Archive for April, 2019

Renewed twin memes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Debt Jubilees (DJ) have been in the news recently. I write renewed because the two ideas are quite literally ancient, unlearnt lessons that are enjoying revitalized interest in the 21st century. Both are capable of sophisticated support from historical and contemporary study, which I admit I haven’t undertaken. However, others have done the work and make their recommendations with considerable authority. For instance, Andrew Yang, interviewed repeatedly as a 2020 U.S. presidential candidate, has made UBI the centerpiece of his policy proposals, whereas Michael Hudson has a new book out called … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption — From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year that offers a forgotten history of DJ.

Whenever UBI or DJ comes up in conversation, the most obvious, predicable response I hear (containing a kernel of truth) is that either proposal would reward the losers in today’s capitalist regime: those who earn too little or those who carry too much debt (often a combination of both). Never mind that quality education and economic opportunities have been steadily withdrawn over the past half century. UBI and DJ would thus be giveaways, and I daresay nothing offends a sense of fairness more than others getting something for nothing. Typical resentment goes, “I worked hard, played by the rules, and met my responsibilities; why should others who slacked, failed, or cheated get the benefit of my hard work?” It’s a commonplace “othering” response, failing to recognize that as societies we are completely interconnected and interdependent. Granting the winners in the capitalist contest a pass on fair play is also a major assumption. The most iconic supreme winners are all characterized by shark-like business practices: taking advantage of tax loopholes, devouring everything, and shrewdly understanding their predatory behavior not in terms of producing value but rather as gobbling or destroying competition to gain market share. More than a few companies these days are content to operate for years on venture capital, reporting one quarterly loss after another until rivals are vanquished. Amazon.com is the test case, though how many times its success can be repeated is unknown.

With my relative lack of economic study and sophistication, I take my lessons instead from the children’s game Monopoly. As an oversimplification of the dynamics of capital formation and ownership, Monopoly even for children reaches its logical conclusion well before its actual end, where one person “wins” everything. The balancing point when the game is no longer worth playing is debatable, but some have found through experience the answer is “before it starts.” It’s just no fun destroying bankrupting other players utterly through rent seeking. The no-longer-fun point is analogous to late-stage capitalism, where the conclusion has not yet been fully reached but is nonetheless clear. The endgame is, in a word, monopoly — the significant element being “mono,” as in there can be only one winner. (Be careful what you wish for: it’s lonely and resentful at the top.) Others take a different, aspirational lesson from Monopoly, which is to figure out game dynamics, or game the game, so that the world can be taken by force. One’s growing stranglehold on others disallows fair negotiation and cooperation (social rather than capitalist values) precisely because one party holds all the advantages, leading to exploitation of the many for the benefit of a few (or one).

Another unlearnt ancient lesson is that nothing corrupts so easily or so much as success, power, fame, wealth. Many accept that corruption willingly; few take the lesson to heart. (Disclosure: I’ve sometimes embarked on the easy path to wealth by buying lottery tickets. Haven’t won, so I’m not corruptible yet corrupted. Another case of something for nearly nothing, or for those gambling away their rent and grocery money, nothing for something.) Considering that money makes the world go around, especially in the modern age, the dynamics of capitalism are inescapable and the internal contradictions of capitalism are well acknowledged. The ancient idea of DJ is essentially a reset button depressed before the endgame leads to rebellion and destruction of the ownership class. Franklin D. Roosevelt is credited in some accounts of history as having saved capitalism from that near endgame by transferring wealth back to the people through the New Deal and the war economy. Thus, progressives are calling for a Green New Deal, though it’s not clear they are aware that propping up capitalism only delays its eventual collapse through another couple cycles (reversals) of capital flow. Availability of cheap, plentiful energy that allowed economies (and populations) to balloon over the past two and one-half centuries cannot continue for much longer, so even if we get UBI or DJ, the endgame remains unchanged.

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There is something ironic and vaguely tragic about how various Internet platforms — mostly search engines and social media networks — have unwittingly been thrust into roles their creators never envisioned for themselves. Unless I’m mistaken, they launched under the same business model as broadcast media: create content, or better yet, crowd-source content, to draw in viewers and subscribers whose attention is then delivered to advertisers. Revenue is derived from advertisers while the basic services — i.e., search, job networking, encyclopedias and dictionaries, or social connection — are given away gratis. The modest inconveniences and irritations of having the screen littered and interrupted with ads is a trade-off most end users are happy to accept for free content.

Along the way, some platform operators discovered that user data itself could be both aggregated and individualized and subsequently monetized. This second step unwittingly created so-called surveillance capitalism that Shoshana Zuboff writes about in her recently published book (previously blogged about it here). Essentially, an Orwellian Big Brother (several of them, in fact) tracks one’s activity through smart phone apps and Web browsers, including GPS data revealing movement through real space, not just virtual spaces. This is also the domain of the national security state from local law enforcement to the various security branches of the Federal government: dragnet surveillance where everyone is watched continuously. Again, end users shrug off surveillance as either no big deal or too late to resist.

The most recent step is that, like the Internet itself, various platforms have been functioning for some time already as public utilities and accordingly fallen under demand for regulation with regard to authenticity, truth, and community standards of allowable speech. Thus, private corporations have been thrust unexpectedly into the role of regulating content. Problem is, unlike broadcast networks that create their own content and can easily enforce restrictive standards, crowd-sourced platforms enable the general population to upload its own content, often mere commentary in text form but increasingly as video content, without any editorial review. These platforms have parried by deploying and/or modifying their preexisting surveillance algorithms in search of objectionable content normally protected as free speech and taken steps to remove content, demonetize channels, and ban offending users indefinitely, typically without warning and without appeal.

If Internet entrepreneurs initially got into the biz to make a few (or a lot of) quick billions, which some few of them have, they have by virtue of the global reach of their platforms been transformed into censors. It’s also curious that by enabling end uses to publish to their platforms, they’ve given voice to the masses in all their unwashed glory. Now, everyone’s crazy, radicalized uncle (or sibling or parent or BFF) formerly banished to obscurity railing against one thing or another at the local tavern, where he was tolerated as harmless so long as he kept his bar tab current, is proud to fly his freak flag anywhere and everywhere. Further, the anonymous coward who might issue death or bomb threats to denounce others has been given means to distribute hate across platforms and into the public sphere, where it gets picked up and maybe censored. Worst of all, the folks who monitor and decide what is allowed, functioning as modern-day thought police, are private citizens and corporations with no oversight or legal basis to act except for the fact that everything occurs on their respective platforms. This is a new aspect to the corporatocracy but not one anyone planned.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians’ union labor action — a strike now extending into its second month with no apparent resolution in sight — and reticent to take a strong position. This might be surprising considering that I’m a natural ally of the musicians in at least two respects: (1) my support for the labor movement in general, and (2) my sustained interest in classical music as both a listener and practitioner. On balance, I have two objections that hold me back: (1) difficulty empathizing with anyone already well compensated for his or her work (CSO base salary is more than $160K per year; many make considerably more), and (2) the argument that as a premier arts institution, the organization should take no heed of economic effects being felt universally and visited on many who actually suffer deprivations beyond lost prestige.

To buttress their position, the Musicians of the CSO (why do the musicians operate a website distinct from the organization as a whole?) issued a press release in late March 2019 (PDF link). I’ve no desire to analyze it paragraph-by-paragraph, but I want to bring a few bits forward:

For more than 50 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been touted as the nation’s finest – able to draw talent from across the globe. [emphasis added]

Music is not a championship endeavor despite the plethora of televised lip-syncing singing contests. No one orchestra can lay reasonable claim to being the best. Smacks of hubris. Simply change that to “as among the nation’s finest” and I’m OK with it.

In the last seven years the Orchestra’s salary has not kept up with inflation. Further, the Orchestra’s benefit package has fallen behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, the Association is attempting to change a fundamental tenet of the security of the Orchestra – and American life – our pension plan.

Well boo hoo for you. Many of the fundamental tenets of American life have been steadily stripped away from the population over the past 40 years or so. The very existence of a pension plan is exceptional for many in the labor force, not to mention the handsome salary and other benefits, including a 20-hour workweek, that CSO musicians enjoy. (Admittedly, a lot of outside preparation is necessary to participate effectively.) I understand that comparison with sister institutions in LA, SF, and NYC provide context, but cost of living differences at the coasts ought to be part of that context, too. Keeping up with the Joneses in this instance is a fool’s errand. And besides, those three cities suffer considerably with homeless and destitute populations that line the sidewalks and alleys. Chicago has somehow managed to displace most of its homeless population (mostly through harassment, not humanitarian aid), though one cannot avoid a phalanx of panhandlers outside Chicago Symphony Center on concert nights. Still, it’s nothing compared to conditions in downtown SF, which have gotten so bad with people living, peeing, and shitting in the street that an infamous poop map is available to help pedestrians avoid the worst of it. (I’ve no idea what the sidewalk outside Davies Symphony Hall in SF is like, but the location appears to be in the area of greatest poop concentration.) LA’s skid row is another district straight out of hell.

With many of the musicians already vested, our concern is truly about the future of the Orchestra – its ability to retain and attract great talent – a concern shared by Maestro Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and many of the world’s other finest orchestras and leaders.

This is not a concern of mine in the slightest. Sure, musicians play musical chairs, swapping around from orchestra to orchestra as opportunities arise, just like other workers traipse from job to job throughout their working lives. So what? A performing position with the CSO has long been a terminal position from which many players retire after more than 50 years of service (if they’re so fortunate to be hired by the orchestra in their 20s). I cannot estimate how many top-tier musicians forego auditions for the CSO due to perceived inadequacies with compensation or working conditions. Maybe that explains the years-long inability to hire and/or retain personnel for certain principal chairs. Still, I’m not convinced at all by “we’re the best yet we can’t compete without excessive compensation” (or shouldn’t have to). Similar arguments for ridiculously inflated CEO pay to attract qualified individuals fall on deaf ears.

An overview of the musicians’ strike was published by Lawrence A. Johnson at Chicago Classical Review, which provides details regarding the musicians’ demands. According to Johnson, the public’s initial support of the strike has turned sour. Comments I’ve been reading and my own reaction have followed exactly this trajectory. Lawrence also uses the term tone deaf to describe the musicians, though he’s diplomatic enough to avoid saying it himself, noting that the charge comes from commentators. I won’t be nearly so diplomatic. Musicians, stop this nonsense now! Demands far in excess of need, far in excess of typical workers’ compensation, and far in excess of your bargaining position do you no credit. In addition, although season ticket holders may express dismay at lost opportunities to hear certain concerts, soloists, and repertoire due to the work stoppage, the CSO is not a public utility that must keep working to maintain public wellbeing. Alternatives in greater Chicagoland can easily take up your slack for those in need of a classical music fix. Indeed, I haven’t been to a CSO concert in years because they’ve become anodyne. My CSO love affair is with the recorded legacy of the 1970s and 80s.

By striking, you’re creating a public relations nightmare that will drive people away, just as the baseball strike and take-a-knee controversy in football (and elsewhere) sent sports fans scrambling for the exits. You’re tone deaf regarding actual workplace and contract insufficiency many others confront regularly, as well as the economic realities of Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. and indeed the globe. Get over yourselves.

Throughout human history, the question “who should rule?” has been answered myriad ways. The most enduring answer is simple: he who can muster and deploy the most force of arms and then maintain control over those forces. Genghis Khan is probably the most outrageously successful example and is regarded by the West as a barbarian. Only slightly removed from barbarians is the so-called Big Man, who perhaps adds a layer of diplomacy by running a protection racket while selectively providing and distributing spoils. As societies move further away from subsistence and immediacy, various absolute rulers are established, often through hereditary title. Call them Caesar, chief, dear leader, emir, emperor (or empress), kaiser, king (or queen), pharaoh, premier, el presidente, sultan, suzerain, or tsar, they typically acquire power through the accident of birth and are dynastic. Some are female but most are male, and they typically extract tribute and sometimes demand loyalty oaths.

Post-Enlightenment, rulers are frequently democratically elected administrators (e.g., legislators, technocrats, autocrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, and former military) ideally meant to be representative of common folks. In the U.S., members of Congress (and of course the President) are almost wholly drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (insufficient wealth being a de facto bar to office) and are accordingly estranged from American life the many different ways most of us experience it. Below the top level of visible, elected leaders is a large, hidden apparatus of high-level bureaucratic functionaries (often appointees), the so-called Deep State, that is relatively stable and made up primarily of well-educated, white-collar careerists whose ambitions for themselves and the country are often at odds with the citizenry.

I began to think about this in response to a rather irrational reply to an observation I made here. Actually, it wasn’t even originally my observation but that of Thomas Frank, namely, that the Deep State is largely made up of the liberal professional class. The reply reinforced the notion who better to rule than the “pros”? History makes the alternatives unthinkable. Thus, the Deep State’s response to the veritable one-man barbarian invasion of the Oval Office has been to seek removal of the interloper by hook or by crook. (High office in this case was won unexpectedly and with unnamed precedent by rhetorical force — base populism — rather than by military coup, making the current occupant a quasi-cult leader; similarly, extracted tribute is merely gawking attention rather than riches.)

History also reveals that all forms of political organization suffer endemic incompetence and corruption, lending truth to Winston Churchill’s witticism “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Indeed, recent rule by technocrats has been supremely awful, leading to periodic market crashes, extreme wealth inequality, social stigmatization, and forever wars. Life under such rule is arguably better than under various other political styles; after all, we gots our vaunted freedoms and enviable material comforts. But the exercise of those freedoms does not reliably deliver either ontological security or psychological certainty we humans crave. In truth, our current form of self-governance has let nothing get in the way of plundering the planet for short-term profit. That ongoing priority is making Earth uninhabitable not just for other species but for humans, too. In light of this fact, liberal technocratic democracy could be a far worse failure than most: it will have killed billions (an inevitability now under delayed effect).

Two new grassroots movements (to my knowledge) have appeared that openly question who should rule: the Sunrise Movement (SM) and the Extinction Rebellion (ER). SM is a youth political movement in the U.S. that acknowledges climate change and supports the Green New Deal as a way of prioritizing the desperate existential threat modern politics and society have become. For now at least, SM appears to be content with working within the system, replacing incumbents with candidates it supports. More intensely, ER is a global movement centered in the U.K. that also acknowledges that familiar modern forms of social and political organization (there are several) no longer function but in fact threaten all of us with, well, extinction. One of its unique demands is that legislatures be drawn via sortition from the general population to be more representative of the people. Further, sortition avoids the established pattern of those elected to lead representational governments from being corrupted by the very process of seeking and attaining office.

I surmise attrition and/or replacement (the SM path) are too slow and leave candidates vulnerable to corruption. In addition, since no one relinquishes power willingly, current leaders will have to be forced out via open rebellion (the ER path). I’m willing to entertain either path but must sadly conclude that both are too little, too late to address climate change and near-term extinction effectively. Though difficult to establish convincingly, I suspect the time to act was in the 1970s (or even before) when the Ecology Movement arose in recognition that we cannot continue to despoil our own habitat without consequence. That message (social, political, economic, and scientific all at once) was as inert then as it is now. However, fatalism acknowledged, some other path forward is better than our current systems of rule.