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Don’t open the window, tear down the walls…

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

When Tom Walker first raised the topic of Overton’s Window, it did not seem to us to hold much value beyond the obvious conclusion that a democratic society, when it is at equilibrium, allowed for only the most modest changes at the margins.

We thought: Hey Tom, tell us something we don’t know.

After years of living with two wars, after the catastrophe that was the 2008 financial crisis, and after witnessing the fiery critique of American foreign policy that resulted in nearly 3000 deaths on September 11, 2001, and the watery critique of its domestic policy with Katrina, if society could pass through this and emerge with political relations pretty much undisturbed, we thought even marginal change itself seems like an overly optimistic goal.

Our opinion was simple: Society would change when it was impossible for its members to muddle along from one catastrophe to another. In the case of shorter working time, that means when you will reduce hours of work when, no matter whether you have a job or not, you still face starvation.

When hunger and want stalk you, no matter how many hours you sell yourself into slavery, the idea of selling yourself into slavery will die on its own

Okay – a little over the top, we admit. Not wrong, we believe, insofar as it goes, but it certainly doesn’t offer much hope that things will change short of really desperate times. (And, frankly, you can’t be trusted to do the right thing in relatively good times, how likely is it you will instinctively do the right thing in really desperate times?)

So we got to thinking, and trying to imagine something other than the worst case scenario. (Really difficult, mind you, this imagining something other than the worst case scenario. The last time we got our hopes up for real change was when the Soviet Bloc disintegrated, and a tiny handful of people began talking of a peace dividend. But, then HW’s sweetheart got bitch-slapped by Saddam Hussein, and suddenly it was the Munich in the Summer of 1938 all over again. Our children will never know how close this proud nation came to speaking Arabic with Iraqi accents! Just thinking about it gives us chills!)

Short of really desperate times how might the reduction of working time be realized?

One thing which got us thinking about this was recalling the events that led up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After years of subpar performance, the leadership of the SU finally admitted they had among themselves no new ideas how to reverse the decline in the living standards of the country. Much like the US today, massive amounts of work time were being squandered on a useless buildup of military might, environmental degradation, social alienation, and war. A new leader, Gorbachev, ascended to power and found the support among the sclerotic elite to make one last push to break the spiral of decay – in a campaign they called Glasnost (openness and freedom) and Perestroika (economic restructuring). The idea was to take a hidebound, autocratic, ideologically rigid statist political system and open it up to new ideas that would, in some undefined fashion, make it possible for the Soviet Union to overcome the catastrophic course on which it clearly traveled.

It was, in other words, an announcement of the impending systemic collapse of the society by the Soviet bureaucracy in the only way a bureaucracy can admit its complete and utter failure: They put up a suggestion box.

Much like Overton’s Window the question of the moment in the Soviet Union was how to expand the range of possible change to which the system would be subject.

That it failed is not the point of this brief recollection; rather, the point is this item taken from the Wiki:

Arriving in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2 PM, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass protecting him from potential snipers in East Berlin. About 45,000 people were in attendance; among the spectators were West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen. That afternoon, Reagan said,

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Later on in his speech, President Reagan said, “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

The words President Reagan saw on the Berlin Wall, were not written by a young Berliner. The words were actually spray painted on the Berlin Wall by an American. On October 10, 1986, William Ozkaptan spray painted the words “The wall will fall. Beliefs become reality. W.Oz 10/10/86”.

Another highlight of the speech was Reagan’s call to end the arms race with his reference to the Soviets’ SS-20 nuclear weapons, and possibility of “not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

A little background to understand this excerpt

When National Security Council Report 68 was written in 1949-1950, the authors anticipated that the Soviet Union would, on occasion, make peace proposals to limit the possibility of conflict between the two empires. In their view, such proposals were little more than ploys designed to undercut Western resolve to contain the SU and its bloc of allies.

… the absence of good faith on the part of the U.S.S.R. must be assumed until there is concrete evidence that there has been a decisive change in Soviet policies. It is to be doubted whether such a change can take place without a change in the nature of the Soviet system itself. (p. 83)

However, whether these were ploys or legitimate attempts by the Soviet Union to deescalate the conflict is besides the point, since the reality the authors of NSC-68 faced was the possibility that such “ploys” might appeal to public opinion in Western Europe and the United States – and they wanted nothing to compromise Western willingness to contain the SU for what promised to be a very long time.

Gorbachev’s Glastnost and Perestroika was viewed in the same light by the authors of NSC-68 – who had, since, abandoned the Democratic Party in disgust, and rallied to Reagan during the Carter Presidency. A Soviet leadership committed to change on its own terms threatened an already grumbling coalition of Western governments and malcontents, and presented the threat that Washington Empire might disintegrate as well. To answer this threat, Reagan took to the podium on that day in Berlin to issue the ultimate challenge to the Soviets: Tear down this wall!

The Soviets called his bluff, and the American Dollar Empire went looking for a new evil to justify its bloated existence.

The rest of the story is a collection broken bodies, burnt beyond recognition, in buildings, wedding parties, and beds.

What lesson is there in this?

Gorbachev set out to widen the window of possible change in the Soviet Union. Reacting to this event, and intent on maintaining its coalition, the United States responded to this charm offensive by demanding that the Soviet Union do more than widen a window in the wall: The wall itself must be brought down.

The Soviet Union had to abolish itself.

Having abolished itself, it imediately called into question its opposite – the American Empire – the leaders of which have been working mightily to justify its continued existence based on the proposition that 48 percent of global war spending must be devoted to the extermination of one guy in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Don’t widen the Overton Window, tear down the Wall.

As Barkely Rosser at Econospeak has pointed out, all of the most pressing problems today, which have produced fairly broad, if mostly unconnected, movements for change are rooted in the need to reduce hours of work. (Rosser made this point only to disparage the work of Tom Walker, but it is true.)

To give a few examples:

  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could not be waged were it not for the excess hours of work put in by us that take the form of armaments production.
  • The waste that results in environmental degradation occurs first as the waste of the human labor which produced it.
  • The problem of containing health-care costs and delivering medical care to those who need it is generated not by too little working time in that sector, but too much.
  • The inequality endemic in all major industrial nations, which has led to bubble after bubble, and financial collapse, is created by hours of work set at unsustainable levels, which makes for massive profits seeking any outlet for reinvestment – even as unconscionable levels of human want is left intact.
  • Free trade, protectionism, immigration reform are all clearly connected to the problem of global excess capacity and an large global pool of unemployed labor that owes its existence to the overwork of those who are employed.
  • The overhang of debt, both public and private, rests on a large pool of superfluous profits that exist to be loaned out to governments and individuals – it is these superfluous profits which compel the growth of debt, not the other way around.

We could go on and list any of a number of social ills that have produced movements of individuals devoted to their eradication that are, at their core, only symptoms of a society which simply suffers from overly long hours of work.

(In fact, it was our intuition at the time, that the Soviet Union faced precisely this problem – albeit in a more pronounced form. Economists called it investment hunger, or some such stupid label. However, the paradox presented by this investment hunger was that adding ever more labor resources to enterprises only raised cost without significantly raising output)

We think it is time to take Ronald Reagan’s advice and tear down the walls that separate work time reduction from each of these movements, and, which separate and compartmentalize these movement each from the other – often on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Advocates of work time reduction must do the painful, difficult work of amassing evidence to support the proposition that each of these ills are no more than symptoms of overwork.

Much has been done so far to make the connection between global warming issues and long hours of work. Still more work like this is needed on a host of issues, even – dare we say it – wading into emotionally charged issues like immigration, and speaking to the leaders and members of a movement not known for political correctness.

We would like to know your thoughts on this.

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“There stirs in Americans today a haunting sense of insecurity…”

November 29, 2009 Leave a comment

In fitting tribute to the Messiah’s new shovel ready jobs program which is to be rolled out this week – 40,000 public employees digging foxholes in Afghanistan at the rumored cost of about $1 million per employee per year – Tom Walker has posted the full text of a remarkable yet almost forgotten 1952 speech by Dwight David Eisenhower exposing how Washington was solely responsible for inflation in the economy by using Cold War armament production to create a false prosperity under NSC-68.

As I said at the outset: all our problems today are tied to one another, and none can be solved by itself. With tens of billions spent on armaments, another six to seven billion yearly on foreign aid, we see again that the soundness of our financial health at home depends on the soundness of our foreign policy.

The blunt truth is this: we cannot bear this huge burden indefinitely. We cannot—year after year, decade after decade— both maintain our standard of living, finance huge armaments, and help to rebuild economies of nations all around the globe. We cannot, in short, win the peace with foreign policy of drift, makeshift, and make-believe.

We must ‘honestly face the fact that such a policy not only fails to secure the peace: it also places the hopes of the free world in jeopardy by the strain it puts on our economy., and by the confusion it creates in other lands.

There is in certain quarters the view that national prosperity depends on the production of armaments and that any reduction in arms output might bring on another recession. Does this mean, then that the continued failure of our foreign policy is the only way to pay for the failure of our fiscal policy? According to this way of thinking, the success of our foreign policy would mean a depression.

Richard Trumka: How a tired old union hack misses the point completely

November 20, 2009 2 comments

Once upon a time, the union boss was hated and feared on Wall Street, now he or she is just ridiculed or ignored – or propped up in front of the TV cameras to serve as a convenient scapegoat for why you’re paying for Wall Street failures.

Little does the Party of Wall Street suspect that, indeed, they are right – union hacks like Trumka are precisely the reason why you are footing the bill for GM mismanagement, and Goldman Sachs’ venality. The unions sold you out to cash in on the virtuous cycle of ever bigger defense budgets, rising employment fueled by wars and economic predation, and an ever growing slush fund of union dues.

Now the bills have come due, and Goldman Sachs wants to blame the UAW because Ford, GM and Chrysler can’t build a decent automobile at a competitive price – a price that requires that an American standard of living be readjusted to conform to Chinese wage levels.

Watch below as Richard Trumka whines like a bitch for a return to the good old days when American union bosses marched hand in hand with corporate predators in support of the Johnson-Nixon carpet bombing of Vietnamese villages.

Richard L. Trumka’s remarks at the Spotlight on Jobs Crisis forum.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Wall Street Crisis: How Washington was slowly starving you

January 25, 2009 Leave a comment

bank_dees

Wall Street is broken – this much we know because assholes in very expensive business suits keep coming before one congressional committee after another to repeat it.

But, what does it mean to say Wall Street is broken? What does a broken Wall Street mean to us, the collective body of penniless uneducated fucking hillbillies.

We didn’t work on Wall Street anyways. We didn’t collect the big bucks for seducing wealthy widowed Miami Beach retirees and pension funds to invest in ponzi schemes.

At best, we used our credit cards more than we should have and ended up in a hole as our creditors jacked rates to levels unheard since Mohammed preached against usury.

This blog holds to the idea that the statement, “Wall Street is broken,” essentially means, at least, “The domestic funding mechanism of the American Empire is broken.” Wall Street has, for the last sixty years or so, functioned mainly as the pump through which Washington siphoned off a massive amount of the social product of economic activity to maintain its unique position as global hegemon.

All the concern in Washington regarding a broken Wall Street is less about the suffering of Main Street than it is about the greatly reduced prospect for this economic strategy.

Using data provided by Washington, John Kemp shows us that in the period since the implementation of National Security Council Memorandum 68 Wall Street has benefited fantastically by serving as the essential mechanism for gaining access to trillions of dollars of global resources.

As shown in the following graph, Washington’s dependence on Wall Street has led to the massive expansion of the financial sector of the economy, which grew much faster than the overall economy for the last sixty years.

growth-of-financial-sector

Reading Kemp’s article it is fairly obvious the rapid growth of the financial sector has been powered mainly by the fantastic expansion of a disguised form of debt peonage: a permanent state of indebtedness, which ties no single working stiff to the company store of any particular employer, but enslaves all of them together to the continuous extension of their working time despite improvements in productivity.

Output rose eight times between 1975 and 2007. But the total volume of debt rose a staggering 20 times, more than twice as fast. The total debt-to-GDP ratio surged from 155 percent to 355 percent. Second, almost all this extra debt has come from the private sector. Take a look at Chart 2.

growth-of-private-debt-burden

Kemp notes:

Despite acres of newsprint devoted to the federal budget deficit over the last thirty years, public debt at all levels has risen only 11.5 times since 1975. This is slightly faster than the eight-fold increase in nominal GDP over the same period, but government debt has still only risen from 37 percent of GDP to 52 percent.

Instead, the real debt explosion has come from the private sector. Private debt outstanding has risen an enormous 22 times, three times faster than the economy as a whole, and fast enough to take the ratio of private debt to GDP from 117 percent to 303 percent in a little over thirty years.

To repay the total accumulated debt of individual working families and corporations would now require more than the gross output of the United States for three years – including the federal, state and local revenue share of this GDP.

For the working family this debt burden has meant the forced entry into the labor force of millions of mothers with young children, the contracting out of household tasks, such as childcare, cooking, etc., and the lifelong struggle to maintain employment amidst the rising tide of mortgage, credit card, auto, and other forms of personal debt.

Kemp continues:

This created a dangerous interdependence between GDP growth (which could only be sustained by massive borrowing and rapid increases in the volume of debt) and the debt stock (which could only be serviced if the economy continued its swift and uninterrupted expansion).

The resulting debt was only sustainable so long as economic conditions remained extremely favourable. The sheer volume of private-sector obligations the economy was carrying implied an increasing vulnerability to any shock that changed the terms on which financing was available, or altered the underlying GDP cash flows.

None of this was an accident: By pursuing the kind of permanent economic expansion, out of which it could siphon off ever greater amount of economic output to fund its empire, Washington was, at the same time, slowly impoverishing you.

You responded to this slow economic asphyxiation by joining your husband in the workforce to increase your family earnings, and by financing more and more of your consumption with debt – hoping to keep your head above the debt tide with longer hours of work involving more family members.

We note: None of this was ever forced on you. Nobody came to your house and threatened to arrest you if you did not charge that 42 inch, wide-screen, high-definition plasma television on your Visa card.

You are ultimately responsible for the mountain of debt you have accumulated and which compels you to sell yourself out each day like a two dollar hooker to men in very expensive suits who now come before congressional committees begging for handouts like platinum plated hobos.

By the same reasoning, however, Washington and its coterie of filthy, boot-licking, whore-economists never once explained to you that the mountain of debt under which you labored was the direct result of Washington’s subtly tightening choke hold on the material living standards of your family.

Washington was slowly starving you and your family to encourage you to accumulate that debt.

Every time economic output faltered, Washington quietly increased the pressure on your family, and, at the same time, eased a little on interest rates, while making ever greater sums of money available to be lent to you through its debt manufacturers on Wall Street – Home mortgages, auto loans, student loans, small business loans for nail and tanning salons, restaurants and the like: whatever it took to drive you deeper in debt, compel you to work longer hours, and siphon off the revenues to fund its empire.

What a fantastic scam! The harder they squeezed, the more debt you took on.

Soon they were handing you cash based on the quality of your smile, not caring whether you had the means to repay or not; not caring whether what you wanted to buy (house, car, plasma television) was even worth the money to be paid for it; not caring whether that restaurant you always dreamed of opening would close in bankruptcy – as 6 out 10 did – in the first 3 years.

The proximate trigger of the debt crisis was the deterioration in lending standards and rise in default rates on subprime mortgage loans. But the widening divergence revealed in the charts suggests a crisis had become inevitable sooner or later. If not subprime lending, there would have been some other trigger.

So it has come crashing down – and the extent of this crash has still not even begun to make itself felt.

Wall Street is now broken, but more than this is the collapse of the very mechanism Washington employed to compel you to work longer hours by slowly starving you and your family and pushing you into debt to survive.

This is what Washington thinks it can fix with a $700 billion gift to Wall Street, and another $825 billion in Barack’s stimulus package.

It is not going to work – period, full stop.

The debt, as Kemp tells us,

…is so large it will stretch even the tax and debt-raising resources of the state, and risks crowding out other spending.

Trying to cut debt by reducing consumption and investment, lowering wages, boosting saving and paying down debt out of current income is unlikely to be effective either. The resulting retrenchment would lead to sharp falls in both real output and the price level, depressing nominal GDP. Government retrenchment simply intensified the depression during the early 1930s. Private sector retrenchment and wage cuts will do the same in the 2000s.

The solution must be some combination of policies to reduce the level of debt or raise nominal GDP. The simplest way to reduce debt is through bankruptcy, in which some or all of debts are deemed unrecoverable and are simply extinguished, ceasing to exist.

This debt has to be abolished, and working hours severely reduced. This is the only solution for you, your family, and your future.

Will Barack follow this solution?

We prefer to think of him as a modern Lincoln – although he may turn out to be a 21st Century Ford. We prefer in other words to believe that he will be driven, as Lincoln was driven, to do the unthinkable.

In Lincoln’s case, it was the abolition of slavery, which he refused to address until it was forced on him by secession and war.

For Barack, the abolition of debt and the reduction of working hours will likely not come as the result of secession and war, but the failure of economic policy to reinstate the essential material condition of empire – the ever increasing domination by Washington over the billions of unpaid hours of work.