Thursday, January 30, 2014

Minimum Wage: Marx Answers Paul Ryan!

The President announced on Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, that he will increase the minimum wage for federal contractors to ten dollars and ten cents. He wants, he said, to “give America a raise.” Raising the minimum wage appeals to those who “do not understand economics,” the former Representative Ron Paul argued recently: if you make it costlier for companies to employ each person, you lower the demand for workers and kill jobs. Representative Paul Ryan offered another view: “I think it’s inflationary,” he said. If you raise wages, companies’ costs go up, and then they raise prices to compensate.

These two arguments—which, combined, suggest that raising wages for the poorest winds up hurting the poorest—are very old. So old that in June of 1865, in London, Karl Marx interrupted work on “Das Kapital” to refute them.

Marx’s target was John Weston—who, as it happens, was a devoted socialist, like Marx. In May, 1865, Weston had given a lecture that argued against any strikes or agitation to raise wages. He seemed to believe, like Paul does, that paying workers more would force companies to employ fewer people. Like Ryan, he assumed that the prices of goods would rise when wages rose. Why look for higher wages if they would only make jobs more scarce and raise the price of bread?

Marx delivered two lectures to the International, in June. They were eventually published as a pamphlet, “Value, Price, and Profit”—a polemic so succinct and sharp that it makes you wish that Marx could return as a blogger.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Ariel Sharon's Dark Greatness

In 1930, George Bernard Shaw rose to toast Albert Einstein, and said, “If you take the typical great man of our historic epoch—and suppose I had to rise here tonight to propose a toast of Napoleon. Well, undoubtedly, I could say many, many flattering things about Napoleon.” But about that greatness, Shaw deadpanned, something else would have to be considered, “perhaps the most important thing”: “Which is that it would perhaps have been better for the human race if he had never been born.”

I write as Ariel Sharon’s funeral proceeds; the Israeli media is flooded with flattering memories: he was brave; he was loyal; he was charming; he was headstrong, thus charismatic (even if, at times, he defied commanders and shaded the truth); he was pragmatic; he did his homework, then acted boldly; he could reverse course. None of this changes perhaps the most important thing.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

The Jewish State in Question, Again

Jodi Rudoren writes in today’s Times that the great sticking point for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” or as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—something along these lines. Rudoren asks, “Can Israel preserve its identity as a Jewish democratic state while also providing equal rights and opportunities to citizens of other faiths and backgrounds? With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?”

Netanyahu’s demand has at least three layers to it. The first is symbolic, without practical significance—understandable, but superfluous. The second is partly symbolic, but is meant to have future practical significance; it is contentious but resolvable. The third, however, is legal: it has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian or, for that matter, Israeli democrat, deplorable. We are no longer debating resolutions at fin-de-si├Ęcle Zionist congresses. Making laws requires settled definitions, and what’s being settled in Israel is increasingly dangerous. Netanyahu’s demand is a symptom of the disease that presents itself as the cure.

On the first, symbolic point: Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people, in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed of a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust—a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries—that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism’s DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.

When Palestinians say they recognize Israel, they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging the name of a communal desire. The state is not called Ishmael, after all.

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