“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

Friday, November 13, 2015

Yes, it is war

The headline of Le parisien saddens me: cette fois, c’est la guerre. It saddens me because it implies that France has not been at war. While, in fact, you cannot bomb territories and your foreign minister cannot keep saying we are at war with DAECH or ISIS without being at war. This is what war looks like.

You can be for the war or against the war, but it has been war for a while, indisputably. As so often , the wars have been  fought according to the old presumption of colonial war: the front is over there in the distance. But this simply isn’t true any more.   Drone some Yemen wedding, bomb Isis, but don’t think that the forces who’ve been armed to the max by the worldwide flow of arms – none of which are of Middle eastern manufacture - are powerless to respond on your home territory.  This isn’t about moral equivalency, it is simply about the way wars are fought.  The irresponsibility of populations who finance huge war machines and let their presidents play with them, play with military forces that are not longer even drafted, leads to an indifference that will blow up in our faces as we dine at a café
I truly, naively believe that if populations connected to the elites that have monopolized and made foreign policy irresponsive to the popular will – if, in fact, the popular will was sending its sons and daughters into the military, and sacrificing their lifestyles to war – there would be less hobby wars. Wars that are the hobby of this or that engaged group.
This time is, really, only the successor of a long time in which war has been going on. So wealthy is France, or any of the developed countries, that wars have become things waged in the peripheral vision. But this is the path that leads to an uncontrollable influx of armed men from those distant theaters, or trained there, into the major metropoles to kill as many people as possible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

the myths of the labor "market"

 John Quiggin, the Australian economist, haswritten a post about the business cycle over at Crooked Timber, and in it herings my chimes – or he makes me mount on my hobbyhorse, to use an older cliché.Specifically, he defines recessions in terms of unemployment, mostly, which I think is a good thing – but he defines employment, implicitly, in terms of a labour market analysis, which is a normal thing, but I think is fundamentally misleading. In a footnote, this is how he defines full employment:
Full employment doesn’t mean zero unemployment, since some people are always changing jobs, or are in the process of leaving the labor market. Roughly speaking, the employment is at full employment in the sense required here when any additional job creation in one sector of the economy is feasible only by attracting workers away from other sectors.”
Implicitly, what is happening here is a vision of laborers as sovereign consumers in a market place, chosing this or that place to work. Or, in times of lesser employment, consumers without the full freedoms that endow the sovereign consumer. Of course, at the same time, these choosers are also vendors. The neo-classical model allows for this double aspect, but doesn’t ask any questions about it that would lead to some nasty dialectical thinking. That way lies madness and Marxism!
Myself, though, I think that this is a way of looking at the labor force that dissolves extremely pertinent sociological and economic distinctions. For instance, we know that around 30 percent of American workers – to stick with America – work in credentialed, or guild like, professions. Not just doctors and lawyers, but accountants, nurses, plumbers and air conditioning men – given this fact, it does seem like the definition of full employment here is, to say the least, not comprehensive.
Interestingly, when the “market” was first being conceptualized, in the 18th century, it was conceptualized as a ‘natural’ phenomenon against an artificial phenomenon – state sponsored or regulated activity. There is a famous and defining text, Turgot’s entry in the Encyclopedie on the Foire, or fair, that provides an exemplary instance of a discourse we have all become familiar with, in which the workings of the market are ‘distorted’ or “interfered with” by non-market, and hence, vicious, factors. Turgot used this distinction to analyse fairs as opposed to markets:
“Fair and a marketare therefore both a gathering of merchants and customers at a set time andplace. But in the case of markets the merchants and buyers are brought together by the mutual interest they have in seeking each other, while in the case of fairs it is the desire to enjoy certain privileges — from which it follows that this gathering is inevitably much more numerous and solemn at fairs. Although the natural course of commerce is sufficient to establish markets, as a result of the unfortunate principle which in nearly all governments has infected the administration of commerce — I mean, the mania of directing all, regulating all, and of never relying on the self-interest of man — it has happened, in order to establish markets, that the police1 has been made to interfere; that the number of markets has been limited on the pretext of preventing them from becoming harmful to each other; that the sale of certain goods has been prohibited except at certain appointed places, either for the convenience of the clerks charged with receiving the duty with which they are burdened, or because the goods were required to be subjected to the formalities of testing and marking…”
Given Turgot’s definition, one should speak, then, of the labor “market” as, actually, a hybrid of a market and a fair, for certainly many, if not most of those jobs we associate with the upper middle class are fair-like in their composition.
But there is more to the picture than that. I think Quiggens might be more aware than most economists that governments also employ people. But still, it seems to me that he underestimates  employment by the state. In other words, full employment is supposed to be something sustained by private enterprise in which the state plays only a marketmaker role, by using its powers to tax, borrow, and raise and lower interest rates to create optimum conditions of demand in the private sector.. But – to use the US as an example – full employment in the sense of the private sector absorbing all but a small portion of the working population has never been the case since the great depression. Since WWII, the government has gone from employing about 13 percent of the workforce to close to 17 percent. In 2009, for instance, according to the Bureau of Labor, there are around 22 million Americans employed by local, state and federal governments.
This means, at first glance, that the private sector employs on average about 82-84 percent of the work force. In actuality, given a very rough average of unemployment of 5 percent, which is really generous, the private sector ends up employing closer to 78 to 80 percent of the work force.
You can look elsewhere in the developed world and find similar statistics. The OECD has published a comparison across countries of the percentage of the work force employed in the public sector. The scandinavian countries rank high – in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, over 30 percent of the workforce works in the public sector. The UK is 21.5 percent in 2015. In Australia, the public sector grew in the past four years – an exception to the OECD norm – to 18.9 percent of the employed population.

So the first thing one can safely say about full employment, even before brandishing the market metaphor,  is that under modern capitalism, it doesn’t ever happen if we rely solely on the private sector. In a sense, the unemployed mass of the Great Depression was dissolved into the state, and has remained there ever since.

Monday, November 09, 2015

sick humor, State department style

I think Americans who have some moral sense should be outraged at the American foreign policy that has supported a civil war in Syria based on the premise that Assad is a dictator who slaughters civilians while providing logistical support for Saudi Arabia as it bombs and starves civilians in Yemen. As this article shows, it is a joke, officially supported by the Obama State department, that the Saudis are fighting for democracy in Yemen. Although this is a joke that is so sickening that even the State Department doesn't push too hard on this line. They did, of course, congratulate the Saudis when they were elevated, in another of those sick jokes, to the head of the UN Human Rights commission. An endless line of sick humor, death and destruction - there you have the Clinton-Bush-Obama Middle Eastern policy in a nutshell.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

the view from 1968: the moral and practical problem of encouraging police to shoot to kill

In 1968, Ramsey Clark, at that time the Attorney General, made a speech in response to Mayor Daley’s remark, about rioters in Chicago, that the police should shoot to kill looters. The speech is relevant now, when the head of the FBI and the DEA have expressed support for police responding immediately and lethally in situations that would formerly have been handled with the finesse police should be trained in. Oh, they didn’t express that support directly – the FBI head and the DEA head were sneakier than that, saying that the emphasis on police killings was contributing to a rise in crime.
Here’s a graf from Clark’s speech.
“A reverence for life is the sure way of reducing violent death. There are few acts more likely to cause guerilla warfare in our cities and division and hatred among our people than to encourage police to shoot looters or other persons caught committing property crimes. How many dead twelve year old boys will it take for us to learn this simple lesson?”

Thousands, it turns out, and we still haven’t learned it. The police poobahs think they are making their case by showing how shooting at the police has increased dramatically; what they are really showing is that police methods which visit lethal injuries on numbers of people who have done little or nothing more than crossed a lane without turning on a signal or the like produce an atmosphere where the cops become the target themselves.