Outside the Asylum

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Come outside.

A couple of weeks ago, I began an analysis of capitalism's catechism. Here's the next entry in the series.

Capitalism lies. It lies a lot. Most systems which organize human power lie a lot, but capitalism takes the mendacious cake. A system like feudalism or monarchism has a few central lies, fictions or fallacies which it uses as ideological load-bearing walls to keep the political house from falling down. The divine right of kings was one such load-bearing concept. Late-stage capitalism requires myriad lies, told non-stop, 24 hours a day. Perhaps that’s because the story of capitalism is so unbelievable now that, by contrast, the divine right of kings looks refreshingly innocent. After all, how do I know what the divine, if it exists, really wants? On the other hand, I do know an aristocracy when I see one. Capitalism needs to tell a lot of lies in order to convince me that I’m not currently seeing an aristocracy wielding destructive power over this country.

Of recent years, the stories capitalism tells about itself have come dangerously close to losing all credibility. The old narratives strain to hold the breadth of human evil they purportedly explain (away), which has gotten too large, too destructive, and too evident for people to be insulated from its effects. This lack of insulation means increased attention on both the evil being done and the distance between capitalism’s precepts and its lived reality. It’s difficult to sell the notion that capitalism means freedom when the world’s largest capitalist superpower creates the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers. It’s difficult to sell a majority of the people on the idea of lazy “welfare queens” when a majority of the people are a few paychecks away from being on the street themselves. And it’s difficult to sell the idea of a bootstrapping meritocracy when the world’s richest bankers beg on international tv for a government handout of astronomical proportions.

In this series, I am debunking the myths of capitalism one by one. Today I’d like to talk about efficiency.

In the same way that democracy has come to mean little more than “not socialism” (with a secondary meaning of “not feudalism” for the historically minded) efficiency, at least in its mainstream political usage, now means “not profligacy.” Profligacy is a fancy word for spending too much. The current mainstream definition of efficiency is avoiding spending too much.

But who determines what’s too much? How do you determine what’s too much? Like pragmatism, another favorite capitalist buzzword, efficiency cannot exist in a vacuum—not if you intend to use the concept rationally. One can only measure whether something is pragmatic by relating it to a goal. One can only measure whether something is efficient by doing the exact same thing. Efficiency means achieving a goal with the least possible waste. The central concern of efficiency is not avoiding spending. The central concern of efficiency is achieving the goal. Sometimes spending a great deal of money is the most efficient thing one can do. The retrofitting of the United States’ building stock to be more energy-efficient is a case in point. So, actually, is Medicare for All. Will it cost a lot to implement MFA? Absolutely. Is it inefficient to spend that money? Absolutely not. What we’re doing right now is inefficient.

It’s worth wondering what the Apollo Project would have been like if we’d used the current mainstream definition of efficiency.

Almost every activity costs money in a capitalist system. The idea that the way to efficiently pursue a goal is NOT to spend makes no sense in the context of capitalism, unless what you’re actually trying to do is to limit the number of people who can effectively pursue their goals. The idea that the way to efficiently pursue a goal is to spend very little makes no sense in the context of capitalism either, unless what you’re actually trying to do is to limit the number of people who can effectively pursue large goals.

In effect, the reduction of the word “efficiency” to mean “spending very little, or not at all” hides an ugly power dynamic that denies choice and agency to people who don’t have large amounts of money—their own or other people’s—to spend. Throwing the word around without question also obfuscates the fact that somebody, somewhere, has to make the decision of what is too much. Put simply, this is about monopolizing the ability to impact our world, to build and achieve—and about training the lower 90% to abandon the expectation that they will ever be able to have such an impact.

I hope everybody can see the corruption involved in thus identifying “spending” with waste, excess, or profligacy. It’s tantamount to assuming the moral turpitude of the spender. That’s why protected activities done by protected people never get accused of being “government spending,” or “spending” at all. You’ll notice that we can spend 720 billion dollars a year on the military without that ever being described as “government spending.” In the public sector, only left-wing social projects ever get called inefficient or wasteful. In the private sector, only ordinary individuals without much money ever get called inefficient or wasteful. Rich people and well-connected people can spend whatever they like, and it’s rarely even called “spending.” Corporations can spend all they want on securing favorable conditions for themselves in countries around the world, up to and including financing assassinations and coups, without being accused of being wasteful or excessive. In fact, most corporations pursue profit as their ultimate goal. Isn’t profit itself inefficient? Doesn’t it require the production of excess? How can the money we would spend on Medicare for All be waste while the money we currently spend to create corporate profits is not?

How much spending did it take to build that server system in Utah which houses all the data gathered daily on ordinary American citizens leading their ordinary lives? Isn’t that wasteful? Isn’t that inefficient?

Well, it depends on your goal, doesn’t it?

Who decides?

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

Hello, everybody. Smile

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

...it depends on your goal. Capitalism has been very efficient at making the rich richer and the poor poorer hasn't it?
11-28-11povf1.png11-28-11povf2_0.png5-15-18pov-f4.png

https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/a-guide-to-statisti...

How can people buy into the Socialism Bad, Capitalism Good meme?

Hope you're doing well, and things have returned to normal on the FL Atlantic coast.

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4 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

just to illustrate the point:

EFFICIENCY:
the ratio of the useful work performed by a machine or in a process to the total energy expended or heat taken in

Origin
Late 16th century (in the sense ‘the fact of being an efficient cause’): from Latin efficientia, from efficere ‘accomplish’ (see effect).

https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/efficiency

How can you measure efficiency without defining what constitutes "useful work" and measuring how much of it was done? Who gets to do that?

Looks like the word "efficiency" gets its focus on goals honestly--it originally comes from a Latin word meaning "accomplish!" (I didn't look up the word's etymology before writing this essay).

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal
a book entitled, Efficiency, and Other False Gods.

Efficiency's operational twin, Effectiveness, tends to get the small end of the stick, in the corporate-capitalist endeavor. Often, they function in a tradeoff -- increasing Effectiveness may require a lowering of Efficiency, and if at any moment Effectiveness is understood to mean "satisfying the needs of ordinary people at the expense of the plutocrats", you can be certain that Efficiency will be asserted as the primary virtue. In truth, though, Efficiency is one of those mantras that is invoked only when it suits the ideological purpose, and is swept under the carpets elsewise.

We are thus told, again and again, that Competition's natural conclusion is Efficiency, as enterprises are driven to lower their costs so as to gain an edge in the marketplace; yet, any damned fool can see that Competition is frightfully inefficient: The billions spent in duplicating engineering efforts, manufacturing facilities, and executive management functions; nevermind the billions spent on marketing and advertising to persuade us that Beer X is sexier than Beer Y; nevermind yet, the horrific inefficiencies of the violence employed to wrest from foreigners control and the concomitant benefits of the resources that happen to lie beneath their feet.

Meanwhile, every non-military inefficiency of government is presented to us as firm, incontrovertible evidence that government really ought not to be doing anything at all.

And having been taught that Efficiency drives Effectiveness, we are told that the internationally disproportionate per capita expense of our healthcare system is a result, not of the inappropriate organizational model (whose two grossly inefficient pillars are profit-motivated competition amongst "providers", and the vampirical predation of the health insurance rackets), but rather of the system's extraordinary Effectiveness. "The Best Healthcare in the World", we are told, over and over again, our myopic eyes directed to the distant towers wherein toil the Best Cardiac Surgeons and the Best Oncologists and blah blah; while the inefficient socialist systems of places like Canada are slandered and libeled with horror stories of months-long waits for cardiac bypass (a procedure, incidentally, frequently performed in the US under circumstances of dubious medical merit) or whatever. Unsaid, always, is that the US solution to long wait-times is simply to assign to 25% of the populace an infinite wait time, a solution that only self-styled Social Darwinists (misunderstanding both the concepts "Social" and "Darwinism") could judge to be "Effective".

There is, of course, a label for the variety of Capitalist who sincerely recognizes that both Efficiency and Effectiveness can be improved by the expedient of eliminating competition: Fascist. Wed government and enterprise in a partnership that maintains, as a priority, the privileges, prerogatives and endless increase of plutocratic wealth, and the capitalists will happily pile on to the bandwagon. Advocate the mirror-image -- a partnership of government and enterprise whose priority is the physical and psychological wellbeing of the mass of the populace -- and you will be terrorized with tales of the Killing Fields.

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The earth is a multibillion-year-old sphere.
The Nazis killed millions of Jews.
On 9/11/01 a Boeing 757 (AA77) flew into the Pentagon.
AGCC is happening.
If you cannot accept these facts, I cannot fake an interest in any of your opinions.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@UntimelyRippd

I think you may have just written a better OT than mine, there!

My view is that Efficiency can't exist without Effectiveness.

How can a process be efficient if it ain't effective?

That's like saying

The road goes off the side of a mountain, but it's paved really beautifully and a pleasure to drive on.

I failed, but I looked really sharp while doing it.

I succeeded in reaching the goal by driving on this winding road that took 5 more hours to get there, 2 of which were because I ran out of gas and had to wait for somebody to bring me a gas can from the nearest town. I could have taken the short, direct route but I didn't. But it's a success!

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal @Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

My view is that Efficiency can't exist without Effectiveness.

has to do with how one chooses to define Effectiveness, and realizing that from a systems analysis perspective, it will be range on continuum from 0.0 to 1.0. (Well, theoretically, negative effectiveness is a meaningful thing, if you implement a solution that makes things worse -- e.g., a medical treatment that kills the patients.)

Here is a fairly straightforward example: Rural Electrification. Let us say that the goal is to give farms access to the power grid. Well, the further away we get from dense population centers, the more expensive it becomes to provide that electricity. The return in Effectiveness -- the number of farms electrified -- for the expense in copper wire and towers grows ever smaller, and not just because the wires at the ends of the grid serve fewer and fewer customers; there is another kind of inefficiency, of the low-hanging fruit variety. Some rural customers will live in places that are just damned harder to get to. You may need to string the wires across gorges, and up and down mountainsides. Thus, the Effectiveness of each additional Dollar Spent gets lower and lower.

At its mathematical core, this is no different from the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, or for that matter Pareto's 80/20 rule. The closer you try to push a system to an Effectiveness of 1.0, the farther away from an Efficiency of [EDIT: oops, 0.0 1.0] you will get, whether you're talking about providing ballot access, or optimizing the performance of a supercomputer.

up
3 users have voted.

The earth is a multibillion-year-old sphere.
The Nazis killed millions of Jews.
On 9/11/01 a Boeing 757 (AA77) flew into the Pentagon.
AGCC is happening.
If you cannot accept these facts, I cannot fake an interest in any of your opinions.

GreyWolf's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal The nice smooth road leading off a cliff would be efficient and effective if the goal is to lure people to their deaths.

The goal of capitalism, as designed and implemented by the aristocrats, was to make the rich richer while the poor got poorer and do all of the work, so yeah, capitalism is even more effective and efficient than feudalism ever was … and humanity is spiraling down the drain towards extinction ever faster and faster. Wink

nice essay and comments, thanx, cheers

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@GreyWolf
all of the available wealth, considerably more efficient than Capitalism, since it simply awarded the available wealth, by legal fiat, to particular individuals.

What it was useless at was increasing the available wealth.

up
3 users have voted.

The earth is a multibillion-year-old sphere.
The Nazis killed millions of Jews.
On 9/11/01 a Boeing 757 (AA77) flew into the Pentagon.
AGCC is happening.
If you cannot accept these facts, I cannot fake an interest in any of your opinions.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@UntimelyRippd

You and your friend should write that book together.

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2 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

I love your new OT title, though I am not 100% certain that any of us is outside the asylum.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@HenryAWallace

I personally think it needs more work, more honing. Each of these OTs is kind of me groping forward on the topics for the first time.

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

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Anja Geitz's picture

Great essay. So much to parse here and I've got a morning stacked up with "to-do's". But this sure grabbed my attention:

It’s difficult to sell the notion that capitalism means freedom when the world’s largest capitalist superpower creates the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers.

The enduring, and effective, "we have to protect ourselves" explanation for the detention without habeas corpus "aberration" in our benevolent "the U.S. does a lot of good around the world" image boggles the mind. It is a cancer running through on our republic where we have no say.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

And yeah, the issue of freedom is one of the places where the hypocrisy is most visible.

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4 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

that compared the percentage of GDP that went to wages with the percentage that went to investments (Wall St). It showed from ( I think) WWII to the early oughts.

It was one of two in a New York Times article years ago.

If anybody knows the graph I mean, could you send me a link?

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1 user has voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem