They Live

They Live Billboard

They Live is an intriguing horror/science fiction film from 1988, directed by John Carpenter. The protagonist, Nada, is an unemployed construction worker who believes in the American Dream, until his eyes are literally opened by putting on a special pair of sunglasses. They reveal that the world is run by aliens, brainwashing the human population into mindless consumption. As a metaphor to describe capitalism, it’s spot on. The dialogue also tells some transferable truths:

We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises. The Golden Rule? He who has the gold makes the rules.

Spot the similarity? Replace “steel companies” with “banks,” and it makes a perfect fit with the situation today. I’m usually dismissive of American films – glossy bread and circuses designed to maximise profit and keep people docile. John Carpenter is an exception, a genuine maverick who tells the truth while still producing superb films.

Here it is, in full.

TED Talks: Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation

A weekly post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet was made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettoes and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Here’s one in the eye for all those who justify excessive salaries as a necessary motivation in business. Daniel Pink demonstrates that extrinsic rewards – carrot and stick – increase productivity only when there are fixed rules to be followed. For creative tasks that require originality and imagination, inner motivation produces the best results.  Autonomy, mastery, and purpose produce not only more and better stuff, but happy, invested employees. I’ve known this intuitively for a long time. Nice to see the science behind it.

Amazon Analysed

I didn’t need an infographic to realize that is a corporate vampire, sucking the lifeblood out brick-and-mortar businesses, while treating its employees like shit and evading tax on a massive scale. I hate what it’s done to independent local bookshops, and the threat it poses to real books. That said, it’s nice to have the key points laid out in this infographic.

Blasphemy for the Day: God Save the Queen

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

In honour of Her Maj’s Diamond Jubilee, the anthem in question has to be the Sex Pistol’s version, first released in 1977 for the Silver Jubilee. Banned for a long time, the song has now been re-released, but is unlikely to have anything like the shock value it had then. Society has moved on, we’re much more explicitly critical of established authority, and yet how much of that is the plebs being allowed to let off steam and think they’re free?

In fact, we’re no better off, just as subjugated to entrenched wealth and power as ingenuously symbolized by a seemingly benign monarchy. Even John Lydon, Johnny Rotten in a former incarnation, has come out against re-releasing the song. Youthful rebels become old, reactionary farts, as you can also see from what happened to William Wordsworth. He went from supporting the Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite of the French Revolution to becoming a Tory.

In an age of austerity for ordinary people and increasing wealth for the rich, I’d argue that the song tells the truth about how we live now. But we’re too tranquilized by the Olympics and the current royal circus – bread, unfortunately, is very definitely off the menu. What a bargain!

If this comes over as too curmudgeonly, let me say that if the UK was a proper social democracy, I’d be rather more sanguine about the Jubilee. After all, Elizabeth Windsor is a fairly inoffensive monarch. The existence of Charles, tapping his foot with impatience in the wings, is an excellent argument for wishing her a really, really long life.

But in the present circumstances, as the lyrics say, “England’s dreaming.”

TED Talks: Nick Hanauer on Income Inequality

A new weekly post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet was made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettoes and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

TED really dropped the ball on this one, a talk by Seattle venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, on the ridiculous idea that rich people are “job creators.” TED refused to post the talk on their website, presumably because they didn’t want to offend corporate donors. Yet Hanauer’s argument is not particularly controversial – it must be perfectly obvious that you can’t sell stuff to people who can’t afford to buy it, either because they’ve been laid off or their wages are flatlining. The only way out from the GOP position is to mire them in credit card debt so they remain wage slaves. Credit cards are the modern version of the company store.

For the Doonesbury take on job creators, the site has a week’s worth of cartoons, beginning May 14.

I’m republishing Hanauer’s talk in the ongoing fight against spineless self-censorship. Here are the bare bones, minus visual aids.

It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and its policies.  Consider this one.

If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.

This idea is an article of faith for republicans and seldom challenged by democrats and has shaped much of today’s economic landscape.

But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For thousands of years people were sure that earth was at the center of the universe.  It’s not, and an astronomer who still believed that it was, would do some lousy astronomy.

In the same way, a policy maker who believed that the rich and businesses are “job creators” and therefore should not be taxed, would make equally bad policy.

I have started or helped start, dozens of businesses and initially hired lots of people. But if no one could have afforded to buy what we had to sell, my businesses would all have failed and all those jobs would have evaporated.

That’s why I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is a “circle of life” like feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me.

So when businesspeople take credit for creating jobs, it’s a little like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it’s the other way around.

Anyone who’s ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a capitalists course of last resort, something we do only when increasing customer demand requires it.  In this sense, calling ourselves job creators isn’t just inaccurate, it’s disingenuous.

That’s why our current policies are so upside down. When you have a tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.

Since 1980 the share of income for the richest Americans has more than tripled while effective tax rates have declined by close to 50%.

If it were true that lower tax rates and more wealth for the wealthy  would lead to more job creation, then today we would be drowning in jobs.  And yet unemployment and under-employment is at record highs.

Another reason this idea is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the median American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, we go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.

I can’t buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans can’t buy any new clothes or cars or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing consumption of the vast majority of American families that are barely squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or declining wages.

Here’s an incredible fact.  If the typical American family still got today the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would earn about 25% more and have an astounding $13,000 more a year. Where would the economy be if that were the case?

Significant privileges have come to capitalists like me for being perceived as “job creators” at the center of the economic universe, and the language and metaphors we use to defend the fairness of the current social and economic arrangements is telling. For instance, it is a small step from “job creator” to “The Creator”. We did not accidentally choose this language. It is only honest to admit that calling oneself a “job creator” is both an assertion about how economics works and the a claim on status and privileges.

The extraordinary differential between a 15% tax rate on capital gains, dividends, and carried interest for capitalists, and the 35% top marginal rate on work for ordinary Americans is a privilege that is hard to justify without just a touch of deification.

We’ve had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an eco-systemic  feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That’s why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.

So here’s an idea worth spreading.

In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the middle class.  And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the middle class, is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle class, the poor and the rich.

Thank You.

“I see scenery; I see beauty; I see opportunity.”

These are the immortal words of Seattle advertising executive, Darren Bruce, on gazing over the scenic and beautiful waters of Lake Washington. The “opportunity” of course is to introduce floating billboards in 14 ft high sections that can be joined together for a 192 ft long panoramic vista. He plans to tow them behind a boat, so not just one section of the view will be blighted, but everywhere will be subject to the equal opportunity despoliation. Lucky Lake Union is also on his list of civic improvements. Amazingly, there’s no law against this. You can see the King 5 news report here.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get away from advertising crap in cities, a relentless visual assault that disrespects architecture and cityscapes. What’s that you say? Advertising is essential for marketing products? And so it is, but there’s more than one way to get your fingers into a consumer’s wallet. I give you that bastion of capitalism, Forbes, with an article on how Sao Paulo banned billboard advertising 5 years ago and has not looked back since. Companies have turned instead to digital advertising, a leap forward that Forbes appears to applaud.

The visual pollution of advertising billboards is not inevitable, merely convenient, and a source of income for the likes of Darren Bruce. I am hereby putting him on the short list for a seat on Golgafrincham Ark B, along with the entire useless third of the population. (You all have your own lists, I imagine). Notice how the stars are going out above urban areas? That’s the Mutant Star Goat coming to eat you, Darren Bruce, so get packed and on board while you can.