The Problem of Gun Control

It almost becomes a waste of time to have another dinner conversation around another school shooting carried out by a deranged person, who had access to guns. An examination of public polls shows that there is a solid majority of the population that favors stricter gun control.

guns_poll

Source: Gallup

The relevant question, thus, becomes why the US cannot copy countries like Australia or the UK that had mass shootings that became restricted by the passage of strict gun control laws. There might be some people, who argue that the government should not take the freedom from people to own property, including guns, but to not distinguish ordinary property from guns is highly questionable, because of the potential harm to other people guns produce. And the ability to kill other people is the greatest restriction in the freedom of other people. I would scarcely deny Robinson Crusoe gun ownership rights, but the moment he joins society, we do want to minimize homicide possibilities.

Some people might respond that cars kill many more people than guns, and my logic would require the prohibition of cars too. But here the comparison to utility matters. To the extent that we have built our cities and villages in ways that make us reliant on cars to get around (as opposed to have reliable public transit), the benefit of a car is still greater than the cost of potential car crash. The benefit of owning a gun is negligible, e.g. the feeling of safety (which is more than offset by the experience of unsafety when insane people get to run around with machine guns). The second factor is intentionality, as there is virtually no one that wants to kill himself or others in a car crash, but gun deaths are in most cases purposeful, which is more problematic.

Some people would suggest that the existence of the second amendment and the popular belief in becoming safer after owning guns makes effective gun control legislation very difficult. In addition, every school school shooting seems to strengthen the irrational belief that one’s own security is increased by clutching tightly to a gun.

But these reasons are insufficient to explain the lack of movement on gun control. Gun control would include a stricter background check on the purchase of guns; the prohibition of selling automatic weapons; and a government policy to re-purchase any guns under private ownership. So why is it so hard to pass these restrictions? The power of the NRA, the National Rifle Association, makes any movement on gun policy self-defeating for politicians, who dump enormous sums of money in the electoral process to ensure that the politicians vote in the “right” way.

The absurdity of the liberal gun laws are not even challenged when one of the power holders, Rep. Steve Scalise, was shot during a baseball game. Former Congresswoman Gaby Giffords was also shot during an event. It can, thus, be said that no one is formally safe from crazy people using guns to kill other people.

The NRA naturally does not demand lighter sentences on mass murderers. In fact, they are in favor of strictly punishing gun abusers, but that can only be stated after the fact, i.e. after the mass murder happened. There are plenty of social problems in this country that create victims rather than focus on prevention. Our health care system, for instance, still makes the purchase of good health insurance difficult, and thus encourages people, who are not able or willing to make the financial trade-off to purchase insurance to wait until they become very sick before they go to the emergency room, where doctors might discover that the disease is so advanced that they can’t really do anything for the patient anymore. A preventive health care system would guarantee health care to all people, such as via a single-payer system.

A major cause of sickness in turn is the unhealthy diet of most Americans, who have to consume excessive amounts of sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fat because they happen to be cheap and convenient to get. While in Europe and Asia, obesity is increasingly becoming a major health threat too, I do notice that there are cheap alternatives that do not nearly produce the same amount of plaque around the arteries and fat on the body as in the US. Europe has many bakery shops that sell cold sandwiches with plenty of salad. China has many restaurants that dish out the balanced meals of plenty of vegetables, some meat and rice or noodles. A preventive food system would offer cheap, healthy options and make unhealthy options expensive and harder to acquire.

Subsequently, a preventive approach to mass shootings would be to minimize popular access to guns. Some people might suggest that taking away guns from law-abiding citizens goes too far, while no one would oppose background checks on mentally troubled individuals. But there are two problems with this argument. First, I might be a sane person who becomes insane as a form of affect. Second, I might be a sane person, who illegally resells the gun to an insane person. The first case is not as rare as one might think. I cite the gun violence statistics here.

In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 U.S. citizens),[2][3] and 33,636 deaths due to “injury by firearms” (10.6 deaths per 100,000 U.S. citizens).[4]These deaths consisted of 11,208 homicides,[5] 21,175 suicides,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with “undetermined intent”.[4] Of the 2,596,993 total deaths in the US in 2013, 1.3% were related to firearms.

Source: Wikipedia

In the second case, it might be hard to measure because it is an illegal activity, but the possibility is just there compared to when most people cannot acquire guns. Critics will object that insane people can still acquire guns regardless. But the relevant comparison is not to a perfect society, but to a society that prohibits guns to the masses, and you will see that most countries with the stricter gun laws have fewer gun deaths, which suggests that in those cases insane people are less likely to have access to guns, and that itself is a justification for stricter gun laws.

What might change the dynamics on gun laws? It is hard to say, but without public mobilization it will be impossible. Mancur Olson had pointed out that the beneficiaries of a dysfunctional policy are small in number and are part of a concentrated organization, while the losers are many in number, the cost is widely dispersed and it is hard for the multitude to mobilize on any particular issue. Not all hope is lost, though, because there has been a limited gun control law in 1994, which was allowed to expire in 2004, but with changing circumstance it does become possible to rein in guns.

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What’s the Problem with the Universal Basic Income?

Ian Goldin (2018) claims that even with accelerating technological change and the displacement of workers, we should not introduce a universal basic income (UBI), which he had called a “red herring”. I counter, in brief, that while his concerns about the UBI are valid, his reasoning is insufficient to reject UBI as a necessary social policy tool to mitigate the problems in the labor market and society we all acknowledge. Let us examine his arguments.

UBI is financially irresponsible

Essentially, UBI is really expensive and would result in enormous tax increases. The proof is in the pudding, though. The more generous the UBI is the higher the taxes would have to go and the less sustainable the policy becomes. If our national GDP is 60,000 dollars per capita, I would doubt that the UBI per person can equal to 60,000 (we are assuming non-inflationary payment of the UBI), as there has never been an economy that exactly consumed what it produced. If we reserved a quarter of the national income about 15,000 dollars as a basic income payment that does not sound too bad, and will leave enough income for other purposes like investment. Naturally, the role of the state will have to increase, and to some extent we have gotten used to the state taking up nearly 40% of the national economy, in some European countries even more than half. Fair accounting of UBI would also have to mention other social programs that are folded into the UBI. In other words, these other social programs are either eliminated or reduced in size once the UBI exists to take care of people’s needs.

I don’t advocate for the most right-wing interpretation of the UBI, as is formulated by Charles Murray. 10,000 dollars for everyone annually, and then get rid of all other social spending. In that case, social spending by the government might be expected to stay the same or fall, and that would be a very regressive perspective, as declining social wages for poor people means that the 10,000 dollar UBI grant they get will quickly be spent before the year is over (e.g. expensive kindergarten for families with young children), and we have not done anything to reduce poverty or insecurity. A basic pension granted via social security may very well become displaced by the UBI, because UBI is an expansion of social security to all individuals rather than only old people. With Food Stamps, we might have to see whether it will lower the standard of living of current recipients if it gets cut. For health care, it obviously makes no sense to privatize it, when single-payer health care systems all over the developed world have done a great job in curing people’s illness without bankrupting them (as in the US).

UBI will lead to higher inequality and poverty

The reasoning here is that the displacement of targeted economic transfers (unemployment insurance, disability and housing benefits etc.) with a UBI will disproportionately help the rich more than the poor. A billionaire does not get unemployment insurance, but he will surely get a UBI, which would be a waste of resources. But among social policy scholars, there has long been the paradox of redistribution in that earning-related social insurance tend to be more effective than poverty-targeting or flat-rate benefits (Korpi and Palme 1998). Thus, poverty-targeted programs that lack the broad middle class support do not necessarily help in redistributing income and reducing poverty. either Granted, UBI is a flat-rate benefit and might not dent inequality. Imagine an inflation-adjusted UBI paid out into eternity which does not change the amount of goods you can buy with it, but productivity continues to rise and the Zuckerbergs and Gates of the world continue to make their fortunes. For UBI to make sense, the state would also have to raise more taxes on capital, which also forms the basis for raising the UBI with the rate of productivity rather than just by inflation. If we don’t want to sacrifice the U in UBI, yet hoping to dent inequality, the UBI will have to be supplemented by other government policies, and I reiterate my opposition to the Murray position that restricts all social policy to solely UBI.

UBI will undermine social cohesion

Work is identity-forming and creates social integration, while the subsidization of non-work via UBI will foster laziness, moral decay, the break-up of families, crime and drug addiction. He cites the US as an example where the contemporary inexistence of work among some social quarters has produced that outcome. But the US is a strange example to pick, because it does not have a UBI, and for his reasoning to be effective, Goldin has to pick an example where the UBI contributes to less work and to social disorder. Right now we only know that less work leads to social disorder, a point that is well-taken. In the absence of solid evidence to the contrary, we might argue that the UBI will encourage economic activity (or at least not reduce it). Perhaps not of a wage-labor kind, but there are two other economic activities that might increase: entrepreneurship and volunteer work.

Today, there are wannabe novelists toiling away as corporate accountants, because that is the best way to pay their bills. Naturally, if you have a Protestant inclination and argue that any work is better than no work, an accountant is a fine way of making a living, but for that wannabe novelist it is a huge opportunity cost. They are wasting their time crunching numbers in the office, when they could have spent that time typing their novel. Perhaps society would enjoy such a novel if only that person were paid a UBI, and can afford to point the middle finger to a boring, meaningless job. Entrepreneurial ventures, whether it is writing a book, selling and designing skirts or inventing a new twist to barbecue sauce, can become possible with UBI, which will actually enhance economic life. People can also afford to volunteer for after-school programs for kids or old people’s homes, which incidentally reduces the social cost for caring for kids and old people, because volunteers are not necessarily paid a wage.

Unstructured lives may very well lead to social dislocation and disorder, but it is questionable why most people receiving the basic income would have to fall into this trap. Community centers and NGOs have to become more proactive in offering meaningful activities for an unemployed population, but let us not forget the basic premise of the UBI: the lack of good job opportunities because of technological displacement. It is given the lack of good employment options that the basic income is needed as social stabilizer.

UBI undermines incentives to participate

In other words, UBI creates dependence on the welfare state rather than independent living. But the reality under contemporary capitalism is that independent living is made impossible for people, who lack affluent parents or a huge stock or real estate portfolio. In that context, why is UBI defined as dependence on the welfare state rather than freedom from capitalist control? One may argue that the expansion of the social safety net with a UBI means an empowerment of the public bureaucracy, which is another monster of rationalized modern existence besides the big corporation. But UBI would work similarly to Social Security in that the benefit administration that is tasked with administering the payout of the UBI is much smaller than the drug-testing welfare bureaucracy and other shenanigans invented by right-wing administrations. Therefore, we should not underestimate the importance of positive freedoms that can be afforded only by the attainment of material security, which is at most precarious for wage laborers under capitalism.

UBI postpones discussions on the future of jobs

Goldin thinks that discussions of the UBI distract from necessary changes to a bad labor market and the promotion of things like shorter work weeks, part-time work, reward for tele-working and the promotion of caring and creative industries. But if you believe in my foregoing discussion of people becoming liberated under UBI to pursue caring and creative work, then this argument collapses in itself. Besides if we think that the low quality jobs originate from worker inability to say no to bad employment relationships, then the introduction of a UBI would naturally force employers to offer better wages and working conditions to attract enough workers.

But let us assume the correctness of the premise of the argument, namely that UBI distracts from bad employment relationships and these relationships stay bad, because employers know they can pay their workers little and they will still survive because of the UBI. That would, indeed, be a less than desirable outcome, but the relevant comparison is not some ideal utopia but the present moment of bad employment relations without UBI, and I prefer a world with bad employment relations with a UBI to one without UBI.

I do understand the argument that UBI is a cop-out for the political impetus to improve work relations, which is part of the reason that trade unions tend to view UBI also quite skeptically, but here I want to question the moral premise of our social economy: is our desire to create ideal employment relationships or to live a good life? And if I say good life, I don’t mean pure hedonism and the pursuit of frivolity, but the ancient Greek idea of minimizing work and pursuing leisure for the increase of knowledge, friendships, social relationships and the admittedly ill-defined ‘virtue’ (which I won’t define here). I would prefer the latter.

I don’t detest all notions of work. Let us reflect again what we mean by work, which I treat separately from a job. Work is the activity requiring physical, emotional and mental exertion to produce something of value to somebody, which may be hunting animals for food, growing crops for food or loading carts with merchandise in a retail store. This is tied to human activity from the beginning, which may co-exist with leisure and we shall pursue as long as humans exist. A job is a social formation, where one group of people works for somebody else for hire, and has existed for extended parts of human history, but radically took off not until the Industrial Revolution. The job is thus a particular historical formation that is built on domination and exploitation, because there are people who provide the work, and there are other people who benefit from the work thanks to their ownership claims over the means of production.

If the UBI has the capacity to kill the job- a prospect that Goldin and others seem to detest- then go ahead with the UBI. If UBI maintains bad jobs, we at least no longer struggle with existential problems and the unrestrained power of our bosses. Though I cannot confirm my suspicions, it is for that reason, perhaps, that anti-UBI ideologues are so fierce in their stance: don’t mess with the social order of the status quo!

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Why Did South Sudan Split From Sudan?

It was a total puzzle to me why this large country called Sudan suddenly decided to split itself in 2011, thus ushering in a new country of South Sudan. Foreign investors were happy nonetheless as they rained into the country to grab the most desirable farm land for their own purposes. On the face of it the split between the two parts is based on different tribal affiliations, as the north was mostly Arab Muslim and the south was mostly sub-Saharan African with Christian and animist beliefs. The political mobilization based on tribal affiliations has long plagued Africa, and Sudan has been no exception to this worrisome trend, but there are other noteworthy creases in Sudan’s history. In addition to tribal divisions based on ethnicity, race and religion, Sudan has also been plagued by a permanent economic crisis, an incompetent, corrupt political leadership and continuous civil war.

There has been an extended history of foreign domination in Sudan. Sudan is immediately to the south of Egypt, and has thus benefited from the Egyptian civilization. The Nubians were one of the original rulers in Sudan (3,000 BC) until the Assyrian army under Sennacherib defeated the Nubians in a military campaign around 700 BC. By the sixth century AD, there were three successor states to what was called the Meroitic Kingdom: Nobatia, Muqurra and Alawa. Christianity spread to that region and a little later Islam. Islam primarily spread via Arab merchants marrying into the local population. There was a material interest for the population to convert to Islam, as they did not have to pay taxes to the king. What is now called northern Sudan is still the result of a mixture of Nubian and Arab culture, while the south was made up of east African tribes and ethnicities.

In 1821, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt Muhammad Ali invaded and conquered northern Sudan, and promptly worked on improving the country’s infrastructure. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the European colonial powers had increased their influence over the region, and in 1879 they initiated a coup against Ismail Pasha, the Ottoman Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. The desired successor Tewfik Pasha turned out to be a corrupt and bad ruler, which incited the Urabi Revolt. The British used the revolt as a pretext in 1882 to formally annex Egypt, while leaving Sudan under Pasha’s rule. Sudan was badly managed, as taxes on farms became unbearably high, and European initiatives against slave trade adversely affected the Sudanese economy. The Mahdists, a group of Sharia-law supporting forces led by Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah, became popular and successfully conquered Khartoum (capital) and Sudan. The Mahdists promptly planned conquests of neighboring states (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt), but each time were repelled by the European forces. By the 1890s, the British have had enough and they defeated the Mahdists in a military conquest in 1898. The British were acting under the indirect pressure of the French and the Belgians, who were also interested in controlling the Nile, and so the British had to be quick to snap up Sudan as well.

But British colonization meant new challenges, because Egypt and the Ottoman Empire had insisted in a union between Egypt and Sudan, while the British wanted to prevent any strengthening of potential adversaries, so they were intent on keeping the two countries apart. The British also separated Sudan into a northern and a southern province, which was in effect from 1924 to 1956. The game changer was in 1952, when the Egyptian revolution restored independence from British rule. The Egyptian leaders Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser abandoned sovereignty claims on Sudan, but nonetheless demanded the full independence of Sudan from British rule. The British continued to support Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, but his regime suffered from political mismanagement as well, which reduced support for the regime. In 1956, the British relented by allowing the Sudanese people to vote on an independence referendum.

The first prime minister of the newly independent Sudan was Ismail al-Azhari, but his regime was not stable and a new faction led by Abdallah Khalil took over forming a coalition between Umma and PDP (People’s Democratic Party), the two political parties formed post-independence. Umma wanted more foreign aid and a strong presidential constitution, while the PDP objected to foreign aid as a form of undue foreign influence and did not want to empower the president. Factionalism, corruption and vote fraud dominate political life. A 1958 military coup led by Ibrahim Abbud and Ahmad Abd al Wahab ended democratic governance. The military regime was briefly boosted by scrapping the high cotton price policy, which made Sudanese cotton exports too expensive to be competitive, and ending Nile water disputes with Egypt. Nonetheless, the Abbud regime was not stable either as they neither implemented an economic development strategy nor were they able to prevent coup attempts against it. The fatal mistake of the Abbud regime was to suppress Christianity and its support of Arabizing the south of the country, which alienated the non-Arab south. Thus, the political conflict between the central government in Khartoum and the southern province became the defining feature of political tension that culminated in two lengthy civil wars and South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

Popular discontent unloaded against Abbud, which was reinforced by civil servants, teachers and students were unhappy with Abbud’s education and economic policies. Abbud resigned amid political pressure and appointed a non-political civil servant, Sirr Al-Khatim Al-Khalifa as prime minister in 1964. A scheduled 1965 election lacked overall political legitimacy as the PDP and SCP (communists), two major parties boycotted the vote because the southern security situation was so bad that ballots could not be held. The Umma and NUP under Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub took power, and quickly worked to pacify unrest in the south, yet that meant using the military to crush organized protest, which increased southern resentment against the Sudanese military. Mahjub was replaced by Sadiq al Mahdi, who was replaced by Mahjub again. The two men, both leading different factions of Umma, clashed with each other, as the country had two government for a brief time. The situation was resolved when a new parliamentary election removed Sadiq from his seat.

In 1969, there was a second military coup d’etat led by Col. Gaafar Nimeiry. Socialists were a substantial force within the military government. Conservative forces called ‘Ansar’ resisted the new military government, and their Imam al Hadi al Mahdi demanded a return to democratic government, which resulted in a battle between Ansar and the Sudanese military, which was won by the military. Nimeiry, the military leader, then turned against the Marxists and socialists by putting trade unions under national control and suppressing the communist party (SCP). Several Marxist factions within the military led by Major Hisham al Atta then tried to overthrow Nimeiry in 1971, but he was restored to power. Nimeiry was determined to end the southern insurgency led by the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) by granting more political autonomy to the south and by promoting its economic development. With the help of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, the two sides reached an agreement called the Addis Ababa accords in 1972, which created a regional government in the three southern provinces of Sudan and strengthened southern representation in the central government in Khartoum. To appease the Arab Muslims in the north, Nimeiry also reaffirmed Islam as having a special position and granted administrative decentralization in the northern provinces. Nonetheless, many Arab Sudanese were offended by the agreement with the south and leftist students also opposed the government. A coup attempt by the Muslim brotherhood/ Ansar in 1976 was thwarted by the military.

In 1978, Nimeiri tried a return to parliamentary rule, but the elected representatives in the assembly defected from party discipline and furthered their own financial interest over that of the country. Continued corruption undermined Nimeiri’s legitimacy, who subsequently returned to a more dictatorial leadership style of imprisoning opponents and dissidents without trial. To counter the growing political power of the south, he redivided the south into the three old provinces and suspended their assembly in 1983. A little later, he imposed sharia law, which was resented by secular Muslims and non-Muslim southerners. By the end of 1983, the next civil war began. Nimeiri was ultimately toppled in 1985 as rising food, gasoline and transport costs brought people out on the streets. The coup was led by General Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, who then promoted Sadiq al-Mahdi to become prime minister after elections.

Sadiq was a weak leader, who had already been deposed back in 1969. His Umma, DUP, NIF and 4 southern party coalition was internally divided, while corruption scandals bogged down any effective governing and worst of all did not resolve the civil war. The DUP was intent on signing a cease-fire agreement with the southern party (SPLM), which would also have ended sharia law and lifted the state of emergency, but NIF rejected the deal. DUP then pulled out of the coalition, which infuriated the military generals, who wanted to see terms to end the civil war. Under military pressure, Sadiq then invited DUP back into the government and vowed to implement the DUP-SPLM cease-fire agreement, but the government was too weak to implement the ceasefire. In 1989, Lieutenant General Umar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir then overthrew the Sadiq regime, though he was not a very peaceful ruler himself, as he pushed for the continuation of sharia law, which was not acceptable in southern Sudan that was barely Muslim. Bashir called out the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation to rule Sudan, which was dissolved in 1993 upon which Bashir became the president. Bashir has continuously ruled Sudan since his takeover, and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. His presidential term runs until 2020. Bashir is no less corrupt than his predecessors, as he transferred 9 billion dollars from the public treasury into foreign bank accounts.

In addition to the civil war with the south, which had displaced over 4 million southerners, the western province of Darfur also became engulfed in a rebellion in 2003 led by the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). SLM and JEM had accused the central government of economically neglecting the Darfur region. Arab militias (Janjaweed) supported by the central government committed atrocities and killings of many people, and the rebels also killed many people. Only in 2004 was there a ceasefire agreement, between the different parties, which was monitored by the African Union and the Ceasefire Commission. Rwanda and Nigeria dispatched troops to ensure the ceasefire. Sudanese militia attacked villages in eastern Chad, which induced Chad to fight a war with Sudan at the end of 2005, which was not ended until 2010. The Darfur conflict ended in 2010 as well, though there continue to be millions of displaced people in camps.

With the southern provinces the situation stabilized somewhat with the peace treaty of Nairobi in 2005, which would grant 6 years of autonomy to southern Sudan followed by an independence referendum. Income from the oil fields should be shared. Islamic law would continue in the north, while in the south it was decided by the local assembly. The January 2011 referendum in the south approved independence and on July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent country with Kiir Mayardit as first president. Bashir accepted the independence vote, but fighting broke out in Abyei, a territory along the border of both countries and claimed by both. Both sides then decided to demilitarize Abyei and deploy Ethiopian peacekeepers.

This account of Sudan’s history shows that the South Sudanese independence likely made sense. Since independence in 1956, Sudan had been almost continuously in a civil war. The first ranged from 1955 to 1972, the second ranged from 1983 to 2005. The first civil war had killed 500,000 people, of which 4 out of 5 were civilians. The decade of peace in the 1970s, was not really peaceful, as there were continuous incursions from the north, which resulted in mutual hostilities. The resumption of open conflicts with the second civil war resulted in 1 to 2 million deaths, again mostly civilians whose economic lives became disrupted with the war, which resulted in starvation. The two sides were too different: the north was Muslim, Arabic and lighter skinned, while the south was sub-Saharan, east African, darker-skinned and English-speaking. The north monopolized political positions, and the exclusion of southern elites in the leading posts of the bureaucracy created sufficient alienation to mobilize the south for civil war and the quest for independence.

Another sticking point is the existence of oil reserves, which are mostly concentrated in the south (75%), yet the oil pipelines and refineries connecting to the Port Sudan along the Red Sea are in the north. Given the desert conditions in the north of Sudan, the central government had good reasons to retain authority in the south. With the southern independence, the north has focused on drilling more in the oil fields they still have and also exploring the Red Sea deposits. Post-independence both sides still rely on each other, because the south has the oil fields and the north has the refineries and the port. Sudan still has the upper-hand as final sellers, they determine the price. Although there is a certain quota that has to be shared with South Sudan, Khartoum can effectively screw the south by misreporting prices and skimming from the top. 90% of the foreign exchange is earned by the sale of oil (Business Insider 2011), which would be fine if there were existing political institutions to responsibly shepherd these abundant natural resources, like in Norway. In Sudan, a substantial share of the oil revenues is siphoned off by officials. South Sudanese president Salva Kiir admits in a letter to his officials, “An estimated $4-billion are unaccounted for or, simply put, stolen by current and former officials, as well as corrupt individuals with close ties to government officials.” (Globe and Mail 2012) Foreign oil corporations, who provide the equipment and investment, are also the primary beneficiaries of the two countries’ oil wealth. Most recently, China has become the largest importer of Sudanese and South Sudanese oil, indicating a shift in global political relations.

Cross-border clashes continued after South Sudanese independence. In March 2012, South Sudanese forces seized Heglig oil fields, which are claimed on both sides. A few weeks later, they withdrew as the Sudanese Army seized the oil fields. On the other hand, bilateral tensions have been restricted to border clashes, while for the multi-ethnic South Sudan it meant that there was no longer any Arab opponent to fight against. With the lack of a common enemy, internal tribal divisions in South Sudan broke out with a vengeance. Since 2013, the political power struggle between president Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar engulfed the country in the South Sudanese Civil War. The UN put pressure on Kiir and Machar to end their conflict, and in 2016, Machar was invited back to the capital Juba to take up a post as vice president. The power-sharing agreement failed as violence broke out in Juba, and Machar was forced to flee the country. Out of a population of 12 million people, 3 million had become displaced and 300,000 have died with the number continuing to rise. Although Kiir and Machar have supporters from each tribe, Kiir is an ethnic Dinka (38%, largest ethnic group) and Machar is an ethnic Nuer (27%, second largest ethnic group), thus pro-Kiir government troops tend to target Nuer and the anti-government rebels tend to target the Dinkas.

The deeply entrenched tribal divisions along race, ethnicity and religion along with a permanent economic crisis, an incompetent and corrupt political leadership and near permanent civil war explains the break-up of Sudan and continued political instability. As with the problems of post-colonialism after independence across sub-Saharan Africa, creating a new country does not solve underlying political problems and the fighting will rage on.

 

Further Readings

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sudan_(1956–69)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sudan_(1969–85)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sudan_(1986–present)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Sudanese_Civil_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Sudanese_Civil_War

http://www.businessinsider.com/sudan-oil-production-2011-2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Sudan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_al-Bashir

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Social Progress in Gender Relations (and Class Retrogression)

As a male person, it is rather difficult to claim that social progress in gender relations has been achieved, which some people might object would be like white people arguing that racism has been solved and rich people saying that inequality is no longer a problem. The privileged oppressor cannot speak adequately as to whether the oppressed lives well. But I can hedge myself by phrasing gender relations as being directionally toward progress, and not that equality has been achieved. The gender pay gap still exists, whereby women are pushed into jobs that happen to lack economic and political power, though there are more women in high executive business and political positions. (As an ardent critic of neoliberalism, I would question, however, how much sense it makes to only shift the gender or racial balance in corporate boards, while the gap between the rich and poor, executives and rank-and-file workers is rising.)

But to some extent, gender progress has been achieved both in the sense of the socio-economic position of the woman, and with regard to the problem of highlighting and ultimately combating sexual harassment that has galvanized social media and discourse. There are two factors that are important in explaining this social change: capitalism and technology. This post will explore these two factors.

With regard to capitalism, we have to remind ourselves of an important element in the economic system: the endless need for changing methods of production to generate economic growth, which satisfies the capital accumulation requirement for the corporate actors in society. Even the common people are condemned to identify with the capital accumulation model, because we rely on jobs from the capitalist to pay our bills, and these capitalists only give us jobs if there is a sufficiently growing market fed by a growing population and/ or rising per capita consumption. This growth-oriented economic system sooner or later has to shift gender relations. Some feminists and Marxists might object by pointing to the perpetuation of female oppression by locking women into the passive housewife, nourishing the husband, who was the sole breadwinner for the family, while the woman would bear and nurture the future workers (children).

But that has only been true during a very limited time period, and mostly for families with the man in a bourgeois position who can afford a decent lifestyle to the family with one income. In the later phase, women are expected to join the workforce, and for the poorest families women had always worked. In advanced capitalist countries, where natural demographic growth has come to an end (partly as a result of greater female labor opportunities, which competes with child-bearing demands), capitalists become desperate to entangle more women into the workforce, who participate in lower rates in paid work than men. Women are pulled into the labor market, not so much out of their own volition, but because the husband’s earnings are falling, as deindustrialization kills the nice male unskilled jobs.

Source: Family Inequality

Therefore, the second line of feminist critique is that women in the labor force are relegated to the lowest economic positions with the least pay. There is, indeed, an absurdity in the way how a society decides to reward workers in different occupations. It can hardly be argued that college professors (still very male) deliver a more important service to society than kindergarten instructors (mostly female), but the difference is merely that the former teach older individuals and the latter younger. One might counter that it takes multiple years of schooling and credentialing, i.e. going through a torturous PhD program (speaking with personal experience), in order to become a college professor, while a few pedagogy classes are sufficient to become a kindergarten instructor. But pedagogy is simply another specific skill that needs to be acquired, and given that people who can’t relate to toddlers (myself included) will simply be unqualified for this socially vital position, it will be hard for those people to decide to look down on kindergarten instructors. Thus, demand and supply does not get us at gender pay inequality, but different political power.

It is true, however, that women are traditionally self-inhibiting in their ability to attain job skills, because their desire and social expectation to raise children makes them less attached to the labor market, thus also making employers skeptical of hiring women for highly complex positions requiring extensive training. Labor history has plenty of evidence for managers keeping women in low-skilled jobs, knowing that pregnancy can remove them from the labor force altogether. But even this pattern is changing. The initial motivation for women joining the workforce might be to supplement the family income, but as women gain confidence in their skills, they want to attain higher and higher positions. The fact that some very ambitious women do make it to the top, thus breaking the “glass ceiling”, then provides a positive role model for other women to also work hard to succeed. They also might get the idea to push for more equal compensation with their male colleagues. In the absence of pro-natalist government policies (which themselves sometimes prove ineffective), the capitalist requirement for more women in the labor force to make up for the lack of children will merely increase.

And now onto sexual harassment, which is notably the most common when economic power is very unbalanced across gender. In other words, a powerful male boss and his female secretary. But here the capitalist logic works too: more women get promoted into more powerful positions, and the powerful women complain more about sexual harassment, thus pressuring the men to better behave themselves. People might counter there is nothing intrinsic to capitalist society, which improves women’s status. I might as well sound like Milton Friedman, who argued the free market has to benefit black people, because it doesn’t care whether products are created by blacks or whites (though customers and workers do care, thus perpetuating discrimination as a social channel).

I certainly will not deny that the gender pay gap and sexual harassment can perpetuate itself for a very long time within capitalist society, but for my argument to work the relevant counterfactual is a self-sufficient agricultural society, where primogeniture has locked down any material inheritance to sons rather than daughters. Thus, to sum up, it might be the case that gender power differentials get magnified under capitalism (most capitalists are still men), but it simultaneously creates the mechanism by which later equalization can get realized, first by sucking more women into the labor force, and second by women discovering their skills to make their way to the top. I should qualify that there is no automatism, i.e. things can look very bad for women unless they organize and struggle, but the avenues are open to them in a way that would not be feasible if they remained homemakers.

For sexual harassment, there is another important tool that has increased the organizational power of women: technology and especially social media. The sexual harassment debate has taken on a different quality with the effective use of hashtags. The MeToo campaign has worked because influential women (think of Hollywood actresses with gazillions of Twitter followers) shared their sexual abuse stories, and then less important women also had lower barriers to share their harassment stories. Now having women in strategic positions of society (even if they are not half the profession) is crucial. Female journalists with the power of the pen and the public attention of readership and viewership began to influence public discourse with their own take on MeToo, and that gets replicated in business and politics. Cynics might claim that despite the greater public attention on sexual harassment at work and elsewhere there is insufficient action to address this issue, but public attention is often the first step, which in some cases could result in overshooting. Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and some other prominent women are pointing to the feminist campaigners unrightful attacks against all men as opposed to the genuine sexual harassers in power.

While the public focus on gender inequality might make some feminist activists depressed about the prospects for gender equality, it cannot be denied that capitalism and social media have created the openings for gender progress. There is still a long way to go, but there is some improvement. On the racial front, we might be encountering terrible headwinds, as our bigoted administration is ramping up the deportation of mostly Latino undocumented immigrants (most recently many El Salvadoran refugees will no longer have their status renewed and thus become liable for deportation too), but even with all the deporations the Latino population is continuously increasing with many US-born children locked into the country with US citizenship. (Trump wants to remove birthright citizenship too, but that would create enormous resistance even within his own party.) White supremacy, long a rather suppressed force, has become a potent form of mobilization in this country, but minorities in important political positions make overt racist positions rather difficult. While Donald Trump made himself infamous again with the “shithole” country comment with regard to black migrants from Haiti, West Indies and Africa, the two black US senators, Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, hit right back, not at Trump directly, but at his Homeland Security secretary in a hearing. Granted, this might just be symbolism, but people should recall that there were practically no institutional channels for non-whites to protest bigotry not too long ago.

The only clear retrogression we observe is in terms of class, and here capitalism has no automatically redemptive feature, because the entire point of capital accumulation is to concentrate wealth into the hands of the few, while outsourcing of jobs, automation and technological progress continuously keep a check on the ambitions of the working class. While the capitalist ship is sinking as more and more people are pushed into insecure, contract, part-time work or into technological unemployment (e.g. cashiers displaced by cashierless Amazon supermarket; driverless cars etc.), it might be possible that some more ethnic minorities and women are accommodated on the sunny side of it (like Sheryl Sandberg, who leans in), but it won’t save us from the social catastrophe of a gradually expanding precariat.

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The Tragedy of Welfare Reform Austrian-Style

I had argued previously that whenever people are given the chance to punish the political establishment, usually by voting, it happens (Liu 2017). Regular political commentators had remarked that with both Brexit and Trump there was a certain pattern in western democracies, that was designed to upset the political calculations of the neoliberal establishment that is perfectly happy with the continuous economic insecurity and dislocation of the population despite continuous economic expansion and declining headline unemployment rates. But don’t forget that averages are very different than the personal economic experiences of the bottom third of the income distribution. I won’t cite again the many relevant statistics that point to a decline of working class wages or a rise in income and wealth inequality, which are all well-known trends that create the volatile political system.

But what is worse is that the so-called populists, as in Austria, who think that they have any genuine solutions for the economic anxiety of the masses, do not have any effective solutions whatsoever, but, in fact, want to make things even worse for the masses. Given my political bias, Facebook ensures that I get to read all of the posts by the Social Democratic Party in Austria (SPO), which keeps the stream of criticism against the conservative (OVP)-nationalist (FPO) coalition government going. But to get the full picture, I began liking many posts by the chancellor (Sebastian Kurz) and the vice chancellor (Heinz-Christian Strache), who both agree on securing the borders, reducing immigration, enforcing deportation and opposing the growth of refugees. The slight difference is not the content but the style of delivery: Kurz is more careful and bourgeois in his terminology, while Strache is more explicitly provocative. One of Strache’s favorite topics, for instance, had been to demand the cancellation of Austrian-Turkish dual citizenships. Though to be fair, his provocation is nothing compared to the FPO interior minister (in charge of the police departments and internal security), Herbert Kickl, who thinks it is a good idea to “concentrate” refugees physically, a very peculiar language for a country that not too long ago had endorsed concentration camps for Jews and other political enemies.

While the nationalist topics have broad voter support (except for social democrats, greens and other more educated circles), social policy retrenchment has much less popular support as many Austrians have gotten used to the generous welfare system. The most radical reform will be the abolition of the Notstand (emergency standing, or the long-term unemployment benefit), which is drawn after the expiration of the regular unemployment benefit without time limitations or asset tests until a new job is found or until retirement. There are currently about 170,000 long-term unemployment recipients, who have to regularly look for jobs or risk having their benefit terminated, though only 2% of recipients lose their benefits because of non-compliance with the employment bureaucracy requirements.

Notstand is part of the unemployment benefit system and as such has a higher social standing and less stigmatization compared to Mindestsicherung (minimum security, or welfare), which has strict asset tests (no more than 4,300 euros) and is given to people, who have not worked enough to collect unemployment insurance (less than 2 years). Under the administration’s plan, the expiration of the long-term unemployment benefit will force unemployed people to spend down all their assets before being entitled to welfare, which imposes the welfare bureaucracy permanently on those welfare recipients. This corresponds to the German Hartz IV system that has been implemented in 2003, and has created an abundant low-wage sector, labor precarization and greater stigmatization for these low-income people (because the insurance principle of unemployment benefits communicates deservingness of collecting benefits one has paid into, while the welfare system is explicitly about recipients “mooching on the backs of hardworking taxpayers”).

The neoliberal argument used by the administration to justify the scrapping of the long-term unemployment benefit is that the unemployed should not lose their incentives to look for work, which is apparently the case in the current system. By bringing more people into paid work (about 380,000 unemployed in Austria in a labor force of 4.2 million), the calculation is that more taxes will be paid and less welfare will be consumed, which will relieve the national budget and will give the Austrian people more dignity. Yet this argument is flawed, because it relies on the assumption of full employment with an abundance of high-paying jobs, thus allowing the government to argue that the unemployed people are lazy moochers, who need sanctioning to accept these jobs. Yet, there are only about 60,000 open positions in the Austrian labor market, which suggests that even if all unemployed Austrians were accommodated with the given openings, ⅚ will still be out of work. Neoliberals and government supporters will object that the 60,000 openings show that the unemployed are either not interested, not skilled enough for these jobs, or older workers are too expensive to employ. But it does not solve the scale of the unemployment problem. First, the Arbeiterkammer (labor chamber) clarifies that only 2% of Notstand recipients have their benefits cancelled because of a refusal to accept a jobs. Second, qualification has long been an employer excuse to refuse training and hiring employees. Third, it is true that collective bargaining agreements ensure higher wages for older workers, but that is not applicable in all sectors. White-collar workers generally have rising age-earning profiles, while it is pretty flat for blue-collar workers, where greater unemployment problems exist.

The real issue for the long-term unemployment of older workers (above age 50) is simply that companies have no interest to hire older employees, and the implicit social contract since the era of company retrenchments in the 1980s is that the government would rescue these older workers with generous early retirement provisions. These have been retrenched since the mid-1990s, and the 2003 pension reform completely closed the early retirement pathway by 2010 and all cohorts born on and after 1955. Now life between 50 and 65 can be rather precarious for many unemployed, who under the current system are pushed from the unemployment to the long-term unemployment benefit. After closing the early retirement pathway, the new administration is now closing the long-term unemployment pathway too, thus creating more insecurity for older workers.

The outgoing social democratic administration was able to get the Aktion 20,000+ passed, which was a public employment program for older unemployed people. The OVP, back then junior partner, now the leading governing party, ridiculed the measure as a temporary fix to unemployment, which was an expensive electoral gift, and scrapped the public works program. Timewise, the OVP is correct, because in case the SPO was pushed into opposition, the SPO would be able to politically blame the OVP for cancelling a rather popular program to create jobs for older workers. But in substance, the burden of blame is on the OVP, which takes away the newly created options for older workers, who are everything but lazy moochers.

Thus, the real unemployment problem, as in most capitalist countries, is not the motivation and work ethic of the long-term unemployed, but the regulating function of unemployment within capitalism. Marx had argued that the bigger the reserve army of the unemployed the capitalists can draw from the lower wages become, as desperate workers are in no bargaining position to press for higher wages. By flooding the labor market with unemployed people desperate for work, reservation wages are lowered (the minimum wage that will induce work from workers). While the administration ridicules the public employment program a waste of tax money and an expensive election gift, reducing the reserve army of the unemployed could create upward wage pressures, which the capitalists thought they had defeated with the end of Austro-Keynesianism (which is summarized simplistically by the Bruno Kreisky- chancellor in the 1970s and early 1980s- quote that a few billion shilling in debt is not as troublesome as hundreds of thousands of unemployed people).

Ending the public employment program is not the only policy that has pushed up labor supply. Austria’s membership in the European Union means that low-wage Eastern European workers have unlimited access to the Austrian labor market, which has been phased in steps from 2004 to 2014. The current administration has also approved extending the types and number of jobs, where firms can attract workers from non-EU countries, to 63 (originally passed still under SPO administration), which is another increase in the labor supply that is favorable to employers. Labor migration is on net beneficial to any society, however, it will do nothing to relieve the problem facing the long-term unemployed and may create more resentment against foreigners. It is also peculiar that the nationalist FPO has accepted this policy change after having argued against EU and non-EU labor migration during their opposition time. The FPO can’t escape the neoliberal logic, and they will be punished electorally next time.

A second neoliberal argument in favor of ending the long-term unemployment benefit is that means-testing welfare ensures that tax money is not given to millionaires or heirs, who have wealth but no income. But this is the weakest of all arguments. Even if all the rich people in Austria did their best to report no income, why would they ever want to bother dealing with the intrusive state bureaucracy doling out the Notstand? And even if all of them wanted to do so, there just are not enough rich people in the country to make a big dent in the social spending budget. This is a classic distraction, where neoliberals hide their true intentions (i.e. pro-rich policies) based on class confusion/ obfuscation. Policies that benefit the masses are rejected based on their alleged pro-rich bias, and policies that benefit the rich are embraced because they have a supposedly desirable pro-poor bias. For an example of the second example one may take the US inheritance tax debate. Opponents of what they call “death tax” claim that small business owners and middle class homeowners should not be asked to pay a tax upon their death. The semantics is very crucial here, because inheritance has a neutral connotation, while death has a universal connotation. Since all of us have to die at some point, do we now all have to pay the “death” tax? Politically uninformed people will likely think so and will, therefore, oppose the inheritance tax, even though most people (98%) pay absolutely no inheritance tax, because the threshold is really high (currently 5.5 million dollars for single and 11 million for couples).

I conclude that there is a long-term political campaign to blind the voters with refugee, immigration and cultural identity issues, but not address their underlying economic uncertainty. In a very developed country with an expansive social net, as it exists in Austria, there is a lot of room for things to continue to get worse without creating third world conditions (compare in the US south, where lack of proper sanitation and access to medical care has resulted in the resurgence of the hookworm disease). Nonetheless, the Germanization of the social safety net cannot be considered a desirable political outcome for the unemployed and underemployed Austrians. While in Finland and in Canada, there is an acknowledgment that it would make sense to experiment with a basic income to address growing insecurity from economic dislocation (globalization, automation, rationalization), the mainstream debate in the western world is still trapped in a semi-Keynesian, semi-neoliberal ideological framework, assuming each for very different reasons that maximizing employment participation is desirable (though the former is more humane in at least creating the aggregate demand to make it feasible, while the latter radically pushes down reservation wages to accomplish that outcome), rather than the enhanced freedom for individuals to shape their own life objectives with a basic income.

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Elton John: A Music Career with High Emotional Energy

Elton John has long been part of my music repertoire, and up until a few weeks ago I knew that he was no one-hit wonder, and had written a lot of very interesting songs that were nice to hear. Then I began to play the Youtube playlists of Elton John, which- for people who don’t know- is an endless playlist with a series of songs by that musician mixed with similar musicians (like Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, Sting and so forth). Through that tool I discovered and rediscovered many songs composed by Elton John, and so I began to put together my own Youtube playlists aggregating all my favorite singers, and with Elton John, I am currently at 43 songs, more than for any other interpreter (playlist available here). How can I be so electrified and fascinated by the songs of this one British musician? So I thought it was time to dig into some video interviews with Elton John and explore some biographical data.

My knowledge of music is so rudimentary that I cannot describe in words feelings about his music. It either makes you feel good or not and you don’t really know why. Not even John can describe his music writing process, as it is intuitive rather than logical-rational. Music is one of those things where the human language cannot really penetrate though it is real and can be perceived, which may be described as a cognitive limitation. Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Fortunately, I can make some sociological statements about Elton John’s success, using the framework of the sociology of emotions. In short, John gets energized in the act of writing a song, and this internal energy gets reinforced via his live concert performances in front of large audiences, who sing along with him, and inspire him in his work.

 

Sociology of Emotions

Let us first recall the key tenets in the sociology of emotions as laid out in Collins (2004): people are in social interactions and transfer emotional energy to each other based on the characteristics of the social situation and the given social and cultural capital of each individual. Picture yourself going to a party, and meet this really important big shot that everyone should pay deference to, and it turns out that he is a smooth talker, but doesn’t have much brains, but you do, so you feel dejected and want to escape the conversation. You meet the next person, initially very shy and withdrawn in body language, but you both discover that you like oldtimer cars and discuss that topic animatedly for the next two hours, which you perceive as if mere minutes went by. Sympathy for the other person is strengthened via rhythmic entrainment, which is the copying of body rhythms, tone of language and body language to create positive interactional energy. These are micro-situations, where only individuals meet each other, but in large groups so-called interaction ritual chains become possible. Picture a church congregation that is looking forward to the Sunday preachings, because the pastor is so charismatic and leave the congregants with a sense of inspiration that can reverberate outside the context, because some of the congregants share the vibe of that pastor outside the church walls, and that may attract more people to attend that church. Emotions are getting transmitted via social interaction. This is the key thesis that should be kept at the back of our minds.

 

A Biographical Sketch

Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in north-west London in 1947 into a largely lower middle class household. He was mostly raised by his maternal grandparents in council housing, which is the British version of public housing. His father, a Royal Air Force lieutenant, was not emotionally close to John, and wanted him to pursue a conventional career as a banker. The father was often away, and when his parents were together they often quarreled with each other, thus creating John’s desire for his parents to get divorced (Interview, 1994). The conventional thinking of his father coupled with the emotional distance with John (John did not even bother to show up at his father’s funeral) created in him the desire not only to become a musician but to wear fancy clothes during his many stage performances, to be considered shrill and unconventional.

Being musically inclined, his family bought a lot of records of contemporary music, which gave him a taste for music. Being very talented on the piano, he was discovered in school and at age 11 received a scholarship at the Royal Academy for Music in London, where he spent about 5 years. While at the Royal Academy, he enjoyed playing classical music, but was not a very diligent student, and often rode around the subway rather than practice or attend class. His rare musical talent, however, allowed him to pass classes, as he could play compositions after hearing them once. John’s domestic situation improved when the father divorced his mother, and she then got married to the painter Fred Farebrother, a caring and supportive stepfather. John wrote his early songs in Farebrother’s house before he moved out.

His early musical forays began when he became a weekend pianist at a pub. He formed a band with his friends called Bluesology, and while writing songs also went on tours with them. He divided his time between running errands for a music publishing company, performing solo at a hotel bar and working with his band. John was so serious with his music that by age 17 he had dropped out of school. In 1967, John and Bernie Taupin answered the same ad for a British magazine, seeking for song composers. John admitted to Ray Williams, record company manager, that he was a good melody composer but a bad lyricist and needed help from a lyricist. Williams gave him an envelope from another person that had been rejected, Bernie Taupin. John left and took a look at Taupin’s lyrics and was enamored by it and immediately contacted Taupin (Interview, 2017; Interview, 2017).

Taupin and John became close collaborators, as Taupin wrote all the lyrics in an hour and send them to John, who would read the lyrics and produce the melody in another half hour. Some lyrics do not inspire John, and he throws it out, finding it not worthwhile to waste his time pondering over uninspiring text. While reading the lyrics, John would have an immediate feel for the mood, the speed and the tone of the song (Interview, 1999), which distinguishes musical geniuses from the average musician. Around that time Dwight also changed his name to Elton John in homage to two members of Bluesology, saxophonist Elton Dean and vocalist Lohn John Baldry. John and Taupin became staff songwriters for Dick James’ DJM Records in 1968, setting off the pattern of collaboration. Taupin writes the lyrics, and John comes up with the melody. As staff writers they primarily wrote songs for other people, but also increasingly produced their own songs. By 1970, they had put out their first album titled “Elton John”, and the second song in the album “Your Song” became the first hit single, landing number 7 in the UK charts and 8 in the US charts. However, John had almost been a failure in the UK, and it was only when his record company contacted an American record producer, Russ Regan, who really liked the song that he got his breakthrough (BBC documentary, 2010).

 

Predicting Success

The rest, as the proverb says, is history (which can be read in Wikipedia), because the first successful hit generates revenue to allow John to concentrate more on his own work composing new songs, and name recognition would grant him invitations for music concerts at popular venues, which increases his listenership further, thus generating even more revenues and social attention. The Matthew effect is clearly at work here, as initial success is converted into more success (Merton 1968). But it is not enough to have initial advantage, as that initial advantage is also tied to personal talent and knowing the right people at the right time (such as knowing the lyricist Taupin, or knowing Russ Regan, the American record producer; or being in close proximity to other great artists forming a huge network and generating more creativity, as had been the case with philosophers: Collins [1998]). John had all of these factors speaking for him.

So how come John could nourish his ability to write one great song after another? Here economic explanations are insufficient. We can’t just say that John was driven by the money, and in his labor-leisure tradeoff he placed a low value of utility on leisure, and thus favored the labor income by writing great hits and performing at live concerts. The problem with this explanation is that the homo economicus is showing up nowhere in the interviews that I have watched of John. Money cannot be the key driver for John’s internal drive to success, though he has enjoyed a great material life, owning multiple large residences and nice cars that he mostly resold because he wasn’t using them.

Fame, which is a form of social recognition, is already closer to the truth, but fame for its own sake was not what John had emphasized in the TV interviews. Rather there were three crucial factors that he emphasized in his conversations with journalists: (1) the need to be loved/ recognized for which fame was one tool to get there; (2) the love and skill of writing music and performing; and (3) the emotional energy generated from audience feedback. In short, the productive use of emotions works out very well for John, thus allowing him to coast from one great hit to another, and endure even during career stretches of less success.

 

Love and Fame

John’s need for fame and recognition really came from his need to be loved. In his interview with Barbara Walters, he described the trauma of seeing his parents get divorced. He explained how he got tremors when his father came home, as he had a tense relationship with him. “The only thing I would get excited about was playing the piano and singing. I would go out. It would be easy for me to get recognition from 20,000 people, and I loved it. Then I would come home and it was me [alone] again. And that wasn’t enough.” (Interview, 1994) Continuing the line of tense household relations and the importance of music, he states in another interview “I used to find solace in music. When my parents used to argue, I would go to my room and listen to radio Luxembourg.” (Interview, 2010)

It is not clear whether all successful people must have gone through a traumatic childhood, but in John’s case he converted his childhood trauma into productivity in the world of music. How could he know that he was being loved? Only via the constant infusion of emotional energy from the audience, and it became a potent drug. To be clear, there was a very negative phase in John’s life that a career civil servant with a predictable schedule would unlikely face. In the 1980s, John was suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, and only successfully battled it after an epiphany moment when he attended the ceremony of a gay young man, who had died from HIV/AIDS. John being a homosexual himself felt that he didn’t do enough to combat HIV, so to do something productive he had to first get his act together by becoming sober again, which succeeded about 1990 (Interview, 2008). Charlie Rose suggested in his John interview that John’s obsessive-compulsive personality can only be accommodated via music, which keeps him alive, which John agreed with (Interview, 1999).

 

Love for Writing Music

Accommodating this obsessive-compulsive personality via music is a good transition to John’s love for writing music. There are many ways to get fame and attention, but for John, a very effective method for being successful has been to simply enjoy writing good music. In his interview with Stephen Colbert, John stated, “we love what we were doing and didn’t stop for pause. We were having so much fun. When you have that adrenaline. When you have that impetus and you are successful- we were like kids in the candy store. I just loved what we were doing. That helps.” (Interview, 2017)

It is rare for a person to find a career that is completely fulfilling, and the profession of the artist, who also happens to be successful, belongs to that category. Once John was successful, he was able to devote himself completely to writing good music. Being so obsessed about the music also does not leave much time for reflection. As an artist, it is impossible to know whether that song that was just composed, will become a big hit, but one has to be relentless and not really care about temporary setbacks or disappointments. Truly successful people, like competitive swimmers, have to regard their success as mundane, focusing on their craft rather than other distractions like comparison with other successful people (Chambliss 1989). In a separate interview, John stressed the importance of coming up with new ideas and staying innovative. “I am always promoting new things. I am trying not to be an old fart.” (Interview, 2017).

John also does not get obsessed about a single song, which may excite him when it is written, but not really when he plays it for many times in front of live audiences, unless there is a lot of public enthusiasm that he can sense there. “When you first write that song and you have the birth of that song. That gives you chills. And then to be honest, when you are playing a song 1,000 times it’s hard to get chills except on certain occasions…[having] the most incredible crowd [at a recent concert]. That gave me the chills. That was the event, more than the songs.” (Interview, 1992)

 

Emotional Energy from Live Performances

That is an interesting transition to the last point. How can John know that he has been vindicated as an artist? It can’t be merely the record sales that change the value in his bank account, but the positive reactions from a large audience during a live performance. In an Australian interview, John was asked whether he would tire out performing so many concerts. “It is exhausting, but it is not exhausting playing. It is exhausting traveling.”

This suggests that playing music is part of his natural identity, and the positive audience feedback compensates for any physical exhaustion of the live performance. On the other hand, sitting at the back of the van or in an airplane traveling across different countries may not strain his voice, but the lack of audience interaction and the solitude of the travel does not lend much emotional energy. Therefore, live performances are not incidental to John’s success, but an important part of it. “The career has lasted so long because I do play live… Some nights I play and it’s horrendous. Some nights I play and it is miraculous. That’s the drug that keeps you performing, because you never know what great performance will come out of nothing. And that’s the reason you are doing it, and to get the feedback from the audience.” (Interview, 2017)

John understood the importance of live performances, claiming that it gives him the resolve and the skills to play, and stated in an interview, “Nothing is better for you than to go out and play live, even if it is to 20 people. Because it gives you resolve, it hardens you up. It makes you a better songwriter. It gives you the experience, the backbone.” (Interview, 2010) Live performances generate public approval, which in turn generates the emotional energy that he needs to continue churning out new hits.

Even though John had enjoyed the interaction with the audience, which transmitted positive energy to him, John is by no means an extroverted person, preferring to keep to himself and have his thoughts expressed in the music. It might be said that the most talented people tend to be introverts, as creativity of scientists is expressed in the lab or in front of a computer screen, or painters drawing up their still life need the alone-time with the fruits as objects. For John, his most important partner, the lyricist Bernie Taupin, was not even physically in the same room with John when writing the songs. Taupin sends the lyrics to John. John would sit in his room alone in front of his piano, read the lyrics, brood over it and hit the piano keys with the lyric for inspiration before writing down the notes (John provides some description of how he got the melody for “Tiny Dancer” in a 1971 performance).

 

Conclusion

To be sure, John’s career was not as productive from 1975 onward compared to his early years of performance (between 1970 and 1975), but he was still able to keep the flow of good songs coming. Even the brilliant scientists have their greatest work published relatively early in their career. But the fact that John kept on producing good records makes him very different from one-hit wonders, whose flame perishes soon after their commercial success. A mixture of talent, knowing the right people at the right time, early success coupled with the need for recognition, the love and skill for music and the positive emotional energy generated from audience interactions produce the music success story of Elton John. Emotions within social contexts are, therefore, an important component for achievement at the top. The benefit to Elton John fans is a long and extended track record of songs that are enlivening our daily experience.

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Hikikomori: Isolated By Choice or Force?

One interesting social phenomenon in Japan involve so-called hikikomori, which is best translated as acute social withdrawal, loners, hermits. These are young people from their teens into their 40s, mostly male, who don’t leave their bedroom, usually in their parents’ house. There are estimates of a million people in this condition. What are they doing in the comfort of their bedroom? They may be playing video games, watching TV, listening to music, reading their favorite comics or simply staring at the ceiling most of the day. For some introverted people in the West this might be a desirable way of living, but for me this would be like a boring hell over time. The ideal lifestyle is a mixture of solitude and reflection mixed with intermittent periods of social interaction. Schopenhauer had argued that the intelligent person is happy to live alone, but Aristotle was also right in pointing out that we are political and therefore social animals.

More importantly, we have to ask ourselves how it is that young Japanese men remove themselves so far from society in a way that does not happen in other similarly high industrialized countries in the West. These are the factors favoring hikikomori (acute social withdrawal, loners, hermits):

Middle class affluence and strong family values

It could be that living in a rich society among middle class people it is possible to keep children into adulthood. Not all middle class societies parents want to keep their children for such an extended period of time, but among Latino and eastern European culture I can tell anecdotally that it would be inconceivable for these middle class people to charge their children to live with them if they can afford to keep them on for longer. But staying with parents into adulthood (a phenomenon that is spreading all over the west) does not necessarily mean that one turns into a hikikomori. If I decided to stay with my parents into adulthood (not a desirable prospect), I would certainly want to spend as much time as I can outside the house.

Parental overprotectiveness

One of the reasons that Japanese children can cut themselves off from society is because their overprotective parents would not dare to interfere with the “home life” of their children. Parents certainly do notice that the children refuse to get out of their room, but the hesitancy of parents to drag out their children makes this phenomenon possible to begin with. One might counter that children will be resistant, but it is the confrontation that would have an impact on their behavior. But this factor merely explains how children can be stuck in their rooms, and not why they decide to stay in their rooms in the first place.

Deteriorating job opportunities for the youth and negative impacts on the marriage market

There is an important economic trajectory that is ongoing in the most developed capitalist countries: there no longer is rapid economic growth, which could provide the cushy, stable middle-class jobs for males. Automation and offshoring are further factors disadvantaging middle class employment in rich countries. In addition, another negative drag on the economy is the fact that the population is shrinking as women are not having enough children and the Japanese government is unwilling to sacrifice the ethnic homogeneity of the Japanese people. The lack of employment security has a negative consequence in the marriage and dating market for men all over the developed world, but has an even greater negative impact in Confucian societies like in Japan, where the inability of the male breadwinner to get stable employment discredits them in the eyes of women to provide for family life.

The lack of a female partner provides an incentive to stay in the parents’ house, while active family formation tends to result in new household formation. The lack of marriagable men, in turn, forces women to also seek for employment and greater economic independence could also reduce the pressure to get married later. (It is by no means argued that women are having a better time in the job market than men given the gender pay gap and employment discrimination against women.)

Competitive school system

Increased competitiveness in the job market with the decline of stable, middle class jobs also affects the competitive school system. In a Confucian society, parents and the society highly value their children to be as educated as is possible. As such the pressure on each child is enormous to perform well academically. Even as some education ministry officials are recognizing the importance of rest and reduce weekend schooling, parents compensate by sending their children to attend cram schools over the weekend and evenings every day. There is a lot to be criticized about an education system that overvalues rote memorization over individual creativity, but one could imagine how much worse it becomes when the number and proportion of good jobs are decreasing.

People’s internal push to get another credential increases, and as more people are getting a degree it becomes less valuable, a classic case of credential inflation (Collins 1979). But as educational expectations increase, so does the frustration of children, who cannot perform up to those high standards set by their parents. To escape the education pressure, children opt to stay at home. Given that they lack the credential to get taken at a regular job, they are forced to either work low-skilled jobs or for the more fortunate children of middle class families become devoted hikikomori.

Collectivist Culture

In a collectivist culture it is very important to fit in with the dominant cultural values of the society, including high educational performance and attaining a decent middle class job, and in the absence of such face rumor, ostracism and bullying. The extreme sense of collectivism is also remarked by Japanese-Americans or Japanese-Brazilians, who don’t really feel at home when setting foot on their ancestral homeland, because they don’t speak Japanese so well or don’t understand all the cultural mores, which makes them different in the eyes of the indigenous Japanese (Lie 2001). The high cost of collectivism is the lack of individuality, and the inevitable non-conformism leaves no other social space other than the bedroom in the parental house. In a largely individualist society within urban contexts, other people don’t really care about your individual life choices, which offers freedom to pursue one’s life choices without social exclusion, which Simmel (1903) had remarked as one of the positive elements of city life in the west.

What to Do?

Given that it is undesirable to have so many lives wasted the challenge will be to get these men out of their bedrooms. It will be an acute problem for people who have stayed at home for decades and then their parents die, in which case they will inherit the house and savings, but what happens when the savings are used up? The irony is that once the hermits become too comfortable in their nest they will have lost much of their socializing skills, and are not very receptive to outsiders coming in to tell them to get out. What almost certainly has to happen is that people have to have economic perspectives, which would allow them to participate in society. When robots take over the jobs, which is most acutely the case in Japan, it might not be feasible to think of employment opportunities, but volunteer activities funded by a universal basic income are certainly feasible. There are also psychologists, some of which were former hikikomori, who are trying to convince other hikikomori to leave their caves.

To some extent, if late-capitalism enforces such a fate of social exclusion and atomization to such a portion of society, this might bode well for our capitalist rulers, who have nothing to fear from this discarded surplus population that has no centralized organization to vent frustration against a system that so thoroughly mistreats them.

Further readings:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori

                 Mystery Of The Missing Million

                 Hikikomori (2004) Francesco Jodice               

http://www.zeit.de/2014/24/japan-jugend-sex (German)

https://www.nippon.com/ja/column/g00455/ (Japanese)

https://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110001051811/ (Japanese)

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