Dec 272009
 
 
Imagine this:  roughly 10,000 people have nothing better to do on Christmas Day than to venture out to watch a re-enactment of George Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware River in 1776.  This is an annual event, drawing hardy souls who brave the cold to watch wannabe Continentals fight fake Redcoats for lovely Trenton, New Jersey.  Forget the birth of Christ.  It’s the birth of a nation (apologies to D.W. Griffith).  The big concession to convenience today is that the re-enactment takes place in the afternoon, although Washington et al crossed in the night.
 
The recent Great Recession has cut deeply.  This year, the state park that houses the re-enactment event was closed for the day due to budget cuts,and now history also became a victim of the fiscal conflagration burning through our economic resources.  Private supporters stepped in to keep the tradition alive, and the show was to go on!
 
Alas, the Friends were no match for Mother Nature.  Strong winds and high waters made the crossing impossible this year.  Instead, there was a ceremony on land followed by a ritual crossing of the local bridge.  It might lack the same danger, nobility, and discomfort of the first crossing, but Washington the Re-enactor found it as solemn and significant, according to his comments to the local paper.  He led his men proudly.  Perhaps in solitude, he wept.
 
I have to admit here that I love history in a way that others often don’t share.  No one else I know enjoys spending hours holed up in the library scrolling through old microfilm of hard to read newsprint or digging through antique shops for old books, records, and bric-a-brac.  But, I am at a loss to explain why 10,000 souls would want to stand out in the cold on the biggest holiday of the year to watch people act out a historical event from well over two hundred and fifty years ago.  Even less can I comprehend why someone would apply and take an exam to portray Washington or any other gentleman at the event.  The devotion of citizens to public history is a mystery to me.  Theirs is not a love of truth or narrative or philosophy.  Instead, they have an emotional connection to the persons involved in the event and a patriotic love of country that causes them to revere such moments.
 
So, the Christmas season for them is a time to mark a special civic remembrance on the day of a Christian one.  For them, the civic and the religious mingle and compound the day’s significance.  Or, maybe they co-mingle and the participants consider their religion and patriotism of the same belief.  In any case, it is these moments where history and current events mix that remind me that I am not like my compatriots and that fascinates me about them.  I can’t imagine paying homage to George Washington and Jesus with shared traditions on the same day.  Or for such different persons, honoring the same night.
 
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 Posted by at 12:02 am
Dec 252009
 
 
I understand that the works of Ayn Rand are gaining popularity again.  Aficianados of the free market system are boisterously promoting its virtues and bandying about the bugaboo of imminently threatening socialism.  Their fervor and simple absolutes breed interest, and the curious turn to Rand for inspiring depictions of ideal capitalism.  Her work makes the capitalist heroic and virtuous.  He is noble and principled, and who would not aspire to such?  Rand’s capitalism is not about greedy fat cats sucking the blood of the proletariat.  Her vision appeals to our highest instincts and caters to our vanity.  Of course, it is also fiction.  Yes, the best expositions of free market ideology are made up tales.
 
History tells us a very different story.  Boosterish proponents of free market ideology may point to the overarching narrative of the American century to promote their theory, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.  Our best shot at a truly free market economy in the United States was in the late nineteenth century.  It was brief and chaotic.  Many literally died in the violent exchanges between workers and hired hands brought in by company owners to crush strikes and rebellions.  These disputes were often settled with guns, fists, torches, and other weapons.  Railroad transportation was often stalled by strikes and other means of disruption.  Boycotts and walk offs frequently meant that consumers could not access the goods and services they wanted or needed.  Order was upset by the violence and disputes;  in some cases, property and towns were actually destroyed due to arson and riots.  Urban life was not safe in the way we understand it today.  Further, there were no employee protections, assuring that they would not have to work in unsafe conditions, be shorted in their pay, or lose their jobs if injured at work.  Workers who were injured on their jobs were not entitled to medical treatments at their employers’ expenses and they were often fired after the fact for being unable to fulfill their duties while incapacitated.  Maimings and serious injuries were common then.  Factory workers were often permanently injured or disabled at work.  They then had no means to support themselves and no social security benefits to fall back on.  The average male factory worker made about $400.00 a year in the late nineteenth century.  Budget estimates by social workers of the time indicated that it took at least $600.00 a year for a family of four to get by — and that’s without medical care or savings.  Accordingly, families were forced to put everyone to work in order to get by.  Children got jobs instead of schooling because their wages were necessary to their familial unit.  For families, for employees and employers, and for local communities, this period was one of violent upheaval and want.  This is not the picture of heroism or virtuous achievement.  It was class war — workers vs. owners — pure and simple.
 
This is the difference between history and fiction and why our historiography is so important to value.  Boosters rely on appealing fiction, but what people need to make realistic choices is knowledge of what really happened in our past.  Free market capitalism sounds great in theory, but our actual experience of it was not so fine or beneficial.  When making choices about what we want for our society today, we must bear that in mind.  Nothing’s as good as its ideal.
 
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 Posted by at 12:33 am
Dec 222009
 
 
I have a photograph of my brother and myself hand-in-hand off to our first day of kindergarten.  We look so innocent.  I have a bow in my hair and little sandals that match my feminine dress on my feet.  My brother looks buttoned up and spit-shined.  My mother groomed and pressed us and memorialized the grand moment when we would venture out into the world — our first foray into public life.  Little did we know at the time, in our excitement over reading hours, recess, and playgrounds, that we were being sent off to be socialized in the American way.  We did not know that we were being groomed into little capitalists.  I wonder if my parents knew it.  They probably didn’t think about it.  Does anyone?
 
It’s not like you can do much to avoid it anyway.  What with the truancy laws, your only option is to teach them at home, and who has the time and resources to home school, really?  In most families, both parents work — and have to do so — and home schooling is a luxury in which they cannot indulge.  Also, it’s likely that a number of them aren’t much interested in spending their days at home teaching their children anyway.  So, they cart them off to schools — public and private — where they are molded into fans of the free market.  That isn’t, of course, why you send them off to school — anymore than to teach them to be little pro-American automatons or knee-jerk patriots.  But, it comes with the package.
 
Of course, the indoctrination is subtle.  Children don’t stand at attention, saluting the flag with pledges like “All hail Capitalism” or “The Future is the Free Market.”  Far from it.  In fact, most students can’t tell you the difference between capitalism, socialism, or communism.  Rather, “capitalism” is normative and familiar to them through unconscious exposure, and the message vaguely reinforces that, suggesting that other systems are anti-Christian or anti-American.  Children don’t know what socialism or communism really is, but they sense that it’s dark and ominous — something to be feared and avoided.  They know it’s bad from the way their books and teachers speak about it and infer from their economics classes — where they learn about playing the stock market from local businessmen volunteers, courtesy of the Rotary Club or other civic organizations — that the free market is what makes us great.  It is the uncritical and unquestioned presentation of our economic system that serves to indoctrinate.  To question that is to be an outsider or a deviant.  Again, by refusing to suggest there are workable alternatives, educators direct you to embrace capitalism (as the only available/desirable option).
 
So, students go to their elementary schools as innocents and emerge as believers — if the schools do their jobs correctly.  And, these institutions of learning are then political tools for the powers that be.  The brick and mortar buildings that should serve as temples of learning become free market sanctuaries.  And, the sweet encouraging woman who taught you to write your letters and work fractions was really a political propagandizer, in whose hands you were impressionable putty that didn’t stand a chance.  In time, when you had become a good capitalist — who may or may not be able to read, identify the number of justices on the Supreme Court, or understand the principles of basic algebra — they gave you a diploma and set you free.  Your time at the free market seminary was done.
 
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 Posted by at 11:03 pm
Dec 132009
 
 
On election day 2008, Barak Obama and I shared the dubious distinction of being labeled “socialist” by critics.  I don’t know if it bothered the President (particularly since he won), but I didn’t so much mind because I was sure that the Bubba in the beater pick up truck who yelled the “insult” at me as he drove past where I held my campaign sign had no idea what a socialist was or what was so bad about them.  I figured he — like most Americans — was a product of the socialization agenda at work in American public schools and the propaganda machine at work in the public discourse (well, not so much discourse as recourse to punditry).  He’d been taught to believe that socialism was wrong and that covered everything that free-market promoters labeled as such.
 
When you ask these uber-capitalist advocates what’s so wrong with government intervention, they insist that the market knows best and that government interference does nothing but undermine innovation and growth.  Left to its own devices, they claim, the market will find level and provide the most benefits available to the majority at the best cost.  The government should not be involved in commercial exchanges and should remain neutral on price setting and sector development, they maintain.  It sounds reasonable to believe that consumers and producers acting in their own best interests will reach a mutually acceptable balance, but theory is theory and in reality it’s bullshit — much like how in the abstract, the four way stop is an efficient traffic design.
 
In any economic system, the government plays a vital and defining role in making the system work.  It is necessary, and no economy can function without a coercive political arm behind it, despite the claims of the free-market boosters.  Their expectation that private exchanges provide the foundation of an effective system itself relies on a government to enforce it.  I am not the first to note that without a legal system to compel compliance with contracts, private exchanges are only worth what the individual contractors have the power to obtain personally.  If you contract with someone for a product — new overalls, say — and they renege on supplying that item, without recourse to the law, you can only collect said Ozark tuxedo through threats, intimidation, negotiation, or force.  In a system where might makes right, large powerful parties dominate and the political system tends toward the oligarchical, or at least something other than substantive democracy.  In any case, the free market system — where everyone has the freedom to contract and exchange as will — needs a government with coercive power to enforce the very terms on which private exchanges rely.
 
On a larger scale, how is one consumer to take on the Acme Corporation and have any semblance of equality under the system?  It doesn’t happen.  A group of consumers, however, has the numbers to balance the power and achieve their common ends.  Similarly, employees may combine their demands to equalize the strength of their bargaining position.  Additionally, sometimes smaller companies do this as well, in order to compete with big box stores.  It often happens, however, that in trying to gain the upper hand — to ensure their own economic ends, as is their purpose in a free-market capitalist system — parties involved sometimes <gasp> act illegally or in extra-legal ways that give them an unfair advantage (like hiring thugs to harass strikers on a picket line in order to resolve a labor dispute).  When this occurs, the market is circumvented and the only way to right it is to employ the power of government.  Thus, in the real world, governmental intervention is often necessary to protect the market.
 
What’s more, sometimes a “neutral” government isn’t really neutral on economic issues after all.  The government may choose not to take sides in a dispute between polluters and environmentalists, but that generally ensures more trash.  The government hasn’t been able to make Exxon pay the full costs of cleanup for the Valdez spill yet;  there’s no way the Sierra Club could do it.  Meanwhile, the fishing industry suffers.  Also, as Anatole France noted sarcastically, the law equally prohibits the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, but of course, the rich don’t need to sleep under bridges to escape cold winds and driving rains.  The only purpose of that law is to further harm the poor — and for no economic benefit to the rich.  In this way, a government that pretends not to favor one side over the other actually ensures the advantage go to the wealthier party.  Governmental neutrality, then, tends to reinforce the advantages of the system and favor the rich.
 
Over the course of our history, our ancestors came to the conclusion that governmental intervention was a good thing, so as to protect us from the failures of the market in practice.  They came to understand that a neutral government wasn’t completely neutral and that the best interests of the whole of the citizenry were only protected when the State intervened through regulation and financial controls.  That history, however, is glossed over in history books, in order to comply with the demands of free-market advocates and their devotees.  As long as they maintain control over public school textbooks, the history of the economic struggles in America will remained skewed and education, economic propaganda.  Thus, public school historiography promotes the fallacy that a free-market is desirable and beneficial to our citizenry and that the government should stay out.  People can believe then that the government is neutral and that this is a good thing.  If only the history backed up the historiography.
 
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 Posted by at 12:47 am
Dec 062009
 

If you are to believe that our country is, and always has been, a capitalist nation, it is logically necessary to conclude that our Founding Fathers — those wise, benevolent drafters of our future course (when not busy having sex with slaves and ripping off Indians) — must have been devoted capitalists.  How else could they have put us on the path of free-market fealty?  If they were the priests of the sacred American faiths of democracy and private property, it is they who must be responsible for our economic ideology as well, you would think.  The problem with that conclusion is that it isn’t so much, well, true.

Capitalism is a collection of economic ideas cobbled together into a general theory.  Its origins developed over time and grew out of the contributions of several thinkers.  However, its first real formulation came in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, written to critique the monopolistic and inefficient economic practices of his day.  Smith’s work debuted in 1776.

That year, our founders were well occupied with certain domestic affairs.  Even if copies of Smith’s work were immediately available to them — in a day before Fed-Ex shipping and paperback editions — it is unlikely that our fighting patriots had much down-time for reading in economic theory.  I think it was probably not the case that Washington — or more properly, his slave — thought to grab the twelve hundred page tome for ballast for the crossing of the Delaware, although it may have provided kindling for five minutes at Valley Forge.  When Thomas Paine was drafting Common Sense, I don’t believe he included a shout-out to A-Smith and the free-trade boys.  And, what with all the bombs bursting in air and musket-drilling going on, I doubt that many of the revolutionaries had much time for thoughtful scholarly perusals.  C’est la guerre.

After the war, it took a few years to get any kind of national economic theory working — in part because the founders were largely opposed to any kind of national anything.  The Articles of Confederation were hardly a blueprint for free-market capitalism.  It took us a number of years to even embrace federalism — that is the notion that a nation exists, and then, the “nation” didn’t warrant an anthem, much less a cohesive fiscal approach.  For the first years of the republic, our leaders couldn’t agree on having a national bank, let alone a shared devotion to an economic  cause.  Moreover,  whereas Smith was opposed to the protective tariff (because it discouraged specialization and free-trade), A-hole Hamilton — probably our foremost financial planner of the early years — thought it a good thing.  TJ (0f Monticello) thought individual agricultural self-sufficiency was the key to true democracy and equality.  He had no interest in Smith’s industries.  And, of course, Smith objected to slavery — which was the foundation of the southern agricultural system, and he had no boosters on that point among the many southerners who served as our initial leadership and dominated the Oval Office early on.

Capitalism did not develop in the United States, then, because it was promoted by our devoted founders.  In actuality, the overthrow of the monarchy left a bit of a vacuum that was filled by incremental, organic growth.  Since there was no longer a crown to grant the East India Tea Company a monopoly over the tea trade in the colonies, it was kind of up for grabs to all of the mom-and-pops that sprouted up.  Essentially, in the early years, everything was a start-up (or start over).  While our leadership didn’t necessarily get in the way of the development of capitalism in our country, they were hardly ardent supporters of free-market theory.  It is, then, possible to conceive of an America — and American patriots — where capitalism was not joined to the political ideal, and any suggestions to the contrary are rot and propaganda.

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 Posted by at 5:07 pm