Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Egalitarian Angst

Optimism is cowardice.               -Oswald Spengler

Wealth inequality is at a high point in contemporary times, with people's perceptions of wealth distribution completely out of step with reality.
Of course, this would not have been possible if it weren't for creditors suckering people into making terrible decisions with debt. All we want is to be debt free!
It's college's fault, amirite?
When it comes to earning money and not just having it, people are pissed about their jobs for a variety of reasons:
Record numbers of people are dissatisfied with their job.
Fast food workers don't think they're earning enough.
Working in America just sucks.
We can help you define exactly why your job sucks. Take all those shitty, whiny excuses and make them sound less pathetic with this handy guide to excuses that sound sophisticated and legitimate.
Lots of this would be much better if employers would just do nice things, like double people's wages. Would you like to know more?

From what I can tell, you would like to know that this is the fault of those terrible people in the 1%, and that as a matter of basic justice, you and The Peoplez should have more of the wealth.

Okay, let's talk about that for a second. Because I have precisely zero sympathy for any of this, and the information constantly being presented on this subject just annoys the living hell out of me.

What This Actually Means

Do you know what most of these figures mean?

It sounds straightforward. It means that 1% of the population has 40% of the wealth, and therefore, 40% of the stuff, and because of that inequality, they have the power. 

This is only sort of true... if you're really materialistic about what power means. Actually, even then, it isn't that true. They're just statistics, and the tales of GDP figures are hopelessly skewed by Fed policy.

The figures belie the reality that money is cheap, so the figures are inflated at the top as we shovel newly-printed money into the bond market, trying to keep interest rates low and create investment and jobs. The figures belie that the technology has made most labor worthless and cheapened everything to the point that we simply don't need any more of anything. The figures belie that production is already being carried out with such intensity through the global economy that resource depletion is becoming a problem and we're leaving piles of garbage in the Pacific Ocean the size of a flyover state.

What the figures mean is that the rich are playing a game of asset exchange that involves evaluation and risk, with the vast majority of those assets in their possession being investment goods that produce what normal people in this country buy. This means farmland, industrial equipment, research facilities, and of course, truckloads of stocks, bonds, ETF's, futures, and all the ownership on paper that does not translate into direct control but shows confidence or a lack of confidence in the future earnings of certain fields, gauged by econometric analysis. 

Most people can't even pronounce this.

The figures do not mean that the rich are taking food out of your mouth and keeping you from buying a new TV, which is what most people care about. The wealth of the rich is in assets, and those assets hardly change the material quality of life for the rich at all. Yes, they have 300 times the wealth that the average American does, on paper. Assuming you're employed, you drive an air-conditioned car to work where you do things that are a pain in the ass, you eat three meals a day, sleep on a mattress, use a functional computer on the same internet everyone else uses, and your TV is maybe 42". These figures do not mean that the rich are arriving at work in cars over 300 times nicer than yours, that they eat 900 meals per day, that they sleep on a bed of nude supermodels, play on a secret model of Cray supercomputer connected to the SuperNet, and that they watch TV on a surface the size of a city block. 

When it comes to consumer goods that actually mean something to quality of life, the distribution is just fine. In fact, it's ridiculously cushy. Money is power in the economy, and the rich are doing what they're supposed to do with power: investing it for the sake of expanding it. 

How do people get their hands on these goods without jobs? Well, we create pointless, white-collar busywork for lots of them, but for the rest, we give them credit cards. The placement of the dollar as the world's reserve currency is probably the only thing keeping other, more fiscally disciplined countries from abandoning us.

We're doing everything we can for people without simply giving up on individual accountability. Bailing out the banks was not done because corruption; it was done precisely because allowing them to fail would have crushed the job market. People trusted the investors stupidly and without due diligence, and because of it, we needed them far more than they needed us at crunch time. You can say that society owes people opportunity all you want, but opportunity runs on a sliding scale, with hopeless at the bottom and guaranteed success at the top. How much more can we do for you without taking every ounce of consequential risk away?

I just read a Popular Science print article with a millennial kid complaining that the cars offered today aren't good enough, because they destroy the planet, cost too much, and don't drive themselves.

Even if cars weren't the most recycled products on Earth, with radical improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions over the last forty years while rising only marginally in price, this kid is bitching because he has to drive a car. People who lost their virginity in a Model T are still alive, but the modern car just isn't fucking good enough!

If the wealth in this country were redistributed tomorrow in the way the inequality video showed, the result would be that, instead of people having a materially better quality of life, they would have, at best, a few minutes of relaxing knowing that their bills-and-mortgage woes were over. Those debts they rang up without having a dependable way to pay them off would be handled. For a while. Then they would try to spend the money. Then we would witness the biggest explosion of inflation in the history of man. Redistributing several trillion dollars doesn't mean that several trillion dollars worth of goods suddenly comes into existence. It means that the prices for everything balloon up as all these people with more dollars try to use them to buy the exact same number of goods that were in existence. Any stimulus effect would take time to increase production, and would be complicated by having to draw labor from a populace that thinks it is far more wealthy than it was and far less willing - for now - to accept jobs featuring unpleasant labor.

If the people who agree with those egalitarian sentiments think that this wealth distribution should stay more equal, and not revert back to inequality because of people's bad decisions, then they are precisely arguing that individuals should not be accountable for their economic actions, and that those in charge owe them help unconditionally.

You do want socialism. 

Cue the bitching about people getting paid fairly for their work.

Work and Play

There is one simple message that the modern labor economy is telling you: we don't need you anymore.

Not even close. The technology is such that a small number of people can feed, clothe, and house you, even hooking you up with cellphones and Nikes, without your input. They just have no reason to do so, no input that justifies provisioning the hoard, as there is no return exchange. 

This doesn't apply to everyone, of course. Engineers still command an income, as that job is necessary and damned difficult to do well. Maths are involved. No surplus of engineers in this world.

But everyone else, you're just lucky to have a job at all. McDonald's workers, baristas, retailers and shelf stockers, all of them, lucky. Striking doesn't matter. Anyone with an IQ over room temperature can do your job, so you can be replaced too easily to have the slightest leverage. Why empathize with them when there are millions who would do the work if given the chance?

If this were a cohesive and exclusive society with a labor shortage, where individuals were expected to uphold arrangements and it was well-acknowledged that people needed each other's efforts, then the question of appropriate pay would have some philosophical punch to it. But it isn't. It's extremely one-sided to expect the rich to ignore the benefits of globalized labor and new technology while normal people take advantage of the benefits of globalized production. The Peoplez do not work together to boycott or buy American, any more than they get together to assure their products are safe, ethically manufactured, or environmentally conscious. They want government to provide that service for them, in the name of justice. There's no discipline, only entitlement. They want to be served.

Employers should respect you? Why? You don't respect them, and their position in the world should command far, far more respect than yours. The only way you can say otherwise is to say that the system, intrinsically, is unjust and illegitimate.

But no one's saying capitalism is inherently unjust, right?

Yeah. You are. When you say that you want these little minor increases in pay, this marginal increase that shouldn't affect the competitive bottom line of the company, do you really think you're going to be happy there, at that ratio of corporate earnings to wages, for the rest of time? 

I'd be disappointed if that were the case. I'd prefer to think that somewhere along the line, there was a strategy for empowerment a little more sophisticated than just guilt-tripping those mean people in the suits and making them look bad by going on TV, all to get a 5% raise and that alone. The slippery slope is a classic maneuver of progressives; a little now, reset the expectations higher, then repeat and the expectations can go higher still. Some people in America likely consider the granting of mandatory wage hikes to be the economic equivalent of given up the Sudetenland. 

There are at least two fallacies that need to be addressed. One is from the inequality video, and it concerns itself with socialism not working "because people need an incentive to work hard". Then it places getting rich as the incentive, so some inequality would still be fine. In doing so, poverty seems to be eliminated.

No humanist wants to hear this, but the functional incentive of capitalism isn't for everyone to get rich. Everyone, even Republicans, knows this. The incentive is not extraordinary success; it's avoiding failure. If there is no risk of destitution and helplessness, where the individual finds himself or herself completely at the mercy of those who have not failed, then there is no motivation to work jobs you don't want but the market demands. The wild success of capitalism is not its strength. The risk of failure is its strength.

Dreams motivate children... until the next reality show comes on TV. Fear motivates adults.

The second, related fallacy is that increasing wages will increase productivity by increasing motivation. Just like the "getting rich" motivation doesn't work, this one doesn't either, not without other people getting comparatively less. 

Economically, the "efficiency wage" results in greater productivity. But it's not like it creates this productivity by simply filling the worker with good feelings. It creates this motivation by giving people something to lose. There has to be a willingness and explicit authority to fire people for this to work. The fashionable talk about how a comfortable lifestyle makes workers better rested or something, leading to efficiency, is filled with bad premises. In a culture where judgment hardly exists, people work as hard as they need to. If you pair either good or bad wages with an excessively secure job, then the productivity will not be exceptional, as everyone who has ever worked for the government knows. Unions will argue about this until you point them towards Detroit in the mid-1970's, when they'll get distracted by having to make excuses.

That entire discussion relies on high wages relative to the norm. You boost everyone's wages to the norm, granting a temporary stimulus, and also creating a new norm. Costco workers appreciate their wages now, but if Wendy's workers made the same wage, then would they still think their pay exceptional? Of course not. New gripes would be just around the corner, the perception of good treatment will be dulled by everyone else getting the same treatment. 

I'm probably not supposed to talk about that, because realism is too negative. People don't want reality. And God help us, this country is a democracy.

Some people argue that we should have more time off, but I'm quite sure that the majority of Americans don't care about that, and that's why they don't complain much about it. Family is dying, culture is dying, TV programming sucks. Why would you want to go home? At least at work, you're making money while you're miserable.

Fact of life: you're going to have to do what society values, not what you want to do. Jobs that are interesting and fun, or really important, are jobs that a lot of people want and therefore, you'd have to compete for one of them. This will not change because you believe you have a right to a certain form of work on the grounds of finding happiness. The economy doesn't exist to provide you with satisfying work.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: no one owes you shit. Everyone in America, liberals and libertarians alike, blames today's problems on corruption at the top, but it's not at the top. It's at the bottom.

Relativity and Wealth

Am I being too hard on The Peoplez? Too negative? Not selling myself well?

Well, here's an Asian baby with a puppy to make you feel happy for a second:

All better? No? Whatever. 

Try to understand: I'm a historian. History.

My knowledge of how people lived up until the last couple hundred years in terms of material welfare makes what we see now an epic, orgasmic paradise that NONE of us deserves. For most of the history of Western civilization, average people never bathed, had no health care or education, were lucky to eat meat once a week, would not have understood the modern concept of entertainment, walked everywhere because they couldn't afford a horse, had a fireplace instead of HVAC in the thatch-roof house they shared with the livestock, and still gave thanks to a supposedly-loving God every day simply because they were alive.

If one of the founding fathers were brought to the modern day from 1783 and given a chance to walk around and meet people from all walks of life for a couple of weeks, then told that the quality of life people were leading wasn't good enough because paper assets were inequitably distributed among individuals and customer service jobs aren't good enough, then my guess is, he would laugh in your face. Then he would borrow ten dollars to go down to Golden Corral and stuff himself full of endless food, turning a loving gaze towards the chocolate fountain. He might lament the lack of spirituality and civic virtue, but the idea of people need more stuff or people have to work too hard would be idiotic to him.

Oh, but that's the wrong attitude! Things should always get perpetually better!

Fuck off. 

The modern generation, by its own standards of morality, is so totally inferior that I simply can't relate to them or respect what they have to say. The standards can only get so low, the restrictions so loose, before it's time to stop boosting the kids' self-esteem. 

Given that such large numbers of people have abandoned family organization, organized religion, community obligation, any sort of duty felt towards, or discipline in service of, a higher good than their own selective sense of personal empathy, I think this world is far, far too good for you. You have so much that better people missed out on, and you can't stop bitching about it. No one looks at themselves as spoiled or materialistic, but they are. They've just become excessively good liars.

What's the point of all the wealth, of the release from cultural restraint, when people aren't grateful for it?

We've become a society with nothing more than utility maximization for a sense of purpose. Happiness, and only happiness in its most shallow and consumerist form, is all that this culture can legimitize as a goal. But happiness cannot be had as a direct matter except by the people who really know themselves well, and the people who know themselves well are the ones who have experienced real struggle and pressure. Life can be, and is, too easy. Many people know this in theory, but can't grasp it. You can mouth the words, but not embrace the suck.

A culture with a legitimate hierarchy and identity would not require people to soul-search every time they make a life decision. People from that kind of culture would know that redemption will not be found in personal choice, but in something considered sacred that the individual makes himself subservient to. It's legacy that drives, that gives value and satisfaction, and if the only legacy you can imagine is to make life a little more comfortable for others before you up and die, then you're legitimately fucked. Oswald Spengler envisioned societies as organisms with shared values, visions, goals, purposes, an identifying art that characterized their worldview. According to him, a young culture creates, lives with purpose, and wanes when the creative drive runs out. Thus it passes through the old age of "civilization" and dies.

Spengler's name is still known, but his theses have never been considered academically legitimate. Some of the fathers of the "open society" concept so beloved now thought his work to be "pointless", which says much about how strong the addiction to optimism can be in liberal cultures. But good intellectuals - ones which can systematize and deconstruct with equal dexterity, like Wittgenstein and Baudrillard - often seem to be pessimists. You don't need to be particularly creative to look at American culture today and see Roman decadence in our frivolousness, our disdain for family, or materialism, our loathing of the past and of social order that in any way constrains the individual. This is the kind of society that uses terms like justice, equality, and liberty as an excuse to democratically demand more for people who do nothing of value. It never seems to occur to most people that the individual might be radically overrated, especially to himself.

The desperation to save capitalism is higher here in this country than anywhere else for a reason; that's who we are. That's all we are. There's nothing more to us than consumers with too much empathy. There's no sense talking about the problem as if there's a solution. Any serious change would require fundamentally changing our cultural character in a way that the average person takes on more responsibility, not less. As a matter of principle, we won't stand for it. Spengler was right, if a little early; stick a fork in the West.

It's done.


  1. Having found your blog only today, I am astonished that your posts aren’t extensively commented.

    1. It's not extensively read, and I think that only maybe 1 out of 10 makes it past the first paragraph or two, with half of them not making it to the end. I produce a lot of TL;DR material. But I am surprised that, of the few that read it through, I don't get more argument. There are holes and nits to pick everywhere.

  2. With regards to incentives, the only real incentive is monogamy. A man will undoubtedly work, but he will only work just enough to support himself (if all he needs is 30kdollars/per annum, he will stop there).

    What economists fail to grasp is that the man's sex drive, harnessed constructively, creates and maintains civilization. If a young man is told by the elders of his clan/nation that if he works diligently, follows the just laws and defends his people from attack, then he will be allowed to take a girl as his wife, the man WILL do this.

    However, if morality goes by the wayside and girls are permitted to become feral/promiscuous, then there is NO incentive to work hard. Why work and pay for something that another man got to enjoy for free? Why not attempt to become a part of the promiscuous class as well...? This is one of the ways that civilization dies.

    1. I agree, although I will say that I wouldn't call it the harnessing of the sex drive so much as creating a genuine opportunity for the power to pass along a legacy and gain real respect. It's more about children than chicks, IMO. Economists want to call every powerful incentive a form of utility, but that's beyond utility.

      Not that it matters: for something like that to be brought back, this culture might have to accept something illiberal, like expecting women to join with a man who is a protector instead of calling every form of human welfare a "right." Legitimizing something like that is impossible now.