Labor vs. capital

Over the summer, The Economist had its Open Future essay competition for young people. Here is my response to this prompt: What is the best way to improve competition in modern capitalism?

If there’s anything that the 2008 financial crisis taught us, it’s that American corporations are ruthless when it comes to doing whatever it takes to protect the bottom line. Corporations couldn’t lay off people fast enough – 8.7 million people lost their jobs at a rate never before seen. To stay afloat, they let everyone else drown.

In 2008, two factors of production, capital and labor, stood at odds with one another. We learned that labor, regardless of social standing, always loses.

That those two factors are once again at odds exposes the fundamental flaw within modern capitalism. What was once vital to create a profit (along with entrepreneurship and land), is now separated by the same goal it once sought to attain. In today’s world, it is labor and capital which compete.

And though it’s tempting to say that the government can solve the inequality problem, reversing the trend will not occur if left to t regulators. Overarching regulation is not the answer, as it has always had unintended consequences.

The decisions made by the Federal Reserve in the wake of 2008 left us in a boom that is unparalleled. And while the government is not solely responsible for the economy of today, it did enable it.

In trying (and succeeding) to stimulate the economy, the government allowed the FAANG companies to grow to what they are today. Leaving the recession behind wasn’t going to happen unless innovation and competition were encouraged – lowering the federal funds rate made borrowing cheaper, and encouraged businesses to undertake capital investments.

Over time, these capital investments began to look a lot like increasing market share, a domination of the markets. American companies, in line with regulation, grew unopposed, capitalizing on a country’s need to recover. The bottom line brought up labor with capital as it rose because it needed them both.

It appears as though labor and capital are once again in harmony. But what on paper looks successful – Amazon stock just reached an all-time high last week – isn’t very successful at all. What happened in 2008 – the fear, the helplessness, the resignation – it’s happening all over again.

Except this time, there is no Lehman Brothers to blame. There is no bank to bail out, no single company to point to, there’s an economy that keeps making money, and no limit in sight.

The untended consequences of well-intentioned actions to bail the world out of a recession bring us to the argument in front of us today: how do you reverse the trend of competition, once competition has effectively been wiped out?

The free market, that which thrives upon competition, is at its core unregulated. The theory stands that companies would drive each other to find equilibrium. It’s why mergers and acquisitions are so heavily regulated, because unification lowers competition and drives prices up.

But the path we’ve reached today is one where companies don’t need mergers to become the only competitor. Witness Facebook’s rise, an entity that cannot be limited to a single market because it has escaped definition. It’s effectively become its own market.  Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods in 2017 was an exercise in vertical integration that paved entry into a very niche type of retail, but one that has deadly implications for Walmart, already suffering from the threat of online shopping.

In order to stay afloat, Walmart did then what companies did in 2008 – it dealt a double blow. Within a month, Walmart announced plans to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour for its workers, and turned around to announce that it was closing 63 of its Sam’s Club stores.

In the same time period, the CEO of Walmart made 1,188 times more than the average median employee. The US Securities and Exchange Commission put numbers to always known facts: CEOs were worlds away from the average worker.

And at that moment, there was an enemy to point to, one to look at and say, ‘this is what’s wrong with capitalism’. And the competition shifted – from company to company, to worker against the boss.

This shift was unavoidable. How could it not be, when the survival of a company has come to depend on the decisions of its CEO?

That the fate of a company has come to rest in the hands of so few is where modern capitalism went wrong. Equity compensation has made it so that board salaries are intrinsically tied to the value of the company. In some ways, it’s the exact opposite of what happened in 2008, when traders gambled with money that wasn’t their own in order to make profit. Today, the board of directors plays with stock at the expense of their workers, and the system actively encourages it, until the moment it costs money for the board. Only then are there consequences – Papa John’s stock soared after the CEO resigned.

But for the day when the stock was falling, when workers were laboring away behind ovens and carefully avoiding potholes to deliver pizzas, the world was falling apart. The enemy – their CEO – had gambled not only his livelihood, but theirs. In 2008, the government stepped in on behalf of investors. When the worst happened, investors lost some, but they didn’t lose everything. The consequences of modern capitalism are severe to the people who have everything to lose.

The United States is not a place where regulation to protect the bottom workers will ever pass. The people most hurt by the inequality problem can’t fix it by themselves – those workers simply do not have the social or economic capital to influence change fast enough.

If capitalism is to survive what’s coming next – a rise of people who’ve realized that inequality isn’t a by-factor of capitalism but in fact its enabler – it’ll have to reinvent itself. If companies want to protect the bottom line, they’re going to have to realize that one of the central components of production is gearing up to rise against the system itself. They’re going to have to realize that the illusion of ‘hard work’ getting you to the top is a lie people have stopped believing in.

The government can begin the hard process of leveling the playing ground  – it can impose limits on the amount of equity compensation for CEOs. It can remove the incentive for CEOS to act solely in their own interest, and hold them accountable to one of the only few things they actually care about. That’s what caused the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s what is breaking our system now. It’ll put the government and American companies at odds, but it’ll show an initiative that might enable actual progress.

But the system won’t change unless workers themselves begin to hold their employers accountable, until investors decide that profits should intrinsically be tied to purpose. When employees at Google decided that ‘the business of war’ should not include them, it was an insight into those who could potentially be at the forefront of that movement. Lower-income communities have already been mobilized and are putting pressure on their politicians. The next step has to come from the middle class.

In standing up to Google, the employees showed that there is a way to hold their companies accountable. It’s something the government simply can’t do, but something society desperately needs.

In order to fix the inequality problem – that very large gap between the rich and the poor – the people’s whose lives would be most affected if the system goes down need to stand up. People cannot be lulled into being complicit simply because of their privilege. Whether it’s selfishness – the middle class has witnessed the cost of medical care and higher education soar and has yet to see the same trend in wages – or social responsibility, it is their time to stand up.

That choice has the same potential as BlackRock’s decision to only invest in companies that contribute positively to society. In setting this caveat, BlackRock effectively limited the scale of profits a company could hope to achieve. That it was a decision taken after the shooting in Parkland made it a moral and political stance. It defined ‘morality’ as corporate social responsibility and gave companies whose contribution to society was less than positive an ultimatum – either change your ways or cease to exist at all. A company without funding, after all, can never be profitable.

Though the middle class will not have that same immediate impact, it underestimates the value of its worth in the profit companies so desperately crave. It forgot that American companies cannot succeed without the people who keep them running – those calculating reports that make it to the desks of CEOs, those managing departments, those putting out fires. They need to leverage the education and skills that got them there and use it, for they have different type of social responsibility. Exploitation of low-income or migrant workers at the lowest levels has enabled modern capitalism because no one is held accountable for it.

Change of the system will now occur only if it begins on the inside. Labor needs to win this round, and it needs to work together to defend the rights of workers across the two class distinctions. If capital wins, if the bottom line wins again, modern capitalism will raise an unopposed opponent with profit leading the game. And while the bottom line might win, the system will not.

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Comment te dire adieu

The French have this word – dépaysement. The closest literal translation is homesickness, the feeling of disorientation that comes from not being at home. The closest translation is “having no country”.

If my time in Paris was a movie, the open scene would be one to die for. An early Sunday morning in January, a girl arrives to Télégraphe, hauling behind her a ridiculous amount of luggage. The audience would hold their breathe when a man heading to his first day of work as a security guard asks, “Avez-vous besoin d’aide?” They’d laugh when he struggles up 3 flights of stairs with her 50 lb luggage. Jet-lagged and very confused, the girl only laughs and the adventure begins with a “oui.”

I won’t say it wasn’t hard. My first full day in Paris, suffering from jet lag and trying to puzzle my way through a full conversation with my host mom, I tried to figure out how to go back home. I felt that dépaysement, disoriented and so very far from home.

Reality looks very different from a movie, but here’s the truth: I won’t say I felt homesickness when I was in Paris. As May neared, the last thing I wanted to do was come back home. I wanted to stay. For everything Paris was, and it was a lot, I was never homesick, not really.

The French have this word – dépaysement

I was never lonely, never restless, never bored. The French don’t have a word for wanderlust – at least, not that I know of. (I only had like 3 native French speaking friends and none of them knew what I meant when I said I am not the type of person to want to stay in one single place for too long). And yet, no matter where I went, I was always excited to go back to Paris.

The movie of my semester abroad would transition, always inevitably, to the Parisian skyline, the Eiffel Tower glittering in the moonlight.

Before I left New York, one of my best friends gave me a gift. It was aptly called Wanderlust, and on it was a quote by Micheal Kors that said, “An infinite desire for adventure, romance and discovery.”

Un désir infini d’aventure, de romance et de découverte.” The opening caption.

Un désir infini d’aventure, de romance et de découverte.” The opening caption.

I am always restless, always craving the next challenge, chasing the next big adventure. When I left in January, there was promise in the air.

Adventure was waiting – and it was up to me to seize the opportunity. So I got on the metro in Paris, forgot I knew English and Spanish, and hit the ground running.

A lot of scenes take place on the metro – rush hour commutes, Saturday nights coming home, Sunday mornings heading to a museum. It sounds different from the New York metro, less overwhelming, but always in a different language.

January and February flew by. Some of the moments I most remember took place during a winter that bore witness to some of the coldest days. I listen to La vie en Rose and I am back in the Champ de Mars, throwing snowballs and posing for my new profile pictures. I’m running through the courtyard at Reid Hall, late to my first class of the day. I’m ordering a Nutella crepe and eating it with glove covered hands. I am avoiding rush hour and staying until closing at the Louvre. I’m finding the best pastry in Paris and calling it a scientific experiment. I ask my homestay mom for more cheese with a cheeky “s’il vous plaît.”

There are other moments that I can’t forget – early flights out of remote airports and public transportation woes. I remember the insane amount of food, cheese and wine. The picnics and laughter and music. The endless days spent wandering aimlessly in the Louvre, stumbling upon new rooms every single time and deciding halfway to tick them off one by one on a map. Celebrating when I managed to check all of them off.

It’s a supercut of every moment – stumbling over new French words, Google maps leading me astray, never counting change out-loud.

I never felt homesick because my infinite desire to “allons-y” kept me going. And I went everywhere.

And I went everywhere.

Amongst my favorite places are the nook by the river Seine from which one can see Notre-Dame and the little music-box shop not far from there. The falafel place that kept us all well fed. The bakery shop at the corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg. The coffee shop a stone’s throw away from Bastille. The summit of Sacré-Coeur. My Ted Talk about the Place des Vosges.

But somewhere, in the midst of all my discovering, I made the mistake of thinking I had all the time in the world. I don’t think I wasted a second it but the second Act of the movie goes by faster. Classes blur together, essays get written, tests are taken. More secret places are discovered. The girl realizes she’s living the dream, and begins to dream bigger.

There is not a moment I regret. Not the ones spent on the many train rides to see country-side cathedrals with Art Hum. Not the walking tour urban history class that was more of an exercise in how to stay warm in a Parisian winter. Not on the very long commute to Reid Hall.

I am grateful for every second I spent abroad, for every lesson I learned and every person I met.

I never truly felt dépaysement because, for almost the first time in my life, I was content to stay in one place. I am a person who always wants to be somewhere else, but I couldn’t imagine it while in Paris. Of course I traveled – three 1-week vacations that took me to Portugal, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy. But I was always happy to go back, because there was so much more waiting for me.

Somewhere along the classes, the baguettes and wine, I stopped noticing the passage of time. I left for spring break and came back to a Paris that had bloomed while I was away. The movie had shifted, welcome to act 3. And Spring in Paris took my breathe away. I ran through gardens on my way to class, pretending that I was the main character in the newest blockbuster, blasting my Parisian playlist – a girl eating her way through Europe and discovering that her soulmate was the hot chocolate from Angelia’s.

There’s a soundtrack to my time in Paris, and maybe one day I’ll share it with all of you.

But for now, imagine listening to this:

  • Perfect Places by Lorde; Airplane rides
  • The Louvre by Lorde; pretty self explanatory
  • Run Away with Me by Carly Rae Jepsen; running through the Tuileries Garden
  • Bright Lights Bigger City by CeeLo Green; Uber ride on the river banks
  • La vie en Rose by Louis Armstrong; music-box shop
  • Voulez-vous – Mamma Mia; dancing at République
  • Getaway Car – Taylor Swift; all those train rides
  • 22 – Taylor Swift; Midnight in Paris
  • All Night – The Vamps; nights by the Canal Saint Martin
  • Adventure of A Lifetime – Coldplay; on my way home

On one of my last nights in Paris, a chilly Spring evening, I sat in front of the Notre-Dame and watched the light cast shadows on the gothic cathedral. Two musicians were serenading a rather large crowd. As I waited for a friend so that we could meet our classmates one last time by the Canal Saint-Martin, I was suspended in the moment. I knew I would never be in that moment again – thinking and reflecting back on the best semester of my undergraduate career so far. Perhaps I would have written a better post if I wrote it then and there, but I was stuck in time. If my life really were a movie, that would have been the end credit of the film – a girl alone in Paris, and not wanting to go back home.

A girl alone in Paris, and not wanting to go back home.

I might have left Paris, but I know Paris will never leave me. I’ll treasure all the memories I made there, all the lessons I learned, all the friendships I made. I’ll treasure all the many bakery treats I had, and the calories we never really counted. I’ll treasure the way life felt different, because every day was truly a new day.

Paris will always have a tiny piece of my heart. And I can’t wait to go back.

 

Coming Home

For those of you who still follow my blog, thank you!

I’ve come home from my adventure abroad and am spending the summer interning in North Carolina. I’ll be working on fixing this blog and adding photos and making it look prefect so pardon the mess while it’s under construction.

The blog posts from France are also featured on the Columbia Programs website. Feel free to ask me to translate anything in my blog posts, it’ll probably be good practice, but Google Translate seems to get the gist of it. That’s surprising, because I still don’t have words to describe my experience abroad which is probably why my last Paris blog post is taking so long. I’ll probably try to write that sometime this summer and probably write it in English.

Stay tuned for a reflection post on my semester in Paris and for a reflection post on my summer at Wells Fargo.

Looking forward to everything that’s coming!

Alejandra

 

En disant au revoir

J’ai beaucoup pensé ces dernières semaines au passage du temps. Il semble que nous sommes arrivés hier à Paris. Comme un rêve, il est passé rapidement. C’est ma dernière semaine à Paris. Entre les examens finals et les papiers finaux, le temps a disparu. Je viens d’avoir fini mon dernier examen.

 

Je vais écrire une réflexion quand j’arrive à la maison. Cet été, je vais faire un stage en Caroline du Nord et je sais que ce sera aussi une belle aventure. Mais, Paris est incomparable. Je n’ai pas de mots pour le décrire. J’espère que je les trouverai pour ma derrière réflexion.

Je ne sais pas ce qui me manquera le plus à Paris. Peut-être les croissants sans fin, le Seine ou entendre La vie en Rose dans le métro. Ma mère d’accueil et les amis que j’ai fait à Reid Hall me manqueront. Je vais manquer pouvoir marcher à travers l’Ile de la Cité et voir toute la ville de Paris.

Les souvenirs que j’ai faits ici me manqueront. Je vais manquer la boulangerie, les pâtissières, le vin et du fromage. Je suis ravi de rentrer à la maison, mais je sais que ce semestre est inoubliable.

Paris était une belle aventure. Mon français a amélioré, ou alors ma mère d’accueil et le TCF disent. J’ai (presque !) fini tous les musées. J’ai trouvé le meilleur chocolat chaud à Angelina’s, le meilleur crêpé à Montparnasse, la meilleure glace au Jardin des Tuileries. J’ai découvert que Paris est plus grand qu’il parait. Je ne suis pas encore parti et j’ai hâte d’y retourner.

Donc ce n’est pas un au revoir. Tout termine, mais Paris sera toujours là. Cette semaine n’est pas une fin mais le début des vacances d’été.

Je vais passer les prochains jours à Paris à faire ce que j’aime. Je vais marcher les grandes avenues, manger des crêpes, bronzer dans les parcs. Je vais faire du shopping pour ma famille et aussi pour mes amis. Je vais prendre beaucoup des photos. Je vais retourner au Louvre pour voir mes favoris tableaux.

Je ne peux pas imaginer un meilleur semestre à l’étranger. J’espère que vous vous êtes bien amusé de lire sur mes aventures aussi !

 

Delacroix

S’il y a un artiste français à connaître, c’est Eugène Delacroix. Largement connu pour avoir peint La Liberté guidant le peuple, la grandeur de Delacroix est indéniable. Si on ne le connaît pas, on est capable de reconnaître au moins La Liberté guidant le peuple comme la couverture de l’album Viva La Vida de Coldplay. […]

S’il y a un artiste français à connaître, c’est Eugène Delacroix. Largement connu pour avoir peint La Liberté guidant le peuple, la grandeur de Delacroix est indéniable. Si on ne le connaît pas, on est capable de reconnaître au moins La Liberté guidant le peuple comme la couverture de l’album Viva La Vida de Coldplay. Avant Paris, c’est comme ça que j’ai connu Delacroix.

Mais étant à Paris pendant le semestre m’a fait réaliser que Delacroix, à Paris, est plus que juste La Liberté guidant le peuple. Ici, et dans le monde de l’art, Delacroix est le principal phare du romantisme. Il était le premier à capturer l’émotion dans ses peintures.

IMG_9873

On ne peut pas habiter à Paris sans savoir que Delacroix a fait pendant sa vie. Le Louvre expose en permanence les plus connus de ses tableaux et il y a un musée national Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix a une place permanente à Paris.

Quand j’ai vu les publicités de la nouvelle exposition du Louvre de Delacroix, je savais que je devais y aller. Le premier jour de l’exposition, je ne pouvais pas entrer parce qu’il y avait beaucoup de gens. Mais le deuxième jour, j’ai eu l’opportunité d’entrer. C’est quelque chose qu’on doit voir. C’est une exposition stupéfiante.

Là, on peut voir les œuvres les plus célèbres de Delacroix dans une seule salle. Le Louvre les a amenés de toute la France pour l’exposition. On peut voir ce qui l’a rendu célèbre, mais aussi l’évolution de son art.

Mon œuvre préféré est toujours La Liberté guidant le peuple. Dans le tableau, il a capturé l’esprit de la révolution. Il est facile de voir pourquoi Coldplay ont choisi d’utiliser ce tableau de Delacroix pour leur album. Le tableau a montré les événements qui sont passés pendant la révolution de 1830. La Liberté mène les français à la victoire. Elle était un personnage plus grand que nature. La Liberté guidant le peuple est la raison pour laquelle je suis allé à l’exposition mais ce n’est pas la raison pour laquelle je continue de revenir.

Delacroix, lui-même, est un personnage plus grand que nature. Son influence dans l’art est plus grand qu’on peut imaginer. Il était un homme de grand talent. Il a été un écrivant, un peintre, et un voyageur. Il a peint un monde différent de la réalité mais tenant sur les émotions humaines. Il est facile de comprendre pourquoi les français aiment Delacroix. Si vous vous trouvez au Louvre avant 23 juillet, vous devez voir l’homme du Louvre : Delacroix.

Mai 1968 et Mai 2018

Mai 2018 marque le 50e anniversaire de mai 1968. À Paris, le mois commence avec La Fête du Travail, un jour qui célèbre les droits des travailleurs. Les universités et beaucoup d’entreprises sont fermées pour respecter les droits des travailleurs.

Mai 2018, pour moi, a commencé avec une manifestation à Place des Fêtes. La fédération anarchiste était en train de commencer à mars quand je suis allée au marché. Ce n’est pas la seule fois que j’ai vu une manifestation à Paris. Les mois avant mai ont été marqués par les manifestations. Les plus connus sont ceux de Air France et SNCF qui ont affecté le système de transport.

Que mai 2018 commence par une protestation n’est pas vraiment surprenant. À Reid Hall, ce semestre, afin de célébrer l’héritage de mai 1968, nous avons fait des projets pendant le semestre pour apprendre tout sur un mois déterminant dans l’histoire de France. À la fin du semestre, nous aurons un symposium où tous les cours de Reid Hall vont présenter les projets qu’ils ont fait pendant le semestre. Mon cours de français a fait un fanzine, où on a interviewé les étudiants qui ont participé pendant mai 1968.

Mai 1968, nous avons vu, a commencé à cause des étudiants. Après, ils ont rejoint les travailleurs pour créer le mouvemente qu’a changé la France. Les manifestations ont marqué une grande partie de l’histoire de la France.

Maintenaient, les manifestations font partie de la vie politique. Au Nicaragua par exemple, il y a des étudiants qui prennent les universités pour protester contre leur gouvernement. À Paris, pendant le semestre, quand les universités ont été fermées, c’était à cause des étudiants.

Les manifestations de mai 2018 sont donc parties d’une grande tradition et partie d’un mouvemente en la France moderne. Les étudiants et les groupes de travailleurs protestaient le 1er mai. Mais il y a aussi des groupes « radicales » comme la fédération anarchiste. Mai 2018 marque un moment très important dans l’histoire mais c’est aussi un témoin d’un moment important en France aujourd’hui. C’est intéressant à voir (surtout en tant que je suis un étranger) comment se rencontrent le passé et le présent.

Roméo et Juliette

C’est l’histoire d’amour la plus connue à travers le monde. C’est l’histoire de deux amants croisés en étoile – séparés par des familles en conflit. L’histoire de Roméo et Juliette est l’un des seuls que je connais par cœur. Mais le voir comme un ballet m’a fait me demander si je connaissais vraiment l’histoire du tout.

À l’Opéra Bastille, du 06 avril au 04 mai 2018, la chorégraphe Sasha Waltz a re-imaginé l’histoire de Roméo et Juliette en forme de ballet. Sans le dialogue iconique de Shakespeare, on doit suivre la musique et les danseurs pour entendre l’histoire. Pour les 30 premières minutes du ballet, j’étais tellement captivée par les danseurs – je n’avais pas noté quels étaient les Capulets et quels étaient les Montagues.

La querelle qui rend l’histoire entre les deux amants tellement interdite n’est pas aussi évidente dans ce récit. Il était l’histoire de Roméo et Juliette et de ballet.

Mais le récit a été modernisé – la scène de balcon qui est bien connue ne se produit pas. Ce n’est pas à cause des contraintes de la scène, mais il est un choix narratif.

L’une des choses les plus intéressantes dans le ballet était le chant d’opéra. Je l’aurais dû attendre – nous étions à l’Opéra Bastille, mais il a changé effet global du ballet. Je ne pouvais pas comprendre ce qu’ils chantaient. Ils chantaient surtout des chansons de deuil.

Ma scène préférée était la scène de la salle de bal, où Romeo se faufile pour voir Juliette. Les deux sont rassemblés, même cachés derrière des masques. Autour d’eux, les danseurs dansent mais, ils ne notent pas l’action autour d’eux. Ils sont amoureux – et c’est tout ce qui compte. C’était l’une des seules scènes où tous les danseurs étaient sur scène, mais il peut être seulement Roméo et Juliette.

Que je n’ai jamais vu un ballet auparavant aurait pu avoir un effet sur ma réaction, mais je l’ai aimé. Je vais probablement aller au ballet quand je retournerai à New York.