“just a means to that end”

Dirty Jobs and Macro Questions
by Patrick Watson, Mauldin Economics

“Serving others is always honorable work. Every major religion teaches this. If the work itself is honorable, why don’t we honor those who do it?”

That sounds nice. The only problem is it’s total bullshit. I doubt he wants an honest answer to his question.

Our society does not value serving others and never has. If you are working some crap job serving others, our society makes it very clear that you are a loser in the game of capitalism and Social Darwinism. This is supposedly a meritocracy and so those on the bottom of society are assumed to be those without merit. That is the entire justification for our society, the story we have to believe in to maintain the social order.

“Answer: Because we would rather spend our money in other ways. When we consumers take our demand signals elsewhere, the market efficiently reduces restaurant wages to match what we’ll pay. It’s the invisible hand at work.”

There is no invisible hand, as if divine intervention were determining the Elect. No more than there is a Santa Claus. If there is a hand manipulating the system, it is most definitely visible and all too human. Get up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and I guarantee you’ll see that it isn’t Santa who is stuffing money into the pockets of the plutocrats.

We don’t have a free market, as is obvious to anyone who pays attention. What we have is a corporatist system where big government colludes with and to some degree is controlled by big business. Some go so far as to call it inverted totalitarianism.

“Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers.

“The robots are just a means to that end.”

Yeah, well…

The feudal rights of the commons didn’t disappear because greedy aristocrats privatized and enclosed land by having replaced serfs with slaves. Plantations turned to slaves because consumers wanted lower prices than could be achieved with free citizens.

The slaves are just a means to that end.

Okay. So, I guess that means everything is perfectly fine and morally justified. Quit your complaining. It’s the invisible hand responding to market forces that stole your job. It’s no one’s fault that, as surplus labor, you are now a worthless human and a useless eater. Progress marches on, with or without you.

This attitude is strange. It’s a fatalism built on capitalist realism, which is no better than communist realism. The attitude is that we are helpless before forces greater than us. All we can hope to do is adapt to the inevitable. But if failing that, then we better get out of the way or else get run over as we deserve.

Oddly, after all the clueless blather, the author almost comes to a decent conclusion.

“I think our twisted ideas about money, work, and education are the real problems. They’re distorting supply and demand. The root causes aren’t so much economic as cultural and psychological.”

Sort of. The problem is that people like this author hold such ideas and will defend them, no matter the costs. He isn’t suggesting we fundamentally change our thinking, just maybe tinker a bit around the edges.

Otherwise, the system itself is just fine. The real problem is the people, which is to say all those poor people complaining. Sure, the root causes are cultural and psychological. I’d add that indeed they are also economic, as all of it is inseparable. Improving the bad attitudes of poor people isn’t going to solve the systemic failure.

“This year’s US election, contentious though it was, brought important issues to the surface. Ditto events around the world, like Brexit. The economy isn’t working like we think it should. People are tired of asking questions and getting no good answers.”

That is to put it lightly. Important issues were brought to the surface, in the way that magma is brought to the surface when a volcano erupts. Just wait until that volcano really blows its top, turns the sky black with smoke, blocks out the sun, covers the land in ash, and sends the population fleeing in all directions. Then questions and answers will be moot.

“I don’t have all the answers. I suspect no one person does. But the answers are out there, and we won’t find them unless we look for them.”

At least, he is admitting this much. After writing all that, he states he doesn’t actually have all the answers. Yet, as an economic analyst writing for a investment newsletter, it’s his job to have answers or else pretend he has answers. He belongs to the upper class intellectual elite who are supposed to be telling the rest of us losers what we should be doing.

“That awkward, uncomfortable search will be the global macro story in 2017 and probably beyond.”

Well, it will surely be continuing into the coming generations, assuming mass catastrophe and collapse doesn’t happen before then. What is up ahead on the road might not be a pothole to easily drive around. That very well might be a sinkhole that could swallow us whole. Society continues to move forward. Some think this means progress. But what are we moving towards?

Maybe we should slow down a bit and get our bearings.

15 thoughts on ““just a means to that end”

  1. In this day and age, we live in a time where the rich think the end justifies t he means I’m afraid, ethics be damned.

    They can do whatever they want for their goals, which are usually money and more power.

    • From plutocrats to partisans, there are those with the power or influence to make a difference who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It serves their interests because maintaining the status quo is part and parcel of maintaining their social position and lifestyle.

      This guy is another example of a self-justifying narrative. But from the capitalist class, instead of the liberal class. The narratives from either demographic are nonetheless overlapping to a large extent, as both are supportive of or otherwise complicit in the same neoliberal order enforced through wealth, power, and privilege.

      Let me show you how politically clueless this guy is. Here is the first sentence from an earlier piece he wrote:


      “Two weeks ago, millions of Americans voted against Hillary Clinton because, among other reasons, we thought she would raise taxes or otherwise take our money.”

      What’s this ‘we’ shit? Talk about disconnected from reality.

      First of all, she is a neoliberal. The capitalist class and big biz loves her. In fact, she was the one and only major candidate representing the economic elite. Corporations give her large amounts of money just for the opportunity to hear her speak or rather for the opportunity to further develop crony connections with a politician.

      Second, she didn’t lose the election because of taxes or whatever. Many of the people who voted for Trump or otherwise didn’t vote for her were originally supporters of Sanders, the candidate the economic elite hated and feared the most. The reason Trump won isn’t because he is a fiscal conservative, as obviously he isn’t a fiscal conservative. Trump is more likely to increase taxes or do deficit spending than Clinton.

      What reality do people like this live in?

  2. I think consumer behavior is a valid element contributing to lowering wages (or rather wages that just fail to rise along with the economy), but it’s only one element. If this guy is saying we have a responsibility to consider in how we spend our money, then I can get behind that, but I don’t actually think it’s as directly powerful as what he thinks it is.

    Actually, I think in the food service arena, the tipping-wages system is the main problem to point fingers at. How in the hell did we get to a place where the majority of a full-time employee’s wages don’t even come from the employer, and are completely voluntary based on the whim of the customer?? Ultimately, though, I think it’s the cumulative effect of desperation that drives low/unreliable wages for waiters and waitresses. Everybody knows it’s a bottom-of-the-barrel job, so generally only the most desperate want it, and because they’re desperate you can get away with paying them shit wages and treating them poorly. If any one waitress doesn’t like it, she’ll be easy and quick to replace.

    Probably more powerful than the collective consumer behavior this guy emphasizes is the shareholder system of corporate business practices. Generally speaking, the people that own most corporations simply want to maximize the return on their own investment. It’s not that none of them are philanthropists at heart, with good intentions for the people that make up the corporations, but the thing that unites ALL shareholders, with their collective sovereign power, is the expectation of dividends. As my supervisor likes to say, you have to “feed the dragon”. Any desire to take care of your workers or add value for your customers ultimately comes second to feeding the dragon of shareholder profits. If any given manager or CEO fails to ultimately put them first, they can be replaced no matter how golden are their intentions.

    One thing I think the author DID get right in some ways is that he emphasized the effect of the college education system. It’s only my intuition that is saying this… but I have to think the price of college is inflated ultimately, relative to its real world value. Most of the people that go to college can’t actually afford it, except that there are groups happy to accept them as indentured servants for the next couple decades in exchange for footing the bill in the meantime. And because that’s such a socially expected practice, the prices are free to rise astronomically, because we don’t actually pay real money to go to college anyway, so why not pay 10-15k more per year of someone else’s money?

    We’ve tied a college education to class identity, and therefore given it an intangible value with questionable real world pull. Working and Middle Class people buy a so-called education because of what it does to their identity, and it’s largely a matter of hope that it’ll pay off financially in the long run. What the indentured servitude REALLY does is pass that same bottom-of-the-barrel desperation up the social ladder. You may make more like 45-70 thousand now per year (if luck is with you), instead of the waitress’s 25-35, but you have 50 thousand or more of school debt to pay off that she doesn’t have to worry about. Plus your higher class status symbol expectations leave you more likely to have a higher car loan and a higher mortgage to deal with. So you both end up desperate in different ways, and you’re both replaceable to a degree, so you’re both set up well to be taken advantage of by the shareholders behind the scenes.

    Lastly I realize that not all businesses even have shareholders they’re accountable to. But having shareholder-owned corporations in the market influences the real world costs and prices that everybody else has to compete with. My fiancee’s diner is a sole proprietorship, but the prices and costs there are largely dictated by the prices at nationwide chain restaurants, and what costs they pay.

    • The whole economic situation is a mess. I’m not sure how to disentangle one problem from another.

      I think we’re at late stage capitalism, as the West was once at late stage feudalism. It will become something else, one way or another, whatever the end result will look like. The problems won’t be solved. They’ll just eventually become irrelevant as a new system takes over, but that could be a long and slow process with end results we will likely never see in our lifetimes. We’ll have to figure out what to do as a society in this transition period.

      College has become mixed up in it all. People get a college degree because they fear what will happen if they don’t get one. A college degree is now equivalent to what a high school degree used to be. If you want to move up into or stay in the middle class, it is necessary you have a college degree. And we place nearly all human worth on class identity. A decently paid garbage man or roofer providing for his family, in our society, is still a loser.

      Part of the problem is the government for several generations used to heavily subsidize college education, starting from the building of the state colleges with federal land grants and continuing into the era of the GI Bill. Now college education is becoming run more according to the business model where it’s about increasing flow of money paid by the students who are now treated as customers, along with increasing levels of research done for corporations.

      In the short term, the most likely result is the creation of a permanent underclass, large-scale ghettoization, further mass incarceration, and indentured servitude. That is the path we are moving toward, unless we actively choose to go another direction.

    • I’ve always been fascinated by historical eras involving massive transitions and transformations.

      A major one was the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the rising of the Axial Age, some centuries of overlap between them. More recently there was the ending of feudalism and the beginning of modernity, also with several centuries of overlap (from the 1600s to the 1800s).

      The latter era of change was dramatic because of the revolutionary era and Napoleanic wars, a half century of turmoil that divided what came before and after. Still, what built up to it and the final results were a slow process. The new ways of thinking began with the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation before being further developed by Enlightenment thinkers and magnified by increasingly common movable type printing presses, and then it required mass industrialization to push those changes to a new level and in the process fundamentally reorganize society.

      It took many generations to go from the conceiving of a new idea to its fuller impact on society. That is where we are at right now, in the middle of a transition. Like feudalism, capitalism (or rather neoliberalism) will linger. The fact of the matter is that feudalism was partly maintained in areas of Europe long after the revolutionary era and, of course, feudalism simply became the American plantation system with its racialized slavery (where the feudal social order attempted to maintain itself, even as capitalism was becoming dominant in the economy). Jefferson was attempting to industrialize his slave plantation at one point — within decades after his death the country was transformed by the building of railroads and some of those born during Jefferson’s old age would live to see (or hear about) the first successful flight of an airplane.

      When in a paradigm, it’s nearly impossible to see outside of the paradigm, even as that paradigm is coming to an end. The American revolutionaries had little clue about what would follow revolution. All they knew was change was necessary and inevitable. Before revolution, there had been generations of reforms demanded and too often denied. Change can be guided well or it can happen by force, but it can’t be stopped.

      Anyone paying attention knows that capitalism will end at some point. Every system ends. History teaches us that. Still, that doesn’t tell us when it will end or how it will end. But considering the seemingly irresolvable problems we are facing, there is an extreme likelihood of capitalism ending sooner than later. Certainly, capitalism has no way of dealing with environmental challenges, as capitalism was built by design on the necessity of externalizing costs which is what allowed capitalism to create such quick changes. Yet such progress was never sustainable because it turns out the world isn’t infinite.

      So, what’s next? How do we get there? And, in the mean while, how do we avoid the worst consequences or else how do we soften the landing?

    • There is another angle as well. It comes from a book I briefly posted about a couple of years ago. The book is Invisible Men by Becky Pettit. Here is the post and a quote:


      “This book documents how our collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

  3. Basically the rich are waging class warfare on the rest of the world.

    There is no other way to say this and we should not sugar coat the dirty truth.

    • That is the problem. There is rarely if ever a straight, honest public discussion about any of this. We’re lucky to hear about it from the mainstream corporate media, even when sugar-coated. And even then it’s only brief reporting that is quickly forgotten.

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