Reasons to be hopeful

June 16, 2018

I often feel discouraged about the state of the word.  But a lot of things seem to be improving behind my back.

This set of charts was created by the late Hans Rosling for his newly-published book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and are taken from Amazon’s listing for the book.

Rosling contended that people in Western Europe and North America underestimate the progress being made.  In his opinion, this was based partly on an underestimation of the capabilities of people in Third World countries.  He thought that the harmful effect of this mistaken pessimism is that it discourages continued efforts to make progress.

He created Gapminder software as a means of graphically illustrating progress over time.

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Ted Forth and the IRS scammer

June 16, 2018

Time for something a little lighter.

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Source: Ted Forth and the IRS Scammer on Medium Large.

U.S. neocons ok with unending, unwinnable wars

June 15, 2018

Colonel Andrew Bacevich, in a recent article for TomDispatch, said the U.S. military is committed to a never-ending war whose aim is no longer victory, but to avoid admitting defeat.

Some generals have even stated publicly that they don’t foresee a time when the “war on terror” will ever come to an end.

That’s not their fault, Bacevich wrote.  Everything humanly possible to achieve victory in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria short of genocide has been tried by the U.S. military and failed.  But so long as American forces remain in those countries, American neoconservatives can say the United States has not been defeated.

Bacevich pointed to the First World War, when it soon should have become obvious that continuing the war was more harmful to all participants than any gain that any of them could have hoped to achieve through victory.  Yet no head of state except Lenin in Russia could think of anything to do except fight on until the end.

This was the great nightmare of H.G. Wells, in The War in the Air and The Shape of Things to Come—that a future world war would be impossible to stop until there was a complete breakdown of governmental authority and social order.

We in the USA are a long way from that.  The only consequences of “defeat” would be giving up the false dream of world empire.

But there may come a time when the nations our government is trying to conquer and dominate will combine and give us Americans a taste of our own medicine.  If and when that happens, all our choices will be bad.

LINK

Infinite War | The gravy train rolls on by Andrew Bacevich for TomDispatch.

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Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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Maybe Kim really would give up nuclear weapons

June 13, 2018

I’ve never believed that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un would give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, mainly because, if I were him, I would regard nuclear weapons as the only way to deter an attack by the United States.

But Joel S. Wit, a former American diplomat who participated in negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s and again in informal talks in 2013, said he believes Kim really would be willing to give up nuclear weapons in return for cessation of hostilities by the United States.

Kim wants diplomatic recognition by the United States, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean Conflict and an end to trade restrictions and economic sanctions, Wit said.  In return, KIm would freeze nuclear weapons development and, step by step in return for U.S. actions, to dismantle nuclear and missile test sites.

This would not be the same thing as giving up nuclear weapons entirely, but it would be a sign that Kim wants peace, and a first step to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.  There is nothing that the United States is doing to North Korea that is of any direct benefit to the American people.

These objectives weren’t achieved at the Kim-Trump summit, and maybe the negotiations will ultimately fail, but the door is still open.

The biggest reason for hope is the desire of President Moon Jei-in of South Korea to make peace with North Korea.   As long as the governments of the two parts of Korea were enemies, peace was impossible.  If they are no longer enemies, peace is achievable.

President Moon’s accomplishment is like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which resulted in the signing of a treaty in 1972 between the West and East German governments recognizing each other’s right to exist.  This didn’t end the Cold War, let alone end the East Germany Communist dictatorship, but it helped make possible.

I don’t see any path to democracy in North Korea, but bringing the North Korean people into contact with the outside world would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

LINKS

North Korea’s Denuclearization and the ‘Libya model’ by Joel S. Wit for The Atlantic.

How Corporate Media Got the Kim-Trump Summit All Wrong by Gareth Porter for Truthdig.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

How Moon Jai-in Brought North Korea to Negotiate by S. Nathan Park for The Atlantic.

Singapore agreement will end the cold war, South Korea’s President Moon Jie-in says by the South China Morning Post.

The key word in the Trump-Kim show by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

The North Korean summit and deal by Tyler Cowen for Marginal Revolution.

Are management consultants of any use?

June 13, 2018

Recently I read and enjoyed THE MYTH OF MANAGEMENT: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009).

Stewart told two stories in alternating chapters.  One is a history of theories of management, which is the topic of my previous post.  The other is Stewart’s personal experience of BS jobs in management consulting.

In 1988, Stewart, at age 26, found himself with a philosophy doctorate from Oxford and no job,  On a whim, he sent his CV to some management consulting firms.  By chance, he got a job from a firm looking for “non-traditional” hires—that is, people without MBA degrees.

Matthew Stewart

He soon found himself going to distant countries and convincing executives twice his age that he understood their businesses better than they did.   His tools were a set of algorithms developed by his firm, and his ability to play the role of an expert.

The main algorithm, as described in his book, was a system for estimating the cumulative cost, revenue and profit for serving each of a business’s clients.

What the system almost always produced was a graph, which looked like a whale, that showed that 20 percent of a firm’s clients produced more than 100 percent of its profits, 70 percent added virtually nothing and 10 percent cost the firm money.

Of course the question is how to disentangle the high-value, little-value and negative-value clients.  If you follow the Pareto 80/20 rule, then 20 percent of a public library’s books can be expected to represent 80 percent of its circulation, and the remaining 80 percent of the books only 20 percent of the circulation.  But you wouldn’t want a library to dump 80 percent of its books.

Companies that stop making low added-value products, as Eastman Kodak did with cameras and Xerox did with small copiers in the 1980s, find that ceding these markets empowers potential competitors.

That’s not to say that the quantitative analyses done by Stewart and his colleagues were worthless.  Understanding numerical data is useful.  But nobody ever checked whether Stewart’s firm’s interpretation of the data was helpful or even correct.  The consultants never suffered any consequences for being wrong.

Stewart did risk analysis—he had no training in risk analysis—for a Mexican bank in the eve of the collapse of the Mexican peso and the Mexican banking crisis.  Neither he nor his client had any notion that the crisis would be upon them, and his firm walked away with millions of dollars in fees.

He quit his firm for a while, then was enticed to join with some breakaway employees to form a new firm.  He invested all of his savings in the new firm.  After a time some the partners started to squeeze out Stewart and other partners.  They stopped his pay without telling him and refused to let him withdraw his stake.

But he successfully sued, got what was owed him and sold his shares in the company at the height of the dot-com stock market bubble.  He then began his new career as an author.

His whole saga reads like a satirical novel.  Indeed, since he doesn’t mention the name of his firm, his clients or his co-workers, it could just as easily have been fleshed out and published in the form of a satirical novel.

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The many pitfalls of management theory

June 12, 2018

As a newspaper reporter who covered business for 20 years, I learned that there are intellectual fashions in management theory as in everything else.

Once the key to success was thought to be vertical integration.  The idea was that a corporation should control every aspect of its business, from raw materials to distribution, in order to guarantee quality and eliminate the middleman.

Then the key was supposed to be diversification.  The idea was that a corporation should engage in varied lines of business so that a downturn in one line of business was offset by continued gains in others.

Then it was core competency.  The idea was that a corporation should limit itself to whatever it did best and enjoyed a competitive advantage, and outsource everything else.

The path of least resistance for any manager has been to follow the fashion of the day.  Failing by doing the same thing everybody else was doing has always been more acceptable than failing by doing something different.

I recently read a book, THE MANAGEMENT MYTH: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009)that validity of these management theories ranges from highly uncertain to completely bogus.

I was surprised to learn that the ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, founder of scientific management, and Elton Mayo, discoverer of the so-called Hawthorne effect, were based on fake experiments.

F.W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor claimed that there was one best way to perform any physical task.  It was the job of the manager or industrial engineer to discover the best way and to micro-manage workers so that they followed it, mindlessly and repetitively.

He claimed to have taught a Bethlehem Steel worker he called “Schmidt” the most efficient way of loading pig iron onto a freight car, and made that a standard method for loading pig iron.

The reality was that, one day in 1899, he gathered a group of Hungarian immigrant workers and challenged them to load as many 92-pound ingots as they could in 14 minutes.  He then extrapolated this to a 10-hour work day, discounted the total by 40 percent.  The total was 47.5 tons.

He offered a wage incentive if they could do this all day.  This would have been quadruple their normal output.  They declined.

Taylor then recruited another group of workers and challenged them to meet the target.  The only one who could was a German immigrant named Henry Noll—the “Schmidt” in Taylor’s tale.  Bethlehem Steel did not adopt Taylor’s method, but it became famous anyhow.

Taylor’s system eliminated the need for skilled workers.  They were undesirable because they might have ideas of their own.  It was up to managers and industrial engineers, not the workers themselves, to determine how each job can best be done.

His method was the same as the Soviet Stakhanovite system: Take a strong and efficient worker, determine the most he can accomplish under ideal conditions and make that the target for every worker.  Lenin praised Taylorism.

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo claimed that workers could be managed by offering them psychological and emotional rewards.

He claimed to have found by accident that workers at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant became more efficient as a result of being the center of attention—the so-called Hawthorne effect.

The reality was that in 1924, an engineer named Henry Hilbert at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant ran an experiment to determine whether increased illumination would increase worker efficiency.  The study was subsidized by the electric power industry.

He gathered seven women employees in a separate room and had them assemble telephone relays under different lighting conditions.  He also experimented with work breaks.  Efficiency seemed to increase no matter what he did.

Mayo learned of the results of the experiment and decided that the real Hawthorne effect was treating these women as though they were special and making them feel they were members of a team.

But Stewart pointed out that the factor he ignored was that the assemblers were given a group wage incentive to achieve greater efficiency.  Also, two members of the original team were fired for being shirkers and malcontents, and one of their replacements strongly wanted the higher wage and pushed her co-workers to do more.

Hilbert later repeated the experiment.  One group of workers were given the same special treatment, but no wage incentive.  Their efficiency did not improve.  Another were given a group wage incentive, but no special treatment.  They achieved the same efficiency gains as the original group.

So it was the pay, not the special treatment that mattered.  But the whole point of Mayo’s method was to avoid the need for increased pay.

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Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

June 9, 2018

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.

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Jordan Peterson’s intellectual limitations

June 8, 2018

I enjoyed and admired Jordan Peterson’s 12 Years for Life.  It is good advice, written in high-energy prose, on how to form the habits that enable you to overcome despair and lead a meaningful life.

The fact that it is a best-seller is not only due to the merits of the book, but on the need for such books, especially for aimless young men.

Jordan Peterson

When I reviewed the book, I largely ignored Jordan Peterson’s underlying political views because I didn’t think they were important to the book’s basic message.

But now that Peterson has become a political pundit on TV, I think his political thinking deserves a closer look.

In the videos I’ve watched, Peterson expresses himself forcefully, understandably and without equivocation.  He gets the better of debate opponents and hostile interviewers.   He says hardly anything I outright disagree with, but much that is one-sided and incomplete.

Here’s what I see as Peterson’s intellectual limitations.

Psychology vs the Social Sciences

Peterson has a good understanding of human motivation, based on wide study of psychology in all its aspects and also his practice of clinical psychology.   But human behavior is constrained by political, economic and social structures, which Peterson has not studied well.

For example, he explains economic inequality as a product of hierarchies of competence, the fact that some people are more talented and work harder than other people.

I have no doubt that such hierarchies exist.  But they don’t explain the great increase in wealth of the top 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the population throughout the Western world.  The average CEO’s income was 40 times the wage of the average corporate employee 30 years ago, and it is 400 times as much now.  Are rich people smarter and harder working now than they were 25 years ago?  Or is there some other explanation?

Psychology helps you to understand what is permanent in human nature.  You need the social sciences to understand differences between communities and societies and how they change over time.  I would like to see Peterson engage with a social scientist who knows his stuff, such as the economist Thomas Piketty or the political scientist Thomas Ferguson.

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Individualism vs. Mutual Aid

Jordan Peterson is an unusually self-reliant and individualistic person.  As an anti-Communist, he identifies with individual dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  But I don’t know of anything he’s written about the Solidarity movement in Poland.  There is only so much you can do by yourself to resist tyranny.  You need solidarity with others.

Similarly, he considers himself a Christian of a sort.  But he never goes to church.  He once said he doesn’t need to participate in a congregation to think about God.

12 Rules for Life is all about taking responsibility for solving your own problems and for society as a whole.  It is sensible, inspiring and a good starting point.  But there is only so much you can do by yourself.  Mutual aid is part of human life.  People need to be able

I admire Peterson’s rugged independence, but most of us human beings aren’t like him.  We need community as well as freedom in order, first, to survive and, second, to get things done.  Peterson is insufficiently aware of this side of life.

Academia vs the Great World

Jordan Peterson became famous not just because of his book, but because of his resistance to mandatory rules about using special pronouns for individuals who didn’t consider themselves men or women.

I think he was right both on academic freedom grounds and on the merits of the issue.  But he writes and speaks as if conflict over political correctness rules were as big an issue in the world as large as they are in academia.

In the world outside the college campus, women are subject to employment discrimination and sexual harassment, black people are subject to employment discrimination and police harassment and unauthorized immigrants to deportation and separation from their families.

These are not micro-grievances, and it is natural and right for people who are picked on because of race, gender, immigration status or other characteristics to band together on the basis of identity to defend themselves.

It is true that this kind of identity politics can devolve into a war of competing micro-nationalisms, without a vision of the common good.  Peterson’s critique of identity politics is all right as far as it goes, but it is not enough.  What’s needed is an idea of the common good.

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The rise of the anti-democratic ‘centrists’

June 6, 2018

In the 1930s and 1940s, the threat to democratic institutions came from fascists and Communists, radical ideological parties of the right and left.

Many political analysts today write as if we’re still living in that kind of era.  But political researcher David Adler finds that, compared to self-described leftists or rightists, self-described centrists are:

  • Less likely to say that democracy is a “very good” form of government.
  • Less likely to say that free and fair elections are an “essential feature of democracy.”
  • More likely (in the USA) to say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with a legislature is “fairly good or very good.”

As I think about this, it makes sense.  If you call yourself a centrist, you mean that you’re reasonably satisfied with the status quo.

And the status quo is a government in which, according to the Princeton Study, legislators respond to the wishes of the economic elite and organized interest groups, but not at all to public opinion.

It is not surprising that so many self-described centrists feel threatened by the rise of populism and want to create gatekeepers to keep the voting public from getting out of hand.

John Burn-Murdoch of Financial Times argued that people with the least education and least interest in politics are most prone to identify as centrists.  Adler says he has allowed for this.

And, anyhow, maybe it says something that people with more education and more interest in politics are more likely to reject the status quo.

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The warrior syndrome as a 3rd system of survival

June 4, 2018

guardians&traders

One of the best books of the late, great Jane Jacobs was Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992).

In it she argued that there were two main systems of thought about political and economic ethics—what she called Guardian morality, which she named for Plato’s philosopher-kings and is the morality of those whose income comes from control of territory, and Commercial morality, which I’ll call Trading morality, the morality of those whose income comes from voluntary exchange.

Guardian morality is concerned with obeying rules and pleasing superiors.  Trading morality is concerned with creating value and pleasing a public.   A healthy society, for Jacobs, keeps these two systems of morality—or syndromes, in her terminology—in balance and in their proper place.

Jane Jacobs

A Guardian organization, such as a police department, is corrupted when it follows economic incentives, Jacobs wrote.   A Trading organization, such as a corporation, is corrupted when it seeks monopoly power instead of creating value.

I claim that what Jacobs called Guardian morality is a conflation of two syndromes.   The two are the morality of Plato’s Guardians and the morality of the “spirited” young male warriors that the Guardians used as enforcers.

I’ll call the second syndrome the Warrior syndrome.   The Guardian syndrome is an ethic of virtue, and the Warrior syndrome is an ethic of honor.  This is a deep division.  Neither “Commerce” nor “Trading” is a good word for the third syndrome, because, as I’ll discuss, it is not necessarily about money, but I’ll use it.

The three syndromes roughly correspond to the moral values of the three estates in 18th century France—the feudal lords (warrior), clergy (guardian) and urban merchants (trader).   They correspond to prevailing moralities in 17th century colonial America—Puritan Massachusetts (guardian), aristocratic Tidewater Virginia (warrior) and Dutch New Amsterdam (trader).

If you think in terms of three syndromes instead of two, some things become more clear.   The Bolsheviks were, as Jacobs wrote, a tyrannical would-be priesthood, an example of a Guardian syndrome gone wrong.

But the Mafia was not, as she said, another example of the same thing.  The Mafia is a would-be Warrior aristocracy based on a perverse code of honor.

The problem with certain American police is that they follow a Warrior syndrome when they should be Guardians.   They are more concerned with establishing dominance and punishing insults than with preserving order

Below is my revision of Jane Jacobs’ chart.   Jacobs’ original words are in italic and my substitutions are in bold-face.

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Three Mexican window-washers and their world

June 2, 2018

Can the U.S. guarantee every American a job?

June 1, 2018

Is it possible to guarantee a job at a good wage to everybody who wants one?  Senator Bernie Sanders is working on a proposal to do just that, and several other Democrats have endorsed the concept.

Nobody in this country has ever tried anything like this.

“Full employment” as usually understood means reducing unemployment to the lowest possible figure, now estimated at 1.5 percent.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created millions of useful jobs, but fell far short of providing a job to every individual who wanted one.   He proposed a postwar economic bill of rights that included the right to a decent job, but it isn’t clear whether that was meant literally or as an aspiration.

At the present time, the most widely-discussed proposal for a job guarantee is the National Investment Employment Corps (NIEC) proposed by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, working with the Center for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Public Policy Priorities.

The NIEC would provide a job to any American 18 years old or older at a minimum annual wage of $24,600 for full-time workers ($11.83 an hour).  They would have a chance to advance within the program to $32,500.  Wages would rise with the rate of inflation or to keep pace with any increase in the national minimum wage.

Full-time workers would be given the same health insurance and other benefits as other federal employees, whose cost is estimated at $10,000 a year. There also would be an option for part-time work.

The Secretary of Labor would provide “employment grants” to state, county and local governments, as well as Indian nations, for NIEC workers to carry out community projects.  The Secretary also would work with federal agencies to identify kinds of needed work that aren’t being done.  Examples might be energy efficiency retrofitting, elder care, ecological restoration and preschool services.

Where local governments could not think up enough useful projects to provide full employment, the NIEC would step in and do the work itself.  On the other hand, it would not fund work that would displace already existing employees.  Investigators would check to prevent corruption or boondoggling.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Paul, Darity and Hamilton estimate NIEC would employ 10.7 million workers which, factoring in part-timers, would equal 9.7 million full-time job equivalents.

They estimate the annual cost of their program at $543 billion a year.  That would be offset, they say, by reduction in spending for food stamps, unemployment compensation, earned income tax credits and other federal programs to help the poor and unemployed, and by an increase in taxable income.

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College has developed a less-detailed proposal, which is said to be the basis for Bernie Sanders’ proposal.  The main difference is that the Levy proposal is based on a wage of $15 an hour.

It sounds good.  What would be the problems?  I think thee are some serious ones.

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How the New Deal created millions of jobs

May 31, 2018

Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that would create jobs. [1]  Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders are talking about a federal jobs guarantee.  Many Americans think this is utopian.

Eighty-some years ago, during the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration showed what is possible.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. 

Rundel Memorial Library in Rochester, N.Y., funded by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937

Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population.  All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.

In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly 3 million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps.

In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8 million workers. …

The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2.75 million idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. …

Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens.  The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.

Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.

A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

Source: Labor Educator

These were not make-work projects.  We still enjoy the benefits of these projects today.  Here is a summary of New Deal construction projects here in Rochester, N.Y., where I live.

  • Doubled the size of the Rochester International Airport (still in use)
  • Built a high school (still in use)
  • Built a post office with publicly commissioned art (still in use, art still there!)
  • Built a new Art Deco headquarters for the Rochester Fire Department (still in use)
  • Built a 40,000 square foot library (still in use)
  • Commissioned a variety of murals in high schools and public spaces, most of which still exist
  • Improved the local waterworks system
  • Set up a local Federal Arts Project center, that paid unemployed artists to create exhibits, run community art classes, and create art for public spaces.
  • Source: Jack Meserve, Democracy Journal.

What conditions exist today that prevent us Americans from doing what our forebears did then?

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Chris Hedges on the coming collapse

May 30, 2018

Chris Hedges wrote last week about the next financial crash.

Wall Street banks have been handed $16 trillion in bailouts and other subsidies by the Federal Reserve and Congress at nearly zero percent interest since the 2008 financial collapse.

They have used this money, as well as the money saved through the huge tax cuts imposed last year, to buy back their own stock, raising the compensation and bonuses of their managers and thrusting the society deeper into untenable debt peonage.

Chris Hedges

Sheldon Adelson’s casino operations alone got a $670 million tax break under the 2017 legislation.  The ratio of CEO to worker pay now averages 339 to 1, with the highest gap approaching 5,000 to 1.  This circular use of money to make and hoard money is what Karl Marx called “fictitious capital.”

The steady increase in public debt, corporate debt, credit card debt and student loan debt will ultimately lead, as Nomi Prins writes, to “a tipping point—when money coming in to furnish that debt, or available to borrow, simply won’t cover the interest payments.  Then debt bubbles will pop, beginning with higher yielding bonds.”

An economy reliant on debt for its growth causes our interest rate to jump to 28 percent when we are late on a credit card payment.  It is why our wages are stagnant or have declined in real terms—if we earned a sustainable income we would not have to borrow money to survive.

It is why a university education, houses, medical bills and utilities cost so much. The system is designed so we can never free ourselves from debt.

However, the next financial crash, as Prins points out in her book Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World, won’t be like the last one.  This is because, as she says, “there is no Plan B.”

Interest rates can’t go any lower. There has been no growth in the real economy. The next time, there will be no way out. Once the economy crashes and the rage across the country explodes into a firestorm, the political freaks will appear, ones that will make Trump look sagacious and benign.

Source: Truthdig

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A clash of elites: the 0.1% vs. the 9.9%

May 29, 2018

The United States has two elites—an elite of great wealth, embracing about 0.1 percent of the population, and an elite of educational credentials, based on the next 9.9 percent.

A writer named Matthew Stewart wrote a good article in The Atlantic about the 9.9 percent, of which he considers himself a member.  If you go to an elite school, you’re on track for a job in medicine, law, finance or management consulting.

How you do in those jobs is up to you, but you’ve got a permanent, lifelong advantage over somebody who is a high school graduate or somebody who attended a non-elite school.

We Americans like to talk about how equality of result doesn’t matter, only equality of opportunity matters.  But the whole point of being in a higher social or economic class is to lock in advantages for your children.

Thomas Frank has written about how American politics has been changed by the fact that liberal reformers in the 9.9 percent no longer identify with the 90 percent.  Instead their goal is a multi-racial, gender-neutral aristocracy based (supposedly) on merit.

This has been exploited by Donald Trump, who speaks the language of the populists of old, but represents the interests of the plutocracy.   And the liberal professional class confuses Trump with real populism, and fears the masses more than they do the power elite.

These are sweeping, over-simplified generalizations, but I think they are a broadly accurate picture of what’s going on.

LINKS

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy by Matthew Stewart for The Atlantic.

Forget Trump—populism is the cure, not the disease by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

‘A man knows a man’

May 28, 2018

The following cartoon is from Harper’s Weekly on August 22, 1865.

This unsigned Harper’s Weekly cartoon honors the service and recognizes the equal manhood of the black and white soldiers who had served the Union cause during the Civil War.

Although black men volunteered to serve in the Union armed forces as soon as the Civil War began, their service was rejected, ostensibly because of a federal law which prohibited blacks from bearing arms in the United States military. (Although the law was enacted in 1792, blacks had served during the War of 1812.) 

Both the eagerness of black volunteers and the refusal to enlist them were based significantly on the assumption that their military service would foster emancipation of the slaves.

At the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln realized the dire necessity of keeping the border states (slave states which did not secede) in the Union, and so he initially rejected attempts to arm blacks or emancipate slaves. 

That situation had changed by the summer of 1862 as the number of white volunteers dwindled, the number of contrabands (escaped slaves under Union military protection) rose and the border states became more secure for the Union.

In July 1862, Congress authorized the use of black men in the Union military, and President Lincoln informed his cabinet that he would soon proclaim the emancipation of slaves in Confederate territory.

The use of black servicemen, like the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), stirred considerable opposition throughout the Union states because of racial prejudice.

Black servicemen were segregated from whites in special “colored” units under the leadership of white officers, such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. (The United States armed forces were not desegregated until the 1950s.)

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Is a non-BS economy even possible?

May 26, 2018

What would the U.S. unemployment rate be if all useless or harmful jobs were eliminated?

It would probably be equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Barack Obama, in an interview in 2006, stated the problem:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’  That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.  What are we doing with them?  Where are we employing them?”

Source: The Nation

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, quoted public opinion polls that found 37 percent of UK employees and 40 percent in the Netherlands thought their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world.

Now maybe that is exaggerated.  Maybe some of them think they make a contribution, but that it’s not “meaningful.”

Offsetting this, the inherent bias of people is to think we are accomplishing more than other people think we do or the objective facts indicate.

For example, public relations, advertising, lobbying, consulting and even speculation on financial and commodities markets have their uses.  It is just that they play more of a role in the economy than they should.

I myself think the U.S. military and intelligence services are much greater than necessary to protect the homeland from attack.  Of course, if the mission is to make the United States the world’s only superpower, no number could be great enough.

The question is: What would happen if all these people were thrown on the job market, all at once?

It would be a catastrophe, unless there were some sort of basic income guarantee (which Graeber advocates) or basic job guarantee.

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BS jobs, sh*t jobs and moral envy

May 25, 2018
  • Huge swaths of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
  • It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.
  • The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.  It is a scar across our collective soul.  Yet noone talks about it.
  • How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? 
  • David Graeber: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013)

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, describes the frustrations of people doing jobs that they know are useless or even harmful, because the meaningful jobs are either unavailable or low-paid.

He said that forcing people to engage on tedious activities that serve no useful purpose, or, worse still, pretending to work when they actually aren’t, constitutes a kind of spiritual violence.

Not all useless or harmful jobs are BS jobs. Graeber defines a BS job as one you know is useless, but you have to pretend is necessary.

I think many of the people who invent BS jobs, or invent useless tasks for the useful workers, are under the impression they are making a positive contribution.  Graeber said his strongest critics are business owners who deny the possibility that they could be paying anybody to do anything useless.

A certain number of people think the world is divided into predators and prey, and pride themselves on being successful predators.  An example would be the bankers and financiers who, prior to the 2008 financial crash, made subprime mortgage loans to suckers who could never pay them off, then collateralized the mortgages and sold them to other suckers.

What all these jobs—hedge fund managers, telemarketers, diversity consultants, receptionists who never get phone calls, consultants whose advice is never heeded, supervisors with nothing to supervise—is that, if they went on strike, nobody would notice.

What Graeber calls the sh•t jobs are just the opposite.  Food service workers, health care workers, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners—all these workers labor under worse conditions and for lower pay than in BS jobs, and, contrary to reason and justice, they get less respect.

Coincidentally or not, the sh•t jobs are disproportionately done by black people, Hispanics and immigrants.

∞∞∞

Graeber said many of us have come to accept the idea that work consists of following somebody’s order to do something we dislike.  It follows, then, that if you want good pay, job security and benefits, you are lacking in moral character.  He calls this rights scolding.

It takes two forms.  Among right-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that working people in the time of Charles Dickens didn’t have, you are a fragile snowflake.  Among left-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that the most oppressed person alive today has, you are told to check your privilege.

It also follows that people whose jobs are fulfilling, such as school teachers, are not really working.  The idea is: You get to do work that is pleasurable, useful and respected.  How dare you want good pay and job security in addition?  Graeber calls this moral envy.

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Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

May 23, 2018

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]

∞∞∞

Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

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Teenage cellist plays at royal wedding

May 22, 2018

 

Nineteen-year-old Sheku Kenneh-Mason played the cello for guests at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.   He is one of seven remarkable brothers and sisters who play a wide range of musical instruments..  Theirs is quite a story.

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Optical illusions up against the wall

May 19, 2018


Manuel de Rita, an Italian artist known as peeta, likes to draw optical illusions on wall murals.  I took these images off a Colossal web page.

I am sure the artist had a good time painting these.  I enjoyed looking at them.  If I spent all my time thinking about government and politics, I’d be depressed.

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What price U.S. world power?

May 18, 2018

Many commentators think U.S. power is declining, largely due to long-term trends, but speeded up by Donald Trump.

I think that’s true.  How much should we the American people worry about this?

Paul Street wrote a savage but accurate article for Truthdig about reasons why the world in general would welcome the downfall of U.S. power.   The enumeration of the death and destruction caused by U.S. military interventions, acts of war, covert action and economic sanctions makes is painful reading for an American.

And what benefit have we, the American people, gotten from it?  Little or nothing, that I can see.  In fact, the welfare of Americans has been sacrificed to maintaining American military power.  We can’t afford to maintain decent public services, but cost is no consideration when it comes to the military.

That doesn’t mean that loss of American global power would be painless.  We would have to find new ways to employ the millions of people employed by the U.S. military, the covert action agencies and their many contractors and suppliers.

Having a large number of unemployed, some highly qualified in the use of lethal force and others in covert political action, would be no small problem.  Neither would being a pariah among nations, as the Germans were for a time after their defeat in World War Two.

The British and French people were better off in the long run after they lost their overseas empires.  The German and Japanese people were better off in the long run after their defeats in World War Two.  We Americans will be better off in the long run if we give up the quest for world domination.

LINK

The World Will Not Mourn the Decline of U.S. Hegemony by Paul Street for Truthdig.

Who’s afraid of Julian Assange?

May 16, 2018

The Guardian reported that Ecuador has spent more than $5 million on closed-circuit TV cameras, 24-hour monitoring and other surveillance of Julian Assange, who took refuge in their London embassy in 2012.

Every communication by Assange with the outside world was monitored and recorded.  Guardian reporters were given access to this information.  I imagine British and U.S. intelligence services also have access to it.

The thrust of the articles is what a nuisance Assange has become to the Ecuadorian government and how understandable it is that they want to get rid of their unwelcome guest.  I am sure this is true.  If I were president of a small, vulnerable country such as Ecuador, I would not wish to antagonize the United States and other great powers.

What the articles also show is Assange’s uncompromising loyalty to his self-appointed mission.  The government of Ecuador expected him to refrain from “interfering” with other countries’ politics.  Assange’s publication of confidential e-mails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton was regarded as a violation of that, as was his protest against the arrest of a Catalan independen

Then Assange went on to destroy any hope of a pardon from the Trump administration by publishing more confidential CIA information.  He published new information about Russian intelligence surveillance.  Like him or not, you can’t reasonably say Wikileaks is a tool of any government or political faction.

All of this shows that the campaign against Assange is political.  It is not about criminal justice.  No routine bail bond case would ever result in the huge and expensive effort mounted by the British and Ecuadorian governments to bring Assange under control.  Only the naive would think that his only risk is punishment for bail bond violations.

He is a lone individual, standing up to the world’s most powerful governments and calling them to account.  He is hated and feared for telling inconvenient truths.  How can anyone who cares about political freedom not defend him?  It is Assange’s enemies, not him, who have to justify themselves.

LINKS

How Julian Assange became an unwelcome guest in Ecuador’s embassy by Luke Harding, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Dan Collyns for The Guardian.

Ecuador spent millions on spy operation for Julian Assange by Dan Collyns, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Luke Harding for The Guardian.

Why does Ecuador want Assange out of its London embassy? by Dan Collyns for The Guardian.

The Guardian Rejoices in the Silencing of Assange by Craig Murray.  [Added 5/17/2018]

Ecuador Under Lenin Moreno: an Interview With Andrez Arauz by Joe Emersberger for Counterpunch.

Ecuador’s Ex-President Rafael Correa Denounces Treatment of Julian Assange as “Torture” by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.  [Added 5/17/2018]

JULIAN ASSANGE’S DEFENSE STATEMENT.  Statement to the Swedish prosecutor after questioning at the Ecuadorian embassy in November 14-15, 2017.

Understanding Julian Assange and US Media by Mike Swanson.  Good background on Wikileaks and older Wikileaks controversies up to early 2016.

The abandonment of Julian Assange

May 15, 2018

These may be the last days of Julian Assange.   He is under virtual solitary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, cut off from contact with the outside world, while the Ecuadorian government is reportedly discussing handing him over to the British government.

He faces arrest jumping bail in a case in which no criminal charges were ever brought, but his real offense has been to publish information embarrassing to U.S. military and intelligence services.

You would think that liberals, progressives and war protestors would rally to the support of Assange, but, for the most part, they don’t.

I know people who in their youth protested the Vietnam War and supported the release of the Pentagon Papers, but can’t forgive Assange for publishing inconvenient truths about Hillary Clinton—as if Clinton were an advocate of peace!

It is not as if the Trump administration considers Assange a friend.  Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said arresting Assange is “a priority.”   Mike Pompeo, former CIA director and now Secretary of State, called Wikileaks a “hostile intelligence service”, as if it were equivalent to a foreign government.

Assange is not a perfect person.  Who is?  He is a lone wolf who is not aligned with any of the established political parties or movements.  He sometimes expresses himself in offensive ways.  He hangs out with doubtful people.  A relentless propaganda campaign has uncovered everything he has even done that might seem to be wrong.

Grant for the sake of argument that everything said against him is true (which I don’t believe).  Weigh that against the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives taken in the wars of the Bush and Obama administrations, and in the wars we can expect to be waged in the Trump administration.

In Wikileaks, he has created a technology by which whistle-blowers can expose crimes and abuses without being hunted down and jailed.  This technology will live on when Assange the individual has vanished from the scene.

Assange’s possible fate is to be turned over to U.S. authorities, followed by execution or life imprisonment.  But that hasn’t happened yet.  If you care about peace, or if you care about freedom of the press, demand freedom for Julian Assange.

LINKS

Being Julian Assange by Suzie Dawson.  This is a review and rebuttal of most or all the accusations that have been made against Assange.

On the Silencing of Julian Assange, interviews with John Pilger and Christine Assange (Julian’s mother) for Consortium News.

Ecuador hints it may hand over Julian Assange to Britain and the US by James Cogan for the World Socialist Web Site.

People Lie to Themselves About Julian Assange to Justify His Persecution by Caitlin Johnstone on her web page.