Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Which Side Are You On?

Do you have an appetite for terror? Do you enjoy a good horror story that depicts the depravity and stark darkness lurking in the human heart?

Well, “truth is stranger than fiction,” which may explain the appeal of reading history. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are fantasy, but they accurately reflect the reality of life in medieval times – minus the magic, dragons, and ice zombies, of course. As medievalists frequently marvel, Martin did his homework - hence his edge. But it was for a purpose beyond entertainment. Like Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I believe that Martin seeks to de-glorify the myth of chivalry that reactionaries from Klansmen to Nazis invoke to cloak their tyranny in pageantry. Yes, Martin's world has magic, but it still sucks to live in. And his archetypic chivalric knight, Jamie Lannister, is a flat-out sociopath.

There are degrees of evil, and evil acts can be boring as well as flamboyant, bureaucratic as well as bloody. But at the heart of all of them is wishing their targets harm or at least being indifferent to their suffering. In my book, Conservatism is Un-American & Other Self-Evident Truths, one self-evident truth I touched on Republican efforts to suppress the black vote:
Those who defend such bills insist they are not racist – they say they are just trying to hurt the Democrats’ chances at the polls. In other words, “We’re not bigots, just cheaters.” But I think there is definitely some bigotry in the mix too. After all, it is easier to violate others’ rights if you dislike them. Sympathy tends to interfere with victimizing others at both the planning and execution stages, while hostility obviously facilitates it.
This dynamic is undeniable and predictable. History illustrates that if you dislike your likely victims, it will make you more inventive in your designs and enthusiastic in their application. And nothing ignites conservative creativity quite like bigotry.

This applies to class as well as race. Just 
read this yuppie fuckwit luxuriate in class hatred:
I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off. I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off. You may say that’s inhumane; I’m putting it rather baldly but I want to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average without regard to their merit or to what the free market would do, and in doing so exploit other workers.
Yeah, that’s inhumane. Shockingly, that was President Jimmy Carter’s economic adviser Alfred Kahn in a 1981 interview quoted in Thomas Frank’s book Listen Liberal - Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (1) This was how I first learned that the hostility toward unions among establishment Democrats predated the Clintons. No, they are not at fault for everything. 

Carter snubbed labor, vetoed public works projects, and pushed the first huge tax cut. Economically, Carter presaged Reagan, which is why Ted Kennedy challenged Carter in the 1980 primary. As with the Clintons, Carter's conservative efforts still failed to make Republicans love him.

Kahn’s callous rhetoric likewise anticipated the incoming Reagan Administration. He surreally reasoned that union members “exploit other workers” by being paid more than “the free market” would. Of course, that’s a stupidly deceptive argument: Those other workers are being exploited by their employers, not union members. If the market decided wages, most workers would be near-slaves. Recall comedian Chris Rock’s memorable routine on the minimum wage: "You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? 'Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it's against the law.'”

As for "merit,” an assembly line worker’s job is to connect parts A and B. He or she has no control over how intelligently those parts are designed or if they are made out of inferior materials. Look at Detroit, for fuck’s sake. If the corporation decides to cut corners, ignore warning signs, or resist change, how is that the worker’s fault?(2) Competition is management’s concern. Damn right union workers - and all workers - should be “insulated” from management’s spectacular stupidity and avarice. To management, employees are just machines. It is so much to ask that they keep these machines well-oiled so they do not wear out too soon?

Moreover, the mere existence of strong unions improves the condition of all workers. Not too long ago, employers feared their workers would unionize, so they started offering similar benefits to prevent union drives: Vacation days, access to health insurance, etc. - they are the deteriorating legacy of the bygone days when unions were winning.(3) Does your job offer any benefits, however watered-down they are now? You can thank unions for normalizing those noble, battered, and now sabotaged concepts.  Also, weekends: Unions gave us weekends.(4)

In addition, unions push for legislation that also benefits and defends all workers, such as minimum wage laws and safety regulations. That is obviously the opposite of exploitation:  It is generosity toward those who shrank from the fight. Yes, union members benefit as well: Such legislation is an extra layer of protection - i.e. “insulation” - but it everyone benefits.

And more importantly, in so far as the big picture is concerned, unions were the backbone of the American middle class. But because establishment Democrats so hated working people and wanted them to be “worse off,”(5) they eagerly helped Republicans destroy the middle class on which our consumer-based economy so desperately depends. America’s postwar economic boom was fueled in large part by lifting working people into the middle class whose spending, in turn, stimulated the economy. The funny thing about a consumer-based economy is it needs consumers - the more, the better. Closet conservatives often forget that.

Let me expound. Without a broad base of consumers, markets for products are small and rapidly saturated. If everyone who can afford a particular type of product, say a washing machine, already owns one, the market for it evaporates and the employees who make them get laid off. But after “Big Government” and “Big Labor” expanded the middle class, employment became more continuous because there were more consumers for those products.  The economy did not stall so often and dips were not as deep.(6) To put it in the simplest possible terms: If more people can afford washing machines, the worker on the washing machine assembly line has more steady employment. This once was a novelty. Then it became the norm. Now it is a novelty again. That is a stupid decision that we, as a society, have made after listening to conservatives and their “liberal” apologists.

Unfortunately, Alfred Kahn’s attitude is not an outlier. A lot of establishment Democrats despised what makes the Democratic Party great - FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. (Some are not too enthused about LBJ’s civil rights legislation either.) And so there has been a well-funded effort by some nominal Democrats to declare the New Deal dead.  This self-sabotage has a lengthy history as Thomas Frank wrote in Listen, Liberal:
“The collapse and end of the New Deal is one of the most frequently announced events in American media,” wrote a political scientist in 1985. It was announced so often and so predictably in those days that cataloging it became an academic exercise in itself. The historian William Leuchtenburg filled several chapters of his 1989 book, In the Shadow of FDR, with New Deal death notices. [Here Frank gives several examples] ...
On the eternal return of the death-of-the-New-Deal, Leuchtenburg himself wondered, “It was far from clear why if, as Gary Hart claimed, the New Deal was dead in 1974, it was necessary for him to kill it off in 1980 and again in 1984.”
What applies to civil rights also applies to economics. There is an FDR quote that is on-point. “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.” He was echoing Thomas Paine’s principle that “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.” Or as a union called the Industrial Workers of the World puts it, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Establishment Democrats have enthusiastically collaborated with Republicans in the destruction of our country’seconomy. And, as is always the case, those toward the bottom of the socio-economic ladder felt the effects first.

Conservative thought sabotages the Democratic Party just as it sabotages America’s economy. Indeed, it sabotages America itself. By its inherent nature, conservatism is corrosive to any free society. The right despises America’s three central ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. 

The corruption starts with callousness towards others and ultimately poisons the proverbial village well. We can look as the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and say, “Well that only affects them” - i.e. black people. But similar water quality issues exist all across the county. Eventually, our empathy succumbs to inertia. Callousness becomes habit and infects our views on other issues. And, at the end of the day, you discover that the well of empathy is dry when you need something to drink. And perhaps you discover that your gated community or bomb shelter is not as secure as you think.

It's something to think about, isn't it?


1) As Thomas Frank explained, the hatred of working class America among establishment Democrats began in the 1970s. Popular culture was rife with images of pro-Vietnam War hardhats bullying hippies. They shot the protagonists in Easy Rider. Never mind all the union support of the Civil Rights Movement. As Frank added, these things should have alerted pundits that the Archie Bunker stereotype was not the whole story. Also, Fun Fact: Alfred Kahn was Jimmy Carter's "inflation tsar." He was also the architect of energy and airline deregulation. 

2) In the 1970s, consumers demanded safer, more fuel efficient cars; but CEOs ignored them. They insisted “safety doesn’t sell” despite their own market research which said the opposite and continued to manufacture treacherous gas-guzzlers. Should their employees be punished as a result? Yes, shit rolls downhill; but justice says it shouldn’t. As always, arrogance leads to clue-less self-sabotage. The ancient Greeks called this “hubris.” Or, as I always say, "Cocky becomes sloppy."

Interestingly, one of the things that unions were demanding was more input into the design of cars. It seems that a lot of autoworkers liked to tinker on cars at home, so their understanding of cars was thorough. They knew their products both backwards and forwards, warts and all. Folks in the Motor City loved cars. Who knew?  It was the nadir of classism and hubris to assume these people had no valuable input. Well, they saw the writing on the wall and knew how to improve the product. If only corporate were somehow forced to listen.

3) The late, great Wobbly folksinger Utah Phillips explained this quite plainly. He was talking about the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike. After mentioning that the women in the mills were dying at the average age of 26 from breathing the airborne particles in the weave rooms and describing the police beatings they received, he added: “Did you know, I never had to work underground in Pennsylvania at the age of 12 in a coal mine. My sister never had to work at the age of 8 or 9 at the looms in Lawrence Massachusetts or anybody else. None of us have had to do those sorts of things. And why? Why do we have that 8 hour day? Why do we have those mine safety laws? Why do we have those laws busting the sweatshops? Were they benevolent gifts from an enlightened management? No. They were fought for, bled for, died for by people a lot like us. They died not on the battle field to fight another dumb bosses’ war. They died on the picket line to give all of us a better future.” (Utah Phillips & Ani Di Franco, Fellow Workers, “Lawrence,” track 8, Righteous Babe Records,  1999.) Highly recommended listening.

4) Yes, the Bible says “Remember the Sabbath day,” but capitalism isn’t particularly religious. It has to be forced to pay workers enough to live on a five day week and “big labor” and “big government” are the only things that have ever successfully accomplished that. Faith alone has historically been woefully insufficient. Otherwise, the middle ages would have been a paradise, which it was obviously not. Mechanisms matter. They succeed where moral exhortations fail.

5) The sheer evil of that sentiment simply astounds me. It just goes to prove what Voltaire said. "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

6) What those ignorant of industrial history do not understand is that the giant dish washing machines you see behind the scenes in hotels, restaurants, etc. are not actually giant versions of home appliances but the opposite: Home appliances are miniaturized versions of the behemoths that came first. (It was the same with computers.) Before the consumer revolution, companies primarily sold to other companies. If you worked on an assembly line making giant dish washing machines, your employment was often temporary because the market for that product was small and quickly satiated. But if you make home dish washing machines and fellow working people are paid decent wages, they can afford to buy what you make and your employment becomes more regular. We discovered this after WWII. We seem to have forgotten it since.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They Don't Need No Education

In my last post on sociopaths posing as progressives, I somehow failed to directly address Nicholas Kristof’s central thesis. I mentioned - but did not engage - his shocking and shoddy argument that the world’s penniless poppets needed more sweatshops. Apologies. Let me fix that.

Of course, Kristof left out something central as well. In one New York Times column, that Dickensian dick claims these kids would be better off toiling in t-shirt factories than picking scraps in garbage mounds. Perhaps, but I think they would be still better off in school with a hot lunch. 

Kristof is hoping that you forgot about school. Oh, he mentions it in passing a few times; but always as a distant personal ambition rather than a baseline government obligation.(1) Kristof wants you assume that poor countries cannot afford such luxuries in their budgets.

Yes and no. Most still do. But corporate globalization abhors schools and other government functions and does its utmost to discourage them.

Doubt me? Then let’s start with a bit of history.  Don't worry, I will salt it with snark.

The now infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF) was once a benevolent institution. With the help of the Marshall Plan, they did a great job rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II. They made loans at very low interest rates because they weren’t trying to take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability. Their guiding principles were Keynesian, so they advocated buoying the economy by buoying consumer buying power. That meant they encouraged good wages. They recognized that government spending stimulated the economy - and with all the bombing devastation there were plenty of public works projects to do. Therefore, developing Europe’s former colonies seemed to be a logical transition once Europe was back on its feet by the late 1970s. 

Unfortunately, Keynesian economics was no longer in fashion in policy circles after the "mean season" of Reagan and Thatcher began, so the IMF got dark. They became loan sharks. For example, at this writing, Madagascar's current interest rate is 60%. As a precondition on its loans, they began to force client countries to accept Structural Adjustment Programs, aptly known as "SAPs.” Saps are like black jacks - they are for knocking people unconscious. But I would call it shotgun Reaganomics instead: Cut social spending and taxes, privatize government functions, etc. Such draconian austerity measures invariably make things worse.

The plot of the story is both familiar and dismal. With Reaganomics, alert critics accurately predicted such polices would made "the rich richer and the poor poorer.” Every graph on growing income inequality confirms exactly that. Likewise, opponents of trade deals that pitted the workers of signing countries against each other in a race to the bottom in wages, hours, and working conditions foresaw the same.(2) Similarly, Clinton Era critics of Welfare Reform correctly guessed its devastating impact on the poor - particularly on women of color. SAPs are supposed to help lift Third World counties out of debt but they accomplish the opposite.

Of course, what is success or failure depends on your perspective. For all the praise of trade and aid, it has been repeatedly proven that rich nations extract far more wealth out of poor countries than they put in. That is why the critics of corporate globalization often call it "soft imperialism." Both at home and abroad, such pro-corporate "anti-poverty" programs mirror conservatives’ Orwellian proposals to "save Social Security." They all extol "the magic of the market” and lament "government handouts.” And they all fail exactly as predicted because their flaws are obvious to everyone who has not drunk the Kool Aid. If it’s not conscious sabotage, it's gross incompetence.(3)

The IMF now belatedly admits its policies have done horrific harm.(4) If only they had listened to their critics decades ago. Perhaps Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman can make their apologies as well now. After all, why stop at apologizing for promoting Welfare Reform?

This free market philosophy has a body count. The IMF Bank had privatized Africa's healthcare infrastructure in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. No longer employed by their governments, doctors had to charge their patients - who frequently could not afford treatment. Care followed profit and consequently skipped the country. It’s simply supply and demand, except with the deadly caveat that human need does not always create markets. Even if privatization were a good idea (and it's obviously not), this may not have been the best time to make the transition. But of course, conducting medical experiments on the poor is nothing new. 

Seventeen years ago, The Nation ran a heart-rending dispatch entitled "Letter from Zambia." It detailed the impact of SAPs on that nation's healthcare. But it also looked at SAPs' effect on education, which is what I am raking Nicholas Kristof over the coals about now. The IMF has actually required countries to charge large fees for public education, which makes a mockery of the concept. Can there be any doubt that the purpose of such policies is to pipeline poor children into sweatshops? And, as the Nation article revealed, Zambia was no exception:
Over the same period [1980-1999] the primary school enrollment rate has plummeted from 96 percent to 77 percent. Half a million children are now out of school, out of a total national population of only 9 million.
These last figures are not accidental. They reflect the results of cuts in public spending and the introduction of school fees. For example, whereas in 1991 the Zambian government spent about $60 per primary school pupil, it now spends just $15. Cuts in public spending–the slimming down of a "bloated” public sector–are a central plank of structural adjustment, as promoted by the World Bank and the IMF.

See? They have schools too. But a 12+ hour shift making sneakers isn't exactly an "after school job."

Of course, those figures are for primary education. Those for secondary education are always worse - especially for the most vulnerable. Fortunately, the situation has since improved 
slightly. According to UNICEF's page on education in Zambia, "Since the introduction of the free basic education policy in 2002, enrollment in basic education levels has steadily increased." 

That sentence should read, "Since the return of the free basic education,” but the takeaway remains the same either way: Making public education public raises participation. Who knew? Everyone familiar with human civilization, that's who.

But UNICEF cautions that problems remain. "However, children from poor households, rural children and girls are the last to enroll in school and the first to drop out, and are significantly underrepresented in the upper grades of basic education as well as the secondary level."(5) 

All of these things are obvious and voluminously documented. We know that government spending stimulates the economy. We know that higher wages boost consumer buying power. We know that high interest rates exacerbate debt. We know that free public schools promote education. Etc. 

But, for some people, rationality rapidly evaporates when a market-based solution is suggested. Institutional memory, history, and basic horse sense all get mysteriously suspended. Nice white liberals suddenly become as naively cynical as Amway distributors. Some know it’s a pyramid scheme while others are innocents. But most are both and rationalize away all uncomfortable thoughts. But make no mistake: 
It's a faith-based creed that does not appreciate skeptics. It's a libertarian religion that has many "liberal" converts. They insist they are still liberals, but they are as credulous and repellent as any Ayn Rand fan - or Trump supporter, for that matter.

In his columns, Nicolas Kristof vividly describes Third World hell-scapes but he never explains how they got that way. There’s nary a mention of debt, the IMF, SAPs, or school fees. Indeed, there’s almost no mention of schools. After all, he does not want to spoil the post-apocalyptic effect of his poverty porn or prompt you to ask "Why aren’t these kids in class?” 

Kristof's false choice between trash mounds and sweatshops is either moronic or dishonest. Take you pick. Either way, he does not deserve a public platform. Schools exist, even in the poorest countries; and the necessity of expanding access to them is obvious to all except those who have conflicting priorities or put the terms labor standards and living wages in scare quotes.(6) 

And I suspect it is obvious to them too.


1) And some of the mentions are beyond absurdity. In his 2000 column on the topic, he writes, "Of course it may sound silly to say that sweatshops offer a route to prosperity, when wages in the poorest countries are sometimes less than $1 a day. Still, for an impoverished Indonesian or Bangladeshi woman with a handful of kids who would otherwise drop out of school and risk dying of mundane diseases like diarrhea, $1 a day can be a life transforming wage.”

Okay, two things. First, diarrhea is a symptom, not a disease: The word he is looking for is "dysentery.” Second, when would she find time for school working 12+ hour shifts, which are typical for sweatshops? She has to sleep. And, oh yes, she has kids. When is she supposed to see them? So, yes, it sounds silly. During the first Gulf War, I learned a new military euphemism for high command: "echelons beyond reality.” It seems to be from where Kristof files his columns.

2) And lest you protest that neo-liberal (i.e. conservative) economic policies have had negligible effect either way (I noticed you guys have backed off claiming they would benefit us, creating millions of jobs), the IMF has admitted that such policies have contributed to economic inequality in developed nations. Interestingly, they suggest more Keynesian social spending as a corrective.

3) Sound like hyperbole? Then consider this: More government debt means fewer funds for the social services that remain. Recall that David Stockman allegedly admitted that the Reagan Administration deliberately ballooned the federal deficit to crowd-out social spending. That was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's allegation reported in the New York Times, if you think that link is to some lefty conspiracy theory site. And Friedrich von Hayek openly voiced his approval. But whether intentional or not, the effect is the same in both at home and abroad. That is what happened - that's beyond debate. If it’s not deliberate, it’s imbecilic. And if you need another Reganomics comparison, just listen to how corporate globalism’s advocates explain how it helps the world’s poor and ask yourself how it is not "trickle-down” economics. They say great wealth is created and, eventually, some of it filters down to the bottom. So, just sit tight and wait.

4) With all this in mind, I’d like to highlight a strange claim that Nicolas Kristof made in his first column on sweatshops back in 2000. He argued that Taiwan and South Korea boomed by welcoming sweatshops while India stagnated by resisting them. His claim is a combination of cherry-picking, lying by omission, and flat-out lying. First, other countries in the "sweatshop belt” have not fared so well, so of course Kristof ignores them. What about Indonesia and Vietnam? Never mind. Second, Taiwan and South Korea benefited from Cold War era development. We built them up the same way we rebuilt Japan. This was genuine development done before the word became a euphemism for looting. We needed them to be strong, so we didn’t fuck them over. Third, India's growth rate over the last fifty years - Kristof's time frame, not mine - has been simply stunning. Their economy took off as soon as they ejected the British. Indeed, it has recently even surpassed China's so Kristof’s narration of stagnation is nonsense. What China and India have in common (besides sweatshops, because India has those too) is their independence from the IMF. They don’t let global bodies dictate policies to them. Unlike many other countries, they have the strength to resist. 

Interestingly, almost a decade later in 2009, Kristof wrote a column about Vietnam in which he described the nation’s extreme poverty. He, of course, used this to argue for sweatshops. This was the same article in which he framed the issue as sweatshops vs picking garbage. But Vietnam has tons of sweatshops. It stopped being an primarily agricultural country long ago. According to the CIA World Fact Book, "Agriculture's share of economic output has shrunk from about 25% in 2000 to 18% in 2014, while industry's share increased from 36% to 38% in the same period." (The remainder is the service industry.) In that article, entitled "Where Sweatshops are a Dream,” he talks about how Vietnamese long to work in a factory. Well, the Chinese workers who slave away for the Apple subcontractor Foxconn feel considerably differently. For them, the dream is a nightmare – thus the suicide prevention nets installed around buildings to deter jumpers. And the story remains timely since the deaths continueIn another article entitled "Let them Sweat" (/Eat Cake?), Kristof calls sweatshop jobs "the first step on life's escalator." But for most the escalator is actually a treadmill. 

5) This isn't just tradition, but economics too. It's an unholy spawn of the two. Less government social programs means less insulation from the shocks of the market. (And we are still in the midst of a global recession.) When such shocks occur, the most vulnerable become society's shock absorbers by default. Therefore, girls are the first to be removed from school and put to work in the sweatshops. Bigotry plus austerity equals tragedy. Of course, bigotry is a tragedy in and of itself; but austerity sure as shit magnifies the effects. Likewise, stateside, African Americans have always been the "last hired and the first fired." So, during the Great Depression, they were white society's economic shock absorbers. In southern cities, black male unemployment was twice the white male rate and the gap was even worse for black women. Things like race, sex, and class do not operate in isolation from one another, despite what Hillary Clinton suggests.

6) That’s not all that must be done, of course. The debts of the IMF Bank’s victims should be erased and reparations paid for raping their economies and ecosystems. Any additional development should be done honestly along Keynesian lines and free of charge.

And, yeah, Nicolas Kristof actually put the term labor standards in scare quotes - in the very first sentence. The opening reads like something in the National Review.