Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Future Is Now?

I'd like to follow up on ambivalent_maybe's insightful post a few days ago on this blog about the recent (divergent) histories of U.S. worker wages and productivity. It turns out that one of my favorite political-economic writers, William Greider, has a new essay up on the Nation's website. In this essay, ("The Future Is Now") Greider argues that we are either on the cusp or already in the midst of a major shift in American public policy and political culture. After 30+ years of worship at the alter of market fundamentalism, Greider argues, the U.S.'s economic fundamentals are in terrible shape. This stuff isn't really new for Greider--as before, he is concerned especially with rising consumer debt and government fiscal debt--but this essay is a nice overview of the general problem and a primer on what a more progressive future might hold.

Greider's manifesto is certainly more plausible to me than the recent call by the usually sensible blog-chief at dailykos for a Democratic rapprochement with libertarians by giving more support to market solutions over government. (Excuse me? Haven't we been doing that the past three decades already?) I'm perfectly happy to work with libertarians on social issues and foreign policy, but I am not about to surrender the progressive movement to the same tired old 80s-90s mantra of "markets good, government bad." (Greider's essay provides a thumbnail sketch of where that philosophy has gotten us...) The DLC has argued that line--let their ship sink with it, but for goodness sake let's not jump on board. Moreover, has anyone ever noticed that such calls for a libertarian shift have almost always come from members of the tiny, well-educated elite of socially liberal, economically moderate professionals and business people? If we want to craft a progressive movement that appeals to the much larger mass population of working-class people, we're going to have to be more populist and less economically libertarian. As Greider points out, survey research shows broad public support for proposals that are anathema to hard-core libertarians, such as guaranteed health care and raising the minimum wage. I agree with Greider: our better future (perhaps our only future, if he is correct?) lies in economic populism. It is the right thing to do for the sake of justice, plus (if Greider is correct) it is also the politically savvy move at this moment in American history.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Blow against Academic Freedom at Yale

Thanks to a mention at dailykos, I have come across the story of how Yale University has denied a faculty appointment to prominent historian-blogger Juan Cole, currently at the University of Michigan. The denial occurred at the upper levels after he had been approved by the history and sociology departments, after a concerted alumni pressure campaign spearheaded by neoconservative organizations. Cole's blog, "Informed Comment" has proved to be one of the most reliable sources for smart, fact-based analysis of current events in the Middle East, an essential supplement to the woefully inadequate and strongly biased coverage that this region receives in the mainstream American media. Cole focuses mostly on reporting what is happening on the ground, but he makes no effort to hide his point of view. The neocons, acting through alumni donors, shamefully played up the ridiculous assertion that poisons so much of U.S. discussion of the region: i.e. criticism of right-wing Israeli policies (for example in the West Bank) = criticism of Israel = criticism of Jews = anti-Semitism.

I find this action by Yale University both outrageous and sadly indicative of the downward slide of that institution. When neocon-funded alumni campaigns can trump the decisions of faculty committees, then academic freedom is under attack. I have actually disagreed with Juan Cole on a few occasions (generally from the Left, regarding rules of engagement in combat, the legitimacy of ever using white phosphorus in war, etc.) But I do not for a minute doubt that he is an inspiring voice of public engagement among senior academics, and that his perspective as a specialist in the Middle East has immeasurably enriched public debate. For Cole, at least he gets to keep his tenured position at Michigan. But what is perhaps worst about this case is that it will likely discourage knowledgeable academics from engaging with a wider public audience. If we want academics to move beyond the cloistered ivory tower, then why do we shoot them down when they try?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Output, Compensation, and the Conservative Backlash

The link in the title is to a post by the economist Max Sawicky from June 5th, the occassion for which was a speech by Eddie Lazear, head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, at the American Enterprise Institute. In refuting some data Lazear presented on worker productivity and compensation, Sawicky and his commentator, Sandwichman, generated some other data that relates to an on-going discussion we've been having at Lumpenlogocracy about the economic structures underlying the Conservative backlash.

First, though, let me explain more fully the context of Sawicky's post. Lazear argued that increases in total compensation closely track increases in worker output. Lazear's point was that to increase wages it was important to have robust economic growth, such as can best be provided by the tax-cutting, investment encouraging policies of the GOP. But, Sawicky noticed, that in order to get the nicely tracking lines of output and compensation, Lazear had to use an odd deflator. In Sawicky's words:
If you check the bottom, you see the deflator used is the "price index for nonfarm output," the result of which is the "real product wage." I had never heard of that before, but I'm no labor/price index savant. The trick here is that the deflator is for all output, including intermediate goods. The worker, by contrast, is more interested in the prices for the stuff he buys, not for machine tools and electric generators. If you use the Consumer Price Index you get a different picture, like this one.

I've duplicated Eddie's chart (the red and blue lines), and added real hourly compensation deflated by the CPI. Not quite the same, is it?
Indeed, no. But the really interesting chart came a bit later, in response to comments by Sandwichman, who thought Lazear's deflator might deserve more credit than Sawicky was giving it. Sandwichman constructed another data series, this one using 1947 as a reference point rather than 1992, as Lazear and Sawicky had done earlier. The reference point matters a lot, because the charts track relative changes in output and compensation. At the reference year, the lines for output and compensation are arbitrarily set to equal values (100). Here is the chart for the 1947 reference year:

Sandwichman comments:
Using 1947 as the base year, I find it rather remarkable that output, Eddie's compensation and real compensation tracked each other very closely until sometime in the early 1970s when they started to diverge. In the 4th quarter of 1970 the index numbers were Output = 184.8, Eddie's Compensation = 183.7, and Real Compensation = 183.0. Just for reference: Nixon closed the gold window and imposed wage/price controls on August 15, 1971.
The early 1970s were also the years when the Conservative backlash was making important inroads into the white working class. The data series on output and compensation matters in discussing the backlash because it shows that from that time forward, American workers kept on improving their output, but were not seeing matching increases in their compensation. This would lead, one imagines, to a fair amount of resentment. Backlash politicians and pundits were able to harness some of that resentment, but direct it away from economic issues and toward cultural issues instead.

I don't think this is news to readers of Lumpenlogocracy, of course, but I did think that the chart was a nice demonstration of the point. Add it to your own pile of substantiating data if you wish.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Haditha: We Need a Second Memorial Day

One week ago, we Americans celebrated Memorial Day, focusing especially on the victims of war who wore military uniforms. On that day, we heard heart-wrenching stories about mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, prematurely taken from this Earth and leaving behind huge gaping holes in people's lives. Such stories from real people's experiences were completely compelling to me, and I want to grieve for every one of them.

Now maybe we should declare a second Memorial Day holiday, one week after the first, in order to grieve and honor the civilian victims of war. I've been thinking for several days now that I really need to say something in this blog about Haditha. We now know that the horrific details of this massacre of Iraqi civilians, perpetrated by U.S. marines, are almost certainly true--even Bush and Rumsfeld are basically acknowledging that now. As we read about the whole families brutally murdered over several hours on that day, including young children and the elderly, it gives us a concrete and truly heart-wrenching example to reflect upon.

And let's not fool ourselves: this is not just one isolated instance. While this massacre may involve more civilian victims over a lengthy period of time (and, perhaps more importantly, has been documented and investigated), there are certainly many others. Moreover, once you start thinking about the civilian victims of aerial bombardment and major military operations with heavy artillery (think of Fallujah), the number of civilian victims soars far higher. To be sure, not all of the "collateral damage" is quite so clear cut of an example as the apparent war crimes at Haditha seem to be. But to the civilian victims themselves, this is no consolation, and their grief deserves the same dignity and honor as anyone.

I guess that's what all this is really about: equal dignity. If we really believe that everyone in the world is of equal moral worth, then we absolutely, fundamentally must insist upon grieving the deaths of civilian victims of war--especially the ones that result from our own military actions, for which we bear a special responsibility as indirect perpetrators. So we really need a second Memorial Day to the civilian victims of war. How about today?

I would like to add one more note intended for members of the U.S. armed forces currently stationed in Iraq (and elsewhere). I don't want to presume that any of you read this blog, but just in case you do: Please consider that you may have a special role to play in responding to Haditha. I'm not just talking about attending sessions sponsored by the Pentagon about the "rules of engagement." I'm talking about a far more radical response that will re-humanize and re-dignify that people in the lands you are occupying. Even though on moral grounds I might wish that you had refused to serve in Iraq, I recognize that there are many complex factors playing into your decision, including some very good values such as loyalty, commitment, and duty, as well as the simple reality that you may not have known what you were getting into. And so, for those serving on the ground, my plea is simply this: Reclaim your moral agency. Some brave and courageous soldiers have already been doing that, risking ostracism by reporting atrocities and demanding accountability. Others have insisted on upholding the dignity of the Iraqis, respecting and honoring them as people of equal worth to the band of brothers and sisters in their own units. These are the greatest heroes of this war, in my opinion. Don't just refuse to participate in the massacre of civilians. Report when atrocities occur and demand accountability. Take more risks on behalf of Iraqis. Object when other people try to dehumanize Iraqis with pejorative terms. I don't have any illusions that such actions will suddenly turn around the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people who hate this occupation, but maybe you can create more little corners of dignity and respect in a horrible situation. I'm sorry if this whole paragraph sounds preachy and sanctimonious (perhaps the greater danger is that it just sounds ridiculous and idealistic). On the contrary, I want to lift you up as moral agents who are not just beaten down and oppressed by your situation (which you certainly are) but also as people who can empower themselves to create a better world.

In return, those of us back at home must also commit to responding to Haditha in the way that we can. We can pledge ourselves to work even harder to demand an end to this occupation and to bring all of our military people home. No more Hadithas!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Like a Rolling Stone

Lots of progressive web-sites and blogs are linking to the new Rolling Stone article by RFK Jr. on vote fraud and disfranchisement in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. I couldn't resist adding a link on this blog.

For those who followed the blogosphere and non-mainstream media in the aftermath of the 2004 election, little of this will be new. However, it is nice to see the issue receive some thoughtful, comprehensive, and more widely-publicized attention. It also gives a good indication of which discrepancies and examples of malfeasance have proven to be more resistant to dismissal, after a year and a half of scrutiny.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The States of the Union

From the New Economist blog, I learned about this interesting website, the State of the Union, at which you can read the text of every presidential State of the Union address, from G.W. in 1790 to G.W.B. in 2006.

2002 SOTU

The centerpiece of the site is a cool java-script graph charting the length of the speeches and their grade level. You can mouse over the bars of the graph to bring up a display of the words used in each speech, displayed according to these criteria:

The horizontal axis is simply alphabetical. The vertical axis displays the word’s significance, determined by comparing how frequently the word occurs in the document to how frequently it appears throughout the entire body of SOTU addresses

Fans of the idea that our society is getting progressively dumber will be happy to see that SOTU addresses have been much shorter since 1900, and their their Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level sloping gently downward since 1790. A more positive spin on that data might be that it reflects the increasingly democratic nature of our politics, and the need of politicians to speak more common language.

The example displayed above is from George W. Bush's 2002 SOTU. Our current president is the only one to feature the word 'applause' prominently in any SOTU. In fact, it's prominent in every one of his speeches. Apparently the transcripts of Bush's speeches are the only ones to inlcude the notation "(Applause.)" I'm tempted to ascribe this to the Bush administration's reflexive need for displays of fealty, but it could easily be an artifact of the source of the texts.