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Where Have All the Good Men Gone and Where Are All the Populists?

When it comes to the spicier cultural issues that generate flame wars online, I tend to find myself falling on the side of the conservatives. The exceptions to this are LGBT rights and drug use, but these days, these issues seem to divide more on old/young lines than conservative/liberal lines anyway.

I'm strongly against all forms of gun control. I believe that nations often have the responsibility to get involved in the affairs of other nations, including militarily. My diet consists mostly of red meat and I have a longstanding beef with vegans. I find media that overtly panders to minorities irritating whether or not I'm in said minority. I believe that wealthy liberals are intentionally and maliciously fanning the flames of race and gender conflicts to break down community bonds to make people easier to manipulate. Yadda yadda.

In short, when it comes to cultural views, I'm a milquetoast example of exactly what you'd expect to find from a young, online, cultural conservative, or at least libertarian.

And yet, despite all of this, I'm a Socialist. Not a Socialist-lite or Social Democrat in the vein of Bernie Sanders, but a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist.

I believe corporations are fundamentally evil to the core. I believe the overwhelming majority of working people in the US (and probably the world) are being ruthlessly exploited by a class of nobles we'd all be better off without. As a result, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to favor trade unions, strikes, and literally anything that protects workers from corporations. I believe the only realistic long-term result of unchecked Capitalism with rapidly improving technology is a dystopia. Yadda yadda.

Now, neither my cultural beliefs nor my economic beliefs are particularly unusual. The proportion of people in the US identifying as an Economic Leftists or Socialists has gone up every year since 1989, and the cultural conservatives, reactionaries, anti-progs, and anti-woke types are growing rapidly as well. Yet, I've never met anyone else in the overlap.

The combination of cultural Conservatism and economic Socialism is what's historically been called Populism, so that's how I'll be using that word. (I'm clarifying this because some people call Trump a "populist", but he's about as anti-socialist as someone can be, so I'm not using that word the same way as these people.)

Looking to the past, I can see lots of examples of this kind of Populism, especially in the first half of the 20th century, but practically nothing in the present. Libertarians are culturally liberal and economically conservative, and there's loads of them, so you'd think the opposite would also be true, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

With this in mind, I have 3 questions for this community:

  1. Why are there drastically fewer Populists today than there were in the past?

  2. Besides "Populist", what are some other names for the belief system I'm describing?

  3. Where are all the Populists that are left? I assume there's not literally zero, and that some of them hang out online together somewhere, so where are they? Are there populist blogs? Populist forums? Populist subreddits?

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I'm usually tempted to stick to the direct question prompt or not say anything at all. But I'm going slightly off topic because I feel like MadMonzer gave a really good response. I'd like to pick your brain on socialism.

I'm libertarian. Your belief set is wild to me. Not the populist beliefs. I disagree with you that those beliefs are uncommon, but maybe that is because they are my polar opposite so I notice them more often, just like you think there are a bunch of libertarians everywhere. Its the socialist beliefs that I find wild.

I just can't ever see economic transactions as very evil, and to me most corporations are just lots of economic transactions scaled up massively. Meanwhile I find acts/threats of violence abhorrent, and see government as just scaling that up massively.

The "exploitation" narrative has never made sense to me. I'm selling labor, the corporations are buying it. Often times many different corporations are buying the labor. That price of labor is cheaper when lots of people are selling it. Just like products are cheaper for me when lots of corporations are selling them.

So that leads me to some questions:

  1. What is evil about corporations?
  2. What is your basic theory of exploitation? Or how does a corporation exploit its workers?
  3. (as others have asked) What is your preferred alternative? (I'm familiar with many different flavors of socialism/communism, so you don't have to describe the whole thing unless you want to. Just pointing to a category is good enough for me.)

I'd like to chime in here, because although I lean libertarian in general, am very fond of capitalism as a system, and don't think corporations are fundamentally evil to the very core as /u/ScrimbloBimblo states, I do think that in practice most large corporations are evil. And I mean that in the same sense I would if an individual person behaved the way they do, I would call that person evil too.

Because human beings are not profit maximizing agents. In-so-far as a person might be described as rational and thus utility maximizing, their utility function is not literally just money. People value lots of things like friendships and relationships, and honesty, and reputation, and their conscience. If you leave a bicycle unlocked, most people aren't going to steal it even if they could get away with it. Obviously if enough people pass it it will eventually get stolen, but the amount of people that have to pass it is more than one. If you make an informal agreement with someone, most people are not going to obsessively look for opportunities to screw you over. If your friend lends you $5 they are unlikely to obsessively hound you about paying them back and calculate the exact amount of interest you owe them. Obviously people like this do exist, and they're assholes, and most good-natured people try to avoid them. The more greedy, money obsessed, and sociopathic someone is, the more corners they're willing to cut. And even if they follow the law and restrict themselves to nominally consensual economic deals they still force people around them to constantly be on guard about what deals they make because the sociopath is trying to trick them to get more money.

And a large corporation nonrandomly selects for these people and promotes them and socially and legally insulates them from the consequences their actions would face if done as an individual. It's much harder to shame someone for scamming an old granny out of her life savings if it's a faceless bureaucrat "just doing their job" than if it's the local small town repair shop run by Tom. It's much harder to pressure Tom to give the money back, or spread the word that Tom is a jerk and everyone should boycott him, if Tom just acts on behalf of a multinational corporation with only two meaningful competitors, both of whom are equally scummy because they similarly promote sociopaths.

Ethical corporations should seek profit in the same way that you do when selling your labor: as an important consideration that you want to get a fair value for and need in order to survive, but not literally the only thing that matters in the world such that you're willing to tradeoff literally all other concerns for marginal slivers of extra cash. Technical "consent" is neither necessary nor sufficient to define ethical behavior, though it is an important component. Corporations, and the people making decisions within them, should be held to the same ethical standards that everyone else is when making economic transactions. And I think ethical companies do exist, but typically the larger one is the less likely that becomes.

This has been become sort of the creedo of various market reform movements over the years. ESG has been the latest. "profit shouldn't be everything, other concerns should matter".

This sounds great, but the problem is that coordinating on values is ridiculously difficult. One of the easiest things to coordinate on is "we all want more wealth". As soon as you allow any other values to creep into that equation you have a huge fight on your hands. The fight is going to be over, what values can be considered important, and how much money can we sacrifice for those values. The easiest answer to this massive fight is: no, you can't have other values, and thus you can't spend money on those other values. This is the solution the US has decided to settle on. Corporations that are publicly traded have a legal responsibility to make money for their investors to the best of their ability. If they are clearly prioritizing other values, then shareholders can sue them.

There is an out to all of this: non-profits and fully privately owned corporations. Some non-profits can be very business like in how they approach problems. And privately owned corporations can certainly have other objectives. Chik-fil-a is an example. There is no way in a hell a publicly traded fast food company would close any day of the week. Chik-fil-a does it because their owners are Christian and believe that is the right thing to do.

I was also going to give Ben and Jerry's as an example from the other end of the political spectrum. When I went to double check that they are privately owned it took me down a small rabbit hole of tracking down the ultimate owners. They are owned by unilever which is publicly traded on a few different stock exchanges. But they have an independent board of directors that they say preserves their values and brand. Which is another one of the ways out of this "profit is everything" conundrum. Stake your business' reputation on being not about "profit is everything" and you can honestly claim to shareholders that you'd lose money destroying this brand by caring only about money.

Which kind of leads me into the final way out of my concern for "profit is everything" corporations. Reputation matters. Humans are very good at playing tit for tat games. And if we see someone defecting, we'll bail and hit the defect button right back on them, even if it screws us over too. Smart corporations know this. And it is why most of them project an image of something like "nice, friendly, and not trying to rock the boat". Many corporations have policies on their books (and they carry them out) that explicitly lose them money to keep customers happy. But you object "they are just doing that cuz it makes them more money in the longterm", and I say "yes! exactly! that is my point".

When the profit motive is the only motive then corporations will behave as if all goals matter exactly as much as the customers think they should matter and is willing to pay for them to matter.

That is the crux of why people tend to hate the profit motive: That not all the other customers are as concerned as they are that this corporation might be screwing over poor old ladies. In other words not all customers share their values, and as I already discussed its hard for people to agree on values. While some cities boycotted chik-fil-a, other cities made lines around the block. And still other cities had lines around the block and continued to have lines around the block.

I'm tired and probably starting to ramble. I'll sum it up as best I can:

  1. "profit is everything" is an easy coordination point and schelling fence for investors.
  2. Profits does not preclude other values (and sometimes requires other values). But customers must be willing to express those values and pay for them.
  3. There are other organization types that are not solely focused on profits. Many of them do quite well within the American capitalist system.

I think the problem is far broader than that. Modern organization structures are designed to prevent accountability. The people who make the decisions never have to see the results and are almost never held responsible. I believe this makes it really hard to make ethical decisions simply because it’s not one person’s decision and in many cases each person is only seeing part of the problem.

The guy in the office sees a new market for his product. The people on the ground are tasked only with figuring out how best to sell it. They don’t care about anything but selling it. The guy in the office only cares about opening the market. The lawyers only care about being sued. There’s nobody who sees the whole picture of “we’re selling baby formula to nursing mothers who will be unable to give milk if they don’t nurse their babies in a poor country where water isn’t always safe.” Nobody was ever going to be held responsible because there was no one person responsible for the whole thing. The guy in the office didn’t know or care how the formula was sold. The spreadsheet looked good, that was what he’s accountable for. They guys hiring the salesman didn’t care how these sales happened, they only were responsible for getting sales. The guys dressing like doctors to sell formula simply wanted a bonus for more sales.

In theory, yes officers of a corporation are required to maximize shareholder value. In practice, there is very much a P-A problem. This is confounded by the fact that the business judgement rule gives corporations wide latitude to make decisions (eg donate to charity x) because the corporation can claim “reputation benefit that in the long-run is beneficial.”

Now that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if there was an easy way to punish officers who clearly prioritize other things (eg political cache) over profits. If there is value to unlock, activist investors can swoop in, fire the relevant officers, and make money once the share price reflects those efforts.

Sadly, Marty Lipton spent decades eroding the ability for hostile takeovers making it much harder for activists to control wayward corporate officers.

I think 2 is the actual best option for an out, but doesn't play out in practice. I think this is something related to the phenomenon pointed out in Scott's "The first offender model"

If all the companies behave ethically and then one steps out of line, then people can notice and coordinate and boycott them. If all the companies behave unethically, people get generally annoyed but can't coordinate to single out one of them out to crush. Walmart pays their employees like crap and extorts farmers and suppliers, and people shop their anyway. And Target probably does a bunch of crap too. McDonalds pays their employees like crap and is terrible to their franchisers. Jewelry shops buy diamonds from slaves and warmongers. Nestle murdered babies in Africa, people still buy their stuff.

A large part of the problem is also that it's way too easy for companies to own companies which own companies. I just googled and found out that apparently Nestle owns Kitkat? Except Hershey has distribution rights in the U.S., but Nestle owns it everywhere else. How do I boycott that? And apparently they own Purina. I don't think bags of Purina pet food say "Nestle" anywhere on them, and I doubt most people who buy it know that it's tainted by baby murder. Companies are not actually held to standards, which is largely the fault of customers not caring more, but largely the fault of it being way to easy for a company to just put on a skinsuit and avoid their tainted reputation.

If an individual human regularly put on convincing disguises and committed crimes with some of them but tried to leverage the good reputation of others, people would notice and be outraged. Companies get away with it.

I don't need companies to get involved in charities and politics and sacrifice money to change the world to make it better. Just don't be evil.

A Walmart near me is paying $16-$26 an hour for a cashier position with health, dental, vision, and PTO. Not bad for a job that doesn't require any college.

Materialist areas of the economy tend to have materialist oriented customers and businesses. I don't know of any non-profit version of a superstore. Non-materialist businesses tend to be non-materialist oriented. It is easy to find non-profit hospitals, schools, and social clubs. I think there are plenty of examples of businesses having values other than profit. Its just that many of those values have become so ingrained with profit because they are required to be profitable that you don't really separate them in your head. For example, good customer service is expected in the US, and people pay for it.

The superstores I am familiar with pay their employees decent wages compared to their alternatives. The small stores that superstores replaced were often family run. If you asked the younger family members what they got paid, they'd laugh in your face (if their parents weren't around). Because many of them were not paid. Many of the "greeters" at stores often completely lack alternative employment options. So paying someone more than zero dollars is not a hard hurdle to pass.

It is hyperbolic to say that nestle murdered babies. In the 70s they marketed infant formula in a region with chronic malnutrition and water problems. Very dumb of them in hindsight. But the evidence for malicious seems thin. Imagine you are a sheltered Swiss executive in the 70s. You don't know much about Africa. Your country has not had a serious famine or food security problem in at least three centuries. You hear that babies are dying from malnutrition in Africa. You think "hey we have baby formula that is healthy, why don't we sell it there". The teams beneath you carry this out, no one brings up the logistical problems.

Its not really even clear how much damage Nestle' did. I tried to look up numbers, the only stuff I found was highly exaggerated. One of them blamed nestle for 1.5 million baby deaths from malnutrition. I tried to look up the total number of kids dying from malnutrition in Africa, and the scattered data I could find suggested that the total number of malnutrition deaths was also around 1.5 million. So that source basically used Copenhagen ethics on Nestle "you touched the problem, so all of it is your fault".

Africa is also not a profitable market. If some executive started selling formula there hoping to make a profit they should be fired for being an idiot that can't do math. This was likely a botched humanitarian effort.

I don't need companies to get involved in charities and politics and sacrifice money to change the world to make it better. Just don't be evil.

If I'm right about Nestle's Africa thing being botched humanitarianism then ironically they ended up being evil by trying to be a charity and massively fucking up. Wouldn't be the first time that has happened in Africa.

The superstores I am familiar with pay their employees decent wages compared to their alternatives. The small stores that superstores replaced were often family run. If you asked the younger family members what they got paid, they'd laugh in your face (if their parents weren't around).

Family owned stores also tend to have limited hours that are less convenient for the customers than chain store hours.

And the fact that the family owner's values got reflected in the store had negative as well as positive implications. If the shoe store owner doesn't want you dating his daughter, you're never buying shoes there again. That's unlikely to happen at Wal-Mart. And if he doesn't like selling brown shoes, or if his store is unsanitary, he's not very beholden to the market, so has little incentive to change.

Africa is also not a profitable market. If some executive started selling formula there hoping to make a profit they should be fired for being an idiot that can't do math.

To be fair, companies often try various things to figure out whether they are profitable. Maybe they thought the market was growing and took a chance on it being better in the future. Anoither possibility is that they decided to start selling products to a small but existing African market, and it was a local manager who decided to try expanding his sales.