Category Archives: Social values

The Unattainable Illusion of Meritocracy

I’m a big fan of Richard Bookstaber, the author of the important book A Demon of Our Own Design. And while I’m glad to see a rare new post from him, on how to deal with the matter of inequality (as in whether to deal with the problem ex ante, by creating more equal opportunities, or ex post, by trying to reduce disparities of outcomes), I found one of the core parts of his discussion, on merit and meritocracy, to be maddening. In fairness, this isn’t Bookstaber’s fault; he’s working within an established framework of thinking on this topic.

Repeat after me: in complex societies and organizations, merit is a complete illusion.

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Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

Yves here. Real News Network is running an eight-part series on capitalism and democracy, with Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin as interlocutors. I thought the second segment in the series, which is historically focused, to be particularly strong. It seeks to trace the evolution of what they call corporate capitalism, or what we’ve sometimes called Mussolini-style corporatism.

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Class Traitors: How Ideological Brainwashing Gets Rich and Ordinary Americans to Undermine Their Economic Interest

Linda Beale, of ataxingmatter, has written forcefully and persuasively about some of the propagandizing-accepted-as-gospel that the well-heeled use to advocate policies that advance their economic interests. For instance, as most Naked Capitalism readers appreciate, but a remarkably large swathe of the US population does not, tax cuts for big corporations are simply a transfer to the rich. From a post last year:

I’ve argued frequently in the past that there is no there there–i.e., that lowering corporate tax rates will do nothing to create jobs. Instead, I’ve said, it will simply deliver an even higher profit margin to be skimmed off by the highest paid executives and, possibly, shareholders. The higher profit margins are unlikely even to be used to increase workers’ shares of the corporate revenues through higher wages, a place where they could most help the economy other than new jobs created. Thus, the drive for “revenue neutral” corporate tax reform (cut corporate taxes, cut expenditures elsewhere to make up for the decreased corporate tax revenues) is just another example of corporatism as an engine of the modern form of US class warfare

Beale takes up a different theme today: how the rich and poor act against their economic interest. For many in middle and lower income strata in red states, hostility to the government is an article of faith even though those states (and many of those same govement-hating citizens) are significant beneficiaries of Federal programs.

But less well recognized are the ways that the wealthy are undermining themselves. They’ve taken the “increase our distance from everyone else” experiment well beyond its point of maximum advantage, not just to the society around them but also in terms of the costs to the class warriors.

As we’ve pointed out, highly unequal societies have lower lifespans, even among the rich; the shallower social networks of stratified societies and the high cost of losing one’s perch, in terms of loss of friends and status, creates an ongoing level of stress that has a longevity cost. Beale points out something we’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, that creating an underclass with inadequate access to medical services is a great breeding ground for public health problems. The fact that many low income Americans can’t afford to take sick days and health plans generally have high deductibles, which discourage individuals from getting treated until they are sure they are really sick, isn’t a great program design if you want to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

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Uber Economics: There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Yves here. This post on Uber raises a sobering point about activism and human cognition. How do you opposed a cause you regard as dubious without unwittingly legitimating it? For instance, remember when one of the many justifications offered for the Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden? Even though that idea was patently false, efforts to debunk it actually reinforced the connection between Hussein and Bin Laden simply by featuring their names in close proximity.

If readers, particularly activists, have ideas for how to steer clear of effectively promoting ideas and causes you are challenging, please let us know in comments.

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The Financialization of Life

Yves here. One of the efforts the Naked Capitalism community has been engaged in is trying to understand and map our emerging political and economic order. Over the last four decades, massive changes have taken place in social values, in job security, in the importance of communities relative to other networks, like professional associations, and in the role of the state. Economists, social scientists, and laypeople have used various frameworks for describing this period. Understanding the driving process is important not merely for the purposes of description, but also for analysis, since a major question remains open: is this a last gasp of large-scale industrial capitalism, or is this the starting phase of a new economic order? We’ve tended to see this period as a self-limiting finance-led counter-revolution against the New Deal, but that may prove to be too optimistic a reading.

This Real News Network interview with Costas Lapavitsas, a professor in economics at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, takes a different perspective. Lapavitsas contends that financialization itself constitutes a new form of capitalism, which is supported by neoliberal ideology.

Independent of whether you fully agree with Lapavitsas’ framing, this talk gives a good overview of the major economic and political changes since 1970. His summary would be useful for those who could use a historical perspective on these shifts, or want a high-level understanding of the restructuring of modern economies without having to get too deep into the weeds. But even though this interview is designed to go down easily, it offers a lot of grist for thought.

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Tom Englehardt Interviews Laura Poitras on Snowden and the Total Information Capture Approach to Surveillance

Yves here. This interview with Laura Poitras is a reminder of how the world has, and more important, hasn’t changed since the explosive revelations made by Edward Snowden less than a year and a half ago. Even though his disclosures produced a great uproar, with demands in the US, UK, and Europe for explanations and […]

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Rob Johnson on the Uber Rich: Top 400 US Billionaires’ Wealth Equals Brazil’s GDP

Yves here. Real News Network features a vivid discussion between Rob Johnson, Director of the Economic Policy Initiative at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and a member of the UN Commission of Experts on Finance and International Monetary Reform, and Paul Jay on the short-sightedness of the uber-rich.

Although many of the themes of this talk will be familiar to Naked Capitalism readers, Johnson, who is also a long-standing political insider, is blunt.

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Bill Black: The New York Times Claims Opposing EU Austerity Leads to Anti-Semitism

Yves here. This post is more important than it might seem. I find it is taking more and more effort to navigate through the hall of mirrors of propagandizing, particularly in the geopolitical realm. Thus it is critical to read news on two levels: its content, and how it is presented, as in how it is framed, what experts are cited, what issues are buried or omitted. Living with all Pravda, all the time, is intellectually taxing, at least if you care to understand what is really going on.

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Media Giving Corporate Executives a Free Pass on Their Value Extraction

Executive rentiers and their media lackeys are invoking the canard that they can’t find decent investment opportunities. The truth is that they’ve exhausted the first and second lines of value extraction, that of labor-squeezing and disinvestment, and aren’t prepared to accept the lower but still attractive returns of taking real economy risks.

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For-Profit Colleges as Factories of Debt

Yves here. The American higher education system has been sucking more and more of the economic life out of the children that supposedly represent our best and brightest, the ones with intelligence and self-disipline to do well enough to be accepted at college.

But even though the press has given some attention to how young adults, and sometimes their hapless parent/grandparent co-signers, can wind up carrying huge millstones of debt, there’s been comparatively less focus on the for-profit segment of the market. While their students constitute only 13% of the total college population, they account for 31% of student loans. Why such a disproportionately high debt load? As this post explains, the for-profit colleges are master predators, seeking out vulnerable targets like single mothers who will do what they think it takes to set themselves up to land a middle class job. This is the new American lower-class version of P.T. Barnum’s “a sucker is born every minute.” These social aspirants are easy to exploit because they haven’t gotten the memo that the American Dream is dead.

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Social Norms and the Enforcement of Laws

Yves here. It is gratifying to see economists take up the question of when laws work, and perhaps even more important, how to make laws work even when they conflict with social norms. In typical economists’ fashion, they contend that as far as businesses work, fines work but more rules don’t. On further examination, that conclusion may not be well founded.

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Class Bigots: Finding Themselves On Third Base and Thinking They Hit a Triple

Yves here. I’m featuring this post from Angry Bear because it presents a vivid example of an increasingly common form of economic hatred: that of seeing anyone lower on the income ladder as fully deserving of their lowly status and a potential, if not actual, social parasite.

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All in the Family: How the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Other Billionaires Are Undermining America

Yves here. Even though monied dynasties have long had outsized influence in the US, Steve Fraser contends that billionaires and their scions like the Koch brothers, the Walton heirs, and Sheldon Adelson wield far more power than their predecessors and are in the process of remaking America.

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