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On left and libertarian marriage: If we don’t like the state, why seek its approval?

I am friendly with some anarchist and libertarian types who share my liberalism on social issues (if not for the same reasons) and a preparedness to “deep critique” the state (if not in the same way). The repeal of California’s Prop 8 gay marriage ban has sparked some discussion among us as to the nature of marriage (that is, civil marriage) itself.

Since marriage amounts to the state’s sanctioning of behavior, Michael asks: “Why should we care about the government’s approval or disapproval?” In context, this can be expanded: “Why seek the government’s approval through (a) getting married or (b) securing marriage rights for gays, given that the state is a fucked up or at least not especially favorable institution?”

This is a fair question. We would likewise question a friend’s desire for his neighbor’s approval, if that neighbor were a jerk or a total stranger. Knowing nothing else, we would expect our friend to be hostile or indifferent to this sanction. His contrary behavior warrants an explanation.

(Michael: Tell me if this articulation is off base.)

This being said, I must answer a question different from Michael’s. This is because I contest the premise that (a) or (b) has to be about seeking “the government’s approval” per se. (It could be; but it need not be.) There are other reasons in favor of marriage, and the right of marriage.

A qualification: There are obvious ways in which the preceding statement could be true, ways that need no argument. For instance, we all know of immigrants who seek marriage in order to remain legally in the country. Obviously they don’t care if the state approves of or ”likes” their union’, they just want to stay here.

The same could be said of people who marry simply to please their parents. Some serial killers get married just to appear “regular” and inconspicuous. However, when I refer to ‘motivations for marriage other than state approval,’ I mean “normal” reasons consonant with the values people bring to stereotypical love-marriage. I mean that this need not be about seeking government approval per se.

(1) Why seek government approval for oneself?

I will first discuss the the motivation to become married oneself, to get married, apart from whether anyone else can.

To use myself as an example: I sought marriage partly because it provided a ready constraint on certain of my own relationship-related behaviors. For me, it functions as a kind of self-enforcement. Marriage can add an immediacy, a sense of “high stakes” to relationship problems which can enhance the drive to work things out, creatively seek solutions, etc. Plus, one’s willingness to place oneself under such a constraint “proves” to one’s partner that one is serious, beyond verbal assurances or “smaller,” less costly tokens. It “puts your money where your mouth is.” (For similar reasons, I believe activist groups are wise to collect membership dues, even if they just throw the money in the wastebasket; paying in, in and of itself, shows and enhances commitment.)

Needless to say, this does not imply a moral mandate to get married. There are valid relationship constraints other than marriage; purely religious marriage and similar non-civil sanctions could serve the same function. Maybe for some, force of will functions well enough without external constraints of any sort. I chose civil marriage because it is “available” and has broad social currency. The point here is that my participation does not depend on or reflect any special romance with the state’s favor–even if the idea of marriage is inseparable from the idea of “state favor.” One can get married despite this feature.

Here is an analogy: Let’s say I really need to get into this drug rehab program. This program will only admit an addict if the Board of Directors determine they possess a certain level of “sobriety promise,” or a “good heart” or “hardy fibre,” or any feature you like. Still, it would be misleading to say that my interest in entering the clinic is fundamentally about wanting or needing the board’s approval. It is about getting sober, gaining access to all those features of the program apart from the board sanction that will aid in this goal. The fact that l cannot get at these features without also getting the approval is beside the point. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with the determination or think the B of D are complete douchebags who have terrible reasons for admitting me. For it is the place they occupy in the world, the role they play, not any “approving feelings” they have toward me, that matters to and drives my decision.

(2) Why seek government approval for others? (i.e., Hating the state and Prop 8 )

We move onto the question of supporting the rights of others (e.g., gays) to get married. First, I am not going to address the issue of homosexuality as it relates to marriage directly. I’m not addressing homophones who believe the “sin” of gayness will contaminate or trivialize “proper” straight marriage. I am instead addressing those socially liberal readers who might see gay marriage as an unimportant cause to take up because “seeking government approval” is silly or wrong.

It may appear I have already answered the question: If you accept my argument that there are good reasons to become married (apart from “government approval”), you would, barring homophobic prejudice, be inclined to think gays should be able to do this. But this appearance is misleading. For it is possible to reject everything I’ve said above and still accept gay marriage. That is, it is possible to think that marriage is silly or wrong (seeking “government approval” or whatever) and thus that nobody should ever do it—and support the right of gays to become married. These are separate questions entirely. (I press this point because I’d like to convince anti-state types to support gay marriage even if they don’t support the above argument.)

My view is: It is reasonable to expect that, when one segment of society can obtain this “approval,” while another segment can’t, this has a deleterious effect on the out-group, one which should, all things being equal, be prevented. And this maintains whether or not becoming married is a good idea.

Similarly, if the state set up and enforced whites-only clubs, this would harm non-whites. And it would do so whether or not any of them actually want to enter the club. (You can see why they might not). The harm would also maintain whether or not anyone ought to want to enter the club—that is, whether or not anyone’s going to the club is a good idea from the perspective of the patrons themselves.

I would argue that exclusion from popular, revered social institutions harms the excluded group directly, in and of itself. For now, I refer to the mountain of evidence suggesting that inequality damages the “less equal.” (Inequality being but a persistent, public, and glaring form of exclusion.) This might not apply in the case of a single club—but imagine exclusion from every club in the country, where patronizing clubs is, like getting married, something almost everyone does or wants to do.

In addition, “state approval” has a causal effect on social ideas: Under “normal conditions,” the sheer legality of a thing encourages citizens to tailor their norms in favor of it (and vice-versa). Being legal also affects the real practice of the thing, increasing the number of instances, heightening its visibility; the more “normal” it thereby becomes, the more the norms (continue to) follow it. (Granted, in some cases, e.g. ending slavery, this ‘norm-alization’ comes only after a period of its opposite, a social reaction against the legalized thing. So this can be a long-term effect.) This effect is only enhanced when the thing in question isn’t just not illegal, but, like civil marriage, actually created by the state and having no life apart from it.

We can use these points to enhance the above “club” analogy: Let’s say that the exclusive club in question is a strip club. Let us assume that watching naked people wiggle around is harmful to those who look at it (it is addictive, ends relationships, etc.), but still acceptable in the “libertarian” sense of only really affecting the lookers themselves. (For the record, this is not my own view on wiggle-watching.) The activity is a “bad” thing, something that, like securing the government’s “approval” in marriage, nobody should care about pursuing or letting others pursue per se. However, if the state allows only whites to do this harmful thing, this also has a harmful effect on non-whites—an effect apart from the harmful effects which flow directly to the whites engaging in the activity. And the harms of exclusion are, for all we know, worse than the “direct” effects of actual participation.

My point is that “inclusive” marriage—offering marriage to gays—should be pursued, even if we “anti-state” types agree that nobody should ever take the state up on the offer and that it would be better if the whole institution didn’t exist for anyone. Given the fact that it does exist in the particular exclusive form that it does, permitting gays to do likewise will protect and benefit them even in ways unrelated to the merits of being married (or conversely, despite the demerits of being married).

* * *

No piece of this argument depends on viewing marriage as good “in and of itself” in any respect whatsoever (though again, I believe it can be beneficial). You could think marriage totally sucks, for the reasons Michael alludes to or any others, and still accept all of the above.

(Hope this makes sense, brother Michael.)

[Facebook friends: A link to this is posted on my wall. If you respond, please consider doing so in the comments section there.]


The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

It is argued that contemporary whites—the ostensible “reparators” for black slavery—were “not there,” didn’t hold or trade slaves or otherwise commit the associated wrongs, thus it would be unjust to hold them accountable for another’s crimes.

The argument fails in supposing the only way to be responsible for something is to be “at fault.” Human experience is replete with counterexamples: There is, for one, a sense that a parent should pay when his child’s baseball breaks a window. One could, of course, answer that this “responsibility” amounts to merely a useful legal fiction, just a scheme for ensuring windows get paid for in view of the likelihood that the average child is penniless. But a person of this view shouldn’t be opposed to some other arbitrary scheme, whereby, say, the victim of the broken window, or the nearest adult to his left, or sharing his initials or taste is television comedies, is legally responsible for the window. Instead, we have some sense that the legal arrangement reflects, or ratifies, some real, underlying norm that would remain in effect with or without the law’s recognition.

There is the further sense that a person can be responsible when nobody is at fault: The baseball player might not have been able to prevent the ball from hitting the glass. Maybe no one could have. The child remains “at fault” in some sense—a causal and (again) legal one—but not in the moral sense invoked by those opponents of reparations. Strictly speaking, no real “fault” has occurred. But a responsibility remains.

Finally, there is the sense that persons sometimes have a responsibility to act in some way when sheer dumb luck places them between another person, or persons, and some undesirable outcome. An island castaway with survival skills may be morally responsible to step up and lead the group, whether or not he wishes to; and someone at an intersection of railroad crossings may be responsible to throw the switch that diverts the crosswise passenger trains from colliding. In such cases there is no implication that either person, or any person, is “at fault” for the shipwreck or the train mix up.

In these ways, the scope of moral responsibility exceeds the scope of “fault.” The reparations opponent must give us more.

* * *

But the problem runs deeper. For it is arguable that nobody is ever strictly “at fault” for anything at all—that is, that “fault” is a pretty sketchy concept in the end. The point is “philosophical” and like many such points, counterintuitive. (Thankfully, this doesn’t make it false.)

Common sense tells us that when we hold another responsible, the self at “fault” is the same entity as the self which committed the transgression; anything else would be unfair. However, as the Buddhists and process philosophers show, this identification cannot be made. Those things which give the self its character—that make it the self that it is—are in a state of restless change. One’s field of experience or mind-state alters from moment to moment.[1] It follows that a new self replaces its predecessor with each change. “Me” at time t is not the same as “me” at time t+1. I do not get sick; rather, a new, sick self succeeds a healthy one.[2] What common sense thinks of as the self—for example, what we call “John”—is an abstraction from the processive “chain” of one-instantaneous-John-after- another.[3]

Thus, it does no good to plead that modern whites “weren’t there” for slavery. Nobody who is ever responsible for anything “was there” either. Accountability is always “for another’s crimes.” The transgressing self, by metaphysical necessity, never sticks around long enough for sentencing.

It does not follow from this that nobody is ever responsible—any more than it follows from the common sense view that no parents are ever responsible for their children’s actions. (It does follow that our metaethics is due for a reconception.[4])

* * *

All the above being said, I suspect that reparations concedes too much to bourgeois procedural justice: Slavery stole something that belonged to black slaves, and contemporary blacks, as their ostensible heirs, are owed what was due them from the white heirs of slaveowners.[5] In my view, such things as “natural rights” to property (in one’s labor or anything else) simply don’t exist, and thinking of them as existing is one of many ideological girders of capitalism.

I do support a radical redistribution of wealth in favor of American blacks; I would support a distributional outcome which is more generous than what most reparations proponents envision. But I support this because blacks need it, not because their or their ancestors’ property rights were violated.

At the same time, I understand the strategic value of speaking to “power”—in this case, bourgeois power—in its own language, of demanding that it be consistent with its own rules, even if these rules are not our own. In this way, Marxists use the theory of worker exploitation to show that capitalism is unjust according to its own laws of “equal exchange.” However, while Marxists are quite open that the goal is not merely a more consistent system of “equal exchange,” I don’t see a parallel qualification emerging much from the reparations camp. This could be because that camp, unlike the Marxist one, includes bourgeois-minded persons—but still.

Finally, I am compelled to solidarize with those black comrades who are directly affected by the debate and who in my experience are largely wedded to the reparations framework. By no means am I prepared to break common cause with the program. But I have my ‘druthers.

* * *

[Postscript: I just read a transcript where Chris Matthews accuses Al Sharpton of “wanting us to pay reparations because we happen to be white.” This is like saying we wanted O.J. to go to jail because he happened to wear Bruno Magli shoes.]


[1] This is not to identify the self with a “field of experience” or “mind-state”; only to say that if these things change, so does the self.

[2] Even this simplifies, as both the healthy and the sick selves are composed respectively of many sick and healthy, momentary selves.

[3] Social intercourse is possible because each “John” closely resembles its predecessors; they are not “the same,” but are similar enough for identification in practice.

[4] At the least, holding people responsible becomes (or becomes consistently) a matter of managing behavior rather than punishment. It is about treating present selves in such a way that later selves are influenced in a certain direction. This could include treating them as if they are “at fault” for the behaviors of earlier ones; but this would be merely a corrective device, a useful fiction.

[5] Granted, there are other arguments for reparations. But these are either (a) less coherent; (b) reducible (I argue) to a bourgeois property rights schema in the end; or (c) simply not the ones I’m talking about here.

On workplace incentives: The ethics of getting extra for what we are already supposed to be doing

[Dedicated to E. N.]

I work at a bank. I’m not a teller but my job description includes running a cash till. There are incentives for balancing—making sure we don’t give away or take in too much money through miscount. After threats from management to do away with these incentives, they finally have. Budgetary reasons aside, the idea is that it is one’s job to balance, and it makes no sense to “reward a person for doing what he is supposed to be doing already.”

This post explores this argument in the interest of workers’ intellectual self-defense.

Hyperbolic indignation

The bankers’ argument should seem odd on its face, for we constantly violate it in practice. In every other avenue of life there is space for praising (i.e., rewarding) people for doing what they should already be doing. “Giving recognition” to those who simply meet the dictates of their roles is widely considered a virtue. What a monstrous spouse, for instance, who never thanked or praised the other for doing their “duty” as husband or wife. The same goes for parents of children, teachers of pupils, close friends, etc. On consideration, I suspect the vast majority of what we praise and reward falls solidly within the region of what one is “supposed to do” already.

The ‘extreme’ cases show the point most clearly. Consider heroes: Most would agree that the lifeguard who dives in to save the drowning child, or the returning soldier who has braved bullets in defense of country, are due some special recognition—paycheck aside. At least, nobody finds it odd or illegitimate to give it. (Indeed, “hero” is a normative term; to apply it to such persons is already to confer special recognition.) Nonetheless, every hero, when interviewed, humbly defends that he only did “what anyone would have done in my position” or no more than “what I had to do.” And he is entirely correct: Despite our high praise, we can agree that, given his circumstances, he had to try and save that child (etc.). He was “supposed to do” it. Indeed, if he had twiddled his thumbs while the child flailed about, or the bullets flew, he would not only be a non-hero like the rest of us, but a sonuvabitch deserving everything from harsh criticism to legal persecution.

Finally, it occurs to me that on a daily basis I recognize my dog for performing such acts as coming to me when I call her; perhaps I even give her a biscuit. She is then a “good dog.” But coming when I call isn’t really “good”; it’s just un-bad. That is, a dog who comes when called is just behaving as a companion animal should; it doesn’t exceed the mandates of what she is “supposed to do.” And yet, each of us understands the praise attending this behavior. It is just what a proper “owner” (yuck) does.

It would appear, then, that the scope of “rewardable” behavior overlaps with the scope what one is “supposed to do.” Some of the latter are also the former. They are not entirely separate dimensions, as the bankers’ argument would have it. At least, nobody really thinks they are. To quote Charles Peirce, “let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy [i.e., when constructing arguments] what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

“Supposed to” versus “have to” or “is expected to”

The question remains: Why do we reward “supposed to” behavior? We do it, but can we justify it?

First, while virtually everyone supports rewarding heroic behaviors, it is actually easier to justify rewards like balancing incentives. This, because unlike a lifeguard’s rescuing the drowning child, a teller doesn’t have to balance. Being out of balance (within reason) is not a fireable offense; almost every teller is out from time to time. (If she weren’t, nobody would ever think to reward her for it.) So every time a teller balances, while she may be doing what she is “supposed to do,” she is nonetheless doing more than she must do.

From another angle: Yes, one is “supposed to” meet one’s job description. But any job description is the articulation of an ideal. As “ideal” would suggest, nobody lives up to it, nor does anyone think they will. This being the case, “supposed to” is a rather hollow basis for an incentive scheme. What one is “supposed to do” is always more than what we expect them to; one ought to balance all the time, but he is not expected to.

In short, we are well within our rights to reward those who exceed expectations, who do more than they have to do. Whether this falls within what they are “supposed to do” is beside the point.

“Bonus” is just a figure of speech

An incentive is presented as a “bonus,” something added to a predetermined wage-base. But let us not make too much of mere words. We can just as accurately describe it as a penalty for not balancing. Instead of a chance to pad my check, maybe I’m just fighting not to lose the last part of it. We have as much reason to look at it that way as the way our employer presents.

At best, then, a balancing incentive is ambiguous; depending on how you look at it, it could be a bonus, or it could be a penalty. Is there anything which might favor one interpretation over the other? I can think of two lines of argument:


The legal convention of contra proferentem (“against the one bringing forth”) says that, when a dispute hangs on ambiguities in the wording of a contract, it goes against the party who drafted the document. This is designed to prevent the deliberate use of language which can be “bent” one way to entice a second party and then “bent” the other way to win a dispute. Law aside, the principle behind this is a good one, with broad application. The party perpetrating an ambiguity—and any dispute stemming from it—should be the very last to benefit from it. The party upon whom the ambiguity was “passively” foisted gets the benefit of any doubt.

In short, when faced with the “bonus vs. penalty” ambiguity, our prejudice should go against the party who set the whole scheme up. In this case, it is clearly the employer.


More important, whenever other kinds of employer “contributions” to wages have been studied, they have been shown to be factored as part of wages themselves.

The clearest example is payroll taxes. A percentage of each worker’s paycheck (15.3%) is owed in payroll tax. In theory, the worker pays half of this, and the employer pays the other half. But this is a “difference that makes no difference.” The employer is responsible for sending 15.3% of each wage to the government—period; it makes no difference that half this amount appears in writing on the paycheck stub.

The question is only whether the payroll tax is ultimately carved out of employer profits, or worker wages. The answer is not controversial; virtually all tax economists, across the political spectrum, agree: The payroll match is anticipated in the decision to hire any new worker, and the wage adjusted downward accordingly. An employer will not hire an additional worker unless the costs associated with taking her on—wages-proper, inputs, additional wear and tear on machinery, etc.—is less than the value of what she will produce. The payroll match has become a “cost of production” like any other, and is accounted as such. And why wouldn’t it be? Let us make not a fetish of bookkeeping; in real effect, the entire tax is deducted from wages.[1] There is no reason to think that balancing incentives work any differently.


The bankers’ argument presumes that the only legitimate reason to give “extra” is when people are “owed” it. This “economic thinking” is encouraged by capitalism. In real life, we reward people for all kinds of reasons—we want to influence behavior; make a statement; keep people around; avoid the consequences of not rewarding; or just to be nice. (Even the bankers’ argument is too narrow. It overlooks the loss-preventive function of balancing incentives: One hesitates to pilfer a twenty from the till if that move will cost her a few hundred come the end of the quarter.)

The idea that we can’t reward work one is “supposed to do” is so contrary to how we behave that it must be ideological—that is, a reflection of the stories capitalism has to tell to live with itself. Namely, the whole system is said to rest on the free and fair exchange of “value-equivalents.” All “factors” of production “deserve” (are bought/sold at) a price in proportion to what they contribute to production. Labor is just another factor; so anything it earns above its price—like a bonus—represents an injustice toward the employer.

A bit of (oversimplified) Marxist theory tells us this story is false. When “free and equal” exchange is generalized, each capitalist just breaks even. Buying at cost and selling at cost gets him nowhere. Nor can this be circumvented by selling at a markup; marking up iron spoons by 10% just “washes” with the 10% markup which the previous capitalist placed on the iron ore sold to make the spoons. The key to profit is to find a “factor” which, like magic, produces value in excess of its own value. Labor alone fits this bill; the quantity of goods it takes to sustain itself (in a given period) is less than what it can produce during that time.[2]

Not only, then, is everything which capitalists call a “bonus” not one; but under the current system, the very idea of a bonus is impossible. Capitalists cannot add anything to the “value” of labor because they don’t pay its “value” in the first place—if they wish to remain capitalists for long.[3] No incentive package will raise a worker’s takings to her real worth. There is no such thing as an “illegitimate” reward, right up to the point that the entire operation is transferred in share to the workers.


[1] Example taken from Paul Krugman, Fuzzy Math: The Essential Guide to the Bush Tax Plan, pp. 42-43.

[2] The Marxist theory of exploitation and the labor theory of value is given in more detail here (Sect. 1 mostly):

[3] By “value” in this sentence I mean value in explicit neoclassical capitalist terms—the value of what labor produces for the capitalist; in truth, the value of labor is whatever the value of the goods it takes to keep the worker alive, which, again, is less than this quantity.

*bump* Socialism and altruism (or, the “human nature” argument against socialism)

Bill O’Reilly, Law & Order, and Right Wing Immigration Policy in Moderate’s Clothing

Bill O’Reilly was recently offended by some dialogue appearing on the Dec. 9 episode of Law & order: SVU. John Larroquette, guesting as an immigrant-rights advocate, says:

“…Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, all of them. They’re like a cancer spreading ignorance and hate. I mean, they have convinced folks that immigrants are the problem, not corporations that fail to pay a living wage or a broken health care system.”

More on his comments below, but of course O’Reilly denied that he has done any such thing. His ire at the ”defamatory and outrageous” comments was entirely directed at the show’s producer, Dick Wolf, whom he labeled “a liar” and a “coward” and “a despicable human being for distorting and exploiting this very complicated situation.”

Bill O’Reilly: Dry snitchin’ motherfucker

A Weird Conflation

Putting the content of the Larroquette’s statement aside, the really weird thing about O’Reilly’s response is his readiness to equate a fictional character’s position with that of the show’s producer. (Note that by show business rules, Wolf’s “producing” the show need mean nothing more than that he owns it. It doesn’t mean he wrote it or even reviewed the script.) There isn’t any warrant for this. For one, its impossible to make this equation consistently, as different characters on the show adopt different, mutually incompatible positions; they can’t all be speaking for Wolf.

Indeed, Larroquette’s own comments are met with instant disapproval by another character, Det. Tutuola (played by Ice-T), who snaps at him to ”Save the soap box… the cameras are not even running.” Plus, Tutuola is a major, reoccuring character—a sympathetic hero, arguably—versus Larroquette’s one-off. If L&A is a vehicle for Wolf’s views, this function would almost certainly be exercised through the regular lineup.

If his characters are simply mouthing the producer’s own views, Wolf is guilty of far more than mis-paraphrasing a talk show host. For there is probably no vile nor illegal position that has not been voiced on the L&A franchise in the last two decades, as it is a fucking cop show profiling miscreants and wrongdoers of all stripes. Let us neither forget O’Reilly himself has penned a book full of characters more unsavory than savory, including a serial killer. Should we take his depictions of murder and corporate skullduggery in “Those Who Trespass” to mean he advocates these things? And if not, why assume it of Wolf?

Finally, there is nothing in Wolf’s depiction of Larroquette’s character than cannot be explained in terms of simple realism. Fairly or not, the view that O’Reilly “spreads ignorance and hate’” toward the immigrant community is both “out there” and moreover very widespread among immigration-rights activists such as Larroquette portrays. If this view is a misunderstanding, even a ”lie,” be assured it is one shared across the demographic. Surely O’Reilly does not suggest that fiction be populated only by good characters with sound views.

Unpacking O’Reilly’s Defense

O’Reilly’s main defense is that he has always distinguished between the actions of the immigrants themselves and those of the federal government who makes immigration policy, condemning the latter but not the former: “I have consistently defended poor people who only want a better life. If you watch ‘The Factor’ you know my beef is with the federal government not controlling illegal immigration and with violent aliens who wreak havoc once they get here.” O’Reilly illustrated the point with a montage of clips, including those where he declares he would immigrate illegally to the U.S. if he were a “poor Mexican.”

For the record, I have no reason to doubt that O’Reilly has sympathetic feelings toward illegal immigrants in general. What is less clear is how this actually addresses Larroquette’s comments. For it is certainly possible to ”spread ignorance and hate” without being oneself being ignorant and hateful.

Consider an analogy: A common criticism of Affirmative Action from the right is that it breeds resentment—and “hate”—toward its minority and female beneficiaries in the white men who feel unfairly disadvantaged by it. Whether or not you think this is true (I don’t, nor would I care if it were), it is clear that those who make this criticism are not alleging that supporters of AA ”hate” the people of color whom they intend to benefit from it. (Much the opposite, I’m sure.) If AA breeds ”hate” of blacks, it isn’t because its proponents hate blacks. Rather, it is an inadvertent, unintentional effect which operates despite the personal feelings of its proponents.

To repeat, the point is not that right-wing critics of AA are correct, but to illustrate the distinction between the feelings and intentions behind a statement or a position, and the effects of that statement.

* * *

So far, this only shows that O’Reilly’s defense has no teeth. It doesn’t show that some other defense wouldn’t work. That is, it doesn’t show that he is actually guilty of spreading ignorance and hate”—only that his feeling kind toward immigrants doesn’t make it impossible that he could be.

So is O’Reilly responsible for hatred toward immigrants? I’m sure he is—at least, his views are. However, I’m not going to take the space to argue that here. But I want to suggest a way this could work, which doesn’t depend on him having negative feelings toward this group:

Consider O’Reilly’s point that he doesn’t blame immigrants, but rather the U.S. government for not doing enough to block them. First, from a moral standpoint, this is a bogus distinction. It is like saying we don’t have a problem with people owning pets, only with the government for failing to outlaw pet ownership. Clearly, the criticism of the government here implies that the immigrants are doing something wrong. To the extent that O’Reilly says they aren’t, he simply sends a mixed message; the opposite message doesn’t cease to be sent.

It’s a very short step from recognizing that immigrants are wrong for immigrating, to blaming them for all the negative effects of illegal immigration which O’Reilly harps upon night after night. And if I can blame them for “taking my job,” or “raising my taxes,” etc., I can certainly resent, possibly even “hate,” them for this as well.

Whether this progression from O’Reilly’s criticism of the government to “hate” actually takes place is an empirical psycho-sociological point I can’t begin to prove here. The point is that O’Reilly’s personal “feelings” toward immigrants gives us no reason to think it couldn’t.

O’Reillian Moderation is a Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

O’Reilly is fond of saying he’s not a member of the right, even going so far as to claim he’s “not a political guy” at all. Part of why I write this is to show the kind of technique he uses to ‘get away with’ this kind of claim. O’Reilly’s overt sympathies toward poor illegal immigrants seem very un-conservative, and maybe in themselves they are. But they don’t do any real work within his arguments; they don’t mitigate his very conservative conclusions about what immigrants actually do. They coexist with arguments that, I have tried to show, probably “spread…hate” toward this group, or certainly lend themselves to this outcome for anyone willing to follow it through to consistency. In this sense his “nice feelings” are merely trappings, an afterthought serving to soften the swallow.

North Korea shifty on nukes? Don’t believe the hype

[An old piece from ’07 to provide some historical context for NK’s current “sabre rattling.” I’d like to update this sometime.]

The latest reporting on North Korean arms talks repeats the idea that recent successes represent a kind of tentative “breakthrough” with a recalcitrant negotiator, all the more so due to the “shiftiness” of this opponent. For example, CNN: “Few people believe that North Korea will fulfill all of its promises. After all, Pyongyang has sidestepped previous agreements.”This is quite far from the truth. Not only would a reasonable agreement have been struck long ago had the US negotiated for such in earnest, but North Korea (NK) has proved quite true to its word, and indeed in the face of consistent US diffidence and aggression.

I wrote the following timeline awhile ago to demonstrate the US role in the failure of US-NK relations and in the (alleged) nuclear rearmament by NK. I wanted to debunk the claim that NK “broke a promise” to halt nuclear armament and that as a result, future negotiations over nuclear arms would be pointless, as they could produce at best highly unreliable agreements.

Recall that the “Agreed Framework” (AF) of 1994 brokered by Clinton basically called for cessation of the NK nuclear programme—along with its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and admission of IAEA nuclear facility inspectors. In return, the US would build two non-weaponizable light-water nuclear reactors to provide energy for NK and would supply heating oil (500,000 tons per year on a scheduled dispensation) until their completion. Perhaps most importantly, the AF called for both sides to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,” including reduction of trade and investment barriers and a formal assurance by the US ruling out threat or use of nuclear weapons against NK.

(Background point: Consider the circumstances under which NK adopted the AF before you accuse them of being quick to break “their” agreements. At the beginning of the year (1994), the US announced deployment of Patriot missles to Scout Korea (SK) and continuance of its nuclear war games there, called “Team Spirit”–both aimed at NK. In all, 48 launching ramps and 192 warheads were sent to SK. This would have effect of “softening up” NK for imposition of the AF. The nuclear “crisis” that more immediately precipitated the AF talks led Clinton to dispatch stealth warplanes to NK, knowing that war might result from this decision. He was turned back from this path by a sobering calculation by the Pentagon: General Luck, US Commander in SK, estimated that resumption of full-scale war on the peninsula would cost 80-100,00 deaths; $100 billion cost to US; $1,000 billion in damages to countries involved and their neighbors. None of these considerations were lost on NK–making it hard to say that they properly “Agreed” to the Framework in the first place, that it was in fact “their” treaty to break even if they went against what it demanded. (But again, as I’ll show, NK did what the AF asked of it–coerced or not.))

There are two basic phases to the (latest) breakdown of US-NK relations:

First, the US under Clinton violated the AF in two major areas:

(1) The US waited until 1999 to lift the economic blockade against NK. This was a full five years since the AF and the clauses demanding mutual ‘normalization’ of relations.

(2) The US delivered the promised fuel only intermittently, dropping deliveries especially during the harsh NK winters. Also, the US seriously slow-walked construction of the two promised reactors.  As David Kang of the Financial Times wrote in 2003, “the first of these [reactors] were due to come into operation this year but it was clear in 1998 that it could be at least three years behind schedule because of US reservations and hesitancy,” and the progress is described as “barely begun.” (The South Koreans locally administering the project specified its defunding by the US.)

The second phase amounts to a campaign of outright aggression—including nuclear aggression—waged by the Bush administration against NK. Consider:

(1) After his first election, Bush immediately cut off diplomatic relations with NK per the negotiations begun under Clinton.

(2) After a “policy review,” Bush racheted up demands upon NK beyond that called for by the Agreed Framework (e.g., NK could now have no ballistic missles and had to cut conventional forces–both exceeding the dictates of the AF.)

(3) In Jan., 2000, he famously placed NK on the “axis of evil,” ultimately invading one of the other members.

(4) The US suspended its already limited food aid to NK.

(5) In Mar., 2002, leaked portions of the Pentagon’s “Nuclear Posture Review” showed the US is prepared to use nuclear weapons against NK, in violation of the Agreed Framework (and the 1992 Nuclear-Free Declaration which it reaffirmed).

**Note that at this point there is no indication, nor even a US allegation, that NK is pursuing nuclear rearmament.**

(6) In Oct., 2002, the US alleged that NK admitted to pursuing uranium enrichment during talks. (NK, along with US observers at the talks in question, deny this.) The US claimed that this violates the Agreed Framework, though uranium enrichment is not covered by the AF.

(7) In “response” to this ficticious infraction, the US cut off fuel oil supplies altogether and coerced Japan and other Asian neighbors to do likewise, at the start of the chilly North Korean winter.

**Only at this point does NK begin to speak of the “nullification of the Agreed Framework.”**

(8) On Dec.29, 2002, the New York Times reported on the new US “tailored containment” plan designed to drain NK economically and isolate them politically, ultimately to facilitate regime change. This included a plan to intercept NK missile sales to other states–not for security, but to deny NK much-needed hard currency.

(9) On Dec. 23, 2003, Rumsfeld reassured the press corps that US military is “perfectly capable” of waging war against NK and Iraq at the same time. (Colin Powell affirmed this veiled threat elsewhere, if only a bit more ‘veiled-ly’.) Bush alluded to a possible “nuclear strike” against the reactors.

(10) Jan. 2003:  In response, NK announced withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, freeing it to resume work on two nuclear reactors. (This is not a case of NK’s “breaking” an agreement: Withdrawal is permitted by the rules of the treaty with one month’s notice.) On Jan. 10, NK’s UN ambassador Pak Gil Yon denied NK is producing nuclear weapons–only “civilian” energy such as the undelivered light-water reactors were intended–but is keeping the option open as a matter of sovereign right to defense.

(11) At this time, US Asst. Secretary of State James Kelly toured South Korea and China to petition for tightening of economic sanctions against NK, in accord with “tailored containment.”

(12) In Feb., 2003, Gen. Richard Meyers, US Joint Chief of Staff, told NBC that NK is a target for “nuclear preemptive strike” by the US. South Korean investigative reporter Lee Si-Woo provided documentary evidence verifying that the US military had nuclear weapons in South Korea at the Jinhae naval base and had been practicing nuclear submarine attacks against NK (in violation of the 1992 Nuclear-Free Declaration and the 1994 Agreed Framework).

So to sum up the “Bush phase”: Bush halted the promised light water reactor program due to an allegation, unverified, that NK was pursuing nuclear technology which it was permitted under the relevant treaties to pursue. In response to a stepped-up program of US aggression toward them, NK (at long last) broke the seals on old nuclear technology and [claimed to have] weaponized it. At that point there were no treaties, and frankly no common-sense argument, to stand in the way of this move.

* * * * *

In conclusion, there is an important “deeper” story to all this that goes beyond the point I am trying to make here. I wrote this primarily to show the kind of “partner” the US is to those nations to which, like NK, it bears an imperialist relationship–to show how its behavior must look to these other nations and how this might prompt us to interpret the responsive behavior of these third parties.

I noted above that the US has not negotiated in earnest with NK–a mild way of putting the point. This “false face” is illustrated perfectly by Bush’s post-reelection appointment of Victor Cha as Asia Director for the National Security Council–and therefore chief architect of policy toward NK. Cha wrote a book outlining a nuclear negotiations strategy the US should adopt toward the regime. (You can get it at In it, he argues that the US should expect not to actually resolve anything at these talks. Instead, while maintaining the sincere appearance of desiring resolution, US negotiators should deliberately sabotage any successful outcome–but in such a way that NK appears (but is not actually) at fault. The stated aim is to portray NK as completely unreasonable in the eyes of its neighbors–to isolate it diplomatically and provide rationale for a unilateral strategy to be pursued by the US.

Cha openly states that the aim is the “coercion” and “punishment” of NK under the pretense of diplomatic “multilateralism.” This explains, first, why Bush was so adamant about  maintaining six-party regional nuclear talks with NK rather than the bilateral meetings every other country gets. (Recall his stupid, tautological defense of this policy in the Kerry debates–that bilateral talks should be avoided because “they would dismantle the multilateral talks” already begun: This is like protesting that one cannot get married because that would “dismantle my bachelor status” already in place; the statement is technically true but elucidates precisely nothing about the actual relative merits of bachelorhood versus married life. I mean, any change one makes “dismantles” a previous state of being–the trick is to say why that is a bad idea.) Second, that the sneaky, “coerci[ve]” intent demonstrated by the Cha appointment has held firm throughout the timeline described above should be clear to anyone paying attention.

Birth citizenship depresses immigrant wages!

Most anti-immigration arguments beg the question; rather than showing how immigration is a problem, their arguments assume this very conclusion from the start.

By analogy, I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio arguing against “smart cars”—tiny, very fuel efficient vehicles. His point was that these fare poorly in wrecks with larger cars. The argument was supposed to show that smart cars are a problem; but all it really showed was that the discrepancy between smart cars and larger ones is a problem. Pointing to a discrepancy tell us nothing about how to resolve it; that is a separate issue entirely and must be argued for independently. Rush’s argument points as much to getting rid of large cars as getting rid of small ones. It is just as reasonable for smart car owners to cite the discrepancy in favor of making all cars smart.

The same logic is behind arguments to the tune of “immigrants depress our wages.” Yes, when you have “rational” wage discrepancies among groups—when the wages correspond to discrepancies in skill levels, for instance—there can be a drag on the wages of the more highly paid group. But again, pointing out the discrepancy doesn’t tell us in which direction to resolve it. For the discrepancy describes a mutually adverse relationship. Mexican immigrants could just as fairly argue that the ‘skilling’ of the higher paid workers has served to ghettoize them in the second, low-paid group. Indeed, this skilling accounts for the existence of a tiered wage system in the first place. There is nothing ‘in’ the discrepancy to tell us which is the right way out of it. To side against the immigrants because they are immigrants assumes the very thing the “depression” argument was supposed to prove.

No group of wage laborers in history has ever impugned, legislated or barricaded its way out of a bidding war. There is no reason to think American-born workers will be the first. Their best bet is to unite with Mexican, etc. immigrants and bid together against the wage-payers. That might raise the standard of immigrant living, but if we can stomach that…