Does Capitalism always Give us More from Less?

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less.  The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books.  Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope.  While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.

For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here.  I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments.  I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern.  Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use.  With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate.  The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works.  I’ll go into details in a moment.  I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA.  He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force.  Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater.  I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism.  I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.

Image result for turing computerThe technological save for mankind her argues is the computer.  This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand.  After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process.  We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before.   McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste.  Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used.  One example was the aluminum can.  If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now.  Cans today still function perfectly but use less material.  Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies.  Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials.  Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.

His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty.  Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access.  Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people.  Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.

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For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same.  We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy.  He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage.  What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.

So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need.  Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us?  Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.

The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years.  Is this prosperity?  Is this a good way to measure prosperity?  The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.  It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources.   Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society?  Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet?  Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was?  It’s not obvious to me that this is the case.  It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population.  If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population.  And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.

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Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question:  Does the end justify the means?  Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time.  If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?  Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system.  And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism.  For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems.  There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc.  If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now.  I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values.  If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.

McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that.  I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details.  There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.

He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world.  He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly.  It’s a fair point.  But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue.  And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.

Overall it was a thought provoking interview.  I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now.  On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.

Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral?

To finish up my discussion of greed I want to talk about the moral implications.  In the first part I quantified the disparity, but is disparity the most important aspect?  I mean if I could live a life that gave me a good education, lots of opportunities, health care, feed my family…should I care whether or not some billionaire exists on there?  If perhaps the lowest economic status was as I described, maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine this to ever be the case.  Wealth is only acquired because of other people.  And the value of what is made, what is labored for is decided by people.  It’s a zero sum game, and while it’s possible to spread the wealth more equitably, it’s also possible to siphon the wealth away from the bottom and funnel it towards the top.  Please don’t lose track of the fact upwards of $21 trillion sits in off-shore tax havens.  If we have wealth beyond our basic needs, what is such a person’s moral responsibility in a world fraught with people who are without homes, without basic access to education, health care, or even enough food on a daily basis?

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Philosopher Peter Singer argues that our moral responsibility to save lives is not relegated only to situations where we see someone suffering.  For instance if you passed by someone who was drowning you would immediately act to do something about it.  But what about the knowledge that someone is in peril on the other side of the world?  Do we not have an equal moral obligation to help our fellow human?  I psychologically understand why the two situations are different, but from a moral point of view I can find no flaw in Singer’s argument.  We do have a responsibility to help those we can help.  I am not saying that I am absolved of this responsibility due to me making less than 10 million a year or anything.  There are people like philosopher William McCaskill (by the way he’s single ladies…or maybe guys…who am I to make heteronormative assumptions) who has stated that any money he makes over £40,000 a year he will give away.  Few of us have that kind of commitment I imagine, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.   The fact still remains that there are people in this world who make more money that they could ever use and could do far more to help people than I could ever do in my lifetime.  Would putting all the wealth towards people who need it solve all their problems?  Probably not.  But this shouldn’t be the goal.  For any action we do to help others, we are under no illusion that the problem will go away everywhere, but we help when we can.  I mean if a friend asked me to help them move, do I say “I’m sorry I can’t help you because there are a lot of people who need help moving and since I can’t help them all, helping you doesn’t really make much of a difference”.  This would be a laughable argument at best, but more likely callous.   When I see the level of wealth inequality in the world, I personally find it morally reprehensible that so much wealth exists in the hands of so few while so many suffer.

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Now we can argue that hoarding wealth is a mental illness, or that their years of economic power have eroded empathy, and that such people can essentially do nothing but continue to hoard their wealth. These are likely valid arguments, but if our goal is a more equitable do such people have a right to such excess wealth?  Please keep in mind that I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any income inequality, but rather there becomes a certain threshold of inequality where society becomes unsustainable or at the very least has more suffering than it needs to.  But then what is the solution if people with unimaginable wealth are mentally unable to part with it?  In an argument I had with a conservative about this subject he argued that the only reason so much money exists in tax shelters is because they don’t want corrupt governments to get their hands on it.  And it’s true that money corrupts government officials as much as heads of corporations.  But I think we can agree that this does not excuse those with so much wealth from just using it themselves them to do good as a matter of moral responsibility.  Especially since so much of that wealth ultimately comes from investors, consumers, laborers, etc.

What then should we do?  If the movement of large sums of cash are going to corrupt people along the way, what is the answer?  Some have suggested that instead of a minimum wage we should have a maximum wage, or raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  All of these are prone to the corruption argument. Universal Basic Income is another suggestion, but this is something that only helps in already wealthy nations.  The best answer I can come up with is what we shouldn’t do, and that’s nothing.  In the election last night San Francisco passed a proposition which introduces a small tax to companies making more than $50 million a year to combat homelessness.  This is expected to bring in $300 million in income to the city to deal with the homeless problem there both in terms of getting those people shelter but getting them mental and medical help.  Of course there were billionaires against the proposition, but some were for it, and that’s heartening.  The arguments against were again largely of the nature of oversight, and I get that this should be a concern.  But given the spirit of the bill, then shouldn’t you be working to make sure that process works better and smarter, rather than just saying “strike it down…it’s not perfect”.  No bill is going to be perfect when it is trying to help lots of people, but if the goal is worthy, like ending homelessness (in one of the richest cities in the U.S.) then shouldn’t those high tech billionaires be asking “How can I help?” instead?  One wonders if the expertise of themselves and their employees in technology would be useful in helping to implement a policy that would help homeless people.  It is too often the quest for the perfect solution leads to excuses for inaction.  Solving this problem is complicated, perfection is unlikely to occur, but at least some people will be helped if we try.

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Now you may argue that income inequality has gotten a bit better, and that those at the very bottom are doing better than they were 50 years ago.  And this may be true, but just because the ultra-rich are willing to keep more people at a basic level of subsistence, doesn’t necessarily lead to a better situation.  What many people face who are barely getting by is a feeling of hopelessness.  They can live paycheck to paycheck, but they have little opportunities to save, emergencies (like a blown furnace, medical emergencies or car repairs) wipe what little savings they have, and most importantly they work in jobs that have little opportunity for advancement, or chance to save to go back to school to be retrained for a better job.  Perhaps all the greedy are doing is to find a “sweet spot” where people aren’t desperate enough to revolt but still poor enough to be compliant.  In a consumer driven society, if people don’t have enough capital to buy goods well you don’t have consumers and so I am sure that the raising of the bottom of the poverty charts isn’t entirely out of the goodness of the billionaire’s heart.  Not surprisingly people don’t want to toil at a dead end job their entire lives.  People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

I’ve tried hard to objectively look at greed as well.  Is there a time when greed is good?  Is there a benefit to it in this world?  Sometimes even bad things have good consequences even if unintended.  The only positive argument I’ve been able to find is that people with large amount of resources are able to invest heavily and develop quickly technologies which might take far longer to develop otherwise.  Technologies that might even save lives. But such things are hard to quantify and must also be measured in against the suffering that greed costs.  It also assumes that technological advancement should be a priority over other things.  I wonder sometimes that even if some discovery save lives, does that mean we are actually learning to value life?  If I’ve made the world better, but only did so for more profit, is the world actually better? Or do the intentions matter for building a better future?

Image result for greed quoteIn this conversation I have not talked about economic systems much.  I don’t consider socialism vs. capitalism a battle of moral systems.  I think if our morals were in place both systems can be very effective.  Greed is the corruptor of both.  My personal feelings are that a dose of each is the best, although I’m still working out the proportions.  Fundamentally, to my understanding of capitalism it’s focus is the acquisition of wealth.  Socialism makes more statements about how society should have a stake in the wealth it produces.  For me, I will personally lean more towards socialism because it is the only system that demands that we think about how we allocate resources in a fair manner.  I realize this is a point of contention upon many, and I am not going to make a strong evidence case for my views here in this post as the focus is on greed. Suffice to say I am acutely aware of the positive things that capitalism has done.  I’m also aware of the many negatives.  Here is just one expressed by a fellow blogger and one of the most well read people I know.

I also want to be clear that  while I have spent a lot of time chastising those who have the upper echelon of wealth, the fact remains that most of not all the people who will read this post are in the top 1% globally (including myself), and thus we could all be probably doing more than we are.  We certainly can’t use a greater degree of greed as an excuse to not try to do what we can.  I am not immune to the comforts that having a decent living wage provides.  Perhaps the best way to prevent greed from destroying our society is for all us to adopt a philosophy that prevents it from taking a deeper hold in our own lives.

End Note

Please check out more about Will MacAskill in the link I provided above.  His projects towards effective altruism are truly wonderful visions and I think it’s a project we can all get on board with.

Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

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                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

A Ramble About Capitalism and Socialism and Whether it all Really Matters

Discussions about politics always lead to many arguments over capitalism and socialism.  I don’t really have principles with capitalism in theory.  I think a lot of good can come out of it.  Through that spirit of competition, things that companies compete at can lead to many improvements in technology, and the development of things that people want to help them solve problems and make their lives better.  It’s been difficult to really verbalize what I don’t like about capitalism other than a gut feeling that it misses the mark, so I wanted to explore the topic a bit, and also talk about socialism as well.  Both words sort of don’t do us justice as humans.

*Spoiler alert*

If you haven’t seen the movie Gattaca, which everyone should, then you might not want to read this, although the part of the story I am going to tell isn’t really central to the plot.  The main character Vincent had a younger brother, Anton, who was genetically superior in this sci-movie, Vincent had a heart defect.  They would compete with each other as children by swimming out to the ocean to see who could swim the farthest without getting worried and needing to swim back.  Anton would always win, until one day Vincent won and left home never looking back.  In the future, their paths cross again by circumstance.  Anton is a cop.  Vincent is someone who could be turned in by his brother in this future where genetics is everything.  So Anton and Vincent have a moment of truth, and Anton challenges Vincent once again to their swimming competition, never understanding how it was that he lost to his brother who had a defective heart.  Their initial competition was important for Vincent to realize his dreams and have the courage to follow them.  So as they compete once again and swim out to sea, a determined Vincent is going strong, and his brother Anton falters, is exhausted and starts to drown.  Vincent stops and rescues him, and swims him back to shore.

This is humanity, or what humanity should be.  We may compete as a means of helping ourselves improve, but in the end we are brothers and sisters and when another is suffering, we forget about the competition and we help each other.  This is not capitalism, at least it is generally practiced today.  In capitalism today, you compete to get ahead and whatever the damage in your wake, whatever suffering that might be happening outside the realm of your drive for growth is not your problem.  Can capitalism be separated from selfishness?  In theory the answer is yes, but this doesn’t often seem to be the case.  Does capitalism promote greed, promote the corruption of our better nature? Ultimately it seems to me to promote capitalism as a system to live by that is truly beneficial to all, that promotes liberty, and happiness is a mistake.  Capitalism at best much a sub-system under a larger framework that is focused on the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Capitalism is a system designed by humans, it was never meant to be a system to design humans.   On the surface it seems to maximize freedom, but I would say that it’s very enslaving.  We are slaves to consumerism, slaves to the constant making of money, slaves to the clock, with no real thought to our happiness which supposedly we are so free to make happen.

amp-quot-capitalism-rewards-hard-work-amp-quot-yeah-right_o_2033411So is socialism better? First let me explain how I define socialism, the word has come to mean so many things:

“A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

I will start out by saying that any ideology can be corrupted by greed and if there is a governing body the chance is there.  Socialism is something that seems to be an antithesis to freedom, and in some ways this is correct.  But maybe the better question is, how free are we really meant to be?  We evolved in tribes of about several hundred.  We were mobile out of necessity, and not sedentary.  Resources were uncertain as the environment changed, and as we most likely made occasional mistakes with damaging an ecosystem which we depended on.  But it was like a small town.  Everybody knew each other and took care of each other.  Taking care of children was communal, the idea of ownership was non-existent.  You passed down skills, and I am sure there was competition to help improve skills, but in the end success for the tribe was about cooperation.  Some people had lesser skills, some people were likely injured from time to time, some might have been too old or too young to be very effective, but that was life.  Everybody did what they were able, and for those that weren’t able, you took care of them.  You didn’t work for yourself.  As the best hunter you didn’t say, I’m taking all the meat today, good luck suckers!  At our core, our brains are wired for this idea of the collective, and the empowerment of the collective is an important tenet of socialism.  We are after all a social species.

So why do we see so many flaws in socialism?  The difference between that tribe of several hundred, and cities, or states, or countries, or the entire globe is that we don’t all know each other.  While we may be built for empathy, the fact remains that empathy is much easier to have when you’ve known someone personally (the longer the better), and in a tribe everybody knows everybody and you depend on each other.

In many ways, I feel that capitalism vs socialism boils down to a similar debate between individualism and collectivism.  Two things I’ve blogged about before.  When I frame capitalism as a sub-system in a larger framework I guess I now see individualism sort of similarly.  I am sure individuality played an important role in the tribe.  Someone having creative ideas was surely encouraged, having a diversity of expertise (even if everybody had to have similar skills), would have also been beneficial.  But if someone came up with a better way to catch more fish, it certainly wasn’t profited from.  They wouldn’t have just kept storing fish for themselves and sold them to their hungry tribe members, they would have taught this method to others and shared their haul while others learned.

In the end I just don’t see capitalism as the ideology that saves us all.  It is always going to produce winners and losers, and winners can keep rigging the game to make sure they keep winning.  And even if they intentionally don’t rig the game the privileges they and their offspring gain, compared to those with less makes sure that the deck gets continually stacked in their favor.

But if socialism is a better mirror of our tribal life that our brains are wired for, how do we get around the disconnect between the people we know and those we don’t?  Of course we could look at science and say, hey genetically we are pretty much the same and despite the fact that we are brought up in different environments, fundamentally the same things keep us happy and prosperous.  We could remain curious and continue to learn about other cultures and other problems people face, and see how similar their struggles are to our own, or what we might have gone through in the past.  We could believe in that Greek concept of “agape” a love of mankind, or a higher love that transcends our day to day to lives.  Can these things ever replace truly knowing each other, and develop empathy in the same way?  But they seem like good things to embrace even if in a lot of ways, we have to take them on faith.  We take so many religious myths on faith, so why not something that increases empathy for our fellow human?

I mean the truth is that capitalism can work, but it doesn’t mean you can get away from sharing, helping each other, and working for the rest of your tribe which is quite large in the present day given how much our population has grown and how global the economy has become.  Civilization is such a large departure from how we are wired, but for as many wonders it has created, it has spawned deeply disparate class structures and large populations in which a wealth of resources floats beneath the noses of those who have the most power to help people, and temptation to take over give becomes too great for our fragile minds who evolved in a far more uncertain world than we live in now.  Our fears and uncertainties can also be exploited by others, trapping us into a never ending cycle of divisiveness eroding the empathy which made us the successful species we are.  We are better when we cooperate.  At the end of the day I don’t really care to argue about capitalism vs. socialism, but whatever system we decide as best has to do away with greed.  I hope that one day we can find a path back to that communal culture from whence we came.

The Scales of Justice

I recently watched this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about public defenders.  It is not a slam against public defenders, but rather a criticism of a system in which anywhere from 60-90% of people arrested cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders, but there are just far too many of them for public defenders to do their job adequately.  This leaves many defendants with less than adequate representation.  As a result over 90% of cases by public defenders end in plea bargains, even when the people aren’t guilty.  That’s a quick summary, but watching the clip is well worth the time and speaks for itself.

And I started to think about the entire philosophy of justice we have in this country and got really sad about it all.  It would be one thing if we had a beautiful ideal and we were continually striving towards it, but it seems that there is enough of a portion of this country that feel justice is working fine, and that if you are in a position to be arrested than you simply have some sort of punishment coming your way.  The system is rigged from the police procedures that target low income people knowing that many can’t afford to fight back and will pay fines whether they were really guilty or not, to the court system which puts low income people at a severe disadvantage, to the prison system which profits from long jail sentences for minimal crimes.  And once they are in there, opportunities are so low once they get out.  As President Obama said, we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population and compared to other western nations with similar standards of living we are one of the least safe nations.  The violent crime rate is down 40% from what it was in 1980 and yet prison populations have increased by over 400%.  Something is definitely not right.

Bernie_memeAnd my question really is why is it this way?  As poverty continues to grow in this country why do we continue to punish the most impoverished of our people for simply being in poverty?  I’m not saying that there aren’t people who commit crimes and that we should just let it happen, but when you look at the environment and challenges they face, those who criticize rarely have experienced such adversity.  Sure there is always a small portion who rise out of poverty but for the most part the poor are simply exploited for their labor or for their money.  On average, we don’t give them a living wage, we don’t give them access to equal education, we don’t give them equal access to quality health care, and we don’t give them equal access to healthy and affordable food options.

But they all deserve it right?  Making those bad decisions when they had so many good decisions open to them.  Do we not have a responsibility to raise the less fortunate up?  Do we just leave those who haven’t had the opportunities we had to languish and justify it with the idea it’s their fault they are in this position?  What about forgiveness?  What about compassion? How can we paint such a large population of our country with just one color and ignore the tapestry of lives that exist there?  As the top income earners continue to suck away the wealth of the bottom 99% why do we turn our attention downwards, kicking those at the bottom instead of shaking the tree more to let the fruit fall to the ground?  Some people in this country act like if we just eliminated the poor the country would be a better place, but in fact it would be chaos and nothing would remain.  No soldiers to fight our wars, no workers to pick our food, serve our food, work in retail, and all the other jobs we don’t even notice get done everyday.  And even if the void could be filled, the capitalist policies our country function on would simply shift more of us down to the bottom, while the rich keep benefiting.

Welcome to an economy built on consumerism and profit.  To answer the real question why, one simply has to follow the money.  It is to the benefit of the rich to keep the population of a large portion of the country poor.  Because there is only so far wealth can grow, it is finite and if the populous has more, they have less.  Life, liberty, and happiness for all citizens of this country take a backseat when money is involved.

I know this post was ranty and I try to put more logical discourse, but just sometimes you just look at these large systems that are so difficult to change when you are just one person and see millions upon millions of people being impacted by a system that is simply not there to help them, and in the long run doesn’t help the rest of us either.  I made a resolution with myself about a year ago then when I moved strongly by something emotionally I need to not just complain but do something positive, even if it’s just donate some money to a worthwhile charity.  Although perhaps on the periphery of the central theme of this post, there is something that I have been sort of procrastinating getting involved in for some time and I am happy to say I am procrastinating no longer.  I have decided to be a CASA volunteer which is a wonderful program where the volunteer acts as an advocate for a neglected or abused child in court until the system finds them a good and safe home.  Incarceration is a strong possibility for children who grow up in broken homes and maybe helping in this way I can help a few kids stay out of the prison system in this country.

Profit over Education – Academic Fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill Gives Another Black Eye to Public Education

As a college professor in the United States it is difficult to know where to begin as I process the massive scandal that I have read about today regarding UNC-Chapel Hill in which 3,100 students, nearly half athletes, were shown to have taken fraudulent classes in the university’s athletic program.  I am not usually one to make extremely bold statements, but education is something I feel strongly

about, and this scandal could not make a clearer statement that this country has lost its way.  The love of money has replaced love for each other.  We have let ourselves become distracted by games so that we don’t pay attention to what’s most important.  We have become a culture of fear instead of striving to be a culture of understanding.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I am sure that the majority of professors and students at UNC-Chapel Hill have the highest standards of work ethic and integrity and as I speak now I speak also in your name.  Those who were part of this conspiracy have brought the most shame to you and I am truly sorry for what you have to go through. Bringing legitimacy to your university is a battle you did not ask to fight, but you will have to.  This fight can be made easier or harder depending on who joins that fight.  In this essay I write I call upon those who can do the most to help you.

This year Penn State University had their ban lifted by the NCAA on post-season play 2 years early and still much controversy remains about whether this was the right thing to do given that Jerry Sandusky has been confirmed to have molested 26 boys and school officials looked the other way to avoid a scandal for their football team. As if this wasn’t enough of a blight on higher education and how sports plays too high a role in what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning, perhaps it could simply be argued away as the result of one highly disturbed individual, while several higher officials chose to brush off what seemed to them only rumors without clear evidence.  Personally the Penn State incident should have been enough for us to take a harder look at our priorities, but as the NCAA softened their initial judgment by lifting the ban it seems that it’s business as usual once again.

What has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill has been happening for nearly 20 years. It, as a result, must involve a far greater number of people ranging from personnel in the athletic program, recruiters, registrars, administrators, and faculty  This was a large conspiracy that was covered up for many years and even when the investigation was first opened 5 years ago, it took a long time for the full truth to come to light.  Even now this article is buried on the CNN website under many other less dire stories.  At a time when public education struggles to maintain adequate funding, when there is a great disparity in public education across the country, and public institutions of higher learning continue to raise tuition as their state funding decreases, the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will only act to lessen the trust in public education.  What we must work hard to do right now is to show that it is not public education that is the problem, that this is the symptom of a for-profit culture.  That when the money made off of TV deals, advertising, and merchandise of college sports takes precedent, that those without integrity can take a larger stake in our society and run it into the ground.  Let’s start our call to action with the NCAA.

The NCAA proudly lists on their website their core values which include:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.

For those you not aware of the word “avocation”, it means “hobby or minor occupation”. Note also the words “integrity” and the emphasis of “balance” and “excellence” in not only their athletics but also academics.  These core values are great.  As a society we should value athletic achievement, exercise, and health.  There is a connection between mind and body and it can come together in sport and competition.  It is also important to remember, however, that only about 1% of NCAA athletes will be able to turn professional that means there are many more students for whom their education will be their primary means of having a stable and successful future.  Thus if the NCAA believes in these core values it must also be an advocate for integrity in the classroom and at least be partially responsible for the health of the players who suffer injuries while playing NCAA sports which they profit from (NCAA is a non-profit by the way).  The NCAA has been recently accused of making large profit off the players who are often fed insufficiently and do not take care of the players who suffer injuries and who many times suffer lifelong problems related to those injuries both physically and financially.  The NCAA has a chance here to do the right thing and make its core values be more than just words.

While the NCAA should punish UNC-Chapel Hill for not displaying academic integrity in accordance with their core values, what is the responsibility of UNC-Chapel Hill? The university is ultimately the one that perpetrated this conspiracy and they need to make sure everyone involved faces punishment; no scapegoats, no more lies, no more cover-ups.  I understand why, from a legal standpoint, they cannot lift the degrees of those students.   They are the ones who advised students to take those classes when they saw they were struggling academically.  Rather than providing them with legitimate academic support to help them improve they gave up on trying to expand their minds and said “Your only value to us is in the money you make us in the athletic program, we are not concerned about your future”.  They were supposed to show a student how the same work ethic they apply to their sport, can be applied to learning.  They were supposed to show those athletes the same way they stretch and bend their body they can do also with their mind.  Given the low chances of those athletes becoming professionals they were supposed to give them alternate avenues of success.  And even if they did get drafted into a professional league, injury can happen at any time, and they were supposed to give athletes something else to fall back on.  Instead they have left these students bereft of legitimate degrees, and employers will have a hard time trusting the value of any degree achieved by a UNC-Chapel Hill alum who was involved with their athletics program.

I would also like to point out that the fraudulent program in which these students were enrolled in was an African-Studies program. While I am sure many other scholars can talk about this with more vigor than I can, I find the choice in the academic field of this fraudulent program more than a little insulting given the race issues we still face in the United States.  I know and have known many scholars in this area and this is an extremely important field for young African-Americans to learn about their history in this country and to understand issues of race both in the past and today.   I am not sure whose idea it was to use African-American studies to house the fraudulent courses but those people have done a great disservice to African-Americans by doing so and have treated a very important area of scholarship cheaply.

Of course we cannot be naïve enough to believe that this is the only school where this is happening. This scandal will open investigations into all athletic programs, especially in NCAA division I programs, that have had rumblings of grade inflation for athletes in the past.  It will make employers everywhere wonder if perhaps the academic success of a student athlete is deserved.  At my university, it is only a NCAA Division II school. Athletics is a money drain on our university and does not make us profit.  Yet many student athletes report that coaches will not let them miss a practice even if a legitimate academic opportunity that will benefit their future, such as going to an academic conference,  comes along.  I have seen resources that could be used for academic programs go towards athletics.   We all must join the fight to maintain legitimacy of public higher education institutions and remember that the NCAA core values emphasize balance and that the sport is, for almost all athletes, a hobby and nothing more in the context of their entire lives.

What responsibility do the students themselves share in this scandal? While they were advised to take these fake courses, they knew they were fraudulent.  One student who has come forward even made the Dean’s list having a semester full of fraudulent courses and admitted to not attending one class and receiving all A’s.  These are young adults who were not completely unaware that what they were doing was wrong.  It is difficult, however, for me to judge a young mind bolstered by the fame that we as a society gives them,  and bolstered by the pride of their friends and family at making a renowned college sports team with a full scholarship.  This is coupled with the fear of losing the scholarship that saves their family or themselves financial burden should they falter midway through their degree and cannot continue in the athletic program.  I am not going to judge you for decision you made as a young adult, but I would ask you to consider the steps you take now with care.  Because now that the scandal has been brought to light, the next steps you take are yours, and yours alone.  You know what you did was wrong, and you do a disservice to every student athlete who has worked hard to balance their athletics and academics to legitimately achieve their degree.  You do a disservice to the meaning of the baccalaureate degree which is supposed to be based on a minimum of 120 credit hours of academic rigor.  More importantly you do a disservice to yourself by knowing that you walk around with something that many are in great financial debt for and that many have worked hard for, but for which you did not earn.  Though you were misled, you were old enough to know that the easy path was not the right path.  Retake those credits and demand that UNC-Chapel Hill allow you to do so for free and provide for you the support they should have during your time there.

From http://www.fiscaltimes.com

The final call to action is for the rest of us.  We must take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some tough questions, because in the end it us who generate this profit from collegiate sports by watching and attending the games.  It us who read the articles and watch television programs of analysis.  It is us who buy the merchandise and wear the colors of our favorite collegiate teams.  So what can we do?  To start we, as parents, can make sure that the academic integrity is high at the institutions our children attend.  We can be realistic about what our child’s athletic ability really means and remember that even if they are one of the lucky ones to go professional that smart player is always better than just a player and that when the body breaks the mind still needs to be in good shape so that life goes on.  We need to ask questions, we need to talk to our children and make sure they are learning and let them always know that doing what is right is more important than a moment in the spotlight. We as the public need to make sure that we continue to fight for educational equality across this nation, to make sure that we maintain high standards in curriculum, academic rigor, and pedagogy, and vote for politicians who recognize the importance of education in making this nation great.  We must ask ourselves if it’s right that the highest paid public employee in 40 out of 51 states is a college football or basketball coach? Finally we must remember that a good life is built on a solid foundation made from love, integrity, compassion, humility, self-reflection, and learning.  Sports are fun to watch, but it’s still just a game, and the future of our children and our nation cannot rest on a game.