The Casual Blog

Tag: capitalism

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Getting close to birds and farther from people: hunkering down for the pandemic

Last week I got out to Jordan Lake three times and spent some time around sunrise with the wildlife there.  I saw lots of great blue herons, and several ospreys and bald eagles, as well as the less glamorous  gulls, crows, and turkey vultures.  

With the human world in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, I was especially grateful for some time with the birds.  Of course, they have their own life and death struggles, including finding enough food to survive each new day.  But they manage it without undue drama, keeping their focus on the task at hand.  Once the essentials are taken care of, they become very still, alert but peaceful.

The pandemic has quite suddenly changed everything.  We don’t know how long it will be before something like normalcy returns.  In the meantime, there will be brutal economic hardship for laid off people who need the next paycheck for housing and food.  On top of that, cutting direct human contact will likely cause a spike in depression and suicides. This is going to be tough.

In the midst of what looks like an epic disaster in process, it may not be the best time to talk of lessons to be learned.  On the other hand, we’re all going to have some time on our hands, which we might use to think about our situation.

Illness can be a revealing crucible.  It forces us to face up to reality. For example, parents may have all kinds of kooky ideas about praying for health, but when their own child gets seriously ill, and prayer doesn’t seem to be working, they will usually take the child to the doctor.  Illness forces us to quit playing and get serious.  

And so it is that we’re now looking to scientists for guidance about covid-19.  Our President has led a war on science, muzzling experts and eliminating scientific positions and agencies, as the Times and others have noted.  But he seems to be shifting gears, and now he’s consulting with doctors, public health experts, and other scientists.

At this point, it is hardly news that we have an incompetent and mentally ill President who sees the world exclusively in terms of how it can gratify his ego and bank account.  But like the parents with a sick child, even he has come to see it’s time to go to the doctor and get actual facts and possibly some help. He’s still inclined to boost xenophobic conspiracy theories, but he’s finally making concessions to reality.  Along with increasing death and misery, denying reality now might even be politically damaging. 

As little as I respect the President and as fervently as I want to see him defeated, I want to wish him well in this regard:  may he find the wisdom to defer to the best experts. Our scientists and doctors won’t have all the answers, but they’re our best hope.  Assuming we make it through this crisis, we might apply this same rule to address other global crises, like global warming.    

For the rest of us, there’s an opportunity to pause and reflect.  Covid-19 has brought into stark relief the fragility of our social, economic, and governmental systems.  If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now clear that our national healthcare system is a hopeless mess. Our social safety net is full of holes.  Our system of profit-at-all-costs capitalism is failing to address basic needs.    

In the face of the pandemic, even those officials of the all-government-is-bad view are modifying their opinion and trying to do something.  It looks like the government may be sending out real checks to actual families to mitigate some of the hardship. This looks like progress, and also like a tiny band-aid.  But who knows? We may look back on this as the historic beginning of a transformative new system with a universal basic income and greater fairness.

One thing is certain:  this is not going to be easy.  It’s definitely not the case that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We need to cultivate our courage, and our compassion. Those of us with some surplus need to help others.  My old friend Deborah Ross, a Democrat running for Congress in N.C. District 2, suggests donations to the N.C. Food Bank. The Washington Post yesterday had a helpful list of charities working for those who will be hardest hit. 

Sally revives her orchids, and the new panic about Bernie and socialism

 

Sally’s three orchids are blooming!  They lost their flowers at different times last year and looked about as dead as house plants could look.  But she nursed the sad little remnants lovingly and hopefully, and a few weeks ago, they all decided to revive.  Together, as though they had planned it!   

This week the last bud burst into flower, and they spent some time modeling for me.    For each of these images, I made focus stacks with 20 shots, which I then stitched together with Helicon Focus software.

We watched the beginning of the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate on Tuesday, but neither of us could make it to the end.  What a mess! It was disappointing that the moderators didn’t ask questions about our true emergency issues, like the peril of nuclear holocaust and disastrous man-made climate change, and made the candidates look like quarrelsome children when they couldn’t keep order.  

It seemed to me plain the debating contenders were all smart and reasonably honorable people, and for this alone any would be a huge improvement over Trump.  I’m best aligned on policy issues and temperament with Elizabeth Warren, so I’ll be voting for her, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is not looking like her moment.

The Democratic establishment seems unhappy and uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders, and I can understand why.  His mannerisms can be grating. More important, he seems serious about shaking up the status quo, which they are part of.  The conventional establishment wisdom has it that as a self-declared democratic socialist, mainstream America won’t vote for him, but I’m not convinced that the socialist label is a serious impediment.  

There’s never been a purely capitalist system in the US.  Government subsidies for business are as American as apple pie.  The free market system has at times brought great material progress, and at times political, social, and economic disaster.  Idealizing capitalism as a perfect system is just silly, as is demonizing socialism.

I just finished rereading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which is a brisk and spicey history of humankind.  It begins with the early hominoids of a couple of million years ago, on through the first homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, to their departure from Africa about 70,000 years ago, and the first agricultural civilizations of 12,000 years ago.  He has a bit to say about a lot of big developments, including the industrial revolution.  

Harari views capitalism (as well as communism and other isms), as equivalent to religions, inasmuch as they’re all shared systems of ideas that are only real insofar as groups of people adopt and share them.  He points out that capitalism has been effective at producing wealth for elites, but it is essentially amoral. In its raw form, its only concern is profit.  

To serve the profit objective, early capitalism developed the African slave trade and imperialism, and the misery and death entailed were of no concern.  Only the looniest devotee of Ayn Rand views this raw form as an ideal. The rest of us think markets will not solve every problem, and that other values, like fairness and compassion, are at least as important as profit.  

A lot of our climate crisis is related to unconstrained capitalism.  The highly subsidized fossil fuel industry accounts for a good part of our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the disinformation campaign that supports climate change denialism.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise when Larry Fink, the chairman of Black Rock, recently issued a call to arms regarding climate change.  Fink, who may be the world’s largest investor, issues an annual letter that the captains of industry read carefully and take seriously. This year he focused on sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  He presented this as a matter of preserving profitability, which will likely eventually go down if humans destroy more of the natural world. But of course, stopping global warming would have some other benefits, like saving millions and millions of lives.

In the letter, Fink also talked about the importance of “embracing purpose,” which he contrasted with simple concern for short-term profitability.  He seemed to be saying that companies need to do more than make as much money as possible for investors, and should take account of the interests of other stakeholders.  In other words, unalloyed capitalism needs to be alloyed with other values. 

When I was a lad, part of our national religion, along with veneration of capitalism,  was hatred and fear of communism. We were taught it was an evil force that would take over the world, unless we worked tirelessly to stop it.  This fear turned out to be exaggerated, though we wasted many thousands of lives and millions of dollars before we understood that.  

The upside of this sad history:  it’s harder now to get people panicked about considering socialist policy choices.  Bernie’s detractors will try the old time red scare tactics, but they probably won’t work.  Of the possible reasons for opposing Bernie, moral panic about socialism is the weakest.