Our love affair with capitalism

February 25, 2019

Bernie reopened a national debate about capitalism and socialism. I think we need to understand that no economic system carried to the limit produces justice. We’ve been most successful using mixed systems to gain the advantages and smooth the problems created by both capitalism and socialism.

Actually socialism is hiding in plain sight: the post office, libraries, public schools, the water supply, fire and police protection, highways, roads and streets. We buy our capitalist cell phones on an internet system that government created for military and academic use before turning it over to private systems.

Capitalism has a fraught relationship with workers. It can and often does enlarge the total economy, the whole pie. But it doesn’t distribute that pie among the workers. It distributes the pie to those who make the decisions, and they keep what they can for themselves.

Workers and farmers have every right to be dissatisfied with the impact of capitalism on their lives. Capitalism makes farm prices unpredictable. I’m convinced the programs could be tweaked for the benefit of both the environment and of family farmers, but government programs nevertheless make prices for farm produce sufficiently predictable for farmers to stay in business.

The crumbling safety net leaves workers at the whim of other people’s investment decisions. The disruptions capitalism causes are well illustrated by the argument over the Amazon plant in Queens. There were several appropriate solutions, but the problems were clear – capitalism was preparing to push people out and their fate depended on government. Unemployment insurance and the social safety net were never enough or well attuned to the needs of families who work for others for their living. And the social safety net has been weakened considerably in the last decades along with weakening the legal position of unions. So, government has a job to do.

That doesn’t mean that we should abandon capitalism, but it does mean that capitalism is not the answer to every problem, and it’s not a sufficient answer to our economic problems. Nor are incentives for decision makers adequate answers. Capitalism is well described by the board game Monopoly. It’s so familiar, I wonder if you realized it was created to teach people what capitalism does. As its name implies, the effective object of capitalism is monopoly. Even though the holders of that monopoly change in real-world capitalism as we experience it, ordinary folks are constantly squeezed out. If our objective is the welfare of the people, capitalism is not a sufficient answer. We cannot and must not be ideological purists. Our country has been most successful when we have implemented a mixed system – capitalism as an essential disruptor, and public planning to smooth the impact for workers and communities.

There is a huge difference between saying that capitalism is valuable and the conclusion that socialism is useless, and vice versa. The truth is that both are useful, and we have to be ready, willing and able to reap the advantages of both without losing sight of their limitations.

It was my pleasure, years ago, to meet Robert A. Dahl, one of the intellectual giants of our era. He and Charles E. Lindblom teamed up to prepare a wonderful book, Politics, Economics and Welfare, to show us the different advantages of public and private action. Those of you who frequently listen to my commentary know that I often try to break the ideological mindset that only private action solves problems.

So, I’m looking for candidates this year whose answers are not ideological knee jerks for one system or the other, but who are pragmatically open to the best solutions from whatever source. Bernie is certainly right that some socialist solutions are necessary and important. Some candidates are staying clear of the word but nevertheless get the point. Any candidate who doesn’t get that point deserves a reeducation at public expense beginning with kindergarten where they might finally learn to share.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 26, 2019.

 

 


U.S.-Iran Relations – the Atlantic Council Meeting on the Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution

February 19, 2019

A few days ago, I came back from a meeting at the Atlantic Council in Washington on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

Speakers laid out how Iranians see their own position in the world. The “terribly bloody cataclysm” of the Iran-Iraq war was crucial. Estimates vary, but the Iraqi invasion of Iran cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s.  That made clear to Iran the danger of powerful nearby states. The rise of ISIS on the ashes of Iraq made equally clear the danger of non-state actors and the danger that weakened states can’t control terrorist groups. Those are national security problems, not ideological issues. As Ariane Tabatabai put it:

Iran sought to adjust its policy to balance two oft-conflicting objectives: Undermining central governments to ensure none would become strong enough to pose a threat to Iran while also striving to prevent them from collapsing and creating fertile grounds for terrorists.

While Iraq was strong, their common enmity against Iraq united Israel and Iran. But once Iraq was defeated, the two countries began to see each other as the only states in the region capable of an existential threat to themselves.

The U.S. also became unreliable. As John Limbert, a career American diplomat and former hostage, describes:

In the last hundred years, for Iranians, the United States has gone from friend to puppet master to enemy and scapegoat. In Iranians’ century-long struggle for dignity and independence, Americans were originally on the right side…support[ing] Iran’s constitutional movement, and…help[ing] Iran preserve its independence against…the Soviet Union….[Not long after, however, the U.S. developed] an unhealthy patron-client relationship with the repressive Pahlavi monarchy.

In the more recent past, the U.S. sided with Iraq against Iran in the war between the two, excluded Iran from regional conferences and imposed sanctions, all of which increased Iranians’ concern for their own national security.

Iran, of course, played a role in the breakdown of relations. But diplomats try to push irritants and misunderstandings aside in order to make more fruitful relations possible, unless, of course, the game is to have an enemy for use as a bogey-man with which to threaten the population for the rulers’ interests, not the public’s. Even after a succession of presidents refused to engage with Iran, Obama showed that it could still be done.

Trump claims to be a great negotiator. But his tools appear limited to threats, sanctions and name-calling. That can be effective in limited circumstances, for a bargain over a single event, where prospects for future relations or reactions in countries looking on don’t matter. But others now realize that they can’t trust the U.S. to look past short-term advantage and build for a stronger future by playing what diplomats call the long game. Playing the tough instead, Trump encourages a backlash. Focusing on the short-term and ignoring the long game, he encourages others to plan without us – and against our interests. Making Iran feel less secure, he makes it more determined to rely on its own arsenal of weapons, heightening the danger to Israel and other allies.

Good negotiators figure out what other negotiating partners need. They develop win-win deals for long term and fruitful relations. Negotiations that don’t work that way push everyone to find ways out, ways to take advantage of each other. Rewards can be much greater when negotiators negotiate for mutual advantage.

In dealing with Iran, Trump looks for short-term advantage and long-term hostility. He will surely get it and we will pay the price.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 19, 2019.


What We Can Do About Climate Change

February 12, 2019

This is the birthday of Abe Lincoln who saved the country. It’s our job to keep it safe. My message last week was that government is the key to minimizing world-wide genocide by climate change. And of course, this president is not helping. Now let’s talk about our role.

First, the strongest step we can take is to join organizations that are working to reduce climate change. We can’t turn the ship of state individually, but by joining together we can force government to change. We can force each of the political parties to make a major commitment to the war against climate change.

Second, push industry away from release of greenhouse gasses. One of the best incentives is a carbon tax and every delay in imposing it means the tax has to be exponentially larger. We can strengthen the push for a carbon tax by using our power as consumers.

Third, over the past half-century we have changed agriculture until it is now one of the biggest emitters of carbon and methane, the two principal climate damaging gasses. One of the most important changes is to shift away from beef and other meats. Think about how much carbon beef production releases – initially from the use of power to produce crops whose only purpose is to feed the cows, and then from all the carbon production involved in raising the animals and then the fact that the animals themselves produce huge quantities of methane. And that doesn’t include all the carbon and methane from the transportation of the animals and their feed and the fertilizers used in the process. Farming has gone from relatively clean half a century ago to a major problem now. So cutting down on beef is an important start.

Fourth, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on carbon emissions from transportation but, many of us can improve our health as well as the environment by walking, bicycling or using public transit. Growing up in New York City I had to be a public transit user. One of my happy memories of childhood is standing with my nose pressed against the front window of the front car of the subways and feeling the excitement from the sight and sounds of the train gobbling up miles of track in front of me. Later, I went to work by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. That gave me a gorgeous two-mile walk to work which was definitely good for my health. Coming to Albany, I wanted to get back to walking so we bought within a two mile circle around my office so I could, and did, walk to work. I fully understand the attractions of the countryside but there are huge advantages to city living, especially for the climate.

Fifth, many of us can make our homes much more efficient with insulation, solar panels and other energy saving methods. Reducing what we buy, recycling what we don’t need, and reusing what can be used again, use much less energy than buying and replacing.

Sixth, one step less talked about is passive solar. Zoning and housing codes would help, but windows facing due south get zero summer sun and maximize winter sun. Once the house is designed that way it pays dividends forever. Add a heat sink inside the house and it will spread the heat around the clock in cold weather.

I’ve added some articles and organizations you can look at on the text version of this commentary. But the point is to take action. We need action above all. It’s that or genocide by climate change.

Recommended articles on climate change:

David Wallace-Wells, UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That, Intelligencer, OCT. 10, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/un-says-climate-genocide-coming-but-its-worse-than-that.html

Overwhelmed by climate change? Here’s what you can do, The Guardian, October 8, 2018,

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/climate-change-what-you-can-do-campaigning-installing-insulation-solar-panels

Some of my personal favorite organizations which focus on science and the environment:

https://350.org/ co-founded by Bill McKibben

The Climate Reality Project founded by Al Gore

Union of Concerned Scientists founded by scientists at MIT

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 12, 2019.


How do you talk about climate change?

February 4, 2019

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about climate change. It’s a scary subject. Climate change is likely to injure and embitter people we care a lot about, our children and grandchildren – hurt them with disease, draught, famine, floods and storms, destroying their homes, houses and business too, indeed their towns and communities. That’s scary all right, but what do people do when they’re scared? Fight or flight? But where do you go? Unfortunately a lot of people do neither. They just can’t bear to think about it. But climate change will find them and their children and grandchildren anyway. What they don’t know will hurt.

Climate change is a big problem. The scale of the problem leads people acting individually to come up with platitudes like don’t cross that bridge ‘til we get there. Of course, the bridge won’t wait. If we don’t plan in advance it won’t be there when we want to cross it, and that’s not just a statement about infrastructure.

My hybrid and my solar panels make me and my family feel good but they only make a small dent – of course they’d make a bigger dent to the extent that the example catches on and government organizes a much bigger, more wide-scale reaction. That after all is what we’re trying to do. Our hybrids and solar panels are like very large lawn signs saying “Join us.” Like lawn signs, the signs don’t make the difference but the cultural statement that this is the right thing to do can carry the day.

That’s the kind of problem government is for, the kind of problem that is way beyond our abilities acting individually. Handling climate change requires coordination on a scale that only government can make happen. When government takes charge, those of us trying to do something about climate change become part of a powerful movement, not weaklings and suckers. Even the most ideological free marketeers have a name for situations where only government can solve the problem – they call it market failure.

Government will organize a powerful response when the people make clear with their votes that they demand action. It will happen when people see their personal welfare, not in opposing climate change, but in demanding that government direct opportunities to those whose livelihoods may be injured by efforts to fight climate change. It will happen when the rest of us understand that we are all in this together and demand that we all have to share the benefits and burdens. This is a war against forces that will destroy our families, our country and our world and it’s not a private opportunity to make big profits at everyone else’s expense. This is a shared problem, a shared opportunity and a shared job. In the past we’ve used an excess profits tax to share the burden of war. And to build the weapons of war we spread the factories all over the country.

We can be fair. We can protect and provide for each other. What we can’t be is cowards looking the other way.

As we gear up for the 2020 election, the politicians must declare what they will do to stop climate change from destroying us all. I know some relish the opportunity to be a war president, to be the great leader that pulls us from the brink of disaster. OK then, this is the war we have to fight. Now lead the charge.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 5, 2019.


%d bloggers like this: