Brian Merchant writes: It’s happening in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Bosnia, Syria, and beyond. Revolutions, unrest, and riots are sweeping the globe. The near-simultaneous eruption of violent protest can seem random and chaotic; inevitable symptoms of an unstable world. But there’s at least one common thread between the disparate nations, cultures, and people in conflict, one element that has demonstrably proven to make these uprisings more likely: high global food prices.
Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index — a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time — and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.
Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient — 2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that’s when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown. [Continue reading...]
Kevin Roose recounts what he witnessed when he sneaked into the annual black-tie induction ceremony of a secret Wall Street fraternity called Kappa Beta Phi — and then got caught: “Who the hell are you?” [billionaire Michael] Novogratz demanded.
I felt my pulse spike. I was tempted to make a run for it, but – due to the ethics code of the New York Times, my then-employer – I had no choice but to out myself.
“I’m a reporter,” I said.
Novogratz stood up from the table.
“You’re not allowed to be here,” he said.
I, too, stood, and tried to excuse myself, but he grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go.
“Give me that or I’ll fucking break it!” Novogratz yelled, grabbing for my phone, which was filled with damning evidence. His eyes were bloodshot, and his neck veins were bulging. The song onstage was now over, and a number of prominent Kappas had rushed over to our table. Before the situation could escalate dangerously, a bond investor and former Grand Swipe named Alexandra Lebenthal stepped in between us. Wilbur Ross quickly followed, and the two of them led me out into the lobby, past a throng of Wall Street tycoons, some of whom seemed to be hyperventilating.
Once we made it to the lobby, Ross and Lebenthal reassured me that what I’d just seen wasn’t really a group of wealthy and powerful financiers making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense. No, it was just a group of friends who came together to roast each other in a benign and self-deprecating manner. Nothing to see here.
But the extent of their worry wasn’t made clear until Ross offered himself up as a source for future stories in exchange for my cooperation.
“I’ll pick up the phone anytime, get you any help you need,” he said.
“Yeah, the people in this group could be very helpful,” Lebenthal chimed in. “If you could just keep their privacy in mind.”
I wasn’t going to be bribed off my story, but I understood their panic. Here, after all, was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, sing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) These were activities that amounted to a gigantic middle finger to Main Street and that, if made public, could end careers and damage very public reputations.
After several more minutes spent trying to do damage control, Ross and Lebenthal escorted me out of the St. Regis.
As I walked through the streets of midtown in my ill-fitting tuxedo, I thought about the implications of what I’d just seen.
The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. [Continue reading...]
Marc Bamuthi Joseph writes: As environmentalism goes mainstream, corporations are marketing the word “green” as a panacea for the world’s climate crisis. Today the word describes a set of prescribed, mostly consumerist actions: buy local, organic and fresh; go vegan; eat in season; skip the elevator, take the stairs. “Green” has come to mean shopping at Whole Foods and possessing a Prius. Meanwhile, leading corporate polluters like BP and ExxonMobil place commercials on CNN advertising their “green” practices.
It should come as no surprise, then, that “green” lifestyles don’t resonate with low-income communities; being “green” involves a set of behaviors that are financially or culturally inaccessible to millions of Americans. This presents a major problem for the environmental movement. If it is going to be successful, environmentalism simply cannot afford to be demographically segregated or isolated from the pathos of economic disparity.
The environmental movement needs to do a better job of connecting issues of race, class, poverty and sustainability; in short, it has to become a broader social movement. And people of color need visibility in the movement. By that, I don’t mean Barack Obama presiding over environmental policy from the White House or Lisa Jackson heading the Environmental Protection Agency during Obama’s first term. I mean the recognition that sustainable survival practices in poor communities are just as significant as solar panels and LED lights. Ultimately this is where the citizenry of the planet can and must come together in order to move forward. [Continue reading...]
Eva Illouz writes: [T]he critiques of Israel in the United States are increasingly waged by Jews, not anti-Semites. The initiators and leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement are such respected academics as Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Rose and Larry Gross, all Jews.
If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore. As Peter Beinart has been cogently arguing for some time now, the Jewish people seems to have split into two distinct factions: One that is dominated by such imperatives as “Israeli security,” “Jewish identity” and by the condemnation of “the world’s double standards” and “Arabs’ unreliability”; and a second group of Jews, inside and outside Israel, for whom human rights, freedom, and the rule of law are as visceral and fundamental to their identity as membership to Judaism is for the first group. Supreme irony of history: Israel has splintered the Jewish people around two radically different moral visions of Jews and humanity.
If we are to find an appropriate analogy to understand the rift inside the Jewish people, let us agree that the debate between the two groups is neither ethnic (we belong to the same ethnic group) nor religious (the Judith Butlers of the world are not trying to push a new or different religious dogma, although the rift has a certain, but imperfect, overlap with the religious-secular positions). Nor is the debate a political or ideological one, as Israel is in fact still a democracy. Rather, the poignancy, acrimony and intensity of the debate are about two competing and ultimately incompatible conceptions of morality.
[W]hat started as a national and military conflict has morphed into a form of domination of Palestinians that now increasingly borders on conditions of slavery. If we understand slavery as a condition of existence and not as ownership and trade of human bodies, the domination that Israel has exercised over Palestinians turns out to have created the matrix of domination that I call a “condition of slavery.”
The Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry has documented that between 1967 and 2012, Israeli authorities arrested some 800,000 Palestinians by power of the “military code.” (A more conservative assessment from Israeli sources documented that 700,000 Palestinians were detained between 1967 and 2008.) This number is astounding, especially in light of the fact that this represents as much as 40 percent of the entire male population. When a large part of the adult male population is arrested, it means that the lives of a large number of breadwinners, the heads of a family, are disrupted, alienated and made into the object of the arbitrary power of the army. In fact, which nation would create a Prisoner Affairs Ministry if imprisonment was not such a basic aspect of its life?
These facts also mean that a significant portion of the non-incarcerated population lives under the constant fear and threat of imprisonment. [Continue reading...]
Sean McElwee writes: There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago: [Continue reading...]
Tom Perkins, who was one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, sees himself as belonging to America’s “creative one percent” — the one percent who are “the job creators.” He takes pride in the fact that Kleiner Perkins has “created pretty close to a million jobs.” He says the rich “get richer by creating opportunity for others.”
The idea that capitalists create jobs is central to the American view of the way economies work. It’s so axiomatic, hardly anyone seems to pause to consider whether it makes any sense.
Certainly, capitalists provide investments that make the creation of jobs possible, but this isn’t fundamentally different from walking into Best Buy and buying an iPhone.
In a store, the transaction is simple: make a payment and in return receive a product. There’s nothing creative in the action of the buyer. Money is used in order to be able to make use of the creativity of others. The buyers of iPhones do not create iPhones.
Likewise, investors are buying the fruit of the labor of others. Investors have the luxury of being able to afford to wait for a return on their capital and the willingness to risk seeing no return, but the only creative element in what they do is focused on their calculations about where to place their bets. Even then, it’s creative focus, irrespective of the innovative vehicle, is on the creation of wealth.
Capitalists don’t create workers and the jobs they claim they are creating are useless if no one with the required skills is available to fill them. It is workers themselves and educators and the society that supports them, that are the real engine of job creation. All the investor does is control the flow of money and cream off a hefty portion of the profit.
As for Perkins claim that if the rich are allowed to do what the rich do, which is get richer, then everyone else will get richer too, he’s just rehashing discredited free-market economics.
Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, lays out the reasons that growing inequality is not just a problem — it’s built into the structure of capitalism.
There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.
According to Piketty, those halcyon six decades were the result of two world wars and the Great Depression. The owners of capital – those at the top of the pyramid of wealth and income – absorbed a series of devastating blows. These included the loss of credibility and authority as markets crashed; physical destruction of capital throughout Europe in both World War I and World War II; the raising of tax rates, especially on high incomes, to finance the wars; high rates of inflation that eroded the assets of creditors; the nationalization of major industries in both England and France; and the appropriation of industries and property in post-colonial countries.
At the same time, the Great Depression produced the New Deal coalition in the United States, which empowered an insurgent labor movement. The postwar period saw huge gains in growth and productivity, the benefits of which were shared with workers who had strong backing from the trade union movement and from the dominant Democratic Party. Widespread support for liberal social and economic policy was so strong that even a Republican president who won easily twice, Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognized that an assault on the New Deal would be futile. In Eisenhower’s words, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again in our political history.”
The six decades between 1914 and 1973 stand out from the past and future, according to Piketty, because the rate of economic growth exceeded the after-tax rate of return on capital. Since then, the rate of growth of the economy has declined, while the return on capital is rising to its pre-World War I levels.
“If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy – this is Piketty’s key inequality relationship,” [Branko] Milanovic [an economist in the World Bank’s research department] writes in his review, it “generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years.” [Continue reading...]
Sadhbh Walshe writes: Anytime I feel called upon to devote column inches to the antics of a teenage pop sensation in meltdown mode, I die a little. But after seeing a petition to the White House calling for the deportation of Justin Bieber for allegedly egging his neighbor’s mansion and subsequently driving under the influence has already gathered nearly 80,000 signatures, it seems necessary to take up his cause. This is not, I assure you, because he turned in what must be the sweetest mugshot ever or even because I’m so terribly concerned about his ultimate fate – I think we all know he’s going to be just fine – but simply because many other legal immigrants in the same position would almost certainly not be.
Since Bieber came under investigation earlier this month for the egg throwing incident, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and elsewhere have been trying to use his case to highlight the fact that, if convicted, the potential consequences could be much more severe for Bieber, who is a legal immigrant from Canada (he has a US visa for his extraordinary ability in the arts), than they would be if he were an American citizen. As the ACLU’s Diana Scholl pointed out in a recent blog post, if the damage to his neighbor’s property were found to be over $400, Bieber could be charged with felony vandalism under California law and, if convicted, could be subject to mandatory detention in a privately run immigrant prison before being deported back to his native Canada. This is because under US immigration law, any legal alien convicted of an aggravated felony faces mandatory detention and deportation and many Americans might be surprised to know just how many crimes are classified as “aggravated felonies” when they are committed by immigrants.
Before any concerned Beliebers start flinging their bras over the barbed wire fences of one of our many immigrant detention centers that are mostly run by for profit corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, Inc, I should stress that it’s highly unlikely that Bieber will end up in one of them. Although his neighbors have claimed the damage to their property is in the region of $20,000, well over the threshold that would make the egg attack a felony, investigators who subsequently searched Bieber’s home unsurprisingly failed to uncover any evidence against the performer. (As the Guardian’s Marina Hyde succinctly put it, “What were they looking for? An omelette?“) But even if the police had unearthed a nest of egg bombs in the star’s kitchen, chances are Bieber would still be safe, simply because the kind of immigrants that get deported do not tend to be either Canadian or rich. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: The world’s wealthiest people aren’t known for travelling by bus, but if they fancied a change of scene then the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker.
The extent to which so much global wealth has become corralled by a virtual handful of the so-called ‘global elite’ is exposed in a new report from Oxfam on Monday. It warned that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population.
The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world, added the development charity, which fears this concentration of economic resources is threatening political stability and driving up social tensions. [Continue reading...]
Michael Lind writes: What do you call an employer that refuses to pay its workers any salary at all? Answer: The White House.
President Barack Obama has called for an increase in the U.S. minimum wage. And yet his administration expects hundreds of young people each year to work at the White House for an hourly wage of zero.
According to a White House website, White House interns are expected to work “at least Monday-Friday, 9 am-6pm.” Nice touch — “at least.”
In return for a full week’s worth of work and possible overtime, the White House provides its interns with no pay and no housing help. The latter is significant, because the Washington, D.C., metro area has among the highest costs in the U.S.
The problem with the unpaid internship program, which Obama inherited from previous Oval Officers and which has continued, is not sweatshop exploitation — it’s blatant class discrimination. [Continue reading...]
Kennedy Odede writes: Terrorism is a global reality, and for me as a Kenyan, this struck close to home in September with the siege of the Westgate mall. Yet in many ways, growing up in Nairobi I was always in the midst of terror. As a boy living in extreme poverty in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, I learned early on that I was disposable, that human life is not equally valued. Life expectancy in Kibera is estimated at 30 years, compared with 64 in the rest of Kenya and 70 worldwide. In Kibera, people are desensitized to death. Living is understood to be the exception.
I am 29 years old — on the threshold of a new decade of life. All my close friends from childhood, save for two, were robbed of this experience. Some took risks to feed their families; for stealing bread or charcoal, they were shot by the police. Others, who worked for as little as $1 per day, fell from construction sites or burned in factory fires. Still others perished in the violence after the 2007 election. Violence and loss became part of day-to-day life.
These are more than singular tragedies; they contribute to the psyche of being poor. This psyche inculcates hopelessness, dispels a belief in the possibility of tomorrow’s being better than today, compels a resignation to the fact that you may suffer the same tragic fate as your peers, and fuels anger because there is no escape and you did not choose this — you simply drew life’s short straw.
This, perhaps, is terrorism’s fertile ground. Because if you grew up as I did, self-protection requires coming to terms with violence and terror. Violence becomes a vehicle of survival. My friend Boi was 16 when he joined a gang with the goal of supporting his mother and sister. If stealing or fighting was the only way, he was ready. In the end, he was shot dead.
An environment in which you cannot get a job despite ability, ambition and persistence fosters anger. My friend James and I used to leave the slum together each morning to look for work as day laborers. We always hoped we’d be lucky, only to be told “not today” — day after day after day. Then one day, James and I got construction jobs. While carrying heavy stones, two of James’s fingers were crushed. He was not compensated and was out of work for more than two years. Later, James caught another break and got a job as a security guard at an upper-class estate. The estate was robbed, and James was fired and never paid.
Something broke in James. In the constant degradation he saw that for people like us there was no justice. He joined a local group infamous for terrorizing the community, robbing and stealing. James was ready to die, willing to do anything to provide what he could for his family. Today, this world of violence and uncertainty remains his reality.
News reports inform us that Kenya’s slums are ripe for terrorist recruitment. No one is born a terrorist. But being paid a reported $1,000 to undergo militant training in Somalia is more than enough financial incentive; the young people in Nairobi’s slums are accustomed to taking risks that pay far less. [Continue reading...]
Matthew Hutson writes: London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, drew criticism late last year for saying that economic inequality can be attributed, in part, to IQ. “I am afraid that [the] violent economic centrifuge [of competition] is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability,” he told an audience at the Centre for Policy Studies.
That’s a satisfying worldview for someone who is successful and considers himself unusually bright. But a quick look at the data shows the limitations of raw smarts and stick-to-itiveness as an explanation for inequality. The income distribution in the United States provides a good example. In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful. Many forces out of their control, including sheer luck, are at play.
But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent — or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.
In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities. One sees categories as natural, discrete, and stable. Dogs have a certain dogness to them and cats a certain catness.
Researchers have found that people hold essentialist beliefs about generally biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. Essentialism leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and a disinclination to mingle with outsiders. Kraus and Keltner wanted to know if we see social class as an essential category. [Continue reading...]
T.O. Molefe writes: For all his remarkable achievements, Nelson Mandela died with his dream for South Africa incomplete. Democracy and peace were attained, yet real racial harmony, social justice and equality seem, in some ways, further away than ever.
South Africa’s economy still stifles the aspirations of most of its black citizens — a situation that threatens the sustainability of the project of national reconciliation that is a central part of the Mandela legacy.
When I am able to detach myself from the anger I feel over this injustice, I see the South Africa that Mr. Mandela described in his 1994 inaugural address — “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” — as but the opening move of a master tactician. It represented the brief suspension of reality for the sake of an endgame Mr. Mandela knew he would not be around to play.
Mr. Mandela’s rainbow ideal of a multiracial country that had avoided civil war, where blacks had forgiven whites for apartheid and everyone had learned to live together, was great and necessary for its time. But it is an ideal that should be laid to rest with him. Today, an economic revolution is what is needed most if South Africa is to continue on the path to reconciliation.
Like many of the transitional steps on the road to democracy, the rainbow-nation ideal was needed to hold together a country that was on the verge of fracturing. It did this by assuaging white guilt and putting off the black majority’s demand for immediate social justice.
In the 1990s, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Mandela popularized a new national self-image that made it possible to focus mainly on racial reconciliation, strengthening democratic institutions and creating a free press — all prerequisites for turning a tentative peace into a more lasting one.
In pursuit of this rainbow ideal, Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress had to silence, mollify or sideline certain allies within the liberation movement who not only demanded a democratic revolution but an economic one, too. But the price of deferring the dream of true equality was to leave the country lurching dangerously toward an explosion.
For the poorer black majority of South Africans, the unheralded heroes who have sacrificed so much in the transition to democracy that Mr. Mandela led, social justice has been held in abeyance, ostensibly for the sake of peace, as though the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” did not apply to them. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Pope Francis said in the first peace message of his pontificate that huge salaries and bonuses are symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality and called again for nations to narrow the wealth gap.
In his message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, marked around the world on January 1, he also called for sharing of wealth and for nations to shrink the gap between rich and poor, more of whom are getting only “crumbs”.
“The grave financial and economic crises of the present time … have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy,” he said.
“The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles,” he said.
Francis, who was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year on Wednesday, has urged his own Church to be more fair, frugal and less pompous and to be closer to the poor and suffering.
His message will be sent to national leaders, international organizations such as the United Nations, and NGO’s.
Titled “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace“, the message also attacked injustice, human trafficking, organized crime and the weapons trade as obstacles to peace.
Instead Time chose Pope Francis, a man who in the last year has been transforming the Catholic church by focusing on the searing inequalities brought about by poverty. In one of his many poignant quotes recently, he asks:
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
I keep going back to the line “those wielding economic power”. They are the ones who have come to dominate our society, a society that over the last 40 years has slowly ceded to the ideology of free markets.
When I worked on Wall Street in the 90s, I traveled for business to Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina. I was one of many foreigners there to tell them how they needed to reform their country, open it up to the free markets. They did embrace the free markets. That worked well until it didn’t, ending in a massive crash in 2001. Poverty rates climbed during that period.
We bankers would travel in taxis, past the slums that ringed the city center of Buenos Aires. No banker went in there. It was said to be too dangerous. Instead we moved around numbers on a spreadsheet, numbers that represented people. Pope Francis did go into the slums. Regularly. He saw what we didn’t. As he wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation: “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” [Continue reading...]