academia | advice | alcohol | American Indians | architecture | art | artificial intelligence | Barnard | best | biography | bitcoin | blogging | broken umbrellas | candide | censorship | children's books | Columbia | comics | consciousness | cooking | crime | criticism | dance | data analysis | design | dishonesty | economics | education | energy | epistemology | error correction | essays | family | fashion | finance | food | foreign policy | futurism | games | gender | Georgia | health | history | inspiration | intellectual property | Israel | journalism | Judaism | labor | language | law | leadership | letters | literature | management | marketing | memoir | movies | music | mystery | mythology | New Mexico | New York | parenting | philosophy | photography | podcast | poetry | politics | prediction | product | productivity | programming | psychology | public transportation | publishing | puzzles | race | reading | recommendation | religion | reputation | review | RSI | Russia | sci-fi | science | sex | short stories | social justice | social media | sports | startups | statistics | teaching | technology | Texas | theater | translation | travel | trivia | tv | typography | unreliable narrators | video | video games | violence | war | weather | wordplay | writing

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Socialism vs. capitalism

A friend of mine is the child of Sandinistas; Castro specifically asked his mother how her baby was doing when she first met him. His father was tortured by the Brazilian right wing regime in the 70s (do I have that timeline right? Around then.)

He's been very disillusioned. He's considered a political enemy of the Ortega government in Nica, and has to keep a low profile sometimes. (It's nothing like it is in Venezuela; he just worries he might get ticketed or pushed around if he's recognized in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

But, he still considers himself a socialist.

I mean, I'm still a capitalist even though I've seen plenty of corporations turn decent people into fraudsters and poisoners of children, and reward whoever is willing to exploit human decency the most mercilessly (like most Trump businesses have).

It's heartbreaking to see the promise of socialism and capitalism both degraded by the likes of the Reagans, Kissingers, Chavezes, Castros, Trump's and Goldman Sachses.

I don't think all of these are morally equivalent. But I think it's revealing to look past our assumptions and try to see them with fresh eyes.

One really useful question, I think, is to ask what we include, and don't include, when we're measuring the morality or goodness of a person or thing. If a Chavez supporter beats someone up, or a political appointee under him puts a small business out of business to protect a politically obedient rival, do we include that in our assessment of Chavez's badness?

What about when a Goldman investment knowingly breaks the law because they know they can get away with it, and puts a rival out of business? Or buys the compliance of the EPA in letting them emit poisons?

Having worked on Wall St., I came away with the sense that Goldman is just as much a creation of regulatory capture and corrupt purchasing of favorable policy, as it is a creature of the market.

That is, much of the human energy that goes into its work is well intentioned from a market standpoint; but capitalism incentivizes the use of money to distort policy so as to twist the market's legal environment against rivals and against the limits of natural law (e.g., making it legal to steal and to kill if you do it the right way), and so decent impulses are pushed towards immorality, while surface appearances, rhetoric and stories are used to create a vital illusion of clean, decent free enterprise.

Another way of looking at this: if you had to personally beat up a union organizer in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to buy other sneakers. And if a sneaker company, or the bank or ETF that provides them capital, made you too aware of their beating up union organizers in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to do business with other companies.

Whereas if there are a bunch of financial intermediaries, complex partial ownership, regulations that explicitly incentivize lying about beating people up, regulations that make it the norm to invest without regard to beating people up, and a system of well funded think tanks and podcasts that construct a stream of political memes that obscure and deflect from the beating people up, you'll buy the sneakers after all.

It's not that you think the beating people up never happens, but it seems distant, it seems like the exception not the rule, you seldom hear human level detail on it, and your relationship to it is circuitous and impersonal. It's certainly not something you think you, or Goldman Sachs, or Ronal Reagan need to answer for.

All of that is by design; it's the way the beating people up, which is very profitable, stays profitable.

There's also a lot of truth to the stories about capitalism being freeing, and a lot of truth about socialism being a constraint on freedom! That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion, by letting the world's most powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if GS is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly their fault, right? If they could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their third world activism, they totally would, right? And who's to say that their being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

Similarly, having spoken with people loyal to the Ortega regime, I think there is a tremendous amount of work that happens in autocratic socialist countries to construct fiercely held illusions about the ultimate morality of the system. They might hear about an opponent of the regime being arrested and imprisoned; but they won't hear that without a slew of obscuring and disorienting "complications", like kompromat, sex scandals, allegations of espionage, tax dodging, etc.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren are taught that capitalistic imperialism is the reason for just about every societal ill, and that the leadership of veterans of the socialist revolution is brave, difficult, heroic, vital for the nation. Having a distinct enemy feels clarifying, and helps dispel people's doubts and grumbling about the regime; much like George W. Bush, unquestionably an incompetent and thieving tool, rose to an 80% approval rating after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks.

And, of course, it helps that the US really did fund and equip death squads in Nicaragua, did support the right wing dictator in the 70's, did lie even to the American public, and break federal law, in funding the Contras. They really did help violently overthrow the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and help the right wing there murder tens of thousands, including murdering people in Washington, D.C. They really did look the other way when the right wing militias they helped arm in El Salvador and Haiti raped, murdered, and pillaged, including even raping and murdering nuns.

That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion of socialism's righteousness, by letting a powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if Ortega is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly his fault, right? If he could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their activism, he totally would, right? And who's to say that his being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

One last thought: if you're like me, you think that climate change, pollution and an arms race of autonomous military AI bots are existential threats to humanity; it's not hard to imagine scenarios where any of those three catastrophically destroy human life in the next 500 years. The morality of those forces dwarfs most other moral questions.

If indeed those threaten humanity, how much power does Ortega or Nicolás Maduro have to stop them? How much power does Goldman Sachs?

Labels: , , , ,