Sunday, October 28, 2007

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is the best big-picture book I've read in years. Dispassionately, it cuts through partisan noise and pinpoints the competitive pressures that have driven global business to serve us all supremely well in our capacities as consumers and investors -- while simultaneously eroding democracy and community. Reich locates a technological tipping point in the mid-to-late 70s that destroyed big businesses' insulation from global competition and made managers answerable to institutional investors ever-ready to move capital to any competitor who maximizes profitability.

These pressures produce great products, low prices, and high-return investment vehicles in which the majority of Americans have some share. The same forces also produce constant downsizing and outsourcing, relentless downward pressure on wages, culturally corrosive media and entertainment, and denuded downtowns. Even more dangerously, supercapitalism drives a lobbying arms race, in which each company and industry strives for competitive advantage on the legislative front (as in every other arena). Companies lobby not because they're conspiring to squeeze out the public interest, but to fend off rivals' attempts to gain advantageous legislation. The result is near-complete corruption of the legislative process as companies compete to buy legislation.

Reich's argument is compelling in large part because he convincingly debunks the vilification of individual actors -- Wal-Mart, lobbying corporations, corrupt politicians, right wing ideologues. The fault, such as it is, lies with all of us. Insofar as we seek the highest quality goods at the cheapest price and highest possible returns on our investment, we are all cracking the whip that keeps wages low, insecurity high, compensation for those who deliver the goods astronomical, and money flooding our political system.

Reich's account of a 'supercapitalism' that is eroding democracy constitutes a compelling challenge to the neo-Hegelian thesis of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, which suggests that after the collapse of communism, human society worldwide has nowhere to go (or grow) but into democratic capitalism. These days, as we obsess with the Islamic backlash against globalism, it's fashionable to laugh at what's perceived as Fukuyama's triumphalism in that 1992 look forward. But Fukuyama's detractors are laughing at a caricature of his work. Fukuyama never suggested that the path to worldwide democracy would be smooth or swift or that it could not be derailed by irrational forces. Like Reich's, Fukuyama's argument is essentially Darwinian: he sees sheer competitive pressure driving underdeveloped societies, first toward capitalism, and then, as economic growth creates a middle class, toward democracy As wealth accumulates in an authoritarian free market country, Fukuyama suggests, a critical mass of people acquire both the means and the motivation to ensure that they can't be robbed or stymied by an unaccountable government.

Fukuyama is one of a long line of thinkers who sees democracy as an outgrowth of free markets and wealth accumulation. What's troubling -- and truly new -- about Reich's thesis is that it may be the first clear look at the next phase -- when hypercompetition, i.e. supercapitalism, begins in turn to erode the democracy already achieved. Reich is at pains to demonstrate that ills appearing first in the U.S. -- widening income inequality, Walmartization of commerce, political sclerosis induced by massive lobbying, uncontrollably obscene and mindless mass culture and entertainment -- are also at work in Europe and Japan.

Reich is much better at diagnosing the problem than at proposing solutions. Indeed, the cumulative impression is that supercapitalism is a juggernaut that overwhelms everything in its path. Reich's proposed solutions boil down to two: genuine lobbying and campaign finance reform, and a new regulatory regime that reins in supercapitalism's steroidal competitive excesses.

But which of us will bell the cat? It's a chicken-and-egg question that Reich does not really address: how can a corrupted political process regain the autonomy and authority to rewrite the rules of the game? The implied answer, I think, is the exhaustion of the parties themselves. Businesses are not reveling in their lobbying prowess -- in fact, they are sick of legislative death matches and of being shaken down by politicians. The recent stirrings of large industry groups calling for serious dialog about health care reform may be a bellwether. Perhaps there will be a twenty-first century magna carta, in which the lords of industry hammer out a truce (or long series of truces) with legislators and agree to a kind of lobbying arms control.

Reich's other implicit remedy is knowledge. I for one found his book something of a revelation with regard to how we are all to greater or lesser degree cracking the supercapitalist whip. If there is new insight emerging into the way that the pressures of global capitalism are eroding democracy, community and security -- in short, commonwealth -- there may be a new will among competing interests to hammer out solutions. It is refreshing and useful in this regard that Reich does not vilify (or credit) Republicans and right wing theorists for unleashing forces we are only beginning to understand.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The New York Times reports that in a community meeting in Iowa, Rudolph Giuliani, asked whether waterboarding is torture, responded: “It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.”

Thank you, Rudy, for clarifying how President Bush can keep repeating "we do not torture" in the face of massive documentation that for the past six years the U.S. has explicitly authorized and systematically implemented "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- including the simulated drowning universally understood to be denoted by the term "waterboarding" and long prosecuted by the U.S. as a war crime. Now the logic is clear: if we do it, it's not torture.

Monday, October 22, 2007

postdemocratic society

What if the U.S. is the first postdemocratic society? That is, a society in which marketing techniques have grown so successful that they overwhelm democratic discourse as we know it, so that even the most thoughtful, able and public interest-minded elected officials cannot develop good policy and legislation and cannot speak anything approaching the truth as they see it if they have any hope of being elected. This past week Maureen Dowd and David Brooks, the acid and alkaline of the NYT op-ed page, each suggested as much -- Dowd in a dismissive rundown of the political pollster Mark Penn's microtargeting techniques as described in his new book Microtrends, and Brooks in a sympathetic recounting of Representative Deborah Pryce's alleged disgust after allowing the Republican attack machine to go to work on her behalf in the last election.

Holding office in a postdemocratic society would be something like competing in a sport in which steroid abuse is rife: if you don't cheat, you can't compete. We may need whole new types and theories of regulation, not to "level" the playing field -- between the two major parties it is quite level -- but to improve the quality of play.

I would begin by throwing out the perverse notion that advertising needs the full untrammeled protections of free speech. Lawyers in some states accept tight restrictions on their advertising. Why can't elected officials? Can no one challenge the notion that meaningful political debate can be carried out in paid 30-second spots?

Ditto for campaign finance. As the advantage shifts to the Democrats, we may see our last opportunity for a stand-down -- that is, for a negotiation
in which each side shows awareness that under current rules the advantage may someday swing to the other side. As long as Republicans were in power, it was clear that the only changes to the status quo they'd countenance were those that furthered their chance of a permanent majority. The 2006 election opened a window, not only because Democrats are less ruthless in partisan warfare, and because their margin is so thin, but because the memory of a turnaround is fresh.

As the Bush era comes to a close, I wonder whether American democracy will self-correct as it has done in the past, or whether the democratic process has become so skewed by money and marketing technology that true course corrections -- i.e., those with a measure of bipartisan input and buy-in -- are no longer possible.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In his "Think Again" blog, Stanley Fish relayed some of his responses to 10 questions posed by a BBC interviewer for a series titled "Why Democracy"? As usual, Professor Fish was interesting and inconsistent.

Beginning with his definition of democracy, Fish says:

I tend to resist romantic definitions that feature phrases like “noble ideal” and opt instead for something more analytic: democracy is a form of government that is not attached to any pre-given political or ideological ends, but allows ends to be chosen by the majority vote of free citizens.

Shortly afterward, riffing on democracy's potential for undermining itself, Fish notes:

It is always possible that those who gain control of the legislative process will pass laws that erode or even repeal the rights – of property, free expression and free movement – that distinguish democracies from theocracies and monarchies.

And with regard to terrorism:

The danger is not so much that terrorists will defeat democracies by force as it is that, in resisting terrorists, democracies will forgo the procedural safeguards (against warrantless detention, censorship and secret surveillance) that make a democracy what it is.

Laudable warnings -- but how do they square with Fish's limited definition of democracy? Technically, democracy is defined by the vote. But it cannot survive long without a legal and constitutional architecture that distributes rather than concentrates power. Otherwise, the vote will be undermined, as in Russia today.

Fish's limited definition of democracy precludes his engaging the deepest questions regarding democracy’s potential for continuing to improve the human condition. For example, he writes off the question, "can democracy solve climate change?" as a "category mistake":

Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.

If Fish thinks that "alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations" happen in a vacuum, he should take a look at environmental regulation in China today -- where the central government mandates, and the nation's factories ignore with the collusion of local governments. Or look at the sewage pits that the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were revealed to be after communism collapsed.

Far from being 'independent variables," politics and technology are interdependent. That's not to say that authoritarian and even totalitarian societies make zero technological progress. But over time, they've been outperformed by freer societies -- by democracies in the period that democracy has existed. Fish may dislike Frances Fukuyama's 'teleological' argument (In The End of History and the Last Man) that human society as a whole is moving inexorably toward democracy. But Fukuyama's argument is evolutionary -- that sheer competitive pressure in the economic sphere drives countries toward democracy, because only democracy creates the conditions of free inquiry and a rule of law protecting economic rewards for those who innovate in the practical sphere. Authoritarian societies can ride piggyback in today's global economy and make economic progress for a while. But over time, they will either regress or democratize.

The question of whether democracy can cope with climate change, far from being a category mistake, cuts to the heart of democracy's (and humanity's) ability to adapt and thrive. Because democracy is founded on persuasion and a contest of wills, there's something counterintuitive about its often-proven ability to effectively cope with problems that demand a mobilization of will and resources. When fascism was on the rise, and again in the cold war, many 'tough-minded' observers felt that democracy could not compete effectively with societies marching under a totalitarian banner. They were wrong.

My own feeling is that democracy alone can cope with the toughest challenges facing humanity -- but only if democracies do not destroy their own workings in the ways outlined by Professor Fish, e.g. -- by voting away the people's empowerment through the erosion of civil liberties -- and also by allowing the destruction of checks and balances on the distribution of power.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Torture: What Hillary was Asked

Re the blogosphere's perfectly appropriate interrogation of Hillary Clinton's seeming refusal in a Washington Post interview published today (10/10/07) to state categorically that upon taking office she would end end "special interrogation methods," i.e. torture, authorized by Bush: discussion of the full transcript of the conversation released by the Clinton campaign has neglected the fact that the Post article not only omitted a key part of Clinton's response, but also distorted the context.

The Post reported the conversation as follows:

Clinton was similarly vague about how she would handle special interrogation methods used by the CIA. She said that while she does not condone torture, so much has been kept secret that she would not know unless elected what other extreme measures interrogators are using, and therefore could not say whether she would change or continue existing policies.

"It is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing. We're getting all kinds of mixed messages," Clinton said. "I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new president. I think [until] you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know."
The Clinton campaign released this transcript:

Q: Can I ask you a follow up? You mentioned Blackwater, you’ve said that at the beginning of your administration you’d ask the Pentagon to report. When it comes to special interrogation methods, obviously you’ve said you’re against torture, but the types of methods that are now used that aren’t technically torture but are still permitted, would you do something in your first couple days to address that, suspend some of the special interrogation methods immediately or ask for some kind of review?

HRC: Well I think I’ve been very clear about that too, we should not conduct or condone torture and it is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn’t doing, we’re getting all kinds of mixed messages. I don’t think we’ll know the truth until we have a new President. I think once you can get in there and actually bore into what’s been going on, you’re not going to know. I was very touched by the story you guys had on the front page the other day about the WWII interrogators. I mean it's not the same situation but it was a very clear rejection of what we think we know about what is going on right now but I want to know everything, and so I think we have to draw a bright line and say ‘No torture – abide by the Geneva conventions, abide by the laws we have passed,' and then try to make sure we implement that.

Clinton was asked whether she would suspend special interrogation methods "that are now used" in her first couple of days. She said in effect, I don't know because I don't know what they're doing (or will have been doing when I take office). She then said we have to draw a bright line against torture. That is, we have to define what we won't do but we can't know right now whether there (will be) any then-current behavior to suspend immediately. The WaPo made it sound like she was saying, I don't know whether we'll repudiate what has been done (since late 2001) or what has been authorized. The Post elided a difference between "existing policies" (what's authorized, still on the books, so to speak) and practices taking place at the moment the next President takes office.

Mark Kleiman complains, "The CIA just announced that it would no longer do waterboarding. That clearly implies that the CIA was doing waterboarding." Ergo, Hillary is avoiding repudiation of waterboarding. But that complaint reproduces the Post's transformation of Hillary's reaction to a question about practices she would have to suspend to a statement about policies she would change. On the other hand, Kleiman is perfectly right to say that Clinton could end the ambiguity by stating unequivocally, no waterboarding, no long time standing, no cold room, no sensory deprivation, no rendition.

Andrew Sullivan, in his discussion of what the Post left out, doesn't even include the question that set the context for Clinton's remarks. Primal loathing distorts everything Andrew says about Clinton in any case. Still, he's acute to point out that Clinton's injunction to "abide by the laws we have passed" [may] include, of course, the Military Commissions Act."