October 28, 2008

Intermission

This is about how I feel at the moment; my schoolwork is bending me rather than the other way around. The past week hasn't been the best. I've four papers due this week, and somehow Rori and I both caught something. Imagine biking to class in 35 degree weather with a fever ... Anyway, this is my way of begging your pardon for a lack of posting. But this series on economics is a hard one too, so figuring out the best way to move forward has been tricky. Hopefully after my papers are done on thursday and I get some rest, I'll find inspiration again. I beg the indulgence of your patience until then.

[The Management]

October 20, 2008

Economics, Part IV: The Definition of Poverty

"Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. but taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people's material wants usually can easily be satisfied (a common understanding of 'affluence'). ... The world's most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is an invention of civilization."

[Marshall Sahlins, in
Sharing Our Worlds]

So what do you think? Is poverty something our culture in particular imposes on others? Do we call Indians poor because they don't have refridgerators or microwaves? Is our standard of living an artificial construct that isn't necessarily what another culture might want or care about?

And more to the point, is it right to impose our view of poverty on others?

Discuss.

October 17, 2008

Economics, Part III: Revolution

Links to the first couple of posts:

Part I: Pros and Cons
Part II: Endgame

America began by a revolution, not of values, but of economics. Americans did not like being economically subject to the will of a superpower hundreds of miles away across a deep and very cold ocean. The freedom sought by the first Americans was not truly of personal freedoms of religion, morality, etc., but was of an economic and political nature - the two are deeply intertwined. The Boston Tea Party protested economic tarrifs and increasing prices; many initial skirmishes were fought over the way British soldiers were billetted without "choice" in American homes, the same soldiers who imposed the taxes and levies on American colonial businesses. America was not created to free the individual, but to free the economy from foreign domination. While individualist language may have been used to justify the revolution, economics played a disproportionately large role in the motivation behind it. The slaves did not rebel, nor did the Native Americans; it was the middle class and the gentry, those that had a stake, something to lose, that rebelled against British economic policy.

And so a new country was created, though one might claim that it's really an economic institution.

And institutions require support. To maintain the "freedoms" of a collective (we'll get to that), to keep others from violating their ability to maintain an open number of possible choices (and we Americans are obsessed with having a large number of choices), structure was needed, and a government was created. Nothing too intrusive, just enough to provide some discipline to those that didn't quite fall in line with the values of individual economic freedom; for example, if you tried to take from somebody else (stealing, a crime that requires the assumption of "personal" instead of "collective" property), you were violating their economic "rights" and thus forfeiting yours. You took something and so you went to "jail", assuming you were caught.

But as a country grows, it requires a larger infrastructure. Those "jails" I mentioned are part of that infrastructure; facilities become necessary to support business and commerce, such as government buildings, lavatories, fire and police services, and hospitals. Who is to pay for all of this? Ideally, the people who reap a benefit from its creation; thus, a system of taxes was created to allow everybody to contribute (never mind that taxes were one of the initial reasons for rebelling against the British in the first place). But again, the infrastructure needs governing so that everybody contributes their "fair" share; it is not voluntary because some might use the public facilities without having paid for them; we are, after all, inherently selfish, and so if we can get away with reaping a reward without having to make a sacrifice, we will. And so the government role was increased a bit more each time a new public system was created; a department of transportation, a department of the interior, etc. And this required funding, and so the department of the treasury was created to oversee taxes. The federal government was created with a modicum of internal accountability, "elected" by the people, to be replaced on a regular basis.

But over time, to be elected required a "campaign," which required money and time, both of which are commodities held by only the wealthy. A middle-class or low-class American has no money for campaigning, ours is a financial situation still intent on survival, if not a few luxuries. And so the wealthy, who are obviously not concerned about their own economic survival (that's a given), became concerned about their political survival, the increasing of their wealth and the maintenance of the power structure they had built for themselves. New laws were created to maintain the system, government was expanded, and a department of defense (homeland security) was created to preserve the growing economy from foreign and domestic enemies, those that might thwart our status quo.

The larger the institution, the harder and more expensive it is to maintain.

You see where this is going, of course. America as we know it is a far cry from where it began, yet it is the inevitable result of its origins. Far from the "ideal" capitalism of our country's youth, we are fast becoming a socialist state in which the wealthy form a ruling class to impose "equality" ("fairness") on everyone in the name of the maintenance of a standard of living. The historical end result of capitalism is inevitably a socialist state, specifically to maintain the notions of capitalism. It happens gradually, slowly, but as generations pass away, they accept the new status quo and then try to maintain it. Their maintenance, coupled with the entitlement we talked about before, only increases the drive towards socialism. Goods and services become standard, a "necessity" rather than a luxury. You can see this in the stereotype welfare citizen, watching tv from his satellite dish while avoiding looking for a job; take it away, and you've impinged upon his "rights." Likewise, try to tell the Wall Street venture capitalists that what they have is extravagant, and you'll get a lecture about how they have a "right" to what they have.

Where does it end? Ultimately, it will always end in revolution. The government will eventually become so large that no amount of money can maintain it and either it will be paired down or it will be torn down. Since no government ever voluntarily reduces itself (despite idealists like Sarah Palin), revolution - the tearing down of a government structure - results when the people can no longer legitimize the abuses. Alternatively, the government eventually gets so large it implodes upon itself in a fit of bureaucracy and a different sort of revolution breaks out in which somebody tries to pick up the pieces and fit them back together: the military, a foreign power, cartels, an internal faction, or perhaps the people. We saw this with Rome, with the Catholic Church, with many protestant churches, and ultimately, we will see this with America.

(to be continued ...)

October 16, 2008

Political Process Question

Does anybody know why it is that independent candidates (Independent, Green, etc.) are not allowed to debate the major-party candidates (Democrat/Republican)?

I'd like to know. It seems biased somehow.

October 14, 2008

Onion Humor

Onion videos worth watching ... this first one reminds me of being home in NY!

Economics, Part II: Endgame

Let it never be said that our theology posits that human beings are in control of initiating salvation - God already took the first step by extending Grace to us. Grace is so cool precisely because it means we don't, can't, work for our salvation; we couldn't earn it anyway, as many capitalists have begun to think we could. Grace means that salvation comes first, regardless of whether or not we think we deserve it, a "precursor" to all that follows (contingent upon our acceptence). But the trouble is that we still have to WORK. In a socialist state, we are not encouraged to work, we are encouraged to "mooch" off the state and produce as little as is absolutely necessary. In a capitalist state, we HAVE to work (work is thus a given) and are so surprised when all we need is offered to us at the right moments that we try to pay back what we think we owe. But once again, both have their issues.

In a socialist state, there is little encouragement to produce; the state takes over distribution of resources. In other words, the few take responsibility for the many. But who are those few? What human beings can possibly make the sort of decisions that will impact the many, without partisanship or flaw? (sidenote: the irony of this is that the more liberal democrats tend to swing socialist, yet this is exactly what they accuse Bush of doing with Iraq and Afghanistan; likewise, conservative republicans who accuse the democrats of socialist tendencies want to mandate-by-law who can "marry"). In a socialist state, the products we get are utter crap - they don't work well, they break easily, etc., because there is no motivation aside from either negative reinforcement (i.e. those guys with the clubs and the tasers watching you) or your own conscience - which, given that socialist states employ guys with clubs and tasers, is obviously not someting that happens. The few control the many in order to produce. Workers learn to work the system, because there is no reward for them if the produce a few more units. We see this in every socialist society: human beings are inherently lazy, and will get out of work they are told to do if they possibly can. The socialist state creates factories, assembly lines, for everything - everyone gets the same, everyone is valued the same (except the ruling class, who are "more equal"), and the workers do as little as possible to survive: in the end, the masses are treated like dirt.

But it goes both ways. In a capitalist state, we are encouraged, socially-pressured, to compete for the goods and services for the very reason that we value those goods and services. Capitalism works through competition, rather than cooperation; when cooperation happens, it's within a group that is competing with another group. It's no wonder that evolutionary theory came out of a capitalist framework, as the two are remarkably similar: survival of the fittest. What ends up happening is that there's always that one guy or girl in the midst of us that has a little more ambition, a little more time, maybe is just a little smarter, or has the luck to come across that one labor-saving device, and so the person ends up leaps and bounds ahead of us all. What happens then? In order to keep up, the rest of the society has to speed up too, at the cost of every other part of their lives (social, familial, leisure, etc.). The few end up controlling the many, in a very different way. It leads to a sense of entitlement, to a sense that "I deserve what I have" because "I earned it" and "I worked hard."

The irony is that often, as one generation succeeds another, "I" did NOT work hard because "I" inherited that wealth; "I" has an attitude of entitlement. Likewise, one can inherit poverty as well. The American dream is one of getting ahead, of acquiring more stuff and a comfortable life, but it is an unattainable dream because the world is not made of infinite resources; those that control the resources do so because way back in time, an ancestor made a few smart decisions that would help him and thus his succeeding generations become self-reliant. Sure, we'll occasionally find the one rich guy who falls from grace after squandering his wealth, but socially speaking, it's almost unheard of. There's a certain measure of protection built into the system to prevent this, "insurance" and other scams that prey on our fears but, occasionally, do pay off. Likewise, not everybody in poverty remains in poverty. Sometimes a kid learns to beat the system, or works really hard and "makes something" of himself or herself, and can secure relative security through extremely hard work. But generally speaking, the capitalist system is one of polarization: the rich become richer, as they invest and buy up those who can't get ahead, and the poor become poorer, as they lack the resources necessary to invest and build in the wake of the wealthy. But they too find an attitude of entitlement, because since the rich inherited their wealth, why can't they give some of it to us so it will be "fair"?

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and neither feels they should have to work for it.

It is exactly the same in both socialism and capitalism - because people are inherently selfish, having been taught that way by their elders for generations (not necessarily in principle, but certainly by example), the system becomes ever-more polarized. In socialism, an elite ruling class develops to oversee everyone (and thus controls the wealth for themselves), and in capitalism, an elite wealthy class develops over generations and collects the wealth. The two systems have the same endgame through different methods but the same cause: human depravity, selfishness, and greed.

(to be continued ...)

October 8, 2008

Economics, Part I

On our way home from NY last summer, our friend Sally brought up an interesting question about gun control (she'd had some odd conversation with a Kansas airline pilot) which led back to a paper I wrote a little while ago for KCW. In my paper, I fumbled around trying to understand the differences between socialism and capitalism (and their connected political systems) and eventually concluded that neither work. But as my professor so helpfully pointed out, I mostly spent time on my own opinions and little on hard facts. I thought it was an opinion paper. Oh well, he still gave me a good grade (thanks prof!).

At any rate, it was an interesting conversation for about an hour. Sal, who comes from Australia (a somewhat socialist-ish country) wondered about the perceived American tendency to uphold our amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms (aka "you can have a gun and the government can't not let you"). In Australia, the laws are much stricter.

I worry about the tendency for socialist countries to impose ever-stricter laws upon their citizens. The main argument against such laws is that it denies freedoms, but the argument for them is that the law supposedly saves lives. In any case, no matter what guns are or are not on the market, those who wanted them enough could still get them, and then where would we be? You can't eliminate guns with the likes of the many illegal arms dealers perusing the streets (a result of the "innocent until proven guilty" philosophy). Clearly, the system is prone to manipulation. No matter which system you get, you still have those who would prefer just to do as they wish while the law-abiding citizens get screwed over for the n-th time with higher taxes (when do you think you’ll see the results of the latest $700 billion added to the national debt? Anytime soon?).

As an aside, it’s awful convenient for McCain and Obama to talk all about how Wall Street bears responsibility after the fact, but thank you Mrs. Palin, of all people, for pointing out that Americans still bear responsibility to think before they go get a loan they can’t afford … anyway, moving on …

The question between socialism and capitalism comes down to this: which is better, more freedom (thus more individual responsibility) that tends to lead to a lesser degree of justice (since the freedom is often abused), or less freedom (more laws, more enforcement) which supposedly results in fewer deaths and better justice? Which do you choose? Actually, the second option isn't even really an option; more laws doesn't actually result in better justice, they only provide more hoops to jump through for those that are law-abiding and thus aids the criminals who circumvent such hoops. Even if they were, the system can still be abused. That said, the question still stands: do you take freedom of choice, or a forced morality?

Socialist states tend towards an escalation of laws. Look towards the best-known socialist states such as China, Australia, and many south-American countries. Of the total, only one has a decently low rate of material poverty (Australia, which, incidentally, also has a capitalist flavor to its socialized economy), and the rest are hell-holes. The socialist experiment, practically speaking, seems to end in a dictatorship for one simple reason: who chooses the laws? Who unilaterally decides what is “good” or “lawful” and what is “bad” or “unlawful”? Will there ever be universal agreement on that?

Doubtful.

My professor remarked that a perfect, God-centered society would look more socialist than capitalist, but I disagree. I think that God's Economy is a fusion of the two, with the freedom to choose of capitalism and the mercy and justice of the socialist ideal. If God's the one making the laws (which are really more like principles because you're not forced to follow them, only to reap the consequences of your actions), then the laws will be just; only a perfect being could do that. Unfortunately, God's not the one governing China or Sudan or Venezuela - therein lays the province of men, and the men in charge don't seem to be doing much good for their people as God has charged them to do. God is the only one un-biased enough (another word with which I take issue, maybe I’ll write about it later) to create truly perfect laws.

And I abhor the word "fair" - the rain falls on the just AND the unjust.

Now, I see where he's coming from, and agree, to a modest extent. Capitalism too is problematic because it supposedly relies on greed to fuel its growth. Capitalism works by refusing to give people what they want or need, and making them work for themselves. In such a society, the best way to get ahead is to hoard what you manage to scrounge to yourself instead of sharing - the more you keep for yourself, the less the others have to compete with you. By the way, in my studies of anthropology, I've noticed that it's only in tribal societies that communal socialism works because a) it's a small group, b) to survive, the tribe HAS to work together, and c) the tribe ends up competing (i.e. capitalism) with other tribes. It’s like a fusion of the two. Anyway, the trouble is that capitalist values have evolved beyond mere survival; when capitalist societies become sufficiently advanced through their hard work (having generated the best ideas using a social form of Darwinian evolution), they suddenly discover they have leisure time, or a surplus of resources with which to trade. The values slowly shift away from the necessities and towards the luxuries; necessities are forgotten, the luxuries gradually become the necessities. And it is this competition that socialists tend to critique; competition inevitably leaves some behind, and nobody has incentive to take care of them, for they would simply get in the way of advancement. Survival of the fittest, and all that.

But the funny thing is, in the end, one look at the practical outcome of capitalism and one begins to see that it is essentially the same as of socialism. On the one hand, a society that kills off people to supposedly better others, and on the other, a society that kills of some to supposedly save others.

It's a conundrum - both have advantages, but both have overwhelming disadvantages as well.

(to be continued …)