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Cries for Sanders to Be Conciliatory Miss the Point

2016 April 28
by Ian Welsh
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Sanders-021507-18335- 0004

So, Sanders has most likely lost. Last minute upsets are possible, but highly unlikely.

And now come the calls for Bernie to be conciliatory.

This misses the point.

Sanders doesn’t need anything Clinton can give.

Any promises she makes with respect to his priorities are not credible. He’s old and his career is all but over anyway, so there is little she can offer in terms of career “advancement.”

Why does he need to be conciliatory? Only “for the good of the party.”  But the party has not been good to Sanders–in fact, it has repeatedly put its hand on the scales to help Hillary.

Clinton’s policies are far enough from Sanders that the only argument for him to be “conciliatory” are based on Trump being even further from him. But on things like not attacking foreign countries, Trump is actually closer to Sanders.

From my POV, the onus is on Clinton to be credibly conciliatory to Bernie, and more importantly his supporters. If her entire argument is “I’m the lesser evil,” then she should expect little beyond the occasional symbolic olive branch from Sanders or his followers.

Of course, it’s hard to be conciliatory for Clinton. Her entire campaign has been based on “I deserve this,” which doesn’t leave a lot of room for saying to other people, “I see your side.” She’s already saying things like TPP only needs a few tweaks, etc.

She’s simply, and to the core, a right wing hawk who is fundamentally opposed to most left-wing policies and who only changes her mind once those policies are inevitable (as with gay marriage, which she supported very late in the game).

In emotive language, she’s evil. Bernie’s no wonder on a lot of issues, but he did actually oppose all the key wars, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and so on. Clinton? On the wrong side of almost every issue which has mattered for her entire career and she’s not even believable where she’s better than Bernie, for instance on gun-control, about which she has attacked Obama as anti-guns, but then pandered in PA on gun-control.

So Clinton has to rely on Bernie being loyal to a party which has screwed him repeatedly in order to help her win the nomination, and she can’t credibly give him anything that matters because she’s not trustworthy on any issue that matters to Sanders or his followers.

Conciliatory? Ridiculous. She’s not credible, and he doesn’t need her. If she wants to be conciliated, she had best go first and find out how to make it credible.


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Why the Climate Change Numbers Say “Nuclear”

2016 April 26
by Ian Welsh

Lot of people won’t like this post, but some of the smartest people I know have been saying for decades that a solution to climate change means nuclear energy. The numbers cannot, and will not, work without it.

The below info-graphic shows why:

French v German carbon production

The problem with nuclear energy is the problem with everything in our society.

Running it requires competent, risk-adverse individuals who takes its dangers seriously. It’s not that these dangers can’t be managed, it is certainly not that we can’t design better and safer reactors than we have now, it is that our elites do not care about the future. They are rational, utility-maximizers in the short run, who believe that investing to prevent disaster or catastrophe is foolish. Any catastrophe can be managed or survived. Katrina happened, life went on. Indeed, Katrina was a brilliant opportunity to introduce charter schools to New Orleans.

The financial disaster happened, and the people who caused it came out richer and more powerful, as a group. Fukushima happened, and, well, we’re all alive, thanks.

The long lesson our elites have learned over the past 40 years is that nothing can go so wrong it can’t be recovered from and that most catastrophes and crises are just opportunities to make even more money. There is no reason to invest in preventing crises when higher returns await elsewhere and when catastrophes are beneficial to our leaders.

As such, we cannot, overall, be expected to run something like nuclear energy properly.

Or financial markets.

But, if we really wanted to mitigate climate change, what we would really need to do is figure out how to run nuclear energy safely–including handling shutting down plants, dealing with waste, and running them safely. That would mean a significant framework/infrastructure redesign.

But it would also mean a change in our culture and society, a change to a society capable of managing risk, and we would have to be given some reason to believe that change would be relatively long-lasting: At least as long as the life-cycle of the nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy would be used as a transition energy source, needed for a generation or two, as we move to better sources. But generational cycles, and our own recent history, indicate that expecting our social structure to stay sane for as long as the life-cycle of nuclear plants isn’t a safe bet.

As usual, technical problems are subordinate to cultural and social issues.


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How Terrible People Normalize Injustice

2016 April 25
by Ian Welsh

There is a proposal to raise jail times for web piracy from two to ten years in the UK.

The key phrase in the above piece is “…other serious offenses, including rape and rioting.”

So, the writer, Matt Burgess, is saying web piracy is a serious offense, akin to rape.

Do not pretend a professional writer (and his editor) don’t know what they’re doing. It leaped out at me immediately. It appears to condemn, but the language normalizes.

Though this line is buried in the text, it is the pull quote used on twitter.

Our media is, overall, a detriment to society. I mean this quite seriously.


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What the Infotech/Telecom Revolution Has Actually Done

2016 April 23

Globe on FireThere’s a great deal of talk about how wonderful modern technology is. The internet, cell phones, and computers are the stars of this firmament. I believe such talk is somewhat overblown; the latest tech revolution is not as significant as many that have come before.

At least not in terms of doing good.

Let us examine what all this infotech really has changed.

Control. Massive control. Surveillance.

Just in time inventory. Not possible 50 years ago.

Second to second tracking of workers without having to have a supervisor physically watching them. Amazon warehouse workers carry devices which allow their workflow to be tracked to the second. And if they aren’t making their seconds, the supervisor is right on them. This wasn’t possible 30 years ago. If you wanted to have that sort of control, you had to have a supervisor physically watching them, and the cost was prohibitive.

This sort of tracking is used for clerical workers as well.

Outsourcing work that had to be kept domestic before. The massive call centers in Delhi and Ireland were not possible even 30 years ago. The cost was simply prohibitive.

Offshoring work, like manufacturing, was difficult to offshore before. Without real-time, high-density communications, cutting edge manufacturing overseas was very difficult in the past. You could offshore some things, certainly, but those industries tended to be mature industries: shipbuilding, textiles, and so on. Cutting edge industries, no, they had to be located close to the boffins or they were offshored to another, essentially First World country–as when Britain offshored much of their production to the United States in the late 19th century.

Commercial surveillance. Everything you buy is cross referenced. When you buy something at a major retailers, the store takes a picture of you and matches it with your information. All online purchase information is stored and centralized in databases. This information is shared. This includes, but goes far beyond, internet surveillance; witness Google or Facebook serving you ads based on what you’ve read or searched. Add this data to credit reports, bank accounts, and so on, and it provides a remarkably complete picture of your life, because everything you buy with anything but cash (and even some of that) is tracked. Where you are when you buy it is also tracked.

Government surveillance. Millions of cameras in London and most other First World cities. Millions of cameras in Chinese cities. Some transit systems now have audio surveillance. Because the government can seize any private surveillance as well, you can assume you’re being tracked all day in most First World cities. Add this to the commercial surveillance system described above and the picture of your life is startlingly accurate.

As biometric recognition system comes online (face, gait, infrared, and more) this work will be done automatically.

What the telecom and infotech revolution has done is enable wide scale CONTROL and SURVEILLANCE.

These are two sides of the same coin, you can’t control people if you don’t what they’re doing.

This control is most dictatorial, amusingly, in the private sector. The worse a job is, the more this sort of control has been used for super-Taylorization, making humans into little more than remotely controlled flesh robots.

It has made control of international conglomerates far easier; control from the top to the periphery far easier. This is true in the government and the military as well, where central commanders often control details like when bombs drop, rather than leaving it to a plane’s crew.

This is a world where only a few people have practical power. It is a world, not of radical decentralization, but of radical centralization.

This is a vast experiment. In the past, there have been surveillance and control societies. But the math on them has always been suspect. Sometimes they work, and work brilliantly–like in Tokugawa Japan, certain periods of Confucian Chinese bureaucratic control, or ancient Egypt.

But often they have been defeated, and fairly easily, by societies which allowed more freedom; less control, less spying, and supervision. Societies which assumed people knew what to do on their own; or just societies that understood that the cost of close supervision and surveillance was too high to support.

The old East German Stasi model, with one-third of the population spying on the other two-thirds was the ludicrous extension of this.

What the telecom and infotech revolutions have actually enabled is a vast experiment in de-skilling, surveillance, and control–beyond the dreams even of the late 19th century Taylorist movement, with their stopwatches and assembly lines.  Nothing people do, from what they eat, to what entertainment they consume, to when and how well they sleep; let alone everything they do during their working day, is beyond reach.

This is not to say there are no good results from infotech and computers—there are plenty. But contrary to the idea that these technologies would increase freedom, they appear, on a daily basis, to have decreased freedom and privacy and promise to radically reduce them even more.

The second set of questions about any technology are how it can be used for violence, how it can be used for control, and how it can be used for ideological production.

(The first question, of course, is what is required to use it. More on that another time.)

Infotech may enable totalitarian societies which make those of the past look like kindergarten. We are already far past the technology used in the novel 1984 (Big Brother could not record, for example). That much of this surveillance is done by private actors as opposed to the government, does not reduce the loss of freedom, autonomy, and privacy.

Combined with making humans obsolete, infotech and the telecom revolution are as vastly important as their boosters say.

But, so far, not in a beneficial way. Yes, they could be used to make human lives better, it seems the real traction of the telecom and infotech revolutions remarkably began/coincided with neo-liberal policies which have hurt vast numbers of people in both the First and Third Worlds–precisely because they helped make those neo-liberal policies work.

Technologies are never neutral and there is no guarantee that “progress” will actually improve people’s lives. Even if a technology has the potential to improve people’s lives, potential is theoretical; i.e., not the same as practice.

Infotech and telecom tech are primarily control technologies, the same as writing was. They vastly increase the ability to centralize and to control a population’s behaviour.

(Read also: The Late Internet Revolution is Not So Big A Deal)


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Most Russians Would Like the USSR Back

2016 April 21
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by Ian Welsh

This is what happens when you mess up the transition from Communism:

When researchers asked the public if they would like the Soviet Union to be restored, 58 percent replied in the affirmative, with 14 percent saying they considered such project quite realistic at the moment. Forty-four percent view the restoration of the USSR as unfeasible, even though preferable. Thirty-one percent said they would not be happy if events took such a turn, while 10 percent could not give a simple answer to the question.

Of course, much of it is nostalgia by people who have no memory of the USSR, but I still find it interesting that, in some of the countries that were Communist, people would like to go back.  The number in East Germany was 57 percent recently.

I wonder what the number would be in China. The interesting metric is this: Those who stay in their ancestral villagers are happier than those who leave. Pollution is terrible in the new mega-cities and safety is way down. I know many people familiar with China in the 80s who say you could leave your possessions in public, come back hours later and be certain they would be thre.

History never ends. Neither capitalism, nor democracy, nor the current capitalist philosophy of neo-liberalism will be eternal.


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Open Thread (Primaries)

2016 April 21
by Ian Welsh

Feel free to use this thread as an open one. In particular, any discussion of the US primaries should go here.

Single Payer Healthcare: Bernie Sanders vs. The Wonks

2016 April 19
by Ian Welsh

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“Liberal wonks” have been sniping at Sanders healthcare plan: Single payer. In a single payer system, the government acts as the sole insurer for all basic medical needs. Think Medicare, except for everyone.

Single payer costs less than the American system–about one-third less. Take a look at the chart above and find the Canadian line. Notice what happens after Canada goes from a private to a single payer system—costs drop by about one third compared to the United States.

One can cavil about how Sanders will pay for single payer, but the fact is that it will cost Americans less than the current system.

A lot less.

The question then becomes: “Who will pay?” It makes no difference to a company’s balance sheet, or a person’s bank account whom they end up paying—private insurers, or the government. It only matters how much they pay.

Paying one-third less will be a win for everyone, except insurance companies, drug companies, and various health-care providers who price gouge, so long as it is intended that everyone win.

As for your coalition to get single-payer through, it is everyone not involved in the healthcare industry, and many people (like doctors who hate the current system) within the healthcare system.

Yes, insurance and drug companies, appliance manufacturers, private hospitals, and so on will spend an immense amount of money to campaign against single payer, but they are still a minority of the population and of businesses. There is a case to be made to every single non-healthcare company which currently offers insurance (these tend to be the large, more powerful businesses) to come out for single payer to save themselves money.

Single payer is a superior system. It costs less and produces better results on most metrics. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying, or has no idea what they are talking about.

“Wonks” who pretend otherwise through tedious arguments, are deceptive at best, making their bones within the system at worst. Or not actually competent “wonks.”


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Capitalism and Good Post-Capitalism

2016 April 17
by Ian Welsh

Let us revisit the definition of capitalism.

Capitalism, everywhere, is defined by the removal of capital from most ordinary people and the concentration of capital in the hands of a few.

Capital, in this definition, is not money. It is the tools required to feed, house, and cloth oneself.

Medieval serfs, in most areas, had access to capital. They had the right to land to grow food, to take firewood, and so on. They built their own houses, spun their own clothes.

Depending on the time and place, they were healthy and relatively long-lived.

As I have pointed out before, early industrial workers, as a class, were worse off than the serfs and peasants they replaced. They worked longer, ate worse, died younger.

Capitalism is accompanied by enclosure virtually everywhere. The old rights are taken away and the peasants are forced off the land.

Force is the operative word: In both England and China, the land to which they have had rights for centuries is taken from them. If they won’t go peacefully, armed force is used to remove them. There are constant stories of peasants in China resisting the government trying to take their land so they can hand it over to other owners.

Many people get “better” ownership out of the process of moving to capitalism. They get a better bundle of rights in terms of “property.” But most people lose their rights to productive capital.

You see this in virtually every third world country. Peasants are forced off the land, whether by law, crashing crop prices caused by unfettered “free” trade (which isn’t “free,” even slightly; Europe and the US massively subsidize agriculture), or by force. They flee to the cities, forming vast rings of slums. They are worse off than when they were peasants in most cases, but there are no other options.

In most cases, this is done so that their country can concentrate on a few cash crops, plantation style, with a few owners making all the money.

Enclosure.

A citizen in a capitalist economy is distinguished by having no independent ability to feed, clothe, or house themselves. They must sell their labor on “the market” or live miserably and likely even die. (People who live long term on the street don’t, as a rule, live long term.)

The term “wage-slave” is old, used in the 19th century to talk about what was happening then.

A person who must sell their labor to another, then do their master’s bidding, is not free. Their entire working day is spent doing what someone else tells them to do. Only a very few people, under any capitalist system, have anything close to freedom. The majority of people are slaves in their daily life, free only to sell their labor.

Because most people are undistinguishable, they take the rates offered by the market, and those rates are determined primarily by how tight the labor market is, a factor that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with any one individual worker.

Most workers in the world have miserable lives. Those reading this may have “good jobs.” In China, they make batteries by hand because it is cheaper than using machines. Other Chinese are now hand-pollinating crops.

That’s freedom for you.

People whose lives are lived doing what other people tell them are not only not free, but because their daily life is about obeying orders, they are not used to freedom and are conditioned to expect orders.

Being a wage-slave, taking orders is ordinary to them. It’s what they expect. They don’t know what freedom is because they have never experienced it (coming from a school system which is designed to turn people into obedient drones).

Real freedom is being your own master. It’s been a long time since that described most of the world’s population.

But capitalism, meaning wage slavery, contrary to the propaganda, has not been an unambiguous move towards freedom.

In the 19th century in North America, for example, if land was unused, you could simply go work it and after a few years it was yours.

You can’t do that now.

Capitalism is about taking the ability of the many to provide for themselves and putting it into the hands of a few. The argument is that this transfer allows for the creation of more goods and services than would be possible otherwise.

But we don’t need more–let alone the vast amount of surplus we are creating. We waste a third of the food we produce. We deliberately build “planned obsolesence” into the manufacture of goods. We are vastly overproducing past our needs, and because we distribute goods through corrupt market mechanisms, many people still don’t have enough to get by, let alone enough for a good life. We could easily provide for them if what we produced were more evenly distributed and not made to break down so we can make more.

Imagine a world with no planned obsolesence, in which everyone has a small garden (indoors gardens are easy to do now, and one pilot study found 10X yields from a basement garden with LED lights), everyone has basic maker tools, and every community has a few facilities capable of creating large appliances.

We can third print buildings now (they could have been made well, prefab, long ago).

Freedom is the ability to make your own choices, daily, about what you do with your time and your abilities, without losing everything. It is the ability to support yourself.

Feudalism was no joy. But capitalism removed even more economic freedom than feudalism did. You don’t have to believe me, believe the people who lived at the time, who violently resisted the changes. They weren’t idiots, they weren’t fools; they knew their lives were being changed for the worse. That it worked out for some of their descendents means little: A century of technological improvement accounts for much of that.

Post-capitalism, if it is any good, will restore the ability to grow and make what they need to the people. Not like feudalism, but a craft-based, hunter-gatherer society. Work 20 hours a week to meet the essentials, spend the rest of the time as you wish and choose how and when to work those 20 hours.

More on this later.


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What Should Wages, Prices, and Taxes Be?

2016 April 15
by Ian Welsh

The principle is simple.

Wages and taxes must cover the cost of maintainence and replacement of capital plus any negative externalities.

Maintainence of capital, as horrible as the phrase sounds, includes workers. They must have a wage sufficient to eat well, live in a healthy place, buy entertainment, and have children. That is maintainence of “human capital.”

Taxes must be at a level sufficient to replace society’s capital base. That includes running schools, roads, courts, and all of that.

Businesses which put particular wear on specific portions of capital should be charged extra taxes. Are you degrading “natural capital” by polluting or drawing down water or timber reserves? You need to pay the replacement cost. Are you putting more stress on roads than normal businesses? You pay for that as well.

Prices should run on the same principle. Charging less than the cost of operating plus the replacement cost of capital and the price of any externalities mean the company is underpricing its goods.

“But it’s a free market.”

Free markets work when, and only when, full costs are priced in. If you charge less than the full price, you undercut those business that are charging full cost, driving them out of business. Because they were actually paying the freight for their business and you aren’t, you are free-loading, a parasite.

Competitive markets require more than the above to exist, but these are some of the requirements. One can deliberately choose, as a society, to subsidize an important sector (perhaps renewables, perhaps education), but the actual costs still need to be known and covered by society.

If you see a business or government which isn’t covering the cost of replacing its capital, whether human, natural, or otherwise, you see a business or government which is parasitical on the past, on people, or on the environment.

You will virtually always wind up paying the price anyway. But paying on the back end is far more expensive.

Corporations and people usually get rich by offloading their capital costs…by not paying them. For an example of this, look into the history and practices of Walmart, which did not, and does not, even pay its employees enough to feed themselves, and whose business practices wiped out the downtowns of most of small-town America.

The Waltons are rich precisely because they downloaded their costs onto other people and pocketed the difference.

A good society does not allow this to be done without democratic determination, and makes it as transparent as possible. If something is being subsidized, it should be known, and those who are receiving the subsidy should not be allowed to get rich off it. Want to get rich?  Great, do it in an unsubsidized business. You’re welcome to “do well” in a subsidized one, but not to become a billionaire.

This stuff is fundamental. It was well understood by the New Deal Liberals who ran World War II (no war rich!), and the post-war economy. They didn’t always live up to it, but they did know it. We seem to have forgotten.


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The Market Fairy Will Not Solve the Problems of Uber and Lyft

2016 April 14
by Ian Welsh
Image by Admit One

Image by Admit One

Here is the thing about Uber and Lyft (and much of the “sharing economy”).

They don’t pay the cost of their capital.

The wages they pay to their drivers are less than the depreciation of the cars and the expense of keeping the drivers fed, housed, and healthy. They pay less than minimum wage in most markets, and, in most markets, that is not enough to pay the costs of a car plus a human.

These business models are ways of draining capital from the economy and putting them into the hands of a few investors and executives. They prey on desperate people who need money now, even if the money is insufficient to pay their total costs. Drivers are draining their own reserves to get cash now, but, hey, they gotta eat and pay the bills.

This sharing economy shit works in a shitty economy. In a good economy, where people have what they need, it doesn’t work.

The cab company model, with medallions and so on, was exploitative. It wound up charging customers too much, but it did cover its own costs–mostly. Uber and Lyft charge too little and siphon too much of what they charge back to themselves.

The model which made sense was the model of car-sharing, where company-owned cars could be used by those who had bought memberships in the company. This meant that the actual cost of the cars had to be covered. It was far cheaper than cabs, but not as cheap as Uber or Lyft (and you had to drive yourself). Something like that, but with drivers, could have worked.

For that matter, Uber- and Lyft-style apps could work with regulated wages sufficient to pay costs in particular markets.

The market will not miraculously produce a capital-replacing living wage. If it should do so in any particular market, that is happenstance; luck, not social physics.

This is a social action problem; a race to the bottom issue. It makes sense, individually, to race to the bottom.  Company execs and investors get rich, consumers get cheaper rides and drivers get money they need. But this isn’t win, win, win. It’s a long con. And not a very long one, either.

The cheaper wages paid to drivers, and thus the cheaper rides, also drive business with capital structures which make social sense out of business. They can’t compete with, “Drive your car into the ground, make less than minimum wage.”

Because it is a social action problem, what needs to be done is to take a game which leads to some people winning while destroying capital and people and move it to a game where everyone wins and capital and people are not destroyed. This can only be dealt with socially, by government.

“Thou shalt pay at least the capital replacement cost + a living wage for the market and shall take only an additional X percent for providing your app. If thou dost not we shall toss thine ass into prison.”

That is the social solution. It is not “The Market Fairy of supply and demand will make sure that fair, sustainable solutions always occur. All praise the Market Fairy.”

Until we stop pretending the Market Fairy is going to solve social action problems, we won’t actually solve those problems.


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