Tuesday, June 22, 2010

stuff they didn't teach you in school

David Wong, the Senior Editor of Cracked.com has a new post titled: The 10 Most Important Things They Didn't Teach You In School.  As you would expect, it's funny and racy and irreverent. But it's also surprisingly thoughtful.  In fact, the #1 most important thing they didn't teach you in school is so good I want to quote it here:

#1. Social Studies: Life is Hard and You Will Die, Get Over It

We're not foolish enough to think one semester of this course can deprogram years of Hollywood bullshit. That's why we make this a daily class, that continues from K through 12.

Many of you will get very depressed in your 20s, and some of you will stay that way the rest of your lives. Over the years your garage band will break up, you career dream will fall through, a girl will break your heart, you'll be unhappy with your body, you'll lose your parents, your favorite pet will die, you will endure at least one very terrible injury that requires hospitalization and breaks new boundaries for what kind of pain you thought was possible.

And your childhood memories will be exploited to buy vast amounts of cocaine. Deal with it.

The reason why this will lead to depression, where it may not have done so for an equivalent person 200 years ago, is because you were raised on illogical stories where things always work out for the main character for utterly arbitrary reasons. Han Solo can shoot straight, but none of the bad guys can--even though they train more. John McClane beats the terrorists because he has toughness and perseverance--something the bad guys lack, even though they should be equally desperate. If a guy and a girl are right for each other, they always wind up together, careers and geography and personal hang-ups be damned.

Here's the problem: these fantasies were created by adults, as a means of escape from the real world. You, however, have been watching them since you were five--for most of us these were our first impressions of how the adult world works, even if on a subconscious level. You had no context to realize they were bullshit. It sounds frivolous, but that doesn't change the fact that some of you reading this will not survive the long process of learning how different the real world is.

If it helps, try to remember that you're still one of the one percent of humanity that was born in a time and place where there is such a thing as anesthesia.

Chapters Include:
I. You Can Die at Any Moment, Get Over It;
II. Required Reading: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy;
III. Roleplay Exercise: Various Scenes from The Road, by Cormac McCarthy;
IV. Yes, It Takes 10,000 Hours to Get Really Good at Something, But At Least You're Not Scavenging Through a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland.

Definitely check out the whole article for a few good laughs and few insights that will make you nod in appreciation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

the roots of power

Three really insightful paragraphs from the classic 1977 book, Poor People's Movements:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society.  Crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not.  This much is true whether the means of coercion consists in the primitive force of a warrior caste or the technological force of a modern army.  And it is true whether the control of production consists in control by priests of the mysteries of the calendar on which agriculture depends, or control by financiers of the large-scale capital on which industrial production depends. Since coercive force can be used to gain control of the means of producing wealth, and since control of wealth can be used to gain coercive force, those two sources of power tend over time to be drawn together within one ruling class.

Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs.  What some call superstructure, and what others call culture, includes an elaborate system of beliefs and ritual behaviors which defines for people what is right and what is wrong and why; what is possible and what is impossible; and the behavioral imperatives that follow from these beliefs.  Because this superstructure of beliefs and rituals is evolved in the context of unequal power, it is inevitable that beliefs and rituals reinforce inequality, by rendering the powerful divine and the challengers evil.  Thus the class struggles that might otherwise be inevitable in sharply unequal societies ordinarily do not seem either possible or right from the perspective of those who live within the structure of belief and ritual fashioned by those societies.  People whose only possible recourse in struggle is to defy the beliefs and rituals laid down by their rulers ordinarily do not.

What common sense and historical experience suggest has been true of many society is no less true of modern capitalist societies, the United States among them.  Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of the means of production.  However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence....

--Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People's Movements: Why They Success, How they Fail, p. 1-2.

For more on the way that culture normalizes and obscures the true workings of society, please see my earlier posts on Freire. For a very different look at the role of culture and what it can mean to suddenly see and understand the culture all around us, check out this brilliant speech by the late novelist David Foster Wallace titled, This is Water.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Are markets actually calling on governments to raise taxes?

It seems to me that the markets are actually calling for higher taxes.  Because look -- the markets seem to want deficit reduction.  Got it.  But if you do deficit reduction through spending cuts you kill the recovery and send the economy into a double dip recession.  So the only way to get deficit reduction plus growth is through increasing taxes.  For Greece, or the UK, or Germany, or the U.S. to cut deficits through cutting spending right now would be complete insanity. 

Monday, June 07, 2010

This is the "NAFTA and WTO Recession" and it's not gonna end until trade policy changes

If we had the NAFTA debate to do all over again, I think the soundbite that could have won it for us would have been this:

NAFTA would make it illegal to do any manufacturing in this country. 

It's exactly the sort of cut-to-the-marrow soundbite that the right loves to use to polarize debate -- to say 'you're either with us or you are America-hating scum.'  And unlike conservative talking points this soundbite has the added benefit of being true.

Here's why it's true:

For-profit corporations in this country are required by law to maximize profits for shareholders.  That's what it means to be a for-profit company.  So if a U.S. company can have its product manufactured here for $17 dollars an hour or manufactured in another country for $1 an hour -- the U.S. company is required, through its legal obligation to shareholders, to offshore the production to the lowest cost manufacturing center. 

But here's the thing.  We very well may get to have the NAFTA and WTO debates all over again -- because the recession we are going through right now is the direct result of NAFTA & WTO.  And the recession is not going to end (in any meaningful lasting way) until trade policy changes. 

Both of these trade agreements were based on absolute intellectual horseshit.  The idea was that yes, the U.S. would end up sending a lot of manufacturing jobs to lower cost production countries. BUT! the argument went, everything would be okay because U.S. workers would still be the ones designing and managing and marketing those products -- and those management jobs would grow and would be far better jobs than the lousy manufacturing jobs they replaced. 

Here's why that's complete nonsense: 

Under currently international trade agreements, Hewlett Packard could offshore every single job in the company -- manufacturing, design, marketing, legal, etc. to India -- leaving one single job left in the U.S. for the CEO (if he chose to live in Malibu or something).  And we can't all be the CEO of HP.  The U.S. economy needs at least 150 million jobs in order for our people to survive. We need a natural diversity of different types of job to match the natural diversity in our population -- namely we need an economy such that anyone with a strong back and a good attitude can make a middle class standard of living in this country -- and that's what we had before NAFTA & the WTO. 

So the prosperity that we saw over the last 20 years was an illusion.  Suddenly, TVs and electronics and clothes got really really cheap.  And we felt wealthy because we could buy more of them.  But all the while, the core of our economy was being hollowed out as manufacturing jobs were being sent overseas.  Specifically, that cheap big screen TV at Best Buy was only cheap because it came at the expense of a unionized manufacturing job in the U.S.  The $500 you saved on the TV came out of the salary of an American worker.  And now 20 years later, SURPRISE! all the manufacturing jobs are gone and they aren't coming back.  An entire generation of American men with only a high school education has been sacrificed to the beautiful equations of Milton Friedman that turn out, in the real world, to only benefit his corporatist friends.  And then endless cheap credit kept the illusion of prosperity going, even as we had run out of jobs and the salaries that went with them.  But now that bubble has popped and all of the gauges are showing empty, empty, empty. 

As the Obama administration strives to jump start the economy -- there is quite literally nowhere to pump the stimulus money.  You can't pump it into traditional manufacturing -- because those jobs are gone.  So they try to pump it into green manufacturing and energy efficiency -- which is great.  Until you realize that U.S. corporations are still required by law to maximize profits for their shareholders and Chinese manufacturers can make anything we can make here -- and only pay their workers $1 an hour (sometimes less).  So then you realize that the hundreds of billions of dollars we are pumping into green manufacturing -- is really just the U.S. government funding the R&D that is going to make Chinese manufacturers rich. 

So Obama and his boys Tim Geithner & Larry Summers then try to reinflate the housing bubble through tax credits and guarantees for big banks to take big risks again -- because really, other than financial ponzi schemes, we don't really make anything in this country anymore.  But how long is that papering over of the problem gonna last?  Until the mid-terms in November?  Until the 2012 presidential election at the latest.  But then the clock runs out again. 

So when the double dip recession comes and the economy completely flatlines because we don't have any manufacturing jobs in this country (and the white collar research and design jobs are not nearly enough to make up for the jobs that are lost) -- I propose that we start the debate about rebuilding our economy by canceling NAFTA and dismantling the WTO.

Quite literally the kids in black were correct and the white (University of Chicago) guys with Ph.D's were terribly, catastrophically wrong.