Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Collusion and its Solution

Collusion is a product of corporate oligarchy; it occurs wherever there are large concentrations of economic power that can keep their operations secret. And when economic organizations become larger they proportionally gain more power over individual workers, who become smaller and smaller in comparison.  Bust the companies into smaller units, make them run democratically, and make all their records and operations public, and most collusion would go away. 

I switched to Apple products a few years ago because I got sick of all the popups, delays, and other failures of Microsoft Windows systems, and Apple generally makes user-friendly, reliable hardware and software.  But of course they could use much improvement in their production processes and business practices, as the New York Times’ recent exposure of the working conditions at their Chinese factories shows.  And given that they’re accumulating record profits, there’s simply no need to use wage slaves to do business. It would be nice if they would make a real effort to use labor that was paid adequately and had at least minimally safe working conditions (such as not have one’s factory blow up while one is inside it).  No, I take it back -- it wouldn’t “be nice”; it is morally obligatory that Apple improve its labor practices and those of its contractors, and it should be legally required as well, regardless of whether the violations occur overseas or not.  Competitive markets system drive business owners to minimize labor costs even if they want to be moderate about it, which is what makes capitalism an immoral system, and also one reason why government must intervene in its workings. Both history and current events show that capitalism drives workers into immiseration, which is why a free market for labor is the enemy of anyone who earns wages or a salary for a living.
Unskilled labor, apparently, wasn’t the only kind to precipitate business practices meant to drive down costs as far as possible.  Here’s an example of why collusion is so hard to beat: because it occurs behind the scenes, hush-hush, with a handshake or a private wink and a nod.  A civil suit is being brought by five engineers accusing Apple and Google of conspiring to keep employee pay low through non-competitive practices for skilled labor.  It looks like it cost someone his or her job:
   “According to an unredacted court filing made public in the civil litigation on Friday, the now-deceased Jobs emailed [Google Chief Executive Eric] Schmidt in March 2007 about an attempt by a Google employee to recruit an Apple engineer. Schmidt was also an Apple board member at the time.
   ‘I would be very pleased if your recruiting department would stop doing this,’ Jobs wrote.
   Schmidt forwarded Job's email onto other, undisclosed recipients.
   ‘Can you get this stopped and let me know why this is happening?’ Schmidt wrote.
   Google's staffing director responded that the employee who contacted the Apple engineer ‘will be terminated within the hour.’
   He added: ‘Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs.’“
This shows how capitalists don’t really believe in free markets: they just believe in making a profit, and as much of it as they can.  Or at least they don’t believe in free markets for labor, when they don’t work in their favor.  In this case “big gov’mint” stepped in with a 2010 Justice Department probe, which resulted in a settlement involving Google, Apple, and several other high tech companies that barred them from such non-recruit collusion.  A class-action civil lawsuit is currently being brought by some engineers:
“The latest court filing also refers to a 2007 note from Intel chief executive Paul Otellini discussing that company's agreement with Google.
‘Let me clarify. We have nothing signed,’ Otellini wrote. ‘We have a handshake “no recruit” between eric and myself. I would not like this broadly known.’"
It’s too bad that the completely immiserated Chinese laborers who risk their lives to build our iPads can’t turn to the U.S. Justice Department or our court system to attempt to air their grievances and seek redress, as relatively better-off and more educated high-tech employees can.  I wonder if there were any behind-the-scenes agreements, “nothing signed,” to keep their wages low also?  We’ll probably never know for sure -- and that’s the thing when companies collude to undermine the public good, or even just to undermine the competitive market that they claim to believe in and exemplify: collusion happens underground, where the cleansing sunlight of public transparency can’t shine.  In my view, economic enterprises shouldn’t just be publicly owned by their employees and/or communities, but they should be public in that all their records, meeting minutes, account books, and other internal data should be made public for all to see.  Someone might object that legitimate corporate secrets -- such as the proprietary design of an invention or formula -- would then be exposed for anyone to steal and use for themselves.  But if all corporate information is public, then so would be the attempt to violate copyrights and patents, which could then be punished fairly easily through the courts. So I don’t think that objection has merit.
Oh, and one other thing: the offending Google recruiter who was just trying to do his or her job well by going after the best talent? The person apparently “terminated within the hour” with an apology to Steve Jobs himself?  What an odious example of cringing corporate servility by Google’s staffing director. Capitalists like to say their system creates courageous independence and ingenuity, but inequality and concentrated wealth and power really foster cowardly obsequiousness and all the dysfunctions that come with it. Sometimes you have to kiss the boss’s ass to keep your job -- which is why all CEOs and other executives should be subject to regular and frequent elections by the workers in a firm: so they can be fired when necessary!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Progressive Taxation Is Just, and the Left Should Say So

Mitt Romney released his tax records yesterday, and his effective tax rate last year was only 13.9% -- $6.2 million paid on $42.5 million in income -- a rate less than most people who earn their income through, well, earned income rather than labor-free capital gains, which is cash acquired from owning stock and other paper investments. The fact that Romney pays less tax than me and almost every other hard-working non-millionaire is a launching point for two arguments:
1) A just and fair tax system is one that is very progressive, not flat.  A progressive income tax system is one where rates increase with higher levels of income, so that hypothetically someone making, say, $20,000 a year might pay 15%, someone making $100,000 might pay 30%, and someone making $1,000,000 might pay 70%.  A steeply progressive system was what the United States had from the end of World War II until the Reagan Reactionary Period set in and we embarked on 30 years of flattening income tax rates. We even made a special low rate capital gains category for stock coupon-clippers that created a regressive tax system where a wealthy scion of a connected family like Romeny pays less than regular working people.  
Conservatives have always aimed to achieve that regressive system.  One of their ploys has been to argue for a flat tax, usually around 15% or so, because on the surface it seems just: everybody should pay the same amount, that’s fair, right?  Except for something that economists call “marginal diminishing utility of income,” which is a fancy way of saying that each individual dollar is worth more for a poor person than a rich one.  A fair distribution of burdens attends to well-being, not to money income, strictly speaking.  Money is only a means to well-being, not well-being itself, and money contributes less to well-being the more of it you have.  If you’re making $20,000 then you have to carefully budget each dollar for rent and food for the kids and other basics -- each dollar really makes a significant contribution to your survival.  As your monetary income rises the basics start to be taken care of, so you can now afford a car payment and college for the kids and to move to a better neighborhood.  As income grows further the value of each dollar is less important to meeting basic needs, and you can add some comforts to your life and start splurging on luxuries like vacations and outings to a ballgame.  If you’re one of the lucky ones making millions, literally all your physical needs and social expenses are simply taken care of, and you can use money for superfluities -- you can spend money just to make more money, or to indulge in things like running for public office without worrying about the financial consequences to your personal life.  In other words, taxing a poor person takes food from their mouths; taxing a middle-income person takes away education or improvements to the front yard; taxing a rich person takes away things that are completely unnecessary.  Therefore graduated tax rates that rise with income are more fair and just than a flat tax, because the aim of progressive taxation is to impact well-being roughly equally for everyone, not to impact monetary income itself equally.  
The conservative counter-argument to this is the trickle-down one: they say high tax rates discourage investments and diminish job creation. This would in turn decrease the tax base and reduce revenues. Except that the optimal tax rate for high-income earners turns out to be 76%, not the low 15% rate of the capital gains tax. Empirically a progressive income tax would not only be more just it would also balance the budget.
2) The fact that Mitt Romney pays taxes at a lower rate than most Americans is a golden opportunity to press for a sane and just tax system, and it would be smart politics too, so normally one would expect it to be a huge issues in the 2012 campaign.  But I fully expect the centrist liberals WILL COMPLETELY FAIL TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE THIS ARGUMENT, which failure will diminish their chances of winning this and future elections, as well as completely forestall any chance of implementing a fair tax system, or of balancing the budget any time soon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ideological Preparation For Crisis-Induced Change

Social change can proceed steadily and gradually, but it often takes a crisis or disruptive shock to get the ball rolling, with the New Deal often cited as an example.  How people respond during such a social crisis depends on the ideas that are in their heads when it happens.  In her brilliant book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein details how free-market conservatives understand this and have not only manipulatively exploited crises, but induced and maximized them, to implement their austerity agenda.  Klein documents how they have done so in countries from Chile to Poland to South Africa -- and they now continue their attempts in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.  The Right has learned that in order to turn a crisis into opportunity, the intellectual and ideological groundwork must be laid down first: people don’t just think up new social, economic, and political systems sui generis during times of crisis but turn to the alternatives available from their culture.  When the Great Depression hit, the Left had all kinds of alternative economic ideas available “out there,” from labor unionism to the regulatory welfare state to socialism in various forms, because there was a century of theory in social democracy and socialism that had prepared the ground.  By the mid-twentieth century, according to Klein, free market conservatives like Milton Friedman had learned this lesson and set out to make their ideas the ones that were “out there,” so that their ideology would become the default turned to during crises.  And it worked.  They successfully pushed the opinions of relevant publics and decision-makers closer to their vision of privatization, deregulation, and austerity, and public policy followed suit. 
One of the most frustrating, and saddest, things about the political approach of centrist liberals for the last twenty years has been how they have altogether avoided promoting ideologically Left ideas, ceding the field and leaving conservatism to be the default crisis ideology. Afraid of being painted as radical and un-American, the center-left stopped fighting ideological battles long ago and thus has been losing the ideological and political war, not because their ideas are worse, but simply because they forfeited.  Indeed, too often liberals have even copied conservatism, perhaps adding a dash of moderation, in preference to making the best arguments for their own principles. (And it’s not as if the Left has ideas that are hard to argue for -- remember Elizabeth Warren?).  It’s a shame, because the empirical record shows that liberals govern better.  It also means that the ideas that are currently out there during a crisis are not rational ones.  Finally, in forfeiting the ideological war liberals have reduced the trust and confidence that people are willing to give them, making themselves into people who aren’t taken seriously, who aren’t turned to in an economic crisis, or seen as dependable on basic security and defense. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mitt Romney as a Horatio Alger Myth: You’ve Got To Be Kidding

There is currently an effort underway by moderates and conservatives to normalize Mitt Romney and make him seem to be a hard-working contributor to society, just like you and me.  This effort is following some traditional patterns for asserting that wealthy capitalists are just exceptionally hard-working, smart, driven folk, that these qualities are the cause of their wealth, and thus justification for it -- which erases birth, connections, luck, and other factors that truly make for great wealth. You should, of course, decide for yourself, but it is vital to keep the record straight and our view of Mitt Romney clear, especially during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. 
David Brooks at the New York Times says that the Romney family history is a story of persistence in overcoming adversity to achieve success, and he cites Romney’s persecuted Mormon ancestors and his father’s early difficulties to garner sympathy for him. This is basically a variation on the Horatio Alger tales of the Gilded Age, when robber barons would rationalize their monopolies with myths and overstatements about rising from poverty to the pinnacle of success through smarts, hard work, discipline, and drive, all the while claiming to be the true source of America’s growing industrial strength. (Never mind that their wealth depended on skimming from the efforts of impoverished laborers, many of them immigrants, most who toiled endlessly but did not rise.)  Brooks asks: Is Romney an out-of-touch member of the one percent, with a character of entitlement formed by a lifetime of wealth, ease, and luxury? His answer: 
“The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career.
“Romney’s salient quality is not wealth. It is, for better and worse, his tenacious drive — the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions.”
What is preposterous is Brooks' continued tenure at the New York Times, but that’s a theme for another day.  Brooks gives a hagiography of the Romney family, but it is hollow: most of our ancestors had it hard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because life was generally harder then.  If you weren't part of the one percent, you probably toiled in a factory or farm, or had a hard-scrabble life as a pioneer, and if you were black or “ethnic” or Chinese or American Indian you were thoroughly oppressed and persecuted.  The Romney family history as settler Mormans isn't anything special -- it reads like my own family’s history, which includes a pioneer and many hard-working people who made and lost a fortune or two.  The only difference is that my father didn’t make it rich and manage to stay that way, bequeathing me with easy access to the best schools, upper-class connections, and a fat inheritance.
David Brooks is trying to make it out like there is no class issue here, which is just clumsy propaganda. Mitt’s father George Romney was a wealthy automobile executive in the mid-twentieth century: he was CEO of American Motors in the 1950s, governor of Michigan in the 1960s, and a Nixon cabinet secretary.  So whatever adversity the Romney family faced was long over by the time Mitt arrived, and Mitt started life with money and connections.  His is not a rags-to-riches tale.  What's really important, of course, is a Romney’s own history and character, not his ancestors'.  Romney did not claw his way to the top as a Steve Jobs-like innovator and entrepreneur who created useful products, new industries, and the jobs that go with them. (That’s even doubtful about Jobs.) Romney made his fortune as a Gordon Gekko-like corporate raider, acquiring existing companies, busting them up, firing workers, selling off the pieces, and skimming the profits of those sales.  And he was never at any real financial risk: leveraged buy-outs were executed with other people’s money, borrowed on the fire-sale value of the very company targeted for future destruction.  
And note how Brooks has to turn to ancient family history to find any real defeats: that's because Mitt Romney hasn't personally had any.  He's never been unemployed, or poor, or made do without health insurance, or gone hungry, or been unable to pay bills.  All Brooks can cite as an example of Romney’s "persistence" is that he's had many defeats in his political career, but kept going.  That's not persistence in the face of adversity, that's simply political ambition, and Romney has enjoyed luxurious wealth the whole time.  Winning the presidency is not an easy thing and takes many years, often decades, of planning and effort, with success never guaranteed.  Brooks seems to think that simply trying to win that office is somehow a sign of a magnificent character.  But everything else in Romney’s life tells a different story, and the public record ought to reflect that.  Mitt Romney is an out-of-touch exemplar of the 1980’s “greed is good” rationalization for economic destruction.  That must not be forgotten at any moment during the 2012 campaign, both as a matter of morality and justice, but also as good political strategy at a time when economic hardship is widespread. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What Political Fortitude Can Do: Wisconsin

Political Fortitude threatens to dethrone an oligarch: Organizers of the campaign to recall odious Wisconsin governor Scott Walker turned in more than a million signatures near the state Capitol today - the state only has a population of 5.7 million people.  This number of signatures is almost twice as many needed to force a recall election. This will happen once the petitions are counted and the Government Accountability Board certifies them, and when that process is complete there will be a recall election, probably about mid-year. Walker will attempt to challenge as many signatures as possible, but he would need to invalidate more than a third of them, which is unlikely without incredible luck or incredible corruption on his part. It has been a historic effort:  
“Recall organizers said collecting a million names, addresses and signatures in 60 days for a recall is unprecedented in Wisconsin.
‘What we have accomplished is incredible. This is one of the greatest exercises of democracy in American history,’ said Ryan Lawler, of United Wisconsin.
Volunteers said the total number of signatures submitted should put a recall election for Walker beyond question.”
You’ll recall that Walker ginned up a state budget crisis by giving tax breaks to his cronies and then trying to bust the state’s public unions to make up for the shortfall. This led to Bangkok-sized protests in the tiny capital of Madison that lasted for weeks. That in turn fueled a recall effort that ejected two state legislators earlier this year (itself a difficult feat), narrowly failing to deprive Walker of a legislative majority, and which now threatens to depose Walker. I’m very proud of my home state; Wisconsin’s leadership in progressive reform and clean politics goes back a century to famous reformer Robert “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette. Wisconsin has never suffered would-be authoritarians lightly.

We should learn a lesson from this: the Occupy protests were really great and managed to finally change the public debate to make equality part of our political discourse again. But they have lost momentum and are now pretty much over. Wisconsin shows the inestimable value of combining traditional political organizing and campaigning with major protestsOnly in combination can regular people defend themselves from oligarchy and achieve real legislative and social change. 
Like last fall’s legislative victories in Ohio against Governor John Kasich’s anti-union measures, Wisconsin shows what persistent, patient, joint political action can do. I previously defined political fortitude as the character-habit of “courageously, vigilantly, relentlessly, and audaciously standing up for proven political principles of justice, equality, freedom, and democracy, even when apparent short-term interest or political calculations deem otherwise.” When Walker set out to break Wisconsin’s public sectors unions, thereby destroying the lives of the state’s public servants, further weakening other unions, and undermining good governance in the future, progressives and party activists didn’t seek to enhance bipartisanship, to compromise, or to move to the middle. They knew that would be capitulation and appeasement. Instead they fought back, with a bold and audacious strategy: recall the bastard. I am confident they will succeed, but even if they don’t manage to oust Walker, they have him on the defensive, along with austerity conservatism in their state.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Climate News That Made Me Smile Today

Some modest good news on the climate front - green investment was up 5% last year. Let's hope it continues to increase at a geometric rate. And a study published in the journal Science argues that fourteen control measures aimed at methane and black carbon (soot) would be affordable and effective measures to limit global warming, reducing it by about .5 C by 2050. Methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and both methane and soot can be removed from the atmosphere more quickly than CO2, leading to more rapid positive effects. 
Meanwhile, Ben Stein violates standard conservative positions on tort reform by suing a climate-friendly company that fired him as a spokesman because of his continuing ignorant and irrational climate-change denialism. So he’s using government intervention to force a company to not only respect, but pay for, a minority perspective. Isn’t that affirmative action? What next, quotas? Will every organization have to have its own ostrich-in-residence?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Prison Unending: A Decade of Guantanamo

Today marks the tenth year since the first arrival of prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - I won’t consecrate that with the usually positive word “anniversary”. Nor will I sanitize the status of the people there by calling them “detainees”, for they are prisoners and always have been. The whole sorry decade-long episode has been a fiasco of injustice and incompetence, as has been amply documented elsewhere, and I would still like to see President Obama keep his 2008 campaign pledge to shut the camp down. 
That word “detainee” was specifically applied, in Orwellian fashion, to undermine the legitimacy of claims that the men held there were prisoners of war: I know because I served at Guantanamo Bay as an enlisted Army Reserve intelligence analyst, and that’s what my unit was told soon after we landed. It was part of a conscious decision to treat these people outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention, a mistake that we have paid for dearly in degradation of our national character and our moral standing around the world. I arrived six months after the camp opened with the second rotation of reservists to serve there. For seven months I was separated from my then-wife, pursuit of my doctorate on hold while I did intelligence analysis to assist with the interrogation of prisoners captured in the immediate wake of September 11th. This was the fall and winter of 2002: up to that point, the public, including me, was behind the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Ladin and the rest of Al Qaida, and few people were aware of the scheme already underway to sell a war in Iraq despite its obvious irrationality and against the objections of much of the nation and the world.  
I have one story that perfectly captures the drum-beat backwards thinking in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. On September 26th 2002, I got back to my quarters after a long day and turned on the evening news, where I saw Donald Rumsfeld saying that  “high-ranking detainees” had revealed links between Saddam and al Qaida, specifically regarding chemical weapons; he was referring to an interview that Condoleeza Rice had given the day before in which she said the same thing. Bush himself would also make the case to the press that day in the strongest terms, saying that “the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order were given.” I thought this was odd, because if such information had come out of Gitmo, I was in a position that I would probably have known it. The next morning I went to work as usual and was immediately ordered by my commanding officer to begin research for another round of interrogations for the relevant prisoners - and I was specifically told to look for the links between al Qaida and the Iraqi regime. It was a long day, and a team of us found very little - only hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Trained in the scientific method, I knew that this was no road to impartiality, and one of the Reservists on my team who was a lawyer said that there was no way any of it would pass muster in a court of law. Our team reported as much, but to no avail: Wolfowitz’s and Feith’s Office of Special Plans had already been stood up to supply officials with the intelligence they wanted to see. They really did cherry-pick the evidence to justify prior conclusions, and I witnessed it first-hand. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Climate Change is Worse Than You Think

This weekend in DC, where I live, we had temperatures at almost seventy degrees with people out in shorts playing football; then by Tuesday it snowed. Last week LA had temperatures in the eighties, once seen only in the summer. Singular warm days or unusual variations don't prove that climate change is underway, of course, but they are consistent with the long term trends. 2011 was a record year for extreme weather events, with twelve of them costing a billion dollars or more. Nine out of the top ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, with the tenth being 1998. No one not blinded by a capitalist or religious ideology can deny the reality of global warming at this point. The evidence, and personal experience, are now just too strong.
Indeed, over the last two decades there is a pattern of scientific projections understating how bad things really are. Before industrialization the carbon level in the atmosphere - more or less it's natural state before human intervention - was about 280 parts per million. We are now at about 380 ppms, and while a decade ago scientists were hoping to stabilize carbon levels at 550 ppms, now even that looks optimistic. The problem is that once we hit about 480 ppms, feedback loops will set in that catapult us automatically to 800 or 1000 ppms, far beyond human capacity for adaptation.
Furthermore, the climate is a highly complex system, so destabilizing it will lead to feedback loops that magnify negative trends and will cause inherently unpredictable, system-disrupting shocks that result in nightmare scenarios. The only uncertainty is what those particular destabilizing events will be, not that they will occur.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

“Capitalism” as a Term

Most economists, conservatives, the foreign policy establishment, and many moderates assume that there is an identity between capitalism and democracy. You hear it all the time in public discourse: America stands for representative democracy and free market capitalism, and these are assumed to be the two definitive institutions that guarantee modern liberties and economic growth and development. 
But think about what the term “capitalism” means for a second. If the part of the word “-ism” refers to a philosophy and practice that promotes the preceding part of the word as the basic governing structure of society, then “capitalism” is the promotion of “capital” as that basic structure. Society is organized around capital and its promotion. Yet what do people mean by capital? It refers to physical plant, infrastructure, and machines used to make things, to be sure. But it also refers to social institutions and structures that are suitable to the accumulation and concentration of such physical capital - markets dominated by large corporations, and thus of the capitalists who have access and control over the capital. But we have known for two centuries now that unrestrained capitalist economic competition tends to degrade into oligopoly and monopoly, and to create greater inequalities of wealth than ever before in history. (Even in the United States, where neoliberalism and libertarianism are stronger than elsewhere, it has long been recognized, in theory at least, that market competition has to be limited through anti-trust laws to prevent monopolies from completely destroying the markets upon which the system relies.) Monopoly/oligopoly capitalism has also always translated into political systems dominated by the wealthy capitalist few, whether in Victorian Britain, or Pinochet’s Chile, or the United States today. Unregulated capitalism, with its capital concentration, tends to drive a political system towards oligarchy or even military dictatorship, and it ultimately impoverishes the lives of the many for the benefit of the few. There is thus no reason to buy the fiction that capitalism and democracy are natural partners. Capitalism is the natural partner of oligarchy, not democracy (representative or any other kind).
One doesn’t have to be a full-blown socialist to see this. Contrast the word “capitalism” with the word “laborism” or something like that. If democracy is the self-government of the many common people rather than domination by the elite few, then the economy that goes with it should in principle privilege the common people rather than an economic elite. And this means privileging those who work for a living rather than those who, currently, own the capital. What if we created an economic system which put the priority on enriching working people and which gave them most of the decision-making power, rather than one that does so for capitalists? If you want an economy that goes hand-in-hand with, and supports, democracy, then you’ve got to build an economy that does so directly. And we know that unregulated markets dominated by large corporations and lacking in social programs do not do that. Instead, at a minimum you have to impose the standard suite of government programs that supports the quality of life and active citizenship of common people - labor laws and public education, healthcare, and pensions, and so on. You also have to empower labor unions to bargain collectively - this check on capitalists is mandatory for even a semblance of a healthy society with a decent quality of life for most people. Better still would be the full-scale implementation of economic democracy across the economy, making all business enterprises democratically run by their workers and communities. This would remove the class conflict between capital and labor altogether by putting economic decisions in control of everyone in common.
Capitalism doesn’t have a monopoly on markets (pun intended). Indeed, because uncontrolled economic competition destroys markets through the emergence of oligopolies and monopolies, it’s a wonder that anyone at all thinks that they do. And capitalism isn’t the natural partner of democracy, it is the natural partner of oligarchy. If you want a better government that rules in the common interest rather than the special interest of the rich, this is one false assertion that has to be dispensed with.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hating the Rich in Self-Defense

The economic crash of 2008 and all that followed has had the salutary effect of making inequality a public issue again. Widespread economic loss caused by systemic financial irresponsibility, followed by public bailouts rather than penalties for the those who ruined the economy have a way of bringing people to their senses about the negative effects that wealth can have on a society. In classical republican theory high concentrations of wealth were seen as cancerous sores on the body politic, and equality, or how to deal with a lack of it, has always been a concern in modern democratic philosophies. Recent self-centered whining by certain members of our financial class demonstrate just how out-of-touch the wealthy can be. But America has always been a place that is too subservient to the rich, and if we are not careful we will fail to take advantage of the opportunity to become more persistently critical of the prerogatives and privileges of the upper class.
Matt Taibbi and Josh Brown both recently wrote excellent critiques the entitlement attitude of wealth wealthy whiners upset that the rest of us are angry with them. They both have pointed out that most Americans aren't mad at them for being rich, but for being massively irresponsible and unaccountable. As Brown says, "[I]t is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do. So, no, we don’t hate the rich. What we hate are the predators." And Taibbi: "Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich. What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens... Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities."
But it is almost a certainty that we should mind that they are rich, or at least so filthy rich that they forget they are members of the human species. We Americans ought to be much less trusting and deferential towards the wealthy. While I'm sure that there are many fine wealthy individuals and that most of them are personally very decent and polite, they live in a highly competitive system that rewards the worst people and brings out the worst in the rest. We need to make the connection that it is precisely because they are so rich that they are so irresponsible. There has been more than one study showing that economists and stockbrokers are more selfish, narcissistic, and even sociopathic than everyone else. 
Self selection plays a role as self-centered people go into professions that lead to greater wealth and power - which is all the more reason to put greater limits on the accumulations of wealth and power we permit. But the self-justifying dogmas of neoliberal economics, libertarian narcissism, and conservative aristocratic superiority also make people's habits of thought more selfish and self-promoting. The daily experience of the rich of being waited on hand and foot, having all their needs and whims met without effort, and, for those in positions of authority, of regularly wielding power over millions of people and dollars, also determines their outlook. They learn to think they are better than the rest of us, that they can do things regular people can't or wouldn't, and that the world revolves around them. They think this way because they are rich, because they have the experiences particular to a certain social position - as the rich have always thought of themselves. And our American ruling class has gotten very good at rationalizing this and convincing themselves that they really are smarter, braver, and better than the rest of us, and that it's all for the greater good anyway. Meanwhile quality of life for the 99% has stagnated since the 1970s while the rich have gotten richer, a sure sign that none of this actually is for the benefit of all. 
Conclusion: the rich become irresponsible by virtue of being rich, or are made worse by it, and it is therefore quite rational for the rest of us to distrust them by default, because of their social position. They control vast resources and the courses of our lives, yet as a group they demonstrate below-average levels of responsibility. Maybe we should despise them just because they are rich.