Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein's new book is being excerpted in the Guardian. Here's a taste:

One of those who saw opportunity in the floodwaters of New Orleans was the late Milton Friedman, grand guru of unfettered capitalism and credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary, hyper-mobile global economy. Ninety-three years old and in failing health, "Uncle Miltie", as he was known to his followers, found the strength to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal three months after the levees broke. "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins," Friedman observed, "as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity."

Friedman's radical idea was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollars in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans' existing public school system, the government should provide families with vouchers, which they could spend at private institutions.

In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans' school system took place with military speed and precision. Within 19 months, with most of the city's poor residents still in exile, New Orleans' public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.

The Friedmanite American Enterprise Institute enthused that "Katrina accomplished in a day ... what Louisiana school reformers couldn't do after years of trying". Public school teachers, meanwhile, were calling Friedman's plan "an educational land grab". I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, "disaster capitalism".

Privatising the school system of a mid-size American city may seem a modest preoccupation for the man hailed as the most influential economist of the past half century. Yet his determination to exploit the crisis in New Orleans to advance a fundamentalist version of capitalism was also an oddly fitting farewell. For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock.

In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism's core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as "the shock doctrine". He observed that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change". When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the "tyranny of the status quo". A variation on Machiavelli's advice that "injuries" should be inflicted "all at once", this is one of Friedman's most lasting legacies.

In other words, we've got primitive accumulation all updated for a new era. You can't get your hands dirty expropriating people by force, so you wait for a disaster--or a war--to do it for you.


From the Wall Street Journal today:

Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.

These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. "There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims," Dr. Ioannidis said. "A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."

The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.
Unsurprisingly, the folks to seize a hold of this are no strangers to self-serving data analysis:

Exhibit #1: Blue Crab Blvd: "And what is one of the hottest fields right now? Why, it's global warming. What a surprise. "

Does Dr. Ioannides say that global warming research is one of the problem areas? No. This is entirely Mr. Crabs' interpolation.

Exhibit #2: Vox Popoli: "This doesn't surprise me in the slightest, especially in light of what we've learned in the course of the ongoing evolution debate."

Nothing that seems to confirm one's already set in stone opinions is likely to surprise one.

Of course, on the one hand we have a scientist critiquing scientists. Thus, science is corrected by more science. On the other hand, we have folks who will not believe anything science says unless it corresponds to their preconceptions and prejudices. Can you tell the difference?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

News flash: Politicians want to be liked!

The Psychology of Politicians

At some point not all that long ago I was chatting with a member of Congress who was a bit peeved because bloggers were hostile to the member during the campaign. I was surprised by this, because while lefty bloggers certainly can be hostile to Democratic politicians, I didn't remember that they had been hostile to this one. I said as much, and the member backed off and said that the discontent existed because the campaign had gotten relatively little attention from bloggers, which was true. The conversation finished with a quote something like, "Well you know, politicians. We just want to be liked."

I was taken aback by that because it wasn't really something that had ever occurred to me before. Sure we all want to be liked, but it hadn't really occurred to me that this was a key motivator of politicians. I doubt it is for all, but I suppose it is for some.
I'd propose that it is true for 90%. I'd further propose that is true for 99% of Democratic politicians. Dick Cheney doesn't give a flying fuck if he's liked by anyone. Bill Clinton wants nothing more than to be liked by everyone.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

This Is Your Father's Liberalism

Reading Kant ("On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory, but Is of No Practical Use"). One smart mofo, no doubt. What strikes me is how little liberalism has gone beyond his formulation of the rule of law & his conception of political legitimacy.

Certainly, citizenship is no longer restricted to male property owners, but that was accomplished more by economic changes than by a change in principle. Women and wage-laborers ceased to appear as dependent upon someone else for their economic existence. As capitalism became the dominant mode of production, labor-power had to appear as property equal to the tools and cottage of the artisan, or the field of the small farmer. Couldn't very well admit we were driving people into property-lessness, could we? But, like I was saying, this doesn't change the principle of mutually independent citizens.

Likewise, folks like Rawls have spent an inordinate amount of energy fine-tuning the sorts of things people can be thought of as possibly agreeing to. Nonetheless, the hypothetical justificatory schema remains the same.

There are new models of liberalism proposed all the time, but when you get past the fancy gizmos and new paint-jobs, and start kicking the tires and looking under the hood, you find pretty much the same engine.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Iran approaches. Are we ready?

I'll just shamelessly excerpt Josh Marshall's analysis:

You may have noticed the Iran boomlet over the last few days, the pitter-patter of rumors and hints that either a major military action or an Iraq-style PR/agitprop roll-out is set to start this week. Spencer Ackerman is looking into this over at And his reporting suggests that the 'source' of all this chatter is an order Dick Cheney has sent out to his proxies at the right-wing thinktanks to start laying the ground work for war with Iran. In the short run, the aim is to open up a new front in his struggle with Bob Gates and the Joint Chiefs (who think two wars are enough for now). In the medium term, the goal is getting the war started well ahead of the end of Bush's term.

For the moment, however, my attention is fixed on one of those 'hints', Reuel Marc Gerecht's piece in the current Newsweek, in which he argues that war with Iran is most likely to come not because of Bush-Cheney warmongering or a breakdown in negotiations but rather "an Iranian provocation."

It is worth stepping back for a moment to savor this claim in its full flavor. Clearly, this must be the kind of 'provocation' comparatively weak states again and again through history seem to make against extremely powerful states -- just before the latter provides a thorough beating to the former. One can of course think of various examples over the decades and centuries.

As the agitprop engines start churning again, it is worth stepping back and considering an undeniable fact. Iran is not a rival power to the United States. The idea that Iran is a threat to the United States in conventional military terms is laughable. A terrorist threat? Sure. But that's a very different kind of threat.

Another point: Iranian meddling in Iraq. Some points are so obvious that to state them seems almost redundant. But what exactly are we doing? This isn't to put our efforts in Iraq and Iran's on equal terms. The mullah's regime in Iran is brutish, illiberal and thuggish (though the comparison was a bit more helpful before Dick Cheney was out poster-boy of the rule-of-law, western civilization and democratic values). Like most people I put intervention based on my ideals on a different footing with that of those whose ideals I don't agree with. But to say that Iran -- which has deep historical and religious ties to Iraq and is ... well, right there -- is meddling while we've been occupying and running the country for four years is just silly. You may say that these are just aggressive ways of phrasing the issue and these fact are all known. So what's the difference? But the slow build up of lies and misdirections, over time, affects our thinking and our ability to reason at all coherently.