Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

The Trouble with Capitalism

When I was a student, I was a communist sympathizer.

I say “sympathizer” because, while I was never a Communist Party member, I was sympathetic to the critique that capitalism was a system based on exploitation and that the ends of capital were pursued by national governments in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of colonialism and imperialism, to the detriment of people in the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere.

(Before you accuse me of being naive about the crimes of communist regimes from Stalin to Pol Pot, please read this post. Generally speaking, I believe that one party rule is a recipe for corruption, incompetence and, at worst, outright gangsterism. I am also opposed to “utopian” politics and, in fact, see utopian inclinations in every political ideology right, left and center.)

I was reminded of these sympathies this morning while reading the New York Times (noted running dog of imperialism and propaganda tool of the CIA).

Exploitation and Disenfranchisement

First I read that corporate profits, as a share of national income, are at their highest point since 1950, while personal income is at it’s lowest point since 1966.

As a way of explaining this state of affairs, the Times wrote:

With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers.

In other words, even though businesses are enjoying record profits, they are using unemployment as a hammer both to keep wages low and drive greater productivity from those “lucky” enough to have a job. If that isn’t a case of “exploitation,” I don’t know what is. (I believe that it also gives the lie to GOP contentions, dating back to the Reagan era, that policies which benefit business lead to lower unemployment and “benefit everybody.”) Read the rest of this entry »

The Bad News

The Finnish eco-fascist Pennti Linkola once said that, “The most central and irrational faith among people is the faith in technology and economical growth.”

Along the same lines, he also opined, “”Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent [a] dictator, that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. [The] best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and government would prevent any economical growth.”

While I’m on the fence about the rolling heads, I share Linkola’s skepticism around growth and have always wondered why anyone would advocate bringing the “American Dream,” for example, to the whole world when, just from a resource allocation perspective, we could not have even half of the Earth’s current population living the way Americans, who represent about 4% of the Earth’s population, do.

Turns out the skepticism is justified and there are mounting problems with the faith harbored by politicians and economists, a faith most visibly at work in the notion that our debt woes will be brought in hand as soon as our economy “starts growing again” or “returns to the growth we saw X years ago.”

The bad news is that the growth the West in particular has enjoyed for the last 200+ years may be an historical anomaly and a chapter in human history gradually, and even precipitously, drawing to a close. If I follow the arguments of the doomsayers, the idea is that said growth, especially in the US, arose out of the confluence of a large, undeveloped (albeit indigenously inhabited) continent ripe for the plucking by the technologically advanced hand of Europe, ongoing technical innovation, and cheap energy (in the form of oil).

The continent having been plucked, technical innovation now tending to increase productivity while decreasing employment, and cheap oil peaked or peaking, the drivers of growth are on the ropes.

And that means things are probably going to get grim (or grimmer, depending on where you are at now).

If you want to read the bad news for yourself, I encourage you to check out: “Forecast 2013: Contraction, Contagion and Contradiction,” by James Howard Kunstler,  “No More Industrial Revolutions, No More Growth?” by Charles Hugh Smith, and “Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” by Robert J. Gordon.

I guess the good news is that we may, as a species, be on the road back to the feudal days, rather than all the way back to the stone age.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s good news.

The Dialectic of Job Creation

Scott Brown was asked recently to comment on Elizabeth Warren and he, predictably, refused. He said that he wasn’t going to weigh in on the field of Democratic candidates for the senate seat he now holds but, as a way of obliquely criticizing Warren, he also said that he wasn’t going to “beat up on job creators” either.

Brown was, of course, referring to Warren’s recent comments, construed by the Right as “a class warfare rant,” on taxation and the rich, but he was also simply demonstrating party discipline. Just as every Republican mechanically refers to “Obama’s job-killing healthcare plan,” thus replacing rational dispute about the pro’s and con’s of this latest attempt to address real problems with partisan nay-saying boiled down to a knee-jerk epithet, they are now responding to any discussion of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans as an attack (“warfare”) on “job creators.”

While I find the equation of “the rich” and “job creators” problematic on many levels, the level I would like to focus on is that of the dialectic. Dialectical thinking, on which Elizabeth Warren relies in the comments under discussion, means putting things in context, focusing on complexity, and striving to understand how elements of any system influence and mutually define one another.

Consider the question, “Who creates jobs?” You could say, along with the Republicans (and devotees of Ayn Rand), that people who build companies create jobs. The logic behind this is not complicated: Companies can be seen as “a bunch of jobs,” so if you create a company, you have created jobs. QED.

But how do you “build a company”? Read the rest of this entry »

Can Academic Inquiry Justify Itself?

At the end of Stanley Fish’s review of Naomi Schaefer’s “The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” he agrees with her critique of tenure and the principle of academic freedom by disagreeing with her.

According to Fish, Schaefer claims that tenure and academic freedom are anachronistic in an academic environment in which research and teaching are beholden either to vocational or to political goals. Her conclusion is that we should do away with these anachronisms for said reason. His conclusion is that the academy needs to go “back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification,” thus simultaneously justifying tenure and the notion of academic freedom (understood as the freedom to pursue the truth on its own terms rather than in the service of a particular practical or political goal) and aiding the academic resistance to “monitoring by external constituencies.”

My question is: Does Fish’s argument make any sense?

On the one hand, the utopian vision of an academy that can ignore external constituencies, while appealing, seems absolutely ridiculous. Setting aside the problems that would thereby arise for academics interested in studying “external constituencies” (I’m thinking of economists, linguists, humanists, sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, zoologists, etc.), wouldn’t this in essence be an academy without students (since, before and after there time within its hallowed halls, they would be externally constituated) and, frankly, faculty?

On the other hand, while inquiry may be able to justify itself (though I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean), justification is always for an other. In the case of academia, researchers need to justify their inquiry to a host of others if they want to get an academic appointment, get published, or simply get funding. In fact, it is this latter reality which Schaefer explicitly references in the title of her book.

As long as someone is paying you to pursue research, your research will have at least some relationship (in this case, monetary) with an “external constituency” and cannot be “its own justification.” Right?