Friday, April 22, 2016

The secret shame of middle-class americans

The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler

Since 2013, the federal reserve board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

A spoonful of stupidity

The first problem with Saurabh Jha's essay, "A Spoonful of Inequality Helps the Medicine Go Down," is the title. If we really had a spoonful of inequality, he might be talking about something meaningful; however, we presently face inequality in industrial quantities. And the comparison is deeply confused: the original metaphor is "a spoonful of sugar..." Inequality is sugar? Economic growth is the bitter medicine? Jha's title makes no sense.

Jha begins his essay by blatantly poisoning the well: people worried about inequality are "pro-Hillary, morally conscious, happy bunnies who pretend to specially enjoy French wine, and opera"; they treat economists as religious figures" "Pope St. John Paul Piketty" and "Bishop Paul Krugman." Clearly, anyone thinking about inequality must be shallow and irrational, right? We don't have to engage their arguments, just show that the whole concept of worrying about inequality

Jha attempts to rebut worries about inequality by masterfully demolishing an obvious straw man, using a "thought experiment" of breathtaking inanity. In his eople starving during the Bengali famine were all equal — equally starving — but Capitalism (and presumably only capitalism), personified by Mukesh Ambani (presumably referring to this man) will swoop in and save the day. Never mind that India, including Bengal, was already capitalist, a possession of the arch-capitalist British Empire, hardly the epitome of egalitarianism. And never mind that Ambani's company, Reliance Industries Limited, has a Wikipedia page devoted to the company's corruption and The Economist calls Reliance "a rotten role model for corporate India . . . not a national champion but an embarrassment." No, the real problem is that no one argues for equality of starvation. No one argues for a Harrison Bergeron caricature of equality. No one argues that we want absolute equality of everything, and that a world of equal suffering is preferable to a world with the smallest inequality but abundance and prosperity. The (left capitalist) argument is that we have too much inequality, and we have the wrong kind of inequality. But Jha cannot be bothered to engage to know even what the argument actually is. No, to Jha, all arguments about inequality are just the vacuous religious platitudes of latte-sipping moochers.

Jha tries to enlist science to his argument, citing The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014* (2016) by Raj Chetty et al. According to Jha, the authors "found that the life expectancy of the poor depended on where the poor lived, not the degree of income inequality per se." Well, no. Jha cannot employ basic logic. The first part is correct: Chetty et al. (2016) do find that poor people who live in high income areas (e.g. New York) live longer than poor people in low income areas (e.g. Detroit). But the second part is not correct: holding income constant (comparing poor people against poor people) means that we are ignoring variation in income; it absolutely does not mean that the authors find variation in income is not correlated with variation in mortality, holding location constant. According to Chetty et al. (2016), there is, for example, a 4.5 to 5.0 difference in mean life expectancy between the richest and poorest quartiles in New York, the wealthiest area in the study. Yes, where you live affects how long you live, but it is also true that even holding location constant, how much income you have affects how long you live. Indeed Jha actually admits this fact: "he richest 1 % men live, on average, 15 years longer than the poorest 1 %" but there is a "difference in life expectancy for men of 5 years" between the richest and poorest areas. Fifteen minus five is ten, which is not zero.

*What an awesome study. 1.5 billion tax records? I would kill for that kind of data.

Jha claims that the study "finds that life expectancy doesn’t correlate with amount of medical care. Which means that the poor aren’t dying sooner, en masse, because they can’t access the emergency rooms on time, or because they lack insurance. Sorry Obamacare." Even the first part is suspect, because the primary data that makes

Technically correct, but Jha overstates this conclusions. First, the "Sorry Obamacare" dig is utterly specious: The PPACA has been in effect only since 2010; it is far to early to asses its impact.

Second, there's a huge problem with the external validity of the study: it is probably an accurate picture of the United States from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first, but the United States is a highly developed nation, and there are differences between the United States and other countries that affect the relationship between access to medical care and mortality rates. This study (awesome and valuable as it is) tells us literally nothing at all about the impact of and means to alleviate global inequality. Jha is clearly talking about global inequality — otherwise why mention Bengal — but Chetty et al. (2016) are talking about inequality in the United States.

Jha lists "a few things which won’t help the poor: hospitals, bicycle helmets, screening, millennials fretting about names associated with historical wrongdoing, and occupying Wall Street. Sorry social justice warriors – all of that righteous rage may be for naught." Jha does not even try to justify this statement; it certainly doesn't follow at all from Chetty et al. (2016). And really nothing on Jha's list except occupying Wall Street has anything to do with inequality. These items are (to take the quotation egregiously out of context) just Jha's "personal prejudice[s]."

I kind of agree with Jha on one point: the poor need "schools with top quality teachers who care. They need public parks. They need the government to invest in public works to revive jobs." Fair enough. Who is going to provide those things? The rich? Well, we've been waiting, a long time. Indeed, we've been waiting too long. The rich are not going to provide schools, parks, public works, jobs out of charity or altruism. The rich are "segregated in enclaves where they self-flagellate about inequality drinking Dom Perignon" for a reason: they don't want to actually help the poor, or even see them, but they don't want to feel bad about not helping them. And that's just the few rich people who will hang out with a religious apologist propagandist like Jha. Most of the rich are just "segregated in enclaves . . . drinking Dom Perignon," without the self-flagellation: they don't care about the poor at all. Why should they? They're not poor. No, we don't want to wait on the capitalist class to grow a heart. If we want to stop dying young, being oppressed and exploited, so that the rich can drink their Dom Perignon and spit on us, the working class will have to take back what the rich have stolen. I nominate Jha for first donor.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Against the universal basic income

I am not in favor of the universal basic income as advocated by Philippe van Parijs in Basic Income And Social Democracy. Within a couple of years, a universal basic income will just be sucked up in land rent and profit, and, since it will be offset by taxes on middle-income workers, it will result in a net upwards redistribution of real spending power, as rents and profits will come from the middle deciles to the top 10 percent of landlords, stockholders, and CEOs. (Much is true also of the $15 minimum wage.)

To have any lasting effect, a universal basic income must be complemented by public ownership of most housing (with some owner-occupied housing) as well as public ownership of basic necessities: electricity generation, water distribution, food, and education.

More importantly, as charity (and charity it will be) from the bourgeoisie, a universal basic income should be morally repugnant to the working class: it is the working class, those who make what money buys, who should be in a position to be charitable (or uncharitable) to the parasitic bourgeoisie.

The only way we're going to have a reasonable standard of living for the working class is to take political and economic power. The bourgeoisie will not, and indeed because of the structure of capitalism, cannot do otherwise than to exploit the working class to the maximum extent politically possible, and to always try to make as politically possible as much exploitation as is materially possible. There is no middle ground.

I'm pleased, however, that bourgeois intellectuals are starting to talk about things like universal basic income and a higher minimum wage. This means they're scared, and the bourgeoisie is nothing if not cowardly. If the bourgeoisie offers a universal basic income, a $15 minimum wage, the working people should take it and demand more. And when the bourgeoisie offers more, take it and demand yet more. And more again, until the working class has it all.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A rant on socialism, authoritarianism, and welfare

We socialists have to tell a story. That the story is true is helpful, but truthfulness is not the key; the key is to make the story itself compelling.

Trump's popularity (and likelihood of winning the Republican nomination) is probably not entirely due to authoritarianism, but authoritarians seem to strongly support him. A lot of (neo)liberals look at authoritarianism as some sort of aberration or ideological disease. But it's not. Authoritarianism is the displacement and reaction formation of an ordinarily healthy and respectable impulse: the idea that there should be rules and that people should follow them. Authoritarianism and fascism result from the displacement of anger from the ruling class, who are not following the rules (since condemning the ruling class is usually unthinkable) to some ethnic or other social group. Since half of our rules (if not more) are just shibboleths, we can always find "rules" that the black people are breaking (wearing their pants in that ridiculous fashion) or gay people are breaking (makeup? on men!?), etc. ad nauseam.

The most obvious and pernicious of this displacement is anger towards poor people: people are poor because they are breaking the rules — people should work hard, earn a paycheck, and pay their bills — and, instead of punishing them for breaking the rules, we are supporting them, enabling their bad behavior. Outrageous!

Socialism should appeal to the healthy feelings underlying authoritarianism. First, is directing the anger and anxiety where it belongs: the people, poor and not-quite-poor, are following the rules (as best they can; many rules are impossible to follow by design): it is the capitalist ruling class who are breaking the important rules, and we are not punishing but supporting them. It is the capitalist ruling class who are working us harder and for less, who are exporting our jobs, who are allowing our homes to decay, poisoning our water and air. It is the ruling class who are throwing people into abject poverty, and giving them no realistic choice but drugs and welfare. People have to live, and they have to work and be productive to be healthy, and without jobs, people go quietly (or noisily) crazy.

Most notably, we must tell the story that socialism is ninety-nine percent against welfare. Welfare is fine for the completely disabled, and of course people who work have to support our retired elders, our parents and grandparents, but beyond that, no welfare. No food stamps. No TANF. Yes, universal health care, but universal health care is not welfare, it is paid for* by our labor and our taxes.

*In a sense, MMT notwithstanding.

Under socialism, everyone who can do something, anything, productive (or reproductive) works. Nobody gets to laze around on the public dime. And nobody gets to pretend to work. Hedge fund managers and lawyers may spend 14 hours a day at the office, but they're not working; they're just planning their next heist, their next con. Fuck those guys. Everyone works a real job, and everyone gets paid a real paycheck. A socialist government is not going to beat around the bush: if you can work and you don't, fuck you: here's a job, whatever it takes, you will do it.

Socialism is about reestablishing "law and order"; not the pretend capitalist "law and order" which is just straight-up predators' demonization of their prey, but real law and order: people being civilized human beings. Socialism is not about putting everyone on the dole, but putting everyone to work, doing work with dignity, respect, honor, satisfaction, and human fulfillment. Not everyone wants to work. Not everyone wants to be a civilized human being. Those who don't want to work, those who want to be predators, they will feel the hammer of the state, hard enough to satisfy any authoritarian.

But the socialist hammer is different from the capitalist hammer. First, the capitalist hammer is in the hands of the bourgeoisie; the socialist hammer is in the hands of the proletariat. (And fuck the Soviet Union and China for taking the hammer out of the hands of the proletariat and giving it to the faux-bourgeois Communist Party.)

Second, the socialist hammer is that you will have a job, you will do your job, and you will get paid, whatever it takes.

Anyone, anywhere, can walk into the employment office and walk into a job the next day. Not a shit job — the shit jobs pay enough to encourage people to take them voluntarily — not a dream job, but a good, decent job that won't kill you or make you sick, and that will pay you enough to live like a civilized human being and raise a family.

If that's not enough, a police officer will, in essence, pick you up from your home in the morning, take you to your job, and stand behind you while you work.

If that's not enough, well, what should we do? I guess we have to lock you in a building and put you to work there. You won't be tortured. All you have to do to get out is get a regular job (which everyone can get) and keep it.

(We have to keep people who enjoy killing or harming people away from others, but such people have a medical condition, and we have to lock them up, not to punish them but to keep them from perpetrating further harm and to try to treat them, to try to make them productive citizens who can restore their harm as best they can and contribute to everyone's well-being.)

But but but!!! That's so totalitarian! People forced to work! Slavery!

First of all, what the hell do you want? You want to demonize people who "won't" work (even though the capitalist system intentionally creates fewer jobs than there are people), but you don't want to make people work? How does that make sense? Either it is morally right (on whatever basis you like) that people should work, and morally wrong that a person who can work does not, or it's not. If it's morally right, then we get to coerce people to do it; if we shouldn't coerce people, then in what sense is it morally wrong? What, you want to coerce other people to work, but you don't want to be coerced?

Second, who do you think you're fooling? We're already forced to work. However, under capitalism, that force is exercised by the plutocracy, the capitalist ruling class, who are entirely unaccountable to the people. You say you want democracy, right? Why, then, do you shrink from making democratic what is fundamental to civilized society.

I appreciate that you're voting for Trump against the neoliberals, but Trump is a capitalist, and he's not going to give you what you want. The "unproductive" will be off the dole, but they'll be in prison or criminals, and that'll cost you, a lot. The illegal immigrants will be sent home, cheap foreign imports will cease flooding into WalMart, and then Americans (even some white people, oh my!) will be $1 per hour wage slaves. We might get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Syria, and Libya, and wherever else, but do you think Trump is going to just disband the army? (Well, he might, a little, flooding the nation with even more cheap labor). If the Army is not overseas, it'll be here; an army presupposes an enemy, and you, my gentle white lower-middle-class reader — along with all the women, black people, Hispanic people, Muslims, gays, etc. — will be its enemy.

No one will give us liberty and prosperity, not the neoliberals, not the professional-managerial class, not the bourgeoisie, not the strongman. If we want liberty and prosperity, we have to seize power ourselves, and hold it, not give it up ever, to anyone, however well-meaning and sincere.

You can stand for more of the same shit, and vote for Clinton. You can stand for a "change", and live in poverty enforced by a police state, and vote for Trump. Or you can work for justice, for law and order, for a civilized society, a society that is moral, decent, productive and wealthy: you can work for socialism.

It's your world. How do you want it to be?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A socialist analysis of the 2016 presidential election

According to Marx, only the proletariat is capable of a revolutionary transformation of society, not because people in the proletariat are somehow better, but because the contradictions of bourgeois society create the proletariat — and only the proletariat — in ways that will eventually make them capable of revolutionary transformation. Only when the proletariat has lost everything under capitalism will they find the will and the power to overthrow capitalism.

The bourgeoisie has been far more clever than Marx expected in clinging to power, but the contradictions remain, and for a variety of reasons, the bourgeoisie is running out of tricks.

The proletariat must, however, learn to seize power, and learn to exercise it. What makes them a revolutionary class does not make them a good ruling class: there is nothing about the proletariat that makes them especially wise, clever, or efficient. And thus with any ruling class: the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie had to learn to rule as well. There is no way to learn how to actually take power but by trying and failing to take it; there is no way to learn to actually rule without trying and failing to rule.

The 2016 Presidential election raises some interesting issues.

First, neoliberalism is facing real problems. Although he's a racist (or playing one on TV), his racism is not why Donald Trump is popular. He's popular because he's anti-neoliberalism. And if he does beat Clinton, Trump will beat her precisely because he's anti-neoliberalism, at least on paper. (Trump doesn't have the will to actually fight neoliberalism as President.)

Sanders should be beating Clinton like Trump is beating Cruz, right?. He should be beating her even more soundly: the bourgeois left is supposedly more against neoliberalism than the right, n'est ce pas? Hardly. Neoliberalism is a creature of the bourgeois left, not the right. The bourgeois right is much more mercantilist/realist than neoliberal. Socialists should never count the bourgeois left as allies; the bourgeois left would rather risk fascism than socialism.

There is nothing about the proletariat that automatically disposes them to socialism. When they are being oppressed, they will pick whoever offers them the best story about escaping their oppression. The bourgeois right and the fascists are telling a better story than the neoliberals and the socialists. What is encouraging about Trump's popularity is that the proletariat is starting to fight back, on its own terms and not on the terms dictated by the neoliberals. They are fighting back poorly, unwisely, ineffectively, but they are fighting.

It really doesn't matter whether Trump or Clinton wins the election. Both will kill a bunch of brown foreigners and black Americans. The economy will continue to stagnate and decline under both. Neither will do shit about global warming. People in Flint will still drink filthy water. We will continue to imprison people, especially black people, in numbers that would make Stalin blush. Middle class white women will probably do marginally better under Clinton; middle class white men will probably do marginally better under Trump, but everyone not in the top 0.1%, the actual ruling class, or the top 10%, their servants, will be worse off four years after the election.

Indeed, it is possibly better if Trump wins the election. First, Trump is a buffoon, without the will to actually be a real fascist. If he's elected, he will quickly expose the emptiness of the nationalist/realist agenda. If Clinton wins (or if Trump is denied the Republican nomination), then the forces of reaction will just get stronger, and whoever follows Trump could well have the will to real fascism.

Socialists have an historic opportunity, one not seen since the aftermath of the First Global Imperialist War (a.k.a. WW I). Neoliberalism is collapsing, and the forces of reaction have only (for now) a clown to represent them. We have the perfect opportunity to tell a better story (better in no small part because it's true). Neoliberalism is weak, and, losing hegemony, the American neoliberals can no longer buy off even the labor aristocracy, much less the proletariat as a class.

Trump's weak-tea fascism-lite, if quickly exposed, will not have the force to satisfy the proletariat. However, if current conditions are a great opportunity for socialism, they are a great opportunity for real fascism, which holds a lot of appeal for the still-maturing proletariat.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Trump vs. Clinton

Nathan J. Robinson believes that Clinton can't beat Trup in the general election. I don't really follow electoral politics (shameful, I know), but he seems to have some good points. Clinton is a little sleazy, not well-liked, and a terrible campaigner. Robinson thinks Trump will eat her for breakfast.

I do know that if Clinton wins the nomination, I won't vote for her, even against Trump. I think Trump will be a better impetus for revolution than a Clinton or Sanders. I won't vote for Trump, but I'm not strongly motivated to work against him.

It should be an interesting few years.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Race, class, money, and power

Fredrik deBoer is spot on. In economic reductionism, again, deBoer denies the claim that socialists are typically economic reductionists with regard to race, that race is "just" an expression of class and that socialists believe that eliminating class would eliminate racism. deBoer is basically correct: he doesn't believe that, doesn't say say that, and most socialists who know what they're talking about don't say that. I won't say that nobody holds such naive reductionism — the internet is vast and full of stupid — but it's a fringe belief.

deBoer's makes his important points, and I have argued elsewhere that the liberation of black people, women, queer people, etc. within a capitalist system is to liberate only a fraction of those people: it is to ensure that black people, etc. are proportionally represented in the both the 0.1 percent of the actual ruling class, the 10 percent in the professional class (who serve the ruling class with privilege), and the 90 percent who are exploited and oppressed.

I want to make an additional point: the eradication of racism (and sexism, and all other forms of discrimination) requires power, especially regarding the material effects of discrimination. Black people will eradicate anti-black racism when they have the material power to do so. There is, of course, a moral dimension, but that moral dimension is useful only to the extent that it helps black people accumulate power. And in a capitalist economy power is money.

There are two ways for black people to gain money, and thus power. The first is for a few black people to break into the capitalist ruling class by becoming wealthy. No small few exceptional black people have done so, and (with the possible exception of Bill Cosby) good for them. I think they've done important work to fight racism.

However, if someone has power, it's very tempting for them to justify having that power, to believe their power is well-deserved. I don't think black people are angels. I don't think a black person with a million dollars wants to give up that power any more than a white person wants to. So, fundamentally, I think that rich black people are not going to be strongly motivated to address class issues.

Furthermore, the majority of black people will not be able to escape oppression unless they themselves have money. No matter how many black people are million- or billionaires, so long as a black person has to hold on to some shitty job under some racist asshole because they know that the only alternative is at worst starvation and at best some other shitty job under some other racist asshole, they won't escape racism. The only cure is to make sure that black people have good jobs paying good wages, with a good choice of jobs; then they have the material power to resist and overcome racism, not just in the workplace but in civil society.

A strike for black rights is effective only if the strikers have the direct and indirect economic power to survive it and actually use the strike to coerce the owners. A boycott for black rights is effective only if black people have enough purchasing power so that their boycott has a real effect. And it's stupid to argue — and nobody actually does — that only black workers should be privileged: to raise up the 90 percent of black people (and women, etc.) in the working class entails addressing class issues.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Freedom of speech

In Twitter is a Business, Not the Government, Tod Kelly defends Twitter for suspending misogynist and general shit-disturber Robert Stacey McCain. According to Kelly, Twitter's decision is justified by the fact that Twitter is a business, McCain is toxic for their business, and while freedom of speech is an important right, just depriving someone of some specific platform does not seriously impair their freedom. It's not a bad argument, and I've used it myself: this blog and its comments, I've argued, are not a common carrier, and I get to decide arbitrarily what I do and do not publish. But I'm beginning to think this argument is very weak. It's probably sufficient for this tiny little blog, with its ones of daily readers, but Twitter is kind of a big deal, and what does or does not get published on Twitter has a real impact on the political landscape.

The general case is thus: to what extent do rights extend to private businesses? The position "not at all" seems to have already been dismissed, at least in the legal system. Private businesses may not, for example, arbitrarily discriminate on race and sex in both hiring and service. Rights of non-discrimination apply very deeply within civil society, and the government enforces those rights. Even more so with property: property rights do not only limit the government, they limit everyone. If you subscribe to natural rights (which I, of course, do not), a universal natural right should restrict not only the government, but everyone; otherwise the right is not universal.

Thus too with freedom of speech. If freedom of speech were a universal natural right, then the right should apply to civil and private society as well as government. Contrawise, that freedom of speech applies only to government means that the right is not universal, and we must socially construct its application. Furthermore, it's dodgy enough to argue for a universal natural right; arguing on the basis of nature for a limit of rights is that much more complicated: you have to argue not only for the right, but the foundations in nature for its limitations... which always (surprise, surprise) pretty much line up with the proponent's contingent interests.

Now, I definitely support (with presently limited information) Twitter's decision to suspend McCain. Not because I think that businesses are exempt from the principles of freedom of speech (as a communist, I will rarely endorse a propertarian justification for anything), but because I think we should actively and coercively prevent McCain and people like him from having such a large platform as Twitter: I believe McCain's actual freedom of speech should be limited. I don't think we should implement limitations on freedom of speech lightly (to say that some right is not absolute or universal is not to say that it is nonexistent), but I do think that after due consideration that some limitations are indeed justifiable.