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Socialism for Dummies

Posted by on Feb 10, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

It is finally fully obvious that Bernie Sanders has to be taken seriously as candidate for American president. It will no longer suffice to ask with a smile or a smirk, depending on your point of view, “Who would’ve thought it possible?” Who would’ve thought it possible that a previously unknown Jewish, Socialist Senator from Vermont, via the borough of Brooklyn no less, is wiping the floor with his opponent, the ostensibly impregnable Hillary Clinton. It behooves us instead to take the man seriously. To move beyond his by now familiar avuncular presence, to his substance.

So far we have been satisfied to listen to him list a litany of ends – but not hint at any means. Income inequity, stagnant wages, rising costs of health care, high rate of student debt, excessive incarceration, unmistakable climate change, and decaying infrastructure – these are just some of the problems he promises to remedy. But how exactly? Well, we don’t really know. What we do know is that Sanders says over and over and over again that he will fix what ails us by taxing the rich – rich individuals and rich institutions. How this is supposed to be politically feasible without a radical change in the composition of Congress or, conversely how the composition of Congress is supposed to be changed radically, remains unaddressed.

Also unaddressed is how Sanders would lead on foreign policy. We know by now that foreign affairs are not his strong suit. But he has come too far too fast to continue to avoid the specifics. He must speak to the international system. And he must demonstrate that he is at least somewhat familiar with the international system – as opposed to being worryingly unfamiliar.

Above all, since we have to presume that he means it when he describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, we are entitled to know what exactly what to him this descriptor means.  What is Democratic Socialism in the American political context? I’m not against it – not necessarily anyway. I just want to know how Sanders defines it and how he proposes to implement it.

Meantime… Socialism for Dummies:

  • Historically the words Socialism and Communism were sometimes used interchangeably. Now they generally are not.
  • This stems from their origins, largely though not entirely in mid to late 19th century Europe.
  • While Socialism has at various points flourished in Europe – in some European countries it still does – it never gained real traction in the United States.
  • Socialism suggests a Utopian ideal in which economic as well as political equity is widely realized.
  • Socialism has sometimes been dreadfully distorted, as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which, during Stalin’s time (1925-1953), was a brutal dictatorship under which the government killed many millions of its citizens.
  • Socialism, Social Democracy if you will, has sometimes been successfully realized, as in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, notably in Scandinavian countries including Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
  • When Social Democracy is successfully realized – as in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – it generally receives high marks for good governance. Moreover, the Scandinavian countries tend to rank very high by many measures including education, health, longevity, income distribution, and happiness. Yes, happiness.
  • Sanders appears to admire Scandinavian governance – an admiration widely shared. But, whether one can apply say, the Norwegian model, to the US remains very much an open question. Norway is a country of some 5 million people. The US has a few more – some 313 million more.
  • A Social Democrat, presumably also a Democratic Socialist, believes that politics should be democratic and economics socialist.
  • Arguably there is a difference between being a Social Democrat and a Democratic Socialist, though what Sanders might think of this distinction is unclear.
  • A Socialist economy is one that has relatively equal income distribution and relatively equal ownership, or even shared ownership, for example, of the means of production.
  • The seeds of Sanders success were sown by the Occupy movement. The roots of his success go deeper.
  • Democratic Socialism can mean many different things to many different people. Which is one of the reasons it’s high time for Sanders to dispense with his usual bromides. High time for him to tell us what he means when he declares that America should be, simultaneously, Democratic and Socialist. And high time for him to tell us how, realistically, he intends to get from here to there.
  • Democratic Socialism has been alien or, at least, foreign to the American experience. It’s  why no member of the ubiquitous press thinks to ask The Bern to explain why he has called himself a Democratic Socialist –  not a Social Democrat. Or, for that matter, until recently, a Democrat.

 

 

China Choked – or the Return of the Dictator

Posted by on Feb 7, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

These things happen almost imperceptibly. They happen piecemeal, and over a period of time, at least a number of years. Moreover, they happen, sometimes, in places and in ways that are unanticipated, so that we’re caught by surprise when we look close and careful and see that things have changed not in a minor way, but in a major one.

So it is with China. For some time now, at least for a couple of years, the president, Xi Jinping, has tightened the noose around the necks of dissenters, ordinary people generally who, in some way, register disapproval or withhold support. For a time, this noose-tightening was, or so it seemed, gradual. Moreover America’s overweening desire has been to make peace, to, in the interest of comity with the world’s other major power, look the other way even as repression there rises.

Which raises the question of when do we stop? When does the U.S. government stop playing nice for the ostensible sake of its long-term, multi-layered relationship with China? And, at what point do we, the American people, stop, say, traveling to China, or buying Chinese products, because we do not want to support a government in the habit of punishing, severely, its critics?

China has one of the world’s worst records in human rights. Dissenters are arrested or disappear on a regular basis. Moreover, there is a crackdown on civil society that is impossible any longer to pretend does not exist.

As anyone who has studied dictatorial leadership knows, concomitant with the squelching of the followers is the exaltation of the leader. And so it is in China. Particularly in the last year Xi has demanded from his subordinates, and received from his subordinates, their absolute loyalty. And he has sent to the Chinese people the same unmistakable message: every day are references to the “core” leader in China’s state-run news media, and every day his portrait dominates government messaging.

China is by no means alone in its recent turn from citizen activism to citizen repression. Russia is similar under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, as are Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But Xi Jinping takes second place to no one in his quest to resemble the dictators of times past. Times we thought had come and then gone.

 

Beating Up On Boards

Posted by on Feb 5, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

Being on the board of large publicly held company once was nice and easy. The pay was generous, the responsibilities few, and good old-fashioned cronyism was rampant.

No longer. Like the CEOs who, technically, serve at their will, board members are increasingly being scrutinized for their performance. There’s some literature on this; nothing I’ve just said is new. Here’s what is new.

First, the regularity with which boards’ wings are being clipped. Hardly a week now goes by without one or another story about the rights and responsibilities of board members being impinged on. In recent days there was this, from a story in the Wall Street Journal:

American businesses increasingly are bowing to investors’ demands for greater boardroom clout… Proxy access, embraced by 117 U.S. companies during 2015, gives shareholders more power to oust directors and influence corporate strategy by letting them list competing board candidates on ballots for annual meetings.

And, in recent days there was this, from another story in the Wall Street Journal:

As directors face increased investor scrutiny and heavier workloads, four board seats now look like a lot. More companies are putting in place rules that limit how many other seats their directors can hold. Only 5 % of directors at S&P 500 companies held four or more board spots in 2015, down from about 27% in 2005…. Directors at public companies now spend an average of 248 hours a year for each board served, up from 191 hours in 2005.

The other thing that’s new is the degree to which Wall Street particularly and Big Business generally have become whipping boys in the 2016 presidential campaign. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are stepping all over each other to prove they can attack faster and harder.

But there is an irony here. For in their zeal to appear “progressive,” Clinton and Sanders ignore the fact that things have changed.  To be sure, members of the corporate elite remain enormously rich. But their wealth disguises the fact that their power has been sharply reduced.

Hillary, Marissa, and Ursula – the Week from Hell

Posted by on Feb 2, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

This week has been all downhill for three of the nation’s most prominent women leaders. I’m not saying it’s a harbinger. What I am pointing out is how tough still the sledding for women in positions of power and authority.

Not that men have it easy. I have said for years that all leaders in 21st century America live in hard times. *  But, it is also true that leaders of the female persuasion bear a special burden. Their numbers remain uncomfortably small. Their visibility remains inordinately high. And the scrutiny they face remains relentless.

This week’s cases in point:

Hillary Clinton – Bad Week

Spin it as she might, the result of the Iowa caucuses cannot, should not, gladden Hillary’s heart. After prematurely declaring victory she was, but only in the early morning hours, finally, officially, declared the winner. But the margin of her victory was so miserably small that the results were, in effect, a tie. She tied Bernie Sanders instead of reveling in what just a few months ago was anticipated a coronation. At best her road to the White House will be a slog, much longer and harder a slog than she could earlier have imagined.

Marissa Mayer – Worse Week

President and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has been visibly struggling for years. Hailed in the beginning as fearless pioneer – not only a woman CEO, but of a tech company no less – she quickly ran into trouble for everything from her personal management style to her professional performance. This week is more of the same. Yahoo is set to reveal cost-cutting plans that include slashing 15 percent of its workforce and closing several business units. Moreover, a former Yahoo manager has just gone to court to challenge one of Mayer’s signature policies – an employee rating system that he is claiming is discriminatory and a violation of federal and California laws.

Ursula Burns – Worst Week   

Ursula Burns is the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company – Xerox. Trouble is Xerox just announced it was splitting up. A deal that Burns made several years ago had resulted in steadily declining annual sales – it was, according to one report, a “$6.4 billion mistake.” In sails prominent activist investor Carl Icahn! He inserts himself into Xerox’s governing process and demands radical change. While word is that Burns and Icahn have had a cordial relationship, the fact is that he took over while she stood down. Xerox’s board has decided to spin off its services business, which is precisely the business that Burns had earlier acquired. However you slice and dice it, this was the week that Burns lost control of her company and was publicly humiliated in the process.

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*See Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (Stanford, 2014).

Posted by on Feb 2, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

Hillary, Marissa, and Ursula – the Week from Hell

This week has been all downhill for three of the nation’s most prominent women leaders. I’m not saying it’s a harbinger. What I am pointing out is how tough still the sledding for women in positions of power and authority.

Not that men have it easy. I have said for years that all leaders in 21st century America live in hard times. *  But, it is also true that leaders of the female persuasion bear a special burden. Their numbers remain uncomfortably small. Their visibility remains inordinately high. And the scrutiny they face remains relentless.

This week’s cases in point:

Hillary Clinton – Bad Week

Spin them as she might, the results of the Iowa caucuses cannot, should not, gladden Hillary’s heart. After prematurely declaring victory she was, but only in the early morning hours, finally, officially, declared the winner. But the margin of her victory was so miserably small that the results were, in effect, a tie. She tied Bernie Sanders instead of reveling in what just a few months ago was anticipated a coronation. At best her road to the White House will be a slog, much longer and harder a slog than she earlier imagined.

Marissa Mayer – Worse Week

President and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has been visibly struggling for years. Hailed at first as fearless pioneer – not only a woman CEO, but of a tech company no less – she quickly ran into trouble for everything from her personal management style to her professional performance. This week is more of the same. Yahoo is set to reveal cost-cutting plans that include slashing 15 percent of its workforce and closing several business units. Moreover, a former Yahoo manager has just gone to court to challenge one of Mayer’s signature policies – an employee rating system that he charges is discriminatory and a violation of federal and California laws.

Ursula Burns – Worst Week   

Ursula Burns is the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company – Xerox. Trouble is Xerox just announced it was splitting up. A deal that Burns made several tears earlier had resulted in steadily declining annual sales – it was, according to one report, a “$6.4 billion mistake.” In sails prominent activist investor Carl Icahn. He inserts himself into Xerox’s governing process and demands radical change. While word is that Burns and Icahn have had a cordial relationship, the fact is that he took over while she stood down. Xerox is spinning off its services business, which is precisely the business that Burns earlier acquired. However you slice and dice it, Burns lost control of her company this week and was humiliated in the process.

——————————————————————

*See Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (Stanford, 2014).