My good family friend Avram Barlowe penned this thoughtful piece which I think merits wider reading. Avram is a teacher in the New York City public school system and a union shop steward.
What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?
. . . and by extension, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?
Coming of age under the influence of the New Left, one of the political traits I developed was an enduring mistrust of powerful liberals and liberalism. There have surely been times in my life when that mistrust was misplaced and dogmatic. And decades of neoliberalism’s slow but steady erosion of the welfare state have certainly taught me the value of certain liberal reforms and the need, sometimes, to work within the system. However, I still believe in an aspect of the New Left’s critique, which suggests that liberalism is too often an accommodation masking capitalism’s injustice. I would also argue that social democracy as we have known it, with all of its considerable benefits, in both its European and American forms, is fundamentally a concession that capitalism is rejecting in the context’s of the left’s defeat. It should not be an end in itself. I understand that fatigue in the face of reaction at home, the failure of “really existing socialism” abroad, and a pragmatism born of conditions have narrowed the horizon for many decent, serious activists, but I think these people are engaged in denial to the extent that they accept the good intentions, if not the practices, of the “centrist” liberals who run the Democratic Party.
I’ve been stewing about this in recent weeks as I’ve perused assorted bits of news, which reveal the manner in which liberal Democrats have essentially conceded to the big banks the right of risky, financial speculation and the fiscal austerity/privatization that accompanies it. (If you doubt me on this one consider as examples the latest, paltry fines paid by UBS to settle [out of court] its “LIBOR” violations and by HSBC to resolve [out of court] its laundering of billions of dollars for Columbian and Mexican drug cartels, a clear violation of the Banking Secrets Act and the Trading With The Enemy Act. In each case, according to The New York Times, the government clearly “chose not to indict . . .for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.) I’m reminded that so many of the current policy’s architects are liberal, east coast Democrats, products of prestigious educations, the best and brightest, just as were their 1960’s counterparts (except that this time several of the wise men — Jack Lew, Gene Sperling, David Plouffe, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel — are Jewish, as are their not-so-informal guru, Bob Rubin, and myself). And when one takes a closer look at their profiles, credentials, interests and political actions, the parallels to the 60’s are rather striking.
Yves Smith wrote a smart blog piece this week on Jack Lew, Obama’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, that examines Bob Rubin’s influence in the Obama Administration. (Lew, by the way, worked with Rubin in the Clinton Administration and later was one of a group of former Clintonites recruited by Rubin at Citigroup.) It includes a telling description of Rubin’s liberalism:
“Rubin was admired by everyone for his low-key personal style. Rubin always had a big heart and a gentle manner: He was a liberal Democrat who, as a young trader at Goldman Sachs, used to show up at New York community meetings on the inner-city poor. Later on he opposed Clinton’s welfare “workfare” reform—a much-criticized compromise with the GOP—as too harsh. . . .
In the year 2010, in an interview with me a decade after his star turn as Treasury secretary, as the floodwaters of the subprime disaster lapped at his executive suite in the Citigroup building on Manhattan’s East Side, Rubin mulled over the consequences of what he had wrought. ‘We have a market-based financial system, and yet we have a whole bunch of institutions that are too big or too interconnected to fail,’ Rubin said in puzzled tones. “Yet the market-based system is the way to go. How do you reconcile all that? The fundamental theory of the [market] case is premised on the notion that failure or success reaps their own rewards. But now that’s not happening.”
The quotation cited here is quite an admission. One wonders why someone capable of it and someone apparently concerned with the plight of marketplace “losers” doesn’t renounce the present system and call for or seek an alternative. The answer, of course, is that he and others like him are deeply vested in the system, ideologically, emotionally, and, perhaps most important, materially.
Now consider for a moment one of the New Left’s defining moments, the words spoken by SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s at the first national March on Washington protest against the Vietnam War:
“We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.”
I know some will argue that it’s wrong to compare the horrors of Vietnam to our current economic problems. But substitute the casino economy and growing inequality for Vietnam and the liberals yesteryear for the liberal leaders of today and you have an analogy that fits. As Yves Smith notes, “we have created a free-market system dominated by institutions so huge and systemically important that they no longer have to play by free-market rules.” Bob Rubin and proteges such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag and Jack Lew — honorable, liberal men all — have done as much as anyone to create that system. And the lives of ordinary people are being damaged and destroyed in order to preserve a power structure, just as they were in the Vietnam War.
To those who would deny this or question the wisdom of placing the system on trial even as we fight to defend and advance reforms, I would ask you to consider as well the closing of Oglesby’s speech in today’s light as well:
“Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals. If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it – not in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution?And if your commitment to human values is unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough.
We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government – are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.
There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.”
Carl’s words are hardly a program for working within and beyond the system today, but the approach and spirit they represent remain highly relevant. ‘Nuff said for now.
It’s been pretty quiet around here lately, due to the fact that I changed jobs last month and am incredibly busy as a result. Right now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to continue to update this blog with regularity. I’ve enjoyed writing Hold Fast off and on for the last four years. I’m sure that even if I enter a state of blogging hibernation, I’ll end up turning the lights back on in the future. Stay tuned and thanks, as always, for reading.
Via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.
Econ4 economists put out a statement on housing accompanying this video. It includes this passage, which I think is spot-on:
We oppose treating the nation’s housing as a bundle of assets to be sliced, diced, flipped, and bailed out in pursuit of inflated profits and bonuses.
We call for reality-based, ethically grounded housing policies that restore stability to families and sanity to markets.
We call for mandatory partial reductions of mortgage principal whenever this can keep a family in its home. We call for America’s best run housing non-profits to be paid to provide the counsel required to determine when such modifications will work. We call for civil and, when necessary, criminal sanctions on banks and loan-servicing companies whose employees intentionally obstruct implementation of mandated loan modifications.
We call for amending bankruptcy laws to restore pre-2005 rules that protected families and communities from bank depredations.
We call for immediate return to the rule of law by requiring those who seek to foreclose to demonstrate they have the proper title and rights to do so – with stiff legal penalties if they ignore the law.
In response to recent moves by the top 1% to buy distressed housing and convert it to rental stock as absentee landlords, we call for local, state and national standards to protect families from predatory rental practices.
We extend our support to all who are working in the private, non-profit, and public sectors to promote access to affordable and stable housing as a human right of families and an asset for communities.
Matt Stoller interviews Neil Barofsky, who says he’d be happy to serve as chairman of the SEC, if the President nominates him. He and Stoller talk about what he would do as SEC Chair and the important role the SEC has to play to regulate the banking system and make sure we don’t ever go through another collapse like 2008.
Barofsky would make a stellar pick for the SEC. Not that my opinion goes far, but still, he’d be a great choice.
Alex Pareene offers up some great strategic advise for Democrats in DC:
If Democrats want to get the big pundits on their side, they should pull a Boehner and just name whatever it is they’re trying to pass “The Simpson Plan.” That should be the name they use when they reintroduce card-check. And cap-and-trade. Planned Parenthood should rename itself “The Simpson-Bowles Planned Parenthood” and then no one will ever again try to defund it, I promise.
The funniest part of this is that Pareene thinks Democrats would introduce legislation to provide any sort of increase in power for America’s workers.
Yesterday the 92nd Tibetan self-immolated in Tibet while calling for freedom since 2009, most in the last year. Think about that for a minute – 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire while calling for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet.
In Foreign Policy, Michael Biggs has a piece on the differences between suicide bombers and self-immolators. The Chinese government has tried to depict Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists. But Biggs points out that self-immolators aren’t trying to scare people, but send a message about how deeply they hold their beliefs:
Suicide protest does not achieve these ends; its logic is communicative rather than sanguinary. To quote Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause.” Choosing a painful means of death — burning, most obviously — amplifies that signal still more. The communication, moreover, can be directed toward various audiences. Sometimes it is a disinterested and faraway public, and the self-immolator hopes to attract the public’s attention and win its sympathy. At other times the self-immolator addresses his or her own group, hoping to enhance the group’s commitment to the cause.
Biggs sees this as a phenomenon which will continue, even in the face of more repression in Tibet:
So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.
What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack’s sanguinary logic — and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today’s world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China’s inability to prevent us from reading about — and in some cases even watching — the immolations in Tibet.
Biggs is likely correct, though it’s hard to imagine this tragic epidemic is continued to be met by functional silence by the world’s governments. As long as China’s continued response is one of repression, Tibetans will continue to struggle to throw of the yolk of their occupation. More Tibetans will likely see self-immolation as their only option for impactful political organizing. It’s hard to comprehend the depths of despair felt by Tibetans inside of Tibet, but at the same time, these actions tell you how deep it must be, even if it is a depth beyond comprehension.
Yotam Maron has a good piece on Occupy Sandy and turning community organizing in response to a crisis into organizing to produce proactive policy solutions that we need. It’s definitely worth reading.
Community-based organizing around mutual aid creates a tremendous opportunity to move people affected by crises to a new political viewpoint that is informed both by what happened to them and by who and how they were aided in response. That’s why organizing victims of bank greed in the foreclosure crisis and fossil fuel company greed in the climate crisis makes so much sense. Finance capital and the fossil fuel industry are two of the most powerful sectors in our country and the world. We will only be able to shift power from these few massive corporations to people in a democratic way when opportunities to organize and provide aid are seized in moments of crisis. Think of it like a reverse shock doctrine.
I’ve been quite skeptical of the value of Warren Buffett as a key advocate for Democrats around tax policy and social spending (see: here, here, and here). While Buffett is supportive of the not-bad idea that rich Americans should pay higher taxes, he’s been either vague or advocated small increases – while coupling his tax positions to advocacy for cutting spending, including for the social safety net.
On Sunday, to much fanfare, Buffett penned an op-ed arguing for a minimum tax for the wealthy. But his suggestion is fairly small bore: “I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that.” I’m in favor of it as it’s an improvement over the current tax structure, but this is hardly a proposal that merits rampant celebration from the left.
If you have any doubt that this is nothing more than a proposal which would provide the patina of progressive taxation with an eye towards reducing inequality in the US, look no further than Buffett’s comments today, in which he says that of all the people in America, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon would be President Obama’s best choice for a new Treasury Secretary.
Given we are still suffering from the damage inflicted on the economy by Wall Street banks, including Dimon’s JPMC, in the inflation and bursting of the housing bubble, the idea that Dimon would be a good pick for Treasury Secretary is just bonkers.
I’m glad there are people like Buffett who have the courage to say that they are wealthy enough to afford higher taxes. But just because he throws out a tiny morsel clinging to an old, dried-out bone doesn’t mean he’s someone to be elevated a spokesperson for the left in these debates.
I didn’t know this one, from David Dayen:
Of course, nobody is questioning why we’re holding to this artificial deficit reduction construct at all. As Jed Graham explains, over the last three years, the US has reduced the federal budget deficit more rapidly than at any time since World War II. This is an artifact of a relatively stronger economy leading to the reduction of spending on automatic stabilizers like unemployment and food stamps, as well as stimulus programs running out. But fiscal policy at the federal level has taken away from growth since mid-2010, and it’s poised to drag much, much more with implementation of these austerity measures. With borrowing costs so low, there’s no logical reason for this except to please elites, who really want lower tax rates and a smaller safety net and think that fearmongering on the deficit could provide a gateway to that goal. [Emphasis added]