Category Archives: writing

A World to Win

A World To Win, the latest issue of Jacobin is out & it’s a beaut:

pinball600x450_1

Lots of great stuff in the issue, including a (currently pay-walled) interview with the late Chokwe Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, MI and organizer of Jackson Rising.

Both “No Shortcuts” and “Unmaking Global Capitalism” are serious, thoughtful and practical pieces on left strategy – well worth contemplation if you’re yearning for a unified, organized and effective left.

This issue looks especially gorgeous in print so you should subscribe.

A Beginner’s Guide to Modern Monetary Theory

What is money? Why is our economy so fucked?

These two questions have fueled my dilettantish but somewhat obsessive study of Modern Money Theory (MMT) for the past few years. But I’ve struggled for a way to concisely explain what MMT is, and why you should care about this (decreasingly) obscure economic theory.

Much of the MMT literature is focused on an intra-discipline fight within Economics. This is a worthy battle but creates an extra challenge for the non-economist, who must first learn a bunch of econ speak just to be able to understand the arguments for unlearning it. The below essay is my attempt to bypass that step and explain MMT directly in language accessible to such a reader. If you find it helpful, please share. Criticism is also welcome.

Many thanks to Mike Konczal, who had the idea of looking outside academia for an MMT explainer, and invited me to write this piece.

The World According to Modern Monetary Theory
The New Inquiry Vol. 27, April 11, 2014

Too often the origins of our economic ills are cloaked by a mystical reverence for some autonomous money spirit. The economists behind Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) seek to lift money’s veil by studying the specific actions that occur as money is created, circulated, and destroyed.

For those seeking a grand, unifying sociopolitical economic theory, MMT will disappoint. But as an analytic tool, MMT clarifies who holds genuine power—sovereignty—within society, and how they organize the money system to serve their interests. Unsurprisingly, this is often a story of tremendous cruelty and exploitation.

But the revelation that the rules of money are not immutable laws of nature but are instead created and constantly modified by people opens up possibilities beyond the scope of our current political imagination. The questions become: What sort of society do we want? Do we have the physical resources to support that society? And finally, how the hell do we muster the political will to get there?

Continue reading “The World According to Modern Monetary Theory” at The New Inquiry »

Some thoughts on Ames on Snowden

It also made sure that unlike the leaks in the 1970s that I wrote about, this story would be about Snowden, because now both sides were loaded in, and in our degraded discourse, this has meant only two options: either you have to worship Snowden uncritically, like he’s the Rev. Fucking Moon of intelligence leakers, or you denounced Snowden as an enemy, like you’re one of those body-snatched Moonies in those prayer vigils they held for President Nixon back in the days of the Pentagon Papers and Hersh exposés. You had to take your place in one of the Stupid Camps and censor every brain cell in your skull: either you’re an Obamabot, or an Emoprog. Bad times, bad times.

I’ve made clear my support for what Snowden. For journalism purposes, it wouldn’t even be much of an issue if the Guardian hadn’t forced it — as far as I’m concerned, the leaks remind me a lot of the late Yeltsin years, when Russia’s oligarchy split into two violently opposed camps, each side leaking incredible and mostly factual stories to their friendly media sources on TV and in print. There was a time, from 1997 through 1999, when the public was bombarded with about five Pentagon Papers a week, ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth, what they said to each other in phone calls, how they manipulated and plundered. The journalists who fashioned those high-level leaks into stories weren’t heroes; whoever leaked those bank details and recorded phone calls and auction fixing schemes wasn’t necessarily a hero; but the information they dumped was incredibly valuable.

So for me, the importance of what we’ve learned about the NSA spying programs doesn’t hinge on whether or not I have a cult-like faith in Snowden’s and Greenwald’s “heroism” as “true patriots” unlike the other team’s guys. But the problem has been, from the start, that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s network of supporters created this false consensus, and thought-policed anyone who dared deviate or think for themselves. I have a natural aversion to Stalinist self-censorship; if I’m going to keep my mouth shut or pretend, it better be over something really important, not hero-worshipping some confused, half-baked libertarian whistleblower who can’t get his own story straight, just because his handler tells us we have to or else we’re Obamabots or fascists.

Mark Ames, Edward Snowden’s Half-Baked Revolution. [Unlocked Link (valid till 6/30/13)]

I’ve been anticipating Ames’s take on Snowden since he has such long-standing beef with Greenwald, not to mention Russia. A bit frustrating that this essay is so much about Ames himself, but I suppose full disclosure (and narcissism) requires all the personal history be detailed. My response will be no different, base times and all that.

I agree that much of the discourse surrounding Snowden— traitor or hero? — is rotten and reductive. But the heroism of Snowden’s act was also my first reaction to the story, in large part because of, as Ames notes, how blatantly Greenwald framed it that way from the start. It was the promise of a looming PR battle that inspired me to start blogging again, not the revelations of massive civil liberties violations. The latter is unfortunately something I take for granted at this point and feel utterly powerless to do anything about. I’m thrilled this information is now out there, but the new details are fairly mundane1 compared to the scandalous overall gist of the spying program we already had ample reason to suspect existed.

In contrast, the aggressive offensive position taken by Greenwald in breaking this story is pretty fascinating, in a nerdy, tactical, media-studies sort of way. If I was a data nerd or a policy wonk than maybe I’d be all over the nitty-gritty details of PRISM and the rest. But I’m a filmmaker— hell, my last film was in large part about the character assassination of someone who went public with an unpopular political sentiment— and an Adam Curtis fan. While the citizen in me wants to scream, “what matters is the leak, not the leaker,” as a story teller (and person with eyes), I know that’s naïve.

I’m torn. I suppose it would have been nice if Greenwald had been all classy about it and kept Snowden anonymous for as long as possible, focusing on the content of the leaks rather than the patriotism of the leaker. But I suspect if he did that, no one would have cared much. Ames should know this from personal experience. Just between Ames, his colleague Yasha Levine, and his former-colleague Matt Taibbi, are an overwhelming number of stories “ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth … how they manipulated and plundered” the United States. No doubt lots of the criminal activities committed by our .01% are secret and we could benefit from more leaks. But from the prospective of outrage and even prosecution, more than enough criminality is hidden in plain sight. Our oligarchs don’t need to bother hiding most of their shady dealings because our media is so massively worthless.

You want to get people to pay attention? Either indulge the fantasy that a boring white collar IT worker can wake up one morning and become a cyberpunk hero, or else show some tits. Otherwise you’re going to be ignored. A soundbite-spewing, Dick Cheney-dissing nerdy white dude protagonist in a international espionage chase? Total gold. So while yes it was opportunistic of Greenwald to play that card, it also would have been pretty foolish not to. Ames himself has said that the problem with “the liberal establishment is [it’s] still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate“; Greenwald skipped debate club to pen a screenplay for a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

I mostly agree with Ames’s critique of Greenwald, along with his overall indictment of society. Our inability to distinguish between the public value of an act and the perceived motive behind it, and the possibility of supporting the former while criticizing or ignoring the latter, is pathetic. As many have already said, the real “debate” should not be Snowden: Hero or Traitor? but instead, Does the public in a constitutional republic have a right to know what sorts of data their government is collecting on them and what sort of resources are being expended on said collection? Does the fourth amendment trump the executive branch’s interpretation of recent legislation & the decisions of secret courts? What sort of checks are in place to prevent abuse of this data? Are we just cool with the fact that our government tortured Bradley Manning before trying him? etc. etc. We ought to be seriously disturbed that neither our media nor our citizenry has much interest is such civic debates. But many critics of the “meta-narrative” (Ames excepted) treat the issue of heroism as if it’s entirely superficial. It’s not.

Our response to a story like this is ugly and dualistic: we crave either a hero to identify with, or a traitor to lynch. But maybe we’re so childish in our judgements because we are so desperately lacking in actual heroes. The ability to reason is important and collectively, we suck at it. But we primarily interpret the world, and discover our values, through the stories we tell each other. Stories matter. Heroes matter. And being that there is such a dearth of heroes, and no shortage of corruption and criminality in nearly every realm of American society, I share the urge to prematurely heroize Snowden. Perhaps his example might inspire more whistleblowers to reveal the crimes their careers require them to ignore. Maybe giving America a real-life hero is as important as a debate on the fourth amendment. We might not be capable of even having that debate without first personifying the values of privacy, security, secrecy, efficiency, informed consent.

Tactically, we should be cautious when choosing living people as heroes. The media loves to build someone up only to then tear them down. See Cindy Sheehan, the inspiration for my film Ashley/Amber. A rigid Snowden = Hero line of reasoning is fragile. Prove unheroic intentions or actions and the whole thing cracks; Snowden no doubt lost many supporters just by taking refuge in Russia. Every action he makes going forward is likely to chip away at his hero image while simultaneously distracting from the actual issues.

On the other hand, people mostly believe what they want to believe. Those who don’t want to contemplate our government’s corruption and capacity to abuse its immense power will accept the flimsiest excuse to ignore the content of the leaks and judge Snowden a traitor. Those who see corruption in every crevice but are unwilling to relinquish hope that something can be done about it will cleave to their belief in Snowden’s heroism regardless of how disappointing a fellow he is in reality.2 The pro-Snowden media is providing a myth of the whistle-blower to a segment of the public that is desperate for narratives of agency, hope, and the latent badassery of the white collar worker. I personally am hungry for a morality tale about the more-or-less regular person who changes the course of history by speaking out upon witnessing something they believe is wrong, and I don’t think I’m alone.

In a functional society it would be the job of the screenwriters and novelists to make up such stories, taking artistic license with the facts, while journalists ought to be a bit more responsive when the reality of a narrative doesn’t live up to it’s mythological potential. But again this view of the world becomes naïve if you look at things through the lens of a public relations professional or propagandist. For the PR practitioner (or propagandist, thaumaturgist), the news cycle is the primary medium through which they wreak a narrative, supported of course by film, curriculum, academic literature, advertising, pop music, and anything and everything else over which they can influence. True journalism may be a genuine check against PR and propaganda (or so I want to believe), but the fourth estate crumbled long ago, if it ever existed at all. We can mourn its demise anytime. But it’s refreshing and exciting to see such bold antiestablishment-PR as the Snowden story.

How depressing, that I find any sort of propaganda refreshing. Ultimately I am viscerally and strategically opposed to “noble lies” and ends-justifies-the-means reasoning. I don’t think Greenwald is necessarily engaged in such behavior, but perhaps fell victim to it by taking an offensive-defense position. I do think people need heroes, real or imaginary, preferably ones physically & culturally closer to home than Vasya and Limonov from the Ames piece. And a movement too lax in designating heroism risks mediocrity and co-option. But rather than exert further effort glorifying or denigrating Snowden & Greenwald, I’d welcome a more internal reflection on our hero fantasies. What sorts of heroes do we want, and what values do they reflect? Can we find them in mythology, in history, in our neighborhoods? How do the contemporary heroes of film and television fall short and mislead us? What kind of shortcomings are we willing to tolerate in our heroes, and what actions genuinely undermine otherwise heroic deeds?3

These sorts of questions are important not because they’ll encourage more passionate and incisive judgements of character, though that has a sort of Old Testament appeal. We need heroes to remind ourselves of the sorts of people we want to be. It’s not about getting behind someone and supporting them blindly. It’s about expanding the imagination to allow for the possibility of strength and dignity, and of having someone (ideally, conflicting someones) to learn from by example and judge our own deeds against.

  1. Okay, there are some gems, like code-naming an internet traffic surveillance program “EvilOlive“ []
  2. Which isn’t to say I think he’s disappointing, just that the odds are good he won’t live up to our hopes. []
  3. And while we have it out on the mythological realm, back on earth let’s remember that people— heroic or otherwise— are not to be tortured or unfairly spied on. Due process is for everyone, even the worst criminals. If we need to make someone out to be a hero before they’re entitled to basic civil & human rights, we’ve already lost. Oh wait, we’ve already lost. []

Adult Contemporary @ Maplewood-South Orange Studio Tour

I’ll be showing some work tomorrow as part of the Adult Contemporary Lifestyle Collective at the Maplewood-South Orange Studio Tour. Swing by if you’re in town, have some refreshments, and check out a range of work by young artists raised in the Jersey suburbs who have either returned or never left.


Adult Contemporary Lifestyle Collective
South Orange-Maplewood Studio Tour
Sunday June 3, 11am – 5pm
122 Prospect Pl, South Orange, NJ

Live Tweets from Maplewood-South Orange BOE Meeting on De-Leveling

[For context, check out my last blog post on the issue; also Cris Thorne‘s excellent documentary-in-progress De-Leveling the System]

9:22 PM: Live tweet msosd BOE meeting: heart warming speeches in favor of educational equity. Yay!
[edit: transcript of Board of Ed member Bill Gaudelli’s excellent speech here]

10:03 PM: BOE member Gleason uses USA’s low PISA scores to defend leveled instruction; Finland scores highest in world & is committed to edu equality
[see: “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success” and “How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools“]

10:15 PM: Many community members speaking against proposal including real estate agent & board of trustees member. #movetomillburn

10:19 PM: Cool many community members in favor also speaking.

10:24 PM: Both sides of this agree can agree on one thing: 2 min is not enough for public comment.

10:32 PM: Gleason makes motion to break proposal into 3 pieces: IB middle school, middle school levelup, & chs level restructuring

10:33 PM: Vote 5-4 to separate the proposal.

10:34 PM: IB program passes unanimously

10:39 PM: Gleason trying to table proposal until there is a gifted and talented program; Daugherty disagrees, “don’t let perfect be enemy of good.”

10:40 PM: Middle school proposal passes 7:2!

10:41 PM: CHS proposal passes 8-1! #townpride

[As my friend Dan (who also stuck it out for the meeting) put it, now time for all the work!]

Remarks on Proposed Middle School De-leveling.

Context: The Maplewood-South Orange School District, which I attended my entire public school career, is in the process of de-leveling the middle school. The district belongs to a community with many wonderful and unique characteristics: suburban, easy public access to NYC, artistically vibrant, and both racially and economically diverse. But the leveling system reveals an uglier side, as the school is blatantly segregated along racial (and socio-economic) lines.

You can read the district’s proposal here. A paper profiling three case studies of successful elimination of “curricular stratification” can be found here. Its focus is on how to de-level, but the endnotes contain an overview of the literature on why, with two decades of papers discussing the benefits of heterogeneous grouping. Our district is in communication with one of the district’s profiled, and seems to be following the steps outlined in the paper.

Finally, I was inspired to prepare these remarks after attending a discussion of alumni last week. It was a powerful post-mortem on our public school experiences. Hearing first-hand the vastly different experience some of my peers had in the very same schools has motivated me to get involved in this issue (again). The discussion was hosted by a filmmaker and fellow district alumnus Cris Thorne, who is working on a documentary called Deleveling the System. Excerpts of the discussion are online here and here. Additionally, I highly recommend Cris’s earlier documentary (produced as a high school student!), One School, for more background.

Finally, I should note that I was unable to read the complete transcript, because I had prepared for the standard 3 minutes of public comment and found out upon arrival that we were restricted to two minutes.

My name is Rebecca Rojer, CHS class of 2005.

As a k-12 alumnus of this district, it is clear to me that the leveling system is not colorblind. In both the classrooms and the hallways, white students are consistently given the benefit of the doubt, while black students are assumed to be trouble-makers and low achievers. Students enter school with different degrees of preparedness, but the leveling system calcifies these differences into inequalities.

Worse, the leveling system turns prejudice into self-fulfilling prophecy. Low expectations correlate to low performance. For example, women perform worse on math exams after being told there is a genetic difference in math ability between the sexes.

There is clearly a place for grouping students by skill-level and motivation. But it is not always beneficial, even for “top” students. This is especially true of the turbulent and vicious middle-school years, where academic success is better predicted by behavior and obedience than by aptitude.

There are many styles of learning – fast, slow, deep, shallow, literal, abstract, disciplined, intuitive – yet we conceive of “high” and “low” achievers through standardized tests that are valued precisely because they simplify everyone onto a single metric. When testing becomes the end game of education, we all suffer. Excessive reliance on testing dehumanizes students and ultimately sabotages their education. Students who feel valued and respected are more apt to learn. The infuriating paradox in our district is that top-level classes are discussion based, encouraging of critical thinking and debate, while lower-level classes too often focus exclusively on test prep.

Education is about empathy, respect, creativity, and citizenship as much as it is about literacy and arithmetic. These values reenforce each other. Knowledge is power, and schools should empower students. Let’s teach compound interest alongside the history of redlining and predatory lending. Education is about life, not the GEPA.

There is much to be gained by heterogenous classes. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to a peer. And one of the best ways to be challenged, is to be confronted by someone who’s experiences and values are different from your own. That is what I most cherish from my education in this district. And for that, I really have to thank a group of my classmates, some of whom who are here tonight, for literally stopping classes my senior year to create a conversation among students in different levels.

Lets not forget, we’re all in this together. Today’s students are tomorrow’s voters, workers, mortgage-signers, taxpayers, parents, neighbors. Your children’s lives are affected not just by their own education, but by the education of everyone who participates in this society. To fret about the rigor of your special snowflake’s 6th grade social studies curriculum in light of massive, structural inequality is short-sighted and just plain wrong.

There is a wide-spread assumption that integrating classes will destroy our education system and wipe out our property values. Students can feel this very early on, and it is exactly this kind of attitude that perpetuates inequality. The best way to lift your property values is to do what’s right: work towards a system that benefits all students instead of only half. Lets reject the politics of fear, and instead move forward with empathy, creativity, and determination.

Modern Money Primer

There is burgeoning school of economics called Modern Money Theory (MMT) that I really think warrants consideration. Not only is it theoretically quite intriguing, but if accurate, has tremendous political and social implications. One might even say that (perhaps in contrast to the Obama administration), it is actual cause for hope.

So I’d like to bring MMT to your attention. If you have already encountered, and dismissed, MMT, I’d like to encourage you to give it a second look. If you have already encountered, and dismissed, the entire field of Economics, I’d like to propose MMT as the exception to the rule.

Specifically, I suggest you check out the Modern Money Primer, recently begun by L. Randall Wray, one of the more prominent MMT scholars:

http://neweconomicperspectives.blogspot.com/p/modern-money-primer-under-construction.html

This primer is meant to be accessible introduction to someone with no prior understanding of MMT or even Economics. Wray will be adding a chapter every Monday for the next year, and responding to comments every Wednesday. (And for those of you who can’t possibly wait a year, I highly recommend Wray’s textbook Understanding Modern Money)

Okay okay but what is MMT?

Well, Wray and his colleagues will do a much better job than I of explaining, but here’s the gist as I understand it:

  • In a fiat economy, public debt = private wealth
  • Taxes don’t fund government spending; taxes create demand for fiat currency so that people are willing to sell goods & services to the government in exchange for said currency
  • Taxation is a sufficient (though not necessary) means to create demand for fiat currency (& thus prevent against undesirable levels of inflation)
  • and finally, perhaps most radically:

  • By serving as an “Employer of Last Resort”, essentially hiring anyone who is willing but unable to find work in the private sector and paying them a living wage, the government can ensure both full employment and price stability.

If true, this is pretty huge. Calls for “austerity” and the need to “reduce the deficit” become specious; there is an economically-sound mechanism to employ everyone at a living wage; not to mention that the government can suddenly “afford” all kinds of neat social programs, like universal health care, daycare and public transportation.

Crazy talk!
Lunacy!
Socialism!
Zimbabwe! Wiemar Germany!
Nothing you just said made any sense to me!
Rebecca, what the hell makes you, with your film degree, qualified to talk about economics?!

Yes, in many ways MMT runs completely counter to our conventional understanding of money. It sounds insane at first. But I think, if you give Wray a chance, you will see all the above points (except perhaps the last one) thoughtfully addressed.

And unlike most branches of economics, which could be accused of hiding behind intimidating jargon and complicated mathematical models rooted in mythology, the folks at New Economic Perspectives (the group of scholars behind the primer) are actively soliciting comments & critiques from their readers in an effort to make this primer as clear and thorough as possible. So I encourage you to check it out and ask questions and follow along over the next 50 weeks, if that’s your sort of thing.

[[Modern Money Primer]]

PS. If you contacted me nearly a year ago about that economics discussion list I wanted to start, apologies for never actually getting around to making it. I’m gonna try and get that started up soon, for real. Perhaps we can work our way through the Modern Money Primer together. Everyone who requested an invite will get one. If you didn’t and want in, let me know!

ASHLEY/AMBER featured in interview with Berlinale Shorts curator Maike Mia Höhne

Ashley/Amber is about the anti-war movement in the USA…

Yes, the film is a conflict-ridden entanglement of various themes related to the character of a young woman: an excursion into the world of porn, a friend deployed in a war and the growing engagement within the student peace movement. Besides the intelligent cinematic linking of these areas, the director Rebecca Rojer captures much of the real-to-life atmosphere in Harvard, where the film plays and where she herself is a student. One doesn’t ‘just’ see a fictional film, but really gets informed about conditions in certain regions of the world. I was not previously aware that there was such a strong resistance movement in the US – including occupied buildings and political discussion groups. Through the specific quality of the 16mm material that Rojer uses, you feel like you’ve traveled back to the era of 1970s activism. And at the same time you are aware that it’s about very real occurrences in today’s world.

Full Interview
Ashley/Amber Official Site