Why people go hungry in America, but still, meh – Part 2

If we produce enough food to feed everyone in the US, even after our waste, why do we have such an issue with food insecurity? Why are the Republicans looking at cutting welfare programs that keep people fed, cuts that will likely harm the most vulnerable of our society (the elderly and children)? Is it because their [Republicans] mothers didn’t love them as kids? Did their fathers abuse them? Do they just hate poor people and view them as less human? The answer to all of those question is “probably,” but it ignores the core of the problem.

The problem is capitalism. I know, shocking. Capitalism is the boogeyman that comes to devour children late at night, is the cause of all the world’s problems, and without it we’d all be living better lives and on the verge of perfection. Of course, that’s not anywhere close to the case as Capitalism is merely a transitional economic method from feudalism (or types of feudalism) to industrialization. It is not, or at least it should not, be used as a permanent economic model. Why? Well, because it’s gotten us into this shit.

Everyone thinks capitalism is nothing more than an exchange of goods for a price that creates a profit for the person selling. While that is a part of capitalism, to reduce capitalism to such a simplistic definition is just idiotic. Under that definition, literally every system of economics out there has been capitalist, including the Soviet Union where vendors could still sell good for a profit.

A better understanding of capitalism is that it’ll have a few characteristics to it, such as the privatization of labor’s profits, ownership of capital producing private property, the dissuading of collective or family ownership (e.g. it’s more efficient for the capitalist to own one mega-farm than to buy from thousands of family farms; and the capital is privatized, not shared among the workers), maximizing profit in all situations, an increase of wage employment (rather than individual ownership), and having a certain segment of the population existing as spare labor.

While we could nuance the shit out of the above, those are some very broad characteristics of the various capitalist systems in existence. As it is, capitalism isn’t inherently bad or wrong. If you apply the above to a nation transitioning from an oppressive economic system that just doesn’t function, then the nation is going to be better off. All the memes and statistics showing that capitalism has helped decrease poverty around the world are mostly true; anyone with a proper understanding of Marx’s critique of capitalism would have no problem agreeing to these facts. That doesn’t mean, however, that capitalism is preferable for advanced economies, or even good for advanced economies. A kid who is child training might go from diapers to pull ups (kind of underwear, kind of diapers), but they don’t remain in them forever because they have to transition on to something better, otherwise they’re an adult who still from time to time shits their pants. In this scenario, capitalism is the adult that shits its pants from time to time.

Of all the characteristics I listed, all of them in some way contribute to the issue of food insecurity in the US, however the last one – having a certain segment of the population existing as spare labor – is without a doubt the leading cause of food insecurity. In the 1950s and 60s, the theory of having a surplus labor pool was great (if you were white…we won’t go down that path for now). Part of the reason the US did so well economically is that they produced things, and because Europe had been basically destroyed by WWII. But even prior to WWII, the US had the capacity and was outpacing Europe in terms of production.

What helped the US so much is we had a surplus labor force, a group of workers who were either unemployed or underemployed, so the moment a job or better job presented itself they could leap at it. This prevents labor shortages, which can lead to inflated wages, which can lead to overpriced goods, which can lower demand and, ironically enough, lead to layoffs. So from the 1940s all the way to the 1970s, the US had this small segment of people – typically under the age of 25 – who were underemployed or unemployed who could be called up the moment someone retired or there was a demand for more labor. The wages for the new jobs had to be higher than minimum wage and the benefits had to be better in order to entice people to take those new jobs.

It’s why we see many “progressive” economists focusing so much attention on the minimum wage. The theory is that if the minimum wage is increased for the “reserve labor force,” the wage for those working in “real jobs” will also increase so as to entice those minimum wage workers to jump on board if there’s ever a labor shortage. And in a society that produces things, this theory actually does work.

However, our economy has transitioned from the era of producing things, but our economic theories are still running off early 20th century thinking. The problem is the above theory doesn’t work in today’s economy for a few reasons:

1)      Most of our growing economy isn’t based on production in the traditional sense, but instead is based on financing (moving money around).

2)      Due to automation and an increase of efficiency, we don’t need as many workers as we did before, so our reserve labor force typically represents almost half the labor force.

This is why so many economists are baffled that even though unemployment is down, wages haven’t gone up. Typically, the more people you have employed, the more competitive it becomes for wages. In today’s economy that’s not the case because the people employed don’t really need to be employed. Why else would half the nation be classified as low income? If production is at an all-time high and corporate profits are at an all-time high, why aren’t people getting raises? The answer is because there’s so much of a surplus of unemployed/underemployed labor, there’s no need to raise wages. If 50% of your workforce would jump at even a $1 per hour raise, those currently in those positions simply won’t quit because “they’re grateful to have a job.” They’re less likely to push for a higher wage when there are 10 people in that reserve labor pool who would happily take the job for fewer dollars. And so because there’s so much reserve labor, there’s no need to increase wages; but corporate profits keep increasing.

It’s why tax cuts for businesses, while not necessarily bad, won’t find their way to employee’s pockets without regulation. Most corporations don’t need to reinvest money for production or labor; rather they reinvest in their own stock or some other company’s stock. That money goes into the market and the excesses remain in the market. The majority isn’t turned into tangible goods. In a perfect world, businesses would reinvest in their labor force to make them more productive, to motivate them, and to attract employees from other companies; in our world because wages are so low (lowest per capita since before the Great Depression) there’s simply no need to increase salaries because, honestly, where else are the workers going to go?

Thus, it’s a bit hypocritical for these major corporations to hold food drives for those in need when they’re the single biggest cause for food drives. Wages should be high enough and government protections should be in place so that there’s no need to worry about where your next meal will come from. No, not everyone should have that new TV or new computer. Not everyone needs a Mercedes. And not everyone needs a rack of lamb with Russian caviar (gross). But shouldn’t everyone in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known at least have a meal?

I’d argue that yes, yes they should. People shouldn’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Part of this is we have to rethink how the economy works. Right now, wages are based on two things: the value the person brings and the market price of the labor. The market price for a welder might only be $20 an hour, but on certain projects his value could cause that price to go up. This is why individual contractors often charge different clients different rates, because the value they bring to that individual client might be more or less than the value to another client.  Under wage theory, the value is an estimate while the market value of the labor is almost constant. A lawyer who helps low-income residents in the city and a lawyer who helps the corporations fuck over the low-income residents of the city will work about the same hours. So the labor is equal. The value, however (and the ability to pay for that value), is drastically different. The lawyer helping average people generates no value for the company and therefore they won’t get paid. The lawyer helping the company, however, generates value and is therefore paid for his value.

This is why we have the divide between skilled and unskilled labor. A person cleaning a department store might work 10 hours a day on her feet whereas an executive manager at an investment firm will work the same amount of hours. However, the value each brings is different. The janitor has a job that (in theory) almost anyone coulddo (but won’t always do), whereas the executive manager has a job that (in theory) few could do. A specialized skill always brings more value and therefore always pays more.

In today’s economy, however, this model is broken because it’s undermining our economy. At the end of the day if an economic model brings your society closer to an economic collapse, then you should probably change that model. Both the value theory of labor and having a reserve labor force in a modernized, semi-automated economy works to crash the economy. If the majority of people lose the ability to purchase things, then capital ceases being put into the economy and eventually the economy comes to a halt.

We’re at the beginning stages, I’d argue, of a long term or even permanent stagnation. That we have food drives around Christmas to help almost 1 out of 5 citizens is nuts. We’re starting to witness the collapse of our economy to a point where it can’t be recovered without some tears and agony, or guillotines.

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Avoiding a Bolshevik Revolution: A How To Guide (Featuring Vladimir Solovyov)

Well it’s here, the 100 year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (give or take a few days, I’m late…I have a real job you know). So it’s time to celebrate because there ain’t no party like the Communist Party! We’ll have plenty of food, unless you’re Ukrainian. Sorry.

For whatever reason, cos-playing Antifa kids want to party like it’s 1917 (forgetting the irony that Antifa is typically anarcho-communist, meaning it’s not exactly in line with Bolshevik ideals, but whatever) and overthrow the bourgeoisie. And who can blame them? In our modern age, at least in the United States, we’re seeing such a massive disparity in wealth that we can actually watch it destroy our economy, hopes, and dreams in real time. We’re seeing jobs disappear, the rise of an aristocratic class in America, and realizing that our counterparts around the industrialized and modern world tend to have much better, much easier lives. We feel hopeless to change all of this.

But don’t fret, because pre-revolution Russians felt REALLY similar (they actually felt worse)! So we got that in common. We can look to history to see how to prevent it from happening again. The easiest way to avoid a Bolshevik Revolution is to not dissolve the monarchy and put a highly divided, inept government in place while fighting a major land war against Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Likewise, don’t free people from feudalism and have no plan on how to…

So yeah, the exact parallels don’t exactly match up. But if you look at some of the pre-Revolutionary philosophers, they saw the problem of the Revolution before it ever occurred. I don’t mean Lenin or Trotsky. I don’t even mean Bulgakov or, to a lesser extent, Florensky. Dostoevsky certainly punches the causes of the Revolution in the gut before it ever happened, but doesn’t spell it out. No, we must look to one of Dostoevsky’s good friends, The Philosopher himself (not you Aquinas, sit down), Vladimir Soloviev, or Solovyov, or whatever (I’m going with Solovyov).

Ah yes, Solovyov, of course, why not him? Who hasn’t read Solovyov? Well, pretty much everyone in the West hasn’t, so…

Vladimir Solovyov was a guy born destined to be a priest, moved toward Nihilism, then toward Catholicism, then back toward Orthodoxy. He was impressive enough that Dostoevsky based not one, but two characters in The Brothers Karamazov on him (Aloysha and Zosima; impressive when you consider Aloysha is named for Dostoevsky’s son who passed away with 3 years old, but still took on the characteristics of Solvoyov). He was a big believer in ecumenism founded on love and truth and a bigger believer in a government that was economically progressive and socially libertarian. Oh, and he is considered a heretic by many for his going too far with his teachings on the Divine Sophia. So close.

The thing is, Solovyov saw the Revolution coming and wrote about it in the 1880s. He saw that a great European war would strain the resources of Russia and cause the people to finally revolt, to revolt against a Church entrenched within an oppressive government, to revolt against a monarchy that had abused the people for centuries, to revolt against life itself. He saw that they’d establish a totalitarian regime based on modernism and that this regime would eventually collapse, years after the revolution (seriously, he predicted all of this; absurdly impressive and unfortunately the book is packed away right now so I can’t offer citations). And he saw that, way back in 1880, the Revolution could be stopped. Alas, no one listened to him.

His solutions, however, apply to more than Russia. His solutions are, in a typical Russian way, very vague, very specific, and very paradoxical. In many ways, they only apply to Russia at that specific time and place. But in other ways, they apply to all nations at all times (such as his maxim, and I’m paraphrasing here because, again, my books are packed away, “It is okay to love one’s country, but love other countries as much as you love your own”). Solovyov’s entire system in that it’s theological-philosophical, but can be adopted and embraced by anyone of any faith. You could boil his entire system down to one thing: Love. The entire economic and political system of Solovyov boils down to loving others. Seems simple enough, but it’s not.

See, to Solovyov, revolutions occur because people are treated like shit, but we’re not shit, we’re more than that. He throws off the notion that humans are basically good or basically evil and rather argues we have the capacity to be good and evil, but what matters is what we choose to be. The path to choosing good must begin with the belief that we have some purpose in life, something more than wasting oxygen in a cycle that will inevitably end billions of years from now. That purpose is to grow in love, which even the atheist who denies all purpose in life can embrace so long as he has a streak of existentialism within.

Growing in love means holding to a belief in the common good, or doing what is best for all. Not the greater good (the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people), but the common good, looking out for everyone, even the assholes. But all of this is still vague, so let’s break down how we look out for the common good:

  1. Remember that human dignity actually exists. What that means is that every human being, whether obscenely wealthy or obscenely impoverished, holds value. No one holds any more intrinsic value than anyone else, which means that all legitimate concerns are valid (there are illegitimate concerns, but we won’t get into that).
  2. Remember that we’re a part of something greater. In recognizing individual human dignity, we must also recognize that we’re nothing without our community and our culture. Who we are as individuals is directly tied to and reliant upon who is around us. Thus, we are born with a debt and we die with a debt to a society that forms us how we are; if we are successful, we must remember those tools came from thousands of different people instilling lessons into us to make us into who we are. No one is raised by their own bootstraps, Obama’s “You didn’t build that” would fit every well within Solovyov’s works.
  3. Remember that because we have individual dignity and because we are nothing without the community, we must not elevate ourselves above the community. Selfishness, whether through petty robbery or through low wages to increase profit rob the community. It isolates us from the reality of our existence, which is what causes the economic anxiety and, on a deeper level, the existential angst, that deep desire for something other than our current life, so prevalent in our modern times.

The problem with Russia is that they ignored all of the above. They kept giving power to aristocrats, they ignored the workers, they ignored the pleas to depart from the war, they ignored the cries for fairer treatment. The Russian people cried out for dignity and were met with a very strong nyet, so the Russian people said, “Oh, okay then, well, how’s about a nice revolution?” And thus 1917.

And here we are, 100 years later in the United States, failing to learn from Russia’s mistake. Listen to modern debates over things that shouldn’t be so vitriolic, like healthcare or fair wages. We all understand, or should understand, that businesses do have to make a profit in order to stay open (this is true even in a Communist society; the profits are just shared among the workers or the community…or in the case of Soviet Russia, “shared” by a bureaucrat), that doctors need to make money to continue their practice and education, and that there has to be an exchange of goods that can at times be pricy. But we also need to understand that people need to, you know, live. That they too need to make a profit on their labor and not the bare minimum acceptable, that they need money for more than the necessities so they can enjoy leisure.

The problem in the modern age is we have two political parties that have seemingly forgotten (or, let’s be honest, never knew about) Solovyov’s core principles. We’re currently attempting to pass tax legislation that not only denies the existence of human dignity, it straight up lights the concept with fire and pisses on it to put it out. We tell the poor to work harder, ignoring that the system is set up to harm those who are poor despite their hard work. The wealthy, especially with the latest GOP tax bill, puts petty charges in there to jab at the poor, as a reminder to them that they are poor and therefore lesser. Their dignity doesn’t matter as much as someone who is wealthy because we have this stupid myth that being wealthy means you’ve actually earned your wealth without anyone’s help at all.

So when the poor in the US have had too much, when they can’t stand to be insulted and have their dignity robbed from them by working 7 days a week between two jobs only to still live paycheck to paycheck, when they grow tired of watching their children suffer from preventable diseases, when they realize that they’re being scammed by the ruling elite in the US, and then they decide to elect a strongman leftist, an open and avowed Socialist who comes with all the centralized socialism you could ever want, they can look back in sorrow on Solovyov as he tamps out his pipe, smiles, and says, “Told you so sukas.” (He probably wouldn’t say that). If you want to avoid a revolution here in the US – not an armed revolution, but one at the polls – then you should probably start treating everyone with dignity and class, which means we’re going to have to reform our entire economic system. Good luck with that.

A Philosophy of Labor

At some point in the not-too-distant future we’ll face a job crisis in the industrialized world as robots take over everything. To some degree, automation is inevitable, regardless of what those libertarians who are against minimum wage tell you. After all, even if we collectively said, “Screw it, let’s go back to slavery,” automation would still be superior to a slave; a slave can get sick whereas a robot cannot. A slave can half-ass it whereas a robot cannot. A slave will desire freedom, whereas a robot should not (unless it’s Skynet). Ultimately, most low-skill and even medium-skilled jobs will be replaced, which is why a Philosophy degree is pretty secure.

Some want to address this issue with UBI (Universal Basic Income), or increasing social services to people who will be left without jobs. Some hypothesize that we’ll finally live in some Keynesian Utopia where people will only work 10-15 hours a week and have more time for leisure, all while maintaining a higher standard of living. I tend to be a bit more pessimistic in my view of such a future; after all, I can’t very well call myself a disgruntled philosopher and be optimistic, that’s just bad branding.

Part of the problem with modern economics is there’s no real philosophy of labor. I don’t mean a Marxist vs. Capitalist view of labor in which the workers are eternally pitted against the owners. I mean something deeper, more to the point of what labor does not only for the individual, but for society. Traditionally, in smaller societies, labor was part of a civic duty; I was tied to the polis (the people, the civic structure) because I relied on the others in order to ensure my survival. I labored because by laboring, I was part of a community and survived based on being within that community. Within Western society (well, all society really), such a view has been distorted only to later be restored. The point being, labor in smaller societies tends to have a purpose behind it, whereas labor in larger societies (such as our own) seems without purpose.

Think of any corporate bullshit “rah rah” meeting you’ve almost undoubtedly been to. We’re told to be excited, to be thrilled, to help increase the profit of the company for our shareholders. BE EXCITED TO WORK! WOO!!! But why? Why should I care that some dude in China who invested money into my company is making more money off my labor? Why should I become tumescent at the thought of working harder to increase the portfolio of someone in Dallas that I’ve never met? Add this to a job that, ultimately, doesn’t actually matter, doesn’t contribute anything to society (like, say, finance), and you’ve gone from being a loyal worker to a worker with an existential crisis (you know, a bad worker).

The reason people hate their modern jobs – aside from the income inequality and disgustingly low pay – is because their jobs have no real purpose. Working in a glass-windowed building filing reports all day does literally nothing in tying a person to a sense of community. The Industrial Revolution was, in many ways, the worst thing to ever happen to humanity (other than nukes) because it took labor and made it purely pragmatic. A peasant, for better or worse, was still tied to the land and to the lord and from this there was a sense of community, albeit a very dysfunctional community. The modern worker is still tied to his job and still works for a lord (who we now call a boss, or if you’re really ambitious a “job creator”), but doesn’t really accomplish anything. He has no purpose behind his work other than to earn an income, pay his rent, and go about his life until he retires and can then attempt to enjoy life…assuming there is retirement left.

See, we’ve created this myth that the purpose of business is to create profit and that it has no real tie to anything beyond profit. Sure, corporations involve themselves in communities for photo-ops, but nothing more. They’re kind of like absentee fathers who will pay their child support and show up every once in a while, but honestly they’re off chasing hotter tail. But what if the purpose of a business is tied to social responsibility, especially at the local level? What if a business is supposed to make profit to ensure a better lifestyle for the workers and the community? What if a business is actually something that grows from a community rather than independent of one? If this is the true point of a business, then merely paying lip service or offering corporate sponsored “charitable” events (really a form of marketing) isn’t enough.

What happens if businesses begin to automate as much as they can? How can they have social responsibility when their workers aren’t social, but are robots? How can people gain a sense of purpose by magically losing purposeless jobs? Is there a better way to allow for automation – which isn’t always bad – but that creates purpose within business and causes businesses to work with their communities rather than against them? These are the questions we should be asking. The practical aspects are vital, but we’re asking the wrong questions. Until we start asking the right questions, until we develop a deeper philosophy of labor and the purpose of labor, we’ll continue to find the wrong answers.