Prof. Noam Chomsky, linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and activist. (photo: Va Shiva)
27 May 15
n Interview with Noam Chomsky conducted by John Holder and Doug Morris, May 4, 2015, at MIT, Cambridge, MA. This is the fifth in a series of interviews concentrating mostly on questions gathered from young folks. Video is forthcoming.
Q. We are here at the beginning of May 2015 and there appears to be a rapprochement developing between Cuba and the United States. There is a lot of mainstream talk about the economic opportunities this could bring to the business community in the United States but very little about how this impacts the Cuban revolution and her citizens. What are your thoughts on Cuba and her future?
NC: First, why did Obama make this gesture? According to the official story, his own speech, and then the echoes of the cooperative media is that we have been trying for fifty years to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba, and our methods so far have not worked so we should find other methods to pursue our noble aims.
And this is described in the New York Review of Books, way out on the left liberal fringe of the intellectual world, as “a noble gesture that will create a new legacy for Obama,” and so on.
Turning to the real world there was a summit coming up in Panama, a hemispheric summit. At the previous hemispheric summit which was in Colombia, the U.S. and Canada were totally isolated from the rest of the hemisphere on two issues and therefore there was no consensus agreement. One was admission of Cuba into the hemisphere which the U.S. and Canada adamantly rejected. The rest of the hemisphere has wanted it for a long time. The second was interesting; it was moves toward de-criminalization of drugs. The U.S. so called “drug war” is having no effect on availability of drugs and that has been known for forty years, but it does have a lethal effect in Latin America. And here in the U.S. it is basically a technique for locking up black males. So it is part of the control of what is seen as a superfluous population. And Latin America wants to get out of it but the U.S. and Canada won’t. That is the background.
The next summit was coming up in a couple of weeks in Panama and it would have been an absolute disaster for the United States unless Obama had made some kind of gesture. So he finally agreed to move toward limited normalization. The embargo remains, Cuban scholars are still not permitted to come to scientific conferences in the United States, and so on. As to the “noble effort to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba” what was ignored in most of the commentary is mentioned but there is a crushing embargo for fifty years, which is opposed by the entire world. If you look at the votes in the United Nations General Assembly, there is an annual vote, only Israel votes with the United States – occasionally a Pacific Island. And on top of that there is a major terrorist war, primarily under Kennedy, but a serious terrorist war that went on into the nineties. The only thing allowed to be mentioned is there were some attempts to assassinate Castro, which is true, but they can be laughed off as CIA shenanigans. They are a footnote. The main thing is the terrorist war; that is the attempt to “bring justice and democracy to Cuba.”
And we know the reasons but they are unmentionable. It is an open society. We have internal records. The reason was, the concern was, as the State Department put it, “Castro is carrying out successful defiance of U.S. policies that go back to 1823,” the Monroe Doctrine which declared that the U.S. must dominate the hemisphere. The U.S. was not in a position to do it at the time, but that was the goal. And that has been U.S. policy ever since, and Castro’s defying it means getting in the way of that, and you can’t do that.
“International affairs” is very much like the mafia. A major principle of international affairs is the Godfather cannot brook disobedience. Here it is given various, kind of euphemisms, so it is called “the domino theory,” but what it actually amounts to is what Henry Kissinger described very well. He happened to be talking about Allende’s Chile, which was a parliamentary democracy moving toward social democracy, and he described it as “a virus that might spread contagion.” In other words, others might pick up the model of moving through parliamentary means to social democratic policies, and that is extremely dangerous because the system of domination and control might fall apart.
So, the U.S. backed a vicious, murderous dictatorship to kill the virus, and instituted murderous dictatorships in the surrounding area to prevent contagion. That is exactly what it was doing in Southeast Asia at the same time. These are leading themes. And the same was true of Cuba.
When Kennedy came into office he had a Latin American Commission, a research commission. The report was handed to him by Arthur Schlesinger a well known liberal historian and his Latin American advisor, and the way Schlesinger put it was, the summary of the study was that the problem of Cuba is the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands which might inspire others in other countries who are suffering the same repression and violence that the Cubans are, might inspire them to do the same thing. As any mafia don understands, if you allow any disobedience and you let them get away with it, then it can spread, so you have to crush it at the source. That is a dominant theme of foreign policy.
The U.S. did not make it up; it is understood by every imperial power, but it is the leading theme of U.S. international policy, and Cuba was, of course, the victim of that. And since they were successful in their defiance they had to be subjected to unusual punishment, a crushing embargo, a very serious terrorist war, and that is the translation of Obama’s lovely phrases into English.
But he did have to make the move; otherwise the U.S. would have had a catastrophe at the Panama summit. This way, though they were under plenty of criticism, they could sort of pretend that the U.S. was greeted with enthusiasm for its forthcoming gesture. That is the way the propaganda system operates.
The moves are of some significance, but the Cuba case is pretty interesting. Typically, foreign policy is pretty much dictated by concentrated domestic power, as you would expect. That means the corporate sector, pretty much in terms of policy. The American population has been in favor of normalization with Cuba for about forty years. But, the population is usually disregarded, so that is not surprising. What is of interest is that major sectors of U.S. capital were in favor of normalization, the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, energy corporations, they are usually very influential in designing policy, but not in this case. The State interests, the godfather interests in punishing Cuba for its successful defiance overwhelmed the normal factors that determine policy. That is not a unique case but an interesting one. Actually, Iran is another case. Apart from what was done to Cuba, which is pretty awful, it is of great interest in understanding ourselves.
Q: Briefly, on January 29th of this year, NPR published a piece that included the following, “through controversial politicking, the U.S. was given a perpetual lease at Guantanamo in 1903. We don’t see it as “controversial.”
NC: It is kind of interesting when you compare it to Russia’s annexation of Crimea – which was of course illegal. But U.S. control over Guantanamo is far worse. The lease they are talking about was at gun point. Cuba was essentially under military occupation, so it is totally meaningless. The U.S. simply demanded, and of course, was granted control over a large part of Southeast Cuba, including its major port, Guantanamo. And the condition was that it would be used as a coaling station and a couple of other such things. When Cuba finally achieved independence in 1959 it asked to have that territory returned. The U.S. refused, of course.
Q: Just to be clear, we are not just talking about the military base, but the actual land.
NC: Yes, there is a region which includes the base, and the harbor which is Cuba’s major harbor, or would be. So, the U.S. is keeping it for several reasons. One is as part of the punishment of Cuba. It significantly impedes the economic development of Cuba. Secondly, the U.S. uses it for a variety of illegal purposes. It used it to house Haitian refugees fleeing from the terrorist state, of course in violation of international law, but the U.S. sent them off to the Guantanamo prison. And, of course, in more recent years, it has been one of the major torture chambers in the world. In fact, if you look at human rights violations in Cuba, which everyone is obsessed with, by far the worst of them are in Guantanamo.
But the U.S. has no claim to Guantanamo whatsoever, either historical, strategic, or anything else, it just holds onto it because it has the power to. By comparison Putin looks pretty mild in the case of Crimea. But to discuss this in the United States is almost inconceivable.
Q: A question from high school students. Most people in this class were born in 2001 and the U.S. has been involved in military aggression our whole lives. It is the norm for us. We have discovered that the U.S. has been involved in military aggression constantly since 1950. Why does U.S. power stay committed to violence and militarization?
NC: Going back to 1950, the U.S. far and away was the most powerful state in history. It had about half the world’s wealth, incomparable security, it controlled the hemisphere, both oceans, opposite sides of both oceans, other industrial societies had been devastated by the war, the U.S. economy boomed during the war, industrial production quadrupled. The U.S. was basically in a position to run the world. Planners understood it, and they laid out detailed, sophisticated plans as to how to run the world.
Well, let us go back to the mafia. When the don controls some huge territory, he does not want to give it up. In fact, in 1949, a critical event took place. China became independent. That is called, in the United States, “the loss of China,” which is a very interesting phrase. And it became a major issue in American domestic policy. It was kind of the roots of McCarthyism, McCarthyist repression, [and the question was] who is responsible for the loss of China? When Kennedy came into office, one of the reasons for his sharp escalation of the war in Vietnam was the fear that he would be blamed for the loss of Indochina. I can’t lose your computer, only you can. But since we own the world, and that is taken for granted, it is “the loss of China.” And they do not want to lose anything else, just like the godfather doesn’t.
And to maintain control often requires violence, and the world knows this. Not Americans, but the world does. So, for example, about a year ago there was an international poll, run by the Gallup organization, the main U.S. polling organization, so everyone knows the results, it was an international poll and one of the questions it asked was “Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?” The United States was far in the lead. No one else was even close. Second place was way behind and it was Pakistan, inflated by the Indian vote, practically nobody else was mentioned.
That is an international poll. Why don’t Americans know about it? Very simple, the free press refused to publish it – do a data base search. A couple of people reported it. I did and a few others. Every editorial office, of course knew it, but they also knew this is not the kind of thing you tell Americans. What you tell Americans is that Iran is the greatest threat to world peace. That is trumpeted by every major media outlet. Every candidate for office, every presidential candidate, the official media constantly declare that Iran is the greatest threat to world peace. That is the party line here. For the world it is the U.S. that is the greatest threat to world peace. And this is of course related to what the students described. We are constantly at war, the country maybe has a thousand military bases around the world, no other country has anything like that. The U.S. is conducting the most extraordinary global assassination campaign, terror campaign in world history, it is the drone campaign, which is officially described, not a secret, as a campaign intended to kill people who are suspected of maybe someday planning to harm us. If Iran said it was carrying out a global assassination campaign to murder people who it knows are intending to harm it, not just “suspects,” like the Israeli leadership which is constantly threatening to bomb and is carrying out terrorist activities in Iran, the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post who publish Op/Eds calling for the bombing of Iran, we would think it was terrorism. But when the mafia don does it, it is just stabilizing the world. But the world does not necessarily see it that way, especially the victims. And yes, constant aggression, terror, Special Forces operations, etc. Right now, the U.S. is supporting the Saudi attack on Yemen which is destroying Yemen. The U.S. has practically demolished Iraq, incited and spread sectarian conflict that did not exist [prior to the U.S. invasion] which is now tearing the region to shreds. The U.S. participated in the bombing of Libya in violation of the Security Council resolution that the triumvirate, Britain, France, and the United States introduced. It has destroyed Libya. It has now vastly escalated the number of casualties, left the country in tatters. It is part of the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean. All of these things are happening but it is called “stabilization” and “benevolence” and so on. Not for the world. They see it differently.
Q: More and more the U.S. public is being made aware of the dangerous intersection between the police of this country and its male African American citizens. Do you find that the frequency of these incidents is something new or is it that the documentation of them is getting better?
NC: I think what is happening is a kind of statistical aberration. It goes on all the time. But it happens that there has been a cluster which is probably a statistical accident. But it is enough that it brought the matter to the fore; it is very hard to avoid when these things are striking you in the face day after day, but it is a constant phenomena. Black communities just live under these conditions. If you look at the record, over the years, the number of black males who have been killed or injured by the police is way beyond any relationship to crime or certainly the white population or anything else. When there is a riot of young whites people don’t get killed. When it is blacks they get killed.
It is part of a long story that goes back 400 years. 400 years is when the first slaves were brought to the United States. The American economy, a substantial part of it, our wealth and privilege, developed on the basis of a century of vicious slave labor camps. The worst in the history of slavery. They would have impressed the Nazis. But they produced the wealth that created the financial industries, the commercial industries, manufacturing, etc. After that there were a couple of years, a decade in fact, of relative freedom, then the system was basically reinstituted by criminalization of black life, creating a new slave labor force by the government that contributed a large part of the American industrial revolution that was based on essentially slave labor from the incarceration of black, mostly black males – mining, the steel industry, the agricultural aspect is known (chain gangs you could see them), but the rest you didn’t actually see but it was happening. That went on virtually until the Second World War. Then there were a couple of decades of rapid economic growth and a certain degree of opportunity. Then you get in the era of the drug war and kind of back to the late nineteenth century. And all of this is the background.
The killings and the repression are in part a class issue and in part a race issue. And the two are pretty closely correlated so they are hard to tease apart but undoubtedly the race issue is a major part, after all that is the leading theme of American history for four hundred years now.
Q: A more lighthearted question, perhaps – from a sixteen year old student. See if you want to take this up. If your sixteen your old self was in high school today and could interview Noam Chomsky today at 86 what would you ask?
NC: I remember what I was doing at sixteen. I was deeply immersed in radical political activities such as there was and all sorts of reading of all that was involved in the rise of fascism, the Second World War was going on, I was critical of a lot of what was happening, especially the imperial conquest of Southern Europe, attacks on Greece, on Italy, very much involved in the Spanish Revolution, interested in that and many other things, and, incidentally, thinking about dropping out of college because it was so boring. I’m not suggesting that as advice to a sixteen year old. I was so far out on the fringe that it is not a model for anyone.
If I was a sixteen year old today I’d be asking “What are we going to do about the fact that we are racing towards a precipice and we are going to fall over it and it will be devastating for these kid’s children and grandchildren?” The number of people who are already dying from global warming is in the hundreds of thousands a year. It is going to escalate sharply. About one out of six species has already been destroyed. It is the worst species destruction in sixty million years. If we don’t cut this off pretty soon it will be beyond the tipping point and the worst part is that young people don’t know about it. There was just a poll released, a major poll, of Millennials, people who are teenagers today, like this student. About fifty percent of them believe what practically 100% of scientists believe. About 20% agree that “yes, there is global warming but human beings don’t have anything to do with it.” And about 30% take the position of Rubio and so on “I’m not a scientist, I don’t know, the science isn’t settled.” The science is settled, as much as anything is. That is one major catastrophe. The other is the constant threat of nuclear war. If you look over the record for seventy years it is just a miracle that we survived. And top strategic analysts are aware of that and warned that we can’t live like that forever. Even just by accident, something is going to happen. And the threats are actually building up.
There is a famous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set up in 1947, and it keeps moving up and back before midnight. Midnight means terminal. It was just advanced a couple of months ago to two minutes closer to midnight. Three minutes from midnight. It is the closest it has been since a major war scare in the early eighties.
That is a serious threat; the other is environmental catastrophe which is coming and we are racing towards it, increasing the use of fossil fuels. It is common knowledge among qualified scientists that these just have to be kept in the ground if we are going to survive. And as I said, people don’t know. Interestingly, younger people, who it was thought might be more aware of it, really aren’t. Somewhat more. So, if you take older people, say among older Republicans, ten percent think there is global warming. They are just living in another universe. But even of the majority, a near majority (about half the population), don’t really accept it. That is one of the most dangerous things you can imagine.
So advice that any sixteen year old ought to be thinking about is “What can I do about my own peers and what can I do about a political and social system which is structured so that it is going to drive us to total disaster?” That is the question they should be asking.
Q: This raises a question related to that. This is a college student, a college student who is studying to be a teacher, an elementary teacher, she says: “Given the severity of the nightmares we face, nuclear nightmares, ecological destruction, extinction of species, do we need new approaches to formal education? If not now, how bad does it have to get until we say it is time for (1) a radical re-thinking of education, and (2) radical reconstructions of education?
NC: My own feeling is that we should return to a more sane educational system that did exist. The tendency in the recent period, in my opinion, is to undermine the educational system. So, take K-12, which is now geared increasingly toward “teaching to tests” – the worst possible form of education. All three of us know from our own experience and everyone knows it if they think about it, you can take a course which you are not interested in, you can study for the exam, pass the exam, get an “A,” and a week later you forgot what the course was even about. If something is poured into you from the outside and you regurgitate it, it doesn’t stay. If you want to understand and learn anything it has got to be self-generated. That is well-understood, the psychological mechanisms, the history, this goes back hundreds of years to the Enlightenment. The education system has been turned away from that and toward imposing passivity, conformity, obedience, memorize what you are told, put it on paper, forget about it, go on to the next thing. That is part of the reason why you have these shocking statistics about the lack of awareness of young people about what is facing them. They are not educated to discover what is happening in the world, only to repeat what they are told and put it in a test, which you then forget about.
So, the educational system should be completely redesigned to be a system that is designed for education not for training for passivity and conformism.
Q: So, are you pointing out that there was a time when creativity, curiosity, exploration, etc. was paramount?
NC: Not paramount, but present to an extent. What existed is being undermined. In fact, the right of a teacher to be a good teacher is being undermined. There are plenty of good, dedicated, committed teachers who would love to be able to inspire their students to search for themselves, to think things through, to challenge, to pursue interests, and they are being prevented from doing that. For being prevented from doing it they have to tell students, I’ve heard many stories, suppose a six year old kid is interested in something, well you have to tell them you have to study for the exam that is coming because your future will depend on it and though the teacher does not say so “my salary will depend on it.” It is a system of indoctrination and control. It has nice names like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and so on, but it is a very harmful system.
And something similar is happening at the college level. There is an imposition of a kind of business model on colleges and universities that is very harmful. To an extent you even see it in places like MIT. MIT is a research university, so if you take a course here you are not supposed to memorize it and put it in an exam. You are supposed to learn to inquire, to create, to challenge, and so on. Nevertheless, the shift toward the business model and corporate funding does have a cheapening effect. It tends to drive research and with it teaching towards short-term applied problems instead of fundamental issues. It is not an overwhelming tendency at MIT because in a research university there is going to be resistance to it, because it is understood that you have to create the science and economy of the future, but it is there.
In other colleges and universities it is more so. It is a very dangerous thing. In England, it is even worse. In England, which had a great university tradition, one commentator pointed out, the way he put it, “The Tory conservative government is intent on turning first class universities into third class commercial enterprises.” And that is pretty much what is happening. So, if the Classics Department wants to continue to exist it has to find funding somewhere. That is not the way to develop a civilization.
Q: From a high school student. The word “radical” is often linked to your social critiques. If “radical” means “getting to the root cause,” what is the root cause or what are the root causes of all of these problems we have been talking about?
NC: Well, there is not a single one. So, one problem I mentioned, for example, is racism, which is deeply embedded in American culture and history. In fact, what I described, I mean, it is known to scholarship, but most people are not aware of this. Another is the United States is somewhat unusual among industrial societies in a number of respects. One of them is, to an unusual extent it is a business run society. So, for example, take voting. One of the main scholars of American electoral politics, Walter Dean Burnham, he studied non-voting in the United States. He has pointed out that if you do a demographic analysis of non-voters here they are approximately the same as the people in Europe who vote but vote for labor-based or social democratic parties and since they don’t exist here they just don’t vote. In fact, he and a colleague, Thomas Ferguson, just did a study of the last election, November, 2014 and the results are pretty startling. It turns out that voting participation was about at the level of the early 19th century when voting was restricted to propertied white males. They conclude, the obvious conclusion, most people just don’t see any point. There is nothing in there that has anything to do with us, and studies demonstrate that. Mainstream political science has interesting results about this. It turns out that for about 70% of the population their representatives pay absolutely no attention to their attitudes. There is no correlation between what the population wants and what is legislated, the lower 70% on the income scale. When you get to the very top they basically set policy.
That is one of the reasons why if you look at studies of the OECD, the Organization of the industrial democracies, there is about 31 of them, they do many studies of all sorts of things, and one recent study was on social justice – how countries do in social justice by various measures. The United States is practically at the bottom. I think it is 27 out of 31 right alongside Turkey and Mexico, poor countries. There is a lot more that reflects this.
So, for example, take transportation. To get from Boston to New York, or Washington, probably the most heavily traveled corridor, maybe, in the world, to get to Washington it takes about seven hours. In any European country it would be about two hours. In China, you can go from Beijing to Kazakhstan by a high speed rail, but you can’t go from New York to Boston. The United States is extremely backward in public services.
On the other hand it is one of the freest countries in the world. Freedom of speech is protected beyond the norm, though police repression of minorities is severe, by comparative standards, people with any degree of privilege are pretty free.
Many of these things are rooted in the very nature of American society. After all, the country was founded on two enormous crimes. One of them is slavery which is a horrifying crime and is the basis of a lot of our wealth. The other is the destruction of the indigenous population. Take a look at the front pages of the paper this morning, the New York Times. There is a report on the rising rate of suicides among teenagers on Indian reservations. Why is that? I mean, this was their country. They have been exterminated, expelled, driven to reservations where they can barely survive. So, they are committing suicide. What else are they supposed to do? These are huge crimes and we have not come to terms with them.
There are “Holocaust Studies” in every town, Holocaust museums all over the place. Try to find a slavery museum; or an American Indian museum. I mean there are a couple of things that are anthropological studies, but nothing commemorating the hideous crimes and immense tragedy on which our wealth and privilege depend. That leads to a kind of cultural degradation which infects almost everything. You see it almost every day. There are plenty of examples. Take say American Sniper which everyone was going to see.
Q: You are speaking about the movie, yes?
NC: Yes, the movie, but the memoir on which it is based is even worse. I tried to see it and I lasted about fifteen minutes. I couldn’t handle it any longer. The first incident which the sniper is extremely proud of, and about which everybody cheers, is when the marines are attacking a town and a woman comes out holding a grenade and the sniper kills her with one shot and kills her son, and he is very proud of this, he says these are savages, they are monsters, we hate them, they are not human, they are barbarians – a person defending their town from an American invasion.
Let us go to the intellectuals like say the readers of the New York Times. The day after the draft agreement with Iran there was, of course, a lot of commentary. One thing was a think piece by one of their liberal analysts, Peter Baker, and he said it is basically a good thing but there are problems: we can’t really trust Iran; Iran carries out terrorism, and aggression; destabilizes the region, and he gave some examples. The most interesting example, which aroused no comment, is that Iran supports Iraqis who are killing American soldiers. In other words, when we invade and destroy a country and now spread chaos around the region, even leading to the establishment of the Islamic State, that is “stabilization.” If somebody defends themselves from our attack they are criminals and that is “destabilization” and we can’t trust them. One can go on and on with examples.
All of this reflects cultural attitudes similar to the notion of the loss of China, similar to the idea that if anyone resists our violent domination and control they are criminals, not us. We can’t be criminals, we are exceptional. We are exceptionally benign. The world doesn’t happen to think so, but we protect ourselves from that fact by simply not reporting it. These are serious problems. There is no single root for all of them; there are a lot of historical roots. But they are all things to pay attention to.
Q: Didn’t the Japanese prime minister just offer an apology for crimes the Japanese government committed during WWII?
NC: A kind of qualified apology – something but not much.
Q: We have not heard any apology from anyone in the State Department for the destruction of Iraq.
NC: Of course not. How about Vietnam? It is the worst crime since the Second World War. Killed millions of people, destroyed three countries, people are still dying, many babies are dying from the effects of U.S. chemical warfare which was begun by Kennedy. How do we react? It is kind of interesting. Let us look at some examples.
The war ended in 1975. The next year President Carter was elected – the human rights president, way out on the liberal extreme. And he was asked in a press conference in 1977, “Do we have some responsibility for what happened in Vietnam?” and his answer was “We owe Vietnam no debt, because the destruction was mutual.” Not a comment… not a comment. Let us go on to, we can skip Reagan for whom it was “a noble cause,” and so on.
Go to George H.W. Bush, the statesman-like Bush. He was asked some similar question and what he said was “We should explain to the Vietnamese that we are a compassionate people, we are willing to forget the crimes that they committed against us, but there is a condition. They have to devote their energies and resources to the one moral issue that remains after the Vietnam War, namely finding the bones of American pilots who they maliciously shot down,” while they were just kind of cruising somewhere, maybe over central Iowa. That is the central moral issue.
John McCain is considered a hero. Well, he suffered torture and imprisonment, obviously a crime, but he was also involved in a major war crime, aggression, bombing another country. I mean if someone was bombing us we would not call them a hero.
Q: For the last five interviews my mother keeps asking me to ask you the following question, so I have to ask.
NC: You have to do what your mother says.
Q: She said “Please ask Noam ‘When will there be peace?’”
NC: Well, actually Bertrand Russell was asked that question once and he said “Someday there will be peace, after everything in the world has been destroyed and all that is left is primitive organisms, then there will be peace.” I hope it comes before that, but we are not helping.
Q: That is not what my mother wants to hear! A New York Times article a few weeks back titled something like “Endless Growth meets nature’s limits” looking at the drought in California. We were hopeful that this article was going to look at capital’s imperative toward endless growth linked to the destruction of nature, but when one reads the article virtually everyone interviewed gave the same response, “The market will solve the problems.” It struck us as a form of market fundamentalism that is extremely dangerous – when confronted with a very harsh reality the market fundamentalist belief system supersedes that reality.
NC: Market fundamentalism is a very interesting phenomenon. For one thing, we do not believe in markets.
Q: When you say “we” to whom are you referring?
NC: This country and its leaders, political leaders, economic leaders, and so on. You guys probably have an iPhone, or an “i” something or other. If you look at the technology inside it most of it is developed in the state sector in places like MIT. Nothing about markets. Computers, internet, the technology there, the advanced economy, a lot of it is driven by the state sector and this goes way back.
I mentioned before that American economic growth to a very substantial extent was based on slave labor camps. Is that the market? Of course, the elimination of the Native population by force, is that the market? And that goes on right to the present. The market is for poor people. The rich protect themselves from the market.
But there is an element of the markets, it is there. Markets have a very well known property, it is called “ignoring externalities.” So if you and I make a transaction we pay attention to our own welfare but not to somebody else’s. We don’t ask what it does to them. Well, one of the externalities happens to be destroying the world. To the extent that say the energy corporations and the government behind them, follow market principles, what they are going to be doing because that is the nature of the market is maximizing their own profit and ignoring the fact that it is going to destroy the possibility of a decent life for their grandchildren, because that is an externality. That is the nature of markets.
A more sensible version, not quite as bad, came out a little bit after that, their Week in Review section, front page, “Is California dying,” and it said “Well, California was created by human innovation and technology and it will be saved by human innovation and technology. Well, maybe, but that innovation and technology is not coming from the market, except peripherally, but the core is coming from where it always came, the dynamic state sector of the economy.
So, the market fundamentalism is preached, but not practiced. It is imposed on others, so you impose it on people, so people should not get food stamps, they should live on the market, but not the rich. They don’t get food stamps, they get lavished with massive subsidies of all kinds, no market there.
Q: Including the subsidy of daily exploited labor, yes?
NC: Yes, that is one, but it is all over the place. Take for example, the home mortgage deduction. Who benefits from that? Not people who bought a $200,000 home, people who bought a $2 million dollar home, yes, they benefit enormously.
And in fact, the whole system of laws and administration is geared toward ensuring that the wealthy and the privileged are protected from market ravages. The most extreme case, it is so blatant that it takes genius to miss it, is the financial institutions. These are a huge part of the economy. Where do their profits come from? There was a study by the International Monetary Fund of the six major U.S. banks. It found that almost their entire profits came from a government insurance policy, meaning a taxpayer insurance policy. Informally, it is called “to big to fail.” It means the credit agencies and others understand that they are not going to be allowed to fail. That has a lot of consequences. For one thing, they get bailed out if there is a problem, but it also means they have inflated credit ratings because it is going to be known that the taxpayer will save them, they have access to cheaper money; they can undertake risky transactions which are profitable because if they collapse the taxpayer will come in and pay them off. This is a huge amount of money. The business press estimates it as over $80 billion a year, straight taxpayer subsidy to predatory institutions which probably harm the economy more than they benefit it. And, of course, they yield extraordinary wealth and power that is highly concentrated.
But everywhere you look it is the same. Right now there are secret negotiations going on about what are called “trade deals,” the Trans-Pacific, Trans-Atlantic Partnership, TPP. The government insists on what is called “fast track,” meaning Stalinist-style policy – we make the arrangements, you shut up, we tell you about it when it is done, and you can say “yes” or “no,” and of course you have to say “yes.” That is called “democracy.”
When I say it is in secret that is not entirely true. It is not secret to the corporate sector. Their lobbyists and lawyers are the one’s writing it, so they know what is in it. It just has to be kept secret from the population. Why? Well, if you look at other so called “trade deals,” you can make a good guess – it is not a trade deal. It is a deal for investor rights. It is going to be highly protectionist, undoubtedly, of what are called “intellectual property rights,” which means measures to ensure inflated profits for pharmaceutical corporations, huge media corporations, and so on, investor measures that grant investors rights that human beings do not have.
For example, you and I can’t sue some other country because we don’t like what they did, but the existing treaties, like NAFTA, do permit a U.S. corporation or conversely, if they could do it, a Mexican business to sue, but U.S. corporations can sue and have sued Mexico if it carries out measures, like setting up a national park which they can claim undercut future profits, things like that. These are called “trade related investment mechanisms” that have nothing to do with trade.
Even what is called “trade” is often a joke. Take say NAFTA, the model, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Economists will tell you it has increased trade between Mexico and the United States. What is that trade? So, for example, if parts are produced in Indiana and sent to Mexico to assemble, and a car is sold in Los Angeles, that is called trade in both directions. It is not trade; it is interactions inside a command economy. It is kind of like in the old Soviet Union if parts were made in Leningrad, assembled in Warsaw, and sold in Moscow, we would not call it trade – it is inside a command economy. General Motors is a command economy, a tyranny. How much? Roughly probably 50% of what is called trade. I mean, you really have to look at these things carefully. The talk about markets is mostly propaganda. There is an element of markets functioning and it is probably good for cutting down the price of toothpaste or something, but it has strongly harmful consequences.
Q: If a moral and rational being from outer space was looking at all that you are describing do you think they would conclude that it is insane and immoral?
NC: I think you have to distinguish between individual and institutional insanity, and stupidity for that matter. The individuals involved may be perfectly sane, but the institutional structure in which they are operating is insane. That is a fact. Institutional stupidity is much harder to get rid of than individual stupidity. And we are trapped in it. And in fact, we are now in a lethal trap. If we don’t get out of it soon, we will be gone.
Q: “Trapped” sounds rather closed.
NC: It is not a law of nature. It can be changed by the sixteen year old who asked for advice. It is in their hands. The first thing they have to do is at least educate their peers. It is a big problem. Then organize them; then get them to become active. Since we are a very free society there are plenty of opportunities.