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Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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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Right-wing libertarians: “The government needs to get out of the way so that capitalism can fix everything.”

Left-wing libertarians: “The government needs to get out of the way so that capitalism can’t keep fucking everything up.”

Just something which occurred in my head, and which may make up for a lack of nuance by being pleasingly pithy.

Thoughts?

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This is an interesting thing about the differences among libertarian views on corporate power.

I tend to find right-wing libertarianism very tedious, and often largely self-defeating, given how authoritarian can be the ultimate results of its basic tenets about capitalist property rights. I came to the libertarian socialism with which I now hesitantly identify through a fairly mainstream liberalism.

The line of thinking that got me there is typified by the kind of argument suggested by the above article, in response to the classical liberal claim that more government intervention is what’s needed to keep corporate power in check:

I agree with you that corporate power exists, and share your concern with its evil effects, but I believe you’re mistaken about its causes and remedy. The evil effects of corporate power result, not from government’s failure to restrain big business, but from government propping it up in the first place: this government support includes subsidies to the operating costs of big business, and protection of big business from market competition through market entry barriers, regulatory cartels, and special privileges like so-called “intellectual property.”

The fact that capitalist power can even be amassed in the first place, into such concentrations that it supposedly needs to be “reined in” by the government, relies on numerous such forms of tacit government support which don’t often get seriously questioned. Maybe taking some of that support away, instead of trying to add more safeguards for corporations to find ways around, will actually achieve at least some of what many liberals are really aiming for.

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About $10,000,000,000,000 has been squirrelled away by 92,000 people.

A tiny little subsection of humanity, described appropriately by the Guardian as a “global super-rich elite”, has amassed this fortune, extracted it from various of the world’s economies, and hidden it under a metaphorical Cayman Island-shaped mattress to reduce their tax liability.

This is what happens when you encourage personal accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and sanctify those who succeed in the scramble to the top. You allow the “job-creators” to hoard unimaginably colossal piles of resources, denying their use to any of the rest of us.

What is even the point of anyone having that much money? What personal hedonistic joy are you going to derive from the second billion which you couldn’t reach with the first? It just becomes about getting a high score.

The total amount tucked away in private banks is apparently $21,000,000,000,000. And yes, it really is meant to have that many zeros. I have to keep double-checking, too. To put that in a little perspective, if you look at the cost of the NHS and scale it for population, then this off-shore stash could pay for the entire USA to have its own nationalised healthcare service, providing every single person in the country with the kind of social safety net enjoyed by every other nation in the developed world.

Twenty-six times over.

But it’s not going to. Because some successful capitalists earned that money, and now its all theirs to do what they want with it.

This is a completely fucked system.

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And the libertarian right exploded.

So this is about a speech Barack Obama gave recently, in which he pointed out that people who succeed in life do so, in part, thanks to the benefits resulting from the hard work of other people.

Some people believe this is an unacceptable slur against America’s great businessmen. Businessmen like the late, great Steve Jobs, who made a fortune personally designing every aspect of Apple’s iPhone, smelting and forging every ounce of necessary material, wearing his fingers to the bone delicately hand-crafting millions of individual units, and personally delivering them to every customer around the world.

Other people may have noticed a thing called “reality” and decided it might be worth paying attention to.

Look, I’m entirely willing to stipulate that Steve Jobs was a genius who worked his ass off. But of the millions of man-hours that went towards Apple’s net income of $25billion last year, very little of that labour was performed by him. If the people running Apple now didn’t have thousands of people working full-time doing what they’re told, there would be no business.

The President dared to observe the necessity of cooperation, collaboration, and making use of the work done by others, in all significant endeavours. He observed that nobody exists in a vacuum and is personally responsible for every aspect of everything they use, make, or consume throughout their entire life. From the apoplectic response from much of the free market capitalism crowd, you’d have thought he’d said something actually socialist for a change.

Of course, they sort of know that they’re not arguing against the whole idea of humans cooperating with each other, and they’re not simply attacking a straw-man, either. Obama mentioned “government research” as an example of the help that anyone who owns a business relies on, as did Elizabeth Warren in a similar speech, and I can see why this might be an upsetting precedent for some people.

But the inability of some folks to conceive that anybody might ever do anything worthwhile, sensible, useful, constructive, or efficient, while being part of some dreaded thing called a “government”, is blinding them to every other aspect of the discussion. That last link raises important concerns about the wastefulness of a lot of government expenditure, but it doesn’t attempt to deny that roads and a national power grid are good things. There have been worthwhile achievements in which people banded together to work on something important and fruitful, even when there was no immediate financial reward available to the people who made the investment.

And neither of these crazed socialist villains is even necessarily talking about government. Obama’s emphasis is on the contributions of “somebody else”; Warren points out that “the rest of us helped”. Now, if you wanted to argue that what they’re really getting at when they say such things is about rich people paying more taxes… Well, it’s not like the Democratic Party has a strongly anti-statist history to throw that argument into doubt.

But even if that’s the case, taking their cunningly encrypted code-words literally tells a story that’s obviously true. The personal fortune of Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, would not have been amassed without the use of many buildings constructed by other people, factories and equipment manufactured by specialists, and the corporation’s ninety thousand employees.

It seems like, in the context of business, if you mention luck or making use of help from others at all, someone will screech at you that you’re claiming hard work has no value. If you mention that working together for mutual benefit regardless of any immediate profit motive is sometimes a good way of getting things done, they’ll interrupt you to let you know how outrageous it is that you want to raise taxes on job-creators.

Is everyone’s imagination really so dull that working together for common goals with a spirit of communality can have no further meaning?

It’d be nice to see some genuine acknowledgment of the social value of labour once in a while, without the conversation being dominated by over-sensitive capitalists complaining about the indignities that the incredibly rich continue to suffer at the hands of those accursed “other people”. I live in hope.

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