On inequality and consumption

A vibrant market economy benefits from more egalitarian income distribution

Inequality matters. Not just as an issue of fairness but also because a vibrant, market economy is much better off when wealth and income are spread around more evenly among the population. There are two reasons for this. First, consumption of certain goods and services “takes off” after a population reaches a certain level of income. Secondly, because the more people consume these goods and services, the more competition there is and the cheaper they become. In other words, the same amount of GDP among two populations but with vastly different distribution of income will result in vastly different consumption patterns; and consequently, production patterns as well. Let’s see how this manifests in real life.

A tale of two countries

When it comes to inequality, it’s hard to think of two regions in the world more disparate than Latin America and Scandinavia. Latin America has long held the title of most unequal region of the world, and even though most countries in the region are now considered “middle income”, a significant share of their population are still poor. Furthermore, those in the so-called middle class still have considerably lower purchasing power than a middle-class Westerner. In contrast, Scandinavia is one of the most egalitarian regions in the world thanks to a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state. When using Gini coefficients, a measure used by economists to measure inequality (with 0 being perfectly equal and 1 being perfectly unequal), Latin America tends to fall in the .45-.55 range. In contrast, Scandinavia usually ranks at .25-35. Continue reading

Embracing democratic socialism

Be on the right side of history and start wishing capitalism goodbye

Democratic socialism

There is just one New Year’s Resolution worth having in 2019: become a democratic socialist.

If you already are one, congratulations! This post may be preaching to the choir but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it anyway and will at least give you some good arguments against those who are still in denial (which sadly includes many on the left). If you’re not, keep reading and if these arguments don’t convince you, then perhaps nothing ever will.

What is democratic socialism?

The best way to describe democratic socialism is to start by what it’s not: communism. If you’re the kind that instantly has a mini heart attack by even a fleeting mention of the word “socialism”, relax, we’re not nostalgic for a return of the Soviet Union nor are we here to provide lame apologies for the disaster that is Venezuela (more on this later). With that out of the way, let’s explain in detail. Democratic socialism is the economic system whereby the means of production are owned and directly controlled by the people who work it. The key word here is directly. Whereas communism attempted to do this by having the state take control of these means (which proved disastrous), social democracy seeks no intermediary. Imagine an economy where every business was a worker-owned cooperative and workplaces guaranteed similar democratic rights to their workers as citizens are guaranteed in the public sphere. That’s basically it.

Democratic socialism might sound similar to social democracy but in practice, social democracy remains capitalist: there is no fundamental difference in the corporate ownership structure in social democratic countries to liberal capitalist ones. The main difference is that social democratic societies tend to provide a wider array of public services (a welfare state and state-owned firms) as well as take a more active role in preventing market excesses (regulation). They also encourage strong trade unions to give voice to workers in the workplace; in fact, many social democratic parties were born from the late 19th century and 20th century labor movements. Social democratic systems like the Nordic Model therefore sit in a muddled middle ground between socialism and capitalism, incorporating the capitalist ownership structure but with strong and active states that help ensure a socially just society. Continue reading

The New Right ecosystem

The communities and personalities behind conservatism’s lastest bid for your hearts and minds
The New Right Ecosystem

The New Right Ecosystem (click to enlarge)

The emergence of a new conservative movement in the Western world in the 21st century has been one of the most important political developments of our time. But despite the way that this movement has influenced recent elections and produced shocking results like Trump and Brexit, the grand majority of people still fail to understand how and where it emerged. Ever since Hillary Clinton first spelled out the “alt-right” in a campaign speech in 2016, this term has been used as a catch-all for all right-wing politicians and pundits that have pursued a populist, anti-establishment rhetoric but this too proven to be far too limiting in scope for understanding the breadth of the movement. It also ignores that many of the people pushing the movement’s ideas don’t identify with the alt-right, aren’t anti-establishment, and may even be coming from the left itself.

I have therefore created a convenient infographic on what I call the New Right Ecosystem: the assortment of communities that are supporting the New Right movement. Some are obvious, like the original alt-right, the men’s rights activists, or the troll and meme armies that proliferate on forums such as 4chan. Many of these were mentioned in a seminal 2016 Breitbart piece co-authored by who was then the rising superstar of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopolous. But over the past decade even other communities that once appeared to embrace left-wing values have shifted squarely into the Trump camp, as is the case with the New Atheist and skeptic communities that initially arose to combat religious fundamentalism of all kinds in the post-9/11 Bush years. Finally, others like the libertarians are using the New Right as a platform to pursue their free market agendas. The fact that nearly all alt-right and anti-establishment pundits refer to themselves as libertarians or “classic liberals” (an increasingly used euphemism for libertarian sympathies) is telling of how nationalism and market fundamentalism have formed a strange and toxic marriage.

I am confident that the infographic is mostly self-explanatory after reading the legends.  However, this post will serve as a basic F.A.Q., with more analysis coming in future posts. Continue reading

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

What happens when you grow up without ever knowing the limits of power

When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

Last year’s Plucha (every award needs its shorthand) was awarded to
Aung San Suu Kyi, not because she was the most horrible human being the world, but being the one that fell most from grace in the shortest of times. In fact, it’s hard to think of someone who went from a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a sponsor of genocide (Kissinger, you came close). This year, however, it does go to one of the most horrible human beings living on planet Earth, and worse still, running a country. And that is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. At the tender age of 33 he has demonstrated nearly every psychopathic quality that emerges in a human being who has been raised to know nothing other than absolute power, for tyrants begotten from other tyrants are invariably magnitudes worse than their predecessors. Were he the ruling monarch of some hermit kingdom or dysfunctional third-world kleptocracy, the problem would mostly be contained. Unfortunately, he presides over one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, a Middle East powerhouse which is a protagonist of nearly every conflict in the region, mainly the ongoing Syrian and Yemen civil wars. His actions matter. Continue reading

Your third-world reptilian brain

When your attitudes don’t develop in line with your incomes

Between today and Sunday, Mexicans will be able to vote in a public referendum on whether to cancel the construction of a new airport for Mexico City or allow it to proceed. The (admittedly shambolic) referendum is organized by the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador who promised to cancel the airport during his campaign but has since acceded to allow the public to settle the matter instead. But why cancel the largest infrastructure project in modern Mexican history? Well, it just so happens that the airport is being built on what’s left of Lake Texcoco, the only surviving wetland in the Mexico City metro area. It is an area prone to flooding, earthquakes, and sinking. But beyond that, it also sits on top of one of the largest aquifers in the region, one that supplies millions of people in the surrounding suburbs with fresh water.

Of course, being that most of those millions of people happen to be from poor and working class households means that their opinion on the matter had little influence on the current government when it drew up its plans. And well, the wetlands themselves have been largely abandoned, a giant greenfield site just waiting for it to be filled up with concrete and steel. Plans to restore some semblance of the old lake have not fared well in the last few decades despite its historical significance. Mexico City – or as it was called in Aztec times, Tenochtitlan – was once the Venice of America: a city built on the lake, crisscrossed by canals and floating croplands. It must have been an impressive sight to the Spaniards when they first marched across the city’s causeways. But after the conquest, the Spaniards began to dry out the lake in order to expand the city, in the process destroying the fragile anti-flooding mechanisms that the Aztecs had built. The response to constant flooding of the city was to dry out the lake further. After independence, the process of “modernizing” the capital continued, with the last canals being turned into freeways during the 1950s and 60s, and the lake itself practically disappearing by the 1990s save for a few remaining reservoirs which face an uncertain future once the airport is up and running, whenever that may be: it already faces a 2-year delay at least, a $2.5 billion cost overrun, and no shortage of corruption allegations over the opacity in the awarding of contracts. Continue reading

Trump and the mind of the abuser

Is he an idiot or a genius? He is neither, simply a psychological predator

One of the most common dilemmas that Trump watchers must suffer is to ask themselves whether Trump is an idiot or a genius. Arguments for both abound. On one hand, nearly nothing that Trump has done as President (or any other of his business endeavors) suggests anything other than unadulterated, blithering stupidity. According to most inside accounts of his behavior, be it from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or Bob Woodward’s more recent Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump is a man of frighteningly low intelligence who has trouble grasping basic concepts, much less expressing them in coherent form. His unhinged, incoherent rambles that pass as public speeches seem to be testament of this: it would actually take a supreme effort from someone of moderate or above-average intelligence to consistently speak so badly on so many topics.

On the other hand, the way in which he has whipped up such a large support base appears unparalleled in modern US political history. The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abound, and it is obvious that despite the hideousness of their policies they were quite intelligent men and crafty statesmen. Is it also common for those of us living in Britain to compare Trump with his British Tory opposite, the buffoonish Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated man born in privilege and who is just as likely to recite the classics as he is to fly on a zip line waving Union Jacks like a clown at a children’s party. Johnson is no fool, he just plays one. Is Trump a master thespian? A genius wearing a cloak of idiocy?

In my view, no, Trump is no genius. He’s merely an abuser. Continue reading

The tale of the immoral cyclist (and CEO, and Republican)

Why pretending to be moral will actually make you a worse human being

Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.

One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.

Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong? Continue reading

The Spectrum Fallacy

Why all of something good isn’t better than just some of it

The economic rise of China since the 1980s has been one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats of economic progress ever. It has eradicated poverty by the hundreds of millions, created an industrial sector that has dwarfed anything ever seen in human history, and despite the country’s size and maturity, continues to grow at a pace that any Western democracy and even most developing economies can only dream of. This has been largely been achieved by the Chinese government’s adoption of market policies. China is now the world’s greatest trading nation and also a massive receptor and supplier of foreign investment. Capitalism works, and it follows that China is the perfect example of why countries should liberalize their economies and embrace free markets unconditionally.

Except it doesn’t follow.

If you were tempted to draw this apparently obvious conclusion, congratulations, you are a victim of what I like to call the Spectrum Fallacy, possibly the most pernicious flaw of logical argumentation in policy circles. What is the Spectrum Fallacy? It is the flawed premise that just because something is demonstrably better than something else, more of that something is necessarily better than only some of it. It is very similar to a well known logical fallacy, the false dilemma. Like the false dilemma, the spectrum fallacy assumes that there is a false choice, that one must necessarily choose between two mutually exclusive options (statist communism or laissez-faire capitalism). However, here we are assuming not that there are more choices but that either of these two choices can be better when they are applied less extremely across the spectrum of possibilities. Continue reading

When demagoguery comes to your doorstep

How Latin America’s oldest democracy is succumbing to the radical, religious right

The song opens with an funky bassline before the horn section kicks in, inviting you to dance. But this is not your typical Latin song.

I find myself in a spiritual battle
Which is hard to control
This feeling overwhelms me and I want it no more
For I know it’s not against the flesh

The song is called “Batalla Espiritual” (Spiritual Battle) and the singer is Fabricio Alvarado, a former news anchor and later Christian music star, who is currently a few hours away from becoming the next president of Costa Rica, and one of the first evangelical heads of state in Latin America. His unlikely rise from obscurity is a testament to the politicization of the evangelical movement in the region, as well as some deep social conservative undercurrents in what is otherwise one of Latin America’s most progressive countries; one which also happens to be its longest-running democracy. The Fabricio phenomenon has also shown how even countries that have not experienced the traditional Western narratives that have fed right-wing demagoguery in recent years (terrorism, immigration, and economic crisis) are not immune to it. Continue reading

In defense of Free (ish) Will

Beneath the hype, hard determinism still has major flaws

The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.

Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.

In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them! The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. Continue reading