Posts Tagged ‘Inequality’

/rant on

Had a rather dark thought, which recurs but then fades out of awareness and memory until conditions reassert it. Simply put, it’s that the mover-shaker-decision-maker sociopaths types in government, corporations, and elsewhere (I refuse to use the term influencer) are typically well protected (primarily by virtue of immense wealth) from threats regular folks face and are accordingly only too willing to sit idly by, scarcely lifting a finger in aid or assistance, and watch dispassionately as others scramble and scrape in response to the buffeting torrents of history. The famous example (even if not wholly accurate) of patrician, disdainful lack of empathy toward others’ plight is Marie Antoinette’s famous remark: “Let them eat cake.” Citing an 18th-century monarch indicates that such tone-deaf sentiment has been around for a long time.

Let me put it another way, since many of our problems are of our own creation. Our styles of social organization and their concomitant institutions are so overloaded with internal conflict and corruption, which we refuse to eradicate, that it’s as though we continuously tempt fate like fools playing Russian roulette. If we were truly a unified nation, maybe we’d wise up and adopt a different organizational model. But we don’t shoulder risk or enjoy reward evenly. Rather, the disenfranchised and most vulnerable among us, determined a variety of ways but forming a substantial majority, have revolvers to their heads with a single bullet in one of five or six chambers while the least vulnerable (the notorious 1%) have, in effect, thousands or millions of chambers and an exceedingly remote chance of firing the one with the bullet. Thus, vulnerability roulette.

In the midst of an epochal pandemic and financial crisis, who gets sacrificed like so much cannon fodder while others retreat onto their ocean-going yachts or into their boltholes to isolate from the rabble? Everyone knows it’s always the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder who unjustly suffer the worst, a distinctly raw deal unlikely ever to change. The middle rungs are also suffering now as contraction affects more and more formerly enfranchised groups. Meanwhile, those at the top use crises as opportunities for further plunder. In an article in Rolling Stone, independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who covered the 2008 financial collapse, observes that our fearless leaders (fearless because they secure themselves before and above all else) again made whole the wealthiest few at the considerable expense of the rest:

The $2.3 trillion CARES Act, the Donald Trump-led rescue package signed into law on March 27th, is a radical rethink of American capitalism. It retains all the cruelties of the free market for those who live and work in the real world, but turns the paper economy into a state protectorate, surrounded by a kind of Trumpian Money Wall that is designed to keep the investor class safe from fear of loss.

This financial economy is a fantasy casino, where the winnings are real but free chips cover the losses. For a rarefied segment of society, failure is being written out of the capitalist bargain.

Why is this a “radical rethink”? We’ve seen identical behaviors before: privatization of profit, indemnification of loss, looting of the treasury, and refusal to prosecute exploitation, torture, and crimes against humanity. Referring specifically to financialization, this is what the phrase “too big to fail” means in a nutshell, and we’ve been down this stretch of road repeatedly.

Naturally, the investor class isn’t ordered back to work at slaughterhouses and groceries to brave the epidemic. Low-wage laborers are. Interestingly, well compensated healthcare workers are also on the vulnerability roulette firing line — part of their professional oaths and duties — but that industry is straining under pressure from its inability to maintain profitability during the pandemic. Many healthcare workers are being sacrificed, too. Then there are tens of millions newly unemployed and uninsured being told that the roulette must continue into further months of quarantine, the equivalent of adding bullets to the chambers until their destruction is assured. The pittance of support for those folks (relief checks delayed or missing w/o explanation or recourse and unemployment insurance if one qualifies, meaning not having already been forced into the gig economy) does little to stave off catastrophe.

Others around the Web have examined the details of several rounds of bailout legislation and found them unjust in the extreme. Many of the provisions actually heap insult and further injury upon injury. Steps that could have been taken, and in some instances were undertaken in past crises (such as during the Great Depression), don’t even rate consideration. Those safeguards might include debt cancellation, universal basic income (perhaps temporary), government-supported healthcare for all, and reemployment through New Deal-style programs. Instead, the masses are largely left to fend for themselves, much like the failed Federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Some of this is no doubt ideological. A professional class of ruling elites are the only ones to be entrusted with guiding the ship of state, or so goes the political philosophy. But in our capitalist system, government has been purposefully hamstrung and hollowed out to the point of dysfunction precisely so that private enterprise can step in. And when magical market forces fail to stem the slide into oblivion, “Welp, sorry, th-th-that’s all folks,” say the supposed elite. “Nothing we can do to ease your suffering! Our attentions turn instead to ourselves, the courtiers and sycophants surrounding us, and the institutions that enable our perfidy. Now go fuck off somewhere and die, troubling us no more.”

/rant off

The first time I wrote on this title was here. I’m pretty satisfied with that 11-year-old blog post. Only recently, I copped to use of reframing to either zoom in on detail or zoom out to context, a familiar rhetorical device. Here I’m zooming out again to the god’s eye view of things.

The launching point for me is James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post explaining and apologizing for his generation’s principal error: financialization of the U.S. economy. In that post, he identifies characteristics in grandparents and parents of boomers as each responds and adapts to difficulties of the most self-destructive century in human history. Things destroyed include more than just lives, livelihoods, and the biosphere. After several centuries of rising expectations and faith in progress (or simply religious faith), perhaps the most telling destruction is morale, first in the reckless waste of WWI (the first mechanized war), then repeatedly in serial economic and political catastrophes and wars that litter the historical record right up to today. So it’s unsurprising (but not excusable) that boomers, seeing in unavoidable long-term destruction our powerlessness to master ourselves or in fact much of anything — despite the paradox of developing and obtaining more power at every opportunity — embarked on a project to gather to themselves as much short-term wealth and power as possible because, well, why the fuck not? Kunstler’s blog post is good, and he admits that although the masters-of-the-universe financial wizards who converted the economy into a rigged casino/carnival game for their own benefit are all boomers, not all boomers are responsible except in the passive sense that we (includes me, though I’m just as powerless as the next) have allowed it to transpire without the necessary corrective: revolt.

Zooming out, however, I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s assessment that the greatest mistake humans ever committed was the Agricultural Revolution 10–13 millennia ago. That context might be too wide, so let me restrict to the last 500 years. One theory propounded by Morris Berman in his book Why America Failed (2011) is that after the discovery of the New World, the cohort most involved in colonizing North America was those most desperate and thus inclined to accept largely unknown risks. To them, the lack of ontological security and contingent nature of their own lives were undeniable truths that in turn drive distortion of the human psyche. Thus, American history and character are full of abominations hardly compensated for by parallel glories. Are boomers, or more generally Americans, really any worse than others throughout history? Probably not. Too many counter-examples to cite.

The current endgame phase of history is difficult to assess as we experience it. However, a curious theory came to my attention that fits well with my observation of a fundamental epistemological crisis that has made human cognition into a hall of mirrors. (See also here and here, and I admit cognition may have always been a self-deception.) In a recent Joe Rogan podcast, Eric Weinstein, who comes across as equally brilliant and disturbed (admitting that not much may separate those two categories), opines that humans can handle only 3–4 layers of deception before collapsing into disorientation. It’s probably a feature, not a bug, and many have learned to exploit it. The example Weinstein discusses (derivative of others’ analyses, I think) is professional wrestling. Fans and critics knew for a very long time that wrestling looks fake, yet until the late 1980s, wrestlers and promoters held fast to the façade that wresting matches are real sporting competitions rather than being “sports entertainments.” Once the jig was up, it turned out that fans didn’t really care; it was real enough for them. Now we’ve come full circle with arguments (and the term kayfabe) that although matches are staged and outcomes known in advance, the wresting itself is absolutely for real. So we encounter a paradox where what we’re told and shown is real, except that it isn’t, except that it sorta is, ultimately finding that it’s turtles all the way down. Enthusiastic, even rabid, embrace of the unreality of things is now a prime feature of the way we conduct ourselves.

Professional wrestling was not the first organization or endeavor to offer this style of mind-bending unreality. Deception and disinformation (e.g., magic shows, fortune-telling, con jobs, psyops) have been around forever. However, wrestling may well have perfected the style for entertainment purposes, which has in turn infiltrated nearly all aspects of modern life, not least of which are economics and politics. Thus, we have crypto- and fiat currencies based on nothing, where money can be materialized out of thin air to save itself from worthlessness, at least until that jig is up, too. We also have twin sham candidates for this fall’s U.S. presidential election, both clearly unfit for the job for different reasons. And in straightforward fictional entertainment, we have a strong revival of magical Medievalism, complete with mythical creatures, spells, and blades of fortune. As with economics and politics, we know it’s all a complex of brazen lies and gaslighting, but it’s nonetheless so tantalizing that its entertainment value outstrips and sidelines any calls to fidelity or integrity. Spectacle and fakery are frankly more interesting, more fun, more satisfying. Which brings me to my favorite Joe Bageant quote:

We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.

An astounding sentence (sandwiched for context) from They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street:

The contemporary wealthy do not simply benefit from society; they accumulate fortunes at the expense of it. They profit from mass unemployment’s depressive impact on wages, which cuts their labor costs; regressive tax cuts and loopholes, which increase with wealth while shutting down social services for the poor; the cutting and undermining of environmental regulations, which reduce their business costs while spoiling livable ecology; wars and giant military budgets, which feed the bottom lines of the “defense” corporations they own while killing and crippling millions and stealing money from potential investment in social uplift; a hyper-commercialized mass consumer culture that despoils the environment while reducing human worth to exchange value and destroying peoples’ capacity for critical thought; dealing with corrupt dictators who provide natural resources at cheap prices while depressing wages and crushing democracy in “developing countries”; the closing down of livable wage jobs in the United States and the export of employment to repressive and low-wage peripheries; a health care system that privileges the profits of giant insurance and drug companies over the well-being of ordinary people; exorbitant credit card interest rates that lead to millions of bankruptcies each year; predatory lending practices that spread and perpetuate poverty and foreclosure; agricultural and trade practices that destroy sustainable local and regional food cultivation and distribution practices at home and abroad; the imposition of overly long working hours that keep employee compensation levels down while helping maintain a large number of unemployed workers; exorbitant public business subsidies and taxpayer incentives and bailouts of the rich paid for by the rest; and … the list goes on and on. Corporate and financial profits were restored in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis largely because the working-class majority paid for them, through taxpayer bailouts, slashed social services, layoffs, and reduced wages, hours, and benefits. [p. 89]

I’ve grown rather tired of hearing the financial 1% to 0.01% (depending on source) being called the “elite.” There is nothing about them most would recognize as elite other than their absurd wealth. As a rule, they’re not particularly admirable men and women; they’re merely aspirational (as in everyone thinking “wish I had all that money” — the moral lesson about the corruptions of excessive wealth rarely having been learned). The manner in which such fortunes are amassed pretty much invalidates claims to moral or ethical superiority. In the typical case, “real” money is acquired by identifying one or more market opportunities and exploiting them ruthlessly. The object of exploitation might be a natural resource, labor, a product or service, or a combination.

Admittedly, effort goes into exploiting a market niche, and it often takes considerable time to develop and mature (less these days in overheated and overvalued markets), but the pattern is well established. Further, those who succeed are often mere beneficiaries of happenstance from among many competing entrepreneurs, speculators, financiers, and media types putting in similar effort. While capitalism is not as blind as rock-paper-scissors or subtly skilled as poker, both of which are designed to produce an eventual sole winner (and making everyone else losers), this economic system tends over time to pool increasing wealth in the accounts of those who have already “won” the game. Thus, wealth inequality increases until social conditions become so intolerable (e.g., tent cities across the U.S.) the masses revolt. How many resets of this deplorable game do we get?

Meanwhile — and here’s another thing I can’t grok — billionaires seem discontent (alert: intentional fallacy) to merely enjoy their wealth or heaven forfend use it to help others. Instead, they announce their ambitions to rule by campaigning for high office, typically skipping the preliminary step of developing actual political skills, because (doncha know?) everything worth having can be bought. Few sane people actually believe that a giant fortune qualifies someone for high office, except of course them who gots the fortunes and have gone off the deep end. They’re so use to being fawned over by sycophants and cozied up to by false admirers that it’s doubtful anyone is ever bold enough to tell them anything resembling truth about themselves (notably including major character deficiencies). So the notion enters the noggin that the next big project ought be to squat on high office as though it’s a right bequeathed specially to the ultrarich, whether one is Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, or (gasp!) that trailblazer who demonstrated it’s possible: 45. In a pinch, mere millions will have to suffice, as most congressfolk and senators can attest.

According to Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All, seeking political office and practicing philanthropy is not at all the public service or “giving back” it pretends to be. Rather, it’s an attempt to maintain the status quo (funneling money upstream to those at the top), thus forestalling one of those nasty resets where the rabble overwhelms their betters with a fury known in past centuries to get quite out of hand. A few supposed elites riding herd over the great unwashed masses sounds rather passé, no? The bygone stuff of barbarian hordes and robber barons? But it describes the current day, too, and considering these folks are basically taking a giant dump on billions of other people, sorta gives a new, inverted meaning to the term squatter’s rights.

I learned recently about a new website, inequality.org, which bills itself as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (a think tank in Washington, D.C. — we obviously need more D.C. think tanks). Inequality, specifically of the wealth and income type, is a trend that has been underway for decades. One has to be living under a rock not to have noticed by now where trends are pointed. The site linked to above no doubt contains quite a lot of information and resources, but I admit I don’t have the patience to wade in only to discover needless details of what is already well known. So where, in fact, has all the money gone? OxFam International provides a disturbing snapshot:

The Oxfam report An Economy for the 1%, shows that the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent. This has occurred despite the global population increasing by around 400 million people during that period. Meanwhile, the wealth of the richest 62 has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76tr. The report also shows how women are disproportionately affected by inequality — of the current ‘62’, 53 are men and just nine are women.

The title of the Oxfam report is misleading, of course, because the numbers don’t support the populist reference to the 1%. In 2010, when the estimated midyear world population was 6,916,183,482, (6.9 billion, if you prefer) the number of people who accounted for half of the world’s wealth was 388, or 0.000000056% (that’s seven zeroes before the 56). In 2016, with an estimated midyear world population of 7,404,976,783 (or 7.4 billion), the now 62 people who account for half the world’s wealth (assuming the number 62 doesn’t diminish further between now and July 1) is 0.0000000084% (that’s eight zeroes before the 84). The absurdity of so few people having consolidated so much wealth, a trend that continued (probably accelerated) from 2010 to 2016, cannot be lost on any thinking person. Those dates are relatively arbitrary for purposes of comparison.

To say that economic systems are rigged in favor of the few is a statement of the obvious. No rational argument could be made that the value of social contribution or labor of a mere 62 people is equivalent to half the world’s population. Nor can it be reasonably argued that such large pools of money, stagnant or otherwise, are good for economic systems that require both liquidity and diversity. Is anything being done to dismantle this entrenched and deepening inequality? None that I can observe within the context of geopolitics or economics. However, considering how convinced I am that our economic arrangements will fail utterly when the house of cards we’ve built shakes itself apart, not least because so much of it is based on growth fueled by cheap energy that has been losing ROI for over a century, I would argue that what we are doing to ourselves by doing essentially nothing ought to crash things back to where the value of fiat currency is nothing. Poof: no more 1%, no more 0.000000056%, no more 0.0000000084%.