Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Cap in Hand, part 1: Green Realism

The Refuge for Realists

Cap and Trade or Dividend is an old idea, an old Republican policy, and I am told an updated version of this Trojan horse, presented as a great gift by Peter Barnes, is creaking on its wheels as it rolls into West Marin from the darkest corners of 20th century economic philosophy for us townsfolk to gawk at. Cap and Trade solves thorny problems for the timorous thinker. First, you don’t have to blame corporations. It isn’t their essential activity that is destructive to nature, and must be stopped. It is that markets have not been created to account for their behavior and “price-in” their destructiveness. Once they pay the right price for the smoke they produce, or at least the carbon in the smoke, they will correct their behavior.
And who is going to enforce this new market? Well, the same politicians who are presently beholden to the corporations who pollute. Cap and Trade asks the corporations and the government to go into a room together and solve the problem by creating a new market to fix the old market.  Of course, because the intellectuals refuse to take a stand directly against the corporations themselves, attempting only to modify corporate behavior over time, the politicians don’t even have a basis from which to resist them. As Paul Fenn put it, “It is like putting the tobacco companies in charge of the strategy to stop people from smoking.”
Where these Cap and Trade schemes have been tried various tricks are used, often built into the markets themselves, to allow polluters to evade the cap – to not reduce carbon emissions. These markets have failed repeatedly in practice. But how is it supposed to work in theory? Well polluting corporations, like power plant owners, have the amount that they pollute grandfathered into the scheme. Then starting from year one the cap gets lower, polluters must emit less carbon, until say 2050 when carbon emissions will be at a level that, based on the enormity of the problem, they need to be today.  It is a proposal on a timeline so long that only people who believe in cryogenics won't find themselves utterly dismayed.
That last bit, sadly, isn’t entirely a joke. Hedge fund founder and Googleian Ray Kurzweil eats 150 pills a day in a bid to live until technology will make him immortal. The grand old man of the convenient fantasy California-style Stewart Brand has his own “Long Now” foundation which asks us to look forward to the year 10,000 and start planning on that basis. No wonder he is so untroubled by the half-life of nuclear waste. Not to be outdone, Peter Schwartz, business partner of Brand, both longtime consultants to Shell Oil amongst others, once told an audience in San Francisco that he wasn’t concerned about climate change because through the advances of bio-technology his son would live forever, giving him ample time to deal with the problem. Does it bother anybody that our intellectuals sound like a group thirteen year-old boys in a treehouse trying to write a Star Trek script?
Cap and Trade does not even rise to the level of tragedy because either foolishly or shamelessly it serves the powerful interests that are destroying the world.  It is no compensation to be paid $5,000 a year by polluters in exchange for the loss of our future as a species. For even with this addendum of a dividend scheme, where will this money be spent in the climate change conditions that Cap and Trade cannot halt?

Ideas like Cap and Trade flow from people like Friedrich von Hayek and Ronald Coase (who ultimately disavowed it) through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, though the locals who tout them seem not to know it. They are predicated on a worldview that believes there is no such thing as a society, that only when we make a market out of the whole earth, including the air we breathe, can our problems be solved. In an effort to be “realistic”, Barnes and the serious men have become, perhaps unwittingly, dominated by the ascendant ideology of our time: Neo-liberalism. Though they probably think they are just helping the Democratic Party – supposedly a force for good – the Party leadership beginning with Bill Clinton has moved in earnest to adopt the economic policies of the right as well. I am reminded of the line from a terrible early 80s fantasy film, “It used to be just another snake cult, but now, it’s everywhere!”

Remember that these local thinkers talk to some extent about the forces that govern our world, but not about the structures that holds all of these interests in place. Those underlying structures they think of as a natural and immutable ecology of power in which we need to find the right balance between participants – a balance, for instance, between the interests of the coal industry and the people whose water and air are poisoned. That is right, this line of thought says that companies mining coal are a part of nature as well, and any solution will have to balance their need to survive with ours.  This false ecological view of the world causes blind spots in their vision, narrowed further by the fears they confuse for wisdom. Many of them, of course, are simultaneously rich, distracted and unevenly educated, and the combination of these cardinal West Marin qualities often compels these men and women to speak, with great confidence, opinions that are useless, trivial or demented (sadly for those dependent upon their patronage, the service population in its various forms are often compelled to listen to them).
What are these fears that pervert the minds of our intellectuals? The first and most obvious is the fear of the empire itself. Take our institutions of higher learning: although universities usually allow each department a token radical, they too are increasingly entranced by “free market” ideas and are endlessly constructing new buildings that require wealthy, often corporate, donors and federal funding.  To jeopardize either patron would be fatal to the growing university bubble, and their chancellors dare not alienate them. Energy corporations, like BP and PG&E, are notorious (or should be) for constraining the debate on politics and policy within universities in favor of technological research – which when it comes close to showing promise – is often defunded. With John Yu whose odious mind produced the Bush administration’s rationale for torture as a tenured professor of law and former head of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano now the Chancellor, you can’t slide a postcard between the most malevolent interests of empire and the University of California.  
Older fears possess our thinkers when writing about changing the world for the better, based in memories of the political upheavals of the 1930s. Remember FDR was a compromise; he was going to protect businessmen from those they more deeply feared like Huey Long. But the ultimate and to some inevitable danger of political unrest is represented by figures like Stalin and Hitler who remain bidden or unbidden in our political memory. If, like those two, a leader says he has the formula for a new and better society, to achieve our dreams of freedom and prosperity, what then will he do to those who oppose it, or whom the leader has designated as the enemies of the dream?
The consequence of these persistent half-remembered memories is an unwillingness to speak out in opposition to either corporations or the government. These are the “realists”, and their sober and stable managerial approach to crisis explains the poverty of the solutions they present to climate change or the “Great Recession.” Writers like Peter Barnes refuse to directly confront the sources of climate change or declining living standards in America for fear, I believe, of arousing political ideas.

Today, there are ideas that say you can change the world by disallowing through law the abuse of the planet or its people, ideas that simultaneously allow our local governments to provide investment in infrastructure to replace the burning of fuel. Such direct actions are considered, “unserious” or “unrealistic”, because if we identify corporations as the culprits of global and domestic decline, the realists fear we will march toward Communism. If we identify the government as the cause of failure, we will unwittingly bring to power fascists and a greater tyranny. And let’s pull away the curtain for a moment, lurking in the shadows is perhaps the true fear of the portfolio men and women: the capricious Index, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, to whom they must make endless sacrifices in an effort raise share prices ever higher, because without those particular dividend payments, survival in West Marin is truly unimaginable. 

West Marin is nestled in the center of American empire, not at some rural margin. That is why what we think, and still more to know who we truly are, is very important. Some of us believe we are really out in the country and receive the terrible events on TV or the internet as fragments from a distant world. Our lives feel stagnant as climate change, war, government spying and declining prosperity demand serious collective answers to the question of how we and our children will survive. Unfortunately for us, our local intellectuals are proposing answers to the big crises of our time which in their pursuit of the “real” are ironically more utopian than any Bolshevik dream. The realist says, “Ask the polluters not to pollute, ask them instead to pay the poor.” 

Cap in Hand, part 2: Peter Barnes doesn't know it, but he is doing it

Peter Barnes wrote last week in a letter to the Citizen that, whatever the validity of my other observations, he is not a neoliberal or a Thatcherite…

Tony Benn records in his diary in 1999 the introduction of a bill in parliament by Tony Blair’s government to privatize the British postal system.  Benn writes that the Conservative Party opposite the supposedly left of center Labour Party were beside themselves, roaring in wave after wave of laughter as the bill was being read out.  The Conservatives couldn’t believe that the privatization of this valued and formerly inviolable public service, the destruction of a public institution that they had failed to achieve in 10 years in power under Margaret Thatcher, was going to be accomplished by their opponents. The Labour Party? Thatcherite? Neoliberal?

In their long exodus from power, the Labour Party adopted the economic policies of the right, neoliberal economic policies.  Peter Mandelson, Blair’s Karl Rove if you like, even declared after a “weekend-long policy brainstorming session” with Blair and Bill Clinton that “we’re all Thatcherites now.” 
The man whose work is the basis of Cap and Trade was called Ronald Coase. In 1990, the year before he received the Nobel Prize in economics for the very theory we are discussing, Coase told the man who was to become the leading exponent of the localist opposition to empire and climate change, Paul Fenn, that Milton Friedman had hijacked his idea, that Cap and Trade couldn’t work because the contracts would be unenforceable – polluters would find ways to cheat.  Whatever their disagreements, Coase and Friedman are considered two of the thought leaders of neoliberalism and Thatcherism. 

That bit about unenforceability is important.  Neoliberals have an answer to Coase’s opinion that Cap and Trade would just be a realm for gaming – fraud – by polluters.  They call for a strong government, and say so, to extend markets across the world and enforce the rules of these markets. Neoliberals are not for weaker government – that is just propaganda for the Bakersfield chapter of the Tea Party.
Cap and Trade was a Republican policy, but in the logic of “triangulation”, the hallmark of Bill Clinton’s “political genius”, some Democrats decided to make it their policy. Then the Republicans dropped it and moved further toward the right. And the Democrats treat their opponent’s idea as progressive.

If you are proposing the privatization of the atmosphere, to create a new market to fix the old market and call for a strong national government to enforce this new economy, what school of thought (tracking back to which politician) do you belong to?

One definition or aspect of ideology – the limits of the thinkable – runs, “They don’t know it, but they are doing it.”

So much of the poverty of our discourse is the assumption that the field of action for these issues is the national or international, that local democracy must be set aside or is irrelevant. But my message here is that there are no imperial solutions to the problems of empire. Even if the federal government did pursue the reregulation of industry, carbon taxes, or cap and dividend, and the largess of these policies do trickle down to the masses as intended, they will cause new terrifying problems.

How will we organize opposition to new crises, or our current wars, if we are all on the federal government’s payroll? The founders of this project, the Enlightenment, believed you could not both have an empire and a democracy. Jefferson said that independence from the government was a necessary condition for a citizen, as opposed to a subject. What will happen, indeed what has happened, to the idea of a citizen, when the empire has the masses on financial life support?

Cap in Hand?

These mass movements are as bankrupt as the ideas they beg the powerful to implement. They say 400,000 marched in New York. In 1995, 870,000 gathered in Washington for the Million Man March – the lives of the overwhelming majority of African Americans have been in continued steady decline since in spite of it. Marching will not melt the hearts of CEOs or Presidents. Remember all of the idea men and activists that went to DC in ‘08 – and had their meetings with senators and the President’s men – believing that they could get Obama’s ear and convince him to address this or that crisis? And they tell us we should now have a new movement, to influence a new President or even the leaders of other countries. Do they really expect a better outcome from Hillary Clinton, supposing it isn’t Jeb Bush?
Anyone who believes the federal government will hear their prayers, over the inducements of industry and the white noise of imperial power will again be predictably disappointed.  Go to the level of politics where citizens still have the ability to impose their will:  the municipality is the sleeping giant of American democracy and the best hope for action on the climate and economy.

I invite Mr. Barnes to publicly discuss our differing positions and how to take action on these crises.

The Reich Stuff

I taught at a high school in Maryland for a year after college and during that time the school invited Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s secretary, to speak to my American Government class, an event notable for two reasons. One was her telling the story of Dick Morris being caught “with those ladies of the night!” This was exactly the flavor of American Government that a room full of sixteen year olds was dying for, and with no training as a teacher myself, there was no hope of holding back the deluge of giggles. The other thing that I remember was that she thought Robert Reich was a very nice man.

Those two men, Reich and Morris, feature in a brilliant documentary, Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”. Reich’s description of the adaptations the ever adaptable Bill Clinton, under the influence of Dick Morris, toward focus group or marketing based politics is well told and insightful. Reich was so clear about the confluence of politics and marketing. I encourage you to watch it. But, when you get one thing right, people pay attention; and it makes it even more important that you get other things right, because now you have the power to lead. In spite of his niceness, I think Reich is wrong.  And really, when I hear someone described as nice, I hear Zero Mostel in The Front when his character says “It’s nice when nice happens to someone nice” just before throwing himself out a window.  

So recently I watched Inverness home owner Robert Reich in his own documentary called “Inequality for All” that was made in the style of Errol Morris’s brilliant “Fog of War”. With its parade of black and white photographs of Reich with Bill Clinton and archival clips of his press conferences, married to a minimalist musical score, the quotations were eerily direct from Morris’s movie about the tortured conscience of Robert McNamara. Indeed, it amuses me to think of Reich shouting at the editor, “More! Make me more like McNamara!” More likely, we can put this down as a visual storytelling shorthand that because of the success of the “Fog of War” has become very common. While no historian would compare Reich and McNamara, there are actual similarities between the two former members of Presidential cabinet. It is in the way that we talk about our problems and how to solve them.

Our war on the Vietnamese is a monstrous crime that haunts us till this day. McNamara himself put the number of Vietnamese that Americans killed at 3,800,000. Less than a year ago a veteran of that war, after forty years of nightmares like so many others, hanged himself in Tomales. But it isn’t war crimes that Reich shares with McNamara, it is that McNamara more than anyone else represented the idea that a modern and sophisticated government would rely on the compilation and computation of statistics and “systems analysis” to describe and solve the problems of our world. As Secretary of Defense, he redefined the idea of the “serious” or “realistic” way to talk issues: it isn’t about history or patriotism, realms of emotion and subjectivity, it is about the numbers.  

In his writing, Reich often tilts against concentrations of wealth, but then, when he reaches the precipice of insight, in fear of what lies beyond perhaps or in fear of not being thought “serious”, he withdraws. And he begins to speak like McNamara, a technocrat, declaiming statistics as though they had any power still to persuade. It is his desire to be seen a serious thinker, to avoid platitudes, that we enter into this contemporary numerology – so many per cent of this means so much increase in that. 

How is he wrong? History, the story of what happened and why. Robert Reich asks us to look back to the first decades after the Second World War, to discover solutions to our present problems. He says, to improve the world, we need to reduce income inequality – such a modest phrase, such an obvious good. The problem is that it doesn't suggest what we ought to produce through our labor or who should own it.  It just says: we need to pay people more, so that they can consume more, and then the economy will take off.  Setting aside how wildly irresponsible it is to suggest that increasing "growth" and consumption will solve the problems of a society poisoning itself to death – via consumerism – let's look at one of his proposals specifically: we need stronger unions, then we will all have the disposable income, therefore more equality, that we need. He is asking us to be realistic.  Don’t ask for the system to change, change the balance within the system.

The union movement, thanks to "realists" like Samuel Gompers and the Federal Government's violent suppression of labor activists during various "Red Scares", moved away from worker control of production and social transformation, toward a sole focus on collective bargaining to increase the compensation of workers for their labor. This led to unions in the post-war era, Reich’s golden age to which we should return, whose members attuned themselves to a barren intellectual and spiritual landscape. Unions stood for nothing except what a Teamster once told was the attitude of "Pay me. Don't delay me." 

For a while it looked like unions had made a good deal with corporations. Based on this blinkered history, he is not the only "realist" today speak of the amount of disposable income an individual has, or relative income inequality, as the statistic to focus on. So couldn't we just go back to the 1950s? 

The condition that created the industrial boom of those years was the devastation caused by most destructive war in human history, World War II, always treated as some disembodied event and brushed over. In the aftermath, the unions made their peace with corporations and the government. What they lost when they largely abandoned anarchist, communist or socialist politics was the question of whether laborers would be involved in the question of what they would build and to what purpose. And while workers did enjoy short term prosperity after the war, because they forgot or never were taught the historical and philosophical foundation that unions were built upon during the early 20th century, when the boom time ended they didn't get the either good monetary compensation and had no idea how to construct an alternative to American empire and globalized trade.

Still, talking about strengthening unions is considered modest, “realistic.” I maintain it is outlandish as a response to the decline of our society. Let’s unionize workers at Walmart or McDonald's, so that they can increase their pay, but isn’t Walmart itself problem? This melanoma that blotches the map of America; this swollen lymph node that indicates underneath a cancer of globalized trade that undermines local producers and laborers and ensnares the world in making garbage food and goods for slave wages then shipping them, at massive carbon expense, to keep on life support the impoverished and demoralized citizens of the new third-world country we have built within the borders of the United States. That global trade policy (a parade of abbreviations in addition to NAFTA: WTO, GATT, and now TPP, etc.) and its effects on workers, health, climate and civilization generally goes uncommented upon is astonishing.
The Black Death’s impact was so profound that chroniclers of the 14th century, who recounted all the wars in detail, give it often only one short mention.  Indeed, it is said that a society’s greatest madness is called “normal” and not seen at all. And while these policies were so easily, if ruthlessly, implemented, realists like Reich tell us, if only through his refusal to comment upon them, these treaties cannot now be undone. Just as McNamara refuses to offer his opinion on his responsibility for the Vietnam War (“I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”), Reich, Secretary of Labor at the time of its passage into law, cannot utter five little letters, NAFTA.  They do not appear in his version of “Fog.”  
The union revivalists at least approach the level of tragedy because they come from a tradition of the weak standing together to make demands of the powerful.  But what is the demand? Just that the corporations just give a little of profits of global collapse back to us! And then, when the minimum wage is $15, magic!

Americans are in a trap. First we gave up our ideas of transforming society, then we lost the money that we thought we were receiving as compensation for our obedience to power during the Cold War. As the money now slips away, what the "realists" won't tell you, because they have synchronized their minds with the interests of the powerful and the techniques of the technocrats, is we can as communities, through existing laws and technologies, take control of the resources we need to live and thrive in locally.  As for the realists, whose dark cynicism constantly undermines us and casts in shade the local in favor of their fantastic visions about benevolent governments in distant capitals, of corporate tigers who can change stripes on a path of redemption, or the impossibility of challenging our laws of trade, always "The 'real' is the enemy of the possible."