Posts tagged Noam Chomsky

The ALLied invasion of Cato

(Via Austro Athenian Empire 2008-11-10 and a bunch of other places.)

Congratulations to Roderick for heading up a round-table discussion in the latest Cato Unbound on corporate power, with a fine introductiory essay on left-libertarianism, and left-libertarian takes on corporatism, the alliance of big government and big business, class, and vulgar libertarian conflation of freed markets with actually-existing capitalism. Our efforts to cover the world with lying, thieving mutualism proceed apace.

Defenders of the free market are often accused of being apologists for big business and shills for the corporate elite. Is this a fair charge?

No and yes. Emphatically no—because corporate power and the free market are actually antithetical; genuine competition is big business’s worst nightmare. But also, in all too many cases, yes —because although liberty and plutocracy cannot coexist, simultaneous advocacy of both is all too possible.

First, the no. Corporations tend to fear competition, because competition exerts downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on salaries; moreover, success on the market comes with no guarantee of permanency, depending as it does on outdoing other firms at correctly figuring out how best to satisfy forever-changing consumer preferences, and that kind of vulnerability to loss is no picnic. It is no surprise, then, that throughout U.S. history corporations have been overwhelmingly hostile to the free market. Indeed, most of the existing regulatory apparatus—including those regulations widely misperceived as restraints on corporate power—were vigorously supported, lobbied for, and in some cases even drafted by the corporate elite.[1]

Corporate power depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace.[2] This is obvious enough in the case of the more overt forms of government favoritism such as subsidies, bailouts,[3] and other forms of corporate welfare; protectionist tariffs; explicit grants of monopoly privilege; and the seizing of private property for corporate use via eminent domain (as in Kelo v. New London). But these direct forms of pro-business intervention are supplemented by a swarm of indirect forms whose impact is arguably greater still.

. . . So where does this idea come from that advocates of free-market libertarianism must be carrying water for big business interests? Whence the pervasive conflation of corporatist plutocracy with libertarian laissez-faire? Who is responsible for promoting this confusion?

There are three different groups that must shoulder their share of the blame. (Note: in speaking of “blame” I am not necessarily saying that the “culprits” have deliberately promulgated what they knew to be a confusion; in most cases the failing is rather one of negligence, of inadequate attention to inconsistencies in their worldview. And as we’ll see, these three groups have systematically reinforced one another’s confusions.)

Culprit #1: the left. Across the spectrum from the squishiest mainstream liberal to the bomb-throwingest radical leftist, there is widespread (though not, it should be noted, universal)[10] agreement that laissez-faire and corporate plutocracy are virtually synonymous. David Korten, for example, describes advocates of unrestricted markets, private property, and individual rights as corporate libertarians who champion a globalized free market that leaves resource allocation decisions in the hands of giant corporations[11]—as though these giant corporations were creatures of the free market rather than of the state—while Noam Chomsky, though savvy enough to recognize that the corporate elite are terrified of genuine free markets, yet in the same breath will turn around and say that we must at all costs avoid free markets lest we unduly empower the corporate elite.[12]

Culprit #2: the right. If libertarians’ left-wing opponents have conflated free markets with pro-business intervention, libertarians’ right-wing opponents have done all they can to foster precisely this confusion; for there is a widespread (though again not universal) tendency for conservatives to cloak corporatist policies in free-market rhetoric. This is how conservative politicians in their presumptuous Adam Smith neckties have managed to get themselves perceived—perhaps have even managed to perceive themselves—as proponents of tax cuts, spending cuts, and unhampered competition despite endlessly raising taxes, raising spending, and promoting government-business partnerships.

Consider the conservative virtue-term privatization, which has two distinct, indeed opposed, meanings. On the one hand, it can mean returning some service or industry from the monopolistic government sector to the competitive private sector—getting government out of it; this would be the libertarian meaning. On the other hand, it can mean contracting out, i.e., granting to some private firm a monopoly privilege in the provision some service previously provided by government directly. There is nothing free-market about privatization in this latter sense, since the monopoly power is merely transferred from one set of hands to another; this is corporatism, or pro-business intervention, not laissez-faire. (To be sure, there may be competition in the bidding for such monopoly contracts, but competition to establish a legal monopoly is no more genuine market competition than voting—one last time—to establish a dictator is genuine democracy.)

Of these two meanings, the corporatist meaning may actually be older, dating back to fascist economic policies in Nazi Germany;[13] but it was the libertarian meaning that was primarily intended when the term (coined independently, as the reverse of “nationalization”) first achieved widespread usage in recent decades. Yet conservatives have largely co-opted the term, turning it once again toward the corporatist sense.

. . .

Culprit #3: libertarians themselves. Alas, libertarians are not innocent here—which is why the answer to my opening question (as to whether it’s fair to charge libertarians with being apologists for big business) was no and yes rather than a simple no. If libertarians are accused of carrying water for corporate interests, that may be at least in part because, well, they so often sound like that’s just what they’re doing (though here, as above, there are plenty of honorable exceptions to this tendency). Consider libertarian icon Ayn Rand’s description of big business as a persecuted minority,[14] or the way libertarians defend our free-market health-care system against the alternative of socialized medicine, as though the health care system that prevails in the United States were the product of free competition rather than of systematic government intervention on behalf of insurance companies and the medical establishment at the expense of ordinary people.[15] Or again, note the alacrity with which so many libertarians rush to defend Wal-Mart and the like as heroic exemplars of the free market. Among such libertarians, criticisms of corporate power are routinely dismissed as anti-market ideology. (Of course such dismissiveness gets reinforced by the fact that many critics of corporate power are in the grip of anti-market ideology.) Thus when left-wing analysts complain about corporate libertarians they are not merely confused; they’re responding to a genuine tendency even if they’ve to some extent misunderstood it.

— Roderick Long, Cato Unbound (2008-11-10): Corporations versus the Market; or, Whip Conflation Now

Read the whole thing. It’s great.

The post has already provoked a lot of discussion. Some of it — for example, from Wirkman 2008-11-10, Peter Klein 2008-11-10, and Will Wilkinson 2008-11-10 — is insightful and raises important issues. I’ll also be interested to see the upcoming promised replies from Steven Horwitz, Dean Baker, and the Danny Bonaduce of the Blogosphere. The commentary is a bit much to cover fully here, and is getting hashed out in comments threads, anyway; but I will say that I’m a bit puzzled about this from Will Wilkinson:

But this hints at a thicket of trickier issues. We want a system in which profit-seeking behavior creates the greatest net positive externalities (like continuously increasing the consumer’s share of the cooperative surplus from mundane purchases). But positive spillover maximization within the constraints of a sub-optimal overall system is really desirable, despite the less-than-best incentive structure.

Dude, I just want Sam Walton to get his cold, dead hands out of my pockets. The rest is all details, as far as I’m concerned.

In any case, it seems to me that whether or not Wal-Mart and its business practices ought to be regarded with admiration, contempt, or indifference is really an importantly separate question from the question of whether or not Wal-Mart would have a sustainable business model under freed markets. If Wal-Mart as we know it could not exist but for State privileges, that’s reason enough for libertarians to be wary of reflexively defending Wal-Mart’s bidniz practices as examples of the free market at work, even if it’s not yet clear whether or not libertarians ought to find Wal-Mart objectionable (as a matter of thickness from consequences, and it seems to me that Roderick’s point has to do more or less entirely with the simpler point about sustainability, not the more complicated point about how to feel about the State-dependent business in question.

Meanwhile, Jesse Walker also kindly posted a notice over at Hit and Run, which provoked a discussion in which Hit and Run commenters were fully able to live up to their reputation for fair, insightful, and thought-provoking discussion of issues in libertarianism. For example, here’s the top comment in its entirety:

joshua corning | November 10, 2008, 2:14pm | #

If libertarians are accused of carrying water for corporate interests, that may be at least in part because, well, they so often sound like that’s just what they’re doing

Fuck you Roderick Long.

I mention the Hit and Run thread, though, mainly because it contains the nicest illustration you could possibly hope for of vulgar libertarian reasoning. Roderick wrote:

In a free market, firms would be smaller and less hierarchical, more local and more numerous

To which R. C. Dean replies:

I don’t see why. Just to take one example of a market that is pretty free of overt government intervention of the kind listed above: Bookstores. Most smaller, less hierarchical local bookstores are now history, replaced by Big Box Bookstores and on-line booksellers that have huge inventories and lower prices.

So, you see:

  1. Big box bookstores are more successful than smaller, more localized bookstore in the (unfree, government-regulated, privilege-infused, development machine-driven) actually existing market.

  2. Therefore, big box bookstores will be more successful than smaller, more localized bookstores in the free market.

Far be it from me to bag on Borders and Barnes and Noble — I like them each a lot. But this notion that we can just look at their current market success, under the constrained and distorted conditions of the actually-existing unfree capitalist market, in which their business model is fundamentally dependent on the use of government highways to ship huge piles of books, on the use of the government development machine to seize huge tracts of land and lucrative subsidies to artificially encourage big box retail outlets, and, lest we forget, on government copyright laws that forcibly restrict booksellers to a limited number of centralized, monopoly-priced suppliers; without them, any jackass with a printer or a Kinko’s card could start her own local bookstore for little more than the cost of ink and paper — the notion, I say that we can just look at their current success on the unfree market and immediately infer it to be the result of processes that would continue with no noticeable reduction in a freed market, is desperately in need of a substantive argument that has not been given. Economies of scale only seem to matter here because, as usual, the costs of scale (like, the freed-market cost of consensually acquiring big blocks of contiguous land; like, the freed-market cost of competing with hyperlocal, extremely low-cost competitors that current laws force out of business) are being ignored, and while the rest of the (artificially centralized, subsidized, monopoly-protected) corporate market is assumed to remain fixed just as it is, even though the whole supply chain would in fact be radically altered by freed markets.

See also:

On crutches and crowbars: toward a labor radical case against the minimum wage

First they taught us to depend
On their Nation-States to mend
Our tired minds, our broken bones, our failing limbs;
And now they’ve sold off all the splints,
and contracted out the tourniquets,
And if we jump through hoops, then we might just survive.

— Propagandhi, The State Lottery

There has been some interesting discussion among Jim Henley (2008-02-21), Tom Knapp (2008-02-29), and Kevin Carson over left-libertarian political programmes, strategic priorities, gradualism, and the welfare state. The debate began with an argument over Knapp’s World’s Smallest Political Platform for the Libertarian Party, and Henley’s worries that the platform, as expressed, doesn’t allow much room for gradualist approaches to repeal, or nuance in strategic priorities. Now, I don’t have much of a dog in that fight, because I’m not a gradualist, but I’m not in the least bit interested about limited-statist party-building or political platforms, either. At the level of moral principle, I have a very simple approach to taxation, government welfare programs, regulation, etc. If I had a platform, it would be three words — Smash the State — and the programme I favor for implementing that is for each and every government program to be be abolished immediately, completely, and forever, whenever, wherever, in whatever order, and to whatever extent that we can, by hook, by crook, slingshot, canoe, wherever the political opportunity to do so presents itself. Political coercion is an evil against which it may sometimes be prudent to retreat, but with which there can be no negotiated compromise. (All such compromises, so-called, are really just conditional surrender.)

In other words, on the one hand, I am an ultra-immediatist, in the sense that I believe that everything’s got to go, and that libertarians and anarchists should make no bones about saying so; and, on the other, I also — unlike certain gradualist anarcho-statists like Noam Chomsky or Ursula K. LeGuin — am an ultra-incrementalist, in the sense that I don’t think that we ought to put our efforts to abolish anything on hold until we’ve somehow (how?) managed to abolish just about everything.

I’m not actually sure whether Henley really is advocating gradualism in the sense that I oppose it; there’s a difference between gradualism in ideals and incrementalism in strategy, which language makes unfortunately easy to overlook. Defending immediate and complete abolition on principle, and the abolition of any coercive program you may get the opportunity to abolish, doesn’t entail any particular order of priorities in terms of the scope or order in which you might concentrate your own limited resources towards making opportunities for abolition that didn’t previously exist. And that’s where I think the interesting part comes in, and where there is a lot of room for interesting discussion about freedom, class, and strategic priorities when it comes to government interventions with distinctive class profiles. Here’s Henley:

… I have a sequencing objection. Figure the state as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s novel, Misery. She wants to help the patient so much she’ll never willingly let him go. To a libertarian, much of what the state does looks like providing crutches or shackles. To an anarchist, I suppose everything the state does looks like that. Crutches are actually important for the injured. If you’re to completely heal, though, you have to give them up at the right time. And some badly injured people are never going to be able to do without them - e.g. my mother with her walker.

But the crazy nurse wants you to keep your crutches whether you need them or not, and she’ll chain you to the bed, if necessary, to keep you in her care. If she has to, she’ll cut off your foot, for your own good. … So we want to remove most or all crutches and shed most or all shackles, depending on how, for lack of a better term, anarchistic we are. But which shackles and which crutches when? The liberal libertarian answer is: first take the crutches from those best able to bear their own weight, and remove the shackles from the weak before the strong. So: corporate welfare before Social Security before Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Drug prohibition before marginal income tax rates.

Most libertarians would agree that it’s a messed-up state that:

  • Creates a massive crime problem in poor minority neighborhoods with a futile, vicious and every more far-reaching attempt to prevent commerce in popular, highly portable intoxicants that leaves absurd numbers of young men with felony records, making them marginally employable.

  • Fails to provide adequate policing for such neighborhoods.

  • Fails to provide effective education in such neighborhoods after installing itself as the educator of first resort.

  • Uses regulatory power to sharply curtail entry into lines of business from hair-care to ride provision, further limiting the employment options of people in such neighborhoods.

  • Has in the past actively fostered the oppression of said minority, up to and including spending state money and time in keeping its members in bondage.

  • To make up for all of the above, provides a nominal amount of tax-financed welfare for the afflicted.

But it’s a messed-up libertarianism that looks at that situation and says, Man, first thing we gotta do is get rid of that welfare!

— Jim Henley, Unqualified Offerings (2008-02-21): Ask Me What the Secret of L—TIMING!—ibalertarianism Is

Kevin Carson takes sympathetic notice of Henley’s metaphor of crutches and shackles, quoting an earlier passage in which he’d used quite similar language to make the point:

If the privilege remains, statist corrective action will be the inevitable result. That’s why I don’t get too bent out of shape about the statism of the minimum wage or overtime laws—in my list of statist evils, the guys who are breaking legs rank considerably higher than the ones handing out government crutches. All too many libertarians could care less about the statism that causes the problems of income disparity, but go ballistic over the statism intended to alleviate it. It’s another example of the general rule that statism that helps the rich is kinda sorta bad, maybe, I guess, but statism that helps the poor is flaming red ruin on wheels.

— Quoted by Kevin Carson (2008-03-03): On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

I agree a lot with the broad point that Henley and Carson are both making here. In setting strategic priorities, we have to look at which forms of government coercion do the most concrete damage, which forms of government coercion has intended victims who are most vulnerable to it, which forms have intended victims who can more easily evade or game the system on their own, and, perhaps most importantly, which forms serve as the real historical and ideological anchors for establishing and sustaining the distorted statist social order, and which forms are relatively superficial efforts to stabilize or ameliorate the effects of those anchors. I think that on all these counts, a serious look at how calls the shots and who takes the bullets will show that the welfare state, such as it is, is a fairly small and superficial effort to ameliorate the effects of deep, pervasive, and incredibly destructive economic and institutional privilege for big, centralized, bureaucratic state capitalism, and (as much or more so) for the class power of the State itself over the poor folks that it beats up, locks up, institutionalizes, bombs, robs of their homes and livelihoods, and so on. Moreover, it’s a fairly small and superficial effort which doesn’t violate anybody’s rights per se; it’s the coercive funding of government doles, not their mere existence, that involves government violence, and in that respect, while I think they should be abolished, they’re on quite a different footing from things like the warfare state and the underlying government monopolies and privileges that the welfare state is intended to correct for, which involve coercion both in funding and in the very things that the funding is used for. All this tends to support strategic priorities in favor of (as Tom Knapp himself originally put it) cutting welfare from the top down and cutting taxes from the bottom up.

That’s all well and good. But I want to sound a note of caution. When we’re setting our strategic priorities, one thing that we need to keep an eye out for is the fact that not all of what the government passes out as a crutch really is one; the enemy we’re fighting, after all, is a consolidated mass not only of force, but also of fraud. Lots of so-called crutches really have a secret shackle attached to them — welfare per se is a crutch, but remember that welfare comes with a professional busybody social worker attached. Moreover, lots of so-called crutches are themselves crowbars; they’re the tools that the State uses to break your legs, and then have the supreme impudence to claim that they’re helping you to walk by doing it. As I said to Kevin (internal links added for this post):

Broadly speaking, I agree with your and Henley’s point about strategic priorities. It’s an odd form of libertarianism, and a damned foolish one, that operates by trying to pitch itself to the classes that control all the levers of power in both the market and the State, and to play off their fears and class resentment against those who have virtually no power, no access to legislators, are disproportionately likely not to even be able to vote, and who are trodden upon by the State at virtually every turn. It makes just about as much sense as trying to launch a feminist movement whose first campaign would be to organize a bunch of men against their crazy ex-girlfriends.

But … Aren’t there a lot of so-called social programs out there which the government fraudulently passes off as crutches, when in fact they are crowbars? Since you mentioned it, consider the minimum wage—the primary effect of which is simply to force willing workers out of work. If it benefits any workers, then it benefits the better-off workers at the expense of marginal workers who can less afford to lose the job. Or, to take another example, consider every gradualist’s favorite program — the government schools — which in fact function as highly regimented, thoroughly stifling, and unbearably unpleasant detention-indoctrination-humiliation camps for the vast majority of children and adolescents for whose benefit these edu-prisons are supposedly being maintained.

Or for that matter, consider phony pro-labor legislation like the Wagner Act, the primary function of which is actually to capture unions with government patronage and bring them under greater government regulation.

Aren’t there a lot of so-called crutches, usually defended by corporate liberals and excoriated by conservatives, which really ought to be pressured and resisted and limited and abolished as quickly as possible, precisely because, bogus liberal and conservative arguments notwithstanding, they actually work to shackle the poor or otherwise powerless for their own good?

— Rad Geek, in comments (2008-03-03) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

Really, to keep my metaphors straight, I should have said cripple the poor or otherwise powerless. Oh well. In any case, Kevin agreed, and added some quite true and important points:

I agree entirely. That’s why I think the setting of priorities for dismantling the state must be combined with educational efforts and building counter-institutions.

Frankly, eliminating the minimum wage and food stamps is at the very bottom of my list of priorities. My guess is that when the landlord and banking monopolies are eliminated, along with intellectual property, Taft-Hartley, and all the regulatory barriers to mutual insurance, eliminating the minimum wage and food stamps will be a moot point because it will be so hard to find anybody on them.

But I also advocate vigorous ideological struggle to counteract the matrix version of reality parroted by the vulgar liberals at Daily Kos, and to expose the role of the state capitalist ruling class in creating the regulatory-welfare state.

And that’s especially true in the case of crutches that play a central role in serious exploitation, like professional licensing and safety codes whose main purpose is to enforce the power of cartels to bleed consumers dry and shut workers out of opportunities for self-employment.

— Kevin Carson, comments (2008-03-03) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

But while I agree with him on almost all the details of his reply, I think there’s an important distinction that it misses:

I agree with you on food stamps, but not on the minimum wage. In fact it’s laws like the minimum wage which I especially had in mind when I mentioned crowbars being passed off as crutches. While I agree that a free market would almost certainly result in substantial increases in real income and substantial decreases in cost of living for virtually all workers — to the point where they would either be making well above the current minimum wage, or at least where fixed costs of living would have dropped enough that it amounts to the same — there’s also the question of what we should be pushing for in the meantime in-betweentime, when there aren’t fully free markets in labor, capital, ideas, and land. In that context, the minimum wage law is, I think, actively destructive. Conditional give-aways, like foodstamps, are one thing; the program itself doesn’t violate anyone’s rights (it’s the tax funding that’s the problem), and people can always choose not to go on foodstamps if they decide (for whatever reason) that it’s doing them more harm than good. Not so with minimum wage; the only way to shake off this so-called protection is to seek out someone who’ll let you work under the table, and hope the government doesn’t catch on. The result is forcing one class of workers out of work in favor of another, more privileged class of workers. Hence, I’d argue we should treat abolition of the minimum wage a lot differently, in terms of strategic priorities, from how we treat government welfare, food stamps, etc.

— Rad Geek, in comments (2008-03-04) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

Here’s Kevin’s response to the distinction in treatment that I wanted to urge:

I’m not sure the minimum wage really has that effect (and again, my purpose is not to defend the MW, but to move its abolition to the bottom of the priority list).

I know the arguments on how they reduce employment, but they all carry an implied ceteris paribus; and most of the polemicists at Mises.Org and the like strenuously advoid any suggestion that things might not be equal.

It’s most likely that, in an industry that employs minimum wage workers, there is little or no competitive pressure to minimize wage costs because all the local employers in that industry are paying the same wage. And if there’s a high elasticity of demand for fast food, etc., it will probably be passed on to customers unnoticed, as one small component in the price of a Big Mac.

In addition, the argument assumes a competitive labor market and cost-minimizing firms, and neglects the possiblity that minimum wage increases may come out of quasi-rents and simply reduce profit. That’s unlikely to be the case for minimum wage employers per se, which tend to be small businesses with narrow profit margins; but it’s more likely to be true in better paying employers who peg wages to the minimum wage plus some differential.

— Kevin Carson, comments (2008-03-05) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

I didn’t mean to suggest that Kevin was trying to defend the minimum wage, and I’m sorry if I inadvertently gave the impression that that’s what I’m arguing against. I take it that he’s not trying to defend government welfare, either; just suggesting that libertarians re-order their strategic priorities in terms of which evils to first and most intently put their limited resources towards combating. The point I’m urging is in a similar vein; I’d like to encourage left libertarians, in particular, to make a further distinction of priorities, and put minimum wage laws higher up the To-Agitate-Against list than they put government dole programs. They’re both objectionable, and I’d argue that both should be abolished (immediately, completely) at the first opportunity. But they’re objectionable in different ways, and shouldn’t be considered as part of a single welfare state package when anarchists look at what kind of opportunities to try to drum up for ourselves. The bare existence directly coerces individual workers, and for the most part tends to hurt the most economically vulnerable workers the most, in ways that the existence of welfare state programs (where the problem is not the program per se, but the coercive funding) do not.

I’m not sure I understand Kevin’s argument when he says, And if there’s a high elasticity of demand for fast food, etc., it will probably be passed on to customers unnoticed, as one small component in the price of a Big Mac, and I wonder whether he meant to write low elasticity of demand. If there’s a high price-elasticity of demand for fast food, then that would mean that quantity demanded is highly sensitive to price increases; in that kind of industry that bosses should be more likely, not less, to try to make up the difference in labor costs by stopping new hires, firing workers, reducing hours, and instituting work speed-ups.

And this isn’t just at the level of ceteris-paribus theory. There is that, and it’s important, but on this one, I can speak from the shop floor. I was working at a pizza joint in Michigan when the governor pushed a minimum wage bill through the state legislature, hiking the state price floor on labor to $6.95 per hour — with a tiered plan that raised it again to $7.15 per hour last July, and will raise it to $7.45 per hour this year. I was an inside cook at the time, and most of us already made above minimum wage, except for a couple of high schoolers.

In our shop, the main issue was the drivers. They got the minimum hourly wage for non-tipped employees on their paycheck (mainly so that the corporate office could invoke some plausible deniability on not reporting and paying FICA tax on their tips). When the increase went through, one of the immediate results was that corporate sent their know-nothing goons down from the office to start chewing out our GM over the hours for our regular late-night driver, who worked about 20 hours of overtime every week, because it’s hard to find other drivers who are willing to regularly work a 5:00pm-4:00am shift.

The other immediate result is that corporate forced our store to institute a $1.00 delivery fee — and to change the compensation structure for drivers. Drivers used to get $1.00 per run plus a commission based on the size (in dollars) of the order; after the change-over, they got a higher hourly wage and a flat commission of $0.75 per run, no matter what the size of the order. The result was that if you took more than four deliveries in an hour — or if you took just about any large-order deliveries — then you actually made less money that hour than you would have before Jennifer Granholm gave us all her government-mandated raise.

The delivery fee might make it look like a significant part of the cost of the minimum wage hike was being shifted onto customers, rather than onto workers. But (1) most of it was taken out on workers; the change in compensation for runs reduced pay to drivers, especially lunchtime drivers, by far more than the price increase increased store revenue. And (2) the fact is that customers usually just deducted the cost of the delivery fee from they would normally give as a tip to the driver. I know from questions that a few of them asked me after the delivery fee was instituted that a lot of them were under the mistaken impression that the delivery fee went to the driver. Thus the total costs to the customer didn’t budge; they just got re-allocated so that more would go to the boss instead of to the driver.

So at our store, at least, we could thank Jennifer Granholm’s raise for imposed hours-reductions, reduced tips, and providing management with the pretext for a really massive screwjob on effective pay for those who were working at the minimum hourly wage.

In other shops, there aren’t always the same opportunities for chiseling workers on non-hourly pay in the way drivers at our shop got chiseled. But in a broader sense, I don’t think our shop’s experience was atypical. Any retail or food service company, even if all pay comes from fixed hourly wages, can use hours reductions, halting new hires, and death-march speed-ups for those still on the crew. And that they will do that sort of thing, rather than adding cents onto meal specials that already focus on 99-cent deals and nickel-and-dime savings, seems like a perfectly predictable pattern that a lot of bosses in the low-wage service sector are going to follow, as long as there’s a lot more of us looking for hours than there are of them dangling the hours in front of us.

Of course, that last bit there is the root cause of the problem — government-imposed distortions of the markets in labor, capital, land, and ideas (inter alia) artificially constrain opportunities for people to make a living for themselves, distorting the labor market to keep disproportionate power in the hands of a small and privileged class of rentiers. Without those market distortions, a law against paying workers $4 an hour would matter about as much as a law against selling pork-chops in Mecca — objectionable on principle, but mainly negligible as a strategic matter, due to a dearth of identifiable victims. But as long as those coercive distortions are substantially in place, we do have to keep in mind how bosses will predictably react to additional coercive counter-distortions that are piled on top to correct for the predictable effects of the first distortion, without actually changing anything about the root causes. And with the predictable patterns of reaction in mind, and their current position of power within the labor market, I don’t think we have to turn into a bunch of vulgar Friedmaniacs or Misoids to agree with them that the effects of keeping, or worse, raising legally-enforced price floors on labor are going to be generally quite destructive, and most destructive to those who need most badly to find a place to sell their labor.

Now, when it comes to workers in my position, who were already working at above minimum wage, I agree that they might well see some wage increases from a minimum wage increase, by way of pegging and ripple effects. I never did, but maybe others might. There are some cases in which minimum wage increases might benefit relatively more privileged workers, but it’s the marginal workers — the ones who are working right at, or right above, or would be willing to work below the current minimum wage — who I’m most concerned about, because they are the ones whose backs it’s taken out on. Usually not in the form of firing existing workers — which is highly visible and has a significant marginal cost for the boss — but very often in the form of hours reductions and by simply not making new hires — which call much less attention to themselves and have much lower marginal costs, but can effect just as much in the way of ratcheting down labor costs.

I have lots of other strategic priorities that are higher on my list than the minimum wage. It’s enough work for me trying to take on war, government policing, international apartheid, the American Stasi, government schooling, institutional psychiatry, violence against women, gay-bashing, trans-bashing, government regimentation of healthcare, land-grabbing and privateering, government-enforced licensure cartels, the IRS, and the Wagner-Taft-Hartley framework, and trying to sell all of this to Leftists who mostly get only about half of it and libertarians who mostly get only the other half, without adding yet another windmill-charge at the pet notions of ACORN types and the corporate liberal consensus! But I do think that there’s a big asymmetry between government relief projects like TANF or food stamps, on the one hand, and the minimum wage and other coercively protective labor legislation, on the other.

I agree with Kevin more or less completely on the former. But the point I’m trying to stress is that, in spite of fact that the anti-minimum-wage argument has mainly been promulgated with a vulgar libertarian tone, the thing for left libertarians to do in response is not to kick it back down to the bottom of the priorities ladder, but rather to take it up themselves and re-conceptualize the debate — to treat minimum wage laws and the rest of coercively protective labor legislation as of a piece with government licensure cartels, zoning laws, the health and building codes favored by the Public Interest and Private Property Values racket, etc., as an integral part of the corporate liberal system of coercive power, which coercively ratchet up poor folks’ fixed costs of living while coercively ratcheting down their opportunities to scratch up a living.

Does this mean we don’t have to listen to Noam Chomsky anymore? Part 2

Sometimes I hate being right.

Los Angeles Times 2005-11-30: U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press:

WASHINGTON — As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

The articles, written by U.S. military information operations troops, are translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers with the help of a defense contractor, according to U.S. military officials and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country. …

And, just in case you were wondering:

The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group’s Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets. …

Some of the newspapers, such as Al Mutamar, a Baghdad-based daily run by associates of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, ran the articles as news stories, indistinguishable from other news reports. Before the war, Chalabi was the Iraqi exile favored by senior Pentagon officials to lead post-Hussein Iraq.

Others labeled the stories as advertising, shaded them in gray boxes or used a special typeface to distinguish them from standard editorial content. But none mentioned any connection to the U.S. military.

The going rate seems to be as much as US $1,000 - $1,500 per story, although a few papers ran the articles for as little as US $50.

Military officials familiar with the effort in Iraq said much of it was being directed by the Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad, part of the multinational corps headquarters commanded by Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were critical of the effort and were not authorized to speak publicly about it.

A spokesman for Vines declined to comment for this article. A Lincoln Group spokesman also declined to comment.

One of the military officials said that, as part of a psychological operations campaign that has intensified over the last year, the task force also had purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and was using them to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public. Neither is identified as a military mouthpiece.

Anthony Gregory, 2005-12-01:

These days, so many news accounts hardly need commentary. …

That’s almost certainly true. In any case, if commentary is needed, it can always be recycled:

Welcome to the mainstream news media for the new millennium, in which Noam Chomsky has become obsolete: they aren’t even trying to hide it anymore. Interlocking interests and subtle mechanisms of control aren’t even the point anymore; the Bush machine and its clients now pass out government-manufactured news segments and lucrative tax-funded bribes for useful political commentators. The Bush League may not be making government smaller, but they are making radical critique simpler—may God help us all.

Does this mean that we don’t need to listen to Noam Chomsky anymore?

For the past few decades, libertarian and Leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy alike — from Noam Chomsky to Murray Rothbard — have put a lot of work into documenting and exploring the subtle mechanisms of control that the American government has developed to ensure that our supposedly free press is still reliably at the service of U.S. government policy. What their efforts have have revealed is an interlocking system of interests and manipulation, which manages to effectively carry out the aims of an extensive propaganda system without taking on the formal structure of one.

But it looks like here, as in so many other places, the Bush administration is committed to bolder leadership than its predecessors:

  • New York Times (2005-01-7): Bush’s Drug Videos Broke Law, Accountability Office Decides

    WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 - The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said on Thursday that the Bush administration violated federal law by producing and distributing television news segments about the effects of drug use among young people.

    The accountability office said the videos constitute covert propaganda because the government was not identified as the source of the materials, which were distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. They were broadcast by nearly 300 television stations and reached 22 million households, the office said.

    In May the office found that the Bush administration had violated the same law by producing television news segments that portrayed the new Medicare law as a boon to the elderly.

    The accountability office was not critical of the content of the video segments from the White House drug office, but found that the format — a made-for-television “story package” — violated the prohibition on using taxpayer money for propaganda.

    A spokesman for the drug policy office said the review’s conclusions made a mountain out of a molehill.

  • USA Today 2005-01-07: Education dept. paid commentator to promote law:

    Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

    The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts, and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

    Williams said he does not recall disclosing the contract to audiences on the air but told colleagues about it when urging them to promote NCLB.

    The contract may be illegal because Congress has prohibited propaganda, or any sort of lobbying for programs funded by the government, said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. And it’s propaganda.

    The Nation Capitol Games (2005-01-10): Armstrong Williams: I Am Not Alone:

    And then Williams violated a PR rule: he got off-point. This happens all the time, he told me. There are others. Really? I said. Other conservative commentators accept money from the Bush administration? I asked Williams for names. I’m not going to defend myself that way, he said. The issue right now, he explained, was his own mistake. Well, I said, what if I call you up in a few weeks, after this blows over, and then ask you? No, he said.

    The Blue Lemur (2005-01-12): Columnist Bush paid to promote No Child law still on Bush fellowship board (via Wendy McElroy @ Liberty & Power 2005-01-12):

    Armstrong Williams, the columnist paid $240,000 by the Bush Administration to surreptitiously promote Bush&’s No Child Left Behind Law remained listed on the White House website as a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships as late as Wednesday, RAW STORY has learned.

    The discovery, first reported by D.C. Inside Scoop, suggests that the White House has declined to sever ties with the discredited pundit. Williams was terminated by the company syndicating his column, Tribune Media Services, last Friday.

  • Financial Times (2005-01-11): Allawi group slips cash to journalists (via Strike the Root 2005-01-11):

    The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, [U.S.-installed] interim Iraqi prime minister, yesterday handed cash to journalists to try to ensure coverage of its press conferences, in a throwback to Ba’athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30.

    After a meeting held by Mr Allawi’s campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a gift of a $100 bill in an envelope.

    Many of the journalists accepted the cash, equal to about half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi news-paper, and one jokingly recalled how the former regime of Saddam Hussein had also lavished perks on favoured reporters.

Welcome to the mainstream news media for the new millennium, in which Noam Chomsky has become obsolete: they aren’t even trying to hide it anymore. Interlocking interests and subtle mechanisms of control aren’t even the point anymore; the Bush machine and its clients now pass out government-manufactured news segments and lucrative tax-funded bribes for useful political commentators. The Bush League may not be making government smaller, but they are making radical critique simpler—may God help us all.