The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Who Deserves the Good Things in Life?

On Wall Street, they have sayings. One of them is that they “eat what they kill.”

They mean this in a good way — that they earn their money by making the right bets or by landing the big clients. That money is theirs: They went and got it.

Of course, one could see it in another way: All the businesses, Private Equity, for example, has destroyed, buy buying them, paying themselves, loading the businesses up with the debt, and then letting them go under.

They earned that money by killing. ToysRUs for example, which was making a profit until they loaded it up with debt to pay for their takeover and the bonuses they gave themselves.

Or, say, causing the 2008 financial crisis, which had a bill that has to be at least 100 trillion and involved millions of people losing their jobs, homes, livelihoods, and in many cases, lives.

Finance, that is to say, demonstrably does more damage to everyone else than it does good, but it pays very very well, especially now that they own every government, so central banks are willing to print trillions of dollars to socialize their losses, while letting them keep the money they stole.

They don’t even actually win bets: If, in 2008, they had taken their losses, they would have all gone out of business.

It’s just a scam; a matter of brute force. They can print money and borrow money at rates ordinary people will never see and government makes sure they never take real losses and that markets go up no matter what is happening to the economy.

Then, there are the studies that show that the more money someone has, the worse their behaviour — the more sociopathic and less generous. Poorer people give more to charity as a percentage of income or wealth than rich people, which makes sense, as most rich people are rich because they care about money more than anything else.

The simple fact is that people like nurses, teachers, janitors, garbage pick up, farm workers, and factory floor workers are who create most value. On the intellectual and creative side, the designers, engineers, scientists, and other creators are the ones who create value, not the suits. In fact, suits often reduce value: It isn’t engineers and designers who wanted planned obsolesence (19th century engineers fought it bitterly) or to remove the right to repair.

Most financiers don’t even finance creation any more; they finance destruction. Most managers are, at best, a wash, any random person would do about as well and maybe better (management literature shows this clearly, it isn’t in dispute). As for CEOs, higher compensation correlates to worse performance, and during the 40s through the 70s, before the massive rise in CEO compensation, had far more growth than our era. CEOs eat what they kill, is all. They control who gets paid what, so they pay themselves the most. It has nothing to do with merit, except if merit means “you deserve whatever you get.”

“You deserve whatever you get.”

That’s really what we mean by merit, today, isn’t it?

Not, “you contributed to society,” or even, often enough, “you contributed to your organization,” but “whatever you have the power to seize, at whatever cost to anyone else, is what you deserve.”

It’s not even about “whatever you can get legally.” Wall Street’s entire 2000s run was based on extensive fraud, they then, with the help of Obama, stole millions of houses using fradulently signed statements. Wall Street currently makes huge amounts of money by front-running investors, simply paying to get faster access and information.

So much for deserve, as we use it.

My personal take is that there are awards that should definitely be merit based. Medals, titles, and so on. A lot of positions should only go to those who have shown they “deserve” them, though our ideas of what that means are really warped when the entire media weeps about how Hillary Clinton was “the most qualified candidate in history,” when she had displayed both terrible judgment (Iraq, Libya, pushing Trump) and incompetence (losing two campaigns as front runner, bungling Hilary-care.)

But I am heterodox. I don’t like incentives. I don’t think people should get more for doing more, because I think incentives usually warp behaviour in horrible ways.

Instead, in a surplus society, we should just ensure everyone has good quality of what they need: housing, healthcare, food. Take the fear and greed away, and send them to work without the whip of hunger. In such a world, oddly, by not doing what we do now, you’d see some of what orthodox economics says should happen, happen. For example, picking up garbage would be highly paid, because it’s not fun (though it is useful).

Let money buy anything that doesn’t matter: A fancy vacation, a TV so high-definition it looks like reality, a set of five-million thread count sheets so smooth you barely feel them, or an animatronic bear that loves you, really.

Deserve, in a surplus society, is really about FEAR. People who spend their entire lives operating from fear do not create good societies.

No one needs or deserves to be a billionaire (and if anyone ever did, it’s someone like Jonas Salk, not Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.) Having such people costs far more than money, as Bill Gates has proven by restricting vaccines.

Forget deserve. Give everyone a good life, and see what world people who aren’t scared create.

We’ve tried everything else. Maybe it’s time to try and run a society not based on fear.

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  1. Adam Eran

    This is the old debate about salvation by works vs. salvation by grace (grace = charis = gifts).

    There’s no way we deserve to have been born outside Somalia, for one example, or without handicaps (or being a person of color, female, etc.).

    Yet humanity appears to feel every tailwind is deserved.

    I say it’s either humility or humiliation. There’s no third choice.

  2. bruce wilder

    Economic rents get a bad name as a label for “unearned” income, but economic rents are also security, insurance and surety for good behavior. We misuse precarity in our political economy: we make the weakest also the most fearful, even desperate. It should be the opposite: the greatest should fear losing their privilege due to failures of leadership, neglgence or malfeasance. The little people should be secure in their small, inconsequential mistakes. Let ordinary people try what they will. Let the great worry about telling the truth and behaving well, even in private.

  3. Hugh

    “Deserve, in a surplus society, is really about FEAR.”

    Deserve/fear. that is an interesting concept. Well put.

    As always, we know what a sane and decent society would be and then don’t do it.

  4. Astrid

    That’s a lovely vision and how a better world could be (though with strictly enforced birth control and rules of law at all levels, please!). It’s what communist countries and coop organizations, in their very flawed ways, strive for.

    That would be nice. But my heart is filled with hate and hopelessness, so I would settle on a Roman style proscription on the top 1% or 0.01%, as a good start.

    Bill Gates isn’t merely wrong on vaccine patents, every single one of his “charitable” ventures that I am aware of is pure evil. Charter schools, GMO foods, geoengineering. He deserves to be near the top of any cancel list, along with Bezos, Musk, the Zuck, Sandberg, Kochs, and the rest.

  5. anon y'mouse

    none of us gets what we deserve, for good or for ill.

    being alive longer than a couple decades proves out that fate is more impactful almost than anything else. yes, you can work to get a more toned body or a promotion at work. but you can’t work to change your genes, country of origin, how and where and when you were brought up or any of the myriad other things that went into making you, you and continue to allow you to do whatever you do.

    but you will never get that idea through an A-merican’s skull. the idea of “working hard and reaping the reward” is why those euro bastards risked scurvy and death to get here.

    it would take about an equal time from Plymouth to now to disengage that attitude, and the entire society continues to double down.

  6. dbk

    A well stated and eminently sane, humane vision for what the future might – could – be, and it ties in nicely with your previous post, which I also appreciated a lot.

    All of what you outline is well within the realm of the human imagination, but the political will is currently lacking to embark on a course towards its realization.

    Political will must, therefore, be reshaped, if we’re to survive as a civilization, a species, and a planet.

    Well done, Ian.

  7. Jeremy

    We’ve been had.
    It’s really that simple.

  8. DMC

    Bertholt Brecht summed up all of socialism in the single statement “first feed the middle, then talk right and wrong”. When EVERYONE has enough to eat and a place to sleep, then we can decide about dividing up the surplus and who deserves compensation for past wrongs and current virtue.

  9. Monica

    I was struck by a statement from the earlier piece Ian linked to:

    My own view is that most people are neither good nor bad; but weak. They conform to the world around them, particularly their peer group and their masters. They bend.

    Most people naturally want to feel a part of something. That the institutions and larger societies they are brought up in are largely shit isn’t their fault. My point though is that calling most people “weak” is mean-spirited and speaks more to the author’s character. It also automatically puts the writer in a superior position. The writer didn’t admit to being weak, did he? He’s calling most everyone else out! Neat device, whether intentional or not. Watch for it.

    Thanks as always Ian for the stimulation.

  10. Mark Pontin

    Astrid wrote: “Bill Gates isn’t merely wrong on vaccine patents …”

    I haven’t paid close attention to what Gates has said and frankly I don’t much care. But I gather he contends that waiving the patents won’t have much effect, because in the short term of the immediate COV19 pandemic — the next 18-36 months, say — the problems are logistics problems.

    I can’t speak regarding other kinds of vaccines and their supply chains. But as far as the mRNA vaccines go, I’m afraid Gates is absolutely correct.

    I suspect, too, the reason the Biden administration is talking about waiving the patents is precisely because they know that doing so won’t change the underlying realities.

    After all, the mRNA sequence for the Moderna vaccine payload has been out there for months on the internet at places like GitHub. Moreover, Moderna said last year they wouldn’t enforce their patent on their Covid vaccine.

    So what’s going on? What are the real-world problems?

    As you may recall, Ursula von der Leyen and the EU Commission were prepared a couple of months ago to halt vaccine shipments from EU territories to the UK. What stopped them? Primarily, the fact that the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine was dependent on one single plant in the UK that manufactures the lipid nanoparticles in which the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA payloads are carried to their target in the bodies of those inoculated.

    The Germans are now building three such plants. Those three plants aren’t going to be up and running before Christmas (and I won’t be surprised if there aren’t delays beyond that). Yet Germany’s an advanced, technologically capable country. How can that be?

    It’s because in the real world converting synthesized mRNA and a set of lipids into precisely engineered nanoparticles with consistent encapsulation that opens up in patients’ bodies in the right way depends on enormously complicated, specially designed microfluidics technology. (Liquids behave very differently at that scale). So that’s why Pfizer in Europe is for the moment dependent on this one small plant in the U.K.

    In other words, the lipid nanoparticles — the nanotech delivery system for the synthesized mRNAvaccine — are the real secret sauce of the mRNA vaccines.

    Given that, what if legislators decide to waive the patents on Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s microfluidics technology or to reverse engineer it, and then disseminate it globally that way? (It’s an unlikely hypothetical, but let’s suppose.)

    Then there are more problems.

    Firstly: You’re no longer in the legal territory of waiving the patents on a life-saving vaccine, but of demanding the rights to a highly-complicated, proprietary nanotechnology that is NOT that vaccine but merely a delivery system.

    I suspect the lawyers for Moderna or Pfizer might win that one — not least because eighteen months ago there was no accepted proof that this bleeding-edge technology even worked and because Moderna was developing the mRNA vaccine primarily to serve as a personalized cancer vaccine/therapeutic. Given that most of us will either die of heart failure or cancer, the secret sauce to the mRNA vaccines — the lipid nanoparticle delivery system — will obviously be worth trillions beyond the COV19 pandemic. Still, let’s suppose the lawyers lose ….

    Secondly: The micro-manufacturing technology to build the microfluidics technology — the tools to build the tools to make the lipid nanoparticles that deliver the mRNA vaccine — is incredibly specialized and rare at present. Although that capability is being scaled up, Pfizer and Moderna are apparently eating up all of it at the moment.

    You don’t have to take my word for this. Here are a couple of Derek Lowe’s columns in SCIENCE TRANSLATIONAL MEDICINE where he goes into some of this in more — but not overwhelming — detail.

  11. Astrid

    Gates was involved in the Oxford AstroZeneca vaccine, which used an adenovirus vector not mRNA.

    Here’s the story.

  12. Mark Pontin

    Astrid wrote: “Gates was involved in the Oxford AstroZeneca vaccine, which used an adenovirus vector not mRNA.”

    Oh, I know that. In fact, the Oxford-AstroZeneca and the Gamaleya Institute’s Sputnik V — also a genetically-engineered adenoviral vector — would both be more suitable fits for the global pandemic situation (because more easily made, stored, and transported) than the mRNA vaccines.

    It’s regrettable that Gates made whatever deal he made and shoehorned himself in there. (Though I’ve got to give it to the fucker — he knows where the action is going to be, and is in that sense a real technologist. He’s all over the agbio field, too, because though the normies don’t know it yet, there’s a new Green Revolution about to hit.)

    What set me off to respond to you is that I’m seeing a lot of self-regarding “public intellectuals” who assume that all these vaccines technologies are cognate and equivalent just because they’re called ‘vaccines’ and they’re insisting that the mRNA vaccines can be made tomorrow in India and Pakistan if the patent rights are waived. They haven’t done the first thing to understand the technologies involved or maybe they’re just too stupid to.

    Whatever. Some people are wrong on the internet again, I guess. But I’m realizing these “public intellectuals” have the intelligence of Walmart greeters* and less diligence.

    *Sorry. That’s probably unfair to Walmart greeters. But you know what I mean.

  13. someofparts

    Could the Russians, Chinese and Cubans get people vaccinated globally if American and Europe won’t?

  14. Missy

    The mRNA vaccines are a joke. The way they arrived at the efficacy numbers and the way they’re being presented to the public are a total fraud. The pharmaceutical companies and their agents are culpable, as are the journalists that fail to properly investigate – instead just unquestioningly broadcasting the numbers as fact to the public at large.

    They should all be brought before the Hague for crimes against humanity.

  15. Jason

    They bend.

    Bending is a survival mechanism. Everyone bends to one degree or another unless one considers oneself a truly mythical Marlboro Man.

    The supple fern may survive strong winds by bending, while the mighty oak snaps. Of course, the mighty oak may survive a different event better than the fern. And something else may cause both the mighty oak and the fern to become uprooted.

    Seen in this light, it seems rather silly to call one weak and another strong. It depends on the situation.

    There is a place for all of us if we recognize there’s a place for all of us.

  16. Jeremy

    @ Missy – absolutely correct.

    See my video above – “We’ve been had”.

  17. Astrid

    I make no claims of being a public intellectual or being particularly bright, but I am aware of the micro lipid bottleneck you mentioned. Adenovirus vector vaccines have their own problem if repeated vaccinations are needed, so mRNA may be a better solution over the long term. mRNA is also very promising for treatment of cancer. So even if there’s more behind the scenes on the announced patent breaking, it may still be a very good thing for the world once production comes on line.

    I would never say Gates is unintelligent or uninterested. He has always struck me as highly intelligent and able to follow through the logical outcomes of his actions (unlike say Musk or Bezos). That’s what makes his advocacies particularly evil. They are destroying traditional and more sustainable ways of doing things, in favor of a neo-feudal future where we must pay IP rent to corporations for everything we do.

    The escape into techno-solutions ignore the proven traditional alternatives that work, like de-growth, conservation, and adaptation. They create a false narrative that there is no alternative to Gates’ IP feudalism when those overlooked options are cheaper, better, more proven, and more resilient. Green revolution number 1 was absolutely horrible for the world, to try again seems to me villainous.

    COVID19 is a real world experiment comparing the alternatives of traditional methods to USian techno-hopiumism. Just as the Chinese/Vietnam/ANZ/Taiwan showed that traditional and well understood public health measures can effectively curb COVID, the poor rollout of the vaccines and the continued uncertainty of their long term efficacy show how technology fails even when it succeeds.

  18. Astrid

    As someofparts say, the Russians, the Chinese, and possibly the Cubans and Indians appear to have something that may be just as effective as the Oxford vaccine and are as easily reproduced. So how the West chooses to manage its precious patents maybe a nothingburger, as the true workshops of the world gets to work and demonstrate their ability to independently find techno-solutions to their problems.

    Meanwhile, my husband is still double masking while indoors, even a month after his second Moderna shot. My parents are forgoing another year of globetrotting (they had been doing 4-8 overseas trips per year since they retired until 2020) due to fear of COVID variants and general difficulties with travel.

  19. Missy

    @ Jeremy

    Thank you for the link. Dr Reid Sheftall took the video down. Sheftall is clearly more interested in personally profiting from the lies and than from acting in the public interest. That said, he did a nice job explaining the math in layperson’s terms.

    It would be nice if there were more people covering this. His video was first released back in March and it only got around 10,000 views I believe.

  20. NR

    Meanwhile, outside of right-wing la-la land and back in the real world, Pfizer is applying for full FDA approval of its vaccine and submitting the required amount of data to do so.

    One of the big right-wing anti-vax talking points has been that the vaccines are “experimental” and not FDA approved, so we’ll have to wait and see what talking points they shift to after it’s approved.

  21. Hugh

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) jobs report covering April 2021 is out. As always, I look at the seasonally unadjusted numbers which show more what really happened. This month instead of MIGO-ing people, I decided to look at just where we are with just the big total private plus public sector numbers.

    A year ago, April was the month where the effects of covid really hit and the bottom fell out of the jobs survey with the public and private sectors losing a staggering 19.7 million jobs (down to 130.251 million). We are currently at 144.398 million jobs. So you might think. ‘Well we’re still down but 2/3 of the way back to where we were.’ But wait–

    At the last pre-covid April (2019), we were at 150.421 million jobs. We would expect there to be jobs growth since then. If we look at the average January-April jobs growth (year to date) in the 6 years from my 2014 reference year to 2019, the last pre-covid year, it was 2.766 million jobs. April 2019 was two years ago. So it would be twice this, and, added to our April 2019 number, gives us 155.953 million. That is we are still down 11.555 million from where we would expect ourselves to be. 144.398 million jobs, not 155.953 million.

    Worse most of the rebound, we saw from the cliff dive in April 2020 took place in the first two months after it with moderate gains through November 2020. And that’s the problem. After that initial rebound, jobs have been doing better but not ‘better’ enough. January-April this year we added 3.418 million jobs, a very good number most years, but only 652,000 better than the 2014-2019 average. At that rate, it would take us nearly 6 years to get us back to a level where we would expect to be if there had been no covid.

  22. StewartM

    In such a world, oddly, by not doing what we do now, you’d see some of what orthodox economics says should happen, happen. For example, picking up garbage would be highly paid, because it’s not fun (though it is useful.)

    With that in mind, there’s this:

    “Amid reports of a restaurant industry “labor shortage,” employees say all they really want are wages that makes the risk worth it”

    This is true of any work that involves a lot of standing and walking. As you age, in particular, it’s harder to do any kind of job that involves physical labor, be it construction or working in restaurants or anything else, which is why 1) we need to make retirement at younger ages easier, not harder; and 2) despite the gnashing of teeth of some of your mis-informed commentariat, we need immigrants, and lots of them. I’ve seen some people praise Japan, but Japan is about to raise its retirement age, going in exactly the wrong direction, playing to their ethnocentrism to have a “pure” Japanese society.

    Maybe having an 73-year old totter to your table to bring you a coffee and pastry is *your* idea of the “good society” but it’s sure the hell not mine, nor of most people, including the Trump voters you’re chasing. Making old people continue to work to just to keep your gun-tot’ing English-speaking mac-and-cheese Friday-night-football culture is a damn high price to pay.

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