Archive for the ‘The 1% and the 99%’ Category

Adolph Reed Jr. on identity politics

July 1, 2020

This Bill Moyers interview with Adolph Reed Jr. was aired in 2014.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a retired professor of political science and a Marxist.  He thinks that what is called identity politics is a way of maintaining structure of inequality.  The purpose of this post is to call attention to his critique of identity politics and provide links to some of this work.

Identity politics is based on an analysis of how dominant groups oppress marginal groups.  Some examples:

  • Whites > Blacks  [racism]
  • Men > Women  [male chauvinism, mysogyny]
  • Native-Born > Immigrants [xenophobia]
  • Anglos > Hispanics [xenophobia]
  • Straights > Gays [homophobia]
  • Cisgendered > Transgendered [transphobia]

These are not made-up problems.  It is a fact that white job applicants or loan applicants get preference over equally-qualified or better-qualified black applicants.  It is a fact that shocking numbers of women are sexually harassed on the job.  No-one should be denied basic rights by reason of race, gender, national origin or LGBTQ identity.

The problem is when disparities between groups are used to distract from the structure of wealth and power in society as a whole.  According to economist Gabriel Zucman, one percent of Americans own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from 28 percent in the 1990s.

Reed says that, within the multicultural framework, this would be okay if the upper one percent were 50 percent women, 15 percent black and the appropriate percentages Hispanic, GLBTQ and so on.

Ideas of equity can be used to promote inequality.  Ideas about oppression of minorities can be used to divert attention from exploitation of the majority by the minority.  The ideology of multiculturalism can be used as a technique to divide and rule.

Honoring diversity doesn’t bring about full employment, living wages, debt relief or an end to America’s forever wars

Honoring multiculturalism can leave members of all the different groups divided among themselves and equally exploited, along with straight white cisgender males, by employers, bankers, landlords and corrupt politicians..

LINKS

Public Thinker: Adolph Reed Jr. on Organizing, Race and Bernie Sanders, an interview for Public Books.

An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project on the World Socialist Web Site.

Nothing Left: the long, slow surrender of American liberals by Adolph Reed Jr. for Harper’s Magazine (2014)

Adolph Reed: Identity Politics Exposing Class Division in Democrats, from an interview on the Benjamin Dixon Show (2016)

The Trouble With Uplift by Adolph Reed Jr. for The Baffler (2018)

What Materialist Black Political History Actually Looks Like by Adolph Reed Jr. for nonsite.org.

The misleading ‘elephant curve’ graph

June 6, 2020

Click to enlarge.

This widely-circulated graph supposedly shows that the great growth in income of the world’s richest 1 percent is justified because the world’s poorest people also are making great gains under the present system.

The problems of poor and middle-class people in rich countries are supposedly a necessary sacrifice to make this happen.

What makes this chart misleading is that it deals with percentages rather than amounts (dollars, euros, etc.)  So a tiny gain in income for a poor person in, say, Bangladesh or Sudan is a large percentage, even though it is a small amount.

Annotations by the famous French economist Thomas Piketty, in his book, Capital and Ideology, show the true picture.  The poorest 50 percent of the world’s population got only a one-eighth share of the growth in world income over a 38-year period.

The next 49 percent, even though their proportionate gain was less, enjoyed more than sixth-tenths of the amount of the gain.  The world’s richest 1 percent got more than a quarter of the gain.  The richest 0.01 percent got the biggest proportionate gain of all.

The graph does show that the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population made some gains.  A lot of that consists of progress in just one country, China.  A lot of it may consist of people moving from a barter economy to a money economy, and from the “informal” off-the-books economy to the visible economy.

Many of the world’s poorest people may be slightly better off than they were 40 years ago. It’s possible. Even if this is so, there should be a better way to improve their lot than the trickle-down system illustrated by this chart.

LINKS

World Poverty Is NOT Decreasing by Ian Welsh.

No, the World Isn’t Getting Better for Everyone by Ian Welsh.

Worldwide inequality report shows gap between rich and poor by Sam Meredith for CNBC

Thomas Piketty on corporate co-determination

June 5, 2020

I’ve written a good bit about Thomas Piketty’s new book.  Click on the Capital and Ideology tag to read my previous posts about it.  In this post, I’m going to discuss his ideas on corporate governance.

Great corporations typically begin with an individual who has a vision—a Steve Jobs, a Walt Disney, a George Eastman, a Henry Ford, a Soichiro Honda or a Jack Ma.

The drive and creativity of the individuals make the companies what they are.  Over time, though, the companies devolve into authoritarian bureaucracies, little junior watered-down versions of the Soviet Union.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Oxford Law Faculty

The goal of reform would be how to prevent corporate abuse without stifling enterprise and beneficial innovation.  Piketty’s solution is to adopt German-Scandinavian co-determination, under which corporations of a certain size have to allow employees to choose a certain number of corporate directors.

In Germany, according to Piketty,  all firms with more than 2,000 employees must reserve half the seats on their oversight committees to worker representatives.  All firms with 500 to 1,999 employees must reserve a third of their oversight committee seats to worker representatives.  There also are factory committees with union representatives who have a say one work rules and training.

However, in Germany, the oversight committees only supervise day-to-day operations of companies.  Policy is set by directorates, on which workers have no representation.

Other countries reserve one-third of seats for workers on companies of a certain size.  In Sweden, the threshold is 35 employees; in Norway, 50 employees; in Austria, 500 employees.

In April 2018, according to Wikipedia, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz sponsored the Reward Work Act,  which would amend federal legislation to require all companies listed on national stock exchanges to have one-third board representation for workers.  Polls showed majority support among Americans for the measure.

In August 2018, Elizabeth Warren sponsored a new Accountable Capitalism Act that would require 40 percent of the board of directors be elected by employees in federal corporations with taxable incomes over $1 billion.

In Britain, the Bullock Report in 1977, during the Harold Wilson administration, called for co-determination in big businesses based on the formula 2x + y. In this, workers and stockholders would have equal representation on boards of directors, but there would be two government representatives to break a tie.  It never became reality.

In practice, even though workers have a voice, the final authority rests with the owners.  I think there still is a benefit to having worker representatives.

Employees usually know things about how companies operate that the top managers don’t.  This can be valuable in avoiding the Stupidity Paradox, in which layers of bureaucrats demand good news and truthful information doesn’t filter up.

It’s also good for employees, especially union representatives, to have access to the same information that top management has.  Of course all these desirable goals can be thwarted by a sufficiently cunning and authoritarian management.

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Thomas Piketty on equality through taxation

June 4, 2020

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is the most comprehensive study I know about the causes of economic inequality.  He gathered a vast amount of data and made sense of it.  To read my comments on his research, click on this, this, this and this.

In the last chapter, he outlined proposals for a “participatory socialism” to make society less unequal.  He saw three main ways to do this: (1) taxation, (2) reform of corporate governance and (3) educational reform.  This post will be about taxation.  I will take up the other two later.

His plan is based on steeply graduated income taxes, inheritance taxes and new taxes on wealth.  These were to be used to finance a wealth endowment of 60 percent of average wealth to every citizen at age 25 and a guaranteed income of 60 percent of average income.

He does not make absolute equality his goal, but he would allow a much narrower band of inequality than exists today.

I’ve long been indignant at the growing extremes of inequality in my country and the abuses of power of the very rich.  Reading Piketty forces me to think about just how much equality I want and how much I would give up to attain it.

Piketty wrote in earlier chapters of Capital and Ideology about how higher taxes have often been the key to greater national power and wealth.

One of history’s mysteries is how it was that European nations could defeat great Asian empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire in India or the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in China, when, prior to the Industrial Revolution, they were equal in wealth and technology to the European nations.  It was the Chinese, for example, who invented gunpowder.

Piketty’s answer is that the Europeans gained an advantage through a higher level of taxation.  Tax revenue across Europe and Asia prior to the modern era was roughly 1 to 2 percent of national income.  This gave a king or emperor enough revenue to reign, but not to exercise tight control over his realm.

This changed in Europe, during the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when military competition forced kings to increase their revenues to 8 to 10 percent of national income.

Click to enlarge

The greater revenue enabled kings to become absolute monarchs, exercising almost as much control over their citizens as a 20th century president or prime minister.  It also enabled them to put armies in the field that the Turks, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese could not match.

Western governments’ revenue was bumped up again in the early 20th century, to 30 to 50 percent of national income.  This made possible the total wars of the early 20th century.  But it also gave governments enough money to pay for universal public education, old age pensions, public health and the other services of the welfare state.

This was only tolerable because the Western nations had grown rich enough that their people could give up a big fraction of their incomes to government and still enjoy a high material standard of living.

It would not have been possible in, say, France in the time of Louis XIV.  The taxes he levied to finance his wars reduced the peasantry to misery and, in some cases, starvation (because the nobles enjoyed most of the national income, but paid no taxes).

The same conditions may exist in poor African countries today.  But in rich Western countries, it is technologically and economically feasible to raise taxes revenues to 50 percent of national income, which is necessary for PIketty’s program.

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Piketty’s stats and the problem with class conflict

May 28, 2020

The late Saul Alinsky used to say that politics is a struggle among the haves, the have-nots and the have-a-littles.  He said the outcome usually depends on which side the have-a-littles choose.

Reading Thomas Piketty’s big new book, Capital and Ideology,  reminded me I’d forgotten this important truth.

The USA and much of the rest of the world is governed in the interests of a political and economic elite and not a majority of the public.  I want a politics that represents the interests of the majority of the population.

But there are objective reasons why this is harder than it seems.  If you look at economic class in terms of a top 10 percent in income or wealth, a middle 40 percent and a bottom 50 percent, you see that there is a difference between the middle class (the have-a-littles) and the lower class (the have-nots)

I had come to think that the big problem of American politics is that so much of it is a conflict of the top 0.1 percent of income earners with the next 9.9 percent, leaving the rest of us behind.

The top 0.1 percent, in this interpretation, are the millionaires and billionaires that Bernie Sanders denounces.  The next 9.9 percent, very roughly speaking, are highly paid professionals, the “professional managerial class,” who tend to be more socially liberal, but whose economic interests are different from the majority.

Matthew Stewart wrote a good article about this in The Atlantic a couple of years ago.  The conclusion is that we the American majority have to stop thinking we have to choose between the plutocrats and the PMC and unite in our own interests.

That would make sense if economic inequality were the same as it was in Britain, France or Sweden around the turn of the previous century, as reflected in the chart above (taken from Piketty’s book)

But it’s not.  There is now a big middle class, in between the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent, as shown in the chart below (taken from an article co-authored by Piketty).

Click to enlarge.

In western Europe and the USA, the middle 40 percent aren’t doing too badly.  They’re open to the politics of a Margaret Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan.

Instead of claiming a larger share from the haves, they’re told they need to worry about the claims of the have-nots.  Even in parts of the world where economic inequality is greater than in Europe or the USA, there is a middle class with something to lose.

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Thomas Piketty and the politics of inequality

May 27, 2020

Reasonable people differ on the amount of economic inequality that is tolerable.  But I think almost anyone would set some upper limit.

In today’s USA, a single individual, Bill Gates, is wealthy enough to buy the city of Boston for the assessed value of its property.  The size of Jeff Bezos’ wealth is almost unimaginable.

Meanwhile four in 10 Americans lack enough cash on hand to meet an unexpected $400 expense without going into debt.

Why is this acceptable?  I’ll describe the ideas of the great French economist Thomas Piketty in his new book, Capital and Ideology.  Then I’ll discuss some of the things Piketty left out.

Piketty said the fall of Communism in the Soviet bloc and China discredited egalitarianism and validated the market economy.  Leaders of Western capitalist countries felt they were in a position to tell the working class that there is no alternative.

Even before that, the economic stagnation of the late 1970s discredited the welfare state.  The USA had both high unemployment and high inflation, which was considered theoretically impossible.  One diagnosis was that the welfare state had reached its limit, that it was in a state of deadlock because of the inability to satisfy all claimants.  This had been predicted by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom.  He said that only a fascist dictator would be able to break the deadlock.

Click to enlarge

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher presented a different answer.  Dial back to welfare state, cut upper-bracket tax rates and allow rich people and corporations to accumulate wealth.  They will invest that wealth and the workings of the free market will assure that this works for the benefit of all.

As Piketty pointed out, none of this worked out as promised.  Cuts in marginal tax rates did not result in job creation, economic growth or anything else that was promised.

So why do Reaganism and Thatcherism still prevail?

One reason is that the historic left-wing parties abandoned the working class.  The Democrats in the USA, the Labour Party in Britain and the French socialists came to represent an educated elite rather than laborers and wage-earners.

Politics in these countries has come to be a conflict of elites, between what Piketty called the Merchant Right and the Brahmin Left.  It is like the conflict between the nobility and the clergy in the European Middle Ages and the conflict between landowners and business owners in 19th century Britain.

In the USA, many progressives see today’s politics as a conflict between the plutocracy, whose power is based on wealth, and the professional-managerial class, whose power is based on their academic credentials and their positions in organizations.  Wage-earners are not represented.  Piketty showed that the same conflict exists in other countries.

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Piketty on the sacredness of property rights

May 27, 2020

When English settlers first dealt with American Indians, there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of property rights.

The Indians had no idea of buying the exclusive right to use a tract of land, keep everybody else off it and sell the land to someone else.

Thomas Piketty pointed out in his new book, Capital and Ideology, that, in fact, this was a fairly new idea even for the English and other Europeans.

The idea of absolute property rights did not exist in the European middle ages. Someone might have a hereditary right to grow crops on a certain tract of land, a second person the right to 10 percent of all crops grown on the land, a third person the right to grind grain produced on the land for a fixed fee, and so on.

Furthermore the right to land use was not so much bought and sold as inherited.

Medieval France was what Piketty called a “ternary” society—a society in which political power and property ownership were divided between a hereditary noble class who “fought for all” and a priestly class who “prayed for all,” leaving very little for a lower class who “worked for all.”

The “ternary” system existed in the Islamic world, India and many other parts of the world, and it casts its shadow over the present world.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (mostly Sunni) are ruled by hereditary monarchs while Iran (mostly Shiite) is ruled by clerics.  In India, the descendants of Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) are richer and more influential than the Vaishyas (farmers, craftsmen and traders) and Shudras (laborers).

In Europe, uniquely, priests were celibate.  They could not found dynasties.  This mean that the Roman Catholic institutions had to be corporations.  They had to have a continuing existence that was independent of who was in charge.  It’s not accidental that business corporations originated in Europe.

The French Revolution overthrew hereditary property rights and established what Piketty called “proprietarianism” or “the ownership society”—the idea that property rights were sacred, provided that the property was acquired through legitimate purchase.

The accepted story in France is that the revolutionaries divided up the aristocrats’ estates among the peasants and turned France into a nation of small landowners.  In fact, according to Piketty, the revolutionaries made arbitrary distinctions between land that was owned through hereditary privilege and land acquired through voluntary contract, and, in many areas,  property ownership remained almost as concentrated as before.

Piketty wrote that the revolution was one of history’s “switch points.”  He thinks it could have been more radically egalitarian than it was.

In fact, concentration of wealth in France at the beginning of the 20th century was even greater than at the time of the French Revolution.

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Piketty’s new book on economic inequality

May 26, 2020

The French economist Thomas Piketty made a big splash with Capital in the 21st Century (published 2013, translated into English 2014).  He showed why, all other things being equal, the rich will get richer and the rest of us will get less.

In different countries in different historical periods, the rate of return on income-producing property exceeded the rate of economic growth.  This was true whether the income-producing property was real estate, government bonds, corporate stocks or something else.

What this meant was that, in the absence of revolution, war or something else that wiped out the value of their assets, the rich would get richer and everybody else would be left behind.

Piketty’s new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY  (published 2019, translated 2020), is more ambitious and complicated.  He thinks it is an even better book that its predecessor and I agree.  It is a great work.

He looked at all the forms that economic inequality has taken in the past few centuries and all the different ways that inequality has been rationalized.  While his earlier book was based mainly on data from France, Great Britain and the United States, the new book tries to be global in scope.

He said it is important to understand not only the forms of economic inequality, but the reasons why people accept them.

His book covers several kinds of “inequality regimes”:

  • “Ternary” societies in which most wealth is controlled by hereditary kings and aristocrats and an established church or religious institution.
  • “Ownership” societies in which property ownership is regarded as a sacred right, superseding everything else.
  • Slave and colonial societies.
  • “Social democratic” societies, which limit the rights of property owners.
  • The hyper-capitalism of today, which is a backlash against social democracy and Communism.

The degree of inequality in any nation or society is not the result of impersonal economic law, he wrote; it is the result of choices that could have been different.  History does not consist of class struggles; it consists of a struggle of ideas and a struggle for justice.

To understand inequality, he wrote, it is necessary to understand the reasons for choices at various “switch points” of history—the French Revolution, the British constitutional crisis of 1911, privatization in Russia after the fall of Communism.

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The progressives surrender to the plutocracy

March 30, 2020

Over the weekend Matt Stoller gave a blistering interview on the Jimmy Dore show blasting Bernie Sanders and other so-called progressive Democrats for voting for the so-called coronavirus economic stimulus bill.

In reality, it is a corporate bailout which gives only token assistance to ordinary Americans.  He went on to talk about the failure of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement to resist the plutocracy and the failure of the American political system as a whole.

The two of them had a lot to say that I haven’t seen or heard elsewhere.

The whole interview runs 42 minutes, which is long.  I strongly recommend you watch at least the first 10 or 15 minutes.  You may find Stoller’s impassioned, but well-informed, rant so compelling you will watch the whole thing.

Matt Stoller is a former analyst for the Senate budget committee, a fellow of something called the Open Markets Institute and author of a new book, GOLIATH: the 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy.  He has a deep understanding of economics and the legislative process.

Jimmy Dore is a stand-up comedian with no special expertise, but a willingness to make up his own mind about issues.  He ignores consensus opinion and points out obvious facts that the consensus opinion ignores.

Stoller is right to criticize the cult of personality that has grown up around Sanders.  I don’t think he gives Sanders enough credit for the movement he helped inspire, but I do think he is right to say that Sanders has been more interesting in gaining acceptance for himself and his ideas than wielding political power himself.

And I also think he is right about not pinning hopes on charismatic leaders.

Stollar thinks the Democratic Party is un-reformable as is the Republican Party.   But American election law is structured to discourage new political parties and, in any case, the greens, libertarians and other minor parties don’t have mass followings.

The only remaining option is to build a progressive movement, uniting grass-roots labor, community and civil rights groups, that will be so powerful that Democrats and Republicans will be forced to heed it.

But this could be the work of a generation, and the economic crisis, the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war are already upon us.

So the outlook is grim.  But the future is unknowable and despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As always, I invite comments, but I hope readers will watch the video before commenting.  What Matt Stoller and Jimmy Dore had to say is more interesting than my words.

LINKS

The Jimmy Dore Show – YouTube.

BIG by Matt Stoller.  His blog.

Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us by Rob Urie for Counterpunch.

The Coronavirus Stimulus Bill Is a $2 Trillion Slush Fund for Washington Cronies by Marshall Auerbach for the Independent Media Institute (via Naked Capitalism)

Sanders victory would spark a political crisis

July 25, 2019

Bernie Sanders

If Bernie Sanders actually were elected President in 2020, it would ignite a major and continuing political crisis.

Neither the Wall Street financial establishment nor the pro-war intelligence establishment (aka the “deep state”) would accept his victory as legitimate.

The Washington press corps would be against him.  Nor could he count on the support of leaders of his own party.  He threatens their sources of wealth and power by showing it is possible to be elected without big donations from rich and powerful interests.

We saw a taste of what could happen with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Democrats and liberals refused to accept his victory as legitimate.  A few of them proposed a silly plan to have the Electoral College disregard the instructions of voters.  I think we could expect a revival of this idea, this time on a bipartisan basis.

Then Democratic leaders and their sympathizers in the CIA put forth the idea that Trump’s victory was due to Russian agents hacking the Democratic National Committee and manipulating the voters via the Internet—the so-called Russiagate conspiracy.  Democrats still haven’t given up on using this to drive Trump from office.

(I think Donald Trump is a bad president, but I think he should be attacked for the things he actually did and I don’t think it is possible to undo the 2016 election.)

Some Russiagaters said the Russians also backed Bernie Sanders.  We’ll hear a lot more of this if Sanders ia nominated, and we’d probably get a new Russiagate investigation if he is elected.

The Wall Street banking establishment has their own method of dealing with populist presidents.  It is to “lose confidence” in the administration, which pushes up bond interest rates, which in turn pushes the federal government budget out of balance.

Bill Clinton complained about being subject to the will of bond traders.  His friend and adviser, James Carville, said that if he died, he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because he would be all powerful.

Going further back in American history, Nicholas Biddle, president of the then Bank of the United States, deliberately induced a financial crisis by tightening credit in order to discredit his enemy, President Andrew Jackson.

Barack Obama was thwarted in enacting his very moderate political program by the intransigent opposition of Republicans in Congress.  In a Sanders presidency, we could expect the same thing not only from Republicans, but also from pro-corporate Democrats.

Maybe you think I’m alarmist.  I hope I am.  But I’m not predicting anything that hasn’t happened before.

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The big thing that Thomas Frank overlooks

July 31, 2018

Thomas Frank is one of my favorite writers.  I like his books.  I like his magazine articles.  I enjoy watching videos of his speeches and interviews.  But there is one thing he doesn’t quite get.

His basic idea is that the Democratic Party is losing because it has abandoned the American working class and the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.   The leaves them vulnerable to the fake populism of Donald Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party.

Democrats rely on African-Americans, Hispanics and educated professionals of all races reacting against President Trump’s appeal to prejudice against African-Americans and immigrants.

That’s not enough, Frank writes.  Democrats need to stand up for working people of all races—provide free college tuition and Medicare for all, enforce the anti-trust laws and renegotiate NAFTA and other pro-corporate trade treaties.

All this is true and important.

Frank’s mistake is to think that the reason top Democrats are pro-corporate is that they fail to understand their situation.

Shortly after the 36th minute in the video above. he says that the reason the Clintons and their allies have abandoned American labor is that the signature achievement of their generation was to their successful revolt against the New Deal, and nobody will disavow their generation’s signature achievement.

If they really don’t understand, it is because, as Upton Sinclair once put it, “it is hard to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The wealth and power of the Clintons, like that of the Obamas, is based on their allegiance to Wall Street and the corporate elite.  If they had advocated breaking up the “too big to fail” banks or prosecuting financial fraud, they wouldn’t get six-figure lecture fees from bankers and hedge fund managers.

On a lower levels of government, there is the revolving door between Congress and regulatory agencies on the one hand and Washington lobbyists, law firms and regulated industries on the others.  Neil Barofsky, whose job was oversight of the TARP bailout program, was warned that if he did his job too zealously, he would lose the chance of a good post-government job.  He’s not the only one.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supports a whole ecology of fund-raisers, pollsters, media specialists and campaign consultants who depend on a system whereby candidates concentrate on raising money and spending it on designated funds.

So it’s not just a matter of waking up to what’s really going on.  It’s a matter of people knowing which side their bread is buttered on.  Or, as the Japanese might say, nobody willingly lets their rice bowl be broken.

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Douglas Rushkoff on survival of the richest

July 9, 2018

Douglas Rushkoff

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff was offered half a year’s salary to give a talk on the future of technology.  To his surprise, he found his audience consisted of five persons from “the upper echelon of the hedge fund world.”  Their real interest was in Rushkoff’s thoughts on how to survive the coming collapse of civilization.

The CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. The Event.  That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?

The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew.  Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival.  Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

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A new look at the secret hoards of the ultra-rich

November 6, 2017

Remember the Panama Papers?  That was a massive leak of documents from a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonsecka, revealing how the world’s richest and most powerful people hid billions of collars in investments from tax collectors and the public.

Now there is another big leak—called the Paradise Papers—from century-old Bermuda-based law firm called Appleby and its Singapore affiliate.

Like the Panama Papers, the anonymous leaker sent documents to a German newspaper called Süeddeutsche Zeitung, which teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and some of the world’s other top newspapers, and spent a year going through 13.4 million files.

Some of the highlights of what was found:

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s investment manager, the Duchy of Lancaster, invested millions of pounds in a Cayman Islands fund, whose investments included Bright House, a rent-to-own UK furniture company that charged interest rates of up to 99%
  • Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who divested himself of ownership in 80 companies to avoid conflicts of interest, kept interests in nine offshore companies.  Four of them invested in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings, which did business with a Russian energy and chemical company called Sibur, whose key owners include Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Russian oligarch under U.S. sanctions.
  • Stephen Bronfman, a key fund-raiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, teamed up with key Liberal Party figures to evade Canadian, U.S. and Isreali taxes.

Major companies shown to do business through tax havens are Apple, Nike, Uber Barclay’s Bank, Goldman Sachs, BNP Paribas and Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader.

None of this is, in itself, illegal.  But hidden offshore investments provide a way for criminals to launder money and for individuals, companies and governments to evade economic sanctions by the U.S. and other governments.

As several people have remarked, the worst scandals are not how the law is broken, but what can be done that is perfectly legal.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is evidence that the Russian government or Russian interests manipulated the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump,

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The trouble with democracy

October 18, 2017

The trouble with democracy is that a majority of the people can be misled as to what is in their best interests.

The trouble with the alternatives to democracy is that a ruling minority usually understands all too well what is in their best interests.

The anti-democracy movement in America

October 16, 2017

Democracy means rule of the people. But the Gilens-Page study of 1779 legislative initiatives in 1981-2002 showed that chances of success were strongly correlated with the desires of the affluent, but not at all with average citizens.

For example, polls show a majority of Americans want Wall Street banks to be brought under control, according to Martin Gilens, a co-author of the study.  They want a higher minimum wage, better unemployment benefits and more spending on education.  On the other hand, they are less supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than the economic elite.   But the political system follows the economic elite, not them.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in that we have freedom of speech and contested elections, but in terms of outcomes, we are an oligarchy, ruled by the rich.

This is not an accident, a matter of how things happen to play out. It is the result of a deliberate campaign that has been going on for decades.   It is not something that began with Donald Trump and it will not end when he is out of office.

The anti-democratic movement has three elements:
• Use the power of money to dominate political discourse.
• Use the power of money to dominate politics and government
• Restrict the right to vote and other democratic rights..

I recently read a good book, DARING DEMOCRACY by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and a young friend, Adam Eichen, that ties all this together.

I do have a few reservations about it, particularly the fact that they let Democrats off too nightly, which I’ll get to at the end.  But I’ll first summarize their main contentions.

∞∞∞

The famous Powell Memo—written in1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called on U.S. business to mobilize to counteract anti-business sentiment in the news media and the educational system.

Right-wing billionaires responded by funding the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

They of course have a perfect right to present their point of view.  The problem was that these organizations are dedicated to political warfare, and get to be treated as equivalent to groups who, whatever their unconscious biases, are serious scholars and researchers..

When I was a newspaper reporter, and had to write about something I didn’t know much about, the first thing I’d do was phone experts on various sides of the issue.

When I phoned the Brookings Institution, the person I’d reach would give me a carefully worded opinion, quoting sources and taking into account arguments on both sides.

When I phoned the Heritage Foundation, I’d talk to some young guy who had talking points down pat, but couldn’t back them up. Yet by the rules of my game, I had to treat them as equal authorities.

The Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, consisted of sincere libertarians, who sometimes came down on the side of peace and civil liberties. But when their views closed with corporate interests, the Koch brothers purged the staff.

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The black and Hispanic top 1 percent

October 6, 2017

The disparity in wealth between black and Hispanic Americans on the one hand and non-Hispanic whites is striking.    The disparities in wealth within each racial group also are striking.

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The top 1 percent in Russia

October 6, 2017

I’ve posted many charts about the growing concentration of income and wealth in the United States in the hands of a tiny elite.   Here is a chart illustrating inequality in Russia.

You should take note about what this chart shows and doesn’t show.  The ruling elite in the old Soviet Union didn’t have large incomes, and they didn’t live like American millionaires and billionaires, but they did have special privileges, much like military officers compared to the rank and file or like American corporate executives with huge expense accounts.    They had special stories, special medical care, special schools for their children, etc.

Also, the chart indicates that relative equality isn’t everything.   I don’t think many Americans would have wanted to trade places with the average person in the old Soviet Union.

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Barack Obama’s $400,000 speaking fee

May 3, 2017

There are two ways of looking at the $400,000 speaking fee that ex-President Barack Obama will receive from the Wall Street brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald for speaking at a health care investment conference.

One is that a public official who governed in the interests of Wall Street and the health insurance industry is receiving a big bag of money from a Wall Street firm with major investments in the health insurance industry.

The other is that Obama is merely doing what all but one of the ex-Presidents from Gerald Ford onward have done, which is to use speaking fees cash in on his celebrity status.

Hillary and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees were a special case because Hillary Clinton was a future Presidential candidate.   Hillary’s $675,000 in Goldman Sachs speaking fees could be interpreted as payments not only for services rendered, but for services anticipated.   That suspicion was reinforced by Clinton’s refusal to release the texts of her talks.

I imagine that Barack Obama will have sense enough to watch his words enough to be able to release the text of his Cantor Fitzgerald talk without embarrassment.

Obama is not doing anything unusual.  All but one of the Presidents from Gerald Ford through George W. Bush cashed in with big speaking fees after they left office.

This is the new normal.  In this neoliberal age, an ex-President such as Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter who refused to monetize the office of the Presidency would seem quaint and strange.

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Wall Street versus the American worker

May 1, 2017

American Airlines agreed this week to do something nice for its employees and arguably foresighted for its business by giving flight attendants and pilots a preemptive raise, in order to close a gap that had opened up between their compensation and the compensation paid by rival airlines Delta and United.

Wall Street freaked out, sending American shares plummeting. After all, this is capitalism and the capital owners are supposed to reap the rewards of business success.

“This is frustrating.  Labor is being paid first again,” wrote Citi analyst Kevin Crissey in a widely circulated note. “Shareholders get leftovers.”

Indeed, major financial players were so outraged by American’s decision to pay higher wages that they punished airline stocks across the board.  American itself took it hardest on the chin, of course, but the consensus among stock analysts was that higher pay at American could signal higher pay at other airlines too, with negative consequences for the overall industry.

Source: Matthrew Yglesias -Vox

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (1)

April 13, 2017

What follows is notes for the first part of a talk for the Rochester Russell Forum scheduled at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, 2017

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is the primary goal of society and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity currently being imposed on governments by lenders.

Neoliberalism has its roots in classical liberalism, which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Classic liberals said that the purpose of government is to protect human rights, including religious, intellectual, political and economic freedom.   They fought the absolute power of kings and the privileges of aristocrats and demanded the right of individuals to determine their own fates.

Classical liberalism came to be supplanted in the early 20th century by a belief that government regulation and welfare could, if well thought out, enhance human freedom by giving individuals more choices.   A graduate of a public school or university, for example, has more options than a person unable to afford an education, so taxing the public to pay for public schools and universities would be a form of liberation.

Neoliberalism is a backlash against social liberalism.  Neoliberalism affirms that freedom of enterprise is the only important freedom.   Its well-known adherents include Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman.

It came into widespread acceptance in the 1980s, as a reaction against the manifest failures of central economic planning and as a way to break the political gridlock of the welfare state.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both strongly influenced by the neoliberals.

Neoliberalism’s strongest adherents are to be found among economists, journalists, financiers, Silicon Valley executives and right-of-center parties in the English-speaking world and western Europe, and in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Central Bank, which enforce neoliberal policies on debtor countries.

It is more of an implicit philosophy than a credo, a series of assumptions that has come to permeate our society.

What follows is my attempt to understand the logic behind these assumptions.

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The case against the Internet

March 29, 2017

Double click to enlarge. Source: Visual Capitalist.

Andrew Keen’s book, The Internet Is Not The Answer (2015), which I recently finished reading, is a good antidote to cyber-utopians such as Kevin Kelly.

Keen says the Internet is shaping society in ways we the people don’t understand.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but all are out of control.

Like Kelly, he writes about technology as if it were an autonomous force, shaped by its own internal dynamic rather than by human decisions.  Unlike Kelly, he thinks this is a bad thing, not a good thing.

He does not, of course, deny that the Internet has made life easier in many ways, especially for writers.   But that is not the whole story.  He claims that—

  • The Internet is a job-destroyer.
  • The Internet enables business monopoly
  • The Internet enables surveillance and invasion of privacy.
  • The Internet enables anonymous harassment and bullying.
  • The Internet enables intellectual property theft

Keen quotes Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “We shape our tools, then our tools shape us.”

What he doesn’t quite understand is that the “we” who shape the tools is not the same as the “us” who are shaped by them.

Or to use Marxist lingo, what matters is who owns the means of production.

Technology serves the needs and desires of those who own it.  Technological advances generally serve the needs and desires of those who fund it.

Advances in technology that benefit the elite often serve the general good as well, but there is no economic or social law that guarantees this.   This is as true of the Internet as it is of everything else.

Let me look at his claims one by one—

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Wall Street bonuses outweigh minimum wage pay

March 20, 2017

Most Wall Street activity is devoted to diverting money from one person’s pockets to another person’s pockets.   Most minimum wage workers do things that are directly beneficial to people.

The past financial crash was worse because Wall Street bankers and financiers took risks with other people’s’ money.   The coming financial crash will be worse for the same reason.

The Wall Street bonus system is an incentive to take risks, because the managers get to keep the bonuses when they win and they do not have to give them back when they lose.

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The hollow populism of Steve Bannon

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon, the chief adviser to President Donald Trump, is probably the most influential person in the Trump administration besides Trump himself.

But I find it hard to get a handle on Bannon’s thinking, since he shuns the limelight, and hasn’t written any books or magazine articles I could get hold of,

His 2010 documentary film, Generation Zero, is probably as good a guide to his thinking as anything else.

It is well done and, despite being 90 minutes long, held my interest—at least until the last 10 minutes of so, which consists of restatements of the main points.

Generation Zero is an analysis of the roots and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, which Bannon rightly blames on crony capitalism, the unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington that began in the 1990s.

But if you look at the film’s action items, what he really does—knowingly or unknowingly—is to protect Wall Street by diverting the public’s attention from what’s really needed, which is criminal prosecution of financial fraud and the break-up of “too big to fail” institutions.

Bannon presents himself as an enemy of corrupt politicians and financiers.  But there is nothing he advocates in the film or otherwise that threatens the power of either.

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Generation Zero draws on a book, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who claim there is a cycle in American politics based on the succession of generations.  Each cycle consists of four turnings—(1) a heroic response to a crisis, (2) a new cultural or religious awakening, (3) an unraveling and (4) a crisis.

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Donald Trump embraces Goldman Sachs

February 1, 2017

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During the election campaign, Donald Trump rightly denounced Hillary Clinton for her ties to Goldman Sachs, the predatory Wall Street banking firm, and especially the three $225,000 speaking fees she took for giving one-hour talks to that company.

Now Trump has put two former Goldman Sachs executives in charge of economic policy—Steve Mnuchin, former Goldman partner, as Secretary of the Treasury, and Gary Cohn, former president of Goldman, as his top economic adviser.

President Trump has put a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the great enemy of concentrated financial power, in his office.  But his appointments show that he will be a champion of the moneyed establishment.  Those who voted for him in hope he would be a friend to working people are going to be disappointed.

LINKS

The Goldman Sachs effect: How a bank conquered Washington by Nomi Prins for TomDispatch.

The Vampire Squid Occupies Trump’s White House by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.