Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Another Argument for Being Charitable

July 31st, 2013
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Another Argument for Being Charitable[1]

If you live with another person, or group of people, it is extremely likely that at one time or another, the division of household work will be a source of tension. This often explodes when someone who feels that they are being put-upon, exploited, or free-riden upon broaches their frustrations in a very accusatory manner. Surprisingly, they will usually find the supposed miscreant perfectly stunned and convinced of their own virtue; in fact, they will often be suffering from the opposite impression: namely that *they* are carrying a greater share of the collective burden. The ensuing disputations are seldom productive, and often costly in their emotional and time toll upon all parties. There are also those who never enter into open argument, but carry, like a thousand burs, little resentments inside of them every day: that they do more housework, that other people are littering in their local park, that a co-worker is not putting in the hours that they are.

There is a simple yet powerful phenomenon of which you should be aware, which may allow you to escape this fate.

When you accomplish a piece of household work, you are painfully aware of it. When another member of your intimate community does the same, there is a significant chance that you will remain unaware of it– or even if you realize they have done it, you will experience that realization as a brief moment of gratitude, rather than as a 30-minute chore; in other words, it will weigh less with you than your own work does. This means that each person will by default place more weight on whatever work they accomplish and less on what the other person accomplishes, thus our perceptions of the balance of work will be each person feeling they have done a relatively greater percentage of the household work than they actually have!

The same holds true for *creating* household work. By definition when we leave a mess, or fail to clean something we tried cleaning, or leave food to go bad, there is a very high chance that we are unaware of it. That means, when another person comes through and cleans up after us, we are not even aware that we created that extra work for them, or that they did it for us. On the flip side, we will be acutely conscious of the work our living-mates have created for us. Just as explained above, this will skew the accuracy of our estimation of how much work we create for our living-mates compared to how much work they create for us.

Similar arguments can be made in other departments of our life: working on a collective project at work, or maintaining public spaces and resources. We will always over-estimate the size of our contributions compared to others’, while under-estimating the size of our impositions compared to others’.

So while justice is quite important, and it is legitimate to have expectations of others and to not want to spend our lives laboring on behalf of lazy layabouts, before starting into an emotionally-charged confrontation, make some mental adjustments in your head for the probable mis-estimations that have lead to your sense of outraged justice. Give the other members of your community some benefit of the doubt, that they have probably contributed more than you have noticed. And in return, hopefully, you can receive the same charity from them.

Another strategy you can employ is trying to become more mindful of what others do for you, and more aware of the ways you may actually be imposing on others. This is a much more difficult long-term project, which will necessarily still fall short of accuracy, but which offers various other positives: very genuine increased appreciation of others, the possibility of reducing some of your destructive behaviors (like driving a car!), and a clearer understanding of yourself and your community.

Before closing, I must point out that in current American society, with nuclear families the most common living unit, women do far more housework than men.[2] Thus women will also be more likely than men to complain about the lack of help they receive from their domestic partners. In many cases, these complaints are quite justified, and I want to be clear that this essay is not meant to be understood as an attempt to bolster male privilege by exhorting women to stop speaking up against it. That seems to me a very necessary thing. At the same time, I hope that applying charity to this dimension of our human relations may move us towards a more harmonious existence, while other steps move us towards a more just one.

Footnotes

  1. Charitable, in addition to the common meaning of “giving generously” also has the meaning of being generous in your estimation of someone else. []
  2. A further essay might be possible on the topic of “why?” but here I’ll just point out two reasons:
    1. It has only been 1-2 generations that women en masse have moved into the workplace, prior to which they were by default homemakers. Mothers pass these skills on to their daughters, while fathers do not pass them on to their sons, and it will take some time for this historical inheritance to dissolve.
    2. Men still earn significantly more than women for the same work, and have better job opportunities, therefore their job is often seen as more important, and the woman continues to pick up slack at home so the man can work more away from home. []

The Death Spiral of Capitalism

July 24th, 2013
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    1) The Declining Rate of Profit

The early major theorists of capitalism, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, all predicted that the rate of profit of capitalist enterprises should fall, as a general trend over time.

Each reached this conclusion in his own way. Adam Smith derived it from increased competition; David Ricardo from rising rent costs. Karl Marx was able to show that the greater the proportion of fixed capital (eg machinery) to variable capital (eg labor costs) in an investment, the lower the profitability. Marx’s theory has the most explanatory power, but the fact that other theorists reached a similar result is not insignificant — all predicted that the graph would trend downward toward an eventual 0% rate of profit.

History, too, has proved the correctness of this prediction. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall can be seen quite clearly today; the attempts of capitalists to mask it merely demonstrate that it is a reality they cannot alter.

    2) Masking the Decline

The first method is depressing wages. Over the last several decades in the USA, the bottom sixty percent of earners have suffered real wage losses, while the sixty-to-eighty percenters have remained stagnant. Reducing labor’s share of production has allowed enterprises to keep their profits up, even while profitability declines.
Fact: average real wages for private non-agricultural industries peaked in 1972 and are 14% below peak today. (1)

The second method is debt. Also over the last several decades, consumer and student debt have grown at astronomical rates. Extension of credit has helped working people retain an approximation of their standard of living, and helped keep up demand for products and services – of course, at a price.
Fact: total American credit card debt is $856.5 billion, mortgage debt is $7.86 trillion, and student loans are $999.3 billion. (2)

The third method is government intervention. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall makes the economic system increasingly unstable and enterprises increasingly precarious. To counter the inevitable breakdowns, the government has propped up the system via direct intervention. The size of these bailouts, from the early 1970s through the latest financial rescue, has been increasing.
Fact: $328.6 billion in bailouts 1970-1995, $1.78 trillion in bailouts 1995-2013 (all in 2008 dollars). (3)

These methods are all adaptations to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Their function is to try to preserve profit by shifting the burden of capital’s need to expand onto workers – by lower wages, debt-financed consumption, and bailouts using public funds.

And still — the economy’s growth slows.
Fact: USA average yearly GDP growth 1970-1979: 10.3%, 1980-1989: 7.7%, 1990-1999: 5.6%, 2000-2009: 4.0%, 2010-2013: 3.8%. (4)

    3) Over-Accumulation of Capital

Investments generate profit. Capital piles up. It needs an investment outlet. That is why a necessary symptom of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is increased financialization.

As the prospects of productive investments go down, speculation on commodities becomes relatively more attractive and increases. Capital flows away from production in a self-reinforcing process – as more capital flows to commodities, the potential for profitable commodity trading increases, attracting more capital. Oil, wheat, gold, housing etc. up through complex financial instruments like derivatives come to represent an increasing portion of investment, and become subject to increasing fluctuations.

Financial capital chases financial capital. The portion of the economy made up by the finance sector increases.
Fact: the financial sector made up 8.6% of GDP in 2011, quadrupling its share from the 1950s. It made more than 30% of corporate profits on the year. (5)

In short, capitalism begins to smother production and consumption – the “real” economy – through a game of false values created by financialization.

At the same time, increasingly difficult profits induce monopoly structures in markets. Thin profit prospects make economies of scale increasingly decisive. Small enterprises are usually bankrupted first in severe crises, and are less likely to be bailed out. At the same time, lack of attractive investment gives big firms more incentive to use their resources to try to guarantee profit (at the expense of consumers and competitors) by strangling competition.

Exponential growth and mergers help to create increasingly monopolistic market structures over time. However, it is not only a natural tendency of capitalism, but one that is accelerated by the political power of the large enterprises. Through legislation, government contracts, and the ability to command a bailout, the large enterprises enhance their advantage.

In fact, many large enterprises now generate more revenues annually than mid-sized states do tax revenue. Resources are the basis of power, so it is safe to say, that corporations are increasingly more powerful than states.
Fact: Exxon-Mobil Corporation has yearly revenues of $482 billion, while Sweden’s 2011 total tax revenue was $239.6 billion, and Spain’s was $467.2 billion. (6) (7)

    4) Escaping the Death Spiral

The last time capitalism reached such an advanced stage of its death spiral of falling rate of profit and over-accumulation of capital, was in the period leading up to WW2. The Second World War provided an escape through the massive destruction of capital and enterprises. That reset the rate of profit to an earlier, higher level.

Today, with our more advanced weaponry, World War is not an option. It is only an escape from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, inasmuch as it is an escape from human life and civilization on the planet.

Some say technological growth will come to the rescue of the world economy. Technology always grows – that has not stopped the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The internet boom did not prevent slowed growth.

Others point to third-world development as a panacea. Opening new markets is indeed one of the few ways that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, derived from the over-accumulation of capital, can be overcome. But this is only a temporary shot in the arm. Profits from new markets translate into additional capital accumulation, driving profit decline. Ever more intense doses of the drug are needed, and in the end there is no way to provide enough – the world is of finite size.

Capitalist theoreticians have been working hard to keep the system afloat. The amount of economic understanding and skillful manipulation of the markets and economy has increased magnitudes since the Great Depression. But the skill and technique of an expert doctor cannot save the life of a terminal patient – only extend it. And, as extending the life of someone dying can sometimes be inflicting misery, prolonging the current system is to inflict agony on its suffering masses.

The current system has reached the end of its historical usefulness.

The so-called “creative destruction” of the market, already a blind anarchy with a high human cost, no longer serves its nominal purpose of removing failures to make way for new growth – witness the bailouts. Those financial elites who claimed to deserve their ludicrous salaries because they were such great winners and economic sages were revealed as losers dependent on the workers whose labor they profit off not just for work, but for public bailout. The beautiful system of competitive firms ensuring efficiency they claim to wisely guide is in actuality populated by zombie behemoths run by failures.

The rate of profit falls – and they have no answer; no way to ensure growth. Instead they are compelled to smother the economy in financialization and to push workers down further and further, to try to keep making profits.

What is needed is a transformation of economy and politics so that abundance is shared by all, and so that growth can be revitalized stronger than before, based on rational planning to meet the needs of the entire population.

That transformation will not achieve itself. History has proved it a utopian optimism to think that capitalism itself can achieve it, or that at a certain time the common sense of such a transformation will make it inevitable. The realistic view is that it will only occur when the power of the class with an interest in preserving the profit system is broken by the power of another, stronger class, that aims to abolish it.

(1) http://www.middleclasspoliticaleconomist.com/2012/03/basics-real-wages-remain-below-their.html
(2) http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-card-data/average-credit-card-debt-household/
(3) http://www.propublica.org/special/government-bailouts
(4) http://www.multpl.com/us-gdp-growth-rate/table/by-year
(5) http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/12/14/389487/financial-sector-gdp-recession/
(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_companies_by_revenue
(7) http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?QueryId=21699

Dialectical materialism

May 26th, 2013
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Philosophy is unavoidable. Without it, you can’t interpret the world. Like a computer with no operating system, you can’t process input. If you say you don’t have a philosophy, what you mean is, you don’t think about your philosophy. Or you try to act randomly. But you have to see the world some way.

 

The philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism. The basic principle of dialectical materialism is: everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change.

 

As far back as 500 BC the Greek Heraclitus said “you could not step in the same river twice, for new water would be upon you.” But it wasn’t until the 19th century that science showed how general this principle is. Before then, people thought that animal and plant species were eternal; but the theory of evolution proved that they come, go, and change. Before then, people thought that the elements, like carbon, hydrogen, and so on, were separate and static; but scientists proved that the elements can be transformed into each other by the addition or subtraction of subatomic particles.

 

You don’t need a scientist to tell you, that everything that exists is changing. Everybody uses this understanding in their daily lives. If you have an orange today, you don’t count on having it in a month. Our own bodies change uninterruptedly.

 

Try to think of something that has a physical existence, but does not change. We all know that musical records become scratched and degraded over time, and likewise compact discs. But what about an mp3 stored electronically? That too exists in the real world. It is a collection of magnetic charges on a hard disk, subject to the effects of time.

 

Similarly, ideas physically exist in our brains, as neural connections and electro-chemical impulses. This material basis means that our ideas are always also changing, as neurons fail or are re-purposed, brain chemistry changes with age, new experiences cause us to consciously or unconsciously alter old thoughts, and so on. Anybody can recognize this because everybody knows what it is to forget something.

 

What does the basic principle, that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, tell us? Why is it useful?

 

The most fundamental law of classical logic is the law of identity, that A = A, an object equals itself. But if the object physically exists, then it is changing, and in fact it does not equal itself. The only way it could exactly equal itself, would be if it were considered in an instant, a zero of time, but all things that exist in the world exist in time.

 

You see immediately that dialectical logic has a different attitude than classical logic. While classical logic is designed for things without physical existence, metaphysical things that can be taken out of time, dialectical logic is oriented toward the materially existing universe.

 

Of course, A = A is not without value in the material world. We use it all the time. Without the ability to identify and categorize things, we’d be hopeless. But the question is, what do we mean when we say A = A. For instance, when we buy a pound of sugar, we recognize that the bag we are buying is not exactly one pound. It is not grain for grain identical to every other bag on the shelf. But it is more or less as good as any other pound bag. We think of them the same. A = A, not because they are actually equal, but because they are close enough.

 

A only equals A within certain limits. In other words, if too much sugar has leaked from the bag, we no longer forgive its variation from other bags. While classical logic operates with fixed abstractions: free market, a pound of sugar, etc., presuming that a free market is equal to a free market, a pound of sugar is equal to a pound of sugar, etc., dialectical materialism analyses all things in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions the critical limit beyond which A ceases to be A.

 

Taking as its starting point, the principle that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, dialectical materialism tries to develop ways of understanding this process of change, in general.

 

The reason dialectical materialism is called dialectical, is because the main pattern in change is called the dialectic. Its three components, called the Hegelian triad, are thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. These refer to a thing, an opposing thing, and a resolution. Basically, the dialectic recognizes that, while a metaphysical logical system does not permit contradictions, life is filled with oppositions that can be called “contradictions,” and that a natural course for change is in the resolution of these contradictions. Through interacting with opposites, things are changed, and eventually may not even remain opposites – that is what synthesis describes.

 

For example, say Jenny’s husband Rick has cheated on her, and she found out and is upset. At this point, from the viewpoint of classical logic, one might simply say, “Jenny has an unhappy marriage. Her husband is a cheater.” But dialectical materialism would see it differently. There is a contradiction between Jenny’s marriage to Rick and her expectation of what marriage means. This contradiction will resolve into a synthesis. Jenny will either divorce Rick, or she will forgive him, or she will learn to live with him without forgiving him. The synthesis will be a new relationship between the two. It is insufficient to simply say that Jenny has an unhappy marriage with Rick, because what Jenny and Rick have is a relationship that, like everything else, changes uninterruptedly.

 

Another pattern of change is the change of quantity into quality. This describes how quantitative changes sometimes cause qualitative changes. For instance, the temperature of water is a quantitative variable. Between 0 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius water remains water. But at 100 degrees Celsius, a qualitative change takes place – water boils and transforms into steam.

 

Evolution is another example of the change of quantity into quality. Through time, mutations may accumulate in a genome. At some point, these mutations become sufficient that the creature constitutes a new species. A quantitative variable, mutations, at a certain point causes a qualitative change, of species.

 

Dialectical materialism is the study of material things in their unceasing change. Its logic is the logic of change. Classical logic is useful for a snapshot, a static state, a zero of time. Dialectical materialism lets us see a motion picture.

 

Dialectical materialism is a philosophy and a form of logic, but these are only valuable in so far as they are a guide to action in the real world. Our brains subconsciously use dialectical materialism constantly. When we turn on the hot and cold taps in the shower at the same time, we understand that the opposites will synthesize to a desirable temperature. When we add items into a grocery bag, we know that at some point if we add more weight the bag will break. But what about conscious application of dialectical materialism to problems more complex than having a good shower?

 

The key idea of dialectical materialism is that life is a motion picture, not a photograph.

 

It is a common error, to look at an instant in time, and to consider that instant the true and eternal state of the universe. For instance, a white slaveholder in the US South in 1820 might have looked around, and decided that slavery would last forever. They would proceed to invent all kinds of rationalizations for why slavery must be – blacks are inferior and must be subjugated because they cannot run their own lives; it is impossible to produce cotton profitably without slave labor; blacks committed Biblical sin and God has decreed their servile status, and so on. These are falsehoods based on the false idea that what is, must be and always will be. Dialectical materialism would instead begin from the premise that the social relation of slavery is based on the material world, that its basis is in a state of uninterrupted change, and that it will change qualitatively at some point. The start would be to look at the social and economic contradictions – between slave and master, slave labor and free labor, the Imperial and colonized countries, the industrial north and the rural south, etc.

 

Another error is to take two things that, based on superficial characteristics and considered in an instant, appear similar, and say they are the same thing. In nature, numerous animals take advantage of this error, like octopi who make themselves appear as the ocean floor. The fish doesn’t realize the difference, gets too close, and is consumed. Too late it learns that things that look the same need not be the same.

 

A human example of this mistake: some political commentators in the 1930s thought that the USSR and Nazi Germany were the same thing – bureaucratic collectivism. They compiled lists of similar features, including secret police, state repression, state involvement in the economy, and non-elected leaders. The error is thinking that such a list is an actual argument. One can easily create these lists. For instance, one could say of France and the USSR in the 30s, that both were run by people calling themselves socialists, both were afraid of Hitler, and both had experienced revolutions overthrowing and executing their monarchs. But the question isn’t of lists of supposedly unchanging features, it is how to understand origin, significance, and direction. In other words, to understand what something is one has to understand it through time. Over time, the octopus is easy to distinguish from the ocean floor.

 

Dialectical questions to ask are: what is the historical origin? What is the material significance? What changes have occurred? What is the direction of the changes? Have the changes passed from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? How might they?

 

These questions can be asked of anything. In the case of the USSR and Nazi Germany, even the first one would start establishing the major differences between the countries – one born from a workers’ revolution, the other a power grab facilitated by the elite.

 

Dialectical materialism exposes errors that stem from an idealized and static world-view. It sees that everything is in flux, in process, multi-sided and dynamic. It does not provide a mystic master key to the universe – that is the realm of idealist metaphysics, not things existing in the real world. Rather, it provides a mental arsenal for interpretation and understanding, one that, like everything else, is not fixed, but changing, adapting to new circumstances and incorporating new information.