Sunday, December 25, 2016

Trotskyist Psephology

Psephology -- the study of election returns -- is not in the Trotskyist wheelhouse. For them, apart from the one-and-done variety that elect people like Castro to 50-year terms, elections are "bourgeois," and unimportant. Not worth discussing.

Except this year. Trump's election has upset the apple cart. The standard Leftist line is that a plurality of American voters, especially including the working class slice, are racist/sexist/homophobic/fascist. Of course that's a depressing conclusion, which the grouplets I follow are now trying to walk away from.

Socialist Action (SA) has made the most dramatic retreat. A current article by Mark Ugolini, argues that instead of being racist, etc., workers are just plain stupid. They've been completely bamboozled by Trump's claims to help the working class. Instead he's just a craven capitalist out to stuff the pockets of his own class, determined to betray his supporters by demolishing Obamacare, gutting Medicaid, eliminating pensions, and in general being an all around bastard.

And what of Trump's supposed racism, etc.? Today that gets downplayed. Mr. Ugolini writes:
Despite the virulent expressions of racism and sexism displayed by Trump during the campaign—which gave a swift boost to the ultra-right fringe—and the steady stream of insults, rants, and repulsive behavior, millions responded to his populist-sounding message. These voters viewed Trump as an agent of change—someone capable of shaking things up, who in a distorted way embodied their distrust and hatred of a political system and a news media that ridicules, belittles, and ignores them.
Racism and sexism are today just a sideshow. Trump won "despite" that.

How different that is from what Jeff Mackler wrote back in October, 2015.
No doubt Trump’s rants find fertile soil in a small layer of the overall electorate, but even less in the general population, some half of which increasingly does not bother to vote. 
But Trump’s backwater histrionics are not new to the increasingly polarized and crisis-ridden world capitalist scene. Overtly far-right, if not neo-fascist, views are similarly expressed in France, England, and across Europe. In the former two nations such right-wing parties have, for the first time in nearly a century, outpolled the traditional capitalist stalwart parties of the status quo. 
Trump is the American reflection of overtly racist and neo-fascist ideology— if not a conscious experiment with it. His racist rants in some instances have encouraged the use of violent physical attacks by his disaffected followers, who find his scapegoating of the oppressed to their liking.
Mr. Trump hasn't changed--he wasn't a fascist then and he isn't a fascist now. As Scott Alexander eloquently points out, he's no more racist than the average 70-year-old white guy. He's certainly no more racist than any former president (barring perhaps Mr. Obama).

The American people haven't changed, either. They're no more stupid today than they were ten years ago. By SA's lights they must be true idiots, falling for the same scam every four years as predictably as the sunrise.

Solidarity, having made a French Turn into the Green Party, were fully invested in the Jill Stein campaign. In a statement from the Steering Committee of Solidarity they acknowledge that she was not successful.
Meanwhile, the Green Party--the most visible alternative to the left of the Democrats--seems to have won less than 1% of the vote in the Presidential race; a result both disappointing to those seeking to build the Greens as a party of the left, many of whom named 5% of the vote as a goal, and totally insignificant compared to the numbers of Democrats and independents who either stayed home or, worse, jumped ship to vote for Trump.
While they're still quick to accuse Mr. Trump himself of racism, they try hard to get his supporters off the hook.
The outcome of the election is, no doubt, in part an expression of white supremacy. But it’s more than that: many commenters have already pointed out that the rustbelt battleground states that arguably cost Clinton the election were areas where Obama performed significantly better among white voters in 2008 and 2012 than Clinton did in 2016, complicating any suggestion that the results are simply about the racism of white voters.
This is essentially the same argument as SA makes--the American People were bamboozled into voting against their own self-interest. They're only slightly more specific about why, blaming "neoliberalism"--a catch-all term that is approximately a synonym for all evil.

Scott Alexander provides convincing evidence that white supremacy is not a significant current in American politics. After presenting much data, he concludes
So the mainstream narrative [including Solidarity--ed] is that Trump is okay with alienating minorities (= 118 million people), whites who abhor racism and would never vote for a racist (if even 20% of whites, = 40 million people), most of the media, most business, and most foreign countries – in order to win the support of about 50,000 poorly organized and generally dysfunctional people [white supremacists--ed], many of whom are too young to vote anyway.
As it turns out, Mr. Trump received a larger fraction of the minority vote (both Hispanic & African-American) than either Romney or McCain. Whatever else Trump is, he is not a white supremacist.

The Militant's view is refreshingly different. The paper describes the Trump phenomena as more a split in the ruling class rather than stupidity by the workers. Quoting Steve Clark,
“For the first time in decades, the US rulers and their government have begun to fear the working class,” Clark notes. “More working people are beginning to see that the bosses and political parties have no ‘solutions’ that don’t further load the costs — monetary and human — of the crisis of their system on us.” The rulers “sense that mounting struggle — class struggle — lies ahead.”
So, according to Steve, desperate times call for desperate measures, and a radically different presidential candidate, one which a big part of the Republican establishment disowned, suddenly becomes the tribune of the bourgeoisie.

But The Militant has long insisted that Trump is not a fascist, as Naomi Craine wrote last April.
“Trump’s not a fascist, he’s a demagogic bourgeois politician,” said Naomi Craine, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party here, who spoke along with Kennedy. “He uses crude anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and there’s a real edge to his comments on women.” 
What he proposes to do is not much different from the other capitalist politicians, however.
The paper argues that Trump accurately reflects the attitudes of most American workers, but the solutions he proposes are straight from the capitalist playbook. Far from being radical, he's just another capitalist candidate dressed up in proletarian clothing.

I think The Militant is closer to the truth than any other grouplet. Donald is certainly no fascist, as can be seen by his "ground game," or lack thereof. It has been assumed that a presidential candidate needs activists on the ground in an organized Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. Hillary certainly had that. But Trump, with a staff only a fraction the size of Hillary's, never assembled a ground game.

Yet a ground game is just an incipient fascist gang if the candidate chooses to use it that way. Indeed, both Bernie and Hillary used their ground game in just that way on occasion. But Donald never did that, in part because he never organized a gang to begin with. So he's not a fascist.

The Militant is also correct that Trump has no "solutions." They're hardly unique in pointing that out. But the reason isn't some betrayal of the working class--rather it's that no solutions exist.

  • There is no solution to the health care problem in America that solves all the problems people want solved.
  • There is no solution to the regulatory state--there will always be both too much and too little regulation.
  • There is no solution to structural unemployment in this country.
  • Etc.
Even in a socialist society--especially in a socialist society--no solution to any of these problems will be found.

Let me end with a little psephology of my own. Why did Trump win the election? Simple. He both out-smarted and out-hustled Hillary.

Hillary is stupid, and I mean that in the literal, IQ sense of the word. Anybody who rises to high office has to be smart, and the 17 candidates who initially graced the Republican stage were mostly brilliant. I need only mention Rand Paul and Chris Christie to make my case. And Trump was smarter than most of them.

But Hillary just isn't in that league. She inherited her position solely by virtue of being Bill's wife. Of course being smart isn't everything--after all, Rand Paul isn't president. But it is a prerequisite, one that Hillary couldn't meet.

That's why she lost the election.

Further Reading:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

If You Really Care About The Poor

I'm not much of a stock picker. Indeed, my ability to predict the future is not very good -- though probably better than Jeff Mackler's or Christine Frank's ability to forecast the weather 100 years from now. Still, if you want a get rich quick scheme you're reading the wrong blog.

Nevertheless, I do have a stock pick for you. It comes more under the socially responsible investing label than a road to riches. If I ever do take my own advice it's because I'm a sucker for a sob story.

Much has been said about how the economic bottom half of Americans are doing poorly. Trump ran his election campaign precisely on that premise, promising that he'd improve their lives. I doubt he'll be able to deliver.

I, for one, don't believe that the pain is as bad as Mr. Trump makes it sound -- I think most Americans are getting richer. And for those who really are falling deeper into poverty, it is to some extent their own "fault"--that last word in scare quotes because I certainly don't mean it too literally. But the fact is that among poor people, household size has been getting smaller due to divorce and/or never getting married in the first place. And some personal habits (drug addiction, sugary diet) are leading to poor health. All of these work against the larger trend of increasing wealth for most Americans.

Still, whatever the cause, there is no question some considerable number of our fellow citizens are not doing very well. Somebody needs to help them out.

The hero of the day is an unlikely fellow by the name of Todd Vasos. He's hardly self-sacrificing--his paycheck is over $925,000 annually, on top of which he gets stock options bringing his "total calculated compensation" for 2015 to just shy of $9 million.

Or, put another way, if his salary was divided among the 120,000 people who work for him, they'd each get a $75 bonus for Christmas. So it's not as though everybody else is poor because he's so rich.

Mr. Vasos is the CEO of Dollar General (DG), a company that sells about $20 billion worth of product annually, or about 2,200 times Mr. Vasos' compensation. The company's operating profit was about $2 billion last year.

Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest you are probably familiar with Dollar General. It's one of those "deep discount" stores that competes with Walmart for the very low-end consumer. I currently live within a mile of a Dollar General store, and drive by two others on my way to work in the morning. This indicates that I don't live in a very wealthy neighborhood. The company's strategy is to sell relatively few, fast-selling, off-brand items at very low prices. I shop there for things like toiletries, cooking supplies, cleaning supplies, and gift cards. They also carry popular food items--mostly packaged goods, but also milk, juices, and ice cream.

Last August the stock price of DG dropped dramatically, along with their competitors, Dollar Tree and Belo Five. ZeroHedge explains why:
Discount retailer Dollar General said it was cutting prices on its most popular items such as bread, eggs and milk, intensifying a price war among already commoditized products with retail giant Wal-Mart Stores to win back falling market share. It shares fell the most on record, plunging by 18% after the company missed on revenue, blaming aggressive competition, lower food prices and reduction in SNAP, or food stamp, coverage in 20 key states.
Perhaps increased competition from a resurgent Walmart is a culprit, but that's not the whole story.
But the biggest factor by far impacting the performance of both dollar stores was the sharp, adverse turn in the purchasing power of the lower half of US consumers. 
Both Dollar General and Dollar Tree said pressures on their core lower-income shoppers contributed to the same-store sales misses that both retailers reported. On today's conference call, Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos said that he was surprised to admit that while on the surface things are supposed to be getting better, the reality is vastly different for low-income US consumers: 
"I know that when we look at globally the overall U.S. population, it seems like things are getting better. But when you really start breaking it down and you look at that core consumer that we serve on the lower economic scale that's out there, that demographic, things have not gotten any better for her, and arguably, they're worse. And they're worse, because rents are accelerating, healthcare is accelerating on her at a very, very rapid clip" (boldface in original).
Let's consider these in turn:
  • Walmart--has hardly been resurging. It's sales are mostly flat, and for the same reasons reported by DG.
  • Higher rents--are happening largely because of local government restrictions on building, especially in states like California and New York. It has become increasingly difficult to build entry-level housing anymore. The cheapest new houses in my region cost north of $400K. Reducing or eliminating zoning laws (as happens in places like Houston) keeps housing prices low.
  • Expensive health care--is mostly because it is way over-regulated. It costs a billion dollars to bring a drug to market these days. Similar restraints exist for medical devices. I understand there's a tradeoff between cost and safety, but we've gone way too far on the way to safety.
  • SNAP & food stamps--are being reduced for all sorts of reasons, including limited state tax revenues, and increased pension costs for state employees.
Note that these problems arise mostly because of government mismanagement. If we had competent civil servants many of these problems could be mitigated. So much for socialism.

So what did DG do about this? "Dollar General, whose product selection prices are already among the lowest in the country, cut prices by 10% on average on about 450 of its best-selling items across 2,200 stores during the quarter, CEO Todd Vasos said on a conference call."

In response to a question from a journalist, Mr. Vasos explained:

Q. I understood the issues with SNAP and deflation, but is there a piece of this that's just related to the consumer job – labor market getting better, so that consumers spending a little bit better and they're trading up? Is that not possible?
Vasos: I am not going to say, it's not possible, but we have not seen that in our data. Once again, remember that over 60% to 65% of our sales and consumer base is on that lower demographic area that – of the economic scale. And when you keep that in mind, her life hasn't gotten any better. And that's really that customer that we're serving the most, and that we're intent on making sure has enough money and enough products inside her house to be able to feed her families.
And the reaction?
And when we're out in stores and we drop prices like we do, I can tell you, I've been out in stores in the middle of the aisle and heard customers come up to our store manager in tears and thanking them for being there and thanking them for the prices that we offer in a real convenient nature for her, where she can walk to the store, because she can't afford anything else. When you hear that, that really brings home where this core customer is.
So there you have it. A multi-millionaire does more to prevent starvation than (probably) all the free food-banks in America. He accomplishes this by running an efficient, self-sustaining business that buys the products as cheap as possible and passes the savings on to their customers--along with paying 120,000 employees.

And my Trotskyist friends are going to complain that the guy earns an exorbitant salary? I think they have their priorities screwed up.

If you're against poverty, buy a 100 shares of Dollar General.

Down with poverty!

ZeroHedge includes this picture of one of Mr. Vasos' customers.
dollar general.jpg (569×398)

Further Reading:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Louis Proyect's Elites

I am very happy that Trump won the election--enough so that I'm at least temporarily coming out of healing hibernation to pen this article. Plus I've recovered partial use of my left hand.

On one level this election pitted the Elites against the Hoi Polloi. The case was wonderfully made in a rant by the very talented Micheal Moore, intended as a trailer for his movie, Trumpland. Mr. Moore has his facts wrong--as do my Trotskyist friends--but he certainly gets the emotion right. A vote for Trump is a big "f*** you" to the establishment.

So there is something odd about Louis Proyect's blog. As of this writing he hasn't posted any serious analysis of the election. Yes, there is this article, which ultimately is about whether Jill Stein's 1% is significant. And then there's this, a profanity-laden piece about the history of the Democratic Party. Mostly he's retreated to movie reviews. But nowhere does he explain why Trump won the election. Why did 46.6% of the electorate (and excluding California a majority) vote for a fascist/racist/misogynist/idiot? How is it that the Republicans morphed into the party of the working class, while the Democrats were endorsed by all the sophisticated, right-thinking people?

He claims to be on the side of the working class, but it sure looks like he sides with the elites. I think he's befuddled, which explains his silence.

I infer that from this movie review he authored post-election. I don't read his movie reviews--not because they're bad, but just that I'm not interested. I haven't read this one either, but the first paragraph caught my attention.
Around this time every year I begin to be deluged by DVD’s and Vimeo links geared to the sort of middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. If you’ve ever seen something by Merchant-Ivory, you’ll probably know the kind of movie I’m talking about.
So I don't own a DVD player, I know nothing about the December awards, and I've never heard of Merchant-Ivory. When I watch movies (seldom) it is purely for escapism. So I am (at best) a "middle-brow" movie-watcher--the very kind Mr. Proyect so summarily dismisses.

And of course he's right to dismiss. He knows much more about movies than I do, and there is no reason why he should be held hostage to my (poor) taste. Indeed, when it comes to movies Mr. Proyect is a member of the elite. And despite my disinterest, I'm very happy there is a movie elite--were there not, even the movies I watch (syrupy rom-coms) would be less good.

Even in politics one has to place value in elites. After all, you want people in government who actually know something, and perhaps are even competent. Filling the halls with proletarian ignoramuses inevitably leads to disaster, as the Bolsheviks discovered beginning on October 8th 1917. "Peasants with Pitchforks" makes for a nice slogan, but you don't really want them in power. Much better is somebody from Goldman-Sachs.

Mr. Proyect, subconsciously at least, yearns for an elite, but it's the wrong kind of elite. His elite is not competent public servants, but rather people who claim to know what we want better than we do ourselves. Because of supposed climate change, for example, the American working class is required to fork over billions of dollars to third-world kleptocrats (or at least that's what the Paris accords require). Because cities are such charming places, Mr. Proyect's elites want to force us all into denser housing (aka tenements) so as to restore the mythical sense of community of yore. Mr. Proyect's elites are against almost all technological progress, from fracking to GMO agriculture. Their goal is poverty for everybody (except for the elite nomenklatura). And worse, our movie elites, instead of just making our movies better, want to force-feed us politically correct propaganda.

So who are Mr. Proyect's elites? Certainly they include people like Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Mackler, and--yes--Hillary Clinton. Mr. Proyect will undoubtedly complain that I put all these people in the same basket, and he is right that there are distinctions between them. Ms. Clinton, for example, is not merely elite in the sense I've described, but also claims (incredibly) to be a competent politician. As such, she's more willing to compromise with the status quo.

None of the rest make any concessions to reality. "Free college for all," insisting that American workers (e.g., Walmart employees) pay tuition for the children of the elite, is among their more ridiculous demands. Taxing the top 0.1% of the population into oblivion is not a viable way of raising anybody's standard of living. Putting the pharmaceutical companies out of business won't improve health care. Banning all technological innovation more consequential than an iPhone makes for a stagnant, poorer society.

We'll leave aside the explicit antisemitism, the rabid bigotry against religious people (especially Catholics), the unvarnished hatred of the Scots-Irish, and the deep suspicion that something traitorous is the matter with Kansas (and the rest of rural America). The fact is that Mr. Proyect's elites hate and fear most Americans. They do so because they claim to speak on our behalf, but at some level realize that we don't want to live in the way they prescribe.

So we voted for Donald Trump.

Now that's very strange. After all, far from being a Peasant with a Pitchfork, Mr. Trump is himself very proudly a member of the elite. He's made no attempt to hide it, flying around in his own plane, living in a gold-plated penthouse, and owning expensive, golf resorts. Notwithstanding the "blue-collar billionaire" moniker, Mr. Trump is just as elite as Misters Goldman and Sachs.

But that gets us back to where we started. I did say we need elites. I voted for him precisely because he isn't a peasant. He really does know something about how the system works and has connections to people who know even more. The difference between Mr. Trump and the rest of them is not his class. No, it's instead who he works for.

Because Mr. Trump can listen. He understands the plea of Middle America for some cultural stability. Not stasis, mind you, but at least a more modest rate of change. There is no question that globalization--hugely enriching overall, and in the long term good for everybody--is highly disruptive in particular times and places. One can't stop it, but perhaps one should slow it down. He realizes that the path to a richer society is to let people earn a living--be it by fracking, or mining, or trading securities, or building houses, or growing food. The obscene level of regulation prohibits citizens from earning an honest living.

Example: Does anybody remember the name Eric Garner? He was the poor fellow inadvertently killed by police officers in Staten Island. He tried to scratch out a living selling "loosies", i.e., individual cigarettes. This is illegal because the State of New York (I'm looking at you, Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio) needs the tax revenue from tobacco. So the cops went after him. Mr. Garner wasn't too bright and the scuffle led to his death.

The Left, including Mr. Proyect's elites, blamed Racism on the part of the police. But they've got the wrong "R" word. The real word is Revenue. Mr. Garner was killed for selling a legal product on a public street, not because he was Black, not because the cops are racist, but because Mr. Proyect's elites are against smoking, they need revenue, and anybody who gets in their way has to be dealt with mercilessly.

When Mr. Trump talks about deregulation, that's what he's talking about. Citizens (such as Mr. Garner) have a right to earn an honest living. The sniveling, hypocritical, selfish elites that populate Mr. Proyect's political universe don't understand that. They're too greedy, too self-righteous, too interested in some stupid cause (saving the planet, stopping smoking, overthrowing capitalism), to care about little people like Mr. Garner.

We can all be very grateful that Mr. Trump won the election.

Further Reading:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sympathy for Jack Barnes

Yesterday I took a fall and broke my arm. So now I share the same problem as Mr. Barnes, though he has many decades experience on me. Typing for me is now ridiculously slow--I'm sure Mr. Barnes can knock out essays in a jiffy. I suspect I'll get better at one-handed typing over the next few weeks. Right now I'm still in too much pain to work at it.

Anyway, this blog will probably be on hiatus for a couple of months. I simply can't take on Jack, Jeff, Bonnie, or Diane one-handed.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Socialist Action's Convention

I'm late to the party--Socialist Action's (SA) convention occurred in mid-August, with results reported in an article dated on August 29th. Better late than never.

Unlike the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), SA provides us with no statistics whatsoever. They don't say how many people were present, nor how many visitors they had from other countries. (They do mention visitors from Canada.) Indeed, the paper doesn't list the locations of their branches--it's impossible to get in touch with them without going through the National Office.

One supposes this secretiveness is for "security," i.e., they're afraid of retaliation by the State or its irregular henchmen. But I don't think they should worry--they are not terrorists, nor do they represent any threat to our political system. Nobody cares what they do.

I think "security" is just a ruse. In fact, they are a small and shrinking organization, ashamed of their inability to attract new members.

The August 29th article broadly summarizes the Political Resolution (a summary of the current, global political situation) and the Organizational Report (the proposed activity of the Party in the immediate future). These two are supposed to mesh--that is, the Party's activities should flow from the global conjuncture. This year, at least, they barely intersect at all.

For example:
Eight years into the world capitalist crisis—the Great Depression of the modern era—no nation on earth can boast anything resembling a recovery. Stagnation and continued decline are the norm the world over, with the broad imposition of austerity measures taking an ever-increasing toll on the working masses and oppressed, while imperialist wars for domination and plunder in all their manifestations proceed seemingly without end on every continent.
This does not seem generally true. While growth has been much slower than desired, there is no question that there has been growth. People with employable skills are doing very well, are getting pay raises, and have a rising standard of living. The current US unemployment rate of 4.9% is not just a propaganda number--it reflects a real labor shortage in significant parts of the economy. Trends are similar in Europe and Japan, especially if you account for stagnant or declining populations. Then the statistics systematically overstate inflation, which means real incomes have been growing faster than is believed. SA's assessment of "ever-increasing toll on the working masses" simply does not reflect reality. Their own newspaper proves as much.

Nevertheless, for unskilled workers the picture is much less bright. Many of them are dropping out of the labor force. So there is a problem, but it's not the problem SA thinks it is.

The report presents five areas where workers are (supposedly) "fighting back."
The fight against increasingly harsh austerity and union-busting attacks on U.S. workers, reflected in the strike of Verizon workers, the on-going fight around a new Chicago Teachers Union contract, and other struggles. [See my post on the Verizon strike.]
The battles of low-wage workers for a $15 minimum wage and a union. [Comments here.]
The fight against racist cop murders and the growing strength of the Movement for Black Lives and other anti-racist groups and coalitions emerging in Black and other communities of oppressed peoples. [BLM helps Trump make a winning Law & Order case.]
The growing struggle against climate change and for a quick and just transition to 100% renewable sources of energy—a struggle that includes the demand for an immediate ban on fracking. [Banning fracking immediately puts hundreds of thousands out of work!]
The movement against deportations and extending the rights of immigrant workers. [Surely they're joking. Illegal immigration is very unpopular these days.]
These are, at least, big issues. Every Trotskyist movement is engaged in them one way or another (possibly excepting the SWP and climate change). So big issues should come with a big, audacious program. If you think that, then you'll be disappointed with the Organizational Report.

The lead activity is to sell more print copies of their newspaper, the eponymous Socialist Action. I was under the illusion that the print version had mostly gone away, for which I previously complimented them. Its resurrection is a sure sign that SA is losing members--they are now following in the footsteps of the moribund SWP.

To support their media they're starting a $25,000 fund drive. If the average comrade contributes $250, then they have about 100 members, or not much bigger than the SWP (albeit without the long list of sympathizers).

However, "[t]he most pressing task in the coming months is to expand the 2016 Socialist Action campaign of Jeff Mackler for U.S. president and Karen Schraufnagel for vice president." This includes "organized national tours" (as opposed to disorganized ones) in September and October. Checking their Events Calendar (per their suggestion), as of this writing they have (had) six events scheduled for September and one for October.

This hardly rises to the occasion: an unprecedented capitalist crisis yielding unrelenting economic misery. Beyond which Mr. Mackler is a terrible candidate (even worse than Hillary), and Ms. Shraufnagel is an avowed anti-Semite.

The last part of the article is about their "antiwar" efforts. They talk around it a bit, but ultimately they support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They're against any and all of his opponents because 1) they might receive some paltry aid from the United States, and 2) SA still can't bring themselves to support ISIS (though I bet that's coming).

I have long since given up on following the situation in Syria--it's much too complicated. I refer my SA friends to fellow blogger, Louis Proyect, who definitely knows something about Syria. Further, whatever else Mr. Proyect has to say, he is absolutely correct about Assad--he should not be supported under any circumstances whatsoever. I definitely agree with that conclusion.

Of course backing Assad is completely consistent with SA's support for Kim Jong-un and Hamas. Their mantra is to find the very worst characters on any block, notice that those assholes are not backed by the USA, and accordingly offer SA's backing. It's that simple. And that disgusting.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Review: Are They Rich Because They're Smart?

Are they rich because they're smart?

Oddly, Jack Barnes in his book of that title does not answer that question, though the implicit answer is No.

It's a very strange little book, though I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. It consists of three talks that Mr. Barnes presented to Socialist Workers Party gatherings, with portions updated to reflect the world in 2016.

The first segment, with the same title as the book, is a meditation on The Bell Curve, a famous book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (H&M) published in 1994. It reproduces some apparently off-the-cuff remarks (also delivered in 1994) in answer to a question from the audience. He admits that he hadn't read the whole book, insisting "I don't intend to read any more." It's obvious that in 1994 Mr. Barnes didn't take H&M seriously. So it is ironic that the salience of Mr. Barnes' essay today derives entirely from the continued relevance of that book. Indeed, The Bell Curve has generally withstood the test of time and is probably still worth reading even now.

So how does Mr. Barnes criticize H&M? First are ad hominem attacks. Mr. Murray is described as a "political propagandist." Both authors are accused of not being "geneticists." He makes fun of them for using the word penultimate.

Then he charges them with not being scientific. They don't really claim to be scientific. Mr. Murray is a superb writer and an excellent science reporter. Mr. Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at Harvard. Their book is ultimately about public policy, not science. If you remove the pejorative connotation, Mr. Barnes' description political propaganda isn't bad.

Finally, he just claims they're wrong, offering no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, you will never really learn anything about what H&M actually say. But never mind. You can read it for yourself: The Bell Curve is superbly written and very clear.

One thesis of The Bell Curve is the existence of the Herrnstein centrifugenamely a segregation of society by IQ. H&M predicted that smart people will tend to congregate in "smart" cities, e.g., Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The less smart will stay put in places like Kokomo, Topeka, and Fresno. Since income varies by IQ, the smart cities will become richer. Mr. Barnes quotes H&M to describe the consequences of this phenomenon.
An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution. (p. 23)
These predictions have largely come true, as Mr. Murray demonstrates convincingly in his recent treatise, Coming Apart.

The second part of the book concerns the "enlightened meritocracy." These are professional people--Mr. Barnes picks on lawyers as an example. The essay, written in 2009, champions Barack Obama as a classic representative of this social layer.
The aspiring social layer the president is part of is bourgeois in its class interests, its values, its world outlook--in who it serves. But it's not a section of the capitalist class in becoming. It's not "entrepreneurial," aside from a handful of technology and "social media" billionaires. It's not composed of the owners, top managers, or large debt holders of rapidly expanding new businesses--factories, farms, or financial or commercial enterprises. (p. 52)
People in the meritocracy, who in Mr. Barnes' telling contribute nothing productive to the American economy, are essentially bought off by the bourgeoisie to serve as foot soldiers in the class struggle. The "handful of billionaires" rather contradicts his thesis. There aren't that many billionaires to begin with, and any group with even a handful is certainly entrepreneurial, and includes owners and top managers, etc.

Mr. Barnes assigns not just lawyers to the "meritocracy," but probably also teachers, professors, engineers, most civil servants, accountants, etc. This new class, he says, number in the millions or even tens of millions of people. Perhaps we can roughly equate this professional class with the college educated part of the labor force--maybe 40 million people.

Here's what these people supposedly do:
While the existence and expansion of these strata are largely divorced from the production process, they are very much bound up with the production and reproduction of capitalist social relations. They have a parasitic existence. To maintain their their high incomes and living standards, they are dependent on skimming off a portion of surplus value--"rents"--produced by working people and appropriated by the bourgeoisie. Yet the big majority contribute nothing themselves to the creation of that value, even in wasteful or socially harmful ways.
Or put another way, it's all a big conspiracy theory. The few thousand bourgeoisie bamboozle the millions of professionals into doing their propaganda work for them. For this they get to live in nice houses and eat fancy food.

So he accuses the "meritocracy" of running a con game and of being despicable. But nowhere does he actually say that they're stupid. Indeed--it's hard to imagine they are. After all, running such an effective scam for all these generations requires some smarts. So Mr. Barnes' book is mistitled.

Mr. Barnes puts much to big an emphasis on "production workers." These, in his view, are the only people who actually produce value. Service workers apparently contribute nothing.  To make his case, he reproduces a chart very similar to this, taken from the Economic Policy Institute.



Mr. Barnes' interpretation of this chart is that production workers are getting screwed. Their surplus value is being siphoned off by the "meritocracy" and bourgeoisie.

But this is wrong. Production workers are not the only creators of value, or even the primary ones. The manufacturing cost of an iPhone is $8, or perhaps 2% of the total cost. This is partly because it's made in China, but mostly because most of the value was created in Silicon Valley (engineers and designers), Taiwan (hardware), Israel (software), and Corning, New York (touch-sensitive glass). Among many other things, the "meritocracy" organized the supply-chain logistics--very complicated for a product assembled from all over the world.

Indeed, the chart is readily explained by the obvious fact that production workers play an ever smaller role in actual production. They're replaced by robots, manufactures with fewer moving parts, or bits of software. Since 1980 manufacturing employment has decreased from 19% to 12%, while since 1982 manufacturing output has increased by 131%. Clearly production workers are not the primary actors in this drama.

The final chapter in the book is the only one explicitly about education, and it is by far the least compelling. Mr. Barnes reveals his profound ignorance of even elementary economics, stating that
In fact, higher wages and better working conditions won in struggle by the labor movement put the working class as a whole--together with working farmers and other toiling allies--on a stronger footing to fight for better living standards and conditions of life and work. (p. 93)
He's apparently never heard of labor markets, nor the connection between wages and productivity.

He also claims that education in a capitalist society is completely useless. All, that is, except for "learning to read, learning to write, learning to compute, practicing to increase our attention spans, learning the discipline necessary to study and use our minds." (p. 95). Except for all that.

I'm no great fan of the modern college (as readers of this blog surely know), but Mr. Barnes' comments are so over the top that I can't take them seriously.

I don't know who is supposed to read this book. It certainly isn't scholarly--there is no bibliography, and apart from Herrnstein and Murray, along with a couple odd references to Marx and Engels, there is no serious engagement with any literature. It's hardly a popular book. I can't see hair stylists or former coal miners reading it. Indeed, with references to the likes of James Burnham, it will be mostly incomprehensible to them.

Only Comrades, present and former, will have any interest in this. Apart from my former sympathies I should never have picked it up. It is, I think, silly to go on a drive to sell this door to door.

But if you are a former Comrade, then Mr. Barnes is a good writer, and this is a fun if completely uncompelling read.

Further Reading:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Women Are From Venus; Trotskyists Are From Pluto

It's usually rude to comment on somebody's appearance. An unspoken rule among college professors is to never do that, especially to women and not even when it's complimentary. That's professional courtesy augmented by a dose of political correctness. The pretense is that appearances aren't important--it's what shows up in a person's soul that counts.

Of course the pretense is wrong. We are all physical beings, and our lives depend crucially on what we look like. My life's chances are significantly reduced because I'm not a 6'5" NFL football player. Similarly, most women aren't beautiful enough to be a movie star or a famous fashion model. Those are extreme examples, but tall, handsome men earn more money and have more beautiful wives and more successful children than us shorter, fatter fellows. Similarly, beautiful women are more likely to snag the tall, handsome, wealthy husband.

So when Trotskyists knock on doors politicking, they think it is only the issues that count: low wages, unemployment, evil cops, etc. But of course that's not true. Whenever two people meet, especially when they are of the same gender, there is a status competition. And who wins depends very much on appearance, whether Trotskyists realize that or not.

They obviously don't realize it, as illustrated by the cover article in this week's Militant. Entitled Socialist Workers Party: 'Defend Voter's Rights!'it's obviously intended to further working class politics. It tells the story of Comrade Ellen Brickley, who knocked on the door of Miss Renee,* identified as a hair stylist. They're shown in the picture, reproduced below. Zero points for guessing who Ms. Brickley is.



Of course it's risky to judge an interaction based on a still photo--that's a millisecond slice easily taken out of context. Yet The Militant's editors saw fit to publish this photo, so presumably it represents something they think is both typical and flattering.

The obvious irony is Ms. Brickley--who has likely not visited a hair stylist in years, if ever--is now soliciting one. It's not clear what she expects to accomplish. The Trotskyist view (explained by Evelyn Reed) is that women doll themselves up only to entertain men and for no other reason. Miss Renee, by this account, is totally in hock to the patriarchy, completely hypnotized by us evil guys.

Of course that's not true. While men are certainly part of the picture, fashion is as much a status competition among women as anything else. Beautiful women have every reason to flaunt it, and even less attractive women do their best. Most people call it self esteem.

So Miss Renee wins this status competition hands down. Not only is she naturally more attractive, but she obviously takes care of herself and looks as good as she can. She emphasizes her femininity to the point of provocation. Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, has just thrown in the towel.

So now it's easy to write a caption for this picture. Miss Renee (who as a hair stylist is only rarely the high-status female in the room) is definitely the top dog in this encounter. That's why she's enjoying it so much, smiling broadly as she looks down, patronizingly, at her visitor. She's doing her best to extend the encounter for as long as possible, which is why she feigns interest in Trotskyist politics.

Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, looks very uncomfortable, even angry. At some level she knows she's being had.

It is inconceivable to me that somebody like Miss Renee would ever join the SWP. At very least she'd have to shave her head and give up her career as a hair stylist. She'd have to voluntarily renounce whatever status she has and become an ugly bitch. Of course she's not going to do that! Ms. Brickley, apart from humiliating herself, has also wasted her time.

You think I'm kidding about the haircut? Ms. Brickley's coiffure is similar to the Trotskyist comrades of my youth. Women comrades tended to be homely, and accordingly disavowed any interest in beauty, as less attractive women are wont to do.

It holds true even today. This picture dates from 2013, and shows Margaret Trowe campaigning for Des Moines city council, visiting Miss Essie* sitting on her porch. Miss Essie is a retired hotel cleaner.



The status gap between the two women is not quite so obvious. Still, at least Miss Essie is recognizably female, which is more than one can say for Ms. Trowe (at least from the picture). Further, Miss Essie was likely quite attractive in her younger years. I'll hazard that she has children and grandchildren, unlike Ms. Trowe. So I'll count Miss Essie as the more successful, higher status woman. Ms. Trowe's subservient posture suggests as much.

Ms. Trowe has the same Trotskyist-style haircut as Ms. Brickley. She's obviously a low-status woman, and it's not clear to me why higher-status folks would want to join her organization. People want to move up in the world--not down.

*The Militant cites full names for Miss Renee and Miss Essie. I choose not to include those to save them any further embarrassment.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Author J.D. Vance's older half-sister, Lindsay, has a successful life: stable marriage, three children, a house in the suburbs.

Hardly the stuff memoirs are made of. Mr. Vance has been more adventurous: after a stint in the Marine Corps he got a law degree from Yale University, though again that's not material for a best-seller.

Yet best-seller is precisely what Mr. Vance's autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, has become. The tale is not in the outcome but rather how they got there. Mr. Vance (and his sister) endured the Childhood from Hell. Their mother was a drug-addict, and J.D.'s father--one of a long succession of men who passed through his life as one of Mom's boyfriends or husbands--was an alcoholic.

So normally this book wouldn't interest me. Count me hardhearted, but tales of troubled children are not generally on my reading list. Tearjerker memoirs don't rank high, either. But Mr. Vance's book is not that, or at least not just that. It is a serious effort to understand the hillbilly culture in which he grew up. That I found fascinating, besides which it is beautifully written.

Mr. Vance credits his grandparents--Mamaw and Papaw--for his success. They were born in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, even today known as one of the poorest counties in America. As young adults Mamaw and Papaw traveled north along the "hillbilly highway" to look for work in the industrial Midwest, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Mr. Vance was born. He has fond childhood memories of trips back to Jackson to visit his great-grandmother, Mamaw Blanton, along with other relatives.

It's a matriarchal world. The men come and go, and the women get pregnant as teenagers. Mamaw (a heavy smoker) lived only into her mid-seventies, but survived long enough to supervise a whole passel of great-grandchildren.

"Hillbilly" (the word used freely by Mr. Vance) is a slightly pejorative synonym for Scots-Irish. If you believe Scott Alexander, that term is also misleading, as there's no Irish blood involved at all. Instead hillbillies descend from the Scottish Borders, that lowland part of Scotland that was fought over for a thousand years ending in the 18th Century. Every summer one army or another would pass through, doing, I suppose, what armies of that era did: looting, raping and pillaging.

So no wonder the Borders people were clannish, deeply suspicious of outsiders, exceedingly sensitive to insult, and prone to violence. In North America they initially settled as far from authority as they possibly could, in the mountain fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 19th and 20th Centuries economic deprivation forced them to wander--to Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and then to the industrial Midwest along the trail that Mamaw and Papaw followed.

From a demographic viewpoint they are a successful people. And no surprise since they possess positive character traits as well: loyalty, courage, self-reliance.

Now if you believe authors like Nicholas Wade and Gregory Clark, then the concept of gene/culture co-evolution comes as no surprise. That states that cultures select for certain genes, and/or genes favor particular cultural attributes. Either way, over time (and a thousand years is certainly long enough) cultural attributes become inscribed in the genome. Thus hillbillies are, in some sense, born that way, at least as predisposition.

Mr. Vance, born a hillbilly, definitely shows the personality traits of his tribe. He is fiercely loyal to his family (insulting his mother is the surest route to a fistfight), served as a combat Marine in Iraq, and (justly) takes great pride in his ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Reading between the lines, I infer he has a tendency toward alcoholism (he drinks throughout the book).

But in one very important way--not mentioned explicitly in the book--he is very different from most Scots-Irish. He is very smart.

He is smarter than I am. Despite my upper middle class upbringing, I could never have aspired to attend Yale Law School. Even if I survived the IQ cutoff, I simply don't have the ability to work 16 hour days. In this he differs, not just from most hillbillies, but even from most people.

So Mr. Vance did inherit something from his grandparents: a high IQ. It's pretty obvious from the book that Mamaw and Papaw, however uneducated, certainly were not dumb. Even Mom, helpless though she was, had some serious smarts about her. While his grandparents clearly rescued him from absolute disaster, his stunning success in life is less due to what they did, but more on what he inherited from them.

There are simple tests given to toddlers that measure an ability to defer gratification. The archetype is known as the marshmallow test. A child is offered one marshmallow now (placed on a plate in front of him while the tester leaves the room), but if he can wait 15 minutes then he will get two. There is a strong correlation between passing the marshmallow test and future success in life, e.g., SAT scores, time spent in jail, future earnings, etc. The marshmallow test also correlates with IQ.

So Mr. Vance clearly would've passed the marshmallow test, even as a child. But many in his family wouldn't have. His Mom would've failed. Maybe even Mamaw would've failed. The stereotype for hillbillies is precisely that they're impulsive and undisciplined. Which implies that on average they're not very smart (I don't know if that's true).

Mr. Vance and his family are obviously a huge exception.

Toward the end of the book Mr. Vance stops talking about "hillbillies," and begins to identify more with the "working class." These groups overlap, but they are far from being the same thing. "Hillbilly" refers to an ethnic group, while "working class" is an economic entity not defined by genes. "Working class" does not denote a cluster of personality traits.

Hillbillies, successful in many contexts, are dysfunctional in the modern, urban, service economy. Mr. Vance is right to be skeptical about various government programs to help them. But I don't think he's skeptical enough. For if you take the above arguments seriously, there is no way a bespoke pre-school program or some special third grade curriculum is going to magically give ornery hillbillies a personality transplant. A thousand years of gene/culture co-evolution can't be undone that easily.

The poor will always be with us

Further Reading:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Principled Presidential Campaigns

Trotskyists put great store on principle. It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that all of the grouplets I follow are principled in their attitudes toward the 2016 presidential election campaign. Despite the invective they'd likely throw at each other, all of them are loyal to the ideals of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of my youth.

In 1936 the SWP took the French Turn, imitating a tactical innovation first used by comrades in France. This entailed joining the Socialist Party (SP), an organization that today has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, among other splinter groups. But in the 1930s the SP was the premier, non-Stalinist exponent of Marxism.

The SWP maintained this was a tactic to recruit cadre to revolutionary socialism, which is what I always believed as a comrade. Hence this claim comes as a surprise:
Although party leader Jim Cannon later hinted that the entry of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party had been a contrived tactic aimed at stealing "confused young Left Socialists" for his own organization, it seems that at its inception, the entryist tactic was made in good faith.
Whatever the truth, The Militant suspended publication for a couple years until the Party reemerged as an independent organization in 1937, having doubled its membership.

In the interim my ancestral comrades must have supported and/or voted for Norman Thomas for President in 1936. Or at least not opposed him.

I recite this history because the modern analog to Norman Thomas is either Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, or both. What is unprincipled is support for the candidate of a bourgeois party, e.g., the Democratic Party. But none of the grouplets advocate a vote for Hillary Clinton.

My friends in Solidarity are the most consistent in following the former SWP's lead. In a recent editorial they strongly endorse Jill Stein. The piece contains a stunningly clear statement of Trotskyist principles:
Looking not only toward November but also beyond, especially to Bernie Sanders’ supporters who reject the dead-end option of Hillary Clinton, we urge you to consider that you need more than a different candidate: you need a different party. Hillary Clinton, after all, did not “hijack” the Democratic Party. She represents exactly what the Democratic Party really is: Wall Street connections, militarism, and all. There was no way that Bernie Sanders was going to be the Democratic nominee.
A way to phrase this is that Solidarity is making a French Turn into the Green Party. There is certainly nothing unprincipled about this, nor is it inconsistent with Trotskyist history.

Solidarity was certain that Bernie would never be the nominee, and it turns out they were right. In their editorial they go out of their way to be as friendly to Bernie supporters as they can be, e.g., in the lede:
Bernie Sanders' campaign for a “political revolution” lit up the 2016 primary election season like a meteor across the sky. Contrary to conventional wisdom that he’d peak and fade early, Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic party machine lasted throughout the primaries. Surpassing all expectations, he won 23 primary and caucus contests, raised an astonishing $222 million almost exclusively in small donations, and gathered over 1800 pledged delegates.
Louis Proyect (not a grouplet, but a blogger of some renown) gives no credit to Mr. Sanders.
After it became clear that the Sanders Political Revolution was history, the pro-Clinton propagandists redirected their fire at Jill Stein. The contrast between Sanders and Stein could hardly be greater but that made little difference to those who not only favored the two-party system but the hegemonic role of ruling class politicians like the Bushes, the Clintons and Barack Obama within it. Even though Sanders never had any intention of making a breach with corporatist Democrats, he was considered a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious, namely that the system was rigged in favor of Wall Street.
It's not clear to me what the programmatic differences were between Bernie and Jill--indeed, Jill even offered to give up her candidacy if Bernie would run on the Green Party ticket. Bernie's sin was never programmatic--instead it was his commitment to the Democratic Party.

Solidarity understood this, and may even have supported Mr. Sanders during the primary. However confident they were he would lose, had he won they would've dropped him like a hot potato. Fighting for socialism and supporting the Democratic Party are incompatible no matter what flavor of Trotskyism you subscribe to.

Socialist Viewpoint, very oddly, has almost nothing to say about the 2016 election. The only relevant article in the July/August issue is a very weird piece by Robert Meeropol, entitled Trumpophobia. He is completely convinced that Trump is the second coming of Hitler, but nevertheless he can't bring himself to support Hillary.
A willingness to vote for the status quo because Trump is worse is also a subtle form of cognitive dissonance. It is a refusal to acknowledge, or to act on the knowledge, that we are about to run out of time and so must make climate change the number one priority. Instead of confronting a longer-term, but qualitatively deadlier, environmental impact, some progressives propose we vote for Clinton, a candidate whose policies make that end result more likely, in order to avoid the more immediate sociopolitical threat of Trump. I admit this is not an easy choice, but choosing the latter over the former could be our worst mistake.
Fine. That is consistent with Trotskyism. But nowhere does he tell us who he will vote for--there is no endorsement of Jill Stein or anybody else. And while I have not read every article in the magazine, I detect nothing but abstentionism.

So if Solidarity and Louis Proyect advocate a French Turn into the Green Party, then Socialist Action (SA) and the SWP do not. Of course the French Turn decision is totally tactical--there are no principles at stake. So I accuse nobody of violating their historical consciences.

The SWP's strategy is perhaps a riff on the French Turn theme. They certainly are not supporting Donald Trump, but they are cozying up to his supporters. Their candidates, Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart, are specifically addressing the concerns of White, working-class Americans. For the Left this is a very unusual and risky strategy, but the potential payoff could be large. The risk is that they cross a line of principle, though I see no indication of that happening. At least they have a more accurate assessment of what the Trump campaign actually represents, unlike, say, Mr. Meeropol.

The SWP has an advantage in that it's the only grouplet to disown the climate crackpottery enthusiastically embraced by the other comrades. And further, they've rejected antisemitism, which is more than you can say for Jill Stein.

The silliest instantiation of Trotskyism (perhaps barring Mr. Meeropol) is the tactic followed by SA. They are running their own fearless leader as president. This is doubling down on being a really tiny, little, insignificant sect. No intelligence. No leverage. No outreach. It's a complete zero.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Oberlin, 2016

This is a tough post to write because there is almost nothing to write about. Still, it's important to comment on the Socialist Workers Party's (SWP) most important annual event.

Oberlin conferences, held on the eponymous campus annually since about 1970, have historically hosted the Party's biannual conventions, and in the alternate years a Marxist Summer School or Educational Conference. That pattern has changed recently--the Party's last convention was in 2014, and if there was an Oberlin Conference in 2015, it went unremarked on this blog.

This year's conclave was billed as an Active Workers Conference. (Given the Party's demographics, it might more accurately be called the Active Retirees Conference.) The program included classes on the Party's trade union work, on their call for unilateral nuclear disarmament, on Puerto Rican independence, on the Middle East (with emphasis on Iran), and on the importance of the Cuban revolution, among other topics. Attendees numbered 320--the same number as attended the 2014 convention--including foreign visitors.

The major purpose of the meeting, however, was to tout Jack Barnes' new book, entitled Are They Rich Because They're Smart?: Class Privilege Under Capitalism. From The Militant's review, I was disappointed to learn that the book is not original, but instead is an updated compilation of articles Mr. Barnes has written previously. I did inquire about getting an advance review copy--unsurprisingly they didn't reply--but I have since ordered the book from Amazon (temporarily out of stock). It only costs $10. I'll post a review as soon as I can. I don't believe an appraisal has appeared in any other publication.

Mr. Barnes delivered the keynote address entitled The Changing Face of US Politics. The brief description in The Militant isn't very informative, containing only predictable boilerplate about "the unprecedented and irresolvable worldwide crisis of capitalist production, trade and finances." I can't help but hope there was more substance in the actual talk, i.e., about Donald Trump, who really is a new face in American politics.

The upshot of all this are the two tasks for the coming period: the Alyson Kennedy for President and Osborne Hart for vice-president campaign, and the drive to sell 1750 copies of Mr. Barnes' new book. Given the "irresolvable worldwide crisis of capitalist production, trade and finances," this seems remarkably modest. But the book is selling like gangbusters (despite Amazon being out of stock): "Since June 25 teams campaigning in Utah have sold 76 copies of the book; in Vermont, 133 copies; and in Washington state, 16." This, of course, is accomplished by comrades going door-to-door.

So there are three levels of political thought and activity. At the top are core principles. Then comes some overarching strategy for accomplishing those principles. Finally, this leads to tactics that are an implementation of that strategy.

I have read nothing indicating that the Party has violated any core principles, which remain mostly unchanged since I was a comrade 40 years ago. On this they are without sin.

Their mission to run an election campaign and sell books is a perfectly good tactic (however small).

What is missing is a strategy. They have none, and haven't had one for many years now. That's why this article is so short and doesn't have much to say. I can't comment on a strategy that doesn't exist. They bounce around from one idea to the next: appeal to Trump supporters, lobby for education (not) reform, defend the Jewish right of return, plead for nuclear disarmament, etc.

It's a long list. But nothing inspires. Nothing carries through from one week to the next. It's all ad hoc.

Note: Blogging has been light recently, due partly to some time-consuming, personal issues, and also because Mrs. Trotsky and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a two-week holiday in Japan.

Further Reading:




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Old White Man Runs For President

Socialist Action (SA) must not have much of a bench.
  • Lead writer for their newspaper -- Jeff Mackler
  • National Secretary of the Party (or whatever the title is) -- Jeff Mackler
  • 2016 Presidential Candidate -- Jeff Mackler
And SA accuses the Socialist Workers Party of being a cult? At least Jack Barnes spreads the work around.

I'll happily acknowledge that Mr. Mackler is a good writer--this blog has spent far too many pixels on his articles for me to claim otherwise. And clearly he has some organizational smarts, what leading SA since its founding in 1983.

But as a presidential candidate? Frankly, the guy sucks. Consider this video (from July, 2010) as representative. Clearly there's a charisma deficit. He talks like a bad high school teacher.

Though I guess that's understandable. "A former teachers union leader, Mackler was the organizer and longtime elected officer of the AFT and CTA locals in Hayward, Calif." Hayward, we suppose, has whole high schools filled with time-serving, boring teachers, the most tedious of which are elected to fill union posts.

The Marxist terminology for people like Mr. Mackler is petty bourgeois. He represents a class of people who produce nothing useful, but instead live off tax dollars extorted from hard-working citizens. Though I can't be too hard on Mr. Mackler--I, too, belong to the same parasite class as a member in good standing of our own (AFT) professors' union.

It is obvious that Mr. Mackler has no understanding about how the economy works. In any economy (not just a capitalist one) people earn a living by trading goods and services with other people. In a pure free market trade is unrestricted--people get to choose which goods and services they want to buy. We aren't required to buy something we don't want (e.g., educational "services" from Mr. Mackler), nor are we prohibited from buying things we do want (e.g., marijuana).

But Mr. Mackler doesn't live in a free market--his income is extracted at the point of a gun from other people. And so no wonder his campaign platform demands more money for parasites like him.

Here is Socialist Action's 10 point program (with my editorial comments on the side):

  • Rapid conversion to 100% renewable energy to stop fossil-fuel-induced climate change [Impossible]
  • For a just transition: Guaranteed jobs at top union wages for all workers displaced in the conversion to renewable energy [Make-work jobs doing imaginary things does not make people richer]
  • Quality, universal government-paid health care and education [Of course Mr. Mackler demands more money for teachers!]
  • Abolition of all racist, sexist, and homophobic laws and practices. [Are we gonna arrest people for thought crimes?]
  • Affordable housing and jobs for all at top union wages [Aren't union wages enough to afford housing?]
  • For $15 and a union now, as a short first step toward a minimum wage high enough to sustain quality living standards [Didn't they already say this?]
  • Abolition of the U.S. war machine [Civil rights for terrorists now!]
  • Amnesty, legalization, and equal rights for all immigrants [Presumably they also get top union wages, even if like everybody else they're prohibited from doing useful work]
  • For a Labor Party based on a revitalized, democratic, and expanded labor movement that is allied with the oppressed and exploited [Hard to see the point of a labor party when everybody is getting top union wages for doing no useful work]
  • For a workers’ government! Abolish capitalism! For socialism! [Welcome to North Korea!]
Mr. Mackler's running mate is a lady named Karen Shraufnagel, who lives up to her Germanic name.
Karen Schraufnagel is a member of Socialist Action’s National Committee and organizer of its Twin Cities branch. She is a founder of Minnesotans Against Islamophobia, and is active in the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS - ed] movement and the animal rights, antiwar, and environmental movements.
The woman is a full-fledged, card-carrying antisemite. Yes, I know there is a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but BDS is unequivocally antisemitic. As is Hamas, which SA unconditionally supports. Further, many of the Islamophobia-phobic groups are similarly so inspired.

According to Ms. Schraufnagel apparently animal rights are more important than the human rights of Jews.

But what's the point? Mr. Mackler's program is practically identical to that of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, antisemitism included. Why is he running a separate campaign? Mr. Mackler's answer is likely that the Greens are "petty bourgeois," while SA isn't. But I think I've just demonstrated that's not true.

Jeff Mackler is just as much a petty bourgeois, pro-poverty campaigner as any other socialist.

Down with antisemitism!
Down with poverty!
Down with Jeff Mackler's presidential campaign!!

Further Reading:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Classy

Vincent Kelley writes a useful article entitled Class: Its Core Dimensions and Relationships to Levels of Organization, published in The North Star. It's a superior exercise in Marxist theory as it tries to actually describe reality instead of just rehashing ancient texts. Plus Mr. Kelley is a good writer.

In the end, it fails, and mostly because Mr. Kelley begins with a severely truncated toolkit.

Economists usually begin such discussions with the so-called factors of production. Often three ingredients are required: access to natural resources, labor, and capital. But the resource factor is usually subsumed into the other two, so most economic argument starts with how to allocate labor and capital in order to maximize production. This is enshrined in the well-known Cobb-Douglas production function,

Y=AL^{\beta }K^{\alpha }

Here Y is total output (to be maximized), L is the amount of labor used, and K is the capital invested. The other terms are empirical parameters. In particular, alpha and beta represent the relative importance of capital and labor, respectively.

So a cab driver has to buy a car ($30K in capital investment), and then spend hours driving (a labor investment). The result, he hopes, is a good living. And if the driver does not himself buy the car, then somebody else has to lay out the money, and accordingly will want some return on investment, aka profit.

But Mr. Kelley does not acknowledge capital as a factor of production. For him it is unnecessary for a cab driver to have a car--he could just simply start driving anyway. Or equally absurd, the person (even the driver) who purchases the car is willing to lend it out for free, just as a favor. Mr. Kelley says that there is only one factor of production--only labor counts, and nobody should be reimbursed for capital.

His ideal world, where capital is abolished, is one where there will be no taxis, no factories, no roads and no airplanes. I can't imagine what such a better world might look like--it'd be rather like a world without gravity.

Yet the article has some merits. First, he acknowledges that class is a malleable quality--it depends on the class struggle. Or putting it in my own words, class exists only insofar as the people involved recognize that they're in different classes. Or, in Mr. Kelley's language, 
Because class is created through historical class struggle, classes are made and remade over time. For the same reason, they can also be altered and destroyed. Class ideologies can be even more dynamic than classes in economic and political terms since ideology encompasses not only what is but also what was and what could be.
I think this is true, though it doesn't sound very materialist, and therefore odd coming from a Marxist.

And then he makes some odd distinctions:
...the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in the last several decades has pushed many long-term production workers into the service sector, in which they sell their services to clients as opposed to selling their labor-power to capitalists. This shift of many workers from the occupational proletariat to the occupational petite bourgeoisie has formed a large segment of the U.S. petite bourgeoisie whose material conditions are comparable to or even below the proletariat, even though this segment is not in direct contradiction with industrial capital as it used to be. We call members of this lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie fundamental laborers...
So our taxi driver (even if he just works for the cab owner) is nevertheless not a member of the proletariat. Instead he is a fundamental laborer (aka, service worker) who is "occupationally" a member of the petite bourgeoisie. The distinction is that the cabbie works for passengers more than for the car owner, and is thus not an employee in the way a true proletarian would be.

In Mr. Kelley's view fundamental laborers, while they might be allied with the proletariat, lack the power to shut the mother down in the way that actual production workers can. They're rather like Russian peasants--in Lenin's view useful allies but ultimately irrelevant.

Mr. Kelley could mention that 80% of the American labor force are in service occupations, and only 12% are in traditional manufacturing. The actual proletariat then is already rather small, and is still shrinking fast. Mr. Kelley blames this on foreign outsourcing, when in fact the biggest culprit by far is automation. The day is not far off when only 1 or 2% of the population is involved in manufacturing, similar to the fraction now working in agriculture.

Further, that 12% in manufacturing are not the interchangeable proletarians of yore, but instead are increasingly highly skilled and well-paid workers. These are not people who have any interest in "shutting the mother down."

Beyond this, I'd take issue with his distinction between service workers and proletarians. We'll all agree that the UAW guy at the River Rouge plant is a worker. But what about the salesman at the local dealership? The salesman is the crucial link in the chain--without him the worker's labor is wasted, as is Henry Ford's capital investment. If the cars don't sell, there's no point in building them. So if anybody has his finger on the pulse of the economy, it's the salesman. I don't think Mr. Kelley understands that.

And then: Are McDonald's employees fundamental laborers trained to respond to customers? Or are they instead workers in a hamburger manufacturing plant? Mr. Kelley needs to answer such questions before he makes such dramatic distinctions.

There are bits of Mr. Kelley's article that I agree with. He writes,
To return to our examples, the Afro-American petite bourgeoisie is a largely reactionary sub-class segment because of its attachment not only to what it has but also to what it could have. Hence we observe the fallacious political line of uplifting all Afro-Americans through the development of an Afro-American (mis)leadership class of race leaders who advocate an individualized politics bolstered by explicit or implicit cultural nationalism. This cultural nationalism has most recently expressed itself through the petite bourgeois leadership of Black Lives Matter, which has co-opted the militant struggle of urban poor and working class Afro-Americans into the cultural nationalist paradigm of Afro-Americans “coming together across class.” Similarly, the racist sub-class elements of the American proletariat establish themselves as a reactionary segment of the working class when they support capitalist politicians like Donald Trump in exchange for a promised populism for whites only.
I think this is mostly correct, though (as a Trump supporter myself) I'd be a bit more generous to the Trump people.

Also,
The latter position is a result of the petite bourgeoisie’s tendency to fetishize its own, very real, domination under capitalism and equate this domination with a proletarian class location. This line leads to a disproportionate attention on unionized public sector service workers, such as teachers, postal workers, and graduate students as opposed to the largely non-unionized private sector production workers who most urgently must be organized if the workers’ movement as a whole has any chance of challenging, defeating, and finally destroying capital at its origin.
He implies (and I'd agree) that public sector workers are not very useful people (I've used the less polite term parasite). And very few people are more useless than graduate students (a total waste of time and money).

So Mr. Kelley's goal is to overthrow capital. I have no clue what that means. But I enjoyed reading about how we're supposed to get there.

Further Reading:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Verizon's Horizons

Bill Onasch is both a good writer and very knowledgeable about the US labor movement. His articles are well worth reading. Indeed, his latest piece on the Verizon strike is the most informative that I've so far read anywhere.

We'll get back to the Verizon strike in a minute.

There are always two ways to interpret economic data--is it a demand issue or a supply issue? Usually there is no way to distinguish between those two possibilities.

Take, for example, the recent BLS employment report, tallying a meager 38,000 new jobs in May. Most pundits argue that it is a demand issue: consumers are holding back, nobody is buying anything, there is too much inventory, and we're on the verge of a recession. This view might be correct.

The alternative interpretation is that it is a supply issue: the economy has run out of qualified workers to employ. That unemployment is now down to 4.7% suggests the economy is going full-tilt, actually over-heating. Far from a recession, we're more likely to see wage inflation, and then inflation more generally. It looks like the Fed subscribes more toward this point of view.

I have no idea what the truth is, and what's more, I don't think anybody else knows either. Most likely it's some complicated mix of demand and supply factors. But Mr. Onasch's article lends credence to the supply-side explanation.
First of all, they [Verizon workers] remembered what the company tried to ignore—the boss had been paying them because they needed their work. The landlines can’t be moved to Mexico and there aren’t enough qualified white shirts to keep up with installations, repairs, or even the call centers for long. And efforts to employ “temporary replacements” fell far short of expectations.
Fixing telephones is a skilled job, not one they teach in college. There are not that many people who can do the work--you can't just hire somebody off the street. The "white shirts" may have their own value, but when it comes to climbing poles they're fairly useless.

Mr. Onasch claims--probably correctly--that the company had no other source of labor. They had to settle with the union. Even robots can't help them--it'll be a long time before a robot can look at a telephone circuit, figure out what's wrong with it, isolate the individual pole, climb it and then fix the problem.

In short, Verizon ran out of skilled labor--a classic, supply-side constraint. This gave the union a lot of bargaining power, which they used to the max.

To keep a more flexible workforce, Verizon wanted to contract out some of the repair work to non-union shops. But given the supply constraints, the contractors aren't going to be able to hire workers at a lower wage than Verizon. The company is better off putting the people on the payroll. Thus the union "won" a 25% increase in the number of pole jobs in New York City.

Beyond that, what did the union use it's bargaining power to accomplish? According to Mr. Onasch,

  • 1300 new call center jobs will be added.
    This is good for the union, but not for the skilled workers. The latter have bargaining power even without the union, but the union itself earns money only by extracting union dues from contracted employees. Adding 1300 call center jobs to Verizon's payroll will augment union dues, without much improving the lives of the call center workers (who are eminently replaceable).
  • Annual 1% increases in defined-benefit pensions.
    This only works if the pension plan is fully funded. If not, then it's a big lie--just ask unionized mine workers about that.
  • A modest number of retail store workers and technicians in the wireless division will be included in the contract.Again, this is good for the union, but potentially terrible for the employees. The retail workers are both dispensable and low-paid, and will now have to contribute to support the pensions of the skilled workforce.
  • An immediate 3% raise, along with three 2.5% raises over the life of the contract.
    Yeah, when there's a labor shortage salaries get bid up.
Mr. Onasch is cautious about using the strike tool.
Major industrial corporations today have alternative sources of production to reduce a strike’s impact on their “bottom line.” These formidable challenges have succeeded in reducing the numbers and length of strikes in the United States over the last few decades—and especially during this century. 
But some modest or partial strike victories in recent years—Temple University Hospital nurses, Chicago teachers, oil workers national agreement, Kohler—have inspired a few unions to continue this tactic even as all the pundits tell them that their shrinking unions are now irrelevant and strikes are futile.
He shows he implicitly understands the supply/demand distinction made above. Firms that have run up against labor supply constraints are easier to bargain with than others. That surely is true for the oil workers and the Kohler employees--both drawn from a skilled workforce. So contrary to Marxist assumptions, strikes are more common and more successful when the economy is strong rather than when it is weak.

The teachers, on the other hand, are public employees, and nurses are so heavily regulated that they might as well be public employees. These workers are in a different category altogether. Their success depends on how good they are at lobbying politicians for bennies. This is a form of corruption, and has little to do with any supply/demand issues. Personally, I think the future for public employee unions is grim.

But for workers in skilled trades that can't be automated--their future is bright. Mr. Onasch explains why with more clarity than perhaps he is aware of.

Further Reading: