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The Surveillance State is About Power, by Matt Stoller

2014 March 24
by Ian Welsh

This post is by Matt Stoller,

originally posted at Tech President.

Since 2000, the American political system has been rocked by the dot.com crash, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse, the housing crash, bailouts, and now, Edward Snowden’s revelations of vast government surveillance that served as an unknown institutional backdrop to much of it. Considering the last fourteen years, it’s time we begin trying to understand the relationship between people with lots of guns and people with lots of money.

When I think about surveillance in American culture, I usually start with a literary metaphor, the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. This is a story about Jay Gatsby, a man who grew up poor, made a fortune as a bootlegger, and then built up a myth about how he came from a wealthy family so as to attract the love of his life. It’s a story about identity, and reinvention, the mystery of who we really are.

If F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby today, it would be a very different book. Well, it wouldn’t be a book at all. It would be a one-page story about a guy who made up a bunch of lies about himself, and then someone ran a credit check.

To me, that’s what it means to live in a surveillance society. Basic parts of the American story, such as the right to be forgotten, to reinvent yourself — these disappeared over the last sixty years, without a genuinely open debate, as institutions justified by the Cold War became institutions justified by the War on Terror.

What Snowden has given us is the opportunity to really have this debate, anew.

So I want to talk about four myths of the modern surveillance society in which we find ourselves. I define surveillance state as a state in which personal record-keeping is automated and controlled by well-capitalized politically connected institutions.

The Surveillance State Isn’t New
The first myth is that this kind of state is new. Every few years, someone prominent makes a claim that we could fall into a dystopia. From Orwell’s 1984 to Snowden’s “turnkey totalitarianism,” they always say we are on the verge of becoming a different kind of society, one in which your every move is logged and tracked by powerful entities. But we’ve been living in it in one form or another for at least forty years.

At some point, we stopped being on the verge, and got there. And now we’re here. We are in a surveillance state, as per the various warnings we’ve received. But what we’ve found is that totalitarianism is not necessarily related to technological capacity. The most totalitarian state in the world today, that of North Korea, is the least advanced state when it comes to digital technology. And the Nazi regime, while it used a quite advanced information technology infrastructure for the time to track down, categorize, and kill Jews, was a totalitarian regime before it was a technologically sophisticated one.

Still, much of what we do is tracked and digitally archived, and it is being used to make decisions about our lives. In one way or another, this has been the case since at least 1973, when Visa computerized its operation, which was shortly followed by credit reporting agencies. So we should move beyond the question of whether we are building the tools for an authoritarian political state, and start talking about what kind of surveillance state we want. It’s a creepy question, but it’s one we’ve avoided talking about, until now.

What Bright Line?
The second myth is that there is a substantive difference between commercial surveillance and political, or national security surveillance. There isn’t, and there never has been. In fact, it’s pretty clear that building the technology and cultural institutions for a mass surveillance state — data brokers, credit bureaus, credit card companies, the NSA, the FBI, and so forth — has been a key part of our tacit unacknowledged national industrial policy since World War II.

I’ll just tell you a quick story about the politics of this state. In the 1960s, Congress actually had what was called a special subcommittee on invasion of privacy, chaired by a Kennedy ally and Congressman named Neil Gallagher. This subcommittee conducted the first hearing on credit reporting agencies. It also investigated early FBI efforts to computerize government data.

It turns out that the first national credit reporting agency, then known as the Retail Credit Corporation, today known as Equifax, was an ally of J. Edgar Hoover. It conducted the background checks for FBI agents. And it was J. Edgar Hoover or the Treasury department that blackmailed and destroyed the careers of several politicians interested in either commercial or political privacy problems. At one point, in 1971, Congress was on the verge of establishing a standing committee called the Select Committee on Privacy, Human Values, and Democratic Institutions, which Hoover sabotaged.

This was prescient — in the 1970s, many of the laws involving both commercial and political surveillance were put in place. Our privacy laws regarding commercial surveillance and political surveillance are looser than they should be, because the national security apparatus protected the commercial sector from the most aggressive politicians who wanted to protect our privacy.

This alliance continues today, which is detailed in Robert O’Harrow’s wonderful book published in 2005, No Place to Hide . After 9/11, the government went on a buying spree, hiring data brokers like Axciom, Lexus-Nexis, Choicepoint, and so forth to fortify the the intelligence community.

The analogy to the Cold War is clear. After Pearl Harbor, the government repurposed Ford and GM into manufacturers of tanks. During the war, the government subsidized the expansion of our industrial base and created technology like radar, the computer, and atomic power. After 9/11, the government repurposed the data broker industry into parts of the government surveillance apparatus. It subsidized the data industry and helped accelerate the creation of the facial recognition, biometrics, and big data technologies.

And even if you dislike government surveillance, you’d have allies in government. The TOR browser, which the NSA despises, was developed with help from the Navy, and its ongoing development is funded by the State Department. The division between the commercial sector and the public sector might be a convenient rhetorical choice, but it is incoherent as an analytical framework through which to understand the politics of a surveillance society.

The Issue is Power
The third myth is that this is a battle between convenience and privacy. I reject this framework, not because I think we can have both but because it’s a sideshow to the real question of power. For example, industry is rife with what are known as “cooperative databases,” or blacklists. There’s one for insurance companies called CLUE (or ‘Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange’), so these companies can share details about whether you have ever made an insurance claim or whether your dog has been mean to the mailman. There’s another for retailers, who can list the names of their employees they suspect of shoplifting. Agribusiness wants data about the soil of farmers who use its products, so that company can use its monopoly to extract as much as possible from the farmers under its thumb.

An executive at Ford Motor recently said that his company knows when anyone speeds, because it has data from all GPS units installed in cars it sells. This opens up the possibility of just getting rid of speeding altogether, or the creation dynamic speed limits based on weather, and so forth. Questions of data privacy are super-creepy. But it’s not just about convenience, it’s a question of power, and who wields it.

And We Are Not Powerless
And the fourth myth is that we are powerless against this surveillance society. We are not. At all. If you look at how our surveillance society evolved, it’s clear that the public shapes it through a variety of mechanisms. In 1968, the Wall Street Journal was reporting on how insurance companies were discriminating against gay men and sexually active single women — these companies would hire the Retail Credit Corporation to send detectives out and get credit reports on people that wanted insurance. Retail Credit would have their men ask neighbors if the man was a manly man, or if the woman slept around. Then these insurance companies would charge higher prices to these sub-classes, or what’s called ‘discriminatory pricing.”

Retail Credit also worked for corporations and the government, doing similar background checks at all levels. Millions of people were investigated to see if they were sexually deviant, and if they were, they were ripped off economically. With such pervasive surveillance, it’s not a surprise that the Stonewall Riots happened, that the gay rights and women’s rights and civil rights movement happened. And in the 1970s, Congress passed laws – weak laws, but laws nonetheless – prohibiting credit discrimination based on race, creed, gender or religion, often spearheaded by those who also cared about government overreach and questions of privacy. And credit, remember, was the first place where most people interact with algorithms and what we call big data.

The public didn’t fight back against surveillance by demanding less of it, the public fought back against surveillance by making the taboo a non-taboo. One democratic response to surveillance is to acknowledge taboos, and take away the power of the watchers to manipulate you.

We are not powerless, and we never have been.

Obviously I can only touch on a few aspects of what a surveillance society means. Surveillance cuts across national security, antitrust, finance, economics, pricing, information policy, and democratic values. It’s a big big thing. The people with the guns and the people with the money have a common interest in ensuring that they are in control of the surveillance apparatus, and that you have as little access to it as possible.

I mean, I’m sure the Department of Homeland Security would love to be able to read the email of everyone getting on a plane, to make sure that no one is thinking of bombing it. That might or might not be a legitimate usage of surveillance. But then, American Airlines would also like to be able to read your email, so that it can charge $10,000 for a flight if it knows you have to be in Los Angeles tomorrow for your mother’s funeral.

It’s time to start making this surveillance regime explicit, and purpose it for the real social problems we face, like disaster relief, climate change, resource depletion, and so forth. We can do remarkable things with the information we collect and analyze, and we can equally do terrible things with it. But that choice, as always, is up to us.

Matt Stoller is a former political consultant. He writes about history at mattstoller.tumblr.com. Follow him @matthewstoller.

Why is Crimea Such a Great Crisis? It Shouldn’t Be.

2014 March 20
by Ian Welsh

Really, I don’t understand why Crimea rejoining Russia is such a big deal.  While the referendum is dubious, it does seem that the majority of the population generally prefers to be part of Russia.  There have been almost zero casualties, and the Russian troops were mostly welcomed by the population.

Compare this to Kosovo, where there was ethnic cleansing on both sides, a major bombing campaign by the West which killed Serbs and so on. Or Iraq, or Libya, or Syria, or Chechnya, or South Sudan.  In all of those places there was a pile of violence, a lot of people died, got tortured, raped and lost their homes.  All of those, by any rational measure, are greater crises than Russia taking back a region which belonged to it for hundreds of years, whose population wants to go back.

Yes, yes, Munich, blah, blah.  Russia is not strong enough to start a conventional WWIII and win.  They are not insane enough to start a nuclear war.

The correct response to Crimea would be to say “well, it looks like they really do want to leave, they’re yours.”

If you don’t want Western Ukraine to go, then send in a NATO force and/or discuss formal partition of the Ukraine with the Western part immediately joining NATO. If you’re not willing to do that, then shut up.

This crisis is being made a crisis because of a hysterical over-reaction. The US and the EU thought they’d won this round, and moved the Ukraine back into their column. Putin didn’t accept that, and the West is freaking out over behaviour that is less egregious and killing far fewer people than wars that the US has been involved in for over a decade, and which is a cleaner break-off than Kosovo was.

As for setting a precedent, the precedent has been set already: in Kosovo, in South Sudan, in Eritrea and so on.  National borders are not inviolable if the population doesn’t want to stay in them, and can make their point militarily or has an ally who can make the point militarily.


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We already have rationing coupons

2014 March 19
by Ian Welsh

they’re called money.

One of the things we’re going to have to do if we want a prosperous and somewhat egalitarian society that doesn’t drive humans into extinction is actually manage our resources.

That’s going to mean rationing, rationally.  When you bring that up people are “that won’t fly”, but the thing is, we already ration virtually everything through money.  Even in countries with universal health care, rest assured that the rich get better care than the poor.  Generally a lot better care.  People go hungry, there are homeless people, and so on.

The thing is, with moderately sane rationing, most people will be better off and a hundreds of millions will be a LOT better off.  We have more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet; food that rots; and the reason we don’t feed people is that we ration by money.  The US has five times as many empty homes as it does homeless people, the EU two times as many—rationing by money is failing.  It is not putting people who need goods we have an excess supply off  together with those goods; and it is putting people who would be better off without excess goods together with those goods. (aka. the obesity epidemic.)

The fact is that we have overcapacity to produce a lot of things, and there is no particular reason why everybody shouldn’t have those things; but we also are producing too much of stuff that’s going to kill us: like oil and natural gas, carcinogens and plastic that is choking the oceans.

So we have people who could be productive, who aren’t, because they can’t get what they need even though we produce a surplus; then we have people who are productive but we’d better off if they stopped producing, because the negatives they are creating are hurting and killing more people than the upside.

If we don’t learn to manage bottlenecks, sinks (like the ability of the atmosphere to absorb carbon) and both renewable and non-renewable resources we’re in real danger of killing ourselves, and even if we do manage to survive as a species, we are leaving a lot of people homeless, hungry and hating their lives who don’t need to be.


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You will never, again, have a good economy for ordinary people so long as this continues

2014 March 18
by Ian Welsh

Reuters on Ben Bernanke’s post-Fed career:

Bernanke was paid at least $250,000 for his first public speaking engagement, in Abu Dhabi, since stepping down in January, according to sources familiar with the matter. That compares to his 2013 paycheck of $199,700, and the appearance was only the first of three around the world this week.’ (two weeks ago)

Ben Bernanke bailed out investors to the tune of trillions of dollars.  Now they are making sure he, personally, will be rich, so that no Federal Reserve Chairman ever thinks of not putting them first, second and last.

You cannot, and will not, have a good egalitarian economy while this sort of thing goes on.  It is not possible.  Those who have been in such positions should be given a very nice pension (say 5x median income) and not allowed to keep any additional earnings for the rest of their lives.

I can hear fools squealing already “gold plated pensions” and “paying them not to work” and “not fair”.

It would be far cheaper than the status quo.  Far, far cheaper.  Right now people like Ben Bernanke and Bill Clinton (worth 100 million after repealing Glass-Stegall and pushing through NAFTA) don’t work for you, they work for the people who will make them rich after they leave office.  That costs you far far more than a generous pension for the rest of their lives.


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The Crimean Referendum of Independence

2014 March 17

Has passed with 97% in favor of joining Russia. Those not in favor boycotted the referendum, in part due to intimidation, in part due to the fact that the question was do you favor joining Russia, or return to the 1992 constitution, in which Crimea is a part of the Ukraine, but substantially independent.  There was no option to stay with the current situation.

While looking into the legal precedents, I investigated Kosovo: in 1991 they voted 99% in favor of independence.  Only Albania recognized the legality of the referendum.  Later, of course, Kosovo did wind up declaring its independence again.  Serbia went to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on whether it was legal for Kosovo to separate.  The decision was in favor, and is fascinating.

It basically amounts to this: though the declaration of independence was made by people who were in the Assembly of Kosovo, because they did not follow proper legislative procedure, did not use the words “Assembly of Kosovo” in the proclamation, and were not properly published, the proclamation was not illegal, because proclamations of independence are not generally illegal.

They also said that the ruling was a one off, and did not set precedent (sound familiar?)

The error, then, of the Crimeans may have been to have a legislative body, as a legislative body, take the decision and actually have a referendum.  If they had done it, not as a legislative body, but as just folks who happen to be in the legislative assembly, without a referendum, then it would have been legal.

All of the above, of course, is pernicious nonsense.  Of course many countries do not want regions to leave them, and make it illegal.  But it is impossible not to conclude that those who say Crimea joining Russia is illegal are anything but flaming hypocrites if they also said that Kosovo leaving Serbia was legal.  The International Court for Justice’s ruling is nothing but special pleading.

The larger issue is this: do people have the right to self-determination, and under what circumstances?  I live in Canada, where Quebec has tried to separate in my lifetime.  Those who were willing to let it leave asked another question: if Quebec can leave Canada, can parts of Quebec then hold a referendum and leave Quebec?  As badly as Canada treats its native people, in many ways Quebec treats them worse: much of northern Quebec might prefer to stay in Canada.  Of course, northern Quebec produces the hydro power which keeps southern Quebec financially viable (it is sent straight to New York.)

This is a line which is hard to draw: if you support self-determination, where does it stop?  What group is large enough to be allowed to leave?  If you don’t, if you think that whatever countries exist today should exist always and no one should leave then you have no such problem, but that can be a recipe for catastrophe, as Africa’s history, with all its artificial countries and their bloodshed, have shown.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is this: in a world with problem that nations can’t solve, why don’t we get rid of them entirely?  (There are reasons, and good ones, but do they outweigh the good reasons to end the existence of nations?)

More on that later, perhaps.


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The Tyranny of Money

2014 March 14
by Ian Welsh

For much of the Medieval era money was hardly used by most people. Serfs owed their lords service and the products of their hand. They would work for their liege for a set number of days a year, they would give him grain, or animals, or clothes they had spun, or some other product of their labor and the land. In exchange they had the right to work a piece of land and to live on it.

As time went by, nobles would prefer money, and would try to have their tenants and serfs pay them in coin, but this was resisted, and often violently. Allowing people to pay in kind, not coin, was considered generous, and often bought peace.

Given a choice to pay your taxes by working for the government for a few weeks, how many people would take it? What if you could do the same for the utility company: 2 days work a month for electricity and water? Cable?

We think of serfdom as horrible, and in many ways it was: but wouldn’t it be nice to have the right to just pay in labor sometimes, and forget the cash? Certainly in those times when jobs have been scarce, millions would take such a deal.

The point here is that distributing goods and services through paid labor wasn’t the way things were done in many societies. Indeed, though hunter-gatherers certainly had trade, if they wanted to eat they went out and gathered some food, or hunted. If they wanted clothes, they made them themselves.

But money is more than a way of distributing goods, it is a way of ordering our behaviour.

Those people who have more money tell those of us without money how we will spend our days. With modern technology they keep us on a leash even at home, through texts and emails and cellphones. We spend more time working for someone else than any other activity save sleep.

The simplest way to think of money is as permission. Money allows whoever has it to determine how other people spend their time. This can be directly, by hiring them, or it can be indirectly, by buying the proceeds of their labor, which economists call demand. (If you want something, and you don’t have the money to buy it, you are not demand.)

Money lets you do what you want: start a library, start a company manufacturing electric cars, start a think tank; fly by private jet. Money is freedom for those who have it, and servitude for those who need it.

This is the theoretical power of the consumer: moving in large groups, ordinary people can effect large shifts in demand, and thus have power. This can be a great power, but in the modern world it is rarely used effectively because most of what you need you must buy from a small group of firms who offer essentially the same goods or services. There is little difference between health insurers, less difference between telecom companies; there is usually only one newspaper per major city; the supermarkets all offer the same food at about the same prices; credit card companies all offer about the same rates to the same people, and so on.

When the prices are about the same, the product is about the same, and the services are about the same, consumer power fades. You may buy your internet from company A or company B, but public broadband or open Wifi networks aren’t available. You may buy health insurance from company A or B, but in America universal health care isn’t available. And you can elect party A, or party B, but they will both institute neoliberal policies.

Putin’s RT Interview

2014 March 12
by Ian Welsh

I’m going to suggest that my readers listen to this. I couldn’t find a full transcript, and I usually don’t listen to interviews myself (too inefficient), but this is worth your time. To be sure, RT is English language, most of its audience are Americans, and Putin is speaking directly to Americans.  This is, to a large extent, propaganda.  But it is vastly interesting propaganda and, as usual, it is a reminder that Putin is a smart, well-read man and skillful politician.  This isn’t a dunce, this is one of the most adroit politicians and leaders on the planet today.

Especially amusing is his (I suspect accurate) description of the “liberal opposition” as wanting less wage increases and less social spending (aka. pensions and so on.)  How stick a shiv in.  You have to understand, in the Russian context (and in most country’s context) reform and liberalization means “fucking ordinary people”.  Russians who are old enough to remember the 90s are especially aware of this.

One day Americans and Europeans may figure it out.

Your Theory of Human Nature Predicts Your Policies

2014 March 12
by Ian Welsh

Conservatives were right when they said that ideas have consequences.

What you believe; what we believe, determines much of how we act.

Every economic theory; every political theory; is ultimately a theory about human nature.

If you believe that humans are selfish and greedy, you will believe that the best way to get them to do what you want is through monetary incentives and you will provide those incentives.  This includes, in the modern context, not taxing people, because taxes are seen as reducing the incentive to work.

Combine this with a belief that the system is meritocratic: that those who have more money have it because they deserve it and are “value creators” and “job creators” and you logically should reduce high end taxes, since the most productive people in the economy should not be discouraged from working more.

You come to this website, and you may think that these ideas are mistaken at best, and more likely ludicrous.

They are widely held.  Every time someone attacks a rich person, some fool can be counted on to pipe up and say “he earned that money, he should keep it!”

Ideas have consequences.

Economic ideas, have consequences.  Your conception of human nature determines your economic philosophy, and that economic philosophy will have an affect on actual policy.  If you believe, as did those who lived through the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression, that markets do not distribute goods or wealth fairly, or to those who deserve them, or in a way that is either sustainable or wise, you will make different policy decisions: you will tax high incomes at 90% or so, you will engage in policies which distribute income; you will work to keep wages high and prices high; you will implement a safety net, and so on.

If you believe that human personality and abilities are not a result of some sort of metaphysical willpower, but a matter of genetic Russian roulette and upbringing, neither of which anyone chooses for themselves, you will not believe that even those who genuinely do contribute more (a very distinctly different thing from “get more money”) necessarily deserve more, since there is little merit in winning the lucky sperm lottery.

The fact is this: incentives work.

The second fact is this: using strong incentives is usually idiocy, because they do work.

What happens with incentives is that people’s behaviour is warped by them.  A normal doctor who does not get paid more per test he orders, orders less tests.  A doctor who owns the facility which does the testing, does more tests.  Management has a saying “what gets measured, gets managed”.  Yeah—and nothing else does.

Paying people enough, and trusting their own judgment about what is important tends to produce better results, because people don’t ignore everything else to leap for the incentives and to meet the measurements some doofus is managing.  And they don’t go out of their way to manipulate the measurements, which is what happens when reward and punishment are linked to metrics.

But saying “trust people” comes from another model of human nature, one which says “most people will do the right thing if not given a good reason not to.”  (This doesn’t mean all people will, just most people.)

The bigger problem is the push towards tying all human behaviour into one rule.  “We just want to spread our genes.”  “Everyone looks out for number one first.”  “Everyone is selfish and greedy.”  “Humans are inherently sinful due to the fall.”  “Everyone seeks to increase their power.”

No. Humans have multiple drives, and how much of what drive is expressed in each of us is different and changes based on the context.  Put people in a world where people are cruel to them, and they will become cruel.  Put them in a world where people are kind, and most of them will become kind.

None of us is just one thing; each of us changes and changes quickly, from day to day; year to year; sometimes even minute to minute.  We are capable of expressing cruelty sufficient to make demons weep; and kindness that would awe an angel but which we will do and when, depends so much on what who we believe we are, how we are treated and what we are told our nature is.

If we want the better angels of our nature to soar, we have to admit that they exist.  If we insist that we are all devils, all selfish bastards, we will build our societies based on that expectation, and we will make our prophecies come true.


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Economic Theories are Prescriptive, not Descriptive

2014 March 10
by Ian Welsh

One of the advantages of studying anthropology, sociology and archeology is that you know that while there’s probably such a thing as “human nature”  it has a vast range of expression.  Some societies are cooperative, sharing and kind, with virtually no hierarchy.  Others are hierarchical, cruel, domineering and full of people who ruthlessly compete with each other, and screw the hindmost.  And still others are in-between, with a vast spectrum of possibilities.

These societies have different ways of distributing goods.  In many hunter-gatherer societies, for example, they decide who gets the animal killed by looking at whose arrow killed it.  Seems very “screw the hindmost” until you find out that the hunters freely share the arrows they make.  The arrow that killed the animal probably didn’t come from the person who made the arrow.  And, in any case, they share much of the kill.

Every economic system, every way of distributing goods and services, requires a different ethic and it elevates a different ethic.  While merchants might have been wealthy, in many agricultural societies, including China and Japan through much of their history, they were considered parasites: they created nothing, after all.  Peasants might be poorer, but they were given higher status, including legally, than merchants.  In the European Middle Ages money made from trade was considered dirty, and strictly speaking, if a noble engaged in mercantile activities or took up a trade, they would lose their noble status.  Perhaps this honored more often in the breach, but history is full of nobles who did lose their status through working with their hands, or engaging in trade too openly.  (This was also true of Roman Patricians, by the way.)  Honorable wealth came from land, war or gifts from other nobles for service.

Modern economics is famous for believing in the rational economic actor, almost entirely concerned with his or her own utility.  (In normal parlance, a selfish bastard).  This is a model of how people behave, but it’s an oversimplification of human nature so severe as to be wrong.  Most people don’t behave like that most of the time: they cooperate, and they share and most of them don’t free ride.

There is an exception, however: economics students.  Multiple studies have found that economics students act as economic theory would predict far more than people not trained in economics.

Economics is, thus, prescriptive.  It tells people how they should behave.

Who else behaves that way?  Senior executives in large corporations and rich people.  The people who control the economy, act as economic theory says they should.

Be clear, all elites in all places and times have not acted this way: chieftains in status societies do not act like this. Potlach giving native Americans did not act this way.  The elders of hunter-gatherer tribes do not act this way.  Roman Patricians, Chinese Mandarins, and Medieval European nobles did not act this way—at least, not nearly as much as our modern economic leaders do.

It is not even the case that executives in the 50s and 60s acted this way.  When John Kenneth Galbraith investigated why executives back then didn’t pay themselves more, he came to the conclusion that they didn’t because they believed, as a group, that doing so would be wrong, and they took out anyone who tried to pay themselves more than they considered appropriate.

So why do executives act that way now?

Ideas lead culture and policy produces the outcomes one would expect.  Thatcher and Reagan and intellectuals like Dawkins made being greed and taking whatever you could get, screw the hindmost, acceptable.  “Greed was good” in the 80s, and has become better since.  We were told this is how humans are; and this is how humans should be; and that doing this would produce better outcomes for everyone.  This was legislated into law: the removal of protections from financial abuse put in place in the 30s, the lowering of top tax rates; the emphasis on consumption taxes over wealth taxes, the dropping of corporate tax rates; the “free trade” movement which allowed elites to avoid taxes and make goods in sweatshop nations.

The previous generation, those who experienced the Great Depression as adults, and who remembered the 20s and what the last great unregulated economy had wrought, were old, and out of power.  Those who believed; who knew; that economic success had nothing to do with any sort of virtue, were gone.  The new generations accepted a premise they desperately wanted to believe: that they could be selfish assholes, acting in their own interest and not caring about other people, and that it would all work out for the best.

This was twofold: it was the result of a concerted intellectual effort by people like Dawkins and Milton Friedman, pushed by business interests; and it was the result of a population who wanted to believe it; who wanted to be ethically lazy and stop helping other people and still feel good about themselves.

Ethics are socially bound, and are created and recreated by each generation.  To be sure, they are related to the means of production and the incentive system; but we create the incentive system. The executives of the 50s and 60s, by and large, chose something different than the executives of the 80s through today.

What has been chosen, can be changed.  If we want an economy which works for everyone, we can have it.

But we have to choose it, and we have convince or crush those who would chose otherwise.  And for those who wince at the word crush, remember, inequality means death and illness for many people.  The crushing has already happened, the class war occurred, and the rich won.  And the casualties are piling up.


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Western and Russian Hypocrisy on Crimea

2014 March 7
by Ian Welsh

Perhaps the most tiresome part of the Crimean move to join Russia is the rhetoric on both sides.  On the Russian side, we have Putin, who has long railed against states being broken up, starting with Kosovo; on the other side we have the Americans and Europeans nattering on about how no state can be broken up when they broke up Serbia, forcibly removing Kosovo from it.

States can be broken up—when it suits the West, or Russia.  But when the West does it, we hear a heck of a lot less caterwauling

I remain unconvinced that starting a new cold or hot war, or imposing significant sanctions and suffering the Russian retaliation, is worth keeping Crimea in the Ukraine, when the majority of its population most likely wants to leave and it was part of Russia for centuries.  The sheer hysteria of the Western response bores me: this is not the end of the world, unless we make it such.

It is also not about whether Obama is “tough enough to stand up to Putin”.  As Sean-Paul Kelley has repeatedly pointed out, that’s infantilizing.  There are actual issues here, around NATO expansion, around whether States can be broken up and when, around Russian economic ties to Europe; around the fact that Ukraine is practically a failed state; around the strong neo-Nazi presence in the new Ukrainian government; around the IMFs intention to impose terrible austerity on the Ukraine; on whether protesters have the right to overthrow a government and expect the rest of the country to accept it; and so on.

There interests at play here: oil and natural gas for Europe; Russian money for London; Russian military orders for France; American access to Afghanistan through Russian territory; Syria; the implicit deal for the Russians not to arm insurgents around the world with SAMs which can take out American drones; and so on.

These are issues that should be discussed, not whether Obama is “tough”.  What is in America’s interest, Russia’s, the Ukraine’s, Crimea, and the people in the Ukraine who don’t want to be part of a Ukraine run by the protesters?

Oh, and were the snipers who killed all those people and led to the fall of the government actually government snipers?


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