Friday, May 30, 2014

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Trillion?

This article is about Ta-Nehisi Coates' now infamous article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled The Case For Reparations.

Mr. Coates' article is better written and more thoroughly researched than a handwritten, beggar's plea, but the message is pretty much the same.
Homeless, tired and hungry. No family. Anything helps. God Bless you.
Like the sidewalk bum, Mr. Coates is coy about the amount he wants us to put in his tin cup. Estimates I've read range from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion. He purports instead to be more interested in the come to Jesus moment when the scales finally fall from us white folks' eyes. We're supposed to have a conversation, a heart-to-heart where we finally recognize that we're all brothers under the skin. So here's my two-cents to the conversation, not that Mr. Coates will be listening.

Like the homeless beggar, no doubt Black people are poor, and no doubt they're an underclass, and no doubt they've been horribly mistreated. They've been an underclass ever since they arrived on these shores. Indeed (if you take Gregory Clark's thesis seriously) they were probably an underclass even before they left Africa. After all, the African slavers didn't pursue the social elite or the militarily capable. No--they targeted the poor and defenseless for sale to the Europeans. It's odd that Mr. Coates doesn't insist that some share of reparations come from today's West African elite--descendants of the slavers.

Mr. Coates wants us to take Congressman John Conyer's HR 40 bill seriously. From Mr. Conyers' website, the bill is supposed to accomplish four things:
  1. It acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery;
  2. It establishes a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
  3. It studies the impact of those forces on today's living African Americans; and
  4. The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.
Point 1 is stipulated. Slavery is fundamentally unjust and inhuman. If Mr. Conyers wants to pass a resolution in Congress saying that, it's fine by me.

Point 2 is silly. Why do we need a commission? Isn't the history of slavery being widely studied by academics and many others? What is a government commission supposed to accomplish that isn't already being done?

Point 3 is way too complicated. Shouldn't we also study the impact of history on white Americans? And what about Native Americans? Or Chinese Americans. Tyler Cowen argues (cogently in my opinion) that the large majority of white Americans were (slightly) harmed by the institution of slavery. And aren't today's African-Americans, dispossessed though they may be, better off than they would have been if their ancestors had been left in Africa? Compare North Lawndale with, e.g., Sierra Leone. How is some commission going to reconcile all of this?

Point 4 is impossible. History is history. You can't change it or undo it.

But OK--let's give Misters Coates and Conyers their way. And suppose that African-Americans are awarded some trillion dollars for successful beggary. The immediate beneficiaries will be Black folks, each of which will get some $30,000. Here is my prediction for the secondary beneficiaries.

State Lotteries--Poor people are almost by definition financially unsophisticated. They play the lottery as an investment--it's a get rich quick scheme. Accordingly, I predict that the teachers' unions will be avid supporters of this reparations scheme, given that most of the proceeds goes to education.

Drugs, Liquor and Tobacco--What better way to spend a windfall? Drugs, of course, represent another get rich scheme that young, poor males are likely to fall for. Besides, they get you laid. Accordingly, expect the Mexican cartels to support and lobby for reparations--a lot of the money is going to them.

Prisons--An enhanced drugs trade will lead to more crime and more arrests. The prison guards' union will be very happy with this. What a great deal!

Real Estate Scammers--Mr. Coates spends much of his essay describing how Blacks were ripped off by real estate salesmen in North Lawndale. Crooks prey on gullible people, and if you believe Mr. Coates then poor Blacks are among the most gullible around. Expect lots of the reparations money to be spent on fancy McMansions, sold for far more than they're worth. And in ten years, when the financial and social capital has expired, it will all degenerate into a new slum. Why does Mr. Coates think this will be any different than North Lawndale?

Colleges & Universities--Well meaning commentators are hoping that our gullible friends will spend their new found wealth on education instead of fake luxury. Nevermind that our nation is already over-invested in education, and for a lot of people more schooling makes little sense. And then colleges are often just as corrupt as real estate agents. Mr. Coates will probably finger places like the University of Phoenix, but ripoff joints like Chicago State University or the City College of San Francisco probably deserve more blame. Either way, the academics are going to make out like bandits, which is what they are.

Mr. Coates and Mr. Conyers miss a very important fact. Money is not the same thing as wealth. Especially in this case, many are suggesting that the Fed should just print up a trillion dollars and give it to Black people. But little bits of green paper are not going to substantially improve people's lives.

Money becomes wealth only when it is invested in capital that returns a revenue stream. That can be physical capital (e.g., rental property, or a restaurant) or human capital (e.g., education in something useful). Actually, it has to be both because there's no point in buying a restaurant if you don't know how to run it. But it can't be spent on fake luxury or phony degrees, much less on lottery tickets. Those aren't wealth.

Black people, like underclasses around the world, have not been able to accumulate wealth. In this they differ from the Jews, the Chinese, the Amish, the Mormons, and that fraction of white people we call the middle class. These are all people with bourgeois, or at least petty-bourgeois attitudes. These are people who hoard capital and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. That's why, unlike most Black people, they have a net worth greater than zero.

Until Black people can do that, not even $1,000,000,000,000 in reparations will make a dime's worth of difference.

Further Reading:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Socialist Action Jumps The Shark

Admittedly, there is a difference between political opinions with intellectual rigor and those that appeal to sentiment. A political party ideally hits both those buttons, at least partially. For example, when I was a Trotskyist, the intellectual argument against the Vietnam war was opposition to imperialism, while sentiment was rooted in the horror of the war. The two matched up more or less, and the result was a growing Party.

Today, both Socialist Action and The Militant have lost their way. The former strives for intellectual rigor (such as it is), while the latter appeals to sentiment. Neither is successful.

A recent article by Jeff Mackler in Socialist Action touts the thesis of the aging muckraker, Seymour Hersh. He's the fellow who exposed the My Lai massacre some forty six years ago, and now he claims that the Syrian rebels are responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. That is the red line supposedly crossed by the Assad government that nearly led to US retaliation.

The consensus view is that crime was committed by the government, not by the rebels. I acknowledge there is some disagreement, and I certainly don't know enough about the mechanics of gas attacks to resolve the issue. But I find Mr. Hersh's claim, and by extension Socialist Action's position, untenable.

The Leftist expert on Syria is Louis Proyect, who has devoted a lengthy article on Seymour Hersh here. Mr. Proyect pretty convincingly debunks the Hersh thesis. Unfortunately, his argument is too ad hominem for my taste: Mr. Hersh is wrong because he agrees with right-wing news sites, such as World Net Daily. But of course there's no reason why Right and Left couldn't agree on a factual matter (were it factual). I'm a Right-winger and on this I agree with Mr. Proyect. Does that make Mr. Proyect wrong?

I think believing in a rebel sarin attack on their own position is a conspiracy theory. It requires that the rebels would use one of their few artillery shells to attack their own, very strategic position, and this apparently just to prod the US into retaliating against the government. Surely, if the rebels really did have access to artillery-deliverable sarin gas, they would have employed it against the enemy, rather than betting on the fanciest billiard ball bounce ever.

Socialist Action advances this theory in part to demonstrate that the rebels are really evil people. Therefore, just as a matter of basic human morality, you should support the government. This is an appeal to sentiment. The effort is belied somewhat by the caption to the photo: "Assad is guilty of many atrocities, as this photograph taken after a government airstrike on the town of Maarat al-Noaman shows. But did his regime use sarin gas?"

More, Socialist Action tries to show that the US is really siding with the rebels. In particular, they assert that we are trying to provide the rebels with shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), capable of shooting down civilian aircraft. For whatever reason we're trying to keep this effort a secret--to this day the mainstream media is completely bamboozled. It's not clear why we'd be trying to keep it a secret, nor could we were it true. The Israelis would have a conniption fit if they really believed we were trying to so arm the rebels, and would shout to the heavens.

The whole theory is just malarkey. As Mr. Proyect demonstrates, the US policy is to let the two sides fight it out and exhaust each other.

In a similarly perverse position, Socialist Action has come down on the side of the Russians in Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine has greatly escalated in recent days, as open revolt against the right-wing government in Kiev sweeps through the eastern and southern sections of the country. Protesters state that they are trying to protect the Russian-speaking population from discrimination and fascist attacks. Many call for autonomy for their region, while others say they are seeking to secede from Ukraine and to join Russia—as Crimea did following its March 16 referendum.
This thesis loosely agrees with Pat Buchanan's, who argues that Putin is defending Christendom. Buchanan's piece is better argued, and indeed, who one sides with here is a matter of taste. But Socialist Action is going against sentiment, which belongs to the freedom-fighting rebels in Kiev. Both The Militant and Mr. Proyect are on the side of the Maidan Square demonstrators.

So for both Syria and Ukraine Socialist Action goes against sentiment and instead argues for "principle." The principle is to oppose anything the American government supports. If the US supports the Maidan square crowd, then of course it's only because they're a bunch of fascists. If America opposes Assad, it can only be because the Baathist regime represents some residue of Marxism, and is in any event less vile than the evil Jihadis.

But since sentiment and principle have to sort-of align, it is necessary to come up with completely bogus crimes, such as the rebel's sarin gas attack. In the cause of sentiment, Socialist Action finds a fascist under every bed. It won't work--it's really hard to distinguish the Black Hats from the White Hats in either Syria or Ukraine. None of the hats are Red, either.

The Militant, in siding with sentiment on both Syria and Ukraine, has lost sight of principle. It's program has become increasingly incoherent, as I've documented elsewhere (most recently here). They're flailing around trying to find a thread on which to hang a position. To use the old Trotskyist lingo, The Militant is opportunist, while Socialist Action is sectarian. My 18-year-old self would still have joined with The Militant. I'd have nothing to do with Socialist Action.

Zoltan Grossman, writing in Socialist Viewpoint in one of the best articles about Ukraine I've read anywhere, puts it best: "The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend." Words to live by.

Further Reading:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Nat Weinstein's Project

I owe my friends at Socialist Viewpoint some attention. The last few issues have not caught my fancy, but the May/June edition contains much of interest. So I clicked over there to prepare this post, and discovered that the paper's founder, Nat Weinstein, has just passed away. He was 89 years old.

There is a well-written and remarkably generous obituary in Socialist Action, here, authored by Jeff Mackler. Louis Proyect also publishes some thoughts on Nat's passing.

I never met Mr. Weinstein, something I now regret. Among other things, he loved political discussion. I imagine that he and I could have spent a few enjoyable hours over coffee in conversation. I don't know if that would be true--it may be he'd never talk to a Republican--but I can hope. Now there's no way to ever know.

I don't agree with my Trotskyist friends, but I do respect them. Mr. Weinstein is very much worthy of respect. He was skilled as a painter. Mr. Mackler tells a funny story:
Highly skilled, Nat could paint a pine board to look like any kind of quality wood or stone. He was fond of telling the story of his experience in marbleizing several dozen giant wooden pillars in a huge downtown San Francisco commercial building. While high on a scaffold, Nat remembered, he had been denounced by a woman below, who was outraged that he appeared to be painting over the building’s beautiful “marble” pillars. He recalled that the woman was astonished to learn that the opposite was the case!
That passion extended to politics. Nat spent the WWII years in the Merchant Marine. Mr. Proyect quotes from Nat's wife, Sylvia Weinstein, who wrote
My husband had become a socialist while sailing on a ship to Venezuela. It was a three month trip, and he was a captive audience to a Trotskyist shipmate. I still have the letters he wrote me—three v-mail letters which started off with, “At last I have found the truth.” I thought he had become a Jehovah Witness.
The religious reference is revealing. I don't want to get into philosophical differences between Marxism and religion, but surely all passionate people have a religious-like impulse. Theirs is a moral cause, not just a pragmatic one. Nat's shipboard conversion led to a life-long passion that he carried to the day he died. I say that not with condescension, but rather with admiration. We who are without passion accomplish nothing.

In this spirit I now pay homage to Nat Weinstein by taking his newspaper seriously.

The May/June headliner is written by Gregg Shotwell.  The article is a deeply personal description of the Marxist theory of alienation. He started his career as a machine operator in Widdicomb’s furniture factory.
I loved the feel of wood in my hands. The smell of cherry, mahogany, and ash. Walnut was the most aromatic. It was intoxicating like roasting coffee. Sawdust is a fragrance that provokes memories as ancient and arousing as tools made by hands deep in the forest of our collective memory. Wood, even kiln-dried wood, feels and looks alive. I studied the grain of each piece before I cut, shaped, bored, or mitered it to fit. The work was satisfying and the job was integrated.
To support his growing family, he moved to the higher-paying but soul-deadening job at General Motors.
The first day I walked through the doors of GM, my body cringed. Every day for the next thirty years, my body cringed when I walked through the doors of GM. My senses felt assaulted by the noise and toxic vapors. A cloud of oil and coolant hung in the air. The concussion of mechanical clamor penetrated my body and hammered my eardrums. Everyone shouted. Curses were a natural response to the environment.  
At Widdicomb’s I considered eighty-eight pieces high volume. The production rate on my first job at GM was 88,000 pieces for eight hours of work.  
Eleven thousand pieces-per-hour is 183.33 parts-per-minute, more than three parts-per-second, and we had to accelerate the rate if we wanted to take any breaks. And we did.  
At Widdicomb’s there was only one shift. We never worked more than eight hours a day. If we had to work on Saturday, we only worked until noon. At GM ten hours was mandatory. All three shifts worked every Saturday. Sixty hours a week on top of a big hourly raise meant I was in the money. It also meant that I was paying for the money with my life. I was grinding 660,000 valve lifters a week.  
I didn’t like the job. I promised myself it was temporary, but I didn’t foresee what old timers called, “the golden handcuffs”—overtime, pension, benefits—or what pundits called, “the social contract.” Pundits didn’t understand that our work experience was dis-integrated and the so-called “social contract” bound us to a dehumanized system of labor. It was in effect an anti-social contract. 
Mr. Shotwell does us a service with his vivid description of a 20th Century automobile plant. He should then be doubly happy that such jobs first moved overseas, and are now rapidly disappearing altogether, replaced by robots. But I don't think he is. He wants future generations to enjoy the "benefits" of golden handcuffs. Unionism was founded to protect the interests of the proletariat, but when there is no proletariat, the benefits of a union disappear.

If it is any consolation, I believe the craft work that both Mr. Shotwell so enjoyed early in his career, and that Nat pursued for his entire working life, is making a comeback. Commodities like cars, houses, and furniture will be made by machine. But it is human nature to want something personalized and created--that luxury manufacture is where the jobs will be.

Zoltan Grossman writes a superb article about Ukraine, among the best I've read anywhere. The piece echos what I have written here, except that Mr. Grossman knows much more than I do. His essay has actual facts.

A regular feature of Socialist Viewpoint is Incarceration Nation. This features articles by and about prominent prisoners, including especially Mumia abu Jamal. An encounter with NYC's transit police is recited here. I think there's probably another side to the story, though I don't know what it is.

It is here where passion and reality don't mix very well. No doubt we have too many people in jail--approximately 1% of the male population. And no doubt some of them are innocent, more are mistreated, and most of them are miserable. It is a scandal. But also, a large fraction are psychopaths, including, I believe, Mumia. Perhaps not a majority, but a much higher fraction than in the general population. These people need to be in jail.

The Libertarian economist, David Henderson, writes about the Leftist author, Barbara Ehrenreich. He quotes her:
Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor. I mean, you can just spiral down so fast into poverty. You have a broken headlight, you get stopped. That fine is going to be greater than the cost of a new headlight. You don't have money to pay the fine, you're looking at an arrest warrant--and down you go.
Ms. Ehrenreich, Mr. Henderson, and I all agree that this is an injustice. So many piddly regulations benefit the middle class at the expense of the poor.

Nat Weinstein knew whereof we speak. His Trotskyist passion sometimes put him on the side of angels. May he rest in peace.

Further Reading:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Quebec & The Militant's Incoherence

An article by Michael Prairie reporting on the provincial elections in Quebec is an essential read. First, the topic has been under-reported in the US, not featured on any of the webpages I routinely follow. Mr. Prairie gives a good, short and accurate account of the facts, which I definitely appreciate. And second, one can only marvel at the utter incoherence of the Socialist Workers Party's (SWP) position.

In very brief summary the facts are these: The separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) won an election to form a minority government in 2010, headed by Pauline Marois. In what must be one of the greatest political blunders of all time, Ms. Marois called a snap election for April 7th, which the PQ lost in a landslide. Ms. Marois lost her own seat.

The proximate cause of this disaster was an intemperate remark by Quebec businessman and celebrity, Pierre Karl Peladeau, who some liken to Silvio Berlusconi. He announced that he "wanted to make Quebec a country." The PQ has always been for independence, but that cause has become increasingly unpopular in recent decades--it cost them the election.

In addition, the PQ government wanted to pass another illiberal law called the Charter of Quebec Values. (This is akin to the infamous Bill 101, passed in 1977, that regulated the use of language in private life.) The Charter would have banned government employees from wearing "conspicuous religious symbols" on the job, including the kippah (yarmulke), hijab (Muslim headscarf), and turban (Sikh religious headwear), among others. The effort was accompanied by sundry racist comments directed especially against Muslims and Jews:
Louise Mailloux, a prominent Quebec feminist and philosopher [and PQ member - ed], said this week she stands by her belief that circumcision and baptism are similar to rape and that kosher and halal certification is a tax that goes toward funding religious wars and lining the pockets of religious leaders.
I never found Quebecois nationalism to be a very attractive ideology. It is suffused with a deep-going antisemitism, leavened lately by an equally vicious hatred of Muslims. It's the stupid sister of France's National Front. I didn't like it very much even in 1970 when I was in the Party (more accurately, the Young Socialist Alliance). That was when Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to combat the terrorist FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front). Nearly my first political activity as a Trotskyist was supporting Quebec independence in the face of government repression.

So I'm sympathetic to and intrigued by Mr. Prairie's description of how the Party has disowned Quebec separatism and no longer supports the movement. He cites two developments over the past half century.

First, he claims the Quebecois have essentially won their fight against "national oppression." He cites figures such as relative earnings between Francophones and Anglophones in the province, with the former earning more than the latter. There is, in his view, little evidence of discrimination against the Quebecois.

I think this claim is correct. It's consistent with anecdotal evidence from my own recent trips to Montreal, from a Canadian friend who used to live there, and from my wife's Filipino relatives who are Montrealers. Bill 101 may be obnoxious, but it has worked to eliminate an enduring sense of grievance among French Canadians.

His second claim is also true: separatism fails because Quebec (and especially Montreal) is much more "multinational and heterogeneous" today. My wife's relatives are a good example. Grandma (my wife's cousin) speaks English and Tagalog, but no French. Her children--born in the Philippines but moved to Montreal as teenagers--speak English, Tagalog, and limited French as a foreign language. Her grandchildren speak English at home, French at school, and are fluently bilingual in Canada's languages. But they can't speak Tagalog. They are Canadian, but not Quebecois. Nobody in that clan would ever vote for the PQ.

So how does Mr. Prairie account for the Party's change of heart? Here the argument descends into incoherence:
The blows struck against the national oppression of Quebecois are one of many consequences of the weakening of U.S. and world imperialism since the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
What? It gets worse:
The ground conquered against national oppression of Quebecois in Canada is one aspect of a world marked by the fact that U.S. imperialism — as well as the privileged ruling Soviet bureaucracies that were wiped out with the fall of the Stalinist regimes — failed to inflict demoralizing defeats on the working class in the former workers states of Eastern and Central Europe. ... As a consequence, toilers around the world, from Montreal to Kiev, are using the political space they've carved out to discuss, debate and organize against the bosses in face of the worldwide crisis of capitalist production and trade. 
World imperialism led by Washington lost the Cold War against the working class in the former Soviet Union. In similar fashion, Canadian imperialism has lost the Cold War against the working people of Quebec. 
This is something to celebrate.
I've been under the impression that the Party dropped the US lost the Cold War meme, but I guess not. It's resurrected here in the strangest possible context. Also reappearing is that odd phrase political space, a term which the Party has used in many contexts, from Syria to Turkey to Egypt. This is also opaque.

One might argue that the Party sympathizes more with Islamism than with Quebec nationalism. But I don't think that's true--elsewhere their condemnation of Jihadis has been nothing short of thundering. Their defense of Muslim rights in Quebec is a perfectly straightforward defense of religious freedom that I would also support.

So I'm clueless. Let me know if any of this makes sense to you. For all that, I agree with the Party's position on the Parti Quebecois.

I sure wish the Party would hold its much touted convention so that we'd get some clarity on these issues.

Further Reading: