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“The American Dream Film”

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Fun film.  I’ve actually put together my own story about how money works some time ago, and the first 2/3 of this movie mostly follow it.

There are parts it doesn’t cover — the basic fact that the way $$ is put into circulation (very roughly, about $2 of debt, $1 principal & $1 interest, for every $1 created whenever a person, for example, borrows for college or buys a house) in turn creates artificial scarcity.  This can be alleviated (1) through expanding monetized markets into areas of life where they don’t exist yet, thereby pushing out person-to-person & community exchanges based on gift giving, informal expectations of future favors etc., (2) by actually selling services to the banks who collect the interest, and (3) by bankruptcy & foreclosure.  (2) and (3), in effect, mean that the economy gets structured as a food chain with money lenders on top, while (1) makes sure the needs & wants that drive the markets to expand are not just those to exchange goods & services, but to make money.  By the way, the person who analyzed this very well almost 200 years a go was (surprise surprise) Karl Marx, though of course his analysis of class struggle & predictions of the eventual demise of capitalism proved a fertile source of excuses for a whole slew of dictators, demagogues, petty criminals, idealists turned murderers, and so on.

One thing, well there are several things I disagree with in the movie.  Firstly I think it’s misleading to equate international finance with the IRS.  One way to think about a representative democracy is as a way to formalize collective decision making in a nation state about what resources should be administered in common, and how to put these resources to use to support whatever people agree is the common good.  20th century economies became complicated enough that it was normal for representative governments to form bodies to organize the collection of money & track how it is spent.  It’s certainly a topic for discussion which form of governance can best fulfill people’s interests, what I’m saying is as long as we have a representative democracy in a monetized economy we’ll have an IRS.  The movie does not bring this up, and it would be much more productive if it pointed out how much of our tax payments is paid as interest, a de facto rent the federal government is charging the taxpayers & paying to its lenders.

The other side of this argument is that, in a modern monetized economy, if you don’t have an IRS, you don’t have representative democracy.  The cartoon skirts around this, and in so doing it is, in fact, supporting the interests of the very people it aims to criticize.  I mean, the reason international financial interests are as powerful as they are is because most of what they do is legal & supported by national legislation.  One way to resist this is to try electing a government which would try curbing these privileges – people giveth, people taketh away.  How difficult this is to do in practice is, again, a very fertile topic to talk about, but a responsible populist government would need resources in form of money to enforce whatever laws it passes, and hence would need the IRS or its equivalent.  In fact a government could easily use taxation to curb big finance by instituting a Tobin tax.  So, as much as the IRS may now indirectly support big money interests, because they largely own the government, they have every reason to fear it because one day there may be a government that’s less pliable.  So, a good way to preempt a populist government is to channel popular discontent against tax collection.

In short, I don’t like that the movie fails to point out that IRS, as an organ of the social contract mediated through a constitutional democracy, may be used to curb big finance if this is in the interest of citizens.  In this way, I think this film does another thing — it subtly attacks the social contract that underlies U.S. constitutional democracy itself.  Now, there are problems with the 18th century concept of liberal democracy (in the original sense of “liberal”, denoting the combined values of individual freedom and pluralism), and again, it’s a discussion in itself — but liberal democracy has, overall, proven to be more responsive, stable and just than many other ideologies as a basis for culturally and politically diverse societies in industrial nation states.  Sure, it is limited & I certainly think there is room for improvement, but one could do much worse.

Now, note what this movie offers instead: violent action in form of armed rebellion, based on a mythical view of the past in which heroes and villains are larger than life and everybody is either good or bad.  Put these things together: opposition to liberal democratic institutions, emotionally valid criticism of big finance with indirect structural support for it, and a mythical view of national identity — these are all properties of fascism.  You think I’m going too far?  Being brought up in Europe I may be overly sensitive to it, but then again, maybe I’m just less naive about rhetoric invoking national myths than most people brought up in the U.S.  The references to 300, the movie I enjoyed, but which can for many reasons be seen as fascist (another discussion) don’t help.  Ok, you can say this is clearly a metaphor, people aren’t likely to rise up with swords against big banks, but this takes me back to the previous point — for people who take this this movie at its word minus the armed rebellion the first punching bag will be the IRS, which is, for all its faults, a potentially powerful tool against big finance, and in my opinion they would be better advised to try to reclaim it.

Finally, I don’t like the way the film feeds into conspiracy theories regarding the House of Rotschild & Kennedy assassination, though this is a relatively minor point, as I think it’s good for people to be aware these connections, but then think things through and hopefully dismiss them as overly simple.  As I wrote in the Facebook response regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a conspiracy theory is usually a failure in processing complex information.  While the Kennedy assassination certainly came at the fortunate moment for the Federal Reserve, just as 9/11 came at the lucky moment for the neocons, inferring the connection between the two in either case requires actual evidence, of which there’s little or none.  I think it’s better to err on the side of caution than to scare oneself into believing in all-powerful über-villains.

So overall, I agree with many parts of this movie’s message, with additional observations and caveats as described.  I think it makes valid points, which can then to lead to a discussion of more democratic ways money & economic exchange can be organized, such as credit unions, alternative currencies, gift economies and the like, even though they arn’t sexy enough to fuel a call to revolution.  Actually these topics have the right combination of bottom-up initiative, nerdity and wonkishness to keep me pretty interested, so I’ve been following up on them occasionally.   If the cartoon gets people thinking about how to set up these things on a larger scale it’ll do a great public service.

A few links & names: We’ve Got Time to Help, FreeeBay, Transaction.net, David Korten, Bernard Lietaer.  Enjoy 🙂


Written by miranche

18 February 2011 at 19:29

Posted in Contentious, Current

Moore’s Unrequieted Love

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Michael Moore wrote a letter beseeching prez BHO not to escalate the Afghan war.  I am actually somewhat surprised as to how unimaginative the letter is. I’ve followed Moore for years and mostly respected him for saying what many US educated liberals barely seemed to have the guts to think, let alone say out loud. However, in this letter MM chooses to make his statement by openly professing “love” for the Dear Leader and asking him to lead — and ignores the fact that BHO, well, will not and can not “lead”, not in the way Moore wants him to.

Some who agree with MM’s letter may denounce my view as disillusioned and cynical, but I think it is only realistic. Democratic governments and presidents are elected to administer and decidedly NOT to bring about people’s hopes and desires; even at its best, administration is a pragmatic, compromised, dirty affair, even though it’s ideally geared toward fulfilling popular mandates.  But even such a relatively modest ideal depends on the elected officials being aware of their mandate, which they are not: for all the high technology and 24-hour news cycle, or precisely because of it, I suspect that the information environment high officials live in is skewed so much that they’re scattered widely on either side of delusional.

In U.S., the people whose version of events the presidents are likely to hear are much more likely to be corporate bosses and lobbyists than union and consumer reps, military leaders rather than humanitarian workers and civic activists. These imbalances relax somewhat during campaigns, but are always firmly in place in everyday decision making.  Even assuming a president who is keenly aware of this — BHO at least showed he understood it well enough to occasionally sound convincing — what is s/he to do once in office? Confront her/his campaign donors with the necessity of relinquishing access and influence to those with less power and opposing interests, simple because they’re in majority? This would at best be quixotic, and if done in earnest, a sure way to alienate a lot of political allies & make even more enemies, a political suicide in the one-and-a-half party system with more pragmatic hustlers waiting in the wings.

Still, many of us are much better represented by unions, consumer advocates, humanitarians, civic activists and the like.  As a result, even assuming best intentions, a U.S. chief executive — just as most high ranking elected officials anywhere, really — simply do not have enough leverage to lead their countries in a representative manner, and can not get themselves out of this fix alone.  Instead there needs to be a way for them to feel the heat from the groups they represents badly.  Some US heads of state understood this — for example, FDR reportedly suggested to labor reps to force his hand do their bidding — but that was a very very long time ago.  At this moment, when BHO is clearly (for me, at least!) making a colossal but, for him, perhaps inevitable blunder, he should be hearing from everybody, in every possible way. It is amazing that in this situation MM would choose to (a) plead, (b) ask people merely to call the White House, (c) profess his “love” (!!!) for the president.

But what am I saying? Many people say they “love” the guy.

I grew up in a softly dictatorial communist country, and sure enough, much of the rhetoric about the long-serving president had qualities of mild Platonic erotica. In the US today, many people I know profess feelings of warmth — at least, of personal emotional investment — for BHO. For starters, from the point of view of basic mental health, this does not feel right to me.  More importantly, though, I do not think it can in any way be good for democracy.

Every so often it is natural to feel a degree of identification, admiration, even affection for someone famous.  Yet it is easy to see how such feelings can become creepy once they become coupled with expectations.  Expecting someone you only know from the media to bring you personally significant, transformative change — this is usually a case for a shrink.  I’d say this applies just as much when the celebrity is a politician.  Sure, faith and admiration for another, even when asymmetrical, is the core of what makes life meaningful if it is between people who know one another, whose relationship does not rely on third-party mediation.  Conversely, we’re still in the relatively sane territory if we don’t share this world at all with the “celebrity” we admire — I’m talking about Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha & their fellow superstars.  There the medium of interaction is spiritual, ritualized and socially accepted as such, and while I’d argue that religion is problematic in other ways, in this context it provides structured, stable, frequently constructive ways for a person to believe s/he is in emotional communion with an entity not present in one’s reality.

Politicians, however, are neither prophets nor (for the most part) our acquaintances. What they are, first and foremost, is people of flesh and blood who try to do administrative jobs within an imperfect and deeply flawed system but who chose to do so, and we do them and ourselves a disservice by experiencing them as something more. They have to wear charismatic personas in order to get elected, but when the cameras are off, they are just as fragile as everyone else. If they are at all in touch with reality, they should be just as insecure as any other celebrity, caught in the grip of social forces they can only vaguely understand and control.

Politicians are not rock stars, either. Being in the spotlight causes great personal strain, but for showbiz celebrities the trouble can end close to home.  The attention they get in public turns most of their private lives into a mess, yet this usually hurts just them and their loved ones; to us, if anything, it only provides more entertainment.  But politicians affect us all much more profoundly. They’re also confronted with forces largely beyond their control, but at the same time are elected to manage them on the basis of how convincingly they pretend they can do so.  Once elected, they are required to act responsibly, be functional, and inspire confidence.  Rock stars have the option to withdraw, have a breakdown in their own private time and stage a comeback after cooling off in private rehab, but the pols must hide their inadequacies in plain sight.  And so they do, behind expert advisers, policy doctrines and “decisive” actions, which help pols save face and balance conflicting interests at the cost of destroying others’ lives.

Just pleading with politicos to stop acting so is like asking the bed to make itself, and expressing “love” and confidence in their public personas, I think, only exacerbates the problem. We need to get realistic about things we really, desperately, need addressed — peace? climate? health? poverty? — and if the pols cannot, start figuring out — peacefully but assertively — how to take care of it ourselves.  And when the apparatchiks starts freaking out, which they inevitably will, we need to let them know that it’s ok, that we’re trying to save them trouble, and kindly ask them to provide advice rather than get in our way. None of this is easy, our skills and knowledge are inadequate to the task, but if we want there to be a world we can leave to our grandkids we better start learning soon.

Some will say that this is utopian, that we don’t have the wherewithal for such undertakings. Instead, they’d say, we should have faith in the political process, most officials really mean well, and if we put our trust in them, hope hard enough, perhaps wait for the next election cycle, good things will come. But politicians, whether good or bad, operate within sticky webs of power that render them incapable of doing most of those of good things you, I, and probably many of them wish they could do.  To this, some will respond I am being too cynical, and again propose the same remedy.  But look at the track record of governance in the past decades: the elected officials’ ability to deliver on promises & fulfill their mandates has been steadily and reliably shrinking.

Looking back at Moore, and indeed many others dear to me, I see them struggling with an emotional and moral investment in people who cannot possibly live up to their expectations.  I see this dynamic reproduced in staged performances — campaigns, most prominently — in which both sides pretend these expectations are realistic, and get off with enough buzz to last them until the next cycle.  This strikes me as downright unhealthy for all involved — which would be manageable but for the fact it’s taking place smack instead of dealing with real societal issues.  It looks like a sure recipe for a society to devour itself alive.

Still, people insist that their only realistic choice is to keep projecting their hopes onto various, possibly elected, Dear Leaders.  This I see as the real utopia, the real mindless optimism that sadly has no basis in reality.  It is, in turn, is based on a profound pessimism, that constructive change must come from above because we’re not willing, ready, or able to produce it from bottom up.  Persisting in this belief while living in one of the richest, most resourceful societies in history — this, in my mind, is the real cynicism.

Written by miranche

2 December 2009 at 21:33

Posted in Contentious, Current

Let the trains run on time

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Response to Garrison Keillor’s “Let war crimes be bygones” on Salon. Gary Kamiya gets it right.

I’m sure someone already noticed this. The title and subtitle of this article admit of war crimes, then call for them to be left unpunished, and finally call for good train service. With no sense of irony, Keillor says, forget about the Nuremberg principles, make the trains run on time. I thought we’ve learned this lesson a couple of generations ago.

Dear author,

I understand the difficult choice that U.S. citizens face at this point in history. As a U.S. resident, someone who worked hard to get his Green Card, I feel a part of this story, though I was lucky to be away from the U.S. during most of the Bush era. The thing is, you see, that this debate does not only concern U.S. citizens and residents now. It concerns the entire world, today and tomorrow.

I hail from a difficult part of the world. Back where I come from, in what used to be called Yugoslavia, we had a pretty ugly war about 15 years ago. I hope people here remember it. While the U.S. can be faulted for a number of things in how it handled the Yugoslav wars, its policy was, largely, consistent about one thing. It called for war criminals to be brought to justice.

The reason for this is simple: war crimes are not only a matter for the perpetrators. Perpetrators always see their actions in a rosy light, through some kind of a semi-rationalization, usually based on national security. The reason they’re “perpetrators”, though, is because their actions affect other human beings. And, at least in the world I was brought up in, it has been recognized that there are standards to what one may do to human beings during wartime, national security or not.

Human nature is tricky. Look up Stanley Milgram. People have a hard time turning down authority. A majority, actually, will kill a human being when directed by a legitimate-seeming authority figure. This is why, in order for the world made of nation states to be a bearable place, there are limits on what national authority figures may order.

What this means is that a war crime is, well, a crime, no matter what the Dear Leader or the President or the Legal Counsel says. If they issue a criminal order, whoever is carrying it out has a right and a duty to disobey. As Milgram found, this is usually difficult to do. The order-executor is usually a patriot, and the order-giver speaks for the state. Once the war crime is committed, then, the criminal is the entire gosh-darned sovereign country.

This creates bad blood. In three ways, at least.

First, war crimes have victims, and they have friends and families. And if the war-crime-order-giver goes scot-free, they often get to hold a grudge against the entire country. So they’re more motivated to fly airplanes into buildings and the works. Perhaps more ominously, there are other wannabe war-crime-order-givers elsewhere in the world. And they love when another of their kind gets off for free. Gives ’em courage to do let their war criminal side come out of the closet. And also, there are wannabe war criminals in the same country, too. In the future.

So the law says, find the individuals. There are standards to what a country can do to human beings, and those individuals who order those standards to be broken, by law, do not speak for their country. Dictators, elected officials or professionals, they forfeit the trust of their people. They become common crooks.

This does, I agree, make it kinda difficult for everyone involved. In a democratic country, a lot of citizens trust the officials. Many people do not mind what is being done, or, perhaps, find it regrettable but necessary. But what they need to do — what, as was recognized after World War II, is their responsibility, to their children, to the survivors, and to everybody else in the world — is to realize what has been done in their name, prosecute it, accept it, regret it, and allow themselves to mourn it.

This is what the U.S. insisted we do in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro. Many resisted. Victor’s justice, some complained. It threatened to tear our countries apart, others said. Some of the countries are in a bad way still. But we’ve faced a lot of what happened, and it makes us sleep better at night.

So yes, facing war crimes is not for the fainthearted. For a rule-of-thumb on what it involves, check out the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. Conservatives seem to be mostly in Denial or Anger. You’re actually pretty well off, you got all the way to Bargaining. You’re in prestigious company: Prez Obama is at the same stage, too.

But please, have courage to move forward. If you and other well-meaning US-Americans do not, and the crooks get off to a comfy retirement, what we saw in the near past can very easily turn out to be just a prelude. If you chicken out now, you’ll open the door to a future that may, I’m afraid, make us reminisce fondly of Bush and Cheney.

I’ll grant you, though, the trains will run on time.

Written by miranche

1 May 2009 at 21:20

Posted in Contentious, Current