Tag Archives: Capitalism

Capital is just a lot of the problem

In the month since I posted this big-picture political assessment—pointing to Republicans’ intentional exploitation of nonrepresentative features of our constitution—I have mused on some kind of deeper dive.

Can I identify even further explanations for our peril, more fundamental than a 50-year-long project by capital to (struggling for a better word) trump a system of democratic governance rejected as an unacceptable constraint on the accumulation of private fortunes?

I’m still working on that. But it is difficult to feel like the fundamental conflict at hand is meaningfully unlike that explanation.

The above is not really a story of the Trump administration. It’s the story of a value system that prioritizes private wealth with no real, firm limit or point of satiety. A value system for which there is no “enough,” no point at which consideration for others outweighs the desire for increased private status and privilege.

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Basic Income vs Jobs

Politics produces endless strange outcomes. Yesterday, I encountered a Guardian item by Ben Tarnoff attacking universal basic income from the left.

Yeah, well, sure; why not?

I’m not sure that all of Tarnoff’s thesis hangs together, though a lot of his arguments are difficult to dismiss because other highly qualified voices support them. A long stretch in the middle basically rebuts that the popular narrative that economic inequality is the product of automation and “inevitable” globalization. Instead, the author lays blame on intentionally pro-elite trade policies (passed off as globalization), “the transformation of the tax code, the growth of the financial sector, and, above all, the collapse of [organized labor] since the 1970s.”

Economist Dean Baker makes and provides ample evidence for much the same arguments, almost every day. He has written more than once that “robots putting people out of work” is a red herring, and that automation is entirely compatible with full employment and a growing middle class, if we reverse policies that favor capital over labor.

I find his case persuasive, and generally endorse his specific prescriptions. Mr. Tarnoff’s objection to basic income seems a bit less convincing; a lot of it seems to be driven less by substance than style. He portrays the concept as a scheme by tech billionaires to “give us an allowance to live on, and keep the rest for themselves,” and “crumbs left by the bully who steals your sandwich.” In practice, though, I’m unclear that this is really all that different from his one-line alternative: “Better to own the robots collectively, and allocate the surplus democratically, than leave society’s wealth in the hands of its luckiest members.” Unless I’m missing something, basic income accomplishes two of these three objects, and it’s unclear to me how much meaningful difference collectivized robot ownership would make if the wealth produced by automation is redistributed. Possibly Mr. Tarnoff assumes that basic income must mean small-scale redistribution—”crumbs”—but besides its name I’m not sure that the concept is actually incompatible with much more aggressive leveling.

Meanwhile, though, I feel like something is missing from both his vague rebuttal to the “robots are going to take our jobs” story and from Mr. Baker’s more rigorous version. Both seem to assume on some level that society not only can produce lots of jobs despite automation, but should. I’m not clear that this is a very worthwhile goal.

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Dear One Percent

I think some of you among the very rich are confused by the criticism you’re encountering these days. Not all by any means, but I’m capable of believing that some of you are genuinely confused. Let me explain one concept, at least, that I think could help you in understanding the many further criticisms you’re encountering.

We simply don’t recognize a right to acquire more and ever more personal wealth long after you have enough money to meet the needs and even every reasonable want of an average person for hundreds of lifetimes, even in the most materially affluent societies.

That’s all. We’re not necessarily determined to take away your hoard, as an end in itself; all of our lives are brief and if we can simply ignore you, then we probably will, in order to make more rewarding use of our limited time.

But when you try to assert this “right” in a way that impedes some other goal which would actually improve lives, we’re no longer willing to see that goal sacrificed to your greed. Because that’s what you’re defending: greed. You have constructed an economic narrative that both requires the consent of the rich for nearly any major socioeconomic activity, and presumes that the rich cannot ever consent to any proposal that would not continue their further enrichment at an equal, or ideally greater, pace.

We no longer care.

Arguments that “we have to keep squeezing the highest prices possible out of society in order to cover costs… of keeping up with an ever-rising ‘market rate’ of compensation for people who will have no legitimate need of more money for the rest of their lives” do not interest us. We have decided that it’s time to explore an alternative of saying “no” to insatiable greed, if that’s what is necessary to say “yes” to a better life for people who still have needs and wants beyond simply a higher “score.”

That’s what’s going on. We no longer care whether or not you agree. We are uninterested in your rebuttals. You have no real argument beyond insatiable greed and we have decided that attempting to sate said greed is a distraction, impossible, and unnecessary.

Sincerely,
All those damn people who simply don’t understand how things work

Good Jobs

What exactly is a “good job?”

Here is another concept that is not new, but has recently popped up in my reading enough times that it begs some inspection.

What is a “good job,” and in particular, is it in any way better than just having the equivalent income with no strings attached?

I don’t think there is any firm answer here, ultimately. I suspect that “good jobs” are like “the American dream,” or “free market,” i.e. terms so vague in use that they are immune to obsolescence. “Good jobs” are not a mathematical calculation you can disprove, nor are they an ISO standard or defined by the dictionary. The concept only has meaning because, and as, people choose to believe it does. Regardless of what component ideas a critical study may strip away, the terms live on through a combination of other components that are still valid, plus widespread readiness to pretend that the false components are still true.

I feel like picking at this a bit, anyway. Why do so many people choose to believe that this is a meaningful, and important, object?

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