The “Competitiveness” Ruse

Per Person GDP Growth: Japan, France, US

This graph comes to us from Paul Krugman, Competitiveness and Class Warfare. He uses it primarily to make the case that the idea of national competitiveness is nonsense. You can see that most starkly with France, which has a strong welfare state, and the United States, which has an extremely stingy one. (Don’t worry about the slight divergence at the very end; that is due to the catastrophic austerity policies in the EU.)

There is a long tradition of people freaking out about other countries becoming too competitive and the US falling behind. There is always some “star” country that people are afraid of. In the 1980s, it was Japan. Now it is China. And this supposed question for competitiveness is always used to make the lives of Americans worse. It is a reason why we have to destroy unions. It is the primary reason why must make public education boring and turn our children into top quality multiple choice test takers. And it is the reason why we must bow down to the “job creators.” Otherwise, China will take all our jobs and we will starve to death.

This isn’t to say that any nation can do anything it wants. There are a lot of things that can hurt the economy. But what it does mean is that the things that people in this country complain about don’t matter. The supposed big problem in France is that employees are really hard to fire. But we certainly don’t see that in terms of GDP growth. Similarly, with the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality. Japan and France are relatively low at 63 and 69. But the United States is 85 — one of the highest in the world — even higher than Zimbabwe.

What this shows is that our economic system is the way it is because we’ve made it that way. There is nothing natural about it. And more to the point, these policies are not designed to grow our economy. Milton Friedman’s old idea is just wrong: it isn’t that the rich are pulling away but that the lives of the poor are being improved as well. In fact, there is more and more indication that all of this inequality is also bad for the rich.

To me, it is all very simple. I’ve been hammering on this for a while. If we don’t have an economic system that shares gains relatively fairly, then there is no point to continue on with it. What we have is a system that is already highly unequal. And then we add to that a system that just makes inequality worse over time. And then we add to that a system where the poor have little chance of becoming rich. And we end up with the modern equivalent of feudalism.

I know the conservative (and even more so, libertarian) response to this: we just haven’t gone far enough! The system is “free” enough to cause problems but not “free” enough to fix them all. But this is based on an idea that just doesn’t fly. There are almost no systems in any field of endeavor that just get worse and worse until you reach the solution and are then suddenly good. In general, if you follow a path and things are getting worse, it means you are going the wrong direction. See gradient descent.

But I think conservatives understand this. They are not pushing these policies because they think they are ultimately good. Instead, they think that the market (corrupt as it is) has picked the correct winners and so we should do everything we can to further help them. This is why libertarians are almost always against labor unions. It has nothing to do with freedom — much less the common good. It is just that they have decided that businesses are “good” and workers are “bad.”

The rest of us need to stop buying all this nonsense about how screwing over the poor and middle class is actually for our own good. It isn’t even for the overall economy’s own good.

How Faust Beat the Devil

Black OpiumIn the temple, there was no altar nor statue nor anything of mystery. The fairies are not decked in precious stones and carry no wands or distaffs.

These are simple women, or at least, they appear to be. Their supple bodies are scattered over the couches in an abandonment of repose. Their serene mouths smile toward the invisible, and their clear eyes follow, without tiring, the energetic flight of dreams, hovering under the sacred vault.

Between the flagstones of flaxen-colored shell, singular plants take root; and it is a bizarre flora which blooms throughout the temple, like wheat in a field. Tall stalks rise, weighted down with long, wide leaves; the flowers sway, deep as cups, and black.

Sometimes, with a slow gesture, one of the Vampires stretches forth her bare arm and plucks the nearest flower. She breathes it in for long, then lifts it to her lips and sucks the black juice which pearls upon the edge of each petal.

Faust has exclaimed: I am here. But the Fairies have not heard him, and have not gazed in his direction. They are dreaming, and eating the flowers of the black poppy.

—Claude Farrère
Black Opium

I am currently writing the introduction for the re-publication of this classic short story collection. I assume it will be out early next year. I’m sure I will tell you. This is from the short story “The End of Faust,” and I have to say, it is the best thing ever done with the Faustian legend.

How Capitalism Naturally Becomes Feudalism

Chris DillowChris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling wrote a very interesting article that is worth digging into, Back to Pre-Capitalism? It follows after Paul Mason’s article, The End of Capitalism Has Begun. I’m all for an optimistic take on the future. But if history shows us anything, it is that the power elite are really good at warping society to their purposes. What’s more, the power elite are usually willing to sacrifice their own absolute status in the name of maintaining or increasing their relative status. Thus — contrary to Milton Friedman — they are more than willing to trade their own economic gain if the net result is that their economic status gets better relative to the rest of society.

I’ve long argued that we are moving in the direction of feudalism. The nature of unfettered capitalism is that the winners of the economic system will have more power to distort the political system. This is a positive feedback, which means that it is unstable: the more power the rich get, the faster they gain further power. The end result of this is not some kind of libertarian utopia but rather a kind of feudalism, where people aren’t necessarily slaves, but they also aren’t free. It’s kind of like the conservative’s idea of freedom of speech: you can say anything you want to, so long as you don’t.

Dillow offers three aspects in which he thinks that we are moving toward a pre-capitalist era. This starts with the fact that people are turning into generalists. Capitalism was all about specialization: factories with trained people making the one thing that they could make most efficiently. But now, few companies are willing to pay enough to get and hold onto trained workers. So we end up with a situation where workers have to hold down two or three jobs — maybe someone works at McDonald’s by day and drives for Uber at night. No special skills in those jobs. People doing it are like the serfs of old.

The second aspect is a turn against globalization and toward the local economy. At it’s worst, this is represented in hostility toward immigrants. “You can see all these as recrudescences of feudalism — a cleaving to community and belief that one’s fate should be tied to where one was born.” I’m not convinced that we are actually seeing this, however. I think the anti-immigrant movement is based upon the fact that Americans are seeing their standards of living going down. It is always easier to lend an open hand to others when you aren’t worried about your own survival.

Dillow’s third aspect is secular stagnation, which he blames on the replacement of the entrepreneur with the bureaucracy. I like this idea very much. For conservatives, bureaucracy is this thing that is associated with the government. But in my life, the bureaucracies that most interfere are those of private companies. The big companies are not like free-wheeling revolutionaries; they are staid bureaucrats. What creativity they have is exhausted on manipulating the political system and taking more money for the top management and owners, and away from the workers. The net result is slower overall growth, but excellent growth for those at the top: secular stagnation.

The main thing that Dillow is getting at is that our economy is becoming more hierarchical. And that goes against the idea of capitalism and very much toward the idea of feudalism. As soon as I’m done writing this article, I’m going to write one about the lack of a labor market in the modern American economy. (It won’t necessarily be published after this one, but I’ll try.) And I would say that this is all inevitable. If there is no governmental check on a capitalist economy, it naturally works itself to feudalism. But it might be just as accurate to say that if democracy is not allowed to hold in check any economic system, it will naturally become something very much like a feudalism.

Drugs Used to Vilify Another Police Shooting Victim

Charly KeunangOn 1 March of this year, Charly Keunang was killed by police officers in Los Angeles. He was unarmed and black — as if that cliche even has to be mentioned. But there is an issue that stands apart from the fact of unjustified police violence. As Janine Jackson reported recently, To LA Times, Meth in Skid Row Victim’s Blood More Important Than Gun in His Flesh. This refers to a headline in The Los Angeles Times, “Skid Row Shooting: Autopsy Shows Man Shot Six Times, Had Meth in System.” Because, you know, that explains everything. Just so you don’t think the headline distorts the article, this is the lede, “A homeless man killed by Los Angeles police officers earlier this year on downtown’s skid row was shot six times and had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, according to an autopsy report.”

There were other ways to report on the autopsy. Jeff Sharlet wrote, An LA Cop Pressed His Gun Into the Chest of an Unarmed Man And Shot Him Through the Heart. He was pretty clear:

The Los Angeles coroner has finally released the results of its autopsy. They are profoundly disturbing. Two of the six bullets that killed Charly entered his body through what are called “contact gunshot wounds” — which means the muzzle of the officer’s gun was pressed directly against Charly’s body. Like a slaughterhouse killing.

But The Los Angeles Times’ reporting is entirely typical. The truth is that journalists have close relationships with law enforcement. They are great sources of tips for reporters. How else do you think that the newspapers find out that this or that celebrity was caught in a porn theater? So it isn’t at all surprising that it works the other way too: the police know they can depend upon reporters to create stories that spin the news in their direction.

For two decades now, I’ve been writing with some exasperation that our society thinks that drug use is worse than murder. There are many facets to that. For example, there is the way that drug felons on parole are required to do drug testing but paroled murders are in general not. Inside the criminal justice system, there really is the feeling that murder is just an unfortunate thing that happens to a large extent because of bad social environments. That’s true! But the same people who are understanding about this want to treat drug users in a particularly punitive way.

I’m constantly amazed how the specter of drugs can be used to totally invalidate wrongdoing. After George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, much was made of the fact that Martin had cannabis in his system. Many liberals were surprised at the time, “What does that have to do with anything?” But that is exactly the point. The idea is to paint the victim as one of “those” people who cannot be trusted.

In the case of Charly Keunang, the emphasis is more, “Who knows what he could do while on drugs!” But the same thing can be said without the drugs, “Who knows what he could do!” The actual evidence that drugs make people violent is only strong for alcohol. A big part of that is our society’s dysfunctional attitudes towards drugs. There’s no point in testing if heroin, meth, or cannabis makes people violent. They must be because they aren’t sanctioned by the government!

Meanwhile, Charly Keunang is dead. And The Los Angeles Times is there to run with old, biased stereotypes of drugs and drug users — all in the name of protecting a group of men who, under the cover of protecting the community, murdered an unarmed man.

Morning Music: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

He Ain't Heavy, He's My BrotherI got the idea for this week’s Morning Music theme from today’s song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” When I was a kid, I wondered if the song was about carrying your brother. It turns out that this is exactly what it’s about. It doesn’t matter how much he weighs, because your brother is never a burden. It is a beautiful idea — especially if it is “brother” writ very large.

The phrase itself seems to go back to Scotland. Here is the writer Ralph Waldo Trine’s description of it, “Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself, when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry, when instantly came the reply: ‘He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither.'”

The version everyone knows is by The Hollies. But the live version I have of them performing the song has Allan Clarke with his bare chest. For any song, that would be bad enough. But for this song, it’s absolutely disgusting. So here is a very nice version by Neil Diamond:

Anniversary Post: Michael Phelps’ Metals

Michael PhelpsWhen I was a kid, I loved the Olympics. Of course, I loved game shows too. I was a kid. Sue me.

But on this day in 2008, Michael Phelps became the first person in history to win eight gold metals in a single Olympics.

But if I don’t care for the Olympics, I really don’t care for swimming. Actually, I didn’t even care for it when I was a kid. That’s normal, right? I mean, swimming is boring to watch. The only reason Americans are into it is because our nation is very good at it. And it is a very “white” sport. We love things that white people are good at. See, for example, another really boring sport: speed skating.

The only reason that I’m bring up Michael Phelps is because I thought that the Weekend Update segment “Really!?! With Seth” was quite good. In general, I find Seth Meyers annoying. He’s typical of comedy writers who never quite gel as performers. See, for example, Harold Ramis. But I do like this:

On the other hand, I disagree with his conclusion. I know nothing about Michael Phelps. I assume he is as boring as most people. If you sell a photo of anyone smoking cannabis at a party, you are a dick. But if you are impressed just to be in the presence of a celebrity — especially one who swam the “men’s 100 meter butterfly” a hundredth of a second faster than the next guy — you are an idiot.