Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Jerry Brown Enigma

I’ve been accused by parties who shall go unnamed of using this blog to unfairly bash California Governor Jerry Brown once or twice.  Or maybe three or four times.  Possibly five or six...

I very much doubt that Brown is bothered by my criticism.  But be that as it may, I thought I’d try to take a more ‘fair and balanced’ approach to Brown, largely through the combination of observations over the past couple of years and his interesting interview with Candy Crowley (see here and here) that ran on CNN earlier this month.  [Warning—it is raining this morning, and the University Library is closed, so this might get long.]

One of the same accusers suggested that I was somehow predisposed to loathe Brown, but that isn’t the case at all.  Prior to around 2009 I hadn’t paid much attention to Brown, and had mostly familymembers’ opinions to go on.  Democrats and one Obama-voting Republican, they all remembered Brown somewhat nostalgically, particularly his tenure as governor and Oakland Mayoralty—perhaps speaking to the ability of his lips to whistle a good progressive tune in spite of what his hands were doing; perhaps due to the fact that there had been so little comfort for progressives since: Deukmejian, Wilson, Schwarzenegger.

I don’t as a rule think that political profiles are terribly useful (though they’re often very colourfully-written and enjoyable to read—this one will undoubtedly be the exception), but Brown is a particularly interesting (infuriating might be the better word) public figure in part because he is—and this is a cliché—very difficult to pigeonhole.

Part of this stems from his obvious thoughtfulness and intelligence (there!  I said something nice about the man!).  For all that people wax lyrical about President Obama’s ‘thoughtfulness’, I have never heard our President utter a non-platitudinous statement, a controversial thought or anything much that made me stop and think.  It’s not, I’m sure, that he isn’t capable of such thoughts—he’s probably just extremely careful to ensure that they don’t emerge in public—a sure sign of how pathetically limited our political discourse has become.  Brown on the other hand, gives the impression of actually having sat down and thought about things.  And when I say “sat down and thought about things”, I don’t mean sitting down with a group of political consultants to look at polling data and pull some tortured policy-position out of that witch’s brew. 

Few inaugural speeches are anything other than fluff, but one line in Brown’s, given in January of this year, made me re-watch the speech so that I could write it down.  Reflecting on the inaugural addresses of past Governors, he noted that all of them “start on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same reoccurring, crime, budgets, water.  I’ve thought a lot about this and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems, but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties.  A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains”.  It’s not a very comforting thought (that the best we can do is manage a series of irresolvable dilemmas), nor is it one that I’m sure that I agree with (a re-thinking our relationship with natural resources, the land and our environment could, I believe, offer long-term solutions to our water problem, for example).  But it does reflect a philosophy of governance that is largely absent in most politicians, and one which begins to explain Brown’s own approach.

It’s difficult to find the common threads in Brown’s philosophy, particularly because he has done so many things over so many years—or perhaps more accurately, we’ve seen many editions over four decades, because unlike his father, a champion of public works and big social democratic projects, Brown has never had a signature policy.  He is perhaps best-remembered for his mantra of “living within our means”, for implementing Proposition 13 with the same zeal with which he’d opposed it, and for creating the Jerry Brown persona based on his personal frugality (the Southwest flights, the fabled blue Plymouth, dispensing with Ronald Reagan’s unseemly taste for wealth and glamour).

And yet in his interview with Crowley, Brown declared himself a very firm Rooseveltian, arguing strongly for the power of government spending and investment as the way to end today’s recession.  Brown drew a contrast between fiscal conservatives and serious investors through government (those in the “future business” as Brown’s old adversary Bill Clinton used to put it)—he portrays Republicans as members of the myopic former group and liberals (his word) as ascribing to the latter.  I doubt that’s a line he developed and poll-tested in consultation with a team of consultants, but it is a good one.  It draws a nice and somewhat novel contrast, portraying the supposedly entrepreneurial interests as engaging in nothing more than basic greed. 

And yet his rhetorical embrace of a Keynesian or Rooseveltian spending program doesn’t match the ferocious cuts regime he is forcing on California—cuts to elderly care, cuts to early childhood programs, cuts to healthcare, cuts to K-12 education, cuts to social services for the socially marginal, cuts to our state’s incredible higher-education system, cuts to public transport.

Nor does his conventionality where state budgeting is concerned match other facets of his past.  Because he should perhaps be better-remembered than he is as the Presidential candidate who ran on an anti-corruption platform in 1992, refusing donations of over $100 and deriding PACS.  He is probably the closest thing we have around today to a high-profile incorruptible politician, and his demonstrable history of disappointing progressive allies one moment and infuriating right-wingers the next made Meg Whitman’s claim last fall that he was a union pawn one of her more patently absurd claims.

But where did this Brown go...with his passion for addressing inequalities of power and wealth, his willingness to address corruption and call the powers that be out to their faces?  Is his willingness to defend social democracy while hammering away at its foundations dishonest?  Or does he believe that he is so constrained that he has no alternative?

His answer came when Crowley asked him whether he is, as pundits have suggested, “mellower” than before.  This was one of several moments in his interview when the Governor looked bemused at her line of questioning (I suspect the bemusement is his best attempt to hide his disgust at the vapid line of questioning—his dog, ‘Jerry’ Duty, conversing with royalty, whether he’s ‘mellower’).  His response, in his trademark gravelly voice, was that “I’m older”.

But if he looks older than when he took the gubernatorial reins for the first time at the age of 37, he has the same trademark vigour, the same characteristic twitching of the shoulders which makes him look like a man constrained by the smallness of the people around him.  But his physical energy and willingness to philosophise about government has never really been matched by policy innovation.

But his own sense that he has matured as a politician explains his caution.  It’s one part his old philosophy—“We have to live within our means”—and one part resignation—“that’s the way the world works”.  The problem with this view is that California as a community isn’t broke...there’s money all around.  And Brown alludes to this (blaming the profits of corporations, industries and managers, arguing that in an economy of $2 trillion, finding an extra $10 billion “does not seem excessive”) while never fully incorporating it into his argument or saying flat out that California as a society is not running a is simply that, to paraphrase an old saying, all the wrong members of our state family are making the money and pulling the levers of power.

He has a highly realistic sense of what is legislatively possible, and if it doesn’t seem to be helping him to develop a plan to address unemployment or a strategy for winning Republican votes, it at least has the merit of making him sound like an adult, and prevents him from making the idiotic blanket statements and promises characteristic of today’s political ilk (except for in that worst of policy mis-steps driven by short-term electioneering: his promise to not raise taxes without a referendum).

But there is something grim about Brown’s realism.  He seems to believe that it’s up to the people to come to their senses and ride to the rescue of their own state, and if they won’t, that there isn’t anything he can or is willing to do about it. 

The contrast between high-minded idealism and a kind of brooding ‘realism’ is nothing new in Brown.  People’s mis-reading of his history was on display during the 2010 campaign, when state Latino leaders backed him by calling attention to the fact that he had marched with Cesar Chavez.  But Brown’s embrace of agricultural labourers’ cause during the 1970s only came because of the huge pressure United Farmworkers’ members brought to bear on state politics—a chronology Brown himself might have included in his spirited 1992 address to the Democratic National Convention, in which he noted that every major change brought about in the twentieth century could only have occurred because of grassroots movements, fired by a sense of injustice and possessed of the willingness to put pressure on the formal political machine.

But Crowley wasn’t interested in dwelling on Brown’s mixed political past, and pressed him further for his take on the economic crisis facing the United States in 2011.  Retrenchment, Brown insisted again and again, was the only alternative to investment, and will be the price we pay for failing to be socially innovative and for neglecting our human capital.  Again, here he is drawing sharper lines than the consensus-seeking Obama, and is willing to come out and say that one of these approaches (the one, it so happens, that he is implementing), retrenchment, is bad, and that the other, investment, is good.  But also that there’s nothing he can do about it. 

“There is no magic bullet other than stimulus” he said, “and stimulus has been stigmatized by the Republican leadership, and they want America to go through this straitjacket...that’s the gamble”.  And a costly one it’s proving. 

Crowley took him back to California’s unemployment—amongst the highest in the nation.  Brown predicted that it would rise further, which does indeed seem like to be the case.  Brown suggested (Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, take note) that there really isn’t anything that California can do in the short term, because the only place that stimulus funds and the big projects they create can come from is the federal government.  California can look for a long-term social and economic overhaul (with energy featuring most prominently for Brown), but its effects will be some time in coming.  “That”, he argued, “is what states do.  If Congress wants to curb the demand for goods and services through the public sector, that’s what we’re going to get...we can develop ways to help people, but we can’t create money or create a Rooseveltian spending program”.    

But Brown doesn’t, unlike many progressives, seem to believe that we can avoid cuts—he isn’t interested in the premise that a budget is nothing more than a tool that we should use as needed to implement those policies that we think square with our moral responsibilities to our fellow citizens.  “The only way you can justify more spending—which is more borrowing”, he said, “is to enact now changes in the entitlements.  Medicare, Social Security, military spending.  We’ve got to credibly save in the future by current law while still stimulating.  That’s the problem: you have to be able to cut back and to spend at the same time.  And that seems to be too sophisticated for some of those Conservative folks in the House of Representatives”. 

Brown also suggested, with characteristic disdain for what would be the talking points of most partisan Democrats, that it shouldn’t be any surprise that we are facing unemployment, because the character of employment before 2008 was driven by the housing and financial bubbles.  This is true.  Our decision to structurally appease the housing, financial and energy industries means that until we make a conscious choice to re-orient our economy in some particular way, those jobs aren’t going to miraculously return.

Brown, hoping to avoid the cuts that will be triggered should expected revenue in California not materialise (and July’s revenues were much lower than estimated), is banking on a measure on the ballot in the coming year.  But the sad thing is, I don’t think people will vote for tax increases, however logical those increases might be.  It’s as though that’s why people put legislators do the things they might know to be right, but can’t bring themselves to do.  People will voice support through polls or phone calls for legislators raising revenue, or for the programs that the revenue in question would save, but it’s much more difficult for them to tick the box on the ballot that will directly take a few more dollars out of their own pockets—even if they stand to benefit from the collective investment of those dollars.

Crowley asked Brown what he would most like to accomplish (legislatively) in the coming years.  Returning to his mantra in the ‘70s, Brown answered, “I’d like to get California to balance its books.  I also would like to regain our national, even international leadership in renewable energy”. 

At one point Crowley began a question by saying, “Not to get into anything too philosophical...”  But that is precisely the kind of conversation, you get the impression, that Brown would like to have.  And maybe it is why as Governor he is so incapable of dealing with the Republican Party, which he excoriated for its seemingly unbreakable grip on its “ideological obsessions, particularly the no-tax identity”.  And Brown is very right to call the “no tax” position an identity, for that is what it has become.

Whether because of temperament or because he had been removed from the revenue questions of state politics for decades, I think that Brown genuinely believed that he could lock himself in a room with Republican legislators, debate with them for hours on end, exchange philosophies of government, and talk their way around to consensus of one kind or another.  In that, he was very like Obama.  But you can’t reason with people for whom the means (taxation) have become an all-consuming ideology.   

At the last Republican Primary debate, Mitt Romney declared proudly: “I don’t believe in raising taxes”.  I’m not even sure I know what that means, and it would be clearly impossible to have an intelligent conversation with someone willing to say such a thing.  Rick Santorum said, while arguing against taxation, “We need to get the economy growing.  That doesn’t mean taking more money out of it”.  The breathtaking ignorance about the role of government—it is part of the economy, it is an investment, it can act as a stimulus—is a substantial impediment to the kind of dialogue necessary to breaking through the poltical impasse in which the country and California find themselves today.  And when candidates were asked whether, given ten dollars of cuts for every dollar of tax increases, they would still walk away from a deal, every single one of them raised a hand.  It’s easy to laugh at this kind of totally obscene idiocy, but we’ll be crying soon enough if these people take the Presidency and the Senate. 

So this makes you pro-tax? Crowley asked Brown.  The Governor rejected the label, pointing out that the conversation shouldn’t be about taxation per se, but about the consequences of failing to raise revenue.  That Republicans, the ineffective sector of the Democratic majority (seemingly in the ascendancy) and the media always want to turn the debate into a “to tax or not to tax?” conversation suggests that we are losing our ability to ask first-order questions.

We should not begin by having an argument about whether or not we want government, whether government should be “big” or “small”, whether or not we want taxation, at what level that tax should be set.  Those are silly: if we want to live in civil society, we are going to have a government and we are going to need that government to raise revenue.  Rather, we should start with a conversation about the kind of country we want to live in, the kind of society we envision, and what responsibilities we have for each other within that society.  We shouldn’t be sitting around trying to decipher the Founding Fathers' intentions while facing an economic storm unleashed by forces those men couldn’t have conceived of, while living in a country that looks utterly geographically, socially, economically and politically different from the one they created.  We should, in some respects, be prepared to re-fit our country and state along lines that make it seaworthy for the twenty-first century.

Brown was right to reject the “to tax or not to tax?” binary, but it’s a pity he didn’t run on a more sophisticated platform.  He (and the state) are paying the price now. 

The bleakness that seems to feature in Brown’s political philosophy as a whole was also on display when Crowley asked him about national politics.

“I’m alarmed at where America is.  You look back in history, and all the elites and ruling families in Europe in 1914 were feeling pretty good about themselves...blindness is compatible with good breeding, good education and good relationships.  Well, we don’t even have that now in much of Washington, so I would just say we’d better be very careful where we’re going”.

 For someone who was famous as state Attorney General for having cordial relations with a Republican Governor and Republican legislators, Brown unmistakably sees the threat from Republicans as critical: “The Republicans are gearing up to destroy the President, and the President will have to respond in a very powerful way, and the result for America could be calamitous”. 

Crowley asked Brown whether he thought that Democrats bore part of the blame for the political impasse in Congress and in California, allowing that as a Democrat he would probably be less inclined to share out responsibility.  But Brown has never been a partisan, in part because he has never been ideologically at home in the traditionally social democratic party (he left the party in the 1990s), his current protestations aside. 

His response settled on the uniqueness of our own moment: “This is not just another political squabble...we are at a crossroads...if the republicans cannot give up some of their ideological baggage and if the Democrats cannot find a way to create common ground, the country is going to face some decline, and I think the only way out of that will be a very vigorous election where people lay out the stark alternatives, not muffle it like politicians like to do...I think we need a very clear, decisive election, and I think the filibuster needs to be a real filibuster...they should have to talk like they did during the civil rights days, where they talked for 64 days and then the filibuster was broken, but that it was held for only the most important matters and not for secondary judicial nominations.  You can’t govern a society with a 60 vote requirement”. 

Crowley pressed him on what strategy Obama should adopt to illustrate the stark options facing the public.  Brown declined to offer advice, resorting to what commentators have caricatured as his Zen-Master approach (on display during the interview when he spoke repeatedly about summoning “inner power” and the “pathways” we must collectively take): “[The President] has to dig down into his own soul and connect with the people of America at this hour of peril.  This is real peril, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about the United States before”.

So it’s possible? Crowley asked.

Yes, Brown allowed, “But it may be that because of the propaganda or the state of indulgence where we are...maybe the truth cannot be spoken in a way that makes it a successful campaign, and if that’s true, then we are really in for it”. 

This is dark talk indeed from the man who has been around state and national politics since his father became a district attorney in 1943 and who only one year ago was campaigning on the promise of restoring the California dream and the state’s sense of boundless optimism, and is perhaps a mark of how unsettled our times are. If he runs for re-election, he probably will not get my vote.  But he is a serious public servant who has given a lot of thought to the governance of the most populous, complex state in the country, and who should be taken seriously.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Building a National Park: Uganda

In 1952, the Ugandan Legislative Council passed the National Parks Act.  This was not the first step towards the creation of National Parks in Uganda.  Game Reserves had been created in 1925 (the same year that the colony’s Game Department came into being), and the government of the Congo (ruled by Belgium) had urged the Ugandan government to create a park on the border to complement the continent’s first park—Albert National Park—that had been created on the other side to protect the Mountain Gorilla and its habitat (such a park would have been a forerunner of what are today called “Peace Parks”, or somewhat less poetically, Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas).  Uganda’s energetic Chief Game Warden, C R S Pitman had long supported the idea, and a 1933 Convention signed in London by most European colonial powers was designed to push for parks and sanctuaries. 

But the 1952 Act was definitive.  Even it, however, did not assure the creation of parks, because it required that local authorities be consulted, and African were (rightly) suspicious of Europeans’ motives.  Rennie Bere, avid mountaineer, District Commissioner, and later Director of the Uganda National Parks, recalls chatting with Sir George Rukidi, Omukama of the Toro Kingdom, singing the praises of the National Parks idea.  “National Parks like your anthem, I suppose”, Rukidi deadpanned, “but nothing to do with us”.  The Uganda National Congress was most vocal in its criticism of the parks idea.

But in spite of criticism from the Toro Kingdom and the Acholi, the parks went ahead, and the Board of Trustees included the Reverend Asa Byara and B J Mukasa (a LegCo member and Bunyoro leader who would go on to sit on the 1959 Constitutional Committee). 

Informed as the National Parks idea was by the earliest parks of the United States, it embraced a dual function: on the one hand, the protection of species and the preservation of habitats; on the other, an educational and recreational site that Ugandan Attorney General Ralph Dreschfield noted should not be just another place set aside “for the enjoyment of a few immigrant Europeans and visitors”. 

If Murchison Falls National Park (amongst the most popular in Uganda today) and other parks were to be open to the public, they had to have roads, offices, accommodation and boundaries.  The creation of the infrastructure that is today so central to the wildlife industry that dominates eastern Africa was no mean feat. 

Sometimes the National Parks staff had help, as when an unwitting surveyor decided that the easiest route for the road was the exact route used for years by successive elephant herds.  At other times the wildlife was less accommodating.  Ken Beaton, the interim Director and Warden, decided that his 3’x3’ office was too small when a spitting cobra took up residence. 

One Justin Tokwara was given the task of demarcating the park boundary between Chendago and the Nile.  His task was not an easy one, and the physical labour required was complicated by the repeated attempts of porters and labourers to back out.  It is not clear whether they had volunteered or been conscripted for the assignment, but it was clearly more than many of them had bargained for.  “On arrival [at Chendago village]”, Tokwara wrote, “the porters refused to enter the bush or proceed on foot”.  Then as on other occasions, he used their provisions as leverage.  “If they were not going to work”, he recalled asking them, “what did they think they were going to eat that day?”  Going was slow: in one week the party moved a mere four miles.  After crossing a river, the crew saw what for most of them were their first elephants.  “When seeing them for the first time”, according to Tokwara, “everybody was happy, laughing and shouting so that the elephants take interest.  The second time everybody is afraid and runs away.  Most of the porters did not know elephants before, but now they know them, also buffalo and lions and hippo.  They know them well”. 

Tokwara and his men laughed when a game guard called Peter arrived, asking him how he was supposed to protect them if he couldn’t shoot the animals in the park.  Tokwara urged his party on, routinely telling them that the Nile was just over the next hill.  When they at last reached their destination and turned to make the return journey, things only got more difficult, and the homeward march turned into what must have been a horrific experience for the work crew.  “[One afternoon] we found very many buffaloes.  There were a hundred of them by the side of the way.  They kept on running at us, and the porters were tired and afraid”.  Tokwara addressed his bruised, sun-beaten, under-fed men, ordering them to form a line and not to run when the buffalo charged.  Faced with a charge of seventy tons of black, horned, snorting buffalo, his men stood their ground, and the buffalo lost their nerve.

If the days were bad, the nights were worse.  Herds of elephants grazed around the camp, and the men lay in their tents, fearing for their lives.  Elephants, the populations of which had exploded thanks to protection by colonial legislation, caused such damage to shambas in Uganda that its first wildlife department was actually created as an Elephant Control Department, charged with culling as many as 1,500 elephants in a year. 

“In the night”, Tokwara related, “elephants come again, but I say to the guard, ‘Don’t shoot’.  He is very angry and throws his rifle down.  ‘Why do you tell me this?’ he asks.  So I put one man in the top of a tree to watch the elephants in the long grass.  All night long he calls out: ‘They are coming!  They are going away!  They go this way!  They go that way!’”  Later in life, Tokwara narrowly escaped being crushed by an irritated pachyderm, but even at this stage, as a game department employee, he would have had a keen sense of the animals’ destructive power: many a ranger, warden and game guard had been killed by elephants in the course of undertaking control duties. 

But morning came at last, when the sentry in the tree called down to say that the elephants were going away.  “We had been standing all day”, Tokwara remembered, “but now we sleep.  So we finish our work; or round the Nile and back again in 29 days.  Hard work to be done in one month”. 

I know nothing about the conditions in which Justin Tokwara related his account of the demarcating of Murchison Falls National Park (but I hope to find out).  His narrative was seized upon by his superiors as evidence of African good-will and as an example of the kind of public servant that could be found in the colony (to refute the naysayers who argued that decolonisation would bring the wholesale destruction of Africa’s wildlife).  What I do know is that accounts like his are few and far between and offer an opportunity to understand how one small group of Africans experienced the creation of “their” National Parks. 

-- Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library, The Story of Uganda National Parks, RCMS 170 (pages 7/14 to 7/18).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

London could California

There were no columns of smoking rising out of London as my plane passed over on Wednesday afternoon and indeed, little outside of the not-unusual hysterical headlines to indicate that one of the world’s great cities had just been torn by days of protest and rioting, whole neighbourhoods in some cases reduced to smoking wreckage. 

The analysis emerging in the British political world in the aftermath of the social unrest that gripped London for several days is vapid even by the standards of that less-than-elevated sphere.  In truth, the response of officials shouldn’t be at all surprising.  Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the riots as “criminality pure and simple”.  The usual rules of justice were temporarily discarded (the invocation of a state of emergency eerily similar to practises used by Britain in its despotic policing of colonial territories), and first-time offenders were imprisoned en masse despite public servants warning of the risk of creating “colleges of crime”.  Cameron also suggested that Facebook, Twitter and text messaging could be switched off to aid the police.  Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, blamed a “me first” culture, thereby sidestepping addressing the root causes (which his party largely ignored for years) of unrest while identifying some fuzzy Thatcherite ill.  Nick Clegg, supposedly representing the voice of reason in the right-wing coalition, gave the police his full backing and praised them for the “brilliant job” they had done, ignoring the fact that the protests which led to the riots broke out over the killing of an unarmed man by police.

Cameron joined councils in calling for the eviction of rioters (along with their families), as though putting them out on the street will contribute to solving the problem.  The Tories’ language here is worth noting.  Cameron: “For too long we’ve taken a too soft attitude towards people that loot and pillage their own community.  If you do that you should lose your right to the sort of housing that you’ve had at subsidised rates”.  Eric Pickles (Communities Secretary): it’s no time to “pussyfoot around”.  This mirrors their approach to public sector workers.  Oliver Letwin, onetime Shadow Chancellor and current policy minister, argued that what public sector workers need is “some real discipline and some fear”.

The problems are: a) that none of these measures even attempt to address the causes of the disturbances; b) that they risk exacerbating the situation; c) that they pose a threat to civil liberties; d) that in their unseemly urge for revenge they might very well abuse the families of perpetrators as well as the perpetrators themselves.

It is likely that Britain (and quite possibly the United States) will see further unrest of this nature, if perhaps on a smaller scale.  The fight against unrest “at home” will become the next “War on Terror” in the sense that those behind any “unrest” will be treated as an inexplicable evil to be uprooted rather than understood.  Any civil unrest will be shamelessly and dishonestly conflated with organised protests against cuts to social services and used as casus belli for a war on the unions (Wikipedia already needs a note explaining that the 2011 riots in London are not the same thing as the 2011 protests against cuts to the public sector).  Those who commit the cardinal sin of trying to explain the underlying causes of riots or protests will be attacked every bit as savagely as the rioters and protesters themselves.

The war (to my knowledge, no one has yet used the word, though it is likely only a matter of time) on domestic unrest will also likely mark the next great abdication of our rights.  David Cameron was praised by no less than the Chinese government for proposing to give authorities the power to shut down Twitter and Facebook should such an Orwellian move serve the “national interest”.  And BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) did exactly that to cell phone service in the face of protests against one of its officers’ shooting of a homeless man (he was armed, but this continues a disturbing trend of trigger-happiness and brutal violence on the part of BART police).

Already, we are hearing that the burning of buildings and cars, the looting of shops, are despicable, abhorrent actions, which are beyond our understanding and arise from some intrinsic moral deficiency on the part of their perpetrators.  And of course these are, to many of us, despicable acts of violence and destruction that are difficult to understand, ruining and endangering as they are, the livelihoods of other people.

But there is a reason that we find it difficult to understand these actions.  They violate our sense of what it means to belong to a given community (national, local or otherwise).  They feel like they’re being committed by people who are outside of that community, who can’t possibly be living within the same moral framework.  And therein lies the rub: by these people’s rights, they don’t live in the same society as the classes who are wont to comment on them as though they were animals rather than people, nor do they share the same moral framework.  Shunned by their political representatives and potential employers (employment statistics for young men in the neighbourhoods at the heart of the riots are sobering), people will justly feel like social and economic outcasts.  When membership in a nation is defined by the ability to access services, to live a particular kind of lifestyle defined by the promise of social democracy, and when a growing class of people is unable to obtain those services or realise that promise, we are looking at two different nations.

The hard truth is that people who rioted in London did nothing more and nothing less than the economic gangsters whose avarice lies behind our economic collapse.  Rioters in London have done it in a more physically violent and visually spectacular manner, but it is not one iota more destructive than the violence perpetrated against our social system by those who mug by contract rather than at knifepoint.  Indeed, far less.  And people see this.  And they've seen one kind of criminal, who shows utter disregard for moral niceties, who bankrupts hundreds of thousands of people, who plunges an entire nation into turmoil, not only get away with nary a slap on the wrist, but actually profit from their actions. 

Christopher Hitchens was right to point out that the present round of cuts to education and social services can’t bear all of the blame for the riots in London.  But he is wrong to insinuate that a kind of citizen activism—calling out rioters, haranguing them in public—is the solution.  The economic and social chasm that exists between the people burning cars and ransacking shops on the streets of London, and their detractors in civil society, the press and government, has been a long time in the making.  The wealth inequality that Margaret Thatcher glorified during the 1980s continued during the 13 years of Labour rule and will very likely be exacerbated by Britain’s experience of the economic downturn.  In the United States, between 1952 and 1972, the share of wealth of the top 10% never rose above 35% of the total.  Today estimates put it at over 50%.  Wealth inequality, as in Britain, rose dramatically during the 1980s and temporarily levelled off thereafter.   

Today, David Cameron’s coalition is steadily eroding the welfare state that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War and which, for many years with the support of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties, aimed for full-employment.  Median wealth in the United States dropped by 36.1% as a result of the housing crisis and recession, but only by 11% for the top percentile.  Tellingly, the bottom 80%, as of 2007, possessed only around 15% of the country’s net worth and financial wealth.  Wealth inequality, self-evidently, translates into inequality of another kind.

When the combined wealth of the two riches Californians equals our projected budget deficit for the year 2011-2012 (A Portrait of California: 5), and yet our leaders resort to cutting support for health-, education-, environment- and safety-related agencies and programs, they should be made to explain very clearly what kind of society they think is going to come out of this, and what sort of values they think they are reflecting.  A Portrait of California reveals that “by 2005, California taxpayers in the top 20 percent were reporting 64 percent of all the income in the state, up by 50 percent since 1975.  The income share of the middle 60 percent fell from just over half in 1975 to only one-third in 2005”.  The report identifies the failure of wages to rise in real terms, the failure to produce sufficient skilled workers to meet the state’s economic and social needs (and the concomitant wage disparity produced by the resulting earnings gap), the decline in the number of “middle-wage” jobs in favour of high-earning technical and low-earning service classes, and falling unionisation rates (117-118). 

The results: inequality; unemployment and underemployment (a similar problem in Texas—the part of Perry’s “economic miracle” that he doesn’t tell you about); disparities between different ethnic groups, age groups, and regions; “precarious housing, frequent moves, and homelessness”; poor, differentiated and segregated services; and “residential segregation” (120-123).  In other words, a situation very like that in London, and quite possibly much worse in some areas, given our already-paltry and shrinking welfare system.

If we refuse to understand the consequences of crafting economic inequality, and if we refuse to admit that the social turmoil and dispossession this causes has roots in policy, we are deluding ourselves. 

Mike Davis, sometime historian, commentator, and currently professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, is often credited with predicting the 1992 Los Angeles riots.  But I suspect that Davis would be bemused by the awe he is correspondingly accorded.  Then, as now, all we need to do is pick up a newspaper, think critically about the relationship between our economic framework, our social world, and the interactions of people within those to imagine the consequences.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mitt Romney and the Irreducible Core

Tony Blair got no end of flak for talking about his “irreducible core”, because that was the kind of absurd jargon that only a well-paid New Labour PR team could have come up with (New all seems so long ago now!). 

Now we all know that Mitt Romney has no problem with corniness (witness his announcement speech...), but I suspect that this business of the core—let’s call it The Core, for emphasis—will be something that troubles both the lunatics in the GOP primary and voters at large.

I can almost picture Romney on the operating table, a surgeon and his team hovering frantically over him.  “Team, we’ve got to find The Core before it’s too late!  Get on it!”

“Here Doctor, I’ve found his healthcare plan in Massachusetts!”  “Well done, that looks like the basis for a practical and humane philosophy.  Dig a bit deeper, we must be close to The Core”.

“But wait, over here...I’ve found him inveighing against healthcare reform as a “government takeover” and talking about the Obama Misery Index!”  “Abort!  Abort!  Look elsewhere!”

“But over here he’s advocating for keeping the minimum wage in line with one could retreat from such a basic defence of the need to preserve the ability of the working classes to live decent lives!”

“Don’t cut just he’s arguing that sustaining corporate welfare is more important than the well-being of the working class!  And now we have him arguing that corporations are people!”

 “Ah, but here Doctor, he’s supported a woman’s right to an abortion.  Surely this speaks to a respect for civil liberties and equality of gender?”

“Not so fast, nurse!  Over here I’ve got him denying that he was ever pro-choice!”

 “Ah, but at last we’ve settled on a shred of commonsense...he supported gun-control measures in 1994 and noted that this move would hardly make him beloved of the NRA”.

“Hold your horses now...he bought a lifetime NRA membership in 2006 and has been touting his hunting prowess (admittedly limited to “small varmints”) ever since!”

Maybe, in an effort to jazz up Romney’s campaign in the face of onslaughts from the wild-eyed lunatic from Minnesota and the hard-charging idiot from Texas, they could commission a graphic novel: “The Core: Saving America!”.

Or if his bid for the presidency goes south, he could create a television show, “The Core”, in which the suited hero travels from one galaxy to the next in search of a philosophy to pilfer.  I can see it selling really well with the ages 5-9 crowd.