Friday, May 31, 2013

The Thirtieth of May, 2013.

205 years ago, almost to the day, the Spanish people rebelled in Calle Alcalá, near the Puerta del Sol, in Madrid.

"The Second of May 1808",
by Francisco de Goya (1814) [A]

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Spain was of strategic value to the French emperor Napoleon. Taking advantage of the personal conflict between the Spanish king Carlos IV of the house of Bourbon and his heir, Fernando, Napoleon proposed a French-Spanish alliance against Portugal and Britain.

To gain the acquiescence of the Spanish prime minister, Manuel Rajoy de Godoy, the French and Fernando, who were in cahoots, promised him he would act as figurehead in a future pro-French Portuguese puppet government.

During November 1807, under the guise of reinforcing their Spanish "allies" and with Carlos' reluctant consent, a French army, under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat, crossed the border. Although Godoy was ecstatic, the measure proved highly unpopular with the Spanish people.

To make good his side of the bargain, and mounting on the opposition bandwagon, Fernando instigated the March 17th anti-Godoy riots in the town of Aranjuez, 50 km south of Madrid, forcing Carlos to dismiss Godoy. A few days later Carlos himself had to abdicate, leaving the throne to Fernando.

Fernando, however, did not count on the French having different ideas: Murat refused to recognize him.

Both Carlos and Fernando fled to France, to appeal to Bonaparte. To their surprise, Bonaparte decided to declare the Bourbon dynasty deposed and install his own brother, Joseph, as new Spanish king.

Faced with the news, the Spanish people took to the streets of Madrid on the Second of May, 1808, against the North African mercenary troops, known as Mamelukes, working for the French. The scene was represented by Goya in the painting above.

The following day, the French unleashed brutal and generalized repression against the Spanish people:

"The Third of May 1808",
by Francisco de Goya (1814) [B]

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The video below shows Troika mercenary occupation troops, also known as Mossos, charging on the 30th of May, 2013, against Spanish firefighters, protesting in Barcelona against the Troika puppet government of Mariano Rajoy/Artur Mas. (See here, in Spanish)


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The war in the Peninsula ended in 1814, with Napoleon's defeat.


Image Credits:
[A] "The Second of May 1808: The Charge of the Mamelukes", by Francisco de Goya (1814). Wikipedia. Source: Museo de El Prado.
[B] "The Third of May 1808: the shootings in Prince Pious' mountain", by Francisco de Goya (1814). Wikipedia. Source: Museo de El Prado.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ferguson: One Speech Never Delivered.

Martin Ferguson, Labor MP from Batman, VIC, announced today his decision to retire at the next federal election.

Ferguson started his career as a research officer of the Miscellaneous Workers' Union (whose remains are currently a part of United Voices), rising to become assistant general secretary and general secretary of the union.

From there, he moved on to become a member of the executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, ACTU (1984-90), vice-president (1985-90), and president of the ACTU (1990-96). Since 1997 Ferguson has been a federal Labor MP.

As he announced to Parliament his decision, Ferguson spoke of his career as trade unionist:
" 'My main motivation has been to get Australians into decent, well-paying jobs', Mr Ferguson said today of his career.
" 'This is what the Labor party means to me - helping those less fortunate in life by providing new jobs and opportunities to achieve a better quality of life'.
" 'Creating opportunities by working with business is not the same thing as pointless class rhetoric. In essence, we need to grow the pie to share it'." (See here)

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Some five years ago, former federal treasurer Peter Costello (National/Liberal Coalition, "conservative, centre right, libertarian") hurled that most damning accusation against the opposing bench: all Labor MPs were trade union members.


It's regrettable that Ferguson either wasn't present that day in Parliament, or, if he was, did not care to reply to Costello.

Ferguson could have spoken, then, of his pride on being a representative of the vast majority of Australians: the workers. You know, those who built the Parliament, and clean and guard it; those who tend to its gardens every day and cater for the MPs and take their phone calls. Those who drive buses and trucks and taxis all over Australia, manning also supermarket checkouts and attending patients and teaching kids and picking fruit, and packing meat, and delivering mail and collecting garbage on the streets.

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It is us, the faceless, voiceless, ignored people, who are the blood, flesh and bones of this country. It is because of our vote that you were there, Ferguson.

We, not "business", make the "pie grow". You, Ferguson, you may speak to "business", to well-dressed people, like yourself; and you may beg for what was ours all along; Costello and others like him may represent "business" in Parliament; but it is us who are Australia.

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Had Ferguson spoken then, perhaps he would have spared his fellow Labor colleagues the nervous, embarrassed smiles or the need to keep their mouths shut or to pretend to follow written notes, as Costello taunted and mocked them.

But, for some reason, he never did.

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A couple of weeks ago, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann published an opinion piece entitled "Labor Finds Itself Without a Homeland to Defend".

In it, Uhlmann relates how, among other Labor politicians, Kevin Rudd metamorphosed from "Christian socialist" into "economic conservative", to suddenly become "social democrat".

It's a sad reading, but it's not mistaken.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hockey: Ax the Tax… Office.

As part of the National-Liberal Coalition's plan to give Australia a small government, the next federal treasurer, Joe Hockey ("conservative, centre right, libertarian") has announced the Coalition's plans to make the Australian Taxation Office less efficient.

In his address today to the National Press Club, Hockey decried the ATO's attempts at being efficient: the next Coalition government will conduct an inquiry into the handling of tax disputes. Once the inquiry finds that the ATO is only trying to fulfil its legal duty of making sure extremely rich tax payers actually pay their taxes, the Coalition will break up the tax office, "so that its policeman functions are separate to its responsibility for administering the tax system". (See here)

"Small businesses work hard for their money and should not be bankrolling government", Hockey said (see here). "Taxpayers are not the enemy. They should be respected".

In a video message to the Australian Mines and Metals Association conference in Melbourne delivered last week, Australia's richest small businesswoman, Gina Rinehart, pleaded that "miners and other resources industries are not just ATMs for everyone else to draw from". (See here)

It's nice to see Rinehart's pleas were promptly echoed by Hockey, almost to the letter.

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By sheer coincidence, during the last few days the subject of tax avoidance has been widely discussed in the media.

In Britain, Margaret Hodge, MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told last week Google's northern Europe boss, Matt Brittin, that his company's behaviour on tax was "devious, calculated and, in my view, unethical". (See here)

"I think that you do evil", added Hodge.

The British equivalent of the ATO, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) was severely criticized during those hearings.

Lin Homer, HMRC permanent secretary, said the law needs to be changed before Google can be compelled to pay more tax.

Hodge accused the tax authority of failing in its duty and said it should take a tougher stance with Google:
" 'We don't trust your judgment,' Hodge said. 'You have lousy judgment and the people making those judgments aren't fit for purpose'."
Luckily, the Coalition will make sure similar things do not happen Down Under...

Here we'll have no hearings on tax evasion: inquiries here are on those trying to stop tax evasion.

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But, in this most egalitarian country, not all pleas are equally heard. The Salvation Army released today the results of a survey, on 2705 users of the organization's emergency relief services.

Since the Gillard Government (labor, centre left) decided to shift 84,000 single parents to the lower-paying Newstart allowance, there was a 12% increase in the number of those seeking help from the Salvos.

The pleas to reverse the decision receive the usual answer, from both Coalition and Labor politicians: get a job. You know: Australia needs to cut its deficit by sending you into misery, while the richest small businesspeople must not pay taxes. It's a matter of respect.

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The incoming treasurer promised his Canberra audience that "tomorrow will be better" if the Coalition takes power next September.

"I believe that in my heart," he said.

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I'm no cardiologist, so I don't know what his heart says or even whether he actually has one. But I have a functional brain and it tells me that these people don't give a fuck about us. It also tells me who they actually represent. And it ain't us.

It's time you understand this.

Monday, May 20, 2013

So, What About Marx?

Prof. Daniel E. Little (Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Professor of Philosophy) authored a short summary of Marx's work entitled "What About Marx?".

While some of Little's observations may be debatable (see the comments thread in the link, including a comment by Prof. Fred Moseley, of Mount Holyoke College), one thing must be acknowledged: in the current climate, where the mere fact of using Marxist terminology attracts acerbic criticism, if not outright abuse, Little shows uncommon courage.

Little concludes with these words:
"So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy -- these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world".

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Pilkington Critique.

Prof. Corey Robin (from Brooklyn College/City University of New York, a Crooked Timber collaborator and blogger) has long maintained that the thoughts of the two Friedrichs (Hayek and Nietzsche) are linked.

In his latest essay (and companion introductory piece) Robin goes one step further: there are striking similarities, he argues, between the marginalist (also known as neoclassical) and Nietzschean theories of value. Among other similarities that Robin outlines, both theories are strictly subjective and both lead to highly hierarchical views of society.

Personally, I find his reasoning compelling, intriguing and full of important implications; but not being acquainted with Nietzsche's thought, I can't say whether Robin made his case beyond any possible objection. I'd recommend interested readers to read Robin's essay (warning: it's long, and it would be better to read the introductory post first).

Predictably, the essay generated a number of rather critical responses from the "conservative, centre right, libertarian" blogosphere. (See here, here and here, h/t Mike Norman Economics)

Much more surprisingly, perhaps, it also generated a critique from the "progressive" side of the spectrum.

Philip Pilkington ("a writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London" and frequent contributor of Naked Capitalism), after a brief acknowledgement of Robin's work (to the extreme of awarding Robin an interview!), goes on to say:
"His latest piece is grossly misguided and reflective of the fact that, when it comes to theoretical economics, academic critics on the left simply do not know their enemy [Austrian and neoclassical economics] at all".
However harsh these words might sound, those who have followed Pilkington's output will recognize that he is often much less nuanced. So, that's the first surprise.

Pilkington then sums up his case:
  1. "Robin does not quite grasp the essence of either modern neoclassical or Austrian economics"; and
  2. Against Robin's thesis of a commonality between marginalist (particularly Hayekian) and Nietzschean doctrines, Pilkington asserts that "it is Nietzsche's critique of all theories of value and, by implication, all systems of morality that lay the ground for the most effective critique of the marginalist toxin".
Whatever the explicit reasons Pilkington alludes, one, however, is left with the suspicion that what "lies somewhere in the background" of Pilkington's critique is the use Robin makes of Marxist terminology:
"It would also appear that, lying in the background somewhere, Robin assumes that the only antidote to the scourge of marginalism is the dusty old labour theory of value - as problematic and discredited as it is. This is something of a guess on my part but if I'm correct it is but another indication that the left are fighting battles that have long since been thoroughly and completely lost".

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To substantiate his claims, Pilkington first undertakes to show how Robin misread Nietzsche.

Robin quoted the following passage from Nietzsche ("The Gay Science", 1882), as evidence that the German philosopher's thought parallels marginalism:
"Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature-nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present - and it was we who gave and bestowed it".
Robin goes on to compare Nietzsche's quote with an older quote from Menger:
"That was in 1882. Just a decade earlier, Menger had written: 'Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being'."
As Robin indicated, one can find matching quotes from the other first-generation marginalists:
"Repeated reflection and inquiry have led me to the somewhat novel opinion, that value depends entirely upon utility. Prevailing opinions make labour rather than utility the origin of value; and there are even those who distinctly assert that labour is the cause of value." (W.S. Jevons, 1871. "The Theory of Political Economy", chapter 1, Introduction)
At the risk of being repetitive: Jevons and Menger's works, both marginalist, predate Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" by some ten years.

Referring to Nietzsche's quote, Pilkington, who claims a deeper, superior understanding of the problem, says:
"In this passage [Nietzsche's] Robin sees an anticipation of the pseudo-subjectivist marginalist theory of value - that is: the theory of marginal utility."
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After demonstrating his understanding of written language, Pilkington moves to show his knowledge of neoclassical economics:
"I shall not here get into too many concrete examples having provided them elsewhere before, but take the standard marginalist exercise in 'showing' that a perfectly competitive firm in a perfectly competitive market will always equate marginal revenue with marginal cost. (…)
On the one hand, it tells the student the morally purifying tale that they should make optimal use of scarce resources - this is based on the fantasy of 'utility'".
The "standard marginalist exercise" Pilkington is referring to is indeed standard: it's the problem of a firm's profit maximization.

Beyond the reproaches Pilkington makes, on which I agree, the example of a firm that equates marginal revenue (i.e. $!) with marginal costs ($!) is equating dollar measures, not utility.

Pilkington, it seems, confuses the textbook consumer's utility maximization problem with the firm's profit maximization problem. It's telling that he seems oblivious to the difference.

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But, for argument's sake, let's forget about all that. Let's assume Pilkington made his points: Robin misread Nietzsche, which Pilkington knows very well; furthermore, Pilkington has a vastly superior economic knowledge.

Pilkington justified the "pseudo" attached to the label "pseudo-subjective" marginalist theory of value, which he opposes, anyway. On top, there is no point in looking to the "dusty old labour theory of value" for an answer: it is discredited.

What next? How does one build a theory of value from Nietzsche's "true" subjective views:
"Nietzsche's subjectivist theories of values and morals are completely different. Indeed, they are quite the opposite. Nietzsche's theories, as those philosophers that developed them recognised well, were all about flux and change - the movement of people, their wills and their desires through time. These theories were about the mysterious forces that lay inside each individual, forces which they themselves do not properly understand, that push them to and fro, dictating their whims and desires. These forces, for Nietzsche, were above and beyond anything that could be objectively conceived in any rationalistic manner. Because these very forces determined our very ability to reason and hence our very impulse to try to determine things objectively, they could not be conceived of through the frame of objective knowledge. Such would be like an eye trying to look in upon itself".
It falls upon Pilkington to answer this question.

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Ultimately, it is regrettable that a writer who has gained some prominence by railing against mainstream and Austrian economics (rightly so, in my opinion, although apparently for all the wrong reasons) seems entirely unawares of how ironic this is:

"Robin assumes that the only antidote to the scourge of marginalism is the dusty old labour theory of value - as problematic and discredited as it is".
Menger, quoted by Corey Robin:

"The most momentous consequence of the theory is, I take it, that it is false, with the socialists, to impute to labor alone the entire productive return."
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We, the unwashed, the uneducated, the workers, cannot expect much from "progressives" like this.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Law and (Pecking) Order.

or, Poor is the New Black.

Observe these two videos.



They show what appears to be quite similar situations:
  1. the police stop two women in each case (according to the narratives, in the American case for jaywalking; in the second case, the Mexican case, to apply a breath test);
  2. the women apparently react similarly, too: they become uncooperative, yell at the officers, insult them, use coarse language, and push them, which can be interpreted as assault (in the Mexican case, according to the narrative, one of the women, the taller one, wearing a vest, may have actually have hit the policeman, which undoubtedly constitutes assault);
  3. passersby witness and record the incidents.
And, yet, the police officers involved reacted in very different ways.

In the case of the alleged American police officer, he retaliates to the push by punching the perpetrator in the face, ordering her not to struggle (to which she complied), handcuffing one of the women and arresting both of them. Eventually, according to the narrative, both women were released from the police station; nothing was said about charges; the police officer's superiors apparently judged his reaction appropriate.

In the Mexican case, both women were let go (the video does not show their departure). The video went viral on the net, and the two women were recognized as local TV celebrities, which apparently generated some outrage against the women. Eventually, the Mexican authorities decided to summon the women for investigation. (See here, video link in Spanish)

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In situations like these, if one is learning of the facts through a video, as we are, it's difficult to offer a clear, balanced and definitive opinion. So, I won't try.

I can say this, though. In the case of the alleged American police officer, the fact captured in video of being pushed back by one of the women legally justifies a physical reaction from him. Whether his reaction was appropriate, given the principle of proportionality, perhaps would be open to interpretation, but the fact itself of a reaction is not  (in the officer's defence, it should be noted that he stopped immediately, after hitting the woman, who also ceased pushing him).

But the same facts would also justify a reaction by the Mexican officers. And they did not react in any way. Why?

If I had to guess, I'd say that the Mexican police officers, whom the women repeatedly insulted using the words "asalariado" (literally, wage-earner: worker; roughly translated as in "pleb") and "indio" ("Indian", as in Amerindian), know their place in the Mexican pecking order: they are allowed to be forceful, sometimes abusively so, to those socially below them; but they must think twice when confronted by those above them.

On the facts shown in the video, it's hard to say a similar conditioning explains the behaviour of that particular alleged American officer, although it wouldn't surprise me: the women confronting him were black.

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I don't know all the facts, and I may be mistaken. But if I am right, scenes like those above will become more and more common, as inequality increases and the middle "class" become less and less middle

This BBC News note documents precisely that, in Mexico, now.

If I'm right, this will be coming soon to a street near you. Either you do something about it or get used to it. Your choice.

But there may be a positive side to this:  if you are not black (or Indian, or Asian, or Leb, or wog, or Bogan, or Jew, or Palestinian, or Gypsy, or gay, or "asalariado", or unemployed, or poor, or homeless, or protesting, or commie, or something) this may be a whole new experience...  Welcome to the club and enjoy!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Two Views on Marx.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits". (Mat 7:15-16 NKJV)

This is the work of Brad DeLong, professor of Economics and chair of the Political Economy major at the University of California, Berkeley: Understanding Karl Marx: Hoisted from the Archives from FourYears Ago May Day Weblogging

The video lecture below (one out of this series of lectures) is the work of some guy whose name I'm not even sure of:


Both works mention the same things (for instance, commodity fetishism), but both are very different.

Their authors interpret Marx in diametrically opposed ways: both cannot be right.

To me, it's evident that one of these works is the product of honest intellectual effort; it aims to teach you something, to give you something new. It's equally evident - to me - that the other one is an example of propaganda, by an ideologically-driven and arrogant individual, whose sole aim is to destroy.

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Now, I'm not here to tell you who's who. My opinion on this, realistically, is irrelevant. It's your opinion that matters here.

So, take your time. Judge these two guys through their work. The links are there.

This, writ large, is the challenge of our time: choose.

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PS,

I suppose I'll eventually have to write something about Malthus, as the subject of the living condition of the working class in Britain was mentioned. Oh, well.

Update:
04-05-2013 Added the Matthew quotation, which seemed oddly appropriate.