Don’t think of the union as a “thing,” Barnes said in his summary remarks. The union is an activity, a movement. We are the union — that’s what communist workers need to remind ourselves and other workers. And when workers take hold of this powerful instrument to fight back against attacks by the bosses and their government, that lays the basis for further steps to organize a revolutionary social and political movement to advance the fight for workers power.`
There it is--an excellent title for a new book: We Are The Union. It will need a subtitle. It's a very inspiring idea, full of sentimental resonance to a bunch of old people who spent much of their lives in unions. Of course it has nothing to do with reality--nobody outside the Party will be able to take that slogan seriously. You have to be part of the in-group to appreciate it.

The second important theme comes from the other conference that many comrades attended, the VII Continental Conference In Solidarity With Cuba, held in Caracas, July 24-27. Cuba is probably the most sentimental issue around--Mr. Barnes and his life-long revolutionary companion, Mary-Alice Waters, joined the SWP in the early 1960s around support for Castro. We were all young back then.

But there are a couple of reasons why I don't think it will yield a new book. One is that it's already been done: Cuba and the Coming American Revolution was already published in 2007.

The second reason is more substantive, summarized by this excerpt from the article:
José Ángel Pérez of the Center for Study of the World Economy in Cuba gave a presentation on the economic measures being introduced in Cuba today. “Let me be clear, our economy is socialist. It’s not a mixed economy. It’s not state capitalist,” he began. “We’re not going back to capitalism.” 
The severe economic problems Cuba is addressing today are due to three factors, Pérez said — the U.S. economic war that adds billions to the cost of imports and deprives Cuba of essential products; the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the opening of the 1990s, abruptly wiping out 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade; and “our own errors.”
Put another way, the Party's sentimental attachment to Cuba is at great risk, for the country will inevitably go through some dramatic changes. The Castro regime will literally pass away, and what follows it is deeply uncertain. I don't think Mr. Barnes will put all his money on a collapsing horse.

As far as I can recall, The Militant has not published any significant analysis about the Cuban economy. There is nothing like the analytic article in Socialist Action, that I discussed here. The SWP is more tightly tied to the Castro regime than any other Trotskyist grouplet. Accordingly, they have commented on the island's economy only indirectly, such as by quoting a Cuban spokesman, as above.

So a book about Cuba, far from rallying the troops, may lead to some serious cognitive dissonance. The Revolution simply can't survive in anything like its current form--even Jack Barnes has to recognize that. But no reason to dwell on that for the annual feel-good session.

So here's my guess for Mr. Barnes' next book (assuming there is one). It will have a title similar to We Are The Union, it will contain a loving account of the Party's participation in unions all the way back to Farrell Dobbs and the Teamsters, and it will emphasize the crucial role that comrades will play in the future union movement.

If Mr. Barnes needs a ghost writer, I am available.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Is Big Data A Big Problem?

There's the excellent New York Times piece by Charles Duhigg describing how Target department stores were able to identify pregnant women from their purchases, and then send them ads and coupons for future needs. Indeed, there's the funny story of the teenager's dad who angrily confronted the store manager that his daughter had received mailers for infant supplies. "She's still in high school," he complained. A few days later he called to apologize--it turned out she really was pregnant.

Only your department store knows. And your credit card company, and the fast food place, and the grocery store, and probably even your hairdresser. That, even though you've kept it a secret from everybody.

Welcome to the world of Big Data.

Target soon discovered that its sleuthing was perceived as "creepy," and it has since backed off on the hard sell. Now the infant formula ads are mixed in with flyers for lawnmowers and men's socks, to serve as a figleaf for privacy.

Joel Kotkin (here and here), in his continuing crusade against the tech industry, takes the argument to the next level. His complaint is against Google, arguably the granddaddy of Big Data. They are mining everything--web search, this blog, Gmail, the files stored in Drive, to the photos in Picasa. It is all shamelessly marketed to advertisers, so that "Google, which, in the first half of 2012, took in more advertising dollars than all U.S. magazines and newspapers combined." If a data pipsqueak like Target can use data mining so effectively, then surely Google represents a massive invasion of privacy.

Not so, argues George Gilder (during the Q/A session, here). He grew up in a pre-technology, small town where nobody had any privacy whatsoever. Further, there was no way to refute the vicious rumors, even if false. Google, he claims, is a mere piker compared to the small town gossip. He thinks privacy concerns are overrated.

Further, while companies like Target are Google's clients, Google has to be very careful not to abuse people like me. I entrust them with my Gmail and Blogger data on the condition that they're careful with the contents. One serious misstep, and they're out of business.

And that's something Mr. Kotkin doesn't understand. Far from being an impregnable monopoly ("should be regulated like utilities"), Google lives on the edge. Not only are they vulnerable to competition from Amazon, eBay, and Facebook, but also to some public-domain, Wikipedia-like start-up. Customers come and customers go. The tide can flow out very quickly. Indeed, were I to make a prediction, Google will not exist as a Fortune 500 company 30 years from now.

That said, Google's data mining is laughable. The number of clicks ads on my blog receive is a single-digit percentage of the number of visitors. And the number of clicks I make on ads delivered to me isn't even 1% of the feed.

But there is one outfit that is regulated like a utility, and that's the NSA. Mr. Kotkin, along with many of my friends in the Republican Party are in a tizzy about this--a gross violation of privacy, they claim. But it isn't--the government is just doing its job. Technology renders asymmetric warfare possible, and the threat we face from that is very real and very serious. I find the NSA's actions (at least insofar as I know about them) to be entirely reasonable. I'm a small government guy, but national defense and the protection of citizens' lives and property is a proper concern of the government. Privacy be damned.

Two things bother. First, I'm astonished that the folks in the NSA thought this could be kept secret. Of course it was going to leak out--government secrets are just sooo 20th Century. American law enforcement is going to have to do it's job in full glare of the public.

Second, Glenn Reynolds' question--how do you guarantee due process if everything is a crime?--is a good one. There are millions of laws on the books, and some suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day. That they're not prosecuted is solely at police discretion--this is not a very secure foundation for civil liberties. This--not the privacy issue--is the real problem that has to be addressed.

Many of these laws were passed to make some constituent group happy. They were never intended to be enforced, and in a pre-NSA age they were unenforceable. So something like Ethelbert's Law was passed because Ethelbert had some tragic thing happen to him, and therefore anybody who eats crackers while shooting pheasants is a felon. The obvious solution is to just repeal most of these laws--get rid of the nanny state--but that's probably a Utopian dream.

A more practical solution might be to render any data collected by the NSA or comparable government agencies (including, perhaps, the IRS) inadmissible as evidence. Then the gumshoes would have to put their cases together the old-fashioned way. The NSA data could, however, be used for military intelligence and actions, e.g., drone strikes, or arresting illegal combatants. (There are dangers there, too, but they are fewer.)

This issue splits both parties. I disagree with most of my Tea Party friends, such as Rand Paul or Glenn Reynolds. I'm down with Chris Christie on this one. At the same time, my Trotskyist friends, along with much of the progressive Left, agree with Rand Paul or Joel Kotkin.

It makes for strange bedfellows all around.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Crony Capitalism

I am grateful to Solidarity for turning me on to Jack Rasmus, an independent scholar, trained economist, and Leftist who writes very well. I've bookmarked his homepage. This post is based on Mr. Rasmus' recent Solidarity piece, and a longer article he wrote for Z Magazine here. At the end of the latter, he offers 14 predictions for the US economy for 2013-2014.

I note that Mr. Rasmus and I agree on most of the facts in his article. That's reassuring because he's a real economist, unlike us rank amateurs over here at Trotsky's Children. The disagreements are relevant, however, and are less about economics than about politics.

I think he misstates the Republican position on tax reform. He says
That tax code bill will include massive additional cuts in corporate income taxes, especially in the top corporate tax rate and in taxation of multinational corporations, who are currently hoarding $1.9 trillion in cash with their foreign subsidiaries in order to avoid paying taxes. Corporations are eager to reduce their top corporate rate from 35% to 28% or less--a proposal which Obama has already agreed during his last campaign. They argue that the 35% rate is the highest among advanced economies. What they don’t say, and what the press conveniently ignores, is that US corporations actual effective rate is a mere 12% of total profits--the lowest among advanced economies. They also decline to mention that the 12% rate is about half of what they previously paid annually between 1989-2008.
He leaves out the corollary, namely the Republican proposal substantially cuts loopholes, and they claim it is revenue neutral. They also argue that Obama's counter-proposal, while lowering corporate tax rates, is not revenue neutral, but would in fact collect higher corporate taxes.

So I disagree with three of Mr. Rasmus' 14 predictions:

1) He predicts that corporate tax reform will pass this year. I think that's highly unlikely.

2) He predicts that there will be significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare. I'm not sure what he's referring to, but it may be associated with Obamacare. We'll see if that actually happens.

3) He thinks the Fed will start to taper.

So here's the stunning thing about the remaining eleven predictions: they could have come straight from the pages of ZeroHedge (ZH). ZH is a radical Libertarian blog that forecasts imminent doom and gloom for the US economy. Their favorite investments are gold, guns, and canned goods.

So this is strange. We have a Leftist who, at least in 11 out of 14 points, agrees with the right-wing blog ZeroHedge. What gives?

Presumably Mr. Rasmus subscribes to the Marxist myth: We're poor because the rich people stole all the money. ZH has it's own myth, perhaps not so succinctly stated, but it's roughly We're poor because the government is hopelessly corrupt and bankrupt. Instead of Karl Marx, their prophet is Ayn Rand. These two world views don't have much in common, but they agree on one very important point: crony capitalism is bad.

A crony capitalist is a company whose major income depends on collecting rents. The Post Office is a prime example--they are granted a monopoly over the mail box, and therefore can charge as high a rent as they like for first class mail. When was the last time the price of a postage stamp went down? Never--and that's because rent collection is a sure thing.

ZH argues that much of the financial industry is run by crony capitalists--witness Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And likewise with Goldman Sachs and the other too-big-to-fail banks. My Republican friends point to so-called green companies, such as Solyndra, as examples. The main Republican argument against Obamacare is that it turns our entire healthcare industry into a crony capitalist operation.

So the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) both rail against crony capitalism. But they have different conceptions of who a crony is. For OWS, the culprit has to be some rich, white guy, like an evil banker. The Tea Party will agree with that, but also regards unionized public employees as cronies. Their inflated pay and benefits are just as much a result of rent collection as the guaranteed profits of Goldman-Sachs. College professors like me are world-class experts at collecting rents, but do only a mediocre job of education. The OWS folks are bamboozled by union propaganda.

So this is why the Tea Party has a more accurate view of corporate tax rates. What OWS doesn't understand is that our current corporate tax regime very much favors crony capitalists. Big companies, like Amazon, J. P Morgan, etc., can hire the lawyers and accountants necessary to take advantage of all the obscure loopholes. Plus they can effectively lobby for more loopholes. The small fry competition, on the other hand, can't do that--they just end up paying the high corporate tax rate. So the current tax regime discourages competition and benefits the big, incumbent companies. That's why Amazon, for example, has recently changed its tune on collecting state sales taxes--they can afford to do it, but their competitors can't.

So the Republican proposal to lower tax rates and eliminate the loopholes is a point for the little guy. It's also good for consumers, since there will be more competition in the marketplace. The Tea Party wing of the Republican party understands that. It's a pity that OWS doesn't.

I hate to associate Mr. Rasmus with OWS. Occupy is a mostly incoherent movement of very limited political consequence. Mr. Rasmus is much smarter. But in this case he's channeling the OWS line, and this explains the differences between his 14 points, and those the Tea Party might propose. His opposition to Republican corporate tax reform is misguided.

One final clarification--I don't think ZH properly represents the Tea Party. ZH's claim to fame is doom and gloom, not just free enterprise. There is no reason why a Tea Partyer has to be so pessimistic. I'm not--I am very upbeat about the US economy, as described here.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 10, 2013


There is the old joke about Puritans--that they are never more miserable than when somewhere, somebody is having fun.

Marxists are like that. Nothing gets their goat more than if somebody should dare to raise their head above the muck of poverty. The slightest increase in wealth brings forth thundering condemnation: inequality, "imperialism", planetary despoilation, violations of indigenous rights, etc. You can't win with these people.

Today's Marxist in question is Mr. Louis Proyect, who writes a post entitled Leftist Support for BRICS: A Faith-Based Initiative. It's a very long article, and includes a piece by Bobby Peek entitled Brics lessons from Mozambique.

BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Diplomats from these five countries convened in Durban, issuing a Statement that Mr. Proyect mocks (accurately) as
...written by the same people who write those advertising supplements for the Sunday NY Times on “The new and dynamic South Africa” with pictures of wineries, gamboling elands, and a Black family in a BMW. The article starts off with the cheery affirmation: “As the global economy is being reshaped, we are committed to exploring new models and approaches towards more equitable development and inclusive global growth by emphasising complementarities and building on our respective economic strengths.”
The Statement is Dilbert-quality copy, to be sure. By contrast, Mr. Proyect takes great pleasure in telling us about the great extent and horrifying depths of poverty still present in Durban. And true enough, the Statement, while not necessarily wrong, is certainly not the whole story. But Mr. Proyect's criticism is deeper--his argument is that, because of poverty, the diplomats' efforts to overcome poverty are intrinsically immoral and hypocritical. Why should this be true?

Mr. Proyect's beef against the BRICS can be summarized in three sentences:
  • The BRICS are not socialist, nor are they a waystation to socialism.
  • The BRICS are "anti-American" not because they oppose capitalism, but because they compete with the US in the capitalist game of thrones.
  • The BRICS are behaving like imperialists now, and in the future may become globe's primary, imperialist powers.
The first two statements are undeniably true. The third statement includes a prediction that I think is unlikely to happen, at least not in this century. The point of Mr. Proyect's article is to criticize Leftists who want to cozy up to the BRICS because they're anti-American, and thus represent the lesser evil. His argument is that relying on the BRICS to create a better world is a dead-end, or, in the words of his title, a "faith-based initiative."

Except that the BRICS (or at least the BIC) do represent a better world, albeit not a socialist one. Arguably the most important event of the 20th Century is that 400,000,000 people were lifted out of poverty in China. You can blame Deng Xiao Ping for Tienanmen all you want, and you can (as I do) extend significant credit to people like Malcom McLean and Sam Walton. But the fact remains that the little Communist was a fraud--he wasn't a real Communist. He took the capitalist road, with earth-shaking success.

Our friends in the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action still haven't accepted this fact. They maintain that Chinese wealth is just a Potemkin Village, with the same few people walking through the shopping malls for the benefit of the Western media. But they're wrong, and Mr. Proyect is honest enough to know that they're wrong. The BRICS are important precisely because they have made enormous strides in reducing global poverty. Why is Mr. Proyect against that?

So now we come to the tirade against development in Mozambique--the case made by Bobby Peek. Mr. Peek writes
South Africa is extracting 415 megawatts of electricity from Mozambique through the Portuguese developed Cahora Bassa Dam, which has altered permanently the flow of the Zambezi River, resulting in severe flooding on a more frequent basis over the last years. In the recent floods earlier this year it is reported that a women gave birth on a rooftop of a clinic, this follows a similar incident in 2000, when Rosita Pedro was born on a tree after severe flooding that year.
He goes on to complain that
  • Somebody in Melbourne is getting rich (and--horrors--probably having fun, too).
  • That dams are capital intensive.
  • That the electricity is going to South Africa.
  • That India, Brazil, and Russia are also making investments in Mozambique.
I find it very strange that Mr. Proyect quotes Peek's article in the same post where he complains about poverty in Durban. After all, turning out the lights in Durban is hardly the solution to poverty. Where does Mr. Proyect suggest Durban's power should alternatively come from? Coal-fired plants? Nuclear?

Of course I know the answer. He'd just replace the gamboling elands with magically-empowered, free unicorns. Surely, amongst all of South Africa's game parks there are enough unicorns able to generate electricity out of thin air at no cost whatsoever, either monetary or environmental.

Marxists have no perspective. Pulling 400,000,000 people out of poverty is an accomplishment completely negated by one Mozambican woman forced to give birth on a rooftop because of a flood. That very same woman is cause to throw 3,500,000 residents of Durban into the dark. Yes, I hope we can take care of the poor lady, but sheesh--a little bit a business sense would go a long way.

Marxists believe in poverty--and not only Marxists, but all of the Left, much of the Democratic Party, and even a few of my Republican friends.

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Man's Out To Get You

The only thing worse than being arrested is being ignored.

The world revolution has been on hiatus recently as The Militant has taken a three-week vacation. Of course it hasn't been all fun--they spent two days attending the Oberlin Conference. Presumably we'll hear more about that soon. In the meantime, the August 12th issue brings us up to speed on the current state of the working class.

The big, earthshaking news is that Jacob Perasso's house has been burglarized.
“I knew this was no ordinary robbery. This is what’s done when the authorities or their vigilante friends want to send you a message,” Jacob Perasso told the Militant, in an interview following a July 16 break-in at his house. Perasso was the Socialist Workers Party candidate for City Council District 4 in the May elections here and is active in support of workers’ struggles, fights against police brutality and other social protests in the interests of working people.
A picture of the crime scene is included.
“They are trying to intimidate us, but we are going to fight back," Perasso said, announcing plans to organize a broad international defense campaign.
An international defense campaign? Against who? Burglars? The police? Vigilantes? This is surely one of the silliest ideas ever to grace the pages of the The Militant.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has a long tradition of fighting for civil rights. (The fact that they don't actually believe in civil rights is not the topic for now.) In 1941, several leading comrades were convicted under the Smith Act and sentenced to jail terms. The Smith Act made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the US government, and was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1957. It clearly represented an overreach by the government, albeit one taken during a time of war. We can give comrades credit for their work against this law.

Beginning in the 1960s, the FBI (under J. Edgar Hoover) launched a campaign "aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations." This was dubbed COINTELPRO, standing for Counter Intelligence Program, and it was directed at a large number of Leftist, Rightist, and racist organizations. The program was totally out of line, and the SWP took the lead in fighting back. They filed a lawsuit in 1973 which they eventually won in 1986, receiving damages of $264,000. Once again, kudos to the comrades.

Now of COINTELPRO's aims, discrediting and disrupting legal political activity is surely not a legitimate function of constitutional government. The SWP was always very careful to act within the law, so however vile their ultimate purposes, the FBI had no right to do what it did.

On the other hand, I support the government's efforts to survey and infiltrate radical organizations. The Party has always assumed that they were government targets because of their program. That is, the Party believed it represented a political threat to the capitalist system, and government repression was a response to that threat. They viewed themselves as a political organization, not a terrorist cell, and not as a bunch of counter-cultural hippies. Accordingly, they were resolutely non-violent, and operated scrupulously within the law. I give full credit to the Party for their seriousness of purpose--of that there can be no question.

But the same cannot be said of every individual comrade. A small, minority party such as the SWP will always attract some nut cases. Whatever the pedigree of the organization, the nuts probably warrant observation--surely a legitimate police function. An example is Lyndon LaRouche, who started his disreputable political career in the SWP.

The matter comes up today with surveillance of mosques. The government has no right to obstruct or disrupt constitutionally protected religious worship. But they have an obligation to keep some of those worshipers under observation.

After COINTELPRO, the Party's civil rights efforts degenerated. This is probably because comrades just got too old, and the government stopped paying any attention to them. Fifty and sixty year-olds are not likely candidates for terrorism, no matter how nutty. The police have better things to do.

For a Party that believes its political program is an imminent threat to the establishment, ignoring them is the worst insult imaginable. Absent real repression, self-validation requires that they invent police repression, and so they have. There are two cases of note.

The first is the Mark Curtis case. In 1988 Mr. Curtis was arrested, tried and convicted for the sexual assault of a 15 year old girl in her own home. The Party defended this as a political case, stringing the project along for nearly a decade. There are two issues: 1) was Mr. Curtis guilty? And 2) was this a political case?

The jury convicted him, and I have no reason to doubt their verdict. This despite the fact that the Party turned the trial into a circus.

I am totally convinced, however, that it was not a politically-motivated case. The Party claims it was a frame-up--Mr. Curtis was lured to the girl's house by an anonymous and unidentified woman, only to have his pants pulled down by cops who were waiting for him there. After this he was charged with rape. This is a bizarre and unbelievable story. It would have been much easier to frame him just by throwing some drugs into his car.

And the second case is poor Mr. Perasso and his burgled house. There is just no way this is a politically inspired police action. It's a plain, old-fashioned burglary, pure and simple. Burglars (or so I read) are looking for cash, drugs, guns, and things that can be easily carried and fenced (e.g., cell phones). They are not going to steal e-readers (!?) or heavy, old laptops. Trying to turn this into a political case is just absurd.

The premise of this blog is that my Trotskyist friends are sane. The SWP is pushing their luck promoting this schizophrenia-worthy conspiracy theory--if they persist I'll just drop them off the radar screen. But as of now they still have the benefit of the doubt. The source of the fairy tale is less self-deception, but rather the story they tell themselves about the value of their organization. If you take away government repression, there's nothing left.

And that's why the world revolution depends on the fate Jacob Perasso's cell phone.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Book Review: Filthy Rich In Rising Asia

The full title is How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. A good review is here, though I would recommend actually reading the book first. I encountered this book via Tyler Cowen, who also enjoyed it, and who unsurprisingly thinks it's about economics.

The pretense is to be a self-help book, a guide to getting filthy rich in rising Asia, a premise that is imaginative, charming, and makes for great storytelling. A consequence is there are few proper nouns. None of the characters have names, nor does the country or the city where the novel takes place. You can imagine that it happens anywhere in Asia, but I found it useful to place it in Lahore, Pakistan, which is the author's home town.

The chapter titles are the stuff self-help books are made of. Some would do Stephen Covey proud, such as Get an education, and Work for yourself. Others are more...shall we say...Pakistani, like Be prepared to use violence and Patronize the artists of war.

Many reviewers compare the book to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Somehow I missed that in high school, and so read Gatsby for the first time only a few months ago. The comparison isn't really very apt--both are about rich people, but that's about it. Fitzgerald hated them, and clearly believed the Marxist myth we're poor because the rich people stole all the money. Indeed, Gatsby was a gangster.

Hamid's rich man is more an accidental figure. He certainly isn't evil, nor (beyond petty theft) did he steal money. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and was smart enough to take advantage of it. Further, like most rich folks, he improved the lives of the people around him--his family, his employees and his customers. Not that he was altruistic or above cheating, but there is a thread of fair play that runs through the entire novel.

In the end, money comes and money goes. It's not even particularly good for keeping score. The success of the protagonist's life is measured in much more quotidian terms: love, friends, and family. Indeed, the subplot is a love story.

I'm not going to tell you the plot, but I will address three themes: ideologues, water, and graft.

The protagonist goes to university. In doing so, partly for self-protection, and partly for economic support, he joins an ideological group described as "bearded men." Their immediate mission is to stop drug use by their fellow students, a task they pursue with occasionally violent zeal. Our hero depends on them for help when his mother falls ill, but then becomes increasingly cynical and disengaged. He's about to get into some serious trouble, but makes himself scarce just in time. That's the end of his university career.

So that reminds me vaguely of my time in the Socialist Workers Party--absent the violence. Instead of being kicked out of school, I was simply ostracized by my former comrades.

Water is a central theme of the book. The government wants to build a special community, labeled Phase Ten. Here's what the retired brigadier says about it:
In ten, when you turn the tap, you'll be able to drink what comes out of it. Everywhere. In your garden. In your kitchen. In your bathroom. Drinkable water. When you enter phase ten, it'll be like you've entered another country. Another continent. Like you've gone to Europe. Or North America.
This utopian vision is vivid to me because of the year I spent in Uganda. The expense and effort that Ugandans of all classes spend securing enough potable water for the day is astonishing. School girls invest much energy lugging heavy jerrycans on their heads, sometimes for many kilometers. Ex-pat families, like mine, depended on the water tower behind our complex, and the expensive electricity needed to pump water into it. And even then we had to boil and filter the stuff before we could drink it--it was an hour-long chore I had to perform every evening.

In the US we take potable water for granted--we live in a blessed place. Pakistan--and most of rising Asia--is more like Uganda, and it is truly fitting that Mr. Hamid has chosen water as a central plot element.

Graft is endemic in Rising Asia, ranging from petty theft by employees, to bribery on a grand scale. The former is tolerated and functions as a social safety net. The narrator observes that a servant stays
because it is easy to skim money from you. You do not begrudge him this. You would do the same. You have done the same. It is a poor person's right.
Emergency expenses--e.g., for sick family members--is usually taken from employers, either by gift or by theft. Likewise, money is saved for retirement by skimming a little off the top. As such, graft in Pakistan appears to serve the same function as our social welfare state.

The important government bureaucrat collects a big bribe from our rising rich man. In this he is like America's tenured college professors--a person who is paid by virtue of his position rather than for any service rendered. (Like a college professor, he may actually perform a service, but his paycheck has nothing to do with that.) In a word, bureaucrats are the same everywhere--they are rent collectors. Perhaps there's a moral difference between the Pakistani official and an American college professor, but there isn't an economic difference.

Still, institutions matter. Though both American professors and Pakistani bureaucrats are parasitic rent collectors, the former operate under the rule of law. Their rent is predictably calculated. The latter follow the rule of the jungle--eat what you can steal. So the professoriate is at very least less damaging to the economy, and may actually be more productive (though that's hard to say).

Because of corruption and incompetence, the water and sewer lines never get built. Citizens depend on bearded street gangs for protection rather than any police department. Contracts cannot be enforced. Pakistanis are poor, and Americans are rich. Rising Asia--at least parts of it--is sinking fast.

Anyway, for a really good story, along with fresh insight into Rising Asia, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is well worth the read. Highly recommended.

Further Reading: