Post by Category : Labor

Sic transit gloria mundi

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

John Lanchester essays are always worth reading.

In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.

LRB 18 July 2019

‘Nuff said.

Rapacity

In advance of Ubers IPO, from the Washington Post on 5/7/19:

Drivers in at least eight U.S. cities — including Washington, New York, Los Angeles — are planning to strike Wednesday, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The protests come as ride-hailing companies face increasing scrutiny over the sustainability of their businesses, which experience massive losses while relying on the work of millions of drivers who are not employees.

Massive losses? Increased traffic congestion? Immiserated workers? Cool! Let’s double down!

“Wall Street investors are telling Uber and Lyft to cut down on driver income, stop incentives, and go faster to Driverless Cars,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the taxi alliance, said in a news release. “With the IPO, Uber’s corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt.”

It is “just business” for a few sociopaths who have no regard for the exploitation of others or the social impacts of their enterprise to become billionaires.

Making America great again, one IPO at a time.

The Strongman in our Future

Image Courtesy of  ljwhitsitt.com

Image Courtesy of ljwhitsitt.com

I took Philosphy 101 from Richard Rorty in 1968. I was a semi-literate 18 year old; I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know. All I remember of the experience was Rorty’s patrician elocution and that he first introduced me to the term “qua”. A few college courses later I began to glimpse the outlines of my ignorance and my interest in philosophy was launched. However it was decades later before I returned to Rorty. My learned friend J.M. recommended “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” which spurred me on to the rest of Rorty’s work.

Later in his career Rorty left the strict confines of academic philosophy. His book on American politics “Achieving our Country” was based on lectures he gave almost 20 years ago. I am going to exercise crude editorial license and provide a long extract.

America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie and this process is likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt…Since 1973, the assumption that all hardworking American married couples would be able to afford a home and the wife could then, if she chose, stay home and raise the kids has begun to seem absurd…Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers that the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises…in 1979 the kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were 4 times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter: now they are 10 times more likely…The old industrialized democracies are headed into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments..(in America)…members of labor unions and unorganized unskilled workers will sooner or later recognize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time they will realize that…white collar workers themselves afraid…are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point something will crack….the electorate…will decide that the system has failed and look for a strongman to vote for – someone who will assure them that the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and post-modern professors will no longer be calling the shots…One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans and homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.

Rorty is certainly not alone in espying the lineaments of fascism within liberal democracies; Antonio Gramsci, Edward Luttwak and Tony Judt also come to mind. But the last two sentences of Rorty’s quotation convey a particulary painful and American prescience.

Part the Final-The Shallow freedoms of Neoliberalism

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Driving home from work during the Republican convention, I heard an NPR interview with a Young Republican who was asked how she would explain the basic Republican philosophy to other young people in a way that they would understand. She replied immediately that a smart phone is the ideal metaphor: it is the product of entrepreneurs and it empowers each person to make choices and connect with the world. Hers was a very “normal” American take on reality: the small “freedoms” of the marketplace are wedded to the American veneration of a self-seeking individualism.

In his seminal 1958 essay, Isiah Berlin contrasts the small “freedoms” I have been talking about with another kind of “Freedom” which is more generative. A capital “F” freedom is not just freedom from an external constraint, but the liberty to affect the context of one’s choices and in so doing exercise positive control over your own life. Having the “Freedom” to achieve ones own ends has both an internal, personal aspect and an external, collective dimension.

Personally, I must have the “Freedom” to contend with my own self…my fears, my passions and the state of my education… in order realize my own potential and get where I want to go. In the social and political sphere, I may need to become an actor upon the world rather than just a passive consumer. If so, I will need the larger “Freedom” to participate in collective decision making. Do I have the “Freedom” to help generate a social or political context that is more favorable to my self-realization? Am I “Free” to start my own political party? Can I join a union and improve my workplace? Or, are these larger “Freedoms” foreclosed to me? Am I, or are my fellow citizens, hindered in our efforts to realize our individual potential because of the color of our skins? the crushing weight of student debt? the dearth of middle class jobs where we live?

A key difference between the two “freedoms” is that one requires a longer attention span than the other. Going with the smart phone metaphor, it requires little expenditure of attention to log on to a cell and compare college web sites. You have the “Freedom” to acquire an education and the “freedom” to become an indentured servant as a result. Though you are also “Free” to campaign for affordable education, that entails politics; the messy and time consuming practice of bumping into other people with different ideas of what “F(f)reedom” should look like.

We now live in a new kind of market-created culture that fights to capture every shift of our attention; however fleeting. A new bright and shiny object is always available to bait our attention because there is a market creating that bait and tailoring that bait ever more precisely to each user’s tastes. I am a grandfather who earned a degree in Anthropology 35 years ago. A recent ad on my Facebook page offered me a t-shirt that reads “Always trust a Grandpa with an Anthropology degree”. What you will look at tomorrow on the Internet has already been predicted and sold.

At one level, all of these bright shiny objects are the same, they are all potential clicks. Most of us know (at some level of consciousness) that Donald Trump is where he is today because he is clickbait. He knows how to be clickbait. He didn’t need Jeb Bush’s advertising war chest because he knew how to propagate exabytes of self-exposure for free. Thoughtfully considered and detailed public policy plans are not bright and shiny objects. A click on Trump, Kardashian or U.S. trade policy are all the same to the click-market. Content or the meaning of the content does not matter; merely the number of clicks. The algorithms didn’t judge Donald Trump, they merely propelled him to our attention. The more attention Trump got, the more of him we were offered; a feed back loop that had the result of giving him an illusory dimensionality.

I am hardly the first person to notice that Donald Trump is particularly suited to be where he is today. Trump doesn’t need multi-dimensional policy statements because there is really only one bright and shiny ornament on his policy tree; America is no longer great. It matters little that blaming trade agreements and immigration is simplistic and panders to ignorance and racism. The fear and dissatisfaction he is tapping into is very real.

The “free market” has failed to deliver. It has failed in rural America where economic opportunity is decreasing and opioid use is increasing. The “free market” has failed the Rust Belt where the human dislocation from 30 years of globalization and technological change has been allowed to fester. The “free market” has kept real wage growth stagnant for decades. The gloom of living paycheck to paycheck is pervasive in America.

But this is our brave new neoliberal world. The ephemeral can be monetized-“That’s only natural!” . We need not bother our pretty little heads thinking about “Freedom”- “Let the market sort it out!”. But when the free market’s outcomes are shitty, where do we turn? To a bright and shiny strongman who will let us keep our shallow freedoms (our smart phones, our guns, our Social Security). He will tell us what to do thereby relieving us of the fundamental Freedom to think for ourselves and shape our own political and social destinies.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.

Neoliberalism, part the Second, Where is my “free market”?

The ‘liberal’ in neoliberal has nothing to do with US political labels but instead refers to the Enlightenment underpinnings of Western culture. The political progenitors of the United States were deeply influenced by Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Rousseau. Creatures of the Reformation all, they rejected the divine right of kings and the divine conduit of the abbotts and elevated the sovereignty of each person’s reason. Free from the arbitrary rule of prince and priest, they enshrined the political principles by which we govern ourselves; the freedoms of speech, religion, press and markets. These original ‘liberals’ (among others) developed;

a vision of liberty and freedom that came to underpin a self-regulatory structure of governance that placed limits on the abitrariness of state power at the same time as it led and enabled individuals to regulate their own conduct to the rules of a market society.

Building upon this historical base, the rhetoric of neoliberalism has made good use of our American fetish for the word ‘freedom” . Markets must be ‘free’; deregulated and allowed to operate without the state impinging upon them just as we individual economic actors must be ‘free’ to purchase whatever smart phone we wish to buy. This is the basic conflation of market and individual “freedoms” which now undergirds American discourse; it simply feels like common sense.

But let’s begin with “freedom” as it applies to the market. It is also a common sense notion in America that pre-tax economic activity is the domain of the “market”. The State is seen to step in after the fact to impose its taxes and and regulations…making the market less ‘free’. (True neoliberals believe that “market” based economic distribution of income will be “just” whereas taxes are a form of theft by the State). In point of fact, no market is “free”. Modern markets (in particular) are creations of the state. The state creates the conditions whereby “property” can be created and protected and whereby commercial relations can be made relatively predictable. Who gets what marginal tax rates, who has access to the judicial system, how much transactional transparency is provided to investors and central banks that control currencies and interest rates are all ways that the State sets the stage for who is going to be successful. The marketplaces in Singapore, China, the U.S. and Sweden are as different as their political systems but the winners and losers in any marketplace are to a great extent, already “baked into the cake” by the State.

No only do markets not start out “free”, they are subject to the inexorable cupidity of economic actors trying game the system and put a thumb on the scale. The crash of 2008 is a case study of a financial system being gamed; by mortgage lenders, rating agencies and huge financial institutions playing casino with the money of widows and orphans. Just last month, our planetary big banks got caught trying to rig the international currency market.

Next up: If the ‘market’ is not truly ‘free’, if the system (to use Bernie’s term) is rigged, what does that say about my own ‘freedom’ as an individual economic actor?

Neoliberalism, Part the First

I think this election is turning out to be an inchoate plebiscite on neoliberalism.

What is “neoliberalism” you ask?

It is a political economic belief system that deifies “the market”. Planetary prosperity will rise and fall with “the market”. If this phrase – “the market will decide” – does not raise your hackles, you have digested some neoliberal ideology yourself. Because “the market” is a transcendental source of wisdom, neoliberalism demonizes government as too big, too inefficient, too likely to “distort” the pure signals sent to us by the market and too likely to make the markets less “free”. It follows then that the best path to prosperity for all is too keep government small and make “the market” bigger. We should cut taxes (starve the government) and privatize governmental functions (give “the market” greater sway). Any social entity that impedes the free flow of capital (unions) or is not viewed as enabling to entreprenuers (the social safety net) is viewed as retarding our common progress to market utopia.

The spawn of economists like Frederich Hayek and Milton Friedman, neoliberalism’s early adopters were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They lowered taxes, “deregulated” markets, weakened unions, assured the global flow of capital, stepped away from any concern about full employment and attenuated the social safety net for the poorest citizens. The social and economic policies they inspired have resulted in the hollowing out of the middle class and near catastrophic levels of economic inequality. Friedman and Hayek devotees aside, neoliberalism as a planetary force is neither a single school of economic thought nor is it a coherent ideology. Rather, its has slowly become “common sense”. It is a tissue of internally inconsistent myths and notions which can be ascribed to in bits and pieces by people of all political persuasions (i.e., Bill Kristol and Bill Clinton).

Here in America, the canards of neoliberalism have been tilled into our native soil of racism, sexism, xenophobia and know-nothingism. The result is the rich loam of political and economic confusion in which Donald Trump is growing. Central to the rhetorical misdirection of neoliberalism is the use and misuse of the word “free”. More to follow.

(Other brief summaries of neoliberalism are available here, here and the first two chapters here.)

At the Bargaining Table

Goya, The Hidden Dog
Goya The Hidden Dog

I represent workers in what used to be called “theater” and now more broadly should be called the “live entertainment industry”.

I sit at the bargaining table and often recognize that the employees I represent and the companies that employ them find themselves in the same structural position. My folks live from paycheck to paycheck. Our (mostly) non-profit employers live from season to season. A near miss in fund raising and/or a near miss in ticket sales sets off organizational alarm bells. For everybody at the table, margins are thin. Our economic positions are precarious and anxiety is high. Fiduciary responsiblity feels itself confronted by self-interest. Self-esteem is at stake; as is collegiality and hope for the future. These are the real stakes not the 2% raise that will purportedly keep up with the “cost of living”.

Typically everyone at the table (except me) is a co-worker.The employees rationally recognize that Management has more “power” and “control”. Those with “power” can bestow or deny the things we want. This distribution of power, at a root emotional level, is humiliating. It is easy to imagine (at this root emotional level) that Management has more to give and refuses to do so out of the sheer pleasure of withholding because it can. Management for its part has difficulty not begrudging the loss of its ability to roll out unilateral decisions. Furthermore, managers tend to view the stewardship of their enterprise as the anxious juggling of constraints that are insufficiently appreciated by their employees. For their part, the employees experience the net effects of contraints every time they look at their paychecks. They come to the table not so much interested in constraints as primarily focused on their needs.

The more similar the structural position the more relational the negotiations can become. If I can promote the mutual recognition that everyone at the table is a stakeholder in the same enterprise then Management’s anxieties and employee desires can be articulated, considered and refashioned in light of each other. Managers can be reminded that empathy for their employees is a virtuous constraint and employees can recalibrate their expectations. Our full, human struggle to reach agreement by recognizing the other’s position is morality in action.

Unsurprisingly, the larger the corporate entity, the less relational the negotiations. At the other end of the relational spectrum, I have been dealing with two, multibillion dollar corporations wholly owned by two multibillionaires. These entities are “too big to fail”; they are too wealthy to care. For the functionaries who negotiate on behalf of these behemoths, negotiations are not about people but about “units” of labor and time; resources to be costed out. There are no moral, qualitative variables in their corporations’ algorithms of “success”. Discourse about the employees as ends in themselves is irrelevant and unwelcome. The immiseration of workers is an externality to the bottom line. The people I represent are ciphers in a formula. If the numbers crunch, my people work and eat. If the numbers don’t crunch for us, then we are the “losers”. The “winners” are people who have no choice but to sell themselves more cheaply.

The functionaries across the table from me are themselves merely means to a corporate end. They are not allowed (and/or do not permit themselves) to engage in the essentially moral activity of recognizing the other. They are complicit and they are victims.

Winners and Losers

Daumier,  The Burden

Daumier, The Burden

John Rawls thought that political society was a cooperative venture that we all enter into for mutual advantage. He posited that although we can imagine a society in which each individual has equal access to all resources, we are willing to accept some inequality of wealth distribution if it means that everybody is more prosperous. Hence, we accept capitalism. We accept without much reflection that “there will be winners and losers”. We subscribe to the notion that some wealth inequality – that which can be generated by the innovative or the entrepreneurial – is good at a macro level. The success of a Bill Gates floats a lot of boats. This is why the Republican’s mantra “the job creators” has so much resonance for many people. Previous posts here {“The Planet Klepton” & “Americans on Drugs”} have touched on the topic of wealth inequality.
But extreme wealth inequality is not a philosophical problem any longer, there are real life consequences for the haves and the have-nots.
The consequences for the have-nots:

-Children born to low-income parents are twice as likely to end up in special education classes and three times as likely to suffer mental health problems than those in the highest income group.
-Canadians with an income of $15,000 or less have three times the risk of developing diabetes than those who earn more than $80,000.
-More than one in five American children live below the federal poverty level, making them more likely to suffer from asthma and obesity and have poorer nutrition…(and have) less access to health care and lower vaccination rates.
-Children in chronically im­poverished families have lower cognitive and academic performance and more behavior problems than chil­dren who are not exposed to poverty.
-The poor are more likely to be incarcerated and the more people we incarcerate the more poverty we create. This effect is horrifically visible to African Americans.
-The Great American Vicious circle; born poor your chances of completing high school plummet. No diploma, no job. Black American males in their 30’s without a high school diploma are more likely to be in jail than to have a job.

What do the “haves” get out this skewed distribution of wealth? One doesn’t have to be a social scientist to figure what powers are conferred by virtue of great concentrations of wealth. Great wealth can control the media, flood the Intertoobz with disinformation and control what messages the peons will see and hear. Rupert Murdoch has used his wealth to construct an apparatus of propaganda that would put Soviet-era Tass to shame. Oil billionaire brothers can fund climate disinformation and lobby against environmental regulation.Those who inherit billions can afford to give millions to support politicians who oppose estate taxes.

Let us remind ourselves of the founding purpose of this country:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

More that 16 million U.S. children are growing up in poverty. Is this how we promote the general welfare? Five members of the Walton family are have more wealth than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined. Does this state of affairs reflect a “more perfect union? One in three African American males will go to prison in their lifetime. How can this be construed as justice? How are we securing the blessing of liberty for all of our fellow citizens by having the highest incarceration rate in the world?

One last question: how are we setting the stage today for future domestic tranquility?

Ferguson, Missouri.

The Planet Klepton

What the fk is wrong with the Russian people?

Corruption is rampant. Upwards of $400 billion dollars circulates in bribery and other sub-rosa transactions. $15 billion dollars worth of construction work on the Sochi Olympics went to three of Putin’s pals. The average Russian’s wealth is less than $10,000 yet 110 Russians are billionaires. These few Russians lead extravagant lives. They don’t spend money at home, they like to live close to their money* in London, New York and Switzerland. Their humble pieds-a-terre in Hyde Park and Manhattan are celebrated by Architectural Digest and accented with the purchase of neighborhood sports franchises. Their children buy Greek islands. But the king of Russian kleptocrats may be Vladimir Putin himself:

So what evidence is there of Putin’s secret obscene fortune? Let’s start with the small stuff. Putin is known to sport a $150,000 Patek Philippe watch on most occasions and his total collection has been valued at $700,000. He also has full access to a $40 million ultra-luxury yacht that features a wine cellar, Jacuzzi, helipad and outdoor barbecue area. In terms of living accommodations, Putin has access to 20 mansions throughout the world including a lavish ski lodge and Medieval castle. The crown jewel of his property portfolio is a $1 billion palace overlooking the Black Sea that he allegedly owns through an anonymous trust… If Vladimir Putin’s net worth truly sits at $70 billion, that would be enough to make him the third richest person on the planet right behind Bill Gates and Carlos Slim Helu.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the average Russian is living the Third World Dream.

What other “developed” country would put up with having  the 400 richest people owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million put together? What  other developed country would have that kind of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few when 70% of working age adults have jobs that pay less than $30,000?

The most unequal of the developed countries is the USA. According to OECD data, its Gini coefficient is 0.38, well above the values in the UK (0.34), Japan (0.33), Germany (0.30) France (0.29) and Denmark (0.26). What is more, inequality in the USA has been increasing by an average of 0.5% per annum since the mid 1980s.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010, the USA’s Gini coefficient is even higher, at 0.41 (see Table 3 of the report). But this is still below that of Russia, with a figure of 0.44, a figure that has markedly worsened over time, along with those of other former Soviet countries.

Five members of the Walton family are have more wealth than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined.

What the fk is wrong with the American people?

 

*Nod to my money guru, JG