Must Read: David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

I’m reading a book that is so good, so well-written, so relevant to the zeitgeist, that I can confidently recommend it to anyone who reads, though I’m just a bit more than halfway through it myself: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.

Before I tell you why you should go now and buy, borrow or reserve this book and get reading, I’ll call your attention to an interview Graeber gave the British magazine The White Room which gives an interesting peek into his background and main political ideas. Graeber, a well-respected anthropologist,  is becoming better known as one of the influencing thinkers behind #occupyWallStreet. A couple of sentences from the introduction of the White Room interview beautifully make a point about OWS that I less successfully try to make when people criticize its “fuzziness” and lack of demands:

…Graeber has put the spotlight on the anarchist principles of the Occupy movement, explaining that the lack of concrete demands is part of a pre-figurative politics. The protestors act as though they are ‘already living in a free society’, and thus refuse to accept the legitimacy of existing political institutions and legal order – both of which, he says, are immediately recognised in the placing of demands. 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.

A Statement From the 90 5th Avenue #Occupation

Here’s a fascinating and encouraging development from yesterday’s second-month celebration of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, something to indicate that the movement is far from being a flash in the pan and far from being defanged. A group of students and other protesters have taken over a space at 90 Fifth Avenue in preparation for creating a free “people’s university.” It may also provide an alternative space for at least some of #OWS’s displaced denizens during the winter months, provided the city and the owners  of the building (which happens to be one of the nation’s largest banks, according to the protesters) don’t try to Bloomberg/Brookfield them out.

A Statement From the 90 5th Avenue Occupation follows the jump: Continue reading

#OWS Economics: Ron Paul on Wealth and Privileges

4. Government may not redistribute private wealth or grant special privileges to any individual or group.

–from The Ten Principles of a Free Society

Continuing my gradual critique of Ron Paul’s Ten Principles, the next in line is relevant to what I’ve been talking a lot about these past few weeks, the great impetus behind #OccupyWallStreet: income inequality.

It’s significant that the godfather of the Tea Party movement (the original form of it, anyway) includes wealth redistribution in his principles of liberty. It points up an area where these two movements can either come together or get driven apart.  There’s no question about where #ows stands on this point. Income inequality is a key symptom of the disease #0ws arose in response to, and one of its goals, I would argue,  is to force a correction of what it views this to be: a moral wrong. If Paul is any indication (and I’m sure he is), the Tea Party is not so much troubled by this gap as it is by the idea that government should try to close it. 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