On Charlie Hebdo

It is with a heavy heart that I write, as this week doubtless stands as one of the most difficult in recent memory. The tragic attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo are indefensible, and the threat that such an attack poses on the values of Western Europe is truly frightening.

Make no mistake- the point of this post is not to spread some sort of obscene, hate-filled garbage under the guise of freedom of expression. Quite the contrary. Indeed, as pointed out in articles by Gawker and David Brooks, the history of Charlie Hebdo seems to shield some interesting closet-skeletons. Again, the point of this post is not to criticize the victims of an attack for saying something they should not have said. Many of the articles written during the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo attack make a decent point- quite a lot of their material (albeit decontextualized, poorly translated and ignoring the juvenile streak present in much French comedy) seems deliberately inflammatory. But as soon as we start trying to separate the world into spheres of ‘what should be said’ and ‘what shouldn’t be said,’ we approach a situation in which this sort of psychological censorship can be applied to silencing critique of our own nations and governments. This censorship, especially in the context of a militarized police force, surveillance and torture does not fill me with confidence, and represents the erosion of vital cultural values on which the West was built.

In the past few decades since Islamic fundamentalism has become a force to be reckoned with, we have been fed the narrative that these radical terrorist attacks will serve to cripple and destabilize the West. Not only does this fear serve as a further defense of the authoritarian creep, it is also fundamentally wrong. Terrorist attacks in the West are tragic and indefensible, but radical Islamist violence poses a far more immediate physical threat to other Muslims– residents of Muslim countries- than it does in the West. The threat to the West is far more pressing in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack than it is in the moment the bomb goes off.

When we mistake individual, peaceful Muslims for terrorists- when we seek to generalize and categorize without subtlety or realism- we commit several sins. The first and most visible is, obviously, the sin of racism, which is ironic, as Muslims are not a race. While stemming racism should be the most pressing reason to stop these generalizations, we all know that racism is wrong, and to debate that fact further implies that there is anything left to debate. There isn’t. Racism is wrong and we shouldn’t do it.

The subtler sin in engaging in senseless generalization is the narrative it creates. When we assume all Muslims to be terrorists, we create a narrative in which a monolithic West stands in opposition to a monolithic Islam- a dated and frankly idiotic us vs. them mentality. The irony here lies in the fact that radical Muslim clerics want nothing more than to be accepted as the unquestioned representatives of Islam, to the exception of more sensible, moderate interpretations. Even more ironic is that the exact same binary narrative is pushed by the radical right in Western countries, with only the protagonists of the story and their goals switched. Ultra-conservatism on both sides serve the same purpose- to wear away at the already precarious pool of Western values on which we have to draw. It is thus incumbent on us- the value-driven, peaceful people who make up the overwhelming majority of people in our world- to resist the crypto-fascist creep that imperils our world.

It would be marginally acceptable if this were the first time we failed so tremendously to do the mature thing when faced with the prospect of Islamist terrorism. But we- and by we, I mean the most powerful Western governments- have been consistent in our failure to deal adequately with Islamist terrorism throughout our attempts to do so. Icing on the cake: it probably wouldn’t have ever become a political force in the first place if it weren’t for us.

The first groups to espoused an Islamic fundamentalist ideology- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Fedayan-e-Islam (lest we forget, there is nothing ancient about Islamic fundamentalism, it is purely a 20th century development) arose as a result of hostility toward Western colonialism and Mohammad Reza Shah’s pro-Western regime. Throughout the mid-20th century, the West consistently turned a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalism, under the assumption that it was preferable to Marxism-Leninism. Famously, for the same reason, the US and the UK largely downplayed the hostility of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalists until they entered power and their true colors were shown. President Reagan then proceeded to fund the Iranian fundamentalists against Iraq, and the Afghan fundamentalists- the forebears of the Taliban- against the Soviets. And, finally, when the various alliances of convenience ended, and they ‘turned against us,’ we responded by buying their divisive propaganda and adding our own propaganda to it, gutting civil liberties of our own people (Muslim or otherwise) and beginning a campaign of persistent, unceasing warfare.

Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is, at its heart, a death cult with little respect for anyone, Muslim or otherwise. But when we witness an act as horrific as what we saw on Wednesday, we cannot ignore that we did precious little to hold the responsible actors and figures within our own countries to task. We cannot ever forgive those with blood on their hands- whether they wear breads and robes or impeccably tailored suits.

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About Last Night

Now that the fog (or red mist, rather) has cleared, I’m beginning to piece together what exactly happened last night. All told, last night’s results were, I suppose, a mixed bag. Maybe that’s a good thing- after all, a functioning (or at least semi-functioning) democracy has less unity of purpose than a dictatorship, especially in a large, diverse country. So maybe we can take some solace in the fact that our democracy seems to be working. Similarly, the ‘midterm swing,’ a shift of confidence away from the President’s party, is a tried and true American tradition, although this was a swing of historic proportions- rightly worrisome to many progressives. But, lest we forget the silver linings, Cory Booker got elected in New Jersey, and my home state of Connecticut re-elected Dan Malloy, the best governor we’ve had in years. Cold comfort, though, given the number of utter whackjobs that did get elected. When is this right-wing populist obsession with ‘political outsiders’ gonna die? Who- or what, for that matter- are these people going to elect next? There is a worrying lack of historical information here: right-wing populism, especially when combined with a taste for political outsiders, rarely ends well. Hyperbolic? Sure. But, in the eternal words of Lisa Simpson, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.

In addition to a lack of historical information, there seems to be an even more troubling gap in basic American civics. Voters, disturbed by a seemingly weak President and a do-nothing Congress, vote for the opposition. In the moment, isolated from any context, this makes sense. They assume this inaction stems from traits inherent to the President and his party, ignoring the institutional checks and balances we all apparently learned about in school. To them, the solution to an apparently milquetoast President being blocked at every juncture by the opposition party who controls the half the legislature is forcing the control of the whole legislature into their hands. The whole system of checks and balances was set up to prevent changes from taking place too quickly, and the slow pace of change in this country is, again, a sign that some aspects of our democracy are, unaccountably, still working the way they’re supposed to. Listen, if you guys want a dictator, I’m sure that can be arranged.

Bear in mind, for the handful of aspects of American democracy that are working, there’s a whole lot that aren’t. The Republicans lagged the Democrats by 1.1 million popular votes in the House election but swept a cool 34 seat majority. The article above pins this fact on politically partisan gerrymandering, and its not far from the mark. Throughout the country, most urban areas districts are crammed together, ensuring massive Democratic majorities, rather than blending urban, suburban and rural districts together to make district races in any way predictable. Some districts, such as the one I live in, don’t even field Republican candidates, and I’m sure there’s at least some rural districts out there that don’t field Democrats. One solution would be to redistrict the way we’re supposed to- through the use of politically independent census data. A better solution would be to scrap the first-past-the-post district system entirely and replace it with a proportional system which would not only allow for significantly better representation, but also a true, multi-party democracy. Imagine that- a Republican Party that isn’t held hostage by its most militant wing. We can always dream.

But what’s done is done. It’ll be a messy two years, but maybe- possibly- we’ll be in better shape for 2016. Probably not, though.

Well, This Sucks

I realize that pacing, compulsively refreshing Politico, muttering to myself, drinking, sweating and swearing is a consummate part of being an active member of a 21st-century democracy. I realize that there are still thousands of people across the world who don’t have access to even the modicum of choice we have in this country. I realize that, in many ways, I’m lucky. But even I, with my incurably bleeding heart, would club every last baby seal in the face just for the catharsis.

I just now got news that Mitch McConnell is the new Senate majority leader. I’ll let that sink in while I, ironically enough, pour myself a hefty glass of Kentucky bourbon.

Hungary’s Immovable Object

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on her re-election. And to the cynics, all I have to offer are facts. Ten years under the Workers’ Party have rendered Brazil’s per-capita output and its middle class is larger than ever, and, while inflation may not be at the level of developed nations (about that…), it is now far more stable. The nation’s macroeconomic fundamentals are not perfect, sure. But they’re a far cry from the constant currency revaluations of the 80s and 90s. Best of luck, Dilma, and stay the course.

Now, to the point. Over 100,000 Hungarians have risen up in the past few days to protest Pres Viktor Orbán’s institution of an internet tax (which he apparently didn’t tell his MPs about). While an internet tax is itself a very poor policy idea, amounting to little more than a tax on the freedom of information, the tax itself is not the whole issue. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, have recently come under increasing international scrutiny due to their increasingly undemocratic practices. Orbán freely admitted in a speech earlier this year that the era of Western-style liberal democracy is ending, and that he aims to look eastward (i.e., to Russia and Turkey) to find a model for leadership. More so than a domestic protest on a bad policy idea, these protests seem to be a statement of dissatisfaction on the part of Hungarians (who, famously, aren’t known for taking things sitting down) directed at Orbán and the Fidesz government in general. In light of Orbán’s recent turn, the internet tax seems a lot more sinister.

Referring to Fidesz as “Orbán’s party” is reasonable and accurate. Budapest is increasingly dominated with pictures of Orbán’s face and his party’s unsettling slogan “Only Fidesz!” Orbán was a founding member of Fidesz, which originated shortly after the fall of Communism as a small, youth-oriented party with strong capitalist/pro-democracy leanings. Fidesz (with Orbán as its media-savvy representative) initially sought to ingrain democracy and further the spread of capitalism in Hungary, a nation that had always had a greater tolerance for free markets than the rest of the Soviet bloc as a result of its official policy of so-called Goulash Communism. Fidesz’s meteoric rise didn’t begin, however, until the mid-90s, when the party (now under Orbán’s full control) began incorporating elements of Hungarian nationalism and more populist economic policies. The party continued to grow throughout the 2000’s, but did not reach the stratospheric, supermajoritarian heights it now commands until after the Great Recession hit.

“Good story,” you might say. “But why does any of it matter?” Well, economist (and Hungarian) Karl Polanyi, who I seem to be plugging quite a lot on this blog, explains in his seminal work The Great Transformation that when people feel abandoned by the dominant socioeconomic systems, they seek alternatives. Nazism, for example, was born during Germany’s bout of hyperinflation, nearly died afterward, and was reborn after the Great Depression. In the early years of democracy, Hungarians embraced their new freedom wholeheartedly. But Hungary, despite being fundamentally in a much better position than many former Soviet bloc states, still suffered from the same destroyed expectations. They were faced with a global liberal democratic hegemony that had become increasingly dominated by financial markets, a development consensus that imposed upon them shock therapy, structural adjustment and flat taxes. In essence, they were more or less in the same, largely powerless position- largely ignored by the larger powers while they played war games in the Middle East. Presumably, it is this alienation that has made so many Hungarians vote for Fidesz, a party which espouses doctrines little removed from the Goulash Communism of old.

Hungary matters for the same reason Ukraine matters. It may not be as visible, but it is exactly Orbán sly, underhanded tactics that make him so dangerous. Many of us didn’t even hear about him until he’d already largely finished the job. Orbán and the rest of his ilk (i.e. Erdogan) are shameless opportunists and useful idiots: Frankenstein’s monsters whose strong-arm, dictatorial tactics should force us in the US and European core to think about how our international policies affect people in other countries. Rather than sitting here and thinking about how some people “just don’t want to be democratic,” we should be thinking about what we did to alienate them, and how we can fix that.

We’re All Friedmanites Now, IV (But for How Long?)

In the last three posts, I attempted to cover various issues related to the rightward shift in America’s economic policy- its history, its context and its effects. In the (thankfully) final chapter of whatever this is, I would like to offer some potential solutions (and, indeed, problem with those solutions) to the issue.

A big part of this issue is how economics is taught. As excited as I am to discuss economic pedagogy, I think doing so would run the risk of alienating my, like, seven regular readers. As such, I’ll touch upon them quickly and then move on to more prosaic concerns. Firstly, the focus on rational self-interest, I believe, has run its course. There needs to be a bigger focus on alternative decision-making in the economics curriculum. This should comprise not only a focus on behavioral economics, but also the role played by uncertainty, as well as the institutional, social and political context in which we make economic decisions. Secondly, there needs to be a debate on where the political center of mainstream economics lies. Clearly, Edward Prescott and Joseph Stiglitz cannot both claim to be dispassionate researchers despite their vastly different policy conclusions (I say this with a tremendous respect for Dr Stiglitz’s work.) Economists must either play a genuinely non-ideological position (difficult-to-impossible, given the inherently political character of our work), or be more forthright about their policy convictions (which everyone can pretty much tell anyway if they can read between the lines.) Similarly, adherence to particular economic schools needs to be toned down, and ideas should flow across these largely artificial boundaries more freely. Finally, the focus on static analysis- that is- analysis frozen in time must give way to more dynamic analysis. Static analysis need not be overthrown, as it provides a solid framework for analysis. But increasingly powerful computational tools for dynamic analysis are available every day, and we should avail ourselves of them. Agent-based computational economics is a very good start.

We cannot deny that a substantive political debate on inequality has begun. A very telling example of this debate is the speech Federal Reserve chairperson Dr Janet Yellen made a few days ago. Ten- even five years ago- we would have thought it a cold day in Hell when a nominally apolitical Fed chair would throw down a list of “center-left” talking points on the issue of inequality. It’s a testament to the gravity of the situation, and I would argue that characterizing these opinions (read: facts) as politically biased is unfair, given that these opinions (read: facts) are, in fact, facts. Dr Yellen (for whom I have tremendous respect, as she has broadly resisted the rightward drift in economics, actually takes non-mainstream approaches to economics seriously, and has broken into the upper-levels of the boys’ club) is actually the unbiased one- former Fed chairs, such as the ex-Ayn Rand associate Alan Greenspan are the partisans.

But the fact remains: Dr Yellen is a Fed chair, and while having a leader in the field of economics raise the issue is vital, there’s a limited amount monetary policy can do to alleviate inequality. Sure, a pro-growth monetary policy can help increase the size of the pie, which could then be distributed downward. But with today’s fiscal and incomes policies, that’s simply not a possibility. Clearly then, the solution is in fiscal and incomes policy. There are a few options, among others: a minimum wage hike, an expansion of the EITC, a wealth tax (i.e., a tax on assets), more progressive income taxation, increased education spending combined with an education policy overhaul. Of these options, the first two are politically viable in the immediate and the last one is politically viable only if the debt issue is solved (or people, rightly, start caring less about it). It seems hugely unlikely, however, that tax policies- the most powerful tool on the list- will be changed any time soon. This is a catch-22: political power is disproportionate because of inequality, and putting a big dent in inequality is difficult because of disproportionate political power.

Fortunately, the minimum wage debate is making gains in the political sphere. While it still has its discontents, some of America’s more progressive cities have already started the process of raising the minimum wage, and not before its time. Frankly, I believe that once we see that the effects of the minimum wage hike are slim-to-none, it’s only a matter of time before other cities, states and finally the federal government begin adopting better minimum wage policies. An even more viable option is expanding the EITC- as it is a targeted program that, theoretically, bears less influence on employment, there is a great deal of bipartisan agreement that it is a good framework for poverty alleviation. There seems to be a debate on whether to expand on EITC or raise the minimum wage- I see no reason why we cannot and should not do both.

Education is of key importance to the debate. Job market competitiveness requires more education as economies develop, and it should be intuitive to any reader that a more skilled workforce benefits from (and can create) greater opportunities. However, a feedback loop exists in education systems- greater income inequality reduces the quality of schooling in poorer areas, and poorer schools provide fewer opportunities for students. The skyrocketing costs of higher education (again, a function of the unique market power universities- especially private ones- hold) prevent decent skills training for those who need it most. There are two pressing concerns within the education debate, though- the first being that any decision to increase education spending and overhaul the school system will hit a debt roadblock. Debt is not actually all that important , but so long as we are convinced it is, we’re unlikely to see gains in this area. Secondly, a great number of highly educated people are still un- or under-employed. Education works, time and time again, but it is still not a panacea. A combination of growth, redistribution and education is required to affect a genuine shift in public well-being.

In light to the difficulty of solving the inequality issue, I have yet to believe we’re so far down the road that we should abandon all hope or start listening to Russell Brand. The least we can do is stay attuned of these issues, exercise what democratic rights we have left, and keep pushing for reform wherever we can. Perhaps a silver lining of politics not being all that polarized is that we’re all in the same boat- the same dingy, increasingly water-logged boat- together. We can use that. There are policy solutions available, but none of them will be all that useful if We don’t give a shit.

We’re All Friedmanites Now, II (or, Ayn Rand was a Nazi)

In the previous post, I focused on how the rightward drift in America’s political economy has led to a political polarization that is more imaginary than we care to admit. In this post, I want to focus on how economic conservatism is secretly turning us all into social conservatives.

As much as it pains me to admit this, I had a libertarian phase. It was 2006. Unemployment was low and the stock market was hitting new peaks every day. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I had not yet studied enough economics to realize that many assumptions on which “market fundamentalism” was based were empirically unfounded. I am and have always been convinced that social liberalism is sensible, if only for the fact that, in a broadly democratic society, socially liberal views keep a person more or less on the good side of history. But insufficient study of undergraduate economics had put my fiscal/economic views on shakier footing.

Like many libertarians, I was content with separating my economic views and my social views. In fact, the two-axis model of political categorization was pioneered by David Nolan (a founder of the Libertarian Party) and distributed by Advocates for Self-Government, a noted libertarian advocacy group. If you ask me, this form of categorization is a convenient model to allow libertarians to look like they’re not actually conservatives, and thus win adherents who would ordinarily write them off. This plan seems to have worked. Unfortunately, economic concerns cannot be teased away from broader political concerns quite so easily. Economics and politics are inherently interlinked- no economic structures or organizations can exist without a political/institutional basis to house them. This has been the view of countless economists throughout history. With a more substantive view of the political economy, it is difficult to categorize libertarians as anything other than conservative advocates of that status quo.

One could broadly claim that the libertarian focus on the market forces them to neglect issues like poverty and social inequality which disproportionately affect the working classes, thus causing systematic intolerance toward a large sector of society. Similarly, there is overwhelming evidence, perhaps best presented in the Price of Inequality and Capital in the 21st Century by Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty respectively, that growth in capital markets almost always favors the holders of capital, causing wealth concentration, which can cause disproportionate political power and democratic deficits in the absence of sufficient campaign finance laws. For me, these two points are enough to characterize economic conservatism as inherently socially conservative, but these are broad judgments, and it would help to consider a few concrete examples.

Libertarians are opposed to gender-based equal wage laws on principle. Their defense for this (which tends to be their defense for any of their views) rests on the fact that such equal wage laws constitute an unwanted intrusion into the free market. Similarly, libertarians are philosophically opposed to anti-discriminatory laws in hiring because (you guessed it) they constitute an unwanted intrusion into the free market. But, in any free market, an economic actor is just that- an economic actor and nothing else. No non-economic aspect of their personality should come into play, and their wage should be determined only by market forces. So, clearly, whatever is keeping ethnic minorities out of jobs, or female wages below male wages, is actually a reflection of some sort of institutional status quo. It could even be argued that these institutional realities might themselves constitute an intrusion on the market which prevents people from being paid their market wage. As such, libertarians use the free market defense to maintain an inequitable and inefficient, culturally-based status quo. Does that sound like social liberalism?

Living as we are in a Friedmanite America, progressives can alleviate their guilt by rightfully supporting such socially liberal causes as racial equality, environmentalism or LGBT rights. But economic and social views are not as easily separable as we like to think. As long as we continue to ignore the systematic economic issues our country faces- persistent unemployment, inequality of opportunity, poor public transport provisions and systematic exclusion (among others)- many of which disproportionately affect the working class, we will continue our lurch toward an oligarchical, quasi-fascistic economic and social organization.

For the record, my libertarian phase ended when I read The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, which you all should too, especially as it’s freely available online.

In the next post, I’ll try to discuss just why things turned out the way they did.

Abolish the Vagina Tax!

I’ve always thought of comedy as possibly the best way to enlighten and educate. Nobody likes to be preached at, and comedy is a great way to preach without people noticing you’re preaching to them. I think comedy can serve as a sort of mnemonic device for philosophy- just as a song or an acronym helps you remember a piece of text, a funny, well-crafted bit can help you remember the truth that underlies it.

This is why I’m so excited about Sarah Silverman’s latest idea to help fight the economic gender gap. Firstly, it’s a fresh and typically hilarious way of going about it. Secondly, it has the potential to help all of us. The economic gender gap is a drain- not only in a purely economic sense, as it definitely contributes to the prolonged lack of demand our economy has been suffering, but also in a political sense. Economic gaps generate power gaps, and power gaps generate democracy gaps. And if a certain group remains marginalized for long enough, they eventually start to become cynical and drop out of the political process altogether. Our political system favors the status quo far too much as it is- the last thing we need is more people dropping out.

So, more power to you, Sarah. Keep fighting the good fight.