February 2, 2019
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Contracts for Nothing

In the 1990's, helping to run a technology business, I was inspired by a form of business philosophizing, a New Agey trend which was led by a writer named Tom Peters. His 1987 book Thriving on Chaos was my business bible for some years. Today, I remember Peters primarily for his insight that a business was a brand. He said that to succeed, you didn't need factories or huge office buildings; you needed a couple of people, a brand, and if I remember correctly, a fax machine (a very 1987 insight).

This seemed like an epiphany at the outset of the technology "revolution", but it led directly to the collapse of the Internet bubble ten years later, when many of the companies that went public at impossible valuations turned out to be nothing but brands. Today, post-Internet and mortgage bubbles, Peters' insight that a company can be merely a brand continues to do tremendous damage, like an unmoored and uncrewed ship smashing into bridges. A few weeks ago there was a mini-scandal that blew up for a day about a company winning a government contract in the UK in the context of the generally Sophistical Brexit environment: "Seaborne Freight was awarded a £13.8m contract this week to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend. The firm has never run a ferry service.....The government said it had awarded the contract in 'the full knowledge that Seaborne is a new shipping provider'".

This is not a one time Glitch, but rather an increasingly common phenomenon of what I call Late Capitalism, a phase in which expertise is no longer required or even recognized. Companies are increasingly not real enterprises, but simply semiotic signs standing in for actual companies, "strange attractors" of value. I could cite a hundred examples: British Rail was bizarrely privatized and decentralized under Thatcher to include scores of these imaginary enterprises; a small company to which the Trump administration awarded a huge Puerto Rico electrical repair contract after Hurricane Maria similarly had no prior experience in the field.

This kind of thing reminds me of the moment in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint,in which “A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words 'SOFT-DRINK STAND' printed on it in block letters”.

Graphe Paranomon

Another thing I learned in the '90's, though probably not by reading Tom Peters, is the connection between authority and responsibility. The two have to be appropriately linked in some kind of quantitative relationship: jobs with small responsibility require only a little authority, and so forth. Dysfunction occurs when the two things are decoupled: the exercise of authority without responsibility is the premier spectacle of the Trump administration. The most dreary of jobs is the one in which you have responsibility for high stakes outcomes but lack the authority to deliver them (don't ever take a job like that).

One thing I didn't think to mention in this month's lead article on government shutdowns, is that this kind of destructive, Sophistical action is largely possible because, in our decentralized political system, no one is usually held responsible. Almost since the beginnings of American democracy, our legislators have relied on our short memories to pass quite horrendous legislation about which we will have forgotten by the next election. Bills such as tax cuts frequently won't have visible harmful impacts until some years in the future, when the legislators who passed them will have retired, or, if still in Congress, can act as surprised as anyone.

The ancient Athenians, whom I seem to be mentioning a lot in this month's issue, had a unique solution, a law called the graphe paranomon, which provided for a cause of action against the proponent of a bad law: "The penalty for conviction was usually a fine, sometimes small but sometimes so large it could not be paid. In this case disenfranchisement (atimia) would result, effectively ending a political career". We need something like it again today.

Reversing Supreme Court appointments

Some quite radical ideas are being bruited, about ways in a future (putative) Democrat-dominated government to reverse some of these appointments, by impeachment, or to dilute them by packing the court. FDR's proposal to increase the number of judges of the Supreme Court lives on in infamy, but the Constitution does not actually provide for a number of Supreme Court judges, and historians tend to agree that the court-packing plan was successful, as a shot across a conservative Court's bows, which deterred them it invalidating as much New Deal legislation until Roosevelt could make some appointments. In any event, since I analyze absolutely everything in life as a Prisoner's Dilemma (a "PD"), in which you either at every turn play either a cooperation or betrayal card, consider this: the Republicans have been playing the betrayal card most of the time since the late 1940's (McCarthyism, demonization of Democrats as being unfit to serve in government, voter suppression, impeaching President Clinton, government shutdowns, refusal to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland). Yet Democrats are expected to be the moral grown ups in the room every time. In the world of the PD, cooperating with a betrayer is the worst possible outcome, known as the "Sucker's Payoff". The most successful ongoing strategy, across many rounds of the game, is called "Tit for Tat": you reward cooperators with cooperation on the next turn, but betray the betrayers. Eventually, they learn to cooperate, to avoid the lower value outcome of an all-betrayal all-the-time strategy. Taking a lesson from the PD, the Democrats could justifiably betray the betrayers by "fixing" the Supreme Court. Another moral argument that overlaps that last one: if Donald Trump is an illegitimate President, in terms of the means by which he won election, the resulting dysfunction in the Electoral College (whch was designed to protect us from bad choices but now facilitates them), and his high crimes and misdemeanors since election, why must we necessarily honor his appointments with lifetime tenure?

If however, no one learns cooperation in the next rounds, I can imagine someday winding up with a fifty justice Supreme Court, also not a good outcome.

Hating and hiring the undocumented

In the lead article I talk about the human mindset I call "Bloodymindedness" and cite Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? as an excellent case study of the phenomenon in which people are conned into voting against their own best interests. A major part of Bloodymindedness is holding incompatible ideas, for example of your own entitlement to government benefits while regarding government as a demonic Other to be destroyed ("Get your government hands off my Medicare!"). I saw a quote a few weeks ago that people in Iowa can't operate their farms without undocumented labor, yet are deliriously happy to build a wall to keep out the labor they can't live without. This inane split-mindedness can be reconciled only as a wish to have a permanent, low paid, transient underclass, of people we can threaten and chase at the same time. So, if its not plain schizophrenia, it is primitive school-bully cruelty. Take your pick.

A Windows crash

Usually my computer crashes without notifying me, but yesterday it put a notice on my screen that it was rebooting due to the failure of a particular program I had, of course, never heard of. It turned out to be a utility installed with my anti-virus program--or possibly malware masquerading as that code. Windows today, with its many holes and constant crashes, is less reliable than my Morrow Micro Decision computer in 1986, running CP/M in 256K RAM on two 64K floppy drives. I lose more work to computer problems now than I ever did then--and my computer frequently runs slower now as well. All of which is a gift deposited on our desks by Late Capitalism.