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Thursday, January 14, 2010

How Not to Create Jobs

The Associated Press reports that after studying in detail over $21 billion in stimulus projects designated for road and bridge construction in the Administration’s first stimulus program, they found no discernible change in local employment associated with the completion of these projects. One of the five economists who reviewed their work stated: “There seems to me to be very little evidence that it’s making a difference.” Another economist commented: “In terms of creating jobs, it doesn’t seem like it’s created very many. It may well be employing lots of people, but those two things are different.” (Spending Fails to Stimulate Jobs, Matt Puzzo and Brett J. Blackledge, 2-12-10)

How can the widely lauded construction stimulus fail to improve the unemployment picture?

The answer lies in a gross misunderstanding of the New Deal employment programs and a slavish, dogmatic reliance upon the private sector.

I wrote - regarding the Obama stimulus program – in February of 2009:

Roosevelt sought job growth by directly employing the unemployed in Federal works projects. Obama, however, has pledged that 90% of his job-creating investments will be done though private firms. This raises many issues that Stanley Aronowitz perceptively explores in an article entitled "Facing the Economic Crisis" (Socialist Project, 12-26-08). He raises questions of wage rates, unionization, a living wage, and the technical composition of various kinds of projects. But most importantly, he notes that private sector job creation engages profits which siphon off the maximum impact of government expenditures; all things being equal, more jobs can be created from a given amount of dollars without awarding profits to a private firm. Aronowitz speculates that 30% gross profit would be a common return for a private firm given a government project. In fact, it is customary in bids for municipal and state government contracts for the private firm to offer estimates calculated at three times the cost of the hourly rate for the employees engaged in the project. Thus, for every three dollars of government stimulus, one dollar of hourly wages would be passed on for job creation. In any case, the Obama strategy would sharply reduce the impact of Federal expenditures designated for reducing unemployment, in sharp relief with the New Deal counterpart programs. Clearly, the economic advisors associated with Obama cannot escape their private sector fixation. (Looking Forward, MLToday,

Both the Aronowitz insight and my observation point to the folly of creating jobs through private sector, contractor-based programs, the approach to which Obama and his advisors swore allegiance. Now, a year later, that folly has been demonstrated. Scorning the New Deal approach and wedded to dogmatic, conventional thinking, $21 billion has been wasted - dare I say, misappropriated – against the professed goal of job creation. The folly goes deep. The notion that contractors would pass on an opportunity to use existing employees to secure super-profits on government contracts, the notion that they would, out of some new-found support for the common good, hire additional workers and forgo profits, should be ridiculous even to the neo-liberal brain trust assembled by Obama.

Despite these findings, the Obama economic team has proposed and the House has approved an additional stimulus of $28 billion for another round of road construction targeted at reducing construction unemployment. White House economic advisor, Jared Bernstein blithely asserted: “When you invest in this kind of infrastructure, you’re creating good jobs for people who need them.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that permanent unemployment is a structural component of contemporary monopoly capitalism. Even with the absorption of millions of potentially productive employees by the criminal justice system (the world’s highest incarceration rate) and the military-industrial system (permanent and expanding wars and military spending), state-monopoly capital has no use for millions of workers. More to the point, capital has every interest in maintaining a “reserve army of the unemployed”, as classical Marxism maintained. Desperate workers, desperate for a job, will work for less, pressuring the wage rates and benefits of those currently employed. As most commentators have conceded, the last recession produced a jobless recovery and this far deeper downturn has shown no signs of restoring jobs once any real or fantasy recovery comes. The last decade is the first in US history – including the decade of the Great Depression – to show negative job growth.

Because of the decades of privatization, contracting out, outsourcing, and public subsidization, the notion that more public funding will stimulate private job generation is as foolish as the notion that pouring public funds into the financial sector will restore sanity to banking practices. The same economic thinking that produced the crisis will not be undone by feeding the beasts that it produced.

The first order of business should be to send Geithner, Summers, Rubin, and the rest of the economic whiz kids packing. Their dogmatic, narrow, corporate-friendly thinking has only worsened the crisis while wasting resources and betraying the public.

In addition, a robust, well funded public works program is urgently needed: publicly funded, publicly run, with public employment, and with the public as the beneficiary. With the money spent and proposed, a million workers could easily be employed at decent wages and with benefits in repairing homes and neighborhoods, cleaning, inspecting, and beautifying communities, and developing and expanding public spaces. In short, the unemployed could be put to work in an updated version of the New Deal programs. As in the New Deal, the direct payment of wages to these public employees would expand consumption and fuel further economic activity while giving the re-employed a sense of worth and accomplishment.

This approach to job creation is not only the best route, but – in light of the failure of private sector stimulus – the only route to generating employment.

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Abusing Human Rights

The doctrine of human rights, as we know it - an invention of the era of liberation from feudal tyrannies - reached its apogee with the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, a declaration that expanded the classical notion of individual, personal, and formal rights to include a measure of social and economic rights. The debates over this declaration, occurring with the onset of the Cold War and largely obscured by the sharp ideological divisions of the time, highlighted the limitations of existing rights doctrines in addressing the socio-economic concerns that emerged with the maturation of capitalism. For most of the world’s people, the individual rights spawned by liberation from absolute, tyrannical rule were fine, but irrelevant to the conditions of desperate poverty, homelessness, insecurity, and social neglect spawned by an exploitive capitalist system and its destructive wars. For most of the world’s people, social and collective rights were at least as important as individual rights. For most of the world’s people, rights to the material means of survival, security, and welfare were at least as important as rights to act without restraint.

As the UN changed its political complexion over the next several decades, new covenants were added to address many of these concerns, though they were largely ignored or dismissed in Western Europe and the US. Instead, western intellectual circles shamefully clung to the classical doctrines of rights, serving, knowingly or naively, to justify these solid pillars of bourgeois rule at the expense of a more generous, robust, and relevant notion of human rights. Early in the Cold War, the celebrated essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin was established as canonical, dismissing any claims to rights-status for “liberties from…(want, exploitation, domination, etc)” as opposed to “liberties to…(travel freely, speak openly, own property, etc.). In point of fact, all of the classical rights were birthed by “liberties from…” - liberation from religious, traditional, or autocratic intolerance or domination. This artificial distinction was elevated to an unsustainable legitimization of what came to be called “positive rights” at the expense of the demonized “negative rights” associated with collective, social and economic rights.

Like sheep, the Western academic community dutifully fell in line with Berlin’s shallow special pleading for classic bourgeois rights. To this day, there is no mainstream liberal philosophical critique of Berlin’s dogma. Despite the exposure of the incestuous relationship of the CIA with Berlin and many of his colleagues by Frances Stoner Saunders (The Cultural Cold War), the Berlin essay remains a standard entry in political philosophy textbooks.

As the years past, the Berlin dogma became rooted deeply and popularly in the West. Once again, the classical doctrine was enlisted in the Cold War. Human Rights organizations sprung up, capturing the activism of young people and occupying center stage in the ideological battle with the socialist countries. The familiar criticism was that these organizations only aimed their guns at Cold War foes; the US and European branches seldom if ever found human rights violations in the homeland. But deeper than this criticism was the transparent identification of human rights with only the classical bourgeois rights. I could miss a few instances, but I know of no Western human rights organization that ever seriously took up the cause of the collective right to a job, equal pay, favorable conditions of employment, trade union rights (Article 23); rest and leisure (Article 24); or an adequate standard of living (Article 25), all fundamentally collective, social, and economical rights. In truth, Western human rights groups have shown no interest in the minimal social and economic rights guaranteed by the UN Declaration.

In our time, the stripped down human rights agenda – shorn of collective, social and economic rights – remains a centerpiece of ideological struggle, serving as the first line of attack against those countries deemed hostile to EU and US foreign policy objectives. Again and again, matters of human rights in this most narrow sense are offered to justify interventions (the former Yugoslavia), invasions (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan), interference (Ukraine, Belarus, Lebanon), coups (Venezuela) and a half a century of cold war (Cuba). This is not to diminish the hard-won rights of the US’s and Europe’s revolutionary heritage – they are surely in need of vigorous defense from corporate aggression and abuse as well as domestic political erosion – but to oppose their opportunistic harnessing to the goals of our own ruling elite.

Human rights – understood as those rights enshrined by Western human rights groups, NGO’s and Western liberalism - are bourgeois rights in two senses: firstly, they are the product of historically distant revolutionary movements that liberated the bourgeoisie principally, but other classes as well, from the tyranny and caprice of political and religious lords; and secondly, they are of most use and relevance to those whose socio-economic status makes collective, social, and economic rights of little need or importance. In this regard, they are class-based rights. A successful lawyer may be prepared to fight to the death for his right to travel freely, yet have given no thought to the right to participate in a trade union. Similarly, a landlord sees the right to property as sacrosanct while failing to recognize any tenant right to a safe sanctuary.

One could write a book about human rights hypocrisy. For example, the US offered itself as a paragon of human rights – an example to the world – while maintaining racial segregation well past the mid-century mark of the twentieth century. The 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families is violated daily if not hourly by every country in the EU and the US, yet human rights groups are strangely quiet on this issue. Nor do human rights organizations or NGOs hold the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in any special regard. The declaration opens with the statement: “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights”. Surely the examples of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan violate this right. There is no exemption for cynical crusaders for human rights any more than there was one for the “civilizing” mission of the British Empire.

The same declaration affirms that “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. Presumably that right would exclude the intervention of foreign funded media and NGOs, as well as covert operations, interventions like Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti, the Soros Foundation, the Republican and Democratic Institutes, AID, and the CIA. Yet again, the human rights organizations show no interest in this right.

One might conclude that it is no exaggeration to say that human rights have become a matter of political convenience.

Jeremy Bentham famously called rights “nonsense on stilts”. This harsh conclusion misses the point that they are human inventions and accordingly are what we make of them. Marx, commenting on the rights celebrated in his time, wrote “none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man … an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community”. Efforts to rescue human rights from this narrow vision are not welcomed by those bent on preserving privilege, power and exploitation.

Zoltan Zigedy

Looking Back at the 2008 Election

Two days after the 2008 Presidential election, I posted the following article with my thoughts on the meaning of the Obama victory. A friend – a sharp and critical observer of the political scene – suggested I take another look at the article to see how it stood up. I won’t posture false modesty, but I think it stands up well. I honestly believe it reflects a concrete, sober, and historical-materialist assessment of the last election that foretold many of the events that came to pass, warned of the wide-eyed euphoria of much of the left, and emphasized to the point of tedium my often repeated conviction that we need to build an independent movement challenging and pressuring the existing political institutions. To this, I credit the tool of Marxist-Leninist analysis.

I would genuinely welcome any comments or criticisms.

I have highlighted some of what I believe to be the most important points

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Presidential Election: A victory for the People?

The 2008 US Presidential election is behind us. A fair estimation of the results might be as follows: A clear, significant statement of the US electorate; a hollow, likely disappointing result for the people. After the euphoria of the Obama victory, it is vital that we separate these two assessments and avoid the cynicism of leftist isolationism and the self-deception of hopeful idealism. What the voters wanted was unquestionably significant change. What they were promised was change. Whether change will come from the Obama administration is - at best - questionable.

The Meaning of the Vote

The vote was most importantly a repudiation of racism and the Bush administration. White voters in working class areas cast aside crude racist appeals, put aside the three-headed Trojan horse of abortion, gays, and guns, and voted economic self-interest. They knew that McCain would do nothing for them and they wanted to believe that Obama would. A kind of reverse Bradley effect - unnoticed by the media - was operating. Many were afraid to openly support an African-American, but were comfortable doing so in the privacy of the voting booth, canceling out any lost votes from the opposite tendency. Thus, the polls proved to be an accurate, if not underestimated, gauge of the election results.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. The level of overt racism - the open, vulgar racism fostered by talk radio, shock jocks, internet slime - should diminish with the expression that most citizens are comfortable with an African-American President. Of course it won't disappear.

Also, the vote opens the door to a more unified working class. Make no mistake about it, union leaders who were lukewarm, often absent fighters for equality were forced by the circumstances of the campaign to take strong, out-front statements against racism. This is a good thing, and, though their efforts were sometimes clumsy, commendable.

Of course much work lies ahead in the struggle against racism; voting for Obama is not a free pass for racial insensitivity.

The three strongest constituencies for Obama (giving Obama the largest portion of their group vote) were African-Americans, Latinos, and union labor. African-Americans understandable took pride in the candidacy of Obama with predictable results. Latinos voters represented 8% of the total vote, siding decidedly for Obama. Both the growth of their total vote and their stronger support for this Democratic candidate mark a greater importance in electoral politics and a powerful progressive tendency. These results were duplicated in Florida, where the intimidating gusano influence continues to wane.

The election confirms the demographic expansion of the minority population and their increasing importance for anti-monopoly political organizing. The shift in the Latino vote makes the excuse for appeasing the anti-Communist Cubans in foreign policy even more lame.

The union labor vote - which overlaps substantially with the minority vote - was strong for Obama: 67% supported him, according to the AFL-CIO. Most importantly, the union electoral drive proved effective in blunting and overcoming racism and the always present distractions of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage. Like the Prohibition issue in the election leading to the New Deal victories, these issues are used to deflect attention from more fundamental issues. The union electoral effort shows the potential for influencing policy well beyond the electoral arena and much more frequently than the electoral cycles. Labor activism is an untapped source, lacking only ideological clarity and militant leadership - a task for the left in the coming period.

The Catholic vote went for Obama despite the efforts of many right-wing bishops to swing the vote towards anti-abortion candidates. Protestant Obama fared better than Catholic Kerry in 2004 - another measure of self-interest trumping self-identity.

In general, the vote results show an electorate ripe for new policies, new answers and moving in a clear progressive direction. The trends exposed by the Pew Research Center's two decade long polling study ("Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes") towards social democratic policies and away from insularity and obscurantism is born out by the 2008 election.

The Meaning of the Obama Victory

There is a glaring contradiction between the wants and needs of the people of the US and the issues debated and embraced by the Presidential candidates - it is as if they existed in two different worlds. The institutionalization of the two-party system both allows and insures this fact. It is no criticism of Obama or his hope-filled partisans of change who worked with such great enthusiasm to point this out. But, by the same token, it is delusional to forecast a progressive turn in the Obama administration from this great effort.
If Nader, if Cynthia McKinney, if even Bob Barr were allowed to debate the candidates before a television audience, there might well have been progressive issues on the legislative table. If... if... if... But the institutionalized two-party system does not allow for such opportunities. And it will continue to block any move leftward without a dramatic mass movement forcing it.

The political influence of the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council surrounds Obama with the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as chief-of-staff only underlining this reality. With Emmanuel as the gate keeper, the notion that progressives at least have access to the White House is even more remote. Despite the fact that the DLC is completely out of touch with the needs of the majority of the citizenry, they exercise inordinate influence within the Democratic Party. It must be remembered that they have a strong base in the South as well as the suburban bed-room communities in the North. These suburban communities proved to be the power base for sweeping away the progressive platform of the Democratic Party after the 1976 election victory.

Again, in 2008, suburban voters left the Republicans and sided with the Democrats. Despite their fickle loyalty to the Democratic Party (they respond mainly to the Party's social liberalism agenda of gun control, abortion rights, gay marriage, and other personal freedom-based issues), they are the main justification for the constant urging by the Party's pundits to tack towards the center and center-right). Their "activism" is what the Democratic Party best understands - money and power. And they stand as rivals for policy influence with African-Americans, Latinos, and labor.

On the economic front, Obama's advisors are hardly inspiring; indeed, they are a bit scary - Paul Volker, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin. Austin Goolsbee, Jason Furman, Timothy Geithner, and Warren Buffet have all the wrong corporate and academic credentials. None have stepped too far from the warm, comforting waters of neo-liberal orthodoxy. And in a world of real oppositional politics all would have been ferreted out for previous personal or policy sins. For the hope-crazed progressives, there should be some puzzlement at the absence of Krugmans, Stiglitzs, and Reichs from this group (actually Reich is part of the transition team - a rose among so many thorns).

At this early date, the names floated for key cabinet positions are largely political retreads of previous administrations and old legislative warhorses. Very few wear any progressive medals for deviation from the center, center-right agenda.

Regrettably, the electoral victory was no victory at all for the left. That is just to say that the Obama victory brought no assured policy reward for left support. At best, the Obama administration would be more accommodating to, less intransigent against any advances forced upon it by mass action. That is something, but hardly a justification for most of the left's unconditional support of the Obama campaign. The occupation in Iraq is no closer to conclusion; universal single-payer health care is no closer to being achieved; there is no plan to end the Afghan war; the Cuban embargo remains policy; Palestinians remain political untouchables; and so on and so on... And every indication is that the Obama administration will continue down the path of advancing imperial interests and privileging corporate America.

Looming over this election is the global economic catastrophe - a giant gorilla towering over all other issues. Many see a repeat of the Great Depression - a sense not completely farfetched. And many hopefully see Obama as the new Roosevelt launching a new New Deal - a sense built upon the sand of "Yes we can". In truth, Roosevelt was not the great savior of capitalism or the people, a myth that lingers in liberal theology. But the facts give no portent that Obama is Roosevelt, either. It's time for the left to put aside the comforting illusions and rebuild an independent, oppositional front that is not dependent upon the good will of the corrupted Democratic Party. We desperately need that left to forge a true people-saving agenda from the destructive gorilla.