Populism, the Future of Jobs and the UBI

An automated bartender pours your beer at Narita airport, Japan

Here is how populism works, in Ian Buruma’s crisp description: “Resentment feeds off a sense of humiliation, a loss of pride. In a society where human worth is measured by individual success, symbolized by celebrity and money, it is easy to feel humiliated by a relative lack of it, of being just another face in the crowd. In extreme cases, desperate individuals will assassinate a president or a rock star just to get into the news. Populists find support among those resentful faces in the crowd, people who feel that elites have betrayed them, by taking away their sense of pride in their class, their culture, or their race.”

“This has not happened in Japan yet,” he says, where “self-worth is defined less by individual fame or wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise, and doing the job one is assigned as well as one can.”

For example, “People in department stores seem to take genuine pride in wrapping merchandise beautifully. Some jobs – think of those uniformed middle-aged men who smile and bow at customers entering a bank – appear to be entirely superfluous. It would be naive to assume that these tasks give huge satisfaction, but they offer people a sense of place, a role in society, however humble.”

This is one reason Japan has skirted some of the problems of neo-liberalism, he thinks, along with some other less savory reasons like “corporate interests, bureaucratic privileges, and pork-barrel politics….”

Removing any sense of community in the name of efficiency, Buruma believes, has been the road to neo-lib perdition. (His example: “Thatcherism has probably made the British economy more efficient … by crushing trade unions and other established institutions of working-class culture.”)

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Buruma ties populism (in Japan, at least) to job satisfaction, and while debate over populism rages everywhere on the internet these days, talk about jobs seems to come (as it ever was) mostly from the left. What once was a debate centered narrowly on the loss of jobs due to automation has now opened up to include the very future of work. It’s a subject that has caught my imagination. I’ve compiled a list of relevant articles and websites below the fold, in case you’re interested.

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Quotes: Davos Time Again

“Every January, the Davos gathering sounds a little more bemused about what is happening in the world outside. In 2016 it worried about the threat of mass disease, just as the Ebola threat was receding. In 2015, its annual report dwelt on the return of geopolitics following Russia’s annexation of Crimea the year before. In its first report in 2006 it was anxious about epidemics and the risk of terrorism after the Asian flu crisis and the London Underground attacks. And so on. Davos specializes in projecting the future from a recent past that took it by surprise.”

An Argument for Seeing More of the World

We’ve spent a couple days now watching the president’s supporters defend him over this Haiti/Africa affair. There are three and a half main defenses.

There is the “everybody does it” defense. Senator Graham once said people come to the USA from “hellholes,” thus making the president’s words okay. There is the “In the year ____, Donald Trump did something nice for someone of color, so he can’t be so bad” defense. And then there is the “he was making an economic, not racist, argument” defense, when he said he preferred Norwegian to Haitian immigrants. Finally, there is the “it was regrettable, it was unfortunate, it is not helpful” non-condemnation, a half a defense.

Couple of things:

First, suppose Narendra Modi or Shinzo Abe or Emmanuel Macron had words about the USA similar to President Trump’s condemnation of an entire continent. I invite you imagine his or her subsequent reception in Washington. Anyone who believes this incident isn’t damaging to America’s reputation in the eyes of people all over the world needs to spend more time abroad.

And second, suppose, for whatever reason, this president eventually goes down in flames. When his defenders this weekend come knocking, looking for their own reputations back, they shouldn’t be surprised if nobody answers the door.

More on This Round of Iran Protests

Further to today’s post about allegations the Iran protests are a redneck affair, @borzou tweets video of the provincials’ big city cousins showing up for the game tonight:

Chinese World Dominance, in Photos

There is an outstanding photo feature about the commercial monster China is building itself into with its OBOR “Belt and Road Initiativehere, at The New Yorker’s website just now. This photo is a screen grab from the article. You get a few free articles a month without being a subscriber, so you can check it out.

Where is Nambia?

A number of years ago my Finnish wife and I attended a reception for the Nobel laureate and former Finnish Prime Minister Martti Ahtisaari. In the 1970s Mr. Ahtisaari worked on the question of Namibian independence from South Africa, something the local host mentioned in his introduction. Unfortunately, and to much snickering, the host pronounced Namibia as “Nambia.” We put it down to our living in the provinces, way down in Atlanta.

Alas, the American president does not share this excuse. Speaking in non-provincial New York yesterday, Mr. Trump declared, “Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient.” Written copies of his remarks reflected the country’s actual name. This makes it clear enough to me that the president of the United States has never heard of Namibia. Sure, Namibia is a fairly obscure country, and too many people fail to differentiate between the astounding array of cultures on the African continent. In fact, some even think Africa is a country. But it’s still disappointing.

And unseemly. Beyond falling short of the ideal that our leader should be a student of the world, and beyond the obvious lack of a staff willing and able to head off stupid mistakes (if Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State, by golly he’d fix it), Mr. Trump’s engagement with Africa seems to be summed up in his further remark that, “Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich.” Kevin Sieff makes the comparison:

And if you’re unfamiliar with King Leopold, well just sort of never mind.

Namibia, by the way, is just slap flat gorgeous. Have a look at some photos in the Namibia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

If You Know the Words Zapad & Suwalki…

… you’ll enjoy the photographic essay, Inside the Suwalki Gap by Timothy Fadek at RoadsandKingdoms.com. It’s a nice orientation to the region where the quadrennial Zapad (“west” in Russian) Russia/Belarus military exercise has been underway for two days now.

The photo above is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The only border between the Baltic states and another NATO country is the 64 mile wide Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania touches Poland. See more Poland and Lithuania photos at EarthPhotos.com.