Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peace, Peace, War, War

It is a truism among Republicans that President Obama is incompetent.

And so he is. Obamacare--an incompetent program incompetently delivered--is proof enough. And also on foreign policy, with red lines here and thundering ultimatums there, none of which amount to anything. Speak loudly and leave your stick at home seems to be the motto.

And yet it's easy to overdo this. Listening to Charles Krauthammer, for example, you'd think that both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom have taken leave of their senses just because we have a nincompoop in the White House. My Trotskyist friends will have no truck for such analysis, what with everything having a Deep Historical Dependence on the Dialectical Relationship of Forces. In their view, individuals have little or no impact on history.

For once, I'm going to side with the Trotskyists. Mr. Obama is a very poor spokesman for American foreign policy, and his bumbling pronouncements have caused considerable difficulties. Occasionally, such as his precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, he has done serious damage. But he's not running the show, partly because he's neither interested nor knowledgeable, and mostly because institutional inertia is the real driver.

Instead, our rapprochement with Iran represents neither appeasement nor cowardice. It is, instead, the result of a new geopolitical situation. I am informed on this by two articles by George Friedman, of Stratfor, here and here.

A nuclear weapon is not in Iran's best interest. It will make it impossible for them to pursue their policy objectives, specifically rescuing their economy, and preserving their gains in Iraq and Syria. The mullahs have realized this, and are thus using the nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip. While the Iranians have perfected the art of enriching uranium, it is a long way from there to a tested, usable weapon ready to launch. These they could not produce in secret, and hence the US has a way of verifying any agreement. There is, accordingly, no immediate, existential threat to Israel. According to Friedman, the Israeli military understands that.

The Arab states are no longer reliable allies. Egypt will be fighting a low-level civil war for a long time, and will not soon become a regional power. Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are all unstable in varying degrees. These countries no longer have anything to offer the US in terms of security. Further, they present no threat to Israel (beyond turning into failed states).

Thanks to fracking, the US is increasingly self-sufficient in fossil fuels. The Arab Middle East is no longer essential to our national security. It is now something that Europe and China can worry about.

Iran, meanwhile, is a stable polity, the insanity of the present government notwithstanding. And the government is becoming less insane--it has little to gain with an endless propaganda war against the US. Between instability in neighboring Arab states (a threat as much as an opportunity), along with a failing, nuclear-armed Pakistan on its Eastern flank, Iran has much to gain from a strategic alliance with the United States. Further, with investment in its oil industry, it can partially replace Saudi Arabia if that country should ever go off-line.

So who are the losers in this new arrangement? Certainly the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, come off poorly. While the US is not abandoning them, clearly we are diversifying our investment. We're not going to bail out the Saudis from their own internal political turmoil. We will protect them from external threats, e.g., from Iran.

Turkey is a loser. That country has been the linchpin of American security since the beginning of the Cold War. But the demise of Russia as even a regional power, the fading significance of Turkey to the EU, and Turkey's own political instability make it a less reliable partner for the US.

Israel is a loser, but not a very big one. The country remains a strong cultural and economic ally, but it loses its strategic importance. None of its neighbors possess any military capabilities that threaten Israel. The Palestinians have proven themselves completely incompetent. Israel becomes a stable backwater, sort of like Luxembourg. The US will continue to protect the country from existential threats, but none are on the horizon. Accordingly, relations between Israel and the US will fray.

The biggest losers are the Syrian rebels. The US is now tacitly on Assad's side, who represents relative stability. The rebels (at least some of them) may occupy the moral high ground, but they're too weak to be allies. Iran's influence will grow, with US approval, but the quid pro quo is that they keep Hezbollah on a short leash.

A US-Iran alliance is good for both sides. Iran wins new economic opportunities, enhanced security vis a vis Russia, China, and Pakistan, and a free pass to expand its influence across the Middle East. The US gets a stabilizing strategic partner whom it can (hopefully) count on to respect limits (e.g., don't invade Saudi Arabia; restrict Hezbollah, etc.).

It's all pretty mind-bending. I confess, I never imagined any of this.

Neither did President Obama.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Everything Store

The Everything Store, by Brad Stone, is an account of Amazon's first twenty years. Included, of course, is a biography of the company's founder and guiding spirit, Jeff Bezos. Mr. Stone is a journalist for Bloomberg/Business Week, and has long covered Amazon as a reporter. He interviewed many people for this book, but did not score an interview with Mr. Bezos. For this, and also because he has worked hard to make the book readable, he is criticized by some for not writing an accurate, scholarly account. Scholarly it may not be, but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Mr. Bezos was born of teenage parents, who divorced soon after his birth. He was adopted by his mother's second husband and took his name. For all that, his was a close family to whom he remains intensely loyal. His maternal grandfather, a West Texas rancher, played an especially important role in his life. Accordingly, today he owns 260,000 acres in the Lone Star state--the home of his Blue Origin space travel enterprise.

Typical of great entrepreneurs, Mr. Bezos is a driven, obsessive guy. Like many children, he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, and space travel was his abiding interest as a youngster. But, unlike most he never outgrew that passion. Indeed, as I read Mr. Stone's book, my sense is that Blue Origin is even now Bezos' primary passion, with Amazon simply a way to finance it. He spends one day a week on the rocket business--a lot of time for a mere hobby. It's not just a hobby.

Founded in 1994, rode the dot-com bubble to the top, powered by Bezos' intelligence, energy and drive. He had two principles, both borrowed unapologetically from Walmart--the customer is king, and frugality rules. Like Sam Walton, he was brutal on his partners and employees. Shel Kaphan--arguably a co-founder--was sidelined when it became clear that his management skills were not up to the challenge. Mr. Bezos always hired the right people for the job, and as the job changed, the people changed with it. He's an incredibly demanding boss.

Mr. Stone reports that the company survived the dot-com bust only by a lucky break. They'd made some ill-advised acquisitions in the late 1990s and burned through a lot of cash. Mr Bezos had already demonstrated his aversion to making a profit. By fortuitous timing, the company scored a generous line of credit just months before the crash. Had that not been available, chances are Amazon would have gone bankrupt.

After the bust, to restore credibility with investors Amazon had to turn a profit. And so they did, for a few years, just long enough to be convincing. But as soon as investors were pacified, Amazon reverted to old habits, reinvesting revenues into the business. The company has gone from being a bookstore to an everything store, to a manufacturer of Kindle, to hosting the Amazon Web Services cloud.

Today Jeff Bezos is worth $27 billion, money that is being invested in Blue Origin. It doesn't come from customers, who are offered the lowest possible prices. Amazon competes with Walmart and Best Buy--margins are tiny. It doesn't come from workers. As a profit-free company, there is no way that workers are exploited in the Marxist sense. They are certainly ill-treated and probably relatively poorly paid, but the proceeds all go to customers, not to Mr. Bezos.

So who's the patsy?

Investors believe Mr. Bezos when he says that Amazon could make a profit if only it wanted to. And maybe that's true. Then again... Either way, they've bid the shares up to almost $400, and that is what funds Blue Origin.

I wouldn't want to work at Amazon. I'm probably too old and I never had the energy level. I certainly will never buy stock in the company--if I want to invest in rocket ships I'll do that directly. The only relationship I want with Amazon is to be a customer.

Because then I get to tell Jeff Bezos what to do.

Further Reading:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Punching Counterpunch

At Louis Proyect's suggestion, I have added Counterpunch to the list of journals I regularly cover. They are now listed on This Blog's Beat blogroll. The narrowly defined Trotskyist papers already in my stable are not keeping me busy. Counterpunch provides a lot of material, and it certainly does come well-recommended.

To inaugurate this new effort I more or less randomly picked three articles from the November 15th Weekend Edition. I hope they are reasonably typical. I am pleased to note that they are mostly short--often shorter than my posts. This is a pleasant surprise coming from Marxists. Second, they are not relentlessly academic, which means they're not boring. And finally, Counterpunch casts a longer shadow than The Militant or Socialist Action. There's more to talk about.

The first article is by Chris Gilbert, entitled Refrigerator Wars In Venezuela. Mr. Gilbert is identified as a professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela. Unlike the Chavismo sycophants at US universities, this guy at least gets paid for it. He reports on the Venezuelan government's forced sale of televisions and refrigerators, using the military to occupy stores and to distribute the goods at very low prices.
The core decision is to limit the markup on certain products imported with subsidized dollars. Importers in Venezuela bring in goods with cheap dollars that they obtain through the state – dollars that come from the petroleum rent. They then mark up the goods 200% to 1000%. The government’s idea is to limit the markup to 30%. For this reason, state institutions such as INDEPABIS are now revising these importers’ books, while the army maintains order.
Why are there "cheap" dollars in Venezuela to begin with? If there was no black market in dollars, none of this would have happened. Supposedly the excess dollars come from oil sales, which have been rapidly declining as the government continues to defer maintenance. Megan McArdle suggests that Venezuela is descending into hyperinflation. Chavez and Maduro both graduated from the top of the class at the Zimbabwe School of Economics.

One thing is certain: no new refrigerators or television sets will be arriving in Venezuela any time soon.

The second article is entitled The Takedown of the Silk Road Drug Market, by Ryan Calhoun. Silk Road, for those of you who live clean lives, was (until the Feds busted it) a very successful, on-line market for illegal drugs. I followed it because it used bitcoin as its payment medium, and I've been interested in bitcoin. (This video argues that the take down of Silk Road is good for the currency. I agree.)

Mr. Calhoun is more interested in the drugs than the bitcoin, and from the article he sounds like an avid customer of Silk Road. Now I'm vaguely libertarian in my views about legalization (no strong opinions really), but I don't have much respect for people who actually use drugs. After all, I'm an alum of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)--the drug discipline is the best thing they ever did for me. I put drug users and casino patrons in the same category--losers.

Mr. Calhoun admits to being a loser in another respect--he's a PhD student at the University at Buffalo. That stunningly useless endeavor marks him as unemployable for any productive profession. So Mr. Calhoun models the conservative archetype of what a liberal looks like--somebody who wants us to bail him out of all the bad decisions he's made in life. We'll have to pay for his so-called "education," the welfare benefits he'll need because he can't earn a living, and then his medical care because of drug-induced health problems. What a guy!

Most interesting is the article by Ann Garrison, entitled Why is DRC “Negotiating” With M23, Not Rwanda and Uganda? It is an interview with Jean-Mobert N'Senga, a Congolese partisan in the recent defeat of M23, a guerrilla proxy for the Ugandan and Rwandan governments.

When I was living in Uganda in 1996, President Yoweri Museveni (he's still president) announced an inspiring dream to build a highway from Kisangani to the sea. That would make it possible to transport people and freight from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, via Kampala to the Congo river port at Kisangani. From there one could travel by ship to Kinshasa, and thence by the 200-mile long road that circumvents Livingstone Falls to the Atlantic Ocean port of Matadi. The economic opportunities this would unlock are enormous--such a road would hugely enhance the standard of living for millions of people.

So the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries invaded Eastern Congo ostensibly to make that happen. But rather than build the road to Kisangani, instead the two had a falling out and destroyed the town in their battle for control.

It all derives from the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Whether motivated by revenge or paranoia, Rwandan Tutsi guerrillas emptied out Congo villages, chased the residents to the ends of the earth, and when they finally caught up with them massacred them all. The other side engaged in similar cruelty--five million Congolese died. You can read all about it in the horrifyingly depressing book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.

Thanks to Ann Garrison, Mr. N'Senga gives one side of the story. It's worth reading.

So how does Counterpunch stack up? As a fellow SWP veteran, I can see why Mr. Proyect likes it. He rightly dings the Party for its brittle sectarianism, compared to which Counterpunch is a breath of fresh air. But the magazine has also lost some of the good things about traditional Trotskyism, namely efforts at intellectual consistency and self-discipline.

The Militant, for example, sees the world through its Theory of Everything, otherwise known as Marxism-Leninism. Now it's an unreasonably narrow and wrong theory, but it does enforce rigor. They can't just spout off at the mouth. Counterpunch, meanwhile, publishes a Bolivarian brown-noser and an anarchist druggie in the same issue, deluding themselves that these people are somehow on the same page.

On the other hand, The Militant has almost nothing to say about Congo. That's because events there don't fit into the Grand Synthesis, and are therefore best left ignored. At most they will complain about US or UN intervention, blaming the problem on "imperialists." So Counterpunch does us all a favor by reporting on Africa. It is a more eclectic, interesting, and informative read. But it is not in any way recognizable as Trotskyist.

The lack of both intellectual and personal discipline means that Counterpunch fades into feel-good Leftism. Trotskyists will correctly accuse it of not being serious. Both my Trotskyist friends and Counterpunch advocate free unicorns for all, but Trotskyists imagine that they have a practical way of accomplishing that.

As for me, I'm against poverty. I strongly support the highway to Kisangani. Mr. Museveni has let me down big time. This opinion puts me at odds with pro-poverty Leftists of all stripes--none of the publications I cover will support the road. They'd all find some excuse to oppose it--environmentalism, oppression, imperialism, or whatever gobbledy-gook term you can think of. That's why I'm a Republican.

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Post Office Blues

If nobody reads what you write, you can say anything you want. So it is with a recent article by Marty Goodman in Socialist Action entitled Corporate Raiders Target Post Offices. The article is so sloppy and so poorly argued that it is obviously not intended to be read seriously. Mr. Goodman is writing a feel-good piece for his own psychological amusement.

It is certainly possible to write an intelligent article about the post office from a Socialist/Leftist point of view. The Militant, for example, has done an excellent job covering coal miners' struggles at Patriot Coal. Accordingly, I've favorably commented on their coverage here, here, and here. That doesn't mean I agree with The Militant any more than I agree with Socialist Action. It just means they're careful with the facts, are honest reporters, and therefore earn respect.

Not so with Socialist Action. This article is so full of whoppers and leaps of logic that it isn't worth your attention. So I do them a favor by reading and commenting critically--with luck they'll be more careful next time.

The first problem is a value judgement--anything corporate is bad, while anything run by the government is good. Of course that comes with the Socialist territory, but it really requires a little bit of caution. For they assume that any asset transferred to private hands will automatically show up as bottom line profit in some greedy, capitalist's pocket. For example,
A sinister part of the privatization drive is the over 50 post offices nationally that are up for sale or already sold as of February of this year. Corporate hustlers are hoping to convert post offices into restaurants, malls, and condos. Many post offices up for sale have been designed National Landmarks for their architectural beauty and/or the works of art they contain.
Mr. Goodman refers specifically to a post office building in The Bronx, most of which is unused since the mail processing facility has been moved out. The building, which contains some New Deal era murals, and has been declared a historical landmark. For Mr. Goodman it's not enough to deliver mail. The USPS should also get into the museum business and maintain historical landmarks.

While a few people still enjoy a visit to the post office, wouldn't it be better if the main lobby (with murals) were a successful restaurant serving hundreds of patrons daily? And couldn't the upper floors--ill-suited for modern mail processing--be turned into shops or condos? No, according to Mr. Goodman. In his view, maintaining the building as a post office in perpetuity is the only option. Evil entrepreneurs, upon buying the building, will have nothing better to do than tear it down and build a parking lot.

In the long run, the preservation of history depends on finding a suitable use for the old building.

Here's another whopper:
Behind the corporate privatization drive are forces like “The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” created in 2004 as the stealthy name for the large mailer association whose industry is estimated at $1 trillion. Members include Time Warner (People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, CNN, etc.), Bank of America, American Express, Pitney Bowes, and AT&T.
This makes no sense. Where does the $1 trillion figure come from when the total 2012 revenue for the USPS was only $65 billion? Even Walmart (with four times as many employees) only generates $500 billion. Pitney-Bowes--one of the evil capitalists on the list--claims a mere $6 billion and 28,000 employees. I don't know how Mr. Goodman comes up with a figure equal to 7% of GDP just from second and third class mail. I think he assumes that nobody will read his article.

Mr. Goodman mentions the Internet.
The public hears only that the USPS is going broke because it is being replaced by the internet. While the internet has decreased first-class mail, internet-driven USPS parcel deliveries are way up because the postal service is less expensive than private carriers like UPS and Fed-X.
These statements are true. First-class mail has declined by 28% from 2002 to 2012. For a few years many thought that meant the death of the post office. But then, as Mr. Goodman indicates, parcel deliveries are way up. I'm surprised that Mr. Goodman thinks this is a good trend. recently made a deal to use USPS facilities to deliver packages seven days per week. This is a lifeline for the post office and its employees, and represents a turn-around from canceling Saturday service. But since Mr. Goodman hates all of the post office's customers (bulk mailers, retailers, large corporations), surely he has to see this as bad news. In his world, if the mailman delivers anything more commercial than a Christmas card, he's engaging in great evil.

Indeed, some have suggested that Amazon should buy the post office outright. The company wants to institute same-day delivery in major metropolitan areas, and the USPS has all the requisite infrastructure at hand. This would provide jobs for at least some of today's postal employees, and is far better than the thing going bankrupt.

Mr. Goodman states (correctly, I believe) that the post office is making an operating profit, but suffers because of the very high payments it has to make into its benefit programs. These secure the employee pensions and benefits for 75 years, and also help fund benefits for other federal employees. Perhaps these payments are over the top, but as a taxpayer I'm quite grateful. Would that other government agencies, e.g., the City of Detroit, had been as solicitous of their employees' futures. Unless future politicians simply confiscate the accounts (sadly, entirely possible), both taxpayers and USPS employees are well protected. This is as it should be.

I used to think the post office was a poorly run, government agency on the verge of extinction. Three things have changed my mind.

  1. The growth in on-line shopping provides a substantial new business where the post office is very competitive. Instead of cutting back on deliveries, they are now augmenting them.
  2. Living in a rural area, I decided that a PO box is more convenient for me. Hence I go to the local post office every day. The box service is very good--it saves me hassle and it saves the post office money. So I live in post office heaven--there are four little post offices within five miles of my home. I thought three of them should be shut down. But now that I use a box, I'm less convinced that's a good idea--nobody is going to drive much out of their way to use a PO box.
  3. Mr. Goodman's point--that the post office runs an operating profit--is convincing. But it needs to be privatized so that it is no longer supervised by Congress, and can allocate its resources for economic gain rather than for political points.
My Trotskyist friends will disagree with that last point. That's fine--disagreement is the spice of life. But Mr. Goodman still needs to be careful with his facts if he wants to preach to anybody outside of the choir.

Further Reading:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Death Of The Humanities Is Greatly Exaggerated

Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho. Western Civ has got to go!

And so the humanities--especially English departments--descended into idiocy. The result is stifling political correctness, nihilistic postmodernism, an absurd version of feminism, a bizarre fetish with race, class and gender, all guided by an anti-rational, anti-intellectual world view. This is how academics of my generation--baby boomers--spent the first half of their careers.

So it is with some serious schadenfreude that I read Tamar Lewin's piece As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry (h/t Edububble). She writes,
They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.
A paragraph later the real problem emerges:
“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.
Those poor, unprovided-for professors. Why should they suffer because they were unapologetically stupid for twenty-five years? If 18-year-olds can still be suckered into paying exorbitant tuition to listen to some ultra-feminist adjunct try to brainwash them, then what's to worry.

So I have no sympathy at all for humanities faculty--they deserve to be unemployed. Yet two issues are being conflated--the fate of the faculty (good riddance), and the fate of the humanities (as necessary as ever). That's the subject I want to address.

There are three parts to the argument: 1) The continuing importance of the humanities. 2) The economic role for the humanities. And 3) the problem with the faculty.

The humanities remain crucially important because they address three essential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What should we do? I do not agree with Stephen Pinker, who claims that science offers much help for these questions. Science says that we are merely little bits of randomly assembled dust in a vast universe. Incredibly, he then claims this leads to a humanistic outlook. Science may be true, but it is not helpful. People who believe that God loves us will lead happier, healthier lives than any nihilistic scientist.

Accordingly, science isn't much help in deciding important questions. I'll use gay rights as an illustrative example.

Science has shown that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon--people are born with the tendency and cannot change it. So science precludes the medieval notion that homosexuality is per se a sin deserving of punishment. But that still leaves at least two possible attitudes:

  1. Homosexuality is just another manifestation of human nature, and the rest of society needs to accommodate itself to that fact. The discussion revolves around whether civil unions or gay marriage is the best way to do that.
  2. Homosexuality is a handicap, like blindness. Society needs to help gays overcome their disability as much as possible, but otherwise to lead as normal (heterosexual) lives as possible.
This choice does not depend on any scientific fact, but instead on answers to the humanities' three questions. It's all about values. Most social, political, and economic questions are like that--science really doesn't get us very far. Art, literature, philosophy and history are more fruitful methods of inquiry.

The humanities play an essential role in the modern economy. It is surprising that the professoriate doesn't really recognize that. They think it's all about well-rounded individuals or critical thinking skills (whatever those are). They tacitly concede that STEM disciplines are where it's at career-wise. But STEM subjects are the most readily computerized, and so the number of people employed in STEM disciplines will per force decline. I've written about that here. To paraphrase myself, regarding STEM skills, whatever you can do, a computer can do better.

If, like Tyler Cowen, you're stuck in the STEM silo, then you consign people to that small but shrinking space in freestyle chess where a human/machine combination can still beat a machine. In a word, most people will be unemployed. But computers can't do humanistic stuff. They can't make something beautiful, nor can they choose the good life, nor can the make ethical judgments. Ultimately, they can't make people happy. Accordingly, I think more people than ever will be employed as writers, entertainers, waitresses, musicians, chefs, prostitutes, preachers, and artists, than as scientists and engineers. The 20th Century was the age of STEM. The 21st Century will be the era of the Arts & Humanities.

Finally, the humanities are being radically democratized. Academics still delude themselves in believing that obscure, unread and unreadable monographs are the coin of the realm. But they're wrong. The true humanities happens in the blogosphere, on Kindle, on YouTube, and other places where people can create and use art and ideas. There will still be teachers and classrooms, and books and seminars, and ideas and conversation. But the job of professor is over. The PhD will disappear. The monographs will sink back into the medieval mud from which they emerged.

The age of the paid scholar is over. Art will be created because it's fun and beautiful, not because somebody has tenure. Literature will be studied as a labor of love, not because of a paycheck. The professor of the humanities is a dying breed.

Long live the humanities.

Further Reading:

Sunday, November 3, 2013


There is a fine line between erudition and incoherence.

Even world-class thinkers have trouble with that--just try reading Marx or Lenin. We lesser lights are usually even less successful, especially when writing outside of school.

The excerpt from one of Jack Barnes' books published in the latest Militant is a case in point. Mr. Barnes--a man of some erudition--clearly knows nothing about economics. The result is pure gibberish. Now I also am not a professional economist--what I know is self-taught--but at least I'm interested enough in the subject to learn something new, as Mr. Barnes is not.

For The Militant, progress in economic thought ended in 1924 when Lenin died. As Trotsky himself had little interest in the subject, and since no "Marxist" in the Stalinist tradition can be trusted, there has been no new thinking. Accordingly, any analysis of macroeconomic trends usually reduces to a rehash of something Lenin said a century ago. The current article is no exception.

The article in question is a reprint from one of Mr. Barnes' periodic books, this one published in 1999. (You can buy a used copy for a penny.) Of course any 14-year old article will fail on some predictions, but this one is so wrong that they should be ashamed to republish it.

Consider the lede paragraph:
No Third World country can or will develop today into an economically advanced industrial power with the class structure of the United States, Canada, the countries of Western Europe, Japan, Australia, or New Zealand. No new centers of world finance capital are going to emerge. That has been settled by history. That is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century. It hasn’t changed since Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin summed up the scientific conclusion of the communist workers movement seventy-five years ago. The imperialist world, Lenin said, has been “divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces."...
Since that was written, Hong Kong has become a world financial center. Singapore is the world's leading trading entrepot. Both cities boast a per capita income larger than the US (though not larger than comparable geographic regions, such as metro New York or San Francisco). South Korea has become a leading industrial and technological power, on par with most countries in Europe. Taiwan, Israel, and Silicon Valley play essential roles in the tech industry.

Quoting again from Mr. Barnes:
As I was leaving to catch the plane to come out here this morning, a comrade in New York handed me a copy of Lenin’s Imperialism. He urged me to reread it during the flight. Given what had begun happening in Mexico, he said, I was bound to find something useful in preparing for this meeting. He was right.   
Imperialism, Lenin explained, is the final stage of capitalism. He described its features. Reading Imperialism, I discovered once again, is well worth the effort. The chapter that struck me in a new way this time is the one entitled “The Parasitism and Decay of Capitalism.”
So I have gone back and skimmed Lenin's Imperialism, especially that last chapter. Regarding our modern economy it is completely irrelevant. He makes statements about the way things were in 1916--I am not enough of a historian to disagree with him, but somehow I can't regard Lenin as a reliable reporter. The book is simply not worth reading except as a historical artifact.

Still, to explain the utter silliness of Mr. Barnes' thesis I need to summarize Lenin's theory in bullet points.

  • The world economy is increasingly the province of monopoly capital.
  • Since monopolies can arbitrarily set prices, they reap profits beyond market rates.
  • The European countries were colonial (imperialist) powers, and they could lend money to their colonies at usurious rates.
  • This enabled the rise of a rentier (parasite) class in England that simply lived off coupon clipping from money extorted from the colonies. The imperialist powers depended on keeping the colonies in debt.
  • Some of these rent checks were used to buy off the British proletariat, which is why there was no Marxist revolution in England. A similar argument holds for Germany.
  • The proof of the argument was that the income from bondholders was multiples the income of trade (so says Lenin).
Lenin was clearly talking about the old fashioned imperialism--the word neo-imperialism had never occurred to him. But if imperialism depends on keeping the colonies in debt, then we've failed miserably. Unlike in Lenin's day, the biggest debtor nation today is not China, not India, and nowhere in Africa, but instead the United States. So whatever applicability Lenin's model may have had in 1916, it clearly means nothing now.

But that doesn't stop Mr. Barnes, who apparently doesn't know how to read. He writes that Orange County (in 1999) owed lots of money to bondholders. Since Lenin called bondholders rentiers and parasites, Mr. Barnes assumes that they must have exactly the same role today as they supposedly did in 1916. That is the sum total of his argument--it's stupid.

It is that kind of absurd reasoning that leads Marxists to claim that finance is just a casino. They are completely wrong. Finance makes things cheaper for consumers. This is obviously true, since financial crises have huge implications for the real economy. The bankruptcy of a Las Vegas casino is nowhere near as important. Without finance, nobody could get mortgages, farm prices would be much, much higher, businesses couldn't borrow money, etc. Indeed, without finance, we'd pretty much be reduced to a barter economy. So to suggest that bondholders are no more than rentiers and parasites is just ignorant.

I'm not much of one for calling people stupid--it's an ad hominem attack that is beneath my dignity. Accordingly, I try to take The Militant seriously. Frequently they deserve that--their reporting on the labor movement has been stellar. But on macroeconomic issues they are--I'll say it again--dumb.

Further Reading: