This is the story of my first “revolution.” It was an impromptu revolution, in response to being pushed up against the wall by market forces. Ultimately, it failed to deliver change. It did, however, unexpectedly reveal the power of the written word and the coercive nature of truth.
What follows is a short story that bleeds into some kind of essay. The mostly-true story narrates the “revolution” and the essay is what I was able to produce with the revolutionary booty. I don’t present this as right or good, just as something that happened, quite unexpectedly.
“Hey, Jim. Do you have a minute?” I asked the warehouse manager, rapping gently on the frame of his open office door.
“Sure, have a seat, what’s up?” Jim said from behind the desk in the back of the room.
“I need more money. I need at least two more dollars an hour or I’m gonna have trouble paying rent.”
“Oh. Well, that’s a tough one. You’re already on the high side of the pay scale and, yeah, corporate just released the quarterly budget.”
“I don’t know what to do. I’m working full time, I work hard, I’m competent…”
“We’d understand if you had to move on.”
“…but it’s not enough anymore. I gotta make rent. I need more money.”
Jim’s lips scrunched the opposite direction his eyes rolled in a telegraphed courtesy search of the inner-mind for the solution that he knew hadn’t just magically appeared since the last time I’d asked for more money. “I understand what you’re saying and I know it sucks but I don’t think I can help.” A brief introspective thought, then eye contact and a warm smile. “I’ll take it upstairs but it’s a long shot.” Jim stood.
“It’s only a long shot if you make it one. This is a moral issue, man. If I’m spending forty hours a week doing good work, you know, I should be able to pay my rent and live in society. I don’t know why you stood up.”
Jim slid back into his seat with a tense exhale that caused his cheeks to inflate. “Alright, the company is not responsible for how you fit into society. Come on, our wages are above market rate and that’s after Seattle raised the minimum wage. And, yeah, I don’t know why I stood up either.”
“Come on, this is a distribution of income problem not a city initiative problem. It wasn’t always like this. People used to be able to live doing work…”
“It’d make us unprofitable. And you’re a pain in my ass, you know that? Paying labor more than it’s worth threatens everyone’s livelihood…”
“Yeah, I know. But you’re talking about it wrong. The CEO is making more than he’s worth while we’re…”
“I’m gonna stand back up.”
“Don’t you do it, don’t you dare.”
Jim rose with two palms facing forward. “I’m pulling the reigns, you damn animal. We’re not getting into the weeds on politics again. In the meantime, get the hell out of here and I’ll do the best I can.”
“Thanks, Jim.” I stood to leave. “I know you will,” I said, sure to make eye contact as I knocked over his little paperclip holder to scatter a shiny mess across his desktop.
Jim meant what he said, he would do his best. But we both knew what that meant and I couldn’t accept it. My nerves were shot. I was working full time, near the top of the warehouse pay scale, but I still had to hide from finance hawks. And it seemed like there was nothing I could do to break free. Like no amount of hard work could ever put me right. I could barely tread water, much less pay debt. Not with my time so undervalued. I’d been all over the corporate chain of command asking for more money but with no luck. I tried HR one final time but they said I was out of options and that only the CEO could intervene on my wage at this point. So I emailed the CEO to give him what for.
I recently asked my manager for more money because I am at risk of criminality, by way of not affording legality, and homelessness without it. I don’t think it’s reasonable that I should feel these pressures while working full time and exercising fiscal responsibility. I am not even at the bottom of the pay scale! When I raised this issue with my manager, I was entirely dissatisfied with his characterization of the problem and disappointed with his expectation that the issue could not be resolved. It can be resolved, here and elsewhere. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that my manager is a competent man of remarkable integrity. I just think he’s wrong on this issue, but he’s hardly wrong alone.
For a majority of the workforce, incomes have not kept pace with rising prices. For an elite minority, however, incomes have grown faster than prices have risen. And when decision making power followed middle-class money to an elite, compartmentalized strata of society, technological innovation stopped delivering the historically expected increases in productivity because the directors overseeing implementation are operationally incompetent. This is the story of today’s macro-economy. Operational competence is the domain of a middle strata but the middle has been displaced by the aforementioned changes in income distribution. This is a sophisticated critique of the macro-economy which deserves further study.
Conditions in the warehouse reflect this reality perfectly as mid-level managers struggle to balance executive ambition with workforce inadequacy as the warehouse pay scale cannot secure and retain an operationally competent workforce. Management resources that could otherwise be directed towards process improvement are currently wasted policing productivity minimums, bathroom etiquette and attendance standards. These efforts are undermined in perpetuity by high turnover. The inefficient expenditure of management resources and dismal workforce performance are both attributable to the loss of middle strata competencies, as caused by the complacent expectations of a pampered executive class. Furthermore, the cost of that inefficiency works to drive down compensation rates which, in turn, guides firms towards a dependency on destitute circumstance to secure talented labor. This is not OK!
I came home from war in 2009 to an economy devastated by the greatest financial caper of all time and I’ve watch the value of my labor decrease steadily since that date even as my competence increased. If my analysis is wrong, I would appreciate a coherent explanation as to why forty hours of honest labor per week is suddenly an unreliable mechanism to secure a modest level of social security in this economy. If my analysis is informed, I would appreciate a no strings attached gift of five-thousand dollars so that I may devote myself to the study of this issue and develop solutions over the course of the summer.
Is it crazy to think that someone will oblige a pitch when I am cocked and ready at the plate?
All The Best,
I CC’ed Jim and sent an email with my note attached to our CEO right before I left for the day. The following morning began like any other. I biked to work through downtown Seattle in the dark. It rained overnight but the rain clouds had cleared for my ride. Jim walked in from his car as I locked my bike near the door. I said “Mornin’ Jim.” Jim said, “Good morning!” Why good, I wondered, but that was all I got. As I poured my coffee an anxiety built around me like a white-noise bubble that hummed ever louder until the repetitive stapling and sorting of my morning routine overran my attention. And then, as it often seems to happen, the moment my anxiety was forgotten Jim approached to ask if I had a moment which, of course, I did.
I followed Jim from my desk to his office where our corporate HR representative, Carol, was waiting next to a well dressed man I’d never met.
“Hi Mr. Chickennuggetsauce, I’m the CEO.”
“Pleasure.” I said.
“How are you?”
“Quite well, thank you. Hi Carol. You’re both well, I hope.”
“Indeed.” He said.
“Indeed.” She said.
“Why don’t we have a seat?”
We spoke for a few minutes and, in the end, they obliged my request for financial backing and gave me written permission to vacate the premises immediately. I cleared my desk, said a few goodbyes, shook hands and left the building with a wink and a nod from Jim and that was that. It was unexpected but I’d gotten exactly what I’d asked for. So what now?
I raced home to pace the length of my kitchen counter and mull over what to do next. I thought to share news of my success but I’d shut my phone off earlier that month to make rent and I wouldn’t receive the money for another week. In my letter to the CEO, I’d made a broad proposal to “study the issue” but there were no strings attached and I didn’t exactly “have a plan” when I made the pitch. I could do anything. My next few months were a blank slate and it felt like total freedom to have my obligations open to interpretation. Naturally, my first decree as Freedom King was to grant latitude to the meaning of “study” and “issue,” to free myself from the conventional approach and narrow framing I’d suggested in my letter.
I wasn’t interested in evading the responsibility I’d conjured but, rather, simply wanted to free my methods from constraint and keep my considerations mobile. Most of all, I didn’t want to risk convention tethering me to something less ambitious. I’d been writing, sharpening tools and kicking doors for years, standing to, waiting impatiently for the moment to present itself. Most doors don’t budge but this one did. Ready.
In my letter, I framed the macro-economy with a class based power loss narrative and made a specific claim about declining productivity returns on technology investments, which I attributed to income inequality and executive ineptitude. It’s a really interesting thing that I don’t know much about any of that, yet I feel overwhelmingly confident that my analysis is superbly informed. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of fancy-ass articles and the occasional book but I ain’t got no degree. Ain’t nobody gonna gimme no job writin’ ’bout this shit! Yet, here I am. Isn’t that interesting? I think so, but I’ve other interests, too. Hidden messages in the pattern of stars, science (obviously), conspiracies, philosophy, all sorts. And I want to write about all of it. And I’m gonna. And the great thing about it: you don’t need to worry about whether or not I’m telling the truth, because now that I’m writing a book, I’m an authoritative source. In the words of the good Doctor Steve Brule, “I’m a priest too…if I say I am” and, as such, I’ve come to clean the “dirty old church” of positive economics. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or not, by convention. In these pages, I’m the fuckin’ man.
So, let’s get square on some things and then we’ll talk about political economy. First, I am an authoritative source. Like, no doubt. But that’s not to say that I know a lot about whatever it is that I’m talking about. Rather, my authority is a function of your permission. I’m all over the place because life and I just need you to give me the latitude to be right and wrong in the same space while I try to mask my ignorance with humor. I know it’s unsettling at times, but I’m doing the best I can. An idiot’s got a right to their opinion, too, right? And we’ve all got to live here together. I just want to make that easier. So, I’ll let you see my blind spots and I’ll tell you my dumb thoughts and then, maybe, hopefully, my idiocy might not seem so idiotic. Maybe, even if you don’t always agree with me, you’ll come to understand that my perspective is not inconceivable. I think that’s the best we can do for each other. That’s the contract. You, the reader, have some responsibility here, too. I know you’re hungry for that.
It’s a better contract than you’ll get elsewhere for economic discussions. There may even come a time when you’ll be able to pin me to the wall and exclaim, “you’re wrong, motherfucker!” But I’ll never tell you, if you’ve got me dead to rights, that “the destructive influence was exogenous to the model,” when really the destructive influence was the model itself. No. I’ll tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. And you’ll have to weigh the error term beside my truth for yourself – I won’t attempt to seduce to you to a ninety-five percent confidence level because credentialed confidence works on truth in a funny way. On one hand, economist dill-weeds achieve precise economic predictions because their models are highly sophisticated (whatever the fuck that means). On the other hand, political forces can influence the framework of a model or the presentation of its results. What good are objective experts then? They’re great for those who can pay to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. But the rest of us get it from the other end. Consequently, I have this dangerous idea that a layman may be able to relay the truth of our economy more effectively than an expert. Because expertise can be measured in units of dogma while the layman’s naked and free. And it’s just your luck that my lil wiener’s free and flappin’ in the wind.
Here’s something to start: what’s the propensity for clarity in literature but a boon for the buffoon?
OK, I think we’re finally ready to get into the nitty-gritty on economics. But first, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Economics is the study of how scarce resources are allocated by society. Politics is the study of why scarce resources are distributed as they are. Our system of political economy, we should agree for the sake of establishing a conversational foundation, is a capitalist democracy. This is how I think about our system overall: the economic choice-scape is dictated by political process while de facto economic decision making authority is spread across the private marketplace – that’s capitalist democracy, in broad terms. We vote for representatives to craft legislation and regulation to govern our conduct in mostly free markets, where “free” means the market price of a thing cannot be influenced by the behavior of any single economic agent.
Now let’s go a little further to define the institutional landscape that balances capital and democracy in our capitalist democracy. For instance, what’s our democratic process look like? For us, that’s a conversation about our three branch federal government structure and our state and local governments, local and national campaign finance laws, voter registration and voting procedure. And how about our economic institutions? Here, we’d want to consider legal corporate structures, our monetary system, market characteristics, labor laws and other regulatory regimes. We could go further to dig into the details of each institution but do we need to? I’m not sure we do. We’re just trying to get to know each other, really. We’ll haggle over terms until, finally, we’re all talking about the same thing. Dummies and doctorates, all on the same page. And then we can start talking about what’s right and wrong with the economy and hopefully understand each other to some kind of productive end. This is where our public discourse has gone wrong.
Instead of spending time laying terms and building consensus about the foundations of our conversation, our politicians and media increasingly frame political economy by the terms of a faith-based left/right divide, rhetorically posturing left and right as perspective dependent euphemisms for good and bad. This mode of conversation brackets perspective into one of two ontological packages, left/right, white/black, male/female, binary/non-binary, where the facts of one package are incompatible with the facts of the other, as if each package were a universe unto itself with its own brand of immutable political physics. By this mode, a single fact can reveal a person’s universe of origin and that’s all there is to know, one thing says everything. There’s no more left/right lean, we’ve all fallen into one universe or the other by discourse design. Our popular discourse has become one that moralizes an uninformed, extrapolated hate. It’s totally Neo-American, denying the right to be right to anyone who speaks outside our terms.
We’d do better to set terms and then ask surface level questions about the performance of our most central institutions. For instance, in the simplest terms, our election results are meant to be, more or less, representative of majority will, where each citizen gets one vote and that’s it, wealth and other levers of economic power are supposed to be irrelevant. But does that describe our reality? No, and why not. Could it be that capital has taken ground from democracy to engineer the political choice-scape? Would that be an appropriate way to discuss Citizens United, for instance? It seems a hard line has been crossed to turn capitalist democracy on its head. (t)rump voters know it and so do we, so why’s it so hard to agree? We’re talking about a surface level structural compromise that cannot be fixed by tinkering deep inside the machine.
So, where should our conversation begin? Deep, deep, deep in the structure where “experts” with telescopic vision debate the virtues of red or blue paint on interior walls, or at the foundation, which the naked eye can see is quite obviously fucked? Let’s not be thick. When our discourse denies the right to be right to anyone who speaks outside our terms democracy is doomed to fail. If we can’t overcome our egos to work with trump voters, however cryptic, misguided or confused their framing, how are we, the well-informed public, ever going to manage more complex conversations, like the conceptual tensions between neoclassical economic dogmas and Modern Monetary Theory? Let’s not put the intellectual deep-end at the front of the pool to keep workers out of the water because when the ship hits a rock, people who don’t know how to swim will drown those that do. (I’m one of the smart people.)
Now, back to talking about economics directly, let’s add some context to the conversation by briefly considering the history of economies. Economic customs have evolved considerably since cave times but the underlying function of an economy is the same as it ever was. For policy discussions, it can be helpful to think of the economy as a patchwork of laws, customs and private-business policies, all of which work to govern trade interactions. But understanding the economy as an object of history requires us to re-frame it by the terms of its most original function. For instance, in a hypothetical original state, which may or may not have ever existed, doesn’t matter, people freely ate worms from the dirt or whatever without any concern for formal regulations barring such activity. The nature of economic activity, for the original human, was an informal process of extracting natural resources from the earth to satisfy basic human needs: food, shelter, water, wifi, etc.
In that original state, people were born into a share of the earth’s bounty and these shares were retrieved by processes of individual initiative, not by way of formal rights or governed procedures. Distribution was not a concern, as returns were neatly proportional to inputs, and the population wasn’t at threat of overrunning nature’s supply. Basically, in the beginning, the more you dug, the more worms you got and no one had a reason to keep you from digging. But in time, societies formed and people pooled labor and created money to conduct trade and eventually, a few years on, the market economy came to be. Throughout this progression, which itself isn’t terribly important, the process of retrieving birthright resource shares was incrementally delegated to the formal customs of an organized marketplace, because of the market’s relative efficiency to add value to raw materials.
The original purpose of “work” was simply to retrieve life sustaining resources from the earth. That’s still the most central purpose of work and it always will be. Really, the only thing that has changed since cave times is that work is formalized by the market place. And markets are just a social technology machine that distributes decision rights and resources. The US system of capitalist democracy is ostensibly the best because it’s predicated on utilizing individual freedom, liberty and equal opportunity to incentivize participation beyond subsistence. But the integrity of that framing requires us to attend to the maintenance of the market machine. Unfortunately, the representatives responsible for that upkeep have neglected their duties to such an extent that “capitalist democracy” can no longer describe the system we have. And now they sell the possibility that they might do their chores as some kind of moral crusade, which has yet to materialize.”Moral capitalism,” is a system “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets,” says Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, as quoted by Michael Kazin in the New York Times. No, that’s an enfranchised description of capitalist democracy, ya friggin’ jag-weeds.
Nowadays, most of us spend our work lives at a formal workplace where our time and conduct are managed by the decision makers of our particular organization. The premise of this system, by the terms of a capitalist democracy, is that labor and capital find common ground at the workplace to add value to raw materials, while the countervailing forces of supply and demand magically deliver the best outcome for all. Frankly, I think we could do worse, in terms of formulating an institutional basis for negotiating the spread of private-market decision making authority. Can you see how that original birthright resource share is baked into the institutional framework, though it’s not made explicit? You’ve a place in production, first of all. And production is the mechanism that arbitrates decision making authority between labor and capital. You’ve a share, don’t forget it, which, by the promise of capitalist democracy, is a device of political influence over production decisions, and the mechanism by which birthright resource shares are retrieved with the blessing of law. These basic, basic, basic framework understandings are absolutely essential for productive conversations because it helps elucidate what’s at stake as technology transforms the world.
Technology growth is affecting our system in ways that disrupt the integrity of the institutional negotiating mechanisms meant to legitimate economic outcomes. I think the best way to frame this problem is to understand our institutions as a form of social technology whose integrity depends on keeping innovative pace with scientific technology. It’s important to keep pace because the integrity of our institutions is our best hedge against our Machiavellian human nature. I think innovation in discourse is the only thing that will allow us to mind that gap. To wit, what do we think our system is written to be? What is our system written to be? What is our system? These questions all have different answers and the “right” answer to any of them is largely a function of perspective – even laws are open to interpretation. That’s why we have dip-shit lawyers.
The point, I think, is that a discourse that encourages perspective to cement itself into a well defined position of ideological faith makes it easier to automate political herding. Personally, I think this discourse is an effect of capital’s encroach on democracy, a calculated treachery, a grand conspiracy that’s unfolding before our eyes. Though, also, scientific technology is growing so rapidly that I think this period of radical disruption was inevitable. What’s not inevitable, however, is that our amazing ability to connect is used to turn us into foaming-at-the-mouth political dunces while a compartmentalized, unelected cartel codes the future without democratic input. But that’s what’s happening, because the distribution of money in our monetary system allows monied parties to shape the political choice-scape to their interests. Economists, who are evil, attempt to mask this fact by blathering on and on about “fiat” currencies and other fictions.
Money and its function in society is fundamentally misunderstood, thanks to the “experts.” Consider this. The value of money is a simple function of supply and distribution, where supply is only important to the extent that we have enough, and distribution is the factor that determines the nature of money’s value. All that can be purchased is time, matter and concept rights on time – that’s it, there is nothing else to sell or buy. Money, therefore, is, and can only be, an index for things in finite supply (even concepts are finite because at some point they become useless distinctions). Because money is an index, it is also an expression of ownership. For instance, if incomes disappeared across society, things “owned” by the poor would quickly be sold as a means of retrieving birthright resource shares. Once the poor spent all their money, they’d be forced to spend their time to coerce the rich into affording them access to what capitalist democracy had said was theirs all along. Competition for the poor would then concern the concepts attached to the time being spent- who’s willing to be the bigger whore. Basically at an even level of distribution, money is a question of who owns what, and the assumption that we all “own” a birthright resource share is not under threat. But beyond a certain point, money becomes a question of who owns who. Economists will surely balk at this characterization but only until a natural disaster proves it true.
And so this is what my whole economics spiel is about: mechanics. That’s what we should be talking about to meet the challenges of the future: institutional mechanics. On the most basic level, way before partisan concerns have the opportunity to arise. Because that’s where technology is doing us damage. We often talk about things in a capitalist democracy framework though scientific technology has already rendered that framework obsolete. It’s important we understand how because economists are asleep at the wheel in terms of communicating with the public. Talk about useless. Meanwhile, institutional balance mechanisms are being destroyed without replacements and there’s no indication that losses will be redressed, much less acknowledged. This will not continue without a big war. But we can and should avoid that.
This is how we should posture our discourse to avoid conflict. First, we need to understand the system we think we had in the most basic terms possible. Our entire national identity is based on that system and to the idea that the economic choice-scape is decided by democratic process. This is how to protect the integrity of free markets, which supposedly provide individuals the greatest opportunity to pursue their interests. Because we care about individual freedom. And freedom is more than the opportunity to be surveilled and manipulated by some jackass algorithm. We have to understand what it means for labor and capital to meet in the workplace to add value to raw materials while the countervailing forces of supply and demand work to deliver the best outcome for all. Labor’s place in production is a declaration of economic decision making power. Having a stake in production provides greater influence over production decisions than consumer choice. It’s important we understand that as we move into a 5G future (5G being the proverbial jet-fuel for next gen mass surveillance). We need to understand that the value of money cannot be intellectually postured as independent of physical matter and time. Or money will corrupt the political process. Such as we’ve seen.
Once we understand the system we had, in a de facto sense and also by the terms of our most white-washed, generous delusions, we can take a look at the system we have to get an idea about trajectory and self-deception, which will allow us to most accurately tune the institutional framework of our system and oversee the maintenance of balances we care about as we move into the future. This is really urgent work. Because the gulf between de jure and de facto is growing too large to sustain. Our democracy is an absurd and insulting illusion. So is equal opportunity. On one hand, technology has made it easier than ever to produce life sustaining resources. Yet, on the other hand, our time, which is all that most of us have to contribute to production, is undervalued by politicized monetary malfeasance to direct us by market force to service the interests of the highest political bidders. That is not a natural incentive environment in a capitalist democracy. I’ve heard Bill Gates call this kind of coercion “incenting.” You and I engage incentives as nouns, but to Gates they’re verbs. Bill Gates’ philanthropy is to incent. His business, too. Here’s the big question: when a person gets all the money what becomes more important, that person’s “property rights” or the integrity of our entire fucking system?
We care about property rights, a lot. And I think we should. But here is the reality: my private property serves Gates in ways that I cannot understand or control and its by those channels that he “incents” me to his interest. By what mechanism can we influence that production path? The labor participation rate is historically low because labor is losing its place in production, one line of code and political crime at a time. So there dwindles one channel of influence. What about regulatory reform? Not likely, we’re politically outbid. All we have left is consumer choice but how effective is that, really? “Huh,” you ask, hardly able to peel your eyes from your idiot phone. Bill’s “philanthropy” is not so disconnected from his business. It’s just the expression of the political domination his fortune affords. How can that be legitimated within the purview of a capitalist democracy? Spoiler: it can’t. The reality is that engaging technology at home and work, postures you as a billionaire’s data farm, as their property.