Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Socialism and markets

Much ink has been wasted on the supposed conflict between free markets versus central planning, with free markets supposedly being intrinsic to capitalism and central planning intrinsic to socialism. All nonsense. Sadly, too many socialists retain an irrational and unfounded fear of the word market.

In the broadest sense, a market is a system of voluntary transactional exchanges of goods and services using money tokens.

As a general principle, a society should ban voluntary action only in extreme cases where the voluntary action either imposes uncorrectable externalities, such as going without a mask in a pandemic, or is just completely stupid, such as driving without wearing a seat belt. (I tend to libertarianism in the latter case, but that's not a hill I'm willing to die on.)

Any society facing scarcity must have some numerical way of allocating scarce resources. If a society imposes a numerical limit on consumption, it has money: money is the numbers and the limits.

Different jobs have different average desirability, so it makes sense to somehow make undesirable jobs more desirable by allowing workers in undesirable jobs to consume more per hour of work.

"Market socialism" is, therefore, kind of a redundancy. A truly communist society would not have markets, but only because communism presupposes no material scarcity. Under communism, a transactional accounting method for allocating scarce resources, i.e. money, would be superfluous. Whether we might have unlimited material resources in the future, at present we do not yet have them.

A socialist society could ban voluntary transactions, and some societies have. I have no idea whether those bans were good or bad ideas in those societies under their specific historical circumstances. But such a ban is a tool, not an intrinsic characteristic of socialism.

A more critical investigation of capitalist markets, however, gives socialists a better idea of what is essential to socialism.

First, capitalist markets are not always voluntary. If I must pay rent or freeze to death, the "choice" to pay rent is not voluntary. If I must kiss my boss's ass to keep my job so I can pay my rent and not freeze to death, the "choice" to kiss my boss's ass is not voluntary. Nature does coerce us — we must eat to live — but we can eliminate nature's coercion only with science and engineering, not with law or social construction.

Second, capitalism really does require markets (however involuntary) in everything. We can carve out exceptions, and the exceptions work in practice, but capitalists always offer unrelenting indefatigable opposition to any exceptions to markets. Capitalists exercise power using involuntary capitalist markets; any exceptions diminish their power.

Third, and most important, the driving force behind capitalist markets is the profit motive: each household must do whatever it takes to increase its flow of money tokens, without limit. Capitalist markets are about accumulating power, not the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Just because Elon Musk has accumulated a metric assload of money tokens does not mean that firing a Tesla into space is an efficient use of scarce resources. (I mean, maybe it was, but we can't tell just because Musk had enough money tokens to do so.)

The essential nature of socialism is not to ban voluntary transactions. A socialist society might or might not ban some or perhaps all voluntary transactions, based on specific material circumstances, but such bans are not essential: we cannot say that a society that does not ban voluntary transactions is therefore not socialist.

What is essential to socialism is first being honest about distributing nature's coercion. Human beings must work to live, so a socialist society, unlike capitalist societies, must be honest and direct about saying that each person capable of working must actually work. And once we are honest about nature's coercion, we can tackle the scientific and technical task of freeing ourselves from nature's coercion.

It is also essential to a socialist society to reject the profit motive. The motive for each households should not to accumulate as much wealth as possible, but to offer its scarce resource, labor, and use its demand on the social product efficiently to maximize the happiness of its members.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

What is socialism?

Every so often, I talk to people about socialism. Almost always, the first response is, "But what about Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez!? If you're a socialist, you must be in favor of gulags, reeducation camps, famines, hyperinflation, and mopery on the high seas."

Bollocks. It's a bad faith argument on its face. The reasoning is obviously unsound: Stalin was a socialist (granted), Stalin sucked (granted arguendo); therefore socialism sucks. Sorry, non-sequitur. You would have to establish that Stalin sucked just because he was a socialist. And people don't do that.

I'm sure there are a few fringe people out there who think that Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. is the One True Prophet. Fine, whatever. But most people don't think so.

These guys (and others) were real socialists, but they were also human beings, and they were working in very specific historical, economic, social, cultural, and international contexts. A simplistic analysis cannot separate out these various historical influences from the influence of socialist ideology.

It's worth taking a step back, though, and trying to just answer the question, "What is socialism?" There's not one good answer; it's not like the National Institute of Standards and Technology has standardized the term.

The best I can do is take a position that is half historical and half normative: I think what follows is common among socialists and worth keeping.

Socialism consists of three elements:
  1. The government acts directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class holds and exercises direct economic power
  3. The working class holds and exercises direct political power

Feel free to add "should" to the above to go from actually existing socialism to normative socialism.

These elements are continuous, not binary, so there is an overall continuum of socialism.

So, for example, the U.S. federal and state governments provide Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and health regulations, mass transit and other public goods, so the government does in fact at least partially act in accordance with the first element of socialism.

Most of the workers in the U.S. vote, and we still have (for now!) a political system that resembles a democratic republic, so the U.S. is at least partially socialist in the third element.

Workers have almost no direct (or even indirect) economic power, so the U.S. is almost completely non-socialist on the second element.

Anti-socialism, then, just negates the three elements:

  1. The government does not or should not act directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct economic power
  3. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct political power

Everyone should be aware of long-standing anti-socialist opposition in the U.S. to Social Security, Medicare, and all the socialist measures listed above. The working class has been all but excluded from any sort of economic power (and was almost completely excluded from economic power for most the United States' existence), and the project of neoliberalism has been to place most economic power outside the control of the state. Finally, the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party) has been dismantling even the appearance of a democratic republic.

If you want to say you're against socialism, I think you have to commit to 100 percent to all three of of the anti-socialist negations. Otherwise, you're at least a little bit socialist, and as they saying goes, I already know what you are, we're just negotiating the price.

Notice that the above elements say nothing about markets, central planning, the structure of the government, reeducation camps, freedom of speech/religion/assembly, etc.

These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not essential to socialism; they are implementation details. Implementation details are important, of course, but we have to agree first on the goals and framework before we can begin implementation.

The elements of socialism also say nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Someone could be a racist socialist: they would be an asshole, of course, and wrong, but they would be a socialist asshole. It is more productive, I think, to just say, "You shouldn't be racist," than to say, "If you're a racist, you're not a socialist."

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it's hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Democrats love Trump

Why are people still incredulous that the Democratic party does not oppose Trump?

The Democratic party (the real party: the insiders, the pundits, the elected politicians) love them some Donald.

Trump is paying off the billionaire class and their sycophants and fucking the working class. The Democratic party is all about, well, paying off the billionaires and their sycophants and fucking the working class.

It's a match made in heaven.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Our Trump-defeating hero, Joe Biden!

I'm convinced that Joe Biden sexually assaulted Tara Reade.

Noted feminists Amanda Marcotte and Jezebel's Emily Alford have come out swinging to support... Biden.

Nathan J. Robinson lays out the whole sordid story.

Trump is going to win in a fucking landslide.

And the Democratic party will lie down and let him.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Abandon all hope

According to Brad DeLong, your country should [a]bandon all hope of running a successful developmental-state industrial policy if:

  1. You have landlords (or some other parasitic class interpenetrated with those from whose ranks your bureaucrats are drawn): then you are doomed, because the more effective your government’s ability to use levers of state power, the more the distribution of income and wealth will be frozen into a form pleasing to your anti-developmental current upper class. You need to start with a remarkably equal and definitely not inherited-inequality distribution of income and wealth. If you do not start there, abandon all hope.
  2. You do not have an ideology of economic development shared by your elite: if your elite judge each other by, say, how rich they get and do not judge each other by whether they have contributed to society’s growth mission, abandon all hope.
  3. You do not have an effective educational system for training and an effective examination system for selecting your bureaucrats. If your bureaucrats cannot outsmart the private sector and foreign managers whom they are attempting to regulate, outproduce, midwife, or garden, abandon all hope.
  4. You do not have an ideology in which government service is a high prestige occupation. If your best and your brightest do not regard government service as a good thing to do, abandon all hope.
  5. You do not have a firm and reality-based conception of what industrial structure you want your country to develop into. If you cannot point to another country, and say: we want to become like them, and here are the first stage investments and capabilities we need to develop to do so — if you cannot do that, abandon all hope.
  6. You do not have the factor-mobilization prerequisites—the power to mobilize savings for investment, to massively upgrade the technical education level of your population, to move people out of low productivity into high productivity occupations, to build the infrastructure and the links to global value chains. If you do not have the factor mobilization prerequisites to make a success of industrial policy, abandon all hope.
  7. You do not have access to the markets that will buy at a price that will cover your costs the goods you produce if your industrial policy is successful. If world markets are not open to you and you have to rely on domestic demand from a poor population, abandon all hope.
  8. You do not have the power to judge which private businesses are successful and need to be fertilized, and which are unsuccessful and need to be pruned back. The best way to do this is to lower the value of your currency and then watch which of your firms are successful exporters—to use foreign countries markets’ as devices for telling you who is making high-quality goods at a reasonable price. But you have to do this somehow. If you cannot measure where you are succeeding, abandon all hope.

[It should be noted that the United States fails not just one or two but most of these tests, especially the first. We have access to international markets, but not much else.]

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Capitalism and Perfectionism

The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism, by Amanda Ruggeri
“As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists,” says Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University. “We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.” . . .

Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals. . . .

Perfectionism . . . isn’t defined by working hard or setting high goals. It’s that critical inner voice.

Take the student who works hard and gets a poor mark. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy. If the message is: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism. . . .

[F]or perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.

As a result, the pursuit of perfection becomes a vicious cycle – and, because it’s impossible to be perfect, a fruitless one.

The author points squarely at capitalism as a cause, arguing that we live in a society that demands perfectionism. A society...

Where we are so literally valued for the quality and extent of our accomplishments that those achievements often correlate, directly, to our ability to pay rent or put food on the table. Where complete strangers weigh these on-paper values to determine everything from whether we can rent that flat or buy that car or receive that loan. Where we then signal our access to those resources with our appearance – these shoes, that physique – and other people weigh that, in turn, to see if we’re the right person for a job interview or dinner invitation.

[Social scientists Thomas] Curran and [Andrew] Hill have a similar hunch. “Failure is so severe in a market-based society,” points out Curran, adding that that has been intensified as governments have chipped away at social safety nets. Competition even has been embedded in schools: take standardised testing and high-pressure university entrances. As a result, Curran says, it’s no wonder that parents are putting more pressure on themselves – and on their children – to achieve more and more.

“If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes,” Curran says. “If children come to internalise that – the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.” One longitudinal study, for example, found that a focus on academic achievement predicts a later increase in perfectionism.

Similarly, the gold-star method of parenting and schooling may have had an effect. If you get praised whenever you do something well and not praised when you don’t, you can learn that you’re only really worth something when you’ve had others’ approval.

If other strategies, like making children feel guilty for making a mistake, come in, it can get even more problematic. Research has found that these types of parental tactics make children more likely to be perfectionists – and, later, to develop depression.

Fear of failure is getting magnified in other ways, too. Take social media: make a mistake today and your fear that it might be broadcast, even globally, is hardly irrational. At the same time, all of those glossy feeds reinforce unrealistic standards.

Friday, April 03, 2020

The Marching Morons

One of the funniest SF stories, and one that is really scary when you think about it, is The Marching Morons" by Cyril M. Kornbluth.

It's funny because Kornbluth is a great writer. It's chilling because it perfectly captures how our rulers see the ruled. The ending doesn't really make sense, but Kornbluth most probably couln't have sold it (and might not have been able to overcome his own sentimentality) without the comeuppance in the end.

I don't know how the billionaire class, the top 0.01%, feels about the workers. It's likely that they're mostly sociopaths who simply don't see other people (even other billionaires) as people, just as objects.

But I am part of the professional-managerial class, and I know the the PMC in the top 10 or 20%, the ones who do the grunt work of managing the day-to-day operations of society, think that almost everyone not in the PMC are morons, most of whom can be made marginally productive with enough discipline and coercion.

The PMC gets away with feeling this way because workers mostly feel the same way.

The almost in "almost everyone" is the key. Most workers believe that all the other workers — especially workers with trivially lower social or economic status (coughBlack peoplecough)— are morons, but they themselves (and maybe a few of their friends) are the rare exceptions.

Did you lose your job because of the coronavirus quarantine? You don't have any wealth? Well, you must be a moron. Can't get a new job? Then you're not useful: lie down and die get out of my sight, loser.

But I lost my job and have no wealth? Hey, I'm the exception! I'm not a moron! Help me!