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World & Current Events > Can inequality destroy democracy?

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message 1: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Can inequality destroy democracy? And if it does, what will the endgame be?

Thoughts after reading Robert Reich on inequality, Joseph Tainter on the collapse of complex societies - and A.L. Rowse on Elizabethan England. Three books that appear to have nothing in common, but just may point to our near future.

http://mikerobbinsnyc.blogspot.com/20...


message 2: by Graeme (new)

Graeme Rodaughan Absolutely.

Severe social inequality as is now present, requires the application of bribery, deception and violence to maintain itself - which are all corrosive to the functioning of a mature democracy with an engaged citizenry.


message 3: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments I strongly agree Graeme. And I think we're seeing that corrosion in action now.

What particularly interested me about this was the endgame. If inequality destroys democracy, revolution is clearly one mechanism through which it may do it - but I don't believe it's the only or even, for us, the most probable one. That is why I find the ideas of Joseph Tainter so interesting, although it wasn't inequality as such that he was talking about.


message 4: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16042 comments An interesting analysis, Mike, and spotlighting one of the potential sources of severe societal turbulence.
For a start off, I'd say capitalism and equality are incompatible, at least in an economic sense. All those 'equality of chances' and other stuff are mostly veil and pretense. As you rightly conclude that despite Rousseau's assessment of rich being a good source of calories for the poor, the rich manage to have "deplorables" blaming each other. Might become harder in the information age, although can't bet on that as the degree of manipulation grows in those networks and it becomes ever harder to tell truth from lie.
A stable society rests either on oppression or social contract cemented by a relative well- being of large enough layers of societies (a middle class) to cushion tensions between two extremes of rich and impoverished. The thinner the cushion, the greater the turbulence, so the growing gap (if indeed) doesn't contribute.
Plus, there are variables that yet may not have come to play the pivotal role.
With biz going global the delicate balance of consumption, wages and profits may be tipped. Apple wants to produce in China, but sell in the US. Everyone wants that - lower costs, but high prices back at home. Take most jobs out of US and Europe and the market there dries up. Might well be that after making a full circle, the jobs may return to the US and Europe, as their working force will become the cheapest in 50 years. Those counting on market as the panacea for all probably thought of a coinciding market of production and consumption, while I'm not sure that it'll work as well, when they are separated.
Also, it's important to understand that for different reasons a biz can't self-regulate, as long as they are fighting for dominance. It's when they really reach the top, a portion of them start to see philanthropy as equal or even more important than money-making, hence 'giving pledge' and similar initiatives. But you can't count on most biz decision- makers to somehow think about much else than maximizing the profit.
Here should come politicians and think about the majority to make sure most members of society get a reasonable piece of pie to be content/sedated. But for many of them a public is not that interesting bordering nuisance. Their precious self is, sponsors are.
And then there is progress. It can result in all sort of things. Like wiping out all physical jobs. Or, vice versa - like enabling each household to have a 3d printer to print most essentials of what they need. Who knows? A solution of universal income may become inevitable to keep things stable.
However, I believe the formula of the bigger the numbers of discontented the higher the entropy will still work.


message 5: by Matthew (last edited Apr 29, 2018 01:44PM) (new)

Matthew Williams (houseofwilliams) Absolutely. We've certainly seen it before. And it puts m in mind of the opening epigraph from Brave New World:

"Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed them to be. Now we find ourselves presented with another alarming question: how do we prevent utopias from coming into existence? …Utopias are possible. Life tends towards the formation of utopias. Perhaps a new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the privileged will dream of ways to eliminate utopias and return to a non-utopic society less "perfect" and more free.” -Nicholas Berdiaeff

Basically, if a system founded on the beliefs of individual freedoms and legal equality appears to be failing a good portion of its citizens, then said people will demand change and will be willing to surrender their freedom to anyone offering solutions or change. And in the case of utopian thinking, freedom is exchange for the sake of a more perfect society of true equality. Unfortunately, those who join these causes and support those leaders end up getting neither.


message 6: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Some intriguing thoughts here Nik. Off the top of my head:

First, you say that capitalism and equality are not compatible, but it does depend what one means by equality. The yawning gaps created by a monopoly capitalism aren't the same as the sustainable differences in income that arise from one person being a bit more successful, or simply having different priorities, from someone else. So an enterprise culture is to some extent compatible with a certain cultural equality and thus with democracy. The mess we have at the moment, though, is not.

Second, you say that "Everyone wants ...lower costs, but high prices back at home. Take most jobs out of US and Europe and the market there dries up. Might well be that after making a full circle, the jobs may return to the US and Europe, as their working force will become the cheapest in 50 years." In my view no, not going to happen because if you export jobs like that and drive down wages at home on that scale, not only will the consumer economy collapse, but you'll have half the ruling class dangling from lamp-posts, their ankles clicking together gently in the breeze. So global imbalances can't easily be dealt with by the market. I don't know what we can do about that. Trump would tell you that he does - tariffs; but they raise far too many questions. Part of the answer, if there is one, may lie in a universal basic income.

Lastly, this question of progress - this is a really interesting one. Does progress wipe out jobs, or actually give us more in our lives? A particularly interesting point in Tainter's book is that when he talks about the marginal rates of return on complexity, he prices that in energy - that, he thinks, is the budget in which we ultimately price things. And the cost of energy is going to plummet in the next 20 years as the development of grid storage allows us to migrate completely to renewables. If the benefits of this are shared, maybe through a universal basic income, then technological progress will stabilize our societies. If they are not, it will destabilize and destroy them.


message 7: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Matthew wrote: "Absolutely. We've certainly seen it before. And it puts m in mind of the opening epigraph from Brave New World:

"Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed them to be. Now w..."


Agreed. I think you are envisaging the scenario in which inequalities drive people to adopt doctrines of either the authoritarian left or right. This is a likely scenario and has been the outcome in the past.

But what intrigued me was the possibility that neither would take power, and that the power structures themselves would simply dissolve - that was Tainter's theory. He saw that as happening because of the cost of supporting complexity in society. But if those costs are falling unequally, that may speed up the process.


message 8: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Williams (houseofwilliams) Mike wrote: "Matthew wrote: "Absolutely. We've certainly seen it before. And it puts m in mind of the opening epigraph from Brave New World:

"Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed t..."


Exactly. We saw as much during the "Age of Extremes", where European society was being torn between fascism and communism during the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression. The current situation in Europe is much the same, with Brexit and no-fascist parties getting a larger share of the vote. And of course, there's Donald Trump, who convinced millions of white Americans with "economic insecurity" that he was going to solve their problems. It never ends well.


message 9: by Graeme (new)

Graeme Rodaughan Mike wrote: "And the cost of energy is going to plummet in the next 20 years as the development of grid storage allows us to migrate completely to renewables."

Twenty years to develop/deploy grid storage seems optimistic to me. I could be wrong though.


message 10: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments It does seem optimistic but it might not be; technology is by its nature unpredictable because it's always being invented. My feeling is that it depends on progress in the development of "green" gas made from renewable energy, which can then be distributed and used by something very close to the current infrastructure.

There's much to think about in Chris Goodall's The Switch: How solar, storage and new tech means cheap power for all - published in 2016 but perhaps already out of date, as these things move so fast. I think he saw round about 2050 as the date when we might have the grid storage to dispense with fossil fuels. But if it looks economically viable, it could happen earlier.


message 11: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11773 comments In my opinion, most of those people who calculate "cheap green energy" leave issues out of their calculation. Electrical generation omits the price of increasingly scarce resources - they might be cheap now, but they are not used to anywhere near the degree they would be. Look at the issue of cobalt in lithium ion batteries. People glibly talk about recycling, but they overlook what to do with what is not wanted. People seldom properly factor in lifetimes, and seldom consider the proper effects of the second law of thermodynamics. It is not that these problems cannot be overcome; it is there will be a price for doing so.

One of the best solutions, in my opinion, is to rethink society. In one of my novels, the solution to the transport fuel issue was to move people so they lived closer to work, and could walk to work. Much better for clean air, no fuel consumed, and with proper use of the internet, much could be done only walking around the home. You still need transport for entertainment, but eliminating the long daily commute saves a lot of energy.


message 12: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Williams (houseofwilliams) Ian wrote: "In my opinion, most of those people who calculate "cheap green energy" leave issues out of their calculation. Electrical generation omits the price of increasingly scarce resources - they might be ..."

Another thing that people tend to leave out of the equation is the subsidies will still give to oil and gas. Internationally, governments provide between $775 billion to $1 trillion annually in direct subsidies. But according to the IMF, when you factor in the other costs associated to climate change, clean-ups, environmental impacts, and health impacts, it actually works out to $5.3 trillion annually.

If we were to transition these over to renewables, which are already competitive with oil, gas and coal, they would become even more affordable and profitable.


message 13: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11773 comments Correct, Matthew. I have no idea why they give subsidies to oil and gas - it is not as if the oil companies are nearly broke. Don't get me wrong - I am all in favour of renewable energy, and I have worked in the area for much of my professional life. It is just that through that work, I know a little bit about how the less obvious costs mount up. Further, it is obvious we have to change to renewables sooner or alter, and the curious thing is, the big companies seem to be almost disinterested. Major contributions to research and development is usually not on their agenda


message 14: by Alex (new)

Alex (asato) And it just keeps getting more unequal with Price-fixing--by any other name--between oil oligarchs.

https://www.npr.org/606208266


message 15: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11773 comments The problem is the unequal access to resources, Alex. If someone owns the lot of something, and is a monopoly, they can charge what they want.


message 16: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments Speaking of monopolies, why are they allowed to exist and continue to grow? Talk about inequality.


message 17: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Williams (houseofwilliams) Scout wrote: "Speaking of monopolies, why are they allowed to exist and continue to grow? Talk about inequality."

Lobbyists, largely. There's also the fear of making the switch, since many fear it will be costly, drive up prices, and hurt the economy. Those who have embraced the transition have already done it and its been virtually pain free. And their economies are doing quite well.


message 18: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16042 comments Mike wrote: "The yawning gaps created by a monopoly capitalism aren't the same as the sustainable differences in income that arise from one person being a bit more successful, or simply having different priorities, from someone else...."

In generally agree with you. I claim that absolute equality is impossible, because capitalism is about moneymaking and there will always be more successful dudes assuming risks and less successful (in material terms), but having a 'calmer, risk free' life. But I don't think an absolute equality is required, as long as desirably all, but sufficiently - the vast majority of population can live a normal life and achieve a reasonable level of well-being. With the tempo of industries' concentration, it feels that we are moving towards monopoly capitalism though.

Mike wrote: "In my view no, not going to happen because if you export jobs like that and drive down wages at home on that scale, not only will the consumer economy collapse, but you'll have half the ruling class dangling from lamp-posts, their ankles clicking together gently in the breeze...."

That's the tendency though and it's strong and kicking. Lets face it - the industrialists are not gonna become 'patriotic' all of a sudden and they will keep outsourcing jobs to cheaper locations, as long as it lowers their costs. They will not look at the grander pic and say, "hey, I cannot do that, because if we all do, we won't have jobs at home". Somebody needs to tackle it. Trump, for example - tries. Not sure, how good and effective are his trade war measures, but that's his attempt to address the problem.


message 19: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Ian wrote: "In my opinion, most of those people who calculate "cheap green energy" leave issues out of their calculation. Electrical generation omits the price of increasingly scarce resources - they might be ..."

Well, I am certainly saving some energy on the way to work, although I expend quite a lot of my own. I took this on my way in this morning!

https://www.facebook.com/mikerobbinsN...


message 20: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16042 comments Well done, hope your energy ever remains renewable


message 21: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Nik wrote: "Well done, hope your energy ever remains renewable"

At 61, probably not :)
Still, there's life in me yet.


message 22: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments Just as an aside, I thought of a Black Mirror episode in which people pedal stationary bikes to power their surroundings and earn credits. Kind of like horsepower, but people power. Good on you, Mike, for using your own power.


message 23: by Mike (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 291 comments Scout wrote: "Just as an aside, I thought of a Black Mirror episode in which people pedal stationary bikes to power their surroundings and earn credits. Kind of like horsepower, but people power. Good on you, Mi..."

Thanks Scout. I'm electrifying!


message 24: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments :-) Back to the original question, I was talking with a friend tonight, and we both agreed that Trump supporters are loyal despite his faux pas and his lies. I thought about the reason for this, since it seems so unreasonable, and I concluded that Trump represents the idea that you can stand up to the establishment; the hope that the middle class, long ignored, is being heard.

This is where the idea of inequality affecting democracy applies. Before Trump, I think that about half of the people in this country felt that they were not just being ignored by government but were under attack by government, and they were angry. They used the vote to reclaim some power. I'd say that democracy has an innate ability to sustain itself.


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