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Why isn’t the US seeking global disarmament?

Suppose China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and every other country in the world went to the United Nations and offered to substantially and verifiably disarm. Nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, tanks, planes, ships, armies, everything that could be a threat to another country, keeping only the bare minimum needed for the legitimate defense of their national borders. The proposal would be contingent on the United States doing the same. Putting aside the complex details and the exact methods that would be needed for ongoing verification, should the US in principle go along? If no, then why not? If yes, then why doesn’t the US make this proposal today?

I don’t think there’s any political question more important than this yet we never hear it posed. On the contrary, we’re perpetually bombarded with an endless bipartisan discourse telling us we need to forever spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the military to protect against the coming ‘great power’ contest with China and Russia and, more generally, to ‘prepare for the wars of the 21st century’.

This is simply ludicrous. The very idea of war with countries like China and Russia is crazy for it poses the real possibility, indeed probability, of a catastrophe on the scale of what happened to the dinosaurs. We also know from the results of military war games that the US consistently loses wars with Russia and China and that they quickly escalate to nuclear exchanges. That the US would not ‘win’ such a war is historically self-evident as well given its abject failure in its past adventures with the poor under-developed countries of North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We (and others) seem addicted to the manly power game of nationalist military adventure but it’s nothing but an outlandishly dangerous and wasteful relic of the pre-20th century world. We need to move on–have we learned nothing from World Wars I and II?

Given the absence of a US proposal, I think we can safely assume the answer to the opening question will be no. But this puts defenders of the US superpower state in an awkward position for it’s extremely difficult (impossible) to come up with a civilized reason for maintaining such power in the absence of a threat.

Beyond the immeasurable benefits of a peaceful world, the average American would enormously gain by redirecting US spending from the military to normal civilian purposes. Imagine if the current $700+ billion military budget were slashed to perhaps the $20 billion or less range that would be justified by the actual defense needs existing in a disarmed world, with the savings then put to building a prosperous country.

I think we should all ask our elected officials and candidates for office why we aren’t pushing for global disarmament?

Bernie Sanders on the minimum wage and teacher pay

Progressives in the United States are near unanimous in their support of Bernie Sanders’s calls for a $15 minimum wage and a $60,000 minimum pay for teachers. Taken in isolation, these both seem unobjectionable steps in the right direction and they raise no apparent ethical concerns. But this, in fact, is not really the case. When we place them side by side, we find that they expose important unaddressed questions on inequality.

The Sanders left too often (always) frames its inequality discourse in the negative–wealth and income concentrations at the top are grotesque and need to be reduced. Or income at the very bottom needs to go up. But we never get a positive framing that tells us what inequality level we should actually strive for.

A $15 wage at eight hours a day, 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year comes to $31,200. This yields a nearly 2 to 1 differential in living standards in which one class–‘Walmart workers’–subsist on half the income of entry level teachers. I find this large differential in life quality, security, and inevitable sense of self-worth to be highly objectionable from a social justice perspective.

Suppose we were anthropologists and stumbled upon a society comprised only of teachers and ‘Walmart workers’ stratified in this way–what would we call it? I can think of a few possible names, but none would be ‘Democratic Socialism’. And no matter what we named it, we could confidently predict that such a society would be destined to instability and eventual effective tyranny. This is because hierarchies of income and wealth–for that is what inequality is–are hierarchies of power. Power corrupts and power perpetually and existentially seeks to suppress the majority.

That we can reach such a conclusion from the seemingly unrelated and innocuous issues of minimum wage and teacher pay shows how deeply embedded inequality is within our political system and also how important it is to present the problem and the solution in a positive differential way.

I think an effective means of arguing against inequality would be to start at the differential extreme, get agreement at that level, and then proceed downward. Working with the recent inequality report of Thomas Piketty et al (page 80 table 2.4.1), we find that the annual after tax income of the top .001% of US adults averages $90,826,000 or almost 3,000 times the $15 wage. Nearly everyone will agree this is grotesque as they will also to the 1,000 times level of $31,200,000. How about 100 times or $3,120,000? Here too I don’t think it would be a Herculean task to convince a large majority that no one should have this level of power in a fair and prosperous society. Let’s proceed downward then to the entry level for the top 10%–$113,000–which equates to a differential of 3.6. A full 90% of the adult population makes less than this amount which to be clear is after tax per adult, not per family. I think this general level of about 4 times the minimum could be a politically achievable but highy progressive starting point. But even if it were 10 times higher, over $1 million a year or 40 times the minimum, we would still gain substantially in forcing the conversation to what the maximum income differential should be while simultaneously wiping out the most concentrated power in our society. Of course there are many details that need to be covered in such a grand re-structuring and there are the standard age-old arguments for maintaining the unequal status quo. I will cover some of these in upcoming posts. But come on! We need to stop beating around the bush on this issue.

Inequality is the fundamental problem not only of our time but of the entire 5,000 year history of civilization and it represents a grotesque corruption of human freedom. It’s time to put it to an end. While we can properly credit Sanders for making inequality a front and center issue, I think progressives need to offer a far stronger critique on the tight limits of his vision.

Some thoughts on liberal democracy as a deceptive term

It’s impossible to understand today’s political dynamic without beginning with the core fact that we live in a class society. For the entire 5,000 year history of civilization, the propertied few have possessed nearly all material power and have thereby ruled over the propertyless majority.  So it was thousands of years ago and, crucially, so it remains today.

While this massive asymmetry is a simple indisputable fact that flies directly in the face of commonly accepted notions of democracy, populations have shown themselves easily conned into accepting it as natural and legitimate. The ruling ideology has become part of us.

One of the ways this has been accomplished is the misuse of key terms. A good example is in the name we give our socioeconomic system. We live not in an oligarchy of concentrated material power that the facts show to be the case, but rather in a benign ‘liberal democracy’. The ruse is exposed if we step back and examine what exactly it is that we’re being directed to accept with this term. I submit it is this patently false proposition:

Possessing nothing, the people rule.

Given the stark truth that by possessing nothing the people are inescapably subservient to the material power of a tiny minority and therefore can’t possibly rule, ‘liberal democracy’ is exposed as a deceptive term; deceptive because it misleads us into thinking things are other than what they actually are.

The problem is with the meaning of ‘liberalism’ so let’s examine it a little closer. An entire literature has been written on it and now is certainly not the place for an extended treatment. What I’d like to do, though, is to briefly highlight some insights from Ishay Landa’s thoughtful 2010 book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism for it helps illuminate what’s going on behind the scene.

Liberalism, Landa reminds us, was the socioeconomic doctrine used by the budding European bourgeoisie in the 17th through 19th centuries against the nobility. The bourgeoisie won that battle but upon taking hold of power, they predictably had to defend it against its ultimate existential opponent, the propertyless majority. “It must be borne in mind that the whole purpose of liberal civil society from a Lockean point of view was to shore up nascent capitalist property and production. The political aspect of liberalism, namely parliamentary and constitutional rule, far from being an autonomous sphere alongside the economic one, was entirely a function of capitalism, conceived at all times as fully subservient to it”. “Parliamentarism and the rule of law were thus from the very beginning not the liberal end itself, to be defined, say, in terms of guaranteeing political pluralism; rather, they were mere means to an end, that of protecting capitalism”.

“Political liberalism splits apart from economic liberalism and effectively undermines it, since the logical economic upshot of democracy is not capitalism but its antithesis, communism”. Landa draws an important link between economic liberalism and fascism, observing that “the bulk of Hitler’s anti-liberalism is underpinned by the conviction that political liberalism is incompatible with capitalism”. “To examine the ideology of the British imperialists is to find in it many parallels to the basic tenets of fascist and Nazi ideology”. “Fascists were socioeconomic liberals exasperated by the implications of political liberalism”. “This basic dictatorial instinct, putting capitalism above the law, or making it interchangeable with it, pertains to the very DNA of liberalism”.

Landa concludes that “an ideological scrutiny of liberalism cannot become truly radical if it merely promotes a collectivist stance to counter liberal individualism. What it actually calls for is a defense of the individual FROM liberalism”.

A crucial aspect of that defense is to dump ‘liberal democracy’ from our vocabulary. This is especially important today given the incessant misleading discourse contrasting so-called populism with liberal democracy. Landa and many philosophers across the political spectrum identify economic liberalism with capitalism and correctly note its incompatibility with democracy. But popular culture doesn’t incorporate this crucial insight and instead tends to treat capitalism and democracy as inseparably linked and almost identical. Successfully exposing capitalism and economic liberalism to the popular mind as the antithesis of democracy is a subversionary act that would expose the entire system to collapse.

But Landa and the left need to go further for liberalism isn’t the only problematic term in this debate. Capitalism itself is highly deceptive for it inappropriately evokes images of investment, finance, the protestant work ethic, and so on. The system, plain and simple, isn’t ‘liberal democracy’ and it isn’t ‘capitalism’ either. It’s oligarchy­–the civilization spanning material power of a tiny minority against the great majority.

Baseball’s militarized uniforms

I liked the militarized uniforms the New York Yankees wore on Memorial Day as they nicely highlighted the symbiotic relationship between the pin stripes of Wall Street and the military means that sustain its power. The link isn’t widely appreciated these days so kudos to the Yankee design department! It would be a gigantic step toward truth, in fact, if the military took a lesson from the Yankees and put pin stripes onto their very own uniforms!

The problem with baseball’s military theme, though, is that it was Memorial Day, a day which should have been one in which we pause and honor the unlucky kids who were slaughtered in almost entirely unnecessary wars. The proper attire for this isn’t a military uniform, it’s a black armband.

Smedley Butler, a Congressional Medal of Honor winning Marine, had these words to say in the 1930’s and they’re just as relevant today.

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives… If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veteran’s hospitals in the United States.

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

If you want peace, prepare for war

In its 2018 Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States, the Defense Department offers the following ‘bullet’ point: “Prioritize preparedness for war — Achieving peace through strength requires the Joint Force to deter conflict through preparedness for war.”

This idea can be traced at least back to the classical Roman adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum” — If you want peace, prepare for war. While too aggressive for many of us, common sense does tell us that in a Hobbesian world of ‘all against all’, survival requires a defense adequate to the threats. Most of us can agree — If you want peace, prepare an adequate defense.

The great problem with the US military strategy is that we don’t live in a Hobbesian world; we live rather in a post World War II regime of US hegemony in which nuclear weapons make it an absurdity to think any war could be won. The US seems intent on constructing a world that doesn’t exist and its strategy therefore is exactly wrong: if you want peace, prepare for peace. And US power is so great, it’s reasonable to think it could indeed move the world toward real peace via a process of verifiable global disarmament.

To those who will assert this is utopian nonsense, I’d respond by simply asking why our government isn’t even trying. Where’s the proposal? Lacking one and facing instead the blunt preparedness for war, the only reasonable conclusion is that our government’s true goal isn’t peace. What then is it?

Here’s three adages that I think sum it up.

If you want to rule the world, prepare for war.

If you want to distract your population from the harsh truths of an unjust system, prepare for war.

If you want to maintain employment without promoting domestic collectivism, prepare for war.

The US state is violently acting against the interests of the American people and humanity. It’s far past time Americans reject the warfare state and demand its government present good faith proposals for peace.

Closed borders

On what moral principle do the humans living north of the Rio Grande River refuse to let those living to the south entry onto the land they inhabit? The ‘first to arrive’ principle? Historically aware northerners might seek to avoid this line of attack. But even if we pretended the northerners preceded the indigenous and the Mexicans themselves, would they then have a morally viable position?

Perhaps they could turn to John Locke, the father of Anglo-American individualism, and assert a ‘natural’ right to own property. What’s often overlooked in this argument, though, is that Locke inserted a ‘proviso’ which requires there remain “enough, and as good left in common for others”. If the proviso fails, then there is no Lockean right to property. Sadly for the northerners’ wish to morally enjoy their property, the proviso in fact fails. It fails because of the substantial and centuries old interference in the affairs of Latin America by the power elite of the United States. Via the power of money and finance, military invasion, bribery, assassination, coups, and so on, US actions across all of Latin America have assured that a tiny oligarchy rules at the expense of an impoverished majority. American policy, in cahoots with local elites, deny the people enough and as good in common.

The right to a closed border can be morally justified only if the United States ceases to support the systemic rule of oligarchy and re-directs its efforts to the great cause of eliminating poverty and inequality around the globe. At that point, however, the question becomes moot as there’d be no need for a closed border.

Inequality editorial in the NY Times

The New York Times today decries the fact the bottom 90% own just 27% of wealth in the United States. This is no doubt a farcical situation having deep revolutionary implications, but the unanswered question is what a legitimate share of wealth for the bottom 90% should be.

The Times implies the share held three decades ago is reasonable, representing as it does the highest level achieved since (at least) 1913. But it still only amounted to 40% of wealth, a total that provided the top 10% with fully 50% more wealth than the entire bottom 90%. Should we really believe this is somehow legitimate? The (wealthy) editors of the paper of record, in what for them is a fairly radical editorial, suggest to us that the difference between a fair and unfair distribution is a meagre 13 percentage points—27% is unfair, 40% is ok.

A significant problem with these statistics is that they give us only a snap shot of the distribution within a class society. They tell us the obvious—a small minority lives extraordinarily well and the vast majority struggles. What they don’t tell us is how much better we could live given our massive productive potential. I therefore don’t think it’s very helpful to phrase the solution to inequality in terms of ‘redistribution’; far better to think of how our labor and resources could be put to better use. For completely wrong reasons the Republicans are partially right—we should focus not so much on redistributing the pie as expanding it.

So putting aside redistribution for a moment, what would be fair for the bottom 90%? Off the top of my head, I’d say quality health care, nutritious food, decent housing, modern transportation, clean environment, safe streets, income security, decent retirement, education, leisure opportunities, general freedom, and so on. In other words an equitable and decent society.

Is this achievable? Of course it is. Where would the needed labor and resources come from? We could start by freeing up the immense pool currently devoted to the military-industrial complex by negotiating a verifiable global disarmament. We could try to automate as much production as possible. We could assure full employment. We could reform the financial system and virtually eliminate the casino of speculation. We could substantially re-direct the enormous resources devoted to the whims of the top few percent via much higher income and wealth taxes. And finally, we could recognize that the power to create money rests completely with the people. We can never run out of money.

The fundamental issue, then, isn’t the redistribution of financial assets; it’s whose interests should rule society. What do we see in the world around us? Perpetual war, insecurity, poverty, austerity, crime, environmental degradation, corruption, desperate competition; all sitting alongside the enormous privilege of a tiny few. That the bottom 90% own just 27% of wealth is a sign of a decayed socioeconomic system but we shouldn’t accept the level existing three decades ago as an acceptable solution. I think we need to set our sights far higher.

Walter Scheidel: The Great Leveler

Having myself written a book on civilization spanning inequality (Capitalism as Oligarchy: 5,000 years of diversion and suppression), I was naturally interested in reading what Harvard historian Walter Scheidel had to say in his new book The Great Leveler: violence and the history of inequality from the stone age to the twenty-first century.

Before starting, though, I want first to suggest that the word ‘inequality’ in our political / economic discourse is problematic. This is so because it expresses only an end-point condition that lacks any sense of human agency. It’s a cold, neutral term that ignores the hot and violent dynamism underlying it. In my view, the essence of inequality is best understood as a structure of power, the concentrated power of a small minority over the majority. It’s a system of minority rule and not a stale statistic or a mere side-effect of something else. It’s structural violence, a direct conflict of interest on the same plane as predator against prey or parasite against host. The opposite of inequality, i.e. minority rule, isn’t equality per se; it’s majority rule—democracy.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the book. While I found it a well-written summary of the history of inequality, the core of the work is deeply ideological. By tightly associating equality with violence and suggesting it’s best to submit to inequality, Scheidel puts his Harvard brand in service to the interests of the powerful. Read more…

Inflation as an ideological construct

Why is it we so easily accept the framing of inflation as somehow a force of nature? Or in ‘economic’ terms, as an extraordinarily complex interplay of supply and demand? A blind force that ebbs and flows without direct human agency.

I think this is self-evidently untrue. It’s not at all controversial to see the system as an oligopoly of gigantic corporations, an immense force that’s amplified even further by extensive links of hard to decipher cross ownerships, partnerships, and strategic alliances. This massively fortified consolidated network of concentrated wealth has near full pricing power and uses it to maintain profit margins.

It’s grossly misleading therefore to merely say that inflation is rising at an annual pace of x% for to leave it there implies the price level is being set by fair market processes. Far more accurate to say that the forces of wealth, through the power of its consolidated corporate network, is raising prices at an annual rate of x% in order to offset wage growth and maintain profit margins.

Inflation isn’t a matter of productivity, bottlenecks, or wrongly set interest rates. The corporate network determines prices and thereby output levels. It’s illuminating to consider what would happen if wages grew but prices remained the same. Populations of the world would then have more to spend and their spending would flow right back to the corporate network as revenue. Profits would thereby be completely unaffected, although profit margins and the relative power of the ownership class would decline. The issue, we can thereby see, isn’t profit per se but power.

Price setting is one of the most important powers in the oligarchic system and it’s crucial for us to pierce the ideological pretense that it’s somehow carried out in a non-hostile neutral ‘economic’ way.

Marching toward WW3

This is pure craziness! The US / NATO expands into former Soviet Republics, refuses to admit Russia into NATO, has its sights on Ukraine and Georgia, and now stands ready, with the bellicose support of the NY Times, to march us right into WW3.

Sanity demands immediate de-escalation. Why can’t Russia become part of NATO? Why can’t all NATO countries then move toward substantial disarmament? Why, then, have NATO at all?

It’s so Orwellian. The system requires the perpetual enemy. What would it do without the ‘evils’ of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea?