Why Brooks won’t be dissuaded

New York Times columnist David Brooks routinely pillories the poor for their own shortcomings (here, for instance). For him, one’s situation is all about behavior and attitude. The rich have what it takes, and if we want what they have, then we need only adopt their dispositions.

Just as routinely, Brooks’s unsolicited advice and admonitions trigger reactions such as this. Ever supercilious, Brooks never even hints that his fact-based opposition affects his own dispositions. He is fixed in his ways and views. Nor does the Times bother to juxtapose a correction sheet to Brooks’s mendacious meanderings. I suspect that the reason for the recalcitrance and the paper’s conspicuously absent truth meter has much to do with money. Yep.

Brooks is controversial, deliberately so. People read him to either confirm their equally fanciful biases or to derive perverse entertainment. He writes. The Times publishes. People notice. Advertisers delight. Repeat.

Reflections on 9/11

bin Laden struck the obvious targets, symbols of wealth and war. In doing so, he set in motion a chain of events, beginning with the invasion of Iraq, that succeeded in demonizing his own religion, widening the chasm between cultures, and making it all but impossible to achieve any meaningful and lasting peace over large swaths of the globe.

Those should have been our targets—though I hasten to add only figuratively and without the senseless loss of lives. 9/11 distracted Americans from focusing on the fundamental issues that have exacerbated inequality, crumbled public infrastructures, and fueled unbridled militarism. After the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, U.S. citizens quickly, and full-throatedly, joined the jingoist chorus to seek indiscriminate revenge on a Middle Eastern ethos while simultaneously turning a blind eye to a rampaging Wall Street, which was systematically transferring wealth from the Rest of Us into corporate coffers.

Look at what we’ve got: a Congress inimical to the general welfare; a president reversing both rhetoric and deed to kill abroad and surveil our every chit and chat; a Wall Street carefully restored as if it had never pilfered or plundered; and a political climate so toxic and farcical as to frustrate all attempts to actualize the Constitution’s Preamble.

Perhaps that noble experiment borne of revolution should be seen with sober eyes and judged a monumental failure. It’s simply not working, save for a scant few whose greed knows no bounds. And despite a planet headed for catastrophe, we are hardly equipped to even discuss the problems let alone seriously consider proffered solutions.

This will not end well.

Chomsky on racism

Noam Chomsky is interviewed for the New York Times. There is much to quote. Consider:

The Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery, but a decade later “slavery by another name” (also the title of an important study by Douglas A. Blackmon) was introduced. Black life was criminalized by overly harsh codes that targeted black people. Soon an even more valuable form of slavery was available for agribusiness, mining, steel — more valuable because the state, not the capitalist, was responsible for sustaining the enslaved labor force, meaning that blacks were arrested without real cause and prisoners were put to work for these business interests. The system provided a major contribution to the rapid industrial development from the late 19th century.

Those, like Obama, who prefer to rhapsodize about the “long arc” of progress and how we should subjugate the past to the promises of some yet unrealized future do more harm than good. We can’t eat promises. We can’t be sheltered by promises. We can’t achieve justice via promises. Indeed, no one has promised anything.

First, name the evil. Then we’ll talk.

Ruining public education

Diane Ravitch, whose invaluable blog draws needed attention to the plight of public schools, especially after No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, decries the testing madness and the near-religious embrace of the Common Core standards. In this post she focuses on the winner of a prestigious teaching award. I quote:

…When one of the interviewers asked [the award recipient] what she would tell a young person interested in teaching, she said she would tell them to go into the private sector, not into public school teaching. The interviewers were taken aback. Atwell explained that the Common Core and the testing that goes with it had turned teachers into “technicians,” making it hard for them to teach the best they knew how. She would urge them to find an independent school where there is no Common Core and no state testing.


Don’t worry, be happy

From Ginandtacos.com:

In the meantime, though, things will probably get worse before they get better as more states like Michigan and Wisconsin are depopulated and the electorate becomes one dominated by old, white, rural dead-enders with nowhere to go, like some economic Operation Gladio (and nearly as riddled with fascists). The iron law of globalized capitalism is that someone will always do it for less, and the only way right-wing elected officials will be able to compensate for promises of economic growth that never materialize no matter how many tax cuts are gifted to the Job Creators is to cut until they hit bone. Once that happens and their current gray-haired base of political support has gone to the great Denny’s in the sky, we might have a chance. For people my age and younger, however, the changes won’t come soon enough and we might as well get used to the fact that we are part of an economic lost generation.

Meanwhile, the robots are coming.

We don’t live in “principle”

Dean Baker:

…the United States has faced a serious problem of secular stagnation, meaning it does not have enough demand to bring the economy to full employment. In principle this problem can be easily addressed by a big government stimulus program. But we don’t live in principle, we live in Washington [D.C.], where no one in a position of power is prepared to talk about big increases in the government deficit. Hence, secular stagnation is a real live problem.

Good for one, bad for all

Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) wrote:

[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. …[He] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

Thus became the organizing principle of modern capitalism: The individual pursues his or her own self interest and that in doing so the greater good is achieved for all.

Smith implies as well, and contra Rousseau, that one should not and cannot act with the purpose of benefitting society as a whole (the general will, say). To do so will frustrate the “industry” of the individual; writ large, the product of all individuals will be compromised, and the overall economy will perform below its maximum.

There is, we must admit, a certain elegance to the prescription. We are freed, indeed encouraged, to behave without regard to the general welfare. We do what we want and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that the “invisible hand” will sort out everything for the greater good. No need to plan, certainly. No need for a czar of bread or any other commodity or service.

Yet, we must acknowledge that the invisible-hand-led market has yielded some rather perverse outcomes, not the least of which is gross inequality. We must also consider market failures, environmental degradation being chief among them. One could make the case that rational behavior at the individual level actually yields collective irrationality, in which the very survival of species are at stake.

Against Smith, we might ponder the following:

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence…Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.*

In seeking to maximize profits (the difference between revenues and costs), the employer pays the lowest possible wage to his or her workers. Makes sense, you might say. But when all employers, or at least a significant portion of them, do the same, workers lack sufficient income to buy products and services produced by those employers. Of course, workers could purchase on credit, foregoing future income to satisfy immediate needs or wants. That would seem to be the preferred solution of the employers. However, and as it happens on occasion, workers react to accumulating debt by curtailing purchases in favor of deleveraging. If enough workers do the same, the problem of effective demand returns.

Yet, this system of production and consumption bodes ill for the planet as a whole, since waste is ignored. In effect, we billions of humans soil our own nest. The unanswered question: Will we deplete the natural resource stock before we render the earth uninhabitable?


* Fred Magdoff, “A Rational Agriculture Is Incompatible with Capitalism,” Monthly Review, March 2015