“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, March 05, 2005

LI was never a Maoist. Although we have a lot of contempt for the way the Western powers, for decades, subvented the Nationalist fascist forces, who were as bent on mass murder as Mao, but less successful at holding power, we’ve always thought Maoism was rural idiocy’s revenge on Marx. However, according to this scolding article in the NYT, have to credit Mao’s heirs with an activity that contains at least a true relic or two of good old Marx, not to mention Adam Smith. They are destroying the American constructed international IP standards.

We love it. IP is a misnomer – intellectual property is what Adam Smith called monopoly. In the nineteenth century, there was a gradual acceptance of the need for very limited monopolies of intellectual products – books, music, designs. However, the sponsors of monopoly were very clear about what this entailed – the capture of an economic gain through a state supported monopoly does not and should not have the characteristic of ‘property rights” – it is a lease, rather, and it is founded on that rarest of justifications for capitalist activity, ‘fairness.” You will notice that fairness only comes out of the mouths of economists when it favors the class for which they labor – the propertied classes. Otherwise, you hear the word efficiency. One thing a state monopoly does is create massive inefficiencies – hence, the price of those drugs still under patent.

As is the way of state monopoly, the monopolists invest some of their profits in the political market, buying senators, representatives, and presidents. These investments have created such absurdities as the extension of copyright to close to a century, sponsored by the late, unlamented Sonny Bono.

China, however, has taken the healthy view taken throughout the nineteenth century by Americans – IP is a rip off. So they have coolly ripped off American designs, copyrights, etc. Good for them. It is unfortunate that other countries in the third world aren’t strong enough to do the same. Nothing would please us more than to see some African country manufacture, at a much cheaper price, every drug that is now under patent in the U.S. Pull the completely corrupt system down to the ground, pour gasoline and piss on it, and light a bic.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Libertarians often talk of the state as a perpetual enemy. Marxists have an attitude to the state summed up by Lenin’s promise to make the state vanish.

LI used to accept this as a basic principle. We don’t any longer. We have a new principle: all beasts are beasts of circumstance. The state, in itself, is neither good nor ill, and its existence does not reflect some terrible flaw in human nature or history.

This doesn’t mean that the state isn’t a beast, at times, and the worst of beasts – a pennyante beast, a heart picker, a bad faith bad conscience. Clyde Habersham’s article in the Times this morning is about the familiar breath of the American beast – the racism, revanchism, and willingness to lynch that is encoded in U.S. attitude towards crime. Habersham compares the prospects of Martha Stewart, getting out of jail proclaiming her innocence, and Marc La Cloche. LA Cloche, of course, is a nobody. No politician will be inviting a man on welfare in the Bronx to dine with him or her. But they are both convicts. La Cloche, convicted of armed robbery, did eleven years in prison. He turned himself around. He learned a trade – barbering. The state taught it to him.

Out of prison, he tried, naturally, to make a living with his new trade. Only to run into an inhuman bully with a title – New York’s secretary of state. Grinding the bones of an ex-con is probably considered good politics by this semi-human being, since nothing makes some faction of Americans happier than a little lynching in the morning. So the Secretary of State blocked La Cloche from getting a license to barber because he didn’t have the “moral character” for it – after all, he’d been in prison. He might just abscond with a few of your follicles.

The absurdity of this decision prompted a judge to overturn it – but, as is the fashion of petty tyrants, the Secretary of State appealed that decision.


“New York's secretary of state, who has jurisdiction in these matters, appealed the granting of the license and won. Mr. La Cloche's "criminal history," an administrative law judge ruled, "indicates a lack of good moral character and trustworthiness required for licensure."

In plain language, the fact that Mr. La Cloche had been in prison proved that he was unworthy for the trade that the state itself taught him in prison.

Where is Joseph Heller when we need him? That pretty much summed up the feelings of Justice Herman Cahn of State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Two years ago, he ordered the authorities to give Mr. La Cloche another look. They have every right to expect would-be barbers to prove their "good moral character," Justice Cahn said. But Mr. La Cloche never got the chance. His criminal record alone did him in, and that was unfair, the judge said.”

Do you think the Secretary of State of any state is going to set the bar so high for Martha Stewart? No way. She is, after all, white and rich.

The article refers to the Fortune society, which is an ex prisoner advocacy group. Go to their home page here.

Just another morning in Bush’s America.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

We admit, LI has a few weaknesses. One of them is Li’l Kim, who is just the kind of sex goddess for whom we would do all kinds of things, those both fitting and unfitting a man, things that would stretch our capacities and permanently injure our character. We fell in love with Kimberly Jones a long time ago. It was one of those things – we were innocently strolling down a street in New Haven. The sun was shining – which was nice, since our Southern heart was still carrying refugee baggage from winter’s abysmal solar absence. Our first year in the North. So, we passed a poster. Just another music poster, nothing to stop for – but stop we did. This poster was for a Li’l Kim CD, and the woman was posed as she poses – those gorgeous legs parted, that sexy scowl on her face. Little clothing. It was fatum – this woman was the very ideogram of our libido, first traced, long ago, by an old flame, D., with whom we worked at a hardware store back when we were 20.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, Li’l Kim has a poet’s inability to distinguish those occasions in which fiction will serve our larger visionary purposes from those where it will get you thrown in the slammer – thus, her apparent misprisions to a grand jury.

According to the NYT story:“Ms. Jones faces a difficult challenge in the staid decorum of the court.

Two key defendants, both gunmen, have pleaded guilty in the case. Suif Jackson, 34, a rap music producer and manager, pleaded guilty on June 18 to illegal weapons possession and to participating in the shooting melee. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Damion Butler, who ran a security service for rap musicians, pleaded guilty on Jan. 28 to similar weapons charges and to using a false passport. He faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Ms. Jones, who was indicted in April 2004, was never accused of any role in the shooting. But according to the indictment, she repeatedly told the grand jury that she did not know Mr. Jackson, did not recognize Mr. Butler and did not see either of them on the street outside the radio station during the shootout. According to the indictment, Mr. Jackson was a frequent visitor to Ms. Jones's home in Englewood, N.J., and Mr. Butler ran his security business out of an office in that home.”

Now some interested soul should have advised Li’l Kim that you don’t make easy to verify claims in front of a grand jury when the claims happen to be true only in an alternative universe. So on the face of it, if you hold narrowly to certain narrow legal doctrines, things look bad for our idol. But we have a great belief in the power of forgiveness. And we do completely buy Li’l Kim’s lawyer’s story: the poor woman was, obviously, not completely in her right state of mind when she misspoke herself, out of loyalty. We think Li'l Kim has learned from this experience, and we really think she will stay away from shooters in the future.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

LI has never felt that visceral contempt for Nick Cohen, the lefty supporter of Bush’s invasion, that gives us an ulcerous pang when we read Christopher Hitchens – that feeling of watching something seedy and disgusting, a declining rhetor re-positioning himself to stay in the dinner line in D.C. We appreciated Cohen’s ferret like attacks on Blair’s administration, and we grew to expect the ferret in any position he took. But his newest article in the New Statesman
tears it – Cohen is officially on LI’s list of journalists who have devalued their worth to the ‘sell at a loss’ point.


This is, of course, a very long list. Cohen, we should point out, is not a journalist, but a columnist. The columnist has become a sort of hybrid creature – at one remove from a journalist, in that columnist rarely puts on the gumshoes and actually does fieldwork – when they do, they bring along an entourage and grandly embed themselves with the powerful; at the same time, the columnist is at several removes from the philosopher, since columnists rarely introduce any method into their opinions so that one could judge if they were right or wrong. Columnists cling to morality because morality isn’t as threatening as logic or method – it requires very little work, and leaves one, after denouncing some immorality or other, with such a pleasant glow of self-approbation that the uselessness of one’s entire profession doesn’t so bluntly obtrude on the consciousness over drinks..

Let’s quote a little Cohen. The column is about cocaine.

“Yet the more important point is Sir Ian's argument [Sir Ian is a highly placed cop] that "the price of cocaine is misery on the streets of London's estates and blood on the roads to Colombia". It may be true, as some have argued, that dragging lawyers and accountants out of Islington dinner parties would be a waste of police time. But it is also beside the point. Cocaine has spread wide and deep. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey showed 624,000 people in England and Wales admitted taking it within the previous year, and 275,000 admitted taking it in the previous month. The real figures are probably higher. At £40 a gram and falling, it still is not cheap but it hardly fits Robin Williams's old definition that "cocaine is God's way of telling you that you make too much money" any longer. This is a drug for the many.”

Well, Cohen actually has a fact to deal with. There is a large market for cocaine. And he also has a quote contrasting Ian’s idea that “misery” in London is connected with blood in Colombia. Indeed. But is the misery in London, and the blood in Colombia, due simply to the selling of cocaine, or to its unsuccessful banning over the last seventy five years? This is a question of cause.

Don’t expect Cohen to deal with that. The romance of their being blood shed somewhere is what Cohen is after. With a vulturine moral pounce, he’s immediately on the side of the cops on the question.

Here’s how he does it. First, he contextualizes the question of the misery and bloodshed so that it seems to be like questions about buying ethical coffee or bananas.

“To the individual, ethical consumerism is an assertion of autonomy. You're not changing the world when you buy bananas from the Windward Islands or fair-trade coffee from Colombia, but you are refusing to accept its terms, as you have every right to do. But if an individual refusal is to have a political effect, it must become a part of mass boycotts and mass purchases. And it is at this moment that politics is in danger of slipping into fashion.”

Of course, this overlooks the wholly pertinent difference: officially, no sale of cocaine is legal. This renders his comparison silly and vacuous. But this is the job of the columnist: to avoid any discussion of the salient features of the social fact under discussion, and to lead it, by easy paths, back to the columnist’s hysteria of the moment.

This is all the more surprising in that Cohen’s column coincides, in time, with a BBC special about legalizing drugs. Plus, there was another cop on a BBC show recently who had this to say about heroin:

“One of Britain's police chiefs told the BBC last week that heroin ought to be legalized and was nicely reamed for his efforts by some of his colleagues, who all but called him a traitor to the cause. The brouhaha came about when North Wales Police Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom told the BBC Wales' political talk show Dragon's Eye on February 5 that current drug laws "do more harm than good" and he was prepared to see heroin sold openly.

"Heroin is a very, very addictive substance, extremely addictive, far more so than nicotine, but it's not very, very dangerous. It's perfectly possible to lead a normal life for a full life span and hold down a job while being addicted to heroin," Brunstrom told the BBC. "I don't advocate anybody abusing their body with drugs but clearly some want to. What would be wrong with making heroin available on the state for people who wanted to abuse their bodies? What is wrong with that?"

Indeed. So the locus of the argument, if Cohen were able to make an argument, can’t be the simple comparison of cocaine to bananas because, contra the headline of his article ( “They die for your right to snort”) – you have no right to snort. A little fixing of that headline – they die for your right not to snort – would not only be more factual, but would also get us to the heart of the matter.

Here, astonishingly, is Cohen’s argument against legalizing cocaine:

“The obvious riposte is that it is the insanely counter-productive war on illegal drugs that keeps Burma under the generals, Latin America terrorised by gangsters, the rich world's prisons full, the supply of lethally contaminated drugs flowing to customers, and burglars coming through your bathroom windows. Legalise drugs and the trade will pass from gangsters to respectable business people, prices will fall, health and safety standards will be met and the Treasury will pick up a useful new source of revenue for hospitals and schools.

Easy to say, yet it's hard for even the victims to accept full-scale legalisation. In 2003, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez condemned the US intervention in his country's civil war, which is as much about drugs as politics, as "imperial voracity". He was quoted as saying that the only way out for the 400,000 refugees the conflict had produced was for the Americans to accept that they were wrong and for drugs to be legalised. But he hastily issued a clarification. He didn't want legalisation or to see criminals rewarded. "What I said is that the Colombian drama is such that, to be exact, it is not possible to imagine that an end will be put to drug-trafficking without consumption being legalised. That is the enormity of the tragedy . . . Colombians are having to suffer."”

There you go. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez is against it, it must be wrong!

This is mentally painful, the sort of babbling that one might expect from an idiot twelve year old, not from a highly paid columnist. Even more painful is that Cohen is typical – this, actually, is how columnists think. The argument from authority is almost the only thing they know. Thus, the continual quoting of experts, and the continual failure to analyze the arguments of experts.

Since we are on the topic, however - in 2002 we gave our readers an economic argument about successful and unsuccessful bannings. We thought we’d issue it again, for those who missed it.

First, let’s note that we never see a discussion of banning drugs that asks the question: what constitutes a successful banning?
Let’s give some characterstics, then.
Successful bannings (in democracies):
a. don’t carry a severe cost in terms of liberties;
b. are relatively easy to regulate;
c. don’t produce a continuous stream of offenders;
d. consider whether there are substitutes on the market.

So, let’s consider a product that was successfully banned in the U.S. DDT is a good example. There are no gangs selling DDT. There are relatively few cases of the manufacture of DDT discovered in this country. There are relatively few consumers of DDT spending time in your state prison.

Why?

It is pretty simple. Successful bannings are conditioned by the market.

Let’s quote ourselves:

“To speak of regulation is to speak of associations, institutions, and markets as the sites in which regulation is effective. It is not necessarily to speak of the state -- all associations, institutions and markets require some ordering, and this ordering is achieved by regulation enforced by some medium of governance. So, that's clear, I hope. We are going to speak of specifically state sanctioned regulation, because this post is supposed to be continuous with the last one, in which, you may remember, I laid out my disagreements with my friend X. about gun control. The aim, here, is to give some sense of the determining factors in the successful or unsuccessful state regulation of markets.

I'm going to use the term markets in an expanded sense -- markets, in my terms, will be taken to exist when a good or a service is possibly commoditized. That is, it can be exchanged. This makes it possible to talk of such things as the market in homicide, which is a service. That doesn't mean that all services or goods are marketed. Your kids could wash your car, because that is a family chore, or you can take your car to a car wash and have it washed. In one case, the act of washing the car is an extra-market operation, and in the other case it is a fully marketed service.

Given this expanded sense of markets, I'm going to use regulation as a term designating all acts by which the way in which goods or services are composed and offered are modified by the state. Traditionally, regulatory scholars, like Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, have concentrated on the state's regulatory role in allocating goods and services, with less attention paid to the state's role in enforcing transparency, for example. We are going to leave the categories of regulation up in the air in this post, since our concern is with the general factors that impinge on the regulation of goods or services generally. Our parochial point, re gun control or the drug trade, is to show how these factors lead to successful bannings, or mitigate against bannings. Our thesis is simple: if the state tries to ban a good or a service without consideration of its popularity, abundance, and the existence of networks that facilitate the good or services production and distribution, the ban has a high chance of being inefficient, or pernicious to the preservation of civil rights, or counter-productive. We don't think that efficiency itself provides a metric that should determine absolutely the state's use of banning -- for instance, we think banning murder is probably inefficient, but we think the state should ban murder. However, when the ban is ineffective, injurious to civil liberty, and counter-productive (i.e, the objective of the banning is actually negated by the mechanism of the bannning), we think that banning shouldn't occur.

Before we contemplate bannings, as of guns or heroin or euthanasia, for that matter, we have to understand how the market in these things works. The way the good or service is integrated into a sector of the economy (for instance, is it a good, like asbestos, with mainly industrial uses?), the amount of the good that is potentially available (is it feathers from an endangered bird? or an easily grown plant?), the composition of the market for the good in terms of supply (do suppliers have an incentive to comply with the banning? is the banning such that the suppliers can sell the good to a certain market -- for instance, alcohol to adults -- or sell substitutes? Is there a large demand for the good? Is there a hardcore group within that demand pool who will take extraordinary risks to procure the good?) and finally, whether the enforcement of the banning is going to fall on the police.

It is the last named factor which strikes LI as the most neglected of all in the study of regulation. How good are the police as regulators? How good are they at enforcing bannings?

LI's contention is that they are very bad. There are reasons for this that are classically rooted in the literature on regulation. One of the objections to regulation of an industry on the part of the state is that the agents of the industry have more knowledge of their business than are available to the state. While this knowledge assymetry argument has some holes in it, there is also something to it. In the case of the police, we obviously don't want the police to be good at organizing murder -- but this outside status is going to work against their efficiency in enforcing the ban on murder. We accept a large margin of inefficiency here because the harm of murder outweighs the harm of the inefficiency -- the injury, for instance, to the civil rights of innocent citizens that often ensues in the course of a murder investigation. So if the police are our regulators of last resort, we don't want to abolish them all together. It does mean that before we want to ban a good or service, we should consider whether the police, if the onus of enforcement falls upon the police, are going to be good or bad at doing this regulatory task. And if they are going to be bad at it, whether that harm might not multiply harms in such a way that we are worse off than we were before the ban.

LI claims that this is the case of the total banning of a popular product like marijuana or handguns or cocaine. And that moralists like Cohen add immeasurably to the misery in London and the blood on the streets in Colombia by advocating a system that won’t work, the viciousness of which is visited on the heads of both the consumer and the middle men.

One other note and we are through. Usually, advocates of legalization envision a government monopoly on drugs. That is a nice moral fairy tale – but if you consider the reality of the drug market, probably that is not the way to go. Private producers and sellers of drugs will have as much incentive to enforce regulations vis a vis those drugs as sellers of alcohol have to enforce regulations vis a vis those drugs. The good thing about the private system is that, once legalized, it evaporates the incentive for violence. It is often pointed out by anti-drug side that there is still smuggling in cigarettes and alcohol. That’s true. But this smuggling does not entail a great deal of violence – in fact, there is much more violence involved in carjacking than there is in cigarette smuggling.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ah, that liberal intelligentsia

The title of Robert Reich’s op ed piece in the NYT yesterday is emblematic of the problem facing the liberal wing of the political elite: it is a rare medical condition called “not having a spine.” The title is “Don’t blame Wal Mart.” The liberal response to the power grab by the capitalist oligarchy in the last twenty years (a grab that has an exact metric – the relation between the average pay of the CEO and the average pay of the workers at his company) has been exactly this – to adopt a scolding, moral tone towards the ‘consumer’, i.e. those who make up the vast, underpaid bulk of the population, while suggesting self help ways we can make put the smiley face on the current neo-robber baron regime. Since Wal Mart has just been union busting in Canada, one would think Reich, a former labor secretary, might mention that. Don’t hold your breath – mentioning unions is so New Deal. The quicker you shoot them, the more we can open up the country to the ownership society – in which the owners own us. Or, slavery is freedom and I feel fine.

Here’s how Reich sees the problem:

“…Wal-Mart has lured customers with low prices. "We expect our suppliers to drive the costs out of the supply chain," a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said. "It's good for us and good for them."

"Wal-Mart may have perfected this technique, but you can find it almost everywhere these days. Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to consumers as lower prices. Products are manufactured in China at a fraction of the cost of making them here, and American consumers get great deals. Back-office work, along with computer programming and data crunching, is "offshored" to India, so our dollars go even further.”

This nicely mislocates the source of the great deals – the source is homegrown. It is called the Walmart work force. The Walmart strategy has been to deliberately and grossly underpay and overwork its work force, creating the kind of the productivity gains once seen by French sugar cane planters in Haiti. As employee compensation plummets to new depths, upper management rewards itself like a pirate at an orgy.

This is from an article in the NYRB about Walmart by Simon Head, 7 Dec. 2004:

“… Wal-Mart's ability to keep prices low depends not just on its productivity but also on
its ability to contain, or even reduce, costs, above all labor costs. As Sam
Walton wrote in his memoirs:

You see: no matter how you slice it in the retail business, payroll is one
of the most important parts of overhead, and overhead is one of the most
crucial things you have to fight to maintain your profit margin.

One of the ways to win this particular fight is to make sure that the growth
of labor's productivity well exceeds the growth of its wages and benefits,
which has in fact been the dominant pattern for US corporations during the
past decade.

>From a corporate perspective, this is a rosy outcome. When the productivity
of labor rises and its compensation stagnates, then, other things being
equal, the cost of labor per unit of output will fall and profit margins
will rise. Wal-Mart has carried this strategy to extremes. While its
workforce has one of the best productivity records of any US corporation, it
has kept the compensation of its rank-and-file workers at or barely above
the poverty line. As of last spring, the average pay of a sales clerk at
Wal-Mart was $8.50 an hour, or about $14,000 a year, $1,000 below the
government's definition of the poverty level for a family of three.[4]
Despite the implied claims of Wal-Mart's current TV advertising campaign,
fewer than half- between 41 and 46 percent-of Wal-Mart employees can afford
even the least-expensive health care benefits offered by the company. To
keep the growth of productivity and real wages far apart, Wal-Mart has
reached back beyond the New Deal to the harsh, abrasive capitalism of the
1920s.”

Walmart is simply the poster boy for the deep and abiding inequalities produced by cutting up the Social Welfare state of the sixties and seventies and feeding it to the sharks – the state of the country, post-Reagan. The U.S., already burdened with a political elite that resembles those common to a Latin American NSS, has the kind of inequality that indicates that, in this republic, a new experiment is being hatched: can a democracy generate a feudal system?

You betcha. And the serfs have voted for it. So they will get it. The asset stripping of their Social Security, the Bankruptcy bill that targets those who go under paying that 20 percent interest (while, of course, the system nurses,with utmost gentleness, the bankruptcies of such as WorldCom – can ‘t let the sharks suffer from their bad behavior, can we), the cuts in medical benefits, veterans benefits, and the locking in of tax cuts that have reduced the tax burden on corporations, for instance, to pre 1929 levels. But the serfs did get creationism in their classrooms and the prevention of the ultimate horror -- uppity gays looking to replace “Eve” with “Steve” at the altar. Be Happy!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Propaganda alert

James Glanz’s article about Basra sets, perhaps, a new record for propaganda from the NYT. To understand why the course of American foreign policy is beset by serial disasters like a car with a bad transmission problem, one has to understand that the info Americans get about foreign countries is saturated with a corporatist, conservative and essentially ignorant world view, as reporters with a free marketing, America-centric mindset meet subalterns with the same mindset. Like means like, the group groupthinks, and the kids outside dance around torched American tanks.

Glanz’s article centers on the fantasies of some of his informants – all of the upper class or working for them, all business people – about Southern Iraq. The most hilarious of the images he conjures up is Basra as another Singapore. Oh Singapore, where life has been totally sacrificed to the seven virtues of highly efficient people! It is the dead breath of the American dream in a small foreign place, and don’t you know, Timesmen just love it – as long as they can get away for the weekend, perhaps nobly freeing sex slaves in Thailand to the tune of Onward Christian soldiers, like Kristof.

What isn’t mentioned in Glanz’s article? Hmm, let’s start with the fact that the South is the stronghold not of a Singapore-ist faction, but of a theocratic faction. There were local elections in the South which somehow didn’t get into Glanz’s article. Pity, that. He has a nice dreamy sentence about an American friendly, free enterprising Southern Iraqi state: “Several different versions of a southern Iraqi republic have been proposed. One would include only the three or four southernmost provinces - Basra, Muthanna, Dhi Gar and Maysan” Funny, not mentioning that Sadr’s political party won the local election in Maysan, and came in second in Muthanna. Well, Sadr of course is one of those problematic characters outside the Narrative, and it is best to ignore him. Especially as he seems to have the weird idea that Americans have come to exploit Iraq instead of liberate it. How much nicer to find people who understand our way of life – so civilized! such dealmakers! Surely these are the kind of people an empire that runs on oil can rely on.

There’s a kind of rule of thumb, here. When the NYT announces something definite about Iraq – say, for instance, the announcements last year that the army had completely destroyed the insurgents in Samarra – one should expect a completely contradictory next announcement - as in, Battles in Samarra, ten dead in Samarra, etc., etc. Glanz’s article is an ill omen for poor Basra.