“Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who designed his negative income tax plan.”
POST CAPITALISM or BUST?
Some millennials aren’t saving for retirement because they don’t think capitalism will exist by then
by Keith A. Spencer / March 18, 2018
“CNN reported last week that 66 percent of millennials aged 21 to 32 have nothing saved for retirement. And while their writer chalks up this inequity to student loans, “stagnant wages” and “high unemployment,” there may yet be a deeper cause: many millennials honestly don’t see a future for our economic system. The aforementioned CNN article about millennials’ (lack of) retirement savings went semi-viral, partly because many saw humor in how it missed how many truly felt. “RT if socialism is your retirement plan,” Holly Wood, 32, a political organizer, wrote on Twitter.
RT if socialism is your retirement plan. https://t.co/34ABnx0SDj
— howitzer of mercy 🏴 (@girlziplocked) March 7, 2018
The idea that we millennials’ only hope for retirement is the end of capitalism or the end of the world is actually quite common sentiment among the millennial left. Jokes about being unable to retire or anticipating utter social change by retirement age were ricocheting around the internet long before CNN’s article was published. Older generations, and even millennials who are better off and who have managed to achieve a sort of petit-bourgeois freedom, might find this sentiment unimaginable, even abhorrent. And yet, in studying the reaction to the CNN piece and reaching out to millennials who had responded to it, I was astounded not only at how many young people shared Wood’s feelings, but how frequently our expectations for the future aligned.
Many millennials expressed to me their interest in creating self-sustaining communities as their only hope for survival in old age; a lack of faith that capitalism as we know it would exist by retirement age; and that alternating climate crises, concentrations of wealth, and privatization of social welfare programs would doom their chance at survival. “In general, I regard the future as a multitude of possibilities, but most of them don’t look good,” Elias Schwartzman, 29, a musician, told me. “When I’m at retirement age, around 2050, I think it’s possible we’ll have seen a breakdown of modern society.” Schwartzman said that he saw the future as encompassing one of two possibilities: an apocalyptic “total breakdown of industrial society,” or “capitalism morphing into a complete plutocracy.” “I think the argument can be made that we’re well on the way to that reality,” he added.
Wood, 32, a political consultant, told me via Twitter that she felt similarly. “I don’t think the world can sustain capitalism for another decade,” she explained. “It’s socialism or bust. We will literally start having resource wars that will kill us all if we don’t accept that the free market will absolutely destroy us within our lifetime [if] we don’t start fighting its hegemony,” she added. “Capitalism might still exist [in 2050], but I don’t expect people will be happy about it,” Jon Good, 34, a chocolatier and small business owner, said. “If [capitalism] is replaced [by then], my ideal economic model is one where all basic necessities are abundant and free, everyone works a few hours a week at the necessary chores of society like garbage collection and machine maintenance, then has the rest of their lives free to pursue whatever projects—be they art, leisure, or industry—that they desire.”
That utopian hope, that we could theoretically end up in a sort of fully-automated post-work social democracy à la “Star Trek,” was expressed by others too. “I think a system with universal basic income is inevitable if we’re going to survive the automation of jobs as a society,” Becca Cook, 30, told me over Facebook chat. “We need to shift our understanding and expectations to a world where not everyone has to have a job.” Sarah Frasco, 26, a student, saw a gulf between her and the young people who even thought about things like retirement. “For the most part, the idea of retirement or how you plan for it is really the privilege of the few people my age who have access to that kind of security and stability,” Frasco told Salon. “I know a few people from school who are on that track right now and sometimes I compare myself to them and wonder how I’ll ever catch up.”
Good agreed with Frasco that retirement savings plans were the domain of bourgeois millennials. “In the 12 years since graduating college, I’ve spent one year working a job with benefits,” Good told Salon. “The rest of the time I’ve been cobbling together gigs and part-time jobs and under-the-table work that hasn’t paid me enough to save anything. The economic realities of my generation make the expectations for my parents’ generation seem ludicrous to me—having a job with benefits and that pays enough that I can make rent, and save for retirement and also maybe for a down payment on property seems like a lottery,” Good continued. “Maybe 15 percent of my peer group has this, and having it is a combination of luck and family connections rather than skill and work ethic.”
“Chart of intentions to do something about it”
Most intriguing, many millennials said that their life plans, goals and careers had been affected by their expectations of the future and the dismal economic circumstances into which they were born. “I was someone who very much wanted to have children by age 35 and no longer think that [is] even a remote possibility, even with two parents,” Wood told Salon. “And having the role of parent so squarely removed from my trajectory of life possibility has made me take bigger risks and made me unlikely to take on any job just for the sake of my résumé.”
Of course, many millennials are not even in a position of considering retirement savings, much less having options when it comes to work or life decisions. More millennials live in poverty than any other generation, according to a recent Pew Research poll, which noted that “5.3 million of the nearly 17 million U.S. households living in poverty were headed by a Millennial.” But for millennials who had more economic agency, the expectation of an unstable future meant trying to find happiness in the present. “I just blew all my savings on a nine-month road trip on the assumption that something is going to change drastically in the next few years,” Cook said. “Not only am I not saving for retirement, I have never had a serious job because I have thought capitalism would be fucked by [the time I retired] since I was a teenager,” Shannon Malloy, 31, a student, organizer and bartender, said.
They say every generation thinks that it will be the last, as alt-country crooner Jeff Tweedy of Wilco rhapsodized. And yet, for millennials, it is perhaps understandable given the environmental and political situation at hand. Our ecological survival on the planet seems incompatible with the ever-hungry maw of capitalism, which requires ever-accelerating industrial production and consumption. Just as pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation and planned obsolescence are “good” for capitalist economies, they are horrendous for the environment and seem to be driving us to extinction in ways that are now manifesting in extreme weather events. Meanwhile, the planet’s tilt toward authoritarian politics and privatization do not bode well for the young.
Interestingly, privileged millennials on the higher end of the economic spectrum had trouble comprehending these kinds of attitudes. John Hagensen, 35, founder and managing director of investment advisory firm Keystone Wealth Partners, couldn’t fathom his struggling coevals’ alternative visions of the future. “I guess my argument to [their points] would be whether [societal collapse] happens or not, where does that change the personal responsibility for you to prepare yourself to take care of yourself and be responsible for yourself?” Hagensen told Salon. “They may be right, so does that mean that for the next 25 years they should save nothing?” Despite Hagensen’s preconceptions that lack of retirement planning indicated a lack of personal responsibility, the millennials I interviewed had all planned thoughtfully and carefully for their retirement — just not in the “traditional” manner, via investment accounts, that Hagensen was accustomed to.
Indeed, there was a surprising congruity among what “planning for retirement” meant for most of those whom I interviewed. “If I don’t die in the revolution I imagine I’ll be living in an intentional community,” Malloy said. “Either because we have no other options or because we’re trying to have as much autonomy as possible so we can keep doing [political organizing] work. I don’t count on ‘the work’ being finished enough to chill out in our lifetime,” she added. “I’m absolutely convinced over how quickly friends have lost their pensions, 401ks and IRAs to bubble crashes that there is no safe place to ‘save’ for retirement,” Wood said, “And the best way to plan for retirement is by building tribes of like-minded peers who have committed themselves to group survival. I’m way more invested in the family I’m building now than any fake sense of security that some mutual fund may or may not provide for me 20 years from now,” she added.
“When I’m at retirement age, around 2050, I think it’s possible we’ll have seen a breakdown of modern society,” Schwartzman told Salon. “I do see it as a real possibility that nuclear holocaust or environmental apocalypse will make money completely meaningless, and that reinforces my approach of living in the now. If I can find my way to saving, or creating a lot of wealth, I’ll use it to buy land and build toward self-sufficiency as a way to hopefully protect myself against the various unpleasant futures that I can see ahead of us.” The remarkable consensus suggests that us millennials lacking traditional retirement savings plans might still have a happy retirement outlook, just not in the conventional way that previous generations did. If political organizers and mass movements succeed, we’ll have a post-work, post-scarcity future to look forward to; and if not, it seems that many are committed to building their own solidarity networks, intentional communities, and like-minded cooperatives to carry us through the darker years of the 21st century.”
POVERTY IMPEDES COGNITIVE FUNCTION
Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions
“In August, Science published a landmark study concluding that poverty, itself, hurts our ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life, imposing a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points. It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are “to blame” for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own. Sometimes, science doesn’t stick without a proper anecdote, and “Why I Make Terrible Decisions,” a comment published on Gawker‘s Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study.
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing. Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
When neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire studied time, uncertainty and decision-making, they found that virtues like patience and self-control weren’t as simple previous studies suggested. In the ubiquitous Marshmallow study, for example, kids who ate the treat quickly were deemed impatient and kids who waited had self-control and, on the whole, went on to lead more productive lives, the study found. But rational self-control in the real world, Kable says, isn’t so black-and-white. Perhaps you have enough patience to wait an hour for a train, or to lose one pound each week with exercise and dieting. That sounds responsible. But what happens if the train isn’t there in 90 minutes? If you never lose weight and you’re making yourself miserable with your diet? Maybe you should give up! “In this situation, giving up can be a natural — indeed, a rational — response to a time frame that wasn’t properly framed to begin with,” Maria Konnikova summed it up for the Times.
As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short-term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. The train is just not coming. What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote. None of this is an argument against poorer families trying to save or plan for the long-term. It’s an argument for context. As Eldar Shafir, the author of the Science study, told The Atlantic Cities‘ Emily Badger: “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”
AUTOMATED BASIC INCOME STREAMS
“…Machine-based unemployment has led many people, including Martin Luther King, Elon Musk, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to support the Basic Income. This could be a way to harness the work saving potential of artificial intelligence inside of a capitalist system as it allows for both the private ownership of the machines and provides for those left unemployed by them. Ideas on how this system could work abound.
There is also the model of the Alaskan Permanent Fund to be considered. Alaska receives a portion of the revenue from oil production in the state and deposits it in the fund, alongside other income sources. A yearly dividend is issued to all long-term residents of the state from this fund, and the legislature can also use the money for public projects. It is not difficult to imagine a similar system that uses Bill Gates’ proposed tax on robotic workers as the income source for a similar dividend paid to everyone…”
“A resident rides past an image depicting German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Shanghai, China, 2016.”
SOCIALIZED / NATIONALIZED ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
by Feng Xiang / May 3, 2018
[ Feng Xiang, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, is one of China’s most prominent legal scholars. He spoke at the Berggruen Institute’s China Center workshop on artificial intelligence in March in Beijing. ]
“The most momentous challenge facing socio-economic systems today is the arrival of artificial intelligence. If AI remains under the control of market forces, it will inexorably result in a super-rich oligopoly of data billionaires who reap the wealth created by robots that displace human labor, leaving massive unemployment in their wake.
But China’s socialist market economy could provide a solution to this. If AI rationally allocates resources through big data analysis, and if robust feedback loops can supplant the imperfections of “the invisible hand” while fairly sharing the vast wealth it creates, a planned economy that actually works could at last be achievable. The more AI advances into a general-purpose technology that permeates every corner of life, the less sense it makes to allow it to remain in private hands that serve the interests of the few instead of the many.
More than anything else, the inevitability of mass unemployment and the demand for universal welfare will drive the idea of socializing or nationalizing AI. Marx’s dictum, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” needs an update for the 21st century: “From the inability of an AI economy to provide jobs and a living wage for all, to each according to their needs.”
Even at this early stage, the idea that digital capitalism will somehow make social welfare a priority has already proven to be a fairytale. The billionaires of Google and Apple, who have been depositing company profits in offshore havens to avoid taxation, are hardly paragons of social responsibility. The ongoing scandal around Facebook’s business model, which puts profitability above responsible citizenship, is yet another example of how in digital capitalism, private companies only look after their own interests at the expense of the rest of society.
One can readily see where this is all headed once technological unemployment accelerates. “Our responsibility is to our shareholders,” the robot owners will say. “We are not an employment agency or a charity.” These companies have been able to get away with their social irresponsibility because the legal system and its loopholes in the West are geared to protect private property above all else. Of course, in China, we have big privately owned Internet companies like Alibaba and Tencent. But unlike in the West, they are monitored by the state and do not regard themselves as above or beyond social control.
It is the very pervasiveness of AI that will spell the end of market dominance. The market may reasonably if unequally function if industry creates employment opportunities for most people. But when industry only produces joblessness, as robots take over more and more, there is no good alternative but for the state to step in. As AI invades economic and social life, all private law-related issues will soon become public ones. More and more, regulation of private companies will become a necessity to maintain some semblance of stability in societies roiled by constant innovation.
I consider this historical process a step closer to a planned market economy. Laissez-faire capitalism as we have known it can lead nowhere but to a dictatorship of AI oligarchs who gather rents because the intellectual property they own rules over the means of production. On a global scale, it is easy to envision this unleashed digital capitalism leading to a battle between robots for market share that will surely end as disastrously as the imperialist wars did in an earlier era.
For the sake of social well-being and security, individuals and private companies should not be allowed to possess any exclusive cutting-edge technology or core AI platforms. Like nuclear and biochemical weapons, as long as they exist, nothing other than a strong and stable state can ensure society’s safety. If we don’t nationalize AI, we could sink into a dystopia reminiscent of the early misery of industrialization, with its satanic mills and street urchins scrounging for a crust of bread.
The dream of communism is the elimination of wage labor. If AI is bound to serve society instead of private capitalists, it promises to do so by freeing an overwhelming majority from such drudgery while creating wealth to sustain all. If the state controls the market, instead of digital capitalism controlling the state, true communist aspirations will be achievable. And because AI increasingly enables the management of complex systems by processing massive amounts of information through intensive feedback loops, it presents, for the first time, a real alternative to the market signals that have long justified laissez-faire ideology — and all the ills that go with it.
Going forward, China’s socialist market economy, which aims to harness the fruits of production for the whole population and not just a sliver of elites operating in their own self-centered interests, can lead the way toward this new stage of human development. If properly regulated in this way, we should celebrate, not fear, the advent of AI. If it is brought under social control, it will finally free workers from peddling their time and sweat only to enrich those at the top. The communism of the future ought to adopt a new slogan: “Robots of the world, unite!”