The perfect economic killer virus

The novel coronavirus appears almost perfectly fine tuned to wreck a globalized, capitalist economy

The Black Death. Smallpox. Spanish Flu. By now we have all read how these pandemics ravaged humanity, leading to death tolls in the tens of millions. We have also seen how they raved the human body in gruesome, graphic ways. The bubonic plague caused black pustulent swellings that give the disease its nickname. Smallpox deforms the body with thousands of blisters. The Spanish Flu had many symptoms, some of which included uncontrollable nose bleeds and cyanosis, a darkening of the skin into a blue-black hue due to lack of oxygen. In many cases it was so swift that people feeling fine in the morning were gone by the end of the day, often simply dropping dead. More recently we have seen the scourge of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, that not only has death rates of 80% among its most lethal strains but also kill you in a horrifying manner, effectively liquefying your insides and bleeding them out from every orifice.

Compared to that, the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 (or specifically, the disease that it causes which is Covid-19) that is currently affecting the planet is remarkably unremarkable in terms of its lethality and gruesomeness. Death rates have been widely quoted as being around 3%, give or take depending on a country’s demographics as well as general levels of health and preparedness, but they are far lower when all of the untested, asymptomatic cases are considered. Certainly worse than “just the flu” but considerably lower than some of its corona-cousins like SARS (1-in-3 dead) and MERS (2-in-3 dead), the latter being by far the most deadly of the bunch and up there in lethality with most hemorrhagic fevers. And although the clinical description of what Covid-19 does to so many parts of the body is nightmarish, it is all mercifully hidden under the skin. A Hollywood summer blockbuster disease this is not.

Which leads me to believe that although Covid-19 may not be an apocalyptic “perfect killer” disease, it is quite possibly the most perfect destroyer of a modern globalized economy. In fact, if one had to design a disease to bring global capitalism to its knees, it would probably be this. Continue reading

The toxic masculinity of coronavirus denial

Populism isn’t the main predictor of a leader having a terrible pandemic response

Bolsonaro spit

By now we have witnessed some of the most astonishing levels of governmental incompetence in response to arguably the greatest human crisis of our lifetimes. On the right, there is Donald Trump calling it a “hoax” and using the pandemic as an excuse for further corporate enrichment, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro insisting that “Brazilians don’t get anything” and clashing with state governors that have enacted lockdowns. On the left there is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has breached social distancing and hygiene protocols in public with zero regrets and claimed that he is protected by religious amulets. At first glance, the common denominator seems obvious: populism. Almost all of the coronavirus deniers appear to be your standard “new right” populists as well as a few others on the left (like López Obrador). But there’s a better explanation. Bad pandemic responses are strongly rooted in the toxic masculinity of their country’s leader. And a good proxy for this is their attitude towards climate change.

Controlling nature

Why climate change you ask? Well, there is already considerable body of research that suggests that climate denial is strongly linked to toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to be climate deniers, less likely to adopt environmental-friendly behavior, and also more likely to interpret this behavior as being “feminine” or “gay”. The psychological underpinnings of this should be obvious. Men have been traditionally raised to think to be in control of nature, rather than let nature be in control of them. Polluting the water, extracting resources, and filling the air with smog are very manly ways to tell Planet Earth we are in charge. As for the flora and fauna, they exist to serve our needs. This idea is as old as the Bible itself, which calls upon man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28) Continue reading

The rentier class always wins

Once again, taxpayers will end up paying the bill while rentiers escape unscathed

As the battle for our lives against the novel coronavirus pandemic rages, another battle is being ready to be fought: for the economy. It is not an exaggeration to say that that the second quarter of 2020 will see the most severe decline in global economic activity in the history of human civilization, and the question is whether we can come up with the right policies to ensure that the this does not deteriorate into another great recession or worse, another great depression.

For starters, let’s understand the scale of the carnage. Entire sectors of the economy like restaurants, hospitality, and travel have already collapsed. Entirely collapsed. The millions of workers that are now unemployed or which will be soon unemployed as a result of this will require a social safety net of epic proportions in order to survive the 3 or more months of lockdowns, with no guarantee that their jobs will still be there when the crisis is over. For countries that have pushed forward a comprehensive package of corporate lifelines and worker’s support (pay guarantees, moratorium on interest, utilities, mortgages, and rent, etc.), it is estimated that these may end up costing as much as 10% of GDP (maybe even more), putting further strains on national finances which in many cases have not yet recovered from the 2008-09 crisis. And for developing countries, with masses of informal workers and lack of social safety nets, the outlook could end up being as apocalyptic as the virus itself. Continue reading

Why Bernie can win it (and Corbyn couldn’t)

He’s facing none of the personal or contextual adversities that led to Corbyn’s electoral wipeout

With less than two weeks left before Super Tuesday, the single most important day in the US’s highly convoluted and highly un-democratic primary elections, Bernie Sanders has consolidated himself as the candidate to beat, particularly following a very strong showing in Nevada and polls that show him gaining an ever greater share of national support. There are, of course, still obstacles to his nomination. Michael Bloomberg (the 9th richest man in the world) could still find ways of ad-blitzing his way to the nomination with his virtually unlimited cash. Or the Democratic establishment (namely the so-called Super Delegates) could end up voting for someone else in the event of a contested convention, even if Sanders gets the most delegates. Suffice to say that that the Democratic establishment is not keen on a Sanders candidacy and will continue doing everything it can to derail his chances at securing the nomination.

But even as the Sanders steamroller continues to get stronger, one of the most frequent criticism I hear about him is that he can’t beat Trump, and that if the Democrats are unwise enough to select a radical leftist, they will suffer a similar defeat like that which Corbyn faced in December 2019 in the UK. Trump, after all, continues to enjoy the support of a rabid, fired-up support base, Republicans are united behind him, and the prospect of the country that pretty much invented modern capitalism voting for a self-declared socialist seems almost preposterous. Well, for starters, the polls show otherwise. Even in 2016, polls showed Sanders having much wider leads in match-ups against Trump than Clinton did, because both represented anti-establishment figures willing to take on entrenched elites (only one of them, Sanders, clearly meant it). This time around, polls also show Sanders ahead of Trump and I suspect the difference will keep getting wider as his campaign continues to strengthen. Continue reading

Healthcare: a uniquely American tyranny

Economic liberals and libertarians should love universal healthare. This is why they don’t

One of the most shocking aspects of anyone who has spent any amount of time living in the US is its lack of public healthcare provision. It is the only industrialized economy not to offer either a universal healthcare service like Britain’s NHS, or a universal healthcare insurance scheme like that which is provided in countries like Germany and France. Even most of the richer developing countries offer services that the vastly wealthier US lacks: in my country, Mexico, you have access to the main public healthcare system with most formal jobs and even those in informal jobs have some limited coverage from a separate public scheme. Worse still is that the cost of private insurance in the US is horrifically expensive: the average monthly premium is estimated at over $300 a month for individuals and over $800 for families. Then there’s the copayments and the fact that insurers may decide not to cover you at all for a myriad of reasons.

However, there is another aspect of the US’s dysfunctional and inhumane healthcare system that is arguably the most troubling. That it exists solely for the purpose of private profit is problematic in itself but its nature as an instrument for labor’s subservience to capital is much worse. This is because for the grand majority of Americans, healthcare is obtained through their employers and is widely seen as an important “perk” of a good job. Although the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) of 2010 made it much easier for  to obtain insurance while not employed, the fact that employers can generally negotiate a better deal with insurers as an institution than you as an individual means that job-based insurance schemes generally have better coverage and are cheaper than anything that you as an individual could obtain on your own. Consequently, the cost of losing a job is two-fold: not only your obvious loss of income but also the increased risk of suffering some health-related emergency or losing coverage for any condition that you or a loved one under your plan already had. Continue reading

Plucked Chicken Award 2019: Workington Man

You know capitalism won when the working class of Northern England identified with a racist plutocrat from London

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 2019: Workington Man

It is the third installment of the Plucha (remember, every award needs its shorthand) and a memorable one, being the final year of a putrid decade. One in which fascism arrived on the shores of the Anglo-Saxon world that just seven decades earlier fought to save Europe from it. It is the decade that that brought us austerity and lost futures for a generation that will not have it nearly as good as the ones before it (and if you’re among the ones buying Steven Pinker’s whiggish optimism, read my upcoming book). And I haven’t even started talking about the music. At least in previous times of turmoil, we had a kick-ass, riff-laden soundtracks to bear through it. Now we have Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber duos. It has come to this.

There is, of course, no shortage of candidates for an award like this, with people like Donald Trump having a standing invitation on the shortlist. Or Australia’s Scott Morrison who continues to deny climate change while his country burns as I write this. Or former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann who is this year’s living example of Silicon Valley’s pathological narcissism and hubris, blessed with an aura of messianic, new wave bullshit.  Elizabeth Holmes and Elon Musk, we hardly knew ye. But no, this year, I’m making it special. It’s not just one person. It’s thousands. Possibly millions. And yet it’s no one. I’m talking about Workington Man, the mythological British electoral beast that was mocked for being yet another offensive London stereotype of Northern working class men.

Until Workington Man won the 2019 election. For all the wrong reasons. Continue reading

The endorsement game: why Britain’s liberal centrist media must share the Brexit blame

How to endorse right-wing populism while pretending to be part of a reasonable center ground

It’s Endorsement Week and Britain’s liberal centrist establishment once again did what the liberal centrist establishment does: cower out of supporting a party (Labour) that is its only hope of averting the very Brexit that they allegedly stand against, as well as the horror show that would be five years of a Boris Johnson government. I am talking, of course, of the Economist and the Financial Times, the country’s two main liberal centrist publications, which for reasons that I find quite flabbergasting, have not received a smidgeon of the blame for the political mess that Britain finds itself in despite having significantly contributed to it.

It is conventional wisdom to blame Britain’s media for much of the current political malaise. On one hand there are the obnoxious right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Sun which have spent years promoting a toxic Euroscepticism that has contributed to the widespread support for Brexit. These have been tabloids that have consistently told their working class and conservative readerships that their problems are not caused by Whitehall but by Brussels; that the country has more to fear from immigrants than elites; and that somehow Brexit is going to usher in VE Day-like euphoria. “Believe in Britain!” they say, obliviating the mountains of evidence of how Brexit is going to deepen the immiseration that nine-years of Tory government has already inflicted on working people. Continue reading

Meet the man that terrifies the online right

How an irreverent left-wing Brooklyn radio host became the guy even Sam Harris fears debating

What does a famous atheist with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience, a mathematical physicist and investment fund director, a YouTube comedian-slash-right-wing troll with millions of followers, the host of the world’s biggest podcast, and the host of a somewhat less popular but lavishly funded (by libertarian pockets) podcast have in common?

For starters, all of these people are well-known personalities of the New Right, particularly the ecosystem known the “Intellectual Dark Web”. This is a group of loosely collected pundits and intellectuals that have pushed forward many of the same narratives pursued by the more notorious Alt-Right, albeit with a more intellectually reputable facade (and which I have described at length in a previous long post). I am, of course, talking about Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Steven Crowder, Joe Rogan, and Dave Rubin; names that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any respectable amount of time wading through the battlegrounds of the internet’s culture wars. And in the case of Harris (one of the original “four Horsemen” of New Atheism) and Rogan (former Fear Factor host and stand-up), are also very well known in more mainstream circles as well.

What may be less familiar is the other thing that they all have in common: all five of them are seemingly terrified of having a conversation with former comedian, small-time Hollywood actor, occasional TV pundit, and full-time radio host Sam Seder. This is the story of the greatest debate on the internet that never happened and most likely never will. Continue reading

The delusions of liberalism at the end of the end of history

Why liberals need to accept that the foundational ideology of the West is obsolete

No serious political scientist or pundit today would deny that liberalism, the foundational ideology of the Western world for the last few centuries, is under attack. Autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or Turkey’s Recip Erdogan have offered an illiberal challenge to liberal democracy that has gained strong appeal with its constituents. But in the very bastions of the liberal West, liberalism is also succumbing from the onslaught of far-right populism. That people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson would become leaders of their respective countries would have seemed inconceivable just a few decades earlier. Now the question seems to be which country will be the next to fall into the cracks.

Despite these concerns, liberals from both the left and right of the political spectrum appear hopeful in their hubris. In the first two centuries after its inception, liberalism successfully dismantled the political absolutism of the ancien regime, and universalized the Western values of individual rights and liberties that almost every society on earth now takes for granted. In the 20th century it also fended off two great illiberal challenges in the form of fascism and communism. Although the term is annoyingly taken as a synonym of “left-winger” in the US, almost everyone in the Western world today believes him or herself to be a liberal from a political-philosophical perspective. Unfortunately, this label is usually self-applied without stopping to think what being a liberal actually means which is extremely problematic: a foundational political ideology that remains unchallenged eventually becomes a hindrance rather than a help to human progress when its adherents fail to realize it may be obsolete.

This post will make the controversial point that liberalism has reached that point of obsolescence. More so, I will argue that it is a political ideology tarnished with blood, riddled with hypocrisy and contradictions, and which has become a rhetorical concept intended to justify the presumed superiority of Western civilization and thought as a justification for Western hegemony. And even if by the end of these lines you remain steadfast in your belief that liberalism is a sacred pillar of modernity and must be defended at any cost, hopefully it would make you uncomfortable enough that you will never look at liberalism the same way. Continue reading

Justice as outcomes

For the good society to be realized, we need to forget about justice as an institutional design

 

The rise of right-wing authoritarian populism has triggered an intellectual tsunami of works attempting to understand why liberal democracy is failing in the 21st century. All of these accounts, however, rest on the premise that liberal democracy itself must be preserved. Yet liberal theorists have never reached anything resembling a consensus on one of the fundamental reasons behind the appeal of liberal democracy: justice. Most of us have an idea of what we mean by “justice”, usually one that is grounded in the idea of fairness or the rule of law. But as I will argue below, using justice as a synonym for other distinct ideals, or mechanisms to achieve those ideals, leaves us intellectually shorthanded.

To understand why we need to separate the ideas of fairness, rule of law, and justice let’s describe four related societies:

Society 1: Imagine a modern, constitutional state where slavery is legally permitted, such as the US before 1863. Although slaves do not count as people but as property, and lack the basic political rights that are afforded to free men, they are subject to the law rather than the whims of their masters. There are laws, for example, that prohibit a master from killing his slave, or from subjecting them to particularly cruel punishment. These laws are known to both slaves and masters and they are compelled to abide by them. The laws are enforced by the courts without discretion: a master who kills a slave finds it impossible to bribe a court to let him go unpunished. Clearly this state is not fair since a segment of the population lives under different rules than the other. It is also not just, given that slaves will not have the same outcomes in life than free men. But it is clear that there is, at least, the rule of law and that both slaves and masters are subject to it. Continue reading