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Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America – 1969 to 1980. August 30, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, US Politics.
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Fascinating podcast now available of Alistair Cooke of the BBC’s ‘Letter from America’. It’s remarkable to listen to Cooke explaining the US political system and the events of the time. One wonders if people are better informed today – I suspect they might be a little bit.

They’ve been pulled together from the tapes of two listeners, which is remarkable really. Pretty good quality too, not too much cleaning up in evidence in respect of the sound.

The one’s from 1980 are of particular interest with an insight into domestic and international events during that period, from the Presidential nomination process of the year – and how Ted Kennedy did in the primary – or rather did not, to the invasion of Afghanistan. Cooke was pretty cynical, in a gentle sort of a way. Well worth a listen.

Summer holidays August 3, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left, US Politics.
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Wrote about holidays a few weeks back, and in particular some grim statistics from the US. So this piece here in the IT which reiterates much of that is of some interest.

But I had to wonder about the following:

We are more Berlin than Boston in our approach to longer holidays. EU countries take an average of 34 paid days holidays a year, compared with 25 in the US. Americans have become even more holidayphobic. The always-working culture has never been stronger. This year a study found that four out of 10 Americans do not take an average of eight days of their already limited holiday time, effectively leaving a million years of untaken leave on the tables of US employers every year.

And supporting quotes push agency back onto workers in all this…

“We can train ourselves to getting used to any length of holidays,” Farren says. “Americans can convince themselves that two weeks per year is enough, and teachers convince themselves that three months is too little.”

The problem is that this is not a ‘culture’ – that of longer or shorter or no holidays – that falls from the sky, as it were, or is ingrained in workers, but is something that is structured openly or not by employers and which workers must adhere to. Indeed the statistics in the piece linked to originally from here above is open about that. 55 million Americans don’t get paid vacation. Not that they don’t want it or don’t take it but don’t get it. And in a ‘culture’ like that it is more than obvious how that plays out across those employments where there is paid vacation.

US Senator and self-avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders… April 28, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left, US Politics.
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…in interview with Slate.com which can be found here. He sounds like he’d fit comfortably into most left social democrat parties.

Anticipating 9/11 April 26, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Uncategorized, US Politics.
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Speaking of flying as we are… last month I saw the Lone Gunmen, a spin-off TV show from the X-Files which aired in early 2001 and lasted only 13 episodes (about the same length as the late lamented Firefly – also mentioned recently). I’d heard of it – and a curious plot point – but never seen it.

I enjoyed it for a variety of reasons – not least because it’s intrinsic paranoia about government and corporations appears 13 years later to be almost insufficiently strong – but that’s a matter of taste. It’s a bit clunky, and while the leads are enormously likeable whether multiple seasons could have been maintained is an open question. It’s not quite sure of the tone, whether serious and sombre like its progenitor or almost slapstick. And as is the way it sort of falls between those stools.

What, though, was genuinely strange was its inadvertent foreshadowing of events later that year in New York.


For those who want to skip to the end look at the episode guide on this page and the précis of ‘Pilot’
. Or here.

There’s a youtube link to it here, but who knows how long that will last?

For those into (un?)popular culture note the use of the fine Cuba (one half of who was ex-Chapterhouse member Ashley Bates) track “Cross the Line” at the beginning and one more reference which the eagle-eyed amongst you may spot.

Marriage equality and rapid societal change March 6, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Marriage equality, US Politics.
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Fascinating point made by John Dickerson on the Slate.com political gabfest this last week or so on the issue of same-sex marriage in the US. David Plotz had asked was there no leading Republican Presidential candidate in favour of same, and the answer was a vehement no, and Emily Bazelon’s response was to the point, ‘what are you talking about, were you expecting instant change from five minutes ago?’ and as Dickerson said, ‘the Democratic Presidential candidate wasn’t in favour of same-sex marriage until ten minutes ago!’ (they jest in terms of minutes, mostly).

But Dickerson continued that:

‘The CBS poll in the Fall of 2012 24% of Republican voters supported same-sex marriage, now in the Winter of (2013) 2014 40% do.

You never see that sort of movement particularly in the constituency that is so against it – to use a rough stereotype… that’s a lot of movement…that’s a lot there already’.

And Dickerson responded to Plotz’s question as to why no Republican Presidential candidate is in the field in favour of marriage equality by suggesting that that constituency is there to grab. Interesting that, but more so the sheer pace of change.

I wonder why that is? Is it that the issue is, for most – and I accept people take a sincere viewpoint to the contrary – actually once it’s worked through nowhere near as problematic as might be thought? After all, if one accepts the concept of civil unions then there’s little to stop movement to full marriage equality. Even so, there’s such rapid movement on this it suggests that at some level for all the talk of people feeling ‘threatened’ in actual fact the idea has been much better integrated into general attitudes than is sometimes thought.

Left behind, again? February 6, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, The Left, US Politics.
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There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian Review section at the weekend which some may have missed. It’s an interview with George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Berkeley and in it he lays waste to much of the left. It’s also a curious interview because, no doubt in part due to the nature of his research discipline Lakoff tends to divide matters up as follows:

There’s a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful.

And this latter he blames for a host of issues:

The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, fracking is fine.’ The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK’, when, in fact, they’re horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn’t know how to describe how horrible they are.

He continues:

Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: “That is an extremely good question.” But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves.

I don’t want to do Lakoff a disservice. I’ve never read any of his books and it is very possible that the interview is mangling his thesis in part or whole. But while I find that analysis outlined above very compelling, I’m less convinced by the rationale that Lakoff offers as to why this is.

The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

I wonder though is that getting the dynamic entirely right? In a way – to my mind – it is the specifics aren’t sufficiently addressed. There’s perhaps too much ‘wait until we achieve x or y and then problems a and b will be automatically solved’. Whereas there seems to me to be a strong counter-argument that in fact the left is very very bad at constructing a clear outline of how we should push left today to point w, then tomorrow we should push left to x and subsequently to y and so on to z – and why we should do that. Not so much stages as an imperative to move leftwards at all times. In other words linking clear issues in the present, immediate issues of a type we are all familiar with from policy, campaigns and so on, to that area in between and then on to more transformative processes further down the line.

And then there’s the point about self-interest. I’m not entirely convinced either that voters don’t vote to some degree for perceived self-interest. Not necessarily in the totality, but sufficiently so to cause significant problems for left projects. The lower taxation trope is propped up by theoretical justifications by the right, but it is also sustained by a large dose of (often understandable) self-interest on the part of those who support it, and look at the property tax and the manner in which it has functioned for proof of same – albeit championed by sections of the left.

None of which is to deny that conservatives do assume a moral position that can appear authentic (and is regarded as such by many conservatives).

It’s interesting too to read the following:

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.” Since then, the left has cleaved moderately well to established principles around the politics of the individual – women are equal, racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong. But everything else: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, the essential dignity of all humans, even if they’re foreign people or young people, education as a public good, the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument of our convenience, the existence of motives besides profit, the pointlessness and poison of privatisation, the profundity, worth and purpose of pooling resources … this stuff is an embarrassment to centre-left parties, even when they’re in government, let alone when they’re in opposition. When unions reference these ideas, they are dismissed as dinosaurs.

And then compare and contrast it with this:

Yet equivalent rightwing positions – that efficiency is all, that big government is inefficient and therefore inherently bad, that nothing must come between a business and its pursuit of profit, that poverty is a lifestyle choice of the weak, that social breakdown can be ascribed to single mothers and immigrants – have been subject to no abatement, no modification, no “modernising”.

But it is obvious – even accepting that these are broad brush strokes – what the distinction is. The right has hegemony in relation to economics, the left has some partial success – and in some instances blinding success – in relation to social issues. Whether the ‘left’ can take credit for the latter is an open question since these are issues which cross-class alliances can more easily engage with and coalesce around than economics.

Again, a caveat, we live in a world where the left shaped the discourse sufficiently to permit welfare states and safety nets to become an accepted, albeit unloved, part of the dispensation. Now granted this is of utility to capitalism, but it suggests at least some degree of agency on the part of the left. But… problematically consider how partial the welfare state is, how contingent, how it is in effect permitted by capitalism (though perpetually under threat of whittling away), and used, but how little effort was made to push further by the left at the height of social democracy (as was).

And what of class? Not mentioned at all by the interviewer or in this piece by Lakoff. That’s a telling omission.

Could it be more fundamental than Lakoff proposes, that the collapse of the Soviets (whatever position one adopts in relation to them and their role – for better and worse) and the seeming failure (at least in the terms it is painted by the right) of traditional social democracy, has led to a situation where the economic needle has been pushed rightwards by the right and in a situation where there has been if not an abandonment then an aversion to significant thinking, let alone innovation, in political economy on the part of most of the left? That would account for why the left is able to in part make some running on social issues but little or none on economic issues (and where it does engage with the latter it tends to be defensive and reactive). And if that’s the case then it’s not just about framing arguments but about something much much more fundamental.

But that more fundamental aspect may just be a bundle of dynamics… the inability of social democracy to support and sustain its own partial creation of welfare states and extension of the state sector, a similar inability to theorise that, an almost credulous openness to the ‘market’, a disunity on the left(s) and the sheer momentum behind capitalism, in all its various manifestations.

Of course, perhaps Lakoff is saying the left is inauthentic in its messages, which is a view, but then how to gain authenticity, indeed what is authenticity? And in that regard how is the right authentic? Is that simply a function of socio-economic structures determining outcomes in certain ways, so that the lived experience of most is such that alternative structures, or even mildly reformist ones, appear next to impossible?

Morality though. I think that takes one only part of the way on the journey.

There’s no question that much of what Lakoff says is correct, for example, the following:

If the two systems are poised in pure opposition, if they are each as moral, as metaphorical, as anciently rooted, as solidly grounded as the other, then why is one winning? “Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

But what that suggests is that conservatives adopt pragmatic approaches, whereby they grab what they can get and have strategies mapped out for what they can’t. Of course, it is actually easier for them in many respects. However ‘liberal’ a society the sheer momentum of conservative projects is something to behold. That appeal to ‘common-sense’, sometimes dressed up as ‘moderation’ or ‘pragmatism’ is much more easily made. I’ve noted previously that the left often underestimates, drastically so in some instances, the sheer lack of appetite for change and the tendency to cleave to the status quo, even as that status quo itself changes for the worse. Many will have seen that dynamic more broadly in the society or, as I’ve seen it at first-hand, in workplaces where appalling working conditions were tolerated because they appeared stable. It’s an appeal that we’ve seen have considerable traction in this state since the beginning of the crisis.

But it’s difficult to quite get to grasp in the interview with what Lakoff is suggesting and it could be that that is simply the function of the interview itself. That said one would hope that in any overview of body of thought some basic principles would be apparent, and I’m not certain that they are. Indeed some of it treads close to presentation. For example:

One of Lakoff’s engagements in London was at the TUC, where they proudly showed him a video they had made about welfare, and it fell into all these Wisconsin pitfalls – restating Cameron’s case in order to dispute it, but in reality falling into the trap of trying to dispel welfare “myths”, instead of talking about a social security system of which we should be proud. He took it apart at the seams.

Presentation is essential (though one could also argue that in fairness to the TUC, when the ground on which one is fighting has shifted towards the right so much firefighting along the lines of dispelling myths is also essential). But again it comes back to fundamentals. What is the left attempting to do? How is it doing that? How is it presenting that to those whose support it requires to achieve that end? How is it changing minds? Is it making any progress?

Safety nets… February 3, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left, US Politics.
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…or not… or actually yes… or…

“Why do you support the GOP?” Wallace wondered.
“Well, it goes to what my beliefs are,” [Denver Broncos executive vice president] Elway explained. “I believe that we’re giving the opportunity to succeed or not succeed.”
“I don’t believe in safety nets,” he continued. “Obviously, we’ve got to have some kind of safety nets [..]..’

“I feel badly about the kids. I guess.” January 9, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in US Politics.
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Tales of political dirty tricks abound. Anyone who has canvassed or leafletted will know anecdotes of posters being pulled down or covered up and worse. And of course that is but a pale shadow of what happens when there is a sniff of executive authority or state power (however attenuated) and how political opponents are – ahem – dealt with either by provision of services or otherwise to voters or in more active ways, gerrymandering and so on. So this really shouldn’t be a surprise, the tale of how Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey and great moderatish Republican Hope for 2016, is having to firefight some pretty dismal allegations as recorded in this morning’s Guardian about:

…revelations in newly disclosed emails that one of his top aides was involved in a decision to block lanes on the approach to the George Washington bridge, the world’s busiest. The act of petty retribution caused traffic misery in a town with a Democratic mayor, who had refused to endorse Christie’s bid for re-election.

And that expression of sympathy quoted in the headline of the post?

“I feel badly about the kids. I guess,” said the associate.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein said, in an apparent jibe against Democratic families in Fort Lee. Barbara Buono was Christie’s Democratic challenger in the November election, which was held less than two months after that text conversation.

There you go.

Thanksgiving December 1, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, US Politics.
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Obviously celebrated this week, , and holiday greetings to all those in the US reading this, but this from Slate.com is in its own way a brilliant reflection on it.

Seeing as we were talking about pay ratios… November 26, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, US Politics.
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…in the wake of the failed Swiss referendum to introduce a statutory cap on CEO pay, this from Bloomberg outlining US pay ratios is instructive in pointing to how bad things can get.

This too is important:

Most companies don’t disclose median worker pay, so Bloomberg calculated ratios based on the U.S. government’s industry-specific averages for pay and benefits of rank-and-file workers.

Let’s also note how there’s almost a taboo on discussing one’s level of pay with others in a workplace (I’ve heard of workplaces where it’s actually forbidden). A situation which is highly convenient for employers. To put it mildly.

And let’s consider how:

…almost three years since Congress directed the Securities and Exchange Commission to require public companies to disclose the ratio of their chief executive officers’ compensation to the median of the rest of their employees’. The agency has yet to produce a rule.

BTW, the above chart doesn’t give a full outline of executive remuneration IIRC. For example, consider this in relation to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook.

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