Thursday, July 26, 2007

Making Sense of World Music

Last night at the Showbox, we were reminded of something Gino Srdjan Yevdjevic said in an interview with us last year: we don't remember the quote exactly, but it was something to the effect that "World Music" was "shit." Not the music or the musicians, per se, but rather the genre, the peculiarly American way of pigeon-holing and marketing foreign music. Gino understood the process only too well: Back in the 1980s, he was a glammy Duran Duran-esque pop singer in his native Yugoslavia. Only when war forced him to flee to the US in the 1990s did he wind up a "world musician," performing traditional Balkan music in restaurants for disinterested diners. While he admitted that this original incarnation of the band Kultur Shock could have done well in the World Music market, it's easy to see why he rebelled by adding punk rock guitar to the line-up and starting to yuk it up as a sex-crazed Eastern European immigrant à la Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd's "Wild and Crazy Guys" sketch.

All of which is to try to introduce the problem we face here, trying to be all, "Yes, we are professional music critics!" about Femi Kuti's performance last night at the Showbox. We'll start out by being honest: we really know for shit about Femi Kuti. This is only slightly less than we know about his dad, Fela Kuti, of whom we are vaguely aware from back in our college days when we experimented with potentially dangerous habits: in this case, listening to NPR, only moderate use of which can transform you into an insufferable middle-class white liberal.

But to continue trying to play the part, here's how we'd have written this piece if we were a real music critic for some mainstream newspaper or magazine (or, God forbid, NPR), where our paycheck depended on us constantly demonstrating decisiveness and never admitting we didn't know the name of a single song we heard at a concert we were reviewing. First, we'd start by talking about Fela Kuti and how he was a pioneer of Afrobeat, which mixed jazz with more traditional African music, and became a superstar in Nigeria. Being forever obsessed with how pop music was tenuously related to Sixties radicalism, we'd applaud Fela Kuti's political activism, and talk about how, from his Nigerian commune, his willingness to give voice to the oppressed threatened thuggish Nigerian dictators, successive regimes of which would jail him, only to have the next coup release him to win the public's good will, only to then have to jail him yet again once he justly criticized their corruption and barbarism. And we'd note the fact he took some 25 wives at once during the 1970s, and thus burnish our multiculturalist creds by accepting polygamy from a leftist African icon in a way we never would of nut-job Mormon fundamentalists down in Utah. Then we'd note Fela's tragic death of AIDS in 1997, even as he continued fighting for political freedom in Nigeria, and then segue into how Femi Kuti took up where his dad left off, continuing the tradition of politically engaged Afrobeat music, mixing American influences (jazz, funk, prog-rock) with native musical styles. And, once the issue hit the streets, we'd sit back and wait for the call from Da Capo requesting rights to include the piece in the latest installment of Best Music Writing.

But alas, we've been around the block enough times to know that mostly, the above is BS. Yes, Fela Kuti was an icon and dissident. But like most political icons who make their name opposing oppressive regimes, Fela's lionization relies on the convenient fact that he never actually became the president of Nigeria, despite several attempts, and thus never met the same fate as Lech Wałęsa or Václav Havel or Léopold Sédar Senghor, who had the misfortune of having to try to run a country, their dissident credentials tarnished by years of politics and all the attendant shortcomings, disappointments, and compromises.

Furthermore, while Femi's music gets pseudo-indie cred by virtue of being international, we have to remember that fundamentally, it's mainstream pop back in Nigeria. While Femi hits all the right political notes—a song about fighting AIDS, a spoken-word discourse on the evils of European colonialism—is it any more credible coming from him than Madonna or Kanye West? Or is it a sign of how we continue to fetishize Africans who puppet the rhetoric Westerners like to hear that we keep from lumping Femi Kuti in with the Live Eight crowd? Surely his non-threatening music and politically correct sentiments, coupled with the fact he's a true-blue African, could add some badly needed credibility to bloated big-budget affairs where celebrities repeat self-righteous truisms about the world and after which nothing changes.

So what can we really say here about Femi's show? It was good—talented musicians, charismatic lead man, a solid stage show with scantily clad back-up singers. He packed the Showbox fuller than we've, well, ever seen it. And he got the crowd going. College kids awkwardly gyrating, hippies doing that flailing-arm dance-thing they do, clouds of pot smoke hazily rising from crowd. Femi demonstrated he's a talented multi-instrumentalism, switching fluidly between sax, guitar, and keyboard. People cheered when he exhorted them, listened attentatively when he discoursed. But quite honestly, we left wondering if Femi's appeal is the same back in Nigeria. All too often when it comes to culture—whether it's movies or books or music—what America imports from overseas says a lot more about us than the cultures that created it.

For the foreign cutting edge to break into the American market, it either has to be sufficiently non-threatening to please the moderate liberal middle-class culture consumers, or demonstrate enough mass appeal or street credibility to overcome negative responses. Think of Reggaetón, which took 30 years before it was sufficiently pop music to make the grade in the US, or how dancehall superstar Buju Banton's refusal to reject the gay-bashing of songs like "Boom Bye Bye" gets his shows cancelled on Seattle's "tolerant" Capitol Hill. On the streets of Lagos, does Femi have the same credibility his father once enjoyed, or is he more akin to Jakob Dylan, an uninspired musician whose career was jump-started by an anachronistic attachment to what his dad did, and whose own music was never as innovative?

Somehow, we're guessing that in the gritty slums of Lagos, the real au courant music is much more in the hip-hop vein (as it is everywhere), where kids who can't afford two drummers, keyboards and a horn section are spilling their hearts out on dubbed tapes. Surely there's posturing in imitation of American rappers, but at the same time these kids are telling it like it is, or at least expressing what they think about the world and their own hard-scrabble lives. In a country still mired in corruption, the airwaves and recording studios are probably still off limits to those whose ideas are actually dangerous, and without that access, how are Americans even going to have the chance to hear their music? And even if we did, would we like what they have to say as much as Femi's retro-Third World liberation rhetoric, which hippies old and young can get behind? If we could heard what the kids in the ghetto really thought about women and AIDS and America and gays, would it still get promoed on "All Songs Considered"? We're not so sure.

We don't mean to tear Femi down here—like we said, frankly, we don't know how to judge his work other than admitting it was fairly danceable and everyone seemed to have a reasonably good time at his show. But for a musician whose name and career are so intertwined with his father and with politics and with a certain American market segment's tastes and preferences, it's impossible to avoid trying to talk about what we're supposed to take away from the show. To give Femi his due, he was there to educate as much as to entertain, which leaves us asking the very legitimate question as to whether he's really more credible a source for political commentary than the likes of Cypress Hill, whose album liner notes provided the primary sources for those stoners we knew in high school and their inevitable pro-legalization essays. Not to ask such questions is really to help suppress and constrain Femi's message, essentially taking away his voice and perspective by uncritically accepting anything he has to say. So, is Femi a real activist making us ask difficult questions, or is his music another commodity, an ethnicky trinket picked up from Pier 1 to give a touch of exotic color to a living room? Gino understood this dilemma precisely, and that's why he utterly rejected the World Music racket.

And here we are, semi-pro music critics faced with either puppeting sweet nothings about Femi we got from the "real" critics, or trying to grapple with the limitations of our own understanding of the still-quite-large (whatever Internet idealists like to think) world in which we live. In the end, that's probably the best thing we can say about Femi and his adoring American fans—we may not truly be able to understand the world he comes from or how he fits into it, but he made us ask questions without easy answer, which is a good deal more an achievement than getting a crowd nodding along to socio-political slogans, never certain whether that's a sign of agreement or merely moving to a beat.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared on on July 26 as "World Music 101: Femi Kuti at The Showbox."

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Good People

Sometimes, a reader comes across a brief passage, as if by chance, that is both so brilliantly and scathingly put that it deserves to be stolen over and over again, and at the same time reminds you of what makes good people. I found such a lovely passage today, reading an article entitled "Kipling in South Africa" from the London Review of Books, about the friendship between dear Rudy and Cecil Rhodes, the beast who co-founded DeBeers, colonized what is today Zimbabwe, helped brutalize both the blacks and the Boers of southern Africa, and played a particularly estimable role in the godawful ruthlessness and brutality that marked European colonialism in the late 19th century. He was a man of such horrific ambitions that he once commented, "all of these stars...these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets."

Reading about such awful people, I was blown away when I followed a little footnote and came across this absolute gem from the man who remains our country's finest writer, Mr. Samuel Clemens. In Following the Equator from 1897, Mark Twain wrote:

In the opinion of many people Mr Rhodes is South Africa; others think he is only a large part of it. These latter consider that South Africa consists of Table Mountain, the diamond mines, the Johannesburg goldfields, and Cecil Rhodes . . . I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Drunks and Wussies Slap-Fight Over God

Just when you thought that Americans couldn't handle anymore droll anti-religious screeds as shrill and cloying as the fieriest-and-most-brimstoniest preacher's sermon, along comes drunken sod and world-class asshole Christopher Hitchens with his own contribution to the, er, "literature": God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Not satisfied with having been proven painfully fucking wrong on Iraq, Hitchens--who clings to the liberal left with the tenaciousness that a maudlin drunk clings to "this guy!" whom he "loves" at the bar--has decided to issue a new blast to make the rest of us look bad, and to keep the sad, stupid debate about religion in contemporary society roiling in the opinion pages.

Now, I've written about this sad debate a couple times before ("Why Should Darwinists Care About Creationists' Feelings?", "Cranky Old British Scholars Duke it Out Over Jesus") and frankly I'm depressed to have to return to it. But to get to my point (besides making fun of Hitchens--seriously, the guy's a lush), I find both the ardent atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins) and their middle-of-the-road critics in the media equally objectionable, the former because--as a non-believer and skeptic myself--I can't bring myself to trust anyone who believes in something that strongly, and the latter because I'm sick of the liberal media adopting this strange, apologist, kumbaya, "can't-we-all-just-get-along?" attitude towards the religious right. This isn't a zero-sum game; not all religious people are Osama Bin Laden, whatever Mr. Hitchens might like to believe, but that doesn't excuse the rather shocking and at times just plain crazy crap we get in America from the Christian right.

In the broader political context, this apologetic tone serves to play down differences between liberals and conservatives for political gain; the moderate liberal press has thrown in the towel in the fight against religious conservatism and the defense of secular society, having decided electoral success lies in seducing the faithful away from the Republican right. But while it's now the prevailing wisdom that Gore's loss in 2000 and Kerry's in 2004 were the result of Karl Rove's wizardry at bringing the religious right to the polls, that's just not true. As has been consistently shown, the percentage of Americans who list moral values as a prevailing electoral concern has been declining since the mid-1990s. Moreover, this interpretation ignores the fact that centrist Democratic consultants sabotaged both Gore and Kerry by pulling the rug out from under them on what should have been their core electoral values (the environment for Gore, the war for war-hero and anti-Vietnam War-hero John Kerry); most Americans could be forgiven for assuming in 2004 that the war was going fine and that anyway, a Kerry victory wouldn't signal a substantial change. (Well, "forgiven" is too strong a word--most Americans are fucking idiots and you have to beat the truth into their skulls with metaphorical hammers, otherwise they just don't notice.)

In this case, the objectionable middle-of-the-road apologist is Anthony Gottlieb, reviewing Hitchens' no doubt insufferable book in The New Yorker ("Atheists with Attitude," May 21, 2007).

I agree with Gottlieb when he challenges Hitchens et al. on the tendency to be reductive in attacking religion; the problem of "the varieties of religious experience" is one rarely addressed by anti-religious cranks. (Though to give him his due credit, Hitchens makes very clear that he hates all religious observance equally, arguing that moderate religious institutions and their followers make possible the radicals. From a political perspective, he has a point: often times we find damning links between theoretically moderate institutions and radical groups aligned with them, as we've seen with Western Islamic charities and links to terrorist organizations, or between Christian and Catholic groups in the US and violent counterinsurgencies in Latin America during the Cold War. That said, it seems to me this is most pervasive as a political issue, rather than a religious one.) Gottlieb writes:

One practical problem for antireligious writers is the diversity of religious views. However carefully a skeptic frames his attacks, he will be told that what people in fact believe is something different. For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.

Now, in a sense, I'm totally in agreement with the above. What I find strange about the anti-religious is how much credit they give the religious and their beliefs. They treat religious practice as a constant, act as though religious texts like the Bible have but one singular interpretation. In short, they're radically orthodox when it comes to religion.

Now, as one of those damned secular humanists who believe in the Big Bang and evolution and all, I was under the impression that, given that God does not exist to establish universal constants or deliver divine texts to the world, that religion should be therefore viewed as a socio-cultural phenomenon, its tenets and practices prone to evolution, its texts endlessly reinterpreted by successive generations in order to remain pertinent to the ever-changing quotidian demands on the faithful. And of course I'm right about that. No religion is absolute, and any reasonable historian of religion could easily provide countless demonstrations of how religious practice and theological interpretation have evolved over the centuries. Does religion influence the society at large? Yes, and the society at large influences religion. By ignoring that fundamental reality, Dawkins, Hitchens and their ilk open themselves up to an idiotic chicken-and-egg style argument (which, for the record, Gottlieb chooses to indulge: "The idea that people would have been nicer to one another if they had never got religion, as Hitchens, Dawkins, and [Sam] Harris seem to think, is a strange position for an atheist to take. For if man is wicked enough to have invented religion for himself he is surely wicked enough to have found alternative ways of making mischief.")

Furthermore, Gottlieb clearly agrees with me on the charge that these "atheists with attitudes", like Hitchens, are more than a little shrill and hyperbolic: "After rightly railing against female genital mutilation in Africa," writes Gottlieb,

which is an indigenous cultural practice with no very firm ties to any particular religion, Hitchens lunges at male circumcision. He claims that it is a medically dangerous procedure that has made countless lives miserable. This will come as news to the Jewish community, where male circumcision is universal, and where doctors, hypochondria, and overprotective mothers are not exactly unknown. Jews, Muslims, and others among the nearly one-third of the world’s male population who have been circumcised may be reassured by the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that it recommends male circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.

But my problem with Gottlieb is his attempt, like so many people in the liberal media, to problematize the atheists' arguments with counterpoints:

When Hitchens weighs the pros and cons of religion in the recent past, the evidence he provides is sometimes lopsided. He discusses the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in maintaining apartheid in South Africa, but does not mention the role of the Anglican Church in ending it. He attacks some in the Catholic Church, especially Pope Pius XII, for their appeasement of Nazism, but says little about the opposition to Nazism that came from religious communities and institutions. In “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Jonathan Glover, who is the director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at Kings College London, documents such opposition, and writes, “It is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have . . . come from principled religious commitment.” The loss of such commitment, Glover suggests, should be of concern even to nonbelievers.

Now, is it me, or does the reader of the above paragraph not come up with a rather different interpretation than Gottlieb, using Glover to speak for him? Again, religion stems not from the word of God absolute (as both Hitchens and his enemies in the cloth believe) but as a cultural practice that--as Gottlieb illustrates with contrasting examples--is just as amenable to cruelty and destruction as to righteousness and justice.

What's fascinating to me here is that both Gottlieb and Hitchens are simultaneously engaged in trying to generate a political narrative regarding the role of religion in society starting from the same political perspective: the liberal left. Hitchens embraces a radical criticism of religion on the grounds that it leads to extreme partisanship between diverse sects and religions, while religious texts generally encourage militancy and hatred of religious and cultural others. In the process, he forgets his own humanist perspective and sets up a straw man that turns out to be a three-ton stone statue by giving religion the credit its most ardent believers demand: that it be treated as immutable, eternal, and singular, instead of evolving and open to diverse interpretation, as any reasonable liberal knows. Finally, Hitchens' critique is linked to the same ignoble service as his support for the Iraq war. While it may not at first be patently obvious--given the Bush administration's evangelical zeal--that this is the case, the reality is that the "religion is the cause of all the world's problems" argument goes a long way to absolving the Bush administration of fault for the current disaster in Iraq, as well as encouraging everyone to ignore the rather obvious social, economic and political causes of many of the world's ills and our rather shameful role in bringing them about. It becomes the catch-all explanation for radical Islam, the internecine conflict in Iraq, Al Qaeda, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and why otherwise westernized second-generation Muslims in Europe turn vehemently on their host countries. (A good corrective to this is Mahmood Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which goes a long way in explaining how our current problems stem both from the messy aftermath of colonialism and America's post-Vietnam containment policies.)

Gottlieb, in contrast, starts from the liberal position that, well, we've lost the culture war. Blue collar Christians will keep Republicans in power no matter how bad Republican policies are for their pocketbooks (and their children's future) until we give in and make peace on abortion and gays and prayer in school. And so he looks through the history books and, hey, turns out not all religious leaders were crazed zealots. There was Niebuhr, and MLK, and probably some others. Moreover, religious leaders helped fight peaceful crusades against injustices they opposed with their religious values. So maybe there is some common ground. But from my perhaps ignorant humanist perspective, aren't the achievements we credit to the religious here really achievements of human decency when confronted with injustice and cruelty? Or in other words, while Pope John Paul II was certainly a crucial figure in the anti-Communist reform movements in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, is it really fair to give him as much credit for their eventual success as his hagiographers have? He was not, after all, the one who had to strike or go on march and--God forbid--risk arrest, torture, or death for his freedom. And while the marchers at the Lenin Ship Yard or Wenceslas Square may have taken comfort in the Pope's support, the likelihood either he or God was going to be able to save them from a Soviet crackdown, as had occurred in Hungary in 1956, was, I think, rather small.

But to follow the apologetic liberal line that religion also does good things (look at Civil Rights!) ignores how bad their electoral values are for many of their constituents. As Thomas Frank rather devastatingly showed in What's the Matter With Kansas?, the legislative priorities of Republicans are painfully at odds with the needs of the American working and middle classes. The Moral Majority has a lot of blood on its hands when it comes to the dismal future its Republican allies have made for many Americans. And these days, Christians seem more united in denying rights to women and gays--while indulging in no small amount of self-pity at their own perceived oppression and marginalization--than in fighting injustice in the world.

In this, Gottlieb's own narrative ignores one of the few things that Hitchens does get right: that religious observance is far less absolute than religious leaders would have us believe, that the religious right has not achieved a critical mass capable of achieving their political and cultural aims. Attempts by creationist school-board members to force "intelligent design" on schools have been most decisively rebuked not by the courts but by the outraged electorate which has, in virtually every case, voted out the offending members the first chance they got. On abortion, the majority of the population has consistently supported legal access, and the victories Christians have won are narrow and incremental and may lead nowhere. And as far as gay rights are concerned, gay marriage remains legal in one state and looks to stay that way; nationwide, attitudes are becoming more and more progressive on gay rights. So why the hell do Gottlieb & co. continue arguing we should step back?

In short, Hitchens is a moron with a booze-addled brain and no one should pay attention to him. His credibility was shot from supporting a cruel war in Iraq for bad reasons. And I for one am not amenable to having my atheism represented by a man who himself maintains a number of beliefs--such as America's ability to remake the world in its image--on faith and faith alone. In other words, Hitchens needs to be taking lessons in skepticism, not giving them. But the alternative offered by middle-of-the-road liberals in the Times and The New Yorker, the make-nice approach, is no better for the commonweal. Given the degree to which the conservative religious establishment believes it should be given deference in issues of marriage, child-birth, women's rights, and education, it seems increasingly clear that what's needed is not rapprochement but rather a staking of claims. For the good of our country and our society, we need to establish norms for the separation of secular and religious spheres of influence; for my money, I think the religious right has already gone too far. The last thing we should be doing is encouraging them by all but admitting our fault. That doesn't mean we need embrace shrill radicals like Hitchens and Dawkins, but rather that secular society needs to assert that (a) it can develop ethical norms without the need of religious assistance, and (b) that a free society both ensures the freedom of religious institutions within their realm, while divorcing that realm from the secular one. It is precisely this sepatation to which the political religious establishment most objects, and therefore it is of paramount importance it be defended against encroachment.

Yet this entire issue is all but absent from the work of the above-mentioned anti-religious radicals. For them, rationalism and religion are engaged in existential struggle, which only one will survive. The reality is that both religion and secular rationalism are here for the long haul, and the real issues that face America in addressing this uncomfortable marriage of liberalism and anti-liberal doctrines (with a great many churches falling in the first category, it should behoove us to remember) are no better served by the salvos issued by the drunken prat in question than they are by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or any of the other pseudo-religious figures who put the faith of their flocks in the service of political radicals.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Paul Krugman's Embarrassing 1990s Self

So today I'm breaking my own self-imposed rule of not commenting on opinion columnists. The reason I imposed this rule on myself is because I fail to see the point in writing about the commentariat--it only encourages them (not that my own contribution, or lack thereof, is likely to make much difference) to continue prattling on about unimportant matters. After all, you can roughly divide columnists into two categories: the ones you agree with, and the ones you don't. Both are really just preaching to the choir. That is, I've spilled too much virtual ink taking David Brooks more seriously than he deserves, yet while I enjoy Frank Rich's tendency to list out the litany of complaints we all share against the Bush administration, it both speaks for itself while offering nothing in the way of cause for further discussion, further discussion being the one thing our nation most desperately needs.

However, sometimes--today being such an occasion--some liberal columnist I normally read with half-waning interest brings up something that reminds me of how objectionable and ineffectual the Clinton-era Democrats were. (I fully expect more of this as we return to power after six long years of complete Republican misrule.) Today, the offender was Paul Krugman, and the dark secret from the past was free trade.

"Nothing divides Democrats like international trade policy," Krugman wrote in his May 14 New York Times column.

That became clear last week, when the announcement of a deal on trade between Democratic leaders and the Bush administration caused many party activists to accuse the leadership of selling out...[T]he Democrats remain sharply divided between those who believe that globalization is driving down the wages of many U.S. workers, and those who believe that making and honoring international trade agreements is an essential part of governing responsibly.

What makes this divide so agonizing is that both sides are right.

Now, when I first read this, I was tempted to give Krugman the point. In a sense, I appreciate what he's saying: Anyone who is at all concerned about global poverty shouldn't get all protectionist about trade, since--despite the proclivity for abuse of workers in poorer countries that comes with globalization--trade creates opportunities that didn't previously exist in developing countries. Moreover, like Krugman, I favor the carrot-and-stick approach of free trade agreements tied to labor reforms, which helps workers organize and protect their rights while creating new job opportunities. The downside, of course, is the loss of jobs at home to cheaper foreign labor, which is precisely the source of Krugman's--and everyone else's--ambivalence on the issue.

However, as I read on, several things became apparent. First, it's stupid to start from the perspective of ambivalence regarding the issue. Like any real problem, globalization can't be easily snarked by a columnist, so Krugman deserves no credit for acknowledging that it's complicated. His job, one would assume, is to offer some sort of solution, or at least some original ideas drawn from a lifetime of economic research, which he does not do. Second, he goes on to engage in the selective choice of information I regularly accuse other columnists of using to set up a straw-man. Which brings me back to the unpleasant Clinton years.

Before arising from the ashes of the failed New Economy as a Bush-hater par excellence, Krugman was a booster of the market populism of the 1990s. His solution then, which he returns to here, to the problem of lost jobs is to argue that the issue is overstated and anyway, a rising tide lifts all boats. Minimize, then dismiss. In other words, Krugman is of the school that holds that the loss of certain blue collar jobs is acceptable so long as the growing economy makes up for it by providing new opportunities. And in the 1990s, the market populists argued that with sustained growth, stock ownership, and so on, the market would do just that.

Unfortunately, since 2000, Krugman himself has (occasionally) done excellent work showing how the rising tide did not lift all boats equally, and certainly how in the new century there's not even a sense that it might. He's now legitimately concerned with the growing income inequality and concentration of wealth in America. Which makes this particular column so disappointing.

So imports from the third world, although they make the United States as a whole richer, make tens of millions of Americans poorer. How much poorer? In the mid-1990s a number of economists, myself included, crunched the numbers and concluded that the depressing effects of imports on the wages of less-educated Americans were modest, not more than a few percent.

But that may have changed. We’re buying a lot more from third-world countries today than we did a dozen years ago, and the largest increases have come in imports from Mexico, where wages are only about 11 percent of the U.S. level, and China, where wages are only 3 percent of the U.S. level. Trade still isn’t the main source of rising economic inequality, but it’s a bigger factor than it was.

Now, here's the rub. While I am not familiar with the research he refers to himself and others conducting, my guess is that by a combination of selective date ranges and other criteria, his research minimized the problem in the 1990s.

First, what date range is he referring to? Even wage change over a ten-year period, say 1985-1995, would miss substantial impacts on American wages. The real wage has remained stagnant or fallen since 1974. In other words, the '85-'95 time frame would ignore some of the massive changes wrought in the late 1970s (stagflation) and early 1980s (Reagan's union-busting).

Second, what does Krugman mean when he refers to "the wages of less-educated Americans"? It's an important question. Does "less-educated" include job training or no? Because if it doesn't, it inherently skews the results. A union sheet metal worker in the mid-70s didn't need a high school education (my grandfather, in fact, had only a fifth grade education), yet made around $25 an hour (in 1970s dollars). By contrast, a McDonald's crew member would only have been making minimum wage (what, around $3 an hour?). So if formal education is your only criterion, you wind up lumping my grandfather in with a McDonald's employee. By 1975 and certainly 1980, there were way more service-sector employees than journeymen sheet metal workers, which means that the loss of wages in well-paid minority are minimized across the large number of lower paid workers.

Third, if the second is (as I suspect) an accurate criticism, then you also are comparing apples and oranges. Well-paid skilled labor should not be lumped in with dead-end service sector work. They're not the same damn thing. One route--skilled labor--offered Americans without access to higher education a real chance to raise their circumstances and enter the middle class. To lump those workers in with lower paid workers makes the picture rosier because it ignores the fact that the jobs we've lost were the ones enabling social mobility, while the crap jobs at McDonald's remain safe from the scourge of outsourcing by the glorious lack of opportunities available to McDonald's workers.

In other words, I think Krugman remains committed to some ideas from the 1990s best left to decay in the dustbin of history. The rapaciousness of George W. Bush's presidency, with its marked disregard for the pocketbooks of most Americans, has tended to make us forget that the Democrats under Clinton--the party that was supposed to watch out for the average folk and proles--turned its back on a commitment to economic democracy. Now, with Democrats taking back power, an unpleasant debate is taking place within the party between the neoliberals committed to Clintonian third-way policies and the insurgent red-state Dems elected on anti-immigrant and protectionist populist backlash. Neither one serves the country nor the world well. We can pin our hopes on a charismatic candidate like John Edwards or Barack Obama, both of whom talk a good talk about doing right by the rest of the world and the folks back home, but then you're relying not on building a progressive political consensus but rather on the ability of one politician to have some good ideas and the will to carry them out. And I just can't get behind that sort of personality-driven politics.

So what do I--having already admitted appreciation for Krugman's quandary--propose for the benefit of the commonweal?

First, we have to acknowledge that economies are dynamic. As much as old-school laborites would have us believe, the likelihood that manufacturing has a big future in America is unlikely. Moreover, with intelligent trade policies geared less towards curbing domestic power in our poorer trading partners and more towards giving workers serious rights, we can achieve some good on the world stage. From a policy perspective, America needs to realize that the promise of globalism--creating wealth and ending poverty--is predicated on a contradictory notion--companies go to poorer nations for cheaper labor. In other words, countries can only acquire wealth if wages increase, which will be vehemently opposed by the companies taking their business there. A laissez-faire approach won't overcome this contradiction; it requires the US government use its regulatory powers to encourage behaviors it wants to see, which, God willing, are easing global poverty.

Second, on the domestic front, having acknowledged that a global system is here to stay, we need to figure out how to respond. Free markets won't make everyone in America richer, they have proven in the past 20 years to do nothing but concentrate wealth. The response needs to be a rededication to a progressive tax schedule which helps mitigate massive concentration of wealth among a small group.

Third, we need to instigate universal healthcare. The employer-based healthcare model is a failure; even while globalism demands worker flexibility, the employer-based model ties workers to one job since, if they leave that job, they and their families lose healthcare. That's crap, as is the faith-based "health savings account" solution which doesn't address the skyrocketing costs of healthcare. We need a single-payer system.

Fourth, we also need welfare reform that doesn't treat the unemployed like freeloaders. Again, increased flexibility requires that at a social level we work to lessen the blow to losing a job if for no other reason than a more dynamic, globalized economies means a lot more people are going to go through more frequent periods of joblessness. Better welfare benefits are needed to provide some sort of economic stability to the workforce as more workers are required to change jobs more frequently.

Fifth, crucial education reforms are required. At the university level, we need to lower the cost. Currently, the $15,000-plus yearly tuition for public universities is prohibitively high. It either limits access to those with well-off parents, thus discriminating by social class, or requires a student to accumulate massive debt. And again, that massive debt discourages worker flexibility since servicing it requires relatively higher payments to earnings when workers are in their twenties, precisely the career-stage that the most flexibility is required as workers try to position themselves for higher-paid future jobs.

Conversely, at the secondary education level it seems clear that we need to change the focus from college prep and rededicate ourselves to teaching high-schoolers marketable skills. Today, a minority of high school graduates will complete a bachelor's degree. So while a strong liberal arts education with a university future in mind appeals to the sensibilities of many parents, in reality, what we've done is to create a wealth-transference program via school funding. So long as school funding is used for college-prep, that funding primarily benefits the minority who will actually complete a college education, who are demographically more likely to have parents who completed college themselves. At the same time, all the other students who will not benefit from a college education are left at the age of 18 with few marketable skills and extremely poor job options unless they pursue additional job training--typically at out-of-pocket expense--which is in the long run is of less value than a formal college education.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

So, Argos is some kinda catalogue

So, anyone who knows me probably knows that one of the few new bands I'll rave about is Art Brut. I've interviewed lead singer Eddie Argos on his two Seattle visits, and I'm awaiting their new album, It's A Bit Complicated (due out in late June) anxiously, not to mention some announcement of a real North American tour later this summer or early fall.

In the interim, however, I've discovered that those desperate for a bit more Art Brut can, apparently, turn in to the website of UK's newspaper-of-record, The Guardian, where Argos is a guest blogger/columnist.

(P.S., I recently acquired a pink oxford shirt myself, K.P. having made comments about it on the rack at the Gap as something Eddie Argos would wear. Given her none too well described crush, I had to get it and now wear it frequently.)

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Ah, the barbed pens of critics. My best and oldest friend, Brian Boone, is a sometime playwright. His first musical, a comedic one-act, (which I workshopped at the University of Oregon with him) entitled The Sea is a Restless Whore, is enjoying its third--and first professional--production. It was first put on at the University of Oregon, picked up at a festival and produced by students at Western Washington University, and now is being produced by The Next Stage in Los Angeles, California.

Much to all our amusement, the play has received its first (extremely critical) review, from LA Weekly. See below:

THE SEA IS A RESTLESS WHORE is one of those pirate plays where everybody says “Arrrrgh!” a lot. It is perhaps the only show to feature a diabetic tap-dancing quadriplegic (played by Matthew Jackson). And it is a coming-out play. Captain Longbrau (Jack Sobrack) comes out as gay (which is no surprise to his crew, who present him with a tin of L‘Oreal Sword Polish for his birthday). Seaman Pete (Max Beard) comes out as a former would-be rock star, and Buckfoot (Liz Jamieson) shame-facedly admits to being a tea-drinking Brit. Longshanks the Fearsome (Tanner Beard) comes out of a trapdoor. Playwright Brian A. Boone has assembled every bad gay joke and pirate gag in the book, and Gabe Dickinson provides the unmemorable songs. Jamieson contributes handsome costumes and sometimes amusing choreography, while director Morgan Buck just goes for obvious camp. The actors do their best to overcome the sophomoric material, and the show is blessedly short. THE NEXT STAGE, 1523 La Brea Ave., Hlywd. Thurs., 8 p.m., thru May 24. (323) 850-7827. (Neal Weaver)

Bully, say I! And bully again! An artist needs to take some pride in pissing off the squares and getting bashed. Rarely are critics ahead of the curve. True, The Sea is a Restless Whore is not a work of intellectual genius, it's broad, picaresque comedy. But seriously, as Brian told me in a recent email, "The things he says suck are what will bring people to the show! If someone said to me 'don't see that show. It has a three minute fart scene and a dancing quadriplegic.' I would say 'Dude. I'm there.'" Trust me--if anyone is reading this in LA, you must see this musical (click here for the official MySpace page with info); the quadriplegic isn't just dancing, he's tap dancing. Plus, it's got it's own drinking game.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Viaduct Victory?

On March 13, Seattle went down a road that was half surprising, half expected: they vetoed both the tunnel and the replacement projects for the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. This was, on its face, somewhat surprising in that the voters failed to go down the path the city and state clearly expected they would—seeing this as an either/or vote between two cemented options with no alternative. On the other hand, as I’ve said more than once, Seattle is a city paralyzed by development and change. In the current environment, the electorate has consistently prevented substantive action from being taken.

In the case of the Viaduct, this scenario has worked in our favor. I long predicted that the electorate’s intransigence would spoil the mayor’s big dig tunnel dreams, while the vocal minority (and potentially growing majority) that favors transit and high-density development would likely scuttle a rebuild.

The historical causes of our current situation are pretty simple: it’s the continued struggle between Seattle’s old guard, blue collar population and the younger, urbanite population that’s been transforming the city since the tech boom of the 1990s. The old guard was behind what used to be known as Seattle’s “neighborhood movement,” where neighborhood activists came to wield substantial power over city planning. A lot of people embraced the neighborhood movement as a sign of intelligent growth: neighborhoods were helping ensure a higher quality of life, reinvigorating civic participation, and serving as a bulwark against heartless redevelopment.

But that was a mistaken impression: the neighborhood groups also represented the status quo, consolidating power in older, richer, more established neighborhoods and fighting to keep a disproportionately big share of the pie. The neighborhood movements, in other words, were pretty happy with they way things were; they were political reactionaries fighting against progress. They helped scuttle Seattle Commons, Paul Allen’s ambitious civic project for SLU. They made nice with homeless advocacy groups to give their greed for city money the veneer of progressive politics. Organizations like the Seattle Displacement Coalition and the hobo newspaper Real Change took to advocating strange positions: Real Change used to give disproportionate article space to Magnolia residents opposing a tunnel, and the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox became a point man for criticizing the city’s redevelopment priorities, opposing things like streetcar service between downtown and SLU.

The result of these unusual coalitions and proxy battles has been our current state of paralysis. A couple years ago we were looking at a potentially bright future for transit: the monorail, light rail, the removal of the Viaduct, and a streetcar. Now business developers and neighborhood groups together killed the monorail. Homeless advocates and neighborhood groups griping about “corporate welfare” the Paul Allen have help up the streetcar. Light rail, always the worst, least sensitive option, is being bulldozed through by the political will of unaccountable politicians alone.

Which brings us back to the Viaduct vote. Backers of the “streets+transit” option claimed victory after the voters soundly voted down measures on a ballot they weren’t even on. The de facto alternative won by default. Or at least they half-won. The “streets” part won—there’s no will to build highways or tunnels, which leaves us streets. The transit option’s more up in the air. A good omen is reports that Seattle City councilman Peter Steinbrueck is forgoing reelection to advocate for transit options. But if history’s any guide, it’ll be an uphill fight. Right now, we’re winning by virtue of indecision. But indecision doesn’t get new infrastructure built. We’re reminded of a parable offered by Soren Kierkegaard in his pioneering work of philosophy, Either/Or: A ship is sailing straight towards land. The helmsman and the captain argue over whether to veer port or starboard, unable to make a decision. Right now, that’s the situation we have in Seattle: an argument over where we want to go and what we want to do. Just don’t forget—not making a decision is a choice, too, the choice to run aground.
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