Economic Inequality and Insecurity Is Planned

Mark ThomaMark Thoma, the gentlest economist around, wrote an article that I mostly agree with, Rising Insecurity and the Rise of Trump and Sanders. He argued that populist movements are the result of increased economic inequality and insecurity. I think the second word there — insecurity — is actually the more important one. Most people can deal with their lives as they are. The hardest part of our society is not knowing if it is all going to be destroyed through no fault of your own. As Thoma put it, “When new technology is adopted, some people who did nothing worse than pick the wrong industry to work in will lose their jobs, while others will see their incomes rise, sometimes spectacularly if the new technology serves an important, unfilled need.” You know, it’s called “luck.”

The core of what Thoma talked about is what has happened during globalization. In general, it has made the world richer. But instead of the wealth being distributed, it all went to a small group. This is to be expected. It is also to be expected that in a democracy, measures would be taken to fix things. As Thoma noted, “If the gains are $1,000 and the losses are $300, transferring $301 or more from the winners to the losers would leave everyone better off.” But we have not seen that.

In fact, we have seen the opposite. Even as globalization has helped the rich, we have seen policies that have made things even worse. Let’s just list a couple of things. When you buy oil for your car so you can go to work, you pay sales tax; but when rich people buy stocks, they pay no sales tax. While manufacturing workers have been put in direct competition with foreign workers, doctors, lawyers, and other highly paid workers have not. While incomes of the wealthy have skyrocketed, their taxes have gone down — way down. None of these are economics; these are political decisions designed to take money from the lower rungs of society and give them to the upper rungs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics did a detailed study of workers from 2007 through 2014 and they found that for the bottom 80% of workers, total compensation was stagnant or went down…

This all brings me back to Milton Friedman’s claim that while the rich might be getting much richer, the poor too are better off. Well, that’s been open for debate for a long time. Just last year, Glenn Hubbard (Yes, that guy.) was claiming that if you looked at total compensation (rather than just wages), the lower classes weren’t stagnating. Now I’ve always found that a disingenuous argument, because our protectionist healthcare system makes it look like people are getting more in benefits, but its just the cost of those benefits that are going up. If these people were working in Canada, they wouldn’t see any increase.

Well, Lawrence Mishel reported yesterday, Pay Is Stagnant for Vast Majority, Even When You Include Benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics did a detailed study of workers from 2007 through 2014 and they found that for the bottom 80% of workers, total compensation was stagnant or went down — with the median worker seeing their pay decline by 4% and their total compensation decline by just under 2%.

So what are we going to do? Nothing, of course. This is because the power elite really don’t care. If I had Milton Friedman in front of me right now, I would ask him what he thought about this. It does, after all, go against what he argued for years. But I know what he would say: it doesn’t matter. He was never making a practical argument. He only threw those out for the prols to keep them off his back. And that’s true for all the rest of the power elite.

Go back to the days of feudal lords and you will see that the real justification for our system of inequality and insecurity is the same: there are the deserving and the undeserving. In Mark Thoma’s article, he wrote, “We don’t have to abandon capitalism.” And most people think that capitalism, despite all its flaws, is still the best thing we have. I think the problem is in our biology. The reason that capitalism is the best system we can come up with is because we are still hierarchical pack animals, so we can’t imagine a system that doesn’t involve winners and losers. If anyone ever did come up with a system where everyone was able to live dignified lives, we’d rebel against it. We want people to feel the insecurity so they will constantly know their place.

Morning Music: Life During Wartime

Fear of Music - Life During WartimeWhen I was younger, I was wild about Talking Heads’ third album, Fear of Music. And it is certainly a great album. But I have to admit to not enjoying it as much now as I did then. I think it is because it is a transitional album. The best example of that is “Life During Wartime.” That song points directly to by far the greatest Talking Heads album, Remain in Light.

I’m not doing any research for these posts, so forgive me for just telling you what I remember. But I recall an interview with Tina Weymouth where she said that while they were working on the song, at least three of them were aware that there was a collaboration going on. It seems that David Byrne was resistant to giving anyone else any credit. But given the later history, we know with some certainty that Byrne is something of a horse’s ass — maybe not as bad as Lou Reed, but also without all the drugs to explain the behavior.

Anyway, the song sounded very new. It seemed the first time that funk and punk really merged together to create something greater. And the lyrics are funny, although I don’t think they are meant to be. David Byrne as a lyric writer has always reminded me of David Lynch as a director: someone very interesting, overly serious, and never quite aware of what he’s doing. That has led to greatness for both men, but also some of the most pretentious nonsense I’ve ever encountered.

“Life During Wartime” features prominently in Stop Making Sense. And it works really well. But it also loses its essential punk feel and becomes more funk with an edge. I don’t think I can explain it. But the album cut is better.

Second Annual Richard Stallman Day

Richard StallmanLast year, I decided that 16 March would from that day forward be Richard Stallman Day. Most people don’t know who he is, but isn’t that typical of people who revolutionize the world? Let the Obamas and the Putins think that they run the world. The rest of us know that they are mere figureheads who the greater social forces allow their illusions of power. Richard Stallman has no illusions of power because he has no power. He is just a thinker — one who changed the world.

If you don’t know who Richard Stallman is, I will tell you. He is the guy responsible for the server that delivered these words to you. He started the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project. He wrote the gcc and g++ compilers — and much more. But most of all, he led the free software movement, which led to what is normally called Linux. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that it is called Linux, though. It is named after Linus Torvalds. And not to take anything away from him, but an operating system kernel is not an operating system. It’s like calling a quarterback a football team.

“I am a pessimist by nature. Many people can only keep on fighting when they expect to win. I’m not like that, I always expect to lose. I fight anyway, and sometimes I win.” — Richard Stallman

The history of GNU/Linux is typical of our economic system where 99% of all the work can be done, but the person who puts that final piece of the puzzle gets an overabundance of credit. The truth is that GNU/Linux was the result of many thousands of developers working over decades. And all of that should be honored. But just like the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is celebrated with the moniker of one of its great leaders, Martin Luther King Jr, GNU/Linux and the free software movement should be celebrated in Richard Stallman’s name.

I think we should build statues to Richard Stallman. But I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. For one thing, he’s a political radical. And he’s radical about things that most people have never thought about. Every time I hear him talk or visit his website, I’m struck by how much of a sellout I am. But I’m just not smart and brave enough not to be swept along by doing what is easy, even if it makes me somewhat queasy. Then again, I’m not a technologist. I would be happy to go back to the typewriter.

Barring that, Richard Stallman has done great work to make technology better. It isn’t just GNU/Linux. Although Big Computer has never embraced free software, it has embraced open source software. And that continues to have great effects. Richard Stallman started a movement that has had as great an effect on the world as anyone I can think of in my lifetime. The world owes him a great debt.

Happy Richard Stallman Day!