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


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.

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:

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Canada's NDP Rejects Suicide

Barry Weisleder was a candidate for president of Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP), and he authors Socialist Action's (SA) report on the recent NDP convention in Edmonton. It is very hard to take him seriously, but we will try.

The problems begin in the lede:
Will the left seize this golden opportunity to fight for an anti-capitalist agenda and make North America’s only mass, union-based political party a weapon in the fight against austerity and climate catastrophe?
"Austerity" presumably refers to the supposed increase in poverty across Canada (mostly a myth, I'd argue, but that's a topic for another day), the solution of which is to give more people jobs at higher wages to raise their standard of living. Ultimately, Mr. Weisleder claims he wants to reduce poverty.

"Climate catastrophe" is the dire prediction, maintained by the far Left, that we're all doomed--and it's all the fault of the fossil fuel industry. There is very little evidence that "climate catastrophe" is a likely outcome of whatever climate change is occurring. The best argument one can make is to invest in some insurance against the possibility. But Mr. Weisleder and his comrades are so certain of imminent disaster that any compromise or common sense solution is for them impossible.

Mr. Weisleder must surely understand that Canada's is a natural resource based economy. Most recently its fortunes have been tied to oil--the Loonie's value has closely tracked the price of crude. More generally, Canada depends on an array of resources: mining (gold, nickel), lumber, agriculture, and hydroelectric power. Canada (along with Australia) is unique in the world in that it has managed to build a first-world economy from natural resources--compare it with, for example, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Congo.

Even an 80% decline in oil prices has not doomed Canadians to poverty, unlike, e.g., Venezuela.

But Mr. Weisleder wants to put an end to all that. He wants to shut down the fossil fuel industry altogether and replace it with some ill-defined (and non-existent) "green energy." Presumably he means mostly solar and wind power, neither of which will ever play more than a niche role in meeting the world's energy needs. But leaving that impracticality aside, consider the consequences.

Among the more egregious failings of Marxist economics (and not just Marxists, but also Donald Trump) is that they don't recognize the importance of trade. A Canadian gold miner earns a living only because he can trade gold for food, gas, cars, and plane tickets, etc. But if nobody wanted gold, then all he'd have is a hunk of yellow rock. The value of gold depends solely on its ability to be traded for other things. Economics is not about wealth or value. It is all about trade. Political parties (and candidates) who think we will get richer by restricting trade are just flat-out wrong.

And that's the rub. Even if solar energy were practical, and even if hundreds of square kilometers of the Canadian arctic were covered with solar panels, the power is not readily exportable. That is, unlike Alberta oil, solar energy can't be traded and will produce no income. Without exports there will be no imports. And then Canada becomes as poor as Venezuela.

So when Mr. Weisleder claims that "green energy" is good for the economy, he is simply wrong. Please, sir, tell us what Canada's exports will be? How will your country earn money to buy fruits and vegetables from warmer climes?

Do Canadians really want to reduce their standard of living to that of the 19th Century?

Indeed, Mr. Weisleder is against anybody being able to earn a living. Miners, oil workers, hydroelectric workers, and likely many more are to be put out of an income-producing job. Instead Mr. Weisleder wants to revert to "local agriculture" (aka subsistence farming) and, bizarrely, high-speed rail.

High speed rail? How does that make sense in a huge country with perhaps the lowest population density in the world? From what income stream (i.e., exports) is this supposed to be paid for? It's a completely wacko idea, though personally I'd love to ride the express train from Chicoutimi to Chilliwack. At a billion dollars per passenger it'd be a marvelous ride--comparable to a trip to the moon.

Mr. Weisleder's goals are contradictory. On the one hand his green agenda will drive everybody into deep poverty, Venezuela style, by denying Canadians any right to earn an honest living. On the other hand, his solution to poverty is to waste money--to create make-work projects on a grand scale, and then invest in things (e.g., high-speed rail) for which there is no hope of any economic payoff.

Mr. Weisleder represents a faction in the NDP called the Socialist Caucus (SC), loosely allied with another faction, Momentum. Depressingly, he boasts that the SC recruited 70 new members, out of 1700 people attending the convention. Also,
Jointly with Momentum, the SC ran 16 candidates for party executive and federal council posts. Vote results, ranging from 5.2% to 15%, revealed a significant hard-core radical left base. It also indicated that, while the broad membership wants change, it is not yet convinced of the need for a Marxist programme. But the SC will continue to make the case for revolutionary change.
So within the already left wing NDP, the SC has had only modest success.

Similarly bothersome, "[d]elegates also voted about 60 per cent in favour of conducting a grassroots discussion of the environmental and social justice proposals in the Leap Manifesto." The latter is a completely ridiculous proposal, doubling down on Mr. Weisleder's contradictory program. The subtitles give it away:
A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another

We start from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory
The Call is petty-bourgeois, hippie sentimentality, and the premise is completely wrong.

Fortunately most of the NDP doesn't go along with this silliness. The Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, is the only NDP member who occupies an office of any consequence. Surely she represents, among others, all the hardworking men and women of Fort McMurray--that burned out, far-north town in the middle of Alberta's oil patch. Abolishing fossil fuels is certainly not going to help them any.

Fort McMurray is best served by building the Keystone Pipeline, giving them direct access to US markets, and via the Gulf of Mexico to the broader world. But Mr. Weisleder's comrades in the US have sabotaged that project, forcing Canadians to come up with alternative options. During the 2015 election campaign Tom Mulcair, leader of the party in the federal parliament, advocated building a pipeline from Alberta to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. From there oil could be shipped out via the St. Lawrence. This is known as Pipeline East.

An alternative proposal is to build west from Alberta to Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast--Pipeline West. Ms. Notley--honestly speaking for her constituents--is calling for a pipeline from west to east, presumably including both of the above.

But the best solution for everybody is the Keystone Pipeline. If Mr. Weisleder were sincere about reducing poverty in Alberta (and Canada) he'd enthusiastically support it. He should demand that his comrades in the US stop hurting Canada by denying them access to markets. Instead, Mr. Weisleder thinks Canadians should count on the free unicorns and magic windmills described in the Leap Manifesto.

I'm glad that saner voices prevail--even in the Leftist NDP.

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading: