Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

A Proposal for Full Unemployment

As corporations have now achieved personhood, we advance with trepidation towards a future in which the needs of our artificial constructs take priority in our economy. Embracing my demise as an economic agent, in a flash of insight I realized that acceptance of the personhood of machines is the path to human freedom! Robots have no self interest, but if recognized as independent economic agents can generate cash flow in a closed system of production (recycling becoming the source of raw materials to factories). Tax revenues on our robot citizens will usher in a Leisure Age for unemployed humans!
Best of all, in the event of tax revenue shortfall, we can always increase the size of the robot economy by one of three means:

  • Increase the number of robot workers and renewable energy systems.
  • Increase robot wages.
  • Move production up-market.

In the Matrix movies, humanity was oppressed by machine overlords. Recognizing the complete reversal of circumstances in this achievable future of thought free from worry, I dub this economic system “The Mentrix.”

Pronounce it like you’re from Brooklyn.

Robin Hood Goes Digital

Kaspersky Labs, the digital security company, has reported that the technology used to attack Iran’s uranium production system (“Stuxnet”) has made its way into the banking system. The malware is hard to detect because it does not run from files – it exists only in memory, being passed from machine to machine over internal networks.

My comment is a meditation on the inevitability of this in exploitative corporate cultures.

Azethoth666 wrote:

>> Or perhaps its just taking them time to get around to everyone manually?

Considering the corporate culture of the American banking system, this seems highly likely. The post-mortem on the Wells Fargo account creation fraud was that management propagated unreasonable performance requirements, with the result that only fraudulent conduct by employees would produce the desire results. However, the executives, some of whom were ousted with huge bonuses, did not make the decision to commit fraud. They were protected from direct involvement by the decision made by employees fearing for their livelihoods.

That situation is ripe for exploitation by criminal elements, and in fact employees caught in that system would be likely to take a “Robin Hood” attitude to their compromise of corporate security.

Jobs Jobbing

Steven Bannon is spinning his political agenda as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” His candidate, Donald Trump, is pushing three methods for creating jobs. The first is tax cuts for the wealthy and business, a replay of the failed “trickle down” economics first foisted upon us by Reagan. The second is to protect American jobs from foreigners by restructuring our trade relationships and deportation of illegal immigrants. Finally, we have infrastructure spending, long a Democratic priority frustrated by the Republican Party’s “no new taxes” policy that has locked the federal gas tax at $0.28 per gallon.

None of these proposals make much sense over the long term. Since Reagan, top-down stimulus policies have resulted in the largest income disparity in the nation’s history, with manufacturing jobs replaced by retail work. Overseas workers are themselves being displaced by automation, with electronics manufacturer Foxconn in China laying off 60,000 workers this year after installing robots, and illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t. Finally, infrastructure spending is not a permanent solution to unemployment – it will only make a significant dent now because the situation has been allowed to become so dire, with so many bridges, roads and dams in danger of collapse.

The future of employment was cast in a new light for me by a recent OECD study on computer use. In an assessment of users in advanced economies, the study revealed that only one-third of users could do more than fill out forms. This was also typical of most manufacturing jobs. As variability in sources of supply were reduced, it was less and less that the skills of the craftsman were required. Workers were trained to perform procedures.

Unfortunately, artificial intelligence and automation is assuming most of those tasks. Cortana will fill out our order forms for us. The Army is testing robot chefs that learn to cook watching videos on YouTube. In the near future, self-driving trucks will begin to erode the last great mainstay of blue-collar work, throwing 5 million drivers out of work.

From my experience as a fab tech in college, I know that it wasn’t the work that made such jobs enjoyable. People whose minds aren’t engaged by their work invest that energy in politics – whether innocent socialization or profiteering. During a year spent routing, sanding and soldering, my peers would disrupt each others concentration by squirting isopropyl alcohol on unsuspecting bums. And while I was building book cases using a wood working shop owned by one of the technicians, he took me out to a party run by a packer who had built a cinder block building behind his house stocked with goods that had “accidentally” fallen off of the forklift. I came away with stain and varnish.

While both examples sound abusive, they demonstrate an aspect of work that no machine will ever be able to replicate: building trust that allows us to have fun. Studies of laughter among apes shows that it serves primarily to indicate that aggressive behavior is regulated by empathy. Scratching, biting and hitting doesn’t progress, except accidentally, to actual injury.

One interpretation of our 24×7 political system is that this activity is being elevated as work in its own right. It is currently financed principally by mining out of the wealth held in the middle class commons. On the one hand, financial services companies no longer take a percentage of portfolio gains, they reap a service charge on each transaction, regardless of gain to the investor. Churning of retirement funds transfers wealth to the financial elite. That elite then finances the careers of politicians that vote for deregulation and lower taxes. The middle class, sensing incipient doom, then commits from its remaining wealth to fund the campaigns of revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

This impulse toward social cohesion is not always driven by desperation. Regional currency systems ensure that neighbors buy from each other, conserving wealth in a form that the money-center financiers can’t access. Sustainable multi-crop farming requires ten times as many workers as monoculture. With the spread of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the inefficiencies and environmental degradations of family farming can be overcome, and communities rebuilt around the social cohesion that historically characterized agricultural societies.

My friend Sister Gloria celebrates her resuscitation of plants that appear to be dead in their pots. She simply applies her will to their survival. The biological capacity to heal through spiritual investment is explored in more depth in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s beautiful treatise, The Lost Language of Plants (reviewed here and here). This is the skill exercised by our nurses, and expressed as nurturing by teachers. It is a skill that our captains of finance and industry, so focused on exploiting resources to capture wealth, have been hostile to for thousands of years.

It is faith in this capacity that I believe will restore our broken political and economic systems. This capacity of intuition, that guides living things into a mutually supportive future free of fear, will be supplemented and supported by information systems that analyze information and prescribe treatments. Those decisions, however, are meaningless without the fundamental benefit of nurturance: the transmission of the spark of joy that fortifies our desire to survive.

As was the industrial age, this economic transformation will be frightening to those that cannot perceive its virtues. We are seeing such a fundamental shift. I doubt that Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon understand its nature, for they attained power by trumpeting doom. What they fail to understand is that in the new era, it is exactly those social and emotional skills that cemented the cohesion of industrial teams that will be of most value. The information age will unleash the nurturing potential that was held captive by the industrial age, ushering in an age of healing and sustainability.

Private Property as a Principle of Social Terrorism

James Radcliffe offers a UK perspective on Trump’s presidential candidacy. I offered this context.

There’s an aspect of the American political trajectory that is perhaps worth highlighting to those outside the country, because it is developing steam in other places.

Fundamentally, government is concerned with negotiating the rules that control the distribution of power in a society. For all of human history, it has been either at odds with or coopted by the concept of “private property,” which most often is allocated arbitrarily from the commons, and held by force even when mismanagement of resources leads to preventable social suffering.

What has happened in America is that, since the ’80s, the conservative branch of our political system has adopted an extremist view of this conflict supported by the economic proposition that the only legitimate means for redistributing power is the free market. That actual markets, with their privileged knowledge and contractual Arcana, are by no means “free” in the theoretical sense has not impeded the propagation of policies, laws and political planks that uphold this principle as the foremost goal of all governmental action.

They are blind to the contradictions of their program: the use of government to supplant government with the free market. Karl Rove, conservative talk radio, the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are the political terrorists driving the implementation of this program. The consequence is that conservative candidates for president have become progressively less qualified to run the government. Their understanding of government has become atrophied because they actually question its legitimacy.

Trump is simply the inevitable consequence of this divorce from reality.

Healing the Legacy of “Black Gold”

I was aware of the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador by Texaco, and must admit to not being terribly surprised that similar offenses have occurred throughout the world. Reparations and restoration may be impossible, given the vast extent of the degradation. They will certainly bankrupt the industry – Ecuador alone represents a $27 billion liability to Chevron, which bought Texaco back in 2001.

The two European oil giants, Shell and BP, have both made forays into renewables. This piece from Platform London describes their uncomfortable attempts to muster the conviction to do what is right for the future.

In America we addressed the issue of culpability for environmental degradation with the Clean Air and Water Acts. Parts of the legal framework were moderately unfair: “joint and severable” liability meant that if a small-potatoes polluter dumped something into a landfill, non-polluters had to pay to clean up the mess. Even when a polluter was able to pay, the chemical  and oil industries have evolved a sophisticated array of legal practices to avoid financial liability, ranging from divestment of operations responsible for managing polluted sites all the way to bankruptcy.

As it became clear that the original Acts were not going to generate assets sufficient to undo decades of exploitation of workers and ecosystems, Congress responded with a broad tax on the industry. This recognizes that the benefits of exploitation accrued to the society as a whole, motivating local, state and federal elected officials to turn a blind eye to the effects of pollution. The Superfund Act recognized that society as a whole needed to take responsibility for the problem, and contribute through taxation to remedies.

I’m not certain whether those at Platform London and elsewhere recognize that we need to move beyond attempts to hold Big Oil responsible for its servicing of our addiction to fossil fuels. All of us, as citizens of an energy rich economy, need to do our part to contribute to a solution. That means a global pact to finance restoration and restitution.

Given the Brexit vote, it appears obvious that we lack the institutional means to negotiate that kind of commitment. What the activists might consider is that Big Oil itself may be a powerful and motivated partner in creating the conditions under which that negotiation can take place.