Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

July 16, 2008

The Quick Fix

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:18 am

Naomi Klein was on Democracy Now! giving her insights on the current crises we are facing.  On the fuel crisis Naomi said the following:

So when you press people who are selling this drill in ANWR, more offshore oil drilling, also drilling into the shale in places like Montana, what they actually say is that the reason why it will lower prices at the pump, you know, soon, this summer, is because it will send a message to the stock market, it will send a message to the oil speculators that more supply is on the way. So, essentially, what they’re saying is, let’s play the market, let’s collectively play the market.

And that’s why it’s significant that yesterday, in the face of Bush’s announcement—and it was a significant announcement, because it was a real indication of the seriousness of this administration to really make this their, you know, final push in office, and they could well win, because this media campaign is really bringing public opinion on side, and we know that the Democrats are pretty weak in the face of that public opinion, and the only thing that they could fight this with is with real commitment to green policies. And, you know, don’t hold your breath.

If one pay close attention to Bush at the press conference, one can see Klein’s analysis is correct.  The core argument of drilling proponents is that drilling would send the message that future supply is on the way, which would bring down gas prices.  No.  What would bring down gas prices would be a firm commitment to alternative fuels.  If speculators saw the U.S. was serious about getting off our collective addiction to oil, and/or the government launched a serious investigation into oil company profits and was serious about windfall taxes, then we would start seeing some relief at the pump.

For some reason, Bush Republicans only seem able to understand the supply side in economics, even then, not particularly well.  More concerning, the American public is falling for the delusion.  Is there any particular reason we are still listening to this president rather than sheer amusement.  How much credibility does he have about anything?  The truth of the matter is that people believe what the president says not because we rationally should, but rather because we want to.  In the end, if these policies pass with popular support, we must also blame ourselves for our own credulity.  There will always be snake-oil salesman, it doesn’t give us the right to check our brains at the door, or play the victim when the “miracle cure” doesn’t work.


July 7, 2008

Naomi Klein: The Greatest Stick-Up in History

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 7:55 am

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism has an article over at the Guardian “Big Oil’s Iraq deals are the greatest stick-up in history.”

The presumed argument that Klein is going against is the following:  the United States has spent a lot of money on Iraq.  The long-term costs of the war are likely to top 3 trillion dollars according to Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes.  The United States overthrew the government of Iraq for great cost in terms of blood and treasure, American tax-payers deserve to get something back, namely cheaper gas.

One can see this dynamic play out in comparing and contrasting how Democracy Now! covers the oil contracts versus MSNBC.

I don’t know precisely where this cheaper gas narrative comes from.  Even if Iraq started pumping more oil into the world market, it is not clear how much the price of gas would drop.  No doubt it would be quite a boon for the oil companies as Klein points out: “Iraq is being forced to sell 75% of its national patrimony to pay the bills for its own illegal invasion and occupation.”  Less money for the Iraqi people is more money for the oil companies. However, a significant chunk of the gas price increases were due to increasing demand of emerging markets and devaluation of the dollar due to trade deficits and debt.  The benefit is for those who control the oil fields, not for those who buy the gas.  Acting as if there is a shared interest between for-profit corporations and their consumers is, at its heart, disingenuous.   It likens us to dogs who cheer on the fortunes of our masters for the hope that the plenty will improve the quality and quantity of our table scraps.  We are not dogs; we are oil junkies.  Oil companies are the dealers that feed our habit.

Do we deserve a medal?  Some type of award for our ability to uncritically accept all the comfortable lies we are constantly told?  Abu Ghraib was the result of a few bad apples.  The purpose of the Iraq War was to disarm Saddam Hussein because he poised an imminent threat and to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East.  This is not something to be critically considered, it is something to be laughed in the sincere hope that these lies will die of embarrassment because no one can take them seriously.  The problem with America is its inability to recognize a good joke.

June 5, 2008

Remembering Tiananmen

The Guardian had a piece on the Tiananmen Square Massacre which took place 19 years ago on June 3rd-4th. What makes Fenby’s piece frustrating is its obvious Western lens. Fenby states the fundamental questions the protesters were facing was the following:

But there was a more fundamental question: if the Chinese were to be free to run their lives economically, why not politically as well? If the command economy was being dismantled, why not the command political system, too?

As is typical, Fenby considers this to be the common wisdom instead of say asking, or quoting any one participating in the demonstrations. Naomi Klein provides another analysis of the underlying reasons for the protests in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism where she *gasp* actually cites one of the organizers of the protest.

This alternative narrative is being advanced by, among others, Wang Hui, one of the organizers of the 1989 protests, and now a leading Chinese intellectual of what is known as China’s “New Left.” In his 2003 book, China’s New Order, Wang explains that the protesters spanned a huge range of Chinese society — not just elite university students but also factory workers, small entrepreneurs and teachers. What ignited the protests, he recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s “revolutionary” economic changes, which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment” (China’s New Order pg. 45, 54). According to Wang, “These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization.” (China’s New Order pg. 54)

The demonstrations were not against economic reform per se; they were against the specific Friedmanite nature of the reforms — their speed, ruthlessness and the fact that the process was highly antidemocratic. Wang says that the protesters’ call for elections and free speech were intimately connected to this economic dissent. What drove the demand for democracy was the fact that the party was pushing through changes that were revolutionary in scope, entirely without popular consent. There was, he writes, “a general request for democratic means to supervise the fairness of the reform process and the reorganization of social benefits.” (China’s New Order pg. 57)

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism pg 187-188

So Fenby gets partial credit, the economic reforms were at the heart of the protests. However, it was not because of mystical consciousness raising magic of the “free market” and people asking doing a collective “why not?” It was precisely because of the tangible forms of economic distress that these reforms caused that spurred the protests and calls for democratic oversight.

Capitalism and democracy are not concepts that go hand-in-hand. Most of the time, they are directly at odds. Capitalists are always a select elite in society. So it seems natural that if economic affairs are controlled predominately by capitalists, this is a direct contravention of democracy because the public opinion of the majority is ignored when forming economic policies, by definition.

If there were any sense in the world, and the subsequent ability to call a spade a spade and declare A is A, China would correctly be identified as state capitalists, not communist. As such, the proper narrative of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is one of class struggle, another instance of capitalists crushing labor. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is an inconvenient truth for both East and West. This is why Fenby can confidently declare it to be “officially a non-event.” It is, from the point of view history is traditionally written from: the state’s. However, it is an important event to remember for a history of the people.

January 17, 2008

Chomsky’s Version of the “Shock Doctrine”

Filed under: capitalism, economy, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 8:53 am

Noam Chomsky gives a speech at a City Life/Vida Urbana event where he gives a remarkably similar narrative to that of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”

and parts 2,3,4 and 5.

Here is a link to Dean Baker’s book “The Conservative Nanny State” that Chomsky mentions. One can read the whole book online.

As Chomsky elucidates in his speech, the economic system is setup in a particular way, namely to transfer wealth upwards. The mechanisms and policies that achieve this effect are considered natural, efficient, immutable, when in fact they are anything but. However, any course of action that has the opposite effect, namely to transfer wealth downwards, are considered distortions, interference, inefficient and stifling to innovation.

One fundamental goal is to remove economic decisions from democratic governments which might be influenced by the vast majority of the population into the hands of an elite “virtual senate.” The governments would exist, however it would not have actual sovereignty. An economic elite could cause havoc via forced interdependence, one tool in their toolbox is currency flight.

For American political discourse, Kucinich gets it right. We cannot talk about illegal immigration in America without first discussing NAFTA. NAFTA caused a collapse in the Mexican farm economy, fueling the need for immigrants to come to the North to work for American agribusiness and other unskilled labor fields.

Dean Baker shows there is a flip-side to the system we have and it can be changed.

December 2, 2007

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism – A Review

As I said that I might, I finished reading “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” by Naomi Klein. My earlier complaints about the intellectual underpinnings and their rise in the United Kingdom and the United States is somewhat moot. Klein is able to give a convincing narrative, such as earlier economic woes or perceived incompetence, so democracies were willing to give neo-liberals a crack at power. However, in times of peace, those leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had problems implementing their unpopular agendas. It took disaster manufacture, such as the Falklands War or the invasion of Grenada to actually short-circuit the democratic processes to push through the neo-liberal reforms.

At the center of the story is Milton Friedman, the doctor of neo-liberal economic reforms. Friedman must be understood as a utopianist. He was a free market fundamentalist, and a counter-revolutionary to Keynesian economics. His goal was to remake the world’s economy into a capitalist utopia, where proper adjustments could be made scientifically and mechanically without fear of so-called economic distortions. In this respect, he did not believe that economic policies should be under the control of governments answerable to the people. They would only manage to introduce popular distortions that were harmful to the functioning of the economy. Precisely because neo-liberal reforms are so unpopular, Friedman and other neo-liberals found it easier institute policies outside of democratic controls, the shock doctrine explores how the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms has evolved from Chile to Iraq and Katrina.

The shock doctrine can be thought of as a three step process:

  1. Crisis
  2. Economic Reforms
  3. Fighting Popular Resistance

One trend that Klein notes is the rise of something that she calls the “disaster capitalism complex,” where companies have a vested interest and able to profit from every step of the process, from weapons manufacture, reconstruction, security, torture and interrogation, to health care for the wounded.

As neo-liberalism has evolved in its design and implementation, and so has the response. Shock is a period of disorientation. It is where unexpected information comes in too fast to deal thus overwhelming the system’s ability to respond. However, shock is only temporary, and it can be avoided if one is aware of what is coming. Klein’s book is attempt to ground people and societies, so we all become shock resistant. I highly recommend reading it.

Below is Klein discussing her book with Keith Olbermann.

November 20, 2007

“Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections” and Election Reform

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:54 am

Uncounted – The New Math of American Elections (h/t Best Free Documentaries) is a documentary that explores the various problems in U.S. elections. (As always with this type of content, it has questionable legality and might be taken down at any time). While I believe the documentary has some flaws, the discrepancy between exit polling and the election results are alarming. It is so far outside what we would reasonably expect, and it deserves investigation. The consistent bias is troubling and the fact that current electronic voting machines leave no auditable paper trail is simply unacceptable. Any machine is subject to failures or problems, it is just poor engineering not to have a backup in the case of failure. An ATM has the ability to print a receipt. There is absolutely no good reason why a voting machine shouldn’t be able to do the same. Every American should be able to leave the booth with complete confidence that their vote will be counted correctly, and that is simply not the case currently.

On Sunday, I asked Naomi Klein about election reform. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a response from her with all the chatter. “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” is an excellent book giving an alternative history of the past half-century. As with anytime I get a chance to ask an author about their work, I usually bring up a point tangential but related topic. There is little point asking about something specific about Chile, since I should have been able to grok that fact when I originally read it, or with subsequent research. Nor does rehashing history help us fix the future beyond giving us context. What I am currently sick of is the hand-wringing, apathy and defeatism. Universal Health Care is a noble cause, however I feel that it can be turned into a weapon against us if we get another horrible administration in office. As Klein’s book shows, massive debt can be leveraged against the nation to force a bitter pill of economic reforms favorable to the economic elites. Therefore, I feel the fix starts with ensuring better stewards of our government, and entails getting our voices heard better. Unfortunately, trying to project that agenda is like herding cats.

There were a few problems I had with what Ms. Klein said. First of all, she urged not to put hopes in a political savior. I completely agree with that point. People need to be vigilant. However, we need to get people who agree, or at least will honor democratic processes in office. Otherwise, it is a completely rigged game from the get go and the powers that be will eventually win the game of attrition with the people.

I don’t believe we start with campaign finance reform or FCC regulations. If the system is rigged it doesn’t matter. Starting with either of those two will leave a constant obstacle in the way, the plurality voting system. The plurality voting system is mathematically structured to force a answer between two choices. This is the exact reason two parties arose and third parties are marginalized. It is also the reason why our public policy swings so violently. A voter preference system based on a Condorcet winner seems to be the best way to correct the problem. I mentioned STV/IR because I thought that Klein might be more familiar with it and also because I was not aware of the substantial differences in outcomes between Condorcet and STV/IR when I wrote the question. With the new information, Condorcet seems to be the way to go.

However, upon watching Uncounted, it is clear that a more basic goal is necessary: making sure the votes are counted in the first place!

With this discussion, it is important to look at the Supreme Court decision that put us here in the first place, how the judges voted and who appointed them. Here is a layman’s guide to Bush vs. Gore. Here is a table to ponder.

Justice Bush/Gore Appointed By
Kennedy Bush Reagan
O’Connor Bush Reagan
Rehnquist Bush Reagan
Scalia Bush Reagan
Thomas Bush Bush (41)
Breyer Gore Clinton
Ginsburg Gore Clinton
Souter Gore Bush (41)
Stevens Gore Ford

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