Friday, December 23, 2005

Thomas Frank Replies!

Readers of this blog may remember a few months ago when ambivalent_maybe brought to our attention an academic paper by a Princeton political scientist that supposedly refuted Thomas Frank's recent book, What's the Matter with Kansas? At the time, I commented that the paper seemed both analytically suspect (especially in its contorted definition of the "white working class") and completely missed Frank's overall point. I was happy to discover that Thomas Frank himself has produced a witty and devastating rejoinder along the same lines, but much more comprehensive and enjoyable to read. Check it out!

Thanks to the DonkeyRising blog for directing me to Frank's response...you can look at DonkeyRising to find more links relating to this debate. Personally, despite my occasional affection for number crunching, I prefer Frank's more holistic analysis that resonates with the real world out there.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Access Principle

I just finished reading John Willinsky's wonderful new book, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press, 2006[yes, this book is so new it isn't even supposed to be published yet!]). As a professor at the University of British Columbia, Willinsky has become a leading advocate of opening up scholarly journals to free access on the internet.

In readable and lively prose, Willinsky reveals a great deal about the recent history of the academic journal publishing industry. He explains how mergers have resulted in market concentration, and how that market power has resulted in an exponential increase in journal prices--far outpacing inflation--that has crippled university library budgets everywhere. With telling anecdotes and hard data, he makes his case that for-profit publishing with controlled access is becoming increasingly absurd and inefficient in the internet age. For example, he cites a study (Bergstrom 2001) in the discipline of economics (an apt choice!), which found that commercially published academic journals averaged $1,660 per year in subscription costs while nonprofit academic journals averaged only $180. (So much for efficiency and "consumer benefits" from private markets!) Yet those nonprofit journals occupied the top six positions in the index of most influential journals in economics, and 15 of the top 20. Willinsky asks: "[H]ow can a market bear such price differences between commercial and association titles that are so unrelated to quality? How, in this world of consumer savvy, can you sell a product that is more than nine times as expensive as an equally good if not better alternative?" (p. 20)

How, indeed! This insanity is reminiscent of so many arenas these days, which are being wrecked by supposedly well-educated elites, drunk on the hard liquor of privatization, trusting everything to "market forces" (even when the enormous power wielded by large corporations distorts such a concept beyond recognition), and the commodification of everything in sight. One thinks, for example, of the new wave of "free trade"--the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and its supporters (such as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative)--whose perverse logic is that foreign private companies should be able to run (read: U.S. companies can out-compete poorer countries in running) just about everything in society: schools, libraries, water systems, health care, etc. Forget whether any of these sectors actually function at all like "free market", or whether they are essential components of a free, democratic society. Or basic human needs. (Hey, if you can't find the money to pay higher prices for water, or education, or health care, maybe that means you don't really "need" it!) Or whether governments want to be able to regulate them at some point in the future. Okay, enough of my side rant, now back to the book...

So what exactly do commercial academic journal publishers--and here, let me name names: the big three are Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Springer--do to justify these outrageous journal prices? Almost all of the substantive work to produce academic journals is done by scholars themselves: most of all, researching and writing the articles, but also refereeing them, serving on the editorial board, and editing the journal itself. Besides printing costs (which the internet is calling into question), Willinsky concludes that the only thing the private companies really provide is "marketing" (do academic journals need "marketing"?)

Oh, but what about quality control: copy-editing, proof-reading, etc.? Don't the publishing companies provide some kind of expertise in these areas? Please, spare me that one. I speak from personal experience here. I have published two academic articles now, in journals owned by two of the "big three" listed above. In both cases, the scholarly editorial people were great and the commercial publishers were terrible. I was quite aware that I would be responsible for making sure my manuscripts were printed correctly. Exactly as one of Willinsky's informants points out is often the case, not only did I receive little real help in correcting mistakes in my text, but I actually had to expend significant effort to keep the publishing companies from introducing new errors! In one case, despite all my efforts, the publisher managed to misprint one of the footnotes (we in the academic world live and die citing sources, you know!) and the journal had to issue a correction in the next issue. In the second case, the publisher did so many terrible things to my text--"correcting" punctuation and stylistic usage inside quotations from historical sources (scholars agree that is a bad thing to do!), changing my narrative text to reflect scientific abbreviations ("5 min" instead of "five minutes", etc.--that we had to take the manuscript through an extra set of page proofs, thus delaying the publication and causing me--and them!--lots of extra work. So much for the efficiency and quality control offered by commercial publishers.

I shouldn't leave a misleading impression of Willinsky's book, however. It is less a diatribe against commercial publishers, and more an extended argument for the possibilities that internet publication offers for making scholarly results available to the public. To be sure, he justifiably excoriates publishers for increasing journal costs so much that libraries have to cancel subscriptions (thus setting in motion a viscious cycle), a phenomenon to which universities in poorer countries are especially vulnerable. (He opens the book with the poignant story of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, which had to cut its journal subscriptions down to five--yes, FIVE!--in the recent past.) Yet he also manages to maintain a measured tone and even praises the huge publishing houses for instances when they have opened up their journals to public access. His overriding goal is to push for open, public access to scholarship, however that is achieved.

It is a curious thing that academic journals are so hard to obtain outside of universities and research institutes, considering how widely they are available on the internet. Yet shouldn't we want to circulate our scholarship to anyone in the public who is interested? (For many public institutions, it is part of their mandate!) I remember running into this problem personally, when I wanted to share an academic article I'd read with a person outside of academia. But I couldn't just send a link to a website, because no one without institutional access could read it! We have effectively allowed a wall to be put up between academics who can read scholarly journals, and everyone else who has to either pay for the privilege or travel to a state university library in person (that is, if that state university library hasn't had to cancel the subscription due to escalating journal prices!)

But how, you may wonder, will journals pay for themselves if everyone can read them free on-line? Willinsky discusses many different possibilities, and you really should read the book if you want to find out more (this posting has gone on long enough already!). One possibility I found attractive was that research university libraries would fund a cooperative venture (possibly a free rider problem there, but wouldn't peer pressure take care of that?) to place scholarly journals on-line with free access to the whole world. Willinksy himself has been involved with team efforts to create software that will allow authors, referees, and editors to communicate with one another one-line without all the overhead of a physical editorial office.

I really do think that everyone in the academic world (and many more besides) would benefit from reading this book. It is about issues that cut to the heart of the scholarly life. If nothing else, you can learn about where JSTOR came from, how self-archiving works, and numerous other nuts and bolts details that touch all of us who are, or want to be, publishing academics. At the most practical level, this book can teach you things that will help your academic reputation: did you know, for example, that people who publish in open-access journals have their work cited--by academics, not just members of the public--more often than people who publish work in journals of equal quality that are closed access?

For members of the general public, Willinsky's book might prompt such outraged questions as: "You mean, public money pays for this research, and then we have to pay some huge commercial publisher to read the results?" I hope that Willinsky's book encourages both scholars and members of the public to re-examine the relationship between scholarly publication and democracy in the internet age.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Let's Talk About McCain

Happy day after thanksgiving, everyone! On this day when most Americans are relentlessly urged to start thinking one month ahead (a.k.a. Christmas shopping), I want to think about THREE YEARS ahead: Election 2008. I just read a thoughtful piece by Ari Berman in The Nation that talks about one potential GOP nominee who is just itching to be President: John McCain.

Many Democrats are now debating about our own nominee (to Hilary or not to Hilary? I say "no")...but what about the Republicans? While Berman points out how much of an uphill fight McCain will face in the GOP primary, I think it is quite possible that he will seem the only viable nominee with moderate appeal and thus a chance of winning, given the continuing downward slide of the Bush Administration. So, I would argue, it is worthwhile to discuss ahead of time how progressives might respond to a McCain nomination.

I think Berman makes a lot of good points about how far-right McCain really is on many issues despite his maverick image. (For a more spirited attack on McCain, see mydd.com's Matt Stoller on "The McCain Scam", with a follow-up here.) On the other hand, McCain's commitment to campaign finance reform does seem genuine, and he at least stands against torture (scary how that is even an issue!) He would certainly not be as bad as Bush II (but then, who would be?) Yet it is hard to imagine that a McCain presidency would reverse many of the awful directions in which Bush & Cheney have taken this country, given his expressed support for so many of their positions. I wonder what readers of this blog think about how progressives should respond to a potential McCain nomination?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sunday Sermon

Take a look at Robert Jensen's sermon from last Sunday. I've mentioned before on this site that Jensen is one of my favorite political writers. Although not a professing Christian, he was invited to give the Sunday sermon at a sympathetic Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas, where he lives. The result is a fascinating manifesto that links together political and social action, religion, and some hard-hitting reflections about science and technology.

As a person interested in all three of those realms, I was glad to come across Jensen's sermon. (Thanks to my Mom for e-mailing it to me!) His apocalyptic vision of our current predicament is reminiscent of world-systems scholar Immanuel Wallerstein's perspective that we have now entered a time of great crisis and uncertainty in the world. I realize that, to my fellow historians, this probably will seem quite suspicious (having been proclaimed many times before!), but I wonder if we look at the historical record with an open mind, will we not see that many of the larger structures (cultural, social, economic, environmental) that hold the modern world together are indeed coming under tremendous stress? We need people like Jensen to remind us of the bigger picture.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Back to the Issue of Voting Trends: Realignment Time?

I've noticed a fair amount of on-line buzz about the possibility of a historic realignment among voters in the upcoming election cycles. The basic premise is that Democrats and progressives should respond to the increasing disaffection with the Bush Administration. Part of this is simply stressing that Bush is a Republican and that his corruption and bad governance are facilitated by a Republican-controlled Congress.

More deeply, the realignment talk puts us squarely back into the terrain of ambivalent_maybe's lengthy posts of a few weeks back on U.S. voting trends. For an interesting perspective, scroll down the Democrats sub-section of the mydd.com blog to see Scott Shields's article, "Cracking the Conservative Base," which itself links to an article in a conservative magazine that is worried about just that possibility.

Two segments of the Pew Center's political typology of particular interest to Shields and the conservatives he quotes are the Social Conservatives and Pro-Government Conservatives. According to the excerpt from the conservative magazine quoted on that blog, the Republican Party is "dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement." Since I happen to think those ideas are good, not bad, I am heartened by the possibility of a large segment of Republican base that may be more ready to switch voting allegiance.

Also, as a committed Christian, I am perhaps more optimistic than might be some more secular progressives about the possibility of winning over working-class Christian voters with appeals to economic and social justice. To be sure, there are some social conservatives whose strong interest in what to me are scapegoating moral issues such as abortion and gay rights will keep them wary of any realignment in voting behavior. However, I believe there are also some who would participate in a re-energized progressive politics around issues relating to, for example, protecting our children against the forces of corporate commercialization, or making sure that we can provide for health care and disaster relief for poor and working-class people.

The main caution I have about all this relignment talk is that the success of the Democratic Party in elections not be conflated with good policy. If Democrats try to appeal to social conservatives by rushing to the perceived center on various issues, they will never be able to win over the hard-core anti-abortion and anti-gay crowd (to whom the Republicans can seemingly always out-pander) and may once again in DLC-style adopt "centrist" pro-business positions on economic issues that will virtually guarantee that disaffected Republican voters either not vote at all or keep voting GOP. The promise of a politics of realignment should lie in articulating a core of progressive policy ideals, such as those that guided the Democratic Party starting with FDR, and can thus potentially hold allegiance for decades, not just one election cycle. Moreover, for someone like me who is sympathetic to "third party" (Green, etc.) arguments and positions, it is important that any relignment bring into power a progressively-energized Democratic Party, not simply a cautious imitation of the Republicans that will give in to the status quo as far as how corporate interests influence American politics--as we saw during the Clinton years. Let us pursue a realignment that is both robust over time and visionary-progressive in its substance.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Accountability for Bush & Cheney?

As those of us who oppose the Bush Administration (an increasing number, it seems!) celebrate the success of Democrats in yesterday's off-year elections, we must remember that there is still a very, very long road ahead of us. As part of the effort to keep the focus on holding Bush, Cheney, and Co. accountable, my favorite '04 presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich, is doing his part by leading a resolution of inquiry into the fabricated intelligence that was used to justify war in Iraq. (For Kucinich's most recent floor speech on the issue, look here.) Also, I'm glad to see that Harry Reid and other Democratic Party leaders are finally showing some spine, such as by demanding that Bush make a pledge not to pardon any top administration officials (Libby, possibly Rove) who are convicted of felonies in connection with the investigation of the Plame leak.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ruy Teixeira on Bartels's 'working class'

Teixeira's analysis of Larry Bartels's paper (PDF) brings up the same issue as Christian_Left did in his comments to my previous post, but adds details about the prevailing definition of 'working class' and how the demographics of Bartels's 'working class' match that definition. The recent Teixeira post contains a link to a May 7 post wherein he recapitulates his reasons for defining the working class by the absense of a college degree, defending that definition (somewhat tentatively) against the criticism of Chris Bowers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Party identification and education, 1972-2002

More data from the National Election Studies Guide.

The first chart shows how respondents of the NES surveys identified themselves according to a 7-point scale of partisanship, from 'Strong Democrat,' to 'Independent,' to 'Strong Republican,' or simply 'Apolitical.' Note that these data go back to 1952, whereas data presented in the previous post on ideological identification went back only to 1972.

The next chart simplifies matters somewhat by showing responses to a 3-point scale of 'Democrat,' 'Independent,' or 'Republican.' Again, the data goes back to 1952.

The chart below shows linear trends in 3-point scale party identification. Note that to make the data on party ID easily comparable to that on ideological ID, this chart goes back only to 1972, not 1952.

Finally, recapitulating the presentation on ideological ID, here are charts of the trends in party identification among the different education demographics groups. Comparisons between the fortunes of the Democrats and Republicans are easier when the data for each demographic group is considered separately.

This first chart looks at party identification among college graduates and post-graduates:

Working our way down the educational ladder, here is how party identification has broken down among NES respondents who have some college, but no degree:

High school graduates who have no college:

And finally, respondents who have some grade school or high school, but no high school diploma:


To me these charts represent some problems for the Thomas Frank thesis that Democrats have lost elections because they have conceeded their working class base to backlash conservatism. Democratic identification has decreased since 1972 in all educational groups except among those with no high school diploma. Not good for the Dems but hardly evidence of a particular errosion of their support among the working class (if you choose to define 'working class' by education level). Moreover, where Dems have seen loses and Republicans gains, Republicans seem to be having more success attracting independent voters than they are taking away from the Democratic base.

[Update: Frank's thesis pertains to loss of Democratic support among the White working class. The data presented here is not limited to that group, and so can only serve as background for evaluation of Frank's contention.]

Of course, one need not accept the NES data as the final word on the subject. Indeed, one large flaw in the percentages presented here is that I've not given the N of the educational groups. Those numbers can be found here, however, for those interested in reviewing them. The more statistically sophisticated might also quarrel with the way NES has weighted responses. These issues are beyond my grasp, sadly, but if you want to argue with the NES, information on their weighting methods can be found here.

While readers are digesting all these charts, I will be away from my computer until the weekend at the earliest. But after that, I will post more information from the NES, and, of course, respond to any comments.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Education level and ideological identification

Here is a chart-o-rama, courtesy of numbers from the National Election Studies Guide.

These data pertain to survey questions asked of voters during elections from the years 1972 to 2002. The self-identification question, with slight variations in some years, asked respondents "When it comes to politics do you usually think of yourself as extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate or middle of the road, slightly conservative, conservative, extremely conservative, or haven't you thought much about this?" The first chart shows how respondents broke down by each category:



Voters with very strong ideological commitments--identifying as either 'extremely' conservative or liberal--have been and remain fairly small sections of the electorate. More voters recently (especially since 2000) identify as 'conservative,' but the 'liberal' category has seen growth as well.

These trends become more apparent when the liberal and conservative voters are grouped into only two categories, regardless of the strength of their liberal or conservative feelings. (Ignore the numbers after the data labels in the key--they don't refer to the actual category numbers.)




The linear trends of the same data show the changes even more clearly:



Conservatives have increased considerably, but those increases seem not to have come at the expense of liberals. The number of voters identifying as liberal has, in fact, increased, though at a markedly slower rate than increases in conservatives. The greater numbers of conservatives appear to be drawn from the ranks of middle-of-the-road voters and those who hadn't previously thought about their position on the ideological spectrum.

So how is education related to ideological self-identification? These charts break down conservative and liberal voters according to education level:





Conservative voters have increased in all educational categories, though the slope of the increase is steepest for voters who have had some college, but no degree, and those who did not finish high school. Liberals have lost ground among all educational groups except those who did not finish high school, where they show slight gains. Liberal declines have been steepest among those with some college but no degree, yet the slope of those losses is nearly identical to that of losses among college graduates.

Coming next post: data on party identification (as opposed to ideological identification) and education.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Observing the Center for Moral Clarity

This is a somewhat rambling post, but there have been a few things lately that I wanted to discuss, and I have crammed them into a single post even if they are only vaguely related.

The link in the title of this post will take you to a nice article by Bill Berkowitz at Working For Change about the conservative Christians seeking to dominate the Ohio Republican party. And today Ohio, tomorrow who knows where the Patriot Pastors will next focus? At the center of the movement (with its own Center for Moral Clarity) is a 10-12 thousand-member non-denominational church. I have to admit that I've never really understood the appeal of these mega-churches. Though I don't count myself as a terribly religious person, I have been in the past, and I can certainly understand the appeal of religion, and of a traditional church. But being part of a congregation numbering in the thousands seems more like being a groupie or a fan at a rock concert than being at church. Anyway--I wonder if the Ohio church's push for theocracy (a term they themselves use to characterize what they advocate) is typical of the mega-church movement. If so, that's scary. Though on the one hand I think that mass movements like this tend to burn themselves out--see the long list of fallen charismatic leaders from Billy Sunday to Jim Baker--I'd bet that these more infamous cases are just the most visible (and most volatile) points of a larger, more sustained movement in the suburbs and ex-urbs of America.

Somewhat related is a paper by Larry M. Bartels, "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (You can download a 600K PDF of the paper here.) Bartels takes a look at statistics on White voters' behavior over the last 30 years or so to test Thomas Frank's thesis that the Democratic party has lost the allegiance of the White working class. That thesis is not supported by the statistics, he says, showing that "[W]hile it is generally true that Democratic presidential candidates have lost support among white voters over the past half-century, those losses have been entirely (and roughly equally) concentrated in the middle- and upper-income groups, and have been partially offset by *increasing* support for Democratic candidates among low-income white voters" (14).

I'm not sure if the White middle- and upper-classes that Bartels shows becoming more conservative are the same people flocking to ex-urban mega-churches (indeed, the Ohio church featured in the Berkowitz article seems to focus on African-Americans), but certainly in Ohio in 2004 it was the suburban and ex-urban Republican vote that provided critical support for Bush.

Although I find Bartels's paper pretty convincing, I don't necessarily agree with his advice to the Democratic party. He pretends, as any scholar giving a conference paper will, to not be giving advice at all. But he concludes by saying that the statistics "suggest that 'recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues' may not be such a 'criminally stupid strategy' on the part of the Democratic leaders (Frank 2004, 243). Indeed, it may be a testament to the success of that strategy that affluent white voters have not become even more markedly Republican..." (33). As Bartels admitted in a Summer 2004 article, the strategy he envisions is essentially a short-term one, summed up in the pragmatic, if amoral, advice "here is my game plan. First, win. Second, govern. Third, win again. Fourth, keep at it." A significant problem with this advice, however, is that with the exception of the two (Perot-influenced) Clinton wins, is that it hasn't worked, and Dems have lost ground in congressional and state elections as well as presidential.

A different version much the same flawed advice is given in a new paper by William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck of the Third Way Project. (You can dowload a PDF of that paper from the Third Way web site.) Their 1989 paper, "The Politics of Evasion," was widely seen as a manifesto for Clinton's triangulation strategy, and the "Politics of Polarization" is meant to inspire more Clintonesque candidates in the next election cycle, and to warn the Democratic party against tilting too far to the left. The Galston and Kamarck paper, however, offers at best contradictory advice to Dems: they want candidates who "stand for something," aren't afraid to talk about cultural issues, and who can sound tough and credible on national security. But the paper is devoid of specific policy recommendations or governing principles other than to say that Dems should move to closer to those views already held by most Americans. In short, they want a candidate who stands for whatever polling data tells him or her to stand for. Reaction to the paper from leading political web logs has been fairly mixed, but most readers seem unimpressed (see, for example, this from Paul Waldman, and this from Mark Schmitt).

Getting back to mega-churches, I would like to know how the growth of the mega-church movement fits with Bartels's finding that the middle- and upper-class White voters who have been moving to the Republican party still remain fairly liberal on social issues. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that many mega-church goers are middle- and upper-class Whites, or perhaps the mega-churches are more diverse on social issues than those in Ohio profiled by the Berkowitz article, or perhaps White middle- and upper-class mega-church goers can feel personally more liberal on social issues yet still attend very conservative churches.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

More on Faith and Patriotism

"Christ speaks of compassion without boundaries ... Flags are about separation, assertions of superiority and aggression. The whole notion that loyalty to country is connected to one's religious faith is totally bizarre and unjustified."
-- Stephen Kolbasa, commenting on his recent dismissal as Catholic school teacher
(quoted in WCBS news radio report)

Although I identify myself with a Protestant version of Christianity, I have to declare my strong support of former Catholic school teacher Stephen Kolbasa, who was recently fired from his job for refusing to permanently display a national flag in his classroom. I first saw this story on my favorite news and views website, commondreams.org, which has reprinted a brief article on Kolbasa's firing that originally appeared in The Progressive.

Intrigued by the story, I decided to dig a little deeper. I discovered that Kolbasa has a long record of peace activism in Connecticut. His deep and abiding commitment to a socially engaged form of faith reminds me of an anti-nuclear event I attended with my sister several years ago, at which people of many different faiths who were dedicated to lives of activism. Many of them lived in near poverty and the amazing lack of materialistic goals really impressed me. Throughout the multi-day event, the participants all slept on a Catholic high school gymnasium floor. Many of them were part of the Catholic Social Worker movement, which (as I understand it, and I may even be getting the name wrong) promotes simple living and dedicating one's life to activism against war, violence, injustice, and inequality. But there were also Protestant like us, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, etc.

Learning more about Kolbasa also led me to an intriguing website that maps the vast field of nuclear missile silos in the sparsely-populated Great Plains grassland area where Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska come together. This is one of my favorite parts of the world, and it is shocking to see how many weapons of mass destruction cover the landscape there. It makes something abstract like the U.S. nuclear capability somehow more tangible and frightening. I've driven by a few of these silos while driving the gravel backroads, but it is something else to see them all mapped out.

I say all of this as an American citizen who deeply loves the United States: its beautiful landscapes, its diverse people, its small towns, its backroads, its countryside, etc. To me, patriotism is a huge moral problem but loving my country is part of who I am. (Loving the current government and devoting myself to idolatrous symbols such as the flag are not part of that, however!) I believe that my love of my country is utterly contingent on my own life story and is not a claim that America is better than any other country or that the lives of my fellow Americans have any more value than others (as, for example, the intense public concern over U.S. casualties in Iraq while glossing over the much greater number of deaths of Iraqis suggests). Having lived overseas before and now again, I can say that there are good and bad things about every country. Americans are not unique in their "love of freedom" or their commitment to democracy. We have much to learn from other countries, and they have much to learn from us. I will always, however, have a special place in my heart for the people, places, and ideals that form a part of who I am as an American. But I also believe that God is working through places and people all around the world, not just in the USA--and like Stephen Kolbasa, I cannot countenance mixing my Christian faith with nationalistic symbols.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Die Fogelgrippe

Despite comments from reliable friends that the bird flu ("Die Fogelgrippe" in German) is being over-hyped, I'm coming back to the subject AGAIN today. I am sensitive to the cynicism induced by the current U.S. government's tendency to promote a culture of fear, both to further its nefarious schemes and to distract attention from its misdeeds (Plamegate?) And it is true that events like disease pandemics are notoriously unpredictable. However, it is worth noting that most of the hype has NOT been coming from the Bush Administration in this case, but from public health professionals. It seems much more like the pre-Katrina warnings of inadequate flood protections, when Bush and his cronies were actually late to the game, not promoters of mysterious (and often bogus) terror alert levels. This is for real, I have come to believe, and it has ample historical precedent. (Reliably left-wing Mike Davis, who recently published a book on this, agrees with me--or, rather, I agree with him given his much longer interest in this subject!)

I can approach this subject from several angles, all of which are underplayed in the individual-preparedness-dominated coverage of this threat: For starters, what is the humane response? More specifically, for believers like me, what is the Christian response? For intellectuals, what is our response based on our reading of relevant fields such as environmental history and the history of medicine? And for social-justice minded progressives, what is our response to this threat based on our convictions about the equal dignity of all people everywhere?

Let me roll all these perspectives into one brief list of big issues, which I hope can help focus the debate:

1. Poverty and Inequality: If a world flu pandemic hits, the most vulnerable will be the poor, as always. Yet much of the U.S. media coverage has focused on OUR OWN lack of preparedness--most specifically our government's relative negligence in stockpiling drugs to treat the bird flu--which may affect even our wealthy and middle class people. But what about the poor people of the world? Is it even remotely conceivable that people throughout much of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia can afford treatment? And who within the U.S. will suffer most? Those living in concentrated poverty, almost inevitably. We need to think about these issues, not as some kind of throwback to early 20th-century stigmatization of poor people (or those of a particular racial or ethnic group) as having poor hygiene or being sources of disease, but in recognition of the complex interdepency of all people and the need for special attention to the suffering of the most vulnerable.

2. Long-Distance Environmental-Economic Systems: If environmental history has taught us nothing else, it has shown us how truly dependent modern, industrial society is on complex webs of worldwide human-nature interconnections to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, give ourselves energy sources, etc. As many commentators note, we may not be able to stop a flu pandemic, but we can certainly prepare to deal with the secondary effects when our supply chains are disrupted. Rugged and self-reliant as we Americans like to view ourselves, our life-sustaining systems of provisioning nowadays are more fragile than ever before in a world pandemic situation, dependent as they are on just-in-time delivery of natural objects and their processed forms for our daily survival. How will we feed ourselves? Our neighborhoods? The least fortunate among us?

3. Political Opportunism: As I suggested in my last post, my other big worry is that Bush could be preparing to use a flu pandemic for his political advantage, projecting himself as a strong leader in a time of crisis. We know, of course, that his preparation for such a crisis has been terrible by comparison with other countries in the world, and that he has ignored persistent warnings until very recently, but no matter. (Didn't seem to hurt him on 9/11, did it?) But I really do believe that we need to be ready to respond with informed opposition when Bush proclaims that he needs to annul posse comitatus (thus allowing U.S. troops to operate at Bush's whim on American soil), repress civil liberties, or whatever. And, of course, we need to avoid letting a bird flu crisis give Bush a free pass on the many other brewing and real scandals that he and his cronies are facing. Because after all, this is not about "winning" in politics as if it were a sporting event. This is about holding a government accountable so that it will become more competent over time and better be able to deal with crises such as disease pandemics in a responsible way.

For a really good analysis of the bird flu situation, which deals nicely with my issues #1 and #2 (but carefully stays away from #3), see this link I got from the bird flu blog that I recommended on my previous post. Skim lightly through the first few points (although frustrated union organizers might take some of the analysis to heart) and on to some of the later points, which address issues from a less individualistic and less medical-solution-obsessed point of view than many other commentators. Hope this helps stimulate some thought and debate.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Times distancing itself from Miller?

It looks like the New York Times has finally published a comprehensive story on the Judy Miller's involvement in the Valerie Plame affair. The long piece by Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy is accompanied by a long piece by Judy Miller herself, recounting her grand jury testimony and her conversations with 'Scooter' Libby, Dick Cheney's aide. It seems to me that the Times, the editorial page of which was stalwart in its support of Miller's refusual to testify to the grand jury, is now cutting Miller loose. The story by Liptak et al repeats in various ways the theme that Miller was a pushy, independent reporter, who did what she wanted (and apparently continued to publish) regardles of her editors' efforts to rein her in. What's also apparent is that Miller went out of her way to protect Libby. Her initial refusal to testify was based on her feeling that waivers granted to her by Libby were not genuine, or that she was being "signaled" by Libby's lawyer to remain silent. Only after a personal conversation with Libby, in which Miller says she "cross-examined" him about his sincerity in granting the waiver, and recieved an answer in the appropriate "tone of voice," did Miller agree she was able to testify. Her account of her conversations with Libby shows that he discussed Valerie Plame with her on at least a couple occassions, but Miller still maintains that it was another source, whom she cannot recall, who spoke of Plame by name. Oddly, I think, there is nothing in the Liptak et al story about Miller's 'discovery' of notes she had originally failed to share with the federal prosecutor.

I'm anxious to read what more informed Times watchers at Editor and Publisher and Ariana Huffington make of this latest episode in the Plame-Miller-NY Times affair.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Bird Flu Hype: Maybe We Should Worry

With limited time available for blogging, it is hard to decide what to write about these days. Part of me is tempted to ruminate about the forthcoming Plamegate bombshells. Another part of me wants to keep hammering (apologies to Tom DeLay, whose scandal would normally be juicy but seems overshadowed these days) at Bush's morally outrageous opposition to banning torture by the U.S. (Can we be seriously debating this?) And then there's the recent polls showing greater support for Bush's potential impeachment than for Clinton on the eve of his actual impeachment. And the Supreme Court Part II (I already wrote about that). And the appalling way that the Katrina aftermath is unfolding. And then there's the earthquake in Pakistan. And, of course, the lingering issue of global climate change and its potentially catastrophic impact on people all over the world, which is looking more and more ominous all the time. And the list just goes on and on.

But I've decided not to link to websites on any of those issues, important as they all are. (Any reader can undoubtedly find good material on all that stuff by doing a google search, or looking at The Nation, or Commondreams.org.) What I want to use my blog entry for today is the Bird Flu Hype. People here in Europe are starting to get worried that it is showing up in Turkey and Romania. (My fellow bloggers overseas: Do people in China talk about this issue a lot?) I've been trying to figure out if the hype is justified, and I'm starting to get the sense that it is. Just after I spent some time trying to learn more on the internet, I got one of moveon.org's periodic e-mail missives, arguing that we should replace the political hack that Bush has placed in charge of public health emergency preparation (FEMA redux, I guess). Charmed by this coincidence, I followed the source links from there and explored beyond them and the best place I found to summarize the latest developments on Bird Flu is another blogspot blog, influenzapandemic.blogspot.com.

Despite the political hack angle (and my outrage at Bush's ludicrous and ominous suggestion the other day that military quarantine is the best way to prepare), this issue seems lot less juicy than some of the other things going on. But I want to ponder for a minute how insignificant some of the Bush scandals might seem if this thing really does start to get out of control. (I'm not saying the scandals are at all insignificant, but just that a flu pandemic might be like a Hurricane Katrina that hits the whole world, immediately dwarfing everything else.) I really am scared that Bush is President when this whole thing might erupt, given his evident incompetence at dealing with anything and everything that really counts. And I want to raise some questions: How can we prepare to respond to an influenza pandemic? How can we sort out real solutions from Bush's inept or nefarious schemes? Is there anything we can do? I'm thinking here more from the social action rather than the individual preparedness side. How can we advocate for justice issues and ferret out the Administration's likely duplicity if the pandemic hits and widespread public fear along with it? I'm not saying that nobody in the Administration has any actual good ideas, but I am skeptical (given our experience with 9/11) about how we will handle the aftermath if a true crisis hits.

Sorry for the long and rambling post...I'm trying to sort out some of this in my own head, and I'm hoping that by raising the issue, perhaps others may have some wisdom to add in.

Great Piece from Lewis Lapham

Posting simple links to other websites is not usually my idea of a quality blog entry. But let me celebrate my newfound ability to access and post on Lumpenlogocracy from Beijing by recommending this fantastic essay by Lewis Lapham. It was published in the October edition of Harper's Magazine, but you can find the full text at the Marxmail.org site linked to in the title. Posting a link to an essay about incipient fascism in the United States from a country still dominated by fascism seems a fitting way to mark my unexpected (and probably temporary) access to my own web log.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Supreme Court, Round II

Back in July, I wrote in my blog entry about the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, arguing that the Democrats should put up a fierce fight, which of course they largely did not do. I also cited a Republican friend of mine who claimed that Roberts, who was at the time "merely" a replacement for associate justice O'Connor, might later be nominated for Chief Justice, should a vacancy occur. I had not previously heard that suggestion from anyone else, so I posted it in order to pass on this little tip. Of course, I did not relish the thought of Roberts becoming Chief Justice, but I thought it an interesting idea that might reflect some thinking inside the G.O.P.

Since my friend's supposition has amazingly come true, I decided to query him again about the latest nomination of Harriet Miers to fill the O'Connor vacancy. His reading of this situation does not give me any comfort. He expressed amazement that some Democrats seem to be accepting the nomination. In his words: "I have come to believe she is a right wing religious Christian fundamentalist who will happily vote with Thomas and Scalia for the next 25 years." Hmmm...how do you like that! Well, I can't say that this friend talks to the President personally, but he does have a some connections to the Party at the state level and seems to have a fairly good pulse of the thinking within the GOP establishment. So take that for what it's worth.

I would like to shift the terms of the debate, however. The mainstream media usually frames Supreme Court nominations as battles over cultural wedge issues, most prominently abortion. Thankfully, they are not completely ignoring the crony angle on this one. But I wish the entire debate would shift towards a new terrain entirely: Executive Power!

To me, this nomination is about executive power. Can an unpopular sitting President appoint someone within his very inner-most circle, whom no one would have considered a qualified contender beforehand, to a lifetime position on the highest Court in the land? And it is more than that: This is about executive privilege over the long run too. You better believe that many cases will come before the Supreme Court about what the President can and can't get away with vis-a-vis the Congress (or We the People). Torturing detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo? Secret wiretapping powers for "national security"? All the documents still remain classified? Congress can't know who was on that Energy (or fill in the blank) Task Force? Unlimited war powers? At least one columnist has even suggested, plausibly in my opinion, that Bush may be in big legal trouble quite soon and may need close, trusted allies on the Court who will help him out. Of course, it takes five justices to render a decision, but don't forget that Bush did muster that exact number (including O'Connor!) when the Supreme Court selected him as President in 2000. With Miers, Bush can be certain that swing seat stays with him on matters of executive power and privilege.

Let me also remind everyone that this is the SECOND (at least) time when a major Bush II appointment has been made, in which the person leading the President's search team ends up recommending him/herself. Does anybody remember the first? Yes, that's right: Vice President Dick Cheney. I was always amazed that the media did not hit harder on that one when it happened. Talk about power hungry. Talk about sucking up to Bush and making him think you love him in order to get the job yourself. Just don't forget that Cheney effectively appointed HIMSELF vice president. And now, perhaps, Harriet Stier will get away with choosing herself as Supreme Court justice. Yes, I know, Bush makes the final decision, but does anyone in the room think he is not susceptible to influence from sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear (the major theme of how Bush has made his decisions)?

Okay, back to the main point: This nomination is all about personal loyalty to Bush, period. If the right-wing gets a fundamentalist abortion-killer, then that's just icing on the cake for them. At a time when everyone seems to be attacking Bush and G.O.P. power brokers are ducking for cover from scandal after scandal, this is about circling the wagons and appointing someone as close to home as possible. Someone who can defend Bush's imperious ways on the Court. Someone who, the White House chief of staff has claimed, has no agenda other than Bush's. No wonder even many Republicans are nervous.

This is about separation of powers. Some people might think "we could do worse", although given the nominee's closeness to Bush, it is hard to believe she is not pretty far-right conservative. But I say, that doesn't even really matter at this point. Do we want the Executive and Judicial branches to remain separate from each other, checking and balancing? Or do we want to allow Bush to round out the Supreme Court with one of his closest friends and allies, the same exact one who helped him cover up how he wiggled out of service in Vietnam? Do we want an independent legal mind, or do we want an agent of Executive Power?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Blogging from Berlin (again!)

I am a regular reader of The Nation on-line (I can't bring myself to subscribe to the print version ever since my disappointment with their lack of coverage of Dennis Kucinich's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004), but I rarely read the art and literature review articles. I made an exception this time, though, since the particular piece of art being reviewed--Berlin's center-city Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe--is located only a few short blocks from where I work. In his review, Arthur C. Danto expresses some disappointment with the final result, a grid of gray concrete blocks of varying height. Designed by Peter Eisenman (and standing across the street from the new U.S. Embassy under construction!), the memorial is "minimalist" to the extreme, evoking a great emptiness. Here is an official website with some good photographs of the memorial...the domed building in the background is the Reichstag, the German parliament building rebuilt after unification.

I often pass by this memorial on my way to the sprawling Tiergarten (large center city park) for a run in the late afternoon. Always there are groups of tourists, exploring around the "steles" (as Danto calls them, more knowledgeable than me about sculpture/architecture terminology), sometimes with children playing on them. The fact that one portion of the square dips down significantly in elevation creates, at least for me, a strong evocation of the feeling you get at the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, D.C. The similarity between the two events--the senseless loss of life on a large scale--perhaps makes such a connection appropriate. In a way, then, even though Danto seems displeased by the lack of specificity (telling the particular stories of people) in the memorial, I actually find it a good result. It manages to transform a very specific memorial to one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world into something more universal.

Now, some people won't like that at all, and I can understand the desire to have something even more specific about the murder of Jews in the Holocaust in Germany's capital. (Just think for a moment how well it would go over in the U.S. if we created a memorial--no matter how minimalist/abstract--to the murdered American Indians victims of U.S. expansion right in the heart of the city, or perhaps even memorials to the slaughtered Vietnamese or Iraqi victims of American aggression...) So I think it is right and appropriate that the memorial bear the name of a specific act that is important for the Germans reckoning with their own history. But at the same time I like the possibility of recognizing the common bonds of all humanity and the universal evil of senseless violence and suffering.

On a related issue, especially for those Americans who believe "it can't happen here," please see a must-read report on the atrocities committed by agents of our own government. At the moment, senseless acts of brutality are still on a relatively small scale (compared to the Nazis), but I was raised to believe that Americans do not believe in torture. If you don't want the U.S. government torturing in your name, speak out against it now! I especially appreciated the call by Ray McGovern for religious leaders and people of faith to stand up against torture. These are not just a few isolated incidents. This is widespread and it has been happening over the past few years. We must stand united as Americans against this shameful stain on our national conscience (do we still have one?)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Blogging from Beijing

I had read that the Chinese government was not terribly keen on blogging, and that access to most blogging sites is restricted, or--with the happy collaboration of corporations like Microsoft--one cannot post (or even *type*) certain dangerous words like 'liberty' or the date of the Tianamen Square massacre. This morning I tried to use the Beijing telecom dial-up service to access Lumpenlogocracy and a few other of my favorite blogs, but I couldn't get through to any of them. Free proxy services like Anonymizer, which mask your IP address and so help you get around blocks for some sites, were also inaccessible. I am able, however, to access the Blogger home page and to view posts through the 'Edit' function. So I have read Christian_Left's recent posts even though I am unable to view the web log itself, or to leave any comments. Hopefully I'll be able to post this, too--we'll see.

I very much enjoyed Robert Jensen's piece on September 11. The less self-centered perspective he advocates would not only make us better individuals, but if it somehow became part of our foreign policy, it would make the country much more secure. Our overwhelming superiority in military and economic power will be difficult to maintain in perpetuity, and to the extent that it is maintained, it will be accepted by other countries only to the degree that the US dedicates itself to serving intnernational as well as national interests.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Why the U.S. Should Withdraw from Iraq Now

This weekend in Washington, D.C. will be the next big demonstration against the war in Iraq. I wish I could be there. But I'm a long ways from D.C., so I will just have to be in support from a distance.

In preparation for this weekend, opponents of the war who are uncertain about whether a speedy U.S. withdrawal would be a good thing should be sure to read Michael Schwartz's excellent synopsis of the argument for immediate withdrawal. Yes, that's right, immediate withdrawal. Schwartz's analysis strikes me as persuasive, although I would be interested in hearing from blog readers who know of well-argued counterpoints that favor a more staged or gradual withdrawal.

By reading thoughtful analyses like this, we can be ready to argue effectively with people who think we have to keep supporting the war because there is no alternative. Maybe none of the alternatives are great, but right now I am convinced by both moral and pragmatic arguments that speedy withdrawal is probably the "least worst" option.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

From Germany Back to the U.S.A.

The German national election, which I wrote about in my last post, is now over. The inconclusive result, with both of the largest parties losing votes and neither capable of forming an obvious coalition government, will have to be sorted out in the coming days and weeks. Personally, I can't understand why the Social Democrats don't just accept the Links/Left party representatives into their coalition and form a government with them and the Greens. Yes, some of them are former Communists from East Germany, but they will constitute only a small fraction of the coalition. It might even improve government by slowing down "centrist" pro-market reform efforts somewhat. For some reason, everyone seems to view the Links-partei as untouchable. I prefer to see them as a balancing force against the powerful German business community, perhaps leading Germany to steer a happy medium course between markets and social welfare.

But now let me turn to my home country, the U.S.A. Several days ago, I read a fine essay by one of my favorite op-ed columnists, Robert Jensen of Austin, Texas. I just can't get the piece out of my head. With his usual piercing moral clarity, Jensen reflects on the four years since the September 11th attacks. I know that many sympathizers will find Jensen's views unpalatable because they seem to be strategically problematic, at least in the short term--in other words, that most Americans will find Jensen's words so alienating that they will reject them out of hand. But I also think that over the long run, we need people like Jensen to remind us about what a moral commitment to the equality of all people in the world entails.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What is this!? Elections on the Weekend?

Last week, I moved to Berlin, Germany for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. This is my first post from overseas. On the bus from the airport, I was already noticing the abundant political signs posted along streets all over the city of Berlin. That's because a big national election is coming up here in Germany. And, believe it or not, Election Day is on the WEEKEND! What a strange concept...I have to admit, it certainly makes it easier for working people to vote--I can't imagine the Republicans would ever allow that in the USA. So next Sunday, September 18th, Germans will be heading to the polls in a closely contested election.

When I first arrived, the out-of-power (and more conservative) CDU was in the lead, but now the race seems to be tightening, as the incumbent SDP, led by Gerhard Schroeder, catches up. Last time, rumor has it, Schroeder squeaked back into office despite high unemployment by riding the wave of discontent with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now things aren't too much better (or worse) economically, so the end result is hard to predict.

One interesting development is the emergence last summer of a new party called the Links ("Left") party, which consists of a combination of former SDP members upset with social reforms and the remnants of the former East German communist party. Led by populist firebrand Oskar Lafontaine, the Links-Partei draws lots of voters in the former East Germany, especially those who want to maintain social spending for unemployed people, as I understand it. They are also not afraid to call more aggressively for preserving German jobs for Germans, which makes lots of better off people nervous, both for good (anti-ethnocentric) and bad (working-class mass movement threat) reasons. In the East, they seem to be drawing at least as much from the CDU as the SDP, interestingly enough. Just like in the USA and elsewhere, disaffected workers seem to draw from either the left or right, not from the center, thus once again compounding the conventional political spectrum believed in by elites.

If the CDU wins, as was predicted confidently until the last week or so, it will mark a major event in German political history. The CDU leader, Angela Merkel, would be the first female head of state. (She's also from the former East Germany...) To make it even more interesting, the CDU would almost certainly have to govern in coalition with the Liberal (what we would call Libertarian) party, whose leader is an openly gay man. So a conservative victory would result in a female and gay co-leadership. Funny how things happen sometimes. (I can't imagine the Republicans in the USA ever tolerating a coalition with a party led by an openly gay man...so at least culturally, Germany is a quite different place!)

I haven't even mentioned the other sizeable party, even though it is the one I would probably vote for if I could. That's the Green Party, which has been in coalition with the SDP and stands to remain in the governing coalition if the SDP wins. I do have to admit some attraction for the Links party and its firebrand populism, but I would probably stick with the Greens if only for their less ethnocentric style. Plus, the Links and SDP hate each other and won't go into coalition, so they say.

My favorite possible outcome has been described to me by a German as the "traffic light" outcome (I forget the German word for it...everyone in Berlin speaks English so it's been hard to learn much of the local language!) That would be if the SDP (associated with the color Red) and Greens (Green, believe it or not!) don't have enough to govern, but can together with the Liberals (Yellow, who knows why?) Then Germany would have a triple Red-Yellow-Green coalition...yippee!!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Review: Barry C. Lynn, End of the Line: The Rise and Fall of the Global Corporation (2005)

I bought this book thinking that it would cover the rise of the anti-globalization movement and what I hope is a growing backlash against the power of multinational corporations. But Lynn has a narrower definition of the 'global corporation' than simply a multinational, and he sees the doom of said global corporation stemming not from grassroots rebellions against its overweening power, but rather from the fragility inherent in its productive system. It's an interesting and not entirely implausible argument.

For Lynn, a 'global corporation' is a new breed of business, born of the late 20th century, that is steadily replacing the old assembly line giants like Ford and GM. Those giants of the past profited from economies of scale, collecting under their own factory roofs as many steps of the production process as possible. Efficiency for them meant the continuous operation of the assembly lines, and this required long-term cooperation with closely allied suppliers and parts inventories sufficient to safeguard against possible supply interruptions.

The new global corporation is less a producer than an assembler and marketer of components harvested from a far-flung network of contractors and sub-contractors. Using tracking systems pioneered by companies such as FedEx and WalMart, global corporations keep inventories razor thin, squeezing profits from increases in logistical efficiency and pressing their suppliers to do the same. Lynn explains how companies like Dell have even learned to integrate their marketing campaigns into their supply systems, "engineering demand" so that customers buy the products the company currently has in stock.

Improvements in communications and computing technology have enhanced the growth of the GC's, but legal and political decisions dating from the 1960s laid their foundations. Painting a historical picture with a somewhat over-broad brush, Lynn divides US policy on foreign trade into three periods: From George Washington to F.D.R., the US pursued a policy of foreign engagement sufficient only to allow the US to develop its own self sufficiency. Facing the threat of global communism in the aftermath of WWII, however, the US shifted to policy of economic interdependence among the Western allies, integrating into the US economy the economic interests of much of the rest of the world. The US actively encouraged the development of manufacturing in countries such as Japan and Germany and helped US companies move operations overseas in the belief that such economic ties would best ensure continued peace.

Bill Clinton, according to Lynn, broke with this Cold War tradition and began a "radical" restructuring of foreign trade policy predicated on the notion that no governmental guidance of the market whatsoever would better ensure prosperity and security. Clinton's support of NAFTA and, later, of regularization of trade with China, effectively signaled to US companies that the government would not bar them from relocating to any part of the world any part or all of their production. (It's odd that Lynn singles out Clinton for such ire, considering that by Lynn's own account Reagan and Bush I did nothing to encourage US companies to stay in the US. He seems to view Clinton as an apostate, though he also maintains that "the idea that protectionism kills" was "one of the central founding myths of the modern Democratic Party" [83], and, more ludicrously, that during the Depression the Dems won back American workers by demonizing the Smoot-Hawley tariffs.)

Clinton's deification of the market was predated among businessmen and economists by the work of Milton Friedman in the 1960s. In reaction to the growing consumer rights movement, Friedman argued that a corporation's sole obligation was to its shareholders and stock price, not to its employees, consumers or country. Making the corporation maximally free to increase its value in the eyes of the market, the argument went, was the best way to ensure the efficiency of the economy. This ideology fit well with the development of globally distributed network production systems; legally and physically, companies became more disembodied and placeless, less beholden to anyone save the traders on Wall Street.

Lynn's summation of the effects of these changes is that today's corporations are the leanest, most cost-efficient organizations the world has ever seen. But their very efficiency creates dangers. With less physical plant to look after and ever-fewer employees, the managers of GC's concentrate more on short-term profits and share price rather than careful husbanding of productive resources for the long term-they are less system-builders than system- squeezers. The search for ever-greater efficiency radiates across the productive network, as GC's use the threat of relocation of facilities or contracts to squeeze suppliers and states for lower prices and tax breaks. Suppliers have less and less capital to devote to innovation or to risk management, and the pressure for lower and lower prices has led to what Lynn calls "hyperspecialization" in the production of key components. The entire system is so pulled so taught that an accident in any one part of it can have disastrous results for the system as a whole.

Lynn is somewhat alarmist in his predictions of a coming disaster for this finely- tuned world economic machine. He has a few well-known examples of how an earthquake in Taiwan, or an epidemic in China, threatened to derail certain industries, but I am unconvinced that such shocks could necessarily entail a serious economic downturn. Indeed, we seem to have survived Lynn's exemplar disasters in fairly good shape. But if the GC's are better at managing short-term risk than Lynn gives them credit for, Lynn's more subtle point that GC's search for efficiency is corrosive of social and political well-being seems on target. At the end of his book, he gives eight specific policy recommendations to combat the dangers of globally-networked production, which I can recount at request. More worthy of concluding this overly long review is Lynn's larger point that the corporation is not an inevitable product of global economic development, nor some alien invader bent on destroying society. It is, rather, a creation of government-an organization molded by law and policy-and we can and should use those tools to shape it into a more socially useful form.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

From the Rocky Mountains

Our regular readers (!) may be wondering why we haven't posted anything on this blog for awhile. Well, at least part of the explanation may be that three of us are currently up in the Rocky Mountains enjoying some camping and hiking. So sorry for the lack of new entries. I don't have time to write much now, but I did find one thing worth recommending while I was browsing recent magazines in the library the other day. Bill McKibben has a nice article in the latest issue of Harper's Magazine. You can read a lengthy excerpt here. For the whole article, look here. Given the recent (and justifiable) uproar over Pat Robertson's insane remarks about killing the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, it is refreshing to read something from a fellow Christian that makes sense!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Bush Meets the Moms

From the Eric Boehlert post linked in the title above, a glimpse of President Bush in his interactions with two mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Dolores Kesterson told White House staff that she wanted to have a private talk with the president so that she could share her belief that her son died in an unnecessary war. She was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly:
Kesterson: So actually, you know, it did come about. They put me into a cubicle by myself, took everything away from me. I also came prepared with a letter to give to the president about how I felt about the war and, you know, the loss of my son, my only child for a cause that I thought, you know, was not worthwhile at that point in time.

And so president Bush came marching in, to make a long story short, came marching in to the room, got right in my face, eyeball-to-eyeball, nose-to-nose this close, toe-to-toe and he said, "I'm George Bush, President of the United States, and I understand you have something to say to me privately.' And I said, 'Yes, I do respect the office of the presidency of the United States, but I want to tell you how it feels to lose your only child in a cause that you don't believe in, in an unnecessary war. And, you know, we talked about it from there just like you and I are talking about.

O'Reilly: Was he respectful to you?

Kesterson: Yes, yes was. But he did, you know, come at me a few times with trotting out, 'Delores, do you realize we've been attacked on 9/11?' Who doesn't [realize that]?

O'Reilly: He hugged you at the end, did he not?

Kesterson: Well, yes, he asked if he could hug me and I said, 'Well, that's a human thing, you know, I'm human.' And I agreed to it. But my personal feeling is that he really doesn't have a conscience about all this death and destruction. That was the essence I took away after looking him in the eyes and meeting with him—there's just no conscience there.

Cindy Sheehan, who has made headlines by camping out outstide of Bush's Crawford ranch in an attempt to meet with the president, described her first brief encounter with him at the White House during an interview with Wolf Blitzer:
He wouldn't look at the pictures of [my son] Casey. He didn't even know Casey's name. He came in the room and the very first thing he said is, 'So who are we honoring here?' He didn't even know Casey's name. He didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to hear anything about Casey. He wouldn't even call him 'him' or 'he.' He called him 'your loved one.' Every time we tried to talk about Casey and how much we missed him, he would change the subject. And he acted like it was a party.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Good Economic News?

After several pessimistic posts on the economic prospects of the country, I would be remiss to not note the recent trend of better economic news: US consumer spending and income up slightly, inflation not increasing appreciably, durable goods and factory orders up. All this is nicely recapped in this post from Macroblog, along w/ links to some more pessimistic readings of the data, such as this from Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. In a nutshell, the pessimistic view is that yes, the economy seems to be moving out of 'soft patch,' but the better monthly and quarterly numbers can't hide continuing huge structural problems that will ultimately have to be reckoned with. Still, at the macro level, the economy seems to be doing better lately.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Random Thoughts on the Roberts Nomination

I've been on the road a lot over the past week, and so I heard a lot of radio news reports during the time of the Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court and the days afterwards. Listening to several different interviews with people who know Roberts (many of them self-described "liberals"), it became increasingly clear that there was a well-planned campaign with clear talking points for friends of Roberts. The agreed line is: he's exceptionally smart, nice, and fair. The strategic craftiness of the Bush Administration thus also became clear. They confused the media all day long beforehand with clever leaks focusing on someone else, then hit everyone unprepared with a white male insider. The Roberts supporters were much better prepared, and his potential opponents were left grasping for some way to dent a juggernaut of framing and conventional wisdom that had already become established.

Of course, I realize that the chances of defeating Roberts in the Senate are pretty hopeless. However, I still think it is worth it for Democrats to mount a fierce fight, as much as they can, by asking him as many questions as possible in an attempt to pin him down. My impression is that he is a pretty far-right guy with lots of elite business connections and some scary social issue and civil liberties positions as well. I am not convinced by the line that he is as good as we can expect from the Bush Administration. It is utterly predictable for this Administration that the first nomination would be quite conservative...they will only back down and nominate someone more reasonable/moderate under exceptional pressure, which looks unlikely. But I think it is worth a struggle at least. After all, this is a lifetime appointment to the Court.

For what it's worth, I heard an interesting theory from a conservative Republican friend of mine back in Nebraska...this friend has some pretty substantial connections and experience in the state party structure. He speculates that Bush may have nominated Roberts with the intention of making him Chief Justice when Rehnquist retires, which may not be too long from now. Vetting him so easily through the current process will make it a breeze for his later confirmation as Chief Justice, thus installing a young far right conservative for a very long time. It sounds like a plausible idea to me, and I fear my friend may be right about this...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Shop Costco

The NY Times today reports that Costco treats its people way better than Sam's Club (a subsidiary of the Wal-Mart empire). It's not the first time journalists have pointed this out: last year I heard an NPR report about Costco's good labor policies (no union busting, good wages and benefits). That report, too, mostly took the form of grousing by Wall Street analysts about how foolhardy it was to pay so much and to charge so little, keeping Costco's profit margins smaller than what was possible.

Well, I say good going, Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco! Ignore the critics and pay for your employees' health insurance. It's the right thing to do.

On the same topic, the recent Frontline documentary "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" is worth checking out, even though I'll bet you already know the answer. What made this documentary interesting to me was that it focused on Wal-Mart's role in squeezing suppliers and in sending American jobs overseas-- and said virtually nothing about the notorious labor abuses that many people talk about when they discuss Wal-Mart. The most striking part of the documentary is when the narrator goes to Long Beach, a major port in California, and asks the communications director what's coming in (from China) and being shipped out. Coming in: every manufactured good you can think of, from toys to clothes to electronics. Going out: raw materials, like cotton. Said the communications director: "We export cotton; we bring in clothing. We export hides; we bring in shoes. We export scrap metal; we bring back machinery." Is this 2005 or 1705?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Aikman's other book...and something better by Wallerstein

At the same time thirdpartydreamer took up the task of reading David Aikman's book on Christianity in China, I agreed to look at his other book, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush. I did find a few interesting things...although not nearly as much as thirdpartydreamer found in that other one. (And the present book does include some nice, complimentary photos of Bush--take that, Michael Moore!--including his staged "turkey" platter surprise in Baghdad in 2003...)

Man of Faith is basically a themed biography of Bush. The author adopts a tone of reverence mixed with apology, and the book reads to me like the uncertain product of someone struggling to be careful with the facts while still portraying his subject as essentially good. For example, on Bush's murky college and post-college years, we find that time period introduced as follows: "The career of George W. between 1964, when he entered Yale as a freshman, and the summer of 1986, when his life decisively turned around and he gave up drinking alcohol, were years when millions of young American men indulged in drinking and womanizing." (p. 39) Hmmm...I guess that explains it! What a peculiar way of contextualizing those years... Well I suppose, given W.'s later tendency to bad-mouth the youth culture of the 1960s, perhaps it does kind of make sense that his spiritual biographer should also deflect criticism of W.'s own life by, in essence, blaming the society he lived in (I can't say "grew up in" because he was, after all, already an adult...)

On the whole, I'd say this book is a waste of time to read...slow moving, boring, and full of mild, incurious adulation. The ease with which the author lightly brings up and then casts aside all of the more serious critiques of W.'s choices and actions (strange ommissions in his National Guard record, for example) insures that there will be nothing really insightful or earth-shattering for most readers. (No investigative reporting here!) I did learn at least one thing: the importance of W.'s defeat in a Congressional election of 1978, in which he was skewered by an opponent who invoked Christian conservative themes (p. 60). Apparently, the lesson was not lost on Bush, and he never made the mistake again of letting an opponent out-Christian him. Given the importance of this experience, I guess ultimately it is hard to draw any line between W.'s "spiritual journey" and his political journey.

So I don't really recommend this book...but I do have an alternative suggestion: Immanuel Wallerstein's The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. Framed in the language of the author's academically-famed "world-systems" approach to history, this book lays out the present situation of the U.S. in world affairs rather nicely. It provides a fresh perspective on current topics such as globalization, terrorism, and racism. It also does a good job of initiating a conversation about how activist-intellectuals can be involved in shaping the world for the better over the next few decades. And the book is quite readable, far from the dense, erudite volumes on the Modern World-System, which made the author famous back in the 1970s.

Friday, July 08, 2005

China's Jesus underground

Review of: Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, David Aikman (2003).

I must confess that I picked up this book in an antagonistic spirit. Aikman is a conservative evangelical who’s just been hired to teach at Patrick Henry College (the new college designed to send home-schooled Christian men into government service—women are admitted to the school, but are not expected to pursue careers. Check out the school’s website, or see the recent New Yorker article on PHC). Since he styles himself a China expert, and boasts an impressive set of credentials (Ph.D. in History from the University of Washington, former Time reporter in Moscow and Beijing), I thought his take on Christianity in China might be worth checking out…even if his oeuvre contains such dubious entries as the recent George Bush is the Messiah or whatever it’s called (okay, it’s Man of Faith: the Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush).

Aikman’s thesis here is that Christianity is spreading like a brush fire in the People’s Republic today, especially in the form he considers the most promising: the underground house church. House churches he contrasts with the state-approved and state-controlled congregations affiliated with the Three Self Patriotic Association (the government’s Protestant outfit) and the Catholic Patriotic Association (the government’s Catholic outfit). He relies for his information on the members of the underground churches themselves, and participates uncritically in their boosterism. One suspects that Aikman overestimates how pervasive underground Christianity really is—not to mention how likely it is that Chinese Christians will change the way the People’s Republic interacts with the world (curbing its human rights abuses and bringing it in line with American foreign policy, as Aikman assumes Christianity will naturally do).

Aikman does provide evidence, though, of a thriving underground community of Christians in China. Or “communities,” more precisely, since a number of the Protestant factions are divided by irreconcilable differences of doctrine or practice, some contending that others are dangerous cults. Some of the groups (the Weepers, the Shouters) have wonderfully evocative nicknames reminiscent of early Protestant sects, names that underline the kind of catharsis the church members experience in their meetings. These folks are no strangers to speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, and the like.

Though Aikman focuses mostly on these charismatic Protestant sects, he also includes one chapter on the Catholics, and it reveals a great deal about the relationship between the government and religion. In recent years the Communist Party and the Vatican seem to have arrived at a kind of d├ętente. Certain issues still pique each side (the Vatican’s continuing recognition of Taipei as the legitimate government of China, for example), but the Vatican has not excommunicated the priests consecrated by the state Catholic association, and the Communist party, in turn, turns a blind eye when the state-approved clergy quietly pledge their allegiance to Rome. These days, the biggest problem that crops up for the Catholics is that occasionally rival power structures exist in the same place: one city might have an underground bishop consecrated in the bad old days of severe oppression in the 1960s and 1970s, and a Catholic Patriotic Association bishop consecrated with the government’s blessing. I wonder if the Party finds the underground Catholics less threatening than the Protestants because Catholics, even underground, respect some kind of human authority, albeit centered in Rome rather than Beijing. The underground Protestants, by contrast, must seem like faith-healing, epiphany-seeking loose cannons.

Some things in this account are unsurprising: for example, women far outnumber men in the underground Christian movement. Nor should anyone be surprised that the growth of these communities has been fueled in part by persecution (more than once, Aikman’s interviewees reference the early Christian theologian Tertullian’s aphorism that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”). Entrepreneurship also plays a role. In the southeastern port city of Wenzhou, held up as “China’s Jerusalem,” the high level of private enterprise combines synergistically with active and visible house churches; Aikman contends that within a few hundred feet of any major cathedral in Europe, you can find Wenzhou Christians selling something.

Which brings us to the unexpected bit: many of these Chinese Christians have missionary aspirations. Big time. They see themselves as the ideal candidates to bring Christianity “back” to the Muslims of the Middle East, to break into the “10/40 window” (the band of earth from 10 degrees above the equator to 40 degrees below it) that evangelical Christians worldwide see as their next big challenge. In a big meeting in Beijing a few years back, the Chinese Christians surprised the international evangelicals present by announcing their “back to Jerusalem” goal to have 100,000 Chinese missionaries active outside of China by the year 2007. You can understand the foreigners’ surprise: American missionaries, the largest constituency of global missionaries at the moment, number about 40,000 in any given year.

So here’s the obligatory deprecation of the book’s level of scholarship: its author does not demonstrate that he can read Chinese (he cites no Chinese-language documents), and it’s not clear how good his spoken Chinese is, either (like many journalists, he usually obscures the presence of his interpreter when he’s reporting conversations). The copyediting is sloppy: on p.155 someone takes a stand based “on principal,” for example. What’s more, for a China expert, Aikman makes a few baffling mistakes—e.g., “Peking is the name of China’s capital city before the Communists renamed it Beijing in 1949.” (er, not exactly: Peking is just an alternative Romanization of the same two characters that constitute the name Beijing. Before the Communists, the Nationalists called Beijing Beiping [Northern peace], not Peking).

One thing that bothered me throughout the book was the emphasis on evangelism as Christians’ greatest responsibility. There are a lot of stories here about distributing Bibles, baptizing people in bathtubs, and spreading the gospel generally, but what about feeding the hungry, tending the sick, clothing the naked and other biblical acts of giving? A country that is experiencing the kind of economic dislocation that China is, where some are getting very rich while others sink into abject poverty, where health care is increasingly inadequate and inaccessible to the rural population, seems to offer a great opportunity for Christian service. Have the underground Christians seized this opportunity, or bypassed it in their eagerness to convert others? I would have liked to hear more about what kinds of social service these communities perform.

These criticisms aside, though, the book is a useful insight into the active Christian communities in China, which are populated by more than a few incredibly brave and tenacious individuals.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hypocrisy at the College Republicans Meeting? Who Would Have Guessed!

Don't miss Max Blumenthal's interesting article published by The Nation entitled "Generation Chickenhawk," which details the author's experiences at the national convention of the College Republicans. Yes, the article is scathing and mean, but I kind of feel like the CRs deserve it given their support for an immoral war they won't risk their own lives for. For those readers here in Philadelphia, note that one of the students interviewed, possibly the most obnoxious one of all, is from right here at the Wharton School.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Thoughts on Patriotism and Virtuous Concertgoing

Since today is the 4th of July, I cannot help but reflect on a year's worth of my own rumination on "patriotism," that bedrock of politically-correct thinking. When I was a kid, I loved symbols of patriotism: the songs, the flag, etc. I think it was partly the feeling of belonging that these symbols gave me. Over the years, I reconciled any doubts I had about patriotism, defined in the dictionary as "love of and devotion to one's country," by interpreting patriotism either as believing in high ideals such as democracy and justice, or working for the good of the country as a whole.

But as time goes on, I find it harder and harder to simply accept patriotism as an unquestionably good thing. No matter how we try to redefine what it means--and I applaud such efforts to a point--it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to defend from an ethical point of view. Why should we care more about people in our country than people elsewhere? In our heart of hearts, where our deepest values reside, how can we defend drawing moral lines at political borders? In Robert Jensen's words, perhaps we need to say
"goodbye to patriotism" in order to really serve the ideals and good we seek.

A slogan that many good people put on signs a few years ago said, "Peace is Patriotic." I can see the point, and I agree that our country is better off if we pursue peace rather than war. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that peace doesn't need patriotism to legitimate itself. Several months ago, I decided that "peace is peace"...totally defensible on its own as something worth striving for. Tacking on "patriotism" may be a good PR move, but it is ultimately meaningless. Or, in another sense, it is worse than meaningless because it further reinforces the notion that favoring the U.S. and Americans in our moral calculations is a good thing. It might seem pragmatic in the short term to invoke patriotism to stop a war (although, truth be told, it didn't seem to convince very many people at the time), but in the long run we must look to express deeper and more defensible values.

I attribute a large part of my discomfort with patriotism to my Christian faith. That may sound strange given that so many people link "God and country" in such promiscuous ways, despite the utter lack of Biblical or theological grounding for it...and the predominance of hyper-patriotic expressions among Christians visible in the public sphere. However, it really comes from deep within my spiritual and faith life to question patriotism. If we really have faith in Jesus Christ and his message, we must be willing to put our Christianity above any allegiance to one country or another. Christ's message is universal and does not belong in any way, shape, or form to Americans alone...I cannot imagine having "faith" in my country in the same way that I have faith in God and Christ. (Maybe that's why having an American flag in our church sanctuary really bothers me.)

To be sure, I am grateful to live in a country that allows the free exercise of religion, but I refuse to believe that being a good Christian means always supporting American policies or actions. In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite. We Christians are called to scrutinize our country from the position of our deeply-held values, just as any other citizens in a free, democratic society should. So today I celebrate the ideals our country was founded on and its continued flourishing, for sure, but also hope and pray for all other peoples of the world at the same time.

Okay, now about the "virtuous concertgoing" part...this is really unrelated to the patriotism theme, except that this particular weekend Philadelphia (where I live) has hosted not just the usual Fourth of July celebration but also the U.S. site of the "Live 8" concert a few days ago. Now I am in total agreement with the goal of the Live 8 organizers that we should forgive the debt of the poorest countries in the world. What concerns me about this event are two things: First, I am disturbed supporters of the movement are not being sufficiently open and critical about efforts to attach various conditions to the debt cancellation on the part of elite interests in the wealthy countries. In the name of "accountability," provisions that keep poor countries poor (perhaps akin to what is often called structural adjustment) are apparently being forced on countries that receive debt relief (if I am wrong about this, someone please correct me). We may end up entrenching poverty as much as we help alleviate it. Read this for someone else's more extended discussion of these issues.

Second, I have mixed feelings about rich celebrities and the wealthiest countries in the world are throwing parties for themselves in order to draw attention to global poverty. To be sure, there were some good messages thrown in during the concert, alongside advertisements for corporate sponsors, etc. But in observing the people going to and from the concert here (and reading quotes in the local newspaper), it seemed that most people were just having a fun day of free entertainment outside. If anything, they could imagine that they were doing something about poverty (a weird kind of moral safety valve) while they were having fun. The way the newspaper reported it, the story was all about how successful the event was in terms of logistics and promoting the city. The only visible complaint was that some people didn't like having to wait "40 minutes" for a train home afterwards. (To be sure, some people may have waited longer, but then don't you expect a transit system suddenly swamped with a million people at the same time to experience a little congestion?) I'm sure that actual poor people in various parts of the world will be glad that so many Americans (and Canadians, Japanese, Brits, Italians, etc.) had such a nice day out in the sun and fully sympathize with their travails.

I do hope that this event has mobilized people to care about alleviating global poverty--and perhaps even motivate them to ask some critical questions about the conditions our elite representatives are imposing--but I fear from my own observations that Live 8 may not have done it. Any other thoughts?