Thursday, February 20, 2020

What Is "Democratic Socialism"?

Probably the best answer is whatever Bernie Sanders says it is as he is by far the most famous person ever to adopt this term as a label for his beliefs.  There is a group  in the US baring that name, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has been in existence since 1983.  But while its membership ha since then generally fluctuated between 4,000 and a bit over 6,000 through 2016, its membership had surged to over 45,000 by 2019, clearly responding to Bernie's identification with the term, even though as near as I can tell, he has not been a member of the DSA.

If one goes to the Wikipedia entry  on "democratic socialism," one finds claims that it originated with the utopian socialists and chartists in the early and mid-1800s.  Certainly many of these groups supported democracy and also some sort of socialism.  For that matter, Karl Marx also in many writings supported democracy and socialism, although in other places Marx sneered at what he called "bourgeois democracy," and we know many regimes claiming to be inspired by Marx have not been democratic, unless one wants to call Leninist "democratic centralism" to be democratic, something most of us would not go along with, and current DSA types would not go along with.

The Wikipedia entry also includes the British Labour Party from its origins and also various social democratic parties, although many "democratic socialists" like to argue that "democratic socialism" is not the same thing as "social democracy," even though many self-identified democratic socialists, including Bernie, point to social democratic nations like Denmark as role models when asked what they are talking about.  Of course self-identified "social democracy" has been around since the late 1800s in Germany with the still-existing German Social Democratic Party, although its ideology has changed over time.  It officially linked itself to Marx as recently 1959, even though the Wikipedia entry on democratic socialism includes the "revisionism" of Eduard Bernstein around 1900 in the German Social Democratic Party as another example of democratic socialism.

A more recent example according to Wikipedia is the UK Labour government under Clement Atlee in the late 1940s when nationalized several major corporations and established still-existing socialized medicine, even as Margaret Thatcher re-privatized most of those companies Atlee nationalized.   However, the Atlee Labour Party never used this term to describe itself, and neither did any of these other earlier groups or individuals mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, although it looks that Jeremy Corbyn  has adopted the term and connected his views with those of Atlee.

So when did the term actually first appear?  As near as I can tell it would seem to be shortly after 1970, and it would seem that is when Bernie Sanders took it on as his view.  Wikipedia identifies Michael Harrington as its main developer, especially in 1973 when he was the main organizer of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) as a section of the Socialist Party of America (its earlier leaders such as Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas also show up in Wikipedia entry, although they never used the term, as near as I can tell).  When the modern DSA formed 10 years later, it came out of a union between Harrington's DSOC with about 1000 people out of the New American Movement, with Harrington being the most prominent person involved with this.

However it looks like the term appeared slightly earlier, in 1971. This was with the formation of the Liberty Union Party of Vermont, which also still exists. It has described itself as being "democratic socialist" from the beginning, and Bernie joined it back then and ran as its candidate for several office, including governor in Vermont in the 1970s, even though he left the party in 1977.  But it would seem that he has identified himself with this term since then, which may make him even more of a founder of it than the late Michael Harrington, who died in 1989.

So, with all this history this still brings us back to "what is it" besides whatever Bernie Sanders says it is?  The DSA website offers a variety of possible meanings, although all of them involve political democracy, although some also call for "workplace democracy."

Clearly the murky part is the "socialist" part.  Again, some are fine identifying it with social democracy, which does not call for nationalizing means of production, the classic definition of "socialism" from Marx and Engels, nor any imposition of planning or commands, but rather a large welfare state, along with liberal views on social issues. But the core part of the DSA website calls for "social ownership" of the means of production.  But this apparently can mean either public ownership as in classical socialism or workers ownership and management as with cooperatives, or even possibly ownership by consumers.  There is also a call for "decentralized planning" with this to be done democratically, but ultimately probably operating within a largely market economy.

If the Green New Deal is an example, there is less emphasis on nationalizing means of production, but more use of command elements in the economy, along with a large expansion of the social safety net.  The use of command elements are linked to the environment and climate change, with invocations of how the US economy was run during WW II, which was indeed a temporary command capitalist economy.  Ironically, although it is not widely recognized, large parts of current US environmental policy actually do follow command policies, especially in the form of strict quantity controls on pollution emissions rather than taxes or cap and trade.

Anyway, while the term is now very popular, it is really quite recent in usage and also pretty broad in what it actually means, a concept still in development.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Who "Got" Iraqi Oil?

Not the US.

Dick Cheney collaborated with US major oil companies in a plot to at least take over operating the oil production in Iraq, OPEC's second largest producer and exporter, if not get to own the oil itself outright (which has not happened as oil in the ground was and remains owned by the Iraqi government, which is they way it is in pretty much all OPEC members).  Of all people, Juan Cole and many other progressives agreed that the war was all about controlling Iraq's oil.  So the US overthrew Saddam Hussein, but then what followed was civil war and discombobulation, and oil production was seriously disrupted for a long time, with those US oil companies not getting any business for a long time.

Of course, Donald Trump has repeatedly argued that the worst thing about the Iraq war was that "we did not get thee oil."  Of course, the only reason he has left any troops in northeastern Syria is that somwbody told him there is oil there and he should leave troops there to keep terrorists from getting at the oil.  So there we have US troops occupying some of these wells, although there is basically no way they will ever be operated by US companies, much less owned by them.  Trump is deluded if he thinks "we have got" that oil.

So what about now?  According to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, there are 23 foreign corporations operating in the Iraqi oil sector.  Four of these are Chinese, three are Russian, and one is American: Exxon Mobil.  Last year Exxon Mobil reduced its workforce in Iraq due to security issues.

But now Russian interests are increasing their presence.  Yesterday Simon Watkins reported that the Russian Oil Ministry has announced that several Russian oil companies are planning to spend US$20 billion in Iraq.  That this is happening reflects a shift in attitudes in Iraq as well.  Watkins reports that the Iraqi leadership is upset by two things coming out of the US.  One is Trump's sudden abandonment of the Kurds in northeastern Syria.  The other, of course is Trump's attack without justification that killed both Iran's General Soleimani as well as Iraqi General al-Muhandis. 

Trump may want Iraqi oil and think that this is the most important reason for US being involved there.  But his own actions have led to US companies being shut out in favor of Russian ones.

Barkley Rosser

The Debate within Unions over Health Care is about the Nature of Unionism Itself

Casual observers of the political scene got an insight into union politics when a small storm erupted over a flyer distributed by Nevada’s Culinary Union attacking Bernie Sanders and his Medicare for All proposal.

Politico has a piece surveying similar disputes in other states and nationwide.  Some unions, like the building trades and the Teamsters, want to keep the insurance plans they’ve negotiated for their members; most others want universal public insurance.

Aside from the specifics of each individual bargaining agreement and its health care provisions, this issue reveals the fundamental difference between two forms of unionism.

Business unionism is based on the idea that union members, drawing on their own resources, can create the best conditions for their work.  From this point of view, the greater the difference between how well off union members are compared to the nonunion workers around them, the more attractive the union will be, the more members it will have, and the more benefits they can win at the bargaining table.

Social unionism also wants to promote the interests of its members, but it believes that what can be achieved society-wide, through coalition-building and political action, is far greater than what any single union can achieve on its own.  Instead of increasing the gap between union and nonunion workers, social unionists want everyone to move up together as far as possible.

Labor officials attached to business unionism hate Medicare for All: it will put all workers on the same footing whether they belong to a union or not.  In their view, this takes away one of the reasons workers might join in the first place.  They think they their bargaining power will continue to assure them the health benefits they currently have without any tradeoffs on wages or other elements of their compensation.

The social union perspective is exactly the opposite.  It welcomes Medicare for All, believing the collective action of workers in all occupations, union and nonunion, can win better and more durable benefits than the efforts of a few.  From their point of view, making these alliances and promoting a politics of inclusion is exactly what unions should be about.

It’s a perfect litmus test.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bloomberg’s Plan for Reskilling America: The Quid without the Pro Quo

The Intercept usefully preports Michael Bloomberg’s proposals for higher education, focusing on plans to upgrade workforce skills along the lines desired by employers.  Here’s the selection they excerpted that covers this, worth reading carefully:


There’s a lot here that would be useful to businesses located in the US if they want to take advantage of it: money for vocational degrees geared to business needs, improved credentialing for these degrees, and support for internships and similar on-the-job training programs.  As the language of the press prelease makes clear, businesses would play a determining role in deciding what is worthy of being learned, how instruction and work experience would be carried out, what criteria would be used to ascertain skill acquisition, and how credentials would be standardized for use in an economy where workers primarily move horizontally across employers.  Some of this is based on a partial reading of the German apprenticeship system, where businesses work closely with education and training institutions to promote similar types of skills.

So far so good.  At the risk of being labeled a billionaire’s stooge, I think all of this is worth doing.  Societies need lots of abilities that aren’t found in books, and lots of people are more oriented to this type of learning than the standard-model higher ed classroom.  Let’s do it.

But delivering an improved American workforce to business without delivering business to the American people is pure exploitation.

Consider again how Germany does it.  Most of the workers who go through the apprenticeship system are unionized.  (How does Mike feel about that?)  Unions are nearly coequal partners in establishing, overseeing and updating the apprenticeship system, like it used to be with the skilled trades in the US when the construction sector was mostly union.  Large firms in Germany are required to allot half (minus one) of their supervisory board seats to worker representatives; smaller firms get most of their funding from public and cooperative banks which set limits on how exploitative they can be.  All firms have works councils with jurisdiction over issues like work organization and skill.  In other words, public policy in Germany does most of what Bloomberg is talking about, but it does the other half too, ensuring that the use of skills by business is at least somewhat responsive to workers’ interests.  In addition, enlarging worker and public influence within the firm makes it more likely workers will be viewed as assets and not just costs, so employers will be true partners in these public-private partnerships.

And in my view, Germany doesn’t go far enough.  There should be a requirement that all firms that draw on publicly subsidized skill development also emplace publicly-appointed educational professionals in supervisory positions, either on the board or in top management.  Businesses need to contribute to other social goals too.  This is not just a matter of being regulated so they won’t do egregious harm, necessary as this is, but also taking positive steps to solve pressing social problems.  There should be representation of environmental, regional, social equality and other interests on boards as well, something the nonprofit sector has experimented with for decades.  Like Germany we should promote public and cooperative finance and then adopt reforms to make these bodies more democratically accountable than they are over there.  Finally, steps should be taken to gradually socialize ownership of corporations above some threshold size; I have sketched an approach here.

Bloomberg wants Americans to serve business interests.  That would be fine if business interests also served Americans and were accountable to them.

UPDATE: David Leonhardt, who I've disputed in the past, has a column in today's NY Times endorsing Bloomberg's higher ed proposals.  What I wrote before still stands.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Standing on the shoulders of cranks

I use the term "crank" affectionately. The figure below is a valiant effort by Arthur O. Dahlberg to depict the "socio-economic process" as a network of troughs, pipes and valves. Even this elaborate contraption is confined to "the movement of the major social variables."

Dahlberg believed that his chart technique communicated his analysis more effectively than words could. What the chart communicates to me, besides Dahlberg's intense commitment is "it's complicated" and "everything is connected to everything else." That's not nothing.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Engel Criticizes Trump On Soleimani Assassination

Juan Cole reports that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Eliot Engel (D-NY) has criticized the administration for its assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in response to a report fresh our of the DOD that said the attack was for past activities by Iran in attacking tankers and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia without any mention of a threat against US personnel in Iraq, the ostensible reason and the only legal reason for doing this.

Cole also reminds that Soleimani had been in Baghdad to negotiate peace with Saudi Arabia at the  invitation of the Iraqi prime minister.  e also reminds us that the Iraqis are denying that the original attack that killed the American contractor and initiated the escalation by the US before the Soleimani attack almost certainly did not come from Kata'ib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia the US claimed was respoinsible because that Shia militia has not been anywhere near the base in Kirkuk that was attacked for 18 months, with the attack almost surely having come from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.  This puts the US attack that also killed the I Iraqi general who commanded Kata'ib Hezbollah to be utterly illegal and essentially just murder and a war crime.

As it is, the Iraqi government is negotiating to get US troops out.  What may happen is that US troops will leave all areas dominated by Shia, with the US insisting on keeping some troops at the air  base in Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province that Iran attacked in retaliation for the Soleimani attack and that led to over 100 Americans suffering brain injuries.

This just gets worse and worse as time goes on and more information comes out, although Trump supporters will almost hear none of this and continue to be told how this was some great foreign policy triumph by Trump.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

What to Do about Amazon

I think Farhad Manjoo gets it right about Amazon: while the company's sheer size, not to mention its often shady business practices, call out for public intervention, "Amazon is pushing a level of speed, convenience, and selection in shopping that millions of customers are integrating into their daily lives."

Breaking it up would be wrong, since the essence of what Amazon offers is its potential universality.  For me, shopping on Amazon is almost like what I imagine shopping to be like in a socialist society, minus the lack of accountability and the astronomic riches of Jeff Bezos.  Let's fix it.  Make Amazon a public utility with proper protections for workers, consumers, and enterprises that use it as a marketing platform.  Why not?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Do Dirty Tricks Make 2020 Like 1972?

The dirty tricks in 1972 were sustained attacks based on faleshoods by the Nixon CREEP against the most popular possible Dem opponent, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, who was finally brought to tears in public, which fatally damaged his campaign, opening the way for George McGovern to get the nomination and take only DC and Massachusetts in the general election.  Today Trump and his many allies, both in Congress and on Fox News, have peddled a false story that Joe Biden fired a Ukrainian prosecutor because that prosecutor was investigating Biden's son, Hunter.  They said repeatedly during the impeachment trial, and just last night I heard Sean Hannity at it again vociferously, with those on the show all nodding their heads.  Today is the New Hampshire primary and results not out yet. But Biden is expecting to do poorly, while Bernie Sanders is likely to win (although might not), with Warren also probably on the fade, leaving Bernie on top on the progressive left end of the Dems.  I read some interviews with voters in Iowa who did not vote for Biden because they fear the "baggage" of his son and that the attacks by Trump et al will weaken him like Hillary's emails hurt her in the 2016.  But to me, this looks more like 1972 all over again.

Now I like Bernie and have lots of respect for him.  I also liked McGovern, and somewhere in July, 1972 I was out in South Dakota and actually thought he might win, although in the end he was unable to take even his home state.  I even was an economic adviser of his during his brief run in 1984, when he dropped out after surprising everybody by coming in third in the Iowa caucus (Eleanor had not wanted him to run a all).  I provided him with a budget proposal he touted there and got csalled "the conscience of the Democratic Party," but nobody was under any delusions that he had any chance of winning anything, having been ousted from his Senate seat in 1980 in the Reagan sweep (which also took out the Father of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin).

Now maybe Bernie would do better than many think, and polls have him not doing all that much worse than some of the other Dem candidates.  But in contrast to Warren, he has a lot of Dems against him (although Gabbard and Bloomberg have more), with on that measure Warren the least disliked among Dems of all their candidates. As it is, both Dems and the Trump people have held off going too hard against Bernie, the Dems out of not wanting to anger his loyal followers, and until very recently the Trump people out of wanting to puff him up against Biden the way they puffed him up against Cliinton (and still do. last night Hannity was all over how the Dems screwed him out of the nomination in 2016).  But there is a lot that will be dragged out and thrown at him if he gets the nomination that has received little publicity, such as his supporting the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party canddiates for president in 1980 and 1984 (in 1980 that candidate called for US enlisted men to kill their officers).  Unfortunately there is more where that came from, although at least young people do not know who Trotsky was, or if they do it is because he was Frida Kahlo's lover briefly in Mexxico, how cool.

Anyway, I doubt Bernie would get slaughtered as badly as McGovern was in 1972, but it couls be bad enough to throw the House back to being under GOP control as well as keeping Trump in the WH and the GOP in control of the Senate.  But then, maybe not.  Maybe Bernie will go all the way, or one of the others will surge out and win, although between Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg, they seem to be banging into each other while Bernie has a clear path.  In any case, like Muskie in 1972, I think that it will not be Biden, although he is not totally out.  A lot of it has been his own weak campaigning and poor fundraising and disorganization, but the dirty tricks by the Trumpsters have certainly played their role as well and continue to do so.

Barkley Rosser


Friday, February 7, 2020

Is Iraq About To Switch From US to Russia?

Today Juan Cole reports from a newspaper in Iraq that since Mohammed al-Allawi has become the new prime minister in Iraq, there has been a meeting in Baghdad between the Russian ambassador and the Iraqi milirary Chief of Staff, and the Iraqi president, Saleh, will be visiting Moscow shortly. A variety of issues and possible areas of cooperation apparently are being discussed, but the biggie apparently is that there is serious discussion of Russia replacing the US in providing air support for the Iraqi military for its ongoing campaign against the remnants of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. 

It looks like the new PM is very much a part of the move in the Iraqi parliament to get US troops out of Iraq, something that those in Washington have been pretending is not for real.  Juan Cole reports that key in this discussion is that when Trump killed Iranian general Soleimani at the Baghdad airport, he also killed Iraqi general al-Mohandis, a point I have posted on here before, and one that almost nobody talks about in the US (In the Dem ddebate just over ABC's David Muir tried to get the Dem candidates to say they would have killed Soleimani).  But what has got lots of Iraqis upset about this is that it was a blatant violation of iraqi soverignty.  Cole reports on Putin sending out a message promising to respect Iraqi sovereignty.

This may not come to pass, but for sure the only thing that Trump had to say about all this was to brag about killing Soleimani, no menton of the 67 American soldiers suffering brain injury due to the Iranian missilee attack in respoinse to this, and also the 170 people who died in an airplane accidentally shot down by the Iranians due to their being on high alert as a result of Trump's attack, much less a word about leaders and people in Iraq being upset over his also killing one of their generals in violation of their sovereignty.

Barkley Rosser 

Monday, February 3, 2020

Will The "Impeachment Charade Fade Quickly"?

We have not yet had all the final speechifying where GOP senators attempt to justify their votes to make this the first US federal impeachment trial in history (there have been 15, mostly of judges) not to have any witnesses, as well as the foregone acquittal.  But the battle over how it will be viewed in both the short and medium and long runs is already going on.  A sign of this is a column in yesterday's Washington Post by Hugh Hewitt entitled, "This impeachment charade will fade quickly," with Hewitt viewing the "charade" part not to mean the refusal of the Senate to have witnesses, but the entire trial itself, which he Trumpisly declares to have consisted of "fake history,"  because Trump will be viewed in 50 years as an "outsize personality" with "a growing list of achievements."  Claims like this will clearly underpin Trump's reelection campaign, even as several GOP senators up for reelection will probably find that their votes for the charade of not having witnesses will not "fade quickly" and may well do them in, even if Trump manages to squeak through to reelection.

Here is the list of things Hewitt things are achievements, almost none of which I think are, and most, if  not all, will be viewed as mistakes or Bad Things 50 years from now to the extent they are remembered at all, my comments in brackets.

"...rebuilding a U.S. military of $716 billion (and a new service branch, the Space Force) [not likely to be remembered, and if the Space Force really gets off the ground, which it probably will, nobody will remember it was Trump that started it], the appointment s of (so far) two Supreme Court justices, 50 appeals court judges and 133 district judges [quite aside from the awful blocking by McConnell of Merrick Garland's sppointment, the apparently low level of competence of these highly ideolgical appointments, many young, will still be a millstone on our society 50 years from now, but not one people will priaise]. a massive tax cut [this is not even popular now and will not be any more so in the future, tilting to the rich while blowing up the budget deficit], 3.5 percent unemployment [this is the first item not actually bad, but not much due to him], the country's exit from the Iran deal [worst foreign policy move by a president since W. Bush invaded Iraq] and the Paris climate accord [condemned already by nearly everybody on the planet outside Trump circles in the US with that not likely to be viewed more favorably as time proceeds]. clarity on China as the nation's chief strategic competitor [I think Obama already had made that clear, but if this is supposed to be praise of Trump's trade war with China, I do not think that will be viewed favorably 50 years from now, a farce], a renewed Israeli alliance anchored in the relocation of the U.S embasssy to Jerusalem [in 50 years probably to be viewed favorably by few outside of Israel itself and some evangelical Christians in the US, who are a declining portion of the population], the caliphate of the Islamic State destroyed [gets some credit for this, although basicallly followed policy set by Obama and OKing Turkish invasion of NW Syria to kick out local Kurds damages this], and "most wanted" terrorists Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qasem Soleimani eliminated [OK on the first, although he nearly caussed that not to happen thanks to Turkish invasion of Kurdish territories, and second has been a botch, with lots of people dying as a result of it and none so far saved that I am aware of], partial construction of the border wall [the less said the better, and others have built portions of the wall without anybody claiming this was som great accomplishment of theirs]. and significant immigration reform through executive orders [I suspect he will be remembered for tearing children out of their mothers' arms and outright blocking asylum refugees and others from many nations, all of which will be roundly condemned in the future], a regulatory rollback [with so much of that involving reducing environmental regs I do not think this will be viewed favorably in the future], the passage of the USMCA [a nothing burger barely different from NAFTA, although at least not outright bad like most of this], Obamacare's individual mandate repealed {I do not know what will be the US health care system 50 years from now, but I am quite sure this act will not be remembered at all, much less as having helped improve it], and "right to try" and justice reform legislation passed [I am fine with this, but note Trump initially resisted it and only signed it after it passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support]."

What is disturbing is that incessant repetition in the media of much of this may well please enough people all worked up about how Trump was mistreated by Dems in Congress that he might get reelected.  But with the exception of a very few items, most of this will be viewed as very misguieded and unfortunate 50 years from now, to the extent it is remembered at all.

Barkley Rosser