A liberal solution to the automakers crisis

I've already discussed my own solution to the auto industry crisis, but what's interesting is that there is another viable solution to the problem - what we might call the liberal solution as against my radical solution. The American auto companies suffer from two key competitive disadvantages in labor compensation. The first one is that they have to pay for their employees' health insurance. Since the other rich countries all have socialized medicine (which is far more efficient, affordable, and equitable than the USA's insane system), foreign car importers to the United States have a major cost advantage.

The second disadvantage is against not just importers, but foreign automakers who manufacture in the United States as well. As this article shows, the Big 3 automakers pay their workers an average of $73/hour, while Japanese manufacturers in the United States pay only $49/hour. About half of this difference is a result of higher pay and benefits won by the unionized workforce of the American companies that the nonunionized workers of the foreign companies are denied. The rest is a result of Detroit's payment of "legacy costs" - pensions and health insurance commitments that are higher for the Big 3 because their retired workforce is much larger than that of the foreign automakers.

So the liberal solution would involve:

1) Implementing some form of single-payer health insurance, like Medicare for all. Not only is this the only way to rein in healthcare costs and extend coverage to everyone in the country, it would also remove a major burden on the carmakers and every other business that must shoulder the cost of health insurance for its employees.

2) Strengthening unions. The problem is not that Detroit's workers make too much, it's that their foreign competitors exploit their workers to a greater extent, earning them an unfair competitive advantage.

3) Make private pensions less important or eliminate them altogether. We've now seen the results of the brilliant idea that one's retirement income should rest on the whims of the stock market. Restore the public commitment to providing for the elderly.

Okay, this solution does not fundamentally challenge capitalism in any way, so it's not radical. It would simply make the automakers competitive by reconstituting the postwar Fordist production regime - a quintessentially liberal solution. So it tells you quite a bit about today's political situation that not even the so-called liberals would dare call for such modest reforms.


Well it's about time

Rod Blagojevich arrested for massive corruption? If you're surprised then you haven't been following Illinois politics at all.

But this?!
At various times, in exchange for the Senate appointment [replacing Barack Obama], Blagojevich discussed obtaining:

A substantial salary for himself at a either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions;

Placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year;

Promises of campaign funds – including cash up front; and

A cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.

Just last week, on December 4, Blagojevich allegedly told an advisor that he might "get some (money) up front, maybe" from Senate Candidate 5, if he named Senate Candidate 5 to the Senate seat, to insure that Senate Candidate 5 kept a promise about raising money for Blagojevich if he ran for re-election. . . . On November 7, while talking on the phone about the Senate seat with Harris and an advisor, Blagojevich said he needed to consider his family and that he is "financially" hurting, the affidavit states. Harris allegedly said that they were considering what would help the "financial security" of the Blagojevich family and what will keep Blagojevich "politically viable." Blagojevich stated, "I want to make money," adding later that he is interested in making $250,000 to $300,000 a year, the complaint alleges.

On November 10, in a lengthy telephone call with numerous advisors . . . Blagojevich and others discussed various ways Blagojevich could "monetize" the relationships he has made as governor to make money after leaving that office. . . .

Throughout the intercepted conversations, Blagojevich also allegedly spent significant time weighing the option of appointing himself to the open Senate seat and expressed a variety of reasons for doing so, including: frustration at being "stuck" as governor; a belief that he will be able to obtain greater resources if he is indicted as a sitting Senator as opposed to a sitting governor; a desire to remake his image in consideration of a possible run for President in 2016; avoiding impeachment by the Illinois legislature; making corporate contacts that would be of value to him after leaving public office; facilitating his wife's employment as a lobbyist; and generating speaking fees should he decide to leave public office.
This suggests that Blagojevich was not just exceptionally corrupt even by Illinois standards - and that's already quite an achievement - but that he was compulsively corrupt, that he persisted with ever-increasing levels of corruption even after any well-grounded run-of-the-mill corrupt politician would have realized that he was done for. Blagojevich, on the other hand, thought he could either get a lot of money by selling the Senate seat or appoint himself, which would help position him both to repulse an indictment and run for president. The only way to interpret this is as pathology.

Lt Gov Pat Quinn, who has called for Blagojevich to resign, is next in line for governor. That would be a marked improvement - Quinn has a reputation as a reformer in Illinois politics, he supported the constitutional convention and has spoken out on making the tax system less regressive and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Quinn may not be as aggressively progressive as we might like, but getting him the governor's mansion might be exactly what we need to start cleaning up the state and making progress on key issues like the state capital funding bill and getting rid of the flat income tax that have been mired for years in the dysfunction created by Blagojevich's megalomania.



According to a report using 2000 census data, these are the top ten US metropolitan areas with households that do not own a car:

New York City - 42 percent
Jersey City - 30 percent
Waterbury, Connecticut - 16 percent
New Orleans - 14 percent
Philadelphia - 13 percent
Newark - 12 percent
San Francisco - 12 percent
Chicago - 11 percent
Los Angeles - 11 percent


Finally, some good news

Progressives have taken quite a beating in the Obama cabinet announcements. Free marketeers Summers or Geithner are the options at Treasury, militarists Clinton and Kerry are top candidates for the State Department, and Commerce nearly went to Penny Pritzker, whose main qualifications were that she inherited a lot of money and was effective at convincing a lot of rich people to donate to Obama.

Fortunately, Pritzker has taken herself out of consideration after it became clear that her involvement in a collapsed bank deeply implicated in the subprime lending market might lead to bad publicity. (Update: a good article on the Pritzker family's long history of shady business dealings. It turns out they were pioneers in the use of foreign tax shelters to avoid paying their share of the tax burden - a practice, incidentally, that was a key early factor in driving the financialization of the economy because it forced the US to deregulate its banking system so rich people's capital wouldn't all go overseas.) And we might also escape Clinton because her husband's financial dealings have been so questionable. But it's cold comfort when you have to hope for self-sabotage to avoid neoliberal/corporate/imperialist nominees from an ostensibly liberal president-elect.

On another key appointment, I'm still not sure if we finally have an ally or not. Tom Daschle will be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, and he will also be given the lead role in crafting a health reform proposal. Daschle co-wrote a book on reforming healthcare, which I haven't seen yet, but if the National Review is right, he supports
mandates on individuals and businesses to buy or offer coverage; new government-run insurance options for the under-65 population; a national governmental agency offering anyone who wants it to sign up for insurance outside of work; large new subsidy programs; and much more government involvement in determining what is and is not effective medical care.
If this is true, and if Daschle can use his experience as a former Senate leader to push reform thru Congress, then we have our first reason for optimism.

The reason I had to resort to quoting National Review is that all the other accounts focus on Daschle's plan to create a Federal Health Board, which would regulate the entire health industry and, like the Federal Reserve Board, be insulated from political pressure. While such a body could no doubt bring some order out of the absurdly complex mix of inefficient private insurers and the restricted and fragmented public insurers, it's not at all clear that creating an unaccountable body to do this is the right way to go. I will try to get ahold of Daschle's book and figure out the details. In the meantime, the best indication that Daschle might be our friend is his incredible glasses.

If the Daschle appointment is our only (ambiguous) ray of light coming from the emerging Obama administration, there is one development we can celebrate without reserve: Henry Waxman has usurped John Dingell's position as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Dingell is an old (really old - he first joined Congress in 1955) friend of the auto industry, and has been a maddening obstacle for years to finally taking action on the climate crisis. The Democratic caucus voted 137 to 122 to bypass the seniority system and hand control to Waxman, who should help advance legislation to fight global warming. But the big question remains - will the government act forcefully enough to avert disaster, or will new laws be too little too late? We'll have to wait for more concrete signals from the Obama administration, but in the meantime we can make our demands clear on the Global Day of Action on Climate, December 6 (in Chicago at Millenium Park, 11am).


How to solve the automakers crisis

Nationalize the car companies, implement parecon relations of production, and convert the factories to produce something useful, like railcars. Then arrest the executives and put them on trial for subverting democracy and destroying the environment. This is a completely serious proposal. Let it not be said that the left has no alternatives, only that our lawmakers are too ideologically restricted and hypocritical to consider them.


"Keep your enemies close" and all, but isn't it going too far to put the people responsible for the financial crisis in charge of the economy?

Here's a funny story:

In 1997, a woman named Brooksley Born, who was head of a financial regulatory body called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, proposed federal regulation of derivatives. If the proposal had been accepted, it would have significantly limited the current financial chaos.

But the people in charge of financial regulation - Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers - didn't like the idea. They told Born that even talking about regulation could damage the markets, and in meetings they harshly criticized her. According to one of Born's subordinates, "Greenspan told Brooksley that she essentially didn’t know what she was doing and she’d cause a financial crisis. Brooksley was this woman who was not playing tennis with these guys and not having lunch with these guys. There was a little bit of the feeling that this woman was not of Wall Street." (In this context it might be useful to remember that Summers, at least, has stated that women are biologically inferior to men in science and engineering. Since he wasn't addressing high finance, we don't know whether he would extend this judgment to the markets.)

But Born refused to back down, so Greenspan, Rubin, and Summers got Congress to freeze her commission's regulatory authority for six months. Later, Congress permanently withdrew derivatives from the purview of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. Born resigned her post.

In the years since, Summers became president of Harvard, where he alienated pretty much the entire faculty with his authoritarian style and theories about women's biological capabilities. Rubin took a job as "consigliere" at Citigroup, where he makes $10-15 million a year for offering advice like his 2006 gem on the need to increase risk and add exposure to housing market. Citigroup has taken heavy losses. Born is now retired.

Among Born, Rubin, and Summers, can you guess which two are Obama's top economic advisers and possible Secretaries of Treasury? I'll give you a hint - it's not the woman.


This is disturbing

Knee-jerk support for Obama among people who are ostensibly progressive is already well under way. This post on Daily Kos is a love letter to Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obama family, co-leader of transition planning, and now "White House senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison". With only a couple exceptions out of over 400, the commenters agree that Jarrett is an "amazing" "talented" "impressive" "remarkable" woman. Also, "She has a dignity and grace that few people possess."

Jarrett is a creature of the Chicago political and economic elite. She rose to prominence as an important official under Daley, she moves easily among the city's corporate leaders, and even tho she is Robert Taylor's granddaughter, she has taken a leading role in destroying Chicago's public housing. The only good news is that Jarrett might do less damage as a liaison within the bureaucracy than she would have as head of HUD or Illinois Senator.

But make no mistake - Jarrett is an enemy of the progressive agenda, as are most of the other people being suggested for positions within the administration. Summers at Treasury and Clinton as Secretary of State? I didn't think Obama would be terribly good, but I had no idea he could be that bad. Progressives need to get over their Obama crush asap if we're going to provide an effective check on Obama's very centrist impulses.


The number of animals killed to make one chicken breast just keeps going up

It turns out that meat production is not only a major source of greenhouse gases and severe air and water pollution, it is also undermining marine ecosystems. From a New York Times editorial:
Per capita meat consumption more than doubled over the past half-century as the global economy expanded. It is expected to double again by 2050. Which raises the question, what does all that meat eat before it becomes meat?

Increasingly the answer is very small fish harvested from the ocean and ground into meal and pressed into oil. According to a new report by scientists from the University of British Columbia and financed by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, 37 percent by weight of all the fish taken from the ocean is forage fish: small fish like sardines and menhaden. Nearly half of that is fed to farmed fish; most of the rest is fed to pigs and poultry.

The problem is that forage fish are the feedstock of marine mammals and birds and larger species of fish. In other words, farmed fish, pigs and poultry — and the humans who eat them — are competing for food directly with aquatic species that depend on those forage fish for their existence.
It's very positive that The New York Times editorial page is devoting space to issues like this, and what's even better was their concluding remark: "The real answers are support for sustainable agriculture in the developing world and encouraging healthy, less meat-based eating habits as a true sign of affluence everywhere." This is the first time I've seen a mainstream source call for less meat-eating, and coming from the same writers who made one of the most pathetic cop-outs I've seen on the meat issue less than two years ago, it has to be regarded as progress.


Obama's Senate seat

Speculation on who will replace Obama in the Senate begins (pictures of some of those under consideration). The state's 100 percent perfect constitution - which voters protected by a huge margin rather than calling a new Constitutional Convention - does not give the voters the choice of who that will be. So our endearingly-crazy-if-he-weren't-so-spectacularly-corrupt governor Rod Blagojevich will make the decision.

Names mentioned in the Tribune account include Blagojevich himself, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, my House representative Jesse Jackson Jr, other representatives Luis Gutierrez, Danny Davis, and Jan Schakowsky, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Comptroller Dan Hynes, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, and Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq war vet who lost her 2006 run for a seat in the House.

It would be a disaster if Blagojevich chose himself, especially since he's liable to be indicted before too long. Jarrett is a former official from the Harold Washington and Daley administrations, closely connected to Chicago's corporate elite, and played a key role in destroying the city's public housing. Another discouraging example of the kind of people Obama chooses to surround himself with.

Gutierrez has recently become mired in his own corruption scandal. I don't know his politics too well, but I've never heard anything that impressed me much. I don't know Danny Davis at all, but with the exception of a bizarre 문선명/Mun Seonmyeong (Sun Myung Moon) connection, his Wikipedia page makes his politics sound pretty good.

I'm not that familiar with the politics of Madigan, Hynes, Giannoulias, or Duckworth, but my impression is that they're all lousy centrists. So that leaves Schakowsky and Jackson, who are both among the most progressive members of the House and would both be wonderful friends to the left in the Senate - and would represent a big improvement over Obama in the Senate. I don't really know how we can influence the outcome of this über-insider decision, but we have to hope that it's one of those two.

Incidentally, unless Jackson, Davis, Jarrett, or (God forbid) Emil Jones is chosen for the seat, the Senate will once again have zero black members. Proof enough by itself that the election of Obama has not fixed America's deep racial problems.


The tasks at hand

I'm just back from Grant Park, where the energy and enthusiasm were remarkable. Biking back thru the South Side, the celebration is still going. I've been skeptical of Obama from the beginning, but the Obama campaign - partly thru its own determination to campaign on a mass basis but mostly because of events beyond its control - has mobilized a degree of popular participation unprecedented for at least a generation.

The extent of this phenomenon, combined with the neoliberal economy's self-inflicted wounds, give progressives their best opening in forty years. But our obstacles are huge: we confront a reluctance among many progressives to make a clear analysis of where our problems come from, as well as Obama's own centrism and the widespread naive faith in Obama which may convince many that their continued participation is unnecessary. Consider the kind of names that Obama has floated for important positions in his administration - Paul Volcker, pioneer of neoliberalism; Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, Clinton's unrepentant champions of free capital flows; Robert Gates, who recently argued that any decrease in the military budget (now over half of world military spending) would be a historic mistake; and the Dark Prince himself, Rahm Emanuel.

And those are just the problems on "our" side. American racism, xenophobia, and fundamentalism have not been vanquished, and now that a figure like McCain is no longer restraining them, the Republicans will soon enough return to demagoguery.

The two most important priorities are now 1) channeling the remarkable energy invested in the Obama campaign into true grassroots activism, and 2) getting serious about turning the economic crisis to our advantage. Translating campaign participation into everyday participation in a progressive transformation of society from the ground up is the best way to build our power, and the only way to create the kind of society we want. And we absolutely have to start hammering away at neoliberal ideology, which has discredited itself even as the left largely remains silent. We need to fill that ideological void and offer alternatives more progressive than what we'll get from the likes of Volcker and Rubin. We can enjoy this partial victory for a moment, but complacency would be disastrous.


Five essential issues the candidates have avoided

Every four years the United States carries out one of the greatest exercises in mass political participation in the world, yet every presidential election is defined by the issues the candidates choose to debate rather than the most important issues the country faces. The issues raised this year are the most urgent in several decades of presidential contests, but after three debates in which the same questions were recycled again and again, it should be no surprise that hugely important issues are still off the table. No matter who wins in November, these issues must be brought into the national debate.

Medicare for all
The United States is unique among rich countries: it does not provide health insurance to all its people - one out of every six Americans does not have coverage. Since almost 50 million people can't afford to see a doctor, you might think the US spends less on health care than other rich countries that cover everyone. But in fact American per capita health care expenses are *two times higher* than even the second-highest spender - and three times higher than other countries with universal coverage.

That means we're getting a horrible deal on health care - other countries insure everyone, spend far less money doing so, and their people are at least as healthy as Americans. The reason is that those countries' governments provide health care. In America private insurers do it, spending huge amounts of money to reduplicate each other's bureaucracy (which is mainly used to find ways to *deny* care), to pay their executives millions of dollars, and to buy advertising.

The US already has a highly efficient government health insurance program that provides care at a much lower cost than private insurers - but only the elderly are eligible for Medicare. If we extended Medicare to all Americans, our health costs would plummet and we could guarantee the right of every American to health care. Unfortunately, private insurers also spend your health care dollars on lobbying and political attack ads, which is why even those politicians who understand the right way to solve our health care crisis are afraid to support it. Only when the American people start demanding the only efficient and fair solution - Medicare for everyone - will politicians start listening.

The failed drug war
Americans have a strange relationship with recreational drugs. The two that are by far the most socially destructive - alcohol and tobacco - are legal and widely available. Meanwhile, one drug - marijuana - that unlike alcohol and tobacco is not addictive, not associated with violence, and carries less risk of chronic disease, remains illegal. Other truly dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamines are driven underground, where they cannot be regulated. Instead the business is controlled by violent gangs that battle each other and the police to control the market - leading to exactly the same kind of unnecessary violence that accompanied the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. And finally, we treat those who suffer from addiction as criminals, offering them jail rather than treatment. Does anyone seriously believe that addiction is a choice, which can be pummeled out of the victim by prison?

Dangerous drugs should be legal but strictly controlled, and treatment programs should finally be fully funded. This would not only eliminate the violence involved with drugs, and it would not only begin treating drug abusers as human beings with a devastating medical problem. It would also radically reduce the amount of taxpayer money spent to fight drugs - now mostly wasted on controlling prohibition-caused violence and imprisoning nonviolent offenders - and redirect it in more effective ways.

But as we reform our drug laws we must also take steps to address the underlying social problems that make illegal drugs so socially destructive for certain communities. Right now, even though drug use is evenly spread across cities and suburbs, whites and blacks, the drug war is targeted mainly at poor urban blacks. For decades, the economy and social fabric of these communities was devastated by a toxic combination of deindustrialization, capital flight, and racist neglect. Now we imprison huge numbers of these young men for their involvement in what is often the only viable source of jobs in their community, and they then return to their neighborhoods with even bleaker prospects for a job or stable lives. The answer is not to get tougher on people with few other choices - we must target the real problem, which is economic collapse and inadequate public investment.

The global climate crisis and the rising price of oil (halted only temporarily by the world recession) are closely related to sprawl. The endless extension of roads and highways to serve endlessly expanding suburbs and their ever-larger houses and lawns requires an endless increase in the use of energy and resources to heat and cool those houses, to build the infrastructure to serve them, and to propel the cars whose commute distances and times are, unsurprisingly, also endlessly increasing. The longer we stay on this path, the worse global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, and global oil shortages will become.

For the last 50 years, the government has subsidized and even mandated sprawl by building highways, using zoning regulations to discourage dense, mixed-use development, and constantly intervening in the Middle East to keep the price of oil low. Americans are now demanding more options - neighborhoods that are walkable and bike-friendly, with good access to public transit and retail and jobs close by.

But to make this kind of development cost-effective, and to fight our destructive addiction to oil, the price of gas can never again collapse to the artificially low levels of the 1980s and '90s. And that's why the candidates won't talk about this issue - the only way to address climate change, to meaningfully reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and to convince developers to invest in compact development rather than sprawl is to keep the price of gas high. A price floor of at least $4 should be established and gradually increased, so that if the price of oil drops the cost of gasoline will still reflect the social damage done by driving. Some of the revenues from this tax should be spent to help those who can least afford the transition, and the rest of it should go toward expanding public transit and Amtrak, which have both suffered from decades of underinvestment, and to research on alternative energy sources. The transition to a more sustainable lifestyle will be painful, but not as painful as if we once again wait complacently for the next oil shock.

The devastating impact of animal agriculture
Over the last 50 years the livestock industry has quietly experienced a revolutionary transformation, from the family farm to the factory farm. Now most animals are raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where as many animals are crammed together in as small a space as possible to maximize the profits of huge agribusinesses.

It goes without saying that these conditions are horribly cruel to the animals, who have almost no space to move around or engage in any of their natural behaviors. The cramped conditions also lead to aggression among the animals, so the livestock corporations cut off the chickens' beaks to prevent them from killing each other, and cut off the pigs' tails to keep the pig in the cage behind from chewing it off.

But the problems extend far beyond ethical bankruptcy. CAFOs are breeding grounds for disease, which leads the corporations to shoot the animals full of antibiotics, which make their way into our food and increase the risk that antibiotic-resistant diseases could emerge and devastate the food supply. Huge amounts of animal waste are concentrated in one spot, making responsible disposal impossible - so agribusiness dumps it into our rivers and streams, destroying their ecosystems. This runoff can then infect our vegetable supply, and was the source of recent deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes.

On top of these dangers, the intense consumption of meat presents its own problems. The livestock industry is responsible for 1/5 of the world's human-induced greenhouse gases - a total greater than cars and planes combined. Meat is horribly energy inefficient, requiring that many times more grain be fed to animals to produce the same amount of protein and calories than a plant-based diet. And meat-eating is aggravating a growing global food crisis by diverting grain to the production of meat rather than to feeding the hungry.

Yet the government heavily subsidizes the production of meat by sending millions of dollars to agribusiness corn and soy interests that grow most of their crops to supply CAFOs. For decades government has stood idly by as factory farms swallowed up the country's family farmers and devastated the rural environment. It's time to start thinking about regulating these unethical threats to public health out of existence, and transitioning to a less meat-heavy diet.

Class war
The only class war in America has nothing to do with Barack Obama's very modest proposal to increase taxes on the incredibly super-rich. Over the last 30 years, the productivity of American workers has increased more than 70 percent, yet workers' real wages have not increased at all, and the lowest-paid have actually taken a big pay cut. What that means is that corporations are making more money, but they aren't giving any of it to their workers (corporate profits now occupy a larger share of the economy than at any time since the 1960s). Corporate executives and shareholders have seized all the gains for themselves. That's class war.

The reason that productivity and wages rose in tandem during the 1950s and '60s is that labor unions were strong, and made sure that workers got some share of the pie. But the severe recession of the early '80s and a brutal assault on organized labor by the Reagan administration crippled the unions. Free trade deals and the increasing share of low-skill nonunionized service jobs in the economy has kept workers weak ever since.

At the same time, the tax rates on the very rich have been continuously lowered, especially on the investment income that they don't actually work for (capital gains taxes). Many corporate executives now pay a lower effective tax rate than their secretaries. The theory was that these people knew how best to invest that money - a theory that produced reckless speculation and has given us the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Maybe it's time to let working people spend more of the money from the wealth they produce rather than letting rich folks wreck the economy with it.

Rebalancing the tax code to reward work rather than unearned income is a good way to start, and so is raising the minimum wage to a true living wage and indexing it to inflation. We must also remove some of the barriers to organizing unions that businesses have thrown up over the years - passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which was blocked only by a Senate minority this term - should be a high priority.

But beyond legislation, we need to start rethinking some ideas that have been taken for granted for too long. The market does not magically distribute income to those who work hardest or most deserve it, it distributes income to those with power. Over the last 30 years a large majority of the population has acquiesced in their stagnating incomes as the power of well-positioned executives, investors, and managers soared and they took more and more of society's wealth. Now that we see what they've done to economy with all that money and power, it's about time we took some of it back.


Smart Tolerant Professionals are the Real Americans

Assuming Obama wins the election, we can already see one clear explanatory narrative emerging among the pundits - the McCain campaign pandered to the racism and anti-intellectualism of Americans and lost, because Americans are better than that. David Brooks has been making this argument (most explicitly here) and yesterday Frank Rich devoted his column to the idea. As Timothy Egan wrote on the op-ed page yesterday, "Republicans have been insinuating for years now that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American" - and it's finally going to bite them in the ass. America is increasingly a multiracial society with a knowledge economy and Republicans have permanently alienated the well-educated, tolerant professionals who make it run.

While criticizing the Republicans' conception of church-going, small-town, implicitly white "Real Americans", these writers clearly have their own favored social group. This is a wonderful wish fulfillment for these pundits: it's payback time for the smart, ostentatiously not-racist professionals that they identify with, against the Republicans who constantly demonize them. But there are two big problems here.

First, if Obama does win it certainly will not prove Rich's claim that
"despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election." In case Rich has forgotten, one month ago the polls showed a neck-and-neck race, even tho McCain had just chosen a provincial lightweight with no obvious interest in any national policy issues except abortion to be his running mate, and even tho the political climate in the country was already giving Congressional Democrats big leads.

What has changed is not the sudden disappearance of the longstanding American complex of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism that had dragged Obama down for so long, but the explosion of the economic crisis. Joe Klein, writing in early September, also counterpoised the Republican fantasy of the '50s as Golden Age to "a multiracial country whose greatest cultural and economic strength is its diversity". But he lamented that this "vision is not sellable right now to a critical mass of Americans". If Obama wins comfortably, it only proves that in the midst of the worst financial disaster in 80 years, voters' fear of the Other can be overcome by their fear for their livelihoods.

The real test will come when the Republicans resume their mobilization-thru-bigotry tactics during the Obama presidency, especially if Obama's attempts to revive the economy do not immediately succeed. (And the crisis is now threatening to get so out of control that the chances of quick success are very low.) We on the left are not only going to have to fight Obama's centrist policies, we're also going to have to fight his instincts to move even further to the right in the face of Republican attacks. It would be nice if the American tradition of racism/xenophobia/nationalism really were so weak that we didn't have to worry about it. But four years ago that tradition combined with homophobia to return George Bush to the White House. Even tho the political mood is much different now, the underlying ideologies of the country haven't changed. We can't lose site of the need to keep up the culture war against these supremacist ideologies just because a black man wins the presidency.

Second, the know-nothing Republicans and their urbane critics have set up a false dichotomy between Real Americans and Smart Tolerant Professionals. I certainly agree that there's nothing wrong with people who live in cities and eat ethnic foods, and there is something wrong with the parochialism that Republicans celebrate. But both sides are ignoring a key issue here: the resentment of Smart Tolerant Professionals is not based solely, or even primarily, on their tendency to eat arugula. There is a strong and legitimate, if inchoate, class basis for this resentment.

A large majority of these professionals come from privilege and leveraged that privilege to gain access to the country's handful of elite universities. This education gave them the status and connections they needed to get one of the small number of interesting, empowering jobs in the economy. Occupying one of these jobs, they are elevated far above the working majority of the population - they are glorified by the culture, they can buy whatever they want, and in the workplace itself they hold direct and dictatorial power over their subordinates. And then they look down on those they dominate culturally and institutionally, branding them intolerant, unsophisticated, and even stupid (a recurring word in Rich and Egan's columns).

Republican demonology has twisted the class anger of the victims of this process into support for reactionary policies. But the success they've had in this project has been guaranteed by the Democrats' decision to turn their backs on the working majority. Clinton made populist gestures, but the financiers, lawyers, and technocrats ran the show. Gore and Kerry maintained the substance of Clinton's administration without his ability to hide it behind a show of populism. Obama, perhaps less clumsy than Gore and Kerry, nevertheless has not changed the formula. The historical conjuncture will probably allow Obama to win the election, but like the Clinton years it will be an empty victory if he doesn't restore the Democrats to their working-class base. All the evidence suggests that he has no desire to do so, which means that only a powerful popular show of force can push him in that direction.


Food politics more visible, still naive

Last Tuesday, Oprah aired a show about California's Proposition 2, which would require livestock producers to give their confined animals enough room to stretch and move around. It was a balanced show, including both advocates of the measure and some of the factory farmers it would target, but Oprah's sympathies were clearly with the measure's proponents. Unfortunately, the alternative offered to factory farmed pork, veal, etc was free range pork, veal, etc. Not eating animals was not raised as an option. Nor did the show go into the environmental or food supply problems of animal agriculture.

Oprah could be a huge force for raising consciousness about these issues, so I encourage everyone to take a minute (even if you didn't catch the show) and write a quick comment to the show - the form is here. This is what I wrote:
Your show on factory farming was great, raising extremely important issues about the ethics of how we raise animals. But I was surprised and disappointed that you did not explore a key option for addressing these issues - eating vegetarian. Even the most humanely raised animals end their lives in the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and I believe that unnecessarily taking life is at least as big an ethical problem as unnecessarily causing suffering.

Vegetarianism not only eliminates the cruelty and killing of the livestock industry, it also solves the deep environmental problems with meat. The livestock industry produces 1/5 of human-induced greenhouse gases - making meat a bigger global warming problem than cars. In addition, meat production is a terribly inefficient use of resources, which is why it's a central cause of the current global food crisis.

I hope that you'll bring up these issues in future shows, because reducing the amount of meat we eat is the only way to a sustainable, cruelty-free society. And the best way to facilitate this transition is to expose people to the incredible diversity of delicious vegetarian food.
* * *
In other food news, Michael Pollan had a cover article in The New York Times Magazine last weekend. The first half covers the same ground Pollan always covers - how perverse market and government incentives have built a food system with horrible effects for the environment, the economy, national security, and public health. The rest of the article offers a range of policy solutions that the next president should follow to dig us out of this mess.

The policy ideas are all focused on moving us back to the organic, integrated, labor-intensive kind of farming that dominated before World War II, which would both dramatically reduce the amount of oil used in food production and raise the artificially low prices of the foods destroying our health - meat and junk food. Pollan emphasizes the array of policy options available and necessary for such a profound transformation - from a complete rewriting of agricultural subsidies to the symbolic power of planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn and announcing a weekly meatless meal for the first family.

These are all good ideas, but what Pollan does not do is grapple with the two enormous obstacles to this agenda: the extraordinary political power that agribusiness wields, and the popular commitment to a diet full of cheap meat. As urgent as these issues are, do we really expect someone as cautious - even timid - as Barack Obama to cross the farm state senators and their patrons the meat and grain corporations? Even if he did, imagine the national uproar that agribusiness could mobilize by simply pointing out that these reforms would end of cheap meat.

Capitalism gives big business a stranglehold over our politics, and Americans are almost dogmatically committed to eating meat. What Pollan needs to do, rather than simply reiterate his (admittedly very strong) arguments, is start confronting how we can overcome these obstacles. The key here is that we need to be building a movement not just of self-satisfied yuppies eating organic food in the comfort of their suburban home or big condo. Instead, if we as a society are going to get past the seduction of cheap meat, we need a movement of people who morally reject the power of corporations and the predominance of meat.

Meat means cruelty, unnecessary killing, global warming, air and water pollution, and global hunger. Corporate power undermines democracy and disfigures our culture. There's no shortage of reasons to oppose the two, but until we can mobilize people by explicitly appealing to these ideas, it will be impossible to create the political will needed to transform our food economy.

This isn't an impossible agenda. You don't have to be a vegetarian to recognize that the amount of meat Americans eat is ethically unacceptable, and you don't have to be a socialist to demand an end to corporate control of politics. But before Americans are willing to give up the era of cheap meat, they will have to make these connections. Our job is to speed up the process.


Key California ballot propositions

People from California don't read this blog very often, but I think we all have a few friends living there. So pass on this link or copy this post and email it to people you know.

This November, California voters have a great opportunity to pass three ballot propositions that would be good for the state and, just as important, would make California a leading example for the rest of the country. Failing to pass them would mark a major setback for a number of urgent priorities, so talk to everyone you know who votes in California and let's get some momentum behind these important issues.

Prop 1A - High-speed rail
If passed, Prop 1A would authorize the state to raise almost $10 billion to begin construction on the country's first bullet train, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once completed, travelers could make the trip in only 2 1/2 hours on trains traveling as fast as 220 mph, for a one-way cost of $55. There would be stops on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, and the system would eventually be extended to San Diego, Sacramento, and Riverside County.

The United States is far behind Europe, Japan, and even China in its rail network, and we're paying the price in terms of high gas costs, highway congestion, air pollution, and an outsize contribution to global warming. Rail addresses all these problems because it gets cars off the road and moves people with far greater energy efficiency than either cars or planes. With rising population densities and clogged roads, California will have no choice but to invest large amounts of money in its transportation infrastructure in the coming years. The only choice is whether to waste money on the failed model of ever-widening highways, or chart a new path for the state and the country by supporting high-speed rail.

(Los Angeles County voters will also have the chance to pass Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund road and public transit projects. About 2/3 of the revenue would be devoted to transit, paying for a major expansion of the rail system (extensions of the Expo Line and both ends of the Gold Line, extension of the Green Line to LAX, and building of the Subway to the Sea under Wilshire Blvd among other projects) and significant improvements to the bus system. Measure R requires a 2/3 majority to pass, but it is essential to the future viability of LA's transportation system. See http://metro.net/measurer )

Prop 2 - Humane animal agriculture
Prop 2 would require factory farms to provide their animals adequate room to tum around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. Currently, veal calves, laying hens, and female pigs kept for breeding are usually confined for most - or all - of their lives in cages or pens so small that they cannot turn around or sleep comfortably. In pursuit of higher profits, factory farms have crammed as many animals together in as small a space as possible, but this unnatural crowding leads to aggression among the animals. To prevent them from killing each other, they are separated into tiny cages that deprive them of basic needs; chickens have their beaks cut off so they cannot peck each other, cows and pigs are unable to lie down or move.

Prop 2 would give factory farms six years to convert their operations to more humane methods. Such alternatives are already common in Europe and measures outlawing veal crates and sow gestation crates have been passed in several other states. Prop 2 gives Californians the chance to set an example for the whole country by eliminating the most extreme types of inhumane confinement and providing for the minimal needs of the animals we use for our food.

Prop 5 - Rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders
American prisons now confine more than 1 of every 100 adults, by far the highest percentage in the world. This unprecedented punitive approach to criminal justice has come about largely because of harsh sentences handed out to nonviolent offenders, especially those who violate the drug laws. Our laws not only expose these offenders to overcrowded and violent prisons while severely constraining their life opportunities upon release, they also impose massive - and rising - expenses on taxpayers.

Prop 5 would expand rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders in California with special attention to the needs of those addicted to drugs, it would relax rigid parole requirements, and would reduce marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction (similar to a traffic ticket). The state estimates that increased spending on rehabilitation programs would be offset be reduced spending on imprisoning nonviolent offenders, and once you factor in the need for fewer new prisons, Prop 5 would save California taxpayers a total of $2.5 billion or more. By passing it, Californians can do the right thing for nonviolent offenders and save money at the same time. (And remember to vote NO on Prop 6, which would make the criminal laws even more punitive and divert money from education and health to lock up more people in prison.)

Prop 8 - Outlaw same-sex marriage
Finally, don't forget to vote NO on Prop 8, which would deny some people the right to marry for no good reason but old-fashioned prejudice.


Republicans attempt to destroy capitalism

Thursday's events were extraordinary. The Paulson administration had basically come to terms with the Democratic Congressional leadership on a bailout plan, agreeing to give up Paulson's demand for dictatorship over the economy and include funds for non-ultra-rich people to make the far larger funds for ultra-rich people more palatable. Then, at a meeting called to finalize the arrangement (or so the Paulson administration and Democrats thought), the Congressional Republicans proceeded to reject the whole framework in dramatic fashion - while John McCain sat silently by:
once the doors closed, the smooth-talking House Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, surprised many in the room by declaring that his caucus could not support the plan to allow the government to buy distressed mortgage assets from ailing financial companies.

Mr. Boehner pressed an alternative that involved a smaller role for the government, and Mr. McCain, whose support of the deal is critical if fellow Republicans are to sign on, declined to take a stand. . . .

Thursday, in the Roosevelt Room after the session, the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., literally bent down on one knee as he pleaded with Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, not to “blow it up” by withdrawing her party’s support for the package over what Ms. Pelosi derided as a Republican betrayal.

“I didn’t know you were Catholic,” Ms. Pelosi said, a wry reference to Mr. Paulson’s kneeling, according to someone who observed the exchange. She went on: “It’s not me blowing this up, it’s the Republicans.”

Mr. Paulson sighed. “I know. I know.”
Why would the Republicans do this? There are two explanations: because they really believe that the government shouldn't be involved so much in the economy, or because they're looking for short-term political advantage. The electoral advantages are obvious - a large majority of the country is opposed to the government bailout (55 percent vs 31 percent in favor).

But the changes that Republicans have demanded are revealing (tho completely unworkable), and they may actually believe their free market ideology. On September 18 over a hundred House Republicans wrote a letter to Paulson and Bernanke, arguing that “federal investment in such large amounts of private company stock has the appearance of a socialist and not a free market approach to managing our economy.” Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, speaking for many of his colleagues, referred to the bailout as “the road to socialism”. If only it were so!

This represents a stunning ignorance of the nature of both capitalism and authoritarian planned economies (which is what they actually mean when they say socialism) - an ignorance that could have disastrous consequences. Thruout the 20th century, “socialism” was the bogeyman of the American elite - but it was not a single thing. Rather, it was a polemical conflation of three things: the Soviet Union's threat to American global hegemony, the threat of workers to capitalists, and the inconvenience of government regulation and spending to capitalists' free pursuit of profits.

The first two problems were, in the end, solved thru a blood-drenched history of foreign intervention and labor repression. Both were real threats to the power of the economic elite over society and internationally. But the third issue is not a threat at all - it is a periodic necessity required by the crisis tendencies of capitalism itself.

Yet much of the right wing is incapable of analytically separating these three issues, and instead interpret the world thru this polemical slogan. Thus all government programs and interventions in the economy become “socialism”, and since socialism is the enemy of all that is true and just, it must be avoided at all costs.

This kind of thinking is what turned the crisis of 1929 into the Great Depression. For three years the Hoover administration, paralyzed by its laissez-faire ideology, refused to take the aggressive action necessary to mitigate the crisis. The result was nearly the destruction of capitalism.

We are unlikely to see a repeat of this disaster - the servants of capital in the government now have decades of experience with economic intervention to prevent the market economy from destroying itself, and agreement on the bailout now seems near. But we could be seeing the birth of a new right-wing myth of betrayal.

The right never forgave FDR for saving capitalism by using government spending to co-opt popular anger and stimulate the economy. Screaming "socialism" the whole way, they fought a bitter and mostly futile rear-guard battle against the emergence of the Fordist regime of accumulation (altho it is a tribute to their hysterical anticommunist campaigns that the United States remains the only rich country without universal government-provided or -guaranteed healthcare, itself a major drain on business). The resentment at their failure to reestablish the absolute freedom of capital combined with the major challenges to American supremacy and white privilege of the 1960s to fuel the rise of the right that we now suffer thru.

If the current crisis ushers in a new era of regulation and government spending, look for the right to cast the bailout as the moment that betrayed the promise of free markets to organize their utopia of inequality. This mythical association of market economics with individual freedom is the foundation upon which all rationalizations of inequality are based, and the rock upon which our attempts to deepen democracy and reduce social divisions have repeatedly been smashed. Of all the failures of the American left, the failure to counter this myth by spreading a realistic understanding of how capitalism works is perhaps the most fundamental.


Review: There Goes the Neighborhood

I've posted a review of There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America (2006), by William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub, on Amazon. Chicago comrades might want to read it - it's not the greatest book, but you get a good idea of the diversity of the South Side as well as some classic examples of Chicago racism, and it's a fast read.


Capitalist disaster season is here once again

Five hundred years of capitalism has produced one crisis after another, an endless procession of violently deflating asset bubbles and horrific wars inextricably linked to competition over markets and resources. So it is frankly bizarre that, as the latest such crisis destroys massive amounts of wealth and threatens catastrophe to the entire world, mainstream American opinion lamely argues over whether lax regulation or the character flaws of securities traders and mortgage buyers are to blame. How many centuries marked by serious crisis every 30 years or so and punctuated by numerous smaller disasters will it take before we learn - capitalism creates devastating crisis by its very nature!

The state's role as guarantor of capitalism, as the only agency that can step in to prevent the system from destroying itself, is demonstrated anew with every crisis. What's really interesting is not this well-established phenomenon, but the cries of outrage against it. Libertarians squawk about the moral hazard of bailing out irresponsible financiers, who walk away from the disaster they created with millions of dollars apiece. This is a fascinating ideological subculture whose members actually take seriously the rationalizations used to justify the despotism and staggering inequalities required by market economies. The consistent application of their ideals would quickly destroy capitalism itself.

Liberals, meanwhile, decry the hypocrisy of a government that can come up with hundreds of billions of dollars on short notice to rescue rich people in trouble but which dismisses the everyday crisis of living poor in America as an individual problem. Don't liberals know by now? "Privatize the gains and socialize the pain" has always been the fundamental principle of free markets, and it really couldn't be any different.

The mistake of both groups is to conceptually separate the government from business. The capitalist state should be understood as fundamentally internal to the economic system, an institutional outgrowth of capitalism just as much as capital markets and commodities exchanges are. Capitalism could never function without the state to guarantee contracts, to make unprofitable investments that are necessary for commerce (especially building infrastructure and subsidizing transportation), to secure access to markets and raw materials within the system of global competition, and perhaps most important, to suppress - with violence if necessary - that discontent generated by the massive inequalities of wealth and power that markets create and to prevent the economy’s crisis tendencies from destroying the basis of accumulation. If you don’t like it, you have a problem with capitalism, not with the behavior of the government. Consider something different.

These are timeless truths for all market societies, but that doesn’t mean that capitalism always works exactly the same way. Far from it: capitalism is the most dynamic form of social organization - for both good and evil - that has ever been invented. Its periodic disasters and crises often require drastic changes to the process of accumulation, changes which then restructure the organization of society, power, and culture.

In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey explains (pp. 119-197) that since World War II global capitalism has developed two separate “regimes of accumulation” - sets of rules and social relations that govern the operations of the economy. Emerging from the crisis of depression and war that nearly destroyed capitalism, the rulers of the economy had to make major concessions to save the system itself, leading to the economy-wide acceptance of Fordism. The Fordist economy was characterized by mutual restraint and cooperation on the part of both capital and labor - capital would provide stable jobs with good benefits and relatively low levels of abuse, and in exchange workers would accept the authoritarianism of the workplace and restrict their demands. The state oversaw the arrangement, maintained highly regulated domestic and international markets, and provided robust social insurance and collective services. Tied down by regulation, the finance sector retreated to unexciting tasks like taking deposits and making loans; making things rather than manipulating currency became the central focus of the economy, and large, cautious conglomerates became the most important players.

This arrangement provided high rates of growth and a stable basis for capitalist accumulation for 25 years. But in the end, the contradictions inherent in capitalism could not be overcome: the very productivity of Fordism doomed it as excess global capacity created by the full recovery of Deutschland/Germany and 日本/Japan and the industrialization of countries in Asia and Latin America ran up against the rigidities of the Fordist system. Combined with the oil shocks and the inflationary policies the USA pursued to address the emerging crisis, Fordism died a violent death. The stagflation of the 1970s, the severing of the dollar from gold, the collapse of the international system of fixed-rate currency exchanges, increasing diplomatic friction between the US and Japan - all flowed from the general crisis in the world economy.

To survive the crisis, business and the state joined forces to decimate the power of labor by attacking the unions and moving production wherever labor was highly repressed and exploited. The staid old conglomerates fared poorly, but smaller, more nimble companies forged ahead, pursuing new opportunities in technology, spectacle, and the exploitation of labor. The state’s role shifted from guaranteeing a stable and balanced (if still unequal) system to disciplining labor and tearing down the regulations inhibiting the flexibility that capital needed if it was to return to profitability. Freed at last, finance capital returned with a vengeance, and started down the path of reckless speculation that has culminated in the current crisis.

Harvey calls this new order “flexible accumulation”, and we can see its effects around the world in the neoliberal restructuring that has hit almost every country. Inequality has soared within societies as corporate executives and major investors - facing little resistance from devastated labor movements - have captured most of the increase in wealth. The government guarantee on basic human needs - education, healthcare, pensions, social insurance, public housing - has, where it existed, been eroded or eliminated. National boundaries have weakened, but in reaction to their weakening position many disadvantaged groups have turned to reactionary ideologies like religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism to organize resistance. Governments around the world, disciplined by the financial markets into austerity, have increasingly fallen behind on essential infrastructure investments and have failed utterly to address the impending climate crisis.

But all of that is irrelevant to capitalists - the important thing is whether they can continue making profits, and until the credit crisis there was no trouble on that score. But credit is the lifeblood of business, and unless the crisis eases up soon, even those whose business involves more than trading pieces of paper will have to seek new ways to survive. The question we confront is whether the shakeout will alter the ground rules that have sustained the neoliberal consensus, and how we might turn the situation to our advantage.


Progressive priorities for Chicago

The coming year will be pivotal for Chicago. The rest of the country will be focusing on the presidential election over the next couple months, but in Chicago the real action is elsewhere. Sure, an Obama victory might translate into greater resources for urban development, both because Obama is presumably more interested in tackling urban problems than the Cheney administration has been or McCain would be, and because Obama might pay back the favors he’s incurred during his years in Chicago’s political mire. And, of course, electing Obama would ensure that Chicago gets a presidential library at some point down the road.

But there’s not much Chicago can actually do to influence the outcome of the race. Obama will undoubtedly win Illinois, Durbin will undoubtedly win reelection to the Senate, only a couple members of the House are in danger of losing their seats, and the only important local race, for state’s attorney, will likely be won by Anita Alvarez, who’s busy integrating herself into the Chicago machine. (There is a Green Party candidate for state's attorney, Thomas O'Brien, for those repelled by Alvarez and her Republic opponent, Tony Peraica.)

But the election is still hugely important for Chicago and Illinois because the question of whether to call a state constitutional convention will be on the ballot. Every twenty years the citizens of Illinois can choose to rewrite the constitution, an option they declined the previous time they had the chance. This time we need to seize the opportunity.

Unbeknownst to most, the state constitution is one of the strongest obstacles to progressive change in Illinois. On all of the key short-term structural problems we face - a regressive tax structure, unequal school funding, pay-to-play corruption between business and political leaders - the constitution either silently accedes to the status quo or enshrines it in law. The General Assembly’s anemic attempts to address these problems have invariably failed.

If the constitutional convention passed, two delegates would be elected from each senate district to consider changes, and the outcome of their deliberations would be put before the voters for a yes-no vote. Ideally the new constitution would:
  • Eliminate the flat income tax, which not only leaves the overall tax structure regressive once truly regressive taxes like the sales tax are added in, it also hamstrings the legislature in raising revenue, forcing it to consider socially-destructive options like expanding gambling;
  • Mandate equal school funding, a necessary but not sufficient condition for overcoming the social devastation on the South and West Sides that is now spreading to some inner-ring suburbs;
  • Reform the campaign finance system by switching to public funding along the lines of Maine and Arizona's clean election systems;
  • Implement a nonpartisan redistricting process, similar to Iowa’s.
Of course to both write a progressive constitution and get it passed would require a major progressive mobilization to counter the status quo forces (especially big business) that are already working to nip the threat in the bud by defeating the referendum. That means major efforts will be needed to pass the constitutional convention in November, and sustained efforts to influence its outcome afterward.

Progressives not only have a once-in-a-decade chance to rewrite the ground rules of politics in Illinois, we also have a once-in-a-century chance to influence the distribution of resources that would flow to Chicago if Daley wins his bid for the 2016 Olympics. But the International Olympic Committee will make its decision in 2009 October and as Ben Joravsky points out in a must-read article, Daley will assuredly not be making concessions after that point, so we have to mobilize now to win the best deal we can.

One major demand should be converting the Metra Electric Line running thru the South Side to a new CTA line - the Gray Line, which I've written about here. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a difficult victory since it seems in line with Daley’s long-term plans and would address many of the transportation problems connecting Olympic venues. Even so, the plan still has no visible political support from the relevant agencies, Chicago-area politicians, or Daley himself.

But even as we push for the Gray Line, it’s important to keep sight of Daley’s goals: he’s seeking the Olympics as a way to dramatically accelerate the gentrification of the South Side. Already the South Loop has been completely transformed in the last decade with a frenzy of new luxury highrises being built; the neighborhoods of Kenwood and Oakland have been converted to lowrise condos for professionals; and the major public housing projects have been destroyed, scattering to the four corners all those people keeping down property values (well, actually only to the southern corners).

The Olympics would extend and deepen the transformation of the South Side thru the new Olympic Village housing on the site of Michael Reese Hospital, major improvements to public parks and infrastructure (including transit), and most important the indirect spur it would give to developers and housing costs - both of which can be counted on to drive out poor and working-class people.

As long as we have to live with the massive social inequalities that capitalism necessarily creates, it’s not entirely a bad thing to bring rich folks and professionals into poor neighborhoods - their wealth draws the commerce that would redline the ghetto and their political influence keeps up basic infrastructure. But left to itself gentrification will cleanse the neighborhood of all its original inhabitants, simply displacing the social catastrophe forced upon them to neighborhoods and suburbs further south.
That’s why we need to demand solid guarantees on affordable housing from Daley to balance his vision of gentrification and to make sure the Olympics bid increases equality instead of deepening it. Communities for an Equitable Olympics, a coalition of South Side community groups, has begun organizing to demand affordable housing and preference for locals in jobs and contracts related to the Olympics. We need to expand their base of support and help them increase the pressure on Daley.

Of course we have to remember that the constitutional convention, the Gray Line, and integrating affordable housing into the Olympic plans are only preliminary skirmishes in a much more protracted struggle to remake Chicago - to stop the progress of Daley’s efforts to build a gleaming city inhabited by professionals and cleansed of the poor, and create in its place an egalitarian and participatory Chicago.


Then and now: 150 years of exploitation

In the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx quotes extensively from the reports of British factory commissioners, published in the 1850s and 1860s as part of the movement to regulate factories and reduce their worst abuses. It's instructive to compare some of these quotes with a recent article from The New York Times detailing conditions at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa revealed after a federal raid against the illegal immigrants working there. Lines from the British reports are in blockquotes, page numbers refer to the 1967 New World printing of the 1887 English translation and can be found here.

"Some [under-age workers] said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week."
At a rolling-mill where the proper hours were from 6 a.m. to 5 1/2 p.m., a boy worked about four nights every week till 8 1/2 p.m. at least . . . and this for six months. Another, at 9 years old, sometimes made three 12-hour shifts running, and, when 10, has made two days and two nights running. (247)
"a Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. 'I was very sad,' he said, 'and I felt like I was a slave.'"
J. Lightbourne: "Am 13 . . . We worked last winter till 9 (evening), and the winter before till 10. I used to cry with sore feet every night last winter." (236)
"Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently."
(On 270 workers under age 18 at match factories) "A range of the working-day from 12 to 14 or 15 hours, night-labour, irregular meal-times, meals for the most part taken in the very workrooms that are pestilent with phosphorus." (236)
"'My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,' [Elmer L.] said. 'They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.'"

Maybe you've encountered people who still believe in the forward march of progress - it's a pretty strange notion in the face of evidence like this. True, there are some differences between America today and Britain 150 years ago - the management of Agriprocessors is more likely to be punished for these crimes than factory owners in Marx's time, and unlike 150 years ago, no one is willing to publicly claim that child labor, excessive hours, and dangerous factory conditions are fully justified.

Except this "progress" vanishes if you expand your view outside the United States. Conditions every bit as inhuman as those Marx analyzed are the norm in 中国/China and Việt Nam and many other countries, and the capitalists’ violent reaction to any attempt at limiting their abuses is also very similar. Opinion leaders ranging from Nicholas Kristof, who incessantly cloaks himself in the mantle of humanitarianism, to Thomas Friedman, who is the acknowledged master of explaining to business elites why everything they do is good, are every bit the match of 19th century apologists for massive inequality and shocking levels of exploitation.

It’s worth looking a bit more closely at Chinese capitalism, which at least in terms of labor relations has been functioning in a very pure form - exploiting the workers beyond their capacity to sustain themselves. Recently the state has begun making efforts to limit the natural operations of the market, implementing a new labor law that sets regulations on minimum wages, overtime pay, and freedom to fire workers, while opening new routes for workers to seek redress when their employers try to evade the law. The government is clearly concerned about the growing social instability borne of extreme exploitation, and at the same time is looking to manage a transition to higher-order production. So China won’t necessarily regret the departure of sweatshops if it can expand in more profitable sectors.

Chinese capitalists, however, share no such strategic vision of sustained and stable accumulation. This article chronicles the myriad ways they are seeking to eviscerate the new labor law:
"A lecture fee of 2300 yuan [over $300] for two days is definitely worthwhile - avoiding expenditures like overtime pay for the staff will bring profits more than a thousand times higher than the 2300 yuan fee," exclaimed business owner 王/Wang of 东莞/Dongwan at the "Strategies for enterprise managers to deal with the new Labor Contract Law" training session. . . . This kind of training already has a large market. . . . Labor law specialists and lawyers have come forward one after another to find loopholes in the law and provide confidential briefings to businesses.
The reporter then goes on to record the many techniques companies are using to evade the new labor law and squeeze greater profits out of their workers by swindling them on wages, overtime, and benefits. Exemplary cases include the factory that forced its workers to sign a contract written only in English, another that had its workers sign two separate contracts so they would work full-time in reality but part-time for legal purposes and thereby reduce overtime and benefits payments, and others that wrote out the terms of the contract illegibly or simply hid them with a piece of paper when they had the workers sign it.

Chinese capitalists also tell their side of the story - and a heartrending one it is. Businessmen are being hit from all sides: rising prices for raw materials, extraordinary wage increases mandated by the new labor law, a jump in lawsuits filed by workers under the law - all are subjecting these poor bosses to “increased pressures of management”. One maker of cellphone chips in 深圳/Shenzhen complains bitterly at being forced to raise his workers’ wages from 750 yuan/month (around $110) to 900 yuan ($130). The owner says that these workers, who will be making the fabulous sum of just over $1500/year working grueling shifts that in all likelihood span 6 days each week and 12 or more hours each day, will drive him out of business - unless (ominously) he can “think of a new way to deal with it.”

Some of these complaints are the completely predictable cries of outrage from the exploiters that always accompany any slight reduction in the rate of exploitation. Yet we shouldn’t just dismiss them out of hand - competition among the small enterprises of China is fierce, and a slight reduction in the exploitation of labor might drive some of these factories to the wall. Here again Marx is useful:
competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation. (555)
In other words, the brutal exploitation of labor is a product not of individual immorality, but the laws of the economy itself - the freer the market, the more desperate the plight of workers. It's as true in Iowa as it is in 广东/Guangdong, and it was as true 150 years ago as it is today.


The costs of China's development - and our Wal-Mart habit

From 新华社/Xinhua, this perverse boast:
China reduced the death toll from coal mine accidents by 24 percent to 1,631 in the first seven months, Huang Yi, deputy head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, said on Saturday.
So after major safety improvements, China's ravenous appetite for energy - which in no small part is driven by the demand for cheap exports to the USA - devours almost 8 lives every day.

Anyone who has not already done so should make a point of seeing 盲井/Mángjǐng (Blind shaft), which is the best film about reform-era China that I've seen.


Are paranoia and Mongol-despotism part of the Russian character?

This article is worth reading on the conflict between Россия/Russia and საქართველო/Georgia. It's written by James Traub, someone as deep in the US foreign policy establishment as you can get.

On the one hand it provides good, even-handed background on the longrunning conflict between Russia and Georgia. On the other, it epitomizes the self-serving rationalizations that American leaders tell the public (and maybe even themselves) to justify their attempted takeover of the Russian empire while Russia lay prostrate from the free market blood-letting of the '90s.

Traub begins by condensing the complex history of Georgian nationalism into a couple paragraphs that miss the most important points: first, that until about a century ago there was no such thing as modern nationalism in Georgia (and even then it was a thoroughly elite affair); second, that the Советский Союз/Soviet Union itself played an enormous role in inventing nationalism in Georgia and all the other republics thru its nation-centered education, administration, and classification policies.

Traub then sets up Russia as an aggressive, paranoid bully:
The combination of Vladimir Putin’s reforms and the dizzying rise in the price of oil and gas have rapidly restored Russia to the status of world power. And Mr. Putin has harnessed that power in the service of aggressive nationalism. . . .
The “color revolutions” that swept across Ukraine, the Balkans and the Caucasus in the first years of the new century plainly unnerved Mr. Putin, who has denounced America’s policy of “democracy promotion” and stifled foreign organizations seeking to promote human rights in Russia. Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. . . .
the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.
First, Russia is not championing any kind of "authoritarian model" that Georgia's freedom and democracy imperils. Leaving aside Georgia's democratic credentials (Saakashvili violently put down large protests last year, and his "Western" economic policies have produced inequality and growing unrest), Russia could care less how it organizes its politics. The important issue for Russia - as it is for the USA and other imperialist powers - is whether Georgia acts in deference to it.

Now onto Путин/Putin's paranoia. If NATO is, as Traub claims, "no longer an anti-Soviet alliance", what is its purpose? Why does it keep expanding eastward, progressively absorbing more and more of the security zone Russia painstakingly erected after being invaded from the west twice in 25 years? NATO should have been shut down after the Soviet Union disintegrated, but its use as a seemingly multilateral framework for allowing the continued exercise of American power over Europe was too tempting. Russia was not the only target here - preventing any independent foreign policy orientation by the European Union was at least as important. But NATO's attack against Russian ally Serbia, its induction of ten former Soviet client states (including all of the strategically important Baltic states), and its flirtation with Georgia and Україна/Ukraine all demonstrate that Russian "paranoia" is solidly based in reality. If Russia started setting up military bases in Vancouver, Yucatán, and Santo Domingo, Traub might start to develop a similar level of paranoia.

Traub gives the game away when he writes, "For the West, the core issue is the survival of democratic, or at least independent, states along Russia’s frontier." None of this has anything to do with democracy, any more than the conflicts over Kosova or South Ossetia are related to the rights of minorities - except as a useful rhetorical device. As Traub admits, democracy is not the important thing, "independence" is. And he has in mind "independent" states like Georgia, i.e. those that accept hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States to equip and train their militaries and that send troops to Iraq in support of the American occupation.

Traub writes that the view of Russia as a congenitally aggressive behemoth intent on threatening its neighbors is now widely accepted:
People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality.
Indeed, "all political persuasions" see Russia as the aggressor - from those who explicitly state their support for expanding American power to those who couch their support for expanding American power in soothing multilateral terms. And what on earth is a "premodern, sphere-of-influence power"? The sphere of influence, like the nation-state form around which it has been organized, is a preeminently modern invention. How long before we start hearing again the idea that Russian despotism is rooted in its culture, a product of its interaction with the Mongols 800 years ago?

Putin probably wishes he had the luxury of a Cold War mentality. During the Cold War, Russia maintained a stable of client states to protect itself, while the United States ranged across the rest of the globe, overthrowing unfriendly governments and equipping brutal militaries that agreed to accept its suzerainty. Now America has military allies and bases bordering Russia itself, and the economic collapse and deindustrialization that followed the end of the Soviet Union have left Russia with far fewer resources to defend itself. The real question is not why Russia perceives a threat from the USA, but how far the USA will go to defend those parts of the Russian empire it now controls.


America helps start another war

Anyone trying to figure out what the hell is going on between Россия/Russia and საქართველო/Georgia should immediately read this article from the World Socialist Web Site. Whatever you think of WSWS's politics, which can be both tiresomely dogmatic and very insightful, it's hard to deny that they often do a better job providing essential contextual information in their reporting than do America's so-called papers of record. And in this case, the WSWS also does a much better job simply reporting the facts, which are surprisingly muddled in The New York Times handling of the story.

The Times portrayal focuses on Russia's attack on Georgia, so it becomes very confusing when you read that Russian sources are emphasizing the number of civilians killed and Georgian sources downplaying the number of casualties. The resolution of the paradox is that the worst violence is being committed by Georgia against the separatist region of South Ossetia, and Russia has seized upon Georgia's attack against the region to teach Georgia a lesson. But these facts clash with the American insistence on seeing Georgia as an outpost of freedom and democracy standing up to tyrannical Russia. The Times is behaving like the controlled press of an authoritarian country, which can only produce a confusing mess when reporting news that doesn't fit the official line.

The other key aspect of the story WSWS includes that is completely effaced in mainstream reports is the prominent role the United States is playing in all of this. In The Times conception, the USA is merely a concerned neutral observer speaking out against violence. From WSWS we learn that it is the huge flow of American military aid and training that has made the Georgian assault against South Ossetia possible in the first place, and Georgia's president is now calling upon his military patron to intervene against Russia.
The Georgian president declared that his country was “looking with hope” to the US. The armed confrontation with Russia, he claimed, “is not about Georgia anymore. It’s about America, its values... America stands up for those freedom-loving nations and supports them. That’s what America is all about.”
Without letting Russia, itself an imperialist power, off the hook, I think American actions have to take the most blame for these developments. In response to the collapse of the Советский Союз/Soviet Union, the United States moved aggressively to privatize the economies of the Soviet successor states (with disastrous results for the people of those countries) and to establish as its own client states the defensive ring of countries Stalin had built after World War II. The war over Kosova, the quest for a missile defense system, the insistence on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline for extracting Azerbaijani oil, using the war in Afghanistan to establish military bases in neighboring countries, the covert support for the Color Revolutions in former Soviet states - all must be seen as part of a campaign to isolate Russia and render it vulnerable to American power. Russia has, in fact, responded with surprising restraint to these provocations - but with the US-sponsored economic catastrophe seemingly in the past and oil wealth stimulating a (deeply unequal) recovery, Russia may no longer tolerating such bullying.