Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Unquiet Conscience of a Master/Slave

 One of capitalism's greatest coups and most resounding victories has been the successful combination of both the master and slave mentalities within nearly every individual among the working classes of the population. Under the current capitalist system, each person has become their own master—has become their own slave.

Under the old system, the slave was made to work so that the master might have material abundance. The master had ample time to enjoy this abundance, since s/he did not have to spend her/his time working—that was the slaves' job. From the capitalist perspective, this type of system presents a problem in that the amount of goods the master and his/her household can consume is relatively limited, even in the most opulent cases. Additionally, resources devoted to the maintenance of slaves are unavailable for use by the capitalist.

Were there more masters to purchase goods from the capitalist, the slave system would not present such a problem—but more masters would also require more slaves to serve them which would, in turn, reduce the amount of resources available to the capitalist and impede his/her ability to take advantage of this larger market of masters. What to do?

The Capitalist system has solved this problem quite elegantly, by replacing the external, interpersonal master/slave division with an internal, intra-personal one. This has had the result of increasing the number masters, who can purchase the output of the capitalist process, without increasing the number of slaves needed to sustain them, thus leaving resources plentiful and inexpensive for capitalist exploitation.

While this solution has proven quite useful for the capitalists, the effects on the working classes have been less salubrious. Whereas, in the former system the master had ample time to enjoy the material abundance provided by his/her slaves, the new master/slave hybrid does not have the same luxury. Being also his/her own slave, this new type of person is expected to both work like a slave and to have material abundance, like a master. The abundance is in vain, however, as being also a slave, he/she lacks adequate time with which to enjoy the abundance that slavery produces.

The result for the working-class master/slave is an unquiet conscience. Whereas a mere slave knew better than to seek fulfillment in material possessions, the master/slave hybrid is imbued with no such wisdom. S/he has adopted the value system of the master and so seeks fulfillment in material wealth, but is unable to enjoy it due to the constant lashing of the slave aspect of the self—to drive it to work harder to provide more wealth for the master aspect. This disjointed self of the modern working-class human, enmeshed in capitalist society, far from representing an overcoming of the previous slave-based economy, is rather the pinnacle of its ascendancy.

Under the old system, the slaves would sometimes rebel against their masters, turning against their overseers and disrupting the entire system of wealth extraction. The new system is superior in this regard—at least from the point of view of the capitalists—in that revolt against one's own self is infinitely more difficult than rebellion against an external authority. Thus, disruptions are kept to a minimum in the new system of slavery, where every man is his own servant, every woman her own oppressor. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stuff of Memory

Each of us, 


will be nothing more
than memories.

The Earth will reclaim
our material bits

and our immaterial bits will return
to wherever it was they came from--before

they were us.
 Before they were the stuff 

of memory.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leadership Good, Leaders Bad

Leadership is good.  Leaders are bad.  Cultivate leadership.  Do not seek to become a leader.

A leader is someone who thinks they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of a group.  Leadership is the quality of knowing how to help a group make a decision.

If a group has many leaders, they will accomplish nothing.  Each will want to make decisions for the group as a whole, and thus the whole group will be divided and diffuse and never carry out any of the decisions made.

If a group has many who display leadership, then the group will accomplish much.  They will find making decisions easy; they will move as one unit, one force.  They will discover their collective will and carry out their collective decisions.

Leadership is effective, leaders are a hindrance.  Cultivate leadership, and do not seek to become a leader.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Rebuilding Economics From the Ground Up (or "This Town Needs and Enema!")

The links page of the wonderful Naked Capitalism site today, included this one from VoxEU:

The mainstream economics curriculum needs an overhaul

Yves Smith, as she is prone to do, added her own pointed commentary on the piece: "How about “mainstream economics needs an overhaul”?"

To which I say, indeed. And more than an overhaul even--this rig is due for an entire rebuild, from the ground up.  Here's what I mean by that:

I just finished reading a wonderful little book, Michael Lebowitz's Build it Now! Socialism for the Twenty-First Century.  Highly recommended.  Lebowitz's main contention is that the problem with capitalism--and I would say also with economics--is that is concerned solely with the creation of more capital.  Socialism, on the other hand, is concerned with ensuring that each individual is allowed the possibility of fulfilling their highest potential.  Capitalism, as well as mainstream economics, is concerned exclusively with the production of financial wealth (I might add "and material goods" to that sentence, except that material goods are only considered "good" if they can be turned into financial wealth, else they are seen as waste or loss).  Socialism, by contrast, is concerned with the development of human potential.

Number and money, on the one hand; human development on the other.  Unless and until our economy is based around the latter, we will continue to suffer, as a species.  Unless and until economics as a discipline places human development and the study of how best to achieve it at the heart of its enterprise, our thinking about life will continue to suffer (and the whole planet along with us).

Predictably, and sadly, the suggestions being put forth for changing the mainstream economics curriculum, as presented in the Vox EU article by Diane Coyle, the "Managing Director of Enlightenment Economics" (a job title that should, perhaps, give us pause) include only the following:

  • Emphasising dynamics, instability, institutions, and environmental questions; and
  • Integrating new results and empirical evidence.
  • More exposure to economic history and the history of thought;
  • More practical hands-on experience with data;
  • Better teaching of communication skills; and
  • Some exposure to new developments in economic research. 
  • Some economic history, which could be integrated into existing courses, especially macroeconomics;
  • An introduction to other disciplinary approaches;
  • Possibly ‘tasters’ of the frontiers of academic economic research with potential policy application, such as behavioural economics, institutional economics, and post-crisis developments in financial economics;
  • Awareness of some of the methodological debates in economics;

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to guess what "some" and "more" will entail in practice ("More economic history,"..."some methodological issues"), but notice that all of the proposals stay firmly within the framework of measuring (and therefore judging) all parts of our economy on the basis of the same things that the mainstream currently judges them on: namely, GDP, unemployment statistics, interest rates, inflation/deflation, spending and investment...i.e. numbers and money.

A new economics, if anyone is interested in such, must start from the premise that our economic system exists to promote the fulfilment of human potential--to ensure each has the opportunity to develop to their highest possibilities, however they happen to define them.  Numbers and money are means to an end--possible tools that we can use to better accomplish our goal of human development--but once they become seen as the ends in themselves, our thinking veers wildly off track.  The results of such thinking we see around us everyday, in the homeless and jobless, the stressed and unhealthy, as well as in those with wealth who still manage to suffer, despite having "made it."

Lebowitz's book is definitely worth the read, and much cheaper--and more to the point--than a lot of other econ texts currently available. Read it, share it, talk about it, and above all build it.  We need to rebuild economics from the ground up, and this is one place (maybe the one place) to start.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

(Mis)Understanding Buddhism and Poverty

The UC Berkeley News Center has an article up now on the university's new course on "Buddhist Economics."  While I welcome any addition to the economics course curriculum that addresses the intersection of economics and ethics, I think the limitation of the course to Buddhism is somewhat faddish and needlessly limiting.

That aside, I also found some curious sentiments being expressed by the course's instructor, one Claire Brown.  Professor Brown has apparently been studying Buddhism (whatever we take that to mean) for six years.  Despite the fact that Prof. Brown is teaching a course on Buddhism and Economics, she does not seem to have actually understood the issues that arise.  Perhaps it is a defect of the journalism and Brown's views have been somehow misrepresented, but I find this unlikely since the views that Brown appears to hold are quite common among Western Buddhists (and liberals generally).

Take this quote that appears directly after the Don't Spend, Be Happy subhead which lays out a number of cogent (and potent) questions that Buddhist thought poses for economic theory and practice:
“In the traditional economic model, it makes sense to go shopping if you are feeling pain, because buying things makes you feel better,” Brown wrote in her class syllabus. “Yet, we know from experience that consuming more does not relieve pain. What if we lived in a society that did not put consumption at its center? What if we follow instead the Buddhist mandate to minimize suffering, and are driven by compassion rather than desire?”
This is a hopeful start; Prof. Brown is, in my opinion, asking the right questions here.  But a throw-away line that ends the article makes me think that she might not have figured out what the solutions to these questions might look like.

Brown assured her students that Buddhist economics wouldn’t require a vow of poverty. “Buddha tried to live in poverty for seven years,” but “it didn’t work,” she said.
Uh…actually the historical Buddha tried extreme asceticism and wrote that off as a blind alley. Asceticism: as in bodily mortification, extended fasting, etc. After Buddha gave up that route (still a popular one on the Indian sub-continent, btw) and adopted the “middle-path,” he and his disciples still spent time every day begging for alms: even in ancient India, that was a sure sign of poverty.

Here’s the thing: if you consume only that which you actually need, restrain yourself from activities that harm other life, and devote your life to easing the suffering of others, you will necessarily be considered poor. You will have given your excess wealth away to those poorer than you, your dwelling will be simple, your lifestyle spare. Not because you’re an ascetic, but because you have your priorities in line.

Buddhism is appealing to Americans largely, I think, because it doesn’t seem to demand any material sacrifice on the practitioner’s part. Americans like Buddhism because they’ve (mis)interpreted its message to be it’s ok to have lots of stuff, just so long as you aren’t attached to it.

For instance, there is a Marriott Hotel heiress living not 50 miles from me that has gained the title of “Lama Tsomo,” despite being a multi-billionaire (I’m looking at you, Linda). Supposedly, she’s trying to become a bodhisattva, whose mission on earth is to end the suffering of all sentient beings. Apparently, however, no one has hipped her to the fact that her 4.1 billion dollars could ease a whole lot of suffering, if only she could find the strength to let it go. But no, she prefers to teach meditation classes since, you know, all suffering is psychological and you just need to be detached and whatnot. Convenient, that.

Western Buddhism’s focus on personal non-attachment and psychological ‘growth’ all too often turns into a “blame the victim” mindset. What’s that you say? You’ve just been laid-off from your job and diagnosed with cancer? You don’t know where your next meal is coming from and you can’t afford to see a doctor? You should try meditation and detachment: nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Your suffering is all in your mind!  Don't blame the government or their corporate overlords for your misery, it's just your karma, embrace it…..which is way easier than actually trying to help someone improve their situation. Also it makes you feel superior, since you’re so much more wiser than those suffering sots.

The problem, of course, isn’t with Buddhism, but rather with academics like Brown who try to sugar-coat it for Western consumption, although I assume they do this unwittingly.

The deal with any religion is this: if you take it seriously as the most important thing in your life, you won’t worry about material possessions and you won’t need to take a vow of poverty. Prioritizing your spiritual development will make it easy to not notice, or care, if you become officially poor. As material wealth is not your goal, so too its absence will not be defeat. But Buddhists like Brown think that you can have your cake and eat it too: the material wealth as well as the (mostly BS) non-attachment to it.

The facts of the matter are that if you are not attached to wealth, wealth will not attach itself to you. If you prioritize your spiritual development, this will not cause you consternation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

De-Coding Economic Propaganda

Raising the minimum wage is in the news again, and with it, lots of economists disagreeing  about what the effects will be.  For every study showing a minor negative effect on employment, another is presented another showing a minor positive effect.  Into the fray has stepped the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) with a dedicated website devoted to educating people about the horror that raising the minimum wage will apparently be.

The top of the website displays a picture of Bill Gates with the caption "why isn't the President listening to this guy?"--not a good start.  Reading further, it only gets worse:

Employees that earn the minimum wage tend to be young, and work in businesses that keep a few cents of each sales dollar after expenses. When the minimum wage goes up, these employers are forced to either pass costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices, or cut costs elsewhere–leading to less full-service and more customer self-service. As a result, fewer hours and jobs are available for less-skilled and less-experienced employees.
Many businesses that pay at or near minimum wage do, actually, have decent profit margins and claiming that increasing wages "forces" businesses to pass on the costs to consumers or reduce staffing is simply ridiculous.  A business could also reduce pay-levels of upper management, decrease dividend payouts, stop buying back their own stock, etc.  The framing also seems worded to encourage the reader to think of a small business, when in fact most people work for large corporations, who are sitting on mountains of cash right now, btw.
Minimum wage increases do not help reduce poverty. Award winning research looked at states that raised their minimum wage between 2003 and 2007 and found no evidence to suggest these higher minimum wages reduced poverty rates. While the few employees who earn a wage increase might benefit from a wage hike, those that lose their job are noticeably worse off.
Notice that it is not mentioned which award this research won or who was giving it out.  And then, of course, winning an award (even a prestigious one that you would feel comfortable mentioning by name) doesn't guarantee the accuracy of your work.  Barack O'bomba, for example, received a Nobel Peace Prize...so I think you see my point.

And as Prof. Sprigs discusses at 6:58 in the video below, studies of the effects of minimum wage have by-and-large either shown no effect or little effect on employment; sometimes that minor effect is positive and sometimes it's negative.  Often, it is statistically insignificant.  Which is what you would expect when looking for the effect of a single variable in a complex, densely inter-twingled system like our economy.
Employees who start at the minimum wage aren’t stuck there. Research found that the majority of employees who start at the minimum wage, move to a higher wage in their first year on the job.
Again, they don't say specifically what research they are referring to, nor do they provide a link to it so that a reader can consider it on its own merits.  It's also worth keeping in mind that most economic "research" was calling for smooth sailing into the indefinite future...right up until the entire financial system imploded.  One should always take economic research with a grain of salt--numbers are easy to manipulate, and perfectly legitimate mathematical operations can provide you with totally illegitimate conclusions.  The numbers, as my old college adviser used to say, never speak for themselves.

Also, having extensive experience in the low-wage sector, I can give you a little hint for understanding that last claim about most workers moving to a higher wage within a year.  Some years back I got a job as a nursing-home housekeeper.  Starting wage--$7.25/hr.  My raise after six months of, by all accounts, stellar job performance--$0.10/hr. 

Just an educated guess here, but I bet the research this website is referring to would claim that my extra dime per hour was "moving to a higher wage."

Here is a much more realistic discussion of the likely effects of raising the minimum wage:

Friday, February 14, 2014

A simple model of monetary stimulus

When the Federal Reserve decides that it wants to increase the amount of currency in circulation, in order to stimulate the economy, its method of accomplishing this is to buy securities from its “primary dealer” banks (normally US Treasury bonds, and recently MBS or mortgage-backed securities). This has the effect of increasing the cash reserves of those banks, who are expected to then lend it out into the economy. In short, whenever new currency is created, it is first used to purchase assets from a private bank, which will then, it is hoped, lend it out into the economy for productive purposes.

This method of economic stimulus, however, has the paradoxical and quite harmful effect of concentrating wealth in the financial sector while depriving the real economy (i.e. the people and businesses that actually make things) of income. The simple reason for this is that all loans made by a bank must be repaid with interest. To the extent that a loan is not entirely repaid, there will generally be a forfeiture of property to the bank to cover their financial losses. In spite of the occasional bad loan, the net effect of adding currency to the economy through interest-bearing loans is to transfer financial assets from real-economy actors to financial-sector actors. A simple model will make plain why this is the case.

Imagine that we have an economy composed of three sectors: the productive sector (real economy), the financial sector (banks), and the government sector. We can imagine the productive sector as itself composed of households and businesses, with currency circulating continually between the two: households buy goods and services from businesses who, in turn, pay wages back to households.

Now, let us suppose that the productive sector of the economy has a monthly GDP of $1000. This means that every month, businesses pay households $1000 in wages which households then spend at businesses, providing the businesses with the revenue to pay out in wages at the beginning of the next monthly cycle. For simplicity, we assume that households spend all of their income every month and that businesses use all revenue for wages. Essentially, in our model businesses and households are simply passing $1000 back and forth between themselves.

Now let's suppose that the population of our economy grows and additional households are created. In the absence of any action from the government (which is the only sector that can add additional currency to the productive sector), the income per household in the productive sector must necessarily decline. If we previously had 10 households receiving $100 a piece per month, and now we have 11 households, each household will now only receive $90.90 per month. If the government desires to maintain wage levels at $100 per month, it will need to add an additional $100 to the amount of currency currently circulating in the productive sector.

In order to do this, the government gives $100 to the financial sector to lend into the economy. Assuming the bank lends the entire amount into the economy, in the month that the government increases the amount of currency, the GDP of the economy will increase by $100 to $1100 (as households borrow and spend the $100 into circulation), providing enough currency for each household to once again receive $100 per month. However, his return to normalcy is short-lived.

Assuming that all loans get repaid, with interest at the beginning of the next monthly cycle, during the next month the GDP of our little economy will have to decrease by $110 (assuming 10% monthly interest, for ease of calculation), in order to repay the $100 principal plus $10 in interest. This means that at the start of the following cycle, the amount of currency will be once again too low to allow incomes to remain at $100 per month. Only now, the situation will be worse than before the government's “monetary stimulus,” since the economy's real GDP will have gone from $1000 to $1100 to $990, giving an average household salary of $90—90 cents less than before the currency increase.  The apparent surge in economic activity and household prosperity is followed quickly by decline for households and businesses alike.

Now, the only way for the household sector to maintain it's level of income and consumption is to once again borrow from the financial sector. Only now, instead of borrowing $100, households must borrow $110 in total from the financial sector to maintain their income levels (which, remember, are determined by levels of spending; businesses can't pay wages to households until households first buy from them). This, of course, only further worsens the problem as $121 must now be repaid to the financial sector at the beginning of the following cycle, leaving only enough money left in the real economy to provide households with a $79.90 monthly average salary.

It should be easy enough to understand why it is that an economic stimulus program that depends on private banks lending new currency into the real economy at interest is a self-defeating and perverse policy choice (unless, of course, one happens to work in the financial sector). The only way to add wealth to the household sector through lending would be to offer the loans at a negative interest rate: that is, loan $100 and only require $90 back. In the above example the government would give the financial sector $1000 to loan into the economy at a negative 10% interest rate, leaving an extra $100 in the economy after the loans had been repaid.

If the goal of monetary stimulus is to increase the average household wage, negative interest loans make far more sense than positive interest loans. Positive interest loans, in fact, make no sense at all.