February 1, 2019

Crisis: On Facebook, On Chomsky's Ideas, On Plutocracy, On Extreme Wealth, On Economics

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous, than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
  -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.



1. Summary
Crisis Files
     A. Selections from February 1, 2019

This is a Nederlog of Friday, February 1, 2019.

1. Summary

This is a crisis log but it is a bit different from how it was until 2013:

I have been writing about the crisis since September 1, 2008 (in Dutch, but since 2010 in English) and about the enormous dangers of surveillance (by secret services and by many rich commercial entities) since June 10, 2013, and I will continue with it.

On the moment and since more than three years (!!!!) I have problems with the company that is supposed to take care that my site is visible [1] and with my health, but I am still writing a Nederlog every day and I shall continue.

2. Crisis Files

These are five crisis files that are mostly well worth reading:

A. Selections from February 1, 2019:
1. A "gold standard" study finds deleting Facebook is great for your
    mental health
2. Noam Chomsky: Ocasio-Cortez and Other Newcomers Are Rousing the

3. Bernie's Plutocracy Prevention Act

4. Extreme Wealth Threatens Our Very Planet

5. The End of Economics?
The items 1 - 5 are today's selections from the 35 sites that I look at every morning. The indented text under each link is quoted from the link that starts the item. Unindented text is by me:

1. A "gold standard" study finds deleting Facebook is great for your mental health

This article is by Nicole Karlis on Salon. It starts as follows:

Many of us have become so accustomed to social media that it is hard to remember when it was not intrinsic to our lives, though in reality it has not existed in a meaningful sense for more than 20 years. Over the last decade, the amount of time spent on social media and in front of screens has slowly yet steadily increased, arousing the interest of many health professionals trying to understand its impact on human health. A new study, which is being hailed as the most trustworthy scientific assessment of social media's effects, suggests that quitting Facebook is unequivocally positive for one's mental health.

I start this review with a - fairly constant - irritation: Why could the beginning of the first sentence not have been written as follows: "Many of us have become so accustomed to social media that it is hard to remember when it was not intrinsic to our [their] lives"?!

For I never was a member of the extremely a-social Facebook, and if this ever were to become a social duty, I will stop using a computer.

In brief, "we" are not all the same, and I dislike journalism that pretends we are, by attributing falsely that everything "we" do "is intrinsic to our lives": There are just falsehoods.

Anyway... I am not amazed by this first paragraph, and the basic two reasons are that I think since at least ten years that Facebook is a crime (and see here, that I wrote nearly eight years ago
); its leaders are criminals; and it is extremely a-social to participate in it, while those who do rarely know how much is stolen from them, and they also never know for how much what is stolen from them is sold to advertisers.

And I am not amazed that Facebook is bad for the psychology of its users, in part because I am a psychologist.

Here is more, and I may add that the reported research started with over 2800 Facebook users. There is more in the article, and then there is this:

Overall, researchers concluded that not using Facebook reduced online activity, including other social media use, and increased offline activity such as watching television and socializing with friends and family more. Those who deactivated also observed a decrease in political polarization and news knowledge, and an increase in subjective well-being. The one-month cleanse also led to a reduction in time spent on Facebook for several weeks after the experiment.

“Deactivation caused small but significant improvements in well-being, and in particular on self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety,” the authors wrote. “Effects on subjective well-being as measured by responses to brief daily text messages are positive but not significant.”

As I said, I am not in the least astonished by these findings. Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

As the authors of the study explain, “there may be no technology since television that has so dramatically reshaped the way people communicate, get information, and spend their time.” The social media behemoth has nearly 2.3 billion monthly users. According to data from 2016, the average users spends 50 minutes per day on Facebook and its sister platforms Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

This is not the first time researchers have looked at the effect of Facebook and other social media platforms on human health. However, researchers of this study say their findings debunk previous research suggesting Facebook is good for its users. As the researchers state: “We find little evidence to support the hypothesis suggested by prior work that Facebook might be more beneficial for ‘active’ users—for example, users who regularly comment on pictures and posts from friends and family instead of just scrolling through their news feeds.”

Being a psychologist, I strongly tend to say: Of course! And this is a recommended article.

2. Noam Chomsky: Ocasio-Cortez and Other Newcomers Are Rousing the Multitudes

This article is by C.J. Polychroniou on Truthout. It starts as follows:

A quick glance around the world today reveals that politics almost everywhere — from the federal government shutdown in the US to the power struggle in Venezuela and from Macron’s crisis in France and UK’s Brexit nightmare to the Israeli-Iranian rivalry – are engulfed in a state of uncertainty and turmoil. Meanwhile, oligarchy is replacing democracy as the widening social and economic gap between rich and poor continues unabated. So, who rules the world now? The US is in a state of relative decline, but neither Russia nor China has the capacity to control global developments. How do the super-rich and corporations factor into this equation? In this exclusive interview, world-renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky provides penetrating insights into some of the most critical developments going on in the world today.

I agree that "oligarchy is replacing democracy as the widening social and economic gap between rich and poor continues unabated" and I also like the interviews Polychroniou has made with Chomsky, which I know again because I reviewed some of them before.

This is about the Democrats vs. the Republicans:

As both parties have drifted to the right during the neoliberal assault on the population, the Democrats abandoned the working class and became pretty much what used to be called “moderate Republicans” (something that is beginning to change now in promising ways) while Republicans climbed so deeply into the pockets of the super-rich and corporate power that it became impossible for them to gain anywhere near enough votes on their actual policies. Antics of the Trump style fit the requirements, along with a variety of measures to suppress voting and increased reliance on the many regressive aspects of the constitutional system, which by now make it possible for a small minority of white Christian traditional rural older citizens to have effective control of the government.

I think this is mostly correct. Here is Chomsky on the Venezuelan leaders Maduro and Chavez:

First, what’s your assessment of what’s happening in Venezuela, and, second, why is it that much of the left worldwide continues to support Maduro when it is obvious that he has been a complete disaster?

Maduro has been a disaster, and the best the opposition has to offer is the self-declared President Juan Guaidó.
The roots of the Venezuelan disaster go back to failures of the Chavez administration, including its failure to diversify the economy, which is still almost entirely reliant on oil export. Venezuelan opposition economist Francisco Rodríguez, former chief Andean economist for the Bank of America, notes the failure of the government to set aside reserves during the period of high oil prices so it was at the mercy of international financial markets when prices dropped sharply in 2014 — and has been blocked from access to credit by harsh US sanctions, which have exacerbated the effects of what Rodríguez describes as the “atrocious” mismanagement of the economy under Maduro.

I believe this is correct, though I do not know the evidence. Then again, I did check out Hugo Chávez around 2004, and then concluded that I did not like him very much, although I also thought that his rule was likely better or less bad than the rule of the rich. (This judgement of mine parallels the judgement I had of Cuba.)

Here is Chomsky on democracy:

Has a global financial oligarchy replaced democracy in today’s advanced capitalist world?

It’s impossible to replace something that has never really existed, but it’s true that the partial democracies of the West have been undermined further by the financialization of the international economy during the neoliberal years. That’s a large part of the reason for the bitterness, anger and resentment, mislabeled “populism,” that is shaking the foundations of the western democracies, where the centrist political parties that have run the political system are crumbling in election after election.

Yes, I think that is correct: First of all, there are no real democracies in the West (or anywhere else), but there are partial democracies (in which the rich still tend to rule most of the time, simply because they are rich), and second, it is also true that "the centrist political parties that have run the political system are crumbling".

Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

For many years, a considerable majority of the US population has favored higher taxes on the rich, while they regularly decline. And now, a few recently elected members of Congress are advocating what the public wants, most vocally Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who even went so far as to suggest tax rates at a level regarded as optimal for the economy by the most prominent specialists (Nobel laureate Peter Diamond, Emmanuel Saez, among others). Scandalous indeed.

What else can one expect when 26 people now have as much wealth as half the world’s population, according to the latest of the regular Oxfam reports on inequality?

I agree and this is a strongly recommended article.

3. Bernie's Plutocracy Prevention Act

This article is by Chuck Collins on Common Dreams. It starts as follows:

The Republicans can’t control their baser greed impulse, as revealed in their latest move to abolish the federal estate tax, our nation’s only levy on the inherited wealth of the super-rich.

But what we really need is a bold intervention to break up growing dynasties of wealth and power. 

Congress should jump on board an improved estate tax introduced today by Senator Bernie Sanders, that would levy a top rate of 77 percent on inheritances over $1 billion.  Sanders bill, The For 99.8% Act (pdf), would also plug up loopholes and ban trusts that wealthy families use to hide and perpetuate wealth dynasties.

I say, for I did not know about Sanders' proposal, with which I agree. Here is some more on the estate tax:

The estate tax, established by Congress a century ago to put a brake on the build-up of concentrated wealth and power, is paid only by a miniscule sliver of billionaires and multi-millionaires.  At the time, Theodore Roosevelt supported the estate tax as a protection against the “tyranny of plutocracy.”

Sanders estate tax proposal is a plutocracy prevention act, squarely aimed at preventing the children of today’s billionaires from dominating our future democracy, economy, culture and philanthropy.

I again like Sanders proposal and intent, and as an aside add that it once was - supposedly - the case that high positions were given to talents (which was at best partially true), which in any case is better than that high positions are given to the very rich, which seems more and more to be the case, and which is a sign of the “tyranny of plutocracy.”

Here is some more on the estate tax:

But the Republican’s pro-plutocrat proposal illustrates the problem facing our society.  A handful of dynastically wealth families are using their clout to eliminate one of the few barriers to unfettered wealth extraction and accumulation.  

The 400 wealthiest billionaires on the Forbes 400 list today own as much wealth as the bottom 64 percent of the US population combined, according to our IPS study, Billionaire Bonanza 2018.  And they are clearly using this wealth and power to rig the rules further in their favor.

Under current estate tax law, someone with $15 million and $15 billion pay the same flat rate of 40 percent.  The Sanders proposal would establish a much needed graduated rate system, with the rate rising with the size of the fortune. For example, estates between $10 million and $50 million would pay a 50 percent rate. Estates in excess of $1 billion would pay a 77 percent rate on all wealth over that threshold.

I more or less agree (although I am also one of those who does not see the need for any billionaire whatsoever: Billionaires should be taxed out of existence).

Here is some more on wealth and billionaires:

The three wealthiest families in the US—the Waltons of Walmart, the Koch brothers, and the Mars family clan—together hold over $348 billion.  Since 1983, their wealth has expanded an incredible 6,000 percent, adjusted for inflation.

The Sanders legislation would put a substantial brake on the wealth and power of the country’s 588 billionaires who control over $3 trillion in wealth.  While his 99.8% Act would raise substantial revenue—potentially $2.2 trillion from this billionaire group alone—it would have the positive benefit of protecting our self-governing republic from the distorting influence of concentrated wealth.

I completely agree. Here is the ending of this article:

When families accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars, they have enough wealth to meet any possible need and desire.  They also have enough to provide future generations with privileged lives. Wealth exceeding $100 million is a form of power, the power to rig the rules of our economy and shape the culture through ownership of media.  A steeply progressive estate tax is one of the ways we protect our society from Roosevelt’s “tyranny of plutocracy.”

Yes, and Sanders proposal is a good one, and this is a strongly recommended article.

4. Extreme Wealth Threatens Our Very Planet

This article is by Sam Pizzigati on Common Dreams. It starts as follows:

We either keep fossil fuels in the ground, or we fry.

That’s the conclusion of another new blockbuster study on climate change, this one from the National Academy of Sciences. Our fossil-fuel industrial economy, the study details, has made for the fastest climate changes our Earth has ever seen.

“If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society,” notes the study’s lead author, Kevin Burke from the University of Wisconsin.

“In the roughly 20 to 25 years I have been working in the field,” adds his colleague John Williams, “we have gone from expecting climate change to happen, to detecting the effects, and now we are seeing that it’s causing harm” — as measured in property damage and deaths, in intensified flooding and fires.

Well... I more or less agree, but I have two critical remarks on these first paragraphs:

First, I think that "
We either keep fossil fuels in the ground, or we fry" is too much of a simplification, in part because I do not know whether anyone ever has stated a rational and practisable plan to replace fossil fuels, e.g. in plastics. (And no, I don't like the use of fossil fuels either, but I think we need rational and practisable plans to get rid of them.)

And second, while John Williams has been working "
roughly 20 to 25 years" "in the field" (?), I have been reading nearly 50 years "in the field", and I know that what he says is true now, in fact was said much earlier by e.g. Aldous Huxley, in 1958 and 1959 (see his "The Human Situation", that dates back to 1959 and is still available), Rachel Carson (see "Silent Spring", first published in 1962), and also by Kenneth Rexroth in quite a few articles, that started in the early 1960ies.

Anyway... here is more, and these are indeed recent scientific studies, which are a lot better than the arguments of a few brilliant persons 50 or more years ago:

Other scientific studies over this past year have made similarly alarming observations, and together all these analyses provided an apt backdrop for this past December’s United Nations climate change talks in Poland.

Climate change activists hoped these talks would stiffen the global resolve to seriously address climate change. But several nations had other ideas. The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all refused to officially “welcome” the recent dire findings of a blue-ribbon Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, essentially throwing a huge monkey-wrench into efforts to protect our Earth and ourselves.

What unites these four recalcitrant nations? One key characteristic stands out: The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all just happen to rate among the world’s most unequal nations.

Yes, this is true. Here is the last bit I quote from this article:

The world’s wealthiest people and their corporations, left to their own devices, would for the most part rather not bear any sort of significant sacrifice. That’s all the more reason to address the inequality that bestows so much power upon them.

“Addressing climate change effectively and justly,” sums up Basav Sen, the climate policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies, “requires us to transform the unjust social and economic systems that gave us climate change in the first place.”

Well... in one sense I agree with Basav Sen, but he does not say how "we" (see item 1) are supposed to "transform the unjust social and economic systems that gave us climate change in the first place". Anyway... this is a recommended article.

5. The End of Economics?

This article is by Fareed Zakaria on Foreign Policy. This is from near its beginning:

In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, economics has enjoyed a kind of intellectual hegemony. It has become first among equals in the social sciences and has dominated most policy agendas as well. Economists have been much sought after by businesses, governments, and society at large, their insights seen as useful in every sphere of life. Popularized economics and economic-type thinking have produced an entire genre of best-selling books. At the root of all this influence is the notion that economics provides the most powerful lens through which to understand the modern world.

That hegemony is now over. Things started to change during the 2008 global financial crisis, which had a far greater impact on the discipline of economics than is commonly understood. As Paul Krugman noted in a September 2009 essay in the New York Times Magazine, “Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.”
I agree with the first paragraph, and I also tend to explain this by saying that the difference between economics and the other social sciences is that economics is considerably more mathematical than the other social sciences.

This is also true, but then again I noticed a long time ago - in fact, slightly less than 50 years ago - that much of the mathematics deals with social statistics, that are much hampered by the fact that you rarely know which features and properties were left out to compile the statistics; that much of the rest tends to be strongly simplified mathematical models, that very often depend on 2 or 3 functions (to which applies the same as to the social statistics: what was left out and why?); whereas also economics is not one - supposedly real - science, but that there are in fact at least three different views on what economics is and is about.

Since then I am a lot more skeptical about "economics".

Next, I do not know whether the second paragraph is true, and I have three reasons. First, while I agree that the crisis of 2008 was a real crisis, I am the only one I know who has published since then on the crisis (for it seems as if social scientists in large majority pretended it was over by 2009 or 2010), and second, I agree with Krugman (whom I don't like) that extremely few economists of any of the three schools of economical thinking did see the possibility of crises or did foresee the crisis of 2008 - and if "a science" cannot even predict events of that enormous size, I start wondering how much of a real science the supposed science is.

My third reason is that I do not have much of an idea how "
the discipline of economics" has been developing in the last 10 years. Zakaria almost certainly knows more than I do, but I think one should keep in mind that he also is not an economist.

Here is some more:

The crisis of 2008 may have been the wake-up call, but it was only the latest warning sign. Modern-day economics had been built on certain assumptions: that countries, companies, and people seek to maximize their income above all else, that human beings are rational actors, and that the system works efficiently. But over the last few decades, compelling new work by scholars such as Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Robert Shiller has begun to show that human beings are not predictably rational; in fact, they’re predictably irrational. This “behavioral revolution” landed a debilitating blow to mainstream economics by arguing that what was perhaps the centerpiece assumption of modern economic theory was not only wrong but, even worse, unhelpful.

In the social sciences, it is generally understood that theoretical assumptions never mirror reality—they’re abstractions designed to simplify—but do provide a powerful way to understand and predict. What the behavioral economists showed is that the assumption of rationality actually produces misunderstandings and bad predictions. It is worth noting that one of the very few economists who predicted both the dot-com bubble that caused the crash of 2000 and the housing bubble that caused the crash of 2008 was Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize in 2013 for his work in behavioral economics.

As to the first of the above quoted paragraphs:

In fact, I never agreed to the three assumptions Zakaria lists: I think most corporations seek to maximize their profits, I also think this is not true for countries and people; I never thought human beings are rational actors; and I also never thought that the system works efficiently.

Then again, I am also not an economist. I suppose I agree with Kahneman and others that "
human beings are not predictably rational", but then I never believed they are. And I do not know to what extent the "discovery" that "human beings are not predictably rational" has "landed a debilitating blow to mainstream economics", in part because I am not an economist, and in part because this discovery was made quite a few times in the last 2500 years.

As to the second quoted paragraph:

I am a psychologist (which is a social science), but I never "
understood that theoretical assumptions never mirror reality" - and since I am also a philosopher of science, I think Zakaria confuses simplifications with not mirroring.

Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

As we try to understand the world of the next three decades, we will desperately need economics but also political science, sociology, psychology, and perhaps even literature and philosophy. Students of each should retain some element of humility. As Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Well... in any science and indeed in any attempt to rationally understand anything whatsoever, it seems "we" can use anything that helps to create rational empirically based models, which are what we need to rationally understand things.

[1] I have now been saying since the end of 2015 that is systematically ruining my site by NOT updating it within a few seconds, as it did between 1996 and 2015, but by updating it between two to seven days later, that is, if I am lucky.

They have claimed that my site was wrongly named in html: A lie. They have claimed that my operating system was out of date: A lie.

And they just don't care for my site, my interests, my values or my ideas. They have behaved now for 2 years as if they are the eagerly willing instruments of the US's secret services, which I will from now on suppose they are (for truth is dead in Holland).

The only two reasons I remain with xs4all is that my site has been there since 1996, and I have no reasons whatsoever to suppose that any other Dutch provider is any better (!!).
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