Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Economics, Equality, and Civil Rights

The economy is the biggest issue on everyone's mind right now and, except for my post about how I see and define capitalism, I have written on it only tangentially (in discussing the EFCA, trade or health care reform) so far this year. While I am more confident in my knowledge of economics than John McCain and comfortable with my grasp of logic and common sense, I make no pretense at being a professional economist. I have taken collegiate micro- and macroeconomics, passed both classes, and engaged in as much discussion with my professor as possible. So I am neither ignorant nor an expert. However, I do take pride in my familiarity with logic and common sense and in my judgment. So if Senator McCain could profess ignorance and then proclaim an economic agenda with confidence, I feel able to offer commentary on economic issues.

The AIG bonuses were covered heavily in the blogosphere last week, and I didn't have to much to say about them. I had more important things to talk about. I still don't intend to talk, directly, about the AIG bonus issue except to say briefly they are merely more evidence of the breakdown of ethical culture in our financial markets. The bonuses were part of a tax dodge, by paying executives nominal salaries and giving them the bulk of their pay in bonuses, AIG was able to write the entire paycheck for every executive off their corporate taxes. Instead of pandering to populist fury over the bonuses, both Congress and the administration should be focused on meaningful evaluation and reform of the system.

There has been focus on more meaningful issues in some quarters. Senator Bernie Sanders (I - Vermont) wrote a very on-target piece for CommonDreams.org. He hammers the financial industry leaders as loan sharks and advocates a strong national usury law to control the interest rates banks charge consumers. I particularly enjoyed the piece because it's not every day one gets to see a socialist (Senator Sanders is a real socialist, as opposed to being called one by Republicans) cite an amendment offered by a conservative Republican in 1991 in support of his proposal for new regulation. Senator Sanders also makes cogent statements about the way credit unions (non-profit by definition) have been unscathed despite the credit disaster. I am a credit union member myself, and I can testify to the truth of the senator's statements. I have been given no reason to believe my money is in jeopardy, and my financial institution is in no danger of going out of business tomorrow and not demanding government bailout money. Conservatives should really stop and think about that when railing against 'socialism'... the capitalist banks are in trouble and the cooperative credit unions are not. I have to say I support an usury law.

On HuffPo, Ian Welsh writes with equal cogence about the stock market's recovery last week. He states, clearly:

"Repeat after me. The market is not the economy. The market is not the economy."

That is common sense one does not hear or read often enough, from the left or the right.

In fact, this is very important to remember. The same thing that conservatives say about government is also true of Wall Street: the capital/financial markets cannot create wealth, they can only redistribute it. Wall Street takes money from individual investors and funnels it to corporations. This is a necessary part of capitalism, but it has become the cart that drives the horse. Does anyone remember the stock manipulation scandals of a few years back? Enron ring a bell? Corporations manipulated their stock price to increase capital gains, while ignoring actual business operations. During the tech bubble of the '90s, a slough of companies that never made a profit were trading at huge volumes. This is not capitalism, this is policy banking in the guise of capitalism.

Financial markets serve an important purpose in a capitalist economy, at least in theory: they serve to finance entrepreneurism. The theory is that one buys stock in a company to finance its growth with the understanding one will share in its prosperity if it succeeds. Our markets, repeatedly through our history, have been hijacked by speculators, corrupt business leaders, and banking scandals. When this happens, they do not properly serve capitalism. Instead, they do it terrible damage. This is why they were regulated during the 1930s in the first place.

I am going to repeat a point that I have made on several other occasions, when discussing several topics, a point that I continue to repeat because of its importance in today's political climate. The greatest threat to the civil rights of American citizens, right now, is not the government. It is unfettered corporate power, allied to political corruption. Equality before the law is impossible when massive coporate interests concentrate the bulk of society's capital in a few hands. Steps must be taken to rectify the balance. A vast amount of law (from the privatization of state services to the mandating of digital television technology to the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit of the Bush administration to the repeal of Glass-Steagal during the Clinton administration) has been passed for the benefit of corporations to the detriment of the public interest. Corporations are able to secure this kind of governmental assistance because of the vast imbalance of wealth in American society. The American worker, the middle class voter, the family farmer, and the small businessman are all there to be screwed for the benefit of these interests. They do not have the 'political capital' the corporations possess.

A common conservative response to these concerns is to expound at length about class warfare and to justify supply side economics on the notion that what is good for business is good for the economy, as Jenn Q Public does in the linked post. Clearly, however, what was 'good for AIG' wasn't even good for AIG, let alone the economy. This returns to another theme I have repeated before: the capitalist system is based on enlightened self interest and cannot succeed when sufficient enlightenment to determine one's own self-interest does not exist.

The Founding Fathers are frequently quoted in support of numerous positions by all factions in American politics, but I want to offer a very different kind of quote from the usual offered from the heady days of America's origins.

A Privates Committee drew up a bill of rights for the Pennsylvania state constitution during the framing convention in 1776. It included the following clause:

"An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."

I am not advocating dispossessing the rich of their property, but I do believe that the public interest, the economy, and the stability of capitalism in America would be best served by remembering that this is a nation in which citizens are supposed to enjoy equality before the law. We need to be genuinely aware of the practical truths of daily American life and to think about them, in our political debate, as much as we think about ideology.

The clause quoted above was ultimately not included in the Pennsylvania state constitution, but it can be taken as prophecy if one changes the word 'individuals' to 'corporations.' Type it up in note pad with that change and just look at it for awhile, and think about what is happening now. Do you think the credit crisis would have happened on the same scale if a few companies didn't have such a tight grip on the financial markets nationwide?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Are the Republicans really looking out for the interests of workers?

As last week, with health care, I find myself motivated this week to write beyond my normal once-weekly update pace because of my strong feelings on an issue. Anyone who has read my thoughts here knows that I feel very strongly about the civil rights of working Americans and American consumers. Nor will it surprise anyone who has been reading this blog that I feel the greatest threat to the civil rights of Americans in this era is unrestricted corporate power. I have shared what I feel is compelling evidence advancing this argument. I have compared the chief executives and board members of American corporations to pirates, and generally I have had to admit the pirates come off as more honorable and less nakedly predatory. My update this week was a piece in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, one the pieces linked above. Yet I feel the need to write again on the same topic before it is even Friday. Why?

Part of it is what Peter Ferrara wrote in the American Spectator just the day after I wrote my piece on Senator Specter and the EFCA. The misrepresentations of history, distortions of polls and statistics, and outright lies in Mr. Ferrara's article are too numerous to list. Labor unions are responsible for helping bring workers the 40 hour work week, cost of living raises, overtime pay, and vacation/sick pay. From Mr. Ferrara's writing, however, one would assume labor unions were directly responsible for the credit crisis and our current economic woes, despite the fact that I am unaware of any Teamsters working on Wall Street. Mr. Ferrara writes about health coverage and paid family leave as if these were bad things that no sane employee would want.

The real parties responsible for the weakening of American industry are the leaders of American industry. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs has put thousands of people out of work and turned industrial towns into ghost towns. The same companies that are responsible for this job loss have asked for government money, because their problem is not a problem of production costs: it is a problem of failing to make a product that Americans want to buy and putting a price tag on it that Americans can afford. Automoible prices have skyrocketted even as Detroit has dumped workers and shifted manufacturing to Mexico, and yet Ford and GM are surprised no one buys their cars? No one can afford to buy their cars!

Mr. Ferrara's arguments are terribly weak. This is a typical paragraph of his article:

Unions also routinely suffer corruption. Dues are diverted for the personal gain of union leaders. Union pension funds are looted. Check out this history yourself as well.

Perhaps Mr. Ferrara should, himself, read the history of what has been going on in the banks and on Wall Street. I'm pretty sure I remember hearing about corruption. Yet he attacks unions and argues that business is the best defender American workers can have. He continues to claim (as all the opponents of the bill claim) that the EFCA robs workers of their right to vote by secret ballot. This is not true. It is a pure lie. The law does not prevent a secret ballot. It allows a petition in cases where employees believe that their employer will take measures to prevent or influence a union vote. Mr. Ferrara claims that in half of all union elections, unions are voted down.

This sadly is true, but it is not because of the free choice of workers. It is because of the union busting powers given to corporations by state 'right to work' laws and 'at will' employment agreements.

Unions give workers the power to bargain collectively instead of singly. A lone worker, arguing with the human resources representative in a corporate office, is at a significant disadvantage in negotiating. He has no advocate or support, and the company has the power to fire him if his attempt to advocate for his own interests cross whatever line they wish to draw. I have been in this situation, alone and knowing that I have no power to do anything to defend myself against clear injustice. I wonder if Mr. Ferrara has.

While Mr. Ferrara's article admittedly makes me quite angry, it is not the only reason that I am writing. I made the attempt (which I admit to knowing was futile) to lobby my state's two senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, to vote for the EFCA. To the credit of both senators, I received replies. To the discredit of both senators, these replies were entirely dismissive of my concerns and extremely personally condescending.

This is the reply of Senator Alexander:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for getting in touch with me and letting me know what's on your mind regarding the rights of workers.

All Americans should have the same freedom to work. I believe that working Americans should have the choice to join a labor union or not join a labor union. I also believe that workers should have the right to decide important issues through the use of a secret ballot.

There are few more fundamental rights than the secret ballot, whether it's a vote for president, mayor, or to unionize a workplace. American workers - particularly in right-to-work states like Tennessee - deserve to be able to vote their conscience without having to worry about potential retaliation.

You don't have to be a labor lawyer to know that peer pressure and outright intimidation are often factors in unionization campaigns. The secret ballot grants workers the freedom to make their decision on the merits, rather than pressure from union organizers or management. That is why I joined as an original cosponsor of the Secret Ballot Protection Act, and will continue to oppose legislation that would allow a workplace to be unionized simply by the gathering of signatures from a majority of employees.

I'm glad you took the time to let me know where you stand, and I'll be sure to keep your comments in mind as this issue is debated in Washington and in Tennessee.



As you can see, Senator Alexander essentially repeats conservative talking points while telling me that he cares deeply about the rights of workers and is only screwing them over for their own good. I don't think his good intentions will help them very much. He is not only opposed to the ECFA but he is a co-sponsor of the grossly misnamed Secret Ballot Protection Act, because he believes the American worker needs to be protect from union tyranny so much that American corporations must be granted more union-busting power than they already possess.

Worst of all, Senator Alexander has the gall to claim that 'right to work' laws are good for workers. Perhaps Senator Alexander is unaware of this fact, but 'Right to Work states' have the lowest real wages and most crushing poverty rates in the country. Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee are not precisely known for their large and prosperous working class. He is greatly concerned about workers' right to vote to unionize by secret ballot, but appears unconcerned that those who attempt to organize union votes are frequently fired for the attempt. What about their 'right to work'?

At least Senator Alexander actually understood my point of view, however. Senator Corker either did not, or failed miserably in an attempt to be 'cute' with his reply.

Dear Mr. Richards,

Thank you for taking the time to contact my office with your opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. Your input is important to me, and I appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts.

I agree with you that the various card check legislative changes that have been proposed would amend federal labor law in ways that take them back a hundred years. Chief among these is the Employee Free Choice Act. It would allow union leaders to strong arm and pick off workers one by one, intimidating them into signing cards to organize a union. I do not believe that most Americans or most union workers who truly understand what this bill means would support it. This "card checking" would end the 72-year precedent whereby workers are guaranteed the right to unionize through federally supervised secret ballot elections. The right to secret ballot has been something that we have practiced since our birth as a country.

On June 26, 2007, I voted against moving forward on H.R. 800, the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007, a bill that was passed in the House of Representatives two years ago. The motion failed, effectively stopping the Senate consideration of the bill at the time. More recently, Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts introduced a new version of the Employee Free Choice Act, S.560, on March 10th, 2009. The bill is currently before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Please know that I will continue to oppose any such card check legislation as we move forward in Congress.

You may be interested to know that on February 25, 2009, I became an original co-sponsor of S.478, the Secret Ballot Protection Act of 2009. This bill, as the name implies, would guarantee American workers the right to a secret ballot vote on whether or not to form a union. As with current law, these elections would be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Action has not yet been taken on S.478, but I look forward to supporting this bill should it be brought to the Senate floor.

Thank you again for your letter. I hope you will continue to share your thoughts with me as I serve you in the United States Senate.


Bob Corker
United States Senator

Anyone reading this should know by now that I most certainly do not believe the ECFA is the chief threat to workers' rights in this country, nor am I particularly threatened by card check. After I made the earnest request that he reconsider his position, Senator Corker instead gloated about the votes he has made to continue to allow a company to deprive me of my civil rights with gleeful pride. Suffice it to say that I certainly do not believe that Senator Corker is serving me in the United States Senate. He's serving the people who fired me when my girlfriend was hospitalized and required care. At least 'Lamar', or whomever on his staff wrote the reply for him, actually read what I wrote to him.

If you live in Tennessee and you work for a living, you should be aware that Senators Alexander and Corker believe your interests are best served by serfdom.

My girlfriend's employment agreement was updated recently, to include a policy stating that her employer will fire her if they feel her conduct on her own time, away from the workplace, when she is not on their clock 'reflects poorly' on them. Corporations are now seeking to deprive people of their civil rights off the job, as well as on the job.

Yet Mr. Ferrara, Senator Alexander, and Senator Corker believe that the biggest threat to the rights and livelihood of working Americans, in these difficult economic times, is organized labor.

The term 'out of touch' has been ridden into the ground. So I am just going to suggest that the three gentlemen are out of their minds.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Economic Reality vs Moral Imperative: Are they really incompatible?

After smug Twittering by Republican operatives that it might be so, it is now official: Arlen Specter (R - PA) has declared on the floor of the Senate that he will be voting against the Employee Free Choice Act at this time and won't reconsider 'until the economy returns to normalcy.' This is both an unfortunate decision by Senator Specter and an unfortunate choice of words with which to deliver it. I'll start with my substantive policy position on the EFCA, before veering off into political polemic about the choice of words.

The EFCA is a reaction to the harsh union busting tactics adapted by corporations, to control their employees' right to protest and bargain collectively in defense of their rights, with the license granted by 'right to work' state government policies and 'at will' employment policies.

'Right to work', in theory, protects the right of the hypothetical Working Joe not to join a union if he chooses not to do so. This sounds great on paper. The problem is that state 'right to work' laws always contain provisions that go beyond allowing Working Joe to refrain from joining a union if he so wishes. These provisions vary in their specifics, but they are remarkably uniform in their effects: they restrict the ability of unions to organize themselves, to bargain collectively, to strike, and to address employee grievances. Thus every individual is alone facing his employer when strolling into the human resources department, without an advocate or ally. Working Joe is free to refrain from joining a union if he wishes, sure, but if his coworkers manage to unionize they will not be able to gain any positive benefits from it. One is forced to wonder whether the purpose of such state laws, then, is really to protect Working Joe's rights or instead to eliminate Working Joe's rights by rendering impotent the only advocate he might have for those rights. Furthermore, 'right to work' laws are guilty of a particularly reprehensible intellectual dishonesty: they posit a counter-intuitive argument in which Working Joe's rights are threatened by a predatory union and safe-guarded by a benevolent employer.

I don't know what is more morally objectionable: the bald-faced arrogance of that lie, or the moral failure of many voters and politicians in both parties in either believing it or failing to properly expose it. This is not a case of Republican bad guys and heroic Democrats, sadly. Many Democrats have co-operated in advancing these swindles. Nor have we seen significant checks on these policies by either state or federal judiciaries. 'Right to work' violates the citizen's constitutional rights to speak and publish his views and to assemble freely in protest. The corporation, through 'right to work', is given fascist police powers that the government itself is denied by the U.S. Constitution. All those libertarians out there who interpret 'less government regulation' as meaning 'greater individual liberty' should have a much harder time swallowing that than they do.

This brings us to the second half of the one-two punch, the right cross to punctuate the left jab: 'at will' employment agreements. Once again we are addressing a policy grounded in a legal fiction. The 'at will' position assumes that employee and employer suffer equal restraint from a contractual agreement and receive equal freedom from restraint by the absence of a contractual agreement. An 'at will' employment agreement gives Working Joe the theoretical freedom to leave his job at any time for or without any reason, if something better comes along. However, it contains no protections allowing Working Joe to secure his benefits, last paycheck, or a good reference is he does so. Most companies require an employee to sign away his right to secure the return of deposits paid to the company or remuneration for unused benefits (such as sick time or vacation pay) should he quit without notice. So Working Joe is not really free to quit at any time.

More importantly is what Working Joe gives up in return for receiving his questionable right to quit at any time for any or no reason. He gives up his right to sue for wrongful termination unless he can prove discrimination covered by the 14th Amendment. This is because the 'at will' agreement gives the company the right to fire Working Joe at any time, for any or no reason, without notice or warning. This not just the freedom to lay Working Joe off if necessary, with recourse to union benefits or federal unemployment aid. This is the right to fire Working Joe and leave him without legal recourse, at the company's pleasure. Working Joe's very right to seek redress in court is contractually eliminated by an agreement alleged to give him more 'freedom.' When really read and considered, the typical employment agreement under 'at will' policies is not an 'at will' agreement at all. It is a pernicious one-sided contract that binds the employee while leaving the employer absolutely free. This rather blows 'equal protection under the law' out of the water.

It should be noted that none of this, neither 'right to work' state laws nor 'at will' employment regulations, serves any purpose but to increase the ability of an employer to control the life and limit the liberties of his employees. 'At will' employment agreements have justified firing employers for their political opinions, for the way they vote, for their internet activity at home, for personal activity far removed from the workplace, and a great many other personal areas into which the employer should have no power to intrude. These agreements are possible because 'right to work' inhibits the creation and operation of a union to oppose these policies. 'Right to work' is bolstered, in turn, by the most important right the employer gains from 'at will' agreements: the freedom to specifically fire an employee for union activity. Remember, the employer can fire the employee at any time, for any or no reason.

Which brings us to the EFCA. Labor unions offer the first line of defense against the kinds of abuses specifically legalized by 'right to work' and 'at will' laws and policies. Labor unions can (and have) organized aggressively against 'right to work' laws, and a strong union can prevent an employer from requiring and enforcing 'at will' employment agreements. When one really considers the minimal gains that Working Joe receives from these laws and agreements against the vast power the employer receives over him in return, it is impossible to claim that these laws are for Working Joe's benefit. They very specifically and explictly benefit corporations to the detriment of the civil rights of American citizens. Passing the EFCA would be a beginning (not the end, it is not radical enough to finish the job, merely to start it) of the restoration of the balance of power between business and labor.

Which brings me back to Senator Specter and into the political polemic portion of this post. His statement 'until the economy returns to normalcy' is fraught with conservative economic meaning. 'Return to Normalcy' was the campaign slogan for President Warren G. Harding, an affable newspaper publisher from Ohio who was driven into politics by a combination of naive political idealism and a lot of corporate money. At the time he ran for president, then-Senator Harding was a member of the reactionary wing of the Republican Party which had helped to destroy President Woodrow Wilson's second term in the wake of WWI. His nomination was a rejection of the more left wing 'Progressive Republican' policy positions of Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Robert 'Fighting Bob' LaFollette (one of Harding's opponents for the presidential nomination) and an embrace of the conservative, laissez-faire stance for which President William McKinley's administration had been infamous during the beginning of the Gilded Age.

The meaning of the slogan, 'return to normalcy', was two-fold. The first and obvious meaning was that WWI was over, the peace settlement was settled, and the country would get back to business as usual. The second was a complete rejection of reformist politics, both President Wilson's Democratic 'liberalism' and a rejection of the 'progressivism' and 'gradualism' (both, as more than one historian has noted, were very close to the same thing) that had come to dominate the Republican Party under presidents Roosevelt and Taft. The people backing Harding believed nothing was wrong with the country and nothing needed to be changed. Temporary crises had been conquered and life would go on as it had before them.

This led directly into the counterfeit prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and the tragic economic collapse of the Great Depression. Temporary measures had clearly not been enough, meaningful reform of the system was still needed and had been rejected.

Senator Specter's use of the phrase now is even more egregious, because we are still in the midst of crisis. The ECFA is part of the means of defeating that crisis. Now, as during the Gilded Age, we are faced by jarring imbalances between the rich, the middle class, and the poor while the divisions between the middle class and the poor continue to break down. We cannot wait for matters to 'return to normalcy' before acting to face that crisis, we must move boldly to fix the broken parts of the system. Not only will that bring the current crisis to an end more rapidly, but it will secure us from future repetitions of the same. I firmly believe that the decline in real wages for the working class, the loss of blue collar jobs overseas, and the Bush-era gutting of the middle class all directly share portions of the responsibility for the current crisis. We must act to correct these problems as surely as we must act to correct the problems of the financial markets.

Senator Specter's argument is that in times of economic difficulty, major corporations should have more power to exploit their employees and employees should have less freedom to guarantee their livelihoods and civil rights from the most egregious exploitation. He may not realize it, but it is. The employer-employee relationship at the present time, under present conditions is as adversarial as the political system or the criminal justice system. The employee needs to be restored his legitimate ability to defend himself in that system. The current economic crisis makes that moral imperative all the greater rather than reducing it in any way.

Senator Specter is wrong to change his vote on the EFCA. I can only hope that he realizes he is wrong or that another Republican steps into the breach to fight for the right and the good in our time of crisis.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Here I Go Talking About Health Care Again...

Of course, the president is talking about it right now too. Nor is he the only one. It has been in a lot of news and blogs this month. In the New Republic, Johnathan Cohn writes what essentially amounts to a puff piece about President Obama keeping health care firmly in the public eye. From the other side of the political fence, Jenn Q Public (whose awesomeness I may have to concede despite our philosophical disagreements, judging from the excellent way she replies to intelligent arguments intelligently) criticizes the president for excluding the opposition from the discussion. She accuses him of a left wing bent on the topic which I cannot say I am confident he truly possesses. On Huffington Post, Steven Hill exorts the president to move further to the left and embrace European health care reform models... but he wiggles to the right a little in advancing a shared responsibility system of universal insurance on the model of France or Germany rather than true universal health care on the Swedish model. Meanwhile, a trifle more left-ward on HuffPo, Robert Creamer makes a solid point of the need for a public plan to compete with the private insurance system. Back to the right, the Cato Institute published an article by University of Chicago economist John Cochrane which was summarized excellently in Reason. This the same plan Jenn Q Public uses in her criticism of the exclusion of the right from the discussion, noting the author was not invited.

Since I already said it on her blog, I want to say it on my own blog too: I think that plans like that of Professor Cochrane (or the one offered by Suzanne Somers' plastic surgeon) should be represented in our discussion of public health and given their due consideration. I am not saying the solution will come from the right, or even that the free market plans offered by libertarians and conservatives are on the right track. In fact, I believe both Professor Cochrane and Dr. Hanson's plans contain great potential to make the situation far worse. That does not mean they should not be part of the conversation. Clearly, on this topic, there are ideas on the right. They may not come from the political wing of conservatism right now, but the ideas are there. They need to be represented to the policy-makers.

I am a committed supporter of a single-payer system and I believe that single-payer is not being given the consideration it deserves. I believe that President Obama, by removing single-payer from the table in the manner in which many liberals believe he is doing, is cutting off what could be a source of ideas and examples. In this particular area, as I have written before, socialism could be very good for capitalism. Yet it is being dismissed, at this point, with the same cavalier disregard as the ideas from the right.

We are in danger of a politically correct centrism derailing meaningful and lasting reform of the health care system by excluding the radical ideas from both sides. Despite my skepticism of a private sector solution, I want to see a program that addresses all my concerns and if it does then I don't care whose idea it is. The possibility always exists that the best system might be a hybrid in which a government plan competes on an even playing field with private policies, all making each other better (as President Obama originally described in his campaign) and such a hybrid would require ideas from both sides to perfect.

Perhaps most central, however, is the importance of debate in this process. We need radical health care change, on a systemic level, and it needs to be a quantitative and qualitative improvement over the current system to justify the effort and expense. Regardless of the plan that is ultimately adopted, we need the input and critical thinking of both sides. A socialized plan must address libertarian concerns and a free market plan must address the concerns of social liberals. Both sets of concerns are real and valid, when one dismisses all the political polemic attached to them. Quality and patient choice of doctors and facilities are both terribly important, but so are access, accountability, and affordability.

I have spoken derisively of bi-partisanship before and I am not advocating that health policy be tailored to receive broad Republican support in the House and Senate. It will not. In my opinion, even the most conservative policy compromise will ultimately pass on party lines in the House and with the support of only a small handful of moderate Republicans in the Senate. I do not believe the Republican Party believes that health care is a national priority. Michelle Bachmann and Richard Shelby will care more about whether the bill requires health care providers (or, God forbid, the government!) to pay for birth control pills or abortions than they will about whether or not it improves our badly damaged health care system. This is simply to be expected. Even a harshly conservative proposal like the McCain Plan would pass, in its final form, on Democratic votes and the support of its GOP sponsor and a few moderates.

That does not mean, however, that we should exclude those with ideas from the process. Everyone who wants to participate and has something to offer should be invited. Every idea should be heard. Each side should criticize the other and each side should use the other's criticism to address the issues about which all Americans are concerned.

This issue is simply too important to be left to those who wish to pursue politically correct avenues of thought.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Radical Foreign Policy Change, Pt. 3: Collective Security or National Security?

In the post that began this series, I attempted to define the goals of foreign policy. I concluded they were two-fold: the furtherance of the nation's economic needs, or trade, and the defense of the nation's security. The latter is particularly complicated. Just what is national security and how is it achieved? The two simple words are used to describe quite a few competing meanings.

Prior to the World Wars (and during the interlude between them), national security meant the defense of the country's borders and the protection of its sphere of influence in the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. Beginning not long after the end of the Second World War, it came to mean victory in the Cold War. During WWI and in the aftermath of the Cold War, at least to a significant portion of the national leadership, it meant pursuing an agenda of universal democratic empire. Whether the words 'democratic' or 'empire' are encapsulated in sarcastic quotation marks depends on whether one is describing the ambitions of Woodrow Wilson or today's neoconservatives and there are significant degrees of shading on both words between the two. Regardless of which variation of the phrase one chooses to embrace, the goal was a democratic world order under the benevolent messianic leadership of the United States. Nor has this goal entirely disappeared. It is difficult to absolve even the current administration of such a vision, the foreign policy differences between Democrats and Republicans have largely been differences of tactics rather than differences of strategy.

The Cold War is over, it has been won. The world is no longer endangered by international Communism, and whether such danger was ever legitimate is open to question. The World Wars have also been won, and the aftermath of the First should have taught us all a lesson about the practicability of universalist dreams. We are no longer an isolated 'island' between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the world has shrunk so that such distances mean relatively little. So all of the theories of national security with which our nation is familiar are, if not obsolete, obsolescing rapidly. We need a new strategy for the modern world.

Such a strategy already exists. It has been tried before, with both great success and disastrous failure.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, with the great messianic empire builder of his era weighing his options as emperor of a tiny Mediterranean island even smaller than the not-very-big one on which he was born, the leaders of the nations of Europe met at what is today called the Congress of Vienna. During its sessions, Napoleon returned from Elba for his last hurrah and the great European summit had ended before his final bolt was entirely shot. The purpose was simple: Napoleon, for good or ill, had changed the world and Europe must now decide how to react to the changes. The goal of the Congress was the drawing of the European map, which had been entirely thrown into disarray and now needed to be reordered. This was accomplished by the diplomats and made concrete by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

The architechts of the Congress of Vienna were two men with different personalities and similar goals: Prince Klemens Menzel von Metternich and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. The former was primarily concerned with protecting the Great Power status of Austria, the remaining rump of the once vast Hapsburg Empire. The latter was greatly concerned with establishing Russia, once and for all, as a European power. It was impossible to ignore the ideas of the British Empire, as the British had been fighting France consistently for the entire duration of the Napoleonic Wars (broken by brief ceasefires that were merely preparations for renewed conflict) and every other country represented had at some point allied itself with Napoleon. The paramount concern of the British, for admittedly selfish reasons, was the balance of power among the other Great Powers. The visionary Alexander, the practical Metternich, and the various representatives (Lord Castlereagh, then Wellington himself, and finally Lord Clancarty) of victorious Britain together devised a system of political alliances to secure what a latter day Russian 'tsar' would call 'collective security.' It is perhaps ironic that a system envisioned by a Russian and which ultimately favored British interests was named after the representative of the least powerful of its devisors.

For nearly one hundred years, from 1815 to 1914, the Metternich System kept the peace in Europe. There were conflicts, revolutions, and wars... but the system held together so well that none of these flare-ups were prolonged or wide-spread. Wars were signals for the diplomats to redouble their efforts, and the diplomats frequently resolved these disputes in such an even-handed fashion that one wonders precisely why anyone bothered to fight. The worst wars of this period, the Crimean War and the Balkan Wars, occurred out of the reach of this system in or on the borders of the Ottoman Empire. This, of course, was the flaw: the system had finite limits, and once those finite limits were passed it was difficult to confine the grievances outside of those limits. In 1914, as a direct outgrowth of the Balkan Wars and the indirect result of the coalescence of a unified German state to counterbalance Austria and rival Russia and France, the system broke down and horror ensued.

After each World War, attempts were made to return to a system of collective security. They were less than successful. Wilson's Fourteen Points were brushed cheerfully aside by the victors in favor of divvying up the plunder and his League of Nations was emasculated by the voters of his own country. The Soviet Union was excluded from the comity of Europe in favor of pursuing futile alliances with the former Russian ruling class that prolonged the Russian Civil War but never really had any hope of deciding it. It should not be surprising that when the civil war was over, Russia was not terribly trusting of Europe and Europe was faintly afraid of Russia. Never the less, it was only after failed attempts to renew an alliance with the Western democracies for the purpose of what was called 'collective security' for the first time that the USSR signed its pact with the Nazis. When that happened, the Second World War was guaranteed.

During the later phases of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union made new plans for real collective security in the form of the United Nations. The American assumption was that the UN would be the means by which universal democratic empire would be achieved while the Russian beleif was that it was a forum for the diplomats to maintain collective international security. No one really expected any other votes to matter. Differing conceptions of the UN, and the Cold War that arose from those differing conceptions, did to it as WWII did to the League of Nations. Now the United States (and most other nations powerful enough to do so) scoffs at the UN and its 'violations of national sovreignty' and does as it pleases while the UN has become the plaything of the disenfranchised Third World. Collective security was stillborn yet again.

The United States needs to recognize that Russia has not ceased to be a Great Power and resents its treatment as a potential vassal or ungrateful stepchild. The United States needs to understand that Europe is coalescing into one of the superpowers of the future and will not remain content to simply follow the American lead for much longer. The United States needs to fully face the potential threats and challenges offered by China instead of merely seeing it as a potential shopping mall. The United States needs to recognize the vast potential of India, which inches closer to fulfilment every year. More simply: the United States needs to understand that victory in the Cold War has not made it the sole superpower in the world, it has simply restored the pre-Cold War, multi-power status quo. Triumphalism and universalism have to go out the window.

They have to be replaced by collective security. We live in a dangerous world in which all of the nations on the above list are armed with powerful nuclear weapons. So are at least two states not on that list: Israel and Pakistan. The latter is currently in disturbing disarray. That is largely the fault of the United States and its ambivalence toward Pakistani democracy when that interfered with its acitivities in Afghanistan.

The United States needs to commit itself to a policy of seeking a modus vivendi with its fellow nations on equal, honest terms. It must strive to work in a community of superpowers for the goal of collective world security. It may have to accept that sometimes it will not be able to be the leader of those pursuits. We must seek partners, not satellites.

There are real international issues that must be faced: peace in the Middle East, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to regimes throughout Africa and Asia, the problems of terrorism, narcotics, and organized crime, the environmental question, global human rights, world poverty, and many more. Someone, at some point, has criticized the United States for 'not leading' on every one of these issues. The real problem is that these are not issues one nation can solve, they are issues the world must work to solve. The 'leadership' of the United States has frequently done as much harm in many of these areas as it has good.

A strategy of collective security is the only viable strategy for the world in which we now live. National security can no longer be guaranteed (if it ever could) by a policy of invading our enemies and rewarding our friends. We must engage Europe, Russia, China, and India in search of our common interests and common concerns and to settle our points of contention. '

'Democracy', which has always been a heavily loaded and highly subjective term, cannot be established by brute force in the face of a hostile world. If we people our world with enemies, democracy will not protect us when they all vote against us. Contrary to idealistic belief among neoconservatives and the politically naive, democratic nations are not automatically naturally friendly to one another. Rome and Carthage, who fought three genocidal wars which ended in the total destruction of the latter, were both republics. Hitler and Mussolini were elected democratically. Japan had three peaceful changes of government prior to and during WWII, with each government being more vocally devoted to war with the United States than the last. The United States, the world's poster boy for democracy, has overthrown democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Chile, and Iran, helped to brutally suppress democratic revolution against a fascist junta in El Salvador, and deliberately took action to prevent democratic elections in South Korea and South Vietnam.

So let's start talking a lot more about collective security than national security and start teaching democratic values by example instead of by propaganda.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Radical Foreign Policy Change, Pt. 2: A Story About England and Portugal

In my first posting of March I asked the following question: What is the purpose of foreign policy?

My answer was two-fold: The purpose of foreign policy is to secure the economic interest of a nation and to defend its larger national security as a whole.

So today, we are going to talk a little economics. I am not a professional economist, but the gentleman upon whose work I will be drawing upon was one of the two or three men (with Adam Smith and possibly Thomas Malthus, your mileage may vary) who defined the science of economics as we know it today: David Ricardo. Capitalism owes at least as much to him as it does to Adam Smith, possibly more. Most importantly, he was one of the first modern thinkers to seriously expound the idea of international trade in any kind of systematic, scientific manner. He also deeply explored the ways the economics actually plays out in the real world, as opposed to on the pages of a book. Perhaps unique among the economists of his day, Mr. Ricardo was an extremely successful capitalist: his ideas were solid enough that by applying them to his investment practices, he made money. How many economics professors can say that today?

Ricardo was responsible for two fundamental theories of economic canon that figure prominently into his work on trade: the Law of Diminishing Returns (which, though sadly misrepresented by modern capitalists, says that an increase in wages does not raise prices but merely lowers profits; that is, no, Ford is not forced to raise their prices because of union agreements) and the Labor Theory of Value. The latter is particularly important because it says that a commodity's value is based on the work it takes to produce that product and bring it to market.

Background information shared, this leads us into the economic definition of foreign policy: a nation's foreign policy should include securing and protecting necessary foreign trade. Here, however, we come into a large grey area. Free traders and protectionists agree on how foreign trade is best 'secured and protected' and on the definition of 'necessary.' The free trader's argument is that we must, for the good of our economy, have a healthy export market shipping every product we make into every possible market around the world and thus, to achieve that goal, we must allow other nations free and equal access to our market. If we do not, they will deny us access to theirs. Protectionists say that it is economically necessary to secure a balance of trade in our favor, that we must export more than we important for the security of our economy and that we must limit imports while securing exports. Both experiments have been tried to various degrees, with extreme protectionist policies and extreme free market policies enjoying equal records of miserable failure.

Let me make notes of that here by itself, so it is not missed: both extreme protectionism and absolute free markets have failed the United States. The U.S. economy was built on protectionism, but foreign imports were always a part of it and protectionism was kept from rising to punitive levels. Prohibitive tariffs like Smoot-Hawley, during the Great Depression, and the 1990s steel tariff have always done more damage than good. Increased automotive tariffs have certainly not saved the US auto-makers, even if they have encouraged many foreign companies to build American plants.

This is because modern theories of trade completely forget the real purpose of trade, in much the same way modern supply-side economics entirely forget the purpose of supply. Economies are driven by demand. One cannot sell something that the market does not want. One might be able to convince the market that it wants something by sheer weight of advertising capital, as the supply-side gurus of the United States have been doing for many years now, but such artificial bubbles eventually burst and the economic damage is terrible. Supply must meet demand, or eventually the people in the supply business fail.

Trade follows the same principle. This was illustrated by Ricardo before any of us were even born, and the facts continue to slap world economies in the face again and again.

Let's say that England and Portugal both produce wine and wool. For objective economic reasons, England is able to produce wool at a more efficient ratio of labor to total production than Portugal. It makes sense, then, for England to produce wool and sell the surplus to Portugal. It makes no sense at all for England to buy wool from Portugal when it can produce wool at home more efficiently and for a cheaper final cost. Likewise, it makes excellent economic sense for Portugal to buy wool from England to supplement domestic supply but none at all to try to export wool to England: they need all they can get and England can produce it more efficiently for themselves anyway.

The same is true, in reverse, for wine. Portugal is able to produce more wine, for less work, than England. It can meet domestic demand and sell the surplus to England quite easily. England, on the other hand, is best served by producing for domestic consumption and supplementing its demands with imports from Portugal. Attempting to export wine to Portugal would be silly and counterproductive.

This is a simple example, but it clearly illustrates many of the problems with our modern national trade policies. We do not gear our trade to meet foreign demand and domestic capabilities, but rather oscillate wildly between attempting to trade free access to foreign markets for free access to our own and attempting to deny all access to our market while trying to flood foreign markets. Neither strategy is rational or pragmatic.

The solution is to survey our domestic domand and production capabilities, then to produce based on domestic demand while exporting products of which we produce a surplus to countries with a demand for same. Because we have a primarily capitalist economic structure (though the 'free market' hard-liners have done everything they could to try to change that, with more success than is good for the country), and I don't wish to fundamentally change that (if anything, I want to restore capitalist underpinnings), it is important for the government to confine domestic action to appropriate regulation of business practices. However, our trade agreements can take demand into account and they should. In the long run, pragmatic and fundamentally sound trade policies will do far more good than any 'free trade agreement' or tariff ever could.

Perhaps this sounds like a moderate position, but if you consider how the US has done business for the last twenty years or more, nothing could be more radical.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Recommended Reading: Just A Suggestion

Some of you may have noticed an addition to the gadgets on the left side of the screen over the past week.

If you read my stuff and are a bit impatient with the fact that I mostly only post new material once a week, definitely check out 'The Snarking Lot' and 'Liberal Values.' They are updated a touch more frequently, and both are well worth the time it takes to read them. Jeffrey's stuff on 'The Snarking Lot' is funny as heck when he has something vicious to say, and genuinely gracious when he has something good today. Ron, who writes 'Liberal Values', is a smart guy whose stuff has rapidly earned my respect in the relatively short time I've been reading it and there is a lively little band of folks of all political views making comments.

So check them both out, you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Radical Foreign Policy Change

Let's face it. The drawing down of forces in Iraq is good news. The fact that we have a specific date and a specific number is also good. We also have to face the fact, as much as we don't like it, that involvement in Iraq is not over and will not be for several more years. The worst thing about wars is that they are much easier to start than to end, much easier to escalate than to deescalate, and nations are much easier to break than they are to build. This is a lesson we should have learned from Korea and Vietnam: officially, North and South Korea are still at war and the United States is still the major peacekeeper on the border. We have been in South Korea for more than fifty years. In Vietnam we learned two hard lessons: trying to fight a conventional war against a guerilla force while occupying a hostile populace is impossible (a lesson Napoleon learned in Spain and we should have studied) and that political settlement of a conflict is useless without the means to enforce our end of it.

We repeat our mistakes, and the mistakes of others. Iraq, despite all the good news for which we should be genuinely happy, threatens to become a second South Korea while Afghanistan looms ever larger as another South Vietnam. Our escalation in Afghanistan is not at all good news, yet there may be no political alternative for the administration. The bad news is that Afghanistan has the same potential to suck the heart out of President Obama's domestic agenda that Vietnam presented for President Johnson. If one wishes, one could call Afghanistan a 'second Afghanistan' based on the Soviet experience there or a 'fourth Spain' based on Napoleon's experiences in the Iberian Peninsula.

I am not trying to be un-American, to fail to support our troops (who will be the ones to suffer from any repetition of history, after all), or to undermine the success of President Obama. I am simply stating historical facts and lessons and the potential for terrible disaster they present in Afghanistan. Should this policy of nation building succeed against all odds (as I believe Iraq may, in the end, reluctantly) then I will admit I was wrong. I may have been wrong about the failure of the Iraq War.

I should note that does not mean I was wrong to oppose the Iraq War. It was all the things my fellow liberals have called it: President Bush did indeed 'take the eye off the ball', it was a cynical attempt to fight a winnable conventional war to detract attention from a difficult guerilla action, it was an unjust 'war of convenience', and it was a naked move closer to American empire. I believe, considering all those facts, if a viable Iraqi state develops out of all this mess it is a happy accident for which the imperial ambitions of the neoconservatives cannot take credit despite the fact that they will obviously do so. It was liberals of my parents' generation, after all, who took credit for the end of the Vietnam War despite the fact that Richard Nixon entered the White House with the specific goal of eventually getting us out and the anti-war movement's main contribution was to give Nixon the political cover to do so out of 'necessity.'

It is too late to prevent the mistakes of the past, and will be difficult to stop the mistake of the present in Afghanistan. Nor do I wish to write a political polemic about either war. My goal in this post is to begin the first of several intended to be constructive policy statements about the future of American foreign policy. My desire is to somehow prevent the mistakes of the future.

We can start by examining the questions of foreign policy in the same light as those of health care and the economy: what is the purpose of foreign policy and what should our foreign policy goals be?

The purpose of foreign policy is two-fold: the advancement of our economic interests and the advancement of our national security. It is necessary, in both arms of policy, to follow principles of enlightened self-interest. It is not enough to do what we want, because of its perceived benefits, but it is important to know what is really good for us and to act on that knowledge. As I discussed in my exploration of capitalism, these are not always the same thing at all.

So what is best for us? There are several models that have been followed, past and present, by other nations or imperial powers with varying degrees of success and failure. Russia has sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed by working with roughly the same foreign policy outline since the reign of the first tsar, and arguably longer. While the degree of success has varied, the current Russian state has existed in some form since Ivan the Terrible. Their strategy has been to seek peaceful relations on a basis of neutrality and increasing influence outside of their immediate borders while seeking to be the only police power projecting influence into the smaller powers along its borders. This strategy created the Russian Empire and sustained the Soviet Union through the Cold War. It also led to the disasters of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese Wars and contributed significantly to the horrors of WWI and the Russian Revolution. It was the justification for the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and the reason the Soviets were not willing to annhilate the world over Cuba. Clearly, this policy has had good and bad effects. It has the benefit, however, of being logical, consistent, and 'sane'.

I am not saying that we should simply copy this Russian policy, but I am saying that in the main it has been good for Russia more often than it has been bad for Russia. It also means that the Russians have always had a clear sense of what is good or bad for Russia and why it is thus. There is a benefit to such knowledge.

The United States, prior to WWII, largely followed a policy of armed, benign neutrality. The US used military force to protect its borders or advance its immediate interests and attempted to have as cordial a relationship as possible with the major powers of the world without becoming entangled in their alliances or conflicts. In the 1910s, based on a vision of universal democratic 'empire' (which I use very loosely, because Wilson's vision was not imperialist at all in the traditional sense), President Woodrow Wilson intervened in WWI (essentially a European conflict) with the goal of democratizing Europe. For intrinsically European reasons and the fact that most Americans had no such aspirations, Wilson's adventure failed ideologically despite military success. He could neither dictate terms to the allies whose victory he made possible, nor secure ratification of his own treaty at home.

In the intervening years, however, diplomatic conflicts with Japan over space and resources in the Pacific began to change the perception of America's 'borders' and 'interests' overseas. By the time WWII began, the idea of universal democratic empire had begun to take shape again in the minds of President Roosevelt and some of his advisors and political allies. By the time the United States joined WWII, the country at large was increasingly ready for this objective as well. Victory in WWII and the beginnings of the Cold War made many believe this democratic universalism was necessary and just: the United States was the New Rome fighting for civilization against darkness. This view of American foreign policy certainly led to the United States' reconstruction of Western Europe and ultimate victory in the Cold War, but it should be important to remember that the USSR collapsed as much because of the failures of Communism to keep its promises as any American policy, and that it was detente that made the glasnost and perestroika policies that culminated in the Soviet collapse possible, not the wild 'cowboy' escalations of the Reagan years.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the achievement of universal democratic empire seemed to be assured. Russia would become a cheerful ally and supporter of US goals, so went the prevailing imperial wisdom, and would cooperate in the new world supremacy of the United States. Democratic nations would naturally look to the United States, the 'leader of the free world', as a model and benevolent patron.

This has simply not been the case, and careful consideration makes the idea that it would have been the case laughable. Russia is still Russia, for all the change of the form of government and the attraction to aspects of American culture (it should be remembered that the United States and Russia are both pluralistic, multi-ethnic societies with certain shared egalitarian social values) does not change the fact that the Russian ethos is fundamentally different from the Western value system. Not so completely different as to be totally alien, it is true, but there is certainly enough of a difference to matter. Russia will never be another nation's happy satellite.

Perhaps more importantly, it should be noted that the whole attraction of democracy is freedom. Democratic nations want to enjoy that freedom, not become de facto client states to a greater power. Wilson's romantic ideals aside, universal democratic empire is impossible: democracy is pluralist and not autocratic. No one nation can seek to dominate a democratic empire, a genuine universal democratic empire must be entirely democratic throughout. No American, despite the lack of compunction at the idea of telling Israel or Great Britain what their policy should be or the willingness to judge Iran and Syria, is willing to allow Europe to dictate policy to America or be judged by Venezuela and Russia. Clearly, the policy of American empire that has been pursued up to this point and is still being pursued as I type has failed.

This does not, necessarily, mean we should allow France and Germany to dictate our policy or accept Russia and Venezuela's moral judgements. It does, however, mean that perhaps we should recognize that we cannot dictate the policy of every friendly nation or expect the world to unequivocally share our judgement of unfriendly nations.

The substitution of a nation building campaign in Afghanistan for one in Iraq is not a sufficient departure from the policies of the past. We do not need to simply review the policies of the Bush Administration or the Reagan Administration, but rather we need to acknowledge that the world is a different place than it was during or after WWII and that the United States needs a different global strategy to operate in that different world. Isolationism failed and universalism is no longer possible. Personally, I find pragmatic nationalism to be extremely unpalatable but it must be admitted that it would be an improvement over the current obsolete philosophy of universal empire.

That does not mean I am advocating such an approach. I believe alternatives can be found to pragmatic nationalism as well, if enlightened self interest is applied to the challenges that face us.

Therefore a radical change in foreign policy rests on some basic facts:

1.) We must admit and accept, as a nation, that a policy of universalism (at the very least, the policy of a universalism led by America as the imperial nation) has failed in the 21st century.

2.) We must also admit and accept that we are not playing a zero sum game in which our only choices are universal empire or total isolationism, as the politicians often cast the choice.

3.) We must determine whether we, as a nation, are willing to accept a policy of pragmatic nationalism or whether we have the ideals and courage to seek an alternative.

4.) Either way, we must accept that the United States is part of a pluralistic society of nations and that China, Russia, and Europe are great powers to which we cannot simply dictate and that India will certainly become so within the century. We have, to some extent (perhaps failing too much in the opposite direction) admitted this in regard to China, we must remember it when dealing with Russia and Europe.

I don't believe that the universalist ideal is totally dead. Nationalism has been greatly discredited, not only by the world wars but in the intervening years between and after them, as a viable system of human political interaction. I believe that some form of universalism is ultimately necessary, that some sort of global system of governance will ultimately prevail. I believe it must be democratic, both in its totality (as opposed to say, the United Nations) and in its composition (we are not going to achieve a global democracy as long as powerful ethnocentric police states like China and Iran remain as they are), but that it cannot be 'imperial.' Nor do I believe it is the responsibility of the United States to bring this universalist ideal to fruition. It will happen naturally or it will not happen, it cannot be forced. We, certainly, cannot force it on the rest of the world. To paraphrase a great t-shirt, 'Forcing democracy is like fighting for peace.'

We must practice democracy and we must puruse the best interests of our people, as a nation, in an enlightened and mature manner with a true knowledge of our capabilities and limitations.

That would be a radical change.