When meat-eaters ask a good question

Sometimes people who defend meat-eating come up with good questions for us - even if they themselves could care less about the answer. Here's one Chris wrote about in comments to the last post:
if factory farming no longer existed, what would become of the cows that now exist?
First off, unless veg*nism were implemented all of a sudden (following a ALF coup, perhaps), the number of livestock would gradually decrease as more and more people stopped eating them and the industry lost the incentive to rapidly reproduce them. So we'd have more manageable numbers once everyone was veg*n, but the domesticated animals would still be around.

So here's my question - would keeping livestock on farms and treating them well be exploitation? I recently read a series of well-informed posts from an environmentalist arguing that the only kind of agriculture both sustainable and practicable is one built on small-scale mixed farms that incorporate raising and killing animals for food (scroll down and read the four posts November 12-18). As I pointed out in the comments on his November 18 post, his argument for meat rests on the financial necessity of these small farms surviving in a world of low-cost factory farms, and wouldn't seem to apply if factory farms were eliminated or if the economy set prices differently (under, e.g., a parecon). So killing animals doesn't seem necessary, but farms still seem more efficient if they incorporate animals.
farms work best, maximising yield and minimising inputs, with an integrated relationship is fostered between plants and animals. Our grandparents knew this to be self evident, Permaculture espouses it, and nature wouldn't function any other way. The best way to cycle nutrients on a farm is to use our microbial friends (soil and compost) and animals to make nutrients available in a form that plants can use to create surplus calories from the sun which can then feed us humans and the animals. It’s a nice tidy system. Without animals on the farm, you invariably need to import fertilizer or organic matter to make the needed tons of compost, incurring transportation costs and burning more fuel. And even then, raw manure, especially urine, is still the best fertilizer. By splitting the system we are wasting energy to poorly mimic what nature will give us for free.
If the farm animals were treated well, would this be exploitation? Even if they were used for (small amounts of) milk and eggs, wouldn't this be more of a symbiotic relationship than one of exploitation? Or am I way off base here?


Al Gore left something out

There are a lot of reasons eating meat is far worse for the environment than eating vegetarian or vegan, including the destruction of waterways from the concentrated animal waste of factory farms, pesticide pollution from all the extra crops needed to feed livestock, and the huge amount of land and water needed to sustain meat production. Now we can add global warming to that list.

A recent report by two University of Chicago scientists found that meat eating is a significant contributor to global warming (see also this article, which is a little more accessible for the layman). Using conservative numbers, they calculated that switching from the average American meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet reduces your greenhouse gas footprint by as much as an average American driver does in switching from a normal car to a hybrid.

The major impact of the meat industry on global warming is partly due to its energy inefficiency. To raise animals you have to use far more energy growing crops to feed the animals than if you just ate the crops directly. Interestingly, eating fish is also far less energy efficient because of the long distances that wild fish catches have to be transported and because fish farming is relatively energy inefficient.

The paper compares the average American diet, which gets 15 percent of its calories from meat, with three separate diets drawing that 15 percent exclusively from red meat, fish, and poultry, as well as a vegetarian diet. The red meat and fish diets tied for most wasteful and were considerably less efficient than even the average American meat diet. The poultry and vegetarian diets were most efficient, with the vegetarian diet being even more efficient depending on how low the level of animal products is in it. A vegan diet, of course, is more efficient than any of the others.

Meat and fish add a lot of carbon dioxide by wasting so much energy, but meat (and dairy) make global warming worse in another way - by producing methane and nitrous oxide.
While methane and nitrous oxide are relatively rare compared with carbon dioxide, they are—molecule for molecule—far more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. A single pound of methane, for example, has the same greenhouse effect as approximately 25 pounds of carbon dioxide.
So all those cows farting and the manure lagoons used in pig farming have a big impact.

Do we really need another reason to stop eating meat? The damage that the meat industry does to humans, other animals, and the environment is so massive that even if it had no effect on global warming, the arguments for ending meat production would be overwhelming. But as the dangers of global warming finally begin to penetrate popular consciousness, that fun fact about eliminating meat from your diet being as helpful as switching to the best car out there could be effective in illustrating how urgent it is to reduce or eliminate animal products from our diets.


US media's prescription for Ecuador: neoliberalism good, democracy bad

Doing a little research for this post, I came across a pretty extensive group of people who criticize The New York Times for being biased in favor of the Latin American left (see, e.g., the comments on this blog post - here's a taste: "bunch of bloody morons to [sic] busy enjoying chavista hospitality to see the real story. . . . you left wing liberal chardonay swilling pin head"). This is bizarre, to say the least, but I think the problem is that these over-the-top far right-wing critics just can't recognize fellow travellers who use more subtle language.

The "news analysis" on Ecuador's presidential election that The New York Times ran last week is a good example of this kind of subtle dismissal of leftist politics in Latin America. The winner, Rafael Correa, is an American-trained economist whose decisive runoff victory over the richest man in the country was based on populist condemnations of Ecuador's elites and the USA. The question for reporter Simon Romero is whether Correa will govern as he campaigned (bad) or pursue a more "pragmatic" course (good):
when Mr. Correa starts talking about his ideas, in rapid-fire Spanish interspersed with tangents in English, French and even the occasional phrase in Quechua, he conveys a more sophisticated image than the nationalists who have risen to power elsewhere in the region out of the armed forces or trade unions.
And what is it that makes him seem more sophisticated?
“Foreign investment that generates wealth and jobs and pays taxes will always be welcome,” Mr. Correa, 43, said in an interview here, sounding precisely like someone with postgraduate degrees from universities in the United States and Belgium. (His are from the University of Illinois and Catholic University of Leuven
So someone who caters to foreign capital is well-educated and sophisticated. But is this the real Correa?
Mr. Correa wears tailored suits and chats about how North American economists like John Kenneth Galbraith have influenced him. Yet before crowds, he rails against the Bush administration and the International Monetary Fund.
This is a curious formulation because John Kenneth Galbraith, before his death earlier this year, was himself strongly critical of both the Bush administration and the IMF. Yet thru the magic of journalism we are shown how the world really breaks down: on one side stand the United States, the Bush administration, all American economists, American corporations, and the "moderate leftists" like Argentina's Kirchner and Brasil's Lula. On the other side are the uneducated, irrationally nationalist Latin American poor, the opportunistic politicians who exploit their anger to come to power, and the "dogmatic" ideologues of the left.

This propaganda line, which runs steadily thru mainstream reporting on Latin America, is here destabilized by the mention of Galbraith. This is an aberration - usually reporters only quote American scholars who support US state and corporate hegemony over Latin America. Yet bringing up Galbraith - a Keynesian liberal, certainly no anticapitalist, yet still critical of the status quo - reminds us exactly how right-wing the political and media consensus on neoliberalism really is. And Romero betrays the media's habitual contempt for democracy as well, when he devotes more space to the judgment that foreign capital will pass on Correa than that of the Ecuadoran people.

Left unmentioned is what happened the last time an Ecuadoran president threw in his lot with foreign corporations and betrayed his platform of opposition to neoliberalism and corruption. Lucio Gutiérrez was overthrown by massive protests in 2005.


Ted Koppel is as far left as they get (on tv)

Last week I watched Ted Koppel's Discovery Channel special on Iran called "Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation". While the show was far better than what the American media usually manage on Iran, since it featured Iranis as humans rather than only as demons, it still managed to serve the US government agenda and present a deeply distorted picture of Iran. Of course we had to learn about the ancient Persian heritage of Iran - how else could we understand the essence of this proud people? We also learned that, being Shi'a, Iranis glorify martyrdom. For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, some Irani soldiers actually sacrificed their own lives in service to the nation. Combined with Hizbollah suicide bombers who attacked innocents like the Israeli soldiers occupying Lebanon and dark suggestions that Ahmadinejad believes in the apocalyptic Mahdi, it all sounds very sinister. Guess there's something unique about Shi'a that causes them to resist occupying forces or die in battle to save their fellow soldiers.

Simply by going out and talking with a wide range of Iranis, the program largely undermines these ridiculous generalizations about the Irani national character. Koppel et al make gestures toward examining key issues in Iran, like class, gender, and political authority (altho oddly they completely ignore minorities, which have been prominently featured in neocon plans to destroy the regime). The effort is superficial, but still better than the yawning black whole in the other media.

The presentation of Iran's relationship with the USA is a bigger problem. Unlike other media, the program does bring up the various crimes the USA has committed against Iran - most prominently the overthrow of the democratically-elected government in 1953, decades of support for the brutal dictator that the CIA put in power (including training the secret police in torture and murder, a detail the program didn't mention), and giving extensive support to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, including coordinating intelligence and agreeing to Iraq's use of chemical weapons. But these crimes are positioned merely as part of the tit-for-tat relationship between Iran and the USA.

This is false moral equivalence - the destruction of an entire country's democracy and complicity in Iraq's aggression and killing of hundreds of thousands of Iranis is equated with Irani revolutionaries taking several hundred Americans hostage in the late 1970s or Lebanese Hizbullah (which is cast as continuous with Iran) killing several hundred Marines in Beirut in 1983. Koppel evinces no understanding that using massive violence to dominate a foreign region might in some way be different from shouting slogans of "Death to America". It's all just part of cycle of hostility.

In the end, after examining the likelihood that a military strike would fail, Koppel calls for dialogue and diplomacy. But he adds, "If that fails, there's still the military option." He doesn't explain why Iran is not allowed to have nuclear weapons but the USA - which is manifestly a more "dangerous nation" - gets to have as many as it wants (in violation of the NPT, also unmentioned). He doesn't explain why America has a right to unprovoked attack. And he doesn't even raise the real reason for Irani-American tension: the US obsession with crushing those few countries that resist its hegemony.


Speaks for itself

From Toilets Underused to Fight Disease, U.N. Study Finds:
it would cost $10 billion a year to halve the percentage of people without access to safe drinking water and to provide them with simple pit latrines. But that is less than half what rich countries spend annually on bottled water.

Election highlights

Even tho I don't actually believe in the system of American so-called democracy, I've always found watching the election returns to be a lot of fun. So here's some random observations.

1) Almost unnoted, the Green Party candidate for governor of Illinois won over 10 percent. Now would be a good time to put pressure on the Illinois Democrats to implement instant runoff voting in their own interests, since ballot access is now easier for the Greens and there's no similar third-party threat to Republicans. And, after the coming four years of Blagojevich scandals, the next election won't be quite so easy for the Democrats.

2) Greens elsewhere did badly, even where we might have expected some hope. In California the Democrat running for governor had no hope of winning and the Democrat running for Senate, Dianne Feinstein, had no hope of losing - and is a well-known shill for big-money. Yet only two percent of supposedly liberal Californians voted Green in the two races. In New Mexico, once a stronghold for Greens, the party didn't even run candidates in the Senate or governor races, which Democrats ran away with. Does anyone know what happened to the New Mexico Greens?

3) Completely unremarked upon, the first self-proclaimed socialist (so far as I know) won a Senate seat. Bernie Sanders of Vermont took the open seat in a blow-out. Sanders strikes me as more of social democrat than a socialist, but I also don't know much about him. Regardless, you'd expect the media to notice. Instead they didn't even bother to acknowledge that Sanders was running as an independent and colored Vermont blue for Democrat.

4) MSNBC commentators Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough at one point argued that the American people were demanding more nationalist policies. And I'm not using that word polemically like I usually do - they actually said "nationalist". I don't think I've ever heard mainstream types say "nationalism" when they mean nationalism.

5) The commentators were falling all over each other advising the Democrats to pursue a course of "moderation". The American people are tired of partisan gridlock, they said, and many of the newly elected Democrats are less ideological than the Congressional leadership. It's funny, because I read the exit polls as saying voters wanted to get out of Iraq, raise the minimum wage, and end government corruption. Why do the media make a fetish of moderation? Why did Harold Ford, who almost certainly lost his race for the Senate in Tennessee because of a series of racist advertisements, call for "healing" in his concession speech?

6) My favorite quote of the night comes from Rod Blagojevich, reëlected to governor of Illinois: "[when I first came to office I found] a state government more interested in serving itself than the other way around." Presumably Blagojevich has been hard at work setting things right - ie, making itself serve the state government.


If you vote, vote Green

Voting is awkward for every radical. You can cast your ballot and implicitly register a vote of confidence in a system that is deeply undemocratic. Or you can abstain and be counted as one of the "apathetic" half of the population who doesn't vote. If you do vote, you get to choose between a big-money Democrat who might win or a third-party candidate whose voters barely register in the statistics.

The amount of time progressives waste debating these choices is already far too great, so I won't belabor my point. If you feel you have to vote for Democrats, go ahead - but check the polls first and if your Democrat has a solid lead, don't waste your vote. Vote Green. Send the Democrats a message and help build a real progressive electoral alternative.

I haven't changed my mind about electoral politics - I think it's a waste of time for progressives unless they use the elections to organize locally and for longer-term battles. Right now the left is too weak to waste its energy in an electoral system that is rigged against it. There are some key issues worth working on - campaign finance reform and instant runoff voting would immediately increase the power of progressives. But until we can boast popular support and financial power, in the guise of grassroots organizations and democratic businesses, voting is going to remain awkward.


And you thought Larry Rohter* was bad

As if to confirm Kyle's critique of the mainstream media's incredibly open orientation toward privilege and power, the AP published a report on Lula's revival of class struggle rhetoric in the Brasilian election runoff.
Fiery speeches contrasting the lives of Brazil's poor with the wealthy elite have left many Brazilians wondering whether he would push the country to the left if he wins a second four-year term in Sunday's runoff election. Silva, a former union firebrand and Brazil's first working-class president, faced similar fears four years ago, but calmed them by adhering to market-friendly, pro-business policies that won praise even from conservatives.
!!!! Who writes this stuff? "Brazilians" have "fears" that Lula will move to the left? Lula's right-wing economic policies won praise "even from conservatives"? Maybe it's a typo and is supposed to read "won praise only from conservatives".
While few believe Silva would adopt the radical populism of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, they worry that he could entrench divisions in Brazil, which has one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor.
It just gets worse and worse. Apparently "one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor" doesn't count as an entrenched division. But some opportunistic rhetoric from a faux-populist could very well give rise to such a nightmare.
"It's very easy to mobilize the poor. What's hard is to demobilize them after the election," said Bolivar Lamounier, director of the Augurium political consulting firm. "I'm afraid if he wins a second term, which looks likely, he will be tempted to take an authoritarian turn."
Authoritarian, i.e. any policy that might upset of the highly participatory model of extreme wealth inequality.
"It's not very difficult with the low level of education in Brazil to motivate this prejudice," Lamounier said. "It was very hard to carry out privatization in Brazil, and while it a made good business sense, when poor people got their phone bills or light bills they just saw that things cost a lot."
If only the poor had a better education! Then they'd realize that paying more for utilities in order to enrich wealthy CEOs is solid public policy.
[Lula's] socialist fire has already inflamed prejudices among upper-class Brazilians.
So now criticizing rich people and calling for government programs to help the poor qualifies as "socialist". Does anyone else feel like we're in the 1880s?

I can just imagine the newsgathering work done by the reporter for this article: relaxing at a café in a fancy part of São Paulo, talking with the rich folks who apparently exhaust the category "Brasilians".

* Larry Rohter is The New York Times's Brasil correspondent who serves power in slightly more subtle ways.


Savage Love does not love animals

Dan Savage this week has a strange explanation of why it's okay to kill animals.
it needs to be said that if zoophilia is wrong because animals can't consent to sexual acts, then hamburgers, lamb chops, and Jell-O brand gelatin, along with leather shoes, belts, pants, slings, and hoods, are all equally wrong. It's possible that meat and leather are, you know, wronger. If we could talk to the animals, I'm pretty sure they would tell us they would rather be screwed than stewed. But until we can talk to the animals, eat them and wear them­—don't fuck them.

His email address is below.

From: [me]
To: mail@savagelove.net
Date: Oct 22, 2006 10:00 AM
Subject: eating and wearing animals

I've always admired you as a defender of the most marginalized people in society, people considered so weird or disgusting that "normal" people feel free to abuse them however they want.

So it's sad for me to read your outright dismissal of another group defined as inferior and thereby left open to the most horrific abuses humans can think up. As with other oppressed groups, we're taught that animals are not "us", are less than "us", and so we can exploit them, torture them, kill them. Their suffering does not matter, their lives do not matter.

The big difference is that, as you mention, we can't talk to animals. But is that really such a difference? Could whites talk to slaves? Could straight Americans talk to gay people before the 1970s? Physiologically, yes. But oppression creates its own silence, which only a few brave souls dare to break. Did we really need to interview statistically significant samples of slaves or gays to know that they wanted an end to the social brutality they faced every day? Isn't it morally necessary to end oppression regardless of whether the victims can express their opposition to it?

Isn't it time to stop eating and wearing animals?


The hermits have the bomb!

So 조선/North Korea tested a nuclear weapon (probably). I haven't bothered to post till now because it just doesn't seem like that big a deal. A country with no real allies, constantly threatened by the most powerful country in the world, feels the need to develop nuclear weapons? There are no grounds for either surprise or outrage here.

If the Clinton administration had actually followed thru with its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework, we wouldn't be in this mess. (It's worth emphasizing that the USA broke that agreement at least as badly as North Korea did. For some reason the media only remember 김정일/Kim Jeong'il's perfidy.) The Bush administration repudiated the entire thing, and things have been spiralling donward since.

There's a few obvious principles that we should be adhering to, but which are never raised in the current "debate".

1) The United States has no right to forbid other countries to make nuclear weapons as long as it continues to have them.

2) The United States should be following 한국/South Korea's lead since these decisions affect South Korea more than any other country except North Korea. Instead, the Bush administration has openly rejected the South's strategy, which is to try to integrate the North into the region politically and economically without the use of military threats.

3) The real victims here are the people of North Korea, who suffer from political tyranny and economic collapse. Most of them are living so close to disaster that any increase in instability is likely to kill a good many of them. The Bush administration's ideal solution - the collapse of the North Korean government - would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and heavy burdens on both 中国/China and South Korea. Neither one would manage those burdens in the interests of the destitute North Koreans.

Clearly the best approach under the circumstances is a return to the Agreed Framework and an intensification of South Korea's efforts to build connections with the North. That means the United States should pay for light water nuclear reactors that can replace the energy lost from the North's current reactors (which can much more easily be used to make bombs), provide security guarantees, normalize relations with North Korea, and support South Korean efforts. I'm not usually one to champion market penetration, but since the alternatives in North Korea are war, internal collapse, or the status quo, there doesn't seem like a better alternative.

Yet we should go further. If the USA wants to stop proliferation, the only fair way - and the only practical way - is to move toward total global nuclear disarmament. We're passing up a golden opportunity to rid the world of this terrible menace once and for all. The USA faces no real enemies, and even unilateral nuclear disarmament wouldn't reduce American security. But because of the USA and its belligerence, that's not true for any other country. The United States could bring a lot to the table - elimination of its own arsenal, offers of non-aggression treaties, development assistance. It has even greater leverage over allies like Britain and Israel.

In this moment of low superpower tensions the elimination of nuclear weapons could be accomplished relatively easily. I'm afraid that someday people will look back and curse us that we let the moment slip by.


Meat is murder - of humans, too

This is interesting: apparently the E. coli outbreak in spinach was actually caused by groundwater pollution from factory farms that raise cows. Cows aren't built to handle the grain diet forced on them in the factory farms, leading to the proliferation of this particularly harmful form of E. coli, which gets into the water and contaminates everything.

Of course, an even more serious and similarly indirect way that factory farming hurts people is from pesticide runoff in our drinking water. It takes about 10 times more grain to feed animals and eat them than if we just ate the crops directly. So to produce enough grain for all the animals we eat, we have to use pesticide-fumigated monoculture agriculture rather than relying on the lower yields of organic farming. All the chemicals that get in our water are one of the main reasons most of us will probably end up with cancer.

For me, all this is academic next to the horrific killing and torture of the animals. But for those people who are more concerned about the less severe - but neverthelss very real - suffering of humans caused by the meat industry, these can be very compelling arguments.

Wilmette repulses an attack of the subhumans

You always sort of know abstractly how reprehensible are the views of people in rich suburbs on the issue of poor people, black people, and other marginalized groups. But it's good to be reminded more concretely once in awhile:
A developer who wants to build a 50-unit apartment complex in Wilmette for low-income disabled people has met fierce resistance from village residents who complain the project would be a threat to property values and security.
This issue may have mobilized more Wilmette residents to participate politically than anything in a long time. More than 100 people went to the Zoning Board meeting and stayed late into the night to make sure they don't have live near people different from themselves.

The attitude was typified by one woman:
when [a developer of low-income housing] displayed a picture of a brick apartment building in Calumet City that most closely resembled the Wilmette proposal, a woman in the audience clutched her husband's arm.

"I think I'm going to be sick," she whispered loudly.


Recycling in Chicago

It seems like Chicago's ridiculous blue bag recycling program may finally be on the way out. If Chicago really is a laughingstock around the country, it should be because this program has lasted so long rather than because the city council banned one of the most repugnant forms of animal torture, raising foie gras.

The blue bag program, where you put recyclables in a blue bag and throw it in with the rest of the trash, from which it is then sorted at trash receiving stations, has been in place for 10 years now. It generated both low participation and low recovery of recyclables from those that were actually blue bagged. So it's good news that the pilot curbside collection program is being expanded, perhaps eventually to the whole city. It would be worthwhile to contact your alderman and encourage him or her to make the new program permanent.

But the blue bag program is only the beginning of Chicago's atrocious record on recycling. An outstanding recent article in The Reader revealed that even if the curbside collection program is adopted citywide, it will only cover about 25 percent of the garbage produced in Chicago - that coming from houses, two-flats, and other smaller residences. The other three quarters of waste comes from commercial properties and apartment buildings, each accounting for an equal share.

Chicago has a good law mandating commercial and large residential recycling, but as The Reader article detailed, the city has refused to enforce it since it was adopted in 1995. So there's two things we can do. First, talk to your landlord and tell her or him that they must provide recycling services to be in compliance with the law. Most landlords aren't even aware of this law, so bringing it to their attention may be enough (unless they figure out the city isn't enforcing it). Second, when you write to your alderman, tell her/him to demand that Daley start carrying out the law on recycling. You can also contact Daley at MayorDaley@CityofChicago.org and tell him the same thing.


Creating a progressive culture

It's shocking to me that, years after it became clear that global warming would be a catastrophe, people still drive when they could walk, bike, or take public transit, they still waste electricity by leaving lights on or leaving their cell phone chargers plugged in, they still buy SUVs when an energy-efficient car would be just fine, they still eat meat (even if the animal torture doesn't bother you, getting our calories and protein from meat is one of the most energy inefficient things we do). And they do all these things even tho the green alternatives are usually less expensive!

Obviously ignorance plays a big role, and we can thank the media, schools, politicians, and business leaders for that. But I know people, ostensibly environmentalists, who know very well that meat is environmentally destructive and still eat it. I know people who don't recycle. I know people who live in the exurbs with two SUVs for one family. It's not just ignorance. It's a failure of will, borne of the absence of a progressive culture that could counteract the dominant market-driven culture pushing everyone to buy things all the time, to drive all the time, to live in the suburbs and to hell with what kind of world that's going to leave their grandkids.

One of Michael Albert's themes has always been that the left alienates "regular" people - potential allies or members - by shoving an intolerant culture down their throats. But I think creating an intolerant culture is one of our most important tasks. A culture that does not tolerate racist jokes, sexual harassment, homophobia, or the slaughter of animals. A culture that demands popular participation, economic human rights, and respect for the environment. These values cannot flourish in a culture that celebrates inequality and does not hold people accountable for the effects their decisions have on everyone else.

How we go about creating this culture is a delicate task. Most people take it as their right to consume the resources of future generations or to sacrifice the lives of animals for the fleeting pleasure of a meal. Changing their mind about that cannot be done by browbeating them or excluding them. Good arguments and the power of example must remain our primary methods, at least when interacting one-on-one. Confrontation thru mass action has its place too, but the consequences should always be carefully considered.

Yet Michael Albert's point is also well-taken. Concentrating too much on individual purity distracts us from the fact that changing systems is more important that changing individuals. A progressive culture is needed not so much for our own self-satisfaction as it is to create a base area out of which progressive organizing can expand. What's so galling to me about people whose choices hurt people, animals, and the environment is not so much the miniscule impact those actions have on the world. It's that those choices make it hard for them to take part in the movement.

Hmm, I didn't originally intend to write about this. I was just going to recommend this article on California's admirable steps to fight global warming.

Anyway, any thoughts about this idea of progressive culture?


Corruption + sexism = Springfield

Christi Parsons, the Tribune correspondent on the Illinois legislature for the past 11 years, brutalizes the good ol' boys culture of corruption in Springfield. This is my favorite part:
My first day on the job, I was greeted in the pressroom by a visitor drinking a beer and smoking a cigar. He mused that I must be the "broad" they'd sent down from Chicago.

Not long after that, I introduced myself to a legislative staffer who flipped through a copy of Playboy as we talked.

By comparison, the famously chauvinistic Senate President James "Pate" Philip seemed a sensitive, modern man, merely rolling up some papers he was carrying at the time we met and cheerfully patting me on the head with them.
Having an exceedingly rare story like this makes it clear that "objective" journalism is just not capable of conveying how power works and feels.


The lightbulb revolution!!!!

Here's a breathless article ostensibly doing boosterism for the ultra-efficient compact flourescent lightbulb, altho doing at least as much boosterism for Wal-Mart. Even so, it does a good job driving home how amazing these lightbulbs are. They not only save electricity, reducing greenhouse gases and pollution, they also last for 5-10 years (10-40 times longer than conventional lightbulbs), saving huge amounts of energy and resources currently expended on the production, packaging, distribution, and disposal of conventional lightbulbs. And because they're more energy efficient and last so much longer, they also save the consumer quite a bit of money in reduced electricity bills and lightbulb replacement costs (GE's new packaging promises $38 in saved energy).

The main problem is that the efficient lightbulbs cost a lot more than conventional ones up-front ($3-$4 vs 30-50¢) and most people aren't aware that they'll not only help the environment but also save money by buying them. The author of the article sees Wal-Mart as the Lenin of the lightbulb revolution, both lowering prices and educating consumers thru a promotional blitz.

The writer is wide-eyed and enthusaistic in the face of Wal-Mart's attempts to portray itself as environmentally responsible. He passes on this touching story:
"Last fall," says Kerby, "we had had two hurricanes"--Katrina and Rita--"we had oil production disrupted, we had millions of people displaced in the South, and at a Friday officer's meeting not long after Katrina, Lee Scott said, 'Our customers are hurting, our customers' dollar is not going as far as it could.' He challenged everyone in the room to find relevant rollbacks, to lower the price of living and make a difference for our customers." (Wal-Mart-ers really talk that way among themselves.)
I guess the reporter knew this because Wal-Mart executives told him so?

(Kerby, a vice president and divisional merchandise manager, is the same person who at another point refers offhandedly to "Our friend Oprah".)

The writer sees Wal-Mart's massive market power, its ability to decide the rise and fall of entire industries, as unproblematic - even beneficial, given Wal-Mart's efforts to protect the environment and "make a difference for their customers". Nor does he see anything wrong with the fact that Wal-Mart's patronage will give GE a stranglehold on the efficient lightbulb industry.

He also suffers from a bit too much enthusiasm about the potential of energy efficient lightbulbs. If every American family replaced a single convential bulb with an efficient one, he writes, the energy savings could power a city of 1.5 million people. So the potential really is huge, and Wal-Mart really could be a force for good - if we look at the issue in a highly circumscribed way. Yet to pretend that solving the environmental catastrophes that consumer capitalism is crafting for us will be as easy as changing your lightbulbs (and saving money in the process!) is a bit naive. We have to consume better, but what's more important is consuming less.


The coming war with Iran

It's taken quite awhile, but I'm finally convinced: the Bush administration intends to attack Iran.

From the moment that an invasion of Iraq was raised, I was certain that it would happen. All the conditions were in place: the administration had carte blanche from an uncritical, nationalistic, and xenophobic American public to do as it pleased following 9/11 and the seemingly successful attack on Afghanistan. Iraq was a perfect target in the eyes of US government planners: its military was pathetically weak after over 10 years of devastating sanctions; destroying its government would eliminate one of the few in the world that still defied US hegemony and serve as a lesson to the other holdouts; it would give the USA an even tighter grip on the world's oil; and it would allow the USA to establish permanent military bases to police the Middle East now that the existing bases in Saudi Arabia were becoming a liability. Eventually Iraq and Afghanistan could serve as the launching pad for a ground invasion of Iran, which the US government all along has seen as the real threat to American control over the Middle East.

Thruout the long, drawn-out debate over whether to attack Iraq, I knew that war was inevitable. Yet I expected the American strategy of dominating postwar Iraq to be different. I thought they would follow the model established in the post-World War II occupied nations of South Korea, Japan, and Germany: execute the top leaders but restore to power the bureaucratic and business elites along with the security forces, placing an American vassal at their head.

What I didn't realize is that the administration's policymakers, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, harbored bizarre fantasies about postwar Iraq. They really believed the Shia would welcome them as liberators and accept an American-designated puppet (probably Ahmed Chalabi) as their leader. They expected to destroy the machinery of the Baathist (ie Sunni-dominated) state and be able to fairly easily suppress the Sunni backlash. I suppose they also thought that the loyal Kurds wouldn't make any trouble either.

The Shia, however, remembered how the USA abandoned them to Saddam Hussein's vicious reprisals after they responded to the American call to rise up after the 1991 war. They remembered the sanctions decade and the horrific toll it took on them. They remembered, in a way that Americans do not, the 60-year history of US machinations in the Middle East. The Shia forced key changes in the US-designed electoral process, preventing the emergence of a government of US pawns. Instead Iraq now has a fairly representative government that is using American power to attack the armed Sunni opposition, but has no intention of ceding permanent control to the USA. The massive failure of the American de-Baathification strategy is well-known, and has put Iraq on an irrevocable path to civil war.

For the last several years I had assumed that the administration was chastened by the mockery Iraq's reality made of their dreams. I had no illusions about the administration's orientation toward Iran - I'm quite sure that covert anti-Iran operations are ongoing. Yet I thought that the military realities of having so many resources tied down in Iraq along with the realization that neoconservative fantasy-ideology was fallible would prevent an open attack.

Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker changed my mind. Based on a variety of sources, Hersh writes that Israel closely consulted the USA before attacking Lebanon. The Americans were very enthusiastic, Hersh reports. They expected the attack on Lebanon to pave the way for their own attack on Iran.

The Lebanon operation would serve two purposes for the Americans. First, it would weaken Hizbollah, Iran's ally, making it hard for Hizbollah to act in solidarity when Iran was attacked. Second, "it would be a demo for Iran." According to a Hersh article from last April, the Iran war was to be executed primarily thru bombing - bombing Iran's nuclear facilities (possibly using nuclear weapons to reach those deep underground), but also bombing key infrastructure and non-nuclear military sites. The Americans hoped this would humiliate and discredit the leadership and a popular uprising (including uprisings by the ethnic minorities that have been a focus of covert US organizing) would then overthrow the regime.

It seems clear the fantasies of the neocons are completely intact. As the Lebanon war demonstrated, relentlessly bombing even a highly divided society - surprise! - turns the population against the agressor and not against the supposed targets of the bombing. (And Lebanon has far greater ethnic and sectarian tensions than Iran.) As Lebanon - and every other air war in history - has shown, air power is good at destroying infrastructure and killing civilians, but not good at removing political actors from the scene. And all this doesn't even take into account the fact that bombing civilians until they do what you want - eliminate Hizbollah, overthrow the Irani government - is a war crime.

Yet perhaps the Bush administration would be satisfied with more limited gains. Setting back the Irani nuclear program, destroying large amounts of Irani military capacity, disrupting Irani influence on Iraq, crippling the Irani economy - these are all within reach. A war might also provoke the customary upsurge of mindless patriotism that could ensure a Republican win in the next presidential election. If the USA didn't get sucked into a ground war, if Iran were prevented from taking effective countermeasures like blocking shipments of oil out of the Persian Gulf, and if the rise in the price of oil that followed the war didn't send the global economy into free fall, an attack on Iran seems like a good bet from the neocon perspective. The upsurge in global anti-Americanism and further discrediting of the UN would even be plus points.

The question is whether Israel's failure in Lebanon will end the administration's slow but steady drive to war. If Hersh's sources are right, the Bush administration remains unabashed by the disaster in Iraq and the threat of overextending the military. But will the failure of what was billed as a test run for the Iran attack have a stronger effect? Early indications are that it will not. The New York Times reports that administration officials and their allies in Congress are pressing intelligence agencies to heighten their estimation of the Iran threat. Iran is standing firm against America and Europe's ultimatum that it give up its nuclear weapons program, allowing the USA to move one step closer to establishing the diplomatic pretext for an attack.

America's goals in Iran are less ambitious than they were in Iraq - crippling it (or inspiring popular rebellion) rather than occupying and rebuilding it. Because of the Irani nuclear "threat", it has greater international support. I'm now convinced that the Bush administration intends to attack Iran. Yet I do not believe the Iran war is inevitable. The American public is more skeptical now, and international support may evaporate as the American plan to attack becomes more clear. I think we can prevent this one, but the antiwar movement will have to shake off its torpor, and soon.


The human rights discourse and China

Last week was 六四 in 中国/China - June 4, the day the government massacred protesters around 天安门广场/Tian'anmen Square in 1989. I happened to be meeting with a friend of mine on the anniversary, a grad student at 北大/Beijing University, China's most prestigious university whose students were extremely active in the 1989 protest movement. I asked him what he thought about 6/4. He didn't even realize that it was the anniversary of the massacre.

The Tian'anmen massacre is understood very differently in China than in the USA. Americans see it as very black and white: the protesters were heroes fighting for democracy, the government was a villain crushing the people's hopes. Chinese people, on the other hand, tend to either accept the government line - that the protests were destabilizing and threatened chaos if nothing was done - or have some sympathy for the protesters' ideals and goals but nevertheless criticize them for being too reckless.

Even more striking is the contrast between appraisals of 6/4's place in history. For Americans, the Tian'anmen massacre is the defining event of the last 25 years of Chinese history. The strongest and most enduring American perception of China - of a country with common human rights violations and few freedoms - stems directly from 6/4. Chinese people disagree. For most, 6/4 isn't even worth commemorating. The discourse on human rights in China is seen as largely a foreign imposition used against the country by foreign powers that want to prevent China's rise to greatness. This isn't to say that Chinese people aren't worried about or critical of the violation of certain freedoms, but grouping all these issues under the rubric of "human rights" is rarely heard.

You might assume that this is because the climate of repression prevents people from saying openly what they feel, but the "climate of repression" in China is far overblown in American minds. Holding a protest or distributing essays might get you in trouble, but people have no qualms expressing themselves in private. Even writing critical essays on the web is tolerated to a certain extent, as related in a recent New York Times Magazine piece.

What people are worried about, and often very angry about, is not the rights of dissident intellectuals but the far bigger social problems of growing inequality and economic insecurity. The right to organize, the right to a stable job, the right to education, the right to health care - these issues are constantly being debated in China, even tho simply raising them is an implicit critique of government policy. Yet many, perhaps most, Americans wouldn't even consider these to be human rights. Recognizing both the latitude to criticize the government (within limits) that does exist in China, and the nature of that criticism as being primarily economic, makes the typical formulation of American writers - that the Chinese government allows economic freedom but not political freedom - seem like nonsense.

Other human rights violations, far more severe than those affecting intellectuals, are mostly ignored in both the West and in China. Two key ones are government-supported Han colonization of ethnic minorities' lands and all its accompanying repressions and the rights of prisoners. Many Americans have a vague idea that China is oppressing Tibet, but remain ignorant of the equally severe repression in Xinjiang directed especially against Uighurs. Han Chinese, far from seeing this as a human rights problem, harbor deep stereotypes against "dangerous" ethnic minorities, especially the Uighur, and see Han/Communist Party colonization as liberation. In this regard they're not so different from other imperialist peoples, including Americans, who rarely question the imbalance of power between themselves and their objects of domination.

At all levels of the criminal justice system, too, there are major violations of rights that go far beyond the unjust arrest of people for exercising their right to free speech. False arrest, torture, false testimony and forced confessions by the police, mistreatment of prisoners, execution - the list of rights violations in the Chinese justice system goes on and on. Americans hear about these when they affect dissidents, or sometimes professionals or Falun Gong members, but these groups make up a small percentage of the people suffering in Chinese prisons.

I'm not trying to excuse Chinese people for ignoring abuses against socially marginal groups or dissidents, but I do think the human rights criticisms of China coming out of the United States are imbalanced and in many ways distort the actual experience of Chinese people. As human rights is increasingly used as a rhetorical club by those favoring a new cold war with China, now seems like a good time to reevaluate what the human rights situation in China really is and what Americans can realistically do about it.


Ahmadinejad the progressive

The best recent article i've read on Iran is this one. As strange as it seems, Ahmadinejad might be the best thing that could have happened to Iran. Not only is he consolidating power at the expense of the clerics, he's also taking a stand for women's rights. Here's some strange rhetoric to hear coming out of Iran: "Unfortunately, whenever there is talk of social corruption, fingers are pointed at women," Ahmadinejad said. "Shouldn't men be blamed for the problems, too?"

Of course the actual best thing that could happen is the rise of a feminist, secular, anti-imperialist, pareconist mass movement. But given the constraints of reality, I'd be pretty satisfied if Ahmadinejad can pull a Nixon going to China and both democratize Iran (accumulating power in the presidency, an elected position, would be a step in the right direction) and improve the place of women. This isn't to excuse Ahmadinejad's far-right positions on religion in government or the existence of the Holocaust. But, as painful and strange as this is, it seems like he might be the most progressive leader in the Middle East today.


Markets in China and their victims

I finally got around to contributing to The Protest again. This is my summary of what the market reforms have done to China and why massive opposition to them is unlikely to yield anything constructive.

for unknown reasons, the word "China" is not featured in the title

State Power, The Market and Oppression

China is a mess of contradictions. It has the most dynamic and fastest continually growing economy in the world. This economic expansion has lifted millions of people out of poverty and hunger and opened extraordinary new opportunities for millions more. Its cities are filled with construction cranes, new malls (including the biggest mall in the world) and all the luxuries available in the rich countries.

Yet social unrest is greater now than at any time since the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. According to government estimates, last year alone saw nearly 90,000 riots and demonstrations, a number that has grown rapidly in the last few years. Juxtaposed against the consumer opulence of the big cities is the appalling exploitation of restaurant staff, factory workers and construction crews, who work 12-hour shifts seven days a week for 40 cents an hour. These workers' employers house them in cramped dorm rooms and regularly interfere in their personal lives, setting curfews or threatening to fire them if they travel home to see their family on the lunar new year, China's most important holiday.

The sweeping market reforms of the last 27 years brought about these devastating contrasts. The government dismantled the planned economy — owned and operated completely by the state — and gradually imposed market forces and the profit motive. These reforms did solve many of the problems of the planned economy, such as an overemphasis on heavy industry, innumerable production bottlenecks, low productivity and allocative inefficiency.

Yet the market reforms also created a host of new social problems. Of all people, China's supposedly Marxist leadership should have foreseen that their reforms would entail increasing levels of worker exploitation, skyrocketing wealth inequality, rapidly expanding corruption and accepting a subordinate position in the global economy. Market-led development has also created innumerable severe environmental problems: China's cities are the most polluted in the world, its waterways are filled with industrial runoff, its forests are disappearing.

Of course we should avoid misplaced nostalgia for the prereform period. Aside from the clear economic problems with central planning, Chinese society before 1979 was highly repressive and imposed strict limits on freedoms of movement, speech, association, sexuality and job choice. Today these freedoms are still restricted in key ways, but the market reforms have helped to expand freedom in China, often in ways unintended by the officials responsible.

Yet neither should we succumb to the kind of free market boosterism so common in the Chinese and Western media. The reforms may have increased freedom, but they have done so in deeply unequal ways and often with ambiguous results. Peasants are now free to leave the land and move to the cities — where they become second-class citizens and highly exploited workers. People are free to pick their own jobs, but what exactly are their choices? For the millions of rural migrants to the cities, their choice is between one kind of degrading work or another, all for pittance wages with no job security or healthcare and no access to education for their children.

Though incomes in China have risen several times over, the new burden of fees for basic services and rising taxes have also increased rapidly, leaving many people actually worse off than before. Nearly everyone once enjoyed the system of public services that included free healthcare, free education and free housing. Of course the market now offers many more choices when it comes to these basic needs, but only the small middle class, 10 to 15 percent of the population, can afford such choices. Just one-third of the country has even basic health insurance, and a World Health Organization survey in 2000 ranked China fourth from last in healthcare fairness. Stuck between school fees for their children and medical fees for their parents or themselves, millions upon millions of peasants must leave their families, travel hundreds of miles to the cities, and suffer appalling working conditions and the contempt of urban residents just to get by.

The reforms have restricted the very intimate power that party cadres once wielded over people's work lives, family lives and even love lives. Yet the decentralization of administrative power has given local officials greater leeway to squeeze taxes out of peasants and expropriate their land, as well as to exploit connections in corrupt or nepotistic fashion. The central government has repeatedly promised to crack down on corruption, yet its power over localities has been deeply compromised by decentralization, and the anti-corruption campaigns amount to little more than rhetoric. Meanwhile the market reforms have ushered in a dramatic rise in previously miniscule social problems like unemployment, homelessness and violent crime.

Popular opposition to the problems created by markets is strong and growing. The Western media have generally misunderstood or ignored this trend. In the 1989 protests that culminated in the massacre around Tian'anmen Square, for instance, the media portrayed only a "Democracy Movement" led by idealistic young students hungry for Western politics. To some extent this was accurate, but what gave the protests real power — and what terrified the government most — was that workers protesting the effects of economic liberalization, especially inflation, joined the demonstrations. The complex reality didn't fit the media's story line, and their blanket prescription for solving China's problems remained unchanged: more market reform.

It's no different today, as the Western media's two most popular economic suggestions to China show. The first is to legally enshrine property rights, ostensibly to help peasants protect their land from corrupt officials who confiscate it and sell it to developers for their own profit. The second is to privatize state-owned enterprises so that they can slim down and start making money. Great suggestions from the point of view of investors, but these reforms would be a disaster for regular workers and peasants. All land is currently state-owned, a vestige of socialism that makes it easy for corrupt officials to force peasants off their land. Already 70 million peasants have lost their land this way. Yet changing land into a private commodity would expose peasants to another equally dangerous threat: expropriation through the market. One of the Chinese revolution's greatest achievements was destroying the old system of a few large landowners controlling masses of destitute tenants. That system would quickly reemerge if land were once again subject to the market.

As the government moves closer to privatizing land, it is already privatizing many state-owned enterprises. Since these businesses are some of the only ones still providing job security and full benefits to their employees, their higher costs leave them uncompetitive against all the rest, which exploit their workers to the breaking point. Not only does privatization lead to major job losses and benefit cuts, but it also allows corrupt officials and their family and friends to accumulate great private wealth at public expense as they buy the companies for next to nothing or rob the pension funds of the employees. Declining job quality and increasing unemployment: this is what economists call "efficiency."

The countless victims of the market reforms don't take all this lying down, as the rapid rise in demonstrations attests. But what are the chances for success in winning something better? Progressive movements face an uphill struggle.

China's two central problems today are the vast, unaccountable power of the state and the growing strength of the market and private wealth. Since the reforms began in 1979, these two forces have forged a powerful and mutually beneficial bond. The state imposes markets, pays for key business requirements like infrastructure and skilled education, develops key sectors through targeted subsidies and protectionism, and represses the social unrest caused by markets. Intimate personal links nourish an alliance between the two sides: most successful businessmen are either former government officials or officials' close friends or family.

Given the strength and unity of elites, workers and peasants can only win meaningful change by uniting as well. Yet protests in China remain local and isolated. The government is partly responsible, controlling the news media and repressing any organization that might serve as a unifying force. But perhaps the bigger problem is how protesters themselves see their problems.

Rural protesters generally aim their ire against some local official who has imposed heavy taxes or expropriated their land or against a factory that has poisoned their air or water. When, inevitably, the official refuses concessions, the peasants frequently send a representative to Beijing to appeal to the central government for help. Labor protests are similarly local in focus. Protesters complain that their boss has stolen their pension fund or illegally forced them off the job, rarely taking aim at the market structures that encourage such abuses.

The problem, directly tied to the fragmented and isolated nature of social protest in China, is that the victims of the state and markets have no structural critique of the forces working against them, and, therefore, no consciousness of how closely related their struggles are. They direct their anger against mere agents — local officials or factory bosses — of those forces, rather than against the government and the economic system, which gives those agents power in the first place. In my two years living in China, I've heard many people criticize the course of their country, but I've never heard anyone locate these problems in the fundamental systems that structure Chinese power and wealth.

The problem should be familiar to Americans, because we suffer from the same short-sightedness. Every new war, every new corporate scandal, every time we hear that the government is spying on citizens or torturing foreigners, every time the number of people without health insurance increases — every perfectly predictable result of the power structure in the United States takes us by surprise. The answer to unceasing abuses of power, in the United States as in China, is to develop a structural understanding of how the inequality of power is built and maintained and how we can undo it. This approach also points toward the strategic and moral necessity of a unified social movement demanding fundamental restructuring rather than tinkering on the margins.

The problems of China may seem far away, but they're not so different from those Americans face, and they're connected in important ways. To address these problems we must all understand what we're facing and all get involved to fix it.
For more information:

On the healthcare system, see The Wall Street Journal, December 5 and 30, 2005.

On inequality and social unrest, see The New York Times series “The Great Divide,” October 13, November 10, December 8, 21 and 31, 2004.

On migrant workers, see Dorothy Solinger, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market.

On the economics of market reform, see Barry Naughton, Growing Out of the Plan: Chinese Economic Reform, 1978-1993.


Henry Paulson and conflict within the American economic elite

Henry Paulson shouldn't have any trouble being confirmed as the new Secretary of the Treasury. Frequent critics of the Bush administration were falling all over themselves welcoming his nomation. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer called him "the best pick that America could have hoped for" and The New York Times sounds like it has a major crush on Paulson, claiming he "will bring much-needed clout, pragmatism and credibility to the job" and holding out hope that he'll support "rigorous economics and sound fiscal practices" in the administration.

So mainstream Democrats can hardly contain themselves in praising a man who is worth $700 million and heads Goldman Sachs, one of the most powerful forces in international financial capitalism. If we needed any more proof, this shows conclusively that the Democrats are a lost cause until something big changes in how much popular pressure the left can bring to bear on them.

Okay, I've made my polemical point. But the choice of Paulson and the Democratic response also points to some interesting things going on within the American elite. In the broad scheme of things, there are four basic economic orientations: radical, social democrat, neoliberal, and fascist. The American elite and most government policy can be placed within the neoliberal category, yet there remain disagreements even among neoliberals. Some prefer expanding markets slowly and working to coopt opposition in order to maintain economic stability, others prefer a naked grab for power, pursuing a rapid increase in inequality and deregulation. There are also differences based on industry: financial capital and multinational corporations have different interests than those producing primarily for the domestic market or companies like military contractors, which thrive on international instability.

Paulson hails from that faction of the elite that prioritizes economic stability and is based in financial capital, which is the same faction that controlled the Clinton administration's economic policy. Clinton's Treasury Secretaries, Robert Rubin (also an ex-chief of Goldman Sachs) and Larry Summers (former chief economist at the World Bank), enthusiastically pursued balanced budgets, slow-moving domestic market reforms, free trade, and free movement for financial capital. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has pursued a program of rapid market reforms to the domestic economy, most obviously huge tax cuts for the richest Americans and a failed bid to privatize Social Security. It has invested little effort in the multilateral negotiations favored by the Clinton administration to help American corporations penetrate foreign markets, preferring instead unilateral trade agreements and war and occupation as market-opening mechanisms. It has given much less attention to the interests of financial capital and instead prioritized the interests of energy and military companies. And it has created an enormous budget deficit as it quickly expands military spending and cuts taxes.

All of these policies rub the more cautious wing of the neoliberal elite the wrong way. They worry that the Bush administration's aggressive approach could give rise to either economic crisis or popular opposition that would undo the gains that have been made. This is why Paulson, a solid member of their faction, is such a welcome pick.

The question is how Paulson will affect policy. He could just be window dressing meant to calm financial markets and mollify other governments, or he could significantly change the direction of policy. Two especially important areas to keep an eye on are China and energy. The cautious neoliberal faction tends to support an "engagement" policy with China, meant to profit American companies while binding China in US-dominated international economic institutions. The Bush administration has rhetorically endorsed such an approach, but led by Cheney and Rumsfeld has worked quietly to contain China with military alliances and economic pressure. In this regard the Bush administration has proved similar to the Clinton administration, which quietly laid the groundwork for China's military encirclement while speaking loudly of trade and cooperation. But the forces within the Bush administration calling for overt confrontation with China have always been stronger than under Clinton and constantly threaten to push the administration into open cold war. Will Paulson, who has worked extensively with China and explicitly endorses the engagement position, prevent a move to more robust containment?

The second issue is energy and global warming. Parts of the American economic elite are increasingly worried about the damage that global warming promises and about the uncertainty of not having a national policy on global warming. A different faction, based in fossil fuel producers and the car companies, is resolutely opposed to greater regulation. Paulson, who is also chairman of the board of the Nature Conservancy, is clearly a member of the former. The Bush administration has clearly been pursuing the demands of the latter. It will be interesting to see how this conflict plays out.

If Paulson can affect policy, should he be considered an improvement? Obviously some regulation on carbon emissions is preferable to none, balanced budgets are better than rapid redistribution from the poor to the rich, and engaging China isn't as bad as containing it. Yet all of these policies, tho less bad than the far-right alternative, are themselves fundamentally flawed. Moreover, we could argue that Clinton's approach to freeing up international trade and investment was more effective than the Bush administration's, which shows that the cautious faction isn't always to be preferred.

Regardless, the choice between two different factions of neoliberal elites is not something we should spend too much time agonizing over. Moving public debate toward social democratic (liberal) and ultimately radical policies is what we should be concentrating on, and that will only happen thru the hard work of organizing.


The New Yorker wants to give up on food politics

The New Yorker has a decent article on the organic food industry, reviewing a couple new books (including Michael Pollan's, the guy who wrote that New York Times Magazine feature I criticized for a remarkably weak argument against vegetarianism. As we discussed in the comments, even tho Pollan is a human supremacist he's also an environmentalist and pro-organic). These books look closely at the organic industry and call into question how promising it is as a force for change when it has openly embraced market logic, pursues an agriculture model of monoculture and long-distance, energy-intensive transport to market, and features a questionable commitment to the principles it loudly proclaims in its marketing. I especially liked this:
[Pollan bought] an "organic" chicken whose "free-range" label was authorized by U.S.D.A. statutes, but which actually shared a shed with twenty thousand other genetically identical birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a patch of grass, but they remained shut until the birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks later Pollan’s "free range" chicken was a $2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods.
Yet after examining all the problems with the organic industry in a spirit sympathetic to sustainable environmentalism, the writer unexpectedly turns on us. He writes:
Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn’t give much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious scare about an imminent Malthusian crisis: the world’s rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity. The Haber-Bosch process [manufacturing synthetic fertilizers] averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world’s food supply during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he said, in 1971, that if America returned to organic methods "someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!" According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish.
As usual, this argument is made without considering the incredibly inefficient uses of grain caused by meat eating. Depending on the animal and the livestock farming methods, eating animals uses 7-10 times more grain than feeding people directly. 70-80 percent of corn, the biggest grain crop in the USA, is used to feed animals. So ending meat consumption, or even significantly reducing it, would free up a huge amount of cropland that could be used for organic farming, which is less efficient in the short term but far more sustainable in the long term.

Of course in many ways the American agriculture system is unique in the world (tho, disastrously, market penetration and increased meat eating are leading many countries to adopt it). So the contradiction between feeding everyone and the urgent need for sustainable agriculture isn't quite as easily solved globally as it could be in the American case. The author of this article seems to think that we should simply give up, especially in light of the fact that "[t]o insist that we are consuming not just salad but a vision of society isn’t wrong, but it’s biting off more than most people are able and willing to chew."

Yet simply because markets and dysfunctional politics insulate people from the destructive consequences of their eating doesn't mean we should quit trying to change things. Two key reforms in addition to reducing meat consumption are needed. First, prices need to reflect the ecological damage caused by different kinds of consumption so that people can start making choices that are socially and environmentally rational. This would handily fix the problem of people not caring about the consequences of their eating. Of course markets are incapable of delivering such prices, so a new system of taxes and regulations on energy, petrochemicals, monoculture cropping, and meat production is needed as we move towards an economy like parecon that is friendly to this kind of cost accounting.

Second, I think the left needs to start thinking seriously about population control. I have a lot of bad associations with population control, like the coercive policies of China and many other countries or the tendency of advocates from the rich countries to blame the world's problems on population increase in poor countries when high levels of consumption in the rich countries are actually more destructive. Yet I think there's potential in a progressive approach to population control, as shown in the Indian province of Kerala, by emphasizing women's empowerment and economic equality. This is something we need to think about if we want to achieve global equality by increasing the material standard of living of poor people rather than dramatically lowering it for rich people.


Nationalism and competitiveness

To: Brent Staples
Re: "Why American College Students Hate Science"

You write:
"[If we don't prioritize the training of scientists], America is unlikely to preserve its privileged position in an increasingly competitive and science-based global economy."

Since you frequently and insightfully write about race in America, I was surprised and disappointed by this line of argument. Would you accept a white person who called on other whites to train white students in order to outcompete other races? I doubt it - I assume you'd argue that racial competition is harmful and leads to racial supremacy, that the answer is not intensified competition but an end to racism and the establishment of real equality.

Is there a difference between this kind of competitive racial thinking and the nationalism you draw on to make your argument? Is fighting to keep your nation on top really any different from fighting to keep your race on top? Is American supremacy any less objectionable than white supremacy?


Why the US alliance with Israel?

A long-running debate on the left has been revived by the controversial report "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Why is the US alliance with Israel so strong?

It's a puzzling question because the level of commitment the USA has given Israel is without comparison. The USA devotes about one-fifth of its total foreign aid budget to Israel and Israel has been the leading recipient of foreign aid every year since 1976, for a total of $140 million since World War II (cited in Mearsheimer and Walt). Mearsheimer and Walt succinctly demolish the idea that the reason for these incredible levels of support has anything to do with the moral superiority of Israel, and they throw into question strategic rationales for the alliance. Their answer is that the incredible influence of the Israel lobby over foreign policy is responsible for the alliance.

Mearsheimer and Walt, two leading academic proponents of foreign policy "realism", argue that American interests are not served by the alliance with Israel, and that the Israel lobby distorts America's rational self-interest. Many people on the left basically agree, and in addition to the moral imperative of ending support for the human rights violations of Israel, argue against the alliance.

But other leftists have a different explanation for the USA-Israel alliance. They argue that it's not the Israel lobby that explains the alliance, but the strategic necessities of American imperialism. Israel is a proxy for the United States in a region that the USA insists on dominating because of its unmatched energy resources. Norman Finkelstein makes this argument on ZNet. Michael Neumann responds to Finkelstein, arguing strongly against the idea of strategic interests driving American Israel policy, on Counterpunch.

The analytical disagreement on the left often falls along radical/liberal lines. Radicals tend to argue that deep structures (capitalism or the state) are driving foreign policy, whereas liberals tend to argue it's more individuals and ideology. The radical demand for revolutionary change follows from their argument, while the liberal prescription of convincing our leaders of their follies follows from theirs.

On Israel, the arguments break down similarly: liberals like Neumann say the alliance is just a result of the Israel lobby and that our leaders should recognize that the alliance is actually detrimental to national interests. Radicals like Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky say the alliance is actually a structural imperative, and if we want to help the Palestinians we have to fundamentally attack American imperialism and the very concept of national interests.

As to the merits of their arguments, Neumann overstates a number of his arguments to the point of disingenuousness. He tries to play down the strength of Israel, the unreliability of other regional American allies, and the precariousness of Gulf state elites. But Israel really is many times militarily stronger than any other state in the region. Popular feeling in Israel really does make it a far more dependable ally than any Arab state will ever be. And the grip on power of Gulf state elites is far more tenuous than Neumann acknowledges. This has been a constant concern of US planners for 60 years. Furthermore, statements like "The US relies on its fleet and can easily launch devastating attacks without any land bases at all" and "Egypt's instability would quickly vanish were it so lucky as Israel with American largesse, and were America to wean itself of its attachment to Israel" - are simply completely wrong.

On the other hand, he makes a good point: the USA really doesn't seem to be getting much out of Israel strategically. So why the alliance?

I don't think it's simply because of the Israel lobby. The China lobby, which supported the Guomindang against the Communists in the Chinese civil war, makes an instructive comparison. It was extremely powerful in Congress and counted many influential and wealthy people in its ranks, yet the USA dropped the Guomindang in an instant as soon as the strategic realities called for it.

Another interesting point is something Finkelstein mentions: before the 1967 war, the USA was pretty much indifferent to Israel, afterward it became one of America's most important allies almost immediately. This points strongly to something other than the Israel lobby at work. Chomsky argues the 1967 war showed Israel to be the preeminent military power in the region, and that's what made it newly attractive as an ally.

I do think the alliance is primarily strategic. Yet I'm not convinced that it's because Israel is useful for projecting American power. Israel probably is seen as a trump card in case anything really catastrophic for American domination of the region happens, but I’m not sure this is adequate to explain the extraordinary levels of support it receives. Despite the destabilizing effects of the alliance on the USA’s other regional client states that Neumann points out, planners may also be acting to actually stabilize the Middle East. By making Israel far stronger than any of its opponents, the Arab countries have been forced to give up the idea of starting another war. Israel has also long provided secret aid to American projects around the world, from training counterinsurgency forces in Central America to aiding covert American operations in the Middle East.

I’m not really satisfied with these answers either, and must admit that I can’t fully explain the alliance with Israel. But I will come down on the side of the radicals in that I don’t think American support for Israel can be separated from the larger question of American domination of the Middle East, and that we should oppose not only the Israel lobby but the idea of national interests itself, which animates the Mearsheimer and Walt critique and is at least exploited by otherwise humanitarian-minded liberals.


Those who criticize American human rights violations are "unpredictable and potentially dangerous"

Irani President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a long, polemical letter to George Bush two days ago, the first direct communication between the two governments’ leaders since 1979. Predictably, the Bush administration dismissed the letter because "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way" (Rice) and "it did not answer the main question that the world is asking, and that is, 'When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'" (Bush). The USA isn’t interested in dealing with any communication except one that announces capitulation to American demands.

The media have learned nothing from the Iraq debacle. Reporters immediately adopted the viewpoint of the US government, using polemical language to describe the letter ("screed" was popular, also "rambling", "diatribe"); highlighting those parts of it - condemnations of liberal democracy and Israel - least likely to get a receptive audience in the States; and devoting more space in their articles to American officials dismissing it than to what it had to say. (See The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today).

In typical condescension, to the extent the media took the letter seriously it was to gain insight into "their mentality" (The New York Times quoting a high official). ABC News said the letter "provides a fascinating and disturbing look into the mind of one of the world's most unpredictable and potentially dangerous leaders." USA Today took a look into that mind and found "a naive leader whose beliefs stem from resentment and ignorance of the Western world". Sally Buzbee, the AP's Chief of Middle East News concluded that "the Muslim world" remains fixated on "a long list of grievances" from as long as 50 years ago but that if Ahmadinejad "won't budge on the nuclear issue[,] it's going to be nearly impossible for anybody in the West ever really to talk with [him]."

It's interesting to see how the media impose this feeling of otherness on the US government's enemies. If you actually read the letter, you find some hypocrisy, a lot of problematic political philosophy - and a lot of very progressive stands on key issues that the media ignores because the US government doesn't talk about them.

Using the rhetorically powerful device of asking Bush whether Jesus would agree with the policies that Bush has pursued, Ahmadinejad raises the key issues he sees dividing the US and Iran. They include the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the torture of prisoners, Israel's human rights violations and American support for them, American opposition to the Irani nuclear program (which he casts as pursuit of technology rather than pursuit of nuclear weapons), American opposition to democratically elected governments in Palestine and Latin America, the coverup (he claims) of US government involvement in orchestrating 9/11, and the USA spending money on the military when it could be spent to address poverty. He writes:
If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent on investment and assistance for poor countries, promotion of health, combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness, assistance to the victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities and production, development projects and poverty alleviation, establishment of peace, mediation between disputing states, and extinguishing the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts, were would the world be today?
He also lists a number of specific abuses committed by the USA against Iran:
the coup d'etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day, opposition to the Islamic revolution, transformation of an Embassy into a headquarters supporting the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic (many thousands of pages of documents corroborate this claim), support for Saddam in the war waged against Iran, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger plane, freezing the assets of the Iranian nation, increasing threats, anger and displeasure vis-a-vis the scientific and nuclear progress of the Iranian nation...
In every point here, with the sole exception of his implication that the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks, Ahmadinejad is raising urgent and justified criticisms of the US government. More than a few Americans might agree with these criticisms, if they were ever made aware that Iran was making them. Instead the media and government write off what Iranis actually say as some sort of psychological problem and return to the matter at hand: preserving the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East for the USA and Israel.

Of course we shouldn't romanticize Ahmadinejad or the Irani government's resistance against American power - as the rest of the letter makes clear, Ahmadinejad is not approaching these issues from anything close to a progressive standpoint. Yet we should also be clear: it is the right of all states to acquire nuclear weapons if an aggressive, nuclear-armed imperialist power is threatening them. The United States, which is itself responsible for much of what's wrong in the Middle East, has no right to make demands on anyone in the region. Problems in the Middle East will persist as long as the many legitimate demands raised by Ahmadinejad continue to be ignored by the US government, media, and public.

Here's a shock

From The Washington Post, Projected Iraq War Costs Soar:
Even if a gradual troop withdrawal begins this year, war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to rise by an additional $371 billion during the phaseout, the report said, citing a Congressional Budget Office study. When factoring in costs of the war in Afghanistan, the $811 billion total for both wars would have far exceeded the inflation-adjusted $549 billion cost of the Vietnam War.


The environment under parecon

I've been reading Robin Hahnel's book Economic Justice and Democracy, which came out last year. The book has some interesting things to say about why libertarian socialists have failed in the past, a strong but not very detailed argument against markets, and one of the more complete responses to critics of participatory economics. But what I want to bring up here is his proposal for how parecon would institutionally deal with the environment.

For those unfamiliar with parecon, it's a proposal for a nonmarket, democratically-planned economy with nonhierarchical workplaces and an egalitarian distribution of incomes. Parecon proponents argue that it's also far more environmentally friendly than capitalism.

The reason markets are fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability is that prices are determined exclusively by agreement between the buyer and seller. That means that the ways production and consumption affect other people and the environment is structurally ignored. Thus the price of gasoline only takes into account oil companies' costs to extract, refine, and distribute gas - not the costs incurred by the people who breathe the fumes or the damage to poor Bangladeshis when global warming increases flooding.

A secondary problem with markets is that they're biased towards individual consumption and against collective consumption, which makes collective environmental solutions like public transit much harder to implement.

To the extent that the environmental movement has mobilized effectively, or that elites have begun to fear that wholesale environmental damage will endanger their lives or power, governments intervene in markets thru taxes and regulations to undo some of the environmental damage. But another feature of markets - their tendency to concentrate wealth - allows corporations to manipulate governments and inevitably environmental policies fall short.

Parecon structurally removes the power of corporations by decentralizing wealth and balancing the power of enterprises with that of consumers. It removes the obstacles to collective investment in environmental solutions thru democratic planning. But the key innovation Hahnel proposes is in how prices are determined for environmental damage. (Some knowledge of the participatory planning mechanism is needed to understand the following. A short overview is available here.)
In each iteration in the annual planning procedure there is an indicative price for every pollutant in every relevant region representing the current estimate of the damage, or social cost of releasing a unit of that pollutant into the region. What is a pollutant and what is not are decided by federations representing those who live in a region, who are advised by scientists employed in research and development operations run by the resident federation.... If a worker council located in an affected region proposes to emit x units of a particular polluntant they are "charged" the indicative price for that pollutant in that region times x, just like they are charged y times the indicative price of a ton of steel if they propose to use y tons of steel as inputs in their production process... The consumer federation for the relevant region looks at the indicative price for a unit of every pollutant that impacts the region and decides how many units it wishes to allow to be emitted. The federation can decide they do not wish to permit any units of a pollutant to be emitted: in which case no worker council operating in the region will be allowed to emit any units of that pollutant. But, if the federation decides to allow x units of a pollutant to be emitted in the region, then the regional federation is "credited" with x times the indicative price for that pollutant. (p. 198-199, italics in original)
So the process goes like this:
  1. In the first round of planning, a regional federation names what it considers pollutants and the upper limit of what it will tolerate in its region.
  2. Enterprises make requests for the kinds of pollution they plan on producing and are charged the first-round iterative price on those polluntants, just as they are for other inputs.
  3. If the total request on the amount of some pollutant in that region runs against the limit set by the regional federation, the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) adjusts the iterative price upward for the next round to reflect a surplus of demand; if the total is lower than the federation limit, the price is adjusted downward. Regions receive consumption credits according to how much pollution they allow.
  4. Plans are adjusted in light of the new prices and the process continues thru subsequent rounds of planning.

To make it concrete, let's take some pollutant X as an example. The Kansas consumer federation determines that X's effects are most relevant at that level, and decrees that y tons of X are acceptable for the coming year. All enterprises calculate how much X they can afford to produce in light of the iterative prices supplied by the IFB, which took last year's price and adjusted it in light of projected trends. In the first round of planning we find that Kansas enterprises have proposed to produce twice as much X as what Kansas is willing to allow. Given the excess demand for X, the IFB now revises its price much higher, so that enterprises will look for other production techniques that produce less X and so that consumers will switch to products whose manufacture produces less X. (Consumer adjustments will actually take place in the round after producer adjustments since only in the round after reduced production proposals are submitted will the prices of those products go up to reflect lower supply for steady demand.)

In some ways this is a brilliant fix. It not only forces enterprises to take into account their environmental impact at the point of production and normalizes this as part of the production process rather than an as a form of external government interference. It also produces socially-determined prices for the pollution itself, balancing the benefits of pollution with its damage to people and - if there's an active environmental movement - other life. And it has the additional benefit of compensating those who tolerate greater pollution for their sacrifice.

Some questions I have:
  • Could the process be manipulated by federations? E.g., couldn't some federation name an innocuous industrial byproduct to be a pollutant and thereby reap consumption credits for that byproduct's release in its region?
  • Do higher-level regional federations pre'empt lower ones? If the Sichuan provincial federation says that X is not a pollutant but the Chengdu city federation disagrees, what happens?
  • Hahnel doesn't specify at what level the pollutant price is adjusted - is it adjusted for the whole economy, or for each different federation, yielding many different prices thruout the economy? Is either one of these problematic?
  • How does the "polluter pays" principle figure into the pollution caused not by producers but by consumers thru their use of products? The obvious example here is cars - how is car pollution accounted for? Would some surcharge imposed on gasoline be an adequate fix? How does the damage caused by second-hand smoke get factored into prices?
What do yous think about this proposal? Any answers to these questions? Any questions of your own?