Archive for July, 2010

Public art of the day

Posted: 31 July 2010 in Uncategorized
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A wealth of words

Posted: 31 July 2010 in Uncategorized
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René Magritte, "Apparition" (1928)

Tony Judt offers a passionate defense of words. He also expresses his contempt for both the privatizing of language (via the commodification of the internet) and “garbled language” (which, of course, represents garbled thoughts).

When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Our task today is to find and utilize the appropriate words—words that allow us to think clearly and critically, words that open up new political possibilities. . .

I’ve criticized Uwe E. Reinhardt (here and here) in recent months. But I should also give him his due: he does a good job challenging Michael Barone’s claim that the United States is a nation of property-owners.

Barone attempts to make the usual conservative argument that most Americans accumulate significant amounts of wealth over the course of their lives and therefore they favor a “culture of independence” and reject government programs and the “redistributionist policies of progressives.”

Hogwash. That’s why Americans rejected Bush’s plan for privatizing social security. And why they’ll reject the New Austerity plans to cut social security payments. Lots of Americans own property and have assets but, as Reinhardt shows (drawing on the work of Arthur Kennickell and Edward N. Wolff), most Americans have no net assets and a few Americans own most of the wealth in the country.

What this means is most Americans are forced to have the freedom to rely on social security to fund most of their retirement.

The United States is no more a nation of Jeffersonian democracy than a nation of equal wealth. That’s why utilizing the existing surplus to finance our communal obligations for a decent retirement for all, and not privatizing or cutting social security, is the way forward.

The oil and gas industry knowingly endanger its own workers, the environment, wildlife, and communities in states across the United States—all in pursuit of high profits.

The National Wildlife Federation has just issued a report, “Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit,” in which it explains that major oil spills (such as the ongoing BP spill) are really only a small part of the real story.

From 2000 to 2010, the oil and gas industry accounted for hundreds of deaths, explosions, fires, seeps, and spills as well as habitat and wildlife destruction in the United States. These disasters demonstrate a pattern of feeding the addiction to oil leaving in their wake sacrifice zones that affect communities, local economies, and our landscapes.

Here’s a map of accidents and spills in the past decade:

In a related story, today’s New York Times explores the many ways the Gulf of Mexico has been damaged—by oil and drilling fluids spilled from pipelines, vessel traffic, and wells; by runoff and waste from cornfields, sewage plants, golf courses, and oil-stained parking lots that drain into the Mississippi River from vast swaths of the United States, and then flow down to the gulf; by the dumping of bombs, chemical weapons, and other ordnance in the middle of last century; and by slicing up and drastically engineering the wildlife-rich coastal wetlands of Louisiana for oil and gas exploration, shipping, and flood control.

Forget foreign oil. How long will we continue to pay the cost of high profits for the capitalist oil and gas industry in the United States?

Public art of the day

Posted: 30 July 2010 in Uncategorized

Shepard Fairey (by Carlos Mendez)

at “Viva la Revolucion: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape,” Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 18 July 2010-2 January 2011

It’s as old as the American republic: conservative elites stoking and fanning the flames of white anxiety.

Time and again—during and after the Civil War, during the race riots of the 1920s, with the formation of industrial unionism, throughout the Civil Rights Movement, on down to the present—business and political elites in the United States have whipped up white working-class anxiety concerning racial and ethnic minorities. All in order to maintain their own privileges.

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat continues in that tradition, trying to make the case that “cultural biases” in elite educational institutions are unfair to “working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions.”

Now, there is much to be criticized in elite, mostly private educational institutions—including the tax breaks they get to continue to maintain their status as elite institutions. And there’s no doubt that working-class whites (whether Christian or not, regardless of where they live) are the victims of the current crises—as are working-class Black, Hispanic, and Vietnamese-American people.

In this case, Matt Yglesias is right:

If you were to start writing a list of the problems faced by poor people in the United States of America you’d run out of paper long before you got to elite university admissions policies. Poor kids start school already behind their higher-SES peers. They are then disproportionately concentrated in low-performing schools featuring ineffective teachers. And when they’re in school is the lucky time! Every summer, the schools shut down and poor kids fall further behind their middle class peers. If they depend on the school lunch program to feed them, well then they’re out of luck come summertime on the eating front as well as the schooling front. A very substantial proportion of kids from poor families drop of out of high school and those who do manage to get into any kind of college at all have much-reduced odds of actually graduating.

The real question, though, is, who ultimately benefits from the continued actions of Douthat and others to stoke and fan the flames of white working-class anxiety in the United States?

Both mainstream economists and political scientists have failed to understand the conditions and consequences of economic inequality in the United States.

In the latest issue of Politics and Society (with free access at the moment), Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson set out to analyze the “organized combat” that led to the rise of business power in order to account for the rise of extreme income inequality in the United States over the past 30 years. They challenge the accounts of both mainstream economists (who, “conceptualizing government’s role in an excessively narrow way,. . .have attributed highly concentrated gains to impersonal technological forces”) and mainstream political scientists (who, “conceptualizing politics and policy in excessively narrow ways, . . .have sought to sustain an explanatory focus on the median voter”). In their view, an analysis of the winner-take-all character of U.S. capitalism requires

a true political economy—that is, a perspective that sees modern capitalism and modern electoral democracies as deeply interconnected. On the one side, government profoundly influences the economy through an extensive range of policies that shape and reshape markets. On the other side, economic actors—especially when capable of sustained collective action on behalf of shared material interests—have a massive and ongoing impact on how political authority is exercised.

The one thing missing from Hacker and Pierson’s account is an analysis of the economic processes whereby the combination of the labor performed by and the stagnant incomes paid to workers created the conditions for the immense surplus that those at the very top of the distribution of income managed to secure with the help of government policy. It’s not the natural working-out of technological change or median voting behavior that produced such an income; it’s precisely the political economy of capitalist exploitation and business influence on government policy that explains the roots of the current crises of capitalist democracy in the United States.

So, if Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and their mainstream colleagues are still looking for the links between inequality and crisis in the United States, one place to start is the work of Hacker and Pierson.