Monday, January 3, 2011

The Robber Barons

A robber baron is a corporate official (or I would add entity) that uses exploitation of workers (and I would add resources) to make their money. The term was coined in 1934 by Matthew Josephson to describe the rich men of his time. Over the years they have had many names ("captains of industry") but we call them "billionaires" or the "private sector" today. The purpose of this column is to highlight the robber barons of yesteryear and those of today and what they have done to earn that title. We will discuss the effects these entities have had on the public as well.

The Gilded Age is where the term robber baron came from and in that time there were many who were considered to fit the definition: Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie Steel), James J. Hill (Great Northern Railroad), Henry Ford (in later years), John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil), J.P. Morgan (Wall Street/Finance) etc were considered by many to fit the bill by exploiting workers and conditions for the purpose of profit. However I don't know enough about each person to say whether they were as terrible as some say they were or not. I do know that those who don't view them as robber barons have stated that the REAL robber barons where men who used government assistance to make their empires while these men did not. You see in some circles the real robber barons are called "political entrepreneurs" and these men are called "market entrepreneurs" the difference being government assistance. So I don't know how to properly judge their character.

I do know that they helped build America and changed industry in this nation in general, although I am unsure whether that was good or not. Depending of where you sit on the topic of industry and its effects on society, there are obvious positive effects such as cars, computers, mass transportation, etc but there are it's downsides too if one believes in global warming that could be one, the ruthless culture it created where people began attempting to imitate their success by less than respectable or responsible means among others. But this was the past hell some of it over 100 years old, what about today? Well today, with globalization things are undoubtedly much worse than any one of those men ever made it. Today there are sweatshops, government corruption and violence in every corner of the globe while chasing the almighty dollar.

If the real robber barons used government assistance, then we have almost nothing but robber barons today. Just about every corporation in the U.S. is subsidized by the government. This means the government gives them tax deductions or cash payments to keep them up and running. This is supposed to benefit both the corporation and the people of the community, whom the corporation hire in their shops and factories. Sounds fair enough right? Where does the "robber" come in? It seems equal, that is until you realize that government funds come from that same community. See the community pays taxes, the taxes are then sent to the corporation to pay rent on its private land so it can operate. So it seems that you pay your job to be there. In many cases, like recently, there are subsidies going to corporations that send jobs overseas. The corporation complains about government regulations (take government's money play by their rules right?) and they complain about unions (yet their subsidized by your tax dollars) so they blackmail the government to make things even better for them. That means more tax breaks, more subsidies, government help busting up unions, and lobbying to decrease funds for competition (here in Detroit the auto industry kept us from having a subway system similar to that of Chicago or New York). This is that pesky political entrepreneurship they speak of.

But it is not always government assistance, sometimes it is lack of government that makes a robber baron. I mentioned before about getting rid of unions and keeping corporations happy with tax cuts and subsidies but nothing makes them happier than cutting wages and avoiding labor laws. NAFTA was signed (under Bill Clinton) made trade with Canada and Mexico easier and in my opinion was the beginning of globalization. Corporations could now fold plants in Chicago and move them to Mexico or Canada where they can pay the workers much less and didn't have to deal with labor unions or labor laws. This led to blackmail of state and local governments to help corporations even more because now the citizens in these situations would have to surrender benefits, wages, family time, and in some cases the opportunity for legal actions (suing for injury etc) to keep their jobs. When a country has government mandated labor unions and labor laws (like the state of Michigan) it is difficult to compete against a country without those benefits. This is what I mean by the lack of government.

The lack of government also leads to sweatshop labor. Sweatshop labor is defined by The U.S. Dept of Labor as a factory or shop that violates 2 or more labor laws. Of course that definition only fits in America, it means nothing in say India or China where there are sweatshops. Sweatshops are good for business, low running costs, high production, lower cost for consumers, and better profit margins. Its a victory for all sides except the workers in the plant. In my research I have found about 7 businesses that use sweatshop labor: Target, K-Mart, Nike, Sears, Kohl's, J.C. Penny and of course Wal-Mart. The strange thing is Target, K-Mart and Wal-Mart are competitors who sell very similar products and looking at it from their perspective if they raise their costs by not using slave..I mean sweatshop labor then they would have to raise prices and could potentially lose business. Isn't that sad? Market share is more important than people. Well in any event these countries are to blame for the poor working conditions because their governments allow it. But it isn't all that foreign governments have allowed, some have allowed nearly complete destruction of their environment for corporate benefit.

The environment and the people of a nation mean nothing to corporations. Nigeria, the oil rich west African nation has been destroyed by the oil industry. The air, land, and water have all been polluted by Mobil Exxon (America's #1 oil corporation) and their oil drilling and occasional (but not uncommon) spilling. Here in the U.S. over the summer of 2010 we suffered an oil spill in the gulf (courtesy of British Petroleum's carelessness). The oil stretched for miles and polluted everything in its path. The citizens of the polluted areas were furious and rightfully so. However Nigeria had been having oil spills for 50 years prior to our one oil spill in 2010. Why is this happening? Well because Mobil Exxon has Nigeria's government in their pocket and although their citizens are furious too, there is nothing they can do about it. Of course one can never forget the conflict diamonds of Sierra Leone, Angola and the Congo where DeBeers made millions, excuse me, billions off of warlords mutiliating the people of those nations. Coca-Cola or "killer coke" as it is now being called, have been charged with sending paramilitary groups to kill union workers in Columbia, they have also been sued by citizens in India for stealing and polluting their water!

So when I think of robber barons or corporations who make money off exploitation, I don't think of Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel. I think of Nike, Mobil Exxon, GM and all the other 937 political gangsters that took bailout money and is not because I think the world of Carnagie and Rockefeller, it is because whatever they did during their time has to pale in comparison to what corporations do today. Corporations today don't care about the difference between market entrepreneurs and political entrepreneurs only people looking to protect capitalism do. All they care about is money, and they will bribe the U.S. government, or the Nigerian government. They will blackmail, build sweatshops, and anything else that stands in their way because the bottom line is their bottom line.

Rappers: Faking It Til They're Making It

The hip hop culture is one often filled the message of debauchery, genocide, hedonism, and materialism. I love the culture and the music but that is the truth of the matter unfortunately. In any good rap song is one of the major components. It is either a song about sex, killing, hustling or money (not all but I'm talking commercial hip-hop right now). Right now I wish to discuss the materialism in hip-hop culture, simply because I feel as though it is the most widespread and the most visible. It is rather easy to ignore the imaginary murders rappers commit simply because the average gangsta rapper spits as though they are Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers and we know that not to be true. The sexual appetites of artists are personal and we only know very small amounts about that besides this is not a gossip column. Materialism is flooded in the media already, we know this, the Fortune 500 lists Jay-Z, Sean "sometime P-Diddy other times Puffy" Combs made or what have you. We see money not just in hip-hop but in other forms of media, and because it has seeped into the minds of the public at large it has also flooded the airwaves. Rappers have made it their business to let the world know of their success or coming success, but there are times where the rappers have unfortunately decided to fake said success. And that is the topic we are going to discuss today. There are far too many examples of artists going too far to push an image of success but I have chosen only three for this column because these are the most pervasive in the industry. Borrowing jewelry, cars and designer clothing for video shoots is commonplace, very commonplace and the most important when discussing the false lifestyle that artists portray in videos to the youth.

Getting busted with jewelry that doesn't belong to was once a big deal in hip-hop. It was a "dissable" offense (meaning you got dissed for wearing borrowed or fake jewelry) and perhaps it still is. One of my favorite artists Jadakiss got caught with jewelry that wasnt his. He borrowed the jewelry for a video he was doing with Mariah Carey back in 2004-2005. Now as I mentioned this is commonplace so there really isn't an issue of Jada being the broke ass rapper who can't afford the fly bling he wants to use for a video, alot of people (labels) do it. Jadakiss is not really a rapper that wears a lot of jewelry anyway, but it was $400,000 worth of jewelry, that is a pretty steep price but the image attached to having it is worth way more to people in the industry. Kiss was busted and he did get dissed by 50 Cent for it, but was it really worth it? Is the need to portray this image that necessary? For alot of rappers the answer is a resounding..yes.

Wearing jewelry that is not yours is one thing but wearing designer clothes the manufacturer doesn't even know exists is another. Rapper Rick Ross was busted sporting fake Louis Vuitton shades on the cover of XXL magazine. How did he get busted? Well once Ross wore those false shades on the cover it garnered a hell of alot of attention and requests for the shades came pouring into Louis Vuitton. Upon a quick search it was found that those sunglasses are not made by LV and that those particular frames were fake. A spokesperson from the company had this to say:

"...the sunglasses Mr. Ross is wearing were not made by Louis Vuitton and, in fact, are counterfeit. Louis Vuitton did not grant permission to Mr. Ross or to whoever did make the sunglasses to use our trademarks. The second is that no affiliation, sponsorship or association exists between Rick Ross or XXL and Louis Vuitton. The third is that counterfeiting is illegal."

To the rapper's defense a customizer nicknamed "The Sunglasses Pimp" stated he customized Ross' LV Millionaire shades and that tricking out sunglasses is the same as tricking out a car. I say that may be true but Ross was attempting to portray an image and that image is the "boss" character he has decided to play in the hip-hop game. Why do I say that? Well because an aforementioned "boss" Jay-Z debuted some authentic Louis Vuitton Millionaire shades on a different XXL magazine cover. Why the falsehood? Perhaps he wanted for people to believe he was on Jay-Z's level as far as money and power, unfortunately that turned out not to be the case a very embarrassing lesson learned.

We have just discessed rappers borrowing jewels for video shoots, wearing borrowed or fake clothing for photo shoots and those things are small compared to the most gaudy objects such as luxury cars. Neo-rap princess Nicki Minaj was driving a hot-pink Lamborghini for one of her music videos, the problem was the car wasn't hers and she damaged it by driving off-road.Strangely enough the damage she caused to the car was far more than it cost for her to rent the vehicle in the first place. Once again we see artists attempting to push an image of success and in doing so instead showed their lack thereof. To Nicki's defense it was her first solo video and maybe she didn't have the practice handling other people's property that some other artists do. What made me think of this case was recently, I saw a woman with a hot-pink corvette with the word "Barbie" (which is one of Nicki's gimmicks, even if it was ripped off from Lil Kim). And that got me to thinking about the cultural impact stunts like this have on people. Now it is impossible for me to know that the random woman painted her car pink because of Nicki Minaj, but I can say I never saw a hot-pink sports car until now and if I am wrong in saying one has something to do with the other so be it, but its a strong correlation.

Throughout the hip-hop industry we are blasted with imagery. Images of poverty stricken ghettoes, images of flashy husters, images of wild sex, images of lavish lifestyles including luxury cars and million dollar homes and the wise person realizes just how much of a facade most of it really is. Granted an argument can be made that the artist's record label is the ones paying for the fake jewelry and rented cars but some responsibility needs to be taken by the artists who indulge. I am sure it feels good to be able to drive a lambourgini but like my mama would say "if you ain't got lambourgini money keeps your ass out of it", amazing how simple a message that is right? However it is sad that the label and the artist feel that they need to portray these images of success and wealth to make an artist successful and wealthy. One can only hope that one day we can move past the small minded materialism we have as a nation, maybe then hip-hop can move past it too.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Three Classes of Intellects

Nicolo Machiavelli in his oft-followed and imitated work The Prince, stated that there were three classes of intellects. Using those three classes we can tell what kind of thinker a person is and in using that we can come to an understanding of whether the person speaking or writing is worth listening to.

The Three Classes of Intellects are:
"One which comprehends by itself.
The other appreciates, what another comprehends.
And the last doesn't comprehend by itself nor by the showing of others."

The first is said to be the best and rightfully so. If one can truly read or listen and understand without further explanation should he not be considered an intellectual? Now I believe that in order to fully understand many ideas such deep theories stemming from the scientific, mathematic or otherwise, it requires much study and much explanation. So then this first class is not saying that one has to pick up on an ideology or theory and understand it with perfection in a short time but that one dedicates themselves to understanding it on their own to the point where they can comprehend the concept on their own because they are familiar with it.

One such example of this first class would be a college professor. A professor that lectures on a topic, has done the necessary research on the topic, they have become fluid on the topic, the have mastered it. Now there are "student-professors" meaning professors who don't have the paper diploma necessary to prove their mastery but if they are given an opportunity to teach then surely they have some mastery over the information.

The first class, as far as I am concerned, is the most interesting. The reason being it is the class that all people strive, it is their plan to master a position, a craft and be considered a leader in that field. That term, "leader" is exactly what Machiavelli is writing about. He is writing a manual on leadership and what an effective leader needs. Surely an effective leader needs to be able to comprehend situations and make the best decisions possible on their own. They need to have an intellect on a higher plane so than those they lead or they cannot truly call themselves a leader. A leader that has mastery over information and can understand and problem-solve on their own will eventually gain the favor of many followers, in the same way all the good professors have full classes.

The second class is considered by Machiavelli to be only "good". I consider it a useful skill. Knowing that you cannot fully comprehend a situation or understand a problem is useful because it doesn't create a false sense of self. This is one thing people do all the time as well. We quote people (as I am doing with Machiavelli) because we understand that they know more than we do. We come to grips with our own limitations but we know who does have the knowledge that is needed to solve this problem.

Have you ever encountered an issue and needed to ask someone else for clarification? Of course you have and there is intelligence in not knowing how to solve an issue because you do know who to turn to.

I liken this class to being an understudy or a tutor to keep with the academic theme. A tutor has some of the answers and can help a lot if your low on understanding but they know their weaknesses. If an issue arises where they become perplexed they know where to go (and I don't mean simply going to the professor) they could be familiar with a higher level writer or thinker they can look to for advice or clarification. Remember many tutors are still students themselves but they have the experience to point you in the right direction. A tutor or an understudy definitely appreciates one who has mastery on a subject.

Going back to Machiavelli's book which, like I mentioned before, is on leadership, leaders also need to have an understanding of their own limitations. A leader needs to have full control over their flaws as they do their strengths, it is a requirement. If you have followers or employees that need to understand when they are over their heads on an issue and need to contact someone with more experience, you should be able to do that as well. So Machiavelli is perhaps saying that there is strength in understanding your own weaknesses.

The last class of intellect is said to be "useless" by Machiavelli and I fully agree. These are possibly the stubborn, prideful folks who know they don't have the knowledge but refuse to seek someone who does out of their own selfishness but it is not just those people.

As the class is written it looks to say that it is a person that cannot grasp the answers on their own or with the help of others. And that is somewhat true, "by the showing of others" is saying that they have been shown, the answers have been explained yet they still cannot grasp it. This happens a lot too. In academia we all face a course where no matter how simplistic it is, no matter the tutors, the amount of time studying we just don't get it (for me it was Geology..ugh).

What do you do then? While you have noticed your own weakness and have asked for help and after the help you still don't understand frustration usually kicks in. The more frustrated you become the more you would want to quit and just do something else. However I would say, that if you don't quit and you keep trying then you don't belong in this class after all. Think about it you are able to appreciate what another knows still, even if you still can't comprehend it yourself.

I have discussed here Machiavelli's three classes of intellects as written in his book The Prince. The first class, the "excellent" class are of masters and strong leaders who have the knowledge and problem-solving skills within themselves necessary to be effective. The second class, the "good/useful" class are the ones who may not hold full mastery but have a good handle on it and know where to find helpful information when the problem is beyond their skill set. The final, "useless", class are a mixture of the stubborn, selfish and the somewhat hapless. They can't get it. No matter how many times they try they can't get a handle on it. However by continuously trying they perhaps can jump to the second class.

Of course all these classes would vary depending on the field. The aforementioned professor is a master of his field, not all fields. A tutor may only be useful for a particular course. So perhaps in reality we are all apart of all three classes at some point in time because we are fallible and we can't possibly know everything, even those with high levels of knowledge (mastery) can't know it all. But when it comes to the concept of leadership the first two classes are the best and that's what Machiavelli was putting out there.
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