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:

  1. Tax the crap out of the 1% [disclosure: I’m one],

  2. stamp out most forms of high-leverage financial speculation,

  3. introduce ruthless transparency such that any asset whose beneficial ownership cannot be established where legally appropriate is subject to summary confiscation,

  4. 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

  5. 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.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Roth (Jun 04 2016, at 11:37)

I keep hoping that people will wake up! I like your comment about "radical transparency." Wish I'd have thought of that.

You might (or might not) like the Archdruid Report, where John Michael Greer has been discussing these issues for some years, from his position ensconced on the far fringe. (And yes, Archdruid is his job title, which tells you exactly how far out on the fringe he is.)

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From: Gavin B. (Jun 04 2016, at 14:08)

An how about a QR-type code on consumer products that lets us know the profit margins at each step of the production/selling chain.

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From: Paul Boddie (Jun 04 2016, at 14:23)

This was a nice article! The one thing worth adding to is the notion of "The Free Market". The kind of people who go on about the virtues of "The Free Market" and the need for "less regulation" are precisely the ones who demand government-sponsored instruments to shore up their dominance of their particular slice of that market.

Such people loudly call for less regulation, thus cultivating the image of "interference" or "meddling" by the state, so that they may be able to cut costs, behave in a less responsible manner (socially, environmentally, ethically), and maximise their own personal gain. But at the same time, they actually seek more regulation, which they call "incentives" or "rewards" and which usually involve things like patents, without which their supposedly robust and competitive businesses would somehow be unfairly disadvantaged.

The hypocrisy is complete when these people criticise others, particularly the genuinely disadvantaged, for looking to the state for support or solutions. "Small government" for such people is less about efficient government than it is about having one, compact and compliant, in their own pocket.

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From: John Cowan (Jun 04 2016, at 15:24)

My tribe has been hammering away on the same set of drums since 1879: the economic problem of Gilded Ages arises not from capitalism but from monopoly, from the willingness of society to consider natural resources as the property of the first (or latest) to forcibly seize them, rather than something that belongs to all of us. The rent we pay to oil companies, agribusiness, and banksters for the use of our own is a never-ending appropriation. Let them pay rent to us!

Marxists get this wrong because they consider all capital, however man-made, to be a natural resource. Libertarians get this wrong because they consider all natural resources, however un-man-made, to be capital. Properly separate capital from monopoly over natural resources, and we wipe out poverty without disallowing riches.

"But nothing will be done without the bloodiest blows." --David Lindsay

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From: Frank Wilhoit (Jun 04 2016, at 16:20)

We do not know whther the free market is inherently toxic, because we have never seen it subjected to accountability under the law. Anything that is allowed to cheat is toxic. What would the free market do if it were subject to the law? We may suspect that it would collapse, pretty much instantaneously, but every such hunch is a counterfactual. The experiment would be exceedingly disruptive, but should (in my view) be made.

Meanwhile, let us qualify our remarks about the free market by describing it as what it is: the unaccountable market.

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From: Alexis (Jun 04 2016, at 16:21)

Can I add one, which is essentially the continuation of sever punishment for business misdeeds: Severe punishment for those who are supposed to serve the public, who put their own interests ahead of those of the public. Politicians who pork-barrel for votes, take lobbyist money, allow lobbyists to write their legislation etc, should be stripped of their benefits and made permanently ineligible for office.

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From: Brett Morgan (Jun 04 2016, at 22:34)

My belief is that every eighty years, give or take, the ruling class has to be taught afresh that they are here to serve, not to just to take.

I hope that radical transparency will be a part of the answer, but I fear a class war lies in between here and there.

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From: PeterL (Jun 04 2016, at 22:35)

'“... make the bank­ing sys­tem run like the civ­il service.” Hm, that doesn’t sound ob­vi­ous­ly worse than the way the bank­ing sys­tem runs to­day.'

You've no doubt been dealing with Canadian civil servants recently and not American. (I've been dealing with both recently.)

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From: pdkl95 (Jun 05 2016, at 01:41)

> “Are you a Marxist?” I don’t think so [...] Marx didn’t say much use­ful about how to fix the prob­lem [...]

You should listen to David Simon's talk on that *exact* topic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZOH9DgzTCs

If you prefer text, this article has the (abridged) core of the talk:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/08/david-simon-capitalism-marx-two-americas-wire

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From: Bob Haugen (Jun 05 2016, at 05:09)

> As a po­lit­i­cal rhetori­cian, I’m a fine soft­ware geek.

Hell no. That was really well done. Thank you.

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From: Jon Bosak (Jun 05 2016, at 09:06)

I second John Roth's suggestion that you look into the Archdruid, though I think you'll have trouble hearing what he has to say. With which I am in virtually complete agreement, BTW.

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From: Matěj Cepl (Jun 05 2016, at 11:24)

This article could be used for illustrating the Internet search bubble we all live in. These bubbles works perfectly well as echo chambers, amplifying the message which is locked in them forcing everybody to achieve most radical positions possible.

So, let me comment from my classical liberal - conservative bubble. For example talking about the autonomous vehicles. It seems to me that expecting anything else than the loss of hundreds of thousands of the drivers’ jobs is just on the par of the “Candlemakers petition” (http://bastiat.org/en/petition.html). This will just happen and I have no doubts that fortune-seekers in the Silly Valley (among other inventors) bring forth more inventions replacing need for many workers (if you denied jobs for the alien workers, they will be replaced by robots, it is that easy). In my opinion the discussion shouldn’t be whether it should happen, but what to do when it happens. Yes, I am an European, so I believe these most rich societies humankind ever knew about should do something to make this landing of lost jobs as soft as possible, however landed they must. And sooner better.

On the related note, I really like EconTalk podcast by the GMU professor Russ Roberts. Yes, he is very much outside of your bibble, but one thing which seems to me remarkable is that he manages to invite to his podcast people with whom he is in strong disagreement with and have very decent and thoughtful conversation. So, yes Thomas Picketty is very much on the other side of the opinion spectrum from his, but they had very thought inspiring discussion on http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/09/continuing_conv_19.html . Highly recommended.

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From: Aubrey Kohn (Jun 05 2016, at 17:39)

A central bank is necessary to a free market? I think you meant to say "contradictory" -- or at least "fundamentally incompatible with".

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From: Daniel G (Jun 05 2016, at 21:26)

How did all these Greer appreciaters wind up here? I third the recommendation!

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From: dave (Jun 06 2016, at 00:50)

Yup, the little people are totally, completely, utterly screwed. People still in the middle class bizarrely claim "oh, just work harder, apply yourself more, and you'll get ahead". Yes, for some small fraction of people, this will work. But there isn't enough stuff to do enable even half the people that want to do it to actually be able to do it. It is more and more like winning the lottery.

And a big part of how the system got to be so successful at transferring more and more wealth from 'everyone' to the few is the phony horse race between Democrats and Republicans. You don't get ahead if "your party" wins. You just lose differently. But the entire system is built around picking between R and D.

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From: Doug K (Jun 06 2016, at 11:33)

upon emigrating to the USA in the 90s as a moderate social democrat, I found myself way out on the left wing, with only Bernie Sanders for company. You didn't move left - the world moved right, hard.

Really the fundamental point about 'free markets' is a Wittgensteinian one: markets of any kind cannot exist without laws, laws cannot exist without government. The perplexity dissolves as soon as we realize there are no free markets in nature, and the term itself conceals an ideology. In a democracy we can choose our governments and the laws they make, those laws which define the markets. Obviously democracy has been subverted world-wide by alien intelligences - corporations, in Charles Stross' analysis,

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/12/invaders-from-mars.html

So the trick now is how to reclaim democracy and the rule of law, from the oligarchs. A well-regulated market system is necessary to the security of a free state. An unregulated one is as deadly as the unregulated militia we have here in the US.

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From: Kurt Cagle (Jun 06 2016, at 12:04)

Tim,

I'm very much in agreement with you, and have advocated over the years every single point you've made as being necessary. You cannot resuscitate a system so long as it is being drained by parasites.

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From: Tim Buchheim (Jun 06 2016, at 15:08)

Wow, so many interesting articles to read. I'll be busy for a while. :)

I have to agree with Doug K … the US (and to a lesser extent much of the rest of the western world) has moved sharply to the right in the last thirty years. The shift in attitudes towards unions in the United States is one of the more obvious signs.

I think Bernie's surprising level of success in the US shows that (a) the millennials are understanding some of these problems better than their parents (probably because the consequences of the shift have affected them so much) and (b) perhaps the populace didn't move quite as much to the right as it appeared, but those on the left had long stifled their views in response to the perception of rightward shift portrayed by the media over the past few decades.

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From: American Gould (Jun 06 2016, at 17:12)

I think you should add "Quality and diversity of affordable education" to your list. Income inequality can often be rephrased as educational inequality. Teach the little ones (all of them) to write sonnets, fugues, proofs, python, and essays. Good teachers pour gas on the economic bonfire. The reality is much more complicated, but that's the windmill I'd tilt toward.

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From: David Chase (Jun 07 2016, at 21:58)

(I had to answer your anti-spam question dishonestly.)

I agree with all your points, and I don't have much faith in the free-market religion, which is what it is. Check the assumptions required to make the "free market maximizes general welfare" proof work -- for actual humans, they're false, that field has foundations of sand.

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From: Aubrey Kohn (Jun 07 2016, at 22:31)

"Radical transparency" is another word for: "Anybody with a gun and no morals can take all of your stuff whenever they feel like it".

Without privacy there is no such thing as freedom.

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From: Hugh (Jun 08 2016, at 04:37)

Unless you own your own jet, you're not part of the 1%. Working for Google and Amazon makes you a henchman at worst.

There are political parties around the world dedicated to stamping out the excesses of Western capitalism: takfirist Islamists. Unfortunately they also believe in subjugating women, executing gays, and the re-institution of slavery.

After that, well the various Marxists do address the problems of today through an economic and class lense, and they've moved on a lot from Marx. (Just as modern evolutionary biology has moved on a lot from Darwin.) Probably the best option.

Or you could look into Gaia and the environmental movement.

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From: Michael Ellis (Jun 10 2016, at 21:50)

Picketty's book is extremely flawed:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/louiswoodhill/2014/05/06/thomas-piketty-gets-the-numbers-wrong/#30d89e3924eb

Venezuela is only the latest example of country that embraced statism to make the economy "fair" and now citizens of the country with the World's largest oil reserves are foraging for food in dumpsters. What makes you think your proposed reforms will work better than the accumulated failures of the past few hundred years?

The free market is "flawed" because humans are flawed, but the advances in human well-being it's yielded are extraordinary:

http://humanprogress.org

Other than that, read Hayek. And Thomas Sowell.

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From: mariuss (Jun 11 2016, at 20:06)

I definitely resonate with the article, we reached a point where radical changes are inevitable.

I think that the main issue is that in many ways we are all disconnected. This disconnection is reflected in the fact that we are looking for culprits outside, it's the conservatives, the 1%, the corporations, the government. Basically someone else. Also, this may explain why we are so gullible for the free market ideology, we think that we can be free of it all, separate.

I am not saying that we should not look at ways to improve politics, government and all. Radical transparency is a good start (and it has nothing to do with privacy). But in the end I think no amount of external fixing will save us, not at this stage.

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From: Raymond Lutz (Jun 16 2016, at 09:54)

@Hugh, Tim Bray may not fly his own jet, but I think he does sail his _own_ boat! Maybe he owns a <gasp> private island! Not sure about this one... 8-)

Eh Eh Monsieur Bray, je crois que vous avez flatté à rebrousse-poil some of your Peter Thiel wannabes lecteurs...

Concernant l'émergence d'une véritable alternative socialiste au Canada, personnellement je garde un oeil sur le blog de Roger Annis [1] et sur celui de Michal Rozworski [2]. Coté média, il y a l'émergence intéressante du webzine bilingual ricochet.media (auquel Rozworski contribue).

[1] http://rogerannis.com/

[2] http://rozworski.org/political-eh-conomy/

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June 04, 2016
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