December 31, 2005

Big Labor's Big Secret

This is an informative article in New York Times about how unions, for their narrow and immediate self interests, oppose and actively impede any attempts at a national single-payer health coverage in America. The issue of publicly funded health care is much debated. Here is an article in support of it and another with a lot of information.

In spite of a general disagreement on the merits of single-payer health coverage, one would believe that labor unions would be supportive of the idea. In any case, a principled stand based on their stated aims is called for, whatever that stand is. Instead, as the article shows, the forces behind this action of the unions are corruption and greed and short-sightedness on the part of the people who lead the unions. These qualities are more often associated with the management of the big corporations whose power the unions are supposed to check. This is another instance of people in positions of power misusing that power and selling out those who gave them that power in the first place.

December 29, 2005

Government in the Future - Chomsky

Recently I read a very fascinating book called Government in the future by Noam Chomsky. While I was not able to agree completely with all the positions established in the book, I found it extremely thought provoking and cogent. It was an honest book in the sense that certain ends were taken to be desirable and achievable in a society and then certain systems were presented as the proper means to achieve those ends. I strongly encourage anyone who thinks about these things to read this book. It is extremely small and can be read in one sitting.

I will first describe the essential points in the book linearly and after that I will present my own assessment.

The book is based on a talk that Chomsky gave in 1970 and it presents four possible structures that a society can be built upon and analyzes each of them separately. These four are:

Classical Liberalism
Libertarian Socialism
State Capitalism
State Socialism

Classical Liberalism: Chomsky presents this as an idea that originated during the Enlightenment and which is put forth most eloquently by Wilhelm von Humboldt, notably in his 1792 book Limits of State Action. The essential character of man, according to Humboldt, is his freedom and all human pursuits revolve around man's two central activities - to inquire and to create. Consequently, Humboldt adds, all human achievements spring from a man's ability to act on his free will and no lasting contributions can result from subjecting a man to external and artificial contrivances. These views are endorsed by Chomsky.

At this point, however, Chomsky derives an interesting conclusion. Contrary to the widely held belief that the above discussed liberalism finds its best expression in free market capitalism, Chomsky asserts that free market capitalism is fundamentally opposed to the above ideas. He reaches this assertion by interpreting aspects of Humboldt in a certain Marxist fashion. Humboldt, after asserting the supremacy of human will, goes on to add that a wage laborer, in spite of being politically free, is unable to act on his free will. Chomsky then draws a parallel with Marxist concept of "alienation of labor". Essentially, Chomsky's position is that a man is born to inquire and create of his own accord, and a free market capitalist society enslaves majority of the population in indirect but significant ways, so that they are not able to indulge in their fundamental human impulses. A natural solution for Chomsky at this point is to significantly increase the role of workers in the organization of an industry.

Libertarian Socialism: Developing from the notions of classical liberalism as presented above Chomsky arrives at libertarian socialism as the correct structure of a society where the human beings can realize their true natural potential. The basic organizing principles of libertarian socialism are: minimal role for state in the affairs of the society and democratic organization of the industry. The following passage from The State: Its origins and Function by William Paul captures the true nature of a libertarian socialist society.
The revolutionary Socialist denies that State ownership can end in anything other than a bureaucratic despotism. We have seen why the State cannot democratically control industry. Industry can only be democratically owned and controlled by the workers electing directly from their own ranks industrial administrative committees. Socialism will be fundamentally an industrial system; its constituencies will be of an industrial character. Thus those carrying on the social activities and industries of society will be directly represented in the local and central councils of social administration. In this way the powers of such delegates will flow upwards from those carrying on the work and conversant with the needs of the community. When the central administrative industrial committee meets it will represent every phase of social activity. Hence the capitalist political or geographical state will be replaced by the industrial administrative committee of Socialism. The transition from the one social system to the other will be the social revolution. The political State throughout history has meant the government of men by ruling classes; the Republic of Socialism will be the government of industry administered on behalf of the whole community. The former meant the economic and political subjection of the many; the latter will mean the economic freedom of all---it will be, therefore, a true democracy...Socialism will require no political State because there will be neither a privileged property class nor a downtrodden property-less class; there will be no social disorder as a result, because there will be no clash of economic interests; there will be no need to create a power to make 'order'. Thus, as Engel shows, the State will die out.

This description of "council communism" closely resembles the libertarian and socialist doctrine of anarchism and according to Chomsky (who is an anarchist) this represents the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. Further, he claims that this has been realized in spontaneous revolutions "several times", for instance in Germany and Italy immediately after World War I, and in Catalonia in 1936.

This series of thoughts is surely radical and it requires proper analysis. I will write more on this, but let me first complete the description of the book with Chomsky's ideas on state capitalism and state socialism.

State Capitalism (or modern Welfare State): Chomsky very persuasively argues that state capitalism and (his idea of) democracy are fundamentally in contradiction. There are two centers of power in such a system: the political class and the industrial class. The former consists of elected representatives who control public policy and the later is a system of private power with absolutely no direct public control. Increasingly the range of authority that the elected representatives have to set the policy narrows and hence the role of the public in running a society is diminished. And then the power is held by smaller and smaller group of people. Chomsky quotes an interesting study by Richard Barnet which finds that "of the top four hundred decision makers in the postwar (World War II) national security system, most have come from executive suites and law offices withing shouting distance of one another in fifteen city blocks in New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago and Boston." Further, the magnitude single industrial units increases drastically, increasing their clout on the political class proportionately. According to a study by Federal Trade Commission at that time, by the end of 1968, the two hundred largest industrial corporations controlled 60 percent of the total assets held by all manufacturing corporations. At the beginning of World War II the same amount of power was spread over a thousand corporations. Furthermore, these two hundred corporations are partially linked with each other and with other corporations in ways that may prevent or discourage independent behavior in market decisions. According to another reference in the book (from Foreign Affairs), on the basis of the gross value of their output, US enterprises abroad in the aggregate comprise the third largest economy in the world - just behind the US and the Soviet Union. All this concentration of private power is crucially detrimental to democratic habits of a society.

Chomsky also briefly writes about how the governments, at the behest of the war industry, whip up the passions in the population to justify ridiculous amounts of military spending. (I am tempted to refer to this quote by Edward Abbey in this context - A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.)

After all this Chomsky concludes that a system of state capitalism is unsuited to modern industrial society (given his convictions).

State Socialism: Chomsky does not spend much time on this, presumably because according to him its evilness is obvious. He refers to Bolshevism as an instance of state socialism and given his anarchist leanings and emphasis on freedom of human beings, it is easy to dismiss state socialism as horrendous.

Having described the basic points raised by Chomsky in the book, let me now try to present my own perspective on them.

The most fundamental questions seem to be the following:

1. How are the resources (means of production) of the society to be distributed? Essentially, this amounts to the question of what is the maximum utopia that can be realistically achieved in the society.
2. Which is more important in the final analysis - equality or freedom?
3. What is the role of individual brilliance in the society?

Let us see how Chomsky would answer these questions. His notion of libertarian socialism provides an answer to the first one. He is saying that there is to be no private ownership of resources and that this is achievable. Because of this answer to the first question, the second question becomes largely inconsequential: there is an inherent equality in his society and there is no road block to freedom (as he views it) as well. The freedom to create something when there is no popular support for it is not granted by his system. And this is tied to my third question. In Chomsky's Utopian world there seems to be no place for individual brilliance.

Imagine an individual who has a great vision and that greatness of his vision escapes everyone else. Now, whether realizing that vision contributes to the general good of the society or not, in a system of libertarian socialism it is going to be incredibly hard for him to achieve his goal. It is immaterial whether his idea will advance the general welfare of the society or not - simply because in either case the majority will never get it. How will he fare in other systems? I will describe that presently, but let me first complete the critique of Chomsky's analysis.

The crucial position of Chomsky, from which everything else follows, is his demand that democracy be implemented in an industrial environment. This is coming from his concept of how society's resources should be distributed and what will enable a man's human existence. He is not satisfied by the following: the resources are controlled by a relatively tiny part of the population and the rest are living in comfortable situation, that is under "benevolent" rulers and "soulful" corporations. This position consists a highly desirable (and the most realistic) state of affairs for many, but Chomsky flatly rejects it. He insists on more equitable distribution as a necessary condition for an existence suited to human beings.

I must, after careful thought, reject his insistence on equitable ownership of resources as a precondition for free society. Take an individual who does not own any resources. As long as certain conditions prevail in the society (in his relation to the class which owns property, which I will elaborate below) there is ample scope for him to engage his "inquiry" and "creativity" fully. It is impractical to tie all human aspirations (and indeed all human existence) to economics. A minimum level of economic well being is definitely indispensable, but requiring that ownership (in a very obvious economic sense) is essential for everything in human life is unrealistic. While in a way, I see the utopia of libertarian socialism, I must reject it because of its impracticality and the above mentioned restrictions it places on individual brilliance.

The next natural step for me is to accept the situation I mentioned as the most desirable state of affairs: the resources are controlled by a relatively tiny part of the population and the rest are living in comfortable situation, that is under "benevolent" rulers and "soulful" corporations. This much, I believe, must be ensured, and in such a way that there are enough opportunities for the majority to pursue their aims and aspirations in a fair atmosphere. The two possible paths to achieve this, it seems to me, are state socialism (in a vastly different sense than what was mentioned above) and state capitalism.

Before I embark on an elaboration of that, let me briefly discuss a system which did not directly figure until now. How does a system of complete free market capitalism (laissez-faire capitalism or anarcho-libertarianism) answer our fundamental questions? Just as libertarian socialism errs with individual possibilities to excel, I think laissez-faire capitalism errs with a requisite amount of welfare in a society. The single answer we get for any question about this system - namely, market will take care of everything - seems to me woefully inadequate. Given the boundlessness of human greed, the possibility of placing no legitimate controls on it is terrifying. In addition, there are many other consequences of free market capitalism which are genuinely disconcerting. For instance, a relentless exploitation of natural resources without consideration for the harmony of the nature can have deadly consequences. An individual, completely on his own, can not be trusted to place more importance on the need to ensure the continued welfare of the environment than on his immediate profits. Also, it is a reasonable assumption that any period of control-free market system will result in harmful monopolies and the resultant possibilities of exploitation. For all these reasons and many more, this system is equally undesirable.

I will now come to a conclusion of my remarks by analyzing the pros and cons of state capitalism and state socialism. First let us be clear on what we mean. A good representation of state capitalism, in the sense I am talking about here, is the economy of the US, with all its advantages and disadvantages. And by state socialism, I mean a democratic system with progressive taxation and strong labor unions. Such as in most of Europe, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.

Now my three questions assume lot of significance. First, a state capitalist system does not significantly attempt to alter the existing picture of resource-ownership and in this sense, it is fundamentally conservative. It is rare to see major resource-acquiring in these societies and the rich tend to get richer. On the other hand, one of the more important aims of state socialism is a more equitable distribution and the resulting equality. This is done mainly by progressive taxation (particularly high inheritance tax). This is tied to my second question too. What is more important - equality or freedom. If a rich man is to be given complete freedom, then it entails him to leave his fortune to anyone (often to his children). But this in some sense engenders inequality, because just by being born in some families some people are richer and their origin is shifted to their advantage (through no real contribution from them). A system where this is very common or unregulated will naturally face the prospect of being more and more unequal. So inheritance tax plays a crucial role in checking this.

Basically, a choice between these two systems would depend on one's value judgements. On the other hand, it is conceivable that one can study these two systems in detail and from that study say something about relative merits. In spite of what such a study might say about their relative levels of efficiency, I personally would prefer a system which actively tries to redistribute its resources.

Finally, regarding the third question. I imagined the case of an individual with a great vision to discredit libertarian socialism. Let us see what his prospects are in state socialism and state capitalism. Both of these systems have private centers of power (resulting from their ownership of resources). So this individual definitely has a much better chance, because now he needs to potentially convey the greatness of his vision to significantly smaller group of people. So these systems definitely have an active role for individual brilliance.

Well, this turned out to be much longer than I intended it to be! This, in a way, brings together the various (often chaotic and clumsy) strands of my thought on these issues. Admittedly, the scope of these remarks is very narrow and covers only a part (mostly economic) of the variables that define a society. Further, I do not also claim that I considered all the facets of the issue. There are, as always, two levels on which these things are assessed. One is of course one's own value judgments. The other is the logical coherence of the argument. Even if you disagree with my value judgments, I hope these remarks are logically coherent. Please feel free to comment.

December 28, 2005

Visiting an Amish Settlement

Yesterday I visited an Amish settlement with some friends. It was a very interesting experience. Here is the Wikipedia entry on this subject.

Before I went there I had some idea about these people, mostly formed based on what is generally known about them. I also had a lively curiosity about the idea of living truly away from the vagaries of the modern world, whether it is influenced by religious, sociological or ideological reasons. Surely, Amish settlements are motivated by religion, but I still was looking to understand the phenomenon of that life style, from a larger perspective.

My first impression was one of incredulity. For the first time in my life I really felt as if I was in a different world. When I came to the US couple of years ago, surely I sensed a difference, but it was mostly cultural. But here in this Amish settlement, I felt as if I was in a different world. Every thing contributed to this feeling - their talking, their demeanor, the setting of the place etc. One immediate feeling you have is of being in a different time period, which you only saw in movies and read in books - horse-driven wagons, ancient-looking clocks. The full functionality of these is what actually impresses you. We have seen these objects at some point, but never as if they are part of a daily routine.

As a result of this, one suddenly appreciates the wholly different pace of life there. It is not as if they are idle or relaxed. They are quite actively engaged in some activity. They have all kinds of domestic animals and much time goes into their care. They have huge farms and in season they cultivate a lot, and that too without using any sort of machines. At one place a handicrafts store, where they make lots wooden furniture. But that is not all. In some villages in India, too, people occupy themselves with above activities. There is a significant difference here. Some of it is coming from their intentional shunning of the outside world and most if the things that world represents. You can this in the eyes of many adults there. They are truly not concerned with what they do not have. There were many kids too and it was a little different with them. They were playing and when went there immediately flocked to us and just observed us. Their world is extremely close and well-defined, but they retain enough curiosity and innocence to wonder at anything outside their world.

On the whole I concluded that people are content there. Then I was wondering how I would feel in a world like that. And to my surprise, I could not really imagine myself happy in a place like that. That is, if I am now left in such a place then I probably would not enjoy it. If I always lived in such places, may be I would have enjoyed it, but I doubt it.

On the other hand, I think that people living in these settlements, made the conscious decision to live there and there is a theoretical possibility that they can leave it anytime. So to some extent, it is a continuous determination to keep it going on their part, and presumably they have strong reasons for it. So while I was inclined to conclude that the reasons motivating these people are borne out of tradition and simple adaptability and inculcated over generations, I must admit that they are influenced strongly by their own conception of values and the importance they attach to preserving those values. The fact that these settlements survive to this day means that there is a good number of young people who continue to feel this way.

December 26, 2005

Limits To Presidential Authority

This is an extremely coherent and logical analysis of the issues invloved in the recent exposure of state-authorized eavesdropping of Americans.

Did Bush Roll Past the Legal Stop Signs?

December 24, 2005

An Enigma That is Indian Cricket

Sourav Ganguly today was included in the Indian team that will tour Pakistan in Jan-Feb 2006.

This is what Kiran More, the chairman of selectors, said on December 10, when Ganguly was dropped for the third test against Sri Lanka:

The situation is that I don't want Ganguly at number six. We want Yuvraj to play there. He has done well, and we don't want to have Sourav in the team and put him in the reserve.

And Kiran More on December 24:

We got Sourav back because we needed some experience for the tough tour. The Pakistan team is well prepared and we needed to pick the best combination.

These two statements, made within two weeks of each other by the same person, bring out all the contradictions in and the unsavoriness of the powers that run Indian cricket.

I am not commenting here on the merits of Sourav Ganguly's inclusion here. Whether he should be included or not is a different matter altogether. (You can get an idea of my thinking on this here.) I am concerned here only with how things transpired and what that means.

More says, on December 10th, Ganguly is unlikely to find a place in the playing eleven and it is, for unexplained reasons, not desirable to have in the team but not in the playing eleven. On December 24th, he says we wanted to pick the best team for the tough series against Pakistan, suggesting that picking the best team is a conditional endeavor, decided by the toughness of a given series. The laughability of all this embarrassingly obvious.

Three comebacks, umpteen questions

Of course, More was forced to say these things by the actions that were taken by his committee. Contradiction lies not in the words, but in the actions. It is an open secret that Ganguly's inclusion was decided by those who have no business opining on selection matters. The fact that there is a committee given the job of selecting the team means that those outside this committee should not interfere with their deliberations. That goes for even the president of the board. Any person can only act within the purview of his authority, as determined on paper. However extensive that authority is, he has no business interfering with anything not included in that authority. Just as the Prime Minister has no business telling anything to the election commission, the president of BCCI has no business talking to the selectors.

This episode once again brings out into the open the unprofessional ways and the rampant cronyism that fester the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

December 22, 2005

India's Convincing Series Victory Over Sri Lanka

Today India completed their successful campaign against Sri Lanka by winning the test series 2-0.

Score Card

Along with the 6-1 victory in the One-Day series, this constitutes a very successful campaign for India against Sri Lanka. This is a particularly important result for India as they now move into the second position in the official ICC test rankings. The following link gives a detailed analysis of this and what India should do to maintain their position.

India move up to second place

Admittedly Sri Lanka was struggling a bit, but Indias can look at this series and take lot of comfort from the performance of their team. Remember that Sri Lanka came into the ODI series as the second best in the world (as per the official ODI rankings). The whole team performed well and it was heartening to see the new combination of Dravid and Chappell getting their act together.

This series will be remembered for Sachin Tendulkar's record-breaking 35th test hundred and Anil Kumble's 100th test. But there were other, more significant outcomes in terms of the long term welfare of the Indian team.

Yuvraj Singh's maturity as a Test batsman was there for every one to see. He always possessed a special talent, and it was time he graduated to an integral part in the Indian test set up. This series ensured that.

The emergence of Dhoni as a swashbuckling wicket-keeper batsman and of Pathan as an all-rounder of immense potential must be the biggest positives coming out of this series. If they continue in similar vein, India can very realistically aspire to become, in a very methodical manner, a real force in the world cricket.

A mention also must be made of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. They, more than any body else, made this series win possible. And deservedly, they were named Man of the Series and Man of the match respectively. The following picture speaks volumes.

Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh

Now, of course, India will face the real test - against Pakistan in Pakistan (Jan-Feb) and against England in India (Mar-Apr). Both series should be extremely interesting. Pakistan are on a high after their convincing victory over England and should be pumped up. They would be looking for a revenge after India's victory last time they were in Pakistan. England have time to regroup and come to India with fresh ideas. So the coming three months promise to be exciting and India have a real chance to consolidate their second place in Tests and significantly improve their fifth place in ODIs.

December 21, 2005

Court Ruling Bars Teaching of Intelligent Design

The decision in a Pennsylvania court holding that teaching of intelligent design (ID) in high school biology classes in Dover, Pennsylvania is unconstitutional is a highly comforting and positive one.

Judge Rejects Teaching Intelligent Design

It does not take much thinking to see that teaching ID as science is a ludicrous notion. Whatever its worth as a religious idea, any suggestion that there was a supernatural hand in the workings of nature is an exact anti-thesis to the whole framework of science.

Here is a good article by a Noble prize winner in physics (2001) Eric A. Cornell in TIME magazine.

What Was God Thinking? Science Can't Tell

Judge John E. Jones III.'s opinion seems to be very comprehensive and detailed which is well suited to be adopted to possible future arguments against ID.

Analysis - Defending Science by Defining It

The Judge's Ruling

It is notable that Judge Jones is a Republican appointed by the current President.

December 19, 2005

Patrick Henry College - A Religious Monstrosity

I stumbled upon this article in the New Yorker.

God and Country

It talks about this college in Virginia which has an almost fanatical religious drive and trains its students for careers in politics.

I was first amused by the sincerity of the message-driven, we are all called to be lights out there in this world crowd which frequents this place. After I finished reading and thought about it there was no hint of amusement left.

Religion is a very personal thing and while I am completely non-religious, I have no problem with someone else's religiosity. But when one actively believes and propagates notions like "hell is a place where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity" in an academic setting, it is very disturbing, to say the least.

I admire, to a certain extent, the purpose-driven and single-minded devotion most of the students exhibit. Waking up at 3 in the morning and studying is admirable. But what is disturbing about it is that none of these students is driven by a rational curiosity. They are guided soley by a mythical love they profess for God. Another particularly disturbing aspect is the seeds of intolerance that are sown in these young and impressionable minds.

These kids are intended to go on and fight for a more religious (and hence, more intolerant) culture in society, including all the causes that are taken up today's fanatics (creationism/intelligent design, anti-gay, anti-abortion etc).

Moreover, these kids are so culturally isolated from the rational world that they face a real danger of a major shock in their adult life. As a student of the college wonders "What happens when they meet people who don’t even read the Bible?".

December 18, 2005

Higher Education - A Privilege?

This article in the New York Times gives an interesting account of how economically and racially backward people (which is, oftentimes, the same thing) are left out of premier French institutions of higher education.

I strongly believe that one should not take steps to get students into these places just because of their economic or racial position. A potential for academic excellence should be the sole criterion for admission. Having said that, even a cursory look at facts and some thinking informs us that there is no less scope for academic excellence among society's less privileged peoples. It is a great myth to think that intelligence or talent is doled out in abundance to only one particular race or races.

Problem here is much more societal. For instance, as the above article says, the barriers for second-generation immigrants are enormous. Schools in poor, often immigrant neighborhoods get the most inexperienced teachers, who usually move on as soon as they have gained enough tenure for a job in a better area.

Unfortunately this is not a problem specific to only France. Even in the freest and the richest country of the world one can see this. The percentage of African Americans in the US is around 13%. Is that represented, even remotely, in the universities which are the pride of this country? I seriosuly doubt it. At least in my experience it is not the case, and I believe a detailed study would reveal the same throughout the country.

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