Wednesday, 19 September 2018

On the Matter of Steak

I was recently reminded of the Donald Trump steak controversy.

It's a real thing.

A whole deal, actually. Complete with pop psychology dribblings of raving lunatics.

Here's the truth: well done, even slightly burnt, steaks taste better than this blood filled disgusting rubbish. How do I know? Because I've actually eaten both.

Unlike the pop psychology raving dribblers, who clearly haven't. (That person is so lacking in self-awareness it's truly hilarious. "Don't get huffy" they cry but then go on to write hundreds of words in a huff, so sure, so convinced that there is meaning in steak. There isn't and never was. Most things don't mean anything. It's childishly immature to imagine otherwise.)

It's probably not even the case that you want risk taking individuals in charge of the so called "nuclear football". Because that's the only possible pop psychological lesson to be drawn from consistent food choices: people eat stuff they like because it's actually risky to not do so.

Now, maybe, people want to claim that the risks of eating food you don't like are so low as to not matter. Here's another truth for anyone who claims that: check your privilege.

It's fun, I have to say, to try something new. But you can only try something new from a place of privilege where it is actually low stakes. If you buy this it doesn't matter if you don't like it... you're not going to miss the money and you're not going to miss the meal. And if you're a God damn billionaire with the sensible cost/benefit assessment that's a God damn good thing. It is, simply, more pleasurable to have the privilege of eating something you like than wondering whether or not some complete loser has ruined a perfectly good meal by adding cheese or fish or whatever.

(And, by the way, if you think the cheese hasn't got any taste there's a reason for that... it's called tolerance you dumb arse.)

Let's say, for a minute, that there are no other forces compromising this... that there are no costs associated, harms to avoid, in trying new foods (especially other ways of eating steaks; if you can't chew your meat, are you even eating?) that we can generate some kind of consistent meaning which is, "If you won't try something new, you can't entertain the idea that there might be something better". Is this true with those (completely unrealistic, horrible naive at best and, if we're being honest, utterly insane) assumptions? Well, probably not.

Think about it.

People do things one way, and one way only, whilst cursing that there "must be" a better way all the time. In fact, a lot of these people know there's a better way... they get tripped up by the costs. It turns out, unlike the lunatic dribbler, most people have this thing called imagination. I'll say that again for the cheap seats. Imagination. It lets us entertain all sorts of things intellectually that have absolutely no connection to our lived experiences.

Eat your steak however you damn well please. But the moment you try to make a Thing about it, you reveal yourself to be a complete tosser. And, if you then try to derive this particular moral lesson from it, not only are you a wanker, but you're a stupid and parochial one at that. How do I know? Because if you weren't, you couldn't exhibit the thought pattern you've just revealed to us.

Also, people have memories. Memories. As with imagination, actual psychologists care about it quite a lot.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Plutocrat

My title is misleading. My post time is misleading. My words are honest.

Here's plutocracy:
A plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, 'wealth' + κράτος, kratos, 'rule') or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income.
Here's plutocrat:
A person whose power derives from their wealth.
Interesting... perhaps my title is not that misleading after all because here's where my title comes from...
Towards the end of Captain America: Civil War there's the quote "The futurist, gentlemen! The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what's best for you, whether your like it or not."
No, I'm not going to talk to you about Tony Stark. Not even now when it's kind of relevant (early August around when Infinity War made it to home release) let alone when this is being published (mid-September). What I want to talk about is the potential of the super-rich to take transformative actions in society today. So let's get into it...

David Koch by Gage Skidmore
If you're American or familiar with American politics, you've probably heard people talk about the Koch Brothers. These dudes have an estimated wealth of something like $50 billion (US!) each and they're not afraid to spread it around to groups that they favour. They're involved in research, campaign funding and charitable efforts. In fact, they've got their own Wikipedia page dedicated to their political existence.

I don't know too much about what the Koch brothers actually do. Their interest in libertarian and Republican causes does suggest that I wouldn't care for those activities. At least, not all of them. But this isn't why the Koch brothers aren't really what I mean by transformative impact. I'm sure they've used their wealth to achieve some stuff they find to be fairly meaningful. Some of it might even be pretty transformative. But, to me, the Koch brothers are just campaign donors. They do more than that, as you can read, but that's the archetype of plutocrat I want them to represent.

Donald Trump 
You probably recognise Trump from the hotel lobby in Home Alone 2. Or possibly from the Apprentice. If you're a serious follower of ultra high net worth individuals, you probably don't know him all that well. With an estimated worth of about $3 billion US, Trump's a lot richer than me but pretty much a pauper in terms of the sums I want to be talking about.

The archetype that Trump represents is not celebrity wealth (see below) but plutocrat as politician. Yes, Trump is undeniably a media personality. Referencing the cameo in Home Alone 2 (it's real) is fairly facetious but his role in the Apprentice is really the only reason I know who he is. Well, until he became a birther leader and, soon after that, a Republican politician. And... as you can probably guess from the vitriol I've thrown Andrew Little's way, I'm not a fan of Trump. But he's done something eminently respectable... he's gone out there and got involved in politics. More people need to do that.

But I'm not really talking about wealthy politicians.

Oprah Winfrey by Alan Light
For someone whose wealth comes entirely from working in entertainment as an entertainer first, Winfrey is extremely wealthy but, like Trump, she's a pauper in my context being worth about USD 2 billion. And as a public figure I think the best way to describe her is as a thought leader.

Celebrity Wealth is always an interesting question. In some ways the appropriate currency here isn't money but followers. And certainly in her heyday Winfrey had that. Given all the talk about her Trumping it up some years ago and gunning for US president, she's probably still got it. So if it's not money that matters with celebrities and I'm obviously pretty dismissive of philanthropy why have a celebrity wealth archetype of the plutocrat? And the answer is that it's precisely because I have to ask this question. People look at America's 2016 election and talk about celebrity as a feature of the Democratic campaign.

Money is just another currency. And when celebrities have money as well as fame, they can do more than just guide opinions or represent a target lifestyle. This is an important category of analysis.

Elon Musk by Steve Jurvetson
Some of you are probably think, "Not this dickhead?" But, yes, this dickhead. Musk is a quintessential example of the self-proclaimed transformer. And he's even wealthy in my context at around US 20 billion (dollars, duh). Although, obviously, he's not what I'm talking about either.

You see, the thing with Musk is that he's all show and no go. Most of what people know him for is just media spin... he was pretty lucky with PayPal and he's been riding that wave ever since. And most of the media spin, come to think of it, exists simply because of Musk-spin. But this kind of character is important because they trade on the ideas of "Great Man" historiography... the idea that the right person, at the right time with the right idea can change everything. The world doesn't work like this but because people think like this you can get a lot done.

Musk has put a lot of ideas out there and because it was him doing that, people listened. But unlike the celebrity plutocrat (which Musk has shades of) the self-proclaimed transformer has credibility in technical matters. And that credibility is hard to erode.

Musk is alternatively an example of the industrial messiah plutocrat. I didn't run with that because it's less spicy and I don't like Musk (obviously). The point here is that airtime can be given to people based on being very successful in business, at least when they are at the forefront of the age (it's hard to imagine, say, an Oil Baron doing the rounds in the way Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates do today).

Bill Gates (left) and Andrew Carnegie (right) from GeekWire's Article
These are two insanely wealthy individuals. Or, rather, were. Bill Gates' fortune has been put in perspective a little lately and he's sort of become a forgotten billionaire. Andrew Carnegie has been dead for decades but depending how you look at it, his wealth exceeded the rest of this list combined. By other measures, more in Bill Gates' territory. Either way you've probably never heard of him. I've known about Andrew Carnegie for about as long as I've known who Bill Gates is, i.e. most of my life, but this is because of his association with Diplodocus. Both men, as I grew to understand, are or were philanthropic plutocrats. Basically, they do charity. I mean, so does everyone else on this list, but the scale and relative significance just doesn't compare.

If you're thinking it's odd to juxtapose what amounts to an insult (plutocrat) next to a compliment (philanthropist) remember that I wrote this, remember that opening Tony Stark appraisal  (also click on the philanthropist link) and read this from a GeekWire comparison of Gates and Carnegie:
But the field of philanthropy has gotten more sophisticated and more controversial over time, with critics calling out the tremendous wealth disparity that fuels the sector, allowing the rich to wield unaccountable, unchecked power through their donations.
“That’s clearly become something that a lot of critics are concerned about,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “When you have wealth that is as big as a small country’s economy, should you be allowed to influence things that much without democracy?”
Philanthropy is power. Never forget that.

At the same time, donating money is often basically just like throwing it into the void. It can help people in the moment out a lot but it doesn't lead to meaningful change. What you need to do, if you can donate at scale, is target some sort of system. But when you do that, well, that's when you get to this democracy point being raised here. Andrew Carnegie is the closest example I know of this... without getting into the difference between philanthropy and philanthropic imperialism and colonialism. Here's what I mean via another comparison article:
Carnegie and Rockefeller were pioneers in bricks-and-mortar philanthropy. After Carnegie sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan in 1901, he plowed his nine-figure fortune into limestone. He built the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institution in Washington and seeded the nation with more than 2,800 libraries. "His focus was to uplift humanity, and libraries for him were the best way to reach the broadest spectrum of the people," said Peter Krass, author of "Carnegie."
Carnegie's libraries weren't just built in the US either: there are a couple in NZ, for instance. And, in fact, they were what drew my attention to Carnegie as a philanthropist in the first place... as part of an economics internal I did some research on libraries. Actually, with the controversy about economists and libraries of late, that internal might make for relevant reading here. Hmm... would probably be best if I could remember why I only got Achieved for it, I'll think about it. Anyway, the second article's main thrust is the different, less material, approach taken by Gates:
"They're giving money to school systems and telling them to restructure, to reduce the size of their schools," Professor Frumkin said.
The Gates Foundation has given more than $100 million to New York City's public school system alone, to encourage the creation of smaller schools within existing school buildings. The foundation says its programs currently touch about 8 percent of the nation's public high schools.
This is more concerning, to my mind... as in it gets a lot closer to cutting across democratic processes. Think about it.

A Memorable Cartoon by Rod Emmerson
Yes, that's right. Money talks. And in the right environment, having ideas and the money to implement them can lead to actual implementations. Which might not be good. I mentioned philanthropic colonialism before. That probably sounds like another contradiction in terms but, I mean, have you read The White Man's Burden? Check it out:
Take up the White Man's burden —
The savage wars of peace —
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
I mean, if you think that doesn't sound anything at all like World Vision or Unicef or anyone like that, you need to scrub your ears out. Sure they don't dress up their appeals as a moral duty of "Whites" or colonial masters or use phrases like "half devil and half child" but they do propose a moral duty and they do want to address famine and sickness. If you're still not convinced, read Wikipedia's article on the poem. Notice, particularly, that philanthropic, strategic and financial imperialism are not mutually exclusive or even contradictory. It might be said, in fact, that back in the days of Empire, people believed the only way you could address things like famine and sickness was imposing an entire structure on an area... and that they were okay with all that entailed. 

But we were talking about Bill Gates. And it turns out that we can use Gates as another example of philanthropy gone wrong, from the GeekWire piece:
The Gates Foundation itself has faced criticism over the years. That includes programs delivering dramatic and sometimes unsuccessful changes to public schools and initiatives supporting charter schools. Critics have pushed back on agricultural funding in developing countries that relies on technology-based solutions with less attention to bolstering traditional approaches.
I've often wondered why people are so keen to see dramatic changes in education policy. Well, okay, I don't wonder. Most of the people who say such things are in the minority who had bad experiences at school or who have no contact whatsoever with state education (being home or privately schooled... often to the nth generation). What these people don't understand is that if you screw up your policies, you screw over people for their entire lives and their families' lives (often, again, to the nth generation).

From another Blog.
You might think I'm scaremongering but here's my truth: education policy should be terrifying.

So, to recap, what have we covered:

  • Philanthropy is power.
  • It's got the potential to be highly plutocratic.
  • There are lots of different kinds of plutocrat, not just those who rule in a plutocracy.
Which is pretty much the reverse order to how I covered them. And there's a reason for this and that's because what I really wanted to write about is what I'd do if I had the sort of money that Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers do. Hell, Musk is rich enough. So, what would I do with $50 Billion (NZ)?

Greater Auckland's (transportblog) Congestion Free Network
If you paused reading my meandering post to read those articles you might remember this bit:
THE networked approach to philanthropy recognises that it's hard to make a huge impact on your own, no matter how much money you have. The Gates Foundation gave out $1.3 billion in 2005. With Mr. Buffett's pledges, it will be able to double its philanthropic output, to about $3 billion a year.
That sure sounds like a lot. But it represents only about 1 percent of annual charitable giving in the United States — which was $260.3 billion in 2005, according to Richard T. Jolly, chairman of Giving USA, based in Glenview, Ill. The Gates Foundation has $30 billion in total assets; the National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $28.6 billion.
I told you Trump was a pauper. But I also disagree here. It's just as easy as it ever was to spend your insane wealth in ways that could make a huge impact basically on your own. You've just got to spend it on the right sort of thing. And infrastructure? Infrastructure is forever.

Early Underground Stations (1860s), Roman Aqueduct (ca. 100; by Bernard Gagnon) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937; by Rich Niewiroski Jr.) 
Well, okay, infrastructure isn't really forever but it does have a very long life cycle and when properly maintained can manage hundreds of years of use, no problem. But it's often difficult to get the funds to do it right and it's almost always subject to some kind of extreme market failure. Which is why it'd be a good area for philanthropic donations.

However, infrastructure spending is far from being free of value judgements: just look at all the hissy fits over the City Rail Link or Light Rail in Auckland. But what I'm suggesting is that these super wealthy individuals look at public transport projects which local and national governments want to build and fund those. It's what I'd do. Or, at least, what I hope I'd do. I could really transform Auckland if I could fund, say, the Light Rail L. Which, strictly speaking, isn't a project democracy is just trying to find the funds for, but I wouldn't pretend to be apolitical about it. I'd make people know that I reached out to AT, NZTA, Auckland Council and the Government specifically in order to implement a particular vision of choice, equity and development.