Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Important Announcement

I began writing this blog back in October of 2007, making this month the third anniversary of my first entry. Upon this anniversary I've decided to take an approximately three month sabbatical from this blog until the end of 2010.

Over the last year I’ve developed a serious medical condition, which requires that I reorganize my life. I don't make this decision lightly, for I'm still a strong advocate for the cause, but I've decided that a temporary leave from writing this blog is best.

To my loyal readers over the years I want to say thank you for following my blog. I hope my writings have been helpful to the cause of creating a more just society.

If Providence allows, I expect to start posting to this blog again in January of 2011. There's other possible venues to advocate for the cause that I might use other than returning to this particular blog come the new year. I will decide over the next three months what path I take.

Until then I leave you with the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who We Are: Conclusion

This is the final installment in a series of postings in which I explore the growing mountain of scientific evidence that supports that human have, as a species, a cooperative nature.

Olivia Judson in an article titled "How Heroes Are Made" (USA News and World Report Special Edition: Mysteries of Science) explained that in nature benefit and costs are determined by one standard and one standard alone, which is the number of offspring that an organism has. The more children an organism has then the more successful that organism is. This standard poses a problem for those of us who claim that humans have a cooperative nature. It would seem that if we cooperate then we run the risk of helping others pass along their genes at the expense of ours. Altruism and cooperation would seem to contradict natural selection. If mutual cooperation is indeed what separated us from the other primates what might have been the evolutionary pressure that could have created a cooperative and altruistic ape?

The famed evolutionary biologist and game theory pioneer William Douglas Hamilton published several studies on what might cause altruism to evolve in the species. According to Hamilton a gene that promoted extreme altruism, which is a form of altruism that is so sacrificial that the organism leaves no descendants, could spread if it helped individuals who were closely related. Hamilton created a formula to predict whether an organism had a predisposition to altruism. Known as Hamilton’s Rule if the action’s benefit is large enough and if there is a close enough genetic relationship so as to outweigh the cost then the altruistic gene would be promoted.

One can expand this principle of "kin selection" beyond the immediate family. Many species live in large groups such as herds and flocks in which they interbreed. For example, the Common Chimpanzees mentioned in my last blog while intolerant aren’t loners but live in large communities with layers of sub-communities. While the females leave during adolescence the males stay and form gangs which roam across their territories guarding it from interlopers. These males can set up friendships across family lines and prefer to set up gangs with their maternal brothers and half brothers. If they run across a gang from another community there can be violence to the point that some smaller communities may be wiped out.

According to Judson in the 19th century Charles Darwin hypothesized that early humans warring in same fashion as the chimps might actually have created altruism. Darwin hypothesized that unified groups of caring early humans might have been more successful in competition with the rugged individualist humans. Over time the rugged individualists and non-cooperative humans were put under such evolutionary pressure that they were replaced by cooperative humans.

Darwin’s hypothesis is intriguing but is there any evidence to support it? In a paper published in the journal Nature, Judson reported that it was found that people tend to prefer to help strangers from their own ethnic group. Such studies as the one in Nature, along with others, have increased interest in Darwin’s idea. But some of the strongest evidence may have been found by the evolutionary biologist Sam Bowles. According to Bowles during the last 90,000 years of the Pleistocene era, which lasted from 100,000 to the 10,000 years ago, there was little growth in the numbers of humans. Certainly climatic volatility during this time was rather extreme and that could have kept numbers down. But Bowles reviewed the archeological records and various studies and estimated that a substantial numbers of the deaths could have resulted from wars. According Judson, "Bowles shows that supercooperative, altruistic humans could indeed have wiped out groups of less united folk." Judson wrote that for this to be a success the model would also require supportive groups based on monogamy, sharing of food, and little disparity between members. It’s interesting to note that Judson states that if Bowles was right then any group that failed to drive out or kill disruptive or non-cooperative members would have had a disadvantage in battles.

With these studies are taken together, along with many others that I haven’t covered, it turns out that natural selection can indeed lead to the development of an altruistic and cooperative ape.

Conclusion of Series
In conclusion, what can we draw from these studies reviewed over the past months? We are hardwired by millions of years of evolution to make cooperative behavior intrinsically reinforcing. Because of these studies we can now see that the very heart of capitalism, the idea of the rugged individual and looking out for Number One, is a myth. Economic democracy is built upon the reality of the cooperative nature of humans. It’s time for society to move beyond the unnatural system of capitalism and move on to its logical successor: economic democracy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Who We Are: Part III

Animal Studies

This is the third installment in a series of postings in which I explore the growing mountain of scientific evidence that supports that human have, as a species, a cooperative nature.

Brian Hare, researcher for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has been studying cooperative behavior in various animals for years. As a teenager Hare started studying the behavior of dogs in his parent’s basement. In his childhood experiments, which were the first of their kind, he indicated that the dogs were very good at following human non-verbal instructions. Later studies by other researchers supported Hare’s results showing that such attributes are genetically predetermined. Wolves lack this capacity, so the dog's abilities have been artificially selected by humans over the centuries through breeding.

At one point in his career Hare ended up at the Institute for Psychology and Genetics in Akademgorodok, Russia in which the researchers had been studying foxes since 1959. They were selectively breeding the foxes based on their degree of fear exhibited of humans. A control group was allowed to breed as usual while in the experimental group only those less fearful of humans were allowed to breed. Over time the behavior of the foxes in the experimental group changed. Those foxes took on dog like behaviors of barking and wagging their tails in the presence of humans as well as dog like physical appearance such as floppy ears, coats with differing degrees of markings, their skeletons became weaker, and their hormone balance changed. Along with all of this their social intelligence had begun to resemble the dogs in that they developed the ability to intuitively understand the directions of humans.

This trait of co-habitation and tolerance in dogs and the specially bred foxes lead to a hypothesis by Hare. He hypothesized that similar behavioral changes were prerequisites for the evolution of intelligence in humans. In other words, he hypothesized that our intelligence could not have evolved if we had not developed a prior practice of tolerance and the ability to cooperate with each other. He then proceeded to test his tolerance hypothesis. This required studying our closest relatives: the chimpanzees.

The Common Chimpanzees are known to be highly competitive and intolerant. For example, if a chimp of a lower rank attempts to eat from a bowl of food first then the higher ranking chimp will beat him and horde the food. Hare decided to test how far he could push this intolerance and find out what it would take for the chimps to cooperate with each other.

He set up an experiment with a bowl of food that could only be acquired by two chimps pulling on a rope together. If any chimpanzee alone tried to pull the rope it would fail so the only way to succeed would be for at least two chimps to cooperate. Time and time again they tried it individually and failed. But occasionally a few chimps would cooperate and successfully pull the rope together. It turned out that it was those few chimps that had already exhibited tolerance, such as eating together, that would be the ones that would cooperate with each other and would therefore succeed in the exercise.

When Hare studied Bonobos, a sub-species of chimpanzee, he found a very different story. Rather than a few tolerant members working together the bonobos naturally worked together to solve the problem. But true to their nature the bonobos, in a hedonistic style that would have made the free love of the 1960's seem puritanical, they would first have sex and would then cooperate in acquiring the food.

Bonobo Chimpanzees are interesting for many reasons. Being a sub-species of the chimpanzees they share at least a 98% genetic similarity with humans. Plus, their physical appearance is intriguing. The Bonobo have long head hair, pink lips, small ears and wide nostrils. In comparison to the Common Chimpanzee they have long legs, slim upper torso, and human-like breasts that are more prominent.
Hare has hypothesized that the point of separation of our ancestor from the chimps resulted from our ancestors purging the dominating and power hungry members in favor of tolerant and mild temperament members, which contrasts against the now discredited, though still widely accepted in pop culture, “killer-ape” theory. Hare and the other animal researchers have presented evidence that supports that what started our species in becoming human was not due to struggle and violence but mutual aid and cooperation.

In the next entry I will conclude this series with research that supports how natural selection can encourage the rise of a cooperative species.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who We Are: Part II

Social Networks and Obesity

This is the second part of a series of postings in which I explore the growing mountain of scientific evidence that supports that human have, as a species, a cooperative nature.

In July of 2007 the New England Journal of Medicine released a study that had followed 12,067 people in the Massachusetts town of Framingham over a fifty year period of time. What they found was astounding. According to the Dallas Morning News, the study "was the first to demonstrate that obesity – and perhaps other health problems that involve behavior or lifestyle – spreads through social networks."

To show how effective social networks are in affecting weight it was found that the chances of becoming obese went up 57% if a friend became obese, 40% if a sibling’s changed, and 37% if the person was a spouse. The most outstanding chance of change was if a close friend’s weight changed. If so then the chances that a person would become obese went up an amazing 171%!

In the study they were able to rule out several factors. First, they found that there was no statistical significance for socioeconomic class or access to healthy food. It turned out that there was a closer connection between friends that lived hundreds of miles away than there were between next door neighbors. In addition, they were able to rule out "birds of a feather" or that obese people were attracted to similarly obese by excluding those friends who were both obese at the start.

So what was taking place? According to a co-author of the study, Nicholas Christakis with the Harvard Medical School, "What we think is going on here is emulation." The behavior of emulation is certainly one trait expected to be found within a cooperative species.

In the third part of this series I’ll explore some of the animal studies and how they support the evolution of a cooperative human species.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Who We Are: Part I

Longevity, Cooperativism and Human Nature

Philosophers have historically taken the three highly simplified views of human nature and have built various models consisting of differing degrees of complexity. Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that we are by nature good and that we are corrupted by society (the “noble savage”). The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre held that human nature is neutral, with an individual’s free will being the sole element that decides our actions. According to Sartre as humans we have a radical freedom to the point that we are “condemned to be free.” Others that share his view of neutrality often give control largely to environmental socialization and conditioning (such as B.F. Skinner). Then there was Thomas Hobbes who held that human nature is bad. In Leviathan Hobbes wrote, “So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” He thought that any goodness exhibited by someone was the result of society keeping that person’s dark side in check. Otherwise, without society’s restrictions, human existence would be “nasty, short, and brutish.”

There is a growing body of scientific studies that now point towards an understanding that humans have a hardwired predisposition in which working together appears to be intrinsically reinforcing and which in turn encourages future cooperative behavior. Studies show that this drive is so powerful that if someone fails to cooperate then another person will go out of his or her own way to punish the uncooperative one, even at his or her own sacrifice. This revelation of the cooperative nature of humankind is so important that it deserves close examination.

A recent study by Brigham Young, published in the Public Library of Science, found that having social relations can actually increase one’s longevity. They took the results of 148 studies involving 138,000 people and combined them. What they found was a clear statistical trend that indicates that having strong social relations could increase a person’s lifespan in comparison by as much as four years.

What we see in this study is natural selection at work in the evolution of early humans. Those early humans who were by nature cooperative lived longer and therefore had more babies than their less cooperative peers. Over time the cooperative members of our human ancestors became dominant in the species and the “rugged isolationists” became a rarity.

In the next installment I will look at another study which involves social networking that found further support for cooperativism being hardwired within our nature

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Silver Screen

After a depressing post such as the last one, which addressed the ongoing disaster on the gulf, I felt that it was time for something positive. Surprisingly, it was handed to me all wrapped up like a Christmas gift by the corporate news media.

On July 20th of this year NBC Nightly News ran during their feel good feature, "Making A Difference," a segment about community-owned theaters in 19 small towns across North Dakota. The report centered on theaters in the towns of Rockford and Langdon.

These theaters are perfect examples of how community-ownership could function in an economic democracy. The towns identified a need of the larger community (in this case the continued existence of movie theaters in the old city downtown areas that help to preserve the traditions and heritage of the community) in which the market, even if the economic enterprises were cooperatively owned and managed, wouldn't work. As a result the towns have converted the dead or dying historic privately-owned movie theaters into community-owned, non-profit theaters. In the news report at the Rockford Theater one volunteer stated, "Nobody is in here to make a profit, we're in here to keep the theater open." There was a community need and the towns took action to solve it when the market was incapable of doing so.

I've embedded the video of the news broadcast into the blog. Go ahead and watch it. It just might remind you that there is still hope.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Saturday, July 10, 2010


"I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in here." Captain Renault, Casablanca

In my last posting I mentioned that Marx used a building’s structure as an analogy of the functional relations of society but that a new model was needed. My recommendation was to use genetics instead.

To recap we could think of DNA as being representative of the economic relationships within society. Just as DNA shapes and decides the functions of the organism the economic systems shapes and establishes the functions of the various social structures. In turn, while an organism protects and strives to pass on its DNA, social institutions work to protect and promote their economic systems. Organisms and social systems are both generally stable and adaptable for long periods of times but there is hope because history shows that just as organisms evolve and become extinct to be replaced by new ones the same happens to economic systems.

So now we can better understand some of the events of today. As we watch in horror at the nightmare unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico due to the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, people look for someone to blame. But as it turns out there’s plenty of blame to go around.

People naturally look to blame the corporation BP, which is a logical place to start. BP in its greed for profits, which is endemic in corporate structure, drilled far beyond what technology will safely allow as proven by its inability to cap the flow of oil. Plus, also due to this same greed it cut corners, which helped set the stage for the disastrous explosion.

But others point out that blame goes far beyond BP. It was well known long before the explosion that the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is the government agency responsible to oversee the oil industry, was in bed Big Oil and was letting them get away with multiple violations while taking gratuities.

In addition to government agencies that are supposed to protect us the legal system has been shown owned by Big Oil. When the Obama administration ordered a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued a ruling blocking the moratorium because of "irreparable harm" to the businesses in the gulf that depend on drilling activity. But many say that Feldman is owned by the oil industry. As recently as 2008 he owned stock in Big Oil, including Transocean, a company which owns the oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, it’s almost funny watching politicians and commentators exclaim how shocked they are that government officials and judges are bought and paid for by Big Oil. Yet, as the genetics analogy shows it’s in the nature of the system that the various social institutions should support and work to defend the economic system.

Some might point out that it’s different in countries other than the US. They point to other capitalist countries, such as France and Germany that seem to successfully regulate corporations and limit their influence. Does this somehow cause a problem with the analogy? Actually it’s very consistent.

Animal behaviorists have shown that with the right use of conditioned reinforcement one can train an animal in such a manner as to override their natural instincts.

That’s what the Europeans have done. They keep political pressure on their governments so as to override the natural tendencies of their social institutions to obey their capitalist instincts. As one Frenchmen said in Michael Moore’s excellent movie, Sicko, the American people are afraid of their government yet the French government is afraid of its people.

But I believe there is a better way than the European model. Rather than the constant vigilance necessary to keep the beast under control, which could someday turn on its master as it has in here in the US, a better solution would be to replace it with a new economic system. It’s time for the US and the other nations of the world to evolve from Capitalism to an Economic Democracy.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Analogy

Karl Marx used architecture and engineering as an analogy for society. In his analogy a building’s base establishes both the shape of the building as well as the various functions of the building’s superstructure. In turn, Marx wrote, the superstructure functions to provide support and protection to the base. Marx compared human productive relations (i.e. economic system) as being like the building’s base in that they shape society’s legal, social, artistic, religious, political and other cultural features and institutions. In return, according to Marx, these various social features and institutions function to protect and support that same economic system that created them. G.A. Cohen, in his book Karl Marx’s Theory of History, gives an excellent analysis of Marx’s work.

One can understand why Marx might use such an analogy being that he lived during the heart of the industrial age. But maybe it’s time for a new analogy that we can better relate to here in the 21st century. Rather than looking to engineering and architecture it might be best that we look to the cutting edge science and technology of our age: genetics.

As we all know DNA is the blueprint that governs not only the development but the functioning of any living being. It even governs how an organism responds to the operant conditioning of the environment. DNA tells a dog to bark and a cat to meow. But unlike Marx’s architectural analogy, the reciprocal relationship between the organism and its DNA is well established. Not only does DNA shape and govern the organism but an organism strives to protect and pass along its own DNA. Biologists tell us that reproduction is the ultimate goal of any living organism.

Genetics as an analogy has another benefit that Marx’s building analogy didn’t. It provides a mechanism for change. Natural selection guides the evolution of life by putting pressure on organisms. Those that are most fit for their environment are able to have more offspring and therefore they pass along their genes more often than the less fit. While species tend to be stable and adaptable, something shown by Stephen Jay Gould, resulting in the outstanding diversity we see in nature, with the right conditions new species will arise.

We can take genetics and use it as an analogy of human society. An economic system might be compared to the DNA of an organism. The economic DNA of society shapes and governs the functions of the various social institutions and culture. Also, like the organism striving to survive and pass along its own DNA through reproduction, these social and cultural institutions in turn function to protect and reproduce their own economic systems.

But I find evolution to be the most exciting aspect of this analogy, especially Gould’s Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. Using his theory as an analogy we can see how capitalism can appear to be beaten down and against the ropes yet by adapting come back strong while still keeping its nature of being capitalism. Just like most species, capitalism as a mode of production is both stable and adaptable.

That being said, speciation, the evolutionary process by which new species arise, is a fact proven by the fossil record. Like the fossil record, human history also shows that over time the various modes of production become extinct to be replaced by new ones. The Slave System was succeeded by the Feudal System, which was succeeded by Capitalist System. Just as species evolve so do modes of production.

While I don’t know when capitalism’s successor will arise this analogy gives me hope that it can happen. Hopefully Providence will allow me to see it occur in my lifetime.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Toyohiko Kagawa

What follows is another installment in occasional biographies of influential people in cooperativism.

Toyohiko Kagawa (b. 7/10/1883, d. 4/23/1960) was one of five children. At the time of his birth his father was the secretary of the Privy Council to the Emperor of Japan. Kagawa’s mother was one of his father's two wives and was a professional dancing girl. His father was later made the governor of two provinces and vice-president of a third. Tragedy struck early in his life for when Kagawa was just four years old his father died. Kagawa was then adopted by his father's other wife. Though the family was wealthy and Kagawa lived in splendor his home was empty of love and according to Kagawa a living hell.

At the age of nine Kagawa was sent to a Christian convent for his education. When he entered high school he learned English from an American missionary, using the Sermon on the Mount. According to Kagawa it was Luke 12:27, "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these”, that changed his life. It was due to this verse that he began to notice the beauty of the world and began to pray. He then realized that it was possible, in spite of the pressure of his peers, to live what he considered to be an ethical life.

After high school he entered a Christian college and later begun his ministry in Tokyo. Shortly after arriving he became seriously ill and rented for one yen a month a fisherman's cottage in the slums. The minister stayed with Kagawa for four days. It was then that Kagawa decided that to become healed he needed to begin ministering to the impoverished lower class of Tokyo.

Over time more men joined them to stay at the house. One was a convicted murderer, while another suffering from syphilis. Together the four men attempted to survive on just eleven yen. This tight budget meant eating only two meals a day. They would fill themselves up on water and thin their rice with water. Kagawa wrote, “If you have plenty of food you can never understand the meaning of the Lord's Prayer.”

Eventually Kagawa traveled to America and attended Princeton University. Once he graduated Kagawa went back to Japan. Rather than simply preach to the downtrodden he became a labor organizer. At one point he was arrested for participating in a general strike, which would be just one of many times he would be arrested for throughout his life. After his arrest Kagawa started organizing cooperatives throughout Japan, as well as organizing farmers into associations.

Eventually he moved on to organizing student cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and credit unions. As World War II loomed on the horizon Kagawa shuttled back and forth between the US and Japan in a futile attempt to head off war. At one point the fascist government of Japan arrested Kagawa but later released him. Following the end of the war Kagawa traveled across the world to spread his message of cooperative economics. After his death in 1960 the Emperor of Japan awarded him their nation's highest honor, the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

In 1936 Kagawa wrote his landmark book Brotherhood Economics in which he presented his philosophy of change, theological framework for change, the history of the cooperative movement, and the direction of change that he advocated. In Kagawa’s model he proposed networks of cooperatives that would be organized into federations. The cooperatives within the federations would provide for health care, production, marketing and transport, credit, education, utilities, and distribution.

The cooperative federations would also send representatives to a Social Congress and an Industrial Congress. These congressional bodies would in turn send legislative proposals up to the legislative body. The Social Congress would send legislation on social issues while the Industrial Congress would send legislation on economic issues. Funds for their creation would be provided by the cooperative credit unions.

In Kagawa's model of Cooperative Commonwealth, he also kept small family enterprises and other private enterprises. Kagawa advocated setting caps on the private enterprises to prevent them from growing large and become a threat to the cooperative economy.

Certainly there are some differences between the model of economic democracy advocated here and Kagawa’s. Most importantly though, the core of his economic model, with its emphasis on cooperatives as economic enterprises along with the continuation of family enterprises, without a doubt places Kagawa well within the school of the economic democracy.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Story of EPIC Proportion

The year was 1934 and the world was in the grip of The Great Depression. America had recently elected FDR, a progressive Democrat, for President in the hopes that he could save the country. But one man offered something different. Something radical. His name was Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair wasn’t unknown. He had made a name for himself in 1906 by writing the landmark book, “The Jungle,” which revealed to the nation the atrocious conditions of the workers in the American meat packing industry and the horrendous quality of the food supply. The public was shocked and shortly after it was published Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Though he had previously run for President on the Socialist ticket in 1934 he was running for the Democratic Party to be the Governor of California. While FDR had the “New Deal” Sinclair offered California what he called “EPIC,” which stood for “End Poverty in California.” That year the highly popular magazine The Literary Digest ran a series of articles concerning, “outstanding issues of the forthcoming campaign and the fundamental problems confronting the country to-day.” Following is an excerpt from the October 13th, 1934 article written for the Digest by Sinclair in which he laid out a plan that contained many elements of what’s advocated for an economic democracy. You can read the whole article here.

The “EPIC” (End Poverty in California) movement proposes that our unemployed shall be put at productive labor, producing everything which they themselves consume and exchanging those goods among themselves by a method of barter, using warehouse receipts or labor certificates or whatever name you may choose to give to the paper employed. It asserts that the State must advance sufficient capital to give the unemployed access to good land and machinery, so that they may work and support themselves and thus take themselves off the backs of the taxpayers. The “EPIC” movement asserts that this will not hurt private industry, because the unemployed are no longer of any use to industry.

We plan a new cooperative system for the unemployed. Whether it will be permanent depends upon whether I am right in my belief about the permanent nature of the depression. If prosperity comes back the workers will drift back into private industry. No harm will have been done, because certainly the unemployed will produce something in the meantime, and the State will be that much to the good.

New Cooperative System
To meet the immediate emergency in our State and get the money to start our new cooperative system, we propose what we call an “EPIC” tax. That is an ad valorem tax on property assessed above $100,000, which means about $250,000 of actual value. This tax will fall almost entirely upon our great corporations and utilities, and to make it easier for them we shall make it payable at the option of the State, in goods and services. That will give us most of the raw materials and all of the utility services which the unemployed will need to get production started.

We have a great irrigation and power project known as the Central Valley Project. We propose to send fifty thousand unemployed into this work and ask the farmers of the Central Valleys to bring their surplus food crops, taking credits which will be good for water and power when the project is completed. The “EPIC” tax will give us the needed lumber, cement, rock and gravel, steel, etc., and light, heat, power, and transportation. The project will be carried out by our Public Works Department, and it will bring industry back to life in California.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of Noise and Profits

Not often a topic just drops in my lap right before my bi-weekly blog. You’re probably thinking, “Of course, he’s gonna write about the BP offshore oil well explosion and the dangers of Big Oil.” If that’s what you were thinking, well, you’re mistaken for that’s not the subject this time.

Thanks to I learned of a recent article titled “How Restaurants Get You Drunk”, posted on the web site The Daily Beast, in which the author of the book “In Pursuit of Silence,” George Prochnik, explored the reasons behind the current trend in restaurants to louder and louder settings.

In his article he noted several recent studies. In one study that was done by Fairfield University it was found that the rate that people chew their food increased as the tempo of the music being played increased. The researchers found that by raising the tempo of the music it increased the rate of chewing from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. Corporate restaurant industry certainly took note of the study. According to Prochnik the corporate restaurant chain Dick Clark American Bandstand, “developed computerized sound systems that were preset to raise the tempo and volume of music at hours of the day when corporate wanted to turn tables.”

Prochnik also referenced another study, this time done by French researchers, which found that by raising the sound level of the music being played caused a corresponding increase in the number of drinks ordered. At 72 decibels the average number of drinks was 1 every 14.51 minutes. By cranking up the decibels to 88 the number of drinks went up to 1 every 11.47 minutes.

The goal of all of this should be obvious. Increasing the tempo and beat of the music isn’t done to increase for the enjoyment experienced by the customers. The corporate goal in this is the same as it always is. Manipulating the music played is done with the goal of a corresponding increase in sales. An increase in sales means an increase in profits, which are funneled into the pockets of shareholders in the form of dividends. In addition, profitable businesses usually, though not always, translate into increases in the value of shares.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

US Steelworkers and Worker-Owned Co-ops

Contrary to the claims of many, most unions (at least in the last 50 years) aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re more than happy to always be what one might call the "loyal opposition." As long as they’re outsiders they can rant and rave against management while always sounding pro-worker but never, ever, sounding like they opposed capitalism. Most unions are been quick to disavow any idea that the workers themselves should own and manage the shops and factories. The majority of unions are content with negotiating for better pay and more benefits. Sure, there are a few, like the International Workers of the World (IWW), that go beyond but they’re the exception and not the rule.

Finally, there now seems to be a change for one union.

In October of 2009 the United Steelworkers Union announced they were collaborating with the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) of Spain to explore increasing the number of worker-owned cooperatives here in the US.
According to the USW International President Leo W. Gerard, “We see today's agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada.” He went on to say, “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”
(Source: SolidarityEconomy.Org)

The MCC President of Mondragron Internacional, Josu Ugarte, stated: “What we are announcing today represents a historic first--combining the world's largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world's most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together so that our combined know-how and complimentary visions can transform manufacturing practices in North America. We feel inspired to take this step based on our common set of values with the Steelworkers who have proved time and again that the future belongs to those who connect vision and values to people and put all three first.”

There’s simply no way to predict what will come out of this collaboration. As I mentioned in my blog entry of March 30th there is also the Cleveland Model in which several cooperatives haven been formed. One can hope that maybe, just maybe, that collaboration between MCC and the USW along with the Cleveland Model are examples that the dream of an economic democracy is starting to become more than just a dream.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


“The end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” R.E.M.

Forget all the reports about the world coming to an end in 2012. What everyone should be taking note of is that back on December 21, 2009 the UN declared 2012 to be “The International Year of Cooperatives.”

NEW YORK, 21 December (Department of Economic and Social Affairs) -- The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, highlighting the contribution of cooperatives to socio-economic development. In adopting resolution 64/136 on 18 December, the Assembly noted that cooperatives impact poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.

A cooperative is an autonomous voluntary association of people who unite to meet common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations, through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. In general, they contribute to socio-economic development.

As self-help organizations that meet the needs of their members, cooperatives assist in generating employment and incomes throughout local communities. Cooperatives provide opportunities for social inclusion. In the informal economy, workers have formed shared service cooperatives and associations to assist in their self-employment. In rural areas, savings and credit cooperatives provide access to banking services that are lacking in many communities and finance the formation of small and micro businesses, promotes inclusive finance.

The cooperative sector worldwide has about 800 million members in over 100 countries and is estimated to account for more than 100 million jobs around the world. The strength and reach of cooperatives are illustrated in the following examples:

* Under the umbrella of the World Council of Credit Unions, 49,000 credit unions serve 177 million members in 96 countries, and 4,200 banks under the European Association of Cooperative Banks serve 149 million clients;

* Agricultural cooperatives account for 80 to 99 per cent of milk production in Norway, New Zealand and the United States; 71 per cent of fishery production in the Republic of Korea; and 40 per cent of agriculture in Brazil;

* Electric cooperatives play a key role in rural areas. In Bangladesh, rural electric cooperatives serve 28 million people. In the United States, 900 rural electric cooperatives serve 37 million people and own almost half of the electric distribution lines in the country.

International Years are declared by the United Nations to draw attention to major issues and encourage action. To commemorate the Year, regional conferences will raise awareness of cooperatives and seek ways to leverage their contribution to socio-economic development and foster regulatory frameworks. A research agenda will be proposed and Member States are to form national committees that will serve as focal points for the Year’s activities.

Leaving aside how generally impotent the UN is at achieving its goals one can’t help but hope that their declaration is a premonition of something great to come.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cleveland Model

Due to my health problems this entry is shorter than I had hoped. I apologize to my readers for its brevity.

There’s something exciting happening in the Buckeye State. While most of the corporate media is fixated on the crass politics going on in Congress there are some events taking place in the American heartland that are important in the movement towards creating an economic democracy. The few articles that are appearing in the media, while brief, are providing glimpses into these exciting developments.

The Evergreen Cooperative Initiative of Cleveland, Ohio is actively creating worker-owned cooperatives based on the Mondragon Cooperative. According to an article in Time Magazine this Initiative, which has been dubbed the Cleveland Model, the Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund provides to co-ops, “low-interest, long term financing. In the future, a financial institution more aligned with the Caja Laboral, which also handles consumer savings and lending, might be developed.”
(Source: Time Magazine)

Several of the cooperatives started by the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative are getting special attention in the press. The one that gets the most coverage is the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which specializes in providing laundry service for the healthcare industry of Cleveland. Another co-op that’s received interest by the press is the Ohio Cooperative Solar (OCS) which specializes in installing large-scale solar panels. According to the Nation the Initiative isn’t stopping with just these two co-ops. It’s creating other co-ops in the Cleveland area such as the Green City Growers (which has a hydroponic garden that’s larger than a Wal-Mart superstore) and a community newspaper “Neighborhood Voice,” which will start printing later this year. (Source: The Nation)

The Cleveland Model is using the principles of Economic Democracy to solve one of the serious problems for starting co-ops, which has been access to investment. The Nation goes on the report that, “each of the Evergreen co-operatives is obligated to pay 10 percent of its pre-tax profits back into the fund to help seed the development of new jobs through additional co-ops. Thus, each business has a commitment to its workers (through living-wage jobs, affordable health benefits and asset accumulation) and to the general community (by creating businesses that can provide stability to neighborhoods).”

Another important feature of this is that it’s occurring from the grassroots level. Historically every change in any mode of production has originated from the bottom up rather than the top down. The potential for the Cleveland Model to be the start of a movement that could someday threaten capitalism is amazing.

Without a doubt the events in Cleveland are fantastic. Yet the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative is just one of several developments that are appearing not only in America but on the international scene. In the future I plan to draw attention to some of the other important developments.

For more information Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Ohio Cooperative Solar and Green City Growers all share a web site:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Importance of Nonviolence

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time- the need for people to overcome oppression…Nonviolence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation”- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In recent postings I attempted to define what capitalism is. Most of my previous postings consisted of laying out arguments for what I believe to be a system that would be far better than capitalism: economic democracy. An important issue that needs to be addressed at this time is a detail about changing the system: the necessity of nonviolence.

First, it’s delusional to think that it’s possible to change America through violence. Joseph Stack’s attack on an IRS building in Austin, Texas was a nothing more than cowardly act of evil. All it did was terrorize the hard working government employees in the building and murdering an American hero, Vernon Hunter, 67, who was laid to rest with full military honors.

Even if there was a remote possibility, which there isn’t, of success by such means what would a change by violence show from an ethical standpoint? Do we really want a system changed by violent means? Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.”

Then there is a purely patriotic reason. Rev Norman Thomas once said, “If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it." The drive to change America from a capitalist system to an economic democracy should come from a sense of true patriotism in which, out of love, we hope to “wash” our nation of the wrongs that exist rather than burn it.

It’s also important that as we write and discuss concepts such as class, and toss around terms such as “capitalists” or “workers”, that we avoid demonizing any one person or group of people. In all socio-economic classes there are individuals who are morally good and morally bad. Being a laborer doesn’t make one a saint nor does being a capitalist make one a villain. We need to emphasis that it’s the degrading and dehumanizing system of creating dominating relationships based on capital and the private control of marketable wealth that we strive against and not the individuals within the system. If we begin to demonize people then we run the risk of creating “The Other”, which often leads to violence.

A brief comment is needed here about the efficacy of nonviolent methods. Some, especially on the radical Left, claim that nonviolence is weak and ineffective. They point to all of the past changes in the modes of production and that they all were the result of violent means. What they fail to consider is that all of the prior changes occurred prior to the development of the modern democratic state. It’s the power of parliamentary, democratic institutions that has since shown to be the key to a modern peaceful transition.

On a summer day in 1963, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr King said, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” The only choice available to us is a dedication to the use of peaceful, democratic, and parliamentary procedures. We won’t give up our right to protest and publicly demand change but our chosen means will be peaceful. We owe this to our ancestors, to our descendants, and to the nation that we love.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What is Capitalism? – Part 5

Capitalism: A Definition

Historically, the definition of capitalism depended on what source one used. According to the Brooklyn College Core web site, “the term capitalism was first used to describe the system of private investment and industry with little governmental control which emerged, without an ideological basis, in the Netherlands and Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries.” Most Marxists define capitalism as the, “socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.” David Schweickart defines capitalism as consisting of three components: the bulk of the means of production are privately owned, the products are exchanged in a market, and that most of the people work for those that own the means of production. David Ellerman reduces capitalism to being defined by one primary feature, which is “the legal relation for the voluntary renting or hiring of human beings.” When one combines all of the previous installments of this series one can see that, in my opinion, Schweickart’s definition is the closest of them all in providing a complete and accurate definition of capitalism, which is that capitalism is a socio-economic system that has essentially three co-dependent elements: Capital, a Two-tiered Class System, and Market Domination.

One element is private investment known as “capital” from which capitalism gets its name. Capital is, by its very nature, always striving to expand and reproduce itself. When reproduction isn't possible, such as an economic downturn, it then strives to at least survive until the day when it can again begin to reproduce. It’s an essential nature of capital to attempt to grow.

A second element is that capitalism is a class system in which there are two primary socio-economic classes. There is an upper class (“capitalists”) whose members control the capital and who maintains power in society due to their ownership of the majority of the marketable assets (i.e. wealth). In addition, there is a lower class that has limited power and survives largely through wages acquired from employment by the upper class along with the self-employed, entrepreneurs and sole proprietors. (The homeless make up a hidden underclass who have little productive role in capitalist society and is essentially powerless.)

The third element is the absolute domination by the markets, which molds the culture to service the capitalist system; using the force of the State if necessary. This domination by the markets provides a vital means by which the capitalists appropriate the fruits of the labor of the lower class so that they can increase their own wealth and the market provides a mechanism by which capital is able to reproduce itself. Ultimately the domination of the market provides the means by which the capitalist class is able to obtain its wealth and hence to maintain its position of power.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What is Capitalism? – Part 4

The Dominance of Markets

At this point we’ve established that capitalism is a two-tiered class system based on capital (i.e. private investment), which provides wealth and hence power to an upper class (‘capitalist’). Now we need to look at a vital feature of capitalism, which is the domination of the market. Much of what I’ll cover here I’ve addressed before. But the because of the unique role of the market in the capitalist system one cannot define capitalism without discussing the role of the market.

Ever since humanity left the tribal system (what Marx erroneously called “primitive communism”) markets have existed in some fashion. But, as has been shown by Karl Polanyi, the market in the prior modes was “embedded” within the social relations of their societies. Capitalism changed this in that in a capitalist system the economic and market relations define social relations. Polanyi was able to show that prior to capitalism the relations of reciprocity, redistribution, and communal obligations dominated while market relations were secondary. Capitalism, according to Polanyi, irreversibly destroyed the first three relations resulting in an “ascendency” of market relations to be the position of being considered the sole relationship. He called this ascension the “great transformation.”

In capitalism there are essentially three major types of markets: the exchange of goods and services; a labor market; and financial markets that include stocks, bonds, along with money markets as well as a variety of other investments. These three markets either directly or indirectly touch nearly every aspect of life in a capitalist system.

The market for goods and services was the world’s first market, appearing shortly after humanity left the tribal system. It is through the market for goods that today we acquire everything from food to cars to yachts. It is nearly impossible to survive in capitalist society without buying goods or services from the market. One simply cannot avoid this market and retain contact with civilization. It’s through this retail market that the upper class appropriates the residual resulting from the production process as wealth is distributed from the lower class to the upper.

The upper class (i.e. capitalists) needs the labor of the lower class to create goods for sale or to provide services in the before mentioned retail market. Therefore, there also exists a labor market by which people of the lower class are rented, using Ellerman’s term, by those in the upper class. To a limited degree this practice of renting people for their labor was found in the ancient world as well. But nowhere in the ancient world did labor markets play the dominant role that they do in capitalist society.

The third type of market is the securities market, which is the primary realm of capital. The stock market deals exclusively with the public buying and selling of shares of ownership of the means of production. Originally this market was simply to provide capital investments for businesses (“primary market”) though increasingly today the stock market serves the purpose of doing nothing more than making profit through the trading of already issued shares among the capitalists (“secondary market”). In addition to the securities market there are markets for commodities, futures, and money. There are many types of investments and not all of them involve tradable securities. Recently there has been a rise in “private equity firms” in which stocks are not listed on the various security exchanges and are not overseen by government regulators as publically traded stock companies are.

Simply identifying these markets and who reaps their profits does not by itself establish their dominance. Polanyi was able to show that in capitalism, unlike prior socio-economic systems, it is the culture that is expected to be subservient to the market. If the culture does not naturally mold itself to the market then capitalism forces it to change through the power of the State. By the market dominating culture and forcing it to bend to its will the capitalists can increase their wealth and hence increase their power.

In the next, and last, installment of this series I’ll pull all of these components together to present a definition of capitalism.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What is Capitalism? - Part 3

Class Structure of Capitalism

The class system in America is a largely two-tiered structure that is based on a socio-economic power relationship in which, as we saw in the previous posting, the ownership and control of wealth plays a defining role. There are several distinguishing features of the American class system.

First, the two classes, while roughly correlating to income, are not based necessarily on income. Instead each class is largely based on the type of property owned and the degree of power welded by that ownership. Second, while there are, of course, circumstances where there’s been movement of individuals from one class to another the two classes are, for the most part, stable over the generations.

There’s an upper class that holds the reins of economic and political power through the ownership of marketable wealth (i.e. stocks, bonds, non-occupied real estate) and which therefore has a dominating power over society. This class can be sub-divided between the heavily propertied families that call the shots and the wealthy elite that manage those operations and implement the propertied family’s wishes. The upper class acquires its wealth largely through a combination of inheritance and the claim to the residual of production and management of the production process. This upper class largely segregates itself socially from the lower class by often sending their children to exclusive private schools, participating in exclusive social clubs, and appearing on social registers.

The other American socio-economic class is a lower class that lacks substantial ownership of marketable assets and survives largely on the upper class for wages. This lower class also can be sub-divided. There are three essential sub-groups to the lower class, though it is possible to sub-divide it even finer.

One major division of the lower class is the famed “middle class” that often owns some personal-use property, such as a house or a car. Most of the members of the middle class don’t own controlling marketable assets and, as a result, most do not have access to any substantial amount of the profits of the various firms or to the governance of those firms. The majority of their children attend public schools though some do attend private schools. Few middle class children attend the exclusive schools that the elite upper class sends their children to. Members of the middle class are likely to have some college, tend to work in white collar occupations, and often achieve mid to low level management jobs. The power of the middle class, while praised by pundits and politicians, is relatively limited in comparison to the power of the upper class.

Another division of the lower class is the “working poor.” This sub-group rarely owns property beyond possibly a car and usually rents their housing. The working poor rarely attends, much less completes, college and usually works until death in blue collar fields as low-level workers in which they occasionally rise to become managers. Needless to say the working poor have little power in the American system.

Finally, there’s the poorest of the poor, the “underclass’, who are often homeless and impoverished. Members of the underclass tend to work day jobs and are highly dependent upon charity and public assistance for their survival. The existence of this sub-class is nearly invisible to most of society and is certainly powerless in nearly all aspects.

This is the reality of the American capitalist class system. Some, especially conservatives, deny this reality. Others will acknowledge most aspects of it but complain that we’re instigating class warfare by bringing it up. To the former they’re simply hiding their heads in the sand. Those who accept it but refuse to address it are doing nothing more than telling us to ignore the man behind the curtain.

While it’s important that we understand the role of class there’s one last important piece of the puzzle to understanding capitalism, which is the unique role of the market in the capitalist socio-economic system.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What is Capitalism? - Part 2

The Importance of Wealth to Power

When class is addressed in America it has historically been defined by income. The revered “middle class” is usually defined by an annual income ranges from $40,000 to $250,000. The next class, which starts at annual incomes above $250,000, belongs to what has historically been called the "upper class."

Breaking down the classes based solely on income doesn’t accurately reflect the true nature of the class system either in the types of classes or their origin. While there is a rough correlation between income and class centering on exclusively on income misses the true nature of the beast. This is because class is actually a characteristic of power relationships between groups of people. To understand these power relationships one needs to first understand how power is tied to wealth in America.

G William Domhoff (psychologist and author of "Who Rules America?") points out that one needs to start by understanding the meaning of the word "wealth." Economists have a specific definition. They define wealth as "marketable assets, such as real estate, stocks, and bond, leaving aside consumer durables like cars and household items." In addition to marketable assets economists use "financial wealth," which is a person’s net worth minus their net equity in owner-occupied housing.

According to research as of 2001 forty-four percent of all privately held stock, fifty-eight percent of financial securities, and approximately fifty-seven percent of business equity was owned by households in the top one percent of net worth. If one expands this to households with the top ten percent of net worth the percentage of ownership jumps to an enormous eighty-five to ninety percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity.

If such wealth was earned largely through one’s own labor it might be excused. Domhoff shows otherwise. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland published a study that indicated that only 1.6% of all Americans inherit $100,000 or more. Another 1.1% inherits between $50,000 and $100,000.

In addition, Domhoff has established through extensive research that there are a very small percentage of the American families who have a long stable history of dominating the American economic and governmental system. He’s documented how these small numbers of families have the controlling shares of stock in American commercial banks, investment banks, law firms, and corporations. By owning the majority of such stocks these families call the shots on the operations of the businesses. These families guide economic and political policies and dominate political institutions from the highest political office down to the local levels.

But the issue isn’t only the wealth but the connection between wealth and power. Domhoff defines power as "the ability (or call it capacity) to realize wishes, or reach goals, which amounts to the same thing, even in the face of opposition." He shows that wealth provides a resource that’s extremely useful in exercising power through political donations, paying off lobbyists, and money to think tanks. Another way wealth provides power is through the control of corporations, which exert extreme power in our society. A third wealth/ power connection is not only does wealth provide power but that same wealth-generated power can create a feedback loop by which it in turn generates additional wealth. This additional wealth can result not only from the reinvestment of proceeds such as dividends and interest, but also through sweetheart loans, quid pro quo deals, and well paying jobs upon leaving a public office.

Therefore, class should be defined not by the amount of income but by wealth and the power that it provides.

In the next post I’ll take this information and apply it to understanding the class system in capitalism.

To learn more about Domhoff's work visit his web site, "Who Rules America?"

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What is Capitalism? - Part 1

"Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories." ~ Sun Tzu

This is part one of a series in which I try to break down capitalism into its essential elements.

In capitalism we find an economic system with three central components that work together to serve one goal, that is to increase for a small group of people that mysterious and elusive thing called “capital” by which capitalism gets its name. Therefore, it’s with the nature of capital that we begin.

Defining Capital

While many capitalists actually prefer the term “free market” or “free enterprise” rather than “capitalism” (Richard Sennett in his book “The Culture of the New Capitalism” credits Werner Sombart with coining the term “capitalism” though many credit Karl Marx) they inevitably pay homage to capital in their theories. But what is capital and why does it plan such a dominant role as to name a whole economic system after it?

The term capital is used today for nearly every aspect of production. We hear about “human capital”, “investment capital”, “intellectual capital”, and so forth. Even in the political process when President Bush declared that he had earned “political capital” after the 2004 election. But the application of these terms hides the true nature of capital.

Essentially capital is the private investment of money. While private investment is most commonly thought of as stock ownership it also includes speculative investment in commodities, real estate, and financial markets along with the ever growing types of new investment mechanisms. In capitalism the supplier of capital lays legal claim, if not factual, to any profit generated by the investment mechanism, which the supplier of capital may then choose to reinvest. It’s because of this claim by the capitalist to the profits generated that gives capital its self-reproducing characteristic.

By understanding capital as private investment of money we can therefore define a "capitalist" as one who through sufficient investment is able to comfortably live on the profits generated by their investment rather than fruits of their own labor. In addition to claiming the profits the capitalist also lays legal claim to the right to manage any business that he or she invests in. The greater the percentage of shares owned then the greater the capitalist’s claim to the right of management.

In the next installment I’ll address the connection between wealth and power.