Sunday, April 05, 2015

Jerry Brown, a grownup in the political world, takes on the use and regulation of water

Please do not count me in as a supporter of big agribusiness especially in CA. However, I am not as upset my friends in the environmental community at our very competent steward of our state, Gov. Jerry Brown, going relatively "easy" on farmers here in CA at this point.

We need to change our culture about water use first and foremost, and as this article from Capital Press, pro-agribusiness newspaper, shows, the agricultural community in CA is already being hit with a loss of federal water sourcing, and is now going to be immediately required to tighten their run off and account for their water use to a much greater extent. My sense is more regulations will be forthcoming and maybe eventually the State will not subsidize, even indirectly, the almond growing business, which consumes much more water than fruits and vegetables. As Bill Maher said last week, we can live without almonds more than we can live without water. When one listens to Gov. Brown speak, one sees the difference between Gov. Brown and the various Republican governors in the Mid-West and South is that Brown is actually interested in large economic and societal issues and pursuing a balanced set of public policies. The Republican governors are forever driving and honking their horns in clown cars.

Here is an article from the Los Angeles Times which, when one reads well past the headline, is making the same point I am making about why Brown is not really going "easy" on big agribusiness. It is vital to see that competent stewardship often (though not always) requires hearing multiple voices and moving incrementally.

While I still disagree with the governor's position with respect to higher public education (I think he is way too critical of the U.C. as an institution), I continue to feel we Californians are blessed to have him as our governor. He is truly the adult in the room and truly a great public servant.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Excellent interview with Nancy Fraser

From Eurozine, an excellent interview with Nancy Fraser. Her capsule analysis reprinted below is the best of the best from the interview. It captures a sense I have had for the past few decades:

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland in the days when it was a Jim Crow segregated city. The formative experience of my life, in my early teenage years, was the struggle for racial desegregation – to dismantle Jim Crow. This was a struggle for recognition of the most compelling and obviously just kind. And like many people of my generation, I moved in quick sequence from there to anti-Vietnam War struggles. I encountered Marxism in unorthodox, democratic, New Left form. That gave me a way to try and think conceptually about the various battles against different forms of domination that were so intense in that period. And soon second-wave feminism erupted and came in to the mix. Now, all of this was going on in a time of relative prosperity. I don't think we in the New Left and the early second-wave feminist movement worried very much about how we would support ourselves. Of course we were young, and we often didn't have children; but there was very much a sense – which proved to be an illusion, but was a felt sense nonetheless – that the first-world model of Keynesian capitalist prosperity would continue. We certainly had a perspective about class, and we understood very well that racism correlated with poverty and exploitation. But we thought, looking through a quasi-Marxian socialist-feminist analytical lens, that what seemed to be a secure social-democratic drift meant that redistribution was relatively unproblematic, and that what we had to do was to fight to introduce the importance of recognition into the forms of traditional Marxism and economistic thinking that dominated even social democracy at the time. That proved to be wrong. I soon found myself getting more and more nervous, as the 1980s wore on into the 1990s, that the critique of political economy was being lost amongst the new social movements, the successor movements to the New Left – including feminism. I felt we were getting a one-sided development of the politics of recognition. To me, recognition always only made sense when it was connected to the political economic dimension of society. Otherwise – as with feminism – you get women put on a pedestal and lots of lip service about how important care work is, but it's a sentimentalized, almost Victorian ethos unless you connect it to political economy. That's when I started saying "We had a great critique of economism of a vulgar sort – let's not make the same mistake and end up ourselves with some kind of a vulgar culturalism".

Above all in the US, but also elsewhere throughout the world, there was a paradigm shift towards the dimension of recognition, and it arose exactly at the moment – it's quite ironic – when the Keynesian social-democratic formation was beginning to unravel. We got the astonishing resurrection of liberal free-market ideas that everyone had assumed were in the dustbin of history forever. The rise of neoliberalism at the same time as left movements for emancipation were focused overwhelmingly on culture and recognition is a very dangerous mix: in effect the critique of political economy dropped out at exactly the moment where it was most necessary. But the situation today is quite different. The 2008 crisis was a huge wake-up call. Today the critique of political economy is very much on people's minds, as in the astonishing reception of Thomas Piketty in the US, where he has become a media darling. So certainly things are changing, and that's good.

In all, an interesting interview. Fraser's 2013 article in The British (Manchester) Guardian is also worth a read.

MI5 File Opened on Hobsbawm (to 1964)

This is, to me anyway, a fascinating article from the London Review of Books about the MI5 file on the late Communist Party/Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. It shows once again the foolishness of "intelligence" gathering against unarmed, unusual minds who posed no threat to society.

My short take on Hobsbawm is here.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Netanyahu and the hastening of Israel's destruction

A Palestinian, Yousef Munayyer, who opposes not only Israeli occupation but Israel itself has now publicly said (in the NY Times, no less!) what has concerned me for years, which is that Netanyahu and his fellow "hawks" are the ones who are making Israel's enemies stronger and more successful.

As I said back in the linked-to blog post in 2009, which quoted and agreed with an analysis from Haaretz writer Bradley Burston:

What we should really be asking ourselves is whether "hawks" are simply people who love war and violence--as opposed to giving them the prefix "pro-" as in "pro-American" or "pro-Israel." They are too often incompetent in reading international opinion, incapable of swaying international opinion, and utterly reckless in their execution of policies. Netanyahu, who I initially hoped (a weak hope, I will say) was interested in a "Nixon goes to China" scenario upon becoming prime minister, is revealing himself to be better known as "Nutty-yahoo."


For those who don't know, Israeli intelligence played a significant role in promoting Islamic fundamentalist groups in the 1970s and 1980s as a counterweight, they thought, to Arafat and Fatah, which was of course secular oriented. You know, kind of like the way Carter, Reagan and Bush the Elder funded the folks who gave us Al Queda.

These days, whenever I hear the word "hawk" to describe some political figure or opinion writer or speaker, I think of someone who is reckless, naive and ultimately a tool of the very enemy the person claims our nation needs to oppose. That is a more accurate way of describing such people.

I am deeply concerned at the inroads the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is making and Israel is now beginning to run out of time in this moment to make peace with Palestinians.

Bonus article from David Shulman in the New York Review of Books. He is very pessimistic as well about the consequences of continued right-far right rule in Israel and the likely reaction outside and inside of Israel.

Christopher Jencks explains the War on Poverty...again

In the latest New York Review of Books, Christopher Jencks, renowned sociologist, now retired from active teaching and researching, has written an excellent primer on the reason we should more favorably view the Great Society/War on Poverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s. His bottom line point is that the poverty rate we see bandied about (16% or so) does not include the "transfers" so often maligned (food stamps, supplemental income, and later ETIC), such that if we include those transfers and a couple of other cultural change factors, the actual poverty rate is less than 5% IF we compare apples to apples of 1964 to 2015. It does not mean we should celebrate, however, because the larger or macroeconomic factors are making working class and poorer class Americans less well off and more poor, as the wealthy continue to scoop up most of the money being made in the US--a function of economic policies outside the policy scope of the Great Society/War on Poverty.

These findings are consistent with a book written first in the late 1980s by a political science professor, John Schwarz, called "America's Hidden Success," which was outstanding in its analysis and research. It is still worth reading because its numbers are from the statistical analyses of the time period studied and those numbers have not changed. One of Schwarz's great points is that the terribly maligned Aid to Dependent Families and Children (AFDC), the true "welfare" program that no longer exists, but people keep thinking it does ("Thank you, Bill Clinton, for killing it," we say in sardonic contempt), was a program that truly helped poor women and children. Schwarz showed through indisputable government statistics that over 70% of women on AFDC had two or less children, that the birth rate was already declining as poor rural women who moved to the cities after WWII slowly began to emulate their more well off female counterparts in reducing family size, and that the vast majority (80%) of women moved on and off AFDC payments throughout every year, largely when the kids were sick and the moms ended up losing their minimum wage jobs to nurse the children as there was no safe place for the moms to drop off the kids. This is a more humane observation of how the poor live.

Michael Harrington's proper attack on the Great Society/War Against Poverty programs was that the programs were largely transfers, even including Head Start. The 1960s and 1970s programs were not jobs programs (outside of CETA, begun in 1973 and destroyed during the Reagan years), such as the New Deal era WPA, PWA or CCC. Sargent Shriver, who oversaw the first programs for President Johnson in 1964, said in response to Harrington the private sector would take care of employing the poor. Harrington, who largely in reply, wrote "Toward a Democratic Left," said the poor needed more than transfers to truly escape poverty. Those who were mired in poverty needed jobs, and they needed before those jobs training in showing up to work on time and how to manage a household budget. The communities where the urban poor lived needed cleaning, and protection not only from the criminal element, but the police which were mostly run by those who did not live there and who were often of a different skin color, which continues to plague relations between communities and police. Rural poor needed more human contact than anything else, as isolation bred depression and violence inflicted on families and neighbors. Harrington recognized a limited, partial truth behind the culture of poverty so favored by Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and most odiously by Charles Murray, without embracing the pessimism and overinterpretation of data of those men that all too often turned into an apology (mostly by others, and certainly not Glazer and Moynihan at least) for white racism.

Harrington recognized what Jencks and William Julius Wilson recognized which is that poverty is a pernicious source of psychic pain as well as economic deprivation. Recommended reading, even if it remains polemical in tone (which also makes it an easier read), is William Ryan's "Blaming the Victim," which demolishes most of the "culture of poverty" argument. One of his salient points is that middle class and especially upper class people, in their teen years especially, exhibit many of the same traits commentators so often assigned to poor people, and how the economic status of those in the working/middle/upper classes protected such people from most of the repercussions arising from anti-social behavior.

Bonus read: Peter Edelman's "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's Hard to End Poverty in America." Edelman's book is a worthy successor and more fact-packed than Michael Harrington's "The Other America." It is a short book and worth the effort to work through. I should disclose Peter Edelman endorsed my novel back in the day, too...

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The American Conservative remains the most interesting political journal in the US today

Let's just look at the various articles on The American Conservative's website that are concurrently running.

First, here is a friendly review of a new play sweeping the theater world in NYC. It is a rap-music based historical play about the life of Alexander Hamilton based upon perhaps the greatest single biography I have ever read (if I have to choose just one), Ron Chernow's "Hamilton." The author, Noah Millman, gets the importance of Hamilton's political and economic ideas, though one wishes Millman had been more explicit about that. The important point for us is that Millman is not doing the "get off my lawn" sort of "conservatism" one often sees and hears. He is excited about using a newer medium to reach an audience and has a great deal of respect for new ways of learning. I wish I was in NYC to be able to see this play and hope it arrives soon on the Left Coast.

Second, Notre Dame political science professor Patrick J. Deneen has written a very insightful essay about Frederick Hayek's progressive oriented and even libertarian defense of traditions and cultural customs in Western society. The essay gives us a sense of the alchemy of political philosophies and gives indirectly more insight into the late, great sociologist Daniel Bell's dividing our philosophies of "liberal" and "conservative" into the realms of political, economic and cultural, and how those play off and intersect with each other and with others. The funny thing to me is that it shows that Hayek recognized more than he would have admitted what FDR was trying to do with New Deal innovations, which were themselves haphazard more than organized from an ideological perspective. More profoundly, Deneen's essay helps us understand how Hayek has something in common with the Marxist E.P. Thompson, who, in Thompson's brilliant extended essay, "The Poverty of Theory," extolled the British empirical tradition and demolished the French oriented ideological tradition as way of seeing the world and promoting social policies. Thompson's later and one of his last works, "Customs in Common," is even more explicit on this subject of tradition and customs being important for stabilizing society and setting forth a progressive minded interpretation for a tradition that extols flexibility and change, but remembers above all the importance of being kind, respectful and helpful to each other. It is how one bests approaches Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy novels, I should add.*

*For those who find the philosophies of Karl Marx inconsistent with the British empirical tradition, one should read Michael Harrington's "Twilight of Capitalism" and more recently, the wonderfully written "biography" of the lives and letters of Karl and Jenny Marx, which read to me like the Marxist version of a book on the lives and letters of John and Abigail Adams. Mary Gabriel's "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution" reveals Marx as essentially a middle class persona who really detested the sort of radicalism that has gone forward in his name starting in the last years of his life, where he famously said he was not a "Marxist."

Third, Richard Reinsch, II has penned an excellent review of a book about religious freedom and establishment in American constitutional and political history. It properly recognizes the initial meaning and scope of the First Amendment, which included the protection of religious institutions from the federal government as separate spheres (thus, "separation" being an originalist legal proposition). Still, there is more that I disagree with as the essay goes on as he overemphasizes his point to the exclusion of the tension inside the First Amendment when it comes to how individuals are treated in a society where private religion flourishes. The first disagreement I have with him is whether the First Amendment operates to protect religious institutions from civic accountability in terms of discriminatory practices. Reinsch should not date the modern secularist position at the US Supreme Court to 1947 and the Everson case. He should, instead, date this point of secular laws overriding private religious practices back to the time the Supreme Court ruled that Mormon polygamist practices were properly outlawed, religious practices be damned. And that of course was a decision from back in 1878, Reynolds v. U.S., the very 19th Century where Reinsch identifies what he calls the most heated polemical debates between the providentialists and secularists, as he calls the legal intellectual combatants. Renisch's real fear is obliquely stated at the end of his article, and he should have been more forthright. He sees religious freedom as the freedom to discriminate against sexual minorities, thus giving credit indirectly and ironically to Gore Vidal's famous dictum, religion is sex and sex is religion--and all is politics. See Vidal's "Sex is politics" essay first published, oh the irony, in Playboy magazine in 1979. I do not share Reinsch's fear as I do not think our churches, synagogues and mosques are harmed by a demand that people not be discriminated against on the basis of who they sleep with, or whether religious institutions have to follow health and safety laws and related laws. My other important disagreement with Reinsch is his most strange failure to even mention in his essay the incorporation of the First Amendment as a limit upon the individual States as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment, which amendment was enacted following the U.S. Civil War. For this "incorporation" intent behind a principal drafter of the Fourteenth Amendment, see Indiana Law School professor George Magliocca's biography of John Bingham. Still, Reinsch's essay and perhaps the book which he is reviewing are otherwise illuminative and well worth the read.

Fourth, Patrick J. Buchanan's essay about nationalism in Europe is one where we can strongly disagree with Buchanan's enthusiasm for revitalizing Christian Europe, but express delight at his recognizing the issues and, yes, the depth of his understanding of those issues. Europe has got to face the fact that its Muslim minorities are being discriminated against from an economic standpoint and even political one, something Buchanan is glossing over in his general despising of the social welfare state. That has been my biggest surprise over the years, meaning the discrimination and economic repression Muslim communities in supposedly "socialist" Europe face on a daily basis. However, the other side of that political coin requires that Muslims in Europe need to have more respect for modern European culture and politics of pluralism, meaning sexual equality. As one woman's poster in India during a recent pro-feminist rally reads, "Don't tell me how to dress. Tell them not to rape." That is why I am so against the manner in which European Muslim communities enforce, through honor codes, women wearing hijabs and burkas. It is why I am so demanding that Muslim clerics and other leaders in the Muslim communities around the world take more of a modernist stand on this subject and recognize that wearing such garments are historical, not how one worships one's Deity. Buchanan also raises another point, less directly, which is that those who most want the new leftist Greek government to fail in its renegotiations with the bankers and creditor class are playing a dangerous game. What will replace the Greek leftists will not be banker or creditor class oriented technocrats, but snarling right wing nationalists of a fascist and even Nazi oriented type. People's cries must be heard and if their cries are not filtered through the progressive oriented ideals of fraternity, equality and liberty, they will be heard as filtered through more "traditional" Middle Ages sort of European Christianity and fascistic "ideals" of racism and xenophobia. Buchanan has, unfortunately, long had a soft spot for those latter Western traditions, and stands against the likes of Hayek, Marx and Thompson, to name the three political philosophers discussed in this long post. Buchanan's demand that Europe's Christians (note his conscious refusal to use the more accepted American oriented phrase "Judeo-Christian") re-invigorate their religious tradition is, in my view, a recipe for more chaos and perhaps even bloodshed. What is instead needed is a First Amendment of separating church and state, meaning European governments need to stop literally economically subsidizing its churches, mosques and synagogues. Second, more economic attention needs to be provided for the poorer often Muslim communities that is also combined with a pluralist and ecumenical approach that combats the racism so often directed by the still white majority Europeans at its minority Muslim and often darker skin colored communities. Third, the one area where Western hegemony needs to be enforced in those same discriminated against communities concerns sexual equality, and that means simply stating that women's rights trump both honor society and religious practices. It is a dance on a tightrope, to be certain, but if Europe's leaders and public writers and intellectuals do not meet that challenge, Europe will certainly find itself convulsed again in sectarian wars, not secular wars. The first thing the EU needs to do toward the ends I propose is capitulate--and I mean that sincerely and literally-to the Greek government's demand for a re-negotiation of its debts. As David Graeber's book, "Debt: The First Five Thousand Years," makes clear, there is ample and consistent historical precedent to bail out debtors and not just bail out creditors. And frankly, it is far more effective and doubly frankly, kind, to bail out the debtors.

Overall, I continue to find The American Conservative to be a political journal where even my disagreements with its writers are inspirational and move forward our discourse--and prove once again that to label people as "liberal" and "conservative" without Daniel Bell's qualifiers for the political, economic and cultural realm is to obscure and dumb down rather than enlighten our discourse.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Who is worse? Dick Cheney or Robert Christgau? So hard to choose...

Hard to choose, hard to choose. Cheney undermines the political commonweal while Christgau undermines our nation's culture.

We might as well fete Henry Kissinger while we're at it,

Christgau is still at it, praising Kayne West in that typical, condescending Maude Findlay manner and deciding that anyone who attacks stupidity in corporate radio is elitist while speaking and writing in an elitist style (it's something Sarah Palin wishes she could achieve...). It is really sad that he is being treated like some sort of royalty when he deserves nothing but derision for contributing to the Idiocracy in a voice that aped anti-corporate hipster language.

Frank Zappa's line about rock critics essentially being morons is directed precisely at people such as Robert Christgau, Robert Hilburn (who wrote for the L.A. Times) and most anyone who ever wrote for Rolling Stone or Cream magazine. They missed Zappa and they really missed progressive rock when they did not attack it. Their tone deaf criticism ensured that corporate America was able to restore three minute songs that sounded like the commercials they were promoting.

I guess it's nice that Christgau realizes now what garbage exists in the so-called hip-hop world but he helped give it legitimacy in the first place. But just as war criminals in our nation never seem to fade away, Christgau rolls on as a cultural war criminal.

Oh well. I wish I'd never seen the article in

As I say these days, we are lucky that the most interesting music seems to be coming out of film soundtracks, where directors are at least interested in artistic endeavor. One thinks of the "Walter Mitty" (Ben Stiller film version) soundtrack, the "Begin Again" soundtrack, "Into the Woods" and "Last Five Years" as examples of truly interesting recent soundtracks.


Where New Dealers intersect with libertarians on eminent domain law...

If people in the U.S. thought the Kelo decision was bad, there is something going on in India to really scream against.

Please read this article about the laws in India that have no due process procedures, no concern about the people who have worked and owned their land for generations or any means to address the inequities other than a frustrated protest.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The John Lewis Bridge?

Maybe one day it will be called John Lewis bridge and not Edmund Pettus bridge?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Bibi inspires me to update at least part of Tom Lehrer's "Who's Next?"

Bibi's performance at the U.S. Congress yesterday has inspired rewrite part of Tom Lehrer's "Who's Next" song about nuclear proliferation. Lehrer said one of the reasons he stopped writing satirical songs is that the absurdities of reality had surpassed the limits of satire.

One knows it gets harder to get up for work in the morning, and so without apologies I decided as an amateur satirist to give it a try. I re-wrote the lyrics about Egypt and Israel getting the bomb (note Egypt never did get the bomb...) this way:

Israel has more than a few
But not enough for Netanyahu...
So Iran is getting tense
Claims it needs self-defense
The mullahs scream, "We love Quran!
But above all else,
We really want the Bomb!"

Who's next?

Hmmm...Maybe Lehrer is right. The absurdity of Republican stalwarts in DC and elsewhere praising foreign leaders such as Netanyahu and Putin (!) and the president finding Iranian mullahs no harder to negotiate with than Republican Congressional leaders is patently absurd.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

And the heretics shall save us...

This story from something called True Stories from may or may not be true. It seems too pat, too apt to be false. But then again who knows what has been changed for literary purposes.

Nonetheless, if Islam as a religious philosophy is to protect itself from the clutches of its extremists, there must be room for heretics and those who follow Montaigne's advice when entering a city that is foreign to you in which you wish to fit in, which is to ensure you observe and then follow the mores of the culture in terms of clothes one wears and how one expresses oneself. It is not always the correct advice, to be sure, but it is something that when entering a western society where women's rights are now an important public good (even if not followed in practice as often as the public good would therefore demand), one may wish to change certain cultural cues one normally follows in, say, Saudi Arabia.

Hat tip to the venerable Three Quarks Daily.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

An exercise in exposing propaganda posing as analysis: Greece edition

A high school classmate of mine who has been living in Greece for a number of years--she will always be young in my mind!--sent me an article from the Carnegie Foundation Europe from two Greek guys (Stratos Pourzitakis and Elias Kirgidis) from the Foreign Ministry in Greece who are clearly out of step with the new government. It is one of those classic articles showing both the failure of those who are Economics majors and those who have a perspective drenched in a financier worldview. The unstated assumptions, the ahistoricism and the hostility toward anything emanating from the public sector make the article as much propaganda as anything else. For these two fellows, the golden age of Greece was during the military junta which existed from 1967-1974 and perhaps the center-right coalition that held most power following the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s. These two fellows also have a disdain of their fellow Greek citizens that is based upon classic cultural explanations that attempt to justify economic power of the powerful over the rest of the population. Such cultural explanations go back to the early Industrial Revolution era in Great Britain in the early 19th Century.

But let's explore these matters with specifics from the Pourzitakis and Kirgidis article. A foundational paragraph from the Pourzitakis and Kirgidis article is as follows:

The real problem for Greece does not lie in tax evasion or in the country’s soaring national debt. These are merely the results of deepening social decay in Greece during the last forty years. To get to the heart of the issue, one needs to go back to the fall of the military junta, which ruled from 1967 to 1974, and examine how Greek society was reformed.

As we will see in the rest of the article, these two fellows are going to talk about corruption, evading taxes, public debt and public sector employee workers. But these same issues existed within Greek society after the post-WWII Civil War under a center-right and often fascist oriented series of governments and then the full on military junta from 1967-1974. For example, the public sector has been a problem in terms of growth for most of a century. See this article from the Christian Science Monitor newspaper about the public sector in Greece. Second, Wikipedia informs us about how the military junta operated during its full control of Greece:

Cases of non-transparent public deals and corruption allegedly occurred at the time, given the lack of democratic checks and balances and the absence of a free press. One such event is associated with the regime's tourism minister, Ioannis Ladas (Greek: Ιωάννης Λαδάς). During his administration, several low-interest loans, amortized over a twenty-year period, were issued for tourist development. This fostered the erection of a multitude of hotels, sometimes in non-tourist areas, and with no underlying business rationale. Several such hotels were abandoned unfinished as soon as the loans were secured, and their remains still dot the Greek countryside. These questionable loans are referred to as Thalassodaneia (Greek: θαλασσοδάνεια), or "loans of the sea", to indicate the loose terms under which they were granted.

Another contested policy of the regime was the writing-off of agricultural loans, up to a value of 100,000 drachmas, to farmers. This has been attributed to an attempt by Papadopoulos to gain public support for his regime.

And that is not all one received with the military junta. The political repression was fairly horrific if one reads the Wiki entry.

But here comes some real propaganda from the two Finance Ministry guys. After a short summary of how bad the left government economic policies were after the defeat of the military junta in 1974, they write:

Gradually, Greeks changed their mind-set. Instead of adhering to virtues such as meritocracy and social justice, they began to pursue easy money. From the early 1980s until the eruption of the 2010 crisis, Greeks were living their myth, as cheap EU money was flowing, corruption was socially acceptable, and consumption and tax evasion were driving the economy.

"(A)dhering to virtues such as meritocracy and social justice..." Since when did "meritocracy" exist in Greek society before 1974? In ancient Athenian society? In ancient Sparta? Meritocracy is a term that we Americans coined. It goes back to James Conant, president of Harvard in the 1930s when he wanted to have more academically talented students than legacies enter Harvard. See here for a summary of a book about the SAT and the rise of the meritocracy--and how it is often a mixed blessing and how the cultural biases tend to reenforce racism and inequality more than its boosters may think.

And really now, "Social justice" did not begin to exist in modern Greece until after the military junta was overthrown in 1974.

The two finance ministry guys talk throughout the article about "easy money," which is just their way of saying they don't like a deviation from their belief in the gold standard. See here for a nice juxtaposition of democratic values embraced in so-called "easy money" vs. the gold standard.

The two ministry guys also write "...economic elites were replaced by corrupt businessmen with close ties to government..." despite the fact Wikipedia already informs us how business folks worked hand in fisted glove with the military junta. And really, have any of us ever heard of a nation in the past 300 years which did not have businesspeople who worked with the government and received benefits from that relationship? Ever?

These guys also use the phrase "middle class" in their article in a manner American readers may misunderstand. Here is an example:

"Papandreou (The left Prime Minister from different periods in the 1980s and mid-1990s), in his attempt to reintegrate groups that had been marginalized because of their political beliefs, eventually dismantled the middle class, which normally serves as the spearhead of economic and social development."

In other words, significant social justice for marginalized groups occurred after the military junta was overthrown. But what of the phrase "eventually dismantled the middle class?" What are these guys talking about? First, they are not referring to the "working class" but the merchant class known as the "bourgeoisie". So what they are saying is the merchant class was dismantled, but we know that Greece threw its lot into two industries since the 1950s and 1960s: Tourism and shipping. And when the western economies cratered in 2008, should we be surprised tourism and shipping suffered--and there were ripple effects throughout the Greek economy?

What these guys don't want readers to know is workers did pretty well with the left oriented governments of Papandreou, which is why so many voted for him. But for these guys, having a government responsive to workers is, in their words, "pandering" and "corrupt" and promoting insolence.

We have heard this language before right? Here is Mr. Potter to explain it to us. Note how he attacks George Bailey's "corruption" in having his co-op oriented savings and loan make a home loan to Bailey's friend, the taxi driver Ernie Bishop, after Mr. Potter's bank turned down the taxi driver's loan, and his rhetoric about how loose money will ruin the working class. George Bailey answers him in a classic New Deal oriented manner in the same link from the film "It's A Wonderful Life."

I also loved this passage from two finance ministry guys as the passage exposes their pro-banker worldview hidden in "objective" analytic words:

"The majority of Greeks sought public-sector jobs in which unreasonably high salaries and a lack of accountability were common practices, as labor unions dominated public administration."

Unreasonably high salaries? Says who? Financiers? Ministers at the top levels of government? Also, "lack of accountability" goes hand in hand with "labor union dominated public administration" because the two fellas get frustrated when their bosses have to negotiate from a management perspective with a union of workers. When these two finance ministry guys demand "accountability," they mean they want their bosses to have no accountability demanded of them from their employees (except perhaps these two fellows who agree with the bosses). That is the plaintive cry of employers everywhere.

Overall, this is not to say these two fellas are completely wrong. They are not. Perhaps Greece, particularly with its national business model being tourism (instead of say consumer electronics building and engineering) combined with its beautiful climate has led to a "beach" or laid back culture. But the decision to rely on tourism goes back to the 1950s and 1960s, before any "leftist" governments were in power and accelerated under the military junta. It is sorta silly, isn't it, to blame the left governments for that reason.

But Italy, a nearby culture with a beach or laid back atmosphere is not quite as bad off, perhaps because Italy's economy is built on more than tourism and shipping. And to re-enter America, let's go back to the writings of late 19th Century civil service reformers in America, where one smells the disdain for the common people who were arriving from Ireland, southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Romania, Crete, etc.) and then Eastern Europe who had begun securing "spoils" civil service jobs--just as the WASP oriented civil service people had received starting in the Jacksonian era. One saw such disdain in the respectable newspapers in the US in the 1930s, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers, as FDR cut deals with business leaders who played along with the New Deal, pushed for increased salaries and less work hours for workers--and just happened to rebuild and develop the infrastructure that made the US a monument to working class prosperity after WWII.

Maybe what Greece needs from these just elected lefty guys is a Greek version of FDR's New Deal where they pass laws regulating business behavior such as the Glass-Stegall Act of 1933, the first SEC laws in 1933 and 1934, etc. and maybe get that money from the Swiss bank accounts of Greek politicians and businessmen from the previous center-right administration, which accounts the IMF located several years ago and which that government did little to nothing to pursue (but they did arrest the editor of the newspaper which published the list). Maybe if the government leaders show they want to set up fair rules of behavior in business, it will percolate more deeply into Greek society. Societies can change their legislative policies which can have a cultural reaction as we saw how business ethics improved from the wild 1920s to the 1930s and post-WWII period as a result of New Deal legislative policies regulating investments.

My high school classmate thinks it is vital to have lived in a nation to discuss it. But somehow, that does not stop us from speaking about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Vietnam, China, etc. Lots of people travel regularly to those nations and yet may still lack an essential perspective as to what is happening in a given nation. We often see this with pro-Likud American Jews who have been to Israel 10 times but have never experienced a West Bank or Gaza Israeli controlled checkpoint wearing a Palestinian's style of clothing. Or perhaps someone may have asked the late Paul Robeson back in the day how he could have gone to the Soviet Union so many times and not seen the gulags or the political repression. Or let's ask the people in Greece today who long for the monarchy from before WWII, or the earlier mentioned military junta or the Socialist governments of Papandreou. It's all a matter of perspective isn't it, and visiting or living there doesn't necessarily make one know the correct answer as far as policy making goes.

And really, when one studies as many nations' histories as I have over the decades, one finds patterns of human behavior and also patterns of political divisions that persist. But those patterns, particularly cultural ones, may be changed at least temporarily in special moments when particular government leaders effectuate policies that make a positive difference in that society. Even if the change in the culture is fleeting, sometimes a public policy changes can ameliorate future negative patterns. Think, for example, of what life would be like today for American seniors if there was never anything known as Social Security available to American senior citizens.

I know this is a long post already, but let's not be fooled into thinking the article dissected here is in any way "objective." The ministry employees have a world view on display that is screaming at us as much as Mr. Potter blustering on about the lazy rabble who should not be given a break.*

* And yes, my dissection is not "objective" either.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

It's all Greek to me...

Markets or democracy is a really good juxtaposition to help understand what has happened and is happening in Greece.

This article from the ranking American foreign policy establishment magazine, Foreign Affairs, is very insightful. If we root for Tsipras to fail, we won't necessarily get the moderate pro-banker (a la Obama), we'd likely get the right wing seething fascist or neo-Nazi.