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August 20, 2009

Touching back to principles
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:55 PM * 189 comments

This quote, from a widely forwarded article in the (British) Guardian, got me thinking about a picture wider than just health insurance.

In the US, the greatest restriction on personal freedom that I have ever encountered in my own life, or witnessed in the lives of friends, all comes down to health insurance. Creative, innovative, talented people are unable to change jobs because they need the insurance. Small companies collapse because they cannot afford employee insurance. People die because they do not have insurance.
—American expat Bee Lavender, contrasting US health insurance and the NHS

I agree…in part. I actually think it’s bigger than that. From my perspective, living overseas, Americans seem whipsawed by a combination of two things: very poor employment protection (“at will” employment in particular) and the way that health insurance is tied to employment. The government may not be able to restrict your freedom of speech or your pursuit of happiness, but your employer certainly can.

Thus am I a progressive.

Conservatives1 seem to feel that the only real threats to individual liberty are those that have existed since the foundation of the nation (in other words, government malfeasance). While I agree that power-grabs by governments2 are a menace to personal liberty, I don’t think they’re the only one—or even the worst. I think we face additional threats now, and that we need to find appropriate tools to combat them. We need, in short, to progress, because the dangers to our liberty haven’t stood still.

And the emergent danger to personal liberty that I see, the threat of our time? The fundamental imbalance between the individual and the corporation. Corporate power distorts our lives, from DRM and the struggle over net neutrality, through the health insurance/employment trap and all the way to the power of lobbyists and the ownership of news media. What ordinary individual would have the resources to pursue a grievance against a large company? Who could hold his patent or his impolitic truth against one determined to pursue him3?

The two ways to address this imbalance are to limit corporate power and to strengthen the individual. And the tool to use in both of these efforts is government; nothing else has the standing or power to do it. Enforcing antitrust laws, strengthening union protections, and yes, reforming health insurance would all create real improvements in individual liberty. (Unfortunately, the use of government as a tool to enhance liberty is anathema to conservatives, focused as they are on the eighteenth-century threat alone.)

If we lose this health insurance battle—or even if we win it—I’m still a progressive. I’ll still be pushing to right the balance. I expect to work on it all my life.


  1. I’m talking about real principled conservatives here, not theocons or neocons, corporate shills or red-state tribalists.
  2. All governments are prone to this, from the US to the former Eastern Bloc
  3. I worked for a while with a sister of one of the McLibel defendants. I know how bad it can get.
Comments on Touching back to principles:
#1 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 05:40 PM:

You said it, sister. (Better than I could have said it, but that's exactly what I've been thinking for years.)

I *have* managed to renegotiate contracts between me and big corporations that happened to be my employer, but only because I had already made myself irreplaceable to them. I've never otherwise managed to influence any corporation in any way at all. I wonder if individuals *can* do it? I suspect that threatening them with embarrassment in the media is the only method that works consistently, and even that doesn't work in countries with supine media, like the US, or countries with insane libel laws, like the UK.

#2 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 05:40 PM:

Not only employers, but personal relationships. How many people marry, or stay in unhappy marriages, purely for the sake of health insurance?

My long-term partner is self-employed, and has no insurance. We can pay for it, but a 2002 car accident is a perpetual pre-existing condition so no corporation will cover him. The alternatives: he can give up/cut back his own work to take a corporate job, or we can marry so he can be added to my insurance. (And we legally have that option, where many couples in a similar situation don't.)

And that's leaving out the bit where I may well be self-employed if it weren't for the insurance.

#3 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 05:59 PM:

I've been pondering this. I have to wonder about the scale of impact on competitiveness and productivity of the chronic anxiety over health insurance. If, Allah willing, we manage to implement health insurance reform effectively, I wonder if we might not see a baby renaissance as new courage and creativities are unleashed.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 06:31 PM:

That was brilliant.

That should be an Op-Ed piece.

I'd post a link to this all over, but I don't want to draw trolls.

#5 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 07:01 PM:

I'm an expat living abroad and LOVING the medical options open to me and I do think the U.S. system is badly badly broken.

But...

Can we actually say that there is less art, less innovation, less creativity coming from the U.S. compared to other Western European countries?

That just strikes a false note.


#6 ::: J. Random Scribbler ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 07:03 PM:

Amen, sister! I, too, have been thinking this for years.

It boggles my mind that people put up with treatment from their employers that would make them scream and run for the nearest gun shop if the government did the same thing.

Yes, government is flawed and will always be so. It is always important to keep an eye on your elected representatives and the apparatus of state. I completely grok the conservative* position on that. But what leaves me blinking and scratching my head is the assumption that since government is flawed, the free market is automatically flawless.

In reality, the free market can barely tell a human being from a dairy cow, which strikes me as a significant flaw indeed. Ideally, the government is our collective means of ensuring our rights against forces that are blind to human values**, and yet it is currently unequal to the task because we in this country have spent too long believing there's nothing we can do about it.

We need to stop thinking of government as this faceless giant stumbling around out there someplace messing things up; in the US, the government is us. It's time we stood up and reminded our representatives of this fact. All the corporate money in the world can't win an election if enough voters are awake and aware.


* By which I mean the serious, rational brand of conservatism that is not quite as much an endangered species as sensationalist media portrayals would have you believe.

** Other than the profit motive, of course.

*** This is an orphan footnote. It needs a home; won't you adopt it today?

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 07:27 PM:

The two ways to address this imbalance are to limit corporate power and to strengthen the individual

Unfortunately, when opportunities are limited, or perceived as such, society finds itself less inclined to take on the corporate power, which I expect doesn't mind our thinking that those opportunities are limited.

#8 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 07:38 PM:

J. Random Scribbler @ 6: Hear, hear. You've just said, in a more eloquent and elegant fashion, what I've been saying for years.

#9 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 07:53 PM:

Sylvia @5: Can we actually say that there is less art, less innovation, less creativity coming from the U.S. compared to other Western European countries?

This can be restricting creativity and innovation without placing US innovation and creativity behind that in Wester European countries. There are many other factors at work independent of this.

Also, I think this fits into the category of things that has a delayed effect on innovation, much like education does. The first decade of such a severe problem doesn't have a noticeable effect because innovation is one of those things that is kinda "in the pipeline" well ahead of actual results. Unless something directly affects the completion of innovative efforts, rather than their introduction, the effects are not felt for some time.

#10 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 08:00 PM:

Beautifully said, abi; you've captured almost exactly my reasons for being a progressive, and my sense of the biggest threat to the freedom of its people the US* faces today.

The single largest factor in the dominance of corporations over individuals is the legal definition of a corporation. Essentially a corporation is an individual, with the right to life and self-defense, who does not need to** consider the common weal or the health and safety of any other individual before their own financial benefit. If this were changed to require that corporations cooperate in the public interest, much of the motivation for them to inflict harm on the rest of society would be removed. I've previously suggested that corporations should be given the legal status of domestic animals, which must be licensed and controlled, and whose officers are the persons legally responsible for harm caused by the corporation.

Sylvia @ 5:
Can we actually say that there is less art, less innovation, less creativity coming from the U.S. compared to other Western European countries?

Yes. Note the drastic reduction in basic scientific research in the US compared to the 1960s and '70s. Also note the effect of lack of support for higher education on the number of scientists and artists in US schools. Don't forget the ongoing effect of an an anti-intellectual attitude that has managed to entangle itself with religious zealotry, so that o many people in the US true science and art are evil. I could go on, but it's depressing.

* And, to the extent that they are involved in globalization, which is a stalking horse for corporate economic control, other countries as well.
** Indeed, is required not to. It is actionable in a court of law for an officer of a corporation to consider anything other than the return on investment of the stockholders in the corporation; under some conditions such consideration constitutes malfeasance on the part of the officer.

#11 ::: Ariella ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 08:17 PM:

Tomorrow afternoon I have a medical appointment with a geneticist who I expect will tell me that I have tested positive for a breast cancer gene mutation. If I were an American, this would make me uninsurable and probably kill my dream of ever becoming a full-time author. I thank the gods that I'm Canadian.

#12 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 08:57 PM:

J. Random Scribbler says @ 6:

In reality, the free market can barely tell a human being from a dairy cow, which strikes me as a significant flaw indeed.

Nicely said. My version is, "The free market answers one question, 'What is the worth of a human life?' with another question: 'How much am I bid?' "

#13 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:14 PM:

You know, I think the effects of lack of public healthcare are even more far reaching than most people realize.

I've been working full time since I was seventeen so that I would have health insurance. Health insurance is mandatory for me; I have major chronic health problems. Expensive problems. To make a long sob story short, I had to turn down a full ride scholarship (including housing) in my twenties because I could not get health insurance except at a nine to five type day job, and the work schedules at full time day jobs conflicted with the full time course schedule I would have had to take.

I never did finish that degree. If we get universal health coverage it would be tempting to go back to school now.

#14 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:19 PM:

Interesting. Simon Johnson has just put up an essay on what he calls The Two-Track Economy and what anyone else would call a class system in the USA. And interesting that health care levels are now a class marker. That's probably something new in history.

#15 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:24 PM:

And this effect of healthcare hits right in the middle of groups that tend to be quite conservative; small businessmen, entrepreneurs, consultants, people trying to better themselves. The current system gives a huge advantage to the big corporation over the individual or the small organization; you'd think that conservatives would hate it. (Some do).

Part of it, from what I've seen, is that government in the small, meaningful, touching-on-our-lives ways that regular folks encounter it is MUCH WORSE in the US than other places. My experience with American local government is that it is shockingly, nakedly corrupt and unjust to a degree that is very distasteful. Perhaps it is this that makes conservatives dislike government so much?

And for all that Americans make fun of European Union bureaucracy, federal and state bureaucracy here is utterly insane.

Another point I've pondered before is how much of the litigous culture that many conservatives decry, with some rightness, is encouraged by our lack of healthcare and safety net? Certainly people are often forced to play the lawsuit lottery because the alternative is financial ruin.

#16 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:26 PM:

"The tree of economy must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of consumers and corporate executives. It is its natural manure."

#17 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:40 PM:

& it seems that Brad Delong is assigning a series of essays on class issues in one of his advanced undergrad classes. All of a sudden, it seems liberal bloggers are talking about class issues. Kraw?

#18 ::: Springtime for Spacers ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 09:58 PM:

Small world reference: I knew a couple of people who shared a house in Wood Green with the McLibel two and stayed there a few times. Godd people, good times.

I've been outraged more times than I can remember reading about the troubles of Americans with chronic illness and no or limited insurance. Irrc this caused a lot of grief to George Alec Effinger, including the possibility that the rights to his work would revert to the hospital he owed money to. Recently I was reading in Steven Brust's blog about his need for money for urgent treatment for a persistent eye infection and his trip to Mexico (for another condition) for a cut price operation.

I, on the other hand, basically indigent (I like to refer to myself as a mendicant scholar) have just been told by my NHS doctor that she is willing to refer me for a knee replacement any time I ask -- and the waiting list is 4 or 5 months at the moment so I can pretty much plan when I want to have it done. I love the NHS. If there is one thing that makes me proud of being British that is it.

#19 ::: Chris Gerrib ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 10:32 PM:

I'm very much in favor of health-care reform. I think the broken US system extracts a heavy cost on our economy, freedom and all the things Abi mentions.

I am a bit concerned about the employment protection statement. Although I'm in favor of unions, the inability to fire people leads to slower economic growth. If you can't easily get rid of somebody, you are more reluctant to hire. So too much employment protection (for some values of "too much") has a cost of its own.

#20 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 10:46 PM:

According to Dean Baker, the US lags behind most of Europe in a variety of small business categories. I find it extremely plausible that employment-based healthcare makes going self-employed or into a small business less likely.

It's the same logic as allowing people to declare bankruptcy - you want to encourage a certain amount of risk taking in order to push the engine of capitalism a little harder.

#21 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 11:52 PM:

Corporate personhood is a terrible thing. More so because it came about via dictum in the Santa Clara railroad case, assumed rather than argued. The book Gangs of America was pretty good about the historical background, but the author loses his focus in the latter part of the book. Anyone know of a better book on the subject?

Incidentally, Fred Clark at Slacktivist, who's been on a tear this week, discusses Delaware (where he lives) and its role in enabling corporate power over the last century.

#22 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2009, 11:53 PM:

Chris Gerrib @19: I've worked on jobs where I wished there was some union representation (flat salary, overnight work — on top of a day's worth of work — at the drop of a hat). At the same time, there were jobs I would have been willing to do, but I couldn't get, because I wasn't a member of the union.

A bit of anecdotage: I had a roommate in college who got a summer job with the Canadian post office. He told a story of one of his co-workers, who decided that he was tired of the job, and wished to get fired so he could collect unemployment for a few months. Even though he dialed back his efforts to 'next-to-nil', he could not get fired. After a while, he bumped his effort back up a bit; he figured that if he could get well paid for barely working, this was a job worth keeping (my friend had a few other horror stories about his co-workers).

This was in the late 70s, and it may be that things have changed radically in the Canadian post office.

#23 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:36 AM:

The Raven @#14 -- I think history is full of examples of different classes getting different qualities of medical care.

Mind, in some of those cases the upper classes got less effective care, rather than more -- but it was definitely different.

#24 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:43 AM:

I've been thinking the past couple of years that a host of American problems can be best analyzed with recourse to the phrase "the ruling class". Problem is, using that phrase is an invitation to be disregarded as a Marxist or other marginalized type. "Corporations" are probably a good-enough stand-in.

#25 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:10 AM:

So, I suppose suggesting the reform of corporate America via cannibalizing executives is right out, then? Even if it involves neatly bio-engineered executive-eating zombies?

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:31 AM:

You know, I went Googling for some useful references on unions, and I'm now less surprised at some of the things people are saying about them*. There's a whole misinformation campaign about the impact of worker organization and worker's rights. I see some pretty obnoxious astroturf out there, but the talking points seem to have become well bedded in.

(Why am I not surprised? Unions stand in direct opposition to corporate profits in the short term. And their value in the long term is, like all long-term profit drivers†, completely ignored.)

The argument against decent job security is, basically, that workers can't be trusted. The only thing they understand is the whip the threat of being fired. Tell me, what proportion of your colleagues does that describe? Does it describe you? Do you do your best work under threat? Do you take the personal and professional risks that lead to really outstanding results in those conditions?

And unions are about more than just job security. For instance, they support reporting and whistleblowing, when employers aren't complying with employment or safety legislation (indeed, they provide a communication channel back to senior management for lower-level abuses.) Overall, they're a source of community and communication as well as counterbalancing power. Is that so dreadful?

I don't know to what extent union laws need to be revised to address abuses. I can't tell, because the information pool is so polluted by propaganda‡. But to blame the unions every time that union-corporate interactions go wrong? That's like blaming the wife in every divorce.

</rant> Please don't anyone take this personally, as an attack on their particular comments.

-------
* not just here
† A good union/corporate relationship helps employers retain skilled staff. Good working conditions and benefits—which unions work for—attract good people.
‡ And that in itself is a significant piece of information.

#27 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:04 AM:

Even if it involves neatly bio-engineered executive-eating zombies?

First they came for the executive-brains, and I didn't speak up, because I'm not an executive. Then they came for the manager-brains, and I didn't speak up, because I'm not a manager. Then they came for the--- brains... brainnnns...

#28 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:08 AM:

Chris Gerrib @19:
the inability to fire people leads to slower economic growth. If you can't easily get rid of somebody, you are more reluctant to hire. So too much employment protection (for some values of "too much") has a cost of its own.

On the other hand, the ability to fire quickly leads to sudden drops when bubbles burst. Employment security smooths out the sharp peaks and troughs of the economic cycle for individuals*. I expect that the recession here in the Netherlands will be longer but shallower than in the US, and this is one major reason for it.

Do you know of any studies that have looked at this matter in an evenhanded fashion?

-----
* And really, for whom are we running this tremendous engine of economics, if not for individuals?

#29 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 07:40 AM:

The Right's view of government and the Left's view of big business are both correct.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I've never understood the liberto/o/n/arian axiom that there's a Platonic difference-in-essence between political power and economic power. Concentrated political power can't be good; concentrated economic power can't be bad.

#30 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 08:35 AM:

Avram @24: "Corporations" by itself is inadequate to describe "the ruling class"; I'd suggest "corporations and their heads" (including not just CEOs, but corporate officers and boards).

On the other hand, while many of the humans included in that group do in fact have little conscience or concern for those outside their class, corporations have exactly zero. So there will be times when it's useful to distinguish (particularly when discussing how to restrict unacceptable corporate behavior).

#31 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 09:42 AM:

Sylvia: Robert Sawyer argues that the reason Canada (with c. 10% of the population of the US) has proportionately so many writers is because we have health care, so writers can afford to take the risk of writing. Starving in a garret is a reasonable risk, your kids' health isn't.

Of course, there may be other cultural reasons why Canada produces more art per capita than the US. And the fact that the US has such a big population disguises the evidence. I haven't seen art per capita figures for other first world countries. It would definitely be interesting.

#32 ::: Chris Gerrib ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 09:44 AM:

Abi @ 26 - Don't get me wrong - there are many shitty jobs and lousy managers out there.

Abi @ 28 - Government restrictions on firing employees does smooth out the economic curves - on both ends. You lose less jobs in a recession, but you gain fewer in a boom. It's a tradeoff, and neither good nor bad. It just is.

Neil @ 29 - my experience arguing with libertarians is that they don't see corporations has having concentrated power. It's as if they are color-blind to corporations.

#33 ::: Red Skelington ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:10 AM:

Bruce Cohen @10 - and, of course, the fact that an individual can be expected not to act for the common good gives us some indication of the the direction that freemarket capitalism has led us in.

Rather than redescribe the corporation, might we not think a little harder about describing the responsibilities of the individual they are supposed to be?

#34 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:14 AM:

Chris @32

It's possible that job protection is acting as a damper on the system. The USA has very low damping, some other countries a great deal. If you pursue the mechanical analogy, particularly the concept of "critical damping", it can support the argument that there is a better amount.

But that sort of mechanical analogy still treats people as things. The effects of a lightly-damped system, with people being continuously hired and fired in response to even slight changes, seem excessively harmful to me. Factor in the associations between employment and health insurance, and I'd start finding it hard to be polite about the idea.

Of course, this sort of damping does amount to a restraint on freedom. But whose freedom? And which freedom? There are Roosevelt's Four Freedoms--the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear--which seem a good start.

#35 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:15 AM:

#32 ::: Chris Gerrib:

Neil @ 29 - my experience arguing with libertarians is that they don't see corporations has having concentrated power. It's as if they are color-blind to corporations.

I think it's a case of the "Which is heavier, feathers or lead? If people need bread to live, why are diamonds more expensive than bread?" fallacy.

Governments are the most dangerous human institution. A really bad government can do more damage than any corporation. For that matter, a fairly bad government can do more damage than any corporation. Consider the war on drugs. A corporation wouldn't do such a project-- it's too obviously unprofitable.

Still, the relevent stuff isn't in comparing governments in general to corporations in general. It's at the margins.

#36 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:24 AM:

#35: Nancy Leibovitz:

I agree the war on drugs would be unprofitable for a corporation, but the Opium Wars (aka the wars for drugs)were not undertaken for Government ends but to support the East India Company's profitable trade in opium in China, and Bayer pulled people off the aspirin project to work on its much more potentially valuable product Heroin(TM) so I wouldn't underestimate corporate power to do harm

#37 ::: Chris Gerrib ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:43 AM:

David Bell @ 34 - I'm not arguing the morality of a fluctuating system, just stating the effects. But your point about the link between employment and health care is a great reason to de-link the two.

#38 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:43 AM:

abi @ 28:

On the other hand, the ability to fire quickly leads to sudden drops when bubbles burst. Employment security smooths out the sharp peaks and troughs of the economic cycle for individuals*.

Such as the industry I'm in. When the going is good, they hire like mad. When the going is bad, they fire like mad. I like my job, but this is one of those things I could do without having to worry about right now.

* And really, for whom are we running this tremendous engine of economics, if not for individuals?

Yes, but which individuals?

Well said on your union post, by the way.

#39 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 10:57 AM:

The extreme anti-governmental libertarian views are fairly USian, aren't they? Rare elsewhere?

This ties in very much, I think, to the size of the US. General Motors (which used to be the canonical example of a huge corporation, though lately it is perhaps not so good a choice; but no standard replacement has emerged) may be huge and powerful, but it is competing with Ford and Chrysler and Toyota and Honda and so forth, and is a tiny, tiny fish in the kind of bucket that could contain the United States government. There is no comparison in power!

Then too, from a libertarian view, a lot of the worst corporate behavior is only possible because of their influence on government. If the government didn't have the powers to do those things, the corporations couldn't co-opt them.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 11:11 AM:

Nancy Leibovitz @35:

One of the reasons that governments are "the most dangerous human institution" is that they selfishly restrict certain harmful behaviors to themselves (and, usually with unfortunate results, those whom they empower).

In times or countries where the government enforces its monopoly on violence less firmly, corporations do behave as badly as governments. Not just the Boxer Rebellion but the Medellín Cartel; not just United Fruit but Coca Cola.

#41 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 11:39 AM:

KeithS @38:
Yes, but which individuals?

Well, me, mostly. But you can come along for the ride.

Well said on your union post, by the way.

Thank you. That was about the fourth go at it. Reading around the matter on the internet really set me off; it took a lot of effort not to foam at the mouth. There's some luminous green astroturf out there on the web on this subject, but the same memes and themes are visible right here on this thread, uttered by people I like and respect.

The idea that letting workers organize damages the country is a Big Lie that's working, at least in the US. It's a lie that kills people with health and safety violations. It ruins their lives after unfair firings without recourse. And it devours their peace with needless anxiety.

#42 ::: Dave Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 11:58 AM:

Abi, this is bloody brilliant

John @ 12: May I quote you on that?

#43 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 12:58 PM:

abi@41: unions, eh?

I have a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the idea of complicating my relationship with an employer by putting parts of it into the hands of my most direct competitors.

I see why unions became strong in industries with big safety issues and large numbers of employees doing the same small number of jobs (coal mining, steel production, railways). They fit that environment rather better than most places; the employees have more to gain by cooperating on negotiating terms, and less to lose (the difference in individual performance in those kinds of jobs is not anywhere near what it is in my business of software development, and the employers tend to be very large and geographically concentrated, often the only significant employer in a town).

And some of the positions unions have taken on issues like featherbedding are quite abhorrent to me. They have seemed, over my life, to be largely anti-technology, which does not please me as an SF fan and computer geek.

#44 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 01:08 PM:

"I have a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the idea of complicating my relationship with an employer by putting parts of it into the hands of my most direct competitors."

If any of your co-workers are reading this, I think you've just made some enemies. Croak!

#45 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 01:09 PM:

Responding to Sylvia @5 (a bit late, admittedly) ...

I am on a (closed) mailing list for working novelists. And I can assure you that the #1 cause of anxiety and stress for American novelists -- not shared with their non-American colleagues -- is healthcare. Almost all of them have days jobs, or a spouse in a day job, specifically to provide insurance cover. And they live in terror of losing the job not because of the loss of income but because of the loss of health coverage.

I can assure you that a novelist who is holding down a boring 40-hour-a-week day job is a novelist who is not producing as much, or as good, work as a novelist who can write full-time.

QED.

#46 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 01:09 PM:

Adding numbers on science production to the numbers linked on small business, and suggested for authors:

"During the 1990s, in the midst of a significant increase in world scientific output, the EU15 overcame the US in paper production and is catching up in visibility and impact, as measured by citations." This one analyzes trends by field.

and a worried, but overall positive, analysis by the NSF that affirms the scientific dominance of the US but states: "In an unexpected development in the early 1990s, the absolute number of science and engineering (S&E) articles published by U.S.-based authors in the world's major peer-reviewed journals plateaued. [...] The increase in collaboration across national, institutional, and sectoral boundaries, which is most fully documented in academic sector data, was perhaps the most striking trend in S&E research and publication during this period."

One should add that we know* language and fame-of-affiliation affect a scientific article's publication and citation, and both of those will help US scientists more than most scientists outside the US.

*Occasional truly-anonymous-submission studies.

-----

I just reread _The Gone-Away World_, so the problem of 'humans aren't amoral, corporations are, but a human willing to succeed in an amoral coporation is equivalent to a human willing to drive while drunk' is at the top of my mind. My, I love that novel.

#47 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 01:29 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 10: "If this were changed to require that corporations cooperate in the public interest, much of the motivation for them to inflict harm on the rest of society would be removed. I've previously suggested that corporations should be given the legal status of domestic animals, which must be licensed and controlled, and whose officers are the persons legally responsible for harm caused by the corporation."

Which, unfortunately, removes the only positive effect corporations have: allowing people to cooperatively experiment on a large venture without threatening personal ruin.

I think a better solution is writing in a morality clause in the incorporation document. Every corporate duty outlined is followed by a "...insofar as it does not cause harm to humans." Sort of a First Law for corporations (which are, after all, giant paper robots whose computing platform is the human brain.)

Either that, or raise the penalties for corporate misbehavior to equal that of individual misbehavior. A corporation found to have negligently caused a death has all their operations suspended for a length of time equal to the prison sentence an individual would serve for the same crime. Or perhaps allow them to stay in business, but all their profits are taken away for that length of time.

As it is though, corporations are enormously wealthy, laxly regulated sociopaths. It's no surprise what they get up to.

David Dyer-Bennet @ 39: "Then too, from a libertarian view, a lot of the worst corporate behavior is only possible because of their influence on government. If the government didn't have the powers to do those things, the corporations couldn't co-opt them."

Which is, of course, bass-ackwards. If the government didn't have the powers to do those things then the corporations would have them, just by virtue of being the biggest, strongest organization around. If the state didn't have a monopoly on violence, then absolutely nothing would stop corporations for simply enslaving their workforce and shooting unionizers in broad daylight. It wouldn't even be illegal, because the corporation could define its own legality. Even a government half in the pocket of corporations is an improvement over no government at all.

#48 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 01:40 PM:

David Dyer Bennet: United Fruit? British East India Company?

They ran gov'ts. Sometimes they ran more than one (FDR is supposed to have said, "Samoza may be a bastard, but he's our bastard"). It may be (though the BEIC might give the lie to that) corporations don't have such dramatic short term effects as a gov't does, but what are the long term effects of such things as the automaker's sway in congress (why, again, doesn't the US have more efficient cars? Why are SUVs so dangerous, and gas-guzzling?; why is getting serious healthcare reform in the US so hard, when things like Part D passed with nary a public hiccup?)?

I think corporations are a slower burn, but just as complete a destructive power.

#49 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:03 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz: Consider the war on drugs. A corporation wouldn't do such a project-- it's too obviously unprofitable.

The slave trade, on the other hand, was quite profitable.

#50 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:15 PM:

Dave Dyer-Bennet @43:
I have a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the idea of complicating my relationship with an employer by putting parts of it into the hands of my most direct competitors.

*Blink* Your colleagues are your competitors? I work in IT too, and I don't see mine that way.

Can you tell me what outcome, in concrete terms, you are concerned about? I have a lot of trouble seeing how collective bargaining would hurt you, unless you're already assuming the nature of the agreement (ie, flat rate of pay vs pay based on performance/quality metrics).

They have seemed, over my life, to be largely anti-technology, which does not please me as an SF fan and computer geek.

That's primarily a function of the fact that most geeks don't join unions; traditionally, geek jobs such as software development have been non-union. Now, perhaps you're getting the job security, good pay and benefits that you need without a union. If so, cool.

But lots of people, in lots of professions up and down the economic scale, are not. It seems as appropriate for me to support them as an SF fan (and egalitarian) and computer geek (and supporter of the honest identification and fixing of bugs wherever I find them).

#51 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:20 PM:

Governments and business are symbiotic. This whole argument that government is worse than business seems to have gained strength largely when government began regulating business on behalf of, yes, workers, or large business on behalf of small business. It is part & parcel, in other words, of class conflict and, generally, an argument in favor of incumbent business and against laws that might favor workers or other businesses.

Tom, #23: you are right, I was wrong. Class differentials have long produced class variations in health, as well.

#52 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:39 PM:

abi #50: *Blink* Your colleagues are your competitors? I work in IT too, and I don't see mine that way.

I've worked in IT situations that were so hyper-competitive that taking a vacation or bereavement leave was seen as a sign of weakness, and exploited as such. That path can foster high performance metrics among the survivors, but almost inevitably leads to burn-out. Burnt-out cogs merely get replaced.

#53 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:49 PM:

I'm pro-union because it shouldn't be luck that determines whether you wind up with a manager who treats their employees as respected colleagues — like mine — or a manager who believes it's perfectly appropriate to scream at their employees and accuse them of lying about health issues — like an admin I know who works at the other end of this floor.

When you look at the position descriptions, our jobs are, effectively, exactly the same. We work for the same employer, in the same general functional area. My fellow admin is smart, hardworking, and conscientious. And because of the luck of the draw, I wound up with a manager for whom I would willingly get out of bed at 3am if she were stranded at the airport, while my fellow admin wound up with a manager who screams at her.

I have no illusions that the difference in how we're treated is because I'm smarter or work harder or anything like that. It's because my boss is a nicer person than hers. And that's not a good enough reason.

#54 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 02:58 PM:

I think unions get a bit too much blame for workplace inflexibility, when the fact is that when things were codified in that way in such places as US automakers, rigid, exhaustive job descriptions were in vogue with management. Defining people as strictly replaceable cogs in the big machine was a big thing before more recent management fads, and that's the context in which these things need to be viewed.

#55 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:07 PM:

abi @ 26:
But to blame the unions every time that union-corporate interactions go wrong? That's like blaming the wife in every divorce.

I think an even more accurate analogy is blaming the victim in an abusive relationship. Certainly there's a long history of violence against union workers by corporate "security forces".

AFAICT, the propaganda campaign against unions became a major enterprise in the Reagan administration. It's well documented that Reagan was pathologically anti-union; his actions to break the air traffic controllers' union bear this out in that he was willing to create a seriously unsafe situation for air travelers so long as he could destroy a union. Like many aspects of Reagan's mythology* the anti-union propaganda became enshrined in Republican policy; it's promulgation throughout the last three decades was a part the strategy of dragging the Overton Window rightwards since then.

Red Skelington @ 33:
Rather than redescribe the corporation, might we not think a little harder about describing the responsibilities of the individual they are supposed to be?

We need to do both. The status of corporations currently precludes changes in the responsibilities of executives from having much effect. Once that status changes, the responsibility for enforcing the spirit rather than just the letter of the change falls on executives, so it will be necessary to make those responsibilities explicit in law.

David Dyer-Bennet @ 43:
I have a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the idea of complicating my relationship with an employer by putting parts of it into the hands of my most direct competitors.

And corporate employers have been eager to use exactly that reaction to divide and control their employees. I've always worked in fields in which there was no effective unionization; the manipulation of employees by their employers in the that absence has been quite clear to me. I think my employers have generally considered me and my colleagues their competitors; I've rarely felt that my colleagues felt that way about me, and I have not felt that way about them.

heresiarch @ 47:
One large problem with sanctioning corporations is the effect the sanctions have on their (non-executive) employees, contractors, and suppliers, who often are blameless for the crimes of the corporation. Besides that, I don't believe that any behavior can be controlled by society unless individual humans are held responsible for that behavior. That doesn't necessarily negate the economic advantages of a corporation; the individual need not be held responsible for the financial success of the corporation, only for the moral and legal correctness of its actions.


* I use the word "mythology" in the sense that it is used on the ShadowUnit site: the backstory created by a host of the "Anomaly" to rationalize the violence the host commits, and the extra-normal powers the host develops to commit them. I think this makes Reagan conservatism analogical to the Anomaly; I can accept this.

#56 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:10 PM:

Abi, I mostly agree, but I'm not sure about "I’m talking about real principled conservatives here, not theocons or neocons, corporate shills or red-state tribalists."

Frankly, those folks who say that they're True Conservatives while almost everyone who is usually seen as conservative in the world isn't really conservative- they kind of remind me of the guy from the Monty Python Lion Tamer sketch- or, more precisely, of how that guy would be like if he had spent the rest of his life after that scene walking around telling all those people who work with big, fearsome animals that they had betrayed the True Ideals of lion taming. In other words, I think they became conservative based on mistaken ideas about what "conservative" means, or based on confusing the sales pitch with the product.

David Dyer-Bennet @39, The extreme anti-governmental libertarian views are fairly USian, aren't they? Rare elsewhere?

Well, in the Internet age, there are some people who take their politics to a good deal from US websites and blogs all over the world (I'm a bit like that myself, though I'm more into the reality-based blogs and websites). Aside from that, what's called "Liberalism" in much of Europe is basically watered-down libertarianism (the rhetorics are to a good deal the same, but policies tend to be a lot more moderate than among US libertarians, allthough generally pointing in the same direction). Ok, so you're asking about "extreme" anti-governmental views- I think France has a long and well-established libertarian tradition (keep in mind that Bastiat was French), but its supporters are too clearly in the minority to have much influence, especially since they seem to have moral and philosophical objections to being involved in politics.

#57 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:14 PM:

Unions: The corporations do have a point (although as you can tell from previous posts, I am not at all suggesting we should break unions). And consolidation in the union industry has all the lures and dangers of corporate consolidation, and causes the same behaviour in the executives.

And executives they are. They may not command 8-figure salaries like the corporation CEOs, but people at the head of a 100 000-strong union have and continue to exhibit all the things the union complains about the corporation heads.

Finally, there's something inherently antagonistic about unionized shops. Whether it starts with the corporation working so hard and playing so many games to keep the union out that by the time it gets in everyone already has an us vs them mentality, or whether the union just assumes that's what it's going to get and acts that way in new shops whether or not it could be otherwise, no idea.

But yeah, there's some astroturf out there.

Nancy: I'm going to have to call you on that one, I think. For at least the simple reason that in certain circumstances, and some fear we're going there globally, the company *is* the government, and therefore as bad as the government by definition. I've heard too many stories of company towns (want one cute trick? Pay your employees inside the company-owned bar at the end of the work week) to believe that given ultimate power over people, companies can't be as bad or worse than governments.

The "war on Drugs"? No, it would not profitable to conduct that in the private sector (although it sure is to be a supplier to it - ask the private prison companies, among others) so the corporations don't. They know that every dollar they spend lobbying to have it conducted by the governments (for whatever interests they have - and to add to #36, we have Hearst's (claimed) fight to have the government keep his paper monopoly - sorry, fight to make marijuana (and most hemp) illegal) will cost them an extra $0.50 to enact it (but everyone else will pay an extra $0.50 as well) but if it will pay back more than $1.50,...

I wouldn't mind corporate personhood as much if it were combined with "person"al responsibility. A corporation doing something that would get a person locked up for 6 months? Oh well, you can't buy or sell anything for 6 months. Yes, I realize that would put everyone working for it out of work, but I would think that even CEOs with a "killed my company because on my watch our policy was to steal" rap on their sheet might find it hard enough to find another position that they might decide that's not the best policy. IANAL, which means I come up with simple solutions to complex problems. Mencken's Law applies, no doubt.

#58 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:14 PM:

I was an IT worker for my last career and was in several jobs that could have used union support -- for one thing, I might have a lot less RSI if there was a standard of physical support that lived up to half what the physical therapists' recommendations are.

Of course, if work is a competition of all against all, the young, childless and temporarily able will claw their way up the ladder by pulling longer hours than everyone else, hoping to have some defensible skill or fiefdom by the time they're worn out. But IT jobs, if well-run, do not lend themselves to defensible fiefdoms or static skillsets, so eventually we're stiff and scared. At this point I thought: "I was so played", cashed out, and left for different trouble.

#59 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:26 PM:

ddb, #43: unions and the arguments for them, by and large, come from large-scale industrial manufacturing. In those situations, all employees have a common interest in getting a better deal from their employer. Competition between workers is much less of an issue than dealing with the business owners.

#60 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 03:57 PM:

heresiarch @ 47: If the government didn't have the powers to do those things then the corporations would have them, just by virtue of being the biggest, strongest organization around.

In a truly uncontrolled market, corporations would employ mecenaries, not lawyers.

Earl Cooley III @ 52: I've worked in IT situations that were so hyper-competitive that taking a vacation or bereavement leave was seen as a sign of weakness, and exploited as such.

But it's rarely the cogs that conspire to work against one another.

#61 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 04:09 PM:

Earl #52:

Another example of competitiveness against fellow employees involves those companies that rank employees against one another in their salary raise calculations. I couldn't say for sure that I ever saw it escalate into dirty tricks on the part of fellow employees, but I was much younger and more naive by far back then, and the one truly questionable episode was on the part of a manager, not a fellow member of technical staff.

#62 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 04:34 PM:

abi@50: No, I don't tend to view cow-orkers as competitors. But I should, when thinking about many employment issues. The one job I've been laid off from, it was explicitly because the manager felt it was more important to "protect" another member of the group. (And I do agree with whoever pointed out that the culture of not revealing compensation was a flat-out conspiracy against the employees. Well, that's not exactly how the poster put it, but you know what I mean.)

Any set of "metrics" is going to be gameable in software engineering, and concentrating on gaming the metrics interferes with doing the actual work well, and isn't fun for long. I'm more willing to rely on reasonable competence and honesty in my manager for determining how well I did.

Precise job descriptions and work rules simply wouldn't have fit any of the places I've worked. Things were too fluid for that, and I've benefited greatly from the fluidity (one of the thing I'm good at is picking up new tools). If you got the description 50% right, it'd be 90% wrong 6 months later.

Many of these comments seem to take as a given that the job you have is the only job you could have, and that it's important to try to make it survivable and tolerable. As I said earlier, that fits the huge employers in small towns model; if you left the coal mine there wasn't much else to do. But it does NOT fit software work in any large city. In this kind of job (and this description fits lots of low-end jobs just as well as the relatively well-paid industry I'm in), there are dozens to hundreds of roughly similar jobs open at any given moment. I've left one job for another by my choice at least 7 times in my life (depending on the exact rules one counts by).

I'm generally in favor of the right of workers to unionize, so long as it isn't used as a way to freeze a group of people out of a type of job, or to force people who don't want to to be in the union. I think it's still important in some types of jobs, and that it was very important in more types of jobs back in the 20s and 30s. I just don't think it fits the type of job I work in, and I don't think it fits *me* very well. I've never worked where I interacted with union workers of the same company. I've only once, though possibly more because I might not have known, worked for a company that had any unionized employees anywhere (and that was a contract situation, not actual employment). And only two of my total employers have been very small or just local; the rest have operated on at least three continents.

#63 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 04:36 PM:

terry@48: your own examples are largely of corporations doing harm by appropriating the powers of the government. An anti-government libertarian will tell you that the problem there was that those powers existed in the government; if they hadn't, the corporations wouldn't have had access to them.

And the reason I'm not a libertarian, I'm not anything politically in any full-throated sort of a way, is that I suspect corporations might find other ways to gain those powers.

#64 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:01 PM:

re #20: I'm having a great deal of trouble making sense of these statistics, not to mention that the source of much of the data is obscure. (OECS may also be committing the statistical no-no of comparing data collected for different purposes: they say that most data on self-employment is collected through census, but that data is not directly comparable to information whose submission is required by some other law. It's hard to tell.) It would be instructive to compare this on a (US) state by state basis, because I expect that one would find an equally wide variation. One could postulate ways in which geographical differences could enter into the variation. I also wonder what the reporting requirements in the USA are for privately held firms, because if they are significantly less, that would be likely to skew the numbers a lot.

What is most striking, however, is that the CEPR language is heavily value-laden, which makes me mistrust them. Chronologically one would expect "progress" to push countries towards lower rates of self-employment and small business employment, and indeed, the CEPR data tend to support this thesis. If you look at the other end of the chart, the same set of countries consistently show up as having high rates of self- or small-business employment: Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and Australia. A look at the Wikipedia summary listing of GDP per person reveals a nearly perfect correlation, with Australia being the outlier: richer countries have lower rates. The first four at least also represent countries whose progress into "modern" economies is a relatively recent affair.

The tendency in a lot of businesses is towards consolidation, no matter where. The only reason why there are four Class I railroads in the US, for instance, is that at the moment a single transcontinental line is simply too big to run effectively. I don't know of any business where the tendency is to break into smaller units. So the use of the word "lag" is peculiar; it seems to me that (for instance) in France progress has been arrested. I'm almost tempted to say that they've bought into the romance of small business,
because they are attacking the (presumably Republican and therefore troglodytic) folks who go on about American small business, not because they disagree it in general, but because they want to claim that it isn't functioning in the USA. The thing is that there is this other myth of the industrial might of the USA, which is founded in huge corporations; and in this case the same graphs point positively at the USA.

Please don't interpret this as having anything to do with what I think about health insurance. I just found the statistic a lot less informative than its source posits.

#65 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:04 PM:

re 63: It's more a case of those situations being where governments have sold their powers to those corporations, or even gave them away. The history of United Fruit is particularly a case in point.

#66 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:17 PM:

Mycroft W @57:
Finally, there's something inherently antagonistic about unionized shops. Whether it starts with the corporation working so hard and playing so many games to keep the union out that by the time it gets in everyone already has an us vs them mentality, or whether the union just assumes that's what it's going to get and acts that way in new shops whether or not it could be otherwise, no idea.

Another possible factor is that, with the way that unions are at the moment, the worker-management conflict has to be really bad before it's worth going through the effort and strife to try to organize.

But I also imagine that there are plenty of peaceful union shops that we just don't hear about.

And executives they are. They may not command 8-figure salaries like the corporation CEOs, but people at the head of a 100 000-strong union have and continue to exhibit all the things the union complains about the corporation heads.

Hey, I'm not saying unions are perfect. If there's another tool to give workers some clout to counterbalance employers, I am all ears. I'm much more interested in results.

David Dyer-Bennet @62:
I'm generally in favor of the right of workers to unionize, so long as it isn't used as a way to freeze a group of people out of a type of job, or to force people who don't want to to be in the union.

Unions are a lot like immunization. A certain proportion of worker organization in the population is like herd immunity: it protects even people who aren't participating, because certain management behaviors are simply unthinkable.

#67 ::: Bemusedoutsider ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:21 PM:

This may brand me a Nominalist rather than a Realist ... or alternatively, it may be so obvious that no one else has mentioned it.

But, at least within the US, rather than Government and Private Sector, what I see is individuals (top hats and spats and all) who acquire whatever credentials give them the most power, from one period to the next. Most likely both: of a group of cronies, at the same time, some take the public credentials, some the private.

The action (ostensible or real) of the agency or corporation may change according to who has got control of it; the controllers don't change their pinstripes.

#68 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:44 PM:

[Late catching-up. Not much time/connectivity now or near future.]

Summer Storms @8, ditto. From cross-Pacific perspective, been saying what abi, JRS, et al are for a long time. A balance of power between unions, business & government, late 1800s - mid 1900s, helped make Australian society one of the best to live in for ordinary working people.

There was room for improvement from that base, but for some decades it's been deteriorating instead, under determined attacks. Now it's a fight just to get back decent conditions, & hold onto any gains.

#69 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 06:06 PM:

I buy groceries from one of the two stores here that has a union. It's more expensive, but I'm willing to subsidize the staff having fair jobs.

#70 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 06:45 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet: United Fruit didn't appropriate the powers, it just bought them. The British Easy India Company didn't appropriate the powers, it duplicated them.

Wellington's command at the Battle of Assaye (which he thought his best battle, in terms of what/how he handled it) was corporate mercenaries. Napoleon derided him because he was, "a sepoy general." It wasn't until Victoria (after the Sepoy Rebellion) that the armies (and gov't) of India were actually owned by the Crown.

Had United Fruit (or Michelin, in Indochina) not been able to buy the powers they used, they would have found them elsewhere (either by creating them themselves, or finding a Blackwater sort of provider).

Where there is money, and interest, there will be force. It may be subtle (do it our way, or be fired), or it may be overt (Republican Convention 2008), but there will be force.

Better to have that force accountable to the people on whom it is used, than not.

#71 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 07:38 PM:

abi @66

Unions are a lot like immunization. A certain proportion of worker organization in the population is like herd immunity: it protects even people who aren't participating, because certain management behaviors are simply unthinkable.
Very much so.

#72 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 09:35 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet @ 62:
Many of these comments seem to take as a given that the job you have is the only job you could have, and that it's important to try to make it survivable and tolerable. As I said earlier, that fits the huge employers in small towns model

It also fits the model of an employee who took a job, and now has to deal with chronic or multiple medical issues. Changing jobs will almost always result in exclusion of benefits due to pre-existing conditions. For many people (I'm one) that makes leaving a job financially difficult or impossible.

#73 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 09:43 PM:

Matthew@15: Another point I've pondered before is how much of the litigous culture that many conservatives decry, with some rightness, is encouraged by our lack of healthcare and safety net?

I have read that by the standards of the rest of the economically-lifted world, the U.S. was overly litigious long before healthcare support became common.

DDB@43: I have a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the idea of complicating my relationship with an employer by putting parts of it into the hands of my most direct competitors.

I don't know about your job -- but my co-workers have \never/ been my competitors in ~34 working years, >28 of them in software development; I have relied on them, as they on me, because the jobs have been too big for one person to encompass. And I have learned the hard way to be hypersensitive to management (and even cross-management) slights, because I know that immediate reaction to them is the only way I won't get screwed.

And wrt #62: you're happy floating; some of us aren't. (I've made exactly one voluntary job change in the above time.)

I will admit to having run into some very difficult situations as a user -- possibly more than you because I've worked several Worldcons. But I recognize that those are severe edge cases. ("We're bottom-feeders, Henry!")

Terry@48: that's S\o/moza -- he was an SOB (per FDR), not a fritter.

#74 ::: cherish ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 11:35 PM:

A brief and lucid explanation of the American health-care/insurance system, and what the reform legislation offers to do about it:

Health Care Reform on a Napkin ...

[Edited by JDM to add link. The post was held for moderation due to a broken link. I'm only guessing that this was the one meant.]

#75 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 12:15 AM:

CHip: Mea culpa. It's been so long since he was in the news...

re litigation: The folks who came to the colonies came from a much more litigious Britain, and they kept that habit, in part because, for a long time, civil suit was one of the few forms of formal redress.

#76 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 12:53 AM:

Not to clog up this (characteristically great) ML conversation with trivia, but I really thought I'd see this get more love:

#6: This is an orphan footnote. It needs a home; won't you adopt it today?

As for myself, I can't possibly adopt it right now, but am willing to offer it a foster home in a blog post on my blog...

#77 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 01:53 AM:

My views on unions are necessarily abstract, but I would like to make three points, the third being more of a meta-observation. I like (and agree with) the observation that corporations are amoral. But unions as a solution, being a kind of corporation, are also, therefore, amoral. And as corporations, their solution to corporate power is not to make it more diffuse, but to add other powerful players. I don't oppose unions, and I think in a lot of fields they are the best idea anyone has come up with; I'm just saying that they come into the game as being compromised, to some degree or another, by nature.

The meta-comment is that I see society as organic, not systematic. And society is changed by the simple fact of theorizing about it. This is most blatant in economics, where people base their behavior as economic players on their theory of how the economy works (which is where I think classical economics is off-base, and why I will never follow von Mises). But it shows up elsewhere too. Part of the power of unions is diluted because they are a known force against corporate power, and therefore can be compensated for. My primary uncertainty about going to a single payer health care system has nothing to do with all the scare stories, one way or another: it's that USA culture has had 80 years to settle into the current system, and I have to believe that the various players are not going to let go of their money/power flow easily. It's comforting to believe that these problems can be remedied precisely to the degree that the law mandates a sufficiently European (or socialist-- choose one or more of the above) arrangement, but my cynicism leads me to believe that the vested interests are going to try, with some success, to remain vested however the law ends up being written.

#78 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 02:44 AM:

C Wingate @77:
But unions as a solution, being a kind of corporation, are also, therefore, amoral.

I think you're using a false equivalence. Corporations are not definitionally amoral as a class, so that the "union" subclass inherits their amorality unless it's explicitly overridden. Corporations are amoral because their priorities, which are fixed by law, are not aligned with human ones. They are profit-maximizing machines that we have let run amok. In many ways, they're basically the magician's mops from Fantasia.

Unions are not profit-maximizing machines. They may or may not be amoral, depending on what constitutes morality for groups of people. But their nature, as amplifiers for human concerns, is fundamentally different, so you can't just lump them in there.

their solution to corporate power is not to make it more diffuse, but to add other powerful players

This is true, which is one reason that I said in the original post that they should be part of wider range of efforts to redress the balance between the individual and the corporation.

I have very few illusions about how bad unions can get. I simply note that they can also be very good, particularly at addressing a problem we have right now. They have been deliberately and unfairly demonized by corporate interests for that very reason.

#79 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 02:51 AM:

C Wingate @77:

One other thing:

It's comforting to believe that these problems can be remedied precisely to the degree that the law mandates a sufficiently European (or socialist-- choose one or more of the above) arrangement

Any solution we choose will, by definition, be American. And none of the ones on the table are even remotely socialist.

I'm sure you don't mean to paint them in these terms for the reasons that many of the people shouting "European! Socialist! European Socialism! Socialist Europeans!" do—to discredit any solution as being suspiciously foreign—but that's the vocabulary you're using. It has a faint tang of nativism and "Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys" about it.

The fact that many of the models being examined are in operation in Europe makes them European the way bread is European. We have it here, but people have it all over the world.

#80 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 06:40 AM:

Bruce @ 10

But surely Micah @ 9 answer equally equally deals with your statment: there are many factors at work. Is there actually any real link between lack of health insurance and zealotry? It would be lovely if health care resulted in a massive reduction of the religious right but well, I'm not holding my breath on that.

I am watching with some dismay the amount of increased police powers and "nannying" in the UK where personal rights are diminishing. I would be upset if someone argued that this was a direct result of the National Health Service and that people no longer knew how to take care of themselves.

Charlie @ 45

Hi! I'm the Sylvia who you, er, dealt with at Demon. Annoying American woman. Small world. :)

I can see your logic, I'm just not convinced it holds true.

There are not very many full-time novelists (that is, surviving from fiction alone) in the UK, despite the fact that health care is available. I don't know if anyone has done a contrast but I'm loathe to assume that percentage-wise more novels (and especially better novels) are coming out of countries with health care.

Full disclosure: I'm tired of being battered with "OF COURSE this is the way the world works" arguments from the right wing (and admittedly, possibly a bit tired of yanks being portrayed as less culturally aware) and so I'm leery of the cause and effect in this case because it feels to me like we might be doing the same thing.

I've seen the following in writer's groups: a writer quits the day job to produce full time and spends weeks/months staring out the window, eventually given up. There's too much time free and not enough pressure to get things done. Go back to the job, and now that there's only an hour a day to write in, production hits overdrive. Now clearly that's not going to be much of a risk with a contractor who is used to being a self-starter. But presuming I'm right and it's a common phenomena, isn't it then equally "QED" that taking away the 40-hour-a-week job can produce a novelist who is not producing as much?

I'll say again: I'm totally in favour of an NHS-style solution in the US and I have not until recently had private insurance in the UK because it simply was not necessary.

But it just feels like the initial quote from the Guardian is not something we've actually seen evidence for and it is reminiscent to me of the type of arguments (Unions ruin free trade! Immigrants will end up taking all the jobs!) which could be defended as a very possible outcome without their being any direct evidence that it is happening.

#81 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:25 AM:

Agree that goverment is the only protection the weak (which is us & no I don't like to face it either) have against the strong (which in our time means our boss ,the corporations we have to deal with etc rather than a bully down the block) the human race has come up with yet- its a piss poor one & we should keep a weather eye open for a better but sadly in the short run we have to make do.
Also without denying my faith as a libertarian (note the small 'l' ) we have to acknowledge the benefits of Society. Its a buffer against the basic 'don't give a fuck'aspecrt of the Universe. Living the free life in the wilds is a nobel thing and good luck to those tough enuf to do it. But its a wholly absorbing activity with no slack in the cables- you don't have time for much in the way of culture and one bad accident & you Are DEAD

#82 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:28 AM:

Sylvia @80:
But it just feels like the initial quote from the Guardian is not something we've actually seen evidence for and it is reminiscent to me of the type of arguments [...] which could be defended as a very possible outcome without their being any direct evidence that it is happening.

What interested me about the quote was not the use to which people might put the freedom that they might have (eg, creative endeavor). It was the fact that they don't have the freedom to start with. The choice to give up your day job to write that novel does not, as you rightly point out, automatically lead to you writing said novel. But if you need to keep the job because your kid might get sick, you don't have the freedom to try it out.

#83 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:33 AM:

I am watching with some dismay the amount of increased police powers and "nannying" in the UK where personal rights are diminishing.

Agree that this is happenning. My own diagnosis is that it results from a very charitable cause. When something Awefull happens -like the killing of Baby P or Terriorist almost bombing a shpping Mall there is a clamour to BLOODY WELL ***DO*** SOMETHING. Which is OK but the sad answer is that we are Already doing about all there is to do. In the Presant state of technology there Aint much more to do.
This is not actseptical Practical Politics so SOMETHING is dun; & something seems always to involve curbing of individual freedom.

#84 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:42 AM:

#67 ::: Bemusedoutsider ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 05:21 PM:

This may brand me a Nominalist rather than a Realist ... or alternatively, it may be so obvious that no one else has mentioned it.

But, at least within the US, rather than Government and Private Sector, what I see is individuals (top hats and spats and all) who acquire whatever credentials give them the most power, from one period to the next. Most likely both: of a group of cronies, at the same time, some take the public credentials, some the private.

The action (ostensible or real) of the agency or corporation may change according to who has got control of it; the controllers don't change their pinstripes.


This is pretty much the old Anarchist Slogan
"It doesn't matter who you vote for ;The Politicians always get in"

#85 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:56 AM:

I wouldn't mind corporate personhood as much if it were combined with "person"al responsibility. A corporation doing something that would get a person locked up for 6 months? Oh well, you can't buy or sell anything for 6 months. Yes, I realize that would put everyone working for it out of work, but I would think that even CEOs with a "killed my company because on my watch our policy was to steal" rap on their sheet might find it hard enough to find another position that they might decide that's not the best policy. IANAL, which means I come up with simple solutions to complex problems. Mencken's Law applies, no doubt.

I dunno wether your suggestion would atually work, But I like the IDEA behind it i.e. Finding sactions that actually deter Corporations as such rather than scapegoat individuals-who are replaced by Young turks who believe THEY are too smart t be caught or fines that are passed on to the customers and/or dissapated in such things as redundancys which punish uninvolved bystanders.

Its the problem I was fumbling with in my own journal article HOW TO SPANK THE BIG BOYS IN THE PLAYYARD only about to-big-to-fail banks.
More shoulf be written about this.

#86 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 08:08 AM:

#29 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2009, 07:40 AM:

The Right's view of government and the Left's view of big business are both correct.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I've never understood the liberto/o/n/arian axiom that there's a Platonic difference-in-essence between political power and economic power. Concentrated political power can't be good; concentrated economic power can't be bad.


Well the arguement such asd it is ;is that you can walk away from a Company but you need a private army to walk away from a Goverment (it doesn't awat work if you have an army as the South found out).
Granted Modern Conditions it doesn't work out that way. Its hellishly difficult to escape Big Banks offering (to the small customer) pretty much identical deals. Yes its POSSIBLE but you have to be prepared to deform your life. Ditto Not going to the big Hypermarket (or one of its clones) that dominate your area.
I'm sure you can come up with more examples

#87 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 08:12 AM:

Bemusedoutsider @ 67: *cough*GoldmanSachs*cough*

#88 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 08:22 AM:

EMBARRASSING THE CORPORATIONS WITH THe MEDIA
or countries with insane libel laws, like the UK

Fuck yes Maxwell was a shit ;everybody in the media everybody in the City everbody in Politic knew it -sometimes thru painfull personal experiance. SAYING IT was eqivalent to putting your bank balance in used notes in an evelope and posting it to his Penthouse.
There are a LOT of unspeakable truths about Murdoch. Unspeakable even in the US.

#89 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 08:38 AM:

abi @ 78... they're basically the magician's mops from Fantasia.

That'd explain why they hate (t)axes so much.

#90 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 10:32 AM:

Sylvia @80: There are not very many full-time novelists (that is, surviving from fiction alone) in the UK, despite the fact that health care is available.

/me waves hand.

Yes, I am a full-time novelist, surviving from fiction alone (or rather: in excess of 90% of my earnings are from writing fiction, and it is these earnings that feed me and make the mortgage payments).

When I referred in @45 to a mailing list for novelists I might not have been precise enough: the criteria for membership include writing and selling novels to commercial publishers on a regular basis. In other words, it's a mailing list for people who earn some or all of their income from writing fiction, rather than one for hopeful optimists. These are the sort of folks who know better than to give up the day job until they've got contracts and deadlines lined up, not to mention healthcare coverage. And the Brits, Australians, South Africans and others on the list simply don't have the same hang-ups about going full time as the Americans, because of healthcare. (Healthcare gets chewed to death on the list. I don't want to report specifics, but the Americans really want something better.)

As for going full-time and producing less, two points: firstly, sometimes less is more. If you've got a 12 month deadline to hit, you'll do a better job if you can work full-time on the book than if you have to squeeze it into your spare hours and fit it around a day job. Secondly, a personal anecdote: while I had a day job, I could produce roughly one novel every 2-3 years. Once I went full-time, I could produce up to three a year (although I'm slowing down a lot and focussing on quality now). There is clearly a relationship between having to hold down a day job and not being able to produce as (much|good) fiction as if you can do it full-time ... assuming you've got the self-starter mentality and recognize that you're in business as a self-employed trader supplying large multinationals who can in principle choose to source their inputs from elsewhere if you're a pain in the neck to work with.

#91 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 10:45 AM:

A few observations on the original post and the comments

- Having been in MIS/IT my entire working life since college, the only times I've viewed my fellow workers as "competition" were two cases when low and mid level managers had come up with what they thought were "irreplaceable solutions" to generic issues in the company, and had been promoted based on the adoption of those solutions -- any realization that there *were* better ways to do things was a direct threat to their positions. (and to give an idea of the baseline - which I'm sure some here share - For more than a few years at my career start, we sent out hand-written code to the keypunch pool for it be punched onto 80-col cards)

-- The inability to effectively sanction the "corporation as person" is part of what is behind the push to enact "tort reform." -- The aim of which is to remove any meaningful redress, especially in the area of punitive damages, for wrongs done by that "corporate person"

- Although I've never been a member of a union (I've almost always been classed as "exempt/professional") I've worked in plenty of industries (manufacturing, wholesale, retailing, hospital) where unions (sometimes multiple) were in the workforce, and could see all too well why those unions were needed.

- Corporations using violence -- look to the efforts to organize mine workers. Documented cases where those suspected of organizing were turned out of their homes,beaten, or outright murdered.

- Corporations hired strikebreakers who were local thugs, or, in some cases, prisoners out on work release, and hiring "detective agencies" who were in reality armed mercenaries. Turning machine guns on strikers and organizers. In many cases, the judiciary are also the owners (the judges who granted injunctions against organizers during the Duke Power strike in the 1970s were themselves coal mine owners)

- Closed shops v open shops -- in a closed shop, all the people in a craft are in the union -- that means that they are all sharing the risk and sharing the benefit. Those who complain about having to pay union dues are nonetheless real happy having the shop steward being able to represent them. They also don't complain about the higher wage and benefits,including better working conditions, that are a result of the unions.

- Those who claim that "unions aren't needed anymore" are usually of the same stripe as those who claim that we are in a "post-feminist" or "post-racist" society. Fools or knaves

- Those who complain that unions make a company "less competitive" refuse to admit that those which are (for the complainer's value of "competitive") are more profitable for the owners because of poor workmanship,low wages, lowered/nonexistent benefits and sometimes outright dangerous working conditions.

- in my family I am in the distinct minority of being one of the few who were not in "nonprofessional" jobs ('though, considering the amount of experience and training required for some of those jobs, iot was a distinction in name only, for the usually accepted definition of "professional")

- Lack of access to decent health care, including dental, is an abomination that this country persists in. And sometimes it does seem a tactic to keep corporate power afloat at the expense of he workers.

- Maybe we *shouldn't* be shying away from the use of the term "class warfare," because sometimes it seems to be the best descriptive term available

- Two quotes,
-- from as Florida legislator in the mid 1990s: We need to focus less on civil rights and more on property rights"
-- Bumper-sticker: "Unions -- the people who worked for *your* weekends"

#92 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 10:53 AM:

Bruce C (from way back up at 10)
It is actionable in a court of law for an officer of a corporation to consider anything other than the return on investment of the stockholders in the corporation; under some conditions such consideration constitutes malfeasance on the part of the officer.

I wonder what would happen if some of the corporate officers (or board members) pointed out that the corporation would be much more successful if it didn't kill off its host (its customers) by raising its prices to the point where the customers stop dealing with them. (Think utility companies, where the profit margin is regulated.)

#93 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 11:13 AM:

Craig R@91: Maybe we *shouldn't* be shying away from the use of the term "class warfare," because sometimes it seems to be the best descriptive term available

The fact that people have been successfully trained to shy away from the term is surely one of the great achievements of the American ruling class.

#94 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 01:44 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 55: "One large problem with sanctioning corporations is the effect the sanctions have on their (non-executive) employees, contractors, and suppliers, who often are blameless for the crimes of the corporation. Besides that, I don't believe that any behavior can be controlled by society unless individual humans are held responsible for that behavior."

Throwing people in jail has a negative effect on the (blameless) people around them too. It's much smaller, to be sure, which is why I proposed the lesser "no profits" prison sentence as an alternative to a "suspended operations entirely" sentence.

I do see your point re: economic responsibility versus moral/legal responsibility.

inge @ 60: "In a truly uncontrolled market, corporations would employ mecenaries, not lawyers."

Indeed. I am constantly amazed at how "free-market" types can say things like "We want a truly free market, where the government only enforces property laws and contracts" with a straight face. Truly free markets involve a lot more guns than I think they imagine.

David Dyer-Bennet @ 62: "In this kind of job (and this description fits lots of low-end jobs just as well as the relatively well-paid industry I'm in), there are dozens to hundreds of roughly similar jobs open at any given moment."

I don't think you understand the economy of low-end jobs. A company can far more easily do without a janitor for a few weeks than that janitor can do without a job. High turn-over and low entry requirements strengthen the management's position, not the worker's. Unionizing is one of the few things that can allow those kinds of workers to negotiate things like overtime pay, health benefits, etc. that higher end workers take for granted.

P J Evans @ 92: "I wonder what would happen if some of the corporate officers (or board members) pointed out that the corporation would be much more successful if it didn't kill off its host (its customers) by raising its prices to the point where the customers stop dealing with them. (Think utility companies, where the profit margin is regulated.)"

Corporations have proven remarkably immune to the lure of long-term self-interest, haven't they? Them and cancer, I guess.

#95 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 06:37 PM:

re the short/long-term profit picture. Every year, or two, CostCo has to fight with some shareholder who are complaining they pay too much, and offer too much in the way of benefits; when compared to Wal-Mart.

Every time this comes up, the numbers get crunched and the overall profit of CostCo is shown to be better than Wal-Mart.

Every couple of years, the same battle gets fought.

#96 ::: David Brin ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 06:39 PM:

Abi Sutherland's perspective is terrific and almost an anthem for the problem-solving pragmatists of our civilization. The ones who pushed for civil rights and womens' rights not ONLY because it was just and proper... but also because it seemed stupid to waste the creative potential of half the population.

Over the long run... a decent, forward-looking pragmatism has always been the greatest ally of general, "goodness-based" progressivism.

Sutherland rightly points out that today's libertarians and "decent conservatives" (DCs) are clinging to a myth... one that forces them into perpetual alliance with the know-nothing fundies and manipulators like Rupert Murdoch. The DCs and libertarians clutch to their breasts a dedication to liberty and fear of tyranny that is similar to our own.

The difference is that they can only picture tyranny arising from one end of the spectrum. This mypoic view is counter-historical, of course. They are fixated on bureaucrats... a problem only in the last 200 years. (Though let us never forget the USSR. The left, too, can go mad.)

Alas, Sutherland falls for a similar myopia, by dissing corporations, which are also only two centuries old! Oh, certainly the modern corporation is psychopathic, by design, but BOTH Sutherland and the DCs and libertarians need to step back. Take the big view.

Who were the great enemies of freedom, across at least 4,000 years and all continents?

Oligarch, kings, lords, priests, wizards. They went by many names in many cultures, but they were the parasites (some less-bad than others) who made life hell for our ancestors and squashed freedom every chance. Today, they are the Rupert Murdochs and Saudi Princes who owned and operated the Bush crony system. They use BOTH corporations and bureaucrats as tools. They want back in. And DCs who jump to Fox's tune are now the shills of that old enemy.

Oh, BTW... I deliberately listed all the top figures in fantasy novels. If you read that neo-feudalist garbage and dream of cheating-magic and elitist kings and snooty secretive wizards... shame on you.

You are heirs of the greatest heroes of all time. Rebels who brought us freedom, democracy, science and the stars. Ben Franklin and Michael Faraday and Susan B Anthony were worth a hundred kings and 200 "wizards."

So are you.

david brin


(drop by http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/)

#97 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:09 PM:

#96: Corporations may be young . . . but they're REALLY good at the manipulation business. And they're especially dangerous because they do provide stuff we want (and need).

#98 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:09 PM:

heresiarch @ 94:
Truly free markets involve a lot more guns than I think they imagine
Which is why my motto is "There ain't no such thing as a free market (TANSTAAFM)".

Corporations have proven remarkably immune to the lure of long-term self-interest, haven't they? Them and cancer, I guess.
One thing we often forget is that a corporation is not in the business of providing some given set of goods or services. It is in the business of making money; if scamming, blackmail, extortion, or financial misdeeds make more money than (for instance) selling energy, then that's what the corporation will do (I hope it's obvious I'm referring to Enron here). You could think of the change in the goals of a corporation like Enron as analogous to the enabling mutation which makes a cell capable of becoming cancerous.

#99 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:12 PM:

David Brin @ 96: I am having some difficulty in following your argument. Many nations with ruling monarchs have much better health care than the U.S.

#100 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:21 PM:

#96 ::: David Brin
snooty secretive wizards.

Would like to hear you debate this with Alan Moore.

#101 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:24 PM:

David Brin @ 96:

I think the danger presented by corporations is that they are more highly-evolved to fill the niche of controlling power than kings and emperors have been in the past. A corporation has a longer lifespan than a human ruler, and usually is better able to gain and hold power. Corporations seem to be more stable and less self-destructive than unincorporated factional groups, e.g., political factions in a royal court or in a totalitarian state. That's not to say they have less destructive effect on the societies they inhabit. I would argue that ADM, which has used lobbying, bribery, and perhaps other unethical and undemocratic behavior to obtain subsidies for making and selling corn syrup from what amounts to their own industrial waste, has done more damage to US society and US citizens than Elizabeth I and her secret police did to Renaissance England and its people.

#102 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 07:31 PM:

David Brin @ 96: Sorry, but you can have my fantasy novels when you come personally to pry them from my bookshelf. Where they reside immediately adjacent to my copies of the Uplift novels, Earth and my Heinlein collection, and one shelf away from my Star Wars books.

In other words, what sort of fiction one reads says very little about the validity, or even the nature, of one's views regarding the best - or worst - means of governing either humankind OR humankind's varied and often conflicting impulses.

Also, Joel Polowin's second sentence in #99? Exactly.

#103 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 08:40 PM:

David Brin #96: Corporations are about four centuries old, since the first date to the end of the sixteenth century. Some Japanese corporations, such as Mitsui, if my memory serves have been in existence continuously, since the seventeenth century. The joint-stock company, as we know it, dates to Elizabethan times in England and to the days of William the Silent in Holland.

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 09:05 PM:

David Brin @ 96... I rather liked Bakshi's "Wizards" myself. That being said, I wish the Decent Conservatives had had the courage to speak against the bums who made the first 8 years of the 21st Century such a dismal affair.

#105 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Serge @ #104, those Decent Conservatives holding national public office can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And the Indecent ones (with help from the other side) have so gerrymandered voting cistricts that challenging the Indecents in elections is equivalent to tilting at windmills.

#106 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 10:42 PM:

Fragano @103: Some Japanese corporations, such as Mitsui, if my memory serves have been in existence continuously, since the seventeenth century.

According to this BusinessWeek article, one Japanese temple-contruction company was in continuous business from 578 to 2006.

#107 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 10:50 PM:

Also, this list, though its focus is on family-owned businesses. (The 100th and most recent company on the list was founded in 1802.)

#108 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2009, 11:05 PM:

Linkmeister @ 105... Speaking of gerrymandered districts, remember when that had some Democratic-Party politicians from Texas go into hiding until Homeland Security was used to get them back home? They were staying at the hotel two blocks from where I work.

#109 ::: David Brin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 02:07 AM:

David Brin responds: Heh! Good rambunctious answers! I can't linger here, but quickly --

There are no "ruling" monarchs. Today's "kings" are national bobble heads. (Except Elizabeth, who owns half of everything... and the Saudi princes, who own most of the rest.)

Anyway, you miss my point, which was to ask you folks to look at 4,000+ years of human history, in which selfish and conniving cronies conspired to make themselves oligarchs and squash everybody else beneath a pyramid-shaped power structure. That BS is embedded in our genes! (Hey, the guys who succeeded got harems and we're all descended from them!)

Which is worse? Fox News the Corporation? Or the oligarch who tells Hannity what to say?

Corporations are inherently amoral and hence psychopathic. But they are at their worst when run or manipulated by true oligarchs. Same as governments are at their worst in the same way. (The evil Soviet empire was an oligarchy of 1,000 communist Nomenklatura families. The song remains the same.)

Without historical perspective, we'll remain myopic, fail to see the big picture, and stay in our near term squabbles.

Oh, Wizards is THE most evil film since TRIUMPH OF THE WILL Not one scene is not an advertisement for vileness. We are asked to cheer for oppressive/pretty/repressive fairies who kept "Ugly mutants" squashed in a lightless ghetto for 1,000 years, then cheer when the pixies attack in a pre-emptive strike and slaughter every mutant child and cub. The lazy lecherous wizard who helps the master race is "good" while the (admittedly shrill) brother who loves a wife and child and helps the oppressed and develops his skill is "evil." The list goes on. Pay attention to your propaganda.

See my questionnaire!
http://www.davidbrin.com/questionnaire.htm

And now I really gotta go. Look FORWARD. Build civilization.

With cordial regards,

David Brin
http://www.davidbrin.com
http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/

#110 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:30 AM:

David Brin @96:

Alas, Sutherland falls for a similar myopia, by dissing corporations, which are also only two centuries old! Oh, certainly the modern corporation is psychopathic, by design, but BOTH Sutherland and the DCs and libertarians need to step back. Take the big view.

You mistake me significantly, albeit entertainingly. I am well aware that the long-term enemy is the concentration of power (measured by swords or dollars, as the times change) in the hands of a few. But we can't fight an abstraction like that. We have to act against the manifestation that stands before us now.

The "principle" I'm really "touching back to" here is that the old solutions are not always the good solutions.

If you read that neo-feudalist garbage and dream of cheating-magic and elitist kings and snooty secretive wizards... shame on you.

Only if I believe them, or aspire to live in them. I am well aware that in an earlier age (or a fantasy novel), I would be the daughter of the swineherd who didn't marry the princess and the milkmaid who was too plain for droit de seigneur. The fact that I was born in comfort, raised in happiness, educated well, and am able to live in peace and sufficiency is a sign that society does improve.

But I still enjoy reading about kings and queens, the specially talented, the magical and the clever. So? I can identify with an uplifted chimp for the stretch of a book without imagining that my tree-climbing has improved when I close the covers. I read Regency romances too, though I would never have been made it in Society.

You are heirs of the greatest heroes of all time. Rebels who brought us freedom, democracy, science and the stars. Ben Franklin and Michael Faraday and Susan B Anthony were worth a hundred kings and 200 "wizards."

I was born on Susan B Anthony's birthday and named for Abigail Adams. I was tear-gassed on Reagan's orders before I breathed air. I do my humble best.

& @109:

Anyway, you miss my point, which was to ask you folks to look at 4,000+ years of human history, in which selfish and conniving cronies conspired to make themselves oligarchs and squash everybody else beneath a pyramid-shaped power structure. That BS is embedded in our genes! (Hey, the guys who succeeded got harems and we're all descended from them!)

But what do you recommend? Tall lampposts and short ropes? The French tried that once, and all they did was swap one bunch of repressive tyrants for another. The problem is, as you point out, inbred.

I look at history, and I see that the pyramid is looking increasingly funny-shaped, like a trapezoid with a smaller pyramid on top. The other key insight of progressivism, after all, is that the present is better than the past.

Then I stop looking at history and try to solve the problem that lies before me now. We have to look up for perspective, but a better world isn't made all in broad strokes.

#111 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:43 AM:

Bruce Cohen @101:

I like the mental model of corporations as the product of biological evolution. They do show many of the same quirks and resistances.

#112 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 07:17 AM:

David Brin and Abi: I think you two are having a vehement and strenuous agreement here. The point of all this exercise being, David, that the disproportionately influential corporations whose power to manipulate the forces of government Abi wants to limit are exactly the modern manifestation of the oligarchs, nobility, "wizards" you decry so forcefully. You're talking about the same damn thing.

(The sideshow, David, of your screed against fantasy fiction is a bit too much mistaking the map for the territory. Or perhaps mistaking the circus for the city. Someone whose writing demands intelligence and discernment from its readers should know better.)

#113 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 07:22 AM:

Mark @112:
I think you two are having a vehement and strenuous agreement here.

Oh, absolutely. The only thing I think he's wrong about is that I'm wrong.

Well, that and the idea that fantasy fiction is propaganda.

#114 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:37 AM:

David Brin @ 109... Pay attention to your propaganda.

Oh, but I do. I still like the movie. I hope that doesn't make me a bad person. As for "triumph of the will", you remind me of the time I watched it on TV and mentionned it to my bro-in-law, who had never heard about it even though his parents were Austrian Jews who left Europe in the 1930s because of You-Know-Who.

#115 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:38 AM:

David Brin... I also liked The Postman - the book and the movie.

#116 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:42 AM:

Abi and David Brin:

Most fiction, if not all, carries some messages beyond the entertainment--including ones the writer may not even be aware of, about which kinds of people are important and who the good guys are, coded by appearance or accent rather than by what they do. (Of course, what we find entertaining is neither random nor inherent in physics or our DNA.)

But that doesn't mean most fiction is propaganda, let alone that it's propaganda for the most obvious thing it seems to show. There are stories all over the place with kings and queens and so on in them; can anyone who has read Lloyd Alexander's Westmark books seriously argue that they are propaganda for a hereditary monarchy? (Evil vizier, check. Rightful heir to the throne living anonymously in poverty, check. Now go read the books.)

Also, David, if fiction is all propaganda, what is the message I'm supposed to be getting from The Uplift War? Never trust a foreign librarian? [And how do the Library, and missing orangutans in that world, connect to Pratchett?] The importance of a good death, and a haiku to mark it?

#117 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 09:14 AM:

Vicki @ 116... Never trust a foreign librarian?

Unless one's played by Bob Newhart or Jane Curtin.

#118 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 11:43 AM:

David Brin @ 109: "Anyway, you miss my point, which was to ask you folks to look at 4,000+ years of human history, in which selfish and conniving cronies conspired to make themselves oligarchs and squash everybody else beneath a pyramid-shaped power structure. That BS is embedded in our genes!"

I wouldn't necessarily phrase it that way, but okay.

"Corporations are inherently amoral and hence psychopathic. But they are at their worst when run or manipulated by true oligarchs."

But how is killing/deposing any particular set of oligarchs going do the rest of us any good? If every single one of us is capable of it, won't another set of oligarchs simply take their place? It seems that if your premise (that all of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of acting like blood-thirsty aristocrats) is correct, then focusing on the particular instantiation of aristocracy at the moment is an enormous red herring. If you're right, then the only way to truly prevent--or at least minimize--oligarchic tendencies in the human race is to create systems of government and patterns of behavior that will prevent oligarchs from arising in the first place. Doesn't that strike you as "the big picture?"

#119 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 11:51 AM:

There are no "ruling" monarchs. Today's "kings" are national bobble heads.

IMHO, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-Il are ruling monarchs. They're heads of state with considerable authority that inherited their position of power. So Baby Doc Duvalier wasn't called a king - what would be the difference if he had been?

Arguably, the Princes of Monaco and Liechtenstein might have enough authority to be considered monarchs that rule as well as reign in their microstates. That's more of a technical objection, though.

As a general rule, monarchy has little to do with health insurance.

#120 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 12:13 PM:

Julie L #106: Thanks! I'd read about Mitsui four decades ago.

#121 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 12:18 PM:

FungifromYoggoth #119: It might be better to call Assad and Kim (not to mention the Docs) "emperors" rather than "kings". They are dictators who took over (more-or-less) constitutional regimes and then imposed hereditary monarchies on them, rather than hereditary rulers operating from within a traditional system of laws.

#122 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 12:25 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @121 - That's a very good point, but emperors as well as kings are monarchs (although neither the Emperor of Japan nor the Monarch are ruling monarchs).

That clarifies things, I think.

#123 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 01:41 PM:

Vicki @116:
Never trust a foreign librarian?

No, that there is a place in every library for a good, user-centered search and discovery interface!

(If you don't know, I work for a company that makes just such a thing, which is why the marketing speak just rolls off my tongue.)

#124 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 02:59 PM:

abi @ 111... corporations as the product of biological evolution

That sounds like the premise for a Skiffy Channel movie. Megasharks in the boardroom. Remoras in IT management.

#125 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 03:29 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 101 and abi @ 111:

Every now and again I have entertained thoughts of writing a story about slow, long-lived aliens who start communicating with the Earth, only, because of the time-scales involved, they wind up communicating with societies and religions and corporations rather than people. No idea how to make that really work, though.

#126 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 03:38 PM:

abi @ 110... in an earlier age (or a fantasy novel), I would be the daughter of the swineherd who didn't marry the princess

This sounds like the premise for an Ellen Kushner story. Either that or you meant to say that the swineherd didn't marry the princess, in which case it's more like an outtake from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

#127 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 03:45 PM:

Serge #124: So, you're saying that IT managers are all suckers?

#128 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 03:47 PM:

David Brin: What I see, from boiling down the pieces of the important argument (as opposed to the idea that reading fantasy is a way to rot one's brain with pseudo-fuedal propaganda; which amuses me as the fantasy I most like is written by an unabashed Trostyist, but I digress) is we need to just ride it out.

After all, the kings and oligarchs slowly got better, and we don't know yet with the corporations.

No, you tossed in some things about enlightened self-interest, but really, that was an aside.

Me? I don't want to wait that long. I don't like seeing companies recreating wage-slavery, debt-peonage and other forms of amoral exploitation. That companies like Lloyd's can exist for 300+ years (and counting) and shape the nature of the world to suit their ends, that's a problem. Because I have to live in the now, and so will my kids.

Checks on their abilities to exploit are needed. I want to see a way to really sanction them. When McD's can complain about losing the profits of one day's coffee sales, and get the courts to decide that's too much of a penalty. When they can use the libel laws in England to stifle honest protest (and they did, it backfired, but they were managing it, and still have that cudgel to beat people with), when they can buy gov'ts, and use their money (which is, in practical terms, infinite; because they can offer more than any dozen people can every spend), to gain influence and write the laws to their ends (Made in the USA, in slave labor camps in the Marianas), that's a problem.

It may be that they are only a couple of hundred years old; so too was the form of chattel slavery in the US. It wasn't worth letting it evolve into something more benign. Sometimes things need to be killed off; or vastly pruned.

#129 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 03:59 PM:

Fragano @ 127... I should have said that some managers are like remoras, meaning that they suck up to the big fish and get a free ride. I'm not sure what I'd be. An anchovy? You know, the fish that nobody wants to see in the pizza.

#130 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 04:00 PM:

Fragano @ 127... I should have said that some managers are like remoras, meaning that they suck up to the big fish and get a free ride. I'm not sure what I'd be. Maybe the French cleaning shrimp in "Finding Nemo".

#131 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 04:04 PM:

Serge @ 130: Enough already. I'm fed up to the gills with all the fish talk.

#132 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 04:21 PM:

janetl @ 131... Must you be re-sardine to harsh remonstrances?

#133 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 04:51 PM:

C. Wingate @ 64: I'm having a great deal of trouble making sense of these statistics, not to mention that the source of much of the data is obscure.

I share your distrust at the self-employed/tiny businesses statistics. In Germany, the employment office has been doing its best for years to push the unemployed into self-employment to get them off the rolls. (By, among other things, providing health insurance.)

The good thing about this is that it gives people who have little to lose an opportunity to get a shot at coming up with something clever, but the pushing skewes the numbers badly -- unless the numbers exclude everything below a certain measure of success. And as there is no agreement on what would be success, there are no useful numbers.

But even without the numbers, considering that many of the people who have trouble getting or keeping a job are likely to have some problems getting their act together (illness, small children, undereducated, language problems,...), I'm willing to bet that cases of "making ends meet" are rare, and those where the self-employed person contributes more to the economy than they'd do in a standard employment situation are ever more so.

Two of my friends were already pushed and sweet-talked into trying self-employment, and one of them is fighting with what is probably undiagnosed and untreated clinical depression. I am not especially optimistic about the whole endeavour.

#134 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:00 PM:

Fragano Ledgister@121

There are a number of more or less "traditional" ruling monarchies still around, although they are rare outside of the Arabian peninsula.

One intermediate case is Thailand. The King of Thailand does not directly rule, but even a hint of opposition from him will quickly topple a government.

#135 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:39 PM:

Serge, 124: Some years ago, I'd idly considered trying to write something where the financial markets achieved sentience. A limited grasp of the economics plus a lack of literary talent kept me from doing it, but if someone else who has the chops wants to give it a try, feel free!

#136 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:50 PM:

Chris Quinones @ 135... Maybe you and KeithS @ 125 should collaborate on a story using both your ideas.

#137 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 06:56 PM:

Michael I (#134): King Bhumibol was, incidentally, born in the US (though I don't think anyone has asked him to show his birth certificate, there being a distinct lack of "birthers" in Thailand).

#138 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 07:26 PM:

Welcome to social democracy, Dave!

#139 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 07:39 PM:

abi @ 111, also KeithS and Chris Quinones:
See Charlie Stross' "Accelerando". One of the minor characters is an alien AI who started out as a pyramid scheme.

Re Bakshi's "Wizards":
I dislike that movie intensely, mostly because its style and many of the character drawings, deliberately rip off, with no attribution, the work of the great comic artist Vaughn Bode. See "Deadbone" for instance.

#140 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 07:43 PM:

Chris Quinones @135: Years ago I read some fatuous advice in a book about self-employment: Do what you love; the money will take care of itself.

To which I reply: Of course the money will take care of itself! What I want it to do is take care of me.

If we could only get it to follow the first law ("Money shall not harm a person, or by inaction, allow a person to come to harm.")

#141 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:01 PM:

Like many of the commenters here, I've been wondering for a long time if (and if so how) human institutions can be improved beyond the rule of the powerless by the powerful. Over time I've become convinced that just changing the organization (whether to utopian socialism, pragmatic representative democracy, or controlled meritocracy) won't do the job. As David Brin pointed out, we humans have the tendency to build pyramidal power structures built into our genes.

What we need are new and better tools to build organizations with. Some of those tools might grow out of the ongoing work to make voting fair and resistant to corruption. Some of them might grow out of work to build organizations with what you might call "cybernetic endoskeletons": information and communication management systems that support the desired dynamics of the organization*. And some might grow out of the transparency initiatives of the Obama administration**.

My idea is that we need a class of "fairness amplification" tools, just as the telescope is a sense amplification tool, and the computer is a memory and computation amplification tool. And for perhaps the first time in history, we're going to have to make sure that our descriptions of our society match both what we want and what we actually have. Some of the tools would be dedicated to tracking what we really have and comparing that to the descriptions, and others would help create strategies to correct mismatches.

Of course this isn't a panacea. Any technology can, in principle, be subverted to create and maintain a power inequality. What we need is to apply the tools in a principled way that is based on pragmatic observation of what works, similar to the way the idea of "checks and balances" was applied by the founders of the US federal system to every potential source of power imbalance they could think of.

* Something like what "enterprise engineering" promised to be, as opposed to the buzzword that it actually is.
** David Brin, if you're still here, I'm not talking about your idea of the "Transparent Society". I have serious doubts that such a thing is possible without first removing the oligarchies. If you don't do that, it is always possible for the powerful to have better surveillance on the powerless than vice versa, and better counter-surveillance (crypto, counter-propaganda, etc.) as well.

#142 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:08 PM:

Serge #132: Why be so harsh? Why don't you give her a herring?

#143 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:10 PM:

Michael I #134? Is that your regnal number perchance? True, there are some traditional monarchs who reign as well as rule outside of the Arabian peninsula (the Sultan of Brunei, the King of Morocco, the King of Swaziland). I hadn't known that about King Bhumibol. I suspect that any Thai birthers would be languishing in gaol faster than you could say "Jack Robinson" or the Thai equivalent thereof.

#144 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 08:18 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 139... And Cobalt 90 too. Sigh. I'm sorry I brought that movie up.

#145 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 10:23 PM:

abi@110 (and many others): DNFTT -- even the non-anonymous ones. Or if you must, have a can of Coke handy.

Bruce@141: we humans have the tendency to build pyramidal power structures built into our genes. See above.

#146 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 11:10 PM:

[coming in late]

David Dyer-Bennet @43 - Oddly enough, I have the opposite sort of visceral response. I feel I'd be able to get a better deal out of my (eventual) employer if I were able to stand as part of a group with my colleagues and say "we need these conditions to be improved" or "we want this minimum wage" or "we'd like this style of recognition for expertise" or similar. Then again, that may be because firstly, I'm female, and secondly, I'm working class, which both mean I haven't learned the sort of aggressive bargaining techniques which are taught to middle-class males. Both of these also mean I suffer significant social discrimination against learning them too - if a middle-class white male is an aggressive bargainer, he's a good asset for the business, but a working-class female who strikes a hard bargain is an uppity bitch who shouldn't be trusted and will be downgraded on her next performance assessment. This kind of social discrimination would also tell against any other person who doesn't fit the "preferred employee" model of "white, middle or upper-middle class, Christian, heterosexual male".

Of course, I'm also a little skewed on this question because the work I'd prefer to be doing is helpdesk work, which tends (in my opinion, anyway) to be undervalued by most of the technical and programming sorts in the IT industry. So it would be good to be able to have a professional or industry body which is able to back me up with regards to things like "what might be useful qualifications for the job" or "what would be an acceptable hourly wage" or even "what would be reasonable working conditions" or similar such questions.

One thing I can say, as a former member of a union: at least when I was in the union, I knew my then-employers weren't ripping me off. As a private contractor hired out by various temp firms, I'm never certain when the temp firm says "oh, the client can only afford to pay you $X" whether that's actually true, or whether it's a nice little "negotiating tactic" they've come up with to see how little they can get away with paying me. I'll admit to having been scarred by a contracting company who quoted me an hourly rate for helpdesk work which was lower than the rate I was paid ten years earlier for operating a cash register; I later discovered this same firm was billing their client at least twice that amount for my services. Fortunately that one backfired - the temp firm had been so eager to get me into the job that I hadn't signed any paperwork with them before I started there and the client (a large government agency) employed me on one of their standard contracts out from under their noses.

On a different subject: my possible solution to the problems of corporate misbehaviour tends to strike at the core purpose of the corporation - namely, to make money. They're machines to make money, and as one famous person said, they have neither bodies to be hung nor souls to be damned. What they have is a revenue stream. So in order for any penalty to be successfully applied, you need to strike at that revenue stream.

So, here's my suggestion: for each *instance* of corporate malfeasance, the corporation is penalised 1% of its gross profit. This is calculated from the figures they calculate the dividends from (thus preventing the firm from trading at a loss in order to avoid paying) and has to be paid any year they pay a dividend. If there would be a jail term for a human who committed the offence, this is the term which is used to calculate how long the 1% penalty is imposed. Oh, and an instance is defined as a single incident of damage or a single person harmed - so if five people are killed by corporate negligence (for example, a building collapse) that's five instances of murder there. By having a percentage of gross profit as a fine (rather than a fixed sum) it prevents economies of scale along the lines of "well, we already make half a squillion dollars a minute, but if we just disregard these laws, we could bump that up to a squillion and a half every thirty seconds... and compared to that, the fine is just small biscuits"; also by going on gross profit, it hopefully prevents the sort of mumbo-jumbo accounting which a lot of corporations already do in order to dodge paying any "unnecessary" taxes.

#147 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2009, 11:47 PM:

re 78: Abi, I think you more or less missed the point of the second half of what I wrote, but perhaps in clarifying the terminology I can explain what I meant and where we differ.

Part of the problem is that, technically, now, unions and incorporated businesses, and for that matter charitable organizations and a host of other entities, are all corporations; that is what the law holds them to be (albeit of different types), and as legal persons which are actually organizations of real persons, they have in common the characteristics that drive my analysis. To keep that clear I'm going to refer to "businesses" instead of "corporations" when we are talking about things like joint stock companies, acknowledging that this isn't accurate in the large; but in this discussion I'm ignoring things like family businesses and sole proprietorships, and I do need the word "corporation" to refer to the class as a whole.

That leads to the first observation, and where we have the sharpest disagreement: corporations are not machines, but organisms. "Machine" carries the connotation of being bound by something like physical law, to the extent that pushing on it in one place produces a consistent action in another. Corporations are more like animals, whose systems are not mechanical. Business corporations are not "profit-maximizing machines"; they are business organisms to whom a certain generation of profit is necessary to their long term survival. But within the organism there are a lot of other processes going on, with the members being nourished by more than just the flow or accumulation of money. Also-- and this is a crucial point-- there's nothing built into businesses that makes them actually maximize profits. Surely those who get a cut of the money flow would like that flow maximized, but often enough they don't even know how to do it. And that desire isn't limited to businesses anyway, as there would be much less incentive for unionization if union members were not interested in maximizing their own incomes.

It seems to me that the varieties of corruption one sees in unions is more instructive, because they do indeed break the illusion that the morality of a corporation has any source other than the morality of its members. That's true for businesses as well. I suspect that another factor is entering in here: a set of values as to which ways of making money are more, to use the most commonly applied word, honest; but chasing that down is too much of a distraction here.

Of course unions and businesses are different, but they are not utterly different. The characteristics they share in both being corporations are important. It seems to me that the language you have used here tends to delineate businesses as operating with a single mind, and that's just not the way they work. The faults of business behavior, it seems to me, are the faults their members' behaviors; but the kind of organizational behaviors that emphasize those faults are those of organizations in general.

Also, let me try to explain what I was talking about WRT unions a bit better. What I was trying to get across is that unions, as a solution to the current business power problem, suffer from the difficulty of being establishments. If a person is someone with an investment in unions, then unions are likely to be the solution to whatever problem comes along. An AFL-CIO executive is going to have a strong inclination towards increasing his organization. On a larger scale unions as a solution tend to freeze a view of affairs pitting monolithic corporations against the kids and workers seen in Lewis Hines. Yet here I am, driving across Glacier, and I'm looking at a steady parade of Harleys streaming back from Sturgis. Those things are expensive, and there are a lot of them. Us upper middle types are, in our way, also on the wrong side of the class warfare lines, which means we have some conflict of interest issues when standing up for the workers. The sense I have overall is that we are largely playing out scripts that were mostly written before I started high school. I'm having a hard time bringing this to a coherent conclusion, so let me try to end it this way: I keep coming to socio-economic and political problems with the sense that the driving worldview is outdated. And I especially see that loyalty issues to the factions in these worldviews are increasing their inaccuracy. Again, I don't oppose unions at all; for the most part, for instance, I shop at unionized grocers and tend to prefer it that way. But it seems to me that the place of the upper middle class in the country is the chief locus of issues at the moment, and the traditional unions-vs-businesses dynamic really doesn't account for them.

#148 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 01:23 AM:

Those who're attracted to money, power and influence will gravitate to wherever those are, and use them for their own advantage. Their presence usually distorts the institution to support them and their ilk.

This applies whether they're high priests, cardinals or bishops, aristocrats, courtiers, politicians or warriors, bureaucrats, apparatchiks and loyal Party functionaries of right or left, union leaders, and from the age of (modern) robber barons onward, corporate heads and executive management.

Much of what I call advances in civilization* are the developments of 'checks and balances' to mitigate this effect and give the rest of the population a chance against such powermongers and their bullyboy enforcers. [Long pause; about 100 more comments while I was away. Just to say heresiarch (#118) made a similar point.]

*Then there's the science/technology advances, often deployed for their own purposes by both sides in that struggle.

#149 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 04:09 AM:

When a corporation commits murder, whether through negligence or cynical application of cold equations, it should still be possible to eviscerate the corporate veil and zap the individuals responsible; if it turns into a finger-pointing circus, whack all of the responsible executives for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. We need more executive perp-walks on CNN and heads on pikes to reinvigorate and improve the morale of the American people.

#150 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:48 AM:

C Wingate @147:

corporations are not machines, but organisms.

Analogies are inherently flawed. Both the "machine" abstraction and the "organism" abstraction leak heavily. I've also used the organism analogy when talking about evolution. Both models are useful for certain aspects of the discussion.

But the real point is not whether they're more like machines, or organisms, or rocks. It's that they're big and hard to influence, and we are small and not very influential. And they use that to their advantage, which doesn't necessarily align with ours.

Also-- and this is a crucial point-- there's nothing built into businesses that makes them actually maximize profits.

True in theory, rare in practice, apart from nonprofit organizations. Which are generally much more humane, but still put their survival above the good of the individuals they deal with.

Surely those who get a cut of the money flow would like that flow maximized, but often enough they don't even know how to do it. And that desire isn't limited to businesses anyway, as there would be much less incentive for unionization if union members were not interested in maximizing their own incomes.

You do know that it's not all about money, right? Sometimes union members are interested in maximizing the time they spend with their families, or the safety of their workplaces.

Of course unions and businesses are different, but they are not utterly different. The characteristics they share in both being corporations are important. It seems to me that the language you have used here tends to delineate businesses as operating with a single mind, and that's just not the way they work. The faults of business behavior, it seems to me, are the faults their members' behaviors; but the kind of organizational behaviors that emphasize those faults are those of organizations in general.

Well, of course business motivations are complex, though I would point out that (in some jurisdictions, certainly) there is a legal concept of a mens rea, a mind of the business, which certain staff are deemed to have when they make decisions on behalf of the entire enterprise. And management sets direction for employees, with rewards and punishments for adherance. So business behavior, while complex, is not always the sum of the decisions of every person employed in a business.

Also, one crucial thing to note about businesses which hasn't come up yet in this discussion is the separation between the actual and the beneficial owners of most large corporations. The holders of much of the equity on the market are institutional investors: banks, insurance funds, investment funds, pension funds. The fund managers are the ones who go to the AGMs and vote for board members, and they are under a fiduciary duty: maximize profits, either short or long term, depending on the fund structure. The beneficial owners, which is to say me and thee and Granny, may object very strongly to the way that the businesses respond to this stimulus, but by hiring these fund managers under the terms that they work, we find ourselves perpetuating the system.

And yes, there are ethical funds, but even there, the beneficial owners can't manage much more than binary stimulus (good/bad; buy/sell; vote yes/vote no).

Also, let me try to explain what I was talking about WRT unions a bit better. What I was trying to get across is that unions, as a solution to the current business power problem, suffer from the difficulty of being establishments. If a person is someone with an investment in unions, then unions are likely to be the solution to whatever problem comes along. An AFL-CIO executive is going to have a strong inclination towards increasing his organization.

I do agree that existing unions are not perfect, and I'd be interested in seeing their problems addressed. Not all union-strengthening legislation would be aimed at the faults of employers, in my ideal world. But it's hard to address the real faults of existing unions in an environment where the whole concept of worker organization already demonized and slandered. And, looking in on the discussion from the outside, I can see that they are very much the target of massive and vicious propaganda.

The fact that unions are the hammer in the old saying doesn't change the fact that there are actual nails to drive.

On a larger scale unions as a solution tend to freeze a view of affairs pitting monolithic corporations against the kids and workers seen in Lewis Hines. Yet here I am, driving across Glacier, and I'm looking at a steady parade of Harleys streaming back from Sturgis. Those things are expensive, and there are a lot of them.

Fewer proper nouns, more explanations, if you want me to understand what you're saying, please. I don't live where you live; I don't have your cultural referents. Is it like the fact that when I go on the Buiksloterpleinveer I see a lot of Gazelles, or more that even the opa- and omafietsen parked by my Albert Heijn have plaatjes from Dral?

The sense I have overall is that we are largely playing out scripts that were mostly written before I started high school.

You're younger than I expected, then. This is not the shape of the world that I thought I would grow up in. And I'm just shy of 40.

I keep coming to socio-economic and political problems with the sense that the driving worldview is outdated. And I especially see that loyalty issues to the factions in these worldviews are increasing their inaccuracy.

How is this different than the idea that problems progress, and our approaches to solving them must as well?

But it seems to me that the place of the upper middle class in the country is the chief locus of issues at the moment, and the traditional unions-vs-businesses dynamic really doesn't account for them.

Actually, it's not all about you (or me, for that matter; I'm middle-to-upper middle class myself). I'd say the place of the working/lower middle class is the chief locus of issues at the moment, as they see their toehold on the American dream of a steady job, decent house, and hope of advancement for their kids become ever more tenuous. That's a genuine existential crisis for an entire stratum of society.

#151 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:53 AM:

CHip @145:

abi@110 (and many others): DNFTT -- even the non-anonymous ones. Or if you must, have a can of Coke handy.

Don't be so hasty to label trolls; you're closer to the line than David Brin.

Someone turns up with interesting and relevant perspectives on-thread, responds to discussion, and doesn't pollute the conversation. That's not trolling.

Someone makes a comment purely designed to denigrate another person, with no substantive content. ...?

#152 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 09:06 AM:

abi @ 150... I'm just shy of 40

...while I'm just shy of 54, but still spry, so don't cry.

#153 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 09:48 AM:

abi @ 150... I'm middle-to-upper middle class myself

So am I, but I try not to think that events beyond one's control could change that.

#154 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:37 AM:

#119 Fungi

I think you're missing a key point about the heads of state of Syria and North Korea, and for that matter, one of the former executives in India: it was NOT the will of the head of state of Syria to become a head of state, he trained as and had had a career as either an MD or a dentist. It was other people who stuck him with the position of heir apparent to his father, when his elder brother(s) died, who had been the heir apparent. The current head in North Korea is at least as much figurehead as anything else, for a group of it is generals, who are really in charge--much the same situation is in force in Syria.

In India, Indira Gandhi's son the airline pilot did NOT want to be thrust into politics, but when his elder brother(s) died, other people stuck him with it nonetheless.

For that matter, Saddam Hussein was not operating in a vacuum as concerned how he became head of Iraq--the Ba'ath Party of Iraq (as opposed to the Ba'ath Party which rules Syria and insisted on having an Assad take the place of Hafez al-Assad....) made the choice of elevating Saddam Hussein all those years ago to being the head of Iraq.

Meanwhile, I wonder if David Brin to a degree has been channelling Samuel the Prophet, in warning and arguing against kings....

Spain's king was instrumental in preserving democracy in Spain, perhaps ironically....

Regarding corporations, there was a misread legal decision--the legal decision explicitly DENIED giving corporations personhood status, but some judge ignored that decision and set a precedent otherise, which had continued to be followed. That precedent needs explicit eradication.... because the currents status is that corporations get the perquisites of personhood, but none of the legal obligations and constraints that have any force--corporations don't get jailed, corporations don't have their executives who make the decisions get jailed or stripped of voting rights unless they get prosecuted and convicted of criminal acts, etc.

#155 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 02:17 PM:

C. Wingate @ 147:
But it seems to me that the place of the upper middle class in the country is the chief locus of issues at the moment, and the traditional unions-vs-businesses dynamic really doesn't account for them.

I don't agree with this statement; the problems of the middle class are significant, but not the "chief locus of issues". The issue we have now, the one that has the potential to completely corrupt democracy and the civil contract that we have evolved in the US, is the creation of a two-tier economy, with an explicit, and very large, underclass. This underclass will be disenfranchised, both in the political sense, and in the sense that it will have no share in the wealth of the society. I've said before, half in jest, that continuing the trends of the last 8 years will result in the re-institution of debt slavery and indentured servitude. Now it's not a joke, those are real possibilities if the economic and political trends continue. I don't think those institutions are compatible with the view of human society that most of us in the US have come to believe in.

#156 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 03:17 PM:

Abi:

I keep feeling like US society is just libertarian enough that we don't prevent abuses by corporations, while also being just statist enough that we don't prevent abuses by the government.

Privacy law/practice is one place where this seems prominent: We can't have strong privacy laws applying to corporations, because that would be anti-free-market. And we can't have strong privacy laws applying to government, because that would make us vulnerable to terrorism, child predators, space aliens, or whatever other thing we're all supposed to be scared of this week. So we just avoid making any rules that would guarantee anyone's privacy. Much less bother that way. (It's also very convenient that corporations can collect all sorts of information, which is then happily handed over to the government upon request. And even if it was against the law or their contractual arrangements to hand that information over, there will never be consequences.)

#157 ::: Ariella ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 03:50 PM:

Random factoid: The droit du seigneur is itself a myth that came about as a result of political propaganda.

#158 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 05:15 PM:

I offer for your perusal the UK Health And Safety Executive's information page on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. This considerably toughened up the law on the subject, and there had been very few successful prosecutions under older versions, but it was not a brand new area of law in the UK. It seems to me that the US could do with having something along the same lines -- preferably something that is actively enforced, rather than simply ignored.

#159 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 05:50 PM:

C. Wingate: I forget where I read it (it was some time ago), but in the eaerly '70s (when Nixon was president) there was a change in the code. Public companies were no longer beng charged to make a "reasonable" but rather a "maximal" return for their investors.

If that's true (I was in high school when I read it, and didn't note the section of the code, and I am not enough of a legal scholar to know how to find it) then, in the US, there is a built in requirement that business act in a manner which is socio, if not psycho, pathic.

#160 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 06:14 PM:

re 155: Bruce, if there is a two-tier system now, you and I must be in the top tier, because we aren't in the other one. OK, I'll take back what I said earlier, or at least the terms I said it in. Let me try to say it better: I agree that the elimination of the lower middle class is a very big problem, perhaps the central problem. The part where we may have a more meaningful difference of opinion is that I don't think that reducing the matter to "corporate overclass versus labor underclass" is a complete enough picture. The group of people who have a big chunk in 401K/IRA investments and who don't have to contemplate shopping at Walmart and who are accumulating equity in their house is too large to be discounted. Insofar as the underclass is being disenfranchised, how much is this third tier responsible for that? Well, probably a great deal, because for starters it contains the chattering class. But it also has a big economic contribution to be called to account for.

#161 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 06:31 PM:

Peripheral to everything in the discussion: I've just cleaned up all the reference numbers that were knocked askew by the release of comment 74 from the clutches of the Moderation Gnomes.

If I've missed any, mention it and I'll go fix.

#162 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 06:40 PM:

C. Wingate, #160: Bruce, if there is a two-tier system now, you and I must be in the top tier, because we aren't in the other one.

... yet. AKA "It's okay, the leak isn't in OUR end of the lifeboat."

#163 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:24 PM:

C. Wingate @ 160: Bruce, if there is a two-tier system now, you and I must be in the top tier, because we aren't in the other one.

I don't know you personally, but just playing the odds I rather doubt that you're making well over, say, $300k per year. Almost certainly not $1M a year or more. I'm pretty well off overall, all things considered, but if there is a two-tier system, I know I'm definitely not in the top tier.

I don't think there is a two-tier system in the US. Not yet. But there are people out there working to make it that way, and I'm damned sure that I won't be on the winning end of that proposition. Even if I would be, that still doesn't make it right. I have far more common cause with people less well off than I am, because there are wealthy and powerful people out there who want to exploit everyone and keep them down.

Also, why are you fussing over distinctions within the middle class and talk about being upper-middle class? That sounds like a whole bunch of quibbling to distract from the fact that you're not upper class, and that if some of the powerful had their way you'd not be very far from being poor either. It would only take one big medical incident, to pick a topical example, to bankrupt even a fairly well-off person.

#164 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:41 PM:

Lee @ 162, KeithS @ 163:

Thanks for saying what I would have said, had I been a little faster (as fate would have it, I had to go to a doctor's appointment to deal with a complication of my last but one surgery, the carpal tunnel repair. Yet another chance to give thanks for having health-care insurance, even at exorbitant rates).

Further reply to C. Wingate: even if you and I personally end up in the upper tier, there will be a large fraction, eventually a majority, of the citizens of the US who will be in the bottom tier, victims of a system that is designed to make them second or third class citizens and keep them in that condition. Is this the way you want your country to work?

#165 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 08:17 PM:

C. Wingate @ 147: "Business corporations are not "profit-maximizing machines"; they are business organisms to whom a certain generation of profit is necessary to their long term survival."

This is like saying "biological organisms are not 'food gathering machines'; they are reproductive organisms to whom a certain amount of food gathering is necessary to their long term reproductive success." Corporations don't need anything "built in" in order to pursue profit*--capitalist economies select for that trait. The evolutionary pressures on corporations are towards profit-maximization, and any corporation that fails in this core task faces extinction.

"What I was trying to get across is that unions, as a solution to the current business power problem, suffer from the difficulty of being establishments. If a person is someone with an investment in unions, then unions are likely to be the solution to whatever problem comes along. An AFL-CIO executive is going to have a strong inclination towards increasing his organization."

Except that this argument isn't being conducted between you and an AFL-CIO exec. Unless abi's been misleading us terribly about her employment, it's not even being conducted by union members. None of us have an ulterior interest in the success of unions. I don't think unions are immune to the Iron Law of Institutions, but its applicability to this particular argument is theoretical at best.

*Though they do, actually. Fiduciary duty, I think abi called it?

#166 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 08:41 PM:

On corporate personhood (or what passes for it), what I understand is:
It first appears in the dicta attached to Santa Clara County v SPRR. Not even in the judge's decision, but in something like an introduction, apparently written up by the court clerk (who later became a judge and, as you might expect, favored corporations).
It was read as settled law, probably because it felt more comfortable to those making the decisions, and later written into actual law ... but it was never the ruling of a court of law.

#167 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 09:23 PM:

Serge @144: ... And Cobalt 90 too.

Just this afternoon I came across a copy of 'Cobalt 90' at the comic book shop I do some work at (maybe I'll pick it up later).

A rarity (I imagine): we have a spotted pamphlet of Vaughn Bode's college newspaper work from when he was a student at Syracuse University.

I have to admit that I didn't like Ralph Bakshi's Wizards, or Lord of the Rings, or Cool World. Also not a fan of his work on Saturday morning cartoons of Mighty Mouse or Spiderman (though the later did get a cool theme song). Have some affection for his intro to the American release of 8th Man (even though it didn't have much to do with the series). Apparently Robert Crumb had been so peeved at his Fritz the Cat movie, that he killed the character off.

#168 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:01 PM:

Rob Rusick @ 167... I still like the darn thing, even though it's the only Bakshi film I feel that way about. Then again, my cinematic tastes are rather questionable. I mean, I liked Waterworld quite a bit. Still do.

#169 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:37 PM:

C. Wingate:

Actually, I'm going to take back my last paragraph in my post at 163. I still think that, for the purposes of this discussion, quibbling over positions within the middle class is a bit silly, except with regards to the people who are dropping out of it. But you haven't emphasized it like I made out that you did, and for that I apologize.

#170 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:00 AM:

Keith et al., it seems to me that the obvious conclusion to draw from the "which tier am I in?" exercise is that we don't have a two-tier system. And it seems to me that, to the degree that we personally don't see ourselves in the top tier, we aren't really evolving in the direction of really only having two tiers.

There's a definite tone in the last several responses of trying to tag me with the opinion that we shouldn't be reacting to the way the working classes are being pushed back into the underclass. That's not where I am at all on this. Let me try another approach. If this is more than just idle chatter, then one must conclude that we do have some power in this; but since we aren't the underclass, either we are in the other class, and therefore have to be suspected of being part of the problem, or we form part of a third class which is already a power unto itself. As it happens, I think both of these are true; I think the upper middle class in the USA has become distinct, has acquired many characteristics of the upper and business classes, and is engaged to some degree in class struggles with the other social classes, but also is complicit in those other classes' struggles with each other. The two-tier talk tends to lead (and I see this throughout this discussion) to minimizing our participation as players in this, except as advisors, when I think are influence is far stronger than that.

Heresiarch, one point you make has to be addressed separately. Natural selection does not work in business, because the traits that are selected for are not retained. Business competency is generally a temporary condition, set aside through folly or replacement of the competent as they age and die. It is that aspect of the organic that I looked to: that they can become injured and diseased.

#171 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 11:18 AM:

C. Wingate @ 170:

Like I said before, I don't think that we are living in a two-tier system. The main problems as I see them, however, are that the middle class, in general, seems to identify more with the upper than the lower, while at the same time the upper class would, in general, like nothing more than to see the middle class go away or be greatly diminished, and not in an upwardly-mobile direction.

Look at how middle-class salaries have stagnated over the years, and working-class wages are in the crapper. At the same time, executive pay has ballooned. The cost of university education is going up, keeping the working class out and reducing the number of middle-class people who can afford to attend. Oh, yes, there are still student loans, usurious as they can be, but even student loans don't help when the universities themselves are facing funding cuts that force them to cut faculty. Healthcare worries keep even fairly well-off middle-class workers tied to their employers for their insurance. When the stock market went crunch, I heard people in the office complaining that they were planning on retiring soon, but they'd probably stay working for a few more years to try to make up for the money they lost.

Inasmuch as there isn't a two-tier system, neither you nor I are in the bottom, but we're certainly nowhere near the top either. So call it a nacent two-tier system, or a two-and-a-half tier system. But I think that without constant vigilance and an understanding that, as Teresa says, "just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side" that gap will continue to grow and grow until it is one, and not one of us here will come out on top. I even think that if it does become that bad, there will be some CEOs who will find out that they didn't come out winners either.

I don't think that two-tier talk minimizes our position in this discussion; if anything, I think that it should enhance it. We still have, for the time being, the time and the money to fight for a better life for everyone that a lot of people don't have. But for that to happen, a larger number of middle-class people have to realize that when the wealthy and powerful are talking about giving tax breaks to the rich and other such things, or encouraging the middle class to play around in financial markets and real estate, they're only doing it for themselves, and they make up a very small percentage of the population.

#172 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 05:48 PM:

Regarding tiering: I am in the lower class, economically (I think last years income was about 8,000. This year, is going to be less than that, which is why I had to get help from my friends/readers to make a fairly simple move, and why replacing my transportation is going to be a trifle painful).

But that's not how I am percieved; because I speak well, am not starving in the street, etc. I'll be in Chicago in three weeks, speaking on torture again, and no one there will assume I am "poor,", which is good, because if they did, I'd be discounted.

And that sense that, "we are all middle class" is the real problem to discussing class in the US. One is either poor, or "not rich", and the poor don't count.

When the bobbleheads who write the op-eds and have the TV shows can decry that they aren't "rich" but just average joes (who happen to be pulling millions of dollars a year to work a few hours a day), and the rest of us don't, in a body, laugh them to scorn, we have to admit the idea of "class/wealth" in the US is a bit warped.

#173 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 06:04 PM:

C. Wingate @ 170: "Natural selection does not work in business, because the traits that are selected for are not retained. Business competency is generally a temporary condition, set aside through folly or replacement of the competent as they age and die."

I'm confused. Are you arguing that business practices don't change over time, and that businesses whose practices are superior don't grow in size, force their competitors to adopt similar practices, and spawn clones? That there isn't a constant stream of new developments, some of which vanish and some of which become commonplace best practice?

Evolutionary fitness is a temporary condition too, as any number of once pervasive and now extinct species could tell you. Nor is "business competency" solely the result of competent individuals--I doubt Mitsui has survived this long just because they've been terribly lucky with their CEOs. Long-term success, I should think, results from a system which is able to create and identify competent people. That some species fail to adapt, or evolve in dead-end directions does not mean that there isn't an evolutionary process going on.

#174 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 07:48 PM:

heresiarch @173, so often in talk of evolution the gravel in the mixed nuts is 'superior'. It trails false clouds of glory – better, advanced, improved: good. Yet tapeworms, viruses, DNA relict codons of alien organisms are evolutionarily superior.

Notably superior entities' success forces response in a dynamic equilibrium. Sometimes revolution, paradigm shift (oxygen-generating chlorophyll photosynthesis, agriculture), mostly it's lesser rebalancing of the disruption. Last ~150 years saw a lot of this social/memetic evolution. SF examines it. It continues, trying to rebalance power.

#175 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:14 PM:

abi@151: Don't be confused by a famous name; ask around about his known behavior. I'll admit that for him this is less ... spectacular ... than some cases, but still not worth response. (Maybe you haven't heard about the Coke? The top Google return on ' "David Brin" Coke') Or consider the drive-by-ness of his appearance, vs the ~9 years I've been here (same sig, changing email causing the see-all-by to fail).

Paula@154: made the choice of elevating Saddam Hussein ? What I've read/heard (from NPR, not Faux) amounts to "he shot his way to the top."

#176 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:20 PM:

CHip: I know Dave, in a slightly more than passing way. I don't think he was acting in bad faith; for all his other appearences in other venues might incline one to think ill of him.

Until he actually does more than a couple of posts; none of which were insulting; even if they didn't match local norms, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, based on his local behavior.

As to Hussien: Yes, he shot his way to the top of Iraq. I don't know how he came to be the guy in the Ba'ath Party.

#177 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 03:27 PM:

CHip @175:

Terry has the right of it.

I am not moderator of the internet. I'm moderator on this site, and here, he behaved well. He enhanced the conversation with his presence it it.

That's the flipside of Bruce Baugh's phenomenological internet: when you do a letter-perfect imitation of a good conversationalist, you can become, for the duration, a good conversationalist.

And I usually enjoy reading what you have to say; one of the reasons I did react to your comment rather than letting it pass is that it was unusually destructive to the conversation. Not what I expected of you.

#178 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 03:44 PM:

I wish Brin had stuck around even though his presence had me accidentally reveal the ghastliness of my cinematic tastes.
("'Reveal'? We already knew your cinematic tastes were ghastly.")
I heard that.

#179 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 03:56 PM:

abi, on the other hand Brin does do the "you people" thing (109: "Anyway, you miss my point, which was to ask you folks..."). Not a full bingo card by any means, but a flag...and those who have put up with his pontificatory style in other venues might be hypersensitive to it here.

Also he ends with a sig containing his website URL, which irritates me, but that's me.

#180 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 04:00 PM:

Xopher, #179: not excusing Brin by any means, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to the possibility that he is simply unaware of the normal conventions around here as to the inclusion of URLs in siglines.

#181 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 04:01 PM:

Summer, that's why it only irritated me.

#182 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 04:02 PM:

By the way, did you know that brin is also a French word? For example, brin d'herbe means blade of grass.

#183 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 04:03 PM:

Xopher @179:
I didn't see "you folks" as "you people" because it was hortatory rather than pejorative. It gave the flavor of an outsider talking into the conversation rather than joining it, but it wasn't outwith the bounds of acceptable.

I wasn't keen on the website address sig, but again, it didn't cross the spamming line for me*. If he'd hung around longer, I would have found a humorous way to ask him not to use it.

We try to keep the doors propped open pretty wide here, at least for the first few comments.

-----
* We're tolerating a commenter coming closer to the spam line in the WL Literary Agency conversation right now.

#185 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 06:10 PM:

I hung around David Brin's blog for a few months a couple of years ago, had several exchanges with him, and watched as he replied to comments on some highly controversial political issues. AFAICT he has a strong belief in the rightness of his own opinions (which is not a bad thing in itself), and does on occasion not read comments quite as carefully as he might to understand the content fully, but I did not find him either trollish or inhospitable to others who were not trollish. I did not find his posts here objectionable, though I would have liked him to stick around and make a conversation instead of a couple of pronouncements.

#186 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 10:22 PM:

Epacris @ 174: That's a bit too dense for me--I can't even tell if you're agreeing, disagreeing or just making light. Could you unpack a bit?

#187 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2009, 02:19 PM:

I more or less agree with most of Brin's better known hobbyhorses, but I think it can sometimes be grating how much he rides them.

#188 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2009, 02:24 PM:

I more or less agree with most of Brin's better known hobbyhorses, but I think it can sometimes be grating how much he rides them.

Eh, he's an evangelical. It's not enough that he doesn't like Star Wars and Tolkien, everyone else has to not like them as well, or Civilization Will Fall. Or something.

As such, he's just as annoying as any other kind of evangelical.

#189 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2009, 10:47 PM:

heresiarch @186, yes.
Part agree, but differences. Making light in elucidation.

Are some ideas I've had over time. You're getting more raw concepts here. Time, access, thoughtspace to refine & explain them are difficult for me at the moment. Just dropped in the stone, pointed to issue, hoping ripples might spur others to untangle it, at least not gulp down whole stereotype w/o examining.

Zooming off again ...

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