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Cartoon of the day

Posted: 3 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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Oldie but goodie. . .

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We always talk about $2 a day (the World Bank’s cutoff point for poverty around the globe) as if the problem were “over there” (e.g., the fact that nearly half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, survive on less than $2 a day).

That’s nice.

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Except, according to CBS Moneywatch [ht: ja], a growing number of American workers are struggling to live on just $2 a day.

The number of U.S. residents who are struggling to survive on just $2 a day has more than doubled since 1996, placing 1.5 million households and 3 million children in this desperate economic situation. . .

The measure of poverty isn’t arbitrary — it’s the threshold the World Bank uses to measure global poverty in the [developing] world. While it may be the norm to see families in developing countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia struggle to survive on such meager income, the growing ranks of America’s ultrapoor may be shocking, given that the U.S. is considered one of the most developed capitalist countries in the world.

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Back in 1974, Stephen Marglin published an important essay, “What Do Bosses Do? The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production” (pdf).

Marglin was responding to the tradition within mainstream economic theory, from Adam Smith to neoclassical economics, that hierarchy and specialization were indispensable for increasing productivity and achieving efficiency. He countered that “capitalist hierarchy has little to do with efficiency” but, instead, was designed to guarantee “to the entrepreneur an essential role in the production process” and “to provide for the accumulation of capital.”

Smith’s ideas are receiving renewed attention, in relation to the other side of the capitalist relationship: workers.

According to Barry Schwartz, most workers are unhappy with the work they’re doing—and that’s at least partly due to Smith.

the ideas of Adam Smith have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They gave rise to a world of work in which his gloomy assumptions about human beings became true. When you take all opportunities for meaning and engagement out of the work that people do, why would they work, except for the wage? What Smith and his descendants failed to realize is that rather than exploiting a fact about human nature, they were creating a fact about human nature.

The transformation I have in mind goes something like this: You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don’t even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were. (Even Smith, in one passage, seemed to acknowledge this possibility, noting that mindless, routinized work typically made people “stupid and ignorant.”)

Schwartz makes it out to be a tension between our lofty aspirations and the drudgery of the jobs we actually do. (And he uses the example of the “dancing janitors”—who help out with patient care without additional compensation—to illustrate the idea that we’re looking for something more than wages.)

I’ll admit, I do think there’s a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction on the job. And I like the idea that economic theory is “performative” (that is, it both captures something going on in the real world and creates that world).

But he buries the real issue elsewhere in his piece:

This, again, is what Adam Smith thought. In his famous example of the pin factory, he extolled the virtues of the division of labor: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head.” Our work experience might be poorer, but we — or at least our bosses — would be richer.

So, we’re back to where we started, with the bosses. Whether or not hierarchy and the division of labor are efficient, it’s the bosses who are becoming richer as a result of the work employees do. And employees are forced to have the freedom to work for the bosses in order to purchase the commodities and pay off the debts they need to reproduce themselves and their families. Workers get wages and salaries, bosses get profits.

That’s what workers do—unless and until we create another kind of enterprise, in which workers make the important decisions about the work they do and what will be done with the value they create.

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Special mention

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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.