Monday, October 15, 2012

Pity Your Elders

If you can't respect your elders, at least have the decency to pity them.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vote In This Election, But Look Beyond Elections


At this point in time, almost every civic institution has failed the American people.  Congress has become the laughingstock of the world’s democracies, so filled with bumpkins and partisan know-nothings that in a time of serious crises most of the nation’s vital business remains undone or not even begun.  Our Supreme Court, in a set of perverse legal fictions, has deemed corporations to be people and money to be political speech, leading to an unprecedented flood of unregulated cash that has drowned the last vestiges of integrity in our electoral process.  Meanwhile, one major political party—the one that has been taken over by bigots, religious fundamentalists who disdain science, and Ayn Rand devotees—is in over thirty states attempting to purge the rolls of citizens likely to vote for the other major party.  The leadership of both parties are the creatures of an unaccountable financial elite that has overseen the decline of America’s postwar middle class over the past thirty-five years; as a result, the US has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world.  This has come about through decades of intensive lobbying and deregulation that created a global and financialized economy completely detached from domestic productive activity, and which produced the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Since 2007, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and homes, and the unemployment rate of new college graduates hovers at about 50%.  The bankers and financiers whose irresponsible and arguably fraudulent practices precipitated this crisis have not only gone unprosecuted; they were in fact rewarded for their malfeasance with an enormous taxpayer bailout, and their profits are as high as ever.  In the meantime, roughly 30% of the electorate suffers from a social pathology that sees incipient tyranny in a modest reform of our health care system, while ignoring the fact that two successive presidential administrations—one Republican and one Democratic—have presided over an unprecedented expansion of executive power, which now explicitly claims for itself the right to practice warrantless surveillance, to indefinitely detain (without charges) noncitizens and citizens alike, and to practice torture and extralegal, unilateral killing.  In sum, we no longer live in a functional democracy, but rather a kleptomaniacal oligarchy that serves the few, and which has grown adept at distracting the many.  War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

Should you vote in this election, despite this pessimistic situation?  Yes.  Vote in this election, vote tactically, yes, vote for the perennial “lesser of two evils,” but look beyond elections if you’re at all serious about reversing these trends and reclaiming your future.  Consider this: our nation’s founders changed the world without casting a ballot.  Retrieve their daring, imagination, and courage, and hold fast to their notion that government ought to dedicate itself to the common welfare of us all.  On their account, government is to serve the people, as is the economy, and the moment the people are subordinated to either the people have a duty to revolt against both.  Do not fear government, because it rightfully belongs to us.  Rather, keep your eyes fixed firmly on those forces that have usurped our democracy; the time has come for these forces to fear us.  Remember that authentic dissent is often the highest form of patriotism, and that protest should be more than mere ritual.  Look not only to the past for inspiration, but also to the present—to the Arab Spring, to Greece, Spain, Portugal, Qu├ębec, and Iceland.  Look at what these peoples have done, and are doing.  Learn the democracy of the streets.  Become citizens in the fullest sense, and demand what is yours.  Reclaim your government and your nation from those who have taken them from you.  Dare to think outside the ballot box, as others have done before you, and as others are doing now.  Look and see, then imagine what a “more perfect union” would look like, and then act to make it a reality.  Don’t stop until this future is realized.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Paradox of Libertarianism

On the one hand, there is The Market--"natural," implacable, with its own ebbs and flows, and thus possessing the force and necessity of a physical law.  Understood this way, The Market cannot be obstructed, defied, or censured in any way.  We can complain about it, yes, in the same way that we complain about the weather, but in the end such complaints go unheard.  The Market, like the weather, is an objective and impersonal force; it has no ears.  Complaining about our diminished portfolios won't offset our losses, just like complaining about the rain won't dry the dampness of our clothes.  And should a recession cost us our homes and jobs, there's nothing to rail against.  After all, wouldn't it be absurd to blame a hurricane for the devastation it causes?  The dynamic of the offending storm is agentless, and hence blameless.  So it is for The Market, too.  We all live under it, just as we live under the skies that are mysteriously and alternately benevolent and destructive.  It is up there somewhere, impervious to our wishes, desires, resentments, and rants.  The Market speaks, in its own inscrutable way, and we are all subject to its inexplicable and unaccountable dictates.  If it bestows riches on us, we should treat these riches as the blessing of the sunny day we hoped for; if it lays ruin to our lives, we should bemoan this disaster as a result of the great storm we had always feared.  But in either case, The Market is blameless.  It has spoken, and there is nothing more to say about its seemingly arbitrary whims.

On the other hand, there are the libertarians, who worship at the feet of The Market in the same way that the ancients groveled before their nature gods.  Here we glimpse the leading edge of the paradox.  If The Market is an impersonal and "natural" force, like the law of gravity, how can it possibly be subject to placation?  Upon stepping off a precipice, we wouldn't then pray to gravity to save ourselves.  Again--absurd.  So why this constant singing of The Market's praises?  On the libertarian's account, they are just describing the way The Market works, in the same way that physicists show us how the physical world works.  But you never hear a physicist praising or condemning the second law of thermodynamics; this wouldn't make any sense.  Facts such as these are morally neutral.  Laws of nature simply are what they are.  They are deaf to our opinions.  That libertarians feel the need to constantly praise the "facts" of "economic reality" should give us pause.

The only way to make sense of the libertarians' instinct for genuflection is that despite their claims to the contrary, they know at some level that The Market is nothing at all like a law of nature--though they wish it to be regarded as such.  This suggests that when the libertarians proclaim The Market to be an objective and impersonal force, this is a statement of belief, not a statement of fact.  And this, in turn, makes the libertarians not scientists describing an objective reality, but rather more like priests, prophets, seers, and prosthelytizers propagating a creed.

What scientists and prosthelytizers have in common is a claim to insight.  But whereas scientists claim insight into the natural world, prosthelytizers claim insight into a supernatural world.  While the former can lend weight to their insights through empirical observation and the scientific method, the latter depend on subtle and far more elusive theological distinctions.  It is precisely for this reason that economics, alone among the human sciences, is labeled not just "soft" but downright dismal.  Though all the evidence suggests that belief in a mysterious, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving supreme being is infinitely more rational than faith in a beneficent invisible hand, in most American universities you will meet, with very few exceptions, economists as dogmatic as any pope.  It's important to note, however, that these high priests of The Sacred Market rarely venture beyond the safe bosom of tenure and their generous, guaranteed stipends to preach and actually practice the creed in the larger world.  That dangerous job is left to others.

This is where the libertarians come in--the true believers, the real propagators of the faith, most of them as mad as prophets.  We're not talking about people like the brothers Koch; they're not true libertarians.  The brothers Koch, and people like them, understand that to the extent that the purchase of a stable of senators is a sound investment to insure the profit of their bottom line, government is good, insofar as it provides a veneer of legality to to protect their economic activities.  No, the Kochs are more akin to cardinals of the church, sheltered high up in the far reaches of the hierarchy, far away from the members of the missionary orders.

These missionaries are the small businessmen who imagine themselves completely self-made, the self-styled entrepreneurs--the libertarians.  And with them, the paradox emerges full-blown.  For while the creed teaches them that The Market never errs, that its laws are ironclad, that these laws play no favorites, and that whatever The Market dictates must be borne as we bear the weather, they nevertheless believe that they themselves are immune to this dynamic. They truly believe, as truly as any believer has ever believed in his god, that their devotion and insight into The Market will spare them from its harshest judgments.  They believe that they alone are smart enough or industrious enough or prudent enough or bold enough that The Market will inevitably smile on them.  Never mind that The Market has for countless decades consumed as human sacrifices legions of the most wise, the most industrious, the most judicious, and the most boldly innovative of their number; the libertarians will just claim that these were not members of the Chosen.  Those who incur the wrath of The Market are rightfully fallen, hubristic, false prophets, justly punished.  They, on the other hand, truly know the mind of their god, and will rise with its blessings to stand at its right hand.

Do you see the slippage, and the naked whole of the paradox?  The Market has morphed from an impersonal force effecting all without favor into a judgmental and unforgiving god that can nevertheless be placated by the devotion of those who claim the purest of faith.  And so the libertarians look out onto a ferocious sea whipped into a frenzy by The Market, and cleanse their minds of all the knowledge they should know as economic scientists--things such as the centralization of capital, the asymmetrical distribution of resources, economies of scale, etc.  As scientists, they would have been able to see quite clearly that while the behemoth vessels of the Kochs and their ilk would be able to weather this storm with ease, their own small boats would quickly founder and be swallowed up.  But, scientists no more, they stand on the shore, wave their staffs in grand gestures, and before them they imagine the sea parting.  Chanting their devotional incantations, they wade further and further into the tempest, their bodies battered by the ever rising waves, the water filling their open mouths, the fierce undertow pulling them rapidly out to sea, and then down, and deep.

And during the occasional calm, the officers of the most mammoth and seaworthy ships take their exercise on deck.  They gather on the bows of their magnificent vessels, masters of all before them. Sometimes they cock their ears toward the water, and joke to one another, "Do you hear, can you still hear them?"  After laughing quietly among themselves, they eventually return to their posts.