Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A recent, personal history of capitalism and the global depression

While David Harvey is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he is relatively unknown in the United States. His fields are in the area of geography, social theory and political economy, yet, his views have had considerable influence on the study of capitalism, both positive and negative.

This video, created in 2010, offers a Marxist view of capitalism. Since the posting of this video, global capitalism has demonstrated even less reason to keep it around. Of course the question ultimately comes down to how we dismantle the current structure and begin to replace it with something that reflects a 21st century reality, a system that is capable of benefiting the vast majority of people on a changing planet.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Part 2: The consequences

No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country
(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

The story may be apocryphal but it caught my attention. A few nights ago in a television interview with Strobe Talbott, former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Brookings Institute, Talbott told a story about President Vladimir Putin of Russia when he was a young KGB officer in the 1980s. Seemingly Mr. Putin received a less than glowing performance review from his superiors because he was too much of a “risk taker.”

Take a psychopath to lunch

Well, but maybe you ought not to go to lunch with one, even though they can be charming and understanding, like Hannibal Lecter for instance. For that matter the person could be a relatively “normal” hedge fund manager or high government official. It's your decision. According to some scientists that study the “condition,” these folks may make up 2 to 5 percent of the human population.

For some experts the differentiation between psychopathy and sociopathy is important. Whereas the behavior of the psychopath may be more erratic and noticeable, the sociopath is more controlled. The psychopath may tend to act on impulse, while the sociopath usually wants to minimize exposure.

Psychopaths are oftentimes not able to maintain normal relationships, while sociopaths are generally well organized, normal in social relationships and are frequently quite successful in their profession. Risk taking may be a common characteristic, the psychopath being more impulsive and the sociopath more deliberate. As well, sociopaths can be very good at manipulating human emotions. At the extreme end of the spectrum, however, they are violent and dangerous. Probably best not to pursue a deep friendship with one.

Key components of what is referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder might include a lack of guilt or remorse, a diminished capacity for empathy, abuse of others in various forms and “malignant narcissism.” These qualities are of course found throughout society today, in almost every profession, but it's likely that some professions are more attractive than others for those who have APD.

On the other hand, courageousness and the willingness to commit unremitting and continuous violence were valued qualities among our ancestors at one time, be they within the clan, the village or even the nation. These characteristics were likely important factors in the survival of our species, at least in our early days. Based on the number of television shows and movies we have about serial killers and assorted psychopaths, we clearly have a morbid curiosity about these people.

Speaking of Vladimir Putin, FP has a very interesting article entitled How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare. An entire region of Eastern Europe is a laboratory for Antisocial Personality Disorder, helped along by almost everyone including the U.S. 

What makes us human

While we know that our genes have been passed down through billions of years, from the very beginning of life, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and neuroscientists are now learning that some genes are much younger, in some cases only a few million years old. Some came from the common ancestor of both humans and apes and the very youngest emerged when we diverged from our cousins the apes some 6 to 7 million years ago. We're only just starting to understand genetic influences and the impact on humankind and what in fact shapes our behavior and makes us human.

What is referred to as the “big 5” classes of personality traits are (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. It is thought that approximately 50 % are related to genetics and 50 % related to environmental factors. For example, there are genes associated with impetuosity and risk taking,. which could lead in the right environmental circumstances to some form of addiction. Yes, who are you?

It's story time

They were women “operatives” for the Republican party in the United States. These women were sitting around a table on some news show discussing how they would get the female vote in the next election, considering how the Republican men have done a terrible job attracting women voters and have demonstrated that they have not left the 1950s … or they long to go back.

This discussion was largely about selling a better message and not about whether or not the message itself was any good. It seemed to me to be more about manipulation and a lack of empathy, at least for anyone but the comfortable. Above all, it appears to be, among these operatives, that it was self-evident that a large portion of the women voters could be manipulated by clever messaging.

Agnotology is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. The term was first coined by Robert N. Proctor, a professor specializing in the history of science and technology. The gold standard for many years was the tobacco industry, little more than a criminal enterprise selling poison, aided and abetted by politicians, the media and certainly the citizens themselves.

Agnotology is very much about the “publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” It's meant to confuse. The overriding goal of the tobacco industry for many years was to sow doubt between the connection of smoking to cancer, long after there was any scientific doubt. Today it's a full blown industry in America and across the globe. Climate denial, “trickle-down” economics, the “job creators,” weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq and hydraulic fracking are only a few examples. The idea is to confuse the public, protect the status quo and maintain the comforts of the comfortable.

Thomas Piketty, the enemy within

Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best seller and has moved beyond the academic community and Washington policy wonks. The book may actually stir some serious debate about global capitalism, which is way, way overdue. It has upset the privileged, not merely the usual collection of bottom feeders but those who have built their careers on praising and perpetuating the glorious myth of the “free” market.

Some articles to better understand Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in the Twenty First Century:

And from the critics:

Alfie, what's it all about

It's about Revolution, let's not pretend it isn't. Ideally, revolution of the mind and quite possibly a little of the “soul.” A lot of critics will say that humankind is not capable—they haven't evolved sufficiently. In that case revolution will come the old fashion way, through carnage and violence—war of the psychopaths, and we know that story line. But more and more likely it will come down finally to climate change and its enormous consequences and we'll end up with, if humanity is “lucky,” with maybe a billion humans reliving the 19th century, give or take.

At least for those of us in America, it's a matter of finally making the decision to get rid of the status quo. We're not going back to some fanciful, bucolic past no matter how desperately some of us want to, nor is it a matter of some weekend protest, sending a check to our favorite organization, tweaking the tax code or even building some silly little libertarian village in the middle of a dying ocean. We don't really need everyone in order to get this going. It's a matter of recognizing that there is no alternative.

Finally, some data

On the climate:

Good article on language and climate confusion:

           *                                                *                                       *                                *

Where does your country stand:

Psychopathic behavior: A terrific interview with Dr. James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and what he learned about himself in the course of his research

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Part 1: Consequences of low information citizenry—most everywhere

Born fictioneers, all of us, we quest for causes and explanations, and if they don't come readily to hand, we make them up, because a wrong answer is better than no answer. Also, a fast good-enough answer is better than a slow perfect answer
(An Alchemy of Mind, by Diane Ackerman)

Global corporate enlightenment in the 21st century

Inequality is becoming a 'wicked' problem like climate change—one in which a solution must not only overcome powerful entrenched interests, in individual countries but must be global in scope to be effective
(Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson, American Prospect, commenting on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 3/10/14)

For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight renewable energy, which as been adopted by most states
(New York Times, 4/26/14)

The truth-quest is always the same; the unwavering search for signs to match reality

(Truth, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto)