Sunshine Recorder

Link: Quite Likely the Worst Job Ever

In 19th century London “toshers” roamed the sewers, searching for items of value. Biggest danger was not disease or death by suffocation but attacks by sewer rats.

To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

Link: The Other Side of the Individualism of the 60s

This spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?

There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.

What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.

From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”

Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.

Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.

But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.

Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

Link: Stephen King: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!

I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar. It’s true that some rich folks put at least some of their tax savings into charitable contributions. My wife and I give away roughly $4 million a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (Jaws of Life tools are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts. Warren Buffett does the same; so does Bill Gates; so does Steven Spielberg; so do the Koch brothers; so did the late Steve Jobs. All fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry. […]

I guess some of this mad right-wing love comes from the idea that in America, anyone can become a Rich Guy if he just works hard and saves his pennies. Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay—in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.

This has to happen if America is to remain strong and true to its ideals. It’s a practical necessity and a moral imperative. Last year during the Occupy movement, the conservatives who oppose tax equality saw the first real ripples of discontent. Their response was either Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake”) or Ebenezer Scrooge (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”). Short-sighted, gentlemen. Very short-sighted. If this situation isn’t fairly addressed, last year’s protests will just be the beginning. Scrooge changed his tune after the ghosts visited him. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, lost her head.

Think about it.”

(Source: kateoplis, via chasewhiteside)

Link: IMF economist: Crisis Begins with Inequality

Unless countries reduce income disparities the next financial collapse is inevitable, argues economist Michael Kumhof. Perhaps a surprising conclusion from a senior researcher at the IMF. In interview he argues that equality is the best recipe against crisis.

International Monetary Fund rescue packages are usually associated with “structural adjustment”, privatisation and liberalisation. But IMF economist Michael Kumhof’s recipe for avoiding crunches is increased equality – a conclusion that has brought him worldwide attention.

Kumhof considers the cause of the financial crisis in 2008 and the debt crisis in 2011 to be increased inequality, especially in the United States. He has argued that in order to avert future crises, the negotiating position of the majority vis-à-vis the very rich needs to be strengthened. “I bet you’ve never heard an IMF economist call for increased salaries before. This is highly controversial”, he says. But for an economist with hands-on experience in corporate banking who is vexed by economists who fail to anchor their theories sufficiently in the way the world actually works, it makes perfect sense.

In a article co-written with Romain Rancière in 2010,[1] Kumhof argues that increased gaps in income have led to increased household debt ratios. Nations with major income disparities tend to have the highest debt quotas, the largest financial sectors and often the biggest trade deficits. The richest five per cent of the population lends parts of its wealth to the remaining 95 per cent via an inflated financial sector. The rich try to find ways to invest their surplus wealth, while the less well-off majority attempt to maintain the level of consumption they have grown used to but no longer can afford. The result is increased indebtedness and the gradual build-up of a debt crisis. The only way of sustainably minimizing this debt is to reduce income inequality.

Kumhof comes across as your typical theoretical economist. A former assistant professor at Stanford, he currently holds the position Deputy Division Chief of the IMF Modelling Unit, the department responsible for developing economic models. Consequently, he is cautious when commenting on issues that may be politically charged. Well aware that he is representing the IMF, he avoids discussion of developments in specific countries. Nor does he suggest concrete measures to lessen inequality. This is a task for tax experts, he says.

Nevertheless, he has arrived at a conclusion that contrasts with everything that the IMF has previously been associated with. His message is simple: if income gaps are not reduced, the next crisis will happen as surely as autumn follows summer.

Link: The Weakening of Nations: How Tax Work-Arounds Undermine Our Society

Loopholes, poor regulations, and off-shore havens allow corporations and the very wealthy to draw on the benefits of a strong nation-state without fully paying back in, eroding a system that’s less tested than we might think.

Millions of dollars of Mitt Romney’s personal wealth have been recently tied to bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean UK territory with decent SCUBA diving and spectacular don’t-ask-don’t-tell banking regulations. The Romney campaign protests, weakly yet amusingly, that “the accounts provide no tax advantage to American investors like Romney” but are there purely for the convenience of foreign investors who might wish to invest in Bain Capital without the “entanglements” of the United States tax system. Either way, a portion of Romney’s considerable wealth is parked where it isn’t subject to the same taxation that the average citizen experiences.

Romney’s situation is actually quite typical for a man in his societal position. He has enough money to make himself attractive to a variety of financial odd-duck “nations” around the world who would be more than pleased to “host” his wealth in exchange for the occasional transaction fee, without pestering him about financing their schools, healthcare, roads, war, or any of the annoying trappings of civilization. The question remains — is that moral? Isn’t Mitt Romney a citizen of a particularly large nation-state already? Does he not owe that nation-state taxes, given that he is such prominent citizen that he may actually be elected president of the place? What is going on here?

It seems that the concept of the nation-state itself is becoming a very pliant one for certain actors in society, be they corporations or the very wealthy. The fact is, nations only function because the majority of its citizens believe that their responsibilities to that nation are fixed and immutable, on everything from taxes to dying in war. If we don’t make very clear distinctions as to who owes whom what in this world, the relative stability we’ve come to enjoy in the international system may give way to illegitimacy and, ultimately, chaos.

Link: Philanthropy is the Enemy of Justice

It’s strange that at this week’s World Economic Forum the designated voice of the world’s poor has been Bill Gates, who has pledged £478m to the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, telling Davos that the world economic crisis was no excuse for cutting aid.

It reminds me of that dark hour when Al Gore, despite being a shareholder in Occidental Petroleum, was the voice of climate change action – because Gates does not speak with the voice of the world’s poor, of course, but with the voice of its rich. It’s a loud voice, but the model of development it proclaims is the wrong one because philanthropy is the enemy of justice.

Am I saying that philanthropy has never done good? No, it has achieved many wonderful things. Would I rather people didn’t have polio vaccines than get them from a plutocrat? No, give them the vaccines. But beware the havoc that power without oversight and democratic control can wreak.

Free marketeers will spring to the defence of billionaire philanthropists with a remark like: “Oh, so you’d rather they spent all their money selfishly on golf courses and mansions, would you?” To which I reply: “Oh, you mean that trickle-down doesn’t work, after all?” But the point is that the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Link: Darwin’s Psychology

Social Darwinists are wrong and Darwin was right about human nature.

Today, we refer to wealthy capitalists as the “job creators.” We are told that the rich deserve their wealth, because they have earned it in the competitive “free market.” The unemployed and the poor, on the other hand, have failed to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to them.  Their hardship is their own fault. Thus, Newt Gingrich tells us: “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing.” (Evidently, searching for a job, the only way to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, doesn’t count.)  President Obama, in his recent Osawatomie speech, characterized it as “‘you’re on your own’ economics ….We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”

With Social Darwinist rhetoric, and policy proposals, being much in evidence these days in the Republican Presidential debates and in Congress, we should try to set the record straight about Darwin.  In fact, Darwin’s Darwinism was radically opposed to an individualistic, “nature, red in tooth and claw” political ideology (as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described it), especially in social species like honeybees and humankind.  In his treatise on human evolution, The Descent of Man, published twelve years after The Origin of Species, Darwin recognized that humans evolved in interdependent cooperative groups, not as isolated individuals, and that cooperation was the key to our success.

The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom,especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: “You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation ans spiritual suicide: in the poor, envy and murder. For they all have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air. Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous beliefs are thus fostered. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honor and human feeling are sacrificed. Men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy these desires. We see the same thing among those who are not rich for the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkenness.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (via sunrec)
The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom,especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: “You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation ans spiritual suicide: in the poor, envy and murder. For they all have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air. Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous beliefs are thus fostered. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honor and human feeling are sacrificed. Men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy these desires. We see the same thing among those who are not rich for the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkenness.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov