Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bureaucracy, Capitalism and Freedom

Have you had to deal with a large, faceless American company recently? Maybe the Internet monopoly Time-Warner? Or a bailed-out bank or credit company? Or an airline? Did you think of freedom and liberty?

David Graeber is back with a new book, more of a collection of his writings over the past few years. One of the things I like about Graeber, and why he serves as a model to me, is that he points out all the ways in which the free market capitalist propaganda which we're constantly subjected to does not square with reality. He looks around and notices that the "free" market does not work as advertised.

For example, in previous essays he pointed out that in Soviet bureaucracies where work was seen as an unalloyed good and full employment was the end goal, you had all these people doing essentially useless busywork tasks. But we see plenty of "bullshit jobs" under capitalism - busy make-work of dubious value, or sometimes even socially harmful value, like advertisers or predatory lawyers. I can recall going to see the the doctor and seeing 6-8 sedentary, portly women all occupied for a full work day doing nothing else but filling out forms and dealing with health insurance billing.

Graeber also noted the large amount of "guard labor" required in highly unequal capitalist societies - large amounts of people are employed in doing nothing else but keeping other people in line (police, military, prison guards, security guards, parole officers, bail bondsmen, etc.). This is not exactly productive activity that enlarges the pie and makes us all better off like capitalist theory predicts.

Somewhat related is the main subject of Graebers' latest book - bureaucracy. It's not a matter of government bureaucracy versus the "lean and mean" free-market. Rather, he points out that the amount of bureaucracy needed to make the "free" market work the way it is supposed to is enormous. He further points out that the liberal project to make the free market more humane always leads to even more bureaucracy in the end (filled out your proof of insurance on your tax forms yet?). And he points out that deregulation is a myth - it's really just reregulating in favor of a different set of stakeholders. There is no such thing as deregulation because the Market is by definition is a set of regulations. His final claim is that we secretly "like" bureaucracy because it allows us a degree of anonymity which is absent in the more intimate relations of small-scale business interactions.
Last month, I became a customer of Time Warner Cable, New York’s favorite quasi-monopolistic provider of patchy broadband that’s worse than the internet in Bucharest. Given the firm’s reputation, I was genuinely surprised at how smoothly it all went, up to the point at which I’d entered my debit card details. (I know, I know; in hindsight it seems so obvious.) Then the trouble began. It took five visits from engineers, plus countless phone calls, to get things working; the job required a specific ladder, but the booking system seemed serially unable to dispatch a van equipped with one. Finally connected, I went online to cancel the stopgap internet service I’d been using from another company, only to find that online cancelation wasn’t allowed. And yet, how weird is this: when the day came for Time Warner to process my first month’s payment, everything went off without a hitch. 
No part of this tale of bureaucratic tedium – nor all the stuff I’ve left out, because I don’t want your death from boredom weighing on my conscience – will surprise anyone living in the United States, the UK, most of Europe or much of the world today. Our lives are spent grappling with bureaucracy: filling in online forms; listening to recorded voices claiming that “your call is important to us”; lying to Apple about having read 56-page iTunes Terms of Service agreements; cursing the stupidity of HR departments, government agencies or university subcommittees.
But there’s something strange about this utterly familiar aspect of modern life, as the anthropologist David Graeber notes in his new book, The Utopia of Rules: it’s the opposite of how the free-market world’s meant to work.... Abandon the narrow definition of “bureaucracy” that exclusively involves government functionaries, and it becomes plain that America in 2015 is the most bureaucratic society there’s ever been. “No population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork,” he writes – and not in spite of free-market capitalism, but because of it. Graeber’s “The Iron Law of Liberalism” proposes that there has never been a government policy to “slash red tape” or “reduce government interference” that hasn’t actually led to more red tape, more regulations, and more bureaucrats. “Maintaining a free market economy,” he writes, “[requires] a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.”

For one thing, as Graeber told Salon recently, it takes a huge bureaucracy “to make people behave the way that economists say they are ‘supposed’ to behave”. People must be encouraged to compete fiercely and amorally against each other, motivated solely by personal gain, yet also prevented from taking this to its logical conclusion and simply killing or stealing to get the other guy’s stuff. That necessitates big police and legal bureaucracies, just to begin with.

Then there’s the machinery designed to keep global capitalism running “freely” – the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the rest – which are in fact a “planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system”, protected by state violence when challenged. And it’s no coincidence, of course, that you end up in bureaucratic quagmires not when paying for (say) internet service, but when you’re canceling it, or trying to get it to function. Bureaucracy is a system “whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Your call isn’t really “important to us”; it’s just vastly cheaper to play that recording, and make you wait, than pay an extra operator to answer it.

Oh, and “deregulation”? This never really happens, Graeber maintains. Mostly it just means “changing the regulatory structure in a way that I like”:
    Simply by labeling a new regulatory measure ‘deregulation’, you can frame it in the public mind as a way to reduce bureaucracy and set individual initiative free, even if the result is a fivefold increase in the actual number of forms to be filled in, reports to be filed, rules and regulations for lawyers to interpret, and officious people in offices whose entire job seems to be to provide convoluted explanations for why you’re not allowed to do things.
Capitalism was supposed to reduce red tape. Why is bureaucracy worse than ever? (The Guardian)

It's worth quoting Graeber in full from the Salon interview about a common theme here on the HCV - there is nothing "natural" about the "free" market. A modern globalized industrialized market is not just a natural extension of humans' innate instincts to "truck and barter and exchange one thing for another," the way  Adam Smith claimed, and the invisible hand is invisible because it doesn't exist:
The idea that free-market policies create bureaucracies is pretty counterintuitive, at least for most Americans. So why is it the case that laissez-faire policy creates bureaucracy? 
Part of the reason is because in fact what we call the market is not really the market.
First of all, we have this idea that the market is a thing that just happens. This is the debate in the 19th century: market relations creeped up within feudalism and then it overthrew [feudalism]. So gradually the market is just the natural expression of human freedom; and since it regulates itself, it will gradually displace everything else and bring about a free society. Libertarians still think this. 
In fact, if you look at what actually happens historically, this is just not true. 
Self-regulating markets were basically created with government intervention. It was a political project. Certain assumptions of how these things work just aren’t true. People don’t do wage labor if they have any choice, historically, for example. So in order to get a docile labor force, you have to create police and [a] large apparatus to ensure that the people you kick off the land actually will get the kinds of jobs you want them to … this is the very beginning of creating a market. [ii]
Basically, we assume that market relations are natural, but you need a huge institutional structure to make people behave the way that economists say they are “supposed” to behave. So, for example, think about the way the consumer market works. The market is supposed to work on grounds of pure competition. Nobody has moral ties to each other other than to obey the rules. But, on the other hand, people are supposed to do anything they can to get as much as possible off the other guy — but won’t simply steal the stuff or shoot the person. 
Historically, that’s just silly; if you don’t care at all about a guy, you might as well steal his stuff. In fact, they’re encouraging people to act essentially how most human societies, historically, treated their enemies — but to still never resort to violence, trickery or theft. Obviously that’s not going to happen. You can only do that if you set up a very strictly enforced police force. That’s just one example. 
Stipulating that the bureaucratic state inexorably grows in response to free-market policy, why should it bother us? It’s annoying, sure; but are there costs bigger than that? 
I really think that bureaucracy is a way of crushing the human imagination. It also makes people stupid. And that was the thing that really impressed me about my first major encounter with bureaucracy — I found myself turning into an idiot! I was filling out the form wrong, I was making the obvious mistake that anybody with any degree of intelligence wouldn’t do, and constantly being told: “But you did it wrong!” And that experience of wandering around and feeling like an idiot and incompetent in life, is the necessary clunkiness of living under a bureaucratic regime.
“I found myself turning into an idiot!”: David Graeber explains the life-sapping reality of bureaucratic life (Salon)

This argument is not new, you may recall the exact same argument made by Philip Mirowski. He pointed out that Neoliberalism claims it is an anti-government philosophy centered around "freedom" and "liberty," but this claim is not true. It takes very strong governments to impose the kind of markets Neoliberals favor - there is nothing "natural" about them. As Mirowski puts it, when a market fails, Neoliberals favor the imposition of "new and stranger" markets to solve the crisis caused by the operation of the Market in the first place. The classic example here is "carbon trading" schemes, which are hardly a "natural" activity. This leads to even more complexity and bureaucracy, not less. It would be much simpler to issue quotas of allowable carbon emissions.
Laurie Taylor: So we're talking about - it is a belief in markets - markets have knowledge which will solve all our problems. But from time to time Neoliberals would want to believe in a strong state which does something to enable the development of new markets, is that right?

Philip Mirowski: Yes, because, that's another part of their project. Let's say that people believe that markets have gone awry or failed in some sense. Their immediate-term project is basically to propose new and stranger markets to fix any problems with old markets or previous markets. And, in  order to do that, this doesn't just happen by itself. This is why need a strong state, because it takes a strong state to impose these new market forms to supposedly address the crisis. One can see this in the economic crisis with various maket-based forms of saving the banks and saving finance rather than simply nationalizing the banks and causing them to shrink and reorganizing them.

Laurie Taylor: So, if you talk about this development of new markets, what would be an example of that? How would the government enable the development of new markets which would be in line with neoliberalism's requirements?

Philip Mirowski: Well, a nice clean example has to do with global warming. The common way to address problems of carbon emissions recently since Kyoto has been to develop these markets in carbon emission permits. So instead of having the state cause various emitters to emit less, instead we have a marketplace of permits which will supposedly cut down on the amount of emissions that are being emitted. And so what's interesting about that is that even though these markets are very popular with certain--for example, in finance--that they don't actually reduce the amounts of emissions. So what happens is that you introduce various markets to fix problems, but really what it does is it just sort of spreads out the problem over the longer term.
Another example is health care. People forget that the Obama plan was first proposed as the right-wing Neoliberal alternative to single-payer or "socialized medicine" (cue the scary music). In single-payer, everyone is covered, and there is very little paperwork from what I'm told.

In Obamacare, however, you need to shop for insurance in the private "health care exchanges" (created by the government and paid for by tax dollars) and buy your own health insurance in the "free" market. You need to somehow navigate from hundreds of different plans with varying principles, co-pays, deductibles, coverage levels,  lifetime limits, and so forth (despite the fact that you have no reasonable way of knowing what your future health needs will be). Since everyone now needs to have insurance, you need to prove you have insurance on your tax forms or pay a penalty (yet more bureaucracy!). Since there are multiple private insurers, there is no unified system, so if you switch employers get ready to enter a bureaucratic nightmare [i]. If you are deemed by the government as "too poor" to afford health insurance (which you have to prove with even more paperwork), the government will step in with tax dollars only then, but probably still subject you to an army of rules about what is covered and what you have to pay.

Pensions are another example. Instead of a defined pension taken out of your weekly check, you're supposed be a mini J.P Morgan playing the stock market and managing your "wealth portfolio" in between working those 80 hour weeks and picking up your kids from soccer practice. We recently had a seminar in planning for your own retirement that was, and I am not kidding, over 20 hours of information!

University education is another example. See this article:Why Are So Many College Students Turning Down Free Money (The Atlantic) Why are billions of dollars set aside to help pay for America's hideously expensive education system (like the health care system, the costliest in the world) being wasted? The answer again is an endless array of difficult forms:
The $3 billion figure is according to the online financial resource NerdWallet. Its researchers took the number of graduating high-school seniors who, during the 2013-14 application cycle, failed to fill out the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and multiplied figure that by the average amount of need-based Pell Grant money that was disbursed among the year’s grant recipients.

It’s worth noting there are caveats to NerdWallet's findings: For one, the study dealt with high-school graduates who hadn't yet enrolled in college and only accounted for potential—rather than actual—aid money. And many American families aren't eligible for the aid. Still, what the report reveals is, perhaps, shocking: Less than half of high-school graduates last year actually filled out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the first step toward receiving Pell grants. As its name implies, the application is free—and, for the low-income students who are deemed eligible, the money it generates is free, too. Unlike loans, students don't have to pay off the aid. With the maximum Pell Grant amount valued at $5,775 per student for the 2015-16 year, the FAFSA alone doesn't always make a huge dent in tuition for students, especially those attending expensive private colleges. But for many it could cover the majority of the tuition at many public two- and even four-year colleges.

The amount of paperwork required complete the application could explain why so few people complete it. Filling out the lengthy form is a laborious process—and the Department of Education doesn’t try to hide that. In fact, the FAFSA "FAQ" page prominently displays the time requirements for each portion:

        55 minutes to complete and submit an initial application
        45 minutes to complete and submit a renewal application
        10 minutes to make FAFSA corrections
Compare this to countries where everyone is eligible to go to college, perhaps with the passage of a comprehensive exam. It doesn't matter who you are or what race you are or what you parents do for a living or what their income is. That is fair and egalitarian. Here students need to get a stack of books that are several inches thick each and page through them all to find "private" scholarships that will dole out free money with humorously restrictive strings attached. Are you a half-Filipino female whose father worked for Union Pacific and is studying geriatric nursing? Well then there's money for you! Do you not fit into a narrowly defined slot? Don't have time to comb through dozens of thick tomes in search of a scholarship that fits your narrow profile? Don't have time to write a ten-page essay on your deep love of Ayn Rand for the Reason Magazine memorial scholarship in honor David Koch? Well, then, I guess no college education for you! As ThinkProgress pointed out, we already spend enough money to try and make education "affordable" to give everyone a free college education. But that wouldn't involve the "free" market and hence not enough difficult paperwork. The right-wing Neoliberal solution for education expenses is special accounts where you put your money in the hands of Wall Street (assuming you've wisely picked appropriately wealthy parents, of course). Such tax-sheltered accounts require even more paperwork and bureaucracy, of course.
Every so often, a higher ed story from around the world will grab some attention stateside. A few years ago, it was students protesting in the U.K. over an increase in tuition price caps which would allow universities to charge up to £9,000. More recently, students in Chile took to the streets for the better part of two years to demand free, quality education in what had become a system increasingly segregated by class. And yesterday, an announcement by a lone holdout state in Germany has returned that country entirely to a system that charges no tuition at all.

You could forgive students on this side of the pond for being jealous and incredulous. Over here, tuition and fees have risen nearly five times the rate of inflation in the past thirty years. At public schools, they’ve more than doubled in the past twenty years. It would be sweet relief for U.S. college students just to see tuition stay stable for the years they’re in college, and beyond the pale to see tuition actually fall from one year to the next. Eliminating tuition entirely would be a unicorn.

But maybe not. Sure, rising tuition and student debt is just one of those things that people take as a given—like rising sea levels, or Justin Bieber—things that are too big to wrap your head around but cause anxiety nonetheless. But a system of high tuition and fees isn’t inevitable, and eliminating all or most of them at public schools may not even be unfeasible. Even without eliminating all tuition and fees, eliminating student debt at most colleges wouldn’t require the level of government resources that you might think.

Let’s examine. Public colleges and universities took in $62 billion in tuition in 2013. These are schools that educate three of four American college students, and eliminating that entirely—as Slate’s (formerly the Atlantic’s) Jordan Weissman and others have shown—could be done just by rearranging what we already spend on student financial aid....the federal government disbursed almost $31 billion in loans to undergraduate students at public schools in 2012-13. Without wading into the issue of how much the government profits (or doesn’t profit) on student loans, that $31 billion in “borrowing need” could be entirely made up for by reforming what we spend on ineffective and regressive tax incentives for higher education each year.
Germany Just Eliminated Tuition. It Wouldn’t Be That Hard for Us to Do the Same—And Then Some (Demos)

Home affordability is another example. Rather than make homes affordable directly, the government gives mortgage interest tax deductions. This program disproportionately benefits the wealthy and encourages high mortgage prices. It favors home ownership over renting. Yet most people think the government plays no role in the housing market.

And there's more. Recently Republican governors are besotted with the idea of humiliating anyone who needs government assistance by making them pee in a cup. This creates even more bureaucracy (be sure and keep track of all those cups!). The idea here is not to make government simpler, cheaper or more efficient (which this clearly does not), it is just political theater designed to enforce the idea that anyone who is hurting is a drug fiend, and poverty is always due to "personal failure" and "lifestyle choices" (and not, for example, low pay and lack of jobs).

Much of this is due to the "submerged state" which I see as another feature of Neoliberalism. The idea here is that the government wants to encourage certain behaviors (go to college, have kids, buy a big house, etc), and fix certain deficiencies (externalities, market failures), but cannot be seen by the public to be interfering in the workings of the infallible Market. Hence it has to use all sorts of stealth tactics like tax credits and government grants which require loads of paperwork to create the illusion that the free market is not being interfered with.

And it works. Studies have shown that most people think they derive no benefits from government action when in fact at least 96 percent of survey respondents do in some way. This leads to what one political scientist has labeled a kludgeocracy - a way for the government to try and solve problems without looking like the government is solving problems. This leads to even more waste, inefficiency, fraud, costs, and yes bureaucracy, than if we just openly acknowledged the socialized nature of the modern economy.
 In recent decades, American politics has been dominated, at least rhetorically, by a battle over the size of government. But that is not what the next few decades of our politics will be about. With the frontiers of the state roughly fixed, the issues that will define our major debates will concern the complexity of government, rather than its sheer scope.

With that complexity has also come incoherence. Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly worried that America is, in Friedrich Hayek's ominous terms, on the road to serfdom. But this concern ascribes vastly greater purpose and design to our approach to public policy than is truly warranted. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever.

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics — liberalism or conservatism, big government or small — we have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of "kludgeocracy."

A "kludge" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose...a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem." The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.

"Clumsy but temporarily effective" also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare's champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.
Kludgeocracy in America (National Affairs)

Kludgeocracy = bureaucracy. Neoliberalism = paperwork. As Corey Robin writes:
There is a deeper, more substantive, case to be made for a left approach to the economy. In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

That’s not what the left wants. We want to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it, without having to take a 30-year detour on Wall Street to get there. The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it. That’s what a good welfare state, real social democracy, does: rather than being consumed by life, it allows you to make your life. Freely. One less bell to answer, not one more.
Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years (Crooked Timber)

A couple other brief points. It seems like the "free" capitalist market is resembling the Soviet equivalent that it supposedly "defeated" more and more these days. Graeber's examples above consist of Stakhanovite work ethics, wasteful busywork and pointless jobs, and massive amounts of red tape and bureaucracy. But as I've also noted previously, the capitalist market is extremely centrally planned and controlled. Recall this study from a few years back that a handful of companies control the world's money flows: Proof of Global Domination By a Few Corporations (Treehugger) As I like to point out, Wal-Mart is a planned economy. It does what free market fundamentalists claim is "impossible" every single day - coordinate production, distribution and global supply chains of every good under the sun from lawnmowers to barbecues to bananas and heads of lettuce all around the world with little disruption or acute shortages.

And finally, we all know that modern capitalist economies of the U.S. and Western Europe spy on their citizens to a much greater extent than the KGB or the Stasi ever did. The U.S. locks up more people than even Stalin's Soviet Union, and uses prison labor extensively to make its goods: From Our Prison to Your Dinner Table (Pacific Standard) Recently, "black ops" sites have been revealed in Chicago where select arrestees are "disappeared," beyond the reach of the law. America even has it's very own "gulag" at Guantanamo Bay and is mired in expansionist wars all over the globe. This isn't unrelated to the above. The extreme inequality and oligarchy that leads to extensive guard labor and prisons also leads to a society where mass surveillance is commonplace, and prisons are full of citizens. I'll leave the last word to this powerful essay by Cory Doctorow in the Guardian:
Why spy?...One obvious answer is: because they can. Spying is cheap, and cheaper every day...IT has been responsible for a 2-3 order of magnitude productivity gain in surveillance efficiency. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet.

Spying, especially domestic spying, is an aspect of what the Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles calls guard labour: work that is done to stabilise property relationships, especially the property belonging to the rich.

The amount a state needs to expend on guard labour is a function of how much legitimacy the state holds in its population’s reckoning. A state whose population mainly views the system as fair needs to do less coercion to attain stability. People who believe that they are well-served by the status quo will not work to upset it. States whose populations view the system as illegitimate need to spend more on guard labour.

It’s easy to see this at work: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea spend disproportionate sums on guard labour. Highly redistributive Nordic states with strong labour laws, steeply progressive taxation and tenant protection spend less on guard labour. They attain social stability through the carrot of social programmes, not the stick of guard labour.

In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labour will make wider wealth gaps sustainable. When coercion gets cheaper, the point at which it makes “economic sense” to allow social mobility moves further along the curve. The evidence for this is in the thing mass surveillance does best, which is not catching terrorists, but disrupting legitimate political opposition, from Occupy to the RCMP’s classification of “anti-petroleum” activists as a threat to national security.

Technology also brings productivity gains to social programmes. Basic sanitation, green revolution crops, cheap material production, and access to vaccines and mobile internet devices allow states to lift the desperately poor into a more sustainable existence for less than ever, affording stability to wealth gaps that might have invoked the guillotine in previous centuries. The mobile phone is important to this story, since it’s both a means of raising quality of life – through access to information and markets – and keeping its users under close, cheap surveillance.

The neoliberal answer to this is: so what? If the rich can be richer than ever without the poor having to starve, doesn’t that mean that the system is working? Boris Johnson’s big cornflakes have been sorted to the top of the packet, and have produced so much efficiency that everyone is better off for it, just as market theory predicts.

Even if you think that hereditary dynasties and extreme wealth for the few and hereditary, extreme poverty for the many is morally fine, the reality is that extreme wealth concentration distorts policy. We want policy to reflect the best available evidence, but when legislators are drawn from, and beholden to, a tiny ruling elite, they can only make evidence-based policy to the extent that the evidence doesn’t inconvenience rich people...A state that is beholden to a small number of people is also beholden to that elite’s sacred cows. It is incompatible with evidence-based policy.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair. Our networks have given the edge to the elites, and unless we seize the means of information, we are headed for a long age of IT-powered feudalism, where property is the exclusive domain of the super-rich, where your surveillance-supercharged Internet of Things treats you as a tenant-farmer of your life, subject to a licence agreement instead of a constitution.
Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens (The Guardian)

[i] this actually happened to me - when I presented my health care card at my doctor's office (we switched from United Healthcare to Blue Cross), the women I gave it to turned to the cublicle next to her and said, and I quote, "I guess I won't be talking to you for the next five hours."


  1. Living in San Jose, California, I joke that the economy is based on half of the populace making $100k a year working for the government, police, etc and the other half being on average destitute, thus making for an average income of $50k that shows up in the statistics.

  2. What I hear most often is that a policy, law, or issue is supported either by liberals or conservatives. I’d like to suggest that while what passes for conservatism is for the most part on the right hand side of the political spectrum liberals are not always on the left and as a result we don’t get a full range of political discussion in the U.S. An example of this is the response of both liberals and conservatives to issues of public policy. In my experience both liberals and conservatives tend to see increased state involvement as a good thing. Conservatives might take a more punitive approach say by making everyone pee in a cup but liberals are also ready to use state power to enforce their will in ways that are not always worker freindly. In some cases both groups work together to increase complexity and add to the punitive power of the capitalist state. I work in an environment where the issue of bullying and discrimination are on everyone’s minds. Conservatives are angry because they are the “real” targets of discrimination, e.g. “reverse discrimination” and the war on Christian values, or, alternately, because it is should be obvious that racism and discrimination aren't real issues. On the other side of the aisle Liberals seem to think that if we had just one more rule or regulation addressing these issues we could probably solve the problem. Neither side seems overly worried about the cost of overseeing all the complexity and the same liberals who complain bitterly about racist cops seem happy to impose all sorts of rules through the use of the power of state and corporate agents. At the institutions where I work anti-discrimination/bullying rules ultimately get enforced by punitive state authorities, up to and including the hated racist cops, and give them the authority to intervene in the lives of mostly poor and minority students. Neither side seems to address these issues systemically, for example, by taking power away from the people and institutions that are in a position to bully or discriminate or by making the benefits of these institutions so universal that there is little or nothing to compete for or withhold in a discriminatory manner. On the issue of college costs, the conservatives want to keep costs low by impoverishing the institutions and the liberals by offering more scholarships and creating more and better incentives for disadvantaged groups. I can’t complain very much about the liberal solution but it does create a noticeable, and perverse, incentive to claim a disadvantage or to label yourself to fit into one of the few categories of students who are eligible for some minor advantage (usually doled out to eccentric white people anyway). All this just keeps us fighting over familiar terrain without really solving any problems. Having a fair criteria, and yes I believe it is possible to have objective criteria that would be fair, for college eligibility and then simply eliminating fees for all eligible students would, indeed, be a real leftist solution. From each according to his ability to each according to his needs.


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