“I’m a good Catholic girl”

I’m at a conference and the moderator at a session that I attended gave us an anecdote during which she said “I’m a good Catholic girl”. Was I offended at her injecting religion into a secular meeting? Of course not. She wasn’t preaching to us, it was just a passing comment, inserted for humorous purposes and we all laughed.

But what if she had said, “I’m a good atheist girl”? I bet you that that there would have been sharp intakes of breaths and some mutterings that she had delivered a gratuitous slap at religion. This is the protective shield that religion has built around itself that has to be dismantled.

The basis for joint action

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

There is much in common between what the tea partiers and progressives seek, as can be seen in this informative joint interview on Fox News with Ralph Nader, a lifelong progressive, and Ron Paul, a tea party favorite.

Look at the list of things they agree on: Opposing corporate control of government, bloated military budgets, undeclared wars, corporate bailouts, invasion of civil liberties and civil rights, opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, trade deals like NAFTA and WTO, stronger whistleblower protections, support for WikiLeaks, opposition to runaway deficits, and bringing transparency to the actions of the Federal Reserve and putting it under democratic control.

When it comes to health care, they both support the repeal of the legislation passed last year because it adds to corporate control of the system but each would like to replace it with different things. Nader wants a single payer system while Paul wants what he calls a free market system. I think Nader’s comment right at the end addresses a misunderstanding that people like Paul have in that a single-payer system (like in France) does not mean that government ‘takes over’ and delivers health care. Doctors and hospitals will still be private but what would be eliminated is the multiplicity of for-profit health insurance firms that do not add anything of value but simply introduce a vast and expensive bureaucratic layer between doctor and patient.

To form alliances with elements of the Tea Party and other groups that progressives have opposed will require a much better understanding of coalition politics than currently exists in the US. Coalition political strategy is nothing like the ‘bipartisanship’ that is so much beloved by the Villagers. Coalition politics means two things: identifying those items that we can agree upon and can garner mass support; and being willing to work with others on the basis of whether they agree with you on those specific issues, irrespective of whether we like those groups in general. The label affixed to people or their views on other issues should be immaterial. In coalition politics, there are always shifting alliances, and the people who work with you on one issue may oppose you on the next. But that is part of the deal.

The reason that political movements splinter and cease to be effective is because we get so angry with people and groups because they disagree with us on things we care strongly about that we refuse to work with them on other things that we also care strongly about, and so nothing gets done. But this does not make sense. After all, when we work on (say) getting single payer health care, some of the people who join us may well have views on other issues that we would find uncongenial or even hateful but we don’t know it because the topic may never come up. So why does knowing about it make any difference?

Is it distasteful to work on (say) opposing government suppression of First Amendment rights alongside people who may be racists and homophobes? Of course it is. But politics is not about feeling good or pure. It is about getting the results we think are important. We should be willing to work with the devil if the devil agrees with us on what to do about a specific agenda item. For example, readers of this blog know that I think that we would much better off without religion. But when it comes to fighting oppressive governments in Central and South America, some religious groups are doing wonderful work and I support them.

To make this happen we have to realize that the focus has to be on the things that we agree on. Note that the list of things that Paul and Nader agree on are all related to important economic and civil liberties issues. It should not matter that progressives and tea partiers and paleo-conservatives and libertarians differ on many social issues. Coming together on the above common agenda alone will bring about a vastly different and better country.

We also have to realize that the tea partiers are themselves victims of the oligarchy. Their politics and analyses of the situation are what they are because the oligarchic alliance of business, government, and media have misled them about the causes of their discontent. The Palin-Beck-Limbaugh axis of misinformation is, whether consciously or not, a tool of the oligarchy because they are the means by which popular anger is being deliberately directed towards those issues that oligarchy does not care two cents about (guns, abortion, gays, race, Muslims, immigration, terrorism, welfare, etc.) but which serve to divide us and prevent us from joining forces to fight the oligarchy on the things that do affect them.

I have referred in this series to the transglobal oligarchy as if it were a monolith. And they are when it comes to protecting oligarchic interests, even though they may well differ strongly on issues relating to national interests. The point is that they can put aside those differences and unite on the things that benefit the oligarchy and this is what gives them their strength. Those who oppose the oligarchy have to learn to do the same.

Our best hope is to engage with those disaffected elements in the tea party and try and shift their focus from their current obsessions so that they see who their true enemies are. If we make a concerted effort do so, there is a possibility that at some point these people will see the root causes of their problem. In order to achieve that, progressives, rather than issuing blanket condemnations of the movement and spending a lot of effort decrying the undoubtedly xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and outright nutty elements in their ranks, will have to instead appeal to those in the tea party movement for whom economic and civil liberties issues are their main concern and are willing to overlook differences on social issues. Rather than falling into the trap of dwelling on these divisive issues, progressives and tea partiers should agree to disagree on them and pool their energies on the things they agree upon. The efforts of Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to build a coalition platform for joint action is a good start.

Building this coalition will not be easy because there is a steady and concerted effort by the oligarchy and its media allies to focus attention on those things that divide this coalition because the last thing they want to see is people getting together to take aim squarely at oligarchic interests.

Another path for the future

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

If an economic calamity is to be averted in the US, it will require a popular revolt against the power of the oligarchy because the political leadership is not going to do take action against it.

The Democratic Party is unlikely to be the leader of a mass movement for change because its base is far too quick to capitulate to its party leadership. The party’s base seems to be always bewildered as to why their party does not follow through on its promises but as Glenn Greenwald points out, it is absurd for progressives to be puzzled by Obama’s willingness, even eagerness, to capitulate to his seeming political opponents, because it they who are enabling this very behavior. It is worth quoting him at length.

Why, angry progressives seem to be asking, would Obama ignore the views of his so-called “progressive base” while seeking to please those who are his political adversaries?

But it’s perfectly rational for Obama to do exactly that. There’s a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do. The groups which Obama cares about pleasing — Wall Street, corporate interests, conservative Democrats, the establishment media, independent voters — all have one thing in common: they will support only those politicians who advance their agenda, but will vigorously oppose those who do not. Similarly, the GOP began caring about the Tea Party only once that movement proved it will bring down GOP incumbents even if it means losing a few elections to Democrats.

That is exactly what progressives will never do. They do the opposite; they proudly announce: we’ll probably be angry a lot, and we’ll be over here doing a lot complaining, but don’t worry: no matter what, when you need us to stay in power (or to acquire it), we’re going to be there to give you our full and cheering support. That is the message conveyed over and over again by progressives, no more so than when much of the House Progressive Caucus vowed that they would never, ever support a health care bill that had no robust public option, only to turn around at the end and abandon that vow by dutifully voting for Obama’s public-option-free health care bill. That’s just a microcosm of what happens in the more general sense: progressives constantly object when their values and priorities are trampled upon, only to make clear that they will not only vote for, but work hard on behalf of and give their money to, the Democratic Party when election time comes around.

I’m not arguing here with that decision. Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That’s a different debate. The point here is that — whether justified or not — telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they’re well-advised to do exactly that.

It is probably the case that a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base contributed to the Democrats’ defeat in the 2010 midterm election. But what Obama cares about is getting re-elected in 2012, and he knows full well that come March or April of that year — if not earlier — most of the progressives who are now continuously complaining about him will be at the front of the line waving their Obama banners, pulling out their checkbooks and whipping into line anyone who is not similarly supportive. By contrast, corporate institutions and Wall Street tycoons will pour their money into Obama’s defeat if he does not show them the proper level of deference and accommodate their policy demands, but will support him (as they did in 2008) if he pleases them. Resource disparities between those factions are significant, but it’s also due in part to their own choices that Wall Street is empowered, and progressives are irrelevant.

This is why the oligarchy is most successful in its attempts at squeezing the poor and the working and middle classes when Democrats are in power.

It is for this reason that I see the Republican Party’s base in the tea party, for all its manifest faults, as more likely to create the conditions for change than the Democratic Party’s base. The latter is still stuck in a passive mode that puts their faith in a leader. Some of them still see Obama as that savior while others are getting disillusioned and are seeking a new hero. Their desperate need for a noble standard bearer who will fight their battles for them is something that saps their energies. In the words of Galileo (put into his mouth by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his Life of Galileo), “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

At least the Republican base is wary and suspicious of their leadership. At least they realize that political leaders should fear them and that it is up to them to be vocal and active in putting pressure on them. Their growing suspicion that they are being manipulated by their political leadership at least provides some hope for a re-awakening and organizing.

What progressives need to do is develop a common agenda with those who are also disaffected with the power of the oligarchy. This will require a different attitude towards the Tea Party, paleo-conservatives, and libertarians. Rather than wholesale rejection of those groups, we should seek to form alliances on those issues that we can agree upon, and there are surprisingly many.

Next: A possible common agenda

God is alive and well and still slaughtering animals

It turns out that about 200 cows suddenly died in Wisconsin, which, along with other recent reports of mass deaths of birds and fish, are taken as signs that the end times are near.

Such mass deaths are not uncommon and only seem so because the media’s interest is triggered by one unusual event and they then report every subsequent similar event as if they are mysteriously connected, until it gets bored and moves on to a new pseudo-trend. But religious folk, ever eager for a sign that their god is still around, desperately seize upon these natural events as evidence of the supernatural.

The US as a destabilizing threat to the transglobal oligarchy

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

The main threat to the transglobal oligarchy does not come from those countries that we normally think of as being unstable but from the US, because of the rapacity of the financial sector of the US economy that, like a swarm of locusts, is consuming everything in sight in satiating its greed, leaving the rest of the economy and the country bare. And their enablers are both the Republican and Democratic parties.

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Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF, in an article (that I referred to before in my 2009 series of posts on the American oligarchy) says that the financial sector has captured the US government and that the US shows a disturbing similarity to those countries that used to be derisively called banana republics. He says the recent financial crisis made visible to everyone the oligarchic control of government.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The financial industry has not always enjoyed such favored treatment. But for the past 25 years or so, finance has boomed, becoming ever more powerful. The boom began with the Reagan years, and it only gained strength with the deregulatory policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Several other factors helped fuel the financial industry’s ascent. Paul Volcker’s monetary policy in the 1980s, and the increased volatility in interest rates that accompanied it, made bond trading much more lucrative. The invention of securitization, interest-rate swaps, and credit-default swaps greatly increased the volume of transactions that bankers could make money on. And an aging and increasingly wealthy population invested more and more money in securities, helped by the invention of the IRA and the 401(k) plan. Together, these developments vastly increased the profit opportunities in financial services.

Johnson argues that given this diagnosis of the problem, the prescription is straightforward: we need to get rid of the oligarchy, starting with breaking up all the ‘too big to fail’ banks and financial institutions that now dominate the US economy. But who will bell this particular cat? The government has, at least in theory, the power to do so. But the two major political parties are so beholden to the oligarchy and embedded with them that they are not going to take the initiative. Johnson seems to think that the necessary pressures to change will have to come from outside the system.

The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we’ll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe’s banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration’s current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy “stress scenario” that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks’ balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.

Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated… If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

Columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall says that the situation is already too far gone for any hope of orderly change within the current system and sees a collapse coming unless there is a political revolution.

The prospect of a global economic meltdown or an actual revolution is obviously not a cheery one. If the US economy nosedives, not only will it cause a lot of misery here, it will undoubtedly drag a lot of other nations down with it, at least in the short run, because of the deep interconnections in the world’s economies.

Next: An alternative way forward?

Chaser’s vocabulary

Chaser is a border collie that not only can identify over a thousand objects by name, she even knows basic grammar and the three verbs paw, nose, and fetch, thus being able to distinguish what she was expected to do with each object. That is not all. She could also recognize categories, in other words common nouns. “She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar.”

Chaser will appear in the PBS show Nova on February 9.

Chaser learned one or two new words each day, requiring four or five hours of daily practice. That is some dedication. My own dog Baxter, while an eager learner, tends to call it a day after about fifteen minutes and go off and take a nap. “Everything in moderation” seems to be his motto.

I was intrigued to read that in order for her trainer to remember what he had called the thousand objects, he wrote the name of each on the object with indelible ink. It is, of course, possible that Chaser is so smart that she had learned to read, thus saving herself the trouble of learning the names of all the objects.

How Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I have repeatedly said that progressives have to be most on the alert when Democrats are in power. It is under Democratic administrations that the oligarchy tries to achieve major goals because the party’s base, ever-vigilant to guard against encroachments when Republicans hold power, falls asleep when their own party is at the helm. We see Obama doing things in the name of national security that would have evoked howls of protest if Bush had done them. We see Obama treating Wall Street with a generosity that would be loudly protested if a Republican did it.

The big prize for the oligarchy is, of course, Social Security. The privatization of Social Security has been a long-cherished dream of Wall Street anxious to get their hands on that trillion-dollar account. In general, Republicans have been thwarted when they tried to do it. George W. Bush tried to privatize it in his second term but was beaten back and gave up on it. The Democratic Party has long been seen as the defenders of Social Security, which is why the oligarchy sees it as a better agent for achieving its goals.

It is not well known that Bill Clinton also secretly set in motion attempts to privatize (they use the euphemism ‘reform’ or ‘save’) Social Security, following his successful move to gut welfare programs for the poor. These secret plans were well advanced and getting down to the level of fine-tuning details in preparation for a public announcement. But as Robin Blackburn explains in this 2004 article, he was thwarted, not by the party’s base, but by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which forced him to appease his base in order to save his political skin.

We have this on the authority of high-ranking members of the Clinton Treasury who gathered in Harvard in the summer of 2001 to mull over the lessons of the 1990s. At that conclave it was revealed that on Clinton’s orders a top secret White House working party had been established to study in detail the basis for a bipartisan policy on Social Security that would splice individual accounts into the program. Such was the delicacy of this exercise that meetings of the group were flagged under the innocent rubric “Special Issues” on the White House agenda.

In the mid-1990s pessimism about the future of Social Security was rife in seminars, conferences, op-eds and learned papers by which elite consensus is fashioned. The media lent an eager ear to charlatanry from outfits like the Third Millennium, which ventriloquized a supposed consensus amongst youth that the program would not be there for them when they came to retire – and that consequently their best bet was to take their FICA payments and put them in a private share account in soar-away Wall Street.

Third Millennium was, of course, a front for the privatization lobby. But it did tap into a vein of public anxiety and skepticism concerning Social Security finances and, with the stock market soaring upward, its Wall Street connections were an asset not a liability.

But in 1998 the Lewinsky scandal burst upon the President, and as the months sped by and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to a looming reality, Clinton’s polls told him that his only hope was to nourish the widespread popular dislike for the hoity-toity elites intoning Clinton’s death warrant.

In an instant Clinton spun on the dime and became Social Security’s mighty champion, coining the slogan “Save Social Security First”.

In his 1999 State of the Union address Clinton seized the initiative from the privatizers with a bold new plan that gave substance to the “Save Social Security First” slogan. He proposed that 62 per cent of the budget surplus should be used to build up the Social Security trust fund. He promised to veto any attempt to divert Social Security funds to other uses, and he urged that 15 per cent of the trust fund should be invested in the stock market, not by individuals but by the Social Security Administration.

The first part of the plan to privatize Social Security, which has long been in evidence, is to soften up the public by persuading all people that the system is in dire crisis, and especially the young, that they are being ripped off because Social Security will not be there for them when they retire. This is a lie. There is no long-term problem with Social Security that cannot be fixed with minor tinkering within the system. This graph of the Social Security trustees projections of future financial status (as a percentage of GDP) shows that there are no runaway costs in Social Security in the foreseeable future and the gap between revenue and outlays can be easily closed. Furthermore, the current surplus in the trust fund (well over three trillion dollars) that has been built up over the years can be used to fund the deficit in the current account at least over the next two or three decades without any changes at all in the system.

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The economic minds behind Clinton’s moves were Larry Summers and Gene Sperling, both of whom are now close Obama advisors. There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama also wants to raid Social Security in some way to benefit the oligarchy, to do what Clinton and Bush could not. His reduction of the payroll tax contribution and his adoption of the alarmist rhetoric about the need to ‘fix’ Social Security has laid the groundwork for meddling with it. You can be sure that his economic team is already working on it. The real question is when he will reveal the details of what he has in mind, whether he will keep his plans secret for longer or whether he will reveal at least part of it in this year’s State of the Union speech to be given this evening.

The cautious thing to do would be for Obama to wait until his second term, like Clinton and Bush, so that he does not have to worry about any negative impact on his re-election chances. But Obama seems to have an arrogant confidence about his ability to get his followers to rally behind him whatever he does, and he may well think that he can tackle Social Security now and escape unscathed.

And he will unless people protest loud and long. Monica Lewinsky played her part. Now it is up to the rest of us to save Social Security.