Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates' book on the Obama years (We Were Eight Years in Power, 2017) attracted the scorn of Cornell West. Coates' earlier book, Between the World and Me (2015), is a bestseller. In the form of a letter to his son, the book tells his journey of his own experiences and reflections of being Black in America. A few notes from that 2015 work:

"the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible." (p. 9)"Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more." (p. 25)

"Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life - love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehorses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?" (p. 32)

"We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was interior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior." (p. 43-44)

"A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. "Black-on-black crime" is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return." (p. 110)

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People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent

In 2019, Joseph Stiglitz published "People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent." The book covers a wide range of topics, largely on contemporary American policy while also highlighting their histories - and is overtly political (Trump comes up frequently, throughout). The author provides an analysis of the challenges as well as potential pathways for the future. Some of the policies that are recommended include new regulations, such as regulating corporate business and money in politics. Other recommendations include introducing new services in the areas of social protection and safety nets as well as ensuring full employment, equality of opportunity and greater investment in education and research. Many of the recommendations will be common to readers familiar with economic arguments on the left-of-centre political spectrum. Very few, with the exception potentially of a universal basic income scheme, are radical or new. Nonetheless, this is worth a read, or at least the scan, to understand the economic arguments behind these recommendations. 

Some context on why regulations are called for and the barriers to change:

"Adam Smith's invisible hand (the notion that the pursuit of self-interest leads as if by an invisible hand to the well-being of society) is perhaps the single most important idea in modern economics, and yet even Smith recognized be limited power of markets and the need for government action. Modern economic research - both theory and experience -has enhanced our understanding of government's fundamental role in a market economy. It is needed both to do what markets won't and can't do as well as make sure that markets act as they are supposed to." (p. 24)

"The truly greedy and short-sighted in the 1 percent have come to understand that globalization, financialization, and other elements of the current economic rulebook are not supported by the vast majority of Americans, and understandably so. For these, this has one deeply disturbing implication: if we let democracy run its course, and if we believe in a modicum of rationality on the part of voters, they will choose an alternative course. In their pursuit of their naked self-interest, these super-rich have thus formulated a three-part strategy: deception, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment. Deception: they tell others that policies like the 2017 tax bill to further and enrich the rich will actually help ordinary Americans, or that a trade war with China will somehow reverse deindustrialization. Disenfranchisement: they work hard to make sure that those who might vote for more progressive policies can't or don't, either by making it hard for them to register, or by making it difficult for them to vote. And finally, disempowerment: they put sufficient constraints on government so that, if all else fails and a more progressive government were elected, it couldn't do what is needed to reform our politics and economy. One example: the constraints imposed by an increasingly stacked and ideological Supreme Court." (p. 27)

"A particularly invidious example of market power is the oligopoly in academic publishing. Chapter 1 highlighted the central role of knowledge in increases in our well-being. Advances in knowledge, in turn, require the dissemination of ideas. But in our market-based economy, this has been entrusted largely to the market, and the form that has taken is a highly concentrated and highly profitable oligopoly, with some five publishers accounting for more than half of all papers published, and for 70 percent of those in the social sciences. The irony is that the publishers get the articles for free (in some cases, they even get paid to publish them), the research reported is typically funded by the government, the publishers get academics to do most of the editorial work (the review of the articles) for free, and educational institutions and libraries (largely government-funded) then pay the publishers. Their high prices and excess profits, of course, mean that there is less money to fund research." (p. 76)

"Right now, on balance, our economy needs more regulations, at least in certain key arenas. Our economy has been changing fast, and our regulations need to keep pace. Twenty years ago, for instance, we didn't realize the dangers posed by carbon emissions; we now do, and we need regulations to reflect that. Twenty years ago, obesity was not the problem it is today. Now, we need to protect our children from the sweet and salty foods, designed to be addictive, that are contributing to this epidemic. Twenty years ago we didn't have the opioid crisis that has in part been manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry. Twenty years ago we didn't have a rash of for-profit educational institutions exploiting their students and the government loans for which they qualify. The conflict over net neutrality provides a vivid example of the need for regulation and the ways in which corporate interest manipulate the system for their own advantage." (p. 146)

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141 Hits

The Price of Inequality

Joseph Stiglitz is one of the most respected economists of our times and a person who has also held positions of significant influence, including chief economist of the World Bank and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for the US President (Clinton). In 2012 he authored "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future," which preceded other important works on the topic, such as the English version of Piketty's Capital (2014) and Milanovic's "Global Inequality" (2016) and Reich's related book "Saving Capitalism" (2015). Stiglitz was not the first to raise the issue of inequality, but he did raise the level of importance and changed the nature of the debate.

This book is about American inequality. The problem, as many others have stated, is not the market but the rules (not) regulating the market and policies that ensure the benefit is not only distributed but invested to enable future growth: "the inequality is cause and consequence of the failure of the political system, and its contributes to the instability of our economic system, which in turn contributes to increased inequality – a vicious downward spiral into which we have descended, and from which we can only emerge through concerted policies" (p. xi). The contribution made by Stiglitz in this book is to challenge the myths about inequality, and in particular to argue how inequality is bad for everyone: "we are paying a high price for our inequality – an economic system that is less stable and less efficient, with less growth, and a democracy that has been put into peril. But even more is at stake: as our economic system is seen to fail for most citizens, and as our political system seems to be captured by moneyed interests, confidence in our democracy and in our market economic will erode along with our global influence" (p. xi).

The book is replete with examples about how the powerful use their power to create and change the "rules of the game" in their favour (see p. 201, for example). The answers, or way forward proposed by Stiglitz, compose many recommendations, beyond summary here. They include making the tax system fairer, raising taxes on the top, reducing military spending, removing subsidies for major corporations, eliminating loopholes, ensuring resources are paid for appropriately, and introducing and enforcing regulations (particularly on the financial sector). He also calls for greater investment in education, technology, infrastructure, and social security. Doing so "would simultaneously increase economic efficiency, fairness, and opportunity" (p. 268). More fundamentality, Stiglitz argues the very core of America and American values are at stake "America is no longer the land of opportunity" (p. 265).

Stiglitz frames inequality as the issue of our times. Although, inequality is not simply about inequality. The debates "rest on broader ideas about human rights, human nature, and the meaning of democracy and equality" (p. 155). It is often these deeper, sometimes value-based, positions that result in policies that create inequality. "There is a real battlefield of ideas. But it does not, for the most part, involve a battle of ideas as academics would understand it, where evidence and theory on both sides are carefully weighed. It is a battlefield or "persuasions," of "framing," of attempts not necessarily to get to the truth of the matter but to understand better how ordinary citizens' perceptions are formed and to influence those perceptions" (p. 162-163).

He concludes: "Maintaining the kind of society and the kind of government that serve all people – consistent with the principles of justice, fair play, and opportunity – doesn't happen by itself. Somebody has to look after it. Otherwise our government and our institutions get captured by special interests. At the very least, we need countervailing powers" (p. 281). A call to action.

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