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Why is it so easy to save the banks – but so hard to save the biosphere?

George Monbiot, The Guardian
They bailed out the banks in days. But even deciding to bail out the planet is taking decades.

Nicholas Stern estimated that capping climate change would cost around 1% of global GDP, while sitting back and letting it hit us would cost between 5 and 20%. One per cent of GDP is, at the moment, $630bn. By March 2009, Bloomberg has revealed, the US Federal Reserve had committed $7.77 trillion to the banks. That is just one government’s contribution: yet it amounts to 12 times the annual global climate change bill. Add the bailouts in other countries, and it rises several more times.

This support was issued on demand: as soon as the banks said they wanted help, they got it. On just one day the Federal Reserve made $1.2tr available – more than the world has committed to tackling climate change in 20 years.

Much of this was done both unconditionally and secretly: it took journalists two years to winkle out the detail. The banks shouted “help” and the government just opened its wallet. This all took place, remember, under George W Bush, whose administration claimed to be fiscally conservative.

But getting the US government to commit to any form of bailout for the planet – even a couple of billion – is like pulling teeth. “Unaffordable!” the Republicans (and many of the Democrats) shriek. It will wreck the economy! We’ll go back to living in caves!
(16 December 2011)

Will the right turn green?

Steven Tufts, The Bullet (Socialist Project
Conservatives can’t deny climate change forever: a right-wing ‘green’ offensive against the working class and against democracy is a real possibility. Ecosocialists need to prepare now.

Greening work in an age of uncertainty:
Is there something worse than climate change denial?

… The action (or perhaps inaction) of Canada and other industrialized countries in Durban is the product of a diminished political will to address climate change at the expense of economic growth. In a recent article in The Nation, Naomi Klein laments the derailment of the climate change agenda. Klein echoes the long standing eco-socialist calls for less consumption, more economic planning, massive retraining efforts, and restraints on corporations. These policies are all important reforms to hyper-capital accumulation. In the current economic crisis, however, such initiatives are demonized as enemies of recovery.

Klein blames well funded climate change denial groups such as the U.S. based right-wing Heartland Institute for changes in popular sentiment. At the same time, however, she credits the actual insight and claims such groups make with respect to the real threat successful climate change mitigation and adaptation poses to free markets. She suggests that climate change deniers may be quite right in labelling climate change activists as the ‘green Trojan horse’ for ‘red Marxists.’

I am sympathetic with much of what Klein argues. Her analysis of how climate change and economic crises are inextricably linked is crucial to rethinking left alternatives, though her prescriptions mild. In the end, the ecological limits of capitalism may very well lead to the collapse of the system despite the wishful thinking of climate change sceptics. Right wing populist climate change deniers are a threat to both the environment and workers and must be confronted.

Klein’s implicit assumption is, however, that only socialists can implement economic policies in response to climate change over the short and medium terms. This view is both false and dangerous. What Klein and many other socialists concerned with climate change fail to consider is that, as regressive as right-wing climate change inaction and denial is, a greater danger may lie with a right that takes the threat of climate change seriously.

It is true that climate change activism has largely been linked to various strands of reformist and anti-capitalist politics ranging from advocates of a greener capitalism to deep ecologists calling for a radical reduction in industrial production. Responses can be used to challenge capitalism. But they can also be used to reinforce existing systems of political and economic oppression and inequality.

As sea-levels rise and erode beaches, the right will eventually no longer be able to bury their heads in the sand. They will be forced to purge the deniers from their organizations to preserve political legitimacy. When this time comes, socialists must be prepared for concerted attacks on workers and democracy as a more authoritarian capitalism emerges disciplining dissent in the name of climate crisis.

Working Greener, Working Harder or Not Working at All

Much of the current political debate around greening the economy and “working together” has focussed on the ‘creative destruction’ of economic sectors and the development of new ‘green jobs.’ Over the course of the economic crisis, there have been numerous calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ as a means to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. Green investment is seen as a means of restoring the circuit of capital by prodding corporations sitting on hoards of cash to start investing and thus offset the current crisis. This is a vision of a ‘green capitalism’ that is seen as capable of addressing the twin crises of ecology (in particular the climate change crisis that is the focus of Durban) and the economy. But there are a number of contradictions within this vision.

New forms of green capital accumulation are still expansionary and can be resource-using, so it is unclear if emissions can be significantly reduced through renewed rounds of investment. For example, there were many bold claims made that the new computer technologies would ‘dematerialize’ capitalist economy, but the ‘material throughputs’ of capitalist economies continue to grow.

Transition to a low-emission economy will involve restructuring the labour process in all workplaces, green and brown. The goal is to decrease the technical composition of capital and shift to more labour intensive forms of production and service provision. But in this case, labour is most often expected to exercise wage restraint as employers still seek to cut costs by constraining necessary labour. Intensifying labour utilization will do less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if workers still commute long distances to work by car (or increase usage of airplanes for international business travel).

‘Green’ workers will also require significant retraining to enter and re-enter the labour market. Klein argues that the state must provide support for education and training. Neoliberal states, however, have been successful in downloading the responsibility to increase human capital onto individuals in knowledge-based economies.

Deep ecologists have contended for some time that ecological systems can only be sustained by not transforming the environment through social production. Put differently, by not ascribing value to things via commodification. …

Eco-socialists ignore this fact at their peril. The political right will not be able to avoid the impacts of global warming and will have to engage in real action. The political forms of their action will not be to the benefit of democracy or workers. Klein’s frustration with climate change deniers and their well-funded anti-intellectual ‘sceptic’ tanks (as they are now called) is understandable. But a right that begins to act on climate change, in the midst of a rising neoliberal authoritarianism, can also further suppress workers. At the moment, climate change denial provides socialists with a window of opportunity to prepare for such an offensive. Strategies must be developed to counter a right that appears proactive on climate change. Failure to do so may someday lead socialists to long for the days when the right had their heads in the sand. •

Steven Tufts teaches Geography at York University, Toronto.
(13 December 2011)
Also at Climate and Capitalism. -BA

Economists Push for a Broader Range of Viewpoints in Their Field

Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, mainstream economists in academe were criticized for treading in ethically murky waters. The 2010 documentary Inside Job recounted how influential economists were being paid by the companies and governments that they were analyzing, but failing to disclose conflicts of interest publicly or in reports they produced.

Recently critics have mounted a more fundamental line of attack on mainstream economists, taking aim at the ideology that has grown dominant over the past 30 years, which they say played a significant part in causing the Great Recession and not doing much to help solve it.

The dispute, which has been echoed in critiques made by Occupy Wall Street activists, has roiled blogs, op-ed pages, and university campuses. Students at Harvard University recently walked out of one prominent professor’s class.

Critics call this ideology “free-market fundamentalism,” and it rests on certain core tenets: The market is the most efficient way to allocate resources; people generally make rational decisions when buying goods and services; and government regulations are to be minimized because they risk undermining purer market forces and can lead to corruption.

Embraced by presidential administrations from both political parties, this view of economics is most often associated with prestigious academic departments in the Ivy League, at Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. But it has devolved into dogma, critics say.

Critics want an alternative vision—or visions—of the discipline to be more widely accepted. “We need an economics that aims to secure long-run human well-being, not an economics preoccupied with maximizing short-run output and profits,” reads the mission statement of a new group, called Econ4, which was started at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in September.
(13 December 2011)
Re-posted in full at MarxMail. -BA

“Debt” by David Graeber

Justin E. H. Smith, Bookforum
David Graeber has been much praised of late as a prophet of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and even if one doesn’t want to go that far, his book is remarkably timely. I received my review copy the day of the October 5th NYPD pepper-spray incident in Zuccotti Park. By the time I finished reading it, copycat occupations had sprung up in my adoptive home city (Montreal), my native city (Sacramento), and spots around the world. Graeber’s book shows that mass movements that result in debt cancellation—whether through revolution or amnesty—are inevitable, and suggests that we may be entering such a period now. We may also be entering a moment in which the philosophical and cosmic nature of debt finally becomes apparent.

Debt’s striking synchronicity with OWS should not overshadow the fact that it’s also a formidable piece of anthropological scholarship. The book spans the concept’s evolution from the great Axial Age civilizations—adapting Karl Jaspers’s label to describe the period between 800 BCE and 600 CE in Greece, India, and China—into the age of global conquest, and finally though its bizarre mutations over the past forty years. As Graeber shows, debt could not have taken the form that it did during the Axial Age without the appearance of currency, but it was also far from being only, or even principally, an economic matter. Debt was originally a moral and cosmological notion, about our debt to the gods (in India), to our parents (in China), or to the cosmos (in Greece, and sometimes in India).

To support this claim, Graeber argues that the expansionist wars of the Axial period were motivated largely by the need to find new sources of precious metals to plunder; a development that came at around the same time as the innovation of coinage systems and the rise of a new professionalized soldier class.
(15 December 2011)
Long paper by Graeber, apparently an early outline of the book: Debt: The First Five Thousand Years

EB contributor Michael Yates comments:
“I think Graeber’s strength is that he is an anthropologist. He has an appreciation for certain desirable features of what some on the left think of a “primitive” societies with little to teach us. The idea of mutual and unrepayable debt served as a social glue in such societies, helping to maintain what were typically pretty egalitarian societies. Debt in modern societies is a form of oppression that keeps people in their (oppressed) place. A focus on debt may be useful, in that it is something everyone can grasp right away. If students and graduates saddled with debt start to think about their debt in the way Graeber suggests they should, it could be a way for people to rethink the way in which our system functions, to come to realize that education should be free of charge and universally available. Other liberating thoughts might ensue from that. Like housing should be free too. Naturally, the workplace must be a central concern. But war has to be waged on all other fronts as well. ”

Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low

D’Vera Cohn, Jeffrey Passel and Wendy Wang; Pew Social Trends
Barely half of all adults in the United States—a record low—are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.

In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.

The Pew Research analysis also finds that the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy.

The United States is by no means the only nation where marriage has been losing “market share” for the past half century. The same trend has taken hold in most other advanced post-industrial societies, and these long-term declines appear to be largely unrelated to the business cycle. The declines have persisted through good economic times and bad.

In the United States, the declines have occurred among all age groups, but are most dramatic among young adults. Today, just 20% of adults ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with 59% in 1960. Over the course of the past 50 years, the median age at first marriage has risen by about six years for both men and women.

It is not yet known whether today’s young adults are abandoning marriage or merely delaying it.
(14 December 2011)