Thursday, 30 April 2015

Is Democracy as We Know It Unraveling?

by E.J. Dionne Jr., Truth Dig:  http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/is_democracy_as_we_know_it_unraveling_20150429

Sara / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The world’s democracies, perhaps especially our own, face a peculiar set of contradictions that are undermining faith in public endeavor and unraveling old loyalties.

There is a decline of trust in traditional political parties but also a rise in partisanship.

A broad desire for governments to reduce the levels of economic insecurity and expand opportunity is constrained by a loss of confidence in the capacity of government to succeed.

Intense demands for change are accompanied by fears that much of the change that is occurring will make life worse for individuals and families.

These crosscurrents are undercutting political leaders and decimating political parties with long histories. In Europe, movements on the far right and left (along with new regional parties) gain traction with disaffected citizens. Concerns about immigration reflect uneasiness among some over the social and cultural tremors in their nations.

At the same time, discontent about the economic decline that afflicts regions not sharing in the global economy’s bounty calls forth protest against the privileged and the well-connected. In both cases, anger is the dominant emotion.

The convergence of these forces is especially powerful in Britain, which holds a national election on May 7 and where neither of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour Parties is likely to win a parliamentary majority. In 1951, the two parties together secured 96.8% of all the votes cast. This year, they are struggling to reach a combined 70%.

In Scotland, long a Labour stronghold, the pro-independence Scottish National Party could take as many as 50 of the region’s 59 seats, which would block British Labour leader Ed Miliband from securing a majority.

But Miliband, who has run a better campaign than his foes expected, could still end up in power, partly because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the UK Independence Party, which is critical of both immigration and the European Union.

In Greece, the traditional social democratic Pasok party was nearly destroyed after the country’s economic collapse. The left-wing Syriza party took power this year because of deep frustration with economic austerity and anger over the terms being set by the European Union for a financial rescue. Far-right parties have gained ground in France and even in usually moderate Scandinavia.

In the United States, partisan splits have rarely been so deep and acrimony across party lines so intense. But these feelings don’t come from wildly positive views about the parties voters embrace.

In a widely discussed paper released earlier this month, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Emory University political scientists, noted that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”

It occurs, they write, when “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.” Yes, our current form of partisanship leads us to dislike not only the other side’s politicians but even each other.

And the frustrations voters feel provide each camp with ideological rocks to throw at their adversaries. In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63% of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59% also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, argues in the current issue of The American Prospect that this tension is partly explained by a widespread view that “special interests” have too much of a hold on government. He argues that voters “are ready for government to help - if the stables are cleaned.”

This makes good sense, but in the United States, as elsewhere, little of what’s happening in politics is reweaving frayed social bonds. The title of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers’ revelatory 2011 book, “Age of Fracture,” captured what’s happening to us. In our era, he wrote, “Identities become fluid and elective,” and if the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were a time of political and social “consolidation,” the dominant tendency now is toward “disaggregation.”

This is a big problem for self-government, since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries. They are not doing a very good job, and the unfolding 2016 campaign doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll do better.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Happy Earth Day! Reframing the Environmental Movement

by Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces: http://www.pps.org/blog/happy-earth-day-reframing-the-environmental-movement/

On this day in 1970, thousands of people gathered in New York City’s Union Square Park for the world’s first Earth Day celebration.

Those of us organizing events in cities all across the country were excited about the promise of environmentalism - not only as an effort to curb pollution and save the planet’s natural habitats and wildlife, but also as a powerful citizen’s movement. 
 

Front Page of The New York Times, April 23, 1970

In preparation, we convinced Mayor John Lindsay to shut down Fifth Avenue from Midtown to 14th Street, and to close off 14th Street and Union Square. Closed to vehicle traffic, these urban thoroughfares transformed into lively pedestrian avenues as well as stages for street theater and peaceful protest.

The mood that day was energetic and triumphant. Here we were - students, workers, activists of all stripes - together and full of hope, fighting for change in some of the city’s most historic public spaces and streets. 

Still, there was a heaviness looming over the event: the war was still raging in Vietnam, and rumors of its expansion into Cambodia were becoming more and more real (in only a few days, this anger would reach a tragic peak with the fatal protests at Kent State). 

Despite the sun and celebration, this was also a sweeping protest, and environmental activism often went hand in hand with the anti-war, civil rights, and student movements of the time.

We’ve made great strides since that first Earth Day - our air is less polluted, we’ve cleaned up toxic dumpsites, and we’ve overseen the passing of all kinds of environmental legislation - but today’s cities face some even greater challenges. 

While addressing environmental degradation, we also need to confront the increased inequity within our cities; we need think creatively and together about alleviating traffic congestion and unplanned sprawl; and we need to find ways to address growing health disparities and uneven access to public spaces and social resources.

We need a broader movement that can speak to all of these issues - one that can speak to and for every community. In some very exciting ways, the environmentalist movement of the 20th century has given way to a more localized focus on sustainable urban Placemaking in the 21st century.

Placemaking is both a philosophy and a process that works to strengthen the connection between people and the places they share. I was wary at first, when people began to refer to Placemaking as the “new environmentalism” (I’m more concerned with the process and results, rather than any kind of label or re-established “ism”). 

But the term does make some sense if we expand our usual definition of “environment” to include those places we call home - our streets, neighborhoods, communities - the places where our lives unfold every day.

The practice of Placemaking is of course not new, though until recently it’s been a relatively quiet movement. For decades, it has taken shape around citizen-led activism and thousands of grassroots efforts. More recently, in places like Detroit, public and private stakeholders have joined together to effect full-on re-animations of neighborhoods, downtowns, and sometimes even entire cities.

As the movement enters the mainstream, it is essential that every sector of society participates in it. And we need leaders at all levels - from community organizers to CEOs. The funding support we are now seeing for Placemaking shows that foundations and even large corporations are joining the cause, and recognizing the vital role public spaces play in our cities and communities.

Today, nearly half a century after that spring day in Union Square, the desire for transformative change is as strong as ever - though it has taken a new shape.

Let’s continue to do everything we can to address climate change and to protect our vast and troubled wildernesses - but let’s remember that this is just one aspect of saving the Earth. 

Let’s also work to make streets safer, encouraging people to walk and bike more and to drive less. Let’s continue lobbying for accessible and enjoyable public spaces, and for public markets that provide communities with healthy affordable food. Let’s stop building wide streets and sprawling parking lots that exacerbate pollution and global warming. Let’s turn impersonal and outdated strip malls into neighborhood centers that include mixed-income housing, public squares, sidewalk cafes, and convenient transit stops.

The Placemaking movement has emerged as a way to bring environmentalism back home. We all care deeply about the places where we live, and there’s nothing more inspiring than being able to see, and indeed be a part of, immediate change.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Why We Need to Ditch Austerity and Take on the Global 1%

Source: TeleSUR English
by Benjamin Dangl, Toward Freedom: http://towardfreedom.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3879:why-we-need-to-ditch-austerity-and-take-on-the-global-1&catid=33:globalism&Itemid=101

By next year, the richest 1% of the world will own more wealth than the rest of the entire population of the planet, according to Oxfam

This is a staggering figure, almost impossible to comprehend. 

And yet, this fact alone puts into focus a harsh truth: that we live in a fierce, inhuman, capitalist world where a handful of the richest people get richer and more powerful, even as governments across the globe enact austerity measures against the working class.
 
It is completely ludicrous that governments are carrying out austerity policies while the global 1% are set to clutch over half of the world’s wealth by next year. But here we are, watching the impossible unfold right in front of our eyes.
 
In Jamaica, IMF-imposed austerity measures are the most severe on the planet, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And, of course, the US is largely to blame. The CEPR explained, “through its leadership role in the IMF, the U.S. is imposing unnecessary pain on Jamaica through harsh austerity and a debt trap." Since 2007, poverty in the country has doubled, with unemployment currently at 14.2%.

While the double stranglehold of debt and austerity brings Jamaica to its knees, activists in Spain are also fighting against government cuts. Earlier this year in Madrid, there was a major mobilization against austerity measures imposed by the government, policies which have worsened homelessness and poverty among the poorest. Protesters carried banners reading “Working for a general strike” and ““Bread, work, a roof and dignity.” 

Between 2012 and 2014, the Spanish government made $162 billion in spending cuts. The country is experiencing an unemployment rate of 23.7%; one out of every four members of the workforce in Spain are unemployed, and half of all young people in Spain between ages 16 and 25 are without jobs. But people are fighting back. Protester Antonio Colmenar told reporters, “It is a day to claim our rights.” 

While the 1% fills their pockets, protests against austerity have been rocking the globe. In Montreal, Canada, students are leading the charge against cuts in healthcare, education and public services. “Today, we’re proud to launch a raucous spring,” Fannie Poirier, a spokesperson from the student protest committee told the Montreal Gazette in March. “Austerity measures have been presented as the lesser of evils to confront a deficient economy. But what we’re seeing … is a massive impoverishment of the population, full-frontal attacks on working conditions and a loss of security for society’s most vulnerable people.”
 
Even in Vermont, a US state known for its progressive politics, Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin has been pushing for austerity measures in education, healthcare and among public sector workers. 

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees' Association, commented on Shumlin’s moves to NPR, “Before you take money out of the paychecks of snowplow drivers, nursing assistants, custodians and administrative assistants … we believe you have a moral obligation to ask for a greater contribution from a broad-based revenue source paid mostly by the wealthiest Vermonters who have had all the economic gains of the last decade.”
 
Austerity is trumpeted by many politicians as a necessary, though painful step to ensure long term economic viability. But it’s simply a way of perpetuating, rather than challenging, capitalist business as usual, a business in which the global 1% get richer and richer while schools go without sufficient funding and workers get laid off.
 
Governments enacting austerity measures are protecting the 1% and global capitalism. And the 1% has more than its fair share of influence in government policy development. Oxfam reports that the global elite “spent $550 million lobbying policy makers in Washington and Brussels during 2013. During the 2012 US election cycle alone, the financial sector provided $571 million in campaign contributions.”
 
Meanwhile, according the Harvard Business School, CEOs in America currently make 350 times what the average worker makes, and 774 times as much as minimum wage workers. Such a concentration of wealth not only takes place with impunity in America, it is encouraged as part of free market ideology.
 
Since 1979, Americans have increased productivity by 80%. Yet, according to Forbes, income has not increased at the same rate, if it has increased at all. Furthermore, “the rich spend about 17% of their income traveling for business and pleasure” while “the lower classes spend about 17% of their income on feeding their families.”
 
Inequality is not a symptom of the ills of global capitalism, it is its fuel. Austerity measures won’t change this; they simply maintain an unjust system that needs to be transformed from the bottom up. The global 1% and their allies in government need to be confronted and overturned. The entire system needs to be overhauled in a way that puts people, not profits and greed, first.
 
Luckily, there are exciting movements fighting against this upside down world and proposing alternatives, from Greece to Vermont. “I believe in fighting against the system,” Sara, a protester against austerity measures in Germany told reporters. “It won’t change if you don’t do something.”

***
Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.

Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Community Resilience: Learn and Tell Toolkit

Image result for community resilience
rand.org
by Vivian Towe, Anita Chandra, Joie Acosta, Ramya Chari, Lori Uscher-Pines, Clarissa Sellers, RAND Corporation: http://www.rand.org/pubs/tools/TL163.html

Download eBook for Free PDF file, 1.3 MB

Abstract

This toolkit is intended to teach people about community resilience so that they can then educate others about resilience and resilience building. It uses a train-the-trainer approach. The LEARN section of the toolkit educates community members or organizations about basic community resilience concepts by providing definitions, stories, and additional resources.

The TELL section provides tips, talking points, games, and exercises about resilience to help users teach others about resilience. In addition to community members, organizations can use this toolkit to communicate with their staff and service populations about resilience.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Fact Check: Has Austerity Held Back Economic Growth?

Image result for austerity
brownpoliticalreview.org
by Simon Wren-Lewis, University of Oxford, The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/fact-check-has-austerity-held-back-economic-growth-40578

"In the last five years, austerity has undermined our public services, lowered the living standards of working people, pushed more children into poverty and held back economic growth" (Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish first minister and Scottish National Party leader at the party’s manifesto launch).

It is easiest to start at the end. Conventional macroeconomics would agree that fiscal austerity and cuts to government spending did hold back growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that austerity reduced growth by 1% in each of the financial years 2010-11 and 2011-12.

In the graph below, the orange bars show the impacts on growth of austerity expected in 2010 and the blue bar how they have changed. Others have higher estimates.

Implied impacts of discretionary fiscal policy on GDP growth OBR

The key point here is that because short-term interest rates had fallen as far as the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England thought they could go (0.5%), monetary policy was not able to offset the impact of fiscal contraction - cuts to government spending, or austerity.

Instead, monetary policy had to resort to Quantitative Easing: creating money to buy long term assets in order to put downward pressure on long term interest rates. Quantitative Easing probably had some effect on the growth rate, but almost certainly not enough to counter the impact of fiscal austerity.

Lower growth caused by fiscal austerity would normally mean one of two things: higher unemployment or lower living standards. An unusual feature of the past five years is how quickly unemployment has fallen, even though GDP growth has not been strong. As a result, the main impact of lower growth - including that caused by fiscal austerity - has been on living standards.
Standing tall against austerity. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Fiscal austerity has involved reduced public spending in many areas, including welfare payments. The general consensus among economists such as those at the Institute for Fiscal Studies is that fiscal consolidation has hit two groups more than most: the rich and the poor. It is therefore reasonable to say austerity in itself has increased child poverty.

As living standards have fallen generally, then relative levels of poverty in general - which measure the poverty gap - have not increased over the last few years, although absolute levels of poverty have. However, Sturgeon is careful in her statement to talk about the impact of fiscal austerity.

The assertion that fiscal austerity has “undermined our public services” comes close to being a tautology. To suggest otherwise you would have to argue that spending less on public services has only increased the efficiency with which they were delivered.

Verdict

Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the economic impact of austerity on the UK is correct, with no qualifications.

Review

I don’t have any major disagreements with the author’s analysis. There are two particular provisos that may be worth raising.

The first is that the stagnation in standards of living under the coalition period (and from before that) partly reflects the UK’s very poor productivity performance at this time. It could be argued that this largely reflects austerity: had demand been higher, companies would have been able to sell more which would probably have resulted in higher productivity.

For example, if a factory is idle, workers are under-employed or not able to get jobs in relatively high productivity sectors because of lack of demand. Alternatively the author may simply be arguing the austerity isn’t the only problem here, but it is one problem and so Sturgeon is correct.

Second, Sturgeon’s comment about child poverty might be worthy of some specific reference to what has happened to it. It is not my particular area of expertise, but the previous decline in child poverty appears to have been reversed around 2011, although has remained flat since, and this may be worth noting.

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to the May UK general election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

Click here to request a check. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible. You can also email factcheck@theconversation.com
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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Myth That Holds Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations Together

Steve Rhodes/Flickr
by Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/the-myth-that-holds-adam-smiths-wealth-of-nations-together-35674

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) is often called the Bible of capitalism.

Like the Bible, it is not known for careful arguments based on detailed data, but rather for its powerful myths, and also its use of parables, as outlined in a previous article.

Smith’s success is due to his ability to construct a comprehensive story that claims the reader’s assent. The central myth begins as follows:
In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison, than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house-carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier; a fourth, a tanner or dresser of hides or skins, the principal part of the clothing of savages.
The key feature of this peaceful, even Edenic, tribe is the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange - a disposition that leads to different talents and professions.

Further, the same disposition ensures that the different professions are of some use to one another, brought “into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for”. The myth continues a little later:
When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man’s wants which the produce of his own labour can supply. He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.

Wealth of Nations. Wikimedia Commons

Our primitive forebears were capitalists at heart, natural merchants in the business of specialisation, producing surpluses, and constantly exchanging them. Smith can be long-winded, so let me summarise the remainder of the myth.

Once our advanced forebears have busied themselves with their natural propensity to produce and “truck,” they soon find that others have enough of whatever is on offer. For example: I may have made plenty of back scratchers, but now that the tribe is full of aforesaid scratchers, I have nowhere to hawk my wares.

The solution: stockpile items everyone will want - salt, sugar, dried cod, back scratchers - so that when I want something, I can exchange these items.

Given the cumbersome nature of these items, someone comes up with the idea of using precious metals for such a purpose, at first weighed, but then standardised and minted as coins. Eventually, in our wisdom, we invent credit, or virtual money.

Smith repeats variations of this favoured myth on numerous occasions.

So powerful has this myth become, economists following in Smith’s wake repeat it ad nauseam. In economics textbooks, online forums, and classes on economics, “the most important story ever told”, in David Graeber’s words, has been retold again and again.

There is one problem: it is pure fantasy.

Where is this mythical village or tribe? Does it exist among North American Indians, Asian pastoral nomads, African tribes, Pacific Islanders, Greenlandic hunters, Australian Aborigines, or a small Scottish town of shopkeepers?

Is it limited to the past, or does it appear in some remote place today? Often in the same myth it moves from one place or time to another, producing an ethnic other as it does so.

But the simple fact is that this tribe or village never existed. No such community has ever been found, nor will it be, for it is the product of Smith’s imagination.

While it is necessary to point out the mythical status of this story and counter it with empirical evidence, such an approach is ineffective. No amount of “facts” will dent the power of myth, as Georges Sorel showed in his Reflections on Violence (1908). Instead, we need to ask what truth the myth expresses, given that myth is always split between fiction and a deeper, not always pleasant, truth.

I suggest the function of Smith’s myth is to create a new entity, a projection that that must gain an existence all to itself. This is “the economy,” or more specifically “the market". Here the epithet “free,” attached to “market” is a crucial signal, for the market should be - as a pure project - free from any ties.

And the reason why such a projection was needed was because a relatively new discipline - classical economics - needed an object of study.

This is the second in a series of three articles by Roland Boer on Adam Smith. Read the first here.
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