Saturday, 6 September 2014

Taking Scottish Independence Seriously

The referendum on Scottish independence is an issue that divides the Left in Scotland and in Britain as a whole. In the No camp are those who say that by staying in the union we keep in solidarity with our comrades in England, Wales, and N. Ireland and continue the fight for a just society. In the Yes camp, the feeling is that the values of the Scottish people differ significantly from their neighbors to the south, and that independence is the only means by which this collective identity can be expressed. Many embellish this argument with the rhetoric of democracy and self-determination so as to avoid the charge of abetting nationalists. 

Here, I shall neither bury the union nor praise it. Nor will I go into the many facts and opinions and speculations surrounding oil, debt, currency, and borders. My intent is to evaluate the ideologically-colored claims of Left Yes supporters (and all mention of ‘Yes camp’ and ‘Yes supporters’ refers to this community) and put forward my own opinions about what the priorities of progressives ought to be.

Now some Yes supporters hold beliefs that are plainly absurd. There are folks who believe that Scotland can have a first world economy with a third world banking system, a Swedish-style welfare state with American level taxes; that the Scottish government will have the power to dictate to the world the terms of its independence, and that the whole of economic history and logic will be defied before a single one of their predictions is proven false.

One should be suspicious of anyone who suggests a yes vote will bring with it a seamless transition to a socialist utopia. Breaking from the union is not likely to come without some pain. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that such a move will lead to the inexorable decline of Scotland. To re-cast Aeschylus: as long as there are people the city stands. The choice is not between eternal joy and everlasting doom. The progressive must look at a number of tenable constitutional arrangements and choose the one that most closely comports with progressive ideals.  

To that point, one of the more extravagant claims advanced by the Yes camp makes separation from Britain a kind of alchemy for the creation of a settled left-wing policy agenda. The strategy is to bind progressivism and independence into a single idea: to make the two of them equivalent by mere assertion. Such wish-thinking is far removed from the reality of leftist movement politics. The work of Kier Hardie, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Pankhurst, Arthur Horner, and Claudia Jones is proof that the nations of Britain need not be separated to further the progressive cause. These great leaders of the socialist Left changed Britain at a time when its people were more conservative, its government more centralized, and its society more undemocratic than they have ever been since. They did it through wit and agitation, through organizing and mobilizing poor and working people. They galvanized the spirits and summoned the energies of workers throughout Britain by putting class rather than nation at the center of politics. They gave clarity and purpose to the indigent and exploited by awakening within them a broad sense of hope and a general feeling of solidarity with their fellow laborers. They forged a unity of will that brought capital and privilege to heel and made the country better serve the needs of those who built it…But more on this later.

The stronger arguments for independence involve the issues of Trident, the House of Lords, self-determination, the supposed social democratic consensus in Scotland, and inequality.

I am in sympathy with the Yes camp on the first two, but I am not overly concerned with them. The House of Lords is rather powerless as a law-making body, and its list of heredity peers continues to decline. The removal of Trident is not likely to stop Scotland being targeted by other nuclear powers, since it will still be a member of NATO regardless of the referendum vote. I see no reason why nuclear weapons can’t be eliminated, the House of Lords thoroughly democratized, and the Church of England permanently disestablished by other means. Yet, I accept that many people object to these things on principle and want to be rid of them—now.

The self-determination argument has taken shape as two distinct kinds. There are some who like to spin the line: ‘Scotland needs independence so that it can get the government it votes for.’ The statement is catchy but empty. Wherever there are popular elections, there are people who get a government they didn’t vote for. But even if it is taken with charity and read as ‘England has the largest population in the U.K., so it will always decide the outcome of general elections’ it still faces the hurdle of being trivial. In a democracy, one expects the places with the most people to have a greater share of representation. It doesn’t follow that voters in different parts of the country do not have the same interests.

The other, more thoughtful, kind of this argument is based on the principle of democratic sovereignty: ‘independence will bring government that is more in line with the will of the people.’

Representative government is the concrete means by which the will of the people is expressed. At the moment, the Scottish people have a voice in four different legislatures: their city councils, the Scottish Parliament, the British Parliament, and the European Parliament. Each of these levels of government has powers and responsibilities for dealing with issues relevant to its domain—city, Scotland, Britain, and Europe—and the people get a say through their elected officials. This is sovereignty shared, not sovereignty stifled. It is a form of democracy that has emerged as a response to a citizenry that is at once Scottish, British, and European.

If the Yes camp wants to limit the concept of self-determination to one that excludes the impositions of all extra-Scottish legislatures, then membership in the EU should be off the table; for the entire purpose of the EU is to pass laws which regulate and harmonize certain actions of its member countries. Even the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, recognizes that ‘the EU has considerable influence over Scotland’s economic and social welfare…’ If the Yes camp is so hot on democratic sovereignty, why would they allow such sway by a non-Scottish government?

In practical terms, being a member of the British and European unions is a matter of convenience. From a strictly ideological perspective holding British and European citizenship reflects the kind of rooted cosmopolitanism that is part of the cultural tradition of the Left. In any case, the Yes camp cannot object to the one and not the other and still paint its position as one of political principle.

For many, the case for independence rests on the belief that there is a social democratic consensus in Scotland that does not exist in England. However, a British Social Attitudes in 2011 revealed views on income, redistribution, and taxes and spending which casts doubt on this assumption.   

59% of Scottish people surveyed agreed that ordinary people do not get a fair share of the nation’s wealth. The figure for the English is 55%

While 78% of the people in Scotland believe that difference is income are too large, only 43% agreed that government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less-better-off. The number for England is 34%

These numbers show a Scottish electorate that is slightly more progressive than its English counterpart, but that is hardly a hardened socialist bloc. Scotland’s voting trends and political parties also put the claim into question.  

The Yes camp is quite slippery on this topic. It rages endlessly against Tories and gives no quarter to Labour, but deems any mention of the SNP as irrelevant to the referendum. But why should the values and ideas and history of the political parties in Scotland be discounted, especially when claims are made about a social democratic consensus? If it is fair to disparage Tories and to criticize Labour, then it is fair to scrutinize the SNP and its plans for an independent Scotland—since it is the party in power.

The Yes camp’s treatment of the Labour Party is particularly worth noting.  It is said that Labour has lost its way. It is said that Labour has abandoned working people, has deserted the poor, and is the same as the Tories. What is said about the man held responsible for these supposed betrayals, Tony Blair, chaste ears should be spared.

The general view is that Labour needs to return to the left. But this is a view born of nostalgia rather than history. The truth is that Labour has governed from the center left since the first premiership of Harold Wilson. The notion that the party shed its radical skin under Tony Blair is nonsense. Labour was down the path of centrism long before Mr. Blair came into the picture.

The last redoubt of the party’s ‘hard’ Left occurred during the seventies and eighties. The radicals of this period rallied around the Alternative Economic Strategy, which called for import controls, price controls, compulsory planning arrangements, nationalization of key industrial firms, public ownership of the major financial institutions, withdrawal from the Common Market, and other measures to bolster the welfare state and reduce the security state. Though briefly official party policy, the program was never enthusiastically endorsed by the parliamentary leadership. Even Michael Foot, rightly seen as one of the grand old men of the Labour Left, distanced himself from it by the end of his time as leader in 1983.

Neil Kinnock is the person most responsible for formulating the aims and politics of the modern Labour Party. It was he who fully embraced the ‘embourgeoisement’ of Britain and made Labour a party that could appeal to both middle and working class voters. New Labour under Tony Blair was little different from Old Labour under Neil Kinnock. The former was a mere branding exercise; and the policies pursued by successive New Labour governments were based on ideas that had been around since the late 80s.

At no point did Labour ‘lose its way’. The decision to refashion its image and implement free market policies was a historically determined one. Like the other parties of the West European left, Labour was forced to respond to changed social and economic conditions, lest it become irrelevant. It doesn’t follow that the party threw out its governing ideals. Its revisionism involved rejecting old policies, not old ethical principles; eschewing old means, not desirable ends.

I hate to make lists, but the ones I’ve seen of Tony Blair’s record depict him as a reactionary monster whose premiership saw not a single piece of progressive legislation passed. Here are some of the liberal and social democratic laws produced and results attained while he was in office:

The Human Rights Act
The Scotland Act
The Government of Wales Act
The removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords
The Freedom of Information Act
A raft of acts protecting and extending the rights of LGBT
The introduction of a national minimum wage
The introduction of winter fuel payments
The reduction of VAT on fuel
Employee Relation Act
A rise in the incomes of the bottom 10% of earners as a result of transfers through the social security system
The halving of child poverty
The signing of treaties integrating Britain more closely with the EU

Yes, Mr. Blair got Iraq wrong. But his time as Prime Minister cannot be reduced to that series of mis-judgments, untruths, and bad decisions—significant though they were.

To this day, Labour consistently and systematically advocates and supports welfare programs and progressive social reform. That is what distinguishes it from the Conservative Party.

Eric Hobsbawm said that the effective parties of the Left have served to ‘regulate and socialize the wealth-creating and directionless economic dynamism of capitalism, not replace it’. This is the terrain on which democratic socialism has been treading for the last fifty years. Its goal has been to sustain a robust business sector and strong public institutions, high levels of private consumption and an efficient welfare state.

The center left governments that have been in power in Holyrood—Labour and SNP—have adhered to this revised form of democratic socialism. They have implemented policies that marry social welfare spending and market-based growth. Nothing in its White Paper suggests that the SNP, which would in the near term steer the course of an independent Scotland, intends to nationalize or heavily regulate and tax industry. Had Scotland put the Greens in power or spawned and voted in some other radical left-wing party the case for its having a separate and unique social democratic consensus would be more convincing.

The usual rebuttal to this observation is: ‘It’s not about the SNP! There are many different groups with all kinds of political ideas.’ Fair enough. Let them organize into parties and get elected to parliament, or, gather as lobbyists and change the policies of existing parties. Once that happens, a better case can be made for a distinct political culture. There is no reason to believe that the notions and fancies which flit through the mind of every person claiming the mantle of social justice will be turned into law after independence. There are restraints imposed by reality on everyone’s dreams of freedom.

Finally, we come to the problem of inequality. It is the defining issue of left wing politics, for we cannot live in a free and democratic society while ancient privileges are protected under capitalist guises. The problem is one that fires the spirit of many in the Yes camp and triggers a lot of the big talk about fairness. But here again their views on the matter put them on shaky ground.

The Yes camp advances the idea that tax from the oil industry will give an independent Scotland the means to reverse austerity and spend more on welfare programs. I will put aside for a moment the feasibility of this plan and accept the considered opinion of the authors of The Wee Blue Book:

‘But in July this year, Professor Sir Donald Mackay, of the pro-devolution think-tank Reform Scotland and an economic adviser to the UK government for 25 years, said that Westminster’s figures were underestimating the true value of oil by £8 billion a year…£8bn a year is enough to completely wipe out even the No campaign’s most pessimistic assessment (£7.6bn) of an independent Scotland’s deficit [54] and give Scotland a large budget surplus.’

Now even with all that money in the public coffers it is not clear how future Scottish governments will reduce inequality. As is the case in most OECD nations, inequality in Scotland is driven by a sharp divergence in incomes between high-end and low-end service jobs and downward pressure on wages in general. It cannot spend its way out of the problem: no country can. What is needed is structural economic change, and the process ought to begin with giving workers more power.

The Scandinavian countries have been held up as a model for what an independent Scotland could become. They have lower rates of inequality than other European countries, and Norway in particular has large oil reserves which it has used to invest in clean and sustainable industries. It is striking that in all the discussion of our neighbors to the north there has been little mention of the one thing that has made their achievements possible: trade unions.

Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have some of the strongest trade unions in Europe. And this is what really accounts for the size of the welfare state, the social liberalism, the high wages, the equity of pay between men and women, and the relatively low levels of inequality—which is growing but not exceedingly so—in these countries.

A revitalization of trade unionism is needed if inequality is to be reduced in Britain. This really ought to be the priority of the Left. For the workers in an independent Scotland will be prey to the same exploitation as the workers elsewhere on the island unless they are all able to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Working people in Britain have no power. That I think is the cause of the present angst and the general dissatisfaction with politics. When people are powerless, they will not only lash out against those who they perceive as having power but embrace those who promise to give it back to them. The chance to start over again, to begin anew, to rebuild Scotland from the ground up—all of these images have been used to great effect by the Yes camp. The truth of the matter, however, is that a country’s politics and society cannot be reformed unless its economic arrangements are changed. A new constitution will do little to help ordinary people. Political militancy is not the same as economic militancy, as Lenin pointed out. Organizing poor and working people against capital and concentrated wealth is the best way to liquidate the pervading injustice and give power back to the people.  

The pro-independence Left talks about building a fairer Scotland, but its program of action will not make this happen. Enshrining political wish into the constitution is not enough. Nor is reversing austerity or raising the minimum wage. It was the dissolution of the trade unions in the first place that made the latter necessary.

Any discussion of what is fair will ultimately result in disagreement. The criteria of fairness used by workers are unlikely to correspond to that of business. Workers need the means to effectively negotiate pay that tracks the revenue and profits of the companies that employ them. The presence of strong trade unions is an essential condition for an agreed and coordinated approach to increasing incomes and to ensuring that people are able to work with dignity and respect.  

Funding the range of social services needed to provide opportunity for individual talent and to protect the citizenry against the ravages of illness, old age, and economic distress is the hallmark of a decent and enlightened country. But establishing such institutions does not in itself guarantee levels of future spending by future governments. In the time since the welfare state was created, every country in Europe has seen governments of both the Left and the Right cut spending. Even the highly praised Swedes have gone through periods of austerity. ‘Independence will guarantee that Scotland will never have another Tory government again’ is a nifty slogan, but even if it were proven true it does not follow that future left-wing governments will not be compelled to reduce social investment or reform the size, scope, and delivery of social services.

Democracy rests on the assumption that society is a network of human relations. It can only work if the various groups within it are acknowledged and heard by lawmaking bodies. Trade unions establish institutional protection against unbalanced welfare reforms. They force lawmakers to be moderate and humane in their handling of public services. They give strong voice to the interests and concerns of working people and press legislators to take heed, even when fiscal circumstances require compromise and adjustment. Trade unions can create real centers of democratic action—the participatory, consensus-building, problem-solving kind that harnesses the combined strength of working people and uses it to wield power in industry and government.

Perhaps the most valuable quality of trade unionism for progressives is the sense of idealism it inspires. I agree with Wilkinson and Pickett when they say:

‘The weakening of the labour movement during the last quarter of the 20th Century also saw a decline of any sense of how to improve our societies. Progressive politics lost sight of the direction in which we should be trying to move social and economic change to produce a better quality of life for everyone.’

This observation encapsulates the sense of ideological drift felt by many on the Left. It may also explain the difference between how the legacies of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair are remembered. Both men governed from the center left; both implemented programs and policies that resulted in the largest transference of wealth from the top to the bottom in British history—Blair nearly matching Wilson in this measure. But Blair was more piecemeal in his approach, while Wilson had more vision and coherence. Wilson also had an organized Left which acted as reference to the aims he set and the values he espoused.

The movement for Scottish independence does not strike me as one that is cogent with leftist ideals. Whatever idealism it has sparked seems scattered and shallow. The impulse of the Yes camp is to use the tones and timbre of class conflict without bringing to fullness its harmonies, its music—the complete orchestra by which to dramatize the needed class struggle. If this were done, it would become clear that the real problem is not between Westminster and Holyrood, England and Scotland, Tory and non-Tory: it is between capital and labor—as always.

This is not a call for a return to the 30s or 60s. Those generations had their battles and their victories, most of which we now take for granted. We in the 21st century must take the same liberal and socialist ideals that inspired our political forbearers and make them suitable to our own time. The fight must go on. The lords of finance and capital should not be allowed to sit and watch as working people turn against each other: knowing that no matter the outcome their privilege and influence will remain undiminished.

In the end, equality has to aspire to more than modest boosts to low incomes or the periodic reshuffling of social welfare priorities. It has to mean an equalizing of political, social, and economic rights so that there is equal dignity for all. That is worth fighting for, and that is what the Left should be fighting for.

As heirs to the Enlightenment, the Left must constantly deploy the optimism of the will. To remain politically relevant we must keep before the public mind the idea that improvement is possible, that progress is inevitable, and that solidarity in the struggle is inescapable. Where there is no border, we should not make one. I do not say that Scotland is not a nation. I only say it should be a nation within a federation of nations—a member of both a federal Britain and a federal Europe. 

As a progressive, I can find no good reason to support independence. The facts, my ideals, my sense of the continuity of left-wing politics drive me in the other direction: to keep the union together and to keep in solidarity with liberals and social democrats in it; to remain engaged with what is far from a settled debate over the future of federalism in Britain and Europe, and to continue the call for effective democratic organization and action.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Remembering Jean Jaures

One hundred years ago today the French socialist Jean Jaures was assassinated. His efforts to prevent Europe from going to war had earned him the scorn of French nationalists, who, in the person of Raoul Villain, took the great man’s life. Jaures died as he had lived—in tireless pursuit of enacting the revolutionary ideals of the late Enlightenment: democracy, secularism, civic freedom, and social justice. Jean Jaures was more than a politician, more than a philosopher, journalist, and historian respected throughout the world. He was the very embodiment of the Enlightened Man. In him was the spirit of the French Revolution and every other movement of thought and action that sought to free humanity from fear, suffering, division, and superstition. His guiding principle was his strong ideal of justice, his socialism was of a kind enriched with the highest aims of humanism, his goal: the unity of humankind, a world without poverty, oppression, castes, and classes, a world in which men and women were not separated by war and violence—a world, in short, of collective harmony and individual happiness. Here was a visionary; a utopian to be sure, but one whose mind was not moved by mere fancy or sentiment. Jaures was driven by a range of impulses natural to a thinker of his power. He fused will and intellect, passion and grace, purpose and kindness, action and imagination.

Jean Jaures was born in 1859 in the city of Castres in southern France, in the department of the Tarn. He came from a close knit family of middle class provincials who were ambitious and tolerant. He was raised in an environment that was less liberal but also considerably less pretentious than its urban counterpart. The region in which he grew into manhood was caught up in the wave of industrialization sweeping through the France of his day. Mills and coal mines dotted the landscape of the Tarn and were the lifeblood of its economic life. From his earliest childhood Jaures mixed easily with the laboring classes. A large mining enterprise and a glass factory introduced large scale capitalism into the region, and the labor needed to run them. However, it was not the milieu of his boyhood that prepared him for socialism but rather his innate sense of integrity and fairness. These latter did most of the work. His mastery of history and philosophy did the rest.  

As a student Jaures came to view history as the story of liberty. His absorption in the subject and interpretation of it were starting points for his journey towards socialism. After completing university in Paris in 1881, he returned to the Tarn and assumed a teaching post. He had furnished his mind with republicanism, atheism, and a belief in progress. He had also made a commitment to the study of secular letters. He looked to the 18th century philosophes as models of intellectual inspiration and moral clarity. During the following four years of reading and lecturing Jaures developed philosophical principles that combined materialism and idealism, insisting on a metaphysics that kept the two conjoined. Even after his turn to socialism and his acceptance of Marx, he never surrendered his belief that human ideals were the motive power of history—a life-affirming enigma in the purposeless world of matter

Though Jaures remained a life-long student and scholar of history and philosophy—completing a doctoral thesis in the latter for the Sorbonne in 1892—it was in the field of politics that he made his name and his mark. He first entered the National Assembly in 1885 as its youngest member. Still filled with the ideals of Enlightenment republicanism, he refused to join the radical left. The militants in the chamber repelled his humane and democratic temperament. Though he sympathized with many of their goals, he could not abide their vindictive and doctrinaire spirit. 

His first four year term as a deputy served as an apprenticeship in partisan politics; it also opened his eyes to the power of class in the state and in society. He remained during this time a republican-at large, and took center left positions. He was an advocate for a regulated market that would unleash the dynamism of industry while ensuring basic security for ordinary people. He was to learn that this middling position was untenable. The parties of the center left were as much hostages of business, the military, and the church as the hard right. Only the radical left could be trusted to actively pursue a progressive agenda. 

Jaures lost his seat in 1889, but the four years he had spent in office spurred an evolution in his thinking. By the end of this first term, he stood for state control over capitalist enterprise and urged the creation of strong and independent unions to counter the power of banks and manufactures.

The Carmaux strike of 1892 signaled Jaures’s coming out as a militant socialist. He threw himself into the battle between labor and capital. He politicked, organized, and mobilized; he wrote, spoke, and harangued, attacking without compunction the opposition of industry to the right of workers to unionize. The Carmaux strike was the fire that steeled the bond between him and the workers in his constituency. It also thrust him into French socialist politics, and in 1893 he was returned to the National Assembly.

His electoral rebound marked his ascent as a statesman and political thinker. Over the next twenty years he became one of the most respected figures in the international socialist movement. While dealing with the everyday contingencies of partisanship and factionalism in the Assembly, Jaures developed his own vision of a just society. He was devoted to the democratic method, and believed that socialism—which he defined as a human movement to give aid and comfort to all those who suffered and were threatened with starvation and death—could be achieved through free elections and gradual reforms. Revolutionary aims, Jaures believed, could be attained through evolutionary means.

In his own words:

We must never forget the new and grandiose character of the Socialist Revolution. The common good will be its object. For the first time since the beginning of human history, a great upheaval will have for its aim, not the substitution of one class for another, but the destruction of classes, the inauguration of a universal humanity.

In the Socialist order discipline and the co-ordination of effort will not be maintained by authority of one class over another, but will come as the result of the free will of associate guardians of the peace.

Jaures complimented his soaring rhetoric with practical ideas and policy for relieving the distress of labor and empowering it to defend its interests against capital. He fought not only for the rights of workers to unionize but for the social legislation needed to preserve material security and individual dignity: the eight hour day, pensions for old age and accidents, and insurance against forced unemployment. He also worked for socialist unity. He endeavored to keep the splintering socialist factions together by arguing for a synthesis of viewpoints. He was an advocate of ‘big tent’ socialism and disparaged those who dogmatically clung to narrow lines of thought.  

His biggest, and perhaps most important, fight in his later years was the one that ultimately cost him his life. Jaures had already begun a crusade against imperialism when the storm clouds of war cast themselves over Europe. The emergence of virulent forms of racism, jingoism, and nationalism in the first decade of the 20th century alarmed him. And he re-committed himself to marrying socialism with what he believed to be the universal aspiration for unity and harmony.

We can say that today there is no religion, and, in the truest sense, there is no community. Traditional Christianity is dying, philosophically, scientifically, and politically…History never knew the total Fall of Man, which necessitates the intervention of a tyrannical God in order to restore him…Rather the entire universe suffered the Fall, in the sense that the unity of God was shattered into innumerable competitive and egoistic centers…

If we thought that man was now permanently evil and the human conscience powerless, we would despair of love, and we would abandon the great hope of Socialism. On the contrary, we note with joy countless examples of human nobility, and we conclude from them that the conscience of man, who has known how to conceive the ideal of justice, will not long accept an economic regime which daily negates that ideal…

It is in this spirit that Jaures pursued the cause of peace even as the crisis of 1914 began to peak. He never gave up hope in the human capacity for ethical thinking. He believed that the ideals of justice, of international socialism, would rouse the people and galvanize them into opposing war.

In the days before his murder, Jaures went to Brussels to speak out against going to war and to rally the Socialist International to his cause. He drew up a manifesto calling on the French and German governments to restrain both themselves and their respective allies. He spoke as a kind of tribune of the people, warning against the ‘relapse into barbarism’ that war would bring. All those who were tired and discouraged and embittered by the belligerence, exploitation, and oppression of the imperial powers were given voice by the writings and speeches of Jaures in those crucial weeks.

Sadly, it was not enough, and never would have been. The bullet that ended his life was the first fired by the 20th century enemies of reason and humanism. The forces of war and reaction had too strong an influence on the public mind for there to be any turn from conflict. Even as politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals eulogized him and praised his ideals, they rallied to their respective national standards and took Europe to war.

All that came after the death of Jean Jaures—the slaughter and torture and slavery of millions in the following decades—may cast doubt on his belief in the shared aspirations of people to do good, to seek justice, and to establish universal brotherhood. But perhaps it takes persons such as Jaures to remind us that suppressing selfishness and aggression and embracing culture and solidarity is the only thing that makes civilization possible. It is any case worth remembering that before Europe was plunged into a war that would usher in a period of violence and destruction unparalleled in human history, there was at least one person who tried to stop it.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

In Government We Trust


When people say they don’t trust government, they are often confusing trust with blind trust and government with functions of government they don’t like or of which they are skeptical. Few of the lefties now howling about NSA and GCHQ surveillance have a problem giving national governments enormous power to engineer certain social outcomes. And the debate over spying would be much more interesting if such persons would stop dressing what are only their prejudices and preferences in the rhetorical garb of a pseudo-libertarianism. 

Now over the past few months we’ve been treated to a spectacle of public hysteria and indignation over the Snowden leaks. The popular belief seems to be that the NSA and its British counterpart have been monitoring the emails, phone calls, and text messages of the entire world, and that no man, woman, or child has uttered a word without it being recorded. A moment’s reflection should lead any reasonable person to question whether such a thing is even possible. And the next stage of that contemplation should lead him to ask: what does it mean to say that these spy agencies are collecting data? What kind of data? And further: does the gathering of such data amount to an invasion of privacy and an infringement of liberty?

This line of inquiry prompts two more questions. The first is the old one of liberty versus security: how much legal space does a government need to protect the lives and property of its citizens? This question is best discussed in the abstract. The second, more relevant, question is: what reasonable guarantees of privacy ought we to have from our government given our competing demand that it investigate and prevent terror threats?

In dealing with the latter it must be acknowledged that less and less of the content we put into various media streams can actually be kept private. If I go to the Washington Post website, a number of books I’ve expressed interest in are put before me. If I visit the Huffington Post or some other news site, I am told the names of Facebook friends who have also visited the page. We are all forced into communities of interest without our consent. Our transactions and communications are monitored and employed by private companies to get us to buy things directly or by way of seeing them advertised. I am not too bothered by these intrusions. The effort of various networking sites and retailers to keep tabs on my online activities is no threat to me, and I suppose it can be convenient at times. I am inclined to feel the same way about the collection of phone records and other kinds of meta-data by the government. And I prefer to give the government what it needs, within reason, to be effective in protecting the lives and property of its citizens, while demanding strong safeguards to prevent abuse.

The most obvious rejoinder to this preference is that it is naïve; that politicians and policy makers are never to be trusted, that government is to be always suspected of being up to no good, and that if you give it more power it will inevitably misuse it. These claims and admonitions could be used to discredit every act of the state and any of the organizations and institutions run by it. And I can only respond by saying that blanket distrust of state action and government bodies is as dangerous to liberty as unreserved confidence in them. No one expects their government to coerce, intimidate, and wrongfully persecute its citizens. But I would think that most people expect it to take measures to detect and thwart intended acts of violence and murder. I do not claim that government can justify any action on the premise of public safety; only that it can justify certain, limited, legally authorized actions on that premise.

Legislators and law courts often get things wrong when it comes to these matters.  For decades the ‘law and order’ meme has been used by reactionaries and demagogues to advance everything from mass incarceration to mass deportation. It has been used to profile and harass individuals who were doing nothing other than exercising their right to protest or to put one foot in front of the other on the street; it has also been used to blackmail and smear persons whose ability to inspire and influence threatened the status quo. But criticizing acts of cruelty and suppression is a far cry from objecting to government programs on the spurious basis that the agencies that run them are in league to undermine democracy. In every forum in which this topic has been broached one has heard nothing but wild stories and over-exaggerations—the pathos of grievance and outrage that so dominates current discourse.  If sanity is to be brought to the debate over spying the activity must first be seen as a legitimate public service that, like other such services, is subject to checks and oversight.

Those on the left who single out the operations of the NSA or GCHQ as examples of government infringement of individual liberty say nothing about the tax man who siphons money from wages to finance social welfare programs; nor do they complain of regulators who infringe the freedom of business owners by enforcing safety and anti-discrimination laws. Liberalism holds that government ought to intrude in the lives of individuals in limited and prescribed ways in order to promote the common good. What spy agencies do is not congenial to the moral feeling and personal temperament of everyone. But that does not put these agencies outside the bounds of public service and political control.

I should also say something, as an aside, on the current kerfuffle over The Guardian’s role in the Snowden leaks. The paper has a responsibility to publish what it thinks is in the public interest, and it should not be hauled before legislative committees for doing so. If any governmental pressure is to be brought to bear, it ought to be on Russia for harboring a fugitive—that vain, callow charlatan Mr. Edward Snowden. Otherwise, the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. are better served in trying to prevent future leaks of this kind.

Representative democracy is not perfect. Not everyone will always be pleased with what their governments do. That’s why we have politics and elections. No good comes of persons going on irrational screeds about The Big Brother State, especially when the same folks turn around the next day and blast the government for not regulating banker’s bonuses and not doing enough to bring down youth unemployment. In both instances, the government is expected to employ public resources to advance the common good. If one favors public investment in education and infrastructure but does not care for its foreign and domestic surveillance programs, that's a legitimate position. But it is just as arbitrary as someone who favors the latter but does not care for the former. In either case, the person puts his trust in government to solve public problems and promote the general welfare.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Defense of Same Sex Marriage


The time has come to extend the civil franchise of marriage to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Regardless of how the cases now before the United Sates Supreme Court turn out, the fight for marriage equality, for recognition of same sex couples who have entered committed relationships and wish to enjoy the legal status of marriage, will continue.

As this debate has unfolded in the last decade or so opponents of same sex marriage have suggested that the legal sanctioning of marriage between two men or two women presents a danger to both the institution of marriage in particular and the civil society of America as a whole. They tend to employ some form of one or another of the following argumentative strategies: the argument from anthropology, the argument from history, and the argument from religion.

‘Anthropology,’ some of them contend, ‘and the other social sciences inform us that the human family is the foundation of society and all its institution. If we were to alter the way in which such families are formed, namely, through marriage and the production of children, we would open a path to the collapse of civilization itself.’

In general, claims that contain such sweeping summaries of academic research ought to be received with skepticism. But in this specific case, even if scholarly credence were lent to the premise of the argument, none could be given to its conclusion; for no credible contemporary anthropologist, speaking strictly as a social scientist, has ever made that kind of unqualified claim. Opponents of same sex marriage are thus barred from using the authority of social science to advance their cause. However, their trouble runs deeper than that. If we look around, we see that not every couple that marries does so for the purpose of having children. Indeed, heterosexual marriages are formed for a variety of reasons and are organized and practiced in an insuperable number of ways. Yet civilizationsfrom the American to the Japanesecontinue to thrive economically, socially, and culturally, despite the plurality of ideas around which marriage is arranged.

This brings us to the argument from history, a line of reasoning closely linked to the last one, and to my favorite refrain from opponents of marriage equality: ‘Marriage has always been defined as the union between one man and one woman.’ Persons who repeat this claim seem to be unaware that they are not saying or proving very much. To rest one’s entire case against same sex marriage on gender composition excludes the aims, purposes, and functions of marriage, as well as the concrete relations and experiences of the persons in it. By referring constantly to how marriage has always been ‘defined’ the opponents of marriage equality conflate a concept associated with marriage with various conceptions of it.

While it is true that oppositeness of sexuality has been until recently one of the abiding conventions of marriage, this bare fact is much too limited to explain in full how persons in history conceived and practiced marriage. Different times saw different conceptions of the institution. In Ancient Rome women were seen as so much property, to be transferred from one family to another; in Medieval Europe royal and aristocratic families used their sons and daughters to seal political alliances and produce heirs of their crowns, lands, and fortunes, while in the lower classes the institution was used to create a supply of cheap labor; even as late as the 19th century, middle class women were pressured into finding an appropriate ‘match’ for a marriage in order to maintain respectability and to relieve their families of the financial burden of keeping them fit to live in society—in all of these examples, social and economic conditions were the determinative factors in prompting or compelling people to marry and established the standards by which they conducted themselves once they had done so. The fact that the two persons in the union were of the opposite sex mattered only with regard to the production of children, a biological function inseparable from the larger material and political needs of the times.

Marriage is an idea that has changed and evolved over the centuries. The much freer and humane views of marriage and family held by we who live in the 21st century contrasts starkly with the illiberal and parochial conceptions of those who came before us. Those who attempt to reduce the debate over same sex marriage to the ‘definition’ of marriage neglect the variety of ways the institution has been and continues to be exemplified.

I shall not tarry long on the argument from religion; for the refusal of its proponents to recognize certain factual realities of the American Constitution makes it untenable from the start. The minions who argue from religion insist that America is a Christian nation, and that because the bible forbids homosexuality the government is obligated to deny legal recognition to same sex couples in any form, including civil unions. The Christian Right has certainly been effective in their campaign to convince Americans that the country was founded on ‘Judeo-Christian’ values; and I have recently discovered that their influence extends beyond the nation’s shores.

The week after President Obama came out in favor of same sex marriage I received an email from a Scottish preacher friend of mine in which he offered a standard Christian criticism of same sex marriage. What struck me most was a line in which he stated that allowing same sex couples to marry would extend the separation of church and state “beyond what the Founders imagined”. This good clergyman is an example of the milder kinds of theists who oppose same sex marriage: he is not bigoted, nor is he mean-spirited or hate-filled; he is just in error. He believes, like many of his fellow Christians across the pond, in the fundamental religiosity of the American Founders, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And he adheres to this belief because of a more fundamental conviction that the institutions of Western society rest solely on Christian precepts. Here is not the place to treat this misconception with the thoroughness it deserves. It must suffice to say, in the context of this discussion, that the Constitution of the United States is a secular document. There is not a single hint, indication, or suggestion that the Founders wished the laws and policies of the nation to be governed according to Christian principles.

‘Why not just invest civil unions with all the rights and privileges of marriage?’ is a point often raised among those struggling to accommodate both the traditionalists and the liberals on this issue. But that presupposes the existence of a marital norm that belongs exclusively to heterosexual couples. And in any case, the history of ‘separate but equal’ in America has shown that the sectioned off group is usually reduced over time to a state of second-class citizenship. No. Only full recognition of the right of same sex couples to get married will do.

It must be remembered that marriage as a civil right is in essence a contractual arrangement. It involves the merging of assets and the acquisition of certain legal privileges in the management of domestic affairs. The religious ceremonies associated with marriage are grounded in custom and ritual; but a marriage ceremony is not a necessary condition for a couple to be married in the eyes of the law. Although the fact is not stated often enough, persons must work through the public authority in order to seal the legal bond of their marriage.

This secular principle leads me to the position that if every other kind of couple that may face disapproval from some sections of society—think of younger men and much older women, of older men and much younger women, of couples of different religions, of couples of different races, of couples of different socio-economic backgrounds—can legally marry then the right should be extended to same sex couples.

Yes, I have good friends, indeed life-long friends, who are gay; but my position is based mainly on strongly held liberal and secularist ideals. I take human equality to be the central tenant of liberalism, and I am convinced of the need to respect individuality in all of its variousness. Such statements usually lead to the rejoinder: ‘so you respect the murderer and the child molester!’ To which I respond: I respect the right of these persons to exist, to fulfill their potential, and seek happiness; but this in no way commits me to respect or approve of the act of murder or child molestation. One may accept the will of individuals to act in ways that are natural to them while not condoning every act such individuals may engage in. Order, safety, and decency still matter in society. Recognizing the right of same sex couples to marry is not a stepping stone to accepting those actions and relations still censured by law and common morality.

 In all likelihood the campaign for marriage equality in America will have to be fought year after year, state by state. But history tells us that in the end fairness and justice will prevail.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Case for Re-Election


Barack Obama has been an excellent steward of the presidency and deserves another four years in the White House. No president begins his term of office clear of all difficulties and problems. No president gets to decide the tumult, crises, and challenges that will occur during his incumbency. No president has unlimited power, authority, and resources available to him. For sure results matter but so do the means by which they are achieved. President Obama has been unwavering in his commitment to use the energies and capacities of the federal government to promote the general welfare of all Americans.

Presidential elections are about ideas, policy, and the alternative. In general, we choose between two competing visions, two competing policy prescriptions, and two competing candidates. President Obama took the oath of office during America’s worst recession since 1929, and he has worked steadily to improve the economy for all who participate in it. His intervention in the national economy has been guided by two ideas: Stability and Growth: counter the forces of recession and reinforce the conditions of high industrial performance. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the government loans to GM, Ford, and Chrysler were the two most important policy decisions related to these ideas. The results of President Obama’s actions have been for the most part effective. Over 5 million jobs have been created as a result of the stimulus package and its knock-on effects; over a million manufacturing jobs have been saved because of the president’s decision to implement the auto bail-out; and corporate profits are at an all-time high. Still, the recovery has been bumpy: GDP remains sluggish and unemployment unacceptably high. Much of this has to do with the fact that the original stimulus was too small for a $12 trillion economy and that recoveries from financial crises are normally weak. But President Obama’s plan to increase infrastructure investment, hire more state and local workers, double the size of the payroll tax cut, and add a new set of tax cuts for small businesses and companies that hire new employees are likely to move the country toward a healthier, more robust economy.  

Jobs and the economy are important, but they do not constitute the only issues of public concern; the conditions, arrangements and inter-relations of civil society also matter. President Obama has kept Fairness and Equality at the center of his social policy. The legislation he signed into law is significant in its impact on those who have health care insurance and those who have struggled to get such coverage. We are all strivers in civil society, and the marketplace provides a means for coordinating and exchanging our different wants, needs, and desires. However, health care is unlike any other service in that it is something that everyone in an industrial democracy needs at some point. The ACA is not about eliminating choice and variety or limiting market flexibility; it is about ending consumer mistreatment and making costs more manageable for everyone—particularly the elderly and the working poor. Giving people a fair chance to carve out their own paths to achievement and success requires more than talk about patriotism and freedom; it obliges one to identify the systematic barriers to advancement—the barriers to ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstraps’—and taking measures to mitigate them. This is how the idea of Fairness is transformed into public policy.

The same holds true for Equality. President Obama’s push to repeal the odious ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his further efforts to secure LGBT civil rights affirms his commitment to a core idea of the American Republic: that every citizen is equal under the law. President Obama has put this abstract idea into concrete action; he has demonstrated that in America no one’s love, affection, family life, and dedication to duty is of more value than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that they partner with someone of the opposite sex. Immigration reform is the next big task in the realm of social policy. President Obama has put forth intelligent, comprehensive, and practical policy proposals for providing pathways to citizenship for the millions of undocumented persons living in America.

Precision and Restraint have informed President Obama’s foreign and security policy. Winding down the war in Iraq and shifting resources to the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan was right because the latter theatre of operations is more directly related to the struggle against terrorism. And if we are to commit combat forces overseas, then we ought to be meticulous and definitive in determining the purpose and location of their deployment.  

Much has been made of the president’s handling of the Arab Spring. My own view is that America should not get involved militarily in these conflicts. I opposed our limited intervention in Libya, just as I now oppose intervening militarily in Syria; for the use of American military force in the short term is no guarantee of reduced death and destruction in the long term. But despite my disagreement with President Obama’s decision to support NATO airstrikes in Libya, I am encouraged by his general penchant for moderation, diplomacy, and political sophistication in dealing with foreign affairs. We will need a steady and seasoned hand navigating the ship of state through the next four years as the guard changes in China, our relations with Russia and India become ever-more complex, and unrest continues in the Middle East. President Obama has demonstrated his ability to think and act pragmatically in the preservation of American interests, and he has proven himself an able leader on the world stage.

No endorsement of President Obama would be complete without a discussion of the alternative: Governor Mitt Romney. Of Mr. Romney’s economic ideas I will only say that they are either vague or incoherent, or have already been tested as public policy and have not delivered the promised outcomes. As for his ideas on social policy, it is quite clear he intends to cripple Medicaid, roll back abortion rights, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and use the power of the federal government to insert perverse, religiously-inspired nonsense into women’s health issues. An equally worrying thing about Mr. Romney is his cynicism. Mr. Romney’s habit of lying is so deep and persistent that at times it seems as though he is willing to defy the brute fact of human perception. It’s not just the ads he runs but the things he actually says. He makes claims that are demonstrably false and quickly verifiable. His modus operandi seems to be: say what people want to hear or what they vaguely suspect, mix it with the ‘he said, she said’ jumble of political news, and after a while people will be so confused that they will not care about what is true, only about how they feel—and in tough economic times, this is sure to get a few votes.

To be sure, all presidential candidates exaggerate news, juggle language, and refine their positions over time; but none have told as many bold face lies as Mitt Romney has during this election cycle. Governor Romney has practiced an order of mendacity never before seen in modern presidential politics. His entire campaign is a factory for the customized dissemination of distortion, dissembling, and obfuscation. Mr. Romney’s only conviction is that he should be president and the other guy shouldn’t. And the only thing he has shown the American public is that he will say anything to reach this double aim.

President Obama has demonstrated the integrity and mettle that Americans expect of their Chief Executive. He has proven himself a bright and capable leader whose ideas and policies will continue to do the most good for the most people. The case for re-electing the forty-fourth president is solid and I strongly support him.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

On Modern Conservatism

In his essay, “Why I am not a Conservative”, F.A. Hayek writes:

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs.

It has been a particularly disturbing practice of self-identified Conservatives to gain political traction for their ideas by dressing up nonsense as knowledge and absurdity as conviction. They draw on the Burkean notion that political questions relate not to truth and falsity but to good and evil, and they cast their factual understanding of the world only in the light which favors their prejudices and superstitions.

The promotion of ignorance is part of the general practice by which Conservatives practice fraud in the public sphere—and this purposeful confusion is quite clear to any perceptive and intellectually honest observer: it consists of citing anonymous ‘experts’ who contest the veracity of widely accepted scientific theory, setting forth anecdotal and arbitrarily gathered incidents as proven fact, and, as Hayek mentions, engaging in the most perverse forms of obscurantism and obfuscation imaginable. The popularly held Liberal notion that Conservatives hate science is not quite true. Conservatives delight in the idea of science insofar as they are able to put it to good use. Science is a kind of lego play set to the Conservative mind; they view it as so many scattered pieces that can be put into any construction they see fit. The notion of disinterestedness is anathema to them, for they aim to have a moral order which they believe is absolute and righteous, and this makes truth-seeking irrelevant to their political practice.

The great political tragedy of the Conservative movement in the United States is that it has given fraud the status of convention—to the Conservative mind no Conservative can ever make misleading statements or false assertions; as long as they speak their values it doesn’t matter whether they tell the truth when discussing matters of fact. The cultural danger of Conservatism lays in its tendency to pit thought against feeling, reason against intuition, and intellect against conduct. That the human animal is at once reflective and instinctual is not readily acknowledged by Conservatives. In true Burkean fashion—taken to an extreme—they think that traditional moral and religious beliefs are far more binding than rationally derived law and policy; and they have established a political program—indeed, an entire political and commercial industry—that appeals exclusively to common prejudices and simmering resentments. The impulse to hold on to what is familiar and cherished runs deep within us; but so does the capacity to discern and contemplate what is new and strange. We can grasp variousness and complexity and navigate possibilities and difficulties without fear of social disorder and degeneration.

For Conservatives the rational faculty is of little importance in understanding social norms and shaping law and policy. It is not morality in general that’s at stake—which over twenty-five hundred years of Western philosophy has proven can be derived rationally—but the moral vision of the world as they conceive it.

This is not to suggest that Conservatives are the only ones whose politics are shaped by their moral values. The Liberal vision tends to be one of general enlargement and civic freedom and rational direction in human life—the latter two usually cash out as the desire for greater fairness and equality in society. However, the Liberal does not so easily disregard facts that do not comport with his moral ideas. He is, in any case, more interested in remedying public problems than in promoting ancient moralisms—which means he is usually engaging in a dialectic that diverges considerably from that of the Conservative. The problem with trying to view the Liberal-Conservative divide as a difference in moral visions for the nation is that moral ideas do not function the same way in both camps. For Liberals moral ideas inform what they believe public policy ought to be; for Conservatives moral ideas constitute what they believe public policy ought to be—the Conservative wishes simply to write his moral values into public law.

All that we have witnessed over the past thirty years, as the Conservative movement has gotten stronger and stronger in American politics, is the result of the practices and attitudes I have discussed above. We should not be too shocked that a candidate for the United States Senate would express the kind of vicious beliefs spoken by Mr. Akin. These kinds of ideas circulate regularly in Conservative circles, and have even been promoted in legislative form by the presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President.  

Now it is often suggested in response to such criticisms that Conservatism is not about social issues, but about economic freedom and personal choice. The latter of these is patently untrue, for the entire basis of modern political Conservatism lays in establishing a certain moral and social order. However, the notion that Conservatives are interested in economic freedom has some force behind it. The best minds in modern conservatism—think of Milton Freidman and Richard Posner—have argued brilliantly for jurisprudence and regulatory and fiscal policies that favor flexibility and dynamism in the marketplace. But the ideas of these great thinkers have fallen prey to the fundamental outlook so rigidly adhered to by movement Conservatives—namely, their belief in old social forms.

The economic view of the modern Conservative is really that of a 19th century Gilded Age industrialist rather than a 21st century high tech entrepreneur. They worship the individual business man as the hero of economic growth and production. Following Ayn Rand, they see the great industrialist as the victim of an evil government out to crush his spirit and take the fruits of his genius. They pay no heed to the larger institutions and social arrangements that are needed to sustain business and commerce; nor do they recognize the value systems, composed of value chains, which most modern businesses need to operate, grow, and make a profit. No one can build and successfully run an enterprise all on their own. Organizations are inherently social—we have known this since Peter F. Drucker first made it plain to us. The Conservative’s suggestion that an individual can magically bend the universe to his will fits well within his belief system, but it has no basis in fact. Conservative talk of ‘job creators’ and ‘Liberal attacks on success’ are words which have no correspondence to reality. When they say such things, they aim to reinforce a myth which they created, and which they hope will keep the attention of the faithful and appeal to the tenderness of the sentimental.

F.A. Hayek was probably mistaken when he identified himself as a Burkean Whig; his ideas have greater affinity with classical political economists such as Adam Smith, Jean Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. Hayek believed strongly in individual freedom and the power of market forces to create prosperity. But he never went so far as to deny the vital role of government and the importance of a social safety net in modern society.

Anger and vitriol, hate and delusion, religion and moralism, anachronism and dishonesty—these have all consumed the Conservative movement, and the Republican Party along with it. Conservatives would perhaps be more acceptable if they eschewed the irrationality and tomfoolery that now constitutes their politics and brought themselves closer to the balance and rationality of Hayekian neoliberalism.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Truth About CEO Presidents

In this presidential contest, the American public is once again being told that the Republican candidate knows how to create jobs because he is a former CEO. Taken at face value, this is an absurd claim. For no sane business leader wakes up every morning asking, ‘how many jobs can I create today?’ The single most important priority of business leaders is to make money for their shareholders. And the number of persons a company employs is determined through strategic workforce planning, which is based on business plans, competitive positioning, and general consumer demand. The truth is that no company has job creation as its central purpose, and anyone who knows anything about the inner-workings of business organizations understands this.

Governor Romney’s claim that he can solve the nation’s unemployment crisis because he was a successful business leader is meant to take advantage of the misconception many Americans have about the CEO President: that mythological creature that was thought up years ago by right-wing pollsters and pundits, and that is meant to play on the romance America has had over the last couple of decades with certain of its business leaders.

Executives such as Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs have been celebrated for their vision, intelligence, and judgment. And it is now widely assumed that former CEOs who run for public office will be able to translate their business know-how into a formula that will bring the nation high economic growth, low unemployment, and a general rise in living standards. But what reason do we have to believe this? We ought to expect a business leader to have considerable knowledge of his market, products, and services as well as his industry, investments, and people; but the intricacies and interrelations of GDP, inflation, unemployment, price indices, trade policy, and international finance are of an entirely different order of knowledge, and there is no reason to think that knowledge of business entails knowledge of macroeconomic theory and policy-making.

We can also demonstrate the falsity of this meme by examining the history of American presidential leadership. The last two presidents with experience as private sector CEOs were George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover. If we look at the respective records of these two men, we see nothing exceptionally good about their stewardship of the economy.

Under President George W. Bush, unemployment rose from 4.3% in Jan. 2001 to 6.3% in June 2003. It was down to 4.4% by March 2007, but was up again to 7.2% by December 2008. The poverty rate increased from 11.3% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004, and was up to 13.2% when Mr. Bush left office. During the Hoover administration the unemployment rate rose from 3.2% in 1929 to 24.1 percent in 1932; and the average income of most Americans dropped 38%. Now one may say that these figures are distorted by the fact that a financial crisis occured while each of them was in office. But the 1929 Wall Street crash and the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown were not in themselves to blame for mass unemployment and increased poverty; it was rather the failure of Messrs. Hoover and Bush to act decisively which led to economic calamity in each case.

President Hoover refused to provide federal funds for public works projects and cut government spending as tax revenues fell, thereby increasing the deflationary pressures on the economy. He would not provide money for the direct relief of the unemployed and depended upon business and community volunteerism to help ease poverty. President Bush’s response to the financial crisis of 2008 was better but not by much. He pushed emergency loan legislation through Congress to help prop up the banks, but he did almost nothing to deal with rising unemployment; indeed, Mr. Bush declined to increase government spending as unemployment rose and refused to extend unemployment insurance benefits as the job crisis set in.

There is nothing in logic or history which suggests that experience as a CEO gives a president the qualities necessary to competently manage economic affairs. And the claim which states that a CEO President will know what it takes to ‘make the country competitive’ is equally nonsensical. When pundits and politicians talk about national competitiveness, they usually mean one country’s competitive standing vis-à-vis that of others. But it is hard to see what evaluative standard we are supposed to use to determine this status. Should we use GDP, current account, unemployment rate, currency exchange rates, new housing start-ups, new business start-ups, monthly economic growth, annual economic growth, foreign direct investment, or position on the human development index? Or, perhaps it is the aggregate of all these facts that is supposed to tell us the relative competitive strength between nations.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report is the closest thing I’ve seen to this kind of index. It provides a highly detailed and intelligently analyzed overview of the conditions that are favorable and unfavorable to productivity in the various industries in each of the world’s economies. There is no loose talk in this report about countries being in competition with each other; that is because the Forum’s report is based on the Porter framework for national competitiveness.

The Harvard economist Michael E. Porter first brought the idea of competitiveness into the public sphere with his two books, Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage. These works became quite popular among business school academics and management consultants in the 1980s, and his ideas made their way into the business world of the 1990s, changing the way management teams evaluated their ability to produce, develop, market, and distribute goods and services.

In 1990, Professor Porter published The Competitive Advantage of Nations, which is perhaps the best work in the field of political economy since David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. In this book, Porter argues that productivity is the only meaningful criterion for measuring competitiveness; and the only way to understand national productivity is to examine the activity of regional clusters of specialized firms in relation to the social and material conditions of the country as a whole. Porter presents four case studies—Germany printing machines, American patient monitoring equipment, Italian ceramics, and Japanese robotics—and explores the productivity of particular industries within those nations.  

Porter’s vision of national competitiveness is not a zero-sum game in which America is in direct competition with China or India or the United Kingdom for jobs and wealth; he instead offers an empirically-sound theory explaining how nations can grow and thrive simultaneously.  

‘Every industry is unique, with its own sources of competitive advantage and its own evolutionary path’, Porter says. There are no generic set of public policies that guarantee competitiveness. Government’s role is to support the development of regional clusters by educating the workforce, building infrastructure, and creating a regulatory environment that encourages competition among rival firms: specific remedies for each of these policy areas must correspond to concrete social and economic realities, or else they will be of no effect.

Michael Porter is still considered the leading expert on national competitiveness, but few conservative politicians seem to have read him, for they propose policies which have nothing to do with his recommendations. For example, Mr. Romney says he will sign the so-called American Competitiveness Act during his first week in office, the only effect of which will be to lower the overall corporate tax rate. But the only thing that Porter says about corporate taxes is that specific tax incentives can be used to encourage business investment: a single sentence in an 800-page book. ‘The goal of government policy toward the economy’, Porter says, ‘is to deploy a nation’s resources (labor and capital) with high and rising levels of productivity’; there is nothing in The Competitive Advantage of Nations urging tax cuts as a means of achieving this aim.  

The right-wing's abuse of the word competitiveness is part of a larger effort to get us think that whatever is good for profit is good for people. They would have us believe that a former CEO knows how to decrease unemployment and increase prosperity because he has made a lot of money for himself and his shareholders; and they would have us conclude that with Mitt Romney as president everyone will see their wages and their employment prospects improve because he knows how to make wealthy people even wealthier. Mr. Romney wants people to think he will be a job-creating CEO President. But the public must be reminded that the last two CEO Presidents were poor stewards of the national economy and that expertise in business is no guarantee of proficiency in public policy making.