Yesterday, I took my wife and daughter for a ride to the West side of Oahu. They hadn’t been there yet. We rode along the beautiful road which goes between the mountains and the sea in Nanikule, Wainae, Makaha, and the small communities in between. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve been there – it’s changed. The last time I was there, there were tent towns stretching along most of the coast – now the tent towns are interrupted by watered golf courses and Disney resorts. The poverty hasn’t gone away, but the gentrification is in full movement mode. My wife’s reaction was something like “It’s like a completely different nation. Low houses, no high rises, no Safeway, and no big tourist businesses.” And then as I pointed out the shanty’s and tent villages hidden behind the kiawe bushes, she started to feel the anger that our society lets so many slide by. The kdis playing in front of the scrap wood and tarp shelters, the adults peeking out of the shadows, waiting for the next sweep of the police or parks department to shove them to someplace else. It’s easy to pass the homeless and think ‘Oh, they must have drug or mental problems’ but there are families, seniors, people who simply cannot make it here. “The government should provide for them,” she said, and I agree. There are many programs which offer assistance, but none of this should be allowed – and then you see the huge gold courses, the giant touristic facilities, and the ever increasing tourist buses and rental cars…there is something seriously wrong. And then there are those who are on the edge of poverty – we passed an older couple over on the windward side of the island a few days ago – in my former hometown of Kailua – which has become so unaffordable that even the middle class cannot afford to live there – this couple was sitting by the side of the road in folding chairs holding a sign “We’re short on rent – even a little bit helps. We don’t want to be homeless” – and like nearly everyone else, I drove by reading the sign too late to stop and too busy trying to make a few dollars to give away a few dollars – but even though I drove away, that sign didn’t stay behind. There is something seriously wrong here. And on that note, I made another observation yesterday – it used to be that the homeless camps flew Hawaiian flags, the shacks, the tents, the enclosures – yesterday, on the drive up to Kaena Point on the west side – I didn’t see a single Hawaiian flag flying from the homeless camps nor from the weekend beach camps of residents – for some reason – that troubled me even more than the homelessness itself….
There are fundamental systemic problems that are literally killing us – both individually and as a species. Unless we can get a handle on these issues – we are almost certainly doomed. The first problem is wealth. Not wealth inequality, not wealth distribution, not how wealth is earned or spent – but simply wealth. Wealth is a fundamental systemic problem.
Wealth allows for exploitation, individual versus collective good, and a disporoprtionate allowance of power in terms of access, accumulations, and use of abilities. Wealth is very good for the individual who has it – but, as history has shown us, very bad for everyone as a whole – including the person who has it. This is a matter of long term versus short term good. The individual profits while the species, the biosphere, and the planet as a whole is degraded.
The problems of wealth are not a new revelation, though for most people, wealth appears to not be a problem at all. The main issue is that wealth has so firmly entrenched itself into our system and into our worldview that the idea of ending the concept is not only unfathomable but completely abhorrent to nearly everyone – including this writer who feels that he completely understands the problem of wealth intellectually but still has an inherent desire to strive for wealth personally because of the short term net positives wealth could bring to my individual life, the life of my offspring, and potentailly, the good which could be done if wealth of any size were accumulated and controlled.
One hopes that there is a way to end wealth once and for all – because it is the fundamental drain on our existance – however, given the above – it is unlikely that such an end would be pursued, allowed, or embraced by anyone. While there are religious and philosophical systems which have eschewed wealth, there has yet to be a political or economic system where wealth of one kind or another has not found a way to flourish.
Wealth is a fundamental systemic problem which appears to have no solution. As such, it may be best to move on to further systemic problems. Your thoughts are appreciated here as more than one brain is definitely better than just one.
The POTUS is easy to make light of. It’s easy to not take just how dangerous he is as he gives a buffoonish speech to 40,000 boy scouts in which he touts an ultra-nationalist agenda, demonstrates to young people that it is okay to be an a-hole, and uses the event to push his sociopathic agenda. All of this stuff as he publicly shames the attorney general he hired, puls back from promise after promise, and seemingly accomplishes none of what he set out to do – all of that is dangerous in itself – but the real danger is that behind the scenes, behind the cover of the great buffoon, beneath the radar of massive undertakings that are nearly impossible to fulfill, there is serious policy work being done and serious culturla shift taking place in the the fibre of the USA. I’m glad to no longer be on the mainland, surrounded by bafflingly vehement Trumpers who appeared to have brains but appear to have stopped using them. Oregon, a state that is ruled by liberal politics but inhabited by a massive number of poor white people who actually still believe that Trump is their saviour – that he has their best interests in mind – that he is there to HELP them. Not just poor, uneducated, white industrial workers – but all those closet racist baby boomers (and let’s be clear here, baby boomers are white Americans born between the 40s and the early 60s) who secretly don’t think a woman can do as good a job as a man, who secretly think that white people are naturally better than non-white people, and who are convinced that they deserve a good life more than anyone else. That is Trump’s base – and it’s not shrinking as we watch him turn our highest office into a mockery – no, his base is growing. As unbelievable as it seems to an educated liberal like me, there is no denying it – his base is growing – and I promise you – he just won a whole new generation of voters. Trump is causing a massive shift in the ideology of the United States. He is taking plays from the dictator playbook daily. He is making us immune to the dangers of totalitarianism with his seemingly foolish actions – but there is nothing funny about threatening to fire people as they stand next to you on a stage, there is nothing funny about demanding political opponents be investigated and jailed, there is nothing funny about loud, yelling, nationalist chants in front of brown shirted adolescent boys. I’m grateful to have left the mainland. I’m grateful to have my family in Hawaii and away from so many of the Trumpers, but they are still here – I see them on construction sites, military bases, and in business suits. We, the people of the United States, are in a very deep lake of shit – and it’s time to stop laughing about how funny it is or how unlikely it is that we are here or how it’s impossible that things can get worse. We’ve been walked right out here laughing our heads off and denying it could happen. It’s happened. It’s happening. It’s not good and not getting any better.
I’ve established (many times) that I am not psychic. So I won’t spend a few paragraphs guessing where the world economy (or the American economy) is heading. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. We are in uncharted waters.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what capitalism is and what it isn’t. One thing I’ve heard frequently is that the Chinese economy has moved towards capitalism – that is not true. First of all, let’s get a definition of capitalism out of the way. Websters offers the following:
an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market
There are three key concepts here – private or corporate ownership and control rather than state (although I think corporate ownership is something altogether different), the use of investments for control, and competition in a free marketplace.
Ownership and Control of the Means of Production
In reality there are four types of economies. Primitive, Command, Market, and Mixed. In a primitive economy the means of production belong to the producer. A command economy gives control of the means of production to the state. A market economy gives control to the market itself and a mixed economy combines aspects of command and market economies – for example – the government controls education and the post office in the USA.
So, capitalism itself in a pure form would be a pure market economy with no government intervention or control. Essentially, capitalism leads to big fish swallowing small fish and small fish trying to get big enough to swallow smaller fish and eventually to swallow big fish. Capitalism may start with a level playing field (in an idealized world) but eventually it leads to Disney owning Marvel, Pixar, ABC, and every other entertainment company while Google swallows every new technology company, Facebook eats all the social fish, and JP Morgan eats all the other banks. In the meantime, the capital itself is consolidated into not just top corporate hands, but also into top tier individual hands – the 1% of the 1%. Capitalism is not about making a profit from your work – all economies are built around that. Capitalism is about mergers and acquisitions of the means of production, distribution, and disposal. It’s fish eat fish until there is only one fish that has nothing to eat and then we have a ‘Too Big to Fail’ situation where government steps in and saves the big fish – at which point, we are no longer talking about capitalism and free markets – we are talking about a command economy with the illusion of capitalism.
This is where capitalism leads. As I said at the outset, I’m not psychic. I can say for certain that capitalism leads here because it is where we are. As the World Bank and IMF sail into the bizarre waters of Quantitative Easing on the winds of salable debt and free spinning currency production – we have left the market economy behind though we still cling to the idea that a free market is running. In truth, the US economy has been a mixed economy for a long long time. We are closer to a command economy now than we have ever been. And part of the reason this has been allowed to happen is because people have this crazy idea that capitalism means making a profit. China is not capitalist. And yet, they make huge profits and have more entrepreneurs than any country in the world. China is a command economy. The US is a command economy with bizarre monetary leftovers of a market economy.
And that leaves everyone who is not in the top 1% vulnerable. The means of production and the power to overcome regulations to production, distribution and disposal exists only at the top of the pyramid. Capitalism leads to vast inequality first and then to an increasingly command economy ruled by corporate or private interests that are dependent on expansion and growth of market share. At a certain point, that expansion and growth can only be achieved by opening new markets through politics and war. And the gross inequality leads to either an altruistic super-state or to genocide of those unable or unwilling to produce for the corporate controlled government.
So where should we be heading? I’m not sure it matters. My personal preference would be a sort of socialist syndicalism market economy. That is, the government controlling certain essential industries (agriculture, medicine, housing, education, security) and worker/user owned syndicates or co-ops competing in a free market for everything else. But the question is moot. We can go nowhere until we see where our current monstrosity takes us.
Capitalism is relatively new and still evolving on the human timeline – going back no further than the Medici of Florence and then modernizing in the Netherlands of the 18th century before reaching full early bloom in London and then in the 19th and 20th centuries in New York – the mantra of capitalism has always been a combination of higher productivity + lower material and labor costs + increased demand = greater profits. It’s no coincidence that material and labor go together. Our work is lumped in with the raw materials because human labor is a raw material. You (or me) are of value to the capitalist in one of three ways – a raw material, a consumer, or a lender. The third may come as a surprise, but the debt that we incur is actually an asset to the lender. Let’s assume that robots suddenly provide all the labor including extraction, manufacture, delivery, and retrieval (trash collection, recycling, etc). Artificial intelligence is also handing marketing, merchandising, stocking, and quality control. The robot/AI work also includes making robots and new A.I. – Okay, so all of us are out of a job. Does that stop capitalism? No way. We are still consumers and at this point, in order to consume the productt produced by the AI/Robot factories – we will need to be borrowers (consumers of loans) and lenders (purchasers of debt to companies and nations through stocks which are loans to corporations and bonds which are loans to governments. Since we will be bored – we will probably be consuming more – just like when you sit in front of your computer for too long, you sometimes end up buying something – usually on credit. So, in the robot/AI society the capitalist gets higher productivity + lower material and labor costs + increased demand which as I mentioned before lead to higher profits which are doled out to the corporate shareholders who buy more shares and presumably diversify their investments with holdings in government bonds which allow the government to dole out to welfare programs which would seem likely to be the largest consumer (as a sort of collective patron of the needy), meanwhile the corporations are consolidated into larger corporations which eventually are all owned by the largest banks which leads to the conundrum which I can’t get my head around – I need help with this. At some point, there starts to exist a closed feedback loop between the banks and the government. The government buys from the banks with money the banks have lent to the government and the government pays the banks with money borrowed from the citizens, the citizens borrow from the banks to purchase the products the banks produce, the banks would seem to eventually swallow the government and the citizen so that we have corporate citizen banks which determine who eats and who starves, who lives in peace and who suffers war, and as we’ve seen in the philosophy and writings of others – at some point – the majority of citizen consumers are no longer a valuable resource but instead become a drain on the scaled up economy – at that point – it would seem – the banks are left with the option of 1) transforming into an altruistic welfare state or 2) genocide machine – It seems to me that a perfect capitalist machine looks a lot like genocide in its final days. As I look at our society undergoing rapid transformation – I can’t help but think that genocide on a global scale is not very far away.
I remember having a conversation with a ‘gun nut’ friend who insisted that she should be able to carry and shoot her gun anywhere she likes. I disagreed. I found it astounding that she couldn’t see that 1) her gun created a power inequality between her and anyone without a gun and 2) that unless she could guarantee that her bullets had a certain trajectory and stopping point, she was impinging on the freedom of others to move about without concern over being hit by stray bullets. She, on the other hand, was bothered that I thought there should be regulations in place to protect people who she had no intention of threatening – her problem with my arguments could all be boiled down to “Who is given the power to enforce these regulations?” and further that anyone given that sort of power is almost certain to use it for their own advantage. Why should she have to give up power to someone else in the interest of unknown others? Why should she have to give up her own best interest to the interest of others with uncertain motivations? We were at loggerheads – I tried to argue that it wasn’t her, a person with presumably benign motivations, that the regulations were protecting society from, but from people with darker reasons for having or shooting a gun. Her counter-argument was that criminal person wouldn’t be swayed by regulations so all the regulations were actually doing was dis-empowering her while empowering an enforcer class that would create more regulations thus depriving her of more power and beefing up the power of the enforcer class which would eventually come to be controlled by those without an altruistic intention. I tried to argue checks and balances, protection of the weakest members of society, representative government, and more – and left the table pretty sure that I was right and she was wrong – and a part of me still wants to believe that – but in my heart, I know she was right. I don’t like it because I want to believe in the hallowed institutions of self-governance and U.S. style democracy – but damn it – she was right. Or at the very least, we were both missing some ‘right’ middle ground.
The regulated society is a disaster. It’s a disaster that most people are completely blind to. As humans we made a bad turn- this idea of disempowering individuals for the betterment of all is a terrible idea – like lowering test standards to increase the average score. The regulations are not working. All the gun laws we have did not stop any of the mass shootings (or individual shootings) that happened anyway. Speed limits do not stop people from driving fast. Food regulations do not keep companies from selling poison as processed food or using dangerous pesticides – yes, if they get caught they get penalized – which is what the regulated society is when it comes down to it – the penalized society – or the penal society – or the prison society. We live in the Prison Society. There is no freedom except that you are allowed to have from the enforcer class, the guards, the regulators, the power elite. We have willingly given up our power and they have willingly taken it.
I have never wanted to live in the Prison Society, but here I am. There are ways out, but none of them are easy. My world travels and travels within the United States have shown me that the Prison Society is a worldwide phenomenona – there are different flavors, but no escaping it. The Prison Society lives on enforcement and bureaucracy and the illusion of the common good. A dictatorship can offer more freedom than democracy, or less – it depends on the levels of enforcement, bureaucracy, and regulations. The only way out of the Prison Society is self-empowerment – we must re-empower ourselves and refuse to give up that power to anyone – and the only way to create a society that is good for all is to create a new way of thinking about power and wealth and humanity. My friend was right about the regulation society and that we should not give up our power to an enforcer class and she was right about the need to arm ourselves, but I think she was wrong about what we need to arm ourselves with – we don’t need to be armed with guns, we need to be armed with knowledge. The Knowledge Society is the only path that leads to freedom from the Prison Society.