Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Capitalism and Historical Revisionism

I really like this; revisionists are already coming out of the woodwork to suggest that this crisis in capitalism (the depth of which is not yet clear), is not the fault of capitalists. Note the comment left by ‘Anonymous’ to my last entry. “What capitalist supports letting people buy things (houses in this case) that they can't actually afford?” Well … most of them! I guarantee that every person in every bank that gave a bad, or predatory, loan was a capitalist. It is not real complicated folks. The more you deregulate the bigger the mess will become.

Now all of this begs the question “what is capitalism?” This is of course a more complex question . Some people will claim that only a completely deregulated economic system in which the state only functions in extremely limited ways is true capitalism. There is no historical case for such a position. Adam Smith made a clear distinction between the ‘market’ and capitalism. The market is literally a place where people go to buy and sell goods. Capitalism is an economic system in which the government creates the best conditions for individual capitalist enterprises to be profitable, and (according to Smith) it should do so in the national interests. The idea of a completely deregulated system is not really in the Smithian agenda. It is no coincidence that the modern capitalist and banking system grew directly out of people who claimed to be capitalists. It is because they were, and are, Capitalists! These people will often pay lip service to the idea of the ‘free market’ but they seldom act on genuine deregulation because they know what a nightmare would ensue. Of, course Alan Greenspan never really followed Ayn Rand, if he had he would certainly not been the head of a Federal Reserve bank. But then Ayn Rand was not a follower of Ayn Rand, if she had been she would not have spent any time telling people about what she thought was the best kind of social economic system, such an effort smacks of altruism and is a performative contradiction. (And the argument that this effort was in her ‘self’ interest because if society reformed  in this way it would be better for her too, is nonsense because as any (even right-wing) game theorist will tell you such effort is a zero sum game)

Anyone who actually advocates such a deregulated capitalist system is not really paying attention to much of anything. Greed does not make investors smarter or better, rather it blinds them to smart investment. Unchecked greed is an illness much like compulsive gambling. If you really tried to deregulate capitalism society would crumble before you could say Adam Smith. First of all Smith, even to the degree that he believed in laissez-faire, did not function in a context of potential environmental disaster, or red-dye 5 in the food. Shall we deregulate the production and trade of plutonium? Anyone who really thinks so is mentally challenged. And once you realize that you need to regulate this, you realize that at some level the entire system demands some form of control and regulation.

Unlike my ‘Anonymous’ commentator claims, this crisis was not caused by the American government propping up the banking system. This claim would be laughable if it were not so pathetic. The crisis was caused by greedy people who were functioning in a deregulated  credit system which allowed them not only to make predatory loans but to actually sell these loans like markers in a context that did not demand the proper kinds of disclosure and transparency.  Much of this was done by Wall Street firms that spent more money paying their executives than they did monitoring their credit.  Why, because they were greedy, and their greed blinded them not only to social responsibility but to good investment practices.

Selfishness will never be a virtue. I am not a capitalist,  but I admit that a strong argument can be made that capitalism, well regulated, can function successfully in some areas of society. However, the pursuit of profit does not belong in some areas of society because it will just lead to elitism and destroy society. 

Put Ayn Rand in the dustbin

This is rich. Alan Greenspan, known to be a big fan of Ayn Rand, is now talking about nationalizing banks. Well, well, well. So much for laissez faire. In a philosophy in which selfishness is a virtue and capitalism is the highest ideal, it seems that Rand and her followers have suffered something of an ideological TKO. Time to face up to the simple fact of anyone with any sense has always been aware; unchecked selfishness leads to nothing but chaos and disaster. Not only does the market need to be heavily regulated to function properly, but there are major sections of society in which the market simply doesn’t belong. Regardless of what Greenspan , Rand, or their followers think, it is not socialism, but capitalism that will fall into the dustbin of history. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sid Ryan and Jason Kenney

Let us make it clear once and for all. The effort to oppose the expansionist  and militaristic policies of the state of Israel has nothing to do with intolerance of Jews or Judaism ! Period. One can agree or disagree with Sid Ryan and CUPE Ontario’s resolution to boycott Israeli academics, but it is certainly not about Intolerance. Instead it is a rational protest against the policies of an expansionist, militaristic, state that has created the largest outdoor prison in the world and has set about to systematically destroy a people. Jason Kenney, like so many right-wing politicians, is using anti-Semitism as a bogeyman to undermine people who rightfully oppose the policies of a state. Tell me Mr Kenney was it intolerance that inspired people to call for a boycott of South Africa? Of course not. The same applies here. At the heart of Israeli policies is a racist effort to destroy the people of Palestine. I wish it were not so, but it is. I am not sure I agree with Mr. Ryan, but I have no doubt that he harbors no anti-Semitic feelings and to suggest that he is motivated by intolerance is, in itself, based in a policy of intolerance against people who are willing to oppose Israeli policy. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Buffalo Air Tragedy

One of the poor souls who lost her life in the Buffalo plane crash the other day was Alison Des Forges, human rights activist and world authority on the genocide in Rwanda. She wrote a book in 1999 entitled 'Leave None to Tell the Story,' in which she reflected on the necessity of eliminating all witnesses to a case of government conspiracy.  Make of that irony what you will. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Justice and Empathy

Earlier on in life you had already begun to grapple with some basic problems that seemed so imponderable. Among these problems are questions like ‘why is it that the people who obtain power are the very ones who should never have it? And, ‘why is it so difficult to find justice in the world.’ But then these problems seem to roll themselves into a ball and you realized that behind all these questions lurks a bigger, over-arching one. ‘Why is it that so many people are hell-bent on the destruction of the human soul?’ And so you begin to scour the lines of great philosophers and poets in the hope of finding some plausible story that explains this basic problem. It is a frustrating problem. At some time you realize that there are simply some people who actually seek the destruction of most of the other people around them. Some of these people pursue this goal openly through murder or a career in the military. But most of these people hide their destructive impulses behind a veil of legitimacy and power. These people practice their destruction by seeking positions of power wherein they can push people down and undermine their basic humanity. Some become Prime Ministers and others are found in more humble positions, but all of them abuse their power and oppress those around them. Unfortunately some of these sad souls even pretend to be left-wing, they become ‘progressive’ politicians or union activists, and then proceed to practice in their professional and personal lives the very opposite of what they claim to believe.

No, it is not necessarily politics that distinguish these people, it is something much more fundamental. I believe that what is behind this basic destructive behavior is the absence of empathy. These folks are simply incapable of comprehending, at a basic gut level, the real effects that their actions have on others. And because they are, at heart, empty human beings who cannot connect to their fellow humans, they get some kind of basic thrill from undermining others. And to hide their emptiness and the wonton destruction that they continually commit on others, they hide behind the claim that they are really actively pursuing good. It is particularly frustrating when you meet one of these people in a left-wing organization which is supposed to be established for the cause of social justice. I have met union activists, for example, that are supposed to be employed full-time in the pursuit of justice who continually undermine the autonomy, self-respect, happiness, professional competence, and well-being of those over which they are able to wield power. I think that these people have often convinced themselves that they are actually ‘good’ people, but the rest of us know better.

I believe that this lack of empathy is at the root of all the other seemingly complicated problems of social injustice. The problem is that it is not at all clear to me that human beings can overcome this problem and when you meet these people there seems to be absolutely nothing you can do, it is like trying to convince a schizophrenic that they are not seeing things. You need empathy to understand empathy and thus you can explain nothing to such people. Even if this problem is rooted in some basic mental disorder (like some form of Alexithymia), we will probably never be able to do anything about it because those in positions of power would be most likely to be suffering from it so they would prevent us from addressing the issue. So it goes.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beginning New Research

As some may know, I have now finished a solid draft of my book Humble Men in Company: The Unlikely Friendship between Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb. I have put it into the hands of a few brave souls who have agreed to read it to give me feedback on its consistency and readability. For this favor I am thankful. In the meantime I looked through my research on friendships in the Romantic era and eventually began to concentrate on Thomas Hood,  humorist whose work I really enjoy. I had already run across Hood in my research for the previous book because Hood was one of the closest friends of Charles Lamb. The interesting thing about Hood for me is that he was apprenticed as an engraver and continued throughout his career to illustrate his humorous prose and verse with small drawings. Yet no books on Hood, and there are only a few, say almost anything about these illustrations or Hood's place in the history of illustration in the 19th century. But Hood worked closely with a number of the early Punch illustrators and some of his writing even appeared in editions of Punch. But though as an illustrator Hood was by no means a genius, he clearly played a role in the development of humorous illustration that would evolve into the great Punch cartoons later in the century by such illustrious men as Phil May, and Bernard Partridge. And I have no doubt that had Hood lived past the youthful age of 46 his illustrations would have gone on to improve as did his contemporary John Leech. This aspect of Hood's life and work as been heretofore overlooked and I hope, at least in part, to correct this oversight. I you look back at my posts for late last year you will find on one Thomas Hood. 

I will continue to post updates on how this research is going as it forms into a new book. 

Lack of Leadership

There really is no serious leadership in the political system today, at least at the highest levels. In Canada and the US conservatives are using recent economic problems to obtain tax cuts, an idea with which they have become obsessed; an economic move that will, in the long run, further complicate the basic problems that Capitalism is now suffering. Meanwhile conservatives, in their public discourse, are simply ignoring the fact that it was their policies that got us into this mess in the first place. The government of British Columbia passed a ‘balanced budget’ law a few years ago when they had convinced people that such a profoundly stupid idea was economically responsible, and now that have been forced to rescind the law in special session of the legislature. (Rather embarrassing if you ask me)But the past obsessions of Conservatives with tax cuts and deregulation has suffered a devastating and obvious discrediting; the only ones who don’t seem to realize it is, of course, conservatives. However, little leadership is being demonstrated on the other side of the political aisle. When the depressions and economic problems of the late 19th and early 20th century hit, it led to the progressive movement and major reforms to the economy including the move toward anti-trust laws. In the 1930s Roosevelt oversaw more significant changes to how capitalism functions with the creation of the welfare state. But today? There is really little or no talk of any serious changes or reforms to how capitalism works. We are going to build a few new bridges and fix some roads, but little else. Governments in a number of countries have made major investments in some capitalism enterprises like banks or insurance companies, and this even lead to a cover of Newsweek magazine that reads “We are all Socialists Now.” But this is obviously laughable. Governments have done nothing serious to overcome the problems that have now manifest themselves in the economy. Infrastructure spending will have little long-term effect on how the economy works. Politicians are just hoping to ride out the storm and stay afloat. Instead of bailing out banks governments should have taken that money and created National banks which could give low-interest,  loans with thirty-year terms to people seeking mortgages, as well as loans for small-businesses, thus by-passing some of the most blatant negative effects of market fluctuation on average people. Furthermore, the recent credit crisis has put so-called public-private partnerships in question. (See Mike Old’s article in this month’s HEU Guardian http://www.heu.org/~DOCUMENTS/Guardian/OWM/GuardWinter08_WEB_1.pdf) But governments are loath to give up policies that have gone so far to benefit their corporate friends in recent decades. Essentially, in the past thirty years or so, Governments have systematically designed economies in a way to divert money from average tax payers to large powerful corporations (much of it in the military sector). This has led to greater discrepancies between rich and poor, the gradual impoverishment of the middle-class, and outrageous profits that have mostly benefited the rich. Besides paying lip-service to the issue of Wall Street bonuses, these issues are not really on the radar of mainstream political discourse. But capitalism will crumble before their very eyes and until there is some genuine leadership, average people will pay the worst part of the price for this decay.