The globalization of indifference

Christopher Dickey writes: The children are coming, illegally and alone, and they are coming by the tens of thousands. They are crossing the borders of the United States and they are risking the high seas to reach Europe. They trust their lives to criminals—to smugglers and traffickers. Many are effectively enslaved. Many do not survive.

On Monday, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum meant to address the “urgent humanitarian situation” on the southwest border where the number of children from Mexico and Central America trying to cross without their parents may reach 60,000 this year.

On the waters of the Mediterranean, each summer brings tide after tide of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but this year the wave started much earlier than usual. About 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far. Some 3,000 of them are children without their parents.

Yet for all the talk of urgency in government press releases, this crisis is presented in oddly sanitized, depersonalized and distant-seeming language. Obama’s “urgent” directive to relevant agencies calls on them to respond to “the influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC),” thus reducing terrible suffering to a set of initials.

In fact, along the high fences and walls built around the rich nations of the world, the poor and dispossessed, the terrified and the suffering, the ambitious and the hopeful are gathering in scenes that look like they’re straight out of hell.

Maybe you’ve seen the stunning photographs of immigrants and refugees trying to storm the borders of Spain at the enclave of Melilla, or the tens of thousands awaiting deportation from American detention centers. Or, maybe, you read the stories about the 12-year-old Ecuadoran girl who committed suicide in Mexico when she could not reach her parents in New York.

In the midst of this massive tragedy, the most human and humane voices are coming from the Catholic Church: from Pope Francis himself, and from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who has spent his life working with immigrants, both those with papers and those without.

When I first met O’Malley in the late 1970s he was running the Spanish Catholic Center in one of the poorer corners of Washington, D.C., helping undocumented workers find housing, jobs, and a future in the United States. He wore the hooded brown habit and sandals of a Franciscan Capuchin friar. “Padre Sean,” they called him.

Today he still wears the habit much of the time, but his title is “Eminence,” and when required he dons the cardinal’s miter. At the last conclave to select a new pope, the “Vaticanista” press corps touted him as one of the leading candidates. And the man who finally was chosen, Pope Francis, has made O’Malley one of his most high-profile advisors on everything from organizational reform to the scandal of children sexually abused by priests.

But there is no subject that brings the pope and Padre Sean together more closely than immigration.

The first pastoral trip that Francis took outside of Rome as pontiff, in July last year, was to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where so many refugees and immigrants have first made landfall on European soil, and where so many have died trying.

“In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” said the pope as he stood in a playing field that served as a makeshift detention center.

“We have become used to the suffering of others: ‘It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!’ … The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

In April of this year, O’Malley went to Nogales, Arizona, on the border with Mexico, and with other bishops distributed communion through the slats in the tall fence that separates the countries. He took a lot of flak for it. Right-wing Catholic pundit George Weigel criticized him for holding a “politicized” mass.

But other Catholic commentators leaped to O’Malley’s defense. “This place that is the border is precisely where our bishops should be because it is where Jesus would be,” wrote Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.

When O’Malley met with Pope Francis in Rome shortly afterward, the pontiff commented on the photographs that had come out of Arizona. “That’s a powerful picture,” he said to O’Malley.

Indeed. It’s not just the spiritual message, it’s the way of delivering it that is so striking in Francis’s church. “He’s a man who speaks in gestures,” O’Malley told me last week over lunch in New York City.

When I walked into the restaurant I was curious, of course, to see if O’Malley had changed much over the decades, and saw instantly that, apart from the whiteness of his hair and beard (he will turn 70 later this month), and the fact he was wearing a conventional priest’s collar that day, he seemed exactly the same.

We talked about the refugees and priests of Latin America during its wars, including El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Romero, shot with a bullet through the heart while performing mass at a hospice in 1980. But mainly we talked about rationalizing immigration policy as a matter of common sense, and common decency, not partisan politics. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Peter Van Buren: A rising tide lifts all yachts

The drumbeat of “good news” has been steady these past few months: the American economy is in recovery. Consumer confidence is up. Manufacturing is expanding. There are signs the housing market is on the “verge of a rebound.” In April, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% — the lowest it’s been since President Barack Obama took office.

Break down those unemployment numbers, though, and you get quite a different perspective on the American economy. One reason the unemployment rate fell was because the workforce participation rate — the number of Americans working or looking for work — decreased by nearly a million people. Many of them just packed up their hopes and went home to join the ranks of the officially uncounted jobless of this country. Why? Partially because Republicans in Congress refused to renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless — those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. The government requires unemployed Americans to prove that they are actively searching for work in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance. Once that motivation (and the financial means of transportation to job interviews) disappeared, many discouraged workers simply gave up looking.

At the beginning of 2014, Democrats made a big push to renew those benefits, which average $1,166 a month and kick in after the usual 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits run out.  They had been renewed yearly since the beginning of the recession — until last December, that is. Republicans promptly pushed back, demanding that any further aid for the out-of-work be “offset” by spending cuts elsewhere. In April, the impasse seemed to break when the Senate surprisingly passed a bipartisan bill to extend the emergency benefits. Since the legislation had GOP support, it was expected to pass the Republican-dominated House. House Speaker John Boehner, however, rejected it and the news cycle moved on.

The 3.5 million long-term jobless are still here though, crashing on the couches of family members or friends, struggling to feed their kids, unable to afford gas to get to those job interviews that are seldom to be found anyway. Today, former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, who has been following the fate of the 99% for TomDispatch and whose new book on the subject, Ghosts of Tom Joad, has just been published, takes a look at why it’s so hard for the long-term unemployed to get back to work. He also answers questions about why the American economy doesn’t work for those at the bottom, no less the sinking middle class. Erika Eichelberger

Why don’t the unemployed get off their couches?
And eight other critical questions for Americans
By Peter Van Buren

Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.

As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.

[Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

Rebecca Solnit: #YesAllWomen changes the story

Where was the NSA?  That’s the question former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren recently asked at his We Meant Well blog — and it couldn’t be a smarter one.  After all, the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodgers, made both his own sense of disturbance and his urge for “retribution” against women quite public before he went on his terror spree.  Shouldn’t the agency, whose unofficial motto (“collect it all”) seems to be meant quite literally, have noticed his messages to the world?

Given the ridiculous mass of human communications the NSA collects, both domestically and globally, perhaps not.  But one reason its employees might not have been paying attention was that Rodgers wasn’t an Islamic jihadist-in-the-making or an al-Qaeda wannabe.  He didn’t fall among the few fringe figures since 9/11 who have committed domestic acts of Islamic terror, including Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, the Tsarnaev brothers who briefly terrorized Boston, or Faisal Shahzad who managed to get a car bomb into New York’s Times Square.  Of course, it’s worth remembering that the agency American taxpayers support to the tune of almost $11 billion a year and that has made surveillance in the name of “safety” part of the American way of life somehow missed them, too!  Still, for the NSA one thing is clear enough: the Elliot Rodgers of this world may blow Americans away in numbers that put the casualty counts for what we call “domestic terrorism” to shame, but they aren’t considered “terrorists” and the war they are engaged in — against women — doesn’t qualify for any “war on terror.”

The numbers tell a grim story when it comes to this sort of terror in American life. Among other things, if you’re adding up casualties in this unnamed war, 1,500 women are murdered annually by their husbands or boyfriends.  That adds up to a 9/11-sized disaster every two years.  On the other side of things, in the wake of the killings in Isla Vista, California, and without the NSA stepping in to botch things up, the response to such terror has been extraordinary, and Rebecca Solnit, whose new Dispatch Book, Men Explain Things to Me, focuses on just what violence against women means in our world, offers her usual highly original look at ways in which women (and some men) are reconceiving our world and the horrors in it. Tom Engelhardt

Our words are our weapons
The feminist battle of the story in the wake of the Isla Vista massacre
By Rebecca Solnit

It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.

All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

[Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

Google releases employee data, illustrating tech’s diversity challenge

The New York Times reports: Google on Wednesday released statistics on the makeup of its work force, providing numbers that offer a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.

Thirty percent of Google’s 46,170 employees worldwide are women, the company said, and 17 percent of its technical employees are women. Comparatively, 47 percent of the total work force in the United States is women and 20 percent of software developers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of its United States employees, 61 percent are white, 2 percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. About one-third are Asian — well above the national average — and 4 percent are of two or more races. Of Google’s technical staff, 60 percent are white, 1 percent are black, 2 percent are Hispanic, 34 percent are Asian and 3 percent are of two or more races.

In the United States work force over all, 80 percent of employees are white, 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Google’s disclosures come amid an escalating debate over the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Although tech is a key driver of the economy and makes products that many Americans use ever yday, it does not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country — in terms of sex, age or race. The lopsided numbers persist among engineers, founders and boards of directors. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Mapping a new economy

Scott Carlson writes: David Harvey would implore you to imagine life without capitalism—that is, if you can. Chances are, even if you’re puzzled by the manipulation of phantom money on Wall Street, troubled by society’s growing inequality, or disgusted with the platinum parachutes of corporate executives, you probably still conceive the world in terms of profits, private property, and free markets, the invisible hand always on the tiller.

To Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that world is coming to an end. In Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford University Press), Harvey examines what he sees as the untenable elements of capital, and he analyzes how they can produce an unequal, destructive, crisis-prone system. The book represents a distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx, and in its own way a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.

“I was tired of hearing Marx quoted in ways that struck me as completely wrong,” Harvey says in his office at CUNY, around the corner from the Empire State Building. “Who I am writing for is, in a sense, anybody who says, Who is this guy Marx? I wanted to make it simple enough so that people could get into it, without being simplistic.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Foucault’s boomerang: the new military urbanism

Stephen Graham, Open Democracy

On 4 February 1976, Michel Foucault, the eminent French social theorist, stepped gingerly down to the podium in a packed lecture at the Collège de France in the Latin Quarter on Paris’s South Bank. Delivering the fifth in a series of 11 lectures under the title ‘Il faut défendre la société’ (‘Society must be defended’), for once Foucault focused his attention on the relationships between western societies and those elsewhere in the world. Moving beyond his legendary re-theorisations of how knowledge, power, technology and geographical space were combined to underpin the development of modern social orders within western societies, Foucault made a rare foray into discussions of colonialism.

Rather than merely highlighting the history through which European powers had colonised the world, however, Foucault’s approach was more novel. Instead, he explored how the formation of the colonies had involved a series of political, social, legal and geographical experiments which were then actually often bought back to the West in what Foucault – drawing possibly on Hannah Arendt’s famous work on totalitarianism – called ‘boomerang effects’. ‘It should never be forgotten,’ Foucault said:

“that while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself”

Such ‘boomerang effects’ centred on ordering the life of populations at home and abroad – what Foucault called ‘biopower’ and ‘biopolitics’ – rather than on protecting sovereign territory per se. Foucault did little to elucidate these in detail, and rarely touched on colonialism or postcolonialism again. However, his notion of colonial boomerang effects is powerful because it points beyond traditional ideas of colonisation toward a two-way process in the flow of ideas, techniques and practices of power between metropolitan heartlands of colonial powers and the spaces of colonised peripheries. Such a perspective reveals, for example, that Europe’s imperial cities were much more than the beneficiaries and control points organising explicitly ‘colonial’ economic techniques of plunder and dispossession through shipping, plantations, mining, oil extraction or slavery. They were also much more than a product of the economic booms that came with the processing and manufacturing of resources extracted from the colonies.

[Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

World Bank wants water privatized, despite risks

Anna Lappé writes: Humans can survive weeks without food, but only days without water — in some conditions, only hours. It may sound clichéd, but it’s no hyperbole: Water is life. So what happens when private companies control the spigot? Evidence from water privatization projects around the world paints a pretty clear picture — public health is at stake.

In the run-up to its annual spring meeting this month, the World Bank Group, which offers loans, advice and other resources to developing countries, held four days of dialogues in Washington, D.C. Civil society groups from around the world and World Bank Group staff convened to discuss many topics. Water was high on the list.

It’s hard to think of a more important topic. We face a global water crisis, made worse by the warming temperatures of climate change. A quarter of the world’s people don’t have sufficient access to clean drinking water, and more people die every year from waterborne illnesses — such as cholera and typhoid fever — than from all forms of violence, including war, combined. Every hour, the United Nations estimates, 240 babies die from unsafe water.

The World Bank Group pushes privatization as a key solution to the water crisis. It is the largest funder of water management in the developing world, with loans and financing channeled through the group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Since the 1980s, the IFC has been promoting these water projects as part of a broader set of privatization policies, with loans and financing tied to enacting austerity measures designed to shrink the state, from the telecom industry to water utilities.

But international advocacy and civil society groups point to the pockmarked record of private-sector water projects and are calling on the World Bank Group to end support for private water. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Matt Taibbi — The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?

Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.

facebooktwittermail

Occupy was right: Capitalism has failed the world

Andrew Hussey writes: The École d’économie de Paris (the Paris School of Economics) is actually situated in the most un-Parisian part of the city. It is on the boulevard Jourdan in the lower end of the 14th arrondissement, bordered on one side by the Parc Montsouris. Unlike most French parks, there is a distinct lack of Gallic order here; in fact, with lakes, open spaces, and its greedy and inquisitive ducks, you could very easily be in a park in any British city. The campus of the Paris School of Economics, however, looks unmistakably and reassuringly like nearly all French university campuses. That is to say, it is grey, dull and broken down, the corridors smelling vaguely of cabbage. This is where I have arranged an interview with Professor Thomas Piketty, a modest young Frenchman (he is in his early 40s), who has spent most of his career in archives and collecting data, but is just about to emerge as the most important thinker of his generation – as the Yale academic Jacob Hacker put it, a free thinker and a democrat who is no less than “an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st century”.

This is on account of his latest work, which is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This is a huge book, more than 700 pages long, dense with footnotes, graphs and mathematical formulae. At first sight it is unashamedly an academic tome and seems both daunting and incomprehensible. In recent weeks and months the book has however set off fierce debates in the United States about the dynamics of capitalism, and especially the apparently unstoppable rise of the tiny elite that controls more and more of the world’s wealth. In non-specialist blogs and websites across America, it has ignited arguments about power and money, questioning the myth at the very heart of American life – that capitalism improves the quality of life for everyone. This is just not so, says Piketty, and he makes his case in a clear and rigorous manner that debunks everything that capitalists believe about the ethical status of making money.

The groundbreaking status of the book was recognised by a recent long essay in the New Yorker in which Branko Milanovic, a former senior economist at the World Bank, was quoted as describing Piketty’s volume as “one of the watershed books in economic thinking”. In the same vein, a writer in the Economist reported that Piketty’s work fundamentally rewrote 200 years of economic thinking on inequality. In short, the arguments have centred on two poles: the first is a tradition that begins with Karl Marx, who believed that capitalism would self-destruct in the endless pursuit of diminishing profit returns. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the work of Simon Kuznets, who won a Nobel prize in 1971 and who made the case that the inequality gap inevitably grows smaller as economies develop and become sophisticated.

Piketty says that neither of these arguments stand up to the evidence he has accumulated. More to the point, he demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that capitalism can ever solve the problem of inequality, which he insists is getting worse rather than better. From the banking crisis of 2008 to the Occupy movement of 2011, this much has been intuited by ordinary people. The singular significance of his book is that it proves “scientifically” that this intuition is correct. This is why his book has crossed over into the mainstream – it says what many people have already been thinking. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Astra Taylor: Misogyny and the cult of internet openness

In December, and again in February, at the Google Bus blockades in San Francisco, one thing struck me forcefully: the technology corporation employees waiting for their buses were all staring so intently at their phones that they apparently didn’t notice the unusual things going on around them until their buses were surrounded. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a science-fiction novel, because my region is so afflicted with people who stare at the tiny screens in their hands on trains, in restaurants, while crossing the street, and too often while driving. San Francisco is, after all, where director Phil Kaufman set the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie wherein a ferny spore-spouting form of alien life colonizes human beings so that they become zombie-like figures.

In the movies, such colonization took place secretly, or by force, or both: it was a war, and (once upon a time) an allegory for the Cold War and a possible communist takeover. Today, however — Hypercapitalism Invades! — we not only choose to carry around those mobile devices, but pay corporations hefty monthly fees to do so. In return, we get to voluntarily join the great hive of people being in touch all the time, so much so that human nature seems in the process of being remade, with the young immersed in a kind of contact that makes solitude seem like polar ice, something that’s melting away.

We got phones, and then Smart Phones, and then Angry Birds and a million apps — and a golden opportunity to be tracked all the time thanks to the GPS devices in those phones. Your cell phone is the shackle that chains you to corporate America (and potentially to government surveillance as well) and like the ankle bracelets that prisoners wear, it’s your monitor. It connects you to the Internet and so to the brave new world that has such men as Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg in it. That world — maybe not so brave after all — is the subject of Astra Taylor’s necessary, alarming, and exciting new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

The Internet arose with little regulation, little public decision-making, and a whole lot of fantasy about how it was going to make everyone powerful and how everything would be free. Free, as in unregulated and open, got confused with free, as in not getting paid, and somehow everyone from Facebook to Arianna Huffington created massively lucrative sites (based on advertising dollars) in which the people who made the content went unpaid. Just as Russia woke up with oil oligarchs spreading like mushrooms after a night’s heavy rain, so we woke up with new titans of the tech industry throwing their billionaire weight around. The Internet turns out to be a superb mechanism for consolidating money and power and control, even as it gives toys and minor voices to the rest of us.

As Taylor writes in her book, “The online sphere inspires incessant talk of gift economies and public-spiritedness and democracy, but commercialization and privatization and inequality lurk beneath the surface. This contradiction is captured in a single word: ‘open,’ a concept capacious enough to contain both the communal and capitalistic impulses central to Web 2.0.” And she goes on to discuss, “the tendency of open systems to amplify inequality — and new media thinkers’ glib disregard for this fundamental characteristic.”  Part of what makes her book exceptional, in fact, is its breadth. It reviews much of the existing critique of the Internet and connects the critiques of specific aspects of it into an overview of how a phenomenon supposed to be wildly democratic has become wildly not that way at all.

And at a certain juncture, she turns to gender. Though far from the only weak point of the Internet as an egalitarian space — after all, there’s privacy (lack of), the environment (massive server farms), and economics (tax cheats, “content providers” like musicians fleeced) — gender politics, as she shows in today’s post adapted from her book, is one of the most spectacular problems online. Let’s imagine this as science fiction: a group of humans apparently dissatisfied with how things were going on Earth — where women were increasing their rights, representation, and participation — left our orbit and started their own society on their own planet. The new planet wasn’t far away or hard to get to (if you could afford the technology): it was called the Internet. We all know it by name; we all visit it; but we don’t name the society that dominates it much.

Taylor does: the dominant society, celebrating itself and pretty much silencing everyone else, makes the Internet bear a striking resemblance to Congress in 1850 or a gentlemen’s club (minus any gentleness). It’s a gated community, and as Taylor describes today, the security detail is ferocious, patrolling its borders by trolling and threatening dissident voices, and just having a female name or being identified as female is enough to become a target of hate and threats.

Early this year, a few essays were published on Internet misogyny that were so compelling I thought 2014 might be the year we revisit these online persecutions, the way that we revisited rape in 2013, thanks to the Steubenville and New Delhi assault cases of late 2012. But the subject hasn’t (yet) quite caught fire, and so not much gets said and less gets done about this dynamic new machinery for privileging male and silencing female voices. Which is why we need to keep examining and discussing this, as well as the other problems of the Internet. And why you need to read Astra Taylor’s book. This excerpt is part of her diagnosis of the problems; the book ends with ideas about a cure. Rebecca Solnit

Open systems and glass ceilings
The disappearing woman and life on the internet
By Astra Taylor

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

[Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

The McCutcheon decision: If this is not corruption, what is?

Robert Reich writes: The supreme court is composed of five justices appointed by Republican presidents, and four appointed by Democratic ones. In the McCutcheon v FEC case decided on Wednesday, the five Republican appointees interpreted the first amendment to protect the right of individuals to pour as much as $3.6m into a political party or $800,000 into a political campaign.

The decision by those justices allows individual donors to buy – and federal officeholders to solicit – unparalleled personal influence in Washington. McCutcheon drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens.

Presumably, the individuals who were of concern to the majority of the court have incomes larger than the median US family income of roughly $50,000 a year and wealth in excess of the median American family’s wealth of approximately $70,000. It is very likely that these individuals have huge incomes and enormous wealth.

The decision rests on the court’s dubious finding that such spending does not give rise to corruption. That’s baloney, as anyone who has the faintest familiarity with contemporary American politics well knows. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion: “where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard”.

The majority’s decision to open the floodgates to big money would be less important if the distribution of income and wealth in America were more equal. But it has become extraordinarily unequal. Together, the richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the American population. A handful of billionaires are, at this moment, deciding on whom to place their multi-million dollar bets in the 2014 midterm election. The McCutcheon decision makes it easier for them to do so than ever before. They don’t need to go through political action committees or so-called “social welfare” organizations. The rich can now make their bets directly.

We have returned to the gilded age of the late 19th century, when the lackeys of robber barons placed sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators. If this is not corruption, what is? [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

The shocking rise of wealth inequality: Is it worse than we thought?

Jordan Weissmann writes: America’s gap between the rich and the rest might be worse than we ever knew.

Economists Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California–Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, of the London School of Economics, are out with a new set of findings on American wealth inequality, and their numbers are startling. Wealth, for reference, is the value of what you own—assets like housing, stocks, and bonds, minus your debts. And while it certainly comes up from time to time, it has tended to play second fiddle to income in conversations about America’s widening class divide. In part, that’s because it’s a trickier conversation subject. Wealth has always been far more concentrated than income in the United States. Plus, research suggested that the top 1 percent of households had actually lost some of its share since the 1980s.

That might not really have been the case.

Forget the 1 percent. The winners of this race, according to Zucman and Saez, have been the 0.1 percent. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Thomas Piketty’s data-driven magnum opus on inequality

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write: When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1830s, the aspect of the new republic that most stimulated him was its remarkable social equality. “America, then, exhibits in her social state an extraordinary phenomenon,” Tocqueville marveled. “Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect … than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.”

To Tocqueville, who largely ignored the grim exception of the South, America’s progress toward greater equality was inevitable, the expansion of its democratic spirit unstoppable. Europe, he believed, would soon follow America’s lead. He was right—sort of. Democracy was on the rise, but so too was inequality. Only with the 20th century’s Great Depression, two terrible wars, and the creation of the modern welfare state did concentrations of economic advantage in rich democracies start to dissipate and the fruits of rapid growth begin to accrue generously to ordinary workers.

Now another Frenchman with a panoramic vista — and far more precise evidence — wants us to think anew about the progress of equality and democracy. Though an heir to Tocqueville’s tradition of analytic history, Thomas Piketty has a message that could not be more different: Unless we act, inequality will grow much worse, eventually making a mockery of our democratic institutions. With wealth more and more concentrated, countries racing to cut taxes on capital, and inheritance coming to rival entrepreneurship as a source of riches, a new patrimonial elite may prove as inevitable as Tocqueville once believed democratic equality was.

This forecast is based not on speculation but on facts assembled through prodigious research. Piketty’s startling numbers show that the share of national income coming from capital — once comfortingly believed to be stable — is on the rise. Private wealth has reached new highs relative to national income and is approaching levels of concentration not seen since before 1929. [Continue reading...]

John Cassidy writes: Piketty believes that the rise in inequality can’t be understood independently of politics. For his new book, he chose a title evoking Marx, but he doesn’t think that capitalism is doomed, or that ever-rising inequality is inevitable. There are circumstances, he concedes, in which incomes can converge and the living standards of the masses can increase steadily — as happened in the so-called Golden Age, from 1945 to 1973. But Piketty argues that this state of affairs, which many of us regard as normal, may well have been a historical exception. The “forces of divergence can at any point regain the upper hand, as seems to be happening now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” he writes. And, if current trends continue, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.”

In the nineteen-fifties, the average American chief executive was paid about twenty times as much as the typical employee of his firm. These days, at Fortune 500 companies, the pay ratio between the corner office and the shop floor is more than two hundred to one, and many C.E.O.s do even better. In 2011, Apple’s Tim Cook received three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars in salary, stock, and other benefits, which was sixty-two hundred and fifty-eight times the wage of an average Apple employee. A typical worker at Walmart earns less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year; Michael Duke, the retailer’s former chief executive, was paid more than twenty-three million dollars in 2012. The trend is evident everywhere. According to a recent report by Oxfam, the richest eighty-five people in the world — the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim — own more wealth than the roughly 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.

Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reëmergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this “patrimonial society,” a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up. For the United States, in particular, this would be a cruel and ironic fate. “The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion,” Piketty writes, “and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.”

What are the “forces of divergence” that produce enormous riches for some and leave the majority scrabbling to make a decent living? Piketty is clear that there are different factors behind stagnation in the middle and riches at the top. But, during periods of modest economic growth, such as the one that many advanced economies have experienced in recent decades, income tends to shift from labor to capital. Because of enmeshed economic, social, and political pressures, Piketty fears “levels of inequality never before seen.”

To back up his arguments, he provides a trove of data. He and Saez pioneered the construction of simple charts showing the shares of over-all income received by the richest ten per cent, the richest one per cent, and, even, the richest 0.1 per cent. When the data are presented in this way, Piketty notes, it is easy for people to “grasp their position in the contemporary hierarchy (always a useful exercise, particularly when one belongs to the upper centiles of the distribution and tends to forget it, as is often the case with economists).” Anybody who reads the newspaper will be aware that, in the United States, the “one per cent” is taking an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. But did you know that the share of the top income percentile is bigger than it was in South Africa in the nineteen-sixties and about the same as it is in Colombia, another deeply divided society, today? In terms of income generated by work, the level of inequality in the United States is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” Piketty writes. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

The 67 people as wealthy as the world’s poorest 3.5 billion

Kasia Moreno writes: Oxfam International, a poverty fighting organization, made news at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year with its report that the world’s 85 richest people own assets with the same value as those owned by the poorer half of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people (including children). Both groups have $US 1.7 trillion. That’s $20 billion on average if you are in the first group, and $486 if you are in the second group.

Oxfam’s calculations of the richest individuals are based on the 2013 Forbes Billionaires list. I decided to take a closer look at this group of 85 in search of trends. That’s when I realized that they are by now a much wealthier group. The rich got richer. And it was quite fast and dramatic. For example, while last year it took $23 billion to be in the top 20 of the world’s billionaires, this year it took $31 billion, according to Luisa Kroll, Forbes wealth editor, writing on Forbes.com.

As a result, by the time Forbes published its 2014 Billionaires List in early March, it took only 67 of the richest peoples’ wealth to match the poorer half of the world. [Continue reading..]

facebooktwittermail

The dead are wealthier than the living: capital in the 21st century

f13-iconTimothy Noah writes: In Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel Père Goriot, a cynical observer of Parisian society under the reign of Louis-Philippe extends some career advice to a penniless young nobleman:

The Baron de Rastignac thinks of becoming an advocate, does he? There’s a nice prospect for you! Ten years of drudgery straight away. You are obliged to live at the rate of a thousand francs a month; you must have a library of law books, live in chambers, go into society, go down on your knees to ask a solicitor for briefs, lick the dust off the floor of the Palais de Justice. If this kind of business led to anything, I should not say no; but just give me the names of five advocates here in Paris who by the time that they are fifty are making fifty thousand francs a year! Bah! I would sooner turn pirate on the high seas than have my soul shrivel up inside me like that. How will you find the capital? There is but one way, marry a woman who has money.

It was much the same, the French economist Thomas Piketty tells us in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, two decades earlier in Jane Austen’s rural England, and it remained so five decades later on Henry James’ Washington Square. To belong to the landed or urban gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries—that is, to possess “books or musical instruments or jewelry or ball gowns”—you needed at least 20 to 30 times the income of the average person, and the most lucrative professions paid only half that. You needed capital, typically in the form of land. And you needed a lot of it—much more than could typically be amassed in the course of one lifetime. Consequently, “society” (i.e., the rich) consisted almost entirely of rentiers living off inherited wealth. It was much more true in Europe than in the United States, but it was true up to a point here, too, especially in the antebellum South.

This “patrimonial capitalism,” as Piketty calls it, was dealt a mortal blow a hundred years ago with the outbreak of World War I, which diverted financial resources, impeded shipping and trade, destroyed infrastructure, and killed members of the officer (i.e., upper) class disproportionately. Then the Great Depression and World War II put it out of its misery. In recent memory, the way to get rich has been to do it yourself. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, is the opposite of a 19th-century society dandy—an almost comically unglamorous figure who parlayed an unexceptional upbringing in the upper middle class into a reported $76 billion fortune (according to Forbes). Plenty of others get rich through more questionable means (especially the manipulation of abstruse financial instruments), and a lively discussion has begun about how we should address the three-decade trend of growing income inequality. But it’s income that mostly interests us, not wealth, because income is the currency of the modern economy. Gone are the days when the only way to acquire an upper-class income was to marry into a family fortune.

Or are they? Piketty says patrimonial capitalism is coming back. Being born into or marrying wealth never stopped being the easiest path to acquiring a fortune; Piketty fears it may once again become the most common path as well. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Industrial society heading for ‘irreversible collapse’

a13-iconAt The Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed writes: A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.” [Continue reading...]

The research paper, which is quite technical, can be read here: “A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.”

facebooktwittermail