Friday, July 31, 2015

Rough! Rough!

Mini–chicken parms from the GourmandMom.
Shorter David Brooks, "Two Cheers for Capitalism", July 30 2015:
Turns out capitalism isn't working right! But bad as it may be, people getting involved would probably make it worse yet, so I say don't mess with it.
OK, so now we know what snooty-ass luxury hotel Brooks was staying at when he wrote Tuesday's column about how much he prefers the budget motel and the self-serve waffle machine, or if not exactly which hotel, what town it was in, namely Aspen, for the Aspen Action Forum, a select event
designed to connect Fellows from the Aspen Global Leadership Network with other action-oriented leaders from Aspen Institute programs and partners. All of those attending – we anticipate 320 each year  – will share a common thread:  They will be “doers” – men and women who have committed to making a positive difference in the world.
where he was scheduled to deliver the closing lunch keynote address today, topic TBA. So on Wednesday the evening keynote—before the presentation of the John P. McNulty Prizes for people with
experiences founding and leading high impact organizations that are addressing the toughest challenges in the their communities and the world at large
and reception for the laureates, with
heavy hors d’oeuvres
(I'm visualizing a deviled ostrich egg, a bacon-wrapped sea slug, or perhaps a tray of deep fried matzoh balls)—was given by another Times columnist, Anand Giridharadas, on the theme "The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You".

The Giridharadas talk was apparently pretty stern for Aspen, telling (wealthy) people committed to making a positive difference in the world that their charitable activities, conducted even as their businesses keep doing serious harm to the world, were analogous to rich medieval sinners buying indulgences; we need to stop prettying up the surface and start questioning the underlying system. They're using political power to get legislators to protect their inequality, they're dumping their risks onto workers ("Uber's owners have a lot of security but they deny any responsibility for their workers' 'lives, health, desire for career growth'"), and the owners of capital—shareholders—are so far up the food chain as to be invisible and can't be approached to deal with the bad-actor CEOs.

For some sampling of the way Giridharadas thinks, which is indeed pretty impressive and radical by Times columnist standards, you might have a look at this on the superficiality of contemporary US philanthropy, and this on "double-talk" at Lyft and Uber. It must have been startling indeed for the Aspen worthies assembled for heavy hors d'oeuvres and heavier self-congratulation.

"Steakhouse bruschetta" from ATastefulAffair. "Tasteful" here means "having many tastes, some of which may collide; drive at your own risk."
Brooks actually sums it up pretty decently, and then, in keeping with his current "conservatives who love Dorothy Day" tone, praises its "patriotism" and "passion" but worries a little about the consequences if anybody was to start taking the message seriously:
He didn’t offer a policy agenda to address these deep structural problems, but his description of them implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions than ever before.
Wouldn't that be spooky! And wouldn't you know it, there are horrible signs of people already thinking along these lines:
Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments.
Good God, is she suggesting something like different capital gains tax rates for stock shares depending on how long the investor has held them to encourage them to hold onto their portfolios for longer? That would be awful, at least if it hadn't already been introduced in the Revenue Act of 1921 and tweaked in various ways ever since, in a 95-year tradition in which Clinton's proposal does not sound exactly Bolshevist.
Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies.
I can't find anything on this, and John Cassidy at the New Yorker specifically denies that she's made any corporate governance proposals yet, so it looks like Brooks just heard about it over gazpacho shooters at the Applebee's salad bar, if you know what I mean, i.e., he's making stuff up again. But then Patrick Caldwell for Mother Jones does ask us to note that she has complained about the fact that nobody in the Obama administration is enforcing provisions from the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 requiring companies to publish the ratio between their CEO's pay and the company's median wage. She thinks they ought to try obeying a law passed five years ago, which does indeed make her a lot wilder than Obama on this particular point.
This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges.
Here we begin to see what's going on, in terms of the question, "What does Brooks mean by "progressive"? He seems to be thinking here of a position a little to the right of Andrew Cuomo; the position of, say, the National Review's Reihan Salam, who certainly favors such initiatives as the Earned Income Tax Credit, federal support for preschool education, a modest maternity benefit, and the like, but nothing violent like an increase in the federal minimum wage. Or of toe-fetishist Dick Morris advising Clinton's husband 16 or 17 years ago.

Whereas in the normal sense, "progressivism" is the view going back to the 1880s and never wholly out of the picture since that we need government to alter the system in order to curb the violence and cruelty of capitalism and force it to work in a more egalitarian way—from the movement back then to institute the eight-hour day and abolish child labor and give real corporate power to trade unions and generally force corporations to share the wealth, to the movement today to—well, whatever it is. What's happened "recently" is that progressivism has found its way ever so slightly back into the liberal-neoliberal mix, as in the gigantic fights over the minimum wage, equal pay for women, and controlling police to make them work for working people rather than against them, and the demand to make banks and property developers responsive to human need. And it's a good thing.

Or, as Brooks says,
People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn. First, government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems in this way. The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason. No group of experts is smart enough to allocate the resources of society well. Capitalism sets up a system of discovery as different people compete and adapt in accordance with market signals.
And then China's going to come up, of course, bringing about the "greatest reduction in poverty in human history", as if government had nothing to do with "socialism with Chinese characteristics" or blowing up the Three Gorges and making the air in Beijing and Shanghai an unbreathable, cancerous miasma. But seriously, do you see the logic here?

It's capitalism as religion: the worship of that Invisible Hand, perfect where we mortals are flawed, even though it does't look all that perfect from down here:
  1. We recognize deep structural problems
  2. But we're not smart enough to fix them
  3. Only Capitalism Itself can do that
Don't worry, kids, your misery is all part of the Invisible Hand's plan. Suck it up, for the betterment of the Higher Reality. And there's always Free Will if you want to start up a business, though I guess not if you can't get a loan, because, um, well. Maybe if you started spending all your free time driving an Uber car?

In style news, he uses the word "rough" four times in today's column. And I forgot to mention how he stole his title from Irving Kristol, 1978, claiming with proto-Brooksian wryness (in an argument Kristol stole without crediting it from Schumpeter) that the only real problem with capitalism was the way its successes gave birth to malcontent intellectuals. Like Anand Giridharadas. Though even old Irving thought CEO pay ought to be restrained, so maybe he was a bit of a crazy Hillary-like socialist himself.

Shrimp cocktail. (Jigger of ketchup, two jiggers of gin... shake well and pour into a WTF kind of glass is that, garnish with shrimp twizzler. No, I'm making it up.) Via Pinterest.

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