Sunday, September 29, 2013

Labor's Final Step

It's not often that one witnesses the end of a social movement--usually they just gradually fade away. But perhaps we have just seen the end of the trade union movement. The AFL-CIO convention held September 8th through 11th may represent the swan song.

Trotskyists are all atwitter about the event, with lead articles appearing in The Militant, Socialist Action, and Solidarity. Missing from the list are Socialist Viewpoint, which has too slow a publication cycle, and Mr. Proyect, who (to his credit) has been busy covering Syria, and is not interested in economics in any case.

The best-written, most informed, and funniest article appears in Solidarity, by Steve Early. A former leader of the Communications Workers of America, he is now involved in a reform effort known as Labor Notes. Socialist Action's contribution is also good, authored by Bill Onasch. Mr. Onasch is the proprietor and (as far as I can tell) the sole member of the Kansas City Labor Party. Finally, The Militant chimes in with a piece by the venerable Susan Lamont.

The signal event is succinctly summarized by Ms. Lamont in her lede:
Marking a further retreat by the current labor officialdom from any perspective of actively organizing workers into unions and bringing union power to bear, delegates to the Sept. 8-11 AFL-CIO convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution to begin incorporating nonlabor political organizations into the federation and shoring up its dues base with “workers centers.” 
The labor movement can’t be “limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes 'Yes,” said the resolution.
Liberal political organizations that share the labor federation’s orientation to the Democratic Party, including the NAACP, National Organization for Women, National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club, are invited to join the labor federation as well.
Or, put another way, the AFL-CIO is dissolving itself into the larger progressive Left. Right now the outside organizations are called Solidarity Partners. Mr. Early dubs them alt-Labor. All three authors argue that this dilutes both the purpose and the effectiveness of unions as organizations charged with fighting for workers' rights.

And indeed, contradictions abound. The unions are terrified of Obamacare (aka ACA). Mr. Early writes
With the AFL-CIO’s active support, the Obama Administration came up with an Affordable Care Act that now threatens to put labor-backed Taft-Hartley trust funds, covering 20 million people, at a fatal disadvantage and possibly out of business altogether.
On a similar note, Mr. Onasch notes that the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare received a tepid welcome at the convention--if anything can put union benefit packages out of business faster than Obamacare, it would be something like single payer. So unlike their Solidarity Partners, the AFL-CIO finds itself allied with Republicans (very ironic since they originally supported the ACA).

Unmentioned in any of the articles is the growing gap between the public employee unions (PEU) and those in the private sector. Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal posted an article saying how Governor Chris Christie has divided New Jersey's PEUs from the construction trade unions. The former can't stand the governor, while the latter are rallying to his cause.
"My guys haven't gotten a raise in two years because their entire raise went to their health and pension costs," Mr. Sweeney said. "New Jersey has a government that we can't afford any longer."
Mr. Sweeney, a former Ironworkers official, is now a Democratic state legislator. So the rank and file rubes are finally catching on--that it's them who are paying for the gold-plated benefits packages awarded to the parasite class. The AFL-CIO is going to have a hard time patching up this divide.

A similar chasm exists between the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) and those solidarity partners in the environmentalist movement. The latter oppose the Keystone pipeline, whereas LIUNA strongly favors it. Likewise, alt-Labor is against anything that might produce income: fracking, mining, off-shore drilling, power generation, and on and on and on. The progressive Left (including Trotskyism) is ultimately pro-poverty, while unionists are actually interested in earning an honest living.

Then there is the effort to "organize" the unorganized--fast food workers, New York taxi drivers, Walmart, etc. Ms. Lamont describes it nicely:
The AFL-CIO will encourage “worker centers” like “OUR Walmart” and “Fight for 15” to affiliate. These union-initiated groups, which also involve students, social service organization staffers and others, have organized protests around the country calling for higher pay and better working conditions for retail, fast-food and other workers, but without organizing the ranks themselves to establish actual unions.
She implicitly admits that the so-called "fast-food strike" was a bit of a fraud--most of the strikers didn't work in fast food. And similarly for the putative drive to organize Walmart.

All three authors take the unions to task for not organizing more workers. They attribute this failure to class collaboration. Quoting again from Ms. Lamont:
By promoting class collaboration with the bosses and election of “friendly” capitalist politicians as the unions’ main purpose, the officialdom’s decades-long class-collaborationist course has hamstrung the union movement. It has been key to the union’s continued bleeding of membership and inability to recruit new forces, at a time of capitalist crisis when workers are starting to look for a way to fight back.
Mr. Onasch says the same thing, and then offers a solution:
The problem created by those in charge of the House of Labor is not their emphasis on politics but their refusal to recognize the need for class-based politics. Our side should be directly fighting for political power, not begging or bribing politicians beholden to our class enemy. There is no more important question for the American working class today than launching a party of our own. Despite their present weakness and disorientation, our unions, and the allies they now solicit, are the foundation upon which such a party can be built.
These views don't pass the reality test. They are based on the Scrooge McDuck Model of Capitalism, which claims that there's some huge stash of cash hidden somewhere that, if the workers just throw a big enough temper tantrum, can be liberated to solve all problems. But there is no such stash, and the union tops know that. They're doing the best they can with the resources available.

The truth is that there is no longer any economic space for unions. Fast food workers can't earn enough to pay union dues, and it is certainly not in their interest to have that expense foisted on them. And likewise for Walmart employees, or, for that matter, auto workers in the South. Unions depended on inefficiencies during the rapidly growing economy of the 1950s and 1960s, from which they collected rents. Those inefficiencies don't exist anymore.

Computerization, globalization, and automation have made the economy much more efficient--there are no more wasted nickels left to pick up off the floor. But the money doesn't go to capitalists. No, instead it goes to the consumer. There is no stash of cash, and there is nothing for the unions to win, even with biggest temper tantrum in the world.

The AFL-CIO has apparently recognized reality and thrown in the towel on organizing workers. They're looking for a new niche.

The union movement is over.

Further Reading:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

George Gilder, Evolution, & Science

This post started life as a review of George Gilder's recent book, Knowledge and Power. But the book is unreviewable, at least in a short post. Don't get me wrong--it's a fabulous read. Mr. Gilder is a superb writer, very literate, extraordinarily entertaining, and there is a surprise on almost every page (that last being a compliment Mr. Gilder will especially appreciate). However, it is nothing if not complicated, and the author promiscuously crosses and re-crosses that fine line between visionary and crackpot. Parsing it all apart is a task beyond me.

When one goes through a dramatic change in world view--as I did in my transition from Trotskyist to Republican--certain books become very influential. First for me was Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. Second place is a longer list, including two by Mr. Gilder--Wealth and Poverty and Men and Marriage. The former was the first serious book about economics I ever read, and it inspired a life-long interest. Even today, were Mr. Gilder to read this blog, I doubt there is much about economics where he would disagree. I also read Microcosm, a book that I thought was silly.

I subsequently learned that Mr. Gilder is co-founder of the Discovery Institute, an organization I associated with know-nothing religious objections to evolution. (These days I argue against the know-nothing Marxist objections, which are actually nearly the same thing.) So I approached the current tome with trepidation.

It's mostly about economics, and indeed he makes the strongest case for capitalism I have ever read. He borrows from Claude Shannon's information theory, and the analogy to economics is enlightening and convincing. But beyond economics, he proposes information theory as a theory of everything (my term), employing it, at one point, even to dispute the second law of thermodynamics. The subplot of the book is a philosophy of science, and a sub-subplot of that concerns Darwinism. Specifically, he takes issue with Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett extends Darwinism to memes and elevates that to a theory of everything. He calls natural selection "the universal solvent," i.e., everything (literally) is just a series of selected, random permutations.

Astonishingly, I agree with Mr. Gilder in this dispute, despite being an avid a fan of Darwinism. I do not think Darwinism is a theory of everything. As a unifying concept in biology it is absolutely compelling. Insofar as human beings are biological critters, evolution rules. Both religious and Marxist objections that evolution somehow stopped the instant humans came along is completely wrong. Evolutionary psychology is indisputably a valid approach to understanding human instinct and much of human behavior.

But Mr. Gilder correctly notes that evolution cannot account for new technology. While our sexual, culinary, social, and child-rearing urges likely have biological roots, there is no way that the invention of a jet aircraft or an iPad can be predicted by evolutionary psychology. Simple-minded reductionism will not do--some other factor comes into play.

Mr. Gilder falls into the trap of saying that science only describes the material world, and that the extra-scientific world of ideas must also be considered. (This oddly echos Marxist complaints about idealism. It also revisits the similar debate around the turn of the last century between Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Mach.) In this he disagrees with authors like Stephen Pinker and Steven Landsburg, who come down strongly on the "materialist" side, contending that people don't have free will. Mr. Landsburg even makes the silly argument that (since mental processing is obviously done in parallel) because we begin muscle movements milliseconds before we're aware of them, therefore free will is a myth. (I can plan things months in advance, but never mind.)

I personally reject the material-ideal distinction. My working definition of science is this: Science is the study of reproducible phenomena. Reproducible means that all normal human beings perceive the phenomena in ways that they describe similarly. Normal people will see a red book and a red table and verify between themselves that they are the same color. Normal in this case does not include folks who are colorblind (or just plain blind). Nor does it include cats, which even if they were intelligent enough to communicate with us, have a completely different visual physiology and don't see things the same way. Reproducibility is common at the level of human perception (which is why arguments that science is merely a cultural artifact fall flat with me).

All normal human beings have a sense of free will, normal in this case excluding small children and schizophrenics. The phenomenon is as reproducible as the color red. Therefore when people like Pinker and Landsburg say we have no free will, they are just flat-out wrong. Of course we do.

Though that's not the end of the story. Color perception, for example, depends as much or more on eye and brain physiology than it does on the science of optics (Google the word metamer for more information). One could very reasonably argue that our color sense is just an illusion--the colors aren't really there. That's the kind of argument that Messrs. Pinker and Landsburg make for free will. But it's ultimately solipsistic--since all perception depends on physiological states, then one can't believe any of it. Everything is an illusion.

So it's true that free will, like color perception, requires explanation and elaboration. It clearly has something to do with brain physiology. But that doesn't make it less real. It may be that free will is an epiphenomenon of evolution, or perhaps an emergent phenomenon, or something else altogether. But it is very unlikely that it can be satisfactorily described by evolutionary psychology. There is some other constituent--call it a soul if you want--to the human being that exists beyond Darwinism.

Many, possibly including Mr. Gilder, argue that the soul exists independently of the brain, perhaps even out-living the brain. There is no reproducible evidence for this--millennia of seances, ancestor worship, praying to the saints, ghost stories, etc., have yielded no consensus among normal people. The scientific conclusion, therefore, is that the soul and brain are inextricably linked. I, for one, have no trouble with the fundamental assumption of neuroscience--that for every mental state there corresponds a physical state. But the direction of the causal arrow is not determined. Of course changing the physical state--seeing a big truck while standing in the middle of the road--will alter my mental state. But free will implies that the causal arrow goes the other way as well, and it most assuredly does.

Mr. Pinker argues against the ghost in the machine, i.e., against the existence of scientifically unsupported, irreproducible causes of mental states. In this he is certainly correct. But he counterposes a rigid, Newtonian determinism, for which there is also no scientific evidence. There is a huge gap between those two poles. There is no ghost in the machine, but free will is also not a straightforward product of physics or evolution. There is, instead, a third way. Looking for emergent phenomena might be a place to start.

In my dreams I imagine that some comrade some day will read this blog and say "Aha! Marxism is wrong. I'm going to be a Republican." If it ever does happen, it won't be because of evolutionary psychology.

Further Reading:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Doctrine of Secret Socialism

Back in 1998 Jack Barnes (head of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) published his book about the collapse of the Soviet empire entitled U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War. Since, according to Marxist theory, a full-scale war is needed to restore capitalist property relations, and since no war had occurred in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, therefore there has been no capitalist counter-revolution. In other words, nothing happened in 1991.

I dubbed this the Doctrine of Secret Socialism. It maintained that people in Eastern Europe still lived in socialist societies, despite being entirely unaware of that fact. The citizens of East Germany, for example, would have been astounded to read in The Militant that they were engaged in a brutal effort to prevent the restoration of capitalist property relations. This showed up in conflicts over child care facilities and abortion laws. Somehow strikes in Romania and Poland were adduced as evidence that the countries were still workers' states. It was silliness all the way around. The theory has quietly been dropped, though to my knowledge never repudiated.

Secret Socialism is an extreme example of low consciousness among the working class. Apparently, the benighted workers can't even tell the difference between capitalism and socialism. The role of the revolutionary Party is precisely to bring them up to speed, i.e., to tell them what they really want so they can want it for themselves. The SWP's doctrine is the most extreme example of the phenomena among the grouplets that I follow, but they're not really alone.

It shows up in The Militant's coverage of the Puerto Rican independence movement. At a UN hearing, for example,
[m]any speakers referred to the Nov. 6, 2012, nonbinding referendum in Puerto Rico on the island’s colonial status — the fourth such vote in 45 years. A few speakers, advocating either statehood or the current commonwealth status, pointed to such votes as a vehicle to achieve their goal. 
'So-called plebiscites administered in a colony can only benefit the colonial authorities,' said independence fighter Juan Antonio “Papo” Castillo of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Solidarity Coordinating Committee, based in Worcester, Mass.
In that plebiscite only 5.5% of voters opted for independence. But, consistent with the doctrine of secret socialism, the slobs don't really know what they want--the Party speaks for them. That's why so-called "revolutionaries" dismiss the result as meaningless.

So we have two examples from the most recent Militant (pdf). A front page editorial comes with the headline No to Assad butchery! No to US intervention! In these sentiments they are of a mind with Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, among many others. Indeed, those demands are incontrovertible--nobody except Assad supports his continued butchery, and even neoconservatives advocate US intervention only as the last resort.

Yet the piece closes with this very strange paragraph.
The working people of Syria are fighting for political space and against a brutal regime as they also fight to block reactionary Islamist-jihadi forces seeking to take advantage of the war to broaden their field of operations in the region. We call on working people in this country to stand in solidarity with this fight.
So the war in Syria is about "political space." Who knew? What the hell does that mean? I can just hear some grieving father telling a reporter "My son died so that others can have political space."

Actually, "political space" is just a euphemism for secret socialism. Though they themselves are completely unaware of it, the vast majority of workers and farmers in Syria are communists. They're just waiting for some vanguard Party to tell them so. Or at least that's Dan Fein's theory.
“There is no revolutionary workers party in Syria today,” Fein said. “That will take time and come through struggle and further experience. It’s true the workers and farmers face difficult conditions in the fight to bring down Assad. But look at Egypt! The workers and farmers of that country — in the space of less than two and a half years — overthrew both the hated Mubarak government and then the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime that replaced it, winning more political space to organize and defend their interests and keep fighting. Solidarity with the Syrian toilers to do the same!”
So there it is--the Arab Spring is all about political space. The idea is you just keep revolting until you luck out with the right, Communist dictator, which, as a result of the doctrine of secret socialism, you eventually will. If the US intervenes and cuts short the process, then communism will never emerge in the Arab Middle East.

As far as I can tell, there are only two countries in the world where socialism is not secret: Cuba and North Korea. In honor of the 60th anniversary of "the Korean people’s triumph over Washington’s murderous 1950-53 war to conquer that country," Comrades Steve Clark, Tom Baumann, and James Harris took a trip to Pyongyang. They don't say much about what they learned in Pyongyang--presumably that will come, as this is only the first article of a series--but they did take in some of the tourist sites:
Among the anniversary events was the inauguration of a new building and park that substantially expand the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, first built in 1953. Although most of the new exhibits were not yet open to the public, we visited the outdoor pavilions displaying captured U.S. and South Korean planes, helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles and ordnance from the Korean War, as well as from military actions by Washington and Seoul right up to recent years.
Then follows a long, tendentious history of the Korean war and it's aftermath. Accompanying the article is the annual, execrable statement of support for the North Korean regime.
The Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialists send revolutionary greetings on the 65th anniversary of the September 9, 1948, founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We reaffirm our commitment to the fight to reunify Korea and to end the partition Washington sought to legitimize earlier that year with bogus UN-“supervised” elections imposing the Syngman Rhee tyranny on working people below the 38th parallel.
So that plebiscite also failed to ratify the secret socialist ambitions of the Korean people. By voting for Syngman Rhee, South Koreans were doomed to become one of the richest nations in the world. Apparently, in their heart of hearts, they still lust to be ruled by that genius of a man, Kim Jong-un. Only your revolutionary vanguard Party knows.

The Militant's slogan is Korea Is One! That will happen, but not because of secret socialism. Instead, North Koreans will have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in a global, capitalist economy that will be both very challenging and very enriching.

Unlike Marxists, we say Down With Poverty! And there's nothing secret about it.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The End Of War?

Socialist Viewpoint reprints an article by science writer John Horgan entitled War has no deep evolutionary roots. The article looks to be an addendum to Mr. Horgan's recent book The End Of War (which I have not yet read). I say addendum because the article describes results from recent research that support the book's thesis.

In brief (read the article for details), ethnographers studied 21 hunter-gatherer societies and tabulated incidences of violence. They documented 141 "lethal aggression events"--the timeframe for which is not stated. Of these, only six societies experienced anything that might be considered "war," i.e., two or more victims killed by two or more perpetrators. The remainder resulted from individual personal disputes, including, e.g., domestic violence. Of the warlike cases, most came from a single tribe--the Tiwi of Australia.

From this, the study's authors and Mr. Horgan conclude that war is not an evolved trait since a large majority of the tribes didn't fight any. The obvious rejoinder is that the tribes were not observed over a long enough period of time. If, for example, one had ethnographed Japan from 1946 to the present, one would think they were a bunch a pacifists. Most Americans have never been in a war, and indeed, probably a majority have never been involved in violence since grade school. This list includes me. So from this research one can only conclude that war is rare, not that it isn't an evolved behavior.

My view of these issues derives from evolutionary psychology, so it's probably worth a moment to review what kind of information EvoPsych gives us. The discipline tries to determine the extent of human instinct. It does this by studying a wide variety of cultures and finding traits they all have in common. Presumably those represent instinctive behaviors. And then the ways in which societies differ are likely cultural artifacts.

So the clothes people wear, which side of the road we drive on, or how we poke fingers at our iPads--those are all cultural traits. On the other hand, behaviors that are crucial to the survival and propagation of our genes are likely to be instinctive--at least substantially so. And two aspects of human activity stand out: food and sex. These should depend heavily on instinct.

Food is certainly complicated, given the seemingly wide variation in cuisines. Much of this is influenced by climate--Japanese like sushi, while seal hunting is not a popular sport in Kansas. Still, all human beings have the same nutritional needs--we all require the 21 amino acids, vitamins and minerals, sugar and fatty acids. Thus cuisines are not really as different as they seem. Nobody survives on dirt, or grass, or tree bark, or insect exoskeletons. What tastes good is, in substantial measure, instinctive and biological.

I think sexual behaviors are less variable than food. When I lived in Uganda, despite the vast cultural differences I had absolutely no difficulty telling the boys from the girls. The rhyme beginning sugar and spice and everything nice applies as much to girls in Uganda as to those Kansas. Prepubescent school children were all dressed alike, with close-cropped hair--so I couldn't tell the genders apart. But come puberty that all changed, and dramatically so. Nature makes a special effort to fine-tune our sexual preferences--those are mostly instinctive.

So Mr. Horgan gives the game away with the off-hand remark: "96 percent of the killers were male. No surprise there." That kind of lopsided gender distribution, from cultures around the globe, strongly suggests that violence has something to do with sex. Being violent helps men successfully reproduce. While the degree of violence varies from culture to culture--or perhaps more accurately, varies within a culture from time to time--violence exists in all cultures. Even Mr. Horgan isn't surprised.

Mr. Horgan further remarks that "But some readers may be surprised that only two out of 148 killings stemmed from a fight over “resources,” such as a hunting ground, water hole or fruit tree." Most of the killings were in revenge for a previous attack. This is consistent with violence as a sexual behavior. Access to sex (for men) is all about status, and violence is a way of enforcing and enhancing one's status.

Mr. Horgan argues that "The war meme also transforms societies, militarizes them, in ways that make war more likely. The Tiwi seem to be a society that has embraced war as a way of life. So is the United States of America." I think this characterization is flat-out wrong. As already mentioned, in my 62 years I have no first-hand experience with war. The last war on our continent was in 1865. So it is surely not true that the US has embraced war as a way of life.

If war is about sex and status, and given that the USA is at the top of the status heap, it is no surprise that lots of other peoples are taking potshots at us. Al-Qaeda's struggle is all about sex and status--they even use 72 black-eyed virgins in their imagery. It's not that we're war-mongers. It's just that we're currently the most successful society on the planet.

Violence is often good for individuals and groups of individuals, but it is usually bad for society as a whole. Thus most nations go to great lengths to prevent actual war. Instead they shadowbox to show off their capabilities, and then usually resolve conflicts short of war. This is like mountain goats bumping heads--rarely does the contest lead to actual injury. Instead the weaker animal simply concedes. This is why war is rare, even among hunter-gatherer tribes.

War becomes more likely when power relationships are in great flux, or when societies cannot accurately convey their true abilities. It is probably not true to class the Tiwi as a war-like tribe. More likely is that the power relationships between them and their neighbors is changing, and until a new modus vivendi is reached it comes to blows.

So I think war and violence have evolutionary roots, and I think the evidence in support of that thesis is pretty overwhelming. Mr. Horgan's recent evidence doesn't dissuade. But there is nothing instinctive about drones, nuclear warheads, or chemical weapons. These are cultural artifacts, which can conceivably be regulated, albeit with enormous difficulty.

Why does a Trotskyist newspaper like Socialist Viewpoint reprint Mr. Horgan's column? Trotskyists, like all Marxists, don't really believe in evolution. They believe human evolution stopped with the development of culture. Thus they claim that if we just change the culture we can perfect human nature. Their goal is to make a Socialist Man, i.e., a person who works according to his ability, and takes according to his needs.

I think that goal is neither attractive nor possible.

Further Reading:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The 7th Century Solution

The old saw is that a conservative is somebody whose been mugged, while a liberal is somebody whose been arrested.

A recent Daily Caller article is a troubling. A source close to but not part of the Iranian government says that if the US bombs Syria, Iran will respond by kidnapping, torturing and killing family members and children of officers, ambassadors, and cabinet members. The source singles out Sasha Obama for special treatment. The article cites a prior example--that of William Buckley, a CIA station chief. They could have mentioned journalist Daniel Pearl, or author Salman Rushdie. The latter, while not killed, has been forced to spend decades in hiding, a fate that could ruin Sasha's life even if she escapes the terrorists.

So this is turning Mr. Obama into a conservative--he's being mugged. He came in to office with the wrong-headed but sincerely-held assumption that if you sit down and talk to world leaders like civilized people, then problems can be solved. That's the way they do it in Chicago. Yes, even the Chicago Outfit had an ironclad rule against harming family members--and a similar prohibition against shooting cops.

But Iran does not play by the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Perhaps their leaders are a bunch of psychopaths. Or perhaps they perceive the stakes as existential and thus worth any cost. Either way, they are resorting to 7th Century tactics in response to America's 21st Century armaments. And, in the short term at least, I predict they will be successful.

I think Mr. Obama will back off the Syria attack anyway, especially if he loses the vote in Congress. He's a wimp. He has no support for his plan from any other corner. It was a crappy idea to begin with. The US has no dog in the fight--we don't care who wins, and indeed, we're best served if both sides lose.

But if he has more backbone than I give him credit for, then the threat against his daughter should talk him out of it. Is there any strategic goal in Syria that is worth sacrificing his daughter's life? I don't think so, and she's not even my daughter. A president has to know when to hold them and fold them. Now's a good time to fold. We can find a more propitious battlefield to confront Iran if we need to.

But let's imagine that Obama attacks Syria and Iran carries out it's threat. While I think the threat serves Iran's interests, carrying it out makes for a whole new ball game. Then it becomes personal--not just between Obama and the mullahs, but between Americans and Iranians. After that, we won't be discussing Arab Springs or human rights. It will come down to revenge, pure and simple. Our bombs are bigger than their bombs.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have worked very hard to avoid casting us into a war against Islam, and for good reason. Sometimes this has been comical, such as in the media's initial refusal to identify Hasan Nidal (the Fort Hood killer) as a Jihadi. (He was originally portrayed as just another nut case.) Similarly, we are in a "war on terrorism" rather than against any ideology or religion. Never mind that doesn't make any sense--one can't fight a war against a tactic. Bloggers such as David Horowitz and Michelle Malkin have long documented the politically-correct effort to avoid blaming Islam.

As far as I know, the only mention of this Iranian threat in the mainstream media was in the Daily Caller, albeit picked up by the Drudge Report. This is par for the course--why inflame passions? I'm a little nervous writing about it myself.

The shyness is all for the good. Only a minority of Muslims support the Jihadis--perhaps a large minority, but nobody thinks it's a majority. By declaring war on Islam we help turn that minority into a majority--it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, instead of being in battle against some crackpot sect, we are picking a fight with one billion people. This we will never win--it will go on forever. Bush and Obama both recognized that it is important to keep our enemy as small as possible.

But if the Iranians carry out their threat, then all bets are off. Revenge is a deep-seated emotion that precludes rational thought. The hitherto mostly mythical Islamophobia will become a reality--and not just on the Right but across the entire society. The American Muslim population will be forced into hiding, and thereby also recruited to terrorism. This will not end well. Our civilized solicitude for civilian life in enemy countries will diminish if not disappear. Bombs away. This is not good for Iran.

So I urge Mr. Obama to back off the Syria attack. He should never have drawn the red line. His daughter's life is far more important than bouncing the rubble in Damascus. If there really were some stakes involved, then I'd argue differently. But there is nothing at stake here for the US.

Just walk away.

Update: Thomas Friedman has two articles that I agree with: from last Wednesday, here, and from today, here.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What Are Unions Good For?

This post is in response to an article in The Militant by Alyson Kennedy, entitled Mine Workers ratify contract with Patriot Coal. This is likely last in a series of articles by Kennedy about the UMWA and Patriot Coal. I've covered previous installments here, here, and here. Ms. Kennedy is consistently a good reporter, and her work is worth reading.

To briefly summarize, Patriot Coal was founded in 2007 by acquiring the unionized mines from Peabody Coal and Archer Coal (those companies are now non-union). Patriot thus inherited the responsibility to pay pensions for 20,000 retired miners and dependents, an obligation that has forced them into bankruptcy. By comparison, Patriot only employs about 1600 unionized miners--they're the people who ultimately have to support all these pensioners.

Despite the noisy demonstrations and empty threats of strike, I expected the miner's union to cave (pun intended). The money to make everybody happy does not exist. The retirees have been promised a bill of goods that can't be paid, and the remaining workforce is too small to make much of a dent in the obligation. But I didn't expect them to cave so quickly or so comprehensively. The new "concession contract" was ratified by 85% of the members.

Losers I thought to myself as I scanned the headline. And they did lose, but on reading the article I see it is not quite so simple. For the truth is that unions do play a useful social role. It's just not what they think it is. Here, in bullet points, is what they agreed to (per Ms. Kennedy's article):

  • A $1 per hour pay cut, with $0.50 per hour annual raises beginning in 2015.
  • Concessions in paid holidays, overtime, and medical expenses.
  • No pensions for new hires.
  • Existing pension obligations will be funded by a union-run VEBA (Voluntary Employee Benefit Association Fund) toward which the company will contribute $15 million, plus 20 cents per ton of coal mined.
  • The union receives a 35% equity stake in the company--now worthless given the bankruptcy--but if the company emerges from Chapter 11 the union can sell that to fund the pension plan.

It's not very generous: $15 million spread among 20,000 retirees comes to about $800 per person--not much of a nest egg. I can't estimate the value of the 20 cents per ton or the equity stake, but both of those depend on Patriot remaining a viable company. The CEO claims they are now on track to come out of bankruptcy. I sure hope so.

But that's not all. The union won a court case which imposes a responsibility on Peabody to cover pensions for 3,100 miners. Presumably these are miners who retired before the company was sold. Funding that smaller number from among Peabody's somewhat larger workforce seems practical. And finally, the union is lobbying for federal assistance in the form of Coal Act funds.

So everybody is taking a haircut. Patriot was already pretty bald, so they're mostly on a pay later plan. Peabody is still on the hook. The union workers get screwed, while the retirees (if they're lucky) get something. As Ms. Kennedy reports,
“We took concessions to help our retired brothers and sisters,” said Darryl Hedgepath, a member of UMWA Local 1793 and scoop operator at the Patriot’s Highland No. 9 Mine in Uniontown, Ky. “On any one day they could still close down the mines.”
None of this solves the pension problem. All it does is kick the can down the road. In the short term the old folks get a pay-out from the VEBA. Medium-term, funds siphoned from Patriot's future revenue string it along a little further. But long term? Long term we're all dead, and that, by the way, is a pretty good solution to the pension problem.

In that context it's important to point out that new hires won't receive a pension. That means nothing now--the coal industry isn't hiring very many people. But it obeys the first rule of holes--when you're in one, stop digging. The UMWA (along with 85% of its members) has finally learned that empty promises of golden pensions are not worth the paper they're printed on. So they've stopped making promises.

And that brings us back to the good things unions do. Of course the unions are going to lose. They were always uneconomic. Ever richer contracts with ever more generous pension benefits built on an imaginary view of the future--those days are over for good. No--the job of today's unions is to lose gracefully--that is, to negotiate a fair distribution of haircuts.

My faculty union has not learned that. I'm sitting in the catbird seat. I have tenure, great benefits, and I'm the highest paid member of my department. I got here by playing by the rules as they were when I was hired--rules that sort of made sense at the time. And then I took some risks (not all of which paid off) that increased my salary. The union protects me--the college can neither fire me nor (significantly) cut my pay, nor even force me to retire. By the time I (voluntarily) retire three years from now my house will be paid for and I'll have zero debt. I will have a decent nest egg from my defined contribution retirement plan, so even if the state goes bankrupt it won't affect me. There are no (large) haircuts in my future (unless the economy collapses).

So I'm grandfathered in, and that's fair. I played by existing rules, and changing them now at the last minute is as unfair as completely screwing over the miners' pensions. The problem is that the union hasn't learned the first rule of holes--they're still digging.

The problem is that the rules under which I was hired no longer make any sense. The business model and operating procedures for higher education look to be radically different in the not distant future. So rather than fighting like mad to retain the status quo--a totally lost cause--the faculty union should be working hard to lose gracefully. The watchword is lose gracefully--and then go out of business.

Colleagues ten years younger than I need to make some adjustments to their retirement planning. Those twenty years younger need to move to defined contribution benefit plans that they can take to a new career if college teaching becomes untenable. And people thirty years younger need to be thinking about their profession in a whole new light. A life-long, tenured professorship such as what I have is simply not in the cards for them.

And that's what I find so sad. My college, just this August, awarded tenure to a dozen faculty. This is a promise for a thirty year career as a college professor. I don't think the promise will be kept--the world is changing too fast and too dramatically. These colleagues are being sold a bill of goods--the campus, with union connivance--is lying to them. This is worse than what the UMWA and UAW did in the 1960s and 1970s--then, at least, the promises seemed credible (even though they weren't). But today, if it's not obvious that higher ed is untenable, then I don't know what obvious means. It is a scandal than anybody is awarded tenure today.

So unions are good for something. But they need to stop lying. And lose gracefully. Kudos to the United Mine Workers.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


It's been another quiet week in Trotsky-land. The Militant is on yet another vacation. Mr. Proyect has been spending time at the movies. The September issue of Socialist Viewpoint is waiting for September, and Socialist Action hasn't had much interesting to say.

The events of the season are happening around Syria. Unfortunately, I have little to contribute to that conversation. The best I can do is point you toward Adam Garfinkle's excellent reporting here.

While I'm left speechless, Mr. Proyect has posted two intriguing pieces. This, by guest blogger Jeff Richards, argues that Bashar al-Assad has missed his calling. He'd much prefer to be a playboy in Europe than a dictator in Syria. It is only because of his older brother's car accident that he is forced into this unfortunate situation. In his current role, Mr. Assad is a puppet of the deep state, i.e., the Syrian military and the Alawite mafia. (Mr. Proyect is very much against the Assad regime, so I'm not quite sure why he publishes this apology.)

Mr. Garfinkle's view is approximately opposite. He suggests that Mr. Assad is very much in charge, and probably initiated the chemical weapons attack (rather than it being some rogue agent in the regime). The purpose is to knock Mr. Obama down a peg--to make him look foolish. If Obama responds with some meaningless, two-day attack, it will be a fabulous propaganda victory for Mr. Assad. That, according to Garfinkle, is precisely the strategy.

By Mr. Garfinkle's account Mr. Assad is more a psychopath than a playboy. I'm more inclined to believe the psychopath diagnosis, but then what do I know.

The second piece is also guest-written by a Leftist from Beirut. He's not Syrian, but too close for comfort. He criticizes the American Left this way:
This is why discussions of Syria in such quarters tend not to be discussions of Syria. They’re actually discussions of “American capitalism” or “American imperialism” – take your pick. So let me be clear: if your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.
Not that he supports an American attack--like everybody else he doubts Obama will do much more than bounce the rubble. But I think he could be brought around to supporting American intervention if it looked to be in some way substantive.

The editors at Solidarity need to take our Beiruti's criticism seriously. They post an editorial strongly condemning any US intervention in Syria. They first accuse the US of hypocrisy, citing US and British "war crimes"--the firebombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Agent Orange and Napalm, and (so they claim) "white phosphorus" in Fallujah (?). The money paragraph reads (italics in original)
Solidarity condemns U.S. military intervention in Syria. That’s not because we have any sympathy or support for the Assad regime. It’s because missiles, whether delivered from ship or plane, will certainly cause civilian casualties. It’s because bombing Syria will have nothing to do with protecting the population from further atrocities. And it’s because the United States has no legitimate right to attack countries whose governments it doesn’t like. 
These arguments are, indeed, entirely about the US and not at all about Syria. They're offered solely to burnish the street cred of Solidarity.

So what's my opinion on Syria? Frankly, I have absolutely no clue.

In other news, the fast food strike hit the national media. I've blogged about the issue here and here, among other places. Socialist Action posts a useful article here, albeit from August 5th. I have argued that the cause is lost--fast food will never be unionized. Frankly, I have to admit the effort has gotten a lot further than I ever expected it would, but I'll stand by my ultimate judgement.

We live in deflationary times. Wages are going down, not up. The notion that fast food workers (and only fast food workers) are going to be able to double their wages simply by throwing a temper tantrum is not believable. These people might as well strike against the law of gravity--it's heroic, it may even be inspiring, it will garner news coverage, but it won't be successful.

And I close with yet another topic from Mr. Proyect's energetic pen--two articles about North Star. The name originates with Peter Camejo, who thought American Marxists should abandon Russian or Chinese symbols (such as the hammer & sickle) and find their own. He chose North Star, which is the title of his autobiography. Now there is a journal by that name, which I've never read.

One can't read everything, and so one reads stuff that is of interest. North Star (the journal) devolves into academic Marxism, which means it has two strikes against it. One can summarize it in one word--boring. So that raises an interesting question: Does one's politics determine one's interests? Or is it the reverse: Does one's interests determine one's politics?

I vote for the second choice. I have never been much interested in history. Emotionally, my attitude is history is bunk, even though intellectually I know that's not entirely true. Marxism, on the other hand, over-interprets history, suggesting that every squiggle has some ultimate cause or some deep significance. Randomness is not part of their vocabulary.

Mr. Proyect is passionate about history. Indeed, I think one could call him a historian, though I certainly am no judge. I surmise that his passion drove him toward Marxism rather than the other way round. And then no wonder he reads stuff like North Star. Likewise, he won't have much truck for theories that take random seriously, e.g., Darwinism or the Black-Scholes equation. Meanwhile, I love that stuff.

So I'm a Libertarian (at least regards economics) because I like randomness. Unlike history, randomness is mathematically tractable, which allows for some (limited) progress.

And then, history really is bunk.

Further Reading: