Watch the income distribution in America change pic.twitter.com/WS80BT2UlT
— Conrad Hackett (@conradhackett) December 18, 2016
The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.
Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.
And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.
As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.
Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?
As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.
And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I place my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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Here’s the Blogginheads.tv conversation:
What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.
Naomi Klein reviews The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, by Steve Fraser, in The NYTimes. Her opening salvo”
In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.
Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:
American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).
So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What’s missing?
Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.
This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.
It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
The richest 1% of the world’s population are getting wealthier, owning more than 48% of global wealth, according to a report published on Tuesday which warned growing inequality could be a trigger for recession.
According to the Credit Suisse global wealth report (pdf), a person needs just $3,650 – including the value of equity in their home – to be among the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, more than $77,000 is required to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and $798,000 to belong to the top 1%.
“Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest decile hold 87% of the world’s wealth, and the top percentile alone account for 48.2% of global assets,” said the annual report, now in its fifth year…
“These figures give more evidence that inequality is extreme and growing, and that economic recovery following the financial crisis has been skewed in favour of the wealthiest. In poor countries, rising inequality means the difference between children getting the chance to go to school and sick people getting life saving medicines,” said Oxfam’s head of inequality Emma Seery.
It uses the conceit of two Park Avenues to tell the story of the 1%, living on the Park Ave of Manhattan’s upper East Side, and the (bottom quartile of) the 99%, living on the portion of Park Ave that extends into the South Bronx. It’s one thing to know the story in numbers and graphs, which Gibney presents, but it’s another thing entirely to see the story in actions through moving images and spoken words. The combination of the two is potent, and, alas, depressing.
As I think over the film the sections that keep coming back, however, are those featuring a social psychologist at U Cal. Berkeley, Paul Piff, and some students. Piff had pairs of students play Monopoly, the board game born during the Depression. But, they played the game with a crucial difference. One player started with twice the amount of money as the other player and was allowed to roll both dice; the other player could roll only one die. The student players were assigned to these roles randomly.
The privileged players, of course, walked all over the others, whose disadvantage was too much to surmount. No surprise there. What was interesting, and chilling, is that over the course of a game, the privileged players assumed at attitude of entitlement – you could see it in their posture and hear it in their comments. It was their RIGHT to win. But they did nothing to earn that right; it was simply given to them at the beginning of the game. The oligarchs Gibney showed us displayed that same entitlement even as they lobbied to cut their taxes and blathered on about creating opportunity for all. Continue reading
This Is Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality…: Tomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century/Inequality and Capitalism in the Long Run: The Honest Broker19 Dec
Piketty says: sociologically, America today may be the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top wealth successors: you are poor, and depicted as dumb & undeserving: “nobody was trying to depict Ancien Régime inequality as fair”.
Over at Crooked Timber they’re having a discussion of the software SNAFU that’s occurred in the rollout of Obamacare. As anyone in the software biz knows, that’s just how it is with large software projects. The thread title suggests something more interesting and far more sinister: Neo-Liberalism as Feudalism.
That title reminded me of the work of Abbe Mowshowitz, whom I met when I was on the faculty at The Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute back in the previous century. He was interested in how the deployment of computer technology was creating virtual organizations that, he believed, would lead to a virtual feudalism:
Absent a sense of loyalty to persons or places, virtual organizations distance themselves—both geographically and psychologically—from the regions and countries in which they operate. This process is undermining the nation-state, which cannot continue indefinitely to control virtual organizations. A new feudal system is in the making, in which power and authority are vested in private hands but which is based on globally distributed resources rather than on possession of land. The evolution of this new political economy will determine how we do business in the future.
Here’s an essay I ghosted in Abbe’s name back in ’97 but which, alas, never got published. The ideas are his, the prose mine.
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The New World Order of Virtual Feudalism
One might imagine that, in 2020 a person could be brought to trial on criminal charges in a court convened by a private corporation under provisions granted by the United Nations. What is perhaps more difficult to imagine is a world in which such an institutional arrangement is the solution to a pressing problem, and that a wide range of individual and corporate actors would agree to such an arrangement. At the moment we live in a world where criminal prosecution is primarily a power of nation-state authorities, with the United Nations being an organization created by states and having no direct power in the private sector. This imaginary trial thus violates fundamental distinctions governing our political life.
Yet I believe that such arrangements are not only possible, they are inevitable. New actors — most noticeably, large multinational corporations — have come to dominate the world’s advanced economies. Increasingly these organizations are operating in a seamless global marketplace. Ironically, as the marketplace becomes global, the great nation states and empires are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Large companies have more wealth and power than small states. These developments conjure up visions of the brave old world of medieval feudalism, in which the role of the nobility will be played by corporate executives assisted by employee-vassals who rule over legions of latter day serfs.
Day by day the emerging new world order looks like a virtual feudalism. In thus talking of feudalism I am not, however, asserting that our immediate future holds a regression to the distant past, though there may well be regressive elements. Rather, I think that we are increasingly living in a world which exhibits patterns of social organization and action characteristic of feudal societies, such as fragmented authority, private security arrangements, and a highly permeable boundary between private and public activity. This feudalism is “virtual” because these patterns reflect non-territorial organizational arrangements made possible by information technology rather than being rooted in the customs of land ownership and tenancy which existed in medieval Europe.
To get a feel for this future let us consider the life of three different individuals who are born in the current world and move into middle-age as virtual feudalism unfolds. Continue reading
Sounds like animal husbandry:
Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.
“If you tried to do this with a northern laborer,” Rosenthal says, “they’d just quit.
”The widespread adoption of these accounting techniques is partly due to a Mississippi planter and accountant named Thomas Affleck, who developed account books for plantation owners that allowed them to make sophisticated calculations and measure productivity in a standardized way.
My father was an engineer who spent his life working for Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. He was a chemical engineer who was in charge of process design for coal cleaning plants, the plants that separated impurities from raw coal so that the clean coal could be used to make coke for heating blast furnaces.
In a word, he was a “suit.” Though he generally wore dress slacks and a sport coat to work rather than a suite. And he often wore a bow tie rather than a long one. A real bow tie, one of those where you had to tie the knot yourself.
Still, his job required that he go down into coal mines on a regular basis. I’m not sure just why this was, that is, I don’t know why he had to see where and how the coal was mined in order to clean it. But he did.
And that means he knew, first hand, that working in a coal mine was nasty, dirty work, and dangerous. On many occasions he told me that a man shouldn’t be given managerial responsibility for coal mines unless that man had had experience working in a coal mine.
That seems like a good principle to me. It’s not so much that working on the coalface down in a mine gives you knowledge you need in order to turn a profit but that working the coalface was necessary to secure empathy for the men who put their lives at risking working that kind of job year after year, and decade after decade.
Managers should be stewards, not simply of profits, but of the workers under their control.
An exercise to the reader: generalize the principle beyond coal mining.
This is a start, but let’s wait and see.
Starting in the 1970s, a domestic “war on crime” dominated by antidrug policies and racial profiling fueled a prison-building binge that is morally — and now financially — bankrupt. Both political parties embraced draconian policies like mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and wide disparities in sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. The result: by 2003, the United States had 4.6 percent of the world’s population but 22.4 percent of its prison population — even though violent crime started dropping in the 1990s. Prospects for reform looked bleak.
So I was elated when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced on Monday that the government would commit to reducing the bloated prison population. This is without precedent: the nation’s top law enforcement official directed all federal prosecutors to exercise their discretion toward ending the relentless warehousing of inmates — the vast majority of whom are minorities — in federal prison for low-level drug crimes.