Forgive the introspection, Part One

This is not some intellectual exercise; far from it!

As often happens, a number of seemingly disconnected articles and reports seem to have provided a common theme. A theme that has previously been aired on Learning from Dogs yet a theme that always needs to be in the front of our faces: integrity.

Here are some of those articles.

Firstly, I presented recently in this place an essay from George Monbiot that proposed (my italics):

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

Patrice Ayme, however, pointed out in a reply:

Saying that “people are good, while tolerating bad things” is an ineffective morality. The crux, indeed, is the moral nature of institutions, controlled by a few, not whether humans are kind or not.

That struck me as central to the theme: it is the terrible lack of integrity that we see in those who hold positions of power that totally overrides the premise that people are fundamentally good.

The next article read was an essay by Professor Michael Perelman published on Naked Capitalism. Perelman is a professor of economics at California State University. He also writes at Unsettling Economics.  Here is a little from that essay:

The architecture of inequality must be carefully constructed. As the founding fathers of the United States clearly understood, democracy must be kept in check. For this purpose, they invented the Electoral College to prevent the president from being elected by popular vote.

To ensure an effective electoral system, an obsequious media must be skilled in drowning the public with a flood of misinformation to maintain a constant level of fear to make them more likely to side with the CS (corporate system).

If there is ever one example of how that lack of integrity manifests itself in our world it is through inequality. Professor Perelman’s essay is clearly written “tongue-in-cheek” but that doesn’t lessen the impact of his essay. Try his closing paragraphs: (CES = a subset of CS; WEM = The Wondrous Efficiency of Markets)

Regulators are not the only ones to see the benefits of working with the CES. Politicians who resign or are defeated are almost inevitably destined to enjoy the benefits of their dedication to the WEM with the returns from taking a rewarding position with a major corporation, lobbying, or even a lucrative contract to write a book that virtually no one would want to read.

When done correctly, this system works magnificently, although it periodically it seems to fall apart until the detested government apparatus rescues it. In the meantime, huge amounts of wealth and income fall into the hands of the top 1%, the people of greatest importance, while the rest of the public can enjoy watching the spectacular performance of the CES, a reward worthy of their place in society especially because envy of the wealthy brethren will obviously make them work harder to succeed, adding to WEM.

All power to WEM!

Does this have anything to do with dogs?

Yes!

Let me steal a little from Chapter 16: Community from my forthcoming book:

When dogs lived in the wild, their natural pack size was about fifty animals and there were just three dogs that had pack status: the mentor, minder and nanny dogs, as described in Chapter 5. [Pharaoh: the Teaching Dog] As was explained in that chapter, all three dogs of status are born into their respective roles and their duties in their pack are instinctive. There was no such thing as competition for that role as all the other dogs in that natural pack grouping would be equal participants with no ambitions to be anything else.

Anyone who has had the privilege of living with a group of dogs will know beyond doubt that they develop a wonderful community strength. Let’s reflect on the lessons being offered for us in this regard by our dogs.

To reinforce the fact that this is not a new phenomena, at the time I was drafting my book last November, a new report was issued by the Center of Economic Policy Research (CEPR) on the latest (American) Survey of Consumer Finances. It painted a picture very familiar to many: the rich becoming richer while those with less wealth are falling further and further behind.

David Rosnick of the CEPR, and one of the report co-authors, made this important observation:

The decline in the position of typical households is even worse than the Consumer Finances survey indicates. In 1989, many workers had pensions. Far fewer do now. The value of pensions isn’t included in these surveys due to the difficulty of determining what they are worth on a current basis. But they clearly are significant assets that relatively few working age people have now.

Sharmini Peries, of The Real News Network, in an interview with David Rosnick, asked:

PERIES: David, just quickly explain to us what is the Consumer Finance Survey. I know it’s an important survey for economists, but why is it important to ordinary people? Why is it important to us?

ROSNICK: So, every three years, the Federal Reserve interviews a number of households to get an idea of what their finances are like, do they have a lot of wealth, how much are their house’s worth, how much they owe on their mortgages, how much they have in the bank account, how much stocks do wealthy people own. This gives us an idea of their situations, whether they’re going to be prepared for retirement. And we can see things like the effect of the housing and stock bubbles on people’s wealth, whether they’ve been preparing for eventual downfalls, how they’ve reacted to various economic circumstances, how they’re looking to the long term. So it’s a very useful survey in terms of finding out how households are prepared and what the distribution of wealth is like.

PERIES: So your report is an analysis of the report. And what are your key findings?

ROSNICK: So, largely over the last 24 years there’s been a considerable increase in wealth on average, but it’s been very maldistributed. Households in the bottom half of the distribution have actually seen their wealth fall, but the people at the very top have actually done very well. And so that means that a lot of people who are nearing retirement at this point in time are actually not well prepared at all for retirement and are going to be very dependent on Social Security in order to make it through their retirement years.

PERIES: So, David, address the gap. You said there’s a great gap between those that are very wealthy and those that are not. Has this gap widened over this period?

ROSNICK: It absolutely has. As, say, the top 5 percent in wealth, the average wealth for people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher in 2013, the last survey that was completed, compared to 1989. By comparison, for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent. They basically had very little to start with, and now they have less than little.

PERIES: So the poorer is getting poorer and the richer is getting extremely richer.

ROSNICK: Very much so.

To my way of thinking, if in the period 1989 through to 2013 “the average wealth for (American) people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher” and “for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent” it’s very difficult not to see the hands of greed at work and a consequential devastating increase in inequality.

In other words, the previous few paragraphs seemed to present, and present clearly, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, comparatively speaking, and that it was now time for society to understand the trends, to reflect on where this is taking us, if left unchallenged, and to push back as hard as we can both politically and socially.

I wrote that shortly before another item appeared in my email ‘in-box’ in the middle of November (2014), a further report about inequality that, frankly, emotionally speaking, just smacked me in the face. It seemed a critical addition to the picture I was endeavouring to present.

Namely, on the 13th October, 2014, the US edition of The Guardian newspaper published a story entitled: US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. The sub-heading enlarged the headline: Not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the US been so acute, new in-depth study finds.

The study referred to was a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, based on research conducted by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The paper’s bland title belied the reality of the research findings: Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913.

As the Guardian reported:

Wealth inequality in the US is at near record levels according to a new study by academics. Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. For the bottom 90% of families, a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages have led to the erosion of wealth. The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%.

The picture actually improved in the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, with wealth inequality falling through to the late 1970s. It then started to rise again, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% rising to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s. The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20m (£13m) in 2012.

In contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012 – just one percentage point above the top 0.1%.

The report was not exclusively about the USA. As the closing paragraphs in The Guardian’s article illustrated:

Among the nine G20 countries with sufficient data, the richest 1% of people (by income) have increased their income share significantly since 1980, according to Oxfam. In Australia, for example, the top 1% earned 4.8% of the country’s income in 1980. That had risen to more than 9% by 2010.

Oxfam says that in the time that Australia has held the G20 presidency (between 2013 and 2014) the total wealth in the G20 increased by $17tn but the richest 1% of people in the G20 captured $6.2tn of this wealth – 36% of the total increase.

I find it incredibly difficult to have any rational response to those figures. I am just aware that there is a flurry of mixed emotions inside me and, perhaps, that’s how I should leave it. Nonetheless, there’s one thing that I can’t keep to myself and that this isn’t the first time that such inequality has arisen; the period leading up the the Great Depression of the 1930s comes immediately to mind.

What on earth is coming down the road this time!

If only we truly could learn from our dogs!

11 thoughts on “Forgive the introspection, Part One

      1. Hard to watch, that’s for sure. A while ago I wrote this, which seems oddly appropriate here:

        “There’s an absurdity in calling oneself a humanist. The hat, which I’m proud to wear, solicits polarised emotions that are not easily reconciled. Here’s the rub: I loathe humanity, but at the same time I am also her greatest cheerleader. I’d build, without even a moment’s hesitation, an entire museum around a single human hand, and right next door I’d erect a mausoleum to house its pair.”

      2. While I couldn’t stretch to the almost poetic power of your writing in that quotation of yours, I understand totally, and fully agree with, your sentiments. We humans are such a strange species. Capable of the most sickeningly, atrocious acts, riven by chasms of indifferences, yet just a heartbeat away from pure, unselfish acts of caring and love.

        It has always been thus and, I guess, will always be so. It will never be understood, our species that is, but at least it keeps philosophy alive; as my second bout of introspection reveals tomorrow.

  1. Very impressive essay, Paul! The lack of integrity of the “representative” politicians “we” elect now is intrinsic. Integrity means in one piece. Namely one has just one personality, one character, one psychology, one system of mind, one system of thought, one system of emotion. Practically, the emotions one exhibits are exactly those one has.

    Whereas the essence of the modern politician is to present a public persona that can be sold, and has nothing to do with who they truly are, what they truly believe, what motivates them.

    Let me dare to step on your turf, dogs. I don’t know how stable dogs are, as a species. After all, they are the product of artificial selection. Dogs come from European wolves. American wolves have been studied in the wild, especially in Yellowstone. The “alpha” position is stable, until the next mayhem. Researchers were aghast to find the alpha female they beloved dying of her wounds in a ditch, as she was replaced in her executive position.

    In many primates, it is true that leadership tends to be hereditary (through moms’ influences). Comparing wolves and advanced primates help us guess that human are ethologically made for rather pacific, democratic, leadership. This conclusion is accentuated by recent research on baboons: decisions where to forage tend to be taken by “initiators” (who are not particularly “alpha”), It is also implied by the small sexual dimorphism in the human species.

    This is all important, because it means our present political system, which is more similar to lupine society, is not adapted to our genetic heritage. The latter did not arise just by happenstance, either. It is a consequence of the rise of intelligence. We became democratic, because we needed that, collective thinking and debate, to become more intelligent.

    Thus present world political organization is evil in the deepest sense, and contradicts human nature, also in the deepest sense. We truly are imposed EVIL RULE (Pluto Cracy) not the rule of conversation, debate and thinking, the essence of humanity.

    1. Patrice, I would pick two very tiny holes, pinpricks even, in your otherwise powerful reply.

      The first is that integrity, as a noun, also has a meaning, “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.”

      And the very latest research from Laura Shannon, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Biological Sciences, Cornell University, indicates that, “New DNA analysis says your pooch’s ancestors were Central Asian wolves.”

  2. Dear Paul

    What Laura Shannon did was look at DNA of living dogs (she is not the first to do that). That this DNA emanates rather from Central Eurasia rather than Western Eurasia is not surprising: it’s a demographic effect, a well-known (by now) pitfall in which early DNA students fell.

    Oldest dogs in East Eurasia, so far: 12,000 years, a third of the oldest mastiff from Belgium. On the face of it, my conclusion was that NEANDERTHALS domesticated dogs (as they did, coal). All right, Neanderthals extended to Central Eurasia (where they mixed with Denisovians, and disappeared Sapiens Sapiens phenotypes).

    The meaning you exhibit from “integrity” is most common today, but derivative from the original sense, literally un-touched. That came then to mean both “whole” (entier in French), and integer (also entier in French). The original meaning is important to understand that the essence of immorality is to be double faced, or worse.

  3. Interesting statistics Paul and I enjoyed reading the data here, although I am not familiar with the USA political scene of Rosnick..
    But I am not surprised to learn from the Oxfam figures that the rich keep getting richer and the Gap keeps on widening..

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