an obession with first principles

The Democratic Id: Then and Now

Posted: Saturday Dec 22nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Politics | View Comments

The Lady and I have been watching the Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns, and I was absolutely struck by something about LBJ’s attitude and outlook on the war. It matched, precisely, the leadership of the democratic party during the 2016 election. Let me explain what I saw

In 1968, with nearly half a million American soldiers in Vietnam, the party line coming out LBJ’s democratic administration was: “We are winning.” And if you looked at just the numbers of casualties, after you un-doctored them, maybe you were. His leadership team could not imagine they were not winning. That things were not improving. That the war would have to be over soon. That the enemy would capitulate and come to the bargaining table for peace. LBJ and his military advisors would tell the American people that by now we must have depleted half of the NVA and NLF(VC) forces. And their will to continue fighting was nearly spent. And then the Tet Offensive came. The Tet Offensive was actually a much worse loss for the NVA and VC than any fighting previously. They came out the jungles and into the cities. They no longer had the advantage of the knowledge of terrain where the US troops were entirely outclassed. Their losses were staggering. The documentary made a prescient political point; when you’ve been telling the people you’ve been winning and the end is near, and then the enemy unleashes an 80,000 strong force across the entire territory of South Vietnam (quite literally, they were hitting Saigon, Danang, the eastern shore line, as well as south of Saigon). Your citizens now know you are entirely full of shit.

The democratic party Id cannot see evidence that suggests the world is not operating as they believe and want it to. They refused to believe that body counts were inflated; they were. They refused to believe the enemy had a much stronger will to fight. They refused to believe their win conditions were valid (I’ve watched over half of the documentary, and its still not entirely clear to me what their win conditions actually were–besides killing as many people as possible).

I found this attitude to be a perfect comparison to the democratic leadership involved in the Clinton campaign in 2016. There were two main populist candidates in the two year campaign; Sanders, and Trump. Both insisted that the status quo was not a sustainable option. No other GOP candidate had found a clear message (other than an anti-democrat, anti-Obama message), and thus all faded away. Meanwhile, in the face of incredible mounting evidence on so many fronts the Clinton campaigned, quite firmly, on the notion that America, today, is doing great, does not need to be made great, because its already working incredibly well.

No evidence of inequality, no evidence of health disparities, no evidence of racial disparities, no evidence whatsoever could dislodge their central claim. Reading Clinton’s day-after reaction, as well as the campaign’s confidence in the week before the election is further evidence that no facts can pierce their Id.

If I could distill what I think that Id is it would be: when we are in charge, whatever happens is linear progress. Nothing bad happens on our watch. If it happened we’re going to find a way to say it was planned, and it was good. Even if it was tragic it was a sacrifice for the greater good.

The Signals of “Fine”

Posted: Monday Oct 8th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Politics | View Comments

A friend mentioned to me that, his biggest worry about the Trump administration, is that “Everything seems fine”. And the “everything” he meant is that all the traditional sign-posts; the stock market, unemployment, GDP are “fine”. And, in my opinion, these are precisely what the elite and upper-middle class believe to be the signposts. It is absolutely not the signposts of everyone else who is suffering despite these green signal lights.

The stock market is going to continue rise, and then crash consolidating wealth by destroying value for tens of millions, and raking in untold millions for thousands. But all the arbiters and prophets on Wall St will continue to tell you everything is fine. The unemployment numbers are entirely cooked books, and have been that way for over ten years. But no one in the upper-class or elite cares. They just want their green signal light. The GDP isn’t a false number—its just irrelevant for the person making minimum wage with two jobs creating that profit for the owning classes.

It should give both myself, and him, pause. That we have very little connection to those actually suffering. Because we can certainly convince ourselves that everything is “fine enough”. We have a terrible president, and yet the world turns and everything is fine. There are millions who know its not fine. Every day. And if we imagine it is fine, we are deserving of their wrath when (not if) they raise up.

Boston Mid-term Primaries: Capuano

Posted: Wednesday Sep 5th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Politics | View Comments

Boston saw a lot of political change in the democratic party last night. I won’t recap the results, either you already know it, or you’re going to very soon. I want to explain my perspective on Capuano.

I live in Capuano’s district. I have been happy to have him as my representative. I don’t have any bones to pick with him, his policy platform, or his voting record. But I did not vote for him, and I’m glad Pressley won.

I was very curious to understand why he was being challenged in a primary by a Boston city councilor. Like many other, I wondered what they was to gain by replacing a person with seniority; specifically a member of the House Transportation committee when we need all the federal dollars we can get here to fix the numerous transportation problems we do have, with a junior member who would more-or-less vote precisely the same way he has voted, and would likely vote.

In my mind there are two arguments against him, and the first is rather simple. The MA-7th (he used to be the 8th prior to re-districting but his constituents remained mostly the same) is a majority-minority district and it would only make sense that a minority ought to represent them in the House. Pressley will be the very first minority to represent the entire state in the House (there was one previous black Senator). Many have made this argument before but, to many others, this doesn’t pack enough punch.

There is a second argument, that I have, that I have not seen anyone else put forward. And this argument is loosely tied to the first. Based on his response to a question about Kaepernick Capuano had this to say: “I thought that particular action divided America, because he chose to do it during the national anthem,”..”I just thought it could have been done in a way that would have [brought] more people into the discussion, rather than actually anger an awful lot of America”.

As a 20 year Congressman from Boston, a leader in the democratic party (and if we’re not calling him a leader, why isn’t he after 20 years — that is a different failure all-together), if he cannot get the answer to this question right he needs to lose his seat to someone who does get it right. Both he and the GOP share the same framing of the Kaepernick-issue, as well as who is important in this issue: white television watchers.

That is, simply put, not permissible from someone calling themselves progressive. This is not permissible from someone representing a majority-minority district. He lost because he should of. And, he lost the minority neighborhoods hard, while barely coming out ahead in upper-middle class white neighborhoods. This is why he conceded so quickly.

The issue at the heart of these primaries is one of culture. Capuano is not demonstrating a culture in the democratic party that is going to win again the GOP. And this has been a failure of the party for nearly four decades, and why they’ve been losing statehouse after statehouse and governor’s seat after seat. This is what needs to change. And I’m glad its starting.

Leftist Globalization

Posted: Thursday Jul 5th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

I couldn’t even read Fukuyama’s book “The End of History”. It’s on my shelf, and the first few pages are so dripping with ideology and holding his hands over his eyes I had to stop. I firmly agree with Derrida’s critiques. Fukuyama’s largest crux is “democratic peace theory”, which, I believe, is wrongly stated. The reason that “western-style democracies rarely go to war” has nothing to do with democratic representation of the polis. It has everything to do with economics.

I’m reading “The Great Transformation” by Polanyi right now. And it has a simple thesis: market commodification is responsible for the first world war. The industrial revolution upended the entire makeup of human society. Polanyi likened the psychological effects recorded in England to those recorded by slaves kidnapped from their homeland and dropped into an entirely different world.

The governments actually were primarily responsible for the welfare of the poor (and in this time, “poor” meant anyone who had to work for a living, e.g. not landed gentry). All of the nationalistic responses to the commodifications of labor and goods was an effort to restore the results of the welfare government. All fell short, and sometimes had disastrous effects.

The gold standard that was adopted in order to facilitate the further commoditization of labor and goods resulted in nationalistic responses of checks and balances, tariffs, etc. His thesis (and keep in mind, Polanyi is an avowed socialist) is that the abundance of nationalistic responses to market capitalism is what created the conditions for a world war.

I find his thesis and arguments very compelling. We can say three things as a result of this kind of argument:

  1. Market commodification does reduce violence between nation-states.
  2. Nationalistic reactions, even well-intentioned, to preserve both the welfare of the poor, and the welfare of capital at the same time set the stage for war.
  3. Market commodification replaces the violence of war with the violence of the market/capital

In my opinion this has ramifications for how leftists battle the current regime of neoliberal economics (which can easily viewed as capital’s battle after WW1 to re-introduce favorable economic terms and doctrine for capital), and the current battle against neoliberalism seen in the Trump administration.

It’s clear due to his often conflicting economic policies, that he really does not have a handle on how international economics works at all. In ways he continues neoliberal doctrine of hollowing out any and every state apparatus and banishing it from having any interplay with “the free market”. But his international obsession with tariffs and protective measures (I honestly have no clue who he thinks he is protecting) are precisely what Polanyi observed during the Hundred Year Peace. And the retaliatory tariffs and policies being put in place by Canada, China, the coming reaction from the EU, and I would presume Mexico once the new administration is seated, is what Polanyi argues led directly to WW1.

If the traditional attempts to fight globalizing market forces, like isolationism, lead to war, then how should we address the violence that market forces deals out to all of us each day?

The constant refrain from the anti-WTO protests of the late nineties and early two thousands was that capital has been globalized (e.g. moves without any restraints across any and all borders), but citizens have consistently been prevented from the same freedoms. Indeed, this is a direct contradiction (ala David Harvey) of what a labor commodity market ought to stand for. And of course this is being wielded violently against the citizens qua workers. What would a truly globalized citizen look like?

The other aspect of Polanyi’s critique is that the welfare reforms that intended to help the poor rarely did. One reason they often cannot is because they must always first satisfy capital, either through a gold standard which is enforced harshly, or other mechanisms. What would a truly globalized welfare system look like that refused to satisfy capital? Which, instead, forced capital to compete after all competition is supposedly enshrined as a virtue?!

The Common Liberal’s Problem

Posted: Friday Dec 16th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Politics, Power | View Comments

Most people in the US have pretty casual ethics. That means its generally seen as moral to just obey the law. And if you’ve transgressed in a less-than-major way its fine so long as you didn’t get caught. The law has always been seen as generally good and in the best interest of everyone. There have been rare instances where its been seen as moral to be civilly disobedient — and the disobedient actions which have been taken have been incredibly mild and non-violent (e.g. marching on roads or bridges, sitting at counters, boycotting services).

A “common liberal” believes this to be the height of moral structure. When I say common liberal I don’t mean “people who vote democrat”. I mean those people, and “moderate republicans”, as well as anyone who claims to be independent or “fiscally conservative but socially liberal”. I mean the people that don’t follow politics, but view voting as the height of their civic duty, and generally believe “everything will just be ok”.

Here is their problem. Those who have come to operate the majority of the Republican party no longer believe it is or morally correct to obey the law or the governing norms set down through tradition over the decades. The “liberal” continues to believe that mere statements or penned documents are going to stop the GOP from continuing to do whatever they want. Both these people, and the DNC (which is the bigger problem), believe that by stepping behind a microphone and stating that their political opponents are acting immorally and need to stop they are acting meaningfully.

They are wrong. And if the longer it takes for them to realize this the more ground they will lose. Here are three immediate events to show them they are wrong:

  1. The governor of Maine has directed his administrations department of labor to refuse to enforce a minimum wage bill passed by the state legislature. This is a direct assault on the separation of powers and the rule of law.
  2. The state legislature of North Carolina has placed every single appointment by the incoming democratic governor’s administration subject to the republican led legislature, and removed the possibility of the UNC to have any party majority, thus deadlocking its ability to take any actions. This is once again a direct assault on the separation of powers, and the functioning of the state education system.
  3. The president-elect is in direct violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution and is refusing to take any action or even hold a press conference about the problem. And the GOP leadership in the Senate has declared this constitutional violation not a problem. Once again a direct assault on the rule of law.

Meanwhile no one in any position of leadership in the DNC has done anything more than talk into a microphone as re-assert that laws exist and legislative norms exist. There have been no lawsuits filed to my knowledge. There have been no injunctions filed to my knowledge. There have been no calls for protest to my knowledge. And the common liberal still thinks that calling your representative is a solution. Representatives are not the solution and they are showing us why.

Making A Murderer

Posted: Sunday Jan 3rd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

My lady has been binging it this weekend, and I’ve dropped in on some of the episodes. It’s very well done, and I’ve been hearing lots of people raving about it and being entirely addicted. But I have a problem with it.

Lots of people are being opened up to the possibility that police, courts, and prosecutions are continually and repeatedly fraudulent. This is openly accepted while binging on Netflix watching the life and trial of a man from Wisconsin. However, lots and lots of people repeatedly and continually refuse to accept that police, courts, and prosecutions act in precisely these, and much worse, ways in the lives of Black and Brown Americans every day. I can only imagine that very many of the people watching this and drinking it in are the very same people denying that it happens to black and brown people in America.

In my view these two problems are not only correlative, but very nearly causative. Take, for example Goldie Taylor’s highlight:

“Prosecutors alleged Daniel Holtzclaw preyed on poor, black women while on duty because no one would believe their claims in court. He was wrong.”White Cop Convicted of Serial Rape of Black Women

Because white people refuse to believe that black people are truthfully telling their lived experience in America black people will continue to suffer. Why? Because of white supremacy – that is to say, that white people have created all the institutions in this country in their image, to uphold their image, and their general welfare.

In general, to be “normal” is to be white. To be beautiful is to be white. To be powerful is to be white. Which is why whenever a black man is perceived as powerful, whether they are The President Barack Obama or a football player like Richard Sherman, they are routinely attacked based on their race with clear dog whistles. The argument is never that they are wrong in estimating their power, but rather that their power is rooted, evilly, in their race, which is abnormal, other, and therefore wrong and out of place. Whenever a black woman is seen to be a paragon of beauty, generally a singer or actress like Beyonce, they are again denounced on the basis of their race as other. Whether it be the style of hair or dress, or their attitude or even the manner in which they are entertaining. And then the moment a white woman does precisely this same action they are hailed as innovative and vaulted as an example of how to be.

Even this basic accounting of white supremacy (which I admit I am not sourcing right now, but could source both generally and incredibly specifically from black authors going back several decades) is denied by the majority of white people in America.

Why are police, courts, and prosecutions – that is The State – able to repeatedly and continually abuse its own citizens? Because White America refuses to believe the testimony of Black Americans. This is why White America is policed differently than Black America, why Baltimore gets the National Guard called because of protests, and why white Ranchers in Nevada and Oregon can point weapons at law enforcement without any repercussions. It is this very basic fact that sustains the entire institution of policing and law enforcement in this country.

So when Hillary Clinton meets with Black Lives Matter protesters in a closed door meeting and is reported to have said “You don’t change hearts, change policy” you better believe there is a serious problem at hand. We can change whatever law and policy around policing you want. Nothing is going to change unless White America starts believing the stories that Black America tells about their own lived experiences in this country. The issue is *not* that police are behaving lawfully and the law is wrong, or they are following policy and policy is wrong. The issue is they can willingly ignore the law and policy and White America believes they ought to have because Black America is deserving of it. Because they refuse to believe anything Black America says.

How do I know that white people don’t listen to black people? How do I know the issue is the black messenger? Because white people will listen to other white people talking about black people.

This is why #BLM operates the way it does. This is why protests are focused on shutting the normal operation of things down. Why they aren’t holding “get out the vote” drives for the DNC candidate. Yes, they did actually hold voter registration drives in Baltimore. However, they know better than to place their hope in any candidate – black or white. This is an issue for the next generations of white people to fix. Black America can’t fix the ears of White America.


Reasons I am not a Statist

Posted: Thursday Apr 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Philosophising, Politics, Power | View Comments

First, It can never be called justice when a person makes a decision that affects hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people. If a person is to actually be free, they must be directly involved in the process which governs their lives and are free to agree, disagree, and affect that process. Voting based representative democracy as practiced here in the United States fails to meet this basic qualification. Not to mention the world-wide ability the United States has to affect the life and death of an individual halfway around the world that is never allowed to be involved in the process which may at any moment determine their death.

The simplest argument I can make for this that a “liberal” or “progressive” (as opposed to a leftist) will understand is around women’s reproductive rights/abortion/feminism. The paramount defense is always put forth in the form of “this is my body, not yours”. This form of argumentation is fundamentally correct — yet needs to be established for a whole host of other issues. No person can make decisions for others and do justice. If we cannot make decisions for ourselves we do not retain our autonomy.

The decisions made by such an individual may be prudent, or efficient. They may result in a better situation that without the decision being made. They could easily result in terrible conditions or be called tyranny. But in no circumstances can these decisions be called just.

Second, It can never be called justice when agents of the state force you to do something or accommodate the state with something you find morally reprehensible. It can never be called justice when agents of the state are allowed and encouraged to lie and manipulate you for their own ends. The monopoly of force the state enjoys is the most basic form of non-freedom. It crosses over into fascism when the state enforces morals decisions with force, and those moral decisions become intwined with allegiance/dissent to the state. These actions come into play when the state denies you the ability to help those in need, or takes your home from you through either gentrification, redistricting, rezoning, or imminent domain. It also comes into play when the state uses the resources you provide against your wishes.

If people are not treated as equals then there is no freedom. Once a party is immune from the repercussions of their own actions, once they cease to be responsible, justice has been given away. The monopoly of force is the underlying problem here. When one side, agents of the state, have this monopoly people are no longer equal. Agents assume their actions are correct because of their immunity.

Third, it can never be called justice when a majority oppresses and silences a minority. Nor is it justice when a minority is able to prevent the justice desired by the majority. John Adams admitted in Federalist No 10 that the design of the United States Constitution was to enable the rich minority to prevent the just cancellation of debt and redistribution of land by the majority who were poor and at the mercy of the landed gentry.

All forms of representative government: Constitutional Monarchy, Parliamentary Democracy, a Democratic Republic, Democratic Socialism, and even Communism all fail each of these three fundamental principles of justice. This leaves me with Anarchism as a principled choice of order. Anarchism is not without order, but it is without hierarchy. It is not without governance, it relies on mutual agreement of true equals. Anarchism is not a singular arrangement, rather it is the process by which order and governance is agreed upon without the reliance on force, without agents of the state. There is no state.

Do What You Love

Posted: Wednesday Jan 22nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising, Politics, Power | View Comments

There has been an article running around lately called In the Name of Love: Elites embrace the “do what you love” mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers. I was of two minds when it initially hit everyone in the social world. The article is both very correct, and very, very wrong. And I want to put down my reasoning on the article. I happen to think that “Do What You Love” is the very way out of our labor situation. Everyone ought to be able to do what they love. And the problem is that they cannot. The writer’s problem is that he has swallowed whole the moorings of capitalism and unable to see the system is the very problem, rather than one class of worker causing the plight of another class of worker. They are both workers and subject to the capitalists.

The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work…

I vehemently disagree with this statement. I think we’ve misunderstood what “work” is, and what “bullshit work” is. When speaking the service class, or, “jobs no one wants”, we should all be doing them in our spaces. Why punish someone into doing what we refuse to do?

“…and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers”

I agree with this entirely, but i don’t believe this statement follows from the first

“But why should our pleasure be for profit?”…”labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love”

Hear, hear!

“If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient”

This is the first time we see the writer has swallowed the notion that “the market is always right”. Obviously, if you can’t make it doing what you love you’re not trying hard enough, not doing it right, and are rather forced to do something you don’t love to make money.

I happen to think the Steve Job’s quote is spot on. But to suggest that Apple’s exploitation of the international labor market is the only way that Steve Jobs can do what he loves is entirely fallacious. I don’t see how the Jobs quote and the Thoreau quote are at ends. Thoreau would lead me to hire Jobs to solve certain problems.

“Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce”

This is entirely true, except the last clause. It isn’t a small minority, its a minority, but not small.
The problem with the writers’ point of view, in my opinion, is that he agrees with the basic assumptions of capitalism (market forces, labor and wage theory) and then is pitting one class of worker against another. The writer is doing the work of capitalists by getting those in service positions angry at “creative”/white-collar workers. Those who do “unloved work” in his terms, need just as much rescue from capitalism as do those who are doing “work” that they love. Both workers need to band together and overthrow the capitalists. “Do What You Love” can be the most pro-labor argument around — once you critique the system within which it operates: capitalism.

The writer is taking an incidental relationship; those from another class were able to do what they love within capitalism, while those from a lower class were not, and make it a causal relationship; only because the lower class can the higher class, without ever mentioning the true causal relationship — those with capital are exploiting all workers.

“If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

Hear, hear! This is precisely the argument we should be making. But not against workers who are able to do what they find existentially fulfilling — against the capitalists that exploit the labor of those who work doing what they hate, and exploit the labor and profit of those doing what they love

“Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.”

This is the critique he never makes in the whole article, and should have been making all along Do What You Love is the way out — but the article makes the wrong enemy, other laborers, rather than the capitalists

A Catholic Interaction

Posted: Wednesday Aug 15th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, Politics | View Comments

I actually support the ad in question. It paints the picture of the world that Romney has created in the past, and would create as President — a world where the middle and low class has no access to healthcare. And then of course there is the feigned “impartiality” that he would also call out Romney for their lies. His campaign (not even Super PAC ads like the one in question) have created ads that are blatant lies that people have called them out on. Not a budge.

It is also telling that he doesn’t think Romney has abandoned his signature Massachusetts legislation. I’ve seen interviews where he does exactly that, he runs away from it. As a person who is personally benefitting from the legislation I can only imagine how many other small businesses (like the one I work for) could be created if people knew they could have affordable access to healthcare even when they’ve left the company they work for.

Fun With Columbia Economist

Posted: Friday Jul 13th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Politics | View Comments

First, I want to explain my (unclear) usage of “public investment”. I used it to indicate corporate “investment in the public good.” I did misunderstand where Sachs was going. But it only exacerbates my point — the 2008 crisis (from a finance POV) was one of zero private (company) investment. So in the face of an immediate crisis short-term gov’t spending plans overtook long-term gov’t spending plans. Who is surprised by that reaction? But the fact that its being held up as a crisis of leadership is silly. Imagine the actual crisis of leadership it would have been to have no reaction to a short-term crisis.

Upon reflection I think the most shocking thing, about both Sachs’s article that started this whole thing and the ensuing discussion, was the misguided rhetoric. It followed the traditional two-sided news story: side-a vs side-b. Keynesian vs. Supply-Side. Part of the failure of the American intellectual and news media (not to confuse you that they are even close to one and the same) is whitewashing arguments and refusing nuance based on data.

In many ways Keynesian thought and Supply-Side are opposed. But it is a mistake to suggest that Keynes ever put forward a system. He put forward observations that resulted in tools. One of these tools is short-term stimulus spending. Since Day One Krugman (the quintessential Keynesian) has argued that the stimulus was not big enough. And that there are structural problems in the economy. And that we need big infrastructure spending on all sorts of upgrades. As we all know from the scant repair crews we do see, infrastructure upgrades take forever. None of these specific points are what make Krugman a Keynesian. But all of these points are ones that Sachs’s himself suggests. So I don’t know why he is whitewashing Krugman as part of the Keynesian problem. The other hilarious part is that the GOP, while heavily indoctrinated by Supply-side thought, become Keynesians when it suits their agenda. The fact that all this is lost in translation is patently sad.

I also checked in on the “no leadership” on large infrastructure projects claim he made. Two bills, S.1769 and S.1660, were filibustered by the GOP after being introduced by Democrats. Both bills took up the idea of AIFA from a previous bill introduced to committee. This AIFA was a $10billion fund for a bi-partisan group of 7 congressman to spend on infrastructure. And then the next year it would be $20billion. And $50billion the year after that. Sounds pretty intense and long-term to me.