Saturday, December 20, 2008

Attn. PETA

New rule: An animal rights organization's "Person of the Year" can't be someone who gratuitously violates animal rights by eating animals. Even if they took a break for a gee-golly whole three weeks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Animal rights, welfare, and abolition

This is going to be another long one, folks. Blogging 101 says keep posts brief, because nobody wants to read long ranty diatribes and you'll get more readers with short, focused material. Or lists; readers love lists. But I scarcely have any readers, so what do I care?

Before the late 1970s, "animal rights" as a coherent concept didn't exist. All animal advocacy groups were merely concerned with the treatment of animals as they were being used, with animal welfare, and didn't really question whether animal should be used in the first place. Animal welfare groups such as the various Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of course, still exist today, and generally speaking the animal welfare movement has widespread support.

But some people did question whether animals should be used in the first place, and the answer was negative. The animal rights movement, often termed "animal liberation" after Peter Singer's influential book of that title (which ironically did not argue for animal rights), claims that animals have an inherent right not be used as means to ultimately trivial human ends. The most popular animal rights group then and now remains People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, perhaps best known for producing controversial campaigns featuring naked people.

It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that something broke in the movement. Some animal rights advocates began to question PETA's general strategy of fighting for essentially any and all reform and regulation of animal treatment in the belief that such welfare reform would eventually raise public awareness and lower corporate profitability enough that real rights would become feasible. Gary Francione's excellent book Rain Without Thunder describes the trouble with what he calls "new welfarism." Francione and others are now known as "abolitionists." The abolitionists believe that vegan education is the primary or only form animal rights advocacy should take because veganism is the only stance consistent with respecting animal rights. More importantly, abolitionists believe that animal right advocates should not support welfare reforms of the sort championed by PETA because these do not respect animal rights and will never be able to lead to their establishment. While abolitionists may support some limited incremental changes (outright bans on certain practices, for example), they oppose all so-called "humane" animal regulations.

Abolitionism is the stance that I most closely identify with, but it should be recognized that this is still a fringe element in the animal rights movement. Some abolitionists, as radicals of all stripes are often wont to do, go so far as to declare the millions of people who believe animals should have basic rights but support groups like PETA are not simply mistaken about methods, but are enemies of the "true" animal rights movement: the abolition movement. However, despite my abolitionist leanings I think a case can be made for some welfare reforms and I want to make it here by analogy.

The Prison Book Program and other similar organizations are popular among many typically social-minded animal rights advocates. The group collects donated reading materials and provides them for free to prisoners. Prisons often have limited libraries and other educational opportunities. Prisoners' access to books serves their well-being while in prison, provides education and entertainment, and hopefully allows personal growth that might help prevent a return to prison upon release. It doesn't challenge the notion that many and perhaps most prisoners are only incarcerated due to a malformed and malfunctioning criminal justice system serving the interests of what amounts to a prison-industrial complex.

Interestingly, the abolitionist Francione digressed from animal rights and covered the topic of the Prison Book Program:
On balance, it is my view that advocates of criminal justice system reform should not donate books to the Prison Book Program. I base my view on three reasons:

First, the Prison Book Program will do nothing to actually improve prisoner well-being in the short term. The Program doesn't deliver books to all prisons, not all prisoners have full access to all books, and even if it works as planned it will result in no meaningful reduction in prisoner suffering. They will still be locked behind bars with limited access to the basics of human dignity.

Second, the Prison Book Program will only make the public feel better about the state of the criminal justice system and will result in increased incarceration levels. People, particularly African American men, will continue to be imprisoned for minor offenses; the only difference will be that the imprisonment will carry the stamp of approval from the donors to the Prison Book Program. It is telling that the corporations involved in the prison-industrial complex don't oppose the Prison Book Program. Why do you think that is? The answer is plain. These prison corporations believe that the Prison Book Program will do nothing to prevent increased incarceration rates. And it won't.

Third, it is important for advocates of criminal justice system reform to send a clear message to the Prison Book Program and other groups to stop promoting mere improvements in prisoner welfare. If the Prison Book Program is really concerned about prisoner well-being, then it should perhaps spend a chunk of its resources on educating the public about the abuse and injustice in the prison system. Exposing the racism and absurdity of the criminal justice system helps to shift social attitudes away from the notion that it is morally acceptable to incarcerate millions of black men as long as we give them books to read. Giving them books to read results in nothing but continued incarceration for all but a few. It is time that advocates just said "no" to it.
OK, if that was a bit silly, I admit that Francione did not write the above. Or rather, he didn't write it about improving the welfare of prisoners. He did, however, write it about improving the welfare of animals through California's recently approved Proposition 2. I just changed the references.

But the analogy holds. Despite genuinely caring about the suffering of animals, Francione and other abolitionists believe that it is not merely more important to work towards abolishing the property status of animals than to reduce that suffering in the short term (with which I agree), but that it is so much more important that we shouldn't act to reduce that suffering at all, at least not institutionally.

Abolitionist animal rights advocates accuse groups like PETA, in addition to a multitude of ideological sins, of wasting time and resources that could be spent making more vegans—and more vegans are the only way to salvation for animals. Abolitionists state, correctly, that animals have interests other than their welfare, most significantly the interest in not being used as property. But in focusing entirely on this single interest, abolitionists utterly ignore the other frustrated interests that animals do still have.

I am arguing not that abolitionists should support any and all welfare reforms as a means to abolition. I am arguing that abolitionists should support some welfare reforms in spite of the fact that it will do nothing toward abolition. Abolitionists should support some welfare reforms just because they care about the welfare of presently-suffering animals in addition to caring about the rights of all animals more broadly. Put simply, I don't think animal welfare should be confused as part of the "animal rights movement" at all, but I think it should be independently pursued in some cases.

There are still many animal welfare reforms that I would oppose on principle: any that will most likely increase the use of animals as a result. Trading better welfare for more exploitation is even worse than trading present welfare for far-future rights. This actually cuts the number of supportable welfare reforms down quite a bit. The reforms that get the most attention and support are often those that the animal exploitation industries have signed off on, knowing that it will be beneficial to their bottom line to not be perceived as cruel. So welfare reforms that offer little or no actual benefit to the animals but improve "production" of animal products are immediately off the table. However, regulation that prevents certain egregious acts of cruelty and reforms that show some tangible benefit to animals ought to be on the table even if they aren't causally linked to a future in which animal rights are respected.

I suspect that despite their public stance, many abolitionists already agree with this assessment. Their numbers are vanishingly small and thus hard to account for, but I would imagine quite a few self-described Californian abolitionists voted for the welfare reforms of Proposition 2. Now the hardliners can claim that these were never abolitionists to begin with, but then the pursuit of purity is an all too common defect among animal advocates. No matter the claims to the contrary, anyone who believes that animals should not be used as property by humans is ultimately an abolitionist, even if they have short-term goals that they see to in the meantime.

Abolition and welfare are distinct and not mutually exclusive. Blame has to be placed on Francione's "new welfarists" for implying that welfare reforms are stepping stones towards animal rights when they clearly aren't. Blame has to also be placed on the likes of PETA for so often marketing reform as positive to exploitative industries, as with the push for controlled-atmosphere killing. But blame ought not to be placed on anyone for acting on the desire to reduce suffering simply because that reduction won't proximately lead to our shared optimal future. The ability to work towards more than one goal at a time is a positive feature of the human mind, not a flaw.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Center-right or center-left?

There are two competing trends in the political blogsophere these days following the dramatic victory of Barack Obama over John McCain.

The right wing claims that the United States remains a center-right nation, and that Obama's election by so many center-right people is a signal that he ought to govern from the right. The left wing, in contrast, claims that Obama's election majority is proof that the tides have turned, that the US is now a center-left nation, and that Obama should feel free to pursue a liberal agenda.

Obama will pursue whatever agenda he will pursue, and I am not concerned with that here. I want to deal with this idea that the majority of Americans are either center-right or center-left in overall ideology. Put simply, I think the answer to this question turns on whether one uses the words right and left in their historical and global sense, or in the anomalous sense of American politics today.

If we define, as many Americans today might, left as "liberal" and right as "conservative," then polls clearly show that on most issues the US leans somewhat left. As of 2007, 84% of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, 52% support unions over corporations in labor disputes, 69% believe the government should provide welfare services, 59% favor bigger government to solve bigger problems, and 67% favor stronger government to handle complex problems. Only one in three Americans wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and two in three want more than abstinence-only sex education. Seventy-six percent of Americans would repeal Bush's tax cuts for universal health care.

The problem here is that, by historical and global standards, these aren't particularly left-wing positions. They are positions of the center that even many conservatives from other countries would agree on. I'm currently reading The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge; their opening overview of the conservatism of other developed nations is amusing, as you see how what other countries consider radically conservative is by our standards daily business. American-style conservatism is virtually unprecedented in the modern world.

So the difficulty with using the liberal-conservative standard of right and left is that while American liberals aren't near the radical left, conservatives are extremely close to the right end. How much farther right could you go than the right wing of the Republicans? Depending on which aspect of right-wingness you're talking about, they're just a stone's throw from alternately imperial fascism, anarcho-capitalism, or Dominionist theocracy. Even the Republican mainstream is a little scared of these guys.

But on the left, the Democrats are nowhere near radical left positions by any standard. There are actual socialist parties that get reasonably large percentages of the vote in most developed nations—France's longest-serving president, in office during Reagan and Bush's abhorrent leadership of our country, was a socialist. We can argue over just how leftist these socialist parties truly are, but they're far more leftist than even the most liberal American Democrats. The idea that America's "left wing" is (still!) calling for a privatized, market-based approach to universal health insurance is laughable by the standards of any true left. It was the "center-left" Bill Clinton that signed the right-wing dream NAFTA treaty, approved the Defense of Marriage Act, and gutted the welfare system.

American readers must take the use by politicians and pundits of terms like "left" and "right" with a tremendous grain of salt, because the range of mainstream political opinion is extremely narrow. America is still very much a center-right nation. We just call the center the left and make believe the moderate conservatives are really in the middle.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A real progressive solution to the economic crisis

David Schweickart's Economic Democracy is one of the few speculative socialist economies that actually seems as though it could plausibly arise from our present society, though it would still be a long shot—just not as long a shot as something like parecon. Here Schweickart describes how we could get there out of the current financial clusterfuck:
The first thing would be to assure everyone, à la Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that there's nothing to fear but fear itself. I mean, we are not talking about a meteor crashing into the earth, or an incurable plague, or a nuclear war. Pieces of paper have suddenly lost their value. Our resources are still intact. Our skill base is still intact. There's no reason for ordinary people to lose their jobs or see their incomes plummet-no material reason, that is.

What next? Well, since the stock market has tanked, let the government step in and buy up those now near-worthless shares of the publicly-traded non-financial corporations. (The price tag may well be less than Paulson's $700b. The government can print the money, if need be. In a depression it's essential to stimulate the economy by pumping money into it.) Suddenly our government has controlling interest in all the major corporations. (Notice, these assets are not "expropriated" by the government. They are paid for at full market value.)

Since we (the people) now own these enterprises, let's democratize them. Let's now turn these enterprises over to the employees, to be run democratically. The employees (now voting members of their enterprise) can keep the existing management-indeed, for six months or so, let's insist that they do, while worker councils are set up to replace the boards of directors that used to represent the shareholders and oversee management. After six months, they can keep their managers or replace them as they see fit. Thus the "commanding heights" of the economy are democratized. (A democratic corporation is not one in which workers decide policy on a daily basis. Sound management is important. But ultimate authority now rests, not with shareholders-who have been bought out-but with the workforce itself, one person, one vote.) These firms will compete with one another, and with the remaining capitalist firms in the economy-small businesses and privately held companies. (Not much has changed—yet everything has changed.)

There have been a lot of studies indicating that worker-owned firms are viable, that they tend to be at least as efficient as comparable capitalist firms. Indeed, a lot of existing capitalist firms have set up Employee Stock Ownership Plans to take advantage of the efficiency gains these programs often bring. In our case, the workers won't own the firm. As taxpayers, we'll keep title to the firm. But the employees, not government officials, will control it. The firm won't pay dividends to shareholders anymore, for there aren't any. Instead the workers will lease the firm from the government.

What about the financial sector? To begin with, let's nationalize all those financial institutions that are "too big to fail." (Indeed, that is what is happening now-with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with AIG.) Let's go further. Let's nationalize all our banks and other financial institutions. As William Butier has recently pointed out:

"There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist without a deposit guarantee and/or deposit of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer. . . . The argument that financial intermediation cannot be entrusted to the private sector can now be extended to include the new, transactions-oriented, capital-market-based forms of financial capitalism. The risk of a sudden vanishing of both market liquidity for systematically important classes of financial assets and funding liquidity for systematically important firms may be too serious to allow private enterprises to play. [, 9/17/08]"

It should be noted that Buiter is no socialist, but a professor of European political economy at the London School of Economics, the former head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and-get this!-the author of a blog (Maverecon) on the Financial Times website, which is where this posting first appeared. The fact of the matter is, banks can be nationalized. Indeed the Economist proposed a few years back that Japan follow precisely this road to resolve its crisis.

Let's restructure our banking system, making into something that more closely resembles the system we had in place before deregulation set in some three decades ago. Let's have a network of Savings and Loan associations that will handle home mortgages and other consumer loans. Funds will be deposited by private savers, and loaned out to creditworthy customers.

Let's also have a system of investment banks. These are the institutions responsible for providing credit to the business sector. This is the economically crucial sector. Since businesses typically buy their raw materials and pay their workers before their products are sold, businesses must have access to credit. They also need credit to retool or to expand production. (It's this credit freeze that is so worrying about the present crisis. "The real shock after the feds failed to bail out Lehman Brothers wasn't the plunge in the Dow, it was the reaction of the credit markets. Basically, lenders went on strike . . . ." [Krugman, "Crisis End Game," NYT 9/19/08].)

Let's have a system of investment banks, but let's not generate the funds for these banks by trying to entice private individuals to save. Let's not rely on the "animal spirits" of the wealthy for the liquidity necessary to keep our economy going. There's an easier, more transparent way to raise those funds. Let's raise them the way we now raise funds for infrastructure, for basic research, for all our military hardware, for NASA, etc., i.e. via taxation. Let's have a special tax, all proceeds to be made available as loans to the market sector of the economy (our newly democratic and remaining capitalist enterprises). Let's abolish the corporate income tax. Let's have a simple, flat-rate capital assets tax. Democratic enterprises can consider this their leasing fee for use of public property, capitalist firms a replacement for the tax on profits. (Profit taxes used to comprise a significant portion of our national income tax receipts, but they no longer do. Corporations have figured out how to avoid those taxes. A capital assets tax is much simpler to administer-and impossible to avoid.)

Suddenly we don't need to worry about those financial markets anymore, which had become so complex, and opaque that no one really understood how they worked. Paul Krugman reports that when Ben Bernanke became Federal Reserve Chairman, he required a face-to-face refresher course from hedge fund managers to explain the system to him. "How did things get so opaque? The answer is ‘financial innovation'-two words that should, from now on, strike fear into investors' hearts" ["Innovating Our Way to Financial Crisis," New York Times, 12/3/07]. Of course some people understood it well enough to make very big bucks at the game. Hedge fund manager John Paulson (no relation to the Treasury Secretary) took home $3.7 billion for his hard work in 2006. (No, that's not a typo. It was $3.7 billion, not $3.7 million.)

There's one more thing we should do. A lot of people have seen their pensions disappear. Let's restore those pensions. We'll pick a date before the crash. Whatever value a person's holdings in a pension fund was at that date will be transferred to that person's social security account, to be paid out as an annuity supplement to that person's basic social security income, when s/he retires. (Please don't say we can't afford this. Whatever the formal source of one's retirement income, whether entirely from the government or from the government plus one's "investments," the goods and services one purchases with that income must be provided by human beings currently working. If there were enough working people and resources to provide these goods and services before the crash, there will be enough after the crash. As I've already noted, we're talking about pieces of paper losing their value, not a plague that has decimated the workforce.)

That's it. The basic structure of our new, democratic socialist economy is in place. Notice what we've done. A capitalist economy is a market economy. In fact it's an amalgam of three distinct sorts of markets-markets for goods and services, labor markets and capital markets. Our new democratic socialism is also a market economy. Our enterprises still compete. We've learned from the mistakes of the past that complex modern economies cannot be centrally planned. We embrace the healthy competition that keeps producers efficient and innovative. That is to say, we've kept those markets for goods and services. But we've replaced those labor and capital markets with more democratic institutions.
There's more, including some less utopian suggestions, in the original article. Compare any of it to what we actually get and weep.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

If there was any doubt...

Anyone still clinging to the silly belief that Barack Obama is the Great Progressive Savior need look no further than the fact that he is keeping George Bush's Secretary of Defense to rather swiftly dispel the notion. He appoints centrist after centrist after centrist and on top of that keeps, of all positions, Bush's military advisor.

So I pretty much called this one, I guess. Still glad we have a black president. Still glad we can dodge the veto on some important legislation a Bush or McCain would make difficult. Still not expecting any major "change," simply a rerun of the Bill Clinton years -- hell, half of Obama's people are Clinton's people.

Could be worse.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoughts on President Obama

As I anticipated it would, Obama's election gives me very mixed feelings. I am, without a doubt, ecstatic that 1. the reign of terror that comes with a Republican president is finally over, and 2. the nation was finally able to elect a black man to its highest office. Both of these events are reasons to be incredibly happy, particularly the latter. Presidents come and go from both parties, but the first of anything by definition only happens once, and it's exciting to be around to see it.

What makes the victory especially gratifying is that it was by a large margin and accompanied by Democratic pickups in the Congress as well. The American people indisputably rejected conservatism, especially the neocon variety, as a governing ideology for the country. Despite the right-wing nuts claiming that the landslide election of a man they portrayed as a radical Marxist mandates that he govern from the center, it is clear that America is ready for change. For progress, even.

However, I've always had mixed feelings about Barack Obama the man, rather than Barack Obama the symbol. This is already being borne out in his early selections for his cabinet. Rahm Emanuel is acknowledged by virtually all as an asshole, and the fact that Larry "I love deregulation, women are stupid, export pollution to Africa where they die young anyway" Summers and Robert F. "vaccines cause autism" Kennedy Jr were even on the shortlists for Treasury and EPA do not inspire confidence in the bold, progressive changes promised by Obama. In fact, they portend more of the same things we've been dealing with for decades.

But this is not a surprise. Obama was never the progressive dream candidate his supporters thought he was. That he will surround himself with ex-Clintonites and centrists will shock only the ignorant. It is our job, as those who are interested in change and progress, to not stand by and watch idly, but to continuously criticize these moves and put as much pressure as we can bring to bear on Obama and the Democratic Congress to make the moves we want.

One thing I do think Obama is capable of is responding to public pressure. He has never been an ideologue, and while he will also never be the savior his fevered followers believed him to be, we can use these two, four, eight years to demand some of the things we've always hoped for with an actual chance of some of them coming to pass. But this will never happen if, in our shock and delight at the genuine accomplishment of the first black president, we sit back and assume he will do the right thing.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Breaking: Obama uses bad words

I have much more to say about the election soon. Blogging time has really been an issue for me lately. In the meantime, I offer you this quote from Barack Obama in Newsweek.
I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, "You know, this is a stupid question, but let me . . . answer it." So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, "Well, I planted a bunch of trees." And he says, "I'm talking about personal." What I'm thinking in my head is, "Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."
Maybe I like this guy more after all.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama is not progressive; vote for him anyway

Dale Carrico nails it, as usual:
The reason [Obama's centrism] should not be devastating to progressives is that I think we should expect truly progressive initiatives to issue not from the White House but from the House of Representatives. For example, I think it should matter far less to progressives that Obama has not offered up a universal single-payer health care plan than that we know he has said healthcare is a right, and so will almost certainly not veto such a plan when it finds its way through Congress to his desk.
Anyone who is expecting Obama to actually deliver on radical change is a deluded fool. The advantage of President Obama over President McCain is not that he is a socialist dream candidate (ironically of the sort McCain's campaign has made efforts to portray him as). Obama's positions are not substantially superior to McCain's, aside from a handful of hot-button issues. Obama needs to be elected for only two simple reasons: to avoid driving what is truly a remarkable movement demanding change into cynicism and apathy, and to rubber-stamp any actually progressive legislation that gets passed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Voting for Obama

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me, but I've decided to vote for Barack Obama in November. I'd like to talk about why.

I have maintained and will continue to maintain that electoral politics are not where true change happens. If there are going to be large-scale systemic changes to the way American (and global) political society works, it isn't going to come by electing a savior to make it happen through divine will alone. But that doesn't mean that who is president is therefore irrelevant. On the contrary, a world with President McCain and a world with President Obama are markedly different in actual, meaningful ways to a whole lot of people.

Barack Obama is part of, as Dale Carrico recently put it, "the left wing of the actually possible." I'd rephrase this as "the left wing of the currently possible." It is sad but true that a centrist Democrat like Obama is about as far to the left as America will tolerate today. While I would clearly prefer the policies of, for example, Green candidate Cynthia McKinney were she to be elected, she won't be, and whether or not I vote for her won't change that. My instinct is to say, "Yeah, but if everybody stopped thinking that way and voted for her, maybe she could win." But this simply isn't true at this point in time. Democracy requires compromise, and we do not live in a country where a substantial number of people agree with policies to the left of the Democratic Party. The country leans liberal, but it is still primarily centrist or even undecided. Until we have some true election reform allowing for third (and fourth, and fifth) party candidates to compete for legislative offices and build momentum, it is impossible to elect one as president -- and clinging to impossibility is foolish, no matter how badly we wish things could be different.

A more ideal and representative election system would be instant-runoff voting. People could vote for the candidate who represents them, but if that candidate fails to be elected, have their vote transferred to their second choice, or even third choice if it comes to that. Since we do not have that system, however, I think the strategic and logical thing for anyone concerned about the next four years to do is simple: do the transfer in your head first. We have an (over)abundance of polls. We can see who will and won't reach the hypothetical threshold. If you prefer McKinney, fine. In your head, vote for her first, then transfer your vote to the next candidate. In other words, think of the actual election as the runoff stage of the instant runoff voting. The outcome is exactly the same. And when we do get that election reform and have the choice, the other parties will still be there waiting. Nearly a century of irrelevancy hasn't killed the Socialists yet.

The persuasive rebuttal is that voting for what is, in many ways, the lesser of two evils is not voting one's conscience. I myself have held this view, which holds that the only intellectually honest thing to do is to vote (or not vote) for the candidate you actually agree with. This is confusing moralism for politics. Nobody gets exactly what they want. The fact, unavoidable, is that either John McCain or Barack Obama will be president in January. No amount of moralist handwringing about how much we'd rather someone else is going to change that. Abstaining from voting isn't going to change that. Voting for a candidate who we know is going to lose isn't going to change that. That's life. That's politics. You play the hand you're dealt. Your feelings of personal moral integrity will not matter much to those around the world whose lives are being destroyed by the tyranny of Republican policies.

Even if we had a fair and representative election system that admitted other choices, Obama or McCain would still win in the real live world we live in today. But as I said, the means of true change will never be elections. Aside from those few areas where the president really does make a difference, there is another reason to vote for Obama: as a symbol. We have had eight years of the worst possible government, and frankly, we could do with a little hope. Even if Obama himself doesn't bring about the changes that are needed -- and there is no indication that he will -- the aforementioned vaguely liberal centrist majority needs to see that we won't always be mired in right-wing reactionary bullshit. Obama has been successful at inspiring a great number of people who haven't been inspired by politics before. These are people who, if given options for true change in the future, might take them. These are people who think Obama is better than he is, and when given choices that actually are better, they may well be the new base. But if Obama loses, they lose their personal political momentum, and they cynically resign themselves to the inefficacy of political action altogether. Obama symbolizes change even if he never himself brings it, and right now a symbol might be more important than the reality.

I would not (and did not) vote for John Kerry in 2004, because I did not see any particular advantage in doing so over voting for someone like Nader or Cobb. But Kerry did not come bundled with a movement bent on changing things for the better, and Obama does. The country rather desperately needs to believe that progress is possible, and if the cost of instilling that belief is voting for Obama, well, that's a price I'm willing to pay. But after he and other Democrats are elected, those who truly care about progress must absolutely crank up the pressure to levels unseen. We shouldn't campaign and protest less under a "friendly" Democratic regime, we should campaign and protest more, because unlike the Republicans, some of the Democrats just might actually listen. I'm not thinking of Obama as the pendelum swung to the left, I'm thinking of him as the pendelum finally stopped, and it's up to us to set it in motion again across a new centerline. By the end of his term, I want Obama to mark the right wing of the actually possible.

There are a great many things I want to happen in this country and around the world. No matter how much I try, I can't have them today. What I can have is a flawed and wounded country with a growing number of people who are realizing things can be different and beginning to demand progress, under the solidifying leadership of people who are not entirely batshit insane. And for right now, after the last eight horrific years, that's good enough to get my vote.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Asymmetry of Bailouts

Why is it that we socialize failure but privatize success?

Oh, I know the reason given: these failures are so significant that they would destroy our economy if we didn't collectively take on the burden. But I say that if we're responsible when they go down, we ought to benefit when they go up. This should be an either-or proposition. Either the corporations are socialized as public goods, or they are not but we let them die. And if they are so significant that we can't live with out them, and therefore can't let them die, then they ought to not be privately owned and operated in the first place. Only market fundamentalist nutjobs would think privatizing other essential services such as fire and police is a good idea. Health care and financial services are just as essential, and ought to therefore be matters of mutual aid rather than left to the fickle hand and invisible jackboot of the market.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Market Fundamentalism

Can we all just admit now that the libertarians and fiscal conservatives and other market fundamentalists are just plain wrong about the magical hand of the "free" market? Have the failed and flailing deregulation experiments of the "Washington Consensus" given us enough data to say, collectively, "The market isn't always the answer?"

I am a socialist, but I am also a market agnostic and a pragmatist. I don't think that we need to automagically abolish all market activity in favor of strict central planning -- my socialism is based primarily on a moral argument for extending democracy to economics, not on any particular system. When we're subject to totalitarian politics we fight it and call it a dictatorship; when we're subject to totalitarian workplaces we acquiesce, do as we're told, and call our rulers "management." Whether economic democracy entails a decentralized planning scheme or merely democratic control of investment and workplaces embedded in a market for goods and services is an empirical question: which will be the best for those involved?

What is clear, however, is that the "free" market strips from most people the freedom to live the kinds of lives they want to live by denying them a voice as well as denying them their fair share of the wealth they create. When you create a system designed for cutthroat brutality in the pursuit of profit, you can't be surprised when the results are brutal.

Disqus commenting

I installed Disqus commenting here. I realize, of course, that my readership has dropped to essentially nil, but I hope to be more active soon and it would be nice to have some social aspect to the ol' blog.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Social Justice Quiz 2008

From Bill Quigley at Dissident Voice:

1. How many deaths are there world-wide each year due to acts of terrorism?

Answer (highlight): 22,000. The U.S. State Department reported there were more than 22,000 deaths from terrorism last year. Over half of those killed or injured were Muslims. Source: Voice of America, May 2, 2008. “Terrorism Deaths Rose in 2007.”

2. How many deaths are there world-wide each day due to poverty and malnutrition?

Answer: About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. – Hunger and World Poverty. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes – one child every five seconds. Bread for the World. Hunger Facts: International.

3. 1n 1965, CEOs in major companies made 24 times more than the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made 40 times more than the average worker. In 2007, CEOs earned how many times more than the average worker?

Answer: Today’s average CEO from a Fortune 500 company makes 364 times an average worker’s pay and over 70 times the pay of a four-star Army general. Executive Excess 2007, page 7, jointly published by Institute for Policy Studies and United for Fair Economy, August 29, 2007. 1965 numbers from State of Working America 2004-2005, Economic Policy Institute.

4. In how many of the over 3000 cities and counties in the US can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford to pay rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment?

Answer: In no city or county in the entire USA can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford even a one bedroom rental. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) urges renters not to pay more than 30% of their income in rent. HUD also reports the fair market rent for each of the counties and cities in the US. Nationally, in order to rent a 2 bedroom apartment, one full-time worker in 2008 must earn $17.32 per hour. In fact, 81% of renters live in cities where the Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom rental is not even affordable with two minimum wage jobs. Source: Out of Reach 2007-2008, April 7, 2008, National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

5. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.65 per hour. How much would the minimum wage be today if it had kept pace with inflation since 1968?

Answer: Calculated in real (inflation adjusted) dollars, the 1968 minimum wage would have been worth $9.83 in 2007 dollars. Andrew Tobias, January 16, 2008. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour effective July 24, 2008 and $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.

6. True or false? People in the United States spend nearly twice as much on pet food as the US government spends on aid to help foreign countries.

Answer: True. The USA spends $43.4 billion on pet food annually. Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc. The USA spent $23.5 billion in official foreign aid in 2006. The government of the USA gave the most of any country in the world in actual dollars. As a percentage of gross national income, the USA came in second to last among OECD donor countries and ranked number 20 at 0.18 percent behind Sweden at 1.02 percent and other countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and others. This does not count private donations which, if included, may move the USA up as high as 6th. The Index of Global Philanthropy 2008, page 15, 19.

7. How many people in the world live on $2 a day or less?

Answer: The World Bank reported in August 2008 that 2.6 billion people consume less than $2 a day.

8. How many people in the world do not have electricity?

Answer: World-wide, 1.6 billion people do not have electricity. 2.5 billion people use wood, charcoal or animal dung for cooking. United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, pages 44-45.

9. People in the US consume 42 kilograms of meat per person per year. How much meat and grain do people in India and China eat?

Answer: People in the US lead the world in meat consumption at 42 kg per person per year compared to 1.6 kg in India and 5.9 kg in China. People in the US consume five times the grain (wheat, rice, rye, barley, etc.) as people in India, three times as much as people in China, and twice as much as people in Europe. “THE BLAME GAME: Who is behind the world food price crisis,” Oakland Institute, July 2008.

10. How many cars does China have for every 1000 drivers? India? The U.S.?

Answer: China has 9 cars for every 1000 drivers. India has 11 cars for every 1000 drivers. The US has 1114 cars for every 1000 drivers. Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future (2007).

11. How much grain is needed to fill a SUV tank with ethanol?

Answer: The grain needed to fill up a SUV tank with ethanol could feed a hungry person for a year. Lester Brown,, August 16, 2006

12. According to the Wall Street Journal, the richest 1% of Americans earns what percent of the nation’s adjusted gross income? 5%? 10%? 15%? 20%?

Answer: “According to the figures, the richest 1% reported 22% of the nation’s total adjusted gross income in 2006. That is up from 21.2% a year earlier, and is the highest in the 19 years that the IRS has kept strictly comparable figures. The 1988 level was 15.2%. Earlier IRS data show the last year the share of income belonging to the top 1% was at such a high level as it was in 2006 was in 1929, but changes in measuring income make a precise comparison difficult.” Jesse Drucker, “Richest Americans See Their Income Share Grow,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008, page A3.

13. How many people does our government say are homeless in the US on any given day?

Answer: 754,000 are homeless. About 338,000 homeless people are not in shelters (live on the streets, in cars, or in abandoned buildings) and 415,000 are in shelters on any given night. 2007 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Annual Homeless Report to Congress, page iii and 23. The population of San Francisco is about 739,000.

14. What percentage of people in homeless shelters are children?

Answer: HUD reports nearly 1 in 4 people in homeless shelters are children 17 or younger. Page iv – 2007 HUD Annual Homeless Report to Congress.

15. How many veterans are homeless on any given night?

Answer: Over 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. About 18 percent of the adult homeless population is veterans. Page 32, 2007 HUD Homeless Report. This is about the same population as Green Bay Wisconsin.

16. The military budget of the United States in 2008 is the largest in the world at $623 billion per year. How much larger is the US military budget than that of China, the second largest in the world?

Answer: Ten times. China’s military budget is $65 billion. The US military budget is nearly 10 times larger than the second leading military spender.

17. The US military budget is larger than how many of the countries of the rest of the world combined?

Answer: The US military budget of $623 billion is larger than the budgets of all the countries in the rest of the world put together. The total global military budget of the rest of the world is $500 billion. Russia’s military budget is $50 billion, South Korea’s is $21 billion, and Iran’s is $4.3 billion.

18. Over the 28 year history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. How many people have died in the last 4 years trying to cross the border between Arizona and Mexico?

Answer: 1268. At least 1268 people have died along the border of Arizona and Mexico since 2004. The Arizona Daily Star keeps track of the reported deaths along the state border and reports 214 died in 2004, 241 in 2005, 216 in 2006, 237 in 2007, and 116 as of July 31, 2008. These numbers do not include the deaths along the California or Texas border. The Border Patrol reported that 400 people died in fiscal 2206-2007, 453 died in 2004-2005, and 494 died in 2004-2005. Source Associated Press, November 8, 2007.

19. India is ranked second in the world in gun ownership with 4 guns per 100 people. China is third with 3 firearms per 100 people. Which country is first and how many guns do they own?

Answer: The US is first in gun ownership world-wide with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Laura MacInnis, “US most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people.” Reuters, August 28, 2007.

20. What country leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens?

Answer: The US jails 751 inmates per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. Russia is second with 627 per 100,000. England’s rate is 151, Germany is 88, and Japan is 63. The US has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any country in the world. Adam Liptak, “Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations,” NYT, April 23, 2008.

How many did you get?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Among people whose weight is considered "normal," only 1 in 4 people have unhealthy levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and other risks for heart disease. While possible in anyone, these risk factors are correlated with older age, low levels of physical activity, and proportionately larger waist circumference.

Among those considered "overweight," the incidence of cardiovascular risk factors doubles to 1 in 2. Among those considered "obese," the risk factor increases even more dramatically to 7 in 10.

These are the results of a study hailed by the fat acceptance movement, which traditionally dismisses such research. The reason? Unlike similar papers, the study's results were worded the opposite way, emphasizing the number of "normal" people who are unhealthy, and the number of "overweight" and "obese" people who are healthy. But if the fat acceptance advocates who praise this study do the math, the numbers are clear: being "overweight" makes you twice as likely to be unhealthy, and being "obese" makes you almost three times as likely to be unhealthy. In fact, the study clearly shows that an "obese" person is very likely to have risk factors for heart disease.

Fat acceptance is a difficult subject to deal with, because it is truly one of those situations where both sides are right in some sense. The fat advocates are absolutely correct when they say that the often-used body mass index (BMI) is a rather ridiculous measure of whether or not one is "overweight" or "obese." BMI tells people virtually nothing about their actual physical health. People have different proportions of fat and muscle, which weigh different amounts, and so to use a simple formula to calculate any sort of consistent "weight class" is absurd, except in the extremes. Kate Harding's BMI Project makes this abundantly clear.

Fat advocates (and feminists more broadly) are also absolutely correct in their critique of body image as it is promoted in Western culture, and through mass media. As the ongoing Human Variation Project shows, average people almost never resemble the ideals thrust upon them through advertising and celebrity culture. The size and shape considered "normal" varies throughout time and across cultures, with very few universals. Fat advocates certainly take the right course in their suggestion that people love their bodies, regardless of any perceived flaws. Size, shape, and even health do not make one who one is, they are simply attributes that are as positive or negative as we make them. There are a wide-range of aspects outside one's volitional control (from heredity to opportunity) that influence one's size.

Finally, as we can see from the study cited above, fat advocates are also absolutely correct that it is possible to be classified as overweight and even obese without suffering from cardiovascular risk factors and other health problems.

But the most important thing the fat acceptance movement has correct is that one's size ought never be cause for discrimination or hatred. Fat people, regardless of why they are fat and regardless of whether or not they are healthy, are still people. Even if being fat were the direct result of people's choices and made them extremely ill, it would be no cause for discrimination or hatred. It would be (again, at worst) a medical condition like any other. That being fat is often not entirely in one's control, and it does not mean that one is automatically unhealthy, is even more reason not to engage in fat-shaming and discrimination.

On the other hand, the fat acceptance movement is like any other movement in that it resists holding its ideology up to scrutiny. From the valid premise that we should love the bodies we have combined with the accurate evidence that one can be "fat but fit," the fat acceptance movement has unfortunately built an uncritical belief that there is a vast diet-industry conspiracy controlling scientific research to promote an obesity epidemic. Some books written by people outside medicine, such as The Obesity Myth, go so far as to say there is little or no evidence that obesity is associated with health risks at all by cherry-picking a handful out of the tens of thousands of studies carried out on the topic, or, as exemplified in the beginning of this post, rephrasing others to accentuate the positive while ignoring the negative. The overwhelming tide of evidence points to obesity indeed being associated with many health problems.

The line that must be tread is clear enough: variation in size is a part of the human condition, and should be celebrated rather than suppressed. Nevertheless, all people should be aware of the factual information regarding weight and health, for better or worse, and should be empowered to make their own choices regarding diet, exercise, or medical treatment, choices that ought to be respected. Size is not a character flaw.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can "throw the rascals out" at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy.
Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in our Time

Thursday, August 14, 2008

REALLY Computing in the Cloud

This is actually what inspired me to try my little experiment. Needless to say, it's not quite this slick in real life...

Computing in the Cloud

I am going to try an experiment. I'm already most of the way there, so it's really just a matter of taking the last step. The mission: do everything I do on the computer in Firefox, using only web apps and extensions.

Gmail has my email. Google Reader has my RSS feeds. Google Calendar can handle scheduling and reminders. Word processing through Google Docs. Meebo (and, to some extent, Twitter) will do messaging. I've come to listen to Pandora more than my own music in iTunes, anyway. Photos are on Flickr.

There's very little I absolutely need to do outside of Firefox, really. My personal needs and job don't require much in the way of "power using." So let's see how this goes. Dock set to autohide; Firefox zoomed to fill the screen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

How animal rights advocates should handle PETA

Following up on my post about the PETA situation (namely, that they're an ambiguous ally, at best, to supporters of animal rights):

I'd like to make a few suggestions on how those who don't like a lot of what that organization does (but also don't want to write off 2 million potential AR supporters merely because they're mistaken about PETA's efficacy at achieving their goals) ought to engage the situation. I've just read Saul Alinsky's infamous Rules for Radicals, so naturally I'm quite inspired with ideas. It occurs to me that the same sorts of practices that an advocacy group must use to engage and change systems they oppose can be used by members of a movement to engage and change advocacy groups within that movement. I don't expect this post will be met with adulation from all AR advocates opposed to PETA, but, hey, it's my blog.

PETA's major strategy for large-scale efforts has been to gather as much media attention as possible about specific topics. They choose specific targets and hit them repeatedly until they agree to negotiate some gains—typically not entirely significant ones. The point is that PETA works, as any advocacy group should, through pressure. What AR advocates ought to do with PETA is to also pick a specific target and apply continuous pressure until the group either admits their error or halts the practice.

This is the real world we live in. We can't shut our eyes and pretend that PETA, if vegans just ignore it, will stop being "the" animal rights organization. We can't pretend that they aren't the largest, most well-known group out there and that they are what the average person associates with animal rights. We cannot imagine that, magically, PETA's members are going to stop supporting them. Some vegans and AR advocates suggest we ought to simply write them off, start a new grassroots vegan abolitionist movement that is diametrically opposed to PETA's "new welfarism." I am highly sympathetic to this position, but I'm afraid it reeks of the factionalism that historically tears every broad-based leftist movement apart. We should not all go join PETA, to be sure, and we need not support them either, but our position toward them should be one of constant and positive criticism. We can, through the same pressuring efforts that this abolitionist movement would use to end the exploitation of animals, simultaneously pressure PETA to drift ever abolition-ward. Even if they are never "our" organization, they can become ever less an impediment to true animal rights, and in many cases, an actual expedient.

Here's how:
  1. Assume good intentions from individuals associated with PETA unless they prove otherwise. If we are to convince anyone that they are mistaken, we must assume that they want the right thing in the end, even if they're wrong about how to get there. And in my experience, this is almost always the case. I can't speak for everyone, but all PETA members and supporters I've ever talked to about this issue have fully agreed with me on what the ultimate goal is. They even fully agree that the strategies and methods I support (extensive vegan activism and campaigning for the actual halting of exploitative practices rather than modifications to them) will achieve it. The only thing they disagree on is whether or not PETA ought to also be doing the sorts of things it has become infamous for in the meantime. I have met PETA members who are highly critical of PETA's national tactics. PETA is not a monolith.
  2. Apply continuous pressure to specific issues. I read (and often even enjoy) the PETA Files blog. I also leave comments every occasion I see them congratulating animal exploiters or calling for vegetarianism rather than veganism and I have a minute to write one. To me, these are the two biggest mistakes PETA makes, and so I make an effort to call them out every time I can. I don't know what the blog's readership is, and it doesn't matter—this isn't an attempt to convince outsiders, but an attempt to engage people at, in, or sympathetic to PETA already. I want PETA members who read the blog to also read, every time their group gives an award to someone for their choice of veal or their method of slaughter, a criticism of the practice. I want the bloggers themselves to feel the need to justify every misuse of the word vegetarian and every "victory." This isn't because I'm a pedantic ass, it's because blogs are a discursive medium that ask for two-way interaction.
  3. When discussing PETA with people entirely unsympathetic to animal rights (or already hostile to PETA) only highlight the problems if you can explain the solution. Since the mainstream views PETA as "the" animal rights organization, and PETA members as the prototypical AR activists, there is something of a fine line to tread here. We must make it clear that PETA has problems. We don't want to make it seem as if we're bickering over trivial issues, or that PETA's sizable (and largely agreeable to our ends) membership are all fools, or that (god forbid) we're just jealous of their success, such as it is. I encourage AR people to frame PETA's difficulties as regrettable and avoidable, as though we really wish we could be on the same page with these things, and that maybe PETA can come around. Now, for me, this is the honest truth. I do feel a certain pang of regret that I can't approve of everything the group does. I want to be able to like PETA, because they have such potential and such support. For others, this may be putting things far more diplomatically than they would otherwise, but I think it is the smart strategic move to make. If, as I suggest, we want to use pressure to shift PETA's policies in line with our own, we have to leave that door open in the minds of both PETA supporters and critics—and ourselves.
  4. Don't lie. This is not entryism. This is not covert action. Those of us in the abolitionist core of the animal rights movement are overtly attempting to make more and more people see things our way. One element of this is vegan outreach. One element of this is pressure on PETA. This is the direct corollary of 3 above: we can leave the door open to future alliance with reformed PETA members without stepping through it before we're ready.
In summary, true AR advocates who hope to grow our ranks should see a flawed PETA as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Some PETA members may "convert" and leave. We may get the attention of those in positions of power within the organization. We can't know the future. But we can rest assured that PETA will be around for a long time, and we have to find a way of dealing with them that goes beyond ignoring them and hoping to be heard in their shadow, because the people we're trying to reach will always hear PETA's voice first.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The PETA situation

I've got a bit of a problem. See, I can't help but pay attention to PETA. As the most recognizable and infamous animal advocacy group, PETA has an obligation to advocate for animals, one would think. And as someone who is very concerned about animal rights—concerned enough to be vegan—I feel it is my duty to keep up on such things. So I've posted about PETA here and on The Red Scare many times before, but I wanted to make a post where I fully laid out my case, both for and against them.


I am generally impressed with actual PETA members, employees, and volunteers on a personal level. I mean, it is clear that, as individuals, the majority of PETA supporters do genuinely care about animals and want to see the best case scenario play out in the end. They're committed enough that I've never really come across a "closeted" PETA member—they're generally out and proud, and visibility never hurt a cause. It takes some fortitude to stand up for animals in the social climate of the world today, and to declare oneself a member of a group that many laypersons actually think sponsors radical animal-rights terrorists (!) is at least a measure of one's devotion.

PETA's web presence is comprehensive and fairly useful content-wise. They have pages and pages of information about animal cruelty, and the sites are updated frequently. I've heard anecdotally that PETA's website alone has greatly influenced several people to become interested in animal issues, along with their video collection. I even enjoy reading the PETA Files blog, even though I don't always agree with everything they post there.

PETA's core message is a good one. Their stated motto, that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way" is absolutely correct. PETA has notoriety and occasionally highlights issues of importance, and even runs many campaigns that directly target the use of animals and call for the abolition thereof.


PETA can't bring itself to say vegan. OK, fine, if you poke around for long enough on their site, you'll find the word here and there. But go to a food-related PETA demonstration and what will you see? "Go vegetarian." "Go veg." "Get a free vegetarian starter kit." Look at their main site pages, where you'll see stories about vegans with headlines referring to vegetarianism instead. A blog post about vegan athlete Carl Lewis refers to him as vegetarian. The example of Oprah's very public vegan experiment encourages readers to "go vegetarian." Even the vegetarian starter kit mentioned above is actually a vegan starter kit, deliberately mislabeled.

But isn't veganism just a type of vegetarianism? Well, no. The words have lives of their own, and it is an unavoidable fact that "vegetarian" means "eats eggs and dairy (and to some idiots, fish)." It is logically incoherent to say that you believe in animal rights, such as the basic right not to be property, while consuming animal products that require animals to be property. Combined with the fact that even free-range, cage-free, organic eggs and dairy are complicit in the torture and slaughter of animals for meat (a fact PETA's own sites proclaim), it is simply absurd to claim to be opposed to the abuse of animals while encouraging vegetarianism. Vegetarianism directly contributes to the use and abuse of animals. Veganism does not, except in unavoidable ways. An animal rights organization need not require its members be vegan, but veganism has to be the official position of the organization if it claims to be in favor of substantive animal rights at all.

Right now, PETA Files has a post about a "Vegetarianism in a Nutshell" podcast episode, with a link to "the impact of vegetarianism"...on a "" site, the actual name of which is "veganism.asp." It's total doublethink. Veganism is not vegetarianism.

Related to PETA's avoidance of actually asking people to stop exploiting animals is their routine celebration, promotion, and award-giving to animal exploiters. PETA proclaims victory when KFC Canada starts only using chickens that were gassed to death after their shortened, tortured lives. PETA gives awards to Wolfgang Puck for choosing less cruelly raised veal. They make animal exploiters feel better about getting signed off on by "the animal rights organization." PETA runs Sexiest Vegetarian contests when, as we see above, vegetarians exploit animals.

PETA's campaigns are often narrowly-focused and advance trivial issues of welfare improvement at the expense of the actual exploitation involved. While their "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign clearly targets the use of fur animals entirely, they then go on to protest the treatment of chickens in fast food chains that must use chickens even to exist. It's not that the treatment of these chickens is not abhorrent, it is. But the real problem is the use of chickens in the first place. There is no practical "endgame" to a protest at a KFC short of a multibillion-dollar corporation actually shutting down entirely. "Winning" cages an inch wider is not a meaningful victory for animal rights any more than convincing a wife-beater to use an open palm rather than a closed fist is a great victory against domestic violence. It is a PR boon for the exploiting corporations, however, who can now sell PETA-approved slaughter to their customers and increase profit.

Finally, PETA undeniably uses sexist imagery in some of its campaigns. I've waffled on this, and ultimately I come down on the side that I don't mind their naked activities. I don't mind using the body as an attention-grabber and a form of protest. I think the World Naked Bike Ride is groovy. I think Spencer Tunick's glacier photos for Greenpeace are rad. So it's not that PETA "uses" naked women (and men) that is sexist. I don't even think some of the most commonly cited examples—the women with beef cut diagrams drawn on them, the women in cellophane as meat, and the pregnant woman in a cage like a sow—are actually sexist. They are satire; we're meant to think, "Ugh, treating a woman that way is sick." That's the whole point. Whether they effectively carry over to thoughts of animal treatment is another story.

But PETA does have sexist undertones to several campaigns. For one thing, they don't shy away from not using mere nudity, but specifically female sexuality as their hook. They encourage people to think of their female models as "bikini babes" and "hot chicks," in contexts that have nothing to do with comparisons to animals. There is a big difference between saying, "Hey, we're naked because animal rights are important enough for us to throw caution and shame to the wind," and saying, "Hey, come ogle some sexy broads! (also, go 'veg')." Their notorious "Fur trim. Unattractive." ad didn't exactly promote a positive female body image, either.


So PETA is a mixed bag for me. I have no real hope that they will ever embrace genuine vegan outreach and abolitionist campaigning, but they are—for better or worse—the face of animal rights activism to the general public. I can't help but think of many individuals involved with PETA as allies, even as their organization uses its platform to indirectly aid those who we mutually oppose. But such is the inevitable result when a radical group achieves some level of mainstream success. Once you start to taste victory, victory soon becomes more important than values. PETA is willing to ask for things it doesn't want simply because it can win them, and that's unfortunate. So I'll continue to think of the PETA folks as misguided comrades, and keep asking for the things I actually want... even if I never get them.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Daniel Dennett on religion

I happened to come across this brief interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I found his answer to a question on the relationship between science and religion to be so exactly congruent with my own beliefs that I am compelled to quote it here.
The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I’m certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don’t. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

Centuries of ethical research and reflection, by philosophers, political theorists, economists, and other secular thinkers have not yet achieved a consensus on any Grand Unified Theory of ethics, but there is a broad, stable consensus on how to conduct such an inquiry, how to resolve ethical quandaries, and how to deal with as-yet unresolved differences. Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province.

That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain. These play a huge role in stabilizing the attitudes and policies of those who participate in them, but the trouble is that ceremony without power does not appear to be a stable arrangement—and appearances here are all important. Once a monarch is stripped of all political power, as in Great Britain, the traditions and trappings tend to lose some of their psychological force, so that their sole surviving function—focusing the solidarity of the citizenry—is somewhat undercut. Whether or not to abolish the monarchy becomes an ever less momentous decision, rather like whether or not to celebrate a national holiday always on a Monday, instead of on its traditional calendar date. Recognizing this threat of erosion, religious people will seldom acknowledge in public that their God has been reduced to something like a figurehead, a mere constitutional monarch, even while their practices and decisions presuppose that this is so.

It is seldom remarked (though often observed in private, I daresay) that many, many people who profess belief in God do not really act the way people who believed in God would act; they act the way people would act who believed in believing in God. That is, they manifestly think that believing in God is—would be—a good thing, a state of mind to be encouraged, by example if possible, so they defend belief-in-God with whatever rhetorical and political tools they can muster. They ask for God’s help, but do not risk anything on receiving it, for instance. They thank God for their blessings, but, following the principle that God helps those who help themselves, they proceed with the major decisions of their lives as if they were going it alone.

Those few individuals who clearly do act as if they believed in God, really believed in God, are in striking contrast: the Christian Scientists who opt for divine intervention over medical attention, for instance, or those who give all their goods to one church or another in expectation of the Apocalypse, or those who eagerly seek martyrdom.

Not wanting the contrast to be so stark, the believers in belief-in-God respond with the doctrine that it is a sin (or at least a doctrinal error) to count on God’s existence to have any particular effect. This has the nice effect of making the behavior of a believer in belief-in-God and the behavior of a believer in God so similar as to be all but indistinguishable.

Once nothing follows from a belief in God that doesn’t equally follow from the presumably weaker creed that it would be good if I believed in God—a doctrine that is readily available to the atheist, after all—religion has been so laundered of content that it is quite possibly consistent with science. Peter de Vries, a genuine believer in God and probably the funniest writer on religion ever, has his hyper-liberal Reverend Mackerel (in his book The Mackerel Plaza) preach the following line: "It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."

The Reverend Mackerel’s God can co-exist peacefully with science. So can Santa Claus, who need not exist in order to make our yuletide season more jolly.

Friday, July 4, 2008

America's holiday

Today is Independence Day, a day that celebrates our declaration of freedom from the King of Great Britain's authority.

In 1776, the United States began to take the first steps towards liberal democracy, a political system in which (it is claimed) decisions that affect the citizens are made by representatives held accountable to the citizens themselves. The experiment was never intended to actually give power to the people, of course. Most of the framers of the Constitution had such great contempt for the decision-making competency of the common man that they did everything they could to concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy landowners without just coming out and saying so. This isn't even mentioning the issue of slavery, both the chattel slavery of black men and women and the social slavery of white women.

Even with these significant caveats, the liberal democracy established by the revolutionaries of that time has grown and matured. It is far from perfect. The process of electing our leaders has evolved into an independent being, dependent far more on corporate money than on the consent of the governed. Our business-minded masters are free to do as they please for as many years as they can get away with it, before they must spend some months pandering to the people that might reelect them. But the idea of our democracy is still a good one, one worth strengthening and defending in ways well beyond the narrow focus of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

The first tentative step in expanding the scope of the democratic experiment was taken through the New Deal, which essentially established for the first time in the United States a system of social democracy. To the Declaration's liberty the New Deal added some measure of solidarity. We began to recognize that it is not enough to be free from arbitrary rule, that if we are a society bound together by geography and history, each of us owes our lives and well being to the actions of every other. We owe it to them, and they to us, the opportunity to make it through hard times that none should have to endure alone.

As with the political freedom of the liberal democracy, the social democratic experiment has both grown and eroded since it was established. The basic provisions of universal education, health care, and pensions are in the modern United States a farce, beholden as our elections are to the interests of businesses in lowering costs and raising prices. And as with the liberal democracy, the social democracy must be strengthened to live up to the idea behind it, rather than to the practice it has become.

The only way to build upon our liberal and social democracies is to add equality to the values of liberty and solidarity we stand for. We must have economic democracy as well. Most everyone believes that we are competent to elect our political leaders... but we demure away from the idea that we ought to elect our bosses. We think that decisions that affect a town, or a state, or the nation as a whole should be made by that town, that state, or the nation as a whole... except when those decisions involve our economy. We believe that all people should be equal in the eyes of the law, but we allow a fraction of the population to claim the bulk of our resources, and have far greater access to the pursuit of happiness our Declaration of Independene proclaimed. Their claim is justified not by their having done more to earn their share, but because they had access to the means of producing that great wealth, and were able to buy the effort of others to make it. Rather than owning the product of their labor, these others have to turn it over to their economic betters to dole out as they see fit: which is always as little as possible.

It should come as no surprise that this class of parasites and their great ideology of capitalism, this class who claim great wealth and prosperity by taking from the effort of others, is precisely the same group that prohibits our liberal and social democracies from meeting their promise. Private ownership of capital insures that profits make the rich far richer while making the poor only slightly less poor, if at all. A labor market that relies on the threat of unemployment as a stick to keep the exploited from simply leaving to find better opportunities ensures that the cycle continues. These same forces are also behind the need to continuously expand our markets, which requires global presence, interference, and often warfare to "spread democracy," which merely means "areas we can do business in."

Capitalism must end for true democracy—liberal, social, and economic—to have any hope of being more than a footnote in the histories of our future. The United States, and indeed the world, deserves better than this.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From the "How People Find Me" files

Some Google searches that have led people to my blogs lately:
  • nude women on harleys
  • prostitution in little
  • proper way to eat chicken
  • r rated ninja turtles
  • gay hairstyles
  • first response commercial woman
  • who is commercial woman

I think those last two must be from the same person...

Monday, June 30, 2008

How to democratize the UN

The United Nations is fundamentally flawed. It is unresponsive to the views and opinions of people around the world. The Security Council, with its permanent membership and veto powers, privileges the policies of some countries while allowing vested interests to completely block legitimate action. The General Assembly, rather than serving as a global legislature, is merely a place for appointed ambassadors to mechanically regurgitate their home government's current policies.

If the UN has any hope of being of service to humanity, it must be democratized. This obviously involves ending the permanent membership and veto powers of the Security Council, but it also means transforming the General Assembly into a World Parliament.

The first component of this transformation is variable delegation sizes based on population. As much respect as I have for the fine people of Nauru, the fact that they have the same number of votes (one) as China, a country with over 100,000 times the population, is profoundly undemocratic. Now, we have to strike a balance when choosing delegation sizes. We don't want the World Parliament to grow to monstrous proportions, of course. We can't have Nauru with one Member of the World Parliament and therefore China gets 100,000.

We might arbitrarily state that each nation gets one MWP, and any nation with more than 25 million citizens gets additional members for each 25-million person bracket they fit into. So Chile with 16 million people gets one MWP. Iraq with 29 million people gets 2 MWPs. The United States has 304 million people and gets 13 MWPs.

China, at 1.3 billion people, gets 53 MWPs. Wait, so China, a single-party authoritarian state with a sketchy human rights record gets to dominate the United Nations? Isn't the point of democratizing the General Assembly to make a fair and democratic Parliament? I propose two mechanisms to deal with this.

First, we want the members of the World Parliament to be chosen by the people. I submit that any nation that does not elect its MWPs through some democratic means (national or regional elections) gets only half votes. If China appoints 53 loyal MWPs by decree, they can only get 26.5 votes rather than 53.

Second, we want the World Parliament to be a democracy of democracies. We might assign different vote weights to the level of democratic freedom in different countries. For the purposes of illustration, if we chose to use the Freedom in the World survey, we might give full votes to all nations that qualify as Free, half votes to those who qualify as Partly Free, and quarter-votes to those that qualify as not Free. China is rated Not Free, and if it appointed its 53 MWPs, they would only get 6.625 votes in the Parliament, 0.125 votes for each MWP. In contrast, India gets 45 MWPs; it is ranked as Free and if its MWPs are chosen through elections, it gets 45 full votes.

These are just examples of ways in which the size of some countries can be counterbalanced with democratic policies. In actual practice, the World Parliament might use entirely different criteria and vote weights. However it is done, a democratic, responsive World Parliament could be a positive force to counterbalance the capitalist globalization, militarization, and imperialism of the United States and other powers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Democrats : humans :: vegetarians : animals

Democrats are to humans what vegetarians are to animals.

I'm a socialist and a vegan, so naturally I think of Democrats and vegetarians as being well-intentioned but, well, wrong. But it wasn't until today that I realized that both groups are wrong for essentially the same reasons. Vegetarianism and liberalism do seem to go hand in hand to some extent, while vegans are typically on the left fringe of liberalism shading into different sorts of radicalism. I wonder if I might be onto something.

The Democrat looks at society today and sees many problems. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Millions of people have no health insurance, and many who do have it still pay too much for the care they receive. Economic power is centralized in multinational corporations. Jobs are being outsourced. There is an unpopular war in Iraq that is costing American and Iraqi lives. Democrats see these things and think they are real problems to be solved.

The vegetarian looks at the treatment of animals today and sees many problems, too. Factory farms result in horrible cruelty to animals, from cramped quarters to mutilation to pumping them full of drugs and hormones. Agricultural animals produce an enormous amount of waste, to say nothing of greenhouse gasses. Vegetarians see these tings and think they are real problems to be solved.

The Democrat seeks to solve the problems of the country by stricter regulation and reform. Raise the minimum wage and increase taxes on the rich to bring incomes closer to parity. Offer single-payer health care to cover those who lack it. Enforce strict monopoly laws and protect American jobs. Bring the troops home! The vegetarian seeks to reduce the suffering of animals by refusing to eat them. Vegetarians are often involved with animal welfare charities such as the SPCA and local animal shelters. They are not opposed to the use of animals, provided it is done humanely, so they typically try to eat only cage-free eggs and free-range organic milk.

Democrats and vegetarians are the liberals of their respective domains. Liberals see the problems of society and think they are the irrational outcomes of a rational system, so they try to correct the outcomes. Radicals see that the system itself is irrational, and that the outcomes that flow from it are only to be expected. It is the system that must be changed.

The problems with society that the Democrat seeks to regulate away are inherent in capitalism itself. They will not go away until capitalism goes away. By the same token, simply not eating animals doesn't end animal cruelty because animals are still property. They cannot consent to be used at all, ever, and so they ought not be used any more than humans should be used without their consent.

The only solution to these problems is a radical solution, one that strikes at the root causes of them. Capitalism is the root cause of most of the ills of society, and thus socialism -- not well-regulated liberal capitalism -- is the abolition of capitalism and the solution to those ills. The property status of animals is the root cause of most animal cruelty, and thus veganism and animal rights -- not animal welfare reform and vegetarianism -- is the abolition of the property status of animals and the solution to animal cruelty.

However, Democrats and vegetarians both believe they are part of the solution, and so they can be. The way to achieving the shared goals of Democrats/socialists and vegetarians/vegans is not to say "Fuck you guys, we have all the answers and you're morons." The solution is to work together on those things we agree on and use the good old-fashioned art of healthy debate, persuasion, and evidence to bring people further and further towards the solution. Revolutionary socialists must participate in the everyday fights for rights and social justice that liberals are involved in, but constantly draw attention not only to symptoms but to illnesses. Protest the Iraq war, and while doing so draw the inherent connection between capitalism and imperialism. Campaign for universal health care, and use it to highlight the way the market fails to provide even the minimum welfare for the people who make it work.

Vegans and animal rights activists can support certain reforms in animal use while consistently maintaining that all use is always wrong, no matter how humane. Go naked rather than wear fur if you like, but point out that you can't be opposed to fur and not be opposed to eggs and milk. Turn people's compassionate decision to become vegetarian into an opportunity to explain the inherent cruelty involved in more than only meat.

Democrats and vegetarians can be part of the solution, but not without changing their views in the process.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Quote of the Week

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on lack of more rapid progress in the transition to renewable energy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marxism vs. anarchism

I have a confession to make. I change my mind on political affairs quite often.
This isn't a confession that I am now going to endorse John McCain for president or anything so insane as that. It's just that when I get into a topic, I tend to immerse myself in that topic and form opinions before I've emerged from my immersion. It's very easy for me to read, as I had for the last few months, nothing but anarchist material with regards to politics, and more or less ignore alternative views in the meantime.
Really, for the last year I'd been considering myself essentially "converted" to anarchism, if that's an appropriate word for it. Many of my blog posts are written from an anarchist perspective. But as I think back over that time, I've always been an "anarchist but..." I am not sure I've ever been entirely anarchist in my thinking, as reflected by how I described my anarchism as a critique of authority rather than a political ideology. I've freely admitted that I think there is a place for representative democracy, even while posting screeds against representation. I've been of dual minds about many fundamental components of anarchism, and I've come in the last few weeks to realize that I was only on the edge of anarchism at all.
In essence, as the title of my blog implies, I've continued to be a revolutionary socialist -- a Marxist. I've certainly taken a great deal away from my foray into anarchist thought, and I still consider it to be a valid and useful critique of authority, as I said. But the more I think about it, the less I think that it (and by it I mean of course the myriad interrelated strands of thought that go by the word) is actually an effective means to the sort of world I want to live in.
Here's the thing: anarchism, even in its most socialist forms, is an individualist political philosophy. If we take (as the Left has traditionally done) liberty, equality, and solidarity as our core values, anarchism doesn't strike the balance that I do between them, because anarchism privileges liberty over the others. Certainly, many anarchists would dispute this, and I grant that the situation isn't nearly as dire as other leftists might try to imply. But the fact remains that anarchists are generally in favor of radical decentralization, of small communities (even if they're near each other in what is presently a city) being independent of one another and confederated horizontally on an ad hoc basis for, among other things, trade, distribution of raw materials, and defense.
This doesn't sound so bad. The problem for me is in the anarchist conception of humanity's future. They see these small communities as being, for lack of a better word, sovereign. Autonomous. If a community doesn't want to be a part of a given project undertaken by the confederation as a whole, it is generally allowed to not do so, or even to dissociate from the confederation. And this applies not only to specific communities, but even to individuals within the community. Many, if not most, anarchist groups even favor consensus decision-making -- a laudable goal, but one that gives a single individual veto power over the wishes of as many members as make up the group by that individual simply refusing to consent. But even without such a decision-making process, anarchism allows individuals to just plain opt-out of whatever the disagree with. Individuals must always win over groups, because as soon as they don't, "authority" is introduced and the system is no longer anarchist.
Now, some may like this. I don't at all disagree that individual liberty is an important component of the ideal political system -- but it is only one component, not the system as a whole. Part of this revelation for me came about when I was reflecting on my last post, and I quoted anarchist anthropologist David Graeber about the hypothetical victory of the anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish Revolution. His conclusion, and the one that I supported at the time that I made the post, was that we can't, and shouldn't, win through a revolution by a minority, because it would be impossible to force our beliefs on the majority without resorting to authoritarian methods that sacrifice our anarchist ideals.
I agree with that conclusion. An anarchist revolution (in the traditional sense) is destined to fail for precisely that reason. I also agree that a revolution needs at least some basic support of a majority to have any chance of success. But think of the American Civil War. Before the war, chattel slavery was legal in the South. A person could legally own slaves. After the war, it was illegal to own slaves. If most of the wealthy South had simple ignored this edict (as the hypothetical Spain of Graeber's thought experiment would ignore the disintegration of capitalism and the state) would it then be wrong to "impose" freedom of slaves on those slave-owners?
The anarchists say they wish to abolish the state as well as capitalism in one fell swoop, though most are reasonable to admit that this swoop might take some time. But I have to agree with the Marxists, who argue that the state is the only entity powerful enough to impose economic democracy on the capitalists. And yes, it would be an imposition. No capitalist is going to say, "Gee whiz, you guys win, here, take my multibillion-dollar company and I'll go dig ditches from now on."
Most anarchists seem to agree with this necessity in principle. They will freely say that it might take violence to wrest control of capital from the hands of capitalists. They want to do this without a state, which is a fine goal. But the Marxist definition of a state is simply "coercive force to maintain class rule." It says nothing of the composition, development, and functioning of this state. The only example Marx and Engles ever gave for how the "dictatorship* of the proletariat" was to function was the Paris Commune of 1871 -- one of the very institutions anarchists hold up as an example for their own purposes as well. If a democratically-organized confederation of workers and community councils was in place that prevented capitalists from hiring wage slaves through the threat of force, it would still be a state by the Marxist definition -- even while not being one by the anarchist.
Both Marxists and anarchists have the same goal: a stateless, communist society. The difference between them is in the role authority will play in getting there, and by extension, the order in which the twin demons will have to be exorcised. I am with the Marxists. We must, through revolution if necessary, democratize the state and use it to democratize the economy. When the class of exploiter no longer exists, and all are socially equal, the state will no longer be a state and its more objectionable functions will cease to be necessary. In the meantime, socialist ideas must be disseminated as widely as possible, which includes through the use of electoral politics as propaganda (if not as an end in themselves). But any political movement must retain democracy and for its own functioning operate with liberty, equality, and solidarity as paramount values.
* For the less seasoned readers, it is important to remember that in the 19th century, "dictator" didn't have its present connotations. A Roman dictator was in place for a temporary term. The idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" had no particular negative implication at the time, and could be entirely democratic. It was only a dictatorship in the sense that the proletariat now "dictated" that they could no longer be exploited by the bourgeoisie.