Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Brazil approves 20-year austerity plan; Age of the agile work place; When neo-liberalism turns world into a business

1 Brazil approves 20-year austerity plan (Julia Carneiro on BBC) The Brazilian Senate has approved a controversial amendment to the constitution capping public spending for the next 20 years. The approval of the austerity measure is an important victory for President Michel Temer.

He took office earlier this year promising to lead the country out of its worst recession in many decades. Protests against the measure turned violent in the capital Brasilia and at least a dozen states in the country. The opposition says the measures will mainly hit areas such as health and education, which are already underfunded.

To pass the constitutional amendment, the government needed the votes of 49 senators - three-fifths of the Senate. The measure was approved by a narrower margin than the government expected, passing by 53 to 19 votes.

The project, known in Brazil as PEC 55, freezes expenditure in the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of power, allowing them to grow only by the rate of inflation in the previous year.

The government argues it is necessary to boost growth and investments, and contain the country's growing public deficit. But critics say the poorest in society will be harmed and that setting a spending cap for two decades in advance is unrealistic.

2 Age of the agile work places (Quentin Hardy in New York Times/Gulf News) Across sectors, the workforce is adopting a tech industry concept called agile computing. The “agile” part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy.

And progress can be measured in small steps — one little project at a time. The idea has been around for at least 15 years. It is used by the small tech company Twilio, for example, to turn out 40 changes to its product every day.

Tech culture finding its way into other industries is nothing new. Decades ago, Intel’s founders tried to create an egalitarian culture where the chief executive sat among his employees, and everyone at the company shared in the risks and rewards through stock options. In more recent years, Google’s drive to take care of employees’ everyday needs, like commuting or dry cleaning (all so they could focus on work), has been adopted with mixed success in other industries.

Now cloud computing — putting your data or your software on the servers of a giant data center that is accessible through the internet — is having an outsize influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a strong combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.

Email improved communications and helped do away with a layer of management that was responsible for that communication inside big companies. Global fibre networks tied the world together and made it easier for jobs to be outsourced to other countries. And automation and robotics have wiped out countless manufacturing jobs. With cloud computing, the risk — at least for now — appears more subtle.

The average worker may have more flexible hours. What that can really mean is they are expected to work all the time. And they are expected to react faster to bosses’ demands with more varied skills.

3 When neoliberalism turns world into a business (Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian) Neoliberalism can mean many things, including an economic program, a political project, and a phase of capitalism dating from the 1970s. At its root, however, neoliberalism is the idea that everything should be run as a business – that market metaphors, metrics, and practices should permeate all fields of human life.

No industry has played a larger role in evangelizing the neoliberal faith than Silicon Valley. Its entrepreneurs are constantly coming up with new ways to make more of our lives into markets. A couple of decades ago, staying in touch with friends wasn’t a source of economic value – now it’s the basis for a $350bn company.

If Silicon Valley is turning our personal lives into a business, then Donald Trump hopes to turn our government into one. Like all of Trump’s ideas, this isn’t especially original. For decades, neoliberal politicians of both parties have promoted the notion that government should not only serve business, but operate like one.

Trump built his campaign around the premise that his chief qualification for the presidency was his success as a businessman. He promised to make America great again by bringing business discipline and dynamism to government. Since his victory, Trump has begun turning his campaign rhetoric into reality. He is making government look more like a business than ever before.

The reason that 62 million Americans were prepared to entrust the presidency to a billionaire best known for playing a businessman on television is because they’ve been absorbing the tenets of market absolutism their whole lives.

Yet if Trump personifies neoliberal ideas, his victory also reflects a revolt against neoliberal policies. The uncaged capitalism fostered by neoliberalism has produced an era of spiraling inequality, stagnant wages, declining life expectancy, and an increasingly post-democratic political system that is more or less openly oligarchic. These things make people angry, and Trump used that anger to get himself elected.

The irony is that Trump will only intensify the crisis that put him in power. His cure for the social catastrophe of neoliberalism is a stronger strain of neoliberalism. Whether we survive depends on the political struggle ahead: not only in the streets and statehouses, but at the level of ideas. Defeating neoliberalism will require not just the creation of a movement, but the creation of a new common sense. At its heart must be the belief that democracy is a better way to organize society than markets – that some things are not for sale.

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