June 15, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Mr. Krugman's Science: The Marxist Solution

Brought to you by Peet's Fair Trade Organic Blend...

Actually, this is quite an interesting development in the intellectual evolution of Our Most Celebrated Economist, the esteemed Paul Krugman of the New York Times.  Since I have written a number of posts based on Mr. Krugman's Scientific inquiries, I thought it was only fitting that I mark this occasion, for it represents a "pivot" (as the big-time journos say) for the wily Mr. K.

What am I talking about? Well, as I have noted before numerous times, Mr. Krugman belongs to the conceptual wing of economics known as New Keynesian, which is a shape-shifting sort of amalgam of...well, complete nonsense, but what these people are all about is "demand."  This is what ails the modern American economy: American citizens just are not buying enough stuff, or services, or whatever it is that the modern American economy offers to its increasingly confused citizens. Or "consumers," as they are more relevantly called.  Thus, the American economy is "underperforming," it's not using all of its "productive capacity."  The American economy is Oskar Schindler lamenting, "I could have done so much more!"

The answer, according to the acolytes of John Maynard Keynes, is for the government to take up the demand "slack" and flood the economy with money until the juggernaut of American production roars back to life.  While to the casual observer, this may sound moronic and hopelessly out of date, it is an article of faith in Mr. Krugman's scientific approach, and he dwells in an echo chamber of like-minded liberal thinkers who all say the same thing.

Yet I had noted, in my careful appreciation of the protean and wily Mr. Krugman, that a new strain of thinking had entered his learned discourse, that discourse which he displays with frightening freequency in his columns and blogs (his columns are simply longer, and more boring, versions of the blog posts, which in turn are sort of the rough drafts for the twice-weekly column).  To wit, Mr. Krugman became aware, within the last few months, of automation, and of the ways that modern "capital" (Big Business) was using it to maintain a high level of "productivity" and profitability.  And that this development might have an awful lot to do, at this point, with the phenomenon of income and wealth inequality.

Well, that's what Science is all about: integrating new discoveries into the old paradigms, as our understanding of the world evolves, forcing us either to modify those paradigms or, on rare occasions, to re-conceptualize Reality itself.  Plus, Mr. Krugman needed an escape hatch, because it was becoming apparent that the Old Normal was simply not coming back, and six full years after the economy began its final roll-over, his take on the American economy was beginning to look a little out-of-date, based as it was on things that happened in 1929.

So yesterday we got this from Mr. Krugman:

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?
Seemingly, just more of the same, you might think.  But no: this is a major departure.  This is Mr. Krugman recognizing that the jobs are not coming back.  He's still a little confused: he talks about the middle class "working hard" and "playing by the rules" (that tired political cliche - what rules?), without remembering that the absence of meaningful employment is the whole problem.  But he's moved away from his old insistence that the "potential jobs" are there now (unemployment is not "structural"), it's just that the federal government is not stimulating "demand" enough.  No, he's on to something else altogether.  He's singing the same tune I heard James McMurtry sing at the Freight & Salvage: We Can't Make It Here Anymore.  
Now Mr. Krugman does not want to go so far as to admit that offshoring of jobs, and allowing Big Capital to "leverage" the cheap labor of the Third World, is the other half of this story.  He's still not ready for that, ardent international trade proponent that he is.  But he's halfway there; he now sees that Big Capital increasingly doesn't need human beings in order to make money.  This has been one of my points: what is it, exactly, that we lack on a day-to-day basis as the result of this high "unemployment?"  Food on the shelves? Gasoline? Natural gas for the furnace? Cheap electronic toys? Books? These things are all available in fantastic abundance.  And if you're sentimental about the Planning & Tanning Economy, you can still hire a wedding planner or go to a tanning salon.  It's just that business is down at such places because we're a broke-ass society.
Once you put automation and offshoring together, you're there.  You see reality.  Well, almost.  Mr. Krugman still does not see that resource scarcity dooms the Western industrialized economies to perpetual stagnation anyway, and that even this twilight period of lurching adaptation is not going to last. But in the interim, Mr. Krugman advocates Marxism: support the great mass of the American Booboisie with heavy taxes on robot-employing, offshoring Big Business.
Yes, it's utterly ridiculous as a solution.  Since Big Business owns the government which imposes taxation, why would Big Business undertake the care and feeding of the hoi polloi, those very same proles it is shitcanning from jobs on an ongoing basis?  To appreciate that, Mr. Krugman would need to think about two variables at once, and unfortunately, his Science is not sufficiently advanced at this point to allow that.

June 12, 2013

Where are the Snowdens of Yesteryear?

Yossarian keeps asking that question in Catch-22, as he tries to rid himself of a terrible vision. It's late in the book before you learn, in the novel's oddly-sequenced, time-vaulting way, what Yossarian was talking about.  In a book noted for its hilarity and black irony, the passage is unforgettable:

"I’m cold." Snowden whimpered, "I’m cold."

"There, there." Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. "There, there."
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.
"I’m cold," Snowden said. "I’m cold."
"There, there," said Yossarian. "There, there," He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.
"I’m cold."
"There, there."

People have often asked me, especially when I was writing this blog during the Bush years, whether I felt any sense of personal risk or danger from expressing views contrary to the "policies" (such an imbecilic word) of whatever administration was in power.  I never really have.

I've been following the development of the Surveillance State for years and years, partly because I've been a regular reader of Glenn Greenwald since his earliest writings (in book form) on the Patriot Act, then his column for the Salon e-zine, and now his work for London's Guardian.  He's a meticulous writer, always careful with his facts, never given to speculation, and scrupulous in his constitutional analysis. He sounds "radical" at times only because the Bill of Rights itself has become something of a nuisance for the Washington power elite, and American citizens are now essentially clueless about the extent to which key civil liberties have been thrown away in our endless quest for "security."

So I've always worked on the assumption that the government can find out anything it wants about you anyway.  You don't have to write a blog.  There's nothing "dangerous" or "inflammatory" about what I write; I don't foment revolution, I don't advocate illegal acts, I don't give "material aid" of any kind to terrorist organizations.  And all of these things are true until and unless the federal government chooses to construe something you have said or written differently.  It can happen to me, it can happen to you.  I figure that at least my thoughts are written in essay form; they form (usually) a cogent whole, so the attempt to abstract something out of context at least offers that prima facie defense: read the whole thing, sir

The fact that we even entertain such ideas, the "paranoid" fantasy of government persecution, is a very sad commentary on the state of civil liberties in the United States.  I suppose this was Edward Snowden's point: if the government has everything you've ever said or written through digital means stored somewhere, they can pick and choose among your utterances to create a New You, the composite picture formed by the process of abstraction.  The trick is never to become a target; yet how do you control that?

Such a situation should not exist, of course.  In the grand scheme of things, terrorism is a miniscule threat.  In April, in Boston, three people were killed and many more seriously injured when two criminals exploded two homemade pressure-cooker bombs.  A few days ago, a killer went on a rampage with an assault rifle in Santa Monica and killed twice as many people (six) and wounded many more.  In the first instance, because the killers were foreign-connected (Chechnya) and used bombs, we deem it terrorism of the kind we're trying to interdict through a massive surveillance apparatus, recording just about everything that can be digitized and stored.  In the second case, it's run-of-the-mill mayhem, and the killer's weapon of choice is freely available on the open market, subject only (maybe) to a background check (we wouldn't want to be too invasive, right?).

The difference in approach is pretty easy to understand if you're cynical enough.  There's a lot of money to be made in the security business, and terrorism is the perfect rationale for the grand scale of the enterprise.  The National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency: these organizations don't exist in order to do background checks on assault rifles.  But wiring up the whole country, getting every Internet service provider and every telecom company on board, and employing vast legions of programmers, encryption experts, spooks of all shapes and sizes, all dedicated to getting it all recorded, data-mined, subjected to analytical algorithms, and stored away in a vast database in the Great Basin of Utah - there's your cash cow.  

In its current manifestation, I doubt that this Surveillance State is much of a threat to the personal liberty of ordinary Americans (whatever an "ordinary American" is).  When one political mouthpiece after another assures you that this is only for your own good, it's probably true for now, in the sense that it is not intended to entrap you or subject you to individual scrutiny.  On the other hand, it's not intended to protect you from random acts of terrorism either, not really.  Because it can't.  The Patriot's Day bombing in Boston is the ironic case in point.  All of this snooping was in place at the time of the massacre, although it would appear from Edward Snowden's disclosures that it was ramped up with another FISA order after the bombing.  If someone wants to pack a pressure cooker with ball bearings and gun powder and rig up a triggering device, there is no particular reason that the details of such a plan have to be broadcast over the internet or discussed by telephone.  The people at the NSA know this; if I can figure it out sitting here, and you agree with me, it's doubtful that we're the only two people in this fair land capable of routine deduction.  A random act of violence that we declare "terrorism" cannot be stopped by compiling massive databases of random information, no matter how sophisticated the "data-mining" or algorithmic scrutiny.  It didn't stop the Boston bombing, and it didn't stop the Santa Monica shooting spree (nor the increasingly common antecedents of the Santa Monica massacre).

Thus, the earnest national discourse of whether all this invasion and recording keep us "safer" is essentially stupid.  The systematic trashing of everyone's Fourth Amendment rights has been around for a decade, yet acts of routine, spectacular violence and bloodshed have increased dramatically during that period.  We pride ourselves on controlling one component of that mayhem that we call "terrorism" and justify the NSA's boondoggle on that basis; what it probably means is that genuine, foreign-based and (let's face it, this is what we're talking about) Islamic terrorism is a rare event, whereas drug-addled or just ordinarily crazy people grabbing a rapid-firing weapon and killing as many people as they can in a hurry is just another day in America.

Which is not to say that a tolerance for snooping on this scale cannot become a huge problem.  If it persists, it certainly will, although America will have much greater problems in the years ahead.  

What bothers me, at an idiosyncratic level, is that in my line of work, I am familiar with what "transcriptions" of ordinary speech look and sound like.  I read them all the time in depositions, in transcripts of recorded statements and court testimony.  It's incoherent garbage.  So the NSA is building a database built on an abstraction of ourselves that is all unguarded, spontaneous garbage: incoherent, halting, inarticulate, fumbling garbage.  It would be good to purge all of that, to get rid of it, to leave it all behind, because it doesn't really do any good anyway.  It's a way to employ people to do something pointless and expensive, and eventually dangerous nonetheless.  The words, the tweets, the texts, the emails, the emoticons, the nonsense - there is no human spirit in that.  Without the spirit that animated the words, we're all reduced to garbage.