Monday, June 29, 2015

What's Your Identity?

People talk a lot about their identity and the identities of other people. The huge controversy about Rachel Dolezal shows how confusing identities are.
Begin with what everybody says these days that "identities are socially constructed." Here is an example: if in the late 1700s the leaders of different American states had decided against uniting into one nation, the identity of being a citizen of the USA would not exist today. All of us would be citizens of whatever state we belonged to. But notice that this social origin of the identity of being a US citizen does not mean that individuals can simply choose to call themselves citizens of the USA. In order to be a citizen you need to follow complex rules and procedures. What you want to be or identify yourself as is of relatively little importance.
A second lesson from this public debate is that there are different kinds of identities. Some rest on facts. You can only claim the identity of being a centenarian if you have actually lived 100 or more years. Some mornings I get up with serious aches and pains and I feel as if I were 100 years old. But that does not make me a centenarian. That identity rests in facts.
Being male or female used to be one of those identities depending on certain facts. The interesting thing about Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender persons is that we have decided that how one feels on the inside is a more significant criterion for gender identity than one's external genitals.
Gender has now become an identity that we can choose and it is a different kind of identity from one's national identity which one's choices alone cannot determine.
But the case of Rachel Dolezal shows that there is a third kind of identity which the bearer of that identity has no part in determining. These are identities imposed on us from the outside, by other persons. The court system, for instance, identifies certain persons as felons. In a number of cases, the court is mistaken. A prisoner is called a felon even though justice miscarried in his case and he is innocent. But he may spend the rest of his life incarcerated, or unable to vote, or, if he is able to leave prison, unable to find work.
Being black is sometimes a matter of personal choice. Some descendants of African slaves had so many white ancestors that they can "pass" and enter the population as a white person. They choose to be whites in spite of the facts about their ancestry. Other descendants of African slaves have dark skin. Their hair is not straight by nature. Given those external marks, white society imposes on them the identity of a "Black." The litany of all the faults that Blacks may be suspected of is too familiar to rehearse once more. This identity is not supported by facts. It is certainly not chosen by the people who get stereotyped with this identity by Whites. It is imposed by white society.
If descendants of African slaves can identify as whites, why cannot a white person identify as black? In so far as color identities are subject to choice, no one can fault Rachel Dolezal. But she cannot claim that she has been stereotyped in the terribly negative and undeserved way that most African – Americans still find themselves stereotyped in North America and elsewhere.
It is not clear to me that she is claiming that. If she is, is she lying? Well she might just be misinformed or confused. To accuse her of lying, one must be able to show that she is deliberately misrepresenting her experience. Outside of her family not many people are in a position to accuse her of that.
Some observers have drawn the lesson from this public debate that we should stop talking so much about identities. The lesson I draw from it is that the concept of personal identity is complex and subject to many confusions. One should step very cautiously when one enters the terrain of personal identity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Raise taxes

It is election season once again. Promises are flying but canny voters know better than to be taken in by them. They all know that what candidates promise before the election has little to do with what they do once they are in office.
We hear on all sides how candidates will remedy the injustices and inequalities of the economy as it is today. The candidates offer to improve the lot of the middle class. But there is one important question that no one wants to address – except perhaps Bernie Sanders: reducing injustice and improving the lot of the middle class will cost a lot of money. No candidate is telling us where they will get the money to do all these good works.
But unless a candidate has a feasible plan for raising extra money, their promises to make life better for most of us are not worth much. What we need to know about candidates is whether they are going to increase government revenue in order to honor their commitments.
The obvious answer is: we need to raise taxes, specifically we need to raise taxes on the rich, on the people who take home more than $100,000 a year. Candidates who are unwilling to do that will not be able to deliver on their campaign rhetoric.
In 2011 half of the taxpayers earned less than $35,000 a year. The top 1% earned more than 10 times as much at close to $390,000 a year. The tax rate for people earning less than $35,000 was 3%. You would expect the tax rate for the top 1% to be 10 times as much, – 30% – but it was only 23%. It would be more than fair for the top 1% to pay income tax at a much higher rate.
The rich get financial benefits not given to us. For instance, employees of Walmart or fast food restaurants do not earn enough to get by and the government – the taxpayers – help out. Food stamps and other social services for people who do not earn enough to live, are in fact a subsidy to their employers. Instead of paying for food stamps we should demand that employers, like Walmart or fast food restaurants, pay a living wage.
But is the subsidy for business not at the same time a subsidy for the customer? Suppose we demanded that Walmart and their competitors paid a living wage. They would still be forced by competition to keep their prices low. Their profits would decline. It is the employer who derives special benefits from government subsidies.
Businesses get preferential treatments in other ways. 39% Fortune 500 corporations paid no income tax between 2008 and 2012. By law corporations are supposed to pay 35% federal income tax.
Trucking companies get to use the interstate highway network. The government pays for that. The government doesn't pay for my computer that I work on when writing, sometimes – although not frequently – for-profit. Trucking companies get a government subsidy. I do not.
The first step towards a creditable program of increased fairness is to raise the income tax on the top 10 or 15% of wage earners. A second step is to abolish subsidies for business. We must make all employers pay a living wage. That will save taxes and improve the lives of that half of citizens who earn less than $34,000 a year. The government will gain considerable revenue by collecting taxes on large corporations. If businesses use government supplied infrastructure for profit they should be made to pay for that. Media companies, for instance, should pay for using TV or radio channels.
These recommendations are becoming very mainstream. They have even been endorsed by a recent report from the International Monetary Fund. But Congress is, once again, deaf.
Common wisdom is that candidates who promise to raise taxes on the rich and to abolish subsidies for private businesses cannot be elected.
But the top 10% of taxpayers are only 10% of the voting public. How could they possibly block the election of someone chosen by the majority of the remaining 90%? The fear is obviously that some very rich people can affect the election by spending, literally, millions of dollars to support candidates that will not interfere with their making obscene profits.
To be sure money talks very loudly in elections. But not always. We have seen some notable exceptions such as the defeat of Eric Cantor of Virginia by an unknown opponent who had no money.
Political candidates who are serious about remedying the glaring injustices in our current political and economic commitments will have to take a chance and come out openly and say what needs to be done: raise taxes and shut down business subsidies.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The true left

Left wing politics used to be dominated by Marx and Marxism. In that perspective, the existing problems of poverty, exploitation, and injustice were the work of a capitalist economic system. That system needed to be replaced by a different, a socialist system. In due time, capitalism would destroy itself. The capitalist class would shrink and lose much of its power, allowing all the working people to create a new democratic socialist society. Working people, now the overwhelming majority, would lay hold of the power of government and use that power to destroy capitalist economic institutions and replace them by socialist ones.
Ever since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s this scenario of social change has lost its persuasive power. The examples of Soviet and Chinese communism appeared to teach a very important lesson, namely that governments powerful enough to refashion society and the economy could not be trusted to only serve the good of the people. There seemed to be good reasons to believe that such governments would easily turn tyrannical and become the enemies of the people they were supposed to serve.
The strategy of "conquering the commanding heights of state power" was jettisoned by all but a collection of very small groups that called themselves 'political parties' and still subscribed to some version or another of the Marxist program. Beside those small splinter groups many, many people today still believe that nothing short of structural or system change will succeed in creating a democracy that truly responds to the needs and opinions of the vast majority. We are being told again and again that tinkering with existing laws and institutions may remove specific ills but still leave us with a society that causes needless suffering and misery to a large portion of our population.
But how to bring about structural change if we are not willing to use the coercive power of a central government?
There are today many different and many very interesting undertakings to effect social change. Reformers focusing on politics have produced a number of different conceptions of democracy all of which are intended to return control of government into the hands of ordinary citizens and to take control away from corporations and the super-rich. Reformers focusing on economic issues propose different ways in which ordinary American workers can become owners of their workplaces and come to control the functioning of those workplaces. In education, a few colleges give central power to students, to design a curriculum and choose members of the faculty. There are many progressive schools that are at great pains to treat the students as human beings as much entitled to respect as adults even though their judgment may not always be completely trustworthy. There are many different cooperatives. There are many organizations that serve a particular group but do not seek a profit. There are different groups that concern themselves with the current, worsening environmental crisis. There are nonprofit organizations that try to save farmland for farming instead of seeing it developed into subdivisions.
This list could be extended almost indefinitely.
All of these projects are worthwhile. The participants in each are to be admired for their efforts. But all of these proposals differ from the Marxist project which aims to replace capitalism—an all encompassing social system—with the equally all encompassing system—socialism. The many change projects that are currently in the works are much more limited, much more specific and are capable of being actually executed today. With respect to these much more limited, much more concrete projects, a crucial question remains: will all these different projects in their totality serve to produce the structural change that everyone agrees we need? It is clear that no structural change is forthcoming from all these many projects in the foreseeable future. No one knows what will happen in the long run.
The effect of this transformation of the Marxist left into a large collection of different social, economic, pedagogical, and other projects has an interesting effect on ordinary electoral politics. Food co-ops or co-ops of craftspeople, progressive schools and colleges, organic farms and the lot have limited interest in electoral politics. These projects are not the basis for forming political parties or offering candidates in elections. With that, the true left in the United States today drops out of the electoral political process. Pres. Obama and his Democrats are as far to the left in electoral politics as we have seen in a long time and they depend mightily on Wall Street financial experts and some benign billionaires. They are, if leftists at all, leftists in name only.
With few exceptions, the left in electoral politics is thoroughly right wing because the true leftists are growing organic vegetables or running progressive pre-schools, or coffee houses to encourage local musicians and poets. They may very well support Bernie Sanders or Sen. Warren but have no hope that they will manage to reduce the power of Wall Street or of the 1%.
The absence of a true left from electoral politics is a serious lack. But it is also one more sign that what we call our democracy has very limited effectiveness and that in fact the most important actions for social change take place in other parts of our country. We should pay as little attention as possible to the Wall Street Left of Pres. Obama and give all the support we can to the true leftists, wherever they may be working to save a small part of this precious world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Memorial Day

National holidays are occasions for floods of clichés uttered at ceremonies in every city and every village and dutifully recorded in the next day's newspaper. Speakers from the President on down thank our veterans for the sacrifices they made for us. Some of them gave their lives. Many others returned from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Vietnam, from Korea changed forever. They may be missing limbs, they may no longer be able to function in civilian life. Their families may fall apart; significant numbers of veterans end up committing suicide.
Speakers at Memorial Day ceremonies repeat over and over again that veterans made these serious sacrifices so that we might continue to enjoy the freedoms we have. For their defense of our freedoms we thank the veterans.
But surely there is something seriously wrong here. Was Saddam Hussein a threat to American freedoms? Are the Taliban? Saddam Hussein oppressed the people of Iraq. They might thank our soldiers although, seeing the destruction we have wrought in their country since 1991, Iraqis may well be of two minds about that. But Saddam Hussein never was a threat to American institutions.
Even Osama bin Laden, though a threat to American lives, was not a threat to our institutions. We ourselves, our representatives in Congress, chose to limit American freedoms thought the Patriot Act after 9/11. But that was our choice. Bin Laden did not do that. We chose to restrict freedom for the sake of greater security.
Why are we telling lies to ourselves about American soldiers—men sand women—saving our freedom when they did nothing of the sort?
In recent weeks conservative candidates for president have let it be known that they now, by hindsight, consider the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to have been mistakes. We should never have invaded either country they now believe. Candidates for president do not hold opinions that are not shared by significant numbers of voters. These politicians simply echo beliefs widely held by the public.
Many of the people who thank our veterans for protecting our freedoms also believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be justified, that, on the whole, they accomplished nothing worthwhile.
It is obvious why they lie about that on the day dedicated to veterans. Many of those who returned alive are still suffering the after-effects of combat. Few of the patriots attending the Memorial Day festivities protested these wars. They were content to have soldiers be seriously injured or even killed, even after it appeared that there were no weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden was not in Afghanistan. They laughed at those of us who protested these wars.
Now they have to admit that they did nothing to stop soldiers being injured in combat when that served no purpose.
Memorial Day is the day of truth. Many honorable men and women incurred life long suffering for no good reason at all. These wars were engineered by a group of men, all of whom had refused to go to war when they were at an age to do that. George Bush, Vice-president Cheney, Wolfowitz—the entire crew of war-mongers—had refused to face combat.
What can we, as a nation, say to the veterans who were sent off into combat for no good reason at all?
That is a terrifying thought that should make all of us feel very guilty. It is true, we owe a great debt to veterans not for what they did for us, but for what we did to them, namely to injure them seriously without good reasons.
On Memorial Day we lie about it. The rest of the year we pass city ordinances forbidding homeless veterans and others from panhandling and we refuse to provide adequate funds for the Veterans' Administration.
It is high time that we stop repeating pious patriotic clichés, taking pictures of parades, and start to tell the truth about these wars and its victims. It is time that we be honest and admit that we failed to end these wars a long time ago, that we failed to save the men and women whom we thank on Memorial Day and make serious efforts to repair the damages we allowed to be done to them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Will no one talk about Native Americans?

This is a season of commemorations. It is 100 years since Turks massacred over 1 million Armenians during World War I. 70 years ago American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Our leaders take these occasions as opportunities to castigate the Turks for not admitting their responsibility in the slaughter of Armenians and to point the finger once again at Germans for the Holocaust. It is, for our leaders, one more opportunity for boasting about our freedom loving nature.
It is also a season in which Americans once again confront their history of racism and its continuation to the present day.
In all of this, Native Americans are strangely absent. When urging the Turks to admit their guilt, when, once again, criticizing the Germans for their Nazi past, not a word is ever said about the fate of Native Americans on this continent. Nor are Native Americans mentioned in discussions of American racism and of slavery.
To be sure, a very few respectable scholars write books about the "American Holocaust." Others tell us that Adolf Hitler borrowed techniques for exterminating Jews, Gays and Gypsies in large numbers by studying the history of US persecution of Native Americans. The degree of similarity between the German Holocaust, the Turkish genocide, and the suffering imposed on the Native American population of the United States is open to argument. But it seems clear that citizens of the United States have their own burden of guilt and responsibility for the harsh treatment and large-scale killing of other peoples.
When whites first arrived on this continent, they survived only with the help of indigenous populations. But for several centuries warlike relations have predominated as whites increased in population and expanded their hunger for land and control. The history of these wars records great cruelty on both sides. But the outcome is clear. The white immigrants have taken away the land from the Native Americans. They have been pretty unscrupulous in the process.
Today there upwards of 2 million native Americans in the United States. Estimates of native American population in North America when whites first immigrated from England in the 1500s range from 1 to 18 million people. What we do know more precisely is that in the early years, Native American tribes who had no immunity to European diseases were decimated by various epidemics. It is still a matter of debate whether these disease epidemics resulted from accident or were, at least in some cases, brought about intentionally.
In the 1830s the US government forcibly moved Native American tribes from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to what was then the Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. Thousands died on what came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." These forcible migrations were repeated whenever white Americans wanted the lands then inhabited by Native Americans, for farming, for mining, or other forms of exploitation. Native Americans, moved to barren lands they did not know and did not know how to farm, died of starvation.
Pretty much until World War I – 400 years since the arrival of the first white settlers – Native Americans were at war with white immigrants. Mainly confined to reservations, their tribal structures weak, their languages and religious customs forgotten, native Americans live in poverty at about the same rate as African-American and Hispanic citizens. The methodical displacement of Native Americans, the planned destruction of their culture by forcing Indian children to grow up in English language boarding schools away from their tribes and families, the careless impoverishment of whole peoples because they occupied lands desired by whites, is one more terrible blot on the history of the United States and its people. We need to be more forthright in acknowledging our responsibilities when we remonstrate with other nations to take responsibility for their past brutalities.
From every side we currently hear calls for "conversations about race." These calls for conversations must seem disingenuous as long as a large portion of American racism is being completely overlooked and remains concealed. Such conversations may salve the conscience of some, but will not really accomplish greater mutual understanding because they are not intended to confront the full extent of white responsibility for continued aggressions towards persons of color – including Native Americans.
It is high time that the fate of Native Americans be included in our national reflection about our past and present racisms.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Missing Left Agenda.

In the United States today the right has a more or less coherent political program: the centerpiece is the call for small government which includes abolishing Obama care, lowering taxes especially on the rich, abolishing legal support for labor unions. The other part of the right wing program consists of various culture-war issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Compared to that, the left has no program. This is illustrated dramatically in the current debates occasioned by the demonstration and riots in Baltimore. Public discussions come up with the same old tired and pretty pointless recommendations: 1. education, 2. conversations about race, 3. Resolve the economic problems of inner-city neighborhoods.
Education. The idea is that poor young men and women should be encouraged to get a college education or at least a job training certificate from a two year college so that they can then find work. But several hundreds thousands of college graduates are already earning no more than $7.50 an hour. Expanding the educational access for the poor is not a promising plan.
More important is the question why there are not enough jobs—never mind decent jobs that support a family—to go around. Everyone insists that unemployment in the poorer parts of town is excessive and we need to create more jobs. The Right is going to do that by cutting taxes on the rich. The Left is going to do that . . . . how?
The closest anyone on the left comes to having a sensible thought about the lack of jobs goes roughly as follows: We need to raise taxes on the very rich, we need to make sure that the large international corporations pay the taxes they owe—rather than not paying any taxes at all as some of the global oil companies and others have been doing. In addition we need to cut the military budget severely.
These three measures would raise significant amounts of money which could then be invested in fixing roads and bridges, replacing old school buildings, training more teachers and retraining the teachers already working.
We are doing very poorly by our veterans as we have seen documented in the last year in the scandals at the Veterans Administration. Atul Gewande, in Being Mortal, documents how facilities for the elderly are mostly quite inadequate. It would take significant investments to provide cheerful final years for all the old people in the US.
These investments would create significant numbers of new jobs.
The thought behind this proposal is very clear. Private enterprise is not interested in services that are not money makers. For-profit education is on the whole a failure except for schools for the children of the very rich. Witness the recent collapse of the Corinthian Colleges. Care for the old, except when they have plenty of money, is not a money maker. Home Care, visiting nurses, child care facilities are of not interest to capitalists because they only yield modest profits. Public roads and bridges do not produce profits, neither do public parks, public art museums, symphony orchestras and other cultural institutions.
Large areas of a good life for all citizens are of no interest to the businesses whose main goal is to make as much money as possible. But America has forever placed its faith, and continues to do so, in private enterprise. As a result our public infrastructures, our educational system, our ways of taking care of young and old, who need help leading a decent life, are in deplorable shape. Many of our cities are ugly, public transportation does not function.
A minimal goal for the left is to acknowledge the serious limits of private enterprise and the incapacity of the much praised “free market” to provide a good life for all. There is a place for private business, but that place is actually quite limited. We need to focus on all those areas of social and economic life that have been neglected because our leaders believe with Calvin Coolidge that “America's business is business.”
It is quite clear that the opposite is the case. Consider only the environmental crisis, brought about and daily aggravated by energy companies, automobile producers and other large companies. They cause environmental disaster. They do not reduce it.
America will continue to descend into progressively more serious domestic crises until we are ready to say boldly that business practices need serious regulation. Businesses, and those who profit from them, must pay fair taxes so that the rest of us can have the jobs and the amenities that business does not provide.
American politics will be a powerless side show unless we have a serious Left. We cannot have a serious Left without admitting publicly that large businesses are not the benefactors, but the ruin of America.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Restorative Justice

There has been a rash of killings of young black men by white police. They have drawn attention to the persistence of white anti-black racism in the United States.
A recent victim of the police is Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old black man in Baltimore. He was raised in public housing and he and his sister were found to have excessively high lead levels when they were children. Later he had several run-ins with the law and went to prison for drugs. Arrested recently, apparently without very good reason, he was injured in the course of the arrest and died 10 days later of a damaged spine.
The arresting policemen were white, but the mayor and police chief of Baltimore as well as half the police officers are African-Americans. The racial situation is not as clear and horrific as in Ferguson. It teaches us that simply looking at racism of white policeman is not sufficient to understand the epidemic of young black men dying at the hands of police.
It is difficult to find much of a biography of Freddy Gray. But it looks as if he was a young man who did not pursue the American dream in the ways laid out by endless advertisements. He was not well-educated, he did not, it looks like, have a steady job, he was into drugs and he wore his pants as low as they could go without falling down.
You don't have to be a racist to dislike people like Freddy Gray. Many Americans regardless of their origins or skin color have no time for young men like him. They believe in hard work, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and being responsible. It does not look as if Freddy Gray fit that mold. If he was a victim of prejudice it was not only prejudice against people who have dark skin like his, but also against people who do not conform to standard American expectations.
But Freddy Gray was also a victim of our punitive culture. He appeared – what ever may have been the truth about him – not to be up to much. He apparently looked like a deviant. And in America we all too often resort to punishment when young people don't seem to grow up to be the sort of people we want them to be.
To be sure there are many dedicated men and women who work in programs to help people, who were born behind the eight ball, to emerge into a full and productive life. But we also have an enormous structure of police, of courts, of many, many prisons – which we, in massive irony, often refer to as correctional institutions.
Police are armed, – sometimes heavily – they are aimed at violent criminals that need to be apprehended. They are not equipped, nor are they meant to be the people who would assist youngsters to construct a good life for themselves when society is making that very difficult.
In the background of these punitive institutions is a certain mindset that classifies people either as good citizens or as criminals – persons deserving to be punished. It is a mindset only too quick to blame someone. Whoever gets blamed for some youngster not doing right, it is not us, the good upstanding citizens who go to work and pay our taxes and keep our white picket fences in good repair. Since it cannot possibly be our fault, it must be somebody else's, most likely the young men or women themselves and so they must be punished for their transgression.
It is surely obvious that this is a truly inhumane way of thinking about our fellow citizens and thinking about the ways in which our society does not function well. It is also a gross refusal of responsibility on the part of most citizens toward what happens in the poorer parts of town, where jobs are scarce, and a happy life is really hard to come by.
But there is a very different way of thinking about people who act badly. One can think of them as members of a community. They are disturbing the community, for instance by selling drugs, by not taking responsibility for their children, by not making an honest living. And if they continue to do that they will have to make restitution, they will have to repair the damage they have done. Punishing people is being vengeful. It neither deters crime nor does it correct the criminal. The community has to come together and decide with the person who is acting badly how he or she can make up for the injuries they have done. This approach to bad actors is often called "Restorative Justice." The goal is not to punish. The goal is to restore peace and harmony in the community.

But at the same time, the community must examine itself and ask where it may have gone wrong. Whatever ways some people do not manage to grow up into responsible adults, the responsibility for that is not theirs alone. It is all of us that bear some responsibility for the sufferings of young parents and the harms suffered by their children.
The mania for building more prisons, for having more three-strike rules, for having mandatory sentences and incarcerating more and more people is a cowardly way of evading the responsibility of all of us for young men and women like Freddy Gray.
It is not only racism alone that killed this young man but a society that is merciless in pursuing vengeance against young men and women for whose lives we refuse responsibility.