Chomsky Sessions 4: The Political System, Part 2

Transcript of Z Video DVD Chomsky Sessions 4: The Political System, Part 2 of an interview with Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114). See Part 1 here.

We've already done some ecology stuff. Do you believe global warming is occurring, largely human-made and susceptible to human direction? I have to ask the question because, of course, there's a growing number of people who would say "no".

I don't have any particular technical expertise but I don't see the slightest reason to doubt the evidence that's been presented or to question the overwhelming consensus of scientists. So, yeah, I take it for granted. And that it's anthropogenic in substantial measures.

How do you understand the seeming willingness of government and of those people who are in a position to actually, by virtue of their own activity affect what goes on in the world, rich powerful people, to just permit the likely calamity or at least watch it occur?

My feeling is that, say CEOs of corporations like Exxon Mobil or General Electric, have about the same beliefs as, you know, college professors on most things. They know it's happening. And they don't really question it. There is a kind of standard answer – which is not totally false – that they're concentrated on more short-term problems. They have to make sure the bottom line is good enough next quarter or else they lose their salaries and that sort of thing. That part is true, but it doesn't go deeply enough.

You go deeper, it gets us back to what we were talking about before. This is part of a market economy. I mean, we don't really have a market economy, it's kind of like a quasi-market economy. But there are market elements in the economy. And among those market elements is you simply have to pursue short-term interests or else you're out. Somebody else will pursue them.

Suppose there are three car companies: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, let's say. Let's imagine they're comparable. And suppose one of them, say, GM, says: OK, I'm going to devote resources to making better cars ten years from now. Tthey're not going to be around ten years from now. That's the way market systems work. To the extent that there is limited competition as there is, you are compelled to focus on short-term gain and advantage over others or else you're out of the game. In fact, in the U.S. legal system it's a legal requirement for CEOs. Economists have a word for it. It's called externalities, which you sort of put in a footnote. And it's true of every transaction.

The more extreme version is the head of, whatever it is, General Motors, "I'm going to pay attention to the fact that what we do influences global warming. That's paying attention to something that affects everybody else, my profits go down, I'm out of business. No, I can't do that."

Take, say, the financial crisis. I mean, now the big economists talk constantly about this, systemic risk. We didn't pay enough attention to systemic risk. Yeah, of course not. You can't. And of course, this was pointed out years ago. Ten years ago two pretty well known economists, John Eatwell and Lance Taylor, wrote a book called Global Finance at Risk [2001]. Basically, what they pointed out is that because systemic risk isn't considered, it's an externality, there's got to be a catastrophe. I mean, it means you're underpricing risk, there's more of it than you should take, and, so, yes, of course it will crash. And then there's other factors, like, perverse incentives and so on and so forth. But it's just built into the system. If, say, you and I make a transaction, maybe you sell me a car or something. I mean, if we've got our brains functioning, we'll try to make a good deal for ourselves. But we're not paying attention to the effect on somebody else. Like congestion and pollution and gas prices going up.

Unless the system includes that, which markets don't.

One of the very well known inefficiencies of markets. Every college student learns it in a freshman course – and then you forget about it.

This explains why CEOs and the powerful people in the economy, regardless of their desires, personal desires – they may be horrified by global warming – can't do anything to deal with it. Or can't do anything in that domain…

What they do is interesting. Take British Petroleum, which is considered very progressive in this respect. What they're trying to do is to buy into the alternative technology market. Figuring, OK, that's going to be a profitable market, so we'll work on solar collectors and so on.

There is one other avenue. Take for instance a company that years back had somebody at the head of it who's anti-racist. He can't in fact hire blacks in the United States at a higher rate than they're getting, because, even though he desires to do it, the market prevents him from doing it, because the other people won't do it and he'll be out-competed. But the government could then pass a law saying you have to…

So what they'll do is they'll move their production to Mexico and then to China and so on. There's actually a pretty interesting study, Tom Ferguson's work, which is some of the best work I know on political economy. For example, he did a lot of studies on the New Deal – and it's something that shows up elsewhere too. What he found is during the New Deal, Roosevelt was getting pretty good support from a particular sector of industry. High tech, internationally oriented industry, like, [Gerard] Swope, head of GE was quite strongly New Deal. On the other hand, they were passionately opposed by low tech, labor intensive domestically oriented industry. General Electric – capital intensive – they want a disciplined workforce, they don't want them disrupted, and it's not a big expense for them, so, OK, we'll have unions. They are internationally oriented, so they wanted the export promotion policies of the New Deal. For manufacturing industry it's quite the opposite. Labor costs make a big difference. They don't want the labor force unionized, they don't care much about international trade. So you get this difference of political support.

But we still come back to the government. Not to say there aren't constraints on it, but it's still slightly different. And, I could certainly imagine, maybe it's naive, but I could certainly imagine a president, Obama, or others, marshaling the office, the bully pulpit and everything else, to scare the bejeezus out of the country on global warming. That might be manipulative, but you could imagine them doing it. And you could imagine, as a result, a powerful upsurge which would then create a context in which corporations or, sort of, the market dynamic is overwhelmed and you get some results. But they don't seem to be doing it.

It did happen. Take, Al Gore.

He tried.

He tried. And he was smashed. He became denounced as a liberal elitist, out of touch, he takes jet planes, you know. The point is there are always strong counter forces. And defamation is one of the easiest things to do. You make up lies as much as you want. And you can make people look ridiculous if you have enough clout.

Yeah, it could have worked, but it would require a lot of popular organization. Actually, Roosevelt did it. To a limited extent, but he did it. But he had a mass popular movement behind him. The labor movement really did organize and there were plenty of other movements, the country became pretty radical. So, yeah, he had a basis for going after the bankers and so on, and instituting some reasonable legislation, you know, Glass-Steagall, Social Security, the Wagner act and others, not trivial.

Right, this is an offshoot question. You're not a vegetarian, right? Do you think there's a moral case for vegetarianism and do you think it might emerge…?

I think there's a moral case for it. I get a ton of letters about it. But, I mean, there's a moral case for a lot of things. There's a moral case for the fact that if you look at deaths from starvation, human deaths, among children, forget everyone else, among children alone deaths from starvation, or starvation related diseases, are about twice the level of Rwanda. Not 100 days, but every day. OK, that's a problem.

Now, you can say, well, let's deal with both, and mention a thousand other problems. Let's deal with them all. Time and energy happen to be finite. Which means you have to pick and choose. You can't do everything. So, you have to set priorities. I could pick 20 other cases, but let's pick this one. Suppose I have a choice between devoting energy and effort to writing books, and giving talks and so on, about trying to save the children, which is, you know, pennies a day, I mean, there's almost nothing to it. Very little effort, to stop the double Rwanda style killing among children every day. And there's a choice between that and essentially carrying out mass genocide of domesticated animals. Because that's what vegetarianism means. It's an effort to reduce animal suffering.

Suppose we all became vegetarians. The first thing you'd have to do is eliminate almost all domesticated animals because, well, they're raised for eating meat. That's why we have cows, chickens, sheep, you know, and so on and so forth. So, somehow, you got to get rid of them. You can't just let them reproduce and proliferate. First of all, they'll starve to death if you don't feed them, so it would be genocide anyway. And that's one of the immediate consequences of vegetarianism. You can pretend you don't notice, but it is. So, OK, these are things to balance.

Does the fact that a significant number of seemingly, and presumably really well meaning, caring, sensitive people put huge amounts of time into concerns around animals and not to concerns about humans strike you as one more indication of the failure of the left? Because, they basically feel: maybe we can succeed on this front, this front's hopeless.

They can't succeed on that front. Look, I don't want to criticize particular people. Actually among my own children, for example.


Well, one of them's vegetarian, the other's semi-vegetarian. OK, they made their choices. That's fine, I respect it, they do other things which are great, you know. And people can make these choices, and it may be a sensible choice in their own lives, maybe they can spend time…

I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about people who are animal rights activists, who are devoting time and energy to organizing for that…?

They've set their priorities, I've set my priorities, we all have to do that. I think we can understand each other's reasoning, we may have different judgments about how priorities ought to be ranked.

Another thing that you will encounter as an organizer is that a person who will feel that the deck is stacked, that what you do has no efficacy, it has no possibility of succeeding and they will, again, try to argue from history saying: well, look, there's crime, there's torture, there's poverty, there's recycled forms of oppression. No matter what you do, it's like rolling a rock up a hill, eventually it's going to come down and crush you. So, why bother? Ccity hall's too strong to fight, you know, the state's too strong. How do you deal with that?

History doesn't tell you that. What history tells you is that a lot of things have been overcome. It wasn't easy, it wasn't complete. There's always problems, there's regression, but lots of things that were considered entirely acceptable not long ago are considered totally outrageous now. I mean, we can run through the list. It's pretty easy.

Now, suppose somebody comes back and says: well, now it's different, it's much harsher. Well, that's plainly untrue. It's much easier now. I mean, the forces of repression that exist now are nothing like what they were in the past. We have a legacy from people who have struggled to make things better, and we're a lot more free. We've got a lot more opportunities, state repression exists, other kinds of repression exist, but it's nothing like in the past. I mean, it's extremely unlikely now that, say, the government could carry out anything like Wilson's red scare, or even COINTELPRO, which is not that far back. They can do things, but they've lost the ability to use force. And we know it. And they know it.

That's one of the main reasons for the development of the public relations industry and the modern system of propaganda. Systems of power knew and recognized and, in fact, said that – like England and the United States – that they have essentially lost the capacity to control people by violence. So therefore they'll control them in other ways. And the other ways to do it is by controlling opinion and attitudes, so there were huge industries developed to do that.

Actually, it even shows up in just the financial institutions. I mean, take a standard academic history of financial institutions, Barry Eichengreen, one of the main economists, economic historians. He's very straight about it. He says, of course, market systems impose, if they're allowed to run free, tremendous burdens on people. A lot of people are just going to suffer badly. You know, crashes and so on. But in the nineteenth century it wasn't much of a problem. Because they couldn't do anything about it. But then he goes on to say, with the increase of the – I think he calls it politicization of the masses, you know, the forming of parliamentary labor parties and unions and so on and so forth – it became harder to impose on the population the costs of market systems.

So after the WW II, when a new global system was set up, the Bretton Woods system, Keynes and Harry Dexter White, what they did was institute control over capital. Control over capital movement and control over speculation, fixing currencies. They introduced them as a way of compensating for the inability to distribute the costs of market systems to the public. This reduced the costs, and it did. That's why we had a couple of decades of huge growth and equitable growth and so on. There happens to be a corollary that he didn't add, but you can add, and that is that the breakdown of this system in the 1970s, with the financialization of the economy, yeah, you're getting the costs of financial markets distributed over the public again, and something is going to have to be done about it. But, yeah, that's a lot of thinking goes into this. And that shows there's a lot of results.

Transcription by Anton G.


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