Movie review: Saving Capitalism (2017)

Robert Reich is one of those sane voices in the wilderness. As an economist and former Secretary of Labor, he has some well-educated opinions about how the economy can work best for the average American.

Saving Capitalism, a Netflix original, is a documentary inspired by his book of the same title. The documentary shows Reich going from book signing to book signing, meeting to meeting. In between, he explains his background and his perspective on the economy through the decades. Reich is pretty good about trying to explain economic concepts in laymen’s terms. (He shares excellent tidbits through videos and tweets on Twitter.)

Reich is an unabashed Democrat and firm believer in capitalism. But he gets it. He gets that people are angry and frustrated. He gets that people are screaming to be heard but no one is listening. He gets the feeling that the system is rigged.

It is, he says. It only works for a few. And then he explains why. Along the way, he debunks myths that we have been told about the capitalist system.

Free markets. There is no such thing, though for several decades some people have liked to pretend there is. Any capitalist system plays by rules, rules surrounding property, monopoly, contracts, bankruptcy, and enforcement. The role of government is to set these rules. So the question is not do rules exist but rather how should the rules be set and who should they benefit.

The rules are not set in stone. They are not inherently set a certain way. The rules are man-made and can be changed to reflect our values as a society. (Clearly, our values are at a really low point right now.) The rules do not have to rig the system against us. We can change them so that capitalism works for all of us.

Reich actually predicted the anger and frustration that we see today back in the early 1990s when he was Secretary of Labor. The feeling that things weren’t working for average Americans started with the Powell memo of 1971. The Powell memo advocated for the flood of lobbying we see today from corporations.

With money comes power. With power comes influence over the rules of the game. As corporations started to pour money into politics, their power over the rules grew and then they were able to change the rules to benefit themselves more. The vicious cycle continued, ramping up further with Citizens United.

Reich also reviews corporate welfare, what it is, how much it is, and how insidious it is. Corporate welfare includes subsidies to industries and tax breaks. Rather than be an easy beast to tame, it has invaded the tax code, appropriations, and trade deals. Good luck rooting it out!

Reich argues too that the 2008 financial disaster was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of deregulation that started under Reagan. The late 1990s saw the rise of derivatives and the successful defeat of their regulation. Then the 1933 Glass-Segall law that was enacted following the 1929 stock market crash was repealed because, well, that was no longer necessary, regulation hampers profits, etc., etc.

To those who scream for no government involvement, Reich points out that government is always involved in capitalism. Government either prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. Which do we prefer?

With Citizen United, we see even more money from corporations and the super wealthy flowing into government. With it comes more power and influence for the corporations and the super wealthy—and less for us average Americans. With this trend comes more general anger, frustration, and delusion in the system.

…which explains the rise of populism. We are suffering through the ascendency of authoritarian populism, when the populace has decided to put its faith in a strong man to save the system and to save us. (Never mind that our current strong man—Trump—is one of the wealthy who is amassing more power, more influence, and more money at the expense of most Americans.)

The other kind of populism is reform populism, where the people channel their anger and frustration to reform the system. (Although he never mentions him by name, Sanders is the clear unnamed elephant in the room.)

The pendulum swings, Reich reminds us, and history repeats itself. We are back in the corruption of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s. The message is that things will get better if we organize, rise up, and become active citizens again. Society as a whole will progress. As I watched photographs of individuals suffering through the effects of the Gilded Age, I couldn’t help but think of the horrible suffering that individuals must go through before we average Americans get to the other side of a better world.

Which do we prefer? Government that prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or government that steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. I vote for the former.

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Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Governor’s Headquarters

I had once buzzed through Corydon, stopping briefly (and I do mean briefly) at the Capitol Building. This time I was going to do it right with a full tour of the historic sites in Corydon.

In 1813, the capital of the Indiana Territory moved from Vincennes to Corydon. From June 10 to June 29, 1816, Corydon hosted Indiana’s first constitutional convention. Following the convention, Corydon became the state capital and remained the capital until 1825, when the seat of state government moved to Indianapolis, a more central spot in the state (as opposed to the location of Corydon on the Ohio River at the far southern end of the state). (Those at the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site like to say that they are maintaining the buildings for when the capital moves back to Corydon.)

The Indiana State Museum oversees the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site, which is a collection of historic buildings: the Governor’s Headquarters, the Porter Law Office next door, and the Capitol Building on the square.

The tour started at the Governor’s Headquarters, a two-story brick building. Davis Floyd, a state legislator, built the house in 1817, but lost it in the Panic of 1819. At that time, the state government bought it. In 1841, Judge William A. Porter acquired the house, which remained in his family until 1979, after which it reverted back to the state.

(Interesting side note about Floyd: in 1805, while he was a territorial legislator—long before building what became the Porter Law Office—he fell into an unsavory situation with Vice President Aaron Burr. In 1807, he was convicted of aiding Burr in what was known as the Burr Conspiracy—an attempt to take territory in the West from the US government. In the end, Floyd was not convicted of treason.)

Why is it called the Governor’s Headquarters? From 1817-1825, this brick building was the home and office of William Hendricks, Indiana’s second elected governor (1822-1825). (Hendricks was actually the third Indiana governor. Jonathan Jennings, the first governor resigned to take office in the US House of Representatives. Ratliff Boon, his lt. governor, replaced him as the second governor.)

Hendricks had quite a role in early Indiana politics. He served in the territorial legislature (1813-1816), as secretary (not delegate) to the Indiana constitutional convention (1816), as a US representative (1816-1822), and after being Indiana governor, as a US senator (1825-1837). (He was also the uncle to Thomas A. Hendricks who later served among other numerous offices as Indiana governor and Vice President to President Cleveland. Now I am curious about what happened to the Hendricks political dynasty, which seems to have died out with Thomas.)

William Hendricks ran unopposed for governor and, um, garnered 100% of the votes (a whopping 18,340). Lucky Hendricks dealt with the remaining debt and deficit caused by the Panic of 1819 by selling public land to raise money. (I felt a bit uneasy by this. Selling public land = land recently taken from the native Americans who were forcibly removed from Indiana.)

Hendricks was also responsible for roadways being built (hmmm…what type, I wonder? Corduroy or plank?). Under him, all residents were required to spend time building roads. (Oooh. Corvée labor. That must have been very popular. Forcing people to work on socialist projects surely wouldn’t fly today.)

Hendricks was also the governor who approved moving the capital to Indianapolis, a move that relegated Corydon to being a trade town on the Ohio River.

His wife pushed for free education, which led to the first state-funded system in the nation. (Sad that Indiana hasn’t led the nation in education in more recent times!) Each township was granted land to build a public school. The state seminary, which became Indiana University, was established in 1816.

The tour consisted of the downstairs only. The house itself is quite a large structure with two front doors, a “normal” front door with foyer and then a second door that opens directly to the governor’s office (which was originally the parlor). (The upstairs, I was told, consists of two bedrooms the same size as the two front rooms on the first floor.)

A kitchen exists directly behind the office/parlor. The kitchen was a later addition to the house, with a brick wall acting as a fire barrier between it and the house proper. (Kitchens were often separate from early houses due in part to being fire hazards.) The brick floors and limestone walls made the kitchen feel instantly cooler as I stepped inside. The large hearth sported a cooking crane, a large metal swinging arm that would allow cooks easy access to pots hanging over the fire.

A quasi-courtyard framed on one side by the kitchen and another side by a high retaining wall includes an herb garden. The garden and retaining wall was built in 1840s by Porter when he acquired the property. The garden is built so that water from rains would drain down to the center of the courtyard. Before this improvement, the house would flood, water pouring down the hill and into the house. Residents would clear the flood water by literally opening the back door and sweeping the water through the house out the front door (!).

The docent pointed out some structures on the hill above the retaining wall: a three-seater outhouse on one side and a chicken coop on the other. (I’m not sure I could picture using a three-seater outhouse sans any privacy barriers. Even trough squat toilets I used in rural China had small dividing walls as a nod to semi-privacy.) The nearby 1848 carriage house serves as the office of the Indiana State Museum.

Interesting given the state’s proximity to the south and influx of southern folks, Hendricks used servants in his headquarters, not slaves (which were technically illegal in the Indiana Territory and state, despite territorial governor Harrison’s attempt to allow slavery). Hendricks apparently was a strong anti-Jacksonian, a quality I smiled approvingly of, particularly in today’s climate.

Book review: Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond

Nobody forces the reader to look at the structural and systemic violence in our underlying political, economic, and social systems. The book is a grim reminder of how far we are from our purported values enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We allow the most vulnerable in our society to be used and abused, as though they are not human, as though they are valueless. We blame them for the violence done to them when really all of us are responsible.

Hill walks us through several prisms through which to view the violence done to the vulnerable. He uses examples of recent people—black men and women—killed, but the term vulnerable applies to everyone in our society who is potentially subject to state violence due to racism or transphobia, or based on gender, poverty, or class.

“Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin were not killed simply because they were Black, although it is entirely reasonable to presume that they would still be alive if they were White. They were killed because they belong to a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black.” (page 28)

Hill looks how the state and the police adopted the academic theory of “broken windows” and took it to a racist extreme. The idea of broken windows argues that even small things in a neighborhood like graffiti or a broken window must be fixed immediately, or they send a message of not caring. However, rather than caring for communities and neighborhoods, police focused on minor rule-breaking behavior that led to violence against the vulnerable and directed police resources away from more serious issues.

Along the way, Hill shows how disorder, which often causes this rule-breaking behavior, increased due to more mental illness and drug dependency on the streets.

Both, I argue, come from us taking our eyes off of the major issues. Mental illness and drug dependency are not crimes. They are health issues. Reagan cut funding for mental health services, pushing people suffering from severe mental health issues onto the streets. The War on Drugs made drug use a crime.

Rather than helping people with mental health issues or drug dependencies (or both), we push them out and then criminalize them. The homeless (often suffering from mental illness) and the drug-dependent end up in prison, which doesn’t solve the long-term problem and doesn’t heal those suffering.

Putting them in prison does sweep them out of sight and out of mind. We no longer have to feel for those suffering because we don’t see them. We no longer have to feel bad for not funding social services or health care for them because they are criminals. (Though you can argue that we are spending an awful lot of money on prisons, incarcerations, and all the professionals needed to arrest, try, and maintain people in the criminal justice system.)

Along the way, we have broken our social contract, our civil society, and our humaneness by treating the vulernable like rubbish. There but for the grace of God go I….

Hill also points out that the bail system was originally meant to make sure that people are around to stand trial. These days bail is not set for those who might skip town but rather used as a means to generate revenue, usually from the economically vulnerable who can least afford it.

Hill discusses plea bargains at length—its history (including its unconstitutionality) and how the prosecutor-defending attorney-judge triad works together. The focus of the criminal justice system is not to determine the truth. The focus is efficiency. How many people can we push through the court system and how quickly?

Court trials are time-extensive and expensive. It is quicker and less expensive to push a plea bargain, regardless of guilt.

This emphasis on plea bargains owes itself to two things: increased arrests and mandatory minimum sentencing. Over the past several decades, our love of being tough on crime has had unintended consequences. We are arresting more and more people, which means more and more people need to be processed through a criminal justice system that cannot accommodate these numbers. One way to get more people through the system faster? Plea bargains rather than a trial by a jury of your peers.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has reduced the role of the judge and increased the power of the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides the sentence (plea bargain) and pressures the defendant to accept the deal, or face the possibility of the mandatory minimum sentence.

In our short-sightedness, we are economically ruining ourselves—trials cost money, but locking up more people for longer times costs in terms of actual money and lost productivity/revenue. But we are also ruining the lives of the people we lock up—rightly or wrongly—and the lives of those in their families who are negatively impacted by them going to prison.

“…incarceration, like war, is traumatic, has its greatest impact on the lives of the young, and visits horror not only on the one serving time but also on family, friends, and other loved ones.” (page 124)

We have allowed profit to corrupt the system. Private prisons benefit from the huge numbers of people that we send their way. More arrests mean more people pushed through the judicial system. More people pushed through the judicial system means more plea bargains. More plea bargains mean more people sent to prison rather than put on trial to determine their innocent or guilt. More people sent to prison means more money for the people running the private prisons and the services attached to the prisons.

(Logically, for-profit prisons cost more, not less, than government-run prisons. The profit motive means you have to make money on top of the costs of caring for inmates—unless you skimp on the food, housing, and healthcare for those entrusted to your care.)

Hill also looks that the proliferation of gun laws, particularly those castle laws and the stand your ground laws that developed from them. Man has a right to defend his castle/home, but in other milieus, he must back down, if at all possible.

Recently, castle has been redefined to refer to one’s body. Your castle is wherever you are. You should not need to retreat. Ever. Manliness and race are weirdly intertwined with this notion of your body = your castle. Manliness is about standing your ground; (white) men to do not run away, thus, retreat is not possible.

Taken to their logical conclusion, these stand your ground laws, which extend the castle laws to see your body as your castle and thus your self to defend, suggest that women should have control over their bodies, for example, in terms of contraceptives or abortion. In actuality, these laws and the ideology underlying them apply only to men, white men.

“In essence, these new laws declare that a person’s body is as much a castle as a brick-and-mortar abode. Of course, few of the conservative politicians—libertarians aside—who have pushed the extension of the castle doctrine would see the clear resonance with the argument for women’s reproductive rights that would naturally flow from such an idea. After all, at its ideological core, this doctrine is about male identity, male property, and male bodies.” (pages 98-99)

Hill also looks at the rise in emergency managers, where governors appoint financial managers to take over local municipalities in place of elected officials, and the horrible impact on communities and the people in those communities.

The most notable example is Flint and its ongoing, three-year water crisis. In order to cut costs, the emergency manager in charge of Flint decided to no longer buy water from Detroit but to get water from Lake Huron. Before the infrastructure could be built to pipe the water from Lake Huron, Flint was pulled off of Detroit’s water and forced to use water from Flint River, a river full of chlorides. The corrosive water corroded the existing pipes, which leached lead in the water and deposited it into the bodies of the inhabitants.

All was done to save money but in the end, it will cost billions more to rip up and replace pipes and to pay for services for those who lives have been irreplaceably damaged. (Not to mention the suffering caused by damaging children whose health cannot be restored.)

The fad in the last couple decades has been to run everything like a business, whether it is a university, a grade school, or a city. But people forget the raison d’etre behind government and business. They are fundamentally different and serve different purposes.

Businesses exist to make money. Government exists to care for the people. For some reason, people want the government to get out of the caring for the people “business” and get into the making money off of the people business. (Quotes around one instance of the word business but not the other was intentional.) In the process, people suffer and lives are destroyed—whether it is shunting people off to prisons rather than giving them health care, or privatizing Medicare or Social Security.

Hill’s book covers a number of important areas and provides lots of food for thought. He seeks to spotlight “the social, cultural, and economic conditions that undermine the lives of the vulnerable.” In the end, “vulnerable” can refer to all of us, the people who the government should be caring for. Instead, we are more and more the people who business is profiting off of—at our expense.