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It’s Not Just EpiPen which is seeing huge prices increases, so is Insulin

2016 August 28
by Ian Welsh

All those involved should go to jail, maximum security, where the nasty people are, and pharma production should simply be taken over by the government, while all patents are moved to a mandatory licensing system with durations slashed to the bone (yes, both insulin and EpiPen are not in patent protection, which shows just how broken the US system is.)

Here’s your insulin prices on crapitalism (not capitalism. Actual capitalism doesn’t allow this.)

“This borders on the unbelievable,” Davidson said, citing an extremely concentrated insulin which “in 2001 had the wholesale price of $45. By last year, the cost had skyrocketed to $1,447” for the same monthly supply.

….

From 2011 to 2013 the wholesale price of insulin went up by as much as 62 percent. From 2013 to 2015 the price jumped again, from a low of 33 percent to as much as 107 percent

There is simply no question that this will kill people. Those involved should be charged with negligent homicide.

But hey, rich people are fine, so it isn’t actually a crisis.


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What Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Microsoft and IBM Teach Us About Competitive Markets

2016 August 28
by Ian Welsh

Predatory pricing is when you charge less for a product than it costs to produce.  The idea is to grab market share and drive competitors into bankruptcy, then raise prices, ideally once there is a lot less competition.

This certainly looks like predatory pricing. It is true that Uber has startup costs, and that businesses tend to lose money in the beginning, but it is widely reported that Uber’s prices don’t match its costs, mostly because it has to pay drivers.

Uber’s preferred endgame is to get rid of drivers and go to driverless cars, but there’s no reason everyone else can’t do the same once the tech is available.

In effect, Uber is burning capital to seize market share, not caring if it loses money. This is the same as what Amazon did: lose money for years and years knowing that eventually it will control so much of the market that it will be able to recoup those losses.

The whole internet economy as epitomized by app stores, Amazon, Uber & Lyft and so on is about oligopolies which border on monopolies.  It doesn’t matter if a million people produce goods or services, if most people go to only one or two gatekeepers to get those services, they have immense power and once established, can make immense profits.

The usual response is “if they charge too much new competitors will arise.”  This isn’t entirely true, but it understates the difficulty of doing so.  The capital was there for Uber and Lyft and Amazon, it will not be there for a competitor to them with a similiar business model in ten years because “we’ll charge less” won’t fly: they don’t have economy of scale and they can’t expect to win a price war.

There is a reason why no domestic competitor arose to the old “big 3” car companies: GM, Ford and Chevy.  Any competitor needed a largely protected foreign market in order to go scale before they could compete directly (and yes, the Japanese market was essentially a protected one.)

Capitalism only provides the benefits it is supposed to when there are competitive markets. These internet gatekeepers and oligopolies are not competitive markets.

The best antidote for Lyft and Uber, right now, would probably be a low-overhead drivers cooperative with similar software.  But not having billions of capital to blow through, it would have trouble even if its actual costs were lower.  Competition would only work if the government stepped in. When Austin insisted Lyft and Uber after Austin insisted they fingerprint their drivers, competitors sprang up. That couldn’t have happened while they were in Austin.

Note that what Uber and Lyft are engaged in is not just predatory pricing, it is regulatory arbitrage. “We will not obey the same laws and regulations as our competitors the taxi companies do”.

This is effectively identical to what AirBnB does: renters on that site do not obey the same laws and thus have the same costs as hotels do.

Regulatory arbitrage.

Now one can certainly say that Taxis are overpriced while also saying that what Uber and Lyft are doing is as much anti-competitive as competitive. One can say that many laws are unreasonable, and even argue that many laws are designed to keep out competitors and are thus themselves anti-competitive.

This can’t and shouldn’t be taken as a pure “Uber and Lyft and AirBnB” are bad situation. But the end goal should be to keep markets competitive, not replace one protected market with an oligopoly.

Competitive markets are NOT markets which the government doesn’t interfere in. They are markets which the government keeps competitive by making sure things like predatory pricing don’t happen by pro-actively breaking up oligopolies and monopolies, and where it does not create regulations so onerous that new entries cannot get started.

The “new economy” benefited immensely from anti-trust actions of the past.

There would be NO Microsoft as we know it, for example, if IBM had not used MS-DOS,and Microsoft only did so because the DoJ was on its case about anti-trust violations.  MS-DOS was nothing special, nothing IBM engineers couldn’t have made themselves (and likely better).

The problem is that the DOJ did not then break up Microsoft when it started acting as a monopoly (they were almost certainly going to, but Bush Jr. stopped the court case in 2001 when he took office.)

You get the benefits of capitalism only when government, acting on behalf of the people both makes sure competitive markets exist and when it intervenes to take the edges off other outcomes baked into standard market behaviour like rent-seeking, colluding to keep wages down, pushing for less than full employment, buying the government and so on.

Markets are wonderful things, but like all great powers, they do untold damage if not forced to serve humanity rather than rule it.


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The Simple Fix for Intellectual Property Laws

2016 August 24
by Ian Welsh

 

Let’s say that someone has genuinely created something new–and we’ll skip the fact that most drug research actually uses massive government subsidies. Let’s say we want them to make money for doing so, in order to encourage people to keep innovating.

Again, there’s a simple fix: Mandatory licensing.

If a company has beneficial control over the patent or copyright:

For X years (I’d suggest seven), anyone who wants to use their patent or copyright must pay them 100 percent of the manufacturing cost of making the product.*

After that, anyone who wants to make their product must pay 10 percent.

You can fiddle with the numbers and years, and yes, patents are usually only small parts of final products and there are details around that which need to be fixed, but the principle of mandatory licensing is what matters.

Now, notice I said “the company has beneficial control.”

If an individual has beneficial control

(meaning most of the profits are actually going to them, not to a corporation), I’d extend the period by two or three times, to encourage individual innovators and to try and keep all IP from winding up in the hands of corporations. Also, an individual often needs more time to fully exploit a new invention or copyright item.

The justification for patents and copyrighting is that they make people more likely both to invent something and to share the details. One of the great problems they try to solve is people inventing something then keeping it a secret how that something is created.

In this age of reverse engineering (assuming we allow reverse engineering to be legal), the second part is less important, though not insignificant. But the larger point is this: We want innovators to be paid, and we want to incentivize them to share. 100 percent monopoly profits for X years is a lot of money, but it avoids the “jack it up by thousands of percents” problem.

It also makes markets actually work how they’re supposed to. In economic theory, competitive markets are supposed to drive costs and profits down because if anyone has high profits, someone else will enter the market. Strict monopoly intellectual rights make it impossible for markets to work the way they are supposed to.

(*When one looks at EpiPen, today, it is not a case of patents, it is a case that FDA trials would cost 1.5 billion.  Competitors should simply be able to copy the EpiPen design and forgo trials beyond confirmation that they have.)

(*This number would have to be different in industries like software and pharma where unit manufacturing costs are often close to zero. The principle is simple: you make back your investment and get a good profit, but your invention/idea is available for all to use at a reasonable price as soon as possible, so society benefits fully and you don’t price gouge.)


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As Turkey Enters Syria

2016 August 24
by Ian Welsh

and takes Jarablus, one wonders what Turkey is doing in Syria. As with everyone, they’re claiming to be there to fight ISIS, and Jarablus was held by ISIS. The ostensible goal is a security zone south of the border, the sub voce goal may be to stop further expansion of the Kurdish YPG mini-state from growing any further, and the fear may be that it will turn on the YPG forces.

The YPG has been working with both the US and Russia, however, and Turkey has been cozying up with Russia recently, even as its relationship with the US has soured since the abortive military coup which Edrogan blames on Gulen, who lives in the US, and which many Turks believe had US support.

At the least, Turkey believes that the Kurds are a major existential threat, and in the past it has very much wanted an end to Assad. Turkey has been a major supporter of ISIS, not its enemy, so it may be wise to see just how much damage it does ISIS in the end, whom it has officially blamed for a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding.

It’s not clear to me what Turkey’s actual goals are here, but I do think the most important thing is that Turkey has made many gestures of goodwill and reconciliation with Russia recently, so one presumes the plan is not to go all in and take out Assad (which Turkey has the military strength to do).


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The Need to Believe in Goodness

2016 August 23
by Ian Welsh

wolf sheep clothingSome of my best friends have been assholes.

I have known they were assholes, and they were still my friends.

I have voted for politicians who were a lot worse than assholes: they were monsters.

I knew they were monsters and I voted for them because I considered the alternative worse.

One of the most dangerous mental algorithms is as follows:

I am a good person.

Good people do good things.

If I do something it is a good thing.

Therefor anything I do is good.

The specific election version is as follows:

I am a good person

Good people do good things

If I vote for someone they must be good

Therefor whoever I intend to vote for must be good.

Yeah. No.

It is quite possible that you are voting for a bad person. In fact, in the context of the current US Presidential election it is certain.

The lesser evil argument is all very nice, but here’s the problem: The candidates are evil in different ways.

Different. The most obvious is on foreign policy and Russia, where Trump wants to be friends with Russia and Clinton wants to ramp up Cold War II (and maybe go hot, given her desire for a no-fly zone in Syria after the Russians were there).

Trump has all sorts of issues with race and deportation and so on.

Evil in different ways. Bad in different ways. Different groups of people will suffer more under Trump than Clinton.

What I see, all day, are people who deny the real problems with their candidate. The real evil their candidate has done, or is likely to do, if elected. The argument is not “Well, they’re good on A, B, & C and bad on X, Y, and Z.” It is, “They’re basically good people and the other candidate is basically a bad person.”

Russ Feingold is not running for US President. Neither is Jeremy Corbyn. An argument can be made that Sanders was basically good (or, that his good substantially outweighed his bad, which is virtually always there for a career politician.)

But Sanders is not on the ballot. Democrats (and it was Democrats–independents wanted Sanders) didn’t want someone basically good to represent their party.

On the Republican side, there was basically no one good running. A case might be made that Trump was the lesser evil (spare me on Bush, the man who fixed the Florida election for his brother and is thus directly responsible for all the evil of the Bush II regime). The case can also be made that Trump is some sort of fascist (and has been, ad nauseum).

Whatever the case, both Presidential candidates are bad people. In terms of actual damage already done, one has to give the contest to Clinton (by a mile). In terms of who will be more damaging once they are President, the case is less clear.

But both are bad.

I run into this implicit algorithm all the time. I often admire Putin’s competence, or say I understand why he does what he does, and in some cases would do the same thing. I also say he’s an evil man. People freak out, they cannot hold the idea that Putin has done some really terrible things in their minds alongside the idea that he has also done some entirely reasonable things, and that he is terrifically competent.

People are not of a piece. My friends who were assholes often weren’t assholes. If you can’t understand that statement, you can’t understand human beings. My father was a fucking asshole, a monster to his family and to many other people. He also did great good in the world, which is better for him having lived, even if I spent much of my childhood wishing various other people were my father.

To actually understand the world you must be able to hold facts which appear to be contradictions (but which, in fact, aren’t) in your head. People can do both really bad things and really good things. Pure saints or pure devils are rare. Even Hitler was a person, who desperately loved his mother, for example.

Realistic appraisal of opportunities and risks requires the ability to “contain multitudes’ and to seemingly contradict oneself.

I admire Putin greatly. I also admire Genghis Khan greatly. (Don’t quote this out of context, idiots). I also think both have committed evil acts (though clearly Genghis far more so). It is possible to admire someone’s vast competence and disagree with how they use it. It is possible to say that Hitler was a great rhetorician and still disagree with what he did and believe he was evil. It is possible, conversely, to admire a public figure like FDR while saying he was absolutely in the wrong to lock up Japanese Americans.

We can say that Trump wanting friendly relations with Russia is a good thing (they have a lot of nukes), while condemning other policies. We can say that Clinton’s greater support for women’s rights (yes, she has wavered on late-term abortions) is good, while noting that she pushed for what amounts to a huge war crime in Libya.

At the end of the day we still often have to make judgments. We have to say “both these people are monsters, but I prefer A to B, because of X, Y, and Z.”

Making these judgments well requires us to be able to say, “Putin did engage in some truly heinous policies in Chechnya, but I still think that, as a Russian leader, he’s done a pretty good job in the following ways, while failing in these other ways.”

That’s the world. To understand it, you can’t allow your overwhelming need to think of yourself as a good person mean that you think anyone you support or whom you identify as good by your standards. If you do so, you live in delusion, the world in your mind so far removed from the actual world that you’re dysfunctional.

You can support bad people. You do. You can be friends with people who are sometimes assholes. You probably are (and if you aren’t, you probably have family who are, and if you somehow truly have only wonderful friends who are never assholes and a shining family full of angels, well, understand that most people don’t).

The real world sucks. But it’s the one you live in.


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Review of “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key,” by Randall Collins

2016 August 18
by Ian Welsh

Max WeberThis is my second review of a book by Randall Collins, the sociologist. You can read the first, on Non-Obvious Sociology, here.

Max Weber, the subject of this book, is generally considered one of the three founding fathers of the discipline of Sociology, along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.

Early Life and Translators

Weber was raised by a father who was involved in moderate German politics and by a mother who was an extremely pious German Victorian involved in the progressive Christian politics of the time. This meant feeding the poor and an absolute abhorrence of sex.

Weber was a brilliant student, but did no interesting academic work until after he had a breakdown. He had married a woman his mother was fond of, and they had a celibate marriage, and many commenters, including Collins, think that the conflict between his mother’s progressive values (including his celibacy) and his father’s more worldly ways led to Weber’s breakdown.

Weber was to engage in an extra-marital affair and it was during his convalescence, that he first started writing the impractical work for which he is still read.

Weber’s most famous work in the English speaking world is the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which is unfortunate, because it does a disservice to his overall corpus, it being his first book and representing only a small part of his mature thought. In general, Weber was ill-served by his early translators (such as Talcott Parson), who chose the pieces they thought would help their own academic and political persuasions. Parsons, in particular, was quite conservative and had an organic view of society in which everything had a purpose. This does violence to Weber’s analytical model, which is far more conflict prone.

Weber worked copiously, but I am going to pick out two major pieces of Collins’ precis on which to concentrate: rationality and the preconditions for rational capitalism and the industrial takeoff.

Rationality and Rationalization

Though Weber uses the term “rationality” in a number of different ways and never firmly defines it. The two most important forms of rationality appear to be: instrumental, or, mean rationality Zweckrationalitat) and value rationality (Wertrationalitat).

Instrumental rationality means calculating how to achieve an end. You have a model of the world, you have an end, you use that model to figure out how to get to the end.

Value rationality is an action that is an end in itself. Even if God does not answer prayers it may be good in itself to pray to him. Even if your protest against a government policy may not change the government’s policy it may be right to protest that policy. Going to jail to oppose an immoral war is the right thing to do–even if it won’t change the war’s outcome in the slightest.

These types of actions are different from two others: traditional action, in which we do what our ancestors have always done, and emotional action, in which we just do what feels good.

Traditional action, through the course of world history, may have been the most widespread type of action. While it’s not rational as Weber uses rational, it is rational in the sense that making changes increases risk, and when the chances for survival are razor thin, doing things how they’ve always been done makes sense; these methods may not be the best, but they obviously work.

Remember that these are what Weber called ideal types. Nobody is entirely values rational or means rational or traditional or emotionally driven, and neither is any society. I could want lots of money because that’s what people in my society do (tradition). I could want it because I believe having lots of money means I’m a “winner” (values driven). I could want to be filthy rich so I could have coke-fueled orgies every weekend (emotional) or I could want lots of money for… wait, there is no purely instrumental reason for having money—you always want money for some other reason. Money is an instrumentality to obtain other goals. Or is it?

Instrumental rationality always starts off as being for some other reason, until it forgets what it is doing.

Let’s go back to the Protestant thesis, not in the strict sense of the book, but in the broader sense Weber used it throughout his work.

In traditional religions, like Catholicism or most Buddhism or Hinduism, the highest, most ideal religious life is something only a few people live: There are monks or hermits who live that life and the role of lay-people is to support them.

Monks in monasteries pray and perform rites, priests make sure that sins are forgiven and perform the key rituals and all lay people can do is give them money, confess, and ask them for the key rituals at the right time.

Most forms of Protestantism change this: You read the Bible yourself, you don’t need priests, the monasteries are abolished, and you are called to live a Godly life. The idea of “being called” doesn’t mean anything is good, however. You should still not sin, but it emphasized that work is holy so long as it is not immoral work.

Capitalism before rational capitalism is gambling: Merchants send out their ships and convoys, they make big loans, and when the results come in and they win, they take the money and splurge. Often, indeed, they buy a patent of nobility and stop being merchants.

In the Medieval world, there is little sense that work is good, or holy, or anything but a PITA. Nobles don’t work. Monks may work the land, but their primary duties are prayer and ritual.

Protestantism changes this, or rather, it extends the late Medieval monastic revolution, because it’s not quite true that monks don’t work. The early Cluniac-style monastics certainly do some work, but the late Medieval monastics make work their thing: Monasteries improved the land, worked it hard, and became rich, because hey, they amounted to corporations which never die, never disburse funds, and are immune to taxation.

Protestantism breaks up the monasteries, transfers that attitude to hard labor (it’s holy and good, you’re not gambling, you’re making your toil an offering to God) and extends it to society.

Importantly early merchants are generally considered untrustworthy, but religiously motivated merchants are not. They want regular small profits, they don’t cheat their customers, they are fair and honest.

This is a chunk of the larger Weber religious (Protestant) thesis. He deals with this in multiple studies, including of Chinese Buddhism, Hinduism, and Ancient Egyptian religion.

Protestantism is not a radical break, it is an evolution.

The irony is that as the clerics became rich (this extends far beyond monasteries, into the Church as a whole, a huge enterprise), they were corrupted by their wealth. That corruption led to the Protestant revolution. Then Protestants became rich themselves, and were corrupted.

Meanwhile, the Catholic counter-reformation, though it did not adapt all of the Protestant reforms, adapted enough that the world changed.

Value rationality, in this case the idea that people must act holy, is one of the factors which has led to honest dealing, hard work, and a wish for a sort of business based on large volumes of low profit transactions.

That leads us to…

The Preconditions for Rational Capitalist Takeoff (Mass Industrialization)

Rational Capitalism: Capitalism in its  modern form is different from traditional capitalism. Many societies have had capitalism: the ancient people of Mesopotamia certainly did, the Romans did, the Greeks did, the Chinese, and so on.

They had markets, those markets relied on price signals, and provided goods.

Rational capitalism is bulk capitalism. Modern capitalism requires:

  1. That people buy what they need on the market
  2. That people are available to be hired by the market
  3. Rationalized capital
  4. Rational technology
  5. Calculable law

Most people, for most of history, and in most societies, have not been available for hire. They have not needed to buy their necessities on the market, nor even much of their entertainment.

The capital required for rational capitalism was not available in most places: Capital went to merchant gambling, kings, or to kin. It was not liquid, but bound up in land and chattels.

Technology was bound up in the heads of a few people and a few books, handed down through apprenticeship systems and often tightly guarded. When it was not, the principles by which it worked were not widely understood. In the beginnings, modern patent law was not an attempt to reward those who knew technology, it was an attempt to get them to share their secrets by assuring them a share of the profits (in general, they received much shorter periods of assurance than we currently provide).

And, for much of history, the law was capricious and not suited to mercantile endeavours. Law was created and enforced by people who were themselves not merchants, and because merchants were regarded as scum by almost all traditional societies- including China, Japan and Europe–they were not treated fairly.

Good mercantile law arose in Europe in the free cities, run by merchants. It arose in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate because the Samurai didn’t want to dirty themselves by regulating such trash, so they allowed the merchants to mostly regulate themselves.

In general, modern capitalism is rational: Calculations are made of profit or loss. They are made of cost inputs and likely markets and predictions are made of the future. The larger the enterprise, the more this is the case. Merchants rely not on windfall profits due to a few large transactions or having one’s “ship come in,” but on millions to billions of small transactions at low profit.

This is, again, an ideal type. It is how rational capitalism is supposed to work, and deviations generally show pathologies (as with broadband companies getting near 100 percent returns).

The larger point here is simple: The conditions for modern capitalism and markets did not exist for most of history, and it took rather a lot of historical happenstance for them to occur.

Modern markets are rationalizing in the Weberian sense because their rules, while arbitrary (go to the highest profit), destroy those who do not obey. When markets become the predominant form of social organization, to fail to act as they dictate leads to you becoming weaker than those who do, and eventually those who make the most profits will buy you out or you will be reduced to poverty by bankruptcy.

Rational systems, in this regard, are not kind, but they are totalizing. Once these systems are put in place, they drive towards their ends relentlessly.

That does not mean they always “work” or are rational in the larger sense. Capitalism may well destroy itself by being unable to prevent climate change, for example. As noted, the wealth gained by Christians who sought the holy life in their works destroyed their faith, just as wealth destroyed the Catholic Church’s moral position and the faith that had truly made them powerful.

History is full of such ironies and catastrophes. Systems work until they don’t, but while they are working, to move against them is tantamount to moving against natural law. So long as humans believe in modeling behaviour on profit and rewarding such behaviour, those who don’t are meat for the gears. Those who tried to resist the Medieval church were cut out from the most advanced part of the Medieval economy and were often prosecuted fiercely. To be a Roman politician in the later Republic who did not believe in foreign wars was to be defeated by those who did, as the latter would have the loyal soldiers, the popularity with the mob, and the vast loot that comes from war.

Concluding Remarks

Weber tends to be misunderstood in the Anglo-American world because of an emphasis on the Protestant Ethic, and a history of partial translations calculated to support translators’ positions. His work is one of the cornerstones, however, for understanding why capitalism arose when and where it did. It is a very long answer to the old question of, “Why not in China?” and, indeed, Weber wrote a book on just that question.

The meta-theme of rationalization and how it both drives forward and dies is important to our own situation, here, near the end of one form of capitalism.

Of course, there is much, much more. I have not touched (though Collins does) on Weber’s analysis of power (class, status, political party) or many other threads. But this should give you a taste for the sort of thought Weber did engage in, far beyond the single thread of the Protestant Ethic.


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Posting to Resume & Corbyn (Open Thread)

2016 August 14
by Ian Welsh

Due to a combination of sickness and hardware troubles I’ve been offline a few days and mostly out of commission.  The “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key” review will be published later this week.

In news from across the Pond I see that the right of members who joined British Labour after January 12th to vote in the leadership election has been taken away again by the High Court on appeal (they had won in the original ruling); their right to appeal refused and the court insisted the five new members who launched the court pay thirty thousand pounds of court costs to the Labour party within 30 days.

I was surprised when the original ruling went in Corbyn’s favor.  This is a particularly spiteful ruling, however, and exactly in line with my reading of the British ruling class.  Corbyn will still win, I expect, but the British ruling class keeps making the case for (non-violently) purging them.

Feel free to use this as an open thread.

(Article corrected to reflect that May wishes to expand Grammar schools, not “public” schools. (aka. took that bit out. Thanks to commenter MFI for the correction.)


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John Negroponte Endorses Clinton

2016 August 10
by Ian Welsh

And Clinton is pleased.

Negroponte, for those who don’t know, ran the US’s support for Latin American death squads, though that’s rather an understatement. Without him, there would have been a lot less death squads, and a lot less murder, rape, and torture.

As with Clinton’s love of Kissinger, this is not a good thing.

Here’s the thing about Clinton, she’s not qualified. Not qualified. Not qualified.

Having done the job or been in that world means nothing if you fucked up repeatedly and have bad judgment, and have learned nothing.

Clinton still thinks going into Libya was the right thing to do, because doing something is better than doing nothing. She wanted to set up a no-fly zone in Syria AFTER the Russians were there. She supported the Honduran coup. Etc, etc. She is heavily supported by the NeoCons who got the US into Iraq, because she believes in their worldview and Trump, crazy or not, does not.

(Trump: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had good relations with Russia?”)

Clinton says she now regrets the Iraq war, but her stances on Libya and Syria say that she has learned nothing. Her most important enemy? Iran.

Perhaps Trump is worse because he’s unpredictable. But Clinton is predictable. A LOT of people are going to die under a Clinton presidency. A hell of a lot. Her anti-Russian rhetoric and cold-warrior ethos even make a nuclear exchange possible.

Trump may be crazy, but Clinton is crazy in a much more controlled way. Wanting to set up a no-fly zone in Syria AFTER Russia is there is insane. It is batshit insane. It is beyond fucking crazy. It is potentially-Armageddon insane.

This isn’t an article about Trump, it is simply pointing out that, however bad Trump is, Clinton is crazy and dangerous too. The lesser evil calculation in this election is “Cthulhu or the King in Yellow (Orange)”?


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Corbyn’s Plan

2016 August 9
by Ian Welsh

This is post-WWII liberalism, updated for social justice:

  1. Full employment and “an economy that works for all.”
  2. “Secure homes for all” by building “at least 1m” new homes over the next five years.
  3. Stronger employment rights and an end to zero hours contracts.
  4. End NHS privatisation, integrate NHS and social care.
  5. A free national education service and universal public childcare.
  6. Commitment to a low-carbon economy and green industries.
  7. Expand public services by renationalising railways and local leisure and sports centres.
  8. Shrink the gap between highest and lowest paid via “progressive taxation.”
  9. Act to end discrimination based on race, sex, or disability.
  10. Conflict resolution “at the heart of foreign policy.”

I find nothing radical here. Corbyn has also suggested a six hour work day, which is long overdue. The nations which work the longest aren’t the most productive nations; we might as well share jobs, and for people over 40, productivity drops radically after 30 hours a week anyway.

Jeremy CorbynI have little patience for all the Brits who are wringing their hands about Labour and parking their votes in the Conservative party. This is a good, non-radical plan that will work. It is a plan of a government that wants to be good to the poor and the young. Corbyn is entirely credible regarding the lot of it, as he’s stuck by these principles all through the Thatcher and Blairite years.

If you’re planning to vote Conservative in the UK, when this is on offer, you’re just an asshole, an “I”ve got mine, fuck you Jack,” or someone who has bought so far into neoliberal ideology that your political actions make you indistinguishable from an asshole, whether or not you think neoliberal policies “work.” (Especially as all the evidence is that they only work for a  minority, presumably a minority which you belong to.)

Brits have something which most of the rest of us don’t in most of the Western world: The opportunity to vote for a government which is not the lesser evil, but which is actually good. If they blow it, as far as I’m concerned, the majority blame will be on Brits, not on Corbyn. This is a character test: Do enough Brits still want a government which tries to take care of everyone?

Remember, the Conservative government, among other policies, cut a program which gave disabled people things like wheelchairs. That resulted, literally, wheelchairs being taken away from cripples. That’s what you’re voting for if you vote Conservative, and yes, you should be judged on that.

So, Brits have Corbyn to vote for. (He will defeat this revolt, there is no question in my mind, especially as the Courts have restored the voting rights of members who signed up since January and his supporters swept the NEP elections).

This is the potential first crack in the Anglo-world: The end of the neoliberal monopoly on power. Let’s see if the British are ready for it.


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Book Review of Sociological Insight, by Randall Collins

2016 August 7

Randall Collins has probably influenced me more than any other writer. A sociologist who concentrated on theory, with an encyclopedic knowledge of world history and in particular intellectual history, I regard him as a candidate for greatest intellectual of the 20th century whom no one outside his field knows.

Sociological Insight is a short book, subtitled “An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology”.

The dig against sociology is that it mostly discovers stuff that any idiot already knew: It is reified common sense. (A friend and I used to joke that if we ever started a consultancy we’d call it RCS, and not tell anyone what it meant.)

Collins wrote this small book to explain to students considering sociology, and to non-sociologists, why sociology was worth studying. The book is clearly written, divided into short chapters and clocks in at under 200 pages. Used copies are cheap, or you can probably still find it at your local university or college library.

If you read only one book of the books I’m going to review this year I suggest it be this one, or “An Introduction to Weberian Sociology,” also by Collins.

Enough preamble, into the meat. Each section of the book covers one subject, I will precis some of them, but not all.

The Pre-Rational Basis of Social Trust and Solidarity

Collins covers the Durkheimian argument that it is always rational at some point to betray trust and that trust is therefore non-rational. This sounds like game theory, but Durkehim made this point long before game theory. The idea is simple enough, as a game (society) accumulates assets, at some point it is better to betray and grab them all. The long term gains do not necessarily outweigh the what you’ll get from betraying.

If this is true, and it seems to be, then why do we have societies at all? The answer is that trust isn’t rational. The more interesting question is: How trust is formed? The Durkheimian answer is: “Through rituals.”

People assemble, they put their attention together on the same sacred object, they move together, and their emotions move together. There is emotional effervesence, and the symbols become charged with the feelings generated by the ritual. We feel a force larger than ourselves, we feel awe (awesome), we feel as one with the group.

These rituals can be small (the rituals of greeting, the rituals of dating) or they can be huge. You can see the sacred effect in fans of football and fans of rock bands, but also in how people become outraged when a flag is burned, or in how people thinks it makes a statement to burn a flag.

Trust is shared belief and sense of belonging. Ritual groups re-enact it regularly when they meet as groups, we re-enact it every day when we treat each other ritually, which we always do. (Just don’t say goodbye to a close friend; instead, walk away without saying a word. See how that feels for both of you.)

Collins goes into all of this in far greater detail than I can, touching on the caveats, the counter-arguments, the cult of modern individuality, and the creation of the self by the group. The entire section is worth reading because it rebuts the common idea that we are in any way self-contained, or self-created individuals.

Power

Collins then moves on to a discussion of how social power is created: through force, through money, and through solidarity. He discusses the limitations and benefits of each. Force gets you the least cooperation, but you give the least in return; money buys you cooperation, but not enthusiasm; letting people “in” and giving them power to speak and act on the part of the group generally gets you enthusiasm, but it also requires you to share actual power, which you may not wish to do.

Coercion, by the way, requires surveillance, which Collins meant in the old-fashioned sense of “someone watching you” as opposed to all-out electronic surveillance (which is still, eventually, someone watching you), and its effects on conformity, group think, and submission. High-surveillance societies are really coercion societies, and they produce people who appear dull and without any initiative.

This is something everyone should read and think on because we are moving from a low-surveillance society back to a high-surveillance society; perhaps the most high-surveillance society in history, in certain respects. Understanding what it is likely to do us is important.

Crime

Collins covers two theories here. The first is labeling theory. Most adolescents do something that would be considered a crime, but most aren’t caught doing it, let alone given a record. Those who are become criminals, because, once labeled a criminal, your options for doing anything else tend to shut down, while your options for being a criminal open up (not least because of all the contacts you make in prison.)

On top of this, most crimes are not “natural” crimes, i.e, like violence crimes, those recognized by essentially all societies. By making something a crime, we create criminals.

Collins cites the experience of Denmark in WWII, when the police were locked up for a year. What happened? Property crime increased tenfold. Violent crimes did not increase at all.

Collins thus states Crime seems to fall into three categories: (1) Victimless crimes, like drug use, which would not exist if society did not make them a crime; (2) Property crime, which would exist no matter what, and; (3) Crimes of passion which are largely unaffected by the criminal justice system at all (if someone’s so worked up they’re going to assault, murder, or rape, deterrence doesn’t work).

As part of his argument, Collins does cite “socialist” societies like Russia as having no property, but still having property. This is one place I differ with him, I think Communist countries only got rid of property in theory, not practice. Societies which really did have almost no property, like hunter-gatherer bands, also had essentially no property crime. In many such societies, if someone has something you want, you admire it and they give it to you. Of course, some time later someone admires it and you give it to them…

Collins goes on to talk about how crime is useful in a ritual context: If laws are about enforcing ritual categories of sacred and profane, society needs scapegoats, to reinforce the bad/good dichotomies upon which it rests.

Marriage, Love, and Property

Here, Collins makes a strong argument that marriage is about sexual property, or about who has the exclusive right to have sex with other people. There is a section on how dating is a negotiating process and ritual used to create strong emotions, which we regard as love.

There is a hardheaded look at power in marriages, with a note that as women gain resources outside the household, their relative power increases. In the traditional marriage, where the woman is dependent on her husband, she is essentially a servant, with the added side of official sexual duties (and remember, up until very recently in most countries, the law was that a husband could not rape a wife, she had already given consent to sex at any time or place or under any condition.)

This section is historical, moving from the Victorian household and marriage revolution through to the 60s and 70s revolution in dating and mores and is worth reading in the whole, though you may find it has disenchanted romance somewhat for you, even as Collins avers that the rituals do produce love.

Concluding Remarks

There is also a chapter covering what sociology offers to the project of making an AI (a lot, actually, and Collins suggestions are eerily prescient to what is just now happening with social robots), that I’m not going to cover.

What is important about this book is not the specific subjects covered, but that it can teach you how to think like a sociologist. Core assumptions are hammered in: Humans are almost entirely non-rational; personality and character come from the outside, not the inside. Understanding society means looking at variations: If the behaviour is thus here and now, is it different in another time and place? If so, it is not essential, it is social (for example crude studies insist breasts are sexual, but traditional Japanese society viewed them as related to child-bearing and thus disgusting and non-sexually attractive.)

You can only learn about your own society by looking at other societies, and you can only understand individuals by looking at the larger groups which created them.

Sociology is a discipline which is widely despised. Sometimes there’s good reason. But because hardly anyone outside of sociology takes it seriously (unlike, say, economics), sociologists have a higher frequency of doing astoundingly useful work than in other social sciences, save anthropology and archeology.

Reading this book, and indeed anything written by Collins, will pay back your time and open intellectual vistas most people weren’t even aware existed.


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