Category Archives: Politics

Blame Capitalism!

Someone else has something I want. How can I get it?

Capitalism has received a great deal of criticism, from its invention to the present day. It has been blamed by one group or another for seemingly every human evil, real or imagined, including depression, imperialism, violence, hedonism, the decline of democracy, and the destruction of the environment. Especially for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the empathetic, the common refrain seems to be “blame capitalism!” Yet blindly criticizing a policy or view is not at all the same as thinking carefully about it. It’s easy to forget that governments, organizations and policies are tools just as much as hammers and plows, despite their larger scale–in fact, that very scale makes it important to pay extra attention, especially with policies as widespread and influential as capitalism. This means considering such tools’ benefits as well as their evils, while remembering that there is not likely to be a “magic bullet” solution. Poverty, depression, antagonism and the environment are all important problems–but is capitalism really responsible? Or is it possible that true capitalist practice might actually help solve some of these issues?

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Power and Freedom: Individuals and Societies

The other day I saw the following quote on a bumper sticker:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.”
Gerald R. Ford

It got me thinking about the relationship between power and freedom, and how that relationship applies not only to governments but also to businesses, authority figures, laws, programming languages, and even games. Continue reading

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The New Service Economy

As our transition from agriculture to manufacturing shifted the focus from food to material wealth (commodities), we are undergoing a similar shift now where material wealth is becoming as cheap as food became during the industrial revolution (introducing similar problems of overabundance). As material goods were the most valuable things before the industrial revolution, ideas and information are what’s most valuable now–in other words, service industries. This has implications across the economy not just concerning which businesses will make the most money, but how most of that money will be made. Continue reading

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Sexism Is Over

The problem with social justice is that it’s easy to see progress: simply look at where society is now, and compare it to where things were a hundred years ago, or three hundred, or a thousand, and say “Look how far we’ve come! Women are no longer married off like property, they’re not barred from participating in the government or military, and they’re not stoned to death for adultery! Surely sexism is over by now–right?” Continue reading

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Mind Both Gaps

I was recently going back over some of Paul Graham’s essays, and I noticed something that bothered me while reading “Mind the Gap.” It’s an essay about how income disparities might actually be a sign of health, rather than a sign that something is wrong. That’s not the part that bothers me–it’s an issue I’ve written about myself and with which I mostly agree. No, what bothers me is this:

“A hundred years ago, the rich led a different kind of life from ordinary people. They lived in houses full of servants, wore elaborately uncomfortable clothes, and travelled about in carriages drawn by teams of horses which themselves required their own houses and servants. Now, thanks to technology, the rich live more like the average person. … Materially and socially, technology seems to be decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor, not increasing it.”

What he’s arguing here is that the gap between rich and poor may be quantitatively the same as in previous centuries (i.e., in terms of raw income), but qualitatively wealth makes less and less difference to the way people live. The rich today may still have much more money than the rest of us, he argues, but they are not leading fundamentally different lives anymore.

The problem with this argument is that it’s only half true. It seems clear that, as Graham argues, the gap between rich people and average people has been decreasing, especially in qualitative measures other than raw income. However, he never actually shows that the gap between rich and poor has substantially decreased. In fact, poverty has changed very little since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and in the most severe cases it has not changed at all in millennia.

In fact, in Graham’s own qualitative terms the gap between the poorest of the population and everyone else has only been increasing since the industrial revolution: the standard of life has been going up for most of us, but a beggar living on the streets today is facing conditions nearly identical in every practical respect to those faced by a beggar living in the streets in the 1800s–or, for that matter, the 800s.

Not only have the conditions of poverty not improved (in some ways, they’ve arguably gotten worse), but the demographics of poverty have not changed much either. Now, as ever, the poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly marginalized minorities: blacks, hispanics, homosexuals, the undereducated, people with mental or physical disabilities, religious and ideological outcasts, etc. Anyone who doesn’t fit the normalized ideal of (in our case) “straight white abled male” pays the price in lower wages, higher interest rates, less access to opportunities, poorer educations, and greater exposure to violence and substance abuse. Unless you’re willing to admit to the abhorrent belief that white males are genetically more competent than everyone else, you can’t argue that all these varied demographics bring poverty on themselves–their poverty has to be caused by something external. The obvious answer is that the cause of their poverty and the cause of their marginalization are one and the same: systemic social discrimination.

This is capitalism’s most glaring flaw. I consider myself an Objectivist in many ways, but the problem with Objectivism as portrayed by Ayn Rand is that it assumes the market is blind: let it do whatever it will, and the most competent people will win out. Unfortunately, the market is not blind. The market is made up of human beings, and human beings are biased. If I may quote PG once more…

“It’s absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty.”

…and there, as they say, is the rub. Poverty now is as absolutely bad as it has always been, and it is bad for almost exactly the same reasons. Until that stops, we have no hope of living in a true meritocracy.


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Apartment Economics

I’ve lived in one apartment or another for several years now, and for the most part I like it.  I get a place to live without having to commit to a 30-year mortgage or a lot of extra space I won’t need, I’m responsible for furnishings and the owners are responsible for maintenance, and if I want to move I just have to start paying someone else for their space instead of selling and buying my own–overall, it seems like a pretty decent arrangement.  There is one convention of apartment ownership, however, that continues to bug me.  Why aren’t the owners expected to pay a share of the utilities?

Obviously, tenants should be held at least partially responsible.  The major deciding factor in utilities cost is usage, and that is something that is mostly within the tenant’s control.  Mostly, but not entirely.  Doesn’t it seem strange that under the conventional model, apartment owners have almost no incentive to invest in decent insulation, efficient appliances and fixtures, or other energy-saving features?  It takes a minimal investment to make sure that doors and windows are properly sealed and hot water pipes are insulated, and energy-efficient appliances generally pay for themselves within a couple of years.  Yet if the long-term cost for inefficient appliances and poor insulation is shuffled off onto the tenants, what motivation do the owners have to invest in these things?  This is particularly troubling to me because energy efficiency has a direct impact on global warming emissions.  If profit is the only incentive corporations have to reduce emissions and boost efficiency, shouldn’t we be making sure that their profits are at least related to their efficiency?

What do you think?

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We Are the 1%

The richest 1% of America’s population controls a disproportionate amount of its wealth–this is the idea that the phrase “we are the 99%” is meant to evoke. The obvious implication of the Occupy movement’s slogan is that this is a bad thing–but is it? Should we try to fix this disparity? And if so, to what degree? Would a completely even distribution of wealth be ideal, or is a little inequality actually a good thing to have?
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