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Harry G. Frankfurt (the author of, among other books, On Bullshit) attempts to argue that we aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be, concerned about inequality.

I suspect that people who profess to have this intuition are actually not responding to the inequality they perceive but to another feature of the situation they are observing. What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.

Branko Milanovic correctly reminds Frankfurt that all our needs are social needs. Thus, there’s no way of distinguishing between “authentic” and “inauthentic” needs and thus no way of being concerned about poverty without worry about inequality.

So, his reasoning brings him back to the beginning where he is unable to define needs as separate from the context where they are expressed. He is  unable to do so because he is unable to distinguish between the so-called “authentic” needs and those that we develop simply by living in a society from the very moment when we are born.We cannot define what the “good life” is independently of the others.

So, his whole edifice crumbles.

Indeed.

That’s one dimension of the problem: all our needs are social needs. (And as Jack Amariglio and I argued back in Postmodern Moments, the modernist Marxian argument that “planning can succeed where markets could not in discerning all of the needs underlying the plan and in calculating all of the effects of instituting it” is “unhelpful and ultimately damaging in distinguishing between capitalism and socialism.”)

But there’s another dimension of the problem: the existence of inequality is bad for everyone within society, the rich and middle class as well as the poor (the argument made by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson), and it is literally a killing field (because, as Göran Therborn has argued, millions of people die premature deaths because of it).

Taken together—the idea that all needs are social needs and that inequality kills individuals and society as a whole—we really do need to be concerned about the grotesque (and rising) levels of inequality in the world today.

To argue otherwise is bullshit.

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Lynn Stuart Parramore makes the useful point that modern love is a product of capitalism.

Our Western fixation on romance goes back to the Middle Ages, when tales of courtly love featured erotic, often illicit desire in which emotional torment could lead to spiritual attainment. Idolization was the key to intensity. Tellingly, salvation came through the lover rather than the church — the first sign of a displacement that haunts romance to this day.

Then, as capitalism emerged, the focus of romantic narratives expanded from gallantry and vassalage to individualism and self-realization. A decline in the belief in immortality led to the emphasis that rapture must be found on earth. The unusual idea that marriage should be based on powerful romantic attraction began to take hold.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century locked people into repetitive, uninspiring jobs, which increased their desire for instant pleasures and consumption. As workers moved from country to city, people were less likely to marry according to custom or life-long acquaintance. Instead, they sought romantic attraction in strangers. Capitalism, as it progressed, directed attention to the new and original. The idea was that people could reinvent themselves through the ownership of external objects: a wardrobe, a house or even a person in the form of a love object. Possession of an attractive lover provided the possibility of transformation and escape from the lonely anonymity of the urban crowd.

Indeed, commodity fetishism (the idea that the subjects of a capitalist commodity-producing economy are characterized by “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham”) both presumes and gives rise to particular notions of love and romance.

Parramore then connects this modern notion to addiction.

A market-driven society built on self-interest fosters an exploitative urge and constantly reinforces the illusory promises of what we can obtain. Like the gambler who imagines that she is just a play away from riches and will beat the house despite the odds, the love addict dreams of complete security and ever-lasting euphoria. When the lie is exposed, the addict goes frantically running after the next object, who is always just a computer click or text message away.

This notion of addition complicates the idea that, as modern peoples, we have become free (e.g., in comparison to arranged marriages) to choose our partners. Yes, capitalism was accompanied by the birth of new freedoms (including that of romantic partners). But then it turns those freedoms into addictions: not only the addiction of love, but also of working for a wage or salary.

It is precisely in that sense that, within capitalism, we become forced to have the freedom to love external objects. And to sell our ability to work to someone else.

It’s also why we are forced to imagine and create a different realm of freedom—both romantic and economic.

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I’ve been listening to and reading lots of financial pundits over the course of the past week—all of whom use the same lingo (the U.S. economy as the “cleanest shirt in the hamper,” the “deterioration in risk appetite” around the globe, and so on) and try to explain the volatility of the stock markets in terms of economic “fundamentals” (like the slowing of the Chinese economy, the prospect of deflation in Europe, and so on).

Me, I’m much more inclined to think of terms of uncertainty, unknowability, and “shit happens.”

Let’s face it: stock markets are speculative markets, in the sense that individual and institutional investors are always speculating (with the aid of computer programs) about how others view the market in order to make their bets—with fundamental uncertainty, unknowability, and the idea that shit happens. That is, they have hunches, and they have no idea if their hunches are correct until others respond—with the same amount of uncertainty, unknowability, and the idea that shit happens. And then all of them make up stories (using the lingo of the day and often referring to changes in the “fundamentals”) after the fact, to justify whatever actions they took and their advice to others.

That’s pretty much the view outlined by Robert Shiller. It’s all about stories characterized by uncertainty, unknowability, and shit happens.

In general, bubbles appear to be associated with half-baked popular stories that inspire investor optimism, stories that can neither be proved nor disproved. . .

the proliferation of such stories is a natural part of economic equilibrium. Successful people who value their careers rely on an instinctive sense for what pitch will sell. Who knows what the truth is, anyway?

As time goes on, the stories justifying investor optimism become increasingly shopworn and criticized, and people find themselves doubting them more and more. Even though people are asking themselves if prices are too high, they are slow to take action to sell. When prices make a sudden drop, as they did in recent days, people tend to become fearful, even if there is a subsequent rebound. With the drop they suddenly realize that their views might be shared by other people, and start looking for information that might confirm their belief. Some are driven to sell immediately. Others are slower, but they are all similarly motivated. The result is an irregular but large stock market decline over a year or more. . .

It is entirely plausible that the shaking of investor complacency in recent days will, despite intermittent rebounds, take the market down significantly and within a year or two restore CAPE ratios to historical averages. This would put the S. & P. closer to 1,300 from around 1,900 on Wednesday, and the Dow at 11,000 from around 16,000. They could also fall further; the historical average is not a floor.

Or maybe this could be another 1998. We have no statistical proof. We are in a rare and anxious “just don’t know” situation, where the stock market is inherently risky because of unstable investor psychology.

I would only add one correction: we always “just don’t know”—not just in anxious situations of volatility (such as during the past week), but also in more stable periods. In fact, we don’t even know if we’re in a volatile or stable period (until a new story becomes the common sense that what we’ve been through was volatile or stable) and we certainly don’t know how a stable situation becomes volatile (and vice versa).

Really, all we can say, when it comes to bubbles, is: shit happens.