Thursday, January 30, 2014

214. Crony capitalism increases inequality

I don’t find myself agreeing with the Pope, or any other religious leader, on many issues other than a social and moral obligation to help others. And, in particular, I certainly have my reservations about many perspectives of the Catholic religion and the lack of accountability within their leadership over the last couple of decades.

However, I appreciate some of the values of Pope Francis—and I was particularly impressed with his assessment of the current state of our capitalistic system. His assessment recognizes that there are serious concerns with capitalism—the most significant concern being the increasing disparity in wealth.

True capitalism requires that society operates on a level-playing field. This means several things including an equal opportunity to enter the market and that everyone in the market play by the rules. The privileged enjoy significant advantages in terms of education, networking and capital. The connected are able to negotiate the political and legislative fields to create market advantages or secure corporate welfare benefits.

It’s like playing the game Monopoly with someone who owns half the board, has a large amount of cash and assumes the ability to change the rules—before the game even starts.

Cheaters ruin it for everyone and only inspire more of an incentive to cheat. Cheating eventually also inspires government regulation. Winners viciously compete for more market share by eliminating competition and making it more difficult for others to break into their markets. Enough never is and the winners enjoy exponential grow, while the working class fall further and further behind.

Pope Francis called this the “idolatry of money” at the expense of "dignified work, education and healthcare."

Putting this in proper perspective, Pope Francis asks, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"

President Obama piggybacked the Pope’s comments and addressed the economical and societal consequences of a society so mired in an inequitable distribution of wealth.

"The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe," Obama said.

Robert Reich, who served under three presidents, connects the dots that have led to the economic disparity in our capitalistic system. These include the reality that:

almost all economic growth the last three decades have gone to the top
political power flows to the top
corporations and the very rich pay lower taxes and receive more corporate welfare
government budgets are increasingly squeezed
average Americans are competing with one another for slices of a shrinking pie

The deck is stacked and those who have “made it” sometimes both overestimate the work they did, the obstacles they overcame, and underestimate the “breaks” they had along the way. This isn’t meant to be a sweeping generalization—many people work very, very hard and deserve everything they have. However, many other people have worked very, very hard and not succeeded. Everyone can’t make it—it takes talent, hard work and, often, good fortune.

Thus the lie of capitalism is that everyone who works hard will be successful. People who have made it often say, “If I can do it, so can you,” or “you just have to believe” or “never give up.” It’s good advice; however, it’s a statistical inaccuracy. There are really only a few ways to become very wealthy — work in a professional field (actor, doctor, lawyer, athlete, etc.), growth through financial investment (which requires money to invest), as a successful entrepreneur (usually requires investment and labor of others) and by inheritance or lottery.

Obama summarized in his own way, "It's rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it's rooted in the fear that their kids won't be better off than they were.”

A timely example was the recently released statistics detailing the extraordinary gains made by billionaires in 2013. Warren Buffett led the list by increasing his wealth $12.7 billion—that’s over $30 million per day! For the very wealthy, capitalistic growth is exponential, a simple concept that escapes most who defend its principles. The top 1% earns money easier and faster— and continues to own a ridiculous 35% of the country’s total wealth.

What Buffett profited this year would have employed over 250,000 individuals at $50,000 last year. I doubt that Buffett “worked” any harder than he did last year. His growth is simply the result of exponential growth in investment—on the backs of millions of corporate employees (who often struggle to make it on their salaries and live in fear of layoffs).    

Income inequality is an eventual inherent result of capitalism. Some of it is by design, those who “deserve” more, get more—but the exponential difference is the result of “unfettered capitalism” as the Pope called it.

The frustration is boiling over, yet many continue to miss the point—deeply dedicated to defending capitalism.  Corporations, CEOs and their shareholders continue to get a pass—and we keep electing the politicians who serve their interest.

Reich writes, “Native-born Americans are threatened by new immigrants; private sector workers are resentful of public employees; non-unionized workers are threatened by the unionized; middle class Americans are competing with the poor. Rather than feel that we’re in it together, we increasingly have the sense that each of us is on his or her own.”

We need a better system, a fairer system—a “modified capitalism.”

Unfortunately, there are really only a couple of mechanisms that will inspire greater wealth equalities—and it starts with compassion and a demand on our political leadership.

"I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor," Pope Francis said.

Unfortunately, I think the Pope is right—it’ll take nothing less than divine intervention to make things right.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

213. Do any of us really have free will?

Working in association with the addiction field, and dealing with my own attraction to food, I have often thought about the concept of free will. Does free will really exist, and, if so, on what level? Attacking the concept of free will, addiction separates mental and physical urges from consequences—as well as those who conquer their addiction and those who remain enslaved to it. Whatever the case, it is surely more than just a matter of having a little “will power.”

I recently enjoyed Sam Harris’s book on free will. Less than 100 pages long, Harris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is best known for his book, The End of Faith, makes the argument that free will is an illusion. From neuroscience specifics such as the milliseconds between the brain’s activities and when an individual actually makes a decision to the ramifications of free will from religious, moral and political perspectives, Free Will certainly inspires thought on the issue.

Perhaps generally defined as having the conscious ability to control one’s actions, most individuals believe they have free will. Distinctly, there is a difference in the ability to make a conscious decision, that is, to overcome biological programming or environmental influence, and the ability to do what may be physically impractical or impossible.

So the question is: What do we really have control over? Our genes are assigned to us, as well as or parents.  Most of our experiences, particularly when we are young, are chosen for us. The environment we grow up in, not only from socio-economic background but also our religious and cultural upbringing, defines and shapes our thought processes. Can we change our perspectives, or are they already ingrained in us—or if we can change our perspectives, is it preciously because of our experiences?

Harris suggests, “. . .  the idea that as conscious beings we are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map into reality. Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions and you would need to have complete control over those factors.”

“Choices, efforts, intentions and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter—and there are paths toward making wiser ones—but I cannot chose what I choose,” Harris described.

And for those who think they “could have done things differently,” Harris explains that this is “. . .  an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past.”

This premise is, however, different from that which happens to us, and the fatalistic premise of divine fate—or that “everything happens for a reason.” Of course, if one believes in the latter, that things “happens for reason,” then one should probably believe in the lack of free will—for those “reasons” are defined in advance and not conveniently postulated or assigned after the fact.

Obviously, equipped with an outcome, particularly a poor outcome, one can either admit that he or she made the wrong decision or ordain it to be deterministic.  But knowing the outcome and the idea that one “would do things differently,” does not suggest free will—for at the same time in one’s life, with the knowledge available at the time, no other decision could be made (unless perhaps we’re bumbling around in parallel universes).

Of considerable debate is the impact of free will on religion and morality. Of particular importance is the treatment of those who break our moral and societal codes. If free will is an illusion, then the question is what level of responsibility should be attached to an individual who breaks the law. Harris provides a continuum of situations for accountability—depending on age, socio-economics and biology. Although the volitional acts are identical, society often acknowledges the circumstances of the situation and the perceived amount of free will involved.

Free will is also a critical concept and dividing line in politics. “Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matter relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works,” Harris surmises.

The concept of “Free Will” will remain to be controversial from a number of disciplines. Its implications on society are far-reaching and dividing—its circular reasoning, and the attempt to separate the conscious from the unconscious, is difficult to conceptualize. Fortunately, you are free to draw your own conclusions—or are you?