Failures Galore

Robin’s Book Report #69
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
– Letter from Me / Economic pandemic report
– Letters from You
– Reading list

***As always, I am curious what you are reading and curious what you are concerned about in terms of the economic situation, so please send me a letter if anything comes to mind. I won’t share your letter without asking first.***
Letter From Me:
  Hello readers,   I received a lot of mail in response to my last newsletter, some of which I am reproducing below. I also wanted to include a number of additional subjects that have drifted on to my radar in the last two weeks (in regards to the developing economic situation). I’ll do that first.  

-Fracking and energy companies might be taken over by banks, which would be illegal but would prevent them from presumably having to take major losses.  

-As mentioned in the last letter, brick and mortar retailers are beginning to fail. Neiman Marcus will file for bankruptcy. Retail like Neiman was hurting before the crisis, and many stores were funding operations on junk bonds (watch out for J Crew and JC Penney). The problem here is that there isn’t anything, that I can imagine, that wants to take up the leases for these huge stores. So the underlying entities who own the properties might also default, which could, in addition to other defaults, contribute to a financial crisis.   

-Some businesses that haven’t been bailed out yet pose a systemic threat.  

One problem with the stimulus package is that our economy is littered with all these non-bank banks that have emerged in the last decade or so (Quicken Loans is a nonbank, as is AIG). So far they don’t qualify for stimulus money. Many of them exist to skirt the lines of financial regulation, and lax enforcement has enabled their proliferation. For an illustration, an episode of Planet Money explores what would happen if everyone stopped paying their rent. The hosts speak with a landlord who pays two different businesses for his mortgage: Wells Fargo and a company called NewRez. NewRez is a nonbank mortgage servicer, meaning they collect money from mortgages and package those mortgages in securities that they in turn sell to investors. They deal in money and lending but are not considered banks by regulators.  

As I mentioned above, the problem is that these private, unregulated companies like NewRez––while a major cog in the functioning of the economy––do not yet qualify for the loans the Federal Reserve is doling out. I’m sure the government will eventually come to the rescue of these companies, but it really shows how broken our financial system is. First, businesses, especially banks and nonbanks, are so interconnected now, failures cannot be contained. Everything is systemically important, and thus Too Big To Fail. Second, new financial products and sectors often go unregulated until they cause a problem. Remember financial derivatives? Alan Greenspan told us we didn’t need to worry about them, until they blew up in 2008. Funding-starved regulators couldn’t even recognize threats if they wanted to. The financial system is massive and complicated. It’s like an overgrown garden, the size of two football fields, that’s tended by one asthmatic farmer whose tools are all dull, rusted, or missing. Novel weeds and pests fester in darkness until one day they take over. Only then are they addressed.   

Zombie firms also pose a problem. They’re loser companies that survive only by continuously rolling over lots of low-interest loans, now they might all collapse at once. Most can’t survive more than a few weeks without paying their loans.  

-Cash payments were necessary but aren’t an egalitarian victory.  

I am less surprised and excited by the direct cash payments from the government, and unlike some people I don’t see it as the end of whatever the previous economic regime was. Many influential people from across the political spectrum––from hedge fund king Ray Dalio to former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke––have openly suggested, for years, that cash payments will be necessary to stimulate the economy especially in the event that the only two tools it has to stimulate the economy (interest rates and quantitative easing) don’t work. That is, if interest rates are already so low that you cannot lower them further or quantitative easing has been stretched to the max, which is precisely the situation that we are in now. (It doesn’t matter if you’re not familiar with interest rates or quantitative easing or how they work, I barely can wrap my brain around them. What is important is that they are tools to manipulate the economy, and prior to the crisis they were already at full power.) Bernanke talked (way back in 2002) about how cash payments might be necessary to stimulate the economy in the event of an economic catastrophe. So I don’t see it as a triumph of a newly energized left or of Modern Monetary Theory. On one hand, it demonstrates the hypocrisy in grilling politicians who support Medicare for All about how they’ll pay for it, but on the other hand that line of questioning was always so obviously cynical and untrue: untold sums are always found for military spending and to offset the losses caused by tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction. Massive government spending is not the lefty issue people make it out to be. Reagan ran enormous deficits. Actually changing US society requires a renewed, permanent emphasis on redistribution of resources, of which the cash payments aren’t evidence of. They are an attempt at maintaining the status quo, which will fail because many people will come out of this crisis with more debt and less savings. The payments are simply one of a very few options the Treasury and Federal Reserve had to avoid triggering a massive financial crash. Which is something they should do! But I don’t see it as a big change in economic policy. However, if it awakens people to the hypocrisy of asking how social programs will be paid for, that is good.   

It’s just more evidence that the question of paying for social programs like healthcare splits along ideological lines not logical, or procedural lines. People don’t oppose universal healthcare because they think it would bankrupt the country, because how would they even know? The analysis required to make that claim is tremendous; it just confirms a larger sociopolitical impulse against redistribution, which is the heart of the problem, not the funds. Minding the budget sounds apolitical, but it’s really not. Cash payments and a $2 trillion stimulus show that the funds are there, the government just didn’t want to spend it. 

  Letters from You

Michael with a correction:   Hey Rob, quick correction here: “our government’s reported plan to save small businesses during the pandemic is to provide loans at 3.75% interest” is out of date. The CARES act includes a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), “a low-interest (1%) loan that will be forgiven if employee wages and count are maintained through June 30, 2020…. This program is available for any small business with less than 500 employees…. The PPP loan has a maturity of 2 years and an interest rate of 1%. the maximum loan amount is 2.5 X the average monthly payroll costs…. The form is relatively simple (2 fillable pages)…. The CARES Act Stimulus is $349 Billion. The banks will get overwhelmed.” [here’s the referenced Forbes article]. It’s probably underfunded, there’s been some confusion as it gets off the ground with last-minute changes, but it’s a lot better than what you have in here. That said, I personally think the whole thing is a bit of a sham, and we should just be sending out money to individuals.  

Me:    Thanks Michael. And I want to apologize to Matt, who isn’t at fault here. He wrote his letter to me before the PPP came out and I failed to follow up. However, if a business had already taken a 7(a) from the SBA you don’t qualify, and the cost is still high, from 2.75 percent to 4.75 percent.   Also, as Michael predicted, the program is way underfunded. The $350 billion pot set aside for it is already out. And there are many other problems emerging from PPP now, banks are refusing to service new customers, and banks are closing their application portals. This failure to service the wider public falls hardest on communities that have historically lacked access to credit, like black business owners. Hedge funds are applying for these small business loans too, which is surely, uselessly sucking money out of the pool.  


especially great letter. thanks for keeping it up, hope you’re feeling well.  

I’m nearly done with this Bertrand Russell History of Western Philosophy, it’s really good though I’m sure more than a bit biased. Apparently his wife did a lot of the historical research which is interesting. He almost like spins the battle over western thought into some kind of epic fantasy. 

 Also reading Carceral Capitalismwhich I have a feeling you’ve read. Excellent, practically a tutorial on how to write concise and engaging materialist analysis.   stay up!  

Me:    Haven’t read CC, I will check it out.

> Millions will immediately go back to work, which is different from the
> 1930s or the 1980s when workers were unemployed because businesses failed and sacked their workers.  

Millions will go back to work, but immediately?  I expect at least a certain amount of hysteresis: they won’t all go back to where they left or were laid off or fired, and there’ll be some messing around and delays as businesses come back to life in recovery and stage their hiring. Moreover, there will be fewer of those businesses, because some won’t have survived, or they will have had to change focus. In some places the businesses will have survived, but not all the earlier jobs.  

Of course certain businesses will need even more people… for a while. Not many, I expect. Perhaps we’ll see a new spike in temporary jobs, even a temporary spike followed by another drop.    And because so many people will want to return to paying work, we might also be looking at a Western-capitalism-driven overall lowering of wages.  

I do hope my worst fears won’t be realized, but as you already know, I don’t worship at that church.  


You’re right about all this, and there is bound to be some interruption in the process of reopening the economy, which is looking worse than I initially expected. Mass gatherings, like music and sports events, might not happen at all for a year. And it’s likely that wariness will change workers’ behaviors. However, in this case it is important to separate unemployment as a cause of economic pain and as a result. The problem in analyzing unemployment right now is that the two groups are swirled together in the same pot, both workers who are laid off temporarily and workers who are permanently laid-off.   Both types of unemployment can be painful for the people and the society, but in different ways. What is notable about the unemployment of the 1930s or 1980s was that it was foremost the result of bad economic conditions, which caused owners to sack their employees. For all these workers, there was no job to go back to. This will surely be the case for many firms once the shutdown is over, but it is hard to say now. However, it is important to note that being unemployed––over even not making 100 percent of your salary––can cause people to save more than they usually would, which will also delay the recovery and negatively affect employment. (Though this would be welcome development for the sake of the environment.) High debt levels also constrain people’s spending. With an economy that is 3/4 dependent on consumer spending, this could be a very large problem.   

Another aspect here, as you allude to, is that high unemployment is great for owners of businesses.  The larger the pool of people seeking work, the more wages can be suppressed. Of course it doesn’t always work like this (we recently had the opposite, very low unemployment, and it didn’t raise wages meaningfully) but it will to some degree without government wage controls and/or a militant labor movement.   

What I want to stress is that the news reports of unemployment are significant but not necessarily as compared to other moments of economic strife. Media loves to compare but sometimes the comparison is wrong.
Reading list

  “Pryor Love”
The life and times of America’s comic prophet of race.
By Hilton Als (The New Yorker) 1999  
Haunting portrait of Richard Pryor.  

Dinner with Schmucks
The faux populism of contemporary food writing
by Kyle Paoletta (The Baffler)

There is something very wrong with Pete Wells’ food criticism, and this essay unearths most of it. Wells, for me, is primarily confused about the class concerns of dining and ultimately ends up all over the map, senselessly defending wildly expensive food and attacking middle-brow restaurants, while taking swipes at sacred cows (like Peter Luger and Per Se) so as to cause a scene. Ultimately, Wells loves high-brow cuisine and the standards that have been created to judge it, and struggles to imagine a different, less irrelevant paradigm.  

Into the Maw
How Obama-era economics failed us.
By Ryan Cooper (The Nation)  

I, like a lot of people, see the economic policy since the end of the Bush administration as largely an unbroken chain of bad, regressive policies. Obama reversed little of the priorities of conservative economists in government, and even went so far as to reappoint them once he came to office. This review does an amazing job presenting that argument, and if you are wondering why Obama failed to reverse or even halt economic and social inequities, this is an important piece. Biggest point is that after 2008 the status quo was maintained at all costs:  

“The Bush-Obama bailouts reflected a highly political and ideological choice on their part to preserve the financial status quo at any cost—including the enormous share of the country’s economic output gobbled up by Wall Street—and to do so while directing incomprehensible amounts of money to the banks instead of to the American people.  

Somebody was going to have to eat those losses—and Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, and the Obama economic team were committed to making sure it wasn’t the banks.”  

The Price of the Coronavirus Pandemic
When COVID-19 recedes, it will leave behind a severe economic crisis. But, as always, some people will profit.
By Nick Paumgarten

Fun article with some good analysis of what’s going wrong in the middle portion.

Adam Curtis and Vice director Adam McKay on how Dick Cheney masterminded a rightwing revolution As told to Paul MacInnes (The Guardian)

The point they raise that is important is that fear is the overriding political ideology in both major parties today (this was the subject of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares, which is mainly about the War on Terror). Today both sides practice fear based politics, whether it’s a fear of Trump or a fear of immigrants. Very little room for an optimistic vision of the future, except in calls for universal investments in society (like universal healthcare or the Green New Deal). I also find the labor movement optimistic.

Songs from SinjarHow ISIS is hastening the end of the Yezidis’ ancient oral tradition.
By Alex Cuadros

Essay about the music and cultural history of Yezidis in Syria.

Robert Moses and The Market As God

Robin’s Book Report #56
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new writing
-reading list

New Article Alert

A new Wegmans is being plopped down in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I went out to talk to the NYCHA residents in the area about how the new fancy grocery store may or may not help them. It’s my first big feature, and first article for Gothamist. Give it a read.


My article about Bill de Blasio’s failure to imagine a new way to develop low income housing without enriching private developers and supercharging gentrification was recently translated into Spanish. I can’t read Spanish, so I remain blissfully unaware of the quality of the translation. Though they misplaced the hyphen in my name, which is not a good sign.


Reading list

Is Poverty Necessary?” by Marilynne Robinson (Harper’s)

Great essay. It stays to true to the titular question, which is not an easy task because it is an incredibly complex question. The question about why poverty still exists sprawls across the regions of not only economics and politics, but philosophy, anthropology, any other number of fields.

Best clip:

This prompts a question that we ask with some urgency now. To quote Henry George: “Why, in spite of increases in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?” I believe the short answer would be: because they can, neither ethics nor law intervening.

Trust me, she doesn’t settle for the short answer. This essay will allow you to see the issue of poverty anew. Restricted access online, but I’ll scan the issue and send you a PDF if you’re interested.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade Was a Robert Moses Head Fake

By Thomas J. Campanella (Intelligencer)

The dramatic, tricky, tactical side of Robert Moses:

In all likelihood, Moses ordered the Hicks Street survey simply to provoke the Heights, fanning its worst-case fears so that almost any alternative would be embraced by relieved and grateful residents.

Apologias Halfway House

by Jacob Shell (n+1)

Jacob Shell visits three exhibitions dedicated to Robert Moses (in 2007) and finds that while all the shows try to rehab Moses’ imagine, they neglect a major aspect of Moses’ program: that he was trying to design a city that would retain it’s industrial backbone. He built public housing so factory workers would have a decent, affordable place to live, highways to move goods in, around, and out of the city, hospitals to keep workers healthy, and schools to educate them. What we forget is that the city (New York City, but most U.S. cities actually) bowed before the altar of Fordist manufacturing. This obviously makes no sense to a contemporary denizen of New York. The highways seem to be ugly streaks across perfectly good real estate! Our urban new religion is real estate, and to a smaller degree, retail.

Anyhow, Moses failed to retain New York’s industrial economy, and that spine dissolved between the fingers of city leaders in the late 1960s. But thinking about Moses in this way makes his authoritarian interventions make a little more sense, like the radical transformation of Taiwan in the last half of the 20th century, or even China for that matter.

The Market as God”

Living in the new dispensation

By Harvey Cox (The Atlantic)

Cox, a theological scholar at Harvard, had a realization in 1999 (when this article was written). The business pages of the newspaper professed a new, complicated, almost totally realized faith: the market.

Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

I, of course, agree wholeheartedly: it is the true faith!

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.

We see the eschatology of the market prophets play out almost daily. Dark seers take to the New York Times to warn of an oncoming recession. But read the column and what do they know? A decline in the price of pork bellies indicates a slow-down in Rust Belt consumer spending? Maybe they’re right, but they’ve definitely been wrong.

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought.

A sort-of Marxist conclusion:

The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities.

A Somewhat Disgusting Morbidity

Robin’s Book Report #55
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-This week I talk about why we shouldn’t worship thrift

-Hit me up with what you have been reading!

A somewhat disgusting morbidity
I enjoy almost all elements of personal money management: saving money, spending it shrewdly, getting credit cards for the points, setting up different savings accounts, finding free stuff on the street, and other absurdities. Most importantly, I love to grocery shop. If I get a sweet deal on ground beef, it’s a great day. As many of you know, I’m a member of not one, but two different discount grocery stores. I keep a spreadsheet on the unit prices of items that are sold at both stores, in order to get the best price. It’s crazy, but it’s fun! On slow days, I’ll go for a walk and invariably end up at a grocery store, wandering the aisles, checking prices.I also love saving money. When I was 18, I saved $12,000 in a year working at a diner. When most people would have been blowing their money on food and clothes and vacations and drugs, I was living like I was broke. I stashed my tips in a shoe box that I would take to the bank every week and deposit. It just made me happy to think of all that money piling up. Anal-rententive? I don’t know! (I lost it all in a two month period the following year.)

My lifelong attentive money management, lust for deals, and love of saving used to seem like something of a virtue. It meant I was better equipped for the world than other people. But now, I regard it as just another predilection like bird-watching, sado-masichism, or knitting.

That is, some people are freaks: they are cursed (or blessed) with a money fixation. The early 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes thought this desire to make money above all else was “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” I agree!

The desire to make a bunch of money––in the stock market, in real estate, in tech, in some other profitable sector––isn’t in everyone. But should this mean that the rest of society, with their unprofitable proclivities, are worthless?

The cruel reality is that we venerate the wealth in America because without a sturdy social safety net, you have to have wealth to do more than survive. Unfortunately, being wealthy is largely a lottery in which some people are born holding better odds. Sometimes wealth comes as a result of hard work, but sometimes it’s inherited with no effort at all. Worse, hard work is often not enough to ensure reward. Frugality is often sold as a path to riches, but it’s really not. Frugality is just a hobby, not a virtue. Recent stories about the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement are really myths that allow our culture to dismiss the poor as simply irresponsible spenders.

Being frugal is for the richThe Frugalwoods made a name for themselves teaching millennials how to save money. Trouble is, you have to start with a lot of it. By Miles Howard

The Frugalwoods are an “inspirational” family that had tremendous advantages and tremendous incomes before they “retired” early to rural America. But it’s not about the facts, it’s their story that is insidious:

“These Millennials [the Frugalwoods] are telling an older generation of elite Americans — the very people whose policies and financial decisions kneecapped the economy — what they want to hear: that everything is more or less okay, and young people just need to be more thoughtful about their money.”

The poor are often incredibly thrifty, but it only carries them so far.

So with that in mind I want to review Keynes’ 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he (correctly) theorizes that productivity gains (and wealth created by the miracle of compound interest) after 1940 will make it possible for wealth to be completely automated. The first challenge will be wealth’s distribution, and the next to figure out how to value our lives and occupy our time when the senseless accumulation of money isn’t the goal. Here are some important, choice passages.

Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” by John Maynard Keynes 1930 [all bold letters are my emphasis]

“[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

Keynes thought we would one day be at least partially free of the orbit of money. It is the opposite of what the Chicago school economists taught: that we should never be free of economic concerns, that we should aspire to make all of life subject to economic concerns.

“There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Lastly, Keynes imagined that in this new future economists (and business people) would be much less important:

But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”

So, that is, fuck the job creators!

Fear City, poverty, and CIA spooks

Robin’s Book Report #54
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-Letters to the Editors
-Reading list

What did you read last week? Lemme know!

I enjoy getting replies to my letters, but rest assured: I’ll only reprint them with your permission. So fire away!

Here’s a response to the prison newsletter


For me, prison actually made things worse for my dad. It’s not a solution. It’s actually a costly exacerbation of the initial problem.

If we really wanted to “solve” for crime then we’d be measuring what works and adapting our solutions. For me, prison seems like a great example of how humans don’t want to solve problems, they want to avoid problems. And we also like to punish rather than correct. The fact that we call it dept of corrections is a joke. We’re not correcting problems, we’re punting them down the road. If you’ve ever tried to punish anyone (a child, a dog, let alone an adult) into reforming their behavior then you know how futile it is. That old saying: “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”

The curious thing for me is that it could be far less costly to use the carrot instead of the whip. Imprisonment is insanely expensive and doesn’t effectively reform people. And why should they reform? Because it hurts to be caught? True reformation happens because life will be better if and when we do reform.

Don’t get me wrong tho, I’m not necessarily against imprisonment. I just think that the essential premise was well and good a long time ago, but it’s become an accepted norm in civilization, and things can get wacky when we accept things as normal. They get perverted from their original purpose, which was to reform criminals and deter future criminals. If that was the true function of prison, wouldn’t we be doing things differently?

I think of this quote from a radio show 20 years ago. I think it was KQRS and that host Tom what’s his name. They had an expert on child abusers in the studio and Tom was calling them monsters. The expert said we shouldn’t call them monsters. Tom was like, “That’s what they are. Why not call them what they are?” The expert replied, “If we call them monsters then we’re saying that there’s no hope for them becoming better. And if we treat them that way, does the hurting stop or get worse?” As someone who was abused as a child, that quote has guided me in how I approach people. Do I see them as dynamic beings with the will to become better? Or static, never changing objects…

Reading list

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein

Set amidst the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, Phillips-Fein renders a picture of how bankers used the crisis as an excuse to smash the state and take over New York City.

By the mid-century, New York City hosted an elaborate system of free hospitals, a free college, affordable public transit, a unionized public sector, and a robust welfare system. This was funded, in part, by the tax revenues of a vast network of industrial businesses spread across the city. Industry needed healthy, competent workers, and the city provided that. But in the 1960s, New York City’s government began borrowing heavily to fund its operations. No one thought it possible that the city would ever run out of money, so the debts were just allowed to roll-over year after year. At City Hall, almost no formal accounting occurred because there was an unwavering faith in the bright future.

Then, in the early 1970s, both industry and whites fled the city. The flight eroded the city’s tax base, and some began to openly wonder if the city would be able to pay its debtors. Bankers, neo-conservatives, and the rising professional business classes seized on the opportunity. They stoked fears of financial collapse by blaming the city’s unions and welfare state. The banks went on strike (refused to lend anymore money to the city without concessions) and won. The city’s welfare state was dismantled, austerity politics was implemented, and chaos ensued.

The events in New York in the 1970s were replicated across the country and then the world. Even recently, German central bankers have used a financial crisis in Greece to enforce austerity, and for almost fifty years the IMF and World Bank have used loan defaults across the global south to see the end of leftist governments. As Phillips-Fein says, “Ever since the 1980s, the embrace of private enterprise as the sole way to fuel social development has helped to justify and legitimate the economic inequality that seems to define our day.”

Financial capital is better equipped to deal with the flows of a global economy, and in the absence of global government that might properly tax global capital flows, financial capital’s power is almost unlimited. Bankers get to make their demands on society, to see the world they want to see: diminished power for workers, less government spending, and favorable treatment of business. It’s the raison d’etre for our unequal economy.

Working by Robert Caro

A terrific book with scenes from the working life of Robert Caro.

Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic” by Maureen Tkacik (The Baffler)

The author wonders: is The Atlantic a CIA propaganda front? At the time, the editor of the magazine was a man whose father was a spook for the CIA in Korea.

“Spook shop or not, The Atlantic’s soothing IV drip of frictionless, borderless, culturally agnostic thought-output plays a useful scrambling role in the context of unmitigated national crisis. A featured Atlantic contributor can be counted on—without interference from any known machinery of coercion—to wax incredulous when the current GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, for example, pleads with the audience at a competing Thought Leader conference to spearhead a manufacturing revival.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real

Thanks to a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, we finally have some answers for why Americans work so hard.

by Daniel Luzer

“Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich.”

The Mindfulness Conspiracy

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism. By Ronald Purser (The Guardian)


Why Corporations Want You to Shut Up and MeditateRon Purser’s new book McMindfulness examines how spiritual practices and self-care became tools for corporate compliance. By Zachary Siegel (The Nation)

I wondered this myself: is mindfulness a detrimentally palliative tool? If corporations are embracing it, likely it is. In a democractic society, there is nothing people in power love more than stasis. Mindfulness, if it helps you accept the current moment, is the opposite of activism, of striving for a better world.

Electric Cars” By Daniel Albert (n+1)

Why can’t we seem to get totally on board with electric cars? Electric cars have existed for more than a century. The issue is more complicated than we’d like to admit:

“Henri Lefebvre rightly labeled the car “l’objet-roi”: the king of all objects. Not only do people spend enormous sums on their automobiles — more than any item save houses, which we treat as appreciable rather than depreciable investments — but producers spend extravagantly to influence consumer choices. At its peak, automobile production and sales accounted for one in six American jobs. Even in their attenuated modern form, these industries account for nearly 8 million jobs in the US — 4.4 percent of private sector employment. Automobiles don’t just move us through space; they reproduce social space, thereby facilitating the reproduction of a capitalist political economy.”

“But why the internal combustion engine and its century of discontents, rather than clean, quiet electricity or powerful steam? In fact, both technologies outsold the internal combustion car in the early days, and skeptics of internal combustion argued (correctly) that it was loud, uncouth, and dangerous. “Who would willingly sit atop an explosion?” asked the American engineer Albert Pope, many decades before the overturned exploding automobile became a fixture of Hollywood chase scenes.”

Albert suggests that maybe we love the complexity of the internal combustion engine, we love the maintenance that it takes. This makes sense me because it is the same reason why some normally reasonable people have guns. They are machines whose complexity is seductive. Eliminating them isn’t just a practical matter, it deals with desire too.

Have We Reached Peak Lyft?After the IPO By Daniel Albert (n+1)

Albert again on why ride-sharing won’t fundamentally change our approach to cars. We want it to, because we’d like to see cars get used less, but once again, if we ignore the social element of car use, we are doomed to repeat ourselves:

“The claims for Peak Car have passed from inference to incantation. Millennials are getting their drivers’ licenses at diminishing rates because they prefer walkable cities to suburban sprawl. Traffic congestion is bad and getting worse. Driving is a mind-numbing chore. Buying a two-ton hunk of metal that sits idle most of the time has become an anachronism in an optimized world of Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Seamless. Automobile travel by smartphone app is just how digital natives do things! As Swisher puts it, “everything that can be digitized must be digitized.” Big data, AI, autonomous vehicles—all add up to smarter, greener, hipper urban living. What killjoy would claim otherwise?”

“Peak Car offers a compelling story of vast riches and better living. Yet the evidence is thin. The rate at which young people get their licenses has indeed been falling, but the trend began in 1983, when the internet was still a science experiment. Today, the three best-selling vehicles in the US by far are pickup trucks. Most of those trucks are used as personal vehicles, as their pristine empty beds make clear. Whatever madness causes Americans to drive empty-bedded trucks around is not something Uber or Lyft can cure.”

Inside Hushed Museum Hallways, a Rumble Over Pay Grows Louder

Art workers around the country are sharing their salaries and in some cases forming unions to put pressure on their institutions. By Elizabeth A. Harris and Robin Pogrebin (The New York Times)

Glad to see more coverage of the push to unionize museums, though the reporters forgot to cover Local 30’s (my union) recent and successful drive to unionize the MoMA PS1 Visitor Engagement department. That being said, it was Local 30 that unionized art workers at Guggenheim. So we got some coverage!

Don’t know who this following guy is, and I don’t think I would call him as the expert in a story about the art world organizing, but what he says here is right:

“Working in a museum can sometimes seem like a service industry for the wealthy,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Middle people in museums used to think they were part of the top bracket. Now they’re part of the bottom bracket, or at least don’t have anywhere to go.”

“You have this kind of perfect storm,” he added: “stagnated wages, working within an environment of great wealth inequality, job insecurity.”

Should Millennials Blame Boomers for Economic Woes?

Joseph C. Sternberg’s new book blames the Baby Boomers for Millennials’ economic woes—and lets Reagan off the hook. By Paul W. Gleason (Pacific Standard)

It’s hard to pin down exactly why today’s wage-earners are so angry and/or so fucked. Was it the Boomer’s widespread, cross-political party embrace of free-market ideology? Maybe? But even that accusation is often rife with problems:

“Time after time, Sternberg’s argument “isn’t that the free market has failed, but that Washington has failed to let the free market work as it should.” After a while, Sternberg starts to sound like the guy in your freshman dorm who always insisted that the real free markets (just like real Marxism) still hadn’t been tried.

In its way, the book’s framing of generational conflict reinforces the bleak moral message behind laissez-faire economic theory: Life is a struggle over scarce resources, and in order for you to win, someone else has to lose.”

I’m pretty sure to address wealth inequality of our age, someone does have to lose, though maybe it is better framed as a political question instead of a question of resources.

The Story McKinsey Didn’t Want Written

Tied to the global consulting giant is a massive investment fund. Based on its

reaction to this story, McKinsey likely doesn’t want you reading much about it.

By Michelle Celarier (Institutional Investor)

Somewhat of a slog towards the end, but the point is this: McKinsey’s internal hedge fund is invested in companies whose bankruptcies it has supervised. Meaning, it has potentially been in charge of a process that decides which investors get paid back, how, and when. It’s a judicial, that is, adversarial process that McKinsey is on both sides of. Even if they didn’t intentionally set out to commit fraud, it shows the danger in a firm so large, so wealthy, and so directly involved with so many different organizations.

Polanyi In Our TimesWhat the Austro-Hungarian economic theorist tells us about the upheavals of our age. By Nikil Saval (The Nation)

A reconsideration of the mid-century economist who tragically envisioned the socialist economy as inevitable, however:

“While socialists are usually the ones charged with being irresponsible dreamers, Polanyi wanted to show that it was economic liberals who were in fact dedicated to an implausible utopia. An unchecked market was anything but natural. Left to function on its own, it destroys human beings and the planet along with it.

The Great Transformation [Polyani’s defining book] offers a remarkable amount of insight into how [the market] helped commoditize those parts of human culture that should have remained outside the jurisdiction of the market—in particular, land, labor, and money. Subject to the logic of the market, instead of how the use of these social goods might benefit or harm society, land, labor, and money are transformed into what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities.”

The Very Small World of VCThe people who bet big on disruptive technologies have a lot in common. By Avi Asher-Schapiro (The New Republic)

“From its earliest days, venture capital mirrored, and amplified, the core structural dynamics in the American economy: What often counts most is who you know, and who your parents are.

“Who wins—and who loses—in a society that adopts the American approach to financing revolutionary changes? What are the consequences when the financial engines of innovation are so far insulated from democratic forces?”

Our Invisible Poor” By Dwight Macdonald (The New Yorker)

An interestingly dated little tidbit from 1963:

“That in the last half century the rich have kept their riches and the poor their poverty is indeed a scandal. But it is theoretically possible, assuming enough general increase in wealth, that the relatively poor might by now have achieved a decent standard of living, no matter how inferior to that of the rich. As the books under consideration show, however, this theoretical possibility has not been realized. Inequality of wealth is not necessarily a major social problem per se. Poverty is.”

“The late French philosopher Charles Pguy remarks, in his classic essay on poverty, “The duty of tearing the destitute from their destitution and the duty of distributing goods equitably are not of the same order. The first is an urgent duty, the second is a duty of convenience. . . . When all men are provided with the necessities what do we care about the distribution of luxury?” What indeed? Envy and emulation are the motives—and not very good ones—for the equalization of wealth. The problem of poverty goes much deeper.”

He’s probably wrong about this because wealth constitutes political and social power. And besides,  what is luxury? Is it wealth, savings, health, or some combination? Without affordable access to healthcare, affordable housing, and childcare, income is something of a joke. And if time is a luxury, then surely we are all more poor.

Our current situation shows that Macdonald is wrong, both inequality and poverty are problems. Though, as I said up top, inequality is more of a political problem. If money is power, then economics is politics for technocrats. Maybe fully automated luxury communism is that response that would satisfy a win-win minded critic like Macdonald, but I don’t feel like we are even close to that.

Privatizing PovertyHow the poor became an alien population by Kim Phillips-Fein (The Baffler)

More to what I said above, the labor market (and by extension, incomes) is insufficient to define poverty, when plenty of people can work and still be extremely poor:

“It is true that the decimation of the American welfare state has helped to create a tremendous pool of people living on remarkably low incomes, who may be only tangentially connected to the labor market. They apply for jobs but don’t get them; they flirt with eviction and homelessness; they struggle to raise children without a steady income, a prerequisite for any material or psychic stability. On the other hand, there are also many extremely poor people whose poverty is primarily the result of their declining conditions of employment: their work simply does not pay them enough to live on. Instead of drawing a bright line between these two populations, our economic order has ensured in many cases that this group overlaps with those who are outside of the market altogether. Neither status is hard-and-fast; members move indistinguishably from one group to the other, casualties of the tremendous rise in economic inequality of recent years.”

Labor’s Last Hope?” By Benjamin M. Friedman (The New York Review Books)

If pension funds took activist positions on the companies they invested in, could they protect the workers that they exist to serve? It’s a provocative idea, because labor in the last thirty years or so has receiving less and less of the national income and thus waning in strength:

“The issue that had obsessed theorists during the nineteenth century—the division of the fruits of economic production between people who do the work and those who own the capital that the workers use—was of little interest, since the division never seemed to change much. In the mid-1950s, 63 percent of all income generated by American business was paid out to labor and 37 percent to capital. In the mid-1990s the split was 62 percent versus 38 percent.

The last few decades have been different. On average over the past five years, wages, benefits, and other returns from working have garnered only 57 percent of what American business has produced. The other 43 percent has accrued to business owners, mostly including corporations and their shareholders. The change from two decades ago may seem small, but 5 percent of the nation’s total business income is well over $500 billion.“

The Perverted Worth Ethic

Robin’s Book Report #53
A newsletter by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

– A special book review of Shane Bauer’s American Prison

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of Shane Bauer’s excellent book American Prison earlier this year. For unknown reasons, the essay was not published. But the issues at hand are important, so I wanted to share with you what I wrote about it. Enjoy:
The Perverted Work Ethic
The investigative journalist Shane Bauer has written a book ostensibly about American for-profit prisons –– it’s called American Prison –– that is really two braided tales of work. The first is a 250-year history of forced penal labor. The second is about working at a contemporary for-profit prison. Both stories will shock the reader; they are thick with pathos, sadism, and bottom-of-the-barrel human depravity, all fueled by the relentless drive for profit.Bauer is an investigative reporter who once spent 14 months locked up in an Iranian prison. His recent book, American Prison, springs from his incredible full-issue exposé for Mother Jones, called “My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard.”

The history of for-profit imprisonment in America begins in the 18th century with indentured servitude. Scores of felons were shipped over from England to the colonies. Planters bought these convicts, whose labor was preferable because they were cheaper than slaves. And if they died, it wasn’t a big deal.

Thomas Jefferson advocated for penal slavery. He believed that it was a profitable, humane alternative to the death penalty. His advocacy and the history of penal slavery sprang from the Protestant idea that crime was the result a deficient work ethic. Bauer notes that this is because, at the time, 90 percent of all convicts were thieves. Laziness created thieves.

Early attempts to put convicts to work emerged in places like Philadelphia. Anyone who wasn’t put to death, was put to work on infrastructure projects like roads, highways, forts, and mines. Commenters like Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, worried that this public show of forced labor was dangerous for the burgeoning capitalist state: it made work look bad. He said that “employing criminals in public labor will render labour of every kind disreputable.” Punishment and forced labor would never be so public again.

The solution was to corral convicts into closed workhouses, known as penitentiaries. Prisoners made nails, shoes, rifles, or whatever new industrialists needed. It was the 1820s and slavery was being outlawed in Northeastern America; penitentiaries filled the new gap in the exploited labor market and were profitable. Bauer explains that this isn’t surprising: “forced labor [is] undeniably productive. An enslaved person in an antebellum cotton field picked around 75 percent more cotton per hour than a free farmer. Similarly, Texas prison farms into the 1960s produced a higher yield than farms worked by free laborers in the surrounding areas.”

As the penitentiary model spread to the South, it facilitated the transition from an agrarian to industrial economy. Especially after the calamity of the Civil War, the South needed something to help it remold its economy. Luckily for owners of capital, they wouldn’t have to stray too far from the forced labor of slavery.

But Southerners would augment and permanently pervert the Northern penal model. The penitentiary was associated with the reformist anti-slavery cause. Advocates for the workhouse thought, in true Protestant fashion, that work lead to eventual emancipation. This rankled many in the South, who believed forced labor needn’t be coupled with eventual freedom. And they were uncomfortable with white convicts doing labor that was previously done exclusively by blacks. So laws that forbid unemployment and over-penalized petty crimes like farm animal theft were invented to target and isolate blacks for incarceration. Southerners modified the ideological foundation of the Protestant prison: it would be all of the work, none of the emancipation. In other words, it would be slavery.

Some in the South had reservations. In 1820 one commenter noted that “the community should never derive benefit from crime because that makes it directly interested in their continuance and increase.” This prescient observation would go unheeded for almost 200 years.

The idea that a good prison reformed inmates was dead. Writer George Washington Cable in a critical analysis of the prison system in 1885 said that, “the penitentiary whose annual report shows the largest case balance paid into the State’s treasury is the best penitentiary.” If a prison was profitable for the state, it was a good prison. Convict leasing was big business for states. Between 1880 and 1904 a full 10 percent of the Alabama state budget came from convict leasing.

Convicts were leased to private interests who enforced order with sadistic brutality. Anonymous testimony to the National Conference of Charities and Correction explains that “before the war, we owned negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him… But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.” The profit motive had created a system of labor similar to slavery.

The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad company (TCI) was one of the most brutal leasees. Convicts put to work in their mines regularly contracted dysentery, drank water from polluted streams, and crawled around in dimly-lit caverns. When they died, their bodies were unceremoniously tossed along with the other mine refuse.


Leased convicts were a weapon TCI used to assault organized labor. Convicts couldn’t strike and could be pushed harder than free miners. These miners struck in Tennessee in 1890 over dangerous conditions and payment that could only be redeemed at the company store. Then the miners tried to free the leased convicts. It was the clash of two economic systems based on two opposed systems of labor.


Convict leasing fell apart only because states discovered they could open their own plantations and put convicts to work themselves. Working conditions at state plantations were so bad that convicts, almost exclusively black men, often tried to remove limbs in order to avoid the fields.

In 1956, convicts were still employed to pick cotton on state plantations. And conditions were still the same or worse than enslaved labor. A judge, in analyzing a plantation run by Terrance Don Hutto in Texas, called it “sub-human,” condemning “use of various forms of torture,” total lack of rehabilitative programs, overcrowding, racial discrimination, abuse of solitary confinement, continuing use of trusty guards, and lack of adequate medical care. Plantations fell out of favor, in the late 1960s, not because they were unconscionable hellscapes, but because profits began to decline.

Don Hutto would go on to found Correction Corporation of America, a private prison management company where Shane Bauer worked in 2014. Bauer explains that there is no other way to figure out what is going inside of these facilities: they are secretive and almost impossible for the public to access their records. After he passes a background check completes a superficial interview, Bauer heads to work at a facility in Winnfield, Louisiana. Instead of creating a persona, Bauer, a well known investigative journalist who frequently writes about prisons for Mother Jones, applies with his real name. It does not matter. The prison is desperate for people who are willing to work for $9 an hour. As one of his coworkers puts it, “someone asked me if we were pretty picky about who we hire. I said, Well I’d love to tell you yes, but we take ‘em six-legged and lazy. We take whatever we can get!”

The prison is chronically understaffed. There are no guards in the towers anymore, and most wings of the prison don’t have enough staff to do the checks of inmates every half-hour. There is essentially no order or schedule at the prison. Corrections officers (COs) send inmates to chow whenever they can: sometimes it’s noon, sometimes it’s three. The hobby shop is now used for storage, and the yard is almost always empty. Prisoners spend their days indoors, stewing and restless. By the end of Bauer’s four months working in the prison, stabbings are frequent. CCA’s paramilitary squad is brought in to randomly pepper-spray and terrorize inmates. It is chaos.

In Winn, the prison continues to run because there are just enough desperate people who will work this dangerous job for what Bauer calls “fast-food wages.” But the prison is so short-staffed that Bauer often works multiple twelve hour shifts in a row without any time off, only getting off enough time to go home, shower, sleep, and return to work.

Bauer grows angry, anxious, and mean working as a CO. A vindictive sadism erupts out of him in an attempt to manage and control prisoners. His own behavior appalls him.

Inmates are no longer being put to work, so private prisons make their money with prisoner guarantees. As Bauer explains, “roughly two-thirds of private prison contracts include ‘occupancy guarantees’ that require states to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Under CCA’s contract with Louisiana’s Department of Corrections, Winn was guaranteed to be 96 percent full.” If private prisons make money, it’s because they have sweet contracts that guarantee it. It is essentially a welfare check doled out to CCA.

Winn also provides little to no medical care. One inmate that Bauer meets lost his legs to gangrene because the medical staff refused to send him to hospital, an expense that the prison would have to cover.

Everyone in the prison –– guards, prisoners, family members –– knows the problem is under-funding. CCA official’s call it a “cookie-cutter complaint.” And CCA is probably right, it is an often repeated gripe. But that doesn’t mean it’s an any way inaccurate. All the problems with the prison in Winnfield are caused by cost-cutting measures: low wages and high staff turn over, lack of guards, myriad broken equipment, lack of mental health staff, and lack of educational and rehabilitative programs.

The focus on the bottom line is the reason prisons are privately run at all. They are supposed to be saving the state money. But they don’t even do that. Bauer shows that, “private prisons ‘do not save substantially on costs,’ according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study. What savings do exist are achieved mostly through ‘moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs,’ read another DOJ report.” In other words, if private prisons save any money at all, it is by treating their staff as poorly as possible.

We privatize services the state normally performs because we assume that the profit-motive of private enterprise will come up with a better, cheaper solution. So if privatization doesn’t work, if there are problems with private prisons –– which Bauer shows us there undoubtedly is –– then the focus on the bottom-line is the fundamental issue with private prisons.

Neoliberal economists, like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, theorized that all realms of life would better refashioned as businesses. But incarceration is not an enterprise. Imprisonment, when it comes down to it, is an ethical issue. You can’t treat crime like a renewable commodity because, as that citizen noted in the 1820s, it will only create a situation in which someone has a vested interest in the production of crime and in lieu of that, punishment.

We quickly lost sight of why for-profit prisons came into existence in the first place: as a more humane way to reform criminals. Instead, the side effect of the reformation (that is, cheap, forced labor) became the sole reason for prisons to exist. Prisons, if they should exist at all, are a cost of society, not a cash-producing benefit. They are a deficit we run, an invest in the betterment of people.

The tragedy Bauer’s book expertly demonstrates is that America in many ways, has tried and often failed for 200 years to modernize its economy. It has failed to create an economic system that wouldn’t need any exploited labor to function: whether it was the labor of prisoners or desperate people of rural America, willing to work a dangerous job for fast food wages.

Reading list

All Over the MapJared Diamond struggles to understand a connected world. by Daniel Immerwahr

“Rather than ground his pronouncements in the scholarship he’s read, he repeatedly invokes “my own first-hand experiences and those of my long-term friends.” His “friends” tell him that a coup against Chile’s elected leftist President Salvador Allende was “inevitable,” that Japanese teenagers text too much to date, and that U.S. venture capitalism succeeds because it takes bold risks.”


Special Journey to Our Bottom Line” by Elizabeth Schambelan (n+1)

Excellent essay on hazing: how it’s torture and how torture has been woven into the history of the United States and the United States military.

The Art of Critique” By Corey Robin (Jacobin)

This article is Corey Robin’s reply to the New York Review of Books review of his book by Mark Lilla. The whole dust-up was prime-time, high-end scholastic brawl.

The question for Corey Robin is, how do we account for right-wing populism. How do we account for it when his thesis is that conservative ideology is a counterrevolutionary defense of power. And do we need to be so angry about it? How will we convert conservatives if we are so angry? Robin seems to believe that conservatives are not stupid, they’re evil. I might agree. Robin also makes the point that conservative thinkers have brilliantly absorbed the energy and tactics of the revolutionary political movements that they then set out to counter. What better expresses Milton Friedman and Friedriech Hayek’s appeals to the liberty and freedom? And what better example, because they are two thinkers that could easily be credited with creating the world we live in with such staggering economic inequality.

How Sovereign Citizens Helped Swindle $1 Billion From the Government They Disavow” By Ashley Powers (New York Times)

Libertarianism is a bad faith argument. It’s not a belief in liberty, but in closing the door to other

The sophistry of “stakeholder”

Robin’s Book Report #52
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Happy July! This is my favorite month.

Here’s my reading list for the week, please email me with what you have been reading or watching.


Reading list

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 2: Stakeholder” by John Patrick Leary

The word “stakeholder” entered the popular business lexicon recently. As John Patrick Leary tells us, “stakeholder” really comes from gambling, but is now being used as a word that refers to all the people who might feel the impact of a business (employees, suppliers, neighbors, citizens, etc). But I argue that while the shareholder value is easy to define, stakeholder value is impossible to define. Can you measure how happy your employees are? Or how much benefit the neighbors of a business operation are getting? Vagueness plays to power. “Stakeholder” sounds warm and fuzzy, but it is really an attempt by the owners of capital to get around the power of shareholders, people who have had the ability to toss owners out if they didn’t maximize their value. This in turn placed power in the hands of institutional shareholders like hedge funds and junk-bond corporate raiders. The newfangled use of “stakeholder” is really just a battle in the upper ionosphere of our society that probably means little to little people.

How Can Every Democrat Be a “Progressive”?” By John Patrick Leary (The New Republic)

Another nice semantic parsing by Leary:

“The problem with “progressive” isn’t that it is a label, but that it is such a muddled one—when Buttigieg, Nancy Pelosi, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can all lay claim to it, the word does more to obscure and camouflage their differences, than to illuminate them.”
What’s (Still) the Matter with Iowa?Unemployment “reforms” in Iowa and other states controlled by the GOP fit neatly with a larger agenda: not to protect workers from low wages, unsafe working conditions, and unbridled employer power, but to compel them to accept whatever they can get. By Colin Gordon (Dissent)

Iowa wants to clamp down on already restrictive access to unemployment. More assaults on working people.

Silicon Valley makes everything worse: Four industries that Big Tech has ruined

The tech industry sells itself as improving our lives. So why does it seem to always do the opposite? By Keith A. Spencer (Salon)

Tech mainly just added broker to transaction that previously did not have them. That’s the primary innovation of Silicon: butting in and extracting a little cash.

Lillian Ross’s Brilliant Chronicle of the Power Struggle Behind a John Huston Film” By Richard Brody

Lillian Ross’ Picture was a chronicle of doomed film. But was it because of Huston’s hubris or the studio systems meddling?

Semantic Drain and the Meaninglessness of Modern Work”

Stop calling your social media manager a “guru” by Oriana Schwindt

Schwindt suggests maybe the meaninglessness of words like “content creator” are a sign of how meaningless our jobs are in general.

Don’t Buy This JacketPatagonia elevates consumer restraint to an elite form of snobbery. By Phoebe Maltz Bovy (The New Republic)

Anticonsumption chic is the bourgeoisie’s new idee fixe.
Apple’s Newest Store and the Perverse Logic of Philanthro-Capitalism

The Apple Carnegie Library embodies recent developments in philanthropy that should trouble us By Benjamin Soskis (Boston Review)


Was Andrew Carnegie a better philanthropist than Apple? The new Apple Carnegie Library seems thoroughly stupid, but I’m not sure I am ready to venerate a tycoon just because one company acted more depraved and tacky. That being said, this new Apple store is truly disgraceful.

We Wrecked the Planet but if the Young Just Read the Washington Post, They Will Only Blame Us for the National Debt!” by Dean Baker

Paul Samuelson will have you think the national debt is all that baby boomers have left the future. But this isn’t totally accurate. There’s also crazy wealth inequality and a climate lurching light-speed towards danger!

Google’s Shadow Work Force: Temps Who Outnumber Full-Time Employees” By Daisuke Wakabayashi (New York Times)

Surprise! Google relies on a massive bedding of exploited temps:

“[T]he company’s increasing reliance on temps and contractors has some Google employees wondering if management is undermining its carefully crafted culture. As of March, Google worked with roughly 121,000 temps and contractors around the world, compared with 102,000 full-time employees, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times.”

I would argue that they aren’t “undermining” their culture, they are doing what every American company has done for the last fifty years.

“Contingent labor accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the workers at most technology firms, according to estimates by OnContracting, a site that helps people find tech contracting positions.”

Pretty obvious evidence of temps being treated like a separate, lower caste:

In their letter to Mr. Pichai, the temp workers said the company sent security updates only to full-time employees during a shooting at YouTube’s offices last year, leaving contractors “defenseless in the line of fire.” They were also barred from a meeting the next day to discuss the attack.
The Case For Small-Business CollusionHow America’s anti-monopoly laws got turned against the little guy.

by Phillip Longman

Should freelancers be free to set prices? A floor for wages? Currently they can’t, but why not? The interesting case of the organized organists and the FTC sheds light on a cruel interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The New Deal Wasn’t What You ThinkIf we are going to fund a Green New Deal, we need to acknowledge how the original actually worked. By Louis Hyman

Good article, important for considering Green New Deal:

“The story about the New Deal we have in our heads—that it was tax-and-spend liberalism at its worst (if you are conservative) or best (if you are liberal)—may obscure policy opportunities today. We can spend taxpayer money to address climate change, and we probably should, but that is not the only option. If we are going to fund a Green New Deal, we need to acknowledge how the original New Deal actually worked.”

Guaranteed mortgages, technical support and loans to rural coops to electrify the countryside, sounds good to me:

“What’s more, once the REA demonstrated that rural America could be cheaply electrified, other entrepreneurs took notice. Rather than “crowding out” private initiative, government provided an example that worked. Most small businesses, then and now, are imitative rather than innovative. That is fine. Small business can replicate best practices rapidly through the economy, which is exactly what happened in rural America.”

But deep-down, what’s the point of government? It’s often directing, negotiating, and distributing power:

“Government power lies not just in spending, but in helping businesses overcome risk-aversion and finance new opportunities for growth. As we imagine policies to fight climate change—certainly as crucial as fighting World War II—let’s remember how the New Deal really worked, so that we can do it again.”

Man said he attacked officer because he prefers prison to homelessness” By Nelson Daranciang (Hawaii Star-Advertiser)

A homeless man stabbed a police officer with a screwdriver so that he could go to prison. He was tired of living without a roof over his head. The key to your new house is a screwdriver!

You can’t just put homeless people in tiny housesRather than confront America’s housing crisis head-on, some cities are asking homeowners to build tiny rental units in their backyard.

By Miles Howard

McKinsey and Co: The Anarchist Austerity Cult

Robin’s Book Report #51
by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-recent writing
-my round-up about McKinsey and Company, the transnational management consulting firm

I recently wrote for the Baffler about Bill de Blasio’s failure to address the housing crisis in New York. He claims to be the candidate for “working people,” but it’s not really true. The housing crisis is working people’s largest problem, and depending on how you look at it, he either did nothing or made it worse.

Unfortunately for me, de Blasio’s campaign is so doomed I’m not sure anyone cares to read a critical take-down of the dunderhead. However, it’s an important article because it says a lot about why Democrats often posture as defender of the working class but flail once in office. They employ regressive market mechanisms to solve problems instead of considering alternatives. De Blasio continued to use Bloomberg’s housing mechanisms, which are really just expensivization techniques. He demonstrates a disgraceful lack of imagination. Enjoy!

McKinsey and Company is an anarchic cult out to extract the wealth of nations

McKinsey and Company, as you may know, is the transnational, ultra high-end management consulting firm, founded about a hundred years. I wrote about them a little bit in a review of Louis Hyman’s Temp earlier this year. McKinsey is not a publicly traded company; it’s a partnership. This means they are free to be completely secretive. McKinsey is not unlike Skull and Bones or other secret societies; former members are proud to have belonged and loathe to reveal information about inner workings. To be made a partner (of which there are now thousands) at McKinsey is to be given a boat of money and a golden ticket to the executive class. Many make partner and move on after a few years.

McKinsey is an advisor to a large majority of the biggest corporations, governments, and NGOs in the world. Management, executives, and people in power love to hire McKinsey: it’s a signal that greater efficiency and larger profits lie just beyond the horizon.

But there are some structural deficiencies with McKinsey that are worrisome. As they expand across the globe, spreading the gospel of austerity, they have run out of stand-up clients to work for and have extended themselves into some unsavory relationships. This has revealed that at their core, the consultancy is an amoral, anarchic organization just as likely to aid legitimate groups as they are criminals. And they’ll always push for what the best for those in power (who, of course, hired them), which is austerity. Today I am reviewing some material that reveals why McKinsey is an anarchic cult out to extract the wealth of nations.

McKinsey & Company: Capital’s Willing Executioners

An insider’s perspective on how the world’s most elite consulting firm spreads the gospel of capitalist by Anonymous (Current Affairs)

Not a great article but does highlight the structural flaws of McKinsey, namely, it has no structure:

“McKinsey’s governing model, when compared to other firms of its size and age, is anarchy. The Managing Director (CEO equivalent) has surprisingly little ability to control who the firm serves (said a partner about the Managing Director, “you are definitely not in charge”). McKinsey remains the world’s largest partnership, and partners rule. The general rule of thumb is that if a partner can staff a team, the firm will do the work.”

This is something that is disturbing about capitalism: that unregulated, it is highly amoral. You can’t predict whether McKinsey will be good or bad for the world because you can’t necessarily predict how people will act inside the firm.

The firm is pervasive, global, and influential:

“McKinsey serves more than 2,000 institutions, including 90 of the top 100 corporations worldwide. It has acted as a catalyst and accelerant to every trend in the world economy: firm consolidation, the rise of advertising, runaway executive compensation, globalization, automation, and corporate restructuring and strategy.”

The firm claims to be ethical, but it doesn’t work in all directions:

“The closest value is a commitment to “observe high ethical standards,” but I only ever saw this applied to the treatment of clients: don’t lie to them, don’t fudge your expenses, etc. If McKinsey had values that considered the human impact of its work and attempted to honor Sneader’s pledge, it would need to pull out of engagements all over the world.”

Why would consultants go into a room and present a Powerpoint that didn’t argue the powerful people who hired McKinsey shouldn’t get more money? Austerity always sounds good to those who hire McKinsey, whether they are business owners who free up capital by firing a bunch of employees or governments who free up capital by cutting social services.

The McKinsey Way to Save an IslandWhy is a bankrupt Puerto Rico spending more than a billion dollars on expert advice? By Andrew Rice With Luis Valentin Ortiz (New York)

McKinsey’s secretive internal hedge fund bought Puerto Rican government debt, and now its consultants are on the ground trying to find ways for the government to pay back it’s debtors with financial austerity, essentially trading public services for debt repayment. Is Mckinsey engaging in high level bankruptcy fraud? They are essentially running the Puerto Rican government:

“With consultants taking on more and more responsibility, McKinsey has virtually become a shadow agency of the government, and a powerful one at that — feeding a colonialist dynamic that PROMESA was supposedly designed to avoid. In January, a federal official familiar with McKinsey’s work in Puerto Rico told me: ‘They’re doing everything. If McKinsey leaves, the board essentially ceases to operate.’”

McKinsey is a secretive group that is out to suck the wealth out of businesses and countries:

Already the island is an object lesson in what happens when the logic of capitalism overtakes the structure of government. It is an article of faith at McKinsey that the same management theory that makes businesses run more profitably can be applied to further the public interest.”

Governments can’t be run like businesses, often because the government can’t really dissolve like corporations might. Governments have responsibilities to people regardless of profit, or any other kind of bottom-line analysis.

How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments” By Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe (New York Times)

Once again, as McKinsey has expanded globally, they have run into problems.

“In Ukraine, McKinsey and Paul Manafort — President Trump’s campaign chairman, later convicted of financial fraud — were paid by the same oligarch to help burnish the image of a disgraced presidential candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovych, recasting him as a reformer.”

The implication of all this is that in absence of global governance, we essentially have McKinsey:

“While the United States pulls back from international cooperation and adopts a more nationalist stance, major companies like McKinsey are pursuing business in countries with little regard for human rights — sometimes advancing, rather than curbing, the contentious tactics of America’s biggest rivals.”

Reporting on McKinseyHow We’ve Reported on the Secrets and Power of McKinsey & Company by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe (New York Times)

McKinsey likely encouraged or simply fueled the opioid crisis:

“That point was driven home in startling fashion when we recently reported that the Massachusetts attorney general had accused McKinsey of fanning the flames of the opioid epidemic. In legal papers, the attorney general alleged that McKinsey had instructed the maker of a powerful opioid on how to ‘turbocharge sales’ of the drug, how to counter efforts by drug enforcement agents to reduce opioid use and how to ‘counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed’ on the drug.”

The Country That Exiled McKinsey” A dubious project raises serious questions about the world’s most prestigious consulting firm and its work for corruption-plagued regimes.

by Ian MacDougall, ProPublica, and Anand Tumurtogoo (Propublica)

McKinsey entered into a consulting relationship for infrastructure contracts, to build railways to transport minerals out of Mongolia, that were shared by a company owned by the government official who brokered the deal:

“But as the Cold War’s end opened new markets worldwide, McKinsey reoriented its priorities toward aggressive expansion. Between 1989 and 2019, the firm vastly enlarged its global footprint, from offices in 44 cities across 23 countries to offices in more than 130 cities spread across 66 countries today. McKinsey reported $10 billion in revenues last year.”

“To sustain that kind of growth, McKinsey had to push into less familiar territory, like Mongolia, and into sectors, like government contracting, that the firm had traditionally eschewed. Government contracts often require more disclosure, bring more scrutiny, and are subject to more rules than corporate ones. ‘McKinsey has grown to the point that it is taking on work that prior incarnations of the firm would have turned down due to the political risk involved,’ a former McKinsey consultant wrote in an anonymous recent essay in the magazine Current Affairs.”

Foucault suggested that the term for our current economic arrangement is anarcho-capitalism (he said this in 1978 but it’s still applicable). McKinsey and Company, in many ways is the model of this idea. Secret, unstructured, influential, powerful, and pervasive, they are in some ways a catalyst and some ways a menace.

Our Decadent Nonsensical Work Ethic


Hello everyone,
I published an article recently with The Baffler, about the smoking wreckage of Panera Cares, Panera Bread Company’s libertarian soup kitchen. The response online was varied and interesting. Many people still want to believe that super-wealthy entrepreneurs are our best hope for solving big problems. Unfortunately entrepreneurs, like Ron Shaich, are short-sighted idiots, just like me and you! Collective action, solidarity, and governmental intervention works much better. My underlying argument is that Shaich should be shamed for thinking he could get customers to solve a problem that public institutions like our government already try to solve. Read it and let me know what you think!

This week’s issue is themed, focusing on the Protestant work ethic. As you probably know, the Protestant ethic is loosely the idea that people should work hard today, and save for tomorrow. In other words, we should deny ourselves the pleasure of today for our reward in heaven tomorrow. Sociologist Max Weber found the Protestant metaphor of denial in capitalism, as he describes in his famous text, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published way way back in 1905. And when you look for it, you still see it everywhere, which many journalists and writer types like me love to point out. I want to suggest that maybe the idea that we must toil is outdated, nonsensical, and oppressive.

At Carrier, the Factory Trump Saved, Morale Is Through the Floor (NYT)


Carrier, the air-conditioner maker, advertised during the New Hampshire primary that it would be shutting down its plant Indiana. After a promise of $7 million in tax breaks and $16 million in new equipment from Trump, they remained open. But with mandatory overtime and 60 hour weeks, one in five employees aren’t showing up for work. Employees see the writing on the wall, and believe correctly that Carrier can still move to Mexico at any time. People know when their jobs suck. They know when management doesn’t care, when there is no future. So we can cheer on job-creation, fight for higher wages, or even the possibly delusional goal of full employment, but we also must listen to our guts. Our guts might be saying that paying businesses to create jobs for people is a dead-end. Of course encouraging businesses to create jobs sometimes works. But what if the jobs so obviously suck? Also, in a pathetic twist, the money Carrier received was already “earmarked for automation.” So in one way, tax incentives actually paid Carrier to destroy jobs.

In the article, Nicole Hargrove, a worker at the plant, grapples with why people aren’t showing up to work. She says: “There are days when I’m hurting and I’m tired but when I walk through that door, I’m going to give 100 percent. The Bible says an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and I try to live by that.” My eyes narrowed to slits upon reading this. What the fuck does the Bible have to do with work? Should you work a shitty, pointless, doomed job just because the Bible says to? Is the Bible really that petty? Hargrove rightly feels that something in the social contract is breaking down, because while she knows that God has instructed them to toil, it doesn’t quite make sense. Her fundamental beliefs aren’t doing anything; her co-workers aren’t showing up.

Behind Hargrove’s sentiment is the Protestant work ethic, the ideology that democratized Western civilization by making it a universal moral obligation to work. Martin Luther and John Calvin both preached that from princes to paupers, everyone should pitch in to create a surplus. They enshrined an economic principle in moral, religious language. Their idea that to work when you’d rather play, to save when you’d rather spend, to abstain when you’d rather indulge, is still the essential economic (and moral) idea of our society. People who don’t “produce” anything are bad: from the “idle rich” to the poor lazy welfare cheats. This idea fed the great tidal wave of capitalism. But what the saga at Carrier indicates is that maybe this idea has run aground. Like a change in whale migration patterns, maybe these absentee workers are a signal that we should be heeding. Maybe work needs to be decoupled from Protestant morality.

The unexpressed story here is that the government is engaged in a perverted form of welfare. It gives corporations money to give people jobs. Consumers need to spend money to keep the economy running, and the only way to get this money, currently, is to work a job. Even if the job doesn’t need to be done. This logic presumes that corporations can always create useful jobs. This can’t possibly be true. Why doesn’t the government just skip the big fat middleman and give the money to the people? What we have here is a completely dysfunctional, segregated privatized welfare system.


Inside Nxivm, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment” By Vanessa Grigoriadis (NYT Mag)

in NYT mag


Leaders of the cult called Nxivm pushed followers to jog, count calories, and become vegetarians. They were also accused of sex-trafficking, coercion, and brutality. The founder, Keith Raniere, started Nxivm because he wondered if coercion could be used for good. And in some ways, it’s a totally banal idea. Many fad dieting and exercise crazes verge on cultish adherence. The government tries to do it all the time. Those “Dad hug your kids” or “use a condom” ads are attempts to coerce people to do something. In Ingmar Bergman’s day, Swedish mothers were encouraged to not show too much affection to their children, for fear that it would make them gay. He cites his mother’s denial of affection as the foundational pain in his life. But this was promoted by doctors, and coercively speaking, it worked.


The constituency of Nxivm also raises a question: why are the wealthy, actors, and business people so especially susceptible to self-improvement regimes? Scientology targets actors, and the Rajneeshees were famous for attracting the rich and frivolous to their cause. Is there something wrong with rich people? Are they more insecure than other people? Maybe they just have money to dispose of, or too much free time. But what about Tony Robbins? He is a self-help guy, but his work often crosses over to business advice. Why is that? Why does it seem like sales people need How To Win Friends and Influence People more than other people? Shouldn’t we all want to win friends? After reading the book, I found that it was indeed applicable for all people. We all could be a little more sensitive to the intricacies of getting along with others. Sales people rely on it because they have to deal with people even when they don’t want to. Their job is terrible and unnatural. Also, in the case of Tony Robbins, this self help stuff crosses over into the realm of exercise and brain health. The people who populate these forums are most often entrepreneurs, actors, creatives, and rich people. Once again. Why are the well-to-do so fixated on exercise? A Swedish company now makes its employees do crossfit. And Jeff Bezos is looking jacked. Self-help is often a melange of other religious practices, like gratitude and meditation and fasting, is this our response to a spiritual crises? Is extreme exercise the penance we do for bullshit, meaningless jobs? In the case of Nxivm, it definitely seemed to be the overriding ideology, just an amplification of what we all do all the time already.


Nxivm is just the extreme case of our time, where the regime of Protestant self-denial’s ultimate conclusion is a skin cauterizing manipulative sex-cuit.


The American Worth Ethic” by Bryce Covert (Longreads)


What is behind the work requirement for public welfare when the wealthy receive inheritance money with little taxation, or any work requirement? As Covert says, “No one has been made to pee in a cup for tax breaks on their mortgages.”

But Covert also wonders why we have such strict work-requirements for welfare in America. Is work really the rubric by which we judge value? Covert says, “even if it were true that there was a horde of poor people refusing to work, do we want to condemn them to starvation and likely death? In one of the world’s richest countries, do we really balk at spending money on keeping our people — even lazy ones — alive?”

The question strikes close to the root of the question: why does poverty still exist? When you get deep into this discussion, it often boils down to morality: some people are lazy, or unworthy of a good life. The reality is that work is an arbitrary and now unnecessary criterion by which to judge people, an outdated ruler to measure a person’s relative contribution to the betterment of their society. We don’t need people to work more. In fact, our planet would be better off if we worked less. Reducing the working week to fifteen hours would quickly offset massive carbon expenditures needed to run massive buildings and corporate infrastructures.

The basic premise behind the Protestant work ethic is that working more now will provide a surplus that can be multiplied towards growth later. But not only does our planet not need growth, it needs a reduction in capital accumulation. The paradox is that most working people get their money from actually working, whereas the rich get their money the way that the rest of us should (welfare checks), by collecting returns on investments:

“In 2012, those earning less than $25,000 a year made nearly three quarters of that money from a job. Those making more than $10 million, on the other hand, made about half of their money from capital gains — in other words, returns on investments. The bottom half of the country has, on average, just $826 in income from capital investments each; the average for those in the top 1 percent is more than $16 million.”

Covert goes on to say. “The richest are the least likely to have their money come from hard labor — yet there’s no moral panic over whether they’re coddled or lacking in self reliance.”

Covert is wrong here: people complain about the idle rich all the time. And this is in many ways not a useful criticism, because not working shouldn’t be a reason to criticize someone. Unfortunately it often is. We all work and––I know I have experienced this––resent the people who don’t have to. But actually, we should all aspire to be like the idle rich and lazy welfare recipients.
Why Work” by James Livingston (The Baffler)

Just stapling this on to the last sentiment: “We hate the idea that anybody is getting something for nothing, especially if the recipient is a paper-pushing bureaucrat, or a class-action lawyer, or a Wall Street banker—or a “welfare queen.”


Could Performance-Based Pay Lead to Depression Among Workers?” By: Andrew R. McIlvaine (HR Executive)

Should your pay be tied to metrics about how hard you work? Maybe not. Actually work is, as I said, just a privatized welfare system. Automation has driven worker productivity through the roof, since 1920. We need fewer and fewer people to produce more and more stuff. This is why performance based “incentivized” pay systems are a crazy draconian system that would reveal what it very true: that many jobs are pointless or don’t require 40 hours a week to compete. But if we admitted this, under our current system, our economy would collapse because consumers wouldn’t have enough money to keep the system afloat. What to do?

Why is work hell?

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Why are our fastest growing companies the worst places to work?

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (New York Times) and

At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks” by Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint (Wall Street Journal)


One of the mainstays of work life at Enron was an all-staff meeting called the Performance Review Committee. In the meeting, employees were ranked. The lowest-ranked individuals were routinely fired. The PRC caused rampant political maneuvering. Managers sacrificed good but expendable employees to save more valuable members on their team. They ganged up on other factions. This process is colloquially referred to as a “rank and yank” process. At the time, it was celebrated by management consultants like McKinsey and Company and by business schools like Harvard. The PRC was instituted by Jeff Skilling, the head of Enron, a graduate of Harvard Business School and one of the youngest people to make partner at McKinsey and Company. But during the final days of Enron, a external auditor found a toxic work environment, and stratospheric levels of unhappiness. Some suggest it was what brought the company down: employees were more than ready to rat out their colleagues to the Feds.


“Rank and yank” is one of the foundational elements of Amazon’s workplace, as revealed by and exposed in the New York Times. Amazon’s office seethes with the same Machiavellian intrigue as Enron. Most employees work 80 hours a week, take no sick days, work nights and weekends, and are granted no maternity leave. Confrontation is encouraged, especially in meetings. Compromise is weakness; it’s a pox that leads to mediocre ideas. There’s a backchannel process in the phone directory in which Amazonians can send secret messages to managers about their directs. Even advertisements for hiring emphasize that you either fit in at Amazon, or you don’t.


Why do people at Amazon work so hard? Because they love innovation? Maybe. Working at a growing company like Amazon gives people the chance to dream up big ideas and then implement them quickly. But surely new ideas can arise (and have) in less adversarial circumstances. So why all the pressure? Well, debt is extremely cheap for Amazon and if they don’t take the cheap capital, their competitors will.


So what is going on at Amazon? Amazon’s owners are filling up a pool with water. Employees do any number of things with the water. They sell it, make it into ice, and send it to the moon. If the owners stop filling the reservoir, someone else will use the water. So they are now filling the pool and it is getting really full and people are now very into all of Amazon’s various water products and are giving them tons of water. Employees must dig the pool deeper and wider, to find even more new things to do with all this water. Owners have really opened up the spigot now. So everyone better work as much as possible, as much as humanly possible to do something about all this goddamn water coming it. Better come in on the weekend to find a way to use this water! If you don’t use it, it evaporates away. Working like mad is effective, and the more water that gets used, the more water lenders are inspired to give to Amazon. Now it is a big cultural spectacle, these water works, that no one can stop talking about.


When capital is rushing in, you best find a way to spend it before it disappears.


Netflix is essentially the same workplace. In the WSJ article, workers recall not wanting to comfort a fired, weeping colleague for fear that they would look weak. And anyone can be fired at any moment; management encourages this fear with what they call the ‘keeper test.’ Would you fight to keep your employee on your team? If not, you should fire them. From the WSJ article:


“Mr. Hastings’ [the CEO] ring of top executives take the keeper test seriously. At a meeting in late spring of Netflix public-relations executives, one said every day he comes to work he fears he is going to get fired. Karen Barragan, the vice president of publicity for original series, asked how many other people felt that way. A number of hands went up.

“Good, because fear drives you,” Ms. Barragan said, according to people familiar with the meeting.


Is Netflix a crazy, anxious workplace because that is the only way to drive growth? Or is Netflix being dosed by a firehose spray of capital? In America, we had tremendous growth in the 1950s and 1960s without a tragicomic shark tank workplace. In fact, job security was expected.


Here’s an excerpt from Netflix’s crazy HR manifesto, which is an ode to vague, aspirational language that could be interpreted in any possible way:


“Are you courageous? Are you humble? Are you curious and passionate and ask thoughtful questions about the business? Are you able to and open to providing and receiving feedback to be better? Are you scrappy, have grit and willing to roll up your sleeves regardless of your title? Are you a team player? Are you inclusive and self aware?”


Why isn’t there an HR Powerpoint that just asks the real questions: Are you willing to work every weekend? Return to work after a week of maternity leave? Alert your bosses to your underperforming coworkers? Rarely see you children? Be glued to your phone?