Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sold Out Truths

Washington Post
In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917). These are among the dozens of errors historians have found since Virginia officials ordered a review of textbooks by Five Ponds Press, the publisher responsible for a controversial claim that African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War.

One hopes (without hope) that the brouhaha erupting over a series of Virginia textbooks containing not only reactionary propaganda but many obvious errors of fact that cannot be accounted for by propagandistic purposes but simply the flabbergasting incompetence of the whole reactionary enterprise might expand from the present scandal to encompass the endlessly ramifying variations of the same phenomenon, as when Republican climate change denialists are seated on committees devoted to energy policy, as when Republican (not only, but especially) American exceptionalists are treated as foreign policy experts, as when Republican puritans are invited to throng the discussion of public sex education or drug policy, as when Republican Friedmanian (take your pick, Milton, David, Thomas) economic-preliterates are invited to bloviate on talk shows on macroeconomic questions, and so depressingly demoralizingly disgustingly on and ever on.

We denote as "true" whatever description among available candidates on offer best satisfies the criteria of warrant for the domain whose end defines whatever work for truth is afoot, whether for prediction and control (scientific truths), to signal and police membership in a moral community (moral truths), assertions of subjective judgment and hence of subjecthood itself (metaphysical and theological truths, all of which, in my view, are ultimately aesthetic truths), aspirations toward equity-in-diversity (ethical truths), efforts to reconcile a present diversity of stakeholder claims (political truths). The clash of opinions concerning which of the domains best defines the truth that is wanted in any case and which best satisfies the criteria of warrant for the relevant domain is interminable, not least because none of these criteria, however successful they may be, has never failed after all to secure as true a description that has not subsequently been supplanted by a better one later on.

Because I hold these views, which are sometimes lampooned as "postmodern relativism" (a phrase that makes little sense to me and which seems to have as its primary use the provision of an excuse for certain lazy anti-intellectual Americans not to read a whole host of authors with quite different interests, methods, vocabularies who are nonetheless corralled together under that moniker and then dismissed, whereupon this refusal to actually know what any of these thinkers are actually separately talking about -- and some of them likely are indeed talking little more than nonsense, most of them being philosophers -- becomes a subcultural signal of superior intellect rather than of the know-nothingism it actually obviously is instead), it might seem that I have little standing to pronounce my disgust at propagandists, liars, crappy fact checkers, fraudsters, opportunistic denialists for profiteers, and the rest.

If there seems to be a whiff of paradox about a Post-Nietzschean pragmatist rhetorician like me defending the status and force of the factual, I can only assume that for those who descry such paradox they either have come mistakenly to hold as indispensable to that status and force a fanciful faith that there can be such a thing as certain or final truths of the matter rather than merely usefully well warranted ones, or they simply haven't taken the time actually to understand the views in question and so exhibit precisely the same lazy, careless, under-critical know-nothingness in respect to these "postmodern relativist" thinkers that I am decrying as one of those thinkers myself in other domains.

To propose that well warranted descriptions may be supplanted by better ones, to propose that the processes through which we arrive at warranted truths are error-prone or impinged upon by the dynamisms of other domains (scientific investigations sometimes regulated by the moral, inspired by the aesthetic, driven by the political, let us say) is far from stealing from us the capacity sensibly to distinguish truth-telling from lying, policy driven by warranted as against discredited assumptions, good faith as against bad faith in discussions of matters of shared concern, and so on.

When you are interested in little but the next score, the next hit, the next quarterly profit statement, the next election result, the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change. When you are interested in nothing but soliciting the support of particular subcultures with which you happen to identify yourself (while dis-identifying with others among whom are stakeholders in the contest over truth at hand) or the support, say, of particular moneyed or forceful elites with whom you mean to ally or curry favor, the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change. When you care little about reconciling your own hopes with your own history, with connecting your own cares with those of your interlocutors the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change.

To the extent that you want to find your way with your peers (and in my understanding peers are neither equals nor intimates, mind you) to a sustainably and equitably and consensually shared world, in all our diversity -- and if you aren't an asshole or a criminal or an idiot or a perpetual infant, that is indeed something like what you want -- you need to be very clear about the motives and working assumptions, as manifested in conduct, of those with whom you are collaborating and contesting in the making of these worldly scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, political truths. There is nothing in pragmatic pluralist exhortations to comparative modesty about our expectations in matters of truth-talk to the philosophically-minded that undercuts the urgency of that clarity, or our capacity to strive for it to good effect.

Propagandists who get basic facts egregiously wrong in history textbooks, climate change denialists and creation "scientists" and proponents of abstinence-only sex "education" or capital punishment as "deterrent" or whatever know-nothing moralizing bullshit you care to think of, industry shills crowing about the benefits of scarcely understood or even manifestly dangerous products, Friedmanian know-nothings larding the already rich with treasure choked from the precarious majority, futurological fraudsters hawking their crap science and crap products and killing the substance of futurity that is the freedom inhering in the plurality of the present, none of these pathological expressions of a modern culture that has dispensed with the authority of warrantedly assertible truths would be rendered irrelevant or impotent by the assumption of our culture of the fancy that final Truths are available, and knowable, and once found, once known, once affirmed, once bowed down before, will set us free, will protect us from deception, will deliver us from evil, will make of us as Gods, or what have you.

No, it is precisely because the criteria of warrant hacked out over centuries are themselves a worldly and ritual artifice that they must be seen to, carefully maintained, as practices, as norms, as institutions, as narratives. What is wanted is not so much to give Truth over to some new Priesthood, as simply to stop valorizing short term over longer-term thinking, parochialism over contingent universalization, profit-taking over commons and consent, unchecked and unaccountable exercises of authority. This is not a change of subject on my part but my insistence on our attention to the substance of the subject at hand, the substance of the historical work out of which factuality and legitimacy are made and sustained in the world.

The disrespect for warranted truths, the disregard for shared concerns, the dismissal of expertise, the debasement of legitimacy from which we are all suffering such hopeless distress arise first of all from ignorance (that is to say, from ignor-ing, inattentiveness, superficiality), laziness, greed, opportunism, all as of a piece, in a culture that explicitly celebrates and demands just this quality of smallness, of shallowness, of meanness above others. It cannot be adequately stressed that the world is being destroyed just because that is what we are asking for.

There will of course always be liars and fraudsters and cheats in the world, but it is part of the indispensable work of civilization to help us identify and marginalize these impulses and the ones who have given themselves over to them. Until we reject and defeat the salesmen and the conmen the hyperbole and opportunism and promotion that utterly suffuse their practice and their spirit will prevail in the world to the destruction of us all.

Those crappy Virginia history textbooks were trying above all else to sell something rather than to educate, the economic illiterates peddling tax cuts for billionaires and misery for majorities are trying to sell something rather than to make policy in the best interest of all citizens, the geo-engineers are trying to sell ongoing industrialization to a world destroyed by industrialization rather than to make civilization sustainable, and so on and on and on.

And lest you respond by declaring that I, too, am just trying to sell something in saying this, actually try to focus, if only provisionally, if only for a moment, on the substance of the critique I am proposing here rather than any escape clause, however superficial, to relieve you of the pressure of thinking against the grain of your assumptions.

The problem is not that the passionate assertion of judgment offered up as argument or as narrative or as representation to the hearing of the world is no less error-prone, no less defeasible, no less constrained by situation and circumstance for its passion. Whenever the clash of opinions is afoot, always strive to follow more than the declarations on offer, but also follow the money, also notice who has the guns and where they are pointed, also listen to the stories the losers are telling.

Pay attention, too, to the inconsistencies that bespeak opportunism: Is the climate change denialist an expert in climate science and if they are not does a lack of expertise drive comparable disregard of expertise in other areas, for example in the choice of a crystal healer over a surgeon upon discerning an ominous lump? Does the futurological huckster peddling desktop nanocornucopia machines or superintelligent robot gods crow at even a skeptical mention of one of their fellow True Believers in any reputable scientific journal while at once disdaining the dismissal altogether of their project by the overwhelming consensus of the reputable scientists who otherwise publish there? Does the fulminating Republican brutalist continue to decry the United Nations even when the report of one of its agencies provides evidence they can selectively and opportunistically deploy in the service of some parochial momentary campaign? Are there shared authorities disputants concede the legitimacy to adjudicate their differences even when the authority non-negligibly sides against them?

It is finally precisely because truths are warranted in history through collective practices -- that is to say, it is precisely their contingency, partiality, sociality, pragmatism, all decried by know-nothings and denialists as the menacing relativism and unseriousness and nihilism of "Nietzscheans" or "Postmoderns" or what have you -- that the ritual artifice, the norms, the criteria, the institutions through which they are substantiated and given their due must be cherished and preserved and defended such as they are.

If you think I am selling you something rather than telling you something in saying these things, I fear you are already altogether sold out.

A God for the Godless

Something like the belief that the universe is not just susceptible of consequential description but also has -- and even somehow indicates, at least to certain especially lucky people -- preferences in the matter of how it is described, has long seemed to me to be the vestigial trace of infantile religiosity sometimes to be found among the otherwise most intransigently atheistical materialists.

More Signs of the Singularity!

When it rains or snows outside infrastructure fails across the country. Next up, nanoslavebots and immortality medicine! Feel that accelerating change in your thinning hair, boys?

Nation of Poets and Philosophers

In answer to a query from the Moot, yes, indeed, I am aware of the so-called Singularity University. Not only have I been long and well aware of the marketing stint that bills itself Singularity U, I am also aware of the Amway/Quixtar University and also of mouthbreathing right wing eminence Glenn Beck's Beck U. On a comparable note, I am familiar with the promotional activities peddled as the "philosophy" of futurism, the "philosophy" of Ayn Rand or of the Scientologists or of the TEDtalkologists, as well as the trademarked Semi-Homemade philosophy of food-show celebrity Sandra Lee.

It will have occurred to my questioner, I suspect, as it has to so few of our fellow citizens in this death-dealing dump (America, I mean), that the words "University" and "philosophy" do not properly attach to any of these shady enterprises. To observe the endlessly falsifying, vulgarizing, debasing anti-intellectual sales pitch of the long con in our imperial eclipse, from the diploma mills, to the conspiracy theorists, to the science denialists, to the cheez-whiz news cyclists, to the subculture industrialists, to the twitterversalists is always good for mordant chuckle, so long as we recall that what these charlatans and fraudsters gain from our attention is not just a picked pocket but is finally purchased at a loss to commonsense and commonwealth and commoncause the full measure of which is quite beyond our reckoning.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What I'm Doing Instead of Blogging

It's between terms and all my grading is behind me and I'm preparing only desultorily the courses that begin a couple of weeks from now, in short, I'm on vacation. Sometimes I become enormously engaged in blogging in my off time, but not this time, for whatever reason, at least not yet. I'm watching for the first time and with great pleasure the complete DVD set of Deadwood, and also re-reading His Dark Materials, and, as always, reading Arendt (at the moment, Men in Dark Times). I still think so-called futurists are ridiculous charlatans and Republicans know-nothing sociopaths, and no doubt I'll return soon enough to saying just why more generally or in what particular ways these deficiencies of theirs are on exhibit in this or that idiotic event, but for the moment they seem to me altogether unworthy of elaborated comment to that effect.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Physicist Opts Out of the Presumed Safe TSA Scanner

via The Atlantic:
I will not go into the naked scanner under any circumstances. It is only for PR purposes, and I don't give a shit about helping Obama or Pistole or anyone else primp their public image. Millimeter wave is safe, X-ray is not, but you never know which one you're getting. TSA workers should be up in arms since they're standing around the machines unshielded all day long. This will eventually come back to bite the government. You can take that from a physicist.

For more of his case, including an unexpected discussion of why the pat-down alternative may afford un-looked-for riches, follow the link.

Where Are the WikiLeaks Mirror Sites?


Republicans to Read Constitution Before Wiping Their Asses With It

Washington Times:
[T]he incoming majority party... call for a full reading of the country's founding document on the floor of the House on Jan. 6.

Given how many Movement Republicans were elected to this new majority handwaving about nullification and secession and insurrection and second amendment remedies and heading into the hills not to mention the desire to repeal who knows how many Constitutional Amendments, the 14th, the 16th, the 17th, and on and on and on, I really must say that the usual parchment-hued tricorn hat preening more-patriotic-than-thou stunts of this latest batch of white-racist know-nothing Movement Republican yahoos provokes even more extravagant eye-rolling than usual, even after a long dread generation of their antics has demonstrated all too well in practice the contempt they have for Constitutionally mandated civil liberties the moment they actually con their way into power and the judicial activism of which their so-called "Strict Constructionists" flabbergastingly capable the moment they actually con their way onto the bench.

California OneCare Campaign for Single Payer Right Here, Right Now

Democrats pushed past unprecedented Republican obstruction to complete the most accomplished Congress, capped by the most productive lame duck session, in generations -- however disappointing the results seem to us on the Left, however inadequate we know them to be in the face of the real demands of this historical moment.

But the costs of even these accomplishments were incredibly high.

The ugly spectacle of compromise and entrenched corruption in the full glare of 24-hr news cycles and fine-grained peer-to-peer scrutiny demoralized progressives while cynical deception and fearmongering whipped up the reactionary know-nothing right into a frenzy of enthusiasm opportunistically harvested by the agents of the richest of the rich.

All of this means that the next two years in Washington are likely to be profoundly nerve wracking, as the Republican House majority pushes the usual divisive white racist patriarchal prick culture war buttons while flooding the White House with witch-hunts and gossip-mongering investigations and struggles to stymie and undermine the accomplishments of the 111th "Do Something" Congress now behind us.

But while the national stage is likely to provoke rage and despair exacerbated to the point of delirium by the 2012 presidential campaign with which it will end (one may hope, for the better), the next two years may still provide grounds for substantial hope and progress in State Politics.

via California Health Care for All:
On August 31, 2010, Senate Bill 810 [Leno's bill introducing single-payer healthcare to California] was not brought up for a vote on the state Assembly floor and, therefore, died… [C]onservative Democrats… were scared that a vote for single payer [which would be vetoed as usual by Governor Schwarzenegger in any case, as he had done twice before already] would provide their Republican opponent a campaign issue that would lead to their defeat in the November elections. Thus, the Speaker of the Assembly heeded their election concerns and didn't bring the bill to a vote… Senator Leno immediately communicated to us that he will re-introduce the bill next session.

"Next session" is this session, next time is now, this time it's for real.

We now have a Democratic Governor, Jerry Brown, who won't veto passage of this bill once it passes the Assembly. Democrats hold majorities everywhere, and even our Yellow Dog Dems can be made to see sense often enough to push progress through the blockade of their timidity and privilege. Republicans failed to win a single statewide office in November.

The anti-governmental market fundamentalist fraud which swept California first and nearly destroyed California first has been exposed and utterly defeated here first as well. The passage and implementation of Single Payer Health Care is more practically possible here in California right now than in any other place in the country. The issues are better understood here than anywhere else, except possibly Vermont.

Support here is widespread both among voters and powerful organizations. The California Nurses Association, the Physicians Alliance, the Grey Panthers, the Consumer Federation of California, the California Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters, Dolores Huerta Foundation, Entertainment Strategy Group, and more and more are all affiliated, organized, and pushing this initiative.

The Health Insurance lobby will be howling with their Fox News deception points...

They will claim that somehow California's unprecedented budget crisis makes this a bad time rather than the best possible time to introduce a system proved to provide better care to all for less money...

They will claim that somehow California businesses will become uncompetitive when of course they are now competing at a profound disadvantage with businesses that benefit from the incomparably better-functioning less-costly single-payer healthcare systems available in other nations...

They will howl idiotically as usual about "socialism" and "Death Panels" and "loss of choice" as if the obscene salaries of useless insurance company executives and costly inane internecine Insurance Company promotional warfare of Flo versus the Gecko and the endless mountains of paperwork mediating the competing claims of all these middlemen somehow provide citizens with more choices, with lower costs, with more quality care...

They will genuflect to the woozy market magic spells and oligarchic rationalizations they learned from libertopian con artists like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand...

But California voters and our representatives are all ready and willing and able at last to bag that shit sandwich for disposal.

The battle is sure to be loud and ugly but it is winnable here and now, not in the abstract, but with the force of will, and knowledge, and organization, and law behind it.

California is such a large state that the cost savings of Single-Payer can actually be palpable here, even without the rest of the country participating in the system.

The stakes of the upcoming battle cannot be overstated. As goes California, so goes the nation.

To defeat the for-profit insurance industry here in California is to knock over the decisive first domino.

The push from last year's historic Insurance reform happens here in California. My hope is that both California and Vermont can introduce Single Payer Health Care to the United States. And you can be sure that my hope is the well-founded fear of the remorseless and resourceful, deep pocketed shallow-hearted for-proft death merchants of the Insurance Industry.

The introduction of a limited public option or Medicare buy-in at the federal level, coupled with the introduction of Single Payer in state after state as the benefits of the system accrue here for all to see provides the roadmap that brings us in less time than you might think possible from the moral and fiscal catastrophe of a healthcare system defined by profits over people.

Get involved in the fight. You can make a difference.

If you are a California resident like I am, you can be in the front line in the most urgent struggle of our time. But this battle in California is one with national implications. Everybody can help out, every voice and every shoulder and every creative spark and every donation is needed.

Sign the Petition in Support of SB 810

Get Involved with California OneCare

Single Payer NOW Events

Friday, December 24, 2010

John Lennon Helps Keep Amor Mundi More Positive

Another year over...

Glenn Greenwald Reviews Some of the Offenses Revealed to Freedom Loving Citizens in 2010 by the Work of WikiLeaks

Click for the cavalcade of crime and corruption. Here Greenwald summarizes the moral:
It's unsurprising that political leaders would want to convince people that the true criminals are those who expose acts of high-level political corruption and criminality, rather than those who perpetrate them. Every political leader would love for that self-serving piety to take hold. But what's startling is how many citizens and, especially, "journalists" now vehemently believe that as well. In light of what WikiLeaks has revealed to the world about numerous governments, just fathom the authoritarian mindset that would lead a citizen -- and especially a "journalist" -- to react with anger that these things have been revealed; to insist that these facts should have been kept concealed and it'd be better if we didn't know; and, most of all, to demand that those who made us aware of it all be punished (the True Criminals) while those who did these things (The Good Authorities) be shielded.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Poverty and Pathology of the Continuum of "Left" to "Right" Libertarianisms

This post began as a comment criticizing the shared recourse of some well-meaning folks in the Moot to the notion of a wholesome "left libertarianism," and it quickly sprawled too long for the comment utility to accommodate. It's completely off-the-cuff, so the usual apologies.

To the extent that "left libertarian" names a kind of woozy feel good New Age anarchism confronting the hard-edged self-interested opportunistic competitive anarchism of "right libertarianism" I must say that I find the two visions precisely equally dangerous and equally deluded, arising from the same social and historical conditions and likely discursively co-dependent.

When these phrases name orientations more ideal than simply partisan political affiliations, left and right libertarian identities both bespeak at their essence the pathologies of postwar Americanness, in my view, that is to say, the aspirations and assumptions of infantile egotists insulated by imperial corporate-militarist violence from too many of the real consequences of their irrationality and enabled by the same to confuse personal luck and disavowed exploitation for individual accomplishment and autonomy.

The self-indulgent sentimentality of one libertarian variation and the callous sociopathy of the other perfectly complement one another in the American psyche, and often oscillations between the two provide the dance beat to the dance of death that is the average American life as its consequences play out to their indifference in the wider world.

Let me elaborate more of what I mean so I won't be accused of just spewing bile in saying this. If by "left libertarian" one simply meant instead to designate a staunch support of civil liberties, that is to say an individual rights culture (an ethical position) that trumps the claims of subculture/moral positions to enable the reconciliation of disputes among them, then it occurs to me that both left and right political orientations in their present construals, even their partisan construals, owe quite a bit to this notion and tradition and both still cite it in their rationalizations (with what justice changes on a case by case basis).

But one thing I would emphasize is that if "libertarian" is meant to evoke "civil liberties" or "rights culture" in particular, rather than the usual anarchisms of privilege I have derided, both left and right, then this conceptual discursive vantage, the civil libertarian vantage, absolutely cannot derive from the usual figure of negative liberty, liberty as empty unencumbered space, liberty as the solitary mind dictating action or the solitary actor occupying and accomplishing things in public space, the figure on which both left and right libertopian fancies crucially depend.

Notice that civil liberties are indeed Civil: the liberty and dignity they indicate does not amount to an empty space in which we are "at liberty" but is a fulsome substance, full of the enabling artifice and ongoing experience of freedom: Civil liberties depend on the creation and maintenance of a ritual (right as from rite as from ritual) artifice (made not spontaneous, founded not found) of norms, customs, laws, regulations, infrastructure. There can be no question of an imaginary autonomous sovereign judge or will or actor but a self born into a normative/linguistic world, immersed in an ongoingness, at once enabled and frustrated in absolute inter-dependence with others.

The utter vacuity of the chestnut "that government governs best which governs least" so beloved of the loose libertarian/libertopian imaginary, both left and right -- like the figures of "spontaneous order" that inevitably freight sweeping anti-governmentalities -- is conspicuous the moment one contrasts to it, say, "that government governs best which manages best to establish and administer justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for a common defense, promote general welfare, and hence secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Can you imagine the self-defeating absurdity of a ringing declaration to the effect that "that government is best that provides the least justice or tranquility or security or welfare"?

In the absence of the provision of any explicit standard on the basis of which one decides what good government consists of as such, to say as one does in that libertopian chestnut that the less of it the better, come what may, no end in specified or in sight, is always really simply to declare the wish that there were no government at all. And to indulge that wish is little more than the infantile wish for a world without other actually different people in it, without the need of law or institutional spaces in which to adjudicate the disputes of such difference.

In light of all this, what it seems to me the Left really needs to get better at is not so much appealing to libertopian frames which bespeak, at root, a pre-political lack of understanding rather than some viable political understanding among others and which also reflect most of all the position of uncritical beneficiaries of imperial economic violence and industrial ecologic violation, but,, to the contrary, the Left needs to get serious about and better at formulating the very idea of good government as such. The post-anarchic post-communistic but still radically democratic Left needs to recall that the business of citizens and activists and elected representative is not only to administer good government but continually to commend to ourselves and clearly to teach to the rising generation the far from natural, far from intuitive, far from easy, far from conclusive lessons of equity-in-diversity in relation to good government in the first place: that the ongoing nonviolent reconciliation of the interminable differences between the diversity of stakeholders with whom we make and share and contest the world demands the maintenance of unique and indispensable institutions for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, the administration of services which ensure that the scene of consent is informed and nonduressed, and the commonwealth of shared resources, accomplishments, criticism and creativity as well as the consent of the governed.

No New Age (left libertarian) or Randroidal (right libertarian) narcissistic fancies are equal to these demands or dynamisms. Our easy recourse to them even now bespeaks our ugly lazy self-indulgence -- and by all means include me in that accusation before you or anybody else wrongly takes it more personally than what I intend, in deadly earnest, as a general critique.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Republican Congressman John Shimkus, Selected to Head the Environment and Economy Subcommittee Under the New Republican-Majority House

Elections, Consequences.

Civil Rights Milestone

Elections, Consequences.

Fame Duck

The repeal of DADT, the New START Treaty, a sweeping food-safety bill, the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, at last a handful of judicial nominee confirmations, and who knows what else.... Face it, this is an historically accomplished "lame duck" to cap the historically accomplished Do Something 111th Congress. I am far from pretending I've enjoyed these last two years, and no reader of Amor Mundi is unaware that plenty has passed that I disapprove of mightily and plenty has failed to pass that I regard as urgently necessary, but credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

White House Pink

Rather cool, actually, and touching.

Conservatives Praying That White Jesus Will Punish Marvel for Black Thor

Council of Conservative Citizens:
It’s not enough that Marvel attacks conservative values and promotes the left-wing, now mythological Gods must be re-invented with black skin. It seems that Marvel Studios believes that white people should have nothing that is unique to themselves.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is Krugman Mistaking E-conmen for Economists and Zealots for Zombies? Is Obama?

Krugman declares himself mystified that free market fundamentalist economists and policymakers who tell the very rich exactly what they want to hear -- namely, that it (the economy, the whole of society, really) is truly all about them, and so of course that they should pay no taxes and face no regulations and that when they misbehave and fail they should be insulated from consequence and everyday people beneath them should have to clean up their messes for them and foot the bill -- still shape the agenda even when their theories fail and fail and fail to capture reality or anticipate outcomes.

Of course, what would be truly mystifying is that anyone would be mystified by any of this. And to be sure Krugman isn't really mystified by it at all. But it is somewhat mystifying that he seems to think any rhetorical advantage comes of pretending otherwise, and that, finally, is the thread I want to tease at a little in the ramble ahead.
When historians look back at 2008-10, what will puzzle them most, I believe, is the strange triumph of failed ideas. Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything -- yet they now dominate the political scene more thoroughly than ever. How did that happen? How, after runaway banks brought the economy to its knees, did we end up with Ron Paul, who says “I don’t think we need regulators,” about to take over a key House panel overseeing the Fed?

I certainly hope that this prophetic fancy does not come to pass, because if it does we can be sure that as these future historians are scratching their heads the next raftload of future market fundamentalists, libertopians, and austerians will be busily crafting the next disastrous cycle of the zombie minuet to which Krugman is drawing our attention. It seems to me that in the brief space of these few opening sentences Krugman has already made three key mistakes in so framing his case and that these limit his capacity to address the phenomenon that so rightly concerns him.

The first mistake is to describe the slogans and sales-pitches to which market fundamentalists make endless recourse as "ideas," as in Krugman's grand phrase "the triumph of failed ideas." My question is whether it is right to say that market fundamentalists are actually having ideas, properly so-called? When it occurs to a scam artist to sell the poor widow swampland with a misleading glossy brochure is that an "idea" he is having, really? Commercials on late night television hawking energizing "power bracelets" quite profitably reprise center of gravity tricks used by hucksters for centuries, but is it right to consider the pseudo-scientific jargon and new age imagery that freshly embellish these old carnival tricks "ideas," exactly? When a grifter crafts a Ponzi scheme he would scarcely be mistaken as setting out on a good faith debate on the merits of a commercial proposition, but, interestingly enough, when a Republican describes, yet again, as a Ponzi scheme something that palpably is not one, namely Social Security, just because he wants a hand in the looting that would follow from its dismantlement, we seem to find it less easy to grasp the grift for what it is. I believe it pays to think more deeply about what is afoot when we make this terrible mistake.

Republicans like to peddle their "Starve the Beast" austerity measures and safety-net dismantlement proposals by way of false analogies between the sensible frugality of household economy in tough times and the senseless refusal of the stimulus of last resort of public investment and assistance for the unemployed. When they do so should those of us who know the analogy to be terribly misleading focus on the fact that it is surely true that many folks who swallow the false analogy are simply economic illiterates who haven't been taught what initially seems a counter-intuitive idea demanding a leap from microeconomic to macroeconomic assumptions? Or should we focus on the fact that it is just as surely true that many politicians who are offering up the false analogy for these illiterates to swallow are doing so precisely because they can sell what they're after by sowing such confusions? That at least some of the offending politicians are illiterates, too, is neither here nor there if what matters most about the offending discourse, after all, is its opportunistic efficacy to particular political ends rather than its falsity as a candidate to draw a warranted consensus as a description of some matters of fact.

This leads me to Krugman's second mistake, in my view. To return to his grand phrase "the triumph of failed ideas" it seems to me that we should question not only whether we are right to treat opportunistic grifter gambits as the sorts of things we treat "ideas" as being (that is to say as good faith efforts meaningfully to model or narrate or otherwise accommodate shared problematic experience of the world) but also that we should question the standards on the basis of which we describe these gambits as "failed" or not.

The many ways in which market fundamentalist pieties were false and facile throwbacks to pre-Keynesian economic illiteracy were already very well known when one Republican presidential presumptive, George Bush, pere, decried such pieties as they fell from the lips of another Republican presidential presumptive, Ronald Reagan, in what always seemed to me a rather racist turn of phrase, "Voodoo Economics."

For those who grasped the substance of Bush's critique, the implementation of these ideas in the debased Reagan era, in the subsequent debacle of the Gingrichian "Contract on America," in the consummation of Movement Republicanism in the killer clown administration of George Bush, fils, and in this latest TeaBag aftershock have racked up a fairly shattering record of policy failures: from the world wide collapses of deregulated enterprises run predictably amok, to deficits ballooning in the face of endless tax-cuts like the corpses of civilian casualties in our unpaid war adventures, to perniciously anti-democratizing concentrations of wealth as costs and risks were externalized while elite profits were privatized and valorized, to millions of potential partners in the work of civilization lost to neglected poverty, illiteracy, disease, and distress as public investments in the general welfare were slashed and slashed and slashed…

But to the extent that what was wanted most of all, all along, by those who advocated free market slogans was precisely such wealth disparity and concentration, the re-consolidation of elite and incumbent privileges lost to the New Deal and Great Society programs, one need only look at declining membership in labor unions, one need only look at the deregulation of industry after industry, the privatization of service after service, one need only look at the flabbergasting accumulation of wealth by the top five percent and the top one percent of that top five percent of individuals as compared to the flat-lining of purchasing power and the standard of living and security of position of fully two-thirds of the remaining population to grasp that the word "failure" may not be the right word in the least to describe the efforts of elite-incumbent politicians over the last thirty years.

To those who declare the very idea of good government foolish why would the failure of defunded, denuded, deregulated government bodies and concerns be regarded as a "failure" in the sense Krugman intends, rather than a vindication? That this vindication is facilitated precisely through a process in which elite-incumbent minorities are larded with ever more wealth and privilege while insulated ever more firmly from the costly consequences of their recklessness and waste seems frankly the farthest imaginable thing from "failure." Of course, Krugman makes precisely this sort of case himself all the time, if perhaps in slightly less overheated terms than I have done, which makes his habitual recourse to the pretense of shared standards of success and failure all the more puzzling.

Before I go on to Krugman's third mistake, let me quote a bit more from the piece, as he goes on to point out that the disastrous politics of market fundamentalist ideology are hardly confined to the United States.
The free-market fundamentalists have been as wrong about events abroad as they have about events in America -- and suffered equally few consequences. “Ireland,” declared George Osborne in 2006, “stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking.” Whoops. But Mr. Osborne is now Britain’s top economic official. And in his new position, he’s setting out to emulate the austerity policies Ireland implemented after its bubble burst. After all, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic spent much of the past year hailing Irish austerity as a resounding success. “The Irish approach worked in 1987-89 -- and it’s working now,” declared Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute last June. Whoops, again. But such failures don’t seem to matter.

Again, it seems to me that Krugman should take care in his application of his own standards of failure and success to those of people on the political right who disapprove equitable outcomes on principle (which is why they are people of the right in the first place). I do not doubt in the least that Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute finds unjust exploitative austerity measures for precarious majorities that insulate reckless fortunate minorities from consequences to be an "approach [that] worked in 1987-89 -- and it's working now." So, too, selling the poor widow swampland with a misleading glossy brochure might be said to "work" for the grifter. I do think it is perfectly appropriate to think Mr. Osborne's proposals through the figurative lens of the fraudster, but probably it isn't quite right to think of Ron Paul through that lens, and this brings me back to Krugman's third mistake.

Movement Republicanism is a motley coalition of scoundrels, indeed, many of whom are simply unscrupulous characters greedy for money and influence and eager to indulge in opportunistic deception and fraud to get more of what they want, whatever it takes. Others have a surfeit of scruples, but unfortunately of the "worst are /Are full of passionate intensity" sort: say, scions of privilege who truly fancy themselves innately better and more deserving than common people and who regard their frauds as perquisites of position and their lies as the "natural" way of dealing with stupid inferiors or, say, white racists and parochial religionists who fancy themselves keepers of the flame who regard their frauds as all is fair in holy war and their lies as Noble facilitations of deeper truths of conscience in a fallen world.

There are also, here and there, and especially online, True Believers in market fundamentalism as such, among whom I suspect Ron Paul is one, whose consistency suggests real Randroidal (hey, son!) faithfulness more than the cynicism of the opportunists I mentioned first and who actually predominate among the peddlers of "free market" policies and slogans. Probably there is an enormous amount of overlapping and oscillation and interdependence among these right-wing types, and a true accounting of the dynamics of relations, while it would make no doubt for a fascinating if nauseating study, fortunately exceeds the legible limits of this already meandering and bursting at the seams blog-post. What I would emphasize is just that in choosing Ron Paul for his example, right off the bat Krugman actually chose a Republican whose market fundamentalist rhetoric seems to me to be crucially unrepresentative of the phenomenon he is tackling in that it probably comes closer for Ron Paul than for most Republicans to the sort of thing one might actually call an idea, at any rate a rhetoric deployed consistently with some cost and without the usual cynicism -- even if, at the deepest level, I do wonder just what could count as evidence to the contrary for his world view, what authorities he would accept as adjudicating factual disputes with good faith interlocutors, and so on, which is why I described him not just as a believer but as a True Believer.

Be all that as it may, I think Krugman is making an important point in his column in reminding us yet again that the assumptions of free market ideology however compelling they may be in their consoling simplicity, in their appeal to quotidian if inapplicable intuitions drawn from household economy, in their reassurance especially to incumbent elites as to their indispensability and hence the justice of their privileges, these assumptions nonetheless fail utterly to provide guidance for those who would govern in the interests of equity-in-diversity, for the improvement of the lot of people in general, concerned with the sensible administration of human welfare. In my view, however, he pointlessly and preemptively disarms himself in making these points by pretending his opponents judge the success and failure of policy outcomes by the same standards that he does when conspicuously they do not, or that they occupy even remotely the same deliberative field of argument that he does, one involving the clash of arguments and opinions in the first place, when in fact his opponents are essentially just on the make, pulling off, setting the scene for, and testing the waters in anticipation of serial scams to hoard loot for and consolidate the position of the incumbent elites with which they happen to identify come what may, world without end. And, finally, he also misdirects his critique by directing our attention first of all to one of the few holy fools slash useful idiots who uncharacteristically and rather fantastically appear truly to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that whatever passes for "the market" in this historical juncture would happen to govern human intercourse in ways that are both optimally efficient and optimally righteous if only meddlesome government of, by, and for the people wouldn't get in its way of "spontaneously ordering" our affairs. Most Republicans only pretend to believe such foolishness when it is convenient or expedient for them to do so, whatever the consequences look likely to be for others, and it is to the example of such crass opportunists, it seems to me, that we should direct our attention in combating the force of market fundamentalist rhetoric as it plays out so ruinously in the world.

By way of conclusion, let me open up yet another a can of worms. You know, for kicks. Krugman writes:
Part of the answer, surely, is that people who should have been trying to slay zombie ideas have tried to compromise with them instead. And this is especially, though not only, true of the president.

I could go on for paragraphs unpacking these two sentences, but instead I will make just two brief points. I'll tackle the second sentence first. I agree, roughly speaking, with the vantage Krugman is assuming in respect to the president here. Krugman is famously critical of the president, devoting almost as many critical column inches to Obama as he did to the killer clown who occupied the White House last time around. For one thing, Krugman rightly warned the administration from the start that Obama's initial stimulus package was too small and far too weighted with minimally-stimulative tax cuts to be equal to the crisis at hand (always making the even more sensible and rhetorical case that if this deficient stimulus reflected uncircumventable constraints of a monolithically obstructionist GOP in a dysfunctional Senate, then Obama should not have peddled the fantasy of its adequacy but pinned the blame for its inadequacies on the GOP as a way of positioning himself to overcome that obstructionism on the way to making the case for further stimulus down the road). Similarly, here, while Krugman is critical of the president he accuses Obama of compromising with market ideologues when he should be "trying to slay [their] zombie ideas" -- which is better by far than those immoderate critics of the president who seem to assume that Obama is stealthfully championing the ideology himself rather than ineffectually confronting it.

While I think it is unproductive to argue what is in Obama's true heart of hearts since there is no evidence to adjudicate such disputes, or, more to the point, one can find endless "evidences" in support of most attributions of heartlessness or heartfeltness one likes, it seems to me that Obama had a hand in shepherding an enormous number of legislative accomplishments through Congress on a host of policy fronts almost none of which were anything like equal to problems of the moment but almost all of which were reforms in the direction of progress and sense, some of them historic achievements. It seems to me that getting more, and better, Democrats in Congress would result in much more of what liberals and democrats would like to see, and hence now that we are confronted with fewer Democrats in Congress, and among the lost some of the better ones, we are likely instead to get much less and much worse.

The reason why I am wading into all this mess (especially since it is unlikely that there is a single reader in all the world who would agree with every one of the judgments I have pronounced in taking all these many exigencies into some account while failing to so take who knows how many others) is because since Krugman seems not to ascribe either to venality of character or to stealthy reactionary ideology Obama's worrisome and likely disastrous pre-emptive "compromises" with the terms of his market fundamentalist opponents Krugman opens himself usefully up to the same sort of critique himself. In arguing against market fundamentalist opponents in ways that pretend they are promulgators of arguments and ideas who share with him an evidenciary framework that could adjudicate disputes on matters of fact rather than opportunistic scam artists, and in ways that pretend they are policymakers concerned with sound outcomes who share with him a normative framework that could adjudicate disputes on matters of justice and fairness rather than bought-and-paid-for representatives of incumbent elites, Krugman is pre-emptively compromising his terms, or at any rate making a spectacle of such pre-emptive compromise, much as does Obama himself, and since I would scarcely attribute this move of his to venality of character or stealthy reactionary ideology any more than he seems to do in contemplating the president I suspect the reason or habit or behavioral tick afoot may be an indicatively kindred one, and worthy of further interrogation. I daresay that if Krugman were an economic advisor to the White House rather than an op-ed writer for the New York Times his discourse on these policy questions might be considerably less edifying for the likes of lefties like me.

The deeper questions at hand are, first, just why so many across the public left make this curiously shared recourse to pre-emptive self-debilitating compromise in the face of market fundamentalist opposition, what makes it so irresistible even to those who truly disapprove the oligarchic outcomes and know-nothing economic illiteracy of market fundamentist pieties in the first place (even if not so consistently or ferociously as one might wish) and, second, just what a more efficacious rhetoric might look like that refuses such pre-emptive compromises even if it concedes, as it must, the necessity of compromise as such in any anti-authoritarian politics in a shared world with a diversity of stakeholders.

I've already been rambling on too long, so I leave these questions as open ones for now, with the promise that I'll keep thinking about them if you do, too.

If Nothing Else Republican Rule Is An Endless Cornucopia of Rich Ironies

Michelle Bachmann appointed to the Intelligence Committee.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Next Up, Survivor Lunar Surface!

Oh, wait, we can't even go near the Moon any more. "The Future" arrived. And it sucks.

Good Old Fashioned Protest

I think the role of high profile folks in uniform chaining themselves to the White House railings the last couple of months had an effect comparable to the one it had for the suffragists under Wilson. I think activists need to move on (so probably should MoveOn, come to think of it) from the endless online petitions and sternly worded letters to the facilitation of flash mobs and other forms of real-world nonviolent but truly disruptive protest.

Online activism enabled by social software, like so much "participation" online facilitated by social networking sites -- all just so much "befriending" of strangers and commodities, so much self-promotional confession without substantial engagement, so many blogposts and tweets of "self-expression" without the substantiating expectation of a hearing or a real response -- amounts to little more than the usual harmless mass media marketing and surveillance and consumption in the service of incumbent elites. When resistance has a logo, you can be sure it isn't resistance but capture.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Melissa Harris Perry Channels Bayard Rustin on DADT Repeal

I believe Bayard Rustin would have applauded end of DADT & cautioned against investing our moral victories in US military establishment.

Quite so.

By a Vote of 65 to 31 the Senate Has Just Voted to Repeal the Military's Odious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy

Leonard Matlovich's tombstone.

Senatorial Follies

At 11:30 the cloture motion on the DREAM Act failed to reach the super-majority obstructionist Republicans have made the New Normal. The vote was, 55-41, a clear majority for a sensible bit of legislation giving at least some immigrants some kind of path to citizenship. Just fifteen minutes later the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal did indeed pass its worst Senatorial hurdle. The final vote is scheduled soon and everyone is saying it's a done deal. Hard to believe, but there you go.

Each vote raises immediate further considerations. I wonder how the failure of the DREAM Act is playing out in major Spanish-speaking media, whether primary blame for this failure is being pinned on Republicans or Democrats. If Republicans get the lion's share of the blame this could be another nail in the coffin of the white racist GOP in a beautifully browning US of A. But dreadful "NO" votes from the likes of Democrat Jon Tester might fatally undermine the force of that narrative. In respect to DADT, it is important to note that the President's signature is not actually the end of the policy as you might expect, since an additional layer was introduced early on in the backroom wheeling and dealing phase of the process, whereby the repeal of the policy would require an additional "Certification" by the President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense. The fact that Legislators and Administration figures are doing a victory lap while all the lgbtq organizations are now instantly and insistently pressing the "Certification" issue both suggest to me that this might be the next endless occasion for pointless foot-dragging on the question.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Radicalism For Real

For me, one needs to actually propose a path along which one might arrive somewhere better from where one is to provide a vantage whose radicalism is equal to the injustice and idiocy of our distressing moment. If you eschew legislative routes via actually instituted processes to accomplish what you think of as progress, just what alternative are you proposing? Violent insurrection, civil disobedience, general strikes, systematic sabotage, guerilla skirmishing, separatist communities, just what exactly? From a practical standpoint there is rarely much difference between the complacent declaration that all is well as it is and the demoralized or incendiary declaration that everything is utterly rotten.

Adversarial Advertorial

In response to my complaints about ever louder, ever more frequent, ever more hysterical advertising content on television, one rather sanctimonious reader helpfully suggested I stop watching television altogether.

Of course, the "Kill Your Television" chorus has long existed by now. And there is nothing to ridicule in the fact that some people have enriched their lives by separating from television (which for generations now has sometimes functioned as a kind of disastrous child-care alternative in some households and created dependencies that can cry out for intervention).

Also, truth be told, tastes both do and should differ, and those who find nothing worth watching on television are welcome to that opinion and to the subcultural forms they prefer. I for one think there is plenty worth watching on television -- I enjoy serialized science fiction and costume dramas, I enjoy the antics of some game shows and reality television, I enjoy the rhetorical pyrotechnics of pundit programs. I do think that at least some of the people who are most sanctimonious about their refusal of television are simply cutting themselves off from areas of culture for no clearly explicable reason.

But more to the point, "Kill Your Television" isn't really a relevant response to the problem at hand. In America advertisements are proliferating deliriously, on college campuses, in public spaces like stadiums and parks and subway stations (and even as flickering reels in the darkened tunnels!), in lobbies, in elevators, in grocery check-out lines, in ever more of the real estate of every media screen.

"Withdrawal" is simply not ultimately an option, unless one fancies life in a rough-hewn Unabomber cabin in the deep wilderness amidst the boulders and the flashing fishies with nothing but a dog-eared Thoreau for company (in which case, rock on with your bad ass self, but I'm not sure that solution will scale, even if Resource Descent -- Peak Oil, PetroAg Fail, Water Wars -- may force a monumental test case on us all soon enough).

However, it occurs to me that in Europe there are actually sensible regulations that restrict both the volume and frequency of television commercials. In the absence of such regulations it is very clear that there is literally no check on the vicious circle driving commercial media into suicide -- they keep increasing the amount of ad time, the volume, the forms it takes, getting for each further encroachment of the norm a momentary burst of oh so delicious profit that vanishes once everybody else has replicated it and normalized the encroachment, thus provoking the next encroachment still, and on and on an on, never gaining a permanent profit advantage but with each encroachment tapping away at the actual quality of the content they are providing, with nothing to check the process, nothing to contain the greed that drives the degeneration. As with everything else, the drive for profit when constrained by regulation can encourage worthy innovation, but when unconstrained eats its own to the ruin of all.

The relevant question for me is just why it is that there is no real organized resistance agitating for legislation to introduce in the US regulation such as exists in the EU to limit the frequency of ad content -- which is now actually palpably beginning to undermine the capacity of shows to maintain narrative continuity? Why are there no mass campaigns for regulations such as exist in South America to limit or eliminate billboards that clutter our cities and pimple our pristine landscapes? Why is there no well organized outcry for laws forbidding the re-naming of stadiums and subway stations built and maintained with tax payer and public bond funds to honor private corporations as though they were monarchs? Why aren't people regularly arguing on the pundit shows for laws to forbid ads and commercials in university settings that exist, after all, as spaces of research and contemplation and in which distractions and biases imperil their mandated missions? Why don't I hear as a matter of course that people feel assaulted and harassed by endless shrill ads making hyperbolic promises and mobilizing ridiculous imagery and stereotypes that insult our intelligence and derange our senses?

In my view, the ongoing proliferation and ramification of advertising on every conceivable space is tantamount to pollution and harassment and there should be lawsuits and organized campaigns to stop it. Although I enjoy the aesthetics of culturejamming and adbusting it seems to me that these interventions functionally depend on and substantiate the norms and forms of ubiquitous advertising as such, whatever critical purchase they may provide in our relations to particular ad content.

Too many of my students take comfortably for granted the utter colonization of public space by deceptive hyperbolic corporate marketing material. And let me stress that word deception. The norms of marketing discourse are hyperbolic and cynical in ways that typically, that is to say generically, border on fraud and their ubiquity is educating the population to accept endless spin and deception as normal, as acceptable, preparing the way for a public life suffused with opportunistic lies. These norms appeal conspicuously to our emotions rather than our capacities to weight competing claims logically, empirically, critically, indeed they appeal to the bluntest of our passions, to our appetites, our greed, our fear, preparing the way for a public life suffused with selective mobilizations of short-term greed and terror. (To connect this point with other themes that recur here at Amor Mundi, I do indeed regard futurological discourse as the quintessential expression of this utter bankruptcy of public deliberation into marketing and promotional fraud, explored especially in the posts archived here).

Needless to say, I consider all this profoundly pernicious, perhaps the single most dangerous cultural force afoot without any organized resistance that I can see the least bit equal to its danger. Any readers aware of actually effective organizing out there on these questions? What forms might organized resistance properly take? What, practically, should be done?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Expectations for DADT Repeal

I have none. Not a one. If it passes I'll be pleasantly surprised. If the oh so supportive Maine twins stage some bullshit procedural revolt at the last minute that scuttles everything or Reid loses his nerve in the face of some secret GOP threat to unscrew the salt shaker lids in the Senate Cafeteria or whatever I won't be the least bit surprised or even disappointed.

Why Does Every Television Commercial Sound Like A Yappy Dog?

Have they done studies that suggest this is some kind of killer winning strategy? Doesn't everybody just mute or fast forward through this crap like I do? The quality of hysteria that suffuses commercial television by now is frankly unnerving at this point. Where does this endlessly louder, longer, shriller advertorial harassment end?

Futurological Fraudsters

Always confidently assuming the arrival of indispensable but unavailable inventions while dismissing the incontrovertible evidence of catastrophe actually at hand...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sustainable Schadenfreude

I am sometimes amused at the thought that when the petro-bubble that has for so long been mistaken for the Triumphal Ascendancy Unto Infinity of Western Civilization finally does burst it will be organic farmers and hippy artisans and eco-villagers and other such folks long derided as fools and throwbacks by the gas-guzzling go-getter bully narcissists of Randoidal neoliberalism who alone will have all the skills without which neither flourishing nor even survival is possible.

Of course, the least contemplation of the scale of human catastrophe that would necessarily precede anything like the arrival of that state of affairs fizzles that amusement pretty quickly. Indeed, the trauma of surviving such a transition might make any notion of flourishing moot whatever vital skills one had shepherded through our own catastrophic know-nothing ego-everything era.

America's Senator Bernie Sanders Tries to Amend The Screw Deal

Krugthulu on Paleo-Monetarism

This is one of those actually obvious points you really do have to repeat at least as endlessly as the Know-Nothings repeat their nonsense, else the nonsense prevails at the level of policy and to the ruin of all (which is yet another of those essentially rhetorical insights for the economist's toolkit I've been talking about lately, by the way):
[W]ith credit cards, electronic money, repo, and more all serving the purpose of medium of exchange -- it’s not clear that any single number deserves to be called “the” money supply. Intellectually, this isn’t a problem; nor is there necessarily a problem maintaining monetary policy even if there isn’t any single thing you’re willing to call money…. But if you’re determined to view economic affairs through a sort of paleo-monetarist lens, focused on the evils of “printing money”, you’re going to have a hard time in the modern world

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on Economics and Rhetoric

The throwaway comment on Krugman in the last post has reminded me of something I've been meaning to riff on for a long time, a point that comes up all the time in my teaching but rarely in my blogging:

When Robert Heilbroner made the point that economists were "worldly philosophers" in his (justly) famous economic history of the same name, he was really making what would be better thought of as two different enormously important points, both of which might have been made better under a different title.

One of the points, in my view, is that economists at their best would be better thought of as rhetoricians (formulating compelling cases, figures, narratives, and appeals to identity the better to corral and change collective conviction and conduct), and the other point is that economists at their worst often seem to want instead to be thought of as philosophers, and especially as philosophers in those sad moments in which they seek to distinguish what they are doing as forcefully as possible from "mere rhetoric," moments in which they are often most prone to figure themselves instead as some sort of scientific discipline or even the most scientific discipline of all, a meta-science or super-science.

I do not think it accidental that Keynes titled one of his most wonderful and influential books Essays in Persuasion, any more than that the truly marvelous economist Albert Hirschman who wrote the incomparable The Passions and the Interests (one of those books which literally everybody should read) also wrote the less known but also excellent Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.

I personally think that Marx was incomparably better when he was writing polemical journalism and history (not to mention outright manifestos), or those endlessly fascinating figurative analyses like the passage concerning the camera obscura in The German Ideology and the one with all those avid grotesque undead commodities capering about in "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof" from Volume One of Capital, than in the awful moments when he was trying to live up to Engels' deadly praise that he was "The Darwin of History" and making an anxious spectacle of his pseudo-scientificity by reducing cultural complexities to drab forces of production and sketching grandiloquent deterministic histories and mistaking priestly prophetic utterances for scientific hypotheses like your typical philosophical peacock. Only those facile free marketeers, Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, Friedman, Friedman, Friedman, et al are more embarrassing in their pretentious pseudo-scientificity, mistaking maths and hype for substance and looking the other way when the bullets fly and starving stomachs balloon in their wake.

The story of rhetoric's denigration by philosophical ideologues is literally a story as old as philosophy itself, inasmuch as philosophy was born precisely in such a moment of resentment (as Nietzsche tells the story best of all). As Hannah Arendt was always at such pains to point out, this denigration shaped the Western tradition of political thought in ways that endlessly distort our understanding of and deny the thoughtful access to the full measure of worldly life -- although it might be said that in her ready assimilation of economic discourse to the social rather than to the political she contributed her own share to the long deferral of the reckoning of rhetoric with the end in failure of the western philosophical project, a reckoning that needs to do justice to the political in thought, including those dimensions in political economy that have always been more rhetorical than philosophical from the first. Such a reckoning would need -- as Heilbroner's history significantly failed to do -- among other things, to register the achievement of political economists like Karl Polanyi as high as that of Marx and Mill and Keynes, and at least as part of the same story.

Krugthulu Appeals to Rhetoric 101

"Bad metaphors make for bad policy." It's true, so true, and it's importance rarely properly appreciated.

"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

I've already seen and heard far more sermons on the late Richard Holbrook's endlessly many incomparable talents than I care to, but I wouldn't mind so much if all the hagiography happened to provide the occasion for a wider circulation of the Great Man's last words. We've got to get out of Afghanistan, we’ve got to stop this stupid, incomprehensible, undefinable, unwinnable, atrociously tragic wasteful idiotic war.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Scream, Scream, American Dream

24 Signs That All Of America Is Becoming Just Like Detroit -- A Rotting, Post-Industrial, Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

Actually, there are some things about Detroit that are quite awesome, urban and guerilla gardening and community art projects and so on. Still, the headline is self-explanatory and the point well-taken.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Now that I have given in, and am more or less hoping for American crapitalism to collapse in time for the rest of the world to save us from ourselves, I find that what seems actually to be happening and what I want to be happening are, possibly for the first time in my life, curiously congenially conjoined. Interesting feeling. A bit like being under gas at the Dentist's office.

The Digital Utopian Future Is Here!

Is it just me or does the new digital tee vee endlessly black out and skitter and pixillate, making it incomparably worse than the prevailing standards that preceded it? Just me, I'm sure. Everything is awesome now.

Eat Your Shit And Enjoy It

The New Democratic Party slogan. It's testing very well, I hear.

Here Come the Waterworks

Apparently Boehner cried on 60 Minutes last night. Quel surprise! That's what everybody should say every time Boehner appears on screen, "Here come the waterworks!" Maybe he could be brute-force shamed into getting a grip on this rampaging egomania of his, regarding himself the eternal protagonist of his own technicolor Passion. What a fucking narcissistic drunk travesty he is. What the hell is he blubbering about, anyway? What is it with these whiny straight white guy Republicans? Just like Darryl Issa. Oh boo-hoo-hoo! Everybody I fuck over and don't give two shits for won't suck my dick and tell me how I'm the smartest prettiest boy in the world like Mommy promised they would! Wah-wah-wah! Absolutely disgusting. There are people actually suffering unjustly and unnecessarily in the world, you stupid assholes.

Amazing Indeed

Under the headline Amazing TPM's Josh Marshall writes:
A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to "economic activity" seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia -- that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional -- is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

I must say that I find what Marshall writes amazing indeed. That is to say, my memory of a year ago had liberals outraged to the point of apoplexy that they would be mandated to buy crappy corporate insurance products without a public option or Medicare buy-in available to them.

Of course, liberal wonks defended the mandate as a necessary policy to make healthcare work, given that the single-payer or even any highly circumscribed public option they all actually infinitely preferred for good and obvious reasons was already off the table or swept off the table soon enough. But that is the farthest imaginable thing from the revisionism of his "nobody took seriously..."

And far from finding it wacky as Marshall seems to do that this mandate might be regarded as unconstitutional, indeed so much so that the only thing he can think to attribute such a decision to is "Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges," my own memory is that the individual mandate was already a stupid right-wing "idea" (that is to say, as always, cynical deception and scheme), promoted as an alternative to the obviously sensible widely demonstrated as effective public insurance programs Democrats always actually favor, all as a way to keep the catastrophically failed for-profit insurance system we have in place despite its profound immorality and abject ineffectiveness.

Let me say that I have zero expectation that the public mandate -- so beloved by the scumbag moneybags of Big Insurance, after all -- is truly threatened by these court findings. I think there will be no problem at all finding ways to preserve it intact in the face of such challenges -- bipartisan agreements in which Republicans oil the skids to bazillionaire profits for their cronies all the while Democrats screw over their constituencies and take all the blame are sure to be the order of the day.

Like the Prescription Drug giveaway Republicans will get the poison pill twofer of catapulting vast sums to the already rich under cover of helping "ordinary Americans," while bankrupting the system to provide the pretext for oh-so-reluctantly gutting it, that is to say both bringing about feudalism while larding the would-be feudal lords with ever more wealth in anticipation of that feudalism.

This latest commentary by Marshall comes on the heels of a series of perplexing lampoons of free press hero Assange over at TPM, all of which combine to make me wonder if Marshall has been even more traumatized by the mid-term results than most good people or if, perhaps, he has been replaced by a pod-person.

False Equivalence of Fail

I regularly castigate people who occupy with me the more radical precincts of the secular sustainable social democratic left but who argue from that vantage as I do not that there is an equivalence between the Republican and Democrat parties.

Usually, I emphasize that such equivalence theses fatally underestimate just how dangerous and reactionary the Republican party has become in this consummating moment of Movement Republicanism, that proposing such an equivalence mistakes as political radicalism a kind of effective apoliticism, an indifference (unless it inspires literal revolutionary organization) at the level of available action to political differences that make a difference, mistakes as fidelity to ideals an indifference to the piecemeal reforms that tend toward ideal ends, mistakes as affirming everything what amounts to denying something is anything just because it is not everything.

But it is worth noting that false equivalence theses not only produce profoundly skewed estimations of political accomplishments, flawed and inadequate though they may be granted to be, but confuse our grasp of definitive differences in the conditions attending the ways in which our two parties do tend so miserably to fail us.

Those who glibly declare America nothing more than a one-party corporatist state pretending to be a democracy (and I am far from denying that one can indeed assume a theoretical vantage from which this becomes a source for insights and grounds for practical political organizing -- say, for movements to change the salient characteristics of corporate charters, to limit their terms, to circumscribe their functions, to introduce clauses making corporate entities beholden to the public good, all characteristics that actually have been associated with the corporate form in earlier moments of its legal history and could be so again), can lose sight from such abstract heights of differences that make a real difference in the way these two parties tend, among other things, to prop up corporate-militarism, come what may.

It is regularly noted that Republicans are more disciplined than Democrats, that Democrats are incapable of doing the right thing even when they themselves want to do the right thing, even when they hold all the apparent levers of power to manage the feat, and overabundant majorities support them in doing it, so that not only is there no political risk or cost to doing what they themselves want to do but failing to do so actively damages them. This is noted usually with perplexity or frustration, often making lazy recourse in the final analysis, tragically and embarrassingly enough, to obnoxious sexist genuflections to resolute "balls" as arrayed against irresolute "wusses" none of which makes any kind of empirical or historical sense at all.

On issue after issue after issue, it is true, Democrats seem to snatch defeat from the jaws of easy victory, meanwhile Republicans seem never to be satisfied, victory emboldens them to push ever more outrageously for more, no matter how unpopular, no matter how ruinous, and even when they hold every lever of power or forbid others from holding the levers long enough to do anything with them, Republicans seem to experience themselves as desperately under siege, forever outraged victims, endlessly defensive as they engage in offense after offense.

I think it is crucial to grasp that the Republicans represent an incoherent coalition of embattled minorities, white racist patriarchal theocrats and oligarchs in a diversifying, secularizing, planetizing world.

Republicans declare themselves victims even as they victimize because they grasp that they are out of step with the world, Republicans declare themselves embattled defenders even as they prevail in their offenses because they know they lost the Culture Wars and they sense the precarity of their ill-gotten loot in a networked planet of greenhouse storms. Republicans fight with the discipline of an army that is forever fighting The Last War, and there is no victory that will or even can assuage their discontent or unease, because they are right that they have lost.

To point out that corporate-militarism and white racist patriarchal oligarchy have lost and can no longer win is far from the same thing as declaring secular sustainable social democracy must or even likely will prevail, by the way. Far from it. It's not even to deny them the possibility of victory after victory in skirmish after skirmish. Though the reactionaries cannot win the world, they can indeed manage on and on to stave off the final defeat, fueled by panic, by resentment, by rage, and in failing to be defeated encompass the destruction of the world and hence the defeat of the ones who defeated them.

It is interesting to note that Democrats would seem to have the wind of history at their backs, they aspire to the secular sustainable social democracy the larger world cries out for and which the elite-incumbency decries. But precisely because both majorities and basic sense align with the Democratic platform and tendency it is very difficult to organize that majority to battle in its name. While Republicans in victory never relinquish their embattled victimhood, nor the righteous indignation and rage and militant discipline that follows from it, because victory in political skirmishes takes place within the larger context of a world that disapproves of their aspirations, a world in which they lost the Culture Wars, so too Democrats who, precisely to the contrary, won the Culture Wars, can never quite be made to believe in the reality of their losses to these reactionary bigots and greedheads when all the world seems to find them ignorant and awful and faintly ridiculous, can never quite be mobilized or organized to fight and sacrifice and compromise in the name of a victory that seems already long won in a diffuse sense that never quite translates into abiding institutional terms or concrete outcomes.

Not only do Democrats find it difficult to conjure the discipline to fight where we must because the majorities on whose side we are and on whom we depend for victory can rarely be prevailed upon to grasp the urgency of the battle at hand, but the temperament to govern such a secular, sustainable, social democratic world is drawn to the calm assessment of contingent consensus assessments of fact as well as to the patient reconciliation of diverse stakeholder stakes in shared concerns, a temperament none of whose skills translate particularly well to the campaign trail.

It is a truism that Republicans campaign well but govern poorly if at all, while Democrats govern comparatively well but too rarely have the chance because they must first win elections to do so. Now that so much of governance itself has come to be shaped by the urgencies of campaigning -- the need to raise vast sums of money for re-election the very day after an election is won, the need to frame the narrative and figurative terms of the news cycle -- the administrative and governmental temperament is disadvantaged all the more, to the cost of us all, but especially to the disadvantage of Democrats and any last vestiges of pragmatism (not the same thing as either cynicism or opportunism you know) in pockets of the GOP that might somehow have escaped the triumph of Movement Republicanism with that party.

So, too, the inherent corruption of a political system so hopelessly beholden to money, the obscene monetary demands of contemporary campaigning, the kinds of wealth that carve out the limited span of attention and interest of politicians swimming in the hopelessly vast complex ocean of problems and demands in continent and planet-scaled polities, all are incomparably more injurious to Democratic than to Republican ends. That so many Congresspersons are millionaires, that so many pundits and heads of political organizations are rich and/or famous, that so many interns must rely on the largess of deep pockets to make their way through a labyrinth of low paying jobs to gain the experience and influence of players in Washingtonian games, all create conditions of deep and intransigent structural separation between the people and their presumed representatives in government.

To the extent that the political aspirations of the Republican party align with those of a small minority of religious authoritarians out of step with the assumptions of a diverse secular majority and with those of a small minority of incumbent-elite moneyed interests out of step with the needs of a precarious majority it goes without saying that there will always be such a separation between the concrete interests of the Republican party and the interests of the majorities who must nonetheless be mobilized to elect them into power in even notionally democratic states such as our own. Understanding this, the very rich and the cultural reactionaries who are the chief Republican constituencies are quite prepared to lay their money down to span this separation.

Needless to say, the role of money in our politics, the suffusion of governance with the norms of marketing, the complacency of the secular conjoined to the rage and anxiety of the insecure all benefit Republicans over Democrats, circumventing the advantage that would otherwise clearly fall to the party in tune with majorities in a system in which, notionally at least, majorities rule within the bounds of the rule of law.

What is often attributed in the aftermath of their serial failures to a stealthy advocacy of oligarchy on the part of Democrats hypocritically mouthing platitudes about equity and diversity and reasonableness seems to me more likely the straightforward expression of the class position of representatives and pundits and wonks who, however earnestly they advocate from values and for outcomes that benefit majorities in their real diversity also happen to occupy positions of wealth and privilege that insulate them from the worst consequences of failures for the majority and so disconnect them the urgent stakes that actually freight those values and outcomes.

In a political world in which one of the two organized parties is committed of necessity and by design to screwing majorities by through willful deception and demagoguery and the other party is run by people whose wealth and privilege insulate them from the worst consequences of failure for the majorities in whose interests they govern and advocate, however earnestly, there is little to connect in any abiding kind of way the concerns of the subculture of politicians to the terms of the larger secular diverse precarious culture in whose name they govern.

The endless psychological profiles of timid or entitled or bullying political figures, the cartoonish reductions of public figures to villains and heroes, none of these are adequate to the structural dynamisms that are reflected in our disastrous and indifferent politics. Neither are ideological analyses always relevant, when what is wanted is not a better argument or more legible appeal to shared values but a more visceral experience of consequences on the part of those whose decisions bring them about.

The expectation that things become real only when they are for sale as commodities, the expectation that the experience of freedom arises from the purchase of commodities and the application of force, the expectation that everyone always exaggerates and deceives in an effort to sell things -- very much including "themselves" -- to others: In my view it is the utter suffusion of public life with the forms and norms of marketing and promotional discourse that has created the present, abiding, probably fatal crisis of our Republic and of our Planet.

To those who read Amor Mundi regularly, I may as well as that the usual villains in my posts -- Movement Republicans and futurologists -- seem to me both, and equally, to be utterly the product of, absolutely dependent on, perfect exemplars of the debased forms and norms of marketing and promotion and self-promotion, the consummation of gambles peddled as ideas, impressions peddled as facts, schemes peddled as promises, hyperbole peddled as consideration, force peddled as freedom.

I think what is wanted are steeply progressive taxes funding the provision of rich and reliable health, education, and welfare entitlements (ideally in my view single payer healthcare, lifelong education, and a basic guaranteed income) to ensure that the terms of consent to all exchanges are nonduressed and that wealth not concentrate in ways that disfigure the actually collaborative substance of all productivity. Also, elections need to be publicly financed to eliminate the obscene spectacle of waste and corruption that now prevails. These are commonplace solutions, but no less indispensable for that.

Of course, I no longer expect either state of affairs (steeply progressive taxation, public funding of elections) to eventuate in time to stave off looming economic and ecologic collapses, and so I would hope that the shared problems of the world will be addressed instead by functional socially democratic polities elsewhere in the world. Perhaps the collapse and marginalization of the United States could create conditions under which this nation might conjure the will or be shepherded by other powers to re-write our governance in the image of the secular sustainable social democracy that already better comports with the interests of majorities of the people. Recognizing that neither party seems capable of providing abiding agency expressing the aspirations and advocating the needs of those majorities is not the same thing as resigning oneself to false characterizations of their equivalence. The differences between the parties are manifold, and a proper recognition of these differences might even provide indigenous resources for hope where now there seems to be very little such hope indeed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

America's Senator Still Resisting The Screw Deal on the Floor

My original post has been updated eleven times as of now, in case you're not scrolling down far enough to see. I've had him up on C-Span since I woke up this morning, and I'm overwhelmed. I wish some other Senators would get up there and help him out... Ah, man, he's concluding. He's stopping. It's over. It wasn't enough, and it's over. God, these next two years are gonna suck.

Free Press = Illegal Spying?

Lawyers for free-press free-speech anti-corruption anti-secrecy activist Julian Assange have been lead to expect espionage charges from the United States.

Offending His Conscience

MundiMuster! Co-Sign Senator Sherrod Brown's Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

With our economy struggling, our working families hurting, and our deficit crisis worsening every year, we need to take action to create jobs, bolster the middle class, and bring our budget into balance.

But the agreement you’ve struck with Senate Republicans is a bad deal. It doubles down on a failed strategy of tax cuts for the super-wealthy that would explode our deficit without strengthening our economy. It’s too high a price to pay for the support of those who have continually refused to put the middle class first.

Instead of giving in to obstruction, we should fight it. I am willing to stay in session as long as it takes to overcome a filibuster and extend both unemployment benefits for jobless Americans and tax cuts for the middle class. If our colleagues on the other side of the aisle want to spend their holidays refusing to help working families struggling to enjoy a Christmas of their own unless their wealthy friends get another bailout, let them.

Mr. President, I know that you share my desire to pass good economic policies that help working families. But a deal that also includes bad policies that will worsen our deficit and fail to help our economy falls short. By standing our ground and standing strong for the middle class, we can do better. And I urge you to do just that.


Sherrod Brown
U.S. Senator


Krugthulu Exposes Obama's Misleading Revision of Social Democratic Accomplishments

What Krugman Said:
[T]he president is rewriting history -- and, revealingly, doing so in a way that makes the case for timid[idity]… while waving away the actual history of bold[ness of his Democratic predecessors]. Specifically, Obama said… "FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans… And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew… [My progressive critics would pretend] each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal." This is all wrong: both programs were huge from the start. From the beginning, Social Security applied to all private-sector workers, except those in agriculture, domestic service, or casual employment -- and yes, those exceptions happened to exclude the majority of African-Americans. [Yes, it always pays to remember that America failed to become a sensible social democracy in the twentieth century because of our racism most of all, the latest festering of our original sin, the white racism that institutionalized human slavery and then built an empire with the genocide of native populations. But I am interrupting and digressing, let's get back to Krugman:] Still, [Social Security] was by no means a small program that grew big. [Also,] Medicare covered everyone 65 and older right from the beginning