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.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Interesting essay on "political correctness" comparing Marcuse and Mill

The American Conservative continues to be one of the more thoughtful journals of our time and place in America. Here is an interesting article comparing J.S. Mill with Herbert Marcuse and speaking more kindly about Marcuse than I admit I ever have...

The phrase "politically correct" began as an internal critique on the Left, particularly the economic Left critiquing the zealousness of the cultural Left. One heard it in a song from The Bobs back in 1985 (note it is before the craze began on the right and in corporate owned media) called "Please Let Me Be Your Third World Country." Sadly the song is not available to hear for free, but here are the lyrics.

It then began to be used as a hammer against the entire Left, political, cultural and economic and it has never stopped being used in that manner.

What I find sadly lacking is that the Right and conservatives also have political correctness, if what political correctness means is oversensitivity to language that may be offensive to someone's being, deeply held philosophy or the like. Political correctness on the Left is about sensitivity to racism, sexism and the like while the Right wants to make fun of women, gays, blacks, Latinos and minority religions in a given society without consequence. Political correctness on the Right is about sensitivity to religion (one's own of course), white males, traditional hierarchies and symbols, capitalism and the like, while the Left wants to make fun of religion (one's former oftentimes), white males in pickups from the American South and business people, again without consequence (example: try to be a Marxist or pro-union as a corporate manager and see how far that gets you or maybe draw something satirical about the American or Israeli flags and see how much vitriol you get from mostly right wing people...). I tend to support the right of both sides making fun of pretty much anything perhaps coming from a Lenny Bruce era perspective. Does the sort of humor exhibited make me uncomfortable and go against my ultimate sense of some decorum? Yes, but long ago we learned comedy is not pretty.

So even as I myself decry the shallow manner in which people call others racist or sexist, I am also wary of the use of the phrase "politically correct" because it does tend to be used as a way to de-legitimize legitimate grievances in our society and de-legitimize the Left in ways that reminds me of ways in which the American discourse leaders decided after World War II that Reds and liberal New Deal internationalists were no longer allowed to be part of the political and social conversation, i.e. the Red Scare and later McCarthyism.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Nice review of Victor Serge's "Midnight in the Century"

The Los Angeles Review of Books has published a nice and detailed review of Victor Serge's "Midnight in the Century."

What I have loved about Serge's novels is the way each opens with the first four or five chapters about each of the disparate characters who then slowly come into contact one way or another with each other. Sometimes it is serendipitous. Sometimes it is planned. Sometimes they are pushed together.

Serge's novels are about systems as much as people, landscapes as much as communities, History and Time as much as a chronology of events.

The reviewer does not articulate these points quite this way, but allows me to say it in a way that a reader may now understand.

Victor Serge was a truly remarkable mind and being. He is one of the most important chroniclers of the Western 20th Century. If I had to list my favorite Serge novels, it would be 1. Conquered City; 2. The Case of Comrade Tulayev; 3. Midnight in the Century; 4. The Long Dusk; 5. Unforgiving Years; 6. Birth of Our Power; 7. Men in Prison.

His masterpiece is his non-fiction work, "Memoirs of a Revolutionary," and his second most amazing book is "Year One of the Russian Revolution."

Serge is a compelling figure both from a literary-historical view and a biographical view.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A leader's speeches can matter if the leader has earned that respect

This article from The American Spectator--I know, not on my blogroll or a magazine I don't tend to quote from positively, at least--is outstanding in showing how a bully pulpit can indeed work. RFK spoke to liberals and conservatives simultaneously and that was part of his genius we never saw work on a national scale because several bullets struck him down.

ADDENDUM: It was the American SCHOLAR, not SPECTATOR. As my favorite commenter says, a Freudian slip. I guess I wanted to find something to agree with the American Spectator about?

The appeal of fascism

Mike Huckabee has written a book that is an example of an appeal for Fascism in the sense that he wants his readers and people who listen to him to believe we don't have anything to learn from scientists, social scientists and engineers. Jon Stewart showed Huckabee a thing or two that shows how corrosive Huckabee is in promoting hatred of people who live on the coasts and those who are knowledgeable about public policy and science.

Huckabee does not see that while he is right to give credit to the two guys in pick ups who have a tool box to fix a car that breaks down in country road, that does not mean we should ignore or belittle scientists who study climate change or social scientists who analyze government budgets, policy issues and the like. Each has an important role in society. And that's why I would want to increase the wages of those two guys in the pick up truck and I also want to protect those professors who are being undermined by the use of adjunct professors who work part time and get a small stipend instead of a salary.

Finally, one thinks of Digby's city mice and country mice theme. The difference is Digby is really concerned about how this divides us unnecessarily while Huckabee wants us to be divided so he may promote a corporate uber alles, i.e. fascism.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The progressive rock-punk rock connection

I found a fascinating article in a Cambridge University sponsored journal called, "Popular Music." The article is titled "Know History!: John Lydon, Cultural Capital and the Prog/Punk Dialectic" by Sean Albieez, from Vol. 22, No. 3 (October 2003) issue of "Popular Music." In it, see JStor cite here, the author makes a decent case that a few punk rockers, but using Johnny Lydon aka Rotten, were progressive rock fans and fans of jazz, classical and other more serious music.

I had long known of John Lydon's fanboy crush on Peter Hammill and we know that punk rockers would eventually admit they loved Robert Fripp and Steve Howe, for example. I even recall the second keyboardist (Ian Parker) for The Tom Robinson Band liking the Canterbury sound and particularly the band National Health.

But I liked this article for putting a lot under one roof, so to speak. The people who polarized or separated punk rock from progressive rock were the idiot music critics who wrote for Rolling Stone, Village Voice and culturally vacuous magazines (The political writing in those two magazines is much more thoughtful, of course, but the music writers have been morons like classic Darwin Award winner, Lester Bangs, or yutzim like Robert Christgau). It is a shame that the current cultural historians are relying on these critics to describe the era and that has made things worse. Articles like this from Albiez are excellent correctors.

ADDENDUM: I found on the Internet my article the LA Times published in 1995, before the full start of the Internet, on progressive rock. It was in response to a typically ludicrous attack on progressive rock from the odious Los Angeles Times rock critic, Robert Hilburn. Hilburn at least would admit publicly his ignorance of music theory and music appreciation, and admit he was essentially a misplaced journalism major more interested in lyrics than music. But he was still part of the anti-intellectual Sarah Palinesque attack on progressive rock ("You think you're so smart!" or otherwise dismissing progressive rock music as "pretentious."). Oh, and the law firm at which I was affiliated at the time no longer exists nor does that phone number apply any longer. Again, this was pre-Internet when email was not a known alternative for most people. I do recall my firm's phone ringing from callers around the world--literally!--that upset my then partner as people were very happy with what I wrote. I was also invited to a ProgRock festival in Los Angeles later that year and treated very kindly by Greg Walker and others as there was, again pre-Internet, no outlet in major corporate owned media for anyone to defend progressive rock. What I had not known and was pleased to learn from Walker and the others I met was that there had been a full on second act in the 1980s and 1990s for progressive rock, including bands like Spock's Beard, Flower Kings and others. I did not know about certain other international prog bands even in my experience or era of the 1970s, bands such as Mezquita from Spain, for example. The Internet, of course, allowed for the international community of progressive rock fans to join together and continually enrich each other.

I should say the reason the Los Angeles Times published the article at all was because an editor, who admitted to me he did not know progressive rock, or much about any music, thought my letter to the editor needed a respectful treatment as an article because it showed there was a deep unfairness in the way his paper (and he saw apparently other papers) were treating the topic of progressive rock. Hilburn never responded to the article, of course but my memory is he never took on reviewing a progressive oriented rocker again. I have to admit I sometimes emotionally feel like I want to live long enough to dance on the graves of Hilburn, Christgau and John Palmer of the NY Times. As my Italian mother would say, Son, that is your "Italian" coming out in you. She also says, You know what Italian Alzheimer's is: It's where you forget everything but the grudges. Yes, better to be positive and just enjoy the best of progressive rock.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Republicans in Congress want to weaken Obamacare to the point of adding to the budget deficit and debt

Business Week has the scoop here.

No wonder the Republicans in Congress want more "dynamic" scoring from the Congressional Budget Office and are replacing a guy who has been fairly reasonable in the past....

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

George Romney's ghost for president in 2016

The noise for Mitt Romney to run again is strange and only shows to me the power of the 1% to drive the political dialogue in corporate owned media in our nation. Still, if only Mitt Romney could channel his Dad, George Romney, then Mitt would probably earn my vote in 2016. Look here for George Romney's campaign brochure in 1968.

And what people may not recall is George Romney, as governor in Michigan, and as an auto exec, had good relations with labor and believed in the utility of labor unions in a civilized society.

George Romney was a great American and we miss his presence in our society. His son, Mitt, so apparently scarred by his father's candor in politics and a belief that his father's candor did his father in, has made a career that has left him without credibility with a large swath of the American population. I always thought I'd like Mitt if I met him privately as there is still something decent about him underneath the political noise and garments. He needs to find his inner George Romney. It's there somewhere....But if he finds it, he'd have to run in the Democratic Party these days. George Romney is well to the left of Obama and the Clintons and is in Bernie Sanders land.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Skeptics can't scream 1998, 1998 anymore....

Scientific American reports 2014 is now the hottest year recorded for the planet. Higher than 1998. And that the hottest ten years are since that year of 1998.

The only thing skeptics have left is their argument that CO2 is not a source for warming, something skeptic Anthony Watts has backed off somewhat from himself (It's now a factor, he says, but manageable). I don't think the anti-CO2 argument makes it as the lab and computer studies show that it is. And we also know that it is not only CO2 anyway, it's methane too. Either way, the planet is warming and there is a human activity that is contributing to it.

Now can we get to a public policy discussion on this? Sad to say, the answer to that question is No. A majority of Americans will either shrug collective shoulders and others will say, "It's cold today, the scientists are wrong."