Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century

Former labor secretary Robert Reich on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labor unions

Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century
Robert Reich

My recent column about the growth of on-demand jobs like Uber making life less predictable and secure for workers unleashed a small barrage of criticism that workers get what they’re worth in the market.

Forbes Magazine contributor, for example, writes that jobs exist only  “when both employer and employee are happy with the deal being made.” So if the new jobs are low-paying and irregular, too bad.

Much the same argument was voiced in the late nineteenth century over alleged “freedom of contract.” Any deal between employees and workers was assumed to be fine if both sides voluntarily agreed to it.

It was an era when many workers were “happy” to toil twelve-hour days in sweat shops for lack of any better alternative.

It was also a time of great wealth for a few and squalor for many. And of corruption, as the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of cash on the desks of pliant legislators.

Finally, after decades of labor strife and political tumult, the twentieth century brought an understanding that capitalism requires minimum standards of decency and fairness – workplace safety, a minimum wage, maximum hours (and time-and-a-half for overtime), and a ban on child labor.

We also learned that capitalism needs a fair balance of power between big corporations and workers.

We achieved that through antitrust laws that reduced the capacity of giant corporations to impose their will, and labor laws that allowed workers to organize and bargain collectively.

By the 1950s, when 35 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a labor union, they were able to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions than employers would otherwise have been “happy” to provide.

But now we seem to be heading back to nineteenth century.



Corporations are shifting full-time work onto temps, free-lancers, and contract workers who fall outside the labor protections established decades ago.

The nation’s biggest corporations and Wall Street banks are larger and more potent than ever.

And labor union membership has shrunk to less than 6 percent of the private-sector workforce.

So it’s not surprising we’re once again hearing that workers are worth no more than what they can get in the market.

But as we should have learned a century ago, markets don’t exist in nature. They’re created by human beings. The real question is how they’re organized and for whose benefit.

In the late nineteenth century they were organized for the benefit of a few at the top.

But by the middle of the twentieth century they were organized for the vast majority.

During the thirty years after the end of World War II, as the economy doubled in size, so did the wages of most Americans — along with improved hours and working conditions.

Yet since around 1980, even though the economy has doubled once again (the Great Recession notwithstanding), the wages most Americans have stagnated. And their benefits and working conditions have deteriorated.

This isn’t because most Americans are worth less. In fact, worker productivity is higher than ever.

It’s because big corporations, Wall Street, and some enormously rich individuals have gained political power to organize the market in ways that have enhanced their wealth while leaving most Americans behind.

That includes trade agreements protecting the intellectual property of large corporations and Wall Street’s financial assets, but not American jobs and wages.

Bailouts of big Wall Street banks and their executives and shareholders when they can’t pay what they owe, but not of homeowners who can’t meet their mortgage payments.

Bankruptcy protection for big corporations, allowing them  to shed their debts, including labor contracts. But no bankruptcy protection for college graduates over-burdened with student debts.

Antitrust leniency toward a vast swathe of American industry – including Big Cable (Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner), Big Tech (Amazon, Google), Big Pharma, the largest Wall Street banks, and giant retailers (Walmart).

But less tolerance toward labor unions — as workers trying to form unions are fired with impunity, and more states adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws that undermine unions.

We seem to be heading full speed back to the late nineteenth century.

So what will be the galvanizing force for change this time?

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie “Inequality for All” is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/10/robert_reich_america_is_heading_full_speed_back_to_the_19th_century_partner/?source=newsletter

Income inequality soars in every US state

By Andre Damon
30 January 2015

Income inequality has grown in every state in the US in recent decades, according to a new study published this week by the Economic Policy Institute. The report, entitled The Increasingly Unequal States of America, found that, even though states home to major metropolitan financial centers such as New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area had the highest levels of income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in every region of the country.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at Hawaii or West Virginia or New York or California, there has been a dramatic shift in income towards the top,” said Mark Price, an economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one of the study’s co-authors, in a telephone interview.

Source: Economic Policy Institute
The report noted that between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of income earners captured 105 percent of all income gains in the United States. This was possible because during this period the average income of the bottom 99 percent shrank, while the average income of the top one percent increased by 36.8 percent.

To varying degrees, this phenomenon was expressed throughout the country. In only two states did the income of the top one percent grow by less than fifteen percent.

The enormous concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent was even further concentrated in the top .01 percent. In New York, for instance, someone had to make $506,051 per year to be counted in the top one percent, but $16 million to be in the top .10 percent. The average income within the top .01 percent in New York was a staggering $69 million.

“Most of what’s driving income growth are executives in the financial sector, as well as top managers throughout major corporations,” said Dr. Price. “Those two together are the commanding heights of income in this economy.”

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Dr. Price and his co-author, Estelle Sommeiller, based their study on the methods of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose widely-cited research analyzed the growth of income inequality for the United States as a whole. Using state-by-state data from the Internal Revenue Service, much of which had to be compiled from paper archives dating back almost a century, Price and Sommeiller were able to make a state-by-state analysis of income inequality since 1917.

Nationwide, the average income of the top one percent of income earners is 29 times higher than the average income of the bottom 99 percent. But in New York and Connecticut, the average income in the top 1 percent is 51.0 and 48.4 percent higher than the average for the rest of earners, respectively.

New York City is the home of Wall Street and boasts more billionaires than any other city in the world. Connecticut is home to many of the largest hedge funds in the world. Ray Dalio, the founder of Westport, Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates earned $3 billion in 2011 alone.

While the average income of the bottom 99 percent of income earners in New York state was $44,049, the income of the top one percent was $2,130,743. For the United States as a whole, the top one percent earned on average $1,303,198, compared to the average income of $43,713 for the bottom 99 percent.

In California, the most populous US state, the top one percent received an average income of $1,598,161, which was 34.9 times higher than the average pay of the bottom 99 percent. In 2013, four of the highest-paid CEOs in the United States were employed by technology companies, which are disproportionately located in California. At the top of the list was Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, with a current net worth of $53.4 billion, who made $78 million in pay that year.

The study shows that the average income for the bottom 99 percent of income earners is relatively consistent across states, with no state showing an average income of more than 33 percent above or below the average for the whole country.

The average incomes of the top one percent varied widely, however: from $537,989 for West Virginia to $2.1 million in New York. According to Forbes, the wealthiest resident of West Virginia is coal magnate Jim Justice II, who, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, is the state’s only billionaire. New York City, by contrast, has four residents worth more than $20 billion, including chemical tycoon David Koch, with a net worth of $36 billion; former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a net worth of $31 billion; and financiers Carl Icahn and George Soros, worth $20 billion apiece.

Yet despite the broad disparity in the relative concentration of the ultra-rich, every single state showed a pronounced and growing chasm between the wealthy few and the great majority of society. In Alaska, which has relatively high wages and few billionaires, the incomes of the top one percent were on average more than fifteen times higher than the bottom 99 percent.

The report noted that exploding CEO pay has set “new norms for top incomes often emulated today by college presidents (as well as college football and basketball coaches), surgeons, lawyers, entertainers, and professional athletes.”

Price added, “As the incomes of CEOs and financiers are rising, you’re starting to see that pull, almost like a gravity starting to pull up other top incomes in the rest of the economy.

“A University president might claim, ‘I run a big institution, you expect me to raise money from some of the wealthiest people in the country, you’ve got to pay me a salary that helps me socialize with them.’”

Price said that, while inequality figures are not available nationwide on the local level, his work on income inequality in the state of Pennsylvania shows that income inequality is growing in counties throughout the state, in both rural and urban centers.

Nationwide, the income share of the top one percent fell by 13.4 percent between 1928-1979, a product of the New Deal and Great Society reforms, as well as higher taxes on top earners. These measures were the outcome of bitter and explosive class struggles. But in subsequent years, that trend has been reversed.

As a result, income inequality in New York State was even higher in 2007 than it was in 1928, during the “roaring 20s” that gave rise to the Great Depression. In the period between 1979 and 2007, every state had the income share of the top 1 percent grow by at least 25 percent.

Citing a previous study by the Economic Policy Institute, the report noted that “between 1979 and 2007, had the income of the middle fifth of households grown at the same rate as overall average household income, it would have been $18,897 higher in 2007—27.0 percent higher than it actually was.”

The enormous growth of social inequality is the result of an unrelenting, decades-long campaign against the jobs and living standards of workers. Under the Obama administration, the redistribution of wealth has escalated sharply, through a combination of bank bailouts and “quantitative easing,” which has inflated the assets of the financial elite.

These policies have been pursued by both parties and the entire political establishment which is squarely under the thumb of the corporate and financial oligarchy that dominates American society.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/30/ineq-j30.html

Decline and fall: how American society unravelled

  • The Guardian, Wednesday 19 June 2013 12.47 EDT
Ruined home in Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown, Ohio, was once a thriving steel centre. Now, the industry has all gone and the city is full of abandoned homes and businesses. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

In or around 1978, America’s character changed. For almost half a century, the United States had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of the Roosevelt Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.

This unwritten contract came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organisations, business-labour partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognised the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did.

At the time, the late 1970s felt like shapeless, dreary, forgettable years. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, preaching austerity and public-spiritedness, and hardly anyone was listening. The hideous term “stagflation”, which combined the normally opposed economic phenomena of stagnation and inflation, perfectly captured the doldrums of that moment. It is only with the hindsight of a full generation that we can see how many things were beginning to shift across the American landscape, sending the country spinning into a new era.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the steel mills that had been the city’s foundation for a century closed, one after another, with breathtaking speed, taking 50,000 jobs from a small industrial river valley, leaving nothing to replace them. In Cupertino, California, the Apple Computer Company released the first popular personal computer, the Apple II. Across California, voters passed Proposition 13, launching a tax revolt that began the erosion of public funding for what had been the country’s best school system. In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party’s power on the rubble. On Wall Street, Salomon Brothers pioneered a new financial product called mortgage-backed securities, and then became the first investment bank to go public.

A steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio

A steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1947. Under the old deal, his hard work was to be rewarded. Photograph: Willard R. Culver/National Geographic/Corbis The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair. Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline. It as a period that I call the Unwinding.

In one view, the Unwinding is just a return to the normal state of American life. By this deterministic analysis, the US has always been a wide-open, free-wheeling country, with a high tolerance for big winners and big losers as the price of equal opportunity in a dynamic society. If the US brand of capitalism has rougher edges than that of other democracies, it is worth the trade-off for growth and mobility. There is nothing unusual about the six surviving heirs to the Walmart fortune possessing between them the same wealth as the bottom 42% of Americans – that’s the country’s default setting. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are the reincarnation of Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, Steven Cohen is another JP Morgan, Jay-Z is Jay Gatsby.

The rules and regulations of the Roosevelt Republic were aberrations brought on by accidents of history – depression, world war, the cold war – that induced Americans to surrender a degree of freedom in exchange for security. There would have been no Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial from investment banking, without the bank failures of 1933; no great middle-class boom if the US economy had not been the only one left standing after the second world war; no bargain between business, labour and government without a shared sense of national interest in the face of foreign enemies; no social solidarity without the door to immigrants remaining closed through the middle of the century.

Once American pre-eminence was challenged by international competitors, and the economy hit rough seas in the 70s, and the sense of existential threat from abroad subsided, the deal was off. Globalisation, technology and immigration hurried the Unwinding along, as inexorable as winds and tides. It is sentimental at best, if not ahistorical, to imagine that the social contract could ever have survived – like wanting to hang on to a world of nuclear families and manual typewriters.

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.

It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.

Occupy Wall Street protester

One of the 99%: an Occupy Wall Street protester in Union Square, New York, in 2011. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.

George Packer’s The Unwinding is published by Faber & Faber at £20

 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/19/decline-fall-american-society-unravelled

Atheist libertarians pose as skeptics — except when it comes to free markets and the nature of corporate power

The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the “free market”

The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the "free market"
Rand Paul, Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins (Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Chris Keane)

Why atheists are disproportionately drawn to libertarianism is a question that many liberal atheists have trouble grasping.  To believe that markets operate and exist in a state of nature is, in itself, to believe in the supernatural. The very thing atheists have spent their lives fleeing from.

According to the American Values Survey, a mere 7 percent of Americans identify as “consistently libertarian.” Compared to the general population, libertarians are significantly more likely to be white (94 percent), young (62 percent under 50) and male (68 percent). You know, almost identical to the demographic makeup of atheists – white (95 percent), young (65 percent under 50) and male (67 percent). So there’s your first clue.

Your second clue is that atheist libertarians are skeptical of government authority in the same way they’re skeptical of religion. In their mind, the state and the pope are interchangeable, which partly explains the libertarian atheist’s guttural gag reflex to what they perceive as government interference with the natural order of things, especially “free markets.”

Robert Reich says that one of the most deceptive ideas embraced by the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian movement is that the free market is natural, and exists outside and beyond government. In other words, the “free market” is a constructed supernatural myth.

There is much to cover here, but a jumping-off point is the fact that corporations are a government construct, and that fact alone refutes any case for economic libertarianism. Corporations, which are designed to protect shareholders insofar as mitigating risk beyond the amount of their investment, are created and maintained only via government action.  “Statutes, passed by the government, allow for the creation of corporations, and anyone wishing to form one must fill out the necessary government paperwork and utilize the apparatus of the state in numerous ways. Thus, the corporate entity is by definition a government-created obstruction to the free marketplace, so the entire concept should be appalling to libertarians,” says David Niose, an atheist and legal director of the American Humanist Association.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith, the granddaddy of American free-market capitalism, wrote his economic tome “The Wealth of Nations.” But his book has as much relevance to modern mega-corporation hyper-capitalism today as the Old Testament has to morality in the 21st century.



Reich says rules that define the playing field of today’s capitalism don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them. “In reality, the ‘free market’ is a bunch of rules about 1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); 2) on what terms (equal access to the Internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections?); 3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?); 4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); 5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.”

Atheists are skeptics, but atheist libertarians evidently check their skepticism at the door when it comes to corporate power and the self-regulatory willingness of corporations to act in the interests of the common good. In the mind of an atheist libertarian, both religion and government is bad, but corporations are saintly. On what planet, where? Corporations exist for one purpose only: to derive maximum profit for their shareholders. “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause others,” writes Joel Bakan, author of “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”

Corporations pollute, lie, steal, oppress, manipulate and deceive, all in the name of maximizing profit. Corporations have no interest for the common good. You really believe Big Tobacco wouldn’t sell cigarettes to 10-year-olds if government didn’t prohibit it? Do you really think Big Oil wouldn’t discharge more poisons and environmentally harmful waste into the atmosphere if government regulations didn’t restrict it? Do you really believe Wal-Mart wouldn’t pay its workers less than the current minimum wage if the federal government didn’t prohibit it? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be an atheist libertarian in desperate need of Jesus.

That awkward pause that inevitably follows asking a libertarian how it is that unrestricted corporate power, particularly for Big Oil, helps solve our existential crisis, climate change, is always enjoyable. “Corporations will harm you, or even kill you, if it is profitable to do so and they can get away with it … recall the infamous case of the Ford Pinto, where in the 1970s the automaker did a cost-benefit analysis and decided not to remedy a defective gas tank design because doing so would be more expensive than simply allowing the inevitable deaths and injuries to occur and then paying the anticipated settlements,” warns Niose.

In the 1970s, consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader became famous for helping protect car owners from the unsafe practices of the auto industry. Corporate America, in turn, went out of its way in a coordinated effort, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to destroy Nader. The documentary “Unreasonable Man” demonstrates how corporate CEOs of America’s biggest corporations had Nader followed in an attempt to discredit and blackmail him. General Motors went so far as to send an attractive lady to his local supermarket in an effort to meet him, and seduce him. That’s how much corporate America was fearful of having to implement pesky and costly measures designed to protect the well-being of their customers.

Today America is facing its greatest moral crisis since the civil rights movement, and its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression: income inequality. Now, income inequality doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by the political choices a country makes. Today America is the most income unequal among all developed nations, and we find ourselves here today not because of government regulation or interference, but a lack thereof. The past three decades have seen our political class become totally beholden to the armies of corporate lobbyists who fund the political campaigns of our elected officials. Today the bottom 99 percent of income earners has no influence on domestic policy whatsoever.

The unilateral control that Wall Street and mega-corporations have over economic policy is now extreme, and our corporate overlords have seen to the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich in U.S. history, while corporations contribute their lowest share of total federal tax revenue ever. The destruction of labor; serf-level minimum wage; and the deregulation, monopolization and privatization of public assets have pushed us deeper into becoming a winner-takes-all society.

In effect, America virtually exists as a libertarian state, certainly when compared to liberal democracies found in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. In these countries, there’s a sense of “we are all in this together,” but here the romantic idealism of the rugged individual allows corporate influence of the political class to gut public safety nets, eradicate collective bargaining, strip regulatory control of our banks, water, skies and our food.

By every measure, Australians, Scandinavians, Canadians, Germans and the Dutch are happier and more economically secure. The U.N. World Development Fund, the U.N. World Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index contain the empirical evidence atheist libertarians  should seek, and the results are conclusive: People are happier, healthier and more socially mobile where the size of the state is bigger, and taxes and regulations on corporations are greater. You know, the opposite of the libertarian dream that would turn America into a deeper nightmare.

CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” You can follow him on Twitter:  @cjwerleman

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/14/the_atheist_libertarian_lie_ayn_rand_income_inequality_and_the_fantasy_of_the_free_market/?source=newsletter

Sick of This Market-Driven World? You Should Be



These days, being a deviant from the prevailing wisdom is something to be proud of.

Photo Credit: Zhangyang13576997233/Shutterstock.com

To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim. It can be achieved only through a disavowal of what surrounds you. To be at peace with yourself within a troubled world: that, by contrast, is an honourable aspiration. This column is for those who feel at odds with life. It calls on you not to be ashamed.

I was prompted to write it by a remarkable book, just published in English, by a Belgian professor of psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaeghe. What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society is one of those books that, by making connections between apparently distinct phenomena, permits sudden new insights into what is happening to us and why.

We are social animals, Verhaeghe argues, and our identities are shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own normality – and its own abnormality – according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don’t.

Today the dominant narrative is that of market fundamentalism, widely known in Europe as neoliberalism. The story it tells is that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. The less the state regulates and taxes us, the better off we will be. Public services should be privatised, public spending should be cut, and business should be freed from social control. In countries such as the UK and the US, this story has shaped our norms and values for around 35 years: since Thatcher and Reagan came to power. It is rapidly colonising the rest of the world.

Verhaeghe points out that neoliberalism draws on the ancient Greek idea that our ethics are innate (and governed by a state of nature it calls the market) and on the Christian idea that humankind is inherently selfish and acquisitive. Rather than seeking to suppress these characteristics, neoliberalism celebrates them: it claims that unrestricted competition, driven by self-interest, leads to innovation and economic growth, enhancing the welfare of all.

At the heart of this story is the notion of merit. Untrammelled competition rewards people who have talent, work hard, and innovate. It breaks down hierarchies and creates a world of opportunity and mobility.

The reality is rather different. Even at the beginning of the process, when markets are first deregulated, we do not start with equal opportunities. Some people are a long way down the track before the starting gun is fired. This is how the Russian oligarchs managed to acquire such wealth when the Soviet Union broke up. They weren’t, on the whole, the most talented, hardworking or innovative people, but those with the fewest scruples, the most thugs, and the best contacts – often in the KGB.

Even when outcomes are based on talent and hard work, they don’t stay that way for long. Once the first generation of liberated entrepreneurs has made its money, the initial meritocracy is replaced by a new elite, which insulates its children from competition by inheritance and the best education money can buy. Where market fundamentalism has been most fiercely applied – in countries like the US and UK – social mobility has greatly declined.

If neoliberalism was anything other than a self-serving con, whose gurus and thinktanks were financed from the beginning by some of the world’s richest people (the US multimillionaires Coors, Olin, Scaife, Pew and others), its apostles would have demanded, as a precondition for a society based on merit, that no one should start life with the unfair advantage of inherited wealth or economically determined education. But they never believed in their own doctrine. Enterprise, as a result, quickly gave way to rent.

All this is ignored, and success or failure in the market economy are ascribed solely to the efforts of the individual. The rich are the new righteous; the poor are the new deviants, who have failed both economically and morally and are now classified as social parasites.

The market was meant to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness.

The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear. Through a magnificent paradox, it has led to the revival of a grand old Soviet tradition known in Russian as tufta. It means falsification of statistics to meet the diktats of unaccountable power.

The same forces afflict those who can’t find work. They must now contend, alongside the other humiliations of unemployment, with a whole new level of snooping and monitoring. All this, Verhaeghe points out, is fundamental to the neoliberal model, which everywhere insists on comparison, evaluation and quantification. We find ourselves technically free but powerless. Whether in work or out of work, we must live by the same rules or perish. All the major political parties promote them, so we have no political power either. In the name of autonomy and freedom we have ended up controlled by a grinding, faceless bureaucracy.

These shifts have been accompanied, Verhaeghe writes, by a spectacular rise in certain psychiatric conditions: self-harm, eating disorders, depression and personality disorders.

Of the personality disorders, the most common are performance anxiety and social phobia: both of which reflect a fear of other people, who are perceived as both evaluators and competitors – the only roles for society that market fundamentalism admits. Depression and loneliness plague us.

The infantilising diktats of the workplace destroy our self-respect. Those who end up at the bottom of the pile are assailed by guilt and shame. The self-attribution fallacy cuts both ways: just as we congratulate ourselves for our success, we blame ourselves for our failure, even if we have little to do with it.

So, if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.

George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/sick-market-driven-world-you-should-be?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

What the Family Dollar Merger Says About American Capitalism

The store’s deal with Dollar Tree is a boon to executives, but it will probably hurt employees.

Jim Young/Reuters

The French economist Thomas Piketty could not have dreamed up a better illustration of the problematic and growing income inequality in the US than the Family Dollar-Dollar Tree combination.

Let’s start with the backdrop: Essentially, the lower-income Americans that are the target customers of dollar stores have gotten too poor to buy anything other than food (a vivid illustration of Piketty’s point about income inequality). That has depressed margins and profits at these discount retailers.
The fact that these poor Americans—and the retailers that serve them—are doing so badly attracted the attention of some of the richest and best-connected investors in the world. Funds associated with the activist investors Nelson Peltz and Carl Icahn have snapped up significant chunks of Family Dollar in recent months—as has the hedge fund manager John Paulson.
And they have been pushing for a sale. Which makes sense, from their point of view: Combined, they stand to earn hundreds of millions on the deal, at least on paper. (Again, the fact that financiers have done well on the deal, even as low-income folks struggle, squares with Piketty’s view that large fortunes tend to grow faster than overall income, resulting in mounting piles of capital owned by the wealthy.)
Other people that stand to earn a tidy sum on the merger? Well, Family Dollar’s CEO Howard Levine owns roughly eight percent of the shares outstanding, so the deal price would land him with paper gains of about $130 million.
But it’d be a stretch to say Levine deserves it. The entire reason the company was pushed to sell by the activist investors was because its numbers under Levine haven’t been great. The fact that a CEO at the helm of a struggling company is able to harvest such a rich payout is quite in keeping with Piketty’s contention that outsized pay packages for corporate executives—even when there is less-than-clear evidence that they’re deserved—are key drivers of US inequality.
On top of that, as if to emphasize the points about the growing importance of inheritance that Piketty makes in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Levine is the son of the firm’s founder, Leon Levine. (We put in a request to Family Dollar asking for comment, but haven’t heard back.)
It’s not even clear that the merger will lead to a healthier retailer in the long run. It’s being financed by roughly $9.5 billion in borrowings. The debt used to finance the deal could result in a credit rating cut for Family Dollar, which is already flirting with junk status, Bloomberg notes. In other words, Family Dollar could be in worse financial shape after the deal, not better.
So what’s next for the company? A wave of cost-cutting, aimed at helping the combined dollar-store giant take advantage of the significant synergies and efficiencies that the deal creates. While the companies have said they don’t plan on closing stores, cost-cutting waves usually aren’t great for employees.
In short, this deal—prompted by the hardship of low-income customers—leaves a few well-connected investors, executives, and the bankers who arranged the deal much better off, as the finances of the business, its customers, and, perhaps, its employees languish.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/what-the-family-dollar-merger-says-about-american-capitalism/375235/

Who talks like FDR but acts like Ayn Rand? Easy: Silicon Valley’s wealthiest and most powerful people

Tech’s toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs

Tech's toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs
Ayn Rand, Marc Andreessen, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Credit: AP/Reuters/Fred Prouser/Salon)

Marc Andreessen is a major architect of our current technologically mediated reality. As the leader of the team that created the Mosaic Web browser in the early ’90s and as co-founder of Netscape, Andreessen, possibly more than any single other person, helped make the Internet accessible to the masses.

In his second act as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Andreessen has hardly slackened the pace. The portfolio of companies with investments from his VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is a roll-call for tech “disruption.” (Included on the list: Airbnb, Lyft, Box, Oculus VR, Imgur, Pinterest, RapGenius, Skype and, of course, Twitter and Facebook.) Social media, the “sharing” economy, Bitcoin — Andreessen’s dollars are fueling all of it.

So when the man tweets, people listen.

And, good grief, right now the man is tweeting. Since Jan. 1, when Andreessen decided to aggressively reengage with Twitter after staying mostly silent for years, @pmarca has been pumping out so many tweets that one wonders how he finds time to attend to his normal business.

On June 1, Andreessen took his game to a new level. In what seems to be a major bid to establish himself as Silicon Valley’s premier public intellectual, Andreessen has deployed Twitter to deliver a unified theory of tech utopia.

In seven different multi-part tweet streams, adding up to a total of almost 100 tweets, Andreessen argues that we shouldn’t bother our heads about the prospect that robots will steal all our jobs.  Technological innovation will end poverty, solve bottlenecks in education and healthcare, and usher in an era of ubiquitous affluence in which all our basic needs are taken care of. We will occupy our time engaged in the creative pursuits of our heart’s desire.



So how do we get there? Easy! All we have to do is just get out of Silicon Valley’s way. (Andreessen is never specific about exactly what he means by this, but it’s easy to guess: Don’t burden tech’s disruptive firms with the safety, health and insurance regulations that the old economy must abide by.)

Oh, and one other little thing: Make sure that we have a social welfare safety net robust enough to take care of the people who fall though the cracks (or are eaten by robots).

The full collection of tweets marks an impressive achievement — a manifesto, you might even call it, although Andreessen has been quick to distinguish his techno-capitalist-created utopia from any kind of Marxist paradise. But there’s a hole in his argument big enough to steer a $500 million round of Series A financing right through. Getting out of the way of Silicon Valley and ensuring a strong safety net add up to a political paradox. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t want to pay for the safety net.

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http://www.salon.com/2014/06/06/techs_toxic_political_culture_the_stealth_libertarianism_of_silicon_valley_bigwigs/