Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 17:00 on 21-02-2014, Robinson L
Dan H: The problem isn't that disproportionate influence is wielded by the mega-wealthy, it's that disproportionate influence is wielded by the comfortably well off.

I'm afraid you're going to have to unpack that one for me. My understanding is that in the US (and other places, like the UK), the ultra-rich are able to influence the political process in a host of different ways - through employing small armies of lobbyists and attorneys to large campaign donations to financing think tanks and advertisements to owning media outlets. This often has the effect of maintaining or widening the wealth gap, to the detriment of the impoverished (and, incidentally, the people in the middle, as well); and they're all mechanisms which are closed off from the impoverished, the people in the middle, and the rich but not ultra-rich, for that matter.

So when it comes to wealth having a disproportionate say in policies (such as austerity), it's more like "We are the 99.9%." (In this regard, think "We are the 99%" is fine as a slogan - if, as with all slogans, you take it with a 3/4 tablespoon of salt as opposed to interpreting it literally.)

I'll be the first to agree that people with medium and high levels of wealth have plenty of illusions about ourselves and our privilege that we need to unravel, but I think positing our political power as equivalent to that of people with extremely high levels of wealth would be incorrect. (Or maybe just that it's dispersed among a couple million people rather than a couple thousand or couple hundred? Numbers obviously plucked from a hat.)


On an unrelated note: welcome back, Cheriola. Sorry to hear how rough things have been for you; here's hoping they keep improving.

Things in Ohio have been pretty snowy (which I don't mind) but they've warmed up quite a bit over the past few days.


Tamara: I actually unionize people in my spare time, and yes, i'm familiar with the conceptual hammering a worldview needs to take to stop assuming that whatever the wage ladder is at company X was not created at the moment of the Big Bang itself as a fundamental physical law. Of course, most managers and owners don't stop assuming it, it's just that they're overpowered :-)

You are so cool.

Apropos of nothing, are you guys planning to carry on with you Shakespeare podcasts project? Those were fun, and I ask completely because they were totally a wonderful and necessary addition to the slim field Shakespearian criticism, not because I've gotten back to swimming and something about the rhythm of them was just perfect for breaststroke. ;-)

Have to ask: is your iPod waterproof?
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at 16:37 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Aha, I hadn't realised it was a median figure. That makes a lot more sense then.

On this topic, I did actually look up the statistics on income distribution in the UK before and after tax recently, after reading some typical right-wing complaints that since most income tax is already disproportionately paid by those in the highest income brackets, it's unfair to get them to pay more. These statistics are quite revealing about how little difference in income distribution it makes having the rich pay disproportionately much tax though (and that's without taking assets into account).

Also, I assume everyone saw this video that did the rounds a while back? There's one for the UK somewhere too I think.
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at 15:53 on 21-02-2014, Dan H
Something else I might add is that I suspect income inequality is pretty steep all the way up.

Checking out the Forbes Billionaires list, it's interesting to note that the richest man in the world earns fully twice as much money as the 6th richest man in the world, who earns twice as much as the 32nd richest, who earns twice as much as the 119th richest, who earns twice as much as the 276th richest, who earns twice as much as the 41st richest, who earns twice as much as the 1250th richest.

There are 1342 people on the Forbes Billionaires list, the top 1% of people on that list earn (or are worth, or control) a total of $3308.5 billion dollars (EDITED to add - this number is clearly wrong, I must have miskeyed somewhere). The bottom 80% (who earn between 1 and 5 billion, I'm not going to actually add them all up, that would take forever) between them should earn something in the region of $2700 billion.

So the top 1% of billionaires actually earn more than the bottom 80% of billionaires put together (EDITED - again, got my numbers wrong somewhere - it should still hold true for the top 10% mind).

And while I do have to admit that I'd kind of love to see "Occupy Bill Gates' House" with legions of protesters outside holding signs that read "We Are the 99% of Billionaires Who Want This Country Back from the 1% of Billionaires Who Stole It" I think what this highlights is that income inequality is, on some level, self-symmetric. I'm pretty sure you could take any income group and you'd always find that the top 1% of earners earned more than the bottom 80%.

Again, I'm not suggesting that income inequality isn't a problem, just that it's a problem at *every level*, and that while the vast sums of money controlled by individual billionaires make for good headlines, the vast sums of money (and arguably even *vaster* sums of political power) controlled by people who are merely financially comfortable are just as problematic.
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at 14:57 on 21-02-2014, Arthur B
I'd also suggest that you're making some pretty major assumptions here - why on Earth do you think that rich people don't have to "make food, work, raise children and participate in normal living"?

Got to say I don't get this part either, not least because several of those privileges aren't restricted to the megawealthy. Lots of middle class people don't cook their own dinners. There are lots of childcare centres and nannies whose main customer base are middle class parents. I don't know what "participating in normal living" entails so it's very possible I'm failing to do it right now. So saying that these are burdens the middle class still have to shoulder seems a stretch.
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at 14:32 on 21-02-2014, Dan H
@Janne

Most middle-class people are privileged, as said, but they still have to make food, work, raise children and in general participate in normal living even if they are living in material comfort or not threatened by lack of necessities.


Again, I think this is the problem with the 99% narrative. There's this idea that the gap between the super-rich and the middle classes is somehow larger and more unjust than the gap between the middle classes and the poor.

I'd also suggest that you're making some pretty major assumptions here - why on Earth do you think that rich people don't have to "make food, work, raise children and participate in normal living"? I'm especially confused by your apparent belief that very rich people don't work - as if corporate CEOs just hang around all day playing golf.

There's also the unstated assumption that "normal" life means, broadly speaking, the life of the middle classes. For a great many people, "not being threatened by a lack of necessities" is not *remotely* normal. Indeed you could make a reasonable argument that, even ignoring global issues and focusing on inequality within modern westernised democracies, the gap between somebody who has never had to worry about where their next meal is coming from an somebody who has is *massively* larger than the gap between somebody who owns a private jet and somebody who doesn't.

I believe it was, of all people, John Major who pointed out that a big problem with the way the UK is governed is that most MPs don't know what it's like to run out of money on a Thursday. The problem isn't that disproportionate influence is wielded by the mega-wealthy, it's that disproportionate influence is wielded by the comfortably well off.

"We are the 99%" is a rallying cry which tries to pretend that me, Arthur and David Cameron are exactly as marginalised as somebody living on housing benefit on a council estate. We aren't.

@Andy G:

As Tamara points out, it's a median rather than a mean, so the incomes of the top 1% don't skew the average at all. If you want to look at it another way, $50,000 is a below-median salary for a primary school teacher. Now obviously primary school teachers are well qualified middle class people, but they're not exactly known for their disproportionately large incomes.
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at 12:05 on 21-02-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
This discussion reminds me of a few things that have been floating around recently. First, there have been several articles about the psychological fallacy of thinking your position and privilege in society is a result of your own attributes instead of societal issues. This Slate article(and some of their links) focus on the rich people, but if such a fallacy is a common, perhaps even a universal one, like many such fallacies tend to be, it stands to reason that everyone would be affected by it, not just the rich. Although it might be, that the super-rich do have such an accumulation of wealth and power that such tendencies could get more extreme. If the case is a psychological one, then clearly the solution is a matter of recognizing and reasoning through it, like any fallacy. How this is to be done practically, I do not know, but it might still be pragmatic to think of it as a failure of reasoning rather than just a failure of morals. Well a failure of morals is when one refuses to acknowledge it, but we do have several defense mechanisms to shield us from unpleasant thoughts. Like this one we're discussing really. If the more unfortunate deserve their plight, then clearly one does not have to feel guilty about it. And clearly it would not be nice to extend this reasoning to oneself.

On a political note, it is true that the average middle class person in a first world(if one is allowed to use that term in this context) country is very much more privileged than most of the worlds population. Still, the sort of 99% thing does have some points for it. First, such movements are movements of a given society or political body. The accumulation of resources and power to the first percent skews the power dynamics of a political system and surely the accumulation of power to just the select few will not help with the global issues at all. Rather it is a recipe for civil discord, which results in less attention given to those of lesser fortune especially abroad. And if wealth and power makes people think less of those less "successful", and this effect is stronger the richer you are, then this distribution of wealth to the top is worrisome. Most middle-class people are privileged, as said, but they still have to make food, work, raise children and in general participate in normal living even if they are living in material comfort or not threatened by lack of necessities. And really, isn't it a false dichotomy, that because the 99% is focused on the wealth disparity in the US rather than globally, then it is not an issue worth discussing at all? The perfect movement that will deal with all of the issues at once will probably not materialize, so would it not be politically wise to support the movement that is at least in the right direction?

Oxfam reported recently that the richest 85 people control as much of the wealth in the world as the bottom half all together. So clearly, while everyone living in too plentiful opulence in the first world should probably look at that mirror a bit closely and strive to act accordingly, this is not a reason to ignore the accumulation of wealth at the top, if not for any other reason, then for the practical reason of political and economical power.
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at 11:01 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
Oh, goody. The word 'income' has lost meaning after writing that last post. There's a Marxist statement ;-)
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at 10:59 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
To quibble even further, 50k (just over 51k, actually) is US annual household median income. So it isn't skewed as much by the high incomes of the 1% as the mean average, and anyway is probably looking mostly at 2 incomes. And then a lot of the wealth of the, um, wealthy, is hard to capture in terms of income anyway.
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at 10:17 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Not that it makes much a difference, I make it a factor of around 16.5.
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at 10:10 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Just a mathematical quibble, but does it make sense to compare the average income of the 1% of Americans with the average income of the 100% of Americans? Doesn't the $50,000 average itself incorporate the incomes of the 1%?
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at 02:07 on 21-02-2014, Cheriola
Yeah, I've been missing them as well.

Also: Hi, sorry for dropping off the radar so suddenly. I did indeed get very sick, the morning after my last appearance here. And while I was lying in bed that day, too feverish to bother going online, an integral part of my telephone system experienced planned obsolence failure. I didn't get well enough to leave the house until January, so it took a while to fix that. And since then, my depression has been acting up (lack of sunlight, birthday, etc.), so I wouldn't exactly have been good company. But I'm through the birthday sinkhole now and the weather has been sunny and ridiculously balmy, so I could start gardening very early this year, and so now I'm feeling somewhat better.

I hope you guys aren't flooded/freezing/drought-stricken/heat-wave-plagued too badly. Apparently Germany is the only major Western country that got lucky these last few months. We've had all of 10 days of frost this winter where I live, and that's in the northeast, which is just on the edge of the maritime/continental climate border and thus sometimes gets Russian winters. Last year, the snow stayed straight through from January till early April (that's a month longer than average).

I don't have anything to add to the 1% discussion - other than to agree with Dan. During the Occupy happening, I kept reading comments by POC, working class Americans going basically "What, now that you white middle class kids get a taste of what this society is like for the rest of us, NOW you suddenly want a revolution?"
Relatedly, I've been listening lately to a few interesting talks on climate change, food security and the politics thereof, and in the back of my head, I'm always thinking: "You're clearly very, very aware of how damaging and frankly ethically problematic for example flying is, and yet you're going on a world tour with your book?" I mean, with people like Lester Brown, he at least makes an impact into foreign governments with his face time, and Rob Hopkins had to be talked into doing his US tour last year specifically because he refused to fly for years. But Gwynne Dyer relating an annecdote about going to Teneriffa "for a bit of sun" in the middle of a radio series on the horrifying likely political results of climate change, does make me scratch my head at the lack of self-awareness. At least Kevin Anderson has the grace to point out that when he says that only relatively small percentage of Western rich people really have to change their lifestyle to avoid catastrophic consequences for most of the world's poorest people, he means people like himself and other climate scientists, i.e. middle class and upwards. (Nevertheless, if the weather keeps you in this weekend, I highly recommend watching all of these. The one by Rob Hopkins last, and there's a more recent update too. Oh, and maybe this documentary by John D. Liu as well, even if he does have a bit of a tendency towards self-adulation. And perhaps this one about Cuba. Just as an antidote to the paralyzing hopelessness.)
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at 00:24 on 21-02-2014, Melanie
I liked them, too! And really over a year? Time flies, I guess.
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at 23:18 on 20-02-2014, Daniel F
It has been over a year since the last one, hasn't it? Not that we have any right to make demands, and I might be fed up with Shakespeare in your place as well, but I was enjoying listening to them...
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at 14:44 on 20-02-2014, Tamara
Apropos of nothing, are you guys planning to carry on with you Shakespeare podcasts project? Those were fun, and I ask completely because they were totally a wonderful and necessary addition to the slim field Shakespearian criticism, not because I've gotten back to swimming and something about the rhythm of them was just perfect for breaststroke. ;-)
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at 14:41 on 20-02-2014, Tamara
Oh, I don't think it's weird because of the questions of income. I think it's a weird sentence because of the utterly original use of the word "politics" in it. It's not that he thinks it's fine that he makes whatever amount - it's the way he frames the defence of it.

I actually unionize people in my spare time, and yes, i'm familiar with the conceptual hammering a worldview needs to take to stop assuming that whatever the wage ladder is at company X was not created at the moment of the Big Bang itself as a fundamental physical law. Of course, most managers and owners don't stop assuming it, it's just that they're overpowered :-)
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at 13:39 on 20-02-2014, Dan H
Tamara: What a completely bizarre, oblivious world view that could possibly allow a person to utter that sentence.

To play devil's advocate for a moment, you could argue that it's exactly the same bizarre, oblivious worldview that allows people to self-define as "the 99%" in the first place.

The difference between the average income of a 1%er and the income of the average American is about a factor of 15 ($717,000 compared to $50,000). By contrast, the difference between the income of the average American ($50,000 p/a) and the 3 billion poorest people in the world (approximately $2.50 a day adjusted for purchasing power parity, for a total of just under $1000 a year) is a factor of *fifty*.

Obviously income inequality is a problem, but I think you can make a reasonable argument that an excessive focus on "the rich" allows the middle classes to completely duck responsibility for that inequality.

To put it another way, most people basically believe that meritocracy works up to their level and no higher. I accept as right and natural that I earn about five times as much money as somebody who flips burgers in McDonalds or stacks shelves in a supermarket, but consider it outrageous that I earn five times less than somebody who works in investment banking.

I should stress that I'm not remotely opposed to progressive taxation, but I'm always a little bit sceptical about people who believe in progressive taxation, but believe that tax increases should only be applied to people who are richer than they are.
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at 04:44 on 20-02-2014, Alasdair Czyrnyj
At this point there's nothing but rumors, hearsay, and libel, but at this point it does not seem like this was entirely Levine's decision to make. My first thought was that this had something to do with Bioshock: Infinite, possibly burnout on Levine's part. Now, though, it's becoming clear that B:I's development had a lot of problems, a number of which can probably be laid at Levine's feet. The game spent about five years in development, cost ~$100 million (not including the marketing campaign, which doubled the budget), and was littered with half-built concepts that were junked and rebuilt from scratch (compare the game we got with the early previews and you'll see what I mean). It even comes through in the final product, which feels like a rush job that's deeply at war with itself on every level.

The story I've heard, and the story I'm sticking with for now, is that this was a mutual decision between Take-Two Interactive and Levine. Take-Two probably saw Irrational as a giant money pit, and after B:I didn't make the truly insane amount of money needed to justify its tortuous development, they were planning on shutting it down anyway. Of course, unanimously shitcanning the subsidiary that made one of your flashiest moneymakers doesn't play well in the papers. At the same time, Levine lost control of B:I's development, got burnt out, and discovered he wasn't making the games he wanted to make anymore. The two came together and an agreement was reached: Take-Two shuts down Irrational and lets Levine stay on with a startup, and Levine releases a statement to the press taking full responsibility, taking the bullet for Take-Two. Everyone wins except the people who work at Irrational.

Leigh Alexander touches delicately on some of these matters.
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at 22:40 on 19-02-2014, Tamara
No, it's not just that. It's the way he frames the idea of what's political, the way he draws a veneer of social justice (!!!) over it. "Political" is, apparently, automatically tentamount to illegitimate, but he's using a technique that is basically a kind of bastardized, idiotic identity politics to make the claim...it's just...nothing to do but shake my head. If this was a line from a novel, i'd have a blast unpacking that character, but this person is apparently...not fictional?
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at 22:30 on 19-02-2014, Robinson L
Tamara: What a completely bizarre, oblivious world view that could possibly allow a person to utter that sentence.

At a guess, the kind that takes the reality of their controlling absurd amounts of resources (far more than they could ever practically need) while millions of others have to scrabble for mere survival, and interprets this state of affairs as not only inevitable, but right and proper, and generally the best of all possible worlds. Or, in other words, what James D said, pretty much.

Speaking of which:

I doubt the super-rich view poor people as anything more than sore losers.

That certainly sounds like a familiar attitude here in the US.
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at 21:36 on 19-02-2014, James D
In a way though, their attitudes make perfect sense - for the vast majority of them, change in income is about the same as change in weather. It might be a shitty, rainy day, but it'll pass soon enough and then things will be sunny and nice again. And in the meantime, they have plenty of shelter. The idea that a downturn in income could result in serious, life-altering consequences is utterly foreign to them - they know about it on an intellectual level I'm sure, but likely lack all ability to empathize with that situation because they've never experienced it and neither has anyone they actually care about. Among their peers, when they complain about money it's because they can't afford that third mansion, or they'll have to wait another month before they buy a Ferrari, not because they're going to be homeless because they can't pay their mortgage.

Money is a game to them, and they're winning. In sports you might feel bad for your opponent if they fall apart on the field and get crushed, but you're not going to share your points with them, that'd be crazy. I doubt the super-rich view poor people as anything more than sore losers.
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at 21:02 on 19-02-2014, Tamara
"The 1% are being picked on for political reasons."

Oh, god, I fell down laughing from that one. What a completely bizarre, oblivious world view that could possibly allow a person to utter that sentence.
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at 20:30 on 19-02-2014, Robinson L
@Dan: Okay, that alone makes having slogged through that book a couple of years ago worthwhile.

Adrienne: She's way too good for both of them, being the only character with any actual brains in the whole series as far as I can tell.

Even though she's now completely turned off Potter, I'm pretty sure ptolemaeus still has a major soft spot for Hermione. (I think she may still be a H/H shipper, though.)


Arthur: US high society: it's fraternities all the way down.

Hands up, everyone who's not surprised *raises hand*. Great article, Arthur, thanks for sharing.
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at 14:27 on 19-02-2014, Dan H
but the picture of some two old boys who went through boarding school together and are now some über-paramilitary police force bureaucrats sounds a bit sinister


Sinister ... but possibly also *completely awesome*?

"There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of magic. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Neville — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of casting the cruciatus curse on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a wand pointing at a human face — forever."
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