“Two Cheers for Anarchism” reviewed
avatar

(By Shepard Fairey)

(By Shepard Fairey)

I finished James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism (TCA). He wrote a very well-received book called Seeing Like A State that is on my to-read list. The latter book will take more of an investment of time and concentration. TCA is shorter. I read it via Kindle.

The title is likely to mislead people. The book is not about how to organize uprisings or smash the state. The word ‘anarchism’ for most people connotes intransigent politics and mindless violence. Any good history of anarchism will inform you of the common practice of police informers provoking and actually committing terrorist acts. Many times. Some anarchists made this easier through their enthusiastic participation. We can observe the same sort of thing today when the FBI recruits and organizes assorted rootless unfortunates and stoners to commit terrorist acts with fake explosives. Then the big arrest and burst of publicity. Bravo, FBI! Do you feel safer? (Thanks, Obama!)

We could agree on the impracticality of past anarchist adventures, but morally, why not? After all, the targets were the murderous autocracies of Europe. Czars, kings, barons, dukes and whatnot; there was no democracy. Don’t forget, in the 19th Century — in the birth-pangs of modern capitalism and its mixture of progress and social atrocity — it was not obvious that capitalism would prevail.

Ranting aside, the lead principle of anarchism 101 is mutual aid between freely consenting people, free of interference from oppressive hierarchies. Scott’s thesis is that an important dimension of social life and human well-being is lost when centralized, bureaucratic regimes suppress spontaneous, productive self-activity .

One of Scott’s interesting examples is the case of traffic lights in Germany. In one small town, someone got the bright idea of taking down one of the town’s traffic lights. The counter-intuitive consequence was many fewer accidents. The reason was that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians were moved to be more attentive and cautious. They were no longer encouraged to test the limits of the rules, because they were no rules. Their innate sociability and considerateness took over. This practice has spread to other towns in Germany, whose citizens have taken to boasting about it.

Scott devotes a lot of jaundiced attention to one of my own pet peeves — performance measurement, including in elite academia. There is a very funny segment about the idiotic use of indices of journal article citations as a source for evaluating scholars. His related topic is standardized tests.

The measurement problem has been discussed in the literature on privatization and contracting out, most notably for me by people like Donald Kettl and John Donahue. I took my own stabs at it here and here and here. Basically the goals of a program are reduced to something that can be measured, while important dimensions are left out. Then numbers are brandished in pseudo-scientific display.

The other problem with such practices is that which is measured and used to determine how much somebody gets paid becomes the object of gaming. The widespread school testing scandals provide lurid examples.

The ideological delusion underlying such fiascos is that the imposition of a purported “market” arrangement will bring efficiency and creativity. Instead it’s a new playground for rapacious vendors engaging in what economists call “rent-seeking.” The sellers (contractors) end up rigging the market and bilking the taxpayer.

There are lots of stories about follies arising from central planning. One such is that a factory was incentivized based on the number of shoes it manufactured. It ended up producing a lot of shoes — but only for left feet. Contracting out with performance measurement in ultra-modern capitalism can generate similar results, not least, God help us, in the public education of children. When you attach high stakes to a narrow measurement, hijinks ensue.

For Scott, performance measurement and testing are futile efforts by a state to regiment what would otherwise be more productive, creative, unplanned work. Such practices are an over-extension of meritocracy. Meritocracy is an improvement over rewards according to the accidents of birth, much less to predatory behavior. But meritocracy can degrade itself, as society’s winners massage the rules to perpetuate their privileges for their less-deserving descendants. Such practices of course build on the inherent advantages derived from gender, race, and class that provide unequal advantages in the establishment of merit.

One of Scott’s more compelling passages is about how the ubiquity of regimentation in schooling and large organizations, both public and private, for the purported exercise of a benign meritocracy, actually generates an attitude of fear and supplication that is not conducive to democratic citizenship.

Again I’ll resort to one of my pet peeves. The corruption of the American institution of the “town meeting.” In folklore, if not in fact, the town meeting was a setting where citizens gathered as equals and engaged in democratic discussion and debate. In small towns, familiarity made it difficult for people to promote their own narrow interests above those of the community, because everybody knew everybody else’s business.

These days the town meetings one usually finds are commanded by a local elected official. He or she controls the microphone. Constituents — supplicants, really — are allowed brief questions. Ushers will escort troublesome people out, aided if necessary by the local police. The fun part of these affairs is when control breaks down and critics reach critical mass. Meeting adjourned!

Scott devotes some attention to the so-called petit-bourgeoisie, an object of contempt in the Marxist tradition, to say nothing of elite doctrines. Strictly speaking these folks are not Capital with a capital “c.” They would like to be, but they haven’t made it. What they do have is some measure of security that affords them the confidence, wherewithal, and prestige to participate in democratic debate. The worker may feel beholden to an employer and be politically neutered. From a marxian standpoint, unlike the wage laborer, the petit-bourgeoisie have control over their own working day. They can comprise a genuine town meeting. As free producers taking advantage of mutual aid, they have an honored place in anarchist doctrine.

One of Scott’s more interesting theses for those of us who are politically obsessed is that the petit-bourgeoisie are themselves better situated to fight the haute-bourgeoisie, the 1%. This fight can take reactionary form, as in today’s Tea Party, but in the past it has taken progressive, even revolutionary form. The Bolshevik slogan, after all, was “Bread, peace, and land.” The thirst for land, a piece of the rock, has motivated revolts the world over. The U.S. populist movement of the 19th Century, although worker-friendly, was led by farmers, in opposition to corrupt government and rapacious monopolies in railroads and banking.

The fundamental, unfulfilled promise of TCA for me goes back to where I started. How to organize uprisings? You can’t organize them. Nobody organizes them. They blossom from a myriad of individual roots. You can prepare to be helpful when they bust out. For instance, I predict St. Louis is going to blow up before the year is over. Are you ready to be helpful?

People do try to take revolts over, often to the detriment of the cause. An old insight from the late 60s from an SDS veteran went something like this: “We thought you could make a revolution. In fact a revolution is a rare event.”

Occupy is the big recent case in point. Like a butterfly’s wings starting a chain reaction leading to a monsoon, we could point to some isolated causes. There was the Ad-Busters role. I always thought when, on video, the NYC cops pepper-sprayed some girl they had penned in, for no remotely defensible reason, that had a big impact. Whatever the factors, it was all tinder. The firewood was the underlying growth of poverty and inequality. Then we were off and running.

The anarchists involved in the encampments had the wit to prevent the affair from being pigeon-holed into narrow categories, and to deny to the media leaders who could become targets for petty attacks. My own view is they went a bit too far in the refusal to put forward more specific demands. But they had a good run before the State came down on their heads. (Thanks, Obama!)

TCA provides no political road-maps. In the end this is why anarchism is fundamentally unsatisfying to me. It’s great when good stuff happens, and the limitations of ‘vanguardism’ should be obvious. But we are still left in a quandry. It is not clear what is to be done.

I talk to the trees
avatar

I’m just a suburban dweeb, so some of this will be old hat to some of you. I spent the weekend in the southern wilds of Virginia, between Covington and New Castle (corrected, see comments) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allegheny highlands section. I’m not trying to brag; it was pretty cheap. We were in a cabin with a nice, vigorous stream (Potts Creek) running past in the back yard. No Internet, no cable, no cell phone reception, no MSNBC. People come here this time of year to look at the trees. This is why:

trees5

Today our excursion was to the Craig County Fair, in New Castle. Arts and crafts. BBQ. Hippies with long hair and beards who hate the government. I could totally fit in. What’s not to like? Well . . .

caucsAs you could guess, these were not Obama voters. Nobody really wearing politics on their T-shirts (Exception: some dude, long blond hair in a pony tail, cut-off pants and bare feet, with a picture of a KKKer on his shirt, labeled “The original boys in the hood.”). Lots of Confederate flags in evidence; camo everywhere too. Apparently it’s “Confederate History Appreciation Month.” We saw maybe two black people the whole time. I had enough sense not wear my Caucasian T-shirt.

Ideological outposts at the fair occupying booths were limited to some churches, the NRA, and these folks:

emporium

The sign on the bottom right says “Craig County Citizens for the Constitution.” The store behind it — the “Emporium of Fine Books and Essential Goods” — was interesting. Books on cooking, home repair, firearms, and urban guerrilla warfare. A book on the latter topic by one Mao Tse-Tung. Army training manuals. Yup. Books on the Civil War, the Founders, children’s books, and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Did they know he was gay? Actually, I bet the store owner did. He looked like a smart cookie. Different types of dehydrated and freeze-dried food in big coffee-can sized tins. Seeds. All the essential items. A grim-faced lady by the powdered food behind the knife counter was dressed like Betsy Ross, but I don’t think it was meant as a costume.

I would have liked to chat some of the fellows up, but discretion was the better part of valor. I kept a low profile. I did get this picture inside the store:virginny

There were booths for the American Farm Bureau and Virginia Tech, the VFW. I don’t think these folks hate government. They hate change — stuff the government does now that it didn’t used to do, representing people who used to lack representation. I’m not lawyering for them; I really don’t know them well.

One striking thing about this part of the country is the frequent juxtaposition of the houses of rich and poor. And there are a lot of poor folks here — people living in trailers and ancient, broken-down houses. There is also the juxtaposition of poor peoples’ residences and stunning scenery. Like this (vacation pix alert):

Potts Mountain

Potts Mountain

People are friendly; if you look one in the eye, you had better say hello. I happen to like their music:

I don’t care what the hell they’re singing about, as long as they can pick.

I once thought I’d like to live up on a mountain. I’ve looked at a few homes. Downside of living on a mountain: you have to drive up the mountain. The road might be a mess, and it takes a long time. And that’s in good weather. Another big drawback, Asian restaurants are thin on ground.

In the George Washington National Forest the roads are mostly well-paved. Perhaps the Feds get the credit. People can live in pretty remote but accessible places. I don’t think I could live here, but I’m sure I’ll be back to visit.

There are black bears in the woods, big ones, not far past our backyard, up on the ridge line. I’d like to see one.

Always low prices, for now
avatar

monopolyThe excellent Annie Lowrey in New York Magazine argues that Amazon is not a monopoly. I disagree. Or at least, I have to say the premise is not supported quantitatively. The problem is the denominator. Monopoly resides in market share. AL compares Amazon to all retail sales, but that is the wrong comparison. Amazon’s market is the market for intermediaries that shepherd you through the sale of Everything. It’s a consumption manager. The best comparison is the up-and-coming Walmart. Google doesn’t really count, since it just throws you at individual retailers.

The fact that Amazon sells low does not debunk the monopoly thesis. A monopoly grows through predatory pricing (as with Diapers.com recounted by AL) and investment in fixed capital that provides competitive advantage. The stage of reaping monopoly rents via price increases lies before us. That is what the market for AMZN is saying, in light of the astronomical price-earnings ratios. It could be wrong. The future monopoly rents might not be realized, in which case Amazon’s shares should crash, big time. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a dot-com company.

I’m not offering any moral guidance. I use Amazon all the time. It’s just too convenient, and life is short. It is not Amazon’s market power over its own suppliers that facilitates its treatment of its own workers. That could happen under other circumstances. In fact, the organization of work — huge shipping centers employing lots of people — lends itself to union organizing. It’s the overall labor market — workers chasing jobs, rather than the converse — plus the indulgence of employers over unions by the government that is the root of Amazon’s labor pains.

 

MaxSpeak vs. Lawyers, Guns, and Money
avatar

Taking Scott’s points in order:

To all the commenters who have gotten their backs up, remember I say at the outset I mostly agree with PK. OK? It ain’t North Korea, OK? It’s the hippie punching I most object to. I got fewer complaints when I attacked Republicans. Now people say what happened to poor MaxSpeak. Go figure.

Whether Obama campaigned as a progressive is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. You are either familiar with progressive dog-whistles or you aren’t. I wouldn’t say he campaigned as an ultra-liberal, but I would argue as more than a centrist. For instance, I’m so old I remember he said he would fix Social Security with a higher payroll tax. That isn’t exactly super-liberal, but it is left-er than fixing SS by reducing benefits with the so-called chained price index.

On ACA (which I see as an advance), yes some complained bitterly and unrealistically about the failure to do single-payer, which I agree was not politically feasible, at least in the short- or medium-term. I would say PK has at least some obligation to tackle the best critical arguments, not the fish-in-a-barrel. One better argument re: ACA was we could have seen a bit more rhetorical love for the public option.

As for the ACA being “neo-liberal,” that criticism clearly pertains to the exchanges, not to the Medicaid expansion. That doesn’t mean ACA wasn’t worth doing in the end. Those of us in the far-out left worry about bogus exaltation of markets. A neo-liberal reform isn’t necessarily not worth doing, if you can’t get anything better. But it is good to avoid getting into the habit of staking everything on the use of private, for-profit vendors to deliver social services. Everybody here knows why.

I don’t doubt the public option could not have passed. Nor do I think it would have been world-shaking if it had been enacted. But it could have been talked up more for the sake of public intellectual hygiene.

This leads to the bully-pulpit issue. I do not think Obama can rule by decree, nor do I blame him for the constraints he faced as far as domestic legislation is concerned. (Foreign policy and law enforcement are another thing entirely, but my post was not mostly about Obama, it was mostly about PK’s reductionism of progressive critiques of Obama.) That aside, Obama could be more educational for the sake of the longer term. For instance, he could have stressed all along that a public option and a bigger stimulus may not have been politically doable, but they would be worth doing. Instead the White House boasts of reducing the deficit when we still have too much unemployment. We need bigger deficits, not smaller ones. This is Macro-Econ 101. They’re making people stupid.

I did not write about Obama’s dubious negotiating practices. That is salient to Obama’s competence but not especially a matter of progressive critique.

Bottom line: why talk up stuff you can’t pass right away? If you don’t, it will never ever happen, that’s why. I think the crazy right understands that.

Krugman, trolling . . .
avatar

pkselfiePaul Krugman does great work, but he’s still capable of bullshit. Exhibit Today is his gloss on a remark by Cornel West about the president:

There’s a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who ”posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” They’re outraged that Wall Street hasn’t been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ”neoliberal” economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have constrained even his much more modest efforts. It’s hard to take such claims seriously.

This is some tired anti-progressive treacle. PK debunks criticism by exaggerating it. The main line of criticism of Obama is not that he has declined to employ his magical rhetorical powers to get everything the left wants, nor is the left ignorant of the constraints Obama has faced. You can’t very well celebrate the president for great accomplishments — and I agree with a lot of the substance of PK’s subsequent discussion — at the same time you insist he has been constantly blocked. My responses to these memes are here, in assorted pearls of wisdom.

It is true that Obama posed as a progressive. He still does! As for Wall Street not being punished, is that not the case? Who has been punished? When it comes to big-time financial and war criminals, the president has said “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” When it comes to small fry, it’s terminate with extreme prejudice. PK acknowledges this himself later in this very article. Even when the left is right, it’s wrong.

I interpret this as the fatal, common affliction of all bigfoot pundits. You have to throw some obligatory brick at the left to guard against the suspicion that you are too far Out There. Actually, the fact that PK puts neo-liberalism in quotes proves that well enough.

On the big fucking deal of health care, PK tries to get the best of both sides of the argument. He acknowledges the left criticism of relying on health inscos to fill the coverage gap, then implies that the stupid left doesn’t understand a single-payer plan would not have gotten enough votes to pass. What the not-actually-stupid left really wanted and had a right to expect was the inclusion of some kind of public option, which was arguably not a manifestly disabling feature from a political standpoint. And even if it proved to be so, there is no reason to make a rhetorical virtue in the form of bogus celebrations of “the market” out of a political necessity.

On the wonderfulness of Dodd-Frank, opinions differ. I don’t know much about it so for now I’ll accept PK’s ringing endorsement: “[I]t’s a lot better than nothing.” Look for that as the next presidential campaign slogan — “We don’t suck as bad as they do!”

This problem of turning a practical limitation into a rhetorical virtue afflicted the inadequate stimulus plan as well. Instead of taking what could be gotten but acknowledging the level was insufficient, the Administration acted as if it was all good. It wasn’t. PK again agrees. He can say it but you can’t.

On climate change, I could accept for the sake of argument everything that PK says (though the omission of the letters “B” and “P” in justaposition is conspicuous). But, and this is not a criticism of Obama or PK, “almost” in climate change isn’t going to be good enough. It cannot be helpful for the Administration to be celebrating the greatly expanded exploitation of fossil fuel reserves in the U.S.

Progress never happens all at once. Everyone should understand that. If it happens at all, it is usually incremental. I’d admit that health care is a pretty big increment, and credit is due. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better, or that we can’t still do better.

All elected officials deserve unyielding, unending criticism. Anybody who complains about it is in the wrong game. Intelligent criticism notes where progress has been made, the better to ascertain where it can advance further.

In this context, trolling the left is little short of absurd. The left is where policy solutions reside, because the left is the transmission belt for the more humane social-democratic institutions of Western Europe. Neo-liberal reliance on “the market” here to provide social services is not a feature, it’s a bug. We have to be the RAID.

bigbug

For lack of social insurance
avatar

This is not Matt, it's his avatar. If you can identify it, Matt will let you come into his tree house.

This is not Matt, it’s his avatar. If you can identify him, Matt will let you come into his tree house.

Somebody’s poking their stick into my cage again. Again with the UBI? Really?? Today it’s Matt Bruenig at Demos. Matt & Demos do good work. I’ll probably talk about it some time. Meanwhile, Matt suggests that social insurance needs its own insurance back-up, namely a UBI.

It is quite true that social insurance does not cover every curve that life can throw at you. It isn’t supposed to. It’s mainly insurance against the possible deprivation of labor earnings, which is what most people depend on to live. Loss of earnings in old age, in disability, in death, due to injury on the job. Even from that narrower standpoint, there are still some big holes in it. For one, with no work history you may not qualify for any benefits, even though you are unable to work. As Matt points out in the case of unemployment insurance, even if you fall into the category of nominally eligible, circumstances can conspire against you.

Another big hole that will be dawning on the U.S. before long is the lack of coverage for long-term care. If you don’t know anyone who has gotten very ill, you might not know that health insurance and Medicare only apply to the services of medical providers — doctors, hospitals, drugs, some medical supplies. You could have a chronic condition that prevents you from being able to take basic care of yourself — dress, bathe, go to the bathroom, eat, etc. In insurance lingo, they’re called “activities of daily living.” You might need 24-7 care. You might need somebody to tend to IVs every day, or change bandage dressings. There is scant help for that under health insurance or Medicare. If you don’t mind spending all your money, you could get onto Medicaid and go into a nursing home. Probably not a great nursing home. A nursing home that provides a few skilled nursing services that you may need can be hard to find. I know; I’ve been there. Social Security Disability Insurance can replace some lost wages, for those who qualify, but it isn’t enough to pay for 24-7 nursing care, even unskilled care. Unless you have very good luck with employers providing group coverage, long-term care insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

So there is no question that social insurance is not the end of what an ample welfare state should provide. The question is, is the UBI the most logical supplement to social insurance? I would say no.

Would you say $10,000 is an adequate UBI? If you would, then the cost for the U.S. is upwards of $3 trillion-with-a-T. As I’ve noted in the past, this exceeds the entirety of Federal revenue expected next year. How would any UBI — you tell me for how much — fit together with the rest of the safety net? What would go and what would stay?

I too would like to attack the deprivation remaining after our social insurance programs do all they can. How to do this? I’ll have to repeat myself at this point. My exceptions to the UBI are pragmatic and political. I’m looking for more likely ways to skin that same cat.

One channel is to socialize services that are both central needs of those left behind by social insurance and desired by everyone. So universal pre-K, subsidized child care, community walk-in health clinics, drug treatment, free public transportation. Not all of these are logically national programs. We have over 90,000 local governments with a role to play as well. The key principle is that collective consumption — public goods — can be more economical than individually-purchased services for the same purpose. Make your own list! Dream big. It’s fun.

People will still need cold cash. People want to buy their own damn groceries. Food, clothing, and shelter. So we will need some kind of public assistance too. Why not a UBI?

A politically-acceptable UBI would be too low. (See $3 trillion, above.) It’s true that universal benefits are more popular than targeted ones, but that’s a bit of a circular assertion. You only get universal benefits if the idea is popular in the first place, notwithstanding the inordinate expense. Most people will be able to compare their financial well-being if they receive a UBI but also pay the taxes to finance it. Many will not be enthused by this knowledge.

I agree with Matt that a safety net of some type, but not necessarily a UBI, complements social insurance. I’ve mentioned before that the politics of means-tested or unconditional benefits might be easier with adequate social insurance for everyone else. My political antennae tell me Il Manifesto is the correct line. I’d say the case for a UBI depends on specifying some of the pesky details and then laying out a political scenario wherein the scheme could come to fruition. In a country where thirty percent of the population can’t decide whether Obama is a Muslim or an extra-terrestrial lizard.

If I start arguing with Twitter, my life would be near forfeit, but to the notion that the U.S. could do what Alaska does, I’d note that the total profits of the big five oil companies is reported as $93 billion. Remember trillion-with-a-T? Suppose Michael Moore led a revolutionary uprising and nationalized the oil, with zero compensation to the owners, which includes some of you and your paltry IRA accounts. $93 billion would be one piss-poor UBI.

This is an ancient problem. If it were as simple as a UBI, it would have been solved long ago.

Obama_reptilian_960

 

Global citizens and the global government
avatar

global-citizenTrigger warning: going into full Grinch mode!

Why is there poverty? The Occupy movement pointed to the illegitimate appropriation of wealth by “the 1%.” I am looking in vain for a glimmer of that understanding in the Global Citizens Movement. I see a noble desire to assist those less fortunate, so we are intrinsically addressing the more fortunate, or those who count themselves as such. The call for struggle by the oppressed is displaced by a call to altruism. I also see a pack of craven corporate sponsors and non-profit spin-offs from the 1%, all brought to you by MSNBC. It pains me to say this, since I think highly of certain MSNBC hosts and their work.

Today (as I write) the Global Citizens festival takes place in Central Park, amidst the headquarters of corporations and the homes of plutocrats who run the Global Government and bring us world poverty. Will they be called out? I doubt it. To get a ticket, you have to acquire points on the website for doing global citizen-y things. If I strangle an Exxon lobbyist, can I come?

The best interpretation that can be put on this is that it is a call on global governance, such as it is, to finance greater aid to the least-developed countries. So global public goods, with an appeal to enlightened self interest (disease that begins in Bengla Desh can come to Hackensack), which as far as it goes is fine.

I have to hope it could all be a springboard to higher political consciousness. My misgiving derives from people mistaking fairly anodyne policy advocacy for political struggle, from mistaking the character of the global government. Given the poverty of our democratic institutions, what is most called for is a resurgence of extra-parliamentary action. Strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts, disruption. Organization outside the Democratic/Republican duopoly.

modiA prime example of mistaken character is the provision of the stage to the new Prime Minister of India, one Narendra Modi. Who is Mr Modi? Well he’s a fucking fascist, is what he is. He has been implicated in communal massacres in India. For CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, avid recycler of prose, he is “development man.” For comic relief, Modi was introduced by Hugh ‘Wolverine’ Jackman, professional Walmart suck-up.

At least one theme in the movement is the need to teach the poor how to take care of themselves, for instance by washing. Melissa Harris-Perry had a segment on this topic employing a Sesame Street-style muppet and the assistance of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL). It’s hard to imagine children sitting still to watch MSNBC, unless Mommy’s on the teevee, but it supports the impression of talking down to the world’s benighted peoples from the elysian heights of the First World, not least with the participation of a representative of the political faction that is a threat to all that is good in the world, including more development assistance — the House GOP caucus.

I wouldn’t put this on MHP, but more broadly there is the prevailing delusion that what the poor need is to know how to care for themselves. Condescension aside, this glosses over the capacity of a high employment economy to eliminate a good share of poverty. It was amusing to hear a Global Citizen fellow talk about how “we” had reduced global poverty. The truth is that rapid economic growth in India, China, and the “Four Tigers” has produced a ton of poverty reduction, along with many human and environmental casualties.

Currently what we need in the U.S. for more growth is more deficit spending, not more babble about the Federal debt. Some of the poor really do need the sort of counsel that social workers can provide, but more of them with paltry labor market opportunities just need money, health insurance, and access to child care.

As for the poor in the global south, the chief objects of Global Citizen’s altruism, of course they need assistance of the type that Global Citizen is supporting. But they also need to throw off the yoke of corrupt autocrats of the Global Government, such as the aforementioned Mr. Modi.

In a similar vein, we recently had a no-politics (or all-politics) climate march in New York City. If I had been in town, I would certainly have gone. But . . . what exactly is going on with the climate, you might ask? Climate negotiations are aimed at an agreement to do nothing about climate change, since the negotiating partners represent corporate interests and popular political prejudices favoring continued carbon emissions. Never fear, Leonardo DiCaprio has been doing “work” on climate change. (Unfair snarky coverage here and here.)

If you wanted one book to introduce you to development issues, this would be a good one.

(/GRINCH)

oldmanyellsatcloud_thumb

“We interrupt this genocide to bring you . . . “
avatar

avatar-promo-merchandise-thumbLast night was a deeply weird experience — watching the “FX Download” version of the movie Avatar. I’d seen the movie when it first came out, thought I’d do it again. Mistake.

I’m aware of all the clichés in the story — white dude goes native, rescues indigenous people from evil Commerce, fucks the chief’s daughter, becomes Warrior Numero Uno. The look of the film in the theater, with the 3D glasses, was enough to prompt me to give it another look.

First off FX butchered the film by chopping off pieces. Second, more than the usual number of interruptions. Third, totally cheeseball discussion of the film and its technical gimmicks by a pair of young persons. I don’t want to know about the film, I want to watch it. Plus the interruptions by the chirpy nitwits totally breaks the mood and pace of the story. Of course since I had recorded it, I just fast-forwarded through the crap as best I could.

Most of all, you have a story about Commerce undertaking genocide for the sake of natural resource extraction — a story with numerous real-world analogs — broken up by happy talk about how this or that was done in the film, not to mention commercials. Like I said, deeply weird. It would be like watching The Sorrow and the Pity interrupted with commercials for Subway and the Gerber Life program. With any sense of empathy, even for a completely fanciful sci-fi tale, it’s off-putting. The overall presentation spoke to the most witless sensibility.

FX does some great series. I’m totally into The Strain and The Bridge. For movies I’ll have to look elsewhere.

 

Attack of the Techno-Libertarians!
avatar

invasionAfter my response to Steve Randy Waldman on the Universal Basic Income proposal, I got into a Twitter scrum with one Morgan Warstler (MW) and Bro. Waldman. I was under the impression that MW was promoting the UBI and promised to respond to his arguments. Turns out he is not promoting a UBI at all. He’s got a different scheme to replace the social safety net. I’m afraid I can’t endorse it.

MW wants to subsidize wages and require work. Jobs bubble up by virtue of a huge Federal wage subsidy and an online labor exchange. Employers can pay as little as a dollar an hour. The Gov tops up the wage offers to minimum wage levels (along with abolishing the minimum wage). You are required to accept one of the jobs on offer. You don’t work, you don’t get any money. It’s workfare-by-software.

Fortune 1,000 companies are barred from participation in the program, so someone dismissed from such a firm gets routed to a smaller company. At the same time, employers must be located within some short range of employees. I don’t see what would stop small employers from flooding into the program, though the geographical requirement would drastically limit job offers, especially in very low-income areas.

Morgan makes a number of puzzling claims. One is that prices would go down in low-income/low-wage areas, I suppose because the wage subsidy pushes down employer costs and the prices they charge. Though we have assumed there will be employers and we are ignoring the extent to which people consume goods and services originating elsewhere. And we neglect the impact of higher incomes in an area not pushing prices higher. He also thinks competition would force employers kept out of the program to pay higher wages. Again this assumes that jobs are generated in sufficient volume to force such a move. And for some reason he thinks everyone could do a job they positively love, like delivering singing birthday cards. (I initially wrote ‘singing telegrams,’ but you might not know what those are. Were.)

This won’t cost anything, we are told, because it would replace unemployment insurance. So we are back to a failure to grasp the basic functions of social insurance and in this case, fiscal policy. So let’s back up. What problem is the scheme supposed to solve? Poverty, or low employment?

If it’s low employment, you could read the scheme as an elliptical substitute for public employment and fiscal activism (deficit spending). The Gov can create oodles of productive jobs much more easily than a wage subsidy to decentralized, and in this case fictitious employers. There is no lack of public work to be done. Do you want to pay taxes so that a jobless person can go to work tending somebody’s flower beds, or rebuilding America? (Cue the trumpets.) The Gov created lots of work in the 1930s, without benefit of the Internet or PCs. Too slow? Jobs can be created in real time by strengthening automatic fiscal stabilizers, such as the progressive income tax and unemployment insurance. These boost aggregate demand when the economy goes south. MW would replace unemployment insurance with his scheme.

If the problem is poverty, the implication of the scheme is that the problem of the poor is that they won’t work. Before I deal with that ancient prejudice, let me remind you of the social insurance argument underlying unemployment benefits.

Unemployment insurance allows workers to collectively prepay to insure against the risk of job loss. Part of the employer’s labor cost is dedicated to a fund that provides for some wage replacement in the event of layoff. Workers in effect pay for their benefits by receiving less labor compensation. It’s that contributory thing again, to protect against FDR’s “disturbing factors of life.” To be sure, the connection between contribution and return is rough, but there is a connection. It’s not welfare. There is no reason to fix unemployment insurance. It is not broken. It could be improved, but it is not broken.

Unemployment insurance provides an incentive for workers to seek jobs in the first place (since the risks of impoverishment during layoff are reduced), and to keep searching if they have lost their job (to get benefits, you have to look for work). Unemployment insurance is not welfare. The problem with unemployment benefits is not that workers are refusing to work; it’s that they lost a damn job.

To address poverty, MW wants the beneficiaries of his program to work for their benefits. Of course, this is what state governments are doing now with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (not social insurance). How’s that going? In a nutshell, for this approach to be valid, two things have to be true: the poor will work if jobs are available, and jobs will be available. Neither are true.

Jobs are not available in sufficient number to employ the poor and unemployed. If the Gov poured more money into job creation, as noted above, this problem could be addressed. But MW’s scheme is not the only way to do that, and I would say far from the best. Second, many among the poor are either children, disabled, or elderly. They are not expected to work. Among the able-bodied of working age, for many, labor market attachment is precisely their problem, even if jobs are available.

Given the chance, MW would fold in other programs providing means-tested benefits. This is a little careless, even if it’s in the realm of fantasy. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, churning existing benefits into some new system creates huge numbers of losing parties. Ordinarily that is not a disabling criticism, since any big change is going to shake things up. In this case, however, there is no well-defined rationale for the pattern of redistribution from existing beneficiaries to new ones. This follows especially if we are rerouting funds dedicated to those not expected to work into some kind of wage subsidy scheme.

As I cruise into my dotage, I am increasingly aware of age differences with others. Part of the me vs. UBI vs. MW vs. etc. I suspect is an age thing. Younger folks are looking for new things, of course you are. Away with the old and moldy! But one needs to be aware of value in what might be lost.

Social insurance is the greatest achievement of the modern liberal state. It is the most important institution protecting hundreds of millions from penury. If you haven’t looked into it, you really should. I would further argue that when most enjoy protection from the “great disturbing factors of life,” they are more indulgent of public altruism. Poverty and inequality are alleviated. That is the real historical experience of modern social-democracy.oldmanyellsatcloud_thumb