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Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

So I’ve noticed how some people are strongly against socialism.

Or at least, to some interpretation of it. To the idea that a core foundation of society should involve people doing things for the good of everyone as a whole, with no direct benefit to themselves individually. To a system in which we all try to do good for each other based on what we each need, rather than what we can each afford or achieve on our own. That sounds terrible to a lot of people.

And it’s not some perverse hatred of generosity and kindness which leads them there. It’s possible, apparently, to believe that a ruggedly capitalist system, where no more is ever provided to people than what they’re able to earn and pay for, would be the optimal way to allow our most noble impulses to improve the world.

But a lot of the objections to socialist ideas and programs come from thinking too small.

Often, when people are imagining how terrible socialism would be, they’re picturing some amount of their money being taken away from them and given to someone else, because some central authority has deemed that this other person “needs” it more. And they think, hey, I earned that money, through all that tedious drudgery I have to do just to survive at that job I resent, so why does it get taken away from me by the government, to give to someone else who didn’t even work for it?

I mean, for this to make much sense, you need to pretend that people generally get paid money in relation to how hard they toil and how useful their work, which is just comical lunacy. But even so, the above paragraph is not a useful way to imagine how society could work if we were all looking after each other.

When I’m at work, earning a salary to keep me in books and cheesecake, I’d also resent the idea of chunks of it being nibbled at and taken away for things that won’t directly benefit me. I’ve kinda been numbed to it with tax and national insurance deductions by now, but they still hurt a little when I really look at my payslip. We’re a naturally loss-averse species, and I have financial commitments to worry about. Millennia of evolution have given my brain clear instructions on how infuriated it should be by the idea of something of mine being taken away from me.

But regardless of my gut reaction, helping people is a good thing to do, and in the right circumstances it can feel like it as well. If there were more of such solidarity and mutual aid going around in every direction, we’d be less worried and insecure about our own financial position, and might be able to react less violently to any possible sliver of charity we might somehow be tricked into performing.

As it stands, I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage, animals to feed, all kinds of shit. If my or my wife’s gainful employment went away, even for a little while, I’d be panicking about our income and how we were supposed to cope. Of course I’m going to be wary of any of that vital cashflow being snatched away at the source, and I’ve got a way better and less frangible deal than many people in similar positions.

But without all those artificial worries to make me so insecure – without the capitalistic infrastructure, which massively disincentivises selflessness, and puts people in positions where actual lasting financial security is an impossible pipe dream for almost everyone – if we could just escape all that and feel safe and get the system of incentives right…

…then I’d love to work as hard to help other people as I currently do just to keep alive. And I’d take what help I can from them, too. Be part of a supportive network, a community.

As it is, chances are good that I’ll be too scared to let any of my effort go toward helping anyone else, for fear of losing out. But that attitude works both ways. So my colleagues might then be similarly disinclined to look after me when I’m sick, or keep me sheltered and fed if I lost my job or couldn’t work, or buy me a drink when I’m out of change, or work at schools where my kids will get educated, or help maintain safe roads and reliable public transport, or provide some sort of allowance to help me continue living an independent and worthwhile life when I’m old and decrepit… or any of the numerous ways that every person alive relies on the rest of the species to help them out. Because they’ve got their own lives to support and are worried about their ability to do so, even before I start free-loading.

We might all end up deciding not to let anyone else benefit from anything we could keep to ourselves, if we allow the idea of helping other people to become so abhorrent and frightening.

So if you’re worried about socialism because of what other people might take from you and how little you can afford, I understand. I totally get the feeling of financial insecurity, the urgent need to make sure you can keep a roof over your family’s heads, and put food on the table, without also being expected to take care of other people you don’t even know.

But it’s worth asking where that constant anxiety as you cling to survival comes from, and whether it’s really necessary. Is the system as it currently stands really working out so well for you? It’s made you live in fear of what you might lose out, without appreciating the vastness of the potential for you to gain. You really don’t know what you’re missing.

Especially if you live in the US and you have no perspective on how horrifying your country looks to anyone who’s grown up with socialised healthcare, I mean holy shit you need to sort that the fuck out.

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Apple Inc. have been paying an effective tax rate of under 2% in Ireland over the past decade.

There’s now a legal dispute over this, but not the way that you might think, or that might make any sense whatsoever. The question being disputed is actually whether the Irish government might be “forced to recoup tax” from the company. The state is apparently going out of its way to make sure this large international corporate behemoth doesn’t make any further contribution to public services.

I’m going to try to bear this in mind the next time the anarchist commentary on a news story about some capitalist atrocity seems a little over-the-top.

(Also, between scribbling the above and getting around to posting it: Facebook.)

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There’s an old saying along the lines of: People aren’t interested in socialism, they’re interested in putting food on the table.

I think it’s meant to discourage enthusiastic lefty types from talking openly about their political ideas on the grounds that nobody will be interested.

I don’t buy it. I know how caught-up large numbers of people can become in arguments about political ideas, labels and all, because I’ve been on the internet. People get personally interested in all kinds of things.

But even if it’s true, I don’t know why the general public are imagined to give any more of a shit about capitalism as an abstract political notion, so singling socialism out as beyond the scope of public interest seems unfair.

But maybe there’s something to it. Maybe all this outright radicalism isn’t that useful, and won’t change any minds.

Maybe most people don’t pay that much attention to the minority like us, who insist on taking societal change and complex jargonistic political ideas seriously, because they’re focused on things like how their children are going to be fed and clothed, and how much the taxman is going to take away out of what they earn at their bullshit job.

Except, y’know, all that is exactly the kind of stuff most socialists want you to take an interest in. It’s not just about fixating on explicitly political ideas; it’s about the things people just believe about how the world works, without really thinking about it or questioning it or considering it a matter of politics at all.

What kind of parent you want to be is an overtly political question. The lessons kids learn from their interactions with grown-ups will shape the way they see interactions with everyone else, on a society-wide level, for the rest of their lives. And that’s basically what politics is. The ways you choose to raise your children has a direct effect on the eventual political engagement of at least one future member of adult society.

Will they learn to view their interactions with others through the lens of domination, where the way you get what you want is by beating your enemies until they are totally defeated and you win? (The answer is: probably, unless you shield them from basically all of culture as well as treating them differently yourselves.)

If you’re going through tough times, is it demeaning to ask for help? Does it always feel shameful to have to rely on charity? Or is it a normal and beneficial part of life that a safety net should exist to support those who can’t fully support themselves and their own families, for whatever reason and over whatever length of time? It’d be odd to claim that everyday folk don’t take a direct personal interest in this kind of thing, and this is exactly what many people are talking about when they talk politics, socialists included.

There certainly exists plenty of socialist rhetoric which won’t mean much to anyone not already entangled in political intrigue, about uprisings of the proletariat and whatnot, but a lot of what I see is inspired by real-world relatable issues, to talk about those issues in a political context. Sometimes talking about socialism literally is talking about putting food on the table.

People might not care about “socialism” as an abstract set of ideas in political philosophy, or be swung by its promises in a political theoretical sense. But they already have strong feelings about the things it represents.

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How To Overthrow The Illuminati is the name of a worthwhile website/pamphlet, about the problems of systemic corruption and inequality in the world, the reasons why many people turn to grandiose and illusory conspiracy theories to explain it all, and how to actually think about correctly identifying the enemy and struggling against the root causes of civilisational inadequacy.

Thanks for the recommendation, The Ex-Worker.

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So says this article.

We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy.

I still naturally think of myself as being on the left, and tend to find more common ground with lefty ideas and positions than with self-identified right-wing thought, but it’s a fuzzy and nebulous excuse for an axis, and there are much more fruitful ways available of summing up what I consider politically important. I’m an anti-authoritarian more strongly than I’m, say, a socialist – and in fact much of my feeling on the latter flows from my vehemence on the former.

Rather than “libertarian socialist” or other similar labels I’ve found helpful in the past to sum myself up, I think I’m going to start saying that my political views can be best represented in the form of the Konami code. It conveys no useful or meaningful political information, but it’s kinda funny the first time you hear it, and feels like it could be referring to something deep and profound, and establishes that I probably enjoy being irritatingly contrarian.

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Look, forget for a moment all the problems with my vaguely defined and ill articulated socialist utopia.

Forget any of the specific counter-arguments you’re tired of re-hashing whenever people bring up one of your constant bug-bears, like how government regulation might ever be a good thing.

Step back from all that. Just look at how things actually are, right now. Ignore the details of the system behind it, and just look where it’s got us.

The current system our species has settled on for distributing wealth has basically amounted to: “Here is all* the money: you 85 people over here take half, and you 3,500,000,000 share the other half out amongst yourselves.”

Does that really sound like everything’s working okay to you?

I’m not proposing any specific action be done about it, so stop rehearsing complaints about the dangers of government regulation, and shut up about the fucking Laffer curve for a minute.

Look at the numbers. Look at the shitty kind of life many of those in the bottom 3,500,000,000 are stuck with.

Consider how much the experience of life would be affected for several billion people by the amounts of money being discussed here. Consider how much less happiness, comfort, or motivation eighty-five individuals would experience, if the numbers that appeared on some bits of paper didn’t have quite so many zeroes on the end. Compare the impact that would be felt, by one group and by the other, if some of all the money were somewhere other than where it is.

Can we not just agree that this level of division is pretty fucked up? That such a colossal disparity does not actually represent a discrepancy in how hard people are working, or how much a given person is contributing to society, or how much we all fucking deserve?

I imagine most of my readership will be on board at least that far. But from the way many people downplay the extent to which income inequality in the US and UK is a problem, or deny the assertion that there is any systemic injustice causing or exacerbating such inequalities… I’m starting to worry that some people out there really think that the current situation is how you’d expect things to look if everything was working just fine.

And I’m going to have to take some time to figure out how to even talk to that kind of belief.

*You’re on the internet, you should be used to “all” being used hyperbolically. Of course it’s not all the money being referred to here; it’s actually just several metric fuckloads.

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The whole idea of a moral basis to capitalism seems inherently broken to me.

The Pope recently made his first “apostolic exhortation”, which is totally what I’m going to start calling my tweets in future in a further attempt at self-hype and aggrandisement. (“Apostles, I exhort you. Look at this picture of my cat making a derpy face. LOL. Please RT.”)

In this exhortation, he talked about poverty, and wealth inequality, and all the stuff that’s increasingly been interesting me lately. Pontiff Frankie Prime seems to genuinely give a crap about the whole poverty deal, at least by Papal standards. I get the impression he genuinely sees people suffering because of economic injustices and wants to prioritise improving this situation, even if he is only doing a minuscule fraction of what’s within his power from that massive palace of his.

Anyway, his description of the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” got a lot of people agitated, and often with good reason. I’m not sure that his proposed improvements to the global economy are cogent, or that his statement of the problem is even internally consistent; part of what defines capitalism is the fetters, in the form of property rights and so forth.

I don’t have any especial interest in analysing the Pope’s proposed economic policies, not least because by his own admission he’s not really trying to speak in economic, academic terms. But I just listened to a Freakonomics podcast which discussed the Pope’s ideas with a number of economists, and a few things bugged me about the defenses of market systems that ensued.

Joseph Kaboski, an Economics Professor and a Catholic, argues that ethics comprise an important part of a market economy. He provides a simple example in which they come into play, of someone getting over-charged at a car dealership because they didn’t speak great English, and so weren’t in a position to fully inform themselves of the details which would have helped in their negotiations. The point he’s trying to demonstrate is that “ethics are important in markets”.

But being “important” is a vague concept – what role do ethics actually play here? It’s clear that unethical behaviour would be an option for some unscrupulous person in this situation, and that it harms some innocent bystander as a result (and arguably damages market efficiency) – but none of that needs to matter to the unethical actor. He’s just made a tidy profit off of some hapless loser, beyond what was merited by the quality of the product – and he’s strongly incentivised by the system in place to do so whenever he can get away with it. Unethical behaviour makes those doing it better off.

There’s no solution proposed to this. It’s not even recognised as a problem. Another contributor to the episode, Jeffrey Sachs, says that “our indifference, our brazenness, our hard-heartedness, is no favour to ourselves or to the functioning of our societies”. But sometimes brazen, hard-hearted, unethical behaviour is a favour to ourselves, at least in the short-term. It might screw over the functioning of society if we all act that way, but why should I care? I got mine, Jack.

Obviously I think I should care. There is a moral obligation, I’m not going full relativist here. But when people who flout that obligation flourish as a direct result, and do better than those who act more ethically, the system is inherently broken. There’s no point arguing that your system will work fine if people would just behave more ethically, when the system is designed to reward those who don’t. There needs to be something built-in to the system so that socially harmful and undesirable behaviour isn’t massively appealing to anyone with flexible morals.

On a briefer note, here’s another quote from Kaboski, amid some more detailed statistics of how much things have been improving lately:

More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history.

There are aspects of this whole debate to take heart in. Things do get better. But I call bullshit on this limited success as a vindication of any given application of capitalist market economics in recent years. There are still billionaires collectively hiding trillions of dollars offshore, for whom sums of money equivalent to whole countries’ GDPs act like a meaningless high-score, and there are still thousands of children starving to death every day.

It might be better than it’s ever been. It’s still not fucking good enough.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Do we have any obligation to care what the Pope says about anything, given the global extent of the child abuse network he oversees?

2. What would “unfettered capitalism” actually look like? What, if any, role would the government play in such a system?

3. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to sort out all the money without being dicks about it, by this point in our civilisation?

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There are people who want to control your lives.

This is no surprise. You interact with them to some degree every day, and they already do control your lives to a frightening degree. You’ve probably been warned many times about how dangerous it can be to let these people and organisations have any power over you.

You might wonder whether it’s really so bad. After all, the power these people possess wasn’t simply stolen. It’s not the result of some military coup. It’s been earned legally, and granted to them in effect by a sizeable chunk of the population. They wouldn’t be in the position of authority and national prominence they are if people hadn’t rationally elected to put them there – if society as a whole hadn’t chosen to allow them to control the things they do.

It’s a tempting argument. But I don’t think you should be convinced.

If everyone acted completely rationally and knew exactly what they were supporting, every time they took any action which affected the world, then maybe it’d be okay – but, speaking for myself, I’m not that smart and I’m not paying that much attention. And when power accumulates, then it becomes the main interest of the powerful to protect that power. If that means obstructing our already feeble ability to get an accurate understanding of how they operate, so that we’re less able to make rational decisions which might not favour them, then they’ll have a strong motivation to do that.

And they’re going to be motivated that way, even if they enter this arena with the best of intentions, and believe they can do much good for everyone once they have the authority and disproportionate influence. Even if they’re attempting to act unselfishly, they’ll end up protecting their privileged position and justifying it with claims that it’s best for everyone. That’s just how power works.

In theory, the general population should be able to keep this power in check. It’s our decisions to support these people which are the source of their power, and if we all withdrew that support because we disapproved of the power they wielded, they’d crumble. So, in principle, those who remain powerful do so because they’re earning it, because they’ve risen to the top of a meritocracy, because they’re the best people for the job and our continued actions prove that.

But if it’s easier to have laws changed in their favour… to divert people’s anger and hostility toward others… to exercise some of their considerable power spreading propaganda, persuading us that allowing them to continue exerting their power is a moral necessity, and that curtailing it in favour of a more egalitarian system would be an unacceptable breach of everyone’s freedoms…

If doing all that is easier than actually being the best people for the job, and if actually providing a truly optimal service which benefits us all is more trouble for them than simply convincing us that’s what they’re doing…

… then maybe that’s what they’ll do.

Okay, enough melodrama. Quick question: Am I talking about governments or corporations?

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This is interesting. A quote from Atlas Shrugged shows how objectivists – or one objectivist, at least – kinda sorta get it, before completely failing to get it.

When you live in a rational society, where men are free [to think and] to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing.

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for [a thinker]? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [those who choose not to sweat, but to think].

So, there’s a valid observation in there. People’s marginal productivity can, indeed, be greatly influenced by other people. How much I can get done in an hour, and what that output is worth to anyone, is hugely boosted by the inventions, creations, ideas, and hard work of my colleagues, other workers, managers, and numerous people who’ve been dead for centuries.

A labourer can produce much greater output when assisted by the ideas and creativity of a “thinker”. This seems trivially true. But what exactly would be the productive output of a thinker if there weren’t any labourers to do the actual, y’know, labour?

Innovation’s great and all, but without thousands of pairs of nimble Chinese hands working round the clock for years actually making things, Steve Jobs is just a nerd in a garage.

So why does Ayn Rand stop at lauding the miraculous contributions of her thinkers, without recognising any comparable virtue in back-breaking labour? I mean, she’s half there. People can do much more in collaboration than working on their own. We are more than the sum of our parts. So why doesn’t she get that it’s a two-way street? Is it just a contempt for anything so vulgar as doing work, which leads someone to hold those who manage to avoid it in such high esteem?

I mean, all that the millions of people in the working class do is toil really hard getting stuff done for forty hours a week or more. The CEOs and entrepreneurs and “thinkers”, though – they had a neat idea one time. (And then got the government to force everyone else not to use their idea without giving them money.)

Who are the real heroes we can’t do without?

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Serious question.

This is about the whole 47% thing, obviously. And I genuinely want to know. His thoughts: what were they?

The picture he’s painting for his audience of $50,000-a-plate party-goers is, after all, a wildly inaccurate one. Nearly half of the entire country, he tells them, are “dependent on government”, don’t pay any income tax, think they’re “entitled” to things like food and healthcare, will never “take personal responsibility” for their lives, and will vote for Obama “no matter what”.

He doesn’t use the word “moochers”, or any term so overtly provocative, but it’s clear what he’s trying to communicate. The image is one of millions of slobs and layabouts, who can’t be bothered putting down their beer and getting off the couch to do an honest day’s work, and who expect you good, hard-working people to take care of them and pay for their pampered lifestyle, which the black guy’s going to make you do if we let him stay in office.

It’s clear simply from the tone of voice what we’re meant to think about people who feel “entitled” to anything (notwithstanding the incredibly narrow definition of “entitled” within which it’s assumed to be about the worst trait a human can possess). He doesn’t call them all feckless scum, because he doesn’t need to. (In fact, a Pennsylvania legislator – unconnected to the Romney campaign, as far as I know – did recently paraphrase his speech in rather more stark language.)

And yet, it’s bullshit.

For starters, even if the 47% statistic were meaningful, the judgment he leaps to from it is ideological and severely lacking in compassion. The idea that money is a useful measure of a person’s value, or of how much they deserve to be fed and clothed and treated when they’re sick, is comical enough already – but federal income tax? Jesus wept.

But I didn’t even need to do my usual bare minimum level of research, before the internet pointed out to me that most of the 47% do pay taxes in other forms, like payroll taxes, unless they’re retired or getting paid a pittance; that these payroll-tax-payers actually contribute a greater proportion of their income than Romney does; that people who don’t pay income tax actually tend to vote Republican; that the entities most “dependent on government” in history continue to be banks and corporations; and so on, and so on.

So… does Romney just not know any of this stuff?

I mean, I’m about as connected to American politics as he is to the administration of the pension schemes of London-based multinational law firms (whee, I have a job), but even I can get my head around the evidence suggesting that every second person in the United States isn’t a good-for-nothing scrounger being courted for their vote by a socialist President while the other half effectively wait on them hand and foot. Can Mitt Romney really not have picked up any of this information himself?

I know he’s a busy man, but the internet’s even drawn him a picture:

Does he really not know this stuff? It hardly seems plausible.

And yet, if he really has ever encountered these, y’know, facts, but still chooses to use this kind of manipulative language to dismiss any concern for the well-being of 150,000,000 people as “not his job”…

…then what is it that he’s thinking, when he talks like this?

Because it looks a lot like he’s thinking that he knows the crowd he’s playing to, and they don’t much care whatever happens to those poor people so long as their own interests are being looked after, and he’s okay with that.

He’s in a room full of other rich white guys, who all seem to think they made their fortunes entirely through their own personal merits, and it’s purely a coincidence that just about every one of them happens to be white and male and had rich, well connected parents. Assuming Romney’s not entirely ignorant of basic facts, it looks like he’s thinking that he wants to keep them happy and take their money more than he wants to engage in any kind of intellectual honesty about income inequality and the injustices of capitalism.

So either he’s deeply isolated in a bubble that’s non-permeable to significant portions of reality, or he thinks lying about half of the country that he wants to rule over is worth doing to meet his own goals.

When Mitt Romney says “47% of people aren’t contributing”… does he mean “47% of people are effectively contributing to a wealthy minority, by means of not being paid the full value of their labour in the first place”?

Does he mean “47% of people find my policies completely unappealing and wouldn’t be helped by them at all, suggesting that I might not be an ideal candidate to lead the entire country as I think I should be allowed to do”?

Does he mean “47% of people’s contributions – and, by extension, their lives – seem completely worthless to the people who want to run the country”?

This turned into more of a run-of-the-mill anti-Republican rant than I was hoping for. And Obama shills for cash just as shamelessly and has murdered a lot more foreigners than Romney, so maybe this isn’t even that big a deal. Just another familiar instance of a series of systemic problems that no mainstream politician even comes close to wanting to solve. I don’t know.

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