A Good Point – Billionaire Philanthropy Edition

From The Guardian:

“These absurdly rich people do not deserve admiration. They are spending half their fortunes buying themselves pleasure and influence. If the Gateses, von Furstenbergs and Bloombergs want top ranking in the pantheon of benefactors they have to give away something really important. How about giving the poor the chance to decide the fate of the wealthy? How about delegates from the poorest 100 countries deciding how much of the world’s wealth they want to allocate to software developers, dress designers, film producers etc and how much to eradicating poverty?”

•Barbara Gunnell is a writer and editor

One does not often think of it that way but after all, people in the periphery subsidize our lives.

The Triumph of The Transnational Capitalist Class

This is where it is useful to recall Leslie Sklair’s notion that the transnational capitalist class has a political component, not just a corporate one. It ensures that global governance works the way the TCC wants it, at least that is Jean Gadrey’s point on his blog. As Gadrey bluntly states, for the very rich, the crisis is over.

High net worth individuals (HNWIs) – those whose wealth is over $1 million ready to be invested minus value of primary residence – have levels of wealth similar to those before the recession. This recovery is partly due to taxpayers coming to the rescue. After all, rescuing the very rich has been presented as beneficial to the common good. There is also great levels of inequalities among these HNWIs: over a third of their wealth is held by 0.9% of them.

If that is the case then, Gadrey proposes a tax on extreme wealth: 1.5% tax on assets, applied to the richest 0.15%. This would provide $600 billion, enough to fully fund the Millenium Development Goals. Because it would be global, it would be impossible for these super-rich to run from one country to the next to avoid paying it: a world wealth tax.

It is only fair, after all, the transnational capitalist class has raided the budgets of several nations to compensate themselves for the high-stake games they played, courtesy of taxpayers and the complicity of the political component of the TCC. This is one of the ways in which the poor and the unemployed subsidize the wealthy. Now that they have regained their wealth, these individuals are free to advocate for austerity and deficit-reduction policies and use the media component of the TCC to carry the ideological water.

And if the riff-raff protest (as with the G20 meeting in Toronto), well, the nation-state still has monopoly of violence.

Social Mobility and Transfer of Privileges

In its report Going For Growth 2010, the OECD examines intergenerational mobility across its member countries. It also provides a good definition of intergeneration mobility:

Intergenerational Mobility - OECD

So, how do OECD countries fare when it comes to the transmission of privileges (and disadvantages) and intergenerational mobility?

Intergenerational Mobility OECD Graph1

So, the UK, Italy, US and France are the countries with the least amount of intergenerational mobility and persistence of earnings across generations whereas Nordic countries tend to have more mobility.

As Filip Spagnoli notes, these data (and others that can be found in one chapter of the Report, which is to be fully published in March) debunks the myth of the efficiency and openness of the Anglo-Saxon model of public policy as opposed to the continental (or mainland, as Spagnoli calls it) model based on stronger social safety net:

The neoliberal framing of public policy has worked as the continental model is believed to be less efficient, less motivating (“why would people work hard if they are going to pay taxes to support welfare-dependent deadbeats?”), more flexible (FSM knows neo-liberals love flexibility!) and that inequality is a reflexion of individuals’ work ethics and motivation and a small price to pay for the freedom to succeed.

Data such as those above are not new but they do highlight how simplistic these beliefs are. As Spagnoli notes,

Actually, as The Spirit Level notes, high inequality is bad for society, even when accompanied with economic growth in affluent countries. And as Lane Kenworthy has noted as well, the often-mentioned trade-offs to greater equality are weak to non-existent once one looks at the data.

Actually, I would argue that if we truly believed in meritocracy, we would ban inheritance so that everyone truly starts with an economic blank slate and provide education to provide equality of opportunity on the social and cultural capital fronts.

Book Review – Identifying Citizens

In Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, David Lyon (also lead researcher at The Surveillance Project) continues to unveil the different layers of the surveillance society. In this book, he zeroes in on the technology, impetus and social consequences of various ID cards plans that many countries have implemented or are considering, mainly in the name of security and against terrorist threats.

For Lyon, ID systems are an especially powerful – but not necessarily new in themselves – form of surveillance because the current and proposed systems operate based databases that can ingurgitate and regurgitate and correlate ever greater amounts of individual data and can be synchronized and connected to other databases, governmental or corporate. And as always with any systems of surveillance, the reliance on categories as database units has the potential of discriminating against already disadvantaged categories of the population.

Moreover, identity cards are not just cards that establish identity, they are mechanisms of identification verification for a variety of purposes and as the settings where we are required to identify ourselves multiply, off- or online (think all the e-government, or government 2.0 services as well as e-business, e-education, etc.), the amount and diversity of information to be embedded in ID systems grows as well. For Lyon, this is a very threatening development, socially, ethically and politically.

“The book explores the them of ‘identifying citizens’ from a number of angles, historical, technical, political and sociological, with a view to showing how new ID systems raise urgent new questions for analysis, ethics and policy. We have made a world of global trade and consumption that depends heavily upon computer and communication technologies to organize and coordinate everyday life, and ID systems often contribute to its greater efficiency and convenience. But the same systems often replicate and sometimes exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of that world, and they do so in ways that are subtle and that may not be intended by their promoters. These are not IDs of ‘one’s own choice’ so much as those ‘inflated and launched by others.” (2)

For Lyon, identification is the starting point of surveillance, the moment at which an individual shows up on a computer screen as data point with specific characteristics depending on the nature of the database. And if an organization, be it an online store, the Department of Homeland Security or the systems put in place by the International Civil Aviation Organization decide that one’s demographics are of interest for their own purposes, then, social consequences follow. So, it is not just who we are that is part of contemporary ID systems, but also our tastes, behavior, relationships and various preferences that are of interest and therefore stored in databases, along with, sometimes, biometric data (such as the fingerprints and retinal scans that those of us, international travelers,  leave at the airport).

Now, from a historical point of view, ID systems are not new. States, especially modern states, have always had an interest in being able to establish and verify their citizens’ identity for a variety of purposes: taxation, conscription, delivery of welfare services, for instance. The colonial states also used identification for their own interest, such as subdividing the population into solidified racial or ethnic categories (with the devastating results that we know when it comes to apartheid South Africa and Rwanda).

What is different with current ID systems is that (1) they use the storing and computational power of information and communication technologies, which means more and more data can be stored and cross-referenced through massive databases whose coding reflect the biases of their programmers and the institutions that commission the creation of the ID system. (2) These systems can be public (government) or private or privatized (outsourced by the government to private companies). (3) These systems are globalized as global standards of technology are designed and implemented worldwide, such as the machine-readable travel documents. These truly new aspects have the potential to make surveillance more extensive, more intensive and widespread.

At the heart of the book is the central distinction between identity and identification. Surveillance systems are about identification, that is, the mobilization of personal data for purposes stated by the relevant institutions, public or private. Identify incorporates a personal narrative component, a sense of how we define who we are rather than strictly imposed upon us (here the reference to Goffman is relevant in terms of identity management). Surveillance systems are all about identification, not identity. In identification systems, we have little to no control over the kind of data collected and managed.

Why does it matter so much to be able to identify citizens / consumers? Any system of surveillance operates on the double more inclusion / exclusion, the discrimination between the legitimate citizen and the illegal immigrant, between the legitimate traveler and the potential terrorist, between the legitimate welfare recipient and the fraud, that is, between a legitimate identification and an Other to be detected, sorted and excluded (off to Guantanamo Bay, maybe). Surveillance involves all sorts of such social sorting mechanisms but, for Lyons, ID systems are the ones that go the furthest.

In addition to establishing a legitimate identification, ID systems also then make us more legible for a variety of institutions according to the parameters they have established (Amazon.com is interested in my reading / musical tastes and it knows what I have bought before can derive what I will most likely read in the future and push these things to me, for instance). However, as it becomes possible to collect and store more data, then more and different kinds of data are collected and stored by both public and private institutions. There is a very real possibility that these databases might be combined and delivered to us in the form of a one ID card that could be used both as ID, driving license and consumer card all in one.

In many ways, it does not seem so far-fetched to think of something like this:

And of course, Id systems are already used to detect undesirables, whoever they happen to be as part of the generic social sorting involved in all surveillance mechanism:

As Lyon puts it,

“New ID card systems are a species of surveillance, then, but they also share a key characteristic of much contemporary surveillance in that they facilitate forms of ‘social sorting’. This is a large-scale and far-reaching trend, enabled in fine-grain form by the use of searchable databases and associated techniques such as data mining, characterized by the classifying and profiling of groups in order to provide different levels of treatment, conditions or services to groups that have thus been distinguished from one another.” (41)

All this may be presented to us as a way of offering better service and benefits, public or private (such as airline miles or special offers of different kinds) or in terms of security (surrender more data in order to have them protected) but all this amounts to the fact that greater aspects of our lives fall under surveillance mechanisms that are neither neutral nor entirely safe or error-proof.

Lyon then mobilizes a series of concepts to analyze further the nature and consequences of ID systems:

  • Banopticon: as opposed to its ancestor, the Panopticon, the banopticon refers to the mechanisms of exclusion: simply being placed in a suspect category (welfare fraud, potential terrorist) is enough to be banned and excluded from specific spheres of life: placed on a no-fly list or to have one’s credit score ruined or benefits withdrawn. The banopticon refers to all the exclusionary nature of these modes of surveillance and governance.
  • Risk-to-reassurance continuum: a great deal of the ID schemes are presented to us not only as security measures designed to create risk-free experience and risk-free society but also as reassurance mechanisms as well as customization systems.
  • Global surveillance assemblage: the set of more and more globally coordinated and synchronized systems of surveillance that operate worldwide based on globally established standards (as part of global governance mechanisms) and potential full interoperability.
  • Risk-to precaution just-in-case data gathering: data are now collected as preventive measures before anything has happened based on demographic analysis of who is more likely to engage in certain type of behavior or possess certain characteristics which make them suspect in advance.
  • All this boils down to governing by identification through stretched screens (ever greater amount of data collected and mined) and ubiquitous computing all done in real (liquid) time and on a global scale, along with ubiquitous networking and ubiquitous biometrics. Certainly, Foucault’s concept of biopower is relevant here as the body itself becomes a source of data to be mined and used for identification.

And as usual, all these mechanisms are not socially neutral in their design and consequences. Already, being able to obtain a credit card and having the ability to provide ID is a source of social stratification (this issue comes up regularly in the United States when it comes to providing ID for voting as some categories of the population may be less able to provide the proper documentation). Being legible to governments and corporations may become the price to pay to, ironically, exercise one’s rights and freedoms. Needless to say, certain populations such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may find themselves then unable to have rights as they are unable to be documented. The right to have rights is a problematic that Saskia Sassen has been promoting in her book Territory, Authority and Rights and that is clearly relevant here. On the other hand, the global surveillance assemblage is much kinder to other categories of people: diplomats, business travelers and academics, all seen as legitimate global actors and national citizens, on the move for the “right” reasons.

So, how does one resist such powerful global surveillance assemblage? Is it even desirable? What forms of resistance are available beyond hacking and cyberterrorism in the context of the disappearance of disappearance. Contestation can take many forms, from legal challenges in a variety of settings to social movements questioning the very notion of citizenship as national concept.

“Writing of the fast-changing world of contemporary claims to membership of nation-states, Gerard Delanty concludes that citizenship is no longer defined only by nationality and the nation-state, but is increasingly de-territorialized and fragmented into separate discourses of rights, participation, responsibility and identity. Equally, citizenship is no longer exclusively about struggles for social equality – the dominant post-war mode of struggle – but has become a major site of battles over cultural identity and demands for recognition of group difference. This cannot but be evident in current debates over ID systems.” (138)

(Sassen again here)

If one were to extend Lyon’s discussion, one would note that another thing that is done by ID cards systems, of course, is to individualize citizenship, thereby diluting the notion of solidarity that were built into it when the modern-state system was created, which, of course, matches the objectives of neo-liberal neo-conservative politics and policies that reduce individuals to card-carriers and consumers, including some, and rejecting others. Think of the campaign that accuse illegal music downloaders of ruining it for everyone else. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate actors is an individualizing one that leave those designed as legitimate actors pitted against the illegitimate ones, rather the system that exacts such sorting in the first place. In this context, it is not surprising that resistance might take the form of re-creating solidarity, such as providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants or the international Pirate Party movement.

As always, it is a well-written book, a bit repetitive at times (especially for those of us familiar with the whole Surveillance Society approach) but it is a nice updating of the global surveillance assemblage that is a work in progress.

What’s in your wallet?

How To Debate Social Conservatives, Libertarians and Social Darwinists on Inequality

As a follow-up on my book review of The Spirit Level, Bill Kerry, blogging over at The Equality Trust, has a blog post on their brand new FAQ. It is indeed great and handy. A sample:

It’s a great teaching resource for those of us who have to deal with these automatic questions from our undergraduate students.

Barbara Ehrenreich is Always Right

And she writes better than I can (and she has a website and a blog!). She should get a permanent spot on the Washington Post Op-Ed list, rather than an occasional gig. As usual, in this column, she reminds us that social class matters.

“But hellooo, we’ve had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been “decoupled” from widely shared prosperity.”

Growth is NOT prosperity. It is such a simple but true idea and yet, journalists and others often confuse them and use one for the other. Growth is always good but if it is not redistributed the majority of the population, it creates patterns of greater inequalities that we have seen in the past 20 years or so.

Moreover, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us of another obvious fact: human agency. Economic indicators do not fall from the sky. They are the product of deliberate policies with predictable consequences. Case in point: increased productivity and low unemployment without increased income for the working and middle classes.

“We like to attribute our high productivity to technological advances and better education. But a revealing 2001 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. also credited America’s productivity growth to “managerial . . . innovations” and cited Wal-Mart as a model performer, meaning that our productivity also relies on fiendish schemes to extract more work for less pay. (…) And what about the unemployment rate? The old liberal certainty was that “full employment” would create a workers’ paradise, with higher wages and enhanced bargaining power for the little guy and gal. But we’ve had nearly full employment, or at least an official unemployment rate of under 5 percent, for years now, without the predicted gains. What the old liberals weren’t counting on was a depressed minimum wage, weak unions and a witch’s brew of management strategies to hold wages and salaries down.”

And with the subprime meltdown, the prospects are dim. But again, this subprime crisis is also the product of human agency: practices by lenders to offer unaffordable loans to lower class and African-Americans and speculative frenzy for these supposedly high-return investments, as well as “creative” accounting on the part of mortgage companies and their insurers (Atrios is the source to follow on this). Moreover, in the context of stagnating wages and income, Americans-as-consumers turn to home equity in greater numbers, not out of careless frenzy for consumer goods but for unavoidable expenses (such as medical bills, a major source of bankruptcy, which is no longer available).

From her point of view, then, government intervention, which is necessary, should address the structural conditions of the lower and middle classes, not just out of compassion, but out of economic self-interest. Sadly, Congress caved in to the demands of the White House and the stimulus package will do none of these things.