Sunday, August 14, 2022

Eco-Socialism, Democratic Communism: Common Sense

By Frank Scott
"Are present ecological stresses so strong that if not relieved they will sufficiently degrade the ecosystem to make the earth uninhabitable by humans? Obviously no serious discussion of the environmental crisis can get very far without confronting this question." 

Barry Commoner in The Closing Circle: 1971

More than fifty years after Commoner wrote those words, the environmental problem is almost infinitely worse and what is presently called climate change once thought to affect future generations is engulfing the entire planet right now. While warnings from a scientific community not on corporate payrolls grow more desperate the global political power of capitalism, the primary cause of nature's breakdown under stress, especially at its fading but still essential center in the USA, is making things worse not just by the hour or minute but every second.

While the U.S. conducts a proxy war against Russia, killing thousands and spending billions, and moves closer to a greater direct war with China with threat of nuclear conflict greater than since what was called the Cold War, fossil fuels not only grow in use but face puny measures at control compared to what is needed if there is to be a tomorrow for the present generation and not simply future humanity. The numbers are staggering and call for united global action of a radical nature to bring about total transformation of the market dominated private profit system that has brought great progress to many – as did slavery – but tragic loss to far many more with the loser group threatening to soon include those among us who did well enough to still enjoy the trappings of comfortable existence but this only while greater numbers than ever are not only suffering the horrors of political economic subjugation to a system that can only benefit some at the expense of most but now faces the war against nature of these past few hundred years bringing on a counter attack of heat waves, floods, earthquakes, tidal waves and more with no end in sight until and unless the people take democratic control of their lives and end the political economy that is bringing us all closer to  needing a final solution to capitalism before it brings on a final dissolution of humanity.


We presently face the worst possible situation imaginable since the end of the second world war when the USA took control of the world and ran it with words about democracy and equality and acts of hypocrisy and mass murder. The number of humans we have killed since the end of war two is far greater than can be imagined since most of the murders were and are committed under pretense of fighting evil and creating peace. Control of public thinking, which was manifest in the last century, has become more so in the present and especially among Americans a view of material reality exists to make religious mythology seem like hard-core materialism.


American taxpayers foot the bill for trillions of dollars of warfare weaponry while hundreds of thousands of us are homeless and millions are in greater debt than can ever be repaid by present or future generations. While we hear of the dreadful debt burden of a relatively privileged class that can at least attend college, which is beyond a majority of Americans who only get there to clean toilets or build sports arenas, an even great number of Americans carry an even more staggering debt in order to have what passes for health care. This and countless other contradictions could bring social revolution if only understood by the majority carrying this burden so a minority can remain richer than any past generation of royalty and bigotry that placed some humans over and above the rest simply because of control exercised by the power of the sword, mace, gun, bomb or nuclear weapons. The weaponry, like the minority control of our mental state, has grown far more deadly over time.


While most people and nations of the world have done nothing to support America's proxy war against Russia in the Ukraine, growing numbers are quietly aligning themselves with the promise of a new and different world focused on cooperation and national power based on truly democratic principles rather than the growingly fascistic tendencies of the capitalist world under American control. China is playing the major role in setting a new standard and is therefore seen as an even greater enemy than Russia with both capitalist countries very close to surpassing the USA through market and not military power, though their growing warfare capabilities in the face of American threats can be seen as necessary to their survival and not designed to take over other countries and call that democracy as America has been doing for more than 75 years. 


Whatever the death tolls suffered by Russians and Ukrainians since Feb. 24, the date of the Russian incursion, we have killed more than 15,000 in our undeclared war on drivers and pedestrians with our ongoing road war killing an average of 100 Americans every day. If that were reported as a brutal assault on citizens by a political economy totally out of control of its consumer-citizens we might all be as conscious of the dreadfulness and work to save American lives which are taken regularly without any attack by foreign power but mere wretched excess of our economic life.



While the people of the United States may seem to be totally afflicted with hatred for much of the world and mostly for their own people, being armed to protect themselves from the horror of other Americans, there are countless movements under way trying to bring people together as communities of common interest, most especially at the work place where union drives offer hope for greater solidarity. Of course, as long as ruling powers control of media and therefore most of what we think we know, ignorant belief in crackpot stories still control all too much, with people driven into smaller and smaller identity groups to make democratic majority action seem impossible. How can I join with others if I'm dealt with as a disabled polish American gay Jew of color, or possessing testicles or vaginas, both or neither? Left out of such identity is the far more important fact of humanity and our need for food, clothing and shelter before any heartfelt or brain implanted notion of difference because of what is forced between our ears or loins by ruling power?


Two Chinese professors, Sit Tsui and Lau kin chi, part of a movement to balance that nation's progress initiated at the urban minority top by bringing a substantial contribution from the rural majority bottom, offer these words of futurism that make hope a larger word than has recently seemed possible in the western world. Here, "farm to table" is an ad addressing good food in fine restaurants. There it represents as it once did in America, peasant dining with awareness of nature being far more important than market considerations. Heed their words:


"We propose that ecology take precedence over economy, agriculture over industry and finance, and life over money and profit."


 Whether we label that eco-socialism, democratic communism or simply common sense it is the only path to our future, if there is to be one.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Left Economists on Covid Policy

James K. Galbraith, Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin notes that the countries that "took the pandemic seriously from the start" by "clos[ing] their borders and implement[ing] testing and quarantine for anyone coming across, as well as mandat[ing] distancing at home" achieved the best health outcomes. These countries included Vietnam, Korea, Singapore,  Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, and Cuba. Aggressive confrontation (of the contagion, not other people) coupled with high public support "kept the spread of the virus down to levels that could be tested and traced," though this required considerable disruption to normal routines.

"Isolation was intense for those exposed," Galbraith observes. Often people "were taken to special facilities, locked in, and taken care of for two weeks," whether they were symptomatic or not. 
Vietnam enforced physical distancing with cadres at the block level. In Cuba, doctors and medical students visited every household almost daily to check for symptoms. Korea kept case levels so low that it could identify exactly where outbreaks were occurring and smother the spikes. "In all successful countries," reports Galbraith, popular mobilization against the virus was total, cooperation nearly universal, and (as a result) the success became a matter of intense national pride" (italics added). Furthermore, "those countries that suppressed the virus effectively without regard to economic consequences in the short run were able to recoup most of their economic losses." 

But for those who threw up their hands at the pandemic (we're looking at you, USA) things did not work out nearly so well.  Political economist Ha-Joon Chang (Cambridge) points out that once a proper medical response has been botched, only lose-lose options remain: "Once you lose your grip on the pandemic, you end up with a 'trade-off' between health and the economy." The U.S. in particular forfeited the response of "taking early action and being innovative about the management of the test, trace, and isolate system." As a result, infections surged out of control, hospitals were overwhelmed, and the deadly impact of the virus was far worse than it needed to have been.
Economist James K. Boyce (Amherst) claims that "99 out of every 100 lives lost could have been saved" had the U.S. had an effective infrastructure of test-and-trace in place when the pandemic broke out. "The (Covid) death toll has been exceptionally high in nations with extreme inequality," Boyce observes, which "in a society is much like blood pressure in an individual,"a pre-existing condition that raises the likelihood of severe outcomes.
Though less important than other measures, restricting human movement (i.e. "lockdown") is also a legitimate pandemic response measure, but it needs to be coupled with replacement income for workers in order to be fully effective. As Ha-Joon Chang notes: "In countries where there is no provision for a minimum standard of living and/or job security, a lot of people had to go out and work even when they knew they were infected." The obvious public health conclusion is that people should be paid to stay home when infected or at high risk of becoming so (i.e., when high levels of virus are circulating), after which restrictions can be lifted as waves of contagion subside.

Though the word "mandate" has taken on an ominous tone for many people, it needn't have. Mandates are a necessary part of modern life, and the principle underlying their legitimacy isn't particularly controversial. Nobody is too exercised about the mandate to use a seatbelt when driving a car, for example, or to pay bills in a mandated currency, or to go to school from age five to late teenage, or to pass a driving test in order to get a driver's license, or to take out a social security number (a federal ID) in order to be part of the public retirement system. These are simply sensible measures taken to facilitate living in complex societies. There is nothing inherently authoritarian about them. Yes, any mandate can be abused, but that does not mean that there should be no mandates.
Mandates that can lead to loss of employment are obviously more serious, but this is because of the required job more than the required jab. Decent societies would not require their members to prostitute themselves to monopoly interests (directly or indirectly) in the first place, which would take a lot of the sting out of vaccine mandates.  However, the principle of restricting access to public space until people have verified they are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of infecting others with deadly disease is entirely reasonable. There is no "bodily autonomy" when every set of lungs is linked to every other set by virus-laden air.
Source material for the above:  "Economics and the Left: Interviews with Progressive Economists," Edited by C. J. Polychroniou (Verso, 2021)
James K. Boyce, pps. 55-7
Ha-Joon Chang, pps. 79-82 
James K. Galbraith, pps. 145-8
Excerpts from other economists in the book:

Michael Ash, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
"I'm deeply troubled by the entire COVID period in the US. The failure to mobilize mass testing and contact tracing, the failure to keep essential workers working safely and to keep almost everyone else supported at home, and the failure to set priorities to get kids back to school safely make me feel as if we are living in a failed state. While I usually prefer structural explanations, it's hard not to pin at least some of the US debacle on Trump himself - his lack of interest, his lack of curiosity, his lack of attention span, his lack of scientific commitment, his lack of empathy, and his inability to listen to anything other than sycophantic happy talk. Of course, there are deeper structures underlying the US nightmare, and I comment on some of these below. I'll summarize here: the US response is a world historical disgrace. The richest, most powerful country in the world may never in history have worse bungled a crisis that it would have been straightforward to surmount. . . . . . . .I'm baffled by the Swedish response - I wish I knew the micropolitics that let a Social Democratic government approach the crisis with the type of insouciance and incompetence that looks more like Trump or Bolsonaro." (2)

Teresa Ghilarducci, New School For Social Research

". . . most Western democracies, while flattening their disease curves, also flattened inequity by keeping their schools open. Because the US will not engage in enough non-pharmaceutical interventions - such as mandating masks - nor provide funds for more space between students and school-based protective equipment (PPE) many children who don't have private pods, internet, adult supervision, and private schools will be left behind. At the same time, others are merely inconvenienced. Not continuing the extra stimulus checks and generous unemployment benefits reduced income replacement for the most economically vulnerable families." (171)
Jayati Ghosh, Amherst
" . . . there are other pressing challenges that the pandemic has brought to the surface. It has exposed the horrifying effects of decades of public under-funding of health and societal undermining of care work. So, the New Deal must also be Purple, with an emphasis on the care economy and massive investment to fund enhanced and improved care activities.  . . . The decades of neo-liberal policy hegemony have led to drastic decline in per capita public health spending in rich and poor countries alike. It is now more than obvious that this was not just an unequal and unjust strategy but a stupid one: it has taken an infectious disease to drive home the point that the health of the elite ultimately depends on the health of the poorest members of society, and therefore those who advocated reduced public health spending and privatization of health services did so at their own peril." (186-7)

Ilene Grabel, University of Denver

"The failed response to the COVID-19 crisis in the US is a perfect illustration of destructive incoherence. Instead of a federal response to the COVID-19 crisis there was propaganda, denial, and chaos. All manner of destructive incoherence becomes more apparent daily in the US as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. The same can be said of the process of distributing the vaccine . . . . .Balanced budget rules at the state and municipal levels constrain their fiscal capacity and canceled out much of the effects of federal fiscal expansionism associated with the inadequate CARES act. At the same time the absence of federal leadership in implementing closures and openings of schools and workplaces, and in securing ventilators and personal protective equipment, continue to have horrific consequences in terms of loss of life, mental health, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, and access to education.  . . . desperate intrastate responses are hardly to be celebrated. The absence of federal leadership was nothing short of criminal neglect." (207)

" . . . national governments in many European contexts moved quite far in the direction of expansive, universal social protection. In many European contexts, states supported furloughed workers in ways that were inconceivable in the US. " (208)

". . . the monopoly system that protects the rents associated with intellectual property will render the vaccine out of reach" of most Third World countries." (208)

 " It is a certainty that widespread, lasting debt crises in the Global South and East will be but one lasting legacy of the COVID-19 crisis, promising yet another 'lost decade.' . . . comprehensive debt relief should be a far higher priority." (210)
Costas Lapavitsas, University of London
"The crisis was caused to a large extent by the state itself, since states imposed the medieval practice of lockdowns and social distancing to confront the disease.  A better response would have been mass testing, tracing, and isolating those who were infected, together with strong support at the primary level for the most vulnerable groups. COVID-19 has a class character, hitting harder the poorest and weakest in society, those with long-standing health ailments. But a grassroots strategy would have required substantial resources and, even more important, strategic planning imbued with public spirit. (italics added). The main neo-liberal states in the world were unwilling  and unable to deliver it, for instance, in the US and the UK. Lockdowns were the default option, and they have weighed very heavily on workers and the poor."
"Lockdowns gave rise to a vast and unprecedented crisis because the world economy never properly recovered from the last great crisis of 2007-09. Most of the important metrics have been below trend for both core and peripheral countries during the last decade. Lockdowns delivered an enormous shock to aggregate demand and supply, which then led to an unprecedented response by nation-states. I don't think there is anything comparable in the history of capitalism." (224) 
Zhongjin Li, University of Missouri-Kansas City
". . . regions with more united responses and collective mobilization, both in terms of political/public willingness and mobilization capacity, have witnessed relative success in controlling the spread. . . 
".  . . rigorous lockdowns and strict quarantines with national regional coordination proved effective in controlling the spread as the first response. This was evident in China, though less so in Japan and South Korea. There, free treatment of Covid-patients, confirmed or suspected, along with mass testing as well as contact tracing have gained public confidence. This was stunningly different from the US approach to dealing with the pandemic. Since everyone can be infected, it is extremely important to guarantee free and equal access to public health resources. As most countries experienced shortages in medical equipment, the effectiveness in response also depends on the mobilization of national and regional resources with central and concerted guidance and action.  . . . 
"China's community-centered social infrastructure, including community hospitals, neighborhood committees, etc. has proven effective in the COVID-19 pandemic, helping protect people's right to food, health, and livelihood, especially for the poor.  The institutions and people working in the community are not mobilized ad hoc only for disaster relief, but rather, based on a long-standing social infrastructure that coordinates locally nonexclusive service provision for social reproduction. Instead of individualizing the responsibility and costs of 'flattening the curve,' state-subsidized and locally supported community services in the age of COVID-19 socializes costs and maximizes effectiveness. . . . 
"In terms of economic policies, countries prioritizing people's health and safety over reopening of the economy have also achieved more rapid recovery."  . . . Without addressing job and livelihood precarity, a simple cash subsidy is more likely to benefit only the rentier capitalists." (240) . . . The COVID crisis is a wake-up call for us to strengthen the public sector and build community infrastructure. . . " (241)
William Milberg, New School For Social Research
" . . . it has become very evident in the pandemic that the decoupling of social protection, especially health insurance and retirement security, from employment, can be doubly disastrous for well being. Most European welfare systems have from their origins disconnected an individual's attainment of these protections from the individual's employment status, with the result that the negative impact of the pandemic has been much reduced. (262) . . . The research that led to the rapid development of the vaccine was largely underwritten by public funds. The private capture of profits from the innovation limits the social return, and the rigidity of the intellectual property regime means that a good that would have major benefits globally will be available only slowly and in a limited way beyond the rich countries." (263) 
Leonce Ndikumana, Amherst
"The lack of social safety nets in these countries (i.e. developing countries) makes it impossible to implement preventive measures such as lockdowns or remote working. (278) With governments in the Global South facing chronic financing shortages, they are not equipped to fund the necessary interventions to support workers who lose their jobs and firms that face collapse in demand."  " . . . the only viable strategy is prevention." (279)
Malcolm Sawyer, University of Leeds (UK)
"The privatized and often centralized test-and-trace operations,which often involved layers of subcontracting, undermined the established system for contact tracing run by local public health protection teams in the public sector. . . . .The key difficulties can be identified as arising from chaotic and expensive privatization instead of relying on properly funded local expertise." (339)
"There was a neglect of the health and social effects of the lockdown - the effects on mental health of prolonged isolation, lost schooling, etc." (340)
"There have undoubtedly been harmful effects on children's education, which will have long-term effects. These have fallen particularly on children in low-income households who are unlikely to have access to computers and to the internet." (340) 
" . . . there was a general lack of preparedness in areas such as availability of personal protective equipment and fiscal measures to support income and employment in face of shutdowns." (340)
Juliet Schor, Boston College
"In Europe, governments in France, Spain, Italy, the UK and other countries quickly decided to support employment by paying 80 percent of the salaries of employees even as their employers furloughed them." (353) 
Fiona Tregenna, University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
"Living in a society with vastly unequal access to sanitation and other infrastructure and services, in which a large section of the population live in congested living conditions, in which there is under-investment in the public health service and general running down of the state, means higher infection rates and risks for everyone." (395)