Graeber: Why Austerity Reflects a Sham Morality

In an interview with David Johnson of Boston Review, anarchist/activist/anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber makes a key point about the “morality” behind austerity movements that is destined to be missed by all influential economists, bankers, presidential candidates and media pundits, but which no one interested in ethics , politics, or economics should miss (my emphasis):

David Johnson: What inspired you to write the book?

David Graeber: It came out of the strange moral power that debt has over people. So many times you’re talking to people about the depredations of the International Monetary Fund in the third world, telling these horrible stories about the thousands of babies dying of preventable diseases because people aren’t allowed to maintain malaria-eradication campaigns or basic health services due to austerity measures and debt servicing, and people respond, “Well, yeah, but you can’t say they don’t owe the money. People have got to pay their debts, come on!” That common-sensical notion not only that it’s moral to pay one’s debt, but also that morality essentially is a matter of paying one’s debts can bring people to justify things that they would never think to justify in any other circumstance. For the most part, decent people tend not to think killing lots of babies is justifiable under any circumstances. But debt somehow changes all that. Why is that?

Let’s try to really pay attention to that question, because as citizens of the modern democratic-capitalist world, we are very well-educated to gloss over it. Continue reading

Louis CK and Fans #Occupy the Entertainment Industry

Louis CK, the comedian and star of the FX comedy series Louis (which, I confess, I haven’t gotten around to actually ever seeing), just conducted an amazing, radical experiment in do-it-yourself capitalism that has paid off beautifully for him. Continue reading

Naomi Klein: Climate Science Deniers Are Right About One Thing

Once again, forward-thinking journalist Naomi Klein is steps ahead of the pack. In an interview with Klein on his Dot.Earth blog, the New York Times’s Andrew Revkin summarizes the conclusion Klein reached in a recent Nation article while attending the libertarian Heartland Conference of climate change deniers in Washington last summer: “[P]assionate corporate and conservative foes of curbs on greenhouse gases are right in asserting that a meaningful response to global warming would be a fatal blow to free markets and capitalism.”  Here’s a taste of the interview:

There is no question that robust public infrastructure is key to both reducing emissions and preparing for the heavy weather that we cannot avoid. Yet for the right-wing think tanks that sponsor the Heartland conferences (not to mention the modern-day Republican party), this is ideological heresy. Their whole reason for being is to shrink the public sphere in the name of low taxes and the benefits of privatization. What I’m arguing is that the idea that we can win the climate fight without engaging in ideological battle over these core questions about the role of government has always been a fantasy. Trying to dodge this fight is a big part of why we lose, and we need to get over it. It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most enlightened climate policies are also, overwhelmingly, the most social democratic.

And by the way, it’s not just that most of the big green groups avoid the growth question (with notable exceptions, as you point out). It’s that the solutions that groups like EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) have pushed are very often consumption based: buy these light bulbs, drive a hybrid, etc… And often these changes make sense. But the not-so subtle impact of putting so much emphasis on individual shopping habits has been to reinforce both consumerism and individualism. Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser have written some wonderful stuff on this. In this report, for example, Crompton argues that environmentalists need to do more to challenge the individualistic worldview in their campaign work.

This is particularly salient in light of the social science I reference in my article, particularly the research coming out of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, which has found that the major determinant of whether a person rejects the scientific consensus on climate change is whether they have a strongly “hierarchical” or “individualistic” worldview. One set of stats that didn’t make it into my piece: 78 per cent of subjects who display an “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldview believe that most scientists agree climate change is happening (which is true) – compared with only 19 per cent of those with a “hierarchical” and “individualist” worldview.

For me, it follows from this that part of being an effective environmentalist is trying to win more people over to a worldview in line with the laws of physics and chemistry, rather than offering shopping advice and touting “market-based solutions.” Put another way: if we know that aggressive regulation and rebuilding the public sphere through collective action are integral to meeting this challenge, then we have a responsibility to say so, and to defend the worldview behind those policies.

I’ll return to this idea of the urgent need to change the manner and tone of the discussion when I return to my history of the fracturing Democratic grassroots  (read the first and second parts here)  in upcoming posts.

#OWS Economics: Who’s to Blame?

Here’s an interesting video from a Texas-based libertarian, John Barksdale (my spelling may be incorrect), who calls himself order9066. I’m impressed with the research he put into this subject, and I take his point very well that it was not just Republicans who were responsible for throwing out the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which prohibited financial holding companies insured by the FDIC from owning other companies engaged in financial speculation such as Wall Street investment firms or insurance companies, with the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act of 1999.

While this video does serve as a corrective for the idea that Democrats share little or no blame in the gutting of New Deal protections that set-up the disaster of 2008, it goes overboard in pushing Republicans into the background of the blame picture. After all, the three authors and main sponsors of the bill were all Republicans, and both houses of Congress were, in fact, controlled by the GOP.  But it does highlight two main points: The fingerprints of “Third Way” Democrats in Clinton’s White House (including Clinton himself, of course) are as much in evidence on the financial deregulation of the late 1990s as the Republicans’ are; and Congressional Democrats were ineffective, at best, in preventing (and, at worst, complicit in bringing on) Glass-Steagall’s demise. Continue reading

Unleash the Entrepreneurs?

US Chamber of Commerce's major contribution to jobs creation dialog: A giant banner taunting the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue.

What’s wrong with this rosy picture of entrepreneurship painted by the Manhattan Institute’s Edward L. Glaeser in his article “Unleash the Entrepreneurs” at City Journal?:

Three years have passed since the financial crisis of 2008, and unemployment rates remain painfully high. As of August 2011, America employed 6.6 million fewer workers than it did four years earlier. To try to fix the problem, the Obama administration has pursued a variety of Keynesian measures—above all, the huge stimulus package of 2009, which included not only direct government spending but also such features as tax credits for home buyers and temporary tax cuts for most Americans.

Such policies ignore a simple but vital truth: job growth comes from entrepreneurs—and public spending projects are as likely to crowd out entrepreneurship as to encourage it. By putting a bit more cash in consumers’ pockets, the tax cuts in the stimulus package may have induced a bit more car- and home-buying, but the next Steve Jobs is not being held back by too little domestic consumer spending. Tax credits for home buyers and the infamous program Cash for Clunkers encourage spending on old industries, not the development of the new products that are likelier to bring America jobs and prosperity.

Unemployment represents a crisis of imagination, a failure to figure out how to make potential workers productive in the modern economy. The people who make creative leaps to solve that problem are entrepreneurs. If we want to bring America’s jobs back, our governments—federal, state, and local—need to tear down barriers to entrepreneurship, create a fertile field for start-up businesses, and unleash the risk-taking innovators who have always been at the heart of our economic growth.

Isn’t the default position of American economic policy precisely what Glaeser is selling as the solution to the nation’s economic problems? It looks to me like advocating hitting oneself in the head with a baseball bat to prevent injuries caused by hitting oneself in the head with a hammer.  Glaeser and all “free marketers” are slaves to the notion that entrepreneurship in itself is a panacea for all economic and social ills. What they seem to ignore is that some entrepreneurship can cause economic and social ills. As an example, consider the many franchise-based companies (think food-service) that pay their employees unlivable wages with flimsy benefits packages, forcing many  to supplement their incomes with public services like food stamps or to use emergency rooms as primary doctors offices. Continue reading

Through a Glass Darkly: Catherine Austin Fitts and the Capitalism of Crisis

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein brought to light the neoliberal tactic of crisis capitalism, unleashed in circumstances (as in Chile, Argentina, Poland, Russia, South Africa) where political powers have exploited (or even created) extreme conditions–such as coups, natural disasters, or economic crises–during which the local population is disoriented and their defenses are down, to instigate corporation- and “investment”-friendly policies like lowered taxes and the  cutting  and privatization of government services.  The justification given for such maneuvers is to bring the target economy in line with the global economy, but, of course, very few people (only a tiny few) in the world actually benefit from these capitalistic incursions. One of the most obscene instances of the Shock Doctrine in action resulted in the rape of the former Soviet Union”s assets by the oligarchs in the name of Boris Yelstin’s economic “reforms.” But that’s only one of the most obvious and well known cases.

Catherine Austin Fitts

Catherine Austin Fitts

During the Clinton years, as former communist apparatchiks were helping themselves to radically discounted oil fields and other rich resources in Russia, Catherine Austin Fitts says she witnessed a similar feeding frenzy much closer to home. A former managing director and board member at the Wall Street firm Dillon Read who served as Assistant Secretary at HUD in the first Bush administration, Fitts started a financial company of her own, The Hamilton Securities Group of Washington, D.C., to help communities make the most of federal monies and improve their standing in what she calls the Popsicle Index,  which measures the confidence families in a community feel to send a six-year-old by herself to the corner store and back. Fitts witnessed firsthand the collusion between Washington and Wall Street insiders (often the same people on opposite sides of a revolving door) to employ crisis capitalism techniques in the US as part of the daily repertoire of government actions (my emphasis):

Our efforts at The Hamilton Securities Group to help HUD achieve maximum return on the sale of its defaulted mortgage assets coincided with a widespread process of “privatization” in which assets were, in fact, being transferred out of governments worldwide at significantly below market value in a manner providing extraordinary windfall profits, capital gains and financial equity to private corporations and investors. In addition, government functions were being outsourced at prices way above what should have been market price or government costs — again stripping governmental and community resources in a manner that subsidized private interests. The financial equity gained by private interests was often the result of financial, human, environmental and living equity stripped and stolen from communities — often without communities being able to understand what had happened or to clearly identify their loss. This is why I now refer to privatization as “piratization.”

One of the consequences was to steadily increase the political power of companies and investors who were increasingly dependent on lucrative back door subsidies — thus lowering overall social and economic productivity. Hence, the doubling of FHA’s mortgage recovery rates from 35% to 70-90% ran counter to global trends and ruffled feathers…. Continue reading

#OWS Economics: Neofeudal Reality and the Free Market Myth

A little follow up to the last post about Damon Vrabel and his critique of neoclassical economics.

After concluding the Renaissance 2.0 series of lectures, Vrabel wrote a farewell on his blog at his Council for Spiritual, Psychological and Economic Renewal, explaining why he was no longer going to keep posting on the world situation. Among his reasons:

As I said in previous articles, IF we participate in the system, I’m not opposed to it at all. How could I be? I’d be a tyrant if I wanted to force hundreds of millions of people to change their behavior. And the fact is, that “IF” was answered long ago. We Americans have chosen the material benefits of being managed by the financial system for generations. We like demand-side freedom, i.e. choosing between Coke and Pepsi, but don’t want supply-side freedom. We like the supply-side to be taken care of for us. We love the benefits that come from it being imperially run—the credit card always works, the gas station is always open, our water faucets and light switches do what they’re supposed to do, the markets keep going up (oops…maybe not). All of our economic needs are outsourced to others, so we have the luxury of spending our time pursuing wants. And if these types of benefits are good for us, they’re good for the rest of the world. We have no moral authority to stand opposed just because we’re now going to lose our privileged position—a rather childlike perspective.

Do I detect some sarcasm? Many of the items Vrabel ticked off as buying our disinterest in changing the imperial system are, of course, threatening to stop working in the near-long term, if they haven’t already stopped working for many of us, which is why, I suspect,  #OWS has resonated so deeply so fast.

In any case, perhaps responding to the Arab spring and certainly responding to questions from viewers of Renaissance 2.0, Vrabel returned to YouTube with a new series titled “Debunking Money.” Again, I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand how the world really works and why we, the people (or the peasantry, as the case may be), are experiencing a diminution of our liberties. In this series, Vrabel makes explicit his rejection of various ideas from the left and right, including Austrian school economics and Milton Friedman’s neoliberalism.

The lesson below is particularly interesting as it debunks the notion, popular among Libertarians and popularized by Ron Paul, that “ending the Fed” is a viable solution to the problem. Vrabel says the American people would be “cutting their own throat.” If you have difficulty following this, I strongly suggest starting from the first video and hanging on his every word, if possible. Not to say this is the ultimate truth, of course, but it is certainly much closer to the truth than anything you will be hearing from Republicans or Democrats: