Saturday, December 27, 2014

On Lost Causes, Climate Change, and Possibilities

To be honest, I really like Naomi Klein’s work – her crisp analysis of complex issues and her manner of conveying those insights.

Naomi Klein
I’ve read “Shock Doctrine” and other shorter pieces and saw her give an astonishing lecture a few years back based on only a few notes that wove a complex set of issues into a coherent whole.

 That being said I was not sure I was up for reading her 500pp+ new book “This Changes Everything”.

I assumed I knew everything she was going to say. But I had put a notify request on the title at the library when it was ordered, so when it came in a couple weeks back I thought I should at least give it a short whirl. I’m on page 370 of 466 pages of prose followed by 60 pages of notes. It’s been a good read. And while I know most of what she has laid out here, there are both new nuggets and a distinctive whole to her well written analysis that I’ve have enjoyed and been inspired by. In short – I highly recommend the read….

Today I read another fervent piece on climate change by another favorite author of mine, Rebecca Solnit. "Let's leave behind the age of fossil fuel. Welcome to Year One of the climate revolution" was published this past week with yet a bit different twist.

Like Klein she is a keen analyst of the human condition, and arguably a more  prolific writer on our condition. Her insights are fresh, as you'll see.  I won’t summarize this, as it is short enough to read as printed in The Guardian

Then this evening I read this very interesting piece by the international relations scholar, Richard Falk, entitled “ On Lost Causes and the Future of Palestine”. 

 Richard Falk (YouTube screenshot)
While unlike the other two pieces it doesn’t deal with climate change. His jumping off point is a reflection on the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s concept of “Lost Causes”. This is what links so closely with the pieces by Klein and Solnit.  Read separately, they will have some impact on the reader. Read together, they may transform us. And that's the possibility worth sharing….

Monday, December 15, 2014

Linking Economics and Climate Change

Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economist, member of the Council of Economic Advisers was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, just months after the September 11th attack of the twin towers in NYC. The following are his concluding remarks in his acceptance speech (December 8, 2001).


     I entered economics with the hope that it might enable me to do something about unemployment, poverty and discrimination. As an economic researcher, I have been lucky enough to hit upon some ideas that i think do enhance our understanding of these phenomena. As an educator, I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to reduce some of the asymmetries of information, especially concerning what the new information paradigm and other developments in modern economic science have to say about these phenomena, and to have had some first rate students who themselves pushed the research agenda forward.
     As an individual, I have however not been content just to let others translate those ideas into practice. I have had the good fortune to be able to do so myself, as a public servant both in the American government and at the World Bank. We have the good fortune to live in democracies, in which individuals can fight for their perception of what a better world might be like. We as academics have the good fortune to be further protected by our academic freedom. With freedom comes responsibility: the responsibility to use that freedom to do what we can to ensure that the world of the future be one in which there is not only greater economic prosperity, but also more social justice.

Stiglitz has been busy since receiving his Nobel and is currently University Professor of economics at Columbia University. He has been outspoken in his critique of inequality and neoliberal economics including our narrow concept of   development.Increasing inequality and climate change are perhaps two alarm bells that have helped more economists join with Stiglitz and others to note the ills that the neoliberal economic policies have wrought.

Maybe no one makes this more clear than Naomi Klein in her just released This Changes Everything.

Klein, who has spent most of her time focusing on the neoliberal economic impacts of globalized trade, has come to see how the worldview associated with climate change denial is fundamentally tied to neoliberal economic worldviews.

     More fundamentally... is their deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time -- whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether the task can be left to the magic of the market. (p.40)

...for more than two decades, we kicked the can down the road. During that time, we also expanded the road from a two-lane carbon-spewing highway to a six lane superhighway. Thar feat was accomplished in large part thanks to the radical and aggressive vision that called for the creation of a single global economy based on the rules of free market fundamentalism, the very rules incubated in the right-wing think tanks now at the forefront of climate change denial. There is a certain irony at work: it is the success of their own revolution that make revolutionary levels of transformation to the market system now our best hope of avoiding climate chaos. (p.56)

Klein allows that
     It's not that the companies moving their production to China wanted to drive up emissions: they were after the cheap labor, but exploited labor and an exploited planet are, it turns out, a package deal. A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence.

Political scientists, John Dryzek and Hayley Stevenson, try to see how we might come to some global agreement on how to address climate change in their new book, Democratizing Global Climate Governance (2014).

Democratizing Global Climate Governance
They are less concerned about the climate deniers, since they are a tiny minority, especially of those who attend the global climate meetings they have studied. Dryzek and Stevenson instead look at the variance among those trying to wrestle with finding some sort of global agreement at four recent international meetings. Their findings lead them to identify four different frames (they call discourses) of orientation to addressing climate change.

1) Mainstream Sustainability - which assume that natural relationships are both competitive; partnerships; and win-win and in which economy is related to conservation. Business is seen as seeking profit with a conscience, governments believe in ecologically benign economic growth. They believe in the market's ability to manage climate response.

2) Expansive Sustainability - which assumes the possibility of international equity, a sense of responsibility, and that competition could be fair. They believe that civil society is a major player looking for the common good and that states have material motives but are share common but differentiated responsibilities.

3) Limits - assumes humans are dependent on the non-human world, rejects GDP, sees ecological limits, and development that is not growth. States are self-interested with unsustainable policy goals, but they are potentially capable of enlightened self-interest.

4) Green Radicalism - assumes that there is an inter-connectedness between humans and non-human worlds, that humans are capable of cooperation and solidarity. They see states and corporations are irresponsible, that mainstream environmental groups are ineffective.

These four views clash at the global meetings around climate with the bulk situated between expansive sustainability and limits. These findings seem to dovetail with recent published research showing that facts don't matter as much as the orientation one brings to the table. Perhaps the follow-up question is one that examines what leads anyone to question their basic assumptions about how the world works? Meanwhile the evidence mounts that the climate and our economy are linked. Will our elected and other leaders figure this out in time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Looking for a Deal

The Raw Deal or Some May Call the Real Deal

As my fingers hunt for the right keys on this laptop, millions of my fellow citizens, are out hunting for a 'deal', a 'bargain'. Black Friday is the penultimate holiday for consumerism in the U.S. And for a large majority of those bargain hunters, price is the lone distinguishing factor for the item sought. Now it could well be that the consumer's 'deal' is based upon low wages and compensation at the retail outlet or anywhere along the supply chain. Or it might be arrived at by a firm not paying its fair share of taxes or by cheating on regulations. But the bulk of consumers are either not aware or are not concerned with those costs born by others.

Let me confess, I am not totally exempt from this cultural focus. I was taught by my Depression surviving parents to shop for price, to be thrifty, to wait for the sale price. But part of that thrifty orientation was also getting by with what you had, making do, or repairing rather than replacing. At heart I think we are led to believe via marketing and advertising, that even if we may never make it to enjoy the income of the 1%, if we are shrewd enough, we can enjoy many of the same accoutrements they enjoy.

While we're busy hunting bargains, the extreme wealth and associated power that goes with it, continues to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands. And those hands are better able to shape what we know and think about the world. One recent example is the $100,000,000 spent by the Koch brothers to bombard the public with messages during the election about candidates and causes they believe in. You or I can't do that. And, of course, the Koch brothers are perhaps only the most extreme example.

This consolidation of power, whether by meglo-maniacs or nation states, is a poison on a finite planet with a growing human population. It's ironic that the day before Black Friday is perhaps this nation's most celebrated day of sharing, followed immediately by a day of addictive acquisition. Perhaps there is no better symbol of the irony than Walmart where millions are lined up to unwittingly line the pockets of four of the top eleven wealthiest people on the planet,  while their workers can't buy a living wage and where some of their own stores have collection boxes for shoppers to help their employees eat.

 Credit: Our Walmart

I am flabbergasted that the irony escapes, or is denied, by so many. But not by Dr. Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College wrote on Black Friday,

      "Economists note that if Walmart paid its employees at least $25,000 a year, a million and a half workers would be lifted out of poverty. That would mean more money staying in communities to support local businesses, helping to create at least 100,000 new jobs.  Demos, a nonprofit research group, released a report finding that Walmart could easily pay every employee $14.89 without raising prices by simply not buying its own stock to further enrich the Walton family."(more here).

So What Are Some New Ideas or to Borrow from FDR, a New Deal?

Here are my suggestions for a New Deal to replace the Raw Deal that so many in our human family have been offered. The data is conclusive and near unanimous, that income inequality has skyrocketed. This has occurred most notably in the U.S. and the U.K. since the combined efforts of the Thatcher/Reagan policies that reduced taxes on the wealthiest and attempted to starve all the functions of government (save military spending). The wealthy can afford their private education, health care, transportation, etc. so they need not worry about the others. They get to hand down their wealth in greater and greater amounts to their children, who like George W. Bush was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.

1) The New Deal would put a 10 times wage ratio in place. That's generously more than the 9 times rule in place at the very successful 85,000 employee owned Mondragon Co-operative in Spain. We will initially tie that ratio to a base equal to the median household income, currently approximately $50,000. This means that the highest income would be $500,000. All income above that is taxed at 100%.


The new IRS report for the 400 largest incomes (2010) was just released. The average income of the top 400 was reported as $265 million. Under my proposal  they would have to scrimp by on only $500,000 (of course they probably have enough wealth that that figure is meaningless). The tax revenues raised from these 400 tycoons alone under this policy would be $105 BILLION. 

2) Capital gains are taxed at the same rate as real income.

3) Selling of stock held for less than six months is penalized with a progressive tax. The tax increases correlated to the shortness of time the stock is held, e.g., if you hold for less than a day, you pay a penalty equal to the amount exchanged. If you hold for more than six months, no penalty! This reduces speculation, and specifically speculation driven by computer programs that add no real value to the economy.

The increased revenues to government from these three policy changes could provide for free K-16 education for all who are adequately prepared; universal health care; investments in renewable energy; energy, resource, and transportation efficiency; and stewardship of our natural resources. The government becomes the employer of last resort, so that everyone has a job, a livelihood and makes a contribution to the society.

4)  Institute participatory budgeting - give the citizens a direct voice in how those revenues are spent. In 2008 the American Political Science Association formed a task force to look at democracy, economic security and social justice as the economic convulsion was hitting. That task force completed its report in 2011 Democratic Imperatives: Innovations in Rights, Participation, and Economic Citizenship. The report recommends more public governance through mechanisms like public budgeting.

The Participatory Budgeting Project

In participatory budgeting citizens get to suggest programs and projects to spend some portion of tax revenues and then vote for their choices. Programs and projects receiving the most votes get funded. The benefits to the community and the democratic culture are many.

There are clearly more ideas we could test and try out that would move us away from exponential growth on a finite planet, where the benefits accrues mostly to a small minority. It is way past time we come together to discuss the possibilities for building a more sustainable future. To wait any longer to do so invites increasing struggle for many and will leave our children a world more badly broken.