Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

Interesting feminist perspective on how patriarchal societies are bad for men. The central argument is that patriarchy is a "dominator culture" - where all must struggle violently for power, so as to be able to dominate those weaker than oneself, and avoid the domination of those more powerful. bell hooks argues that this ethic teaches boys to strangle their emotional intelligence from a young age, to harden their hearts so as to be better able to dominate and avoid others' domination. (See martial culture, with examples like military life or gangsta rap.) Since violence is used as a tool of domination, and our species displays a fair amount of sexual dimorphism so men tend to be bigger and more muscular, women are pretty much left on the sidelines of this dominator bloodsport. The best they can do is attempt to become the wife of a strong, dominating man - and maybe exercise a little domination herself with her young sons. Or, if she's a wealthy woman, she can play the dominator game pretty much on par with men.

I have to give bell hooks respect for including class in her feminist perspective. She notes that the system we live in is patriarchal, imperialist and capitalist - and all of these elements go towards explaining why men's humanity is sacrificed: to produce the violent, emotionally crippled soldiers for a dominator society. hooks' is a holistic perspective, and she places blame where blame is due: not on individuals, but on systemic pressures on individuals, or on economic/cultural systems themselves. This is why her perspective is far deeper than the "white feminists" a friend of mine complains to me about, and hooks calls "reformist feminists":

"Reformist feminist women could not make this call [for boys and men to join feminist movement so that they would be liberated from patriarchy] because they were the group of women (mostly white women with class privilege) who had pushed the idea that all men were powerful in the first place. These were the women for whom feminist liberation was more about getting their piece of the power pie and less about freeing masses of women or less powerful men from sexist oppression. They were not mad at their powerful daddies and husbands who kept poor men exploited and oppressed; they were mad that they were not being giving [sic] equal access to power. Now that many of those women have gained power, and especially economic parity with the men of their class, they have pretty much lost interest in feminism."

The author's focus on patriarchy as the enemy reminded me of a book I read back when I was in the Marine Corps OCS (perfect instance of an institution devoted to crushing the last strands of emotional intelligence that have managed to make it past adolescence). It was called "Eve's Seed", and while I don't know anything of the critiques of the book, its theory was that prior to the advent of sedentary, agricultural societies, most human tribes lived within a matriarchal power structure. Women's work, gathering food and practicing low-intensity, small-scale agriculture, accounted for the lion's share of total economic production: and with economic power has always gone political power. It was only when males' greater muscle mass became truly powerful - in that it assisted in economic production (plow-based agriculture) to a greater degree than women's - that most humans began living in patriarchal societies. And, these being patriarchies, we all know how the switch from hunter-gatherer nomadic societies to mass sedentary agricultural societies went down: genocides. (Also, after the "civilized" peoples slaughtered off the "barbarian" tribes, the brilliant civilized people killed themselves off by dessicating their environments through agricultural overproduction and the destruction of ecological life support systems - I think this is the argument in Jared Diamond's "Collapse".)

Anyway, the only disappointing thing about the book was that hooks hasn't grappled at all - it would seem - with evolutionary psychology. What of millions of years of evolution, that in all species has created a divergence in sexual behavior and drive between the sex that spends more time caring for zygotes to the point that they can fend for themselves, and the sex that spends less time or doesn't at all? (I'd just write "male" and "female", but there are a few species where the female gives her eggs to the male, and he inseminates them and takes care of them.) Sure, it's impossible to disentangle the contribution nature and nurture make to create the fucked up men and women of patriarchal societies - but I'd be very interested to read hooks examine the contribution made by nature, not just nurture.

One last thing - hooks makes an interesting observation I had never thought of before. That as they grow up, girls learn to overvalue whatever they interpret as male love from their emotionally stunted fathers, and so in relationships end up settling for whatever attention males are able to give them. Additionally, in a dangerous dominator society, it pays for women to pick a mate who can protect them (by dominating other would-be dominators). "He wouldn't hit me if he didn't love me," etc. - explained! Also, this example shows how interconnected and self-reinforcing social systems like patriarchy are - because men also learn that women seem to like men that treat them poorly, and so tend to model themselves after misogynistic men in order, ironically, to attract women.

Friday, July 18, 2008

You ess say! You ess say!

DEVELOPMENT: U.S. Sliding By Nearly Every Measure by Alison Raphael

"A global human development index ranked the U.S. first in 1990. Today, it ranks 12th."

Oddly, I can't help but daydream about tearing out pages from this report and forcing them down Larry Kudlow's huckster throat, while in the midst of one of his booster paeans to free market capitalism being God's design for unbridled wealth creat
ion in the greatest country on earth, the United - gag, cough, cough, gag, gag, muffled scream, wretching...

"The first-ever 'Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009,' launched Wednesday by the non-profit organisation Oxfam America, offers a statistical analysis of numerous aspects of U.S. well-being, broken down by gender, race, ethnicity, state, and even congressional district.

One surprising finding was that although the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation in the world (5.2 million dollars daily), its citizens live shorter lives than citizens of virtually every Western European and Nordic country. And the U.S. has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than any of the world's richest countries.


Study author Sarah Bird-Sharps noted that: 'Some Americans are living anywhere from 30 to 50 years behind others when it comes to issues we all care about: health, education and standard of living.'

For example, residents of Connecticut, in the northeast of the country, enjoy a lifespan averaging 30 years longer than that of residents of the far-south state of Mississippi. The two states have the highest and lowest rankings, respectively, for life expectancy in the United States."

From the report itself: "The top 1 percent of households possesses a full third of America’s wealth. Households in the top 10 percent of income distribution hold more than 71 percent of the wealth, while those in the lowest 60 percent possess just 4 percent of wealth."

And as the Onion noted over a decade ago, in its article Widening Gap Between Rich And Super-Rich Threatening American Dream, "
the wealthiest .01 percent of the American population holds 20 percent of the nation's wealth, or $270 trillion, an amount more than two times the holdings of the next richest .09 percent combined.

The current disparity is an alarming indicator of things to come, according to Martin Hubbell, professor of macroeconomics at Yale University. 'A healthy capitalist economy should not concentrate so much of its wealth in the hands of so few,' Hubbell said. 'I mean, it should concentrate it in the hands of a few, but not so few.'"

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tom Friedman's heir apparent

Obama Needs a Better Reading List by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is writing for the Wall Street Journal now! This fulfills the prophesy I remember reading months ago (I think by Noam Chomsky) that if Murdoch bought the Journal, he might actually tone down the right-wing nuttery of its comics-I-mean-editorial page.

This piece is on Fareed Zakaria, about whom I know little, except that to be an editor at Newspeak-I-mean-Newsweek you must be, to a large extent, a geyser spewing the conventional wisdom. Seems like he's a young, hip Tom Friedman. Tom gets baby boomers to nod their heads to a stream of know-nothing drivel about flat earths, or laughably inappropriate anecdotes about how the successes of the Japanese protectionist state proves the wisdom of the exact opposite economic policies. Fareed's more for the younger crowd, but he's the same kind of self-deluded, economics-misinformed huckster for the masses.

For example: "One more reason to be leery of all this market idolatry: It's wrong. Take the aspect of the 'new era' that Mr. Zakaria most admires – 'the free movement of capital,' the international loans and investments he worships as 'globalization's celestial mechanism for discipline.' In point of fact, the rise of China and India – Mr. Zakaria's own paradigm cases – was possible only because those countries shunned global commercial credit markets in the 1970s, allowing them to avoid the interest-rate shock of the early '80s."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The measurement of innocent fraud

Our phony economy by Jonathan Rowe

A corollary to the principle that wealth is not fungible - a golf course cannot easily be turned into a health clinic, a $100,000 car into $100,000 worth of farming equipment - is that our primary measure of wealth production, GDP, is of very dubious utility.

The primary ideological justification for neoliberal economic policies is that by withdrawing government interference in the global market, more wealth will be produced. It is furthermore believed that although this wealth may be distributed highly unevenly, that even those at the very bottom of the wealth pyramid will be made better off. One would hope; but wouldn't necessarily have much reason to. Besides the strong evidence that relative income inequality in itself lowers well-being, and besides the fact that greater wealth production is pointless for all but a handful of people if the surplus wealth is not redistributed (and besides the concomitant fact that if this surplus wealth were redistributed, neoliberal economists believe that this would reduce the amount of surplus wealth produced by a neoliberal global economy), and besides the fact that GDP around the world was greater during the protectionist 50s-70s than during the neoliberal 80s-present; besides all of t the primary measure of economic success or failure, GDP, is damn near irrelevant. It was never designed to be an indicator of the health of an economy, and it is not.

"[The inventor of the Gross Domestic Product measurement] Simon Kuznets watched [the increasing misuse of GDP as the measurement of a healthy economy] happen with increasing dismay. (Galbraith came to have second thoughts as well.) Kuznets was a quiet academic who was loath to mount a soapbox. But he asserted over and over that those who had seized upon his handiwork had missed the point. In 1962 he wrote in The New Republic that in evaluating growth 'distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long run…. Goals for ‘more’ growth should specify more growth of what and for what.' If you are going to 'stimulate' the economy, in other words, could we at least have a little debate over what exactly you are going to stimulate?


The GDP assumes, as most economists do, that people are inherently 'rational.' What they buy is exactly what they want, and so their purchases must make them happy in exact proportion to the prices paid. Yet addiction has become pervasive. It has metastasized far beyond the usual suspects–gambling, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs–and spread to such things as eating, credit cards, and shopping itself. Also neglected is what economists call 'distribution.' The GDP makes no distinction between a $500 dinner in Manhattan and the hundreds of more humble meals that could be provided for the same amount. A socialite who buys a pair of $800 pumps from Manolo Blahnik appears to contribute forty times more to the national well-being than does the mother who buys a pair of $20 sneakers for her son at Payless. 'Economic welfare,' Kuznets wrote, 'cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known.' As included in the national accounts, an accretion of luxury buying at the top covers up a lack of necessary buying at the bottom. As the income scale becomes more skewed, the cover-up becomes even greater. In this respect the GDP serves as a statistical laundry operation that hides the suffering at the bottom. Another problem has to do with work and the toll it takes on those who do it. Kuznets called this the 'reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income.' That earning comes at a cost of wear and tear upon the body and psyche. If the GDP subtracts depreciation on buildings and equipment, should there not be a corresponding subtraction for the wearing out of people?

What about the loss in the value of their skills as one technology displaces another? In the current accounting, this toll often gets added to the GDP rather than subtracted, in the form of medications, expenditures for retraining, and day care for children as parents work longer hours. Most workers would regard such outlays as costs, not gains. Had Kuznets been writing today, moreover, he probably would have added another kind of depletion–that of natural resources. It sounds incredible, but when this nation drills its oil and mines its coal, the national accounts treat this as an addition to the national wealth rather than a subtraction from it. The result is like a car with a gas gauge that goes up as the fuel tank empties. The national accounts portray a nation getting richer when it is in fact draining itself dry. Kuznets concluded his report [introducing the GDP measurement] with words that ought to be inscribed on the wall of every office on Capitol Hill and over every computer screen within a twenty-mile radius: 'The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined above.'”

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The statistics of innocent fraud

Numbers racket: Why the economy is worse than we know by Kevin P. Phillips

This important article details the increasing distortion and concomitant irrelevance of key indexes of the U.S. economy since the 1960s. The U.S. has always been a great country for the rich, but deceptive economic statistics have been hiding just how bad it is for the majority of the population.

"Richard Nixon, besides continuing the unified budget, developed his own taste for statistical improvement. He proposed—albeit unsuccessfully—that the Labor Department, which prepared both seasonally adjusted and non-adjusted unemployment numbers, should just publish whichever number was lower. In a more consequential move, he asked his second Federal Reserve chairman, Arthur Burns, to develop what became an ultimately famous division between 'core' inflation and headline inflation. If the Consumer Price Index was calculated by tracking a bundle of prices, so-called core inflation would simply exclude, because of 'volatility,' categories that happened to be troublesome: at that time, food and energy. Core inflation could be spotlighted when the headline number was embarrassing, as it was in 1973 and 1974. (The economic commentator Barry Ritholtz has joked that core inflation is better called 'inflation ex-inflation'—i.e., inflation after the inflation has been excluded.)"

Unemployment in the U.S. - pre-1983 and post-1983 criteria

"The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today’s U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession. If what we have been sold in recent years has been delusional 'Pollyanna Creep,' what we really need today is a picture of our economy ex-distortion. For what it would reveal is a nation in deep difficulty not just domestically but globally."

Including workers who are
part-time for "economic reasons"

Including other "marginally
attached" workers

Including "discouraged" workers

The official "unemployment rate"

"Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, borrowing, and interest payments—all indexed or related to inflation—could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering."