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The city-state redux

16 Sep

Jamie Bartlett, in Aeon:

Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.

But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.

Maybe Trump was right”

On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century.

Tough, of course, The Donald doesn’t believe in climate change. Continue reading


Has the nation-state become obsolete?

29 Sep
Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet
Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.
Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.
And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.
Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.
Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.
How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?
These are not normally scientific questions – but that is changing. Complexity theorists, social scientists and historians are addressing them using new techniques, and the answers are not always what you might expect. Far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon. And as complexity keeps rising, it is already mutating into novel political structures. Get set for neo-medievalism.

On Diverse Uses of Public Lands: An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul

9 Jan

The armed standoff in Oregon concerning the Malheur Wildlife refuge is only the latest is a long series of conflicts over “public” lands, as R. McGreggor Cawley has pointed out in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. In a quick overview of that history he points out:

In other words, the federal government has attempted to do what Payne, Ammon Bundy and their compatriots ask — “return the land to the people.” Had the Western states accepted the offer, we might have avoided a long train of controversies leading to the Oregon occupation. But when the Western states declined, the second caveat in the Hoover committee recommendations was put into play, and Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, establishing a permit-and-fee system for regulating grazing on the public lands. All of that was to be administered by the Department of Interior’s federal Grazing Service — an entity that would eventually become part of the Bureau of Land Management.

But things, as we see, didn’t work out. Conflicts remain. He concludes:

This is what’s important about public-land conflicts: They raise thorny questions about abstract political concepts like democracy. Creating wilderness areas, or instituting environmental regulations, inevitably restricts someone’s access to the land or the purposes they would prefer to see it put to. For those who are restricted, the government’s action may not appear very democratic. It’s in these disputes that we get outside the abstractions of political science and reckon with big questions in a very immediate way: How do we all decide what this land is for, how best to use it, who can be trusted to administer it and how our competing visions for it can be heard — right down to each acre of grass, each deer and each gallon of creek water?

It is in this context that Charlie Keil has drafted an open letter to Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul in which he urges that recognize a diversity of use categories for public lands – the Federal Government administers an eighth of the nation’s landmass – and that we listen seriously to “the armed cowboys in Oregon”.

* * * * *

Open Letter to Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul,

Could you both endorse a statement along the following lines?

We need to recognize a variety of different kinds of public lands: Wilderness, boondocks, the commons, public property, all increase the value, the sacredness, the importance, the preciousness of private property.

We need to create 1) true wilderness areas, 2) wilderness corridors, 3) boondocks surrounding the wilderness areas and corridors working as buffer zones where only a very few people are specially permitted to go there (mostly for religious or spiritual reasons), 4) commons for grazing and other seasonal usages, and 5) public properties with rules for local community sharing. The more we do this, the better off all the diversity of species and diversity of socio-cultural systems will be. The healthier the wilderness, boondocks, commons and public lands are, the happier the human individuals and societies will be.

Finally, the values and treatment of private properties will be enhanced in direct proportion to the amount of land we can safeguard, keep beautiful and healthy all around our human settlements. What might be called a win, win, win, win, situation for all of Creation! And for all of humanity too. The very opposite of a “race to the bottom” or a “tragedy of the commons” in which everyone (people, plants, animals) become losers as a few people with big machinery plunder MotherNature some more.

I don’t believe the armed cowboys in Oregon are Jefferson’s yeoman farmers wanting to homestead. They seem more like the thugs that genocided the Native Americans to steal their lands. They are there in sympathy with convicted arsonists? Burning trees to create grasslands for cattle and more hamburgers? They want to renew the war between grazers and farmers? Do they stand for a land redistribution of some kind that I don’t understand? Let’s hear them out, amplify their message, have some discussions, explain the urgent needs for more wilderness, and then restore the land to wildlife refuge, this time with a boondocks perimeter, plus a commons where Wes Jackson’s perennial grains can be tried out.

Wish I could sign off as a vegetarian but I still crave some free-range chicken once in a while,

Charlie Keil

Why is there so little opposition to the hegemony of the super-rich?

21 Mar

What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:

American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What’s missing?

Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

The Germans are worried about high-tech corporate cowboys

12 Oct
Anna Sauerbrey, an editor of the daily, Der Tagesspiegel, in today’s NY Times:
How can Germany be both afraid of and in love with technology, and the companies that make it? The key is to look beyond those things, to the corporate model they represent.
The true origin of the conflict lies in the economic culture innate to those former Silicon Valley start-ups — now giants — that are taking the European markets by storm. To create and grow an enterprise like Amazon or Uber takes a certain libertarian cowboy mind-set that ignores obstacles and rules.
Silicon Valley fears neither fines nor political reprimand. It invests millions in lobbying in Brussels and Berlin, but since it finds the democratic political process too slow, it keeps following its own rules in the meantime. Uber simply declared that it would keep operating in Germany, no matter what the courts ruled. Amazon is pushing German publishers to offer their books on its platform at a lower price — ignoring that, in Germany, publishers are legally required to offer their books at the same price everywhere.
It is this anarchical spirit that makes Germans so neurotic. On one hand, we’d love to be more like that: more daring, more aggressive. On the other hand, the force of anarchy makes Germans (and many other Europeans) shudder, and rightfully so. It’s a challenge to our deeply ingrained faith in the state.
Very interesting. She’s right to be skeptical about these high-tech corporate swashbucklers. And it’s clear that the nation state is increasingly in trouble (see this post on virtual feudalism). If national governments can’t regulate these behemoths, who can?
It’s time to convene the Jivometric Advisory Committee of the New World Order.

Finally, the Truth About the A.I.G. Bailout –

29 Sep

Lincoln talked of government “for the people, of the people, and by the people.” He didn’t say anything about too-big-to-fail banks.

Starr contends that the government could have spent less money on A.I.G. — and therefore imposed less onerous terms on the company — had the bailout’s architects directed some of their tough love at the Goldmans and Deutsche Banks of the world. And Starr is hardly alone in making these claims. Ever since the details of the A.I.G. rescue entered the popular consciousness, everyone from members of Congress to financial commentators to Occupy Wall Street protesters and Tea Party activists have fulminated against the “backdoor bailout” of Goldman et al. By fully litigating the issue, the Starr trial may finally help heal this festering wound.

At the heart of the controversy is the fact that the government has never provided a plausible explanation for why the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which had enormous leverage over banks like Goldman thanks to its role as their regulator, didn’t lean on them to accept less than 100 cents on the dollar in their payouts from A.I.G.

via Finally, the Truth About the A.I.G. Bailout –

Symposium on Universal Basic Income (UBI)

13 Sep

Appearing in the Boston Review, discussion took place back in 2000. Philippe Van Parijs makes the opening statement and then replies to comments on it. Here’s the first few paragraphs of that statement:

Entering the new millennium, I submit for discussion a proposal for the improvement of the human condition: namely, that everyone should be paid a universal basic income (UBI), at a level sufficient for subsistence.

In a world in which a child under five dies of malnutrition every two seconds, and close to a third of the planet’s population lives in a state of “extreme poverty” that often proves fatal, the global enactment of such a basic income proposal may seem wildly utopian. Readers may suspect it to be impossible even in the wealthiest of OECD nations.

Yet, in those nations, productivity, wealth, and national incomes have advanced sufficiently far to support an adequate UBI. And if enacted, a basic income would serve as a powerful instrument of social justice: it would promote real freedom for all by providing the material resources that people need to pursue their aims. At the same time, it would help to solve the policy dilemmas of poverty and unemployment, and serve ideals associated with both the feminist and green movements. So I will argue.

I am convinced, along with many others in Europe, that–far from being utopian–a UBI makes common sense in the current context of the European Union.

Responses by: Herbert A. Simon, Emma Rothschild, Brian Barry, Anne L. Alstott, Fred Block, Katherine McFate, Gar Alperovitz, William A. Galston, Wade Rathke, Edmund S. Phelps, Elizabeth Anderson, Ronald Dore, Robert E. Goodin, Peter Edelman, Claus Offe.

Devolution: the basics | DEVOLUTION MATTERS

12 Sep

Aka smaller is better.

In essence, devolution is a way of enabling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have forms of self-government within the United Kingdom. The UK Parliament has conferred various sorts of legislative powers on the elected Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly to do this.

via Devolution: the basics | DEVOLUTION MATTERS.

The World Is Squared: Episode 1 – “Switzerland, Country of Joyce” — Crooked Timber

27 Aug

The independence of this little country is assured by the fact that it has long been understood by all the great powers bordering on the Alps that it’s probably in everyone’s best interests in the long term to have the key trade routes owned by a gang of ornery peasants who don’t want to be bothered by outsiders rather than having to fight over them all the time.

via The World Is Squared: Episode 1 – “Switzerland, Country of Joyce” — Crooked Timber.

Extra! Extra! Japanese Government Funds Distance Education on the Rez

1 Nov

No, it hasn’t happened yet. But who knows, stranger things have happened.

By “the rez” I mean, of course, the reservation. In this case I have no particular reservation in mind but rather am thinking of all 300+ of them as a collective entity that encompasses 2.3% of the landmass of the United States. While most of them are rather small, a few are quite large, with nine larger than the state of Delaware while the lands of the Navajo Nation are roughly the size of West Virginia.

What’s interesting about these Indian reservations is that the tribes possess tribal sovereignty, which means that in some respects these reservations are foreign nations. That’s why a few tribes have been able to get rich from gambling casinos on the rez. Federal and state laws don’t apply on the reservation, and if the reservation happens to be in the middle of are populated by people with money they’d like to gamble away, when then come on down!

But I’m not interested in gambling. I’m interested in poverty. Many reservations are, in effect, third world countries within the territorial United States. Over a quarter of Native Americans live in poverty as compared to 15% nationally. Poor people generally get lousy education and that, in turn, makes it difficult for them to work their way out of poverty.

And that’s where the Japanese come in. As I indicated in my post on Takeshi Utsumi, the Japanese government funds distance education in third world nations. Why not fund distance education in these third world nations that just happen to live within the territorial boundaries of the United States of America? Continue reading