Wednesday 29 October 2014

Bits and Pieces.

Corey Robin illustrates the proverb "good things, when short, are twice as good":
"Historically, liberalism was proffered as an answer to the left. That is what gave it its political heft and social depth. For the last half-century, it's been proffered as an answer to the right. Therein lies the problem."
The corollary? Our "defenders" aren't there to "champion" our cause, exactly. If that isn't clear enough, see here.


Robert Paul Wolff's recent writings (here and here) fit very well with Robin's post:
"The simple truth is that none of the 'liberation' movements [i.e. black liberation movement, the women's movement, the gay liberation movement] had an economically radical thrust. In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme: We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society - which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!"
This is not to deny the justice of these movements. Wolff (a retired professor of Afro-American Studies and father of a gay man) shares their aims.

Wolff's point is that, valuable as they are, their aims can be obtained within a capitalist society: gender discrimination, for instance, is a pre-capitalist atavism. To overcome these residuals of the past is part of the evolution of capitalism and may well mark the outer limits of progress within a capitalist system.

Note the word: progress. Liberals (or progressives) can and often play a part in these movements. But that's as far as they can go as liberals. They can afford it: it does not threaten the capitalist system to whom they are beholden and it will shore it up.

In the process, these "liberals" or "progressives" may well claim (not entirely spuriously) the title of "champions of the oppressed". The problem begins when you believe that.


It may surprise you, but Marx and Engels acknowledged capitalism's civilizing role:
"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
"The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation."

It's when one conflates this partial civilizing role with the whole labour of civilization that problems arise. For one, that's how words like "left" and "socialist" have lost their meaning, to the point that one of the richest Australian parliamentarians, the current Federal Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull ("conservative, centre-right, libertarian") is seen by some as a "socialist": he supports same-sex marriage, and believes in climate change.


Used intentionally as a deeply dishonest rhetorical device, this surreal twisting of words' meanings is present in other contexts.

Here is an individual who obviously considers himself intellectually sophisticated:
"Profit can be seen as the wages of profiteers for their ability to organise the means of production. In a lot of larger companies that is quite literally the case - salaries for managers with bonuses."
Yeah, right. And a hotdog can be seen as the third wheel of a bicycle, or your boss did not choose to kick you out of your job, but "had to let you go".


In a roundabout way, we reach George Monbiot's article on the euphemisms used nowadays (from "human resources", to "collateral damage" and "extraordinary rendition": often a two-word construction!) to dehumanize people and legitimize all sorts of abuses (doesn't "neutralize" sound so much better than "kill"?):
"If we wish to reclaim public life from the small number of people who have captured it, we must also reclaim the language in which it is expressed. To know what we are talking about: this, in more than one sense, is the task of those who want a better world."
"Human capital", that conceptual monstrosity, is in Monbiot's list. Maybe "cognitive bias" should be added.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Trans-Pacific Partnership by Year's End!

Or What Sorts of Wonderful Presents Santa's Got in Store?

The Guardian (Australia) informed us yesterday:

"Trans-Pacific Partnership taking shape behind closed doors, Andrew Robb says
"Australia’s trade minister says the free trade deal should be concluded by the year’s end"

Andrew J. Robb, the Federal Minister for Trade and Investment (a former economist for the National Farmers' Federation, and later Executive Director of both the National Farmers' Federation and the Cattle Council of Australia), according to ABC News, said "that the Federal Government is trying to achieve a deal which would increase access for Australian agricultural products to markets in the 11 other countries. But it's not just about agriculture".

That, precisely, is what has many people worried:

(see here)

So much secrecy surely means we'll have many pleasant surprises, right?

Image Credits:
[A] "KM Crazy Face", 5 December 2011. Author's own work. My usage of the image does not suggests the author's endorse me or my use of the work. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikipedia.

Friday 24 October 2014

A Fable, Fabulous, of Oesophagus.

Or, a Nightmare on Arden Street.

Bondi Poster circa 1930
You finished your lunch. On the table, a plate with the remains of your meal and a crumbled paper napkin on top; next to it, lie a cup of black coffee and a little plastic tray, with a tip for the friendly young waitress. It's a sunny day; across the road lies the park and beyond it, the beach, full of people.

For you, a modest man of modest means, that's as close as bliss as it gets.

Your bliss, however, is cut short when a fashionably unshaven, twenty-something man suddenly takes one empty chair and sits next to you, an intense gaze in his eyes: the kind of expression one finds on street preachers Friday nights, corner of George and Park, opposite Town Hall, zealously announcing the Good News of Jesus to uninterested pedestrians.

Before you say a word, your unexpected companion, short-breathed, excitedly starts: "I've proved it! I did! The Pythagorean Theorem is false!"

Startled, you barely suppress an emerging "Whadda!?" And maybe it was a good thing: truth is, you don't know what to say. Again, you try to open your mouth as he grabs the napkin from your plate, but are impatiently shushed by your new friend, anyway. After a quick attempt to smooth its surface, he draws a square with a pencil that came apparently from nowhere.

While the youth, in a trance-like state, is distracted scribbling feverishly, you try to leave. No luck: unexpectedly, he grabs your arm, forcing you to sit back.

After a few seconds, evidently satisfied with his work, the young chap finally looks up from the napkin.

As he shoves it in your direction, stopping an inch from your nose, he quickly says, his voice full of passionate contempt, pointing to half a green pea stuck in the middle of the drawing: "If you add the square of the 4 sides of this triangle, there's no way you can get the square root of the hypothalamus. See? See? See?" he asks, stabbing repeatedly the napkin with his index finger. "Pythagoras, that old fool, was a shabby Hegelian!"

Somewhat recovered from your surprise, for a moment you pretend to study the doodles on the gravy-stained napkin, while desperately trying to figure a way out of the ordeal.

Nothing comes to mind, however; so, you give up trying. You say to your unblinking companion, defiantly staring back at you:
"Mate, I am no mathematician, but I believe the Pythagorean Theorem is about right triangles. That's not a right triangle; that's not even a triangle! That's a square."
Unexpectedly, your companion, suddenly frozen, says nothing; you could almost hear the half green pea, which fell from the napkin, hit the table.

Choosing your words ever more carefully, you add hesitantly:
"If memory serves, the theorem states that the square of the hypotenuse…" you say, pausing for emphasis, "…is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two…", again, a pause, "…sides. So, before discussing the theorem, maybe it would be best to understand the basics…"
At the middle of that sentence, it dawns on you: the young fellow may be momentarily silent, but he isn't listening. Instead, he is getting livid by the second; livid as in "ka-boom livid".

The moment he slaps the table, you jump to your feet, suddenly free from his grip; the precious napkin falls to the floor, and you leave hurriedly, every head in the pub turning your way in alarm.

As you hastily walk to the nearest bus stop, the last thing you hear is the young man shrieking angrily behind you:
"But, but… You people never listen to your critics. Circular reasoning!!! Listen to me! … Fuck you, Pythagoras! … Metaphysics… The Mahatma Gandhi this, Nietzsche that… Epistemologically correct asshole… Lacan and Roth's K√≤jeve's Hegel all agree: E=m*c^2 is a sexed equation… Wet fish… Veblen… Veblen! VEBLEN!!!"

It may not be the open gates of Heaven Friday night street preachers say Jesus promised, but for you, right now, that bus with its front door open, just waiting there, comes a close second.


The story, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, bloggers, places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.

Image Credits:
[A] "Poster promoting Bondi Beach circa 1930". Source: Booth, D. "Australian Beach Cultures", Author: Unknown. Image in the public domainWikipedia.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Casting the First Stone on Bigotry.

Barry Spurr (Australia's first Professor of Poetry and Poetics in 2011 and Personal Chair in Poetry and Poetics, University of Sydney, link) has had a distinguished career, including his role as a consultant to the Review of the Australian National School Curriculum, ordered by the Liberal/National Coalition government ("centre-right, conservative, libertarian".)

More recently Prof. Spurr's own literary output has gained exposure, as New Matilda published "The Partial Works of Professor Barry Spurr" containing private emails allegedly "sent to friends and colleagues at the University of Sydney over a two year period, from September 2012 to late 2014".

To cut a long story short, Prof. Spurr's opus apparently includes rants against Abos, Mussies, Chinky-poos, fatsoes, harlots, whores, "worthless sluts" intent on ruining the lives of "poor chaps" whose only mistake was to put their penises in the sleeping sluts' mouths.

For New Matilda and a host of liberal, middle-class, educated commentators (see here, here, here), this behaviour is unforgivable; for Prof. Spurr perhaps not so much: he "has maintained that the emails were a 'whimsical linguistic game', and that they were largely restricted to a bit of 'oneupmanship' between himself and an old friend", according to New Matilda.

Be that as it may. I have no dog in that hunt.

Besides, even if the allegations are true, that kind of expression is not unheard of in Australia, which is precisely what makes me write this.

You see, in the past, when this kind of thing happens, involving people lower in the social ladder, middle-class, progressive, educated commentators characterized the behaviour as exclusive of bogans (as in caravan park, poor white trash). See below.

So, members of their own caste are free of sin, right? The educated middle class is immaculately innocent, only the white rabble has to answer. That's why they can cast the first stone.


Incidentally, PM Tony Abbott, a former Rhodes Scholar, apparently hasn't -- yet -- threatened anybody involved, even though he was allegedly described as an "Abo lover". Credit where credit is due.

Monday 20 October 2014

Two Cows - Capitalism Version.

My own contribution to the Two Cows:

You have two cows. I enclose your land and evict you.

When your cows are starving, I buy them suitably cheap and say: "No need to thank me. I'm just doing what any other philanthropist would do."

When you are starving, I hire you at a low wage and say: "No need to thank me. I'm just doing what any other job-creator would do."

When you ask me how come I now own your land and cows, while you slave away for me, I say "Ungrateful bastard!" and hire an American liberal economist to teach you a lesson.

Image Credits:
[A] To the best of my knowledge, these two cows still belong to whomever owned them. Original U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Scott Bauer. Image Number K7686-7. Image in the public domain. Wikipedia.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Peter Cooper: State and Capitalism.

Peter Cooper, from heteconomist, writes about the importance of the State for the operation of Capitalism.

From a methodological perspective, to keep State and Government out of the picture, as a first approximation, is a useful approach to study Capitalism: it simplifies the subject. I would add that during the 19th century such simplification was probably less radical than it may seem to contemporary eyes.

Additionally, Cooper argues that "in debate between the proponents of laissez-faire capitalism and its dissenters, the approach is useful and informative".

However, this approach may have less desirable consequences. Read more at heteconomist

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Free Range Diplomacy.


What a difference a day makes.

Two days ago, PM Tony Abbott was going to shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin:
"Mr Abbott raised eyebrows when he told reporters in Queensland: 'Look, I'm going to shirtfront Mr Putin … you bet I am'." (see here)
Yesterday he was singing a different tune, as reported by that Murdoch-owned "conservative, centre-right, libertarian" propaganda pamphlet:
"Prime Minister Tony Abbott has toned down his language on Russia, but still insists he will hold a 'very robust conversation' with Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit".
Well, maybe this time he actually means it. And if he asks nicely, respectfully, humbly, he may even get an audience with Putin, because Putin apparently has no plans of speaking with him:
"Russian second secretary to Australia Alexander Odoevskiy said there had been no request for a bilateral meeting between the leaders, and Moscow was not expecting a physical confrontation.
"From the Russian government perspective, currently the president of Russia is getting prepared for the Brisbane summit.
"This is an international event focused around the economic issues, and as we are aware at this point there has not been a request for a bilateral meeting, either from Moscow or from Canberra.
"So we are not sure where exactly and when the Australian Prime Minister would like to shirtfront president Putin." (see here)

But I am an equal opportunity critic and to keep the balance, I won't leave Labor out of the note. Opposition "leader" Bill Shorten according to that rag:
" 'When you deal with international bullies, the way you do it isn't by laying out the red carpet,' Mr Shorten said today. 'So no, I don't think he's welcome. I don't think most Australians want him here'.'' (see here)
So, that's his big idea: the silence treatment. Please, Shorten, for the love of God, shut up.


Call me a Neanderthal, but I still prefer a good, old-fashioned, dust-up.

Monday 13 October 2014

Fight of the Century: Abbott vs Putin.

Last night, Leigh Sales (7.30 Report - ABC, anchorwoman):

"Tony Abbott Promises to 'Shirtfront' Putin at G20 Summit"
"If you can believe what you read, Vladimir Putin has wrestled bears and now Australia's one-time pugilist Prime Minister Tony Abbott is spoiling for a fight when the Russian President comes to town." (here)

For overseas readers, this is what "to shirtfront" means:

On this corner, Tony "Mad Monk" Abbott (56), on the opposite corner, Vladimir "Volodia" Putin (62) in the grudge fight of the century.

And yet, these guys have much in common: both old-school, stridently homophobic men, who enjoy sports and being photographed shirtless, in the splendour of their half-naked manly glory, so that you know that they are macho men (and don't you go getting any wrong ideas).

The Mad Monk has the local boy advantage, used to be an amateur boxer and, as a young man, allegedly scared female students as a hobby; Volodia is a judoka, wrestles bears and had his KGB experience terrorising people and doing all the nice things secret cops do.

Frankly, I don't care who wins: I just want to see a good fight, pulling no punches (actually, pulling nothing: pulling no bites, kicks, eye-gouging...).

It's time for these guys to show what they are made of.

Saturday 11 October 2014

The Boxer - Simon & Garfunkel

(Paul Simon's complete lyrics)

The Plastic Sword of Terror.


By now, you've probably heard that the terrifying sword seized as evidence during the September anti-terrorist raids was actually a toy sword, made of plastic. Yes, a plastic toy, believe it or not.

According to Rachel Olding, writing last Tuesday for SMH:
"It was one of the most frightening, powerful images to emerge from counter-terrorism raids across Sydney last month.
"As one man was charged with conspiring to behead a random person in Sydney's CBD, police removed a sword in an evidence bag from a Marsfield home.
"But the owner of the menacing item has revealed that it is actually a plastic decoration common in almost every Shiite Muslim household."
And note the detail: the plastic sword of terror was found in a Shiite home, not a Sunni.

Overseas readers may be LTFAO, and that's understandable. That was the initial reaction here; some Aussies still manage to sort of smile:
"I guess it's a lucky thing the raids only turned up a plastic sword then. What if those 800 cops had found a toy light sabre? The headlines would have screamed 'ISIS develops terrifying Stars Wars capability'. The SAS might have been despatched to Tatooine."
However, dear readers, this may not be such a laughing matter, as Fergal Davis, from the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at UNSW Law School, wrote for The Guardian (Australia):
"The reaction on social media has been one of bemusement. The assumption, which I suspect is true, is that the sword was taken in error. But Australian law is broad enough to potentially criminalise the possession of a plastic sword.
"There are at least two relevant provisions."
Under these provisions a person could be sentenced to between 15 and 25 years.


Join the dots: (1) a terrible law, (2) a climate of hysteria fostered by the media, (3) an inept government intent on diverting the public's attention, and (4) a servile opposition.

Now, by all means, keep on laughing.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

A Keynes for Every Occasion.


For conservative Bruce Bartlett, Keynes was really a conservative (and that's a good thing). Bartlett quoting John Kenneth Galbraith with approval:
"The broad thrust of his efforts, like that of Roosevelt, was conservative; it was to ensure that the system would survive." 
For Misesian Vernon Orval Watts, Keynes was really a socialist (and that's really, really bad):
"In general, moreover, Keynesian proposals for 'compensatory' policies follow Marxian socialism in seeking to force individuals to obey the rule, 'From everyone according to his abilities, to everyone according to his needs.' Arguments and theories used to support these proposals are essentially Marxian."
For New Keynesian and centre-left Simon Wren-Lewis, Keynes and Keynesianism weren't really Left, or Right, but simply about how the macroeconomy works (and that's really, really good):
"So my argument is that Keynesian theory is not left wing, because it is not about market failure -- it is just about how the macroeconomy works."
For this Post-Keynesian ("progressive" liberal?), Keynes was really a "progressive" liberal and that's better than better:
"To cut a long story short, Keynes was a 'progressive' liberal, not a conservative and not a direct supporter of the UK 'Labour' party, in contrast to some people who seem to think Keynes was a conservative".
For Noah Smith (centrist?), it's Hayek's fault that people think "Keynesianism is socialism-lite". In reality, Keynes and Keynesianism were unjustly opposed by Hayek, but neither Keynes nor Keynesianism are "socialist", "progressive", or "liberal":
"If you use the word 'Keynesian' as a synonym for 'socialist,' 'progressive,' or 'liberal,' well my friend, you're doing it wrong."
Robert Vienneau says that "Hayek [was] not opposed to Keynes on political principle".


For what it is worth, I agree with Bartlett (and Galbraith): Keynes was essentially a conservative (but for me, unlike Bartlett, that's not a good thing). To the extent that Vienneau considers that Hayek and Keynes were more or less equally conservative, I agree with him, too.

Anyway, there you have it: a Keynes for every occasion.

Feel free to choose whichever you like, but remember this: your and your children's future are at stake here. Whether Keynes was liberal, conservative, left, right, up or down, he looked at people like us with plenty of contempt (here, here). That doesn't make the options offered by these people any better.

He remember this: a two-edged sword cuts both ways.

08/10/2014. Believe it or not, I just realized this: I actually agree with Noah Smith on something! Man, miracles do happen! Department of Whiskey, Tango, Foxtroxt, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Social Democracy in The Communist Manifesto.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels writing in 1848 about the formation of trade unions and how they would evolve into working-class political parties:
"Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades' Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.
"This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the ten-hours' bill in England was carried." (here)

Britannica Library Adults, about the history of the Labour Party (political party, United Kingdom):
"The Labour Party was born at the turn of the 20th century [i.e. some 50 years after the Communist Manifesto was first published] out of the frustration of working-class people at their inability to field parliamentary candidates through the Liberal Party, which at that time was the dominant social-reform party in Britain. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress (the national federation of British trade unions) cooperated with the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) to establish a Labour Representation Committee, which took the name Labour Party in 1906. The early Labour Party lacked a nationwide mass membership or organization; up to 1914 it made progress chiefly through an informal agreement with the Liberals not to run candidates against each other wherever possible. After World War I the party made great strides, owing to a number of factors: first, the Liberal Party tore itself apart in a series of factional disputes; second, the 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the electoral franchise to all males aged 21 or older and to women aged 30 or older; and third, in 1918 Labour reconstituted itself as a formally socialist party with a democratic constitution and a national structure". (paywalled, but see also here and here)

A similar story applies to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD):
"The SPD traces its origins to the merger in 1875 [i.e. some 30 years after the Communist Manifesto's publication] of the General German Workers' Union, led by Ferdinand Lassalle, and the Social Democratic Workers' Party, headed by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. In 1890 it adopted its current name, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The party's early history was characterized by frequent and intense internal conflicts between so-called revisionists and orthodox Marxists and by persecution by the German government and its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck."

Pretty much like Marx and Engels wrote, decades in advance.

True, this kind of parties have changed since their origins (and, ab ovo, were vitiated by reformist. moderated, "pragmatist" elements, greatly aided -- I must add -- by academics); true, even the gains achieved were temporary and in the long-run costly in terms of political mobilization.

Still, in that passage of the Manifesto you see the working class struggles evolving from individual workers to small associations to national labour federations (facilitated by modern technology: railways); from labour federations to political parties: political struggle carried on by labour institutions, resulting in regulations shaping the distribution of resources to the workers' benefit.

To me (and that's me: I'm no big-shot professor) it doesn't sound too shabby, particularly considering that, according to Acemoglu and Robinson (here), and Milanovic (here), Marx ignored institutions, technology, politics, and their impact on the distribution of resources in a society:
"We argue that all of these general laws are unhelpful as a guide to understand the past or predict the future, because they ignore the central role of political and economic institutions in shaping the evolution of technology and the distribution of resources in a Society".
But, whatever Marx and Engels wrote, they must be wrong. After all, professors and academics -- whose livelihoods depend on your well-being, surely? -- say so. Trust these people: you'll do just fine. Right?

Thursday 2 October 2014

Questions from a Worker Who Reads.


Questions from a Worker Who Reads 

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Image Credits:
[A] "Day scene. Wheaton Glass Works. Boy is Howard Lee. His mother showed me the family record in Bible which gave birth July 15, 1894. 15 years old now, but has been in glass works two years and some nights. Started at 13 years old. Millville, N.J., 11/1909". Photographed by Lewis Hine. This work is in the public domain. Wikipedia.