Category Archives: economics

Tax Day Special: Tea Partiers, et al, and the conceptual poverty of “lower taxes”

(Also see this video, which is more to the target demographic.)

* * *

Among Tea Party types, “lower taxes” is a hallmark demand. I would call this a unifying thread, but that would falsely suggest there is much more to many of the participants; often, “lower taxes” is about it. There is of course “reduced spending,” but this marks a difference which makes no difference. And there is a reason Tea Baggers choose Tax Day to protest spending (and immigration, and Muslims, and all the rest).

Bad history from the getup

“Tea Party,” then, is probably a misnomer. At bottom the Boston Tea Party had little to do with “high taxes.” First, it was as much a protest against tax relief against taxation of any kind. The colonists were aggrieved that King George had granted his tea-merchant cohorts a tax exemption—a tax cut, if you will, recalling our own would-be King George of late—among other favors having nothing to do with taxation at all. Second, the revolt couldn’t have been about “high taxes” because the colonists’ taxes weren’t high.

British citizens in the homeland were being taxed up to fifty times what the colonists were, to artificially fund the lifestyles of the latter. Of course, the colonists were upset about the ”without representation” part of being taxed. But the Tea Bag folks are represented—at least, in the sense that the colonists were on about.

The incoherence of “lower taxes”

It is fair to ask: But what’s in a name? We must look at the substance of the protest.

With other conservatives, Tea Baggers are notoriously poor at naming just what they would cut from the federal budget (i.e., just which “taxes” they would “lower.”) But their demand means absolutely nothing without this content. The failure to specify becomes worse when you consider that they intend “lower taxes” as a virtue, a general recommendation: It is not just low taxes for this or that budget, but for budgeting; thus, the details can’t be spelled out in advance. I argue that this abstractness makes the “lower taxes” mantra worse than incomplete; it is incoherent.

* * *

Bear with me. I could see if somebody wanted no taxes whatsoever. This isn’t my position, but it is clear and coherent.

Likewise, I could see if they wanted taxes to fund only certain things and not others. This would not be so far from the first position; instead of “no taxes for anything,” it would be “no taxes for this thing.” Again, this is clear and coherent. And formally speaking, this does describe the Tea Bag position; for instance, they want taxes for defense, but not for (certain) health care.

But then, why their focus on “lower,” plain and simple? I mean, lower for health care, OK; but then what for defense, and all the other things they want to tax for? Once they drop the health care budget, can we, say, jack up every other region of taxable spending by more than the “liberals” ever dreamed of paying for health care alone?—Or jointly depress them to less than health care was before the drop?

I just don’t know what to do with “lower taxes.” It gives us only slightly more direction on budgeting a nation as “no live tigers” gives us on decorating a home.

Economic versus moral arguments for “lower taxes”

There is more than one kind of argument against (high) taxation emerging from this camp. Some ground the position in rights and justice—people have a right not to be taxed, or a right to their taxable income. Here, however, I’m interested in a different argument: The idea that taxation should be kept low so that people can “keep more of their money in their pockets.”

This is the argument you hear first and oftenest from Tea Party types. And one expects that; these “bread and butter” concerns (or “materialist” ones, for the Marxists present) are, I think, a necessary condition for mobilizing large groups of people in protest. Sure, there will always be some who march and shout on bare principle; but I imagine if Obama pounded through a bill that raised everyone’s taxes by 5%, but raised their wages by 200%, the “Tea Parties” would dry up post-haste, “principles” clunking in tow.

Yes: In theory, taxes could contribute to, even create, financial insecurity for taxpayers. But just how does “needing more money” relate to “lower taxes”? I mean, if the issue is simply “having,” why make a fetish of “keeping my money” versus “making more in the first place”? For an increase in either will result in an increase in “having.” In theory, TP’ers could talk about taxes, or wages, or both—right?

What’s more, “earning” or “making” occupies a kind of intuitive, quasi-logical priority over ”keeping”: To use an analogy, if I am a farmer who is vastly underproducing her crops, I am probably not going to focus the bulk of my complaints on the carrots the rabbits steal after the harvest. My point is, unless the issue is pure, distinterested procedural justice, bitching about taxes only makes sense if you are getting “enough” in the very first place.

Why the real problem is (and must always be) wages

Some considerations

It is true that, by some measures, the tax burden for most non-wealthy sorts has increased over the last, say, thirty years. (I don’t intend to argue that here.) But other facts suggest that the economic problems affecting most rank-and-file Tea Baggers (and other lower and middle earners) are due primarily to wage and benefit deficits, rather than taxes taken out after the fact:

(1) During the same 30-year period, consumption levels have been maintained by this group only because of an explosion in consumer debt. In turn, this reflects a decrease in real wages across the same period.

(This, in relative and absolute senses, e.g., the share going to low and middle earners, as well as the per- dollar spending power of this share.)

(2) This decrease in real wages has outpaced any rise in taxes.

And most importantly,

(3) The gap between the value of what this group of wage earners produce at their jobs, and what they are paid for it, is far greater than the gap between what they make and what they would make if they kept what is presently taxed.

(Note: Any alternative to this (3)-scenario—that is, any reversal in the relative sizes of the two “gaps” in question—is utterly unthinkable. The net worth of the entire working class is less than the dollar-value of their collective alienated production; long before they could be taxed enough to rival the latter, they would run out of money, stop buying the products they make, and the economy collapse.)

A “tax relief dividend” versus a “productivity dividend”

To illustrate the enormous import of this last point, consider economist Juliet Schor’s observation that “since the 1970’s, labor productivity has roughly doubled.” This means that today, we can reproduce a 1970s standard of living (measured in ”marketed goods and services”) in half the time it took then.

Schor’s main emphasis is on the extra free time this could mean for workers. But the productivity dividend can be viewed in ‘material’ terms as well. It means, conversely, that across the period in question, we could have doubled the standard of living for each worker without increasing the work day. Needless to say, recalling point (1), nothing even close to this has happened. The dividend has been reinvested back into the productive apparatus itself (and luxury consumption for the capitalists) rather than the pockets of workers.

Clearly, there is simply no way any parallel “tax relief dividend” could compete with this “productivity dividend.” The added standard of living which could have accrued if workers kept everything they earned since the 70s comes nowhere close to what they could have earned in the first place.

All of which suggests that the employer class, rather than the state, is the proper primary target when it comes to materialist grievances.


A possible Tea Party response is to say that the state is a fairer target than the owning class. The state is “unjust” in (over)taxing, as it lacks any claim to the contested funds in the first place. Employers, on the other hand, have property rights to the productive yield; while it might be nice if they gave workers more, they are not under the same moral obligation as the state. As employees, we are only in a position to ask; as citizens, we can make demands.

This moves us from the economic-materialist realm of argument to a moral, rights-and-justice based one. Though we’ve focused on the former, most Tea Partiers will in reality appeal to both. But this dual approach suggests an incoherence of its own.

Appealing to rights at this point seems to invalidate the ‘material’ complaint we began with—and the same could be said of most formulations (or formulators) of “laissez-faire.” They are asking us to believe: “Yes, it is morally wrong to violate property rights in order to enhance human welfare; and it would remain so even if heaven fell blazing to earth as a result of maintaining this principle. (For how could a mere want override a right?) But hey, whew, wonder of wonders: Gratefully, it only so happens that respecting these rights is the best way to maximize human welfare anyway! (If it weren’t, though, we’d still have to bite the bullet and respect them.”)

(I for one find this counterintuitive in the highest. I mean, holy shit, what are the chances?)

Final thoughts

A scalpel not a cave-club

What a person “has” is determined by a complex of earnings, benefits, expenditures, taxes, waste, and so forth. Each of these could be sub-typed as you wish; there are different sorts of earnings, expenditures, etc. Opposing “high taxes” amounts to arbitrarily opposing a certain “type” of expenditure rather than the net, balanced outcome of credits-versus-debits. This approach is like that of someone who had gotten lost by making a wrong left turn, and so began opposing all left turns, rather than just working to combine left and right turns in such a pattern as to best get from A to B. It is not so much left turns, but the specific “mixture” of left and right turns which gets one lost (or indeed, which gets one to her destination when the journey is a success).


Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part II: Or, Why Obama won’t do shit for black people (and why there’s shit to be done)

In the previous post, I contested Tim Wise’s argument (or rather his declaration, as he doesn’t really “argue” for the claim) that Obama’s win is a “victory over white supremacy.” I maintained, however, it still holds a “significance” for that struggle. It represents progress and should be applauded as such. Still, this should not be confused with a reason to think Obama will contribute to further progress as President.

This merely expresses a logical distinction—an index of progress is not a prospect of further progress. This does not in itself mean Obama won’t be good for black people; it just means the question of whether he will be good for black people is separate from whatever “progress” his election “represents.”

Nonetheless, a hell of a lot of other things mean he (probably) won’t be good for black people.[1]

Obama on (but mostly off) race

There is no evidence that Obama is much concerned with racism, nor even that he believes it exists in any interesting form. Certainly, he does not acknowledge racism in a form that fighters of “white supremacy”—like Tim Wise himself—are concerned with. Judging from his book and his speeches, including his begrudging response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap, Obama’s view of racism has three interrelated parts:

(a) Racism amounts to “prejudice”—individual, mostly conscious, feelings of “ill will” toward blacks—and acts which flow from this. The concept of a system of oppression which acts upon people apart from their ideas is denied by omission.

(b) Racism is largely a thing of the past. (This follows from Obama’s “idealist” definition of “racism”; if racism means overtly racist ideas, there is indeed much less of this than in the past.) We’ve come, for Obama, “90 per cent of the way” on race; we have only “yet to perfect” ourselves on that issue. He castigates Wright for focusing too much on the “historically oppressed”—not the still-now-oppressed.

(c) Black people are largely to blame for anything affects them negatively in particular, as a group. (Again, this follows from the first two points.)

This trinity is as false as it is dangerous.

The persistence of racial inequality

First, racial inequity is not merely an ugly historical relic. This is evident as soon as we separate whites and blacks into groups and make comparisons. In terms of every conceivable factor by which we measure quality of life—nutrition, housing, health and health care, access to credit and freedom from debt, physical safety at work and in the streets—we (still) find deep, enduring discrepancies between blacks and whites. (These are analyzed nicely in Tim Wise’s own Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male.[2])

But in brief: If we imagine all American whites to constitute the population of their own country, that country would have the highest standard of living in the world; American blacks, considered separately, have a third world standard of living.

And as society reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the inequality maintains itself; the actors change, but the positions they occupy relative to one another don’t. [3] So either this is the grandest coincidence in history, or there are real, underlying causes that foster black inequality.

Reducing race to class

Obama does not—he cannot—deny the inequalities but prefers to reduce them to a matter of class, rather than race: In his book, he writes, “What would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth, and health care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.”

Obama sometimes illustrates this by citing Ronald Reagan’s “rising tide lifting all boats” metaphor. In other words, there are no specifically “black” problems—at least, no serious ones—thus no specifically “black” grievances for a government to address. What ails black America is just whatever ails white America. A color-neutral approach to economic health and growth is justified.

Not quite

But this “class” analysis doesn’t hold up. Indeed, black households have about one-tenth the net worth (i.e, wealth) of white households. But even when we control for income—comparing only blacks and whites with the same pay scale—this only narrows the wealth gap by a quarter. Blacks retain far less wealth than whites in the same “class.” This is not what we would expect if the issue were merely economic.[4]

And this is how it goes for all such “wellness indicators”: Among blacks and whites with identical health care coverage, blacks are still far less healthy; they are more prone to under- and misdiagnosis and live shorter lives, with or without treatment. Where education and training are parallel, blacks look longer for jobs, lose them more quickly, and are sooner passed over for promotion. (A white man with a high school degree has the same odds of being employed as a black man with a college degree.)

In general, black dollars are just worth less than white ones. Black households have to work twelve weeks longer per year than whites to get the same income, and have to take on more debt to maintain the same consumption levels.

In other words, while there are economic factors behind black struggles, these are thoroughly racialized. They are “picky” rather than colorblind.

This is why, contrary to the metaphor, no historical “tide” has ever fostered racial equality. The biggest “tides” for workers were probably the New Deal and the post-war boom which followed. These periods were defined by those same redistributive “labor laws and tax laws” Obama favors. But they also saw an increase in absolute black-versus-white inequality.[5] Broad economic trends are never indiscriminate: When good tides arrive, they favor whites; when bad ones come, they hit blacks hardest.

Matter over ideas

Contrary to Obama, this phenomenon is not fundamentally about what kinds of ideas white people carry around in their heads. (And think about it: If racism were rooted in “naughty thoughts” about black people, it would be no more sinister than a dislike for redheads or tennis players. The fact that we even have a word for “racism” and not for dislikes of redheads and tennis players indicates there must be more to the issue.)

Obama’s view of racism in ‘(a)’ can be described as “psychological” rather than “structural” or “systemic.” He fails to appreciate the ways in which, once inequalities are in place, impersonal economic forces can perpetuate them—apart from what anybody thinks about the victims.

Structural Racism: Two Examples

1. Disinvestment

For one example, blacks are disproportionately concentrated in poor urban centers. Since a poor market can only buy so much, these centers suffer disinvestment—larger companies won’t set up shop there and banks won’t risk business loans to locals. This keeps the poverty going. Schools are largely funded by property taxes, so lower education is worse, which diminishes black chances in the higher education lotto—further diminishing the pool of eligible borrowers. Among those who manage to get degrees, there is a “brain drain” whereby the educated migrate to sectors that can employ their skill set. More poverty means more crime (of a certain type) which leads to aggressive policing which leads to more convictions of breadwinners, which maintains the poverty. And so on…

2. Hand-me down wealth

A second example can be found in Tim Wise’s latest book. He chronicles the role of VA and FHA loans, tax incentives, and the GI Bill in creating the American middle class—and how the beneficiaries of these helps were almost exclusively white men. In the generations since, this wealth has been transferred from older whites to their offspring, snowballing with interest all the while. Wise writes:

“…[T]he baby boomer generation of whites is currently in the process of inheriting between $7-10 trillion in assets from their parents and grandparents, property handed down by those who were able to accumulate assets at a time when people of color couldn’t. To place the enormity of this intergenerational wealth transfer in perspective, consider that this is an amount greater than all the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRAs and 401(k) retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.”

In this way, the massive racial wealth gap of “yesteryear” is ever rolled over to the present. Aiding the process, black families retain less access to credit, mortgage and business loans than whites, and are charged higher rates of interest for them. This is partly due to a perception of the “typical” property owner as white—a perception this cycle of inequality has helped create in the first place.

“Colorblindness” won’t fix the problem

Neither of these dynamics depend on personal prejudice against about black people; nor would they change if racist ideas were eradicated tomorrow. Companies do not divest in black neighborhoods because they are racist—though they may be—but because these communities lack spending power; white people do not choose white heirs because they are racist—though they may be—but because their offspring are (typically) white.

All of this suggests that we need economic solutions that target blacks as blacks. Asking for “color-blindness” in this situation is a deadly mistake. In fact, it isn’t even “color-blind”: It amounts to throwing up our hands and leaving quite color-conscious social forces to operate as they will, unchecked.

Targeting the right audience: Appeasing whites and lecturing blacks

Again, unlike a Sharpton or Jackson, Obama has assured white people he won’t press for any specifically “black” demands. This is a critical part of his “electability.” Indeed, most of his few references to race are directed toward whites—either to massage their guilt over historic racism or quell their fears that an Obama presidency might actually do something about it. When he bashes the “divisive” and “destructive” “excesses” of the 1960’s and the “failures of liberal government”—again, praising Reagan for rolling them back—he signals to whites that no “special interest” appeals will compete for their slice of the pie.

But Obama also addresses blacks on race. His plea, in the Wright speech, that we should put the matter of race aside altogether for the sake of “unity” was not directed to those majority whites who would like nothing better than to do just that.

When he speaks to blacks openly and directly, it is politically obligatory, and serves mostly to castigate them for thinking race mattered that much in the first place. It is almost invariably to let white people off the hook for something. In this way, Obama scrambled to assure blacks the Katrina tragedy had nothing to do with race(!), and bade them “respect the verdict” exonerating the white cops who pumped fifty bullets into an unarmed Sean Bell and his companions.

Or worse, mimicking Bill Cosby, it is to blame blacks for their slothfulness, irresponsibility, and degenerate culture. Obama asserts that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare” as a leading cause of a lack of initiative, discipline, independence, and overall “order [and] structure” in the black community. (Thus he voted in the Illinois Senate to attach punitive work requirements to welfare receipts.)

In the fine American tradition of Sambo, Mammy, and Stepinfetchit, Obama has personified black culture in the racist caricature of poor, lazy “cousin Pookie,” whom he urges to “get off the couch,” “turn off the TV” and “start a business.”[6] He adds that “the single biggest thing we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” is to get unmarried black girls from reproducing.

Obama’s cultural commentary is as false as it is racist. The assumption that “black” problems like poverty and high teen pregnancy follow from “welfare dependency,” or a broader, chronically dependent mindset, puts the cart before the horse. There is precisely zero evidence to support this, and what research we do have—and it is voluminous—consistently cites the lack of meaningful, dignified, secure, long-term economic (and other) opportunities in urban centers as the primary cause of high black pregnancy rates and unemployment.

Obama is miles away from any plan, such as a mandatory living wage, that can begin to address this.

[See also the next post: Four additional considerations on Obama and Race.]


[1] As with many of my posts lately, the above is indebted to Paul Street’s book, “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics,” from which is drawn both inspiration and a few of the specific examples.

[2] Brown, et. al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society offers a more “scholarly” but less accessible account.

[3] That is, the “deep…discrepancies” are maintained between the groups.

[4] For more on the racial wealth gap, see Shapiro’s The Hidden Cost of Being African American.

[5] On the New Deal and post-war boom, see Ira Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action Was White.

[6] Toward full disclosure: Obama only tells Pookie to “get off the couch”; but in the same context he tells blacks of whom she is the collective caricature to “not only get a job, but start a business.”

Obama’s tax plan “socialist”? (Not even progressive)

[Revised 11.19.09]


Joe the Plumber injected the topic of progressive taxation into the election when he argued (paraphrased) that “You shouldn’t pay more in taxes just because you make more.” I know people who voted for McCain entirely on the supposition that Obama’s tax plan violates this principle. This belief has led everyone from Mike Huckabee to Sean Hannity to Michelle Malkin to Glenn Beck to McCain himself to call Obama a “socialist,” even. (Yeah, I wish.)

How progressive—socialist, even?—is Obama’s tax plan?

Some argue we already have progressive taxation—that it should be either continued, or reversed as an injustice. Indeed, if you look for progressive elements in our system, you’ll find some. (If you look for white hairs on a black cat, you’ll find some of those, too.) But there isn’t progressive taxation in any overall, net sense.

First, keep in mind you can’t just consider the tax rate. The tax rate is applied to pretax income; but the richest Americans qualify for a host of very substantial loopholes on top of this rate that have no correlate in lower income groups. Nobody making more than $250,000 a year pays the set rate, unless their kid brother is doing their accounting.

Second, while federal taxes are at the heart of the current debate, they aren’t nearly the whole story. Before the Bush tax cuts of 2003, taxes as a percentage of income were nearly identical for all income groups when you consider all government taxes, including state ones. (See graph [1] below.) Of course, the Bush cuts were regressive, favoring the wealthy; since things were basically proportional before, this skewed the whole tax profile in a regressive direction.

Nor is Obama proposing much “progress” to reverse this situation: The Bush tax cuts reduced the federal income tax rate for the richest 2.3% of Americans from 39.6 per cent—where it had been since the Clinton years, an unprecedented boom time for this group—to 35 per cent. This cut is set, per Bush, to expire in 2010. Obama’s plan is simply to let it expire accordingly. Or possibly to rescind it a few months early. His “socialism” amounts to not pushing to renew one of his predecessor’s programs. This is what the hype is about. This is the big red scare. Even Ronald Reagan wanted to socialize health care for life-threatening conditions, and conservatives love him. Obama can’t not propose a new tax cut on the millionaires without being vilified. This is how far to the right the spectrum of political thought has shifted.

[More on progressive taxation in the next post.]


[1] 21doublechart

Ferguson article on Obama’s unique brand of hazy bullshit

I didn’t invest much emotion in the election’s outcome, but I welcome Obama’s win nonetheless. Democratic administrations are just more interesting than Republican ones. And they have the potential to activate left movements. The “soft” left gets to see that Democrats are war criminals and gay bashers and environmental sellouts and corporate shills same as the Republicans—plus budget balancers, neoliberals and “law and order” guys all on their own. They remember that the long, slow erosion of economic security plods along no matter who is in office. Their checks level out or shrink as their hours and debt increase. Worst of all, they realize they didn’t organize against it because they didn’t expect it from a Democrat, or thought it was the price to pay for all the good stuff they thought he’d do. And sometimes—recalling the Nader phenomenon at the end of the Clinton years—this kicks things into gear.

I know that Obama will let you down because that’s what Democratic presidents do. I know he won’t do shit for the working class because there is no such thing as “presidents doing shit for the working class.”


Anyway, I came across an old article about Obama in the neoconservative magazine Weekly Standard. Its called, “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama” by Andrew Ferguson. I’d been reflecting on how Obama’s relatively progressive, “left-wing” moments (in speeches and his campaign book) are never articulated in the rich detail we suspect he must be capable of. Actually, we know he is capable of it, but never where it counts. He likes to suggest “bad things” with vaguely “economic” causes—but they always seem to happen to us, like the weather, rather than be done to us. (The implication being, of course, that Obama can help fix these.)

Ferguson concludes that his chronic vagueness is a cover for what Obama believes the real causes are, but can’t say out loud. Among others, the author suspects Obama blames the chief directors and beneficiaries of capitalism—such as “stockholders [and] managers of globalized companies”—for these ills. And of course, the right-wing Ferguson thinks Obama is wrong to cast blame there. Obama has to talk about the problems but can’t blame capitalists out loud because he would cease to be the “uniter” and positive force he has branded himself.

Ferguson is dead on with the diagnosis, but his conclusion is off. The drivers and beneficiaries of capitalism—indeed, capitalism itself—are indeed to blame for Americans’ “despair.” But Obama doesn’t believe this any more than Ferguson does. His business-friendly, moderate-to-conservative voting record proves this. What’s more, his donor roll of downsizers, sub-prime lenders, would-be social security privatizers, and the lawyers and lobbyists that represent them, shows that he wouldn’t be free to do anything about it if he did.

Yes, Obama isn’t telling the truth. Either he wants us to think that capitalists and capitalism are the problem, and that he is the one to buck them—the opposite of what he believes to be the case—or he is being cynically “suggestive” without anyone in particular in mind for us to blame.

[Below is a good excerpt from Ferguson’s article. The entire piece can be read here.]

Ferguson writes:

“…Obama truly is the unity candidate. There is no white America or black America, as he says; no blue states or red states, in his famous formulation, but only the United States of America. And what unites all these people—what unites us—is our shared status as victims.

Unfortunately, this raises the question of who the victimizer is. It’s an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama’s gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to “lobbyists” and “overpaid CEOs” but never names them. It’s a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low? Whoever they are, they vanish in the fog of sentences like this: “We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner.” So not even politicians in power are responsible; it’s decades of bitter partisanship that has forced them into demonization, and the demonization has in turn prevented them from getting things done.

This is a murky place. Cause and effect are blurred. Bad things happen though nobody does them. Instead we face disembodied entities, ghostly apparitions. “Make no mistake about what we’re up against,” he will announce, with what sounds, for a moment, like clarity; but then he goes on to say what we’re up against: “the belief that it’s okay for lobbyists to dominate our government”; “the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington”; “forces that feed the habits that prevent us from being who we are”; “the idea that it’s acceptable to do anything to win an election.”

Some agents of despair these turn out to be! A belief, a way of thinking, an idea, forces that feed habits, and decades of partisanship. He won’t even bring himself to blame Republicans.”

Another hit for the Ron Paul fans: A second incoherence of libertarianism

When libertarians[1] hype the “free market,” they aren’t saying we should maintain something we already have. They wish to free a market which is presently unfree. And what makes it unfree is, on the whole, government interference in and regulation of it.

Some arguments for this view are strictly moral: Persons have a “right” to dispose of their own property as they wish; it is wrong in principle to disrupt this. Such arguments aren’t much concerned with whether this principle creates a better world or solves any pressing human problems. And some libertarians stop with these arguments.

But other libertarians—those this essay will address—are more “consequentialist” in mood. They argue that keeping the state out of the economy will yield a host of broadly beneficial effects.

At the core of this theory is the old story of “supply and demand” : When producers and consumers interact in an economy, it creates a certain quantity of supply and demand for any given product. This dynamic is expressed in the product’s price. High prices encourage more production from producers (and new producers to set up shop), but discourage consumption. When prices get too high, consumers will abandon the product for cheaper alternatives, signaling producers to lower the price. Lower prices will cause less fit producers to go out of business, unable to turn a profit, but will encourage consumers to buy again. The cycle continues until supply matches demand—“equilibrium” is achieved.

The government can only get in the way of this process. It is not a proper economic actor—that is, it is moved by impulses other than the supply and demand signals that drive producers and consumers. It can favor or hinder economic competitors without itself having to compete. It can act without fear of “market discipline”—going out of business if it makes a wrong move. Taxes, tariffs, price fixes, production incentives, quotas, buyouts, embargos, etc., affect supply and demand “artificially,” and throw off the whole tendency to equilibrium.

But if the state stays out of the game, a number of good things—collectively known as “market efficiency”—will happen: Economic growth and productivity will be enhanced, as producers sell all they make, maintain profits and have enough to keep reinvesting. As money itself is a product (lenders, financiers, are the suppliers of it), profits (returns) on investment will increase just like profits on any other product; and the “price” of money—expressed in interest rates—will remain low as with any other product. Investment will increase as the low price and high return increases demand. Since overproduction of goods is a cause of economic crisis—leading to production cutbacks and unemployment, and when too much money is lent, inflation—freeing the market will lend greater stability to economies.

This is also a theory of economic development. The market selects for the most productive investments, and there is no reason why any nation with resources, workers and consumers could not be the site of these. Governments of developing nations scare away investment by sanctioning labor unions, fixing prices and wages, and demanding rent and other concessions from foreign producers. When left to “move itself,” capital will flow as it will, and is just as likely to flow to these nations as anywhere else.

Critique of “consequentialist” libertarianism:

(1) The proportionality interpretation

So what to make of this story? First, there is more than one way to interpret libertarian claims about the economy. One is to say that market efficiency will increase in direct proportion to reduction of state intervention in the economy. That is, all things being equal, the more the state withdraws, the more we can expect of those benefits.

For anyone looking to test this claim, conveniently enough, the world has undergone some very libertarian-style changes in the last 35 years—under the organizing principle broadly known as neoliberalism[2]. These changes are popularly called “globalization.” State regulation of the economy has been rolled back on an international scale; import and export tariffs and price and wage controls have been repealed; enormous parcels of public property have been privatized. In wealthier countries, this movement has been instigated by business and financial blocs in response to the falling profit margins of the 1970’s. In turn, it has been forced on poorer countries through “Structural Adjustment Programs” (SAP’s) as a condition for getting loans. Cross-border capital flows have increased as a result.

Using the proportionality interpretation, has the libertarian promise been borne out? Below is a graphic from the Center for Popular Economics, illustrating global economic performance across three historical periods: (1) post-World War II, (2) the crisis period of the 1970’s, and lastly, (3) the period beginning in the 1980’s when neoliberal policies really “took off” and trade and foreign investment expanded dramatically. If “proportional” libertarianism is correct, the graphic should show a correspondence between lower state regulation and better economic performance; that is, economic indicators should be best in the third period.

A clear, overall pattern can be discerned: For all indicators, economic performance was best by far in the phase stretching from the postwar period through the early 1970’s. This period is referred to by historians as “the Golden Age of Capitalism” and is marked by none other than record degrees of state management of local economies. Performance dropped off—that is, the bad indicators got higher and the good ones got lower—with the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the early 1980’s.

To be more specific (this part may bore a little): World economic growth (GDP) slowed significantly in the early neoliberal period and has never returned to Golden-Age levels. Real interest rates in the richest countries more than doubled in the early neoliberal period, and remain much higher than in the Golden Age. Accordingly, capital investment[3] dropped off sharply in the mid-70’s (from 7.0-2.2%) and remains less than half of Golden-Age levels. OECD nations[4] saw the productivity of labor (the “returns” on labor investment per worker) fall in the 70’s and then further in the early neoliberal period; productivity rates remain roughly 1/3 as high as in the Golden Age.

Not everything is shown by the graphic, but the CEP article elaborates (with sources, here). Where there are regional exceptions to bad performance in the neoliberal period, they occur in East Asia, where high state management of economies held out as other developing regions scaled it back. For example, before they sunk into crisis, East Asian economies saw GDP growth in the 1990’s that outpaced even the post-war period. This misleadingly brings up the average for all regions in the first neoliberal phase; if you remove Asia from the stats, they show even poorer growth for the West, etc. Asia was the only region not to experience a serious slowdown in growth during this period.

Finally, financial instability has not improved with neoliberal policies. Crisis is truly endemic to the system, and appears if anything to be correlated with short-term influxes of capital. Inequality among countries has increased in the neoliberal period by any viable measure—consumption levels, income, per capita GDP, etc.—and at rates higher than in previous periods.

* * *

Clearly, what facts we have provide zero evidence for the claim: The freer the market, the better the economic indicators. If anything, the precise opposite is the case.

(II) The “someday” interpretation

(i) A fuzzy claim

But this still isn’t enough to refute libertarianism. For “free” is a relative concept; and perhaps the market is just not free enough. This suggests a second interpretation of libertarian claims: Perhaps with even less intervention, less regulation, the promised benefits will finally come to light.

But this “someday” interpretation is problematic. It is not so much that it is false as it is that we don’t know the conditions under which it could be shown to be true or false. We don’t know what “less” means, exactly. This makes the claim untestable; it is compatible with virtually any degree of management of the economy. That is, there is no point at which the libertarian could not say, “It doesn’t look good now, but give it time.” It becomes the classic irrefutable hypothesis.

Put another way: Just how much management is “less” management? Just any amount less than we have today? (We’ll reach that point next week; in five minutes, perhaps.) In truth, there is no way to define a “point” called “less” such that when we arrive at it, we can say: “Ah, yes, so this is what those libertarians told us to wait for; now, let’s check those indicators….”

(ii) A fatally incomplete claim, if not fuzzy

Let us assume what is doubtful, that some clear sense can be given to “less” intervention. Still, how does this “someday” interpretation fit into the CEP data?

Imagine a new graph stretching from postwar to “someday.” It would show that a whole lot of regulation (re. the Golden Age) is good, just a little regulation (neoliberal period) is bad, but then almost no regulation (the “someday” period) is very best of all.

What a strangely convoluted story!: It is as if I can run pretty well in very heavy boots, and very fast barefoot—but then terribly slow in regular shoes. Granted, strangely convoluted stories occur all the time—but they aren’t explained by a single causal mechanism, like “less state regulation.” If my theory is that removing weight from my feet makes me run more “efficiently”—i.e., the mechanism of weight-removal will cause faster running—how does this explain that regular shoes cause me to run slower than heavy boots? Something else must be brought into, must be added to, the theory to explain this “glitch.” (Maybe I am allergic to something in the regular shoes.) By itself, the theory doesn’t explain the data and is in fact cast doubt upon by it.

(Actually, it is worse for the libertarian. All he has is the data that heavy boots cause speed, and regular shoes cause plodding slowness. He only predicts that running barefoot will be fastest, on the basis that “less weight causes speed.” Clearly, this theory alone would never sustain the data, much less warrant the prediction.)

So: The rollback of state management alone might explain an economic development, but not why this development should have proceeded in such a contradictory, herky-jerky fashion. The libertarian must give us more here. He must explain why reducing state management should yield such bad indicators just to a point and then jump to good ones after.[5]

(III) The “all or nothing” interpretation

(i) A state is a natural intervener

The inability of libertarianism to render itself as a meaningful, refutable claim (or claims) is what I have termed its “second incoherence.” (The first, or one version of it, is articulated here.)

But there is a third and final interpretation of libertarianism that may sidestep that problem: Perhaps the idea is that we must achieve, not less freedom of the market, but total freedom. The economic indicators will improve when the state withdraws completely from market management.

This sounds promising. Indeed, “none” of something is often easier to pinpoint than “more” or “less” of it: I may not know precisely when I’ve had “half a meal,” but I certainly know when I’ve had no meal. This interpretation would at least preserve the libertarian against the “irrefutable hypothesis” charge. He could not be accused of padding his theory with the means for saying “wait, wait—it will still pan out,” every time a critic notes that the promised benefits have not arrived.

Or so it might seem. In truth, we don’t know what “no” state intervention means, any more than “less” intervention. For one, it is unclear how there could be a state without state intervention in the economy. If there is to be a government at all—and libertarians want one, if a small one—it must contract for some amount of goods and services. The state cannot produce everything it needs by itself.[6]

But contracting for goods and services requires the state to favor some private producers over others; it gives some an edge they haven’t earned on account of their own marketplace “fitness.” This carries the same old threat of disequilibrium and market distortions that keep those economic indicators from smiling.

Of course, the state can do more or less of this; but the point is that it is a case of more or less—not “all or nothing.” We are thrust back upon the “someday” interpretation of the theory, with all of its inadequacies.

(ii) Even a stateless market is never “free”

The point can be made from another angle: In presenting the libertarian case, we have focused on the peculiarities of the state, its uniqueness among economic actors. Its position in society allows it to “sit above” those natural, self-corrective market forces; it alone can “override” these to coerce the other actors to behave in “counter-market” ways, or favor one actor above the others when the market wouldn’t.

But to say that the state has unique means of acting in the market is not to say that all of the effects of this activity are unique. Granted, some of them probably are: The state can infuse one competitor with tons of capital, or buy up all of its products, without there being a corresponding consumer demand; or it can “bail out” a failed competitor without any other competitor being made stronger. It is difficult to imagine any other agency capable of generating these outcomes. So, to the extent the state curbs these kinds of activity—it is gone for good.

But consider another “effect” of state management: Virtually every form of state intervention in the market—no matter what else it may produce—hinders trade. This in itself is a problem for a market system. (Being free to trade is important, in practical terms, only so long people actually do trade. Conversely, even if the government backed out of the market completely, but nobody traded anything, the system would collapse and those “indicators” along with it.) The market needs trade, and lots of it: Real acts of exchange are the place where supply and demand are calibrated to one another, and where imbalances are corrected and re-corrected. When libertarians speak of the “long term” in which equilibrium is achieved, they are measuring not in years but in transactions.

But even if the state has unique ways of hindering trade, it is not unique in hindering trade. Clearly, all kinds of things hinder trade; there are untold social factors in the absence of which “more trade” would be going on: Good weather can inhibit trade in the sense that natural disasters often increase it. If a corporation segmented itself into its various departments, rendering the marketing, R & D, etc., units as new corporations forced to compete against one other and the rest, trade would be increased; even more so if each new corporation further segmented into two new ones of the same type—and so on. The necessary “integrity” of economic actors—the fact that they are not infinitely sub-divisible—hinders trade. (If nothing else, time hinders trade; because some trades will happen in the future, they can’t be happening, nor can have happened, now.)

In short: For libertarianism, the state must be curbed because it acts as a barrier to trade. (It does other bad things, but if all it did were this, libertarians would still oppose it.) So long as any quantity of “state hindrance of trade” remains, the libertarian can use it to dismiss those poor economic indicators (the “someday” interpretation). But by this logic, any quantity of “hindrance of trade” from any source can be used to dismiss them. And we can never eliminate everything which hinders trade. (We can’t stop good weather; nor make companies infinitely divisible.) There will always be hindrances; there can always be more trade.

We are thrust again upon the “someday” interpretation, left awaiting the indefinable “less,” the libertarian insulated against all counter-evidence to his claim. And this, even if the state ceases to be altogether.


[1] Everything in this post applies equally to “libertarian,” “neoliberal,” and “neoclassical” econcomics—to any view that the state hinders economic efficiency. I address libertarians directly as I intend this post as part of an ongoing polemic against Ron Paul(ism). I started this when his Presidential campaign was in swing and drawing a lot of positive attention, even from the left (previous posts here and here). None of this assumes the terms in quotes are synonyms; I focus on the common content.

[2] Libertarians would resist the “neoliberal” label. It is mostly applied to those who favor using Non-Governmental Organizations like WTO, IMF, etc., and international trade agreements like NAFTA, to erode states’ economic role and increase cross-border capital flows. Libertarians would view these entities as controlled by states or otherwise illegitimate interferers in market mechanisms. But the point is that the economic role of the state has diminished, and capital flows have increased, in the “neoliberal” era. To this extent the libertarian agenda has been advanced. The “tools” responsible for this (WTO, etc.) are immaterial to the argument.

[3] That is, “real” or productive capital investment—the kind that generates goods and services rather than being put to speculative purposes.

[4]  A large group of countries, including the US, formally committed to “free market” principles.

[5] Or, in fairness, he could critique the data. He could say, contrary to the CEP (and other) data, that the indicators aren’t worse, or capital flows haven’t increased, in the “neoliberal period.” (Or that state management of economies hasn’t been rolled back, i.e., there hasn’t been any “neoliberal period” at all.)

[6] This goes for ordinary goods (buildings, transport, office and sanitary supplies) but doubly for munitions, where simple supply and demand cannot dictate production: For security concerns, the state will contract for some military technologies in advance and forbid even the existence of competing suppliers. Can we conceive of a marketplace where several corporations build their own aircraft carriers and nuclear warheads and then compete for the state’s contract—knowing if they don’t get it, the whole effort will have been wasted? Will the state tolerate this swamping of the landscape with military info-tech and material? Won’t it “regulate” the plan-B sale of these items by the losers on the global marketplace? (Especially if the state is a small one.)

Ron Paul: Not antiwar, not progressive (Not that it should matter if he were)

That Ron Paul’s campaign has emerged as a “progressive” option does not change the fact that the man, from a progressive view, has mostly reprehensible positions, and reprehensible (or incoherent, or tepid) reasons for holding his ostensibly un-reprehensible positions. Nor are these irrelevant.


Ron Paul’s Flaky Antiwar Credentials:

The Votes on Iraq and “Afghanistan”

Not that Ron Paul is “antiwar” in any sense of the phrase activists should find interesting. Certainly, such a stance is not deducible from his congressional record.

Paul’s “Statement Opposing the use of Military Force against Iraq” complains that the vote ceded warmaking powers to the President rather than, properly, to Congress. This reflects that goofy, crude Constitutional fetishism of Paul’s which quibbles over where the “proper authority” for engaging some action technically rests rather than whether whatever is being authorized is actually a good idea. An “antiwar” legislator would oppose ceding warmaking authority to Bush not because it violates some point-of-order clause, but because, damn it, the guy might use it to start a war.

Paul also objects that the Iraq campaign was begun with no clear definition of what it would mean to win it. This reasoning is sympathetic and one can only wish Paul could be counted on to apply it. His antiwar supporters don’t much talk about his 2001 vote to authorize “Military Force Against [the 9/11] Terrorists” in what would become the War in Afghanistan. Like the Iraq resolution, this vote both ceded authority to the President to use “all necessary force”—against whomever he determines, at any later date, committed the 9/11 attacks or gave any kind of aid to those who did—and does not specify what it would mean to win such a campaign. Indeed, how could it?—as it names no targets nor the means to be used to target them. It does not even assume the President had yet made up his mind about who the enemy would be.

Paul regrets, “I voted for the authorization and…the funding, and yet it was completely misused…I was deceived…I didn’t vote to occupy and nation-build.” Paul speaks as though the vagueness of the resolution—that it never says the words “occupation” or “nation-build[ing]” or “regime change” or “war” as opposed to the swift and modest and localized police action he supposedly preferred—is somehow a defense for his voting for it. But its vagueness and wide-open applicability is precisely the problem. It could have been used to start a war or an occupation just because it says nothing to rule out those types of “military force.” You can’t “misuse” something whose use is never specified.

Unlike Paul, Rep. Barbara Lee had the sense and valor to vote against this resolution. Her defense of this decision reads just like (the better sections of) Paul’s 2006 Iraq “Statement”: “…I could not ignore that [the authorization] provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war…It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

This is precisely the thing Paul says he opposes in foreign policy, and he voted for it anyhow. Thus, if we believe him that his reasons for voting “No” in 2003 reflect long-standing principles, we must conclude that these are so flexible as to divest the word “principle” of all its normal meaning. (It isn’t as though his record is loyal to the rest of his stated values: His anti-tax, small government, free competition plank is belied by his heavy support for the same pork-barrel spending and corporate subsidies every other politician goes in for—including a weird coziness with the shrimp industry.)

Worse, by the time of Paul’s 2001 vote there was already so much evidence that Bush wanted the vote to “invade” and “occupy” Afghanistan (for starters) that blindness to this could only be willful. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, Bush had fingered the Taliban regime as a terrorist “harborer” and recalled the American ambassadors and UN delegates from Afghanistan. Paul knew Iraq had been the administration’s leading official “terrorist state” and held a policy of “regime change” against it, as well as against all the other top official terror sponsors. In fact, Paul believed what the U.S. was already doing to this “terror state” via the no-fly zones was an “occupation.” How, then, might he have been unaware that an “occupation” and “regime change” was off the agenda for “terrorist” Afghanistan? Add to this that Paul had by now heard Bush promise “a long [military] campaign, a determined campaign in a lot of countries.” (He would soon define “a lot” as “more than sixty.”) Secretary of State Powell had reiterated that the war “isn’t going to be solved with a single counter-attack against one individual, it’s going to be a long term conflict.” Bush’s use of mushy “War on Terror” phrasing only underscored this open-ended aspect.

Other Considerations

Ron Paul’s foreign policy is always fundamentally informed by his America First-ism, with all the moral and logical implications this kind of thing ever carries. This is marked by his frequent use of the dismissive phrase “in a foreign land thousands of miles away” to describe whatever situation he is urging us to stay out of. In brief, it isn’t clear how selfishness at the national level should be any more defensible than selfishness as a quality of persons.

Paul has said he does not want to dismantle the global network of military bases, but simply stop making (as many) new ones. Historically speaking, if a dominant military force has a weapon—and bases, among other purposes, are just a complex species of military technology—it tends to use it. Just assuming there is a point to these bases at all, Paul is by no means “anti-interventionist.” And are those “permanent bases” in Iraq the exception, the only ones to be dismantled? Paul hasn’t said so. Will the insurgents stop attacking the bases if we tell them the war is over?; Or are we not to fight them back when attacked? But if we fight back, in what sense will the war have been ended?

None of this need matter, as even regular foreign “interventions” of any scale are perfectly justifiable on straight libertarian principles. Globalization has taken those domestic interests needing of protection from “force or fraud” by the “minimal state,” and flung them across national borders. Not only could most American wars be justified rhetorically as defense of these interests, each was, more or less explicitly, more or less about this in fact. Global capitalism did not emerge without the blunt hammer of military force, nor could it be maintained without it—any more than domestic capital would be safe for five minutes if the threat of protection—i.e., cops, mostly—were removed.

Paul’s resistance to foreign aid rubs against his anti-intervention prejudice. Recalling his fight with Giuliani in the Republican debates, he is quick to note the “blowback” effect whereby a meddling American foreign policy angers its victims to retaliate. But if “just leav[ing]” occupied lands in the Middle East is a necessary condition of remedying this effect, things have gone too far for it to be sufficient. The grievances feeding Islamist anger are widespread in the Muslim world and won’t be satisfied without massive reconstruction and reparations. (This is also required by international law, and human decency.) The dreaded “entanglements” are already in place. A Ron Paul presidency makes reparations unlikely, which makes Islamic terrorism against the U.S. more likely, along with continued “interventions” which in a Paul presidency would be justified for “national self-defense.”

Finally, there is Paul’s racist view, expressed in the debates, that “we don’t understand the irrationality of Middle East politics.” (He attributes this to Reagan, an intervention-aholic who invented the first War on Terror in Central America.) It isn’t clear how, on such a view, Paul could confidently subsitute diplomatic negotiation for force or aid to resolve conflicts in the region. By definition, irrational people can’t be reasoned with. (Further, one might ask, negotiate with what, if not force or aid?)

Capitalism Needs War, and Ron Paul Needs What Capitalism Needs

Finally, as president Ron Paul would do nothing to challenge the free-market policies that make wars inevitable—and even necessary: It is not just that a capitalist “ruling class,” in Marxist terms, desires conflicts to protect its interests; the capitalist system itself requires “interventions” for its smooth functioning.

The story, in simple and short, is two-part:

(a) There is an enormous—and under normal conditions, growing—amount of finance capital in search of investment outlets; capitalist profitability requires that all of this be invested, and the commodities this investment will produce be absorbed by a market at a price covering production costs plus a profit. This is a concern not only of local capitalists but of the nation-state whose health depends on the health of the same domestic economy. But the “home” markets of the big national producers provide neither a means for absorbing these commodities nor sufficient opportunities for investment of the free capital.

Acting as competitors on behalf of local capitals, nation-states seek these conditions abroad: New outlets for capital investment, creating new markets to absorb commodities. And to compensate for the residual that is not invested, or sold, they seek control over raw materials to make production cheaper—just as domestic capitals seek to lower the cost of labor inputs by cutting wages and benefits. However, the world is finite, and so are the opportunities for expansion, while the sums needing investment (ideally) keep growing. Conflicting global interests lead to actual conflict.

(b) Normal consumer goods are a two-fold problem for capitalists: They need, again, to be absorbed in a market, plus they “feed back” into the same productive process they came from as they mentally and physically sustain the workers who consume them to produce another day (and allows them to produce tomorrow’s new workers—their children); this maintains [the growth of] the whole productive “machine” and thus the whole pressure for reinvestment. So one way to offset the pressure for profitability is to find some product which does not need to be absorbed in markets, and which does not “feed back” into the productive process. Heavy arms production, funded through taxes and loans from the state, is one such product. Arms are simply destroyed in use or lay fallow. Of course, these must be employed in the field of battle often enough to justify the state’s expenditure. The arms economy of World War II saved the U.S. from the Great Depression where the New Deal (alone) could not. (War also simply destroys vast amounts of productive capital—factories, crops, etc.—for many local competitors at once, leading to the same effect.)


Latest sign of the apocalypse

Ron Paul on Issues Beside the War

But it isn’t enough that Paul’s “progressive” followers establish his antiwar credentials. It is not enough even that these credentials be measured favorably against his less progressive views (which includes pretty much the rest of his politics). What Paul would do on non-war related matters must be weighed against what he could actually get away with doing—in a net sense, in a lasting way—on the antiwar front.

A President Paul would liquidate or outsource as much of the good and useful parts of government he could get away with—federal protection for abortion, civil rights legislation, labor regulations, campaign finance reforms, environmental legislation, and Social Security. In turn, he’ll secure tons of tax relief for the wealthiest wealthy. He would work to see Roe v. Wade repealed and has introduced bills to end the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the federal minimum wage, the most prominent and longstanding antitrust laws, federal environmental regulations including all federal regulations on fuel production, and all restrictions on individual or business campaign contributions. In 2006 he voted not to renew the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregating schools and ending Jim Crow in the South, and he opposes the 1965 Voting Rights Act securing minority access to the polls. (In this vein, Paul even introduced a bill to deny student aid to any student who happens to be Iranian.) (See the voting record here.)

Most of what Presidents “do” has nothing to do with warmaking or peacemaking; and most of what Paul would do as to this majority is glaringly regressive. His record, combined with his meagre antiwar chops, suggest that the damage Paul would do by simply behaving during the presidential phase of his political career as he has behaved in its pre-presidential phase, is not at all clearly better than the best case scenario: A single president, initiating withdrawal from a single (phase of a single) conflict, somewhat earlier than it might have otherwise been initiated; leading to a massive, enduring backlash against “Ron Paulism” by the forces invested in “staying the course.”

Why Progressives Should Not Vote for Ron Paul, Whatever His Antiwar Credentials Look Like: A Sketch

More must be said about these “forces,” as it were, that “govern the governor.” A president, strictly speaking, no more just “makes” policy than those liberal reporters Bill O’Reilley harps upon “make” the news. Ron Paul would be subject to the same hard constraints Ralph Nader (or Karl Marx) would face as president. These constraints explain why those “neocons” Ron Paul says have hijacked our foreign policy haven’t been able to achieve, in eight years of supposed power, even close to their maximal program—attacking Iran and Saudi Arabia and imposing a royal Hashemite dynasty on Iraq. They also explain why historically, in terms of the issue of troop redeployment, a candidate’s word about what he will do is worth precisely nothing in assessing what he will actually do when elected.

These constraints are alternately describable as what Marxists call “material conditions,” or that social “ruling class” of capitalists in the role of responding to these conditions. One of many angles to this basic story is that: A “serious” president—that is, someone for whom the job is not performance art; someone who cares about not running the whole machine into the ground—is concerned about more than one issue, and looks beyond than one “moment” in his political life and the life of his Party. This requires compromise with other politicians and the monied forces that got him (and them) elected. Some of these forces will push for the foreign aid and military assistance which they have always pushed for. In face of these, a strict adherence to “principle” will marginalize Paul and ensure his replacement by someone they can work with. (These “principles” also ensure that Paul will never become President in the first place.)

But if Ron Paul offers no long-term solution to “War,” this still leaves the possibility of voting for Ron Paul as a short-term solution to this particular conflict. I suppose this is what Paul’s “progressive” supporters are up to. But even if he ended the Iraq war, this brings problems of its own, as does support for any “progressive” candidate that does nothing to challenge the (re. capitalist) power base of the major parties.

In short, the whole history of progressive movements shows that those which actually challenge the power base of these parties (and most don’t) have to work outside of them to avoid being co-opted by them (which would ultimately enhance these bases of power and make them harder to tackle the next try around). But successfully working outside of this system requires construction of an alternate social power base or risks being either destroyed by or absorbed back into the dominant one all the same. In this way, working for a progressive candidate (or a progressive movement—like the antiwar movement—which is attached to a candidate) minus the right conditions is always counterproductive in the longer term.

Understanding this dynamic is especially relevant on the eve of an election year and warrants a freestanding post, to arrive in the near.