Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 1% think you're a marionette.

We Liberals get called Marxists a lot, particularly by Tea Baggers. It's a stupid thing to say; most of them know exactly the same amount about Marx as Glenn Beck. Because, that's where they learned it.

(all photos from Wikimedia Commons)

But the truth is, Marx is extraordinarily useful if you can ignore his pretensions. His claims that he discovered a "science of history", his predictions regarding the future course of civilization, even his analysis of the history of economic relations can all be safely dismissed. But as a critic of Capitalism...

well, he's Freud. His insights more than make up for his goofiness.

Of particular interest is his concept of commodity fetishism. This idea has been worked over and modified by a number of different thinkers since Marx, but the most simple explanation of it is this: commodity fetishization is the attribution of characteristics to a commodity which it does not objectively possess.

And, with one stroke, we can explain the phenomenon of advertising in its entirety.

Classical economists, (and apologists for the American practice of Capitalism) will insist that the primary purpose of advertising is informational. It conveys price and quality information to potential buyers, and so "lubricates" market mechanisms.

In fact, the primary purpose of advertising is the fetishization of the commodity. Motorcycles become symbols of virility. Realtors become selfless guides to a family's happiness. And you can lose your "man-card" if you don't drink a really shitty, cheap, rice-based beer fermented with enzymes. (Sorry, that one is especially laughable)

I get several different responses to this idea.

"I don't buy that stuff because of the ads, I buy it because I like it!" OK. Why do you like it? And the end point of such discussions (just before the part where they call me an asshole) is inevitably "I just do!"

"Who are you to tell me what I should like?" I don't care what you like, specifically. I am fascinated with the reasons why you like it, and what the implications are for neoclassical market theory. If demand for a commodity is more than a function of its quality and price... if demand can be stimulated by associating a product with qualities it doesn't objectively possess...

then the incentive to maximize quality and minimize price is reduced for producers. Or eliminated completely.

"If people are dumb enough to fall for that shit, they deserve it." Well, maybe. That's an opinion though, not an objective fact. And it's completely unrelated to the justifications apologists for Capitalism make for Capitalist practice.

(Capitalism apologist and welfare recipient Ayn Rand)

(Milton Friedman, who thought Democracy couldn't exist without Capitalism)

The fact of the matter is this; "capitalism", and "free market" are concepts which themselves have become fetishized. The meaning attached to the words has gone beyond mere description. They have become legitimizing symbols of the current system; when Americans hear the words something inside them stands up and puts its hand over it's heart.

But "capitalism", as practiced in the United States has nothing to do with free markets. Capitalism is rather the "privileging" of accumulated capital in the market, at the expense of actors with less capital. It is the institutionalization of power asymmetries in order to maximize the profits of capitalists, irrespective of supply, demand or quality.

And one key element in this power imbalance is commodity fetishization. They're not selling you masculinity, you dumb shit....

They're selling you a truck, when what you probably need is a car.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pens v. Flyers, Round 1 of the '12 NHL playoffs

With apologies to regular readers of this blog who aren't hockey fans (that would be all three of you) it's the very best time of the year. The best teams in the best sport in the world are about to contend for the single most difficult championship to win of any sport since gladiatorial combat implemented the concussion rule. All stats via ESPN.

(image from mario-lemieux.com)

Even Strength: Advantage Pens

Pens Goals per Game Avg. 3.33 (1st in league) Flyers Goals Against per Game 2.74 (20th)

Flyers GPG 3.17 (3rd) Pens GAA 2.66 (14th)

This shouldn't surprise anyone, with the possible exception of Flyers fans, a loathsome collection of syphilitic congenital idiots whose collective stupidity is equalled only by their nastiness (they once booed Santa). The Pens will deploy the greatest player in the world, this season's winner of the Art Ross Trophy and no fewer than 4 additional players with 20 or more goals this year.

(image from sidcrosby.blogspot.com)

The Flyers will counter with the formidable Claude Giroux, a Jaromir Jagr on the wrong side of his expiration date, and Scotty Hartnall, assuming Hartnall hasn't been jailed by the time the puck drops.

At even strength, we're a better offensive team than they are, and we're better defensively as well.

Special Teams: Advantage Pens

Pens Power Play 19.7% (tied with the Flyers for 5th) Flyers Penalty Kill 81.8% (17th)

Flyers Power Play 19.7% (5th) Pens Penalty Kill 87.7 (3rd)

The Pens advantage is even more pronounced on special teams. The Flyers have a very good Power Play; it's almost exactly as good as that of the Pens. Their Penalty Kill is merely mediocre, however. Ours is outstanding. In theory, this should allow us to play with a little more of an edge than Philly, but the truth is these two teams hate each others guts. Both teams will be chippy, but we have a better chance to make them pay for their transgressions than they do ours. If Brooks Orpik can keep Hartnall out of the crease, the Flyers become much less scary.

Goaltending: Advantage Pens

Fleury Save Percentage .913 (26th) Bryzgalov Save Percentage .909 (32nd)

The Pens advantage here is perhaps less clear cut than in any other category. While Fleury is capable of extended stretches of phenomenal play, he's also infamous for giving up the occasional soft, fat, inexcusable goal in the first 5 minutes of a playoff game. That won't be helpful, if he does it again this year.

(image from post-gazette.com)

The Flyers won the season series against the Pens, but as any hockey fan knows, the playoffs are a brand new season. I have a tough time imagining the Flyers doing anything other than giving us everything we can handle. But the statistics indicate the Penguins will win this series in 4 games.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reality testing Naomi Wolf.

I like to think of myself as well-informed. I read a lot. I follow the news very carefully, even obsessively. But until I started using Twitter last year, I was blissfully unaware of just how bitter the split was between Center Left Democrats and the Hard Left.

(this and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

I knew the split existed, of course. I spent the entire 8 years of the Bush administration bitching about Nader voters who delivered our country into the hands of the neocons and Wall Street grifters. But as I figured Twitter out, and began to find people to follow, I realized that many of the people on both sides of the divide *REALLY* hated each other. Fairly prominent people on the Hard Left, some of whom are national figures, refer to supporters of President Obama as "Obamabots", and regard them as sell-outs and dupes of an administration that is just as deeply in the tank for the 1% as any Republican. 

Some on the Center Left refer to people on the Hard Left as "Emo-progs", and regard them as hopelessly impractical, naive, and unwilling to do what must be done to gain control of the public policy machinery that will allow the Left to move the country in a more civilized direction. And some of them are pretty quick on the draw with accusations of racism if they feel the President is being attacked (at least from the limited perspective of a white guy who's never had to face racism).

It's a stupid fight; the two sides need each other and the fact that the split exists is evidence that ANY group of human beings will divide into smaller sub-groups when the environment has them focusing within the group rather than externally to the group. But that's not what I want to talk about at the moment...

Twitter was a great place to be during the height of Occupy Wall Street last year. It allowed me to follow the movement without the mediation of the corporate media. It introduced me to the breathtaking possibilities of social media as a tool of social change. It introduced me to the incredible power of citizen journalism. And it provided a window into the thinking of other Leftists.

It also exposed just how shallow, conspiratorial, badly informed and knee-jerk some of that thinking was. There's an entire faction of Center-Leftists that simply freak-the-fuck out at ANY criticism of the Obama Administration. And there's an even bigger faction of Hard Leftists that will not give this President ANY credit for any of his incredible achievements.

Many of these Hard Lefties are particularly angry about the Administration's intensification of the use of drone strikes, but they're pretty angry about damned near everything. These are the people that stopped fighting for ACA when we didn't get the single-payer bill we would have preferred. These are the people that cited the President's signature of NDAA as proof he was no different from the Bush Administration. And these are the people who swallowed Naomi Wolf's utterly fact-free assertion that last November's crackdown on the Occupy Movement was coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security at the behest of Congress, who were afraid that somehow OWS was going to keep them from using insider knowledge to engage in insider trading.

I had some good arguments with people on Twitter about this claim. I had some bad arguments too, but that's the nature of social media. Rather than rehash them, I refer you to  Joshua HollandAngry Black Lady and Karoli, all of whom ably refuted Wolf's assertions at the time.

This is an old story; months have passed and the entire controversy has been buried by the controversies over NDAA, and forced trans-vaginal ultrasound, and the Republican primary battles. But yesterday, President Obama signed into law the "Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge" Act, or "STOCK" Act for short.

It's NOT a great bill, any more than ACA was an ideal solution to the healthcare crisis in this country. But like ACA, it represents an improvement in the status quo, which is really all one can hope for in a polarized country with a largely apathetic and inattentive electorate. It's an incremental step towards a much more ambitious goal.

But it represents a complete falsification of Wolf's hypothesis. She posits a Congressional reaction to a perceived threat to their ability to make money on insider knowledge. That reaction was so strong that it lead to Congressional orders to DHS to clear the OWS campsites. And yet we now have the passage of a law that limits the ability of Congress to do that very thing.

I have no faith that members of the Hard Left who swallowed this particular fish will change their mind. The speed with which Wolf's charge spread, and the uncritical acceptance of it by so many, tell us something important. The image of a nefarious conspiracy by rich politicians against an heroic popular movement is one consistent with the existing beliefs and value system of the Hard Left. They WANT to believe this; if true it would represent an affirmation of everything they believe about our society. But it's a simplistic view, as conspiracy theories always are. And Wolf's theory; of a "chain of command" that goes from DHS through Peter King (?) to Congress, is simply not consistent with the passage of STOCK.

This will convince no one who wants to believe. Cognitive Theory tells us that information inconsistent with existing beliefs is either altered so as to become consistent, or is forgotten entirely. But at the time I was having all those arguments on Twitter, I engaged in "expectational disconfirmation". I asked people who believed Wolf's interpretation of events to predict what would happen next. And every one of them predicted more action by DHS, increased illegal surveillance of the movement and the rapid movement of the United States towards a police state. Not ONE of them foresaw any action by Congress to limit their ability to act on insider knowledge.

This is why we call it Social SCIENCE. You observe, hypothesize, predict, and then you TEST YOUR PREDICTIONS. If your predictions are inaccurate, you revise your hypothesis. If subsequent events are inconsistent with your views, you admit it.

At least, that's what you do if you have any intellectual integrity.