I have a problem lately: When I look in the mirror, I see a left-wing extremist. I’m uneasy about my strengthening belief that Free Enterprise is gonna ruin everything good unless we take a knife to its testicles first.
I think we need to:
Tax the crap out of the 1% [disclosure: I’m one],
stamp out most forms of high-leverage financial speculation,
introduce ruthless transparency such that any asset whose beneficial ownership cannot be established where legally appropriate is subject to summary confiscation,
adopt a zero-tolerance posture on business crime, with jail time regularly administered for significant financial misdeeds, in rough proportion to the size of the takings, and
roll out a universal basic income to deal with the inevitable decline in the proportion of humans “enjoying” full employment.
I think we can all agree that these are extreme measures. And inside, I feel like this reasonable mild-mannered guy. But there’s overwhelming evidence that we’re facing extreme problems; read on.
Taking these steps would require strong unpleasant language and make many powerful and persuasive people unhappy. At the moment, the critical mass to make these things happen isn’t there. But it feels to me like it’s steadily less and less not-there.
Readings · I’ll spare you paragraphs of my own discourse: As a political rhetorician, I’m a fine software geek. But there’s some awfully good, awfully strong things being said out there; here are some:
Unnecessariat by “Anne Amnesia” is messy, disorganized, data-dense, and darkly beautiful, a raw scream out of the raw parts of Middle America. Out-take: “Lets be honest- Clinton doesn’t give a shit about me. When Clinton talks about people hurt by the economy, she means you: elite-educated white-collar people with obvious career tracks who are having trouble with their bills and their 401k plans. That’s who boomed under the last president Clinton, especially the 401ks. Me, or the three guys fighting two nights ago over the Township mowing contract, we’re nothing. Clinton doesn’t have an economic plan for us. Nobody has an economic plan for us. There is no economic plan for us, ever. We keep driving trucks around and keep the margins above gas money and maybe take an odd job here or there, but essentially, we’re history and nobody seems to mind saying so.”
On Revolutionary Attitude by Craig Murray is way more British and polished than Unnecessariat but perhaps even angrier: “Society is so obviously broken to the disadvantage of the many, that to indulge those who, from self-interest or media brainwashing or nostalgia, support the status quo is not helpful.”
Americans Don’t Miss Manufacturing — They Miss Unions, from Ben Casselman at stats-wonk site FiveThirtyEight, is unsurprisingly data-heavy: “a third of production workers — non-managers working on factory floors and in related occupations — earn so little that their families receive some form of public assistance such as food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit”.
Finally, On Some Issues, Moral Appeals Don't Seem To Work by John Judis at big-league US-liberal blog TPM, is short but focused on a point I want to expand on: While you can rally round and move the needle on social-liberal projects (in this case the US Deep South’s Neanderthal anti-sexual-minority laws), nobody is willing to do much about the poor, who are getting crapped on at least as comprehensively as trans people.
Anne Amnesia echoes this: At some point starting in the Seventies, the gay community woke up and wouldn’t take it any more, and they’ve won a lot of their fights. The powers that be realized, first, that it was stupid and indefensible to discriminate against people for being born that way; and second (more important) it wouldn’t cost them anything to stop discriminating.
Which is why, obviously, it’s easier to address the issues of smaller factions like the LGBTQers, than the big race and gender power issues, which you can’t touch without major economic dislocation.
I wonder, now that the social-progressive program is largely (thank goodness) scoring wins, whether we might direct some of that awesome energy to economic-progressive ends.
Questions · “Are you a Marxist?” I don’t think so, and I’ve even read Marx. While he said smart things about class conflict and talked about “workers alienated from the means of production” (translation: a lot of jobs suck), Marx didn’t say much useful about how to fix the problem, and was appallingly data-illiterate (see Piketty). Anyhow, even if he was right, there isn’t a proletariat any more.
“But if you cripple the Free Market, won’t that plunge us into poverty?” It might; the free market is one of Homo sapiens’ greatest inventions. But it’s profoundly artificial, relies on the Rule of Law and a functioning court system and a central bank and all sorts of other public apparatus.
And it’s here to serve us, not the other way round. Guess what: If the executive class were whacked back to the single-digit millions they accumulated a few decades back, instead of all the zeroes they accumulate now, there’d still be lots of people knocking themselves out to build companies and be the boss.
Let me quote Piketty: “There is no statistically significant relationship between the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the rate of productivity growth in the developed countries since 1980.”
I remember having lunch with some Deutsche Bank execs in 2009, with lots of financial-crisis blood still on the floor. They were feeling sorry for themselves: “These politicos don’t get the market, they want to regulate the hell out of us, make the banking system run like the civil service.” Hm, that doesn’t sound obviously worse than the way the banking system runs today. But it was the cloud-castle sense of entitlement that, all these years in the distant rear-view, still makes me angry.
“Won’t technology create enough jobs to replace the ones it’s destroying, like it always has?” Maybe, but I don’t think so. In particular, I think self-driving vehicles are going to blow a hole in employment for the relatively-unskilled that may never heal.
“But this century has seen massive poverty reduction in Asia, are you against that?” No, and I hope that the Indians manage to repeat the China trick. But I don’t see any reason why the emergent Asian middle class isn’t gong to end up whipsawed just like Middle America’s is, once the manufacturing boom eases off.
“But what about intersectionality?” Seems to me that the nastiness I observe in the world is way better explained by old-fashioned economic class interests than by any intersectional theory I’ve read. Lots of socially-progressive Silly Valley titans are working diligently to disempower workers by turning them into “independent contractors”.
Next? · Well, that’s the problem. I’ve presented my best policy ideas above but, like I said, I’m a server-side Net geek not a political economist. Anyone know any political parties with ideas like those? If I were American, I’d be in the Sanders/Warren camp. In Canada, I usually vote NDP, but without much joy.
I think the ground is fertile. I think the “conventional wisdom” which sustains the current finance-centric rentier economy is thought wise by fewer and fewer. I think the path from here to something saner will have messy and ugly parts. But I’m increasingly sure that our current path, as a society and species, is unsustainable.