Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”

 

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Richard Wolff gave a fascinating talk at Google offices in New York City, which is embedded below:

This talk was published nearly two years ago, demonstrating that we refuse to learn or make adjustments we need to order society better (and to avoid disaster and catastrophe). No surprise there. (Also shows how long it takes me to get to things.) Critics of capitalism and the democracy we pretend to have in the U.S. are many. Wolff criticizes effectively from a Marxist perspective (Karl Marx being among the foremost of those critics). For those who don’t have the patience to sit through Wolff’s 1.5-hour presentation, let me draw out a few details mixed with my own commentary (impossible to separate, sorry; sorry, too, for the profusion of links no one follows).

The most astounding thing to me is that Wolff admitted he made it through higher education to complete a Ph.D. in economics without a single professor assigning Marx to read or study. Quite the set of blinders his teachers wore. Happily, Wolff eventually educated himself on Marx. Multiple economic forms have each had their day: sharing, barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism (including subcategories anarcho-capitalism and laissez-faire economics), Keynesian regulation, socialism (and its subcategory communism), etc. Except for the first, prevalent among indigent societies living close to subsistence, all involve hierarchy and coercion. Some regard those dynamics as just, others as unjust. It’s worth noting, too, that no system is pure. For instance, the U.S. has a blend of market capitalism and socialism. Philanthropy also figures in somehow. However, as social supports in the U.S. continue to be withdrawn and the masses are left to fend for themselves, what socialism existed as a hidden-in-plain-sight part of our system is being scaled down, privatized, foisted on charitable organizations, and/or driven out of existence.

The usual labor arrangement nearly all of us know — working for someone else for a wage/salary — is defined in Marxism as exploitation (not the lay understanding of the term) for one simple reason: all economic advantage from excess productivity of labor accrues to the business owner(s) (often a corporation). That’s the whole point of capitalism: to exploit (with some acknowledged risk) the differential between the costs of labor and materials (and increasingly, information) vs. the revenue they produce in order to prosper and grow. To some, exploitation is a dirty word, but understood from an analytical point of view, it’s the bedrock of all capitalist labor relationships. Wolff also points out that real wages in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) have been flat for more than 40 years while productivity has climbed steadily. The differential profit (rather immense over time) has been pocketed handily by owners (billionaire having long-since replaced millionaire as an aspiration) while the average citizen/consumer has kept pace with the rising standard of living by adding women to the workforce (two or more earners per family instead of one), racking up debt, and deferring retirement.

Wolff’s antidote or cure to the dynamic of late-stage capitalism (nearly all the money being controlled by very few) is to remake corporate ownership, where a board of directors without obligation to workers makes all the important decisions and takes all the profit, into worker-owned businesses that practice direct democracy and distribute profits more equitably. How closely this resembles a coop (read: cooperative), commune, or kibbutz I cannot assess. Worker-owned businesses, no longer corporations, also differ significantly from how “socializing a business” is generally understood, i.e., a business or sector being taken over and run by the government. The U.S. Postal Service is one example. (Curiously, that last link has a .com suffix instead of .gov.) Public K–12 education operated by the states is another. As I understand it, this difference (who owns and runs an enterprise) is what lies behind democratic socialism being promoted in the progress wing of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is aligning his socialist politics with worker ownership of the means of production. Wolff also promotes this approach through his book and nonprofit organization Democracy at Work. How different these projects may be lies beyond my cursory analysis.

Another alternative to capitalist hegemony is a resource-based economy, which I admit I don’t really understand. Its rank utopianism is difficult to overlook, since it doesn’t fit at all with human history, where we muddle through without much of a plan or design except perhaps for those few who discover and devise ways to game systems for self-aggrandizement and personal benefit while leaving everyone else in the lurch. Peter Joseph, founder of The Zeitgeist Movement, is among the promoters of a resource-based economy. One of its chief attributes is the disuse of money. Considering that central banks (the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.) issue fiat currency worth increasingly little are being challenged rather effectively by cryptocurrencies based on nothing beyond social consensus, it’s interesting to contemplate an alternative to astronomical levels of wealth (and its inverse: debt) that come as a result of being trapped within the fiat monetary system that benefits so very few people.

Since this is a doom blog (not much of an admission, since it’s been obvious for years now), I can’t finish up without observing that none of these economic systems appears to take into account that we’re on a countdown to self-annihilation as we draw down the irreplaceable energy resources that make the whole shebang go. It’s possible the contemplated resource-based economy does so, but I rather doubt it. A decade or more ago, much of the discussion was about peak oil, which shortly thereafter gave way to peak everything. Shortages of materials such as helium, sand, and rare earths don’t figure strongly in public sentiment so long as party balloons, construction materials, and cell phones continue to be widely available. However, ongoing destruction of the biosphere through the primary activities of industrial civilization (e.g., mining, chemical-based agriculture, and steady expansion of human habitation into formerly wild nature) and the secondary effects of anthropogenic climate change (still hotly contested but more and more obvious with each passing season) and loss of biodiversity and biomass is catching up to us. In economics, this destruction is an externality conveniently ignored or waved away while profits can be made. The fullness of time will provide proof that we’ve enjoyed an extraordinary moment in history where we figured out how to exploit a specific sort of abundance (fossil fuels) with the ironic twist that that very exploitation led to the collapse of the civilization it spawned and supported. No one planned it this way, really, and once the endgame came into view, nothing much could be done to forestall it. So we continue apace with self-destruction while celebrating its glamor and excess as innovation and progress. If only Wolff would incorporate that perspective, too.

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

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.

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.

For a time after the 2008 financial collapse, skyscraper projects in Chicago came to a dead halt, mostly due to dried-up financing. My guess (since I don’t know with any reliability) is that much the same obtained worldwide. However, the game appears to be back on, especially in New York City, one of few cities around the globe where so-called “real money” tends to pool and collect. Visual Capitalist has an interesting infographic depicting changes to the NYC skyline every 20 years. The number of supertalls topping 1,000 feet expected by 2020 is quite striking.

Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

The accompanying text admits that NYC is left in the dust by China, specifically, the Pearl River Delta Megacity, which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau, and others. As I’ve written before, the mad rush to build (earning ridiculous, absurd, imaginary prestige points awarded by and to exactly no one) takes no apparent notice of a slo-mo crack-up in the way modern societies organize and fund themselves. The new bear market might give one … um, pause.

Also left in the dust is Chicago, home of the original skyscraper. Since the 2008 collapse, Chicago’s most ambitious project, the ill-fated Chicago Spire (a/k/a the Fordham Spire) was abandoned despite a big hole dug in the ground and some foundation work completed. An absence of completed prestige projects since 2008 means Chicago has been lapped several times over by NYC, not that anyone is counting. The proposed site of the Chicago Spire is too enticing, however — just inside Lake Shore Drive at the mouth of the Chicago River — for it to be dormant for long. Indeed, a press release last year (escaped my attention at the time) announced redevelopment of the site, and a slick website is operating for now (linked in the past to similar sites that went abandoned along with their subject projects). Also reported late last year, Chicago appears to have rejoined the game in earnest, with multiple projects already under construction and others in the planning/approval phases.

So if hiatus was called the last time we crashed financially (a regular occurrence, I note), it seems we’ve called hiatus on the hiatus and are back in a mad, futile race to remake modernity into gleaming vertical cities dotting the globe. Such hubris and exuberance might be intoxicating to technophiles, but I’m reminded of a observation (can’t locate a quote, sorry) to the effect that civilizations’ most extravagant projects are undertaken just before their collapses. Our global civilization is no different.

The largest lottery jackpot ever (roughly $1.6 billion) was won last week by some lucky or unlucky soul, depending. The mainstream media promoted this possible windfall relentlessly, instructing everyone as possible winners the first steps to take with the winning ticket. It prompts the question, What Would a (sudden, new) Billionaire Do? with all that money, and many of us toyed with the prospect actively. The ruinous appeal is far too seductive to put out of mind entirely. Lottery winners, however, are not in the same class as the world’s billionaires, whose fortunes are closely associated with capitalist activity. Topping the list is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The Walmart fortune deposits four Walton family members on the list, whose combined wealth exceeds even that of Bezos. Beyond conjecture what billionaires should or might do besides the billionaire challenge or purchasing land in New Zealand for boltholes to leave the rest of us behind, it’s worth pointing out how such extraordinary wealth was amassed in the first place, because it surely doesn’t happen passively.

Before Amazon and Walmart but well after the robber barons of the early 20th century, McDonald’s was the ubiquitous employer offering dead-end, entry-level jobs that churned through people (labor) before discarding them carelessly, all the while locking up profits the placard “millions [then billions] sold!” Its hallmark euphemism (still in use) is the McJob. After McDonald’s, Walmart was widely understood as the worst employer in the world in terms of transfer of obscene wealth to the top while rank-and-file workers struggle below the poverty line. Many Walmart employees are still so poorly compensated that they qualify for government assistance, which effectively functions as a government subsidy to Walmart. Walmart’s awful labor practices, disruption of local mom-and-pop economies, and notorious squeezing of suppliers by virtue of its sheer market volume established the template for others. For instance, employers emboldened by insecure or hostage labor adopt hard-line policies such as firing employees who fail to appear at work in the midst of a hurricane or closing franchise locations solely to disallow labor organizing. What Walmart pioneered Amazon has refined. Its fulfillment-center employees have been dubbed CamperForce for being made primarily of older people living in vans and campers and deprived of meaningful alternatives. Jessica Bruder’s new book Nomadland (2018), rather ironically though shamelessly and predictably sold by Amazon, provides sorry description, among other things, of how the plight of the disenfranchised is repackaged and sold back them. As a result of severe criticism (not stemming directly from the book), Amazon made news earlier this month by raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour, but it remains to be seen if offsetting cuts to benefits wipe out apparent labor gains.

These business practices are by no means limited to a few notoriously bad corporations or their billionaire owners. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute and elsewhere, income inequality has been rising for decades. The graph below shows that wage increases have been entirely disproportionate, rewarding the top 10 percent, top 1 percent, and top 0.1 percent at increasingly absurd levels compared to the remaining 90 percent.

157228-20055

It’s a reverse Robin Hood situation: the rich taking from not just the poor but everyone and giving to themselves. Notably, trickle-down economics has been widely unmasked as a myth but nonetheless remains a firmly entrenched idea among those who see nothing wrong with, say, ridiculous CEO pay precisely because they hope to eventually be counted among those overcompensated CEOs (or lottery winners) and so preserve their illusory future wealth. Never mind that the entire economic system is tilted egregiously in favor a narrow class of predatory plutocrats. Actual economic results (minus all the rhetoric) demonstrate that as a function of late-stage capitalism, the ultrarich, having already harvested all the low-hanging fruit, has even gone after middle-class wealth as perhaps the last resource to plunder (besides the U.S. Treasury itself, which was looted with the last series of bailouts).

So what would a billionaire do in the face of this dynamic? Bezos is the new poster boy, a canonical example, and he shows no inclination to call into question the capitalist system that has rewarded him so handsomely. Even as he gives wage hikes, he takes away other compensation, keeping low-level employees in a perpetual state of doubt as to when they’ll finally lose what’s left to them before dying quietly in a van down by the river or out in the desert somewhere. Indeed, despite the admirable philanthropy of some billionaires (typically following many years of cutthroat activity to add that tenth and eleventh digit), structural change necessary to restore the middle class, secure the lower class with a living wage, and care for the long-term unemployed, permanently unemployable, and disabled (estimated to be at least 10% of the population) are nowhere on the horizon. Those in the best position to undertake such change just keep on building their wealth faster than everyone else, forsaking the society that enables them and withdrawing into armed compounds insulated from the rabble. Hardly a life most of us would desire if we knew in advance what a corrupting prison it turns out to be.

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies are commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans to and reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

rant on/

As the world turns and history piles up against us, nature (as distinguished from human civilization) takes hit after hit. One reads periodically about species extinction proceeding at an estimated rate of dozens per day (or even faster), 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the background rate of evolution without anthropocentric climate change thrown in. Headlines usually read that large populations of plants or animals show up dead where they once used to thrive. When it’s insects such as crickets or bees, we often lack concern. They’re insects after all, which we happily exterminate from places of human habitation. Although we know they’re significant parts of the terrestrial food web just as plankton function as the base of the marine food web, they’re too small and/or icky for us to identify with closely. Species die-offs occurring with large mammals such as whales or dolphins make it easier to feel empathy. So, too, with aspen trees suffering from beetle infestations and deer populations with chronic wasting disease. When at-risk species finally go extinct, no fanfare, report, or memorial is heard. Here’s an exception: a new tree species discovered and declared extinct at the same time.

Something similar can be said of cities and communities established in hurricane alleys, atop earthquake fault lines, in flood plains, and near active volcanoes. They’re the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. We know the gun will fire eventually because the trigger is pulled repeatedly (by us or by nature itself). Catastrophists believe the planet across long time spans (tens of thousands of years) has always been a killing field or abattoir, though long respites between episodes can be surprisingly nurturing. Still, the rate of natural disasters has been creeping up now for decades. According to the statistics, we can certainly tolerate disaster better (in terms of death rates) than in the early 20th century. Yet the necessity of building out civilization in perilous locations is Pyrrhic. The human species must ineluctably expand its territory wherever it can, other species be damned. We don’t need no stinkin’ whales, dolphins, aspens, deer, bees, crickets, etc. We also don’t need no stinkin’ oceanfront property (Carolina outer banks, New Jersey shore, New Orleans, Houston) that keeps getting hit, requiring regular, predictable rebuilding. Let it all go to hell (meet you there!) ruin. The insurance companies will bail us out, just like taxpayers the federal government bailed out all those banks dicking playing around with the casino economy a decade ago (which, BTW, hasn’t abated).

The typical metaphor for slow death between major planetary catastrophes is “death by a thousand cuts,” as though what’s happening this time is occurring to us rather than by and because of us. I propose a different metaphor: Jenga tower civilization. The tower is civilization, obviously, which we keep building taller by removing pieces (of nature) from the bottom to stack on top. Jenga (say it everyone: Jenga! Yahtzee!) ends when the entire edifice crashes down into pieces. Until then, it’s all fun and games with no small bit of excitement and intrigue — not so much a game of skill as a game of rank stupidity. Just how far can we build until the eventual crash? It’s built right into the game, right? We know the dynamics and the outcome; we just don’t know when the critical piece will be pulled out from under us. Isn’t the excitement just about killing us?

jenga-falling

rant off/

Heard a curious phrase used with some regularity lately, namely, that “we’ve Nerfed the world.” Nerf refers to the soft, foam toys popular in the 70s and beyond that made balls and projectiles essentially harmless. The implication of the phrase is that we’ve become soft and vulnerable as a result of removing the routine hazards (physical and psychological) of existence. For instance, in the early days of cell phones, I recall padded street poles (like endzone goalposts) to prevent folks with their attention fixated too intently on their phones from harming themselves when stumbling blindly down the sidewalk.

Similarly, anti-bullying sentiment has reached fevered pitch such that no level of discomfort (e.g., simple name calling) can be tolerated lest the victim be scarred for life. The balancing point between preparing children for competitive realities of the world and protecting their innocence and fragility has accordingly moved heavily in favor of the latter. Folks who never develop the resilience to suffer even modest hardships are snowflakes, and they agitate these days on college campuses (and increasingly in workplaces) to withdraw into safe spaces where their beliefs are never challenged and experiences are never challenging. The other extreme is a hostile, cruel, or at least indifferent world where no one is offered support or opportunity unless he or she falls within some special category, typically connected through family to wealth and influence. Those are entitled.

A thermostatic response (see Neil Postman for more on this metaphor) is called for here. When things veer too far toward one extreme or the other, a correction is inevitable. Neither extreme is healthy for a functioning society, though the motivations are understandable. Either it’s toughen people up by providing challenge, which risks brutalizing people unnecessarily, or protect people from the rigors of life or consequences of their own choices to such a degree that they become dependent or dysfunctional. Where the proper balance lies is a question for the ages, but I daresay most would agree it’s somewhere squarely in the middle.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), which is an expansion of an earlier article in The Atlantic of the same title. (Both are callbacks to Allan Bloom’s notorious The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I’ve read twice. Similar reuse of a famous title references Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996).) I haven’t yet read Haidt’s book and doubt I will bother, but I read the source article when it came out. I also don’t work on a college campus and can’t judge contemporary mood compared to when I was an undergraduate, but I’m familiar with the buzzwords and ​intellectual fashions reported by academics and journalists. My alma mater is embroiled in these battles, largely in connection with identity politics. I’m also aware of detractors who believe claims of Haidt and Lukianoff (and others) are essentially hysterics limited to a narrow group of progressive colleges and universities.

As with other cultural developments that lie outside my expertise, I punt when it comes to offering (too) strong opinions. However, with this particular issue, I can’t help but to think that the two extremes coexist. A noisy group of students attending highly competitive institutions of higher education lead relatively privileged lives compared to those outside the academy, whereas high school grads and dropouts not on that track (and indeed grads of less elite schools) frequently struggle getting their lives going in early adulthood. Most of us face that struggle early on, but success, despite nonsensical crowing about the “best economy ever” from the Oval Office, is difficult to achieve now as the broad socioeconomic middle is pushed toward the upper and lower margins (mostly lower). Stock market notwithstanding, economic reality is frankly indifferent to ideology.