Understanding Late Stage Capitalism

Late Stage Capitalism is a socioeconomic theory which maintains that Capitalism is an historically limited stage. Proponents of this theory suggest that eventually the pragmatic rational decision making of capital economies will result in hyper-conglomeratization, lack of competition, automation and a redistribution of resources and wealth to those who already have the most capital. If this sounds familiar, it is because this historically limited stage has run its course; capitalism is no longer the most efficient economic model on earth. As the term suggests we are currently living in the end stages of this economic system.

Political scientist and author Frederic Jameson wrote a book about this term in 1991, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In his book, Jameson noted that the late stage of capitalism would come to dominate human beings – it is a moment where low and high art collapse, culminating in the postmodern consumerist stage where everything is commodified and consumable. Everything is for sale, and a few businesses begin to emerge as those who wish to sell you everything (Amazon, Walmart). In fact, most of what we buy and watch in the media is owned by one of less than ten conglomerates, as alluded to in the infographic featured above.

Some examples of this trend include conglomerates merging and buying up smaller companies to fold into their brand. Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm. They also own half the content you watch on television, including ESPN. Outside entertainment it is Amazon, who recently purchased Whole Foods, Ltd. For $13 billion in an effort to get into the grocery business in addition to selling just about everything else imaginable– and it is of course an entertainment content creator too. Yet it began as an online book store.

As rational economics suggest, these actors make decisions rationally, that is they make choices on the basis of sound logical principal in accordance with self interest. Businesses will make decisions rationally in order to expand value and increase market share in order to benefit share holders and themselves. It is this strict adherence to rational economics which also supports the theory that Capitalism is an historically limited stage.

Rational economics is not the best distributor of resources. In the early stages of capitalism there were many markets. Someone created a product, brought that product to market and those with means exchanged something of value in order to obtain it. When a competitor emerged with a similar product, it created competition. With competition, the market for a particular good or item would fall because there was ample supply of it. Since Capitalism adheres to rational decision making based on supply and demand, eventually these markets would be consolidated to better control prices in accordance with self interest. In order to act in self interest, many of these good-makers decided to merge and reap the benefits of lower costs of production, and higher profits for themselves. The result is less competition, higher prices, lower wages and extreme wealth inequality.

Capitalism is a ruthless system which does not care for the well being of its economic participants apart from those with the most means. It does not distribute resources efficiently because it was never designed to.

Case in point the global affordable housing crisis. A week ago, Grenfell Tower, a public housing complex in North Kensington burned to the ground killing around 100 people. The cause of the fire is not immediately known, but the lack of safety measures is. As the supply of valuable property in London and other major cities becomes scarce, investors moved in as rational decision makers looking to capitalize on real estate investment. The result is hundreds and thousands of properties taken off the market to act as land banks– investment properties, AirBnB rentals, and vacation homes for the rich both at home, and especially abroad. Instead of hearing Grenfell residents concerns, Kensington and Chelsea acted in accordance with rational theory as well. They chose to put the concerns of developers first and install cheaper flammable cladding to the Tower complex in an effort to save £5,000 and make the public unit look nicer to neighboring affluent residents which in turn raises more revenue. Not once did the Council or its contractors make a decision with the safety of its poorer residents in mind!

Rational decision making cares about one thing and one thing only – maximizing profit by reducing costs and acting with the benefits of the company or individual in mind. Nowhere in that calculation is labor, or negative externality considered. It is not to the benefit of the capital class to distribute resources to those with less. It is not to the benefit of the capital class to spend more to prevent negative externalities. The only thing which can do that is public policy.

What do we consider rights?

Is access to affordable and safe housing a right? Is it reasonable to make sure that those living in a given city have access to such housing before investment properties and those looking to make a quick buck off AirBnB? Should we tax or restrict investment properties in given cities where vacancy rates are low, and cost is too high? Is it reasonable to have housing that is safe and up to code?

Is access to affordable education a right? Is it reasonable to reduce the cost of college, including private elite universities so that middle and lower class residents can compete on the merits against wealthier students without burdensome loans? Should unpaid internships be made illegal so that those who cannot afford to work for free get the same experience early in their careers as those who can?

Is healthcare a right? Should we make a profit off of those who are sick or should we subsidize medicine and health services so that we can reduce cost and better distribute resources to those most in need regardless their economic background?

Is a clean and green environment a right? Should we place regulations to restrict polluting industries from contaminating the local community and furthering the climate change crisis? Should we take steps to prohibit certain products and methods of resource exploration to preserve life on earth and the safety of local communities?

Is access to financial products with clarity a right? Should we regulate capital markets so that institutions do not act without the well-being of their clients in mind? Should financial advisors be held to high standards and accuracy, and make decisions with their clients in mind? Should certain financial institutions have faster access to trading floors, which enable them to rig the market in their favor? Should roughly ten companies own everything we buy?

These questions must be answered by public policy makers. Late stage capitalism does not distribute resources efficiently because it is only concerned with self-interest. Therefore a capitalist market is not good at self-regulating itself and leading to the best possible outcomes for all. The logical culmination of this theory is mass inequality, lack of opportunity, fewer choices and the commodification of every aspect of life.

However not everything should be commodified. If we believe in meritocracy, we must make and lobby for policy which makes sure that resources are distributed in a more equitable manner. We must protect aspects of our society which unregulated capital markets do not value; such as the environment, the arts and those with less means to provide for themselves. We must encourage policy makers to take automation seriously, and make plans for a post-work economy. Finally, we must come to the conclusion that while Capitalism has done a lot of good for our world, it is no longer the most efficient system for all. It is time to look at what comes next, and how best to implement policy that respects both those at the top and at the bottom; a system which is equitable and based on merit. Late stage capitalism is a turning point in human history. Where we head next is up to the people and the world they want to see. It will be a tough fight, but it is a fight worth having – it is a fight for the future, and for a better world than the one we live in today.

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Blue Zones

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Concept Image of Google Dome via Google

Blue Zone is defined as an area of the world where sociologists have concluded that people have a statistically higher chance to lead a longer life. When applied to discussions of future society, it means those with means and those without it. When automation leads to masse unemployment and historic wealth inequality, living in a blue zone could literally mean the difference between life and death.

A few months back, I discussed the pitfalls of various futurist visions, namely their inability to foresee problems — or more likely that they just don’t care. The post was titled Trickle Down Tech, a play on words inspired by trickle down economics.  In both cases, wealthy folks promise average working people that if they wait a little longer the profits, or technological innovation will increase their quality of life.

This promise of better quality of life is a faulty promise. Research continues to show warning signs about AI, and predicts that by 2025, a third of our jobs will be automated. By 2050, some researchers theorize the majority of our current workforce could be out of work. While many in Silicon Valley, like Google’s Ray Kurzweil, assure us AI will also create new jobs — this time is different than the rest of history.

It is smart for Silicon Valley elites to not ring the alarm bell. It would lead to revolt, and the potential to have their VC cut off, or have their inventions be subject to preventative regulations. These people are in it to make a profit and to test the limits of technology because they can.

Meanwhile within their circles, the Technorati have already begun to talk about future blue zones and how to prepare now for the coming societal unrest.

“They already know millions will suffer…the population of earth which is overpopulated will have to decline…it is a matter of resources, even if we can 3d print them, there is only so much space on earth.” This is what a friend of mine currently studying advanced artificial intelligence at a major west coast research institution told me. He had attended  a retreat with his peers, the term “blue zones” actually came up. All theorized that because of their jobs within the tech community, they would have the requisite skills to live within one of the planned blue zone communities — perhaps like the concept of Google Dome as pictured above.

In fact, while it isn’t revealed to the public as a blue zone, those familiar with the project have confessed to me that Google Dome is an early concept of a blue zone, similar to Peter Thiel’s proposed Sea Steading colony. Many tech companies know that history will repeat itself — when they say “let them eat cake,” people will be ready with pitchforks to storm the Bastille!

Only this isn’t a castle prison in 18th Century France, it is far more secure than that. These mini-Elysiums will have all the technology, resources and clean energy residents could possibly need. The dome would be entirely self sufficient. Most importantly it would be impervious to attack by the commoners.

Silicon Valley has given us a lot of great things — but what stuck out to me during the conversation with my Technorati friend was that in his industry, all know eventually many will suffer. A lot of folks in the tech community have grown almost aloof to this fact. They see it merely as a necessary moment in history for human evolution. They have developed almost a callousness to it. Eventually the course will correct itself, but not at their expense — but at the expense of the masses — so who gives a fuck?

It is time to take the threat of automation very seriously. Amazon just launched Amazon Go, a grocery store with no human employees. It won’t stop at retail, it will eventually bleed into technical and white collar jobs like law, finance and accounting too! It’s time to get government and labor unions involved. It is time to take the threat of mass unemployment seriously. Universal Basic Income isn’t the answer, because whatever money you get the Techonorati will have much, much more. The answer is fighting this before it is too late. Otherwise, it will be up to whether you can save enough to get into a blue zone. Most of us won’t get there, we’ll be stuck in the desert with no water like Mad Max.

Turn Off Autopilot

Our cultures intellectual laziness is just as responsible for the top-40, remake, rip off culture as is the election of Donald Trump.

People don’t care that you voted for Trump as an anti-establishment message. Nor does the Republican Party. You still voted for a racist in spite of that. Hollywood doesn’t care that you just wanted to check their crappy superhero films like SUICIDE SQUAD out. You still voted with your dollars for them to continue to put in little effort for maximum reward.

We can no longer just expect to find good candidates, films or music simply by what the big corporate political and cultural entities push. We must now resort to doing our homework. It’s true that we must be the change we want to see. We must build a progressive movement locally from the ground up to get a seat at the DC table. We must financially support & promote independent films and films of cultural and aesthetic import (especially films by underrepresented creators). We must support local music and buy their products.

CNN, Warner Brothers and their various record labels aren’t going to do their part unless you do yours. Nor are their rivals. Even then the corporate 1% will continue with the status quo. Why? Because the model of late stage capitalism punishes risk. It rewards consolidation, vertical integration and monopoly. It rewards laziness and cookie cutter formulas. It is not interested in saying anything other than “buy our product in every category and then buy more.”

If you don’t like this then it is up to you to stop financially supporting it. It is up to you to research the products you buy. It is up to you to recognize native advertisements that aren’t actually sincere recommendations. It is up to you to rebuke corporate takeovers and mergers by calling your congressperson. It is up to you to be informed as a consumer but also in life.

Our institutions are crumbling to greed and late stage capitalist urges. I have no hope for them, but I do have hope that we can build anew from the ground up but only if we first exercise good judgment and sound thinking. It’s time to turn off autopilot.

Trickle Down Tech

Peter Thiel wants to make a self-sustaining island full of technological wonders that will solve all of mans problems, so jack into your cybernetic framework, because it’s 2045 and it’s time to party!

Oh wait, I’m not invited. Oh gee, I guess you’re not too.

How did this all happen? I thought that once the so-called Singularity arrived, we’d all be so much better off. I thought that all of this technological largess would trickle down like  Bush’s economic policy to lift us all out of our mundane misfortune.

Oh right, I guess that economic policy was a lie to the Middle Class too. Hmmm.

Welcome to Trickle Down Tech; where a bunch of overly optimistic guys from Silicon Valley invade your privacy, automate your jobs and promise to cure your cancer if you just sign right here ____

Okay, perhaps I am being somewhat unfair in my assessment. Lets rewind…

As I write this on Labor Day weekend, 2016, wealthy investors are tripping over themselves to fund the next great technological disruption. The next app that will disrupt an industry, leading unionized workers to sign right here ___ to loose everything laborers before them fought to secure. All this so a bunch of tech titans can please shareholders and investors while lining their own pockets. All in the name of progress! Wait a while, and these amazing apps and disruptions will make your life better. Keep waiting for it to trickle down. Yes I know you’re out of work, keep waiting for that trickle.

Ah, the only trickle you’re going to get is the excess moisture dripping from the wet bag you’ll be left holding by this faulty promise.

Silicon Valley loves to present itself as the bastion of progress. Lets take a look at Singularity U as an example. It is a partnership between venture capital titans and inventors like Peter Diamandis, Peter Thiel, Ray Kurzweil, Google, Nasa (to name a few) where super wealthy people can pay thousands and thousands of dollars for seminars on the next great disruption! It’s called a university, but in reality it is a VC pitchfest, where people can learn to aid the disruptors or become the disruptors themselves.

The godfather of the Singularity movement, Ray Kurzweil is notoriously optimistic regarding future tech, assuring us that we’ll figure all these things out once we get there. He swears to us that there is no problem that technology cannot fix. While I happen to think Kurzweil is far more well-intentioned than the Libertarian Bond villain that is Peter Thiel, he is naive in his assessment.

This is the problem. Even if people are well intentioned, when you push full ahead on disruption without considering the immediate impacts and solutions for those impacts, you’re assuring failure not just for those people, but for yourself.

While these silicon cowboys may have all the money and resources on their private islands, when unemployment reaches 90% because Singularity Hub adherents celebrate the automation of those meaningless jobs, people will revolt. They’ll find a way to build gunships and blow it up for making their lives miserable. Then, the “Luddites” will win because everyone will hate technology just like they’re already starting to hate Capitalism.

While Singularitarians like to promote a Star Trek vision of our future, most people won’t have the luxury of affording the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. The fact remains that people depend on those “meaningless jobs” to feed their families and provide for basic necessities. How dare some smug, overpaid plaid-clad writer living in a $5000/month Palo Alto studio write that someone else’s labor is meaningless. To who? You? Fuck you.

Ah but universal basic income! That’s what these people proffer as a solution, despite numerous economists noting that the only thing this will achieve is hyper inflation. This will only further disenfranchise the unemployed and wealth divide. It almost would seem many of these futurists are ignorant of the market economy. They’re not. They know that things cost money, and if we disenfranchise enough people these precious resources will be kept for the few. The rest of us will rejoin the Middle Ages in a bartering economy — Need some eggs? I have a chicken!

The futurist in me doesn’t want to believe that all promoting this grand vision for the future are like this. I genuinely believe that many want to make the world a better place through technology. I want this too. That is why we need to pause and consider the impact of disrupting things so quickly. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Until we slow down and consider how our new technologies impact others adversely, we must not proceed. We must consider solutions to potential problems before we create them. We must do this to assure responsible technological progress.

Failure to listen to the cab drivers in the streets after Uber decimated their industry will doom us to a warring world of have and have-nots. Don’t we want things to be better than that? Do you really want to go back to the turn of the century rich-poor divide? The tenement housing and mass unemployment? I highly doubt anyone would want that for humanity, even if they could insulate themselves on a private island. If you do want that, enjoy the party, just don’t get too close to the other sharks.

So before we plow ahead with great disruptions,  we must assure their success by making sure they do not disenfranchise people. We must make sure that these new inventions like computer health technologies, and 3d-printed resources are available to all of humanity, not just the rich. Trickle down tech, just like trickle down economics doesn’t work. It is up to those among the have’s to help the have-nots. Failure to do so will assure that the Luddites, that starving masse of rioting unemployed, win.

 

 

 

 

You Do Not Have The Answer

For almost 50 years, people have debated the meaning of the third act in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For thousands of years, people have debated the meaning and origin of the universe. Neither has yielded many concrete results.

Perhaps this is the point. Not every question can yield a definitive answer, and this provokes a profound sense of anxiety.

After defeating HAL: 9000 on the edge of Jupiter’s orbit, Dave is sent on a journey through deep space. The monolith, the giant black tower which appears at the dawn of man seems to have some kind of power over him; or so many theories suggest. In this period of millennia, Dave is given a mass of knowledge that dates back to the Big Bang itself.

It is not merely a fantastic journey through a likely LSD inspired Stargate sequence. It is a deeply anxious mind trying to fathom our cosmic insignificance. It is so much information, so much science we cannot explain, so many trillions of galaxies and exponential numbers of stars that our brain cannot properly compute it all. It just comes out in brilliant colors moving a trillion meters per second. Dave’s face contorts and twists, and so do ours at the thought of what is happening. Then the Big Bang, the most anxiety producing of all — darkness, then light. We are all matter from anti matter. We are something out of nothing. We are particles of something which partical physics has yet to understand.

Is this making you anxious yet? It should be. The entire Stargate sequence is an elaborate mind fuck meant to imagine answers to questions we haven’t been able to shake for Millennia. How small do you feel after watching it?

So perhaps we’re all the product of star children because maybe for some that innocent thought of God is easier to fathom. The thought of an old man, viewed from his younger self through a bend in space and time, is easier to imagine. A man who sleeps in a white room with white curtains, tired eyes beneath a monolith of suggestion. Aliens, or God? This is the simplistic view. Perhaps this seems less fantastical than the science we do not understand.

The universe is frighteningly powerful. I write this on a space rock dodging cosmic hazards, spinning on its own axis at 720mph as it revolves around a ticking time bomb: our sun. This galaxy and the entire universe beyond it is held together by a physics we have barely begun to understand. It is so delicately held together by some cosmic string, that only the slightest of mishaps could send us all tumbling into mass extinction.

Are you anxious yet?

Perhaps the greatest con of this third act is that much like advanced science and the universe itself, there are no correct answers. The entire purpose of this act is to produce a mass anxiety out of not knowing. But hey, look at the star child floating to earth. I wonder if he’s Christian. Perhaps there’s an afterlife after all?

Facebook is a Platform for Low Information Garbage, Racism & Hate: Why I Left.

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Facebook doesn’t want to be the platform for intelligent discourse, and that’s exactly why I left it.

I first started using the platform in college, when Facebook was only availble to those with a college email. After it was rolled out to the general population, I never added a lot of people I knew I wouldn’t talk to. I kept my friends list manageable, mostly family and friends I would see often.

Then after a few years, approaching its initial public offering, Facebook began to distort the social experience. It rolled out a feature called news feed. Instead of receiving posts from your friends in chronological order, you saw what an algorithm determined was news.

At first this wasn’t too bad because most of what was considered news were topics, people and posts you probably liked seeing. It was often populated by those you interacted with often and topics/pages you “liked” on their website. It was a healthy mix between people and pages, with minimal sponsored posts. Plus you could still switch to a chronological time line that didn’t limit how far back you could scroll.

Then advertisers began to make up a larger portion of the social networks revenue. They became crucial to their profitability. Facebook repeatedly landed in hot water for privacy practices, notably data mining and the ownership of user IP, like photos.

It was around this time Facebook started to take over control. No longer was the platform content in allowing users to determine what they wanted to see. Facebook determined what Facebook wanted you to see. It even ran a social experiment showing more sad/happy posts to gauge user reaction.

Facebooks news feed functions as a tool for data analytics. 2/3rds of my news feed quickly turned to Facebook games, public pages for brands/sports teams etc, media pages, sponsored posts and maybe only 15% would actually be people I wanted to hear from.

Concurrently, Facebook launched an update to its smart phone app that limited the chronological time line and saturated that time line with sponsored posts.

Unlike Twitter where the user can create lists to track interests and those they most want to hear from, Facebook finally removed the option for users to control anything. Twitter cares about the experience its users have. Facebook does not. Whereas Twitter allows multiple apps, giving users even more options to filter content, Facebook only has its one app. Facebook wants to be in full control.

After news feed went to shit, many friends started leaving the site. I stayed, perhaps only because it was one of the few ways I could see all of my families posts, photos etc.

Then finally those posts were less and less too. I began having to manually go to people’s pages to see what they were up to. Within the past year, news feed is largely not even text. Over 90% of what you see on Facebook are inaccurate memes, stupid viral content and tabloid headlines. Whether or not a friend posted it, that’s what you would see. Also, if I liked a story on a public page, my news feed time line would quickly be consumed by all that pages posts.

Facebook does not care that it is the low information social platform. It relishes in that because the sheep who fall for bull shit memes are exactly the kinds of people Facebooks advertising partners want to buy their junk. Uninformed, easily manipulated morons — it is easy to part a fool from his/her money.

Yet in spite of all this, what ultimately put me over the edge was a new tweak to their news feed: the garbage political posts and proliferation of racism that went unpoliced.

I have recently tested a theory that Facebook shows you content you will disagree with in order to bait you into argument. Instead of seeing things you generally agree with, like in the early news feed days, Facebook wanted to find a way to keep you on the site longer. If you see a post you agree with, at most you’ll give it a like. Maybe you’ll add a comment or two. Then that’s it. Whereas if you find a post that offends you or is just totally factually inaccurate — you’re more likely to debate with the poster. The more you debate, the more you’re opening the app to check replies.

Think about why this makes sense. The more you open the app the more advertisers can learn about you, advertise to you etc.

So Facebook finds out what you are passionate about and shows you content in that subject that you are likely to disagree with. Maybe a sports team you despise, a friend supports. A political candidate or positions you disagree with in the strongest terms.

Facebook wants people arguing because it is good for their bottom line. The more outrageous the garbage content, the more divisiveness.

Recently I reported a page posting bigoted content called “Fuck Islam.” Facebook wrote back to me saying it didn’t violate their community standards. Of course it didn’t, that’s because Facebook has no moral or philosophical standards! Only greed.

At first the refusal to ban this page shocked and appalled me. However as this kind of virulent racism and bigotry became more common on their platform, I realized Facebook was fast becoming a home to the fringe political right wing – the low information voter. The fool and his money. The reactionary sheep advertisers are so desperate to court.

As higher educated people and younger people of progressive leanings fled the platform, older socially conservative people filled the gap. Facebook quickly became like an early 90s chain mail of made up stories and factually inaccurate memes meant to reinforce toxic political beliefs.

So finally I had enough. I couldn’t take the exposure to what had become a toxic right wing environment. I could no longer stand a news feed full of racist memes, promoted pages endorsing awful views and just plain dumb crap that as an educated and well read person I’d have no interest in.

So I deleted the app, blocked the site from my MacBook and hope to never look back.

I’m sure I’ll miss friends events. I won’t get to see many of my families photos. I think that’s a small price to pay for removing awful content from my life.

Maybe one day I’ll go back to Facebook if it decides to give users more control over their experience. Perhaps one day I’ll go back if it decides to be a more inclusive place and bans pages and content that are broadly offensive to most reasonable people.

But I doubt that day will ever come. Facebook does not care about inclusiveness or what you want. It just cares about what it wants, and what it wants is to make money. It is a company which has lost all moral compass as it makes money in perhaps the most repugnant of ways; privacy invasion, manipulating people’s emotions and fostering an environment which promotes divisiveness.

Today I realize I don’t have to help them make money. I hope that if your experience is anything like mine, you shouldn’t need to help them in that endeavor either.

Trending off Tragedy

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This widely circulated post made its way around Twitter and Facebook yesterday. It made people feel good, it was a lesson in morality. It got 11,000 shares in 11 hours on Facebook, and close to 5,000 RTs on Twitter.

And it’s totally fake.

Never mind that the story pictured above uses long block quotes, indicating the authors incredible memory — but I’m curious as to how she can ID a Romanian or a Gay man on the F Train. Did she ask them? It isn’t mentioned. Most surprising of all is that if this belligerent man did board an F Train, nobody would acknowledge him. New Yorkers encounter crazy and belligerent people all the time and make a habit of ignoring them out of concern for their own safety. I’d know, I’m writing this post from an F Train right now. Nobody would stop a train for this mans behavior.

So? What’s the big deal if it’s fake, it made people feel good.

It is a big deal for the intention of the post and posts like it. The author wanted to insert themselves into the headlines.

When people write these fake stories or create these fake memes, they’re deliberately taking advantage of a tragedy in the headlines to make their post trend. More specifically, they’re trying to make themselves trend.

As the post went viral, the author on Facebook relished in the attention from friends and family — “you’re famous” “remember us when you make it big.” She even had a fan girl moment on Twitter as MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes retweeted the screenshot of her post.

This is narcissism. If the first thing you think of after a tragedy is how to write a Facebook status or tweet that will garner attention, you’re everything that is wrong with social media.

Instead of sharing fake stories written on behalf of someone craving attention, how about sharing real feel good stories?

There are countless examples of people coming together after the horrific tragedy in Orlando to take a stand against hate. We don’t need to share fake stories when there are real profiles in courage to share and celebrate.

So think before you share a story that is obviously fake, whether it made you feel good or not. We shouldn’t be enabling someone’s narcissism. This isn’t the first fake post to trend off tragedy and it won’t be the last. But let’s make it the last time we share it.

15 Ways The United States is Closer to Russia Than European Democracies

  1. Military Force. We routinely use military powers to invade other nations outside of the rules of international law. We spend comparably on the military at the expense of infrastructure and other issues. Western Europe spends a far smaller percentage of their budget on the military.
  2. Incarceration. The United States has among the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, and houses 22% of the worlds prison population. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with Russia (and China) not far behind. Countries in Western Europe, like the Netherlands, are closing prisons under criminal law reforms.
  3. Police Corruption. As more and more video is shared across social media of US cops quick to pull the trigger, police abuses have become front and center in US political debate. The Grand Jury system, which depends on prosecutors who often share close relationships with police in the US, has failed to bring cops to trial to face justice for abuses. Russia is long notorious for not holding cops accountable for abuses, dating back to the policies of the USSR. Can you recall a police abuse video from Western Europe?
  4. Money in Politics. Putins party has close ties to the oil industry and several real estate tycoons, earning Russia the label of oligarchy. Post-Citizens United, the US has allowed record money to enter the political landscape with little oversight. Absent campaign finance regulations and two parties easily manipulated by corporate cash, the same label could easily be applied to us. Elections in Western Europe are publicly funded.
  5. Wealth Inequality. While Russia recently ranked the worst overall in the world for wealth inequality, the U.S. also ranks in the top five under the developed nations category according to the OECD. Countries like France do a far better job of equal distribution of wealth as it relates to investment in resources that provide for greater economic opportunity. This can be studied further by researching a countries Gini Coefficient.
  6. Democracy. Only two political parties exist in the United States, making it very easy to buy one of two parties to do your bidding as a corporation. In Russia, there are also only two major parties, with a very corrupt election process. In W. Europe they have proportional representation and several political parties. This forces coalition building and compromise, and it is far harder to buy out single parties. It also disallows 30% of the population from choosing the majority (like in 2014 US elections), because unlike the US or Russia, it is not a winner-take-all system but a system whose Parliamentary seats are determined by a percentage of the population, not an electoral college (i.e. if socialists get 30% of vote, they get 30% of the seats). Therefore W. Europe is more Democratic.
  7. Dynastic Politics. Putin is president again after past terms, and after his muppet briefly took over. We have a Bush and Clinton running in addition to an assortment of other members of the economic 1%. Many countries in Western Europe have shorter terms and a multitude of parties make it difficult for a person to be elected more than once, let alone winning re-election.
  8. Healthcare. The US healthcare law does nothing to address costs, only the uninsured population. Costs remain exorbitantly high because we gave private industry a mandate to purchase their product. We spend $7500 per capita on Healthcare (2x the OECD average) v. bellow $3500 in many W. European nations, which despite having nationalized insurance provisions (not government hospitals with exception of UK) is a more cost effective system.  In Russia,  they spend considerably less than the OECD average, but have higher death rates per capita. The US too for the first time in history will see this generation live shorter lives than their parents.
  9. Gender Inequality. Whereas Western European nations all rank considerably high up (meaning low inequality) in the Human Development Reports’ Gender Inequality Index, both Russia and US miss out on the top ten. The index calculates equality on the basis of labor market participation, reproductive health and empowerment. Glass ceilings remain in place in both Russia and the US, abortion remains a hot topic in both countries and political seats held by women in Russia and the US are far behind that of Western European nations.
  10. Work Life Balance. The myth between more hours worked and productivity is popularly subscribed to in nations like the US, Russia and China. In Europe, more time is devoted to family, personal time and pursuits with the average work week about 35 hours. These European countries are all advanced economies and their people are considerably less stressed than Russian or US workers. Europeans also enjoy significantly more vacation time for workers to recharge, with one month v the US standard of 1.5-2 weeks. Heck even in Russia the average vacation time is 28 days despite 40+ hour work weeks!
  11. Wages. The US has seen wages stagnate since the 1980s, despite a rise in worker productivity. Instead of raising wages, we’ve expanded access to cheap credit (personal debt). In Russia wages are similarly low with little worker protections. Both countries demonize Union workforce and corporations hold the upper hand in judicial battles. In W. Europe, wages are considerably higher and meet a livable wage. Personal debt is much lower since people complete purchases in cash not credit. While Nordic countries like Denmark have a high personal debt level, this is offset by above average savings (in the US people have high personal debt and little savings).
  12. College Education. Both the US and Russia have very high college costs as a percent of annual salaries. Both nations have tuition costs that far exceed the annual take home pay of average families, causing a reliance on loans (with the US actually far worse than Russia in this category). In W. Europe college education is free in countries like Germany, or significantly subsidized in other countries. In France attending public university is around 2,500 Euro per year for tuition! Western Europe also places greater emphasis on vocational schools.
  13.  Socio-Economic Mobility. Are you better off than your parents? Were you, like Trump, lucky enough to have money to make money? Or is your country more equal in terms of economic mobility? With the exception of the UK with its knighthoods and noble class, the US ranks behind all Western European nations, with less opportunity for class advancement if you’re not born rich. The same can be said for Russia, even more so.
  14. Intelligence Community. Neither of our intelligence organizations seem to operate under the rules of law, and routinely go un-policed by government oversight. Sadly Western Europe is not much better in this regard despite greater public outcry (perhaps that silly SPECTRE plot wasn’t so farfetched).
  15. Social Views on Gays. Putin has long condemned gays, even going as far as imprisoning them. Here we have a vocal chorus of those in political power who would similarly like to decline civil rights to Gay people and many use language like “barbarism” “inhuman” and “sick” to describe Gay people. While our Supreme Court recently upheld rights for Gays to marry, Houston just struck down a proposal granting protections to Gay people in the event that they are fired for their homosexuality under the guise of “no bathroom sharing for transgenders”. Europe offers considerably more protections to LGBT citizens, and has recognized Gay marriage in many cases for over a decade.

September 11th, As Told From The Daughter of a Fireman and First Responder

September 11th has come to mean a lot of things over the years. For many, it is a chapter in a history book, a moment in history whose geopolitical consequences are talked about far more often than the moment which caused them. “9/11” has become highly politicized, used as a recruitment tool for military and Jihad alike. It has lead to unprecedented national security overhauls and vigorous debate about privacy and the role of government. September 11th is not discussed in the context of 2001, but rather in the present. It has become a hyperbolic symbol of both the best and the worst of our nation. While September 11th is often referred to in the context of our “post-9/11” world, for some of us, we’re still very much stuck in 2001.

For those of us, like myself, who witnessed that day firsthand, September 11th is still very much cased within the context of what happened in 2001. While I can divide my life perfectly between the ignorant bliss I lived in before 9/11 to what has come after, on this anniversary, I am not able to live in the present. For that day will always be a very personal one, one which would come to define my young life as much as it would define the world at large around me. I am the daughter of a NYC firefighter and 9/11 first responder and this is my story…

Actual radio recording…

911 OPERATOR
Go ahead Battalion 1.

BATTALION 1
We just had a –  a plane crashed into an upper floor of the World Trade Center. Transmit a second alarm and start relocating companies into that area.

911 OPERATOR
Ten-Four Battalion 1. All companies stand by at this time.

WESTERN NASSAU COUNTY, NY (14 miles from the World Trade Center)

A phone rang, just as I was already late to school. My father, a fireman with Engine Company 58 in Harlem (Manhattan) would be my ride. Lateness for me was becoming a habit. I had recently transitioned back to district, following many years in private school, and I had an argument with a childhood friend about lunch table seating. We shared a first period class, and I was determined to miss it. It was my father, on vacation at the time due to bereavement following the loss of my grandmother, who convinced me otherwise — just ready to leave, I picked up the phone.

It was my father’s firehouse, the fireman on the other end sounded very serious and asked to speak with my father. “A commercial plane?” My father seemed shocked to hear what was told to him — “turn on CNN right now,” he urged me. “The department has recalled the entire force, I have to go into Manhattan,” he told me as CNN sprung to life on TV, a gaping hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center from a helicopter view.

We barely had time to digest what we were seeing; undoubtedly the worst plane crash to befall the US in years — when the second plane came in on live TV, crashing into the South Tower in a massive fireball and screams…

I think part of being the daughter of a fireman, you sometimes discredit how dangerous their job is. You know they can die, the danger is real, it is omnipresent, but every time your father returns home — they’ve escaped that danger, and you begin to take for granted that they will continue to come home. As the footage repeated on loop, the anchors struggling to compose themselves, the danger became clear all at once. The old moniker of the FDNY “When everybody runs out, we run in” felt less like a tee-shirt slogan, and more like the grave threat it stood to actually represent. My father was not headed to fight a fire, not to respond to a plane crash — he was headed to war, and on the front lines.

As I exited his car to make for my High School, I turned to hug him and told him I loved him. To most, this seems like standard protocol, but my father was always a very stoic man, not one for hugs or much in the way of physical expression of his care. He always quietly expressed his love. He would do what he could to interest me in baseball, bring me to games, coach my teams — hugging just wasn’t one of the ways he showed he cared. On September 11th, 2001, I hugged him, and he hugged me back. The fear in his eyes was palpable and real, in the back of both of our minds this was not just a hug, but the potential for good bye. It was understood from the very beginning, that men would likely die this day and he pulled away from the curb knowing that, as I entered my school knowing it too.

Long before the days of social media, I was one of the first to bring news about the attacks to my High School. As the periods went by, and the scope of the tragedy became clear, we understood there would be no learning today. Parents came to collect their kids from school. The usual noisy airspace en route to JFK overhead fell eerily silent following the grounding of America’s planes; quiet but for the occasional F-15 that would become common place over the skies of New York in the weeks to come. It was evident even before the Towers fell that we were living in a War Zone. Much like my parents reacting to the news of the JFK assassination, kids like me knew America would never be the same again. As it was in 1963, the optimism around the election of Kennedy, would fade into a decade of complex geopolitical tragedy and perpetual war along with the activism and cynicism that it would instill in my parents generation. 9/11 would become the same for my generation, with the latter half of my life living under jingoist fervor, and perpetual war with a grave existential enemy.

As the Towers fell, it was evident thousands had died. I kept replaying the scenarios in my head, assuring myself my father wouldn’t have had time to get down there. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t true; I knew that there was a good chance that he was dead. I began to think about all of the moments I could recall with him at once; a projector image of happy memories to distract myself from the horrors of the present. I watched the news replay the implosion — and I hope that no one need ever feel what it is like to watch as your loved one dies in front of your eyes — It is a horrible, horrible feeling, and it is what I felt watching it at that moment. It is also why, largely due to PTSD, I am unable to watch much footage from that day.

As I made my way into the guidance counselors office, the scope of the tragedy became clear. The counselors were overwhelmed, as so many in my town had parents who worked in the fire department, police department or in the towers themselves. One girl was on my soccer team, she was one of the girls who had been mean to me of late. Today she was besides herself in tears, her parents both worked in Cantor Fitzgerald and her aunt was on the way to pick her up. Both her parents were assumed dead, as the firm took a direct hit from the hijacked airliner.

All of the lunch table drama was forgotten then, as we talked, tried to come to terms with loss. I recalled the times playing Mario Kart on N64 in her basement. Her mother once picked several of us up from soccer practice and ordered pizza, while we played games and blasted the Spice Girls. If there is one thing I remember on 9/11, it’s how much I missed the 90s. I so very much wanted to return to the days of soccer practice, pop music and N64. I longed for the days of Manhunt and Pokemon cards. In 2001, I was forced to become an adult a lot sooner than I wanted to be. I had to learn to understand things that I wasn’t meant to come to terms with until much later in life. The reality of pre- and post-9/11 became so incredibly, painfully clear to me at that moment.

The hours dripped by slowly from there. The school was practically empty as parents had picked their kids up. The school remained open, because for kids like me, a fireman father and nurse mother, my parents needed to help others. I felt like an orphan, sitting as the only kid apart from two others in my 8th Period class. Though I kept trying to bury the thoughts, tired of crying, it was also possible that one of my parents was likely dead. I sat there in English Class with all this on my mind. My teacher, she sat behind the desk, very still. She told us, we didn’t have to do anything, today would be a moment for reflection, and free-writing if we wanted. Nobody moved.

When I finally returned home, thanks to the help of a neighbor, I was told the news. My father was in the hospital, several of his company were critically injured in the collapse. He was there to provide comfort, before returning to the wreckage to try and find their Lieutenant, buried under the Command Center of the Marriott Hotel. Lieutenant Nagel survived the first collapse, taking refuge in an elevator bank. Unable to escape, the rest of Engine Co. 58 had teamed up with a local ladder to try and use heavy equipment to free him and others trapped beneath. His last known words were not of selfishness, a Vietnam veteran, and natural leader — his last words were “how’s my men?”

As the second tower fell, the company made for a parking garage. Yet debris still took its toll on the survivors. One of the men was rushed to surgery, in serious condition.

The most physical connection I had of that day was the smell. You could see the smoke, but the smell was the worst part. It had a metallic burnt smell, like an electrical fire mixed with heavy chemicals. The worst smell of all was that of burning flesh and the trauma as a 13 year old, knowing that was what I was in fact smelling.

14 years later, September 11th is still very much within the context of 2001 because for those who dealt with its consequences firsthand, it is not a documentary, it is not a chapter in a history book — it is reality.

As Lt. Nagel asked “hows my men,” the answer is, many are sick and/or dying due to the exposure to toxic air while digging at the disaster site. While the EPA fraudulently claimed the air was safe, those like my father who dug down there knew they were risking their health to try and find survivors, or any part of a body to give a family closure (Lt. Nagel was never recovered). My father, the picture of good health, a fitness enthusiast and marathon runner, has been diagnosed with cancer twice. Thankfully both were curable. Others have been less lucky, and even my father has a nodule on his lung that will one day likely become cancerous and need operation. Our local representatives have worked tirelessly to reauthorize the James Zadroga Act in Congress to help permanently fund the World Trade Center Health Program to provide health care to the thousands that desperately need it.

On an even more personal front, my parents divorced in 2003. The trauma of 9/11 on my father was too much to psychologically bear. He was inattentive and unable to communicate the horrors he saw, only once ever telling me about the time he dug out a human arm from the debris. He served as family liaison to the Lieutenants family, guilty about not being there, that he was on vacation. Survivors guilt is real, and it is a pressure that was too much to come to terms with. He spent more time with his fellow firemen, and his lieutenants family than he did with his own. The Concert for New York City, and Bowie’s Heroes playing through my dads cell phone as he called me from the event was a high point, and about the only one. The rest of that era is mired by divorce, family drama, war and what has largely become an intentional blur for me.

Since that day, I’ve done a lot with various Firefighters organizations. I helped give private testimony on the importance of the Zadroga Bill.  In 2003, working with my father and several other 9/11 survivors, and the School of Visual Arts program of Art Therapy, we created a tile mural that is now on permanent display in Bellevue Hospital in Lower Manhattan (where most of the days injured wound up). In 2016, I hope to run the NYC Marathon to raise awareness of 9/11 illness and the various complex cancers that make up a large share of those cases (I have been training for it constantly, as it is also the one race my father never was able to run).

I have grown a lot from that day, and grew up a lot on that day as well. Each and every time this anniversary comes around, the day and its immediate aftermath plays on endless loop. Despite many years in therapy, the day is still fresh in my memory, to the point where the adage “never forget” seems almost tacky. How could anyone ever forget 9/11? As many turn to documentaries and special tributes to mourn the tragedy, those of us who witnessed the event firsthand will forever play our own documentary in our heads. While this anniversary is September 11th, 2015, for those of us who lived through it in NY that day, today is again September 11th, 2001 and will be for the rest of our lives.

Silicon Valley Prophets

Most organized religion works with the promise of an eternal resting place, an afterlife where man may live in harmony with his Creator, provided he is a faithful person. While the description of Heaven varies with each religion, it is more or less consistent in terms of its general definition: the promise of eternal life after death.

For those who have devoted their life to science, the idea of immortality in Heaven, or a spiritual after-life, is difficult to believe in absent any empirical evidence. So it was only natural for some brilliant scientists and inventors to want to create a Heaven that is actually real.

Meet Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity movement.

Kurzweil is an inventor, computer scientist and prodigal graduate of MIT. He has gone on to create many important inventions and has helped to advise on multiple projects within his field of computer science. He is currently employed with Google in an advisory/research role where he has significant input on futurist projects, presumably under the program Google X.

After the death of his father, he became obsessed with the idea of being able to talk to him again. You see this emotional side of him in the documentary Transcendent Man — which has become the video-bible to his futurist vision. Kurzweil does not believe in a Judeo-Christian version of Heaven where he may speak to his father again, and so he’s tried to find a scientific solution to where this may be possible. Kurzweil gets blood tests  frequently. He takes massive amounts of pills and supplements every day, all in the hopes of living long enough to see out his predictions for a man-made afterlife (which he claims will be in 2045). He’s even wrote a book on how best to diet to improve your chances of reaching the year of his prediction.

Why is he doing this? Simply, as a human, he like all of us, fear our own mortality. There is a constant worry that we will not have enough time in our mortal lives to accomplish all we desire. Unlike religious people who believe in a spiritual afterlife, individuals like Kurzweil see our time here as limited and finite. What Kurzweil is ultimately trying to do is invent a technological Heaven for those who don’t believe in the religious/spiritual version of it. He, like centuries of men before him, is using his life on earth to try and beat death. However, this existential crisis is thousands of years old, and so far death has held an upper-hand. Of course Kurzweil, also like many before him, believes he will be the one to beat death once and for all.

The Singularity, as envisioned by Kurzweil, is a sort of religion for those who do not believe in God or an afterlife. It is the idea that in spite of no spiritual heaven, if we invest enough in technology, the core idea of Heaven, or immortality, can be attainable.

Kurzweil as a Jesus-figure for this movement is a complicated, but noble man in his intentions and beliefs. Some may even say obsessive in his quest for real immortality, or as he and his followers have come to call it ” the technological singularity.” The technological singularity is the idea that through ever-increasing computing power and technological innovation, man will be able to augment his body to overcome mortal biological defects. Taking this idea a step further, Kurzweil argues we will be able to implant computer chips in our brains which will then be able to upload our conscious into a machine. This he argues will happen by the year 2045, the all significant year of when this Heaven through technology will be complete according to a rather flawed interpretation of Moore’s Law.

The year of Singularity, 2045, is referred to as a singularity because much like the physics term it borrows from, we cannot know what happens after the point of a singularity. Yet, that does not stop either Kurzweil or his disciples from trying to predict after this moment anyhow.

In order to make this prediction even remotely feasible, it will take billions invested into technological innovation. Naturally, the Singularity must go beyond books and documentaries, and into venture capital pitches in order to have any shot at success with its vision.

Singularity University was launched in 2008 by Kurzweil, and Silicon Valley investor and inventor, Peter Diamandis. The goal was not to create a formal university, but an executive retreat where silicon valley entrepreneurs would be given the chance to hear about all of the benefits of investing in the vision of Singularity and how to find funding and start projects of their own in accordance with its vision. The “university” is today supported by NASA Goddard, Google and countless other esteemed organizations and individuals such as Google’s Larry Page and PayPal investor Peter Thiel, thus lending it legitimacy within the Silicon Valley community.

The problem with this pseudo-religious technological goal is that not all of Kurzweil’s followers are as noble in their intentions as he is. Kurzweil is notoriously optimistic about our future, promising an abundance of resources, human immortality, conscious-uploading and no problem technology cannot solve. Those who invest in these visions have a different goal: money, and to make more of it.

Ultimately our resources are finite. If people could live forever, the earth would naturally only be able to hold so many people. As long as money is king of controlling resources, like say the technology to grant immortality, it is unlikely the average citizen will stand to benefit much from Kurzweil’s visions. In fact, the plot-line to the SciFi film Elysium seems more likely than the utopia he envisions, as sad as that might make him.

Peter Thiel himself is a Far-Right Libertarian, and major donor to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Not only does he believe in an “every man for himself,” “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” vision of America, he also wants to insulate himself and his allies form the consequences of when this rose-colored vision of Darwinian determination fails. Recently he pitched the idea of a sea-steading island colony of technological entrepreneurs where a handful of well off billionaires and millionaires could invest toward a Singularity free from government regulation and interference from average citizens. Basically, an oceanic version of Elysium (presumably until they can relocate into Space).

The difference in vision for its outcome is precisely why Singularity as religion is troublesome. Like Christ, Kurzweil is not a bad person — his followers however leave his visions open to exploitation. On the one hand you have Kurzweil who wants this technology for everyone. On the other hand, you need venture capital to make this a reality, and those investors do not want this available to everyone because scarcity creates more profit. Additionally, where this technology is scarce, only the rich will be able to afford it.

Another problem is that the word Singularity has become rather loosely defined over the years, moving further and further from Kurzweil’s definition as more entrepreneurs take their stab at bringing it into reality. As many scientists doubt the occurrence of this Kurzweilian prediction within our lifetime, believers (those in a serious existential battle against death) try and find loosely correlated examples of Singularity’s existence in everyday life.

Much how like religious people share stories of miracles and unexplained phenomenon in every day life to justify their belief in God without any empirical evidence, Singularity believers try and loosely attach everyday technological gains and inventions to prove that “the singularity is near” — a common utterance by those convinced of its inevitability.

While Kurzweil’s is a very noble goal, one which may even usher in important technological inventions, it’s imperative to remain skeptical of such Utopian claims. Ultimately as is, this movement is a profit center for venture capitalists, and even the media empire Kurzweil has built around himself with books, documentaries, TV shows and speaking engagements. Also, it is entirely convenient how like many prophets before him, the year of reckoning will occur within his lifetime (provided he reaches almost 100).

While I do not believe Kurzweil to be a narcissist the way many prophets before him were, I also don’t believe he is capable of being critical of his own predictions — which is essential as a matter of scientific hypothesis. I believe he is a man who never dealt with the psychological consequences of his fathers death,  and so he has set out a goal for himself to remedy this problem of death and afterlife through his mastery of science. To make this goal a reality, he has had to pursue the money and resources of those who may not share his Utopian vision of the future, leaving open the chance for this technology to be abused or harvested solely for the economic elite. I hope those who support the important goal of technological innovation and progress do not put too much stock into any one prediction of the future. Kurzweil plays an important role in encouraging investment in technology and how technology can if done properly make our world a better place. When a religious undertone is involved like it is with Singularity, the prospect of critical thinking is reduced and in turn the chance for abuse of a movement is born.