Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Capitalism + Bauhaus = Ikea

A visit to Ikea to buy a few household items and on another day to the Bauhaus Museum opened my eyes to another irony of modern history.

Ikea is the largest furniture retailer in the world. It was founded in 1943 by the young Swede Ingvar Kamprad, who named his mail-order company after himself and his family farm. Fifteen years later he opened the first Ikea store. Last year, nearly 400 mostly gigantic stores in 48 countries sold about $40 billion worth of goods. Ikea is one of largest consumers of commercial wood products in the world.

Ikea has been so successful partly because of Kamprad’s use of the techniques of capitalism. Ikea stores are laid out as labyrinths: once you enter, it is nearly impossible not to wind your way along a predetermined path through countless rooms selling furniture and products for every part of a house. Prices are remarkably low, because the products are standardized and simply constructed. They are made in a few giant factories scattered around the world, shipped in pieces in cleverly arranged flat packages, and sold unassembled with clear instruction booklets and a few necessary tools. In big cities in Europe and America, Ikea products can be found in countless apartments.

Ikea has been a world leader in promoting non-traditional family structures. A 1994 ad featured two men shopping for a dining room table, probably the first TV ad in the US with openly gay characters. It was shown only a few times, before conservatives tried to organize boycotts and threatened to bomb Ikea stores. The company has continued to feature non-traditional families in ads and catalogs around the world.

Like many other global concerns, Ikea uses international differences in tax structures to minimize taxes. The stores are owned by a supposedly non-profit foundation seated in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Various European organizations have criticized Ikea for its tax avoidance policies. Ikea is a capitalist success story. Kamprad is one of the richest people in the world.

Although Ikea promotional materials like to discuss “the Ikea concept”, the idea of mass-produced, affordable, functional products for everyday use was conceived after the First World War by leftist radicals who rejected conventional ideas about art. In Germany and Russia, revolutionary artists and architects attempted to combine fine arts with practical crafts to produce beautiful and functional products using modern technology and industrial materials. Schools of modern design were founded to develop and teach innovative design techniques to improve the daily lives of average people: Bauhaus (loosely, “House of Construction”) in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, and Vkhutemas (acronym for "Higher Art and Technical Studios") in 1920 in Moscow.

These schools and their staff shared radical political and aesthetic ideas. Their founders were socialists and communists, who focused their energies on improving working-class life by developing well-designed and affordable objects. They rejected the conventional separation between high art for the elite and lowly craft skills, eagerly incorporated new industrial materials like steel tubing into furniture-making, and favored simple geometric constructions. They dreamed of the integration of art and life. This revolutionary aesthetic angered political leaders of the far left and far right. Vkhutemas was closed by Stalin in 1930, and the Bauhaus was raided a few months after Hitler came to power in 1933. The political project of a better life for workers through design was killed by authoritarian governments.

But the Bauhaus concept has been successfully revived in capitalist nations by capitalist entrepreneurs. Undecorated, geometrically simple, functional yet colorful creations in our modern lives have their origin in these radical artistic projects. Stackable chairs with metal skeletons were pioneered at the Bauhaus.

Former Bauhaus teachers like Mies van der Rohe helped create the rectangular skyscrapers of Chicago and founded the Chicago School of Design, which became the Illinois Institute of Technology. The flat painted cabinet doors of Ikea kitchens look just like the 1920s kitchen displayed at the Bauhaus Museum.

Seeking general lessons in history is a dangerous project, but also a tempting one. The failure and success of the Bauhaus idea might demonstrate that the radical leftists of the early 20th century produced some wonderful ideas for improving daily life, but that their social implementation needed capitalist economic structures. Perhaps in our world, the needs of the majority can only be met if someone becomes a billionaire.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 14, 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Get Out of the Country

People say that travel broadens your horizons. I think they mean that observing different cultures expands our sense of what is possible and possibly good, that we had not known about before.

Some things that people do in other countries don’t seem desirable. Driving on the left side of the street, as they do in England and many former English colonies, is crazy. Driving like crazy, as they do in Italy, is also crazy. Other things can be confusing: “football” is mainly played with a round ball which can’t be touched by the hand, except in a few countries like the US. But we can learn many valuable things from foreign travel, as I have discovered again by observing what is different on a trip to Germany.

Coffee is different. Coffee in Germany, and in most of Europe, is a drink to be savored, not gulped. A cup of coffee in a restaurant is prepared individually and actually served in a cup, not a mug or a giant container. The coffee is strong, more like espresso. A refill? Pay for another cup.

Eating in Germany more generally is different from eating in the US. Germans spend about as much as Americans on eating out, but what they eat is not comparable. Americans eat more fast food than anyone else, mainly from giant chains which serve simple familiar foods. The low significance of food quality in American eating is clear from a burger taste test, which put McDonald’s dead last among 21 fast food chains. Germans favor individually owned local restaurants, whether for fast food or sit-down meals. In my neighborhood in Berlin, there are dozens of restaurants serving every variety of international cuisine, but no chain except Einstein Kaffee, which has 12 coffee shops in the city.

A visit to Einstein, or to any other restaurant, is slower than in the US. Servers do not appear right away and they don’t expect you to eat, drink, and leave. Tables are expected to turn over only once every couple of hours. Americans are likely to get impatient for service in a German restaurant, while Germans would feel hurried in America.

Driving is different here. Economics is crucial: gas costs over $5.50 per gallon in Germany, while prices are below $2.50 in the US. Americans use more than 5 times as much gasoline per person as Germans. That difference is partly explained by smaller vehicles, but more by different daily driving habits. Public transportation networks are much thicker in Europe, covering not just big cities but connecting every community. The commuting traffic jams which plague every American city during rush hours are rare in Germany.

Eating habits also affect driving habits. I can’t remember the last time I did food shopping in America on foot. We all drive to the grocery story, as we drive to do nearly all of our shopping. Food shopping is done in giant chain stores surrounded by expanses of parking.

In Germany, much more food is purchased at specialty shops, like bakeries, which dot the landscape. Food shopping is a daily chore, so the packages can more easily be carried the shorter distance home. Much more fresh food is purchased, which requires more frequent trips to the store.

Those are just a few examples of cultural differences that affect daily life. In our globalized world, these national variations are being erased. Tiny European autos now appear on American streets. People in Berlin carry containers of coffee on the street, while Americans have shifted away from instant coffee to more expensive and better tasting individually brewed cups. German stores are open longer than they used to be, some even on Sundays, but the 24/7 buying culture of America is still far away.

These differences have developed over many years and are particularly suited to each country’s economy, landscape, traditions, and social structures. Some are habits for which there is no better explanation than “That’s the way we do things here.” None of them prove that any country is greater than another.

There is no reason to abandon the bottomless cup of Joe at uniquely American diners or to make fun of Germans for obsessively obeying pedestrian crossing signals. Experiencing a different culture can broaden the horizon of the possible without necessarily altering familiar behavior. You learn that what you take for granted as one of life’s rules may just be local peculiarity.

And you can still enjoy those social traits which span the globe. People everywhere seem to share an excitement about sports. Although we were certainly among a minority who watched the Super Bowl here in Berlin after midnight, the German TV announcers shouted just as loud as any American commentator when the Patriots completed their amazing comeback.

So let’s celebrate both our similarities and our differences.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 7, 2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

President Trump’s First Week

It’s risky to make conclusions about how a President’s term will work out from only one week. But we can see some outlines of his style and policies from Trump’s first few days as President. Congressional legislation takes time, because laws must be written carefully, with great attention to detail and to all contingencies. In a first week, all a President can do is set a tone by broad gestures.

Rule by Decree:

Trump filled his first week with Presidential decrees, called executive orders, which mainly begin to implement his big campaign promises. Immigration was his first focus: begin building the Wall, hire thousands more border control agents to deport undocumented immigrants, and punish communities which resist deportations by acting as “sanctuary cities”. These orders are just a beginning: it will take Congressional action to actually build the Wall, which requires appropriation of tens of billions of dollars.

Trump appears to believe he can change American policy by himself. He said, “We do not need new laws,” in order to put these immigration changes into effect. That may not be true, but he could slap high tariffs on goods from Mexico, as he has threatened to do to pay for the Wall. What he can’t do is control the consequences of unilateral action by companies impacted negatively, by consumers paying higher prices, or by other countries who retaliate.

Trump’s sudden decree banning entry to all refugees and all citizens of seven Muslim countries caused chaos at airports, even as he claimed there were no problems. White House spokespeople said that all departments had been properly informed, but that was also not true. These orders have already been stayed by federal judges, promising lengthy court battles over immigration. And Trump’s executive order has already been changed. As originally stated, it applied to green card holders from the seven Muslim countries, thus barring many college students. On Sunday, chief of staff Reince Priebus said the order did not apply to green card holders.

Rule by decree has caused confusion.

Ignore Republican Orthodoxy:

Free trade is high on the list of traditional Republican commandments. NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President George H. W. Bush. Republicans in Congress, not Democrats, were the main support of NAFTA. Republicans also supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, until candidate Trump began to criticize it. In one of his first acts as President, Trump rejected the TPP.

In many ways, he has signaled that although conservative, he is not a traditional Republican, especially on trade. His push for a border tax on imports conflicts with free-trade Republicans in Congress, such as Paul Ryan. His nominee for the Interior Department, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, opposes giving vast federal lands to the states and has voted against Republican bills to support that. On the other hand, most of Trump’s cabinet choices are traditional Republican business leaders.

Keep The Public In The Dark:

One of Trump’s first acts was to prevent anyone in the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agencies which deal with climate change to talk to the media or inform the public about what they are doing. All mention of climate change was removed from the websites controlled by the White House and State Department. These actions might be what normally happens as administrations change or they might be the beginning of a federal war on science that Trump doesn’t like.

Truth is Optional:
Trump’s first week was filled with Presidential lies, or what his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts”. He insisted that he had really won the most legal votes in November, because millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton. Republicans all over the country disputed this idea. Because there is no evidence for this claim, he ordered a major investigation of the election to try to find some. Trump was annoyed that the crowds at his inaugural were smaller than Obama’s, and so simply said they were larger.

Trump’s response to journalists who point out that he is not telling the truth is that they are the liars, which he has been saying for months.

Nobody but Trump really cares about how many people watched his inauguration. But he cares so much that he ordered the director of the National Park Service the next morning to find photos which proved his crowds were larger than they were.

His claim about massive voter fraud goes to the heart of American democracy. This is far beyond the common political practice of “spinning”, shading the truth for one’s own benefit. He is telling everyone lies: the CIA, other Republicans, the whole world. If Trump will tell big lies for four years, he risks making not just himself, but our country untrustworthy across the world. If he diverts his efforts and government resources to his personal battle with the truth, real issues will get less attention.

Donald Trump goes his own way for his own reasons. His first week shows he will act as President much like he acted as candidate: pursuing his own agenda, which doesn’t fit neatly into left-right categories, but which puts him at the center of everything. Trump’s impulsiveness and lack of concern for detail will continue to cause confusion. When the media report on his policy reversals or outright lies, they will be attacked as the enemy.

And we will wonder, what’s next?

Steve Hochstadt
Boston MA
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 31, 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Marching Around the World

A group of local citizens took a bus all the way to Washington DC this weekend. They were a small piece of a worldwide marching movement on Saturday. Will more than a million women marching make a difference?

The day after the inauguration there were women’s marches in all 50 states, in countries around the world, on every continent, even in Antarctica. About three times as many people came out in Washington DC to protest Trump’s inauguration as had celebrated it the day before.

This worldwide demonstration began with one woman’s Facebook post. Rebecca Shook in Hawaii wondered if women could march in favor of women’s rights during the inauguration. She created an event page for the march, and within 24 hours 10,000 people confirmed their participation. Shook was joined by experienced organizers who named the event the Women’s March on Washington, honoring the continuing inspiration of the 1963 civil rights protest.

As the number of anticipated participants ballooned past 100,000, women across the country who could not manage a trip to Washington organized their own local marches. Over 400 Sister Marches took place in every state. There were more on the West Coast, because fewer people could get to DC: 45 in California, 20 in Oregon, 21 in Washington. No place in America was far from a march: there were 8 in Maine, 8 in Idaho, and 18 in Alaska. Over 1000 people gathered at the Old Capitol Plaza in Springfield.

Many protests were very local. The 80- and 90-year-olds at my mother-in-law’s retirement complex braved the Minneapolis cold to wave signs at passing cars.

The worldwide significance of this election was shown by the number of international marches, from Australia to Austria, Botswana to Zimbabwe, 15 in the UK and 20 in Mexico. More than half a million people in the US and another half million around the world gathered in this unprecedented worldwide signal of solidarity.

Right now far more Americans disapprove of Trump than like him. Not only did Clinton win far more votes than Trump, but Democratic Senate candidates won more votes than Republicans. Republican House candidates won 51% of the popular vote, but now have 55% of House members. Neither the Republican Party nor Trump won any “mandate” to remake the nation in their ideological image, but they have the votes to put into place a minority program.

It is possible that Trump will accomplish none of the dangerous, unconstitutional, and frankly stupid things he has threatened: build a wall against Mexico, start a trade war with China, persecute women who have abortions, deport millions of undocumented people, favor Putin’s Russia over NATO, penalize media for printing unflattering but truthful stories, eliminate regulations which keep our food, water and air healthy, repeal the extension of health insurance to millions of Americans. Conservative Republicans are nearly as worried as liberal Democrats about what policies Trump will promote.

Trump is dangerous in his ignorance about the world beyond his narrow circle of experience and in his disdain for reality when it seems to get in the way of his desires. His immediate response to unpleasant reality is to make up lies, as he and his press secretary did in claiming that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever. The new Republican Congress is dangerous in its clearly announced plans to let big business do whatever it wants, to funnel even more money to rich people, and to give away control over public resources to private corporations.

Marching is good, but not enough. Public displays of political passion certainly influence elected officials. The Republican majority in Congress can be moved by protest. That was obvious on the first day of the new Congress, when conservative Republicans tried to do away with the House Ethics Office. Protests by constituents quickly changed their minds, and they began their one-party government by repudiating themselves.

But the high emotions of the inaugural moment will fade, as we all get used to a new normal: Trump in the White House and Republicans running Congress. Pure opposition can only go so far.

Marches alone won’t stop them. Real political influence requires continued and widespread popular pressure in favor of positive action. Spreading truth and calling out lies, being vocal about protecting human rights, showing clearly how their policies will affect the least powerful among us, and promoting the idea that politics should support the many, not the few – that’s always been the job anyway.

If the incredible women’s marches are the opening of a historic movement, Trump will have a hard time maintaining his fantasies about his own greatness.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 24, 2017