In the last decade anxiety has grown about the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of modern capitalism. The financial meltdown and Great Recession of 2008-10, rising material inequality, and the specter of climate catastrophe have focused a lot of minds and some people wonder if systemic change is in order. No one wants early 20th century-style command economies, of course. But, it might be a good time to dust off a debate that was briefly popular after the Cold War ended: Is a “Third Way” possible, a new economic system balanced between capitalism and socialism with characteristics of each?
I tend to think that our worst problems and inability to act are more products of political failures than of any fatal flaw of capitalism. Yet, others say that today’s hyper-globalized, giant corporation-controlled, finance-dominated capitalism is the root cause of many of them, or at least that today’s capitalism never will be able or willing to act on them. Problems such as –
- Climate and environmental damage.
- Soaring economic inequality.
- Financial system instability.
- Concentration of corporate power fewer and fewer hands.
- Loss of interest among economic elites in maintaining high wages and full employment.
- Disruptive technologies on the horizon (like AI) that could render vast numbers of jobs obsolete.
- The existence of seemingly successful but authoritarian models of development, especially China’s.
To these problems you can add political ones, like disappearing social institutions that used to help to constrain concentrated private power, paralyzed governments, and a pissed-off public searching for populist scapegoats.
To be sure, capitalism has always been very adaptive and dynamic. A disruptive and painful “creative destruction” has always been the price we pay for the enormous wealth capitalism creates and the personal freedom it allows. Moreover and as we’ve discussed, there isn’t just one model of capitalism in the world. To simplify somewhat, there is a Nordic model, a German one, an Anglo-Saxon one, and several state-led Asian variants, notably the authoritarian Chinese one. Their freedom to experiment is somewhat limited by international law and trade rules, as is ours to a lesser extent.
It’s almost too big a topic, when you think about it. We might get somewhere on Monday if we ask some of the right questions. Focusing on who should own the means of production, how much government planning is needed, and the merits of the profit motive seems a little archaic to me. IMO it also focuses more on means than ends. Maybe my educational/career background can help here. So, I will open us up with a short introduction that frames the big questions we are going to have to ask in the years ahead regarding capitalism – questions I think will bedevil us regardless of what type of “system” we say we have. Here are a few general questions and some reading ideas.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Socialism: What is/was Socialism? What was/wasn’t socialized and why? Different types?
- Capitalism: How many different models of mixed capitalism exist today? What are the biggest differences between them in term of property ownership; corporate governance; govt planning, tax/spend, regulation; democratic accountability; etc.?
- Successes: What makes an economic system successful? What’s an economy for? Do some economic systems support democracy better than others and vice versa?
- Failures: Is capitalism in crisis? Which models fare best and are best prepared for the future? Is capitalism or politics to blame and can one be in crisis without the other?
- Priorities: What more do we want from our economic system, and what are we willing to give up? (Stability, growth, opportunity, sustainability, social justice, etc.?) Tradeoffs.
- Future: Disruptive technology issues, rise of China/India, climate crisis…
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Types of capitalism –
- Nordic model. (Notice it’s a political system, too.)
In praise of it. A conservative rebuttal. Recommended.
- German model.
- Asian model – Should the West be mimicking it?
- China model – Its appeal is not going away.
Alternative Third Ways –
- 10 alternatives to capitalism, some farfetched.
- Stakeholder capitalism: Change corporations not the whole economic system. Recommended or shorter version here.
- Globalization’s one-size-fit-all approach. Its rules don’t leave enough room for democracy nor permit countries to develop different economic models. Recommended.
- State-owned industries: Maybe sometimes it’s a good idea.
- Conservative POV: Quasi-capitalism cannot work and should not be tried. Very long but fair.
NEXT WEEK: Religiosity – How has its decline affected the USA?
Penny suggested this topic and that we focus on one specific aspect of it: The outsized role that big corporations play in making the American diet unhealthy. CivCon has discussed some related issues in the last two years. In May 2017 we debated how far government should go in encouraging healthy lifestyles and in 2015 we looked at some of the implications of Big Ag itself, with a focus on the industry’s huge political clout and the environmental problems of hyper-concentrated food production. On Monday, we will tackle some of the big health issues surrounding the American diet.
There are a lot of them. It is well known that over the last few decades Americans have grown much more reliant on heavily-processed food, especially fast food. Many of these products are chock full of unhealthy or at least nutritionally-questionable ingredients such as sugar, salt, corn, and chemical additives. A lot of people blame this new American diet for the recent large rise in obesity and related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Some go farther.
Like many of our topics, this is not an area I am very familiar with. However, here are some articles that explore the idea that our diet is being manipulated by big companies and several defenses of industrial agriculture.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The Way We Eat Now: Our modern diet does not fit with our ancient bodies. Recommended.
- How big corporations cashed in on the obesity epidemic.
- Pollan and Schlosser: America is a still a “fast food nation” and a land of “unhappy meals.” Recommended
- Why corn is in practically everything we eat. Recommended.
- Trump has appointed foxes to guard the regulatory henhouses, including at all food-related agencies.
- OTOH POV:
NEXT WEEK: Does the “paranoid style” control American politics now?
If you don’t know what the Prosperity Gospel is and how popular it has become you should. President Trump has been associated with this controversial set of religious beliefs for years. A prosperity Gospel preacher gave the invocation at his inauguration and another one advices Trump.
Moreover, Trump voters’ belief that he embodies the virtues promoted by the prosperity gospel probably explains a lot of his shockingly- high level of support (over 80%) among White U.S. Evangelicals. There are a lot of prosperity gospel-friendly Americans. According to one study (see link below) something like one in five churches in the United States preach a version of the prosperity gospel and about one in six American Christians can be described a lose adherents to its main tenets.
What tenets are those? What is the prosperity gospel and how did it originate in the United States? How Christian is it (that’s fiercely debated)? How American is it (very)? What does that tell us about the interrelationship between the Christian creed and the American creed? Why does the prosperity gospel ring true to so many low-income White Americans and African-Americans? Why are prosperity gospel churches mushrooming abroad, especially in poor but up and coming regions of the world like Africa?
I know most of us in Civilized Conversation are secular in outlook. But, what are the major critiques of prosperity gospel-like thinking from within Christianity? Many Christian leaders – from Rick Warren to Jerry Falwell! – have fiercely denounced the prosperity gospel as unchristian and even heretical. Much of the ire has focused on some of the movement’s leading figures, like Joel Osteen, who runs one of the largest churches in the country in Houston. Pope Francis has roundly condemned this doctrine.
This isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the millions of regular Americans that don’t get much media attention or cultural respect matter, too. So, here are a few readings on the basics of the prosperity gospel philosophy and some critiques of it. Our religious topics are among our best meetings, I’ve always thought. I’m looking forward to it.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What is the Prosperity Gospel?
- Wiki’s Prosperity Theology entry; basic explanation. Recommended.
- Longer explanation + did prosperity gospel suckers help to create 2008 housing crisis? Useful if you have time.
Trump and the Prosperity Gospel –
- He is mainstreaming, to be blunt, heresy.
- He’s just continuing the GOP’s long love affair with the Prosperity Gospel. Recommended.
Some specific critiques –
- A progressive Christian hammers the prosperity gospel as unchristian.
- John Oliver goes for the throat (H/T Jeremy or was it Scott?) Fun.
- Pope Francis loathes it.
- A former supporter, now dying: It has some virtues but ignores the Christian requirement to acknowledge our own frailty and limits. More on this point. Either.
- Prosperity Gospel thinking helps explain Americans’ dislike of the poor. Recommended.
- Worse, it is the poor that get scammed by it, says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. .
- In defense of the Prosperity Gospel.
NEXT WEEK: Is the American diet unhealthy?
Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?
Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.
- Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
- Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
- Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
- Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
- Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
- Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
- Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
- Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
- Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
- Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
- Military power alone can’t win wars.
- U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
- Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
- Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
- The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
- The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
- Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
- The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
- Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
- We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
- Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).
I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Timelines: Basis timeline major stuff only. More detailed.
- U.S. military:
- Our troops did NOT fight with one hand behind their backs.
- It was a war on civilians. Recommended.
- Lessons learned according to General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s Natl Security advisor. Recommended.
- U.S. anti-war movement – All recommended:
- Ken burns series:
- Conservative POVs:
- Lessons for our current wars:
NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.
(See next post down for “Monday’s Mtg” post.)
Gang – Sal contacted me about helping to spread the word about an event his daughter Cori is hosting to unveil her new album. Anything for Sal, so here is the info.
Hi David. My daughter Cori tried sending the following to you but it did not go through. Any assistance you can give in spreading the word for her would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you. Sal
Hi Dad, I can’t reply to this email directly that you forwarded but if you could forward this to your contact at the group if they’d like to enjoy the concert or help spread the word: I am hosting a night of music, art and dancing and would love if any local art lovers would like to join! On November 11th at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, join us for this special night of live, original music with a private concert by 12 musicians, private gallery viewings and access to the museum’s current special exhibit “Memories of Underdevelopment”, and cocktails and dancing! Named one of San Diego’s Top Singer-Songwriters, I am releasing my locally produced album and celebrating by hosting this night and I would like to invite any other lovers of the arts and especially who believe in the importance of support local art to come enjoy a private concert and the beauty of the museum. The Museum of Contemporary Art has been kind enough to work on this with me and I’m so excited to present this musical opportunity! Tickets and event details can be found at the link provided. The code ILOVEORIGINALMUSIC5 can be used for a limited time to save on tickets. (The cost of tickets goes to cover the cost of the museum and the artists) Here are the links:
FOR TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cori-the-music-album-release-and-cori-ography-anniversary-party-tickets-38256939536?aff=eac2
IF YOU’D LIKE TO HEAR THE MUSIC: https://coriandthemusic.bandcamp.com/album/who-am-i —
GET YOUR TICKETS TO THE ALBUM RELEASE PARTY! 11/11 @ The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (downtown) The newest album ‘Who Am I?’ is available now! LISTEN NOW ON BANDCAMP Join the Cori & The Music Fan List! Corina “Cori” Presutti http://www.coricompany.com Dance Music Music Dance Join the Cori-ography Mailing List!
Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.
First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?
- A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
- Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
- Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
- Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
- Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
- Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?
That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.
A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.
I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.
To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.
Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?
I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?
A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
How Democratic is the USA –
- Two big expert surveys said we’re doing pretty well but some reasons to worry – especially with Trump’s election. Recommended.
- Wrong. We are an oligarchy, another study said (in 2014!)
- Our political system has become biased against one major party and that’s bad in a democracy.
- Important: Healthy civic institutions matter more than just having elections.
Do we have too much democracy?
- USA has too much democracy and it may destroy us. , center-right author Andrew Sullivan. Related: The voters are the problem; ignorant, erratic, etc.
Recommended to read one.
- Conservative POV: Too much democracy + unconstitutional expansion of govt are the real problems.
Threats to US democracy –
- Three big threats: Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and Big Money in politics. Recommended;
by a Republican. More on the GOPs assault on voting rights.
- Economic inequality, because it reinforces political inequality. Recommended.
- Our Constitutional system was not built for this level of economic inequality. Interesting.
- Protest is being criminalized by GOP governments.
- How to deepen U.S. democracy.
- Obama’s farewell entreaty to protect our democracy from what is coming.
NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.
Is there a more scary topic for a Halloween eve meeting than this one?
President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has been highly irresponsible and reckless. But, it is hard to judge exactly how dangerous the situation is. War is still unlikely based on what I am reading.
But, honestly. Trump has threatened to annihilate North Korea’s civilian population in a written speech before the United Nations. He has pledged to attack merely if its leaders don’t stop verbally threatening us – to start a war over words. He has repeatedly tweeted (!) that the end of diplomacy is near and we should stay tuned for the next exciting chapter. Senator Corker’s words of warning about Trump earlier this week are widely interpreted as a warning specifically about the likelihood of his triggering war (either accidentally or deliberately) with Pyongyang. Regarding this irresponsible and dangerous president’s behavior I’m not sure what there is to say or discuss, other than to be horrified.
And, yet. North Korea is a massive problem that must somehow be managed no matter who is president. No one really knows what to do and all of our options are bad. So, I thought it would be useful to get up to speed on those options and those risks so we can all better understand what is going on.
Fortunately, a lot of excellent commentaries on North Korea have been penned recently, at least in my opinion. Also, in a few weeks President Trump will visit East Asia.
On Monday night I will do a very brief opening update of recent developments and a preview of what experts say to look for in the Trump Asia tour. Then we can vent discuss North Korean policy.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Panic. Inside North Korea “all paths lead to war.” Recommended.
- Don’t panic. We know deterrence will work on NK because it has worked for decades. Recommended.
- Trump’s policy (or “policy”)
- It’s an even stupider version of George W. Bush’s stupid policy. Recommended.
- Does Trump genuinely want war?
- Detailed discussion of all four major options for dealing with Pyongyang. All are bad but some are much worse than others.
NEXT WEEK: Do we really have a democracy?
I thought that was a great meeting last night. Thanks to everyone for making a 22-person roundtable manageable. The noisy group next to us? I talked to them. They meet weekly the same night as us, so we’ll have to work out something. How about if whoever gets there first in our group next Monday tries to find a big space in the next room forward, not in the back room where they are? Next week I’ll discuss logistics more with them and you all.
As follow-up, here are some things I mentioned.
- The End of Men, Atlantic Monthly 2010 cover story laying out the case that men have lost a lot of status in the last few decades.
- The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss, Atlantic Monthly 2013 cover story on what academic study of same-sex couples teaches us about the innateness of gender roles.
- Modern Romance, fun and funny book on how social media have changed dating. Covers just about every issue we raised last night.
I’ll see you next Monday for North Korea.