2018/05/30: unlike even the most property-friendly founders Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Buchanan wanted a private governing elite of corporate power that was wholly released from public accountability.
Suppressing voting, changing legislative processes so that a normal majority could no longer prevail, sowing public distrust of government institutions— all these were tactics toward the goal. But the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.
MacLean argues that despite the rhetoric of Virginia school acolytes, shrinking big government is not really the point. The oligarchs require a government with tremendous new powers so that they can bypass the will of the people. This, as MacLean points out, requires greatly expanding police powers “to control the resultant popular anger.” The spreading use of pre-emption by GOP-controlled state legislatures to suppress local progressive victories such as living wage ordinances is another example of the right’s aggressive use of state power.
Could these right-wing capitalists allow private companies to fill prisons with helpless citizens—or, more profitable still, right-less undocumented immigrants? They could, and have. Might they engineer a retirement crisis by moving Americans to inadequate 401(k)s? Done. Take away the rights of consumers and workers to bring grievances to court by making them sign forced arbitration agreements? Check. Gut public education to the point where ordinary people have such bleak prospects that they have no energy to fight back? Getting it done.
Would they even refuse children clean water? Actually, yes.
MacLean notes that in Flint, Michigan, Americans got a taste of what the emerging oligarchy will look like — it tastes like poisoned water. There, the Koch-funded Mackinac Center pushed for legislation that would allow the governor to take control of communities facing emergency and put unelected managers in charge. In Flint, one such manager switched the city’s water supply to a polluted river, but the Mackinac Center’s lobbyists ensured that the law was fortified by protections against lawsuits that poisoned inhabitants might bring. Tens of thousands of children were exposed to lead, a substance known to cause serious health problems including brain damage.
Tyler Cowen has provided an economic justification for this kind of brutality, stating that where it is difficult to get clean water, private companies should take over and make people pay for it. “This includes giving them the right to cut off people who don’t—or can’t—pay their bills,” the economist explains.
To many this sounds grotesquely inhumane, but it is a way of thinking that has deep roots in America. In Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative (2005), Buchanan considers the charge of heartlessness made against the kind of classic liberal that he took himself to be. MacLean interprets his discussion to mean that people who “failed to foresee and save money for their future needs” are to be treated, as Buchanan put it, “as subordinate members of the species, akin to…animals who are dependent.’”
Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University who later attended the University of Chicago for graduate study, started out as a conventional public finance economist. But he grew frustrated by the way in which economic theorists ignored the political process.
Buchanan began working on a description of power that started out as a critique of how institutions functioned in the relatively liberal 1950s and ‘60s, a time when economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas about the need for government intervention in markets to protect people from flaws so clearly demonstrated in the Great Depression held sway. Buchanan, MacLean notes, was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?
In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.”
Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. Adam Smith saw human beings as self-interested and hungry for personal power and material comfort, but he also acknowledged social instincts like compassion and fairness. Buchanan, in contrast, insisted that people were primarily driven by venal self-interest. Crediting people with altruism or a desire to serve others was “romantic” fantasy: politicians and government workers were out for themselves, and so, for that matter, were teachers, doctors, and civil rights activists. They wanted to control others and wrest away their resources: “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty.
Does that sound like your kindergarten teacher? It did to Buchanan.
The people who needed protection were property owners, and their rights could only be secured though constitutional limits to prevent the majority of voters from encroaching on them, an idea Buchanan lays out in works like Property as a Guarantor of Liberty (1993). MacLean observes that Buchanan saw society as a cutthroat realm of makers (entrepreneurs) constantly under siege by takers (everybody else) His own language was often more stark, warning the alleged “prey” of “parasites” and “predators” out to fleece them.
Automobile exhaust is an important contributor to air pollution, but this fuel tax inordinately hits people of moderate to low income who are already using as little gas as possible, cannot afford to live closer to where they need to go or buy a new, fuel-efficient car. Curbing industrial emissions through technology or degrowth, improvement in mass transit, urban planning and policies aimed at gentrification and investment real estate are alternatives.
2018/11/18: USA is as geographically fractured as it is economically unequal. In fact, the two trends are intertwined. In separate studies, economists Rebecca Diamond and Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag revealed a widening gap in incomes, skills and wages between low-income and high-income regions, beginning around 1980. After decades of converging, in other words, our cities and states have been growing apart. The wider the income gap grows between the regions, they show, the harder it becomes for those in service and even blue-collar jobs to afford to live in high-income, high-rent places with high-quality amenities such as clean air, good schools, low crime, strong job markets, transportation infrastructure and retail stores.
Driven out of thriving communities by those rents, people who were just getting by are surrounded by others who were also struggling, in areas that the better-off had fled. That leaves a skimpy tax base, shrunken opportunities and economic segregation.
Thus, we increasingly live in two Americas, and we vote accordingly.
Consider the stark differences in basic measures of local economic performance — employment and housing prices — between counties where the majority of votes were cast for Donald Trump and counties where the majority voted for Hillary Clinton. The average Clinton county employs seven to eight times as many workers as the average Trump county, with nearly double the market value per single-family home. In part, this difference reflects the higher population density of the urban areas, which voted disproportionately for Clinton. But as my analysis shows, it has been growing over time, as the Clinton counties outperform their Trump counterparts.
Statistically, there appears to be no significant improvement in job growth. The gap in housing price growth actually widens. In fact, the larger the Trump electorate and the larger the degree of Trump support, the worse the county’s economic performance.
2018/10/08: Upon closer inspection, GVCs and new technologies exhibit features that limit the upside to – and may even undermine – developing countries’ economic performance. One such feature is an overall bias in favor of skills and other capabilities. This bias reduces developing countries’ comparative advantage in traditionally labor-intensive manufacturing (and other) activities, and decreases their gains from trade.
Second, GVCs make it harder for low-income countries to use their labor-cost advantage to offset their technological disadvantage, by reducing their ability to substitute unskilled labor for other production inputs. These two features reinforce and compound each other. The evidence to date, on the employment and trade fronts, is that the disadvantages may have more than offset the advantages.
The usual response to these concerns is to stress the importance of building up complementary skills and capabilities. Developing countries must upgrade their educational systems and technical training, improve their business environment, and enhance their logistics and transport networks in order to make fuller use of new technologies, goes the oft-heard refrain.
But pointing out that developing countries need to advance on all those dimensions is neither news nor helpful development advice. It is akin to saying that development requires development. Trade and technology present an opportunity when they are able to leverage existing capabilities, and thereby provide a more direct and reliable path to development. When they demand complementary and costly investments, they are no longer a shortcut around manufacturing-led development.
Compare the new technologies with the traditional model of industrialization, which has been a powerful engine of economic growth in developing countries. First, manufacturing is tradable, which means domestic output is not constrained by demand (and incomes) at home. Second, manufacturing know-how was relatively easy to transfer across countries and, in particular, from rich to poor economies. Third, manufacturing did not make large demands on skills.
These three characteristics collectively made manufacturing a fantastic escalator to higher incomes for developing countries. New technologies present a very different picture in terms of the ease of transferring know-how and the skill requirements they imply. As a result, their net impact on low-income countries looks considerably more uncertain.
2018/10/10: Climate change will be worse for people who are poor, or not white, or not men, or very young, or very old — or any combination of the above. So if you, in your daily life, are doing anything to make life easier for any of those groups, you are helping to fight the devastating impacts of climate change
The technological and social change the world needs dwarfs anything that’s come before in history.
we aren’t going to geoengineer our way out of this mess—cutting emissions is our number one priority. But as this new report makes abundantly clear, the disease we’ve unleashed on this planet is only getting worse, and we aren’t doing nearly enough to find the cure.
To correct course and avoid 1.5 C, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, we’ll need to cut emissions by half before 2030, and go carbon-neutral by 2050, the report says. That gives us three decades to transform our energy production into something unrecognizable, with renewable energy galore combined with carbon capture techniques like the bolstering of forests, and maybe even sucking the stuff out of the atmosphere and trapping it underground. We’ll have to change our behavior as individuals, too. Meaning, we’re looking at unprecedented change, what is essentially the restructuring of civilization.
2018/10/08: we’re in the midst of a similarly disruptive and pivotal moment in history that I’m calling the Great Digitization Event, or GDE. And right now we’re in that period where the oxygen, or in this case the internet as used today, is rapidly and indifferently killing off many systems while allowing new types of organizations to emerge.
[in the mid 90s], vice president Al Gore started talking about the internet as the Next Big Thing—I remember Jane excitedly telling me he had a whole box of first issues at Blair House. In 1996, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow, wrote the hippie-inspired, libertarian-fueled manifesto “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which in many ways marked a pivotal moment where the dog catches the car and Silicon Valley emerges from the subculture and begins the dotcom boom. WIRED became a global symbol of the dramatic transformation headquartered in Silicon Valley that made consumers lust and struck fear in established businesses around the world.
Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed.
The hippie culture that drove the rise of the GDE failed to completely fulfill the promise of new technology, but those anaerobic hippies did leave Gen Z a whole new set of tools to deploy. The new generation are the warm-blooded mammals able to thrive in an environment no longer appropriate for their cold-blooded ancestors. My generation and the hippies are the anaerobic bacteria heading toward the mud.
Scary to see that world wide debt has increased by $57 trillion since the financial crises. Maddening that it would take only $16.5 trillion for the world to meet Paris climate change targets. Infuriating that rich people are hiding $26.5 trillion in offshore accounts, and that the wealth of the 1% is $127 trillion.
2018/10/01: hopelessness can undercut individual potential and collective possibility. And nowhere does it loom larger than in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, which threatens to rob many people of their livelihoods, their dignity, their security, and their ambitions.
Too often, discussions about the future of work center on technology rather than on the people who will be affected by it. And they rarely acknowledge how the concentration of political and economic power shapes the way technology is developed and deployed. Instead, the entire discourse is led by champions of technology—management consultants, engineers, venture capitalists, and scientists—and tinged with inevitability, rather than being the product of thoughtful human decision-making, the consequences of which will affect countless lives.
At the same time, it is clear that technology is not the only force or factor threatening the dignity and quality of work, or the security of workers.
Meanwhile, campaign finance laws expand the influence and voice of corporations and the wealthy, while labor is more productive and therefore profitable than ever—in part because of technology—but workers don’t feel they are getting their fair share of the rewards.
2018/09/19: our social lives are shaped by a much stronger force that ignores many of these lines: distance.
In the millions of ties on Facebook that connect relatives, co-workers, classmates and friends, Americans are far more likely to know people nearby than in distant communities that share their politics or mirror their demographics.
The power of distance underlying these other patterns can be seen another way: If we were to divide the United States into two regions, merging counties that are most closely connected to one another, we would get a very simple map. It would not show the coasts versus the heartland, or red America versus blue America.
It would show, simply, all of the continental U.S. and Alaska in one region, and far-off Hawaii in the other. Divide the country further, and cohesive regions become clear at different scales. Northern Florida merges with southern Georgia. Texas and California splinter. Divide the country into 50 regions, and you get something that looks like how we might redraw our state borders to reflect the social worlds people in America inhabit today.
These networks are important in part because of other patterns that are correlated with them. Counties with more dispersed networks — where a smaller share of Facebook friends are located nearby, or among the nearest 50 million people — are on average richer, more educated and have longer life expectancies. Places that are more closely connected to one another also have more migration, trade and patent citations between them.
Counties that are more geographically isolated in the index are more likely to have lower labor force participation and economic mobility, and they have higher rates of teenage births. Some of the most economically distressed parts of the country appear to be the most disconnected.
Close-knit communities can have their own benefits, like enabling neighbors to rely on one another for economic and social support. But previous research suggests that “weak ties” to people we know less well can be particularly valuable for bringing us information we don’t already have. So people in communities that are more broadly connected may be more likely to hear about a wider range of business or educational opportunities.
2018/09/16: our public school systems are barely providing basic literacy: about 1 in 7 American adults would struggle to read a children’s book. In higher ed, students last year graduated with an average of $39,400 in debt. The top 1 percent of American households today controls more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Our justice system puts African Americans in prison at five times the rate of whites.
And voting suppression and intimidation is everywhere — purges to voting rolls in Indiana, Texas repeatedly found guilty of discriminatory practices, gerrymandering everywhere turning Democratic votes meaningless. And Republicans are trying to pass a constitutional amendment that would require voters show a state-issued photo ID at the polls, which research, as well as common sense, tells us suppresses minority votes.
Do you ever stop and marvel how everything seems to be in crisis all at once? Or, as an African-American friend said to me recently, now everyone in America has a glimpse of what it’s like to be black.
It’s not a coincidence, of course. In the system of democratic society, all the parts are totally interdependent.
2018/09/12: after a new report revealing a more than 25% rise in U.S. suicides since 2000, some called for new antidepressants, but that only buys into the mainstream notion that "mental illness" is primarily physiological in nature, caused by a "broken" brain.
we must move beyond a focus on the individual and think of well-being as a social issue.
economic inequality could be a significant contributor to mental illness.
2018/09/12: In the book, the narrator, a sociologist, describes how a system in which status accorded by birth had been replaced by a society in which the classes are reconstituted in the basic formula, IQ plus Effort = Merit. The belief in a common good and a flourishing civic life is corroded. “If the meritocrats believe…that their advantage comes from their own merits,” Young wrote. “They can feel they deserve whatever they can get.
As Young’s book predicted, opportunities to accrue social capital, the springboard that allows the middle classes to leap ahead, have been drastically reduced for those at the bottom of society even as, contrary to one of Young’s predictions, the rich have grown wealthier with 10% owning 40% of this country’s wealth.
Democracy does not require perfect equality but it does require that citizens share a common life.
Do we want a society in which everything is up for sale? Meritocrats might say, “Yes”. As Young pointed out all those years ago, the ability to buy what it wants when it wants is one way in which the meritocracy proves its “worth” – at least to itself.
2018/09/10: is society incapable of tackling income inequality peacefully?
Walter Scheidel: No, but history shows that there are limits. There is a big difference between maintaining existing arrangements that successfully check inequality (Scandinavia is a good example) and significantly reducing it. The latter requires real change and that is always much harder to do: think of America or Britain, not to mention Brazil, China or India. The modern welfare state does a reasonably good job of compensating for inequality before taxes and transfers. However for more substantial levelling to occur, the established order needs to be shaken up: the greater the shock to the system, the easier it becomes to reduce privilege at the top.
Are we really living in an unfathomable period of wealth inequality, or was the relatively equal society that followed the second world war the real aberration?
Walter Scheidel: When we view history over the long run we can see that this experience was certainly a novelty. We now know that modernisation as such does not reliably reduce inequality. Many things had to come together to make this happen, such as very high income and estate taxes, strong labour unions, and intrusive regulations and controls. Since the 1980s, liberalisation and globalisation have allowed inequality to rise again. Even so, wealth concentration in Europe is nowhere near as high as it was a century ago. America, meanwhile, is getting there, which shows that it all depends on where you look.
measures that worked well in the past may have done so because they were taken in the unique context of massive violent shocks and threats: the world wars and communism. This requires us to be more creative in dealing with inequality. Above all we must think harder about feasibility. It is not enough for economists to come up with recipes to reduce inequality, we also need to figure out how to implement them in an environment that is politically polarised and economically globalised. Both factors limit our scope for intervention.
in practice there will always be losers, and even basic-income schemes can take us only so far. At the end of the day, someone owns the robots. As long as the capitalist world system is in place, it is hard to see how even huge productivity gains from greater automation would benefit society evenly instead of funnelling even more income and wealth to those who are in the best position to pocket these gains.
2018/09/10: American Indian/Alaskan, Hispanic/Latino, and African American students had the least access. White and Asian students had the most. Nearly a quarter of students who reported that family income was less that $36,000 a year had access to only a single device at home, mostly a smartphone: a 19% gap compared to students whose family income was more than $100,000.
2018/09/14: Democracy didn’t create our problems, but it may solve them.
the extremist evils of our age are the result of anti-democratic action from the very institutions created to preserve the elite veto over "mob rule."
Yet we continue to misdiagnose America's political disease as "mob rule" rather than "elite rule." This misdiagnosis matters, because it leads to prescriptions that merely heighten the grip by elites.
An honest examination of democratic decline would look at the ways in which our counter-majoritarian institutions are thwarting the public will—as expressed through its elected representatives—and how that can create support for truly destabilizing forces.
The transformation of the GOP into a parliamentary-style party primarily responsive to donors, right-wing activists, and conservative media is arguably the central problem for American governance.
What declinist arguments like Rosen’s actually fear is the waning influence of elites. And what these arguments seem to seek - in voicing nostalgia for early American politics - is an era where elites could steer governance with only the cursory affirmation of a narrow and exclusive public.
If political and economic elites have lost their stature in American life, it’s only after a generation of profound mismanagement, from misguided foreign adventures to wage stagnation and broad economic collapse.
If we’ve seen light, it’s in those places where ordinary people have organized and begun to build new movements and new ways of democratic living.
Is the reluctance to pay editors a barrier to equitable participation on Wikipedia? Not exactly. Global economic inequalities mean that an encyclopedia built on paid edits would also reflect those inequalities. We’d probably have an encyclopedia with even more content about rich countries and wealthy corporations than we already do. What we instead need are models that both address the fact that different parts of the world have different capacities to volunteer, and at the same time remove some of the short-term problematic incentives that paid editing would bring about.
Its reliance on self-motivated volunteers works exceedingly well in certain parts of the world; but, in other regions, this model has become an economic barrier to entry. Maybe as a consequence, Wikipedia is surprisingly imbalanced in its coverage of global knowledge.
Almost a decade ago, we began mapping all of the content on Wikipedia and found that the site was a highly unequal representation of the world. There were many more articles about Europe and North America than there were about poorer parts of the world. One of our more recent mappings showed more articles written about Western Europe than all of the rest of the world put together. For every article about Africa, there were twenty about Europe. That was despite the fact that Africa is three times larger than Europe, it has over twice the population, and has roughly the same number of internet users.
Since then, much effort has been spent on identifying the underlying causes. Our own research found that the availability of broadband is a clear factor in the likelihood of people around the world participating in Wikipedia. Another study showed the importance of the availability of sources in local languages, to be used for citations, including local media sources.
The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality.