Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Prohibition Whose Time is Now

On July 7th, the UN passed the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty. A treaty the US will not join any time soon, just as it hasn’t joined many other global agreements including:

·         Convention on Cluster Munitions
·         Ottawa Treaty (Mine ban)
·         International Criminal Court
·         Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (Signed, but withdrew in 2002)

As one might expect this UN action by the majority of civilized states goes largely ignored by the press and politicians in the U.S. With President Obama pushing to spend $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapons capacity when we should be reducing it, is the epitome of insanity. Mr. Trump and his hawkish team is likely to up the ante even more given his first budget that asked for an additional $54 billion for military war chest. One of our liberal(?) Senators is a proud co-sponsor of new legislation that will take missile defense systems, literally into the stratosphere – both operationally and financially.

 from the National Priorities Project - go to their site to see the answer

The House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 before they left for recess two weeks ago upping Mr. Trump’s $54 billion military spending increase by an additional $29 billion. The Senate Armed Services has upped that by an additional $2 billion in what looks like a bidding war to see who’s the most patriotic hawk. There is so much money floating around the Pentagon and associated departments and private contractors that no one even knows where all the cash is. The F-35 is a classic case of a boondoggle that keeps getting more and more expensive and still isn’t in the air. But Pentagon waste is accepted. There is no audit of the Pentagon. As Eisenhower warned, the Military-Industrial-Complex will gobble up money and power from the citizenry, with almost no one challenging the fiscal restraint (Sen. Warren? Sen. Sanders?). Of course, the combined robbing of funds from programs for human well-being and diplomacy and foreign assistance are rarely discussed. And the beat goes on. [see the People's Budget from the Progressive Caucus for an alternative - hint the lowest of three budgets from the graphic above]

That’s why small steps like the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty help put the military juggernaut in the spotlight. A terrific explanation of the treaty and the U.S. position was published in the Washington Post on Monday is an important read “The U.N. Just Passed a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. That Actually Matters.” By Nina Tannenwald,  director of the International Relations Program at Brown University and the author of “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons.”


Without growing and sustained pressure from citizens, Congress will not stand up to the military-industrial-complex, they become part of it. To learn more visit:

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Not Capitalism- But What Else?

What follows are excerpts from two books I've recently finished. The first I pulled from my own bookshelf long ago purchased at a used book sale, but never read. It was referenced in something I read earlier this year. The book was written in 1969 and I was reading it simultaneously while I was reading another book written the same year. I blogged about them bother earlier here, but I was only part way through this one. While each excerpt can stand pretty much on its own, the result of the whole picture is more important to this feeble mind. thought that connects these two disparate

The unity of thought that connects these two disparate books is what I found remarkable as I read them simultaneously. The excerpts might not show that as clearly as reading either or both tomes would. Each is worth a read and maybe these excerpts will whet an appetite or two to try them. They have much to say about our own time and possible paths forward. The spirit of both of these writers is embedded in a commitment to democracy with a small 'd'. There isn't even a smattering of arrogance in their writing but of the possibilities for a better world if we would only reflect on what we truly value as a human family on a finite planet.

Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority

Excerpts from Michael Harrington’s Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority (1969)

The military-industrial complex bases itself on a permanent war economy and a huge military establishment. This enormous vested interest in annihilation, Eisenhower feared, could subvert the democratic process in matters of war and peace. (p. 77)

In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower had been particularly alarmed by the possibility that the military-industrial complex would come to control education. He was concerned about ‘the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment’ and the possibility that ‘public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite.’ In part Eisenhower’s fears have been justified. As Clark Kerr testified – perhaps too candidly from the point of view of his own career – in The Uses of the University, Federal grants and big business needs are playing an increasing role in determining the shape and quality of higher education in America. But now with the social-industrial complex, the danger becomes more pervasive, for it extends to the kindergarten and the Job Corps camp as well as to the graduate seminar. There are those … who would make the knowledge industry the servant of the educators. But there seem to be many more who follow the jubilant philosophy expressed in the Wall Street Journal articles: that schools shall now be designed to fit machines rather than the other way around. (pp. 88-9)

Washington has a role to play at every part of this process [research and development]. Since it would be political suicide to admit that the state is thus accommodating itself to the goals of the corporations, the exact opposite is proclaimed. This is done by defining the society’s purpose so as to make it identical with that of the big firms. It is therefore a national article of faith that any increase in the Gross National Product is good even when it takes the form of carcinogenic cigarettes or noisome automobiles. This creed provides ample justification for Federal support of just about anything the private sector desires, but it does so in the name of the nation rather than of business. (p. 104)

The abolition of poverty and racism, the reconstruction of urban life, and all the rest simply do not make economic sense within the corporate calculus. And therefore these very fine and educated people will unwittingly perpetuate the very chaos which offends their sensibilities. (p. 110)

As I noted earlier, the [Automation] Commission replied to the president that, if all productivity gains from 1965 to 1985 were taken in the form of leisure, the nation could choose between a twenty-two-hour week, a twenty-seven-week year, or retirement at thirty-eight years of age. (p. 113)

[Here Harrington offers a possible approach]
The President shall be obliged to make to the nation a periodic Report on the Future. The report shall project the basic choices and different futures before the country and estimate both the economic and social costs of alternative programs. It shall specify which groups stand to make particular gains from the various courses of action. The report shall state a Social Consumption Criterion which will clearly measure the impact of every department of public expenditure on the social standard of living. In particular, it shall explain exactly how the major areas of spending are contributing toward the abolition of poverty and racial discrimination. 
     The report shall be presented to a Joint Congressional Committee on the Future, which shall hold public hearings on it. Staff funds will be provided to any significant group of legislators, whether they are on the committee or not, so that they can write a substitute report or propose major amendments to the President’s draft. The House and Senate will then debate, and vote on, the general economic and social orientation of the American government during the next period. (I am deliberately vague about the time span. Whether it should be gear to a four year Presidential political cycle or to a period determined by economic considerations hardly need to be settled now. The important point is that the report’s horizon be set in the middle distance where historic options begin to take shape. (pp. 114-5)

Examples abound in Washington of academic debates over statistics which are the façade of group conflict. The AFL-CIO definitions of unemployment usually yield higher percentages than the department of Labor, which in turn, takes a grimmer view of joblessness than does the National Association of Manufacturers. The scholars involved in this fight are not dishonest, but they do have special angles of vision. (As I wrote in The Other America, in 1959 Fortune magazine and I used the same income figures and they were happy about how many Americans were rich and I was outraged about the number who were poor.) (p. 116)

Above all the democratic Left must incarnate a vision of the future. America’s unplanned planning has been rigorously guided by commercial priorities. Unless there is a conscious movement in a new direction, this society will continue publicly to fund its catastrophes, though in the next period it will do so more in the name of social industrialism than in that of Adam Smith. (p. 130)

The United States could be building a full-fledged meritocracy in which intellectual ability and competitive drive determine a person’s social and economic position. If that is the case, then there is a grim future in store for the winners and the losers. Those who achieve will do so by turning their brains into a salable commodity.  Those who fall behind – and they will be disproportionately recruited from the black and white poor, though no fault of their own – will have greater feelings of resentment and inferiority than those at the bottom of past societies. Their Humiliating plight will be theoretically a consequence of their innate deficiencies and not of the structure of the economy. In fact, as Chapter 3 showed, their educational and cultural deficiencies will have been cruelly imposed on them by the white and well-off. But the hurt will be done so discreetly that even the victims will think it is their fault.
     The most immediate tactic for countering these tendencies is to raise the intelligence of the entire society. What is called intelligence is, in any case, to a considerable degree, a social product. At the most brutal level, starvation during a child’s early years will physically affect his brain and maim him for life, a savaging of the human spirit which was documented  in Mississippi as recently as 1967 and which certainly persists to this moment. Providing a decent diet for everyone in the society would among other things, put an end to this tragedy. More subtly, increasing levels of health and the standard of living and widening the range of experience have already made the IQs of middle-class schools higher than those of the slums. Thus, one consequence of programs for full employment and decent housing will be to make people, and particularly those who are now systematically denied the decencies of life, smarter. (p. 145)

India provides and even better example of the profitable uses of American generosity. This particular case grows out of the fact that there is money to be made in the starvation market. Forbes magazine – which advertises itself as a ‘capitalist tool’ – headlined the cover story on the March 1, 1966 issue ‘Feeding the World’s Hungry Millions: How it Will Mean Billions for U.S. Business.’ The American oil companies, Forbes said in its article, had got the message and were embarking on fertilizer production. Then there came this frank and revealing anecdote: ‘For a long time, India insisted that it handle all the distribution of fertilizer product in that country by U.S. companies and that it also set the price. Standard of Indiana understandably refused to accept these conditions. AID put food shipments to India on a month-to-month basis until the Indian government let Standard of India market its fertilizer at its own price.’ And so it was that, in the 1967 AID proposals, the request for $50 million for fertilizer for India was a ‘tied’ grant and the stated goal of encouraging private enterprise – which is to say American oil corporations – in this area. (pp. 170-1)

It is not just, as has been seen, that these grants are often an indirect and subtle subsidy to American businessmen. More than that, the hungry of the globe have been paying larger and larger tribute each year in order to be helped. The UN Economic Survey of the world during 1965 put the matter quite succinctly. In that year the self-help efforts of the Third World resulted in an increase in saving (that is to say, of the surplus they were able to deduct from their meager and sometimes starving, consumption) of 6 percent. But at the same time there was an outflow to the advanced countries in interest and profit that went up by 10 percent. As a result, the UN concluded, the developing countries were sending back more than half the funds they receive! (p. 172-3)

The oil industry, then, acts according to the classic Leninist scenario. It profiteers in the Third World, supports local reaction, opposes democratic and modernizing movements and sometimes is able to treat the United States as if it were a hired plant security guard. At almost every point the result has been to make American foreign policy more reactionary. If the country’s international actions were dedicated toward the creation of a world in which the gap between the rich and poor nations would be reduced, the oil industry would suffer. The resultant misery of various millionaires would be real, but it would not overturn the American economy. The catch is, of course, political. Oil is tremendously powerful in Washington, and therefore any hope of a truly democratic foreign policy would require the death of its domestic influence. (p. 195)

In his farewell message President Eisenhower had said of the ‘immense military establishment,’ which was ‘new in the American experience,’ that its ‘total influence – economic, political even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of Federal Government.’ If America were to embark on a genuinely democratic foreign policy and seek to create  a new world in which the gap between the rich and poor nations would be abolished, this vested interest in death would be threatened. For an emphasis on international construction, massive investments in men and money in the Third World, and disarmament would reverse the priorities which have prevailed in the postwar period. (p. 201)

A vast increase in war spending, on the other hand, is almost always accompanied by an end to social innovation. The emotion of patriotism unites the entire nation, and class differences are submerged in the common effort. In the case of a shooting conflict, the military obligingly dispenses with competitive principles and adopts uneconomic methods like cost-plus contracts (when it is necessary in a conservative cause, or in fighting a war, America is always ready to turn its back on the myths of the market economy, bust such idealism is almost never applied to truly idealistic projects). (p. 201)

For these, and many other reasons the American Congress will enthusiastically vote $50, $60, or even $70 billion for defense while it haggles over a less than $2 billion appropriation for fighting poverty. And it is dangerous to think that, as peace begins to break out, it would be simple enough to transfer funds from the work of destruction to that of construction, The socialization of death is, thus far at least, much more generally popular than the socialization of life. A shift of money from Defense to, say Health Education and Welfare would demand a basic turn toward the democratic Left within society. (p. 201-2)

To begin with, the basic infrastructural needs of the poor nations – roads, education, cheap mass housing, etc. – are simply not profitable investments. Indeed, no one is really interested in building decent homes for the poverty stricken within the United States, and smart money would shun such an undertaking overseas even more so. As T.C. Blair has written, ‘…the criterion of profitability when applied to Africa too often leads to high monetary receipts but low real social benefits. Investors channel money into profitable export produce and minerals and avoid investment in ‘unprofitable’ homebuilding, school construction and low cost food protein production. Profitable external economies are created with a consequent stagnation of the domestic economy. Investment in the production of goods with high utility for low-income African consumers continually lags behind other investment sectors.’ This analysis fit Latin America perfectly. (p. 225)

So there is no easy road out of underdevelopment, and one must talk pragmatically about some sort of international mixed economy. Yet there is a crucial point which can be rather simply put: the Third World cannot put its faith in Adam Smith or any of his heirs, for the market mechanism is a cause of, rather than a solution to, its poverty. Understanding this fact will require that the United States get over some of its favorite prejudices. (p. 228)

For however it is done in a technical sense, the substance of every one of these ideas is the same: that the richest lands in history voluntarily surrender some of the advantages which they built into the very structure of the world economy and that money must be transferred from rich to poor rather than, as now, the other way around. This does not mean that the wealthy nations are supposed to opt for poverty in order to fulfill a moral obligation to the less fortunate of the globe. It simply means that these affluent countries will enrich themselves at a somewhat slower rate and without pushing the majority of the world’s population more deeply into misery. This can be done. There are sober and intelligent proposals which have already demonstrated the possibility of creating a new world by changing the present injustice of aid and trade. So the crucial question is not technical but political. (p. 239-40)

But there was, and is, another form of anti-communism. It sought some alternative to communism and the status quo, for it recognized the right and necessity of revolution but struggled that it might be democratic, not totalitarian. The views of Galbraith and Robert Kennedy, discussed at length earlier, are obviously in this tradition. Indeed, this attitude regularly provided the official rhetoric for American involvement in the Cold War itself. ‘The seeds of totalitarian regimes’ Harry Truman said in 1947, ‘are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life ahead has died.’ (p.243)

The United States and the Soviet Union, having brought mankind to the brink of nuclear holocaust, could simply walk away from the Cold War, retreat into their separate self-interests and respect each other’s injustices. Or the United States could take the lead in a gigantic international effort for the reconstruction of the world. There are economic arguments for such a course and they should be stated. But ultimately if this is to be done it will happen because the deep-running force of American idealism bursts the channels in which the generals and executives have confined it and takes its own direction. That is the politics of hope. (p. 245)

When there was hope, people joined together for militant action which proclaimed their dignity. This was the way of the original revolutionists, of the Abolitionists, the populists, the trade-unionists, the civil-right activists and all the others who constitute the living tradition of the American Left. But when fear predominates, as today, this very same independence of spirit drives a man to defend his own equality by attacking his neighbor’s. (p.278)


There is no consensus possible with such men as long as they hold to their institutional values. The Left must therefore attack their power democratically and nonviolently and thereby widen the areas in which people organizing themselves politically are stronger than money. For when a free society avoids conflict, that is not an act of civic prudence but a surrender to the manipulative elites which work behind the façade of unanimity. (p.283)

Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist

From Terry Gibbs, Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist.

[Gibbs shows in this tome how the fundamental values of socialism and Buddhism are aligned using his deep experience in both traditions. ]

Resolving those contradictions, according to Marx, requires a solid understanding of how economic systems (or ‘modes of production’ in Marxist lingo) have functioned throughout history and how the related institutional structures give rise to particular social relations. Marx’s work in many ways laid the ground for the concept of structural violence, although the term wasn’t coined until the late 1960’s by peace activist and academic Johan Galtung. The approach Marx developed to understand the mechanics of particular economic systems demonstrates how economic structures throughout history have embodied particular forms of violence and suffering and how those structures have benefited some social groups or classes and disadvantaged others.

Gary Leech argues that ‘structural violence manifests itself in many ways, but its common theme is the deprivation of peoples’ basic needs as a result of existing social structures. Those basic needs include food, healthcare and other resources essential for achieving a healthy existence and fullest human development possible. Such inequality is rooted in the oppression of one group by another.’  Galtung notes that without a specific individual ‘perpetrator’, structural violence can be much more insidious than direct physical violence. ‘There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. Resources are unevenly distributed. … Above all the power over the distribution of resources is unevenly distributed.’ (p. 62)

But it is not only the indigenous peoples’ way of knowing that have systematically marginalized in our education systems in capitalist societies. And it is not only Canada’s indigenous peoples who are being channeled into business and professional studies – these are issues for youth throughout the world. Responsible parents do not encourage their children to study philosophy, especially responsible parents from the global South. Obviously students have to figure out how to earn a living in our world, but the areas where this is possible under capitalism have become narrower and narrower and an individual’s value is largely determined by their capacity to generate income and profit in the market. Naturally then, many parents want their children to become business people, doctors or lawyers as opposed to philosophers, artists or musicians. As a society, we are making these kinds of choices about what is important, about values we want to cultivate, and about what kind of world we want to live in.

As a socialist lens makes clear, in many ways, and for many years now, our approach to higher education suggests we cannot afford to have an education system that does not feed practically into the capitalist economy. The belief that a university should be a place in our society in which we have space to nurture the well-rounded human being has almost become a quaint notion. In our current era of corporate globalization, being able to respond to respond to the demands of the ‘market’ is the key job of administrators, and marketing the university’s ‘brand’ is the most important role of the development office. Educators increasingly need to prove themselves as ‘sustainable’ within this context and students need to strategically choose the appropriate professions. This state of affairs does not mean that everyone has made this shift willingly or that nothing good happens at universities anymore. I am speaking here about a general trend. The education system is an important space in which societies should be able to engage in critical discussions about their priorities and directions. (p. 78-9)

All of this consumerism might not be so problematic if we were actually fulfilled by it and were not harming ourselves, others and the planet. As I noted previously, the problem is not that we consumer per se, but rather that those of us with sufficient wealth are engaged in rampant consumerism which, as Marxists remind us, requires a production system, that by necessity, cannot be bothered with questions related to the environment or the rights of living beings. It is not that powerholders in the capitalist system enjoy causing suffering to others and nature, it’s just the logic of capital accumulation requires those consequences of their profit-making remain secondary considerations. Therefore, a ‘right view’ requires a questioning of the logic of the growth model and a serious critique of consumerism. (p. 100-1)


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Not Enough Bullets

I am struggling to remember an earlier time in my life when I felt like the world was as surreal as I find it now. We have a person in the drivers seat so self-absorb, most professional mental health experts I know concur  that he suffers from Narcissistic Behavior Disorder (NBD), based upon his public statements and behavior. 

        "Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism." (Mayo Clinic)

 As a result, he is making decisions that defy any rational worldview while bringing great embarrassment to the country he represents. If it was just the embarrassment, I would not be so worried. But his policy decisions are almost mind-numbing. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his recent budget proposal that trades $54 billion for more militarization of our already overly militarized society, in exchange for a combination of tax cuts- mostly for the wealthiest, and reductions in social, environmental and diplomatic programs.

Three-Fifths of Cuts in Trump Budget Come in Low- and Moderate-Income Programs


The utter folly of this approach is clear to most serious economists.  CNN Money Magazine called it

"President Trump's first budget can be summed up like this: Big gifts for the rich, big cuts for the poor."

     He would give a lot more money to the defense industry and wealthy                      taxpayers, and he would pay for that with an unprecedented slashing of safety      net programs for America's poor. (CNN/Money)


Of course, when someone does offer criticism the NBD individual often exhibits the following symptoms:

    "At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. "(Mayo Clinic)

While our NBD leader continues to keep everyone off balance trying to anticipate his next decision, tweet, or comment, others are busy at the state level reeking havoc on our society. Our legislature here in Michigan tried to pass legislation to repeal the state income tax while our schools, colleges, infrastructure, health care and safety net are disintegrating as we race to beat Mississippi to the bottom of the rankings.

While we dodged that bullet for the moment - they are regrouping, another gang of NRA legislative servants have moved to do away with permits for guns, and therefore with any required training one might hope the vigilantes would receive. Of course, they argue that the 2nd amendment absolutely permits citizens the right to own and bear arms of any kind, any where, any time. As I left the hearing room last week after offering testimony urging the committee members to slow the arms race, not to accelerate it, I was followed out by an open-carry advocate all the way to the elevator, concerned that I was willing to allow the police to be the only perpetrators of violence.

I am not a psychologist, but I wonder if the ardent gun enthusiasts suffer from a syndrome not unlike the NBD. They seem either paranoid that they will be randomly attacked by some scheming criminal just waiting for them to walk by, or they get some strange rush from having the feel of cold steel next to their body. They talk as if there are criminals everywhere looking for strangers to assault, whereas we know that most gun deaths are among people who know each other. Such was the case of the young man I saw shot and killed a few hundred feet away nearly 50 years ago. They had been playing pool the night before.

The committee just passed this legislation on a party-line vote (guess who voted for and against). The insecurity industry that feeds the fear is aided and abetted by the television and motion picture industry which fill the airways and theater screens with endless violence. Violence, where the hero, like in the old westerns of the last century, always manages to shoot quicker, aim straighter. The villains are dispatched and everyone lives happily ever after. Of course, those fictions never have innocent bystanders harmed. We don't see the orphans, the widows, the maimed. 

Our addiction to violence in guns runs from the continued enlargement of the US military footprint - now more than 800 military bases around the world, the number one seller of arms of all kinds to almost anyone willing to pay. Heck, if you're a friend (especially if you're a dictator or monarch) we'll give you the weapons as foreign aid. Who wins - the weapons makers. Lockheed Martin's stock goes up every time there is a rumble somewhere on earth that the US might get involved with. Who stands to make a killing if the US follows through with President Obama's plan to spend $1 trillion on our nuclear weapon arsenal? Will the guy who now holds the launch key, up the ante? 

The arming of citizens in our public spaces is simply a parallel response to the fear that has been sold, often by those who can profit by it. The gun as solution prevents us from addressing the causes of violence, the lack of a hopeful future and the escalating inequality. The temporary elixir of superior power is an addictive drug that permeates our society. A war on this addiction is not the answer any more than was the war on drugs or the war on terror. Instead we need an investment in social and mental health therapies. Starting with the guy with the nuclear codes.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Oldies But Goodies

There is probably a built in mechanism in our culture's brain that the newest ideas and thoughts are better than older ones. Today's thinkers have the chance to stand on the shoulders of those who came before. I know I'm always looking for fresh new ideas in the books recently published, thus my almost weekly visit to the new book shelves at the Michigan State University Library. One doesn't have to travel far to recognize that some older works, many obscure except to a few readers, offer great insights usable today. That's why we read some of our more famous thinkers like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Plato, Darwin, Locke, etc.

So I stumbled into a few terrific reads from the 1968-69 era within the same week. They were inspired from different sources. The first one I completed last week. Simply titled The Choices, it was the final book of Norman Thomas' life. He completed it a month before his death at age 84 in December of 1968. Thomas was a remarkable figure of the 20th century from his early involvement against the first world war to his fight against American imperialism, inequality, and racism right up to his death. A Presbyterian minister, socialist, pacifist and six time presidential candidate from the Socialist Party, Thomas was considered one of the most powerful orators of his time. Having read and blogged on his biography last December I was compelled to find and read a few of his own writings. One of them was The Choices.



It is a short, small book not quite 90 pages in length. Kirkus Reviews noted in an early 1969 review that

          Here, in his last political credo, Thomas reiterates his democratic socialism. But except on the issue of "universal disarmament" with UN control, almost any American will accept his views. The prescriptions stress flexible social planning and regulation of air and water pollution, natural resources and the birth rate. He advocates abolition of the electoral college, but pointedly scores the New Left for its "apotheosis of violence." The issues of racism, poverty, civil liberties and war also receive scrutiny. Throughout, Thomas indicates the choices he favors for deciding the world's future.

There is a quiet gentle wisdom in this book. I find it amazing that his many political defeats failed to make him bitter or cynical. 


        "I made my first important speech to a large audience in Madison Square Garden in 1917, in support of Morris Hillquit, the very able Socialist Party candidate for mayor of New York. The meeting dealt largely with the First World War, our entrance into which the Socialists had opposed. To fashion a world without war seemed to me a primary concern. I also believed that to attain peace, the world would have to concern itself with creating a world in which social justice prevails."

         Almost fifty years from that day, I made what tuned out to be my last speech in November 1967. I spoke before a large audience of labor leaders in Chicago. Once again, the subject was peace. After fifty tumultuous years, years which saw victory for what was the better side in two world wars, the United States was involved in a very cruel war in Vietnam, and living under the constant threat of a third world war.
         ... I am very critical of what is now called the Establishment in Washington, Moscow, or Peking, but I have great affection for my own country and confidence -- especially with the oncoming generation -- in its salvation. To use symbolic terms, I am one of those who desire to wash the flag, not burn it. I recognize that washing the flag requires more than political or economic group action. It requires personal action, your action in the ending of violence, the achievement of fraternity and honesty."

His chapter titles gives a good hint of what he addresses:


  1. We Must Choose Peace
  2. Racial War or Racial Fraternity?
  3. Toward Racial Fraternity
  4. Economics I: Economic Justice
  5. Economics II: The Choice of Means
  6. Economics III: Some Further Questions
  7. Toward Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
  8. Toward Violence of Non-Violence
  9. The Electoral Process 
  10. Political Action 1968
It's hard to think of anyone of similar stature for our times. A voice that challenged the status quo with fervor, eloquence and passion. He may well have left us almost fifty years ago, but his ideas live on and are as timely as any written today.

The second book was referenced in a footnote of something I read recently. The context of the citation, which I also can't recall, made it seem worth looking into. As it happens so I found an old paperback copy of the book on our bookshelves. One of those books you might find at a used book sale but never get around to reading. I have quite a few more of these!

Michael Harrington was half Norman Thomas' age when he wrote Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for New Majority in 1968. 

Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority

It is a longer and more scholarly approach to similar contemporary issues. Like Thomas, Harrington was a socialist and went on to form the Democratic Socialists of America which he led for a number of years before his death in 1989. He was most noted for writing The Other America which was credited with inspiring President Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson into creating the Great Society. He won the prestigious George Polk Award for that earlier work. Unlike Thomas who believed in changing the system through the Socialist Party, Harrington believed that one had to work through the Democratic Party and that appears to be the focus behind this book.



I am only 50 pages into this 300 page tome so it's much too early to cast a final judgment on it. But early on I admire the temperament and the insights that again are so pertinent to our own times.

        "The old liberalism does not offer an adequate response to these massive historic trends and can even be used as a screen for corporate collectivism.  As long as new Leftism is only an opposition it may help people to change masters but not to free them selves. To deal with the crises it has officially certified at home and abroad, the United States will have to be quite concrete. It must, among other things, redefine economics, recover its passion for equality, and, in the doing, reduce the profit motive to fourth rate importance and raise the non-profit motive to the first rank." (p.17)

        "In short, there must be a social determination of what is economic. Building homes for the impoverished is not profitable from the point of view of a corporate investor because it does not provide a high enough rate of return on capital. But the social investor -- which is to say the democratic society -- has a different point of view. Poverty is, of course, enormously costly in terms of increasing the risks of crime, fire, disease and every other ill, and America already pays a high price for being unjust. But much more basically, human beings are being squandered, and this is a tragic waste from the point of view of both the individual and the society." (pp.20-21)

       "Yet these relatively functional concepts of money making are a far cry fro,m the profit mythology which is still taught to innocent school children in our society. For Americans are told that buying cheap and selling dear, gaining and advantage over one's neighbor, making a killing out of a rise in the value of stock or land which the individual did nothing to promote are the basic principles which should guide the citizen and the society. It is indeed a 'somewhat disgusting morbidity' that the country reverences." (p.26)

        "But homilies will not change the motivational structure of an entire society. What is needed in addition is action to create an environment in which it is more 'natural' to help one's fellow man than to profit from him." (p.26)

Harrington was first a believer in democracy and then a socialist as one can see in his explanation of the difference between an Adam Smith economic view and one of John Maynard Keynes

       "The next giant stride in American life will make Keynesianism social rather than Adam Smithian. This is not, let it be noted again, a proposal for democratic socialism. For it is possible for the people to insist that public moneys be spent on public purposes without changing the fundamental relationships of ownership in America. It is just when tax funds are used to support major transformations of society, the decisions should be democratic ally debated and decided on." (p.50) 

All this leads me back to kind of thinking we see in Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics that I wrote about ten days ago. It is amazing how quickly and how widely the ideas she has shared in a book that's been released for less than two months has received from other big thinkers. Last week we saw David Korten lead off his review of the work in Yes Magazine with these glowing remarks:

       "I see a lot of books presuming to explain what’s wrong with the economy and what to do about it. Rarely do I come across one with the consistent new paradigm frame, historical depth, practical sensibility, systemic analysis, and readability of Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. Especially unique and valuable is her carefully reasoned, illustrated, and documented debunking of the fatally flawed theory behind economic policies that drive financial instability, environmental collapse, poverty, and extreme inequality."

It is clear to this reader, that we need to revisit ideas that were floating around years ago and meld them with the ideas that are emerging about how we move forward as one human family, on a single planet with one future. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Good Jobs, Militarism and Doughnuts

I've spared any regular readers, both of you, from any drainage from my mental swamp for over a month. No real fancy reasons, just The MUSE has not visited despite having completed several good new books and lots of activism. And despite the current absence of The MUSE I feel compelled to put down a few words after hearing another pile of crap on NPR this morning.

It was some trite reference to the proposed Trump tax overhaul that will create "good jobs". I would love to hear what those in the Trump administration really define as a good job. For the Chamber of Commerce and its supporters it likely means jobs that pay as little as possible, which largely includes a growing trend of part-time and temporary work. Clearly, the takeover of higher education by the neoliberal faithful, has seen the increasing trend towards adjunct/non-tenured faculty. That lack of sufficient income coupled with non-existent job security make many a PhD a losing financial investment.

Of course, the 1% are doing exceptionally well with this formula, as the income gap between them and the rest of us grows, with no sign of slowing. If you don't quite have a handle on how this has been happening I refer you to a quick, poignant, readable new book from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse: Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy. Whitehouse walks through a series of chapters assessing how the Corporate capture has exercised its control of elections, regulatory agencies, courts, and even the citizen jury. As a former Attorney General he's experienced with their efforts at both state and federal levels. Based on this tome and his actions as a Senator I hope his name can someday reside in that mansion on Pennsylvania Ave.

Captured

I have spent a sizable portion of my time since my last blog entry immersed in both studying the hold of militarism on our democracy and organizing to push back against the unquestioned growth and expanse of the the U.S. militarization juggernaut. Where is the politician willing to question the unrelenting growth in military spending? Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation addressed part of this question earlier this week in her column Where is the Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders of Foreign Policy?  Prof. Rebecca Thorpe shines the light on part of the issue in her 2014 study of The American Warfare State: The Domestic Politics of Military Spending. Among other findings is pursuit of making rural and semi-rural areas dependent on military sector jobs and funding that then secures the votes of the elected officials that represent those areas.
The American Warfare State


Nowhere is this more evident than in my own backyard. Michigan two Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, along with every Representative from the state except Republican Justin Amash has signed on to a letter to the Pentagon begging for Ft. Custer (Battle Creek, MI) to be home for a third, but unrequested Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. The $3.2 billion dollar boondoggle, besides being unrequested is for s system that fails as often as it has been successful, and that's even with the foreknowledge of when and from where a missile is being launched. The Union of Concerned Scientists recent report drills holes all through the arguments that such system isn't worth the paper it is written on. But politicians need to bring home the pork, regardless of how it smells to the rest of us. Studies show that if you want to create plentiful and good jobs investments in education, green technology, infrastructure or health are significantly better options than military spending.

Rep. Barbara Lee, the only courageous congressional member to vote against the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) after the 9/11 attack has remained an almost solitary voice of reason. Unafraid to stand alone among her peers in calling out the propensity to use violence to solve conflict. Fear seems to be the modus operandi of the neoliberal/militarists who stand up and raise new fears if we don't fall in line for their calls for more... more tax cuts for the wealthy, more military spending, more military bases (see the Nick Turse piece today on The US Military Moves Deeper into Africa, or more military actions.

Meeting with the staffs of our senators, and in one case a Representative himself (Rep. John Moolenaar)  all my elected federal officials seem to either buy-in to the American Exceptionalism mindset, or are too timid to challenge it and the militarization of our society. They are as Sen. Whitehouse makes clear - captured!

So, in a really fresh analysis of our many global challenges steps British economist Kate Raworth. Her new book based upon earlier  work she did with Oxfam not only briefly maps the growth of the neoliberal idea, she notes its many failures while offering a sober and hopeful alternative. Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist

Doughnut Economics

uses the simple graphic of a doughnut to help us realize that economics should ideally guide us towards the safe space between planetary and social boundaries. If we live outside either boundary we are destined for disaster, some of which we can see already.


Raworth doesn't claim to have all the answers,  but her argument to redirect the economy to work for all of us without destabilizing the natural world systems that make life habitable is worth consideration by all. She builds on the economic theorists that preceded her and gives credit to many working in the field who have helped shine the light on the fallacies of the neoliberal economic model so much in control today.

Good jobs - jobs that proved a livelihood while nurturing the social commons and respecting planetary limits are the kind of jobs we need. If we did it right, we might all have to work a little less, enjoy it more, and remove the drivers that feed militarism and dominance in our world.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Rush to Avoid Taxes

We now have less than 30 days to finish up our federal tax forms and get them to the IRS and state capitols. As I noted recently in this blog, "taxes are dues for living in a civilized society". So why do we all seek every advantage to reduce those taxes? We want deductions for our home (interest on mortgage, property taxes, etc.), for our charitable contributions, for state and local taxes paid, the list goes on.

There is an entire industry focused on how not to pay taxes - accountants, tax lawyers, tax preparation firms, all promising big savings if you know where to look and how to manage your affairs to minimize the dues we supposedly pay for a civilized community. Can we deduct our travel expenses for volunteer work, how about the tax credit for our solar installation, or the new energy efficiency changes made to the home?

Of course these are relatively small deductions that save many in the middle class a few hundred, or maybe even a couple thousand dollars in taxes per year. How can we actually minimize our overall tax rate we have to pay? Simple - by managing our funds so that more of our income arrives through capital gains than real work. Not surprisingly capital gains are almost entirely in the hands of the wealthiest. The wealthiest 1% make more than a third of their income from capital gains. The  New York Times reported that "estimates show that nearly 70 percent of all capital gains benefits go to the top 1 percent." 

While the plutocrats and their neighbors cash in at lower income tax rates than middle class citizens with larger deductions and the lower capital gains rate, it seems like nearly everyone is hooked on the notion that paying taxes is something you must avoid. And if you are wealthy enough, you can afford the services of the aforementioned tax consultants to help you do so.


Of course the corporate world, also run by the wealthiest among us, takes tax avoidance to a whole new level, whether it's from hiding income in offshore tax havens, or having their hired lobbyists create a specific tax loophole for them, in exchange of course for a nice little contribution to the legislators that are willing to fill their pockets. Oh yes, again let's not forget how they use their accumulations to take advantage of that low capital gains tax rate.


While I'll admit I don't own a PhD. in economics, looking at changes in the tax rates since World War II shows a striking parallel shift in income inequality. Every time we make yet another reduction in the taxes for the wealthiest, we increase the inequality. The trickle down "voodoo economics" plan boosted by Ronald Reagan never really trickled down. Surprise!!!


Mr. Trump's recent budget proposal accomplishes this not simply by cutting rates directly, which he is certainly aiming to do, but as a recent analysis, reported by the New York Times last week  of the TrumpCare proposal indicates, that $1 Trillion in tax cuts embedded in it will over a decade will find their way into the pockets of the richest Americans.

The House Republican Tax plan as reviewed by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows visually how the tax code may be further loaded to the wealthiest.




So the reduction in progressive taxation that gained steam with Ronald Reagan's "Voodoo Economics" continues.  Or does it actually get worse? If one looks at the holes collectively engineered into the social safety net by the Trump budget proposal,  we can see more and more people falling through it. But in Speaker Ryan's world, "it's their choice". 

If we are to live in a civilized society, that doesn't let our brothers and sisters fall through our porous safety net, we need to all consider paying taxes as our dues. Making that system fairer, i.e., more progressive, is essential to that end. The security of each of us is entangled with the security of all of us. 

One planet, one human family, one common future.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cashing in on Fear

While it seems obvious to me, evidently it isn't to many Americans. Donald Trump and other fear mongers among us are constantly trying to make us afraid of - immigrants, minorities, Muslims, LGBT, terrorists, criminals, axis of evil....ad nauseum. If they can sell the fear, we're more likely to succumb to their proposed remedy - build walls, more guns, better locks, bigger armies and navies, yada, yada, yada. 

I've been thinking along this line for a long time, but an article recently passed my eyes that put some solid data behind it in "Why Are People So Averse to Facts"  by Prof. Tristan Bridges from the website Sociological Images. The article posted last week discusses the claims of a certain President that crime is on the rise along with the data that shows the opposite. While of course the make believe world of this detached fellow is of interest, what I found more interesting in the piece was data from annual Gallup polls between 1989-2016 that showed the majority of the American public has consistently believed crime was getting worse when it wasn't.


Interesting enough it was just a week ago that the very same author of the crime myth was selling another bag of fear around terrorism. This one comes with an additional $54 billion price tag, on top of the $600 billion we already spend on 'defense'. The lunacy would be laughable if it wasn't so harmful. If our major security concern is global terrorism why would one argue for building up a larger navy, adding 75 more ships to the 275 we already have floating around the world? Are nuclear powered submarines the answer to terrorism? This isn't defense, it's offense!!


Image result for navy


But, let's not let any facts get in the way of protecting us from hyped up fears. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and their collaborators are happy to sell weapons to the US government or any other nation that buys the belief foisted by the Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC) that the latest weaponry and a larger military footprint will bring them peace and prosperity.


The US government even works as arms merchants for these purveyors of weaponry, greasing the palms of the buyer - whether the purchase be planes, landmines (we still haven't signed the convention to outlaw them- one of only 35 countries out of 200), tanks, missiles, whatever. Note simply recent huge arms sales agreements with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and even more recently Vietnam.

Image result for landmine ban

Juxtapose these increases with the announced cuts to diplomacy and foreign assistance announced announced subsequent to the military build-up. Do the proponents seriously believe that we will defeat terrorism with more bullets and less bread? Do they think for a minute that we will win the hearts and minds of those who see us as global bullies as our military might becomes even more expansive?


Image result for national priorities project


The National Priorities Project notes that the $54 billion that will be cut to pay for the expanded  militarism of this regime exceeds the entire budgets of the following:


  • Department of Homeland Security ($48 billion)
  • Housing and Urban Development ($38 billion)
  • Department of Energy ($30 billion)
  • Department of Justice ($29 billion)
  • Department of State ($29 billion)
  • Environmental Protection Agency ($8 billion)
  • National Science Foundation ($7 billion)
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($485 million)
  • National Endowment for the Arts ($148 million)
Meanwhile no mention of cutting the enormous waste in military spending, as noted by the Pentagon's own study last fall that identified $125 billion in waste. Since the Pentagon is never audited, that figure is probably low.  Regardless the American public takes it all in without barely a whimper of protest, evidently convinced that the fear mongering of the MIC and their current White House champion is true. 

If we don't challenge the madness of militarism, we will insure the bullets and landmines we deploy under the guise of 'defense' will continue to harm innocent civilians. Meanwhile robbing both American families and our less fortunate of investments in true human prosperity.