Friday, April 18, 2003
The Revolutionary Council calls for a vote
Pedantry is, to put it bluntly, not a democracy. My posts, my choice, my editorial authority. I am the General Secretary, the Chairman, El Presidente and the Great Helmsman. That's what blogging is all about: low cost, small market self-publishing. We babble, you decide.
Nonetheless, today I'm going to try an experiment in "guided democracy" in order to show the masses that I am not without populist impulses.
Those of you who have been following the semi-regular postings of my Grandfather's papers know that we are now up to part seven. Grandpa is 23 years old and has managed to win an indefinite postponement from his draft board during the Second World War.
One of the problems with this project has been the size of Grandpa's papers. They fill four substantial binders, and I have not read them from end to end. Consequently, there is material I am only now discovering that I would have liked to have posted earlier, particularly about life in Russia.
I should have put all this stuff together when I was still talking about Russia a month ago. Unfortunately, it's buried in a binder marked "Farm Credit Guidelines - Accountant's Manual" in the middle of a lot of obituaries of people I don't remember and some stuff about my own father and his death that, frankly, is a bit depressing for me to read. So I've only gotten to it in the last few days.
I have come across a lengthy section containing Grandpa Dick's (my Grandfather's adopted father's) first person account of his experiences in the failed 1905 rebellion and during the Russian Civil War, his memories of his family's business and estate and about his life in Russia. There is also Grandma Dick's (my great-grandmother's) account of her parents' murder in 1907 and of her life in Russia, along with a love letter she received from my great-grandfather Kornelius Petrovich Martens. There are also a variety of official documents which will, no doubt, test my remaining knowledge of German and Russian. Furthermore, I found the one and only document Grandpa ever asked me to translate and my only direct contribution to this material: Grandpa Dick's Russian birth certificate.
I am aware that early 20th century Russia is probably more popular than rural life in Saskatchewan. My last post is intended to be the only one set primarily in Saskatchewan before moving on to more interesting stuff.
1943 is a pretty good place to pause in discussing Grandpa's life. The very next paragraph after end of the last section is something I considered including, but I wanted to end with Grandpa's praise for how, according to him, God took care of him during the war. Here is the cut paragraph:
One winter on the farm, when there was less work to do and only the cows to milk and the livestock to feed, I was wondering whether it would be more advisable for me to go logging for the winter. We prayed about it and wondered what to do. I vivdly remember how the answer came. I was up in the hay loft throwing down feed when an absolute peace about staying on the farm simply flooded my soul, and I had complete assurance that that was what the Lord wanted me to do.
I'm strongly tempted to leave him there in that moment of peace for a little longer, because whether or not it was what the Lord wanted him to do, it isn't what he in fact did. His faith led him into a very different life than he would have expected at that moment. The next fifteen years of his life take almost two binders by themselves, and I don't know how many posts it will turn into.
So, I'm soliciting opinons. I have good stuff from Russia that I can work with. It includes not one, but two sets of brutal murders as well as a lot of details about old Russia from an admittedly unusual perspective. Alternatively, I can press ahead with Grandpa. I have been vague in my posts about where he goes and what he does, but my readers who know me in real life have some idea where Grandpa is headed.
I don't promise to just count votes and go with the majority - this is after all a guided democracy - but I want some sense of my audience's interest in this tale. For those who feel whole sentences are too much work, feel free to just leave the word "Russia" or "Canada" in the comments, although you should also feel free to leave any other commentary you like. I won't decide until at least Monday and I'll read the comments over the weekend and answer questions if anyone has any.
For those who want to reread the past posts in this series:
Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Part 5: Down and out in Siberia
Part 6: Winnipeg emm Kjalla
Part 7: Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows
It's been... what? nine days?
I haven't watched the news on TV in about a week, but something motivated me to turn it on a half hour ago. I'm glad I did.
BBC World just reported on the protest against the US in Baghdad. The print story doesn't quite do it justice. First, they showed the protest. The protesters want the US out ASAP. There was no ambiguity about it. The protesters stayed on message. They interviewed a cleric - apparently this rally had lots of both Sunnis and Shi'ites and was led by clerics from both - saying that if the US was planning a long occupation than they could look forward to a holy war.
Remember, this is the first public protest of the post-Saddam era. 25 years of repression, and the first thing they protest is the US. So much for a public that's grateful to be liberated.
Then, a US patrol shows up. Bad scene. Young fresh faced American kid in khakis with a big gun suddenly has lots of angry Arab men in his face. The kid, whoever he is, clearly is not happy about this. He tells them to back off. He threatens to shoot them if they fail to do so. Of course, he's speaking English, which is doing him no good whatsoever.
No violence folllows. I'm only seeing the BBC edited version anyway, so I don't know exactly what happened next. The web version says that "the US commander skilfully withdrew his troops and defused the situation." That was not what I saw on TV. What I saw was that a squad car with a couple of Baghdad cops showed up - they've been back at work since yesterday - and, in the words of the BBC correspondent, "escorted the unit out of the area."
From there, they go to this Ahmed Chalabi character, who just about comes out and says that Iraq should have an interim government with full authority in a matter of weeks, that the UN should come in and that the US should get out.. This is certainly the direction his rhetoric seemed to be taking. Apparently the monarchs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia agree with him. And remember, this is Bush's candidate to run the country. With friends like these, who need enemies?
Lastly, they cut to a live interview with a French representative of Save the Children, which has apparently been trying to land a food and medicine flight in Mosul, but the US won't let them. So, they're preparing to file a suit in Belgian court against Jay Garner - theoretically the current civil administrator of Iraq - for violating the Geneva Convention by failing to provide adequately for the civilian population. The spokesman said that they would pursue Tony Blair and George Bush, except that as heads of state they have immunity.
George Bush - snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Another Sunny Afternoon
We're having beautiful weather here and I'm sitting in my office writing code. In a place like this, every sunny day over 20 degrees Celsius should be a statutory public holiday. Really, it wouldn't shorten the work year much considering how often it rains in Belgium.
I should be in a park, watching pretty girls in short skirts. *sigh* It sucks to be a grown-up.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
I hate to go to bed irritated...
...but thanks to Atrios, I no longer have the choice. Let me quote him in his entirety:
"The inspectors didn't find anything and I doubt that we will."
Remind me again, this was all about how Iraq was in breech of UN resolutions concerning disarmament, right? Or do they just think they can change their story now and no one will notice?
Take a gander at this:
Rumsfeld Says U.S. Will Find Iraqi WMD Materials
That was published four days ago. That's pretty fast turnaround, even in politics.
Also, since you're (I hope) already pissed off, check this out:
US Culture Advisers Resign Over Iraq Museum Looting
Bloody incompetent idiots.
Update: John Hardy in the comments has the full Rumsfeld quote, which, it turns out, is not quite the full turnaround that it appears to be. Fair enough. Let this be a lesson to those who quote out of context.
Enetation does good
It seems like the computers at enetation.co.uk have finally realised, after a half-dozen attempts, that I live in the Central European Time Zone. Comments are now being logged at the actual time that they are posted in my part of the world.
That would be Paris, Berlin and Rome time for those who need city names or an hour later than London time, six hours later than New York time and nine hours later than San Francisco time.
According to my hit counter, the overwhelming majority of you readers live in, or at least have your browsers set to, only five time zones: CET, UK time and North American Eastern, Central and Pacific times. So, I assume the rest of you can work out your own levels of temporal displacement.
Will economic growth now depend on China?
There's a lot in this Guardian article that should be taken with a grain of salt, but the main contention of this Victor Keegan piece is reasonably well defended:
All the prosperity in China
I am less enthusiastic about the idea of a world where growth depends on what's going on in China, but the days when the world depended on American growth to carry everyone's economies are over, and Asian growth is now far more independent of American growth than it has been in the recent past.
The Russian growth numbers surprise me though. Are they for real? Is Russia really growing at over four percent? If so, that's wonderful, although not as wonderful as China's nine percent would be. Furthermore, as I understand it there are reasons to think China's numbers are somewhat fixed. Real growth may well be lower than nine percent, although it's clearly higher than the numbers coming out of the US and the EU.
Still, it seems that there is a decent case that Asian growth is now largely dependent on Asian investment and Asian consumption. Will nations outside of Asia start hitching their own economies to Asian growth?
Is this to be the ultimate legacy of the Bush Administration, the replacement of America as the essential nation with China?
Isn't this how we got into this mess?
Today's New York Times announces yet another strange twist in the continuing story of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
U.S. Bombs Iranian Guerrilla Forces Based in Iraq
Now, remind me, didn't Al Qaeda get started with US support during the Afghanistan War? Wasn't Saddam Hussein's military built and funded in large part by the US? Is it just me, or does America have a pretty pathetic history when it comes to picking winners in the Middle East?
I don't know what justification, if any, the US has in bombing the Mujahedeen Khalq, and I'm not saying that best course of action is bombing them or backing them. It just seems to me that every time someone in the US government decides to back questionable people with the logic "my enemy's enemy is my friend", bad things follow, and clearly there are some people in Congress who think the US should be backing them.
I really am confused. Is the Bush administration trying to make nice to Iran by doing this, or are they members of the "Axis of Evil"? Is Bush being a consistent anti-terrorist here, or is he trying to improve relations with Iran? Why do both options bother me a great deal?
Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.
Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Part 5: Down and out in Siberia
Part 6: Winnipeg emm Kjalla
Mrs. Tilton makes a point in the comments to a previous post:
I think the religious should not be shy about being seen as religious, and I would hope the influence of their belief upon their lives might prompt non-believers to wonder whether there might be something to all that. But intrusive crawthumping is not only offensive in itself; it's also likely to drive away non-believers who might not otherwise have been driven away. Note the difference in style between Tony Blair and George Bush, both committed Christians. One can disapprove of both (and for many of the same reasons); but Bush's religiosity puts Christianity in a bad light in a way that Blair's does not.
I agree entirely. Religious people should not shy away being recognised as such. No one should have to hide who and what they are. Not just in matters of religion, but in all aspects of identity. That is an important part of what substantial freedom, as opposed to legalistic freedom, should mean. And this has some bearing on today's instalment from Grandpa.
This part of Grandpa's story has been much harder for me to put together than any of the others and has taken up much of my free time for the last few days. In part, it's because this instalment is longer than any of the others. It covers almost fifteen years at once, from 1929 to approximately the end of 1943. Grandpa's memory of this period is much better, and he recounts a lot of bits about his childhood in Saskatchewan, many of them out of order and spread across several parts of his voluminous memoirs. Reassembling them into a single narrative has been difficult, and I fear less than totally successful.
In the previous parts that I've posted, Grandpa occasionally digresses into highly religious material, which I have largely cut. It isn't really necessary and it impedes the flow of the narrative. I have only discussed religion in order to make sense of Mennonite history. And - I remind my readers - Mennonites have traditionally been people who refused to serve in armies. For many of them, thou shalt not kill is not followed by unless your draft board tells you to. This will be important in understanding the last part.
In writing this section, I have had to give some thought to how to handle religion, because starting here I can no longer treat it as secondary to the narrative. For basically the whole of his adult life, my Grandfather was devoted to his church - the Mennonite Brethren Church - and to God. If I were to try to tell you about his life and ignore this central fact about him, I would not be doing him justice. I would be denying his identity in exactly the manner that I refuse to do to other people and that I try not to do to myself.
This leads me into a quandary. I have not exactly asked the rest of my family for permission to do this on my blog. I don't know if any of them are reading me here. At some point - in fact in my next instalment - I will have to face the issue of how I handle Grandpa talking about the people who are still alive: his wife and his children. For the moment though, I have to ask myself how I should handle Grandpa's most personal experiences, particularly, his highly personal religious experiences. I am sure that if Grandpa were alive, he would not want me to distort or minimise the extremely important religious component of his life.
There is a story told in Sunday Schools about three great missionaries in Heaven. The first one says to the second, "I brought a whole nation to God. How many did you convert?" The second one says "I brought thousands of men to God," and then turns to the third and asks, "How many did you convert?" The last man says, "One." If his story makes anyone's faith just a little stronger, I think Grandpa would say it was worth it. If it doesn't, well, it may grate the ears of some, but this is still who my Grandfather was.
The topic of evolution, and my contention that it is really a question about the proper source of authority is what has brought this introduction on. The thing that most shocks and bothers people is not anything that I happen to think about evolution, but that I'm willing to think about it as a matter of ideology rather than of fact and that I encourage others to do the same. I do credit evolution - I'm not willing to use the word "believe" to discuss it - and my reason is the one famously advanced by Dobzhansky himself: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This is not evolution is a demonstrable and certain fact, as true as 2+2=4. It means that with evolution as a concept and an intellectual tool, I can make sense of a lot of what I have seen and read. It is the ability of a theory to make sense of things that is most essential to it.
Well, there are people - people like my Grandfather - for whom their religious faith is essential to their ability to make sense of their lives and the world around them. I am not one of those people, but I promise you that they do exist. They are not less intelligent or less capable than other people, and they are not simply being, to use the Dennettite terminology, parasitised by memes. The reasons they believe as they do are not substantially different from the reasons I or anyone else believes in materialist explanations or particular scientific theories.
That is why I resent seeing religion treated as mere superstition while science is held up as Truth, because it does a disservice to people who deserve better consideration. I assure you, I resent being told what God thinks by someone who claims to be in the know every bit as much or more.
There is other stuff here besides religion. Grandpa talks about life on the farm in the last years of horse-driven agriculture and in the transition to fully mechanised farming as well as talking about school in the days when grade 12 was considered an advanced education. He also talks about playing with electricity when it was still a new thing.
Furthermore, Grandpa and I have something in common: shortly before our 16th birthdays, we both chose to leave home, ostensibly to pursue a higher education, but really because we were teenage boys who wanted a taste of adult freedom. After that, of course, our lives differ sharply. By the age of 23, when this post ends, Grandpa was back on the farm having dropped out before completing grade 12. At the same age, I was living in sin with my future wife in a hotel on Polk Street in San Francisco after having dropped out of my Master's degree. No draft board ever interfered with my education, although I did have to register for the Selective Service in order to get student loans. And I have never, ever, worked on a farm.
The house we lived in on the the Henry Craig farm was a storey and a half and measured 18x20 ft. I have the feeling that originally there were two 10x18 ft. granaries or homesteader's shacks that were moved together to make the house. The Craig farm itself consisted of one section of land at 24-30-18 W3 plus another quarter at SE25-30-18 W3 (Southeast quarter of section 25, township 30, range 18, west of the 3rd meridian.)
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Speaking of elections...
As I've pointed out before, it's election season in Belgium. There is a new sort of party here in Belgium. I've only recently become aware of them from their bumperstickers, which seem to be proliferating in college-town-liberal Leuven. They're called Vivant and they have an ad on the front page of Metro today - a free newspaper distributed in the train stations in both French and Dutch.
Imposer le travail, c'est tuer l'emploi
Since this is such a key text for this post, I'll break my usual rule of pretending that anyone who is literate can read French and translate:
Taxing work kills employment
Now, reading this, you might understand why my first response was, great, another bunch of low-tax-miracle, night-watchman-state, libertarian wankers.
Consider what thay are saying: businesses don't mind paying wages, they just mind paying taxes. Government needs to lower taxes on labour to bring back employment. The first part, is, even to the most charitable reading, bull. Business don't like parting with any of their money, but they don't generally have a preference about who they are actually paying. They relocate to where the ratio of labour productivity to total cost of labour is highest, regardless of who the checks for their labour costs are addressed to. The total cost of my labour in Silicon Valley was about 150% of my total cost to my employer in Belgium. More of it went to me directly and less to the government, but the actual cost to employers in my labour class is substantially lower in Belgium.
The second part is more frightening. They claim, at least by all appearances, that government has to create an internationally competitive labour environment in order to sustain standards of living. Calling it "international competitiveness" gives a polite and reasonable sounding name to something that ought to be chilling. Whenever someone says "international competitiveness" what you need to understand is "the government becoming a pimp for its labour force."
It is pimping, and there is no other way to understand it. The arguments for it are identical to the reasons why a desperate woman might continue to sell her body even if she finds it degrading. The idea is profoundly simple: There are these people called investors, and they have money. We can only have money if we have something they are willing to pay money for. Some countries might have natural resources to sell, but we don't. The only things we have to sell the investors are our bodies, our labour. The problem is that lots of countries are full of people, and we have to compete with them, so we have to sell our labour cheap.
It's a simple, easy to understand argument well within the intellectual grasp of anyone who has ever had to buy or sell things. And, it's complete nonsense.
Vivant has ignored the simple fact that total cost of labour is not a function of the tax rate, it is a function of both the tax rate and salaries. Furthermore, by reducing the tax on labour and raising taxes from other sources - sales taxes, user fees, property taxes, etc. - they are raising the cost of living. In order to keep the same standard of living, wages would have to rise to compensate, eliminating any gain the employer could make. In the end either workers earn less, or employers pay out more.
Second, they have ignored the simple fact that employers aren't trying to minimise labour costs per se. They are trying to maximise the ratio of labour productivity to labour costs. Raising productivity serves just as well as lowering labour costs from the employer's point of view. Unfortunatly, increasing productivity is more complicated. It may require a highly interventionist government able to build infrastructure. Productivity increases when people have fewer sick days, which implies government involvement in public health. Productivity increases with new technologies, which contrary to popular belief come overwhelmingly from publicly funded sources.
Lastly, the idea that surplus capital can only come from some international investor class outside the reach of government is a complete crock. In a developing country, there is some justification for this sort of thinking. They have little or no capital of their own, and they need to buy things from more developed countries in order to raise their own productivity and standards of living. The only way to get those things is to attract investment by some means.
The thing is, those investors have to live somewhere, and unsurprisingly most of them prefer to live in developed countries, where the water is clean, crime is low and the schools are good. A few super-rich manage to live in tax-free statelets like Aruba or Jersey, but actually not all that many. And even those people are only rich because they own things in other countries. The truth is that rich people are only able to escape the reach of government when governments let them get away.
This perspective has been carefully engineered by a few people who seem to believe that such a vision is the inevitable destiny of capitalism, and have found willing accomplices in every pro-business Republican or Liberal party and all the people who think that wealth is created by entrepreneurs and that labour is merely something to be bought and sold. This ideology - the state not as night watchman but as pimp - is one that I find alternately horrifying and pitiful
Then, I tracked down Vivant's website, and I was shocked. Vivant's election ads completely misrepresent what kind of party they are. Vivant is a member of the Basic Income European Network, which is neatly abbreviated as BIEN, the French word for "well." They are not only carefully linguistically correct, they are leftists of the social democratic to out-and-out socialist variety. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
From the BIEN website:
Founded in 1986, the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) aims to serve as a link between individuals and groups committed to, or interested in, basic income, i.e. an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement, and to foster informed discussion on this topic throughout Europe. [...]
The idea of a basic income has a long and complicated history, some of which is summarised on the BIEN webpage. The current movement has only come to my attention through the works of Philippe van Parijs, an economist at the Université Catholique de Louvain (the francophone sister university of my alma mater.)
Canadians may have some familiarity with the basic concept. In Canada, it's called family allowance, and it goes to every household with dependent children. It is not a means-tested benefit, but it's also not very much money. No matter how much money you make, you get an amount that depends only on the number of children you have. Van Parijs and BIEN are advocating just giving everyone a regular check for some fixed amount, whether they need it or not.
Vivant has a very slick line in many ways. If you can read French, Dutch or German, I recommend taking a look at their manifesto. The French version - which I presume is the most likely of those languages for my readers to have - is at http://www.vivant.org:8080/Vivant/fr2/programme/manifeste.pdf, but hunting around at http://www.vivant.org will get you the other versions. For the merely anglo, there is a less compelling discussion of basic income on the BIEN homepage.
They have certainly figured out how to present their ideas to Europhilic leftish academic types like me. Starting with the first line of their manifesto - L'Europe est hantée; hantée par le revenu de base - recalling the first line of the Communist Manifesto, and their claim - with supporting text - that a basic income is the fulfillment of the values of the French Revolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they know how to pick their historical analogies and how to attach otherwise unrelated issues - education reform, electoral reform, international financial reform, environmental issues - to the centrepiece of their programme: the universal basic income.
Frankly, I suspect something like this is the future of social democracy and ought to be taken seriously. People in social democracies live pretty well and it doesn't take a very long downturn to make social safety nets seem worth the price. This cult of the entrepreneur and the minimal state is a hothouse flower, only able to grow when people feel secure about their incomes and futures. It is important to start talking about reclaiming the wasted productivity of Europe's armies of unemployed. It's important to talk about getting people off of an economic treadmill that seems to press people to work more and harder for ever more remote goals.
But, alas, I don't find Vivant's programme to be a very encouraging development in this direction. For each basic principle they've got right, there is some fundamental issue that they have wrong. For each time I think they may be on to something, they shoot out on a tangent that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The first is their apparent acceptance of the "international competitiveness" model of growth. They are simply ignoring what even most Americans have learned to accept: it doesn't matter if Belgium cut its payroll and income taxes to zero, the factories that once dominated Belgian employment are never, ever coming back. Belgians neither want, nor should they want, to be competitive in terms of total cost of labour with the people of Indonesia, Vietnam or India. The people who live in those countries would trade their low tax incomes for Belgian after-tax incomes in a second.
Their focus on labour taxes as a barrier to employment has lead them into advocating a shift of taxation from wages to consumption. This reflects another rather strange set of values. They wish to encourage people to save money by taxing spending, claiming that it is inherently unjust to tax people for working and contributing to society. However, they are not advocating any sort of progressive tax on consumption. They just want to raise the VAT. This shift in the tax burden has the inevitable effect of penalising people who earn less money in favour of those whose earnings exceed their expenses. For all the ink they waste talking about how wrong it is to tax labour for its productivity, the solution they offer is actually worse in terms of desireable social outcomes.
The people at Vivant appear to think that the main function of taxes is to discourage behaviour, but that is only a side effect. The main function of taxes is to enable the government to lay claim to a portion of a nation's production. A nation's production is produced by its workers. Ergo, labour is taxed not to discourage working, it is taxed because in the end there is nothing else that can be taxed.
This whole business makes me think of the Canadian Social Credit Party - people advocating massive social reforms by carefully reallocating current resources and claiming that the numbers all add up. They have given no thought to consequences that extend beyond budget statistics. Massive social reform has to meet equally massive social needs. Otherwise, piecemeal reform is not only more likely to win elections, it's more likely to succeed. Radical programmes require a huge commitment to making them work no matter what and they have to extend beyond being mere election promises.
That is what I am not seeing here, and that is why the basic income is not "haunting Europe." What I really fear is that people like this would get elected - most likely in a coalition government of some kind - and manage to promote all the fundamentally unsound parts of their programme - the replacement of income taxes with sales taxes, the assertion of the government's role pimping labour out - while failing to pass any sort of radical income reform that might have actually stood a chance of helping someone.
You see, I support the idea of a universal wage and an extensive social insurance system. I support these things because I believe the freedom to develop yourself is the only real freedom, and that work takes away from that freedom whenever it is not what I want to do. Work is necessary, and often work that you don't enjoy is necessary. Right now, I am procrastinating about writing some code that I hate on a project that I consider both below my abilities and not worth doing. I want the freedom to balance the needs that work can meet with my desire to do the things that develop myself. That is what social democracy can, in some measure, offer. I want the freedom to quit my job, go back to school and raise a baby. Vivant wants to give me €500 a month to do those things, trusting me to judge whether or not I am more productive doing uncompensated work.
The principles of basic income are really far less complicated than Vivant makes them out to be. The money they want to give everyone isn't that much. Contrary to the old Reaganomics thinking I grew up with, it takes a lot more money than that to extinguish the rewards of work, while that much money can take a lot of uncertainty out of life. And, people who don't have jobs are often highly productive people. Back in the days when there were stay-at-home moms, those moms often worked hard. In my old neighbourhood in New Jersey, the stay-at-home-moms effectively ran the municipal government through various volunteer activities.
In order for this to work, people have to be convinced that income redistribution isn't robbing hard working people to pay off lazy bums. Even if you can show that a universal income costs less than means-tested benefits, some people will seen universal wage guarantees as moral hazards if nothing else.
Revising the tax code, the Tobin plan, the environment, all the other things Vivant stands for - these things have nothing to do with basic income and even if they are worth supporting shouldn't be mixed up in what is really a simple concept. The existing notion of a progressive tax code is more than good enough to support a basic wage. As Vivant points out, Belgium already collects and redistributes enough money to make a basic wage possible without changing budget priorities in general. There are good reasons to reduce payroll taxes in Belgium in favour of a more progressive tax code, not the least reason is because unemployment is very low in the Netherlands in part because low payroll taxes encourage part-time and temporary work, but they are good reasons quite appart from Vivant's main legislative goals.
Throwing all these bits together does not make a coherent platform. The tax changes they are advocating will certainly not benefit most workers even if it does create jobs. Advocating following the Dutch example of reducing or eliminating many payroll taxes and accepting that people will have temporary and part-time work instead of solid jobs would make a far more credible and more attainable programme. That is the sort of platform from which a basic wage could be advanced. People who work - even if they are just working sometimes - elicit far more voter sympathy.
If Vivant feels the need to buy into some doctrine of right-wing economics in order to be credible leftists, they might consider buying into the idea that labour productivity and full employment are linked to labour flexibility. There is at least some truth to that idea, and if people's paid wages are going to be unstable (which is what "labour flexibility" really means: you have to be flexible about whether or not you get paid) then it behooves the state to offer them some sort of stablising income guarantee. There is a role that the basic wage could help fill.
"Restons Forts" - *snort*
Unless you're either Canadian or a reader of Matthew Yglesias' blog, you probably neither know, nor care that there was an election in Québec yesterday. Since Canadian ballots are handmarked and manually counted without any labour-saving machinery, the election was over in a few hours, without court intervention or hanging chads. The winner: Jean Charest's Liberal Party with 76 out of 125 seats and 45% of the popular vote.
The PQ has been down before, and it's a little early to tell whether Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique is another H. Ross Perot, or a new permanent feature in Quebec politics. Despite winning 18% of the vote, they have only four seats. Not much of a pulpit really.
I'm rather gratified, not only because I think Dumont's platform was far too pro-business to be viable, but also for the selfish reason that Mario Dumont is still "Super Mario" to me. We are almost the same age, and we had some mutual acquaintances when I was a student at UdM and he was studying at Concordia. I'm already unhappy that the hot young actors whose careers get hyped are younger than me. I'm not ready for the idea that someone my age can be premier of a province.
My old riding - Montréal Mercier - voted PQ. Mercier is one of the most loyally PQ ridings on the island. They voted for former liberal premier Robert Bourassa (Boo-boo - after the character in Yogi Bear cartoons - was what he used to get called) until 1976, when they put in high level PQ wonk Gerald Godin and voted consistently PQ from then until the by-election in 2001 after Robert Perreault resigned. The PQ then had this little snafu where their initial candidate was accused of beating his wife and dropped out. The riding then went Liberal for the first time in almost 25 years.
But now, they've returned Daniel Turp, former blocquist who lost in the 2000 federal election and law professor at UdM on semi-permanent sabatical. Just what the PQ needs to get back its vibrancy - another lawyer.
Well, I suspect this election gets separation off the table for a few years at least. With Canada now a single party state at the federal level - and appearing likely to remain that way for some time - the pressure for political independence has abated significantly. There is little risk of a change of government in Ottawa scuttling whatever new division of powers gets negociated.
Otherwise, I doubt there is any meaningful change on the agenda for Québec. I gather one of the things Jean Charest ran on to get the Montreal anglo vote was undoing the fusion of Montreal Island into a single city. It won't happen. The bureaucracy alone won't support it.
Students of Canadian politics (I'm looking at you Yglesias) might start looking west, where a resurgent NDP has absorbed a lot of the Green/progressive agenda and is actually winning some local elections with it despite the fiasco of the 2001 BC election.
Monday, April 14, 2003
And for my American readers...
Happy taxday's eve. For those of you resentfully filling out your tax forms today, I have nothing but a great big raspberry for you. I pay about 50% of my income to the Belgian government, a good 10% more than I did in high-tax California when I had more than twice the income.
So be happy and *thbffffft*.
La troïka du refus
Good and very short editorial in today's Le Monde, providing a summary of the current political situation from the point of view of the countries that wanted nothing to do with the war.
Le "camp de la paix" a pour lui la morale, la légalité, voire la raison. Les arguments qu'il a développés, parfois avec fougue, avant les hostilités, n'ont rien perdu de leur valeur. Pour régler les conflits internationaux, la guerre – qui, selon Kant, "crée plus de méchants qu'elle n'en supprime" – doit rester un ultime recours. Aucun pays, si puissant soit-il, n'a le droit de s'ériger en juge et en gendarme du monde. Le droit international doit être respecté. La lutte contre la prolifération des armes de destruction massive doit être menée selon des règles soutenues par l'ensemble de la communauté internationale, au moment où se profilent de vraies menaces, par exemple en Corée du Nord.
The awkward position of the Franco-Russo-German alliance is quite plain. They do not, and never have, seen preserving Saddam Hussein's rule as a reason to oppose war in Iraq. It is on the contrary this idea that the US can "set itself up as the world's policeman" that they consider dangerous, and I can only agree. Clearly, the editorial board of Le Monde has not budged an inch in their opposition to war. Furthermore, they appear to at least support France's efforts to establish that only the UN can legitimately administer occupied Iraq.
But, the need to repair relations with the US is clear on this side of the Atlantic, and Colin Powell's recent efforts suggest that it is clear to at least some people in Washington. Tony Blair appears to be going out of his way to be nice to Chirac and Schröder. The main barrier, as one might expect is "une administration à la fois hautaine et autiste" - an administration that is at once haughty and autistic. Not a bad description.
Bomb before you buy
I like Naomi Klein, but this article in today's Guardian makes me understand why some people don't. She has a collection of bits about how the various reconstruction and facilities management contracts in Iraq are being handed out. And the process is quite honestly scandalous.
While I suspect her main allegation - [T]he country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned and open for business - may well be true, there is no way that the costs of war can be recuperated in that way.
In order to make this theory work, you either have to believe that the people who run America now are too dumb not to know that, or you have to believe that the people who run America do know that and are willing to bankrupt the government to enhance their own businesses. Either one is a far greater scandal, and far more disturbing, than the mere presence of corruption in government contracts.
It just doesn't make sense for this war to be about oil, or about any natural resource that Iraq has. There isn't enough money or political power in controlling any of it to pay the price of invasion and occupation. The US can't simply refuse to sell Iraqi oil to countries they don't like, to do so is as much economic suicide as if they restricted their own purchases. There's nothing else Iraq exports to the world market worth the trouble.
The more likely conclusion is that the scandalous way contracts in Iraq are being handled is nothing more than ordinary corruption of the kind that it's all too easy to see the Bush administration doing. The real, underlying causes of war remain as mired in the internal workings of the Bush administration as ever. Perhaps they really do believe their own rhetoric and think Iraq can be the leader in a new age for the Middle East. Perhaps it's all about being able to threaten Iraq's neighbours more directly, and foolishly thinking that they won't respond to the threat with greater belligerence. I don't know.
But looking for this golden pay-off that explains the war is hopeless. There is no way the numbers add up.
Dark Light and the neo-conservative revolution in America
Patrick Nielsen Hayden takes on this rather odd combination topic over at Electrolite. It's a kind of frightening thought really, life imitating science fiction. As a fan of Ken McLeod, I recommend it to all those similarly inclined towards SF and leftist politics.
Mama said there'd be days like this
I've been pretty much off the web this weekend. I had planned to put the next bit of Grandpa's memoirs up, but the truth is that I've been having a hard time facing my blog this weekend.
I'm someone who likes to think of himself as having great deal of control over language, and I know that in contrast sometimes I have very little control of my own emotions. I received some very kind e-mail over the weekend from a reader thanking me for revising my post below, and I thought I ought to clear the air here as well before moving on. Just about the last thing on earth I intended in that post was to say anything genuinely controversial, and that I failed to have even that level of control over my rhetorical choices is something of a blow to my ego.
Again, usually I have the common sense to respond better when I'm wrong. It's hardly the first time in my life that I've screwed something up. I can only plead temporary insanity. There are a couple other things going on in my personal life that had already weakened my sense of my own abilities - things I don't intend to discuss publicly - and, like most people, I have a natural distaste for eating crow.
So, I responded badly, and then made things worse by responding badly to knowing that I responded badly.
Those who've been reading me for a while know that I have a lot of sympathy for more impressionistic, praxis-oriented and non-rationalist kinds of epistemology, far more than usual for someone whose background is as deeply rationalist and scientific as mine. The experience of a lifetime fighting with the ability to recognise, usually well after the fact, that I've been irrational about something without having the ability to keep myself from being irrational again, is one of the reasons that I'm not particularly sympathetic to any conception of the universe that requires me to pretend to possess Vulcanesque logic. This is an object lesson in why.
So in the end, I apologise, and I hope my regular readers will continue to read Pedantry.
I have some good stuff prepared for this week, another chapter from Grandpa leading up to WWII, or possibly up to his marriage in 1946. After that, Grandpa and his family will change countries again, to a new and still more exotic location. I also will be spending Wednesday morning split between my dentist and plumbing, once again, the depths of the Belgian immigration bureaucracy, and I expect I will probably be able to get a post out of trying to figure out which is less pleasant.