Sunday Morning Link Brunch: 10/20/2013


Current Events

“In the United States, of course, Marxism remains an intellectual current rather than a mass movement. Certainly, millennials are famously progressive; a much-discussed 2011 Pew poll found that 49 percent of people between 18 and 29 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 46 percent felt positively about capitalism. It’s hard to say exactly what this means—it’s not as if young people are sending Das Kapital racing up the best-seller lists or reconstituting communist cells. Still, it’s been decades since so many young thinkers have been so engaged in imagining a social order not governed by the imperatives of the market.

The reason why is obvious enough. “Now everything is falling apart,” says Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer and mentor to several among the new Marxist thinkers. “Not even the most energetic apologists can say things are going well. The basic premises of American life, about upward mobility and all that, it all seems like a cruel joke now.

These are not, then, apologists for authoritarianism. Rather, they insist that the terrible regimes of the 20th century do not obviate Marx’s essential insights, and that, with the U.S.S.R. gone, it should be possible to apply those insights without a lot of anti-Stalinist throat-clearing.

Back then, one could at least look to the United States to see capitalism triumphant. That, clearly, is no longer the case. After the financial crisis, “you didn’t need to be Karl Marx to see that people were getting kicked out of their homes,” says Gessen. And privileged young people—particularly the kind of who are inclined to read and write essays about political theory—haven’t just been spectators to immiseration. Graduating with student debt loads that make them feel like indentured servants, they’ve had a far harder time than their predecessors finding decent jobs in academia, publishing, or even that old standby law and are thus denied the bourgeois emollients that have helped past generations of college radicals reconcile themselves to the status quo.

If there were a Republican president, they might see hope in electing a Democrat. But Barack Obama already won, and it didn’t help. “If you win something and you are disappointed with the results, in a way that’s more politicizing than just losing and losing and losing over again,” says Sunkara.”

“From 1988 to 2008, Mr. Milanovic found, people in the world’s top 1 percent saw their incomes increase by 60 percent, while those in the bottom 5 percent had no change in their income. And while median incomes have greatly improved in recent decades, there are still enormous imbalances: 8 percent of humanity takes home 50 percent of global income; the top 1 percent alone takes home 15 percent. Income gains have been greatest among the global elite — financial and corporate executives in rich countries — and the great “emerging middle classes” of China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Who lost out? Africans, some Latin Americans, and people in post-Communist Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Mr. Milanovic found.The United States provides a particularly grim example for the world. And because, in so many ways, America often “leads the world,” if others follow America’s example, it does not portend well for the future.

On the one hand, widening income and wealth inequality in America is part of a trend seen across the Western world. A 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that income inequality first started to rise in the late ’70s and early ’80s in America and Britain (and also in Israel). The trend became more widespread starting in the late ’80s. Within the last decade, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions — France, Japan, Spain — the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind.

But the trend was not universal, or inevitable. Over these same years, countries like Chile, Mexico, Greece, Turkey and Hungary managed to reduce (in some cases very high) income inequality significantly, suggesting that inequality is a product of political and not merely macroeconomic forces. It is not true that inequality is an inevitable byproduct of globalization, the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services, and technological change that favors better-skilled and better-educated employees.

American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That’s no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.”

“In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.

What lies behind this shift is a sea-change in the character of capitalism. The state-managed capitalism of the postwar era has given way to a new form of capitalism – “disorganised”, globalising, neoliberal. Second-wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first but has become the handmaiden of the second.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the movement for women’s liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures. In a first scenario, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in a second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic advancement. Second-wave feminism was in this sense ambivalent. Compatible with either of two different visions of society, it was susceptible to two different historical elaborations.”

The study shows that 28% of people in London are in poverty, a figure seven percentage points higher than the rest of England, and the majority of working-age adults and children in poverty – 57% – in the capital are in families that work….

The report’s findings are at odds with the principle underlying the government’s welfare reform programme, which is that work is the best solution for poverty. “You don’t help people by leaving them stuck on welfare … but by helping them stand on their own two feet. Why? Because the best way out of poverty is work – and the dignity that brings,” David Cameron said in his Conservative party conference speech last month.”

“The United States has the least competitive elections in the rich world; the lowest participation by voters; the most infrequent turnover in its legislature. For a century and a half two entrenched parties have periodically manipulated election rules to exclude competitors with the blessing of the courts, in ways that would probably draw formal sanction by E.U. monitors if it were happening in Kazakhstan.

In the jargon of mainstream political science, citizens have preferences, and the political system aggregates those preferences according to its particular rules and structures. Undoubtedly, Americans’ political attitudes have shifted to the right in many ways over the past few decades. Still, if the shutdown and debt ceiling standoff represent a “shocking” crisis, a “breakdown” in the norms of governance, maybe the problem lies less with bad people and their bad preferences (and where do those come from?) than with the distortions of the system that aggregates them.

But the problem runs deeper than the mere mechanics of elections. When voters do bother to vote, even on the rare occasions their vote matters, the results are rendered opaque and irrelevant – a proliferation of veto points, a miasma of dispersed authority – by a constitutional structure meticulously designed to suppress any visible connection between the casting of a ballot and the enactment of a program.

However disastrous or ridiculous the outcome of this crisis ultimately proves to be, the sub-democratic structure of American politics will guarantee that the consequences will be non-existent for those who initiated it: the regime of repressed competition will ensure no consequences for the individual legislators, while its separation of powers will probably ensure no consequences for their party either.

In the last debt ceiling crisis, two years ago, the public expressed overwhelming revulsion and blamed the GOP by a wide margin; the next year, Republicans won the House again, and ended up with three-fifths of the governors and state legislatures. Most likely the same or worse will happen again in 2014.

After two centuries laboring under a Constitution crafted by principled opponents of democracy, who saw as one of their central goals the suppression of any chance that concerted majorities might ever use the state for positive ends, how can anyone be surprised that this country is hospitable to anti-government extremists?”

“First off, Mellander found states with higher shares of suicide caucus districts to be less advantaged, less affluent, and less educated. The percentage of suicide caucus districts was negatively correlated with wages (-.30), incomes (-.33) and college graduates (-.36). States with higher shares of suicide-caucus districts were also less diverse – both in terms of immigrant and gay and lesbian shares of the populations (with correlations of -.33 and -.32 respectively). States with more suicide caucus district are also markedly less urban. The correlation between the share of members in the suicide caucus and levels of urbanization was significantly negative (-.5). Mellander also found a positive correlation between the share of uninsured residents and proportion of suicide cause districts, a fact that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has noted.

Taken together, these maps illustrate the deep economic fault lines underlying America’s dysfunctional politics. The Tea Party represents the lagging sectors of the economy, and, increasingly, the politics of those left behind by America’s transition to a new, knowledge-oriented economic future. As Colin Woodard writes over at Washington Monthly, the Tea Party’s strength is concentrated in the Deep South, Appalachia (stretching to West Texas), and a region he calls the Far West.”

“Which brings is back to Ted Cruz. His band of fanatics are hellbent on using whatever they can to derail a mild health reform that reduces healthcare costs for America’s poor. Utterly baffling from a common sense point of view. But if you burrow into Cruz’s position with rational actor theory, things start making sense.American Conservatism is on the wrong side of profound demographic changes. Republicans regardless of their positioning are rightly worried that a new Democratic majority could lock them out of The White House for a generation. The Tea Party goes one step further and do not like what’s happening to their America. As the so-called flyover states slowly catch up with the rest of the Western world’s cultural mores it’s a case of trying to arrest those processes. Gay marriage, anti-abortion fanaticism, gun control, debt ceilings – each of these are flashpoint issues that require the Tea Party faithful to rally to save America from the modern world. Because they know their movement is ebbing, Cruz and co. are willing to use what limited time they have left to make a last ditch effort to pitch for the bucolic America they’re nostalgic for, which, of course, has never existed. Hence within the terms of rational actor theory, drinking in the last chance saloon has meant Tea Party senators are willing to go to the wire – upto and including debt default – to fight for their priorities. It’s a ridiculous position to be in, but is nevertheless a rational one taken within its own terms. And, of course, Obama and the Democrats’ decision to front them out is also entirely rational, framed by the exigencies of the situation.”

“Steve Pearce is a multimillionaire. He has an estimated worth of $8m, which makes him only the 46thrichest member of Congress. His constituents, in New Mexico, are among the poorest in the country. Over 22 percent of the people he represents live in poverty, including one-third of children. Pearce has voted to deny them food assistance. Many in his district make less than $19,000 per year, which is how much taxpayer money Pearce once spent on a plane ticket.

Steve Pearce is not unique. He is not unique in America, where the majority of elected officials are far wealthier than the average American, and he is not unique in the world. The 70 richest members ofChina’s Congress are worth a combined $89.8bn while the average Chinese makes $2,425 per year. In Russia, where 110 people own 35 percent of the country’s wealth, parliament is staffed by billionaireswhile millions suffer in poverty.

As the global employment crisis worsens and income inequality reaches record highs, it becomes difficult to find a government that does not fit this model: a government not by and for the people, but above the people, oblivious and apathetic to their concerns.

One does not have to reject capitalism to reject the corruption that has decimated the global economy, or the venality that prompts a crowd to cheer when the children of the poor go hungry. 

We live in a time of noblesse oblige without the oblige — wealth disguised as merit and merit as a pretext for malice. Nobility dodges, nobility punishes. Nobility pretends it is not nobility, and tells us to take out short-term loans.”

“It’s a little hard to imagine a Nobel Prize in physics being shared by (1) a guy famous for advancing a particular hypothesis and (2) a guy famous for relentlessly attacking that hypothesis. This of course is what the Nobel committee has done with this year’s economics award, with the added Hegelian twist of giving another third of the prize to a guy who came out somewhere in between. Thesis (Gene Fama)! Antithesis (Bob Shiller)! Synthesis (Lars Peter Hansen)!”

“People should be encouraged to get professional help with their investing. We should be subsidizing financial advisers. In this country we seem to have come around to the idea that there might be a role for the government in subsidizing medical advice, though that is controversial, too. There might also be a role for subsidizing financial advice.

It’s already tax deductible, but that only helps people with significant incomes. The system is not arranged so that low-income people have any subsidy for financial advice. That should change. I’d like to see more low-income people getting good financial advice.

Here’s where we made big mistakes. Here’s where the efficient markets hypothesis gets you into trouble. The idea that everyone will manage their 401k plan optimally is really not right. What was discovered by some of the behavioral finance research is people are inertial. They don’t do anything. If they have to sign up for the plan, they won’t do it. If they do sign up, they’ll put their money in whatever asset seems to be recommended and leave it there the rest of their lives. You would think it’s kind of obvious, that some people aren’t that interested in managing their portfolios.

Grab Bag

  • Nietzsche– It was his birthday on Wednesday, so here is a great summary of his life and thoughts.

On Religion:

“Nevertheless, at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy is undoubtedly the notion that ‘God is dead’ and the consequent gaping hole in human existence. He spent a good deal of time criticising Christianity, which in his view at no point came into contact with reality. (The only words of the New Testament of which he approved were Pilate’s ‘What is truth?’. Faith, according to Nietzsche, means not wanting to know what is true.) Liberal thinkers believed the absence of a creator would not affect morality, but with this he profoundly disagreed. Sin was simply an invention of the priests. Conventional morality was no more than a custom. There were no God-given values; therefore there could only be man-made ones.”

On the Meaning of Life:

“Man was at the centre of Nietzsche’s thought, but too many people lived inauthentic lives – they were ‘human, all too human’ (meaning weak, cowardly, self-deceptive, petty, selfish, lazy, small-minded, ignorant, dishonest, malicious, pathetic). But there was no set human nature, and therefore human beings could evolve. The means of this improvement was the will. The will was not so much free or unfree, as many philosophers had insisted, it was weak or strong, and if weak could become strong by overcoming obstacles and difficulties. Nietzsche believed that we must have a purpose in life (‘Man should sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose’; if we have our why we can put up with any how). There was no set purpose, and therefore we had to devise our own. His own purpose was this quest to develop the will, and thus overcome littleness and futility. Life can become heroic if we are willing to give up ‘miserable ease’ and overcome our all too human weaknesses.

On the ever-controversial “Superman”:

“The man of strong will and clear sight was the Übermensch (literally the ‘Overman’, the man who has overcome himself, often rendered as the ‘Superman’). Such a one was almost a god. Certainly he defined good and evil. ‘What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness.’ This was Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of values’.”

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

“It might be tempting to read this in a heavily determinist way, but all it means is that the autonomy our place in the division of labour grants us is functional for the whole. We carry out our tasks as a microscopic aspect of the social organism and, as such, we contribute to the health of the whole. We are bearers and engineers of social relations, we each carry a particulate of social matter at the same time we play our part in the division of labour as sentient, autonomous individuals. Individuation is the precondition for the mutual interdependence that glues complex societies together.

So far, so abstract, but generally uncontroversial. However, Durkheim goes on to argue that the division of labour gives rise to a different form of collective consciousness that points toward a ‘universal humanity’. The functional mutuality “spontaneously” performed everyday as we go to work or see to our domestic responsibilities is suggestive of a potential commonality that may emerge. Our simultaneous individuality and dependence on one another can lead to the mutual recognition of our similarities. Whereas mechanical solidarity ordered the social estate “unconsciously”, organic solidarity resting on and upholding an increasingly complicated division of labour opens the possibility for its conscious regulation. For those of a Marxish bent, does that sound familiar?”

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

“To focus on Wilson’s personal racism is to miss a much larger story about the American state, progressive politics and the racial regime in twentieth-century America. What ended in Wilson’s administration was not merely a few careers of black Republicans nor was one man’s prejudice the only fetter on the prospects of black Americans. Instead, in its attack on a nationally known and symbolic black middle class, “federal segregation” signaled the U.S. government’s support for a national racial regime in which African Americans were not only politically disfranchised but also professionally and economically hobbled. Particularly damaging was the progressive justification given by Wilson and others, whose ideas about black corruption and the inevitability of racial “friction” allowed them and others to portray discrimination as reform.

“On October 17, Morgenthau began buying wheat – and saw the price fall. “I was a pretty sick boy,” he said. He decided to go all in. “I gave orders to buy up all the cash wheat that was offered that day.” Not only did he tell his staff, he made a public announcement to tell the market about his intentions.

“Well,” Morgenthau wrote, “the publicity proved to be the right thing. Wheat began to climb and the stock market followed.” The newspapers agreed with Morgenthau: it was the announcement, not the purchase, that shifted the price. “Advices from Washington indicating that the government was coming to the aid of the falling speculative markets by heavy purchases … precipitated a spirited rally[.]””

“But the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.

Those left behind are thrust into ever deeper isolation. Ms. Kolesnikova’s family bathes once a month now in bad weather, and the house smells mossy. The road is so derelict that no strangers pass through — this much is evident from the rapt stares of her towheaded sons. They have grown up deep in the forest.”

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