John Buell – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 21 Sep 2020 04:03:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Many Ugly Faces of Climate Science Denial Mon, 21 Sep 2020 04:03:16 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – In the midst of a global pandemic forest fires now take unprecedented area of West Coast real estate, and several hurricanes have battered the East and Gulf Coasts. The continuing and intensifying episodes of climate crisis may provide the sort of shock Naomi Klein has identified as tools to strengthen despots’ hold on power and repress or silence dissenters. And since climate crisis is so clearly international mass migrations will likely become an increasing part of the picture. These will in turn present an opportunity for renewed xenophobia, a kind of twofer for a president desperate to hold power at any cost.

In this context it is important to explore the deeper background of climate science denial. Is this simple ignorance on the part of Trump’s base? I fear that emphasis on ignorance is both simplistic and likely to be counterproductive. It strikes me as at least worthy of comment that this issue has ramped up at a time when working class wages remain stagnant and health care initiatives still an indistinct pipe dream.

Beyond this immediate concern, some theorists view the militant denialism of Trump’s base as a form of aggressive nihilism. William Connolly, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins and author of Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, characterizes nihilism as “the sense that all meaning has been lifted from life if a set of urgently needed beliefs are sorely threatened by events and new interpretations.” Prominent amidst the core sustaining beliefs of contemporary US culture is the idea that God infuses the world with divine meaning and providence. Another widely held core belief is that history is set on a progressive trajectory of mastery over nature. Or as ProPublic senior environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten puts it:” “The sense that money and technology can overcome nature has emboldened Americans.”

These views are not consistent with each other, but both share the assumption that one way of another the cosmos is made for us. Its adherents also share an intensity of conviction and a common enemy in liberal government interference with their theological or economic imperialism.

Aggressive nihilism “responds to the shocking evidence” that these core concepts, lodged not merely at the highest level of consciousness but also in more subtle ways in institutional structures and even crude gut level sensibilities, cannot go on as formerly. That response often takes the form of upping the ante of deniability and doubling down on the exact activities that exacerbate the problem.. As Connolly puts it, “Fox News, the Republican Party, and the right edge of evangelicalism take the lead, often inspiring each other to new levels of extremism.” These levels often include threats of or actual deployment of violence to achieve their goals.

The great danger of aggressive nihilism is that it will forestall remedial action until the crisis becomes so severe that some combination of authoritarian government and an even more harshly inegalitarian economy will prevail. The more subtle danger, however, is that the position is so extreme that those who are opposed will feel that opposition alone is sufficient.

Most American citizens do not share Trump’s denialism . I would bet that even many of those citizens who voted for him are not denialists. A recent George Mason/Yale poll found that even a third of Republican voters acknowledge we are living in a climate emergency.

The greater danger is passive nihilism. On the highest levels of consciousness most now believe climate change is real and dangerous. Nonetheless old residues of a crude faith in material progress and a world that exists for us are deeply etched via much of our day to day life over many years. They are lodged at deeper unconscious levels as well having been invested in language and institutional practice so long as to seem merely common sense. These past understanding inhibit people from moving beyond a vague sense of loss toward action on behalf of a effective reforms and a more gentle way of relating to the planet..

Both forms of nihilism must be addressed. Trump’s denialism is premised in part on promises to the working class he courted during the campaign. Progressives need to ask those supporters periodically just how many—and how good- jobs he has delivered. The President tells us he loves coal miners. Will that love manifest itself in defense of their pensions or adequate funding of black lung treatment? At the same time many environmentalists must acknowledge how little they accomplished on that front and the ways in which poverty and insecurity make it difficult to worry about the future of the planet. Worse still centrist Democrats must acknowledge the ways their celebration of corporate globalism leaves large segments of the working class feeling they are to blame for their desperate circumstances. Labeling these citizens deplorable only deepens the wound. Thus winning larger sectors of the working class will require more than exposing the manifest deficiencies of Trump.

By the same token just how effective, how soon, and how passionately embraced these formal policies will be is in part a function of the visceral registers of personal and social life. The good news is that these deeper drives are interdependent, crude, dynamic and thus to some degree susceptible to modification.

George Lakoff , director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society, discusses the role that framing issues plays activating the more generous circuitry of the unconscious brain. Framing includes not merely the choice of words, such as public good rather than government spending , protection rather than regulation, or citizens rather than taxpayers. It also includes the narratives in which we wrap public issues. Drawing on French political theorist Gilles Deleuze, Connolly discussed the role that the accumulations of even subtle changes in daily life, including the visitors we bring to our churches, where we buy or grow our food, driving electric vehicles, campaigns to create bike lanes and public transit systems can alter or delete some of the destructive residues of our past.

What Connolly calls arts of the self—including various forms of meditation and manipulation of dream life– also plays a vital role. Arts of the self, micro politics, agonistic respectful debate among scholars and activists working at the more refined levels of discourse regarding the fate of the earth can mutually imbricate each other. A politics of public good is especially important in reshaping visceral attitudes toward consumption and harsher forms of individualism. Together these might enhance appreciation of a pluralizing world and a dynamic, not fully predictable cosmos to which we can contribute but neither can nor should dominate.


Bonus video:

CBC News The National: “Trump denies climate change behind California wildfires”

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In Praise of Public Debt Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:01:06 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Even as California burns, the states of the Gulf of Mexico brace for another hurricane, a global pandemic rages, an influential segment of DC political opinion wants the populace to focus on the national debt. Employing arguments that go back at least as far as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, Politico reports:

“Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is among the fiscal hawks who argue that additional relief measures won’t help.

Sen. Cruz believes existing proposals in Congress will add even more to the debt without taking meaningful steps to spur economic growth and get Americans safely back to work, which will have devastating consequences for future generations.”

These ideas are not limited to the Republican hawks.

Talmon Joseph Smith, NYT staff writer points out: “The embrace of austerity was remarkably widespread in the early 2010s. Democrats from President Barack Obama to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supported deals to decrease annual deficits. Mr. Obama lowered the deficit as a share of G.D.P. throughout his time in office — even in the immediate wake of the Great Recession, and at the expense of spending more on policies he ran on in his 2008 presidential campaign.”

A painfully slow recovery from the world financial crisis and reductions in already inadequate climate crisis mitigation were the price Obama paid. Budget hawks maintain these sacrifices are necessary in order to avoid leaving a crushing debt burden and high levels of taxation to our grandchildren. Budget hawks warn social justice and climate activists that if they wish to avoid this scenario they must cut other domestic programs==Social Security is their most tempting target== or raise taxes. Advocates of the Green New Deal need to tear down this debtor’s prison the Right has fashioned.

For starters talk about the fiscal burden faced by our grandchildren is nonsense. The vast majority of bonds issued by the US Government are held by US citizens. Some of our grandchildren will be paying interest to others of our grandchildren. There may be a distributional issue here, but that pales in comparison to the inegalitarian stock holdings.

As for the moral judgment that today’s policy makers are irresponsible spendthrifts there are several important counterarguments. Governments around the world have seen their debt to GDP ratios worsen dramatically, but in almost all cases this tend has been a consequence of the global financial crisis (GFC) occasioned by private megabanks and the burdens that crisis imposed on government balance sheets. (Spain for instance had an exemplary balance sheet before the Great Recession.)

Imposing budget balancing austerity on economies before they are fully recovered is a tragic mistake. Recovery in the US has been tepid at best, and Europe, which swallowed an even harsher dose, has experienced an economic and political crisis.

In an amusing discussion about how government could fund a pony for every citizen, economist Stephanie Kelton points out “Without raising a dime from the rest of us, the Senate quietly approved an $80-billion annual increase [in the military budget]… And just where did the government get the money to do that? It authorized it into existence . . . Congress has special powers: It’s the patent-holder on the U.S. dollar. No one else is legally allowed to create it. This means that Congress can always afford the pony because it can always create the money to pay for it. Now, that doesn’t mean the government can buy absolutely anything it wants … our economy has internal limits. If the government tries to buy too much of something, it will drive up prices … There are plenty of ways for the government to get a handle on inflation, though. For example, it can take money out of the economy through taxation.”

For advocates of the Green New Deal more attention to fiscal politics is imperative. The world is awash in the savings of the wealthy, and interest rates are at historic lows. Tax policy can and should address anti-democratic extremes of wealth distribution,n but governments must not wait for success in that endeavor to address the climate crisis. It is the height of moral and fiscal irresponsibility not to borrow massively to meet life- saving needs.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

The Majority Report with Same Cedar: “There is NO Debt Crisis!”

When the Pandemic ends, Put People and the Economy back to Work on Solar and Wind Farms and Electrified Transport Tue, 08 Sep 2020 04:02:49 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Me. (Special to Informed Comment) – Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans share a problematic assumption: Once the Covid—19 pandemic is reduced to the harm level of the seasonal flu the economy can return to normal levels of at least moderate growth. Liberal Democrats would be more generous in providing the relief needed to minimize suffering and get the Keynesian multiplier effect going. Republicans worry—or say they worry– more about the debt levels and sing praises of austerity. If, however, this is a different sort of recession, can we be sure that either, both of which have checkered histories anyway, will deliver even a modicum of comfort? Should we not consider a set of tools responsive to the particular damages inflicted by the virus?

There is general agreement that recovery from the Great Recession depended on consumers’ willingness to spend. But consumer spending was increasingly directed not to goods (consumer durables like refrigerators or microwave ovens for instance) but to services. From a domestic macroeconomic view this was desirable as supply chains for manufactured goods are now global whereas services are almost always domestic. Even though the jobs generally pay poorly and seldom provide benefits they are jobs.

In an interview last Spring, AOC highlighted the conditions in which the US was entering the Pandemic crisis: “And so what we’re seeing right now is the fragility of an economy that is built on tax cuts and subsidies instead of actual prosperity and increase in prosperity for working people. You know, this is what happens when wages don’t go up for 30 years in real terms when you account for inflation.”

If the consumer/worker enjoyed only very weak fundamentals that would leave most unable to handle an unexpected $400 expense , what would circumstances be like if consumer spending could no longer perform its sainted accomplishments? University of Texas at Austin economist James K Galbraith provides a disturbing perspective on this.

The U.S. economy after the crisis saw a vast growth in jobs in bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, hotels, resorts, spas and casinos, gyms, ride-…— the entire panoply of services with which a wealthy society tends to pamper itself. In effect, the U.S. economy became a gigantic carnival of doing each other’s washing and scratching each other’s backs.

Job growth is severely constrained in such a carnival:

….. “jobs will not return until the customers, collectively, are willing to buy the services that they, themselves, collectively provide. But they will not be willing until they have the jobs, which depend on the prior presence of customers. This is a classic catch-22..

TA major reason consumer spending for servies won’t automatically bounce bask is that:

They are generally not essential. They are add-ons that grew up with our wealth, and most Americans can, by and large, do without them… If they have to, people who live in houses can cook, clean, and entertain themselves at home. In recent years, the economy grew by persuading them to leave home… The economy can and will retreat along the same lines, as families with incomes decide to spend less and save more, while those without incomes cut back on everything because they have to. It will retreat along those lines at least until the uncertainties of the pandemic start to recede. But the uncertainties can’t recede, so long as people who provide all those services do not first experience a sustained improvement in their prospect for jobs — and there, once again, is the catch.

Neither trickle down within the market economy (conservatives’expectation) nor multiplier effect on government spending will generate sufficient jobs to give workers/consumers the renewed confidence to spend as they once did. Although consumer spending on services drove the US economy, policy should not neglect a healthy manufacturing sector on which we all depend. Galbraith advocates mobilization of this sector around a new set of goals, including sustainable energy, a new transportation system, climate damage mitigation and public health. These items would improve US competitiveness and are generally labor intensive. Galbraith argues:.” The Green New Deal is now doubly necessary, not only to transform the energy basis of the economy, but also to ensure that there is an economy to be transformed.

Having an economy requires that citizens and producers have assured access to the technologies and resources on which they depend. Wherever possible global supply chains must be relocalized.

These steps would have a more positive effect on the labor market than simply showering it with money as much of the initial grants must be spent for the necessary resources and technologies on which individual projects depend. Nonetheless pools of unemployment are quite likely to remain and thus constitute a drag on consumer confidence. To address this limitation Galbraith advocates a job guarantee, the right of every person to a living wage job. Though this proposal is controversial both among mainstream economists and within the Left, he and the supportive work to which he links make a strong case on its behalf. I will return to the dispute within the Left in a subsequent column

There may be a shortage of jobs at any given time. Indeed, US capitalism has never been able to provide a job for every willing worker. There is, however, no shortage of work that needs to be done or shortage of workers who want to do it. Most human beings desire to be supportive, contributing members of their society. Indeed the psychological costs of unemployment are as destructive as the economic. The current Pandemic/Climate/social and racial justice recession differs from its predecessors and merits consideration of ts multiple causes and destructive consequences.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

KPBS: “Local Organizations Build Support for Green New Deal”

Rotten in Denmark: The Centers for Disease Control stopped Recommending Testing and Tracing Mon, 31 Aug 2020 04:03:56 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Centers for Disease Control guidelines on testing in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic have once again become a subject of attention and controversy. CNN summarizes the change: “The CDC, changing its Covid-19 testing guidelines, no longer recommends testing for most people without symptoms, even if they’ve been in close contact with someone known to have the virus. Many doctors are puzzled by the agency’s change.

Some doctors and infectious disease experts were more than puzzled; they were angry. One factor that makes this disease so dangerous is its capacity for asymptomatic spread. Perhaps as many as 40 percent of those infected show no symptoms. To get a handle on how and where the virus is spreading requires testing.

The current need for testing does not entail the conclusion that new discoveries or other forms of evidence might at some point becomes more appropriate or accurate. But there is no claim of a fundamental paradigm shift here. In response to criticisms it has received CDC now says individual states and physicians still have the right to make own choices. Nonetheless, this concession fails to address one of the greatest deficiencies of the whole Covid19 response, the lack of coordination and collaboration from the top.

CDC, by promoting advice that goes contrary to what many of its own experts advocate, is not only throwing fuel on the virus fire, it is lso further damaging its own reputation and undermining the practice and ethos of public health.

This recent CDC stance is political in two senses. Trump wants less testing because it will show him in a more favorable light. This may not be CDC intent bu and Trump may have played no role in this decision though that seems unlikely. At the very least CDC officials should surely have realized this would be the public perception. It is hard for many not to reach that conclusion, especially given the failure to discuss this change in advance. Future CDC efforts to foster widespread vaccination acceptance may suffer from a credibility gap for which the CDC itself is partially responsible. The Wall Street Journal reports::” Health officials are already fighting to overcome vaccine hesitancy and persuade the wary to get immunized against the coronavirus, as candidate inoculations move closer to approval.”

The longer term consequences of the CDC inept if not corrupt handling of this testing may be more significant. If the statistics regarding the death of our fellow citizens in a war against a pandemic are easily and often crudely manipulated and weaponized for immediate advantage perhaps there is no such thing as a common good that constitutes and is constituted by democracy. Perhaps as Mrs. Thatcher put it, there is no such thing as society. This painful realization discourages and delegitimizes efforts by health and social justice advocates to curb the abuses of unlimited markets. I prefer a different vision, eloquently expressed by Bonnie Honig.

“The democratic experiment involves living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park. But the neoliberal corrective absolves us of this necessity and responsibility. One of the many sad ironies here is that Central Park—landscape architecture’s ode to the power of democratic beauty—is just a stone’s throw away from where barricades encircled Trump Tower from January to June.”

Ultimately unless we can demand recommendations untainted by political and economic pressures whatever remains of the CDC is likely to have only grim news to report.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

The Triumph of Monopoly Capitalism is Hurting American Workers’ Life Expectancy Mon, 24 Aug 2020 04:04:43 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – As summer comes to an end the economic news is strangely bipolar. Business Insider reported that From March to June 2020, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise by an estimated $48 billion.. The journal might also have added that 40 million workers had filed for unemployment compensation and that prison labor was being paid $1 per hour to fight deadly forest fires in California. The cliché is that we are all in this together. This is so only in the sense that some of us own luxury yachts capacious enough to hold luxury lifeboats while the bottom third clings to leaky life preservers. The mortgages of even many middle class citizens are soon to be under water.

What does it mean to have wealth approaching six figure billions? Senator Everett Dirksen once famously quipped “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you are talking real money.” I think it is helpful to translate these highly abstract big numbers into the real goods and services one could command with this money. A state of the art naval destroyer costs about one billion, about the cost of an NBA franchise. One can add a few luxury homes and still have spent only a small fraction of one’s wealth. Clearly possession of an ever- growing stream of goods seems to be an unlikely motivator of the mega wealthy. Even Thorstein Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption must confront the fact that there are only so many hours in a day and thus limits to what can display. In this regard I am always amused by Mitt Romney’s inability in the course of a presidential debate to remember how many houses he owned.

If unfathomable levels of wealth are often sought for something other than mere possession what is the motivation and are these billionaires justified in the steps taken to these acquisitions.?

Conventional economics construes great wealth as the market’s reward for patient investment in those goods and services that most benefit society. And the same market that bestows rewards on the skilled and innovative shows no mercy to those who squander vast resources on overly ambitious or misjudged schemes.

Adam Smith, generally regarded as the father of market economics, had a more jaundiced view of the origins of great wealth: “People of the same trade seldom meet together but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some diversion to raise prices.” Or as Balzac famously put it, “behind every great fortune lies an equally great crime.”

Those attentive to recent news from DC could provide Smith some current examples of anti-competitive maneuvers. Antitrust activist Sarah Miller cites the tech giants as blatant and unashamed practitioners of this strategy.

“Bezos describes his strategy similarly, asserting that “the stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model…we will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages.” Zuckerberg has conveyed the same approach, but more to-the-point; for many years, he allegedly ended staff meetings shouting, “Domination!”

Miller concludes “The best way to get astronomically rich in America is to acquire monopoly power to extract wealth from workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and, through tax breaks, subsidies, and contracts, our government itself. , Monopolies are powerful generators of the inequality that progressives decry.”

During the pandemic, as during the world finance crisis, power has been both the means and the end of domestic and international economic policy. During the early stages of the global economic crisis government responded by creating a 700 billion dollar facility to purchase troubled assets from banks, but only about ten percent of these expenditures went to lowering mortgage interest rates. Federal Reserve treatment of the big finance center banks was much more generous. It lowered the interest rate charged member banks to near zero, a figure it held for almost a decade. The effects of this policy were not neutral. Lower rates in the financial sector were supposed to encourage new investment in the real economy but instead did little more than stimulate a bull market in stocks and cheap money to finance stock buybacks and leveraged mergers and acquisitions. ( Yves Smith , founder of the blog Naked Capitalism, points out that the only industry for which cheap money is a resource that might encourage further investment is finance. So much for restoring the productivity of main street.)

Monopoly power and concentrated wealth do immense harm to the bottom third of the wealth spectrum. We have returned to Franklin Roosevelt’s one third of a nation ill- housed, il-l clad, ill-nourished. Late last year the LA Times reported “New research establishes that after decades of living longer and longer lives, Americans are dying earlier, cut down increasingly in the prime of life by drug overdoses, suicides and diseases such as cirrhosis, liver cancer and obesity… the authors of the new study suggest that the nation’s lifespan reversal is being driven by diseases linked to social and economic privation, a healthcare system with glaring gaps and blind spots, and profound psychological distress.”

The moral case for egalitarian reforms is overwhelming. Obscene wealth disparities are a product of political and economic power, not virtue or extraordinary talent. On the center Left the most popular proposals are various versions of a wealth tax. Such proposals should surely be part of any reform package. A wealth tax would begin to redress the damage inflicted by four decades of socialism for the rich. And it should be framed that way in order to counter in advance the inevitable carping that tax reformers are motivated by envy. Nonetheless more needs to be promoted in order to address the causes as well as consequences of this inordinate wealth concentration. Miller correctly argues: “Trying to address wealth inequality without addressing monopoly power is like trying to stop a boat with a hole in the bottom from sinking by bailing out the water, but not plugging up the hole.” She emphasizes the role that a reinvigorated anti trust policy that attacked the anti-democratic and anti-competitive aspects of economic concentration. I would advocate in addition policies that give working class citizens more voice in designing the economic instruments that will produce future wealth for us all. Anti trust law, cooperatives, labor rights to organize, and democratization of the Fed would all be parts of such reform packages.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Mother Jones: “We Visualized Billionaire Wealth Gains During the Pandemic”

When Did Democracy become a Partisan Issue? The Dilemmas of Late Neoliberalism Mon, 17 Aug 2020 04:05:14 +0000 Southwest Harbor Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Many US citizens take comfort in the conviction that progress toward democracy has been steady even if bitterly contested on occasion. Early in the post Revolutionary War period the right to vote was extended to all white men, even those who held no property. Women achieved the same privilege early in the twentieth century, and the Civil Rights movement of the sixties completed the work Reconstruction had left undone. The arc of the universe is long, but “it bends toward justice.” I would argue, however, that Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United challenge that easy faith. Nor are they aberrations within the fabric of a generally supportive culture and polity. Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. This attack is far more consequential than efforts to manipulate the results of one election.

Confidence that there is no going back is hard to maintain in the face of political controversies today that in many ways replay issues of Reconstruction. To take just one example, the Fifteenth Amendment declares that the right to vote will not be abridged on the grounds of previous condition of servitude.

Radical as the Fifteenth Amendment may seem in the post Civil War context, it represented a compromise. Some representatives of northern states, where in many cases black males were not allowed to vote, did not want to force a change in their own political practices. They rejected a proposed amendment that would have granted the right to vote to vote without regard to race, nativity, property, education, or religious belief. The version of the amendment as enacted says nothing about voter discrimination based on other criteria, such as literacy, or a poll tax.

In the years following Radical Reconstruction most Southern states had in effect availed themselves of the exclusionary practices not constitutionally sanctioned. Some northerners were unwilling to endorse or allow the level of federal intervention that would have been necessary to enforce truly egalitarian outcomes. Many other northerners turned their attention toward economic expansion in the west and toward industrial development. That development had encouraged and been facilitated by readings of the 14th amendment as granting corporations the status of personhood. Late 19th century decisions protecting the intangible and physical assets of corporate bodies helped encourage a process of corporate consolidation that many saw as a threat to democracy. (I am drawing on Eric Foner’s superb work on Reconstruction)

Fast forward from one Gilded Age to another. Citizens United, granting unions and corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates, is often regarded as a singularly dangerous challenge to our democratic norms, especially with its infamous assertion that money is speech. Less attention, however, is paid to the context in which this decision occurred, including corporate consolidation in most sectors of the economy, obscene levels of economic inequality, and near religious reverence for deregulated markets. Media consolidation itself has played an enormous role in driving up the cost of political campaigns. How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?

The post World War II decades saw white working class gains made possible by a set of broadly accepted welfare state ideals and policies. The most important initiatives included the right to organize, the GI bill, Social Security, and a federal commitment to full employment. The gains of that era also depended in part on a less discussed factor, moral, cultural, and political commitments to self government as both key to other values and a good in itself. Wendy Brown, author of In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, provides an eloquent explication of the social connections in a healthy democracy:

“Democracy also requires a robust cultivation of society as the place where we experience our linked across our differences and separateness….citiens of vastly different backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together and thought together. It is where we are politically enfranchised and gathered (not merely cared for) through provision of public goods and where historically produced inequalities are made manifest as differentiated political access, voice, and treatment [and] where these inequalities may be partially redressed.”

The gains that flowed from this ethos were not merely economic. The Progressive and New Deal eras saw a growing recognition that individual health depends on shared commitments to each other.Atlantic Magazine’s Ed Yong points out: “At the end of the 20th century, public-health improvements meant that Americans were living an average of 30 years longer than they were at the start of it. Maternal mortality had fallen by 99 percent; infant mortality by 90 percent. Fortified foods all but eliminated rickets and goiters. Vaccines eradicated smallpox and polio, and brought measles, diphtheria, and rubella to heel. These measures, coupled with antibiotics and better sanitation, curbed infectious diseases to such a degree that some scientists predicted they would soon pass into history. But instead, these achievements brought complacency. “As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, says Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.”

Though complacency is surely one factor, successful social programs can invite attack merely because they are successful. If democracy had been an ideal of the post WWII quarter century, austerity at least as an aspiration came to shape policy from the end of the Carter Administration on. Just why austerity replaced the robust democratic ideal and with what consequences for our nation’s welfare is an important but too frequently neglected topic.

Positive as the gains of the post WWII era were, they carried with them unintended consequences. Workers and employers, having less fear of depression, periodically drove wages and prices up. Bursts of inflation and an unprecedented profit squeeze led to unemployment even in the midst of inflation, an unprecedented and unexpected circumstance. Blacks had been left out of the full benefits of the New Deal welfare state and raised demands not only for political equality but also for economic opportunity, one of Reconstruction’s forgotten promises.

These events provided an opening for a group of academics who had long despised the New Deal welfare state They are often called market fundamentalists, but for many their ambition went beyond laissez faire to include an attack on the very notion of society on behalf of both traditional morals and markets. Brown cites Friedrich Hayek’s conviction that both markets and conventional morals endure and are valid because they arise spontaneously and adapt organically. They bring into being new human powers that would otherwise not exist.

Seen from this perspective democracy is a threat rather than an aspirational ideal. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” and Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution, it is the problem” become trademarks of the era. In the realm of policy the neoliberal agenda includes an attack on all those institutions and practices that make a just society possible in an era market by corporate power and economic inequality. Brown argues: “Democracy also requires constant vigilance to prevent concentrated wealth from grasping the levers of political power. Wealth…will never stop reaching for these levers..There is no limit to its self-serving practices which may include efforts to prevent the traditionally marginalized even from voting.”

An essential part of this faith in markets is the post Reagan view of corporate consolidation. Combinations are to be judged only on the basis of cheap products to the consumer. Older anti- trust concerns about worker welfare or threat to democracy itself are put aside. Such a tolerant attitude is not applied to worker associations.

Brown’s fears are well under way to full realization. The attack even on voting is already a multi-pronged offensive in many states. Strategies include redutions in polling places, limited hours, restrictive voter id laws. All such restrictions are defended by accusations of widespread fraud, for which no evidence has been forthcoming. The deeper truth talk of fraud is designed to conceal is that democracy itself has now become a deeply partisan issue. One party actively attacks or at least tolerates attacks on citizen’s fundamental right to vote. Defending, emphasizing, and repeating this fact along with efforts to contest every voting restriction should be central to the upcoming campaign. In addition, in the midst of a pandemic it is vitally important to point to the disastrous effects of neoliberalism’s encounter with public health’s institutions and practices. Ed Yong:

“America’s neglect of nursing homes and prisons, its sick buildings, and its botched deployment of tests are all indicative of its problematic attitude toward health: “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show,” as Sheila Davis, the CEO of the nonprofit Partners in Health, puts it. “Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire [COVID‑19] response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalization, rather than preventing transmission in the community.” The latter is the job of the public-health system, which prevents sickness in populations instead of merely treating it in individuals. That system pairs uneasily with a national temperament that views health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.”

The signs of neoliberalism are all around us and they long predated Citizens United. Worried about student debt? There is a widely advertised financial institution that will refinance your loan. Trapped in prison with no money for bail. There are corporations and products that will take care of that. Cancer cures, money for funerals and burial expenses can all be obtained via the market. Any problem the market creates the market can solve.

The revolt against democracy has occurred on several different levels of the political process. The question of who can vote is just as contested as during Reconstruction, and not just in the South. As during Reconstruction, it does not take the form of explicit racial appeals. Who can vote is also a function of the racist legacy of our history, with prohibitions on voting by felons serving to exclude large numbers of potential voters, disproportionately minorities..It shoud be mentioned more than it is that these techniques also work to the disadvantage of poor whites. Burnham and Ferguson point out: “In Georgia in 1942, for example, turnout topped out at 3.4 percent (that’s right, 3.4 percent; no misprint). Why is no mystery: the Jim Crow system pushed virtually all African-Americans out of the system, while the network of poll taxes, registration requirements, literacy tests and other obstacles that was part of that locked out most poor whites from voting, too. Since the civil rights revolution, turnouts in the South have risen fitfully to national levels, amid much pushback, such as the raft of new voter ID requirements (though these are not limited to the South).”

Minorities, poor, and even substantial segments of the working class are further disadvantaged by efforts to defund the labor opposition. Unions have been the one big money source that Democrats had available, but as the party from Bill Clinton on increasingly became a kind of neoliberalism light, embracing corporate trade agreements with a little bit of job training assistance thrown in, unions lost members, many corporations forced decertification elections. Democrats lost not only financial resources but also the ground troops that had mobilized their voters.

One result of and partial driving force behind these changes is that both parties become big money parties. Burnham and Ferguson-( December 2014)-“The President and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money – defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1000) from the 1 percent as the Republicans. To expect top down money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle. Instead the Golden Rule dominates: Money-driven parties emphasize appeals to particular interest groups instead of the broad interests of working Americans that would lead their donors to shut their wallets.”

One positive conclusion to be drawn is that if this attack on democracy exists on several levels, activism might be fruitful in many domains and may have a spillover effect. Unions are still not dead, and there is a fight now for the soul of the Democratic Party and that fight might stimulate voter access and eligibility reforms. These in turn could reshape the party’s orientation and ideology. Even at the Federal level Dark money is worrisome to many voters and could be an incentive to mobilize for better disclosure laws. There are ample fronts on which to fight and good reason to keep up the struggle.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Democracy Now! Is Trump Sabotaging U.S. Postal Service Ahead of Election as Part of His Attack on Mail-in Voting?

Top Six Lessons of Beirut and Hiroshima Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:03:58 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Did the massive explosion in Beirut, about three quarters of a century after the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have any lessons or warnings for us. I think the answer is clearly yes.

Lesson 1: Early news reports regarding the Beirut blast indicate that government officials had been warned about the dangers posed by the storage of large quantities of ammonium nitrate, the highly volatile compound that can be used for fertilizer or bombs. These warnings came to naught, compliments of a government that was both incompetent and corrupt. Everywhere in the world corruption reflects and intensifies a scorn for the common good.

Lesson 2: US anti -nuclear activists have long documented the many risks not only of war by miscalculation but also the real possibility of accidental discharge of these weapons. Reading detailed accounts of near misses leaves me with the sense that one of the great miracles of the nuclear age is that thus far there have n been no catastrophic detonation of these materials. Nonetheless. for their trouble and their bravery in nonviolent resistance of weapons and their makers these modern day Cassandras’ reward has been time in jail.

Lesson 3: If a low tech explosive can bring a modern city to its knees, what does this say Looking at the footage of Beirut’s remains leads me to conclude that life itself will depend on emigration and/or massive infusions of food and other necessities. But awful as this explosion was, it represents less than a fifth of the firepower unleashed on Hiroshima. Hiroshima in turn is another order of magnitude less potent than the Hydrogen Bomb, a nuclear device that some of its creators regarded as a game changer just as significant as the atomic bomb itself. Helen Caldicott speaks eloquently of where this leads us: “A twenty-megaton bomb (the equivalent of twenty million tons of TNT) would excavate a hole three-quarters of a mile wide and 800 feet deep, converting all buildings and people into radioactive fallout that would be shot up in the mushroom cloud. Within six miles in all directions every living thing would be vaporized. Twenty miles from the epicenter, huge fires would erupt, as winds of up to 500 miles per hour would suck people out of buildings and turn them into missiles traveling at 100 miles per hour.”

Lesson 4: Much of today’s knowledge of near accidents comes from government documents declassified only many years after the incident. Knowledge of these incidents is of no benefit to our enemies. National security is invoked to conceal information that might lead to public rejection of the next step in the arms race.

Lesson 5: Just as lies and deceit preceded and enabled the careless storage of the fertilizer/bomb so too did the nuclear age begin with a foundational lie, one still accepted by most citizens today. As Gar Alperovitz puts it, “the overwhelming historical evidence from American and Japanese archives indicates that Japan would have surrendered that August, even if atomic bombs had not been used — and documents prove that President Truman and his closest advisors knew it.”

Lesson 6: Like the Pandemic and Global Climate Crisis, nuclear arsenals are a threat to human survival. All three are made more dangerous by denialism and the other comforting narratives that portray them.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Guardian News: “Beirut explosion: new drone footage reveals scale of damage to homes”

Political Suicide: GOP Senators holding up Stimulus are Retarding Recovery in Election Year Mon, 03 Aug 2020 04:03:00 +0000 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Be thankful for small favors. When the Covid-19 depression hit like a brick, almost no one advocated austerity as a cure. For the first time since Richard Nixon proclaimed that we are all Keynesians, budget deficits and a burgeoning national debt were accepted as crucial to mitigate the extent and damage of the ongoing depression. Today that history may seem unexceptional, but faith in the doctrine if not the practice of fiscal austerity has been one of the pillars of US capitalism.

Perhaps the classic defense of austerity is Andrew Mellon’s Depression era defense of austerity at all costs. In his memoirs, President Hoover wrote that Mellon advised him to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” Though President Hoover had less sanguinary views he ended up taking the hit for the Great Depression. Nonetheless, faith in balanced budgets survived the periodically even within the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt never became a Keynesian and a 1937 return to fiscal solvency brought another round of growing unemployment.

More recent experience confirms worries about fiscal tightening. Barack Obama came into office at the inception of the world financial crisis. Unlike today, there was almost unanimous Republican opposition to this stimulus package. He tweaked and reduced that package in order to gain some Republican support. The effort failed politically and the undersized package fueled an anemic recovery

The Eurozone was also at the center of the world financial crisis. It suffered even more than the US. University of Texas at Austin economist James Galbraith points out that Eurozone rules requiring attempts to balance the budget impose even harsher austerity on member states and were the cause of a very slow and painful recovery in Europe.

I suspect that even many Republican economists would accept at least some of this analysis. This brings up the question of why they would insist on substantial reductions in the supplemental unemployment insurance program. I would argue that reductions in that program will not only lead to more unemployment but risks a further downward spiral in the economy. That 600 dollars a week was someone else’s future income. Furthermore if the loss of the full 600 dollars does lead some unemployed to enter the labor mrket, mean wages and hence consumer power will sink.

Workers who do choose to continue their job searches are entering a labor market already showing record level weakness even before the Republican cuts take effect. Commerce Department announced that “the U.S. economy shrank at a record-shattering 32.9% annual rate last quarter. New Labor Department numbers also out Thursday showed that 1.43 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total number of people in the U.S. who are either receiving unemployment insurance (UI) or waiting for approval to more than 33 million.”. Common Dreams

In any case evidence suggests that current recipients of the bonus do not give up looking for jobs. “The data do not show a relationship between benefit generosity and employment paths after the CARES Act, which could be due to the collapse of labor demand during the Covid-19 crisis,” said co-author and Yale economics professor Joseph Altonji.

The Chicago Federal Reserve found a similar trend, according to “Those currently collecting benefits search more than twice as intensely as those who have exhausted their benefits.”

Republicans seem not to consider that for many workers a job is more than just a way of making money—especially if the workplace is organized to value their contributions.

According to conventional political science, in presidential elections citizens usually vote based on the direction of the economy in the months leading up to the election. Why Republicans would insist on proposals that could only exacerbate the current depression is a mystery to me. I would expect the harsh austerity bath once the election is behind us.

Perhaps showing workers how precious their jobs are and who is the boss is of paramount importance. Let’s make them pay with an election loss and job creation policies that address the health and climate issues that only affirmative government can handle.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

WAVY TV 10: “House Democrats pressure Senate GOP to extend COVID-19 $600 unemployment payments”

John Lewis knew that Democrats must build a Cross-Race Coalition against Plutocrats that Honors the Victimization of Minorities Tue, 28 Jul 2020 04:01:39 +0000

An “NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show[s] that American voters have become significantly more aware of racial discrimination and more sympathetic to those protesting to end it …But at the same time, voters are deeply pessimistic about the current state of race relations.”

Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Rep. John Lewis lay in state at the Capitol on Monday, after a lifetime devoted to racial justice issues. With racial injustice now more obvious than ever, steps both by business and government to redress the systemic failings may be possible. Nonetheless some of the best current work on racial politics suggests a more nuanced approach that is attentive to the failures and inadequacies of earlier reform efforts. Drawing on extensive polling data, and on survey research and focus groups, Berkeley Law professor Ian Haney Lopez’s book, Merge Left Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America provides a compelling analysis of earlier failures and a roadmap for future efforts.

Haney argues convincingly that individual voters are quite capable of holding contradictory understandings of race and its role in politics. Some of these citizens are capable of being persuaded to move either right or left, and much depends not so much on a set of specific policies as a broader narrative of the political world. Historically Democrats have had two narratives. One would foreground race, both past injustices and their continued manifestation. The appeal of this narrative was limited. Some viewed the narrative as an attack on white people. Others felt talking about race was divisive. In any case an electoral appeal focused almost exclusively on racial justice seems unlikely to prevail, at least in the electoral arena.

Other Democrats, convinced of the power of racial backlash politics even among many liberal leaning working class voters, argue for a color blind politics Lopez is strongly supportive of the generous, universal welfare state these democrats advocate. Nonetheless he does not accept Left Democrats’ assumption that generous liberal reforms will automatically redress centuries of racial oppression, since it ignores the wide pattern of repression against communities of color via dog whistle attacks.

Most surprisingly, Lopez points out that “failure to consider racial dynamics betrays working class whites. “Many of the Right’s most debilitating stories about working people—including white working families—-are recycled stereotypes about African Americans.”

This last point is surprising to some but is well defended. I would only add that that centrist Democrats failure to address working class anguish regarding the tyranny of the modern workplace also helps spur the demonizing of any group receiving an income while apparently not working.

Are there alternatives? Rather than dodge racism, reframe it as weapon of the upper class employed to create or aggravate divisions and fears within the working class for the benefit of economic elites. Curbing racism and building cross- racial alliances is both an ethical imperative as well as intelligent, long term self-interest.

Lopez writes,

    “Merge Left–No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants.”

Solidarity among these groups, all together against the plutocrats, he argues, is the only way forward.

It is important to recognize that this affirmative, coalition building message is regarded as a threat not only by conservative Republicans and Trump followers but also by centrist Democrats. I think it is an open question whether they would prefer to lose with a campaign centered solely on ethnic diversity while failing to address economic inequality. Such an approach opens the door to Trumpism or worse.

As Political Scientist Jeffrey Isaac argues,

    “it is important for there to be robust and agonistic debate, about tactics and strategies and even values–because even core values have limits or can be in tension with other core values, and all good things do notrun neatly together. Such debate is both an end in itself for those who are serious about freedom, and the best means of avoiding a counterproductive and dangerous sectarianism.”

One must be cautious in drawing conclusions from this academic research and behavior in electoral contests. How well a message is received probably depends in part on the trustworthiness of the messenger. Even a Democratic party that did center its campaign on this race-class message will have a believability problem given its history of increasing retreat from class politics and even on occasion its complete abandonment, as in NAFTA, banking deregulation For this reason it is imperative to hold the Biden campaign accountable to the promises it has made with regard to labor, climate, and racial justice. This is also why it is important to fight in multiple venues, not just electoral.

A cross race-class agenda is more likely to succeed if proponents acknowledge and redress the sectarian squabbling that has been the plague of left politics for centuries. Liberals, Marxists, social democrats, Christian Social Gospel advocates cannot and should not be expected to put aside the fundamental moral and strategic principles that animate their commitment to democracy and racial justice, but they can strive for a little humility by acknowledging the limits of their own perspectives even as they critique their opponents. Ian Haney Lopez has made an exemplary contribution to such an inclusive democratic politics.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

White Democrats Want To Reduce Racial Inequalities … Until They Don’t l FiveThirtyEight