Archive for September, 2005

Capitalism and Government Incompetence, episode II

September 29th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

In which we all die of avian flu. Have fun.

Misadventures in Capitalism: DVD formats

September 27th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Today I inaugurate an occasional topic, or what Harry Shearer would call “a copyrighted feature of this broadcast.” I’ll be highlighting signs of capitalism’s obsolescence, economic developments which indicate the need for production not based on profit. I’ll cover products that could be produced better by non-capitalist means, and products which shouldn’t be produced at all.

Today’s entry is a little from column A, a little from column B. The Financial Times reports today that Toshiba and Sony can’t get it together to agree on a format for high-definition DVDs.

The first question is, do we really need a new generation of DVDs? The DVD was a real step forward–I won’t debate its superiority to VHS tapes. But DVDs are pretty great looking, and a higher definition format isn’t going to be noticeably better looking unless you have a 100-inch TV. The article makes it clear what this is really about:

High definition DVDs look increasingly important for the movie industry on two fronts. First, sales of traditional DVDs are slowing after a fantastic run of growth. The new technology allowing better picture quality and more recording capacity could help stimulate demand, not least from consumers rebuilding their libraries with the new discs. Second, and probably more importantly, the new technology would help confront the growing problem of piracy for the movie industry. The new discs will be harder to copy.

So, the point of a new generation of DVDs is to make everyone replace their DVD library, and to prop up movie industry profits by reducing piracy. There you have it: the magic of the marketplace.

But assuming, for a moment, that high-definition DVDs truly represent a great leap forward in human happiness, is the capitalist marketplace the best way to introduce such an innovation? Apparently not. Rather than having some rational process to determine which is the best format for the new DVDs, this is what we could get:

If both formats are launched, many consumers will hold off buying either until a de facto standard has emerged. Such a stand-off makes no sense for any of the companies involved. With the launch of next generation DVD players approaching, the industry should hurry to bang heads together at Sony and Toshiba and secure a solution.

In other words, get ready for VHS v. Beta, round II. And, as the videotape wars showed us, the best format does not necessarily win.

Loud and Proud

September 25th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

(photo by Max Sawicky)

Yesterday, I took a bus from Manhattan to D.C. for the joint UFPJ/ANSWER anti-war march. Geoff said he wasn’t marching, and I responded in his comments with some justifications for the march. So I went to DC hoping that the march would confirm my optimism.

For the most part, it did. The day started inauspiciously, when I wasn’t able to find room on a UFPJ bus despite having a ticket. My companions and I finally found a bus with seats, and we didn’t discover until after we were moving that it belonged not to UFPJ but to the sectarian-connected Not In Our name.

The ride was mercifully free of ultraleft proselytizing, however, and my optimism returned once we finally made our way to the Washington Monument grounds. Estimates of attendance ranged from 100,000 to 300,000, and I can’t really second-guess them–with a march that size it’s impossible to make very good estimates, since you can never really see even a significant fraction of it at once. But it was pretty clearly more than the organizers hoped for, which I think is a pretty good barometer of success.

News coverage was pretty good, especially since we were competing with Hurricane Rita. I think the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon has given the media a new lens through which to view the anti-war movement. While the increased involvement of war veterans, soldiers’ families, and non-politicized citizens has grown of late, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the media would reflect that shift in its coverage. But this extract from CNN (from an AP wire story) is pretty representative:

In the crowd: young activists, nuns whose anti-war activism dates to Vietnam, parents mourning their children in uniform lost in Iraq, and uncountable families motivated for the first time to protest.

Connie McCroskey, 58, came from Des Moines, Iowa, with two of her daughters, both in their 20s, for the family’s first demonstration. McCroskey, whose father fought in World War II, said she never would have dared protest during the Vietnam War.

“Today, I had some courage,” she said.

While united against the war, political beliefs varied. Paul Rutherford, 60, of Vandalia, Michigan, said he is a Republican who supported Bush in the last election and still does — except for the war.

“President Bush needs to admit he made a mistake in the war and bring the troops home, and let’s move on,” Rutherford said.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the pro-war rally held in response the next day was an embarrassing failure.

This struck me as a more diverse crowd than ever before–in terms of age, politics, region, and race. Although on the latter point, here’s reason #11,347 why organized labor is such a unique and important institution of the left: a large chunk of the people of color I saw on Saturday, and probably the majority of the African-Americans, were wearing SEIU purple.

The march gave me the distinct impression of a mass movement which has outgrown its leadership, a disorganized and ideologically amorphous mass which is still looking for its proper political vehicle. You could see this in the structure of the event, and in the people who came to it.

The day began with a rally, a.k.a. an interminable series of speeches. ANSWER had way too much control over the podium, and consequently a lot of the speakers were either off-point or crazy (or both). Although it was pretty cool that I happened to walk through a big crowd of Haitians at the exact moment when the person on stage started talking about the need to restore Aristide to power, provoking passionate cheers and flag-waving.

The interesting thing was, most people ignored the speeches, and the setup of the rally made it very easy to do so. Just up the hill from where the stage was set up was the area where all of the organizations set up their information tables. It was a big lefty carnival–everything from the sectarian left to liberals to single-issue groups to a “progressive Internet dating” web site was represented. Nearby, a second stage was set up–starting at about 2pm, this featured bands, short speeches, and Jello Biafra as MC.

The march itself started from the street in between the music/carnival area and the speechifying zone, and people left on the march pretty early on in the “rally”. This was fortunate, given the size of the crowd–by the time the march made it back to the Washington Monument, there were still people there trying to start marching!

My point about all of this is that while the content of the speeches hasn’t improved markedly (although I didn’t catch any truly offensive statements of the “Zionism=fascism” variety) , someone in the march planning leadership seems to have made sure that the march was structured to sideline the speech-making. I think this is probably a good idea in general–who ever wants to sit and listen to this stuff, anyway?–but it was particularly important in this case. No matter what certain sectarian liberals might want, we’re not going to be able to banish ANSWER from the movement at this point, for the simple reason that they still do a ton of the actual work of turning people out. But it’s nice to see their destructive side marginalized as we start to attract a less-politicized group of people to these marches.

If you ignored the stage and just walked through the crowds–as I did–you got a very different sense of the politics of the event. The first thing I noticed was the sheer diversity of homemade signs, some very painstakingly designed, others crude, and many carrying very idiosyncratic messages. Everything from “send the twins” to “make levees not war” to “Bush is a fascist” to “anti-Bush Republican”. There was a lot of lunacy of the non-left variety–9/11 conspiracy theorists were particularly noticeable–as well as innumerable variations on “stop the war and [insert pet cause here]“. But the sheer variety was incredible, and this kind of inchoate politics overwhelmed the signs and slogans of the march organizers and the organized left.

Noticeably absent, however, was the liberal mainstream organizations, either in the form of elected officials or the MoveOn.org crowd. Sure, we had a few left-wing reps like Sheila Jackson Lee, but as Max Sawicky notes, most stayed away. This made sense when opposing the war was a fringe issue, but we’ve reached the point where a majority opposes the occupation, and there’s an “out of Iraq” caucus in congress. I think it’s got to be inertia and cowardice that’s holding people back at this point; it’s a failure to recognize that the political terrain has shifted, and move accordingly.

I hope that some of these folks get it together to start providing some leadership. That’s no knock on the hard working folks at UFPJ–rather it’s a testament to all they’ve accomplished. UFPJ represents my politics pretty well, but I don’t think it represents the people who were at this march as well as some of the liberal outfits–even the vacillating weenies at Win Without War, annoying as I find their politics, will probably be part of winning on this issue. UFPJ will continue to be important, but they will find themselves part of a broader effort rather than a candle in the dark.

If this march (and its associated days of lobbying and civil disobedience) helps kick some of their asses into gear, then we’ll be able to look back on it as an unqualified success.