Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Trip to Vienna

Avery and I went to Vienna to see our friends Richard and Hilal, who actually live this time of year in Istanbul but were teaching in some Alpine village for a week or so. I didn't quite know what to expect. You say "Vienna" I say "Freud." We did trek over there to Freud's old apartment with the other pilgrims, and it was nice to see his cane and interesting to realize he lived and worked in two halves of an apartment that was probably 1500 square feet total, maybe a little more. There was a time when you didn't need size to matter. In our big houses do we drift sideways into something we never see?

Big: Vienna is not. It is small and yet monumental. It has the Hapsburg's palace, the big neo-gothic city hall, giant beautiful St Stephens, loads of pearly baroque. I'm working on how to start making these stories have pictures and will post some later.

Vienna is the little imperial city. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from one side of the ring to the other, so that's maybe 1/3 the diameter of Paris proper, which is itself a perfect miniature compared to shapeless giant London or big and sprawling Berlin. It is a great pedestrian city. It is on the list of tour companies in most countries, and there was as high a percentage of Asian tourists there as in Paris. It has major palaces on narrow streets that no Hausmann ever cleared to create the aristocratic vistas of Paris. There's all sorts of neoclassical beauty and double eagles and unfallen heroes of battle watching everyone from the parapets. And yet its scale is, well, very middle class.

Everyone we met was friendly. Everyone spoke ungrudging English. Everyone was under 30 years old. By that I mean that everyone in the hospitality trades is young, and mostly tall, thin, and gorgeous. They are like Vienna - great to look at, but what exactly are you seeing?

It was balmy until the last day, and some streets had cafes from one side to the other. Everyone was outside. You could get gelato on every corner and Austrian chocolate cake in the middle of every block. On our last night we ate at an Italian restaurant set up outside in the courtyard of an old private "hotel" in the French sense. Vienna is where Germanic culture meets the Mediterranean. It felt closer to Greece and to Byzantium, and the churches had the white and the gold to prove it.

It's true that Vienna was the center of Europe's most multicultural Empire. It covered neighboring Hungary, right down the Danube but a language and culture entirely apart. It covered lots of the Balkans, and at various times Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands and Flanders. It liked to think it was born in marriage rather than war. It also had mottos like A.E.I.O.U, thought to be Latin for "It is Austria's destiny to command the universe." Vienna puts the imperial dream right across the street from its social reality. In 1919, an empire of 52 million was reduced to a country of 6 million.

The art was amazing. We went to the Expressivism show, and wound up in the Leopold museum later that same day to see the Egon Shiele's. Along the way I discovered Anton Kolig, he of the "Notscher Circle" named after a tiny town in a mountain valley that used to color to complete reconfigure the male nude - desperate but somehow unbreakable. In the basement there was a huge exhibition of Kolo Moser, whom I knew as a kind of ok mythological painter of the Art Nouveau period. Then I discovered he was the William Morris of Austria, only more so - an amazing master of industrial design, founder of the Wiener Werkstatte, viritual inventor of Art Nouveau fusions of art, imagination, practical design, and dream worlds. I love that stuff, and going through the exhibit an hour before we had to catch our plane finally located Austria in history for me - as a fountain of worlds elsewhere.

It reminded me of the motto of the Brucke movement I'd copied down in the Argentina a few hours earlier. "We intend to obtain freedom of action and of life against the well-established older forces. Who ever renders directly and authentically what impels him to create is one of us." The Bridge - to somewhere else, built exactly with that creative force, willing emancipation from the dying order. I'd seen the great Klimt mural at the Secession institute the day before - humanity frail and suffering, humanity defended by the well-armed one, but humanity finally winning only through its desire for happiness.

All these artists worked in the capital city of an oppressive and dying empire. I wondered whether terrible politics actually helps art in some perverse way, which would certainly improve my mood about our own period of terrible politics in an oppressive and dying empire. They too must have felt that at some point everything the rulers say is wrong and foul, and have turned their backs, or really fought in a different way. In each of the paintings, in Klimt, in Shiele, in Moser, one can find in spite of everything a transformed world.

Richard and I talked about politics as we always do, and about the impossibility of the Democrats proposing a candidate that would change anything. Look at Jesse Jackson and other civil rights greats calling a summit a few months ago for one reason only - to meet with media executives to get a racist talk jock fired. They disappeared as quickly as they arrived on 6th avenue to take the elevators upstairs. Do you now have to be completely outside of the system to have any chance of affecting it at all? Assuming you don't get laughed at for thinking there is an outside.

Flying in on the first day, I saw the carefully divided agricultural land along the Danube running right along to the western edge of Vienna. I felt badly for the U.S., having to sprawl over everything and waste it to extract whatever value it can. It really doesn't have to be like that. These artists built another world that stays with the millions of people that visit Vienna's museums year after year, and they did it right down the street from the Hapsburgs as they played masters of the universe.

If you need a good hotel, let me know.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

R U Serius? Dumb on Minimum Wage

The Wall Street Journal's coverage of today's increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour isn't dumber than the rest, but that's only because they're all dumb.

By dumb here I mean completely ignorant or silent about the main economic justification for the minimum wage. That was that by paying people what we now call a "living wage," they would have more money to spend and would plow it into the economy, which would grow faster. Ethics aside - which also used to be about a whole society advancing together rather than just the top having everything they can dream up - it was in a society's self-interest to pay everyone a good wage.

Who thought this? John Maynard Keynes, for one. Anyone remember him? He was the major architect of the liberal capitalist social policy of the post-Depression period. He was destroyed among American leaders by the likes of Milton Friedman, for whom any "interference" with the "market," which was as natural as the orbit of the planets around the sun, was an attack on efficiency, civilization and reason itself. That his kind also viewed taxes as an attack on the wealthy's power of unlimited accumulation may have had something to do with it too. Just a hunch.

Anyway, reporters seem unable to cover this increase in wages for poor people - they are at the rock-bottom of the salary scale - as anything other than a possible threat to economic health. They should at least say well there is an argument that says increased wages will help the economy (to, once again, ignore the rock-bottom wage earner, which we love to do). It's just pitiful, this American fear of a tiny raise (after YEARS of none) for the poorest workers.

When reporters can't remember the whole argument, they just reproduce right-wing ideology as common sense, which has become common sense in part because so many reporters are like this one.

Avery and I had our friend Neil over to watch a movie last night. Neil grew up in coastal Yorkshire and we talked about the Thatcher-Blair continuum for a bit before settling into Billy Liar, a great 1963 film with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (above). The film has a great sequence where Courtenay does voices in his boss's office that may remind you of one of the highlight's of Tom Cruise's career, his underwear dancing-karaoke scene in Risky Business. It is really good - affectionate, compassionate - about Billy Fisher's (Courtenay) gradual slide towards needing to decide whether he really is going to go to London to try to make his advanced powers of imagination into a career, or whether he's going to stay in the small town with this family. His encounters with a big-time producer from London with whom he has corresponded, and the great scenes with his undertaker boss, come from a period when official culture reflected what people still know - that business is often run by inhumane and mentally-limited schmucks who make the world worse, not better, that business is not usually so fricking efficient in spite of its chest-thumping tributes to its virile hatred of waste and slack, that the entertainment business in particular is not obviously the right outlet for a brilliant imagination.

What if it's better to dream at home than write commercial screenplays? Billy Liar can still ask the question. Sorry to draw a moral like this, but are a lot of questions about the role business and the economy that need to be asked all over again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lights Out at the Reptile House

Forget rebuilding the Golden State. California's legislature can't pass a routine budget without stealing wheelchair money from the disabled so they can hand it out to wealthy celebrities. I am not exaggerating. Read Sacramento columnist George Skelton today and weep. Skelton is one of that crew of 50s Pat Brown moderates (Peter Schrag of "Paradise Lost" fame is another) who just can't believe the brainless, selfish dismantling of public California. Today's column is particularly good, and should be read in its entirety for the details of ludicrous, demented venality and plain bad judgment among some of the most powerful people in a huge rich state.

Skelton reports that the state has taken $1 billion from Supplemental Security Income for the disabled in the last few years, and wants another $247 million this year (in the form of delayed or denied - though legally mandated - increases). The leg is considering denying a cost-of-living adjustment to welfare recipients who haven't had an increase in 3 years and now collect a maximum of $723 for a family of 3. The Republicans want the leg to support Gov. Schwarzenegger's call to throw 155,000 children off welfare - mostly the children of single mothers who didn't meet their work requirements.

So what else is new? There's $900 million for Hollywood and other industries - business tax breaks. And thank god more help is on the way for beleaguered dead celebrities. This comes in the form of legislation from State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), that would "bolster the 'postmortem right of publicity' held by the heirs of famous people to control the use of their images, voices, signatures and likenesses for commercial purposes." Actually we already have a law granting heirs the right to control a celebrity image. But there's a loophole! "A federal judge in California decided in May that the right to control publicity does not apply in cases of celebrities who died before 1985." No time to get a decent budget. Lots of time to protect the celebrity image.

Since Proposition 13 forced the legislature to get a 2/3 majority for all spending increases, the Republican rump can exercise brain-dead minority rule to their hearts content. But who cares! This state isn't about people in wheelchairs and families living on $723 - it's about the celebrity image!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dumbness Explosion in France

The boom in dumbness is sponsored by the geniuses jogging at left - the new President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Francois Fillon, the Prime Minister, in the blue shirt.

Let's start with the jogging. It's been heralded here in France as the French presidency's entrance into modernity. That's true - the modernity of the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was the first jogging American president. That was January of 1977. People think France is Old Europe and Sarkozy is New. But anyone who rides a French TGV or the new Parisian "Velib" public bike system or buys French clothes or listens to a claptrapy Sarkozy speech knows that it's actually the other way around - Sarko is old old old. As in Old School.

I heard Fillon on the nightly news on France 3 last week. He said that France needs an economic recovery and that will happen when French people exert more effort. They will do this when they are taxed less. He sounded like a subdued Benny Hill parodying Margaret Thatcher dubbed into French, except that Fillon's hair is definitely better than Benny's ever was.

Well what's so dumb about curing French unemployment with more "effort" via lower taxes? I'm happy to tell you, Mr. President, as soon as I can forget your confident JOGGING PERSONA long enough for my respect for you to recover. OK, here goes.
  1. this line is stolen directly from Thatcher and Reagan circa 1975-1985. Anyone this unoriginal can't possibly know how to fix ANYTHING economic in 2007.
  2. The French worker is per person-hour in fact more productive than the American worker. How can that be explained as the result of France's faulty work ethic?
  3. this line by the way insults working people with the beloved assumption of the rich and comfortable that regular people don't work. See #2.
  4. in recent history, "lower taxes" means lower taxes for rich people, not people who work.
  5. when right-wing politicians tell the masses to work harder, they are about to keep the masses from getting a raise for 20 - 30 years. Look at the United States. Reagan made "you betta work" into our brilliant National Philosophy. Then the bottom 80% of the workforce saw their wages stagnate in real terms for the rest of recorded history, e.g. the 1970s through now. You're not that good, take less, you're lucky to have a job. Our National Reality: "work more to earn less."
  6. your Finance Minister, Monsieur le President is quoted as saying, "We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.” She is saying that acting is incompatible with thinking. She has pretty obviously ceased to think.
  7. the French economy, like every other one, is affected by a couple of other things besides its alleged weak "effort," like the the mobility of finance capital, the race to the bottom in world wages, things like that. On this and other effects of unregulated globalization, you Joggers have neither thoughts nor actions - nothing, really nothing to offer.
  8. blaming workers means giving "le patronat" - the nation's executives - a free pass. Any chance they've screwed up here and there? French business culture is regularly ranked among the most rigid and authoritarian in the West, which conflicts just a little with the flexibility and adaptation your Right (wrongly) claims it loves. Their worker flexibility, your executive rigidity: real tough guys, like a Jogging President, would start reforms with the executive class.
  9. taxes pay for things that make countries better - e.g. schools and universities and research institutes that make people more educated, able to solve problems, and more productive. It makes people, in contrast to leaders, more "reality-based." Like other right-wing parties, yours has fought every increase in public expenditures for decades, and one result is that in strategic areas like higher education France is way behind. Most of France's economic struggles have been caused directly by the Right in all their copy-cat dumbness.
The article I linked above has the Finance Minister saying all sorts of insufferable things about how tragic it is that Johnny Hallyday can't afford to live in France with his income of $12 million last year. "Wealth is no longer taboo" some other cluck says. French families aren't all rich today because they were INHIBITED about wealth. Now that they love wealth too, they will have it. Just read "The Secret," talk to Oprah, and ask the 120 million Americans who last year together made exactly as much as . . .the 130,000 richest Americans in the US!

The Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is rapidly becoming the most irritating ideologue in the Sarkozy government, meaning that she puts an Oprah empowerment twist on the dictatorial market politics of the average Chicago corporate lawyer that she used to be. It's particularly sickening to hear a member of the most overpaid profession on earth - except for investment bankers and hedge-fund managers - singing the praises of more work for people that make about 1/200 of what she made when she was running that Chicago law firm. It's also disgusting to hear free market cheerleading from someone who is that overpaid because her lawyering profession is a completely regulated monopoly. When Merger and Acquisitions negotiation is contracted to Singapore and Banglore, and equity deals are run largely from Tokyo and Shanghai, we will hear a lot less nonsense form Western politicians and economists about how teachers and cashiers should be more market-friendly.

The good news is that the French public has not yet sunk to the level of their leaders. A few Sarko-loving intellectuals rebelled against him, one often odious one offering a classically and beautifully French paen to thinking as WORK: said Alain Finkelkraut, "“If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.” It's true that the French still respect thought, and that is why they still can.

Similarly, as our simple reporter noted, "a widely reported TNS-Sofres poll of more than 1,000 people concluded that 39 percent of the French think that it is possible to get rich by winning the lottery; only 40 percent believe that getting rich can happen through work."

Guess what, darling: the other 60 % are right! You don't get RICH by WORKING. Working gets you food and maybe shelter, clothes - it doesn't make you rich. Getting rich requires some other play - insider legal performances, huge ownership positions on something that breaks, control of a tool that becomes a platform. Let's not be stupid. People get rich by, in effect, winning the lottery. And that's why they're better than you and me. That's why they should take whatever they want.

You can see I'm annoyed, and I could use some relief. So I'd like the Jogger to say the following, so I can admit that he is a real tough guy.
As the UMP leader and president, my electoral base is the right-wing, and particularly the rich and influential members of the right wing. My job is to reflect their thinking and implement their plans, which are the plans they believe are good for them. These wealthy and powerful people reward me for serving them, and I do serve them. In addition to that, I like and admire them. I like their incredible chateaux, their private jets, their pieces of beachfront paradise. I prefer rich people to non-rich people. They have the best of everything. They are stronger and more beautiful than you non-rich They are more effective. The rich are better people than the non-rich. They are more important than you, more deserving than you. That is why I will fight for them. That is why I will implement policies that hurt you - because those policies help them.
I wouldn't vote for that Darwinist schlock, especially coming from an unoriginal Jogger. But at least it's honest. And it sounds like thinking.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Non-Passivity Redeemed

I commented before on the protests on behalf of the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, showing an admirable lack of fear in the face of their own miltary regime. They were protesting in favor of the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. The chief justice was reinstated today and President-dictator Musarraf taken down a peg.

Get Out of that Wheelchair!

California's state capitol has never been known for its flowering genius, but the legislature is even dumber than usual this year. The Republicans are holding the budget hostage as usual, being totally devoid of ideas other than making govmint spend less money. There's the usual collection of demanded cuts for the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the insane. There's also cuts in lots of things that could be considered investments, which militant capitalists like Southern Cal Republican Assemblypeople are supposed to love. They want to cut:
  • drug treatment programs for prisoners
  • "$1 billion away from mass transit, forcing Los Angeles to put off plans for extending parts of the Expo light rail line and widening some freeways" (LA Times story).
  • widening Interstate 5 at the big bottleneck on the Orange County/L.A. County line
  • complete the gap in carpool lanes on the 10 Freeway in the eastern San Gabriel Valley
  • $124 million in welfare payments to the elderly and disabled
Only the last could be considered basic maintenance (at minimally decent levels). The rest are not programs for the supposedly undeserving poor, but investments in transportation improvements that will keep the driving middle-classes from wasting millions of hours they are losing now. Same with drug treatment for prisoners, which would massively lower recidivism rates, save the state money on its self-destructive new prison-building binge, and improve thousands of lives.

But no. These representatives of their beloved middle class are too dumb to help even their own class. Forget about helping any others.

Except for Hollywood: the compromise "includes multimillion-dollar tax breaks for the film industry and other businesses."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bye Bye Middle Class Jobs

Nice outfits! But ladies, you are WAY too expensive! We had to get rid of you and your whole damn airline too.

Why? Because you made such a huge amount of money serving our forefathers. If you worked for Southwest Airlines today, you would be making "from $23 to $58 an hour." Holy cow! 58 x 40 hours a week x 52 weeks = almost $121,000 a year. I'd like to make that much. America just can't afford pushy, uncompetitive, overpaid workers like you. So goodbye, ladies!

Ha! Though journalists like the one that said "$23-$58 and hour" are too dumb or lazy to figure it out, those "labor costs" that come from management always include health care, retirement, and any other benefits. That makes sense for management, since they need a figure for their total costs. But it has nothing to do with what their employees are actually living on.

I flew the increasingly pitiful airline United recently. As a result of a truly incompetent set of ground team reactions, much of this particular flight was heading from San Francisco to Washington DC with official assurances that we would all miss our planes to Europe, could not rebook on United, would not be rebooked by United on any other airline, would not have our hotel funded by United, and would be staying in Washington for an unknown amount of time at our own expense. As a result of all this, I got to talking to a young flight attendant, who told me, for example, that first-year salary for an international flight attendant at United is $1600 a month, gross. It goes up to $2400 / month in the second year. To work for United, he had to move back in with his parents.

Median salaries for flight attendants vary from $30,000 to $50,000, and I doubt the maximum goes much beyond $60,000. (Some union info is here.) And flight attendants have been forced at various airlines to give back both wages and benefits. Same for pilots (over 11% pay givebacks for pilots recently at United).

Now Southwest Airlines, arguably the most successful in the business, is offering buyouts to most employees with more than ten years of service. 2000 of 9000 flight attendants would be eligible. They'll get $25,000 and some continued benefits to "retire."

This is an amazing fact about US business. The top company in a vital industrial sector thinks it cannot afford its workers with more than ten years of service It can't afford workers that in some cases will be 30 years old. It's not evil management operating on its own, but a whole system of rules, starting with the need to maintain short-term stock price and to compete with the fastest risers that means Southwest would love to have a workforce consisting entirely of 20-year-olds at the rock-bottom end of the scale. gaahh! Now at 30 the parents can start to move back in with the children they were hopefully smart enough to have when they were 12. Or live by charging their children rent - until the children turn 29 and "retire."

Yesterday brought the same kind of news about sanitation and grocery workers in New York and California. A 17% raise for trash collectors! Except that it's over nearly five years, and is thus about 4% a year, which hopefully will stay about 1.5% more than government-calculated rates of inflation. Spoiled, spoiled workers! The top salary will become something over $67,000 - in 2011. It's $57,000 or so now. These are "middle-class jobs," but they are embattled, and are noticeably connected to union militancy and the public sector - two things right-wing leaders hate.

There may be a union contract for grocery workers in LA. The LA Times story included the following information:
Currently, veteran workers' wages top out at $12.17 to $17.90 an hour. The exact pay depends on job classification, such as general merchandise clerk, food clerk and meat cutter, and how often the employee works Sundays and other shifts with premium pay.

Second-tier employees currently start at $7.55 to $11.05 an hour, depending on the job classification. Their wages top out at about $1 to $3 less per hour than those of the veteran workers.
Let's say these are actual wages. So if you are an old-line worker, and you don't work all possible overtime, and aren't right at the top, let's say you make $15.00 for a 40 hour week. How much is that for a year? $31,200 gross.

If you are a second class worker, i.e. newer (and probably younger), let's say your average is more like $10.00. That's $20,800 a year. In Los Angeles.

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez had a good column last month about the reality of these kinds of wages. So we have another vital industry sector that can't pay living wages? Where you have to move back with your parents to take the job, or live with your kid in a studio apartment if you don't?

Ben Stein's shredding of United Airlines management was probably his best New York Times column ever. I've quoted him before on levels of income inequality in the US so extreme that they should make our first reaction to incessant management complaints about unaffordable workers be to laugh out loud. Let me remind you. Here's Ben:
In 2004, the top 130,500 taxpayers — roughly the wealthiest 0.1 percent of earners in this great nation, with added family members that brought their numbers to 300,000 — had more income than the 120 million Americans at the bottom. Put another way, that sliver of the population at the top of the heap was paid, as a group, more than the bottom 40 percent of all Americans combined.
Think about those numbers, rounded to 120 thousand vs. the 120 million. Each member in the first group makes in one year what each member of the much larger second group makes in a thousand years. Or in 2007, the first group has earned since New Years' the same that the second group member would have made since the Normans invaded England in 1066.

OK, no class war here. It's just market efficiency saying we can't afford meat cutters and flight attendants making $60,000 per year, or even $30,000. The top 130,000 can't afford it. Goodbye, ladies!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mo Rich, Mo Po

Reports by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation have found that inequality in Britain is at its highest level in forty years, and that people have noticed this. Segregation by income has increased, the BBC comment notes. The second report notes that "In 2006, 55 per cent of people thought there was 'quite a lot' of poverty in Britain. Only 13 per cent thought it would fall in the next 10 years." Fatalism about inequality is growing even faster than inequality itself, insuring that both will continue to accelerate. Unfortunately the reports do not contain a leadership self-righteousness index.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Middle Class Serfdom

In 1944, Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom. The book acquired biblical status on the English-speaking Right for its claim that socialism equaled authoritarian centralized planning equaled serfdom - or so the Right interpreted the book to be saying.

The inverse was also asserted as true (although, in logic, inverses of propositions do not follow from the proposition): if no socialism, then no serfdom. That has been taken to mean "if capitalism, then freedom." Milton Friedman was a famous exponent of this view, as were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and 25 years after their rise to power the belief that capitalism blocks serfdom while socialism makes it has become conventional wisdom.

Enter Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch retains personal control of News Corporation, which had revenues of around $24 billion last year. It has vast holdings in every mass media, from print newspapers to film studios, television, and satellite broadcasting. To describe just the original corner of this personal global empire, Murdoch owns nearly 30 Australian newspapers and nearly 30 Australian magazines, in addition to television stations. His presence is equally decisive in the rest of the English-speaking world, even if he does not control the same share of each national market. In the UK, Murdoch owns The Sun, covering the tabloid end, as well as The Times, now also a tabloid, but still high-end. Murdoch has powerful positions in emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. See how much time it takes you just to scroll through this list of his holdings (a list that some readers complain is incomplete).

All of this is not enough for Murdoch. For the last several months, he has been trying to buy the U.S.'s leading business daily, the Wall Street Journal, also controlled by a wealthy family, the Bancrofts.

Forget for the moment that Murdoch is a right-wing ideologue whose acquisitions often - though not always - become platforms for agitation against government-based social development, social spending, public investment, and egalitarian and inclusive politics of any kind. (You've probably heard of Murdoch's Fox News.) Forget too that Murdoch practices the Reagan-Thatcher politics that he preaches (News Corp paid 7% in taxes on revenues last year, and runs much of its revenues through offshore tax havens).

Just think about the structure. Thousands and thousands of journalists and other staffers work day in and day out to put out a high-quality paper like the Wall Street Journal. But one very wealthy mogul decides he wants it, and approaches the wealthy family who owns it. The families sit down and come to an understanding. The work and wishes of the families' "soldiers" are entirely irrelevant to the fate of the business they make. Finally it is the heads of the families that decide.

Why exactly is this NOT serfdom? Why isn't it serfdom when one man controls the fate of tens or hundreds of thousands? Why isn't it serfdom when there is no limit on what the one man wants, what he can have, what he can control? Is this not economic serfdom? Should we call it capitalism serfdom? Are we un-dumb enough to see serfdom and deregulated markets as compatible ? Are we un-dumb enough to have a real conversation about how capitalism doesn't equal freedom? I don't mean in China, but in the US, Australia, and the UK?

The richest man in France is trying to do the same thing. Bernard Arnault already owns the business daily La Tribune. He now wants to buy the country's other business daily, Les Echos. Then one company and one man will own the national daily business press in the country of France. Not serfdom?

The journalists at Les Echos have struck about this. Their American counterparts are completely silent. Do they think they have absolutely no rights as workers at these papers?

Not serfdom?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastille Conditions 1: American Royalism

A cause of the Bastille storming I mentioned yesterday is that the population was faced with "the ones who took without limit." The New York Times's labor and economics journalist Louis Uchitelle has a piece in today's Times on the personal satisfactions felt by today's very very rich.

The framing fact about American society is that "Only twice before over the last century has 5 percent of the national income gone to families in the upper one-one-hundredth of a percent of the income distribution — currently, the almost 15,000 families with incomes of $9.5 million or more a year." The first time was 1915-16, just before the U.S. entered World War I, and around 1929, right before the stock market crash.

How do people explain the return to a level of inequality as intense as that of the last Gilded Age 100 years ago, if not of some feudal past? Some would trace the inequality boom to new forms of exploitation of labor, new financial rules written by self-interested financial brokers to insure a huge personal slice of any financial action, and new economic institutions too complex for the untrained majority to understand.

Then there's the explanations offered by the rich themselves: Uchitelle cites self-satisfied tycoons like Sanford Weill, former CEO of Citibank, explaining that the wealth they own reflects the wealth they single-handedly made. A few examples:
  • "very wealthy men in the new Gilded Age talk of themselves as having a flair for business not unlike Derek Jeter’s “unique talent” for baseball, as Leo J. Hindery Jr. put it. “I think there are people, including myself at certain times in my career,” Mr. Hindery said, “who because of their uniqueness warrant whatever the market will bear.”
  • Weill is paraphrased as follows: "Harnessing entrepreneurial energy, deftness as a deal maker and an appetite for risk, with a rising stock market pulling him along, he built a financial empire that, in his view, successfully broke through the stultifying constraints that flowed from the New Deal. They were constraints not just on what business could or could not do, but on every high earner’s take-home pay."
And so on. The ideas area familiar. 1) the CEO personally created the value reflected in the risking market value of a company with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees; 2) the CEO could do this because he is a superior being; 3) superior beings deserve to live superior lives of greatly superior wealth.

This, it pains me to point out, is Sun King Philosophy.

Weill et al. are pure American ancien regime. They sound as righteous and invulnerable as Louis XIV the original roi-soleil or as Louis XVI, his less invulnerable and ultimately executed successor. The sense of unlimited entitlement is similar in both cases. It was divine right of rule for Louis XIV and the Bourbons. It is absolute market right for Hindrey and Weill.

I will leave aside two questions - that the "market" is not a natural system of object laws and of the uncertain social - and ultimately economic - value of what these folks create and focus on two others.

First, why not compare Weill to Gilded Age American tycoons rather than Louis XIV? Because Weill's social philosophy is much closer to the Sun King's than to a tycoon like Carnegie's.
“Carnegie made it abundantly clear that the centerpiece of his gospel of wealth philosophy was that individuals do not create wealth by themselves,” said David Nasaw, a historian at City University of New York and the author of “Andrew Carnegie” (Penguin Press). “The creator of wealth in his view was the community, and individuals like himself were trustees of that wealth.”
The big Progressive thinker in this piece is Andrew Carnegie. The U.S. did get rid of its Bourbons - Carnegie was careful not to become one. Now we have them back.

The second Bastille issue is the disorganized state of the voice of the Third Estate. The only criticism of our economic royalists comes in effect from the First Estate, the clergy, which in our case is a "professional-managerial class" some of which may have become quite wealthy while still worrying about the condition of the flock. For example, the democratic moment in the piece comes from the founder and CEO of Costco:
James D. Sinegal, chief executive of Costco, the discount retailer, echoes that sentiment. “Obscene salaries send the wrong message through a company,” he said. “The message is that all brilliance emanates from the top; that the worker on the floor of the store or the factory is insignificant.”
So far in the U.S. economic royalism is being opposed by liberal minorities of the First and Second Estates, whose sensibilities are offended by the social Darwinism of Weill-style Sun King Philosophy. Nothing will change unless the Third Estate decides it should do something. That it can so decide is a central lesson of the Bastille.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Bastille Today

It's not just the place of the 12 euro 50 cc beer. The Bastille is:
the revolt against the invulnerable ones
the ones who took without limit
the ones who ruled for centuries
the ones who had crushed all previous revolts
The Bastille is revolt with no expectation of help from anyone
revolt by those with no standing
revolt by the ones whom Oprah had never heard of
revolt by the ones who expected no acknowledgement
who had not planned in advance
who had never had meetings with potential donors
who would never obtain permission
and who showed that just when you thought nothing would ever happen it happened.

Photos: march at the little arc de triomphe by the Louvre today

Thursday, July 12, 2007

No Ideas on the Right

I had lunch with my friend Celine at Le Pré Verre yesterday, just down the street from the College de France. We were talking about Royal's defeat by Sarkozy, lamenting Royal's weak Kerry-like performance. She said the socialists are old school, they have no new ideas. I said I thought the problem was almost the opposite: Royal, like Kerry, adopted the center-right's "new" ideas and confused their supporters, forfeiting their core vision in the process.

I also said the Right has no new ideas. They are all straight from the 18th century: free trade, no taxes, invisible hand of the market. And there's a big one from the 19th century: Social Darwinism. Competition is nature's way, and is the only conceivable mechanism of efficiency. Losers deserve to lose. Winners should take all, because it's more efficient.

In fact there is no utility in winner-take-all, or in gross inequality. The Right's main idea is a practical one: to be supported by the people at the top by helping them have even more. That's a very old idea, if you want to call it an idea.

Did anything happen in the 20th century to conservative thinking? There was one innovation, but it's none of the ones we are taught to see. All the stuff about how conservatives are no longer racist because they have discovered colorbindness, or about how "broken window" policing cuts crime, are nothing more than extensions of market ideology further into the social realm. Colorblindness means "free competition" as measured by standardized test scores, with bias and socio-effects ignored with the bland arrogance for which the Right is so beloved. "Broken window" policing is actually similar to ideas found among socialists about the value of caring for society and public life - of nurturing people's life-in-common, but with the Right's focus on squashing bad actors, meaning that the cure could be seen not as social programs but as forcing people to take "individual responsibility." Nothing new there that actually comes from conservative thinking - just some Darwinism coupled with bare attention to the "life world" that true conservatives going back to Edmund Burke should have had from the start.

The new conservative idea of the 20th century is actually also a throwback, but it was new in the post-World War II period: use mass layoffs all the time, whenever you need too, as a deliberate business strategy. Goodnight and good luck - no tears.

Louis Uchitelle's excellent history of this practice, The Disposable American, shows how laying off hundreds or thousands of long-time, loyal, and highly competent workers had once been seen as a humiliating sign of management failure that unfairly damaged lives and communities, but was rehabilitated as executive genius and later, rewarded with multi-million dollar payouts. Making more money by liquidating workers - not a new idea, but newly acceptable. And newly brilliant. Company facing better, smarter products from other companies - including ones from Korea, Japan, Germany, Singapore, China, etc.? I know, I'll fire everybody. Wow! Good "idea"!

The acceptability of layoffs, which happened while we were sleeping, is the middle-class's Big Sleep. It's the death trip that gives life to all the others.

What is Thinking?

Thinking is not instant labeling, but we get a lot of that in the United States. For example, the BBC has a story this morning called "NY Firefighters Attack Giuliani." The gist is that a firefighters union released a 13 minute video about Giuliani's deadly mistakes during and after 9/11.
It says Mr Giuliani pushed for a faster clean-up at Ground Zero before all the remains had been recovered, and placed an emergency centre in a building that later collapsed.

It also accuses the former mayor of failing to provide working radios for firefighters, saying it made it impossible for them to learn that the Twin Towers were about to collapse.

"Virtually the whole thing goes back to him with the radios," Jim Riches, a fireman whose son was killed on 9/11, says in the footage.

"He's the guy on the top, and he's the guy you yell at. He takes the hit. And my son is dead because of it."

That's probably mostly true. But who can tell? The video's language is that of the tabloid melodrama that has become standard in the US media. It's even worse on the other side. Giuliani's campaign "denounced the footage, saying the union behind it was known to support Democratic candidates." Great, thanks for the non-refutation. Why offer actual evidence or critique why you can just label? They're majority Democrat, that proves they're wrong. Tomaytoes, tomaatoes, end of story, on to the next one on the list, like "Ecuadorian doctors 'stole twin.'"

France is not utopia, but it's still possible to use its news coverage to think. That's in part because you can get a range of opinion that doesn't have crap smeared all over most of it so you can't see what's underneath. For example, the issue of Le Monde dated July 10th had a story about a conference in Aix-en-Provence called (all translations mine) Which Capitalisms for the 21st Century?

The speakers included Nicolas Sarkozy's finance minister, Christine Lagarde, who is at least as conservatively "pro-market" as her boss the new president of France. But she attacked her British counterpart Alistair Darling for accusing the Sarkozy government of "Colbertism" - statism - saying that her government wants a "pragmatic" capitalism freed of contraints and yet reconciled with the French people. This is not a progressive or even a coherent position, but at least its basic nuances were reported. "Colbertism"? Pro-market folks are using the rhetoric of heresy more than ever. And the categories are stuck in the 18th century.

The same article, by Frédéric Lemaitre, also gives lots of space to Pascal Lamy, the head of the World Trade Organization. The WTO is covered in the US like the obvious pillar of neoliberal market orthodoxy we assume it is. Here we find Lamy, an elite French businessman, graduate of not just one (ENA) but all the grandes ecoles relevant to commerce, saying this: Capitalism is very efficient and intrinsically unjust because it rests on the exploitation of labor by capital."

Hello. Exploitation of labor? The injustice of capitalism? Can we talk?

Can we? Can we have a discussion of this in the United States of America? intrinsic injustice? exploitation of labor?

Not in the US media. And even the little magazines like the Nation will only dip their toe. The left goes out of its way to avoid saying exploitation or injustice as a sign that it is "serious" and "modern" and to be taken seriously by the mainstream, which means being taken seriously by the Right.

But back to the article. The conference discussion continues, and the author reports on the outcome, one of those consensus documents that says well capitalism is the only game on earth but there are many forms of it. It is important, it says, to orchestrate a cohabitation of many capitalisms?

Capitalism - more than just the iPhone, bad public services, crap air travel, the rule of hedge funds, job loss as central economic policy, $3,000,000, $30,000,000, or $300,000,000 executive salaries, global warming, and a 15% tax rate for investors? There's a thought.

The stakes are simple: a country can't be a force for good rather than for evil unless it can think.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Brain Scan Terminal

Anyone who thinks we're not brain dead needs to explain why this was the Los Angeles Times's lead story in its California on-line edition.

The End of Integration

Schoolboy Brooks makes it clear today that the American political Right never did want integration after all, decades of sanctimonious protest notwithstanding.

You'll recall that the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Seattle and Louisville cases banned the use of race in the pursuit of racial integration. Today Brooks unleashes all the phony sorrowfulness of which he is capable, covering world history in two hundred words while shedding crocodile tears over his claim that human nature wants to live in homogeneous groups.

It is more accurate to say that most white Americans want to live in homogeneous groups. The more "conservative" you are, the more likely you are to desire overwhelming white environments, judging by the historical evidence of conservative hostility to every single stage of the civil rights movement in this century and the last. Remember in the second Austin Powers film where Scott tries to talk back to his dad Dr. Evil and Dr. Evil blocks every sentence, then the first word, then the first syllable, then the first tiny sound? Brooks's Dr. Evil is so in charge he doesn't even have to interrupt anymore.

Brooks' permanent job is to make conservative preferences look like human nature and laws of physics, and this piece is a case in point. For years conservatives said they were just defending individual rights, and said they loved integration, said they were anti-racist, said there was no evidence that resegregation was happening, said their insistence on colorblindess wasn't causing it even if it did exist, said the best way to end racism was to stop using the category race. Now they can drop the facade. Brooks in effect confesses that they didn't want integration at all (while saying he's sorry the "dream" of integration has died). Unable to resist his normal hypocritical piety, Brooks says integration's death is just the way the world is, as opposed to the way conservatives said it outta be over and over while they tirelessly organized against every generation of racial remedy in each of the last fifteen generations.

I've also posted my own analysis of the Breyer dissent. I think Breyer offered a profound attack on the fundamental empirical and legal claims of the conservative "colorblindness" position. Anti-racists should be rallying right now, and his dissent could help. Are we really this apathetic? Failure to fix the racial divide in this century, like we did in all the other ones, is going to wreck all of our societies, as it already is.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Middle Class Race Drama Continues

Commentary continues to fly about the Supreme Court's banning of the use of race to achieve, yes, racial integration. At some point they will ban the category of speed in deciding how fast we are going. All commentary I've seen - except mine - ignores the importance of Breyer's dissenting opinion even though, by one count, he got as many votes as Roberts for his dogmatic colorblindness.

The law professor Jeffrey Rosen offers a clean schema for understanding the decision in today's New York Times's Week in Review section. He writes that since Brown v. Board in 1954 liberals have wanted an integrated society but that conservatives have wanted colorblindness. He goes on to say that Court decisions on race mean less than social momentum, that Brown mattered because society was more interested in reducing segregation anyway.

This last part is very true. There's been, for example, lots of recent work on the way the executive branch wanted to clean up the American racial act for competition with the Soviets among the black and brown peoples of the world.

The first part is only half-true. The true part is what Rosen does not emphasize: that colorblindness is proposed as a de facto alternative to integration and not as a means to it. Conservatives don't care about racial segregation and resegregation, as is shown one again in the Seattle decision by the way that all the actual social and historical data resides in Breyer's dissent.

This gets us to the untrue part, which is Rosen's suggestion that conservatives care about colorblindness as an end in itself. In fact they like it as a means to an end, which is their total freedom to live in overwhelmingly white institutions - almost all-white schools, universities, law firms, and corporate offices.

The other piece of this is that racially mixed spaces continue to be defined as lesser and unequal, starting with mixed neighborhoods where housing prices are always below their all-white equivalents. This is the spiral we're in: mixed or "minority majority" spaces defined (through white people's actual choices) as inferior; the majority of whites preferring almost-all -white spaces instead (80% white or more, even in cities that are minority white); this white majority letting the Right do their dirty work by making all-white alright.

Arianna Huffington nicely sums up a bad week in six lines.

I like this quick slap at Seattle.

But here's a reason never to read the Huffington Post (besides its obsession with celebrities): its featuring of clueless non-alternatives to right-wing practices like resegregation that claim to be liberal. Mr. Shaw says, "End housing discrimination now"! Wake up, Mr. Shaw - most white folks don't their kids to sit in a classroom for a few hours a day with black and brown kids much less actually live with them. Voluntary discrimination is exactly what three decades of conservative rule has made respectable again. The inequality boom has made residential segregation very easy, and the old racial covenants completely unnecessary.

The levels of denial surrounding this whole issue are truly clinical. The whole country needs to go on Adderall until the 2008 elections.

This is a big crossroads for the white middle-class. Will we keep circling the wagons and handing out the equivalent of guns to right-wing jurists so they can kill the Indians we'll feel real bad about later? Or will we figure out we need to get rid of the wagons and actually live together, literally, right next door, up the stairs, and across the street. This would mean rebuilding "inner city" schools so that we are willing to send our kids there.

"Colorblind" is guns-and-ammo - the legal solution to the threat of "social equality" between the races that a big chunk of us have been fighting since the Civil War. Put the guns down.