Friday, June 10, 2005

Hot and Not: Episode II

U.S., U.K. reach agreement on $16.7 billion of debt forgiveness to struggling and poor countries, mainly in Africa. Note that this sort of thing, relating to the G8, was the main target of Live 8: Fight Poverty in Africa, or whatever the subtitle is.

Citigroup agrees to pay $ 2 billion in Enron lawsuit. Registration req'd, or go see bugmenot if you can't come up with a free anonymous email address. Note that this nyt headline would have been in the "Not!" category a couple years ago- more evidence that the lying, cheating, criminally avaricious whitecollar thugs who infested the investment and financial industries were in more than just a couple bad apples- but there are upsides to this payment.
The article suggests that other companies will be pressured to settle with Enron investors. It notes that this settlement is "large"- one of the largest in history- beaten by the rare ones like Citigroup's own $2.58 billion paid in 2004 to Worldcom investors. But we knew that was large, didn't we? BILLIONS. That's, like, Third-World-Debt numbers. And it's a fraction of what real live investors had stolen from them by abovementioned cheating frauds.

This is why there are market failures; because criminal action is not sure, swift, and severe. Instead, the criminals get a discount on their proceeds, years down the road. And the stock hit they take isn't nearly severe enough. Nor are the jail sentences.

Definitely in the Not column:
The richest 1%, and the richest .1%, and the richest .01% all continue to diverge, from the median and from each other. There's never, ever, not at all ever been a spike like this. On the plus side for apologists: the poor, as a whole, may be better off than they've ever been in the past; there's a lot of technology, convenience, support, services, medical improvements etc. over past centuries. And maybe, they'll suggest, the benefits of unalloyed capitalism (unalloyed with compassion, I think they're saying) are such that we can afford to have massive, rampant inequality.

But step back. How are the poor doing? Any of them dead, dying, imprisoned for life, tormented, tortured, or otherwise in truly worse shape than the rich? And, it turns out, some of them are. Poor blacks. Poor whites. Poor immigrants. Victims of crime. Victims of the rich. Victims of police brutality, murder, and worse. There is, in fact, a worse. Victims of officially sanctioned torment (not torture, oh no, not according to the lawyers). Victims of officially condoned but legally not-quite-permitted torture, up to and including death. Victims of injustice systems that put the innocent to death.

How does all that stack up? Well, it turns out that exploitation of the lower classes did not, in fact, go out of fashion sometime between the late Roman Republic and sometime last week. It's been a major feature of American industrialist society, and it's not going anywhere yet- although increasing automation keeps replacing some of the worst and least computer-savvy-requiring jobs, forcing folks to retrain. That last part isn't so bad. The conditions that janitors, dishwashers, and others who don't even get the benefit of minimum wages that aren't enough to support a family- that is so bad.

Krugman does a good job of raising Economic Inequality as a subject worthy of public debate- and condemnation- while social (NOT fiscal) conservatives continue to dismiss it, and him, as class warfare and a demagogue, respectively. Of course, failure to discuss the possible economic, social, and political ramifications of skyrocketing wage and wealth inequality might, itself, be an example of class warfare, top-down style. But again, saying so would be class warfare.

Guess you can't talk about the existence of class without being engaged in warfare. Comparison is invidious, and if you let people know there's a difference to compare to, they might want change. Bad, bad social reformers. UnAmerican. UnDemocratic. As if any society, democratic in politics or otherwise, had to allow parasites to manipulate the economic system for their own benefit. And by parasites I'm pointing at the productive unproductive; those whose profits do not profit society. People who pay less tax than a working single mother, or a working middle-class couple with two kids, or even a single but honest multimillionaire. When the truly richest are giving less back to society, even as a percentage of their total income, things are badly off the rails.

More on what we owe the rich, and what the rich owe us, as time permits.


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