Exploring Inequalities

David Graeber, Donald Trump's taxes, and The Vow

In this newsletter:

  • On David Graeber

  • On Donald Trump’s Taxes

  • The Vow

On David Graeber

The noted anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber passed away on 2nd September 2020. A few days beforehand he saw a Twitter exchange I had on whether or not Wikileaks founder Julian Assange could be considered a journalist. Graeber is most well known for his books Debt: A 5,000 Year History; The Utopia of Rules; and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. I read the latter two books to understand the bureaucratic dynamics of several jobs in university research management.

Graeber is also famous (in academic circles at least) for his tenure denial case at Yale University, and for his active engagement with social movements such as Occupy Wall Street. Universities look favourably on consulting income or policymaker engagement - but are not always as comfortable with academics who engage in social activism. Graeber understood metapolitics - the underlying, deep choices and ideas that shape political ideologies - which is why along with economist Thomas Piketty, he has helped to define the post-2008 contours of leftist political thought.

I found Graeber to be an inspiring communicator and will be studying his work closely as a writing model for my future research.

On Donald Trump’s Taxes

The New York Times published an investigation on 27th September 2020 about United States President Donald Trump’s taxes, and, in particular, his use of carry-forward losses to mitigate paying income tax. For me, arbitrage and tax minimisation are two key strategies of Trump and other plutocratic business elites. They offer two ways of opportunity hoarding that reinforce economic and social inequalities. Researchers are going to be scouring over Trump’s tax returns for several years. Expect to see some interesting further investigations that capture how economic elites maintain their cumulative advantage in an unequal, polarised world.

The Vow

I’ve seen the first two episodes of the recent HBO series The Vow on the corporate/human potential cult NXIVM. It’s co-directed by Jehane Noujaim, whose film Startup.com I wrote about in 2003 whilst taking Dr Tom McKaskill’s opportunity evaluation Masters unit, and whose subsequent films Control Room and The Square are excellent.

I cited the trial of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere in my 2020 Monash University PhD, and the documentary series mirrors some of my research findings about the internal dynamics of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo. Cult leaders are often described by adherents as being highly intelligent or persuasive. Adherents join at a personal crossroads of their lives where they are seeking metaphysical clarification of life meaning or to deal with specific barriers and stressors. Organisations may have secretive sub-groups that have asymmetric information. NXIVM drew on Neurolinguistic Programming, and, like Scientology, specifically targeted celebrities to join. The Vow is an interesting case study that captures well the personal dynamics of belief adoption, leader-follower dynamics, and how the marketplace of wellness ideas can be weaponised against individuals.