Sunday, July 21. 2013
Rather little and late, but some scattered links this week:
Paul Krugman: Hunger Games, U.S.A.: I've been saying for some time
now that the real pro-business party in DC is the Democrat. All the
Republicans are is the anti-labor party, but of course their loathing
isn't just for unions. They really can't stand just about everyone:
Something terrible has happened to the soul of the Republican Party.
We've gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We've even gone beyond
selfishness and special interests. At this point we're talking about
a state of mind that takes positive glee in inflicting further
suffering on the already miserable.
The occasion for these observations is, as you may have guessed,
the monstrous farm bill the House passed last week.
[ . . . ]
So House Republicans voted to maintain farm subsidies -- at a higher
level than either the Senate or the White House proposed -- while
completely eliminating food stamps from the bill.
To fully appreciate what just went down, listen to the rhetoric
conservatives often use to justify eliminating safety-net programs.
It goes something like this: "You're personally free to help the
poor. But the government has no right to take people's money" --
frequently, at this point, they add the words "at the point of a
gun" -- "and force them to give it to the poor."
It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people's money
at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses
and the wealthy.
Now, some enemies of food stamps don't quote libertarian philosophy;
they quote the Bible instead. Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee,
for example, cited the New Testament: "The one who is unwilling to work
shall not eat." Sure enough, it turns out that Mr. Fincher has personally
received millions in farm subsidies. [ . . . ]
What is it about, then? Somehow, one of our nation's two great parties
has become infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness, a contempt
for what CNBC's Rick Santelli, in the famous rant that launched the Tea
Party, called "losers." If you're an American, and you're down on your
luck, these people don't want to help; they want to give you an extra
kick. I don't fully understand it, but it's a terrible thing to behold.
"Pathological meanspiritedness" is an accurate enough diagnosis, but
I think the rationale runs more like this: most people below the top
couple percent are taking a beating, and those who aren't down yet are
accumulating unprecedented and unappreciated risk, so what politically
savvy right-wingers want to do is to draw lines on the hunch that people
above the line will use that to feel morally superior to people below
the line. You can find dirt-poor reactionaries who take pride in that
they have jobs (unlike those others), that they've never gotten welfare
(unlike those others), that they don't depend on food stamps (unlike
those others), etc. -- anything to let you feel moral, and it's a short
step from there to hating those others. And this not only works on the
people who qualify, it works on more who are in denial, and on people
who are desperately looking for someone to blame their problems on.
What we're seeing isn't the start of this dynamic -- it's the rotten
heart of having lived there too long. On the other hand, this doesn't
work if you identify with the other, or even if you just recognize the
other, especially if you believe no people should suffer so. This isn't
a real promising strategy, but it's kept the Republicans competitive
and kept their base engaged.
Krugman didn't really get into this, but the food stamps program not
only helps people avoid starvation, it helps businesses too: especially
local retailers, and employers who get by with paying unlivable wages --
score two for WalMart there, plus a share of all that trickles back to
agribusiness. Probably helps suppress crime, too, and may be one of the
most cost-effective ways of doing that. And keeps those starving people
from showing up in hospital emergency rooms -- another substantial cost
For whatever it's worth, I don't mind the subsidies on the other end
of the agriculture bill. I'd probably tune them differently, but some
degree of regulation is necessary because the market for agricultural
produce is wildly unstable. And if some big farmers and corporations
get too much, I'd rather tax that back on the other end than rail
against "corporate welfare." We could all use a little more welfare,
and if there's any real evidence that makes us lazy, we can deal with
that then. Could be we don't really need to work so hard after all.
May even be the case that if fewer of us did, there would be more
(and better) opportunities for the others.
Sean McElwee: Steve Jobs didn't build that: On how US patent laws
stifle innovation, not to mention rip us off:
Rather than promoting innovation, patents allow for capitalists to monopolize
public research and knowledge for private gain. At times, it's simply absurd;
David Martin, who has made his career assessing patents, explains that "30
percent of U.S. patents are essentially on things that have already been
invented." Just like the oil barons of Saudi Arabia who build their regimes
by exploiting their country's vast natural resources, the tech barons of
America build their wealth by exploiting a vast intellectual heritage that
is not theirs to take. The implications of IPR are clear: They will be used
to bludgeon poor countries, as we've already seen with trade agreements like
TRIPS; they will drive a further gap between rich and poor by allowing the
rich to monopolize on our shared knowledge; and they will hamper innovation
by preventing new research.
Alex Pareene: Aspiring warlord Liz Cheney is good for democracy:
She announced she's running for Sen. Mike Enzi's seat. When I heard
this I guessed that she wants to run for president (or veep) before
long, and figured that getting elected for something would give her
credibility that she hasn't really garnered through nepotism yet.
Liz Cheney is obviously a resident in fairly good standing of rarefied
political Washington, and she is also undoubtedly a monster, but there
is really no good reason she shouldn't go run for something if she wants
to, even if some guy already has that seat. If we're going to give Wyoming
two senators for some reason, can we really complain if they decide they
want one of them to be Liz Cheney? [ . . . ]
Liz Cheney can help make everyone notice that the Republican Party
has reached rock bottom. She might also help everyone see that our
electoral system is in dire need of a complete overhauling. Sure, she
would be a horrible senator. But since when is Mike Enzi so great?
If he wants to put up a fight, I doubt Enzi would have much trouble
swatting Cheney down. He'd have little trouble portraying her as an
interloper, something that plays especially well in the more parochial
parts of the country. And even if the family name isn't as tarnished
in Wyoming as elsewhere, her dad left office with an approval rating
of something like 8%, about as low as has ever been measured. Plus he
can point to people like Pareene giddy over Cheney running. Her only
real advantage is that she can raise a lot more money, but again,
almost all of it is going to come from out of state, and the only
reason she can raise that is her national ambitions: ergo, this is
just a stepping stone and she doesn't really want to serve Wyoming,
she's just out for herself.
Also, a few links for further study:
Robert Brenner: What Is Good for Goldman Sachs Is Good for America [PDF]:
Long piece (74 pages), and I've only read a bit of it, but let me quote
part of the intro:
The fundamental source of today's crisis is the steadily declining
vitality of the advanced capitalist economies over three decades,
business-cycle by business-cycle, right into the present. The long
term weakening of capital accumulation and of aggregate demand has
been rooted in a profound system wide decline and failure to recover
of the rate of return on capital, resulting largely -- though not
only -- from a persistent tendency to over-capacity, i.e. oversupply,
in global manufacturing industries. From the start of the long downturn
in 1973, economic authorities staved off the kind of crises that had
historically plagued the capitalist system by resort to ever greater
borrowing, public and private, subsidizing demand. But they secured
a modicum of stability only at the cost of deepening stagnation, as
the ever greater buildup of debt and the failure to disperse over
capacity left the economy ever less responsive to stimulus. In a much
heralded attempt to break beyond the addiction to borrowing, in 1993
the Clinton administration, and later its EU counterparts, committed
themselves to balancing the budget, a goal that was more than realized
by the end of the decade. The economy would henceforth be liberated
from the dead hand of the state, and driven ever upwards by the
all-knowing, market. But, what this dramatic shift actually accomplished
was to reveal the persisting stasis of the economy system-wide, no less
shackled than before by its profound problem with profitability and
capital accumulation. The resulting hit to demand helped push the
advanced capitalist world into its worst cyclical downturn of the
postwar period between 1991 and 1995, laying bare the system's lack
of an engine and opening the way to a succession of major financial
crises -- from Japan to England and Scandinavia to Mexico and Brazil.
So far, this is a fairly standard Marxist analysis of the crisis --
David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism
lays out a similar argument. And it's basically true as far as it goes,
but rather than blaming the need for higher returns to capital, I see
this as the mixed effect of increasing inequality and globalization.
The capacity build-up was based on the assumption that demand would
grow in and out of the third world, and political (more than economic)
considerations demanded that it be built there. Both these factors
tended to rot out the middle class in the US, a fact that could only
be masked for so long by expanding consumer debt and the housing
bubble. Will be interesting to see where Brenner goes with this.
His key point, that the downturn goes back to 1973, is essential.
Mike Konczal: We Already Tried Libertarianism - It Was Called Feudalism:
I've always been sympathetic to libertarians -- after all, there's a lot
of evidence of abuse of power by states throughout history -- but I find
they keep smashing into practical problems whenever they try to move from
critique to program. So I doubt that what I see as best in libertarianism
really matches up well with feudalism, but what's worst may well. The
piece discusses this as some length, using Robert Nozick's Anarchy,
State, and Utopia as the standard definition of libertarianism. For
now, all I want to do is quote Konczal's definition of liberalism, as
derived from a paper by Samuel Freeman:
Freeman notes that there are several key institutional features of
liberal political structures shared across a variety of theorists.
First, there's a set of basic rights each person equally shares
(speech, association, thought, religion, conscience, voting and
holding office, etc.) that are both fundamental and inalienable
(more on those terms in a bit). Second, there's a public political
authority which is impartial, institutional, continuous, and held in
trust to be acted on in a representative capacity. Third, positions
should be open to talented individuals alongside some fairness in
equality of opportunity. And last, there's a role for governments
in the market for providing public goods, checking market failure,
and providing a social minimum.
I grew up pretty critical of liberalism, blaming liberals for all
sorts of travesties, especially the Cold and Vietnam Wars, but I
have to say, what's so bad about what this paragraph calls for?
The trick is making government representative and submissive to
public interests, but doing that promises to solve a lot of problems
with markets and private fiefdoms.
John Lanchester: Are we having fun yet? and
Let's consider Kate: Two recent articles on the UK banking system:
the first a long laundry list of expensive scandals including the LIBOR
manipulation and the PPI fraud, which ultimately shows how rotten the
whole system is; and the second more on what, if anything, can be done
about it -- mostly focusing on higher capital requirements, citing
Anat Admati/Martin Hellwig: The Bankers' New Clothes: What's Wrong
With Banking and What to Do About It as "the most important book
to have emerged from the crisis."
By the way, Lanchester also has a piece on
Game of Thrones, in case you're interested.