Month: February 2022

On The Mechanics Of Capitalism

For a few years now it’s become a political platform position on the left to tax the rich – in particular, the billionaires. For the overwhelming majority of the population who aren’t rich, this has quite an appeal, whereas there are still middle-class folks who oppose it by believing that through hard-work, and hard-work only, they can achieve the American Dream. The growing inequality we’ve seen take place across the world has given capitalism a bad reputation, but as always, the issue isn’t as simple as it looks and burning it all to the ground to build it back up will not solve society’s discontents.

The term capital dates back as far as the 12th century, and originates from the Latin word caput, meaning “head” (as in, head of cattle). However, the term capitalism didn’t begin appearing until the 17th century, and was used to describe a system in which capitalists owned said capital. The entire system revolves around the idea of private ownership and control over the means of production to generate a profit. It inherently assumes that the future holds more prosperity than the present, which is why in modern times we go into debt to get an education so that we can make more money in the future. 

Therefore, ownership is the key idea to understand capitalism. It essentially means that if you own a factory, you get to do what you wish with it – if you want to leave it idle, produce goods, or sell for something else you deem more valuable, you decide. This also encapsulates the concept of economic freedom into it, which is deemed invaluable in Western democratic societies. This system rewards risk-taking, so for entrepreneurs who put their money and livelihoods on the line to generate value for society, when they succeed, benefit tremendously from it in the form of monetary compensation (which is a proxy for ownership – you can trade those dollar bills for something else you deem more valuable). 

Innovating is a risky endeavour. It often involves large sums of money upfront to conduct research and development, which 9 times out of 10 leads to unsuccessful results. Therefore, if someone invents a new technology that improves society’s wellbeing (such as a vaccine or a software), trademarks are available to protect those inventions so they can reap the fruits of their venture. These very same entrepreneurs offer society a key trade: capital for labour. To them, having someone else operate a forklift for $20/hr is deemed a better usage of their time than doing it themselves, whereas for the labourer they deem it more valuable to accept this payment instead of going on an entrepreneurial endeavour themselves. This ongoing trade of capital enables for a natural circulation of money through the economy, which in theory flows towards where it will generate the most value per unit of measure. However, a number of economists agree that capital markets don’t regulate themselves therefore a certain level of government intervention is required to maximize the benefits to society.

This is where we enter the debate over welfarist policies and where in the spectrum does a society feel comfortable to be on. We hear stories every year of companies taking advantage of their employees by denying them bathroom breaks or paying unliveable wages, which serve as examples of how unhinged capitalism has a tendency to bend towards tyranny. Core labour rights passed in the 20th century that gave workers the freedom to join a union, abolished forced labour, and condemned discrimination at work are indisputable rights for a healthy & functioning labour force. But with the increased monopolization of industries, slowdown in productivity, and increased technical knowledge requirements to earn a basic living, we are seeing again a widening wealth gap form in society that is having geo-political repercussions around the world. And so, with the further devastating effects of the COVID pandemic, governments got to test the waters of what more robust welfare programs could look like and the impacts they would have in their economies.

There is an unavoidable trade-off that is made when we move towards higher distribution of wealth through regulatory factors. If the capitalist theory is correct (which most economist would agree it is), by not letting capital flow towards higher productivity areas of society and instead force it to go to lower growth endeavours, we are inevitably sacrificing future societal prosperity for present individual comfort. With the explosion in population growth the world has seen in the 20th century due to developments in health care, sanitary infrastructure and contraceptive innovation, if we sacrifice too much of the future to solve the present’s discontents, we are inevitably creating further present discontent for our future selves. Therefore, this ongoing balance between preserving economic freedom vs furthering government regulatory overreach becomes more of a dilemma than a right or wrong situation. 

Counter-intuitively, ownership is also a form of preserving society’s political freedoms. In a way, it redistributes tyranny into the hands of the wealthy, instead of concentrating it in the hands of the state. Consequently, instead of having one tyrant in government, you have thousands of tyrants (the rich) competing with each other – which enables people the freedom of choice. Additionally, ownership also serves as a way to determine the value of things – take the open ocean for example, which isn’t owned by anyone. This means that it’s every man for himself, and since it contains fish, which carries value in our society, people will try to get as many fish as they can before it runs out, since it’s free. So, without ownership you can’t protect things, and if you can’t protect things society is doomed to have bad actors who will take advantage of what we deem valuable.

And so, while preserving economic freedom to build a better future to our children is important, society also needs to take into consideration to what extent it is willing to deregulate its markets without making its present citizenry so deeply unequal that resentment begins to grow through the cracks and radicalization of ideas become mainstream. The same way that this utopian world we dream of where there’s very little suffering has been proven over and over to be just a dream, savage capitalism is also proving to be an inhuman system that sucks the life out of 90% of the population while disproportionally benefiting the current holders of capital. Historically, we’ve seen this tape being played repeatedly throughout time – when things got too unequal, successful societies found ways to reign in discontent through redistribution of prosperity in effective and productive ways. While those that swung too far in either direction were pushed to the annals of history among the company of fallen empires.


On Hot Topics

The old saying goes, “don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table”. Friendships can be ruined, reputations desecrated, and, most popular nowadays, cancellations of entire livelihoods can happen on a whim. But why is it that we have grown so intolerant of uncomfortable conversations? For a couple of centuries now, the U.S. has modelled the democratic experiment after republicanism and a federalist system which paved the way for other nations to follow suit. While some countries, like Canada, brought democracy to life through different systems (i.e.: parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy), the democratic process in liberal societies has and will always require civil disagreement to be its core tenet.

As the world became more integrated through globalization, the flow of the labour force between nations intensified. Nations adopted different immigration systems based on social, economic and political principles that have created a new map of mobility previously unheard of. Take Canada, for example, where a more liberal economic immigration policy is favorable of skilled workers, whereas the U.S. takes a different approach more strongly grounded on family reunification. Many global companies then choose to “incubate” skilled workers in Canada before sponsoring them to move to the U.S. on a green card or work permit, creating a clear path to citizenship.

This example leaves out other forms of immigration (such as asylum seekers), but illustrates a critical characteristic of liberal democracies today: diversity of ethnicities, political principles, and religious values is intensifying. By design, this creates tension in a pluralistic society, which seeks to platform the best ideas to be debated and decided on to move forward with. Think back to when Abraham Lincoln was building his cabinet to lead a nation that was on the verge of fracturing over the issue of slavery. He chose to appoint men with radically differing views, from different parts of the country, and who did not enjoy each other’s company. This was received with fervent scrutiny at the time, but sent a message to a nation at war with itself: diversity of thought, regardless of how repugnant one might be, was going to be the way forward.

Although the core principle of freedom of speech is protected in various foundational documents found across democratic nations, such as the American Constitution and the English Bill of Rights, society has found ways to weaken it through social pressure at various times in history. Whether that was by burning books that went against a political ideology that was brought into office through democratic means, or by cancelling publishing and speaking contracts of authors who had controversial views and histories, public debate has been repeatedly restricted over the course of time.

Culture wars have always nurtured polarization in societies. People haven’t changed all that much since the times when Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth”. The only difference today is that the internet has opened the lines of communication further, inviting everyone to have a platform to debate on. At face value this isn’t an issue, as a matter of fact it is highly democratic. The point of contention is on two details that have a disproportionate effect on public debate, which we have not yet learned how to moderate: mob mentality and private companies’ arbitrating powers.

Today it is far easier to mobilize thousands, if not millions, of people to lobby corporations into taking action against an individual than ever before. The “meme-ization” of shallow ideas, surrogate thinking and humans’ inherent need to belong, has made it far easier for people to have an opinion about hot topics. In a society that reads on average less than four books a year and cannot hold their attention for any longer than eight seconds at a time, having millions of people make statements on intense philosophical topics that have been debated for millennia – such as, can racism cease to exist, is there a God, how free are we –, is an ideal recipe for public confusion. And, when paired with the disproportionate power that a select few tech companies have on controlling what ideas are promoted in any one’s feeds, people are quite literally living in different worlds at a time.

But there are no incentives to change any of it – humans are addicted to outrage just as much as to sugar. Tech companies make money by keeping folks engaged in their platforms, so the most absurd and false ideas attract a far larger audience than moderate ones. Yet, when an individual is kicked off their platforms for promoting bad ideas, we open a whole can of worms on the topic of freedom of speech. This ecosystem gives shape to a new form of governance that democratic societies are struggling to grapple with today: powerful CEOs acting as unelected officials moderating the direction of public debate.

And so, while the adage of not touching hot topics is a convenient one to preserve relationships, our democracies are longing for intellectual conversations about these very ideas that will shape our future. Suddenly, putting down our phones to talk politics and religion at the dinner table doesn’t sound so bad after all.


On The Fetishization Of Freedom

The West has long fetishized the concept of freedom in the name of its, often questionable, crusades. The most recent chapter of it taking place in the Middle East, leaving behind a path of destruction and disillusionment. That is not to say that free societies are not something worth striving for, but the very concept that these societies are fighting for is not well understood by its citizenry.

For millennia the ideal of freedom has been debated by philosophers and politicians – from Plato in Ancient Greece, John Stuart Mill in 19th century England, to Isaiah Berlin in the second half of the 20th century –, yet every year there appears to be a segment of society that believes they have uncovered something new about it. A free society starts with some level of understanding of what is Free Will, and eventually moves into how the state should govern its citizens to maximize their personal freedoms without leading society to total apocalyptic anarchism. There is a large terrain that must be navigated between these two extremes, and in politics this balancing act takes place by the pulling of two levers: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty is the lever Canadian truckers appear to be fighting for – to what extent are we comfortable with the government reaching into our personal freedoms. These freedoms can be further segmented into moral, economic and political freedoms; so, when one is boiling down such a complex issue into freedom in the singular sense, we need to stop and clarify that the concept of freedom needs to be debated plurally – which segment of personal freedoms do we feel the government may have overreached. This is a tricky lever to pull because, contrary to what libertarians believe, having no government imposition into its citizenry’s freedoms will lead to complete chaos. 

John Stuart Mill, in one of his most famous works called On Liberty, said that it is not a crime to harm oneself as long as the person doing so is not harming others. This is what philosophers describe as the harm principle, which seeks to justify the rightful purpose of power over any member of society to prevent harm to others – and for this purpose, even libertarians agree with. The earlier forms of this concept being baked into a society’s organization took place in France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, where, verbatim, it states: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law”.

The other form of liberty known as positive liberty, can be best described as the freedoms the state creates by the passing of laws. The most famous contemporary example of this took place during the Civil Rights Movement, when the American government eventually banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, positive liberty isn’t always connected with good developments in history as the example forementioned – excessive positive liberty can encroach on negative liberties.

The Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, in the Four Essays on Liberty published in 1969, examined in further depth the two concepts of liberty where he warned of the potential abuses of positive freedoms. Historically, this lever had been used to defend nationalism, social engineering and collective rational control over human destiny, which paradoxically fulfilled a society’s rational desire of self-mastery and self-determination while inadvertently justifying political totalitarianism. The clearest example of this took place in Nazi Germany when the state coerced its citizens to believe in their version of “true freedom” by enacting anti-Semitic legislation limiting the participation of Jews in German public life (and eventually far worse atrocities). 

As we can see with the examples above, there is a balancing act that a society must engage in to move their vision of a free country forward. Excessive amounts in either direction – negative or positive – lead to unwanted outcomes. As Berlin once said, “unlimited liberty for capitalists destroys the liberty of the workers, unlimited liberty for factory-owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal-mines”, whereas unlimited liberty for workers destroys the benefits of capitalism and the fruits it generates. So, as one continues to fulfill their democratic duties in a free society, they must always ask themselves to what extent they’re comfortable with pulling either lever and if imposing such ideals on societies without the appropriate institutions in place to manage this balancing act will in fact emancipate them. In the end of the day, one cannot be completely free if they are to co-exist with other human beings – they can only be autonomous insofar as their autonomy doesn’t break with their civil responsibilities.

As the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner once said in advocacy for ethical individualism, “People who merely preach ethical codes without being able to put them into a plan of action, are morally unproductive”.


On Attachment To Success

The concept of attachment is commonly found in Buddhism teachings and in the study of Stoicism (Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, most notably), both of whom have become fairly popular in the West in recent years, particularly in the coaching circles. What appears to be happening today is that modern society’s demands have reached such a point that people are looking for ways to reduce their suffering from stress and judgement by referring back to ancient texts. Most of the time, given the complexity of these works, the virtues contained in them are being digested into self-help books that seem to be overflowing our bookstores today.

Let’s start with the stress pain point. Since the creation of Web 2.0 in the early 21st century, we’ve seen advertising take a new form that expanded beyond our TV screens and newspapers, and into every moment of our daily lives. Companies like Meta, Twitter, and Google have become the largest platforms of publicity for consumerism and people simply cannot escape it anymore. It’s as if we took our TV sets and placed them in our pockets – everywhere we go, we are being bombarded with new products, services and values that shape our cultural environment in ways difficult to contain.

This new playing field has created some complicated sources of suffering for us poor primates. Consumer goods are no longer being marketed as products, but rather as a lifestyle – a lifestyle that we see desirable people living as they display their entire lives on social media. This never-ending cycle of consumerism creates a mentality of scarcity that turns the wheels of capitalism. You will always need the latest iPhone, the newest fashion articles that are trending, the finest dining experiences. People attach themselves to these status-signaling products, which effectively makes their wellbeing ever more fragile. But the very pressure to fit into all the different communities today is what spins the wheels of growth and innovation in a capitalist society. It is what has enabled our standard of living to dramatically improve over the course of the 20th century, and it is also what has shaped the way we work and the pace at which companies need to move to remain competitive. As a member of this society, chances are that you work for one of these companies, whose productivity growth has been moving at a snail’s pace as of late, forcing them – and you – to do more with less.

This brings us to our second source of suffering: judgement. Humans are inherently hierarchical creatures. We are always comparing ourselves to others and social media is the mother of all places to see how amazing everyone’s lives are. Whether that is status-signaling their travels around the world or their professional accomplishments, people are quick to attach themselves to their successes – when in fact this is the quickest path to disillusion.

Anthony de Mello in his book Awareness, described this effect in the context of personification. We wrongly identify ourselves with success or failure – “I am a lawyer”, “I am a businessman”, “I am a failure” –, when in fact we aren’t any of this. By clinging on to these shallow definitions of ourselves we end up spending our time worrying that they may fall apart. The clash between these illusions with reality inflicts a form of suffering that has become routine in modern society today.

And so, although detaching ourselves from these things will inevitably improve our wellbeing, it is extremely difficult to do so in a society that is moved by productivity, self-improvement and competitiveness. But, if there is one thing we can find solace on is that failure is, and has always been, a far better teacher than success.