Uncommon Sense

December 11, 2020

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:30 am
Tags: , , ,

The numbers don’t lie, at least this time. I ran across the following example, which kind of tells you that the rich are too rich for everyone’s own good. It goes like this:

If you were to deposit $2000 (current value) into a bank vault every day, day after day, year after year, for 2000 years, basically from what is called “the time of Jesus” until now (you’d probably need family help in this), you will have accumulated almost 1.5 billion dollars. Jeff Bezos in substantially less time has accumulated $117 billion.

I know it is sacred ideology in this country that the rich have “earned” their loot. They created the businesses, the jobs, yada, yada, yada. And that might even have been true 75 years ago. But as the wealthy accumulated money, they realized that they were also accumulating potential power . . . and they decided, some of them anyway, to exercise that power. They are now running the entire country. Whatever they want, they get. They have changed the rules of business and politics to favor them. They get the big tax cuts. They get the tax havens (legal!), they get the tax breaks to move a business, etc.

But is this the kind of country we want to live in? A country in which great wealth can be accumulated (most think that is kind of cool) but those with great wealth can then take over the gears of government and shift them any way they want to? A country in which it is looking more and more like a plutocracy, one in which the great masses of people grind away, working to make their masters even richer, while experiencing an ever declining standard of living? Over half of the jobs in the USA are now poorly paying “service” jobs. Is this what you saw in your future? The life expectancy of Americans is dropping! Is this the “things keep getting better” America you expected or expected to leave your children?

If Jeff Bezos wanted to spend down his fortune in just one year, he would have to spend $162,000,000 per hour of every working day in that year. No one person has needs that require the accumulation of such a fortune.

The fatal flaw of capitalism is that it places no limits upon greed.

Will this also be the fatal flaw of the US? That we failed to put limits upon greed and so passed control of the country to a tiny minority of wealthy citizens, who ran it into the ground . . . for a profit?

December 29, 2019

The Fly in the Ointment

I read recently an article about how Amazon.com is creating many, many small businesses to deliver their goods. Amazon originally used USPS, UPS, and FedEx and the like as their delivery agents and negotiated their prices down, down, down but reached a limit of those services which pay their employees fairly well and treat them fairly well. (Trust me, I had a brother in law who worked for UPS and UPS is not a saintly organization. It is just that their jobs weren’t “shit jobs.” Their employees had pension plans, healthcare, decent wages, unions, etc.)

Amazon is creating little entrepreneurs to Uberize the delivery business.

Amazon also squeezes its own employees terrifically for better performance but not for higher wages. For example, Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, announced it would be cutting medical benefits for its entire part-time workforce. The annual saving to Amazon from this cost-cutting move is roughly what Bezos – whose net worth is $110 billion – makes in two hours.

Does the man deliberately cultivate the aura of a Bond villain?

Amazon’s commercials aside about how wonderful some of its employees think the company is, the number of stories of employee abuse hasn’t declined much. And, Amazon raised the wages of its base employees only under considerable pressure from outside.

Now, as Americans, we believe that businesses should be “free” to run their businesses any way they want (within some rough standards of practice, outlined in the law) but the question I am asking here is “To what end?”

I ask, “Why does Amazon need to lower its employee costs, lower its shipping costs?” The “old Amazon” made Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world. He can’t move any higher on that list. So, why are these practices necessary? So Mr. Bezos can make even more money when he cannot possibly spend the wealth he has accumulated so far? Please recall that to spend one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000) one has to spend $532,000 per hour of every business day for an entire year. In just one morning or afternoon, this amounts to as much money as I earned in just under 40 years of working as a college chemistry professor. And Mr. Bezos has in excess of a hundred times that much accumulated wealth at this point.

This is the core problem of capitalism. There are no limits placed upon greed.

Mr. Bezos, like Costco, could settle in and provide high quality jobs for his employees (and reap the loyalty that invokes) and provide quality goods for his customers and make money hand over fist for decades if not longer. But he is not, he is squeezing the system so that more and more money oozes out of the top and into his pockets.

I have come to agree with Bernie Sanders in that a democratic republic such as ours cannot tolerate billionaires. Wealth taxes (such as inheritance taxes and new ones) need to reduce the fortunes of these greedy SOBs. I know this is intolerable to the greedy class but I can’t feel pity for someone whose wealth is limited to the mere hundreds of millions.

Oh, and the right to do this? The right is called self-protection. In this country money is power. People like Bezos and Bill Gates have acquired way too much power for the good of the system. We all have to concede some of our individual rights for the good of the collective whole. This is one of those.

And if you think such a thing is antithetical to capitalism . . . you are just wrong. Consider the case of the capitalist state of . . . Finland.

September 8, 2018

Artificial Intelligence—The Promise

I am a big fan of digital technology and someone who is hopeful of the future. It is harder and harder for me to maintain that stance, however.

Currently there seems to be a widespread debate regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Since we know so little the positions staked out are quite broad. At one end is a new future where machines take over dangerous and boring jobs and human beings have more leisure. At the other end, autonomous drones are the first step toward Skynet (the “bad guy” in the Terminator movies) and the extermination of human beings by intelligent killing machines.

There seems also to be many opinions in between the two extremes.

Something I do know is that it will not be the machines that determine the outcome. In every case of new technology impactful enough to change the course of history, the tech has been used to coerce and oppress the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the elites.

Consider the following photograph.

This is an Amazon warehouse. Amazon is a tech company. So, how do those who work in Amazon’s warehouses fare? Amazon uses personal monitoring algorithms to make sure that its employees do not waste time taking short breaks to catch their breath or go to the bathroom. They are to stay on task as long as Amazon wants them to … or else.

Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon, makes huge profits by paying his warehouse employees wages that are so inadequate that many of them need public assistance just to get by. Thousands of Amazon workers are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing because they can’t survive on the wages they receive. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is now worth $158 billion, and his wealth increases by leaps and bounds. (And who pays for the public assistance subsidizing Mr. Bezos’ wealth? You and I do, of course.)

If you think back to the first powered looms to make cloth, it was the workers who had to get along with the machinery, not the other way around. Same was true with the assembly line to make automobiles, etc.

I do not argue that there were no benefits from technology that actually accrue to ordinary people. Henry Ford, no friend of workers, paid more than anyone else as a daily wage to pursue his dominance of the auto market. But that was then and now, wage suppression is the favorite tool of the captains of industry. Much of the advanced tech of today is not available to us because, well it is very simple, we cannot afford to pay for it. We don’t make enough money.

As much as people will squander $1000 on a new iPhone, the really impactful tech, such as a liver transplant, is not available to you … unless you can afford to pay for health insurance and many, many people cannot.

So, AI in and of itself will not necessary oppress ordinary people, coercing our labor for the benefit of the elites, but if rich people have any say in the future, my bet is that a sizable amount of AI will be used for just that purpose. (Jeff Bezos has already begun the application.)

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