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Hi!  It’s me, Trivium, posting for the first time in a long while.  I tried doing the song lyrics analysis thing here last year for a while and it was fun, but I know that mostly why people still come here is for the trenchant, often economical analysis of various topics that matter.

I’ve been wanting to do something on this for a while, since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded a year or two ago, but well, a) it seems like blogs have moved on a bit, and are now a bit 2008, and b) time, time time, which they are attempting to squeeze out of even professors now more than ever.  I am resisting, but one can only resist one’s employer so much and still stay in the good books.  Basically as my professional life has taken off, it’s meant so much less mental energy for blog posts.  Today in fact, I should be organizing a conference and writing the intro to my latest edited volume, but…

So here’s a topic which interests me, the long-term economic historian, so much.  And where I think I have a genuinely useful voice to add to the din, and perhaps help people to get over their own bigotry and prejudices, and get more into actually solving today’s most serious problems.

Ok, so the world has gone a bit crazy over ‘identity politics’ in the last year or so.  This is a natural development of what has been going on in intellectual circles since about 1990, and in some ways, decades before that.  It is the trend where identifiable minorities become the darling hero of progressives.  So basically for progressives the more minority you are, the better.  So if you’re gay, great:  if you’re a gay pirate, better, if you’re a substance-abusing, sadomasochistic, gay pirate, even better~!  I know a professor who got a coveted tenure job writing about these:  no joke.  And in progressive circles, i.e., around liberal arts departments, one can hardly get a job now unless one is a minority, or ‘at least’ a woman:  a recent university of chicago ad said:  we want 3 things from candidates:  a list of publications, a list of teaching qualifications, and a statement of how you have contributed to campus diversity in the past.  Wow.  And yet, they tell you if you ask, that there is no ‘bias’ towards minority or women candidates.  In fact, while women and minority progressives harp on about how they can’t get equal pay etc., in academia, the pendulum has demonstrably turned against white male new hires, at least.  I know the old boy network is still white male, in many cases, but for new hires, you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle if you’re a white dude, who happens still to be the majority of applicants in topics like say, European philosophy.  But if you’re black and do European history or literature, you have 10 job offers in one year, while if you’re white with a much better CV of publications, you have 1 offer in 10 years if you’re lucky.  Now I exaggerate a bit, but I’ve been around and seen a lot, and this is the clear trend in academic hires.

Fine.  My point is that the conservative movement does have a bit of real ammunition, when they argue that things have moved perhaps a bit towards the hysterical regarding ‘the nightmare it is to be black in America today’ as a recent slate article about a movie about black people put it.  It assumes that at every moment, to be black in the US right now is to inhabit a special type of torture.  And I’ve been following the police brutality thing:  I am the very first to admit please note, that there are massive problems with police racism and that US cops in general are way way too aggressive:  (a lot of this has to do with the fact that guns are legal and so they are always facing death:  this might get people more on edge.) (more…)

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Because the wealthy have been in power since the beginning of civilization, they have been very keen to stigmatize poverty as an evil to be cured, but never wealth.

In the Enlightenment, people began to realize that wealth, like poverty, was an evil to be cured; Marx and Engels took over this banner, and unfortunately all talk of being against extreme wealth ended up being powerfully associated with Marxism/Communism/Socialism.

But, now, we’re finally moving into a post-Marxist society, where we can once again, after 100 years or more of Marxism/Communism, begin to talk about extreme wealth, or more specifically extreme disparities of wealth, as a social evil which should ideally be cured.

Note there is also a distinction between theory and practice:  de facto, democracies tolerate extreme wealth only because we have not yet come up with a social system which can create wealth for the many which does not also have the (unfortunate) side effect of creating extreme wealth for a few.  Really, if we could create a society with more equality, democracies would do that, because the many will inherently be jealous of the few, if they realized that there was no good reason to have wealth.  As it is, even the most learned economists realize that we need extreme wealth in order to have entrepreneurialism, innovation, incentives, etc, and that our economy can’t do well without these things.  So there is no push, at the pundit and elite level, to do away with extreme wealth, even in France, which is one of the more anti-wealth societies yet created.  (more…)

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Dear Readers,

Indeed trivium has been mute for a while, only stopping by to approve comments (which are always welcome), and to post a few links here and there.

This is because he has been entirely whorled up in the process of securing tenure, or something like it.  This has been good for his academic writing, but his extracurricular writing has been on hiatus… since those energies have generally been taking up by teaching, and by learning yet another language.  I realize that I started this blog during a hiatus in my teaching, and that indeed teaching has taken up some of those same energies that gets me fired up to write here on the Platonist.  I think that much good work has been done, and indeed the readership here is growing significantly every month it seems, so I want to keep the site up, and current, and let everyone know that we’re still here, and planning on maintaining and furthering the ideals set out here.

That being said, I think that the social movement that is and probably will for the forseeable future remain closest to my heart is the notion of founding the Institute for Consumer Focused Economics.  I like the fact that the title sounds corporate, and financial.  The point is to get the attention of those who work in those worlds, to let them know that we can speak the same language, and use the same equations, and yet begin and end with a radically different ‘product,’ i.e., an economics which is about the enrichment of the average individual, rather than an economics which is about the enrichment of the nation, the corporation, or the wealthy few (who are so often in conservative think-tanks equated with the best, the most energetic, the most innovative, the hardest working, etc., even though most of them began with signficiantly greater access to wealth, education, and/or intellectual gifts than most of us.

I have been talking about something like the ICFE for a long time.  I am not even sure what form it will take.  I would like to apply for funds to open a center.  I would love to organize the publication of a newsletter, and perhaps turn the Platonist into a hub for the ICFE, or create a new website.  This will require some time and energy on my part which right now is hardly able to be forthcoming:  society has made it so difficult for us to obtain secure jobs, compared with a generation ago, that we have less and less time to pursue those interests which might actually change the world for the better… of course, the powers that be don’t tend to mind this state of affairs, really, either.

So:  let’s call this a foundation.  It is founded.  As of right now, it exists.  The ICFE.  The Institute for Consumer Focused Economics.  What are our goals?

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Dear Reader.  As you may know, trivium makes a living as an economic historian, that is, someone who attempts to understand why and how material wealth has been created over the course of history:  why some are rich, and others are poor, in other words.  The idea, for trivium, is to understand this, so that we can focus our efforts on maximizing the wealth of the many, rather than (as is now, and has historically been the case), maximizing the wealth of the few who are already rich.   

So spread the word:  I have an idea which if adopted by economists, would focus the efforts of economists and politicians on increasing the wealth of the household, rather than on the wealth of the self-serving ‘me‘ (ala Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul, and Ayn Rand), or the wealth of nations (ala Adam Smith, and classic economic theory).  If you create an economy which maximizes the wealth of the ‘rational individual’ (read:  the one with billions to invest), you end up creating an economy in which massive inequality of wealth seems natural and logical.

But, just as humans began by continually fighting, and by organizing themselves into hierarchies, and by having all sorts of brutal religious and political rituals, and by creating states based on exploitation and violence, but have slowly, in some places, created democratic states in which more people have more access to peace, equality, freedom from fear, freedom from oppression, etc., and have even begun to see this as a fundamental human right…

…so we can now begin to see freedom from economic oppression as a fundamental human right.

This means, that we need to turn our attention towards understanding how economics can serve the needs of the many, not merely the needs of the few, or the elite, or ‘the country’ in general (which de facto means the economic and political elite, since, a) these are usually interrelated, and b) the few hold the lion’s share of the capital in any given country).

My crucial insight on this plain has been the fact that the household is the basic unit, which in a given country, has its income set by the powers that be (employers), so that the household will be able to buy what are considered the ‘necessiites of life.’  In turn, the average household income tends to determine the prices of things:  the average household’s expense sheet will of necessity look like this:  (more…)

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Last night I Watched DS9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” and was impressed by its grappling with the politics of being a black writer in early 1950s New York.  In the end, Sisko, as Bennie the black science fiction writer, has a breakdown, after seeing a black friend killed by the police for breaking into a car, and then being beaten himself to within an inch of his life, for daring to express outrage at the police brutality.  Later, he is fired from his job for daring to write a science fiction story about a black space captain in the future, and so this all comes together to provoke his mental breakdown, during which he repats:  “I am a human being!”  The implication that his ideas deserve just as much recognition as anyone else’s:  his story was good, so who cares if it is about black men in positions of authority?  Why do whites need to fear this, or suppress the idea?

The episode was filmed in the late 90s, and since that time the arrival of Obama has made the issues feel much less ‘present-day’ poignant, though of course anyone with humanity can still sympathize in the historical context.  While in the late 90s, the notion of a black man in charge was still a futuristic dream, less so than in the 50s of course by  a longshot, but it was still unfulfilled… today, that sort of poignancy can never be as acute, thanks to Obama.  One of the epic healing salves of the entire American and indeed western culture was his election.  And yet it is striking, one of course has to sympathize with the notion of being discriminated against, being fired, being beaten up, having your friends die, simply b/c you are not the same color as the in-group.  In a paroxyism of rage, anger, and helplessness, which was still mitigated against by his stories which dared to dream of a better future, Bennie collapses on the office floor, and is carried out in an ambulance.

It struck me, that since this was filmed in about 1998, the race issue has been more healed than perhaps ever before, but that the economic issues underlying the episode have if anything gotten much worse.   Management and administration has everywhere not only gotten stronger, but implemented a policy of systematically squeezing, downsizing, piling on work, reducing salaries, reducing benefits, making every job part-time and short-duration which used to be stable and full time and long term.

And it struck me, that all of us are Sisko/Bennie.

We are all daily subject to indignities, to discrimination, to hierarchical control, dehumanization, prejudice, and institutionalized brutality.  And it is called your job. (more…)

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This is a good question to ask, if only because one can go through many years of economic, financial, and business education, and not hear anyone actually ask this question.  You will hear professors and colleagues go on about the subject of economics, which is usually defined as the movement of goods, and the accumulation of wealth, but usually, you will find that these people are quite keen to avoid any value judgments.  The reason for this, of course, is that they tend to subscribe to some version of the neoliberal, laissez faire, and/or Ron Paulian notion that the goal of economics is to enrich me.  Or enrich the big people, or, enrich a few, or enrich the energetic, lucky, entrepreneurial, and/or crafty.  When pressed, most of them will then justify this science of acquisition with the ‘trickle down’ notion; which unfortunately for those of us who like to be idealistic, does have enough of a historical basis, more than any criticism can really cut down, so that these people can go on smugly creating a science of accumulation for the few.

The real goal of economics, of course, is the enrichment of everyone.  Just like the ultimate goal of medicine is the ultimate immortality of everyone; the ultimate goal of psychology is the creation of perfect sanity for everyone, and the ultimate goal of political science is the creation of a state which creates the conditions for the maximum enjoyment of life, for everyone.  Obviously, some of the social sciences, such as political science, are a bit problematic, since people will have conflicting goals and needs, and wants, but most of the sciences, and humanities, the subjects taught in a university, have goals which are definable as maximizing human happiness.

Let’s put the goal of economics in historical context.  In a hunter-gatherer society, there was little property to be had.  Economists have made the mistake, following political scientists, of thinking that ‘primitive’ societies did not have any unequal distribution of wealth.  Anthropologists have in the past 30 years or so proven quite strongly that almost every human society is hierarchical, and there are pecking orders, just as in almost all bird and mammal groups.  So, there was always an Alpha male, and Alpha female, etc, and even if there wasn’t much property, they got the best stuff:  they got the most food, which kept them strong, sleek, good-looking, and Alpha, and they of course got the most and best mates in the case of men, or the most select mates, in the case of females.  And what little property they had, the chief got the best.  So, the problem with Rousseau’s theory, etc., is that it grossly misread the nature of primitive human society, as it evolved over tens of thousands of years, and millions before homo sapiens. (more…)

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There is much hoopla at the moment about the decline of the American middle class.  I know all about it, since I have been close, but not quite managed to grab one of those hallowed academic jobs which would make my life finally comfortable after years of deprivation.   The numbers in the faculty are getting worse by the year; when I began graduate school in the late 90s, about 75 percent of all teaching was still done by full-time faculty, with benefits, but by the time I was a serious contender on the job market, in 2008, this had shifted to 75 percent part-timers.  Now, only 20 percent of teaching at U.S. colleges and universities is done by full-time faculty.  The profession has literally disintegrated out from under me.  We were told by our professors:  hey, the baby boomers are about to retire, so now’s a great time to be on the job market!  As it turned out, the MBA-efficiency people had figured out that they could downsize everything, and pay everyone virtually nothing, for the same work.  Great idea, right!  Except that the U.S. professoriate has been gutted; there are many geniuses with Harvard PhDs now waiting years to get a tenure-track job, if ever.

The real issue here is the disentegration of the American middle class.  It is now far harder to become a professor, something like 4-5x harder, than 20 years ago; so that the Chronicle of Higher Ed is running ads saying “Don’t to go graduate school.”  And the example of the professoriate is typical of a number of other former ‘professions.’  Most of the writing, editing, architecture, creative design, journalism, etc., fields, in which there used to be an ok number of permanent jobs with benefits available, have been similarly gutted.  Same with teaching high school or even elementary school.  Often the only places hiring are inner-city schools where there is no teaching to be done, but one has to be more of a warden than a teacher, and one is literally in danger of one’s life!  Hardly a middle-class lifestyle.  How many business people go into work fearing that their colleagues may pull out a gun… teachers have to put up with way too much stress, especially urban teachers.  And elementary schools on ‘lockdown’ all the time, because the stupid arse NRA has so much leverage, and has convinced half the populace that they will be safer when packing a pistol?  What is that, the wild west?  In England, almost no one has guns, and somehow, they don’t shoot each other.  In the wild west, everyone had guns, and they all shot each other.  The logic there is pretty plain.

So, the main point being, that many avenues into the middle class which were once mainstays of the populace, are now closed.  Being a professor is not possible, being a teacher is not possible.  Being an office person is about the only career path left.  And yet downsizing has made this much much more stressful than ever before.  Now, to keep a job, you have to literally work 70 hour weeks?  And get ulcers and the like?  Doing what?  Often, incredibly meaningless, tedious work, for no reasonable purpose.   (more…)

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