The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality

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Immigration: The Search for Internal Cohesion

This is a (long) proposal that seeks to build a framework in which to discuss immigration policy. My goal was to keep it to 1500 words, but given the depth of the topic, I ended up with 3400 words. I finished this at Starbucks with electronic dance music in my ears, and a blond roast coffee at my side.

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A Concise Proposal of a Broad-Brushed Immigration Policy

My elevator speech for an ideal immigration policy would look like this: the state ought to enforce strong border control while taking into strong consideration people’s right to freedom of movement, basic human rights for refugees who seek asylum due to self-preservation, and consideration for the cultural and economic impact upon the host country. These are noble considerations because they serve to protect the internal cohesion of the state through the self-determination of its people. These considerations are elevated for the sole purpose of demonstrating that solidarity through citizenship is a treasured ideal over and above an indiscriminate open border policy. For the immigrant, a process toward citizenship serves the purpose of civic integration into the culture at large. In doing so, a reciprocal relationship is created between the citizen and the state by which the citizen is enfranchised with basic rights and liberties to thrive while also assuming obligations to abide by the laws and policies of the state and participating in the democratic process.

In essence, this is an argument for what is called weak moral cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is defined as belonging to all the world; but not limited to just one part of the world. Thus, ‘weak’ cosmopolitanism places some restrictions on the free movement of individuals. The word ‘moral’ is added because immigration policy has principles that cross the threshold into rightness and wrongness. For instance, denying refugees completely when their lives are at stake is an example of the moral implications an immigration policy may have. Enough of defining terms, let’s move on.

Therefore, the state needs strong borders along with a pathway to citizenship that seeks to foster solidarity and national identity through civic integration. The reason is that the internal cohesion of the state is of utmost importance.

Hiker’s Analogy

Suppose you are hiking through Yosemite National Park and come upon a stranded hiker in need of water and suffering from severe dehydration. To turn away and say that her plight is of no concern to you would be immoral. The basic point is that you owe her some consideration; you cannot ignore her. Now let us suppose that having her thirst slaked, she sees that you are carrying your personal journal in hand, and she requests to have it – outright. Do you oblige her newest desire? Not necessarily. You are justified in feeling obligated to nourish her back to good health if you have the means, but in no way are you obligated to give her your personal journal.

This illustration serves to highlight how we can approach immigration. For starters, states must consider the impact of the policies they pursue on both those outside and inside of their borders. With the recent diaspora of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, it’s a matter of self-preservation and human rights. With economic migrants, it’s a matter of fleeing poverty. For others, it’s simply a search for something new, or to be near friends and family, or work and career. Going back to the analogy, the slaked hiker is akin to the refugee, in that there is an urgent need in which one’s life is at stake. The hiker’s request for the personal journal is akin to the Filipino person wanting to join her cousins in San Francisco – permanently. Thus, we are obligated to open our borders to refugees whose lives hang in the balance, but we should have restrictions for others whose human rights are not at stake.

Furthermore, we must always consider the effects of our actions on all those who will bear the consequences, no matter who they are or whether they are in any way connected to us. Second, if there are no relevant differences between people, we should afford them equal consideration. Immigrants are human beings, thus deserving of a moral standing just like us. We cannot act toward them in ways that violate their human rights, and in many cases, we have positive duties to help protect those rights. It also gives us reasons if we decide to refuse people’s demands or requests, even when no rights are at stake.

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The Goal of a Good Immigration Policy: Internal Cohesion

Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration can act as a lever to control the flow of immigrants. This paramount for the pursuit of internal cohesion of the state. I discuss the need for strong borders and the judicious state later in the essay, but for now, I want to highlight the crucial element of civic integration.

Civic integration has to do with the ‘bringing together’ of people to a common understanding of the hosts country’s expectation and obligations for civility. This may sound like tacit paternalism, but it need not be if, and when, the host country adheres to the democratic process and respects the self-determination of its citizens. Civic integration helps immigrants understand the culture and values of their new society.  This is crucial for any country that sees the virtue in a unified homogeneous society.

Critical to civic integration is an agreement (based on recognition and respect) that the immigrant makes with it’s host country. First, the immigrant must possess proficiency in the language of the host country. I note this first because communication is a vital element for building social bonds within a civil society. Second, the immigrant should have knowledge of how the government functions. Within a liberal state, voting rights and the legislation of laws help the immigrant gain a voice within the democratic process. Third, the immigrant should understand the laws and policies of the host country. Quite often, the liberal state has freedoms and liberties that are not embraced by most illiberal countries, thus, an understanding of laws and policies helps immigrants know what is expected for a well-ordered liberal society. Fourth, the immigrant should possess recognition of the cultural values. Families coming in that believe in, for example, arranged marriages or polygamy will need to learn the lay of the land in order to coexist within the liberal state. Given that every society has a unique culture with particular values, recognition of host country’s culture helps the immigrant understand what is important to the culture around them.

I’d be remised if I didn’t call upon a distinction between integration and assimilation. In considering civic integration, it is not expected that the immigrant abandons their culture and values and adopt the culture and values of the host country. For this is what assimilation assumes. To the contrary, my argument for civic integration assumes the immigrant holds on to what is dear to them, while also recognizing and respecting the new culture they find themselves in. The is not paternalism, rather the goal is for a society that aims at the internal cohesion for the good of all people that inhabit the country.

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Immigration Policies that Promotes and Protects National Identity

Integral to the internal cohesion of the state is the concept of national identity. In today’s parlance, national identity is equated with white chauvinism. This is in part due to a postmodernist attempt to deconstruct ‘white colonialism’. However, I choose to use national identity to describe the solidarity felt and expressed by a diverse group of citizens. Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration help control the influx of immigrants while keeping a watchful eye on the resentment or hostility felt with the change to culture.

Germany serves as an example of how a sharp spike in multi-culturalism actually erodes national identity. With thousands and thousands of accepted refugees – without much burden-sharing from neighboring countries – Germans are now brewing with resentment. I am sure that talk of anti-multiculturalism strikes many as inherent racism, but this is a misnomer. The reality is that human beings have proclivities to be around people who are like them. For an in-depth study on this subject, please see: “Who Trusts Others?” Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara (Journal of Public Economics). We are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common. A sense of identity creates this feeling of likeness even with people with whom we are not in direct contact. The evidence shows that those who adhere to a richer, and therefore potentially more exclusive, understanding of what it means to belong to nation X are also likely to identify more strongly with X – and therefore more willing to display solidarity with other members of X, provided they see them as members in good standing.

Solidarity is the aim of national identity. As David Miller notes, “a nation-state has a more communitarian character by virtue of the way that its members identify with each other, making it easier to adopt policies that favor the less well-off, especially those who are able to make little or no contribution to the productive economy (Strangers in our Midst).” It seems true that the states whose citizens have been most ready to promote egalitarian forms of social justice, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, have also been those in which national identity is at its strongest.

Why Not Completely Open Our Borders?

One can begin with the idea that the earth as a whole is the common property of all the human beings who inhabit it, from which some draw the corollary that it is wrong to refuse anyone access to part of what they own. This idea of common ownership has a long history that can be found in classical sources from Hugo Grotius and Kant. The idea rests on the premise that God has given the world to mankind as a common inheritance, which means that each person is entitled to take the natural resources that he needs to sustain himself on the assumption that this is not to the detriment of anyone else.

A lot can be said in refuting the complete open border policy, so I will limit my response to three short arguments. First, open borders could very well lead to a “tragedy of the commons.” Let’s face it, people want to live where people are thriving, the quality of life is high, and there is ample opportunity for success. What meets these criteria? Liberal democracies. Thus, if everyone emigrates their homeland to, say, the United States or the Scandinavian countries, there will be an overuse of resources in that particular area. Imagine millions and millions of Syrians and Eritreans descending upon New York City or Zurich. Think not just of the overuse of resources, but also of the upheaval to the economy, infrastructure, employment, and culture.

Second, open borders will lead to brain drain. In other words, a rapid depletion of the brightest minds. This argument has to do with the notion that many poorer countries best and brightest will leave for greener pastures. Many of the West African, especially India, are experiencing this now with their best doctors and engineers leaving for the United States.

Lastly, open borders will change the cultural landscape which will negatively impact social cohesion and instill distrust. A rapid population spike with one or several groups from the outside will be almost impossible for the host country to immediately embrace. For such growth will result in a clash of cultures and values, thus causing the host country to lose its social equilibrium. A slower integration policy may be more manageable for a host country. As I mentioned earlier, research demonstrates empirically that multiculturalism can foster distrust and undercuts the social capital in communities with a shared identity (A. Alesina, E. Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?”). Throughout history when we see large swaths of one culture descend upon another culture who already possesses engrained values and norms, hostility and suspicion become the ‘new normal’. One need only look toward the West Bank to see the net result of multiculturalism. This argument rests on the premise that we are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common.

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Why Not Completely Close Our Borders?

If we are going to discuss closed borders, then we need to consider two key points that are tied together. First, a closed border policy is completely antithetical to a liberal society. Intrinsic to a liberal society are freedoms and liberties that embolden the self-determination of its citizens. By closing borders, the state would function less like a liberal one and, potentially, more like a totalitarian state with many protectionist measures that forces compliance and uniformity. Second, a closed border system violates our freedom of movement and freedom of association. To be fair, restrictions can often at times be justified given the consequences of have large swaths of people flooding a country. However, the reasons often given for closing one’s borders often cloak a whole host of illiberal ideas. Here are some common arguments for closing our borders followed by a quick rebuttal:

“We need to maintain our distinctive culture.”

If you think so, then to maintain a liberal culture, you should also in principle be willing to censor certain points of view or forbid or ban certain religions. You might favor forced indoctrination into liberal ideas. Again, if that’s a good reason to close borders, why is it not also a good reason to censor certain ideas, ban certain forms of music, or ban certain religions? Why not mandate that people support and participate in certain cultural practices?

“We need to prevent domestic wages from falling.”

This has minimal credence based on the Migration Observatory which concluded: “Evidence to date suggests little effect on employment and unemployment of UK-born workers, but that wages for the low paid may be lowered as a result of migration, although again this effect is modest.” (Dr Martin Ruhs, Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford). We may ought to be careful building a doctrine against open borders when the impact is “modest.”

Even so, this argument can still lead to a worse notion, for example, in forbidding women from entering jobs because of their effect on the wages for men. If domestic wages are the concerns, then the argument can be played out to highlight the economic impact between numerous groups and classes.

“Immigrants will eat up the welfare state.”

This is one argument that does lack empirical evidence. It also leaves out the vast population of (white) citizens who are unemployed and impoverished that eat a greater percentage from the welfare state. Furthermore, is this not also an argument for restricting births, or forbidding internal migration, or even requiring some people to give birth?

“Immigrants will cause crime.”

Isn’t this also an argument for eugenics or for internal migration restrictions? For instance, should Vermont ban young black men from moving there? If banning rap music reduced crime, would you favor that?

The Liberal Concept of Territorial Jurisdiction

A better argument that moves away from absolute closed borders is one that favors the state’s right to territorial jurisdiction. I contend that this is the best form of governance for immigration because it (1) helps with social order, (2) takes basic human rights into consideration, and (3) ensures the security of self-determination through democracy.

Before moving on, what do I mean by territorial jurisdiction? I mean having rights of jurisdiction over a given territory implies having the right to control the movement of people in and out of that territory, so that where a state can legitimately exercise jurisdiction it is also entitled to exclude immigrants if it so wishes. Territorial jurisdiction means the state possesses and exercises rights to make and enforce laws through a corpus of law that is applied uniformly to everyone. Having made clear that important distinction, I will now defend the three points above regarding why territorial jurisdiction works best.

First, territorial jurisdiction helps with securing social order through enfranchising the democratic process to all citizens as opposed to coercing individuals into submission. I will not speak any more about this point since I believe the democratic process is self-evidently better than coercion by the state. Second, territorial jurisdiction helps with consideration of basic human rights through a well-functioning legal system sets parameters of protection so that individuals can go about their lives without the threat of personal violence theft, and destitution. Third, territorial jurisdiction ensures the self-determination of its citizens by putting the power in the hands of the people rather than the state. A key feature to this point is that territorial jurisdiction gives it occupants representation from the state.

Closing borders may give inhabitants the feeling of security and protection, but ultimately it can potentially nourish totalitarian ideas. Liberalism, while only several hundred years old, provides us with a useful template to see how the expansion and extension of individual rights creates a diverse population with more opportunities to express their autonomy under a legal system that seeks to harness criminal behavior for the protection of its individuals. Territorial jurisdiction is thus intertwined with liberalism and acts as a lever to control population increases while keeping in mind social order, basic human rights, and the self-determination of its citizens.

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Closing Thoughts

One of the basic freedoms that we ought to possess is freedom of movement. But with all freedoms, comes distinctions that need to be made, along with consequences that must be considered. I have attempted to lay out an argument for weak moral cosmopolitanism that defends the claim that while people have the right of freedom of movement, it ought to be limited because of its consequences. Furthermore, immigrants are deserving of a moral standing as the citizens in the host country. Thus, basic human rights mean that any refugee fleeing terror ought to be given a country that affords them the basic rights to survive. Granted, there should be burden-sharing between countries so that, for example, Germany isn’t the only country that is willing to accept refugees.

The reason why I began with a thought experiment of the hiker is because it’s an oversimplified picture that helps us see the raw elements of immigration. There is an element that shows that we are obligated to do something when someone’s life hangs in the balance, and another element that shows that we are completely justified in saying “no” when, for instance, the hiker asked for your journal.

The current hot button topic revolves around economic migrants. The sad fact is that their undocumented status has created un under-class of Mexicans and Central Americans who are work hard but have such limited rights for basic care. The economic migrant is the person whose life is not in peril but simply wanting to flee an impoverished environment in the hopes of better opportunities somewhere else. It should be noted that economic migrants bring value to their host country if they go through the process of becoming a citizen. After all, it is expected that they will integrate with the ideals of their new country through work, pay taxes, and engage in the democratic process. And this is where the state, through the democratic process, ought to consider the consequences and benefits of the economic migrant upon the society at large. What we are seeing today are corporations exploiting the cheap labor of economic migrants, thus creating an under-class, all the while profiting with no repercussions to the suits and ties. Perhaps instead of using federal money to build a wall, we should discuss penalties for corporations that continue to exploit economic migrants.

Turning people away may seem harsh and unfair. However, the ideal of solidarity and national identity are crucial for the well-being of any country. An immigration policy that is built on the pursuit of solidarity is one that is deliberate about upholding the culture and values that engender pride for one’s country. My simple claim is that strong borders, a judicious state and civic integration can act as levers to control the influx of immigrants in order to allow solidarity to thrive.

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Why Identity Politics Doesn’t Help

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Identity politics refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people’s politics are shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, sex, gender, generation, race, political party and sexual orientation. In essence, one’s identity becomes the lenses she looks through and which colors how she views polity and expression. At best, it gives a powerful voice to minority groups who feel poorly represented or suppressed. At worse, it emboldens tribalism and pits social groups against one another, as each group demands that their identity get the recognition it deserves. Given its nascent rise in in the civic sphere, it is an issue that needs to be considered thoughtfully and rationally. My approach will be to offer a better strategy than what identity politics proffers and then lay out 6 arguments that shed light on its futility.

My contention is that we ought to, instead, build our arguments for freedom and liberty based on our collective identity as American citizens. As a collective whole, our ability to articulate a cohesive national identity is the only way for us to make progress and pass laws that ensure our freedom. Citizenship, the central concept of democratic politics, is a bond linking all members of a political society over time, regardless of our individual characteristics, giving us both rights and duties. We are enfranchised with unalienable rights that secure our opportunity to participate in the democratic process. We enjoy freedom of speech, religion, and the right to vote. But we also procure obligations within the democratic process to pay taxes, respect the rights of people, and respect property, all with the goal of a creating a freer and better society. And the only way to keep progressing is through movements that are mobilized by unified large groups of people who argue from a position of shared humanity as American citizens.

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If we want to continue to extend and expand our freedoms in this country, it will take large swaths of our population banding together for what is just and right. This is evidenced by the civil rights movement and the early feminist movements. Identity politics makes this impossible because it divides the country into a thousand different identities and voices. Gone are the days of a homogeneous voice that articulates a vision of America as a unified whole. Perhaps identity politics is not the best strategy.

Before I lay out my arguments, allow me to give one real life example of what identity politics looks like when it’s fully played out. On March 21, 2017, millions of people gathered in solidarity for women’s rights. Below the surface, however, tribal tensions lurked. The original name of the march was set to be, “Million Women March,” which was the name of the 1997 protest for black women’s unity. Black women quickly accused the organizations of appropriation, and then black women began protesting against a women’s rally for women’s rights. Not only did black women break off, but then you had the Left pushing pro-life issues which excluded the more Conservative women. The tribal tribalism resulted in the women on the Left not allowing the female religious pro-lifers to participate in the march. Thus, what was supposed to promote solidarity quickly escalated into a war of differing tribes based on different identities. In the end, women’s rights was forgotten as differing and opposing differentiated identities bolted ahead to the forefront of the conversation. The question remains: Why does identity politics fail to unite the country and procure legislation that expands our rights and liberties?

#1 Identity Politics Divides

First, identity politics cannot unify the country and bring reconciliation because it perpetually fractionates groups into sup-groups and those sub-groups into other sub-groups. I won’t belabor this point because I believe the example of the Women’s March debacle highlights this very premise. But what we see today are groups fragmented among groups based on who has been oppressed the most. Talk of the collective whole today and solidarity is silenced when every group and sub-group in this country is pitted against each other in a war over who has suffered the most. This point also shares qualities with my next argument.

gytvuyg#2 Identity Politics is a Zero-Sum Competition

Identity politics results in a zero-sum competition. Simply ask yourself, who gets the rights and recognition their demanding with identity politics? Answer: no one. No one wins when ‘The Oppressed’ is trying to out-oppress the last ‘Oppressed’. Thus, everyone becomes the victim in a kind of ‘Oppression Olympics’ resulting in groups crying wolf while everyone else simply rolls their eyes. During a Black Lives Matter protest at the DNC held in Philadelphia in July 2016, a protest leader announced that “this is a black and brown resistance march”, asking white allies to “appropriately take [their] place in the back of this march (Amy Chua, Identity Politics).” As you can imagine, the white people simply left the protest. Again, no one wins.

hbuhj#3 Identity Politics Fosters Narcissism

Instead of heeding John F. Kennedy’s call of solidarity when he affirmed, “What can I do for my country?”, identity politics demands, “what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Today, the focus of attention is now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens than our identification with different social groups within it. If we look back in history, the civil rights movement had more in common with the struggles of earlier religious and ethnic minority groups, which were about have their equality and dignity as citizens recognized. As I mentioned earlier, the civil rights movement and the first and second wave of feminism were movements that had to do with having their equality and dignity as citizens recognized with the collective whole. As Mark Lilla points out, during the 1970s and 1980s a shift began. The focus of attention is now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens and our identification with different social groups. Citizenship has dropped out of the picture. “People now speak instead of their personal identities in terms of their inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender (Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal).” The only meaningful question now is  a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?

#4 Identity Politics is Built on Romanticism Rather Than Political Realism

Identity politics is built on romanticism rather than political realism, which means emotions and feeling are elevated over facts. Romantics are known to place a higher value on feelings rather than facts. Romantics, like the political identitarians, see society itself as somewhat dubious, an imposed artifice that alienates the individual self from itself, drawing arbitrary lines, creating enclosures, and forcing us into costumes that are not of our own making. The Romantic wants the answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “What are we?”, to have the same exact answers. The political identitarians take the Romantic notion a narcissistic step further when assuming her victimology will result in America singing kumbaya in unison. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that there are numerous other groups playing the same victim card.

Political realism, on the other hand, shows that many identities living among one another breeds distrust and chaos. Homogeneity is better for social cohesion. (*as a reference for this controversial claim, please see Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?” in the Journal of Public Economics) The facts show that homogeneous cultures result in more solidarity and social cohesion for the betterment of the collective whole. Japan and South Korea are excellent examples of how one identity – a national one – can unite an entire population to the citizenship of that country. South Korea amazed every economics department in the world when it bounced back so quickly form the 2009 financial crisis. South Koreans banded together, donating jewelry and valuables in a collective effort to help their beloved country persevere through the crisis. This astonishing act of national pride would have been impossible if identity politics had fractioned the country into a plethora of identities each warring for recognition.

On a personal level, it can be advantageous to yearn for an inner search of meaning and identity as Romantics do. However, in the public domain, we need to be more pragmatic. Putting all our eggs in the basket of single issues like Black Lives Matters or LGBTQ misses the opportunity to speak about the collective rights that are deserved for each American citizen. Why can’t we argue for the rights of blacks, immigrants, women and whoever else by appealing to the fact that everyone American citizen is deserving of protection, freedom, and liberties under the Constitution? So yes, All Lives Matter.

.jknluihb#5 Identity Politics Gives Each Identity Their Own Epistemology

Identity politics gives everyone their own epistemology, whereby people can speak from their own privileged positions and the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and displays the most outrage at being questioned. Side note, epistemology involves how one knows what they know. Identity politics, therefore, gives every identity their own personal ivory tower to speak their knowledge. Here is the disastrous logic: when person X is the only one who can speak on X-ness, then there is no room for dialogue; and if you question X, then it’s assumed that must hate X and X-ness. I hope you can see the inherent divisiveness of this logic. It sets up walls against questions, which, by definition, come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation.

,m nkjn#6 Identity Politics Does Not Appeal to Legislation

Identity politics is futile without an appeal to legislation, and to get legislation, you need a movement, not a thousand different voices each with its own demand. Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest movement leader in American history. His efforts, however, would have been futile without those of the machine politician Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned congressional deal maker willing to sign any pact with the devil to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. As I said earlier, the civil rights movement and the first two waves of the feminism changed laws because they appealed to legislation. Today’s protests do the exact opposite. The Occupy movement, Black Lives Matters, and women’s marches all fizzled out because there was never a concerted effort to sign laws for an extension of rights. Instead, these protests are better labeled as: inconvenient street parties.

A further point can be made that legislation will not be made when the voices demanding rights are coming from a thousand different groups of identities. The civil rights movement was a collective movement that didn’t focus on identity, rather, it focused on the rights deserved as American citizens. Martin Luther King Jr.  could have played the race card, but he didn’t. In his words, “My dream is of a country where you are judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character.” Perhaps the best strategy for illuminating the ignorant is by transcending identity politics and showing how we are united under the common banner of citizens who are deserving of decency and basic human rights.

Closing Words

The goal of this essay is not to say that identity politics is wrong, rather, it is to say that it is a strategy that is not working. In my introduction, I attempted to propose a better solution by building our arguments for freedom and liberty based on our collective identity as American citizens. My concern is that our country is becoming more divisive with every new identity that sprouts up. With every voice crying wolf and demanding recognition it makes it almost impossible to unify as a country to address, for example, the 44 million citizens without adequate healthcare or fight for Citizens United that seeks to make elections more democratic. In the end, my arguments are an attempt to seek a strategy that unites rather divides; and makes freedom and liberties more tenable, rather than a tribal Armageddon.

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5 Demands for the Liberal Left

This essay is an attempt to articulate five demands directed at the American Liberal Left. The demands highlight the weakness and deficiencies in a Leftist group that is currently impotent, ignorant, and crippled beyond belief. Mired in pessimism and negativity, the Left can be found either bemoaning the current President while offering no solutions, or they’re curled up in the corner sulking because of a recent micro-aggression against their identity, or even worse, you’ll find them denigrating and castigating Republicans using mindless name-calling. What’s been lost in the sclerotic rhetoric is an attempt to look forward at what America could be within the confines of a cooperative and collaborative dialogue. What’s been lost is an attempt to articulate what America should look like, and then a concerted effort that follows which seeks to make it actually happen. In the end, America is a project; it’s our project.

I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in fear. – Yanis Varoufakis

Demand #1 : Stop with the pessimism

The pessimism that’s endemic with the Left will make us more spectatorial, disgusted, and politically inactive. From my perspective, it seems that the Left can only feel complete and fulfilled if they are able to complain about our current president – without offering any solutions of course. I am willing to bet that at the end of a rainbow, you’ll find two liberals sharing their frustrations about Trump. But l don’t want to oversimplify. Perhaps the pessimism is due in part to such concerns as the pervasive effect of economic inequality, racial tension, gender inequality and angst over the threat of terrorism. I’m sure there are more examples, but there is an overarching cloud of declinism, which resigns the Left to the perspective that the sky is literally falling down upon us. But what’s wrong with pessimism? Well, pessimism fosters a do-nothingness attitude, simply because, well, everything is going to Hell in a hand-basket anyways.

I am continually awestruck at the Left’s unwillingness or blindness to articulate, and provide a strategy for, future hopes. Rather, there is an incessant desire to talk about how progress is now going backwards, rapacious government who cares little about the common American, or how the world is headed toward either environmental or nuclear disaster. Catastrophizing the world seems to the default rather than persuasive arguments that offer solutions or effective strategies. A better solution is to see America as a project; a project that views America as a bastion for the continued cultivation of freedom, liberty and justice. It’s a forward-looking perspective that relies on hope, open dialogue, and democracy to achieve a better world. If you think I sound too utopian, then simply look across the ocean at Germany, and ask yourself: how did a country, so embroiled in a barbaric past socially, and fiscally strapped economically, rebound to a strong economic powerhouse that is more inclusive and optimistic than ever? I guarantee you that pessimism wasn’t their strategy.

Demand #2 : Stop focusing on sins

The Left has become overly moralizing in its self-loathing of America’s genocidal and racist history, and the result is paralysis. We can’t demand that everyone apologize for the sins committed hundreds of years ago. I can’t apologize simply because I have never enslaved people or participated in Christopher Columbus’s genocidal campaign against the native Americans. The perpetual tendency of the Left is to moralize the past to such an extent that it normalizes guilt, self-hate and self-disgust. So crippling are the effects of the Left’s consensual self-loathing that any specter of hope or future ideal is rarely articulated. Why? Because we cannot talk about the future when it’s been dictated and imposed that we are all complicit in, for example, two World Wars and Vietnam.

Perhaps a better solution is to frame the historical past into ‘What we can learn from this?’ and juxtapose the answer to that question with ‘What kind of future should we create in order to ensure that those injustices do not reoccur?’. Likewise, when it comes to confederate statues that stand in the middle of a southern city, why not leave them up, and put up educational signs which explain to onlookers what subjugation, oppression, and dehumanization looked like in the old South (*Richmond, Virginia is doing this, and is the idea of an African-American history professor). The Left suffers from what’s called ‘presentism’ which fosters the tendency to interpret past events (e.g. sins) in terms of modern [present] values and concepts. The past has its own unique context that we can never fully step into and critique in a pure and uncontaminated way. Any of us would have easily been slaughterers if that ‘world’ was all we new and was enculturated into our personal worldview. And for that reason, we should focus on what we can learn from history’s brutal past, rather than moralizing it for the purposes of advancing a present agenda.

Simply put: we are not sinful because of our past. This thinking leads to passivity. We must have some type of pride for our future, if we are to work towards that kind of future.

Demand #3 : Stop assuming that national pride is white chauvinism

National Pride is not white chauvinism. Instead, national pride is what self-respect is to an individual; a necessary condition for self-improvement. If you have too much of it, you get hostility and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. Too little self-respect makes it too difficult to show moral courage. Thus, a lack of national pride makes effective energetic talk about change, unlikely.

National pride is a shorthand for a conception of what it is to be human. National pride illuminates such noble attributes like values, decency, virtue, dignity. National pride is a compass that points us in the direction of what we love and hope for in a society.

So what’s the point of national pride? National pride engenders unity that brings us together, along with a vision of what that looks like. When unity and vision conjoin, then there is something to be ambitious for and achieve. Both John Dewey and Walt Whitman, two 19th century major social thinkers, viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite human historical project rather than in something eternal and non-human. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would replace a religion of fear. They wanted to put hope for a classless and casteless society in the place most commonly occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted the struggle for justice to be the animating principle, the nation’s soul. For Dewey and Whitman, national pride was a cooperative project that utilized freely achieved consensus (democracy) to elevate justice, hope, and freedom.

Demand #4 : Stop with identity politics

The Left needs to stop focusing on identity politics and focus on solidarity. In America today, every group feels threatened to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. What identity politics does is separate all groups into exclusive segments, which inevitably pits them against one another for a kind of “Oppression Olympics” to see who has suffered the most.

Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro–civil rights, Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. The Left, however, has changed its tone. Now out-group members cannot share in the knowledge possessed by in-group members (“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”). The idea of “cultural appropriation” insists, among other things, these are our group’s symbols, traditions, patrimony, and out-group members have no right to them.

Rather than standing up for America, people are standing up for their particular sub-group. Rather than standing up for democracy, equality, and justice, the Left stands up against Beyoncé wearing an Indian bridal outfit, or white restaurateurs who build a business cooking authentic Mexican food, or if a white author writes a novel based on the experiences of a Chinese girl. When liberal icon Bernie Sanders told supporters, “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ ” Quentin James, a leader of Hillary Clinton’s outreach efforts to people of color, retorted that Sanders’s “comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist, too”. Really?

Identity politics fosters division and exclusion, while weaponizing each sub-group with an arsenal ready for battle. Unfortunately, the Left has cried wolf too many times. If the Left is offended by somebody saying, “All lives matter” rather than, “Black lives matter,” then how can we face the real trauma of, say, 44 million Americans (of all identities) having no health insurance?

Demand #5 : Stop having street parties as a guise for protests

Change in society comes by appealing to conscience, not by today’s so-called “protests”, or by blocking highways with marchers, or condemning segments of society as impure or sinful. Today’s protests are absent of any strategy to make actual changes to law – unlike the 60s. What even counts as a protest? Civil rights protests of the 60s involved an appeal to conscious. You forced people to confront the horrible things going on, and there were specific demands being made and they were directly made to an appeal to conscious, e.g. we should not be made to sit in the back of the bus. Today, what we call “protests” are really inconvenient street parties. What specific Occupy Wall Street demand do you remember? And think about how the Left handled a call for women’s rights in 2017. The solution was a nationwide block party of women (and men) donning pink p*ssy hats with their BFF’s and a Starbucks latte in hand. Do you think Capitol Hill was seriously nervous over millions of Leftist’s protesting with their goofy pink hats? Or do you think that shutting down a highway and frustrating the motorists in your city will force the police to be more just? If so, you’re being naïve. In contrast, when you had a sit down in factories or rallies against the Vietnam War in the 60s, it was actually part of a negotiation tactic that fomented change.

Protests can’t be a giant “F You!”. It can’t be that certain segments of society are deplorable and we demand in some vague way that they change. We have to operate within the system, the discursive fabric, which means you have to have some type of power that’s not a type of pseudo authority from on high, you have to appeal to conscious, or you have to persuade, or as with the workers you have to have a relationship with the people you’re trying to get to reach demands.

A protest that realizes this vision, is not simply a protest that condemns, or says America is bad because of all these atrocities. It says we all can work together for this possible future, and we’re all worthy of it, and we’re all capable of it.

Given the present tactics are not working, philosopher Richard Rorty suggested an appeal to conscience and persuasive arguments which gain sympathizers for a worthy cause. We see such tactics when we look back to political shifts like the civil rights movement and gender equality. With civil rights and gender equality, there is a stark difference in rights, or lack thereof, when you compare, say, 1910 with 2010. The reasons for the shift were persuasive arguments that appealed to the conscience of American society. It wasn’t name calling and violence in the street that united both sides, rather, it was people like Martin Luther King and feminist icon Betty Frieden who used their passion and mind to not only change minds but also change legislation. You simply can’t win people over by shutting down the highway for a march or castigating people who think differently.

The iconoclasts of the past that garnered tectonic change in society had one thing in common: they had a hope for a better future. As opposed to pessimism, talk that expresses hope of a future is what can catalyze change and spread like a contagion.

Final Words …

If I had a #6 demand, it would be, stop insisting we let everyone into our country. This #6 highlights a deeper thought that is weaved into my initial 5 demands, and it’s this: there is always a middle between two extremes. When feeling threatened, it’s consoling to gravitate to the extremes and hunker down. However, most often, cooperation and the collaborative process remains in the middle between the extremes. Just as we shouldn’t let everyone into the country, we should not give everyone a gun. The answer to our current vexing dilemmas lie in the shared democracy that takes place in the middle.

Christopher Hitchens once said, “the first step towards being stupid is being partisan.” In other words, we all become stupid when we hunker down with our tribe, and only our tribe. I listed my 5 demands because the Left has become so partisan, that a collective anxiety has taken over. This pervasive angst is paralyzing the Left making political action a distant option. Unlike most of the Left, in no way do I think the sky is falling, and I refuse to. It’s in my refusal, that hope, dignity and opportunity can remain viable pursuits for the America I want.

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups . . . it is the rule. – Friedrich Nietzsche

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How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!

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Values

When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2018). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2018? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate the contrasting ‘me’s’ I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.

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How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture. Values are imposed on our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become our eyes and heart through which we form judgments and decisions.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group or family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)

red neckIf you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and globalization is elevated in importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?

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Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, everything seems okay as the value of generosity and compassion is elevated. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villagers. So, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries were wrong, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion without such devastating effects.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by our past Presidents used when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear a competing value shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.

 

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Capitalism’s Master/Slave Relationship and Hegel’s Dialectic

capThis essay is written to address a different way to look at the relationship between slave/master and employer/employee. This comes from a deep place in me that recognizes the monstrous mendacity, the hyper-hypocrisy, and ubiquitous criminality of a failing capitalist system. This is system built on the exploitation and de-humanization of the worker in exchange for larger shareholder profits. In this essay, I highlight one of Germany’s greatest philosophers, Georg Hegel. My goal is to explain how his dialectic of the master/slave relationship coincides with today’s perilous employer/employee relationship.

We have frequently printed the word Democracy, yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from a pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted. – Walt Whitman Democratic Vistas (1871)

The mistake has been to imagine, that because the master dominates the slave, the line of dependency is in one direction, that the slave depends on the master, the master orders, controls, directs, and literally owns the slave. The point Hegel wants to make is that this is only a one-sided perspective. It turns out that it runs the other way too. What I mean is this: the master is dependent on the slave.

ytgviHere’s how it works. Precisely because the master can get the slave to do virtually everything he needs; the master becomes dependent on the slave doing everything for him.  And thereby, the very mastery of the slave makes the master the slave of the slave. The slave of his own dependence on the slave. The line of dependency runs both ways. The illusion of the master, that he is in charge is smashed the minute the slave declares he’s not going to do it anymore. He refuses to continue to be a slave whereupon the master discovers his dependence on the slave. And in that act of rebellion, the slave confronts what Hegel is teaching: that the dependence runs both ways, that the slave and the master are caught in a relationship they both depend on.

Now why does Hegel talk about this? Because it gives us an insight into how capitalism works. The capitalist needs the worker. But the capitalist also dominates the worker. The capitalist decides whether the worker has a job or not. That’s an enormous power. The capitalist pays the worker, or not. The capitalist profits from the worker. The worker is dependent for income, for the work, for his/her position in the world, ability to feed their children. The dependence of the worker on the capitalist can appear to be one-sided, slavish in many respects and many workers have felt that. And indeed, the capitalist acts in a dominating way toward the employee all the time. Capitalists are forever trying to replace workers with machines to save having to pay the worker any wages by replacing the costly worker with a less costly computer or a less costly robot. The capitalist is always (in a way) threatening the worker by unemployment by having the worker replaced with a machine. Likewise, the worker is threatened by his/her employer because the employer has the power to relocate production. That capitalist, for example, can relocate to where wages are lower, or threaten your job by moving to China, India, or Brazil, or Mexico.

gvgvThere’s another way the capitalist can threaten your job. If he chooses not to move the production to another country to catch the low wages there, he can bring the low wage people here and get away with paying them less money for the work that he would have had to pay a native-born person here. So capitalists are always threatening, squeezing, calculating, and conniving to save on labor costs which threaten the worker. The system compels capitalists to do that; they’re competing with other capitalists who are doing it, so they have to also. They depend on profits to stay in business and profits can be enhanced by automating the workers or relocating to lower wages.

But here comes now the other side that Hegel alerts us to look for. The more successful the employer is (replacing workers with machines, moving production out of the country), and the more the capitalist does, he is forced to confront his dependency as a capitalist on the workers. Because having cut the wages or removed the wages of workers, the workers lack the ability to buy. To buy what? To buy what the capitalist has to sell to stay in business. Here in lies what Hegel calls the contradiction: the two-way relationship of dependence. The worker depends on the capitalist to be sure like the slave depends on the master, but the reverse also holds, the capitalist depends on the workers, he depends on the workers to produce whatever it is he has to sell, but he also depends on workers to buy what it is he has to sell. And if they cannot, or if they do not, then the capitalist is as destroyed as the master would be destroyed if the slaves were unable or unwilling to work.

;nAnd you know it runs the other way. Workers know that in some sense, even if they can’t say it in so many words, that that capitalist depends on them. That in a way, they have the upper-hand, even though it seems as though that the capitalist does. How do workers have the upper-hand? How do workers make capitalist depend on them?

Well, first of all the workers are the majority, the capitalists are the minority. As it was with masters and slaves and workers long ago who struggled to get universal suffrage, to be able to vote, make political leadership at least subject to one-person-one-vote. And that gives the masses the power through the vote to confront the masters, the employers, and workers use that power, who often choose someone for government that the employers were at best neutral about or very skeptical about. That’s what the workers in England did when they voted to leave the European Union. And that’s what many workers did in this country when they voted for Mr. Trump after the business establishment made it clear that they were at best of mixed minds about him.

Here’s another way capitalists depend on workers. The vast bulk of the police and the army, the enforcers of the rules of capitalism are working people, they are not themselves capitalists. So the capitalists depend on the army functioning the way they want and the police functioning the way they want – and that’s a dependence of the capitalist on the power of enforcement that are workers.

Here’s another way that workers reveal the dependence of the capitalists. They can go on strike. They can say to the capitalist “we won’t work, and you know what Mr. Capitalist, if we don’t work, you don’t make any money, you don’t make any profit, you depend on us for your survival.” Rather like a master depends on the slave whom he has enslaved to do everything for that master.

momoThen there is that last item, that historically needs to be included. Workers can sabotage the production process. And here the way to explain is it so provide you a history of the word. Sabotage comes from the French word Sabot. And that was the word for the wooden shoes that people in Northern France and Northern Europe used to wear. And when workers who were angry at their capitalist employers, they were known, secretly and quietly, to throw one of their wooden shoes into the machinery in the factory. And thereby to commit sabotage. In other words, it’s another way to remind the capitalist that he isn’t in charge all together. He depends on the workers too.

Well what’s the message and the lesson of Hegel’s teaching? ‘Master and slave’ therefore is not the ‘master in control’ and the ‘slave all together dependent’. The dependency runs both ways, between the lord and the serf in feudalism and now between capitalist and worker, the same two-way dependency. What happens in this system is that you have two choices. You can continue the endless conflict, the endless struggle, the master, trying in everyway to dominate control and profit from the slave, and the slave finding ways to use the dependence of the master to relieve their suffering to impose costs on the master. And the same back-and-forth between lord and serf. And the same back and forth between employer and employee. The struggle can last forever, and take up your whole life, or you can try to make a resolution, what Hegel calls a synthesis of the two opposites: solve the problem of endless conflict between master and slave, lord and serf, employer and employee, by overcoming that relationship.

And what that means in economics is a democratic worker cooperative. Make the workers both the employer and employee. End the struggle between two groups, each dependent on and trying to overcome this dependency and not recognizing that they were locked into a relationship and that the escape from the dependency and the endless struggle requires fundamentally changing the relationship. That’s why as far back as ancient slave society and throughout the history of feudalism, and throughout the history of capitalism, human beings have tried to escape from those tensions, those oppositions, those contradictory struggles to form cooperatives to produce goods in a collective way that did not pit master/slave, lord/serf, employer/employee.

Hegel’s teaching is a way to understand both what ails us in a conflict ridden economic system, and where the escape, the future, the better economic system lies. It lies with an overcoming of the contradictions that beleaguered slavery, feudalism and capitalism. It lies with the democratization of a cooperative community organization of work. Together with the same kind of democratic community organization of the residential neighborhoods and communities where we live.

Wes Fornes

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The 2016 Election: Meritocracy and the Illusions We Believe

Written and finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with a light roast coffee at my side and Hitler’s favorite composer in my ear: Wagner. This essay was inspired by recent readings of Thomas Frank, and personal contemplation of the 2016 presidential election.

These are some questions that have been on my mind as of late:

  • How did the current era of American meritocracy begin? And who started it?
  • What changes should liberals make to become relevant with more people?

Before addressing the questions, there is a current context that needs to be exposed. It’s interesting to sit back and listen both to the laments and rejoicing of the 2016 Presidential election. Given that I live in California, there is much more lamenting. What has been most noticeable, is the psychological manifestations that pervade both camps of liberals and conservatives. It’s as if both camps have chugged the cool-aid of their respective ideologies and dwell solely in the echo chambers of their media outlet of choice. Confirmation bias rules the day with both camps. Liberals tune into CNN and devour their daily dose of fear mongering; inculcated with the implications of a Hitleresque President elect Trump, in all of his racist, sexist, authoritarian ways. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been spoon fed the idea that a billionaire business man actually cares for the poor and disenfranchised. Astonishingly, middle America believes that a Republican congress will bring more jobs and economic freedom. So, what if the best solution is to step away from both camps and expose the deeper problems?

During this election, I have become more of a dissident rather than a ‘team player’. I have no party, I have no team. Taking the stance of a dissident, affords me the opportunity to critique both sides of the election, candidates and policies from a (more) neutral perspective. I was not wedded to Hillary’s presidential persona or her ability to discuss policy, or her legacy as a successful policy maker. Moreover, I am not lured to the Republican rhetoric of anti-establishment, nationalistic, and protectionist talk. Rather, I choose to take on the philosophical responsibility of deconstructing and identifying the political power systems that lay insidiously under the duplicitous marketing of both “stronger together” and  “Make America Great!”.

What we see in the 2016 election is millions of working class people voicing their distrust in political institutions, Wall Street and the Clinton dynasty. Perhaps most notable is that both east and west coastal urban regions, in all their blueness, have shown almost zero interest in the economic inequality that many red states have been facing. What has become clear is that while liberals have been pushing for progressive ideals for gay marriage and a multi-cultural America, they have completely ignored the fact that we have a bigger problem: a financial sector that increases the wealth of the top ten percent of the country while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Welcome to the age of meritocracy.

This is the era in which you get what you earn, and you earn what you get. It’s the professionals and managerial class of affluence and education that are the winners. And if you don’t like that you live in an impoverished area of Oklahoma, then stop whining and get an education. Meritocracy is about winners, so we celebrate the innovation and entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley while forgetting the dustbin of the Rustbelt. The meritocracy credo is the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best. It is an ideology that tells the Ohioan who has lost their house while making minimum wage: you have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.

The age of meritocracy was ushered in during the 1972 Democratic convention. The tumultuous 1972 convention gave birth to the McGovern-Fraser Commission which shift the Democratic party from a representative of the working-class to representing the professional class. In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.” A different set of issues mattered to younger Democrats: the rights of disenfranchised groups, the environment, government corruption, militarism. In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life. Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest.

McGovern’s campaign manager were two young intellectuals who shared little interest in the working class. One was a young Yale-educated lawyer named Gary Hart and the other a Yale law student named Bill Clinton. As George Packer states in the New Yorker, “The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path. Hart emerged as the leader of the tech-minded ‘Atari Democrats’, in the eighties; Clinton, the bright hope of Southern moderates, became the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that he used as a launchpad for the Presidency in 1992.”

And there you have it; the Democrats pivot from the working class to the educated professional. No longer would the Democrat advocate for the laborer in Toledo Kansas, rather, the liberal would give all the power to Ivey leaguers on Wall Street. These are the men and women that would fill the cabinets of both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama: highly educated professionals who would jump on the globalization train headed straight towards profit. Having laid a quick foundation, it is here where we can proclaim the credo: the successful and educated deserve their rewards. What about everyone else? Well, who cares.

Three Suggestions for Reflection  

First, it’s time that Democrats stop putting all their eggs in the civil liberties basket. Issus of multi-culturalism and gay rights are important, but when it becomes the end-all-be-all, the result is a fractioning of a vast part of America. It’s difficult to ignore the pervasiveness of economic inequality, especially how it penetrates most families no matter their race, creed, or religion. As economist Joseph Stiglitz notes, “A young male in his 30s today has an income, adjusted for inflation, that is 12 percent less that what his father was making 30 years ago.” Some 5.3 million more Americans are living in poverty now than were living in poverty when Bush became president. America’s class structure may not have arrived there yet, but it’s heading in the direction of Brazil’s and Mexico’s. Perhaps there are some concerns that are weighted much heavier than current battles that the liberal wants to fight. A tolerant America, even with all the civil liberties, is still a scary thought if it continues to be wrought with increasing economic divide.

Second, it’s time for Democrats to stopped relying on band-aids such as education, job training and infrastructure. This was the rhetoric of Hillary in 2016, but it’s a ruse. Hillary was in full support of her husband’s polices during the 90s in which the same rhetoric was employed but went a different direction: in the direction of Wall Street. She supported Bill’s policies on deregulating derivatives and telecom, repealing Glass-Steagall, and ramming NAFTA through congress. A 2010 report showed almost 800,00 jobs lost due to NAFTA. Most devastating of all, the Clinton’s pact with Wall Street helped America snowball into the 2008 recession, all the while duping American’s into thinking that the Clinton’s are the voice for the disenfranchised.

The problem is much deeper than education, job training and infrastructure – it’s deeply economic. Pumping money into education and job training will not assuage the current system that hands all the negotiating and bargaining power to corporate interests. In 2012, the United States spent $11,700 per full-time-equivalent student on elementary/secondary education, which was 31 percent higher than the OECD average of $9,000. At the post-secondary level, the United States spent $26,600 per FTE student, which was 79 percent higher than the OECD average of $14,800 (National Center of Education Statistics). Democrats need to move away from band-aid solutions and shift to the systemic problems that plague our society. The systemic problems revolve around a concentration of power at the very top filled with corporatists and lobbyists that rig the system for themselves. If you don’t believe me ask yourselves two questions: (1) Why is it that the median income (when adjusted for inflation) has plateaued since the 1970s and (2) why is it, that since the Great Recession of 2008, the top 5% have become wealthier and everyone else is still stagnate (or poorer)? Education, job training and infrastructure will not solve these problems that are deeply rooted in a rigged economic system.

Lastly, liberals need to admit the huge failings in policy with the Clinton’s, rather than the perpetual genuflecting before the Clinton dynasty. It is paramount that liberals accept the history and facts that surround the Clinton regime. Besides the economic policies already mentioned, she supported her husband’s 1994 crime bill that created the largest gulag in the world. Astonishingly, 8.7 billion dollars was spent on constructing numerous prisons that would house a criminal population caught in the Clinton vortex. Furthermore, besides the abysmal three strikes initiative, Hilary supported Bill’s signing off on in the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The former drug was thought to be scourge of the planet – and 88 percent of the people arrested for it were black – while the latter even though it was essentially the same thing, was regarded as just another harmless yuppie crime. Handing down prison sentences of many decades for one drug but not the other was both racist and insanely cruel.

Do liberals possess the wisdom to admit these egregious acts by the Clinton’s? When it comes to the 90s, it’s as if Liberals highlight the Clinton’s banning assault weapons, balancing the budget, and (phony) economic growth – and that’s it! Open-minded liberals have a duty to possess the cognitive fortitude to pull the wool from their eyes.

I’ll conclude this section with the Clinton’s 1996 repeal of welfare. The welfare system was deeply unpopular in the 1990s. Its centerpiece was a 1935 program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that dispensed case assistance to impoverished single mothers. AFDC was one of the basic guarantees of the American Welfare State, but it was also a program hated both by resentful taxpayers as well as by the poor themselves, because it made no provision for employment or training. As Thomas Frank notes, instead of fixing the system, Clinton deleted the AFDC and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) that leaves welfare up to the states – and gives the states plenty of incentive to kick people off the rolls. What’s more, it bars hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants—including many who have worked in the United States for decades and paid a considerable amount in Social Security and income taxes—from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps, and reduces food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families. What was the result of all this? The continued attempt to keep the ceiling low for minorities and the poor.

Concluding Remarks

There is a myth and meme that believes that Democratic ideals are for the poor and disenfranchised, contra to Conservatives. My contention, however, is that both Conservative and Democrats on Capitol Hill are for the banks and Wall Street, while the poor and disenfranchise are left out of the conversation. I’ll conclude with highlighting the past eight years of the Obama administration, and you tell me if Obama’s compassionate and eloquent speeches match his policy – or rather, lack of policy.

Ask yourself this: what did Obama do to help resuscitate America after the 2009 financial collapse? He was able to get a $800 billion stimulus package through congress, but it was the tax payer who paid the debt of the banks! Moreover, the biggest single part of the stimulus was wasted on tax cuts designed to lure Republican votes. Another chunk was wasted on coaxing state governments to embrace charter schools and to open their education systems to consultants and entrepreneurs. For fear of frightening the men of lower Manhattan, the Obama team dared undertake none of the serious measures the times obviously called for. No big Wall Street institutions were put into receivership or cut down to size. No important Wall Street bankers were terminated in the manner of the unfortunate chairman of General Motors.

The classic and most direct solution to an epidemic of corrupt bank management and fraudulent bank lending is to use the authority that comes with rescuing failed banks to close those banks down or to fire those banks’ top managers. This was evidently never seriously considered by Obama’s team of geniuses. When it came down to people or Wall Street, Obama choose the ladder.

Obama could have done something, but he didn’t. As Thomas Frank notes, the most notorious example was a Democratic proposal that would have allowed judges to modify homeowners’ mortgage debt when they filed bankruptcy – a process called “cramdown” that would have been extremely helpful for millions of homeowners but would have been unpleasant consequences for whoever it was who owned the mortgages. In 2008, Obama had announced he was in favor of cramdown, but when it came up in the Senate in April of 2009, the president and his team, in the concise description of Obama biographer Jonathan Alter, “wouldn’t lift a finger to help.” With the banks lobbying energetically against it, the measure naturally failed.

And what did Obama do for the average worker? Workers got the same treatment. As a presidential candidate, for example, Obama had loudly denounced the still-unpopular NAFTA; as president, he let such talk drift away. In Obama’s early days, labor’s highest priority in Washington was a legislative proposal called the Employee Free Choice Act., which would have made it easier for workers to bargain collectively with management, and might even have reserved the long slide in the unionized percentage of the workforce. Again, Obama declared himself in support of the measure; he had even voted for it as a Senator. Again, though, as Wal-Mart and the Chamber of Commerce mobilized their lobbyists against the measure, the president’s audacity seemed to disappear. The White House simply chose to let it go. One detail that was astonishing at the time, was the amazing number of liberals that business interests had hired to their lobbying on this matter: former assistant John Kerry, to Rahm Emanuel, to several Democratic senators, even to the secretary of labor.

I’m simply wondering if the average Democrat is even willing to critique and scrutinize their own beloved President and party? Of course, the Democrat will always go back to the wonders of Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) as the crowning jewel. With all the problems of Obamacare, we can hardly call it a success with its ever-rising costs for the poor. This is hardly a success for America. The past eight years have not been a success. Since the recession, the situation for working class people has continued to deteriorate. Since the recession ended in 2009, the country’s gross domestic product has grown by 13.8 percent; in that same period, salaries and wages have gone up a mere 1.8 percent. The economic clout of labor unions has continued to shrink, as the percentage of private sector workers who were members of a union has dwindled form 7.2 percent in 2009 to 6.6 percent in 2014. The “labor share” of the nation’s income declined sharply from its old postwar average; during the Obama presidency it has stumbled along at or near its all-time lows.

We need to stop making excuses and look at policy. We need to stop bifurcating Conservative and Democrat politicians as ‘evil versus good’. The truth is, both parties on Capitol Hill are advocating for Wall Street, while the lower strata sits and waits for its turn at the table. The proof is in the pudding, and the continued growing inequality in America is all the proof you need. Perhaps it’s better to avoid picking a team, thus the blinders of your own bias and prejudice is a bit freer. Perhaps stepping back, looking at history, and scrutinizing both sides will yield a clearer picture of reality. Or we can continue being duped by empty rhetoric, from both sides.

-Wes Fornes

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Not in my Backyard: The US occupation of Okinawa

 

“The peace and security of the Pacific region rest on your backs.” – said by Al Gore (March 24, 1997) to the troops and families at Yokota Air Force Base near Tokyo.

I ordered 2 shots of espresso with 2 pumps of white mocha and then wanted to share some thoughts this morning. Ask yourself this, if you were living in the North Pole, would you be thankful for having an air condition installed in your house? Would you feel relieved because it would vastly improve your quality of life and give you more peace of mind? Probably not because the avg temps are around 0-10 F. Well, the bases that the United States have set up around the globe is analogous to having an A/C in the North Pole: unnecessary.

Have you ever thought of what it would be like to live in an America where 20 or 30 Chinese military bases were set up? Imagine American cities dealing with 150,000 jet takeoffs a year, roughly 140 per day of Chinese F-15s. Imagine our beaches destroyed and polluted by the soil erosion from artillery firing and damage to coral reefs by ships and amphibious landing practices. Imagine the runoff jet fuel and other toxic substances permeating the soil and water supplies with neither any clean up. Finally imagine that the hundreds of thousands of Chinese military personnel did not contribute any taxes, and wielded their power and authority as they pleased. Well, this is what it is like to be occupied or contained by a United States military installation.

At the height of the Cold War, The United States built chain of military bases stretching from Korea and Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, England, and Iceland – in effect ringing the Soviet Union and China literally thousands of overseas military installations. In Japan alone, immediately following the end of the Korean War, there were 600 U.S. installations and approximately 200,000 troops.

What does the US say it is doing in Okinawa 55 years after the end of WWII? Through the postwar period, the United States has vacillated between two basic arguments: the forces are either in order to defend Japan or in order to contain Japan. Though one contradicts the other, each is alternately resurrected, depending on the current situation in East Asia, and used to justify policies that were first formulated to deal with conditions that existed in 1951, when the peace treaty and the security treaty were negotiated, and that ceased to exist at least two decades ago. Even in 1951, Japan was in no danger of being attacked by another nation and even less capable of attacking one of its own neighbors.

Surely Japan is not threatened by the failed Communist regime of North Korea whom can barely feed its own people and is still engaged in a barely repressed civil war with South Korea, which is twice as populous, infinitely richer, and fully capable of defending itself.

Maybe the fear is China? Nope. Japan’s policy is to do everything in its power to adjust to the reemergence of China on the world stage. It also appreciated that China, while resurgent, still has only a gross domestic product of $560 billion, compared to Japan’s $5 trillion and the United States $7.2 trillion; a defense budget of $31.7 billion, compared to Japan’s $47 billion and the United States $263.9 billion; and perhaps as many as 149 strategic nuclear weapons, compared to the United States’ 7,150. In polls, the Japanese public has repeatedly expressed a greater concern about oscillations in U.S. policy toward China than about anything China has done or has the capability to do to Japan.

Another benefit of occupying Okinawa has been the good of helping the economy. Nope. While tourism is the major industry for the island; the presence of so many sprawling, disconnected Americans installations, as well as over 50,000 Americans who do not pay taxes and have no stake in Okinawan’s future, does nothing to enhance the island’s attraction to Japanese and Taiwanese tourists … the incomes generated from the base are only 5% of the gross domestic product of Okinawa. This is far too small a contribution for an establishment sitting on 20% of Okinawa’s land.  

Furthermore, the Japanese have the ability to defend themselves just fine without the help of the United States. With the second largest navy in the Pacific, more destroyers than the United States, and 120 F-15 fighter inceptors, Japan is quite capable of meeting any challenge.  

Let’s for a minute admit that no attempt has been made to invade the main islands since the Mongol fleet dispatched by Kublai Khan was dispersed by a “divine wind” in A.D. 1281. After the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Americans essentially gave up on the idea of an invasion and turned instead of defeating Japan through the use of nuclear weapons, strategic bombings, and a blockade.

Maybe it’s time we end the imperialism. I have no doubts that if China or North Korea began setting camp in the United States there would be moral outrage. Yet, when we do it … we think it’s morally justified.

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The Ethics of Universal Basic Income

This essay was inspired from readings by economists such as Yanis Varoufakis and Robert Reich. My goal with this essay is to articulate an argument that defends the rational for a universal basic income.

I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in terror.

A basic income is not a question of whether we like it or not, for it will be a major part of any attempt to civilize capitalism. What we are seeing today is capitalism going through a spasm caused by its own generation’s technology undermining itself. In the 20th century, we had the stabilization and civilization of capitalism through the rise of Social Democracy through the New Deal in the U.S. and the social democratic developments in Europe. But this paradigm is finished and it cannot be revived; but let us remind ourselves of what the Social Democratic and New Deal tradition is all about. First, redistribution of income within waged labour, a kind of insurance for the working class. Let us consider the National Distribution Insurance scheme in Britain after the WWII, and unemployment insurance in the U.S., same with health provision, pension, etc. These were important redistributive measures with regards to insuring and redistribution within the working class. Second, the redistribution between capital and labour, between the rents and labor. This takes the form in minimum wages that are negotiated by the state, and a process of collective bargaining – usually triangular involving trade unions, employers, and the state. And of course taxation: transfers through the taxation system.

This economic transition is dying in the water mainly because of two earthquakes on both sides of the Atlantic. First, the process of financialization which created a huge wedge between capital and labor; creating a new form of capital: financialized capital. This essentially depleted both labor and industrial capital. And this inexorable financialization drive erupted in 2008. So in 1991 socialism died with the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then after 2008 Capitalism died. We have a new regime now: Bankruptocracy. It’s rules by bankrupt banks. The more bankrupt banks the greater its capacity to mobilize and usurp economic grants and economic value from the rest of society. And the problem with bankruptocracy is that we have a cynical massive transfer of wealth from income and value from production to the financialized and financial sector that remains insolvent in reality, despite the cynical transfer. This has created two things. First, deflationary enforces. Ask anyone working in the central bank of Switzerland today, or the bank of Japan or the bank of England, or the FED – they can’t sleep at night about the fact that about half of the global economy now is languishing now in negative interest rate, and this is a reflection of the collapse of the social democratic and New Deal bargain of the 20th century. The world after 2008 cannot be understood in terms that made since to the world before 2008 – just like the world after 1929 cannot be understood in terms that made sense in the gold exchange era prior to 1929.

With the deflationary process, we have now the first plank of Social Democratic system dead in the water because the working class can no longer insure itself. Its result is stagnate wages and now its young people are caught up in a duel labor market. The insurance amongst wage laborers is simply not possible because wages have stagnated to such an extent that it is impossible for the working class to insure itself. Furthermore, redistribution between capital and labor is becoming increasingly impossible for a main reason: the politics that have become quite toxic, whether its Greece and Troika, and the Congress vetoing the White House and the White House vetoing Congress. The Social Democratic ideal requires political governance and Europe and the U.S. are ungovernable as we speak.

The second earthquake is artificial intelligence (AI). AI will very soon consume over-repetitive routine work or algorithmic work – especially once machine pass the Turing Test. Once this happens it will impossible for you or I to understand if the person we are speaking with on the phone is a human or machine. Once we have that, we are going to have a massive displacement effect, which, for the first time in human history is going to overwhelm the job creation effect. The net result will be more job destruction than job creation, because, remember the bankruptocracy that I referred to came at the tail end of a 30-year replacement of manufacturing jobs in the developing world with low-wage repetitive work. Thus, the bulk of the jobs created to replace the jobs lost after 2008, 1975 and 1983 were low-waged routine jobs that will be cut immediately once AI overcomes the Touring Test. This displacement is going to reinforce the deflationary forces that keep are central bankers awake at night because it will eliminate a significant measure of aggregate demand. Moreover, it will create an even greater level of income inequality, and a disparity between savings and investment. This disparity between savings and investment will force the rate of interest even below its current low levels.

So this is why a basic income will become a necessary part of civilization and stabilizing the country. This struggle is an ethical one, and an ethical one that doesn’t just simply spring out of a position from the “have’s” but also from a position of the “have not’s”. From Social Democrats, from Leftists, from those whose own since of dignity responds naturally against the idea of something for nothing. This is why it’s important to couch basic income as what it is: it is the idea that we are going to overturn the current narrative of life under Capitalism. The current narrative, the dominant paradigm is what? That we have private production of wealth which is then appropriated by the state for social purposes. In reality, our wealth production is collective, it is social, and only then is it privately appropriated. Unless we make this shift in the narrative, we are not going to be able to succeed or even convince those who would benefit from basic income that it is worthwhile struggling for it.

Take an IPhone, pick it up, and open it. What do you find in it? You find a variety of technologies and each one of them was created by a government grant. None of them was produced by Apple, none by Google – all were produced from some government grant. This is why I’m referring to the collective production of wealth which is then privately appropriated. If you begin thinking of it in this way, then it is easier to start to think of basic income as a dividend. A dividend that goes to the collective that was responsible for collectively producing the wealth, and the gadgets, and the products, and the markets. Because this false and illusory separation between the market and the state, needs to be dissolved. There would have been no markets if there were no states, there is no Capitalism if there were no state, no Apple or Google if there were no state; and similarly there would be no state if there are no private entrepreneurs and no state if there were no firms, we need to dissolve this false division.

And we have to attack the narrative head on: basic income is about giving money to the underserving, it is about giving money to the rich, it is about giving money to the beach bums. So we should not be sidetracked simply talking about good people getting money that they deserve; we should talk about underserving people that get money courtesy of the fact that they are members of a society that is collectively producing wealth. And on top of this, we need to add to the narrative stabilization. Think about it, in Europe and U.S. today, a basic income would really help central bankers go to sleep at night. It will be counter deflationary, it will be a unique defense against the slow burning recessionary impact of 2008.

Now there are decent arguments against basic income that we must not avoid. For instance, the rich do not need a basic income. Sure, but they don’t need to have the first ten-thousand dollars that they make being tax exempt either. And nobody’s worried about that. Surely, we hear, “it is better to target the money we have around those that are deserving.” Yes, but you have to think about the other side of the coin. To separate the deserving from the undeserving you need a bureaucracy whose purpose is to do that. Bbureaucracies tend to replicate itself, bureaucrats love to replicate themselves and to reproduce their power over society and to do so by producing a stigma attached to those whom they consider to be undeserving. It is very similar to psychiatry, remember Michael Foucault, the story about the madhouse where he illustrates how you create a narrative of reason and unreason and a power structure; and the person who has the certificate to be the psychiatrist has the power to say who is sane and who has the right to be a free citizen.

Another argument says that people should have the right to a job but not a right to basic income. And that we should be promoting work, not sloth.  Well, I think there are two points here that should be said: (1) Nothing stops us in society from censoring those who are idle. But why should we have them starve? (2) The right to turn down a job is essential for a well-functioning labour market and for a civilized society. And to have the right, a genuine right to turn down a job you must have an outside option; because desperate people will accept to do desperate things. Janitors on college campuses, for instance, in decades past use to know the faculty, they were part of the institution. And then what happened? They were sub-contracted by firms who hire by night people who are faceless, and turned-over all the time, paid less, and not institutionally connected. But why did this process spin out of control? It did because the janitors had no outside option. No right to say “no” to the sub-contracted contractors.

Here are some essential points, from a social perspective, not just a macro-economic perspective. The micro and the sociological level needs to be addressed.  Social Democracy put forth the idea a social safety net. Well we need to counter this. Nets are very good about catching you when you are falling. But when you are caught in them, it is often very difficult to get out of them. So think of basic income as a foundation, not a net. A floor on which to stand. Libertarian economist and theorists who claim that liberty is a driving force define liberty in a negative sense, in the sense of the absence of constraints, of volunteerism. If you say “yes” to a contract that contract must be a free contract, therefore it must be some act of free will. Well it’s not. The mafia loves to give us offers we can’t refuse. The fact that we say “yes” to them doesn’t mean that they were chosen freely. The fact that the Greek government said “yes” to Troika does not mean that it was a voluntary transaction. To have a free contract, each side must have the capacity to say “no.” Freedom in action requires a basic income.

Finally, a basic income will allow for creative work. To replace the kind of routine, algorithmic work, that is anyway being replaced by AI. So we need to ameliorate the ill effects of capitalism undermining itself by producing gadgets that itself cannot survive. Then we need to create a system whereby society stakes claim to the return of aggregate capital and this claim becomes an income stream that goes to everyone. I don’t see why myself, or my future children have a right to a trust fund, why Paris Hilton when nobody else does? Think of basic income as a trust fund for all of our children to be financed by dividends from our aggregate capital which was after-all created collectively.

 

~ Wes Fornes

 

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The Not So Free-Market Economy

 

Edward G. Ryan, the chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, warned the graduating class of the state university in 1873: “The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, ‘Which shall rule – wealth or man; which shall lead – money or intellect; who shall fill public stations – educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?’”

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books is The Lorax. Perhaps is because with eloquent subtly he uses personification to illustrate the danger of corporate greed upon both the environment and human beings. The beauty of the story concerns how the choices we make impact everyone around us. The idea of the inter-connectedness of mankind is a congenial thought when talking about world peace, but runs into difficulties when we talk about the economic well-being of others. The current plight of American economics is one that is rigged and riddled with greed while the idea of freedom morphs into a chimera. So this begs the question: is the Lorax of today the 2007-2008 crash and the continued economic exploitation of our plutocratic government? And more importantly, is anyone listening to the Lorax?

Economic Exploitation

So that I don’t sound too dramatic, here is the current picture. By 2007, the year before the crisis, the top 0.1 percent of America’s households had an income that was 220 times larger than the average of the bottom 90 percent. While recovery for the bottom percentage of Americans has been a Sisyphean feat, the wealthy have bounced back resoundingly. The wealthy had more to lose in stock market values, but those recovered well and relatively fast: the top 1 percent of Americans gained 93 percent of the additional income created in the country in 2010, as compared with 2009. Furthermore, if we consider the Walton family of Wal-Mart, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart empire command wealth of $69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society. For the sake of brevity, I won’t divulge into the working conditions and wage disparity of the average worker at Wal-Mart, or the externalities of labor exploitation in factories in the East in order to maximize shareholder profits. And through all of this, the median household income is still the same as in the mid-seventies when adjusted for inflation. Unbelievable.

This is country that spends more on our prisons than education. A country that is sitting and watching large pharmaceutical companies rake in billions while hundreds of thousands of Americans can’t afford to fill their prescriptions. A country that appears completely content that the crash that not only created a vast loss in American’s retirement accounts, but also $6.5 trillion loss in housing valuations. Lastly, and unbeknownst to most Americans, the extreme poverty of people living at least one month of the year on 2 dollars a day person or less, the measure used by the World Bank for developing countries – had doubled since 1996, to 1.5 million. The “poverty gap,” which is the percentage by which the mean income of a country’s poor falls below the official poverty line, is another telling statistic. At 37 percent, the US is one of the worst ranking countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the “club” of the more developed countries, in the same league as Mexico (38.5 percent). The Lorax has been warning us for a while, but we’re not listening.

The Free-Market That Isn’t Free

With the rabid social inequality in our society today, it begs the question: how free are we? I mean, we’re told we live in a “free-market” society with “free enterprise,” with “freedom of contract,” “free trade,” and “free speech.” But when we dig deeper into the policies that are being implemented, it appears that the one’s tilting the scale in their favor is government officials, Capitol Hill lobbyists and corporate lawyers. When we’re dealing with a rigged system, freedom looks completely different to the hedge fund manager and the Wal-Mart employee.

As economist Robert Reich notes, most political debates soon turn to whether the “free market” is better at doing something than government. As Reich states:

“Few ideas have more profoundly poisoned the minds of more people than the notion of a “free market” existing somewhere in the universe, into which government “intrudes.” In this view, whatever inequality or insecurity the market generates is assumed to be the natural and inevitable consequence of impersonal “market forces.” What you’re paid is simply a measure of what you’re worth in the market. If you aren’t paid enough to live on, so be it. If others rake in billions, they must be worth it (Saving Capitalism, 19).”

The question typically left to debate is how much government intervention is warranted. Conservatives want a smaller government and less intervention; liberals want a larger and more activist government. One’s response to it typically depends on which you trust most (or least): the government or the “free market.” But this dichotomy is utterly false. There can be no “free market” without government. A market – any market – requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game. In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts. Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.” It creates the market. Yet the interminable debate over whether the “free market” is better than “government” makes it possible for us to examine who exercises this power, how they benefit from doing so, and whether such rules need to be altered so that more people benefit from them. So who exercises the power?

Who Exercises the Power?

The power backing the “free market” lies with the wealthy elite in or close to those in government. Under the guise of “freedom,” the rest of America sits on the sidelines watching astonishingly at escalating campaign contributions to back particular candidates and their agendas, burgeoning “independent” campaign expenditures, growing lobbying prowess, platoons of lawyers and paid experts to defend or mount lawsuits, public relation campaigns designed to convince the public of the truth and wisdom of the policies they support, think tanks and sponsored research that confirm particular positions,  and ownership and economic influence over media outlets that further promote particular goals. Under these circumstances, arguments based on the alleged superiority of the “free market,” “free enterprise,” “freedom of contract,” “free trade,” or even “free speech” warrant a degree of skepticism. The pertinent question is: whose freedom?

Illusion of Freedom

Our freedom is dictated by the government officials and their squadron of lobbyists and lawyers who represent corporate interests. The “free market” is a delusion of freedom that is-what-it-is because of policies of the elite.  Need more proof? Ask yourself why in Stockholm, Sweden you can get high-speed internet in every inch of the city (for around $20/month) but in the U.S. Comcast has an increasing monopoly such that they can ratchet up prices and limit your choices in order to deepen their pockets. By the way, Comcast and other cable operators spend millions of dollars each year lobbying and contributing to political campaigns (in 2014, Comcast ranked thirteenth of all corporations and organizations reporting lobbying expenditures and twenty-eighth for campaign donations).

Want another example? Most jobs will have you sign a contract agreeing that you will go to arbitration, rather than take your complaint to court –  if you have experienced some form of abuse. And here’s the catch: your company selects the arbitrator. According to a recent study, employees complaining of job discrimination got relief only 21 percent of the time when their complaints went to arbitration but 50 to 60 percent of the time when they went to court.

How about the countless times you are prompted to check off ‘you are agreeing to the terms and conditions’? I have yet to meet somebody who reads every word and can actually understand the legalese in those agreements. When consumers sued several hotels and online travel agencies for allegedly conspiring to fix hotel room prices, lawyers for Travelocity, successfully defended the company in court by arguing that customers who used its site could not participate because they had “agreed” not to sue. We are told to believe that we have ‘freedom of contracts’ but this is not the truth. This is coercive. Buyers and sellers have no real alternatives when a large corporation have locked up a market through its intellectual property, control over standards or network platforms, and armies of lawyers and lobbyists. Under such circumstances, contracts are inherently coercive, or so it might seem. And contracts today are often filled with conditions (likely in small print) that deny employees, borrowers, and customers any meaningful choice. Nonetheless, large corporations possess the political and legal clout to make sure they’re enforced.

Let’s keep it going. Bankruptcy was designed so people could start over. But these days, the only ones starting over with ease are big corporations, wealthy moguls, and Wall Street, who have enough political clout to shape bankruptcy law to their own needs. In 2008, The Street’s biggest banks had bought hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of risky products, such as subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, and mortgage-backed securities. As you probably remember, the banks that were mislabeled “too big to fail” did indeed fail, and then were promptly given an estimated $83 billion dollars in low-interest loans from the federal reserve. Did the mass amount of homeowners get any help? Nope. As homeowners found themselves owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth and unable to refinance. Yet Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code (whose drafting was largely the work of the financial industry) prevents homeowners from declaring bankruptcy on mortgage loans for their primary residence. When the financial crisis hit, some members of Congress, led by Illinois senator Dick Durbin, tried to amend the code to allow distressed homeowners to use bankruptcy. That would give them a powerful bargaining chip for preventing the banks and others servicing their loans from foreclosing on their homes. The bill passed the House, but when in late 2009 Durbin offered his amendment in the Senate, the financial industry flexed his muscles to prevent the passage, arguing that it would greatly increase the cost of home loans. The bill governed only forty-five Senate votes, even though Democrats were in the majority. Partly as a result, distressed homeowners had no bargaining power. More than five million of them lost their homes, and by 2014 another two million were near foreclosure.

I could keep going and detail the rigged system that gives double-digit interest to student loans debt and those needing cash advances. I could outline how the corporate interests have the bargaining power over the healthcare system. Such that, by the 1980s, the anti-trust laws had dissolved in a way that hospitals began merging into giant hospital systems, capable of getting higher reimbursements from insurers. The results were a ratcheting up of health care costs, along with fewer choices. In 1992 the average American city had four hospitals; by 2014, it was served by just two.

Final Words

At what point do we say “this is not right”? At what point to we begin looking into candidates voting records on issues that truly impact every individual in this country? At what point to we disavow ourselves from the lies of “immigrants as rapists and who don’t contribute” and that “the number one threat to our freedom is ISIS”? The real threat is the incremental changes to the “free market” economy in policies that tilt the scale in favor of the elite and further silence the voice and freedom of everyone else. At the beginning of this post I mentioned the warning of the Lorax in Dr. Seuss’ classic story. No matter how much the Lorax warned, no one listened – until it was too late. The warnings of the present dangers are before us in a decimated U.S. middle-class and growing economic disparity. But does this truly convict us to do something about it?

~ Wes Fornes

 

 

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Part I: Where Do Rights Come From?

Deep question of the day: Where do rights come from? At Starbucks (grande blonde roast)  in San Jose just before work, and finished up a 2-day short thought on rights.

“A right is something that is due to a person by just claim, legal guarantee, or moral principle … A power, privilege, or immunity secured to a person by law … A legally enforceable claim that another will do or will not do a given act; a recognized and protected interest, the violation of which is a wrong.”

Do rights come from God, nature or neither?

It is hard to believe that we live in a country that once approved of slavery and refused to allow women to vote. Despite rights given to minorities and woman in the 20th century, we continue to have pressing issues surrounding human rights. How is a society in 2015 able to decipher what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to immigration, prison overcrowding, rights of LGBT, and the seemingly never-ending debate on the right-to-life? Consider this: does an 88 year old diagnosed with stage four cancer living in persistent pain be allowed to take medication that will hasten a peaceful death? In the majority of states in the U.S., this patient will be forced to continue to “live” despite their wishes. But is this really “living”? And why is the right to die peacefully not a viable “right” for this patient? Will divine law make this issue clearer?

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The history of divine law is a history of repeated corrections of yesterday’s lethal misreadings and misapplications. To be an advocate of divine law is constantly to have to say you’re sorry for the mistakes of your predecessors, as your successors will inevitably have to apologize for the mistakes you are now making when you claim to know God’s true intentions. Divine law has a brutal history of justifying racism, the inquisitions, misogyny, and a multitude of bloody wars. Contemporary apologists for divine law argue that some past claims – especially those of which they disapprove – were misreadings or misapplications of God’s true will. But how can we be sure that today’s “correct” reading will not be subject to tomorrow’s correction?

A great Hasidic rabbi was asked if it is ever proper to acts if there is no God. He replied, “Yes. When a poor man asks you for charity, act as if there is no God – act as if only you can save him from starving.” I would extend the rabbi’s answer to all moral decisions about repairing the world.

In 1873, the Supreme Court, in denying a woman the right to be admitted to the bar, relied on a divine concept of natural law: “God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action,” and “It belonged to men to apply and execute the law.” Woman’s divinely assigned role was in the “domestic sphere.” Beyond “the divine ordinance” and “the law of the Creator,” it is “in the nature of things” that women must stay at home. What “things” the High Court never tells us.

Do rights then come from nature? It is interesting how religious fundamentalists credit God with beautiful or positive results of nature, but only rarely blame him for the ugly and the negative. How frequently we have heard survivors of natural disaster credit God for saving them, and how infrequently have we heard them blame God for killing those who did not survive these very same “acts of God.”

“Anyone observing nature with an objective eye will see that it is morally neutral. It is full of beauty and wonder, but it thrives on violence and predation. Nature is a mother animal nursing her helpless cub and then killing another helpless animal to survive. Nature is life-giving sunshine followed by death-dealing floods. Human nature is Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler; Jesus and Torquemada; Kant and Nietzsche; Confucius and Pol Pot; Mandela and bin Laden; the early Martin Luther (King), who reached out to the despised, and the later Martin Luther, who advocated rounding up the Jews and making them “miserable captives” in forced-labor camps.” – Alan Dershowitz

Perhaps rights come from neither God nor nature. If not, then where?

~Wes Fornes