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In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that a milestone was recently passed in the fight between liberals and progressives for the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps for the future of America.

THE CRITICS ADORE! “The eternally intolerable Sunstone has no more insight into politics than a six year old brat has into the chemistry of fire.  All Sunstone does in his recent post is play with matches, and quite predictably, he burns the house down.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News”

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

Business, Labor, Management, Mental and Emotional Health, Talents and Skills, Work

How Would You Solve This Problem?

I’ve been wondering tonight what would be a good coping strategy for a small business owner with autism in his dealings with employees?

I was listening to him earlier.  He said, “I have discovered that a lot of the poor I hire are useless.  It costs me minimum wage plus overhead to employ them.  But many of them are incapable of doing anything worth that much money.”

I used to employ people, so I know that some employees don’t give back good value for what you pay them.  I might even grant to the guy that the poor are often unskilled or low skilled workers.  Some not only lack skills but have bad work habits, such as showing up late, wasting time, and so forth.  And maybe it’s even true that — as a group — the poor have worse work habits than typically more skilled workers.  But even if I grant him all that, I don’t think it’s the whole picture.

Some years ago, I was employed by a company to provide consulting services mainly to call centers. This was before all the call centers got shipped offshore to India and the Philippines.  I hear in those countries, call centers often employ skilled college graduates and pay well by local standards.  Whether that’s true or not, most of the call centers I consulted for in America employed the working poor and sometimes paid no more than minimum wages.

I can only speak from my own experience (as did the small business owner himself ) but it was my impression that most problems the call centers got themselves into — including such “employee problems” as low productivity — were in one way or another caused by poor management or poor supervision, and could only be solved if the managers wanted to solve them.

In the time I held that job, which was only a few years, I ran across one — and only one — call center where the bulk of the problems could be fairly assigned to the employees.  One of the employees had managed to set herself up as a ring leader for the other employees, and she was extraordinarily hostile to any authority but her own.  She was also so clever about concealing her activities that the supervisors didn’t know what was going on.  But she had even gotten her group to limit themselves to a quota for daily sales which she had set far beneath the group’s potential.  After the call center let her go, sales more than doubled.

That was the one case I came across where the fault for poor productivity lay squarely with an employee and those who followed her.  I don’t doubt there are many such cases, but I doubt they are more numerous than the cases of poor supervision or management.

Indeed, most of the problems I encountered could be attributed to poor supervision or management.  I recall that “hidden and competing objectives” were a frequent problem.  Perhaps,  you had a supervisor who was a control freak and tried to micromanaged every minute of the operation.  In which case, the real objective of the call center was to indulge someone’s ego.

Sometimes the problem was poor training — of the supervisors and managers.  Many managers didn’t know the importance of buying the best available lists of who to call.   Or they didn’t know how to structure a script for their callers, nor what words to pack it with, nor how to test its effectiveness.  Or they didn’t know how to solve common employee problems.

I once knew some of the figures by which I had increased productivity in the calling operations I consulted with.  I used to be so proud of those numbers that I had a half dozen of them memorized for years.  But today they escape me.  Nevertheless, I recall they were nothing to be embarrassed by.  Yet, every increase in productivity I got — save one — involved in some way or another first improving the performance of the supervisors or managers.

Now, my experience is admittedly limited, but it suggests to me, if to no one else, that how you supervise people and manage their work plays a decisive role in how productive they become.  If someone thinks his workers are useless, then all I can say is that, in my experience, useless workers can often be turned around by improving the skills of their supervisors and managers.

Which brings me home to the small business owner.  He has told me that he is severely autistic.  From what little I know about autism, I think that might present a problem with supervising people.  If so, I wonder what he can do about it?

Is there a good coping strategy for him?  A way he can manage his autism to deal more effectively with his employees?  I would kind of like to suggest something to him — both for his sake and the sake of the people he employs.

Economics, Economy, Income, Labor, Quality of Life, Work

Minimum Wages Now and Then

I was talking with mom a few days ago when the conversation turned to the minimum wage.  Soon enough, the two of us were trying to figure out how today’s minimum wage compared with the compensation people earned back when she was a child. 

Mom was born in 1918.  Her father employed men to work his farm. 

According to mom, my grandfather compensated his farmhands at the rate of one dollar a day, plus benefits.   The benefits comprised the use of a riding horse, the use of a milk cow, the use of a house, the use of a garden plot, and a hog each year for slaughter.

The government did not mandate that compensation.   My grandfather paid the going rate for farmhands in his day.

Mom says some of her father’s farmhands were able to save up enough money to purchase their own farm while working for him at a dollar a day.

The two of us concluded that the “minimum wage” for a farmhand 90 years ago was rather good when compared to the minimum wage of today, which is around seven dollars an hour now.