Dear me from the past,

(A response to a letter from myself in 2008)

I haven’t gotten my drivers license yet, not the full one anyways. Its okay, you’ll realize soon enough how dumb cars are. Dad’s now really trying to get me to drive though, so there’s that. How the tables have turned.

Thankfully, I have almost no recollection now of sleeping on that board covered with thick carpet. I haven’t slept on anything similar since I visited our maternal grandma in 2014, and realized that there was not a single gotdam mattress in our entire hometown. Even calling it “almost a mattress” is too generous for how awful it was. It also isn’t actually good for your back, no matter what dad claims, because you’re a side sleeper.

In the last 10 years, I have realized that being a vet is too hard, and I unfortunately still don’t have a dog. I’m working on it. Goldens are nice, but I’m thinking of picking up a rescue and not shelling out the absurd amount of money for a purebred. I am in university though, so that’s cool.

Henry’s good. He’s not so dumb now, but he’s picked up the recorder again and I know that you’re doing it at school right now so that seems kind of good, but it’s not. It’s awful. Recorders are awful. He’s also older now than you are at the time that you wrote this.

Harvard’s overrated. I’m not bitter

Maybe you should consider doing more writing and less reading, because I’ve been squinting at this letter for 5 minutes now and I still don’t know exactly what you did with author Loris Loreski. Actually, I take that back. Reading is your first love but it will eventually fade – so slowly at first that you won’t realize it. Revel in your love, and cherish it, as long as you can.

Fei and Stephanie are with me still in University, and we are still very good friends. But I think you already know that you’re going to leave the church soon. I think you already know what that means.

No offense, kiddo, but if time travel has been invented, that would not be at the top of my to-do list. Haha who am I kidding of course it would be. Assuming that the time police didn’t make it illegal!

Nice, mom and dad made it to page 2. They’re good. You’ll slowly realize that they’re also still in the process of growing, like you. It will make your relationship with them sweeter. Try to keep up on your mandarin, okay?

You got into gifted. You made your best friendships there.

The world is still screwed, and I am still on it, but I promise you that one day, you will go to the moon. Unfortunately, we still have not harnessed the 4th and 5th spatial dimensions yet, though.

I haven’t written in my journal in a long time. Thanks for reminding me that it exists.

Carribean blue is nice, but I’ve discovered that forest green is nicer. Ernest should still be standing. No one you know is famous, unfortunately. But give it time.

New York City was a blast all the times I went! I’ll get my butt to Europe eventually.

Review: Time Will Run Back


Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Capitalism

[epistemic status: I haven’t actually stopped worrying, but I am ever so slightly more receptive to the idea of capitalism]

I’ve been reading some stuff from the 50s lately, and I think it’s the first time that I’ve seriously engaged with works from the era. And the first thing that I want to say about them is that I’m frankly flummoxed by the lack of hypervisible left- or right-coded ideology in these texts. Take Barthes as an example: Barthes uses Marxist language very liberally in his text (terms like bourgeois, proletarian, etc), but does not write like how you would expect a Marxist to write. He doesn’t bash capitalism every second sentence, and how much he buys into Marxist ideology is actually left very ambiguous in the text. He simply saw some terms from Marxist theory that were useful, and used them.

To be honest, I’m kind of jealous that he can get away with that. There’s a subtle but profound difference between “rich” and “bourgeoisie” (for example, famous actors and athletes are rich, but they are not members of the bourgeoisie), and similarly between “working class” and “proletariat”, and sometimes I feel like I have to basically write around these Marxist terms lest people disregard my writing as Marxist propaganda.

But I guess this lack of political ideology makes sense, because postmodern theory (bringing with it things like intersectional feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, respect for indigenous knowledge, and all the rest of the foundations of Good Discourse) was still in gestation and everyone still thought that you can find “the universal truth” using these things called “facts” and “logic”. Speaking from the post-truth (ugh) world of 2018, this is adorably/horrifically naive, but I have to admit that the resulting straightforwardness of the arguments render them much more digestible. It’s so digestible, I finally understand capitalism. And I know that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me explain where I’m coming from. 

Some Ramblings to Establish Context

All the modern-ish books that I’ve read about economic systems can be sorted roughly into one of two categories.

Category 1: “It’s bad that society focuses so much on productivity, when we produce more than enough already and unfair distribution (e.g. along ethnic, class, gendered, or border lines) is the actual problem. Everyone who says anything different is an evil selfish capitalist who is exploiting other people, or an unenlightened drone who needs to awaken from false consciousness.”

Category 2: “Under communism we all share one toothbrush, and no one is incentivized to become a doctor because you can get the same amount of rich by being a janitor. These are bad things. Capitalism is the opposite of communism. QED capitalism is a good thing. Something about reducing market inefficiencies by getting rid of minimum wage and going back on the gold standard. Something about why it’s good when there’s no environmental regulation and we plunder the global south.”

Okay, so admittedly I’ve not engaged with too many things in that second category. But what I want to point out is this: these categories confront each other on an abstract, ideological playing field, with absolutely nothing said on the topic of implementation. And I didn’t realize that anything was wrong with that, until I read Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back. In it, Hazlitt posits a theory that is very applied: If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. 

So let’s talk about Time Will Run Back: a fictional account of how capitalism was invented piecemeal in a nation called Wonworld (think Oceania in 1984). Hazlitt does a really good job of making the mechanism of capitalism sound intrinsically good, and convincing you that the usage of it is inevitable if the state wants to know anything about its economy. 

(If you’re intrigued but don’t have the time/energy/interest needed to read the whole thing, I highly suggest that you read Chapter 25, which is when things really start ramping up. It starts on page 203 in this PDF version online. It’s relatively self-contained, and very, very delightful.)

A selective summary

So consider even a rudimentary thing, like “how many chairs is this chair factory producing per month?” States in general don’t have enough manpower to actually check every factory every month forever, and especially when you’re a corrupt totalitarian state, factories have incentives to overstate their productivity.

 As a state, if you want to actually have your finger on the pulse of your economy, you must use a system that incentivizes truth-telling and punishes lying – and preferably in a way that doesn’t require too much of your own manpower.

Now consider, “how many chairs does a family need per year, taking into account things like wear and tear?” This turns out to be very hard to figure out when there’s no market in place to indicate demand for any given product, making the state blind to if they’re producing too little or too much of any commodity.

Or, “how can we get this factory to make their chairs better quality, so they’re not breaking every 6 months?” All factories will of course pay lip service to quality, but how can a state actually make their factories turn out good quality chairs, given the lack of unlimited manpower and the corruption of basically all your civil servants?

The answer to all these questions, according to Hazlitt, is a system with markets. And once you have a market, other things will inevitably follow: the need for competition, brokers who take care of arbitrage and bring prices down to parity, currency inflation, speculation, and so on and so forth. But it’s distinct from modern-day capitalism in a very important way: the system described optimizes for human quality of life, not profit. Under Wonworld’s new economic policy, people work the same amount, it’s just that things are allocated much better. I was tempted at first to say that this is a lobotomized form of capitalism, but upon further consideration, I don’t think that’s true.

Also included in the book, but honestly just distracting from the fun: some murder plots, a sexy spy, treason, and some angst about Disappointing Your Father. Honestly when those things start to happen I recommend skipping forward to when people start talking about markets again. [author’s note: please read that last sentence in a wry enough tone that I come off sounding cool and self aware instead of like the utter dweeb I am, thanks]

Past, Present, Future

Time Will Run Back is a product of its time – a time when capitalism was kinder, and profit optimization had not yet overtaken things like family wages (to clarify, this is not the same thing as a living wage – living wages support solely the earner, family wages enables earners to support a family), rewarding employee loyalty, and strong unions enforcing 8-hour days for their members. (Obligatory all of these were really only in place for privileged white/male folk etc etc.)

But the capitalism of the 50s wasn’t lobotomized, it was just in its infancy. As it matured over the decades, it stripped away worker’s rights, environmental protections, and trade barriers, until we got to where we are now. And there’s nothing guaranteeing that the capitalism of Wonworld wouldn’t eventually do the same.

Another thing of note is that the book only really deals with the “demand” side of the marketplace, and not the “supply”, and all the ugly things that happens on the supply side. Work hours were not extended and wages were not cut in Wonworld, and Wonworld’s poorer neighbours remain unplundered. Instead, Hazlitt assumes that the increased effectiveness in gauging demand and the increased efficiency of distribution just makes everything substantially better, full stop no further questions.

Still, I think this book is a great read, and asks a question that is sorely neglected on the modern political left: how exactly would central planning work efficiently without markets?

My joking answer has always been “benevolent AI overlord,” but Hazlitt has got me thinking that that might not actually be enough, or that there might be an even better, more efficient way that would not require every citizen to hand over oodles of personal information to the state (or the megacorp running it). And that’s a pretty important thing to think about, especially considering that I’m, uh, studying to be a central planner.

Final score: 9/10, the content is mostly just okay, but it’s content that you can engage with without getting your hackles up no matter what your ideological background is, and that’s worth quite a lot in my books. Also, it’s less hamfisted than 1984, which isn’t saying much in my opinion, but everyone seems to think that Orwell was a brilliant novelist, so.

Canada’s Broken Prison System

From Vicky Mochama and Ishmael Daro’s excellent podcast, Safe Space.

Anna Mehler Paperny (Reuters investigative reporter)
Sharmeen Khan (activist w End Immigration Detention Network)

What is Canada’s prison system like? Who does it disproportionately hurt? What can alternatives look like? Although we heard more about prisons during Harper’s years as part of his platform was being tough on crime, nothing has changed since 2014.

Ivan Zinger report of national prison system

  • solitary confinement is overused
  • few mental health resources for inmates-no resources for integration of prisoners after incarceration
  • overrepresentation of indigenous people behind bars is “deeply entrenched”: despite only making up 5% of the population of Canada, they make up around ¼th of all inmates in Canada. And it’s worse for women
  • black inmates are fastest growing popn – 69% growth in black inmates from 05-16 in federal system

Common misconceptions:

  • most people behind bars have done something bad. Truth: in provincial jails, a significant portion are not charged, and are merely waiting for their day in court.
  • there are limits to how long you can put someone in solitary confinement for. Truth: as of now, any prisoner could be placed in SC for any length of time.
  • criminal justice system is impartial, benevolent and fair. Truth: there are systemic structures embedded within it that lead to people/groups being incarcerated. eg. the school to prison pipeline
  • indefinite immigration detention isn’t a thing in Canada. Truth: there are people in max security that haven’t been charged because they overstayed their visas/are here illegally – for years upon years with no movement in justice system. One man stayed in jail for 13 years before being allowed to return to Jamaica

“Administrative Segregation”

  • What Canada calls solitary confinement
    • you’re not there to be punished, and you haven’t even done anything wrong, it’s for your own safety and the safety of others
  • United Nations: 15 days is the most you can do, is considered torture beyond that. People deteriorate rapidly in solitary
  • Language makes it sounds more necessary, gives it distance from what it does. It makes it sound bloodless.
  • “Disciplinary segregation: is actually for punishment, but vast majority are in administrative segregation
  • 2016: first nations man held in solitary confinement in Ontario for 4 years and lost his speech. No substantive change since then. Howard Sapers, Ombudsman, has recommended systemic reviews, stricter rules around SC, prohibition on placement of people with mental illnesses (currently, many are put in because of their mental illness, which makes them difficult to deal with)

Canada’s prisons are the "new residential schools”

When a large amount of a certain community is incarcerated, that community starts to function differently. Adults can’t find jobs, pay rent, or keep custody of their kids (which is especially awful because of a historical loss of custody on a large scale). Because of this huge disparity in who we’re locking up, courts should take into account circumstances and try their very best to divert indigenous from the prison system. Gladue reports exist, but they don’t seem to be available at the right time. They should be available when they’re at the bail hearing stage (when you might be locked up to await trial), not at sentencing.

Other Systemic Issues

Nonviolent drug crime convictions are majorily POC, but white hipsters can smoke a joint no problem. There’s a perception that POC commit more crime, but a large factor is the more intense surveillance that goes on in their communities. This increased surveillance also makes it harder to get bail – harder to get surety since less people have been not involved with the justice system. So then more people in these communities “have to” go to jail – meaning losing housing, losing jobs, losing custody.

More people awaiting sentencing than actually serving sentences in jail. During 2015-16, 15,000 adults were in remand and 10,000 in custody.

  • those 15,000 people are still legally innocent
  • justices are terrified to appear soft on criminals, so risk is over-estimated in population awaiting trial
  • getting out on bail depends on who you know, and what assets/resources they have. even though criminal code hasn’t changed, and still says that bail should be default unless there is a perception of high risk.
  • Ontario: 67% of people can’t get bail, country average is 60%.
  • The US has a cash bail system, which is unfair against poor. In Canada, essentially you need to have another person vouch for you (surety) with an amount of money that they can pledge (isn’t given away, but needs to demonstrate that they have that amount) to give if you breach bail. But they have to have time to spend in court, have a house for you to sleep in for like months, etc. It’s a very high burden on social networks to ask for these commitments.
  • the supreme court has said that these expectations are onerous and shouldnt be the norm.

re:prison abolition, we will need to destroy poverty first

  • after white feminists campaigned for cracking down on domestic abuse, many communities were destroyed.
  • prisons didn’t make women safer, didn’t impact rates of abuse and assault-so now we look at transformative solutions, because using the court systems hurt the community more.
  • women who don’t want to go to the police for domestic abuse because their status is tied to their husbands, for ex, could really benefit from alternative approaches
  • looking at this from my own personal perspective, the idea of letting domestic abusers go is really, really distasteful to think about. But we need to think about this. Our sense of justice can’t blind us here.

thinking about rehabilitation is a method towards prison abolition

  • Sweden started closing down jails because they had no more prisoners
  • Always going to be child molesters and serial murders, but the vast majority people are there for nonviolent crimes. 
  • communities should talk about practising self-determination, what to do with people who harm, and how to heal from that.
  • In Canada, more indigenous communities should be empowered to create and run healing circles.

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