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.