Monday, October 31, 2011

Marx in the Market

I hardly ever watch television, but this weekend I happened to catch a 30 minute lecture titled Capitalism Hits the Fan on the the Free Speech Channel by Richard Wollfe. His lecture was on the recent financial collapse and how it was -- and is -- a crisis of capitalism. For this reason, he doesn't believe -- with most of the mainstream left -- that we can just return to the pre-Reagan, post-FDR era of regulation, when everything was hunky-dory. No, the problem is deeper than that.

Clearly I disagreed with the vast majority of Wollfe's presentation. Though much of his recounting of the events that led to the financial collapse was, more or less, correct, the conclusions that he drew from these facts were often non-sequiturs. Especially the conclusion that capitalism is the problem since most of the events described either had little to do with capitalism, or were examples of markets being significantly disrupted and intruded upon by government.

For this reason, when he attempted to venture a "solution" to the problem it was utterly nonsensical. He makes the same mistake that Michael Moore made in his film Capitalism: A Love Story. Specifically, he told the identical story about the more democratic and egalitarian internal organization of certain successful start-ups in silicon valley (I assume he's talking about things like Apple, Google and Facebook, but I don't really know) that rejected the typical hierarchical structures of corporate American businesses. Having held positions at firms such as IBM and Sysco, these start-ups consisting of computer-savvy friends had a distaste for the culture of corporate America and wished to offer an alternative way to do business, internally. So, according to this speaker, they did. Just like the bread company in Capitalism: A Love Story, the founders of these companies wanted a more equal, democratic and lively culture where everyone is involved in business decisions -- and therefore more equitably distributing the profits -- rather than the small number inhabiting the board of directors making all the decisions. In so doing, the story goes, these companies had explosive creativity and productivity and made tons of money. Therefore, these companies and their products are not triumphs of capitalism, as they are usually heralded, but really the triumph of quasi-Marxist business principles!

Not being a techie, I don't really know how true this story is, though I doubt the reality closely matches how he presents it. Still, even if we grant the complete truth of this story, it omits one hugely significant fact: these firms are making their money by competing in a free market. Their different ways of organizing themselves internally competes against the way in which other capitalist firms organize themselves. The profits that they bring into their companies are being made within a capitalist system, and without the system, it wouldn't matter how you decided to internally organize. Whatever internal incentives their employees have that typical corporations don't, they would be irrelevant if all of society was organized according to Marxist principles because the wealth generated in the marketplace would not exist.

This is no solution to our current financial situation. If it's a superior way to organize a business, then it's a way for certain capitalist firms to get an upper hand on other capitalist firms who adapt less quickly and efficiently. Even if implementation of this business model across the board resulted in greater productivity for corporate America, and is therefore a good thing, the financial crisis wasn't caused because of a lack of productivity. There were fundamental instabilities in our markets that would manifest in a more efficient and productive America -- perhaps slightly less quickly -- all the same, if the institutions and policies that led to them remain unchanged. But there's a difference between organizing a business on certain principles, and organizing a society, economy or government on certain principles. What works for the former doesn't necessarily work for the latter. Among other reasons, because employment is a relationship one enters into voluntarily; citizenship is one that one is born into. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Civil War

While I haven't had a chance to blog much recently, I've continued to wage war against the Occupy movement in discussions in real life and twitter. Most recently opposing the outcry from the left over Occupy Oakland being "attacked" by the police. In real time it was mostly reactions from rappers that I was responding to. In any case, the long and short of it is that I always give police the benefit of the doubt, and in this case there wasn't even much doubt to begin with. People were tweeting with straight faces at one moment about refusing to leave, ignoring police's orders, taunting them etc. and in the very next tweet complaining about police "brutality", which they had proudly, defiantly and knowingly brought upon themselves. And for what?

That's not the point of this post though. I give rappers (who are monolithically left in their worldviews) a hard time, but I still like some of their music. Most of the ones I disagree with the most are also ones whose music I do like, even though I disagree with the content when it's political or otherwise ideological. In the case of the new Immortal Technique, Chuck D, Killer Mike, and Brother Ali collaboration "Civil War" [be advised, the track contains vulgarity. Skip to 2:40 to avoid vulgarity and hear the part discussed below], I like the music and some of the content as well. The track is solid as a whole, but Brother Ali's verse is phenomenal. While I think the premise of his verse -- that America somehow restricted or abused the freedoms of Muslims in the wake of 9-11 -- is dubious and certainly not very timely (it would have been more apropos in 2002), still, the bottom line message about freedom is very true, and the technical aspects of the verse are stellar.

Our hearts were torn apart just like y'all was
Watching towers full of souls fall to sawdust
Every time we called your office you ignored us
Now you're holding hearings on us all inside of Congress
Microscopes on us, ask if we're Jihadists
My answer was in line with all of the founding fathers
I think Patrick said it best, give me liberty or death
I shall never accept anything less
You claim innocence, you play victimless
But you gave the kiss of death in the name of self-defense
Slavery and theft of other nations to the end
Of pacifying your citizenry with excess
We believe in freedom, justice.. security
But they're only pure when they're applied universally
So certainly if I rage against the machine my aim was only to clean the germs out of the circuitry
Urgently puttin fear inside your heart
Make you burn Qurans and tell me not to build a Mosque
Me, my wife and babies, we ain't never made Jihad
We just wanna touch our head to the floor and talk to God
Ask him to remove every blemish from our heart
The greatest threat of harm doesn't come from any bomb
The moment you refuse the human rights for just a few
What happens when that few includes you?
Civil war

Occupy Movement: You Are The 1%

As Occupy Oakland bragged that they were 3000 strong last night when they "took back" the area that cops made them vacate the day before, it struck me just how monstrous a lie Occupy's main slogan is. 3000 is the number Occupy Oakland boasts of at its absolute apex (though even this number was significantly bolstered by outside help, especially transplants from Occupy San Fran), and even that number only amounts to 0.7% the population of Oakland.

Occupy Wall Street itself has only consisted of a core, staying group of hundreds (though the group sometimes swells to thousands). This in a city of a population of 8 million, meaning that at OWS' high point they didn't even amount to 0.1% of the population of New York City. You can do similar calculations for the rest of the Occupy cities and see that those claiming to speak for the 99% don't even amount to 1% of the population, or close to it.

 Baby steps, fellas. Try 1, maybe 2%, first. If you're feeling extremely, unrealistically optimistic, aim for 5%. The true 99% have no interest in joining your ranks, and the actual numbers reflect as much. Speak for yourselves, take pride in the fact that you're a miniscule, "enlightened" minority, and trumpet it from the hills. Stop claiming to represent the 99%, though, because you don't. 

Not to mention Occupy is part of the so-called problem of the top 1% of wage-earners -- corporations, bankers, CEOs and the like -- as well. They haven't renounced corporate products, they aren't living off the grid, and therefore they are contributing daily to the same system they supposedly oppose. Perhaps people would take them more seriously if they actually practiced what they preached by refusing to put dollars into the pockets of corporations. Of course, this would effectively amount to the movement's suicide since it would mean not being able to access the internet (to say nothing of the manifold other ways they avail themselves of the products of corporations), which is their main tool of communication and organization. But if you really stand for an ideal, sometimes you have to make sacrifices, such as efficacy, relevance, even life. Be about it.

 UPDATE: Yet another similar, cogent point is being made by a circulating photo:

In other words, from a global perspective, even America's poor, and certainly middle class, are very rich by most standards. Poverty in modern America often entails a life with a cell phone, flatscreen TV, two cars, electricity, running water, curbside trash pickup etc. etc. So the vast majority of the poor, downtrodden 99% of Americans who aren't in the top 1% are actually among the most privileged persons on the planet, materially within in the top 0.01% to have ever lived.

UPDATE #2: The good folks over at South Park have taken on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon and the one area they attacked most mercilessly was the imbecility of the rhetoric of "We are the 99%", making the same point that this piece makes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Am The 100%

I am poor. I am rich. I am middle class.
I am greedy, selfish, and covetous.
I am human.
I am a mom-and-pop shop. I am a middle man. I am a corporation.
I am an employer. I am an employee.
I am unemployed.
I am a consumer. I am a producer. I am a parasite.
I am responsible for myself. I am called to help others.
I am the 100%.
Are you?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Ides of March - Clooney's Dark, Twisted, Liberal Fantasy

Democrats are showing buyer's remorse over Barack Obama. He had convinced many on the left that he would issue in a new era of bonafide liberalism, and they've been disappointed at what he's been able to accomplish. Of course, he has "accomplished" plenty, the left just doesn't yet realize the dire consequences that follow from a leftist president instituting leftists policies and instead would blame the undeniable, utter failure of this administration on someone, or something, else. The hard left rationalizes our current situation in various ways; blaming the mess left by Bush, blaming Republican and Tea Party obstructionism, blaming Obama's personality and political ineptitude, or claiming that Obama just isn't far-left enough and has followed in Bush's footsteps in the wrong ways (war on terror, executive power type stuff).

George Clooney is so upset with how things have turned out, he seems to want to turn the clock back to 2008 and fantasize a more desirable outcome. The Ides of March, directed by Clooney, follows a democratic primary campaign in which Clooney's charater Mike Morris is a far-left governor fighting against a more moderate democrat for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. Flanked by two campaign managers played by Ryan Gosling (the young, idealistic one) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (the experienced, pragmatic one), Morris' campaign faces an uphill battle as the opponent seems to have the upper hand in the polls. Just like in 2008, coming off of an unpopular Republican administration and especially after McCain got the nomination, "the Republicans have [nothing]" (though he uses a vulgar euphemism for 'nothing'). In Clooney's mind the Republicans are, and should be, reduced to non-entities and serious political discussion can only take place between liberals and hardcore liberals -- and the hardcore should be victorious.

Lest the comparisons to the climate of 2008 seem strained, Clooney drives the point home with campaign posters of him that are obviously derivative of the infamous Shepard Fairey Obama "Hope" poster, only with "Believe" replacing "Hope".

Speaking of "believe", in the fantasy-land that Clooney has constructed, this hard-left, viable Democratic presidential candidate is also an atheist (though he uses some fancy rhetoric to obscure the fact). So not only is Clooney re-imagining the 2008 election cycle, he's re-imagining the dynamics of America, since in reality an atheist presidential candidate is still a non-starter for the American electorate.

It would be slightly unfair to read the film solely or primarily as a political treatise. It isn't, but being familiar with Clooney's ideology, it's hard to think the pulpit he gives to his character isn't intended to double as his own pulpit. Especially since the rhetoric syncs perfectly with anything he's ever had to say about political topics. The speeches he gives in the film, which I have to imagine he approves of, are not just bad but breathtakingly asinine. Take the gem about "You want to know how to end Islamic terrorism? Their product [oil]: just stop needing it." Cue the wild adulation of the crowd. Mandatory lobotomies must have been a pre-requisite for acquiring tickets to the rally.

Spoilers are contained within this paragraph, so be advised. Skip ahead to the next paragraph now, if you wish to avoid them. The climax of Clooney's wet dream political scenario is almost hysterical. Not only does he cast himself in the role of a hard-left, atheist, viable presidential candidate, and stage various scenes with himself speaking asinine political rhetoric to receptive crowds dousing him with manic applause, but it turns out his character sleeps with interns, impregnates one, and when she commits suicide after aborting his baby, he does what he can to hide what happened from the press. Clooney knows the lusts of the flesh are irresistible to "great" Alpha males in positions of power, he just wants some of them (those who he agrees with) to be able to get away with it.

Of course, he wouldn't cop to this. Obviously if confronted with these accusations he would claim that the character has flaws, and isn't intended to be some idealized representation of a politician. Not to mention that Clooney's character really isn't the main character of the film, Gosling's is. Still, given Clooney's politics, it's hard to see Morris' character arc as anything other than a ham-handed attempt to depict what he desires in a politician, and what outcomes he desires in elections. Namely, he wants to see the lunatic left find a way to navigate the pitfalls and mine fields of the dull-witted American electorate, eke their way into office, and be able to "affect real change" [i.e. wreak havoc]. Even if it means "getting into the mud with the Elephants" as Paul Giamatti's Tom Duffy puts it.

This aspect of the script is a reiteration of the idiotic trope from the hard-left that the Democratic establishment is just too weak, too politically daft, too unorganized, and don't play dirty political games enough, while the Republicans know all the tricks of the trade.

As I said, the main narrative element is actually a moral dilemma set up for Ryan Gosling's character. They set him up as a young, bright-eyed, principled and highly skillful "true believer" in what Morris stands for. As a guy who has to believe in the cause he's fighting for if he's going to support it, and who won't resort to dirty tricks. It seems to me the point would be to set up the tension for that moment that will come, when the temptation to "go dirty" will arise, as it inevitably will. The problem is, when the moment comes, Gosling's character doesn't struggle. He slides right into the unprincipled, pragmatic, do-what-it-takes-to-win role without even the slightest bit of hesitation. Perhaps there's some moral about just how fine of a line there is between idealism and pragmatism, or how magnetic the Will to Power is. If so, it wasn't made very well, and the film just fizzles to conclusion in a sublimely pointless fashion.

Despite a magnificent cast, and strong performances from them, The Ides of March is hamstrung by an offensive, imbecilic ideology that pervades the proceedings, and character work that falls flat. If you would like a glimpse into the mind of the radical left and the way they would like the world of politics to function, you should give this a watch. It's a bit infuriating, but I have a masochistic streak and I like having my ire raised, so I did get some perverse enjoyment from the film despite its massive deficiencies. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The So-Called Bottom 99%

The protesters from Occupy Wall Street have adopted the slogan "We Are the 99%", sometimes expressed by other variations in phrasing. The idea being that "corporatism" and capitalism have resulted in the increase of the "wealth gap" so that the very rich (the 1%) have gotten even richer at the expense of everyone else (the 99%).

Where to begin?

The largest problem with this reasoning is the conception of wealth as some pre-existing thing that society must determine how to distribute. When in reality wealth is created, and primarily created by those who end up with the larger portion of the money. And it ignores the fact that while the gap may increase, the total amount of wealth available is often increasing at the same time, leaving everyone better off in the end. So the notion that an increasing wealth gap is necessarily indicative of some injustice is bogus from the start.

In addition to this, the top 1% is an arbitrary and meaningless distinction. The top 1% is not even the same group of persons year to year, so noting disparities between the top 1% and everyone else tells you nothing about what is happening to actual, individual human beings within those groups. 100 who were in the top 1% might fall out, while 100 others -- slightly richer -- displace them, while the bottom, say, 50% need not be adversely affected by this shuffling at all, yet the 'wealth gap' will have thereby increased. So this pet metric that Occupy Wall Street, and much of the media, spend so much time agonizing over is largely irrelevant.

None of which is to deny the financial troubles of the country today, or to deny the "increasing wealth gap"; it's only to deny that one has anything to do with the other, and therefore to reject the proposed solutions of Occupy Wall Street and the left generally.

Furthermore, even if you did want to admittedly, proudly and giddily engage in class warfare, as Occupy Wall Street seems to want to do, you should choose your arbitrary cut-offs, and your words, more carefully.

If Occupy Wall Street wants to pit the bottom 99% against the top 1%, does that mean that, for example, the top 2-5% of wage earners -- many of whom are millionaires -- are among those who have been neglected and downtrodden by our corrupt and predatory economic system? The suggestion is, of course, quite preposterous, but sometimes facts and logic have to be sacrificed in favor of desirable rhetoric. Ask any decent propagandist.

As for the specific slogan of "We Are the 99%", this would seem to imply that this small but vociferous clan of malcontents speaks for 307 million Americans, yet their numbers aren't yet approaching 50k nationwide. Nor do they even have a plurality of support from the populous at large, forget about the pipe dream of 99% agreeing with them. So, as a plain matter of fact, they are not, in any sense, "the 99%." Of anything.

Of course the greater trouble is not their ill-conceived, arrogant, and presumptuous rhetoric, but the ideology behind it. America has plenty of reasons to be justifiably upset at our current economic situation. But The Tea Party has already expressed these clearly and fully, and aimed those concerns at the actual culprits, while Occupy Wall Street seeks goals that would either exacerbate the problem, or which are already part of The Tea Party platform (such as ending corporate welfare where it actually exists.) Occupy Wall Street needs to fall in with the Tea Party or shut up and go home.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rapper Run-in Run-Down

In my last post I recounted an atypically fruitful discussion that I had on Twitter with the rapper Murs. Since I enjoy rap music, but disagree with the vast majority of the ideals expressed by rappers in their music -- and therefore on Twitter -- I'll often post (necessarily) pithy replies to their tweets.

Recently many of them posted messages regarding Troy Davis and Occupy Wall Street, and on both issues I find myself dissenting from the views that virtually all rappers are espousing -- namely that Occupy Wall Street is a good thing and that the execution of Troy Davis was an injustice. And so, as usual, I posted messages responding. But typically rappers don't respond to my responses for whatever reason (too busy, uninterested, unwilling to engage in debate, etc.), which is understandable and expected.

This week, however, I seem to have struck a nerve. Murs, Sole, and Saigon all engaged in stilted (due to Twitter's character limit) political arguments, and the producer Blockhead and the rapper Killer Mike also responded to tweets of mine, though not to engage in debate.

Saigon posted a tweet decrying the fact that the black and/or hip-hop community had already stopped discussing Troy Davis. He then tweeted "Where do we go from here?", to which I responded "Shoot cops in parking lots in broad daylight less often? It's a start." Though that retort is obviously sardonic, it does make a legitimate point, I think. Namely, that the "injustice" of the Troy Davis execution was nothing of the sort, and that the hip-hop community needs to stop making causes and martyrs out of those who should simply change their behavior if they want different results and treatment from the justice system. If the hip-hop or black communities make a cause célèbre out of every execution of a back man, even in unexceptional, ordinary cases -- as this was -- it will be hard to draw attention to true instances of injustice and racism. It's the Boy Who Cried Wolf conundrum. 

Saigon went on to make the point that the system was hypocritical because, while cop-killers get executed fairly regularly, cops who kill innocent civilians don't get executed ever (or very rarely). To quote him exactly: "okay smart guy, how many cops were executed for shooting innocent unarmed blackmen? Answer me that one... How many?"

I don't know the number, but I assume it's somewhere around 0-2, say in the last 50 years. But, I would argue, that's as it should be as cops killing innocent civilians happens extremely rarely, if ever. Even the cases that blacks typically cite as being instances of "cops killing innocents" you could count on one hand, and even with those the facts are usually in dispute i.e. it isn't clear whether cops really did kill an innocent person, or act inappropriately. But, even if we were to grant all of these cases, still, cops killing innocent black men in the streets is an exceedingly rare occurrence, and so executions of the perpetrators should also be exceedingly rare. Which is essentially what I tried to hint at in my next 140 character response: "Don't know.. Probably a lot fewer, since cops killing innocent ppl virtually never happens. Your point?", to which he replied "so U never heard of Sean Bell, or Amadou Dialling [sic] or countless others, u look like a grand wizard anyway. Beat it."

Of course there aren't "countless others". The others are highly countable and, as I said, could even be counted on one hand. And that's only alleged instances, and most of them have dubious evidence of police misconduct.

Meanwhile, Sole, of Anticon fame, was tweeting that CNN wasn't covering the Occupy Wall Street protest sufficiently, and that if Americans wanted the real story they would have to tune into Al-jazeera. I had seen reports consistently on every mainstream network I've watched in the last 3 to 4 days, so I'm sure CNN has had similar, reasonable levels of coverage.

I took this to mean that Sole believes that the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon is a very large, significant, important movement (when it's not, it's a bunch of over-privileged liberals without jobs, but with money, complaining vaguely and imprecisely about capitalism) that deserves more mainstream media coverage than it's receiving. After the first day or two of the media pointing out that, yes, there are people holding signs, shouting protests in unison, obstructing street traffic, having occasional run-ins with police, and they are concerned about wealth inequality, greed, corporatism, capitalism, etc. what more is there to say? The public knows you're there, we know what you're saying. And? There is no more story except to say "yep, they're still there." So minimal amounts of media coverage are logical and justified from a neutral media outlet, and large amounts of coverage reveal a particular ideology (mostly "America is bad") at play.

This is essentially what I said to Sole: "A small % of privileged liberals are protesting vaguely and imprecisely about capitalism? @CNN should extensively cover this why?" to which he replied "that's what they said about the Arab spring. And I ain't no &$%#ing "liberal." U stick to your fantasies, I'll stick to mine."

So he raises two issues:
1) Likening the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring, an analogy I will happily accept in one sense, but on opposite grounds. The so-called "Arab Spring" actually was nothing of the sort, and was overblown by the media and various sorts of talking heads. So the media not making the same mistake this time around is evidence of the media learning from its mistakes, if anything. Then, of course, I could also simply point out that while there is an analogy that can be made, it's pretty limited. In many ways Occupy Wall Street is nothing like "the Arab Spring".
2) The semantics of "liberal", which he clearly doesn't understand. To prove he doesn't understand he goes on to say "the word weasel liberal is a weasel word. republicans are the ones who are liberal. i just want folks to kill what they eat." He seems to be conflating classical liberalism, which really does correlate with the values of the right, to what "liberal" has actually come to mean today -- and has meant for the last 40-50 years in popular usage -- which is essentially just "on the left of the political spectrum".  All academics on this subject recognize this distinction and shift in usage. Still, nothing I said really hinged on him being a "liberal" in the first place (even though he is one, as a matter of fact.)

After some uninteresting tangential exchanges, Sole concludes our discussion with: "its all good. i perused your blog to arrive at my opinion of you. its old white man [stuff] to me. we barbarians are at the gates". Not the most nuanced conclusion (though Twitter doesn't really allow nuance), but not especially objectionable either, really. My views have been shared by many an old, dead, white person. But the insinuation that "old" and "white" are synonymous with "bad" and "wrong" is indicative of the character of the shallow, leftist thought that Sole traffics in. Jel and Moodswing 9 made some great beats back in the day, though, so I'll still listen to his music.