A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come | The Atlantic

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Source: A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come | The Atlantic, by Anne Applebaum

Who gets to define a nation? And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation? For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled—but why should they ever be?

In monarchies such as prerevolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: … we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal.

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it? … Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

In truth, the argument about who gets to rule is never over, particularly in an era when people have rejected aristocracy, and no longer believe that leadership is inherited at birth or that the ruling class is endorsed by God. Some of us, in Europe and North America, have settled on the idea that various forms of democratic and economic competition are the fairest alternative to inherited or ordained power.

But we should not have been surprised—I should not have been surprised—when the principles of meritocracy and competition were challenged. Democracy and free markets can produce unsatisfying outcomes, after all, especially when badly regulated, or when nobody trusts the regulators, or when people are entering the contest from very different starting points. Sooner or later, the losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value of the competition itself.

More to the point, the principles of competition, even when they encourage talent and create upward mobility, don’t necessarily answer deeper questions about national identity, or satisfy the human desire to belong to a moral community. The authoritarian state, or even the semi-authoritarian state—the one-party state, the illiberal state—offers that promise: that the nation will be ruled by the best people, the deserving people, the members of the party, the believers in the Medium-Size Lie. It may be that democracy has to be bent or business corrupted or court systems wrecked in order to achieve that state. But if you believe that you are one of those deserving people, you will do it.

Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion

Source: Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion, by Tyler Cowen

What happens when a nation built on the concept of individual property ownership starts to give that up? … Lately I’ve been worrying about … the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.

The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?

We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways, but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.

The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.

Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.

 

From Comments:

The article identifies some problems but totally misses their actual source. The problem isn’t that we own less stuff, it’s that the ownership is replaced by a dependency on a handful of corporations which we have no ability to influence or appeal to.

The substitution of individual ownership for a communal one in which individuals retain a stake – a real community, or at a larger scale, a democracy – is not inherently bad. The problem with our recent trend is that we aren’t getting communal ownership in return; we’re getting nothing but convenience.

 

Renting is giving up money for conditional access to an item. Owning is giving up liquidity for unconditional access to an item.

In renting, when you are done with the item, you terminate, yielding access and recouping none of the money. In ownership, when you are done with the item, you sell, yielding access and recouping some money.

High-end hobbyist equipment such as camera lenses and woodworking tools are great things to own; they offer great enjoyment, tend to retain value, and you can typically find a buyer if and when you want to sell.

Things that are difficult to sell and poor at retaining their value are good things to rent.

I’ve heard compelling arguments for both Renting and Owning of Houses and Cars and it really comes down to circumstances, but it’s always good to own something you can use and sell if the need arises.

 

> It’s pretty obvious to me that a deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system; to flip that relationship around and make it a moral statement is frankly a little scary.

That’s not true. The reason why property ownership was required to vote is because in a democracy, the founders knew that if the majority of voters didn’t have property then they would eventually just vote to take away the property of others. But they also knew that if the majority of people didn’t own property then the government would also fail. So their solution was to only allow property owners to vote, but to make it easy and basically free for all citizens to become a property owners, and to heavily incentivize them to do so.

Early American democracy only worked because there was basically an unlimited amount of free land to give way. And to the extent that it still works, it’s because technology and intellectual property have replaced land as the primary sources of capital.

American democracy is designed around broad-based capital ownership, not broad-based ownership of stupid shit you don’t need. This is why this article doesn’t make sense, because it would be far better for democracy if e.g. the average American owned $20,000 worth of Uber stock rather than $20,000 worth of car. Stock is capital, whereas a personal car isn’t.

 

To understand the point of the author you need to look back, deeply back, at the history of human society. For most of human history, most people did not own any property. In a feudal society, for example, a few lords owned everything, and everyone else worked for them and owned nothing.

The “American experiment” was radical in that it placed the individual at the center of governance. The U.S. system of government is “built up” from citizen consent, not “pushed down” from a divinely-granted right of hereditary rule.

In order for this system to work, citizens must own property. Otherwise, they don’t have the resources to collectively enact change. The Bill of Rights presumes citizens who have the resources to speak, associate, petition, etc. That’s why it is worded to constrain the government’s power, not worded to grants things to citizens.

The fundamental idea behind American democracy is that Americans have the means to pursue their goals and to influence each other.

This is why it was so much easier for early U.S. citizens to found churches and corporations than it was in Europe. European churches and corporations were top-down, and therefore few and conservative. U.S. organizations were bottom-up, and therefore many, diverse, and innovative.

So… that’s why property ownership is at the heart of American democracy.

But what about:

> deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system

There’s actually a lot of evidence against this, for example the entire labor and environmental movements. Collective citizen action has worked a lot of change to the U.S. over the years, and I predict it will continue to do so.

All that said, I think it’s a pretty far reach to claim that the American experiment is at risk because a few people don’t want to buy CD’s or cars anymore. People still like money and things! The real estate market is not drying up. There’s plenty of property being owned and desired by Americans.

I think that lack of money is a bigger issue. Over 40 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line! I think that’s a much bigger problem for American “stake in the game” than whether someone who has disposable income decides to spend it on a Kindle instead of books.

Balding Out | Balding’s World

Source: Balding Out | Balding’s World, by Christopher Balding

If the law exists it should be enforced and consistent, otherwise it should be removed. Currently, the United States is going further and further in a direction where laws are applied inconsistently shifting from varying enforcement regimes under different executives. Law is not law if the government can choose whether to enforce it.

This applies as well to how everyone is treated. From a President we may have reason to suspect of illegal activity to an immigrant fighting for asylum, all are innocent until proven guilty and treated humanely. … America will not return to its principles by partisans justifying increasingly coarse behavior and rhetoric.

One of the reasons principles matter is that each side feels locked in a death struggle. Principles are unwelcome to many because there are times we do not like those principles or where our side will lose if we abide by that principle. The principle matters more than the short term win or loss. All powers we demand can be used against us at some point. America needs to return to seeking to uphold the highest of principles knowing there will be times our side loses because we chose to uphold a principle. In a democracy, you are going to lose based upon historical precedent, probably about 50% of the time. That is the point of democracy.

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic

Source: The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic, by Matthew Stewart

The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.

Contrary to popular myth, economic mobility in the land of opportunity is not high, and it’s going down.

The Gatsby Curve has managed to reproduce itself in social, physiological, and cultural capital. Put more accurately: There is only one curve, but it operates through a multiplicity of forms of wealth.

One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us. We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs. We may want to call ourselves the “5Gs” rather than the 9.9 percent.

The sociological data are not remotely ambiguous on any aspect of this growing divide. We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids. These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. … We have figured out how to launder our money through higher virtues. Most important of all, we have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to our children.

It’s one of the delusions of our meritocratic class, however, to assume that if our actions are individually blameless, then the sum of our actions will be good for society. … Rising inequality decreases the number of suitably wealthy mates even as it increases the reward for finding one and the penalty for failing to do so. … The fact of the matter is that we have silently and collectively opted for inequality, and this is what inequality does. It turns marriage into a luxury good, and a stable family life into a privilege that the moneyed elite can pass along to their children. How do we think that’s going to work out?

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

Rising inequality does not follow from a hidden law of economics, as the otherwise insightful Thomas Piketty suggested when he claimed that the historical rate of return on capital exceeds the historical rate of growth in the economy. Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power. We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself. We look down from our higher virtues in the same way the English upper class looked down from its taller bodies, as if the distinction between superior and inferior were an artifact of nature.

Thanks to ambitious university administrators and the ever-expanding rankings machine at U.S. News & World Report, 50 colleges are now as selective as Princeton was in 1980, when I applied. The colleges seem to think that piling up rejections makes them special. In fact, it just means that they have collectively opted to deploy their massive, tax-subsidized endowments to replicate privilege rather than fulfill their duty to produce an educated public.

the fact is that degree holders earn so much more than the rest not primarily because they are better at their job, but because they mostly take different categories of jobs. … The exceptionalism of American compensation rates comes to an end in the kinds of work that do not require a college degree. You see, when educated people with excellent credentials band together to advance their collective interest, it’s all part of serving the public good by ensuring a high quality of service, establishing fair working conditions, and giving merit its due. That’s why we do it through “associations,” and with the assistance of fellow professionals wearing white shoes. When working-class people do it—through unions—it’s a violation of the sacred principles of the free market. It’s thuggish and anti-modern. Imagine if workers hired consultants and “compensation committees,” consisting of their peers at other companies, to recommend how much they should be paid. The result would be—well, we know what it would be, because that’s what CEOs do.

The income-tax system that so offended my grandfather has had the unintended effect of creating a highly discreet category of government expenditures. They’re called “tax breaks,” but it’s better to think of them as handouts that spare the government the inconvenience of collecting the money in the first place. … In total, federal tax expenditures exceeded $900 billion in 2013. That’s more than the cost of Medicare, more than the cost of Medicaid, more than the cost of all other federal safety-net programs put together. And—such is the beauty of the system—51 percent of those handouts went to the top quintile of earners, and 39 percent to the top decile.

The best thing about this program of reverse taxation, as far as the 9.9 percent are concerned, is that the bottom 90 percent haven’t got a clue. The working classes get riled up when they see someone at the grocery store flipping out their food stamps to buy a T-bone. They have no idea that a nice family on the other side of town is walking away with $100,000 for flipping their house.

With localized wealth comes localized political power, and not just of the kind that shows up in voting booths. Which brings us back to the depopulation paradox. Given the social and cultural capital that flows through wealthy neighborhoods, is it any wonder that we can defend our turf in the zoning wars? We have lots of ways to make that sound public-spirited. It’s all about saving the local environment, preserving the historic character of the neighborhood, and avoiding overcrowding. In reality, it’s about hoarding power and opportunity inside the walls of our own castles.

Human beings of the 9.9 percent variety also routinely conflate the stress of status competition with the stress of survival. No, failing to get your kid into Stanford is not a life-altering calamity. … And yet, even allowing for these all-too-human failures of cognition, the cries of anguish that echo across the soccer fields at the mere suggestion of unearned privilege are too persistent to ignore. Fact-challenged though they may be, they speak to a certain, deeper truth about life in the 9.9 percent. What they are really telling us is that being an aristocrat is not quite what it is cracked up to be. A strange truth about the Gatsby Curve is that even as it locks in our privileges, it doesn’t seem to make things all that much easier. … We have intuited one of the fundamental paradoxes of life on the Gatsby Curve: The greater the inequality, the less your money buys.

The source of the trouble, considered more deeply, is that we have traded rights for privileges. We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game. But who, really, in the end, is going to win this slippery game of escalating privileges?

The raging polarization of American political life is not the consequence of bad manners or a lack of mutual understanding. It is just the loud aftermath of escalating inequality. It could not have happened without the 0.1 percent … But that is not to let the 9.9 percent off the hook. We may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation. We should be prepared to embrace the consequences.

The first important thing to know about these consequences is the most obvious: Resentment is a solution to nothing. It isn’t a program of reform. It isn’t “populism.” It is an affliction of democracy, not an instance of it. The politics of resentment is a means of increasing inequality, not reducing it.

The second thing to know is that we are next in line for the chopping block. As the population of the resentful expands, the circle of joy near the top gets smaller. The people riding popular rage to glory eventually realize that we are less useful to them as servants of the economic machine than we are as model enemies of the people.

The American idea has always been a guide star, not a policy program, much less a reality. The rights of human beings never have been and never could be permanently established in a handful of phrases or old declarations. They are always rushing to catch up to the world that we inhabit. In our world, now, we need to understand that access to the means of sustaining good health, the opportunity to learn from the wisdom accumulated in our culture, and the expectation that one may do so in a decent home and neighborhood are not privileges to be reserved for the few who have learned to game the system. They are rights that follow from the same source as those that an earlier generation called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yes, the kind of change that really matters is going to require action from the federal government. That which creates monopoly power can also destroy it; that which allows money into politics can also take it out; that which has transferred power from labor to capital can transfer it back. Change also needs to happen at the state and local levels. How else are we going to open up our neighborhoods and restore the public character of education?

It’s going to take something from each of us, too, and perhaps especially from those who happen to be the momentary winners of this cycle in the game. We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors. We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does.

A Bright Red Flag for Democracy | The Atlantic

Source: A Bright Red Flag for Democracy | The Atlantic, by Ethan Zuckerman

Watching the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students engage with their elected leaders is a crash course in understanding how people develop mistrust in representative democracies. The fear is that the experience will quickly teach the students that change is impossible. The hope, instead, is that they will learn that change can occur, but perhaps not through the methods they’ve been taught to use. … The uncomfortable lesson may be that corporations are more responsive to customer concerns than lawmakers are to their constituents. This may be good news in the short term for activists, but it should be a bright red flag for anyone concerned for democracy in the long term.

Mistrust is corrosive. … mistrust of an unresponsive government can easily lead to the conclusion that no vote, no phone call, no protest can make change

When you find yourself denying the very existence of legitimate opposition to your point of view—when people who disagree with you become paid plants hired by George Soros or the Koch brothers—it’s a good indicator that your mistrust has led you through partisanship into alienation.

Mistrust can be weaponized. … When people begin to distrust what their leaders say, what the media reports, what ultimately constitutes reality, something predictable happens: extremism flourishes. Those less confident in their views withdraw from the public sphere, ceding the space to those certain of their views. … That’s the goal of weaponized mistrust—to create a world so angry, so confusing, so hard to recognize that we either arm ourselves as combatants against the other side, or withdraw entirely into inaction and passivity.