Wednesday, June 30, 2004
I'm ranting, of course, and you might wonder what set me off. Well it's this gem, William Kristof's column from Wednesday's New York Times.
Kristof's thesis is that liberals are wrong to call Bush a liar because: (a) sometimes Bush only exaggerates; (b) Bush isn't really good enough at talking for anybody to tell whether he's lying or just failing to make any damn sense; and (c) calling your political opponents liars tends to coarsen political discourse and undermine the electorate's trust in the political process.
I'm reminded of a dinner party I ruined several years ago. A number of us were sitting around getting to know one another and one of the subjects that came up was political orientation. I let it be known that I pretty much accepted the socialist critique of capitalism, though I wasn't down with the notion that revolution was a historical inevitability and, anyway, thought it was pretty obvious that violent revolution would do more harm than good.
Another of the guests, I'll call her K, couldn't let this pass. She didn't think this was a political view that a moral person could have unless that person were startlingly ignorant. At one point she argued that because I hadn't summered in Europe I wasn't cosmopolitan enough to have developed respectable political views.
I found all of this to be quite insulting, of course, but not so offensive as to require that all conversation halt until such time as apologies had been delivered. Moreover, it was pretty clear to me that K was taking me to be defending the worst excesses of Stalinism, something which I would never dream of doing.
I tried to explain the nuances of my position, tried to get across the idea that the governments of the Soviet Union and its satellites didn't faithfully embody the ideals put forth by Lenin in State and Revolution, and that anyway Marx's worries about the accumulation of surplus value didn't obviously imply any of this Vanguard of the Proletariat stuff.
I was rebuffed at every turn. K insisted that she had closely studied the socialist canon and had found it wanting. Once I informed her that there was such a thing as War Communism she asserted that this historical era had also been an object of considerable investigation on her part. In short, she was an authority on these matters.
She was obviously lying. Maybe, just maybe, she had read the Communist Manifesto somewhere along the way, but it was clear that her knowledge of socialist theory didn't extend past the canard that the fall of the Soviet Union had proven that socialism didn't work.
The next time she claimed to have read Capital I called her on it. I said she was lying.
Judging by her reaction you would have thought that I had punched her in the nose. Her mouth and eyes opened wide and she just stared at me. I don't remember precisely what she said, but it had the flavor of, "How dare you besmirch my honor! I demand that you apologize at once and repudiate any suggestion that I am not an authority on socialist theory."
Then, and I remember this quite clearly, another guest accused me of being rude. A chorus of others said that I ought to apologize. Instead, I thanked the host and left.
From my point of view I had answered a question about my political inclinations and been attacked for it. During my attempt to defend myself I was accused of ignorance, naivete, and immorality. Then, (then!) my accuser embarked on a pattern of lies that frustrated every attempt I made to respond. But I was the one who was rude? I was the one who should apologize?
I don't buy it. I think K owed me an apology. Not for the insults (I'm not that thin-skinned) but for violating the conversational ground rules that make communication possible. If one of us was responsible for coarsening the discourse it wasn't me, it was her.
I'm not saying that lying is always bad, or that liars should always be taken to task. There are, as we say in philosophy, cases and cases. And this brings us back to Kristof and Bush.
Off the top of my head here's a sample of the untruths that the Bush Administration has knowingly fostered: The No-Child-Left-Behind-Act is a sincere attempt to improve education; The Bush tax cut doesn't disproportionately favor the rich; The Administration never advocated torture; Saddam Hussein directly aided the al Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center; There is proof that Iraq possesses WMDs.
Kristof says that calling Bush a liar, "further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern."
But what about Bush's lies? They have an effect on political discourse too. The kinds of lies Bush and his cronies tell--lies told to grease the wheels of government, lies told to further a political agenda that could not otherwise find popular support, lies which carry the authority of official endorsement--these lies are a violation of trust. These lies undermine any attempt to have a serious public discussion about the issues that confront the nation.
Kristof says that we shouldn't call Bush a liar because, "insults and rage impede understanding."
Bullshit. Lying impedes understanding.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Throwing a bone
Sunday, June 27, 2004
Ramblings about rumblings in the labor movement
Even though Meyerson depicts Stern as being awkwardly in opposition to current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (who, Meyerson notes, was Stern's mentor) I think that overstates the case. Sweeney's main theme has been that locals and internationals need to rededicate themselves to organizing. This call to action has been heeded almost religiously by the service sector unions (HERE and UNITE along with SEIU) and a better way to interpret Stern's critique is as an extension (perhaps unwelcome) of Sweeney's vision.
Now, I'm all for effective organizing but there are a couple of things about Stern's plan that give me pause. Most crucially I worry that as unions grow larger they become more hierarchical and less responsive to the needs of rank and file workers. This, by the way, gets at one of the deep tensions of the labor movement. If the point of having a union is to increase worker democracy, then large institutions are problematic. On the other hand, Stern is right that larger unions will have an easier time of winning material concessions from management.
This brings me to the other concern. The reason, it seems to me, that having lots of small unions is a less effective tool for winning material gains is that those small unions don't work together effectively. I'm talking here about solidarity, of course. If the labor movement worked the way that it should then any company that had a problem with any union would have a problem with every union. That's the way it has got to be.
But there are all sorts of barriers, some legal some boiling down to what philosophers like to call coordination problems. For one thing, lots of states have labor laws that outlaw sympathy strikes. Another problem is that those who refuse to cross picket lines can pay a price but get no benefit. This also means that the most active unions are going to be asking for help over and over again -- which from a certain point of view, invites resentment.
The point here is that the real need is for labor solidarity and so our attention ought to be on the real barriers to that need. I'm not saying that the virtue of labor solidarity can't be built back up, but it's got to be done from the ground up. It has to be based in the idea that 'we're all in this together' but that kind of attitude can only be sustained, I think, by a truly radical labor movement. We should be worried about whether this country would support that kind of movement.
But, and this gets me back to Stern's proposal, merely consolidating unions doesn't address these problems. In order to get back to a more radical movement the members of unions have got to be radicalized. This will be difficult, but there's a proven way to do it - organize. If this is right, then Stern's proposal starts to look like an attempt to manufacture solidarity without doing the hard work of organizing. Ultimately, I think that will be counter-productive. What you'll end up with are large organizations that, when it comes down to it, have only shallow commitments from their members.
A word in Stern's defense. He is committed to organizing. What he is driven by, I think, is the knowledge that organizing costs money. Large unions will have more money for organizing than the small organizations do. And, due to economies of scale, the whole pie will be larger. He's got a good point, and I guess my only answer is that unions ought to look at how they spend their money and find a way to spend more of it on organizing. Again, that's going to require talking to the rank and file and convincing them that it's in the union's interest to reallocate its funds. It's a pickle.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
Now that I'm back I'm not so sure that I want to go back to the same blogging routine. For one thing, I'm pretty much committed to posting both here and at TheBellman, so I don't know that I have the extra time I think what I'd like to do with it is find some kind of automated aggregator that will let me get content there more easily -- I'd still put some stuff up manually, but it'd be nice to have, say, an automated labor news wire. Ideally, I could do the surfing for featured links from the Holding Zone page.
I thought that I could probably do this pretty simply with a newsreader, but haven't found one that will do it yet. I previewed NetNewsWire a few months ago but didn't think it was worth the $$ to register. Now I think it might work for what I want, but they won't let me take it for another test drive. Bother.
I might just turn it into a personal links page. The truth is that not many people read the site and so what it mostly gets used for is a place for me to keep my blogroll. If I moved the links onto the main page I could reserve the blogroll for blogs that I'm giving a trial run to...
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Poetry appreciation corner
Anyhow, here's a poem from the anthology:
At night the fighter planes circle
and I look at the yellowed corner of my ceiling
where the dead mosquito hangs
and remember last summer's fear of disease -
bearing bugs, the whoosh of mosquito trucks,
and my favorite Post headline LET US SPRAY.
Lately I'm afraid of all sounds and the lack of sounds.
News voices, guarding reactors -- my daughter
hates the news, why is she watching?
And where have the backyard birds gone?
The yo babay mo-fo boom chicka Jersey cars
don't blast around my block trying to park.
We'll never go back. It's so strange to be caught
in history, to be making history after just making loads
of unused imaginary money, men in blue jackets shouted,
traded, and it's gone and it's okay but I don't want to die.
I hope God is circling up there with those planes.
Patti was a good person and she died.
God is probably passed out somewhere warm and dark,
still sleeping off his whole world, seven day binge
and it's just us, warring unhinged teenagers
trashing this big beautiful park.
-- Shelley Stenhouse
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Exciting news from the world of accounting
New accounting standards will require state and local governments to acknowledge the full cost of health benefits promised to retirees, putting immense pressure on public employers to reduce their liabilities by scaling back benefits or shifting more o the cost to retirees, government officials and accountants say.| link |
One thing that should be said is that it's obviously good practice to account for expected future liabilities. In fact, it's kind of mind boggling to learn that most governmental entities don't track the future cost of benefits that have been promised (It turns out, by the way, that tracking these sorts of liabilities didn't become standard practice in the private sector until about 1990). Absent information about future liabilities, there's no way to engage in effective long range planning or budgeting, so it's pretty clear that the change in standards is a good thing.
Overshadowing this, however, is the suggestion that the way for governments to handle these liabilities is by cutting benefits to retirees. That's just outrageous. The retirees are people who took a government job probably paying less than they could have made in the private sector on the understanding that if they put in their time then they would continue to receive benefits once they had retired. Now they are told that because their former employers didn't account for the cost of holding up their end of the bargain those benefits will be taken away. This is government rewarding personal responsibility with a slap in the face.
It would be bad enough if the employer were a business. For one thing, a business doesn't act on behalf of citizens, and so its behavior doesn't reflect on all of us or embody our operative ethical standards. Moreover, a business that takes on liabilities that it can't meet will, in theory, fail. In that case you can at least say that some of the consequences of irresponsible promising fall on the organization that made the promise. But the government isn't going to go out of business. It can run a deficit or bring in revenues to meet the cost of rising liabilities. The choice to cut retirees off is a political decision to the effect that it is more important to control the cost of government than to fulfill the obligations that it has undertaken. It is a choice to break a promise because breaking the promise is more politically expedient than keeping it.
Some might say that this indictment is too severe. Government has competing duties in such a case, the objection goes. As asserted, government has a duty to the retirees such that they be given the benefits they were promised. In addition, though, government has a duty to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly. This doesn't mean that promised benefits should be entirely eliminated but, the objection concludes, they may need to be constrained in accordance with this duty of fiscal responsibility.
The plausibility of this line of thought depends on the sorts of cuts that are made in benefits. If, for example, a government institutes a modest co-pay for doctor visits or prescriptions or something like that it may be that this is justified by appeal to the duty of fiscal responsibility but doesn't amount to a violation of the obligation the government has to the retirees.
Problems arise at the point where the duty of fiscal responsibility is thought to be capable of overriding the duty of keeping promises. That is, when cuts in benefits are so severe that the cuts amount to the breaking of a promise. In such cases, I claim, it's a mistake to think that the duty of fiscal responsibility can legitimately trump prior obligations.
The crucial fact to notice is that the violation of the duty of fiscal responsibility occurs when a government takes on liabilities that it can't meet, not when those liabilities come due. Just imagine telling your creditors that the reason you won't be paying your bills is that it would be fiscally irresponsible for you to do so. You don't get to start fresh every day, and neither does government.
That's about all I have to say about that, but I would be remiss not to mention the disappointing response of organized labor to this issue. From the Times article:
Unions contend that the standards will force public employers to overstate their liabilities for retiree health benefits, because the standards ignore the fact that employers can reduce or eliminate health benefits in the face of fiscal pressures.
As the Minneapolis Transit Strike illustrated, governmental agencies will leverage cuts in benefits promised to retired workers against the wages of present employees, and unions face an uphill battle in fighting those cuts. Insofar as unions adopt the policy ascribed to them in the Times, they're just giving up the ghost. They're saying 'promise us the moon, but don't worry about delivering.' That may make for impressive looking contracts, but in the long run it doesn't help workers.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Amtrak is slow, but that's one of the things I like about it. When you're on a train you know you're going to be there for awhile and that gives you the freedom to not be in a hurry about anything. Plus, sometimes you meet interesting people. On the train down I talked to a grief counselor from Houston for about four hours. The conversation was wide ranging, but mostly it was about understanding the American reaction to the September 11 attacks as a kind of grief. He was a pretty staunch Republican, but I felt like we were both able to learn from the exchange.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Time to take off the dust covers
Lately all of my blogging energy has gone into a group blog one of my compadres from Kansas put together, but I'm growing disillusioned with that blog. The old school Kansans are alright as co-bloggers, but I don't care much for the Texans. They aren't bad guys, and Henderson has, I think, become a better blogger. But they are anti-intellectual and, it seems to me, intolerant of opinions that they don't agree with. Don't get me wrong - I relish a good argument. But I don't much care for bad argument, and a whole lot of what they offer falls short of my standards. It seems to me that anyone who is likely to want to read the sort of stuff that I'm likely to want to write is going to be the sort of person who doesn't have much interest in reading the sort of entries that those fellas put up.
The upshot is that posting on that blog feels like a waste of time, so I'm going to get this site up and running again. I'm not taking my ball and going home. I'll still post over there regularly. I just don't want my voice to be constrained in the way that it has been.
That's about all for now. I am going to make some changes in this site, so keep your eyes peeled.