Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Right Wing Politics-- here and in Norway

The mass murder in Norway was surely committed by a person who is seriously mentally ill. But he appears also to be an educated and intelligent person. One needs to take what he says seriously. 
He opposes two things: Islamization and "cultural Marxism."

I have recently looked, once again, at some books about Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany. The parallel is unmistakable. The German Nazis opposed international Jewry and Marxism. The least favorite out-group among people who regard themselves as both favored and beleaguered has changed since the Holocaust. You can no longer be an open anti-Semite. So now people are against "Islamization" a threat as phony and unsupported by evidence as the previous “International Jewish Conspiracy.”

The orientation of far right political groups has not changed very much since the 1920s. It yokes together two very different campaigns: one against a bogeyman to scare people with -- formerly international Jewry; today the equally fictitious Islamization. The other campaign favors the rich to the detriment of the poor.

The Nazis were against "Marxism" -- the political parties of the left which included Social- Democrats and Communists. These were parties whose platform included concern about the well-being of working people, about the people at the bottom of the society. The right-wing political agenda favors those members of the population that are well-off, the people who own thriving businesses, the rich and the powerful.

The bogeyman campaign--against Jews, or Muslims, or immigrants--serves to attract the support of those very groups, the little people, who stand to lose if the right wing parties gain power. 
All of this is important for us because our government is about to go bankrupt because a really right-wing Congress wants to lower taxes on the rich, it wants to resist any efforts to make large corporations like GE or Exxon pay any taxes at all. It will pay for that by scaling back programs to help those who have limited incomes: retired workers, the elderly, and the poor. In the United States the right-wing is not explicitly racist as are the right-wingers in Norway, or as were the Nazis in Germany. But the devotion to the rich and powerful is as craven here as over there.

But of course a disproportionate percentage of poor people in the United States are people of color. In spite of what the Pollyannas say, electing Barack Obama president has not put an end to racism in the United States but has probably intensified it. Blacks, especially young black men, have difficulties in school, they have difficulties finding work, they are more likely to end up in prison and when they come out they, again, can't find work. They suffer disproportionately as a result of the 2007 meltdown.

To be sure, there are plenty of poor white people. But it is not unreasonable to suspect that when the lawmakers in Washington who want to "shrink government" -- by that they mean tear up the social safety net work – think of a poor person they have a mental image of a black man or woman.

The news about Norway is sensational. It does not make as clear as it ought to that we live in Norway too. Congress is about to cut various social programs that support people who have few if any other resources. Some people are going to die because they don't have enough food, because they don't have decent housing, because they cannot go to the doctor, or because they cannot afford the medicines the doctor prescribes. Right wing lawmakers care no more about those deaths than the Norwegian gunman cared for his victims.

The right-wing agenda of "shrinking the government" is as murderous as this unhinged young man in Norway. There is a direct line from Nazi Germany to Norway today to the Halls of Congress in Washington, DC

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The deficit and wages.

The Democrats refuse to cut services like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to reduce the government deficit. They think that would be totally unfair. The Republicans refuse to raise taxes on corporations or very rich individuals because those are the persons or institutions, they say, that create new jobs. And new jobs is what the country needs.

Both parties ignore an important economic fact: if ordinary working people – call them “middle-class” if you want – have no money to spend the economy is going to suffer. That is a central fact about our current crisis that no one wants to talk about. Since the early 1970s wages and salaries have been pretty stagnant. If anything they went down a bit. Families dealt with that, first, by women leaving the home and going to work. But when that was not enough, people took the banks up on their offers of credit cards. By now many American families owe more money on their credit cards than they make in an entire year.

It was this grand deficit financing of consumption that kept the economy going until 2008. At some point that credit bubble collapsed and so did the economy.

Corporations and the very rich do not create jobs unless the extra workers produce goods that sell. But if these new workers and the old ones don't make enough money to buy whatever the corporation has to offer, the corporation is not going to hire more people. 
So if wages remain as low as they are, and if the Republicans get their way to clear up the federal deficit by taking money out of the pockets of people with little money or moderate income, and of the retired as well as of students, demand for all kinds of commodities will drop and so will employment.

Cutting taxes on corporations without stimulating consumer demand by paying higher wages or handing out decent retirement funds and medical aid, is not going to create new jobs except perhaps for more people to take care of the empty houses of the super-rich who have houses all over the world, or more crews to take care of the larger and larger yachts or private jets of the beneficiaries of further tax cuts. But that does not create many jobs.

Our political discourse is very much shaped by business and its interests. The damage done to the economy by low wages is therefore not something newspapers and television commentators often talk about. But without a general population that is reasonably comfortable and therefore has some spending money, the economy will not recuperate.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Business – good and bad.

Business is all about making money and that seems perfectly all right. After all, money allows us to buy what we want and what we need. More money allows us to satisfy more needs and desires.

But, off course, at some point, you run out of time to enjoy all the things that money can buy. Hedge fund managers who earn $10 or even $100 million a year will not be able to spend all that money and enjoy the goods 100 million can buy. You may own nine houses in different parts of the world, but how much time will you have to lounge on the veranda of your house in north India or overlooking a volcano in New Zealand?

Some people have more money then they can spend. So what do they do? They invest it in the hope of making more money.

Here we get to the heart of capitalist business: The central aim of capitalists is to make their capital grow, to lend out or invest money in order to get more back than paid out originally. Making money is no longer a means to a more leisurely and comfortable life. Making money becomes an end in itself.

But money, as we all know, does not buy happiness. Devoting life to making more and more money is throwing that life away. In the myth of Midas the ancient Greeks expressed that insight. Midas, having done a favor for the God Dionysius, was given a wish for anything he wanted. “I want that anything I touch turn into gold” said Midas without a second thought. The food he tried to eat, the child he caressed all turned to gold. Midas was the first capitalist.

But, obviously, making as much money as possible is not only bad for the capitalist but for many other persons affected by the frantic desire to grow their capital. We owe the 2008 financial meltdown to people who tried to grow their capital by taking excessive risks, to be born by other people.. We owe the export of American jobs to Asia to industrialists trying to grow their capital. We owe increasing inequality and, with it, increasing poverty to the capitalists' desire to make more and more money.

There is nothing wrong with making money, if that is not your main purpose in life.

Any sensible person knows that what they need is human connection, love, friendship, community, sharing of resources, ideas, and pleasure. Admiring the accomplishments of others, whether they be writers or artists or athletes and trying to do well oneself are very important. Money, sought for its own sake, is a distraction from all that.

A good life includes those values and enjoyments. A good life tries to provide those not just for oneself but also for others.

Good business enriches lives not pocket books. When you start a new project, you will need to ask yourself what it will cost and whether the money will be well spent as far as you could tell beforehand. But whether to undertake a project, one should not ask oneself whether it will grow one's capital, but whether it will make life better for someone. That includes asking oneself what it will be like to work in your new enterprise and what the effects of this new enterprise will be on our natural environment and our social environment.

All of this is merely elaborating on the old familiar slogan: “People before profits.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Free markets and illegal immigration 

Slightly more than two thirds of Americans believe that a free market benefits everyone. They also believe that illegal immigration damages us, especially with respect to employment. They support more stringent law enforcement against persons suspected of being in the country illegally.

There are no survey figures on how many people are aware of the inconsistency of those two beliefs.

Our economy consists of many different markets -- markets for food or cars; markets for capital such as mortgages, stocks and bonds, derivatives; markets for labor whether for day laborers, who pick the lettuce in the Imperial Valley in California, or the CEO for a major global corporation.

In each market, sellers offer what they want to sell and compete with each other for customers by lowering the asking prices. In each market buyers come in to purchase what they want and compete with each other by raising the price they are offering. The current level of prices for any commodity depends on the size of the supply relative to demand. If a given commodity sells at a given price, a significant increase in supply of a commodity will lead to lower prices. A much larger supply can be sold only at lower prices than before the supply increased.

That applies to food. During the summer strawberries are more plentiful and therefore cheaper than they are in the winter. After a bountiful harvest of oranges the price goes down. If a part of the crop freezes during a cold winter, the price for orange juice goes up.

The same is true of labor. If we opened our borders to the South and allowed people from all over Latin America to enter the country freely, wages would drop precipitously because of the large additional supply of workers. Employers could pick and choose and pay a fraction of what they pay today. (I will ignore, for the present, the fact that American corporations as well as the US government bear much of the responsibility for unemployment in Latin America)

We maintain current wage levels by restricting the supply of labor. We maintain current wage levels by restricting immigration. Whatever many people say they believe about free markets, when it comes to labor they do not believe in a free market. 
This inconsistency conceals a profound moral insight: Labor markets are immoral. Every person is entitled to a good job. A good job is one that supports you and your family. A good job is one you'll not hate going to every day. Your getting a good job should not depend on the uncertainties of a labor market. No one should be able to take your job and ship it off to China. No one should be able to force you to take a lower wage because someone else is also looking for a job and is depressing the price of yours.

Markets are not always in balance. At the end of the day, sellers may be left over with some goods which no one wanted to buy from them. That incurs a loss but is not a tragedy. But if at the end of the day not all the sellers of the ability to work have found a job, that is a tragedy. Sometimes goods sell in markets only if the price is lowered drastically. That is not a tragedy when we are selling fruit at the end of the day. But it is a tragedy when it forces people to work two and three jobs just to get by.

Labor markets are profoundly unjust. They treat people as if their strength and intelligence were no different from eggs or potatoes. They treat people as if they were things.

We are right to believe that there should be no markets in labor. As fellow citizens we owe each other a good job for everyone. 
Demanding a good job for everyone does not condone police persecution of people with darker skin. It does not condone depriving anyone of health care or of educational opportunities. It does not support anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona or Georgia.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

  1. Stop complaining!

    Without doubt, the world is in terrible shape. Wars are continuous; poverty is on the increase. The threats to our environment grow daily but its defense is effectively blocked by the self-interest of corporations.
It's enough to get really discouraged.

At the same time, there are many people all over the world working terribly hard to build a better world. The work is difficult, it demands tremendous energy and there is usually no time left for publicizing these efforts. Many people do not know about them. They think they are all alone and can’t do anything by themselves, except to sit home, grumble, and be discouraged.
I have done a great deal of grumbling in these blocks and intend to continue to do so. But it is, of course, also very important to know what you and I and all of us together can do to make it a better world.
Here is one suggestion:
This world -- and probably any world we can imagine -- is full of conflict. But there are different ways of dealing with conflict and the dominant models we have are really destructive. In foreign policy we rely on a military that is larger than the military of all other countries combined. In sports we watch ice hockey or football which are glorified fistfights. In the business world, the goal is to put the other person out of business. Destruction is our favorite way of solving problems. The great captains of industry – such as Bill Gates – stand out because they are more competitive and more ruthless than others. The prize goes to the most hardhearted.
But there is a whole set of different techniques called “mediation” where some impartial outsiders will sit down with the parties in conflict to try to get everyone to find a solution acceptable to them. The goal is not to injure. The goal is for persons in conflict to find a solution that seems fair to all, that is not imposed by some outside authority like a judge or some judicial tribunal but is the creation of the people themselves.
Suppose you have a disagreement with your landlord, or your mechanic. Or suppose a set of brothers and sisters disagree about what to do with mom and dad who are too old to continue to stay in their house. You can acquiesce to the demands of the others even though you think they are being totally unreasonable. You just end up feeling bad. Or you can hire a lawyer who will get as much for you as possible regardless of what is fair. Before the judge, your lawyer will present your case in its most favorable light, even if that involves half-truths, massaging the facts deceptively, or manipulating witnesses and a jury. You may get what you want but at the expense of having made a lifelong enemy--your opponent in the law suit. And, of course, you have contributed in a small way to a social climate of hostility, of deceptiveness and greed.
The mediation project aims at a solution that is as pacific and conciliatory as possible. The solution is not imposed by judge or lawyer. It is the creation of the parties discussing their disagreement. The mediators make no suggestions, they only try to provide a quiet and reflective atmosphere in which difficult conversations can be held fruitfully.
The conflicted parties gain some control over their own life by solving their own problem and by, perhaps, learning how to solve problems in the future. What is more, they get a solution they can take some pride in. Their mind can be at ease that they have not taken unfair advantage of another person but have been as fair as was possible under the circumstances.
In most cities and towns in the United States there are a lawyers and others who are trained to do a good mediation. In many places there are organizations that mediate for free or for a low cost. Elsewhere, mediating lawyers will charge you whatever they would charge you if they went to court, except, of course, mediation will involve a lot less time and a lot less paperwork and will thus end up being cheaper. It will also not pollute our social atmosphere with enmity, manipulativeness, and greed.
Think of that the next time need to settle a conflict.
I will talk about other ways of making it a better world in future blogs.