A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Let's be fair then!

Half Sigma, who appears to take pride in claiming to fall between ideological stools while to my cursory overview, shilling mindlessly for the Right, comments on the post by Cookie Jill to Skippy I reproduced below, to the effect that "Not every figure is Bush's fault."

Here it is in full:

Most of these figures are important ones and worth talking about.

But not every figure is Bush's fault. How about a series of blog post where you write about each figure, and explain what a president other than Bush would have done differently?

For example, the stock market is down because it was in a bubble when he took office. Not Bush's fault.

Gas is up because supply is not increasing as fast as demand. Don't blame Bush because Mother Nature blessed the planet with only a finite amount of oil reserves.

Cost of a 4 year public college is up: this is controlled by states not the federal government. Too may people go to college anyway.
For quite some time I pointed out in my contrarian way that much evil we would like to attribute to Bush was not his doing. I think it should be obvious that our economy has deep cycles and neither Presidents nor Congresses are responsible (within the cycle) for its upturns and downturns. What they are responsible for is perpetuating the conditions that underlie the cycle--but in principle, we might generally agree the cycle is a necessary part of our economic existence. What I really hold them in contempt for is, that they avoid facing the issue of the existence of the cycle at all, that when the markets are doing well they take credit and when they tank they scuttle around blaming their enemies, but none of them--especially not the "pro-business" types, ever seem to notice the decade-long cycle we have all lived through a few swings of and that goes back far past living memory to the early 19th century.

But at this point in the cycle, by now, halfway through one, I would say GW Bush's policies have had their stamp on it. In 2001 it may have been unfair to blame the character of the downturn on him. Not so in 2005. If there are elements to all the economic variables that are cited that are nondiscretionary and happen "behind the backs" of all planners public and private, there are others that can and do respond to public policy.

Public policy, rammed through by a Congress that slavishly follows the most irresponsible and accountability-free, and mindlessly ideological, Administration ever, has been a relentless application of the idea that the rich must benefit and everyone else follows along in their train. If we have a boom and revenues to states pile up--we need tax cuts, going to the rich since the poor dears pay more. If we have a collapsed economy and states and the Feds suffer short revenues--we need tax cuts to "stimulate" the economy so more revenues might ("will," say the supply siders with their Laffer curves, but not only are they wrong, but they plan to cut tax rates on the rich yet again if this happens or if it doesn't) rise again. 99 percent of the population must rely on trickle-down from the 1 percent that is being consulted and slavishly flattered.

Proof is in the pudding. Does it work? 5 years into the cycle starting from the crash--we should not still be stagnant. But anyone with a brain watching economic history should realize that bribing the rich to "give" us a vibrant economy never works. Their rational interest is to take the free revenue they are getting or being suddenly told to keep, and sit on it or blow it on themselves, and let someone else take the risk of starting up a new boom. If that starts to happen there is plenty of time to cash in on it.

It is working people who create the wealth of the world, and it is they who suffer during downturns. If we were honest about the cycles, accepting them as real and normal and necessary, we would have policy designed to help working people through the phases when the economic machine is down and does not need them. But actually if we understand the cycle, we would learn that part of why we have periodic downturns is to "discipline" working people, to force them to accept lower wages and more dangerous working conditions by subjecting them to the threat of no job and no legitimate avenue of survival at all. Looked at that way, capitalism is a form of diffused class slavery. And this is why we don't have a coherent, useful school of economics at all in this great nation, or indeed in the whole capitalist world.

Let's take a look at those hooks you want to let Bush off of again:

"For example, the stock market is down because it was in a bubble when he took office. Not Bush's fault."

It is quite true that the global downturn began on schedule, as it has every decade, preceded by a feverish boom which is always part of the cycle (unless you have one so mired in the doldrums it never really booms at all, as can and has happened.) The downturn began under Clinton. Let us not forget that the boom also happened under Clinton, but perhaps you want to credit that exclusively to the Gingrich Republican controlled House? If you want to be fair and rational about this stuff, you had best acknowledge that politicians and businessmen alike are like children building sand castles by the shore while the big economic waves roll in from the global ocean.

There is a difference--economics unlike the ocean is made up of human behavior, and in principle political and social decisionmaking can modify that. The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge what is. If Bush had done that coming into office, he would have recognized that the global economy was tanking and made proposals that took that into account.

When the world slides into depression, it ceases to be rational for individual investors to risk their money in stocks or productive investments in general. When an economy is healthy the source of the growth of wealth, which investors tap into, is the expanding work done by working people who are satisfying more and more general human needs and wishes. Because in general it is possible for healthy people to create more material wealth in a day than they need to consume that day, economies can grow, and so risking existing wealth by tying it up into time-bound productive processes is quite likely to pay off in selling the products for more value than was put into it by the investor--the difference is added by the work of the workforce. The investor however, under capitalism, owns the whole product, having hired workers not to provide a given amount of value but to be totally at his disposal during work hours--the workers own none of it but are owned only their wages that they have agreed to separately. All this is sustainable and ever-expanding--provided that all the actual stuff that is ultimately produced finds a market in a reasonable amount of time. The trouble is this--the system has no overall rational coordination and individual investors seek the most profitable investments, even though other investors are going after the same markets, while less hot markets languish for lack of investment.

This is the basis of my "Freeway in Hell" metaphor by the way--just as I wait impatiently for an opening into the lane next to me that is whizzing past me stuck into a jam, but the second I enter that lane at last it grinds to a halt, not by accident but because many other drivers seized the same opportunity I did when it finally came and so we filled and jammed the lane (while freeing up the one we left to move in its turn)--so it is that the capitalist economy does not smoothly fill in gaps of investment according to long-term need but, driven by hindsight and the desire to grab the best profits first, surges drunkenly from one crisis to another.

Knowing this is the nature of capitalism, it is futile to"push at string" by filling the coffers of the already rich with tax breaks. Rational capitalists will not invest in productive enterprises when the cycle is broken, for tying up liquid wealth into concrete production processes will become a loss and not a profit if the product of production cannot be expected to be sold! Therefore the Bush tax cuts which you may recall were his very first priority, right after putting in John Ashcroft for Attorney General, were a stupid and vicious piece of economic policy, for not only did they divert national wealth where it would do no good, they impaired the ability of the government to undertake investments of its own which could have done some good directly guaranteeing some paychecks, whose earners would buy things thus sustaining the level of consumption in general thus restoring confidence in consumer markets sooner. Bush of course did the very opposite, slashing all programs that divert money toward poorer people who tend to spend money more effectively while enhancing the welfare of the class most likely to just hoard it away or divert it overseas. So, it was not his crash, but he's the one who sent fire trucks to spray gasoline rather than water onto the fire.

"Gas is up because supply is not increasing as fast as demand. Don't blame Bush because Mother Nature blessed the planet with only a finite amount of oil reserves."

Ah yes. Speaking of gasoline etc. You don't suppose, do you, that it was foreordained that the world would reach peak oil during the Bush/Cheney administrations do you? Aside from finite supplies, there are rates of consumption to consider. Back in the 1970s we got a real scare, receiving a global demonstration in the vulnerabilities of a technical society dependent on a resource people elsewhere in the world are able to disrupt. Some people had the wisdom then to point out, even if the foreigners are all benign and harmless, even if we ourselves had all the oil in our possession--someday it is going to run low. What then? A rational person might think, well, let us look for alternatives to this stuff. The sooner we find other ways to meet our needs, the less dependent we are on oil, the less subject we are to foreign blackmail, the more options we have for the future. This long-term vision coordinated with the short-term panic to save money on suddenly skyrocketing oil costs through conservation measures. The result was a dramatic reduction in consumption which very largely happened not through bitter sacrifice but superior efficiency. This lowered the demand which tended, despite ongoing political shocks, to lower the price of oil.

Now I would say that when the price dropped, political wisdom would be to found a new tradition of setting a floor on consumer/industrial petroleum product prices by ramping up taxes as long as prices fell, and holding the line on them if market prices rose, so that oil would remain expensive to the ultimate user thus keeping the pressure on to conserve and to find alternatives. Meanwhile since the government would be taking a cut of the price difference, that money could be used to actively promote the development of ever more advanced alternatives. Remarkable progress was made (without the help of such a dedicated stream of revenue from the pump) in the late 1970s. What if it had continued?

Instead however, we got Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter had installed a solar heating system in the White House--Reagan had it ripped out. You explain to me the economic rationality of that move! There was none of course--the idea was to signal the oil people that the Reagan policy would be damn the solar cells, it's all "our oil" no matter whose soil it is under, and Americans were entitled to burn it up cheaply. The military buildup necessary to "safeguard our interests" in the Persian Gulf (not to mention keeping our thumbs on the people of places like Indonesia, Nigeria, and Venezuela via the dictators we imposed on them, so their regimes would keep the oil flowing) cost far more than the most ambitious technological "energy independence" projects, but the latter would yield a guaranteed and continual return in accumulating degrees, while the former has cost us not only a constant economic drain but global goodwill as well, and leaves us all vulnerable to this day that is arriving now, when we still need the oil-but we already burned it up.

Reagan was succeeded by Bush Sr who continued our policy of temporary glut through military conquest to be followed by deluge after them. For the Cheneys of the world are set up to be chief vampires, to reap what huge profits come to those who hold the key to the last oil reserves. Suffering will fall on the world as the price skyrockets again, but the corporate conglomerates who have created Bush Jr as their front will keep their revenues high at the cost of everyone else. What will they do when it is all gone?

At any rate we can and should blame Bush for the lack of any development of alternatives to oil dependency since his assumption of power, and recognize that his political side is largely responsible for the lack of progress on this front in the decades before as well. The fact that Bush's faith-based beliefs and policies, his contempt for facts and reality, has been reflected in a severe reduction of support for real science and useful engineering in favor of grandstanding and militaristic stunts and fundamentalist hogwash, makes this situation all the worse. And knowing that while the majority of Americans will suffer with rising pump prices that Bush's billionaire "base" will profit, it is impossible for me to credit him with any good intentions in this matter. This is, by 2005, presumptively Bush's policy and his fault.

"Cost of a 4 year public college is up: this is controlled by states not the federal government."

The feds tax the people of every state more than any state does; the states have to be very careful in meeting their responsibilities in that context. The formula used to be, Uncle Sam would take in lots of money via income tax, but kick back much of it via programs and grants to the states again. Today, the same political groups who want the Feds to butt out of allegedly "state" responsibilities also want the states to throttle back their taxes too. Whenever I see an argument that such and such is not a Federal responsibility, the real aim is always clearly to stop it from being done at all. That at any rate is the clear trend of the Bush education policy. A relentless dumbing down of every aspect of education in this nation has been the outcome. Primary schools have been diverted to preparing for tests that measure only the ability to mindlessly regurgitate meaningless "facts," and every form of Federal support for higher education has been chopped, while the very freedom of academics to speak or think freely is being threatened by campaigns for ideological conformity. Meanwhile other state responsibilities are seeing the Federal share of support being cut there too, forcing states to either seek new revenues or cut them all back. Since revenues are based on economic production and the Bush economy is still stagnant, the intent is clearly to force cutbacks both in education and social services. To suggest that Bush has no responsibility for these state actions is--Republican morality and conservative acceptance of responsibility for actions they have taken at the very finest level we have learned to expect of so-called "conservatives."

"Too may people go to college anyway."
Yes, Mr or Ms Sigma, I suppose too may people do go to college. Of course if they don't go to college and learn to spell good and use write grammar, I guess that is a good reason for them to have to accept jobs that pay far too little to stay ahead of debt and cover life's necessities? It is a fact that today not having a BA at least is as bad as not having a high school diploma was a generation before. I certainly can agree that people ought to go to college if and only if they have a passion to learn what is there. If we were moving our society toward one that did not shut doors in people's faces merely because they do not have diplomas with their names on them but recognized people for what they do, I would expect that fewer, far fewer, people would go there. As it is--your proposal is to slam another door in their faces and thus ration the diplomas--on what basis? Old fashioned ability to pay, to reserve the better jobs for those with richer parents? Or some kind of judgment of "merit" by tests or graders who in real life, have ties to the social power structure and will in fact ease the way in for kids with privilege and filter those without so the latter will be chosen for their serviceability to the former? That was characteristic of the "good old days" too. Actually the great expansion of college today traces back to the GI Bill of Rights, which would have turned into a boondoggle had it not been the case that the American economy, taking over the role of the ruling economy of the capitalist world after WWII, had a vastly expanded need of workers with advanced skills. That people need higher degrees to qualify for jobs is at least in part a reflection of the reality that modern jobs do ask people to take their place in a more sophisticated global workforce. The other thing that higher education might accomplish is opening doors to ordinary people being better informed democratic citizens. But if you don't care about that because the ruling class has it all well in hand anyway I don't suppose you'd value that. Away with the rabble then!

By those standards your President is a great success. In terms of outcomes for the ordinary people of this nation whose welfare he is supposed to be concerned with, he is a miserable failure--with all due accounting for circumstances, the worst President ever.


Anonymous Half Sigma said...

Hi Mark. I'm honored that you thought my brief comment worthy enough to devote such a long blog post to it.

I don't disagree with everything you said, but it's unfortunate that you have to blame Bush for everything instead of focusing on policies.

I don't think Bush is so much different than Democrats on most economic issues. Bush is not my favorite president.

Regarding the division between employer and employee, read my post: The unequal bargaining power between employer and employee.

Regarding energy: Say yes to nuclear power.

Regarding the value of an education: Student loan ripoff and More about student loans and the value of a college education.

And regarding the stock market: we have not yet recovered from the bubble that occurred, it just moved from stocks to houses. When it collapses finally it will be painful.

5/08/2005 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Half Sigma said...

"we can and should blame Bush for the lack of any development of alternatives to oil dependency since his assumption of power"

I've addressed this issue before as well: The end of the Oil Age, Part I and The end of the Oil Age, Part II.

It's the fact that I've pretty much alread blogged about everything that almost made me quit blogging, but then I realized you can just keep saying the same things over and over again.

5/08/2005 1:14 PM  
Anonymous mlhm5 said...

half sigma sounds like someone who refuses to be enlightened and it's wasted effort trying to do so.

Kansas is looking for unlighened as I note by reading the Monkey Trials II.

5/08/2005 1:50 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Mlhm, I seem to have misplaced my smug sense of superiority drenched in self-righteousness.

Can I borrow yours?

5/08/2005 3:09 PM  
Blogger Mark H. Foxwell said...

I don't know how long you have been thinking on these things, Half Sigma formerly known as the Calico. But it is a good sign to me that you at least do appreciate the importance of collective bargaining. That certainly _does_ set you at odds with Bush and all his flying monkeys.

I look at Bush's policies and see unrelieved disaster. And I would expect nothing else, for he represents a class of people whose interests and wishes are the source of most of the world's problems, and from his first seizure of power he has shown he will not be bound by any sort of accountability to people less rich than he is. What we are seeing here is the unrestrained march forward of an ideology devoted to contempt for ordinary people.

Moderation does not mean that one automatically concedes that one side must be right about anything. If they are wrong they are wrong. Anyway I do not claim to be a moderate, I am more interested in being right about things than avoiding stepping on toes. I find that one should listen to counterarguments, but also that those presented by the modern American right are generally of unbelievable shallowness and irrationality. They are off the game because they effectively own the game board and are in the habit of kicking it in the air and marching away with it whenever they are losing. They don't _have_ to make sense, there is no one in the world who they feel bound to listen to criticism from. In the end this attitude will bring us all into hard collision with reality which does not argue. When that day comes it will be too late for all of us. That is another reason this blog is called "A Freeway in Hell"--we are headed that way fast, and I don't see the exits.

5/08/2005 7:50 PM  
Blogger Mark H. Foxwell said...

Oh yes I reply on the nuclear point above with a new post. On other matters--I don't think these views of yours, Sigma, are all that deeply thought out, and you write as though you believe the absurd stereotypes of the rightist controlled media were accurate. If you live in the mental gated community of the corporate-controlled culture, then Republican policies must make a lot of sense as they are designed and disseminated in that bubble. From that point of view--I don't know why you would bother to differentiate yourself from Bushite thinking, and in your premisies and conclusions you rarely do from where I sit.

But most of us on the Left--and I make no secret of having very radical views--know that world inside and out, having come from it. I was a military brat myself, an officer's kid, and back in high school the very abstract world your reasoning holds in seemed real to me. Having since then emerged from the bubble of suburbia and gotten glimpses of a deeper and wider world, I believe I see the basis of your world view as the fictions and deceptions they are. The logic you use has no bearing if the premises are not correct, and if you seriously want to found a new way of thinking you have to engage with the historical reasons why we are where we are today. If you do, you mind find out that some people you think you can tower over right now got where you want to go a long way ahead of you. This was my experience anyway.

5/08/2005 7:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home