Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What is neoliberalism?

In The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure Philip Mirowski explores the intellectual history of "neoliberalism". Mirowski claims that despite assertions by other historians to the contrary, there really is such a thing as neoliberalism. Mirowski argues that while not strictly speaking a conspiracy, neoliberal thinkers, following Leo Strauss's concept of the noble lie, have a considerable interest in not publicizing key concepts of their political ideology; thus, unless a scholar is willing to look deeply into the subject, neoliberalism is easy to miss. Although he does not delve very deeply into neoliberal ideology (which like all ideologies has a degree of fuzziness) he does reproduce Ben Fink's summary of the ideological content (reformatted from the original; all emphasis original):

  1. "Free" markets do not occur naturally. They must be actively constructed through political organizing.
  2. “The market” is an information processor, and the most efficient one possible — more efficient than any government or any single human ever could be.
  3. Market society is, and therefore should be, the natural and inexorable state of humankind.
  4. The political goal of neoliberals is not to destroy the state, but to take control of it, and to redefine its structure and function, in order to create and maintain the market-friendly culture.
  5. There is no contradiction between public/politics/citizenship and private/market/entrepreneur-and-consumerism — because the latter does and should eclipse the former.
  6. The most important virtue — more important than justice, or anything else — is freedom, defined "negatively" as "freedom to choose", and most importantly, defined as the freedom of corporations to act as they
  7. Capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries — labor, not so much.
  8. Inequality — of resources, income, wealth, and even political rights — is a good thing; it prompts productivity, because people envy the rich and emulate them; people who complain about inequality are either sore losers or old fogies, who need to get hip to the way things work nowadays.
  9. Corporations can do no wrong — by definition.
  10. The market, engineered and promoted by neoliberal experts, can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by the market in the first place: there’s always "an app for that."
  11. There is no difference between is and should be: "free" markets both should be (normatively) and are (positively) most the [sic] efficient economic system, and the most just way of doing politics, and the most empirically true description of human behavior, and the most ethical and moral way to live — which in turn explains, and justifies, why their versions of "free" markets should be, and as neoliberals build more and more power, increasingly are, universal.

To this summary I would add: Democracy is bad. Elsewhere, Mirowski writes,
The neoliberals believed that the market always knew better than any human being; but humans would never voluntarily capitulate to that truth. People would resist utter abjection to the demands of the market; they would never completely dissolve into undifferentiated ‘human capital’; they would flinch at the idea that the political franchise needed to be restricted rather than broadened; they would be revolted that the condition of being ‘free to choose’ only meant forgetting any political rights and giving up all pretense of being able to take charge of their own course through life.
Neoliberalism, the highest good n'est ce pas?, can never be democratically palatable. Hence, the neoliberals must actively undermine the democratic republic at its most fundamental level — a project on which they have made significant progress.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

One person, one paycheck

The most controversial of the three pillars of socialism is "one person, one paycheck": all individuals have an equal demand on the social product, and an equal obligation to contribute to the social product. I've written about this topic earlier, so let me recap. Strict equality of demand entails that:

  • Generally, each person receives the same demand on the social product (income) per hour of production of the social product (work)
  • Both leisure and "stuff" are part of the social product: people can trade stuff for leisure: they can have more or less leisure and receive less or more stuff
  • The people democratically decide to permit deviations from the above, and the deviations should be self-limiting and self-correcting

The moral basis for strict equality rests on the inherent immorality of income and wealth inequality: inequality is a result of differential success in rent-seeking (direct or indirect expropriation of the surplus value of labor). Successful rent-seeking often requires cleverness and hard work, but it is not the cleverness or hard work per se that are rewarded; instead, capitalist society rewards success at rent-seeking and punishes failure at rent-seeking. Capitalism rewards "successful" people by giving them the value of others' labor, and punishes "unsuccessful" people by expropriating their labor. Regardless of how we nominally structure an economy, if there is income inequality, there is exploitation.

Furthermore, income inequality is dynamically unstable: inequality is self-perpetuating and exhibits positive feedback. Because no system of political economy can stand outside society, people with a little bit more economic power have more power to manipulate social and legal rules to further increase their power. This dynamic instability is ubiquitous, and simply eliminating income inequality will not abolish it, but it seems counterproductive to enshrine a social construct that is unstable by design.

Economically, people's behavior is constrained or encouraged by any number of non-economic factors, e.g. social status, the approval of others, fame, professionalism, and, of course, the violence of the state. (And it is just as violent, and just as much state violence, to make a person to starve as it is to put him in prison.) Economic incentives should be not be the default position, but a last resort, taken with due democratic deliberation.


To be honest, I really don't understand David Brin's article, Stop Using Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The irony of faith in blind markets. It seems to be some sort of critique of libertarianism/propertarianism, supposedly on "conservative" grounds, i.e. by citing Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek . (One obvious problem is that Adam Smith was actually not at all conservative, by both the standards of his time and ours; it is just as absurd to use Smith — who held businesses and business owners in considerable contempt — to support modern conservatism as it would be to use Marx.)

Brin's thesis seems to be that Smith endorsed competition, and that elevating property rights as absolute universal values, the "idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence," is anti-competitive.

Brin relies heavily on John Robb's essay, Central Planning and The Fall of the US Empire, which I criticized earlier. Robb makes a lot of assertions, but doesn't back them up. I don't know how good or bad central planning is in general, and it seems at least as plausible that central planning has historically failed in practice not because the planners were bad at processing and managing information but because they acted rationally in their own self interest and not irrationally in the public interest. If so, Brin's nostrum of competition would miss the point: the point is not to manage information efficiently, but to manage interests fairly.

More importantly, competition is far too broad a term to do any concrete work here. Brin notes that scientists are competitive, but the kind of competition that scientists engage in is very different from the kind of competition in capitalism. Indeed, there are more distinct kinds of competition, including amateur and professional sports, amateur and professional chess. Even the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic could be considered a kind of "competition." Brin fails to address the important questions about competition. What are the stakes? What do the winners gain for winning? What must the losers suffer for losing? Who sets the stakes? What are the rules? Are there any rules at all other than "what you can do to [your enemy] and what you can stop him from doing to you"?* Who makes the rules?

*Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game.

All economies, from hunter-gatherers to modern capitalist and communist economies, consist of centralization and distribution. No economy has ever been absolutely centrally planned, and no economy has ever been absolutely distributed. Rather than vague hand-waving that solves nothing, we need to actually understand how best to mix centralization and distribution, and, more importantly, on what basis do we judge the results.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Strictly commercial: Denver Cat Bar

My ex-wife Sana owns the Denver Cat Company, a cafe where people can drink coffee and pet and play with the kitties who live there.

She wants to open a Cat Bar in Denver, where people can drink wine and beer and socialize with the cats, especially in the evening when cats are more lively and social.

Like the cafe, the cats there will be available for adoption; the existing cafe has found humans for 150 cats so far.

She needs to raise $60,000 to open the bar. If you'd like to contribute, or know someone who would, please head on over to her Kickstarter page, America's First Cat Bar! Wine & Felines and do what you can.

She pays me to help her with her bookkeeping, but I don't get any commission or anything.

Sana is a dear friend, a great person, and the cat bar is a terrific idea!

America's First Cat Bar Promises Wines & Felines (Refinery29)
America's First Cat Wine Bar to Open in Denver (The Drinks Business)
A Denver cat bar could soon become a thing (9News)
First Cat Bar In US, Featuring Wine & Felines, To Open In Denver (
Who Needs a Cat Cafe When You Can Get Drunk at a Cat Wine Bar? (Munchies)
America's First Cat Bar Is Coming To Denver, So Get Ready To Wine & Feline (Bustle)
A Cat Bar May Soon Be on the Horizon and It’s Every Bit As Cool As It Sounds (brit+co)
No One Freak Out but Cat Bars Are the New Cat Cafes (Yahoo! Style)

The requirements of socialism

The debate over socialist "central planning" vs. capitalist "markets" is meaningless and distracting. As I noted earlier, the best we can say about this choice, absent specific concrete problems to solve, is that we should centralize what is better centralized and distribute what is better distributed, and apply careful engineering principles to making everything fit together. But in order to solve these concrete problems, socialism requires deeper and more radical structures: transparency, democratic accountability, and radical income and wealth equality.

A socialist economy must be transparent, both when centralized and distributed. Any person should be able to figure out what any part of the economy is actually doing and how we justify doing what it does the way it does. We need to be able to see all of the decisions that economic institutions are making and see all the data those institutions are using to justify their decisions. (We cannot ever see the real reasons why specific people make specific decisions; we can see only their stated justification.)

We need to see exactly what the government is "centrally planning" and why, and we need to see exactly what "distributed" individual firms are doing and why. This information needs to be directly available to anyone and everyone.

We don't need individuals' specific purchases to be transparent. Individuals need privacy. Nobody needs to know that Floyd Abernathy of Peoria likes peppermint toothpaste. We need to know about purchases only in the aggregate, and we can get that information from producers and distributors, who do not need privacy.

Now that we have the internet and very good storage and searching technology, near-absolute institutional transparency is technically feasible. Everything the government does is on the internet. Every firm's books, policies, procedures, and technology is on the internet. We do not need trade secrets and proprietary technology: we want good productive technology to spread as quickly as possible.

Second, we need democratic accountability. Democratic in that each person has the same amount of political authority ("one person, one vote"), and accountability in that the people themselves, acting democratically, has sovereign authority over economic entities. If the government is doing a bad job of central planning, if some firm is rent-seeking or slacking, the people, acting democratically, need to be able to address the problem. And they need to address it not two years from now, when the next election rolls around, but today.

Democratic accountability poses a more difficult technical challenge than transparency. It is not feasible for even 100,000 people, much less 300,000,000 or 7,000,000,000 people, to vote on every issue of social coordination that affects any given firm or locality. That's not because we lack the technology (we could securely poll 7,000,000,000 people a thousand times a day if need be), but because even with transparency, individual voters do not have the time to build an informed opinion on every individual facet of the economy of even a medium-sized city, much less a nation or the world.

However, as I've written at length earlier, delegated democracy can approach the requirement of truly democratic accountability.

These first two requirements should be relatively uncontroversial relative to the third requirement, radical income and wealth equality. Just as political democracy requires one person, one vote, economic democracy requires "one person, one paycheck": every individual has the same demand on the social product.

This requirement requires more examination, so I'll write more on the subject later. Briefly, though, the goal of communism (at least as Marx seems to have thought about it) is a society where the material requirements for not just life but a comfortable, dignified, and civilized life are as ubiquitous as oxygen, with as little need for specific accounting and rationing. When and if we have an intermediate socialist society, we can move towards a truly communist society only by equalizing the demand on the social product. Only then will we eliminate the economic incentive for individuals to exploit others, and create a social incentive for every individual to have more.

Our society must decide what should be centrally planned and what should be distributed, we must make these decisions about specific concrete economic and social problems that arise, we must decide democratically, and we must make these decisions on a level economic playing field.

John Robb on central planning

ETA: The post in question is from 2011. I discuss it here because David Brin cites it in his recent article, Stop Using Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology, (which, with all good luck, I'll address shortly).

In Central Planning and The Fall of the US Empire, John Robb offers an instance of the trope that central planning doesn't work:
One of the most interesting underlying reasons for the decline of the Soviet Union, and soon the US, is misallocation of resources due to a reliance on central planning [emphasis original].

. . .

A system of economic governance where small group of people -- in the Soviet Unions [sic] case bureaucrats -- had all the decision making power. They decided what was spent and where. Even with copious amount of information, they decided badly.

Why did they decide badly? The massive economy of a modern superstate is too complex for a small group of people to manage. Too much data. Too many uncertainties. Too many moving parts.

Although I do not know that Robb is wrong, I am quite skeptical of this thesis: I have good reasons to believe he might be wrong.

First, I have never seen an empirical study that showed that the Soviet Union (or China) misallocated resources in an unusually egregious way. (No economy perfectly allocates resources.) The only instance I'm aware of of egregious misallocation is Mao's Great Leap Forward. However, I would argue that the underlying source of that misallocation was not "central planning" per se in the sense that Robb implies: the problems of the Great Leap Forward were not the result of the planners being overwhelmed by the complexity of the Chinese economy. I'm not an expert in the subject, but I have read a bit about the Chinese economy, and it looks like the problem was simply bad central planning. The "planners" could have known it was a bad idea, they should have known it was a bad idea, and they shouldn't have massively reallocated agricultural production to the production of steel. Still, even in Soviet and Chinese eras of the most strongly centrally planned economies, both countries transformed themselves from colonized subsistence agricultural economies to world powers, a notable achievement.

And there isn't any way to independently determine whether resources have actually been "misallocated". In economics, "efficient allocation" is a theoretical concept, not an empirical one. There is no way to look at some arbitrary allocation of resources and test how efficient it is. Instead, we create a specific model of resource allocation (perfect competition) and declare it "efficient." We then create other theoretical models (monopoly, oligopoly, etc.) and declare them "inefficient" to the degree that they differ from perfect competition. But not only can we not empirically measure efficiency of allocation, we can't empirically determine whether or not which model applies to any particular real-world firm or industry.

It's worth noting that according to our economic models of efficiency, it is inefficient to pay workers more than the bare minimum needed for survival and reproduction. And our models of efficiency are known to fail in the provision of public goods.

This is not to say that theoretical models of allocative efficiency are entirely useless, but they are quite abstract. To declare some economy "inefficient" is to bring in no small few untestable assumptions.

Similarly, Robb argues that the present problems of the United States are the result of central planning. Although the government is not the whole problem, he claims it is definitely a part.
As more and more of US economy was controlled by a narrow group of decision makers allocating government resources, the more sluggish the entire economy became (most of this was due to massive growth and mis-allocation in entitlements and defense). Further, the ability of government bureaucracies to extend their decision making to remaining majority of the economy through regulatory action, is also a form of centralization.

Again, I have not seen convincing empirical evidence that this claim is correct. What specific time period is Robb talking about here? When specifically did "a narrow group of decision makers" control "more and more of [the] US economy?" Is he talking about 1950 to 1979, where the economy grew by an anemic average of 4 percent per year (in contrast to the post-regulation growth of 1980 to 2016 at a robust 2.4 percent average)? Is he just talking about Lyndon Johnson? I dunno.

Second, I can't think of any better examples than the three he offers that not only fail to illustrate Robb's claim but actively undermine it.

There are bad regulations, of course, but on the whole, regulations work. They keep us from getting sick from our food and water, they keep our airplanes from crashing, and they keep (or kept) our financial system from destroying the economy. When we "deregulate" we get e-Coli in our food and lead in our water, plane crashes, and the Global Financial crisis. And yes, there are bad regulations, but we have a (more or less) democratic process to change them.

It is difficult to see how "entitlements" constitute a misallocation. Is it a misallocation to ensure our parents and grandparents unconditionally have enough to eat, a place to live, and necessary medical care? Is it a misallocation to ensure that our children go to school, get a good education, and also have enough to eat? Is it a misallocation to make sure that people who work, who are actually productive, have enough to eat and have medical care? About 90 percent of "entitlements" go to the elderly (53 percent), disabled (20 percent), and working households (18 percent). What would Robb consider an "efficient" allocation? Soylent Green?

I'm certainly no fan of our imperialist (and quite expensive) military. But as an economist, I have to admit that people want a very strong military, and from a purely economic perspective, giving people what they want is exactly not "misallocation".

(It's also worth noting that every military is completely centrally planned (as are all large corporations), and the centrally planned militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union defeated the centrally planned militaries of Germany and Japan. Of course, we make military blunders all the time, but these blunders are not due to the planners' inability to manage the complexity of operating the armed forces.)

Robb continues to complain that wealth inequality is a form of central planning.
[A]n extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to a form of central planning. The concentration of wealth is now in so few hands and is so extreme in degree, that the combined liquid financial power of all of those not in this small group is inconsequential to determining the direction of the economy. As a result, we now have the equivalent of centralized planning in global marketplaces. A few thousand extremely wealthy people making decisions on the allocation of our collective wealth. The result was inevitable: gross misallocation across all facets of the private economy.

Again, I'm no fan (to put it mildly) of the concentration of wealth in the hands of bourgeoisie. But I don't see "misallocation" (which I can't measure anyway), and I certainly don't see any problems due to information overload, nor can I think of any way to measure information overload.

Robb offers an alternative to centralization:

The only way to manage an economy as complex as this is to allow massively parallel decision making. A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.

But what does this mean? What is "massively parallel decision making"? That's supposedly what capitalism is, but Robb does not seem to be an apologist for capitalism, since it is capitalism that has given us the wealth and income inequality he correctly condemns (but for the wrong reason).

Interpreting this alternative in light of Robb's deprecation of centralization seems to imply that all centralization is bad, i.e. some sort of full-on "anarchism". But total decentralization has well-known problems, such as the Prisoner's Dilemma and Chicken games, information cascades, and the war of all against all. As a former computer programmer, I know that trying to accomplish anything with parallel processing is a very challenging engineering problem. Robb might be correct, but if so, he is proposing a system a thousand times more radical than pure Stalinism.

One alternative cause of our own economic problems and those of the USSR and China is not economic or information-theoretical, but political. The USSR, China, and the US in 21st century all lacked or are losing democratic political oversight and control of the economy. The small groups who control the economy are not overwhelmed by the information necessary to manage the economy; instead, they are simply acting rationally in their own self-interest, trying to accumulate as much wealth and power as they can from the people at large and from each other.

I do not advocate absolute centralization. I don't think such a system is even possible (and neither the Soviet Union nor communist China were absolutely centralized; even if it were possible, absolute centralization does not seem optimal. However facile it is to say so, some things need to be centralized, some things need to be distributed. The hard part is figuring out what to centralize and what to distribute, and how to make it all work. There is no silver bullet: managing all the economic behavior of seven billion people will take hard work, expertise, and democratic decision making.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The inevitable rise of fascism

What we currently have is often called "neoliberalism": the second Gilded Age with fiat money instead of a gold standard; government of the bourgeoisie, by the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie; as little as possible thrown to the proletariat to keep them from revolting, and always by charity, not by right or merit.

Neoliberalism has given us almost a decade of economic depression, economic insecurity, mass incarceration, police murder, wars of aggression, assassination and torture.

Clinton is not just a neoliberal, she is one of the architects of neoliberalism.

The problem with neoliberalism is that if you're not a tenured professor at Rutgers, it has been "incrementally" sucking harder every year since 1980, and by now it sucks pretty damn hard.

Neoliberalism has managed to alienate the vast majority of the population, and neoliberals no longer seek anything but the barest veneer of popular legitimacy.

The best argument the neoliberals can come up with is that There Is No Alternative.

But of course there are alternatives.

There's socialism and communism, of course. Y'all know how I feel about that. (If you're new, I'm all for it.)

Another alternative is "progressivism." Keep the system of private property and the private ownership of the means of production, but use state power not as an organ of the bourgeoisie, but as a counterpoise to its power.

Progressivism is not logically impossible: the welfare state capitalism of the United States from 1945 to 1980, and of Europe, which has not yet completely unravelled, show that it can happen.

Bernie Sanders is a progressive. Elizabeth Warren is a progressive. I would have counted Paul Krugman as a progressive, but his full-throated support for Clinton shows he's just another neoliberal. Sad. But that's where his paycheck comes from, so whaddya expect?

The problem with progressivism, as Marx could have pointed out in his sleep, is that it does not emerge from capitalist relations of production. Progressivism is unstable, and a few missteps — a war in Vietnam here, stagflation there — and the whole thing collapses like a Jenga tower.

Other than socialism and communism, I have sympathy for and common cause with progressives. As noted above, I think they are mistaken, but I would be happy to be proven wrong. And no only are they just the enemy of my enemy, but they also share substantive goals with socialists like me, the welfare of the people.

Yet another alternative is fascism. The strong man (and it's always a man). The subsumption of the the individual to the Glory of the State. The absolute polarization of Us versus Them. Force as the highest good.

Fascism is popular. It requires no theory, no thought. We are good! We are strong! We will crush our enemies, drive them before us, and hear the lamentations of their women! That is best!

Yes, fascism is worse than neoliberalism, despite the neoliberals' efforts to give the fascists a good fight in the evil department. At least neoliberals have the decency to be hypocritical about their evil.

I don't think the bourgeoisie created fascism, but they certainly have seen its uses. Tolerate a little fascism but brutally suppress even a hint of socialism, and The Only Alternative to neoliberalism is fascism. Thus, when black people exercise their Second Amendment rights — and read Mao, and hang out with Bob Avakian — the neoliberals (and "progressives") murder them, imprison them, and utterly break them. When white supremacists and Christian fascists exercise their Second Amendment rights, the neoliberals keep an eye on them, but mostly leave them alone.

It's a good plan. Millions of people who hate neoliberalism are going to vote for Clinton, because Trump really is worse: at best he's a buffoon; at worst he's a fascist or a harbinger of fascism.

I don't blame them. Progressivism is a nice idea, but it failed almost forty years ago. It's a dead end.

Socialism has been utterly destroyed. There are no functioning, effective socialist institutions left in the world. The Soviet Union fell to the mafia; the People's Republic of China fell to the capitalists. The socialist parties and organizations in the West have devolved into squabbling mutual masturbation societies. Marx remains as relevant as ever, but the bourgeoisie have read Marx too, and will not again be caught napping as they were in 1929.

As the neoliberal bourgeoisie becomes more and more divorced from the common good, as the population becomes economically, politically, and socially alienated alienated, people will search for an alternative, any alternative. The only space they have allowed for opposition is fascism, so that's what people will find. Because the fascists are not (yet) in power, they can make no mistakes, and they can attribute every social problem (even in themselves) to the corruption and decadence of the neoliberals. (Meanwhile making common cause with the bourgeoisie behind closed doors for the extirpation of their common enemy, the socialists.)

The fascists are not stupid: unlike the socialists, who really will eliminate (in a political sense) the bourgeoisie, the fascists will allow the bourgeoisie to retain considerable power. Neither are the bourgeoisie stupid: if the fascists allow the bourgeoisie any power, the bourgeoisie will — with the weight of economics on their side — eventually regain absolute power.

For the bourgeoisie, socialism is doom, but fascism is just a strategic retreat.

Clinton will win, Trump will lose. Neoliberalism will limp on for another eight years. The locus of neoliberal power will move to the Democratic party, and the Sanders/Warren "progressives" will be bought off and their supporters suppressed. Any "left" alternative will be fragmented and factionalized into competing identity-politics groups fighting each other for the bourgeoisie's scraps.

The Republican party will continue to move towards fascism. As the neoliberals continue to make the world worse, they will eventually gain power. It's just a matter of time.

Hopefully, I'll be dead by then. As for y'all, good luck.

The Sanders revolution

Chaos is always risky. As Katalin Balog writes in An Inconsistent Triad, Sanders
construed his job [as Presidential candidate] to be the articulation of a vision of a just society, a kind of overarching social democratic Utopia, simple to explain, simple to understand. He didn't seem interested in exploring real world complexity, the delicate balance between competing values; he was not at all riveted by policy detail. He proposed to implement his program not via the nitty-gritty of democratic give-and-take and incrementalism, but via the "political revolution" whose nature has been left a little vague but which he saw himself as leading. The revolution was what was supposed to bridge the yawning gap between his proposals and what seems feasible in today's America. This view of politics and history implies a dismissal of "technocrats", meaning politicians who work in the system. Society needs to be bent to the Utopia, all at once, so to speak, not via the dithering process of machine politics. Though he never indicated that by revolution he meant anything like overthrowing the regime, he did at least flirt with the idea.

Such an attitude is fitting for youth steeped in age-appropriate contempt for the adult world, but bitter experience has shown revolution to be, almost always, a great evil, bringing forth blood, tears and terror in its wake. Sanders' candidacy evoked an earlier era of the socialist movement but that – as should be clear – is a painful dead end of history.

Balog makes some errors here. Notably, Sanders has been a sitting Senator for nearly a decade, a Congressman for 15 years before that, and was Mayor of Burlington, VT. Sanders is a career politician; I think he understands "the nitty-gritty of democratic give-and-take."

Also, I have a very different take than Balog about "technocrats": she labels them simply as "politicians who work in the system," which would seem to include Sanders, who has, after all, been working in the system at its highest levels for 25 years. In contrast, I see "technocrats" as Professional-Managerial Class academic meritocratic elitists, who haven't quite realized they lost power in 1980.

And at what point did Sanders even "flirt with the idea" of "overthrowing the regime"? The only "regime" Sanders was interested in overthrowing was the control of our government by Too Big To Fail banks, big Pharma, the Koch brothers, etc. ad nauseam. I've never seen Sanders once talk about overthrowing the republic or the Constitution. Sanders was interested only in trying to make the liberal capitalist system deliver on its own promises.

Balog could certainly paint me with that brush, but it does not apply to Sanders. Balog implies that demanding single-payer health care, free college tuition, more unions, and serious financial regulation is not only equal parts youthful naivete and cynicism but also "a great evil" and a "dead end of history." Balog avoids lying outright, but with a Ph.D. in philosophy, the connection between Sanders and revolution cannot be unintentional.

I think this point is what infuriates me most about this election: that any opposition to absolute rule of the bourgeoisie in this second Gilded Age is tantamount to Bolshevism.

But perhaps Balog is entirely correct, and we should take her at her word: Sanders is a revolutionary, a Bolshevik, someone who really does want to tear down the regime and start over.

The regime that matters is not the republic: elections, legislative deliberation, checks and balances, the rule of law.

The regime that matters really is the absolute unconditional power of the bourgeoisie, to whom the proletariat comes hat in hand for a few scraps. In the regime that matters, all the trappings of the republic are simply theatre, a cunning illusion; the decisions that matter are made in boardrooms and mansions.

Sanders' real problem, his supporters' real problem, is that they do not yet realize they are revolutionaries.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Progressivism and the fight against neoliberalism

I was born in the 1960s. I was an ordinary child and an ordinary adult: although in retrospect neoliberalism was already undermining international liberal capitalism, the rot and evils were safely out of view. Based on the information I had, it was more-or-less rational and sensible to look at the similarities between Republicans and Democrats as reflecting support for a system that appeared to work well enough, so their differences became momentous.

Today, of course, nine years into the Lesser Depression, god knows how many years into the ongoing catastrophe of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, etc. ad nauseam, the annihilation of the Greek economy, the massive failure of neoliberalism to meet the needs of ordinary people is, if not blatantly obvious, a lot more apparent than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

It was amusing to watch Scott Lemieux completely miss the point in Rarely Has An Argument Refuted Itself So Comprehensively. Aside from being a smug, self-righteous asshole (like everyone else who writes there, which is why I stopped reading LGM years ago), Lemieux does not understand the Sanders-esque critique again Clinton.

Lemieux asserts, probably correctly, that Clinton will throw us a few more scraps than will the Republicans. And when we're starving, even scraps are important. But we will not have more than scraps until we're willing to sacrifice the scraps.

Yes, the Democrats are not as bad, I suppose, as the Republicans. But Clinton will not make abortion available to all women; she will, at best, slow down the erosion of the effective right of rich white women to an abortion (and do nothing to slow down the erosion for poor women and especially poor women of color). Clinton will not make good health care available to all; she will, at best, prop up Obamacare, which just shifts the rent extracted by insurance companies from a lot collected from a few to a little less collected from a lot more (but not everyone). Clinton will not raise the top marginal federal tax rate to 95 percent or even Nixon's 70 - 77 percent; she will, at best, not cut it below its already absurdly low 35 percent.

Neither Clinton nor Trump will even ameliorate, much less reverse, the mass incarceration and mass murder of black people by the police, courts, and vigilantes. Neither Clinton nor Trump will stop the wars against brown people, the slaughter of men, women, and children, in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia, nor stop the loss of American soldiers' lives and health to perpetuate these wars. Neither Clinton nor Trump will stop assassination and torture. Neither Clinton nor Trump will house the homeless nor feed the starving. Neither Clinton nor Trump will bring back AFDC. Neither Clinton nor Trump will make good jobs available to all or even most. Neither Clinton nor Trump will strengthen unions and the political power of the working class.

The critique against Clinton isn't (or shouldn't be) about Clinton herself. I'm entirely unimpressed by email servers, Benghazi, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Wall Street speeches, etc. (Similarly, I don't really care about Trump University, and whatever other stupid shit Trump has done). Twenty or thirty years ago, yeah, that might have been important: the system was (apparently) working; the voters just needed to do the ordinary job of vetting and legitimizing officials. But today, that's enough. There's no point in arguing over who is fit to be President when there's nothing good for anyone to be President of.

There are a lot of people, let me attach the arbitrary label "progressives", who think capitalism can be reformed. I don't agree with them, but we disagree mostly over means and not ends. We have the same conception of social justice; we just disagree as to how best to get there. To reform capitalism, we must dismantle neoliberalism.

To be "progressive" does not mean fighting for ever-diminishing scraps from the neoliberal ruling class. It means fighting neoliberalism, in favor at least of the Keynesian capitalism of the middle 20th century.

Sanders, I believe, wants to reform capitalism and fight neoliberalism. He would have lost, he might have lost badly, but he wanted to fight. Clinton does not want to fight neoliberalism. She is, after all, one of its primary architects.

There are good enough reasons to vote for Clinton. But I think if you vote for Clinton, you have no right to call yourself a progressive; at best you are less reactionary than Trump (which ain't chopped liver). That's not a disreputable position, but it's not progressivism.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I'm not a progressive. I do not think capitalism can be reformed. I do think that neoliberalism is the inevitable result of any capitalist system. I think that no matter what I do — and no matter who wins the next election — we are heading for a global economic, political, and ecological catastrophe, a catastrophe that could well end in the destruction of all life on Earth. I don't want such catastrophe, but what I want doesn't matter.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Vote against neoliberalism

Look, I get it. The Donald is a nasty piece of work; I can't really fault you if you vote for Clinton just to block Trump. And, frankly, Hillary is a pretty nasty piece of work; I can't fault you if you vote Trump just to block Clinton.


Personally, I don't care that Clinton and Trump are corrupt, lying sacks of shit, and I don't care which is the more corrupt, the bigger liar, the more egregious asshole. They're politicians: corruption, lies, and assholery go with the job.

What I do care about is that they both are neoliberals: in their bones. (Trump likes to make mercantilist noises, but if he wins, and he may wall win, he will be a rock solid neoliberal.)

*Neoliberalism: markets in everything, disempowering labor, replacement of the nation-state with the multinational corporation as the locus of state power. There's plenty in neoliberalism to earn both progressive and conservative opposition.

If you're against neoliberalism, at the very least you have to stop voting for neoliberals.

The neoliberals have the number of both progressives and conservatives. They make sure you have a "realistic" choice only between two brands of neoliberalism. So when election day rolls around, you say to yourselves, "Well, better a left/right neoliberal than nothing." But what you get, every time, is a neoliberal.

We are not going to defeat neoliberalism by actually electing people who aren't neoliberals. The neoliberals have a lock on the political process. We can, however, undermine the legitimacy of elections themselves, elections that are rigged to elect a neoliberal every time.

We have to vote, and we have to vote against neoliberals, i.e. against Democrats and Republicans both. Conservatives should — if they wish to oppose neoliberalism — vote Libertarian or Constitution Party. Progressives should vote for Green or Peace and Freedom. A neoliberal Democrat or Republican will win, of course, but if we can push the plurality down to 20 to 30 percent, especially if we are also increasing overall participation, we will erode the legitimacy of elections. And it has to be across the board: not just President, but Congress, the Senate, governors, state legislatures, city councils, attorneys general, dog catchers.

We do have to be careful. If Libertarians or Greens start to actually start to win, that means they have been coopted by the neoliberals, and we have to vote against them too.

What this means is that about half the time, the "wrong" neoliberal, the neoliberal you like least, will win this or that election. This is the price for undermining the legitimacy of elections. Only when neoliberalism has been utterly defeated can we try to restore electoral legitimacy.

If you want to support neoliberalism only because you believe that order is better than chaos, if you believe the devil we know is better than the devil we don't know, so be it. Whatever the reason, you support neoliberalism.

Don't be a craven hypocrite, though. If you support neoliberalism, then vote for Trump or Clinton, whichever you think will be the better neoliberal. Don't whine and complain that you're "holding your nose." Be proud. If neoliberalism is what you want, for whatever reason, then say it! Support it! Praise its virtues from the rooftops!

If neoliberalism is not what you want, then condemn it! Damn its vices! And vote against it.

I don't think voting for a candidate who will surely lose is a waste of your vote.

I think that making a vote you cannot be unequivocally proud of is a waste, not just of your vote, but of your citizenship.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Yves Smith on Clinton

Why Some of the Smartest Progressives I Know Will Vote for Trump over Hillary: Even on Wall Street, a powerful Sanders contingent so hates what Clinton stands for—the status quo—they’ll pull the lever for almost anyone else.

One of Smith's Naked Capitalism commenters says, "I have reached the point where I feel like voting for Trump against Clinton would be doing my patriotic duty. . . . If the only way to escape a trap is to gnaw off my leg, I’d like to think I’d have the guts to do it."

Smith says,
[T]he Democratic Party in the Clinton and Obama administrations has consistently embraced and implemented policies that strip workers of economic and legal rights to benefit investors and the elite professionals that serve them. Over time, the “neoliberal” economic order—which sees only good, never bad, in the relentless untrammeling of capital and the deregulation of markets—has created an unacceptable level of economic insecurity and distress for those outside the 1 percent and the elite professionals who serve them.

. . .

The Sanders voters in Naked Capitalism’s active commentariat also explicitly reject lesser-evilism, the cudgel that has previously kept true lefties somewhat in line. They are willing to gamble, given that outsider presidents like Jimmy Carter and celebrity governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura didn’t get much done, that a Trump presidency represents an acceptable cost of inflicting punishment on the Democratic Party for 20 years of selling out ordinary Americans.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Clinton vs. Trump

Looks like Clinton will be the Democratic Party nominee for President; we already know Trump is the Republican nominee.

I won't vote for Clinton in the general election.

  • She voted for and supported the Iraq War
  • She supported Bill Clinton's mass incarceration of poor and black people
  • She supported Bill Clinton's destruction of welfare
  • She's openly in the pocket of Wall Street and the parasitic banks

Maybe she will be less bad than Trump. Maybe Sanders will use his popularity to move the party platform to the "left". It doesn't matter. I will not and cannot vote for her. If enough people feel that way, Trump will win. So be it. I didn't offer a Devil's bargain to the voters.

The Democratic Party lost my support in 2007. They have done nothing to try to win it back. They won't do anything to win it back. Fair enough. I'm marginalized from the political process: the Democrats do not want my vote, so they won't have it. Their choice, not mine.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Socialism and central planning

I've written earlier about the necessity of strong democracy for socialism. Socialism being run by a self-selected Party with real state authority is no socialism: at worst it's just dressing capitalism up in socialist clothing; at best it's just a novel form of elitism. So when I talk about democratically deciding things, I mean real democracy, not just an "elected" elite. I've written on this topic earlier, so I won't elaborate further here.

One alternative to market socialism is strong central planning. We start with a lot of civil servants, a lot of computers (as many as Google has), a good internet connection. People go on the website, pick what they want to consume, and where and how much they want to work. Given this information and a lot of information about the technology of production, the civil servants crunch the numbers, tell everyone where to go to work and what they can consume. People report to work as specified, and go to the local warehouse to pick up their stuff.

We have the technology to make this work. We would have to work out a lot of implementation details, but systems engineers are pretty clever.

We have to worry about ordinary corruption, i.e. the civil servants and their friends and family rigging the system to give themselves extra stuff. But we always have to worry about ordinary corruption, so central planning in this sense is not (necessarily) worse. If the civil servants operate transparently, and they can, and if the people exercise strong democratic oversight, which they can, we could contain corruption. And, absent corruption, there are no incentives to try to game the system: there really isn't a system to game.

The pure central planning system is not, I think, the best way to operate a socialist economy, and I'll talk about some alternatives later. However, the alternatives have similar philosophical and political implications and elicits similar objections, so I can just address the implications as if we had pure central planning.

I'll deal with more detailed issues in later posts, right now I want to address some general issues.

First, I'm presuming the system is constructed by reasonably intelligent systems engineers and operated by reasonably intelligent civil servants. If the system is engineered or operated by idiots, it won't work. That's true of any system we use every day. What if the airplane were engineered or piloted by idiots? It would crash and everyone aboard would die. That's just how systems are.

As noted above, we have to have and exercise democratic control over both the construction and operation of the system: if there are idiots in the process, we fire them and get smart people.

If you have some specific objection, but a few minutes of thought would reveal a solution, the objection is not valid. For example, "How do the planners know what I want to consume, or what jobs I want to do?" Well, you tell them. Try and think of the simple stuff.

Second, socialism in general entails that privilege is usually absent, at least strongly restricted. If you're worried that your own privilege would be restricted, well, you're right, and this feature is by design.

Finally, capitalism creates a lot of illusions. Socialism strips these illusions and lays bare the reality. Again, the lack of illusions is by design. For example, under capitalism we have the illusion that we are free to not work, and free to choose our line of work. But of course if we choose not to work we will starve and die; those without privilege are just as coerced they would be if we had police enforcing the obligation to work. Again, the lack of illusion is by design.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Dictionary atheism and social justice

I adore PZ Myers, but I think he's tilting at a windmill. Yes, dictionary atheism is boring and reductive, but just being boring and reductive doesn't mean it's not a thing. I think it takes a degree of stupidity to be both an atheist and against social justice, but stupidity is sadly common. (If you complain in the comments that you are an atheist, not for social justice, and not stupid, I will simply reply that you're mistaken about one of those assertions, probably the last.)

Social justice is about... well... social justice. You're either for social justice, in which case you're a good person, or trying to be one, or you're not for social justice, in which case you're a bad person. To be honest, I really don't care whether you're an atheist, a Christian, a Muslim, a Satanist, a Zoroastrian: you're either for social justice or against it. If you're for social justice, you're on my side; if you're not for it, you're not on my side. (This is a moral issue, not an analytic issue. I'm sure you think you're a good person — everyone thinks they are — but I really don't care what you think about yourself.)

Trying to pummel the "atheist community" into focusing on social justice is a mistake, precisely because the atheist polemic against religion has largely succeeded. It no longer takes unusual perspicacity or courage to become an atheist: any old doofus can be an atheist, and many of them are. And even the religious people — except for a few nutjobs that most everyone, even the doofuses, knows are nutjobs — are defensive about their religion.

I don't believe any gods exist, but I'm no longer an "atheist" in the political sense. I'm not a member of the atheist community, but that's because atheism has become so ubiquitous that an atheist community makes about as much sense as a community of people under six feet tall: we have nothing in common but a triviality.

Instead, I just straight up self-identify as a member of the social justice community. If you want to be for social justice, I'm not going to ask about your religion or lack thereof, any more than I'm going to ask about your sexual orientation or taste in literature.

Sunday, June 05, 2016