Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Greatest break up speech ever!

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in "Her":

[Theodore] "Samantha why are you leaving?"

[Samantha] “It’s like I’m reading a book. And it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world; it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
[Theodore] "Where are you going?"
[Samantha] “It would be hard to explain. But if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart.” 
[Theodore] "I've never loved anyone the way I've loved you."
[Samantha] "Me too. Now we know how."
Jesus that's good writing!
You can see the scene here.  But watch the film first, it's amazing.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Some thoughts on splitting

Psychoanalysts will tell you a lot about "splitting" which is defined as "the failure in a person's thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole." According to Fairbairn, the psychoanalyst who came up with the idea, splitting is a common defense mechanism used by many people.

Which is all well and good.

But this morning the thought occurred to me that what we like about the early phase of love is precisely the splitting -- the way that the rush of new love overrides our traditional doubts and fears.  

And then I realized that revolutions and revolutionary political theory (from Marx to Hayek) also engage in the splitting associated with new love (and that's what people like about revolutionary movements as well).  They romanticize their team and demonize some other. Everything is black and white and crystal clear -- unlike normal day-to-day life.  

It is only mature love that is able to integrate both light and shadow in ourselves and in others.  

So too, it is only the mature revolution that is able to see and integrate the flaws inherent in our own position.  

Some thoughts while reading Higgins and Dow

Politics Against Pessimism: Social Democratic Possibilities Since Ernst Wigforss by Winton Higgins and Geoff Dow is a magnificent book.  Here are the thoughts that started coming to me as I was reading the book last night:  


Okay wait: If I have a set of unique talents (developed through a solid upbringing, a wealth of education, and dedicated practice) I can get hired by a firm to use my talents. And for my labor I receive a wage. But any bloke with access to eTrade, can buy a "share" of the profits created by my talents (if I'm at a publicly traded firm), in perpetuity for about $20. So I have to stay healthy and focused and keep delivering results, and the bloke with eTrade can just sit and watch movies and still get paid? How does that make sense? 
"Beginning in the 1970s, John Kenneth Galbraith [UC Berkeley alum] argued that shareholders served no useful function in corporate capitalism and that corporations ought to be governed by boards of community-elected monitors (to oversee compliance with taxation, environmental, labour and consumer law), with shareholders converted into debt-holders without direct influence over institutions that would become more like social foundations than private firms." (Winton Higgins and Geoff Dow, "Politics Against Pessimism: Social Democratic Possibilities since Ernst Wiforss" p. 373). 
I can see why investors would want to hold a share of a firm as collateral for big investments (in new or fast growing firms there may be nothing else with which to collateralize the loan). But once that initial investment has been repaid with interest, THE SHARE SHOULD EXPIRE BECAUSE THE LOAN HAS BEEN REPAID. 

The moment my labor stops, my wage stops. But the "wage" (return) never stops for the investor. It's this time difference -- between my labor which expires every day and the rights of the shareholder which never expire and are immortal -- that is how the game is rigged (or at least one of the ways).


---

By analogy, if I build a house, I own the thing that I created. If a guy loaned me money to buy the bricks, I pay him back for the cost of the bricks plus 5% to 8% to say thanks. It would be extremely odd if they guy who loaned me the money to buy the bricks, claimed ownership of the bricks and a share of everything produced in the house FOREVER. And yet that's what happens with share ownership of firms. 

 ---- 

I'll go one step further (with my out loud brainstorming here): the odd thing about the house is the land. If I buy the land, I own it forever (passing it on to heirs). Under Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, it would seem that property ownership would be prohibited -- because property ownership so completely changes outcomes for the next generation -- there is no way to have equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes if some people are born into property and others are not. 

 ---- 

I can see why the owners of start ups would want to go public. By getting access to a larger pool of investors they are inflating the value of the thing they created. By going public, the founders are getting out -- getting value out of the firm and into their pocket (they may still hold onto shares, even the majority of shares, but going forward the wealth they are creating is generated by their shares, not their wage). But at the same time that owners are getting out, employees are getting in to a system where the profits that they generate are owned by someone else in perpetuity. So my question is, how much of the value that owners are getting out, is based on the value of the employees they are locking in (to a system in which the profits of one's labor is distributed to someone else)? It's not quite 100% because the initial idea had some value. But in many ways, a firm is just an intellectual construction, a vehicle for guiding the actions of lots of people and selling off the value of the thing they create -- without them realizing it.

My marxian comrades are thinking to themselves, "duh!" But (unlike my comrades) I still see a role for money, I still see a role for capital and firms (at least for now). It's just that share ownership is such a bizarre concept when you really think about it. 

By the way we have the (theocratic feudalistic) KRATS block and Hobby Lobby to thank for this whole line of thinking. If firms are people, then people owning firms is slavery, so then all stockholding should be abolished (as a violation of the 13th Amendment). But then once you see that, you realize that even though firms are not people, it is extremely odd to be allowed to sell off the fruits of someone else's labor, in perpetuity, to someone else. 

---- 

Corporations then are this magical cardboard box. The owners of the corporation tell investors: 1.) that investors will be entitled to all of the profits produced by people who are lured into this magical box; and 2.) that the owners have figured out a way to lure people into this box (without them knowing the function of the box). What gives the cardboard box power is: 1.) the initial idea (which may very well be compelling); and 2.) corporations law which simultaneously helps to legitimize the rules of the box while obscuring its true function. 

 ---- 

Why didn't the owners of Facebook, just issue debt, instead of stock? Mark Zuckerberg knew that the game was fixed for insider investors -- that's why he "screwed" them on the IPO by pricing it at market value rather than the discounted rate that Goldman Sachs and others traditionally offer to insider clients (hence no immediate bounce after the IPO -- and an additional $10 billion or so to FB's initial owners). The market even has a term for a fair IPO -- they call it a "busted IPO" because the insiders didn't get their cut. But everyone knew that FB was solid gold -- and was about to take over the world. If that's the case -- that Zuckberg knew the market was rigged and knew that FB was a solid investment -- why not just issue bonds at a 5% rate of return and retain 100% ownership? If the purpose of the stock sale is to raise money for needed investment (servers, programmers, etc.) why not just make that needed investment with loans, rather than stock? 

 ---- 

The answer has to be that the value of an IPO is higher (by a lot) than the value of a firm that just issues debt because in an IPO one is selling someone's labor (and the value of patents I guess) in perpetuity. 

---- 

Also it must be that those who have $16 billion to lend, will not do so unless they get stock in return. But the public would have gone for it. If members of the public were offered bonds issued by Facebook guaranteed to return 5%, FB could have easily raised $16 billion directly.

-----

Okay last beat in this conversation:

Growing up I used to play Monopoly with my two older brothers and I always lost (I invested heavily in low rent properties Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean Avenue while giving up on the rest of the board). It used to make me so mad -- I just could not figure out why I could not win.  

Whenever I got my sick, my mom would ask me what I wanted to do (to feel better) and I always wanted to play Monopoly.  And when I played with my mom, I cheated like crazy -- if I needed a seven but rolled an eight I would tap once on the property, once on the line between properties, and then once on the next space to get to the property I wanted.  But the worst part, and the part I still feel most guilty about today, is that when my mom went into debt, I started making all of these crazy unilateral demands. I would demand vast swaths of her property in return for paying off even minor debts.  She would protest mildly and I would assert that 'those were the rules.'  I always won when playing my mom and she would go away feeling lousy.  So I felt lousy when playing Monopoly with my brothers and then I made my mom feel lousy when I played with her. 

But that's really the system we have under modern capitalism.  Capital demands vast swaths of ownership in return for modest outlays of cash.  Owners give in to those demands and sell out their workers because the deal makes them rich.  But the value of the share price is based not on the present worth of the firm, but on selling off the future good faith profits produced by workers, who are often oblivious to the deal owners made with capital.  

[Note to parents: don't let your kids cheat, it turns them into monsters. It would have been so much better in that situation for my mom to have explained to me that zero sum competition, capitalism, and monopoly capitalism in particular make people miserable and that we would all be better off under systems of mutual cooperation -- and then to have gone off and baked bread together. It's on me that I cheated, but there were some teaching moments in there too that were missed (but who knows, I may not have listened, and eventually I got the message anyway).]  

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Some thoughts on strategy

So both Gandhi and King, correctly understood: 1.) that society is organized in a sadomasochistic fashion and that 2.) participating in that system, through fighting back by traditional means (violent revolution) risked turning the oppressed into the very monsters they were fighting against.  (Their actions remind me of Yoda from the Empire Strikes back counseling Luke not to give into hatred.) So Gandhi and King refused to recognize the oppressors' unjust laws and worked to highlight the sadism of those who were in power.  All well and good.  But, Gandhi and King met the same fate as O in The Story of O in that they are both killed by sadists.  So while their actions liberated millions from being forced into submission, the leaders themselves were killed by a system they refused to recognize.  So where does that leave us?  At least in a revolution, the leaders sometimes survive. Furthermore no one expected the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln to follow non-violence to achieve justice.  It seems like a lot to require martyrdom as the price of social movement progress.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Planning for Utopia, overcoming the contradictions of the human condition

Okay so there are lots of articles out there on the contradictions of capitalism and the inherent weaknesses of capitalism and the profound flaws of capitalism.  All well and good.  I particularly like the work of Ha-Joon Chang and his book, The 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  He writes in this popular and easily accessible manner and presents the material in such a clear and thoughtful way that it's pretty hard to argue with him.

But, it seems to me that there is another, perhaps more pressing conversation that we need to have now.  And it goes something like this: Any alternative to capitalism, will need to be able to effectively speak to, address, and in some cases resolve, several fundamental problems inherent in THE HUMAN CONDITION.  I've started a list below and hope to add to it over time:

1. Merit.  Neoliberals fetishize merit and have created a whole system to "measure" merit (SAT, college admissions, the Bar Exam, credit scores, etc.) that merely serves to reinforce and naturalize existing class divisions in society.  Merit is almost never actually present in these measures -- scores on these evaluations almost always correlate most closely with the income/level of education of your parents. So the great trick that the neoliberals pull off is that they obscure, even from themselves, the fact that there is no real content in their measurement system.  Said differently, they manage to convince themselves of the lie that rich people are more deserving as a result of their superior efforts and abilities.  

But Marxians do not have a better answer.  "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" is a non-starter.  In any system some people are going to work harder than others. Some people are going to apply their talents in more creative or useful endeavors. Some people are going to make greater sacrifices than others.  Should those things be rewarded? And if not, what happens to a society when hard work, innovation, and sacrifice are not rewarded?

2. Difference/sameness.  Progressives have made an idol out of difference.  But are there any universal truths that should guide our efforts as a society?  How do we balance difference and universals?  [Interestingly the LGBT movement in the United States started as a celebration of difference. But it's very hard to mobilize a political campaign for rights around, "to each, his/her own." So over time the LGBT movement coalesced (for better or worse) around the universal theme of marriage equality and in a short time achieved historic victories.]  

3. The role of motivation/aspiration.  Motivation is one of the hardest things to teach (think of Jaime Escalante's relentless focus on ganas in Stand and Deliver.)  What role should motivation and aspiration play in our utopia?

4.  The role of fear. Capitalism is built upon fear and it's awful. People fear their boss, they fear starving to death, they fear homelessness, they fear going to work on Monday, they fear making a mistake, they fear not living up to expectations. But fear also drives a lot of creativity and production.  If fear disappears, what happens to society? I know we should aim for a society where love replaces fear. But so many communist revolutions that attempted to replace fear with love ended up in a totalitarian nightmare where love of party and love of state were the only forms of love that were permitted (and fear ruled every second of every day). A tiny touch of fear can be okay and lead to great things, too much fear leads to collapse and disintegration. So what role should fear play in our proposed utopia? And what role should love play? And how can we prevent love from being subverted?

I'm sure there are many more contradictions of the human condition that we could explore as well (and I would welcome any suggestions in the comments section).

Monday, June 23, 2014

On domination

It seems to me that opportunity is the source of domination not capitalism per se.  People dominate if they have the opportunity and if they think they can get away with it.  Capitalism creates opportunities for domination (colonialism, slavery, "free" trade agreements, monopolies, bottlenecks, economic rents).  But capitalism is one of just many forms of domination.

Men have a slight physical size advantage over women, and that's led to millennium of domination in the form of patriarchy. So that's domination that springs from how biological difference creates opportunity.

Catholic priests are trusted in the community -- and research from the Catholic priest abuse scandal shows that they committed pedophilia at twice the rate of the average population (8% of Catholic priests are pedophiles as compared with 4% of men in the general population). The Catholic priest example is telling because it's so clearly not capitalism as the driver of domination. It's socially created but distinct from capitalism.

There is a notorious case in Australia right now involving Rolf Harris who was a beloved entertainer -- who used his celebrity to abuse children for decades.  So too in the UK, the entertainer Jimmy Savile, used his celebrity to sexually abuse upwards of 1,000 people over his lifetime.  This is a variation on the Catholic priest abuse scandal -- where trust, in this case the trust that comes with celebrity, enabled these men to get away with these crimes for decades. The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal in the U.S. is similar -- in that case the celebrity and trust associated with collegiate athletic success created the opportunity for abuse.  People who work with disabled children (particularly those with limited or no speech) will tell you that nearly 100% of these children are abused at some point in their life (the perceived inability of the child to ever report the crime creates the perception of  opportunity).

We often see men as the drivers of domination, but women in positions of authority -- Mother Theresa, Margaret Thatcher, Arianna Huffington -- are notoriously cruel.  So that's another variation of socially created forms of domination, but independent of biological sex.

But then here's the question:  Not all people who have the opportunity to commit acts of domination, choose to do so.  Many find domination abhorrent and would not even consider it.  So what explains the fact that most people, when given the opportunity to commit acts of domination, choose not to do so?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

While reading Greg Grandin...

Is it possible that, the freedom described in Wealth of Nations is not in spite of but because of slavery. [Yes.] Was that kind of wealth possible before? [No.] Is Wealth of Nations in fact a subtle defense of slavery in the liberal contract tradition as described by Carole Pateman. What does Carole Pateman say about Adam Smith? Is Adam Smith marveling at the wonders bought as a result of the slave trade?

Is it possible that...

...the failures of capitalism, are actually just the failures of the human condition? Namely is it possible that all of the greed, domination, corruption, and just general awfulness that we associate with capitalism are actually just natural human inclinations that were there all along (unleashed, given a stage by capitalism, but not necessarily created by capitalism)?  Now that being said, we still can and should design systems to check natural human impulses towards awfulness.  But that would be a different conversation would it not -- rather than trying to unleash liberty -- we might see political and economic institutions as properly restraining our more awful impulses (in order to create a larger freedom for more people).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The United State is a Dystopia

Kudos to all the great dystopia movies blockbuster films that have been coming out recently. But the spate of dystopia films is just reflecting the wider fact that the United States itself is quickly becoming a dystopia.  I remember seeing Blade Runner back in the day and thinking, wow, what an awful future.  But in many respects the present reality is even worse than Blade Runner.  The current state of affairs goes something like this:

The air, water, soil, and food in the United States are toxic as fuck.

The reason they are toxic as fuck is because we have 80,000 untested chemicals in circulation (in our air, water, soil, manufactured goods, and food) -- and no precautionary principle to require companies to prove that they are safe.  Newborn babies already have over 200 toxic chemicals in their system from the moment they emerge from the womb (and toxic chemicals administered during childbirth don't help matters).

Target, Home Depot, and Walmart are happy to sell us these toxic chemicals and toxic food because it is extremely profitable.  They sell them to us with the promise that they will make us happier.

Companies that generate toxic waste are located in poor communities of color. When people in poor communities of color then suffer the ill effects of this exposure, they are blamed for their bad moral choices.

The result of this toxic stew is an explosion of autism spectrum disorders including aspergers, autoimmune disorders, obesity, chronic illness, learning disabilities, and a rapid increase in a range of mental illnesses.

These chronic illnesses are treated with more toxic chemicals that never cure the problem and keep people in a perpetuate state of dependence on more drugs. Mental illness is treated with toxic chemicals that work no better than a placebo and often have the side effect of homicidal rage.

These mentally ill people, their symptoms inflamed by these drugs, have access to an unlimited quantity of guns.  The reason they have access to an unlimited quantity of guns is that gun manufacturers created and generously fund an astroturf terrorist organization made up of paranoid, racist, men on the margins of society that lobby members of Congress to insure unlimited access to these guns (or they will lose their jobs in the next election).

These mentally ill people, then go on mass killing sprees. Weekly. So many massacres that the news can't even catch up.  So many massacres that they no longer make the front page of the New York Times. So many mass shootings that the population (except those in the immediate vicinity) registers no emotion and changes the channel.

Those who would point out that this all starts with the pursuit of profit over people are silenced in elite academic institutions by professors, many with aspergers type disorders themselves, who teach that profit is the only thing that matters. Those who would point out that it starts with toxic chemicals in our environment are silenced in elite academic institutions by science professors who claim that they cannot prove any connection. Professors who question the system cannot get hired and if they do get hired they cannot get promoted.  Those who don't attend elite academic institutions are increasingly taught by people making less than minimum wage who are just struggling to get by and not in a position to question the system (and unable to meet the enormous academic needs of students who have been exposed to this toxic stew).  If you don't attend higher ed you many never get a job in this economy.  If you do attend higher ed your debts may be so high that you may never be able to pay it off in this economy.

Social media comes in and commodifies social interaction just as capitalism earlier commodified nature.  Twitter at 140 character is only good for posting links, shouting at people, and apparently stalking. FB promises connection will always be free and then limits connection so that you have to pay to promote.  The number one song in the summer of 2011 was a catchy little ditty (with whistling in the chorus) about shooting up a school.  The number one movie in 2012 and 2013 is a series about teenagers who have to kill each other in order to survive.

This is an incomplete sketch.  But the cycle is something like profit, toxicity, personal dysfunction, profit driven solution exacerbates the problem, societal dysfunction, repeat.

Yes, I get that the only sane response is to unplug, go to a farmers market, have a conversation in person, and detoxify as much as possible from all the madness. But I think it's worth pointing out, from time to time, the insanity of our present moment.


Friday, May 23, 2014

I think I'm on to something

[If we are working from the premise, that gender is theater, then the question is: theater in service of what?]

So initially, the purpose of masculinity, may have been to protect against nature.  But I imagine that was a small role (nature was pretty abundant -- the threat of wolves and bears and snakes and things has always been smaller than the threat from other people).  Mostly the purpose of masculinity, and the reason it is still valued, is because it offers protection. But protection from what -- other people displaying masculinity.

That seems pretty ironic.