Paul Krugman: Trump Can Ruin American Workers Without Passing a Single Piece of Legislation

NEWS & POLITICS
As long as he’s in office, he’s a threat to the underclasses.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

It’s tempting to believe that, because Trump hasn’t repealed Obamacare, locked up Hillary Clinton, or built a border wall along the Mexican border, his agenda is stalled. That fantasy got a boost this week with the departure of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. And while Bannon’s firing was a necessary move, Paul Krugman warns we shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.

Yes, the Trump administration’s efforts to kick 20 million people of their health insurance while lining the pockets of the 1 percent have been thwarted for now. Krugman can’t even get too worked up about the prsopect of tax reform. “Straight-out tax cuts”, he writes,  “which benefit corporations and the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, might still go through, but even that looks doubtful.”

But now is not the time to get complacent. “Don’t just watch Congress,” Krugman writes, “keep your eyes on what federal agencies are doing.” Whether Trump passes a single act of legislation or not, the Department of Labor can still do immeasurable harm to workers and their unions.

The most blatant example, according to Krugman, is “the decline in the fortunes of truck drivers, whose pay used to make them members of the middle class.” That’s over now, as “their real wages have fallen about a third since the 1970s, with most of the decline taking place during the Reagan years.” That collapse wasn’t because of tax policy. It was a slow and steady erosion of the the power of the National Labor Relations Board, “that encouraged private employers to fight unionization, and in part to deregulation that undercut the position of unionized firms.”

The same can be said for the deregulation of financial companies, whose CEOs were responsible for the housing bubble, the mortgage crisis, and ultimately the 2008 recession. It wasn’t legislation that enabled them to act so recklessly but a loosening of rules across all of the agencies that cover our financial systems. When it comes to Congress, Krugman explains, “Right now it looks as if [Trump] may have much less impact on taxing and spending than most people expected. But other policies, often made administratively by federal agencies rather than via legislation, can matter a lot.”

Krugman ends his column on an especially grim note: “As long as he’s in office, he retains a lot of power to betray the working people who supported him. And in case you haven’t noticed, betraying those who trust him is a Trump specialty.”

Read the entire column at the New York Times.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/paul-krugman-trump-can-ruin-american-workers-without-passing-single-piece?akid=16003.265072.RxHsun&rd=1&src=newsletter1081405&t=4

Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions

Tesla required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions

Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions
(Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared in In These Times


Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus — an extra 150 Euros a month — and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

Bernie Sanders, and the Unexpected Socialist Revival

CULTURE
Bernie Sanders proved socialism isn’t dead—and some young people are even open to the banished ideas of Karl Marx.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Since his grassroots presidential campaign took the world by storm last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been widely credited with bringing socialism back into the mainstream of American politics and introducing an entire generation to left-wing politics. As a major presidential candidate who unabashedly identified as a democratic socialist, Sanders essentially resurrected an idea that has been considered off limits in our political discourse for many decades: that there is an alternative to capitalism and the status quo.

This radical idea has become less taboo in recent years, and today an increasing number of millennials say they reject capitalism, while a majority of Americans support “socialistic” policies like universal health care (for the first time in a long time, single-payer is gaining mainstream momentum). Clearly, Sanders deserves the credit he has received for shifting the Overton window and reintroducing a form of left-wing class politics to America. It is safe to say that no single person has done more to revive the American left than the Vermont senator.

But Sanders’ political rise did not happen in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely he would have achieved much success had the social and economic conditions not been ripe. Though the 75-year old senator played an essential role in demystifying socialism to the public and instilling a radical spirit in the progressive movement, the current resurgence of class politics on the left has been in the works for many years, going back to the 2007-08 financial crisis.

It hasn’t been white-haired socialists who have provided the foundation for this resurgence, but young people who grew up in the era of neoliberalism. This was evident last week, when progressive millennials flocked to Chicago for the biannual Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, where delegates came together to vote on various resolutions for the party. In the past year, the DSA has tripled its membership, and what is particularly telling about this growth is that the average age of DSA members has dropped by half virtually overnight, from 64 in 2015 to just 30 today.

This trend has led to a cottage industry of think pieces speculating about why millennials have embraced old school leftists like Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but it is hardly a great mystery. Millennials came of age during the worst capitalist crisis in 80 years and live in a time when income and wealth inequality have reached historic levels — as evidenced by the fact that the eight richest men in the world (seven of whom are white American men) own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people.

Millennials inhabit a planet that faces ecological collapse, and most grasp the threat of climate change on a visceral level. Young people are also crippled by record levels of debt and despite being better educated than their parents earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at this point in their lives. Finally, millennials have grown up in a time when moneyed interests have completely infiltrated the political process, creating an oligarchic form of government that serves the economic elite rather than the majority.

In other words, millennials are increasingly ambivalent about capitalism because it is a system that has failed their generation. Not surprisingly, this has led to a significant number of young intellectuals who have also rediscovered the works of Karl Marx, the great diagnostician of capitalism’s ills. Around the same time that the Occupy Wall Street protests erupted around the country in 2011, Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin, the left-wing quarterly that has grown rapidly over the past five years, publishing the work of many millennial Marxists.

Of course, it is one thing to call yourself a socialist (or a “democratic socialist”) in America, and another thing entirely to identify as a Marxist. For the past century Karl Marx has been the ultimate intellectual bogeyman in the United States. For the majority of Americans who have no first-hand familiarity with the 19th-century thinker and his work, the term “Marxism” is synonymous with Stalinism and totalitarianism.

As with the millennial embrace of an elderly democratic socialist, this Marxist revival has predictably confounded many liberal and conservative critics, who assume that youngsters simply don’t know their 20th-century history. “That Marxism is not viewed with a similar horror as Nazism is one of the greatest failings of contemporary education,” tweeted Claire Lehmann, editor of the libertarian-leaning publication Quillette magazine, last month.

One of the greatest failings of contemporary education, one might counter, is that critics of Marxism know next to nothing about Marx or Marxism, other than the fact that some unsavory historical figures identified themselves with the term. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, and more than 50 years ago the American sociologist C. Wright Mills attempted to provide an objective account of Marx’s ideas in his 1962 book, “The Marxists,” meant to counteract the propaganda efforts of Cold Warriors. Mills’ book is just as useful today when it comes to explaining why Marx remains relevant in the 21st century. (Some might argue he is even more relevant today than in the mid-20th century, as capitalism has conquered the globe). In order to uncover what makes Marx’s work so valuable, Mills makes an important analytical distinction between the philosopher’s methodology/model and his theories:

model is a more or less systematic inventory of the elements to which we must pay attention if we are to understand something. It is not true or false; it is useful and adequate to varying degrees. A theory, in contrast, is a statement which can be proved true or false, about the casual weight and the relations of the elements of a model. Only in terms of this distinction can we understand why Marx’s work is truly great.

Marx’s model, argues Mills, “is what is great; that is what is alive in marxism. [Marx] provides a classic machinery for thinking about man, society, and history. That is the reason there have been so many quite different revivals of marxism. Marx is often wrong, in part because he died in 1883, in part because he did not use his own machinery as carefully as we now can, and in part because some of the machinery itself needs to be refined and even redesigned. . . . Neither the truth nor the falsity of Marx’s theories confirm the adequacy of his model.”

Marx’s model looked at the structure of society as a whole, as well as that “structure in historical motion,” and the German philosopher and economist employed this model to examine and reveal the dynamics of capitalism. This largely explains why there has been a renewed interest in Marx’s work in recent years, especially among millennials who have lived their entire lives under a global capitalist order. Marx’s model of looking at the world, along with his exhaustive analysis of capitalism, helps us to understand our own contemporary reality and where we are headed.

While Marx’s model is essential to understanding modern society, another fundamental aspect of Marxism is, of course, the merging of theory and practice. As Marx famously declared, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This remains the ultimate goal for millennial Marxists and socialists. Although capitalism has never been more globally dominant than it is today, this has also engendered social and economic conditions that are ripe for left-wing political movements. As the Marxist economist Richard Wolff recently said during an interview on Fox Business:

Socialism is in a way the shadow of capitalism. Nothing guarantees the future of socialism so much as capitalism, because socialism is capitalism’s self-criticism.

Capitalism doesn’t give a flying fuck

Leela Yellesetty explains why the abysmal conditions endured by airline passengers and workers alike have everything to do with the bosses’ bottom line.

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

DURING HIS brief but memorable tenure as White House communications director, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci attempted to explain Trump’s vision for health care reform:

What the president is trying to do is make the health care system freer. So why not disrupt and decentralize the system, make it more price competitive, increase competition for the insurance companies and trust the process of the free market, like in telecom, like in airlines?

Really? Yes, the health care system is awful, but did the Mooch really think a good selling point for reform would be to make it more like Comcast, the most hated company in America? Or United Airlines, which wasn’t able to beat out Comcast even by dragging a bloodied man off a plane, so they decided to kill a bunny rabbit for good measure?

“No one wants health care to be like the airlines!” talk-show host Seth Meyers quipped in response, “‘How was the hospital?’ ‘Not great. My surgery was three hours late, my bed was double-booked so they dragged me out of the OR, and then they sent my appendix to Albuquerque!'”

What’s to blame for the awful treatment of passengers and airline workers alike? The problem isn’t bad business decisions, but the drive for sky-high profits.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR THOSE of us who hate the elaborate torture that is U.S. air travel–that is, all of us who can’t afford first class–we have some tentative good news. A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” as one judge put it.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by the consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, which pointed out that the distance between seats, known as the “pitch,” has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31, with some as low as 28, while seat widths have shrunk by an inch and half in the past decade–at the same time as the average passenger has grown larger.

The group argued that this posed a health and safety hazard by making it difficult to evacuate in an emergency and increasing the risk of passengers developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially fatal condition caused by a blot clot as a result of prolonged sitting in cramped space.

The FAA rejected the petition, claiming–with “research” to back it up–that the issue of seat size was one of comfort and not safety. While the court agreed that the danger of DVT was not well established, on the safety claims, it blasted the FAA for a “vaporous record” of “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters.”

Indeed, the FAA refused to disclose most of the tests used to make its decision, claiming they were proprietary.

While the ruling simply directs the FAA to revisit the petition and doesn’t directly compel the agency to set minimum standards for seat size, it is certainly a positive development in the face of the ongoing airline assault on our safety and comfort, not to mention dignity.

Apparently not everyone is cheering this development, though.

In article sneeringly titled “Let Them Shrink: FAA Should Not Regulate Airline Seat Space,” Forbes‘ Omri Ben-Shahar argued that the airlines are actually giving consumers exactly what they asked for. That is, if we want cheaper flights, we should be prepared to suffer for them.

If you want better seats, just pay more–indeed, one reason our seats are shrinking is to make room for “premium” options for the lucky few.

William McGhee, author of the airline industry expose Attention All Passengerssummed up the attitude of Forbes writers and airline executives this way:

Things are just fine in business class and first class. I don’t think that’s coincidental. It reflects the larger issues we face as a society right now, the 99 Percent vs. the 1 Percent. I’ve talked to execs about deteriorating conditions in the back, and their response is basically, ‘You should pay for and sit up front,’ which is a bit of a ‘Let them eat cake’ response.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS EASY as it can be to dismiss an argument inspired by Marie Antoinette, it’s worth probing some of the claims that Ben-Shahar makes more closely.

For one thing, it’s true that airline travel is more affordable and accessible to the average person that it was in the glory days of free food and adequate legroom.

Back then, air travel was largely a preserve of the wealthy. For free-market enthusiasts like Ben-Shahar and the Mooch, therefore, the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 was a victory for consumers, increasing competition and thereby lowering fares and improving service.

This sounds good, but it doesn’t remotely depict what has actually happened in the decades since deregulation. Instead, what’s played out is a sordid tale of rampant inefficiencies, corruption, bankruptcies, mergers and deteriorating conditions for both passengers and workers.

Right after deregulation, there were more than 400 certified carriers and 10 major airlines. Today, just four airlines control 80 percent of all domestic flights. Rather than encourage competition, deregulation removed antitrust provisions, allowing airlines to collude in raising fares while reducing service.

The 2013 merger of American and US Airways to create the world’s largest airline was accomplished by an army of corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists, while executives and their Wall Street backers salivated at the profits to be made from the deal:

Indeed, government investigators had uncovered documents showing airline executives crowing about how mergers allow them to charge travelers more. “Three successful fare increases–[we were] able to pass along to customers because of consolidation,” wrote Scott Kirby, who became the president of the new American Airlines, in a 2010 internal company presentation…

A 2014 Goldman Sachs analysis about “dreams of oligopoly” used the American-US Airways merger as an example. Industry consolidation leads to “lower competitive intensity” and greater “pricing power with customers due to reduced choice,” the analysis said.

Another useful tool in the industry playbook is bankruptcy. All of the four remaining airlines filed for bankruptcy in the past decade–and they are now the four most profitable airlines in the world.

In fact, they were doing just fine before, but bankruptcy allowed them to slough off inconvenient costs of providing decent pay and benefits to their employees. As United Auto Workers activist Gregg Shotwell commented on American’s 2011 bankruptcy:

Capitalism isn’t above the law in the United States–it is the law. Peace and solidarity activists are hounded, harassed and arrested, but the forcible transfer of wealth from the working class to the investing class is protected concerted activity.

American Airlines’ debt doesn’t outweigh its cash and assets. In fact, American is financing its own bankruptcy. That’s not distress, it’s brass-knuckles union busting. The business press makes no bones about American Airlines’ plan to profit off the broken backs of labor contracts. In fact, they crow about it.

American Airlines ordered 460 new planes from Boeing and Airbus less than five months ago, at a cost of $38 billion. Those contracts will be honored even as American plans to dump pensions underfunded by about $10 billion for approximately 130,000 workers and retirees.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THIS UNION busting comes with real consequences for passenger safety as well. Abysmal pay and working conditions for pilots in budget regional carriers has resulted in an increase in crashes, to give just one example.

While cutting corners on workers’ rights has helped boost airline profits and executive compensation, the impact on fares for passengers is less than meets the eye. As Carl Finamore explained in a 2010 article republished at SocialistWorker.org:

Champions of the free market boast about upwards of a 20 percent reduction in fares since 1978 when airlines were freed to set their own prices without the nuisance of government regulators. But this is very misleading. There are several factors contributing to the decline in prices. For example, booking online has almost entirely eliminated the large commissions of travel agents. Experts state these fees normally accounted for a full 10 percent of ticket prices.

And while it is true that fares to large cities has benefited from increased competition, where it exists, smaller communities have, conversely, seen substantial fare increases as their airports have experienced reduced or lost service. Millions of travelers are also forced to purchase tickets to major hub airports they otherwise would have bypassed during the period of regulation where direct flights to and from smaller markets were offered.

The last major factor making the price of flights misleading is the explosion of fees for everything from luggage to meals to wifi to the ability to board early–coming soon: the surcharge if you would like to not be beaten and dragged off the plane. This has been the single largest source of profits for airlines in the last decade, with Delta alone pulling in $5.7 billion from such fees in 2013 alone.

As Tim Wu pointed out in the New Yorker, this pricing model sets up a perverse incentive:

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IS THERE any way out of calculated misery?

The current trajectory we’re on doesn’t seem promising. While the past few years saw record profits for airlines in part due to lower fuel costs, as costs begin to rise, we should expect new rounds of crisis, bankruptcies and mergers, all of which will, of course, be apaid for by further attacks on worker and passenger dignity.

Ultimately, we would be wise to heed the words of former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall that “market forces alone cannot and will not produce a satisfactory airline industry, which clearly needs some help to solve its pricing, cost and operating problems.”

Nationalizing and making the airlines a public utility would be a rational response to the anarchic yet calculated misery of deregulation. In a sane system, we would also look for ways to reduce the amount of air travel, given its carbon footprint, but this would require reorganizing corporate practice and providing affordable, sustainable travel alternatives, such as high-speed rail, as well as providing workers more vacation days to make slower forms of travel feasible.

Of course, we should expect none of these solutions to be forthcoming from the airline executives–least of all under a certain president who, within weeks of taking office, gleefully told a group of them: “You’re going to be so happy with Trump.”

Instead our salvation from the unfriendly skies lies, as an anonymous Delta employee put it recently, in passengers and airline workers joining forces in support of each other:

Instead of indicting each other (employees and passengers), we should focus on fostering solidarity. Many of our interests are the same.

Most obviously, a passenger’s flying conditions are also an airline employee’s working conditions…The declining emphasis put on passenger comfort and airline employee working conditions can be traced back to a common cause: the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry and the relentless pursuit of profit.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/08/10/capitalism-doesnt-give-a-flying-f–k

Here’s how the Trump administration has been handing over government to businesses

The first six months of the Trump administration have seen a decrease in the effectiveness of regulations

Here's how the Trump administration has been handing over government to businesses
(Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

President Donald Trump’s assault on regulations designed to keep Wall Street in check is going quite well, as a check on the first quarter of his presidency has found that fines levied by government regulators has decreased substantially.

The U.S. has cut the amount of fines against institutions issued by two-thirds, compared to last year. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, that would put it on track for a low not seen in seven years:

Penalties levied against firms and individuals by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in the first half of 2017 were down nearly two-thirds compared with the first half of 2016—putting regulators on track for the lowest annual level of fines since at least 2010, the Journal found. Fines of $489 million in the first half of 2017 compared with $1.4 billion in the 2016 period.

The SEC levied some $318 million in penalties during the first half of 2017, a search of federal court documents and all publicly available records on the agency’s website and data provided by Andrew N. Vollmer, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, showed. Last year, agency actions yielded $750 million in penalties during the same period, an agency spokesman said. The SEC declined to disclose its own tally of 2017 penalties; the agency didn’t dispute that the total value of penalties fell in the first half of 2017 compared with the same term in 2016.

Agency officials were quick to point out that a six-month sample shouldn’t be considered indicative of the government’s regulatory mechanisms — the WSJ pointed to large payouts in two major cases that accounted for a large portion of the $1.4 billion mark in 2016.

Wall Street lobbyists have also been pushing the administration to “lower the size of financial penalties,” the Journal said. And as regulators expect Trump to continue with a “business-friendly” approach, increased oversight doesn’t look likely in the future.

If being lax about enforcing the laws isn’t enough, the administration has been pushing for businesses to be writing them, too. According to McClatchy, business executives have been working in secret “advisory groups” that haven’t been disclosing what they’ve been working on.

Can’t enforce the laws if there are no laws to enforce.

Will the Trump team disasters finally put an end to the businessman myth?

Greed is not good:

The idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is why our nation is poised for catastrophe

 

If you were wondering exactly how Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci was able to weasel his way into the White House, you have to recall that he wasn’t only a Donald Trump sycophant; he was also touted as a businessman who could “fix” problems career politicians couldn’t. This is the guy who asked Barack Obama what he planned to do about the way that Wall Streeters were being treated like piñatas during a town hall in 2010. And it is the same guy who dropped $100,000 to appear in the sequel to Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” the film that brought us Gordon Gekko and his famous line, “Greed is good.”

Forget that Gekko ultimately lands in jail or that the sequel is also designed to make us aware of the unethical behavior of Wall Street types, the Mooch wanted in on “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” so badly he was willing to pay a yuuge sum of money for a chance to appear in two brief cameos that amounted to around 15 seconds of screen time. The Mooch wasn’t the only businessman that wanted in on the film. Trump was also set to appear in it, but his scene was eventually cut.

The story of The Mooch and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is an apt tale to help illustrate how weirdly confused our nation has become over the myth of the businessman. Even though both of Stone’s films focus on how the folks working in Wall Street are crooked, dodgy and dangerous, they each managed to build an aura around the cult of the businessman. Gekko is a criminal, but everyone loves his “greed is good” swagger.

For some bizarre reason the public is aware that businessmen, whether they work on Wall Street or are New York real estate moguls, are often shady, greedy and selfish, but they still believe somehow that they possess critical and valuable skills that could transfer to running government. There is the public sense that businessmen are effective leaders despite overwhelming evidence that businessmen can and have been vile, corrupt and incompetent.

Generalizations are always a fraught enterprise: clearly not all businessmen are terrible people, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the mistaken idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is exactly why our nation is poised for catastrophe. And that’s not an exaggeration. We literally have a government being run by a kakistocracy that has no idea whatsoever what they are doing.

I’m not trying to put politicians on a pedestal here either. But there is a basic difference between people trained to accumulate profit and people trained to foster public support.

Our nation has long held the notion that businessmen are more skilled and trustworthy than politicians. Public trust in government is at a historic low of 20 percent. Even more shocking, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that the public trusted stockbrokers more than senators.

We can track the legend of the businessman back to the Gilded Age or to Ayn Rand or to Ross Perot, but regardless of its historic origin, the key question is whether the complete and utter disaster that is the Donald Trump administration will finally put an end to the delusion that a business background naturally prepares one to hold public office.

Days before the inauguration, Trump stated, “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” On the campaign trail we heard repeatedly that he had skills and training that would help him do a better job as president than our nation had ever seen before. In fact his entire campaign was centered on the idea that his business background would not only be adequate, but would actually be better suited to a successful presidency than political experience.

Within months of taking on his new job, Trump later remarked, “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” It was a clear sign that he didn’t have the slightest clue what the job of president actually entails.

There has been much reflection on how a bigoted blowhard managed to win the election, but there has not been enough attention to the fact that the bigoted blowhard had absolutely no training for the job. Trump is the first person ever elected to the office of president in our nation that has not either served in the military or held public office.

It’s hard to know where to start when describing the stunning failures surrounding the Donald Trump presidency. From hiring competent staff, to identifying the components of the nuclear triad, to hosting heads of state, to launching a legislative agenda, Trump has been a disaster on all fronts.

Put simply, there is not one facet of the job of president that Trump seems to have gotten even remotely right. Only a few months into the job it was stunningly clear that Trump wasn’t just addicted to attention and overwhelmed by poor impulse control, but that he really didn’t understand the job he had been elected to do. In a piece for U.S. News and World Report, Robert Schlesinger marveled at “the litany of things that were apparently astonishing to the new president which would come as a surprise to no one who has paid more than a passing amount of attention to national and international affairs.”

Here’s the thing. Politicians make campaign promises all the time that they know full well they will have a hard time delivering. But Trump literally thought he could do things like terminate NAFTA, pull out of NATO and force China to control North Korea. And then there’s the jaw dropping moment when Trump blathered, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

The list is literally endless at this point. But part of the reason why it is so long is because Trump had no idea how the shared governance of a democracy functions or what it means to work with allies because in his businessman model he really can make absolute decisions without building consensus or making compromises. He has zero appreciation for the notion of the public good, of the value in supporting allies and of the need to respect the opinions of other leaders.

Much has been made about his authoritarian impulses and his dictatorial qualities. But face it; he would be a lousy dictator, too. Even despots know that they have to build alliances and garner popular support. Less than 200 days into his presidency, Trump is at a new all-time low in support with only about one-third of voters approving of him. Most dictators would be worried at those numbers, but Trump blusters on.

Meanwhile his constant threats to fire anyone he disagrees with have created a White House staff with more turnover than we have ever seen. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Communications Director Mike Dubke, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci are only at the top of the list of those who have been fired or have resigned.

During the Obama era, Larry Sabato pointed out in Politico that between 1946 and 2014 there were only about 35 significant involuntary departures of top White House officials. Sure, presidents see considerable turnover when their administrations come under crisis, but the level of turnover in Trump’s team is directly tied to his “you’re fired” mentality. It’s also directly linked to his businessman swagger. And it’s a clear sign that he doesn’t have the leadership skills of a trained politician.

And that brings me back to The Mooch, yet another sign of a businessman who has no business in government. Back when he asked his question of Obama in 2010, Jon Stewart decided to do a bit on him for “The Daily Show.” Stewart quickly pointed out that the Mooch’s question about being a piñata was bizarre.

How could he characterize Wall Streeters as victims?  Hadn’t they been bailed out by the government? And hadn’t they actually done some pretty vile things to attract public outcry? As Stewart addressed the Mooch on camera he admonished him for characterizing himself as a piñata that had been whacked unfairly. “Until your papier-mâché bellies are no longer stuffed with government money, walk it off.”

The crazy part of that story, in keeping with the story of The Mooch paying to be in the sequel to “Wall Street,” is that seven years later this is the kind of guy who gets hired in the White House. The Mooch might be gone, but like the whack-a-mole that is the Trump team, you can be sure there is another one just like him waiting to pop up.

None of this mess gets better until this nation takes responsibility for its unfounded adoration of businessmen. The notion that a businessman is better at politics than a politician isn’t just wrong; it’s led to the Trump administration. And if that doesn’t kill the myth, I don’t know what can.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention

Free your brain: 

A continual quest for attention both drives and compromises Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian vision

Free your brain: How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention
(Credit: Salon/Flora Thevoux)

In late June, Mark Zuckerberg announced the new mission of Facebook: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

The rhetoric of the statement is carefully selected, centered on empowering people, and in so doing, ushering in world peace, or at least something like it. Tech giants across Silicon Valley are adopting similarly utopian visions, casting themselves as the purveyors of a more connected, more enlightened, more empowered future. Every year, these companies articulate their visions onstage at internationally streamed pep rallies, Apple’s WWDC and Google’s I/O being the best known.

But companies like Facebook can only “give people the power” because we first ceded it to them, in the form of our attention. After all, that is how many Silicon Valley companies thrive: Our attention, in the form of eyes and ears, provides a medium for them to advertise to us. And the more time we spend staring at them, the more money Facebook and Twitter make — in effect, it’s in their interest that we become psychologically dependent on the self-esteem boost from being wired in all the time.

This quest for our eyeballs doesn’t mesh well with Silicon Valley’s utopian visions of world peace and people power. Earlier this year, many sounded alarm bells when a “60 Minutes” exposé revealed the creepy cottage industry of “brain-hacking,” industrial psychology techniques that tech giants use and study to make us spend as much time staring at screens as possible.

Indeed, it is Silicon Valley’s continual quest for attention that both motivates their utopian dreams, and that compromises them from the start. As a result, the tech industry often has compromised ethics when it comes to product design.

Case in point: At January’s Consumer Electronics Convention – a sort of Mecca for tech start-ups dreaming of making it big – I found myself in a suite with one of the largest kid-tech (children’s toys) developers in the world. A small flock of PR reps, engineers and executives hovered around the entryway as one development head walked my photographer and me through the mock setup. They were showing off the first voice assistant developed solely with kids in mind.

At the end of the tour, I asked if the company had researched or planned to research the effects of voice assistant usage on kids. After all, parents had been using tablets to occupy their kids for years by the time evidence of their less-than-ideal impact on children’s attention, behavior and sleep emerged.

The answer I received was gentle but firm: No, because we respect parents’ right to make decisions on behalf of their children.

This free-market logic – that says the consumer alone arbitrates the value of a product – is pervasive in Silicon Valley. What consumer, after all, is going to argue they can’t make their own decisions responsibly? But a free market only functions properly when consumers operate with full agency and access to information, and tech companies are working hard to limit both.

During a “60 Minutes” story on brain hacking, former product manager at Google Tristan Harris said, “There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it.”

The problem, according to Harris, is that “this is just not true… [Developers] want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”

Harris was homing in on the fact that, increasingly, it isn’t the price tag on the platform itself that earns companies money, but the attention they control on said platform – whether it’s a voice assistant, operating system, app or website. We literally “pay” attention to ads or sponsored content in order to access websites.

But Harris went on to explain that larger platforms, using systems of rewards similar to slot machines, are working not only to monetize our attention, but also to monopolize it. And with that monopoly comes incredible power.

If Facebook, for instance, can control hours of people’s attention daily, it can not only determine the rate at which it will sell that attention to advertisers, but also decide which advertisers or content creators it will sell to. In other words, in an attention economy Facebook becomes a gatekeeper for content – one that mediates not only personalized advertising, but also news and information.

This sort of monopoly brings the expected fiscal payoff, and also the amassing of immeasurable social and cultural power.

So how does Facebook’s new mission statement fit into this attention economy?

Think of it in terms of optics. The carotid artery of Facebook, along with the other tech giants of Silicon Valley, is brand. Brand ubiquity means Facebook is the first thing people check when they take their phones out of their pockets, or when they open Chrome or Safari (brought to you by Google and Apple, respectively). It means Prime Day is treated like a real holiday. Just like Kleenex means tissues and Xerox means copy, online search has literally become synonymous with Google.

Yet all these companies are painfully aware of what a brand-gone-bad can do – or undo. The current generation of online platforms is built on the foundations of empires that rose and fell while the attention economy was still incipient. Today’s companies have maintained their centrality by consistently copying (Instagram Stories, a clone of Snapchat) or outright purchasing (YouTube) their fiercest competitors – all to maintain or expand their brand.

And perhaps as important, tech giants have made it near impossible to imagine a future without them, simply by being the most prominent public entities doing such imagining.

Facebook’s mission affixes the company in our shared future, and also injects it with a moral or at least charitable sensibility – even if it’s only in the form of “bring[ing] the world closer together”-type vagaries.

So how should we as average consumers respond?

In his award-winning essay “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy,” James Williams argues, “We must … move urgently to assert and defend our freedom of attention.”

To assert our freedom is to sufficiently recognize and evaluate the demands to attention all these devices and digital services represent. To defend our freedom entails two forms of action: first, by individual action – not unplugging completely, as the self-styled prophets of Facebook and Twitter encourage (before logging back on after a few months of asceticism) – but rather unplugging partially, habitually and ruthlessly.

Attention is the currency upon which tech giants are built. And the power of agency and free information is the power we cede when we turn over our attention wholly to platforms like Facebook.

But individual consumers can only do so much. The second way we must defend our freedom is through our demand for ethical practices from Silicon Valley.

Some critics believe government regulation is the only way to rein in Silicon Valley developers. The problem is, federal agencies that closely monitor the effects of product usage on consumers don’t have a good category for monitoring the effects of online platforms yet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks medical technology. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) focuses on physical risk to consumers. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)  focuses on content — not platform. In other words, we don’t have a precedent for monitoring social media or other online platforms and their methods for retaining users.

Currently, there is no corollary agency that leads dedicated research into the effects of platforms like Facebook on users. There is no Surgeon General’s warning. There is no real protection for consumers from unethical practices by tech giants — as long as those practices fall in the cracks between existing ethics standards.

While it might seem idealistic to hold out for the creation of a new government agency that monitors Facebook (especially given the current political regime), the first step toward curbing Silicon Valley’s power is simple: We must acknowledge freedom of attention as an inalienable right — one inextricable from our freedom to pursue happiness. So long as the companies producing the hardware surrounding us and the platforms orienting social life online face no strictures, they will actively work to control how users think, slowly eroding our society’s collective free will.

With so much at stake, and with so little governmental infrastructure in place, checking tech giants’ ethics might seem like a daunting task. The U.S. government, after all, has demonstrated a consistent aversion to challenging Silicon Valley’s business and consumer-facing practices before.

But while we fight for better policy and stronger ethics-enforcing bodies, we can take one more practical step: “pay” attention to ethics in Silicon Valley. Read about Uber’s legal battles and the most recent research on social media’s effects on the brain. Demand more ethical practices from the companies we patronize. Why? The best moderators of technology ethics thus far have been tech giants themselves — when such moderation benefits the companies’ brands.

In Silicon Valley, money talks, but attention talks louder. It’s time to reclaim our voice.

http://www.salon.com/2017/08/05/free-your-brain-how-silicon-valley-denies-us-the-freedom-to-pay-attention/?source=newsletter