Friday, January 31, 2014

Maybe the economy doesn't need full employment any more

Instead of arguing whether raising the minimum wage will destroy jobs—which it won’t*—let’s consider a new International Labor Organization report that tells us that, globally, the labor market is not likely to come close to recovering before 2018. That's not even counting the catchup needed to employ the workers added each year.

This brings me to the thought that has been haunting me since 2008: What if we don’t ever get everybody back to work again right here in the good old U.S. of A.? It seems more likely every year.

This is a prospect looming over workers everywhere, and particularly in the technologically advanced United States since the 1970s. It was then that premature predictions of the Luddites—the textile artisans who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery in the 1810s—began to come true.

Since then a long slump in average wages, from which we have yet to recover, has occurred despite enormous productivity gains, sucking profits to the investing class in the now popularly known top 1% income bracket (I would include the top 20%, but that).

In 1978, President Carter signed the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act (formally the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act), which set full employment as a national goal, defining that condition as 3% unemployment for adults and 4% for youths.

Those rates were never reached. For three months in 2000, national rates for the civilian labor force slipped below 4% and the national average for that last year of the Clinton Administration was 4%. But the complete goal, which coincided with the well-known view of economist William Beveridge, was never reached.

What if the modern economy doesn’t need full employment to function?

For five full years in United States, which has the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest functioning internal market, has been able to chug along with roughly 1 in 10 workers idled or involuntarily employed part-time. Growth has not been great, but profits (and the stock market) have soared.

The plutocracy (which comes from the Greek for “the wealthiest rule”) has been perfectly content to effectively toss into the garbage the 30% to 40% of the American human beings directly affected by this (assume one worker per roughly three people, including children and the aged).

Unemployment insurance and food stamps have been cut in a time of continuing need; welfare didn’t need to be cut because it’s been effectively frozen since 1996 (that’s 18 years ago).

Welcome to the United States of Brazil or Argentina ... or even Greece.

Next: an immodest proposal ...

* Every respectable piece of research since the 1994 “Ur” study by Card and Krueger has proven—contrary to the repeated argument of the restaurant industry’s fake “Employment Policies Institute” plastered in a full page ad in The New York Times this week—that increasing minimum wage has no negative effect on employment. Some have suggested there may be a positive, job-generating effect.

Monday, January 27, 2014

How does Pope Francis keep believing?

The world I will hand over to my grandson is measurably worse than the world I was given, in almost every sense imaginable. Like many other people of goodwill, I have fought the good fight and essentially lost. How does Jorge Bergoglio keep the faith?

I have no idea.

This is not a rant against others. I know my flaws all too well ("...I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me," says Psalm 51). Any dispassionate observer looking at my life would see someone born with more privilege than 4/5ths of humanity (this probably applies to most people in the United States) and all I managed to achieve is securing my own well-being and a college degree for my sons.

If I am honest, my life says I care about me and mine. Well, "mine" not so much at times.

Looking at my life I see that I have written about injustices for decades, done some volunteering here and there, made tax-deductible and non-deductible donations to "good" organizations and to people I have come across, voted responsibly and generally been an average middle class do-gooder. None of this has had much effect; granted these were not heroic nor large contributions.

Lest the reader think I don't know what I am talking about, consider that in the richest economy in the world, middle incomes have been in stagnation and decline since 1973, while productivity and profits have soared. Things have not been better elsewhere.

Consider how
  • "Second wave" feminism of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ends up looking like a deliberate ruse by the plutocracy to double the supply of workers, thus driving wages down. 
  • The civil rights movement led to only token reforms and blacks never acceded in the right proportions to the social and economic well-being experienced by whites when Martin Luther King spoke of his famous dream. 
  • Those who took arms against injustice actually furthered the careers of many a Western intelligence and military man's career.
Moreover, to delve in Pope Francis' pond, didn't Soeur Sourire (the gentle nun who sang "Dominique-nique-nique" about St. Dominic to the sounds of her guitar) end up committing suicide at the end of a lesbian affair gone wrong? Weren't the clerics of the Vatican II era, conservative and liberal alike, consummate liars?

So, who's to say that the much ballyhooed victories of the Baby Boomers in the 1960s and 70s weren't merely mirages and the leaders mere stooges? Even polio is back, thanks to the Syrian civil war.

This is why I'm thinking that the Republican economic conservatives have a point. Life is nasty, brutish and short; the law of the jungle prevails and the real ethic to which everyone adheres is "me first."

In that state of things, why love your neighbor (other than carnally if it pleases you)? Why derive from such a principle a socioeconomic perspective that would in theory lead to a better life for all? Why not admit our fundamental selfishness and be done with it? Let the most selfish win.

Certainly, the tale about a Galilean woodworker 2,000 years ago is full of holes, as are the stories of Abraham and Moses. The religion of Mohammed has been so twisted and distorted into hate and war as to neutralize its genuinely peace-loving principles. Perhaps Buddha, who did not bother to start an actual religion, had a the right idea.

I suppose that's why I believe that the sun will "rise" tomorrow. Beyond that, I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What if Al-Qaeda is just a creature (or partner) of the CIA, MI6 and the Mossad?

No, I have not become a conspiracy theory nut. But I have just been made to think by an Argentine gentleman I won't name who alluded to a possible collusion between "terrorists" and spies to push countries like Syria to a self-destructive boil.

Yes, it sounded crazy to me at first. There are so many folks who will tell you the CIA was behind AIDS, the crack epidemic and hell, the hangnail they woke up with, that such claims can't be taken at face value. In my experience, and I have personally met at least a good half-dozen actual CIA officers and perhaps more that I didn't know were CIA, that's not how the world works.

However, once you pose the ancient Roman lawyer's question qui bono (who benefits?) it begins to be a bit less absurd. Why wouldn't intelligence services of the post-Cold War era seek to invent enemies to keep their budgets fat? It's not like that hasn't been done before.

Remember Vietnam? The United States would never have gotten so deeply enmeshed in, nor so wrongheadedly misdirected, the fate of the Republic of South Vietnam were it not for the CIA careerists who set in motion the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, albeit with the well-documented casual consent of President Kennedy.

And what about that splendid little anti-Soviet revolt in Hungary in 1956, with Czech weapons supplied by MI6 and the French DGSE as a political distraction during the Franco-English seizure of Suez?

And so on and so forth ...

My friend included drug cartels in the mix, a not implausible partner, as the Iran-Contra scandal taught us. Or should have.

It makes perfect sense that Al-Qaeda, whose founder and leader Osama Bin Laden was demonstrably CIA trained and supported, might collude with the guys at Langley.

What's the use of an intelligence service if there is no war? What's the use of a Jihad without endless money and weapons? It's win-win for both.

Now we have an endless "war" against an invisible "enemy" that can justify anything the spooks want to justify.

The "terrorists," who frankly do not inspire terror in me, are clearly a useful Boogeyman; they enjoy the role.

So do the hundreds of thousands of (mostly) men who get good pay to do everything from running the security theater at airports and federal buildings, to concocting new ways to blow up Third World countries.

These countries are handpicked because their governments refuse in some way to be client states, cheerfully handing over their national resources to Western corporations, often under thinly veiled "democracies" run by leaders bought and paid for by ... the CIA, MI6, the Mossad and who knows who else.

It doesn't have to be outright refusal, either.

Iran's Mossadegh in 1954 was merely a nationalist. Not pro-Soviet by a very, very long stretch. Saddam Hussein, like Tito, was a classic Bonapartist dictator who had made himself indispensable to keep his country together within admittedly artificial borders. Iraq was invented in 1931 and its borders drawn in London by the Foreign Office. Yugoslavia was a creature of the Versailles Treaty (as was Czechoslovakia). Look what happened when the dictators were removed (can anyone reading this spell S-a-r-a-j-e-v-o and F-a-l-l-u-j-a-h?).

The capital sin of these tin-horn dictators was not that they were Communist. No, they just weren't wildly enthusiastic cheerleaders of Western profitmaking at their countries' expense. (Plus, overthrowing them helped the careers of many intelligence officers at little political expense to the players in question.)

So, what do we do with this thought? Unfortunately, here is where I fall short. I don't have an intelligence service of my own to overthrow the CIA, MI6 and their pals.

Still, there is one thing of which, my experience as a journalist has taught me: government wrongdoing abhors the light of day. And humor. And respectful, civil disobedience. And common sense.