Friday, May 13, 2011
The Decline of the American Empire
A popular media topic these days is the cultural, economic and political decline of the American Empire. It’s reflected in a large number of books, blogs and mainstream news stories. My former professor, Morris Berman, writes a popular blog, Dark Ages America, almost singularly devoted to the theme.
Perhaps you’re skeptical? Well, if you remain doubtful, I’ve come across a number of recent examples of this decline, including two from that increasingly important barometer (and archive) of American culture, YouTube. Let’s proceed with the evidence…
Exhibit #1: In the land of torts, Gloria Allred has risen above the pack and become a well-known trial lawyer and media manipulator. She’s also lost her mind. Witness the following press conference captured on YouTube, and consider the utterly inappropriate content given the two young girls who are flanking her.
Exhibit #2: American presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee [Note: On May 16, Huckabee withdrew from the presidential race.] thinks American teachers are too biased, so he's created his own company called learnourhistory.com. Here is the website's introduction:
Welcome to Learn Our History, where kids discover history through entertaining animated videos! I co-founded this company to give children a fun, fresh way to learn about America’s rich past and most influential people.
Many of our schools and teachers today haven't found ways to make history for kids fun. Instead, they’re teaching with political bias that distorts facts for the sake of political correctness. As a result, our national pride and patriotism are in jeopardy.
That's what makes Learn Our History different. Your kids will love to learn American history as they watch our nation's stories come to life right before their eyes! All the while, they’ll build a strong sense of national pride and appreciation for America.
Now, watch one his company's "inspiring"
video promos on Ronald Reagan:
Not surprisingly, comments have been turned off for the YouTube site. As an educator, my only question is this: Do I use Huckabee’s site first to teach irony, or do I move immediately to the topic of propaganda?
Exhibit #3: On a more serious note, Andy Kroll, a well-known writer for Mother Jones magazine, has written a chilling article on the hollowing out of the American middle class. He documents the jobless and unequal recovery now being touted by the Democrats - minus the jobless and unequal part, of course – and the critical role that labour unions used to play as the foundation of the modern middle class. Here are two excerpts:
... On April 19th , McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2 percent acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices....
…Bargaining-table clout is crucial for unions, since it directly affects the wages their members take home every month. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers pocket on average $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts, a 28 percent difference. The benefits of union representation are even greater for women and people of color: women in unions make 34 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts, and Latino workers nearly 51 percent more.
In other words, at precisely the moment when middle-class workers need strong bargaining rights so they can fight to preserve a living wage in a barbell economy, unions around the country face the grim prospect of losing those rights….
Do I take any comfort in this decline of a superpower? Do I display Schadenfreude, the pleasure of witnessing the discomfort of others?
But of course, it’s self-defeating and just plain ‘ol bad karma. As a Canadian, I know that America’s decline almost certainly means our decline. But it’s like a car wreck. Terrible. Awful. Irresistible.
Saturday, February 05, 2011
Dogs, Children, Culling...
Don't get me wrong: I like dogs. But our society's love for dogs sometimes goes over the top. Is it because they are a substitute for the children we haven't had for decades? Or the children we will never have, period? Whatever it is, it seems wholly disproportionate to the other challenges we face, especially those faced by actual children.
Shelley Fralic's recent
op-ed on the Whistler sled dog controversy captures my thoughts
... there is something almost obscene about the reaction to this story, especially coming on the heels of some of the most disturbing news to have been released in this province in recent years: the report by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, who is the diligent canary in the coal mine for the many abused and neglected kids among us.
Turpel-Lafond has been sounding the alarm for years, but no one seems to be listening, because it never seems to get better for children at risk. Her latest report? Turpel-Lafond found that 21 children, between 2007 and 2009, died before the age of two in homes where the government's child-welfare system was aware of the "tremendous challenges" facing those families, including domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues.
Twenty-one babies. Dead. For no good reason, except our lack of care and caring. Where is the public outpouring? The public memorials? The letters and tweets and Facebook posts and on-air callers and letters to the editor demanding justice, demanding heads roll, demanding changes to the system?
Dead dogs? That gruesome news was enough to make Premier Gordon Campbell launch an investigation, as he did Wednesday, a taxpayer-funded panel that will examine how and why 100 sled dogs came to meet such a grisly fate.
But babies? We just let them die, with nary a whimper.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
Bloodied But Onbowed
Growing up in suburbia during the late 70's and early 80's, I became a big fan of Vancouver's punk scene. I was never able to attend their concerts at the time - how could a good suburban boy ever get to (or into) the Smilin' Buddha? - but I bought as many records and cassettes as I could find. I'm not sure what attracted me to DOA, Art Bergmann, the Subhumans and the Pointed Sticks, et al., but it was probably a combination of the energy, bad language and social awareness that oozed out of these bands. And they wrote some damn good songs.
The Knowledge Network recently showed a great documentary on Vancouver's early punk scene called Bloodied But Unbowed. If you're interested in this scene - which Duff McKagan figures was one of the best in the world - the film is absolutely worth the 55 minutes.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Bill Maher recaps the summer
Bill Maher has returned to work after the summer hiatus, and offers this stinging recap of the past three months in American politics:
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
A Review of John Gray's False Dawn
John Gray’s popular critique of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism, False Dawn*, was originally published in 1998. It has enjoyed a resurgence as a “prophetic” account of our current global economic problems, but I think the book is better viewed as an incomplete analysis, and one that is riven with contradictions and equivocations.
Gray’s clearest and most consistent argument is that capitalism, and especially the sort of global laissez-faire capitalism promoted by the United States (i.e. the so-called “Washington consensus”) is not a natural state of being, and did not evolve naturally. On the contrary, laissez-faire capitalism is a politically constructed product, quite unnatural in most human societies and rarely long-lasting. Thus, the free market “that developed in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century did not occur by chance. Nor, contrary to the mythic history propagated by the New Right, did it emerge from a long process of unplanned evolution. It was an artefact of power and statecraft” (p.7). The system was contingent on an extensive and efficient colonial system, a government-led enclosure movement that enshrined private property, and a long-standing (but relatively unique) culture of individualism. On top of these elements, the British government engineered a laissez-faire economy through a number of extraordinary government measures: “The removal of agricultural protection and the establishment of free trade, the reform of the poor laws with the aim of constraining the poor to take work, and the removal of any remaining controls on wages were the three decisive steps in the construction of the free market in mid-nineteenth-century Britain” (p. 11). Indeed, only in mid-nineteenth century Britain, and in Anglo-American countries since the 1980’s, has laissez-faire capitalism been sustained in any meaningful manner. Gray concludes that the promotion of laissez-faire capitalism - an Enlightenment “universal civilization”, according to Gray – is as utopic as Soviet Bolshevism. The promoters of “neo-conservative” capitalism [now called neoliberal] are “as much captivated by the illusion that the historic sources of human conflict can be transcended as the most vulgar Marxist” (p. 102).
So what form of global economic system is likely to develop in the near future? According to Gray, it will be an eclectic mixture of different forms of capitalism, forms which respect local cultures and traditions, and which meet the primary needs of social cohesion and a baseline level of sustenance. Gray believes that the most successful economies will be the mixed economies in Asia. [Can Germany emerge as a successful and pragmatic member of the global economy? His answer (in Chp. 4) is a tortuous yes and no.] Though Gray wants to avoid generalizations about Asiatic economies, he nevertheless generalizes about Asiatic economies: “One of the appeals of ‘Asian values’ is that by adopting a thoroughly instrumental view of economic life they avoid the western obsessions that make economic policy an arena of doctrinal conflict” (p. 192). In comparison to Asian pragmatism, ideologically narrow laissez-faire economies are at a disadvantage: “In the contest between the American free market and the guided capitalisms of East Asia it is the free market that belongs to the past” (p. 131). The United States will continue to advocate for the Washington consensus, but its long-term prospects are dim. Indeed, evidence “of the superior economic growth, savings rates, educational standards and family stability of countries that have repudiated the American model will be repressed, denied and resisted indefatigably. To admit this evidence would be to confront the social costs of the American free market” (p. 131). America, in other words, will retard the successful acceptance of a framework “in which governments can protect what is distinctive and valuable in their economic cultures” (p. 204). Because of this, Gray is enormously pessimistic about the future of the global economy.
There are two profound problems with Gray’s analysis. The first is that inequality is only briefly discussed (see pp. 32, 108 and 114 ff.). For Gray, inequality is a social problem that leads to legitimacy issues for Western governments. Yet, as we’ve seen from the analyses of David Harvey, inequality is more than merely a political steering problem. Inequality is at the core of the housing bubble and the exotic debt instruments that have been used to create demand where real wealth does not exist. The wealth and income inequalities within states, and the growing trade imbalances between states, are simply not a major part of Gray's Tory worldview. In this manner, Gray’s book is not prophetic as one reviewer has stated.
The second major problem with Gray’s book is that he has two meanings of “anarchic” economies. The first meaning is clear enough: laissez-faire capitalism is enormously destructive of both political intervention (via Keynesianism and social democracy) and traditional social structures (so revered by conservatives). There is no longer any job security when global capital and trade flow freely across borders. And, ironically, the” free market seems set to achieve what socialism was never able to accomplish – a euthanasia of bourgeois life” (p. 72). In addition to social destruction, laissez-faire capitalism hollows out “the business corporation as a social institution” (ibid). Pensions and other long-term guarantees are no longer the responsibility of corporations, and the prospect of a life-long career seems an archaic relic. Finally, the ascendancy of financial capitalism in the West has meant that the “inherent instability of anarchic [emphasis added] global markets has been enhanced by the growth of an enormous, highly leveraged virtual economy in which currencies are traded for short-term profits” (ibid). In short, the laissez-faire project of reducing all relationships to self-interested monetary transactions seems at hand.
On the other hand, Gray also uses “anarchic” to refer to a period of globalization when the laissez-faire experiment has failed: “Every economy is being transformed as technologies are imitated, absorbed and adapted. No country can insulate itself from this wave of creative destruction. And the result is not a universal free market but an anarchy [emphases added] of sovereign states, rival capitalisms and stateless zones” (p. 194). Technological interdependence, environmental degradation and resource scarcity will render the current set of national and international institutions powerless to stop increased strategic conflict.
It’s unclear whether Gray is aware of the two meanings of anarchy, but he occasionally offers a synthesis: “Worldwide mobility of capital and production triggers a ‘race to the bottom’, in which more humane capitalist economies are compelled to deregulate and trim back taxes and welfare provision. In this new rivalry all the varieties of capitalism that competed during the post-war period are mutating and metamorphosing” (p. 218). Gray appears to be arguing that laissez-faire capitalism causes its successor (post- laissez-faire capitalism). This might actually make sense, but the transition is never fully explained, and it does not reflect his other argument that the Asian and German economies will resist laissez-faire capitalism. To the extent that they are successful in resisting the transformative nature of capitalism, then neither form of anarchy appears inevitable. Of course, it could be that the second meaning - of technology and resource-driven global anarchy - is really just moving the laissez-faire project to its most extreme form. The two anarchies are not conceptually distinct nor successive stages; they are part of the same process. In his original conclusion, Gray seems to be pointing that way, even if it contradicts his earlier discussions:
“The spread of new technologies throughout the world [Gray’s second form of global anarchy] is not working to advance human freedom. Instead it has resulted in the emancipation of market forces from social and political control [laissez-faire capitalism]. By allowing that freedom to world markets we ensure that the age of globalization will be remembered as another turn in the history of servitude.” (p. 208)
This confusion and equivocation is seen throughout the book, and particularly in its conclusions. To be sure, Gray’s book does have some strong elements. The arguments about the artificiality of market capitalism and America’s fateful intransigence are consistent and well argued. Nevertheless, the inconsistencies betray his argument. Does laissez-faire capitalism cause or succumb to a new form of global anarchy? Are they really the same thing? Will the Asian economies resist the demands of laissez-faire capitalism? Gray believes they will, but Asia (as Gray admits) seems weakened compared to the West after 1997. And, finally, if the Asian countries do resist laissez-faire capitalism, isn’t their pragmatism likely to overcome global anarchy? If so, Gray’s Hobbesian pessimism may derive from the wrong problems.
*Gray, John. False Dawn, 2009
Edition ed. London: Granta, 2009. Print.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Elizabeth Warren: The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class
The following lecture features Elizabeth Warren speaking about the current crisis in (and looming collapse of) the American middle class.
This presentation is almost 58 minutes, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in long term social and economic trends and the future of the middle class. Warren is a Harvard law professor who is a well-known commentator on debt and family issues. (She's even appeared in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.) In this lecture, her basic thesis is that the typical American family (two parents, two kids) does indeed earn more income - even adjusted for inflation - than its counterpart in the early 1970's. This is mainly due to the addition of a second income, usually from the wife. On the other hand, there have been many extraordinary increases in costs (mostly inelastic) that have overtaken this increase in income, to the point that the 1970's family actually has more disposable income and more financial flexibility.
There are many impressive aspects to her
presentation. First, it shows the relevance and usefulness of good
statistical data. It is culturally fashionable to dismiss statistics,
but the evidence Warren uses is illuminating and provocative. It
confirms some things I felt were true, but have never been able to
confirm or quantify. Second, her conclusions seem difficult to ignore or
refute, and they are plainly scary if one thinks about them for too
long. Warren's point about the move from a three-class society to a
two-class society is particularly chilling. Third, while certain cost
challenges are clearly American in nature (e.g. health insurance), many
others, like housing and education, pertain to middle class Canadians
like myself. Finally, her insights into the declining costs of food and
clothing, as opposed to the increasing costs of electronics and child
care, provide a sense of fairness and balance that is often missing in
popular political discourse. Generally speaking, this is a
thought-provoking use of an hour.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Comic Sans: The Write Type?
Apparently some people don't like the Comic Sans font:
"Comic Sans walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "We don't serve your type."
But seriously, here's a response in defense of our favourite faux handwriting font:
Here's another somewhat backhanded endorsement of Comic Sans. Honest.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Measuring the Internet
I remember back to the good old days of Alta Vista when they could actually count the number of pages on the 'Net. Like McDonald's hamburgers, the number of websites and pages now appears too large to measure. Nevertheless, here's a really fascinating site that attempts to quantify the Internet in terms of type and share:
Saturday, May 15, 2010
One of the great Jon Stewart episodes
One of the benefits of a DVR is that I can watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show even though I'm too old to stay up that late. The following is one of the best episodes I've seen from one of the best reasons to watch TV:
[Update: Because the original episode has been removed, I have to offer this summary news item.]