The Old Road

Many people have been discussing Thomas Piketty’s book Capital In The 21st Century lately. As they should. It is a very important contribution to the fight against economic inequality. We have seen the writing on the wall for many years, but until now we didn’t have a quantifiable theory as to how or why wealth is gravitating towards the richest of the rich.

I have not read the book yet. It is buried under many other titles that are either in progress or take precedence (damn you, college!). But I do have a few thoughts to share concerning the subject.

It seems, first and foremost, that the idea of our society being transformed back into something resembling the Gilded Age has finally caught the attention of a few important groups. Left-leaning liberals/moderates (Democrats?) who were previously apathetic toward a Marxist analysis of capitalism, and some sympathetic/moderate libertarians who don’t only blame governments for economic woes and are willing to meet halfway on markets and their discontents.

The key to both of these groups joining with their radical (Anarchist, Communist, etc.) brothers and sisters is the baseline argument that we can all agree on: that the politicians that we have elected to represent us in our democracy have not been speaking for us. Have they ever really?

Not only are we as a people confronted with the reality of corporate dynasties (The Waltons, The Kochs) but who would have ever imagined we would have to deal with political ones as well? The possibility of another Clinton or another Bush in the oval office frightens me.

We are on an old road that hasn’t been walked on since the 1920s. It’s hard not to think that we could see another financial meltdown followed by another war. Would we survive? Can we prevent or even reverse what has been set in motion? I guess that’s if you even believe that history is repeating itself based on the data.

Wherever we’re going we are being driven by a vehicle built on a specific ideology that seeks to hinder our senses. The more we fight to see the truth the tighter the blindfold becomes. The more we fight to listen to one another the louder the megaphone of the elite becomes. It’s going to take a lot of people being okay with alternative ways to organize society for anything resembling democracy to return.

This is why Piketty’s book and others like it will gain more readers in the coming months and years. The more people that are aware of their lack of opportunity originating from their lack of wealth the more they will be willing to talk to one another about how to fix it.

Free Market Myths

The Myth of “The Free Market” is like the collective agreement on the internet that Kanye West’s Yeezus and Grimes’ Visions are good albums. There’s rarely room for debate or disagreement, because, well, that’s just how it is in our society. Herd life can be boring at its best, dangerous at its worst. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t read some kind of middle-class capitalist rhetoric stating that “if only the market was completely free from government distortions, then…”. You can fill the rest in with whatever economic or social policy needs to be saved from the state if you’d like, but then you would become something that even Karl Marx abhorred. A utopian.

The utopian dream of the free market is nothing but the sigh of the petite bourgeois after coming home from work, sitting on the couch, and turning the television on to such channels that glorify haute bourgeois status. Of course, as with statistical analysis, there is some measure of error. I’m well aware that not everyone will fall into this niche, but hear me out anyway.

In Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism he writes:

The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politically motivated as anyone.

Take, for example, a committee formed by the American Medical Association called the Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee. RUC for short. This cartel of doctors sets the price of every single medical practice and procedure you can think of from a basic wellness visit to a cardiac stint. The prices are then used to determine what government services like Medicare and Medicaid can be billed for which is a big determining factor on what health insurance policy owners will pay as well. “Special Deal” is a piece in Washington Monthly in which some light is shed on to the mostly unknown cabal of primary and specialty care doctors jockeying for position to get a bigger piece of the tax-payer money pie. They are, in other words, setting their own salary. So if you wonder like I do why health insurance costs so much here in the US this is a good place to start.

If this sounds familiar it is, it’s what worker’s unions do. They negotiate their wages and benefits collectively while management sits on the other side of the table trying their best not to cede too much power. Every day I read something new online about union bashing; how unions are the root cause of so much middle-class labor woes, though this Marxist doth protest. People on the right, whether they be Republican or Libertarian-Populists, are fighting the wrong kind of battle if all they’re arguing about is how unions take jobs away from people. No, they don’t. In fact states with Right To Work laws have lower wages and benefits and have . This right-wing plank has been used to chip away at worker’s rights for 30 years and has led us to the point we are now at in our economy. But, if you take them at their word that unions are a market distortion then surely you can’t be serious when looking at the bigger picture. There are problems at hand that class/political divisions must come together to solve.

We will never have a completely free market. The market system itself constantly needs governments to prop it up. For that reason, as a Marxist, I am very critical of capitalism. I will end with this quote by David Graeber from his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years:

This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today.

There Is No “Scandal” Except For The Capitalist One

Everyone knows that our two-party political system doesn’t really provide anyone with a real choice. Aside for some social policy differences both Democrats and Republicans are two heads on the same capitalist body working to keep a system in place that rewards criminal activity.

However, we must recognize that because of the bickering amongst the bourgeois, the working class and people who are genuinely trying to help one another out are the ones that suffer.

Take, for instance, the IRS “scandal” that seems to be making its way through the mainstream media as being some kind of tyranny against the right-wing brought by the Obama administration. Far be it from me to exclude any president (past or present) from scrutiny when it is called for, but the evidence is pretty clear that people, once more, are mistaking fiction for fact.

David Johnson points out in a blog post that after the Citizens United ruling the IRS was flooded with applications for a special tax-exempt status only awarded to “social welfare” groups not “political activist” groups. Things called FACTS are given:

Fact: Only one-third of the groups that were passed to specialists for a closer look were “conservative.” Lots of other organizations were also checked, including progressive organizations.

Progressive organizations you say? How come we don’t hear about those in the news?

Fact: No groups were audited or harassed or “targeted” or “singled out.” This was about applications for special tax status being forwarded to specialists for a closer look to see if they were engaged in political activity that would disqualify them for the special tax status. This closer look is the kind of review all organization should get, but the IRS was swamped because of the flood of groups applying for a status that let them mask their donors, after Citizens United.

Ah, yes. Citizens United. Money equals speech so therefore the owners of more capital can speak the loudest.

Fact: The only groups actually denied special tax status were progressive groups, not conservative groups. In 2011, during the period that “conservative groups were targeted” the New York Times carried the story, 3 Groups Denied Break by I.R.S. Are Named . The three groups? Drum roll … “The I.R.S. denied tax exemption to the groups — Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine and Emerge Massachusetts — because, the agency wrote in denial letters, they were set up specifically to cultivate Democratic candidates.”

So wait, the groups that were “targeted” weren’t even denied, yet the Democratic ones were? I don’t see or hear conservatives on the television or radio weeping crocodile tears for them, just for their own. Keep in mind that mid-term elections are swiftly approaching.

Johnson also points to a post by Peter Daou where he explains how the Democratic party has ignored and forgotten about the left, forcing politics to the right, and dragging corporate media along with it. Chris Hedges has written extensively on this.

In the end it’s just one head trying to gnaw away at the other in an attempt to gain control of the entire body. It takes our attention away from the real problems of our government. For instance, how it maintains a global empire through the “war on terror” and transfers wealth and income from the working class to the upper class through the establishment of supply-side economic policies.

American Education: The Cost of the Conveyor Belt

Spring semester has ended at school. A full four months of a grueling and rugged schedule of class, homework, reading, writing, class, work, more homework, more reading, more writing, and finally test taking. My apologies to my loved ones for dealing with my stress and/or physical and mental absence from anything socially related. I just didn’t have the time. And in some ways, even now that the semester is done, I still don’t.

My time so far as an undergrad at the University of South Florida has been well spent with some few caveats in regards to the current state of of our education system and its moral funding of a certain ideology: capitalism. But wait, isn’t capitalism an economic system where capital is privately owned, invested, and distributed according to supply and demand? Yes, it is. It is also a way of living, it has its own set of standards and practices, some of which are arguably unbreakable in the eyes of their followers.

The rigidity of capitalist ideology is widely accepted as sacrosanct. For a system that encourages drawing outside of the lines to encourage creativity to produce a higher market value for commodities it sure likes to dictate where those lines should begin and end. Far be it for me to wax poetic on the pitfalls of society from an economic point of view where scarcity tries to get solved with more scarcity, I mean, I’m not perfect either. In this rigid world, where the powers that be like to hide that rigidity with words like “freedom” and “liberty”, the tenets of neoclassical capitalism dictate that I am an economic actor that makes rational decisions according to my needs and wants. But is accumulating private debt considered rational or does it even make one truly free? Most people say no, yet that is what myself and most other students must do now to receive a degree.

Karl Marx pointed out that capitalism is its own destructor, that it creates its demise by simply existing and that it would inevitably lead to Socialism and genuine Communism. So why hasn’t that happened yet? Any student of Marx (myself included) will tell you that the 20th century experiment in Communism wasn’t really genuine Communism at all. At least not in the way Marx envisioned it to be, which is at best a bit blurry. But I think we can all see Marx’s theories of worker alienation and exploitation quite clearly. The fact is that this exploitation extends outward into every institution of society. And none so crystal clear as our current education system, the way we pay for it, and what it gives back.

Cost has undoubtedly been going up year after year and with that the amount of loans used to pay for the hikes in tuition, room and board, and other expenses connected to getting a higher education. According to the Center For American Progress:

In the past three decades, the cost of attaining a college degree has increased more than 1,000 percent. Two-thirds of students who earn four-year bachelor’s degrees are graduating with an average student loan debt of more than $25,000, and 1 in 10 borrowers now owe more than $54,000 in loans.

African American and Latino students are especially saddled with student debt, with 81 percent of African American students and 67 percent of Latino students who earned bachelor’s degrees leaving school with debt. This compares to 64 percent of white students who graduate with debt. With $864 billion in federal loans and $150 billion in private loans, student debt in America now exceeds $1 trillion.

Wow. And that’s only one sector of debt held by the public. It’s something David Graeber and Steve Keen have continuously warned us about.

Of course this may change in time with recent public/private partnerships being formed for MOOCs. True, it’s good for more technical degrees, but I remain skeptical about what is taught to future students on a larger scale in the realm of public policy and economics. What my experience in the public education system has been so far is a conveyor belt system meant to pump in a certain block of accepted knowledge without any wiggle room to fit dissenting opinion – political, economic, or otherwise. It is meant to keep in place a class structure where only the wealthiest among us get to enjoy higher education, while at the same time stifling the pay of adjunct professors and other professionals alike.

Economists and politicians have stated that the US has become a service-industry economy, that our future lies in churning out engineering and computer science students to stay competitive in the world market. But what about the arts and humanities majors? What about the English and literature majors? It has become harder and harder for a post-graduate student to find work in their field of study and if they do their wages are one of pittance. The idea of “worker as a commodity” becomes reality as adjunct staff are marginalized for the public university to survive the cuts in funding from their respective state. It is another example of the privatization of public institutions for fear of over-reaching, centralized state control.

Something I’d like to ask my Libertarian friends out there: Isn’t a corporate state just as pernicious?

The CBO declared in a report detailing a 10-year fiscal projection that the government will rake in a $51 billion profit from student loans this year which, according to Shahien Nasiripour at Huffington Post, is well above some of the largest corporate profits for the year.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the nation’s most profitable company, reported $44.9 billion in net income last year. Apple Inc. recorded a $41.7 billion profit in its 2012 fiscal year, which ended in September, while Chevron Corp. reported $26.2 billion in earnings last year. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo reported a combined $51.9 billion in profit last year.

Quite astonishing. It’s as if it’s the housing bubble all over again except this time instead of the government handing over the reigns of sub-prime mortgage revenues to private hands, it has found a way to plug in to suckle more money out of the public without the need of a middleman. Sure, a graduate can defer and even lower their payments according to their income (or lack thereof) via the Pay As You Earn program, but that does not mean interest stops accumulating.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill in Congress to lower the interest rate of Stafford Loans to 0.75%, the same as what bigger banks currently pay, but that rate would only last for one year and it’s doubtful her bill could even muster the support in Congress to pass. As it is interest rates are set to double in July if Congress can’t agree to cap it at the current rate of 3.4%. I think all of us have noticed recently that even when 90% of the public agrees on something our elected representatives still have control on what gets done.

It seems that what we are given as students does not equal the amount of money we are paying. Yes, as a college graduate you are more likely to find a job, but again it depends on what your degree is in. A few weekends ago a family member gave me the typical “American Dream” spiel: “Get good grades in school and you’ll get a good job.” Sure, but good grades in which field of study? This family member told me to “do what makes you happy”, okay, what if a concentration in the liberal arts is what makes me happy, what then? The only professions out there for liberal arts majors are those that need a graduate degree, which is, yet again, the problem of paying too high a cost for very little return.

To conclude I will reiterate that receiving a higher education in America is becoming more and more a sign of affluence than something that is guaranteed to all citizens whether they are from higher or lower income families. But without the jobs what good is an education? It is a compound problem that I fear will take something like what was seen recently in Chile or Canada to really solve. Direct action is needed and until then students, whether they be younger and fresh from high school, or older and trying to reeducate themselves in a shifting economic paradigm, will suffer the consequences of an elite class taking over the decisions of who gets what in the world.

A Short Critique On Marx’s “On The Jewish Question”

A small caveat before I begin. I am well aware that this piece conjures feelings of Marx being anti-Semitic. However, as with most texts, some words or phrases could be interpreted in a different way. I saw Marx’s critique on Bauer’s original text as being not anti-Jewish, but anti-liberal, or in some ways anti-capitalist. It could be said that Marx saw the Jews as being the embodiment of capitalism, and therefore equating or blaming a race for a specific economic and political system (whether egregious or not) is, in my view, quite racist. Therefore, I approached this assignment very carefully to analyze the text outside a religious standpoint and only one of politics and economics.

Bauer and Marx: The Religious Man vs. The Citizen

           According to Bauer and Marx there exists a conflict between a man trying to do good by his religion versus trying to good by his state, or rather his duties as a citizen of the state. The actions taken as a religious man are not in direct connection to that of someone being a citizen, which is to say one philosophy contradicts the other. As one follows a religion he or she is bound by a certain set of rules or common laws set by that religion that may supersede the ones set by a state and its people. This statement of course could be reversed to say that the Jewish and Christian man may gain some certain kind of additional freedom by the state that the typical citizen may not be able eligible to participate if he or she is not a part of that religion. This is the question which Bauer and Marx aim to answer: How can a man be faithful to his fellow man in his plight for equal rights among all men if he is only fighting for his rights as a member of a specific religion? Bauer took issue with this, his end goal or answer being from an atheistic position to abolish all religion from society. What would be left is a state in which the common man or worker is not tied to a deity, but to his duties as a citizen of that state.

In his aim to answer the question, Marx thought that religion was so engrained into society already that it would take some kind “human emancipation” and not simply “political emancipation” for everyone to experience a full and true freedom. Marx wasn’t completely against political emancipation when he said it “certainly represents a great progress”(35), even he thought it was important to some extent, but even secular societies like the United States were not completely separated from religion in society. However, political emancipation still meant that the people were not truly free from the philosophical bonds of a religion. It seems as if Marx was not against religion itself but only the political isolation it created among man. Civil society still harbored inequalities that were in no direct connection to one’s religious affiliation. It was for this reason that Marx advocated for the human emancipation to eliminate the contradiction between a worker and his state, or a private individual and the rest of society.

Marx had seen that the laws, which gave freedoms to the citizens of the state, only included those that may lead to liberty and property and caused man to be “withdrawn into himself…his private interest…acting in accordance with his private caprice.”(43) It was because of this egoistic type of society that Marx concluded that the rights of man rest not in terms of ones own private interests, but the interests of the whole human species. Man had disconnected himself from his work treating it as if some means to an end instead of an end unto itself. The shopkeeper, the day-laborer, and the living individual all share the same motive to work within the political state which is given to them by the laws of the state. Instead of freeing the citizens from religion and property liberalized states sought to instead separate man from political society and in turn his fellow species-being. Relationships within the human species became nothing more than the exchange of goods, communal religious piety, and the need to protect oneself from another who seeks to do harm. These actions “no longer constituted the general relation between the individual and the state as a whole”(45) they became private matters and therefore separated man from man, man from himself, and man from politics.

Marx concluded that the only type of emancipation that mattered was human emancipation, the emancipation of the species-being. Since man was the only animal conscious of ones own species it seemed only natural to Marx that human society, and all that lay within it, must be freed through the coming together of all parts of human life – personal and political. This joining of the private citizen back to his political roots would give him enough pause to engage with his political surroundings and thus gives him the ability to criticize that which he finds wrong. It could be said that this is the problem we currently have within our current political landscape. For even now we are subjected to the Washington consensus and whatever that may mean at a certain hour, day, or election cycle. We’ve become so engrossed in our own work that we have forgotten the importance of equality, liberty, property, and security in relation to our species as opposed to just our own personal wants and needs. The alienation from our work that we endure as a society is the same alienation Marx sought to make known in his writings during the 19th century. We will not be satisfied until we have made the transition out of our egoistic tendencies and into ones suited to advance human society as an entire species and not simply the individual.

No More Masters

So every four years people vote for a president here in America. And every four years I make a bet that I won’t hear at least one person say “If you don’t vote you have no reason to complain.”

I owe myself $5. No big deal.

While the noise will sound the same the action will eventually be different. Hopefully in the next four years I will be out of the state of Florida so I won’t have to worry about swing-state electoral politics. I’ll hopefully be somewhere else in grad school arguing with a libertarian over something Mises or Friedman said. However, no matter where I end up I honestly don’t know if I will ever vote again. It’s become voting for Capitalist A or Capitalist B, Crony 1 or Crony2, and all within the Corporate Plutocrat Infinitum.

I would like all of you to remember a few things that have to do with some basic economic ideas turned upside down by both Republicans and Democrats.

1. The Hayekian experiment of “setting the market free” failed miserably. The rationality of people in the upper echelons of society (public and private) turned irrational through the gorging on the bets against toxic mortgage-backed securities. We can thank Clinton, a Republican led Congress, and the idea that merging depository banks with investment banks was a great idea for that miscue of “small government” and “free-market” principles.

2. Keynesian-type spending on the military industrial complex, the war on drugs, and an ever-reaching police state has dragged our deficits even deeper than they should be. This was the type of spending Keynes did not envision or use to promote “full employment”. It does however promote fear, hate, and an ever-reaching hand of the corporate state into our lives.

I’m not going to go any further into a diatribe supporting a candidate. Honestly, I don’t care for either of them because I don’t support their version of capitalism or governing. I’m standing at the line where I don’t know if I support capitalism at all – cuddly or otherwise.

I know why the left (center) settles for Obama, he’s not Mitt. And I know why people love Mitt, he’s not Obama. But they both share the same governing policies here and abroad as well as economic ones, it’s just that one prefers equality of outcome a little bit more rather than opportunity. But when the day is done does anyone really see a difference? In either case the bourgeois still win. It’s corporate socialism coupled with a nanny state that ensures the rule of the 1% over the serfs. In this case, Hayek was right. We have lost many freedoms. Economic and otherwise.

The solution isn’t just to vote, because what does that do except keep the status quo. What it takes is direct action outside of the booth and there are many ways to do this even if you’re incapable of going to protests, meetings, etc. At the end of the day everyone has a right to complain about what happens because we all live here whether we vote or not.