The monarchy that is money
November 21, 2017 9:20 AM   Subscribe

The climate crisis? It’s capitalism, stupid. Benjamin K. Fong ( NYT Opinion) Kim Stanley Robinson: We’ve Come To A Bad Moment And We Must Change, climate change, capitalism, and dystopia.
posted by The Whelk (74 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

How many skulls will be in the capitalism skull pyramid? All. All of the skulls. That is what they are going for. At this point it has become a death cult out to murder the entire planet.
posted by Artw at 9:23 AM on November 21, 2017 [37 favorites]


Picking up on Kim Stanley Robinson's first answer in that interview: Doomsday on Ice.
posted by rory at 9:25 AM on November 21, 2017


socialism or barbarism
posted by entropicamericana at 9:28 AM on November 21, 2017 [12 favorites]


I hate to go a little "No True Scotsman" here but the fault doesn't lie in Capitalism, in the Adam Smith sense. Command economies have done a just as good a job of fucking up their environments as market-based economies.

The problem is externalities. The problem is, capitalist or communist, market-based or centrally-planned, kicking the can down the road.

We've kicked the can down the road way too long, and we need to deal with externalities so bad it makes me grind my teeth. We need a method (that no economic or market system yet implemented has even really attempted) to escrow some significant fraction of gains as a way to incentivize long term decision-making.
posted by tclark at 9:30 AM on November 21, 2017 [72 favorites]


So we need an economics based on justice, and capitalism, a system that needs owners to own people and workers to be owned, will not suffice.

Any system that declares a party or an owner class above all will create externalities by definition.
posted by eustatic at 9:33 AM on November 21, 2017 [17 favorites]


Don't take my comment above as one that is apologist for our current system in any way or one that promulgates an artificial dichotomy between capitalism and socialism -- I believe strongly in the capability of capitalism in certain areas of the economy, but also believe that the profit motive in others is toxic and needs to be profoundly restrained (things like safety/fit-for-purpose products/health care), and in some relatively narrow areas, total prohibition of private ownership (national parks, utility and transportation infrastructure). Since we're talking pipe-dreams, a blended economy with well-regulated capitalism that properly addresses externalities would be my prescription. Yes, I know, good luck with that.
posted by tclark at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2017 [18 favorites]


Any system that declares a party or an owner class above all will create externalities by definition.

Any system that rewards actions on the scale of weeks, months, or years rather than decades will create externalities. By definition.

So precisely which non-capitalist economic system has not placed some group of people above all? Forgive me if I don't hold my breath.
posted by tclark at 9:43 AM on November 21, 2017 [12 favorites]


Cultural propagation has been driven by economic and military power since we started doing agriculture and civilization. We've been running predatory societies since then, so the question I ask is - can we synthesize some of the aspects of non-competitive societies into our modern culture? If not, it's Mad Max and warlords until we go extinct.
posted by MillMan at 9:56 AM on November 21, 2017 [8 favorites]


Politically we seem to have settled for the moment on not even trying, on the assumption that the consequences won't ever fall on those responsible. It's a very depressing time.
posted by Artw at 10:00 AM on November 21, 2017 [10 favorites]


What we're hitting is the tragedy of the commons on the grand scale. We have a global economy built on the premise that natural resources are infinite, limited only by the amount of work we're willing to put into them, and there will always be more in the future.

There's some awareness that this-or-that specific resource may be limited, but the theory is that "all the resources humans need to live and thrive and for some of them to live in luxury" is an infinite pool, and we don't need to manage the use that pool more than it takes to provide for people today.

A lot of people are not actually getting enough to live and thrive. The theory says that this is a matter of mismanagement rather than lack of resources - and this is mostly true; what's missing is a sense that it matters which resources get used and how they get used; the base premise doesn't acknowledge that "use of resources now" can affect availability in 50 or 100 years. Capitalism isn't to blame for this; every human culture has let the people in charge decide how to allocate resources, and those decisions have always been based on "I want to be more than comfortable; everyone else gets some goodies only as long as that helps maintain me being in charge."

Democratic capitalism carries the illusion that we should all collectively get to pick who's making those decisions; in reality, power accumulates and it gets very hard to dislodge it.

I'm not sure there is a viable fix; I've seen plenty of plans for more limited societies (the peak oil crowds explore this a lot), but forcing long-view planning on communities crashes hard against the "gimme now" impulses that seem to be built into human nature. Those "gimme now" impulses have a solid basis in survival, in lower-tech, smaller-scale communities, which is why they're so hard to overcome.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:09 AM on November 21, 2017 [7 favorites]


I see zero chance of avoiding disaster. We would need a benevolent global totalitarian regime.
Like I said, zero chance.
posted by Glomar response at 10:09 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


Did that fusion breakthrough last week turn out to be bullshit? It may be that the only real answer to economics driven by scarcity is to obviate scarcity. I'd still expect a massive sociopolitical convulsion, though, because power continues to operate for a while before it really unravels from the loss of its reproduction.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:11 AM on November 21, 2017


I still have a little hope that the Oankali will come and interbreed with us...
posted by nikoniko at 10:13 AM on November 21, 2017 [9 favorites]


Side thought: What managed those externalities in the past was often religion: The buffalo are sacred; the river is sacred; the corn is sacred; the mountains are sacred. That didn't mean don't kill them, don't use them - but it meant that caring for the resources themselves was acknowledged as important.

Removing our sense of a connection with forces larger than the human mind, human communities, opened up the option for mass destruction of our environment in the drive for profits. If the only true worth of the plants, animals, sky around us, is what value we can get out of it, then obviously you get people willing to exploit them to death, as long as that death comes after their own lifetime.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:14 AM on November 21, 2017 [35 favorites]




Why would any self-respecting species want to interbreed with us?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:15 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


What we're hitting is the tragedy of the commons on the grand scale.

As it happens, pollution is one of the examples in the original tragedy of the commons essay, though they weren't as aware in 1968 of the problems with CO2.
posted by clawsoon at 10:15 AM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


Democracy, environmentalism and regulation offered at least the idea that something might be done, down all of those are going so some scaly old rich fuckers can squeeze a few more drops out of us before the planet expires.

If I was really cynical I'd say those didn't do much except produce an illusionary possibility that we might save ourselves and in reality we've been doomed for decades.
posted by Artw at 10:17 AM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


Gotta say, this conversation, and the awareness(es) of these issues, per se, is cheering me immensely. Regardless of the current situation(s), we're really not all idiots. My prescription would be a cultural dominance of these perspectives, perhaps as embodied in a charismatic owning-class leader. Something. But we do see it, there is an us, and that's really noteworthy.
posted by emmet at 10:18 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


can we synthesize some of the aspects of non-competitive societies into our modern culture?

I contend that pre-agricultural societies were no less a cesspool of the powerful abusing the weak than modern societies. Draw the ire of your group's "power" clique? At best, you could probably expect ridicule and have to eat the less palatable fruits of gathering; at worst, expect exile or simply a sharp stick stuck into your chest while you were sleeping. Deviate from cultural norms established in your group, violate a proscription against homosexuality, perhaps? Or have the misfortune of doing something benign but immediately afterward having some horrible yet completely unconnected thing happen, making everyone believe you've been cursed or otherwise supernaturally tainted? No thanks.

I don't believe in some pre-agricultural utopia, because I know what people get up to when there's no one with the wherewithal to stop an asshole from preying on those nearby. Look no further than the benign neglect of teachers letting schoolyard bullies run rampant.

The only thing they had over modern societies is that the whims of one asshole doesn't put the lives of millions at risk (ah, wonderful 2017), but there's no putting the genie back into that bottle.
posted by tclark at 10:20 AM on November 21, 2017 [20 favorites]


It’s gonna take hostile ET invaders to actually get humans organized and unified.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:28 AM on November 21, 2017


If I was really cynical I'd say those didn't do much except produce an illusionary possibility that we might save ourselves and in reality we've been doomed for decades.

In 1968, Los Angeles had 200 Stage 1 smog alerts, and 50 Stage 2 alerts.

My google-fu isn't strong on this one, but LA Weekly had this to say in 2005:
2000
No Stage One smog alerts this year, compared to 42 days in 1990, when people with respiratory problems were urged to stay indoors.
Ref for 1968 number
LA Weekly article

My point is that we CAN do something about it, and we CAN do it within the democratic system that is in place. But we're always fighting against what people want NOW, because "fuck later, amirite?"
posted by tclark at 10:30 AM on November 21, 2017 [17 favorites]


I don't believe in some pre-agricultural utopia, because I know what people get up to when there's no one with the wherewithal to stop an asshole from preying on those nearby. Look no further than the benign neglect of teachers letting schoolyard bullies run rampant.

Schoolyard bullies are a pretty culturally located phenomenon. For starters, you need a school. And recess. Lord of the Flies is not about the natural tendencies of all school-aged children, but rather specifically the boys found in elite boarding schools.

Potentially, there's something to consider in cultural forms that award social status from engaging in the redistribution of wealth, rather than its retention. But, yes, there's still plenty of power and inequality and oppression and violence and etc. in societies that have, for example, potlatch.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:31 AM on November 21, 2017 [9 favorites]




Schoolyard bullies are a pretty culturally located phenomenon.

It was more a case-in-point, but I do concede I chose a poor example.
posted by tclark at 10:38 AM on November 21, 2017


Random thought: maybe this is a reason to support anti-aging research? No doubt that early on, the gene therapy treatments to allow one to live forever will be extraordinarily expensive and limited only to the incredibly wealthy and powerful elite....but those people are also the ones we most desperately need right now to stop thinking in terms of "next quarter" and start thinking long-term.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:43 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


If fighting for the environment has to wait for capitalism to be toppled, may as well pack it in now.

What we're hitting is the tragedy of the commons on the grand scale.

The tragedy of the commons is a problem arising from a lack of property rights; the problem there is not enough capitalism, rather than too much.
posted by jpe at 10:53 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think we've reached a point in the Cult of Capitalism where it is no longer sustainable. It has reached a point where profit is a line on a spreadsheet without regard to what's actually going on. Government increasingly structures itself around capitalism's needs, dismantling regulations and protections. Everyone is told that "the market is wise and will decide," and what is good for corporations is good for everyone.

But gone is the recognition that there is a two way street. If the planet is destroyed, the spreadsheets are gone with it. Henry Ford used to pay his workers enough for them to buy the cars they were making. Contemporary business leaders now push back against having to pay workers enough that they may eat.

At some point, as every class is pushed down more and more, who will buy their stuff?
posted by MrGuilt at 10:55 AM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]


Externality is my favorite economics term because it is simultaneously a euphemism and self-antithetical. And of course all systems have "externalities" because we define the structure and power of a system through the exclusion of its politically irrelevant aspects.

but yeah this is totally about externalities and now I'm depressed and hopeless again.
posted by turbowombat at 10:59 AM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


I don't believe in some pre-agricultural utopia

Hey, cool, neither do I. What we've programmed into our cultures is that fierce competition is required; there must be winners who take all and losers who die; there must be a social hierarchy. Power structures that arose once social hierarchy became possible have promoted these ideas, I contend that these variables are pretty malleable for humans. It's tough when none of us alive today have experienced anything different. Mostly we can point to things like Pinker's chart that claims a declining death rate due to murder over the millenia and say, well, humans are basically awful by default, the best we can do and have done is build the institutions we've built since the renaissance to get some of this under control, meanwhile we struggle along with "the thin veneer of civilization," ready to fly apart at any moment.

When I say synthesize I mean just that. Why can't we combine modern material abundance and other conveniences provided by technology that make life much easier, knowledge we've gained through science, and the institutions we've built with social structures that make for happier people, less time in service to the empire (sitting at your desk for 12 hours), life purposes other than competing with your fellow humans?

I mean, I know why we "can't" without an awful collapse first, I just refuse to completely despair even with what looks like climate doom.
posted by MillMan at 11:01 AM on November 21, 2017 [8 favorites]


Yeah I'm not really sure I find the thesis very convincing; there are non-capitalist economies with pretty terrible environmental records, and there are capitalist/market economies that include examples of markets used to incentivize and direct investment according to environmental goals that have worked pretty well.

The problems seem to be deeper than just the economic model: humans appear to have cognitive shortcomings when it comes to present vs. future value calculations, which leads to an over-prioritization of short-term gains even when there are strongly negative long-term costs. These deficiencies are equally, if not more, apparent under command economies (e.g. the Soviets poisoned huge amounts of land and people in pursuit of short-term economic and political objectives) such that I don't think you can say that a change of economic system would necessarily bring about environmental salvation.

A capitalist or market-based system with robust regulation to capture externalities both present (e.g. costs to your neighbors for your pollution) and over time (cost to future generations to clean up your fucking mess), would seem like a fairly good solution; it would take advantage of the distributed decisionmaking ability of markets to direct investment—which is pretty good; few other structures seem to do as well, and not for lack of trying on the centralized/command-economics side—while utilizing more expert opinions and centralized direction to do the modeling and estimation that the marketplace would not independently pay for.

The reason we don't seem able to do things like that today are worth thinking about, and they're certainly not trivial. (I'd argue that most fall under the heading of "regulatory capture" or "political system subversion" by economic actors who are not enfranchised, e.g. corporations and non-natural persons.) But they still seem more tractable than some sort of wholesale revolutionary replacement of the dominant economic system, which history suggests would be violent, disruptive, and environmentally damaging in its own right.

Finally, I take a tremendous issue with the statement that "[T]he burden of justification should not fall on the shoulders of those putting forward an alternative." The burden of justification absolutely falls on the shoulders of someone putting forward an alternative, as does the burden of putting forward a path for getting from the present to the proposed alternative. Otherwise it's just intellectual masturbation. History is not path-independent; there are costs—in blood, frequently—of changing society's foundational structures.

Any college kid with a few grams of weed can come up with a dozen ways to restructure society and bring it closer to some ideal before lunch, but there's a reason that such exercises are viewed as literally sophomoric: they have little value, and are generally of little broad interest, without some idea of how to get from here to there, and whose blood is going to grease the wheels along the way. That's the hard work; pointing out that the system sucks is easy. We can all agree that the current situation sucks and is untenable, but still not be able to do anything about it because there's no agreement on how to get to a different state. That's where we are, I think.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:15 AM on November 21, 2017 [28 favorites]


Sorry, the market decided regulations weren't good for it and killed them. Turns out we could have one or the other and the money picked the option where we all die so rich fucks can have more gold plating on their tombs.
posted by Artw at 11:36 AM on November 21, 2017 [10 favorites]


The tragedy of the commons is a problem arising from a lack of property rights; the problem there is not enough capitalism, rather than too much.

There will always be areas that aren't managed by capitalism because they're considered infinite or too distant to worry about or both.

Who owns the asteroid belt? Who owns our moon? If some pack o' techies manages to set up a metals mining industry in the asteroid belt, but it turns out the activities are causing unstable orbits and some of the asteroids are falling loose and might hit Earth - who has the authority to tell them to stop? If they set up a station on the moon and start mining, and cause enough damage for it to wobble*, affecting tides all over the planet, who has the legal right (as opposed to, "we have bombs and we're not afraid to use them") to make them change their very profitable activities?

Much of our current environmental problems comes from this: nobody "owned" the land/sky/water that was being damaged, because the idea of declaring ownership used to be ludicrous. And when it came time to sort out who should decide how to manage it, we not only didn't have a system to do that, we didn't have a system to even discuss who should have the rights to have their wishes considered.

Even now, we fumble with trying to describe "ownership" of rivers and of portions of the sky. Hell, we're having plenty of problems with ownership of land - the companies doing fracking own the land they're working on. The problem isn't with "capitalism hasn't been clear enough about who owns what," but that the very concept of individual ownership denies interconnected systems.

*I know I'm not dealing with real possibilities; just go with it as an example of unforeseen troublesome consequences.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:49 AM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


It's remarkable how much of this discussion—even the observation that religion was one the practices that governed externalities in the past—was foreseen by Robert Heilbroner's An Inquiry into the Human Prospect. Heilbroner himself was fairly pessimistic and might have been even more so, knowing the full extent of the climate challenge. But even he couldn't let himself be categorically fatalistic.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:52 AM on November 21, 2017


Sorry, the market decided regulations weren't good for it and killed them.

... posted a mere handful of comments after an example where one of the leading metropolises of the world had huge success in dealing with a horrible pollution problem and still showed huge growth in raw numbers as well as still having a fully functioning market economy.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is a relatively small example, and not an unalloyed wonder of perfection, but an example nonetheless that making things better CAN be done.
posted by tclark at 12:00 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


programmed into our cultures is that fierce competition is required; there must be winners who take all and losers who die; there must be a social hierarchy

... I can barely watch "Food Network" or "HGTV" anymore, because nearly every single show is a "wackadoodle" contest...

Gone are the days where you learn a skill or technique, now you just watch people compete and strut like baboons.
posted by jkaczor at 12:28 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


who has the legal right (as opposed to, "we have bombs and we're not afraid to use them") to make them change their very profitable activities

Very good question. Because historically that has been driven - at least initially - by who can actually "enforce" the law. In your proposed case, the moon is at the top of the gravity well - and rocks there are cheap...
posted by jkaczor at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


Even now, we fumble with trying to describe "ownership" of ... portions of the sky

Yeah... I cannot remember where it came from, but once saw/heard the following "apple analogy" business model for "satellite radio":
- We have yummy apples that you would like to eat. Such good apples, we are going to bring them to you!
- We are going to safely drop a yummy apple on every square foot of the ground, in a constant stream - don't worry, they are invisible until you pick one up - and make no mess if no one picks them up.

However - if you eat even a single apple, you owe us money. You must never consume the invisible apples on the ground without our permission. You are definitely not allowed to cut them up and distribute them to your friends either - if you do, we will sue you. Our apples may interfere with someone else's ability to sell you oranges that drop out of the sky too - but we don't care, as long as you are paying us.

posted by jkaczor at 12:43 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


What we're hitting is the tragedy of the commons on the grand scale.
The tragedy of the commons is a problem arising from a lack of property rights; the problem there is not enough capitalism, rather than too much.
The tragedy of the commons is that enclosure sacrificed them to capitalism. The historical English commons shared renewable resources sustainably. Garrett Hardin's essay misused the word, ignored the precedent, and was a useful cover for a generation of waste. Read Ostrom instead.
posted by clew at 12:55 PM on November 21, 2017 [18 favorites]


I see zero chance of avoiding disaster. We would need a benevolent global totalitarian regime.
Like I said, zero chance.


A great example to support your thesis is the rise of cryptocurrency. The sheer amount of energy and non-recyclable resources needed to produce "mining rigs" to mine cryptocoins is insane. It's literally throwing the environment away for literally imaginary numbers that we have for some reason decided to give value. That somehow, being able to use "money" without the prying eyes of government and taxation is so much more important than the long-term viability of your fucking species apparently. It's fucking insanity.

It's even more insane than the current monetary system, which is pretty fucking insane as-is, as this thread and FPP have handily shown.
posted by deadaluspark at 1:00 PM on November 21, 2017 [20 favorites]


It's not as though "we have bombs and we're not afraid to use them" isn't already how threats to basic pillars of international capitalism are handled.

As said above, legal rights and remedies are generally useless if they can't be successfully asserted or enforced. Whether against someones property, or their person. The criminal justice system more plainly relies on force than does the civil system, but it's there in both cases.

So, yeah, either the moon mine gets nuked, with international consent because we all need stable tides and these idiots are insane, and/or the company is stripped of its ability to control its assets by whatever Earth jurisdiction it's under, maybe its officers arrested, etc.

Who owns the moon is really a different flavor of question than who "owns" the broadcast spectrum in a certain territory. That's licensing an intangible, limited but inexhaustible resource. And ownership of the material transmitted over that medium is an entirely different thing than the right to use the medium for transmission.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:01 PM on November 21, 2017


Who owns the moon is really a different flavor of question than who "owns" the broadcast spectrum in a certain territory. That's licensing an intangible, limited but inexhaustible resource. And ownership of the material transmitted over that medium is an entirely different thing than the right to use the medium for transmission.

True - analogies are rarely perfect under even the slightest bit of scrutiny - but they can help a layperson understand a situation, so that just maybe that person might be motivated to take some action.

Sigh... don't get me started about how the "owners" have repeatedly screwed us over the "ownership" of copyrighted material either...
posted by jkaczor at 1:06 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


either the moon mine gets nuked, with international consent because we all need stable tides and these idiots are insane, and/or the company is stripped of its ability to control its assets by whatever Earth jurisdiction it's under, maybe its officers arrested, etc.

As far as I can tell, this is not what happens. Instead, a whole bunch of lawyers argue over who *actually* has the right to shut down the lunar fracking operation, and a bunch of lawsuits are filed against the company, which blithely declares that they are not subject to Terran legal systems, and if they were, they're certainly not subject to [name of country]'s legal jurisdiction.

See also: Who's on the hook for destroying the coral reefs? Whose activities are required to change, now that we know they're dying?

I get that that's a different case - a thousand different companies instead of one; hundreds of relevant jurisdictions instead of being outside of all of them. But the core issue is the same: When "business as usual" causes environmental harm that's not immediately apparent, and that harm doesn't affect anyone's specific property, who gets to insist that the business be stopped?

We have a lawsuit trying to sort that out. I love that it's happening, but I don't have high hopes that it'll actually get results, because the base concept clashes so hard with the basics of how capitalism works, which assumes "I can do what I want with my property."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:13 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


The tragedy of the commons is a problem arising from a lack of property rights; the problem there is not enough capitalism, rather than too much.

Ironically, that is one of the ideals of distributists.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2017


Shift operational state budgets to be funded by printing money, make the government budget our primary mechanism for managing money supply with every dollar pegged to immediate short term economic value creation (real services, real goods, the day after the money's printed with procurement rules to address monopoly capture/hoarding and aggressive prosecution of bad actors); then we don't have to pay for today at the expense of what we might need tomorrow at the level of public institutions that correct market failures. No run away inflation has to happen inevitably if we don't let the money sit going unused and make sure it's spent in ways that broadly distribute it quickly (i.e. salaries, immediate material and supply purchases planned to avoid favoritism as much as practical). Added benefit, you could sell it politically as the elimination of income tax for everyone middle class or below and repackage the higher level taxes as monetary supply management measures rather than confiscatory redistribution (since that framing causes so much heart burn regardless of the economic realities). Remember, income tax wasn't originally proposed as strictly an operational funding mechanism. We've always sold bonds and just printed money for that. Income tax was explicitly a policy for smoothing out surplus wealth pooling and the economic problems surplus wealth can create. My practical proposal for creating a system that can handle the short term and the long term: leave short term stuff that markets do well to them and let them fund themselves through profits; let the public sector pay its own way and create as much money supply as makes sense given how much value the public services provided immediately create.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:37 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


Side thought: What managed those externalities in the past was often religion: The buffalo are sacred; the river is sacred; the corn is sacred; the mountains are sacred.

It still is religion, just a different kind. I am sacred, my opinions are sacred, The Corporation is sacred, the market is sacred. We need a New Atheism.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:08 PM on November 21, 2017


I'll grumble a little about the reaction to The Leap Manifesto a couple of years ago. Canada's mainstream media, especially the major newspapers, were mostly fairly cynical and dismissive of their proposals, and this cynicism filtered down into a kinda lukewarm reception to their ideas, which are still worth a look.
posted by ovvl at 4:05 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


This essay is a good summary of the alarms that The Naomis (Klein & Oreskes) have been clanging for close to a decade - that capitalism will not save us, and that the problem isn't one of a lack of knowledge. As I like to point out, right-wing capitalism, despite all assumptions otherwise from The Resistance™, LOVES and believes in science - when it is geologists estimating where the next oil reserves can be found.

I live near Kentucky and spend a lot of time there. I think about the capitalism vs the climate issue whenever I see one of the godawful Friends of Coal license plates. Kentucky has an extraordinarily complicated history, and while the coal companies have fucked over Kentuckians for generations, the Friends of Coal bullshit catches on because folks are really terrified about putting food on the table in the future when all that's been around for generations is extraction-based capitalism. And even if coal is on the way out, fracking is on the way in.

I really don't think the US left can deal with climate change effectively until we, at the very minimum, propose a Green Jobs WPA. But ultimately we need to show a better alternative to the extraction and sacrifice zone economies that have been pushed on places like Kentucky by Fancy Big Name Capitalists. And yet there are way too many folks in the environmental movement willing to cede leadership on this to Fancy Big Name Capitalists as our saviors. Last night I listened to a climate change advocacy podcast that was falling over itself to applaud how when Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, Mike Bloomberg jumped on a plane to Paris to say that he would still promote the Agreement. And the same podcast had a little break with "a fun dinner party fact about how 200+ coal-powered plants have closed in the last 5 years."

Now folks, I have literally marched in the streets for climate change efforts. But when I listen to podcasts like this, where the hosts couldn't find irony if they were locked in a closet with it, and do everything possible to confirm the worst stereotypes about environmentalists, I can't help but think that a lot of people on my side of the climate fight are doing a lot to shoot themselves in the foot.
posted by mostly vowels at 4:12 PM on November 21, 2017 [14 favorites]


The tragedy of the commons is a problem arising from a lack of property rights;

That is a decidedly right wing libertarian view to justify government deregulation and privatization of public assets and services. In practice the results have been disastrous.
posted by JackFlash at 5:22 PM on November 21, 2017 [8 favorites]


TLDR: It's a political problem. You need to vote in national governments that are willing to take action, and the most effective policy looks like carbon pricing.

*

I disagree strongly with the posted article. I don't think the root cause is capitalism. I don't think the root cause is lack of understanding, either; everyone understands natural disasters.

It's simple: Global warming is a collective action problem. Cooperation is surprisingly difficult, even in the face of clear and terrible danger.

Joseph Heath, Hobbes's difficult idea:
... the other day I was reading this little book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, and they totally don’t get it. The book is all about climate change, and yet the concept of it being a “collective action problem” just doesn’t show up. Thus they express complete bewilderment over the fact that we might all know that outcome x is undesirable, and yet fail to act to avoid outcome x. So they wind up getting stuck on the dilemma that so many environmentalists wind up stuck on, when it comes to explaining our inaction: either 1. it must be the fault of scientists, for somehow failing to communicate effectively how bad x is going to be, or 2. there must be some “ideology” that holds us prisoner, preventing us from acting. In the end they go with both, but leaning more towards 2 — they wind up positing an ideology, called “market fundamentalism,” which is somehow supposed to explain our inaction.

It’s hard to know what to say, other than that this sort of thing is super-frustrating. The stakes are too high to be making this kind of basic, basic mistake.

“Outcome x is really bad, and our doing y is making it worse. We should all stop.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be REALLY BAD, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be a FUCKING CATASTROPHE, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be the END OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened…”

Repeat ad infinitum….


I don’t think it’s too hard to see these tendencies at work in the modern environmental movement (generating “deep ecology” critiques, on the one hand, and environmental apocalypticism on the other). The solution to both problems is one and the same — to recognize that it is a collective action problem, that collective action problems are hard to solve, and so we need to stop freaking out and just get to work on it.
So ... why is it that nearly everyone knows how terrible climate change is, and yet nobody does anything? What's going on?

The problem isn't lack of understanding. It's individual incentives. Fossil fuels are tremendously useful, because of the amount of concentrated energy they provide. When I consume fossil fuels, I get enormous benefits, while the costs are spread out over the entire population of the world.

It's like trees in a forest. Why do they grow to such ridiculous heights, requiring specialized vascular structures to transport water and energy up and down, and making them more vulnerable to high winds? It's because they're all competing with each other for sunlight. The taller each tree grows, the better off it is; but collectively, they're all worse off.

Arms races are another familiar example. If countries didn't have to put so much resources into their militaries, they'd be far better off. This has nothing to do with capitalism; it goes back to the days of Rome and Carthage.

One last example: the failure of the League of Nations and collective security in 1933. The founders of the League of Nations assumed that all nations had an identical interest in preserving the peace and combating aggression. This turned out to be incorrect.

*

Okay, so we're not living in the days of Rome and Carthage. Prospects for international cooperation are far better than in the ancient world. How do we deal with global warming? Switching from fossil fuels to other sources of energy (by electrifying everything and then generating carbon-free electricity) is going to be expensive. How do we distribute these costs?

If you ask economists, they're pretty much unanimous: the most economically efficient way to do this is to fix individual incentives using carbon pricing. British Columbia (where I live) did this back in 2008. When you're an individual who burns fossil fuels, you also need to bear the cost of the resulting CO2 emissions. BC introduced the carbon tax at $10/t; it's now $30/t. This is basically a sales tax on fossil fuels, so it's easy to implement (BC took six months from decision to implementation). BC's carbon tax is revenue-neutral, meaning that the revenue is largely offset by cuts in income tax, so the direct economic impact is minimal.

The IEA has figured out the carbon price curve required to stabilize CO2 levels at 450 ppm: USD $20/t by 2020, $100 by 2030, $140 by 2040.

Cap-and-trade systems are more or less equivalent. (There's some advantages to using a carbon tax rather than cap-and-trade: it's easier to coordinate prices across jurisdictions than it is to negotiate national quotas. William Nordhaus.)

Within Canada, consensus on carbon pricing is tantalizingly close. The provincial governments in the four largest provinces - BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec - have all signed on to carbon pricing. The federal government is planning a carbon price floor: any province that doesn't put its own carbon tax or cap-and-trade system in place will have a federal carbon tax imposed on it, with the revenue going back to that province. The conservative parties in Alberta and at the federal level are still vehemently opposed, though not in Ontario.

In the US, I think what needs to happen is simple: you need Democratic control of the White House and Congress. David Roberts: The once and future Democratic consensus on climate change.

*

Okay, suppose we're able to use carbon pricing to stabilize CO2 levels at 450 ppm.

Unfortunately, temperatures will continue to rise even after CO2 levels are stable. It's conservation of energy: a warmer object radiates more heat into space, so incoming energy from the Sun warms the Earth to the point where incoming energy = outgoing energy. Additional CO2 traps more heat, reducing outgoing energy. It's like filling a bathtub - you don't need fancy models to predict what's going to happen next. Stabilizing CO2 just means that the sides of the bathtub aren't getting higher and higher.

So then what? I think then we need to look at geo-engineering. The Atlantic. The Economist.
posted by russilwvong at 6:43 PM on November 21, 2017 [7 favorites]


A couple more Joseph Heath articles:

It's Not Easy Being Green. Why is it that we understand global warming, but we still burn fossil fuels?

Correcting the record on carbon pricing. An explanation of how carbon pricing changes behavior at the margin.
posted by russilwvong at 6:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


"Capitalism" as actually practised is capable of dealing with climate change - indeed is starting to deal with it aided by govts, just too slowly.

I'm not wild about capitalism, but it's been conflated here. The Montreal Protocols were initiated at the height of Reaganomics. They were effective, co-ordinated, and consequently the hole in the Ozone layer has been closing up ever since, pretty much.

I think there are a number of reasons the response to climate change has been so markedly different to the response to CFCs ripping apart the ozone layer. And I think some of them are products of or exacerbated by a neoliberal capitalist model. But I don't think those are the only reasons, and I don't think the solution is to call for a global revolution.

We have the technology and the mechanisms to start taking effective action against climate change now, and many places in the world are doing so to a greater or lesser degree. The problem with our current response is one of speed and depth.

Regarding the former, I genuinely don't believe any realistic organisational structure would do much better; the world is a super complex, interdependent place, there are six billion people on it. Complicated systems take a long time to change on pretty much every level.

Regarding the latter, certainly I think capitalism may take some blame here, but perhaps not in the sense they're thinking of. I think of it more along the lines of old industries defending against new - echoes of Shumpeter's Creative Destruction. Historically we have ample evidence of "winners" trying to defend the status quo against newcomers, or disruptors or innovators or whatever you want to call them. I'm not totally convinced that's more a product of capitalism than it is a product of how the human mind works with sunk cost fallacies and short term vs long term thinking etc.

Regardless, it's important not to lose hope. COP 23 just wrapped up - thousands, millions, of people are thinking about what they can do to reverse climate change, they are taking action, and that action is picking up. Meaningful progress was made at this conference.

We can do this - yes, things will never be the same. Yes, we have already lost and will lose important parts of the world. But there is still so much that can be saved and is worth defending. People are doing it right now. We want to normalise progressively scaling action on climate change, by spruiking a sense of urgency without giving into despair or ennui. Literally every action we can take will make a small difference.

It's a bit hackneyed, but people might know the story of the starfish thrower. It resonates for me. That being said, I think the ending of the original version captures a better truth:
..."On a point of land, I found the star thrower...I spoke once briefly. "I understand," I said. "Call me another thrower." Only then I allowed myself to think, He is not alone any longer. After us, there will be others...Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung...For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns... We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back to life again."
posted by smoke at 7:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


I've just done a few calcs on a car trip I do about once a month versus doing it on foot. I've read about the leverage that oil gives us but this brings it home. It's a 550km round-trip and I can normally go up, do the job and come home. A full-cost account for the car and me is about NZ$150.00 for the day.

Walking would take about 28 days and run to well over $10,000, with $2700.00 direct costs plus loss of chargeable work time. The gearing for me is somewhere above 65 times.

Some serious externalities there, I imagine the oil price is kept artificially low due to the petro-dollar arrangement. In reality oil should run to $1000's per barrel surely? So today's price should be at least US$2700, not $58
posted by unearthed at 1:52 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


How can a capitalist system make up the demand for economic inefficiency that the expectations for investor returns above inflation rates requires, without shorting somewhere else (i.e., externalizing some portion of their operating costs), because if they're running efficiently enough to turn profits before paying their full share of carbon costs, it's hard to see how even theoretically they could pay both sets of pipers without either shorting the labor side or the material side (which means destructive production shortcuts and promoting banana republics to ensure they can create commodities markets for raw source materials)? Are you really sure the problem isn't unfettered capitalism? If it takes regulation to correct where capitalism leads on its own, then I'd argue capitalism is the root cause from a certain POV--it's just that historically we've had good enough sense not to be so commited to the system to leave its worst tendencies unrestrained. Unfortunately one of its tendencies is to encourage investor classes (meaning those individuals wealthy enough to live off investment returns) to capture the political system.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:25 AM on November 22, 2017 [7 favorites]


I've posed some version of that question to defenders of capitalism I don't know how many times, but never seem to get a straight answer. Hell, I'd even settle for "economic efficiency isn't desirable" at this point, as nonsensical as that position is as an economic idea, since the entire field is about the most economical ways to use resources.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:29 AM on November 22, 2017


All I know is the shadow of capitalism looms large over much of recent human history, for better or for worse.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:00 AM on November 22, 2017


As always when carbon taxes/prices/credits/whatever variant are proposed, I think it's necessary to recognize that the problem isn't actually emitting carbon into the atmosphere, the problem is pulling it out of the ground. The carbon cycle is a dynamic system of movement through Earth's biosphere. Carbon stored in biomass as complex organic molecules is eventually oxidized (through biological metabolism, fire, or other processes) to gaseous carbon dioxide, moving to the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is then fixed by photosynthesis back into complex organic molecules, becoming biomass again. Under normal conditions, this system is more or less in dynamic equilibrium: some carbon enters the system by volcanic activity, some leaves by burial at the sea floor, and these rates more or less balance out.

Fossil fuels are just carbon that was buried in geological history. The moment that carbon is pulled out of the ground, it's back in the carbon cycle. This is the negative externality that needs to be addressed, not the burning of carbon for fuel; any attempts to regulate or tax the point of emission are just indirect ways of getting at this root problem. If we're going to attempt economic solutions to this problem, the cost needs to be borne by the extractors, and any funds generated by such solutions need to endow foundations for legal defense of the regulations to avoid regulatory capture.

I don't know what replaces capitalism, but anything that will enable the long-term sustainability of our civilization needs to incorporate the idea that the carbon cycle, and other ecological systems, are part of the human commonwealth, and any individual or group's activities which damage them incur a cost of remediation, regardless of whether that damage was foreseen.
posted by biogeo at 9:13 AM on November 22, 2017 [4 favorites]


saulgoodman: How can a capitalist system make up the demand for economic inefficiency that the expectations for investor returns above inflation rates requires, without shorting somewhere else (i.e., externalizing some portion of their operating costs), because if they're running efficiently enough to turn profits before paying their full share of carbon costs, it's hard to see how even theoretically they could pay both sets of pipers without either shorting the labor side or the material side (which means destructive production shortcuts and promoting banana republics to ensure they can create commodities markets for raw source materials)?

I'm not sure I understand your question. What do you mean by "economic inefficiency"?

A business exists to produce goods and/or services which it sells to its customers at a profit. For example, there's businesses which own large amounts of real estate (office parks or apartment buildings) and make money by renting them out.

The earnings left over after subtracting costs (including labor) can either be paid out to the shareholders (owners) as dividends, or retained for further expansion (in this case, buying more real estate).

Just as employees supply labor, the shareholders are supplying capital - you can think of them as lending their capital to the business. If the loan is in the form of debt (bonds), the business pays interest to the lender. If the loan is in the form of shareholder equity, the business's earnings belong to the shareholders.

If costs (including taxes) rise, the business has a number of options: raising its prices (so the customers bear part of the cost), reducing costs elsewhere (e.g. paying its employees and suppliers less, as you suggest), accepting lower earnings (paying its shareholders less), or some combination of these. In the case of a broadly applied carbon tax, the business doesn't have to worry much about holding down prices because of competition - all of its competitors will be facing the same increase in costs.

*

Are you saying that paying dividends to shareholders is a form of usury?
posted by russilwvong at 10:30 AM on November 22, 2017


Well, if they're only generating enough profit to efficiently preserve equity and reinvest in the concern while making all their inputs whole--i.e. paying labor efficiently, paying for input resources efficiently, etc., there shouldn't be any surplus left to return to investors. The only way you can produce enough profit to offer ROI year after year to shareholders is to short change somewhere else.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:43 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Capital is an input. Lenders or shareholders provide capital because they expect a return on their investment.

Take a small-scale example, say a landlord who owns a single apartment and rents it out to a tenant. They do this because they expect a return on their capital (say 6%). What part of this situation do you see as inefficient?

How does this differ if we're talking about a large business which owns a real estate portfolio and collects rents from tenants?
posted by russilwvong at 11:53 AM on November 22, 2017


Russelwvong: paying dividends to shareholders is exploitation (in the Marxian sense) - it’s like usury, in that it rewards people for simply owning capital, rather than doing socially useful work.
posted by thedamnbees at 7:01 PM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


thedamnbees: This applies to the small-scale example as well, with the landlord renting out a single apartment. They're providing a service (a place to live) to their tenant, and the tenant pays them for it. Without a return on capital, what would be the landlord's motivation to do so? How would the building get built (requiring a great deal of labor) in the first place?

Assuming that abolition of private property isn't on the table (discussed elsewhere), there needs to be a return on capital, because capital is socially useful. A single worker with a bulldozer is far more productive than many workers who only have shovels. Buildings that people can live in, tools that workers can use to increase their production, inventory that's available for immediate sale, the whole panoply of machinery and factories - they're all capital.

I would argue that the key issue here is inequality, not income from capital instead of labor. Retirees aren't doing socially useful work - they're drawing from Social Security (public savings) and their private savings - but I doubt you'd find many people here who would argue that they should continue working instead. I would argue that inequality is best dealt with through progressive income taxes, inheritance taxes, and public goods (education, health insurance, public pensions) that we buy collectively (through taxation and public spending) and that are available regardless of income. Inequality is fundamentally a political problem, not a problem with capitalism per se.
posted by russilwvong at 10:24 AM on November 23, 2017


Marxist economics seems to be suspiciously correlated over more than a century of non-trivial attempts with autocracy (and mass executions, among other unpleasantries), so I think it's pretty much lost its legitimacy at this point, or at the very least if you want to critique economics from that perspective you have a significant hill to climb (made of corpses, mostly) to get beyond "well, Marx[/ists] said so."

Capital is stockpiled labor. There are other methods which allow economic actors to essentially bank present labor for future use if you disallow actual de jure banking and finance, but most of them aren't better (lots of traditional systems emphasize what amounts to investment in your family/tribe/clan in exchange for a claim on future productivity, which might seem nice until you realize the insular structures it produces can be pretty unpleasant to actually live in). Market economics with democratically-selected representative government running a regulatory oversight framework just happens to be the least obviously shitty of all the systems that have been developed since approximately the dawn of agriculture to the present.

Which isn't to say it's ideal, or even close to it. We shouldn't stop looking for improvements, but at this point Marxism has been tested to failure enough times that I think we can stop going back to that particular well.

Anyway...

The only way you can produce enough profit to offer ROI year after year to shareholders is to short change somewhere else.

This may in fact be true. We should be intrinsically suspicious of any individual business which can produce above-inflation ROI year over year without making any operational changes; it's suggestive of a market failure (or structural inefficiency) at some level, since ideally competition in the market would drive profits down over time. But that's only true if the operations of the business don't change; the current theory (at least that I've read) is that market-economy businesses can stay ahead of this through continual process improvement and increasing operational efficiencies over time. Some go further and suggest that only CPI-ish strategies can create long-term positive ROI for a firm in a functioning, competitive, low-entry-barrier market.

And of course, resource-extraction economies can provide above-inflation ROI as long as the resources are being extracted, but there's some obvious unsustainability there; extraction of nonrenewables is a sort of 'reverse investment' in that it borrows from the future instead of the past. Its intrinsic unsustainability and unhealthiness is not a new observation; I've read books from the 19th century that talk derisively about the "Spanish theory" of economics (referring to Spain's resource-extraction colonies in S. America, mostly). It'd be nice if we could cap that well, too, but as humans we don't seem good about not eating the cookie today, particularly if we're not sure that the guy sitting next to us isn't going to eat it as soon as we're not looking. Those sort of cooperative-decisionmaking problems are at the crux of carbon emissions, and any other number of global issues. There's no enforcement mechanism that keeps one actor from eating their proverbial cookie and then using the sugar rush to beat other people up and steal their cookies; therefore we must all eat our cookies as quickly as possible. Race to the bottom (diabetes? I think the analogy is probably getting stretched) ensues.

Are you really sure the problem isn't unfettered capitalism?

I'd probably agree with this, but the emphasis is on the word "unfettered", rather than "capitalism". In the US, there has been a multi-decade trend of weakening the regulatory framework which channels market forces according to democratically-determined ends, in favor of just letting the market determine its own ends. This has (predictably) been a mess. Personally, I no longer believe that this is merely a result of political meddling or monied influence; it's a social problem wherein a significant percentage of the population literally doesn't care about long-term outcomes. That's probably a separate discussion, and it's perhaps related to the international collective-action problem necessary for things like deciding not to burn coal or extract oil, but it's also indicative of a more significant, purely internal, social corrosion.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:33 AM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Russelwvong: i think the landlord/tenant relation is a good example to use. It wouldn’t be necessary to abolish all property rights in order to eliminate this exploitative relation. A government could buy out landlords, and offer mortgages to former tenants. Money that would have been paid as rent would become a payment toward the ownership of the home. Housing could be recognized, like running water, electricity, public schools etc., as a basic requirement for any citizen in a functional society. We could, in theory, decide that having decent, affordable housing is too important to leave to the whims of market forces, but leave all other aspects of capitalism in place. Or, like you quite reasonably suggest, use progressive taxation to ensure a basic minimum standard of living and reduce inequality.

I think the real question is, why do such modest commitments to general human welfare seem to be so politically impossible? Why is it that long-developed liberal democratic capitalist states are increasingly unable to sustain even the semblance of a welfare state? Why is the financial ruling class continuing to accumulate an expanding share of global wealth? I’m inclined to think it’s not so much a flawed implementation of capitalism, as it is capitalism operating normally. I agree that a central problem is inequality, but I would suggest that capitalism produces inequality necessarily; it requires inequality to function at all.
posted by thedamnbees at 6:17 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


Kadin2048: Conflating the Marxist critique of capitalism with the crimes of totalitarian regimes is a bullshit argument against the Marxist critique of capitalism. Just sayin’
posted by thedamnbees at 6:23 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


thedamnbees: Or, like you quite reasonably suggest, use progressive taxation to ensure a basic minimum standard of living and reduce inequality.

Joseph Heath notes in Economics Without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism (highly recommended) that
the Swedish welfare state has achieved greater equality of income than was ever achieved under Soviet communism. That's worth repeating for emphasis: Swedish capitalism is more egalitarian than Soviet communism.
I think the real question is, why do such modest commitments to general human welfare seem to be so politically impossible?

Depends where you look. Here in Canada, the federal and provincial governments agreed to expand the CPP (state pensions); the federal government reformed child benefits to provide a more generous, tax-free child benefit.

In the US, the political situation is different. It's a larger country, so there's more distance between federal politicians and everyone else, and governing the country is more difficult. The political system has a tendency to deadlock (one party can hold the White House while another party controls Congress), leading to drift and paralysis.

To quote Joseph Heath once again:
... conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it's about "gut feelings" and "values." Elections are decided by appealing to people's hearts, not their heads. So, for example, when a Republican candidate says that he is going to "close down the Department of Energy," he doesn't really mean that he is going to close down the Department of Energy and fire all of its employees. After all, the U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for maintaining the nuclear reactors in U.S. military submarines, among other things. What it really means to say that you'll close down the Department of Energy is just "I feel very strongly that the federal government hates oil companies, and I want to change that." The objective is to communicate your feelings, not your thoughts.

This privileging of visceral, intuitive, gut feelings is central to the movement known as "common sense" conservativism, which has become a powerful force everywhere in the Western world, not just the United States. The central characteristic of common sense, according to Republican communication strategist Frank Luntz, is that it "doesn't require any fancy theories; it is self-evidently correct." To say that it is self-evident is to say that is known to be correct without argument and without explanation.
Meanwhile, on the left, Mark Lilla argues that there's a strong tendency to abandon electoral politics - party organizations, compromise, coalition-building, and so on. Jonathan Rauch:
The biggest problem for movement liberalism, [Lilla] believes, is not that it has embraced identity but that it has eschewed politics. The political machines of yore in New York City (Irish), Providence and New Haven (Italian), the District of Columbia (African-American), and others like them were steeped in identity politics and did not shrink from ethnic favoritism. Lilla’s critics are right to point out that identity politics is something whites have practiced since the dawn of the republic, invariably to their own advantage.

Lilla responds by making a distinction. The identity politics of urban machines and ethnic blocs was concerned with competition for influence in politics. It was about power. In Lilla’s view, liberal intellectuals and activists, as they retreated to universities, lost touch with power politics. They decided, he writes, “that if you want to be a political person you should begin, not by joining a party, but by searching for a movement that has some deep political meaning for you.” As the 1970s flowed into the 1980s and beyond,

"... movement politics began to be seen by many liberals as an alternative rather than a supplement to institutional politics, and by some as being more legitimate. That’s when what we now call the social justice warrior was born, a social type with quixotic features whose self-image depends on being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests."

In Lilla’s view, the most serious damage done during this period was not to liberals’ conception of justice but to their conception of politics. “The sixties generation,” he writes, “passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its own idiosyncratic historical experience” (his italics). Instead of preparing students to concentrate on winning elections and governing, the academic left “trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities and left them incurious about the world outside their heads.”

Conservatives, in contrast, made a priority of taking over the Republican Party. An example that Lilla does not use, but might have, is the difference between Occupy Wall Street, an ephemeral protest movement that captured headlines but had no decisive effect on electoral politics, and the Tea Party, which held its share of rallies but also concentrated, very effectively, on challenging Republican moderates in primaries and establishing an influential presence (the Freedom Caucus) in Congress.
In short, I would argue that the problem is political, not economic. In recent years, the right has simply been more politically effective than the left.
posted by russilwvong at 10:38 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I live in Canada. Inequality is increasing here, primarily in major urban centres, where there are significant shortages of affordable housing. Meanwhile, condominiums continue to be built, which are often purchased as investments as opposed to places for people to live (not to mention the people who are evicted to make way for new condos). In many cases, condos are purchased and then rented out. The catch is that rent controls do not apply to new buildings, so these landlords can raise the rent at will.

A bump in CPP hardly addresses widespread inequality - in fact, it may in this case exacerbate inequality: Critics have pointed out that the increase in benefits will disqualify low-income retirees from the Guaranteed Income Supplement. If that’s the case, low income Canadians will pay higher CPP premiums, and receive less money for retirement. This arrangement benefits the federal government because the GIS is funded from the federal budget, while CPP is not.

Also, the proposed change to the Canada Child Benefit is to index the benefit to inflation, which means in real terms, it will stop shrinking, not increase. And at its current value, it is a fraction of the cost of childcare.

Finally, appealing to Nordic welfare states to support the egalitarian potential of capitalism is misguided:

First, because WE ALREADY HAD a more or less functioning welfare state in Canada, and it has been incrementally dismantled over decades. Is that simply the result of political failure? Or is it the result of the capitalist drive to accumulate an expanding share of wealth?
(Which is exactly what has happened)

Second, because Sweden does not exist in a vacuum - it is fully integrated into global capitalism. So Sweden’s relative prosperity must be understood in relation to the externalities it generates. One such externality is of course climate change - and a major consequence of climate change is (increasingly, I believe) refugee crises. And as it turns out, refugees in Sweden are causing many Swedes to question the inclusiveness of their welfare policies. So I’m inclined to think Sweden is actually behind the times - the haven’t faced decades of neoliberalism and austerity, but they soon will.

tldr; everything is terrible and it’s only getting worse... grumble grumble...
posted by thedamnbees at 10:48 AM on November 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


Reading your criticisms of the CPP expansion and the Canada Child Benefit, I'm reminded of Peter Nelson's comment that when you compare cars to flying carpets, cars are terrible: they're noisy, dirty, inefficient, and break down a lot. But compared to flying carpets, they have one big advantage: They actually exist!

You want to be wary of comparing an existing system, with all its flaws, to a utopian system that doesn't actually exist, and therefore doesn't have any flaws.

Returning to an earlier comment: A major problem with Marx's analysis is that it doesn't consider collective action problems, which make cooperation surprisingly difficult. (See this article on methodological individualism, particularly the discussion of Jon Elster's work.) Joseph Heath gives a striking example:
The simple fact that work is hard creates a free-rider incentive. If there is any chance that someone else will come along and do the job, people are often willing to hang around for a bit before throwing themselves into the task. ...

Our society has such a strong work ethic that it is easy for us to underestimate how serious a problem shirking can be. People have been known to literally starve themselves to death because they are caught in a collective action problem. The most famous North American example of this occurred in the Jamestown colony, established in Massachusetts in 1607. Like many early Pilgrim colonies, Jamestown was initially organized on the model of a giant work crew. Every citizen was expected to pitch in and help build the palisade, sink the well, work the corn fields, etc. In return, everyone was entitled to an equal share of the colony's produce.

The latter turned out to be the weak point in the arrangement. The fact that everyone got a share of the produce, regardless of how much he or she contributed, generated a massive free-rider problem. Nobody had any incentive to actually do any work. Colonists found a million and one reasons why they just couldn't show up for work on any given day. Contemporary observers estimated that the colony's agricultural output was about one-tenth of its capacity. But in the midst of chronic scarcity and occasional starvation, visitors were amazed to see perfectly able colonists passing the time bowling in the streets, instead of working the fields.
Heath notes: "During the winter of 1609, the period of most acute starvation, the population of Jamestown was reduced from five hundred to just sixty."

Of course it's impossible to prove that Communism would be unable to overcome collective action problems like this. But this is where we get into the actual record of regimes claiming to be Communist: they used a tremendous amount of coercion and force, and they still suffered from very low productivity compared to their capitalist neighbors (East Germany vs. West Germany, North Korea vs. South Korea, Maoist China vs. Taiwan or China today).

So I would argue that Marxism fails in both theory and practice.

I’m inclined to think Sweden is actually behind the times - they haven’t faced decades of neoliberalism and austerity, but they soon will.

Sweden already went through an economic crisis in the 1990s; they were able to deal with it successfully.

WE ALREADY HAD a more or less functioning welfare state in Canada, and it has been incrementally dismantled over decades.

Really? The major components of state spending in Canada are public education, public health insurance, and state pensions. I wouldn't describe them as having been "incrementally dismantled" - health-care spending has been rising, and the federal and provincial governments just agreed to expand the CPP. There's some interesting proposals floating around to expand health insurance to cover pharmaceutical spending.

There were cutbacks of about 20% under Chretien and Martin in the 1990s, but this was because of funding constraints rather than ideology: federal debt had reached unsustainable levels, with one-third of federal revenue going to interest on the debt. Once the debt-to-GDP ratio starts rising, you can't keep borrowing money indefinitely.

Regarding housing: I live in Vancouver, where this is definitely a huge challenge. In the last week both the city of Vancouver and the federal government have committed to new housing policies: the city is pushing for more rental housing, and the federal government is putting more money into non-market housing (co-ops, for example).

Another model for avoiding real estate speculation, especially in land value: There's neighborhoods in Vancouver (like Champlain Heights) where the land is actually leasehold rather than freehold. The city owns the land, and rents it out on a long-term (100-year) lease. Leasehold homes aren't affected by rising land prices.
posted by russilwvong at 12:26 PM on November 27, 2017


Joseph Heath observes that even under socialism, you would need some way of keeping track of how much you're putting into the shared pool of goods and services, and how much you're taking out. It starts to look a lot like money: your savings are basically a counter showing how much you've added to the pool, minus whatever you've taken out.

On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures: Remarks on G. A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?
In a complex economy, whenever anyone does some "work," this can be thought of as contributing to an enormous pool of goods (and services, but to simplify I will just say goods), which constitutes the set of cooperatively produced goods that are available for consumption by others. This will include everything from food, clothing and shelter to philosophy lectures, smartphones, massage therapy, livestock and children's toys. Setting aside for the moment how one is supposed to know exactly what others need when there is such an enormous pool of cooperatively produced goods, it is instructive to consider the sort of moral principles that individuals must respect in order to sustain the division of labor that makes it possible to organize such a pool.

The first and most obvious rule is simply the reciprocity constraint that one should take out no more than one puts in. This could take the form of a strict reciprocity condition:

1. One should be willing to draw from the stock of goods, to meet one's own consumption needs, an amount no greater than the value to others of what one has produced.
Once you start identifying and applying these kinds of conditions, you quickly end up with money, scarcity prices, and even return on capital. See the discussion in Section 4.
posted by russilwvong at 12:39 PM on November 27, 2017


Conflating the Marxist critique of capitalism with the crimes of totalitarian regimes is a bullshit argument against the Marxist critique of capitalism. Just sayin’

I guess we're gonna have to agree to disagree there. Nobody outside of some very specialized scholars of 19th century thought would remember Marx or his philosophy, were it not for the attempted implementations, which seem to be highly correlated with very ugly outcomes.

That's not to say that Marxist critique isn't sometimes valid -- Marx and his intellectual descendants were not stupid people, they were not always (or even mostly) mendacious, and they were not without insight and certainly not always wrong -- but to try and separate Marxist thought in any form from its real-world context and repeated, often well-meaning implementation attempts, is bullshit.

Just sayin'.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:37 PM on November 27, 2017


Yeah Russelwvong, based on what you’ve said, the leaseholder system sounds good. However, public ownership of capital in the interest of the common good is not an argument in favour of capitalism (that is, private ownership of capital in the interest of private profit). Quite the opposite, it’s a solution to a collective action problem that arises under capitalism. Furthermore, it’s precisely the type of solution that Marx proposes as an alternative to exploitative capitalist systems.
posted by thedamnbees at 5:38 AM on November 28, 2017


Conflating the Marxist critique of capitalism with the crimes of totalitarian regimes is a bullshit argument against the Marxist critique of capitalism

Not at all. Critiques of capitalism and imperialism are largely founded on the crimes those practices have enabled and rightly so. Any advocacy for actual marxism here in 2017 must either address a means to avoid similar circumstances or argue that the overall good accrued makes those sacrifices unavoidable, necessary, worthwhile, etc.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:17 AM on November 28, 2017


Just to clarify, Marx’s critique of capitalism is basically that private ownership of the means of production leads to the accumulation of capital by a shrinking number of wealthy elite. This concentration of capital leads to recurring economic crises as the capitalist class struggles to maintain returns on their ever growing share of wealth.

Does this not describe our current situation? We seem to have a new economic crisis every ten years or so; we have an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a small global elite; any substantial effort to avert ecological catastrophe seems to be impossible insofar as it interferes with ongoing capital accumulation.

It seems to me that Marx’s critique of capitalism is more relevant than ever. Rejecting it because of Stalinism is like rejecting liberal democracy because of Putin.
posted by thedamnbees at 7:51 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]


State ownership of capital leads to an inevitable concentration of power that carries a risk of exploitation, and that's a legit reason to be cautious about such structures. Looking at our current situation, though, it makes sense to question whether a better alternative exists. There was a time when private ownership of capital by individual citizens made sense as a check on state power, because companies were small and wealth fairly well distributed among the citizenry, but that's no longer the case and it seems impossible to get back there without fairly heavy state control over the market.

Given increasingly robust communication technology and the huge economies of scale enabled by modern manufacturing it seems inevitable that economic power will end up concentrated somewhere, so the choice is whether it's held by private interests who care only about their own further enrichment (and are willing to buy out government officials to protect their interests,) or by state-controlled structures with some sort of transparency and democratic accountability. We can't go back to a capitalism defined by competition between lots of little private interests without heavy state intervention, and even then it's a system that would take constant pruning and maintenance to avoid devolving into oligopolies again. At that point the distinctions between "democratic socialism" and "heavily regulated capitalism with a robust welfare state" start to seem pretty academic.
posted by contraption at 8:18 AM on November 28, 2017


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