Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Arguing with a child

I realize it's stupid, and I shouldn't do it, but I just can't help myself. Jonah Goldberg (yeah, that's right, the chickenhawk par excellence) today asks a question about the difference between European socialism and American liberalism which he claims is serious rather than rhetorical:
What exactly differentiates the goals, ambitions and/or philosophical drives of, say, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from European social democrats? Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a “socialist”? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?

I am sure that there are some cultural differences to account for. Swedes are culturally different from Belgians who are different from San Francisco liberals. But are they philosophically all that different?
OK. Let me try to explain this very slowly, using no big words.

American liberals believe that the government should offer a "social safety net," including elements such as unemployment benefits; cash transfers; food stamps; price subsidies for "essentials" such as food, electricity, public transport, or housing; public works; public subsidies for health care; public education; and so on.

"Socialists" (European or otherwise) believe in all that, too, of course. But what they also believe in is the collective or common ownership of the means of production, at least for major industrial components ("the commanding heights"). [Aside: there are important debates about how this should be implemented -- through state ownership, worker cooperatives, or what have you.]

This distinction is what sets off American liberals from European socialists. The belief in collective ownership is held by very sizable minorities in most European countries, and in fact is a programmatic element of the party platforms of many European social democratic parties. By contrast, in America, almost no one believes in collectivizing the means of production; and it's certainly not a view propounded in any fashion by Pelosi, much less Obama.

On the basis of this distinction, it is clear that the recently-passed health care bill, despite the Luntzian claims of a "government takeover," was a perfect example of non-socialism: yes, the federal government put into place mandates and subsidies (e.g. liberalism); but what it did not do was to nationalize (e.g. to collectivize the ownership of) the health care industry (e.g. socialism).

Either Goldberg understands this distinction, and chooses to ignore it because it would collapse his ability to red-bait, or he really is incredibly stupid.

(Update: OK, maybe not "stupid," but at minimum willfully obtuse.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

When will China overtake the US economy?

A neat tool from the Economist. The future is sooner than you think.

More nGram timesucks

I mentioned the shifting shape of utopia in yesterday's post, using Google's nGram reader to track the rising fortunes of the idea of human rights and the (entirely non-coincidental) falling fortunes of collectivist hopes for human emancipation. Well, above is a better version, this time comparing "socialism" to "human rights."

Well, here's another one, this time that tells you something about the social attention to the endless wars on drugs.

And this one ain't bad either: "capitalism" v. "globalization":

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Last Utopia

I'm finally setting down to read my friend (and Humanity colleague) Sam Moyn's wonderful new book The Last Utopia, on the rise of the discourse of human rights. The book is filled with many wonderful observations, and its central thesis is powerful and revisionist. In a nutshell, the book argues that the contemporary concept of human rights discourse did not emerge, as the standard story inside the human rights community usually has it, in the late 1940s, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much less with the French and American revolutions in the 18th century (as others have argued), but rather much more recently, in the late 1970s - specifically with Jimmy Carter's inaugural address in 1977.

But to me the most striking aspect of Sam's argument is his claim that the rise of individualist human rights discourse is a direct result of the collapse of collectivist notions of human emancipation - specifically, the exhaustion of revolutionary idealism in the wake of the 1960s. (In this sense, Sam's book can be read in interesting counterpoint to Jeremy Suri's The Global Revolutions of 1968, which tracks the common global fervors of "youthful idealism," and the common reactions of the Establishments from Prague to Paris to Peking.) As I say, an interesting claim, and one that I buy intuitively.

But can we actually "test" this proposition? Well, it just so happens that Google Labs has just launched a new tool, the nGram Viewer, which lets you graph and compare phrases over time. And so I decided to plug in the two key terms in question here, namely "human rights" and "revolution" to see what I would get. And here you have it:

So what we see pretty clearly here is the way that revolutionary expectations and discussions (among English language books) peaked right around 1970, and human rights discourse takes off right around 1977, just as Sam's qualitative analysis suggests. Not that this is proof, but it's pretty compelling evidence.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Academic v. popular history

I wrote last month about "rightwing productions of history" by non-academic historians. My central point was that the political right engages in a self-conscious effort to implant (largely tendentious) memories or understandings of key episodes from the past, a process they partake in not by contesting academic historians but by bypassing them. (Note the noncoincidental similarity, here, to the way that Sarah Palin essays to channel her communications around and away from traditional media "elites" — that is, the keepers of professional standards.)

Of course, that they can get away with this is made possible by the increasingly cloistered nature of academic historical writing, which has opened up a discursive space for historians who write for the general public rather than just for each other. Gordon Wood explains the evolution of this growing (and in my view lamentable) separation:
Independent scholars such as Chernow, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Jon This gap between popular and academic historians has probably existed since the beginning of scientific history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century, but it has considerably widened over the past half-century or so. During the 1950s academic historians with Ph.D.s and university appointments, such as Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allan Nevins, Eric F. Goldman, Daniel Boorstin, and C. Vann Woodward, wrote simultaneously for both their fellow academicians and educated general readers.

This is normally no longer possible. Academic historians now write almost exclusively for one another and focus on the issues and debates within the discipline. Their limited readership—many history monographs sell fewer than a thousand copies—is not due principally to poor writing, as is usually thought; it is due instead to the kinds of specialized problems these monographs are trying to solve. Since, like papers in physics or chemistry, these books focus on narrow subjects and build upon one another, their writers usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these monographs.

So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the specialized subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.

The problem at present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will the European Union survive?

Der Spiegel provides a very German take on the Euro zone crisis that inadvertently is revealing of how the monetary crisis is ultimately a political crisis for the very soul of the European Union:
A deep divide between two almost irreconcilable camps runs through Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel heads one camp, consisting of the northern European countries. Merkel sees herself as the defender of a culture of stability of the sort that Germany has maintained since the days of the deutschmark. Her goal is to prevent the monetary union from becoming a kind of transfer union, with Germany as paymaster.

The second camp consists of the so-called PIIGS states, which have accumulated too much debt in the past and are now hoping for help: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. They want the thing that Merkel wants to prevent: a union in which the strong pay for the weak. Europe's institutions are now maneuvering between these two camps.
Certainly, that's how Berlin would like to portray the issue: as a bunch of lazy, profligate Southerners who are trying to get the industrious Germans to pick up the tab for years of spendthrift freeloading.

Of course, there's an alternate perspective of the underlying causes of the Euro zone crisis, namely that the real driver was the actions of German and French bankers, who after providing the credit that fueled a mad speculative bubble, now want to make the taxpayers and social service consumers of the South bear all the burden of the shared folly. Naturally, this is the narrative preferred in Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, and Athens.

From the perspective of the PIIGs, in other words, the question is whether the Germans can get away with imposing what amounts to a vicious structural adjustment program (SAP) on their fellow euro-zone members. In other words, are the Germans going to be allowed to do to PIIGs what the US did to Latin America in the aftermath of the 1983 debt crisis?

That story is worth remembering in some detail. What happened in that case was that US banks, flush with petrodollars from the Middle East, had gone on a huge lending spree in the 1970s to Latin American governments, which used the money on a mixture of corrupt payoffs for rich elites and promises of social welfare for the middle classes. By the early 1980s, as interest rates skyrocketed, these countries were no longer able to service their debts. Mexico declared in 1982 that it was not going to pay, several other Latin American countries followed suit, and for a few months that winter it looked possible that the entire global capitalist banking system might implode.

To make a very complicated story short, what happened next was that the U.S. and the IMF agreed to restructure the Latin Americans' debts, in exchange for the imposition of "structural adjustment." The SAPs contained a number of critical elements, which in principle were designed to ensure the fiscal health of the debtor governments, but which also entailed a de facto form of national and transnational class warfare: the rolling back of state ownership of key industries; the lowering of tariff barriers; the restriction of the autonomy of unions; the curtailing of price controls on food, water and other life essentials; and the scaling back of social welfare promises.

This process of economic restructuring is most often remembered as having been responsible for producing a so-called "Lost Decade," in which economic growth rates plummeted across Latin America. But arguably what went lost was something much bigger than a mere decade of productivity. In fact, the SAPs ultimately involved the wholesale abandonment of an entire social-political vision, namely the promise of "development" as a process of building a "social modernist" welfare states akin to those enjoyed in the Global North. In other words, it spelled the end of a certain kind of social dream, a certain kind of political ideal -- the dream that they would one day converge with the wealth and lifestyle of the North.

Now, the U.S. bankers and politicians could get away with destroying this dream in part because they themselves didn't really believe in that dream any longer (if indeed they ever had); in part because the U.S. people felt no political or social solidarity with the Latin Americans; and in part because Latin American elites were disunified in their response to the demands of Washington and New York

By contrast, the whole point of the European Union is supposed to be about pan-continental political solidarity in the name of building social welfare states. Furthermore, the social democratic nature of all the European governments means that throwing the middle classes under the banking bus is anathema - especially if it's "our" (Greek, Spanish, etc.) middle classes and "their" (German, French) banks.

So that's the key question: Is the European Union a fundamentally socially democratic institution? a collection of social and political equals who will stand together in a time of hardship? If that's the case, then the Germans will have to pay. Or alternately, will the Germans succeed in getting the taxpayers and social service consumers in the PIIGs to pay? In which case the beautiful dream of pan-European solidarity will be revealed as a lie, and it's hard to see how the European Union survives as a political project.

Milton Friedman famously predicted that the European Monetary Union would not survive the first recession. The political assumption underpinning this prediction was that the Germans ultimately did not feel political and social solidarity with Italians, the Greeks, and so on, and that in a crisis, the Germans would refuse to pay for the Southerners and the Southerners would refuse to take the German medicine. We're about to find out if Friedman was right.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Modern and postmodern developmentalism

For a good sense of what development in Africa today is and isn't, you can do worse than to read this excellent if troubling New York Times article on Chinese business practices in Zambia:
As in many other African nations, the Chinese are an enormous economic presence in this impoverished but mineral-rich country.... Chinese investment here amounted to $1.2 billion in just the past year, according to the government. Nearly two-thirds of new construction involves Chinese-run companies, said Li Qiangmin, the Chinese ambassador in Lusaka, the capital. In this nation of 12 million where a small minority of workers, perhaps one in 10, have salaried employment, the 25,000 jobs provided by Chinese-backed businesses and projects are badly needed.

But many Zambians complain that these powerful foreigners are permitted to play by their own rules, plundering the country more than developing it and abusing workers as they go.
You see here the direct backlash against "thin" forms of extraction, in contrast to the "thicker" forms of development that existed in the past.

The standard early postcolonial relationship of extraction was that the foreign investors got the minerals and/or cheap labor, and the locals got "development" in return, the latter understood as the building of institutions and infrastructure that would direct the nation-state as a whole toward eventual attainment of a liberal welfare state. This noble idea was of course more honored in the breach than in the observance, but nonetheless, it was a deal that made a certain kind of sense - both sides were clearly supposed to be getting something worthwhile out of the relationship. This arrangement, this ideological ideal, is what I refer to as "modernist" developmentalism - that is, it was a form of development that aimed at creating replicas of the modernist ideal-type limned by the New Deal-ish United States.

That vision of development is long gone, killed by decades of secular economic decline, and officially buried by structural adjustment programs promoted by the neoliberals at the IMF and the Bank. (For more on this historical shift, consult James Ferguson's or Achille Mbembe's work.)

What replaced the classic postcolonial development discourse is what I would call a "post-modernist" form of developmental practice of the sort sketched in the New York Times article quoted above: we still have a foreign power - a Chinese state-controlled company, in this case - extracting minerals, but there is no longer any pretense about providing a wider, deeper, "thicker" kind of development that benefits the Zambian people and nation as a whole. On the contrary, with the Chinese bringing in their own labor and their own technology, their impact on the local economy is more or less ring-fenced around the mine head. And while the Chinese like to present this form of investment as a sign of their respect for the "sovereignty" of the local peoples, it's not at all clear what the local (in this case) Zambians get out of this sort of deal. Hence the backlash.

Political responsibility for the crisis

Kevin Drum nicely summarizes the political responsibility for the current crisis:
The facts of the past decade are pretty clear, after all. George Bush inherited an uncommonly vigorous economy from Bill Clinton: growth was high, business was booming, wages were growing, and the federal government was running a surplus. This ended in 2001, but it ended with one of the mildest and shortest recessions on record and provided Bush with a chance to fully apply Republican orthodoxy to the economy: multiple rounds of tax cuts, light regulation, and the most business friendly atmosphere from the White House imaginable. The result was catastrophic. The Republican expansion from 2001 through 2007 was the weakest since World War II: productivity and GDP gains were mediocre, employment growth was weak, and wages were stagnant. Only corporate profits prospered. And this period of historically weak growth was ended by a financial disaster worse than any since the Great Depression. That's the Republican legacy of the aughts: a strong economy turned first anemic and then completely crippled.
My only quibble is that I would argue that the seeds of the crisis were laid much earlier, in the deregulations and tax-cutting of the 1970s and 1980s. These policies inaugurated the intertwined processes of deindustrialization, growing inequality in income and wealth, and exploding personal debt that are at the root of the crisis.

But these too were projects and policies of the right, so in terms of political score-keeping, this longer history only buttresses Drum's analysis.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rightwing productions of history

My dissertation advisor David Hollinger, about to assume the Presidency of the Organization of American Historians, has a terse rebuttal to the Wall Street Journal's claim that the Tea Partiers are promoting a more accurate version of the past than that produced by professional historians. While such a brief rejoinder is probably the organizationally appropriate response of the President of the OAH to such slander, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a little more context for this skirmish between the official head of professional American historians, and what we might call the counter-professional version of American history that is widely promoted in places like the the op-ed pages of the WSJ or the Washington Post.

Over the last forty years, the production of American historical memory has been quite radically transformed. With the effective victory of a capacious, polysemous understanding of the past - which is the hallmark of professional history today - those who prefer a smaller, more politically or religiously sectarian view of the past have withdrawn into (or perhaps less pejoratively, have developed) their own historical epistemology, one that is barely in dialog with what professional historians do. The creation of this parallel, unprofessional historiographic universe is a politically self-conscious project of the American right, central to their effort to roll back the twentieth century's expansion of political inclusiveness, social tolerance, and the welfare state.

Producing an American past usable for the political right constitutes a sizable industry, one with far more influence than most professional historians realize - certainly more than I realized when I was in school. For example, I can't tell you how many people I meet - people who think of themselves as passionately engaged with the past - who really believe that, say, Mark Moyar's absurd interpretation of the Vietnam war, or Amity Schlaes's ridiculous interpretation of the New Deal, or Paul Johnson's tendentious interpretation of the Enlightenment [sorry, I refuse to link to such tripe], define these episodes wie sie eigentlich gewesen. Some such readers know that professional historians take such books about as seriously as professional athletes take the participants in "Wipe Out"; but insofar as they are even aware of the dismissiveness of the professionals, such readers tend to regard the attitudes of the professionals as merely typical of "liberal, elitist bias."

Despite certain notable exceptions, the political right in this country has largely given up even trying to fight with professional historians over the meaning of the American past. Rather than try to battle over truth using accepted professional standards of evidence and argument, the political right has taken their partisan interpretations of the past directly to the people, for example via the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard, where one well-argued piece can gain a wider readership (and more political influence) than a hundred articles in the Journal of American History.

There's an underlying irony here, which is worth underscoring: while the political right has largely lost the interpretive battle for the American past among professional historians, they remain far more sensitive than the political left to the political importance of dominating popular understandings of key episodes from the past. They understand that inculcating the belief that the New Deal was somehow constitutionally illegitimate, or that the Civil Rights movement somehow represented federal overreach, or that the Vietnam War was somehow winnable but for perfidy at home are crucial in order to be able to promote the policies that they prefer in the present - whether it means rolling back the welfare state, ending affirmative action, or promoting aggressive neo-imperialist wars. This is precisely why partisan bloggers like Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin, or Stanton Evans write books like Liberal Fascism (about contemporary liberalism's genealogical roots in interwar fascism) or In Defense of Internment (which describes FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans as his finest moment) or Blacklisted by History (which argues McCarthy was good and right about domestic Communism, and has been unfairly maligned by quisling-ish liberals and academics).

While such arguments might seem so grotesque as to be not worth dignifying with a reasoned rebuttal, we should not let scientific-professional judgments obscure the political influence that such books and arguments command among the hoi polloi. Though measuring these things is difficult, I strongly suspect that texts such as these have far more impact on the popular historical memory (and thus on contemporary politics) than virtually any Bancroft prize winner, appalling as that may be for professional historians to admit.

The reason why these books have such political impact is simple: it is because they are conceived and written first and foremost with a contemporary political intervention in mind.1 Indeed, the whole point of these para-historical productions of the right, their whole reason for being written, is not to "get the past right" but rather to influence contemporary politics. From a methodological perspective, right-wing popular historiography starts with a contemporary political or policy objective, then chooses an historical episode through which to convey the critical contemporary political point, and finally selectively marshalls evidence to support their contemporary political purpose. For these "historians," creating an accurate and complete representation of the past is entirely beside the point. (Indeed, even raising the issue of objectivity or balance is likely to get you labelled a liberal-biased pettifogger.)

The contrast with professional historians' standards of evidence and argument couldn't be sharper. Closeted positivists all, professional historians consider it their duty to capture the nuance, contradictions, and unknowability of the past, even where that conflicts with or complicates the usability of their conclusions for contemporary left-liberal (or any other) politics. Indeed, most academic historians are vaguely - or more than vaguely - embarrassed when they see such similarly partisan texts for "our side" of the political debate. (Just consider how most of us regard, say, Howard Zinn; or how our instinct is to bicker and quibble with a book like Nixonland.)

We are thus left with a profound irony. On the one hand, because professional historians basically support their view of the past, the political left for the most part doesn't bother to produce popular histories designed as interventions into contemporary politics. On the other hand, the professional historians fail to return the love, producing histories which are full of complexity and nuance, rather than pointedly partisan talking points. On the contrary, professional historians' efforts to capture the ambiguity and contradictions of the past tends to render problematic any simple lessons for the political present. It's only a small overstatement to say that professional historians, whatever their politics, are in the business of trying to render the past politically unusable. Ultimately, appreciating the perplexing richness of the past, which is what professional historians do, makes it difficult to produce historical narratives that serve a politics of slogans and zingers.

By contrast, the one-sidedness of the right's interpretations of the past is precisely what makes it politically powerful: having dispensed with the difficult task of trying to get the past right, the right finds it far easier than the left (with its crotchety insistance on empirical truth and complexity) to produce a past that has obvious and unambiguous political implications for the present.

1. Right-wingers assume that professional historians approach the past from the same (e.g. primordially political) perspective as they do, and that therefore what they are doing is simply providing a corrective to the leftist political bias of the academy. But in fact, contemporary political questions are almost never the point of intellectual departure for professional historians. Rather, professional historians usually begin in one of two ways: either they begin with a body of evidence historical evidence - an archive of some sort - and are seeking to make sense of it in some way; or they begin with some historiographical debate - trying to extend, rebut, or revise some existing (professional) historical perspective on whatever the topic at hand is. As a result of these approaches, professional historians tend to be much more fixated on methodological and evidentiary issues, which also helps explain why they tend to be less interested than popular writers in creating narratives focused on dramatically compelling characters and "events."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Adam Smith, notorious socialist

Adam Smith, on the righteousness of progressive taxation:
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

(Source: Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book Five, Chapter II, Article I.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Negative growth: literally inconceivable

“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” – Kenneth Boulding

To a large degree, the very idea of something called "the economy" is coextensive with the idea of economic growth. When John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory, there was no reified entity called "the national economy." Adam Smith never used the phrase; neither did Karl Marx; nor did any of the neoclassical economists. Rather, the word "economy" refered simply to the process of individuals allocating scarce resources.

In fact, the first effort to analytically and statistically instantiate "the economy" as a holistic and unitary object probably occurred in 1928, with the first Soviet "National Accounts," which formed the basis for Stalin’s first Five Year Plan—arguably the first full-spectrum "national economic growth" plan ever put forth by a government. For capitalist economies, the idea of national income accounting was developed in the late 1930s by Simon Kuznets as a way to test the efficacy of Keynesian theories for generating aggregate economic growth.

Here's the key point of this mini-history: as a body of positive theory, modern macroeconomics is built around the normative assumption that what economies are supposed to do is grow. (And it’s not just economics: modernization theory in political science and sociology also assumed the viability of endless growth.)

This fundamental theorical assumption in the social sciences in fact merely reflects a similar set of assumptions at the core of modern politics: in a nutshell, modern politics in all countries in the world over the last century or so have been built around the normative assumption that endless growth is not just the solution to overcoming distributionist conflict, but also sustainable in perpetuity. In other words, the macro-political problem the planet now faces is underpinned by a fundamental theoretical problem: the very notion of "the economy" takes for granted the idea of an endless "more." Political will aside, political officials and policy intellectuals (to say nothing of businesspeople) literally don’t know how to think about an economy predicated on principles other than expansion and growth.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

Emile Durkheim, on the social consequences of economic disasters:
In the case of economic disasters, something like a declassification occurs which suddenly casts certain individuals into a lower state than their previous one.... Time is thus required for the public conscience to reclassify men and things. So long as the social forces thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their prospective values are unknown, and so all regulations are lacking for a time. The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and those which are immoderate. Consequently, there is no restraint upon aspirations....
(From On Suicide)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Modernization theory never dies (Chinese city planning edition)

High modernism in architecture is strongly associated with the figure of Le Corbusier. This version of high modernism sought to impose rectilinear, uniform solutions on everything, from the architecture of cities to the lives of men, literally bulldozing anything in its way. Consider Le Corbusier's infamous plan for the right bank of Paris.

In the arena of development studies, High Modernism has been grandly criticized for its indifference to the richness of premodern social orders, and for its brutal simplifications that often have produced political monstrosities, from Stalinism to Tanzania. Modernization theory was the American entry into this hall of horrors, and although it continues to live a troglodytic existence in the life of the American Mind, it is today an officially repudiated doctrine.

In China, on the other hand, modernization theory is not regarded as a historical curiosity of American mid-century hubris, but rather as a blueprint for their own contemporary efforts to bring themselves into the final stage of history, what modernization theorist Walt Rostow famously described as "the age of high mass consumption." And guess what, their taste in city planning reflects this heritage, as one can see from this billboard advertising a construction plan in Shenyeng, Manchuria:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

David Harvey explains the crisis

"It's the nature of capitalism, stupid":

Whether you buy the Marxist analysis, much less the Marxist prescriptions, you can't deny the centrality of a point Harvey only makes in passing, which is that there's no way we can get out of this crisis the way we did the last time (that is, in the 1970s/80s), namely by re-disciplining labor to rein in costs and supporting aggregate demand by issuing lots of cheap credit. Those byways have been exhausted, and so how (or if) we can get out of this crisis remains radically unknown.

Hat tip: JH

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The collapse of communism & the rise of deviant globalization

When Communism collapsed during the 1980s, what died was not just the particular collectivist economic system and authoritarian politics of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Cremated along the corpse of Communism was the broadly civic-minded conception of development as the central responsibility of the state – a conception that had been largely shared by communists and liberals during the Cold War.

In the wake of this ideological collapse, what emerged was the so-called "Washington Consensus.” Coined by former World Bank economist John Williamson, the phrase described the paradigmatic program of economic “reform” imposed on parts of the Global South during the 1980s and 1990s by the IMF, and generally with the support of the US government. Pointing to the undeniable corruption, inefficiency and rent-seeking of most states in the Global South, the neoliberals associated with the Washington Consensus demanded that aid recipients slash public bureaucracies and services, reduce dependence on foreign aid, dismantle trade barriers, and curtail the political power of organized labor. Pioneered as domestic policy in Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain and Ronald Reagan’s United States, the programs associated with the Washington Consensus soon became a model that London and Washington sought to export to the Global South and the post-Communist world. As Dani Rodrik put it, "'Stabilize, privatize, and liberalize' became the mantra of a generation of technocrats who cut their teeth in the developing world and of the political leaders they counseled." "There is no alternative," Margaret Thatcher famously declared.

Where such programs were imposed, they often led to what might be called the "hollowing out" of the state. The physical buildings and institutions of those states remained in place, but the ambitions and capacities of those states shriveled. This late- and post-Cold War hollowing out of states, particularly in the Global South, had two important results. First, it signaled to everyone in these countries that, "you are on your own." The end of the promise of building a public goods-providing state – or rather, the revelation that this promise had always been empty – unleashed a flood of survival entrepreneurship throughout the Global South, above all in former Communist states. As the Iron Curtain fell, some people entered legal industries; many others, however, pursued faster profits in the deviantly globalized marketplaces of the post-Cold War world or were lured into the role of foot soldiers in flourishing deviant industries. The second and equally important impact of hollowed states was the dismantling of the regulatory capacity in the Global South. These weak states lacked the institutions and the practical capacity to enforce the rules of international transactions, liberating both the forces of mainstream as well as deviant globalization.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The meaning of deviant globalization

In a nutshell, here's how I would summarize my theoretical-historical argument about deviant globalization:
  1. The modernist promise of complete, inclusive, efficient, equitable nation-building failed (for many reasons), and we can't go back to that. Since we can't go back, we should stop holding the high-rectitude bureaucratic-modernist state up as the tacit normative standard, which is what we do when talk about "failed states" and "transparency" and "good governance" and so on.
  2. Instead, the reality we've got in the Global South is deviant globalization, warts and all.
  3. What's more, deviant globalization isn't all bad, since it markedly increases the overall income of these communities, even if it has lots of unpleasant externalities. (But hey, all industrial capitalism has nasty externalities — visited the Gulf Coast lately?) It sure beats a predatory state.
  4. In some cases deviant entrepreneurs even start to backfill some of the functionality that modernist states used to promise (and usually failed to deliver) — health care, education, infrastructure, social insurance, security, justice, etc. Needless to say, state incumbents find this highly threatening, even if they have no one but themselves to blame.
  5. But: deviant entrepreneurs deliver these political services in a partial, exclusive, inequitable (and often inefficient) way. Indeed, they don't even pretend to try to be complete, inclusive, or equitable. They are delivering services to clients, not benefits to citizens; this is "privatization" albeit perhaps not exactly as Maggie Thatcher imagined it.
  6. In sum, the social-political ambition of these deviant entrepreneurs is far smaller than their state-based predecessors, but then again, so is their hypocrisy. (Just compare Mobutu Sese Seko to "El Chapo" to appreciate the difference.)
  7. The one place that the hypocrisy still flourishes is among western policy analysts, who continue to measure and discuss these countries according to a series of metrics and morals based on a long-discredited vision of what the nation-state could and should be.
Update: The practical choice for countries in the Global South is not "Should we try to be more like Singapore, or more like Denmark?" Rather, the real choice is more like, "Do we want to be more like Venezuela, or more like Mexico?" These are not pleasant choices, but we may as well face them with open eyes rather that holding on to absurdly antiquated and historically discredited conceptual and political standards.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Black market sanction busting

Riz Khan discusses how sanctions regimes creates vast profit opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs, who in turn become political forces in their own right.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Magical climate thinking

One reason why so many greens put so much faith in cap-and-trade is the belief that once the price of carbon is set appropriately, this will create incentives that will inevitably push scientists and inventors to come up with solutions to our energy needs. Several things can be said about this touching dual faith in markets and technology.

First, this claim is based on a discredited supply side economics view of invention. Just because there is an economic incentive to invent something, doesn't mean that inventing it is technically or physically possible, or even if it is invented, that other barriers to deployment won't arise. An analogy should make the point clear: vast economic incentives exist to invent pills that would cure alcoholism or drug addiction, and indeed much snake oil gets peddled claiming to provide such benefits. You may have noticed, however, that substance abuse doesn't seem to have disappeared from our society. Given the addiction of modern civilization to cheap energy, the parallel ought to be unnerving to anyone who believes that technology will pull our the climate rabbit out of the fossil fuel hat.

Second, the hopes that many greens place in a technological deus ex machina is an expression of faith in the old high modernist verities every bit as profound - and every bit as rational - as Augustine's faith in Christ. Very telling in this respect is the totemic way in which the Manhattan Project, the ultimate high modernist technological triumph, is regularly invoked as a supposed model for developing breakthrough Green technologies, despite the radical differences between building a weapon and remaking the entire global energy system. In truth, the belief in a technological fix to the climate solution is the ultimate form of high modernist magical thinking. It's no coincidence that the phrase "technological fix" was invented in the early 1960s, the heyday of modernization theory, by Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear physicist and chief administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from the Manhattan Project period through the 1980s. (See Weinberg's essay "Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?" [1966].) Weinberg claimed that nuclear power would create limitless energy, allowing age-old social problems to be overcome while minimizing political conflict over distributional issues - an argument that should feel uncannily familiar to all those who believe that technological breakthroughs will allow the climate crisis to be overcome without fundamental political conflict.

Update: Here's Steve Chu artfully backpedaling from the idea of a green Manhattan Project.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The second great tragedy in life

This story drives home a point I've been making for quite some time:

The right is acting like the left did in the early 1970s. In both cases, it's the aftermath of having had a President who achieved virtually all the party's maximalist goals and, as a result, is widely perceived to have ruined the country. What do you do when it turns out that your cherished goals actually hosed the country? While some people (the moderates) beg for moderation and/or ditch the party, others (the radicals) double down and say that the Dear Leader didn't go anywhere near far enough and, further, that the moderates in their party were a big part of the problem anyway. Also, in both cases, the succeeding president (Nixon, Obama) is anathema to everything that the former ruling party, both its moderates and radicals, believe in, which only exacerbates the ire and craziness.

The result is an intra-party circular firing squad, threats and actual instances of violence, and all in all an unseemly spectacle that alienates the mainstream of the country.

Why modernization theory never dies

How many times does chapter 7 of this book need to be written: “Theories That Won’t Pass Away: The Never-Ending Story of Modernization Theory.”

After going through the usual suspects of modernization theory (Lerner, Shils, etc.), and pointing out all the internal contraditions and tensions, Wolfgang Knobl concludes out that modernization is a pretty lousy theory in terms of explanatory power, and is probably better thought of as a series of modernization "discourses" rather than as a "theory" at all.

But this leaves us with a paradox, he notes: "Why will the theory not die despite all its weaknesses and failures? [This] endurance is based on the fact that the term 'modernization' as well as the related term 'modernity' has a strange kind of (normative) attraction for all those — politicians or intellectuals — debating the contours of contemporary and future societies...." (p. 105).

This is correct, but it begs the question: what is the nature and source of that "strange kind of (normative) attraction"? In other words, what is the normative appeal of something positively misleading? For this, I think one must resort to explanations that are ultimately psychological:
  • Implicit in (and central to) modernization theory is a just-so story about our own civilizational superiority, and more important, our civilization finality — nothing will ever supersede "us." We are the ultimate, final perfected incarnation of mankind’s historical development. This is a deeply self-flattering idea.
  • The theory provides a neat (overly neat) closure to a lot of messiness, and so appeals to a desire for cleanliness, parsimony, clarity, and other Protestant psychic virtues.
  • The underlying historical metanarrative of modernization puts a happy gloss on various ecological and cultural losses and destruction caused by industrial and commercial civilization that might otherwise be hard to stomach. All these losses are in the name of a worthwhile higher goal, namely the completion of mankind’s historical perfection. It thus appeals to our sense of moral purpose.
  • It implies that “all good things go together” and that losers in the process can either be paid off or considered a worthwhile price in the process. The implication is that no ultimately painful choices need to be made. As anyone who's ever had a destructive habit they didn't want to break (quite yet) knows, this idea is also extremely psychologically appealing in an Augustinian manner.
  • It suggests that antinomian movements (from Marxism to Al Qaeda) that resist this narrative and lament the losses or object to the direction of change are fated no matter what to lose their struggle against. It thus provide confidence in long and painful political-historical struggles.
There are probably additional reasons why modernization theory continues to survive despite its manifest failures as an explanatory tool, but these are certainly among the central appeals of the theory. If you have other ideas, please note them in the comments.

Friday, March 26, 2010

GOP today = Dems in the early 1970s

Watching the GOP in circular firing squad mode in the aftermath of David Frum being sacked from AEI over mild ideological heterodoxy, on the one hand, and generalized extremist rightwing craziness, on the other, is eeriely reminiscent of the way the Democratic party went off the rails in the early 1970s. This is a theme I've touched on before.

The reason for this similarity is quite straightforward. In the 1960s, under Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats basically achieved most of the maximalist policy ambitions of post-Roosevelt liberalism: immigration reform, voting rights, medicare, etc. Likewise, in the 2000s, under George Bush, the Republicans basically achieved most of the maximalist policy ambitions of post-Reagan conservatism: massive tax cuts for the wealthy, wars of choice against foreign enemies, a rollback of restrictions on executive action, the utter dis-regulation of financial services, and so on.

In each case, the country ended this run of policy accomplishment by plunging into chaos that was clearly linked to (if not caused by) the policies that had been enacted under the President. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed urban rioting, a rising fiscal deficit and contracting dollar, rising inflation, an intractable war, a secular loss of American power and authority... and a consequent collapse of political civility. The symbolic center of the liberal meltdown was the Tet Offensive of 1968, which seemed to give the lie to everything that the sitting Democrat stood for, ideologically and practically, discrediting him both in the eyes of the opposing party and in the eyes of his own political base. Since 2008 we've seen a financial meltdown due to dis-regulation, a rising fiscal deficit and contracting dollar, an intractable war, a secular loss of American power and authority... and a consequent collapse of political civility. The symbolic center of the conservative meltdown was the Great Financial Panic of 2008, which gave the lie to everything that the sitting Republican stood for, discrediting him in the eyes of both the opposing party and his own political base.

Indeed, 1968 and 2008 were the key years. In 1968 the liberal-centrist-establishment wing got to nominate its candidate (Hubert Humphrey), who then got beaten by Nixon. A figure who was anathema to everything that post-Roosevelt liberalism represented, Nixon was elected mainly because voters were disgusted by the colossal mess that his liberal predecessor had made. The resulting fingerpointing led to a vicious fight between the liberal-centrist-establishment wing of the Democratic Party and its leftwing base. Over the next four years, the Democrats entered circular firing squad mode, fighting over ideological litmus tests as well as practical electoral tactics. More notoriously, they also took to the streets, rioting against Nixon's policies in a way that was highly alienating to mainstream voters. Eventually, this degenerated into various forms of low-level domestic terrorism (e.g. the Weathermen, Black Panthers, etc.). As a result, the "brand" of liberalism was tainted in a permanent way with the protesting extremists -- the latter being profoundly ironic, given the fact that the left extremists were at least in as much revolt against the moderate liberal establishment of their own party as they were against the conservatism of Nixon. The ultimate irony, of course, is that from a policy perspective, Nixon was in many ways a liberal... Clean Air and Water Act, wage/price controls, a continuation of the war in Vietnam with a view to eventual disengagement, etc.

Now flash forward to 2008 and consider how similar the situation is: In 2008 the conservative-centrist-establishment wing got to nominate its candidate (John McCain), who then got soundly beaten by Obama. Anathema to everything that post-Reagan conservatism represents, Obama was elected in 2008 mainly because voters were disgusted by the colossal mess that his conservative predecessor had made. The resulting fingerpointing on the right has produced the vicious fight we are currently witnessing between the conservative-centrist-establishment wing of the GOP and its scary rightwing base -- of which the Crist/Rubio battle in Florida is emblematic. Just as the Democrats were in Nixon's first term, the Republicans are now, as I mentioned up top, in full-scale circular firing squad mode, fighting over ideological litmus tests as well as practical electoral tactics, and also revolting against Obama's policies. Low-level domestic terrorism seems a possible eventual result, and indeed may already have begun to emerge. Finally, one strongly suspects that the current Tea Party behavior and thuggishness will taint the conservative "brand" in a permanent way -- again ironic, given the fact that the rightwing extremists are as much in revolt against the moderates of their own party as they are against the liberalism of Obama. And again, the ultimate irony is that from a policy perspective, Obama is in many ways a conservative... his health care bill, for example, is basically a clone of Mitt Romney's Massachusetts bill (let's not mention his conduct of the ongoing wars...).

So, what does this historical parallel tell us about what might happen next? First, it tells you that the conservatives are likely in 2012 to follow the path that the Democrats did during the 1972 -- nominating a base-pleasing but unelectable candidate. She will lose catastrophically, which will only exacerbate the intra-party hatreds. Second, it tells you that the fight for the soul of the Republican Party is likely to go on for a long time, and that it will be very ugly and that it will leave lasting scars and resentments. Third, it tells you that conservatives have a very long way to go before they can come up with any remotely appealing original ideas about governance, much less reasonable ideas about how to solve the messes that their policies made.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quote of the day: Brzezinski

Here's how Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 1968, explained the likely fate of the Soviet Union: the Soviet Union is at the "beginning of a sterile bureaucratic phase" which was likely to lead eventually to disintegration followed by a new political order characterized by "assertive ideological-nationalist reaction, resting on a coalition of secret police, the military, and the heavy industrial-ideological complex." (Quoted in Engerman, Know Your Enemy, p. 224.)

An uncannily apt description of Putin's Russia today, no?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Notes on decline: Orville Schell

Orville Schell provides the barest sketch of what's broken in the United States today:
The federal government, essentially busted; Congress, increasingly paralyzed and largely incapable of delivering solutions to the country’s most pressing problems; state government, largely broke; the Interstate highway system and our infrastructure of bridges and tunnels, melting away like a block of ice in the sun because maintenance and upgrading is so poor; dikes, water systems, and many other aspects of the national infrastructure which keeps the country going, similarly old and deteriorating; airlines, some of the sorriest in the world with the oldest, dirtiest, and least up-to-date planes and the requisite run-down airports to go with them; ports that are falling behind world standards; a railroad passenger system which, unlike countries from Spain to China, has not one mile of truly high-speed rail; the country’s financial system whose over-paid executives not only ran us off an economic cliff in 2008, but also managed to compromise the whole system itself in the eyes of the world; a broadcast media which -- public broadcasting and aspects of a vital and growing Internet excepted -- is a grossly overly-commercialized, broken-down mess that has gravely let down the country in terms of keeping us informed; newspapers, in a state of free-fall; book publishing, heading in the same direction; elementary education (that is, our future), especially public K-12 schools in big cities, desperately under-funded and near broke in many communities; a food industry which subsidizes sugar and starch, stuffs people with fast-food, and leaves 60% of the population overweight; basic manufacturing, like the automobile industry, evidently headed for oblivion, or China, whichever comes first; the American city, hollowing out and breaking down; the prison system, one of America’s few growth industries but a pit of hopelessness.
A fair summary, though as Schell himself points out, this really only scratches the surface.

I used to say that there was nothing like travelling -- and even more, living -- abroad to make you positively reevaluate the United States's capabilities and performance. I no longer feel that way. My last trips to mainland Europe, and even to Latin America (!!), have really underscored to me the U.S.'s relative decline.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Best movies of the 1990s

Since my post on my favorite movies from the Aughties was pretty popular, I though I might also list my favorite movies from the 1990s, again judged by the standard of how much of an immediate, visceral impact they had on me:
  1. Pulp Fiction
  2. Goodfellas
  3. Naked
  4. The Matrix
  5. There's Something About Mary
  6. Short Cuts
  7. American Beauty
  8. Raise the Red Lantern
  9. The Sweet Hereafter
  10. Breaking the Waves
  11. Husbands and Wives
  12. Reservoir Dogs
  13. Leaving Las Vegas
  14. Fargo
  15. Hoop Dreams
  16. Delicatessen
  17. Four Weddings and a Funeral
  18. Ulysses’s Gaze
  19. Strange Days
  20. Thelma and Louise
  21. The Thin Red Line
  22. Before Sunrise
  23. Groundhog Day
  24. Terminator 2
  25. Bad Lieutenant
  26. Silence of the Lambs
  27. The Crying Game
  28. Wayne's World
  29. Being John Malkovich
  30. Menace II Society
  31. The Grifters
Update: I added the four in italics, which I had forgotten about earlier. I should also point out the many movies that I saw and didn't much like, that many others would probably put in their own top list, e.g.: Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Ghost, Edward Scissorhands. LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting, The English Patient, Enemy of the State, Men in Black, The Wedding Singer, Titanic, Philadelphia, JFK, Schindler's List, Wag the Dog, Blade, Ghost, A Few Good Men, Shakespeare in Love, The Phantom Menace, The Truman Show, Rush Hour, La Vita e Bella, Unforgiven, Boyz in the Hood, Pretty Woman, American Pie, Saving Private Ryan, Basic Instinct, 12 Monkeys, and Sense & Sensibility... to name a few. A lot of those were watchable, but most of them were either sententious, syrupy, simple-minded, or somehow flawed in a way that brought me up short in mid-viewing.