Slate Star Codex has recently published a full-throated defense of modern Neofeudalism.
This whole essay is ridiculous, so insipid, so misleading, so pedantic, and so maddeningly idiotic, that I just can’t help but respond to it point-by-point. It’s also so chock full of false arguments, irrelevancies, red-herrings, and straw-man arguments, that one would think that the self-proclaimed masters of “logic and reason” over there would be ashamed to publish it.
Now, if you don’t know, Slate Star Codex is big part of the whole Neoliberal online thought collective that masquerades as “officially nonpartisan enlightened centrismTM“. But in this rather poorly thought-out post, the mask is ripped off for all to see. And it’s not pretty.
It’s a classic example of a prolific genre I like to call “Neoliberal contrarianism.” One of the most prodigious practitioners of this genre is Megan McArdle, who has built an entire career on it (sponsored by the usual suspects). Other notable practitioners of the genre include David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Tyler Cowen, Sam Harris, and many others. All of Stephen Pinker’s recent books can be considered an exercise in this genre.
So, for example, this genre will tell you why the middle class is better off today than ever before, and is, in fact, getting richer every day! Why wages are actually going up. Why it’s just a silly myth that all of the gains in the economy are going to the top ten percent of households. Why housing is actually more affordable than ever. Why high health care costs, expensive drugs and copays are actually good for us. Why student debt isn’t a big problem. Why massive transnational corporations and monopolies are the greatest thing ever! In short, why everything you see happening around you every day isn’t really happening. And they’ve got the graphs and charts to prove it!
And they’ll usually tell you all this from some exotic destination where they’ve traveled to to on holiday, because they’re citizens of the world, after all, and national borders are anachronisms for poor losers who can’t handle change. How can they afford that, you ask? Well, being a shill for Neoliberalism has it’s perks, and it beats having to work for a living.
Anyway, the post references some articles mildly critical of billionaire philanthrocapitalism. But after reading the whole article, it doesn’t really seem to address the central arguments at all. And those arguments I get primarily from Anand Giridharadas’ excellent book on the subject entitled, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Saving the World. The post doesn’t reference that book—nor any of the the fundamental arguments it makes—anywhere in the article, as far as I can tell.
Giridharadas characterizes the benevolence of the transnational plutocratic class as instances of “extreme taking followed by extreme giving.” What does he mean by that?
He means that the people who have anointed themselves as the “saviors” of the human race are ultimately also the same ones who are responsible for bringing the world to the brink of disaster in the first place. Here’s Giridharadas speaking about being invited to canape-filled “ideas” conferences in Aspen where the plutocrats got together to hobnob and make connections:
“They would meet these four times [a year in Aspen]. They would read Plato and Aristotle; they would also read Gandhi, and they would also read—and this was a bit of a clue—Jack Welch. And having read them, they would discuss this, and talk about how they could make more of a difference, give back, not just run their companies, but do something more.”
“I was invited into this thing—I’m obviously not a businessperson—but I was invited because they figured out that twenty businesspeople in a room is a recipe for human Ambien, so they decided [that in] every class, they would put a TV person, a writer an artist, some activist…so I was the Indian spice in my class…”
“It was a really interesting experience to have access to people that I don’t normally have access to, or talk to, or know. People who run an aviation repair business in Oklahoma—things like that. There are not people I meet in my life. And it was very interesting, and it was all about ‘We’re going to change the world’. ‘We’re going to get together and we’re going to solve the biggest problems of our time.’ ‘We’re going to fight inequality; we’re going to advance injustice [sic]’….”
“And as I got deeper and deeper into that world, it started to dawn on me…that the same people who gathered in Aspen, when you actually dug a little bit into what they did in their day jobs, were the people causing the problems they were trying to solve. They were the bankers who had caused the 2008 meltdown around the world, now talking about how to increase housing justice. They were the people who sell soft drinks to kids that foreshorten their lives and give them diabetes and all these other conditions, talking about health equity. They were the very people in Silicon Valley [who were] starting to compromise all of our privacy…[and] starting to frankly let their platforms be used as vessels for cyberwar on our electoral processes. That was happening, and they were letting it happen, because they didn’t want anything to get in the way of their growth—basically selling out democracy itself—and then they were coming to Aspen to talk about freedom.”
“And it just began to grate on me. I have to say, I was not alone. There were a bunch of people who started sitting in the back row, kind of complaining. It was all the people they shouldn’t have let in: the artists, the writers, the journalists—the mistakes. I don’t know if they do that anymore…”
Meaning Spotlight on Anand Giridharadas (YouTube)
Another point he takes aim at is the idea of “doing well by doing good.” This refers to the idea that the best way to change to world is to get rich and make a fortune. Not only that, but that the richer they get, the better off the world will be. In other words, a “win-win” situation as they like to call it. For the plutocrats change is good—so long as it doesn’t threaten their obscene wealth and profits in the slightest. This means that, no matter how much they supposedly “help”, they make damn sure that many options are off the table from the start (like paying higher tax rates or closing offshore tax loopholes, for instance). After all, since the more money they make means that the world is a better place, by the same rationale, if they make even slightly less money, then the world must therefore become a worse place for everyone! Here’s Giridharadas again, describing the “Summit at Sea”—a networking event with 3,000 entrepreneurs on a cruise ship to the Bahamas:
“They were—almost to the person—all entrepreneurs. Like, none of them worked (some worked for big companies, but that was not the majority. More of the speakers maybe worked for Apple, or things like that). Entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs convinced that every dollar they make is making the world better by ten dollars. That they are almost these sort of Christ-like business figures, who are sacrificing by making money, and helping others on this scale. ‘It’s my cupcake company that’s going to help girls in Afghanistan.’ ‘You buy these shoes, and we will put a shoe on some other foot in some other country that you’ll never be able to verify’…and everybody on that boat shared that ideology…”
“What was so fascinating was the way in which all these things come together in this religion: making money, promoting yourself, making the world a better place. Win-win. One way to think about Winners Take All is an attempt to fire a lot of ammunition at the fraudulent idea of win-win. Of doing well by doing good. Of this idea of making the world a better place that tells rich people and corporations that nothing has to change for them to improve the state of the world. That you can somehow, in a town like this, [you can] empower workers—give them more money, whatever—without that ever coming at the expense of the people who own the companies.”
And another point he makes is, “Why do we expect that the people best equipped to solve the world’s problems are the ones who are disproportionately causing the world’s problems in the first place?” How did they cause those problems, you ask? Offshoring labor, profiting off the global race to the bottom (wage arbitrage), financialization and asset stripping, reckless speculation, hiding money in offshore accounts, dodging taxes with fancy accounting schemes, running brutal sweatshops in the Third World (or the First World if you’re Amazon), union-busting, working your employees half to death, fighting minimum wage increases, gouging consumers with usurious interest rates and bogus charges, spying on us and selling our online personal information to the highest bidder, deceitful advertising, peddling foods laden with salt, fat, sugar, and other addictive chemicals, lobbying politicians all over the globe for lax regulations and low taxes, bankrolling sock-puppet politicians, shaking down hard-up local governments for corporate welfare, lobbying, driving locally-owned business into bankruptcy, polluting the environment, overharvesting endangered natural resources, enclosing the commons—the list is almost endless, and could fill an entire book by itself. All in a day’s work.
Or, as a shorthand, we could say, Neoliberalism.
CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978. Typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time (Economic Policy Institute)
So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
Points 1 & 2 fall into the “hurt billionaire feelings” category. How dare you be so “uncivil” to these lovely, benevolent plutocrats! This is sort of like the common argument, ‘We can’t expect billionaires to respect the law or pay taxes, because then they’ll just move somewhere else!’ This neglects the unfortunate fact that by allowing billionaire plutocrats to wield such disproportionate power and influence in the first place, they can hold essential functions of state hostage to their very whim. And that’s a good thing?
Here’s an example of how desperate, weak and ridiculous the arguments are right off the bat:
#1 Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe?
Well, presumably the former, because it’s an example of a rich plutocrat seizing power normally attributed to state and municipal governments, and coming with significant strings attached. That is, the former is an effect of billionaires deliberately inserting themselves into public policymaking and trying to shape it to their own ends and preferences. It also raises very important questions, such as why schools are so desperately revenue-starved that they need to accept handouts from “benevolent” plutocrats in the first place. It also affects the lives of thousands of American citizens.
The latter was just, well, buying stuff. People do that every day. Why would that even be newsworthy, since it doesn’t affect anyone else? (except, I assume, his immediate neighbors)
Some teachers’ unions have made corporate taxation a part of the debate over school cuts: the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers talks about the decline in taxation of Minnesota’s largest corporations (“Thirty years ago, Bancorp, EcoLab, Travelers Insurance, 3M and Target were taxed at 13.6 percent. That rate has been cut to 9.8 percent. Wells Fargo paid $15 million less in 2014 than they paid in 1990, when the tax rate was 12 percent. In 2014, 10 corporations paid $31 million less than they did in earlier periods”) and explicitly connects those tax giveaways to the budgetary shortfalls that harm the city’s kids.
It’s not enough that corporations give back some of that money in the form of charitable donations: those donations always come with strings attached, shaping curriculum and activities to the priorities of corporate benefactors, and the funding can be withdrawn any time our public schools do work that cuts against the corporate agenda.
So the question is utterly nonsensical on its face. We’re getting really desperate here and we’re only on point #1.
#2 If attacks on billionaire philanthropy decrease billionaires’ donations, is that acceptable collateral damage in the fight against inequality?
In other words, how dare you criticize our benevolent plutocratic overlords—they might take their money and go home! In other words, bald-faced extortion.
Suppose Jeff Bezos is watching how people treat Bill Gates, and changes his own behavior accordingly. Maybe in the best possible world, when people attack Gates’ donations, Bezos learns that people don’t like ruthless billionaires, decides not to be ruthless like Gates was, and agrees to Bernie Sanders’ demand that he increase his employees’ pay by $4/hour. But Bezos also learns people criticize billionaires’ philanthropy especially intensely, decides not to be charitable like Gates was, and so ten million people die. You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.
So, if Bezos has to pay his workers a reasonable wage, then people will die???!! How about we make them give away this money? If only society had some sort of mechanism **cough, taxes, cough** to do that. Oh well.
Doesn’t this logic just reinforce the dangers of allowing private government by whim?
So, really, it’s kind of like the following argument: if we dare criticize droit de seigneur, what happens if the lords lay down their arms and refuse to defend our kingdom? We might get raided, and someone might get get hurt. We have no choice to comply with their every dictate. Please, sire, take my betrothed’s maidenhead, with my full blessing. And let me bend the knee and kiss your ring, besides, Milord. (yes, I’m aware this rite was a myth, but the example still holds).
And by the way, you can criticize the government’s policies and priorities without the fear that the government will just up and decide to stop paying for essential services one day in a huff like Achilles quitting the battlefield to sulk in his tent. In fact, such criticism and debate is an essential part of the process. Not so, apparently, with billionaire benevolence, which is dependent on appeasing their fragile egos and a sufficient amount of grovelling. Which flows directly into the next point:
#3 How much gratitude vs. scrutiny do billionaire donors get?
This is a weird one. Here, he does some kind of Twitter search, and finds that public opinion is sometimes disproportionately hostile to these trickle-down “gifts” that come with strings attached. Rather than take that as a sign of some sort of “wisdom of the crowd”, he just sort of handwaves it off.
[As a side note, this whole notion of the so-called “wisdom of crowds” is very selectively applied by Neoliberals. When it confirms what they want it to, it clearly demonstrates the “wisdom” of the crowd, as opposed to fallible individuals. But when popular opinion goes against their Neoliberal belief system, or for socialistic ideas, then it suddenly becomes just the ignorant rabble acting “irrationally” and desperately in need of enlightenment by the “rational” Neoliberals (typically in the form of copious charts and graphs – after all, who are you going to believe, us or your own lying eyes?)]
Although some donors like Bill Gates are generally liked, others, like Zuckerberg and Bezos, are met with widespread distrust.
Besides, well, who cares? How is any of this relevant at all? I mean, at all? Again, pretty weak tea from the self-appointed supreme masters of “logic and rationality.”
Now we get to the good stuff. Here, he lists a very common argument by critics:
#4 Since billionaires have complete control over their own money, they are helping society the way they want, not the way the voters and democratically-elected-officials want. This threatens democracy. We can solve this by increasing taxes on philanthropy, so that the money billionaires might have spent on charity flows back to the public purse instead.
Well, that’s a little distorted: we’re not taxing philanthropy, we’re taxing wealth. Not sure why the misstatement here. Is it deliberate? But, anyway, all that sounds pretty reasonable. How are you going to argue against that?
Now, here’s where things really start getting pretty fucking ridiculous. As you knew would happen, he lists chapter and verse of all the good and worthy causes that benevolent billionaires have showered their (totally 100% fairly gotten) fortunes on:
Two of the billionaires whose philanthropy I most respect, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, have done a lot of work on the criminal justice reform. The organizations they fund determined that many innocent people are languishing in jail for months because they don’t have enough money to pay bail; others are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have to get out of jail in time to get to work or care for their children, even if it gives them a criminal record. They funded a short-term effort to help these people afford bail, and a long-term effort to reform the bail system.
If Moskovitz and Tuna’s money instead flowed to the government, would it accomplish the same goal in some kind of more democratic, more publically-guided way? No. It would go to locking these people up, paying for more prosecutors to trick them into pleading guilty, more prison guards to abuse and harass them. The government already spends $100 billion – seven times Tuna and Moskovitz’s combined fortunes – on maintaining the carceral state each year…
And where, exactly does that carceral state come from, after all? Why do we have it in the first place? Oh yeah, that’s right, to defend the property of the rich and powerful. But, aside from that, certainly the good works of these two individuals must more than make up for the unapologetic ratfuckery perpetrated by the rest of the plutocratic billionaire class against the rest of us, no?
“Corporations that run prisons continue to protect their profit margins in less illegal and more insidious ways. These corporations stand to make more money when more people are sentenced to prison, so they work hard to influence policy and push for harsher sentencing laws.
A report from the Justice Policy Institute details how prison corporations use lobbyists, campaign contributions, and relationships with policymakers to further their own political agenda. For instance, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the US, has spent $17.4 million on lobbying expenditures in the last 10 years and $1.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012.
In 2013, the CCA and another major prison company, the GEO Group, also funded lobbying efforts to stop immigration reform, killing the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in order to keep undocumented immigrants flowing into their facilities, as well as securing increased congressional funding to incarcerate those same people in for-profit prisons.”
But wait, there’s more!
Or take one of M&T’s other major causes, animal welfare. Until last year, California factory farms kept animals in cages so small that they could not lie down or stretch their limbs, for their entire lives. Moskovitz and Tuna funded a ballot measure which successfully banned this kind of confinement. It reduced the suffering of hundreds of millions of farm animals and is one of the biggest victories against animal cruelty in history.
If their money had gone to the government instead, would it have led to some even better democratic stakeholder-involving animal welfare victory? No. It would have joined the $20 billion – again, more than T&M’s combined fortunes – that the government spends to subsidize factory farming each year. Or it might have gone to the enforcement of ag-gag laws – laws that jail anyone who publicly reports on the conditions in factory farms (in flagrant violation of the First Amendment) because factory farms don’t want people to realize how they treat their animals, and have good enough lobbyists that they can just make the government imprison anyone who talks about it.
Highlighting opposition to ag-gag laws by a couple of Silicon Valley oligarchs is rich indeed, given that that the whole reason such laws exist in the first place is because of lobbying and corruption by wealthy agribusinesses and their socipathic billionaire allies! Somehow, I don’t think the average person is pushing for laws to prevent them from finding out how their own food is produced, do you?
“Ag-gag” laws — which ban the collection of evidence of wrongdoing on farms, from animal cruelty to food-safety violations — are a sterling example of how monopolism perpetuates itself by taking over the political process.
As American agribusiness has grown ever-more concentrated — while antitrust regulators looked the other way, embracing the Reagan-era doctrine of only punishing monopolies for raising prices and permitting every other kind of monopolistic abuse — it has been able to collude, joining industry groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts industry-favoring “model legislation” and then lobbies state legislatures to adopt it.
And, of course, the underlying reason why monopoly laws have been abandoned, and why businesses all across industries have become increasingly concentrated, has a lot to do with the plutocrats’ wholesale purchase of the economics profession which has led to the pushing of Neoliberal and “Chicago School” policies via an unfathomably large constellation of universities, think-tanks, journals, publishing houses, magazines, online resources, etc., etc.
Kind of overwhelms all that philanthropy, doesn’t it?
Forgive me if I’m less than persuaded by this example of a couple of Facebook billionaires (and let’s not even get into how fucking sinister Facebook is). Help with one hand, hurt with the other. Or, as Giridharadas put it, extreme taking followed by extreme giving.
Here’s another howler:
George Soros donated/invested $500 million to help migrants and refugees. If he had given it to the government instead, would it have gone to some more grassroots migrant-helping effort?
No. It would have gone to building a border wall, building more camps to lock up migrants, more cages to separate refugee children from their families. Maybe some tiny trickle, a fraction of a percent, would have gone to a publicly-funded pro-refugee effort, but not nearly as much as would have gone to hurting refugees.
And how exactly did Trump come to power in the first place? Could it be millions and millions of dollars of Dark Money spent by plutocrats—the Mercer family in particular—as exhaustively documented in Jane Mayer’s indispensable and important book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right? Are these the policies of government, or rather the policies of one particularly heinous administration, one that has been installed and consistently backed by sociopathic members of the billionaire elite class since day one (such as FOX News, Sinclair broadcasting, Cambridge Analytica, et. al.)?
The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)
It’s the oldest trick in the book: elect horrible Republicans who do horrible things and then use it as proof as to just how horrible the government is. The solution? Private charity, of course!
So, the best system of government, according to SSC, is one in which the few “good” billionaires spend their money on defeating the laws written by, and for the benefit of, the other set of “evil” billionaires” who manipulate and control our government? So the “good” billionaires make up for the “evil” ones? It that seriously the argument here? Are you f*#king kidding me???
And this is supposed to be the ultra-rational “reason and logic” crowd. Apparently not when it comes to defending Neoliberalism. The causes these “good” billionaires are dedicated to fighting are all the ruinous consequences of the policies favored by the rest of the billionaire class who control the damn government in the first place! But let’s move on.
#5…but the US government is not a charity. Even when it’s doing good things, it’s not efficiently allocating its money according to some concept of what does the most good.
No, the U.S. government is not a charity, because it has to, you know, actually govern the fucking country! That’s kind of important, after all. It has a lot of things it must allocate money to (what’s called non-discretionary spending). That’s simply the nature of government—every government in the world.
Nevertheless, allocating more money to health and education would certainly do a lot of good, wouldn’t it? And what’s stopping that, I wonder? Hmmmm…
Oh yeah, I remember now: HOWYAGUNNAPAYFORIT? The one, single, magical word, the all-powerful incantation perennially invoked by the plutocrats and their media lackeys that assures that the government cannot, and will never, ever, be able to adequately address the pressing problems facing the American people today. And where, I wonder, does this ubiquitous phrase originate? Outer space? The American people themselves? After all, no one seems to be asking that of the private charities we’ve been discussing. No, government alone seems to be under that restriction (and only in areas that don’t directly benefit the plutocrats’ bottom line).
No, I have a sneaking suspicion that it ultimately originated from those same “benevolent” Neoliberal billionaire overlords who are getting their dicks sucked by this SSC essay.
Bill Gates saved ten million lives by asking a lot of smart people what causes were most important. They said it was global health and development causes like treating malaria and tuberculosis. So Gates allocated most of his fortune to those causes. Gates and people like him are such a large fraction of philanthropic billionaires that by my calculations these causes get about 25% of billionaire philanthropic spending.
The US government also does some great work in those areas. But it spends about 0.9% of its budget on them. As a result, one dollar given to a billionaire foundation is more likely to go to a very poor person than the same dollar given to the US government, and much more likely to help that person in some transformative way like saving their life or lifting them out of poverty. But this is still too kind to the US government. It’s understandable that they may want to focus on highways in Iowa instead of epidemics in Sudan.
Yes it is understandable, because the people of the United States presumably elect representatives to the government of the United States to solve problems faced by the citizens of the United States, and not those faced by Sudan. Presumably, the people who live in Sudan elect representatives to deal the problems faced by Sudan. But, remember, in Neoliberal world, nation-states are so passé.
I mean, can you get more stupid than this? Here’s what really stopped that spending: extreme taking:
We had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance universal health care, benefitting many millions of uninsured Americans, saving lives, staving off bankruptcies, and indeed saving public dollars that would otherwise be devoted to emergency-room care. We had a means of helping to pay for it by a slight alteration in a tax break used by the most well-off—and, undoubtedly, the most generously insured—members of society. Yet the collective leadership of American philanthropy—a leadership, by the way, that had been with few exceptions silent about the redistribution of wealth upward through the Bush tax cuts, silent about cuts in social programs, silent about the billions of dollars spent on the wars of the last decade—found its voice only when its tax exemption was threatened, and preferred to let the government go begging for revenue elsewhere, jeopardizing the prospects for health-care reform, in order to let rich, well-insured people go on shielding as much of their money as possible from taxation.
… What that situation made plain to me was not just that philanthropy is quite capable of acting like agribusiness, oil, banks, or any other special-interest pleader when it thinks its interests are jeopardized. It helped me to see that however many well-intentioned and high-minded impulses animate philanthropy, the favorable tax treatment that supports it is a form of privatization. Money that would otherwise be available for tax revenue that could be democratically directed is shielded from public control for private use.
Democracy and the Donor Class (Democracy Journal)
…Yet even on issues vital for the safety of the American people, the government tends to fail in surprising ways. How much money does the US government spend fighting climate change?
Well, presumably not as much as it could be spending, given that large numbers of corporations are spending staggering amounts of cash to prevent the Green New Deal sponsored by Democrats from ever becoming law. But never mind that salient fact, since SSC is a Neoliberal site, this just gives it some more ammunition to bash the “incompetent” government. And why is government spending so low?
The Green New Deal is a loose set of ambitious goals outlined in a nonbinding resolution that calls for a global goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — but no policy specifics on how to get there. It is also an economic plan, which calls for massive federal investment, enhancing the social safety net, and millions of new jobs to overhaul the energy and infrastructure industries in the U.S
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced last month that he would put the resolution authored by New York Democratic freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., up for a vote. Republicans are trying to elevate the freshman lawmaker, who has described herself as a democratic socialist, and her ideas as emblematic of the Democratic Party going into 2020.
“In recent months our nation has watched the Democratic Party take a sharp and abrupt left turn toward socialism,” McConnell said earlier this month. “A flawed ideology that has been rejected time and again across the world is now driving the marquee policy proposals of the new House Democratic majority, and nothing encapsulates this as clearly as the huge, self-inflicted, national wound the Democrats are agitating for called the Green New Deal.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also started using Ocasio-Cortez in attack ads similar to the way the party campaigns have run against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for years. In a recent tweet attacking Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who is considering a run against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC said Castro “votes with AOC 94% of the time.” Castro is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. House Republican candidates are also using Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal in attack ads, like this one released Monday by former Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga., who lost in 2018 and is seeking a rematch for a suburban Atlanta district.
But it’s “government” (and NOT Republicans, mind you) that is bad. Riiight….As SSC points out:
In 2017, the foundation of billionaire William Hewlett (think Hewlett-Packard) pledged $600 million to fight climate change. One gift by one guy was almost twice the entire US federal government’s yearly spending on climate issues.
Gee, I wonder why that might be? SSC is gnomically silent. I guess government is just “bad”, amirite? It can’t possibly have anything to do with the bottomless pits of money fighting against any kind of environmental regulations, could it? And where, pray tell, might all that money be coming from? China? The moon? Martians?
I wish I could give a more detailed breakdown of how philanthropists vs. the government spend their money, but I can’t find the data. Considerations like the above make me think that philanthropists in general are better at focusing on the most important causes.
Of course they make you think that, because that’s the foregone conclusion you were heading to all along.
How government spends its (discretionary) money is theoretically decided by the American people themselves. But we’ve seen time and time again that the preferences of the average voter don’t matter one whit; only those of the donor class do. The very same donor class giving away all this wonderful charity money to poor people in Sudan, or helping animals, or whatever.
And, by the way, I’m sure SSC is taking into account how many people are saved from poverty by Social Security, and how many seniors are alive today because of Medicare, and so forth when it does it’s accounting of “ineffective” government versus “effective”private charities (that’s sarcasm by the way, folks).
#6 I realize there’s some very weak sense in which the US government represents me. But it’s really weak. Really, really weak. When I turn on the news and see the latest from the US government, I rarely find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I see they’re representing me very well today.”
Yet more Neoliberal government-bashing. Are you sensing a pattern here?
Well, he’s not alone—a lot of people think that, after all. But, once again, I’m left wondering, why on earth might that be??? Once again, SSC is mysteriously silent on this issue. Government must just inherently be “bad” and “ineffective” like the Neoliberals have been constantly telling us all along, right? Right???
Who really matters in our democracy — the general public, or wealthy elites? That’s the topic of a new study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. The study’s been getting lots of attention, because the authors conclude, basically, that the US is a corrupt oligarchy where ordinary voters barely matter…
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
“Economic elites and organized groups representing business,” eh? You mean, those same folks that SSC is busy bootlicking because of all the oats that are coming out of their asses to feed the hungry sparrows? Those guys?
Bill Gates has an approval rating of 76%, literally higher than God. Even Mark Zuckerberg has an approval rating of 24%, below God but still well above Congress. In a Georgetown university survey, the US public stated they had more confidence in philanthropy than in Congress, the court system, state governments, or local governments; Democrats (though not Republicans) also preferred philanthropy to the executive branch.
Okay, so earlier we dismissed popular opinion on Twitter; now we’re using popular polls to boost our case. Facts and logic!
Besides, what does the popularity of billionaire plutocrats, who have massive PR organizations at their disposal, matter at all? And how much can such polls be trusted? After all, who owns the media? Oh, yeah, that’s right, the plutocrats themselves!! (BTW that Bill Gates is more popular than God ought to scare the shit out of anyone, even Neoliberals).
Also, given that Big Business and sociopathic plutocrats have been waging an unremitting, fifty-year+ total war on “Big Government” using every resource available to them, I wonder if that might influence those poll numbers. But, in SSC’s world, that doesn’t exist, apparently.
When I see philanthropists try to save lives and cure diseases, I feel like there’s someone powerful out there who shares my values and represents me. Even when Elon Musk spends his money on awesome rockets, I feel that way, because there’s a part of me that would totally fritter away any fortune I got on awesome rockets. I’ve never gotten that feeling when I watch Congress. When I watch Congress, I feel a scary unbridgeable gulf between me and anybody who matters. And the polls suggest a lot of people agree with me.
It speaks volumes about Slate Star Codex (and the whole essay in general) that he sees people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos “representing him” when they “fritter away” billions of dollars on rocketships to Mars for themselves and their 1% pals. I could practically end the essay right here and now. As for me, I don’t feel that way; I feel exactly the same as Gil Scott-Heron in Whitey on the Moon. And while I’m guessing the average SSC reader is firmly ensconced in the former camp, seeing themselves as being on the winning side of the billionaries’ velvet rope, I’m willing to bet statistically that the majority of people feel more like I do (as indeed they should).
And, as a matter of fact, I do feel that politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and AOC represent me (even if they don’t literally represent me since I don’t reside in their states), moreso than Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg (whom I can’t vote for, either). I wish we had more politicians like them. Note, also, that none of those politicians above are billionaires, or are funded by billionaire sugar daddies.
#7 Shouldn’t people who disagree with the government’s priorities fight to change the government, not go off and do their own thing?
Well, the plutocrats have already spent countless billions of dollars changing the government—they just changed it for their own advantage, and to the detriment of everybody else. They’re also spending billions of dollars to make sure it stays that way.
The money spent on lobbying is conspicuously absent from this article. Extreme taking followed by extreme giving. But the taking part is never mentioned. It’s like it doesn’t exist.
Then, SSC launches into some bizarre analogy between the democratically-elected U.S. government and the Church of Scientology (?) that makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. They’re really grasping at straws here. I guess “facts and logic” don’t matter so much after all when you’re slinging the shit for Neoliberalism. Seriously, go there and read for yourself just how bizarre this is.
Also, do you realize how monumental a task “reform the government” is? There are thousands of well-funded organizations full of highly-talented people trying to reform the government at any given moment, and they’re all locked in a tug-of-war death match reminiscent of that one church in Jerusalem where nobody has been able to remove a ladder for three hundred years
“Do I realize how monumental a task ‘reforming the government’ is?”
Well, no I don’t, but I know some folks who do. Their names are Charles and David Koch, and they know exactly what it takes to “reform” the government, since they’ve doing exactly that over the last forty-odd years, and they’ve largely succeeded in their task. And there are many more like them: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, The Federalist Society, etc.—far too many to name or count. We’ve encountered quite a few of them already.
And if you don’t think that the government has been “reformed”—exclusively for the benefit of the Chamber of Commerce and the investor/ownership class, mind you—then you are clearly a simpering idiot, and no one should pay any attention to anything you have to say ever again. The “ladder” has indeed moved, just for the benefit of certain people, exclusively.
Incidentally, another guy who has some idea of what it takes is named Bernie Sanders. Why, I wonder, have these benevolent billionaires not donated one solitary cent to him (but have donated to more status-quo-favoring Democratic candidates and Republicans – mostly to Republicans). In fact, not only have they not donated anything to him, they are almost unanimous in their opposition to his very candidacy, as Bernie himself has proudly acknowledged.
9. Does billionaire philanthropy threaten pluralism?
I really don’t understand this one. This isn’t really a common argument against depriving the government of revenue in favor of private charity with strings attached; SSC just seems to include it for no other reason that to include an argument which can be easily dismissed. Sort of “Washington Generals” argument, I guess. It does give us this gem, however:
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsors research into mental health uses of psychedelic drugs. You might have heard of them in the context of their study of MDMA (Ecstasy) for PTSD being “astoundingly” successful. They’re on track to get MDMA FDA-approved and potentially inaugurate a new era in psychiatry. This is one of those 1000x opportunities that effective altruists dream of. The government hasn’t given this a drop of funding, because its official position is that Drugs Are Bad.
Wow, using psychedelic research to justify private charity? That’s some next-level chutzpah right there! That’s killing your parents and begging the court for clemency because you’re an orphan.
Again, why, exactly, does the government (in the U.S.) believe that “Drugs are Bad?” SSC doesn’t say. Certainly the American people themselves don’t believe that, especially not with efforts towards decriminalization and legalization taking place all over the country (not to mention the enthusiastic drug use by citizens themselves!). So who exactly does believe that?
Well, we know that psychedelics were legal at one point. We also know that Nixon administration officials have since freely admitted that they were criminalized expressly to go after and eviscerate the anti-war movement and civil rights campaigns. And the Nixon administration was hardly an enemy of the plutocratic class; rather, he was following the dictates of the Powell Memorandum almost to a tee.
And now that bald, naked attempt at smashing the Left in this country is being used as a rationale for starving the government of funds and relying on the charity of unaccountable billionaire plutocrats? As I said, next-level chutzpah!
Or: in 2001, under pressure from Christian conservatives, President Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research. Stem cell scientists began leaving the US or going into other area of work. The field survived thanks to billionaires stepping up to provide the support the government wouldn’t…
This one is even more outrageous. Unlike the Drug War, where the blame can be spread around between both parties, this one is exclusively a product of one single branch of one single party: the radical Fundamentalist Evangelical Republicans. Ironically the same ones who reliably run on a platform of how “ineffective” the government is, how taxes are “theft,” how we need to “cut spending”, how poor people are “lazy,” etc., etc.
Or: despite controversy over “government funding of Planned Parenthood”, political considerations have seriously limited the amount of funding the US government can give contraceptive research. It was multimillionaire heiress Katharine McCormick who funded the research into what would become the first combined oral contraceptive pill.
Ummm, are you seeing a pattern here, folks? Because SSC sure doesn’t.
Aren’t these really just arguments for the Republican Party being banished from ever holding the levers of power at any time in this country?
This point is partly addressed by the next bullet point:
9. Aren’t the failures of government just due to Donald Trump or people like him? Won’t they hopefully get better soon?
Sounds like a good argument. What could be wrong with this one?
My whole point is that if you force everyone to centralize all money and power into one giant organization with a single point of failure, then when that single point of failure fails, you’re really screwed.
Remember that when people say decisions should be made through democratic institutions, in practice that often means the decisions get made by Donald Trump, who was democratically elected…
“Democratically elected?” Er, no he wasn’t. He won because of the Electoral College. Only in the most pettifogging sense could he be considered “democratically elected.” And, thanks to gerrymandering and the concentration of the population into urban areas, less and less of our representatives are being “democratically elected” with every passing year. And let’s not even get into the fact of how much the election was influenced by foreign interference.
Also, the government isn’t a “single point of failure.” There are fifty state governments, plus D.C., plus United States territories. Every single one of them is being bled dry of necessary revenue because of the actions of venal billionaire plutocrats and legalized bribery. How many cities have built brand-new sparkling sports venues for privately-owned sports teams, even while cutting budgets for university systems, as was done here in Wisconsin? How much money has been shilled out as corporate welfare to private corporations, such as Foxconn (also here in Wisconsin). And how can we forget Jeff Bezos infamously playing cities against each other in order to get the biggest taxpayer-funded bonanza to secure his shiny new headquarters.
Shit like that is exactly what we’re taking about when we talk about the “extreme taking” part of the equation.
In fact, the actions of politically-active plutocrats like the Koch Brothers are concentrated even more intensely at the state level than at the Federal level. And they’re hardly absent from municipal politics either, fighting against widely-supported initiatives like minimum wage increases and mandatory sick leave which would benefit literally tens of thousands of struggling American citizens all over the country (sorry Sudan—you’re on your own).
But, hey, I’m sure that donation to the symphony will make up for it, eh?
Besides, even if the Federal government were a so-called “single point of failure” (which disproportionately tends to fail when Republicans are in charge), it also has vastly more resources to alleviate poverty and solve big problems than any private charity. And that includes a license to print money, if only we would let it. Er, I mean, if only they would let us.
In fact, we can do whatever we want. Money doesn’t grow on rich people.
This point is even made by SSC in the essay itself:
8. The yearly federal budget is $4 trillion. The yearly billionaire philanthropy budget is about $10 billion, 400 times smaller.
For context, the California government recently admitted that its high-speed rail project was going to be $40 billion over budget (it may also never get built). The cost overruns alone on a single state government project equal four years of all the charity spending by all the billionaires in the country.
Compared to government spending, Big Philanthropy is a rounding error. If the whole field were taxed completely out of existence, all its money wouldn’t serve to cover the cost overruns on a single train line.
So, charity spending by plutocrats is both more effective than taxes, and also insignificant. Which is it? (also, notice the subtle Neoliberal swipe at “wasteful” government spending on infrastructure. Classy!).
To a large extent, I would be far less hostile to efforts of private charity if they didn’t occur simultaneously with the constant, unremitting message pouring out from the billionaire class and their bought-and-paid-for corporate media shills that the United States is “broke” and cannot afford to pay for basic things like universal single-payer healthcare, free higher education, decarbonizing our energy infrastructure, or about a million other essential things that we’re told are “utopian” and simply “unaffordable” in a country that has more millionaires and billionaires than any other country on earth. But I don’t see that stopping anytime soon—in fact, it’s intensifying. Again, it bears repeating that the politicians who support these things (Sanders, AOC, et. al.) are vigorously opposed by this supposedly “benevolent” plutocrat class:
We could start with the 16 negative stories the [Washington] Post ran in 16 hours, and follow that up with the four different Sanders-bashing pieces the paper put out in seven hours based on a single think tank study.
Or you could take the many occasions on which the Post‘s factchecking team performed impressive contortions to interpret Sander’s fact-based statements as meriting multiple “Pinocchios”. In particular, we might observe the time the Post “factchecked” Sanders’ claim that the world’s six wealthiest people are worth as much as half the global population. It just so happens that one of those six multi-billionaires is [Jeff] Bezos, which would make an ethical journalist extra careful not to show favoritism.
Instead, after acknowledging that Sanders was, in fact, correct, the paper’s Nicole Lewis awarded him “three Pinocchios”—a rating that indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” This is because, the paper explained, even though the number comes from a reputable nonpartisan source, Oxfam, which got its data from Credit Suisse, “It’s hard to make heads or tails of what wealth actually means, with respect to people’s daily lives around the globe.”
Now, for the big conclusion, which is just as insipid as the rest of the post.
So you’re saying these considerations about pluralism and representation and so on justify billionaire philanthropy?
Is he saying that? After all that, I still can’t tell.
The Gates Foundation plausibly saved ten million lives. Moskovitz and Tuna saved a hundred million animals from excruciatingly painful conditions. Norman Borlaug’s agricultural research (supported by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation) plausibly saved one billion people.
That’s nice, but totally irrelevant to the point: extreme taking followed by extreme giving. It only looks at half of that equation, and totally ignores the other half, thus becoming a straw man argument.
How many people have died over the past half-century because of draconian debt repayments demanded by banks from indebted third-world countries? And who is responsible for that?
Does one cancel out the other? Do two wrongs make a right?
Besides, we could sling around factoids all day and sill not prove anything. How many lives have improved building codes (aka “evil” regulations) saved? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand? How about efficient municipal sanitation? Last time I checked, Flint still has lead in its drinking water. How about legally-required seat belts, which were fought against for years by big business (along with smoking prevention)?
Billionaire charity is filling a vacuum that should not be there in the first place.
I always have mixed feelings about the idea that news of the type “[Billionaire] donates to solve [horrific problem that should have been solved eons ago by officials]” because people should not be dependent on the generosity of the ultra-rich for basic human needs to be met. It reminds me of the time a local news program did a story on a girl who was selling ribbons and baked goods to raise money for cancer treatment that she needed and framed it as uplifting – “Look at this girl go!” That’s not uplifting, it’s a national disgrace that that girl receiving life saving medical treatment was dependent on how much she could fundraise.
These accomplishments – and other similar victories over famine, disease, and misery – are plausibly the best things that have happened in the past century. All the hot-button issues we usually care about pale before them. Think of how valuable one person’s life is – a friend, a family member, yourself – then try multiplying that by ten million or a billion or whatever, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t represent those kinds of quantities anyway. Anything that makes these kinds of victories even a little less likely would be a disaster for human welfare.
Agreed. Oh, and by the way, depriving governments of the necessary resources to save lives and improve the welfare of its citizens, and blocking desperately-needed social reforms that might slightly threaten profits, also makes these kinds of victories (more than) just a little less likely as well. And I also happen to believe that donating modest (for them) sums to the charities of their choice does not make up for the unrepentant ratfuckery and skullduggery perpetrated by the one-percent billionaire elite class all over the world against the rest of us since the rise of Neoliberalism.
The researchers found that states that expanded Medicaid saw higher rates of enrollment and lower rates of uninsurance. Among the 55- to 64-year-olds studied, researchers found, receiving Medicaid “reduced the probability of mortality over a 16 month period by about 1.6 percentage points, or a decline of 70 percent.” Based on their findings, they estimate that states’ refusal to expand the program led to 15,600 additional deaths.
This is in line with a growing body of research that shows Medicaid expansion has not only vastly increased access to health insurance, but also improved health outcomes. About 13.6 million adults gained Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.
In 2017, the Royal Society of Medicine said that government austerity decisions in health and social care were likely to have resulted in 30,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2015…The rate of increase in life expectancy in England nearly halved between 2010 and 2017, according to research by epidemiology professor Michael Marmot. He commented that it was “entirely possible” that austerity was the cause and said: “If we don’t spend appropriately on social care, if we don’t spend appropriately on health care, the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life, too.”
A paper released by the British Medical Journal in November 2017 estimated that the government austerity programme caused around 120,000 excess deaths since 2010. By 2018 figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) were showing a fall in life expectancy for those in poorer socioeconomic groups and those living in deprived areas, while average UK life expectancy had stopped improving. Public Health England was asked to carry out a review of life expectancy trends but government ministers said that the arguments put forward by some academics, that austerity had contributed to the change, could not be proved. ONS figures published in 2018 indicated that the slowdown in general life expectancy increase was one of the highest among a group of 20 of the world’s leading economies.
United Kingdom government austerity programme (Wikipedia)
Neoliberalism kills. Extreme taking followed by extreme giving, indeed. I wonder if SSC has an equal space in their heart for the people collapsing on the floors of Amazon warehouses from heat stroke and urinating in trash cans.
Probably not. Might reduce Bezos’ donations.
The main argument against against billionaire philanthropy is that the lives and welfare of millions of the neediest people matter more than whatever point you can make by risking them. Criticize the existence of billionaires in general, criticize billionaires’ spending on yachts or mansions. But if you only criticize billionaires when they’re trying to save lives, you risk collateral damage to everything we care about.
Well, I’m criticizing the billionaires for a hell of a lot more than that.
Here’s the thing: The argument is not—repeat NOT—that the wealthy shouldn’t donate some of their money to worthy causes. It never has been. That’s a straw man.
It’s criticizing the culture of extreme taking followed by extreme giving.
The argument is that they do this whilst at the same time as bending governments their will, dictating policy, blocking any kind of social reform, abusing and treating their own workers like human garbage, and spending unlimited funds blocking badly needed social reforms that would slightly inconvenience them or reduce their ungodly profits by even negligible amounts.
It’s also asserting that the cost of billionaires assuming the power to alter our world does, indeed, come at the expense of other equally pressing social needs.
It reminds me of the whole discussion surrounding golden rice. If you opposed handing poor farmers this genetically-modified rice produced by agribusiness corporations, you were a sociopathic monster who wanted children to go blind. But if you wanted to alter the economic system so that farmers could actually afford to purchase a variety of foods to ensure adequate nutrition—or even grow their own vitamin rich foods—well, then, you were a pie-in-the-sky utopian who didn’t understand economics.
To which I replied, if that’s the case well, then, fuck economics. Who is the real monster here???
The way I see it, the argument that private charity is “superior” than government at solving pressing social problems rests entirely on the fact that Big Business has gutted and undermined democratic governments around the world for at least the past fifty years.
They then turn around and use the subsequent failures of government as a justification for seizing ever-more of the commons for themselves and their corrupt, sheltered offspring.
And that, my friends, is the primrose path to Neofeudalism in a nutshell. It’s the Road to Serfdom, except this one is real and it’s happening right now, in front of our very eyes, not due to too much democracy, but too little.
I guess I have to repeat this over and over again until it sinks in: The plutocrats fund Trojan Horse candidates who undermine the viability of democratic governments at every opportunity, and have done for at least the last half-century. They then use the resulting “failures” and “ineffectiveness” of government as an argument and an excuse to hand them ever more power and control over society and its limited resources. Power which is accountable to no one. Resources which are theirs, and theirs alone. And this puerile, blatantly-biased, pathetically-reasoned joke of an essay by SSC is entirely in that vein. And it should put to rest any doubts that SSC isn’t an expressly political project designed to benefit the One Percent elites and catapult pure Neoliberal propaganda under the guise of “reason” and “enlightened centrismTM.”
SSC’s whole argument here basically boils down to this: better be kind to the billionaires, because it sure would be shame if anything happened to deprive those poor, suffering recipients of their largesse. I mean, you wouldn’t actually want to make this political, would you?
Basically a Mob shakedown. “Nice place you got here. Sure would be shame if anything happened to it. I and my associates can make sure that such an unfortunate thing doesn’t happen. Oh, and be sure to kiss my ring when you hand over the cash.”
And this is the best the vaunted “enlightened centrist” Neoliberal “fact and logic” crowd can do? The Neoliberals are seeing a global rebellion against their failed ideas everywhere they turn, and are getting increasingly scared and desperate. This is clearly a sign of that.
But, hey, at least their book reviews are good. Check out the latest on one of my personal favorites, Secular Cycles. The one of The Secret of Our Success is good too.