Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tourism in Cuba

A Militant article by Andrea Morell describes the US visit of Cuban union leader Víctor Lemagne Sánchez. He is the secretary-general of Cuba's Hotel & Tourism union, and spoke in Berkeley, CA, on June 29th.

He paints a remarkably honest and unflattering picture of his country.

Mr. Lemagne hails from the Cuban city of Trinidad, "a popular tourist destination." I checked out Wikipedia, and here are two photos from Trinidad:

(Wikipedia: Dieter Mueller, 2003)

(Wikipedia: Jplavoie, 2006)

The first picture surely demonstrates why it's a tourist attraction. But the second makes it look like it's in a war zone! What's with all the ruined houses?

Of course we know. Cubans are guaranteed "free housing," but when it comes to housing you get what you pay for. Nobody maintains it, nobody has any money to maintain it, and every storm ruins yet more buildings.

Apparently storm cleanup in Cuba can't even clear away the rubble.

Cuba used to get money from the Soviet Union for it's role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. That financing disappeared in 1991, leading to the "Special Period" of starvation and hardship.

Then along came Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who traded oil for medical services, leading to a shortage of doctors in Cuba. That pipeline is now also drying up: either Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro will be overthrown, and/or the entire oil industry will collapse. No more money there, either.

So Cuba is reduced to entertaining tourists for a living. The Obama-era regs allowed more Americans to visit, making them the second largest tourist group after Canadians. Other visitors come from Europe (esp. Spain), Mexico, and South America.

A few tourists are there to support the "revolution." That includes our Trotskyist friends, who will travel to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Che Guevara's death in October. I don't think Cuba especially encourages those visitors--they're much more likely to walk around, ask questions, and learn how people really live. That won't end well.

A second group are "commie tourists," i.e., visitors who want to see communism in its native state and experience what it's like to live under a totalitarian regime. For them it's "one and done"--a single trip to the island is all they will ever need. They may also wander around asking questions, but they're not opinion leaders like my former comrades. Though the government certainly wouldn't have admitted "commie tourist" Michael Totten had they recognized him as a journalist. His 2014 article, The Last Communist City, is a must read.

Finally, by far the largest group are just plain tourists--they want nice beaches, good hotels, excellent food, shopping opportunities, scenic & historical sights, and alcoholic beverages. Of course some other requirements are just taken for granted--available on every other Caribbean isle--fast internet access, good cell phone service, and liquid access to the local currency.

Cuba can't deliver on that list. Most tourists will never make a second trip to Cuba. Why go there when it's such a hassle?

Mr. Lemagne doesn't seem to understand much of this. As a union leader, he sees his job as protecting tourist workers from their customers.
Lemagne began with a slide show that documents the damage done to the Cuban people by Washington’s economic embargo. “Every attack against our revolution by the Empire is destined to fail,” he said. “Our response is to continue with the economic development of our country, our revolutionary process.” Workers in Cuba’s tourism industry see themselves as on the front lines of the struggle, Lemagne said.
Tourists are, first and foremost, an attack on the "revolutionary process." As indeed they are, possessing wealth unimaginable to the average Cuban. Nevertheless, reality does intrude. One has to earn a living somehow.
The industry has expanded rapidly, including a growing sector of self-employed nonstate workers. In 2012, he said, his union had only 345 members outside the state sector. Today they have 27,000.
He reports that Cuba last year had 3.52 million visitors. By comparison, New York City (similar population size) hosted 12.3 million international visitors in 2015, netting $42 billion in revenue, or nearly half of Cuba's entire 2015 GDP.

The "revolution" faces an irresolvable contradiction. On the one hand they need tourists in order to earn a living. On the other, they lack the domestic capital and skill set by which to attract them. Thus they are forced into joint projects with private foreign companies.
Many of the larger hotels are joint ventures, 51 percent owned by Cuba and 49 percent by foreign companies. Managers from abroad have to abide by Cuban labor law, he said, or they’re removed.
As tourism has mushroomed, with union membership rising alongside it, the union has fought to reduce workers’ workload to protect their bodies, he said. They work to limit the number of rooms cleaners in the hotels have to work per shift, to keep hours down, and for members to monitor safety on the job.
No wonder visitors often complain about surly service! After all, with the union doing all it can to prevent hard work, how can it be otherwise.

And protecting worker's bodies is a little rich coming from Mr. Lemagne. Surely he is aware of the rampant prostitution in Cuba. Indeed, cheap sex tourism is a major driver of the entire industry, what with Cuba not able to compete in any other way with other Caribbean islands. Odd that he doesn't mention that explicitly as an attack on the "revolution."

Mr. Totten reports that the average Cuban paycheck is only $20 per month. Yes, they supposedly get all sorts of "free" stuff: housing, food, transport, medical care, etc., though much on that list is of very poor quality or not available at all. Mr. Totten describes the cash pay as "a child's allowance." Seems right to me--like children Cubans allegedly have all their basic needs accounted for. And then they get a few extra pennies on the side just because they're cute.

But I think Mr. Totten's essay is out of date. He writes, in 2014,
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges—enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while—that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room.
Mr. Lemagne sets us straight on how it works today.
He also said with pride that Cuban tourism workers donate whatever tips they get to cancer research and treatment, a total of $23 million to date.
Sorry scumbags. $20 per month is all you get!

If I ever visit Cuba under those rules, remind me never to leave a tip.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Oberlin, 2017

Deeper into the Working Class
Act on the Rulers' Deepening Political Crisis
Build the Young Socialists and the Party
2017 Socialist Workers Party Active Workers Conference

That is the full text of the banner behind Jack Barnes as he addressed the plenary session of the 2017 Oberlin conference. The picture is in the pdf version of The Militant here. The article, by Terry Evans and John Studer is here.

It's all very deep.

To try to make head or tail of it, I went back to their report on the 48th Socialist Workers Party (SWP) convention. The connecting thread between that convention report and today's article is this paragraph from the convention (which I failed to quote in my post about that convention, here).
The only way forward for workers and working farmers, Barnes said, is to recognize ourselves as the political vanguard of the “deplorables” — to see the need and capacity of the working class and our allies to put an end to the rule of capital, of the small handful of superrich families that hold state power in the U.S. and control both the Democratic and Republican parties.
So here is the way I now understand the SWP's strategy. I am phrasing everything in my own words.

  • The leading section of the working class today are Trump supporters. The Party is actively trying to engage those people.
  • The Party does not support Trump--they are only chasing his supporters. They are not looking for "adorable deplorables," but rather "revolutionary deplorables."
  • Trump supporters are mad because of the "crisis" in the capitalist system caused by the relentless assault of the ruling class against workers.
  • The Party's propaganda aim is to raise the consciousness of these workers and win them to revolutionary socialism.
  • A large section of the capitalist class (aka Liberals) sees Trump as a threat to stable class rule in America, and is trying hard to overthrow him. Many so-called "revolutionaries" (I'm looking at you, Solidarity) have signed onto this Liberal crusade, and are thus inadvertently serving the bourgeoisie.
This is a remarkable analysis, and considerably more intelligent than what others on my beat put out. It is entirely consistent with the Trotskyist dislike of Liberals, and puts the SWP very much at odds with the Democratic Party. Which is very much where they want to be.

I can quibble with details: Evans and Studer suggest that Trump's rise is primarily about economic issues. As evidence they cite the opioid epidemic, declining birth rates, and a declining labor force. These are all important issues and they affect the economy, but I don't think they are ultimately economic in origin.

  • The opioid crisis started with over-confident pharmaceutical companies ("our painkillers are not addictive"), dishonest doctors, and a highly intelligent, entrepreneurial Mexican drug gang. It's all detailed in a book entitled Dreamland (which I have not read yet, but it's on top of my list). It's terrible, awful, no-good, but it's hard to see how it's caused by macroeconomics.
  • Birth rates are going down around the world--Cuba being an excellent example. Not clear what the US government (or any other government) can do about that.
  • The decline in the size of the labor force is in significant part due to the retirement of people like me--baby boomers. Many people leave the labor force before age 65. Beyond that, it's hard to hold a steady job if you're addicted to heroin.
Still, Evans & Studer have a point: measured labor productivity has more or less flat-lined since 1970. That, too, is a global phenomenon, and is not something that can be fixed by any government (not even in Cuba, where labor productivity is abysmal). Trump will never be able to keep his promise of 4% annual growth.

Details aside, I think I finally understand the Party's strategy--and I'm feeling a bit ashamed that it's taken me so long to get it through my thick skull. It's not ludicrous or stupid. Indeed, it's much more reasonable than anything else I've seen on the Left.

But it's wrong.

Trump's election was not caused by economic malaise, and certainly not by a revolt of the working class. Instead it was caused by new media.

Trump has done to political campaigns precisely what Amazon did to bookstores and what Uber has done to taxicabs. Every political operative in America has been rendered obsolete. Trump used Twitter and Facebook to do an end run around the traditional media, leaving longstanding institutions like the New York Times and CNN in the dust. (Fox survived only because of sycophancy).

So of course these people hate Trump, and are desperately (however futilely) trying to roll back the clock to the status quo ante. They'll fail, of course, but they might succeed in overthrowing Trump.

It has nothing to do with a split in the capitalist class. Nor anything at all with a working class rebellion (which doesn't exist).

My reservations aside, the strategy makes sense. Then what about the tactics? Here we're back to the same incoherence which has long characterized the SWP.

First, they're gonna go deeper into the working class! Who knows what that means--the Party has spent 40 years doing just that and apparently hasn't pulled it off yet. It seems to me it gets a lot harder now given they're mostly at or beyond retirement age.

Miraculously the Young Socialists have reappeared on the scene. When I was comrade one "graduated" from the Young Socialists at age 26--after that one became a full Party member. I wonder what the cut-off age is now? Sixty five? Still, in honor of newfound youthful exuberance they are going to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students in Sochi, Russia. Wow! That'll really appeal to those heroin-addicted, childless Trump supporters!

Then they're going to Cuba to celebrate the life of Che Guevara, a fellow who had the good sense to die at age 39 while he was still handsome enough to decorate dorm room posters.

Steve Clark delivered what must have been a really short talk: “New Avenues for Extending the Communist Movement in the Middle East”.

If the Party were really serious about tactics, they need to take some lessons from the Trump campaign. Any political organization needs to use social media effectively--the Party has no competence there whatsoever. Selling an old, fuddy-duddy, print newspaper to superannuated union members in Albany, NY, is not going to get them very far. So much for being in the vanguard!

Establishing a presence on Twitter and Facebook should be a top priority.

They should also learn how to do A/B testing, which does not necessarily mean being unprincipled. It does require a new way of thinking.

Finally, back in the 1970s we comrades made at least a little bit of effort to be fashionable and hip. That's all gone today. Partly it's because we've all gotten too old, but also it's because there's no effort. Maybe comrades should start watching Project Runway?

The tactics are absurd. But don't let that distract from the larger picture. The strategy is legit. Just because I think it's wrong, doesn't mean it is wrong.

Further Reading:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: Everybody Lies--Big Data, New Data...

I did finish the book: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Reveals About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I count myself among the elite, since the author claims that fewer than 10% of readers finish reading economics books. And it speaks to my opinion--I recommend all of you to follow my example and read it to the end.

Seth (the author refers to himself that way, and in the interests of brevity I will follow his lead) is a trained economist who studies Big Data, by which he means millions and even billions of data points. Big Data is distinct from small data, aka survey data, where a researcher polls some relatively small sample of subjects--probably less than a thousand. His primary source is Google. Through Google Trends (and a special relationship with the company for which he once worked) he has access to every search anybody has ever made (suitably anonymized). And not just Google, but also PornHub, one of the largest pornography sites in the US, and Facebook. All of this gets processed and analyzed, turned into statistics and conclusions.

Seth is suitably modest about his endeavor. Most of the book illustrates the virtues of Big Data, but the last chapter discusses the limitations. The major shortcoming is conflating correlation with causation, which one shouldn't do. Big Data is good at the former, but survey data is often essential to uncover causal relationships. The two together offer the most complete picture.

He refers to Google searches as truth serum. People in their darkest hours or horniest moments confide in a Google search bar for help, though as Seth often asks, what answer do they actually expect to receive?

Seth claims that Big Data will turn the social sciences into true sciences, i.e., disciplines with definitive truth statements about human behavior. I think he's wrong here, and some of the flaws in his book illustrate that.

I cite three examples where I think his enthusiasm leads him astray.

First, he completely misunderstands Sigmund Freud. He refers to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (a book I read as an undergraduate), aka Freudian slips. Those refer to slips of the tongue, e.g., if I inadvertently say sex instead of flex. So, when Google searchers type penistrian instead of pedestrian, Seth (he with the dirty mind) assumed they were making a Freudian slip. And then uses Big Data to prove that they weren't--it's simply a fat fingers effect.

I could have told him that. Freudian slips are always verbal, never written. Freud, of course, never saw a computer, much less a Google search bar, nor do I think he ever used a keyboard. The closest analogy to fat fingers I can think of is when strangers meet each other on the street. They sometimes do a little dance to determine which way to get past each other. Freud concluded that might occasionally reflect something sexual, but most of the time it is simply a miscommunication between two pedestrians. No psychopathology at all.

So Seth has misread Freud, and also draws a conclusion obvious to anybody who has read Freud (even if that was 40 years ago). No Big Data required.

Second, Seth asks an interesting question: "Why do some parts of the country appear to be so much better at churning out America's movers and shakers?" He goes through a list: Madison, WI, Berkeley, CA, etc. They're all college towns. To which he says: "Some of it may well be due to the gene pool: sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart...But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation."

Really? When I think of "innovation," college is the last thing that comes to mind. A more sclerotic, hidebound, conservative, politically-correct institution is hard to imagine. Seth cites new art and music, and while that's outside of my bailiwick my experience leads me to think colleges fail there as well. So I'll posit another reason for the geographic effect our author identifies.


Jews, who are very smart, for historical reasons have congregated in college towns. This attracts more Jews, and also more people who prefer living around other smart people. The result is you end up with "movers and shakers." It has nothing to do with the now moribund institution called college, except as the historical cause for the initial effect.

My model predicts that "moving and shaking" will correlate strongly with relatively high Jewish populations. Of course Seth never bothered to check that, so we don't know. What he did check reflects his bias, not necessarily reality, and represents a reason to think the social sciences will never become true sciences.

Seth's biases show most egregiously when it comes to politics. He admits to being one of Bernie's Bro's, though hopefully not part of the brown shirt gang that forced the cancellation of a Trump campaign rally in Chicago. And he, being most uncharitable toward his fellow citizens, looks for any reason he can think of to dub Trump voters "racist." Of course he discovers this on Google (I think if you look hard enough you can discover anything you want on Google). Searches for racist jokes are most common in regions that voted for Trump! QED.

Elsewhere in the book he contradicts his own argument. He says: "Four days after the shooting [in San Bernardino--ed] then president Obama gave a prime-time address to the country...But searches calling Muslims 'terrorists,' 'bad,' 'violent,' and 'evil' doubled during and shortly after the speech...Yet searches for 'kill Muslims' tripled during his speech. In fact, just about every negative search we could think to test regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obama's speech...".

In other words, Obama--however unintentionally--turned his audience into stark, raving Islamophobes.

I understand that completely. Obama's insufferable, patronizing self-righteousness engenders rebellion from any sentient human being. One types in transgressive Google searches just out of spite. (Black Lives Matter and "Check your privilege" partisans have the same effect.) So it's not that the country is unusually racist. It's rather that Obama was a spectacularly talented asshole.

I'll suggest that Trump's more laid-back attitude will reduce anger among the white "racists." Perhaps Seth can check if racist searches have declined since he's been in office?

Causality in society is dense. There is no one reason for anything. The causes Big Data discovers will be the causes the researcher chooses to look for in the first place. It is impossible for it to be otherwise, but it won't result in science.

Seth's book is fascinating and well worth reading. The only thing wrong with it is he doesn't realize that his bias is showing.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Pity the poor petrostate! They have a tough life no matter who is in charge.

Venezuela, which  possesses the world's largest known reserves of oil, is therefore in hock to the global economy for its well-being. Without being able to sell its oil it can't buy the consumer products its citizens demand.

So the disastrous decline of that country is not entirely due to abysmal governance under Chavez and Maduro. Part of it was baked into the cake. Still, other petrostates--Canada and Saudi Arabia come to mind--have fared much better, despite hard times. Chavez and his successors and sycophants have turned a bad situation into a complete and irreversible catastrophe.

Among those sycophants is a fellow by the name of Chris Gilbert, a professor of political science at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. This institution was founded by President Chavez in 2003 and is open to all Venezuelan citizens (contingent only on having completed high school). This is the "Let them eat college classes" strategy--food, toilet paper, electronics, and just about everything else in the country is in short supply. But never mind--you can still catch the pearls of wisdom from Professor Gilbert's lips for free.

Isn't socialism wonderful?

But even Professor Gilbert is forced to admit that things in the socialist petrostate have not exactly gone swimmingly, as he admits in an article entitled The Chavez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project. (h/t Louis Proyect)

Professor Gilbert accuses his fellow Leftists of many strange things. The lede paragraph:
What does Chavism really stand for? What are its main accomplishments and its main failures? What was the soldier-become-president Hugo Chávez trying to achieve, and how far did he go in achieving it? Most often it is taken for granted that Chávez, who was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, began with an anti-neoliberal project that became, with time, anti-imperialist and then later aspired to socialism. It is also usually argued that, unfortunately, Chávez went very little of the way to achieving the latter goal. Chávez’s project suffered, this story goes, because it was only discursively socialist; that is, it proposed socialism as a goal but could not really begin the transition, being unable to go beyond mere discourse to concrete social and economic facts. That being the case, a part of the Left praises the Venezuelan leader for what it sees as an essentially verbal achievement. This group contends that Chávez fulfilled an important task for humanity by merely recovering and promoting the word socialism after the fall of the Eastern bloc. Others, generally from the so-called Hard Left, are more skeptical. They highlight Chávez’s failure to significantly alter the structure of the society or the economy.
The unreality of this paragraph is stunning. It stretches credulity to think that anybody today will think that Chavism "recover[s] and promote[s] the word socialism after the fall of the Eastern bloc." Are there any American Leftists who still believe that the Venezuelan experiment has "fulfilled an important task for humanity"?

The alternative view is similarly detached--that Chavez, while "discursively" socialist, failed to properly implement socialism. This will be the view of my Trotskyist friends in the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, who believe that if Mr. Chavez had simply uttered the proper magic words and followed the correct policy as prescribed by a true revolutionary party, then the results would have been much different. As it stands he betrayed the working class.

Professor Gilbert finds both criticisms "impoverished," and that leads to a long critique of the Marxist movement generally. Marxists, he claims, have ignored politics, which the professor describes as a "semiautonomous sphere."
On the procrustean bed of vulgar historical materialism, it generally spreads the Chávez phenomenon between, on the one hand, a mere discourse that is acknowledged to be avant-garde and interesting and, on the other hand, the unaltered hard economic facts. Yet this view leaves out almost entirely the specifically political mediation between these two realms.
And that takes him off on philosophical excursions, commenting on Derrida, Gramsci, and Lenin. Indeed, he attributes to the latter an opinion that is decidedly heretical: "that political consciousness is essentially separate from the economic struggle."

And it is in politics that Chavez apparently excelled. We're informed that he actually wrote books: "Even before taking power, he produced the Libro Azul (1992), the Agenda Alternativa Bolívariana (1996), and La propuesta de Hugo Chávez para transformar Venezuela (1996). This substantial body of writing constitutes less than a third of his output!"

If any of this oeuvre has been translated into English, it doesn't show up on Amazon. Never mind--the fact that Chavez remains mostly unread results from the ur-prejudice against politics by Marxists, and/or blatant Eurocentrism by the rest of us.

Professor Gilbert criticizes people like my Trotskyist friends for not having a strategy to achieve socialism. Simply mouthing words like "revolution" and "vanguard party" is not a strategy--there has to be something more specific than that. He cites Lenin--the man with the plan--as a counter-example borrowing from Lars Lih's biography (which I reviewed here). Whether Lenin had a strategy, or was merely a tactical genius, or was just plain lucky, is to me unclear. Probably a combination of all three.

Chavez's strategy (per Professor Gilbert) revolved around communes:
The Venezuelan commune was conceived as a profoundly democratic territorial organization. Though local, the commune aspired to be part of a future Communal State. The commune was also to be both political and economic, incorporating means of production under a regimen of social property that were projected to assume an important part of national production.
Any beginning student of economics can see why communes must inevitably fail. Unlike a firm, which responds to the market, communes are first and foremost tasked to make their members happy. It seems happiness does not arise from the production of toilet paper--apparently there were no communes in all of Venezuela which saw fit to produce it.

Far be it from me to defend traditional Marxism, and Professor Gilbert's emphasis on politics does have merit. But surely the "procrustean bed of vulgar historical materialism" will eventually raise its ugly head. Our professor barely alludes to that fact, mentioning "oil" only in a single, vaguely parenthetical paragraph. And yet oil is the final nail in Chavez's communal coffin.

In 2012 Mr. Chavez decided to redistribute capital away from the oil companies and give it to the poor. To which, in March, 2013, Mr. Proyect responded:
I’ve always thought that a good way to test the sincerity of anyone who claims to be on the Left is to find out their attitude to Hugo Chávez. Those who try to disavow him tend to be, in general, useless: they want a pure, ideal socialism, not socialism as a real material movement. Chávez wasn’t perfect. In some areas he went too far; in many he didn’t go nearly far enough. Nonetheless the immense good his Bolivarian Revolution has done for the people of Venezuela – and for people across Latin America and the world – is undeniable. What must be remembered, though, is that Hugo Chávez didn’t do any of this alone. His achievements were those of every doctor, teacher, worker, farmer and organiser who worked to improve the lives of those around them. The social movements he helped build and connect will long survive him. Descanse en paz. La lucha sigue.
Mr. Proyect's assessment was spectacularly wrong. Not only did Mr. Chavez make all Venezuelans much poorer, he destroyed their oil industry. Indeed, he has destroyed their country. It will take many generations before Venezuela regains the standard of living that existed prior to President Chavez.

Further Reading: