Choctaw-Ireland solidarity

by Maria on May 4, 2020

A couple of years ago I wrote in a series for Medium about how the solidarity between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people two hundred years ago is how we can resist the power vertical today. In 1847, Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears sent a couple of hundred dollars, a fortune to them, to Irish Famine relief. Those with the least gave proportionately the most. To this day, there is a friendship that goes deeper than the official sculptures and exchange visits that mark it. I’ve long planned to include this story in a longer project about how we can use stories to imagine better futures (partly) by finding unlikely common cause and building movements.

I never imagined there would be another chapter to the story. In the last day or so, the call went out amongst Irish for donations to support the Navajo and Hopi nations in Utah who have lost many elders to covid-19 and were already living in a food desert. Their GoFundMe page has message after message of gratitude and solidarity from Irish people (amongst many other generous donors), honouring our debt. It really is something beautiful.

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Five Books

by Henry on May 4, 2020

The website Five Books did an interview with me on the five best books on the politics of information. It was an interesting experience. Picking the best five books means that you have to go back and re-read them, and figure out how they fit together.

What I decided to do was to take this essay by Ludwig Siegele in the Economist’s Christmas issue, and start from the question: If you wanted people to build out from that essay, what books would you have them read? The essay is influenced by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and the Crooked Timber seminar that followed from it (in particular: Cosma’s essay): what it sets out to do is to ask whether the socialist calculation debate helps us to understand current fights about democracy, autocracy, markets and machine learning. Like Ludwig, I believe that it does: “Comrades! Let’s Optimize” is an excellent starting point for understanding how people in Silicon Valley today think about the transformative power of software. I also think that Red Plenty is an excellent starting point for thinking about these questions because it is a novel rather than a tract. As Francis said in his reply, writing fiction gives you access to negative capability: rather than stating an argument or a principle, you can have a multiplicity of voices and experiences, providing a kaleidoscopic rather than a synoptic understanding of the problem. When it’s a complex problem, that’s helpful.

A certain kind of autobiography can pull off a similar trick: hence the structure of the interview is that it starts off with Red Plenty and finishes with Anna Wiener’s wonderful account of living in Silicon Valley, sandwiching the social science between these two more complicated narratives. It’s a long interview (about 10,000 words!) and has nothing about coronavirus (it was conducted in February), but I think it worked out well. Read if interested; ignore if not.

May Day

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2020

It’s the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, transformed, like every other public event, by the coronavirus pandemic

Most obviously, there is no May Day march for the first time in many years (possibly since the first march in the 1890s, I haven’t been able to find out for share).

More significantly, ideas associated with May Day that seemed to belong to a distant past have suddenly become crucially relevant. The most important of these is the injustice, inefficiency and absurdity of a society where those who do the most vital work are underpaid and disregarded, while the biggest rewards go to a class that turns out to be of no use when it really matters.

There is already pressure to ‘snap back’ to what was seen as normal in the recent past as soon as, or even before, the pandemic is controlled. But the message of May Day is that a better society is possible, and that the achievements of the workers movement over the past century can and should be defended and extended.

Among the many changes we need is a push to reduce inequality through both predistribution (changing the way the market rewards work) and redistribution (taxation and transfer payments). In practice that means higher minimum wages, higher wages for those who provide us with the basic wages we all need, and better funding for public services of all kinds. For those at the top of the income distribution, incomes will have to decline, either through predistribution (lower market incomes) or redistribution. In the context of Australian universities, the closure of borders implies a big reduction in revenue from international students. In the short run, the cost of that is mostly being borne by contract employees who aren’t being renewed. But the burden should be shared more fairly, starting at the top (our vast array of vice-chancellors, deans and others)and extending to senior academics (including economics professors). In the longer term, we need a fundamental reform of the system, based on the goal of universal access to post-school education and training, but that’s a topic for another post.