Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This star shall rise in the east....

I suppose I should say something about the Russia-Georgia conflict that is ongoing. In general my feelings are pretty sympathetic towards Russia. They have suffered a lot in their history, more than most European or semi-European countries. In part from the harsh climate, and the tough conditions of life on the steppe. But in part because they keep getting invaded from the east and west. Hell, they've even been defeated in war by Sweden and Lithuania, of all places. They suffered more than almost any other country in the war to rid the world of the Nazi evil, and they did more than most, along a vast front that stretched the breadth of Eurasia from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian.

Not many people have remarked on this, but I believe that the coming power of the next century isn't going to be China, or India, or Brazil. Yes the U.S. will fall from dominance. But the power that comes to share co-equal power with the U.S. won't be any of these, and especially not the sclerotic nations of Western Europe. The rising power of the next century will be Russia.

Russia has a lot of things that will become exceptionally valuable in the coming century. It has oil, natural gas, and coal. It has valuable minerals. It has a climate that will actually benefit from global warming. It has huge underpopulated steppes which could be converted to use for biofuel. It has vast tracts of arable land, and some of it is fairly decent soil. It has the largest forest on earth, which could furnish valuable timber reserves.

But Russia's greatest strength is something deeper than all these. Put simply, Russians know how to suffer, and how to endure. More than any other European nation, Russia has experienced the harsh vicissitudes of fate, and survived. They have endured famine. Freezing cold. Snowdrifts. Searing heat. Invasions by the Germans, the French, the Swedes, the Turks, the Lithuanians, the Japanese. Civil war. Genocide. Bolshevism. Capitalism. Czarist tyranny. The Russians are a tough people, maybe this is why they do so well in Olympic wrestling, a sport that relies so much on toughness.

The twentieth century was the century of economic progress: this century will be the century of economic crisis. We are rapidly running out of the things that are the lifeblood of all societies, the basic natural raw materials that feed and clothe our bodies, our machines, our buildings, our civilization. Fisheries. Arable land. Nutrient rich soil. Forest. The natural processes that regulate our climate. Metals. Minerals. Oil. Natural gas. Clean water. Clean air. All of these vital goods are
being used up faster than they can be replaced, or else damaged beyond the hope of short-term repair. In the next few decades we are going to enter a period of prolonged crisis, what Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. The basic expectations we have had for the last two centuries, of ever increasing wealth, comfort, consumption and progress, are going to break down. Simply maintaining our current lifestyle will become impossible, and hanging on to the basic necessities of a modern civilization- things like producing enough steel, antibiotics, and fertilizer to survive as a society- will become a major challenge. The challenge of the future will not be how to generate more wealth, but rather how to keep from sinking further into the abyss.

I don't think the United States may deal with those problems particularly well. We are a country that has always been accustomed to ever-increasing wealth and comfort, to progress and dominance. We don't deal well with crisis, and we won't deal well with an economic collapse that makes the Depression look like peanuts. Russia will however. The quality that will count in the coming years is the ability to endure, and Russia more than anything else knows how to endure.

When the crisis is over, when after the Long Emergency we once again have enough to feed ourselves and keep ourselves healthy, when after the bitter winter we poke our heads out of our holes and survey the damage, I suspect Russia will have come out of it better than most. And at that time Russia will have much to teach the world. In a world of generalized shortages and resource crises, capitalism will be untenable. It will be an affront to most people that some rich men should be able to monopolize land, energy, and basic natural resources, and spend our precious oil reserves running private helicopters when they are more direly needed to produce fertilizer. That will produce demands for nationalization, rationing and government control- for a permanent war economy. Capitalism was born in the affluence of Renaissance Italy and will fade when affluence fades. But Russia will look back to its roots, to the peasant commune that Tolstoy idolized and that the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the enemies of both capitalist and Bolshevik tyranny, believed in. Russia will bring back the peasant commune, the peaceful, democratic, self-reliant cooperative where land is owned by the men and women who work it, and use it as the ideal for a new type of economy- one that looks not for wealth, or self-interest, but for sufficiency and for economic, social and spiritual health. In that day the world will need to turn and look to Russia. Like the rising sun, and like the return of the King, the seeds of the new social order that inspires us when the Long Emergency has ended, will come from the East.

The Syrophoenician woman and her daughter

I haven't had much time to blog recently, and because of problems with my car (fixed now!) I haven't been able to go to church the last two weeks either. But it rceently came to my attention what the reading was last week. It was a fascinating reading and one that has given me (and I'm sure a lot of you) a lot of trouble. In it, Jesus speaks to a petitioner in a dismissive, almost abusive voice. A Canaanite woman asks him to heal her daughter, and at first he refuses, and compares her to a dog. Here's the passage:

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Why did Jesus refuse twice to heal her daughter? Some might say that Mark saw Jesus' mission as to the Jews first and foremost, or that Jesus saw himself as a Jewish reformer first and foremost. I think that's no answer. Jesus wasn't a "Jewish reformer", nor just another wandering rabbi. There were many of those, and none of them were the incarnate Word made flesh. And he wasn't sent to minister to a particular people. He knew- well maybe not from the beginning of the world, as I have problems with the notion of predestination, but certainly long before the Incarnation- what the purpose of the Incarnation would be, and it wasn't a mission to improve Judaism, it was much bigger- it was to redeem all humanity from sin, death, and the devil.

To me the real answer is in Jesus' words to the woman, "Great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt." (Parenthetically, isn't it interesting how his words to the Canaanite woman echo those of St. Mary at the Annunciation?). So many of the people in the New Testament who demonstrate great faith, are women. The woman who broke a vase of oil to anoint Jesus, the woman who washed His feet with her tears, the women who were the first to see the empty tomb of the resurrection, and most of all St. Mary who said "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy word." Truly, faith seems to be a gift that women naturally possess more than men (it's no accident that all over the world women tend to be more devout.)

But back to the passage. I think that Jesus was testing the faith of the woman. His refusals weren't "refusals" at all, they were questions. He was asking the woman whether she truly had faith in him, just as he asked the crippled man at the pool whether he truly wanted to be healed. And it's of the nature of faith that we don't just believe in God when things are going well, and when God appears to be smiling on us. True faith means believing in God's pure goodness even when all reason tells you that you shouldn't. True faith means believing that as dark as the world appears to be, the darkness has not overcome the light. True faith means believing that even when God appears dismissive, or indifferent, or cruel, that this is false, that God has his purposes and that ultimately He cares for us, and that whatever is cruel in this world, it isn't God. If faith were some kind of a bargain, where we love God in exchange for good things happening to us, then the woman's action would be inexplicable, and so would the action of Jesus. But it isn't. The nature of God is that being a perfectly good being, he would be deserving of love and worship quite independently of anything that He does for us. True faith means loving God even when things look darkest, and even when He looks most indifferent; it means believing, against all evidence, that He is never indifferent, and that ultimately He will never break his promise. That was the kind of faith that St. Peter had when he hung upside-down on his cross, that Joan of Arc had when she languished in a Burgundian prison, that Thomas Cranmer had when he went to the stake proclaiming his faith, and that people have in the prisons of North Korea and the Sudan, and in the shantytowns of Africa and South America today. It was also the faith of Job: "Though He destroy me, yet will I trust in Him."

Jesus was testing the woman's faith, and for a moment He appeared to be cruel, in order that he might reveal the strength of her faith, and in order that He could soon be kind. I have little doubt that this was among the most painful decisions of His life, equal to the decision not to come down from the Cross. But everything in the Gospels is there for a reason, and this is what I think the reason was.

Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two, three, many CEMEXes!!

Good economic news from Venezuela: the economy grew 7% in the second quarter of 2008, and 5% in the quarter before that. This is the 19th successive quarter of growth. Growth was actually higher (7.8%) in the non-oil sector, which is good.

In the last few days, Venezuela completed a set of nationalizations which will allow the revolutionary State control of over 90% of the national cement industry. The local subsidiaries of the companies Lafarge and Holcim (French and Swiss owned respectively) had been nationalized in June, and the government recently worked out compensation through negotiation with their owners. The Mexican company CEMEX, however, could not come to a reasonable agreement with the government, so the Venezuelan government will be unilaterally deciding on compensation, and seizing the factories and assets of the Venezuelan operation of CEMEX.

Looking at the details of the situation it becomes clear why it was necessary to both take control over the cement industry, and also why it was necessary to unilaterally seize CEMEX without agreeing on compensation. Let's deal with the latter point first. Simply put, the price CEMEX was asking was outrageous and at variance with the facts. They wanted 1.3 billion dollars. For the other two companies, Venezuela paid $267 and $552 respectively- those two companies produce over 50% of Venezuela's cement, and CEMEX subsidiary in Venezuela about 40%, but the Mexican company wanted a sum more than 50% greater than for the other two combined!

Private consulting firms estimated that appropriate compensation for the company would be between $350 and $950 million. Of course, those are estimates from within the capitalist world economy's frame of reference, which (in its typical irrational and immoral way) judges that the ownership of money invested in a company should give a person as much control over the products of that company as the people who actually invest their daily labor in the cement it produces. In a socialist society, governed by an ethos that those who work should receive the reward, not those who invest their money, the whole issue of compensation should not come up, and Venezuela would be justified in seizing the company with minimal compensation if that. But of course that's not the world we live in. I simply raise the point to show that even private consulting firms, with the expected bias towards capitalist ownership patterns, estimated that CEMEX was publishing fraudulent estimates of its worth.

It is a further fact that CEMEX was producing way below its capacity. Indeed, this was one of the reasons given for nationalization: that Venezuela needed more cement and that if CEMEX was insisting on producing inefficiently, with outdated technology (perhaps as a deliberate plot to destabilize the government) then it was breaking the constitutional requirement that private property serve a social function. This is a moral as well as constitutional requirement of course.
CEMEX was already falling in value due to the mortgage crisis in the United States so one could argue that they are actually coming out of this better than if the Venezuelan government had waited awhile and allowed them to go bankrupt.

Not only was CEMEX systematically lying about the value of its assets, it's argued that it has been guilty of polluting the environment and not taking care of the waste it puts out. Chavez accuses the company of pouring poison into the lungs of Venezuelan boys and girls. I haven't been able to find too many details on CEMEX polluting Venezuela but I don't doubt it. This is after all the company whose plant in California released 172 pounds of mercury into the environment. There have also been rumors of labor issues at the company. The government have assured the workers of CEMEX that no one will be laid off and in fact they will get a bigger say in the management of the company. Indeed the expropriation appears to have been popular among workers in the cement industry.

So let's see: a foreign company producing a critical national producer good is having labor issues, lying about the value of its assets, polluting the environment, producing toxic waste, and systematically exporting a product that is more immediately needed at home? They are violating the entire spirit of the constitutional precept that private property must serve a social function. Sounds like a prime target for expropriation to me. Chavez would be within his rights not to give them a penny. Right now he appears willing to give them $650 million, half of what they asked for- an extremely generous offer. Honestly they should be lucky he isn't trying to sue their executives into the bargain for attempting to defraud the government.

One industry is down- in the hands of the Venezuelan people! How many more to go?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The ultimate in passing the buck

In the forum at Saddleback with pastor Rick Warren the other day, McCain and Obama were both asked a number of questions about their views on policy, values, and the relationship of faith to politics.

At some point, as might have been expected, the topic of abortion came up. Obama and McCain were asked when they thought a baby got human rights: McCain answered, straightforwardly, "At conception", and Obama answered "whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity … is above my pay grade."

Above his pay grade. Above his pay grade??

What the fuck is that even supposed to mean?

Let's leave aside the fact that he was asked a legal question, not a theological or biological one. Let's leave aside that the biological and theological case for regarding life as beginning very early on in pregnancy (I'd say at implantation, myself) is strong. Let's leave aside that Obama's support of "Roe" only makes sense if you assume that life begins no earlier than the beginning of the third trimester, and his support for partial-birth abortion means that he thinks it begins no earlier than birth. What is this BS about pay grades? As the President of the United States you don't get to say that a damn thing is beyond your pay grade. Has Obama ever heard of that famous sign on the president's desk, "The Buck Stops Here?"

Of course there are lots of things the president doesn't know. I don't hold it against Obama that he doesn't know when life begins. But he is going to be called upon to make policy in that regard if he is elected, and therefore it's incumbent upon him to read, to reflect, and to surround himself with people he trusts who do have opinions on that subject. He can't get away with simply washing his hands of the whole matter. Especially not by doing it in such a flippant and frankly insulting manner.

Frankly this makes me think either Obama is a singularly unreflective person, or else he's refused to think about the topic because he doesn't like where logic might lead him (i.e. into a point of view incompatible with Roe v. Wade). As an educated person he can't not have an opinion about the biology. As a father he can't not have an opinion about the moral issues. As a Christian he can't not have an opinion about the theology, and as a lawyer he can't not have an opinion about the bloody legal question he was asked!

McCain did his bit of passing the buck too, blithering on about the "failure" of his first marriage, as if it was an earthquake or something. So have we all. But not about a matter of policy, and about one of the critical moral and political issues of our time, and not in such a cutesy and flippant manner. If Obama loses this election, which seems increasingly likely, then I suspect this will have played a critical part (can you imagine the "Pay Grade" ads that will come out of this? Unlike John Kerry's 'I voted for the 87 billion' this isn't a misquote nor out of context). Certainly Mr. Obama certainly made it a good bit more likely that I'm going to vote for Nader, or McKinney, or write in some random pro-life Democrat, in the fall.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

At Least I've Got Chicken

We've heard a lot in the last year or so about food shortages in Venezuela. The U.S. press has a nice little narrative that fits together well. Price controls and land nationalizations in Venezuela have cut food production of basic staples- rice, corn, eggs, milk, poultry and so forth. Because clearly, price controls and other interference with the market removes incentives to produce, and just as clearly, seizing land from rich and productive farmers and giving it to the lazy and feckless poor is another deterrent to production. Just like in Stalinist Russia, socialist land reform is always a disaster for agriculture.

Well, this narrative is neat and tidy, but it also happens to be wrong, of course. It fails to explain countries with highly productive, socialized agricultural sectors like Hungary- and it fails to explain Venezuela today. It's true that last year Venezuela experienced shortages of some staple foods in the narrow technical sense, but it's equally true that Venezuelans are both producing and consuming more staple food products than they were at the beginning of the Chavez years, and that food production and consumption is steadily increasing. Though you won't hear that from the New York Times or the rest of the mainstream press.

Let's take poultry for an example, since chicken is a common and highly prized meat in Venezuela. You would think, wouldn't you, from hearing the New York Times reports that 'store shelves in Caracas are empty of chicken' that chicken production in Venezuela has collapsed. In fact, however, poultry production is up by about 33% since the start of the Chavez years (1999) and is about triple what it was in 1990, and 20% higher than in 2005 (when the revolution took a sharp left turn)- today it's about 860 000 metric tons, up 5% from last year. The real story is of a steady increase, not a decrease. And this is of course just one example. Corn production is up 50% from 1999; rice production is up almost 90% since 2001; coconut production is up almost 60% since 2001. The land reform has actually been good for production of many staples. This shouldn't really be a surprise. The Chavez regime has been distributing land to smallholders and cooperatives, who tend to be pretty efficient producers in the Latin American context, as opposed to the owners of latifundias who are notoriously unproductive and lazy. Latifundias have traditionally existed in large part to control the peasantry as much as to produce goods, and even many capitalist regimes in the region have recognized that they are a drag on development.

The reason there appear to be 'shortages' is that consumption has in fact increased faster than production. Chicken consumption is up 45% over the last six years, and egg consumption up 40%. Now it's to be expected that the agricultural sector will respond to the increased demand, but as yet it hasn't closed the gap. Production is increasing, but not as fast as consumption (people are consuming more because the poor and working classes have higher incomes today, and because the new system of subsidized government supermarkets have succeeded in greatly improving food and nutritional status among the poor). So in the short run, there have been some shortages. That's to be expected, as a temporary situation. Already the government has announced increases in the regulated prices of many foods, to encourage production to rise even faster this year.

It's true that price controls have dissuaded some farmers- the more avaricious ones, and the ones who don't have enough of a social conscience to respond to moral incentives- from increasing production. Nevertheless, it's not that simple. The controlled prices, first of all, are not low enough to make it uneconomical for farmers to produce; the proof is that they are producing more this year than last year. The Chavez regime has successfully managed to limit the shortages by, among other things, using the stick as well as the carrot. They have threatened nationalization of those businesses which hoard food or use usurious or speculatory methods. One of the new decree-laws passed in the last couple of weeks, allows for greater government intervention in the marketing of food, and for the nationalization of marketing businesses which fail to serve the common good. This is as it should be- the production of food can and should remain an endeavor carried out by farmers' cooperatives, but the distribution of necessities like food and medicine is too important for society to be left in the hands of unscrupulous private individuals. Furthermore, people like the editorial staff of the NYT forget, as they so often do, that people respond to non-monetary pressures too- especially farmers, and especially in a socialist country like Venezuela. People will not stop farming just because of price controls. They might continue for any number of reasons. Perhaps because they love farming, or because they want to honor an ancient family tradition, or because this is the job they know best how to do, or because they want to serve their country and humanity by providing food for those who need it. The power of economic and monetary incentives should not be underestimated, but neither should the power of moral incentives. While the systemic problems of so many socialist economies show that we can't do away with economic incentives, the successes of a country like Cuba show that moral incentives are powerful too. A healthy society is one that combines both, and finds the optimal tradeoff between economic wealth and moral health. There is every sign that socialist Venezuela, under the leadership of the Bolivarian revolutionary government of Chavez, will find that tradeoff and combine both economic and moral incentives to build a society that provides the necessities of life for each individual but more importantly, encourages the transformation of every person into a model of socialist virtue.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The assumption of St. Mary, and miracles.

Today, August 15, is the feast day commemorating the Assumption of the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is an important day not only for Catholics, but also for the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenians, Jacobites, Copts, Anglo-Catholics, and anyone who was a fan of "The Secret Life of Bees." Since my spiritual persuasion is Anglo-Catholic it's important to me too. I would be at church today if my car was working, but it isn't, so I'm not.

A lot of people, no doubt, find it hard to believe that the Assumption happened. But I don't share that skepticism. Obviously it's impossible, given what we know about the biological facts of death. A human body is necessarily destined to die- that's just the way we are set up. We age and die, even if we are spared the ravages of sickness or accidents. But that's the whole point- it's a miracle! It's precisely one of the things that makes this so important to the religion, and Mary such a unique figure- that what happened to her never happens to people, in our experience. If people being corporeally assumed into heaven without dying was a normal occurence, then we wouldn't have a feast day to commemorate it.

As for the believability of the event, as soon as you accept the existence of a supernatural, of the existence of God, of the devil, of spiritual powers good and evil, you're accepting that this universe is not all there is. The laws of nature that science has discovered hold within the material world, with essentially unbreakable regularity. And we are justified in being extremely skeptical of deviations from them. However, that doesn't mean that we can accept as a mathematical certainty that miracles can never occur. Indeed, the idea that the universe is rational and predictable, and that the laws of nature are comprehensible, only make sense if the universe and its laws are the product of some kind of rational intelligence. Paradoxically, the regularity and order of the material universe itself pushes us to believe that that universe cannot be a self-contained system, and that in some sense mind must be prior to matter, and over and above it. Quantum physics, moreover, shows that nature at its most fundamental level is predictable, but it isn't deterministic, or comprehensible at all. What happens, exactly, when a sample of uranium goes through one half-life? What cause is there for one atom to decay and another not to? The answer is that there isn't any answer. The decay (or not) of every atom, the movement of every electron, is in some sense a little miracle, just as the assumption of Mary is a big one.

And once you concede that, then it becomes legitimate to accept at least the possibility that miraculous events, like the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the healing of a leper, or the assumption of Mary are possible. One might add examples of divine apparitions- to people like the Emperor Constantine, or Joan of Arc, or (why restrict it to Christianity?) to people like Mirabai or Arda Viraf.

To paraphrase Chesterton, one can believe in miracles like one believes in the Javan rhinoceros. I don't ever expect to see a Javan rhinoceros, and they are sufficiently rare that if I ever was confronted by something that looked like a Javan rhinoceros, I wouldn't believe it. One would be safe to assume that every time you think you see a Javan rhinoceros, it's actually a misidentified rhinoceros of a different species. However, that isn't grounds for believing that Javan rhinoceroses don't exist, and never did. Obviously it isn't a perfect analogy, but still.

The real question we should ask about every supposed account of a miracle is whether it makes sense within the context of what we know about God, the world, and the testimony of the people involved. I don't believe that the face of Christ appears in a tortilla, because the God I believe in isn't arbitrary enough or petty enough to pull monkey tricks like that. I don't believe, as a general rule, in faith healing because I think that miracles are few and far between, and you should try your best to exhaust every other natural explanation before you resort to a supernatural one. (And in addition, the notion that some traveling televangelist can compel miracles on demand is demeaning as well as silly. As Christ said, you shall not tempt the Lord thy God.) I don't believe in the story that one of my friends in Africa once told me about a cat hybridizing with a civet. I don't know much about miracles but I do know something about mammalian taxonomy, enough to know that you can't hybridize two species that are as distinct as a cat and a civet.

But the story of Joan of Arc? Postulating a miracle seems to me like the best explanation there. What are the other explanations? Lying? Exaggeration for political purposes? Schizophrenia? Her symptoms, according to psychologists who have analyzed her court records, don't fit any known mental disease. She appears to have been too pure of heart to sustain a lie, and people don't take mere cynical 'exaggerations' to the stake with them. When you've ruled out the natural explanations, a supernatural one seems like it might make sense. And so it goes with things like the assumption of Mary. It makes sense within the context of the Christian story, and it is attested to by a wide variety of traditional sources. We know a few other animals that appear not to age in the way we understand it- why couldn't a divine miracle have chosen one person, out of the many, to never die? So let's suspend our disbelief, at least for today, and think about what might have- just possibly- happened on one night towards the later part of the first century, as Jerusalem burned under Roman siege, and a voice spoke out of the darkness to the woman who had held her dead son in her lap and wept tears over him, and said "Be not afraid."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Breaking News from Bolivia

Excellent news. WIth 87% of precincts reporting, Evo Morales appears to have won yesterday's recall referendum, and will be able to complete his term. Not only that but he appears to have had a major increase in his popular support from when he was elected in 2005. Morales was voted into office with 54% of the vote, beating all the pre-election polls which gave him about 40% support, but yesterday he received a whopping 62% of votes in the referendum. (Thanks to a complicated legal formula he needed only about 46% to win).

This says three things to me:

First, a good many people in Bolivia love Morales. The rural poor in the highlands, largely pure-blooded Indians, see him as the champion of their hopes and dreams, the one who will carry out a social revolution, get them electricity for their villages, water, land, food, education and all the other things we in the United States think of as our birthright. He has support too among people who love him for ideological reasons, as well as those who think he offers the best way forward for national development.

Second, Bolivians are a long-suffering and hopeful people. In spite of the unrest that Bolivia has experienced in the last few years, and in spite of the fact that the opposition has largely succeeded in making Bolivia ungovernable and unstable, and has prevented Morales from making much progress towards his goals, the people of Bolivia still have hope and faith in their leader. Most Bolivians have for the last 500 years endured one episode of oppression after another, and I can't even imagine how cynical U.S. Americans might be under such circumstances. Yet in spite of it all they have suffered, the people of the Andes still believe in a better future.

Thirdly, the polls are once again full of s---t. They were predicting a Morales win, yes, but that he would more or less hold to what he had in 2005. (Polls a few months ago predicted he only had 50% polls or less.) As if we needed another reminder, polls in Latin America are typically unreliable. They over-sample the urban middle and upper classes, for one thing, and for another they are often blatantly politicized.

It appears that Bolivia may be headed towards serious conflict since one of the right-wing opposition governors, the odious Manfred Reyes Villa, is refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum. Reyes Villa lost his seat by an estimated 60%, but is refusing to step down. What a bloody tool. Another of the right-wing governors, Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz is refusing to allow Evo Morales, the President of the Country, to set foot in his state. That's either treason or secession, and either way it's hard to imagine a U.S. president not calling on the troops in a similar instance. Evo Morales has been unbelievable tolerant to this motley crew of fascists, oligarchs, greed-mad capitalists and rank secessionists but the time for tolerance is rapidly ending.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Coca and Farm Policy

Update from Bolivia: The referendum is going pretty smoothly, it appears, apart from one mishap. A small pro-Morales town in Beni appears to have 'lost' all their ballots. Never underestimate the lack of scruples and morals of a decadent oligarchy. After talking so long about freedom and democracy, now they're trying to undermine the election itself. It reminds me of those Venezuelan opposition intellectuals just prior to the 2004 referendum on Chavez, who candidly admitted that as soon as they succeeded in recalling Chavez, they would remove the right of recall from the constitution, on the ground that it destabilized society. No kidding, it destabilizes society! But who in recent years has been doing more to maliciously destabilize their societies than the Venezuelan and Bolivian oligarchic classes?

In other news, I just came across an interesting press release in the AP about Morales' new food policy. Morales was elected to power in defiance of the US drug war; he used to be a coca grower and proudly said that he would defend the right of Bolivians to cultivate coca. (Coca, by itself, is no more of a drug than coffee is; it's something entirely separate from processed cocaine. No doubt you could kill yourself or get addicted by shooting up purified caffeine as well). This always troubled me, since my social views are moderately conservative, at least in domestic policy, and I'm violently opposed to the legalization of hard drugs like cocaine. Morales is clearly not, personally, in favor of the drug trade, but his policies (however admirable in many other respects I find them) would have a side effect of making the war on drugs more difficult within United States borders. That wasn't a strong enough reason for me to oppose Morales, but it did trouble me.

No more. Evo Morales is now propounding a new policy regarding coca cultivation. In response to rising prices of grain and other food crops, he is trying to limit coca cultivation to 1 acre per farmer, and encourage cultivation of other crops- so far he has particularly mentioned rice. Farmers who restrict coca production to no more than one acre will get a $500 loan to plant rice, corn and other food crops and up to $2000 to build a house. (It should be remembered that coca has many legal uses inside Bolivia- as a mild stimulant as well as various medicinal and traditional purposes.)

How is this different from and immeasurably superior to the crop-substitution plan that the US was pushing?

First of all, the Morales government is encouraging food crops, not fruits like bananas and pineapple for the export market as the US tends to encourage. Local production and food self-sufficiency is a critical goal not just for developing nations but for individual farmers and farming communities. There is much to be said for the ideal of the self-sufficient mountain village producing its own food rather than producing juicy pineapples to grace the tables of U.S. consumers while their own wives and children are stuck with eating corn porridge and nothing else.

Secondly, the Morales government is allowing for a gradual transition from coca to food crops, one that will allow farmers time to see if they can make enough income from food crops, and enough time to reorganize labor and inputs so as to allow them to cultivate food crops.

Thirdly, Morales' government, it is to be hoped, will support these farmers by providing them with needed inputs like fertilizer and technical knowledge. He will have the advantage of a political alliance with Cuba; Cuba is famous for the progress they have made towards a low-input, ecologically sustainable agriculture, much more so than any other nation. The Cubans in the last ten years or so have virtually written the book on appropriate technology and low input agriculture, and will have a lot of technical knowledge as well as socialist ideals to share with their Bolivian brothers and sisters.

Fourthly, this is part of a broad program of land redistribution, encouragement of farmers' cooperatives, and promotion of values like socialist solidarity and the dignity of labor. Morales' government will be providing these small farmers with land to cultivate, recently seized from their feckless and exploitative oligarchic proprietors. He will be getting rid of the landlord class so that these farmers are free to cultivate their own communal lands as part of a village cooperative- the same way the Incas did. He will also be inspiring the farmers by promoting values throughout society that uphold the importance of farmers, of working together, of sharing, of cooperation, of the ancient Incan communal ethos. This moral inspiration is too important to be overlooked. Under the US aid plan no doubt, the result would have been the cocnentration of land, the building up of an exploitative landlord class, and the immiseration of the peasantry such that they could no longer choose, in the midst of their alienation, whether to grow rice or coca.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reason this plan will succeed is because it grows organically out of the Bolivian nation, and is not something imposed from outside. A social reform or revolution can usually only succeed if it comes about from within. Morales is an Indian and a farmer, therefore other Indian farmers will be inclined to listen to his words in a way they might not be to the bureaucrats at a foreign aid agency.

We see again how critical it is for Morales and his government to survive. They absolutely must survive, by whatever it takes. Not only is Andean, communitarian socialism the only way for Bolivia to achieve social equality, not only is it the only way for a society of love and virtue to be established, not only is it the only alternative by which a country like Bolivia can develop and take their rightful place in the family of nations as a self-sufficient and dignified nation, but it is the only way that the scourge of the drug trade, the hydra which poisons the lives of so many North American youth, to be beheaded once and for all. For this and for so many other reasons it is imperative that the Bolivian oligarchy be defeated and the Morales government triumph.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

John Edwards

I suppose I should say something about the John Edwards fiasco. Given that I don't have a TV (so I can't watch the Olympics) and I don't have anything intelligent to say at this point on the Georgia-Russia war.

Obviously John Edwards did something terrible and reprehensible. By breaking his marital vows he hurt not only himself, not only his wife and his children, but society as a whole. As a society we are all hurt a little bit when our image of the institution of marriage is tarnished by a scandal like this one. As a former Edwards supporter I'm seriously disappointed.

That being said, all of us are sinners. As St. Paul said, 'there is no man righteous, not one.' We are supposed to try and help each other out when we fall, not jeer at one another and rejoice in each other's misfortunes. Adultery is a serious sin but it's also a fairly common one, and there's no sin too great for forgiveness if one is truly sorry. I think that John Edwards, for his part, is truly sorry.

I believe that at bottom, John Edwards is still a good man, though as we now know a seriously flawed one with as much liability to evil as any of us. Parnell was an adulterer too, but he was one of the greatest men his country produced in his century. Allende was a womanizer, so was Franklin Roosevelt, so was Michael Manley. We should give our sympathy to John Edwards and his family as he struggles to redeem himself from the burden of his wrongdoing, and we should hope that the day may come when he can again have something valuable to contribute to the political life of his country.

The Pitfalls of Democratic Revolution in the Andes

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the old heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...."

I've been delayed in posting on this subject, but I must do so now. Tomorrow is the day of a very important election in South America: Bolivians will be voting on whether or not to recall Evo Morales, the ruling socialist president, and also eight of the nine departmental prefects. It is necessary at this juncture for us to pause to remember who Evo Morales is, why his movement is so significant, and what the tumult of the last few years says about the failings of liberal 'democracy' in a country like Bolivia.

Let's remember first of all that Evo Morales is a socialist in a much more meaningful and legitimate sense than the social democratic parties in, say, France, Norway or Spain use those terms. Morales' Movement to Socialism doesn't want to better administer capitalism, or to make the system more responsive to the poor, with more social spending and better social services. They want to overthrow capitalism itself, and re-establish what they see as the old Incan communitarian-socialist model. Morales' movement has already nationalized the oil and gas industries in Bolivia, raising the government's share of revenues from the two largest fields from about 34% to 82%. Quite apart from the salutary demonstration of principle that private individuals should not be able to own basic natural mineral resources, the increased government share of revenues will allow Bolivia to redirect more resources to its poorest citizens. Morales' subsequent nationalization of a large metal-processing company and his initiation of a plan to redistribute 13% of the country's land to 28% of its citizens who are landless or nearly so, have shown that he believes that the hoarding of a country's resources by a small and parasitic capitalist class is unjust, immoral, and must be ended. Already the large landowners- many of whom got their lands through fraud or theft from the commons, and whose tenant farmers live in absolute misery- have begun to feel the pinch as Morales seizes their lands and hands it over to the people who actually do the farm labor.

Morales has made it clear, too, that he wants the Bolivian economy of the future to be dominated by workers' and peasants' cooperatives, by individual small-holders, and by the state, not by capitalist ownership. Like Hugo Chavez, Morales' movement is intent on nothing less than a social revolution that will deliver the coup de grace to capitalism in the Andes. And like Chavez, and other Latin-American socialists of the past, Morales realizes that socialism can never be built on a foundation of private greed and self interest. Morales' socialism is essentially a moral endeavor, and his revolution is first and foremost a moral revolution. This is as it should be. A good society can never be created on the basis of self-interest. Rather, it's necessary for governments and other social institutions to encourage the best impulses within our hearts and suppress the worst ones. It will never be possible to eliminate things like greed, pride, and lust from the human heart, but societies can and should try to encourage self-sacrifice, cooperation, and selflessness, while discouraging their opposites. Since these virtues are most likely to flourish in small associations where people know each other, it's important for a socialist government to encourage institutions like workers' cooperatives, as well as ideas like voluntary labor, the inculcation of cooperative and self-sacrificing values in the educational system. As Che Guevara, one of Morales' personal heroes, once said, socialism is not just the fight against misery but first and foremost the fight against alienation. The greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution happened in its first two years when a poll of junior high school students found that for the first time a majority of young boys and girls said that it wasn't one of their prime life goals to make a lot of money.

Morales' revolution is embattled, though. In large part it is embattled by the same forces that will always set themselves at the throat of any revolution in Latin America. The large landowners, the capitalists, the cosmopolitan upper middle classes, and those whose ideological identity is tied up with Westernization and liberal capitalism. But as so often, these malign forces have been able to win over other, well-meaning people through lies and manipulation. Although Morales himself is a (syncretistic) Christian socialist and most of his supporters are devout Catholics, the right wing forces have been able to win over some segments (not all!) of the Catholic hierarchy with the lie that he is an atheistic Marxist who seeks to undermine Christianity (It can be argued the root of all that was wrong with Marxist regimes of the past was their atheism, and that a socialism open to the possibility of divine providence would be both more modest about its abilities and more charitable to its opponents; Chavez and Morales certainly seem to have learned that lesson). They have won over the working classes of the eastern departments with nationalistic, bordering on secessionistic, propaganda. They have won over the middle classes with the lie that Morales seeks to nationalize the smallholder's property. They have won over some Mestizo citizens with the lie that Morales seeks to privilege pure-blood Quechua, Aymara and Guarani over mestizos. Like other right wing forces in the region they have no doubt won over the votes of impoverished and powerless people by convincing them to vote the way their employers want them too. (This can be done through very subtle emotional manipulation, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes showed in her classic study of Brazilian shantytowns.) And of course they've won people over by invoking the threat that revolution poses to law and order and social stability- even if you agree with the goals of that revolution. Most people want justice but they want food and employment first and foremost, and are unlikely to risk those in the short term for the sake of justice in the long term.

With all those lies, and with all the natural advantages that evil always has in every act of the drama of human history, the Bolivian oligarchs have not been able to win over a majority of the Bolivian people. Morales, God willing, will most likely win this election. Recent polls suggest he has 59% popular support- people may not be pleased with the glacial pace of his reforms, gridlocked and stalemated at every turn by its enemies, but they hate the oligarchic classes even more. Morales could win the referendum, of course, with as little as 47% popular support since he is favored by the electoral rules. But that still wouldn't solve the basic problem. The problem is the same one that faces country after country in the region. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina....and several outside South America as well. Simply put, a country like Bolivia is stuck in constant gridlock because both the far Right and the far Left are just strong enough to prevent the other from governing effectively, but not strong enough to govern effectively themselves.

Liberal democracy isn't a political system I have any particular fondness for. But to be fair, it works at least reasonably well in the United States. It doesn't work so well in Bolivia, because in a country like Bolivia you have people who lack the economic security to be able to vote freely, you have no common consensus on the ideological direction that the nation should take, you have large numbers of people attracted to revolutionary ideologies (for better or worse, I think for better of course) and you have a long tradition of political authoritarianism. Political liberalism, to put it bluntly, has bogged down in the Andes and currently looks incapable of allowing development along either capitalist or socialist lines. We are currently witnessing the difficulty of carrying out a social revolution without infringing on the 'freedoms' of those who care nothing for the common good, and are willing to resort to propaganda, social upheaval, and terrorism to maintain their own economic privileges and their own monopoly over the wealth of society.

Ah well, we shall see how this recall referendum turns out tomorrow. I'll post more when I know how it goes. In the meantime, may the grace of God be with Evo Morales, with those who support him, and with all those throughout South America who strive for social justice, for fairness and equality, and for a society in which men deal with one another inspired by love and fellowship instead of greed and pride; and in the fullness of time may He have mercy on our species, which for all of its evil tendencies is capable of good as well, and may He bless our efforts to build a better society, one brick at a time. Amen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Venezuela's Nationalization of the Banks

I'm going to begin my foray into blogging with a comment on the recent nationalization of Venezuela's third largest bank by the Chavez government. Obviously I'm very much in favor of it, as I'm in favor of most things that the Bolivarian Revolution has done. But we should pause and consider why this particular nationalization is a good idea.

I'm a socialist, not a communist, and I certainly don't think everything can or should be nationalized. I think that the basic mode of production in a socialist society ought to be cooperatives, in which the farmers or workers who produce the goods made by an enterprise should own and manage that enterprise. I'm generally in favor of decentralization and market socialism, rather than centralized state ownership. But banks are a type of enterprise that by their very nature are capital intensive and it wouldn't be practicable to have them all owned by small workers' cooperatives. A bank by its very nature needs to move large amounts of money around and a cooperative of Venezuelan farmers or fishermen is typically not going to have that kind of money.

There are other reasons, too. At least for the foreseeable future, even a socialist Venezuela needs to live and work in a capitalist world in which the possession of money, and credit, is critically important to the growth and development of an individual, a cooperative, or a social group. If Venezuela's government is going to exert more control over the development of the country, and encourage growth that favors the poorest people and reduces inequality, then control over the banks is essential.

Furthermore, the very heart of an anti-capitalist revolution is breaking the power of private capital- to end a system in which capital is owned by a small and discrete class of people who uses economic power to get others to work for them. Venezuela's government needs to control the banks in order to direct the flow of money and credit- away from the traditional elite classes, and towards workers and peasants. This is part of the reason why nationalization of the banks has always been one of the first goals sought by governments of the Left. Not just communist or full-fledged socialist ones, but even social democratic governments in places like France and India. If Venezuela is carrying out a full-fledged socialist revolution- providing an alternative to the morally bankrupt 'Washington Concensus' of liberal democratic individualist capitalism- then this is an even more necessary step.

As a Christian socialist, I have an additional reason to wish that banks and credit institutions be in public hands. I think there's something morally unhealthy about making large sums of money through interest or other property income sources. It's wrong at least at some level because it violates the natural connection between work and reward, two things that are intrinsically morally interdependent. A modern economy can't survive without interest, just as a modern society can't survive without an army. But precisely because interest and credit, like war, have the potential to be morally corrupting, it needs to be the state that's responsible for them, not private individuals. We can't do without interest and credit but at least we can try to ensure that we build a society without a particular class that makes their living solely through these morally questionable means.

Venezuela's 18-month period of 'Enabling Laws' is over as of Thursday, but this new law was a great way to finish it. We should hope that the National Assembly soon facilitates other important progressive changes that President Chavez wants to make, and paves the way for an accelerated social transformation.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

More about me: I worked for about 3 years in an African country on sustainable agriculture extension, agroforestry, and small rural development. I love Africa and the developing world in general and hope to work internationally in future.
Just a quick point: "Hector" is a pen name, not my real name.

My introduction to the blogosphere.

Hey everyone!

This is my first foray into the blogging world. I think my brother has recommended to be for awhile that I start a blog to share my thoughts. I'm pretty busy as a graduate student but will try to find time to share my thoughts about agroecology, tropical ecology, sustainable agriculture, international development, religion, politics, the news of the day, and other random musings. Thank you for reading my blog!

A little about me (basic information):

- I'm a graduate student at a large research university, with a background in plant biology, currently studying agroecology.
- My research focuses generally on newly developed perennial crops and their general ecophysiology.
- From New England, live in the upper Midwest now, but I still have a fierce regional pride.
- Mid 20s with one beloved younger brother.
- Mostly South Asian by descent but a little bit of Scottish blood too.
- Anglo-Catholic by religion, and an adult convert, though I have some fairly heterodox views on some things (and very traditionalist on others)....
- My politics are all over the map: syndicalist socialist in terms of economics, strong environmentalist in matters of natural resources, generally Third World nationalist in matters of foreign policy and moderate in matters of social/personal morality.

Await my regular postings, and thank you for reading thus far!!