Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quote of the week

Atrios aka Duncan Black has perhaps the ugliest looking blog in the world. The colors are bad, the fonts are bad, the layout is bad--no pictures, no graphics, nothing to please the eye. Seriously, would it kill the dude to bring in a high school intern for an afternoon to spruce the place up a bit?

Oh but the content! There's a reason why he has millions of readers and is one of the most influential political bloggers in the world. Good content, thoughtful content, breaking stories several times a day paired with brilliant analysis. The guy is like a Jedi meme surfer who is always ahead of the next break.

So with that, I bring you the quote of the week, courtesy of Atrios, (hat tip to Kos).

One thing you learn very quickly when you blog is that no matter how smart and knowledgeable you are (or imagine yourself to be), some of your readers are going to be smarter than you and literally every one of your readers knows more than you do about something. It's humbling at first, but then quite liberating. The "shut the hell up I know best" stuff is what grates me the most about politicians and other elites in our system because the truth is that quite often... they don't.

That is exactly what old-school folks don't get about the progressive blogosphere (and apparently it's what Senator Obama doesn't understand about the internet as well). There is always someone smarter out there. And a properly structured group can focus the wisdom of the crowd in ways that make it smarter than even the most informed expert (as Daily Kos, Americablog, and FDL all demonstrate).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

'Milton Friedman wants you to be his bitch'

When the Hubble Space Telescope was first launched there was a flaw in the big mirror in the telescope and so for a few years all the photos came back blurry. So NASA sent a repair mission and they corrected the mirror and suddenly the pictures came back crystal clear.

That's how I felt reading Naomi Klein's new book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. For decades the mainstream media (and academia too) have presented us with a blurry picture about what is happening in the world. I'll give you an example: in 1973 Augusto Pinochet, with backing from the CIA, launched a military coup in Chile. Next thing you know Milton Friedman flew down to meet with Pinochet and Chile implemented a massive privatization plan. The New York Times, Washington Post and other traditional media reported on these two events (bloody coup and new economic program) as if they were unrelated events--as if we were all just supposed to scratch our heads and say, 'oh what a coinkydink.'

Naomi Klein's book fixes the flawed mirror presented by corporatist media and presents a picture that is crystal clear. Her argument goes something like this:

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, United States economic policy was guided by the theories of John Maynard Keynes (as implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Keynes believed in a mixed economy--namely that some form of regulation and public services were required to mitigate the adverse effects of capitalism. Keynesianism led to the creation of the American middle class, the end of the Great Depression, victory in World War II, the GI bill, the Marshall Plan (that rebuilt Europe after the war), and the largest sustained economic expansion in history.

But in the 1950s, Milton Friedman, building on the theories of Adam Smith, became influential in the economics department at the University of Chicago. Friedman and his followers distrusted Keynesianism and advocated a new form of laissez-faire capitalism with no government regulation, no environmental regulation, privatization of all government services (including social security), and unfettered free trade (no protection for domestic industries).

The Ford Foundation and the CIA were so enamored of Friedman's theories that they started a program to bring leading economists from Latin America to study with Friedman at the University of Chicago. At one point 1/3 of all the students in the University of Chicago economics department were there as a result of this program.

The problem was, Friedman's economic theories were (and are) incredibly unpopular. Any time democratic societies got a say in whether or not they wanted to implement Friedman style privatization programs, they invariably voted them down (because, in general, people don't like losing their jobs and starving to death in the name of some macroeconomic theory).

That would ordinarily be the end of the story--bad theory, unpopular, consistently voted down in democratic societies, the end.

But unfortunately, that's not the way the world (or the U.S. government) works. Instead, the CIA figured out that Friedman's economic program could be implemented, under the cover of darkness, if a shock to the system could be introduce first. So in 1973 the CIA backed a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. As everyone from union leaders to folk singers were being tortured and executed in the former soccer stadium, Pinochet and his University of Chicago-trained economic advisers, implemented Friedman's economic theories in Chile. Similar shocks followed in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay.

Then the CIA figured out that it wasn't just military coups that could apply the literal and figurative shocks to a country--hyperinflation, natural disasters (hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes), and foreign debt would also do. Furthermore, the Internal Monetary Fund and the World Bank were used to implement these shocks--by tying any loans to the requirement that governments privatize their industries and completely open their borders to multinational corporations. So over the next several decades Milton Friedman-designed economic programs were implemented (without democratic consent) in Poland, South Africa, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Iraq, and New Orleans. The architects of the Iraq War (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bremer) were all followers of Milton Friedman. (I imagine Bush would have been too if he had ever opened a book or gone to class.)

For some time now, I've been curious to figure out what the relationship is between violence and wealth. Apparently, Naomi Klein was curious about that too. She writes,

"Is neoliberalism [aka Milton Friedman University of Chicago style economics] an inherently violent ideology, and is there something about its goals that demands this cycle of brutal political cleansing, followed by human rights cleanup operations?" (p. 126)

Klein's 466-page, meticulously-researched answer is, YES IT IS.

A couple other things become clear to me as a result of reading Shock Doctrine:

1.) There is no such thing as "U.S. foreign policy" or the "U.S. military." Rather, U.S. foreign policy is designed and written by multinational corporations and the U.S. military is just a private army working at the behest of multinational corporations. Furthermore, the CIA is simply a private paramilitary army/death squad working at the behest of multinational corporations.

2.) In many ways, progressives of the world have been focused on the wrong enemy for 50 years. We've focused on racism and war and the environment. But these are all products of bad economics. It all starts and ends with the economics. Fix the economic system, and lots of the other problems start to dissolve too. For Klein, a simple return to Keynesian economics would probably bring stability, democracy, and the revitalization of the middle class.

I'll leave you with another couple quotes from the book:

"Despite the mystique that surrounds it, and the understandable impulse to treat it as aberrant behavior beyond politics, torture is not particularly complicated or mysterious. A tool of the crudest kind of coercion, it crops up with great predictability whenever a local despot or a foreign occupier lacks the consent needed to rule: Marcos in the Philippines, the shah in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, the French in Algeria, the Israelis in the occupied territories, the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list could stretch on and on. The widespread abuse of prisoners is a virtually foolproof indication that politicians are trying to impose a system--whether political, religious or economic--that is rejected by large numbers of the people they are ruling. Just as ecologists define ecosystems by the presence of certain 'indicator species' of plants and birds, torture is an indicator species of a regime that is engaged in a deeply anti-democratic project, even if that regime happens to have come to power through elections." (p. 125)

"Everywhere the Chicago School crusade has triumphed, it has created a permanent underclass of between 25 and 60 percent of the population. It is always a form of war." (p. 405)

Shock Doctrine is a revelation.

You can see a short film by Alfonso Cuaron about Shock Doctrine (here).

Concern for the environment IS concern for people

The Clean Air Act mandated that lead based gasoline be phased out. 20 years later, rates of violent crime suddenly plunged. Did phasing out leaded gasoline contribute to the decline in violent crime? Amherst College economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes makes a compelling case.

Also check out Lead Action News.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

For the last several months I've been reading academic works of sociology to try to get my feet wet before diving into graduate school. To my dismay, I've found that for the most part, the authors I've read violate almost every rule of good writing (such as--use short sentences, don't use a 50 cent word when a 5 cent word will do, show don't tell...) In fact, in many cases, the Wikipedia entry for a particular author does a better job of communicating the ideas than the author's own work.

Apparently, Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, shares my concern. In an otherwise snarky op-ed republished by the New York Times in honor of her award, she makes the following observation:
"It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language."