The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can finally read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

A Life in Books

A certain website asks How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? It estimates your lifetime total by using a life expectancy calculator and 3 different levels of reading consumption: 12 books per year for average readers, 50 for the voracious, and 80 for the super-readers. The website says I have something like slightly over a 1000 books left in me.

This exercise made me realize I haven’t been reading much lately in 2021. After counting up the physical and electronic books I’ve borrowed from my library and the webnovels I’ve read so far (I’ve bought zero books), I think I’m only at like 9 or 10 books this year. I’m not counting all the manga issues I’ve read because that would easily push my total into the hundreds.

Anyway, I’m really surprised at my 2021 total since like 10 years ago I specifically counted how much media I consumed annually and it came to something like 80 books for that year (after checking it was actually 83). I think it’s because back in the old days I would read during my subway commute and in the lounge during lunch, whereas now that I’m at home I’d probably be washing dishes or something. I suppose I should really pick up my pace if I want to race against the grim reaper and finish more of the books in my various to-read lists.

Turn of the century

I don’t know why but I’m watching Martian Successor Nadesico and Outlaw Star. I guess maybe it’s because both series came out back when you could have more than 13 episodes in a season and could actually spend time with the characters, but not like in the 80s when you’d have 300 episodes where nothing at all happened in each one. I like Outlaw Star more because it’s better at the cliffhanger ending which makes me want to keep watching, but both series are pleasantly unchallenging to watch.

Visible Cities

City Guesser is a pretty fun website, it gives you a walking around video of a random city and you have to guess where it is. It’s superior to Google Street View for exploring someplace because you can hear the crazy homeless people shouting in a back alley you pass by, so it’s almost like you’re really there. I recommend putting headphones on for full immersion.

It’s got trophies and multiplayer mode and stuff but I’m honestly just using it to remember what it was like to walk on a crowded street so I don’t care about the points or whatever it is.

Radio Free Bird

Screenshot from Radio Garden showing the southern tip of South America and a circle around the eastern half of the Falkland Islands and a caption indicating the radio station selected as BFBS Falkland Islands

This Radio Garden thing is kind of neat, it’s like Google Maps except specifically for radio stations. Spin the globe and see what they’re listening to in Cambodia!

Although I think the radio ads are automatically streamed according to your location, otherwise it’s weird that a Canadian online casino is being advertised on Cambodian radio. And yes, I was looking for Vietnamese radio stations so I could make a Good Morning, Vietnam joke but I guess none are streaming online.

Mighty Joe Steel

https://youtu.be/F3fsqXx8CoM?t=14

As a young time traveler, you receive the opportunity to meet the greatest dictator of all time — Stalin. And then what? Everything’s up to you! Speak with Joseph, reveal his most hidden secrets, give him advice, and help the vozhd come to world domination! Or… show him what true love is!

. . . Huh.

Wait, what do the reviews say?

‘Sex With Stalin’ Is Surprisingly Dull

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

Well, I think we can all trust Foreign Policy magazine’s opinion on video games.

Anyway, if I was a time traveller who wanted to have sex with Stalin, I’d obviously go for the younger and hotter version.

Stalin: handsome as a devil at 23 years old with tousled hair and short beard

Let’s cyber

Cyberpunk 2077 just came out and I’m not playing it. After reading about its iffy politics and the awful working conditions of the people who made the game, I may never end up playing it.

That’s fine. There are other games. But I’ve also never been fully comfortable with cyberpunk as a genre. Besides the orientalism and the generalized ham-handed handling of race, there’s just something about cyberpunk that never fully clicked with me.

After reading this article, though, I think I’m getting a better handle on my discomfort. I’m not into cyberpunk because it’s basically just the politics of the 1980s rehashed over and over. It’s a paleofuture: a vision of what is to come that has already been superseded by what has already come. It’s the past’s fantasy of the future and it’s as dissociated from our real lives as Buck Rogers serials with ray guns and rocket ships.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling this December 2020.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Kill or be killed

 I saw the Shane Black movie The Predator. It was a competently made movie that never rose above being mediocre. It can’t even dream of being as good as Predator 2, let alone the first movie.

I’m going to spoil the story because the movie isn’t good enough for anyone to care about being spoiled, but stop reading if this matters to you anyway.

So, in the movies the Predators are alien trophy hunters bagging human kills, right? And in this film, they’re stepping up their hunting trips because climate change will render Earth unlivable, so they’re taking the chance to harvest valuable human spines before the last of their cherished prey dies out.

One Predator wants to help humanity so it escapes to our planet with lifesaving technology to give us. It’s hunted by the other aliens as a traitor, hapless American soldiers get caught in the the middle, there’s lots of pro-military propaganda, a big shootout, and all the other cliches are as you would expect. So, in the denouement our heroes open the thingy the alien traitor was going to give us and what do they find? A high-tech cyber suit built for killing Predators.

So that was it? That’s what the Predator died to give humanity? It thought what our species needed the most in the face of mass extinction from anthropogenic climate change was a shitload of guns?

I mean, Jesus Christ but how many people does one of the Predators kill when they come by? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? Is that even enough for insurance companies to adjust their rates to compensate for the increased mortality rates? I had thought we were going to get like cold fusion or something like that, but nope, the Predator solution to climate change was shooting it a lot.

Anyway, that’s it, that’s my main takeaway from the movie.

Lord of the Rings: The Extended Edition Extended

Oh man, someone edited The Fellowship of the Ring so that every time Sam takes a step toward Mordor, he remarks that it’s the farthest from home he’s ever been. The edit is 9 hours and 18 minutes long. Again, this is only the first movie, and for the first 37:39 minutes it’s exactly what you’ve seen before.

But then we reach the scene where Sam leaves the Shire at 37:39 and the whole thing just takes off. It’s so stupid but I almost hurt myself laughing at how it took almost 6 minutes for Sam to take like 4 steps because at every step he pointed out that it’s the furthest he’s ever been from home.

Helpful Youtube commenter Mr. Wallet posted the highlights:

I finished watching the whole thing at 1x speed, so I want to share some of my favorite timestamps for people who don’t want to sit through the entire meme:

As others have noted, the meme starts at 37:39

58:11 and 59:32 Sam is asked questions and can’t stay on topic

1:03:40 Sam is about to be attacked with a scythe and stops to contemplate his distance from home

1:51:55 Sam interrupts a rescue attempt

2:55:15 Sam did want to see the Elves, more than anything, it’s just… This is it.

3:10:30 The entire Council of Elrond scene goes uninterrupted, and then 1 minute after that timestamp Samwise just shouts HEH and busts out of hiding to tell Frodo that this is the farthest he’s ever been

3:15:32 is the start of over an hour of nonstop repeats of the meme. If you get from the start of this video to about 4:30:00 then you will be able make it through the whole thing. I mention it because after 40 minutes of nonstop Sam talking about taking one more step punctuated by half-seconds of blaring music, there’s finally a break at 3:55:14 but it only lasts 10 seconds and then the moment a sliver of Sam’s head comes into frame, he goes right back to it for 20 minutes. If you actually sit through all that misery, it’s a funny moment.

5:19:09 Gimli starts having an emotional breakdown and Sam interrupts to tell Frodo that This Is It

5:32:10 Sam urgently has to tell a dying Frodo that This Is It

6:13:40 the balrog is introduced

6:38:34 Sam is fine with being thrown by Aragorn to escape certain death but first real quick he needs to tell Frodo something

7:14:25 Everyone is in shock over what happens with the balrog (spoiler, don’t watch if that’s a problem) then Sam eventually decides to make it about himself

7:48:37 the fellowship is told to come because someone is waiting and Sam doesn’t care at all that someone is waiting

8:07:15 Frodo sees a vision of the Shire burning, Sam is being marched in chains but the orcs permit him to stop and tell real-Frodo how far he is going to be from home

8:33:40 – 8:48:04 the cathartic climax of the film (probably another spoiler) is mostly ruined by the meme. In particular good moments are 8:40:05, 8:41:50, and 8:42:45

EDIT: Forgot one… 9:10:30 a fitting end to a fitting meme