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Power is always evil

Krishnamurti goes to the heart of our situation.

Power is always evil and it is this evil that corrupts society”. “Knowledge is mechanical and functional; knowledge, capacity, used to acquire status, breeds conflict, antagonism, envy. The cook and the ruler are functions and when status is stolen by either, then begin the quarrels, snobbery, and the worship of position, function and power. … The psychological importance of function breeds the hierarchy of status. To deny hierarchy is to deny status; there is hierarchy of function but not of status.”

July 4th

Most of us on the left have mixed feelings on the 4th of July. Speaking for myself, the root problem is the contentious meaning of the imagined community we call the United States, one that directly parallels our great political divide.

The right wing has long asserted a monopoly on nationalism, or more accurately, nationalism has long been a central ideology of the right. It is linked with a fascist-like acceptance of established power hierarchies, hardline Christianity, a white ethnicity, intolerance of others, and an adoration of all things military. Those opposing it are implicitly or explicitly branded as un-American traitors. People of goodwill everywhere reflexively reject this kind of imagined community for it’s a nightmare of hate, intolerance, and ignorance.

While we reject this kind of community, though, we still have a need to replace it with something positive. Humanity evolved in groups and a sense of community, fraternity, rootedness, and identity is central to who we are. Where can we find this if not in nationalism?

The answer, I believe, must transcend the nation. Marx was right when he said back in the nineteenth century that workers have no country and it has never been truer than today. The system is oligarchy and it’s played on a global board. Working people everywhere are but pawns in this brutal game and have no real home to count on. The system at heart is not inter-national, it’s inter-class and its global extent means there are no nation-level solutions. It is an illusion to think otherwise.

Workers have no country but this is also true of our elites. They have no country for they have no need for one—their country is the world. They are the transnationally diversified owners of the planet and national borders have little real meaning. The US elites are the primary designers of the current globe spanning oligarchic system built out of the ashes of WW2 and we see it evidenced in the many treaties on global trade, investment, banking, and the various formal and informal transnational institutions. Expansionism is a central dynamic of oligarchy and it has been the guiding light of US policy going all the way back to the end of the Civil War, first in this huge country and then around the world.

No one today, neither workers nor the empowered elites, actually has a country and, to the extent this is internalized, it is actually cause for hope. Nationalism is a dangerous emotion that has perpetually misled peoples into war. It’s a relic that must be transcended. The future of humanity demands we extend our imagined community so that it encompasses all mankind.

In this sense, the best that is in the United States, as is also in the European Union, should be celebrated as an important step in the right direction. What makes America great is that, more than any other place, its population reflects the world. Especially in its cities, it’s a nation of immigrants, a melting pot and it’s a beautiful thing.

The imagined community I celebrate is global and it partially and very imperfectly exists today in the United States. It is diverse, multicultural, multiracial, radically democratic, anti-authoritarian, anti-war, anti-hierarchical, anti-military, anti-oligarchic, and above all, anti-nationalist.

Why does the US left accept the real estate tax?

It’s odd, I think, that the real estate tax escapes major public criticism from the left. Real estate, after all, is the only significant form of wealth held by the middle and lower classes yet it alone is somehow singled out for taxation. Stocks, bonds, gold, and other assets held almost entirely by the upper class are untouched by wealth taxation. This is extraordinarily regressive and especially unconscionable given the home is a basic necessity.

Let’s compare two families who put their life holdings into the purchase of their home, one $5,000 down for a $100,000 unit with the remainder financed and the other $500,000 down on a $1,000,000 home. If the tax rate is 1.5 percent of home value, then the effective wealth tax rate for the first family is 30 percent (tax of $1,500 / $5,000 wealth) while for the second, it’s only 3 percent ($15,000 / $500,000). The wealthier the family, the lower the effective wealth tax.

A far more equitable tax would be on total wealth with an allowance for basic housing. In the example, a wealth tax rate of 3.27 percent would yield the same total tax revenue (total tax revenue of $16,500 / total wealth of $505,000 = 3.27%) and the poorer family’s tax bill would drop from $1,500 to $163 (3.27% x $5,000). It would drop even further if the tax rate were progressive and had a basic housing allowance.

It’s not about cutting taxes for the rich

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman branded the healthcare bill as “pure class warfare, with extra contempt” and said it’s really “all about the tax cuts”. While he’s certainly right about class warfare, I think he overstates the brutality of this particular battle versus the great many preceding it. What I’ll quarrel with here, though, is the idea that the central goal of the conservatives is as simple as cutting taxes for the rich. I believe the driving dynamic is not about monetary taxes but is instead deeply fundamental to the system itself. It is very old.

Oligarchy is a system of concentrated minority power over the majority which, in its current phase, is justified through ideologies of individualism. The existential enemy to the propertied minority is, and must always be, the threat of the propertyless majority. The enemy is collectivism and the age-old war against the population is widely (and reasonably) viewed in terms of a ‘slippery slope’.

‘Give him an inch, and he’ll take an ell’ is a 16th century saying that captures the spirit of what’s happening. The masses won’t be satisfied with the inch of healthcare, give them that and they’ll just come back asking for even more. Before you know it, “individualism” will collapse into socialism and we’ll be ruled by the mob. The dynamic, then, isn’t about tax cuts for the rich, it’s about denying the majority the power of agency in society.

The ‘slippery slope’ meme expresses the prime forward defense strategy for holding the mob at bay and it has been in place throughout all of civilization. It’s instructive to consider a few examples of the basic mindset.

Aristotle: “if you are remiss in your discipline [of slaves] they grow insolent, and think themselves upon an equality with their masters; and if they are hardly used they are continually plotting against you and hate you.”

Cicero: “You may distribute, indeed, some show of power to the people, as Lycurgus and Romulus did, but you inflame them, with the thirst of liberty by allowing them even the slightest taste of its sweetness.”

Popular 18th century British writher Arthur Young: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”.

Frederick Douglass: “Beat and cuff your slave, keep him hungry and spiritless, and he will follow the chain of his master like a dog; but feed and clothe him well, work him moderately, surround him with physical comfort, and dreams of freedom intrude. Give him a bad master, and he aspires to a good master; give him a good master and he wishes to become his own master. Such is human nature.”

1975 report to the Trilateral Commission, an organization formed by billionaire David Rockefeller and others associated with the elite Council on Foreign Relations, entitled “The Crisis of Democracy: report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission”: “Instead of appeasing tensions, material progress seems to have exacerbated them…”. “The incorporation of substantial elements of the population into the middle classes has escalated their expectations and aspirations, thereby causing a more intense reaction if these are not met in reality.”

To conclude, we miss the entire point if we think the issue is taxes. It’s not taxes, it’s power.

The risk-free interest rate should be zero

Isn’t it strange we so easily accept the idea that central banks should pay a riskless return on money? For doing absolutely nothing and taking absolutely no risk, a so-called ‘investor’ receives today a guaranteed $22,790 per million of wealth for ten years. That’s about twice what the average retiree gets in social security. The bonanza’s even greater in poorer countries. In Mexico, it’s $67,100, over 13 times the median household income. How is this justified?

Ideology has it that riskless returns to wealth are needed to control inflation. But this is counter-intuitive. It would seem that giving riskless handouts of money to a particular class would actually do the reverse and spur inflation. The standard response, though, is that higher riskless rates also increase the cost of bank borrowing and thereby slow the economy via reduced investment spending.

From a democratic perspective, this all smells pretty fishy. The riskless interest rate should be fixed at zero—wealth holders should not be given free money. I think this is plain common sense. If the monetary authorities want to slow the economy for some reason, there are many democratic ways they could do so. They could, for instance, institute a tax on new investment, an action which would functionally be about the same as higher bank interest rates except that the income from the higher rates would flow to public coffers rather than bank profit.

Reifying entrepreneurship in France

President Macron is all the rage these days with his plans to ‘reform’ France’s labor market, i.e. reduce worker rights, and promote a grand new age of entrepreneurship. Now I have nothing against small businesses, but the reification of the entrepreneur as some lordly prince of prosperity is beyond absurd. Ultimately, it’s just another example of the failure of trickle down individualism to adequately serve or even take into account the public interest.

Let’s consider an article in yesterday’s Financial Times entitled Brexit and Macron have French entrepreneurs dreaming of home, written by a French founder of a London based asset management company. Here’s a three-part summary:

1) Why he started the business in the UK: Because of its “business environment in which risk-taking was encouraged and entrepreneurial success valued and rewarded. Simple rules such as entrepreneur’s relief, which reduces capital gains tax on the sale of a business, are very attractive for budding entrepreneurs”.

2) Why he’s an “enthusiastic supporter” of Macron: Because “he has managed to set off a revolution. Not only is he young and dynamic, and able to inspire voters with a message of hope, he also has the crucial private sector experience. His political agenda is ambitious and includes long overdue reforms such as loosening labour market regulations and simplifying administrative proceedings”.

3) How society can prosper: “Encouraging entrepreneurship is the only sustainable way to restore economic growth”. “It is essential that France becomes more attractive to foreign entrepreneurs and companies in order to remain relevant in a globalized economy.”

There are many objections I could make here. Why, for instance, should we care that he’s young and dynamic? Is that necessarily better than middle-age and wise? Or why is private sector experience more valuable than public experience? But I’ll focus on what I take as the most important objection—it’s that there’s no rational reason we should bend social policy to reward entrepreneurs versus others. To answer that we need jobs is facile. Its senseless to go around creating jobs for jobs sake. What we want is not jobs per se but prosperity and the technological knowledge required to achieve that is firmly in hand. The production problem has been solved long ago. In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, “To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we’ve solved it, and to fail to proceed thence to the next tasks would be fully as tragic”.

The important question, completely ignored by those so enamored with entrepreneurs, is what exactly needs to be produced to achieve the prosperity that’s within our current technological grasp. Do you think many people in France think asset managers are important parts of that equation? Hardly! There’s far too many of them already and what they ‘produce’ only benefits a limited slice of the population. Let’s encourage what we need. I don’t know what the people in France would say they need, but in the US, it would be something down the lines of quality affordable healthcare, far better infrastructure, a good retirement, a secure income, and so on. Public policy should promote those type of activities by doing such things as expanding medical schools, increasing the number of healthcare workers as needed, investing in infrastructure projects, expanding the workforce to guarantee secure retirements and decent living standards. This is rationale and democratic. But to claim the answer is to focus on the entrepreneur, regardless of what he or she produces, is not only silly but is guaranteed not to achieve the simple goals of the great majority.

Who is doing the speaking?

Unequal wealth = freedom; Majority rule = tyranny

These have been key strands of Western philosophy for thousands of years yet they’re deeply Orwellian.

Ellen Meiksins Wood offers some worthwhile observations on this. “What makes Western political theory particularly interesting and even puzzling … is that it invented a defense of domination not simply combined with but even based on, a notion of equality … The Western cannon is distinctive in its systematic mobilization of egalitarian doctrines and ideas of universal human community in the JUSTIFICATION of both class and imperial domination”.

Per Wood, our standard discourse on freedom, the legitimate powers of the state, the proper checks on democracy, and the rights of property are deeply rooted in this ancient defense of ruling class power and privilege.

It’s how we think and that’s how ideology works. The next time we begin to argue politics and economics we should first stop and ask ourselves this: Who thought our ideas for us?

Diversion-Profit Identity Demonstrated via Kalecki’s Profit Equation

This is an adjunct to my preceding post on diversion. In it, I argued that oligarchy is a structure by which goods and services fulfilling the core motives of the oligarchic class — luxury consumption and wealth defense — are costlessly obtained from population workers. I call this diversion and it’s rendered costless in our era by the return flow of monetary profit.

That diversion and profit are intimately linked in a diversion-profit loop is easy to see once we accept that the system is one of minority power over the majority. I seek to show in the table below that the identity between diversion and profit flows directly from the logic by which Kalecki derived his profit equation (profit = capitalist consumption + investment).

Key conclusions are: 1) profit is the monetary return of diversion; 2) only investment in goods or services produced for oligarchic consumption are profitable; and 3) investment in goods or services ultimately to be consumed by the population is never profitable over its relevant life. (I assume a closed economy with no state spending in which workers cannot save.)

Kalecki Equation

Profit = Capitalist Consumption + Investment

Diversion Equation

Profit = Diversion

Applicable time period for an investment: Specific accounting period, commonly a year. Applicable time period for an investment: Its applicable life.
Purpose: To understand how profit is generated in an accounting period. Purpose: To highlight the essential class nature of the modern system and to show that the population sector isn’t profitable.
1. GNP can be thought of as the sum of consumption and gross investment:

GNP = Consumption + Investment

1. GNP can be thought of as the sum of consumption and gross investment:

GNP = Consumption + Investment

2. We can expand consumption into 2 components: Capitalist Consumption and Worker Consumption. 2. We can expand consumption into 2 components: Oligarchic Consumption and Population Consumption.
3. We then rewrite equation 1 as:

GNP = Capitalist Consumption + Worker Consumption + Investment

3. We then rewrite equation 1 as:

GNP = Oligarchic Consumption + Population Consumption + Investment

  3a. We can expand investment into 2 components depending on the ultimate beneficiary: Oligarchic Investment + Population Investment
  3b. We rewrite equation 3 as:

GNP = Oligarchic Consumption + Oligarchic Investment + Population Consumption + Population Investment

4. GNP can also be considered the sum of capitalist gross profit plus the worker wage so that:

GNP = Profit + Wage

4. GNP can also be considered the sum of oligarchic gross profit plus the population wage so that:

GNP = Profit + Wage




5. We link 4 and 3 and get:

Profit + Wage = Capitalist Consumption + Worker Consumption + Investment

5. We link 4 and 3b and get:

Profit + Wage = Oligarchic Consumption + Oligarchic Investment + Population Consumption + Population Investment

  5a. Since population investment, by definition, will eventually be consumed by the population, we merge it with population consumption. We restate equation 5 as:

Profit + Wage = Oligarchic Consumption + Oligarchic Investment + Population Consumption

  5b Since diversion is the sum of oligarchic consumption plus oligarchic investment, we restate equation 5a as:

Profit + Wage = Diversion + Population Consumption

6. Since the wage is assumed identical to worker consumption, we eliminate it on both sides and get the Kalecki Profit Equation:


Profit = Capitalist Consumption + Investment

6. Since the wage is assumed identical to population consumption, we eliminate it on both sides and end up with:


Profit = Diversion


Costless Diversion in Modern Oligarchy

I argue in my book Capitalism as Oligarchy that inequality isn’t a side-effect of something we happen to call ‘capitalism’ but is rather the core of what the system is. We gain a great deal of insight approaching it this way for not only does it conform to the historical fact that mankind has been materially ruled by a tiny minority for all of recorded history right down to the present day, it pierces through the confusing complexity of ‘capitalism’ and opens up a wonderful simplicity. I believe it’s crucial to see the modern system as nothing other than the current phase of ancient oligarchy.

All we need is plain common sense and a willingness to critically examine the ideologies of ‘capitalism’. I start by identifying the basic motives, risks, and dynamics that seem integral to any system of unequal power. If the system is oligarchy, then few would deny that the core motives of the empowered minority are to aggressively defend and expand its high position, what I, following political scientist Jeffrey Winters, call wealth defense, and to live luxuriously. Equally obvious are the key risks against which the propertied minority must defend itself—they arise from rival competitors for power and, existentially, from the propertyless majority. And finally, given these motives and risks, we can derive two key operating dynamics, the action processes by which the motives of the minority are achieved and through which wealth gets its meaning. I call them diversion and suppression.

I plan to present over the next several posts a few extracts of the book so as to demonstrate how these dynamics operate in our modern world. I begin with diversion, the dynamic by which the oligarchy forces the population to produce goods and services in fulfilment of its motivational desires of wealth defense and luxury consumption. We’ll discover insights into the nature of profit, the way in which the system structurally guarantees costless diversion to the oligarchic class, and how it is that the population is always a mere break-even and never a source of profit. We’ll rely heavily on the profit equation of mid 20th century economist Michal Kalecki but will interpret it in a somewhat unconventional way.

Let’s start by looking at the essential diversion flow as it has existed throughout all of civilization.

Diversion Command Issued ==> Diversion Produced

We get from this diagram two important pieces of information. The first is that diversion is ludicrously simple. The second is that it isn’t an equal exchange like we’d expect to find in ‘capitalism.’ It’s a command in the full military sense of the word. Generals don’t purchase compliance from privates, they command it; and what that means is that no units of power are lost in the process. If they were, if issuing orders entailed a cost, then power would flow downward and the two ranks would eventually meet somewhere in the middle. It’s the same with the oligarchic class; if it were to lose units of power in the process of commanding diversion, then power would flow downward to the population and oligarchy would quickly collapse. The power of diversion must be structural for oligarchy to exist and it can’t therefore encompass a ‘thing’ that’s spent or exchanged. At the macro level, diversion has to be costless—it can’t be paid for.

This simple power relation, though, is obscured in our modern world by an outer veil of money. We’ll find throughout this section that money is a key source of confusion and the problem here is that it creates an illusion of exchange. Read more…

Oxfam: Wealth of 8 = that of 3.6 billion

According to a recent well publicized report by Oxfam, the combined net worth of just eight men is equal to the collective total of the bottom 50 percent of mankind, 3.6 billion people.

Bill Gates (software), Amanci Ortega (fashion chain), Warren Buffett (stock investor), Carlos Slim Helu (diversified business owner), Jeff Bezos (on-line book seller), Mark Zuckerberg (social media programmer), Larry Ellison (computers), and Michael Bloomberg (financial news) possess, along with half the human species, a collective net worth of $426,000,000,000.

This is so outlandish it’s borderline funny! On one side of a finely-tuned scale we have eight proud men possessing an average wealth of $53.2 billion and on the other is crammed 3.6 billion people having an average portfolio of $118.38.

The well-heeled defenders of the status-quo, of course, aren’t laughing for to them inequality flows innocently and naturally from the workings of ‘liberal democracy’ / ‘market capitalism’. The professions of the eight, they argue, are harmless and certainly not the cause of the misery of others. Besides, even if we were to expropriate their wealth and distribute it to the bottom half, their wealth would rise to a mere $236.76.

Many will sadly accept this kind of argument but just a bit of reflection shows it completely misses the essential point. The real issue isn’t what these men do for a living or by what process they happened to have accumulated their wealth; it’s that they, along with their fellow tycoons, own the socioeconomic structure. A tiny minority controls the system; they are structurally empowered to decide what and how much to produce and do so according to a financial logic they and their forefathers have designed. They control the key levers of the state as well and, through their power, have an immense influence on our principal ideologies. 

The structure of minority power guarantees freedom for the owners, a freedom that can only come at the direct expense of a majority that must always be subservient and unfree. Poverty is its foundational logic.

Because we have a monetized system, we tend to measure inequality in terms of monetary wealth differentials. Money, though, is not in itself important—it’s a mere token having no value at all except to the degree it accurately measures power. That these eight men are enormously wealthy means that they have immense power over us. But they as individuals are irrelevant. Nothing of import changes if the eight become 16 or 32 or a few percent of the global population.

There’s only one fundamental problem on our planet and it’s this: a small minority rules over us and we therefore are not free.