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So high-frequency trading is pretty clearly insane and has fuck all to do with useful economic activity. There are billions of dollars to be “made” out there, but they only reward whoever has the shiniest computers, fastest microwave connections to the stock exchange, and smartest algorithms; and they all come at the expense of those who think they can keep up but fall behind due to inferior ability to play the market.

Huge amounts of human endeavour are being poured into this system by those who hope to get personally rich from it. Not to blame them exclusively for that; they exist in a culture which tells them every day that making money is the most patriotic and noble thing you can do and so long as you stop somewhere short of literally drowning puppies in the process you should feel great about it.

And yet nobody’s producing anything useful while all this is going on. Nothing’s being built or designed; the creative or communal aspect of the human spirit is not being enriched. Just billions of dollars being thrown around, won and lost, inflicting massive rewards or punishments on the participants so chaotically that I’m not sure we’d notice the difference if it were truly random.

Obviously this is all crazy. But the mistake people make is in thinking it’s crazy like, say, quantum mechanics is crazy. Quantum mechanics is crazy, in the sense that it’s a bizarre and inexplicable and counter-intuitive system, which nobody would have designed anything like that, but it also has an unavoidable connection to the real world. It models our best current understanding of how the world just is, at a fundamental level. Whether you believe it or not, whether you want to rearrange things in a way that strikes you as more sensible or not, quantum mechanics is going to carry on, because that’s just how things are.

Whereas high-frequency trading is crazy like stoning gay people to death is crazy. It’s something our species invented, and which we’re quite capable of subsequently identifying as complete bollocks and rejecting as unworthy.

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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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Here’s something that could make you hate and despise your benevolent democratic overlords to the very core of your bitter soul, if you’re not careful.

At least some of the members of Congress currently not doing their jobs have been expressing how important it is that they continue to get paid.

I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.

Rep. Renee Ellmers there, before this story presumably took off and motivated a change of heart.

On one level, it’s not hard to sympathise with her plight. And that’s always a level worth paying attention to. She’s used to doing a job for which she gets paid a salary, and abruptly not receiving that salary could be a serious snag in her financial situation. I have no idea how many regular payments to things like mortgages and insurance premiums this Congresswoman is currently obliged to make, but it’s not unreasonable if she works her salary into her assumptions for being able to meet those obligations.

Really, her discomfort with the idea of giving up her income is understandable. I know it’d put a serious, frightening crimp in my own financial situation if I suddenly wasn’t getting paid.

…And here we approach the point. Ms Ellmers’s salary is quoted at $174,000 per annum. To put that in terms we can all understand, that’s more than I get. It’s a lot more than a lot of people get.

Which is perhaps why the delineation of her own monetary neediness as “the bottom line” rankles so deeply, and in what ought to be an entirely predictable way. That might be your bottom line, Ms Ellmers. Other people’s bottom lines go down way, way further.

I know nothing about this person’s situation and the debts and responsibilities she has to manage. She may even be right. It may be entirely true that she would become suddenly quite vulnerable and find it difficult to continue supporting her lifestyle if her primary income dried up. What’s infuriating isn’t the idea that she’s lying, it’s the lack of imagination.

Surely if you know how tough it can be on $174,000 + whatever your general surgeon husband brings in from his own practice, it doesn’t require much imagination to briefly consider how things might be for someone supporting a family alone on one tenth of your salary. Surely it’s kinda sorta a really important part of your job to spend time thinking about the people in such a situation who you supposedly represent. People already pushing the limits of personal deprivation to make ends meet. People who know that a problem at the bank that delays a bill payment could mean a spell without electricity or food for them or their children. People for whom downscaling some of their plans to accommodate a drop in household income, as you’ve had to do, is likely to mean ending up homeless, because there’s simply no further down for them to go.

It’s seems like it should be really hard not to take more of an interest in other people, is all. And yet some folk seem determined to try.

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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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– It was Self-Injury Awareness Day last week, and it’s never too late to be a little more aware.

– Yet more evidence that those poor investment bankers and billionaires are getting a bum deal while there’s so much welfare fraud ruining the country: a new $77 million system has saved a whopping $7,591 in illegitimate Medicare payments.

– When you look at the taxes corporations actually pay, the US has almost the lowest rate in the world. And here’s ten more charts.

– People tend to have very different views on government social programs when they’re the ones benefiting from them.

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This article got me a little agitated on Twitter yesterday. To recap what I was snarking about it at the time, Reason magazine seems to be asking: What’s so bad about billionaires spending money in politics? It just helps you freely decide what to think!

I hate it when patronising liberals assume that voters are so dumb as to be manipulated by a constant stream of media propaganda.

“Money doesn’t make politics dirty; politicians make politics dirty.” See? It has nothing to do with how rich those politicians are.

This is why I could probably be well described as a left-libertarian, and may well be proceeding inexorably toward anarchism. I sympathise with Reason‘s skepticism about government intervention and increased regulation, but I’m not attracted by the idea of reducing government until it’s just the right size to prop up billionaires’ efforts to consolidate their political and economic power, while leaving the rest of us out in the cold.

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So, Reason magazine. Any thoughts?

I’ve been following their online presence for a while. For some reason, I had the preconception that they were mostly focused on religion, secularism, and rationality, but I may have been thinking of someone else. Reason predominantly cover politics, and they’re an interesting crowd. Even when I’m not entirely on board with their message, disagreeing with them tends to feel more worthwhile than it does with a lot of other commentators, who are often just boringly wrong.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com who may or may not be played by Bill Hader, was recently on Bill Maher’s talk show:

I take issue with a number of things he said, but in a way that’s more fun to unravel than when someone like Rush Limbaugh says something obviously stupid and cruel.

Among the generally liberal panel on liberal Bill Maher’s liberal show, Nick seems to be kind of on his own in suggesting that America’s economic problems should be primarily solved through spending cuts. Here’s something he said that was received with particular agitation:

We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.

I’m not so interested in whether this statement instantly proves Nick Gillespie to be a Republican, as Bill Maher reckons it does. But I do think it misstates the problem.

Actually, I suppose it’s possible that the problem only lies in one area, but the situation of “being in debt” depends on the relationship between two factors: how much money you acquire, and how much money you spend. (Stop me if the Micawber-esque economics is getting too technical.) Given only that the US is spending more money than it makes, there are clearly two methods available for getting out of the red:

  1. Increase the amount of money made (while avoiding a corresponding increase in money spent),
  2. Decrease the amount of money spent (while avoiding a corresponding decrease in money made).

America doesn’t just have a spending problem. It has a problem with the money, and the money both comes and goes.

If we’re spending money in ways that aren’t worth the trouble of raising the funds, we should cut that spending. But if we’re spending money on things important enough that raising more funds (which generally seems to mean taxes) is the less harmful option, we should do that.

Given just how many $1,000,000,000,000s are being talked about, it seems unlikely that enough spending can be cut to clear the debt, without increasing revenues at all. Nick Gillespie does actually have some suggestions that would make this a more practical idea, such as ending America’s engagement in the wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs (the scariest foreign land of all), but none of this seems to be remotely on the table for any of the country’s actual politicians, even the purportedly “small government” supporters on the right.

So it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, given this massive amount of money that’s already been spent which needs to actually be paid, to wonder whether the super-duper rich folks could be chipping in any more than they are now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting enterprise. I don’t want to punish people for working hard and becoming wealthy. I’m not saying we go crazy with this.

But I’m pretty sure the US economy was coping with income tax rates being what they were in the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts came into play in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were extended. Business wasn’t being crippled and major corporations weren’t moving daily overseas to more liberal climes. And, presumably, tax revenues were significantly higher than they are now. So, maybe we could look at some things going back to how they were before?

I’m not saying that’s definitely the way to go. Someone who actually understands economics would surely see many ramifications to something like this which would never occur to me. But shouldn’t it at least be on the table? Or am I a socialist line-toeing democrat for even bringing it up?

So, that was a bit of a ramble which rather got caught up on one particular point made during the above clip. A lot of interesting stuff comes out in the rest of it, though, so have a look if you’ve got time.

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