Puerto Rico, a territory of three-and-a-half million US citizens, is unplugged, de-sheltered and desperate for months to come. This tiny little island in the Caribbean, with more people than the Dakotas, Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont ...
Puerto Rico, a territory of three-and-a-half million US citizens, is unplugged, de-sheltered and desperate for months to come. This tiny little island in the Caribbean, with more people than the Dakotas, Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont combined, now sits in the dark: lights out, refrigeration, too; hospitals closed; food crops destroyed; communication systems collapsed. In a fully foreseeable crisis, some combination of forces seems to have chosen unreadiness as the first response.
It’s a man-made pattern of history that turns storms into unnatural disasters — empire, money and power sorting out who lives, who dies, and who pays for the destabilization of the human habitat. A succinct and dignified case against the unfairness of this picture has been laid out before the United Nations by Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of tiny Dominica. His island and his own home were smashed to bits by Hurricane Maria.
Stuart Schwartz at Yale is our historian of the 500-year interaction of weather and people in the Caribbean. His remarkable book, Sea of Storms, revealsthe various ways massive tropical storms haven been interpreted throughout the ages. The European Christians who got to the West Indies in the 16th Century had never seen such weather before: and read it, first, as God’s hand, then as whimsical Nature; eventually as human failure.
Kumi Naidoo is a global activist from South Africa who sees the fight for environmental justice as a natural extension of his own anti-apartheid struggles as a teenager. A former Rhodes scholar, Kumi Nadioo’s activist path led him from Durban to Oxford to Amsterdam where he served as the first African executive director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to 2015.
Roy Scranton came back from his Army service in Iraq with a grim take on the war. It’s our condition now, he says, that we are moments away from death, all day every day, and we know it. After Iraq, Roy Scranton earned a Ph.D. in Literature at Princeton and wrote two books that have made waves: first the novel War Porn, and then an extended essay titled: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. He invited us this week to meditate on our fear that it’s “game over, ” not for the human species necessarily, but “over” as it was for the Sumerians or the Aztecs once upon a time. Climate change has sealed our collective fate.
The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat closes out the program with a poem and few words on the continuing crisis in the Caribbean. You can listen here, too:
This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; ...
This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; instead the wedge issues are tolerance, territory, immigration, constitutional rights, political (and factual) correctness. Why is that?
There are a lot of theories bouncing around this week, and we imagine them all overlooked by John Maynard Keynes, the economic wizard behind the Bretton Woods world order and the boom years between 1930 and 1970. He may have been the last genius of economics who also understood human life, in all its excesses and “animal spirits.” What would his keen mind have brought to a moment with so much ambiguity?
1. We’re on the comeback.
Harwood argued last Thursday that the lukewarm economy gives neither side an advantage: the Obama recovery was neither strong enough to gloat over nor weak enough to attack.
But early this week, a Census survey of economic indicators revealed that in fact, 2015 looked like a historic uptick: median household income rose 5.2%, the biggest jump since 1967. 3.5 million Americans climbed out of poverty; unemployment dropped to 4.9%, half its post-crash high. All three stock indexes have hit record highs, and more than half of Americans say the economy seems “good”—there’s genuine relief in the air.
2. But we’re still a long way from “morning in America.”
Yet 60% of Americans still think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The median wage may be up this year, but it’s still below its balmy 1999 high. The body is recovering, but the collective psychology is still anxious and depressed. When people look in their wallets—or toward their futures—they feel shortchanged and blame Washington.
Our guest, the protest journalist Sarah Jaffe, calls attention to the people who are really still feeling the squeeze—of anti-Keynesian austerity and casino capitalism, for example—in her new book, Necessary Trouble. It’s a chronicle of people on the march against punitive student debt, foreclosures, and slashed public budgets—and for moving the conversation forward.
Protestors in the Wisconsin State House in Madison, 2011 (Andy Manis/AP).
3. Growth may be ending.
Heavy-hitting economists like Larry Summers have started to worry aloud about “secular stagnation”: a period in which growth itself may slow—or stop—in our Energizer-bunny economy. What would that mean for the American dream, which depends on rising wages buying more and better goods at cheaper prices?
4. But our minds are changing, too.
A radical shift that the new bipartisan consensus emerging in the candidates: that signing onto NAFTA, letting infrastructure languish, and cutting spending was a mistake—in short, that the government still has a stimulating role to play in the American economy.
To make the case, our good friend Mark Blyth—the Brown University political economist whose magisterial book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idealowered the hammer on the false promise of cut budgets. Mike Konczal, one of the big-thinking financial reformers and fellows at the Roosevelt Institute, will make the case that this fraught election might be concealing a new and healthy economic consensus.
Finally, Lord Robert Skidelsky paints us a portrait of Keynes himself, as a cosmopolitan elite who nonetheless empathized with those out of work and on the dole. Keynes is the kind of economist we wish we still had around, offering not only timely economic prescriptions (extend global financial regulation, double down on government infrastructure spending, experiment with basic income plans), but also a model—of a holistic, cross-disciplinary, concerned mind:
The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.
This year’s American electoral shakeup sends us looking for deeper economic tremors. Unemployment is down to 4.9%, even as discouraged workers are reentering the market and the average hourly wage rose 7 cents. “More good ...
This year’s American electoral shakeup sends us looking for deeper economic tremors. Unemployment is down to 4.9%, even as discouraged workers are reentering the market and the average hourly wage rose 7 cents. “More good news,” says The Atlantic.
But retail spending and consumer confidence remain low — as if the recovery were less solid than it appears.
Our guest, the journalist and reader Paul Mason, has a thought. He looks at the present Western economy — defined by global trade, bygone unions, knowledge work, and high finance, of Davos, TED Talks, and creative disruption — and finds a glitch, a transitional crisis long in arriving.
Can our global system keep going without a reworking for the Internet age? Or is Mason’s “post-capitalism” an idea whose time has come?
The Tom Frank take
In preparation for this week’s show, we spoke with Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or What Happened to the Party of thePeople.He points to the Clinton era as neoliberalism’s crystallizing moment:
Americans spend more time working than doing anything else, and more than almost any other developed economy. A pre-crash study by the International Labor Organization found that we worked 137 hours more per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, almost 500 more than the leisure-loving French. And 86% of American men and 67% of women — sons and daughters of the union movement — work more than the union-preferred 40 hours a week.
With all that in mind, we asked Barbara Ehrenreich to give us a status update. Ehrenreich dove into the hidden world of the working poor as a worker in her bestselling 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed. Her subjects and colleagues — waitresses, washers, and Wal-Mart greeters — endured a special set of difficulties: searches by bosses, backstabbing by coworkers, drug tests, late nights, and wage theft after long hours.
After the recession, Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to keep up the work of reporting on the things working people don’t get a chance to say in the halls of power. The project was prompted by Ehrenreich’s realization that the precarious working lives she witnessed in 1998 and ’99 were subject to new efficiencies. For example:
We’re seeing a degradation in even the notion of what a job is. Fifteen years ago I could go looking for jobs and find them pretty easily, because there was a lot of hiring going on then. And there was an expectation that a job was something like 40 hours a week in return for pay… [That’s] gone. People now, like at Wal-Mart, are struggling to get 30 hours a week. The trend is more part-time people, and no guarantee that you’ll make a living. And then one step beyond that, there’s the new emphasis by employers on just-in-time hiring. Meaning, they’re not going to offer you a job and say, “We’re going to give you thirty hours a week, show up at this time, et cetera.” They’re going to say, “We’ll call you when we need you.” That may mean you have three hours of work one week, twenty hours the next week. You can’t plan your childcare — you can’t do anything — because you’re waiting for the phone call.
Fewer employers are offering any of the accoutrements that went with a job in the old days: 40 hours of work a week, maybe you have benefits. That’s all pretty much deteriorating. The white-collar example of this would be something like TaskRabbit. You get a job to hang somebody’s curtains for them, you do that in an hour, you’re out of there, you’re paid for that, and you see if you get another gig.
When we asked her what sort of solution the working class needed — FDR’s remaking ambition, LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” or more Obama moderation — she scoffed. “You know what that list leaves out? The actual workers. We have too many economic discussions in this country that consist entirely of lawyers and professorial types, talking about this as if it were a foreign country.”
Our World, At Work
With that in mind, we asked people outside our office to rate their job from one to ten. And we looked to our local labor force — caretakers, housecleaners, food vendors, office workers on break, and others — to give us their report: are they happy in their work? what’s hard about it? and are they getting by? Dozens of interviews later, we’ve learned workers may confess to be frustrated, underpaid or spiritually malnourished, but they almost all say they’re just happy to have a job and the satisfactions that go with it:
Sandra Lee is a personal care attendant in Brighton, Mass. She’s seen with her “consumer,” Olivia Richard, who has paraplegia.
I see Olivia every morning from 9 o’clock to whenever I’m done. I got eight daughters, so she’s like my ninth daughter… I take care of Olivia with her bathing, from top to bottom, to rolling over, to you know what I’m talking about. And some people can’t do that. But for me, I’ve been doing this all my life.
Chris is an Italian-slush salesman in Codman Square, Boston.
They’re Richie’s Italian slushies. They’ve been around for years — decades now. Everybody loves them…
It feels great working for myself. Some days aren’t always good. You take a lot of losses. Some days you take wins. But it’s definitely a good feeling. I eat it every day, man. I’m addicted to it. That’s my problem. That’s why I sell them. Richie’s Italian slush: stand by it.
Marina is a software developer in downtown Boston, seen here on her lunch break.
It’s a lot of code. I got lucky in this way: the profession that I chose, all those years ago, is so popular now. I just liked it. I like to build things, I like to put together stuff and see how it comes alive and begins working. And I like abstractions, I think.
Cee is a barber at Everything is Real Barbershop in Roxbury, Mass.
It takes a thousand hours to be a barber. It’s not hard work, but you gotta love what you do, you know. If you love what you do, it’s not hard work, you have fun doing it… Not only are we barbers, we’re therapists.
Sometimes a person comes in and they not feeling good. Maybe they got stuff on their mind, so as you cut their hair you talk to them, you try to, you know, give them some positive insight, and as you’re refining them mentally, you’re also refining them mentally.
Of course everything’s hard, but that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment in it. So it’s almost a yin-yang situation. I got five children — I take care of them all by myself.
Ji-Min Park is a jazz pianist at Berklee College of Music:
I basically play this little piano here every week: Wednesday. I’ve been playing music almost fifteen years. I started with classical piano and then I changed to jazz.
I know in every job, it’s really hard to make money, but especially the musicians — it’s really hard. There’s a lot of musicians, so it’s like a war.
Ehrenreich knows that optimistic American consumers, especially in the middle and upper classes, don’t think about “economic hardships” until they see them under the right Dickensian light.
We knew, from EHRP reporting, that workers at Amazon “fulfillment centers” were underpaid and (until recently) overheated. What was a sensation, again, when the New York Timesreported that the woes of the warehouses had spread to the corporate offices of Amazon, where managers are surveilled and snitched on, summoned in the middle of the night, and end up crying at their desks. Amazon, now the country’s biggest retailer, is building new offices, above, with room for 50,000 workers.
We turned to Nikil Saval, editor of n + 1 and author of the wonderful social history Cubed:A Secret History of the Workplace. Saval reminded us that this isn’t news — Amazon is the office for the age of disruption, and the product of more than a century of history.
His story begins with clerks on Wall Street in the age of “Bartleby, The Scrivener” (the first office worker to go on strike!) and the management theorist Frederick Taylor. There’s a long history to make the office both productive for the bosses and seductive for the workers — just as Amazon’s emphasis on efficiency contrasts with Google’s ping-pong tables and multicolored bikes.
When it comes to the politics of work in America, the times, they are a-changing. Scott Walker overtook Wisconsin, the one-time capital of organized labor, with a divide-and-conquer strategy — now he’s chasing votes on an anti-union platform. Bernie Sanders, once ...
We’ll begin a three-part series, produced in partnership with The Nation, on the state of work in America today with a little history. It’s a contradictory story of a century marked by incredible change, of a great boom and then a slow bust of labor power that brings the story current and into the presidential campaign of 2016.
In 1900, a railway fireman turned organizer and politician named Eugene Debs — the hero of Bernie Sanders’ youth — looked out at his country and declared: “Promising, indeed, is the outlook for Socialism in the United States… No sane man can be satisfied with the present system.”
When Debs was writing, 10 percent of Americans owned 75% of the wealth. (That number is back up to around 76% and rising now.) The average annual wage was $438 (about $12,000 in today’s dollars), the industrial work week ran almost to 60 hours, and child labor was still a fact on factory floors.
So individual workers and craft unions combined to form groups like the Congress of Industrial Organizations and American Federation of Labor which organized sit-down strikes and boycotts and nonstop political pressure. Debs himself would go on to win almost a million votes for president at the top of a socialist ticket — against war and for workers’ rights. In short, throughout the 20th century, organized labor — and worker protest — was a central feature of American life.
The question, then: what happened — between Roosevelt and Reagan, between the UAW and Uber?
Our guide, the historian Steve Fraser, presents an important version of that history in his new book, The Age of Acquiescence. It’s the story of a resistance movement to the market’s hard edge that collapsed under attacks and also under its own success. It was a populist politics that was caught up and co-opted by the institutional Democratic Party, and recast as consumer freedom — the liberty to buy — that replaced collective political action.
Underneath the story of the collapse of the American labor union there’s a pressing story for today about what work means in this country — then and now — and how our politics makes room, or doesn’t, for the people who wait tables, clean, cook, and take care of children and the elderly. It’s a story full of surprises and twists and lessons for the bosses and the laborers who still power our economy, and always will.
This show begins a three-part series about American work: what it is, what it could be, and where we’re all going together. Let us know what you make of your own work, how you look at labor unions in 2015, and what you’d go on strike for.
The Story So Far
Here’s a timeline of the capsule history of the rise and fall of organized labor in America over almost 150 years:
But Steve Fraser’s history goes beyond the highlights to include more than a few surprising turns — here are five of our favorites.
1. FDR bailed out American capitalism.
Steve Fraser reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt, even as he won the hatred of the plutocrats, conceived of the New Deal as a way to civilize — and save — a capitalist system in what appeared to be its “terminal crisis.” The New Deal brought corrective changes long favored by labor unions, including outlawing child labor, imposing mandatory wage and hour laws and safety regulations, establishing affordable tenement housing and promoting public health.
From this time forward , all criticisms of capitalism from the left, no matter how militantly or defensively expressed, accepted the underlying framework of civilized capitalism installed by the New Deal. If that system failed to deliver the goods, so to speak, or violated the newly established elementary rights of working people, then it should be called to account. But not otherwise.
It was in the post-Deal context that Walter Reuther of the UAW, pioneer of the sit-down strike in the 1930s, signed the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors management: trading the right to strike and bargain over some issues for pensions and other employee benefits.
2. The McCarthy era contaminated our vocabulary.
When asked about the first great defeat of organized labor in America, Fraser doesn’t point to a failed strike or a single piece of legislation. He points to the McCarthy years. It wasn’t just public service but public language that was purged: there would be no more talk of “wage-slaves” or “plutocrats,” even of “capitalism.” A 1955 Army pamphlet on spotting communists advises that communists might use phrases like:
“McCarthyism,” violation of civil rights, racial or religious discrimination, immigration laws, anti-subversive legislation, any legislation concerning labor unions, the military budget, “peace.”
When Walt Disney testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he identified suspected communists among his workers and insisted that the Bolsheviks had “really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of Communism.”
Disney’s instinct — to keep the unions ‘clean’ — involved what Fraser calls broad “linguistic cleansing.” (There’s a reason it took more than 60 years for a presidential candidate to speak of socialism in America!)
3. We forgot pre-capitalism.
Many have asked why America never experienced successful capital-S Socialism. Fraser’s interested in a different question: how do you account for the rich tradition of American anti-capitalism, from communes to self-sufficiency and rural gift economies?
Fraser says the age of resistance had essentially foreign, pre-modern roots — a perspective that saw quantified, appropriated wage-slavery as heartless: “not as civilization, but as anti-civilization”:
People back then, because they knew other ways of life other than industrial capitalism — they had come from a handicraft backgrounds, or were peasants from southern and eastern Europe: they knew there were other ways of living, not that they glorified those ways, but they knew there were alternatives to the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism, which offended them and was driving them out of social existence.
Those people were still hunting and fishing. They had their own garden plots or their own workshops or small businesses. They could still imagine alternatives to capitalism. And I think by the mid-twentieth century that recedes into an almost unremembered past. We had left that kind of of life. There are no more roots that take us back there.
Ronald Reagan — whom the union had endorsed over Jimmy Carter — was the first and only president to have served in a union: the Screen Actors Guild. But on the day the PATCO strike began, it was Reagan who stood in the Rose Garden and invoked a precedent set by Calvin Coolidge in 1919, forbidding public-sector strikes against the public safety. He issued an ultimatum, demanding that air-traffic controllers return to the job. Two days later, he followed through: firing the stragglers and banning them from work in federal government.
But Fraser tells a more complicated story: he says that this last great anti-union slide began under Carter, whom he considers “the first neoliberal president.”
In this week’s podcast, you can hear Carter trumpeting his widespread deregulation of sectors of the American economy. And the speechwriter and Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum defected from the Carter campaign when he heard Carter, in private, back off public pledges for black-lung relief, saying of victims “they chose to be miners.” (FWIW: Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, published a 1977 story in The Atlanticdescribing Carter as a “Rockefeller Republican.”)
5. The unions go exclusive, and the culture goes consumer.
No longer the emancipation organizations of the 1930s, late-phase labor unions turn into what Fraser and others call “private welfare states,” determined to serve their members but all the while representing a shrinking portion of the American workforce. Fraser traces a union retreat beginning in the 1950s, with agreements like the Treaty of Detroit:
The decision was, “We’re not to fight for the welfare state generally, but to fight for it in our industry.” And they won that battle, in the electrical industry and so on: great long-term contracts, cost-of-living escalators, wage increases, vacations — all of that.
This was about private welfare states. And what that meant in the long term was they were cutting themselves off to unorganized workers: that is to say, agricultural workers, black workers in the South… domestic workers, retail and service-sector workers… They [gave] up that much more challenging crusade for the entire working class.
Meanwhile, consumption set in as the new cardinal behavior of the American public — hence the advertising drive to ask the audience to “look for the union label” while out shopping. Together, the two trends represent a turn against the “freedom” felt by a successful striker — of collective strength aimed, successfully, at a common goal. Today, Fraser concludes with a sigh, Americans find ourselves in a more atomized political environment — a “source of acquiescence” to inequality today.
On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its ...
On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its European creditors. The night of the vote ended in celebrations in Athens’ central Syntagma Square.
But just before showtime on Thursday night, the story shifted with a jolt: after much posturing, Tsipras and the Greek delegation capitulated to many of their creditors’ demands in hopes of staying in the Euro. Syriza’s turn from defiance to compliance may leave the millions of “no” voters — part of what our guest Richard Parker calls a global “neglectorate” — feeling more discouraged than ever before. But it remains to be seen how the Greece situation will shake out.
Mark Blyth wasn’t so convinced that what looked like a final surrender of the radical left in Greece was anything more than one more kick of the can down the road of untenable austerity economics in Europe — one headed for a ‘breakdown’:
I think I recall looking at the BBC website yesterday and happening upon a link that said, “June 23: Greeks at final last stop.” And here we are again. So a proposal has been submitted, which seems to be a bit of capitulation, but it hasn’t been accepted yet. And there has to be the other side of that trade: are they going to get anything back? Because if not, we’re simply doing a rerun of where we were before we had the referendum. And if that’s the case, then there’s going to be a breakdown. We’ve had a situation where the European Central Bank has been squeezing the Greek banks to make sure that by Friday, everyone’s sufficiently freaked out to have them sign whatever they want. But that’s exactly the type of tactics that backfired and brought 61% of people out to vote no. So I’m far from convinced that we’re at the end of the road…
It’s very similar to the Scottish independence referendum. Let me tell you why. If you break this down, the really dramatic thing is the way the different age groups voted. So I saw a poll for Greece, 12 hours before they actually took the vote. 71% of people under 35 were going to vote no. So all the older people are gonna vote yes. The exact same thing happened when they took the Scottish referendum — why? If you’re old, and you’ve got a lot of assets, you don’t want uncertainty over those assets. You don’t want your nice Euro-denominated house to suddenly be new drachmas. If, however, you’ve been through hell and back over the past five years — you’re asset-negative, you’re up to your eyes in debt, and you’re unemployed — asset uncertainty is somebody else’s problem. I’m going to vote no. You have this generational split on top of lots of different asset splits, and that’s the way this worked out.
We do know that those young Greeks are the ones want out of an economic dive as long and painful as our Great Depression. Watch the six-year change in unemployment: in America, 1929 to 1934, versus Greece, 2009 – 2015.
In March 1933, four years into the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt signed the first unemployment relief legislation through “useful public work.” No such luck in Greece: in the poorest Athenian neighborhoods, joblessness has topped 60% this year, and last year at least 1 in 10 Greek children was suffering food insecurity. Hundreds of thousands of well-educated Greeks have left the country, and the future seems to hold only more misery.
Our guest Mark Blyth declared in January that we’re watching the all-but-Homeric battle of austerity and democracy on the southern edge of the Eurozone, where deep budget cuts have become the only possible solution to economic shock. Blyth and our guest, the translator and Europe-watcher Arthur Goldhammer, are concerned about the blowback of EU overreach — not on the left but on the right:
For those who fear Syriza and its left-wing counterparts, it is worth looking at the alternatives on the radical right. From Britain to Hungary, political parties—whose ideology spans the spectrum from the explicitly Nazi (the Golden Dawn in Greece) to the nationalist–populist (the United Kingdom Independence Party and the French National Front)—are busy working to channel public anger in a different direction. Harkening back to Europe’s darkest days, they translate negotiable conflicts over economic policy into non-negotiable conflicts over ethnic identity. They attack European integration even more than the left-wing parties, question the democratic rights of existing citizens, and fan the flames of xenophobia toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. If Europe’s ruling elites want to save the European project, and the Euro at the heart of it, they need to start actively engaging with democratic left-wing parties such as Syriza and Podemos rather than shunning them. If they don’t, they will drive some of these parties into volatile left–right alliances, or, if they fail in their mandates, leave the stage open to political forces whose goals will be far more radical than mere debt restructuring and opposition to austerity.
And Richard Parker— a sage of politics at home and abroad, who once advised George Papandreou and his PASOK party — offers a diagnosis of global democracy: big, bruising institutions, public and private, have created an international “neglectorate” that’s mad as hell and in resistance. Parker hears that voice in on the left and the right, in the Greek no! and the Irish yes! to same-sex marriage, and in the rise of political outsiders sounding the alarm here in America — from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
The last piece of tape we have to Ingrid Rowland, an American art historian based in Rome and a prolific contributor to The New York Review of Books. She told us of a striking performance of Aeschylus’ early drama, The Suppliants, in the ancient Greek theater at Syracuse in Sicily. It seemed to speak to every corner of the European questions at issue: migration, debt, welcome and power. Here’s a trailer for that play:
Tell us: what do you make of the Greek decision to vote “no”? Were you surprised at the decision to sign on to the austerity package after all? what’s up ahead for embattled Europe? Do you feel neglected, and what referendum would you have us all vote yes/no on: bank bailouts, fossil fuels, drones, etc.?
It’s graduation time in Boston, and the Class of 2015 is asking “Now what?” If our young ones need help choosing, the market is back and ready to nudge them toward a gilded path. A new survey ...
It’s graduation time in Boston, and the Class of 2015 is asking “Now what?” If our young ones need help choosing, the market is back and ready to nudge them toward a gilded path. A new survey of Harvard seniors says that, after a dip in money jobs, fully a third of them will go to work in consulting or finance this year.
This week, we dared to enter the market for grad wisdom, rounding up a justice thinker, an historian, an entrepreneur, and a novelist to offer some last-minute commencement advice — and the latest installment in our capitalism series.
Harvard’s own rockstar philosopher Michael Sandel said that the high-dollar scramble for young minds is part of a phenomenon he sees the world over. What used to be a market economy has morphed and spread over 30 years into a market way of everything:
Because we fear the disagreement, the controversy that would result from engaging in that kind of that debate, because we worry about the majority coercing or imposing on the minority their values, we reach for what seems to be a neutral way of deciding hard public questions. Markets and market thinking have played that role, I think, mistakenly. The result is we have a kind of emptiness, a void, in public discourse and people everywhere are frustrated about it.
How did a nation of yeoman farmers and proud producers financialize its economy, and then its civics and its morality? Our historian of capitalism, Julia Ott, said that the process began in World War I when the Woodrow Wilson, desperate “to demonstrate the consent of the American population towards the war effort,” became bond salesman to the nation. War bonds and war savings campaigns encouraged Americans to see “the ownership of federal debt as a way of demonstrating that they not only support the war, but that they support a democracy, they support the foundational principle of private property rights.”
What stays with us for the rest of the 20th century and up until today are the ideas that property ownership are fundamental to American citizenship, that financial securities markets play a handmaiden to the realization of that goal, whether it’s through your 401k plan or through your house which you need a mortgage for.
Entrepreneur Semyon Dukach arrived from Russia celebrating those principles of American financial capitalism. Dukach told us he sees (and lived) the greed, but it’s trumped by good old fashioned business ethics.
Customer-first ethics seems a thin substitute for a morality, though. And what of the older, pre-commercial American values? Novelist Marilynne Robinson said they’ve been crowded out and replaced by “this weird, ideologized ‘capitalism,’ which is not a phrase that ever occurs in our early literature.”
…The word “value” has been narrowed in its meaning so that it sort of means “profit,” something you can put in the bank. But value historically, value culturally, has always meant the enhancement of people’s lives. It has always meant the arts and the sciences and all these things that we have still implicit in the culture but are turning on, because they’re anomalous in terms of this novel, mindless ideology that so many people have been persuaded of… These spectacular universities and so on that we ought to be just enjoying! This idea that everything is monetizable. You know, the sort of thing where you take the little freshmen aside and say “not everything is monetizable!”
Now that the seniors are leaving — jobs offered and accepted (hopefully) — what are the “little freshmen” to think about markets and morals? If money doesn’t buy or point to the good life, what does?
Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry ...
Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn on Wall Street today: the good, the bad, the geeky, the banks and traders making billions mostly in the dark.
Like a great novelist, Lewis writes the moral ecology of the story. Five years ago in The Big Short, after the meltdown of the subprime mortgage racket, the center of the story was a thick air of anger and doom – because near-autistic social misfits saw the problem, when the go-along greedy guys didn’t. Only the mentally strange acted, and they weren’t called heroes for being right.
Now Lewis has taken on another disease in the money system: Trading is a war of robots, a black box that almost none of the players get to see inside – too fast, too algorithmic, too fragmented, too automated, too layered for human understanding. He says the market at the heart of capitalism is still rigged and that it’s become a means of systematizing unfairness.
Meanwhile the eccentrics and iconoclasts are still not rewarded for their clear sight:
It’s a problem that people who speak truth to power get quickly classified as oddball rather than important. Maybe it’s always been that way. It’s a big problem in culture of elites, in the structure of institutions. On Wal Stret, elites have lack of sense of responsibility — or their responsibility is not to the larger society. They have responsibility to shareholders, to the bottom-line, to short-term results, etc. But there isn’t a sense of noblesse oblige. That got drained out of us, I think. They don’t have any sense that they’re lucky to be there. They think they deserved whatever they got.
Michael Lewis has become the great teller of modern morality tales around money: from the story of how high finance bubbled up, then popped, in Ireland and Iceland to the story of how a handful of eccentric ...
Michael Lewis has become the great teller of modern morality tales around money: from the story of how high finance bubbled up, then popped, in Ireland and Iceland to the story of how a handful of eccentric thinkers saw a mortgage crisis brewing before it took down the world economy in 2007 and 2008.
In his latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Lewis sounds worried. After that last great crash, finance has gone digital. The action has moved off the downtown trading floors and into black-box servers stationed in New Jersey. Wall Street’s work has become so automatic, algorithmic and obscure that ordinary buyers and sellers have less understanding than ever of what’s happening with their savings.
In Flash Boys Michael Lewis focused on the practice of ‘high-frequency trading’ — a game of arbitrage conducted in the course of microseconds, well handled on Radiolab. But in a new afterword he says HFT is just a symptom of a larger problem. The market’s big players have once again abdicated their “clear responsibility to protect investors… and to create a fair marketplace,” meaning that the game may be more dangerous than ever.
So we’re asking the $64,000 question: can we build a more crash-proof, less leveraged, more equitable financial system? Our guest Jeremy Allaire would argue that the technology known as Bitcoin can do just that: bring back transparency and a simple standard of honest exchange. But we’re reminded that the American dream runs on credit — and we may just be too dependent on the boom-and-bust market we’ve made.
Life Under The Cheese-Grater
London — ever more a 21st-century financial capital — is undergoing the building boom. Our guest John Lanchester — novelist-journalist who’s become an obsessive wrestler of big-money topics — can see those buildings from his study window, and he’s (ever so slightly) flustered.
Lanchester says the meaning of those enormous buildings — nicknamed the Gherkin, the Spire, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheese Grater — comes from their being built without a context, comically dwarfing the Tower Bridge and what’s left of that Dickensian skyline.
Hear our whole conversation with John Lanchester below, and — even more — buy his high-spirited book on How to Speak Money:
The Not-So-Mighty Dollar
On Medium you can read a piece asking what Bitcoin technology might actually accomplish by our newest producer, Pat Tomaino:
Here’s what I learned. Whether you see Bitcoin as a solution depends on who you are and how you define the problem. While the debate continues, here’s a rough scorecard on Bitcoin, what it can do, and for whom.
And there’s a longer piece by Max Larkin about Berkshares, a small but resilient local currency used in Berkshire County, Mass.:
One thinks of a few Berkshire towns — like North Adams, out of Berkshare buying range — as monuments to the power of modern capital: how it all but literally floats in and floats out of a place. Like a kind of slow-motion weather event, money has whipped into Detroit, and Haverhill, Mass., and Gary, Ind. — building up their physical plant and infrastructure so long as that promoted profit — then whipped out and away, leaving something skeletal and defunct behind it.
This is, by the terms of the market, a morally neutral phenomenon. Monopoly capitalism of this kind is indeed like weather, in that one accomplishes nothing by complaining about it.
We’re continuing our “money machine” series on the cost of carbon capitalism. Gas gets cheaper, the weather gets warmer, and for our guests the environmental activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, the choice is clear: ...
We’re continuing our “money machine” series on the cost of carbon capitalism. Gas gets cheaper, the weather gets warmer, and for our guests the environmental activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, the choice is clear: change our ways, or reap the whirlwind.
In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, Klein is counting on change in the atmosphere as the contradictions intensify between the earth and the economy. After all, she says, no one insures the globe, though it’s too big to fail. No one bails out the vanishing woods and wildlife.
We’re wondering whether and how American capitalism will take to remaking, especially since it’s the geopolitical meek who inherit the earth’s problems. (Check out this Guardian infographic, which shows where historical carbon emissions and rapid development collide to endanger… underdeveloped non-emitters.)
Read our social-media recap of the show on Storify. (One of our goals in 2015 is to add collect thoughts and reactions to our broadcasts, and this is one medium we’ll be experimenting with.)
What has to happen: the Global Calculator
By Max Larkin.
American people on the left and right answered in common that they’d like the state to make changes to heal the climate. It’s unclear, though, whether and how us Westerners can reset their appetites and expectations to the problem, if push came to shove. (This was Elizabeth Kolbert’s big problem with This Changes Everything). Even in the age of Inhofe’s denialism, the citizenry knows that big change is called for. Still we patc together penny-ante fixes, scaled to what’s called ‘political will’.
What needs to happen? Where do we start? Enter the Global Calculator, a new online tool engineered by the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change and an international team of organizations. It looks like something that you might see on the deck of the Enterprise.
Get over the learning curve, and you can see the variables, all of them notionally up for debate, that could keep us shy of the famous 2º threshold until 2050 — or push us past it.
You can hack your way to your own personal program using the tool — maybe you believe we all really need air travel, but can handle nuclear energy and favor ‘cozy’ apartments.
But maybe the most interesting feature of the Calculator is the list of “example pathways” to safe emissions. These 2º pathways share a few premises: that world population will grow toward 10 billion by 2050, and that the global economy serving those 10 billion will triple in size.
But a few scenarios stand out:
In the ‘consumer reluctance’ scenario our worst fears are confirmed, and consumers turn out to be unwilling to shift away from carbon-intensive transit, cooking and power. The calculator proves that even if this were the case, we could stay shy of 2º — but it would take much more nuclear power and renewables on the grid, and a makeover of land use and food production.
On the other hand, if Klein is right to be optimistic and we’re waking up to a new kind of citizen activism, we can get to climate health with less nuclear power and little tweaks: eating more chicken and lamb and less lamb and beef, for example. (This news will be taken hard in certain corners of our office.)
Speaking of which, The Vegan Society has the problem sussed — cut the average citizen’s caloric intake to 2,100 per diem (and ditch almost all the meat) and you’re well on your way.
Finally, there’s the World Energy Council’s consumption-driven pathway. The WEC named this revolution in buying the as “Jazz” scenario, compared to a “Symphony” of government-led remaking of industry. They say one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it does dramatize that what we do in our homes doesn’t “get us to 2º” nearly as easily as structural reforms and laws can.
What can we learn about our own carbon footprints from the Calculator? A few lessons:
1.) Protect the forests and you’ve done a lot.
2.) World governments can save us, but they can kill us, too, by deregulating, digging, and fueling militaries all across the globe.
3.) Tolerate the vegetarians in your life, no matter how preachy they may get, because:
4.) America’s chickens may come home to roost, but it’s beef that will kill us all.
Finally, take a listen to what amounts to Kurt Vonnegut’s literary last words, a kind of sigh over the ravaged planet. Our friend, the actor John Davin (veteran of our Chekhov readings), came by and did a wonderful job bringing the poem — never read by Vonnegut that we could find — to life.