Recent Thoughts

July 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

During the past several weeks I have read some interesting (at least to me) books and articles.  I need to organize my reaction to these new ideas.  If this bores you, feel free to delete it.

First, the fun part.  I read two memoirs, “The Molly Chronicles” by Jimmy Simons and “The Duchess of Palms” by Nadine Cannon/Bramer/Eckhardt.  Both of these people were devoted to many of the same principles that have appealed to me.

Nadine and I went to first grade together and remained classmates throughout our public education in McAllen, Texas.
She married Billy Lee Bramer, author of “The Gay Place”, the best political novel I know of (and yes, I’ve read “All The King’s Men”) who took her to Washington to work with LBJ, introduced her to a world of politics in which she continued to live, through that marriage, then in the fast lane in Austin, and on to marriage to Bob Eckhardt.

Jimmy practiced law as a liberal activist, co-counseling with Kuntsler and other heroes of left-wing lawyering.  His book is a breathtakingly honest account of unswerving devotion to challenging the evils of prejudice and political corruption with more success than might have been expected, given the nature of the political climate in Texas at the time he was scuffling around various courthouses.

I read these stories with some envy.  Instead of  standing outside the political citadel, angrily throwing rocks at it with no significant effect, as I did, Nadine and Billy Bramer went inside and worked  for whatever progress toward their ideas they could manage.  Their marriage did not survive, but Nadine got a lot of on-the-job experience about how politics really works, which she used to help Eckhardt, a sometime mentor and an idol of mine.  Jimmy, instead of regarding practicing law as a distraction from the “important” work of Democratic politics, as I did, focused on winning real victories in court that made an impact on specific peoples’ lives.  He did not say so in his book, but I think Jimmy Simons realized something I failed to “get”:  That politics was not a game in which people like me (and him) were allowed to win.  Therefore, he made the logical choice:  don’t play or, at least, don’t devote too much time to that game.  Do what you can do instead of wasting time trying to do what you can’t.

As stated, I enjoyed these books.  They provided more evidence for me to consider in evaluating my own life, appropriate for a 79-year-old ex-lawyer and ex-politician.  That process leaves me only one comparison to feel good about:  I married Beverly, with whom I “went steady” at age 14 and, because of her tenacious unwillingness to acknowledge a questionable choice, that has lasted for 62 years.  And, speaking of irrational tenacity, my own record is having worked in seven full-time efforts to elect a political candidate.  I am 0 for 7.  [2 Ralph Yarborough; 2 Don Yarborough; 1 J.Edwin Smith (Tex.S.Ct.); 1 Maco Stewart(Tex. Senate); and 1 for Sissy Farenthold]  As LBJ would drawl, “No skins on the wall.”

I also read “Karl Marx” by Otto Ruhle.  This biography, published in 1928, was an humbling experience for me.  Ruhle was an activist in the Communist Party but his account of Marx’s life seems to me an even-handed effort to describe both a genius and a world-class neurotic, petty, vindictive self-loathing German Jew.  [interesting footnote to me:  Ruhle was a member of the “Dewey Commission” chaired by John Dewey, created in 1937 to investigate the charges against Leon Trotsky during the show trials in Moscow.  All charges were determined to be false.]

I will have to re-read parts of this book to really understand it.  My knowledge of European history between 1835 and 1883 is far more modest than Herr Ruhle assumed.  Also, his book mentions dozens of philosophers, political figures and revolutionaries that his intended audience was expected to be as familiar with as LBJ is to me.  Most importantly, I have never read anything by Hegel, a philosopher presumed to be so familiar that Ruhle never even mentions his Christian names [They are Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, thank you Wikipedia].

With that caveat, I now understand that Karl Marx spent his youth as a very bright college student in Germany engaged in extensive discussions and arguments about Hegel’s philosophy.  After several years, he rejected Hegel’s theory that human knowledge was understandable as a dialectic based on thought or ideas.  Marx accepted the dialectic structural framework, but  concluded that human activity could only be understood by studying material (by which he meant commercial in the broadest sense of that term) activity.

To Marx, the capitalist economic system was, and is, based on the owner-class hiring the worker-class at wage rates significantly less than the “true” value of their labor and pocketing the difference between what they are paid and that “true” value.  Over time the employers’ greed and the workers’ desperate competition for wages results in more and more money in the hands of the employers and less in the pockets of the workers.  Marx borrowed liberally from Ricardo and his “labor theory of value”, a beautiful example of unintended consequences.  Marx believed this process would continue until the proletariat becomes sufficiently enraged at the injustice of their treatment; would revolt, seize power; abolish private property ownership and establish a new, classless society based on a state government devoted to economic justice and communal ownership of all property.

Marx, like the apostles after the death of Christ, who believed that Christ’s return was imminent, was sure that the revolutions in Europe in the 1840’s would swiftly morph into a sequence in which the bourgeoisie would displace the feudal remnants of property ownership and then, themselves be displaced by the proletariat, thus ushering in the happy result described above.  This did not happen and Marx was left to explain to himself and to others why it didn’t.  One of his explanations was that the discovery of gold in America in 1849 distracted the proletariat from their rage and seduced them into sailing off to seek their fortune in California.

Thorstein Veblen wrote a couple of essays recording his reaction to Marx.  He expressed admiration for some of Marx’s logic and observations of the injustices of  capitalism.  He dismissed, however, the underpinnings of Marx’s theory of dialectical materialsm and the “natural” value of labor.  Veblen identified these concepts as utterly lacking in empirical evidence.  He correctly, I think, identified the “natural” value of labor as having been borrowed, not only from Ricardo, but also from Locke and Hume.  Veblen analyzed economic activity as a naturalist analyzes nature:  He reported what actually happened; not what would fit some ideological pattern or structure.  He was influenced by Darwin and the early development of psychology as a science of subconscious, often irrational,  motivation, as distinguished from the notions of classical economic theory which presumed that men made rational choices in the market place.  To Veblen Marxism was just a new theology, based on faith in un-provable maxims.

This relentless skepticism toward all forms of ideology caused Veblen to have endless personal problems with his employers, friends and colleagues.  In Dos Passos’ wonderful trilogy, USA, his “biography” segment about Veblen is entitled “The Bitter Drink”.  Dos Passos wrote that while Socrates drank his hemlock in one night, Veblen sipped his all his life.

To return to Marx:  Although I agree with Veblen that his theory requires several leaps of faith, the Manifesto he wrote in 1847 is a stirring and thrilling piece of literature.  I think it ranks with the Declaration of Independence as one of the most influential statements in modern history.   Like the Declaration of Independence, it expresses goals which no government has ever achieved, but for which I am, nevertheless, grateful as evidence that some men have, at least, honored them as aspirations.

As I read about Marx, I thought about the ten years I spent, from 1952 to 1962, flailing and arguing about the true nature of the Democratic Party in Texas.  Those  were the days of the “Loyal Democrats” and the “Dixiecrats” or the “Democrats for Eisenhower”.   Party conventions, precinct, county and state, were battlegrounds  and the claims of conspiracies, usurpation and moral outrages were repeated around the campfires of the opposing factions from one political season to the next.  A kind of simmering rage was nurtured and cherished on both sides.  Just as Marx waged a passionate struggle for the allegiance of the socialists of Europe and wrote long diatribes against all who deviated from what he held to be the true faith; so did I and lots of others argue with our opponents whom we saw as betrayers of the Democratic Party.  That experience makes me understand how Marx could be so emotionally engaged in those struggles.  It also makes me realize how fleeting those wars were, his and mine.  No one today ,except perhaps some graduate student engaged in political archeology , even remembers what we were arguing about or what Marx was so upset about.

As you may surmise, from some of the above comments, I have lately been reconsidering my commitment to what young people in the 60’s derisively called “electoral politics”.  The election of Barack Obama has, at least for me, had an unexpected consequence.  After giving the matter some thought I realized that this is as good as it gets.  A black man from Hawaii by way of Chicago surfed into the White House on a wave of precinct-level organizing and savvy use of computer technology that surpassed my wildest fantasies.

Silly me.  I naively thought that he would use that wave after he became President to water-board the right-wing into either submission or irrelevancy.  Instead, I have been forced to acknowledge that he was, all the time, operating within a political structure that, short of a bloody revolution. is not capable of that kind of combat.  Our Founding Fathers saw to it that nothing would, or could happen that would seriously change the way our government is conducted.  Even though we changed the way they planned for the US Senate to be selected, their “checks and balances” are still in place.

So, we have gotten “health care reform’, but the insurance companies are still running the health care system.  We have stopped defending torture as an interrogation technique, but no one has gone to jail for torturing.  We still speak of the “war on terror” and, as a result, our government is still using “national security” as an excuse to deny relief to the victims of torture.  We have over 2000 pages of “finance reform”, but no one knows what is to be “reformed” because the real decisions have been left to the administrative process, which is like comparing what happens in police department basements and staircases to what is presented in courtrooms. It remains to be seen whether the bureaucrats will be able to fend off the lobbyists and do their work or, as seems to me more likely, whether they will tuck “business as usual” into the opaque regulations and react only to those outrages that some news reporter exposes years from now.

I don’t blame Obama for my discontent.  Chandler Davidson recently directed to me a copy of an article by a man named (I’m not making this up) Goodheart, who wrote an eloquent article in the New Republic citing overwhelming evidence that, given the circumstances in which he found himself, President Obama has acquitted himself admirably.  It convinced me that Obama has done as well as anyone else we have elected to protect us from the injustices that are the inevitable result of democratic capitalism.  See:  http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=3268

The most encouraging ideas I have encountered during my recent reading is George Lakoff’s book, “The Political Mind”.  Lakoff encourages me because he is not interested in persuading the average American voter with facts and reason.  He, instead, offers a solution to the problem posed by Thomas Frank in his book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?  How Conservatives Won the Hearts of America.”

Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and a serious student of recent brain research, states that conservatives have changed the brains of most Americans by relentlessly repeating a series of slogans and lies, launched and popularized by Ronald Reagan and continued by a succession of right-wing politicians and flacks for the past forty years.  Lakoff offers persuasive evidence that, just as repetition of physical actions can change the brain so that, if we practice using a typewriter, we soon need not think in order to use it;. Our brains have been changed to add a “typewriter” combination of synapses that enables us to type without making individual decisions about what to do with the keys.  In the same way, sufficient repetition of ideas can change our brains so that when certain “triggers” are presented to us, we react according to a ready-made set of synapse-guided reactions that may, or may not, have anything to do with the logic or factual bases for them.

He refers to these “triggers” as ‘frames” and cites evidence to support his thesis:  That conservatives have successfully “framed” all discussions of government intervention to empower, protect and educate our fellow citizens, in a way that elicits a reaction of suspicion, hostility and anger from those brain-changed folks who occupy our country along with us.  He argues that presenting them with factual arguments will have no appreciable result.  Instead, he believes that the Democratic Party and we liberals must design our own “frames” to fit our beliefs and value system.  He suggests many such “frames” but most of them can be summarized this way:  He thinks we must start talking about the immorality of conservatism.  We should take advantage of the fact that most of our fellow citizens subscribe to some kind of  religious ideas or, at least, to some self-image that convinces them that they are decent, reasonably empathetic and compassionate human beings.

We should state, over and over and over, at every opportunity, that corporations are not accountable to anyone except their shareholders; that their only function is to make profit; and that they cannot be expected to behave except in ways that are true to those goals and reasons for existence.  That government, by contrast, is accountable to all of us; exists to protect us, to empower us, to educate us and generally to be concerned about our well-being.  It is, therefore, immoral and contrary to that commitment for our elected representatives to hand over to corporations and private, unaccountable persons, the duty to see to it that our food will not make us sick; that our schools will not feed us narrow ideology instead of an education; that breathing our air will not kill us, and that our health care system will keep us well and care for us when we are sick, without sacrificing those ends in order to make a profit from our illnesses.  It is immoral for our government to leave us to the mercy of profit-seekers without protecting us from fraudulent sales-pitches and hidden traps that take our money without warning. It is immoral for our government to allow billionaire bankers and Wall Street pirates to recklessly upend our financial markets and cause millions of us to lose our homes, our  jobs and our self-respect because we find ourselves unable to care for our families.

For me, Lakoff was a thrill.  It fed on ideas that had been in my head for many decades.  I read “Our Age of Unreason” by Franz Alexander when I was in college.  Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer” was a riff on those same ideas:  Stuart Chase’s “Tyranny of Words” popularized linguistics as a means of understanding political discourse  Veblen reinforced the idea that we are not logical, rational, thoughtful people.  And, of course, I read enough of Freud to convince me that our reactions are often not based on the rationalizations we later attach to them.  Every recovering or recovered alcoholic can attest to that truth. Lakoff does not cite Joseph Goebbels as authority for his arguments, but to anyone my age, his description of how conservatives have “changed the brains” of Americans certainly tweaked that memory of a Nazi past.

Lakoff does not couch his arguments in terms of these earlier, intuitive and literary efforts to explain human irrationality.  He cites physical science and recent brain research to explain how irrationality can be, and has been induced and how it can be, and should be, confronted and attacked.  I don’t know whether the Democrats will ever take his advice.  It would complicate efforts to constantly try for “bipartisanship”.  Our leaders could hardly seek a compromise with immoral ideas and immoral people without appearing to be, themselves, morally flawed.  “Half a loaf” is hard to sell if it’s half evil.

I think Lakoff is right.  That is the reason that the Republicans won’t play Obama’s game.  They have quaffed their own KoolAid.  They believe that government is evil.  And besides, as my cynical self mocks me:  “They have been handsomely bought by corporate money.  They can hardly keep taking it while acknowledging that government’s proper role is to protect us from corporations.”  And, sadly, that is also a reason that Democrats will also be uncomfortable making those moral arguments.

Lakoff’s book encourages me because, while his solutions may not be acceptable now, they are powerful arguments for a new kind of politics.  Sooner or later, perhaps some of our leaders will try some of them.  Today’s New York Times has two essays on the opinion page that illustrate Lakoff’s point about the struggle by conservatives to shift government functions to private corporations.  The Times editorial about the confirmation of Elena Kagen predicts that Republican Senators will vote against her because she did not assure them that she would favor restricting the meaning of the Constitution’s commerce clause to what it was interpreted to mean before the New Deal Supreme Court ruled that it empowered Congress to enact such measures as the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In other words, if those Senators had their way, our government would have been powerless to end Jim Crow or hiring children to work in factories.  On the facing page, David Brooks’s opinion piece decries the growth of government agencies charged with regulating our health care and financial systems so that we might be spared a repeat of the 2007 financial hostage crisis and,  perhaps, the continuation of a health care system that requires sick people to bargain for health care dispensed by profit-driven insurance companies, whose profits are based on the amount of health care they deny.

These are the issues that Lakoff contends should be framed as moral issues rather than argued on the basis of factual contentions about reducing the deficit and correcting credit-card abuses.

I want to end this ramble with a comment about an article by one of the three professors at UT who shaped my thinking about economic and political policy before I became involved (indeed before I was old enough to vote) in politics.  Professor Clarence Ayers introduced me to Thorstein Veblen.  Professor Bob Montgomery explained to me why “decreasing cost” industries [those whose fixed costs greatly exceed variable costs] cannot successfully compete with each other and, hence, lack any reasonable basis for being private profit-making companies.  And Professor E.E. Hale, who introduced me to the economic policies advocated by John Maynard Keynes.

In 1976, Professor Hale wrote an article published in the “Review of  Radical Political Economics” [what a great title!], entitled “Some Implications of Keynes General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”.  You can’t read the article without subscribing to the Review, but you can do what I did:  get your public library to find it and make you a copy.

The article allowed me to appreciate how lucky I was to be taught by this man.  His discussion of Keynes’ ideas is so precisely relevant and prescient concerning the kind of financial collapse we experienced in 2007 that it is stunning to read it while realizing that it was written over 30 years earlier.  Here is a sample:  After quoting Keynes’ statement that capitalism’s faults were “its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and income”, Hale continued:  “It is financial capital that is the villain, not industrial capital.  It is on financial capital that Keynes lays the blame for malfunctioning of capitalism, for its periodic sicknesses, and for its distress and collapse in the Great Depression.  His sharpest barbs are reserved for the rentier, the functionless receiver of property income, and the speculator,who, he says, has made the capital development of the country a ‘by-product of the activities of a casino.’  Keynes would eliminate the rentier by reducing the rate of interest to zero.”

This, according to Keynes, would result in the increase in capital investment to the point that the “marginal efficiency of capital” [the expected return over cost} would fall to zero.  Keynes would then replace private investment with what he called “the socialization of investment”.   Hale states that what Keynes meant by that phrase was a “wide expansion of of public investment and a strict and sweeping public control of private investment”, measures which, together with progressive taxation and regressive expenditures to increase the “propensity to consume” would correct the faults of capitalism.

Hale wrote that, although Keynes contended that his policies would preserve capitalism, Hale thought that capitalism could not survive Keynes’ zero interest rates and zero returns on capital investment.  Hale contended that eventually there would be no more need for more public investment because all the bridges, highways, public buildings and other infrastructure would be finished.  Then the only reason for working would become the production of goods and services for consumption and this need would not be enough to require the continuation of capital accumulation.  Hale’s conclusion, based on this analysis was also, unfortunately, prescient.  He wrote:  “We seem in this modern age to be reduced to only one expedient surely available (and surely adequate) to make possible profit making and further private capital accumulation on a scale adequate to the maintenance of reasonably full employment.  That expedient is war and preparation for war.”

This chilling statement, for me, recalled a little book I read long ago called, “Report From Iron Mountain”, a fictional account of a think-tank on “Iron Mountain”, concerned that lasting peace might occur and cause the collapse of the economic system.  My old professor was agreeing with that estimate, except that he thought that, while capitalism might not survive, it might be replaced with an economic system that would no longer be plagued with unemployment, inequitable distribution of wealth and periodic market collapses.  None of that has happened, of course, because our wars and preparation for war have more than solved the “problem” posed by Professor Hale.

Well, I doubt that anyone has read this far.  If so, I promise not to be this prolix in the future.  I just had a lot on my mind and needed to share it with someone.

Bob

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