Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 12, 2014

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archives:

June 12, 2014 Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trapargues against queer embourgeoisement • Tony Samara, lead author of The Rise of Renter Nationon the affordability crisis for people who rent their dwellings

June 5, 2014 Art Goldhammer on European politics, with an accent on France • Nikil Saval, author of Cubedon the history and sociology of the office

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Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 2, 2014

Plutonomy revisited

Business Insider has a write-up of a BoA Merrill Lynch report that declares that, the FT’s quibbles aside, Thomas Piketty is essentially right, and the super-rich is where the action is, so invest accordingly. (Never mind that Piketty utterly destroyed, in the most gracious manner imaginable, the newspaper’s economics editor Chris Giles’ half-assed critique.) The BoA Merrill report was written by Ajay Kapur, who is quoted by BI as saying:

When wealth and income are as concentrated as they are, and expected (a la Piketty) to get even more so, examining the ‘average’ consumer or ‘average’ investor makes little sense. Examining the fat tail – the behavior of the plutonomists, rather than that of the multitudinous many – is more advantageous to investors. Plutonomists determine and dominate spending and investment decisions and their magnitudes. Any analysis that does not tease out the skewed global income and wealth distribution, but focuses on the average is flawed from the start and is incomplete, as we step into its deeper extremes.

The word “plutonomy” rang a bell, and sure enough we’ve been here before. Back in 2005 and 2006, in the bubbly days before the financial crisis and Great Recession, Kapur wrote a series of reports for Citigroup, his then-employer, on the topic. Citi did its best to stem the circulation of the reports, demanding that websites that posted them take them down.

As a public service, lbo-news is reposting them. Evidently, the worst crisis in 80 years is not enough to keep the plutocrats down.

Here are the links (all PDFs—and I changed them since my first posting to confuse Citi’s plutonomy sniffer):

Plutonomy 1 (October 16, 2005)
Plutonomy 2 (March 5, 2006)
Plutonomy 3 (September 29, 2006)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 29, 2014

Fresh audio product: Europe and Egypt

Just added to my radio archives:

May 29, 2014 Yanis Varoufakis on the European elections • Mohamad Elmasry on Egypt

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 23, 2014

Fresh audio product

Just posted to my radio archives:

May 22, 2014 Matt Taibbi, author of The Divideon criminalizing the poor (and dissenters) and letting bankers run free

BtN has been fundraising for KPFA all month. This is the first show with original content since April 24—this interview only, less the fundraising. So it’s short. But please contribute to KPFA if you want to keep these shows coming. Be sure to mention BtN when you do.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 7, 2014

Fitchian reflections on today’s news

This is my introduction for Ruthie Gilmore, who gave the third Robert Fitch memorial lecture at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on May 6, 2014. Many thanks to Karen Miller and her colleagues at LaGuardia for organizing the series.

It’s always refreshing to visit LaGuardia College, where the buildings are named after letters. I went to a college where the buildings are named after slavers, financiers, and reactionary politicians.

I’m very glad to be introducing the Third Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture. When I gave the first two years ago, I was worried there wouldn’t be a second. But as it turned out, John Halle did a fine job delivering that last year, and I’m now looking forward to hearing Ruth Wilson Gilmore—the very model of the scholar–activist—deliver the third. We are, I hope, an unholy trinity.

Though I miss Bob’s person every day, I also miss his mind every time I read or hear the news. A couple of current items cry out for Fitchian analysis. First there was the news that the top 25 hedge fund honchos, most of whom live in or around New York City, pulled down over $21 billion among them last year. A little math reveals that that’s close to half the total personal income of The Bronx, home to 1.4 million people. I don’t have the exact numbers, but given the usual contours of income distribution, the hedgies’ collective income is probably equal to the total income of well over a million Bronxites. Life among the 1% of the 1% is very flush these days.

Ah, but we have a new mayor, one who comes out of what Alex Cockburn used to call “pwogwessive” politics, replacing that plutocrat Bloomberg. I’d seriously love to hear what Bob would have had to say about de Blasio; I suspect it would be rather like what he had to say about Obama, which was highly skeptical of the now-forgotten liberal enthusiasm of 2008. But, most relevantly, de Blasio is out with an affordable housing program that’s grabbed a lot of headlines but looks rather thin on the details—and, as any studious Fitchian knows, it’s all in the details.

There are, however, hints in what we’ve heard so far that make one suspicious. First is the predominance of private money, about three-quarters of the alleged $40 billion pricetag. That private money is supposed to be lured with incentives, but private money is never incented, as they say, by anything other than profits. And by definition, affordable housing is rather thin on the profits. Another thing to be suspicious of is that it features building more high-rises: presumably if we build enough high-end housing, some crumbs will fall down into the laps of the poor—with the proper incentives, of course. De Blasio says he’s going to lean on developers to go along, but as the New York Times reported this morning, “how far the city will push developers will not be determined until after a study by the planning department, and the new policy would not come into effect until at least the middle of next year.”

And guess who runs that planning department? The same man that de Blasio picked as co-chair of his transition team, Carl Weisbrod. Weisbrod is a walking embodiment of how this city is run—the perfect fusion of the public and private sectors working together for the enrichment of the so-called FIRE sector, as in Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. Weisbrod—“anything but the kind of development-averse, ivory-tower technocrat de Blasio might have chosen [but a] real-estate man through and through,” as Steve Cuozzo put it in the New York Post, as if that’s a good thingran the 42nd St/Times Square redevelopment project (itself part of the long-term scheme to push midtown westwards, which Bob wrote extensively about). He then moved on to head the Economic Development Corp., a totally opaque body with the power to condemn and subsidize, that is responsible for things like the South Street Seaport in the 1980s (via its predecessor organization, the Public Development Corporation, which Weisbrod also worked for) and the current upscaling of downtown Brooklyn and western Queens (meaning the area all around us here). And from there he went on to run Trinity Church’s real estate portfolio—something that has nothing to do with a spiritual mission, because it’s one of the largest landowners in Manhattan. So that’s the guy who’s going to have a big hand in running the housing policy for the latest pwogwessive hope.

Oh, and Steven Spinola, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, pronounced de Blasio’s scheme “realistic.” The Times described REBNY as “an influential real estate group,” which is only slightly more pointed than describing the NRA as a club for hunting enthusiasts.

Ok, enough of my Bob Fitch imitation—time to introduce Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Ruthie is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and American Studies at the CUNY grad center. Her most famous book is Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. She was a founding member of Critical Resistance and other organizations whose aim is to undo the imprisonment boom.

Bob used to describe the string of prisons that the father of our present miserable governor had built upstate as The Cuomo Archipelago. After all, when you create a city as profoundly unequal as this one, where the idea of economic development has been decades of squeezing out manufacturing jobs and replacing them with a few high-paying positions in finance and other elite services, and low-paying jobs like bootblacks and nannies for the rest—or for the most unlucky, prison. So here is Ruthie Wilson Gilmore to tell us about “Mass Incarceration, Deportation, Stop and Frisk: The Urban Ecology of the Prison-Industrial Complex.”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 25, 2014

Fresh audio content

Freshly, though belatedly (sorry!), added to my radio archives:

April 24, 2014 Heidi Shierholz on the plight of young adults in the job market • Kshama Sawant, socialist member of the Seattle city council, talks about a $15 minimum wage and how to make revolutionary politics practical

April 17, 2014 Trudy Lieberman on how much you’ll have to pay for health care even if you’re insured • Priamvada Gopal on the fascist threat in India

April 10, 2014 Keith Gessen on Ukraine and Russia (article here) • Martin Gilens on how the rich rule and the people have no say (paper here)

April 3, 2014 Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), on the UAW in Tennessee, etc. • Doug Henwood reviews Thomas Piketty (text version here)

 

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 2, 2014

A working class disarmed

Second Amendment fetishism aside, there’s an old saying that the working class’s ultimate weapon is withholding labor through slowdowns and strikes. By that measure, the U.S. working class has been effectively disarmed since the 1980s. Here’s a graph of the annual number of work stoppages since 1950 (which includes lockouts as well as strikes—unfortunately, there’s no way of distinguishing between the two). They’re up from the recession low of 5—yes, 5—in 2009, but not by much: there were 15 in all of 2013. Between 1947 and 1979, the average was 303. (The data begins in 1947; I started the graph in 1950 just to have neat decade markers.) They produced a total 290,000 days of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “idleness”; the 1947–79 average was 24,550,000. That’s a 99% decline.

Jane McAlevey, the ace labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)just about to appear in paperback from Verso—says that her mentor, Jerry Brown of 1199 New England, used to say that workers should strike at least once every two years just to remind them of their power. Those were the days.

Strikes

The portal to the BLS’s strike data is here.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 31, 2014

GDP etc. in a deep funk

By the way, here’s a graph of actual real U.S. GDP and its major components relative to their long-term (1970–2007) trendlines through the end of 2013. Note how things fell off a cliff in the recession. GDP, consumption, and government spending are all about 15% below where they’d be had they continued to grow in line with their long-term trend. (The hysteria over out-of-control government spending looks ludicrous in the light of this graph.) Investment is about 25% below where it “should” be. thanks largely to the housing collapse, though it’s staging something of a recovery. The other components have yet to begin closing the gap, because the recovery’s been so weak.

GDP and major components relative to trend

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 31, 2014

Consumption: a response to Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts writes in response to my piece on Marx:

However, Henwood reckons the current crisis is the result of inequality and low wages reducing consumption and thus the answer is to raise wages and public spending. The problem with this view of Marx is that it does not match the facts: consumption did not slump at all prior to the Great Recession: it was the collapse of the housing market, profits and then investment, not consumption. Raising wages and reducing inequality will help the majority but lower profitability further and thus reignite the capitalist crisis. It’s not higher shares for labour that is the answer but the replacement of the capitalist mode of production.

I’m all for the latter, but it’s a tall order. It’s one for the long run, and as the man said, in the long run we’re all dead. Keynes said that in response to the mainstream prescription for high unemployment, which is to do nothing because capitalism’s marvelous tendency towards equilibrium will take care of the problem in the long run. Sometimes I feel the same ways about these calls for revolution. The same with climate change. In the long run, revolution will take care of things, but in the short-to-medium run, things look fairly bleak.

But I never argued that consumption declined before the Great Recession. On the contrary, it was a record share of GDP during the 2001–2007 expansion, 67.3%, 7 points above the 1950s and 1960s averages. I said that borrowing was used to offset stagnant or declining incomes to sustain mass consumption:

[A] system dependent on high levels of mass consumption has a hard time coping with the stagnation or decline in mass incomes…. Borrowing sustained the mass consumption model for a few decades. Non-rich households borrowed to buy cars, buy food, pay medical bills, buy ever-more-expensive houses, and so on. Conveniently, rich households had plenty of spare cash to lend them. That model broke apart in 2008 and has not — and cannot — be revived. Without the juice provided by spirited borrowing, demand remains constricted and growth rates, low. (See also: Europe.)

A footnote: I didn’t have the space, but mass consumption is necessary not only to the pre-existing economic model, it’s politically essential for legitimating a brutal and unstable system. So far, the bourgeoisie has managed to keep discontent well-bottled, but you never know how long their luck will continue.

A second footnote: the consumption figure is inflated by medical expenditures that are paid for by third parties like insurance companies. Such expenditures are treated as consumption in the national income accounts; take those away, and consumption looks a lot weaker. More on that soon.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 27, 2014

Fresh audio product

Just uploaded to my radio archives:

March 27, 2014 Philip Shelley on firing tenured faculty in Maine (for more search this Twitter hashtag) • César Ayala (UCLA) and Rafael Bernabe (University of Puerto Rico), authors of Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898, on the Puerto Rican economic mess

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 25, 2014

Who will defend The Market?

Speaking of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Ryan Cooper points to anxiety on the right about its considerable splash, and its rigorous argument for the tendency of wealth to concentrate over time. He quotes James Pethokoukis of National Review, who worries that a New Marxism is afoot:

John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek famously squared off in the 1930s, Left versus Right. But when Keynes published his revolutionary General Theory in 1936, Hayek went silent. It was a de facto retreat that helped give free rein to anti-market forces — even if that was not what Keynes intended — for decades until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz wrote A Monetary History of the United States in 1963 and energized the intellectual fight against statism. Who will make the intellectual case for economic freedom today?

Pethokoukis, conceding that Piketty’s case is “well argued, [but] far from airtight,” doesn’t try the heavy lifting himself, though he does seem to be overdoing the threat to capitalism’s hegemony. Still, his anxiety is worth savoring.

The right-wing classics of the 1960s and 1970s—I remember them well, I was a follower for a bit—were published when their ideas were fresh arguments against a Keynesian orthodoxy. Fifty years later, with neoliberalism ideologically triumphant but presiding over vast social and ecological wreckage, it’s hard to imagine anything with the verve or persuasiveness of Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom being written (or tweeted) today.

Pethokoukis should also reflect on the remarkable things that Corey Robin got NR’s founder to say in Lingua Franca back in 2001:

William F. Buckley Jr. says, “The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”

Sex is actually much better than the market, but let’s bracket that and consider as well what Corey got Irving Kristol to say:

“American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It’s so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left. If you read Marx, you’d learn what a political imagination could do.”

And, Buckley again:

At the end of our interview, I ask Buckley to imagine a younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today’s political world the same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his. What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace? “I’d be a socialist,” he replies. “A Mike Harrington socialist.” He pauses. “I’d even say a communist.”

The challenge, though, Buckley disclosed, was “conjoining all of that into an arresting afflatus.” But it’s not clear that the right has one of those at the ready either.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 25, 2014

I review Piketty

Bookforum has unleashed my review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The opening:

The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.

 

 

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 21, 2014

Fresh audio product

Just posted to my radio archives:

March 20, 2014 Anatol Lieven on Ukraine • Micah Uetricht, author of Strike for Americaon the Chicago Teachers Union

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 14, 2014

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archives:

March 13, 2014 Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracyon debt and resistance • Evelyn McDonnell, author of Queens of Noiseon The Runaways

March 6, 2014 Greg Grandin, author of Empire of Necessityon the real history behind Melville’s Benito Cereno • Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing the Whoreon sex work as work

Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 28, 2014

Fresh audio content

Just added to my radio archives:

February 27, 2014 George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez, on the unrest in Venezuela • Adolph Reed, author of this article, on the long, sad decline of the American left

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