mfioretti: inequality*

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  1. ‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

    Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness. Almost on a monthly basis we are confronted with publications trying to project the current obsession with property distribution back into the Stone Age, setting us on a false quest for ‘egalitarian societies’ defined in such a way that they could not possibly exist outside some tiny band of foragers (and possibly, not even then). What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin understanding the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.


    Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.


    The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

    Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe.

    The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.
    https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history
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  2. Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.

    However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.


    Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

    “information about you wants to be free to us.”

    This year, a host of American cities vilely prostrated themselves to Amazon in the hopes of winning its promised, new second headquarters. They’d do anything for the scraps of Amazon’s shipping business (although, nobody knows what kind of jobs Amazon is really promising). This also made it clear, though, that the flat-world internet game was up, and it’s still about location, location, and location.

    Smart cities will use the techniques of “smartness” to leverage their regional competitive advantages. Instead of being speed-of-light flat-world platforms, all global and multicultural, they’ll be digitally gated communities, with “code as law” that is as crooked, complex, and deceitful as a Facebook privacy chart.


    You still see this upbeat notion remaining in the current smart-city rhetoric, mostly because it suits the institutional interests of the left.

    The “bad part of town” will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.

    These aren’t the “best practices” beloved by software engineers; they’re just the standard urban practices, with software layered over. It’s urban design as the barbarian’s varnish on urbanism.

    If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized.

    It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/02/stupid-cities/553052
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  3. The “bad part of town” will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.

    These aren’t the “best practices” beloved by software engineers; they’re just the standard urban practices, with software layered over. It’s urban design as the barbarian’s varnish on urbanism. People could have it otherwise, technically, if they really wanted it and had the political will, but they don’t. So they won’t get it.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/technolog.../stupid-cities/553052/?utm_source=twb
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  4. When we look at digital technology and platforms, it’s always instructive to remember that they exist to extract data. The longer you are on the platform, the more you produce and the more can be extracted from you. Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms. In the words of Tristan Harris, the former Google Design Ethicist, and one of the earliest SV folks to have the scales fall from his eyes, “What people don’t know about or see about Facebook is that polarization is built into the business model,” Harris told NBC News. “Polarization is profitable.”

    David Golumbia’s description of the scholarly concept of Cyberlibertarianism is useful here (emphasis mine) :

    In perhaps the most pointed form of cyberlibertarianism, computer expertise is seen as directly applicable to social questions. In The Cultural Logic of Computation, I argue that computational practices are intrinsically hierarchical and shaped by identification with power. To the extent that algorithmic forms of reason and social organization can be said to have an inherent politics, these have long been understood as compatible with political formations on the Right rather than the Left.

    So the cui bono of digital polarization are the wealthy, the powerful, the people with so much to gain promoting systems that maintain the status quo, despite the language of freedom, democratization, and community that are featured so prominently when people like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey talk about technology. Digital technology in general, and platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter specifically, exist to promote polarization and maintain the existing concentration of power.

    To the extent that Silicon Valley is the seat of the technological power, it’s useful to note that the very ground of what we now call Silicon Valley is built on the foundation of segregating black and white workers. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law talks about auto workers in 1950’s California:

    So in 1953 the company (Ford) announced it would close its Richmond plant and reestablish operations in a larger facility fifty miles south in Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose, rural at the time. (Milpitas is a part of what we now call Silicon Valley.)

    Because Milpitas had no apartments, and houses in the area were off limits to black workers—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like those of whites on the assembly line—African Americans at Ford had to choose between giving up their good industrial jobs , moving to apartments in a segregated neighborhood of San Jose, or enduring lengthy commutes between North Richmond and Milpitas.
    https://hypervisible.com/polarization/power-technology
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  5. There’s an understandable impulse in the face of growing national divisions and what for many was the shocking and unpleasant outcome of the 2016 national elections to retreat to a comforting cocoon of the like-minded. Blue cities will do all the things that a solidly Republican national government won’t do: respect LGBTQ rights, provide sanctuary for immigrants, denounce climate change, and tax themselves to pay for needed investments and public services. But withdrawing to the safety of agreeable blue localities cedes the important national battle at just the time when it needs to be contested.

    It is well and good to celebrate the successes that mayors and local leaders are having. But transforming these heartening but small successes into a sweeping call for a new localism is misplaced when the fundamental functions of the national government are being steadily undermined. None of this works in a world in which the federal government is not simply rending holes in the safety net but knocking down its foundations.


    While the rest of the world’s nation-states adopted the trappings of modern social democracies, the U.S. was late to implement things like unemployment insurance, social security and universal health care. The New Deal, the Great Society, and Obamacare were only enacted after various local and state programs to address these problems were simply overwhelmed.

    Cities are not merely ill-equipped to tackle our major challenges on their own. Localism has an undeniable history of making many problems worse. Take two big issues of our time: climate change and surging inequality. Mayors and cities can strike a pose and demonstrate effective tactics, but they lack the policy throw-weight to solve these problems.

    It’s also worth noting that a key aspect of localism that has been effectively exempt from federal control—local control of zoning and land use—has worsened the economic segregation of our nation’s metropolitan areas
    https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/0...vernment/552446/?utm_source=SFTwitter
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  6. Here’s one example: In 2014, Maine Gov. Paul LePage released data to the public detailing over 3,000 transactions from welfare recipients using EBT cards in the state. (EBT cards are like state-issued debit cards, and can be used to disperse benefits like food stamps.)

    LePage created a list of every time this money had been used in a strip club, liquor store, or bar, and used it to push his political agenda of limiting access to state benefits. LePage’s list represents a tiny fraction of overall EBT withdrawals, but it effectively reinforced negative stereotypes and narratives about who relies on welfare benefits and why.

    I spoke with Eubanks recently about her new book, and why she believes automated technologies are being used to rig the welfare system against the people who need it the most.

    A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
    Sean Illing

    What’s the thesis of your book?
    Virginia Eubanks

    There’s a collision of political forces and technical innovations that are devastating poor and working-class families in America.
    https://www.vox.com/2018/2/6/16874782/welfare-big-data-technology-poverty
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  7. “I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses.”

    This can’t work. There are thousands of small towns that are losing population. If they are all competing to attract new businesses, be prepared for massive abuses by Business. None of them will pay taxes.

    The guy moving back after MIT and Microsoft sounds nice but certainly isn’t scalable. The more education people get, the less likely they are to move to a rural area. This is one of the reasons why there is a doctor shortage in rural America even though doctors make more is absolute dollars, not to mention after cost of living in rural areas. They have to work non-stop in rural places, send their kids to mediocre schools, have nothing to do socially and be isolated from others with their education level. You can’t get many immigrant doctors out there either because they risk getting treated like crap.

    http://www.physicianspractice.com/blog/do-rural-doctors-make-more-money-have-higher-job-satisfaction

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/national/in-a-midwestern-town-that-went-for-trump-a-muslim-doctor-tries-to-understand-his-neighbors/2017/07/01/0ada50c4-5c48-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html
    http://www.theamericanconservative.co...ck-in-americas-struggling-small-towns
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  8. what happened to cause such a profound shift in the human psyche away from egalitarianism? The balance of archaeological, anthropological and genomic data suggests the answer lies in the agricultural revolution, which began roughly 10,000 years ago.

    The extraordinary productivity of modern farming techniques belies just how precarious life was for most farmers from the earliest days of the Neolithic revolution right up until this century (in the case of subsistence farmers in the world’s poorer countries). Both hunter-gatherers and early farmers were susceptible to short-term food shortages and occasional famines – but it was the farming communities who were much more likely to suffer severe, recurrent and catastrophic famines.

    Hunting and gathering was a low-risk way of making a living. Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers in Namibia traditionally made use of 125 different edible plant species, each of which had a slightly different seasonal cycle, varied in its response to different weather conditions, and occupied a specific environmental niche. When the weather proved unsuitable for one set of species it was likely to benefit another, vastly reducing the risk of famine.

    As a result, hunter-gatherers considered their environments to be eternally provident, and only ever worked to meet their immediate needs. They never sought to create surpluses nor over-exploited any key resources. Confidence in the sustainability of their environments was unyielding.
    The Ju/’hoansi people have lived in southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of years.
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    The Ju/’hoansi people have lived in southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. Photograph: James Suzman

    In contrast, Neolithic farmers assumed full responsibility for “making” their environments provident. They depended on a handful of highly sensitive crops or livestock species, which meant any seasonal anomaly such as drought or livestock disease could cause chaos.
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    And indeed, the expansion of agriculture across the globe was punctuated by catastrophic societal collapses. Genomic research on the history of European populations points to a series of sharp declines that coincided first with the Neolithic expansion through central Europe around 7,500 years ago, then with their spread into north-western Europe about 6,000 years ago.

    However, when the stars were in alignment – weather favourable, pests subdued, soils still packed with nutrients – agriculture was very much more productive than hunting and gathering. This enabled farming populations to grow far more rapidly than hunter-gatherers, and sustain these growing populations over much less land.

    But successful Neolithic farmers were still tormented by fears of drought, blight, pests, frost and famine. In time, this profound shift in the way societies regarded scarcity also induced fears about raids, wars, strangers – and eventually, taxes and tyrants.
    Fruits and tubers gathered by the Ju/’hoansi.
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    The Ju/’hoansi traditionally made use of 125 different edible plant species. Photograph: James Suzman

    Not that early farmers considered themselves helpless. If they did things right, they could minimise the risks that fed their fears. This meant pleasing capricious gods in the conduct of their day-to-day lives – but above all, it placed a premium on working hard and creating surpluses.

    Where hunter-gatherers saw themselves simply as part of an inherently productive environment, farmers regarded their environment as something to manipulate, tame and control. But as any farmer will tell you, bending an environment to your will requires a lot of work. The productivity of a patch of land is directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it.

    This principle that hard work is a virtue, and its corollary that individual wealth is a reflection of merit, is perhaps the most obvious of the agricultural revolution’s many social, economic and cultural legacies.
    From farming to war

    The acceptance of the link between hard work and prosperity played a profound role in reshaping human destiny. In particular, the ability to both generate and control the distribution of surpluses became a path to power and influence. This laid the foundations for all the key elements of our contemporary economies, and cemented our preoccupation with growth, productivity and trade.

    Regular surpluses enabled a much greater degree of role differentiation within farming societies, creating space for less immediately productive roles. Initially these would have been agriculture-related (toolmakers, builders and butchers), but over time new roles emerged: priests to pray for good rains; fighters to protect farmers from wild animals and rivals; politicians to transform economic power into social capital.
    https://www.theguardian.com/inequalit...lity-10000-years-ago?CMP=share_btn_tw
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  9. Whether or not one likes the logic of cowboy country, one should understand how it works and that it does work, at least by its own standards. It works very well, in fact, so it is not merely idiocy that makes people get behind it in elections. For those of us who call the United States home, articulating this logic can help us understand each other and clarify the question of whether this is really what we want.
    https://www.americamagazine.org/polit...ot-bug-its-uniquely-american-strategy
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  10. Who decides what the city really needs and will operate going forward? With a smart city comes a significant amount of decision making on what to do, who will do it, why and when to do it. The answers to the questions are not easy and can have massive repercussions. Take, for instance, the challenge of gentrification and urban displacement, which has long been framed simply as a symptom of wealthier people moving in to communities and effectively nudging out lower-income individuals. However, public investment can play a critical role in this process too. Perhaps the most shining, unfortunate example of this is what San Francisco Federal Reserve researchers refer to as “transit-induced gentrification” in which public investment in transit—light rail, buses, subway—attracts affluent individuals. So much so that several studies have found that transit investments can alter the demographic composition of the surrounding neighborhood, resulting in pushing out lower-income individuals and creating new problems within the city. Potential outcomes like these should prompt questions about who should be making these decisions about public investments associated with smart cities. Finding pathways to figure out what the public wants from its city (and perhaps more importantly, what it does not) is critical. This requires citizen participation early in the process and throughout. The New Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network released a report, “India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?” The report highlights the massive problems with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledge to build 100 smart cities by 2020. Among the problems is the focus on technology of the future instead of issues of the present such as an agrarian crisis, insufficient civil rights for women, forced evictions to make room for the implementation of smart city projects, and so on.
    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/...inconvenient-truth-about-smart-cities
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