Ideas About the End of the World

1.

I’ve maintained for years, and am on record as saying that the amount of jobs that are truly necessary to keep society running is probably only about 25 percent, and the rest is useless busywork that exists for no other reason than the fact that we must earn a paycheck to justify our continued existence on this planet; i.e. be economically useful to someone else in order to survive.

Events of the past few weeks have mostly borne that out, although maybe that number may be closer to 50 percent. Perhaps 75%. It is certainly less than 100%.
It’s a really grim way to run an experiment, and I would never wish it to happen the way it did, but there it is.

What this means is that much of the amount of economic activity that is going on most days is counterproductive and useless.

If we only need 75% of the economic activity that goes on, we should share that activity among 100% of the workforce. That means people will be able to work a lot less.

What we shouldn’t do is just toss 25% on the unemployment lines and tell them to go fend for themselves.

In other words, it’s not the work that’s necessary but the jobs.

And the only point of the jobs is to make sure the people who have them can pay for food and shelter (at least).

This is insane! There’s got to be a better way.

It reminds me of the dystopia envisioned by Nick Bostrom:

Bostrom [raises] the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves…

The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And [Allen] Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.

Meditations on Moloch (Slate Star Codex)

Perfect description of late-stage capitalism, don’t you think?

2.

And who are the most important people?

It’s not the celebrities and CEOs. It’s not the “visionary” entrepreneurs. It’s not corporate executives. It’s not the Wall Street financiers, hedge fund managers, bankers, and other assorted “Masters of the Universe” (who are busy scheming up ways to profit off the crisis). It’s not even most of the vaunted Professional Managerial Class (PMC).

No, it’s the people who we’ve always known are the backbone of society: food service workers, grocery store clerks, shelf-stockers, truckers, doctors, nurses, technicians, farmers, butchers, factory workers, delivery carriers, etc.

It’s they who make society run. The people who keep the lights on and food on the shelves. The people who keep order and make sure the sick and injured are treated.

It’s the people who’ve seen their wages stagnate for a generation.

It’s the people whose productivity has soared during that time, yet have seen none of the economic gains.

It’s the people who get the lowest pay fewest benefits in our society, because we say the only things you are entitled to are what you can claw free from the impersonal “free” Market, and nothing else.

In America, the idea has developed over the past few decades that the Ayn-Randian-styled “makers”—the wealthy investors, entrepreneurs and CEOs—are the source of all our wealth and prosperity, while the rest of us ninety-nine percent are merely parasitical “takers” who sponge off their “greatness.” It’s become an article of faith among many segments of society.

This should kill that idea dead forever. Dead, permanently. Bereft of life. Off to join the choir invisible.

In fact, it is the CEOs and financiers who are parasitical on their workers, just as Marxists described. If they “went Galt,” no one would notice. In fact, we might even be better off. Of course, some executives are running critical businesses. But their role as paid managers is still the most critical aspect of their jobs.

It is workers who make society function, not executives, financiers and CEOs. Period. If there are water drinkers and water carriers, the CEOs and the investor class are the drinkers, and the farmers, nurses, shelf-stockers, truckers and technicians are carrying the water for the rest of us. It’s about time they get what they deserve–a bigger share of the pie.

David Graeber noted that under modern capitalism pay and benefits seem to be inversely correlated with how essential your job is to keep society functioning.

Instead, it is the Bullshit Jobs that get the highest pay and benefits (most of which are probably being done from home now). It’s time that came to an end.

In California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and elsewhere, state governments have rolled out increasingly strict orders to enforce social distancing and close all businesses except those deemed “essential” or “life-sustaining.” While these lists vary from state to state, each includes grocery stores, laundromats, restaurants (serving takeout and delivery), factories that produce foodstuffs and other products, gas stations, pharmacies, and hospitals.

What do all of these businesses have in common? They rely on the labor of low-wage workers who, in many cases, toil without benefits, unions, and workplace protections. Public workers are still on the clock, too, cleaning our streets, delivering our mail, and making sure we have access to utilities and other social services. While many government workers have unions, they are often accorded the same lack of respect as their low-wage, private-sector counterparts.

But imagine a global pandemic without postal workers or UPS drivers getting us our messages and packages; without cashiers and stockers keeping grocery stores up and running and full of food; without care and domestic workers providing life-saving medical and emotional support to some of society’s most at-risk people; without utility workers making sure we have a supply of water, electricity, and gas; without laundromat workers enabling us to clean our clothes, towels, and sheets; without sanitation workers collecting our trash and slowing the spread of germs…

…what does it say about our country when the jobs that are most critical to sustaining life at its basic level are also some of the lowest paid and least valued? Grocery store workers and first responders are exposing themselves to a massive health crisis in order to keep the rest of us functioning as normally as possible. Many of them work for minimum wage or close to it — and without health benefits — meaning that they could contract coronavirus and get stuck with either a massive bill or no health care at all. Meanwhile, with many school districts closed indefinitely, parents are missing the critical and challenging work done every day by nannies, childcare workers, and educators of all kinds.

These workers have a right to higher wages, full benefits, health and safety guarantees, and strong unions — just like every other worker.

Workers are More Valuable Than CEOs (Jacobin)

3.

A lot has been written about how ideas previously unthinkable are now considered within the bounds of possibility.

One often-mentioned idea is that of the Universal Basic Income (UBI).

It turns out that society goes on functioning just as well even if a lot of us just say home (as I noted above).

Why not pay people to do that? Why not take all the excess drivers off the road, remove all the excess pollution, alleviate all the excess stress?

We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that every job is necessary simply because it exists. That has been proven to be false.

If society can by on a lot less people working, why shouldn’t it?

And we should find a way to take care of those not working, rather than throw them under the bus. That could be UBI or a Job Guarantee. And it certianly should include working a lot less.

Universal health care, paid sick leave for all, vacation time for all, universal basic income—it’s time these get on the radar. Finally, proponents have more than enough information to insist on the need for them. Maybe it’s time for unions and labor militancy to finally make a comeback. It’s about damn time.

Workers at McDonald’s, Waffle House and other fast-food and retail outlets have gone on strike today across Durham and Raleigh in North Carolina in protest against unsafe working conditions, lost hours and pay cuts.

The workers are demanding increased safety protocols and payment for lost hours as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fast-food companies have been designated as essential services and can remain open, but the strikers say they have treated their workers as anything but essential, failing to protect them against infections and laying them off as soon as they are not needed.

“Frontline workers like us are getting hit the hardest right now,” said Rita Blalock, a McDonald’s cook in Raleigh. “McDonald’s is calling itself an “essential business’ but isn’t providing us with the essential protections we need to be safe at work.”

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2020/mar/27/coronavirus-us-live-news-trump-stimulus-vote-house-thomas-massie-latest-updates?page=with:block-5e7e46fe8f081e5eda238394#block-5e7e46fe8f081e5eda238394

Yet as might be expected, the minions of Kochenomics are arguing that now is in fact the perfect time to lower minimum wages!

Most likely, we should lower current minimum wages. And that is all the more true, the more you have been worrying about coronavirus risk and Trump’s poor performance in response. These are all very simple points, I am tempted to say they are “not even Econ 101.”

Minimum Wage Hikes are a Much Worse Idea Now. (Marginal Revolution)

What an utterly nihilistic, morally bankrupt, sociopathic philosophy. These people really do deserve to be up against a wall.

4.

Will this event finally be the wakeup call that MMT is fundamentally correct?

It damn well should.

How can anyone seriously still continue to assert that taxes fund government spending???

The U.S. government just somehow came up with two trillion dollars in spending! The Fed is injecting, by some estimates, a trillion dollars a day in liquidity and credit to keep Markets afloat.

Where did that money come from? Are they checking the government’s vaults and balance sheets? Are they making sure that the government has enough money stashed away somewhere in its accounts to pay for all of the things that they are proposing? Are they rummaging through the couch looking for loose change?

Are they going to have to wait until April 15th when all the taxes come due to see whether or not we’ve taken in enough revenue from the public to “pay for” all of the things the government is proposing to deal with the ongoing crisis?

Are they going to drastically increase taxes right now in the midst of a pandemic in order to “raise” all the money necessary to accomplish these things? With unemployment at record highs, where are the incomes and private-sector profits supposedly needed to fund all these government initiatives going to come from?
Aren’t we told by the usual choads that the government needs to get money from somewhere “out there” in order to pay for its operations? Doesn’t the government have to “steal” money from private enterprise to do anything at all?

Is the government going to borrow the money from people who somehow magically have money right now available to lend to it? Are they going to borrow money from China—the very place where the virus originated?

Of course not!

All the above notions are absolutely preposterous. Yet we’re constantly told by craven politicians and the corporate media that taxes fund government spending; that the government is just like a household; and that we always need to balance our books.

As I’ve said, when it comes to bailing out the rich and powerful, there’s always an infinite amount of money. When it comes to helping the average American, well then, Howyagunnapayforit?

For example, when it comes to a universal health system in America that will save money and lives in the long run, what do you hear? Howyagunnapayforit?

What have we heard over and over again any time Bernie Sanders mentions doing anything at all? Time and time again, Neoliberal Democratic candidates wagged their fingers at us and assured us that we can’t afford all this “free stuff.” In fact, most of the Democratic candidates explicitly ran a platform of preventing giving the American people the same benefits that that citizens of every other industrialized nation enjoy. Now those very same Neoliberal Democrats are writing blank checks to corporations and the rich along with the Republicans they supposedly “oppose.” Socialism for the rich and “rugged individualism” for the rest of us.

It’s time for this charade to end.

The idea that we are somehow “broke” or out of money is another fairy tale that deserves to die, stone cold dead.

Taxes don’t fund government spending, and the government is not like a household.

Maybe people will finally get the message.

4.

The only thing that matters is resources. Real resources. Money is simply a tool for utilizing resources. That’s what it’s for, not sitting in the accounts of billionaires and bankers, idle. Or inflating the value of choice real estate, yachts, and rare artwork.

No amount of money in the world can get you a respirator when you don’t have one. No amount of money can conjure a vaccine where none exists.

For too long, we’ve obsessed over making the numbers go up, and neglected real resources that money is supposed to enable society to produce—health care, infrastructure, education, etc.

A lot of times MMT gets criticized for being obsessed over money printing in the absence of real resources. But the exact opposite is true! MMT recognizes that is only the resources that truly matter, not numbers on a spreadsheet, and that money is a tool for utilizing real resources, whether those are respirators or solar panels. In fact, MMT is the only economic school of thought that seems to pay attention to real resources above everything else.

5.

Given the fact that we’re entering a dark period very similar to the Great Depression and World War Two, it sure would be nice if there were a transformative political candidate running for office at this time who based his entire career and political ideas on those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Too bad there’s no such political candidate like that running right now.

Oh, wait a minute, of course there is!!!

Circumstances just keep slapping us upside the head telling us to change course and vote for Bernie Sanders. Will the Democratic voters listen? Even the proverbial “suburban soccer mom” who is the Dems’ idealized voter is not immune to Coronavirus and health care bills.

We need transformative change. If this isn’t a sufficient wakeup call, then what will it take???

Seriously, what will it take????

AHIP confirmed that out-of-pocket expenses for the treatment would not be waived, and could cost patients thousands of dollars. The average amount for someone admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, a respiratory condition that many coronavirus patients are facing, was $20,000 in 2018 for patients covered by private insurance, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Peterson.

That could leave many people falling back on the age-old American dilemma: get healthcare or lose all financial security. And it could leave physicians finding loopholes and workarounds to stay afloat.

“Insurance companies are not beholden to the patient, they are beholden to the shareholder,” Hollander said.

US private health insurance companies clog system amid Covid-19 pandemic (Guardian)

Mass Job Cuts Across U.S. Threaten to Leave Millions Without Health Insurance (Bloomberg)

Teen Who Died of Covid-19 Was Denied Treatment Because He Didn’t Have Health Insurance (Gizmodo)

And yet, health insurance industry profits are higher than ever:

But remember, Bernie is “extreme” and Joe Biden is “electable.” *Sigh*.

5.

Is there anything more ghoulish, more horrifying, than calls to sacrifice human lives for the sake of “the economy?”

Yes, the economic devastation could claim more lives than the pandemic. But that’s up to us. It’s a choice. We have control over the economy. We have no control over the virus.

The rules of money are entirely arbitrary. Money is IOUs enforced by the rule of law. That’s it. Those relations that give rise to money can be conjured, extinguished, and renegotiated. There is no fixed “lump of money” in the world. Claims are not sacrosanct. It’s a game with rules made by us, and they can be altered or changed by us at any time.

Yet people are told they must get “back to work” to make sure that the stock market and economic indicators go up.

Trump seems to have channeled Lord Farquaad: “Many of you will die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

I’ve even seen people making an analogy I’ve often made: the Market as a god who demands human sacrifices.

The health of “the economy” is more important than the health of the actual people in it! It’s insane!

The coronavirus crisis in the United States is only just beginning. But it’s not too early for some Americans to flout social distancing and isolation guidelines and return to work, according to some executives.

Dick Kovacevich, the former CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo, told Bloomberg News that healthy workers under the age of 55 should return to work in April if the outbreak is controlled, saying that “some may even die” with his plan.

“We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” said Kovacevich, a current executive at Cisco and Cargill. “Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.”

‘Some may even die, I don’t know’: Former Wells Fargo CEO wants people to go back to work and ‘see what happens’ (Business Insider)

A lot of people like to scream from the rooftops and wave the bloody shirt over how many people Communism has killed. But I wonder if the victims of Coronoavirus will be added to the body count of laissez-faire capitalism. Don’t bet on it. The argument was disingenuous from the start.

Now is the time to renegotiate the social contract.

6.

Those of us who remember the fears over Peak Oil are surely reeling from the irony that, even as the worst-case scenario of economies collapsing, mass unemployment, shelves stripped bare of goods, hoarding, ATMs not dispensing cash, people stockpiling firearms, soldiers patrolling the streets, and potential rationing, the price of oil is at an all-time low!

In fact, it’s so abundant that they’re literally running out of places to store the stuff.

Who saw that coming in 2008? We were looking for collapse in the wrong place all this time.

7.

And this apocalypse was totally, 100% predictable.

“Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened,” Trump said.

In fact, the US intelligence community, public health experts and officials in Trump’s own administration had warned for years that the country was at risk from a pandemic, including specific warnings about a coronavirus outbreak.

When this strain of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was identified in Wuhan, China in early January, health experts immediately cautioned that it could turn into a global health crisis.

“This was foreseeable and foreseen, weeks and months ago, and only now is the White House coming out of denial and heading straight into saying it could not have been foreseen,” Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told CNN on Sunday.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2020/mar/26/coronavirus-us-live-house-vote-2tn-stimulus-package-bill-senate-news-updates-trump?page=with:block-5e7d272b8f0878a2a48ab0ad#block-5e7d272b8f0878a2a48ab0ad

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”

How the Pandemic Will End (Atlantic)

Which raises the question: what about all the other crises coming down the pike that are totally, 100% predictable? What about them???

The biggest one is, of course, climate change. We’ve been warned for decades that this is coming. It’s effects are being seen right now. Yet the political class is still in denial.

Another one I’ve seen much more often due to empty shelves is food security. This has exposed just how fragile our food system is.

This week, it’s become clear to many Americans that this highly consolidated, monoculture-based food system is at least somewhat fragile—and thus dangerous in times of calamity. Diversity should not just extend to the types of things we grow in the U.S., but also to the sizes and sorts of agricultural entities we represent. This hodgepodge—farms, dairies, ranches, slaughterhouses, packing and distribution facilities, grocers and markets, delivery services and roadside stands—could offer us elasticity and strength. If Costcos and Wal-Marts are able to bear the brunt of the nation’s panic right now, good for them. But if we could relieve some of that pressure and uncertainty by bolstering local markets and farm sales, it would both increase Americans’ peace of mind and help build resiliency into our food system.

Yet here in the U.S., we’ve used federal dollars to weaken this sort of food system. We’ve encouraged agricultural consolidation since the last century, urging farmers to “get big or get out,” fostering homogenization in the array of foods we grow and the types of farms and agribusinesses we represent.

Imagine, in contrast, the comfort in knowing that five miles from your house, there’s a farm that will deliver a box of vegetables to your doorstep. (And that it is only one of several local options to choose from.) Imagine if, rather than depending entirely on a local supermarket’s freezer section (and thus also on a slaughterhouse hundreds of miles away) for your meat, you already had a half-cow in your freezer right now. Imagine if you could swing by the farmers’ market this Saturday, enjoy some fresh air, and pick up eggs, milk, and butter that had passed through only a few pairs of hands. Many of these markets work to provide fresh local produce to food stamp recipients, so that the food is not too cost-prohibitive. Most depend entirely on a local customer base to flourish and thrive.

Our Monoculture Food Supply is a Potential Coronavirus Calamity (The American Conservative)

It’s not just grocery shoppers who are hoarding pantry staples. Some governments are moving to secure domestic food supplies during the conoravirus pandemic.

Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest shippers of wheat flour, banned exports of that product along with others, including carrots, sugar and potatoes. Vietnam temporarily suspended new rice export contracts. Serbia has stopped the flow of its sunflower oil and other goods, while Russia is leaving the door open to shipment bans and said it’s assessing the situation weekly.

To be perfectly clear, there have been just a handful of moves and no sure signs that much more is on the horizon. Still, what’s been happening has raised a question: Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows?

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security (Naked Capitalism)

For years, many of us have been touting the need to downscale and relocalize our food supply and make it more resilient. We can’t rely on the “3,000-mile Caesar Salad” anymore. We’ve also been calling for a drastic rethink of how we do agriculture.

It also turns out that moving our entire industrial base to the Global South to save money wasn’t such a great idea after all. It turns out the the long, fragile, fragmented, just-in-time supply chains don’t work when there’s a global calamity. And there’s bound to be a whole lot more of the them in the future.

Instead, we spent the last few decades listening to the economics priesthood touting the money calculus. As if the money calculus were more “real” than actual goods.

A large body of evidence is beginning to accumulate showing how climate breakdown is likely to affect our food supply. Already farming in some parts of the world is being hammered by drought, floods, fire and locusts (whose resurgence in the past few weeks appears to be the result of anomalous tropical cyclones). When we call such hazards “biblical”, we mean that they are the kind of things that happened long ago, to people whose lives we can scarcely imagine. Now, with increasing frequency, they are happening to us.

In his forthcoming book, Our Final Warning, Mark Lynas explains what is likely to happen to our food supply with every extra degree of global heating. He finds that extreme danger kicks in somewhere between 3C and 4C above pre-industrial levels. At this point, a series of interlocking impacts threatens to send food production into a death spiral. Outdoor temperatures become too high for humans to tolerate, making subsistence farming impossible across Africa and South Asia. Livestock die from heat stress. Temperatures start to exceed the lethal thresholds for crop plants across much of the world, and major food producing regions turn into dust bowls. Simultaneous global harvest failure – something that has never happened in the modern world – becomes highly likely.

In combination with a rising human population, and the loss of irrigation water, soil and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine…

Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation (George Monbiot, The Guardian)

A sharp economic downturn was inevitable even before this crisis hit. Everyone knew we were in a bubble, and bad debts had not gone away after the last crisis.

Let’s not forget about antibiotic resistance. That’s not gone away, either.

And Peak Oil isn’t gone forever. The laws of physics have not been repealed. It’s yet another “slow moving catastrophe” that’s totally predictable but we’re not prepared for.

8.

When did political conservatism become denialism?

It seems like leaders on the Right all over the world tend to downplay the potential risks of absolutely everything. We’ve already seen it with climate change. Now it’s the same thing with the pandemic. Right-wing authoritarian leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro were busy denying that there was anything to worry about, and that it was just a media fabrication (“fake news”):

The federal government led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been trying to downplay the severity of the threat facing the country ever since experts around the world first sounded the alarm about the highly contagious virus in early January.

So far, the president has claimed that the disease is just “a fantasy” and “a little flu”, accused the media of fuelling hysteria by reporting on the death toll in Italy, encouraged – and even attended – a series of pro-government street demonstrations across the country and supported religious leaders who refused to close down churches and evangelical temples in response to the pandemic.

When it was revealed that at least 23 members of his entourage have been infected with the virus, he not only refused to remain in isolation, but made a point of shaking hands with his supporters and taking selfies with their mobile phones. The president later claimed that he tested negative for the virus, but refused to make the results of the diagnostic test public.

Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 denial will devastate vulnerable Brazilians (Al Jazeera)

Meanwhile, Trump’s response:

1. Call it “fake news” or a hoax.
2. Worry about the Dow Jones.
3. Openly contradict the experts.
4. Promise unrealistic solutions.
5. Set a totally unrealistic, arbitrary date for business as usual.

And right-wing media in this country have been collectively downplaying the virus since it first emerged on the radar. “It’s nothing, just the flu, go about your business as usual,” was the unified message. Either that, or peddling outrageous conspiracy theories about government bioweapons, or how it was all a manufactured media ploy to bring down Trump. Even on the national level, “Red” states are flouting reasonable precautions, while politicians in “Blue” states are doing everything possible to contain the spread and take care of their people.

It’s like the entire modern conservative movement is just an exercise in denial.

And notice how any warnings about potential problems on the horizon are dismissed as “Leftism” in the popular press. Whether it’s food security, climate change, peak oil, political authoritarianism, emerging diseases, antibiotic resistance, or what have you–the people who have been banging the drum about these issues for years are dismissed by right-wing corporate media as “liberals” and “leftists.” The only threat the Right take seriously is terrorism.

So the new definition of “Leftism” is living in reality, apparently. And Right wing “conservatism” is denying potential crises, even as they manifest themselves in real time. I wonder, what exactly are the conserving?

It’s tempting to see this as a modern phenomenon, but as viewers of The Crown might recall, during the Great Smog of London while thousands of people fell ill from air pollution and many died, Winston Churchill dismissed it all as simply “the weather.”

Despite his initial insistence that the crisis was a freak natural occurrence unrelated to human actions and beyond the capacity of policymakers to influence, Churchill quickly acknowledged that the fog covering London in December 1952 was made more intense, and a danger to health, because of the coal smoke it contained. And it was rising coal consumption that provided the final ingredient in the coincidental combination of factors that caused this tragedy.

In 1952, Britain was only gradually recovering from the destruction and debt burden of the Second World War, and many essentials, including coal, remained rationed. Yet just before the notorious fog disaster hit London, Churchill’s government had announced that the poorest and most polluting grade of coal (known as “nutty slack”) could be obtained without ration coupons. Spurred by official advertising that encouraged people to stock up on fuel and burn it without the constraints that rationing had imposed, consumption shot up.

Lessons from London’s 1952 fog could save millions today (Climate Home News)

Why did it finally end? Thanks the dreaded “Leftism” and eeevil “big government”:

UK’s Clean Air Act was really the first sort of overarching federal legislation in the world where you had a government, not just local government or state government, that placed some pretty restrictive rules on industry and on local citizens, and provided subsidies so that Londoners could begin to convert from coal-burning fireplaces to smokeless fuel, which is very expensive. It really was a blueprint for other nations to follow.

It was the pioneer effort that was really only brought about because of Norman Dodds and many people from the Labour Party, who pushed the issue so far and forced the British government to finally act. This was a systemic problem that no one really took seriously in the government because it was just something that was always there and the government was bankrupt.

In 1952 London, 12,000 people died from smog — here’s why that matters now (The Verge)

Churchill’s attitude towards starving people wasn’t all that different, either:

More recent studies, including those by the journalist Madhushree Mukerjee, have argued the famine was exacerbated by the decisions of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet in London.

Mukerjee has presented evidence the cabinet was warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.

Rice stocks continued to leave India even as London was denying urgent requests from India’s viceroy for more than 1m tonnes of emergency wheat supplies in 1942-43. Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.

Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study (Guardian)

Again, will these deaths be attributed to capitalism? Or is it only communism that can kill people?

Bolsonaro urges Brazilians to get back to work, says concern over coronavirus overblown (France24)

When will we learn???

9.

What is it with the Democrats’ obsession with means testing?

Why must every program come with strict controls to ensure that just a small, tightly targetted sliver of society get any kind of government benefits? Controls that almost certainly ensure that a significant portion of people who need those benefits will not get them? Controls that ensure the people using the program can be depicted as needy “scroungers” receiving “handouts,” giving the perfect ammunition to those who want to strip away such benefits?

Unless that’s part of the plan.

The Democrats are a morally bankrupt party. They need to go. They only survive because any alternative has been suppressed. The two-party duopoly is an abomination. Our ineffective and dysfunctional government has been exposed to the world for all to see. Of course, under neoliberalism, that is by design.

[Senator Chuck] Schumer, who famously pegs his policy positions to appeal to a fictitious Long Island family that almost certainly would have voted for Trump, was by no means the only national Democrat to respond to broad upheaval with this kind of meticulously hedged and carefully tranched language: If you fit into social unit x, then you will be eligible in some circumstances to receive benefit y.

When the House was debating a bill that would have provided immediate cash payments to Americans harmed by the indefinite shuttering of much of the economy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pumped the brakes. Her aim was not so much to ensure that the maximum aid would reach the greatest number of people but to guard against the prospect that too much federal support might reach insufficiently vulnerable people with untoward quickness. “The Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded [unemployment insurance] and direct payments,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff tweeted, “but MUST be targeted.” When Pelosi introduced her plan on Monday afternoon, the benefits were immediate, but also tiered and conditional—more an interest-free loan than an emergency cash disbursement.

…Senator Kamala Harris, whose dud presidential campaign has lately become a slightly more plausible vice presidential one, took the opportunity to reheat her LIFT Act, which would direct preposterously insufficient payments to a narrow subset of Americans who were neither too rich nor, not a little nauseatingly, too poor. (Harris later deleted those tweets.)

When the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination finally weighed in on the ongoing negotiations over the scale and targeted reach of a bailout at week’s end, it was to ask that the nation’s reigning plutocrats be mindful in processing the bailouts they were about to receive…

All the while, the Republicans did what Republicans do—sought to direct whopping no-strings-attached funds to powerful interests while effectively removing all nonwealthy people from the equation, pausing at regular intervals to laud the integrity and handsomeness that their forgetful and vinegary president had brought to duffing every single aspect of the governmental response to the virus.

The Democrats, in response, did what they generally do. They made clear that they were disappointed in the Republicans; they advocated for something vague and qualified and means-tested that might benefit some people in a clever double-banked fashion; they made sure that it would not arrive too soon, or too generously…

America’s Diseased Politics (New Republic)

10.

And speaking of pollution, the lack of pollution during the shutdown is a vivid example of how we would all be better off if there were a lot less economic activity going on than there is now.

In fact, there will be lives saved from the lack of pollution as surely as there will be lives lost due to the pandemic. Once the pandemic is at heel (if it ever is), will we go back to business as usual? Or will we scale back the useless economic activity we now know is unnecessary (point #1) and enjoy the benefits of cleaner air and bluer skies going forward?

This is something degrowth advocates have pointed out for a long time now. Now we’re being forced into degrowth situation in a way we were not ready for and did not choose. Nonetheless, we are able to observe its effects.

Growth for the sake of growth has always been a mad philosophy. Growth produces pollution which eats away at the benefits. It provides diminishing returns–and we’ve long soared past that point. Now we have hard evidence to point to.

Coronavirus: Lockdowns continue to suppress European pollution (BBC)

Air pollution plunges in European cities amid coronavirus lockdown (Jerusalem Post)

The swans and fish returning to the canals of Venice show us what kind of world we can have, if only we can choose it.

As I’ve maintained for years, what we need more than anything else is not flashy new technology or rockets to Mars, but lifestyle changes.

11.

We’re seeing the results of 40+ years of Neoliberal philosophy of starving the state. I’m hardly alone in making this observation.

The enitre Neoliberal project was designed to establish the supremacy of markets and private wealth over the state and the public good.

Is there a chance this could be “Neoliberalism’s Chernobyl” as Michael Brooks put it? Is it possible that this will finally expose this bankrupt and failed philosophy for what it is?

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

How the Pandemic Will End (Atlantic)

Perhaps this crisis will show us the need for competent, collective governance when it comes to certain issues we will be facing in the years ahead. Maybe the “starve the state” headlong rush toward Neofeudalism will finally be halted.

We can only hope people will see the light.

12.

Finally, some personal notes.

After spending the last two and a half years dealing with the fallout from my mother’s death, I thought I had finally put it all behind me. I had spent years getting rid of stuff (turns out I should have held on to the toilet paper), sold the house, and filed the final tax returns.

I was hoping I could finally escape the miserable frozen wasteland that I’ve been trapped in my entire life.

That’s all gone now. All my hope and dreams are dashed.

Imagine you have been held in Siberian prison camp for forty years. The only thing that kept you going was the knowledge that someday your sentence would end and you would be released. It was the only hope you had. It was the one thing that kept you going, against all the day-to-day misery. Then, when the day of your release finally arrives, the warden informs you that your release has been denied, and that your sentence is now for life.

What would you do? Would you give up hope? Would you kill yourself?

Here in Wisconsin, social distancing is just our everyday way of life. I’ve been completely and totally socially isolated for a long time. I mean, it comes in handy during times like these, but it’s kind of like a living death. Most days, I’m just so lonely I want to die.

I have no family. No relatives. I don’t have a single friend in the world.

I guess the only friends I have in the world are you, dear reader. And I don’t get to meet or interact with any of you. I don’t even know who you are.

I guess I’m fortunate in not having to worry about anyone else, with only myself to take care of. Yet the thought nags: why not check out? Why deal with any of this suffering? Why not just end it all? No one would miss me, after all. Literally no one on earth would care. The thought of being trapped here the rest of my life has had thoughts of death going through my head continuously. It could all be over so quickly. It’s just so much easier…

And yet, I know that so may people are suffering all over the world. So may people are so much worse off than I am. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps you’ve lost your job. Perhaps you have a health condition that makes you vulnerable to the virus. Maybe your housing situation is precarious.

It feels selfish to revel in my problems when there are so many worse off that me. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable.

I guess that means I’m in dark place and struggling. But we all are, right now. It’s so hard to live with uncertainty. So much grief in such a short span of time. I debated mentioning this. But I might as well be honest–what have I got to lose?

Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night.” When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief (Harvard Business Review)

13.

Back before everything fell apart, I was working on my long-promised book. It was more a test run than anything else. It was intended to be roughly based on H.G. Well’s An Outline of History, updated with the latest information we know about history, anthropology, and human evolution. Sort of that crossed with Hariri’s Sapiens, crossed with Turchin’s Secular Cycles, crossed with Diamond’s Collapse. It was intended to be a “Big History” book looking at the entire scope of humanity through the lens of geography, demographics, social psychology, economics, climate, and energy, rather than just events, names, dates and places. And yes, disease was one factor.

The first chapter was a gallop through human evolution. Near the end of it, I had planned to write this conclusion:

With the rise of humans to the top of the food chain, mankind’s predators now boiled down to just two. One was the microscopic bacteria and viruses which became more common and abundant due to humanity’s changed relationship with the natural world; specifically the keeping of domesticated animals and the switch to living in large, sedentary social communities. These micropredators would kill far more humans that anything else before them. The other predator that man had now worry about due to these large social grouping was his fellow man. Together, these twin predators—macro and micro—would shape the forces of history from this point forward.

Stay safe, and be well everyone.
-CH

Random COVID-19 Thoughts

I’ve been spending the past week dying of COVID-19.

Okay, it probably was the standard flu. Even so, it was surreal to watch the entire world being brought to its knees by pandemic disease while you’re on your sickbed feeling like you are literally dying. It really makes one rethink their priorities.

Meanwhile the presidential contest has degenerated into a race between a functional illiterate versus an actual dementia patient.

At least this will finally demonstrate to all Americans what a ridiculous farce the Presidential race is. As I always say, the first step to reform is for people to quit believing in the status quo.

It also demonstrates to Americans how much the political parties and the media are there not to facilitate the people’s will, but to subvert it. The Democratic Party has fought much harder against Bernie Sanders and his campaign than it has against Donald Trump and his supporters.

Anyway, I don’t quite know what to say that hasn’t already been said. So here are just some random thoughts.

Neoliberal globalization has been dealt a serious blow. Outsourcing all your manufacturing and being dependent on supply chains stretching across the world was a bad idea that many have been warning about for a long time. Finally we are able to see why.

Opinion: Moving Our Pharmaceutical Factories Overseas Was A Huge Mistake (Buzzfeed)

Furthermore, the downsides to the whole Neoliberal project of shrinking the state are becoming increasingly apparent.

The stock market meltdown shows the absolute folly of trusting everything to gamblers’ bets the anarchic Market.

The fact that we have entered a quasi-feudal society again is becoming clear. I saw a good Twitter post. The headline was “Amazon and Gates Foundation may team up to deliver Coronavirus test kits to Seattle homes.”

To this, someone commented, “How do you find out who your feudal lord is if you don’t live in Seattle?” Someone replied “Somebody needs to put up findmyfeudallord.com in a hurry.”

Of course, this is supposedly in jest, but it’s no joke! We are entering the era of Neofeudalism just as climate change and pandemics continue to bite. This is what happens when you shrink the state and allow everything to be controlled by private power in the name of empowering the Market.

For context, here is good Stack Exchange conversation on Feudalism: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/14997/has-feudalism-been-a-programmed-event-for-nations-in-the-past

People are increasingly cognizant that they are already living in a feudal society. And the only candidate willing or able to reverse this trend has been apparently dealt with by the mainstream media and the Party establishment. This only guarantees that all the urgent social problems will continue to fester and get worse, with no real solutions for another four years.

Is this the beginning of the end for Neoliberalism? Is COVID-19 the thing that finally shows just how bankrupt a philosophy it is?

Will America learn anything from this? If history is a guide, probably not.

How does one write about collapse when it’s happening all around you in real time? Just read the headlines!

Anyway, I find myself unable to type anything or formulate thoughts for some reason today, so I’ll leave it there. Perhaps the flu has permanently scrambled my brain. I’ll outsource my thoughts to this column, which sum them up pretty well: There are things that scare me more than Donald Trump (Medium)

Back before I got deathly ill and could stay wake more than a few hours a day, I was writing a long series of posts debunking all the ridiculous Federal Reserve conspiracy theories. Since it’s mostly written, I’ll probably roll that out soon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish it, though.

Of Course Billionaires Shouldn’t Exist

There’s apparently a row over whether billionaires should exist. That is, whether or not billionaires should be a thing in our society.

What a stupid question. Of course billionaires shouldn’t exist! But the reason has nothing to do with Socialism.

Rather, under a properly-functioning free-market capitalist system, billionaires shouldn’t exist. And that would have also been the opinion of the “Classical Liberals” so favored by the Right these days: Adam Smith, David Ricardo. Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and so on.

Billionaires are a sign of market failure.

Let me say that again: billionaires are a form of market failure! You cannot simultaneously be both pro-Market and pro-billionaire.

I’m amazed at how few people get this!

In a truly competitive market, excess profits would be competed away. Someone would come along and undercut outsize profits. That’s exactly how the Classical Liberals assumed free markets would work. In this, they saw markets as instruments of greater equality, not inequality, and certainly not as a way to construct a new and improved aristocracy even more powerful than the old one.

The Classical Liberals wrote in opposition to the main power centers of their day: aristocratic government and chartered monopolies like the East India Company. They didn’t see the purpose of their writings as defending privilege and power. One can dispute the end results, but that was not their goal. Quite the contrary. The idea that a single, solitary individuals would possess more wealth than the kings and pharaohs of old under a functioning free market system would have been unthinkable to them.

In their time, much of the national wealth was monopolized by a landed aristocracy who gained their wealth through disproportionate ownership of the country’s productive land. The other major source of wealth came from large joint-stock companies that were granted royal monopolies due to their political connections. Yet another source of unearned wealth came from the holders of bonds (gilts)—essentially loaning money to the state and getting the government’s tax revenues funneled to them via interest payments.

Classical English Liberals felt that competitive markets would do away with a good portion of the unearned and unproductive wealth common in Great Britain at the time. They believed that “free and open” markets would channel wealth and activity to more productive ends. That is, they would break up large pools of wealth and unproductive money. The kind of obscene fortunes that they saw in their day would no longer be possible thanks to competition, they assumed, and that British society would become more equal than it was under landed aristocracy, not less. We can dispute their logic (and I have issues with it), but I think we can safely say that this is what they believed, rightly or wrongly.

An inherent part of their conception of free markets is the possibility of failure. Unproductive or inefficient businesses would be competed away, they assumed, and the fortunes earned through such activities would disappear. But that is not the case today. Billionaires have so much money they can literally never lose it! That’s not capitalism, that’s aristocracy. I read recently that someone like Bill Gates literally cannot give away money to his pet causes fast enough to reduce his fortune even if he tried. In fact, he’s grown wealthier even while giving away billions.

The important point about [Adam] Smith’s system, on the other hand, is that it precluded steep inequalities not out of a normative concern with equality but by virtue of the design that aimed to maximize wealth. Once we put the building blocks of his system together, concentration of wealth simply cannot emerge.

In Smith, profits should be low and labor wages high, legislation in favor of the worker is “always just and equitable,” land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws should partition fortunes, taxation can be high if it is equitable, and the science of the legislator is necessary to thwart rentiers and manipulators.

Political theorists and economists have highlighted some of these points, but the counterfactual “what would the distribution of wealth be if all the building blocks were ever in place?” has not been posed. Doing so encourages us to question why steep inequality is accepted as a fact, instead of a pathology that the market economy was not supposed to generate in the first place.

Contrary to popular and academic belief, Adam Smith did not accept inequality as a necessary trade-off for a more prosperous economy (LSE Blogs)

Yet today the people who call themselves the heirs to “Classical English Liberals” emphatically defend the existence of billionaires and extreme inequality at every turn. Such people are not pro-market or pro-capitalism as they like to portray themselves; they are simply pro-wealth, or—to use a less complementary term—bootlickers. They are not defending capitalism or Markets; what they really are defending is oligarchy, power, privilege, and hierarchy. As Corey Robin opined, “The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,” with all the soaring rhetoric about markets and freedom being just a smokescreen and a cover for defending hierarchies and power imbalances. Their defense of billionaires is proof positive of this. This is true of presidential candidates as well.

The existence of obscene fortunes and extreme inequality are not a sign of capitalism’s success; they are a sign of capitalism’s failure.

This is pointed out by Chris Dillow:

“I don’t think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” said Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle yesterday, at which the BBC’s Emma Barnett took umbrage. The exchange is curious, because from one perspective it should be conservative supporters of a free market who don’t want there to be billionaires.

I say so because in a healthy market economy there should be almost no extremely wealthy people simply because profits should be bid away by competition. In the textbook case of perfect competition there are no super-normal profits, and in the more realistic case of Schumpeterian creative destruction, high profits should be competed away quickly.

From this perspective, every billionaire is a market failure – a sign that competition has failed. The Duke of Westminster is rich because there’s a monopoly of prime land in central London. Would Ineos’ Jim Ratcliffe be so rich if pollution were properly priced, or if his firm faced more competition?

The Right’s Mega-Rich Problem (Stumbling and Mumbling)

How is this rectified? How do they square their supposed love of fair competition and free and open markets with the presence of outsize fortunes?

They don’t.

And the sad thing is how many people buy into their nonsense. Everyone seems to think that a defense of billionaires is a defense of capitalism.

It’s not. It’s the opposite.

What is a billionaire?

Billionaires are only made possible through monopolies and tollbooths. Period. And such monopolies are more possible than ever before thanks to technology.

This is argued by Matt Stoller, an expert on monopolies, in a post entitled, What Is A Billionaire?:

Most people think a billionaire is someone with a lot of money, a sort of Scrooge McDuck who goes swimming in a pool of gold coins. And why wouldn’t we? The name billionaire has the word billion contained within it, so clearly it means having a net worth of at least ten figures. And in a sense, that is technically true. But if you look at the top ranks of the Bloomberg billionaire index, you’ll notice that nearly all of the leaders are people who own a corporation with substantial amounts of market power in one or more markets.

Billionaires use market power to extract revenue the way that a tollbooth operator does.
If you want to drive on a road, you have to pay for the privilege. It costs the tollbooth operator nothing, he/she just has a strategic chokepoint for extraction. Billionaire Warren Buffett, for instance, has such a ‘tollbooth’ strategy for investing, though he uses the term ‘moat’ because it sounds charming and quirky rather than rapacious.

Put another way, the Bloomberg billionaire index isn’t a list of the most important Scrooge McDuck’s, it’s a list of the biggest tollbooth operators in the world.

What he’s saying is that one becomes a billionaire only by short-circuiting the competitive market economy. Then their profits cannot be competed away. Only by gaming the system can one “earn” over a billion dollars. No one person is that valuable.

Stoller goes on to elucidate the operational tactics used by both Bill Gates and by his predecessor John D. Rockefeller, and finds that even though the industries are radically different, the techniques of short-circuiting and circumventing market competition are the same. Whether it’s horizontal and vertical integration, or using market influence to price out rivals, or exclusive contracts, the techniques are the same regardless of industry or time period:

In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software. IBM had been under aggressive antitrust investigation and litigation since 1967, so when it built a personal computer, it outsourced the operating system – MS-DOS – to Gates’s company and allowed Gates to license it to other equipment makers. (Gates’s upbringing didn’t hurt; the CEO of IBM at the the time knew his mother.) Such a relationship with a vendor was a shocking change for IBM, which had traditionally made everything in-house or tightly controlled its suppliers. But IBM treated Microsoft differently, transferring large amounts of programming knowledge to the small corporation. IBM also did this with the microprocessor company Intel, which IBM protected from Japanese competition.

And yet, in 1982, the Department of Justice dropped the antitrust suit against IBM, signaling a new pro-concentration framework. Bill Baxter, Reagan’s antitrust chief, did not want to bring monopolization suits, and did not. The new fast-growing technology space of personal computers would be a monopolized industry. But it would not be monopolized by IBM, which had kept control of the computing industry since the 1950s, because IBM’s corporate structure was now skittish about the raw use of power. And it would not be monopolized by AT&T, which was kept out of the computing industry by a 1956 consent decree that lasted until 1984. Gates, in many ways, had a greenfield, an environment friendly to monopoly but one in which all the old monopolists had been cleared out by antitrust actions.

In the case of Amazon, even though it theoretically has competition, through vertical and horizontal integration it can effectively control online e-commerce to a large degree. The result is a fortune greater than that of entire nation-states controlled by a single individual. One hardly imagines that Adam Smith would approve.

I read an interesting concept, and I forget where it came from. It was that networks are natural monopolies. This explains things like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. It’s entirely possible that the online world, due to features inherent in the technology, simply cannot be regulated by normal competition the way the market for goods and services can. Yet all our theories pretend that it can. It’s delusional.

Under these scenarios,’ profits’ are really a form of tribute (or perhaps plunder). In fact, we really shouldn’t even use the word ‘profits’ to describe them (just like we shouldn’t use ‘trade’ to describe global wage arbitrage).

And there are many more examples of competition being limited by deliberate legal policy. Much of Microsoft’s profits come from the fact that other people can’t copy their software—which they’ve arbitrarily labeled “piracy”—without facing legal repercussions enforced by the state and its legal system. In that sense, outsized fortunes are a consequence of laws, and not a feature inherent to technology:

…inequality is not in fact driven by technology, it is driven by our policy on technology, specifically patent and copyright monopolies. These forms of protection do not stem from the technology, they are policies created by a Congress which is disproportionately controlled by billionaires.

If the importance of these government granted monopolies is not clear, ask yourself how rich Bill Gates would be if any start-up computer manufacturer could produce millions of computers with Windows and other Microsoft software and not send the company a penny. The same story holds true with most other types of technology. The billionaires get rich from it, not because of the technology but because the government will arrest people who use it without the patent or copyright holder’s permission.

This point is central to the debate on the value of billionaires. If we could get the same or better technological progress without making some people ridiculously rich, then we certainly don’t need billionaires. But in any discussion of the merits of billionaires, it is important to understand that they got their wealth because we wrote rules that allowed it. Their immense wealth was not a natural result of the development of technology.

Farhad Manjoo promotes billionaire ideology in proposal to get rid of billionaires (Dean Baker, Real World Economic Review)

Baker has also pointed out that outsized salaries in many fields are determined by limiting competition though things like wildly expensive education and licensing requirements, which are ultimately determined by the government. Doctors and lawyers do not have compete against the wage rates in India or China thanks to the legal system, for example. Everyone else, however, is required to compete against the entire world for jobs.

On a global level, most billionaires are not the result of “hard work” or doing things beneficial for their society:

The vast majority of the world’s billionaires have not become rich through anything approaching ‘productive’ investment. Oxfam has showed that, approximately one third of global billionaire wealth comes from inheritance, whilst another third comes from ‘crony connections to government and monopoly’.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

And the monopolies that allow billionaires to exist are not good for the economy as a whole. In fact, they are highly detrimental, as Chris Dillow further points out:

What’s more, monopoly pricing is a form of tax – a tax which often falls upon other, smaller businesses…In this sense, not only are billionaires a symptom of an absence of a healthy competitive economy, but they are also a cause of it: their taxes on other firms restrict growth and entrepreneurship…

Tories are wrong, therefore, to portray attacks on the mega-rich as the politics of envy. It’s not. The existence of billionaires is a sign and cause of a dysfunctional economy…

In fact, logically, it is rightists who should be most concerned by the concentration of wealth. We lefties can point to it as evidence that the system is rigged. But Tories should worry that it undermines the legitimacy of the existing order not only because people don’t like inequality, but because it slows down economic growth and so encourages demands for change.

Furthermore, their existence is detrimental politically:

Controlling society’s wealth effectively gives the wealthy the right to plan economic activity. Billionaires – and the people who manage their money – determine which governments can access borrowing, which companies deserve to grow, and which ideas should be researched. This gives them an immense amount of political, as well as economic, power – allowing billionaires to provide favours to those politicians who helped them get rich in the first place.

Ultimately, the monopolisation of society’s resources by a tiny, closed-off elite means that most of society’s resources are used for dirty, unsustainable and unproductive speculation.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

In fact, the proliferation of billionaires in the developed world has accompanied a period of slow growth and stagnation, not rapid growth. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, yet still fails to sink in, America’s fastest period of growth came when there were fewer billionaires and tax rates ranged from 50 to 90 percent. There is no evidence that the proliferation of billionaires has benefited society as whole. And now, billionaires are attempting to buy political offices outright, making a joke of democracy.

People defending billionaires are only defending raw power, not capitalism, not democracy, and certainly not free markets.

Stoller concludes:

[Billionaires] are not people with a bunch of dollar bills stacked to the moon, they are (largely) men with a strategic position of power protected by public laws and rules. They aren’t better or smarter than anyone else, they are simply politically adept and in the right place at the right time. There’s no reason we have to enable such people to run our culture. At the end of the day, tollbooths are nothing but bottlenecks on a road on which we would otherwise travel faster and more freely.

What is a Billionaire? (Matt Stoller)

So, should there be billionaires? The answer is no. And you should believe that if you consider yourself a libertarian free marketeer or a democratic socialist. Anyone asserting anything else is just a bootlicker or a toady.

Addendum:

Here’s a good piece explaining how billionaires are basically mad kings:

…one of civilization’s great challenges stems from millionaire rhyming with billionaire. In holding them in the same linguistic corner of our minds, we conflate them, yet they’re so mathematically distinct as to be unrelated. A millionaire can, with some dedicated carelessness, lose those millions. Billionaires can be as profligate and eccentric as they wish, can acquire, without making a dent, all the homes and jets and islands and causes and thoroughbreds and Van Goghs and submarines and weird Beatles memorabilia they please. Unless they’re engaging in fraud or making extremely large and risky investments, they’re simply no match for the mathematical and economic forces—the compounding of interest, the long-term imperatives of markets—that make money beget more money. They can do pretty much whatever they want in this life, and therein lies the distinction. A millionaire enjoys a profoundly lucky economic condition. A billionaire is an existential state.

This helps explain the cosmic reverence draped over so many billionaires, their most banal notions about innovation and vision repackaged as inspirational memes, their insights on markets and customers spun into best sellers. Their extravagances are so over the top as to inspire legend more often than revolution…

The Gospel of Wealth According to Marc Benioff (Wired)

One of the most potent demonstrations that the modern-day rich are mad kings, comes form the story of Adam Neumann of WeWork. This is the impression I got from the Behind the Bastards podcast on Neumann: The Idiot Who Made, and Destoryed, WeWork (Podtail)

Counting Jeff Bezos’s fortune using 1 grain of rice = $100,000 from r/nextfuckinglevel