Sunday, July 30, 2006

Book Review: Parecon, Life After Capitalism

     A few weeks ago I finished reading the book Parecon, Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert. Albert analyzes the parecon system in comparison to other economic systems, namely capitalism, market socialism, centrally planned socialism, and so-called green bioregionalism. He looks at their productive capabilities, as well as four other "economic values" that he thinks are important, these being equity, self-management, diversity, and solidarity.

     First I'll start off with what I didn't like. One of the biggest problems I had with the way it was written was that it was almost unbearably repetitive. Whether it was the mind-blowingly dull discussions of what day-to-day life would look like in a parecon or the fact that he always lists all of his economic values after discussing a certain aspect of a parecon, I found myself many times looking toward the end of the chapter wondering "how many pages do I have left?".

     Having said that, I'll take a look at the ideas of Parecon. Some of the core ideas, such as councils for the producers and decentralized planning, have been out there in the form of anarcho-syndicalism and council communism, so they certainly aren't new. In Parecon Albert lays out a very specific framework with how the different councils will interact with each other, with his iterative planning process, which he spends a good deal of time going into. While this perhaps is useful for the skeptic who might want to know an example of how it would work, Albert also admits that the process could be quite different for different societies. And I believe that he's correct in this, which is why it was hard for me to read his indepth discussion of how it would work when in reality the processes are likely to come about organically from the people. So this whole detailed process just seemed like mental masturbation to me.

    That brings me to another point-whether or not he's actually serious. At times I got the impression that he was trying to sell parecon too hard, because he would make some pretty outrageous claims. He claimed that a parecon economy could probably exist inside a country which was otherwise capitalist, but then also has said that it would be necessary to take private economic infrastructure and incorporate it into the participatory economy. What capitalist government is going to allow that to happen? Also, central to the Parecon idea and which isn't included in other council-based economies, is the idea of balanced job complexes. A balanced job complex is where all workers have the same amount of rewarding work and interesting work as they do dull, more manual work. The point of this is to let people learn the skills and gain the confidence necessary for them to participate constructively in their organizations and not simply waste their formal decision making power because they don't feel prepared enough to make decisions. While in a society with an extreme material abundance this might be something that might be worthwhile to pursue, it seems completely impractical for any time period even decades after a revolution (not to mention a parecon existing in a capitalist country!!). Again, it just doesn't seem like he's really that serious here.

     However, the book does have some virtues. He gives a good discussion on how people should be compensated for their economic activity, i.e. whether to reward property, effort, contribution, etc. It's critique of capitalism is also good, although there are better out there. Also, as I mentioned earlier, giving very specific examples how it could work might bring peace of mind to someone who believes that capitalism is the only way to go.

    All in all, I wasn't that impressed. It certainly doesn't compare with a couple of the other books that I've read this summer that have been absolutely great, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Praying Made Easy

    If you're like me, praying can be a real bitch. My prayer success rate is surely less than 100%, and because of this it's tough to decide when I should count on my prayers being answered, or when I should just get off the couch and make sure the cat has food myself. Luckily, there's a new product out that guarantees results (h/t breakerslion).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

     With all the events going on in the Middle East right now, and with the people over at Fox News anxiously hoping for World War 3, I can't think of a better time for people to watch the documentary Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land over at Google Video.

     The documentary examines the cause of the conflict, but perhaps more importantly, the inaccuracy and bias that is seen in the US media. This is shown through comparisons of news clips from the US and from foreign sources, such as the BBC. Commentary is provided by journalists, rabbis, Palestinians, former Israeli soldiers, media analysts, as well as Noam Chomsky.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Media Blitz

    A collection of interesting video clips, some commentary on the events in the Middle East today, and some documentary/movie reviews.

  • Bush in 30 Seconds--This is a political ad contest sponsored by MoveOn. I believe the competition ended a good while ago, but you can now see the top 150 ads online. I personally liked those done by Mark Vicente (#5 and #47).

  • Adam Carolla hangs up on Ann Coulter--This was pretty funny. Ann Coulter called in to Carolla's radio show 1 1/2 hours late and he just hung up on her.

  • John Gibson trying to stir up a war with Iran--Gibson claims that attacks on Israelis with rockets by Hezbollah is really Iran attacking the United States! Wow, that's shameless.

  • In a somewhat related story, the United States vetoed a UN resolution today that would have demanded that the Israelis cease their attacks, that the Palestinians release the kidnapped Israeli soldier, and that Hezbollah cease their rocket attacks. Why would the US do this? Well, U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton said that the resolution would have helped inflame passions in the Middle East. Hmmm...ending attacks=inflamed passions? You know, maybe he's right, perhaps it's better for the Israeli airforce to attack a suburb in Beirut. What a sad, cruel joke. Oh well, we're going to need all the terrorists we can make if we're gonna have a never-ending war on terror.

    Now to the documentary and movie reviews.

  • Land and Freedom--You can see a description at the link, but I really enjoyed this movie.

  • Fidel: The Untold Story--This is a really good documentary about the Cuban Revolution and Cuba's international actions since then. Naturally it is centered on Fidel Castro, who led the Revolution and continues to lead today. I thought it was a very interesting story and one that is certainly not told in the United States.

  • Weather Underground--This is a documentary on the leftist group Weather Underground which developed out of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was a student group protesting the Vietnam War. Seeing little change from their efforts, and with the administration escalating the war, the Weathermen went underground and started bombing federal buildings (they made sure that no one was in them). It was a fairly interesting documentary, but Fidel was better.

  • A Place Called Chiapas--This is a documentary about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a group that formed in "a place called Chiapas" in Mexico to battle for the improved conditions of its people. It also focuses on one of the leaders of the group, Subcomandante Marcos (pictured below). Subcomandante Marcos actually has a Master's degree in Philosophy, answering the question of what philosophy majors do after they graduate. Some parts of this documentary were slow, but quenching my ignorance on this subject was well worth it. Today Marcos is known as Delegado Zero in what the EZLN calls the Other Campaign, which is basically an attempt at building a more responsive Mexican government by educating the people and making activists out of them.

  • The Trials of Henry Kissinger--This is a popular documentary about Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor as well as Secretary of State in the 70s. Just check out the trailer at the link. With his involvement in some very horrible acts conducted by the United States, the documentary hightlights why he should be tried as an international war criminal. Most interesting to me was the discussion about the US involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean government, which was then followed by the brutal dictator Pinochet. Kissinger said in a meeting with the President "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people". It's a good documentary, I recommend it.

  • The Motorcyle Diaries--This is a movie about Che Guevara's motorcyle trip over South America that he took with his friend in the early 50s, 10 years before he got got together with Castro and traveled to Cuba to help overthrow the Batista military government. The movie shows how the trip changed his outlook on the world. It's actually very light on the leftist message, so much so that it got nominated for two Oscars in 2005. But it's a pretty good movie, although I think Land and Freedom is much better.

    Well, that's it for what I've seen this week. If you're having trouble finding places to watch these documentaries or films (some of them are fairly rare), send me an email and I'll try to help you out.
  • Monday, July 10, 2006

    On the Notion Of Property

         Pretty much any alternative economic theory that you'll come across deals with property rights much differently than it is dealt with in capitalist systems. I'm hoping that this post makes people realize that they are more in line with these alternative theories than they may be aware of.

         In the current capitalist system any property that you can get from trade is legimitate, and there is no cap on what percentage of the world you can own. But imagine in the distant future, let's say that one person owns the entire world, his ancestors having accumulated it through normal business operations and trade. The rest of the world's 6 billion people own essentially nothing in comparison and their labor is exchanged in order for them to get the food they need. Is this fair? Should that be allowed? I'm guessing that everyone would say that this is not acceptable. And if you don't, you probably would say it's unacceptable if you were actually living in that situation. Okay, well what about if 2 people owned the world, each owning roughly 1/2 of it? Still no? Okay, 3 people, each a 1/3? No? 4 people, each a 1/4? No? At what point do you say "yes", and how do you justify that decision? In many ways this reminds me of the famous Stephen Roberts quote

    I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do

    We both agree that a certain group of people owning the entire earth is wrong, we just differ on how small that group of people is before it becomes wrong. I believe that the world shouldn't be up for sale, or equivalently, that it belongs to everyone equally.

        Perhaps you're sympathetic with that argument. However, you may still feel that by taking away the idea of private property that we are somehow stealing from those who currently claim rights over it. You may feel like they have some sort of more natural, legitimate right to it and what gives society the right to take it away? To this I say, what does "own" really mean? Ownership is purely a social construct. We can't take a test tube of dirt into a lab, run some tests, and prove that it belongs to Mr. So and So. If society decides that no one can own the world, it's as simple as that. You just can't. The notion of ownership just doesn't exist. An example that you can see of this idea today is the air. Air is made up of atoms just like the earth is, yet it can't be owned. Ownership of the air is just something that doesn't exist in our society. Perhaps this is solely due to the practical difficulty of prosecuting air "trespassers", but if it suddently became feasible to do so, I'm sure you would agree that society shouldn't allow the private ownership of air. I believe the same statements can be equally applied to water.

        Land is just as necessary for life as air or water. And no matter how lazy our ancestors were, or how bad their businesses fared, or how unlucky they were, should that make us forfit our rights as people to the natural resources of the planet. The planet should not be for sale.

    Thursday, July 06, 2006

    My Religious Deconversion Story

         This blog has been running for over a year now and I still haven't posted my deconversion story. What the hell is wrong with me? I figure I should remedy this now.

        I come from a family that I guess you would call Catholic. My father's parents are Baptist, but he's rather apathetic to religion, much more so now since my parents know that my brother and I are both atheists. So the religious aspect of our life was dominated by my mother, who had gone to a Catholic high school. Although she wasn't really dedicated to Catholicism, much more to just the general picture of Christianity, seeing as part of my early childhood we went to a Methodist church rather than the Catholic one we later went to, and then even later we went to one of those non-denominational, "worst concert you've ever been to" churches.

        My early church life was probably what's typical for most Christians. You go to Sunday School, learn about Noah's Ark and such, don't really believe it, but don't really think about the fact that you don't believe it. I really just didn't think about religion at all for the first 10 years of my life. I used to read the Sunday comics in church, which is a little odd because to this very day, I've never laughed at a comic in the comics section.

        My religious life changed when I was about 11 years old. I remember my mother was in my 9-year old brother's room trying to comfort him because he was crying about something. When my mom came into my room I asked what was wrong, and she said that he was worried about dying. Perhaps most 11-year olds wouldn't be affected, but in my youth I was a huge worrier. I worried about everything, especially about my health. I worried about cancer, leukemia, brain tumors, internal bleeding, brain damage, and even AIDs. From this and other behavior that I had as a youth I think I probably was obsessive-compulsive, although luckily I don't have the symptoms anymore at all (*saves post as draft 8 times for good luck*). Just kidding, but that would have been me before.

        Anyway, one of the ways that I stopped from worrying was to research what was bothering me and convincing myself that it was extremely unlikely that I had whatever problem I thought I might have. When I started worrying about death (eventual death, not immediate death due to some cause) my mother tried to comfort me by saying that I would be going to heaven when I died, in essence living forever. This is where my OCD (self-diagnosed, in retrospect) really kicked in for me. Now, in order to stop worrying about death, I felt that I should really explore this idea of heaven and be able to convince myself that I was indeed going, and that this place did actually exist. I wasn't going to simply take it "on faith" because like I said, I was a huge worrier. It had to be overwhelmingly clear that I didn't have a problem. So at this point I decided that I would more actively think about my religion, with the hope that I would soon convince myself of the near certainty of heaven, Jesus, God, etc. It didn't quite work out that way.

        I started to pay attention in church, which is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to keep your faith. The preacher would sometimes say something that was either racist, something against science, or some other absolutely ignorant statement. This bothered me, and I attempted to discuss it with my mom on the way home from church. They were legit criticisms, so she couldn't really defend them. She'd usually just say the typical "god works in mysterious ways" or "you just have to have faith" sort of garbage. The more and more I saw this excuse, the more I translated it to be "yes, you're correct, our pastor is psychotic, and that part of the bible doesn't make sense at all". So after only a few months of this increased attention in church, I began to seriously doubt the competence of the preacher, and I was probably also a little angered by some of his statements. This was convenient because it put me, at least in my head, opposed to him. And when you're opposed to someone, you usually put in a lot more critical thinking into trying to debunk what they say. I should say that by this time I probably had moved on from worrying about death and was probably worried about some skin-eating disease or something instead, but now I was focused more on religion.

        So being opposed to the preacher, I would listen to him talk and actually think critically about it. And so you can probably imagine how easily I began to doubt the most blatantly stupid of the stories in the bible, like the one of Jesus cursing at a fig tree for example. After enough of these examples, I just decided that organized religion was completely wrong. I didn't really believe anything that the Bible contained, although I held on to the vague idea of Jesus dying for our sins and the existence and nature of God. I probably held this general state of belief for a few years, until the age of about 14. I don't remember what prompted it, but I began to think about these issues again. I thought about the necessity of Jesus coming down to save people. My thinking was as follows

  • Jesus came to forgive us of our sins, and allow us to go to heaven. God sent him to die on a cross.
  • God controls whether we go to heaven or not; nothing is outside of his power. God could allow us to go to heaven unilaterally if he wanted.
  • God sent Jesus down to die so that he could tell himself to let us into heaven. God is a moron, and so doesn't exist.

    The night I thought this, I said to myself "omg, I'm an atheist". Instantly, the connotation of "devil-worshipper" and feelings of having done something wrong came to mind, because that's what I had learned to associate with the word atheist. I realized that these feelings and associations were completely unjustified, and this made me doubt religion even more for having made me think otherwise.

         So that's pretty much the entire story. While my atheist position has surely become more sophisticated with time, reading of books, and reading of all the great blogs in the atheist online community, my actual deconversion was complete.
  • Monday, July 03, 2006

    Happy 4th of July

         Today we celebrate our independence from Great Britain. Why did we want independence? One popular cry was "no taxation without representation". Over two hundred years later, how are we doing in this category? We do have formal representation at least. But do our politicians actually represent us? Or do they simply represent a small sector of society and then lie to, ignore, or simply distract the others with "threats" to our freedom coming from indians, blacks, japanese-americans, communists, terrorists, gays, liberals, secularists, and mexicans?

        Another reason for wanting independence was so that we wouldn't simply be a exploited source of resources and so that we could have our own autonomous political system. Economic and political independence was our goal. But if you look at the situation today our government vigorously opposes economic and political independence for other countries, and has done very well in succeeding in these aims in the past, even if that involves putting in power brutal dictators that massacre their own people.

        Point being, I just don't see much reason to celebrate the 4th of July (other than those incredibly entertaining Snake fireworks). It would be like celebrating the unchaining of a dangerous animal into a crowded room. I believe it's very important for us to finally make real progress on the above two issues of economic and political freedom, both domestic and foreign. We don't have to demand freedom for ourselves, but we have a moral obligation to control our political situation to the extent that it doesn't interfere with the freedom of others.

        Have a good 4th everyone.

    In addition, here is a short 4th of July article by Howard Zinn.